Monday, July 31, 2006


Every once in a while, a question comes up. Something along the lines of, "I am having English very little. I write screenplay for superfantastic amazing movie to take Hollywood by storm. I can sell this where could you please information me?"

Never mind that Hollywood screenwriting is probably the most competitive writing marketplace on the planet. Never mind that brilliant native English speakers, with degrees from the best colleges, flock here by the thousands every year, and most of them struggle for years before they break in. If they break in.

So the short answer to the question is, "No. You can't sell this. You can't write. You need to master colloquial American English before you will be allowed to sell lattes at Coffee Bean, much less take a meeting."

If you really are a good writer, if you really do have that superfantastic, amazing story that would take Smogtown by the balls, then write it in your native language. You know, the one you already have, the one in which you are not tone deaf. Sell it to your native film and television industry. You know, the one that's smaller and less competitive than the Hollywood variety. The one where you have a chance of meeting people and making connections. The one where possibly a schoolmate or a relative already has a job and can get you in the door.

But you've got your heart set on Hollywood. You're too much of a freak to settle for anything less than the world's biggest sideshow. If that's the case, Lord help you. And read on.

I'm assuming that you've already studied the hell out of your basic English grammar and vocab books. If not, then do that. Know it cold. Memorize that shit.

Proceed to the books I mentioned in the previous post. The Elements of Style. Eats, Shoots, Leaves. Figures of Speech.

Tired yet? Better not be. You're just getting started.

Book learnin' ain't enough. You've got to work your eardrums. You have to know how Yanks talk, in real time. The local argot, the particular Stateside turn of phrase. The best place to pick this up is talk radio. Morning humor shows with several regular cast members are best, because they allow you to hear the interplay between individuals. You can get a feel for the timing, and for the voice that makes each radio personality unique.

If your internet connection will allow it, check out radio shows like Don and Mike, Frosty Heidi and Frank, Ron and Fez, The Sports Junkies ( for advanced students only - the Tidewater accent can be incomprehensible to outsiders), Big Boy, Steve Harvey, Wait Wait Don't Tell Me, and the Michael Feldman Show. If they have callers, listen closely to them as well. Start by taping an hour of your chosen show, and writing down every single bit of dialogue. From the personalities, the callers, even the commercials. Type up the dialogue in script format. Do this every night, two or three hours a night.

TV talk shows are okay, but not as good, because the conversation is less freewheeling, and there is more emphasis on visuals. Radio is just what you hear. The words have to carry everything.

Approach it the way that you would a masters degree, because that's the kind of fluency you're going to need for the big H.

Another great source for the American idiom is the National Enquirer. Its language is dumbed down for maximum impact. USA Today reads like Le Monde compared to this brightly colored toilet paper. Not just that, but the bizarre, tasteless stories are the stuff of which blockbuster movies are made. Even more important is the non stop celebrity coverage. Get a good long look at the pictures. If you make it, these are the lunatics you'll be working for.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

A good infantryman should be able to disassembe and reassemble his rifle blindfolded. His life depends on the mastery of his primary tool.

A good writer should be able to disassemble and reassemble a good sentence. Her life as a writer depends on the mastery of her primary tool.

To that end, some resources: . A concise guide to the most common errors.

Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition. Memorization, while not required, is recommended. The Ten Commandments of usage.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation
Popular and useful. (Note that this blog doesn't necessarily follow the book's prescriptions. Consistency and hobgoblins and all that...)

Quinn's Figures of Speech: 60 Ways to Turn a Phrase. An underappreciated gem. Quinn takes us through all of the most important rhetorical techniques of the English language, using examples of great writing from King James to James Joyce.

Watt's An American Rhetoric. Quite rare. Highly recommended. John Gardner's favorite.

These books are particularly useful to anyone who attempts screenwriting as a second language. (Too many non-Anglophones start English language scripts without first mastering English. More on this later.)

Thursday, July 27, 2006

From David Ball's Backwards and Forwards,

"A scripted character is comprised of remarkably little - because the nature of any stage character is heavily determined by the actor in the part...

The playwright cannot give much, because the more that is given, the harder it is to cast the part. The playwright must leave most of the character blank to accomodate the nature of the actor...

Scripts contain bones, not people.

Good playwrights limit their choice of bones to those which make the character unique. Onto this uniqueness, the actor hangs the rest of the human being."

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Maybe you should give up screenwriting.

Not me, you.

After all, the real money is in screenwriting instruction. Write a manual, lead a seminar. It's more lucrative and easier than selling a script.

Are manuals bad?

Not exactly. Manuals can't teach you how to write a good script, but they can show you how good scripts work, so you have at least a fighting chance of writing your own good script.

Field, McKee, Seger, Truby, Snyder. They all have their strong points and their weak points. Read all or none or some number in between. Won't hurt, but no manual is a substitute for breaking down films and scripts scene by scene and figuring out how they do what they do.

My favorite screenwriting manuals aren't written about screenwriting.

John Gardner's two books on writing literary fiction, On Becoming a Novelist, and The Art of Fiction, have excellent advice on how to learn to write, how stories work, exercises for the writer to sharpen the skills, and the writer's training and education.

It's up to you to translate Gardner's advice on writing literary fiction into the world of screenwriting. In order to do that, you need to have a broad knowledge of feature films, their history and theory, and ideally, some experience making films and videos. Theater experience and a knowledge of acting are also quite valuable.

My other favorite is David Ball's Backwards and Forwards: A Technical Manual for Reading Plays This slim little book isn't a screenwriting manual, but it can teach you most of what you need to know about analyzing the scripts you read. It's intended for the theater, but it works for movies too.

Ball reminds us that at any given time, a big chunk of the audience is dying to take a piss. It isn't easy to make them stay in their seats, but a good script can do it.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

More about format. As in, "Could you tell me how to format it when I have one guy doing this and the other guy does that but it's really all a dream but it happens on the telephone at two locations at once while the TV is on?"

I could tell you how I'd format it, but I'm way too lazy. And you don't want me to format it for you anyway. What are you gonna say? "I did it this way 'cause some guy on the 'net said I should"? Come on.

What you want is to figure it out yourself. Go through the format guides and the books mentioned below. Read a bunch of scripts from movies that have the same kind of scene, and find a way to do it that doesn't confuse the reader, doesn't take up too much space, and reads easily.

"These 'scripts' you talk about, where do I find them?"

Here: Pay attention to the difference between scripts and transcripts. Only read scripts.

And BAS v1,v2,v3 mentioned below.

There are also some really cool examples of screenwriting in TV script collections.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer the Script Book, several seasons, several volumes, lots of action like feature scripts, humor too.

The West Wing the Shooting Scripts, Seasons 1 & 2, Seasons 3 & 4, the incomparable Aaron Sorkin.

The Sopranos: Selected Scripts from Three Seasons State of the freakin' art. It don't get no better than this.

I use these books as example 'cause they're usually available at libraries and remainder bins. Sometimes on for a few bucks.

So, check 'em out.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Need to know about screenplay format?

Use these guides:

These are the best books:

The Hollywood Standard, Riley - the most up to date guide, by the former head of the WB script processing dept.

The Screenwriter's Bible, Trottier - good and widely used, choose the latest edition.

The Complete Guide to Standard Script Formats, Cole and Haag - the format rulebook of old Hollywood, useful, but dated.

Do you have to buy formatting software? If you're sure this is what you want to do, and you can easily afford two hundred bucks, go ahead and buy Final Draft or Movie Magic. FD and MM are the industry standards. FD rules in TV work, MM has a lot of users in the feature world.

If you're not sure, or your budget's tight, try these freeware solutions:

Work your way through all of the format guides using the software. Then, get ahold of these cheap paperbacks:

Film Scenes for Actors, Karton

Film Scenes for Actors Vol. II, Karton

99 Film Scenes for Actors, Nicholas

Type up every scene with your formatting software. For extra credit, do the same with the first ten or so pages of each script in these three books:

Best American Screenplays, Vols I, II, and III

Format is one of the foundations of screenwriting. Format, as in standard screenplay format, is needed because feature films are made by big groups of people working together. Everyone has to understand what everyone else is doing. The basic information that crew and cast members need to do their jobs is in the screenplay. Who is in the story, what happens, how, where, and when.

Because the format is standard, the same type of information is always in the same place. The filmmakers can then use the script as a basis for planning, scheduling, and budgeting. The moneymakers can use the script as a basis for comparing one potential movie to another to see which one might make the most money. Or lose the least.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

"Mastery is not something that strikes in an instant, like a thunderbolt, but a gathering power that moves steadily through time, like weather."

John Gardner, The Art of Fiction

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