Archive for Dialogue

Pete Hamill

Journalist and Pete Hamill, whose latest book is “Tabloid City,” described in The Writer magazine how he approaches writing a novel. I think the same method works for anyone getting ready to write a screenplay:

“I start by walking around a lot, letting the major characters rise in my mind. The way Dickens did, and others. Sometimes I make drawings of their faces, and then scribble more notes in the margins. I know vaguely what the story will be be, but I don’t make detailed outlines because they remove the joy of discovery in the actual writing.”

…If a fiction is set in the past, I read histories, letters, memoirs and even old newspapers. Then I let my notes marinate for a while, usually a few months, until they become a memory…the memory of one or more of the characters.”

Those kinds of historical documents are so much easier to find these days, via the internet. Newspapers, including the New York Times, allow you to access their past issues, and the British Museum and many others also have put massive amounts of documents online. Writers starting out now takes this kind of access for granted, I imagine, but we old-timers will remember having to throw ourselves on the mercy of librarians and spending days in the dusty stacks. Hamill goes on:

“If the places I am describing are still in existence, I go to look at them, to stand before them, listening to what they are saying to me.”

These days with Google maps and other sources of information, you can simulate going to most locations although of course it doesn’t match being there, breathing the air and hearing the sounds in person.

Another possibility is to contact someone who lives in that location, using social media to find them. I think most people would be flattered to be asked to help someone writing a screenplay. If you’re nervous about emailing strangers, put the “six degrees of separation” to work–ask your friends whether they know anybody who lives in the place you want to find out about. If not, ask them to ask just one or two of their friends the same question. In most cases it won’t take more than that to find someone.

Sometimes when we have a new idea we are tempted to go to the keyboard and start writing right away, but there’s a lot to be said for Hamill’s method of immersing yourself in the characters and locations before we start.

Share This Post

Probably your goal is to write screenplays for films that will run for about 120 minutes…but what about writing screenplays that last 120 seconds?

“Persona” is the name of a free app that consists of short (two minutes or less) episodes (the word “appisode” may or may not catch on) of a soap opera now in its second season.

Apps Magazine gave it a decidedly left-handed compliment: “Okay, so the storylines are predictable, relationships woe stuff, and the acting is nothing spectacular but is certainly not awful.”

Now there’s a quote to use in your ads: “Certainly not awful!”

On its site, the production company, App Media, does quote another part of the review: “Persona, an app-based soap opera, brings us the 1.5-minute show, for real, and it’s actually not that bad.”

I think it’s generally up to commercial TV soap opera standards (which you may or may not consider a compliment) and credit is due to the folks behind it, App Media, for pioneering a new format.

When it launched in February 2011 it cost £1.50 as a one-time signup fee. I don’t know whether they didn’t have many buyers at that rate but for the current relaunch it’s free but includes a brief ad at the start and a tie-in with a dating agency.

The original promo promised an episode a day for a year, but that didn’t work out. The first season was 32 episodes and now they are up to episode 8 of the second season

The head writer is Phil Barron, whose blog says his credits include co-writing the forthcoming “Strippers vs. Werewolves” (what, another Meryl Streep movie?). The series has used a lot of writers, presumably giving many of them their first writing jobs. The app lists the cast but not the writers and directors—come on, App Media, would it kill you to give these folks some credit love?

Whether or not this one catches on, I’m sure there will be many more experiments to see what people will watch and pay for, or at least watch ads for, on their phones and tablets. And that means more work for writers.

(Do you want friendly support and guidance for writing your screenplay? Check out my online coaching program,the Writing Breakthrough Strategy program: )

Share This Post

I love good black comedies so I’m looking forward to seeing “The Guard.” In the meantime I’m making do with an interview with writer-director John Michael Donagh on the Den of Geek website.

His first refreshing statement is about indie films that often are described as “little gems.” He says “I didn’t want the film to feel like a small, low-budget Irish film, where they go, “Oh, it’s a little gem.” I hate little gems. I never go to see little gems. They’re just shit movies, basically. [Laughs]”

His goal was to make the movie feel much bigger than the budget and not be constrained by having a character that fits the stereotypes. Of his protagonist, Sgt. Gerry Boyle, he says, “And it’s funny, in a film where you’d think that a character’s so outrageous, and so obnoxious sometimes, that was the one that people connected with. Whereas, in all these screenwriting workshops, would that character ever be created?”

Next to be shot down: the character arc: “Gerry’s just the same at the end – he hasn’t learned anything. He’s going to say the same shit at the end as he did at the beginning.”

Well, surely the two characters who go through the difficult events of the movie end up good friends? “Not necessarily…Just because you’ve been through the wars with someone, it doesn’t mean you like them. You respect them. That’s what we were getting at in the film.”

Hmm, it sounds like there’s a TINY arc.

Finally, one more quote, this one about what he learned in the process of editing the film and getting other people’s reactions to the rough cut: “as a writer director, I was too much in love with all the lines. Scenes go on too long because you’re trying to get five gags in, whereas three gags would be better for the pace. It’s a basic thing of starting a scene later, and ending it quicker.”

So even if the film is lesson-free, the process wasn’t. In fact this last point represents one of the most common errors in screenplays including mine–but I do cut the fat as part of writing the second draft.

(For some friendly guidance in creating characters for movies or novels see my book, “Your Writing Coach,” published by Nicholas Brealey and available from Amazon ad other online and offline booksellers. You can find out more at

Share This Post