Archive for Writers to admire

This is a great explanation of the traditional, three-act structure way to start your screenplay, illustrated with examples from Pixar movies, and focusing on how the process was applied to Toy Story 3.

The narrator is writer Michael Arndt, whose credits also include the wonderful Little Miss Sunshine.

My only quibble is that it suggests that this is THE way to tell a story, rather than ONE way to tell a story. Sure, it’s the most often used way but there are others and one of those may be a better fit for your story. Still, it’s important to understand this one so you can decide whether or not it is the right choice for your project.

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Have a great idea for a screenplay? Congratulations! You are one step closer to having a great screenplay…but only one step. No less an authority than George RR Martin, author of the saga, A Song of Ice and Fire, which includes Game of Thrones, testified to this in a recent interview in Rolling Stone magazine:

“Ideas are cheap. I have more ideas now than I could ever write up. To my mind, it’s the execution that is all-important.”

He also downplays the importance of having a totally new idea:

“I’m proud of my work, but I don’t know if I’d ever claim it’s enormously original. You look at Shakespeare, who borrowed all of his plots. In A Song of Ice and Fire, I take stuff from the Wars of the Roses and other fantasy things, and all these things work around in my head and somehow they jell into what I hope is uniquely my own.”

Martin suggests that history is a great starting point:

“History is written in blood, a gold mine – the kings, the princes, the generals and the whores, and all the betrayals and wars and confidences. It’s better than 90 percent of what the fantasists do make up.”

Perhaps the moral is to steal your ideas wisely and apply your creativity not only to the story but how you tell it. One final encouraging word note from Martin:

“The big secret about writing screenplays and teleplays is that it’s much easier than writing a novel or any kind of prose.

Of course even if he’s right, that doesn’t mean writing screenplays is easy…

For more about this fascinating writer, here’s a twenty-one minute interview:

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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.

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