The Craft of Screenwriting: See, Hear and Feel Everything
In last week’s podcast, we discussed the many differences between playwriting and screenwriting. So this week we’re going to be getting deeper into the craft of screenwriting: what it takes to write a script that succeeds on the page.
As we discussed last week, writing a screenplay often takes more rewriting time than writing a play.
And a big reason is that while most of a play exists in dialogue and develops over rehearsals and workshops, successful screenplays must exist in a far more more finished form on the page.
Technically, so much of rewriting for playwrights takes place during production in the rehearsal process. Whereas most of rewriting a screenplay is going to take place before your movie is even sold or greenlit.
And unlike literary managers at theatres, who are often MFA or PhD graduates with a love of literature, degrees in theatre and a deep understanding of how plays funcion on the page, most screenplays are read by coverage readers, or interns, who not only often have no training at all in how to read a screenplay, but at best are probably skimming your work for $50 bucks a script.
Which means that to succeed as a screenwriter, you must do more than create a blueprint for success. You must in fact create a screenplay that fully demonstrates the experience of your movie for even the least trained reader– that transports them from reading to seeing, and plays effortlessly in the little movie screen in their mind, so that they can see, feel and hear everything, just like if they were watching the film.
So that is just something you need to accept; in order to bring your screenplay to that level you are going to need to do more rewrites.
The good news is that the same rigor that you must bring to your craft in order to have commercial success as a screenwriter will also build you creatively as an artist.
In order for your reader to see, hear and feel everything, you are going to have to see, hear and feel everything yourself!
That means developing both your art and your craft as a screenwriter. First learning to step into each character and fully visualize each scene as an artist, and then developing the craft you need to translate what you see, hear and feel into a form that others can easily understand.
There is a different balance that all writers need to strike, about how slowly you’re going to work through your script, or how quickly, how much time you’re going to spend writing and how much rewriting.
Last week we discussed the example of a line of screenplay action like “Mary is writing… ”
We discussed how that might seem like proper screenplay action, but in fact, is not. Because it reveals nothing about Mary’s character, or what we’re actually seeing on the screen.
Rather than forcing us to get creative as screenwriters, a line like “Mary is writing” lets us of the hook creatively, and instead asks our reader to do our job- the creative act of making it look cool in their own head– a creative act that they are little prepared to do.
For screenplay action to function properly, you have to capture it in a way that allows the reader to visualize it instantly in the movie screen in their mind, and tell themselves the story of your movie, your character, your character’s journey.
As we discussed last week, you might see “Mary’s cracked fingernails click the keyboard.” Or you might see “Mary’s bejeweled hand signs a letter with a golden fountain pen.” Completely different versions of “Mary is Writing.” And each version reveals a completely different version of who Mary is, and what Mary wants, and what direction Mary’s journey will take.
So this is different for every writer. But the most important thing whenever you are writing is this:
As a screenwriter, you need to see, hear and feel everything.
And this is really the hardest part, because we have this urge to finish. And that urge to finish makes it really hard to actually see, hear and feel everything.
We want to put a band aid on it.
If you’ve ever had a fight with a loved one, you have probably had the same urge, “I want the fight to end.” And the desire for the fight to end doesn’t allow you to actually see, hear and feel what is actually going on. So you just keep glossing over it.
And what happens is our little A.D.D. minds want us to escape, “okay over here…no, no, look over here, no, no, no look over here.” Because the other thing about seeing, hearing and feeling everything is it is scary. It is hard and it is scary.
It is hard because it requires a tremendous amount of focus, and it isn’t a tool that we are used to using, especially our A.D.D world, where we are used to stimuli coming from all over the place and constantly multitasking. It takes certain stillness in the mind, a certain kind of meditation practice to actually do this: to see, hear and feel everything.
But the other thing is that when you start to pay attention, emotional stuff comes up.
So there is a first part that is just the practice, building the practice of being able to maintain your attention. And then there is the other part which is, eventually your characters are going to show you everything you don’t like about yourself.
They will also show you everything that you love about yourself, everything that is beautiful about you; they will show you things that are beautiful about you that you don’t even know yet.
But they are also going to show you all the stuff that you don’t like.
And when you see that stuff that you don’t like about yourself, it is tough. It is emotional and those emotions are going to come up in intense ways.
And then there is another thing that comes up when you try to do this, which is a feeling of frustration: “I can’t see it! I can’t see it clearly enough yet, I don’t know it yet…”
And another type of frustration which is: “I see it clearly but I can’t get it onto the page in the way that is the way I see it!”
And then there is another level of frustration: “I got it on the page the way I see it, but what if it isn’t good? What if nobody else likes it? What if it isn’t specific enough? What if it is cliché? What if it is boring?”
There are all these of roadblocks in our way around this practice. So, how do you approach it?
There are a couple of different ways, and like with anything in screenwriting, or in life, finding the path that you should take begins with your goal.
If you don’t know what your goal is, it is going to be very hard to know how to handle these obstacles. But these obstacles are only important in relation to your goal.
So, for example, if your goal is to finish, for most people this is the wrong goal. For most people it is the wrong goal in life, and the wrong goal in screenwriting. And I say for most people; it isn’t for all people.
If your deadline is tomorrow, your goal should be to finish. If you are a person who never finishes anything, your goal should be to finish. It is more important to be finished than good if you have trouble finishing.
For most people the urge to finish is not because they never finish anything and it is not because they have a deadline; it is because they don’t want to do the hard work of seeing, feeling, hearing everything-the emotional work of actually dealing with the problems in their script.
If you went to see Yo-Yo Ma at Carnegie Hall and Yo-Yo was just like, “I just got to get to the end of this performance” as he played, it probably wouldn’t give you a very good experience. You’d probably feel a little ripped off.
And yet so many writers hope that they can rush to the end of their screenplay and somehow get that big financial payoff, that big Academy Award, that big boost in their career or change in their life. Somehow imagining that no one is going to notice their rushed performance because the idea is good or the talent is there.
When the truth is, we work in an incredibly competitive industry, and there are a lot of writers out there who are actually doing that Carnegie Hall level work. And the difference between reading their writing, and the writing of a writer who is rushing to finish is completely unmistakeable.
If you want to get to where you’re going, you’ve got to concentrate on being where you are.
If you rush your early stuff to get to the finish, here’s what is going to happen: No one is going to read to the finish.
You are going to have this great ending that nobody gets to, because your early stuff wasn’t really working.
If your beginning doesn’t grab the reader from the very first page and make them see, feel and hear the story in your head, for all intents and purposes, your ending doesn’t exist.
Because nobody is going to read it.
They’re going to stop reading in the first 10 pages, during all your boring setup.
So, if your goal is to finish, you want to ask yourself, why is my goal to finish? If you goal is to finish, you want to ask yourself, am I rushing or is this a real need?
One of the ways that I deal with this for myself is to set deadlines for everything.
I love deadlines. Because deadlines let me know when I have time and when I need to rush.
But for these deadlines to work they have to be reasonable deadlines.
If you are telling yourself: I am going to finish my script this weekend, guess what, unless you’re very close to finished already, you are probably lying to yourself! And even if you do beat the odds, you will not have gotten much value out of it.
But if you say; okay, I have six months to finish my first draft, I have a year to finish my first draft, and I’m going to turn in these pages to my mentor each week and make sure that I’m on track– that is real time, and that gives you a real chance to succeed.
Then you can start to break it up: “okay, I’ve got a month just to play around with these characters, then I’ve got two weeks to find the hook and the structure, I’ve got a month to work on Act 1…”– you can figure it out that that way and give yourself a real chance to succeed.
Setting deadlines as a screenwriter begins by understanding what is important to you as an artist. What do you need most creatively right now to get where you need to go?
When I was living in Los Angeles, I produced and directed a play called The Sound of a Voice by David Henry Hwang. It was a short play, but it was a pretty complicated piece, and we were performing it as a fusion of theatre and modern dance. So I integrated a bunch of cool dance stuff into this short play, and it was a very complicated little piece.
And during our rehearsal process, I spent the first two thirds of rehearsal on the first half of the play. And my actors kept on getting nervous. “We don’t even have blocking for the second half of the play, we are getting close to the deadline, we haven’t even really worked through the second half…”
And I kept on saying to them, “I know, but once you understand the first half, the second half is going to make so much more sense. And until you really understand what you guys are doing in the first half, you aren’t going to understand the second half.”
And that is exactly what we did, we finally found the point where they fully understood the first half, we got through the second half in a week. And it was easy! Because all that foundation had been laid.
Which is one of the reasons why it is most important to see, hear and feel everything at the beginning.
It is most important not to rush at the beginning. As you start to get closer to the end, you know more, and it is easier to move faster because you’ve already got so much stuff that has already happened.
But at the beginning, when you haven’t seen, felt, and heard everything, you don’t have a lot to work with. And so that “get to know you” time is so, so, so important.
So I like to use deadlines to focus that for me.
For any draft that I am going to be working on, I am going to have a goal for that draft. And that goal will drive the goal of the whole screenplay.
If you’ve taken my Write Your Screenplay class, you’ve heard me talk about the importance of The Me Draft of your script. The draft where you say “fuck the audience” and just concentrate on taking yourself and your journey as a character.
And, you see, that is actually a way of setting a goal.
It isn’t true that I am not thinking about The Audience Draft at all when I write that draft; that is impossible.
It isn’t true that I am not thinking about The Producer Draft or The Reader Draft at all; that is impossible as well.
But it means that every time my thoughts stray to the audience, or the producer, or the reader, I go back to the real goal, just like you do in a meditation. I say to myself, “let me bring it back, what is really important right now is connecting: seeing feeling and hearing everything.”
Remember, every editing technique is simply a tool that you use to help translate what you see, hear and feel for the audience.
But sometimes we confuse these tools with the actual work of writing– slowing ourselves down to a crawl trying to do it right, and trying to shape our work before we even have it on the page.
If this is happening for you, try this trick:
Write Fast. Edit Slow.
This keeps you from turning off the spigot on your creativity until you see what you’re actually working with. Then you can look at it and evaluate what’s really happening. What’s working, and what is not. And what tools you need to shape that raw material into a form others can fully experience.
If it your writing is working don’t use any tools! Don’t worry about editing!
If it is coming out and it feels connected and it is making you laugh, it is making you cry, you like what you are seeing, it is progressing, you aren’t stuck, you aren’t doing the same thing again and again, don’t change anything! Just do it.
But, if you start to feel stuck– if you start to wonder “am I ever going to get to the end?”– if you start to feel that way, use the Write Fast, Edit Slow technique.
Write Fast, Edit Slow doesn’t mean I am blowing through my whole draft.
This means I am working scene by scene, allowing a draft to flow out of me where I’m not worrying if it’s good, where I am just like pa-pa-pa-pa…just blowing out, I am not rushing, but I’m also not allowing myself to stop writing. If I run out of things to say, I’ll just keep writing the last line until the next thing comes. I’m not crossing out. I’m not judging or evaluating or improving. I’m not editing anything.
Oftentimes, I will do this not on the computer. I will do this by hand, where I am just writing everything down. I am still seeing, hearing, and feeling everything but I am trying to speed up the pace.
And why am I trying to speed up the pace?
I’m trying to get past the inner censor, I am trying to get past the inner part that thinks I am not good enough.
If I feel like “I can’t figure out the ending,” I’ll ask myself “Let’s do the bad version, what is the worst possible version of the ending?” And I’ll blow that out as quickly as I can.
If I feel like I can’t figure out the line, I’ll write the worst version of the line. If I can’t find the image, I’ll write the worst version of the image, the scene, the character. Or every possible version, until I know what it’s not and start to discover what it is.
When you’re feeling stuck, play towards your strengths. But remember that wrestling with your weaknesses will show you who you really are as a screenwriter.
In my early career, I found action the hardest part of screenwriting. I came from a playwriting background, and felt very comfortable with character and dialogue. But action scared the crap out of me– because I felt like I didn’t have the experience or the craft to get it on the page the way I wanted it.
For this reason, I often started with dialogue, and then I kind of went back and found the action later. Often on a day when I didn’t feel inspired to write something new, I’d go back and slowly crunch on action– slowly figuring it out line by line by line.
Not even worried about the final product as much as building the muscles of my craft– getting that stuff into my body, like we do in our Write Your Screenplay, Level 2 classes.
As I became more comfortable with my craft, I found I didn’t need to separate action and dialogue anymore. In fact, that thinking about those things separately was no longer necessary, because writing in this way was no longer a conscious process.
It had worked its way into the subconscious part of my mind, and didn’t take so much effort anymore. Now I could find in one image what used to take me many pages of dialogue. And because I had the strong images early it was so much easier to find the images I needed later.
But here’s what’s important to understand about this process.
In an early draft, I am still not worried about whether the audience can see it; I am worried whether I see it. I am not worried in that early draft whether people really understand what I see, but I do want to make sure there is an action. By which I mean that the character’s action is rooted in active verbs– that they’re actually doing something all the time.
So if I see something in my mind’s eye that is static or descriptive or not active– if I see that Dan is wearing a paisley shirt, I’m going to find an action to capture it:
“Dan buttons his paisley shirt.”
Later if it is really important they understand that the shirt is blue with orange flowers, I will find a way to weave that in. Or if it is really important that they understand Dan’s aggression or his peace or his meditative practice, I will go back and I will clean up the execution later… and that way I can feel the progress as I rewrite.
So, if you are feeling uncomfortable, go where you are strong. If you feel great about dialogue, just blow out some frickin’ dialogue.
Or some people hate dialogue, so if you hate dialogue and you aren’t feeling strong, blow out some action, do whatever comes easy first.
If you start to feel like you are in a rut, switch it up, do the opposite. Meaning if dialogue comes really easy to you, okay take it away, write the scene only in action. And then go back and write it with dialogue and action.
But don’t let yourself rest on your laurels.
The best screenwriters aren’t content with what they can already do. They are always looking to grow, both in their art and their craft. Always looking for mentorship. Always looking for someone to push them further.
I don’t know any way to do the editing part fast. I wish I did. It takes hours. Sometimes a page is a whole day of work– there are days where it comes faster, and there are days when it is just painful.
But I know that neither my art nor my craft would be where they are today if it weren’t for the mentors who pushed me– who taught me to challenge myself, who showed me how to do the things I couldn’t discover for myself.
And even still, just like you, there are certain days where I don’t know what the fuck happens in my script!
Those are great days to edit slow. Those are great days to go back and do it, and focus on building your craft, on developing that one skill that is holding you back, so it comes faster and easier the next time.
I just think of it as crunch work– “all right I am just going to go crunch today because I don’t even feel like writing. I just feel like doing clean up duty.”
And what ends up happening is, soon you will get past crunching and you start to get creative; it is a way of kind of just gentling yourself in.
I call this “Creative Procrastination.”
“Okay I don’t really feel like writing today, so I am going to “do the dishes.”
Focusing on clean up duty is a way of “doing the dishes” in the script rather than in the sink. So even your procrastination starts to serve your story. Starts to gentle you back into the writing process.
There are also times to write slowly.
The most important thing in writing is always connection. So, sometimes I will slow down my writing if I feel like I am disconnected.
Connection can be “I am doing the bad draft and writing down badly everything I see, hear and feel.” That is a form of connection.
“I am doing the worst possible version, I am doing the version of the scene that I fear.” That is also a way of connecting. Even if you are connecting with the stuff that is bad, that’s great!
But, if you feel disconnected, you may need to slow down.
Whereas, if you feel overly censored, you need to speed up.
So, for example if you are writing something and you don’t believe a word your character is saying, then maybe you need to speed up so that they just start to say random shit, but it also may be that you need to slow down and really listen to them. To ask yourself, how do they say “hello” differently from any other character.
To connect to them fully, you might need to ask yourself, “Where are they coming from? And what was their day like? And what went wrong? And what does their foot feel like on the ground? And where is the pain in their body? And what is the temperature of the room around them? And how sweaty are they? And is their t-shirt itchy? And what is the dream they had last night? And what is the dream they had for how this conversation was going to go? And what is their plan and what is their fear and what is their self-doubt that is playing in their head?”
You see what I am doing, I am just stepping in, and when I step in, I am going to step into different modalities—I am going to step into seeing and hearing and feeling.
(You can also step in even to taste and smell those don’t often make into the script because they are internal.)
But you can ask yourself, “What is the taste of their lunch in their mouth right now? What are the smells in the air?” You can get really tactile… and that just allows you to step into your characters.
And then you can allow yourself to hear, just slow down and hear the line of dialogue that they say. What do I hear them say? I hear them say “red handkerchiefs are better than blue ones.” Why the hell did they say that? Who cares! You just heard the real line! You slowed yourself down, and you heard the line, and now you must simply accept that line as true. You’ll figure out what it means later– and that’s what will make the writing of the scene so exciting.
If you are feeling censored (“…oh, great, ‘red handkerchiefs are better than blue,’ what are you fucking serious? No, this doesn’t make sense, no one talks like that. That isn’t right, that is wrong. You aren’t good enough. The scene sucks forever. You are such a fraud– maybe you should have been an investment banker…”)
If that kind of censorship is going on, you probably need to speed up.
You probably need to speed up. You need to blow out the fastest version of the draft. Because you are censoring all the joy out of your writing– and with it, any hope of real connection.
So when that happens, speed up. Write it bad. Like really bad.
Because then you can go back and work on that very bad scene, and now use your internal censor to start to make the bad better.
But you’ve still got to make sure that internal censor doesn’t cut out all the really good stuff.
Often, newer writers, when they go back to edit, will actually cut out their very best lines. Because those are the lines that make them feel uncomfortable, exposed, vulnerable– the lines they haven’t seen in other people’s screenplays. The lines that come directly from their soul.
So if you’re not working with someone who can help you identify those lines, you’ve got to be really careful about this.
If your censor is really active today, you are probably better off working on something you wrote a little while ago, because otherwise you will end up talking all the good stuff out of the scene you wrote quickly.
In the first draft, never cut weird stuff… in fact, never cut anything. If your censor is hot, never cut anything that makes you uncomfortable, never cut anything that creates a strong emotional reaction. Not on the first day.
Sure, cut the stuff where you have no emotional reaction. Cut the stuff where you are like “blah…”
But if you feel like “oh my god I am such an asshole,” keep that line.
Because that might be the line where something real resides. You just may need a day or two to see it, and potentially some help to translate it into a form that actually makes sense for an audience.
Like most writers, I am a terrible perfectionist; I always see the room for improvement. Good enough is never, ever good enough for me.
I am always trying to push everything to the next level, and for me, like for many writers, this can get in the way of finishing.
This is why the deadlines are so important. Because you need to know when it is done enough.
Otherwise it will be 42 years from now, and you will still working on the same script! Especially if you have that perfectionist thing that I have.
So, there are times in my script where I know I need to go back and rewrite the first 10 pages, first 30 pages– those pages are going to get rewritten the most, because they are the foundation– they are the soil out of which everything else grows.
And as you learn what happens later, you figure out what has to go earlier.
But sometimes I get into a loop, where I am writing those first 30 pages forever.
And I think that those pages need to be fixed, but really it is my fear of “what comes next?”
Really it is like my fear of writing that final scene or my fear of writing the climax, or my fear of fully building that structure or that relationship only to find it doesn’t work.
And sometimes my fear of finishing goes like this:
“Oh my god I am going to finish this and then I am going send it out, and then I am going to get all this negative feedback, and then I am going to deal with people who say they are going to read it and don’t read it, then I am going to be like, ‘do I have to call them? Should I call them?’”
So there is all this pressure. And sometimes that means I am afraid of finishing.
If I find myself in a loop, where I am doing the same thing and it doesn’t serve me, there are three different ways that I deal with that.
The first way is this:
I use these wonderful yellow pads. And what I will do is, as I work on my script, I will write all the changes I plan to make on the yellow pad. “I am going to go back through, and I am going to clean up all the images, I am going to make sure that Dan’s shirt is clearly established, I am going to figure out whether Mary’s nails are cracked or not–but for right now I am going to decide that the nails are beautifully polished, so that I can build on that for later as if it were true… I am going to restructure the relationship with the father– I thought that they were going to start off really fragmented but I have decided that actually they are going to start off connected, and the fragmentation is going to happen later. He is going to start off thinking he wants to be like his dad and then realize that he doesn’t….so, I am going to rewrite the beginning to show that he is trying to emulate his father in some way.”
Okay I have now written all this down on my yellow pad, I pull that page out, I print out a rough draft of the script, and I pop it in. I pop it right at the end of the section that I am going to rewrite in the future, and then I keep writing forward as if those revisions has already happened.
Sometimes I will do this inside the script, but I like using the yellow pad because I don’t actually like editing inside my scripts, I like editing from a blank page. So I will usually print out my script, write a bunch of notes, and then either write from memory if
I can, or if I just can’t bear it, which often I can’t, I will retype. And that forces me to make all those decisions again. So that is why I use this yellow pad idea– so I have all those notes to reference as I rewrite or retype.
And what that does for me is it keeps me moving forward, even as I rewrite, so that I don’t feel like I am just going in the same circle again: “maybe it is about this, maybe it is about that, maybe it is about this, maybe it is about that…” forever and ever.
And then oftentimes, I will realize, “oh my G-d, I was wrong! So I just pull this paper out!”
“No actually I was right in the beginning, he doesn’t need to be fragmented from his dad because I thought it was going to go different on page 60, but then something unexpected happened”– and I just save myself all that rewriting work.
So that is one technique that I use.
The second technique that I use if I am feeling like I am in a rut is to allow myself to rewrite as much as I want, but I must always write one new page.
So as long as I write the next scene, the next one page, as long as I do one thing that progresses the story forward then I can go back and fiddle with one line for a whole day if I want.
Each writing episode must forward the script just a little bit; that prevents me from that feeling of being stuck in a rut.
And then, the last thing is to be really firm on your deadlines.
No matter what, just plan that you aren’t going to do anything but write the week before you hit your deadline.
Because no matter how much time you gave yourself, as you get near the finish, you are going to be rushing, and it isn’t going to be perfect, and you’re going to have more work than you can possibly do in the time you have.
But you must finish it by your deadline; because if you don’t, you won’t finish it.
It can be a really shitty draft. But you’ve got to get it done. Because this is how you’re going to build your success as a writer.