Steven Barnes' Free Writing Class!
"Introduction to Screenwriting"
Hi, there, and Welcome back!
We've already dealt with the vast majority of the technical
details which compose story writing. I now want to examine some
of the different mediums.
SHORT STORY. This is Basic
story telling, a "Sprint", with no time to rest. In many ways
the essence of the story form. Educational as hell, and also
quite confrontive. Many people avoid it, but the short story
remains the method of choice for developing professional-level
skills. In fact, one could do far worse than quote Ray Bradbury's
classic advise: "Write a story a week, or a story every other
If you combine this with Robert Heinleins's advice:
You have an interesting model for excellence and success. The
observant student will have few problems figuring out how to adapt
this to their own career.
- Finish what you write
- Put it in the mail
- Keep it in the mail until it sells
- Never revise except to editorial request.
NOVEL. The Novel form uses
the exact same tools as the short story, but because of its length,
has the opportunity to interweave several stories together into
a tapestry, with, hopefully, a cumulative effect which is greater
than the sum of the parts. The nice thing about a novel is that
you can get kind of lazy at times, wander around a bit, and even
lecture on subjects of tangential interest--none of which can
be done quite so well in a short story. Novels are a risky way
to begin a career. If you are lacking core skills, it can take
you YEARS to find out, while you slog through that 200,000 word
monster. Use Short stories to BUILD a publishing career, then
graduate to Novels to pay the bills and create your catalog.
STAGE. The primary thing
to remember in the writing of a stage play is that the motion
and scope must be far more restricted than in any other form.
In many ways, all that you have is your use of language. But in
this, my friends, the Stage has no equal. In theater, you have
nothing but human beings talking to each other. Accordingly, your
use of language must be absolutely exquisite. Don't even consider
it otherwise. The experience of writing for the stage, or directing
scenes, is highly recommended. In fact, you would be very well
served to take a few acting classes. They will teach you things
that you might otherwise never guess about the interrelationship
of actor to script.
Television is sort of half-way between stage and movies. It is
not so intimate as stage, but incapable of the cinema's spectacular
scope. There are several peculiar and sometimes disturbing things
about television, and I thought I'd list a few of them.
- The 6-act structure which is used in hour-long television
is gratingly artificial. Even the classic 3-act structure
is really nothing but potty breaks for Greek actors. There
is nothing about the structure of human life or experience
that intrinsically breaks down into 2, or 3, or 5, or 7 or
21 parts. These can be useful, but they are all artificial,
merely ways of looking at structure. Maps, not the territory
- In television, the viewers are not the customers. No, no--they
are the PRODUCT, who are sold to the customers (the advertisers)
in job-lots according to demographics. This creates a very
very odd situation--they want the shows to be interesting
enough to get you to tune in, but never genuinely new or confrontational.
Everyone wants to be first to be second. Yuck.
- Limitations on violence mean that tension is very difficult
to achieve. If you KNOW that the censors are NEVER going to
let anything seriously yucky onscreen, there is never any
need to flinch, 'cause nothing's ever gonna happen that you
- Everything Network must appeal to middle America. If you
want to do something a little more offbeat, go with the Syndicated
stations. Fox Network can take more chances than ABC.
- Unlike the publishing industry, television and film WILL
steal your ideas. Be careful. The fact is that the number
of ideas chewed up by Hollywood in a single year would creatively
Bankrupt a dozen Shakespeare's. They are completely DESPERATE
for ideas. If you are protected by an agent, then go in there
and pitch your widdle heart out. Otherwise, be afraid. Be
CABLE. More daring than
television, but still limited--they LOVE those secondary sales
to Fox Network, and don't want to have to cut too much sex, violence,
or language. So don't believe it when they say "Anything goes."
The beautiful thing about cable is the fact that they can go
seriously long-form. Six hour R-rated movies. And with the advent
of widescreen TV and surround sound, we're not far from the
era where Cable may be the venue of choice. I love the potential,
and plan to be right in there pitching.
So come to think of it, why am I sharing my secrets with you,
anyway? 'Cause I'm a nice guy, that's why. Buy me sushi some
time, and we'll call it even.
CINEMA. As far as I'm concerned,
the Brass Ring. This is where the best action is. However, it
is utterly impossible to get in. The studios won't read unsolicited
scripts, and neither will agents. So what the hell do you do?
Frankly, everyone I know who works in Hollywood got in a different
way. Some delivered scripts in Pizza boxes. Some worked in the
studio Xerox room until the right connections were made. Some
worked for Hollywood temp agencies, getting sent to work in
Agents offices until a connection was made. Some snuck onto
lots and talked someone into looking at material.
In other words, you have to use the same creativity to get
into the industry that you would use once you got there. There
IS no direct line path for getting in. None at all. But if you
are absolutely determined to get in, you'll find a way.
One serious hint: if at ALL possible, move to Los Angeles.
Can't overestimate the importance of actually being on the scene
where the action is happening.
The average movie script is about 120 pages long, each page
of which equates to one page of screen time. Get your hands
on all the movies scripts you can find, and read the heck out
of 'em. Don't both writing lots of stage directions in your
script--the director will just cut them out anyway.
If you are really serious, subscribe to SCENARIO. Published
quarterly, each issue contains four full-length film scripts.
Call 'em at 800-222-2654.
One of the things that you have to do is develop the art of "Pitching",
verbal story-telling, the art of boiling your story down into
a 1-5 minute essence you can tell off the top of your head to
a room full of doubting execs.
This can be anything from a T.V. Guide snippit to a full story
told while you pace back and forth, gesticulating wildly. PRACTICE
THIS ART. It is one of the tools which will allow you to compete
against people who are more experienced writers, but haven't
conquered their stage-fright. Practice in front of your friends.
Practice into a tape recorder. Practice into video tape.
DO THIS. It will be immensely useful when you actually get
your 10 minutes with Aaron Spelling's people.
Rework your stories again, fleshing out characters and situations.
Answer the following question: How is this situation your lead
character's worst nightmare? And how does it turn into the best
thing that ever happened to them? Or, conversely, how is it the
best thing that ever happened to them, and how does it turn into
their worst nightmare? In other words, make explicit the connection
between plot and character. Each should be inextricably linked
to the other.