Free screenwriting seminar

Everyone loves movies but how many people know what goes into a screenplay and what part it plays in the filmmaking process? If you’re interested in learning more about the answers to these questions, come to a free seminar I’m teaching on the basics of the craft of screenwriting. This seminar will be enough to get you started so you can study further on your own. Or, if you’d rather participate in a guided study, I’ll lead a longer class later in the year at the same location.

The free introductory seminar will be held Saturday, January 25, 2020 at 11 AM at The Artisans Exchange in Chelmsford, MA. If you’re in the area and this topic interests you, come by and learn more.

Satisfaction guaranteed or double your money back. πŸ™‚

Have a Hallmark Train Wreck Christmas!

Returning to writing screenplays is a significant adjustment after writing nothing but prose for the past four years. Reading quality screenplays and watching good movies with an eye toward dialog, character, and plot has helped me get back on track. On the other hand, there’s value in coming at it from the other direction.

It’s a truism that we should learn from our mistakes. To disagree with that adage would be foolhardy, but there’s a better way: Learn from others’ mistakes. That way, you can avoid some of those mistakes in the first place and still come out fully informed. That’s the rationale behind watching bad movies. And when you talk about bad movies, this is the best time of year for them.

No, I’m not talking about wonderful holiday films such as “Miracle on 34th Street” or “It’s a Wonderful Life”. I’m talking about a relatively recently created genre: The Hallmark Christmas romance movie.* There is a long list of immutable truths about these denizens of the holiday airwaves:

  1. Though there are dozens of them, all are minor variants of about three distinct plots. (Lest we sit too high on our horse, the same can be said of most superhero movies.)
  2. There is an ensemble of (usually) Canadian actors who take turns playing the leads.
  3. There’s a cute kid… who can’t act.
  4. Each features at least one washed-up sitcom star in a minor role.
  5. Although there is lots of talk about faith, belief, and fate, there is exactly zero reference to any of the spiritual aspects of the season. None. Nada. Zilch. Ever.
  6. If any of the protagonists spent any time being honest with each other, the movie would end after 15 minutes because all the misunderstandings would be resolved.
  7. The Kiss, which is always delayed until the final two minutes of the movie and is preceded by multiple near misses, is 100% antiseptic, and is performed with less passion than your average oil change.
  8. As with a train wreck, however, I can’t keep my eyes off them.

Re that last item, I confess it’s true. I watch a dozen or more every year. My expectations, which couldn’t be any lower, are rarely met, never mind exceeded.

Why do I put myself through this? They have all the suspense of a game of tic-tac-toe, the ending of which, like the Hallmark movies, is set in stone from the first move. There is almost never a new plot.

(Example template: Successful woman comes from the “Big City” in an attempt to convert a beloved local establishment into an impersonal commercial development, until some colorful local characters resist her, causing her to give up not only the project, but her home and career to marry her childhood sweetheart, an amiable fellow in a flannel shirt with a permanent three day growth of facial hair with whom she’d had a misunderstanding after the Big Game in high school, but not before a last minute appearance by the woman’s fiancΓ©, who arrives from said “Big City” wearing a Brooks Brothers suit worth more than the other guy’s pickup truck and almost puts the kibosh on the burgeoning romance.)

Three reasons I watch these things almost against my will:

  1. Most of them are graphic lessons in how not to write a screenplay.
  2. I’m an incurable romantic and hope springs eternal (some of the time) that one of them will actually be… well, romantic.
  3. Occasionally, very rarely, one will rise above the dreck and actually be pretty good. In those few cases, I don’t have to waste another half hour of my life bemoaning the fact that I just wasted an hour and a half of my life.

The truly embarrassing reason I watch them, one I hesitate to admit, is that I want to write one.

Yes, it’s true! I would love to write the movie that rises above the miasma of the typical holiday romance porn. In fact, I’m doing it now. In truth, I’m rewriting one of my general romantic comedies to align it with the genre.

Yes, I’m a Christmas mercenary. So be it. At least I’m a romantic mercenary. ❀


* Other networks have noticed the popularity of these movies and have joined Hallmark in this orgy of quasi-romantic, quasi-Christmas tales. Ion and Lifetime are cranking them out almost as plentifully, often with better quality.

Born to be broken

IMG_20150330_200252587The old adage says rules are meant to be broken. There’s no shortage of “rules” for writing. Those commandments are intended to aid in the writing process. They might be helpful if only they weren’t moving targets. I’ve written before about the difficulty of writing. Trying to remain upright on the shifting sands of unstable standards doesn’t make it any easier.

Go ahead. Try to get a group of authors to agree on the tenets that are most useful to guide the writing process. You’re likely to get a protracted religious argument for your trouble.

Here are a few of the most well-known non-negotiables that are constantly being negotiated:

  • Write every day.
  • Write what you know.
  • The road to hell is paved with adverbs.
  • Use sparse language, i.e. “less is more”.
  • To write well, you must read a lot.

For every writer who subscribes to one of these statutes, there’s probably one or more who eschew it. For example, I was at a book reading by a highly regarded, best-selling author who, when asked what other authors he read, claimed not to read other authors in order to avoid being unduly influenced by them. So much for reading to become a good writer.

With all due respect to adverb-phobic Stephen King, who deserves a great deal of respect indeed, I don’t have any problem with adverbs as a reader. In fact, I kinda like them. So why avoid them? If you’re writing a book for Mr. King, I guess. But why leave any tool in the toolbox unused? They’re there for a reason.

Fundamentalism is generally condemned in other spheres, but it’s alive and well in the writing world.

And the “write what you know” dictum would be better expressed as “write what you care about.” You can always gain knowledge about a topic. It’s no easy task to develop enough passion to write well about something about which you are otherwise indifferent.

John Fox, manacled hand and foot by his pirate captorsIf you’ve read enough about writers writing, you’ve undoubtedly come across the ones who claim they don’t know where their characters are going to take the story. Those lifeless entities are independent actors with wills of their own. I guess that’s possible, but is it mandated somewhere? Some would have you believe that it is or that at least it’s a hallmark of a higher level of fiction. I don’t think so. No less an authority than Vladimir Nabokov says he has no use for that tactic when he says, “My characters are galley slaves.” No surprises for Mr. Nabokov, thank you.

This confusion first confronted me when I was trying to master screenwriting. The rules to screenwriting are many, absolute, and quite specific. The only problem is, accomplished screenwriters break them as a matter of course. One decree beyond discussion is: Don’t describe what can’t be shown on the screen. For example, a script can’t say in its descriptive text, “Joe was nervous about the interview.” Fine. At a lecture at the Austin Film Festival (the screenwriter’s Mecca), a man who is arguably the most successful screenwriter of this generation, told all of us rapt listeners that he does it all the time.

AFF produced a nice little book of excerpts from various talks given at the festival over the years. “On Story” has lots of advice for writing the next great movie. Unfortunately, much of the advice is conflicting.

This is one of the reasons I question a prime directive of screenwriting education: Read scripts. A problem with that advice is that screenwriters don’t follow “the rules” we’re supposed to learn, so we’re likely to learn the wrong way. Also, most scripts we have access to are “shooting scripts” filled with camera angles and other technical directions that don’t belong in submitted scripts.

What’s a struggling writer to do? Obey the rules (“Do as I say, don’t do as I do.”) until you break in. Then you can do anything you want. Another way of saying it is, “Write something great and you have permission to write whatever you want.” I think of it as learning a secret handshake. Based on what I’ve seen and read, once you’re in the club, the rules no longer apply.

Fair enough. If I want to play their game, I’ll do my best to play by their rules.