I often get letters from writers asking me for advice about getting into the film and TV industry, sometimes also asking about how to get agents. I can’t help you with agents, I’m afraid. Getting agents is very hard and agents are not usually interested until a writer has some kind of track record. On the bright side, as many writers will tell you, it often happens in the film and TV industry that the writer is first approached by a director or producer - and only then does the agent come in, to organise the actual deal. So don't feel that you must have an agent to succeed, or that breaking in depends on having an agent. Most writers get started without an agent. Really, the first thing for any writer to do is to make themselves and their work known to their local film, TV and theatre people. Become part of the industry so that people know you and realise that you're serious about wanting to become a writer. That way, if they're looking for a writer they'll remember you. Don’t wait for people to come to you, go out and find people. Try to create your own opportunities. Many countries have schemes to help new writers and filmmakers (this includes developing countries). Offer your services and work for free at first, if necessary, or, if there is money, for a share of the profits. Show yourself to be a person who's full of energy, helpful, a good team player and determined to carve out a career for themselves in the industry. Think of people like the filmmaker Mike Leigh - who started off by making his own films with amateurs and a non-existent budget. If you have written material, create your own website or Facebook page (for free online) so that you have an international identity. Even one page is fine. Provide a brief description of your scripts (just a couple of lines) and/or the kind of work you’re interested in doing. Next, go online and join The London Screenwriters’ Festival. It’s free, and you get free writers’ tips and videos of filmmakers talking about their work. I mention the LSF because I think the site and the festival is very good, but there are lots of sites that provide scriptwriting and other technical help online. I'd suggest making some short films (even using just your mobile phone and some friends as actors ) and put them on YouTube. Get a twitter account and tweet about your work. All of these things give people a chance to notice you hence create the possibility that someone will ask you to work for or with them, or be interested in your material. Oh yes. Don't forget to try writing for radio and theatre too. It's often a bit easier to break in there. Keep writing. I hope this is useful. Good luck.
I'm going to be speaking on June 1 at The Great American Pitchfest in Burbank on How, when and when not to use flashback, non linear stories and ensemble casts. The title of the class is The 21st Century Screenwriter.
I'm also going to have a booth so I can meet and chat to writers, so look for the Dreaming Egg - which you will see on your left. It's not a photoshop job. It's a giant model of an egg that Salvador Dali put on the roof of his house at Port Lligat. Only Dali...
Hope to see you in Burbank...!
I had a query from a new writer yesterday and I thought this person expressed a common problem, namely, just when do you walk away from a script? Well, in one sense you never do. Even if they never go anywhere they are still in some way active. Which is not surprising since you've poured yourself into them. We never leave them emotionally. That's why they still stay in the bottom drawer. What I said to this person was as follows. I hope others will find it useful. Think about trying what I suggest. You may surprise yourself .
WRITER: When do you know when to put your story down. When do you know that you've taken the story as far as you can and it's time to let go and move on?
LINDA You ask a very big question, moreover, one a lot of writers would like to know the answer to. I have a question for you. What’s to stop you putting your story down for a while and having a go writing something else? Your first story isn’t going to run away, and you won’t be the first writer to have a script rejected which is then picked up after they’ve had success with a different project. Also, getting away from the project that you’ve been so attached to for such a long while will probably do the project good.
No successful writer even wrote just one thing. Very often you have things on the back burner that you come back to from time to time. Sometimes, alas, some of the best things you write are not loved by other people and some of the things you think are just okay have people telling you they are life-changing. That’s the way it goes. The thing is to keep writing.
Here’s a challenge for you - really, it’s just a bit of fun. It’s an exercise. You can lose nothing by it and you have everything to gain. Put your existing script in a safe place where it can sit for two weeks.. Now, go to the first section of my book, the section on creativity under pressure. Find a story trigger and brainstorm twenty ideas for a film – more if you can. Remember, the rule is, brainstorm uncritically. Put your inner critic aside or you will block. The idea is to get as many ideas as possible, even if some are terrible or cliched or derivative. You will find, if you relax, that some really good ideas also come out along the way, and that's what the process is about. Choose three and spend a few days thinking about them (just in your odd moments here and there). Finally, choose the best and try developing it using the method I show you in the book. It will be fun and the chances are that your new baby will start to take a hold on your affections too. You haven’t forgotten your first, but now you’ve got a second. Hope that helps
How do you brainstorm for ideas for film and TV when you find it hard to switch off your logical mind?
I had a question from a writer who wrote very kind things about my work (which was very nice) then asked me for help. The writer explained that they had a very logical mind and found the brainstorming process I explain in The 21st Century Screenplay (in which I get writers to switch between their lateral and vertical imagination to get ideas), very difficult because they could see a myriad of different meanings in my terminology.They wanted me to clarify my meaning since they felt that only then would they be able to proceed. They wanted the definitions absolutely correct. Since this problem might be something that concerns others, I’ll answer in the blog.
I’m so pleased that my work has been useful to you. You write to me for help about definitions of terms in the chapters on brainstorming. I would like to help here, so I’ll give you my response. My view is not that you need to get answers on these matters of semantics before you can brainstorm. Not at all. What I see is a person with very impressive vertical/ logical/ analytical skills who is locked into a definitional loop which, while interesting in itself, is actually preventing proper brainstorming for creative writing purposes. What I see here is a vertical imagination itself engaged in brainstorming – brainstorming endless alternative meanings which are intriguing philosophically but not relevant to the task at hand. It is a wonderful gift to have such powers of logic. Congratulations. Those powers will be immensely useful to you in your writing. But to write to your best you need to make a conscious effort to switch between vertical and lateral at the right times, otherwise you won’t get the best out of either part of your mind. At the moment you’re locked into vertical and it’s blocking your imagination. That happens to a lot of people. The opposite also happens when people get locked into lateral and write in a kind of intoxicated way creating material that’s silly or over the top. The trick is getting the balance, and it’s very hard at first.
Brainstorming is simply a tool, like a pencil. It’s simply a way to trick the suppressed lateral imagination out into the open, to force it to make new and exciting connections. The trigger is not important in itself, it’s just way to set off original ideas. Just as knowing the chemical constituents of graphite will not help you draw better, so troubling yourself over a range of possible alternative meanings for my terminology will not help you create better stories. To do that, simply choose one of your definitions, then consciously put your logical vertical self to one side for the time being and give yourself permission to be illogical and silly for a little while as you free associate the connections that come to you. When you have a good long list of ideas and fragments from your lateral side, consciously bring your vertical side back into action to filter the quality of the results.
For people who are very vertical it can be very difficult to switch off the vertical mind because the lateral mind is so wild and crazy that the person feels out of control. But being out of control is exactly what we want in this instance. That’s exactly what we need for the brainstorming process. It’s a dream-like mentality. Don’t worry. It’s only temporary. Vertical will come into play again to filter the ideas that are weak or silly.
I suggest that you practice brainstorming by using a stopwatch. At first, give yourself just thirty seconds simply to free associate from any trigger while suppressing your vertical mind. Gradually increase that lateral time over a few days. It will be hard, but you will get there.
Imagination is a muscle. The harder you work it the stronger it gets. Think of your lateral imagination as being a bit like muscle memory for a musician. It’s not conscious or intellectual but it’s absolutely vital to your performance. Your vertical imagination is a great gift. Just learn when to quarantine it and when to let it do its job. I hope this helps and good luck.
Interestingly I’ve had two requests for advice from two very experienced writers about how to describe their complex parallel narrative film scripts (both of which involve multiple story lines and flashbacks) to potential producers, so, with their forbearance, I’ll address their queries at the same time. That way I can hopefully help the two writers as well as others with the same problem.
The first writer is getting good feedback on her script so wants to send it out to producers. She describes her complex script then asks: ‘How do you write a synopsis for non-linear material? Do you have any examples that you could share with me?’
Here’s my answer to writer number 1 .
Dear Writer Number 1
No, unfortunately I don’t have any examples to hand. Perhaps you could look online. But actually, unless I’m misunderstanding your terminology, I’m not sure that you’ve got a problem here. The three key problems in my view with flashback and other time jump/ nonlinear material are:
1. how to construct it so that it works and is understandable to the film audience;
2. how to write the script clearly enough for readers to vividly visualize what happens as they read;
3. (linked with both points 1) and 2) whether without knowing it, the writer and any readers are using the written direction as a crutch to understand where in time the flashbacks happen and to whom.
(By the latter I mean, double check when you've written your flashback script to see whether readers would know what date a flashback happened if there wasn't a date and the word ‘flashback’ written in the script in them. Also double check that a cinema audience - which doesn't have a script in front of them bearing the characters' names - would realise that the three year old toddler in a flashback is now 65 year old Fred and not his elderly friend Mike. Written information like this will not be available to your audience except by use of dateline captions or the like, which are not always appropriate. I've quite often read scripts where, for example, we visit characters in flashbacks across a lifetime and without the script it would be impossible to understand who the characters in the flashbacks actually are. In my response to Writer Number 2 I discuss visual ways to transmit this vital information)
Writer number 1, you seem to have achieved all of these things , since you're getting such good feedback about the script, so I'd say double check number 3 just in case, but if that's okay, the problem with the synopsis is essentially a pitching problem. That is, unless you and I have a different understanding of what a ‘synopsis’ is, which might be the case. Sometimes usage of these things can change.
In my experience, ‘synopses’ are very short – a paragraph. ‘Treatments’ or ‘outlines’ however can be about thirty pages long. Assuming you are talking about a one paragraph synopsis, the first problem (and it’s the perennial problem in any kind of pitch) is that you make sure you pitch to a producer who will be interested in the particular kind of script that you’re offering. So check that. Then, as far as the synopsis is concerned, I would describe the action just as you would for a general public audience, making it sound as interesting and intriguing as you can. Don’t go into the technical details. Just emphasise the story that you’re telling, suggesting what a powerful mystery it is, and how it’s unfolded bit by bit so as to reveal which character did what. There’s no need for anyone reading the script or watching the film to know what kind of structure you’re using or how you built it, any more than it’s important for the audience to know what kinds of lenses or audio equipment or editing software were used in shooting the film. If you start to talk technicalities you frighten people. The interesting thing about flashback and nonlinear films generally is that despite the panic that the mention of them often induces among people discussing screenwriting theory, unless the flashbacks in a film are very extensive or are being used in a very novel way, mostly people accept them without thought and people writing critiques mention them only briefly if at all. I just checked out a few sites for The Social Network. The flashback structure isn’t even mentioned. In The Life of Pi it's mentioned only in passing
If it turns out that you’re writing what I'd call a treatment or outline, I’d do the same. In all three I'd avoid technical terms like the ones I have invented and use in my book. I mean terms like: ‘fractured tandem’ ‘portmanteau’ etc. These are precise technical terms I created to remind writers of precisely what each structure actually is and what it has to do. They’re very useful to keep writers on track, but to other people they can sound very daunting. Producers who have been scared by weak flashback films might get scared off. Just tell the story powerfully. As I say, in most cases, people won’t even mention the flashbacks if they’re used successfully. I wouldn’t even use the term ‘flashbacks’ in the synopsis, personally (although you’ll need to use them in the script itself of course, as I’m sure you have)
In conclusion, I’d say, look at a few DVD covers of films that have resemblances to your film and read the blurb to get the idea of how the marketing people promote such films. That will give you the idea. The marketing people usually know their business. Next, write your synopsis to make your story sound as fascinating and thrilling as it can without including any technical terms or making a big deal about its nonlinearity.
I hope that's useful
WRITER NUMBER 2
Writer number two is using a very complex hybrid that contains dream sequences, flashbacks running backwards, a life changing incident flashback and possibly flashbacks out of chronological order. This writer says 'I just don't know how to make it an easy read for conventional readers wary of "FLASHBACK" I'm experimenting now with more precise naming: instead of "flashback" saying "an hour ago" "10 years ago" - but I don't know whether that's an acceptable way to write?? The extreme abundance of flashbacks now in use is making me desperate for a way to make them go-down-easy.'
Here is my response to Writer Number 2
Dear Writer Number 2 This sounds like a very interesting script but as you’re well aware, very complex thus prone to go off course. For you, as for Writer 1, an essential matter is to target the right producer. That's the first step. Now for my comments. I am a great believer in asking the hard questions about what might not be working, so if you don't mind I'll jump into these, boots and all rather than just dealing with the terminology issue you raise.
The primary issue here, as I’m sure you’ll be well aware (but it doesn’t hurt to mention it again) is whether you have actually succeeded in unfolding your story in a way that will be coherent on the screen, or whether you are just so familiar with the material that you are believing it to be coherent and powerful. That’s a big ‘if’, and you’ll need to test drive the piece on various people and grill them to see whether they get it. I'm sure you've either done that or are planning to.
My first thought after wondering the above was to wonder whether, as I've discussed above, you are unconsciously relying on the reader having the prop of stage directions to locate the flashback in time(‘one hour ago’, ‘two days ago’ - whatever). That written clue will not, of course, be accessible to a cinema audience, unless you set up a convention of putting the precise time of each flashback on screen in a caption when it appears, which might work or alternatively might be extremely irritating, or both of the above, depending on the audience). Whether you use this ‘dateline caption’ approach or not, I think you might consider making clear visible distinctions between your flashbacks. For example,if the flashback is to the 1970s, make the people have hair styles and clothes of that time. If you are flashing back to someone’s childhood, give both the child version and the adult version distinctive hair or glasses, so that we instantly recognize who we are looking at. You can also experiment with the use of black and white or sepia footage for a specific time frame (for example, say, the hour or two before the accident is always depicted in black and white). This black and white footage trick to depict one time frame is used in Memento. You might also think about using underexposed footage or footage adjusted to look reddish or greenish to indicate different moments in time. But you’ll need to be careful about not overdoing that.
The producer will need to be sure that the film will be comprehensible to the audience without written clues, so double-check.
My second thought was that since you have an incremental flashback ( a life-changing incident that is revealed bit by bit until it’s told in full in the third act) it would be wise double-check that you are using that to maximum effect (see my comments in The 21st Century Screenplay on Catch 22 and The End of the Affair) because it’s easy to construct that kind of flashback so that it’s a fizzer. It needs to be a mystery until its very last moment.
My third thought was that if you have flashbacks that are not, as is normal with flashbacks, telling their story chronologically (whether that’s happening forwards – say, starting at 1980 and proceeding forwards until the present, or travelling chronologically backwards, going from the present back to 1980) you may have problems maintaining tension because there may be insufficient rising suspense. That often happens with brief flashbacks that occur out of chronological order. I'd say just keep an eye on it.
My fourth thought was: ‘double check that the flashbacks and time jumps are genuinely setting up then gradually solving a mystery’. Don’t just use them to fill in backstory. Make sure there is a genuine and compelling mystery in the present that is being solved, bit by bit by each flashback.
Now having given you a whole bunch of advice that you didn't ask for, let's proceed.
Let's assume the structure is sound and doing everything you want it to in terms of transmitting your ideas, creating the relevant emotional engagement etcetera and the only issue is how to make the script an easy read. As I’ve already mentioned to my first correspondent who was anxious about how to write the synopsis of a film that contained flashbacks, it’s fascinating how many people writing about successful films that use flashbacks mention the flashbacks rarely, if at all.
You mention that you don't even know what name to give this hybrid structure you've created. I'd say by all means think of a name for your own purposes, but don’t even think about including that name in any discussion or description in the script or otherwise. That is our technical jargon. It’s secret writer-speak – very useful for us, at best irrelevant to others and at worst sounding scary and/or overly academic.
Regarding the way you describe the flashbacks in the actual script, you will need to use the term ‘flashback’ and I personally would give the specific time of each flashback. If it’s a dream I’d use the term ‘Dream Sequence’. But regardless of all of this, I would, as I suggested earlier, be very consciously trying to make each visually identifiable to the audience so that they had no doubt of what it was and when it happened and to whom. Or rather, that if they had a doubt, it was a pleasurable doubt that you later explained or else left pleasurably unexplained (as opposed to irritatingly unresolved and puzzling).
It might be worth getting hold of some films that have such contents. You’ve got dream sequences and flashbacks in ‘Wild Strawberries’. Perhaps you could find the script and see what terminology is used.
I hope this helps.
Kindest regards to both of you and good luck with the scripts.
The English Patient
Further to my discussion with Melisha, she ended up deciding to read my book. So here's my response to her comment on that in case it might be of interest to people in Melisha's situation. Note that when I say that flashback turns your film into a detective story, I'm not talking about the simple form of flashback, that is: 'where were you on Tuesday night?' 'Well, I was...' (go to flashback). That's not structural, it's just dramatised backstory. I'm talking about the more complex kinds.
It's important to realise that flashback isn't the same in all its forms. It's not just one thing. It's six main types. Some of the six require a complex structure of their own, quite different from the conventional three act linear structure, a massive scaffolding (these are the double narrative types, where you jump back and forth). Others, like 'where were you on Tuesday night' (a type I call 'flashback as illustration) are not structural, they're just, as I say, dramatised backstory that won't affect your linear three act structure. Your job there is just to be consistent.
My answer to Melisha
Oh thanks, Melisha. I hope it's useful for you. If you don't mind me suggesting this, be sure to read the material in the book on conventional narrative first, because you need to get your head around my take on the three act structure since the way good flashback structures work is that you jump on precise points in stories that are actually three act structures in themselves, A lot of people reading my books just jump straight to the flashback chapters and then get in a mess. Unfortunately, you need to hasten slowly with this stuff.
The reason is that there are many kinds of flashback and many odd things about it. It requires a different mindset from conventional narrative. For example, in certain complex forms of flashback, the ones where you have an ongoing story in the past and an ongoing story in the present, a character can be a protagonist in one time frame (that is, seen from the inside) but an antagonist in another time frame (that is, seen from the outside by another person who is the protagonist in that time frame). It's a bit of head spinner at first, but it's to do with the fact that good flashback structures turn your film into a detective story and that requires you to create characters who are mysterious because seen from the outside in one of the time frames. So don't think of flashback just as a way to stick in a slab of backstory. Think ' a detective story about human motives'. My motto for complex flashback is 'the story in the present is a mystery story and each flashback is another clue'. That energises it. Otherwise you're just doing windshield wipers, back and forth, back and forth.
I'm not sure whether people will be interested in this discussion on Linked In Screenwriting Discussion Group about flashback. I've just contributed to it. I think the writer might have a hybrid flashback form on her hands, actually.
Here's the situation. The writer, Melisha, is having problems with flashback. Check out the full discussion on Linked In. I joined the discussion quite late, so I'm just providing Melisha's comments to to others, and then my answer. People are urging caution and some are advising against flashback.
MELISHA ORIGINAL QUESTION: Ok so I'm a bit torn. I am working on an adaptation of my own book and the book has a critical flashback scene. Should I open with the flashback scene or leave it to tantalize the audience in Act 2? I know some movies start with the flashback as the opening scene but I think this may make my opening scene last longer than 15 minutes and furthermore the flashback is not the point of the script. What do you all think? This adaptation is killing me.
MELISHA RESPONSE 1 : I will approach the script with caution. It is indeed a difficult script to prepare but I'm learning a lot as I go. Do you remember the movie Premonition with Sandra Bullock? I thought this was a good movie that used tons of flashback to tell the story but I was confused the entire time. I don't want to confuse the audience too much but I do have to make these transitions to help the audience understand the antagonist's reason for "stalking" the protagonist. And yes you are right, it was a few centuries ago when they met but only the antagonist is aware of this because he's been living for many centuries.
MELISHA RESPONSE 2: Well this particular flashback is a big piece of the puzzle in the story but it is the subplot so I'm thinking I will add it around the end of Act 2.
MELISHA RESPONSE 3: Let me further break down my dilimma. I have two main characters who met in the past and its a sort of deja vu thing. The storyline is in the present but I have to flashback twice to introduce the audience to the historical characters. So I opened with the antagonist because his story is important but not as important as the one of the protagonist. His flashback is minimal - about 15 minutes and will have a narrator in the background. Her flashback is the subplot and critical to understanding what is going on in the present so I want to place her in Act 2. I don't know if I should open with his flashback or open in the present and somehow squeeze his debut in somehow like as a character is thinking about something then it changes scenes to the character's thoughts.
Unfortunately I haven't seen Premonition, so I can't comment on that. However, I might be able to help you in structuring your film. As a writer who could never find any answers about flashback I wrote first one then another book on how to structure a whole family of different types of flashback, also how to structure other types of nonlinear film (for example, Pulp Fiction). The latest book (which is more up to date) is called The 21st Century Screeenplay and it's published by Silman James. It's required reading at NYU and Berkeley and lots of other film schools around the world, as well as being used by professionals, so a lot of people are finding it useful so maybe you will too.
The good news is that successful flashback films work to clear patterns, based on jumping between past and present in very specific ways at very specific points in the three act structure. In a nutshell, they jump on cliffhangers, but very specific cliffhangers and you must get these right or you'll send the audience in completely the wrong direction. The patterns are so clear that you can use them as templates.
There are actually quite a few different types of flashback, each structured differently, so you need to work out which suits your purpose. The rule is content dictates structure. For example, Slumdog Millionaire jumps back and forth between past and present with a storyline in each, whereas Goodfellas starts in the middle of the film with a crucial scene, then jumps back to the start and continues straight through from beginning to end with no more flashbacks. And there's another kind of flashback that I call a 'Life Changing Incident ' flashback, which is an incremental flashback - that is, one crucial event revealed bit by bit- as in Twelve Monkeys or Catch 22. And so on. As I say, each of these types is structured in a different way, with the jumps occurring at different times in each.
Yes, you could indeed simply tell the past through exposition, but think of Slumdog Millionaire without the flashbacks, all told through dialogue in the present. It wouldn't be half as vivid.
It's hard to comment on how precisely you should structure your film. It could feel very jerky if you open on one character, follow it for fifteen minutes, then switch to another. It may well feel as if we're in another film. My feeling is that your most likely bet is to start in the present at the second act turning point - then jump back to the disturbance of the story in the past. That's how many of these films start. That way, you should avoid the start-stop effect. But I could be wrong here. You may need to start elsewhere. You might need a different structure to suit your purpose. I stress this stuff isn't easy. . I've got some advice on my website www.lindaaronson.com but try to get hold of a copy of one of my books (they're in lots of libraries) because there are all kinds of ways to get in a mess with flashback. Good luck
A couple of people have been asking about the difference between writing for film and writing fiction. This is a very interesting question. At the simplest level, for fiction you need more story! It's a truism that the easiest fiction to adapt is a novella or short story. But above and beyond that, there is a definitely a different contract between the audience for film and the audience for fiction. I don't know why. Film audiences get very impatient if a film doesn't seem to be going anywhere. Fiction audiences will wait for even fifty pages (fifty minutes of screentime at least) before anything much happens. Readers will tell their friends: 'the first fifty pages are a big slow, but then it's terrific'. Film audiences faced with a slow film where nothing is happening and/or there's no character progression tend to throw things.
Film audiences seem to want 'a point', even if the point is that there's no point (as in 'Hidden'). Novels can end up with everyone going home and no great climax. Film audiences hate that. My motto is 'fiction is about the journey, film is about the destination'. In other words, the 'point'. In film, character is what character does. In fiction, it's often what the character thinks, rather than does. Usually, in fiction, the action is much more leisurely. Also, dialogue in fiction goes on for much longer and is often not very lifelike. Dialogue in film needs to be very life-like indeed. If you're writing a film, you really need to think in terms of a chain of events that cause the character to react in character, with each event causing the next, rising to a climax. Film audiences are perhaps much less forgiving.
A propos of nothing much at all. Here's a little pic of one of my young adult comedy novels by the way, Rude Health, a laugh-out-loud teen comedy about the Maths teacher from Hell , first published by Pan Macmillan, which was a Waterstones Book of the Week, and also included in a UK Virgin Trains Young Passenger Gift set. And because I'm a writer I cannot help but boast about the lovely reviews it got... Sorry! You have to boast about the good 'uns when you get them, and I really LOVE that cover.
'A truly funny book' The Times UK
'To laugh yourself stupid, pick up Rude Health' Girlfriend
'Linda Aronson is one of the best comic writers ... another first rate tale of a teenager in trouble' Daily Telegraph UK
'Fabulously entertaining' Achuka UK
I was writing a response to a question on the Linked in Screenwriting discussion group and I thought it might be useful to others, so I’ve put it here. A lot of people were suggesting planning, but I thought there were a few other possible issues.
The question is:
Is it a right way of approach to work on character development before working on outline/structure of the story/screenplay?
One of my friend says due to character development i couldnt able to proceed further and thats why i got stuck in the middle of my screenplay process.
But I beleive in giving importance to Character dev in scripts, so i started Developing Characters after deciding a theme for my Short...
What is ur Opinion regarding the process which i follow?
What ever the UR opinion, Comments are always welcome
And here’s my response.
Take heart from the fact that you are stuck: it's the writer in you telling you that something is wrong, and that's a good instinct. Many people would just keep writing on and on, to no purpose. Meanwhile you,by being stuck you're on the road to getting it right. Did you know Mozart wrote to his father complaining that he'd never finish Act 2 of Don Giovanni? If Mozart had problems, there's hope for all of us!
As so many people are saying, your problem is lack of planning. It's a very common problem, so you're not alone. We've all been there. Script structure is a craft, but it’s always maddening because every script presents new structure problems.
As for whether to work on character before story and whether one can spend too much time on character, it’s very easy indeed to get stuck working on character or theme, then to believe that everything you know about the character and theme is in the script when in fact it's still in your head and not actually on the page. For example, I once read a script that had a character who was supposed to be a loner. But there were no scenes showing that character on its own, actually being a loner. Character can only be demonstrated via action. Your story must reveal everything that you want to say about character and theme via very specific action. In other words, if your message 'slow and steady wins the race' you need to create a storyline like the hare and the tortoise fable, not a story about a tortoise who has some unconnected adventure. That sounds easy. It isn't. We all love writing and we can easily get dragged off the point.
So, don’t think about a character in isolation. Think about what it might do, how it might react. Think about how the character's specific characteristics can be demonstrated in action, how the action can put the characters in jeopardy. For example, if your intention is to write about a miser, create a plot in which the miser has to spend money. That way, your central character concern is at the heart of the central plot. Don’t plan to write a film about a miser in which miserliness appears only in a couple of scenes and the rest of the film is about something completely different.
I notice that you mention that you started writing your film from theme and character. You don’t mention story. This is something that nobody has raised and it might be affecting you. Often, the initial idea for a film is a theme or a character, not a story. In other words, you might think: 'I want to write a film about bullying’ but you don’t have a story or characters yet. Or, your idea might be ‘I want to write about a dysfunctional family in which the son is a bully'.There, you have the characters and theme but not a plotline. In that situation it is very easy just to write characters behaving characteristically. The bully acts as a bully in one way, then he acts as a bully in another way, then he acts as bully in a third way, and so on. If you’re a good writer, it’s easy to keep writing for quite a long while, but then you will stop because what you have written is repetitive. You are right to stop – or your audience will say: ‘Okay, okay, I get it that this guy is a bully– and? What now?’
To create a film rather than a character study, you need a story. You need to put the family and a bully in a situation that will permit them not only to interact, but to be different at the end (not necessarily happy - they could end up killing each other, the point is there must be a story).
Can you check whether you yet have a story that properly illustrates your theme? And whether you have characters in action rather than characters repeating their own characteristics in different ways. This sounds insulting but it happens very easily. Watch Mr Saturday Night – in that you have a self-destructive bullying comedian being a self-destructive bullying comedian in a million different ways. No story. Billy Crystal gives a wonderful performance but the film is boring because so much of it is just the character doing the same routine.
The easiest way to understand this problem is to realise that films always have firstly what I call an action line (and others call 'the main plot, for example, inThelma and Louise, the action line is the drive across country, with all its events). Secondly, they will always have what I call ‘a relationship line’ (what others call a subplot, which is to do with characters and character interaction, and is often the love story). In Thelma and Louise, the relationship line is about how events force two respectable women to become bandits and to kill themselves. There is a plot for each of these storylines, and if you split them up you’ll be able to pinpoint problems and handle them much more easily. The point here, so well illustrated in Thelma and Louise, is that in a film the action line forces the relationship line to happen. Use that as a motto.
As I said, you need to plan. So, you now need to go back and work out, step by step what your story is, and whether it transmits the theme by forcing the relationship line to happen, then, when you have that structure, you can write in the scenes. Internal scene construction is hard enough to do without having to plan the movie as you go. You ask for help. In my book The 21st Century Screenplay I have created a step by step question and answer system planning system called Script Development Strategies that help you create a linear one hero three act structure (later in the book I also explain how to structure nonlinear and multiple storyline/protagonist scripts too , but that gets more complicated). A lot of film schools and pros use the Script Development strategies. Good luck! You will get there.
I'm trying to insert a little video clip that Chris Jones of the London Screenwriters' Festival created of me talking at the Festival, but I'm having trouble. Hmm. Don't you love technology. Watch this space. If you really want to see the video, just check it out here. Meanwhile, to the left is a pic of me chatting to writers after one of my sessions at LSF. Back soon.
Linda is a screenwriter, novelist and playwright. As well as teaching and mentoring writers around the world, she regularly consults on screenplays at the highest level in the US, UK and Australia.