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The Blank Page
The hardest thing about writing is knowing what to write.
A short time ago, I was having dinner with a group of friends, and as is so often the case, the subject turned to movies. We talked about films we had seen, films we liked, films we didn’t like, and what we liked or disliked about them, which covered a broad spectrum ranging from the acting performances to the editing and photography to the music, special effects, and so on. We talked about some of the great moments in films, lines of dialogue that still reside in our awareness, and while the conversation was intriguing and stimulating, what I really found so interesting was that nobody made any mention of the screenplay. It was as if the script didn’t exist. When I mentioned that fact, the only response I got was, “Oh yeah, it was a great script,” and that’s about as far as it went.
I immediately noticed a short pause in the conversation, and then one of the other guests, an actress and television talk show host, mentioned she had written a book and several of her friends wanted her to turn it into a screenplay. She confessed she felt she needed a “partner” to help her take her novel, her own story, and write it as a screenplay.
When I asked why, she explained she was frightened of “confronting” the blank sheet of paper. But she had already written the novel, I replied, so how could she be frightened about turning it into a screenplay? Was it the form that challenged her? Or the visual description of images, the sparseness of dialogue, or the structure that frightened her? We discussed it for a while and as she was trying to explain her feelings, I realized many people have that same fear. Even though she was a published author, she was afraid of dealing with the blank page. She didn’t know exactly what to do or how to go about doing it.
This is not such an unusual scenario. Many people have great ideas for a screenplay but when they actually sit down to write it they are seized by fear and insecurity because they don’t know how to go about actually doing it.
Screenwriting is such a specific craft that unless you know where you’re going, it’s very easy to get lost within the maze of the blank page. The hardest thing about writing is knowing what to write. If you don’t know what your story is about, who does? Throughout my many years of teaching screenwriting, both here and abroad, people approach me all the time and tell me they want to write a screenplay. They say they have a great idea, or a brilliant opening scene, or a fantastic ending, but when I ask them what their story is about, their eyes glaze over, they stare off into the distance and tell me it’ll all come out in the story. Just like Miles when he tries to describe what his novel is about to Maya in Sideways. Great.
When you sit down and tell yourself that you’re going to write a screenplay, where do you begin? With the dream of a heroic action like the Max Fischer character (Jason Schwartzman) in Rushmore (Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson)? With still photographs that show us the era in which your story takes place, like the Great Depression in Seabiscuit (Gary Ross)? In a darkened bedroom, with a clock ticking loudly and two people moaning in sexual passion, like Shampoo (Robert Towne and Warren Beatty)?
If you tell yourself you want to write a screenplay and then vow to commit weeks, months, or even years writing it, how do you confront the blank page? Where does the writer begin? It’s a question I hear at workshops and seminars all the time.
Does the writer begin with a person, location, title, situation, or theme? Should he/she write a treatment, outline it, or write the book first and then the screenplay? Questions, questions, questions. All those questions really reflect the question: How do you take an unformed idea, a vague notion, or a gut feeling and transfer that into the roughly 120 pages of words and pictures that make up a screenplay?
Writing a screenplay is a process—an organic, ever-changing, evolving stage of growth and development. Screenwriting is a craft that occasionally rises to the level of art. Like all literary arts, whether fiction or nonfiction, plays or short stories, there are definite stages a writer works through while fleshing out an idea. The creative process is the same no matter what you’re writing.
When you sit down to write a screenplay and confront the blank page, you have to know what story you’re writing. You only have one hundred twenty pages to tell your story, and when you begin writing it’s apparent very quickly that you don’t have much room to work with. A screenplay is more like a poem than a novel or play in which you can feel your way through the story.
James Joyce, the great Irish writer, once wrote that the writing experience is like climbing a mountain. When you’re scaling a mountain, all you can see is the rock directly in front of you and the rock directly behind you. You can’t see where you’re going or where you’ve come from. The same principle holds true when you’re writing a screenplay; when you’re writing all you can see is what’s in front of you, that is, the page you’re writing and the pages you’ve written. You can’t see anything beyond that.
What do you want to write about? You know you have a great idea that will make an awesome movie, so where do you begin? Are you writing a challenging character study? Are you writing about a personal experience that impacted your life? Maybe you read a great magazine or newspaper article that you know will make a great movie.
One of my students in a recent screenwriting workshop was a published novelist and former editor of a major book publisher. She had never written a screenplay before and shared with me that she was somewhat nervous and insecure about writing the script.
When I asked why, she replied that she didn’t know if her story was visual enough. She wanted to write a script about an active middle-aged woman who suffers a life-changing traumatic injury, and had doubts about the main character’s confinement to a hospital bed during most of the second act. This raised another concern: would the main character be too passive? Could the interest in the character’s plight be sustained with this limited sense of visual action? These were all valid, major considerations, requiring significant creative decisions.
During her preparation period we had several discussions, talked about the possibilities of opening it up, using the visual components found in the hospital: tests like EEGs, CAT scans, PET scans, and X-rays, and having the action broken up by the arrival of emergency cases and the various activities of the nurses on the floor. I wondered what would happen in the character’s life while she was in the hospital. I suggested that she could show bits and pieces of the woman’s former life, possibly through dreams and memories, and weave those flashbacks throughout. Because the main character was so static during the Second Act, she could add several more visuals to the story line about what the woman was thinking and feeling.
Feeling more secure, my student began preparing her material. She did her research, structured the First Act on cards, wrote up the back story, designed the opening sequences. As a novelist, she had always researched her idea thoroughly and gradually, and it would be through the actual writing experience that she would find her story and characters. She told me she did not want to know “too much” because, in her experience, she wanted to let the story guide her to where it wants to go. I replied that you can do this when you’re writing a novel or play, but not when you’re writing a screenplay. A screenplay is a specific form; approximately one hundred twenty pages in length and knowing the end is always the first step in writing. You can “feel” your way through a four hundred-fifty-page novel, or a one hundred-page play, but not a screenplay.
A screenplay follows a definite, lean, tight, narrative line of action, with a definite beginning, middle, and end, though not necessarily in that order. A screenplay always moves forward toward the resolution, even if it is told in flashback like The Bourne Supremacy (Tony Gilroy), or American Beauty (Alan Ball.) A screenplay follows a singular line of action so every scene, every fragment of visual information, must be taking you somewhere, moving the narrative forward in terms of story development.
This was somewhat difficult for my student to understand because it was unlike her previous writing experience. But after she had done her preparation, when she knew her structure and had done some background character work, she was ready to start writing. She began writing the first act, the emphasis on the professional life of her main character, an active and dynamic woman responding to the challenges of the workplace with energy and integrity. As a professional woman, it was clear her character was active, likable, and well drawn.
But when the main character entered the hospital after the traumatic injury at the end of Act I, the tone of the story changed. The character was now confined to a hospital bed, weaving in and out of consciousness for several pages. Feeling the story becoming boring, my student became insecure and started looking for new cinematic areas to explore rather than focusing on the main character. One day she called to tell me she was writing new scenes with doctors and nurses, then told me she had a sudden inspiration to bring in the main character’s daughter, an executive who always seemed to have trouble dealing with authoritarian male figures like doctors. I told her to go ahead and try it; after all, if it works, it works, and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. All she would really lose was about three days of writing.
So she began writing this new character, the daughter, in Act II, and then another problem began to surface: the daughter was emerging as the dominant character. The mother, the main character, now seemed to be lost somewhere in a hospital room. By making the daughter the active force, or voice, in the story, my student had shifted the focus of the story line. The story was now about a daughter taking charge of the health and well-being of her mother.
That raised another issue. The story now hinged on the idea of “a durable power of attorney for a health issue,” an interesting premise in medical therapy. The daughter was asked to choose the medical treatment for her incapacitated mother. The doctors told her there were two choices: electric shock treatments to jolt her mother out of her acute depression, or a regime of antidepressant drug therapy. And the doctors explained that both treatments could give rise to disastrous side effects. What should the daughter do? She was ambivalent about male authority figures, yet was now in a position where she had to make a life-altering decision about her mother. Seeking counsel and confronting her own feelings, the daughter decided to do nothing; she wanted to wait and see and possibly allow her mother to come out of it on her own. There were no shock treatments, no drugs, nothing; just patience, time, and understanding. At the end, the mother, through her own will, and the daughter’s help, gradually steps back on the path to health and recovery.
That’s the way my student completed the first words-on-paper draft. When I read this first draft, I saw immediately there were two separate stories. One story was the saga of the mother who recovers from her injury to take back control of her own life. The second story dealt with the woman’s daughter who was forced, almost against her will, to take charge of the situation. And it’s during this challenge that she overcomes her own deep-seated fear of male authority and resolves the formerly strained emotional relationship with her mother.
My student started out writing one story and ended up writing another. This happens quite often but the question remained: Was it the story of the mother or the daughter? Or both? Whose story do you tell?
My student didn’t know. One of the things I’ve learned through the years is that when I’m uncertain about what course of action to take, I step back for a while. When in doubt, do nothing is my rule. So I suggested that she put the screenplay aside somewhere for a couple of weeks until she had a new perspective on the material. It’s important to note that the issue here was not about the quality of writing, or dialogue, or character depth, or whether it worked or not; the issue was what story the writer wanted to tell. By moving into the daughter’s domain, she changed her dramatic intention and changed the subject. I explained that it’s not a question of good or bad, or right or wrong, but whether it was the story she wanted to tell.
She waited a short time, and then, in some doubt and uncertainty, she gave this first words-on-paper draft to a close friend of hers, a literary agent in Hollywood. Her friend saw that the script needed work, but liked the premise well enough to give it to one of her associates at the office. He read it and felt the script was “slow, dull, and boring.” It should have more action: “It’s the mother’s story,” he said. “Let’s see her getting an electric shock treatment; maybe change the opening and have it start at the accident because that would make it more active.”
My student came to me, angry and confused. She didn’t know what to do. She kept talking about needing a more active, cinematic opening and I kept telling her that wasn’t the problem; she had to know, creatively, which story she was writing. When she first sat down to face the blank page she wanted to tell the mother’s story. She ended up telling the story of the daughter overcoming the constraints of her relationship with her mother focusing on the issue of “the durable power of attorney.”
She kept asking me what to do, and I kept telling her she had to make a creative decision about which story she was writing. I suggested that before she began to rewrite anything, she rethink her idea from the beginning in order to find the focus and direction of her story. Who and what was her story about?
It’s important to know that there is no “right” or “wrong” in this situation, no judgments about good or bad. The only issue is whether it works or not. So, I met her one day at a nearby Coffee Bean and while we sipped our white chocolate dream lattes, I suggested that she fashion her story into the relationship between the mother and the daughter and set it against the dramatic backdrop of her mother’s injury, showing how this brings them together with a stronger bond of love and understanding.
She shook her head and told me this was not the story she’d planned to write. The story was about the mother. That’s fine, I said. But if she set out to write the story she wanted to write, she had to focus on that story and integrate it into the relationship with her daughter. Ultimately, she left the Coffee Bean the same way she came in; lost, confused, and uncertain. She picked away at the script for several months, didn’t feel she was making any progress with it, and finally shelved the project.
It happens all the time; to you, to me, to anyone.
What’s the point of the story? Creative problems are part of the landscape of screenwriting. Either it’s an opportunity to expand the limits of your craft or a way to give in to the fact that “it’s just not working.” My student couldn’t let go of her original concept and while she had a very good story, valid and meaningful, she really didn’t know which story she wanted to tell. Her mind told her one thing, her creative Self told her another.
What could she have done to solve the problem? Look at The Sea Inside (Alejandro Amenábar), a story that covers some of the same fertile, emotional, and thought-provoking ground. While the main character, Ramón (Javier Bardem) is confined to a hospital bed and room for some 30 years, fighting for his right to die, Amenábar opens up the smothering hospital room with soaring fantasies of Ramón walking and running, dreaming of love, so the story becomes a visual and eloquent testament of our imagination and how it can touch, move, and inspire others. It is possible that my student could have visually opened up her story in order to achieve her artistic intention, but didn’t.
Most people would say Million Dollar Baby (Paul Haggis), which won the Academy Award for Best Picture, is a story about a woman determined to become a professional boxer who realizes her dream, only to become critically injured during a title fight. Other people would say this is a story framed by the female boxer but is really the story about an individual’s right to die and the moral and legal issues of euthanasia.
In the case of Million Dollar Baby, both are true. But in my mind, the “true” story, the real subject of the screenplay, is the relationship between Frankie (Clint Eastwood) and Maggie (Hilary Swank). All the elements that make up this relationship–Maggie’s determination, Frankie training Maggie, Frankie and Scrap (Morgan Freeman) bickering–lead to the ultimate moral premise of the screenplay: Can Frankie, a tough, yet religious man, deliberately help another human being to die? Would that be labeled a criminal offense, or euthanasia? Is there a moral issue here? There are some who would call Frankie’s act of injecting Maggie a murder and others an act of mercy. Call it what you will, it still is a story about the relationship between Frankie and Maggie.
Every screenplay is about something or someone and this subject becomes encased in the story you are telling. Can you define what you’re writing about? Who are you writing about? There are approximately one hundred twenty sheets of blank paper to fill in a screenplay. As we all know, the blank page is intimidating, a tremendous and formidable challenge. When you first set out on this writing adventure, you’ll probably only have a vague idea or an unformed notion about a character or incident running around in your head. You’ll discover when you begin to formulate the idea into a workable description it may take several pages of free-association and terrible writing just to reduce your story into a general line of character and action. It may take several days of thinking and scribbling before you can even isolate the main components of your story. Don’t worry about how long it takes. Just do it.
Before you can put one word on paper, you have to know what and who your story is about. What is the subject of your screenplay? For example: Your story may be about an attorney who meets and falls in love with a married woman, then kills her husband so they can be together. But he’s been set up and ends up in prison, while the woman ends up with a fortune in a tropical paradise. That’s the subject of Larry Kasdan’s Body Heat. It could also be the subject of Double Indemnity, Billy Wilder’s classic film noir. A Beautiful Mind (Akiva Goldsman) is the story of a physicist who loses touch with reality, overcomes his illness, and receives a Nobel prize for his scientific achievement. Action and character. The screenplay succeeds because there is a definite line of action.
The subject becomes a guideline for you to follow as you structure the action and the characters into a cohesive, dramatic story line. As a rule, you’ll find that either the character drives the action or the action drives the character.
What’s it about? is the most challenging question you’ll ever be asked. In my experience, most aspiring writers seem to love the idea of writing a screenplay, but after talking with them I can tell they’re unwilling to commit the time and effort to face the challenges they’ll confront. Writing is hard work; make no mistake about it.
When I first began writing, I would confront the blank page with fear and insecurity. And when my mind clicked in and I knew that I had to fill up some one hundred twenty sheets of blank paper for a screenplay, I totally freaked. I couldn’t deal with it. Only by dealing with, and confronting my fear, did I learn that for me, writing is a day-by-day job, five or six days a week, three or more hours a day, three or more pages a day. And some days are better than others. If I lose sight of writing the scene that is right in front of me and instead start thinking of what I should do later, it’s a total washout.
The blank page. It’s intimidating.
If you know your subject then you can create a step-by-step approach that will guide you through the process of writing a screenplay. If we take a look at what a screenplay is, its essential nature, then we can define it as a story told with pictures in dialogue and description and placed within the context of dramatic structure.
So, where does the writer begin? The answer is anywhere you want to. There are many ways to approach writing a screenplay. Sometimes you begin with character—a strong, three-dimensional character in an extraordinary situation that moves your story forward with skill and clarity. Character is a good, solid starting point.
You can also start with an idea; but an idea is only an idea unless it’s executed properly. You’ve got to take that idea and expand it, clothe it, make it say what you want it to say. “I want to write a story about a man who has a near-death experience” is not enough. You’ve got to dramatize it. Legally, the law says: “You can’t copyright an idea, only the expression of the idea.” The “expression” means the specific characters, locations, structure, and action that make up the narrative throughline of the story.
Sometimes you may want to write a screenplay that deals with an incident, episode, or experience that happened to you or to someone you know. You can use this particular experience as the starting point in your story, but as you go through the preparation process, you’ll find that you want to hold on to the “reality” of the experience; you want to be “true” to the situation or incident. Most people find it hard to let go of the experience. But often, you’ve got to let the “reality” go in order to dramatize it more effectively. I liken it to climbing a staircase: The first step is the actual experience, the second step is increasing the dramatic potential of the story, and the third step is integrating both of the previous steps to create a “dramatic reality.” If you remain too true to “who did what” in the “real” order of the experience, it usually ends up as a thin story line with little or no dramatic impact. Do not feel “obligated” to remain “true” to reality. It doesn’t work. The “reality” of the event may, and often does, get in the way of the dramatic needs of your story.
I tell my students over and over again to “let go” of the original source material and simply write what is needed for their story. I call it creating a dramatic reality and liken it to climbing the bottom three rungs of a staircase. The first rung is the reality, the way something really happened. But to turn it into effective drama, you might have to add some incidents or events that did not happen; I call it creating an “unreality.” That brings you to the third rung, which I call the dramatic reality. This is where you take the first rung, the reality, add the unreality incidents or elements, and make it a dramatic reality.
It’s like writing a historical screenplay. You always have to be true to the historical incidents of the time and place. Those are historical facts which you cannot change. The actual history of the event has to be maintained but you don’t have to be true to the emotional, day-to-day events, leading up to the historical incident. Just look at All the President’s Men (William Goldman), Ray (James L. White), Erin Brockovich (Susannah Grant), and JFK (Oliver Stone and Zachary Sklar). History is only the starting point, not the end point.
A student of mine was writing a screenplay based on a true story, and taken from the diary of a Hawaiian woman in the early 1800s whose husband contracted leprosy. When his disease was found out, the couple became outcasts, hunted down by a posse determined to eradicate them.
When my student started writing, she used exact scenes and dialogue from the diary, faithfully recording some of the authentic customs and traditions of the islanders. But it didn’t work. It was dull and had no structure, therefore it was lacking in story line and direction.
She became frustrated. She didn’t know what to do and what direction to take in the story. So, I suggested she make up some scenes that never happened but that would help the story flow. I call it creative research. She went back to the drawing board, and a week or so later she came back with several ideas for scenes. We selected a few, wove them into the story line in this second-page unit of action, and she went back to writing. Her new scenes may never have happened, but they did capture the integrity of the source material and the story blossomed.
The hardest thing about writing is knowing what to write.
If need be, let go of the reality of the person, incident, or event and fashion a creative reality based on the actual historical happening. Find the unreality, the theatricality of the event. This is a movie, remember. You must communicate the people, the story, and the events dramatically. Make up your scenes based on the needs of the story while honoring the integrity of the experience.
There have been times when I’ve started with a location and used it to weave a story line. But even if you start with a particular place, it’s still not enough. You’ve got to create a character and action to build your story around.
Many people tell me they want to start with a title. That’s cool, but what then? You need to create a plot, but a plot about what? Plot is what happens, and since you’re sitting down in front of a blank sheet of paper, it should be the furthest thing from your mind. At this point, you don’t know anything about the plot; forget plot. We’ll deal with it when the time comes. First things first. What are you going to research? You’ve got to have a subject.
In my screenwriting workshops I always ask people, “What’s your story about?” Invariably, I hear answers like, “I’m writing a love story about two cousins.” Or “I’m writing about an Irish family in Boston at the turn of the century.” Or “I’m writing about a group of parents who build their own school when their neighborhood school is closed.”
When I hear ideas or vague notions like this, I ask the writer to dig deeper and find a personal expression of the story he or she wants to write. And it’s not easy. Most of the time I have to badger him or her to be more specific, but after a while he or she begins to focus on who the story is about and what the story is about. That’s the starting point: the subject, where the writer begins.
Thelma & Louise emerged as Callie Khouri was driving on the freeway and the idea suddenly popped into her mind: Two women go on a crime spree. That was the original impulse of the script. So Callie sat down and had to ask and answer some essential questions: Who are the two women? What crime did they commit? What made them commit the crime? What happens to them at the end? The answers to these questions led her to the subject, which resulted in the story line for Thelma & Louise. It’s an extraordinary movie and I use it as a teaching film all over the world. And it all came out of the idea “two women go on a crime spree.”
Your subject can be as simple as two old friends taking a wine-tasting trip through Santa Barbara wine fields the week before one of them gets married. That’s the subject of Sideways. Once we know the subject, we have enough material to start asking some questions: Who are these two old friends? How long have they known each other? What do they do for a living? What happens to them on their trip that expands or affects their lives? What happens to them at the end of the story? Are they changed, either emotionally, physically, mentally, or spiritually by their journey? What are the emotional or psychological forces working on them when the story begins? Why do they go on a wine-tasting trip in the first place? In this case, their journey gives them the opportunity to explore their lives, their friendship, their dreams, and possibly their loneliness too.
This is the power of the subject. It allows you to create a starting point to begin the creative process of clearly identifying and defining your story line. If you can’t articulate your subject, who can?
Writing a screenplay is a step-by-step process, and it’s important to prepare one step at a time. First, you generate the idea, then break down the idea into the subject, a character and action. Once you have the subject, you know enough to structure it by determining the ending, the beginning, and Plot Points I and II. Once that’s done, you can build and expand your characters by writing character biographies, along with any other research you may need to do. Then you can structure the scenes and sequences, the content, of Act I on fourteen 3 3 5 cards. Next write up the back story, what happens a day, a week, or an hour before the story begins. Only after you’ve completed this preparation work can you begin writing the screenplay.
When you’ve completed this first words-on-paper draft, you’ll do basic revisions to this second stage of this first draft, and any rewriting that’s necessary to polish and hone your material until it’s ready to be shown. Screenwriting is a process, a living thing that changes from day to day. As a result, what you write today may be out of date tomorrow. And what you write tomorrow may be out of date the next day or the day after that. You have to be clear every step of the way and know where you’re going and what you’re doing.
When you’re writing an action movie or war film, you have to be very clear about your subject because there are so many different perspectives to explore. Saving Private Ryan (Robert Rodat), Schindler’s List (Steven Zaillian), Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick), and Apocalypse Now (John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola) express interesting points of view on the cost of war. So does Three Kings, David O. Russell’s extraordinary film about the Gulf War, a script that explores the nature of war by focusing more on the humanitarian aspect of what happens to both victors and losers alike. It’s a story about the price of war and the physical loss of life and limb, as well as the emotional cost of shattered psyches, and the cultural uprooting of an entire way of life.
The action takes place the day after the war ends. Three soldiers (played by Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, and Spike Jonze) find a map on a captured Iraqi soldier. Their superior officer (George Clooney) joins them and they discover the map leads to a bunker filled with millions of dollars of Kuwaiti gold. And so, with the war over, the story line begins as the men embark on a treasure-finding mission. But what they find are Iraqi people in desperate need of assistance. This is the starting point of a film that explores the physical and emotional landscape of the effect of war upon the human spirit as well as the human body.
‘Breaker’ Morant (Jonathan Hardy, Bruce Beresford), an Australian film made in 1980, based on the play by Kenneth Ross, is the story of an Australian military lieutenant in the Boer War (1899—1902) who is court-martialed and executed for fighting the enemy in an “unorthodox and uncivilized” fashion, meaning using guerrilla tactics, or as it’s now called, insurgent warfare. The subject questions what a soldier can and can’t do in a combat situation. At that time, there was a certain “convention” of war, and it was determined by a military tribunal that ‘Breaker’ Morant’s actions had broken the so-called code of organized warfare, which is a joke to begin with. The lieutenant is tried, convicted, and executed for political reasons, a pawn on the chessboard of international politics. His fighting tactics, issued under direct orders (later denied by his superiors, of course), had nothing to do with what he did or how he did it. The English army had to make clear to the world that they did not permit this sort of unorthodox or “uncivilized” fighting and this had to be dramatized on the world stage. They needed a political scapegoat, and ‘Breaker’ Morant was chosen to be the fall guy. Just look at the prison scandals in the Iraqi War; it’s basically the same story told in a different time and a different place.