Creative Screenwriting’s Virtual Panel
Our experts offer advice, discuss screenwriting rules and guides, and offer their thoughts on the future of the industry.
Chaired by John Davis.
Creative Screenwriting has a wealth of experts and industry professionals writing for us, from screenwriters to screenwriting teachers, from critics to producers, from consultants to directors. We’ve gathered them together for the first of what we hope will prove to be a series of virtual panels, to put to them questions regarding screenwriting and the film industry.
So, in alphabetical order around our virtual round table today we have:
Creative Screenwriting’s own West Coast Editor Andrew Bloomenthal; science writer and editor Jim Fisher; producer, director, writer and consultant Heather Hale; writer and film journalist Brianne Hogan; screenwriter and lecturer Art Holcomb; script consultant and author Mike Schock; and author and film critic Tom Stempel.
Responses have been edited for clarity and flow.
Thank you all for coming. Let’s start by talking advice. If you could give one piece of advice to aspiring screenwriters, what would it be?
Heather Hale. Trust your voice. Write to the truth. Format can and should be learned. Craft can be taught. What is unique about you is your point of view, your frame of reference from the full weight of your experiences and how they shaped your spirit – that is the gift you have to share to help us all make sense of our world through your creative expression.
Art Holcomb. Do not bore us.
Mike Schock. Understand human behavior. Understand the way the world functions. Understand your life and the lives of others. Have experiences. Since human beings first learned to communicate, storytelling has been the method used to make sense of the world, themselves, and life in general. Every human endeavor, from science to religion to art to world conquest, is motivated by the basic principles of human nature. Stories illustrate what happens when these human natures come into conflict with the problems of the outside world; the good and the bad, the successes and the failures. In doing so, stories provide a sense of order and meaning to the crazy mishmash of human existence. You won’t be able create truly powerful cinematic stories until you have gained some intuitive grasp of human behavior and the experience of being alive. Until this happens, you will only be able to imitate existing stories, but with far lesser impact since you will not understand what made those stories so powerful in the first place.
The tragedy of film schools is that they are filled with bright, creative, and ambitious minds who are still too young to know enough about the complexities and mysterious ironies of life to create anything of real meaning. So they just imitate other films. They try to fake emotion. They try to fake meaning. But it only rings hollow.
The greatest of young artists are those who grew up fast and had more life experiences at 20 than a lot of people have had by 40. They already knew the kind of stuff you wished you knew when you were young. Wisdom that can’t be explained, but must be experienced. This is this kind of intangible stuff that makes the greatest of cinematic stories. If you can’t do acquire this knowledge through experience, get it through thought and observation.
And while we’re on the subject, what is the best advice you have ever received?
Andrew Bloomenthal. The best advice I ever saw was a comment I read, written by the late great film critic, Roger Ebert. He was talking about how to get started when taking on a new project. He wrote: “Give up waiting for inspiration and just start writing. The Muse visits during composition, not before.” This idea really resonated with me. Quite often, you hear people bragging about the great idea they have in their heads, and the screenplay they plan to write. But the majority of people never seem to put pen to paper, and actually flesh out those ideas. And while I believe you do need to have some seedling of an idea to begin with, that idea only truly blossoms when you open up your laptop and get to typing.
Heather Hale. Jeff Arch [Sleepless in Seattle] said “Give it a satisfying ending. That doesn’t necessarily mean a happy ending. What would a satisfying ending for both the protagonist and the audience be? Go write that.”
Brianne Hogan. The best advice I’ve ever received is: write. Write everyday. Write even when you don’t feel like it. Write especially when you don’t feel like it. There’s truth to that “10,000 hours” adage. You will only get better at something when you do it over and over again, consistently.
Tom Stempel. Yes, you should write, if not every day, then nearly every day. You have to keep in shape. But sometimes you need to take a break from actual writing. It can, however, be tricky trying to explain to your loved ones that when you are stretched out on a couch you are writing, at least in your head.
There is certainly no shortage of books offering instruction on how to write. But is Saving the Cat Stifling Creativity? By which, I hasten to add, I mean screenwriting manuals and frameworks in general, not just Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.
Heather Hale. Only for those who can’t comprehend its intention. Blake Snyder was a brilliant, kind man. Like Syd Field and Chris Vogler, their literary contributions to the canon of screenwriting books – and their teachings – were not so much to usurp all else but to enhance and enrich our understanding of the lexicon. These are but tools, lenses to help you bring order to your creativity or better express it through the collaborative process. You can use any method or matrix to stifle or free your creativity. If it works for you – or this project – or at this stage in your writing career – then great. All the more power to you. If not, move on. Sometimes there are priceless lessons to be learned simply in figuring out why one template or strategy doesn’t serve your goals – and that clarification can drive your unique approach.
Tom Stempel. Generally writers should take what they find useful from books like that and ignore what they don’t find useful. Most importantly, you should never assume that one book is the gospel. That will limit you in your creativity. I once had a student enamored of Syd Field’s work. He ended up with a screenplay that had a long section of treading water. I kept after him to cut it, and finally got him to admit that he threw all that stuff in there because Field said the next plot point should be on a certain page and he was not there yet. Keep in mind screenwriting is an organic and not a mechanical process.
Art Holcomb. True. Formats like that found in Save The Cat can be an excellent way to learn about the craft. But following the same format each time will get you the same results When enough screenwriters follow the same story design, then we get the responses that I hear time and time again from the professional script readers – that they are getting the same formula-based types of scripts at every turn.
And I believe, regardless of what others may say, that no classic screenplay was ever written from a formula. The mistake that many story analysts and professional writers on the subject make is in believing that the way one explains a story has anything to do with the way one created that story.
Mike Schock. The problem with screencraft is that a lot of aspiring writers treat it like religion. This prophet says this. This prophet said that. This prophet sold a lot of books, so he or she must be correct. But they are not prophets. These men and women simply offer rough (and sometimes incomplete or inaccurate) theories on a field of study which is still in its relative infancy. And like religion, a lot of screencraft has led people to think in inflexible absolutes. “Most” is taken to mean “all.” “Often” is taken to mean “always.” People then put faith in supposedly universal rules which are not universal, but only context-specific. What then happens is the many possibilities for storytelling get narrowed down to this one small vein. It doesn’t matter what former blockbusters may have happened to reside in that vein. Many did not. It is not appropriate for all stories and with repetition will wear out any power it once had.
Whilst on the subject of screenwriting rules and frameworks…If so many of the great writers and directors seem to break every screenwriting rule, and have often done so from the very start of their career, then why should new writers stick to them?
Tom Stempel. But they don’t often do it from the very start of their careers, and if they do, it’s usually because they are not knowledgeable enough to know what the rules are. If you know the rules, then you can know how to break them. Here’s a classic example: A very good rule is to never start a screenplay with a long monologue. Coppola and Puzo start The Godfather with Bonaserra’s speech to Don Corleone. But look at everything that speech does: it tells a great story (about his daughter and his experience with the institutions of law), establishes the world of the film, it lays out the themes of all the Godfather films, and most importantly, and it establishes the character of Don Corleone. I have written elsewhere my belief that after that speech, Coppola could cut to Daffy Duck in the chair and we would believe him as Don Corleone.
Mike Schock. In fact, I think that it is a misconception that any “rule-breaking” occurs at all. I’ve been analyzing Hollywood and American Independent feature films for years, and I have always found that those dubbed the most “fresh” or “innovative” are always those that are also the most fundamentally sound. What made Kobe Bryant such an incredible basketball player? Great fundamentals. What made Steve Jobs such an innovative entrepreneur? A great grasp of the fundamentals. How did the Beatles experiment with so many musical styles with constant success? Beneath it all, every song has strong musical fundamentals. I have found that the more critically-praised the film, the more it conforms to the basic fundamentals of great storytelling. What people think of as rule-breaking is really just doing things with more style and panache. Once the fundamentals are nailed down tight, we can play around with everything else without the fear of anything rolling off the table.
Let me use the most oft-cited example of a film which supposedly breaks all the rules, Pulp Fiction. There is really nothing new or innovative about its structural form. In terms of Hollywood, maybe. But in storytelling, no. Pulp Fiction uses an omnibus narrative, a form which has existed in literature for centuries. In short, an omnibus is a collection of short stories connected by theme and possibly other narrative elements. Once we get past this, we find that every short story within Pulp Fiction follows the same basic structural principles of plot, theme, and character as any other stand-alone film.
Art Holcomb. I love the quote ascribed to Picasso: “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” But we should make a distinction here between rules and fundamentals. All successful screenwriters have come to understand the fundamentals of the Art of Storytelling: the elements of conflict, the obligatory parts of every story and the essential roles of both character depth and plot cycles. But rules, such as “Always do X” or “Never do Y” or “Every successful Hollywood movie contains A, B and C,” highlights one of the great misunderstanding in the teaching of our art form…
Just as grade school is different than college, the training-wheel aspects of strict three act structure and formulaic models are meant to get the beginning writer up and going. And these fundaments cannot be ignored as they form the foundation of our craft. But once you understand them, the playing field must be seen as being wide open for experimentation and stylistic interpretation. The writer must go deeper each time and push the envelope in every script. Any writer who consistently apples a popular formula to their work and is not exploring new approaches, methods, techniques and sensibilities in their writing is like a cook that only uses one recipe out of a cook book. Use everything. Try everything. Keep what works best for you.
Writing your screenplay is one thing, but getting it made is a very different challenge. So, moving on from writing, let’s talk competitions and query letters. The script is written, polished and finished. What next?
Tom Stempel. Anything you can think of. Not having the salesman’s drive can kill your chances quicker than anything. One of my most successful students said that he owed much of his success as a screenwriter to his having sold encyclopedias door-to-door for a year. And by the way, the script is never finished; there will be more rewrites along the way. Learn to enjoy the rewriting process.
Art Holcomb. The first thing to do is to take a moment to celebrate your accomplishment; there is nothing – nothing – more important to your career than finishing your current project to the best of your ability. Then, do whatever you can with the opportunities available to get your work out there. Apply to quality competitions, target and query the best suited production houses and producers/directors. Always seek the best market for the work itself. The more eyes on your script, the better – you’ll never know just which reading of your work will lead to a sale.
Jim Fisher. This is pure sales, a profession based on numbers and an amazing amount of science. Having been a salesperson during my career, and having successfully freelanced for some years, from experience I know you must understand the numbers of sales: it takes about 100 leads to generate one sale. That means you don’t send out one letter or make one phone call to find a buyer for whatever it is you’re selling, whether it’s industrial air conditioning or a screenplay. It is, plain and simple, hard work.
Heather Hale. I disagree here. If you’re randomly oozie’ing queries against every shingle all over town, you’ll likely just be ignored and wear out your welcome. You want to be very targeted. I teach this in PowerNetworking: Ask yourself “Why Them? Why You? Why Now? Why are they – i.e. in terms of credits or sensibilities – the perfect firm/attachment for this project? Why are you the person who has earned the right to write it? (What is your backstory, experience, unique insights?) Why is now the right time?” Be selective. What you have is precious, right? So who would be ideal? Whose wheelhouse is what you’ve written in? Are those exact firms going to be at this pitch fest? Are they judges for that contest? On the boards? How can you get what you have to those who are in a position to catalyze it?
Let’s turn now to the film industry. Last generation there was Altman and Allen, this generation there is Linklater and Baumbach. Last generation there was Spielberg and Cameron, now there is Abrams and Whedon. But who are the new directors, writers and auteurs to watch out for, and will they come out of indie films, television, or new media platforms such as Netflix?
Heather Hale. Auteurs will come from everywhere – especially if they are freed to tell their stories the way they envision them. The obvious are Christopher Nolan, Charlie Kaufman, Frank Darabont and Akiva Goldsman but the next phase in Angelina Jolie’s career promises to be game-changing. Look to cinematographers like Wally Pfister and maybe Roger Deakins who bring a careerful of Academy Award-worthy visual storytelling from behind the lens to the Director’s chair.
Tom Stempel. I agree. They will come from everywhere, as they always have. These days they will start on the new media platforms, work in television, move to features, and if they are writers will move back to television, which is much more of a writers’ medium than theatrical films. One I am keeping my eye on is Kimberly Anglemyer, who was a student of mine the last couple of years I taught at LACC. She had the talent as both writer and director as well as all the other skills needed to make it.
Art Holcomb. I believe that some of the greatest work for actors and writers alike will come from television, Indies and such places as NetFlix, Hulu and sources like that. It’s just a matter of time before television and the internet become synonymous and we’ll have fantastic new efforts being created for release on platforms like YouTube. There never has been a better time for screenwriters and creators to bring their visions to life than right now.
And one final question to put you all…Each generation of critics and experts seem to lament the decline of film and cinema following whatever perceived golden age has just passed, often ‘coincidentally’ that of their own film-watching youth. Yet the next generation unfailingly finds its own classics. So is Wolf of Wall Street the next generation’s Godfather, and will Avengers Assemble be their Ben Hur, or are we really seeing a final decline, and if so, why?
Mike Schock. This question reminds me of something author Douglas Adams said about technology: “Anything invented before you are born is normal and a natural part of the world. Anything that’s invented between ages fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting. Anything invented after thirty-five is against the natural order of things.”
Heather Hale. I don’t think we are anywhere close to a decline – much less a final decline. I think there are amazing things happening in our generation of film and television and this landscape is morphing and evolving as our world grows ever smaller and increasingly hyper-connected. I honestly think storytelling is one of the highest callings. And I think we are seeing great works of art bubbling up around us everywhere.
My film-watching youth was populated with the era-defining work of Stephen Spielberg, George Lucas and the late, great John Hughes. We still have the first two actively making movies. Spielberg continues to deliver as does Ron Howard and Brian Grazier. I’ve already called out Christopher Nolan, Charlie Kaufman, Frank Darabont, Angelina Jolie, Diablo Cody and Guardians of the Galaxy. I think collectively, Anonymous Content and Participant are doing some amazing things, driving the quality of our industry’s art up. George Clooney is, of course, one to watch on all sides of the camera. Kirk Jones (Waking Ned Devine) and John August (Big Fish).
I’d also like to take this opportunity to give a shout out to many of the female directors trying to break through the celluloid ceiling: Debra Granik (Winter’s Bone), Susanna White (Jane Eyre), Mimi Leder (Pay It Forward), Nancy Meyers (Something’s Gotta Give), Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation), Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are Alright), Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine), Julie Taymor (Frida), Julie Deply (Two Days in Paris), Kasi Lemmons (Talk to Me), Catherine Hardwicke (Twilight) and Kathryn Bigelow (Hurt Locker).
We are far from a decline, especially if we can figure out a way to let a wider variety of storytelling voices get a shot at the mic.
Jim Fisher. I’m not sure I’m as confident as Heather. Katie Davis, assistant professor at the University of Washington published an extensive review of student writing in 2013 that showed young authors are “adhering more to conventional writing practices with a trend toward less play with genre, more mundane narratives and simpler language over the two decades studied.” She also noted that markers of creativity – like complexity and risk-taking and breaking away from the standard mold – appear to have changed. This would indeed seem to point to a decline, at least in terms of creativity.
Art Holcomb. Personally, it seems to me that so long as people yearn for experiences outside their own life – for the thrills, drama, conflict and every other range of emotions which film can offer, the lure of the cinema will never die. It will, however – at every moment – be in the process of morphing and changing, adapting time and time again to the newest technologies and social dynamics available of each new generation. And, thankfully, each new era offers new opportunities and possibilities for the next generation of creators.
As for the classics, just as there is music that defines each generation, there will be films which will capture the imagination and soul of each generation as well. The only thing that will be true about these films will be that they employ a structure that speaks to the eternal human psyche and have a sensibility that captures the mood, times and sentiment of the unique dynamics of the times.
And that, I am sad to say, is all we have time for. So many thanks to all our virtual panelists. Before you go, please take the time to look at the details of various books and DVDs that our panelists have for sale, or browse the articles they have written for us.
Biographies and Further Reading
Our West Coast Editor, Andrew Bloomenthal, is a seasoned financial journalist, filmmaker, entertainment writer and Amazing Race enthusiast. Originally from small-town Massachusetts, he recently made a lateral move from Brooklyn New York, to Los Angeles California, where he plans to take up surfing.
Jim Fisher has been a professional writer since 1983, including work as an advertising copywriter, copy chief and creative director, a magazine writer, columnist and editor, plus a stringer for Life magazine and others, and even a syndicated travel writer. Now semi-retired, he focusses on science-based blogs, plus writing fiction and screenplays. Jim also edits posts the science-based blog,
Heather Hale is a Film and Television Producer, Director, Writer, Consultant and Educator. She speaks around the world on the entertainment industry and achieving artrepreneurial goals. Her movie “The Courage to Love” earned $5.5M and over 50 hours of television have garnered Emmys, Tellys and ACE Awards.
Brianne Hogan is a freelance writer based in Toronto, with a degree in Film Studies from NYU. You can follow her on Twitter @briannehogan.
Art Holcomb is a writer and lecturer on writing. He has written for Marvel and DC Comics, for the Star Trek and X-Men franchises, and for many independent film companies and publishing houses. He is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Andromeda Entertainment.
Michael Welles Schock is script consultant, dramatic theorist and the author of Screenwriting Down to the Atoms: Digging Deeper into the Craft of Cinematic Storytelling, available from online retailers. His upcoming book, Screenwriting and the Unified Theory of Narrative, will be available soon.
Tom Stempel is the author of several books on film. His most recent is Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays.
Finally, do have any questions you would like to see our experts tackle? If so, please get in touch by emailing email@example.com!