Art Holcomb on The Art of Preparation
Art discusses his new book The Art of Preparation, exploring your premise, and the difference between plot line and emotional line.
Art Holcomb’s new book The Art of Preparation provides advice, techniques, and practical exercises to help writers unlock their potential.
There are many books on screenwriting, but this one is different. This book is about what to do before you start writing, the vital preparation that can make or break a script.
Art is a screenwriter, lecturer, and award-winning playwright, who has written for Marvel and DC Comics, and the Star Trek and X-Men franchises. A highly sought-after lecturer, he also runs a consultancy for screenwriters, and his articles appear regularly in Creative Screenwriting magazine, among others.
Creative Screenwriting spoke with Art about his new book, exploring your premise, and the difference between plot line and emotional line.
What inspired the new book?
A while back I was stunned by some statistics that came out of Hollywood, that said there are probably a million and a half people worldwide who are working on screenplays. And when you compare that to the 300-odd films that are made professionally every year, and probably another 200 that are made independently, that doesn’t give a lot of opportunities for individual screenwriters to see their work made.
And another statistic that came out that really stunned me was that roughly 90-95% of people who begin a screenplay never finish it, and that the average time that people spend on screenplay writing is 18 months.
Considering that I work with screenwriters who, on a regular basis, are required to come up with their finished scripts, a rewrite, and two polishes within three months, or oftentimes six weeks, that turnaround time seems extraordinary for me.
And so my desire was to offer young screenwriters the beginnings of a system for them to be able to use to process their work quickly.
A working screenwriter knows that they have to have four or five scripts ready to go, to be able to show their breadth and talent to producers and directors. So you need a body of work. And in order to create a body of work, you can’t spend 18 months per screenplay.
So you have to be able to find a way to process your work quickly, and that includes things like qualifying your premise, to make sure that you actually have an idea for a movie that not only appeals to you but has some chance of having appeal to an audience. You have to be able to eliminate all the reasons why that premise might not work, so you have a fighting chance to produce something that is a quality screenplay at the end.
So The Art of Preparation was designed to get your mind ready, and to help you perfect your premise to the point that you actually have a fighting chance to be able to create something valuable, and that will separate you from a lot of other writers.
The most tragic thing that I see, I see almost every day, often in my local Starbucks. I sit down and see a dozen people working on screenplays. I’ve actually gone and asked them, “What are you working on? What’s going on?”
And the answers are terrible. They’ve been working on the same novel for four years. They’ve been working on the same screenplay for three years. They’ve been working on the same short story for six months. So unnecessary, so tragic, because many of these people will never get the thing done. And so, The Art of Preparation was designed to help them get that process finished, and then get the whole thing written.
You say in the book that when you get to the stage where you’re actually ready to write the first draft, you’re already done about 80% of the work. What are some of the stages in that process?
A famous screenwriter, Terry Rossio (Pirates of the Caribbean, Aladdin, Shrek), points out that most stories, and even the ones that are produced, fail at the premise level, which means that the premise is simply not interesting enough to be able to tell the story.
I mean, we’ve all seen television series and movies where the idea simply wasn’t good enough to grab the audience’s attention, and the best writing in the world cannot make a great story out of a weak idea.
A story premise has to be put through a series of hurdles, to make sure that you have got the things that you need to really create a good story.
For example, you don’t want to write the next Die Hard on a submarine, or Die Hard on a space station. You don’t want to write the next thing that’s already been done, you want to write something that could only come from you. And that takes a very different kind of approach to writing.
So, one of the things that we want to be able to do, is have you look at the kind of story only you can tell, so that it’s uniquely coming from you. Because that not only sells the idea, but it sells you as a writer.
And then you have to go through and explore all the possible directions that the story can go in. Don’t just leap on the one idea and travel that way, figuring that the first thing you come up with is going to be a good idea for a story. The likelihood is that’s not true. You want to be able to explore all the possible directions that a story could take, so you can decide on the best one to take, the best path to tell your story.
Then once you choose the direction that you want to take the story in, you need to figure out all the pitfalls that you can possibly come across in telling that particular story in that particular way.
For example, I recently had a client who very much wanted to write a thriller, and the story that they produced for us was a military thriller. The problem was, they didn’t know anything about military nuance. They didn’t understand the jargon. They made it sound like everything they’ve seen on television or in movies.
That’s just not going to cut it nowadays. You want to be authentic. So, if you want to write a military story, you’ve got some research to do, and you have to be able to recognize that from the beginning. Are you willing to do the kind of research you need to in order to tell the best story possible?
Beyond that, there are other things to consider. For example, have you chosen the best protagonist in your story? Are you really loving writing this other sidekick character? If that’s the case, you need to question who your hero is.
And do you have a universally relatable emotion that you want to portray? Do you have an idea of the cause-and-effect relationship of the story?
You have to have a guideline for all this before you begin. If you don’t, you’re just lost in the whole writing process. But if you know these things, then you can write your story very quickly.
So you’ve got to prepare your stuff. It’s like a chef who’s laid out all of their ingredients before they begin to cook, and that’s what The Art of Preparation really is about.
In your book, you also say that stories are meant to answer central questions. Can you talk a little bit more about that, and maybe give an example?
Sure. In the book I create a story called A Mother’s Love. It’s about a guy who’s in Death Row. Before he’s going to die, and he has an opportunity to see his mother one last time, and it’s about that conversation that takes place, knowing that this is the last time either one of them is going to talk to anybody about this, and certainly the last time the mother’s going to talk to the son.
But though that is what the story is about, about this last chance to say things to each other, the central theme and the underlying question was, “how do we forgive the monsters in our lives?” The mother believed the son was a terrible monster and it reflected badly on her, and the son believed that his mother led him to be this way. So, each one of them had this monster in their life they had to figure out some way to forgive.
All stories are designed to be able to answer a question that is important for humans. And every good story has an underlying theme, which answers one or two of the following questions:
What is absolutely true about the moment that we’re writing about? And what does it have to say about the human condition?
In the book you have an emotional rulebook chart for writers to use, to note down how their characters will react to each other and to various situations. What is the importance of this chart?
One of the things that we sometimes forget about when we write is that we’re trying to portray relationships, and how individual characters not only relate to the plot that we’re dealing with, but also how they relate to each other. Because that’s how character development and character depth is portrayed.
For example, the hero has to know what their relationship is to the villain, and the villain to the hero. You need to know how John relates to Mary, and Mary relates to John, and those are two completely different things. So, understanding that relationship allows you to see other avenues to explore, other ways to bring depth to your story.
Let me tell you a quick example. A while back, I’m on the lot at Paramount and getting ready to go into a pitch meeting. I go to the commissary to get some lunch, and I’m able to sit down and talk to an actor that I know. And I had an opportunity to ask him, “What are your favorite roles to play?”
His third favorite role was the hero, because it was cool. And his second-best role was the villain, because being a villain was so much fun. But his favorite role to play, and the role that every actor really, really wants to play, is any character who really suffers.
They want to be able to emote on the screen, and they want to be able to show that. Stories are emotion delivery systems. They’re a way to communicate, through the illustration of emotion, what it means to be human beings.
So by understanding the relationships through the chart, you’ll be able to see how characters relate to each other. And that really opens up the idea of what’s possible in terms of personal character development.
And so it’s a very important tool, and if you start to use it from the very beginning, you’ll really know where your story’s going early on, and it makes the writing process much quicker.
I love the line about characters that says, “We like our characters, especially like heroes and villains, to be a bit like broken toys, walking, talking puzzles with a couple of pieces missing.”
I think the best heroes, the best characters in the world are really marvelous people doing despicable things, and despicable people doing marvelous things.
I think the best screenwriting today is being done on television, where you have shows like Breaking Bad, and my personal favorite right now, Better Call Saul. Great characters, wonderful people, doing terrible things. That really shows the breadth of emotions and characterization.
And characters are really like broken toys. They’re not interesting to us until we see their flaws, until we see what it is that stops them from getting what they want.
A good character will have what they say they really want, and what they actually want, and those things are always completely different.
Jack Nicholson famously said that all he wanted in a script was three good scenes and one great scene, and if he could have those, he would play any role, any role that was offered to him. And those great scenes come from understanding the character’s nature, the broken toy nature, and understanding their relationship with the other characters in the story.
Remember, plot is there primarily just to illuminate the characters. In screenplays, it always is secondary. There are a limited numbers of possible plots, but there are an infinite number of characters, infinite variety. So you can tell which one is more important.
You talk about the plot line versus the emotional line. Can you tell our readers a little bit more about that?
The plot line is really the succession of events that happen in a story. This happens, then this happens, then this happens, then this happens.
The emotional line is how the characters react to what’s happened. You have an event that happens in a story, and it almost immediately causes an emotional reaction, the emotion in the characters, and the characters then take some future action based upon the emotions they just felt. So, it’s an action-emotion-reaction chain that allows you to build and tell the story in that way.
The emotional line is how the characters change through the arc of the story. Most characters change. The hero changes from beginning to end. For example, we may see them going from a selfish stage to a selfless stage, or from a weak stage to a powerful stage. So the emotional line is the one that portrays this.
A good story will have all of the main characters arcing. They’ll have some kind of growth all the way through. Very few characters in a great story have no possibility of change. A great story will show some individual growth on everybody.
In the early stages, the character is the kind of broken toy that we talked about, and a good emotional pull-through line will take them closer to the identity or the essence of who they are actually. They’ll allow themselves to be more vulnerable, and that will lead to some kind of emotional change.
Every character has an emotional rulebook that they follow. For example, when the hero is happy they will do A, when they are sad they will do B, and when angry they will do C. And that’s how you understand who the character is.
So the way that you indicate that a character has changed is that when they are angry they no longer do B, they do Z. And that’s all the character change really is from a mechanical standpoint.
How you get there, how you put them through their paces so that they have to change, is what makes good writing. And so the emotional through line is vital.
Tell me about your work as a story consultant.
I work with young writers to get them to the point where they can get work out of their brain and onto the page in a professional way. We’re trying to get them away from the idea of thinking that they have this one story in them, and to recognize that they are more a creator than writer.
There are a lot of things that are involved in that process, but ultimately, writing is a journeymanship. It is an apprenticeship that you have to go through. It requires a real dedication, and a real persistence, and real grit in what you do.
But also, at some point, you need to be able to have a mentor, somebody who’s been down the road before, who’s done what you want to accomplish and can guide you when you get in trouble. And a good consultant can do that.
There are a lot of great teachers out there that are able to help you along the way. It’s all part of the team that it takes to be able to have a career in writing.
There are people in Hollywood who have made one sale, and you never hear from them again. A good consultant can really help you create a process so that you can repeat it again and again. That’s where a career comes from. And so, that’s what I teach.
Finally, where can our readers find out more about you?
You can go to my website, artholcomb.blogspot.com, where you can sign up to my mailing list, and read about upcoming classes. This year, for example, we’ll be teaching writing for emotional impact. We’ll be talking about how to create your writer’s platform, developing your ability to write deeply and profoundly, and what Hollywood really wants and expects from you as a professional.
Plus, we’re doing a big boot camp this summer, which is designed to be able to get you up and running and doing short films very quickly, and getting them out there, so you can see the process of finishing, and completing, and starting, and developing more and more stories more often.
Or just drop me an email at aholcomb07@ gmail.com. We’ll put you on the list and get you all signed up.