Sunday, February 24, 2013

Be an expert

I was talking to an aspiring screenwriter the other day who is, quite frankly, a hack. I was polite and agreeable as could be because it was a brief moment at a party, but the whole time she was talking, I just kept thinking "Wow, you represent the worst kind of writer."

She was proud of herself because when she couldn't figure out how to tackle Act 2, she just thought of a movie that had a great sex scene in the middle and copied it. She was really proud that nobody else noticed her theft. Seriously, she said this to me like it was a great accomplishment.

I know this happens a lot. You don't know how to proceed with your script, so you think "What did other movies do?" and if they did them, then it's okay for you to do them. That way, you don't have to work as hard to figure out how to solve your story problems.

Well, kids, I have the solution to all your hacky moments right here - RESEARCH.

When you look stuff up, you learn neat things. Things that will help you as you write.

Writing a story about CIA agents? Read a fucking book by one. There are actually quite a few out there. Want to know what an archaeologist does? Don't just watch Indiana Jones movies. Talk to a fucking archaeologist. Professors have office hours during which they'd rather do anything other than grade papers. Telling a young screenwriter what they do for a living sounds awesome to most of them. You can buy all the technical expertise you want for a price of a cup of coffee.

There's also a website or two where experts on just about any topic you want will answer you. This is a good one:  All Experts.

I'm lucky because I chose a mate wisely. My husband, aka The Beefcake, is law enforcement, and a lot of his buddies are in different branches. Chances are, no matter what branch of law enforcement I want to write about, he knows someone who has worked there. He also knows fighting techniques, general tactics and weapons. Any time he's home, you can hear me holler for him, or, if he's playing Halo Reach, running down the hall to interrupt his vital game time to demand a strategy on how a trained military professional would clear a two-story house.

He is also capable of beating people up and lifting heavy things. It's pretty sweet.

Anyhow, my overall point is, when you know your topic, it gets a lot easier to figure out what your characters would do in certain situations. And when you know that, not only can you properly advance the plot, but you can make your scenes more interesting as well. You can find little anecdotes to squeeze in there, or neat personality quirks you can give your people to make them more individual.

You don't have to copy what's on film if you know how real people act.

So don't be a hack. Go look some stuff up.


  1. Interesting post, Emily. Here's something I've found a bit unsettling, however. Sometimes the directors or producers you write for DON'T WANT REALITY injected into the stories. They'd rather you inject THAT scene from a thousand other films into your work in order to move things along.

    For example, I once wrote a prison flick. Needless to say I have a VERY strong background to write that kind of material (no, I haven't done time). My goal was to expose prison violence the way, say, Goodfellas exposed organized crime.

    Needless to say, the director (a good man) ultimately felt the script strayed too far from the conventions of the prison movie genre. He was right, of course. I may not have been pushing for reality, but I WAS pushing for something less outlandish than the usual genre offerings.

    And, in the end, he didn't want that. We politely went our separate ways.

    This isn't a "woe is me, I've been screwed over story," story, either. Like everyone else, I've dealt with plenty of rejection for a plethora of legitimate reasons. That particular occasion I've written of, however, has stayed with me a long time.

    I'll wrap it up. In my humble opinion, your way of doing things is the RIGHT way. Keep on doing what you're doing. Don't be surprised, though, if the girl you spoke to at the party starts getting further along in her career than one might imagine.

    1. If that hack girl got a career without changing her methods, I throw up my hands at the whole thing.

      You make an interesting point. I would say, though, that FELON is an example of a fairly accurate prison film, so I guess it just depends on the producer and what kind of story they set out to tell.

      I think you're always stronger when you come from a place of knowledge, as long as you don't let the facts get in the way of the story.

  2. Another good link for research is at the WGA site.

    Nice post Emily... spot on.

  3. sean1 speaks the truth. That crazy Lebanese guy I wrote the mini-series for? I did all that research about Peru and the Aztecs and such...he didn't want it. He had a narrative in his head and he didn't want me messing with it.

    That hack writer: was she about 22? Did she have full lips? Pigtails and an ironic shirt with the name of a band she had never actually heard? Then it might be a done deal. People at studios hire people whose appearance helps bolster the executive's view of himself: 'hey. I must be doing well, look at all the young attractive people I have around me!'

    (and Emily, your loveliness and charm only confirm that sometimes God gives one person more than the average quota of gifts- and you're FUNNY, too!)

    My revenge consists of the knowledge that all bad things die. All good things die, too, and usually first- but at least the bad things eventually get swept up.

    Oh, and I finished my latest script. Let's go celebrate!


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