Thursday, July 05, 2012

Just do it well

Screenwriting is not math. There is no magic formula, no perfect template that will guarantee success. You just have to write the best script you can.

If you come to a scene and you're not sure if it's okay to do ______, the answer is, yes. If whatever it is you want to do is the best way - not necessarily the only way, but the BEST way - to tell that part of the story, do it. You don't need to ask permission.

I don't mean you should never get notes or advice. Of course you should ask for help if you're stumped. Just this week I asked a friend of mine for notes on a treatment I put together because I knew parts of it didn't work and I wanted some suggestions on how to fix it.

But if you're thinking gee, I'd like to use voice over here but I've been told never to use voice over - fuck that. Use the damn voice over as long as you can use it well.

That's the key - using it well. Before you decide on your risky decision, make sure it's the best possible decision for the scene. Voice over, for example, tends to be a crutch for new writers who don't know how to let the action do the job. Look at your scene. Does the voice over need to be there, or can you give us that same information in a less talky way?

My rule for voice over is that I only use it for one of two reasons: style, or to tell the audience something they can't see. For example, I have a script where a character is pretending to be someone else, so the only way we know she's pretending is through her voice over. I've never had any complaints about its existence.

As long as it's used well, nobody will care what you do. They just want a good story.

So whatever it is - flashbacks, asides, nonlinear storytelling, nudity, foul language, foreign language, using music - use it if you know you can use it well. Don't be so scared to do it wrong, be scared to do it poorly.

Now go write something.


  1. My hang up is what would my wife or parents think if they read an extremely violent or disturbing scene I had written.

    I am slowly pushing through it but it is always in the back of my mind.

  2. I had a similar epiphany at one point, where I was afraid of going "too far" in a script. Then I realized -- that's exactly where you need to go. Now whenever I feel a doubt or fear, I know it's a beacon calling me to go there. Whenever I feel resistance, that's where I can break new ground. I think many screenwriters who haven't found their "voice" yet haven't found it because they play it safe.

    Screenwriting is not safe. Not if you're doing it right.

    And Jim -- that's exactly why I don't let my Mom read my screenplays. So I don't have to worry about that.


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