Monday, July 16, 2012

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Screenwriters

"Gimmie five for seven habits."
Stephen Covey, author of the widely-read The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, has passed away at the age of 79. Inspired by his desire to make the world a better place, I've assembled the following list. It's my hope that the advice herein is applicable to all writers, regardless of medium. Starting with number seven:

7. Insert Emotional Transition

Whether a novel, short story, or screenplay, your character needs to start in one emotional place and end in another. Their way of looking at the world must fundamentally change. Or, at the very least, be challenged every step of the way (Such as in Citizen Kane, Patton, or The Social Network). Innocence to experience.

In Pixar's Up, Carl Fredricksen transitions from a fellow who's willing to clock a guy over the head for touching a mailbox to a hero who dismisses the loss of his house with, "It's just a house." The Carl at the end of Up is not the Carl at the beginning, and we love him all the more.

Some characters, such as James Bond and Indiana Jones, don't always change per se, but the most compelling characters do. The most memorable characters do. The most human, the most effective – do. We love stories because of emotional transition. Characters who change remind us that human nature is a struggle between stagnation and adaptation to new circumstances.

6. Keep Goals Tangible

Love. Success. Dignity. Noble pursuits. Human pursuits. Abstractions.

What personifies these for your characters? It's not enough for your character to want love, success, or dignity. They have to want something specific, something tangible. Something that stands for that which they feel is lacking in their lives. Something tangible is something of which you can take a photo. A lovely white robot (Pixar's WALL-E). A cheerleader (Alan Ball's American Beauty). A holy grail (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade). Your character's goal must be tangible. In striving for a tangible element, what they want, they discover what it is that they need.

WALL-E learns that love requires sacrifice. Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) learns to be a better father. Indiana Jones learns how to let go, to accept that death is inevitable. In pursuing the want, your protagonist receives what they need. Pursuit of the tangible leads to the intangible lesson: wisdom, which is typically far more valuable than whatever it is that your character set out to nab in the first place.

5. Make it Character-Driven

There's a difference between events occurring because you, the writer want them to, and because your characters want them to. Look at Twister: the characters are researching what happens inside of an F5-class tornado. So what happens? An F5 conveniently hits nearby. It needs to happen, so the writer writes it in. Simple.

"I thought this was a film about a contortionist party game!"

Now, look at Iron Man. Everything that happens in that film is as a direct result of something that Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) has done. The terrorists are using Stark weapons? Because Stark Industries sold them to terrorists. Stark Industries stock takes a nosedive? Because Tony Stark announces that he's no longer making weapons. Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) creates his Iron Monger suit and attempts to kill Tony? Because Tony uses the Iron Man suit to defeat the very terrorists from whom Stane stands to make a giant war-profiteering windfall.

Things must happen because the characters make them happen, not because the writer needs them to happen. That's the difference between passive characters and active characters. Active characters make things happen and deal with the consequences. Passive characters have things happen to them. In The Wizard of Oz the tornado happens to Dorothy, but she's caught in it in the first place because she selfishly ran away from home. Once in Oz, it's up to her to save the land and herself, to go from selfish to unselfish. Her actions make it happen.

4. Incorporate Pervasive Conflict

UCLA and Hollins professor Tim Albaugh says, "No one wants to see 'The Village of the Happy Nice People.'" He's right. The best character development, the best exposition, the best story – it comes out of conflict. Remember that old phrase, "You never know what a person's really like until they're put under major pressure"? Your job is to put your characters under major pressure. Show us what they're really like, who they are. Conflict needs to be in every scene you write. Period.

Conflict doesn't necessarily mean screams and violence. A good writer can incorporate conflict into a scene in subtle, implicit ways. Look at Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin's screenplay to the 1949 Adam's Rib, starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. The attorney couple in this film loves each other very much, but they're constantly at each other's throats in little, under-the-skin ways. Each of them wants something from the other, and they each know which buttons to press.

Or, look at Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction. Vincent (John Travolta) and Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) discuss Jules's new career aspirations. "I'm going to walk the earth," Jules says. Vincent laughs, "Jules, you're going to be a bum." Two good friends, but with radically different worldviews. One makes an impassioned defense of the life that he wants while the other one pokes holes in the reasoning behind it. Plenty of conflict, but nary a raised voice. We learn more about both characters the entire time, and may not even realize it. Exposition at its best: through conflict.

3. Use Your Voice

This is another point that Tim Albaugh hammers home. Nothing is more interesting to a human being than other human beings. Case in point: watch the news. Whether about the latest celebrity/political/royal scandal, ratings don't lie. Infotainment is no joke. We're passionately interested in the doings of others. We shake our heads at them, we applaud them, and we judge them. In doing so, we learn more about what it means to be human, to be ourselves. Everyone has a story, a life experience, a wisdom gained. How do you see the world? What's a truth through which you see things, judge things, interact with things?

Here are some examples: Stanley Kubrick's voice, in each of his films, tells us, "The human condition is ironic. Humankind is its own worst enemy: you can take the human out of the jungle, but you can't take the animal urges out of the human."

Alan Ball (American Beauty, Six Feet Under, True Blood) has a voice that says, "Enjoy life while you can. We're all going to leave it sooner than we'd like."

Alfred Hitchcock's voice is concerned with the uncanny: turning the familiar (a favorite uncle, neighbors, a motel clerk) on its head and making them into objects of dread (Shadow of a Doubt, Rear Window, and Psycho, respectively).

These artists have voices that permeate each of their works. We're drawn to their works because each voice tells us about the artist and ourselves. Should your own work be any different?

2. Make a Writing Schedule

This one courtesy of UCLA's Hal Ackerman. My very favorite line from Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga's screenplay to Star Trek: Generations is Scotty's "If something's that important to you, you make the time."

Great philosophy, not just to apply to writing, but to apply to life, isn't it?

You could be a CEO, an IT professional, a waiter, a retail district manager, or a stay-at-home parent. I don't care what you do, so long as you carve out time, daily, to write. The President of the United States can make the time to be with his family, despite his responsibilities. You can make the time to write. Morning, afternoon, night, whenever it is. Turn off your phone, tell your family that you're working, and do it.

1. Stick to a Writing Schedule

This one, again, courtesy of Hal Ackerman. You can have a degree in writing. You can teach writing. You can read every piece of classic literature and/or every Academy-nominated screenplay from the past 50 years.

It will all be worthless if you do not write.

Good writers are educated. Good writers read. I posit that the very best education you will receive, on your way to becoming a great writer, will be through the trials and errors you make on your own work on a daily basis. Dreamers dream. Doers do. Write 10 pages, even if it's crap. You can always turn crap into gold. With nothing, you can do nothing. Write every day. Ten pages. One page. A line. It doesn't matter. The entire entertainment culture is fueled by content. As an entertainment professional, you have no excuse to not be creating content constantly. If 99% of it is garbage, then at least you've written 1% of something amazing. That's a good start. If you can do it 1% of the time, then it only takes practice to start doing it 2% of the time, and upwards from there.

Have any other ideas for good writing practices or habits? Please share in the comments.

1 comment:

  1. Great post. I laughed, I learned, I was inspired. More please.