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25 Insights on Becoming a Better Writer

These short tips are excellent -

I can't even pick a favourite - they're all pretty spot on.



One of my side gigs as a writer is working with Sales Agents who, as is common in independent film, are often a key factor in putting together the budget. (Here's some background reading if you're not familiar with independent film finance and distribution - Film Finance / Sales Agents)

Producers looking for finance often send their scripts to my clients and my clients send me those scripts for appraisal. Where I differ from a traditional script reader is that in addition to my thoughts on the script itself I have sales experience and have attended international film markets for many years, so I'm able to offer some insight into how safe an investment any given project may be. I might not have precise knowledge of the latest up-to-date trends, but I know what tends to work and in discussion with an experienced sales agent I can often help them figure out if this is a project for them (or their investors) or not.

A lot of it is common sense - simply asking "are there sufficient elements with which everyone downstream will be able to sell this film too?" will give you a fast but reasonably accurate sense of how a film will finally sell. You're just putting yourself in your buyer's shoes - basic marketing, right?

Using my Fractal technique I'm able to go into a bit more detail. You all know what a fractal is. It's a mathematical shape that has the same or similar structure at different scales. I've found it useful to think of a film as basically the same premise being expressed at different scales.

Most of the time when you watch a film you know at least a little about its premise. Based on what you know going in, you expect the film they show you to have something to do with what you thought was coming. It has to be a reasonably rigorous exploration of the premise you were expecting. We Brits have an expression for this, which comes from the now famous advertising slogan, for when something "does exactly what it says on the tin".

This fractal idea is more than just some abstract mathematical nonsense - it's actually a very useful tool for wrapping your head around a film, right from concept stage. Simply put - a film's premise, tone and story should be present and resonant in every scene and every aspect of its marketing. Another way to visualise and break this down is below:

image © RTJK 2011

We're effectively increasing the number of words used to express the same idea, and you can see how everything from the Title to the TaglineLoglineSynposisTrailer, TV Clips and all the way up to the Script and the Finished Film should ideally be a fractal of the same premise.

For a film to be a success its premise needs to get people thinking and talking about its themes and implications. For this reason it's possible to look at a script, a logline, a synopsis and a treatment side-by-side and ask yourself not only if there's a strong premise there, but also are there opportunities to strengthen any one of the elements. If the premise is strong and the synopsis is strong but the script isn't doing the premise justice, then it's extremely easy to spot using this technique. It's also surprising how very often a script doesn't need that much more work once you identify and fix such high-level premise problems.

There's a fun test you can try - before reading a script for the first time quickly brainstorm all your expectations of it. If you have a logline, or even just a title and a genre, it's actually pretty easy to determine some scenes that "must" be in that film. If they're not in there perhaps someone's missing a trick. You're always measuring a script against other examples of the genre and, if the script in your hands doesn't measure up, this approach offers you multiple levels on which you can figure out how to fix it.

By extension if you're starting out on a project you can brainstorm using the above graph, jotting down images for the trailer, phrases for the logline and so on. If you're stuck on a rewrite, try sending only your title and logline to a friend who doesn't know about the project and ask them what they think would "be in the tin". They might come back with some great ideas you hadn't thought of... or you might not like or agree with their answers, in which case maybe your logline is skewing their expectations away from what you're trying to create. Either way you're going to have valuable insight into how your project is seen by others, and how it might be perceived in the marketplace.

Stay on topic, on theme, on premise and on tone right from the two-word title to the 25 word logline all the way up to the 25,000 word script and there's a much higher chance you'll have a project lots of people can get enthusiastic about pouring thousands of hours and millions of dollars into making.


"Similar but Different"

I've just posted this response to the question of "Similar but Different" over at one of my favorite screenwriting blogs Go Into the Story, but it's something I'd been meaning to write about for a while so it merits an airing here too:

Everything is a remix. It's much quicker and easier to hook an audience (and therefore much easier to make money) if you can grab them with something they already know they like. You may only have 3 minutes in a trailer, or 30 seconds in a TV ad to tell people about your particular film, but the reason "Similar but Different" works is because if your film looks like 2,000 other films they've enjoyed (and especially if yours has a novel twist) then you've pretty much just bought yourself a quarter million hours advertising per person.

"Similar but Different" has different rules in the UK and Europe than in the US (because our previous cultural output breaks down along very different genre lines) but I'd say we're all still pretty much locked into it whether we know it or not (as are the execs with the money) so I very much doubt that it's ever going away.

Existing properties such as TV shows and previous films will also tap into this, but I doubt it's going to replace original "Genre classic with a twist" or "Genre vs Genre" for long because one specific show can't compete with the entire cultural sensibility and multiple thousands of hours of recognition that an established and well-loved genre can.

The trick is figuring out what to keep the same and what to "twist" - and those rules are different from place to place and keep changing from year to year. The answer, perhaps, is not to skate to where the puck is, but to hit it where you'd like it to go.


What are your thoughts on "Similar but Different" in different cultures and how it changes over time?


Quote of the Day

Some Writing Advice from Around the Web

If you didn't see this I highly recommend it - this is part two (with links to part one) of a lovely series of writing tips from established authors. Very entertaining.

Ten rules for writing fiction (part two)
"Inspired by Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing, our survey of established authors' tips for successful authorship continues."


Which reminds me of a fabulous book (actually also a series - I believe part one is for novelists and part two is for screenwriters) called NOW WRITE! In which something like a hundred produced screenwriters and teachers spend a few or more pages giving you their absolute best writing tips and techniques, garnered from years of experience. Absolutely incredible.


What books or blogs have you seen recently that you'd like to share? Please post in the comments.


Screenwriting - The Vignette Approach

In his book Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach Paul Gulino talks about the origins of the sequence approach to writing - 1000ft reels would originally be projected at 18fps so run for 15 minutes or whatever, and the cinemas used to only have one projector so they'd have to stop the movie to load a new reel and there'd be a lot of noise and maybe a live entertainer would come on stage for a minute etc. This is why it's cool to think of each sequence as being in some sense self-contained - the film would actually have to come to a halt.

If I recall correctly the next point he makes is that some kind of compartmentalised (even regular length) sequences seem to go back as far as the ancient Greeks, so perhaps there's simply some intrinsic aesthetic reason why we respond well to evenly-sized chunks of story action. If this is true then it shouldn't really matter what length from 5 to 20 minutes your sequences are, as long as there's an unconsciously detectable rhythm.

Deconstructing Jaws it was really palpable just how that rhythm made the film feel solid and assured and focused with where it was going, even when not a lot seemed to be happening. I think this is definitely a screenwriter tool (when you think about it nobody else could really impose evenly-sized chunks without compromising the story) but it's a tool that would certainly benefit everyone else on the production - director, producer, line producer, editor etc. all the way down.

(That said perhaps the script was 90 pages and Spielberg said "nope I'm gonna add a minute of my own genius to every vignette" and maybe that's how he came up with the son mimicking Brody's hand movements and expressions, or some of the other genius things that are in there. Just a theory, and one that's easy enough to disprove, but interesting as a thought experiment nonetheless.)


So as not to overly confuse I just want to get the terminology straight; I'll often talk about 8 sequences in a two-hour film, and from Gulino's convention I'll letter them from A to H. But I'm likely going to be talking more about seven-page sequences, so I'll try to be as consistent as possible and instead hereafter use the term vignette. For consistency across the approaches I'm still using the A to H paradigm and simply numbering them: A1, A2, B1, B2 etc.

How I'm visualising my 15 x 7 minute vignette structure.

The creation of a seven-page vignette really only requires two or three scenes of any duration, and fifteen such seven-page vignettes will lead me to 105 pages. (And even fifteen six-page vignettes would still leave me with a very respectable 90 page script.) Why fifteen? Choose your own. Partly it's just a convention that the last sequence is much shorter, but it also happens to fit the script I'm working on very nicely.


Now this is cool: I'm thinking this seven pages approach might actually be the perfect thing for me in terms of story AND structuring my writing time.

Depending on how long it takes you to outline at the beginning (it's usually the fastest stage for me) writing just 2 x seven-page vignettes each week would leave you with a full first draft after 8 only weeks (and, if you're on a ten-week contract, still give you two weeks for some serious editing and / or polishing before submitting it). I think that's just an extraordinarily cool revelation and something that people could even feel comfortable doing on a part-time basis and fitting in with another job and a family.

The added extra bonus is that you  1/ have incredible freedom to write faster and race ahead to the next sequence if you feel like you really want to  2/ or you could be very strict and constantly refine and hone each vignette for a full week before allowing yourself to continue to the next.  3/ You could take it easy - two pages a day - and rely on your professional judgement that you've worked out story logic enough that it all comes together in the end. This type of writing schedule just gives you an absolute deadline per vignette - two per week - that you have to aim for, and one which doesn't sound hard at all when you frame it in the context of only tackling one piece at a time.

So that's the daily / weekly writing schedule part of it - as for the actual business of juggling bits of script around inside my head - I'm at a stage with this current script where I'm once again starting to get kinda overwhelmed with all the bits and pieces here and there, but using the 7 minute vignette approach I'm pretty confident I can get any story to play ball (although I've said that before!)

Knowing that for this appointed three-day period all I have to wrestle with is seven pages (and that any draft is better than no draft so I can feel safe to write the bad version) is really very encouraging.

So either spread out over a few days, or all at once in a big creative outpouring blitz, all I have to do - all any writer has to do - is sit down twice a week for 8 weeks and write a seven page vignette. A short story, effectively, with a beginning, middle and end.

The end is crucial. I think the ending of each seven pages should really be a place where you could, if necessary, stop to change the reel (so don't forget to leave the audience with a mini cliff-hanger!) and take the opportunity with the next vignette to introduce a palpable change of tone, or pace, or direction or something like that. It should really help the sawtooth structure of the expanding drama.

It probably also means you're going to be always refining the as-yet-unwritten portions of your outline as you go along, because there's nothing worse than having a week's job sheet with vague or directionless tasks on it that may cause you extra work next week or at the end of the 8 weeks.

OK I'll let you know how I get on when I put this 8 week thing to the test on the next script. And if you're about to start a new draft why not try this out and let us know how you get on.

Jaws: 17 x Seven Minute Vignettes

This post will make a lot more sense if you've read Paul Gulino's book Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach. I've linked to it on the right if you haven't.

While having breakfast I thought I'd spend a few hours analysing Jaws. Something pretty interesting came up. It is clearly visible in the main beats AND has near perfect mathematical consistency - let me explain --

I tried an 8 sequence breakdown at first, but at only 5 minutes the film doesn't have much of a Sequence H, so I thought I'd try to figure out what sequence structure fit it best.

It's a shade over 2 hours long and the sequences seemed to break down pretty neatly like this:

Seq. A • 14 minutes
Seq. B • 14 minutes
Seq. C • 21 minutes
Seq. D • 14 minutes
Seq. E • 21 minutes
Seq. F • 14 minutes
Seq. G • 14 minutes
Seq. H • 5 minutes

There's obviously some multiples of 7minute sub-sequences going on there:

Seq. A • 2 x 7 minutes
Seq. B • 2 x 7 minutes
Seq. C • 3 x 7 minutes
Seq. D • 2 x 7 minutes
Seq. E • 3 x 7 minutes
Seq. F • 2 x 7 minutes
Seq. G • 2 x 7 minutes
Seq. H • 5 minutes

Or to put it another way -

Act 1 • 4 x 7
Act 2A • 5 x 7
Act 2B • 5 x 7
Act 3 • 2 x 7 + a 5 minute climax and coda

Perfectly symmetrical... but with 9 minutes chopped off the end.

I'm not just doing some silly frivolous mathematical sleight of hand here either -- almost without fail there is a real tangible story-beat transition every seven minutes. I actually marked them as possible split points as I was watching, before I'd even realised the bigger picture.

Here's the wikipedia synopsis broken into seven minute sections - I swear I'm not fudging this!

17 Vignettes - Structural Analysis of JAWS  (screenplay by Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb)

Seq. 1 During a late night beach party on the fictional Amity Island in New England, a 23-year-old woman named Chrissie Watkins (Susan Backlinie) goes skinny dipping, only to be dragged under by an unseen force.

Seq. 2 Amity's new police chief, Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), is notified that Chrissie is missing, and deputy Len Hendricks (Jeffrey Kramer) finds her mutilated remains on the beach. The medical examiner informs Brody that the death was due to a shark attack. Brody plans to close the beaches but is overruled by town mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton), who fears that reports of a shark attack will ruin the summer tourist season, as it is the town's primary source of income. The medical examiner reverses his diagnosis and attributes the death to a boating accident. Brody reluctantly goes along with the explanation.

Seq. 3 A short time later, a boy is brutally killed by a shark at the beach.

Seq. 4 The boy's mother places a bounty on the shark, sparking an amateur shark-hunting frenzy and attracting the attention of local professional shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw). Two fishermen throw a large beef cut into the water and chain it to a pier. One is nearly killed after the shark tugs at the bait so hard the pier collapses.


Seq. 5 Brought in by Brody, marine biologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) examines Chrissie's remains and concludes she was killed by a shark. A large tiger shark is caught by a group of fishermen, leading the town to believe the problem is solved, but Hooper is unconvinced that the shark is the killer and asks to examine its stomach contents. The dead boy’s mother turns up and condemns Brody for having allowed the beach to stay open, knowing there might be a shark.

Seq. 6 Vaughn refuses to make the "half-assed autopsy" public, so Brody and Hooper return after dark and discover the dead shark does not contain human remains.

Seq. 7 Scouting aboard Hooper's boat, they come across the half-sunken wreckage of a boat belonging to local fisherman Ben Gardner. Hooper explores the vessel underwater and discovers a sizable shark's tooth, and also the remains of Ben Gardner, which makes him drop the tooth in a panic.

Seq. 8 Vaughn refuses to close the beaches, and on the Fourth of July numerous tourists arrive.

Seq. 9 A prank by two boys involving a cardboard fin causes panic before the real shark enters an estuary, kills a man and causes Brody's son to go into shock after witnessing it. MIDPOINT.


Seq. 10 Brody convinces Vaughn to hire Quint, and he and Hooper join the hunter on his fishing boat, the Orca, to kill the shark.

Seq. 11 Brody is given the task of laying a chum line while Quint uses deep sea fishing tackle to try to hook the shark. As Brody continues chumming, an enormous great white shark looms up behind the boat; the trio watch the great white circle the Orca and estimate it weighs 3 short tons (2.7 t) and is 25 feet (7.6 m) long.

Seq. 12 Hooper takes pictures of the shark for research purposes. Quint harpoons the shark with a line attached to a flotation barrel, designed to prevent the shark from submerging and to track it on the surface, but the shark pulls the barrel under and disappears. The sun sets.

Seq. 13 Night falls without another sighting, so the men retire to the boat's cabin, where Quint tells of his experience with sharks as a survivor of the World War II sinking of the USS Indianapolis.

Seq. 14 The shark reappears, damaging the boat's hull before slipping away. In the morning, the men make repairs to the engine. Attempting to call the Coast Guard for help, Brody is stopped by Quint, who destroys the radio with a baseball bat. 


Seq. 15 After a long chase Quint harpoons another barrel to the shark. The men tie the barrels to the stern, but the shark, after Quint harpoons it again adding a third barrel, drags the boat backwards, forcing water onto the deck and into the engine, flooding it. Quint is about to cut the ropes with his machete when the cleats are pulled off the stern. The shark continues attacking the boat and Quint heads toward shore with the shark in pursuit, hoping to draw it into shallow waters, where it will get beached and, once unable to swim, suffocate. In his obsession to kill the shark, Quint overtaxes Orca's engine, causing it to seize.

Seq. 16 With the boat immobilized, the trio try a desperate approach: Hooper dons his SCUBA gear and enters the ocean inside a shark proof cage in order to stab the shark in the mouth with a hypodermic spear filled with strychnine. But when the shark attacks and begins destroying the cage, Hooper drops his spear. The shark gets tangled in the cage's remains, allowing Hooper to escape and hide on the seabed. As Quint and Brody raise the remnants of the cage, the shark throws itself onto the boat, crushing the transom. As the boat sinks, Quint slides down the slippery deck into the shark's mouth and is eaten alive. 

Seq. 17 Brody retreats to the boat's partly submerged cabin. When the shark attacks him there, he shoves a pressurized scuba tank into the shark's mouth, then takes Quint's rifle and climbs the Orca's mast. Brody begins shooting at the scuba tank wedged in the shark's mouth, causing it to explode and blow the shark to pieces. Hooper and Brody make rafts out of the Orca's remains and paddle back to Amity Island.
RK / Wikipedia 2011

Quite apart from the beneficial effects of the artificial constraint of needing to follow such a strict rhythm (think of rhyming poetry, haiku or iambic pentameter) imagine how stress-free it would be to be able to schedule the shoot and actually film in seventeen easy seven minute sections like this. I'm pretty blown away by this. What are your thoughts?