There’s a common belief that the more screenplays someone writes the better they become. It sounds good but often it isn’t true.
The reason is that most writers continue to make the same mistakes, ending up with a portfolio of similarly flawed scripts. It’s the old definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
Some writers don’t know what mistakes they are making, which is frustrating.
Others know damn well what their mistakes are, but have no idea how to fix them, which is even more frustrating.
So how does one truly improve as a writer? You need to know not only what mistakes you tend to make but why you make them. That’s the key. Figuring out why you make your habitual mistakes and what you can do to correct this pattern is the only way to dramatically improve your writing. Here are two examples.
My second acts always suck
Last year I did a script coaching sessions with someone I’ll call Jane. Jane naturally wrote amazing characters and dialogue, a real joy to read. And while her first acts were a bit sluggish, the strength of her writing kept you mostly engaged. But her second acts were a completely different affair. Not much was happening. And what was happening wasn’t that interesting. All that great upfront character work was wasted on dull second acts.
Jane’s boyfriend worked for a producer so she had access to industry folks willing to read her work, and the feedback was always the same: great characters, weak story.
So Jane took some seminars and classes where she learned a bunch of structure rules. She forced her scripts to adhere to these paradigms, and now everyone told her that her scripts felt formulaic and non-organic. Nobody believed what her characters were doing. Neither did Jane. She was simply making them do what she had been told they needed to do. It was at this point that she hired me as a script coach.
I read one of Jane’s scripts, and her big mistake was obvious.
She didn’t escalate.
The middle of stories is where things need to get harder for the characters. But in the middle of Jane’s script, things didn’t get worse for her characters — in fact things often got easier. This was the main reason why readers were getting bored.
So the real question was, why did Jane not escalate her stories?
I explained to Jane the different techniques professional writers use to escalate their stories, offering her some specific suggestions on how she could organically accomplish this in her script. Jane gave me a weird look, telling me she had an instinct to do all of those things, but somehow didn’t. I asked her why not, and she said she didn’t know. I asked to read another of her scripts, and it was the same thing. It flat-lined in the middle. When I suggested ways she could have organically escalated it, she said she had the impulse to do all of those things but didn’t. Again, she didn’t know why.
So now we finally knew what her real problem was. Jane had the right instincts to escalate but overrode them. The question was why?
After talking to her about her writing process, the answer became clear.
Jane was a deeply intuitive writer. Her characters were real people to her, and she felt deeply connected to them. She felt what they felt. And so, without realizing it, she felt a strong need to protect her characters, almost in a maternal way. She didn’t want them to have to suffer too much
Weak second acts weren’t Jane’s problem. Those were the symptom of her problem. Jane’s problem was that she unknowingly pulled her punches when it came to making things difficult for her characters.
I gave Jane specific writing exercises designed to help her overcome her impulses to safeguard her characters, and within three weeks she was no longer pulling her punches. In fact, her stories now fiercely escalated.
Jane now has a movie she wrote in production and two other scripts under option. That’s what happens when you can resolve your underlying issues as a writer rather than simply spinning your wheels trying to address the symptoms.
My characters aren’t strong enough
Dave came to me with a clear understanding of his problem.
He could originate high concept premises and do a reasonably good job structuring them, but his characters weren’t interesting enough. Several managers loved his ideas but told him they couldn’t sign him because his characters were too flat. And no matter how many books he read or seminars he took on character writing, nothing improved for him. He said he felt like he was beating his head against a brick wall.
After working with Dave in one of my classes it became clear why he couldn’t write compelling characters.
Most writers are wired to work either from a conceptual space or an intuitive space. Conceptual writers tend to work outside in, often starting with a big idea, world or specific story beats. Intuitives tend to work inside out, starting with character, emotion or theme. And because of this, conceptual and intuitive writers approach characters from radically different perspectives.
Dave was a highly conceptual writer. He excelled at high concepts, plot twists, pacing, and story logic. All that stuff was in his wheelhouse. But his characters often felt like puppets being made to do or say things in order to serve the plot.
But that wasn’t his problem. That was the symptom of his problem.
Dave’s real problem was that he wrote from the conceptual side of his brain unable to easily access his intuitive side.
I gave Dave specific exercises to train himself to fully access his intuitive side. It took him about three months of daily work to be able to do this. Then came the hard part, learning how to integrate his conceptual and intuitive sides, a journey that took him a little over a year. Dave now has an agent and a manager and has sold two TV spec pilots this year, both of them for character-driven shows.
Most writers can’t do this kind of work by themselves. It’s too difficult to see inside themselves to know the true reasons they make the mistakes that they do. Which is why just about every single successful writer I know had a mentor early in their development, someone who took them under their wing, showing them how to transform their weaknesses into strengths.
This is exactly the kind of work I do with writers in my classes and script coaching sessions. If you’re interested in more information, please feel free to contact me. Or reach out to another teacher, producer, writer or manager –- someone who can commit to supporting you in this way. It may just be the help you need to launch and sustain your writing career.
Posted in Corey’s Blog | May 04, 2012