Screenwriting : Learning the craft. by Lawrence R. Kotkin

Learning the craft.

I'm nearly halfway through an online course in screenwriting purchased for me by my daughter. It is an enormous undertaking involving watching myriad movies and tv shows, analyzing them, and then fulfilling some learned information from that study. My problem now is that in spite of having a new analytical perspective on what I watch and being fully halfway through the course, I have yet to be able to write a script. A graduated exercise method would certainly have been superior, but that's not my concern here: I have stories (shorts and a few novels) I'd like to see in screen form yet when I sit at the keyboard with Final Draft up and running, once past the logline, I'm lost. I'm struggling now with creation of scenes but not making much progress and the story ideas are starting to logjam in my stack of index cards. Any suggestions out there? Or do I just need to plug away at the course until I'm complete and then play with scenes until a fantasy emerges from my printer? In learning the craft of writing novels and short stories, I had the advantage of a grand teacher (Ann Crispin) and a several writing groups, and now an incredible editor/friend. Is there some similar culture available to tap into to share these productions? I"m feeling another noir fantasy nipping at my macerated heels.

Anthony Cawood

Hi Lawrence... have you looked at starting by turning one of your short stories into a screenplay? The advantages are:- - You are already familiar with the story - It will have (I'm assuming) a structure, in terms of beginning, middle and end, that you are comfortable with - You can concentrate on putting into practice what you are learning in terms of format etc I did this with my first screenplay, seemed to help and I sold the script (after a lot of re-writes!) Anthony

Pierre Langenegger

Hey Lawrence, I had the same issue many years ago. I had all these ideas and the software but didn't now how to actually start. I kept thinking, I needed the complete story in my head before I could put it on paper. That's not the case. I'm sure you have an outline on paper? If not, do so. Write an outline from start to finish then read through it an add more detail as you go. You can do this as many times as you like, building up the detail each time. As for the actual writing of the script, you don't need to start at the beginning. Using your detailed outline, pick a scene that jumps out at you and write that scene then repeat the process with any other scene. Make sure when you save them, you number them. This is the way I write, using a detailed beat sheet of my own creation, I write in a non-lineal approach and once I've written all the beats, I put them all together and tidy them up so they flow together. It's also a great idea, as Anthony said, to start with a short.

Lawrence R. Kotkin

All of these are great suggestions. And yes I have several short stories I can use for them. Not all of them warm and fuzzy. Outlines. i loathe outlines. I will learn to love them. A little. Usually I create a character and scenario and see what the protagonist does with it. And those are novels. Food for thought. I hope to run into you all where they're handing out those cool little statues. Great success to all.

David O'Brien

Lawrence: Don't get caught up in the 'how to' of screenwriting. Just go for it and accept that your first draft will probably be awful. But once you have a first draft you'll see where you're going wrong and what needs to change. There's a million ways to write a screenplay and only one of them is right for you. Finding your way can only be achieved by writing. Don't let perfectionism and your internal critic get in the way, you got to mine the coal to find the diamonds.

Michael L. Burris

In a way that sounds like a cool course. For me the analytical escapes me at times, well at least having the sklls to critique what is good. Bad scripts are easy to analyze or critique. Maybe try thinking of it as an endeavor you can analyze later because screenwriting is all about the rewrites. The good thing is your learning the analytical aspect first which will make the rewrite process easier. Personally I avoid adaptations and perhaps you may try an original screen concept first even if it sucks. I'm not taking anything away from adaptations. A good example is GIGI 1958 I think by Collette similar to My Fair Lady. Now that was an adaptation. As far as outlines go perhaps trying without one can work too as long as the story is firmly and visually in your head and just write it that way. Anyway no expert here and good luck to you.

Lawrence R. Kotkin

All of these comments and suggestions are great. I'm quickly seeing that devoting myself to one craft at a time is vital and selling a couple of novels is a problematic competition for my time. Of course, any sort of collaborative team immediately sucks me away from whatever solo project monopolizing me. This might be a very bad gig my daughter "presented" me into. and yes, I know that's bad grammar.

Laurie Ashbourne

If you have the core of the story, (beginning, middle and end) build that into an outline, then copy your outline beats into FD as scene headings (so obviously the more detailed your outline the more you have to work with) but this is where you then let the story take shape organically and at the very least, you won't be staring at a blank page.

Boomer Murrhee

Lawrence, I would be happy to share my path to developing screenwriting skills, if you want to PM.

Lawrence R. Kotkin

I want to sincerely thank those posting commentary for me. All of you have been helpful in the extreme. Make no mistake, were I to comment on some award (I know.. from my lips to whatever deity is listening), I'd mention this group...it's not a crowd, we're the equivalent of family. I'll keep plugging away and have several themes for screenplays on my cork board. I lean toward rather dark drama and supernatural, yet I dislike vampire stories. This is an interesting place. I'm glad I was referred here.

Lawrence R. Kotkin

I wish I could follow ALL this advice. All of it is top shelf. And yes, I have several short stories that would lend themselves to screenplays. One is about a fellow who uses the corporate menace as a reason to run for Congress so as to eliminate this threat, and the other is about a psychic killer and what happens to him as he goes through the trial process....and yes, it does come out as a plot twist. Knowing forensic psychology has come in quite handy. My wife thinks I need to utilize this character for other stories. I'm ambivalent. I thought I retired from the field but there's no escape. This looks like so much fun, I can't wait to get free of the novel selling monster to get some scripts into production. The process just looks like so much fun....famous last words, eh?

Lawrence R. Kotkin

and a thank you to Anthony for the advice. I thought I retired to escape this and now it comes home to roost. I didn't get wealthy in the profession, it's time for payback? Ha!

Andrea Balaz

Dear Lawrence, you are starting from an incredibly privileged position, you are a writer. Writing for screenplays is writing, but in a different language, images. It's even more than that, it's multimodal, you have images, sound and language to use, and they can even have different messages, if you are a true master. You can do the most important part, have a story. It is the basis. Then you need to express it a bit differently than usual. Go over scenes and think 'how can I show that in stead of saying it?' Then go over it again and add layers to chisel out your message more distinctly. Use the different channels of perception. Use action or images to support or contradict what people say. Find your own film-voice, using you writers voice. You can do little scene exercises by taking a scene from one of your existing stories, and tell it with pictures only. As many successful film-makers have said, turn off your tv. Watch the outside world and try to break the stories you see down into pictures. And have fun. Greeting from Vienna. Andrea

Lawrence R. Kotkin

Thank you, Andrea. While I can see the pictures in motion in my head, translating them into words/actions and dialogue is going to take some practice. I can only start at FADE IN and see what happens.

Colin Guest

Hi Lawrence, where did you obtain this course, as I am interested in knowing about script writing. Regards Colin

Cherie Grant

Don't open final draft until you have the story fully fleshed out on a word doc first. make an outline, notes, think it through. you only format your story when you have one.

Lawrence R. Kotkin

Colin, this one is from Industrial Scripts, a UK outfit. It's a bit pricey, but my price was correct; I got it as a present. Cherie, got it. Outline (3 novels and have yet to do an outline, but outline I will), notes, thinking.. ow. Would that I had a group of screenwriters to bounce ideas with. I know there are many in my neck of the woods, but flushing them for such a group is a little like herding well-oiled minks. Thank you both.

Andrew Bee

Hi Lawrence. I signed up for Screenwriters University ProSeries online course last October. It is without doubt the best course I have ever taken. Every single lesson is set up to protect the esteem of the writer. I have taught adults dancing for over twenty-five years and I know about what I am writing. I have nothing but enormous respect for Hal Croasmun. He is the ultimate professional. He has broken screenwriting down into itty bitty chunks of learnable information. I got a lot of work as an actor in February of this year and I couldn't possibly keep up to the pace, but I have all the lessons and I keep learning. I know how frustrating it can be, but the beauty of this course is that if you block, it doesn't matter. I block all the time and because of the structure of the course, I don't care.

Lawrence R. Kotkin

Andrew, I haven't taken any other courses, but I suspect we're in agreement. My big problem is time. I'm still editing a novel that is sucking the life out of me, but it's my first to, according to a number of other writers and my editor, I've now found my voice and I don't want to get literary laryngitis. I have but 5 lessons to complete, then comes the scripts. I won't begin to attempt to sell any until I have ten in my greasy mitts. This is far more fun than writing novels.

Phillip "Le Raconteur" Hardy

Lawrence: I think that's great that your taking a crack at writing a screenplay. When you write a novel, don't you have an outline of your story? As Cherie suggested, I would put together a complete story outline before I begin. For me, I generally have a 2 page maximum story outline with beginning, middle and end but also allow for scenes to spring out of the framework of my outline. I never fail to think of good scene ideas while working off my original two pager.

Asmeeta Bhogaita

Great to be connected

Lawrence R. Kotkin

Phil, a number of people have asked me that question. My writing teacher, Ann Crispin (may her soul not cringe when I say this) railed at me for not writing outlines. It all started when her first writing assignment was to create a character sans direct description, but rather from what he/she did. Hence, my story on the block: The Bag Man- an octogenarian with a bad attitude. No, I don't write and never have written outlines. I create a character, give that protagonist a problem other than that which accompanied the person into the story, and watched them handle it. When the protagonist appeared to handle it, I complicated life. That's my style. NOW, I'm learning to do outlines. I loathe outlines, but I am learning to start with the ending. It's a struggle, but struggles are what we create, are they not?

Lawrence R. Kotkin

Andrew, maybe someday I'll look at the Screenwriter's University course, but I'd like to produce something first. Then, perhaps, go back and hone my craft.

Colin Guest

Hi Lawrence, Thanks for the info, look forward to seeing you succeed. Colin

Phillip "Le Raconteur" Hardy

Lawrence: I appreciate your response. I work with an outline so that I have a map to help the characters get to their final destination. However, like playing jazz, I think those who plan out every scene, line and beat may wind up with a screenplay that reflects a sterile lack of creativity. Much like a musician playing jazz, I leave room for improvisation and creativity, allowing the characters to ping pong off one another, to create real sounding conversations. I normally always think of new, unplanned scenes during the writing process. I also work to tie loose plot ends together, which helps strengthen the overall plot. To me, there is no absolute right way. The objective should be to create something entertaining and god forbid even artistic.

Beth Fox Heisinger

Hi, Lawrence. Great advice on this thread! I kindly recommend "The Screenwriter's Bible" by David Trottier. It's an invaluable reference book that highlights all the various screenwriter's tools and proper formatting to help you construct your story on the page. :) It does address how stories work, their structure, and highlights various elements of the craft. However, it presents its information in a commonsensical and approachable manner. No matter your level of writing this book is extremely useful. :)

Lawrence R. Kotkin

Thank you for the reference. Right now I'm overwhelmed with invaluable advice. Almost makes me want to take a MFA in filmmaking. On second thought...

Anthony Cawood

Definitely agree with Beth re Trottier... great for formatting!

Andrew Bee

I understand, Lawrence. The Screenwriters University is a course designed solely for one purpose: to sell a script. In order to do that, there is no point in even writing until you come up with a High Concept. Last weekend I was compelled to express my feelings on paper and I whipped off a twenty-five page short. I don't give a shit if anyone even reads the thing. I just needed to get it out of me. I broke all the rules I learned, but I sure felt good! Now I will get back to learning the structure again.

Lawrence R. Kotkin

Andrew, I'm nearly complete with the beginner's course provided at Industrial Scripts. It's quite complete and thorough yet I see that I need to write a lot of scripts to 'get it." It sounds just like all the years I've been learning to write prose. This collaborative approach to writing simply looks more like the fun I've been seeking. Oh, and Boomer, it would be great to communicate about the skills.. if I knew what PM was. And yes, I end with verbs and prepositions and all that stuff. So there.

Lawrence R. Kotkin

The picture story of single scenes sounds like a great idea, as does starting with the end. Kind of like having desert at the beginning of a meal, except it's at the Palace Restaurant that serves 19 courses with a utensil for each course.

Lawrence R. Kotkin

BTW, the novel I currently have on the block sniffing out agents started with a directive from a writing teacher some 12 years ago that said, "create a character with words such that I would know that person if I met him/her...but! you are not permitted to use any visually descriptive phrases. That is, an old guy may not be described as "a stooped over bald man with white fringes over his ears celebrating his 95th year in the Bronx."

Andrew Bee

Good for you, Lawrence. The structure of a screenplay is so complicated that it can be overwhelming. For me, the work is to focus on getting something done, and not judge it. Just get it done. Hemingway learned very late in his career to stop suffering by allowing himself to write a first draft that was absolute shit.

Lawrence R. Kotkin

Been there, done that. The apprenticeship of learning to write has had me scrubbing many a floor.

Richard Toscan

Lawrence, reading your initial post suggested to me that you may be one of a small number of screenwriters (or hopeful screenwriters) who simply don't do well writing with outlining -- Ethan and Joel Coen are in that tiny company. Nearly all self-help screenwriting books and seminars hustle the outlining approach. Most screenwriters would rather drink vinegar than work without an outline, but that minority who hate outlines tends to feel that once you've done the outline, you've told the story and have undermine the drive to actually write it. Or as a famous American playwright once said, If you know the ending, why would you write the play? Playwriting is obviously a different animal from screenwriting, but the non-outliners share this view. What you might try is to think back on the process you used to write that novel and see if you can apply that same process to your first screenplay. Ignore all the how-to stuff and see if you can pound out at least 90 pages in format that way.

Lawrence R. Kotkin

You are a wise person. Now let's see if I can test your wisdom, obviously well earned.

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