Updated: Sep 13, 2022
Above: a random Aliens page by the master, James Cameron.
Top-end scripts have action writing that is so engaging, it’s actually fun to read. But when you try, it comes out purple—why?
Amateurs just describe stuff. Professionals filter all the prose through a human lens. They write about people. They make it experiential. Read anything by James Cameron, the all-time master.
If you’re just describing stuff, it’s novelistic and probably boring. But if you’re writing about people, their inner nature, and how it informs their behavior—of course, you don’t want to turn it into a novel, but you’d be shocked how “unfilmable” it might be…yet it won’t matter.
Because you’re taking the reader on an emotional journey, which is interesting.
A quick tip about openings: give your protagonist a relatable situation, to start. A bad blind date, an embarrassing moment socially.
Use the universal emotion from that easily understood situation to build empathy—now the audience will be invested in following him or her. Ta-da!
KEEP THEM TURNING THE PAGE
There is only one rule as to sluglines, formatting, etc.: keep the reader turning the page!
If you get feedback from a coverage company and somebody complains about “unfilmables”—that’s just some kid who doesn’t know anything.
Beginner scripts have the bad kind of unfilmables. You rightfully learn to avoid them. (“Sally thought of an orange.”)
But real scripts have tons of unfilmables. (“Sally grimaces—she wants to kill her for that.”)
Obviously, don’t go crazy, but you have way more leeway than you think.
If it’s interesting, if it’s truthful, if it’s amusing—use it! You’re not pandering—you’re being an entertainer. Entertain!
I RECOMMEND THERAPY
It’s not for me to tell people how to live their lives, but I sincerely recommend therapy—or some kind of emotional introspection.
I truly became a better writer as I got older, got married, had children, and had life experiences.
If you know yourself, then you can better know your characters—and you can better anticipate how the reader will receive your storytelling.
I’m not advocating being a “Method writer”—just saying that it was important, for me, not to have any “blocks” about difficult subject matter in my own life.
I’M NOT A COACH
I can’t give you anything useful about morale, scheduling, life-work balance, procrastination, or any of that. There are good people who do that, if you’re interested.
I advocate total investment when writing—and total detachment when selling.
It’s very difficult, emotionally. But it’s sort of the only way to keep sane.
IT’S A PROCESS
Despite everything—there is no substitute for the painful, iterative process of writing and rewriting drafts.
Your success will come down to talent and perseverance. How much do you have, and how hard are you willing to work?
And yeah, there will be a lot of luck involved. I wish you the best of it.
Next: Tips, non-writing.