Screenplay Execution, Part 1
Above is just some random image I Googled. Personally, I don’t make flow charts, index cards, notebooks, etc. It’s all in my head, until I make some notes for an outline, then I typically write a vomit draft (barely even looking at the outline).
But everybody should find a process that works best for them!
By the way, I know these columns are all too long, but you get what you pay for, suckas!
Your script has to be based on a cool idea that makes people go, “Hey, I want to read that.”
If you’re David Fincher, your script can be anything you want. But notice how Fincher almost always makes something that makes you go, “Hey, I want to see that!”
I talked about screenwriting “voice,” and broke the hard truth that some people just are more interesting and have more to say.
Then I talked about the biggest thing that scripts get wrong: not character, not plot, structure, dialogue—those standard “elements.”
No, it’s that the human behavior is wrong.
People don’t act like people. It’s boring. It’s not emotional.
Writing truthful and interesting human behavior is, of course, easy to suggest, but takes a lifetime to learn—of empathy, introspection and observation.
It’s contradictory because it requires both warm caring and ice-cold intellect. This is really where “talent” and “voice” come from.
How do you teach it? You can’t. It can be learned, but not taught.
And, as with all things, effort and practice make a world of difference.
There’s a theory that talent doesn’t make people directly better at a skill. What it does is make them more inclined to put in the thousands of hours of practice needed to master the skill—because they enjoy doing it.
I think I got that from a Gladwell book. It sounds like his kind of pop analysis. Is it true? Maybe. Does it sell books? Sure!
Let’s say you have a really cool idea. I saw one the other day, that I’ll never use (it’s not to my taste), but it had to do with an article about death doulas.
That’s cool idea for a movie. What would it be like to be a hospice nurse who guides people into death? It sounds depressing, but it’s really life-affirming. It’s certainly got weight and emotion to it. As a civilian, it’s the kind of thing where you hear about it and think, “Jeez, sounds like a bummer,” but your friend says, “No, really, it’s beautiful and hilarious.”
I mean, Terms of Endearment? Hello?
But it is a heavy lift.
How do you take a concept—death doulas—and turn it into a movie?
The primordial stages of the execution are critical. And frankly, this is where most scripts, period (not just amateur scripts), go astray.
It is why things get stuck in development hell—and stars, directors, producers and studio execs argue over them incessantly, and maybe it comes down to a young studio boss declaring, “I want to smell the spaghetti.” (True story—Bob Evans on The Godfather.)
Rather like the development of a fetus—wherein the initial cells arrange to form the heart, the brain, the spine, the organs—one tiny little thing goes wrong, and you have a mutant that will never survive outside the womb.
Amateur writers simply don’t take the time to deliberate at this stage.
I know I never did! I am such a dummy!!!
The biggest reason they don’t take the time is that they just don’t know any better. And the blank page terrifies them. They have imposter syndrome anyway, and just have to barrel past it by writing plot, plot and more plot.
On top of that, probably they are emotionally clinging to the thing that made them want to write it in the first place—for the death doula story, let’s say it was the time Grandma died.
It’s great to mine your own experience for truth and emotion, but you have to be aware of it, or it’ll get away from you. Remember: you’re trying to make the audience cry. Not make yourself cry.
Amateur writers grasp for familiar narrative chunks and then try to jam them together into a narrative. And it usually (if not almost always) ends up being a feathered fish (it neither swims nor flies).
That’s why when a manager or producer does want to rep or option a script, because there’s enough promise to the concept and/or the voice—the immediate first step is, okay, let’s rewrite this piece of shit.
Are you one of those people who writes character backstories? This to me is insanely premature. Why would I want to lock in that my protagonist went to Harvard when I have no idea who this person is or what she needs to do?
I’m a structuralist. Always have been, always will be.
Screenwriting is maddening because you are working from the inside-out, emotionally, while simultaneously working from the outside-in, structurally.
Did that make sense?
This is the order of operations, for me anyway:
2) Figure out the truthful emotion from that concept.
3) Brainstorm a structure that would contain and express that emotion you got from your concept.
No. 2 and 3 kind of happen simultaneously, but I’d prioritize emotion. People leave a movie remembering the feeling—unless they’re a writer, they never even consider the structure.
What is the structure? It’s the container for all the component parts: character, plot, setting, act breaks, dramatic conflict, incidents, budget (is it a $2M or $200M idea?)…
At this stage of the process, you just kind of let them float in a kind of primordial story soup.
If you want to make notes, make notes. I don’t. But do whatever works for you.
I have a feeling doing the execution properly will make people profoundly nervous. It’s terrifying because you can’t grasp anything.
BTW: Don’t take my word for any of this! Please read this Craig Mazin podcast transcript where he explains how to construct a story, using Pixar’s Finding Nemo as an example.
It’s essential to have had a certain amount of practice—probably writing terrible scripts—because properly executing a concept means testing how things will play out, without having to take the time to actually write them.
There’s a writer named Tony Tost who has a terrific substack called Practical Screenwriting. Read it! His advice sounds the most like advice you would get from an actual screenwriter (as opposed to somebody writing articles for newbies at a for-profit website).
Tony says that some of the best writers come from TV procedurals, and I agree. People look down on those procedurals as being pop garbage—and seriously, I see a promo for C.S.I. The Moon or whatever during an NFL game, and I’m like, “No wonder Trump was President.” But they take a ton of skill, and their writers develop real chops.
You need chops! You need to develop those muscles so you can switch things around in your brain—what if the protagonist is rich, not poor? Black, not white? Old, not young? Who dies—Grandma? A spouse? A child? And take them to their logical conclusions.
That’s the secret to development: cycling through the nearly infinite possibilities to find the statue in the marble. You don’t just start chiseling!
If you can do this efficiently and productively in your head, through some combination of intuition, craft and experience—you’re going to make a lot of money!
But you need that duality: absolute empathy combined with sheer ruthlessness.
What you’re looking for is some sort of basic “math” that lets the story work.
You need a protagonist who wants something. What would a death doula want? Redemption? Love? Belonging? Control?
You know what was a great horror film? Saint Maud. That was about an unstable young woman who wanted to be closer to God and worked with terminally ill patients and spiraled into insanity. (See it!)
So maybe that is the death doula movie? It’s a horror movie!
This is my point: you just don’t know.
So you do the work: who is the protagonist, what does she want? How does she change? What are the act breaks? What are her obstacles?
Okay, that might give you a structure. Test it out: who is the antagonist? Is it the ill patient? The hospital? Somebody’s vision of the Grim Reaper?
Is this a fantasy? Is it a comedy? I have no idea. But it could be a comedy...a black comedy about a small group of death doulas?
You know what always works? The American Graffiti model: there’s one kid who’s going to leave his small town to go to college, and another who is going to stay. But in the end, they both switch.
I just ripped that off for a bizarre rom-com set on Martha’s Vineyard. It’s perfect because you have the visual metaphor of the ferry boat as they “switch”!
So in our death doula movie, you can have the spouse whose husband is dying who hates every minute of it because she feels like she wasted her life with this prick. And you can have the superficially caring but emotionally messed-up, ultra-brittle death doula who is drawn to her job by a certain need for control.
By the end—the husband dies. The wife decides to become a death doula. And the death doula quits to finally live her life and leave her own miserable husband and, I don’t know, be a lesbian or whatever.
That’s a movie—because it has movement. It has structure.
It also could be filmed for nothing (it takes place in a house!) and has awesome roles for three stars.
At the entry-level screenwriting stage, this is the home run: a unique concept with tons of emotion, that doesn’t require a lot of money. And it fits a model of what actually gets made: a tasteful indie about the human condition.
Great! Who wants to write it?
I’m kidding, but not kidding. There would be a ton of work to do with this movie—like, the entire writing of it.
I’m already worried about the idea of the wife becoming a death doula because it seems way too convenient. It seems like The Trouble With Angels.
And if that doesn’t work, then the whole structure doesn’t work.
So it’s back to the drawing board.
You do this over and over again.
What you don’t do is simply write pages. You don’t even outline. I tell my wife when I’m sitting and watching a baseball game—honey, it doesn’t look like work, but I’m working.
You start to amass content: what are the big moments? The little moments? The jokes? The images? I never write anything down because I trust that if it’s good, I’ll remember it. And if it’s bad, I won’t!
Because this is a real subject (as opposed to sci-fi baloney), you do research. I’m sure the details you would get from real hospice nurses would be amazing.
I was going to write, at this point, about some experiences when my dear stepdad was dying from pancreatic cancer in 2008. His name was Herb Putnam, and we miss him terribly.
He looked like Sam Neill!
We love you, Herb. It’s really not fair.
However, I’m not going to do that right now because I’d want to run it by my mom first, and while I’m sure she’d be supportive, it’s just too heavy an emotional topic for Saturday morning.
I’m pretty sure that almost all of the articles you’ll see on screenwriting websites—“Six Ways to Improve Your Characters in Act Two”—please do me a favor: print them out and burn them in the oven.
I can’t claim that my way is the real way, only that it works for me, and I’m broke.
So do me a favor: print out this column and burn it in an oven!
Anyway, in my true, lived experience—the process is a floating mess.
Above all, you want simplicity.
Oooh, name-drop time! I used to hang out at Shane Black’s house. This was when he was writing what became Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. He had an office on Wilshire with three dead plants in it. He would go there often to work and I asked, “What are you doing?” Because the script had already been written, or at least that was the impression I got.
He said, “Simplify.” He was trying to simplify the script.
This seemed counterintuitive to me because when I think of Shane Black scripts, they’re so ultra-complicated.
He clearly didn’t simply KKBB enough because I still have no idea what the plot was, only that, like I said at the top of this—I was left with the feeling of great affection and warmth.
But, you know, Shane’s a sorcerer. He’s one-of-a-kind. His scripts are literature.
And at that time, he was trying to strip out stuff that was inessential. He was trying to make everything tighter, sharper and better.
This is the life: rewriting.
Execution means pulling an orange out of your brain through your nose, while plunging down an elevator shaft.
It means getting feedback, and ruthlessly assessing where you screwed up—and writing it over again. And again and again through this process.
This is why I say: stop entering contests! Get paid feedback, if you need somebody who is a more serious reader than your S.O. Skip the waiting four months just to find out you were a quarterfinalist—because nobody gives a shit anyway.
But that’s a topic for another time—rewriting.