Tuesday, March 19, 2013

How (Not) to Write a Screenplay

Hollywood’s expectation for spec writers is straight forward – if you’re walking backwards. What studio folks want to hear is a fresh and original story idea that sounds like something they’ve already heard.

We found that out the hard way.

After we’d written the first book in our paranormal adventure-comedy series, the Silverville Saga, lots of readers told us it should be a movie, and we believed them. So we tried writing our very own screen adaptation.

Mistake No. 1 – We didn’t know what we were doing.

We took our novel and chopped out all the exposition and reformatted the remaining dialog with a bit of action to contextualize what characters – er, we mean, actors – would say. Our script was more of a stage play with no stage, and it was awful.

A couple of screenwriting friends advised us to attend a few workshops (we attended), buy a few books on the subject (we bought), and try again (yep, we tried).

Mistake No. 2 – We didn’t buy Save the Cat.

This time we had a couple of Indy directors and a fairly big producer look us over. But no meetings – at least, none that led to movie deals. One good friend and mentor, a longtime Hollywood stuntman and stunt double for the likes of Clark Gable, John Wayne and, well, you name it and he stood in –  so, this friend read our script and told us we still didn’t know what we were doing. He tapped page fifteen and pointed to a description we’d included, telling us, “That one little sentence is going to cost $10,000 in production values. Any script reader would see that and tell the producer to pass on your property. Go back and do your homework.”

Mistake No. 3 – We bought the right book, but we didn’t follow the advice.

Yes, Snyder’s advice is formulaic, and yes it’s restrictive. But it works. It’s what moviemakers want; it’s also what moviegoers expect. Like any seasoned writing professional knows, you have to write to the medium. Screenplays are a specialized medium, and you’ve got to craft the words to play to the strengths. Formula and tight structure are two of those strengths.

Even though this new approach to writing hurtled our words down a narrow corridor that felt like a giant water slide, the payoff was getting to focus on the important scenes (let prose writers chop through the dense foliage of exposition). It was fun, and it made us rethink our novels as well. Shouldn't all our scenes be important? Do we really want ferns and vines obscuring so much of the straight shot through our water slides? Okay, different medium, but there was a valuable take-away from Snyder's advice, regardless of medium. After all, the name of the game is still storytelling.

Snyder’s book explains all that and more, plus he also gives value-added advice that opens windows into the weird world of movie making and movie deals. It’s not enough to have a good story – maybe not enough to have a good script. 

Just like good dialog in any medium, it’s all about the subtext. Snyder provides that subtext, explaining to aspiring screenwriters how the process works both on and off the page, both in front of the camera and around the boardroom, both within the studio system as well as throughout the whole, weird tinsel-twisted town.

In the end, we took away three things from our screenwriting experience: 
  1. We love writing that focuses all the attention on scenes that matter. 
  2. Screenwriting strategies can make any story tighter and, frankly, better because it’s good craft that makes good stories come to life. 
  3. We’re not yet competent screenwriters.

Mistake No. 4 – 
We’re still waiting to make that one. We don’t know what it is or when it’s coming; of course, we’re sure the answer on how to avoid it lies somewhere in the pages of Save the Cat. And we’re sure someone will point out the passage as soon as we make inevitable Mistake No. 4.

The process almost feels reassuring, kind of like walking straight forward. 

Only backwards

-- Kym-n-Mark

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Progressive Book Club: A meeting of the minds, open each month to those who wish to read and discuss the current book with their peers. Join in on the titles you like, pass on those you don’t. It’s that simple.

Now it's time to join the next PBC blog discussion on Save the Cat:


  1. I bow to your courage and commitment.

    I remember in high school, my communications teacher used to be a Location Director and had a few extra scripts to show us.

    Remembering that, again, I bow to your courage and commitment.

    1. Hey, Tonya.

      Well, not sure it's so much a matter of courage as something more akin to being fear-blithed fools. But we never let not knowing we can't ever stop us from finding out why!

      Thanks for stopping by. BTW, love your blog!

  2. I agree with T.J. I don't know if I could be a screenwriter. One of my writer friends is and I've seen some of his work. Let's just say, I'll stick to what I'm comfortable with but I do commend you for tackling it. Good luck and maybe Mistake #4 will success #1?

    1. Thanks, Mel.

      We don't mind mistakes. Shoot, it's how we usually blunder (backwards) into what successes we have! So why change a strategy we're used to? :)

      More seriously, we do stand by the notion that screenwriting is valuable -- even as a closet scribbling style -- as a way to strengthen prose writing. We tend to write visually anyway, so the medium focuses us more effectively on making sure we're writing to the mind's eye, and economically.

      Thanks for coming by our blog, reading, and sharing your own words.

  3. I was especially interested to read your review knowing your path and experience with writing. I think what most intrigued me with the book is the application of the "beats" which I know many authors directly compute and apply to their books. His experience and success definitely made me pay more attention to his advice. He knows how to sell a script. If I ever attempt a work of fiction again, I will reread this book and take his advice much more literally.

    Now here's to your great success selling your screenplay. I want to be able to sit in a parlor with my friends, nod sagely and say, "Why yes, I do know Mark and Kym Todd. They're really very regular folk despite their huge fame and wealth."

    1. Ha! Julie, you're so funny.

      We're more likely to be like the cameo roles we gave ourselves in ALL PLUCKED UP, where another character says, "The Todds? Oh, they're failed writers who once wrote a book about Silverville."

  4. I appreciated your honesty and enjoyed reading a review from the perspective of someone actually trying to write a screenplay. Great post.

  5. Thanks, Melissa.

    Quite frankly, we've had more success with stage plays, and have had a couple of those produced in small markets. But screenwriting is such a bigger production, spelled "M-O-N-E-Y," and that makes the ante so much higher in pleasing the gatekeepers.

    Rather than selling spec scripts, we think the more likely way is the backdoor -- i.e., writing yourself into the screen options on that book you write! That way you get to write the screenplay, which movie execs have to buy from you before they have it rewritten to suit themselves. :)

  6. Thanks for this great post about your writing journey and Save the Cat! I discovered that I think I missed a few of the important beats, or mis-timed them, in my novel that's already out there. (sigh). However, I'm putting the beat sheet into practice for my second book. Every day I write, and every day I learn.

  7. Hi, Tyrean. Thanks for following us -- welcome!

    We absolutely agree that the writing/publishing journey is one of hindsight and experience learned the hard way.

    But think of all the great "things *not* to do" stories we gather along the way.

    Maybe we -- or you -- will write the next book about what we all should have done. Maybe ... Save the Armadillo (Trying to Cross the Highway)! :)

  8. Kym-n-Mark,

    This is an excellent review. I'm thrilled you could offer the perspective of both fiction writers and screenplay writers. You've highlighted some valid points: 'it's what movie-makers want and it's what movie-goers expect.' Money is a big thing. If a movie-maker is going to invest huges amounts, the product needs to sell, sell, sell.

    Thanks for relating your journey. I look forward to reading about Success No.?

  9. Hi, Erica.

    Ha! "Success No. ?" is as elusive as that cat!

    We once had a well-published friend and mentor tell us the hardest writing property to sell is... the next one. 'Course, not for Nolan or King or any of the branded authors, for sure. But for the hordes of the rest of us, it's still important to realize that the first and most important audience is the one who's going to buy your writing in the first place.

    That's what we liked about Snyder's advice. He's trying to provide all that subtext. And it's the same for book publishing -- whether it's legacy, literary, or small presses.

    Do we sound like we've given ourselves over to the Dark Side of the Force? Maybe. But even Anakin Skywalker found redemption in the end -- after he was branded and worth redeeming. :)

  10. sounds like you're on the right track now!
    and getting the mistakes out of the way leaves an opening for the big success! keep writing!

  11. Thanks, Tara, and thanks for stopping by. Wishing you the same big successes with your own writing projects!