But does it spark joy?

Yesterday, I was talking with a colleague about a project I’m considering writing. It would be an adaptation of a very successful series I’ve long admired, and falls in a genre that’s comfortable to me. Even better, the studio really wants to make it, so it wouldn’t be pushing a boulder uphill.

But there are downsides that keep it from being a no-brainer.

Commensurate with its high profile, the property comes with a lot of strong voices and opinions. And it would be a tremendous time commitment, which would prevent me from working on some other long-simmering projects.

So, should I pursue it? My colleague asked a question inspired by Marie Kondo’s book and Netflix series:

“Does it spark joy?”

She sort of meant it as a joke,1 but it was exactly the right question. It clarified everything.

Some projects really do spark joy. You feel it from the first moment you start thinking about the idea. For me, these projects include Charlie’s Angels, Go, Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, plus an unannounced movie I just turned in.

Yes, they were all exhausting slogs at some point. Work is work. But when I compare them to other assignments with equivalent pay checks, the difference is stark.

So: does this new project spark joy?

Not really. It sparks curiosity and nostalgia. It would cool to work on it, and a very high-profile assignment. But if I didn’t get the job, I wouldn’t miss it. Which is exactly why I shouldn’t pursue it. The studio will find another writer who dreams about the chance to tackle that adaptation — or at least fakes it convincingly.

As a screenwriter, you often don’t have luxury of being so choosy. I went after a lot of projects for which I was faking that spark, especially at the beginning of my career.2 As I talk about on the most recent Scriptnotes, there’s no shame in hustling to get work.

But it’s also important to recognize when you need to stop hustling. To stop hoarding. To let some things go.

  1. It reminds me of B.J. Novak’s short story “The Girl Who Gave Great Advice” in which the title character alternates between asking, “What does your heart tell you?” and “What does your gut tell you?”
  2. I have a folder in Dropbox with pitches for everything from Highlander to My Three Sons.

How Can This Possibly End Well?

Interviewed with other screenwriters for the New York Times, Christopher McQuarrie makes a great point about action sequences:

The best action sequences are free of exposition, with stakes that are established in advance or, better still, self-evident. They don’t ask an audience to think, to process, to remember. Instead, they keep the audience’s collective subconscious focused entirely on one simple question.

The question is not how will it end? If this mattered, there would be no Ethan Hunt, James Bond, Jason Bourne, John McClane, Indiana Jones, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd or Charlie Chaplin. We know they’ll come out on top in the end. We count on it. It is a contract, a sacred pact between filmmaker and audience.

The only question that matters is, how can this possibly end well?

McQuarrie just signed on to make two more Mission: Impossible movies. You can hear my interview with him about his transition from writer to writer-director in Scriptnotes episode 300.

Splitting the Party

Scriptnotes: Ep. 383

John and Craig talk about the trope of “Never split the party,” and why, as a writer, you often want and need to divide up your characters to better explore relationships, propel the story forward, give actors something to do, and simply fit everyone in the frame.

We also follow up on screenwriting scams, sequences, websites, and liking things that others don’t.


Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

Professional Realism

Scriptnotes: Ep. 382

John welcomes Derek Haas (Chicago Fire, 3:10 to Yuma, 2 Fast 2 Furious) to talk about writing accurate portrayals of different jobs, and when to sacrifice reality for storytelling. They also share their time-management strategies in honor of those New Year resolutions to get writing done.

We also answer listener questions about the necessity of entertainment lawyers, how to keep your energy high pitch after pitch, Story By credits, and how to stay alive after that first staff writing job ends.


Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

Becoming a Professional Screenwriter

Scriptnotes: Ep. 381

John welcomes Tess Morris, Christina Hodson, Nicole Perlman, and Jason Fuchs to discuss their paths to becoming a professional screenwriter. They track the progression from glass bead day jobs to navigating general meetings to planning inconsistent finances to actually calling oneself a writer and even getting paid.

We also answer audience questions about career longevity and leaving writing behind.


Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

UPDATE 1-9-18: The transcript of this episode can be found here.

Double Ampersand

Scriptnotes: Ep. 380

John sits down with Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson and Philippa Boyens to discuss their new film Mortal Engines, and their approach to writing as a team, worldbuilding, and rewriting through production, because one does not simply walk into Mordor.

We also answer audience questions about the difference between ideas for television and movies, and working through dialogue out loud.


Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

UPDATE 1-2-19: The transcript of this episode can be found here.