Questions have been backing up in the inbox for a few weeks, so I thought I’d do a Short Answer Sprint to work through a few.
If a friend or co-worker tells you an anecdote, or describes a character eccentricity of one of her relatives, and you use it in a screenplay are there any legal ramifications? I have no intention of using the name of the friend’s relative (I don’t know it), but the story and the relative are so funny and eccentric, respectively, that a very amusing character could be made from them. Do I need to get my friend’s permission to use this information?
Legally, no. Ethically, yes. Particularly if said friend is a writer who might be planning to use it herself. I borrowed an anecdote from a screenwriter friend in Go: the moment when Simon accidentally sets the hotel room on fire. I changed pretty much everything about it, but I checked with him first to make sure he wasn’t planning on using it.
I’m writing a scene between a Chinese immigrant woman and a man from Mexico. Both characters speak in broken English, and I’m wondering how to correctly write broken English with a Chinese accent and speaking pattern, as well as how to do it for other languages. Do you just write the dialogue in “good English” and then somehow note that the character has a thick Chinese accent? How would you tackle this challenge and could you an some example or two?
— Jules Hoffman
No time for examples in a Short Answer Sprint. But when writing non-standard English, you walk a fine line between “giving the flavor” and “annoying the reader.” So here’s the simple advice:
- Use the speaker’s words
- Use the speaker’s grammatical structure
- Don’t try to duplicate the exact speech pattern on paper
If you have more than two apostrophes in a line of dialogue, you’re probably overdoing it.
I’ve been building a bit of a gut. Too many years of balancing a day job with writing time and squeezing in food when I could led to some really bad eating habits. One of the perks, though, was that I became a “Shit Camel.” I could go for a week without taking a dump. Sure, it was a massive, hour-long endeavor that afforded plenty of reading time whenever I did take a crap, but it left the flow of work or writing largely undisturbed.
Now that I’m eating better and trying to work this fat off, I find that I’m visiting the john much more often and depositing much less when I leave. I hate that. This has been especially annoying in the past few days since I blocked them off for writing time only.
All this is to ask, what do you eat as a writer? Are you hunched in front of your Mac for hours on end like a crazy Korean gamer, with Red Bulls and candy wrappers scattered everywhere? Or do you have some kind of healthy eating regimen that keeps you energized? Just curious, because distractions of any kind really destroy my momentum.
— René Garcia
Writing is sedentary, and sedentary people tend to get fat. But most screenwriters — even the fat ones — defecate more than once a week. Yikes.
In terms of health, I eat pretty sensibly. If you’re trying to lose weight, South Beach is actually very easy and sane. Excercise-wise, I lift three times a week. (A lot of writers go to my gym, for reasons unclear.) I do less cardio than I should, but I’m walking 4+ miles per day picketing, so that kind of makes up for it.
I am a beginning screenwriter and I am very intimidated by plot design. I love reading good screenplays because the plots seem like clever puzzles where each piece fits snugly but unexpectedly into a grand scheme. When I try to construct plots on my own, however, I feel they seem contrived and unrealistic. It seems like a very intellectual process to me, even though the ultimate goal is an emotional one. Do you have any advice for someone struggling with this? I’ve read about three books on screenwriting, and they make plot structure seem so basic, but it doesn’t feel that way when you’re creating from scratch. Any helpful words from you will probably do a lot for me.
Screenwriting books make everything seem so tidy, when actual screenwriting is gory and difficult. Plot and structure are really just the answer to a single question: what happens when?
Look at your story from your main characters’ perspectives. What are they trying to do at each moment in the script? What do they know, and what do they learn?
Then look at it from the audience’s perspective. What do they know, and what do they expect will happen next?
A good plot keeps surprising both the main characters and your audience. Probably the reason your plots feel contrived is that you’re trying to drag your characters through some pre-determined series of structural benchmarks, rather than focusing on what’s interesting and surprising right now in this scene.
I read in your comments, some time ago, that you had a mix tape you listened when you wrote for “Go” to help you get in the right mood. Did any of that music find its way into the movie? If so, how did that happen? ex. did you suggest it to the music director? If not, why not? Wasn’t it a key factor in setting tone for you?
None of those songs made it in the movie — and that’s fine. A playlist is a great way to help capture a certain tone while you’re writing, particularly when you need to get back into a mood. But it’s really just for your own preparation. Screenwriting is a lot like acting in that way, incidentally. Actors often have touchstones to help them get back into a role. Music is a great one.
Are you inspired to help new writers because you had the good fortune of a mentor when you were starting your career, or do you do it because you had to figure it out on your own?
I didn’t have a mentor, at least not for any significant period of time. I started this site because I remembered what it was like having 1,000 questions about screenwriting, and no good place to ask them.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one, but do you think the stop of “Ops” was related to the imminence of the somewhat similar secret-adventures-’round-the-world “The Unit”?
— Matt Waggoner
The Unit is a lot like Ops — but done as a CBS show. I don’t mean that as a slam. They figured out how to take a potentially risky premise and turn it into something embraceable by a mass audience. What’s funny is that we met with Scott Foley for Ops (at Susina, the coffee shop featured in The Nines). He read the script and really liked it. We liked him, and would have cast him in a second. He’s an undervalued actor, and a nice guy.
But no, I don’t think The Unit derailed Ops. Our project hung around longer than it should have largely based on my name and the quality of the writing. It really wasn’t a Fox-appropriate show, and it’s for the best we never shot the pilot. (The two Ops scripts are in Downloads section if you want to read them.)
I’m in early discussions with a producer about writing a biopic. One thing that has come up in these discussions is the producer’s insistence that the movie adhere to a traditional three act structure and not be ‘episodic’ – and I agree with him in principle (I’m frequently dissatisfied by biopics for this very reason), but I also feel that the complicating factor in this case is that lives simply don’t unfold in three acts – they are, by their very nature, episodic. I was curious as to how you might approach this kind of assignment in terms of finding a three-act story within an episodic sequence of ‘true’ events.
History is history. Movies are stories, and good stories have forward momentum. Your challenge is finding the thread(s) that keep the main character working towards a goal, with obstacles, setbacks, and moments of success. And that may not be possible. There are many remarkable people whose lives are surprisingly resistant to dramatic staging. There hasn’t been a great biopic of Lincoln, Da Vinci, or Einstein. Amadeus succeeds because they elevated a fairly minor character in his life (Salieri) and told a largely fictionalized story through his eyes.
Don’t try to tell the story of a great person’s life. Tell a great story using the details of a person’s life.
This may be kind of a loaded question, but have you ever read Stephen King’s Dark Tower books? They’ve just been finished, thirty-some years after the first book was started, and are so old fashioned and evocative of Rod Serling — like some weird combination of The Lord of the Rings, Sergeo Leonne’s Spaghetti Westerns and The Twilight Zone — that a movie adaptation has to happen eventually. The fan base is much too huge. Could you ever see yourself considering adapting this?
— J.R. Flynn
This is an example of how long questions sit in the box sometimes. JJ Abrams is now adapting it.
But to answer your question: sure. I could see myself doing it. But JJ Abrams or not, I try not to dwell on the projects I’m not writing, because that can drive one mad with frustration. As busy as I am (when not on strike), barely a week goes by that I don’t see a project announced in Variety which causes that spike of envy. If that ever goes away, I’ll probably quit.
In the re-design of the site, I inadvertently got rid of the “Ask a Question” link. Until I find a good home for it, you can ask a question here.