As I emerge from an energy-crushing summer school holiday period (the first one’s a real killer, huh?), I’ve decided to try my best to write more regularly here. I thought, in the first instance, I’d curate some of the useful (screen)writing advice I’ve been picking up online. There’s a whole heap of good, practical stuff out there these days that I’m finding useful as I work through a new draft of my latest spec. Here’s episode one…
Tony Tost talks rewrites
Tony Tost’s Practical Screenwriting Substack is always a must-read. The current edition offers something you rarely get from pro writers – a detailed look at scene re-drafts. For obvious reasons, most screenwriters aren’t keen on airing early versions of their work – we all (have to) write shit to begin with, and knowing that no one else will see those initial fumbles is what makes the process less excruciating (only a little, mind…)
I’d love to do a podcast/blog where screenwriters talk about the actual nitty gritty of draft zero to final draft, with comparisons. No one wants to reveal their early rubbish, of course, but understanding how it gets polished into gold would be so useful I think— Christian Ward (@christianward) September 25, 2020
But I do think it’s useful to see how scripts evolve. Tony talks about rewriting the opening scenes of Damnation to shift the perception of his protagonist after lukewarm previews. It’s cheering to read a pro having to grapple with that age-old problem of audiences preferring the antagonist to the hero! Tony’s solution is influenced by how David Milch cracked the same problem on NYPD Blue (probably a first for me, actual practical advice from Milch – a writer I admire immensely, but who talks about screenwriting in intimidatingly esoteric terms in my experience!)
On a similar note, one of the best screenwriting exercises you can do is compare the original draft of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade with the Tom Stoppard rewrite. What Stoppard does is masterful, and you can learn loads by just taking some time to understand the decisions he’s made in punching-up scenes, adding subtext, killing exposition, and generally always looking to surprise with action/dialogue decisions.
Edward Zwick drops the occasional tips session on Twitter. Today, there’s some useful advice for screenwriters. This (number five) resonated most with me:
5.THE STUDIO READ— Edward Zwick (@EdwardZwick1) August 31, 2021
Don’t try to do the Art Director’s job. Long descriptions are for novelists. If the mise-en-scene isn’t clear from the dialogue, there’s something wrong with the scene. Find an Alvin Sargent script. It’s like watching a movie rather than reading one.
Interview with the Master
The Many Saints of Newark is out soon. I’m nervous. The Sopranos is the greatest TV show ever in my opinion (yeah I know, really radical opinion…) I have the scripts to hand whenever I’m writing (see below). But we’ve not heard from David Chase for a long time… Ah, who am I kidding? He’s the master – the only person I’ve ever sent a fan letter (email) to in my life (he didn’t reply). It’s going to be amazing.
Screenwriting as poetry
Someone on Twitter mentioned this recently, I can’t remember who (actually, maybe it was Tony?) ‘Screenwriting-as-poetry’ always seemed a little too conceptual to me, but I’m coming to understand better how it’s good, practical advice. I’m considering poetry much more as I think about scenes, and what they need (and don’t need) to convey in support of the wider emotional narrative.
So, speaking of poetry – and while we in the UK wait for the release of The Green Knight (God, I want to see this so bad…) – I highly recommend the recent translation of Beowulf by Maria Dahvana Headley. It’s the first thing I’ve read in a long time that really made me fall in love with possibilities of language again (another one: the insane 1894 translation of Rabelais’ Gargantua by Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty – seriously, check it out).
It’s writing to blow the cobwebs from your brain: