So I want to get into some advanced screenwriting stuff today, but before I do, I need to relay an encounter I just had with a screenwriter. A mutual friend introduced me as “Someone who could offer advice,” to the young gentleman and the writer immediately went into this long spiel about how hard it is to get into the industry and how no one wanted to read his scripts and when they did, they “didn’t get them” and something something “nepotism.” After this endless rant came to a close, I asked him how long he’d been writing screenplays. “A year and a half.” I internally groaned.
Let’s go back, shall we?
When I used to teach tennis, there were stages to a player’s development. First, they had to learn how to hit the primary shot – the forehand – correctly. I would take them through the shot slowly, physically guiding their arm through the motion. Then I would drop a ball and have them hit it, from which all form went out the window. And I’d have to re-focus them to do the correct swing regardless of the fact that there was now a ball involved.
Once they got this, I would move back a few feet and toss the ball to them. When they got good at that, I would move back further, tossing again. Eventually I would move to the other side of the net, and soon-after, I would be “feeding” them the ball from my racket. We’d do this for countless hours, countless lessons. And then you know what we’d do? We’d start over and do the same thing with the backhand.
And then I’d teach them how to serve. And then I’d teach them how to hit volleys. And then I’d teach them how to rally from the baseline. This would take months, a year. And you know what? We hadn’t even learned how to play the game yet. So I’d have to teach them that. And then I’d play with them. And then I’d have to teach them how to direct the ball. And then I’d have to teach them different spins on all the shots, variations in spins, and when and why you would want to use them. Then I’d have to teach them strategy. When to play consistently and when to go for the winner.
And even after I taught some of my better players this over the course of, say, two years, they’d still only be, if they were lucky, bottom-level city players. They weren’t even close to locally ranked. If I would’ve sent them into a tournament, they’d probably lose 6-1, 6-0 in the first round.
I want you to think about that for a second. My most dedicated players with a solid amount of talent couldn’t even get locally ranked after 2 years of playing. To give you some perspective on that, a local ranking is still considered being a “scrub” in tennis vernacular. It’s only when you get to the high local rankings in a major city that you’re considered “good.” And even then, you’re still ranked low regionally. And don’t even get me started on where you’re ranked nationally (you aren’t).
And even if you manage to somehow make it into the top 20 nationally, which is an AMAZING fucking achievement – these guys can fire a 130 mile an hour serve past you in their sleep – you’re probably ranked between 250-350 in the world, which means you’re making $40-50k a year, all of which you’re spending on travel so you can stay on the circuit.
What’s the lesson here?
Don’t play tennis.
But on a more serious note, here’s my point: mastering anything is hard. And there aren’t any shortcuts. Screenwriting may not be as physically demanding as tennis or basketball or even golf. But trust me, it requires the same amount of dedication. Because everybody’s trying to do it. And the only way to rise above others is to do it more.
The one thing I did see in tennis is that when a student dedicated 10 hours a week to practice, as opposed to 5, or 4, or 1, they got better a lot faster. And the guys who did get ranked? They worked more than anyone. They’d practice at least 14 hours a week and usually more. So by doing that one simple thing – writing more – you can improve your chances dramatically.
But there’s one thing I noticed from both my playing and teaching days and that was, at a certain point, every player would reach a ceiling. And only a select few would break through it into that “upper tier.” Contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t always talent that got them there. Yes, talent played a part in it.
But some guys made it through that ceiling purely on heart. Because they couldn’t see any other option than breaking through and they would push as hard as they could for as long as they could until they made it. Still others just worked their fucking asses off. They outworked the system. If their competition practiced 30 hours a week, they’d practice 40.
All of this is a rather elaborate way of setting up today’s topic – advanced screenwriting. For those of you who have hit all the forehands (learning the 3-Act structure) and the backhands (you no longer write on-the-nose dialogue), and the serves (show don’t tell), and have actual confidence that you can put a cohesive and entertaining story together for 110 pages, but you still can’t seem to break through the ceiling, here are three tenets of advanced screenwriters you should be working towards.
The ability to make the complex simple – A screenplay can have complex ideas and complex characters. But, at its core, it should be simple. If there’s one mistake I keep seeing all the way up to the top ranks in screenwriting, it’s over-complication of the story. Screenwriters make things overly complex and, as a result, their story gets muddled. If a story is muddled for as little as 5 pages, a reader will mentally check out.
The reader must always know what’s going on. Even if you don’t want them to know what’s going on, they should know that they don’t know what’s going on only because you don’t want them to, not because you don’t know. A good example of a movie with complex ideas and a complex structure that strived and succeeded in making things simple was Inside Out. Despite dual storylines (in and out of Riley’s brain), and a lot of world-building, the plot boiled down to two SIMPLE adventures. Joy trying to get back to headquarters and Riley wanting to go back to Minnesota.
Failures in this arena would be films like Interstellar and The Accountant. I’m not saying these were bad films. But they were movies where the scripts got away from the writers due to overcomplicating the story. I mean Interstellar starts off being about saving earth and then becomes about what? The art of space travel? The Accountant is about an accountant who’s also an occasional hitman? What? And J.K. Simmons is trying to find him because why? He’s bored? And what is Ben Affleck even trying to do for this company he’s working for? And why is an autistic accountant a hitman again other than that’s a character an actor would want to play?
Take the extra time to simplify your most complex elements and make sure your core storyline (the engine that’s driving your characters towards their goal) is simple as shit.
A character who not only changes, but changes realistically – Intermediate screenwriters understand the value of a character who changes. Seeing a character become a better person over the course of their journey is one of the most moving and powerful components you can add to your screenplay.
But where all the intermediates get stuck is that they change their character in a Screenwriting 101 manner. That means that the character changes, but it doesn’t feel realistic. They only change because the writer needs them to change to complete the arc, not because, if this were real life, the character would really change.
That’s the key phrase you want to implant in your head – “if this were real life.” Would your character really change in this moment? Or are they just changing because it’s the end of the story and your screenwriting teacher told you this is when the change would happen?
If the change doesn’t feel realistic, the solution may be to add character-change “checkpoints” throughout the script. These are moments where your character is being tested on their limiting belief/flaw that, through their actions, show they’re not ready to accept the change yet. If we see your character being tested repeatedly, we’re more likely to believe that, on that final test, they’ll succumb to change.
A good example of this would be Alan Turing in The Imitation Game. Turing is arrogant and unreceptive to help, preferring to do things his way and alone. It’s only through repeated opportunities (checkpoints) to bond with and trust his team that he eventually realizes he needs their help to solve the problem. And so he changes.
Thematic consistency – Thematic consistency is the act of making sure everything in your script comes together and operates on the same wavelength. I read too many scripts where the sum is not equal to the parts. Each choice is isolated, an idea that works in its own little bubble, but does not coexist with the other choices harmoniously. A script is like one big thesis statement. Every portion of it should support the operating thesis.
If you were writing a movie about racism, you don’t have your fourth most important character be a postal worker who’s trying to get his engineering degree. What does that have to do with racism? It’d be smarter to make him, say, a black cop who works in an all-white precinct. This way, you can continue to explore the “thesis” of your story through another avenue.
This doesn’t mean you have to be on-the-nose about it. You can explore it through irony as well. For example, in Bad Moms, one of the characters is a really good honest dad. That contrast of pitting a genuinely good father against crazy rule-breaking moms allows you to explore the theme, just from the opposite side. Had that dad been, say, a blind professor with Tourette Syndrome, you would’ve gotten some laughs, but the lack of thematic consistency would’ve confused the audience.
So there ya go, guys. Keep in mind these are just three tenets. There are a ton of other things that make up “advanced screenwriting” which I’ll be bringing up over the coming weeks. But I just wanted you guys to have some clarity on what you’re aspiring to. Feel free to share your advanced screenwriting tips in the comments!
HOW TO IMPROVE YOUR FOREHAND: Play tennis? Here’s a tip. When you bring your racket back to hit your forehand, don’t have a death grip. Loosen the grip so you can feel the weight of the racket in your hand. Now let gravity start the racket drop (instead of pulling the racket down artificially) and use the momentum of that drop to accelerate out through the ball. With a looser grip, it’s essential that you hit the ball right in the middle of the strings, or else the racket will twist in your hand. So watch the ball!