Thursday, August 04, 2005

Writing: You Don't Need pg. 11

Frank Mula was a co-exec my first year on Cosby. He's one of the funniest bastards alive -- my lovely wife would only come to the show tapings in order to sit in the writer's room, next to Frank, and laugh herself blind at Frank's running commentary on the weekly apocalypse unfolding on the quad-split before them. He was kind enough to supervise me on my first solo pilot script.

Frank: Television is like bringing a box full of baby chicks into an executive's office. Baby chicks you lovingly incubated, hatched, and individually named. You set the box of peeping, beautiful baby chicks on the executive's desk, announcing. "Look, look at my beautiful little ideas." And then, the executive kills them, with a large flat rock. Smashes all of them to bloody paste pulp. BAM BAM BAM BAM. Until one is left. He hands you back the box and says "My work is done."

I once asked Frank for the single piece of advice he'd pass on to a young writer. He thought for a full minute, nodded, and announced. "You don't need page eleven."

"... what?"

"Any script. Go in, pull out page eleven. Don't need it."

This sounds insane. Until you go look at page eleven. Really think about whether you need it. And nine times out of ten, realize that he's right.

Frank's point, of course, was that you can yank pages out of any script, no matter how good. As a matter of fact, consider it a challenge. Go look at your film spec ...

... now pull ten pages out of it.

"Fuck you, Rogers." Yes, I heard you. You said it that loudly. Listen, your job on a script is not to turn the most beautiful phrase, forge the most lilting metaphor. Your job is to write a movie. And one of the crucial things about people reading a script, that in the really good ones, they forget they're reading a script. The reader's seeing the images in his head, fully engaged, totally lost in the moment ... until, as in the Chekov anecdote, the fireman leaves the back of his mental theater.

This is not to say you should be writing stripped-down, colorless business-only scripts. But too many times, writers are focused on the pretty pictures in their head, and forget that the script itself is a piece of art, not just an enabler of other art. Somebody has to read this, love it, and our job is to not just write a great story, not just write the FILM well, but craft the script so the reader understands the tone and pace of the film -- all without stopping the read in order to overtly draw out the tone and the pace. Too many times screenwriters ignore the perils of and opportunities within the physical script-space itself.

Your mission is to convey, along with the actual story, the most vivid sense of the script's intent as efficiently as possible. The script in and of itself, separate from its relation to the movie it will become, is a haiku. Forcing yourself to pull out ten pages will aid you in your craft. You will write in the active voice. You will search for the better word, the one that does the job of five. You will realize that you are uising way, way too many prettily constructed similes. YOU WILL CUT OUT THESE SIMILES. The simile is the enemy of screenwriting. If it's really amazing, it will yank the reader out of the moment. If it sucks ... well, nothing sucks like a bad simile.

"But my masterpiece requires 135 pages!" No. No it doesn't. Hell, if you're at 135 pages, yank 15 damn pages out of the script. And you're probably STILL running fat.

Listen, on a 120 page script, we're talking about pulling one page out of every twelve. You're telling me you can't streamline your writing by 8%?? Every word is that precious?

Again, this is not stripping the script for the sake of a pretty page count. This is an exercise in writing tighter, which is writing better. Understanding what can be conveyed in a look, a beat. It creates a mechanical framework to aid you in learning how to attack that hoary adage of "Enter late, leave early." You will learn to turn speech-y dialogue into its most polished, powerful little nuggets of meaning. That inner thought process you took three action lines to lay out -- can you make it explicit in dialogue, or even lack of dialogue?

Your scene descriptions and actions -- don't waste time on specifics. Somebody else is going to visualize the set, someone else is going to design the set, someone else is going shoot on that set. Don't write for the storyboard, write what the TONE of the set is, conveying how it informs the actions, creates the context for the characters within. Is this limiting? No, it's freeing. It's paradoxically MORE power. You're creating the world, mood, story -- let other people sweat the window size and wallpaper pattern.

Character intros: gahhhh. I never, ever want to read a line of character backstory again. The audience will know this character by what he says and what he does. (in that sense, in-script backstory is actually cheating) The actor will create whatever mindspace/backstory for the character they need to work the person up on screen. Just get the best, snappiest description of who this person is -- not how they dress or how they talk or how their goddam hair's cut, but who that character is in the script-world-- and move the fuck on. Again, not saying we're just typists. Not saying it has to be bland. The challenge is to create the most telling impression in the fewest words.
Don't sit their like so many screenwriters and try to jam whatever central casting idea of a character you have into the reader's head -- create the notion necessary for the reader to complete the image of the script in his head, to personalize it, and move on with the read.

How will the reader know a character's angry? Because he'll say angry words. How will we know he's still an expert in his craft? Because he'll say and do smart things. The reader will know these things the same way an audience member will know these things. The reader blends into audience member, which is exactly where you want your reader to be.

So go ahead, whatever the length of your script, be it spec film or TV show, take one whole damn day. Edit, trim, rewrite, rethink, sweat one out of every ten pages from the script.

End of day, you may say it can't be done. End of day, you may wind up just one page shorter, or less. But by attacking form over function just this once, you looked at the script from the outside in. It helps you catch some of your blind spots with little scenes you love and sweet turns of phrase which are just fat. Push comes to shove this may not elevate your writing at all, but at least it creates some sort of concrete goal to take the boring edge off a rewrite. If even that is all you get out of the attempt, it was worth the time.

I can't quote Frank without also remembering his parting words to me from the show. People ask me how insane Cosby got during those three years. Well, Frank left our New York studios after one. The last night of the season:

John: Frank, geesh are you sure about this?
Frank: John, if on the way home from New York to LA, the plane CRASHES, my last thought before I slam into the earth will be ... "I made the right choice."


Anonymous said...

Good advice.

I'm rather bad about putting stuff into my work that isn't 100% vital but that I think is just funny or cool. Breaking the habit ain't easy but I'm getting better at it.

BTW, I watched "The Core" last night. That was a fun movie.


Joshua said...

I wished I'd known Frank. He does sound funny as a bastard. You don't need page 11 is great advice.

It reminds me of something I think Stephen King said, in his book ON WRITING. He wrote (and he got this from an anonymous editor on a rejection letter for a short story) that the 2nd draft is the 1st draft MINUS 10% (ten percent).

But pulling page 11 sounds more fun.

And yes, the Core was on last night - means you have a residual check coming your way, boss. Thanks again for the linkup!

John Donald Carlucci said...

"Frank: John, if on the way home from New York to LA, the plane CRASHES, my last thought before I slam into the earth will be ... "I made the right chocie.""

That is awesome John.


The Awful Writer said...

Thanks for another great post destined for the Scribosphere Hall Of Fame

Assistant Atlas said...

Excellent advice. The only thing you didn't mention specifically was adverbs. As a reader, [okay, former reader at this point] that was what always got me. The crappy writers tended to use them frequently while the good/great ones never did. Why?

A good writer knows that an adverb is just a better verb waiting to happen. Whenever I saw "Bob walks quickly to the fridge" in the narrative, I'd give my little "stupid-screenwriter" sigh. By the way, a lot of readers use this trick of adverb-spotting to judge a writer's potential-- so while you're re-writing anyway, might as well take out the adverbs, too.

Kid Sis said...

Ah so, the gauntlet has been thrown...

The Constipated Writer said...

Interesting. That's great advice actually.

Kira said...

Good point, AA. Stephen King lays into adverbs as well in On Writing.

vhsiv said...

"Any script. Go in, pull out page eleven. Don't need it."

Is that because so many readers stop at pg. 10?

American Knight said...

My TV writing Professor gave very similar advice. He also use to work on Cosby (Ross Brown). Great advice, nonetheless, and it's always good to be reminded of it from time to time.

a.m. griffin said...

Such great advice. I often find myself sitting in the theatre seat instead of concentrating on the reader when I write the screenplay. It's easy, for me, to forget the reader, which, as you point out, can lead to fat and extraneous crud... Thanks for the post.

G-Do said...

For practice at limited writing, though not of the screenplay variety, can I recommend a group blog?

dms said...

And this concept took you how many paragraphs to relate?

Physician, heal thyself.

Rogers said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Rogers said...

Nah, I'll do it anyway.

dms, fuck thyself.

See what I did there? Heh? Heh?

Assistant Atlas said...

I would like to point out for the record that I went and looked at the best screenplay I've written and happily concluded that page 11 ABSOLUTELY COULD NOT be ripped out. Absolutely. It was advanced the plot and the characters with mostly action and a few lines of clever dialogue. So ha, I am a good screenwriter. I totally knew it. :)

pundragonrebel said...

cool people never say they are cool

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