“If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes, but by no means always, find the way to do it. You must perceive the excellence that makes a good story good or the errors that makes a bad story. For a bad story is only an ineffective story.”
All the time young college students who don’t know any better are asking me, “Hey, Jessica, how do I make it in the entertainment industry? How can I get a job as a writer’s assistant like the one you used to have?” I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have a lot of help along the way on my career journey. It’s the least I can do to pay it forward and divulge my insider industry secrets.
As such, the following are my top ten pieces of advice for people who aspire to be more like me and waste their lives pursuing delusional pipe dreams:
1. BE NICE? – People are always complaining that everyone here is a jerk, so if you’re nice you’ll probably stand out. Standing out is good.
2. BE (OVERLY) CONFIDENT – There are too many other people trying to do this. Your chances of success are insanely small. There is a high likelihood that you will fail. As such, nurture your delusions. There will be an infinite amount of times you will want to give up and probably should give up, but don’t.
3. LOSE YOUR DIGNITY – Rejection is par for the course. Forget about concepts like “shame” or “respect”. If you can’t laugh at yourself and care too much about what everyone else thinks, you’re doomed. Judgment runs rampant in Hollywood so the sooner you can degrade yourself willingly and not let it bother you, the better.
4. DO A BAD JOB AT YOUR DATA ENTRY GIG – Instead of being productive at my old data entry job, I tweeted a lot of jokes. Those jokes helped me connect with a guy who happened to know one of the writers at Weeds. They were looking for a writer’s assistant. So don’t invest too much of your energy in soul-sucking endeavors when your heart is telling you to procrastinate and tweet a lot. (See #10)
5. DRINK A LOT – Networking is important. Everyone in Hollywood is a partier and will make grand promises of getting you an agent if you catch them at a time when they are wasted enough, which is most of the time. So develop your penchant for alcohol now.
An analysis of a writer’s love of storytelling. A hero’s journey indeed.
by Loren-Paul Caplin
Why the f*%K do we do it?
Money? Fame? Love of the process? What is it? Why do we continue to write screenplays when aside from the outrageously arduous task of getting it even remotely right, the odds of then getting it sold and then made and then becoming a hit are…well, tremendously long and then… sustaining or repeating that success is, frankly, beyond daunting. Why do we do it? Whatever the answer is, as personal and complex as it might be, I personally find it not only rewarding to ponder this question, but it’s actually essential to ponder it as part of the (my) creative process.
I’ve been writing screenplays and plays professionally for over 30 years and I’ve been teaching the art and craft of screenwriting at among the best university film programs in the world (Tisch & Columbia) for nearly 20 years — and increasingly, though especially over the last decade, I’ve found myself with mixed emotions regarding the entire “screen-writing” enterprise, including teaching it. Aside from basic questions such as “how realistic is a life in screenwriting?” and “can one actually be taught creative writing?” I’ve been increasingly concerned about nonchalantly encouraging people (and especially young people) to learn how to write a screenplay…. if it blindly fans embers of unrealistic hope that they will eventually be able to make a decent living writing anything in the “Film Industry.” Maybe they will and maybe they won’t. Either way, for most people, including screenwriting stars that at least get monetary rewards, it’s a tremendously bumpy and sometimes thankless road. And yet, so many of us continue at it. Why?
So what is it? Among the answers — and there are as many as there are people asking the question — is the human need to tell stories. I’ve observed that there are those individuals that at sometime in their lives had that very specific experience of writing a story and, not unlike getting herpes, caught the writing virus — for life! And then from then on, to a greater or lesser degree, they have this bizarre desire and need to return to that state of writing a story. And when they are not writing (which is a lot of the time) there seems to be various degrees of craving (and guilt for not writing) that simply becomes part of one’s existence like a chronic nasal drip. When the craving begins to really act up it can be as visceral a sensation as falling in love and being separated from the object of your affection. The only cure, the only relief is to get back to your loved one; that state, that zone or womb of writing/creating. When you get right down to it creating a story peopled by unique characters going through an emotion-filled journey is about as powerful (religious?) an act as creation itself. No wonder it can be so damn addictive.
None of us are the same person all the time. We change according to the people we are around; they draw different aspects of us out of ourselves. A sibling may draw us into the role of younger or older sibling automatically. A guy talking with other guys may talk and act one way and, on seeing a pretty girl, turn around and talk and act completely differently. Have you ever said or felt that a certain person brings out the best or worst in you? It’s probably true. You do it to others as well.
What’s true in life should be true in our writing. One of the major purposes of supporting characters, major or minor, good or bad, is to draw out aspects of the protagonist. There are differences between who we think we are and who we actually are and it’s other people and/or difficult situations that draw these out and reveal them to ourselves or to the readers of our stories.
Nothing reveals a character more than contradictions. The deeper the character, the more profound the contradictions. Let’s do an exercise. Take a sheet of paper and on one side in a vertical column write attributes or virtues that a character may have. For example, our character Jimmy Bill Bob is friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. That’s right – a real Boy Scout. Now, draw a line down the center of the page and in a column opposite the first attributes, write their opposite. Be creative. You can’t use un – as in unkind or ir- as in irreverent. Find words that you feel mean the opposite of the word on the left hand side of the line. I’ll wait.
Done? Fine. Here’s the thing – if everything you’ve written on the left hand side of the line is true about the character, so will everything on the right hand side be true in some way to some degree. Not at the same moment, but it can flip from one to the other in a nanosecond. It doesn’t have to be a total change which would be kind of psychotic but it can and does happen just that fast. You’ve seen it in others and I’m sure you can see it in yourself, in your actions.
It also comes down to how you define each term. In what way is a given character courteous; in what way are they rude? An act of bravery can be a small thing as well as a big thing. If this is true in real life – and I submit that it is – then it should be true in the characters that we write.
I also want to pass on something I gleaned from a terrific book on acting calledAudition by Michael Shurtleff. He noted that actors loved to do “transitions” from one moment to the next, from one emotion to the next. Fates know that I was guilty of that in my acting days. He proclaimed that transitions were the death of good acting. We didn’t do it in real life; we just went from one emotion to the next often showing them hard against one another, in great contrast.
This is true in writing as well. Don’t explain the contradictions; state them and move on to the next moment. The reader will sort them out. Just make sure that the moments are true; that you’re not doing a contradiction as a short hand for a character. They are meant to reveal things about the character. A gimmick is a gimmick and makes for bad writing. Let contradictions reveal the character to you and then you can show them to your reader. The reader will be stunned and then nod in agreement because you’ve explored something that, deep down, they know – that people, and life, are a nice messy ball of contradictions.