Be Gentle With Yourself

For the last year or so, I’ve kept a book on hand called Mindfulness in Plain English. While it’s principally about meditation, there are several parts that I tend to apply to other things, as well.

Example:

Be gentle with yourself. Be kind to yourself. You may not be perfect, but you are all you’ve got to work with. The process of becoming who you will be begins first with the total acceptance of who you are.

Why might this be an important idea for a screenwriter to keep in mind?

You may not always get a scene exactly right on the first attempt, or make the deadlines you set for yourself, or nail that one cruicial line of dialogue right off the bat. It’s going to be difficult writing a solid script. It’s going to be difficult becoming the writer you want to be.

Don’t add to the challenges by deriding your efforts.

Adjectives Are Your Enemy

At a book signing, I asked Guillermo del Toro what advice he had for beginning screenwriters.

[With action and description], do not use adjectives. Use visuals. Use sound. Be very dry.

You should only be writing things you can show. If you have adjectives on the page, ask yourself, “How can I see this?”

What happens when you force yourself to avoid excessive adjectives and adverbs?

1. You take up less space with your text.

Cutting out adjectives cuts out words. You’re cutting down how many lines are in a paragraph and how many pages are in your screenplay. You’re speeding up the read.

If a script reads fast, it’s more likely to get read from start to finish.

2. You spend less time on minor details.

Do you need to say that this character wears a blue dress? If it’s not 100% necessary to the story that you define the color of the dress, and your script is fortunate enough to be produced, the color of that dress will be decided at the discretion of the director, the costume designer, and possibly the actor.

The hunt to remove adjectives will help you see exactly what details are integral to your story, and which ones can be excised without substantially changing the narrative.

You’re here to tell a story. Who is involved? What happens? What happens as a result of this? These are the things that are important. The more you fill your action and description lines with adjectives, the more you obscure the key elements of your story.

3. You replace generic actions and descriptions with clear imagery.

Think about what you picture when you read “Reginald looks around the room, clearly uncomfortable.” Compare that to your mental image of “Reginald glances around the room, fidgeting with his ascot.”

Both lines are attempting to communicate the same thing: We see Reginald behaving in a manner that suggests his discomfort. One line relies on an adjective to imply what will happen, where the second uses concrete nouns and verbs to show a specific picture of discomfort.

Keeping it specific and concrete is in your best interest. It suggests to the reader that you have a command of your characters. It suggests a specific behavior to an actor to incorporate into their performance. It helps to keep you focused on what can be clearly seen and heard.

A Post For Those Who Have Seen Cast Away

I went on the Warner Bros. studio tour today, and something happened that I wanted to share with you. The tour guide was talking about product placement on the set of Chuck when he asked if any of us had seen the movie Cast Away. Then came a series of questions.

No peeking at imdb.

1. What company does Tom Hanks’s character work for?

2. What’s the name of the volleyball?

3. What’s the name of Tom Hanks’s character?

How’d you do?

If you’re anything like the tour group I was with, the first two questions were a piece of cake, but the third one was a complete mystery.

Let that sink in.

I’m not bringing this up to make a point about “selling out” or “the corruption of the medium by advertisers.” I think there’s something positive to be learned from this.

Naming the volleyball after its brand name did a number of things. On the level of product placement, it enhanced audience recall of the brand name, but from a story standpoint, it made the decision to have Tom Hanks talk to a volleyball for an hour seem less crazy. He’s calling it by its brand name. His character is acknowledging to himself, and the audience, that this is a somewhat silly attempt to give himself a sense of companionship so he doesn’t go stir crazy. By using the easiest choice of a name (that which was already printed on the ball), it seems more grounded. He’s not spending time coming up with the perfect name for an imaginary companion, and giving this companion all kinds of imaginary qualities. He’s taking what’s there and nudging it.


A quick note of thanks to those who have linked to and upvoted this blog on reddit! I’m glad you’ve enjoyed the content so far, and I hope you (and the other readers of this site) will get something out of what I’m working on for the future.

Be A Protagonist

It’s sometimes usually hard to take your own advice, or, as the case may be, to apply advice from one aspect of your life to another.

Think about your day. What did you do today that moved you toward your larger goals?

Step that back. Can you clearly articulate what your goals are?

If either of these questions stymied you, ask yourself if you would accept that from a protagonist in something you’re writing.

No. You wouldn’t. And you shouldn’t accept that from yourself.

This is not a call for constant productivity; for making demands of yourself that are greater than you could accomplish; for turning life into a series of to-dos. It’s a call to examine the way you think about yourself and what you do.

A protagonist should be attempting to achieve something large, but they have to do it in small increments. One scene at a time. One dramatic beat at a time. But there should always be momentum.

Remember, your characters aren’t constantly doing only things that work towards their major goals. The parts that aren’t worth focusing on get cut out.

Do the same for yourself. Don’t get caught up in the deleted scenes. Find your direction. Build your momentum. Be the scrappy underdog that makes good. Or the bold hero triumphing over adversity. Or the giant robot beating the crap out of other giant robots.

Whatever you have to see yourself as to get the point across, see yourself as a character worthy of attention, sympathy, and success.

See yourself as a protagonist.

The Page of Dialogue

There are plenty of fantastic movies that have extended scenes of dialogue. There are incredibly tense and engaging moments that can be created using little more than conversation.

However, a conversation isn’t just about what’s said. There are pauses, gestures, and actions that also play a part. This is why, when a screenplay page is full of dialogue and has no action or description lines on it, it raises a red flag.

Film is a visual medium, and if a writer is only focusing on what the characters are saying, they’re leaving out a key component. What are these characters doing while they’re talking? What are we seeing during the conversation? What can their actions do to build upon the dialogue and deepen our understanding of what’s taking place in the scene?

When looking at a page like this in your own writing, consider how something visual can stand in for some of the dialogue. Look for places where an action, gesture, or glance can convey what’s being said. By making part of the conversation visual; by making it something that needs to be interpreted by the viewer, the conversation becomes more engaging to the audience. Instead of being an eavesdropper, they’re now an active participant, working to unearth the full meaning behind the words the characters are speaking.