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Notes From The Screenwriting Desk (Part One)

Shadow and Act By Tanya Steele | Shadow and Act August 20, 2012 at 4:02PM

I get p***ed when I see 'seminars' and 'webinars' and whatever else for screenwriting instruction. I get to read the scripts after they've gone through this so-called "instruction". Rarely, if ever, do these things give a writer what she/he needs. Certainly, structure and format is about all they can offer. But, the real stuff, the stuff that makes a compelling screenplay cannot be given in a group setting.
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I get p***ed when I see 'seminars' and 'webinars' and whatever else for screenwriting instruction. I get to read the scripts after they've gone through this so-called "instruction". Rarely, if ever, do these things give a writer what she/he needs. Certainly, structure and format is about all they can offer. But, the real stuff, the stuff that makes a compelling screenplay cannot be given in a group setting.

I love to read screenplays that have black characters. At the same time, I am familiar with what is in rotation. And, let me tell you, we are in need of unique story lines. We have learned, through the culture, that our 'voice' is not interesting. I want to bust through that idea. We have not yet begun to tell our stories. For this reason, I am excited and I encourage writers to share their voice. However, I am a stickler for the craft. It is important to know it, intrinsically. In the current climate, you will have a difficult time getting your film made but you will put people on notice that you are a screenwriting force to be reckoned with.

I've studied screenwriting for many years. I think writing a good screenplay is as difficult as writing a symphony. That's why there are so few GREAT screenplays. Screenwriting is not something to sneeze at, it's a very difficult Art form. But, it can be such fun when you are crafting something that you really dig!

Unless someone engages you one-on-one and gets to know your sensibility and your style, you are being presented with a 'dog and pony' show. Good writers have scars. And, the best writers let those scars bleed in their work. It is possible to tell any story, no matter how difficult, if you understand how to craft it. Learn who you are, how you came to be who you are and bring that to the page.

It is the rare voice that can sculpt and manage a 110 page screenplay. It is an Art form that requires a tremendous amount of attention to detail and risk. It is an Art form that has been dominated by white men for a long time. Why should they have all the fun? Time to put an end to that and get more stories from people of color into the arena!

1. Write it. Don't talk about it.

Talking about it releases the energy and thought process that should be left for the page. I don't talk. I write. On the rare occasions that I have spoken about a script, I know I'm playing. The more I talk about a script, the lesser the chance of it being completed. The script may go through one or two drafts but I don't complete it. Usually, it holds one element that I might need to get me to write the screenplay that I want to write.

You have to write. Talking about your screenplay is not writing your screenplay. I'm amazed at how many people want to talk to me about their script. I stop them and say "write it". Your telling me isn't going to get it written. And, it only counts if it's on the page. Don't talk about it until you have a solid second draft.

2. Find your trusted circle.

Only my trusted circle gets to read the first draft. They have been tried and tested. They are not trying to write or direct the film in their critique. They are able to follow my voice, what I'm trying to say and they offer serious, incisive criticism. Finding the trusted circle is, probably, one of the best things you can do for yourself. My circle consists of two people.

Do not subject your work to people who are clueless about the craft. Or, who have a hidden agenda. It can destroy your flow, your desire to stick with the script. It takes a very sensitive and thoughtful individual to, properly, critique a first draft. And, I say for the first draft, that the person should know you and your voice. Or, is totally invested in understanding it.

The other thing to understand is that screenplays are not easy reads. The first time I tried to read a screenplay, I thought I was reading another language. It takes time to understand screenplay style. A girlfriend or boyfriend may not be a good 'first reader'. Not until you have, sufficiently, prepped them on how to understand what you do.

3. Always leave yourself hungry to return to the page.

After about 3-4 hours of concentrating on a script, I will stop when my imagination is still buzzing. And, I can't wait to write the next scene. I won't write it, I stop. I will go to sleep thinking about the scene. In the morning, I attack the script. I'm ready and the flow begins, automatically.

4. Pick a region of the world you know nothing about and watch their films.

You have access to American films, they are not going anywhere. Expand your film vocabulary and imagination. I love African cinema. I adore it. Korean. Iranian. My love for travel started with my love for film. I fell in love with Fellini's work and Italy became my second home. Film is an amazing Art form in which people want to share the uniqueness of their cultures. It's one of the reasons why I love film. It's an incredible cultural ambassador (and can speak to the ills or magic of a region). By exploring films from other countries, I learned how to sculpt very simple stories with depth.

I become angry by people who say ONLY read and ingest black stuff. That does such a disservice to us. We are apart of the world canon just like everyone else. Explore the work of other cultures and you will have a stronger sense of your identity in the world. I do understand how we have to undo the 'mis-education' but, do not let that stop you from reading and learning about great Art. All cultures have produced great work. Running around, as a child, I would see my Aunt reading Tolstoy on my Grandmother's front lawn. So, I asked her about him. In an instant, I became aware of another part of the world-the world within myself.

5. Violence is interesting when it's morally complicated.

Killing is not interesting. The story that surrounds the murder makes it interesting. And, the harder it is for your character (who I have to care about) to commit the murder, the better.

6. Save sex for porn.

Many of us like to think our sexuality is unique and interesting. Or, seeing black folks engaged in sexual activity is new. It's not. Sex without a unique storyline or unique characters is boring. One has to be invested in the life of the character in order to care about their sexual activity. We cared about 'Nola Darling' because the world that she lived in was interesting. Make the reader want to fall in bed with your character before your character falls into the sack with someone in your script.

7. Read. Read. Read.

Read screenplays. Before I tackle a new screenplay, I will read ONE screenplay. Usually, a screenplay that is considered to be sound, structurally, for that genre. I like to have a sound impression of the structure in my mind before I start writing. I am not looking to plagiarize, not paying attention to anything other than how the script flows from one moment to the next. I read the screenplay and the next day, I begin to write my own.

I read a lot. I'm partial to "classics". Dostoevsky, Zola, Brecht and Morrison are my favorite Authors. Find your favorite fiction writers, really understand how they move their stories along. I, also, read an incredible amount of contemporary suspense. A Detective in search of a murderer (especially, if the Detective's life is in jeopardy). "Whodunit" books are extremely helpful in learning how to shape a script. I like to read "page turners" because, more than anything, your reader has to become obsessed with turning the pages of your script. Doesn't matter if I'm writing a film about love or family, whatever. Your screenplay has to keep the reader invested in characters who live on the edge of who they are.

I study music, paintings, gardens, the culinary arts, etc. in a similar way. How is the work being delivered to me? How does it begin? Why does it engage me? What is it trying to tell me? What does it tell me about the Author? Screenwriters are being fed, constantly, by the world around us.

8. Understand how to interpret criticism.

Screenplays are not easy reads. And, unless someone has read a lot of them, I am cautious about trusting their opinion. I can, usually, tell how versed someone is in screenwriting based on their critique. However, even the most seasoned critique has to be interpreted. Most times, when people critique a moment, they are usually talking about what happened before or after. Or, even something in the character that wasn't developed. It is, rarely, what they are commenting on. Understanding criticism requires time and patience. Be respectful. If someone has taken time to read your work, especially if they get back to you in a timely fashion, listen to and write down their comments.

I keep a notebook of who critique's my work and what they say. I enjoy hearing what people connect to and what they don't. I try to see if there are similar threads from different people. A great piece of advice we were given at NYU Grad Film from a writing professor; "when someone critiques your work, nod and appear interested. make sounds like, mmm hmmm. give the person the feeling that you are most interested in what they have to say." You will have time, when you're alone, to say, that was some bulls***. But, when you are in front of someone, let them know you are all ears.

Mind you, I respect whatever smart people have to say. But, sometimes, it takes work to figure out what they mean. You may not understand it in the moment. And, a knee jerk response could turn someone off to you and your work.

9. Create deadlines.

Find a group of friends, start a screenwriting group. This will make you accountable to someone. Most folks write, thinking they have all of the time in the world, so, the work never gets done. Discipline is the name of this game. You have to write, there is no mystery, that's it. Accountability helps to get it done.

10. Be specific.

The closer you can get to your quirkiness and the uniqueness of those around you, the more interesting your screenplay will be. I see broad brush strokes, constantly. What makes sound writing is unique and authentic experience. Your alcoholic uncle and aunt are much more interesting than that 'street' story you have in your head. The things that we are taught to be ashamed of, make the best scripts. I see screenplay after screenplay that offers 'what people think screenplays are'. The majority of work that I do is getting people to see that their story, their absent father's story, the details of their lives are interesting. I, constantly, try to get people to work their personal narrative into their scripts. That's where the gold is, the insights, the thing that will set your style and voice separate and apart from everyone else IN THE WORLD.

Along with this, WALK WITH A CAMERA. Obviously, as a Director, I do this. But, when I am in the screenwriting stage, I take images in environments where my characters roam. Or, I take photos of people who are similar to my characters. When trying to describe them or a location, I look at the image and I can describe with more specificity. Pat and unoriginal detailing in a screenplay bores the reader.

Hopefully, this offers you some guideposts. More to come if I feel you are hungry to hear it. And, I will be sharing 'Notes From the Director's Chair'. In the meantime, stop thinking about it and start writing!

Follow Tanya Steele on Twitter at @digtanya. Or visit digtanya.com.


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