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Guest Post: Screenplay Design with Diane Drake

by Ann Baldwin
March 21, 2013 11:00 AM
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Diane Drake
Diane Drake is a professional screenwriter, creative consultant, and screenwriting instructor with the UCLA Extension Writer's Program. Her produced original screenplays include Only You, starring Marisa Tomei and Robert Downey, Jr. and What Women Want, starring Mel Gibson and Helen Hunt. Diane grew up in Los Angeles and began her career as a script reader and producer's assistant working for companies such as Warners., Fox, Columbia Pictures, and PBS/American Playhouse among others. She landed a job as story editor for Academy Award-winning director/producer Sydney Pollack and worked her way up to become the Vice President of Creative Affairs, before turning to screenwriting full-time.

Creating a successful screenplay starts by building a strong foundation and then adding essential elements for the framework of your story. In my interview with Diane Drake, she discusses where to begin laying the groundwork for your script. Diane shows you where and how to include key components that will give your story direction, movement, and depth for a more satisfying experience for your audience and one they will remember.

Ann Baldwin: What is your definition of a movie & why do we go to see them?

Diane Drake: I love a line from Christopher Walken: "Movies are about the moment where somebody's life changed." It's about as concise and accurate a description of what makes a movie as I've ever come across. As for why we go to see them, I believe it's something deep in our DNA. We all love a good story; we crave them from a very early age. Perhaps because it helps us to vicariously live a bit more outside our own limited mortal experience.

AB: When we last spoke, you said that you've read thousands of screenplays; what kind of scripts do you recommend that your students read and what should they be looking for and paying attention to as they read them?

DD: I think, first, they should read scripts that are in the same genre and ballpark as what they're trying to write. Read the best stuff, and read them more than once -- at least three times. If you read them enough, you'll start to get a more intuitive feel for how the writers are doing what they do. You'll start to absorb those rhythms of pacing, dialogue, even structure. That said, sometimes the best stuff can be a little daunting and so, ironically enough, sometimes it's good to read some not-so-great stuff too, if for no other reason than to boost your confidence as well as remind yourself of what not to do.

Back in my early days as a reader, I felt I was learning from both the bad and the good material. After slogging through a few hundred bad scripts though, you start to feel that you're no longer learning and just doing brain damage. I wouldn't really recommend it unless you have to do it to pay the bills. Still, I read many bad scripts past the point where I would've stopped, if I could have afforded to, and I think that experience taught me something as well. 

AB: Writers are often told to 'Write What You Know', yet most writers often write about things they haven't experienced. What do you tell your students and clients about this very important aspect of writing? 

DD: Obviously, you are your material in a sense. There's simply no getting around the fact that when you create something original you are pulling it from somewhere out of your own heart, mind, life experience, and imagination. Given that, it's helpful to pay attention to whatever inspires strong emotion in you. What do you love? What do you hate? What scares you? What makes you laugh? But, at the same time, it's also important to remember that you don't have to and usually shouldn't necessarily write the literal truth of things; that's what poetic license is about. There's a quote about exactly this that I like, "It's better to write about things you feel than about things you know". L P. Hartley

Not too long ago, I saw the amazing Florian Von Donnersmarck, of The Lives of Others, speak at the Writers Guild. He mentioned the importance of writing what you know emotionally and how much he admired The Talented Mr. Ripley, the film directed and adapted from the Patricia Highsmith novel by Anthony Minghella. In the director's commentary, Minghella specifically talks about how he identified with the emotion of Tom Ripley, the feeling of being an outsider, the poor relation yearning for a more privileged life, from experiences he'd had as a child.

AB: Are there specific questions you ask yourself to help you come up with the basic idea of a story? How do you go about creating your stories, once you have a basic idea? Do you start with characters, plot, theme, or a rough outline?

DD: It varies, but I think I most often start with a concept. Before I invest the time it takes to write a script I want to feel the core idea is something which is somehow fresh and compelling in the one-liner. Then, I refer to the Christopher Walken quote I mentioned above and begin to ask myself who might the main character start as and how might they change? Who might have the furthest to go and how exactly could their life change as a result of taking the journey of the story? What sorts of things might happen and what obstacles might they encounter along the way?

From there, you start thinking in terms of the building blocks, the larger structural pieces. 

AB: How do you integrate the structure of a story with the creative aspect of story writing? What process do you use and/or teach?

DD: I think first you build yourself a very good, solid story outline within which you identify the signposts of the major plot points. Use that for your structure and then play as much as you want within that sandbox. If I may extend this metaphor just a little further, allow yourself the freedom to go outside of it as well, if you have a very good reason; if you discover a better looking toy out there on the grass, go get it, but you may have to rearrange your structure.

AB: What tools do you use, when creating and writing a script? Do you create your own storyboards, character boards, or sketches, gather pictures, use computer software for visual imagery, or listen to music?  

DD: Out of all of these, the only one I can lay any real claim to is listening to music, though now I'm thinking I should try some of the others! But I think music is a great tool; it can get to your subconscious, be a mood-altering experience, and help get you into the right frame of mind. A tip I came across a year or so ago was to get the soundtracks of movies that are similar in tone to what you're working on. It's really helpful. I'm writing a script now that has more action in it than anything I've written before and listening to the rousing soundtrack from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, which helps your head slip into that frame of mind very quickly and easily.

AB: In one of your UCLA Extension screenwriting classes, you mention what Sydney Pollack called "The Spine", what can you tell us about this?

DD: The spine is what your movie is really about, more in thematic terms, and can be a helpful guiding principle and useful yardstick against which to measure the importance and validity of your scenes. Being able to identify and refer back to it can assist you in keeping your story on track. For example, Sydney felt that the spine of Tootsie was "Being a woman makes a man out of Michael." That, to him, was the overall point and subject of the movie and he held the individual scenes charting Michael's character arc up against that yardstick.  

AB: What is "The Engine of the Plot"?

DD: I believe your main character's pursuit of his goal is the engine of your plot. If you feel you're losing momentum and find your script, as a friend used to say, "Going off to Honolulu," it's helpful to check this. 
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  • Kim | March 27, 2013 5:32 PMReply

    Diane is smart!

  • Ann Baldwin | March 27, 2013 8:34 PM

    Yes and she's funny too, which makes working with & learning from her a fun & enjoyable experience ~

  • Julie Walke | March 27, 2013 4:28 PMReply

    Diane, thank you for your valuable insight. You have a great tone that ressonates with writers and I can see why you have been successful. The piece of advice that I most loved, is the editing suggestion of, "Arrive fashionably late and leave early" so many times people leave their scenes with sloppy entrances and exits. Finally, I completely love your list of heroines.

  • Ann Baldwin | March 27, 2013 8:29 PM

    Thank you Julie for sharing your gratitude; Diane has an abundance of helpful tips that she's putting together to include in her first book on writing ~ Stay-tuned!!!

  • James McCarthy | March 27, 2013 2:14 PMReply

    Terrific stuff here. Thank you.

  • Ann Baldwin | March 27, 2013 8:17 PM

    You're welcome & Thank you for taking the time & the generous compliment ~

  • Diane Drake | March 24, 2013 10:26 AMReply

    Just wanted to say thanks, ladies, for your kind words. I'm really pleased to hear you enjoyed the piece. And thanks again to Ann for contacting me and the great questions.

  • Ann Baldwin | March 27, 2013 8:20 PM

    You're welcome Diane ~ You're a pleasure to work with and thank you for the compliment ~

  • andie | March 22, 2013 4:08 PMReply

    As a professional screenwriter who happens to be female, I found this article so refreshing because at no point did it veer into the usual self-defeating nonsense you usually see when feminist-oriented sites interview "women screenwriters." (I put that in quotes because I hate the term -- it implies there are "regular screenwriters" and "other screenwriters.") So often I see us ghettoized by those who claim that women are best at "small, relationship movies" whereas men write "big movies." I especially cringe whenever I hear women brag that they don't write those big summer "boys' movies" -- in other words, popular, highly successful movies. I cringe because they're feeding Hollywood's biases with such statements.

    There is this outdated notion in Hollywood that male screenwriters (specifically, white male screenwriters) can write ANY kind of movie, whereas if you want a little niche movie about relationships or a romantic comedy it's okay to hire a woman, and if you want a movie about African-American characters it's okay to hire an African American, etc. This makes it REALLY hard for those of us who WANT to write the next tentpole blockbuster summer action/comedy. Most of my calling card scripts are thrillers and action/comedies; it was a big action spec that initially got me repped by a big agency and two different "hot" managers, but every time I take a meeting it's the same story -- the only OWA anyone wants to talk about are very clearly niche "relationship" movies, even when I pitch big actioners or talk about my favorite comic books. And my buddy action-comedy spec has led only to jobs writing romantic comedies and family my resume now further pigeonholes me in that area.

    You look at the BlackList every year and the few women included on it are almost exclusively there for romantic comedies with "edgy" titles, even though I know many women who are writing superb thrillers and political dramas and such. I ask them what's up, and they all tell me a similar story: their manager told them they should try to write a raunchy rom-com, because that's their best bet to land a spot on the BlackList. Funny, my manager told me the same thing. Hmm.

    My experience seems to match that of other "female screenwriters" I know, whereas my "male screenwriter" friends have very different experiences in terms of pitching, advice from reps, etc. Is it just a coincidence? Am I just being paranoid? And if not, how do we get out of this ghetto?

  • Ann Baldwin | March 22, 2013 11:28 PM

    Andie, Thank you for the compliment; it means a lot to know that it was beneficial for you in a positive light~ Mother Teresa said, "I was once asked why I don't participate in anti-war demonstrations. I said that I will never do that, but as soon as you have a pro-peace rally, I'll be there." ~ Whatever we focus our attention on will grow ~ My best advice, Andie, is for you to continue to visualize what it is that you want; nurture that positive vision & goal.

  • Aitch CS | March 22, 2013 2:32 PMReply

    Awesome advice on screenwriting! And an enlightening inspiring and interesting interview.

  • Ann Baldwin | March 22, 2013 3:33 PM

    Thank you so much for taking the time & your encouraging words of gratitude ~ Diane has a wealth of knowledge & successful experience, as well as being an incredibly supportive mentor ~

  • Loretta Paraguassu | March 21, 2013 4:48 PMReply

    Thank you, Diane...and Ann. I'm struggling the writer's struggle, trying to get several projects moving at the same time. "Hearing" you say all the right things is a great warm-up. Thank you for being right on. Your comment about playing the right music in the background hit a very special chord...I remember writing an hour special for Motown in a weekend -- playing my Chicago album in the background over and over and over...It did work. Among other things, it kept me awake. Thanks again. I will be following both of your websites. Good luck.

  • Ann Baldwin | March 21, 2013 7:02 PM

    Thank you Loretta for the lovely compliment ~ music is a very powerful tool for creative writing ~ especially for screenwriting, since most movies have background music to heighten the audience's experience ~ Music really moves through a writer and onto the page as well ~ All the best of success to you with your writing projects ~ Meditation is also very helpful to stay focused & creative ~

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