New born screen-writers

Dr. Strangelove-film or how I learned to stop worrying and love screen-writing

9 comfort blankets for new born struggling screenwriters.

As a newborn screenwriter, I would like to try and lend a helping hand for those, like me, who get stuck and frustrated when stumbling ahead with either both eyes shut or with one squinty eye open against the blinding snowstorm that is life, which drives us back 2 steps for every 1 we advance, as we try to learn the craft of screen-writing.

No doubt it must be a much more slippery road the further up you try to scramble on the screenwriters path, an unmarked path that may not have signs to clearly direct you. It seems more a maze of infinite 3D proportions, where there are any number of entrances, each guarded by burly bouncers who confront your ambitions with those fateful words, ‘Not tonight son'(or darlin’) and you stand confounded whilst a geeky looking guy hustles ahead of you and gets the nod, accompanied by, ‘Nice to see you again, go straight in Mr Sorkin’.

So here are nine suggestions for those of us in need of succour and a nice warm blanket to snuggle up to.

1 William Goldman said, “No one knows anything” and who am I to argue? But perhaps I can turn it around a little, “Everybody knows something”. Out of the plethora of stuff available there’s an even chance that you can find a sign to help you along the way. But YOU have to find it, so take a chance, buy that book, listen to that podcast, go to that festival (Chris Jones will love you for it!). The path you are looking for is not made for you, you make it yourself.

2 If your struggling with stuff sinking in and applying it to your craft, see if you recognise yourself somewhere on this path, perhaps when you were learning to drive a car or play golf.

The four stages of learning…..

1 Unconscious incompetence – This is the stage of blissful ignorance before learning begins.

2 Conscious incompetence – The most difficult stage where learning begins and where most judgements against the self are formed. This is the stage that most people give up.

3 Conscious competence – This stage of learning is much easier than the second stage but is still uncomfortable and self-conscious.

4 Unconscious competence – The final stage of learning a skill is when it has become a natural part of us; we don’t have to think about it.

3 There are no Gods or Goddesses. 10 years ago I bought Mr McKee’s ‘Story’, read it and thought, ‘I must learn all of this?’ Then I realised that like that famous Chevy, it comes ‘one piece at a time’ Saddo that I was, I did walk around with it as if I had discovered the fountain of all screenplay knowledge, when in fact I’d only read the first paragraph. But I got over it. So no Gods, just lots of little smiling Buddha.

4 Find psychological help. There has been a billion words written about screenplay structure and other stuff, but sometimes you may need the how to apply yourself stuff too. A kind of practical blueprint you can follow until your first Oscar appears. Try this link, its not a guarantee of success, just a nod and a wink to a burly bouncer, who may let you slip in unnoticed. Grab a copy of a creative writing book. One recommended to me by Jay Griffith, author of ‘Wild’ was the ‘Cambridge book Creative Writing’ by David Morley, its a fascinating beautifully written book on the unconscious stuff that goes on in a writers head. Any other books? Hundreds, but this one covers a lot of ground and with many references from Keats to King (Stephen).

5 Watch films, read scripts, watch more films read more scripts, any and all, the duff ones, the classics and if someone wants to buy you a gift get them to buy the DVDs/screenplay books with directors/writers commentaries, they are enlightening fascinating and incredibly helpful in helping to de-mystify the process a little. Although I do now find it more difficult to just watch a film without my head looking for inciting incidents etc., its a small price to pay and in fact I appreciate films more so now. Go to the pictures. Obvious I know, but maybe go alone once a week, get the cheap days. I have a privately funded and built cinema just opened a 20 minute cycle ride away that shows films for £5 before 5 pm. I go on my week day off or midday on weekends. Its quiet, its got a big screen and its got a great café too.

6 Watch ‘Finding Joe’. Yes its about Joseph Campbell and the hero’s journey (the sound of a thousand feet running for the hills!!) but its neither a film designed to indoctrinate you or a dialectic on how every film should follow his path and not veer away from it. Akiva Goldsman, Rashida Jones, Mick Fleetwood and skateboarder extrodinaire Tony Hawks are just some of the people who enlighten and entertain you with their own stories which are moving, honest and inspirational and relate our heroes on film and in literature with our own selves and psyche.

7 OK so you don’t want to read every book in the universe about film structure, well read this one, John Yorke’s ‘Into the Woods.’ Why? Because John Yorke has read every book in the Universe. It’s not a how to, a you must, a guarantee of success, but its a brilliantly insightful, modest, witty overview of the fundamentals of film/ theatre structure and why we do it, tell stories that is and how the likes of Shakespeare and those after do follow certain principles in their storytelling. For me if Kirsty off Desert Island Disc’s wanted my luxury item, this would be it. (apart from her of course!)


7 ‘Story Maps’ by Dan Calvisi– OK so we’re back to the dreaded story structure. This guy was a script-reader in Hollywood for years and he recognises that within great films there is a pattern of form and whilst you should not follow it religiously, you may want to have a template of some sort when things get tough. Also the only thing you can control is your script, forget about everything else. Yes I know there’s the pitch and stuff. But as Akiva Goldsman says in ‘Finding Joe’, no ones gonna come to you with an offer for a script you haven’t written yet.


8 Don’t be afraid to be a little obsessive about the art or the consequences of learning it. You may be changing as a person, you will become strange to your friends, relatives, work colleagues. You may go through dodgy moments, moments of doubt, even slight depressions and frustrations. You may have no time, mucho tiredness or feel great isolation from the world. You may even reach some dark places within yourself and that’s OK too, just remember to come back. Have a day off, experience life, exercise, have sex with someone and remember the three hardest things in life to say are ‘I love you, sorry and please help me’, so be kind to yourself and those around you.


9 I came across these words whilst watching the extras on the ‘Requiem for a Dream’ (Aronofsky) DVD. An interview by the actress Ellen Burstyn with the author of the adapted book Hubert Selby Jnr. Its on ‘You Tube’ if you want to view it and a transcript is available on the Net. For me this guy talks a strange kind of sense and nails a lot of stuff about life and stories and who we are and our difficulties (he had his own to say the least). Here is a short excerpt.

We really do, I believe, create the world that we live in. If I remember correctly, the word “eye”—the physical eye—the Sanskrit root and the Hebrew root, I believe, is “ayin,” meaning “fountain.” In other words, this is not an organ that’s receiving vibrations from what’s out there and going through them and interpreting; it’s a projector. We project it. So the world that I live in, I’m projecting.”

Finally, number 10. Yes I know I said 9, but it’s Christmas!

Brevity is all (in scripts anyway) or as the Pope, that’s Alexander, said,

Words are like leaves and where they most abound much fruit of sense beneath is rarely found”


A little learning is a dangerous thing;

drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
and drinking largely sobers us again.”

Sleep tight and no suckin’ your thumb!




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