Don’t Try This At Home

Energized by the words of the Guru, the screenwriter heads home and starts rewriting like mad.

Never did she deliver a draft so great, so quickly. Amazing what you can do, when riding the wave of an inspiring seminar or script workshop!

Dangerous. And wrong.

Believe me, this is about the worst way to spend your creative energy.

After teaching for a few years now, I’ve discovered this pattern with a lot of screenwriters.

“He was the first to explain everything to me so clearly. Now finally the light has switched on!”

So many screenwriters return home feeling like this after a great screenwriting seminar, whether it is McKee, Hauge, hell… even Segers.

Writers often think they got it. They actually didn’t.

It’s wonderful to see writers respond positively to the principles of the craft, no matter how formulaic they may seem.

Unfortunately it doesn’t guarantee that the same writers will apply the principles exactly way they were taught. Let alone in an original, creative way.

Here’s the pattern I have identified:

Returned home with all the newly found wisdom in her head, the writer tries to find those new elements in her own screenplay. And guess what: they’re there! They’re all there!! You see? Instinctively she has applied all the principles, bar one or two.

So though the rewrite may be challenging, at least it’s already all going in the right direction!

Now here’s the truth of the matter: it isn’t.

The script doesn’t even come close to the principles taught.

Yet in the mind of the writer, of course it does.

Say the seminar was about structure and the teacher explained how Act One ends around the 25% mark of the story.

So the writer goes looking for something around page 25-30 that might signal the Hero’s start of the journey.

And behold! She’s found it! “The Hero has an argument with his neighbour, after which he drinks himself into a stupor, then realizes he must learn to stand up for himself.”

Now that’s a clear goal, right? Yep, but it’s lame as.

It’s also only purely an Inner Goal. And you’ll never get anyone to read that crap.

Meanwhile, the writer overlooks the fact that the story actually kicks off on page 48, when the Hero’s daughter starts dating his arch rival’s son, a convicted crime boss who previously bribed council officials in order to repossess the land our Hero lives on.

I see it all the time.

You learn a new trick, then believe you’ve already applied it to a tee.

But even when you have an epiphany and you recognize certain issues for the first time… don’t dive in as yet.

Here’s what I always recommend my own clients and students, to protect them from this irresistible urge:

When you learn a new principle or technique, don’t try this at home – at least not immediately.

Even if you’ve seen a number of movie clips in class demonstrating the point, find similar examples yourself.

Watch a number of great (and not so great) movies to identify these principles (or lack thereof).

Then find a movie that bares a structural resemblance to the screenplay you’re writing and see if the turning points are comparable.

Now, carefully examine if you managed to nail every single turning point. Are they all there? Are they all powerfully dramatic?

Once you feel confident, start using the new technique. Cautiously.

Quite some time ago, I read a screenplay by an experienced script analyst. She stood – and stands – in high regard in the industry and had worked on this script for a frighteningly long time.

I was astounded to see that an absolutely essential turning point was simply not there. As a matter of fact, the audience would have completely missed where – in the mind of the writer – the story started. (That is, in the unlikely event the movie would ever get made. To date, it hasn’t.)

We all have this really bad writer’s blindness. But you can work around it.

When you learn something new, first test it on great movies you know, until you really get it.

Only then apply it to your own story.

– Karel Segers

Karel Segers is a producer and script consultant who started in movies as a rights buyer for Europe’s largest pay TV group Canal+. Back then it was handy to speak 5 languages. Less so today in Australia.

Karel teaches, consults and lectures on screenwriting and the principles of storytelling to his 5-year old son Baxter and anyone who listens.

He is also the boss of this blog.

photo credit: jurvetson

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