Pamela Gray is the screenwriter of CONVICTION, which had gala premieres at the 2010 Toronto and London Film Festival, was the opening night film at the Mill Valley Film Festival, and was chosen Best Picture at the Boston Film Festival. CONVICTION star Hilary Swank earned a SAG nomination for Best Actress, and co-star Sam Rockwell earned a Critics Choice nomination. The film received a National Board of Review “Freedom of Expression Award” and a nomination for an NAACP Image Award.
Pamela’s other credits include MUSIC OF THE HEART, which earned Meryl Streep an Oscar nomination, and A WALK ON THE MOON, produced by Dustin Hoffman, starring Diane Lane and Viggo Mortensen, and rated #9 in Entertainment Weekly’s list of the “50 Sexiest Movies of All Time.” Pamela has written screenplays for Warner Bros., New Line, Miramax, Disney, Paramount and Universal, and pilot scripts for CBS and ABC. Her first credit.
While this might seem obvious, you must know your story before you begin writing. Can you tell the story in one or two sentences? Do you know the beginning, middle, and end? Is it a story, or is it a theme or an idea? “This is a movie about transformation” is an idea with no specifics. “This is a movie about a woman graduating college.” OK – a little better -- but what’s the story? What does the woman want? What happens after she graduates college? What is the journey you want to follow? See if you can fill in the blanks: This is a story about a ____ who wants ____ and then ____ and then ____ and in the end this character ______.
You’ll get to know your characters as you write the screenplay, but it’s important to start with someone three –dimensional. Ultimately, a character is revealed through the actions s/he takes and the choices s/he makes. .
Some writers create extensive biographies for their characters or just their main characters. This can be tremendously helpful, but if this process deters you from writing, start by asking and answering key questions about your main character: What’s your character’s greatest desire at the beginning of this story? What is your character’s greatest fear? Most embarrassing moment? What was your character’s first love? First heartbreak? What would your character grab if the house were on fire? How does your character behave when s/he’s rejected? When angry? What’s your character’s greatest desire at the end of this story? What was your character’s greatest desire ten years ago? Try to get even more specific: What’s your character’s favorite color? What does s/he eat for breakfast? What’s on your character’s nightstand? Remember – there are no “right” answers. You’re the creator.
Film is a visual medium, but it’s easy to forget that you can communicate without dialogue. How can you show that your character feels lonely without having them say, “I feel lonely”? How can you show the passage of time without putting dates in your script? What images can convey a sense that all is lost – or that the story is turning in a positive direction? See the scene as you’re writing and challenge yourself to find images instead of words. Try writing a purely visual 3-4 scene sequence that tells part of your story and moves it forward.
“Conflict” does not mean that characters have to be arguing. Conflict occurs when a character wants something and there’s an obstacle, or two (or more) people want different things. One character wants to get information; the other character doesn’t want to give it. One character wants to read a book; the other character wants to have a conversation. Think about ways to put conflict into scenes where the character is alone: he’s cooking dinner and he burns his hand; she’s rushing to help someone and her car won’t start. When a scene feels flat or seems to stop the action in the story, check to see if there’s any conflict at all or whether the existing conflict needs to be heightened. Obviously, as writers we need to create conflict, but it still shouldn’t seem forced. Look for obstacles that are organic to your story and characters.
Characters are not chess pieces. And yet we’re the ones creating this world; we’re the ones who decided what story to tell. If you need a character to take a particular action because it serves your story, just make sure it’s an action that particular character would take. And if it’s not, go inside the character and pay attention to the choice they want to make at this moment in the story. If you’ve written any biographical material, re-read it and see if helps you better understand what your characters would do at this moment in the story.
The same guidelines hold true for dialogue: Are you forcing your characters to say things they really wouldn’t say? Even if we’re in tune with one character whose words ring true, if they’re speaking with a character who’s a mouthpiece for the writer, the dialogue won’t work as a whole. Sometimes it helps just to keep writing, and in the process of getting to know your characters better, you’ll start to recognize the difference between your decisions and theirs.
If you let your characters guide you, you might discover that your story is going in a completely different direction than you’d planned. Follow the new path and see where it leads you. You can always return to Plan A, but allow Plan B to happen. It might surprise you.
Just as it’s important to remember that characters had a life before the screenplay begins (and you should know what that life was), you need to know where they were, what they were doing, and what they were feeling prior to the scene you’re writing. This is true for the first time a character is introduced, or even if that character was in the prior scene. How do you behave when you’ve just gotten a speeding ticket on your way to a job interview? How do you behave when someone attractive flirted with you on your way to that job interview? Remember, even if you’re starting a scene in the middle of a conversation (see below, “Start late, leave early”), you still need to know everything that led up to that moment.
Try to remember that characters, just like “real” people, don’t always say exactly what they mean and they don’t always tell the truth. The “text” is what they’re saying out loud and the “sub-text” is what they’re really saying. “You’re always late!” is the text; “You make me feel like I’m not important to you” is a possible sub-text. People don’t speak in complete sentences and they don’t just sit quietly and listen while someone addresses them. They can overlap, interrupt, trail off, change the subject, contradict themselves, evade the question, ignore the other person, repeat themselves. They can engage in a physical activity while they converse -- even something small like tapping on a table. See the location and imagine ways that your characters might be interacting with the environment. This might in fact change what they’re saying and how they’re saying it.
It can be challenging to keep characters from sounding alike (or sounding like you.) Try an exercise where a few of your characters each tell the same story. One person might tell a story chronologically and recount every detail; one might pause or say “umm” a lot; one might go off on tangents and forget what s/he was talking about in the first place. Once again, you need to go inside your characters to find their distinct voices.
Exposition -- factual information that needs to be revealed to an audience – is best expressed through conflict. A person doesn’t tell another person something they already know, e.g. “We’ve been friends since we were roommates in college, remember?” But what do you do if it’s important for the audience to know that they were college roommates? Remember that you don’t have to reveal every piece of background in the beginning of the screenplay. An audience can handle learning things bit by bit, and you can take the time to find opportunities to reveal information through conflict: “You’ve been treating me this way since college and I’m sick of it!”
Do some eavesdropping in public and pay attention to the different ways people talk to each other. Use this tool as inspiration, but remember that film dialogue is an approximation of real speech, and you still need to shape it so that it flows, isn’t boring, and moves the scene forward.
When you’re writing scenes, think of yourself as an impolite dinner guest: You show up late when people are mid-meal and you leave just as dessert is being served. Characters can be mid-conversation when a scene begins. We don’t need to see them meet and greet, and the scene can end before the conversation does. The same is true for action; we don’t have to see a character buy a ticket and wait at the train station (unless these moments serve an important function in the story.) We can enter the scene when they’re already on the train – or even when they’re about to get off the train.
Scenes either need to move the story forward or reveal character (or both). Once a scene has served its purpose, move on -- but do pay attention to the final words or action at the end of the scene. Is this the strongest place to end? Does it raise a question? Does it push you forward into the next scene? Be merciless when it comes to scene length. Try to turn a three-page scene into two pages. Then try again and see if you can do it in one page. Then half a page. Of course there are scenes that need to be longer in order to serve their purpose (try for a 4-5 page maximum, and keep the number of long scenes to a minimum), but make your decision after you’ve pushed yourself to get to the essence of the scene.
This is a tool you can use throughout the writing process – and it’s the most important first step as you begin to rewrite.
First, PRINT OUT THE SCRIPT. Step away from the computer! Read EVERY WORD OUT LOUD, including the narration. You’ll no longer just be seeing the words; you’ll feel them in your body. You’ll be able to hear repetition, awkward phrasings, unnatural speech. Pay attention to places where you feel your energy dipping – or where you feel bored. Notice gaps in the storytelling, character moments that don’t feel authentic, scenes that can be shortened, combined, re-located, or eliminated. When you read a scene aloud, can you see it? Are there enough visual images? When you speak the dialogue, is someone’s speech too stilted? Have you forgotten to use contractions? Is the dialogue lacking nuance and subtext? Do any characters sound alike? Are there sentences you keep stumbling over? (If you’re stumbling, an actor will be too.)
You can read the entire script aloud and just experience it, or you can take notes as you go along. Don’t go back to the computer until you’ve scribbled on the hard copy... It’s fine to flag problems and return to them later (“Shorten!” “FIX THIS!”), or you can move slowly and methodically through the script, editing as you go.
After you’ve done your own script reading, if you’re really brave – and if you have access to actors or friends you can trust – let others read (not act) the script aloud every word. Sit back and listen, take notes and breathe. It might be painful – but it’s worth it.
The most common resistance to rewriting is impatience. You want to get that script out NOW -- to an agent, a producer, a contest. But you won’t achieve your goal if your script still needs work. And even then, a script always needs work after a first draft (which hopefully, is a draft preceded by a rough draft or two or three or…) -- and a script can still need work after several drafts. The reward for all this rewriting is that your script will get better.
If you’re having a difficult time getting started, start small, e.g. shorten scenes -- or just correct typos! Once you get into the rhythm of rewriting, you might actually start to enjoy the process. You can learn new things about characters; you can see obvious structural problems that you couldn’t see before; you can feel less attached to scenes and dialogue that need to be cut out; you can have new ideas that excite you. Here’s another chance for your imagination to take flight.
If you don’t have an external deadline, put the script away for a few days, a week, a month, then start rewriting with clear eyes. You might hate some of the things you’ve done – but many parts of your script will delight you and make you feel proud.
The “Ten Tips” can help you through the rewriting process, but trust that your own wisdom, intuition and imagination -- combined with patience and hard work -- will guide you towards a finished screenplay that you love.
Author’s note: I’ve learned many of these tips from mentors and teachers along the way, especially my UCLA professor Hal Ackerman, screenwriter and author of Write Screenplays That Sell the Ackerman Way; and Thomas Schlesinger, screenwriter and and story consultant (Nowhere in Africa; Prom Night in Mississippi). I also recommend a new book of screenwriting exercises, NOW WRITE: Screenwriting, eds. Ellis & Lamson (Tarcher/Penguin, 2010)