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Writing a Great Screenplay

Billy Wilder once stated that "Audiences don't know somebody sits down and writes a picture. They think the actors make it up as they go along." Unless you are a writer, chances are you have never heard of, or are relatively unfamiliar with names such as Kelly or Wallace, Frank Pierson, Pen Densham, Babaloo Mandel, or Lowell Ganz. These people are some of the top screenwriters in the business, whose words, ideas, characters, and conflicts have produced numerous films considered classics of today.

In fact, unless writers are among the few to win one of only two Academy awards for writing given out each year (Best Original Screenplay or Best Adapted Screenplay), people outside the film industry will more than likely never have an idea of who the writers are. The best screenwriters may labor in anonymity, but what they leave behind is a future all their own, the unmistakable "footprints in the dark" that will illuminate the way for all who follow.

The script is the basic tool of the movie and television industry. No matter how spontaneous a television show or film may seem, you can be absolutely sure that there was a script involved. How do these scripts get developed? Where do ideas begin? What is the first step towards creating a great script?

The writer begins with a blank page and must create a story, imagine the characters, and start the long visualization process that will eventually yield a motion picture. The journey from script to screen will be long and arduous. Hopefully, it will be a good collaboration. When it is, producers, directors, actors, production designers, composers, and many others will embellish and hone the ideas, adding layers to the characters and the story. They all will be interpreting and enhancing the original screenplay.

He ended up with... $100,000+ a year salary, and most importantly, the ear and eye of all the executives at the studio
You can only get better with practice. It has been stated that once you have written a million words, you will sell your material. "Write and keep writing," states Ken Sherman (Ken Sherman Agency), "I had one client who wrote about 8 scripts before he mastered screenwriting form. I could see the person was extremely talented. In the first script he wrote great characters and no plot, and the next script had an excellent plot and weak characters. Suddenly, it all came together.

He ended up with an overall deal, including a corner office with a parking place downstairs, $100,000+ a year salary, and most importantly, the ear and eye of all the executives at the studio." Obviously, achieving fame and fortune as a screenwriter is a difficult task that takes patience and a lot of perseverance. In order for a writer to function creatively under these conditions, a certain mindset is required, a firm belief that what you are doing can make a difference.

A screenplay is a form of creative writing. Structured like a play, flowing like music, it consists of 120 pages or so of dialogue and a few sparse stage directions that will act as the creative impetus for everything that is to come. Ideas come from within and without. It's partly a need to communicate something about the human condition, to communicate to people who might have the same experiences, feel the same emotions, or who are influenced and impacted by the same stories. Part of the writer's job is to find the idea that will speak to millions.

Developing Ideas?
Even Hollywood, bombarded by thousands of scripts weekly, complains incessantly of a shortage of material that is fresh in voice, vision, and point of view. "The ideal writer is the one that has a great concept, a great story and can execute it. Usually, you get one of those things," states Candy Monteiro (Producer, Monteiro Rose/Los Angeles).

Elliot Stahler (Kaplan Stahler Agency/Los Angeles) describes what everyone is looking for in these terms; "Most of what we see is on the Bell Curve, written by intelligent people and it's all about C- to C+. In the C to C+ range, we try to help them. We may send them off and tell them to come back with another script. There are very few where it's clear they should be in another field. The other ones who jump off the page, where it's clearly special that it's super stardom, that's rare."

One of those rare situations occurred in 1997 when the Best Original Screenplay Academy Award was given to Matt Damon and Ben Afleck for the writing of Good Will Hunting. The first script written by either man, Good Will Hunting proved to be an exceptional, touching film about a rebellious 20-year old MIT janitor with a photographic memory and a troublesome lifestyle. 

Damon and Afleck admit the script was written out of desperation because both men were broke and looking for work. After the overwhelming success of the film, both actor/writers are now basking in movie stardom and see no end in site. This is a rare situation, however, and does not occur very often in the industry, particularly on a first script.

"I always know that a writer is not very good when he/she doesn't want to tell me what his project is about because he thinks I'm going to steal the idea," Robin Moran Miller explains. "Good writers know it's not the idea, it's their voice." Many people who like writing feel inadequate when it comes to finding story ideas and designing plots or story structures. Young (and not so young) writers often feel that nothing has really ever happened to them. They compensate by working from the outside inward, emulating types of stories, or writers that they admire.

Like actors trying to learn from other actors, they neglect their most precious resource- what the writer has seen and experienced. "What people want to see is a script they haven't seen before," Rima Greer (Above the Line Agency/Los Angeles) states. Ken Sherman points out that he looks for originality, passion, an individual voice, as well as someone who is a craftsman and is not afraid to be different.

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