Monday, January 31, 2011

Why Not Start Out Writing a Comedy, Or Better Yet, A Novel

Around Hollywood, everyone is talking about how hard it is to sell a script these days. Budgets are tight. And the big new trend: no one is buying dramatic scripts.

Basically all those dramatic movies that have won awards in recent years are based on bestselling novels. "Atonement", "Precious", to name a few.

These are stories that were already proven to be popular in book form. 

So how to break into Hollywood? The comedy.

What is still selling is comedy. That is, broad comedies. But one of the best forms for beginning screenwriters is the romantic comedy.

Romantic comedies are typically big at the box office. So if you're thinking of writing a screenplay, I'd suggest writing a romantic comedy. You can learn more about how to write romantic comedies by taking a class at

But if you have your heart set on some great dramatic story, might I suggest you write your story out in novel form. Then you can publish that bestselling book -- then write the screenplay for it once it's already been accepted and lauded in novel form!

"Let the Right One In": An Indie Film With Great Structure

Now I watch a lot of movies. And I will periodically list some movies that I think make a great use of structure -- and a lot of these will hardly be the formulaic Hollywood movies that beginning screenwriters say they don't want to write, and therefore they avoid adding important structural elements to their scripts -- which is wrong!


This is a wonderful Swedish "horror" film (although it's neither suspenseful nor scary in the least) that does a great job of setting up what the adolescent main character, Oskar's, flaw is: weakness. He then meets his motivating/mentoring character, a young vampire named Eli. It's a love story, which is the motivating factor in helping Oskar get over his flaw. As Eli gives him more confidence through their interaction, Oskar stands up to his bullies. And as I teach in my story structure class (find out more at, it's important to make the main character and the motivating character's relationship symbiotic. Oskar also helps Eli, who is a lonely misfit. In other words, she needs him as much as he needs her.

Even at the end of the film when there is the necessary "dynamic estrangement" (note: this is a term I learned during my two-year-stint at Writer's Boot Camp, a school that I recommend for those of you who want to take your professional training one step further), when Eli and Oskar become separated, and then Oskar reverts to his "fatal flaw" during the final confrontation when he is almost killed by the bullies and Eli ultimately saves him, I wasn't bothered. I say this, because it is often an important rule to make your main character dynamic, meaning that she should not be passive, especially during the last "battle" at the end of the film. It is at this time that many screenwriting sages, the likes of Christopher Vogel, teach that it's time for the "hero" to stand up and overcome her flaw, often through a hand-on-hand fight with her antagonist. But, for some reason, with "Let the Right One In" it worked for this rule to be broken. Perhaps this was because this film was ultimately a misfit love story, and that Oskar was in a sense "sacrificing" himself when he thought he has lost his love.

I'll have to think about it. Get back to you on that!

Determine What Your Genre Is. If You Say It's Funny, It Needs to Be Funny the Whole Way Through

Genre is important not only for movies but for novels too. Too often beginning writers want to throw in everything: "Well, it starts our funny, but then it gets very dramatic around here, but there will also be some dancing and singing."


Although the old adage "make them laugh, make them cry" is true, you need to determine what the major feel of the movie is. If it is a comedy, then every scene has to have comedy in it. That means, not only humorous dialogue but humorous circumstances and action. If you want to study a film that does a very good job of this, take a look at "Talladega Nights". There is funny action and dialogue in every scene. And those scenes that try to be slightly more dramatic, like when Will Ferrel's character is dealing with his flaw, which is fear... Well... This movie is best when it's sticking to the comedy. And even those slightly more dramatic scenes between Will Ferrel's character and his father are still funny.

One movie that does a terrible job of mixing funny with what is supposed to be slightly more emotional is "Mall Cop". Apart from a lot of other problems this movie has (and didn't it do terribly at the box office?), the writers tried to mix what Kevin James does best (being funny!) with scenes in which he is whinning about not having a girlfriend. Bad! They could have found more humorous ways to get that across, instead of trying to appeal with our more emotional sides WHICH DIDN'T WORK!

Tips for Beginning Screenwriters: Screenwriting is a Visual Form

Remember that old adage: a picture is worth a thousand words. Never is this more true than with screenwriting. And if you let your "pictures" do the talking, you can greatly cut down your words. Remember, screenplays today are rarely longer than 110 pages. You might think that you're writing the next three-hour-long dramatic Oscar winner, but if you're a first-time screenwriter, you have a much better bet of selling your screenplay (or even getting it read in the first place), if you adhere to some industry standards. And you do want to sell your screenplay, right?

One of the main problems I often see with beginning screenwriters is that they attempt to tell their story through dialogue instead of images. There is too much talking about what is going to happen and not enough just cutting to the action.

One tip for beginner screenwriters is to write a scene using only images to tell the story. An example of this is: instead of having a scene with the main character addressing her brother in order to let the viewer know she has a family, instead get it across quickly with a closeup of a family photo while the main character is doing something else that is necessary to the telling of this story. The viewer is very savvy. You'd be amazed how much of the story is told just through images. Why do you think that a foreign film can be so gripping? As so much gets "lost in translation", why not fall back on the universal medium for telling stories: imagery.

And like I said, don't have characters talking about what they are going to do. For example, two characters say to one another, "Hey, wouldn't it be great to go to the horsetrack today?" "Yeah, sure, let's do that." Get rid of that! Just cut to the horsetrack. You could even end the previous scene on some kind of "button" that humorously or dramatically gives a reason for why these two characters have to go to the horsetrack. For example, one of the characters says, "God, I'm low on cash today." Then you cut to the horsetrack. If this is a comedy, this will lend humor to the movie, as we all know how hard it is to make money gambling. And if this is a drama, it will lend pathos. Perhaps the main character needs money for his family, but his major flaw is continually hoping to make money the easy way, and, as a result, his family suffers.