When it comes to Screenwriting, what are your weakness? Your strengths?

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  • When it comes to Screenwriting, what are your weakness? Your strengths?

    I'm of the opinion that writers, including myself, need to identify and improve on their weaknesses to truly hone their craft. We all have strengths and perhaps it's possible that our strengths can mitigate our weaknesses and get us traction in terms of the holy grail: breaking in.

    My thinking is -- with the massive competition of anyone with screenwriting software clogging up the "break in" pipeline with subpar work, identifying our weaknesses and resolving them is crucial in terms of standing out in the clutter.

    I think it may be helpful for such a discussion in as much as those with strengths in certain areas can give tips to help those of us with weaknesses in those same areas. I'll start.

    Strengths and Tips

    Character Development:

    I've consistently received high marks on character -- scripts and prose fiction. Readers saying virtually the same thing about my protags: I like your characters so much I'd like to have a drink with them in real life. Or, when it came to unlikable antags: he/she rang true to life.

    The tip: I strive to base my characters on people I know, have known, or strangers and people I barely know, yet have observed closely (example: Mr.Big Ego CEO in a business meeting who couldn't remember anyone's name half the time). This tip works if you're a people watcher or can develop people-watching skills -- observing as much as you can: physicality, psychological traits, the way they speak, the cadence of their speech, tics, accents, etc.

    Dialogue:

    I rate my my dialogue skills higher that average. I've gotten kudos because my characters never sound the same. It's the same tip as above: listening closely to the way people speak in real life.

    For dialogue inspiration I've even used lines I've overheard in bars, at the grocery store, etc. AND I often write these gems down. Learn to eavesdrop whenever or wherever you can.

    Another tip: lurk online message boards on non-writing topics. I participate in a couple of political discussion sites and have found that people with zero interest in writing have a talent for a turn of phrase, a killer metaphor, even an amusing malaprop that generates an LOL. I also lurk a number of boards. This is essentially people watching and eavesdropping online for dialogue and more. Because they often share personal experiences you can use for inspiration. The best part -- you can copy/paste these inspirations into a file.

    Description/Action Lines:

    After studying prose fiction I should be good at this -- I am. And the fact that I also write and have published poetry, I'm good at crystallizing a description to the fewest words possible for maximum effect. A skill I also apply in my day job as copywriter. On this, my only tip is to read others who have mad skills in description -- from other screenwriters to poets and novelists. Which brings me to my next strength....

    The Ability To Read, Analyze & Access The Work Of Pros (and learn from it)

    This skill was developed during my years as an English Lit major. As a writer, I believe if we can't "see" all the reasons why a killer screenplay works, we'll have a harder job elevating the quality of our own work. This requires developing your objectivity and not letting your own ego (or jealousy) get in the way. I've seen comments here about sold and awesome scripts being pulled down several notches with remarks like: "...not so great, no big deal, I could've written that ..." and worse.

    If you have blinders on as to why a script sold, attracted investors and talent, then made it to the screen to be a BO hit, in my opinion you're bumping around in the dark with your own scripts.

    And when I say analyzing -- I'm talking about being able to see what's under the hood of a great script. This requires more than assessing around the edges or identifying Save-The-Cat structure. It requires understanding the ways the writer seamlessly accomplished the whole of the script, why it fires on all pistons or, to use another analogy, finding the ghost in the machine.

    The one tip I can offer is rereading the same script several times. Because only one read sets you up to miss things. Rereading also enables you to better identify how and why this or that turning point or reversal works -- "Ah, I see what you did there." I also suggest reading scripts for produced films you haven't yet watched. Then watching them after you did the deep dive. My own problem with reading scripts for films I've seen is that my mind just plays the movie and I miss too much in terms of learning craft.

    Deep Respect for the Craft and for Successful Screenwriters

    This strength sits on the foundation of the one listed above. Maybe it doesn't seem necessary in a discussion about strengths and weakness. In my opinion, it is crucial. Far too many aspiring screenwriters jump in thinking screenplays are easy to write. Easier than writing a 300-page novel. I know. Because I jumped in with the same ignorant idea. Since I write prose fiction, I didn't think screenwriting could possibly be harder for me. It was. It is.

    Why? Because you not only need to be creative and talented -- you also need a strong dose of what I would call technician skills, in the broad sense, to write a killer story in 110 to 120 pages -- for a visual medium.

    Novelists can be a bit self indulgent and get away with it. They can get away with over-writing here and there. And they have the luxury of the omniscient narrator to boot. "Mary called Jack and told him what had just happened." Not to mention, novelists, if they write well, don't have to worry much about a high concept or attracting talent who want to play their characters. Though some novels work very well being adapted for the screen the vast majority of solid novels do not.

    Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying novelists are less skilled than screenwriters. I'm saying aspects of of each discipline require different skill sets. One is no easier than the other. Simply put, novelists and screenwriters have different hurdles they must clear.

    I believe you have to have a deep respect and understanding of the challenges of the craft in order to get miles within striking distance of breaking in.

    My Two HUGE Weaknesses

    Though I can objectively say I possess the strengths listed above, I know my two huge weaknesses are preventing me from writing scripts that will make people in a very cynical, seen-it-before industry sit up and take notice. Until I can correct these weaknesses, I can only achieve "Close but no cigar" status which was what happened when I had a manager. That's why I stepped off the spec/query train and will not step back on until I conquer these weaknesses.

    Out-Of-The-Box Commercial Concepts (High or at least Tall Concepts).

    Until I can become better at this, I'm not sending any scripts out for consideration. If I know my concept is "just okay" why the hell would I expect any industry exec to think it's good?

    The frustrating part is I am able to concept out of the box in my day job. I've won Addy Awards and niche industry awards for ad campaigns. But developing a cool concept for an ad or even a billboard or local TV/Radio spots -- to hold attention for, at best, seconds to a few minutes -- is far easier than a concept that holds attention for 90-minutes-plus.

    It's true I'm inspired to write character-driven stories, in my prose fiction and scripts -- but there are many films that deftly execute out-of-the box concepts that ARE also character driven. So far, I can't.

    Out-of-The Box "What Happens Next" (Plotting)

    This goes hand in hand with my Concept albatross. I simply suck at it. The problem with my "What Happens Next" skills is that I'm too predictable. There are scarce few to zero surprises. With COVID, I've been binge watching work from all over the world and though some of it is predictable the better work has me thinking: "I wish I came up with that." Or, worse: "I don't think I could ever come up with that."

    If anyone has any tips and pointers on conquering these two issues -- it would be greatly appreciated.

    Now -- how about sharing your weaknesses, strengths and tips.

    NOTE:

    I can't edit title. It should read: What are your weaknesses. Sorry.
    Last edited by sc111; 02-01-2021, 04:25 PM. Reason: Typos
    Advice from writer, Kelly Sue DeConnick. "Try this: if you can replace your female character with a sexy lamp and the story still basically works, maybe you need another draft.-

  • #2
    I think I have weaknesses in all the tools really: Character, Plot, Structure, Dialogue. I don't do any of them perfectly. I procrastinate a lot. I'm procrastinating now. You gotta be able to sit in the chair and do the work. Stephen King said that when he is writing something then he writes every single day and he has. a min word count to meet. Ron Bass would write for 4 hours in the morning. Take a nap, eat and then write four hours in the evening. I mean these guys are at the desk working on story hard for long hours. When they hit a wall they climb it, I choose to do something else. If I could wish for a screenwriting super power it would be for supreme rewrite skills because that's where it all comes together. THEME ----> CHARACTER ------> PLOT. Theme begets character. Character begets plot. I listened to the writer of Inside Out sit on a panel with other screenwriters and take questions. She said this and I remember thinking that I never thought of it that way and it just opened my eyes. Every writer I hear talk about a script they sold or worked on they talk about all the drafts and ideas (good and bad) and the months they worked on it day and night. I find doing the actual work of it daunting. I think you get to this cliff once you really understand how special it is to have a great story.

    I like character driven movies. Carlito's Way, Sleepers, Mystic River. I like those movies. I know they do not win the box office numbers but that's the kind of thing that I like. For a high concept idea you need something outside the real of possibilities in real life. Liar Liar. Frequency. ET. What have you. Even with high concept you need a good idea. It's not like you're gonna throw an Alien in the mix and poof have a high concept. I've heard more than one working writer say that great high concepts can sell by idea alone. Great low concept scripts need to be proven on the paper.

    I guess my advice would be to spend as much time writing as you possibly can. Build. Tear Down. Start Again. Don't be afraid of that process. Every builder learns something about a build along the way that if they knew it up front they would do it differently. They do not have the luxury of tearing down and doing it right, we do. But that means more hard work. More staring straight ahead thinking what next? That constipated, frustrated feeling of writers block. Sorkin says he's in a constant state of writers block but he just fights through.

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    • #3
      sc111: Winning high concepts are f'ing hard! But here's one place to start... Go back through old tv shows, short stories, books, etc, and think of a twist on an idea you think is clever. There was an episode of Bewitched where the guy - an ad exec - had his witch wife curse him so he couldn't lie. Funny little idea for a half hour. And that idea sat there for forty years until Liar Liar came out, a huge high concept idea and big hit about... a lawyer who gets cursed and can't tell a lie. I have no idea if the writer came up with it independently or saw Bewitched, but the idea was there for the re-imagining. Instead of a wife who wished her husband couldn't lie, it was a kid who wished his father couldn't lie. That's it. Huge hit.

      Or comb through old movies - if an idea was high concept enough to get it made once, maybe there's a modern take on it that's salable.

      As for surprises in the story, I often think "what is the worst thing that could happen now," and then try to figure a way out of it. I just re-watched Air Force One, and it was a master class in that. One step forward... impossible setback. Again and again and again. Such a great ride.

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      • #4
        Thanks, Jeff. Awesome tips. And now I'm irked at myself for not thinking of it.
        Advice from writer, Kelly Sue DeConnick. "Try this: if you can replace your female character with a sexy lamp and the story still basically works, maybe you need another draft.-

        Comment


        • #5
          Fun thread, sc111!

          Originally posted by Cyfress View Post
          I
          I like character driven movies. Carlito's Way, Sleepers, Mystic River. I like those movies.

          For a high concept idea you need something outside the real of possibilities in real life. Liar Liar. Frequency. ET.
          This is me, too. I'll see the Liar, Liar's of the world but I will see and CARE ABOUT the Mystic Rivers more.

          But SOMEONE is writing the Mystic Rivers of the world, so is it really a flaw?

          Maybe that's a bad example, because it was a book, but... character stuff can get actors on board, too. To me, the only person I can see getting Liar, Liar made in today's world is Adam Sandler. With Mystic River you've got Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, Laura Linney, and Marcia Gay Harden lining up to take part. Perhaps because it was Eastwood directing, but still.

          My strengths: I finish what I start. I think I'm pretty good. I'll try something new even if its outside my comfort zone -- have one script that's a drama but with comedy, and the comedy works well, even though that's not my strong suit. You don't know unless you try, so...

          Weakness: Lack of industry contacts. Sometimes my concepts suck and then I waste time trying to force them to work, when I should just trash them and start over with something else. I think others are better at coming up with ideas in general. Just a fountain of ideas, they've got. I wish my brain worked like that (talking to you, Bono). I have to think way too much about something... Also I wish I was better at writing action -- always a struggle, that one; how many effing ways can you punch someone for pete's sake? It all seems repetitive, and if its not repetitive, it seems too expensive to include.

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          • #6
            Thanks, figment. Finishing what you start is an awesome strength.
            Advice from writer, Kelly Sue DeConnick. "Try this: if you can replace your female character with a sexy lamp and the story still basically works, maybe you need another draft.-

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            • #7
              Strengths: Visualization. Cinema.
              Weakness: Grasp of the Language.

              And since Cyfress brought up his love for a character driven story, I am of an opine that key to a memorable story is simplicity, IMHO. Was never a huge fan of "high concept". I'd rather write Leaving Las Vegas over, say, Taken; Ordinary People over Die Hard. Just my taste...

              --fallen

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              • #8
                Originally posted by figment View Post
                Maybe that's a bad example, because it was a book, but... character stuff can get actors on board, too. To me, the only person I can see getting Liar, Liar made in today's world is Adam Sandler. With Mystic River you've got Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, Laura Linney, and Marcia Gay Harden lining up to take part. Perhaps because it was Eastwood directing, but still.
                If Liar Liar was written today, I think there would be no shortage of studios lining up to get it made. Clear, comedic idea.

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                • #9
                  Originally posted by JeffLowell View Post

                  If Liar Liar was written today, I think there would be no shortage of studios lining up to get it made. Clear, comedic idea.
                  I didn't say it wouldn't get made. I said this: "To me, the only person I can see getting Liar, Liar made in today's world is Adam Sandler."

                  Meaning, WHO is that "Jim Carey" in Liar, Liar person right now? Who is our next Ben Stiller? Next Vince Vaughn? I feel like we don't have that wave of comedic actors right now that we used to have, as opposed to name actors lining up to do something like an Eastwood film. That name actors lining up to do a drama appears to be able to help it get made, though Eastwood is driving a lot of that interest as a director, I'm sure.

                  My mind goes to Adam Sandler for big comedy. Maybe the Rock. Zach Galifinakas (sp)? It seems the Ben Stiller/Jim Carey/Vince Vaughn era is over and no one is coming up to replace them. My mind only really goes to Adam Sandler. Can Blue Steele get made without Ben Stiller? Even something like Dodgeball, a big, goofy movie -- aside from Stiller, who is that next person that is taking over those spots? I think it would be harder to write that, if you can't envision the actor in it.

                  I could be wrong. Maybe there are tons of people I'm not seeing.

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                  • #10
                    A Politician who can't lie can be really funny too, especially in todays day and age. Will Farrell.

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                    • #11
                      Kevin Hart, Jonah Hill, Seth Rogan, Paul Rudd, Jason Segal... Hell, David Spade just had a Netflix movie that was one of their biggest performers ever. Palm Springs was a high concept success, and Andy Samberg was enough to get it made.

                      Mystic River is almost 20 years old. I think it would be much tougher to get made today than a modestly budgeted great high concept movie.

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                      • #12
                        Originally posted by JeffLowell View Post
                        Kevin Hart, Jonah Hill, Seth Rogan, Paul Rudd, Jason Segal... Hell, David Spade just had a Netflix movie that was one of their biggest performers ever. Palm Springs was a high concept success, and Andy Samberg was enough to get it made.

                        Mystic River is almost 20 years old. I think it would be much tougher to get made today than a modestly budgeted great high concept movie.
                        Agree. And Mystic River was a top selling novel at the time. Book adaptations are a different critter IMO.

                        I could see Kevin Hart playing the Carrey role easily. And Paul Rudd could do a different take on the character. I'm glad you didn't list Will Farrell. He's like nails screeching across a blackboard for me. Just one of those things.
                        Advice from writer, Kelly Sue DeConnick. "Try this: if you can replace your female character with a sexy lamp and the story still basically works, maybe you need another draft.-

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                        • #13
                          Originally posted by Cyfress View Post
                          A Politician who can't lie can be really funny too, especially in todays day and age. Will Farrell.
                          Or, flip it. A president who can never tell the truth. Not even about the weather. Or a plague ...oh, wait ...

                          Advice from writer, Kelly Sue DeConnick. "Try this: if you can replace your female character with a sexy lamp and the story still basically works, maybe you need another draft.-

                          Comment


                          • #14
                            Originally posted by JeffLowell View Post
                            Kevin Hart, Jonah Hill, Seth Rogan, Paul Rudd, Jason Segal... Hell, David Spade just had a Netflix movie that was one of their biggest performers ever. Palm Springs was a high concept success, and Andy Samberg was enough to get it made.
                            Yeah, you're right. Seth Rogan for sure and Kevin Hart. I can't get my head around David Spade being compared to Jim Carey in his heyday, but point taken.

                            Sorry to hijack your thread, sc111...

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                            • #15
                              Jeff: don't apologize. Actually, this tangent has me thinking I should have included genre strengths/weaknesses.

                              It's something writers do need to get a handle on. They may be writing drama when comedy could be their stronger bet.

                              Example: I'm more interested in writing drama/thriller, including future-set stories.

                              Yet my first three scripts were comedies. Number two and three got me repped and went out to studios.

                              I gave up the ghost because my approach to comedy is seeing the ironic funny in not-so-pleasant real life situations. Which is not popular anymore.
                              Advice from writer, Kelly Sue DeConnick. "Try this: if you can replace your female character with a sexy lamp and the story still basically works, maybe you need another draft.-

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