June 3, 2010 / 2 Comments

The Blueprint

There’s a phrase that gets tossed around a lot in Hollywood, usually by directors, actors, and producers. It’s kind of insulting and condescending the way it gets used, but there is a degree of truth to it. That phrase is…

The script is just a blueprint.

Now, the reason I say that’s condescending is because this gets used by directors who want to justify rewriting scenes and actors who want to justify changing (or just making up) lines. We’d never say the director’s just there to block out the scene or the actor’s just supposed to read the dialogue, but for some reason it’s acceptable to say the writer is just a stepping stone for everyone else’s brilliance.

Here’s my take on this. There are numerous stories in Hollywood of brilliant scripts that became average-to-sub-par movies when the director and actors were done with them. Pay It Forward. Excess Baggage. Wanted. Little Monsters. Heck, even Suburban Commando. Yeah, you’re cringing, but have you ever read the original screenplays for any of these films? The ones that sold and got the project greenlit? Most of them were damned entertaining, and one or two of them were just phenomenal. Who do you think’s responsible for the movies that came out of these scripts? The key grip? The wardrobe supervisor? Heck, the writer of one recently released film confided to me that the whole reason the movie went through numerous expensive reshoots was because the director had made “a few changes” during the original shoot which destroyed the character arcs for both protagonists (much to the frustration of both the screenwriter and the producers).

Now, to be fair, how often have you heard of a brilliant director and great actors being saddled with a sub-par script which sank their film? A few times for that, too, right?

Riddle me this, though, Timmy– if the script was sub-par, why did they decide to go into production with it?

Doesn’t make sense, does it? No one’s going to build a house if the blueprints don’t include a foundation, a front door, or a staircase to the second floor. Considering how much more a motion picture costs than a house, does anyone here really believe a studio would march into production with a crap script? That a director would agree to work on it? That actors would rush to be in it?

Unless, of course, those people don’t know what they’re doing, either…

But I digress…

As I said up above, there is some truth to the script as a blueprint analogy. No matter what Hollywood and auteur wankers like to say, the screenwriter is the architect of the movie. They’re the one who sits down with a vision and an idea that gets committed to paper and referred to throughout the construction process. Even if the film is an adaptation or a remake, it’s the writer who has to plan it all out and decide what to keep and what to discard. There’s a reason the architect said put the door here, the window there, and the support beam right there. A screenplay is a blueprint, and when you don’t follow the blueprints–or don’t know how to read them– you get cracks, crumbling, and sometimes a full-on collapse.


(Yeah, there’s a however. If there wasn’t you wouldn’t need to read any of this,would you?)

This does not mean the screenwriter is the end-all, be-all of the process. A good architect knows there’s a lot of stuff he or she gets to shape and insist on, but just as many that they have no control over. Frank Lloyd Wright designed some of the most beautiful structures in the world, but he didn’t have a say on the appliances in the kitchen, the living room carpet, or what the owners decided to use for bedlinen. There’s a point the architect has absolute control, but there’s also a point where the blueprints have to get handed over to the contractor, the painter, and the interior decorator. Not to mention the people who are buying the house. Heck, if the architect gets hired to design a beach house and they turned in plans for a Victorian office building, it doesn’t matter how good that office building is, they’re not getting another job.

Let’s stick with this metaphor for a few more paragraphs. Imagine you hired an architect to design your new house and the first two pages of the plans are an explanation of how the building may look odd but is actually modelled after the house the architect lived in as a child. That house was built by his great-uncle who had fought in World War Two and returned home to Boston afterwards to build a home that resembled the structures he’d seen while fighting in the Pacific Rim. None of this has anything to do with your house, granted, but the architect felt it was worth mentioning. And eating up two pages of blueprints with.

How are the carpenters going to react when they see that half of every page is instructions on how to use a circular saw, lists of preferred nails, and step-by-step guides for using a measuring tape? There’s an extra 50 pages worth of blueprints here telling everyone on the construction crew how to do their jobs–jobs that more often than not the architect doesn’t know how to do himself. How far in will everyone get before they start ignoring everything the architect’s written alongside the diagrams? And then what happens when there finally is something important in all those notes?

Anyone who’s ever taken drafting knows how important clean lines are. If the architect’s cluttered every diagram up by drawing in wood grains or micromanaging every stud and strut, it just get confusing. We don’t need to see all those individual nails, but we do need to see that load-bearing beam and it’s getting lost in the glut of useless detail. A good foreman knows there needs to be a load-bearing beam somewhere in this wall, and if he can’t find it in the blueprints he’ll just put it in himself. If that messes up plans for the second floor fireplace… ah, well.

One of the biggest mistakes beginners make with screenplays is not understanding what a screenplay is. It’s not an exhaustive list of instructions for the director and the crew. It isn’t a magical tool for making actors do and say certain precise things. It’s not a chance to dazzle people with high-falutin’ vocabulary or hyper-detailed imagery. It’s a framework.

A screenplay–a good screenplay– is the underlying structure of a film. It’s the solid framework everything else is built on. It’s careful balancing act of minimal, concise language that’s got to have as much punch and nuance to it as humanly possible. It isn’t choked with excess verbiage or screen directions in the same way the plans for a house don’t list china patterns and carpet selections.

It is the blueprint of the film.

Just not in that insulting, condescending way those other folks say it.

Next time, I’d like to talk about something that lifts and supports.

No, not that. You can find that lots of other places online.

Until next week, go write.

June 21, 2008 / 1 Comment

The Pod Six Jokes

The title of this week’s little rant might seem a bit odd, but it’s an important lesson every writer needs to learn, and several never do. I’ve been shown two or three examples of it just in the past month. And what better way to demonstrate this lesson than through the wonders of Star Trek.

Honest, this is brilliant. Stick with me.

The fifth season of Next Generation really began with a wonderful episode called “Darmok.” The Enterprise encounters an alien race, the Children of Tama, that has repeatedly halted first contact attempts because its language baffles the universal translator. The Tama language can be rendered in English, but their words still make no sense. In a bold move, the Tama commander, Dathon, kidnaps Captain Picard to a hostile world where the two must fight together against a near-invisible energy creature to survive. Through their trials and a few garbled campfire discussions, Picard comes to realize that the Tama language is not based on ideas and concepts, but on stories and metaphors. Literal translation has been impossible because the Federation does not share the same history and folklore with the Tama.

In a way, all of us do this every day. Some of my best friends and I make frequent references to Pod Six (those guys were jerks), Lucky Bob, and “the girl’s evil cheater magic.” In college, the folks I hung out with understood when you talked about Virpi Zuckk, the third Pete, and nice shoes. Heck, my girlfriend and I almost have our own language with phrases like French Mousey, cat-switch, and Mr. Sexypants.

We all have circles of family and friends where there are shared memories, private jokes, and special references that few people outside these groups would understand. Some people like sports, others like science. Some crack jokes from Playboy, others from Prairie Home Companion. These folks watch CSI obsessively and these folks watch Reaper whenever they happen to catch it. And everyone talks about what they know and what they like.


A common failing I see again and again in stories and screenplays are oblique references and figures of speech that the reader cannot understand. While it makes sense within the writer’s personal circle or clique, outside readers end up scratching their heads. Many of the writers responsible for this will try to justify their words in a number of ways…

One is that since their friends are real people, people obviously talk this way, and therefore there’s nothing wrong with it. Alas, “real” does not always translate to “good.” In fact, unless you happen to be shooting a documentary, it usually doesn’t. That’s a large topic for another rant, though.

Two, usually reserved for screenplays, is the auteur excuse. The writer plans to direct this script and cast their friends, so it doesn’t matter if no one else can understand the writing (or if there are tons of inappropriate camera angles, staging instructions, and notes for actors). The flaw here is that the screenplay will invariably end up getting shown to someone else. An investor. A producer. A contest reader. Someone out of that inner circle of friends who needs to look at the script and needs to be able to understand the writing.

Three would be arguing common knowledge. The writer will try to say this material is generally known– universally known, even– and it’s the reader who is in the feeble minority by not being aware of it. This is probably the hardest to contradict, because if someone honestly believes everybody should know who lost the 1969 Orange Bowl, there’s not much you can do to convince them otherwise. It’s much more likely, in the writer’s mind, that those readers are just uneducated, pedestrian simpletons who never learned the periodic chart of elements, don’t collect Topps baseball cards, and couldn’t tell you the plainly obvious differences between Venom and Carnage if their lives depended on it.

Alas, their lives don’t depend on it.

Your writing does, though.

This is one of those inherent writer skills. It’s something you just need to figure out how to do on your own, and the easiest way is by reading everything you can get your hands on all the time. You need to know words and phrases. You have to know them and you have to be honestly aware of who else knows them. Using rare or antiquated words like atramentous instead of dark or glabrous instead of bald may show off your vocabulary, but the moment someone has to stop and think about what a word means, they’ve been taken out of your story. And knocking people out of your story is one of the all-but-certain ways to make sure the reader puts your manuscript down and goes off to fold laundry, make a sandwich, and read something different.

It’d be foolish to say your writing has to appeal to everyone and be understood by everyone. That’s just aiming for the lowest common denominator and that’s how you end up with The Love Guru or anything Anne Rice has written in the past decade. By the same token, however, you can’t be writing just for your five closest friends.

Well, you can, of course. But not if you want to do this for real.