Many people have thought about writing their own film at one time or another. Whether your a seasoned writer or simply a movie lover who wants to share your stories with the world, the Screenwriter's Compass: Character As True North will be an indispensable tool. Written by writer and Columbia Film professor Guy Gallo, the book serves as an innovative guide to crafting a screenplay. Gallo breaks it down step-by-step in a manner that is easy to follow. He presents details on how to effectively draw readers in and create a compelling narrative. The book is currently available on Amazon and the International Business Times had the chance to talk to Gallo about how screenwriters can further their work.
It may be argued that the hardest part of screenwriting is actually sitting down to write. What advice would you give those who are reluctant to start putting their ideas on paper?
My best advice is: try not to wait for inspiration. Write every day, no matter how little or how bad. Just doodle something. Random dialogue, character sketches, discreet images. Keep a journal. Not a Dear Diary, but a working journal with ideas and thoughts on the project.
I think what often daunts the writer as they begin is the idea that they have to hold the entire story in their head at once, that they are writing, with every sentence, a screenplay. It's more manageable if you break down the pieces of the entirety into smaller chunks. I'm working on this sequence, this scene, this image, this sentence...
It's also sometimes the case that the computer can get in the way. Computer programs make the screenplay look so solid and finished. It doesn't look like a draft, an attempt. So, sometimes writers are reluctant to start on the pristine document. I suggest that you get a composition book. That if the computer is recalcitrant, write in long hand. Scribble a lot. Throw away a lot. And slowly your draft will accrete. Then you can start typing it into the computer.
Finally, don't forget that you love writing. That you actually get pleasure out of putting words together.
It often happens that screenwriters craft part of a story but are unable to complete it. What's the best way to combat writers block and discouragement?
All writers, I'm pretty sure, fight demons of discouragement and self-doubt. I think that's part of the job. You just have to write through it.
One great source of writer's block is the hope that your screenplay will make you famous, make you money. It's like writing for posterity. No work can bear that kind of pressure. If you're writing for a reward beyond the immediate, you're in for trouble. You have to let go and just get it done first.
Another frequent block is the fear that your story isn't topical enough. Or that no one will find it interesting. Just remember that you are of your time and so by definition what you say is of your time. And it's most important that the story interest you -- only then does it have a chance of interesting an audience.
There are a couple of tricks I use to break a block once it has settled. Change the tools -- write long hand, use a typewriter. Sometimes I'll re-write a scene from memory -- without reference to the manuscript -- to see what I remember. What was important enough to remember.
But mainly, I find my best weapon against block is to re-read what I've done so far. To go back through the notes and journals. To recapture the originating image or insight that started the story for me.
In your book, you make it clear that writers have to be good readers and judge their work as if it were not their own. Writing is such a personal thing and it's extremely difficult to ignore your own emotions when editing or re-writing. Do you have any tips for how screenwriters can do that?
The initial act of writing may be personal, but the object is not. The urge to tell a story, and the yearnings we hope to embody, the themes that preoccupy us, these are all very private and personal. But the writing becomes, in the end, a very public act. It depends upon an audience for completion.
I'm not at all suggesting that we ignore our emotions when revising. Quite the contrary. We hope to do justice to our emotions, and our intentions, by giving them most effective and precise voice. So that they come across to the reader.
Writing has to DO something. And one needs to be as clear as possible about what works and what doesn't. What is the task and does the writing accomplish it?
I'm not saying that we don't have favorite passages and things we want to keep just because we like them... but even so, we need to be able to judge if those favorite sentences do what we want, what we need them to do. And if they do not, if they get in the way, be willing to let them go.
You must approach revision with the idea that nothing is sacred. That anything can be cut. And to believe that just because it's cut from this screenplay doesn't mean it won't show up in another. Nothing is ever lost completely.
I think you need to take some time away from the script before revising. It helps enormously to re-read from page one on hard copy (as opposed to glancing at your computer screen). I think hard copy helps provide some objectivity.
Back stories for characters can be an invaluable tool. How much work do you suggest writers put into crafting the lives that the characters had before the screenplay takes place?
That's a difficult question. You want to spend sufficient time to discover idiosyncrasies and habits and yearnings in your characters, but not so much time that you end up writing a full length biography, most of which will not be useful in the composition of the screenplay. Some writers do very detailed and cogent character histories. Others amass lots of random notes. I say whichever works for you is fine. But I do caution not to get so caught up in imagining your character's past that you lose sight of the present tense of your story. Imagine enough to start writing scenes. Writing scenes will invariably cast you back into history. Like outlines, character histories grow and change with the composition of the screenplay.
You do most of your discovery not in meditating on the abstract backstory, but by putting snippets of known history to work in the present tense of the film. The most important part of a character history is that part that has a vivid role in the present, that influences behavior and choices. I think those things are only discovered during the making of the scenes -- not in the abstract.
Often, in story conferences, you'll hear the question What in their backstory caused the character to do thus and such? The only answer to that is Everything. I say if a reader doesn't understand the motive for an action it isn't for lack of history, it's for an insufficiently articulated present.