Screenplays, Insecurities, and Tupperware

Gary Dop - Photo by Jeff Hathaway

Gary Dop
Alpha Xi Sigma Chapter
Randolph College, VA

In the world of scripts and screens, I've dabbled here and there, bouncing from commercials to films—playing writer, actor, or director. Of the hats I've worn, none gives me as much joy as writer.

For some reason, debating whether or not a character should speak to the zombie before opening the magic Tupperware and destroying the world is, to me, thrilling. Rest assured, even if I write a horrible screenplay—"Zombie Tupperware: a Love Story"—and it gets produced, I have the screenwriter's benefit of blaming the director and actors. Here's the trick: When your friends are watching, just roll your eyes and say, "Wow, they clearly missed the overarching metaphor of my script." Good friends will always agree.

A few weeks ago, I was hanging out with a friend who had just directed his first feature film, and I was bombarding him with questions, hoping to learn something. Of course I tried to play it cool—I wouldn't want him to think that I didn't know all the stuff that I still don't know. Lesson one of being a writer: You're insecure—learn to deal with it. I'm still working on lesson one. It's hard. I love that Sigma Tau Delta members seem to all have a vibrant curiosity, a hunger to learn that regularly helps us overcome our insecurities.

As a student member of Sigma Tau Delta, I used to dream of what it would be like to work as a writer, and I tried to glean whatever I could from writers who came to campus or who presented at the annual convention. Insecurities aside—both mine and yours—here are a few tips I've gathered for you on diving into your first screenwriting:

  1. Be Kind. Axiomatic, to be sure, but there are so many talented people in this business, and if you're a jerk or self-obsessed, people will not want to work with you. Sure, there are über-talented people who are jerks and still manage to make it, but they are the exceptions, and they have to live with the reality that people like them for what they do, not who they are.
  2. Organize Your Story. Screenplays are highly organized, and the expectation of Hollywood producers, as well as upstart independent filmmakers, is that your script will be organized into a standard three-act format.
  3. Write Images. Beginning scribes tend to focus on dialogue and forget that a film is primarily a visual medium. Go back and watch a dazzling blockbuster (Avatar) or even a brilliant comedy (Princess Bride), and you'll discover dozens of weak lines. While we often remember great lines from films, the visual image is more important. With the images off, the movie is no longer a movie. By contrast, if you shut off the sound and leave the picture, you can still follow the story and feel the film. In film, images are the story. Focus on visual storytelling. Create engaging, original images.
  4. Read Scripts. Find early drafts, and study the way the film varies from the script, analyzing the way the film improves or ruins the script's vision. Check out early drafts of Chinatown (fascinating) or Tombstone (flawed).
  5. Read Screenwriting Gurus. There are two books I always recommend for screenwriting: McKee's STORY, the seminal text on screenwriting and story theory, and Blake Snyder's Save the Cat. The latter text gets some bad publicity from some snobby screenwriters because it's highly formulaic, so don't tell anyone I'm telling you about it (see above note on my insecurities).
  6. Watch Movies. Test every movie you watch against McKee's theories on story and Snyder's organizational schema.
  7. Rewrite Extensively. Don't trust your drafts. If you have a scene in which a man hollers up from the street to his girlfriend, try one where he climbs the fire escape, and then one where he opens the Tupperware and releases the Zombie apocalypse. It is vital that you try lots of ways of doing the same thing. Don't assume that rewriting is focused only on words and sentence-level choices. Be free to regularly overhaul entire scenes.

None of these tips will do you any good if you don't write. Send me an email when you've read McKee and Snyder, and if you don't like their books, I'll give you back your money—no, I won't do that, but do send me an email when you've started writing. I'd love to know how it's going.

And remember, if all you've written is an outline, that's still more screenplay than Shakespeare ever managed.

Gary watches as his actors rehearse
Gary watches as his actors rehearse.