A few weeks ago, I posted a series of blogs on why your script is most likely not a script. Not yet.
Later, we talked about the essential of embracing the rewrite – or, to be honest, the rewrites – with rapture, as part of the process, and the necessity of well-governed feedback.
So here you are, dear ladies and lords of the court. You’ve blushingly admitted that your script is not a script. You’ve wholeheartedly embraced the feedback process. You’ve killed your darlings, you’ve condensed style, you’ve had feedback.
You’ve incorporated said feedback, and rewritten again and again. You’ve hired a proofreader and editor. Now, you are ready to send your life’s work out – or are you?
Consider this. Your script might need More Cowbell:
What is Cowbell? Ah, the eternal question. Cowbell is Rod Tidwell’s quan – that indefinable something which lifts its possessor out of the humdrum into greatness. It is heart. It is soul. It is what elevates your story, what sets it above the rest.
Following are a few suggestions about how to give your script more Cowbell:
1) Give your hero a secret. It’s an essential tool for acting, and one for writing as well. Your hero must have a secret. The secret can be psychological (Brody’s fear of the water), it can double dip (Shoshanna’s existence is a secret in Act 1, then, after her escape from the Nazis, her secret returns to haunt her in the form of a “little conversation” over pastry and cream with Colonel Landa). The secret can be love: lost love (CASABLANCA, SNOW FALLING FROM CEDARS), forbidden love (BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN), unrequited love (WUTHERING HEIGHTS), secret love (LAST OF THE MOHICANS, THE ENGLISH PATIENT). It can be Andy Dufresne’s innocence. It can be death (THE SIXTH SENSE, THE LIFE BEFORE HER EYES), sanity/insanity (HAMLET), murder (THE UNFORGIVEN, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO) and guilt (WHITE OLEANDER, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, THE EXORCIST). It can have layers. Whatever your hero’s secret is, it must ultimately be revealed/conquered in order to propel your protagonist forward – or become their ultimate undoing.
Secrets are great for antagonists as well. Think on Ledger’s Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT. His secret – his smile. Its origin? He tells several different versions of how he gained his grin, and any, or none of them, could be true. Darth Vader keeps a secret very well; it’s no mistake that THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK is considered the literary tentpole of the entire saga because of it.
A side note – secrets are great for ALL characters. One of my favorite, albeit heartbreaking, secrets revealed is in the film ABSENCE OF MALICE. A tertiary character, Theresa, is a catholic school teacher. She’s also provided an alibi for a very powerful man connected to the mob. She refuses to reveal the “what” of her alibi, yet, under pressure from a journalist, finally does. The man – her closest friend – Michael, took her to get an abortion. Her story is published, and, the next morning, she runs fruitlessly throughout her neighborhood, desperately snatching up the newspapers in her neighbor’s lawns. Painful indeed. – HRH
2) Clearly define and elevate your style. My writing partner and I were recently bemoaning the uber streamlining of today’s spec scripts, and both confessed a yearn to return to the more literary forms of Chayefsky, Horton Foote, Frank Darabont and many others. And yet, when picking up a present day work by Shane Black, or Christopher Nolan, Aaron Sorkin…. that certain something, that literary style, is there. The lines can be so tight they make a nun squeak, but they are jam-packed with elevated language, deep tone and style. They have a voice – and each of their voices are unique. Exercise your voice. Fine-tune that instrument – and let it sing.
3) Raise those stakes. Raise them high. Every story is about life and death. Every. Single. Story. The life/death struggle may be literal (most horror and war films and some dramas), it may be symbolic: emotional life and death (THE FISHER KING, ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOOS NEST, THE HEIRESS), the life and death of love (ROMEO AND JULIET, ATONEMENT, AWAY FROM HER), financial life and death (WALL STREET, TRADING PLACES), societal life and death (AGE OF INNOCENCE, HEATHERS), marital/familial death (KRAMER VS KRAMER, ORDINARY PEOPLE), the life and death of an ideal (MACHETE, IN THE BEDROOM, NETWORK, ALL THE PRESIDENTS MEN). If your characters are not facing death – in some form or another – then you are making it too easy for them. Let up on the parental love, and let them experience their lives – and the deaths that come with them. Your story will thank you for it.
4) Know when to be seen and when to be heard. Write like a film editor. Go over each moment with a fine-toothed comb, and push yourself to the limit. Know when the moment is enough. Get rid of the lines that burden it down. Screenwriting is visual storytelling – yes, yes, I know that you’ve heard this a million times, but dialogue can make the most poignant of moments maudlin. Think of a few moments in film: Elsa’s eyes when she hears “As Time Goes By;” Arlene’s crumpled anguish when she receives the doctor’s news in PAY IT FORWARD; the cutting back and forth between dialogue (human) and silence (HAL) in 2001 – A SPACE ODYSSEY; the figure of the little girl in a red coat wandering through the streets of the ghetto under siege in SCHINDLER’S LIST; Landa’s drawn-out silences in Act 1 of INGLORIOUS BASTERDS. The ending of LOST IN TRANSLATION. JU DOU. DON’T LOOK BACK. THE BLACK STALLION. I’m certain that you have dozens of powerful pictures to add to the list.
In the 90s, it was pretty easy (haha, easy as chewing nails) to write a spec script and either sell it or get it placed in turnaround. If you had a rock solid high concept, development money abounded, and any flaws could be attacked by a few ten or forty writers attacking various portions of your script. Today, your script has to be better than that. It has to be exceptional. There is a surplus of bad, bad material in the market today, written by writers who should know better than to treat the industry script sale as a get-rich-quick Ponzi scheme, but they have done it, and have flooded the market with crap, and it is your job as a writer to make damned sure that your story – and the script with which you will execute it – is not the typical crap that every reader in town is rolling eyes about. Don’t blame them. Grow up, and take responsibility for your work. Demand excellence of self – and of craft.
Writing is not the easy street to overnight fame and fortune. It is hard. It is WORK. If you don’t want to do the work, them perhaps you might consider another day job.
If you do have the work ethic, if you have the fortitude, the staying power, and the ability to know that your work can always be better, then stick it out. Give your script more Cowbell.
Now, go write.
HRH, Princess Scribe
What I am reading: Competition season ensues. I’m reading scripts for those prepping for Nicholl et al. More cowbell, baby! 🙂
What I am watching: THE CUTTING EDGE: THE MAGIC OF MOVIE MAKING. All hail Netflix.
A Royal Shout Out: To my other man, Jon Stewart, for bringing a little sanity and reason to the political table last night, in the midst of such unspeakable tragedy. Too bad The Daily Show can’t govern the country. We’d be a hell of a lot more civil, healthy and happy.