Screenwriting for Neurotics: A Beginner's Guide to Writing a Feature-Length Screenplay from Start to Finish

Screenwriting for Neurotics: A Beginner's Guide to Writing a Feature-Length Screenplay from Start to Finish

by Scott Winfield Sublett


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Screenwriting for Neurotics: A Beginner's Guide to Writing a Feature-Length Screenplay from Start to Finish by Scott Winfield Sublett

Screenwriting for Neurotics is a quirky and accessible handbook for beginning screenwriters. Whether you are a student in a screenwriting class or just someone who wants to try their hand at writing for film or television, this handy guidebook makes the entire process simple and unintimidating. Scott Winfield Sublett, a veteran screenwriter and screenwriting teacher, walks you step by step from start to finish and helps you navigate potential and unforeseen difficulties along the way, offering handy tips and suggestions to keep you from becoming blocked or stalled.

Rather than throwing you into the writing process headfirst, Sublett guides you through the various decisions you need to make—about plot, character, structure, conflict—in the order you need to make them. He explains in straightforward terms the terminology and jargon, the theory and industry standards, and dispels common myths about screenwriting that can discourage or hold back a beginning writer.

Balancing theory and practice and offering valuable and insightful examples from recognizable and well-known classic and contemporary films, ranging from Casablanca to A Christmas Story to Clerks, Sublett provides the new writer with the necessary tools to successfully write a feature-length screenplay and offers a roadmap of where to go next. With an emphasis on helping a writer not just to begin, but also to finish a script, Screenwriting for Neurotics is the screenwriting book to help you actually write one.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781609382766
Publisher: University of Iowa Press
Publication date: 10/01/2014
Edition description: 1
Pages: 268
Sales rank: 1,215,282
Product dimensions: 8.40(w) x 5.20(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Scott Winfield Sublett is a screenwriter, director, playwright, lyricist, producer, journalist, and educator. He wrote and directed Generic Thriller, featuring Oscar-winner Shirley Jones. As a librettist and lyricist he wrote the musicals Die, Die, Diana; Bye-Bye Bin Laden (named “Best Feature” at the South Beach International Animation Festival); and Senorita X. Among his numerous screenwriting awards is a First Prize at the 2013 Fade In Magazine screenwriting competition. He was executive producer of All About Dad, named one of Top Ten Asian American Films of the year. A professor of screenwriting, playwriting, and film history at San Jose State University, he holds an MFA in screenwriting from University of California, Los Angeles. He lives in San Jose, California.

Read an Excerpt

Screenwriting For Neurotics

A Beginner's Guide to Writing a Feature-Length Screenplay from Start to Finish

By Scott Winfield Sublett

University of Iowa Press

Copyright © 2014 University of Iowa Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60938-300-8



The key to successful dramatic writing is to make major structural decisions in advance and then stick to those decisions as you write, instead of wandering off on some whimsical tangent. Decide what your story is about and make it be about that. There are two parts to that statement: (1) deciding and (2) playing out your decision. Let's tackle the first part: deciding.

* * *


It's a big world out there. You could write about anything in the universe. You have to decide what you will write about so that you can exclude what you won't write about. You have to make decisions. And you have to make the big decisions first. This book is about the decisions that need to be made in constructing a screenplay and the order in which those decisions are most effectively made. First you make the big decisions, then the medium-sized decisions, and last of all the small, moment-to-moment decisions.

Your first decision is your idea.

* * *


Working with beginning writers has taught me two things.

1. A great idea isn't a great idea if that writer can't write it. Some ideas would be good for one writer but not another. Sometimes inexperienced writers generate a catchy "high concept" but are not ready to tackle it because, for example, it's outside their experience. Beginning writers aren't facile pros who can make just anything work—they don't yet have the mastery of craft.

2. An idea that isn't "dramatizable" is not really an idea at all—it's just a gimmick. There's a difference between, say, a concept, a premise, or an inspiration and a thought-through idea that will "play," as they say in the theatre.

In other words, the idea has to be right for the writer and right for the medium. Shaping an inspiration into a dramatizable idea is a skill that we'll attempt to learn in this chapter, but there's no substitute for experience. Studies of chess masters show that the difference between a master and a beginner is that a master can quickly compute the ramifications of any possible move and the neophyte can't. With lightning speed, the chess master can predict how a choice "plays out," having been down that road before. The master's genius is in the ability quickly to imagine all the possible solutions to a problem and just as quickly dismiss the ones that won't work. Then the master can spend more time pursuing the ones that might work. You're not there yet, but even the beginner can shape an idea in a way that helps ensure success. Ideas with a high likelihood of panning out tend to have characteristics in common, which we'll discuss next.

* * *


A dramatizable idea is one that will "play": with reasonable ease it will yield thirty-five to eighty ideas for scenes of conflict. Sometimes an idea that sounds great isn't. Beware the common pitfall of mistaking a movie gimmick for a dramatizable idea. Everyone will say that your gimmick is a great idea for a movie, but withhold judgment until it yields a spine and step outline (which you'll learn to do later).

Different Ideas Suit Different Literary Forms

You'll succeed more readily with your first screenplay if you pick an idea suited to becoming a movie. If I contemplate an oleander bush bursting with blooms outside my office window and experience a transcendent but temporary sense of the universe's generosity, I should write a poem. If I have a chance encounter on the bus with a homeless man whom I discover to be a person of extraordinary sensitivity and lucidity just before he walks out of my life and I am left sitting in my bus seat forever altered by this brief experience because of an "epiphany," that's probably a short story. It's narrative, brief, somewhat internal, and resonant beyond its size. If I want to examine in minute detail the interior mental struggles of a stoic, middle-aged businessman coming to terms with his teenage daughter's lingering terminal illness, I'll need a novel because the story is internal and protracted.

The novel can tell almost any kind of story, but the kinds of stories that can be told on film are definitely limited by certain inherent characteristics of the medium. Movies are made of external action. They are "superficial" in that they deal with life's surfaces. Long internal monologues aren't acceptable to the movie audience yet are quite normal in the novel. Also, movies tend to be more strictly limited in length than the novel. The human dream cycle is ninety minutes long; coincidentally, movies during the Golden Age of Hollywood also tended to be that long. Novels may take weeks to read and can be as complex as you like; movies and plays must be time-limited, Andy Warhol's Sleep not-withstanding.

* * *


The cinema is a big tent. It has room for popcorn blockbusters and tiny indies. A lot of people think that the smart thing to do is to write the "high-concept" movie, and there are certainly things to be said for it. Studios are looking for high concepts—hooky ideas that can be expressed in a single sentence and movies that match the currently successful formulas.

High-concept movies ideally are a little familiar and a little different: "The Karate Kid but with sumo wrestling." They're enough like things that have come before that they make the powers-that-be comfortable, but they're different enough not to seem tired. One way to achieve that is with "blank meets blank." When people are pitching ideas or scripts in Hollywood, they often use something that a producer friend of mine calls "crosstimations." That is, they say that the script is "something meets something else," with the somethings being hit movies: if you're trying to sell something based on its being like something else, that something else had better have been successful. It's fun to combine hit movies randomly. The Avengers meets Gone with the Wind: superheroes go back in time to the Civil War.

Another method is to take stories that have been done before and make them over for today. 10 Things I Hate about You was based on The Taming of the Shrew. Clueless retreaded Jane Austen's Emma. There are tons of story ideas out there: Madame Bovary, Greek myths, and old plays that have fallen into the public domain. (Ideas are in the public domain and cannot be copyrighted. Even the copyrightable expressions of ideas eventually fall into the public domain, so Dracula and Charles Dickens are easy pickings.)

However, when borrowing from the classics you cannot slavishly follow the original plot. Stories structured for an earlier time must be tailored to fit contemporary life or else their story logic goes awry. Today, instead of a scarlet letter, Hester Prynne's problem would be finding affordable day care on the rock-bottom wage that she gets in the service industry.

Is the Personal Story Best for the First-Time Screenwriter?

The high concept is usually "big," which often means lots of action and special effects, so you need to sell it to a rich major Hollywood studio. It cannot be produced independently. Moreover, the high concept is usually harder to get right because it's something outside the writer's experience, often involving police inspectors, professional whale trainers, and nuns with a knack for kung fu. You lose your momentum when you keep stopping to research whales or to think up a clever "whammy."

I usually advise writers working on a first script that the high-concept or genre film is probably out of reach. Better to choose a small, personal idea that's inspired by your own experience and takes place in a world that you know.

The idea can be tweaked to make it more high concept or hooky and may even fit into an existing genre as you develop it. Great! But the important thing is that it should emerge from what you know, because that's what's easiest to write—and right now you need all the help that you can get.

A lot can be said for personal stories. They're unique. They feel "real"—the specificity, sincerity, and depth of understanding shine through. If you choose to write characters based on people you know (or types you know) and set your story in a milieu that you know it will probably be deeper and more convincing. If you are writing your story out of your own experiences, things only you know, then you can write that story better than anyone else in the world. Even Tennessee Williams couldn't write about your mother better than you could. Your experiences and point of view are unique: if your script comes out of them, then the script will be unique. Another advantage of writing about the kind of people you know is that you don't have to stretch to create their dialogue. You may speak English as a second language and feel that you don't have the verbal skills necessary to write a screenplay—unless, say, you write about a family that speaks English as a second language. You may not be able to dramatize a plausible exchange between Princess Margaret and Noël Coward, but you can certainly write a conflict between Mom and Dad over money.

Writing the sincere personal story can help you find your voice. Producers love a unique new voice. Better writing means a better writing sample. Remember, producers are looking for good ideas and good writers. But if they had to choose, they'd choose good writers, because a good writer can be hired to write one of the producer's ideas or literary properties. A well-written script that isn't high concept and doesn't sell for a million dollars can nevertheless be a great writing sample that wins contests, lands an agent, and gets assignments. And if you don't find a producer with the vision to love your unique new voice, well, the new digital technologies make independent production more attainable than ever before.

Most importantly, the personal script is usually the best choice for the new writer because it's the easiest to write. It comes out of what you already know—people you know, human types you know, and worlds you know. If you're a college student and write about college life, well, you don't have to go to a library to find out about college life. If you write about a blacksmith in 1473 you have to research all about the fifteenth century, smithing, and heaven knows what all else, but it still won't be as convincing as a script about love in the freshman dorm.

Avoid Research

If a scene is necessary to your script and you don't know how it would go, then of course you must do research. I'm not against all research. It's helpful. A little research into, say, what a plumber would actually tell a customer under given circumstances adds immeasurably to the authenticity of the flooded kitchen scene. Not to do research that is necessary is an error. However, research is terribly time-consuming. For beginning screenwriters, who find it hard enough to start the process as it is, research can be an endless swamp. Once you start you can be tied up at the library for years. When are you done? There's always more to know. The longer you research, the longer you put off writing, until research turns from a prelude into an excuse never to write. So I insist that my university students, when writing the first screenplay, choose a topic that requires absolutely no research. If your topic requires extensive research, by definition you aren't writing what you know.

Too much research can be a bad idea even if you're writing on a historical topic. A great playwright once said that if he needed to write a play about a great figure of history he would read an encyclopedia article and that's all—the rest he could make up. He didn't want to be constricted by too many facts; his responsibility was to himself as an artist and to his audience, not to literal history. Your responsibility is to tell an engrossing story; facts are the bailiwick of historians.

The Hazards of Genre

Genre can be a false refuge of writers who are afraid that they have nothing to say. They think that writing a genre film will be easier. In fact, it can be an added burden, when the demands of the genre distort or supplant the logic of your story.

One job in writing the first screenplay is to find your voice as a writer. Another is to learn the basic principles of dramatic construction. Having to deal with a lot of quite arbitrary narrative conventions associated with, say, the action movie, horror film, or western just gets in the way of your freedom to make decisions consonant with story logic, dramatic principles, and what you know about human life. Genre is another layer of complexity that you don't need when writing the first screenplay. Learning the principles of screenwriting is a plateful. It's plenty for now. I'm not against high concept or genre. I'm just saying that for your first screenplay, the one where you master the process, choose content that you already know well. It's hard enough to structure a story without worrying about genre conventions.

* * *


So now we understand that the best ideas for the beginning screenwriter are those found in your own backyard, that it's crucial to pick a subject that you don't need to research, and that it's best to pick some area of life with which you are completely familiar.

Unfortunately, you think that you're boring and couldn't possibly interest anyone else. Paradoxically, that's a rather egotistical idea, because it stems from an inability to place yourself in the shoes of others. To someone living in Port-au-Patois, your life is thrillingly exotic. Exploit it: you will write a story that no one else can write as well as you can because it's your story and you're the one who knows it.

Let me give you a perfect example of a student finding the right idea. A shy Chicana sophomore whom we'll call Veronica insisted that she was completely boring and therefore had absolutely nothing to write. I told her to visit me during my office hours. When she sat down, I said, "Tell me your entire life story from beginning to end. Something in it will suggest dramatic possibilities."

Here was the first sentence out of her mouth: "When I was a little girl I worked with my mother and father as a migrant farm laborer, picking fruit in central California."

To this I replied, "Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!"

To her, boring. To me, riveting! All that remained was to shape the experience into a dramatizable idea, and she did.

Maybe you haven't worked as a migrant laborer, but you've done something even though it may seem dreary to you because you're so familiar with it. Have you been a high school football player? Did you go to a summer camp for fat kids? Take care of younger siblings because your meth-addict mom couldn't? There's a wonderful quotation usually attributed to H. L. Mencken: "There are no dull subjects. There are only dull writers." Emily Dickinson never left the house yet wrote poetry that we still read.

So write what you know, but structure it so that it holds an audience's interest. We'll talk about how to do that in the next chapter, on plot. For now, let's talk a little more about having the confidence to tell the personal story.

* * *


People choose cheesy ideas and lowbrow genres because they're afraid that they'll bungle the ideas they care about. Such writers suffer from paralyzing perfectionism, so they choose a lesser idea, write it, and never get around to the idea that they care about because the script based on the cheesy idea stank and stopped them cold. The problem is that a cheesy idea limits from the start how good the script can ever become. Why do that? Students often want to "save" their "best idea" for later. They're afraid that they won't do it perfectly. No script is ever perfect. If you wait until you can do it perfectly you'll never start. Start, confident in the knowledge that it won't be perfect. It will merely be as good as you can make it. Better than that is not possible even for George Bernard Shaw. Guard against "I can't do justice to this material" or "it's too important to screw up," or "I'll save this subject until I'm a better writer and can give it the skill it deserves." What those excuses come down to is "I'm just going to screw it up so I won't write at all," which is predicting a negative outcome and using that as an excuse to stop before you start. Go with your best idea.

"Boy Meets Girl" Is News

An old story in screenwriting tells about the writer who woke up every morning convinced that the idea he dreamed last night would make a brilliant script if only he could remember it. His friend says, "Put a pad of paper next to the bed." The next day the writer says that once again he's forgotten a super idea, but the friend reminds him about the pad. The writer rushes back to the bedroom and looks at what he jotted last night. "Boy meets girl."


Excerpted from Screenwriting For Neurotics by Scott Winfield Sublett. Copyright © 2014 University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission of University of Iowa Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: Myths That Make You Crazy 1

1 The Idea 11

2 The Spine 26

3 Plot 62

4 Deeper into Plotting 83

5 The Scene 114

6 The Step Outline 126

7 Format 156

8 Description 176

9 Dialogue 193

10 Miscellany 210

11 The Rewrite 234

12 Selling Your Script 247

Index 257

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