Secrets of Film Writing

Secrets of Film Writing

by Tom Lazarus

Paperback(First Edition)

View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for delivery by Wednesday, June 23


Most books about screenplays instruct on three-act structure, character arcs, and how to format a script. But you already know all that.

Secrets of Film Writing reveals a working writer's secrets-the tips, short cuts, tricks, and insider advice that will get your story down on paper, maximize your idea, and seduce your readers. Do you know why actors pick scripts out of a stack? Why montage sequences don't work? Why the traditional three-act structure is obsolete? Lazarus lifts the veil with dozens of secrets like these.

Lazarus's insights and techniques will smooth and improve any screenwriter's process and will make any script more readable and ultimately more salable. Secrets of Film Writing takes you behind the scenes of feature and television writing and demystifies, once and for all, the Hollywood System.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312269081
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 06/02/2001
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 1,212,842
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.58(d)

About the Author

Tom Lazarus has had five feature films made from his original screenplays, including the number-one movie Stigmata, and has written six movies of the week and over thirty hours of network drama. He is also an award-winning educational filmmaker. He has taught screenwriting for ten years as a UCLA Extension Instructor and continues to write screenplays while writing and directing independent features.

Read an Excerpt

Secrets of Film Writing

By Tom Lazarus

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2001 Tom Lazarus
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-3785-6


Secret #1

Organization Is Freedom

"One of the most basic impulses behind art is the impulse to order the chaos of regular life, to transform it into something more perfect, more shapely and more satisfying, to turn it into something with a beginning, middle and an end."

— Michiko Kakutani

When I was writing an educational film on alcohol dependency, my technical advisor went to great lengths trying to get into my thick skull the concept of Dependency Needs.

It went something like this: we each have dependency needs, things we need. If those dependency needs are met, it frees us not to be dependent. People won't be dependent on alcohol if their dependency needs are met, particularly early in life.

Okay, I apply that to screenwriting. If my Organization Needs are met, it frees me to write creatively.

What does that actually mean?

How do we organize stories?

Beginning, middle and end is an organization. The details and textures of the story interweave around and through the beginning, middle and end.

Writers use outline, or beat sheets, or treatments, or information on index cards, among other systems. All of these are Story Organizers.

If you satisfy your organization needs of structure and flow buy one of the above devices, then, if my theory holds. You can write freely and creatively because if you stick close enough to the spine of your story, as plotted through your scene list, you'll always be moving the story forward.

The Scene List is my Story Organizer.

Here's what it looks like for a script called Dead Serious.

Simon Sweeney ordering up a screenwriter.
Arthur Pratt, the writer, meeting with Sweeney.
Arthur thrown out of Sweeney's office at studio.
Arthur at bar with Graff, who was a film writer and now makes
living as a bartender and garbage-man.
Arthur dumped by girlfriend, who becomes an agent.
Arthur comes up with the million-dollar idea.
Arthur tries to get to Sweeney Fails.
Arthur breaks into Sweeney's house. Bustled.
Arthur makes his stand on the Hollywood sign.
Arthur becomes folk hero.
Sweeney buys his screenplay.
Arthur on top of the world.
Sweeney's out at the studio.
The deal for the screenplay doesn't happen.
Arthur is sued by studio and pilloried by the studio spin
Arthur tries to get work in TV and is shunned due to age.
Arthur tracks down Sweeney, now a potato farmer, to resurrect
project and themselves.
Sweeney sets the dogs on him.
Arthur's agent drops him.
Arthur looks around and realizes he's nowhere.
Arthur goes to Hollywood sign to commit suicide, and is
discovered again.
Arthur on way to becoming media darling redux.

The scene list is a concise, conceptual way to see the structure and flow of the whole piece.

When I started writing, I would color and shape code the scene list:

A dot next to action scenes.
A box next to talk scenes.
A circle for the main character.
A triangle for the antagonist.
A diamond for the woman lead.

With a sweep of my eye down the single-spaced scene list, I could get the rhythm of the piece, how the action scenes were separated, how far apart similar scenes were. I could spot when I'd let a B or C story die and where I could insert something to keep that part of the story alive.

And it's only a list of scenes. It's not prose. You don't have to spend time "writing" the damn thing.

The scene list is a tool.

When you're at the beginning stages of your scene list, don't censor any scenes, put them all down, let your story tell itself.

Don't try to fit it into some preconceived form or structure, meaning trying to torture your story into someone else's generic, low-common-denominator structure that may not be at all relevant to the story you're telling.

Every story has its own integrity.

Let the story logically tell itself. There isn't just one "right" logic for a story. Your logic is your logic. It's right. Trust it and not someone who says certain parts of your story should happen on specific pages.

Take chances in the early stages of conceptualizing your story.

Don't do it the way you've seen other movies made, or stories told.

Go for it, because no one's going to see it.

It's a process.

There is no wrong way.

Put it down, then read it and re-logic it.

Don't show it to anyone.

Try it different ways. Be open. Listen to yourself. Become sensitive to what you feel as well as think about the story. The scene list, at this point, isn't what you want your script to be, but it's a beginning, the vital first step in the process of getting the screenplay out of your head and down on a sheet of paper, the first step in an exciting journey.


Secret #2

The Log Line

The best log line I've ever read was for an episode of the old TV show Father Knows Best. It was: Billy loses his house key. That's what the episode was about. That, and nothing more.

The log line is the simple, one- or two-sentence, description of a movie that appears in TV Guide.

The log line is another invaluable tool in writing your screenplay.

Log lines are vital in my process of film writing because they force me to distill my idea for the screenplay down to its essence.

The log line is what I judge what I'm writing against.

The log line forces me to be absolutely clear about what I'm writing.

To the neverending chagrin of my much-beleaguered students, I force them, as a first step in the screenwriting process, to discipline their minds and come up with their log lines.

It compels them to think about the basics of their idea.

When a writer can't come up with a simple distillation of their idea, then their idea may not be clear in their minds or the idea itself might be flawed.

I had one student, Louis, who I felt was really writing three different screenplays: (1) the story of a girl; (2) the story of the girl's lover; (3) the story of the girl's mother. Louis designed the stories so they intersected at the end of the screenplay.

The problem was Louis couldn't come up with a simple, coherent log line. It kept getting convoluted and confused. Sensed he was trying to tell too many stories and told him so.

But Louis stuck to his guns. He said that was the screenplay he wanted to write. I thought he was wrong, but those are the breaks.

After about fifty pages of writing on the script, Louis announced he was splitting the screenplay into two separate scripts ... he couldn't make it work as one. And then, when I asked him the log lines for the two different scripts, he had them ... and they were clear and concise.

If the story you're writing isn't clear, then your writing won't be clear either.

The log line for Dead Serious is:

Screenwriter Arthur's hilarious descent into Hollywood oblivion and back again.

That means everything I write is judged against this log line to see if I'm writing the screenplay I want to be writing.

There is a tendency to drift, to get lost. The log line keeps you honest.

The log line keeps us close to the spine or center line of the story ... we need every tool we can get.

Notice please that the main character is at the center of my log line.


Another way to evaluate the script you're going to be writing is to imagine what the trailer and ad campaign would be. How would a studio sell your movie? It will give you insights as to what you should concentrate on and emphasize in your writing.

A way to think about what you're writing is to imagine yourself meeting with the head of the studio and having to explain why, among the myriad other projects they're considering, he or she should make a deal for your script.

In the case of the script in this book, Dead Serious, the commercial elements, or reasons to make it, include:

A tour de force main character which can attract an actor, a real plus for any project.

A hilarious story about Hollywood. Even though the conventional wisdom in this town is a script about Hollywood will never get made ... yet, take a look, they — the studios, independents, cable, everyone — are always making movies about movies. It's a stealth genre.

A memorable set piece action scene of Arthur holding off the SWAT unit from the Hollywood sign. It's the ad campaign, the trailer, what people remember.

A modest budget.

I'm the nephew of the head of the studio.

The last reason points up one of the great intangibles about Hollywood. Deals are made for many reasons, both good and bad.

An example: I was visiting a friend of mine, let's call him Sid, who was president of Global Marketing for a major studio. Before lunch with him one day, I went with him to a screening of a rough cut of a trailer, the short "coming attractions" piece that runs in theaters prior to a film showing. It was an okay trailer of an obviously expensive period piece about a composer's life. After the lights went up and Sid gave his input to Josh, the bootlicking head of the trailer department (not really, but I couldn't resist the image), he turned to me and asked me what I thought. I said the trailer was fine, but more importantly, I asked him why in God's name had the studio made this movie which, at least to me, seemed destined for the video stores the morning it opened. Sid shrugged a world-weary shrug and said the studio wanted to be "in bed" with the producers so they made this vanity film which was one of the producers' pet projects. Thus, the picture was made.

Another example: I was asked by the Leonard Goldberg Company to work with them developing a pilot for a TV series for ABC. I did meetings with a wonderful development executive named Deborah Aal, who used to have the largest collection of cashmere sweaters in Hollywood, and we came up with a terrific pitch for an hour-long project called Three Men and a Boat.

Leonard Goldberg, a former president of ABC, a very plugged-in Hollywood player, my newest best friend, accompanied us into the pitch.

There was, of course, the prerequisite schmoozing, then I went into my pitch. After six minutes of perspiration-soaked hell, I finished. There was a beat, then the ABC development exec said, "Yes." "Yes?" I stammered. She nodded yes. I was given a go into script on the spot. Unheard of.

Why did this happen?

Not because of the genius of my pitch. Not because of the brilliance of the project or how good a person I am, or how shiny my shoes were. Not because of anything other than sitting next to me was the 800-pound gorilla named Leonard Goldberg. I think if I had pitched the hip-hop version of the Koran she would have said yes.

I know projects that have been given the go-ahead because the pitcher/writer had large breasts, good drugs, was a friend of a friend, you get the idea.

The only other time I was given a go in the room was at NBC on a project I created called Breaking Story, the behind-the-scenes drama at a CNN-like cable news network during a coup d'etat in Washington. They said "go" in the room because the 800-pound gorilla was my partner on the project and my newest best friend, feature director Joe Dante, the man who has given the world Gremlins and Small Soldiers, among others. A feature director crossing over into TV ... worthy of a "yes" in the room.

Breaking Story, by the way, like most projects, never saw the light of day. After writing two full drafts, I was replaced on my own project by a late-arriving, dim-witted network executive. She didn't feel I was "right for the project" I created. Excuse me?

But, I digress.


Secret #3

Telling the Story Through the Characters

At the center of every story are the characters. They are who we, as the readers/viewers, identify with.

We experience the story through the characters and your job as the writer is to put them in the center of your script.

Actors get movies made.

If you don't have a castable part, a part that an actor is dying to play, it will be harder, if not impossible, to get that script made.

The bigger and more challenging a role, the better and more bankable an actor will be attracted to it, and the better chance you have of getting your screenplay seriously considered.

I don't know if it's true, but an agent, a notoriously untrustworthy bunch if you ask me, told me of the Jane Fonda Rule.

He swore to me that Jane Fonda, when she received a script from her agents, leafed quickly through the script and, unless she found at least three page-long monologues where her character talked from the heart, she threw the script in the garbage.

Apocryphal or not, the Jane Fonda Rule is real on some level. I know actors who only read their lines in the script. Those same actors count their lines.

One of the times my career was in the toilet, I purposely set out to write a scenery-chewing, tour de force performance for the main character for the reasons outlined above. I wrote the script Weird City, the log line of which is: a detective fakes manic depression and goes undercover into group therapy to find the killer of two psychiatrists.

This is how that script opened:

WEIRD CITY Written by Tom Lazarus



DR. STRASSER. graying beard, tweed jacket, bow tie and running shoes, sits in a well-worn, comfortable chair, legs crossed, toying with a fat black Mont Blanc ball point pen.


I think, frankly, we have a lot of work ahead of us. The different aspects of your personality aren't ... aren't integrated and that lack of integration is causing you anxiety and stress, particularly ... (carefully) ... in your relationships with the opposite sex. (quickly) Now, don't get excited, please. I know that upsets you, but I don't want you to say anything. Just think about all this, digest it, and we'll deal with it in group or in our session next week.

Dr. Strasser stands.

DR. STRASSER (continuing; supportive)

We have to talk about all this, it's the only way you're going to really understand and get by it ... and I'm confident you will. (smiling) See you next week.


The elevator opening in the distance. Talking on a cellular phone, Dr. Strasser, exits the elevator and heads toward the Range Rover parked against the wall in the nearly empty parking structure.

DR. STRASSER Need anything at the store? (listening, then) Okay, I'll see you in half an hour.

He switches off the phone, puts it in his pocket, then heads for the car. As he walks up to the Range Rover, he turns off the car alarm with a HIGH-PITCHED BEEP BEEP. CAMERA MOVES QUICKLY toward him. Hearing RUSHING FEET, Dr. Strasser starts to turn when a black nylon rope slips around his neck choking him.


Dr. Strasser's hands reach back over his head trying to get to the unseen strangler's gloved hands, but it's useless. After a few moments, he's thrown back against the car, GASPING HORRIBLY for air through his injured windpipe. Dr. Strasser's eyes look right into CAMERA and widen in absolute horror. BANG! A bullet tears into Dr. Strasser's chest SLAMMING him back against the Range Rover. BANG! Another bullet pumps into Dr. Strasser, who looks down in stunned disbelief at the growing stains of blood on his shirt. BANG! BANG! Two more bullets THUMP into Dr. Strasser, causing him to slide awkwardly down to the cement floor. As he lies sprawled on his back, eyes staring straight ahead, BANG! BANG! Two more bullets slam into his already lifeless body. THUMPA THUMPA THUMPA. BLACK SCREEN - TITLES The THUMPA THUMPA THUMPA THROB of a helicopter. Red MAIN TITLES over evocative black and white ink blots.

POLICE DISPATCHER'S VOICE (garbled) Bird Three ... STATIC ... we've got a 415 ... STATIC. What is your position?


The glowing red and green displays of the complex cockpit dash. The PILOT switches on his radio and flights to talk over the THUMPA THUMPA of the blades rotating above him.

PILOT (on radio) Copy, One. We're above the Ten, spinning South.


DEAN MCPHEE, mid-thirties, eyes wild, veins on his neck bulging, sweat pouring off him, is absolutely crazed as he stalks around the lawn in front of the modest clapboard bungalow, YELLING at the top of his lungs.

MCPHEE Get your flabby ass on out here you no good fuckin' scurnbucket!

There are lights on in the house, but no response.

MCPHEE (continuing) You don't think I know there's some dick-head in there? You don't think I know it? I know it!! I FUCKIN' KNOW IT!!!

AN ELDERLY WOMAN NEIGHBOR in a bathrobe peeks warily through the hedge between houses.


Excerpted from Secrets of Film Writing by Tom Lazarus. Copyright © 2001 Tom Lazarus. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Secret #1 - Organization Is Freedom,
Secret #2 - The Log Line,
Secret #3 - Telling the Story Through the Characters,
Secret #4 - Rising Action,
Secret #5 - The Mathematics of Film Writing,
Secret #6 - Less Is More,
Secret #7 - More Is More,
Secret #8 - Script Presentation,
Secret #9 - Show Not Tell,
Secret #10 - Write Short,
Secret #11 - Rewriting — A Survival Course,
Secret #12 - Cut to the Heart of the Scene,
Secret #13 - It's a Process,
Secret #14 - It's About Character, Stupid,
Secret #15 - Dialogue,
Secret #16 - Openings,
Secret #17 - Scene Descriptions from Hell,
Secret #18 - Endings,
Secret #19 - All the Other Stuff Television,
Copyright Page,

Customer Reviews