Monday, December 31, 2007

Screenwriting, Part 3: The Dirty Little Secret

So I was going to write today summing up the differences between writing novels and doing film work as a career. Instead I ended up writing mostly about the one difference that ultimately drove me to novels. I didn’t even want to write about it because I find the whole idea so repellant, and just wrong, but it’s something a lot of people aren’t aware of about the process and reality of film writing and it’s something that novelists contemplating screen work need to know.

Well, what is the difference? Really?

In terms of the creative process – not all that much, really. A story is a story. There are many different ways to tell it. The format is different. Some emphases are different (screenwriting is very visual, novel writing is generally much more internal..). But dramatic structure, characters, dialogue, theme, subplots, action, pacing, business, sensory detail, the world of the story… the major building blocks are all there in both. Even, to some degree, voice. Much more noticeable in a novel but undeniably there in any good script as well, and, I would argue, just as crucial. Every script I’ve ever written could be a novel. With my scripts, I’ve had to leave out more of the story than I actually knew about it, going in. With my novels, I’m having to discover and work in more of the story than I actually knew about it, going in. But the story, in every case, is still the story.

But which should you do, novels or screenplays?

Well, the question is, what do you WANT?

No one can decide that for you.

If you find yourself going around saying “I just want to get PAID to write” (and I hear that constantly from aspiring writers) – then you probably want to think about screen or TV writing. Or technical writing, or journalism, or speechwriting, or nonfiction, or advertising (because, notice, that sentence doesn’t specify what KIND of writing you want to get paid for. When you make these kinds of life-altering wishes, you must be SPECIFIC.)

But odds are, if you’ve got the talent, and the drive (and that’s an enormous if), you can probably make more money in film or TV than in novels. I have no statistics to back me up about that, it’s completely and totally anecdotal. But I suspect the cold hard steel of truth in this quotation (if someone can provide the author, I’d be grateful): “You can’t make a living writing books – but you can make a killing.” This isn’t true of Hollywood. You can make a living, and you can make a killing.

What you do have to realize up front, though, is that there’s a lot of discrimination in film and television – racism, sexism and ageism. If you’re a woman, a person of any color except white, or over 40, your chances of working in the business are greatly reduced. And there is statistical proof of that - I was on the board of the WGA and I’ve seen the figures, and they’re not pretty, and they’re not getting better.

(Television writing in particular is a young person’s game. As I’ve said here before, producers and executives want writers in their 20’s and early 30’s who are willing to kill themselves doing the round the clock, non-stop work that TV writing is).

And if you do decide to go for the money in Hollywood, what you give up is creative power. What you give up is unique voice. What you give up is copyright. What you far too often give up is your soul.

Oh, right, I’m exaggerating.

No, really, I’m not.

I love film. I do. I love the form, I love the power of it. A great movie makes me want to drop to my knees in gratitude. When a movie actually hits that groove, it’s transcendent. But there are so many stupid, unnecessary complications ingrained in the business. I have seen so many great scripts mutilated, stripped of all power and individuality, ground into meaningless pablum… and I’m not even talking about my own, I really thank whatever gods are out there that the some of the scripts I’ve written HAVEN’T been made – I’m talking about the scripts of other writers I know, and writers I don’t know. When I think of all the brilliant movies that could have been made simply by shooting an even fair approximation of the original scripts, I just want to kill myself.

There are exceptions, of course – good movies do get made, and the exceptions are what keep passionate writers working. Sometimes miracles happen.

But less and less. I think - for two basic reasons.

One - the increasing vertical integration and corporatization of Hollywood. Novelists worry about, for example, Walmart’s increasing influence over what books get ordered, bought and sold, right? Well, that kind of thing has been happening in Hollywood for years, and it’s not pretty.

Two - is rewriting.

And I don’t mean rewriting as in “Writing is rewriting.” I don’t mean, rewriting your own work. I mean, rewriting other writers.

Rewriting is a concept that is alien to most novelists. After all – when JT Ellison turns ALL THE PRETTY GIRLS in to Mira, Mira doesn’t turn around and say, “Great story, has potential, we like it… but we don’t love it. Let’s get Lee Child in to do a pass to beef up the male characters, maybe bring in some international intrigue to help with foreign markets. Actually, female protagonists don’t do well in the foreign markets so let’s also have him switch the genders of the characters.” And JT is fired off her own book (her agent will deliver this news to her, because her editor (producers) and publishers (studio/executives) certainly won’t take the trouble to do it themselves. Then after Mr. Child has done his rewrite, the conversation might go like this: “International serial killer books are just not doing well right now, but medical thrillers are off the charts. Let’s make the detective a doctor and get Tess Gerritsen to do a pass. Oh, and also, 80% of books this year were bought by women so let’s make this doctor female.” So Mr. Child is fired, and Ms. Gerritsen is hired. And after Ms. Gerritsen has transformed this police thriller cum international serial spy actioner into a sexy medical thriller, the conversation might go something like this: “Stephenie Meyers' fourth book has been #1 on the NYT bestseller list for a year and a half now, and Stephenie has a window. Let’s get her in to revision this puppy as a teenage vampire story, and get this – the vampire is in med school! You know, a protégé. Um, prodigy.”

So Ms. Gerritsen is fired, and....

Repeat two dozen times until the final version, whatever the hell that is, is slapped up on screen, or in this hypothetical, print - or (as in the vast majority of cases) until everyone is so sick of trying to make the story "work" that they just shelve it. And no, I’m not kidding.

I wish I were.

Now, I love all the authors I’ve mentioned above. But I love them for their unique voices. I don’t want to read their half-assed attempts at trying to “fix” someone else’s writing, which in all likelihood wasn’t even broken to begin with.

Can you imagine? Barry Eisler being hired to layer some martial arts into the Irish tragedies of Ken Bruen…. Dennis Lehane being hired to pump up the urban reality in Neil Gaiman’s mythic fantasies… Heather Graham to weave a paranormal subplot into PD James’ psychological mysteries…

You have to understand this, though. That’s the main money that's out there to be made in screenwriting – rewriting other writers’ work, to studio specifications.

And then there’s another factor. I said before that only three writers (or writing teams) are allowed to be credited on a movie. But if three dozen writers have done a draft, or two or three, on this movie, who decides who gets credit? And how?

Well, that’s a huge subject, but basically, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) has the sole power to determine credits. Studios may submit who THEY would like to see credited on the movie (guess who they’d prefer – the brand new writer who wrote the original script or the multimillion dollar writer they hired to replace her?) but the WGA has that call, through a process called credit arbitration, in which writers submit their own drafts of the script and their arguments about why they should receive credit, and a panel of writer/arbiters reads all the drafts and makes the determination whose names go on the movie.

There's a movie coming out this month that I wrote on that my name will not be on, because I wasn't awarded final credit in the arbitration. It happens to all of us screenwriters, all the time. But that's not the part that bothers me. I was paid well to do the job, and it wasn't my original script, and it was not a case of rewriting an original writer.

But here’s the really troubling thing. Back end compensation for writers, a huge part of the money you potentially receive for writing a movie, is completely tied to final credit. No final credit, no back end money. So a lot of the rewriting that gets done has NOTHING to do with what would be good for the story, but has to do with deliberate shifts in character and plot that will change the script enough for the rewriter to get credit. Writers go through and change all the names of characters, change characters’ professions, change locations, combine characters – and that’s just for starters.

(I won't even go see a movie if I see more than two writers listed on the poster, because I know all too well the kind of mess that signifies.)

So screenwriters are not just in constant competition with each other for jobs – they’re often engaged in battles over credit.

I myself couldn’t do it. I think it degrades writers - both the rewriter and the writer being rewritten. I think it dilutes or outright destroys the original and unique power of the story. I think it’s the prime factor in the reality that feature writers have no power in Hollywood.

And I think it’s a major reason that movies are so bad, these days.

It’s something to think about.

So what am I saying? I guess my advice is, if you just want to make money, be an investment banker. Yeah, right.

Actually I have no idea how to make money. I’ve done okay, but real money? I don’t have a clue. Real estate? The stock market? Well, surely you’ve noticed. Truly, I’m not the one to ask. That’s not the point.

The point is, if you just want to make money writing – go to hell. Really. I absolutely believe authors should make a good living. But books and films and television and games are too precious a resource to be left in the hands of people who are only doing it for the money. These are dreams we’re dealing with, here. As writers, we dream for other people. And if you’re not passionate about your writing, your OWN writing, the dreams you dream, I have nothing to say to you.

In terms of working for Hollywood, though, in the present climate, this is what I will say, and this is just completely my own opinion.

I can’t remember the last time I saw a new movie that enthralled me as much as some recent television: DEADWOOD, THE WIRE, ROME, and my current obsession, MAD MEN. (I was not a SOPRANOS junkie but yes, I understand, it was brilliant, too.) I believe that great television is happening right now, and if you want to work in moving pictures, that’s probably the place to go. The writer has power in television – the screenwriter does not have power in features. And HBO, in particular, has vision. I think it shows. And I believe television writing is a more honest and effective writing process because - at least - it’s collaborative up front. (But Guyot will certainly have his opinions on that, and I'll leave it to him.)

Otherwise, if you care about what you do, and what you are putting out into the world, I hope you’ll keep writing novels.

No matter what – be very specific about what you are aspiring to. If your dream is to make a great movie, make sure you understand what that takes and consider how you might be able to do it in the present corporate climate. Can you do it as an independent, instead? Can you do it as a TV series? Can you do it as a novel? If this for some reason was your one shot, how could you bring your story to fruition and die satisfied with the result?

Know what you’re getting into – and go for it.

Good luck.

Part One of this series (The Job) is here.

Part Two of this series (The Craft) is here.


All the information on this blog and more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks.  Any format, just $3.99 and $2.99.

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Anonymous said...

I must say I loved this section and agreed with pretty much everything you said in it. I work in the film industry up in BC, Canada and currently have three actors from Kill Bill attached to an sci-fi/western I wrote. The amount of times I have met with producers who said they loved the screenplay and then two weeks later wanted to change 'at least 50% of it'....curious....I was under the impression the original version was the one they liked. I always remind myself that I wrote that story strictly for myself and will continue to do so and thanks for letting me know that I'm not losing my mind and that people actually do that kind of crap.

popularculture - Totally PC said...

I really love this article. Thanks. I have worked in an industry development function in Australia and these comments are so true. I have seen so many pass my doors to see them come to the fruitful understanding of what they need to do to succeed. Thanks for the article. Great stuff.

Anonymous said...

Love this article so much! I'm currently a university drop out from Cambodia, wanted to do sth else bt didn't have the financial support! So, as I was searching in google looking for tips of how to write a screenplay, I came across ur blog! And it definitely opened up my eyes to the reality and naked truth of being a writer, especially, one who's aspiring to work in Hollywood! Besides than getting paid, do you reckon having the "right" connections would contribute to your likely chances of being credited regardless credit arbitration process?

Uzma said...

Nice article. .so it means that if you want to see your original story turned into a film, you not only have to be the script writer but director, producer and preferably the lead actor too. What a mess

Anonymous said...

Wonder if it helps that a main character can't really be altered much because who he is and what he does is the story? Perhaps not. Perhaps that would only land the script in the circular file.

Anonymous said...

SO ,those who value their original stories must avoid all the crocodiles in the industry and go for a novel or short story.Then they can avoid the shitty junk fellows & their half-minded re-writing for getting cash!!!

Anonymous said...

I think as far as the film industry goes, I've noticed more and more writers with ACTUAL CREATIVITY begin to find independent funding for their films. Big studios are too obsessed with predictability- and I suppose fairly so, as predictable, safe plots make them money. It truly is sad, however, to see that an original idea can only be kept in tact if the writer has 100% control over the project (and we're writers, after all, not the sneaky Hollywood types trying to win dollars to fund a project.)

Unknown said...

I love so much..this blog.. I m studying I wont to dream.i write a story of fast dream of my life.. its so nice blog..I like it sir