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4 Ways to Unlock Your Screenwriting Potential

By Dan Black

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Writing a screenplay is tough. Novelists, historians, poets, and other wordsmith-varietals have tried and failed. It takes a literary genius like William Faulkner to be good at both screenwriting and novels, short stories, or any other creative writing endeavor. And though Faulkner was one of the best, he couldn't save every script he punched up.

Submarine Patrol (1938) was partially written by Faulkner. I dare anyone to watch it and stay awake. It's a commendable (if boring and claustrophobic) effort by one of the literary geniuses of our time...and it's still boring. But have your ever read The Sound and the Fury?  It's a masterpiece of such depth and magnitude it will be on the bookshelves of artists for centuries to come.

So what's the big secret? How do those dedicated to the art of screenwriting do what even Faulkner couldn't (at least not while he was drinking, which was all the time)?

Here are some ways to improve those very skills:

1. Characters are the Only Reason You're Writing at All

Have you ever watched a 90 minute film made up of vast landscapes, Victorian home interiors, or big robots building cars?

Nope. Never once.

So why do we like movies? Without getting into the philosophy of it, we can narrow our love for movies down to the characters in them. This seems pretty simple in itself, nothing new here. But if your screenplay is not getting any attention, or if you know there's something missing and you can't seem to find the flaws, this is where you start.

That's right. Don't fiddle with the story; fix your characters. The story, as Paul Thomas Anderson said on WTF with Marc Maron, is brought forth through the people living in the world you've built. It's also the only way to bust open a trope. We've seen plenty of movies with the same exact premise as yours. You've got the three acts and rising action, just like everybody else. But what makes your screenplay different is the characters. That's where the gold is.

Imagine Richard Dreyfus's character in Mr. Holland's Opus playing the part of the music instructor in Whiplash (2014). Mr. Holland is a soft-spoken man whose spirit has been crushed by life itself. It doesn't work to ask Mr. Holland to play Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) in Whiplash. The inner struggles are too different. Their story arises from their personality and experiences as human beings.

There is much to be learned in this film about character development and the skill required to do it gracefully and without melodrama.
2. Watch Bad Movies

Not just marginally bad movies. Really bad movies. Might I suggest Bad News Bears (2005) or any of the Transformers iterations? Rotten Tomatoes has a pretty good list here.

Sometimes watching movies from the masters can get into your head. What you need is some trash, some low minded nonsense. Something that when you're done watching it you can say, "I can do marginally better than that!"

If you are going to be shooting your own script, this is a great opportunity to pay attention to what doesn't work on camera while delivering certain lines of dialogue. Notice how little attention is paid to the lighting, and how the dialogue is boxy and ultra-informative which leads to boring shots of boring people.

Now go back to your screenplay and look for similarities. This is the important part, or else you've just wasted a couple hours watching a bad movie for no reason. It was all self-flagellation, which is no fun at all. So it's important to be honest with your work. Be brutal.

3. Strip it down - Way Down

"When in doubt, get the gout."

Wait. Is that how it goes?

Well, you know what I mean. If the script isn't lean and precise, then don't expect any call-backs. Your acts have to be tight and well planned. The most heartbreaking thing is to get a call from a prospective agent and have him or her tell you the script was absolute gold until page 80 where your character Mr. Humpcorn went all Shakespeare and gave a seven-minute monologue wherein he recounts the day his father died and he realized he no longer wanted to be a farmer. The monologue ends with Humpcorn in tears, whispering, "I never wanted that farm, Daddy. I don't even like okra."

When a writer does something like that, it's a tell. It says the writer is more concerned with being recognized as a great writer than he is with making a good movie, or telling good story. The writer is not ever the star in a movie (much to my great disappointment). Your name is never going to appear above the director's, and certainly not above the actors'.

If you've come to terms with that, then you're prepared to remove your ego from the narrative and tell a great story.

4. Perfection is for the Perfect...

...and you're not. So take it easy with the tinkering. If there's something wrong with the script, no bevy of commas or parenthetical direction is going to make it better. Making a film, as you may have heard, is collaborative. The two lines of dialogue you're killing yourself over is probably going to be altered by the director, and if not him, an actor, if not her, the studio execs, and if not them, then probably a pimple-faced PA right out of film school, who knew he wanted to work in film the day he visited his grandfather on the set of Jurassic Park 3, in which his old man was cast as an extra: Scientist #2.

The point is this: If your characters are dripping with intention and personality and your story is tight, you have all you need to take it to agents and producers. So stop fiddling and get out there and hustle!

About Dan Black

Dan Black is a writer/filmmaker/podcaster living in Nashville, Tennessee. Originally from Southern California, his short stories and poems have appeared in print nationwide. As owner of Pale Fire Creative he is the creator of 'A Writer's Life' podcast and The Guerrilla Screenwriter. Visit him at

Screenwriting Article by Dan Black

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