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Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The Elegant Universe: Patterns in Writers

In my experience reading and analyzing scripts on a daily basis for the past several years, I have become very aware of patterns. I work with hundreds of writers. I attend screenwriting events. I am right in the thick of it. And like an ER doctor who has seen everything, I have pretty much seen it all. Things delight me - but nothing really surprises me anymore. Nobody likes to think that rather than being an individual, they are a statistic. But we are all statistics. Married, divorced, college-educated, not college-educated, white, black, Latino, Asian, middle child, youngest, employed, unemployed - there are patterns in society and they serve a purpose. They tell us who we are collectively - and individually. There are exceptions to every pattern and to every rule. But here are some patterns I have noticed, over and over again:

  • Boastful, cock-sure writers usually don't have very good scripts
  • Shy, unsure writers anxious to get notes are more likely to have a good script
  • Writers who can't write good action lines have no "voice" yet
  • Most beginning writers have no second act
  • Most beginning writers think their idea is more original than it is
  • Many writers, regardless of age, have not seen the classics
  • Because a writer is a cinefile does not mean he or she is a good writer
  • Fanboys do not necessarily make good writers; they are inspired but imitative
  • Most writers with 133 page scripts do not have a handle on their story
  • Many writers read too many how-to books and get totally confused
  • Newer writers hate to kill their darlings and their pages are crowded with them
  • Experienced writers hate to kill their darlings but do it before asked
  • Clumsy, over-written action lines are the most accurate predictor of a bad script
  • First time writers usually tell biographical stories
  • Gory, ultra-violent horror is most often written by young men under the age of 25
  • Dull romantic dramas are most often written by women over the age of 45
  • Unfunny romcoms are most often written by young men under the age of 25
  • Action scripts are almost always written by men of any age
  • First time writers think their first script is brilliant
  • Experienced writers will never show you their first script - ever
  • Writers who use camera directions secretly want to direct
  • Experienced female writers write well in any genre
  • Inexperienced female writers often write about love
  • Good characters never have bad dialogue
  • Bad dialogue is never accompanied by good characters
  • Structure is confusing for the first three scripts - then something clicks
  • Writers who can't articulate a quick logline have sprawling, confusing scripts
  • Whether a writers is shy or charismatic has no bearing on the quality of writing
  • Good writers never include pictures, maps or music with their script
  • No new writer is realistic about breaking in to the business
  • The location or gender of the writer has no bearing on the quality of the writing
  • Age does not define an ability to come up with fresh ideas
  • Most fresh ideas are in fact not fresh at all
  • It takes a long time to understand "the same but different"
  • Older writers most often write true or historical scripts
  • Young male writers often imitate their favorite movies
  • Female writers do not write American Pie or Harold and Kumar knock-offs
  • Female writers are quite capable of writing great action but rarely do
  • Divorcees often write about romance or revenge
  • Most writers have not built up a good arsenal of scripts; all eggs are in one basket
  • New writers think getting a rep is easy and will happen within a year or so
  • Newly repped writers think their career will automatically take off in a huge way
  • Experienced writers know they will go through many reps over time
  • Younger writers often do not think send thank you notes when they get a read
  • Older writers think Hollywood is more polite than it is
  • Newer writers do not test their premises or write outlines properly
  • Writers who regard themselves as writer-savants refuse to write what's commercial - and may very well succeed after years of failure
  • Writers who regard themselves as auteurs refuse to embrace that this is a sales job - and melt into a pool of bitter disillusionment and hate Hollywood thereafter
  • Wealthy writers try to buy their way into the business using the most expensive software and consultants and melt into a bitter pool of outrage
  • Writers with disposable incomes obsessively attend conferences and pitch fests more than they actually write
  • Writers who cannot execute a script mechanically generally don't have a good story
  • Writers who have been disappointed over and over hate consultants or anything designed to help them succeed and nurse outraged, red-hot victim complexes
  • First scripts suck
  • Second scripts suck
  • Third script suck a little less
  • Writers with successful other careers feel entitled to success in Hollywood
  • A writer's determination to keep trying is in direct proportion to their talent
  • Entitlement is in inverse proportion to talent
  • Young writers think that Hollywood is only for the young
  • Older writers think that Hollywood is only for the young
  • Experienced writers know that Hollywood needs good stories and that a good story and being good in a room trumps age any day
  • Talent is delightful and easy to spot on page one
  • A bad script is a bad script from page one
There are exceptions to every single example I have given above, but in my experience and that of my colleagues, many of these observations are borne out again and again. Are you the exception to one of these patterns? Or do you see yourself in some of them? Seeing oneself in a pattern which may not be so positive is tough to do for anyone.

The truth about writing and breaking into this business lies somewhere in the grey space between all of these observations. For every single rule or pattern, there is an exception. But patterns are patterns for a reason; there is a learning curve when one becomes a screenwriter. And being a screenwriter, all on your own, in your basement or attic, leaves you with zero perspective. Those in the business know you very well though. We see the patterns of scripts and of writers. We see the patterns of success, failure, entitlement and determination.

You can potentially read this list and think - hey WAIT, I'm a 25 year old female whose first script is about stabbing that frat boy who cheated on me 28 times and my action lines suck and until this moment, I thought I'd have an agent by year end and sell this thing! Well - not so fast, right? Sometimes it's good to look at yourself under a microscope. There's so much to learn and so much that goes into this crazy pursuit - forgive yourself if you've fallen into a pattern. Awareness is the first step to recovery and an invaluable leg up to the next level of your evolution as a human being and a screenwriter. It's okay to be part of a pattern - but is it the pattern you want to be part of?

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PJ McIlvaine said...

Excellent post, as usual!

dgm said...

"Because a writer is a cinefile does not mean he or she is a good writer." Relatedly:

I've been thinking of potential spec and pilot TV scripts, but I hardly ever watch TV. However, I have lately been renting episodes from shows I think are well-written, and I certainly have fond memories of shows I loved when I was younger. The reality is, TV is not important enough to me to spend a lot of time watching it during the week and filtering through the bad stuff, but as I said, I enjoy a well-written series and I think I might like to try my hand in that arena.

Will it hamper me that I am not, in general, a TV-file?

Anonymous said...

Hi Julie,

What have you done.

You started a fight at the office.

No worries -- a fight at the office is worth writing about one day.

Overall, you hit the big nail with a big hammer with this article.

Nice Job.


Anonymous said...

This is the great RW post ever.

I particularly recognized myself in: Writers who can't articulate a quick logline have sprawling, confusing scripts.

Not that I have sprawling confusing scripts, but if I can't cleaaaaaarly articulate what the story is before I proceed, I have a story issue I'm trying to gloss over.

Great post.

Luzid said...

Julie, I wonder if you would elaborate on two items you touched on briefly: long action lines and fanboyism.

Regarding the former, I've read that writers like Rossio and Elliott stick to a no-more-than-four approach regarding action lines (personally, I don't like more than three). What do you see as excessive, besides the obvious half-page block?

On the latter, to what extent does fanboyism lead to derivative writing? What are the telltales that give fanboys/girls away?

Eddie M said...

What a delightful post.

E.C. Henry said...

I second, PJ Mcilvain, GREAT post, Julie! But may I add, with a post like this, Julie, you may want to put on your nurse's outfit, and practice your delivery of the line, "Take two of these, and call me in the morning."


Always LOVE hearing what the script consultants speak. A writer would have to be a fool to tune out your keen, informed opinions. And guilty as charged, I do see myself in many of your observations, Julie. But just like any playfull puppy I've got my one piece patient's robe on. Now I've just got to find someone willing to play doctor with me... (And that would be hopefully someone of the feminine persuasion. 'Cuz just like Tone Luc of the 80's, E.C. is into the ladies.)

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

Julie Gray said...

I don't know about a nurse - I am the Wave-inatrix, dontcha know ;)

These are my opinions, gathered from practical experience. Apparently this Rouge Wave post made the rounds to a great number of studio assistants today and they gave me a collective cheer. Cupcakes for all of them!

Anthony Peterson said...

So many good points - thank you. I like what you wrote about action lines - i'm finding my best scenes are actually quite simple and uncluttered.

Jill said...

These ring true based on my experience plus they are incredibly fun to read.

When I used to teach a writing course getting the students to develop and change an idea was often very difficult. Even getting them to chenge character names could be a challenge.

The main thing experience teaches a writer is how much re-writing, re-thinking, re-structuring, re-writing, re-writing and re-writing it take to make something screenworthy. Whatever you imagine is the right amount, double it and then multiply by a thousand.

CeeCee said...

Great post Julie, as usual...though it's not just the wealthy writers who obsess about the software.

There's a category of folks who agonize about their choice of Movie Magic vs. Final Draft vs. Montage to the point that an actual script never gets written.

They're often closely related to the format nazis who always know whether or not you should use (CONTINUED) or CUT TO.

BTW, I'm a chick who's about to get going on a Harold & Kumar knock off... just as soon as I can back away from the romantic comedy I'm working on.

Writer said...

Thanks for the post and giving us a chance to evaluate ourself. The catagories you have given are very useful o catagories the novice i writing field.

PP said...

Here's a question: What do you notice about scripts written by writers who start in stand-up comedy?

Anonymous said...

Humm, I am not a writer and do not want to be. I have an show based on my experience. I want someone else who knows what they are doing to run, co-create what is needed for one hour cable. I love to write and I try to do it right, but I have no ability to delve into what it must take. So, I am keeping my fingers crossed that the idea and my consulting and experience will carry it. It is a show I and the people I have told about it, (as if it's already on HBO, and have they seen it) really get excited about. That's how I know it's a great show and a hit. Pretty sneaky, but strangers are waiting for the next season on HBO already.

E.C. Henry said...

Julie, quick shout-out to tell ya that Billy Mernit over at the "Living the Romantic Comedy" site, just posted in praise of what you had to say in, "Patterns in Writers." Don't know if this means you've arrived, but it's a good sign.

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

Julie Gray said...

Thank you, E.C., for pointing that out. Cupcake for you!

Billy and I discussed it yesterday. We are friends and colleagues :)

MaryAn Batchellor said...

Uber-useful. Grats.