Monday, September 13, 2010

Writing about writers

I've seen a common mistake among a lot of first-time writers and slush pile submissions and it seems to be another case of taking "write what you know" a bit too literally. That mistake? Centering your screenplay around a writer.

I can't help it. I groan a little when I start reading a screenplay only to find that the protagonist is either an aspiring or a wannabe screenwriter who's struggling to break into Hollywood. I've seen dozens of these scripts and most of them share the same problems. First, even more than usual, the protagonist tends to be a stand-in for the writer. That's not a bad thing unless the script turns into a soapbox for the writer to vent about everything they think is wrong with the world they're writing about.

In other words, a script about a struggling screenwriter quickly can turn into a therapy session where the writer complains about everything wrong with Hollywood, how the system is out to block people like him and is basically a 120-page pity party with the lead character as the only sane one. Either he's fighting to get a fair shake from sleazy agents and producers, or he's doing his best to maintain his artistic integrity against forces trying to ruin his script.

Seriously, save that sort of self-indulgent tripe for your blog. I do.

The only think worse than that is when the story is not about how everyone is against the protagonist and their unique vision, but when the writer/protagonist is such a visionary that everyone they cross paths with can't help but remark on their brilliance.

Seriously, save that knob-polishing for your blog too.

Part of the problem is that writing isn't very cinematic. The act of writing is little more than a guy sitting alone, working either with pen and paper or a word processing program. It takes a VERY talented writer to make that interesting on the screen. If I may be so frank, writers who have only completed one or two scripts haven't yet grasped the subtleties of writing cinematically. That's something that a diamond in the rough might be able to get away with if they happen to be working with a very solid concept. Something like this - which isn't inherently visual - might stymie the newbie writer.

And let me say this - if you are writing about a screenwriter, and the last scene of your film is that screenwriter's movie winning "Best Picture" at the Oscars, for the love of God, change it. At least twice I have literally tossed a script across the room in frustration when it ended with such an indulgence.

There's a big risk that comes with proclaiming your characters to be brilliant writers - whether they're supposed to be great screenwriters, songwriters, novelists or poets. At some point, those characters are going to have to deliver the goods. That's a problem if the talent the characters are supposed to have surpasses the ability of the writer.

I always think back to Can't Hardly Wait, a film I enjoy quite a bit and can't help watching whenever I run across it on cable. There's a subplot where Preston, played by Ethan Embry, is trying to give a letter to class beauty and queen bee Amanda, played by Jennifer Love Hewitt. It's the night of their graduation and the letter is his confession of his long-standing crush from afar; the first time he's ever really even said anything substantial to this girl.

As much as I enjoy the movie, Roger Ebert nailed the films biggest flaw in his review. Remarking upon the fact that Amanda falls hard for Preston after reading the letter, he says, "This must be some letter. We never get to see what it says, no doubt because a letter good enough to win Amanda would have to be better than anything the screenwriters are capable of writing."


But I think the point is made. If you're going to write about a character capable of writing an Oscar-winning film - it helps if you yourself are talented enough write said movie.

And one final note: most of the time, that Oscar coda is completely unnecessary for the resolution. Show a little restraint and your story might earn a little credibility.


  1. I can't believe anyone is still writing about writers trying to make it in Hollywood. I could see someone writing a story about the behind the scenes in a movie production (movie in a movie), but that's already been done.

    Furthermore, everything is too sterile today. Everything is digital and shot in front of a greenscreen, so there's less opportunity for things to fuck up/create tension/drama.

    Lastly, why would anyone give a shit about winning the Oscar anymore. It's not 1971, they ain't making movies like the Godfather anymore, so any Oscar win today means significantly less than it did in the past.

    How about a story who sells his screenplay two days after he pitches it and then buys a new house and a new car and pays off his student loans.

  2. The problem's wider, Bitter, since most screenplay writers tend to be, well, NOT police officers, doctors, billionaire business people, secret agents, etc., that they write "lovable" schlubs who can't get the girl, the job, the life they want.

    In other words, writers tend to write losers as their protagonists.

    True, or am I just talking about myself?

  3. Writers that only write about writers are missing an important step in writing: research. Why not just go out there and volunteer some time to do something for the community, learn something new and maybe write about it?

    The "write what you know" mantra is limited if you make it limited. If writers are going to be lazy about their life experiences then it will show in their writing.

    I wonder if Bitter has seen a screenplay about a writer writing about a writer that complains that the world is against their writing...

  4. I read a script once where not only was it about a screenwriter, it was about THE screenwriter, himself, he used his own name, and it opened with a sequence wherein he won an Oscar for screenwriting (Michael J. Fox and, I think, some supermodel presented it to him) which turned out to be, of course, a DREAM sequence and when he woke up, he was still a penniless loser whose girlfriend was about to dump him.

    I may have even made that sound a bit better than it was in reality.

    For the record, I don't have an issue with writers writing about writers (King does it a lot) the issue is with bad writing ... and really the reason there are so many screenplays by newbies about writers comes down to that old saw they've been told, and that I've heard time and time again, which is "write what you know" and it's crap, it really is, because most of our days are dull, which is WHY we go to movies ... it should be, write what MOVES you, and write it well.

    that's my take ...

  5. It reminds me of the countless people who say "They should write a movie about my life. It's so crazy!" Arrgh!

    I actually almost did this too! That's painful to admit. My story was about a screenwriter who hadn't sold anything, but ended up realizing the love his support system (wife, kids, friend) had for him. At the end he still hadn't sold a thing.

    ...and THAT seemed too self-indulgent. I shit-canned it. I can't imagine giving myself the Oscar...and I'm green as Kermit!

  6. Jake - It's not just you. Lots of "loveable" schlubs out there. For all the talk that female leads need to be "fuckable," I wonder how many male protagonists would pass that test. Any female readers care to weigh in on this disparity?

    Carlos - "I wonder if Bitter has seen a screenplay about a writer writing about a writer that complains that the world is against their writing..." Um.... sort of. In this one script about a writer, the script the writer is writing is supposed to be their own life story and that's the Oscar-winning effort, so unless I've managed to make myself cross-eyed, that's more or less what you're describing.

    Joshua - I've had at least one script like that. The writer's name was the same as the lead character, but given that the submitted name sounded like a total pseudonym, I'm going to guess the writer in question thought he was being clever. It did open with a dream sequence very much along the lines of what you describe, though naturally, after his win he had wild sex with a supermodel before waking up and realizing it was all a dream.

    Oh, and you totally got ahead of me by mentioning King. Tomorrow's post was going to cite Misery as one of the few films about writers that really works.

  7. It's not just first-time writers. I've seen pretty well this criticism levelled (not unfairly, I think) at the otherwise excellent Studio 60: the few sketches we see (or hear of) aren't (or don't sound) all that funny.

  8. Excellent point regarding Studio 60. It didn't help that Sorkin really didn't seem to understand how an SNL-type sketch show is really written. (He seemed to base it too much on his dramatic writing staff experiences, which are quite different.) But my Studio 60 rant could fill a week's worth of blog posts. So much potential squandered.

  9. i agree with Jake about too many aspiring writers navel-gazing by writing about slackerdom, Peter Pan complexes and not being able to hang on to their girlfriend.

    And where do you work that you have to read crap like this? Please say there aren't any decent studios, agencies or mgmt cos. evaluating junk like this while shutting the door on wannabes with decent ideas.

  10. I must admit I love movies about writers when they're done well - Adaptation and Wonder Boys are two that come to mind. Also, Sideways. Miles is a failed writer with a 700-page novel, or something. In the novel, I believe he was a screenwriter, and his ex-wife had married a director. They changed that for the movie, which was a smart move.

    I admit - most amateur writer cannot pull of the writer as protagonist script and I'd never attempt one myself. And, I'm sick of the lovable loser schlub guy gets hot girl. I always wanted to rewrite Reality Bites and have the main character walk off with Ben Stiller's character.

  11. Going off on a slight tangent, the scripts that really bugged me were the ones set in the entertainment biz, and the writer had no clue about the business, but just served up archaic stereotypes.

    Films about writers that I liked:
    -My Favorite Year
    -Barton Fink
    -Sunset Blvd.

  12. The standard advice for aspiring TV writers is to get a menial, underpaid job as an assistant to someone involved in the TV business, and use the job to build connections and eventually get someone to read your script. I can't help thinking you could make a pretty good TV show out of that situation.