Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Shave it. Cut it. Chop it. Blunt it.

Shave it. Cut it. Chop it. Blunt it.

By Christopher Keane

Mark Twain once explained to a friend that he would have written a shorter letter but he didn't have the time.

Take the time. Brevity is one of screenwriting’s ten commandments. Who wants shaggy dog stories? Or Matthew Arnold-like run-on pages? Or thick paragraphs you can choke on? Or mind numbing anal-retentive detail that makes you want rip up the script and throw it in the trash, which you eventually do.

I once had an algebra teacher who would construct such elaborate sentences that by the end of them you couldn’t remember what he began them with.

The amateur writes:

Roger turned the corner onto Vibrata Road and saw the house. It was about a hundred and thirty years old and big and it needed paint. The front porch sagged. The misshapen windows missed panes. The stairs leading to the porch missed most of the stairs themselves. The lawn needed mowing. A tire hung by a piece of rope from a tree branch. The half dozen kids’ toys lay broken on the sidewalk. The gate leading to the house was off its hinges. On the porch two stray cats tried to overturn a broken dish.

The professional writes.

Roger turned the corner onto Vibrata Road and saw the dilapidated Victorian mansion.

We are talking about essences here. More screenplays have never made it through the process because the writer had fallen in love with unnecessary detail or the brilliant cadence and iridescent majesty of his own words that he read aloud to himself late at night when he was too tired to drag his effervescent butt to bed.

When a reader sees a thick chunky paragraph a buzzer goes off in his head that registers intense dislike of the writer, aggravation at the writer’s refusal to read enough scripts so that he wouldn’t make this error, and anger at the amount of time he (the reader) will have to spend reading this junk.

Not the frame of mind you want a reader to have when he picks up your script.

Simple declarative sentences will do. Strong verbs with some imagination. Active (rather than passive) sentence construction. No repetition.

You've already got the slug line up there: EXT. NEIGHBORHOOD – DAY. Don’t write in the first paragraph: “In the neighborhood” but rather “Roger turned the corner onto Vibrata Road…”

Don’t go over three lines in any paragraph. Don’t go over 105 pages, unless you’re writing an epic. No, that is not an epic you’re writing. It may end up having epic proportions at 135 pages.

One studio that will go unnamed – Warner Brothers – will not look at a script over 130 pages, and that was last year.

Brevity is the soul of discretion. I heard that somewhere. Give a working title to all of your new work: The Soul of Discretion. And play What Is! What is! The Soul of Discretion?

Answer: Don’t look. Starts with a B.

Christopher Keane

1137 Mass Ave. Cambridge, MA 02138
10525 Selkirk Lane, Los Angeles, CA 90077

617.283.6161 cell

Lectured on the businesses of film and publishing and promotional aspects of each (with self-help, How To Communicate, How to Build and to Avoid Storytelling Techniques in the Workplace - at The Smithsonian Institution, Harvard, Emerson College Graduate School. National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), National Press Club, Ministre de Culture, Paris; Rhode Island School of Design; Brown University; NYU Tisch School., Lions Clubs, Maui Writers Conference/ 10 years) and at The Los Angeles Expo (Star-Speaker), and various libraries, writers conferences, universities and colleges throughout the US, Europe, and SA

Memberships: Writers Guild of America, PEN, Authors Guild

Publications & Film Credits:

Film and TV: The Hunter (Paramount feature)
Dangerous Company (WB/CBS)
The Huntress (USA hour long series)

Books on Screenwriting:
How to Write A Selling Screenplay (Random House)
Hot Property (Penguin)
Romancing the A-List (Michael Weise Productions) (Apr. 2008)

Books: Lynda (Harcourt Brace)
The Maximus Zone (Harcourt Brace)
The Tour (Free Press)
The Heir (William Morrow)
The Hunter (Bantam)
The Huntress (William Morrow)
Christmas Babies (Pocket)

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Getting to Yes: Coillaboration

GETTING TO YES: How NOT to Collaborate on Scripts

By Chris Keane

There's nothing worse than a bad collaboration.

I have had them. In one a collaborator tried to steal the material, making it his own; thinking it was his own, to make matters worse. And this was after a contract had been signed and I had done 80% of the work.

There went the trust and here came the feeling that I never wanted to see, much less be in the same hemisphere, with this guy again. But we had a contract, that same contract that bound us together in the first place and now had me shouting: LEMME OUT!

Rule 1: Always sign a contract first, no matter what. Figure out how much responsibility each of you will contribute, and go for it. What if you didn't have a contract! Think of the hell you might have then. I had one of those in a collaborations with a major A-list writer, my best friend. I thought, to my later consternation, that we didn’t need one. We were best friends. In fact, it never occurred to me. At one point he offered to give me an interest-free loan as my part of the bargain. That's where the friendship ended.

The script, which studios were waiting for because it was good and they had had a sneak peek, went nowhere because my agent and his agent couldn't work it out. Thinking back maybe I should have taken the scraps just to get it made.

But ALWAYS have a contract. No matter what.

Be grateful. Work it out. Explain that the contract represents time spent, yes, but also time working in the business counts, and that you actually THINK about the work when you're not at the computer or yellow pad.

Rule 2. Contracts have nothing to do with (and everything to do with) TRUST: "I have done work on story than you have, so I want at least half." The Writers Guild of America breaks down the writing process loosely as this: $25% for the story; 75% for the screenplay. Story is compiling, writing is putting the movie on the page. They overlap but that's the breakdown.

I had a collaborator once who kept insisting that everything was hers because she had spent all those years compiling and thinking about the characters, while I spent my years writing and having produced movies and TV and books. She didn't know how to put the movie on the page. She thought she did.

She became PROPRIETARY over the work. It's mine, she'd scream. Mine! She'd throw a tantrum. That's how she got a lot of what she had. Tantrum Perks, she called them.

I tried to explain. I threw my own more amateurish tantrum, and then finally, I said, no. NO is a stopper. GETTING TO NO is good. But only half way there.

Rule 3. You want to Get to Yes. To agree on item after item, so that you’re thinking in tone, story, reversals, etc. And still thinking individually. “Yes, I agree that you have done work,” you say to your partner but ... or: “Yes, I agree that you have done work. Okay, I'll give you another five points.”

Be careful here, though. That old adage: give an inch, they'll expect a mile. Or the collaborator will be grateful and work harder. In that case, count your blessings.

No Ego is the mantra. The only objective is a better script and then the best script possible. If things are deadlocked, there always should be one writer with final decision-making abilities.

Many if not most scripts produced these days are written by teams. It makes sense. All those decisions can be made and discarded quickly. One writer often is better with dialogue, another with structure. One is good inside the scenes, the other excels in concept. One is driven by fear, the other by overconfidence.

I recommend, for romance, working with a lover. For writing a good script, I would recommend against it.

Every day before you start writing reread what you've written from the beginning. It will lock you into place and you won’t waste time.

And always ask yourself: is this suggestion or that suggestion based on my ego wanting its own way or my desire to produce the very best script?

Don’t rewrite each other unless you first agree on it.

Before choosing a collaborator always ask to see samples of the other person's work. Maybe you have a genius in your midst who has completion anxiety or emotional problems. Listen to your gut. It’s usually right.

Hold your temper back and watch out for RESENTMENTS. They will surely kill you, and the project.

Chris Keane
Los Angeles

Chris Keane has written The Hunter (Paramount Pictures) The Crossing (WB), The Huntress (book + USA Network series) + screenwriting books: How to Write A Selling Screenplay, Hot Property, and ROMANCING THE A-LIST: Writing the Script the Big Stars Want to Make (APRIL ’08)

He is also a script and book coach and consultant. Contact Chris at Keanewords.com or e-mail: Keanewords@aol.com. He lives in Los Angeles where he has just completed a feature, LOST LIGHT, and a TV Pilot, DIVINE JUSTICE.

Saturday, August 16, 2008


by Christopher Keane

The act II climax is not always easy to mark but it's got one factor that establishes its reason for being. It's the lowest point in the story for the main character the bottom of the bottom of the barrel. In most situations, in real life, most people would give up their lives at this point, but not in a movie. The character can't go back and can't stay put, and looks as if he or she can't go forward either. BUT! Hamlet sees the play in which the player king pours poison in the ear -- a reenactment, Hamlet thinks, of how his uncle had killed his father -- and watches closely for his uncle's reaction... BINGO! There it is. He sees the twitch. Claudius, the bastard, did kill his father!

Hamlet's devastated. Not only did his uncle kill his father, but this also confirms that Hamlet';s own mother was having an affair with his uncle and she is a cocpnspiratpor. The worst possible situation is true!

Hamlet never asked for this. He just came home oin Spring Break from college, for a little R and R. Now he's got his father, dead. His uncle did it. His mother did it. His girlfriend is half mad. The kingdom is in total disarray. And now he's got to kill his uncle, the king, and maybe - maybe? fuck all, real good chance of - losing his own life before he even gets to Claudius.

This is the moment when the main character knows what he has to do if he wants to solve the problem. But to do it he has to climb out of this pit, buckle up, fight all the forces telling him to go to sleep or run, and march up the perilous mountain (or through the deadly swapms) of Act III, all the while keeping focus (with all the other stuff going on), fight the tougest battle, physically and emotionally, that he or she has ever fought, and hopefully prevail, emerging with life intact, against all odds, and even wisdom and logic - because if she doesn't she will be (if she's not dead) condemned to be free to live the most awful life she could ever imagine.

So the climax at the end of Act II is that moment of decision that will launch youir character into the cesspool of Act III, without an assurance of anything except that if the journey is not made the alternative is too frightening to even consider.

Now there's where your character should be.

Talk about a climax.



How do I write thee? Let me count the ways.
Yeah, well, I’d rather write them than count them. But unfortunately some things take study and time and laborious exercise in the art of looking at a screenplay from different angles.
Three of them.
1. Angle One: You can look at the screenplay from the broad perspective: the story itself, the whole shebang, the biog noodle. From beginning to end. You can write it in a four-page mini-treatment, the four most exasperating, and necessary, four pages you’ll write ever.
Page One is the action of Act 1, down to and including Plot Point 1, on page 25, more or less.
Pages Two and Three hold the action of Act II, down to and including Plot Point II, in which the central character is at his or her lowest point in the story.
Page Four is action of Act III, down to and including the climax.
This is the overview.
2. Angle Two: You can look at a screenplay from a narrower perspective, the scene-by-scene movement from beginning to end. How one scene folds into the next, carrying with each scene emotion, motivaton, conflict, tension. Each scene is like a little screenplay.
It has a beginning, middle and end. The characters that walk into the scene carry with them agendas that do not match up with or agree with the others characters and their agendas. Thus we have conflict and tension.
So we’re moving from Angle One, the general, to Angle Two, the Specific.
3. Angle Three is where I wanted to get to in this long, roundabout way. Angle three is the in between angle. It’s not as broad as One or as narrow as Two. Angle Three has to do with The Sequence.
A lot of screenwriters write their screenplays using sequences right from the start. A Sequence is a cluster of scenes that usually take place in one general location, or area. The scenes all have to do with a specific event. Or place. Or moment.
Sequences are like strings of interconnected floating barges sailing across the sea of your story.
Each sequence has a beginning, middle or end. The sequence has a specific purpose. Like the opening Wedding Sequence in The Godfather. This sequence sets up the entire movie. We meet just about everybody we need to meet. The Family.
There are chase sequences, and more chase sequences.
In your screenplay you have a number of sequences. Watch out for them. They will save you so much time, make your work so much better. Learn the secret of sequences.