Wednesday, September 17, 2008


GETTING TO YES: How NOT to Collaborate on Scripts
By Chris Keane

1. 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.

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 advice: Sign a contract first. What if you didn't have one! Think of the hell you might have then. Be grateful. Work it out. Explain that you worked out the contract according to time spent, yes, but also time working in the business counted, and that you actually THINK about the work when you're not at the computer or yellow pad.

2. Contracts have nothing to do with (and everything to do with) TRUST: "I have done more work than you have, so I want at least half." The WGA 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 character, 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's 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.

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. (GETTING TO YES is a also a very good book about negotiations.) 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 -- can kick in. Or the collaborator will be grateful and work harder. 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 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 has a memory, the other has a concept. One is fearful, the other has his or her own problems.

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

Every day before you start reread what you've written from the beginning. It was lock you in and not waste time. Get up and move around. And always ask yourself: does this suggestion based on my ego want my own way or my desire to produce the best script.


SQUEEZE IT, BABY: Compression Will Set You Free by Christopher Keane

This is a compressed piece on compression, one of the most overlooked and least understood screenwriting art.

In screenwriting compression comes in three major flavors: Time, Space and Language.

Compression of Time

In the compression of Time, the question you want to ask yourself is this: can this screenplay of mine that, in movie time, takes place over a seven-month period, be told over a weekend?

The answer, in almost all cases, should be a resounding YES.

If it’s a NO then ask your self why? And list the reasons. Why does your story have to take place in seven months? If a pregnancy gets in the way, she should have the baby before the story begins, or at the beginning. If it’s about a year in college, what’s wrong with a couple of weeks toward the end?

Movies are usually about a rapid series of events swirling around the main character in a very short period of time, especially in certain genres: comedies, thrillers, and action pictures.

Compression of Space

Never let the characters get too far away from one another. Don’t do what they did in The Color of Money where two-thirds of the way through the picture Tom Cruise and Paul Newman split up and went their separate ways. What!

It was as if a balloon had its air let out. Tension seeped out, conflict vanished. Story disappeared. We’re left with a flaccid leftover.

If the writer of The Graduate had decided to put Ben Braddock’s house down the street from Mrs. Robinson’s house, instead of next door, there would have been no movie. Or if the writer of American Beauty had decided to put the two houses down the street from one another, there would have been no movie.

In Hollywood they say the best movies are the ones in which the characters are pressed so close together that there’s hardly any breathing room.

Compression of Language

Always try to use active sentences. “Batman whacked the Joker across the street” instead of The Joker was whacked by Batman. This is a movie you’re writing, a motion picture.

The language should reflect the form.

Eliminate as many adverbs as you can, replacing them with colorful, energetic verbs. The sentences themselves should be descriptive but compressed.

NO: Matt turns the corner. Before him he sees a large three-storey home built around 1850, with gables and a window’s walk. Many windows peer out over a lawn that hasn’t been mowed in months, a haggard tree with a rubber tire hanging from a branch. Broken bicycles are sprawled on a broken sidewalk. The house needs paint. Panes on the lower floors have been broken. Dirty white pillars hold up the porch.

YES: Matt turned the corner. He has arrived at his destination, a dilapidated Victorian mansion.

It’s that simple. Compression works. Try it. It will give your script a tempo and pace and a sharper sense of its world.

Christopher Keane

Chris Keane new screenwriting book, Romancing the A-List: Writing the Script the Big Stars Want to Make debuts April 2008. He has also written The Hunter (Paramount), The Crossing (WB) The Huntress (USA Network series) plus screenwriting books: How to
Write A Selling Screenplay & Hot Property. He is also a script consultant.
Contact Chris at or email him at
He teaches and lectures at Harvard, LMU, Emerson College, Harvard, NYU, and Smithsonian Institution.