Five Things That Separate Professionals From Amateurs

Yeah, this post is a rant. I freely admit it. It’s almost Christmas, I can rant if I want to…

So, here are some things that I’ve noticed seem to separate the professionals from the amateurs – and in this context, I’m not using ‘amateur’ to mean ‘haven’t made it yet’, but ‘haven’t got a hope of ever making it’…

Amateurs think someone else is the driving force in their career.

I’ve lost count of the number of times people have said to me  “I really need to get an agent”, I’ve asked them how many scripts they have ready to go, and they’ve said  “Well, I’m halfway through my first one…”

Amateurs think that if they can only get an agent, or get [insert name of famous person] to read their work, or meet the right person at a party, they’ll be an overnight success. Professionals know that the only route to success is to write several really good scripts. Write a good enough script, and all these people will find you. But if the script isn’t ready, not only will you not get any of these people involved –  but even if you somehow did, they would be no use to you.

Luckily, your writing is the one part of your career that you have complete control over. You can’t control when you get an agent, or who wants to or doesn’t want to read your work. But you do control your time and your talent. So use them, and write the best damn script anyone has ever seen.

Amateurs think the rules are there to be broken.

“Yeah, I know no one’s making original $200m musicals any more, but they’ll make an exception for my script…”

No, they won’t.

“I know 185 pages seems long for a romcom, but I need every word of it to do justice to my vision…”

No, you don’t.

“My action movie will start a trend for 45-year-old Hispanic female leads…”

Yeah? Who are you planning to cast who can bring in enough box office to recoup an action movie budget?

You want to bend the rules a little, go ahead. Nothing captures Hollywood’s attention like originality. But be the right kind of original. The kind that can be sold. The kind that wins awards. The kind that will make a director’s or an actor’s name. The kind that makes the audience say  “Woah!”  not  “Huh?”

Be Inception original, Eternal Sunshine Of the Spotless Mind original, Modern Family original. Not the kind that gives everyone a damn headache and doesn’t deliver any tangible benefits to anyone, least of all the audience.

Amateurs think everyone else’s wins are their losses.

Amateurs waste too much of their valuable writing time bitching on message boards about how that script that just sold is shit (they can tell by the logline, or even by the fact that no logline is being made public).  Oh, and that movie coming out next year is the Worst Thing Ever (they can tell from the 45-second teaser).

Two words.

Sour. Grapes.

You know what? The fact that someone else sold a script/made a movie is not taking anything away from you. It’s not a single combat to the death that they unfairly beat you at. It’s an open field. There’s room for everyone, and if your script’s good enough, you’ll ‘win’ too.

You want to review or critique a finished piece of work? (Not a leaked draft script, or a trailer, or a logline that might have got mangled by the trades before publication, but an actual movie). Go ahead! You’re entitled to your informed opinion of other people’s work, especially if you can draw some useful lesson from it – but think very carefully before you trash someone you could be working with one day…

Amateurs think everyone is out to steal their precious ideas.

Nobody wants to steal your idea. Because an idea is useless. It’s the execution of an idea that makes it valuable.

“A man undertakes a quest into an unreal world to discover what really matters to him” is an idea. It’s the execution that makes the difference between Inception and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind and Jacob’s Ladder and Flatliners and even It’s A Wonderful Life.

Even if you’re the one person in screenwriting history whose idea actually does get stolen (and you won’t be), their execution of it will be so different to yours that it will make no difference to the success of your script. So stop whining about how everyone’s out to steal your idea, because that’s the number one warning sign of amateurism.

And finally, a positive:

Professionals pay attention to the details.

Professionals not only check the spelling and punctuation in their script, they check it on their e-mails and their Twitter feed too. (This is the point, of course, at which irony strikes and someone spots an error in this post. Bound to happen…)  At industry parties, they check who this stranger they’re talking to is before they slag off anything she might have worked on.

They make sure they know who worked on a movie, and how much of it was each person’s contribution, before they express an opinion. They remember names and faces – always my weak point –  and remember who wrote their favourite films and TV episodes, not just who directed or starred in them. And they think about how they’re presenting themselves all the time, because in the age of social media, there is no more ‘private’.

Attention to detail, in life as in scripts, will get you a long way.

Okay, I feel a lot better now I’ve said all that. Time for a mince pie. Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year of writing!

Things I Learned From… The Hobbit

Tons to do this week, so not much time for blogging, but I just wanted to offer a short observation on The Hobbit (see what I did there? Go on, laugh. Go on. Please…?)

Always end with a bang.

A lot of screenwriters spend a lot of time on the first thirty pages of their script. And so they should: if the first thirty pages aren’t spectacular, the chances of the rest ever getting read are pretty damn poor. But if the first thirty pages are the ones getting all the love and attention at script stage –

Then the last thirty are the pages that should get the attention at the plotting, planning and prepping stage.

If you don’t end with a bang, you don’t really have a movie.

And even if you don’t really have a movie, ending with a bang might save your backside.

The Hobbit is pretty slow and pretty meandering for the first ninety minutes plus. Part of that is down to stretching the story to three movies, part is down to the largely episodic nature of the original material. Neither of those is really an excuse for the movie as delivered, by the way. Adaption is a process of fixing problems, not causing or replicating them. But that’s not what I’m here to talk about.

Because, despite the languid ramble through the history of Middle Earth, despite the unnecessary rock giants and the heavy-handed attempt to model the structure on The Fellowship Of The Ring, something sent me out of that cinema with a big grin on my face and eager to see it again ASAP.

And that something was the last 45 – 60 minutes.

Ever been to a film or a children’s stage play with a five-year-old? Chances are they’ll be shuffling, muttering and looking in random directions for 90% of the event. But at the end, they’ll insist it was brilliant and they had the best time ever – because the only bits they remember are the two or three scenes that genuinely gripped them. They’ve totally forgotten that they were ever bored, because the experience of the good bits massively outweighs the bad.

Well, adult cinema audiences aren’t that much different. Their mood as they leave the cinema will be largely dictated by the ending. Give them an upbeat ending where the hero comes into his own and triumphs, at least in part; where plot points pay off and surprises are delivered; send them out saying “Wow, wasn’t that final bit brilliant?” and they’ll be happy.

Of course, send them out saying “Wasn’t the whole thing brilliant?”, and then you’ve really got something…

The Little Red Pick-Up Truck

So, I’ve been re-watching Angel. If you somehow missed out on this darker, sexier spin-off from Buffy The Vampire Slayer, get out there and get the box set immediately, because it will teach you a ton of valuable stuff about writing characters and sustaining season-long story arcs. But then, you’d expect to learn a few things from a show with Joss Whedon, David Greenwalt, Tim Minear and Shawn Ryan on the staff!

So here’s something that struck me while watching the second season episode  “Epiphany”, written by Tim Minear.

Supporting character Lindsey McDonald is a junior lawyer at the esteemed and powerful firm of Wolfram & Hart – a law firm so evil that their unseen “senior partners” are actual demons from the lowest circles of hell. (Yup, the old jokes are the best!) He’s a smart kid from a dirt-poor background who’s made something of himself. Nice suits, exquisite apartment, flash car. A career on the up. He’s somebody.

He’s had a complicated relationship with our hero, Angel, from the start. A lurch away from the Dark Side, which he then regretted; a tragic infatuation with the evil vampire Darla, who only has eyes for Angel. And in this episode, all that complex history that comes to a head. Lindsey wants Angel dead, and he wants him to suffer in the process.

Now, this is a man with the power to cover up, control and command almost anything he wants. Wolfram & Hart have police, judges and politicians in their pockets, supernatural assassins on retainer, limitless occult power at their fingertips.

So what does Lindsey do?

None of the above. He goes to the closet, pushes aside all the beautifully tailored suits, and takes out the box hidden away on the closet floor. His box of secrets.

The next time we see him – surprising and comprehensively beating Angel –  this is a Lindsey we’ve never seen before. A Lindsey wearing jeans and a check shirt, swinging a lump hammer, driving a beat-up red pick-up truck with Oklahoma plates.

This is the Lindsey that was, the Okie kid that drove to LA in his crappy pick-up truck, in search of the flash car and the designer suits. The Lindsey angry and self-reliant enough to beat the crap out of a vampire with a lump hammer, rather than use the more civilized, arms-length means at his disposal. This is the core of his character revealed – both a surprise to the audience, and yet somehow inevitable.

And all it is, in the end, is some clothes and a little red pick-up truck.

So, what’s in the box of secrets at the bottom of your character’s closet? What’s their equivalent of the pick-up truck sat unused in a garage somewhere?  What symbol of their inner self can they turn to, use, put on or dust off to show that, finally, we’re seeing the real them?

Everyone Loves A Family

It came to my attention recently that The Fast And The Furious franchise has been gracing our screens now for fourteen years. Fourteen years!  Five movies to date, with a sixth currently shooting and due next year. How many non-horror franchises have that kind of longevity?

If you’re wondering why we should be bothered about a little niche movie about car racing, here are some facts from Box Office Mojo. In 2011, the last installment in the franchise, Fast Five, was the sixth highest grossing movie in the US, and the seventh highest grossing movie in total worldwide box office.

Yes, a moderate budget movie with no big stars took more money in the US than Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, and more money world-wide than Captain America, or X-Men: First Class, or Thor, or Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows.

Even I was surprised by that. My love for this particular franchise is a bit of a running joke round here, but actually, I think there are some serious screenwriting lessons to be learned from these movies. So let’s speculate on why The Fast And The Furious is such a successful, and enduring, franchise…

Transferable concepts. Worldwide audiences are increasingly important to Hollywood movies, and two-thirds of Fast Five’s total take was earned outside the US. Whether dubbed or subtitled, US movies with simple, universally applicable concepts and concerns are ones that are going to do best overseas – and what’s more universal than cocky criminals, hot girls, fast cars and fist fights?  Compare that to the complex alternate WW2 of Captain America, or the Victorian fripperies of Sherlock Holmes, and (as much as I love those movies myself) it’s obvious which is the easiest sell to a non-English-speaking audience.

Give an audience characters they can identify with. According to audience research on Fast Five, US showings attract a much higher percentage of African-American and Latino filmgoers than comparable action movies.

Take a look at the cast, and you’ll see why. There are about a dozen major characters in the movie, and, what, maybe two of them are white?  Compare this to the average Hollywood ensemble movie, where the screen is as packed with Caucasian males as the audience is, and it becomes obvious that the franchise is delivering something these audiences don’t often see – minority characters in fulfilling, sympathetic roles.

If your movie can deliver in the same way, this under-served audience will love you for it.

Changing genre isn’t necessarily a franchise-killer. The first The Fast And The Furious movie is an undercover cop movie. So is the second, sort of. The third is a coming-of-age story (though its tenuous connection the other movies, with a new lead and few shared characters, makes its relevance dubious.) Four is “cop chases villain” with a dash of revenge drama, and five is a “one last job” heist. How can a franchise that does this possibly work?

It works because, as writers and film-makers, we sometimes over-estimate the importance of genre – and indeed, of plot. Audiences come because they love the characters.

Sure, they want to see those characters do certain familiar things, because those are part of their character function  – if James Bond doesn’t drink a martini, bed a girl, and face off with a supervillain, he’s not really James Bond any more –  but as long as your new genre supports the character function of your hero, it will work. (For example, Alien and Aliens are different genres, but both support Ripley’s character function – the warrior-mother, who nurtures and fights for her own – and so both work).

Everyone loves a family. Families – the ones we’re born into and the ones we build for ourselves – have been an explicit concern of the franchise from the very beginning. They come with the territory, in an undercover cop movie, but that sense of connection between the characters, the family loyalty and the sacrifices that loyalty sometimes calls for, has been driving the movies for a long time now.

I can’t say this strongly enough: audiences love family relationships. They don’t have to be biological or literal family. Groups of cops or firefighters, close friends, criminal gangs or the crew of a ship are all “family” in this sense of the word. But they must have that sense of unbreakable connection, responsibility, loyalty and self-sacrifice.

You could make a good case that everything I’ve ever written is about people without (meaningful) biological family who are constructing their own “families” and caring for each other. It’s certainly obvious in Wolfblood.  It’s certainly what attracts me to The Fast And The Furious franchise, and I think it plays a huge role in the worldwide success of these movies.

Create a “family’ that your audience would love to be part of, and they’ll stick with your characters forever.