Welcome to Pogue's Pages!

I'm POGUE...known by many as Chuck Pogue, a few as Charles Pogue, and billed professionally as Charles Edward Pogue...just because it really looks BIG splashed across a theatre programme or a movie screen. From that last remark and the profile on the left, you can see I'm a theatre man...And the term "theatre" encompasses stage, film, TV. I've been shooting my mouth off on other people's blogs and message boards for forever. So having finally gotten the hang of it, I've decided to build my own soapbox from which I can pontificate, blather, and muse...mostly on theatre, film, writing, music, books...but ultimately anything that interests me, irritates me, or just catches my fancy. I invite you to join me. I'll try to be faithful and update regularly, so that when you visit there will always be something fresh percolating and maybe even provocative that we can discuss, dissect, or debate.

Charles Edward Pogue



Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Letter To A Novice Screenwriter

Yes, I know it's been awhile since I've scribbled here. I was in the throes of a script deadline, taught a screenwriting class, and then...life just seemed to get in the way of my life for awhile. Anyway, I've decided to ease back into the saddle by posting something I had previously written elsewhere which, though it pertains specifically to screenwriting, applies to pretty much any kind of fiction writing.

While cleaning out my documents file the other day, I ran across an old letter I had written, critiquing a young aspiring screenwriter's work . Now before I get inundated with requests from people asking me to read their scripts, let me state very firmly: I DON'T! I WON"T!

The only time I do read anything by aspiring writers is if I am in a classroom situation, which happens occasionally when I'm a guest lecturer or teaching a limited time course. And then the rules of submission are very firm. I read the required classwork....usually short scripts of not more than ten or fifteen pages. I don't read epic feature screenplays that students have been slaving over for years.

I used to try to "give back" and read lots of amateur scripts in my day. But most scripts I read weren't worth the time and their authors really didn't want any criticism...merely empty pats on the back...and then for me to inflict it on my agent, so convinced they were that I would realize it was a work of genius. I'm sure elsewhere on this site, I've expressed my philosophy about breaking into the drama game. "If you can be discouraged, you should be." I am a harsh and unforgiving judge who doesn't grade on a curve for beginners. Of the scripts I've read over the years, only one did I ever admire enough to pass on to my agent at the time... and he never read it. So much for my clout.

My collegue and acquaintance, Oscar-nominated screenwriter, Josh Olson, recently wrote internet sensation of an article, emphatically entitled I Will NOT READ YOUR FUCKING SCRIPT, which brilliantly and succinctly enumerated the reasons why most professionals screenwriters don't want to open this Pandora's box and why it is an exercise in futility for them. Predictably, Josh's article was praised by the pros and met with loathing, outrage, and indignation by most newbies. Nonetheless, it was dead-on accurate.

Another reason, I don't go there is because all my representives sternly advise against it. In this lawsuit-happy society, any time a blockbuster movie starts racking up millions on its opening weekend, all sorts of strange denizens lurking in the dark Hollywood peripherary creep out of its shadows, claiming someone stole their idea and they want a piece of the action. Hence, I never want to be in a situation where I write something and some idiot claims that I had read his script eons ago and swiped his million dollar idea.

Finally, I don't want to read scripts because the first thing any writer in any profession has to acquire is an ability to objectively assess his work. I have a mantra that drives most newbies and wanna-bes up the wall. It is this: "A professional knows when he's done good work." This simple notion perplexes many a novice as if it were a baffling mystery, but it seems pretty obvious to me that one should be able to read his script, read acknowledged successful scripts, and see how their own efforts stack up against the latter. Sadly, as anyone who's ever watched an episode of American Idol knows, a vast multitude of the populace do not have an inner bullshit detector and are incapable of judging their own talent and skills against others.

So too, many beginning screenwriters think it more valuable to solicit the opinions of their writers group, their best friend, or grandma rather than pragmatically cultivate their own ruthless and unremitting critical eye. So if they are incapable of critiquing their own script, it is foolhardy for me to try. If you have to be told what to think about your own work, maybe you shouldn't be doing it.

Upon rare occasion, under much duress and against my better judgment, I do cave to obligation or friendship, always with the caveat that I will be brutal. The hopeful victim of this reluctant favour granted by me must then submit a copy of the script upon which I will render my critique, scrawling my notes and comments in the margins about specifics on the page as I encounter them.

The particular critique (the script notes you will not be seeing) and subsequent letter below came about when I was asked by the then-theatre department chair of my college alma mater to read a promising young student's script. I did...and relived all the reasons why I hate doing this.

However, I diligently performed my task and think I gave the young author some pretty sound advice. I present it here, slightly amended with any and all references to the person's identity and work deleted, because despite the script's very specific problems, it was also an excellent example of what I find wrong with most young writers' scripts. The letter contains many of the tips and lessons that I constantly harp on any time I teach or guest-lecture. So without anymore ado:



A LETTER TO A NOVICE SREENWRITER


Dear Novice,


I have read your screenplay. As warned, I’ve gauged it by professional standards. No grading on the curve for youth, innocence, or beginner status. As you will see by the notes scrawled in the margins, I do not mince words. You may find some of it brutal…occasionally, I suspect, even acerbic. But contained within the comments I trust you’ll find valuable screenwriting tips. I hope so…or what’s the point? But no gentle cheerleading bolstering. My failing is to be unflinchingly candid.

First, positive stuff. You have a facility for dialogue. Witty and sharp. Unfortunately, all too often it is not employed in the service of the script or the characters, but in showing us how clever the author is. All your characters speak with one voice…your voice, I suspect…and often betray character and plot for the sake of a bon mot. Dialogue that does not serve either character or plot (or even serves plot at the expense of character), regardless of how facile and clever, will fall flat because it is not honest. A long time ago, one Edward Greer, a guest director from New York, came to the university to direct us in FLEA IN HER EAR (in which I played the lead). Among the gems of wisdom I took away from him was: “It has to be real to be funny.” I’ve been fortunate to work with many talented comic actors since that time, from Shelley Berman to Martha Raye, and have heard variations of this truism repeated over and over.

In an age where dialogue is too often dismissed, I like screenplays with good talk. You hear all the time film is a visual medium. I disagree. It is a dramatic medium. And words are a part of that medium. But repartee is not enough to sustain good drama. You like your talk so much that you allow your characters to ramble long past the point or dramatic impact of the scene. Generally, all your scenes should start later and end earlier. Too often you start off in a flaccid fashion with someone entering a room and a page or more of introductions and hellos and how-are-yous take place. And then long after the real scene is over you feel obligated to end it with inconsequential good-byes and leave-takings…five or six lines of extra dialogue just to stick in one more joke.

You told me you liked film because it gave you more freedom; yet your scenes stifle in claustrophobic offices, apartment buildings, restaurants, and some of your most important scenes take place over the phone.

Conversely, be careful of “shoe-leather” scenes…people ambling down hallways, in and out of buildings, walking here and there, unless the plot is actually moving forward during these actions or by what is being said during these actions. But then this goes for any scene...it should always be informing character or plot. Too often your scenes are pointless badinage. Save your wit for a purpose, not to just show off.

You need to find the heart of each scene. Enter your scenes in the middle and end them once the dramatic point or impact of the scene has been achieved. Don’t linger around to fire off a couple more choice zingers. You must learn to kill some of your darlings. We don’t need ten laughs when five will do. Five will be funnier than the ten, because those five will also be moving your plot along and we won’t be tediously hanging around long after the scene is over, just to snap off a few yucks. Learn restraint; learn to pick and choose.

Concerning your wit, I strongly urge you (and have throughout my script notes) to save it for your story. The supposedly witty “asides” in your descriptive passages serve no dramatic function and irritate most readers I know (including me). You are telling a story. Stay contained within the story. Don’t jump outside it with author comments on the action or cutesy smirks that distract the reader from the narrative flow. Not only are they needless grandstanding, their excision will save you lots of pages, which should be a concern of yours. But mostly, we don’t care how witty the author is, only how witty the story is…that’s where the author’s wit will shine.

Your characters are more problematic. While all characters an author creates are usually facets of himself, all your characters come off as the SAME facet of yourself. They all speak in the same snappy, witty way that, for the most part, the lines could be interchangeable…any character could speak them.

It is a case where the lines are given more importance than the context in which they are said. You have a secretary you describe as shy, but she comes off spewing sarcastic quips with the aplomb of Eve Arden. Your two leads are so much alike and so simpatico, we know long before they ever meet they are destined to be together. But even the supporting characters all come off as members of the Alquonquin Roundtable…unless it is a character like the father who is labouriously and self-consciously eccentric to no dramatic point that I could fathom. Each character must have his own style and individual way of speaking.

Also characters’ motives often seem hopelessly muddled, confused, and occasionally trite. It’s as though you are trying to shoehorn them into an already cobbled plot whether they fit it or not. The plot doesn’t evolve because of who they are, but they evolve (against who and what they should be) to serve the plot. They seem to have no real life outside of what the author needs them to do or say at any specific time within the story.

Your antagonist is a straw one who never at any time constitutes a real obstacle or threat to our heroes. She is just there to be knocked down all too easily and dumped on by almost everyone in the story with really vicious verbal barbs. I never felt her actions deserved the abuse heaped on her, particularly since she was so ineffective as an antagonist. I almost felt sorry for her and felt the good guys really piled on with shocking cruelty.

And I suppose this means I’m drifting into plot -- of which there is not a lot. I kept asking myself (and you’ll see the notes) what is this story about? I assumed it was a romantic comedy and while I could predict the rather trivial beats of the story all the way through, there were no real surprises, twists, variations on the well-worn theme, and never any real dramatic conflict. We are even deprived of the tried-and-true formula of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. In your version, boy meets girl and they drift idyllically along from triumph to triumph, overcoming every easy obstacle to the boy gets girl part without breaking much of a sweat.

Where is the dramatic conflict? Everything gets knocked over like nine-pins. Nothing stops this juggernaut of witty romance. There are no real setbacks. The plots by the antagonist, the counter-plots by protagonists never amount to much and two or three seem to happen either off-stage or become so quickly resolved we wonder what all the set-up was for and all the fuss was about? There’s never any risk or daring or concern how these things will play out. They usually have played out before we know it. Instead of seeing their romance being tested and thwarted and evolving through what should be various plot machinations, you subdivide your story. You have all those walking, talking scenes of romance. Then you return to the threadbare plot. YOU MUST LEARN TO MAKE SCENES DO MORE THAN ONE THING! Layer them! Instead of having them fall in love and then dealing with the plot. Have them fall in love WHILE they’re dealing with the plot.

And sometimes you miss entirely where your scene is. One prime example: when your hero talks the guy into arm-wrestling. You stay focused on the heroine watching the hero convince the guy from afar so that we hear nothing of the conversation. Here is this charmer who is supposed to be glib and smart and witty and we don’t get to hear how he convinces the guy to arm-wrestle him. That’s a cop-out. Don’t built up your character as a guy who can do this stuff and not pay it off. And again, those dreary phone call scenes. There were far too many scenes of supposedly dramatic conflict, where the two characters aren’t even present in the room together, but talking on the phone!

Sadly, no one is changed by the plot. Every character remains static and not much different than when they started out. There are no epiphanies or lessons learned here. No one grows. What is theme of this story? It’s got to be more than two like-minded zanies find each other (and they aren’t really that zany). Again, what is this story about? And I don't mean just plot.

I was concerned when I realized this story had a show-biz background. It seems endemic with young filmmakers. They love to conjure up some idealized dream-story of young, sensitive iconoclasts triumphing in their artistic endeavours. They write autobiographical fantasies. I’m not sure that this doesn’t fall under that category.


Now we all write on themes about which we’re passionate. Some even say a writer keeps writing the same story over and over again. All my stories seem to be about men trying to maintain their idealism, passion, and humanity in a cesspool of a world. I say all my movies are about the movie business. So I guess mine are autobiographical fantasies too.

But aside from one or two, none of them are actually about the movie business or screenwriters…They are about scientists and murderers, knights and dragons, Vikings, barbarians, haunted houses, detectives, swashbucklers. My advice to the author of this script is: Get over yourself!

Or at least your idealized self.

Go a little further afield from home. You’ll find no matter what you write, your passions and obsessions will fill the page anyway. You’ll write about yourself regardless. You can’t help it. What other point-of-view do you have to distill things through? But just don’t make it so damned obvious. And don’t make it a thinly veiled wish fulfillment story. The trouble with most young writers writing about the film business? They have never really seen it from the inside to know anything about it. So it all comes off as a rather na├»ve, inaccurate exercise.

If some of my comments in the margins seem to get impatient or sarcastic the further along I get into the script, it’s because I was watching something initially promising unravel and was also a bit vexed, because I quite simply think you should know better.

Because of your enviable adroitness with dialogue you have allowed yourself to get lazy in the other aspects of dramatic construction. Without finely developed characters and a well-wrought plot, your clever dialogue serves no useful purpose. Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward, Billy Wilder, Paddy Chafesky could all turn a phrase and also knew how to write multi-dimensional individual characters and a sustaining story that was about something.

You’ll also find notes simply about format and style. You thankfully don’t burden your script with too much technical jargon which always interrupts narrative flow, but you do some format/transitions that are pretty much unnecessary…like “Cut To”. William Goldman is the only writer I know who still uses this. But then he is William Goldman and you are not. He can do anything he wants. As for you, I advise against it. With the exception of an occasional close-up or dissolve, all you really need any more are your INT. or EXT. scene sluglines…and I, as a writer, would get rid of these if I could think of a way to do it.

I always prefer to err on the side of literary prose rather than technical stage directions. You have to get your initial audience past the read before anyone begins to think of performance. And you have to paint word pictures for people who…let’s be honest…often can’t visualize very well. Better to carry them through with prose style than to confuse them with technical crap that jars the mood and disrupts the narrative flow you’re trying to create.

You’ll also find a few stylistic, literary tricks that save space, clean up your sentences, and give them some drive and pop. Things like avoiding “is ___ing” words…is running, is going, is hitting. Runs, goes, hits. Cleaner, clearer, got some punch and force.

Some film recommendations in this area of romantic-comedy (many of which I suspect you have already seen):

Anything by Preston Sturges
Anything by Billy Wilder
Holiday
Philadelphia Story
The Thin Man
Theodora Goes Wild
Midnight
No Time For Comedy (has a show biz background)
Shop Around the Corner
The Awful Truth
Hope & Crosby Road Pictures aren’t bad for this zany thing you’re going for.

It’s apparent you seen enough Looney Tunes.

Finally, I hope you can find your cover letter underneath the morass of notes I scribbled all over it. I critiqued and dissected this savagely because any cover letter you send accompanying a script or query letter you send about submitting script is the first bit of writing by which you will be judged. If it doesn’t pass muster, they may get no further and pitch your script into the trash.

I realize you were sending a letter to someone you had actually met, but even so, it is too casual, too unfocused, and off-point. You spend far too much time trying to explain a script that should be self-explanatory and influencing the reader as to how he is supposed to think about it, which can be rather off-putting and insulting. And then it tips to the other extreme, being too Uriah Heep unctuously effusive. Thanking me four times in a half page letter comes off a smidge desperate.

Letters such as these should be direct, simple, and unhesitant. This is your work. If you’re sending it out, you should have confidence in its quality. If you’re wrong, you’ll find out quick enough. Its submission shouldn’t come attached with a bunch of caveats about its subtlety, humour, tone, or whether the reader can grasp your intention. It should be as concise as “Per our conversation, here is my script…” its title, a sentence or two describing it, one thank you, and maybe a hope that they enjoy it and your signature. No lily gilding. Let the script live or die on its own merits.

And don’t use your typewriter. It looks sloppy and untidy and, in this day and age, a computer just does it better. Not a great way to make a first impression.

Finally, I’m sending you a couple of my scripts under separate cover so you can see how I do it. But…and this is a big but…not everybody does it the same way. You’ll find your screenwriting style will evolve and you’ll find your own way of doing it.

I will keep a copy of your marked script so I can refer back to it, if you wish to email me about any specifics or questions you may have on my comments. And remember they are only one man’s opinion. Though I think there are definite right and wrong ways to approach this craft, artistic endeavour is never an exact, objective science. Hopefully, you’ll find much of this useful.

A website you might find useful:http://www.wordplayer.com/ They have particularly good message forums where pros like myself frequently drop in with advice.

Best,

Chuck Pogue




















4 comments:

  1. Whenever I go back east, I get asked to read scripts. Would save time and heartache if I just hand them your comments above. Can I? (smile)

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  2. Don't you just love Google? I do a little search for Marianne Hammock, wondering what happened to that wonderful actress and up pops your blog, Mr. Pogue. I didn't know you knew Marianne - I worked that Odessa playhouse in the summer of 72 with her and she's the one who convinced me to try Dallas. Small world. Nice blog, too.

    --David Cooper

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  3. I'm assuming this isthe same David Cooper, I knew in Dallas, with whom I shared the same agent, Peggy Taylor, and with whom I often competed for the same roles. How the Hell are, David? The last time I saw you, you were popping out of a suitcase on some commercial on TV? What are you up to these days?

    I have frequently done a google search on Marianne Hammock and have never had much success. Ihope wherever she is, she is well and thriving. Hope you are too.

    ReplyDelete