Updated: Aug 5, 2020
My name is Benjamin Pollack. This year I have won 4 awards for my writing at the LAFA Festival. Best Short Screenplay for What Ever Happened to Jonny Faith, Best Sci-fi script for Fleaosaurus, and Best Comedy Screenplay and Screenplay of the Month for Assassin Gram. So what does that all mean? At the very least, it means I enjoy writing when motivated by a good idea, or at least an idea that I think is good. That's not to say I haven't written my share of garbage, I most certainly have. But having also written award winning screenplays has taught me a few valuable lessons that are probably fairly obvious to most - but it may help hearing them anyway.
The first thing you need to write a successful screenplay is - an outline. Lots of writers have an idea that's kinda flushed out and they go for the script without plotting the story out first. I find this to be a mistake. Although writing an outline isn't as fun as writing a script, it is super important. It's like building a complicated building without a blueprint. Outlines are not written in stone (unless you write it in stone) so you can stray from it if you want, but having a goal and a direction is key to writing a storyline that works, that is comprehensive, and is satisfying to the reader. An outline is where the hard part is worked out - the true narrative. The screenplay is where the narrative rhythm is developed to give life to the outline.
Narrative rhythm. What the hell is that? Well, every film has one and so does the script. They are the hills and valleys of your story and they are super important. A long chase scene ends with a crash and someone getting killed - the chase is the hills, the look on the speechless main character's face as he sees the crash is the valley. Fade out. The scene in Jaws where the shark attacks the boat and they chase after him is the hills, the part where the shark disappears under the sea with five barrels on him leaving a quiet ocean is the valley. Two barrels pop up while the guys are eating inside the boat is the beginning of the new narrative hill and so on. The same is true with a quiet conversation although not so obvious.
Music. Every film has music. Well, most films have music. A musical score is also a story teller and is super important to a successful narrative. Scores, if good, will enhance the narrative and bring you into the story. Spielberg movies are great examples of amazing scores that surround you and pull you into the narrative without you realizing the music is doing it. So why mention it as a screenwriter? Well, my writing process doesn't start with an outline, it starts with music. If I'm writing a drama I look for score that feels right for the tone of my narrative. I collect as many tunes that feel right as possible, and then, after the outline is done and I am ready to begin my script, I play the music in the background to see if it helps my writing rhythm. Fleaosaurus is a story about giant fleas taking over a small western town. Turns out music from Back to the Future worked perfectly to motivate me and believe it or not, felt perfect for the action of my story. That script not only won Best Sci-Fi Screenplay, but was also optioned last month. (Music works, try it)
If you are not loving every second of your writing, stop. What do I mean? Well, lets take an acting example to make sense of what I'm saying. When two actors really like each other, they have chemistry and it shows on the screen. It's that extra something that makes their performances amazing and memorable. The same is true with your writing. If you're in love with what you are writing and you are enjoying it, odds are that will translate to the reader who will also enjoy the writing. Not a guarantee, but odds are it will work for you. If you are struggling with your narrative and not enjoying it, neither will the reader. So what do you do it you don't like what you are writing? Find a new way. Think of a new approach that excites you. Try to bring back your excitement about your story - because if you are not excited out it, no one will be.
The reader. Although your screenplay is more like blueprint for a movie, someone has to read it and enjoy it. So you really have two goals in screenwriting. Yes, you have to write a great narrative that is engaging and original, but you also have to write in a way that is enjoyable for the reader. In Assassin Gram, two guys are locked in a closet with the bad guy just outside. If they make a sound they are screwed. One of them is sick. In the description I write, "he's sweating like the pig who knows he's dinner." That line was for the reader and even though it seems stupid out of context, it helps the flow when the reader enjoys your non-action writing. You don't want to go overboard here, but just like telling someone a story, you want to be engaging in the telling. Dry writing can turn off the reader - too much silliness can turn the reader off also, so be careful.
And finally, just write. Write as much as you can. Rewrite as much as you need to. Do not fall in love with anything you write because it might be wrong for your story and your love for the scene will stop you from doing what's right. Be fluid, be open to change, be open to learn and finally, read! Read scripts you like. Be ready to learn new things about yourself and be ready for the long haul because writing a screenplay isn't a sprint, it's a marathon.
Benjamin Pollack. Photo by Frazer Harrison