Writing

Archive of posts about Category: Writing & Storytelling

Two kinds of writing advice

Sometimes I will find myself yelling in my head, in response to some writing advice I read on the internet. 

It goes something like this: “you idiots! you don’t need writing advice! you just need to write! sit down and fucking write! do you really think that reading what Hemingway said about the bullshit detector is going to help you, you lazy fuck, when you’re not even putting in the time!?” ...continue reading...

Do screenwriting contests matter?

The consensus from Austin Film Festival (and honestly, anyone working in Hollywood that I’ve ever talked to or heard on a podcast) was that only two matter: if you’re a finalist for the Nicholl Fellowship or at AFF.

At least 90% of of these contests exist to make money, not to help you. They won’t get you an agent and they won’t impress people.

Please stop throwing your money away.

Skill vs talent (in screenwriting)

I was in Austin last week for the Austin Film Festival. It was a great time. The centerpiece of the festival is the four-day screenwriting conference, which means panels, networking, and parties.

As an aside: some of the panels were great and some were just OK. The panels I didn’t like were mostly because of a moderator that couldn’t or didn’t seem to understand the audience and what we wanted to hear. Moderating is an underrated skill.

On one of the panels, a literary manager spoke of the difference between skill and talent.

Basically he said, you need both to succeed as a screenwriter.

But there are a lot of people that have good careers with lots of skill and not much talent. These are writers who are not necessarily visionaries, but they are skilled in writing in someone else’s voice or in executing a formula. They would tend to work on less innovative shows or movies. They are probably what you would call a hack? I don’t know, I don’t really go around calling people hacks. The manager didn’t use that term.

People with lots of talent and no skill on the other hand, they can’t succeed. You need SOME skill. Actually, you need a fair amount. If you have no skill, then your talent is squandered. It can’t be harnessed. You have things to express but don’t know how to express them skillfully. Great stories, poorly told. Etc.

The high-skill, low-talent person, well, they can tell the hell out of a not great story.

A genius is someone with extraordinary talent (talent encompasses vision and intelligence and creativity and many other traits).

I’m simplifying a bit obviously.

Here’s a 2×2:

Obviously my design skills are low-skill, high-talent.

Can you become more skilled? Yes, definitely, that’s just deliberate practice over a long period of time.

Can you become more talented? ASKING FOR A FRIEND. Just kidding. I don’t know. I imagine that talent is an amalgam of many factors: genetics, upbringing, openness, what you read and who you spend time with and what your influences are and what you see and know about the culture and history and so many other factors with a dose of just general intelligence thrown in.

Steal a bit from a lot of different places

The secret of theft, which is also called “creativity,” is you have to steal a bit from a lot of different places. You can’t go to the same 7/11 every time because they’ll catch you. So you go to the photo shop, and you go to the gas station, and you go to that little hot dog stand that nobody goes to and by the end you’ve stolen enough stuff from enough places that people think its yours.

— Paul Schrader ...continue reading...

“Art is fire plus algebra”

Art is fire plus algebra.

— Borges

I found this quote in a book that wasn’t amazing but did have this quote, which is good.1

When I started writing feature screenplays, I was struck with how much engineering was in the work of crafting a story. Here’s how I think the drafting process breaks down, alternating between imagination and craft, fire and algebra, open mind vs editing mind.

Brainstorming: fire

Outline: algebra

First draft: fire

Rewriting: algebra + fire, depending on what’s going on. Usually mostly algebra unless I go too far in one direction and over-engineer things so I have to go back and find the thing that made me love it in the first place.


  1. I wonder about the efficacy of quoting a great writer in an average book. A lot of times it just makes me realize that I’d rather be reading a better writer and I put the book down and find something better to read. 

“If I were wrong in the script, then that’d be as wrong as I could be”

I must say that I’ve never approached a project without fear – especially the writing aspect of it – and commitment to the writing. I always felt I could know a bad performance from a good performance or fake a way to make something look good, but if I were wrong in the script, then that’d be as wrong as I could be. ...continue reading...

“The purpose of being a serious writer is to keep people from despair”

The purpose of being a serious writer is not to express oneself, and it is not to make something beautiful, though one might do those things anyway. Those things are beside the point. The purpose of being a serious writer is to keep people from despair. If you keep that in mind always, the wish to make something beautiful or smart looks slight and vain in comparison. If people read your work and, as a result, choose life, then you are doing your job. ...continue reading...

“If you haven’t anything to say…”

If you haven’t anything to say, you sure as hell better know how to say it.

-Pauline Kael, Politics and Thrills in The New Yorker (1973), excerpted from The Age of Movies.

Filed under anti-inspiration?

More daring and more sincere

My taste, I mean if I had to pick one movie, which I would  never want to do, I keep thinking about “La Strada,” because there’s such a total commitment to those people and the movie never puts itself above any of the people in it. It’s a very Franciscan approach to the drama, and to me that’s very beautiful.

[Author] George Eliot said “the purpose of art is to extend our sympathies” which I think is very beautiful. Kubrick wished all movies were “more daring and more sincere.” A lot of directors today are focusing on what is daring, but are not really focused on what is sincere. ...continue reading...

The joy of breaking a story

I’m not a mathematician but I like to think that breaking a story is like is like solving a mathematical proof, one that hasn’t been solved before.

Same concept, but not as difficult. Math is harder than writing.

When I start, I have an idea of where I want to go with it. It might be one scene that I’ve been playing in my head, something that hasn’t found a home in a larger story yet. I have about a half dozen of these at any given time. I know them so well that I have names for them like “the trunk scene” or “the park bench scene” or the “suicidal check-in scene.” They’re orphan scenes, waiting to find a home in the right script.

Or it starts with some characters or a concept or just something I want to play with (con artists, jewel thieves, a quixotic adventure across Chicago in a day, etc.).

Eventually, a couple pieces fit together and I can see that there’s a story there. Then the hard part is building it out so it’s a full movie. Sometimes the middle shows up first and it’s about breaking the beginning and the end. A much harder version is when I have the beginning and end and the middle is the part I can’t grasp yet.

Then for weeks I sit and write ways in and out of it, trying to pull together threads, going down dead-end alleys, writing notes on possibilities. Sometimes I bang my head against the wall for a month and have to put it down — it doesn’t break until I pick it up again a year later and find the missing connection, the way through.

But it’s a wonderful feeling to sit down every morning and work around the problem until one day it clicks and the floodgates open and the story just pours out. For me, the two hard parts of writing a feature are this part (breaking the story) and then rewriting it to actually make it good. The middle part, the first draft and the core action/dialogue usually comes out pretty easily. It’s easy to tell a good story poorly. Rewriting is about telling a good story well.

But breaking it is always the most rewarding part. With each little piece that falls into place, there’s a click, a feeling of pure joy. Sometimes it’s days and days of “no, no, no, no, no” and then one day there’s a “yes” and things click and I know I have something real.

I think it’s like what solving a mathematical proof would be like because there’s a suspense to it (like in a good story). There’s always the chance that it will never click. That I’ll spend months on it and it will never break. There’s real fear there (to steal a line from the amazing Toni Erdmann, which I saw last night) and I think that’s what makes this exciting work.

I find that it helps to have a few scripts in the pipeline and to write every day. When I write every day, writer’s block isn’t an excuse to stop. It just means it’s time to put one script away for now and work on another.