Category Archives: Screenwriting Tips

Word Crimes!

10 Tips to Write the Hollywood Blockbuster

Tony Gilroy is one of my all time favorite Hollywood screenwriters. Responsible for the scripts for no less than four of the Bourne Identity films, Gilroy also penned one of my favorite films, Michael Clayton, starring George Clooney – in which a character says “People are incomprehensible.” – a bit of wisdom that I have never forgotten.

In this interview with the BBC from 2013, Gilroy gives ten tips for both screenwriters and creatives that are very valuable. From trusting your instinct to living your life to living where you need to live to feel creatively fulfilled. It’s good stuff.

The Tel Aviv Writer’s Salon: Antagonists

The Tel Aviv Writer’s Salon is a weekly writing group that has been getting together for over a year now. Each week we meet, discuss a writing related topic designed simply to get us writing. We often laugh very, very hard, causing mild alarm in the cafe, as we share our work after we’ve written. Probably because of my deeply embedded need to laugh, the prompts usually generate comedy. But not always.

At the end of the session, after we’ve laughed til we’ve cried and maybe just cried because we’ve cried and paid for our coffee and left the cafe with hugs and promises to meet next week, I send the writers written notes from the discussion. It’s not all fun and games, there is a serious element as well. I mean – okay a little. Somewhat. We like to laugh, what can I say? Why should writing or discussing writing be so deadly serious all the time?

And by the way, if you are reading this blog and you are in high tech, if you are an entrepreneur and creative, taking some creative writing classes can really awaken a side of yourself that you draw upon, every day. Trust me on this.

I thought I’d share last week’s discussion as it pertains to screenwriters every bit as much if not more than prose writers!

Writing the Antagonist Discussion Notes

We’ve talked a lot about main characters and how your character should have some kind of arc – toward realization or change – even if it’s just slight change.

In The Death of Ivan Ilych, by Tolstoy, veritably the whole story is told from the bed of a dying man, as he nears inevitable death and howls against its clutches. In the very end – he comes to a realization and he finds peace. It is one of my favorite short novels and you should definitely be familiar with it.

But antagonists don’t generally change. They are consumed by their very badness, their need to get what they want at ALL costs.

Think of villains we are all familiar with – the Wicked Witch of the West from the Wizard of Oz, The evil queen in Snow White, any bad guy in any action movie – they get punished in the end. Every time. wicked

But what makes an antagonist particularly memorable? Not necessarily the method of their madness, or their m.o., but the details about them and more than that – their unfettered, logical believe in what they are doing.

The villains I just mentioned – wicked witches and the like – are by design two dimensional characters that are more symbolic than anything else. Of course they don’t change.

I was lucky enough to see Wicked, the brilliant backstory of The Wicked Witch of the West, in which we find out just what drove her over the edge. But that was not part of Baum’s original vision and it needn’t have been.

In Chronicle, an AMAZING sci-fi film that I cannot recommend enough, we actually watch a good guy turn into a bad guy and we see the causality between his experience, his new found powers and his rage.

As we’ve discussed before, every character has some kind of back story and it really depends on what you are writing, how much you need to point to it or bring it out.

If you are writing an action film called, say, Die Hard, and your bad guy wants MONEY and POWER – the medium doesn’t really call for asking WHY Hans Gruber (played brilliantly by Alan Rickman) needs power. Why? Because this is a Hollywood action film – focus on the word ACTION and we find that really, the focus in on how the hero overcomes the bad guy – period. hansgruber

In 3:10 to Yuma, the bad guy, Ben Wade, played by Russell Crowe, is a different shade of bad guy. He is intelligent, and we get the sense, through his actions later in the script, that he has a touch of cowboy/noble ethics at the end of the day. The laws of the wild west include earning RESPECT and Ben Wade gets that and winds up making a decision that surprises us.

Sometimes bad guys are just thoroughly psychotic and bad – which is fun and can serve a purpose. Cruella DeVille comes to mind. Who cares WHY this psycho wants a fur coat made of Dalmation puppy skins?

But then other antagonists come out of various books and movies like Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. Truly one of cinemas most memorable villains and why? Because he was refined, intelligent, almost charming. He plays the main character, Clarice’s foil – he isn’t the bad guy we are really after, no, that’s complete psycho Buffalo Bill – but Lecter serves a fascinating purpose, as both mentor, shapeshifter and villain in the film.

In one small moment, when Lecter is in his jail cell, speaking again to Clarice, taunting here, we see just briefly – you’d have to pause the film – that he is reading a German Vogue.

An antagonist is a necessary component of your story, no? Your main character has to have some embodiment of their challenges, someone who is thwarting their desires.

Every character has a backstory – even if it isn’t explicit. And so does your antagonist. The question is whether to make the back story explicit or implicit.

The genre you are writing and the medium as well, supply the answers to this question. What gets the highest entertainment value but also keeps the story focused on the main character and his or her arc?

An antagonist can be a fun opportunity to show off your writing chops – why have a boring old psychopath when you could have Annie Wilkes, from Misery?

Who can forget this moment? 

Notice that Annie has no problem hobbling and imprisoning her captive, James Caan, but she doesn’t curse.

The antagonist is a significantly important character in any story. You can emphasize or de-emphasize according to the genre and the medium. hannibal

Today we are going to emphasize the antagonist – the character with some kind of injurious backstory (explicit or implicit) with a definite ax to grind – something that your main character is in the way of.

Don’t forget – the antagonist has a point of view too. To them – THEY are the main character and your main character is THEIR antagonist.  They are the hero of their story – they may be thwarted or they may not. Either way, they definitely have some logic, some villain code that they go by – a belief system in what they are doing and how they are doing it.

This means, as you write, that you’ll need to write a heroic character, a nice guy – who is in the moral right – but who stands in the way of the antagonist/main character you are writing.  Have fun with it!

If you’d like to try some of the writing prompts for that evening’s session,

If you live in the Tel Aviv area (or beyond) and would like to join us, please join up our Facebook group and sign up for the next class. You’ll be in very good company. 

Your Meeting Isn’t About YOU

“If a story is not about the hearer, he will not listen.”

~ John Steinbeck

This great American author was talking about literature in this quote but really, this quote applies to just about all conversation. We pay special attention when what we are hearing concerns US in some way, right? bored

Have you ever endured having someone talk AT you rather than WITH you?

It’s exhausting. I hold that two of the most terrifying words in the world are:

…and THEN…

Oh no, you think to yourself… there’s more… does this person not get that they lost my attention?

Your pitch meeting is not all about YOU. It is about the person listening too, isn’t it? It’s about getting them as excited as you are about your story – be it a new horror script you’ve written or a new smart phone application you’ve invented. This is ultimately a sales meeting, no?

A pitch – or any meeting, really – is not a one-way street.

Your pitch is really a conversation between you and someone else. Yes, a conversation in which you are giving information but you are indeed speaking to another human being, so act like it. No taking a big breath and just speed talking your way through your presentation. Slow down.

There are two important things to think about:

Learn to speak in a way that never allows the listener to wander out of the conversation and keep pretending to hear anyway.

Learn how to recognize when you’ve lost someone’s attention and how to bring the person BACK to the present moment.

The best way to really illustrate this point, I think, is to put yourself in the shoes of somebody who is listening to a pitch or presentation that isn’t executed all that well. How does it feel to be bombarded with information, to be talked AT and not to? Of course you tune out a little bit. And think about this: if you are taking a meeting with someone pitching or presenting, this is probably something you do a lot. So it can get old.

There is a paradox if you are a listener in these situations. First, you get jaded, you hear “great” stories and ideas and pitches all the time. But usually they aren’t that great.

But – here comes the paradox – you also don’t want to be the person who said “no” to something that turned out to be great, now do you? That’s a straight path to losing your job. So you’re torn. You want to love this idea but you get meeting fatigue. And most people pitching do a pretty terrible job, whether their idea is great or not.

But you, the person pitching – this is a big chance, right?! It’s huge! It could launch your company, make your innovation come to life, start a writing career! So your job is to not only pitch what you’re pitching well – but to do so in a way that is memorable and engaging for the listener.listening



Screenwriting Video Tutorial: Jumping in Late

What exactly does “jumping in late” mean in your script?

It means get to the point already! It’s easy to think that if a man walks into the kitchen, to get coffee, that we must literally show his every move. We don’t. Movies don’t work with normal time. We can jump in to the scene to get to the meat of what happens.

See if this video tutorial helps make that clearer for you.