Screenwriting For Standup Comics
And so I continue this month my hypothetical tour through the
writing work available to standups who come to LA. Or I should
say available in theory, as the very idea of "work"
in LA is often something held out in front of starving comics
like a golden carrot on an ever-lengthening stick. Be
that as it may...
So far in this series I've talked about writing for other comics.
I've talked about writing for a joke service. Still to come are
writing for specialty shows (re: Letterman, Hollywood squares),
and writing for sitcoms. This month, I'll take to the skies and
write about writing film. And maybe in the process I'll help you
shorten the stick and get a piece of the carrot. Or, more likely,
I'll inadvertently convince you that you can do this, so you move
your entire family here, watch the financial hangman bring the
noose closer and closer to your quivering windpipe, and then
decide the best thing to do is start hunting me down for ruining
your life. Or you get filthy rich and forget it was me who told
Either rosy scenario, let's begin.
* * * * * * * *
If you are a standup who thinks he has an idea for a film,
or that you would like to write screenplays, or are even currently
writing a screenplay, let's start at the beginning. It's a
cliché that everyone in Hollywood has a script. But the cliché
is incomplete if you leave it like that. It should say everyone
in Hollywood has a bad script. A horrible script. A script so
revolting that reading it actually lowers your IQ and injures
your soul. 98 per cent of all scripts ever written are absolute garbage.
Why? Because people all over the world sit down to write
screenplays without any training or any conscious idea of what
makes a good screenplay. Unlike acting, or directing, or
producing, or even any of the technical positions involved
in making films, anyone on earth can sit down and write a
screenplay all by themselves. They don't need permission,
don't need to be hired, don't need anyone else to help them.
This system creates a massive clot of horrendous failure. I
was a reader for the Austin Film Festival a couple of years
ago, and they received 4,000 scripts (at $40 a pop) from amateur
writers from all over the world, people who had written a full-length
screenplay but had never sold anything. I read over 150 scripts
that year. They were so bad I felt physically punished for having
to read them. I couldn't read more than three pages on most of
them because they were so boring, so banal, so unclever, so
unlikable, so ignorant, so baaaaad. I passed three onto the
next round. And none of those was ever going to be made into
a movie, it was just that the person who wrote them wasn't a
total idiot and I felt like encouraging them in whatever way
It is not hard to write a screenplay. It is extremely hard to
write a solid, functional screenplay. It is a stroke of God
to write a great, inspired screenplay.
Here is what it takes to write a good or a great screenplay.
First, realize that a screenplay is actually two things: it
is a great story, and it is a great story told in a very
particular way called "film."
Great stories are about wrenching emotion, life transformation,
irony and fate, intense and unforgettable characters, high
stakes, life and death, spectacular happenings, unpredictable
twists. Filmic storytelling is about visuality, excellent
dialogue, hyper-active scenes, psychological effect, act-based
structure, subtext, physical sensation, acting possibility,
In other words, it's all a lot more complex than it looks.
I used to tell people that just because a standup makes
comedy look easy, that doesn't mean it is. Same thing here:
just because you can sit in a theater and follow along with a
movie, don't think it's easy to create a movie. Going from
being a consumer of film to being a creator of film is like
learning how to build your house instead of just living in
your house. Just living in it doesn't mean you know squat
about building it, no matter how familiar you are with the
Lucky for you, I teach screenwriting at a major public
university (which means, of course, that I know everything).
I'm going to throw at you a very fast and incomplete primer
on becoming a great screenwriter. Or at least on avoiding
being a horrible, misdirected, time-wasting, wretch of a
screenwriter. Remember there are dozens of full-length books
on screenwriting (most of them suck by the way, except the
ones I'll recommend at the end of this article), so don't
expect all of this to make sense.
* * * * * * * *
I break screenwriting into four areas: the intellectual,
the creative, the professional, and the business. You might
be able to survive if you master any of these four. It sure
helps to have all of them. Because there are four different
demand areas, most professional writing is done by teams or
by committee. A massively creative person to generate an
unending stream of ideas and material, an intellectual person
to structure those ideas and material into a coherent script,
a marathon worker who is professional enough to do this day
after day after day in a disciplined way, and a sales guy to
pitch and sell the ideas, treatments, and scripts. It's rare
that one person is able to do all areas well.
I don't have the time or energy to go over all four areas here,
but I'll go over a little about the intellectual side of
screenwriting so you can get an idea of how this works.
This is the area that is my strength as a writer, so hopefully
I can make it make sense here.
* * * * * * * *
The intellectual in the screenwriting process is the person who
understands story, understands film structure, understands
creative process, professional habits, and business practices.
They are the critic, the theorist, the pattern-seer, the one
who keeps the train cruising along on the proper track.
The first idea an intellectualist needs is to realize that
stories are natural to human beings. We are as philosopher
Kenneth Burke said, "the storytelling animal."
We can't stop ourselves from telling each other stories.
"This morning this guy in a black SUV cut me off on the
highway, and he wasn't even looking because he was on his
cell phone, and I could see he was like this corporate a-hole
in his perfect white shirt and red tie, so I reached under my
seat for my gun, you know, just to scare him for one minute of
his perfect day..."
A story is an ordered sequence of events designed to affect
a listener. We tell people stuff, in an organized way,
because we want them to understand our lives, our experiences,
and we want them to experience what we experienced. The only
true goal of any story is to have an effect on those you tell
it to. It's not to "express" your inner life. It's
not to be an "artist working in the storytelling medium."
It's not even to make money. It's to affect an audience.
Remember that, because it's going to be very important to you
if you want to do this stuff and be good at it.
Stories are told in many formats, including in conversations,
in short stories, novels, songs, video, commercials, on
billboards, on TV shows, etc. Each of those mediums is
different, and each has its own different demands for doing
it well. If you want to learn to tell good stories, you have
to learn how to tell the story according to the demands of the
medium you choose. For example, telling someone a story in
conversation usually means you've got a very tiny amount of
time before they get bored. So we keep oral stories concise,
leave out a lot of detail, and just tell the absolute essential
and most interesting stuff.
Film storytelling is unique, full of very precise structures
and techniques that make it work. To begin with, there are
different types of film story. The profitable one, the one
Hollywood wants, the one that dominates the world culture
market, is Mainstream American Film.
Mainstream American Film (MAF) is a very particular way of
telling a story. It is a set of structures and techniques
that have been developed in Hollywood over the past century,
and which when done well are amazingly effective at creating
high audience satisfaction. Audiences gladly pay to see MAF.
They love it.
Because of audience love, Mainstream American Films make huge
amounts of money. If you are good at writing them, you get
paid huge amounts of money. Which is why most professional
writers try to write MAF. Writing non-mainstream film, or
indie films, or art films, or documentaries, or character
studies, or audience niche films, or avante garde films, or
intellectually meandering films, or postmodern films, or
European tragedy films, means you aren't going to make the
kind of money you could in MAF.
I will now give you two of the essential foundations of
all MAF. Just to tease you into thinking you can do it.
Or maybe to keep you from making the huge mistakes that
nearly all screenwriter-wanna-bees make.
There is a master structure, a basic pattern or foundation,
which underlies all Mainstream American film.
A central character we care about has a single, intense,
undeniable want. She is in a situation that makes it
interesting/difficult for her to get what she wants.
She tries to get what she wants, but goes about it the
wrong way because she has some inner flaw that we all can
tell needs to be healed. She finally does something moral
that heals her inner flaw, and thus she is rewarded with
the thing she wanted, in an even grander form than she
That's the pattern.
In "Pretty Woman" she is a hooker who desperately wants a
better life for herself. She won't connect with men (won't
kiss on the lips), so her fear of love, of being hurt, is
her flaw. When she finally admits to Richard Gere that she
loves him even if he doesn't love her (a very moral thing to
do), when she kisses him, her inner flaw is healed. And her
true love for him makes him love her, so he marries her and
gives her a quality of life grander than she ever dreamed.
This form of winning through self-transformation is a deeply
satisfying story structure for human beings. It grabs us by
the heart and makes us want to be like what we've seen. It
affects us. Deeply, on a raw, elemental level.
So get this structure into your mind and use it if you want
to write a marketable, sellable screenplay. A character who
wants something, in a situation that makes it difficult to
get, and who achieves their goal by transforming themselves
into something better than they were.
That's what Mainstream American Film are: characters we
like win against tremendous odds because they make moral
choices that transform them.
If you write something outside of that, you aren't writing
Here's a second element of MAF: every Mainstream American
Film has a love story. Every single one. Even if they have
to graft one on.
For example, "Castaway" was a movie about a guy trying to get
off an island, but they glued on an opening and ending
chick-flick sequence about his "lost love."
"Titanic" was about a big piece of metal dropping to the
ocean floor, but for someone reason it focused on some
she-boy and his hot soul mate. If you say, "The
"Shawshank Redemption" didn't have a love story,"
I'll point out that it ended with the two main characters
meeting up on a perfect island beach, under a blue sky,
and that I'm sure they kissed after the cameras stopped
rolling. Love story just means intense love relationship
between two characters, not always sex.
Why do all MAF's have love stories? Well, what do you
spend most of your life looking for? Great love. It
may manifest itself in sex, but it's still a search for
love. It's so basic to human beings that we will actually
die for it.
And... chicks dig love stories. If you don't have a love
story, you fail to offer half your audience the main element
they want in their stories. And if you remember me saying
stories are about affecting an audience, you suddenly begin
to realize that in a mass medium it's just stupid to not have
a love story because it lowers your chances of affecting a
huge portion of the paying audience.
That's about all I can do here for now. I apologize to the
non-thinkers who have had to barrel through this intellectualized
intro to film. But you can see why a thinker-- someone who
really understands how film is supposed to work-- might be "essential" to creating a good film. If you
don't have a thinker, or if you are cursed with a
"pseudo-thinker" who believes they understand
film when they don't, you're up a creek, adrift, lost
down the river of horrible films to come, my friend.
If you are still interested in this stuff after I've
intellectualized it, check out these screenwriting books.
"Making Good Scripts Great," by Linda Seeger.
Bible," by David Trottier. "The Hero's Journey,"
by Chris Vogler.
"The Art of Dramatic Writing," by Lejos Egri.
"The Poetics," by
Aristotle. "The Hero With a Thousand Faces,"
by Joseph Campbell.
And the best book ever written on screenwriting, "Story," by
Maybe I'll come back in a few months and go over the other
aspects of screenwriting that could be useful to you. For now,
I'm off to celebrate Easter by watching professional sports on