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DAN FRENCH has an M.A. in Rhetoric, and a Ph.D. in Media Studies, but don't let that fool you. And he still hasn't mailed us an 8 X 10.

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Dan French

The original "What Works"
"Tom Kenney"

"Inside the Box, Pt. II"
TV Development

"Whose Line is it Anyway?"
French's gag in a Quote-A-Crostic!

"Inside the Box, Pt. I"
TV Programming

"Your Showcase Set"
How to craft an L.A.-ready set

"The Clogged Drain of Comedy"
Who belongs on the stage? Comedy in L.A.

Why move to L.A.?

"Good Side/Bad Side"
What does comedy mean to a culture, post-911?

What should a manager do?

"Standup on TV"
What does TV want?

"Cash for Words"
Writing for dollars

"Stoking the Joke Machine"
Writing for a living

"Screenwriting for Standup Comics"
Just what it says

"Random Realizations"
Wisdom born of experience

Casting Season in L.A.

"Ladies & Gentlemen: A Job"
Working at Best Damn Sports Show Period

"LA Freefall for All"
It happens to everyone: Freefall!

"Hollywood or Bust"
How to change to succeed in L.A.

"How Edgy"
Column #2

"How Hip"
Column #3

"Who Writes Your Stuff?"
Why don't comics ask for help?

"The Art of Standup"
What would we gain by "turning up the art"

"Christmas Wish List"
Holiday column

"Getting Exercised"
A writing exercise

"High Octane"
Road vs. L.A., Monologist vs. Performer

"Inside the Box, Pt. I"
Television Programmers

"Inside the Box, Pt. II"
Television Production and Development

"Castle Breached"
Working at Late Late Show, Network television gig!

"I Like LA"
The third of five columns on writing comedy for money

"Hollywod Carousel"
Between BDSSP and Late Late Show, what I learned


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 you how.

Either rosy scenario, let's begin.

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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 I could.

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, suspense creation.

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 place.

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 envisioned it.

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 MAF. Sorry.

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. "The Screenwriter's 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 Robert Mckee.

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 television. HOME Back to the Top