May 13, 2013

Writer/Director Shane Black Explains Why Screenwriting Never Gets Easier & Why That's a Good Thing

Shane BlackFor those of us who have experienced the throes of screenwriting; from the writer's block, the sleeplessness, to the social awkwardness felt when communicating with people outside of your story world, the message from Writer/Director Shane Black is strangely comforting. After years of writing, bolstering your literary toolbox, and seeing your efforts fail more often than they succeed, Black consoles us with the promise that it never gets any easier -- but that's a good thing.

Considered one of the pioneer screenwriters of the action genre, Black found initial success with Lethal WeaponHis melancholic and edgy style as well as his knack for character development is imprinted on his works like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang  and The Long Kiss Goodnight. recent Film School Rejects article describes his presumption in his early years that screenwriting gets easier after you finish your first screenplay. Black says:

Here’s what I didn’t know when I was starting out that I now know -- I thought when you were starting out it was really hard to write because you hadn’t broken in yet, you hadn’t really hit your stride yet. What I found out paradoxically is that the next script you write doesn’t get easier because you wrote one before. . . each one gets harder by a factor of 10.

New writers approach their work with vigor and dauntless optimism, and may be convinced in the beginning that even if  it seems impossible to finish a script, let alone a good one, eventually the tools you pick up as time goes on will serve to make the entire process a little easier.

But, according to Black, that's not the case. It's not a matter of "getting on a roll" or "being in the zone," because even if you're a great screenwriter, the craft itself is merciless. Even the best writers fall into slumps and have to confront massive writer's block. However, the joy of screenwriting doesn't come from its ease, but its difficulty.

And part of why writers come back to their work time and time again -- even if they feel like they can't find something to say -- is the hope of being able to dive back into the world they started to create -- to meet with the characters they've come to love and relate to. And that's just it -- it's more difficult to write something when you've lost your passion for the project.

Black describes when he applied for the Academy of Motion Pictures, and was denied a membership for his "lack of substantive work":

I thought, 'Man, people must hate me if they are not going to let me in their club after I’ve made six movies.’ So it was strange. It was almost as if writing movies had given people one more reason to hate me, or dislike or resent me. And I just want to tell a story -- I think in the back of my mind I was thinking, ‘I’m going to show them, I’m not going to write an action picture. I’m going to show them I can do more.’

And he attempted to do so. He tried his hand at writing a romantic comedy to convince others that he was serious about screenwriting. When fellow screenwriter James Brooks (Terms of EndearmentAs Good As It Getsapproached him after reading several pages of his new project, Brooks knew something was amiss:

He said, 'You know, really like what you are doing but it’s wandering.' I said, 'I know, I feel like I’m sort of at sea, I’m not on quite familiar ground.' He said maybe it was because I was trying to take too much of a leap from action pictures when part of the charm of my work was melancholy and edginess.

Shane Black 2There are some writers who can transcend genre or master several of them, but for the most part, I think most tend to play to their strengths. It's easy to see the projects that get optioned, get made, and sell tickets at the box office, and it's even easier to turn towards those approaches in times of test. But, Black says don't do it:

Brooks said he always pictured me doing something like Chinatown which was character driven with a lot of twists. I thought, 'Okay, that’s what I’ve been doing wrong.' What I really wanted to write was a murder mystery with romance in it. The edge was coming off this romantic piece and rendering it vicious and distasteful, and it wasn’t funny -- I should have written what I felt like writing.

Screenwriting is a lot like life -- it's hard -- and it will never be easy. The muscles you strengthen to run a marathon don't make the race any shorter, but at least you know what it takes to finish. According to many screenwriters, that's all you need to focus on -- finishing.

Black shows us that it's easy to lose your way when pressure is put on you to conform to what's popular -- and some may not mind the change. For those that do, however, returning to what you know, embracing your unique perspective, and reinforcing your signature style is sometimes all it takes to gain perspective and return to your work.

It may never be easy, and eventually it's going to kill you, but the journey is always worth it.

What are your experiences screenwriting? How do you deal with the challenges that you face while writing a script?

Link: 6 Filmmaking Tips from Shane Black -- Film School Rejects

Your Comment

18 Comments

This is why many screenwriters in Hollywood do adaptations, rewrites, and script doctoring. It is a guaranteed pay check and it is much easier than coming up with a story from scratch. Most studios and production companies own a vast library of material that can be adapted.

And right now it works. In 2011 all of the top 10 highest grossing films were adaptations or remakes, mostly from series that started in 2001. (http://www.shortoftheweek.com/2012/01/05/has-hollywood-lost-its-way/) Working this way takes some of the edge off the pressure of writing as the world and characters are already established.

Even original screenplays are usually edited multiple times by a number of writers who do not get film credits. And original content in Hollywood sometimes has suspicious origins (http://www.cracked.com/article_19443_7-classic-movies-you-didnt-know-wer...)

Film is a very expensive medium and writers are usually not entrusted with the artistic vision of the story. Writer-directors seem to be the only group who can really pull off original content right now and thanks to new technology they can do it at much lower budgets. That is why I follow this blog. I also follow the scriptshadow blog to read and discuss other screenplays. It is very helpful.

For my own writing I find that the most helpful tool is simplifying and clarifying the idea by writing the whole story in one page, one paragraph, and one sentence. Then I need lots of feedback from to know if it is working or not.

May 13, 2013 at 11:40AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Dan

It has little to do with the pressure of writing and more to do with studios not wanting to risk their $. They take a proven commodity and exploit it.

May 13, 2013 at 1:07PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Chris H

Even though Shane Black had some of the hottest spec scripts in history he has become a writing director. Writers in film just do not have much control over what happens to their stories unless they are working closely with a director or producer. Spec scripts are exploited just as much as proven commodities. It is amazing reading original drafts of specs and comparing them to the final script.

There are mediums in Hollywood where writers do have more artistic control. TV is a writers medium where a show creator is often the head writer and is partnered with a non-writing producer. Comedy sitcoms are often rewritten during the shoot with a live audience present so they can test their new jokes.

In TV directors are switched out all the time. If possible they will bring in a really big director to set the mood of the show. David Fincher directing the first couple episodes of Netflix's House of Cards is a good example. But the directors have very little artistic control over the vision of the show and answer to the writers. You will see a lot more original content in TV because new shows are pitched by the writers. It has traditionally been very difficult to move from TV to film but it seems that is changing a little bit.

As for writing rates you can look at the difference in WGA rates for adaptations, rewrites and original screenplays here. I don't think anyone, writers included, are keen to risk their money if they can avoid it. http://www.wga.org/uploadedFiles/writers_resources/contracts/min2011.pdf

May 13, 2013 at 1:34PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Dan

August 31, 2018 at 5:29PM

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No Film School
CEO at Yes Film School
88

great article

May 13, 2013 at 12:17PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Juan Carlos

The article really nails it on the head when it says, 'Finish.' That's all that matters. Skill, resources, talent, etc, it all gets a little clearer, a little better, a litter stronger through time... But not if you don't finish.

As for Shane's comments on being solely a one note writer, I can definitely appreciate the frustration. Not many people know that George Lucas wanted to be a serious art house filmmaker; Scorsese wanted his contemporaries broad appeal, etc, the list goes on.

Do what ya do and do it the best you can. If Kafka wrote Rowling it would be dreadfully off target (albeit an interesting thought). If Asimov wrote Campbell it wouldn't work.

On a personal note, my own film pushed me into an 'identity' of being 'serious', 'mature' and 'patient' as a director.... I've made one film. One. And now these buzzwords are already annoying me because I don't wanna be ONLY those things. When a producer tries to convince you you're THIS or THAT it can be really paralyzing. I'm rambling now. So my post here is...

Finished. ;)

May 13, 2013 at 3:51PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Thanks, guys. Great article. This is exactly what I needed to read this evening (currently working on a very difficult rewrite). Really inspiring stuff.

May 13, 2013 at 5:04PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Will

If he thinks it's harder to write by a factor of 10 additional works he is
wrong. He just never understood his own work.
Looking outward to the Academy and James Brooks...hmmm.
Stephen King never had this problem and very prolific.

May 13, 2013 at 5:45PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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sammy

Sammy, it's different for everyone. This is his particular outlook. How can he be wrong?

May 13, 2013 at 8:59PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Matt

Because once you know how to make a cardboard box you can make a thousand.
Stephen King knows how to make a cardboard box. It's ok...Shane Black is still learning.

May 14, 2013 at 1:37PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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sammy

King is a novelist! That is an entirely different ball game. It takes far less precision (but far more literary finesse) to write a novel than a screenplay. There are also none of the practical pressures of production in novel-writing.

May 18, 2013 at 3:04AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Z

would an american version of the battle of algeirs work today? the original did surprising well at the box office with undocumented playing the part of algerians in todays world they would have to be killed but can't kill back but just have to take it.

May 14, 2013 at 1:49AM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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terry Choate

Iron Man 3 is a "crash movie" (Susan Sarandon's spot-on description of the genre), but it would have been a better crash movie with a better script. So I agree with Sammy's comment, above -- "Shane Black is still learning."

May 16, 2013 at 4:38PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Scott

Stephen King might be a terrific novelist who doesn't have a problem with being prolific. But he is not a very good screenwriter. In fact, he's a rather awful screenwriter. Writing has little, if anything, to do with the cardboard box analogy.

May 31, 2013 at 1:17PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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State of Siege

I can appreciate his approach and views of the craft. Someone said it early, that most of what we see on the screen these days are rewrites. That bores and disappoints me. Exactly how many Batman and Superman movies can they make? And did we really need a Hangover III? The list goes on. I love originality and much more appreciate the efforts of a writer who started a story from scratch rather than yet another remake of movies that have been out since we were kids. But alas, it is Hollywood and they will rather spend their money on a crappy, established actor or a remake rather than take a chance on something original from someone new.

June 17, 2013 at 7:56PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Skye

After 8 years of screenwriting with zero progress and not being allowed even the slightest input in my work, I reverted to writing novels, and I strongly suggest that other writers out there take it into consideration, too.

August 31, 2013 at 12:25PM, Edited September 4, 11:21AM

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Stefano Pavon

Studios have almost always wanted some sort of established franchise before banking on it; it has just (thanks to the internet) become into awareness with aspiring and followers alike. Reputable/bankable Producers, Directors, even Actors can get some sort of project off the ground and have countless times, often times a team of all three.

The average number of times a major motion picture gets a "fresh set of eyes" on it is 5. Even if it's an A-lister FAVORITE screenwriter just polishing some things up. If one can seriously not handle being re-written, then screenwriting professional is not for you, at least if you ever want to run in the major leagues of it (studios and/or big name production companies)

Understand there is No Absolute Truth to this biz, especially the creative side. All kinds of stories of people making by different and unique ways. It is, more or less, who you know firing in aliment with your proven skill.

May 20, 2014 at 9:06AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

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Tyler L

Shane Black was actually accepted into the Academy thanks to the efforts of one of his sponsors, fellow screenwriter Dale Launer, who wrote a letter decrying the injustice of rejecting one of the best writers in town. Dale took some heat for it, but the Academy soon recanted its initial decision and took Shane in.

Shane's older and most commercial scripts remain a pleasure to read in a time when some of the most commercial scripts are all about hitting plot points and leave you feeling empty when you get to the end.

August 11, 2016 at 10:55AM, Edited August 11, 11:16AM

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