Writing Advice From 'Hunger Games' & 'Captain Phillips' Screenwriter Billy Ray
When writing a script, there is absolutely nothing worse than staring at an empty page. For some, the blank screen blues come from a terrible case of writer's block, but more often than not, it has more to do with struggling to maintain a firm grasp of the direction of your story. Screenwriter Billy Ray, who wrote films such as The Hunger Games and Captain Phillips, has shared a few screenwriting tips, covered by Film Independent, that may help you solidify your narrative and get that blinking cursor moving steadily down the page.
The trick I pull on myself every Wednesday to ensure I spend a significant amount of time working on my screenplay is this: I put five hours worth of change in a parking meter. The desire not to waste all of that money gets me semi-voluntarily stranded near the one cafe in town that doesn't offer free WiFi, yet even with all of that uninterrupted, no-nonsense, caffeine fueled time, I often spend it staring at a blank page.
While at a recent workshop for Project Involve Fellows, Ray shared some great screenwriting advice that may be a great help for those suffering from the same problem.
Don't get too precious
I heard this advice for the first time from Guinevere Turner, and it changed my damn life. Too often we jump into a committed relationship with our ideas, plots, and characters before we allow them time to grow and evolve. We smother them -- stealing from them their potential.
Ray talks about this in terms of how some writers become directors to protect their script. He says, "If you come at it from that rigid place, you can't let it breathe," which is absolutely true (though writers wanting to direct doesn't always mean rigidity). It's one thing to be rigid and uncompromising about parts of your screenplay that matter to you with others who try to change it, but while you're still in the process of writing, be nice and loosey-goosey. You're only holding yourself back if you're not open to new ideas -- especially your own.
Use subtext and dilemmas to offer insights into your characters
To me, one of the most cringe-worthy writing tools (shortcuts) is (too much) exposition. Explaining the subtleties of a character through -- a character explaining his/her subtleties is actually taking away the power and impact that character could've had on your audience had subtext or dilemmas been used.
So much more can be said and inferred with a single brow raise than 15 minutes of exposition. Furthermore, using dilemmas as catalysts to get to know your character not only reveals more information about him/her based on their choices, but it offers an opportunity to move the story along with action. Ray says:
The best way to reveal something about a character is to put a dilemma in front of him where he has to make a choice between two things that he values equally.
In this (pretty old) interview with The Dialogue, Ray talks about it more in-depth. The whole interview is great, but this section starts right at 5:00.
Navigate your hero's journey with internal and external problems that serve each other
Every good script has both internal and external goals, fit with their own problems and complexities. In other words, your hero has two problems to solve: one in the physical realm (save the world, get the girl, solve the case) and one in the emotional/mental/spiritual realm (overcome fear, forgive someone, mature).
The two should serve each other in the end -- what holds your hero back internally will hold him back externally and vice versa, as well as what helps your hero internally will help him externally and vice versa. The outer and inner worlds of your character are forever linked within the diegesis. According to the Film Independent article, Ray breaks this idea down thusly: "How did solving the external problem solve the character’s internal problem?" (I would say it works both ways -- How did solving the external problem solve the internal problem?)
Hopefully these tips will help you fill up your pages with crappy, mediocre ideas (remember, don't be precious), then aid you in making those ideas a little better by using more subtext and dilemmas, and then finally let you tie it all up in a nice bow with external and internal problems working to solve the other.
What do you think of Ray's advice? What screenwriting advice has been most helpful to you? Let us know in the comments.
[via Filmmaker IQ]