Discipline in Screenwriting

Screenwriting Lecture by Stephen J. Cannell

Photo of Stephen J. Cannell
Hi, welcome to the Stephen J. Cannell writing seminar! My goal here is to share with writers the knowledge, craft points, and, yes, tricks that I have learned in my thirty-five years of writing Television, Movies and Novels.

Before we start, it is important to know that there are rules for good story and screenplay writing that should not be broken. That does not mean they can't be broken. The problem usually comes when you break a rule and you are unaware you are breaking it. If you know the rules and choose to break one for a set of specific reasons -- and you are alert to the problems caused by breaking the rule -- then go ahead and give yourself permission to break it.

Example: When I was writing the pilot of Tenspeed and Brownshoe, I realized, while designing the story, that I was not going to be able to bring my two heroes together until more than halfway through the script. I was writing a "buddy" comedy, so this would appear to be a major structural flaw. On the other hand, I felt that in order to maximize the comedy in the relationship, a full examination of each character was necessary before throwing them both in the barrel together. I knew before I started writing the teleplay that I had designed this "flaw" into the script. But I had a solution that I thought would work. It was incumbent on me to make sure that I entertained the hell out of my audience with each of my character's antics before bringing them together. I reasoned that if I could do this, maybe I could have it both ways. I wrote the script, which turned out to be one of my best (Writers Guild Award for best TV Drama, Long Form, 1981). In fact, it was this broken rule that made the script so enjoyable. There is nothing wrong with breaking the rules as long as you understand why you are doing it. Don't break them out of ignorance.

That being said, let's get to it

"How can I get to that damned machine?"

The hardest thing for most writers to do is to WRITE. Many writers I know hate writing, but love having written. The reason for this is that we often put the need on ourselves to be "brilliant." After all, this stuff is going to be studied in universities long after we die. People will be quoting lines for untold centuries: "Out, out damned spot!" "To be or not to be." Since this is the standard we have set, we reason, "I have to be perfect," and secondarily, "I sure don't want to suffer a bad review. If it's not perfect, I'll die of embarrassment." Yada-yada-yada.

Of course, no one is perfect. We're all flawed and, deep down, even the most egotistical of us knows that we have big holes in our character we're still working on. So, if we're not perfect, how in blazes are we going to write perfectly? This dilemma is what causes writer's block. We can't get that first word on the page because we know, in our hearts, that it is being written by an imperfect being and it most likely won't be brilliant. So, what happens? We stall. We procrastinate. We don't write. So, how do we solve this?

Stephen J. Cannell's Rule Number One:
Give Yourself Permission to be Bad

Every great writer who's ever lived has, on occasion, written garbage (in my case it happens all the time). It's okay to write garbage. You're a good critic, you'll fix it later. Shakespeare wrote garbage, Hemingway wrote garbage, Faulkner wrote garbage. It is okay. Every writer has bad days, or a day when he or she isn't connecting with the material. A day when, unknown to us, the story we are writing or the characters we created have been improperly designed. When this happens, writing becomes a struggle. That doesn't mean you've lost your muse or that you're a creative burnout. It just means that you have a problem in your story structure or with character motivation. Something is dishonest that seemed okay when you set it up. Rewriting is part of the process. Most writers plot with their heads and write with their hearts. Sometimes that causes unintended dishonesty. You start to push to make it happen. It feels forced -- you freeze and your creative fire starts to gutter and burn low. You say, "I'm outta here. Time to go to the beach."

Don't go! Stay right where you are. Start asking yourself a few questions. Put yourself in the place you've designed for your principle characters. Ask yourself, "If this was really my problem, would I do what I'm saying this character is doing? Would I say what he or she's saying?" If the answer is "no," start redesigning; get out of your head-plotting demeanor and deal with your emotions.

My favorite story dishonesty (which I see constantly) is where the hero is in trouble, but doesn't seek police help because then the police would solve the case. Then there there would be nothing left for the hero to do, and the story is wrecked. You can't let this flawed logic stand. You've got to redesign. Put the hero's fingerprints on the murder weapon; he's now wanted by the cops, so he can't go to them.

Why is this problem so common?

Because we are pushing story points around on our chessboard without regard to what the character would be thinking and feeling.

Once I had this problem TV script early in my writing career. I had a character that was being threatened with murder by a mob boss, and he met with the mob boss to discuss it. He wanted to know why this "mob hitter" had a contract out on him.

I wrote the scene and it sucked.

I wrote it again and it sucked.

I gave the hero a bad cold to make him more interesting (with attitude), "This damn cold, I can't breathe."

I wrote it again... sucked.

Something wasn't right at the core. Finally, I said, "What would I do if I was this guy?" Answer: I wouldn't sit there asking dumb questions, like why are you trying to kill me? I'd be pissed. I had left out the anger. The scene was dishonest and my heart told me it was. So, I hated everything I was writing. Once I wrote it with the correct emotion, it was fine.

All of this, and many other factors that cause bad writing make us afraid to sit down at the keyboard. Writing then becomes a sporadic endeavor. Fear of failure provides lack of effort.

Trust me, it's okay to write garbage. You can learn from bad writing. Don't try to be brilliant; it's a standard that you most likely will never attain, and if you're trying to be brilliant, the most common by-product isn't brilliance, it's pretentiousness.

Writing is not that hard. Make up a good story, then let it flow. Leave the brilliant work to the dead.

The only other thing I want to say about getting ready to write is that it is very important to write at the same time every day. Two hours at the minimum.

Writer friends of mine sometimes alibi, "I can't do that, I have a job driving a truck. I gotta be at work at eight." Okay then, get up at four. Write from five to seven, then go to work.

You have to make a place in your day for this activity or it will NEVER happen. The one great thing about writing is that you will always improve! With each script, short story or novel, you'll get slightly better. The ones you write next year will be better than the ones you wrote this year. Keep going and your talent will grow, but you have to be at the keyboard for that to happen.

Screenwriting Lecture by Stephen J. Cannell
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