Question and Answer Session (Part II)

from Screenwriting Lecture by Stephen J. Cannell

Photo of Stephen J. Cannell
MODERATOR: Claire E. White
SPEAKER: Stephen J. Cannell

MODERATOR Ok, we're back! Our next question is: I was a P.A. on Renegade and would like to ask a question I never asked back then. When you are busy on the set of a show, do you still set aside time each day to write? Do you write every day without fail, or do you take days off, (without feeling guilty)?

STEPHEN J. CANNELL I never to my remembrance wrote while I was acting on Renegade. The reason I didn't do this is that I write from 5:00 AM to 11 or 11:30 AM every day. I have been doing this for twenty-five years. I find that if I write at other times I'm not as good. I believe that it is important to write at the same time every day so that it becomes a habit in your life. If I am doing something else that will not allow for this, such as acting/directing/vacationing etc. Then I don't write and I don't feel guilty. I would imagine that in a year there are probably thirty to forty days that I'm not writing.

MODERATOR Could you please discuss POV in a novel vs. a screenplay scene? For example, if the Rockford pilot was a novel, would you write the first scene from Jerry or Harry's POV?

MODERATOR NOTE: POV is point of view :)

STEPHEN J. CANNELL POV, when it is not being used as what the character sees in a screenplay, relates to which character is telling the story. In Rockford I pretty much told the story through Rockford's eyes. As a result, Jim was in almost every scene: a backbreaking proposition for any actor. Since the detective genre was generally an "I" narrative in novels, I would attempt as much as possible to do an "I" narrative on that show. However, I did take the license of showing you what the heavies were doing occasionally, and would cut to them, usually in acts two and three.

They would only be alone on screen for two or three times in an hour without Rockford being there. I found it a good tool to start our dramas with some precipitating event. This allowed my first act to start with energy. Remember, ACT ONE defines the problem and can be a slow act, if you're not careful. This precipitating event is often a crime committed by the heavies without the hero's presence, e.g., Sara Butler's father is murdered.

If I were doing Rockford as a novel, I would choose one of the characters in scene one. Harry or Jerry and tell the story from his POV either as first person narrative or third person where you can also go into the head of a character and explore his/her thoughts.

MODERATOR How do you map out your stories beforehand? Do you use lists, outlines, 3x5 cards etc.?

STEPHEN J. CANNELL There are numerous ways that writers plot stories physically. I prefer working them out verbally with another writer. Or if I am alone, thinking at my typewriter putting down ideas thoughts, character moves, complications, etc. Then I arrange them into the correct sequence, making a beat sheet which just tells me which scene goes where. I don't want to attempt to write the dialogue or subtextual elements on the beat sheet. It just says: Opening Murder, Rockford hired by Sara, Argument over money, Restaurant, Lunch, Exposition, Bank Calls, Sarah Has No Money etc. I go through each act this way.

Some more on that subject: other writers I know use 3x5 cards which they put on a bulletin board. On the top of the bulletin board they'll put Act One, Act Two, Act Three, Act Four, as a tag. Then they will write cards that they know they will need to tell the story: Opening Murder, Rockford confronts Jerry, etc. Then they will put those cards up on the bulletin board under the act where they belong. For instance, the Opening Murder and the Hiring Scene are obviously Act One moves.

Rockford Confronts Jerry is an Act Two or Act Three move, probably Act Two. It will be put in that column. Then, as more beats are added the scenes change positions inside the acts. Both techniques work very well. Just choose the one that works best for you.

MODERATOR Every producer I have met says he/she is not racist or sexist. But, why are there so few women or minorities on writing staffs in TV? I've seen producers' faces change so many times when I walked in the door and they realized the person who wrote the spec scripts they loves was both black and female. When I got my first staff job, I didn't set foot on the lot until the first day of work for fear they would change their minds if they saw me in person. Comments?

STEPHEN J. CANNELL There is no accounting for how some people think or feel or react. Obviously what has happened to you is criminal. My feeling has always been good writers are the treasures of our business. Some of the best writers I ever worked with are women: Juanita Bartlett, Babs Greyhowsky etc. At one point on my action shows (which were thought to be male oriented), I had 40% of my screenplays written by women. It makes no sense for a producer to punish his or her show over ethnic, racial, or sexual classifications. But people can be strange.

My advice to you is not to get bitter or angry, despite the fact that this is so unfair. Anger and bitterness will only make you less attractive to an employer. Keep smiling, keep punching and you will get where you want to go. I am a white Anglo-Saxon male which puts me in a classification which is favored. However, I also have severe learning disability. I can't spell, I read slowly, I flunked three grades before I got out of high school and was probably the least likely of all the people I know to have accomplished what I have. How did it happen that I succeeded? I simply refused to fail.

Racially, again there is no way that we can change the way people think. There are obviously inroads being made but there are fewer African American writers by far than there should be. In the last several years, I'm seeing more and more African American writers. Not only on black half-hours, also in features. Since Hollywood is one of the most liberal communities I believe that good work will WIN in the end.

MODERATOR In a screenplay or teleplay do you feel you have more freedom for omniscience than with novel writing?

STEPHEN J. CANNELL No, I believe it's just the opposite. In a screenplay, everything has to come out of a character's mouth. We have to devise artificial constructs to allow characters to say things to one another that in real life they probably would never say. For instance, in Jerry Maguire, Jerry has to tell Tidwell (Cuba Gooding) something he doesn't want to hear. So the writer has Tidwell bag on Jerry about his relationship with his wife. Jerry gets angry and shouts back, "You want the truth? I'll give you the truth. The reason nobody wants you is you're just a money player. Always complaining etc." The anger allowed him to shout something at Tidwell he otherwise would not have said.

If we were doing this in a novel, all of this would have been easily accomplished by simply having Jerry look at Tidwell and think all these thoughts. That doesn't mean it didn't make a great scene -- it did, but using omniscient author in a novel is one of the great tools of writing unavailable to a screenwriter.

MODERATOR How would you advise an unknown writer with a complete and professionally written script, to market the work? What are the options?

STEPHEN J. CANNELL The first thing that you must do is attempt to get an agent. Again, this is that terrible Catch 22. However, remember all of us, myself included, have faced this problem. Most production companies have a rule that they won't read unsolicited material (not submitted by an agent).

The reason for this is it screens out 99% of the writers -- the theory being if you haven't been able to convince an agent to represent you, you probably aren't very far along in your career. Secondly, agents discourage frivolous lawsuits on ideas that are in the public domain. The way to get an agent is to write the WGA (Writers Guild of America) and ask for their list of agents.

They will send you a listing. Start sending your manuscripts out. DON'T BE DISCOURAGED!! These people don't want to represent you. But eventually, somebody will. You have to be persistent. One of the best ways to get an agent is to hang with other writers -- especially in the marketplace -- L.A. and N.Y. Some percentage of your friends who have read your work and know your style will eventually find representation. When that happens, you simply tell your friend, "Get your agent to read my script or I'll kill you!" You'd be surprised how we can help each other over this hard hurdle.

Once you have an agent, things become easier. Your agent is aware of the marketplace who is buying what, what shows are open, what shows are willing to take a chance on new writers -- and now your career can move forward with a little better navigation.

Again, it is very important not to quit on your dream. This is a frustrating period early on. And with no feedback and no encouragement, it's easy to quit. It took me five years. Anybody could be able to beat that.

MODERATOR How much of the backstory for each character do you create before writing a script or a novel?

STEPHEN J. CANNELL The more you know about the backstory about a character, the better off you are. When I have not done adequate work in this area, I'm often stressed to see that my character or characters are shallow. Remember, it is the flaws in a character that make him/her -- not the strengths. You must know those flaws and you must know why the character has them. And this, generally, is part of his/her backstory.

MODERATOR How do you know if an agent is decent, even if he/she is listed?

STEPHEN J. CANNELL You never know exactly who your agent is until you form your relationship. That's why I gave such a long first answer. It's critical to have a positive relationship with an agent. At the beginning, beggars can't be choosers. If Dracula is registered at the WGA as an agent, and is willing to represent you, sign up.

You need to have an agent in order to be considered a professional by this town. If you find that you cannot establish the correct relationship with your agent, then I suppose it's worth looking around for another. It's just, I believe, that you can make your agent into a cheerleader for you if you approach that person correctly. Stay POSITIVE.

MODERATOR Ok, we're back for our final hour with Mr. Stephen Cannell. This last hour we will be focusing on novel writing. When writing a novel, what is your approach? How many drafts? I loved King Con! Did you actually know someone like the con artist hero, Beano Bates?

STEPHEN J. CANNELL The person that I knew like Beano was Jim Rockford. I had written five or six Big Store cons for the Rockford Files, and became familiar with the terminology and methodology of confidence men while writing those episodes. It occurred to me that with the exception of the movie The Sting there were no Big Store Cons in literature and film, to my knowledge.

I believe they are very interesting and entertaining, so I thought it would be fun to write a novel about a Big Store. A Big Store, for those of you who don't know, is a con where you set up an environment that is so big and completely convincing, with hundreds of extras etc. When you walk the victim into the store there is no way that he/she will believe it is just a scam.

The con I used in King Con is a mineral rights scam which involves setting up a phony oil field and a phony oil company in an office building. Selling the mark on the idea that he/she is buying an undiscovered oil field. It was a lot of fun.

I work my novels out very completely before I start writing. In the case of Riding the Snake I actually spent a week after I had plotted the three acts and wrote a 70 page narrative only for me.

The purpose of writing this was to make sure that the story I had structured was solid. When you write a 70 page presentation narrative you will definitely find story holes, if they exist. The reason I do this is that my process requires daily forward momentum. I want to write a chapter a day, ten pages. I don't want to end up in a situation where I have to throw away half-a-dozen chapters because my story was ill-conceived.

As far as drafts are concerned, I write chapter one, send it to my assistant to be retyped Then the next morning I read that ten to fifteen pages and do a pencil revision. Then I send it back to be retyped into the computer and I write chapter two, which is another ten to fifteen pages.

The next morning I get up, I read chapters one and two, do pencil revisions, send them back and write chapter three. The following morning, I leave chapter one behind, pencil revise chapters two and three and write chapter four. I continue in this fashion for ten to fifteen days, at which point I should have 150 pages of what I will now call the Rough Draft. Even though I have been through each chapter twice, heightening, brightening etc. Then I leave the novel for awhile, maybe a week or two. I write a TV script, a movie, do research. When I come back, I read the 150 pages in one sitting.

It surprises me sometimes what I've done! Then I continue with the same process; three fifteen-day sessions should get me a 450 page First Draft manuscript. Then I go into the next stage, which is rewriting any problems that I see and doing close hand edits. I also put the book out to two or three people whose opinions I trust to read and give feedback.

Then I begin the second draft, utilizing the notes I feel are valid. I polish and polish and polish until I think I have on paper what I want. That's pretty much the way I do it.

MODERATOR Do you find writing novels to be more difficult than writing screenplays? Why or why not?

STEPHEN J. CANNELL Writing novels and screenplays share many similarities. Dialogue, story structure, and discipline (which is an important acquired attribute) are all pretty much the same. However, at this point in my career, I prefer writing novels. The reason is that they are more complete projects and I can invest more of my energy and skill in one piece of work.

STEPHEN J. CANNELL I love writing screenplays and I love the collaboration that occurs when you produce a movie or TV show. Actors, writers, producers coming together to do something you all believe in. It's a team sport. Novel writing is a much lonelier profession; however you get to play all the instruments. I'm lucky that I get to do both.

MODERATOR How do you feel about using a "book doctor" that you pay to critique your work? It seems like there are a lot of people who scam writers out there.

STEPHEN J. CANNELL I would suggest that you become your own "book doctor". It's important that you establish authorship and control over your work. I have people who help me with editing using a second set of eyes to catch word repetitions, sequencing problems etc. But this is not book doctoring. This is editing.

That is, I think, a perfectly acceptable thing for a writer to do. But you must teach yourself to control and delineate your own manuscripts, this is part of the fun. Don't use a ghost.

MODERATOR Your characters always seem so alive to me. When writing a novel, how can you describe a character to the reader, aside from just giving a physical description?

STEPHEN J. CANNELL A lot of a character is in attitude. How does a character present herself/himself? The reader in a novel will supply almost everything if you give them the right handles. Wheeler Cassidy in Riding the Snake is described as 38 years old and handsome with curly black hair. A bad boy look that women find irresistible. Not much of a description. What makes Wheeler the character that he is, is the way HE THINKS. His sense of dismay over his life as a drunk at the Country Club bar. His sense of personal failure.

These are really the things that define him as a character. You should experiment and see what you can do to bring your characters to life. I find that sometimes in description picking a very small but vivid detail is often very effective. IE "His face was flat, expressionless, as if he'd been hit with a shovel at birth."

MODERATOR Do you ever use in a screenplay or a novel, dialogue that you've overheard in, say a restaurant?

STEPHEN J. CANNELL Almost never. I usually can't remember it, for one thing! However, I will sometimes hear an expression -- a street expression -- that I have never heard before and jot it down and add it to a dictionary of street terms that I'm constantly building. Also names -- I'm always looking for names. There are all kinds of great street dictionaries, medical, military dictionaries on the Internet and in some bookstores; I talk about this in the downloadable Lecture.

They're very helpful for writing characters from those specific disciplines. Also look for resource books. For instance, I have a medical book that gives pictures and definitions of every organ in the body, so if I'm writing an autopsy, and the doctor is speaking into a microphone, I'm using correct medical terms for the body that I'm dealing with.

I also have a book that has pictures and the names of every medical instrument known to man. If I'm cutting bone in an autopsy, I want to be able to say the coroner is using a Striker 500 rotating autopsy saw. This gives credibility to your work and/or your dialogue.

MODERATOR For your novels that will be made into you write the screenplay first or the novel? When you write the novel, are you considering how it will play on the big screen?

STEPHEN J. CANNELL I never worry about the movie when I'm writing the book. A novel is a novel. A screenplay is a screenplay. Don't get the two mixed up. You shouldn't be writing a novel so you can get a screenplay assignment.

Your work should have its own integrity. If I had never sold one of my novels to the movies, I would've been disappointed, but not devastated. I am writing novels because I love to write novels.

MODERATOR Mr. Cannell, how do you feel about comparisons for descriptions in novels? E.g., "The room in the light of the setting sun looked like a Maxfield Parrish painting."

STEPHEN J. CANNELL It is not the way I write, but if it's the way you write, and it accents your voice as a novelist, then by all means, do it. We all have to develop our own style.

There are no rules for this sort of situation. Most of the rules in writing deal with structure and character arcs, etc. Style is style. Remember, when Picasso switched from representational painting to abstract, everybody thought he was crazy. Nobody had painted like that before. Now you can't afford those paintings unless you're Rupert Murdoch. Don't be afraid to blaze your own trail. But before Picasso painted abstracts, he knew how to paint an apple that looked like an apple.

MODERATOR Would you please comment on the balance between dialogue and narrative in novels? I enjoy dialogue which moves the story forward, but there are times when narration is needed. Any guidelines for this?

STEPHEN J. CANNELL The mixture between dialogue, narrative and description is always the choice that the writer has to make. I read an author not too long ago who refused to let his characters speak. Instead of saying, "Get out of here, dammit! I never want to see your face again!" he would say, "David told the man to leave and never come back," refusing dialogue in favor or narrative.

The result of this was he placed a curtain between me and his character because he never let me hear the character speak. I read three chapters and set the book aside. His choice to favor narrative obviously appealed to him -- but not to me. We all have to make this choice. I believe, as you do, that dialogue is one of the more interesting aspects of writing. I think writers who choose not to use dialogue are afraid to commit to the sound of the characters.

MODERATOR Would you please comment on the abundance of metaphor in your novels and how that metaphor may be transferred to the screen later?

STEPHEN J. CANNELL Again, metaphor and similes are novel writing tools, much more than they are screenwriting tools. They are generally used in description and not in dialogue, because people don't speak in metaphor and simile. Or if they do, generally we write it as a mixed metaphor so that it doesn't sound "written". Therefore, when I have adapted my novel to screenplays, I leave my metaphors and similes behind.

MODERATOR How important is a character "arc" or character development during the course of a novel?

STEPHEN J. CANNELL I think it's critical that a character be on a journey. In all of my books, I have started with the flaws overpowering the central character and taking my characters on a journey that helps to rehabilitate those flaws so that they move on at the end of the novel. Wheeler and Tanisha are both disenfranchised characters at the beginning of Riding the Snake. Wheeler is a country club bum. Tanisha is isolated from both her South Central neighborhood and the police department where she works. Through the drama, they find their strengths and become better people. The same is true in King Con, Final Victim and The Plan.

MODERATOR Ok, that's all the time we have for questions. I'd like to turn it over to Mr. Cannell now for his closing remarks. Stephen, what thoughts would you like to leave our participants with?

STEPHEN J. CANNELL Well thank you for spending this time with me. The most important thing that I can say at this point is that writers must write. I can't stress enough how important it is to try to write every day. Your writing muscle gets stronger with exercise just as your arm muscle gets stronger with exercise. It happens slowly -- but it happens.

The other most important thing that I can say is DON'T GIVE UP when you encounter rejection. Rejection, unfortunately, is part of the writing process. For every novel accepted or screenplay bought, there are thousands that are passed on. THAT DOES NOT MEAN THAT YOURS WILL NOT BE BOUGHT. If you write every day, your work will grow. And soon the quality that you display will begin to be the countervailing force. Quality always wins in the end. You have to work diligently and be smart about your marketing. Unfortunately, writers have to also worry about selling.

It would be nice if that weren't so, but even I, after 30 years, still have to try to steer my projects into the right place in the market. You must not rely only upon agents and third parties. Keep working, enjoy the process of writing. Don't try to be brilliant, just try to entertain yourself -- and you will find that great things will happen. See ya at the Academy Awards!

MODERATOR Thank you, Stephen! Thank you to our audience!

STEPHEN J. CANNELL Thank you all and good afternoon!!

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