12 June 2006

the "one cool thing" approach

I will now do something very odd and possibly out of character for me: I will attempt to blog on an actual screenwriting topic in a non-whiny non-self-absorbed manner.

Your prayers are appreciated.

A few years ago, I had opportunity to sit around and converse casually with a big name screenwriter. We were laughing about various theories and philosophies about writing, and as best I can recall (hey-- beer was involved here, so memories are both fuzzy and few) he mentioned something about how he "just wants to make every scene as cool as possible."

That resonated with me, as I have long worked with the notion of "if I were reading this, what would make me smile and go wooowwww...'?"

The conversation led me to two things:

1) an all-over achy feeling the next morning (oy)
2) what I call "The One Cool Thing Theory."

Basically, when penning any story, be it prose or screenplay or self-involved essay or song lyrics (hey-- I have depth and shit...), I try to make sure that every major "sub-chunk" of the piece has at least one solid wad of interest for the reader to chew upon. In screenplay terms, that means that every scene in the script — and I mean every last one of them — has to have at least one definable moment where, when you or someone else is reading, the lips twist into a smile and the head shakes in an approving nod and the reader half-whispers to nobody in particular "cooool...."

'Cuz think about it: movies are expensive, both to produce and to consume. Last week I took two of my kids to see OVER THE HEDGE at a matinee and I still dropped more than fifty bucks for tickets, popcorn, and soda. If I'm going to drop that kind of coin on a flick, there had better damned sure be something there to make me smile and say "OK, that was worth my attention and money."

And if I am writing a screenplay which I hope some company is going to invest in to the tune of 50 or a 100 million bucks, I think it's even MORE true.

So when I finish a draft of a new project, one of the first things I do on the first pass read-through is to have a handful of colored pens at my disposal. Red pens are used for general markup, but I always like to have a second color — blue seems the most common for no reason I can fathom — to underline and mark in the margins with a star as The One Cool Thing I am most excited and proud of in every specific scene. And when I get through that first read-through, I then go back and check to make sure that every scene has at least one such blue star. For those scenes where no star is noted, I re-read the scene a second time to see if there is some obvious improvement to be made. If I can;t find it. that scene is marked for serious attention on the first major re-write.

Repeat the process on every new draft.

It's just that simple.

What's funny (to me, at least, and I accede that my sense of funny is perhaps a tad screwy) is that so few other people seem to know and use this or a similar trick. It seems so obvious, so simple, so clearly useful, that I just sorta assumed everyone was doing something like this. yet whenever I go into any detail, I invariably get people who go "wow-- that's a good idea."

Uh, thanks. On a related front, I think "breathing" is kinda useful, too.

So give this simple trick a try the next time you are doing a read-through of your current project. See if you can identify and label the One Cool Thing in every scene of your screenplay — that one moment the audience will most likely take home from that moment of screen time. If your script is overflowing with these blue star moments (lines, twists, reveals, visuals, metaphors, whatever), then chances are you're closer to a truly read-worthy script than not. If, on the other hand, you find that you have a significant number of scenes where there IS no one cool thing, then I'd strongly advice you go back and shovel in more fun.

Lesbians are a good easy place to start, as are giant squids, high-rise explosions, and flying wings.

But dammit put something in there. You want at least One Cool Thing, in every scene, in every story.


Grubber said...

B (prounounced L) I think that was your line over at Warren's a few months ago.

Bloody hilarious...if that is your "screwy" humour, get as much of into scripts as possible.


Pooks said...

One Cool Thing.

Nice plan. I like it.