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Learn to Love Your Screenplay Again
also available: Paperback
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Imagine for a moment that I’m the ShamWow or OxiClean Guy:



“Folks, has this ever happened to you? You get a great idea for a screenplay, you sit down to write it, then about thirty pages in, you’re lost. You take a few more stabs at it, but can’t solve the story, so you shove it in a drawer, never to be seen again....”


OR, the alternate version:



“ get to the end of the script, leave it for a couple of weeks, then read it over and your heart sinks because the script is pure, unadulterated crap, and you don’t know how to fix it. So you shove it in a drawer, never to be seen again....”

OR, the alternate alternate version:

“ get to the end of the script, give it to a few family members and colleagues to read, and they offer you ‘encouragement‘ through tight smiles. You suspect the script is pure, unadulterated crap. So you shove it in a drawer, never to be seen again....”

OR, the alternate alternate alternate version:

“...depressed by any or all of these outcomes, you don’t write anything.”

AND, inevitably, the come-on:

“Well, folks...have I got a product for you!” [hard sell ensues]

Okay, so I’m not the ShamWow or OxiClean guy, and I’m not going to put a hard sell on you. But if while reading any of the above scenarios you nodded or winced from the memory of your own failed screenwriting efforts, then this book may be for you.

I’ll elaborate. Let’s say you like music. Perhaps you’re an expert in music appreciation. Maybe you can even sing a bit and/or play some chords on a guitar. One day you hear a lousy piece of music on the radio and you say to yourself, “I could do better than that.”

So you sit down to write a better piece of music. You may have some great musical ideas, but you know nothing about composition, arrangement, rhythm, melody, mode, and so forth. All this is woefully apparent in your completed piece, which…sucks.

Few among us would believe we’d be able to compose complex music with no formal training and no experience. And yet, inexplicably, a lot of dabblers think they can write a screenplay without any training or experience. It usually goes something like this:

You have a great idea. Maybe even a fantastic idea. And because you read books or you’ve edited newsletters or maybe you wrote a play that was staged by your community theatre, you think: “I could write a screenplay!” But inevitably one of the above depressing scenarios is the outcome. Dreams are dashed. Your day job looms large.

It doesn’t have to be that way. I can show you a path through the script wilderness. In addition to having a successful career as a film and television writer/producer, I’ve taught scores of emerging writers of all ages and backgrounds the concepts in this book. I’ve also been honored to receive a Writers Guild of Canada award for mentoring writers.

I’ll show you time-tested techniques that will help you to identify what your story is about so that you’ll be able to invent and employ elements in your narrative that are organic, while discarding elements that are inorganic.

An organic element is one that fits naturally and easily in your story and/or genre, that is, it “belongs.” Inorganic elements seem forced or contrived and evoke a “what’s wrong with this picture?” feeling, as they’ll stick out in an obvious way. Sound complicated? It’s not.

You’ll learn how to avoid heading down blind alleys or including extraneous characters or allowing your narrative to wander, or worse, come to a dead stop in the middle of the story. No longer will you get mired in the undergrowth and abandon your journey.

I’m going to show you how to create a taut story from start to finish that, in addition to being entertaining, will have a point. And the message it will convey will be something that for you will be authentic and deeply held. Above all, audiences will be moved.

Creative endeavors always involve risk. But risk can be mitigated through knowledge. So if you’re ready to take another shot at it and want to avoid repeating any of the above soul-crushing scenarios, you’ve taken the first step by seeking out this book.



We’re living in interesting times. People can not only access movies on multiple platforms, they can also film and edit their own low-budget films or programs and make their work available for global audiences via the Internet (for better or worse).

Movie theaters are doing business, but must compete for eyeballs by amping up the experience with digital projection, multichannel surround sound, large format screens, and 3D technology. Many are offering reclining chairs and seat-side food service.

Other exhibitors are niche programming their theaters with foreign and art house films or live events such as operas and music concerts. This is a positive development, I think, as it expands the demographic of those who go out to the cinema beyond just teenagers.

Youth still rules, however, and the Hollywood studios know that the surefire path to profit is to make comic book movies with awesome graphics, violence, gore, and mayhem. None of this is new, but it seems like it’s gone to a whole other level.

These movies leave us feeling like we do after the large bag of popcorn we pound down while watching them—bloated and thirsty—and not just physically. Averse to empty calories, most of us consciously or unconsciously wish our movies were more nourishing.

Here’s the thing: movies that nourish don’t have to abandon flavor (entertainment value) for substance. Both can co-exist, and in fact I would argue that movies with substance are more entertaining and satisfying (while still commercial) than movies that lack substance.

What is substance? It’s a story with a point of view held by the writer. The story itself is a vehicle the writer employs to prove his or her point. Not didactically, of course, because people don’t want to be preached to outside of their church, temple, or mosque.

It’s the telling of the story and its outcome that proves the writer’s point, whatever it may be. The writer doesn’t need to harbor a deep message; they just need something they firmly believe—it could even be contrarian—and a desire to share it with others.

Even young filmgoers who habitually attend blockbuster comic book films are so starved for substance that when they hear about an independent film with an original voice and an unambiguous point of view, they seek and devour it like manna from heaven.

An example like Napoleon Dynamite comes to mind, which of course is a classic underdog story, as are Slumdog Millionaire and Little Miss Sunshine. There’s also My Big Fat Greek Wedding, a romantic comedy with an ethnic twist and Juno, a coming-of-age teen comedy. More recently, Get Out had a unique racial take on the psychological thriller genre. Note that none of these films featured huge movie stars or eye-popping special effects, yet all of them had a great story, well told, by fresh and appealing voices.

Right now you may be wondering, “What point of view do I have that I want to share with others?” Or perhaps you’re thinking, “I just have a cool idea for a high concept movie with awesome characters and dialogue. I have no idea what I want to say.”

If so, no worries. It’s common to be unaware of your message at the outset of writing your story. It’s not that you don’t have deeply held beliefs; it’s just that they have yet to be fully revealed. But they will. I’ll show you how to do it. That’s why I wrote this book.

Which brings us to a remarkable benefit of writing. Of course we want to tell stories and of course we want to entertain and enlighten audiences with our work. These things are a given. But in the process, we also gain something quite priceless. We learn who we are.



Stuck! is aimed at both emerging and veteran screenwriters. Emerging screenwriters will be exposed to concepts and techniques that will help them transform random and diffuse ideas into spare, taut narratives designed to move and enlighten.

Veteran screenwriters—like good doctors who are always scanning medical literature to stay current—will find concepts here that will add to their store of practical knowledge and will contribute to further elevating their work, taking their career to the next level.

Whether you’ve had work previously produced or have several screenplays “in the drawer,” or whether you’re contemplating getting into screenwriting for the first time, for most people, “learning by doing” often results in greater retention.

So if you’re not a screenwriter but a story analyst or producer looking to hone your screenplay analysis skills, then consider applying the concepts in this book by writing mock coverage based on a few of the films listed in Appendix I.

If you’re an emerging or veteran screenwriter, upon completing the chapters dedicated to specific aspects of screenwriting craft, consider challenging yourself to write one- to three-page scenes that incorporate what you’ve just learned.

If you’re a member of a screenwriting group, you and your colleagues can read your scenes aloud and jointly critique them. I’ve used this technique during my classes and find that it adds an extra dimension to the learning process.

So whether for you getting “unstuck” means starting something new or reviving a half-completed work, armed with your new knowledge, you’re going to have an “aha!” moment where you break through the muck and mire. Hopefully more than one.

Why am I so confident about this? Because I’ve seen it happen countless times with my students and with screenwriters with whom I’ve story consulted. It’s like all the tumblers in a lock suddenly fall into place, opening a door to new and dazzling story riches.

The combination lies within.

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Gentlemen of the Shade



In the fall of 1991, when My Own Private Idaho was released, I was 15 years old. I had just bought my first pair of Doc Martens (three holes with steel toes) and a batik dress printed with crescent moons. My best friend, Sandra, and I spent every Friday afternoon at the local record store, flipping through the cassettes in the alternative and independent sections, looking for bands we recognized from the university radio station. At school, we sat on the floor, backs against our lockers, whispering about the other students, how they just didn’t get it and were so square it was tragic. If someone had asked us what exactly the other kids didn’t get, we probably wouldn’t have been able to articulate it. All we knew was that we weren’t like them. They wore Guess jeans and hoop earrings and listened to Bell Biv Devoe. They were groomed and smoothly beautiful and smelled like vanilla.

We wanted to be different. And our effort was palpable.

Sandra and I had first heard about My Own Private Idaho in Interview, in which Gini Sikes and Paige Powell had published an interview, accompanied by a series of appropriately brooding photographs by Bruce Weber of the film’s two leads, River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves. Sandra was in love with River, who played the fragile drifter Mike, and who would die two years after the film’s release. I was in love with Keanu, who played the handsome, Shakespeare-quoting Scott, and who would go on to blockbuster success in Speed and The Matrix. We had seen almost all of their previous movies: Parenthood, Running on Empty, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Stand by Me. Both actors were baby-faced, beautiful, soft-spoken in public, and still awkward in their adult bodies. We had never met boys like them anywhere — not at school, not at our summer jobs, not walking through the mall. The photographs in Interview were beautiful and relentlessly urban, with both actors seemingly unstyled and unposed, smoking cigarettes in dimly lit rooms in clothes that made it look as if they had fallen asleep in a trashed hotel room and stumbled directly to the photo shoot. But it was what they said that drew us to this weird little movie they had just made together.

I was introduced to so many elements through the guy I was playing. Real people. My imagination. Gus’s interpretation. Shakespeare. It was rich! And it was just bottomless, man.

Gus just has those qualities that we all need to get back. Open eyes, open ears, a kid’s stream of consciousness.

I have really strong feelings about the search for home and mother.

Clearly, River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves cared deeply about this film, loved making it, loved the end result. It was important to them. Yes, we had to see My Own Private Idaho, no matter what.

The week the movie came to Vancouver, we skipped school, took a bus downtown, and settled into a half-empty theater with a group of what appeared to be women in their 70s on a post-lunch outing. We knew almost nothing about the film. The reviews we had read talked about hustlers (a term we could only hazily define), Henry IV, sexual identity, and homelessness, but these words meant very little to either of us. We were, after all, only 15, and our worlds were bordered by school, network television, magazines, and radio. As much as we wanted to look different and do different things from the other adolescents around us, we were still very much immersed in popular culture. It was hard to ignore Beverly Hills, 90210 and Color Me Badd. We watched MuchMusic, Canada’s version of MTV, every single day. We cared about the torrid love affair between Julia Roberts and Jason Patric. And so, when we sat in the darkened theater waiting for My Own Private Idaho to start, how subversive or different the film might be was only an amorphous thought, as unshaped as our own fumbling grasps at what we understood to be alternative culture.

The movie began. We were in Idaho. Then Seattle. Then Portland. We were watching Mike beg for money from a john. We were in a Chinese diner, and then a porn shop, listening to conversations about sex, bad dates, risk, and money. We followed Mike and Scott to Rome, where the hustlers and johns were eerily similar to their American counterparts.

By the end of the first half hour, four of the older women had left the theater, seemingly offended. But Sandra and I stayed, fascinated by how these characters — each of them wrapped up in their childhoods and old decisions that no one else could ever really understand — were running through life, eating up beauty and violence, sex and fraternity, drugs and fried noodles. As if this was the way it was supposed to be. As if nice houses and big cars and universities were to be mocked or, even better, totally ignored. As if everything we knew as young women who grew up in a respectable working-class neighborhood where immigrant families passed arugula and bok choy over backyard fences was just a barrier to real life, one that was defined by motorcycles and cheap whiskey and the freedom of wide open, street-centered days.

It was absurd. It was life and death. It was subversive. It shocked us but comforted us too. It was nothing that we could have ever expected. And it would start us on a decade-long adventure, one that prompted us to question the television shows and music and fashion we had been consuming and look for alternatives that were imperfect, that might fail in execution but whose effort we could admire. In 1991, we began to want culture produced by individuals we could identify, individuals who looked like people we might know. We began to ignore the all-boy singing groups that dominated Top 40 radio with their impossibly beautiful skin and jawlines and voices. We began to scour the free alternative newspaper for concerts and art shows and sex advice. I know this is a cliché, but My Own Private Idaho was exactly the right movie at the right time. It was the beginning of grunge and the beginning of something much more personal. Sandra and I had just started to construct our own identities, collecting bits and pieces from the world around us and trying them on. My Own Private Idaho was one of the first of these bits. And it fit. Just right.

Writer and director Gus Van Sant couldn’t have known that his third feature was going to be so pivotal to 1990s culture and the decades afterward, but as the characters stumbled from Idaho to Portland to Rome and back again, their story felt like the very first subversion we understood. They made choices that weren’t about finding the right university so they could get the right job and buy the right house in the right neighborhood. They made choices that were soaked with risk but also possibility and believed that being different was better than being good. They lived on the margins of the visible world: they slept on rooftops while others hurried to work, skulked in shadows until a john stopped to pick them up. They veered from experience to experience and cobbled together makeshift identities. This story came to us, to movie theaters that played matinees for teenaged girls who had skipped school. Instead of exploring the margins by leaving the mainstream behind, Gus Van Sant delivered the margins right into our mainstream lives.

When the final credits flashed green and blue, all of our nascent feelings about marginalism, the cult of the alternative, and how art can be both a balm and an excuse had been crystallized on this movie screen, in this theater, before our very eyes. The house lights turned on. We blinked at each other. We would never be the same.

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Writing Screenplays

Writing Screenplays

also available: Paperback
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Casino Jack

Casino Jack

A Screenplay by Norman Snider
by Norman Snider
afterword by F. X. Feeney
introduction by George Hickenlooper
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