Maybe you have a great idea for a movie, and you’re thinking to yourself, “Man, if I only knew how to write a screenplay.” Maybe you’ve started your screenplay already, but you get to a certain point where you JUST DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO NEXT! Or maybe you’ve already finished your screenplay, read it over again, hated it, and smashed your hard drive, frustrated. Don’t give up on your dreams just yet—not until you’ve read this book.
Over the course of his successful career as a writer and producer, Josh Miller has learned plenty about the craft and art of screenwriting. There are no fancy tricks or shortcuts to making a great screenplay, just time-honored techniques, fundamental story elements, and one secret ingredient: you. Josh will show you how to create a compelling story and deploy advanced screenwriting techniques, but most importantly, he’ll teach you how to harness your unique voice, experience, and perspective to emotionally connect with audiences and give your screenplay real substance. Get this book—and get yourself unstuck.
- Understand visual storytelling elements to tighten up your script and eliminate unnecessary dialogue.
- See effective screenwriting elements in action with instructive examples from more than 200 classic and contemporary films.
- Learn the secrets to creating unforgettable characters that drive the narrative forward and add depth to your story.
- Create effective setups and payoffs to give your story internal logic, yet maintain the element of surprise.
- Master elements of screenwriting craft, such as flashbacks and flash-forwards, time locks, subplots, twists, and more.
About the author
Award-winning writer/producer Josh Miller has penned or produced television programs for Paramount, Lifetime, Hallmark, Dick Clark Productions, Viacom, Disney Channel, PBS, and Showtime, as well as feature films released by Universal, Warner Bros., Momentum, eOne, Equinoxe, First Look, DARO, and Vision Films. In 2006, he received the Alex Barris Mentorship Award from the Writers Guild of Canada in acknowledgment of his passion for mentoring emerging screenwriters. Miller continues to provide freelance script consulting services to screenwriters, producers, networks, and studios. For details, please visit www.whatsyourpremise.com.
Excerpt: Stuck!: Learn to Love Your Screenplay Again (by (author) Josh Miller)
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:
“...you 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:
“...you 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.
HOW TO USE THIS BOOK
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.
I’ve never seen a book that describes every element of narrative structure like Josh Miller’s Stuck! A worn copy will be on every writer’s shelf. – Thomas Herod, Jr., line producer (Screen Door Jesus, Persons Unknown, Woman Undone, All American Murder)
Brilliant. Josh captures the essence of screen writing. What a story arc. It’s almost as if he’s writing his own script called: Stuck! A must read for any writer, producer, or director. Lee W. Gluckman Jr., Chairman, US International Film & Video Festival
As a producer/writer Josh is an expert with story, character and humour. He understands how to translate ideas to the page so that they are communicated with clarity, intent and emotion. – Grant Harvey, director (Wynonna Earp, Orphan Black, Tin Star, 12 Monkeys)
There are lots of books on how to write a screenplay, but many aren’t very good. Josh Miller’s stands out as one of the best. His insights, strategies, and encouragement are invaluable. – Carole Kirschner, Director of the CBS Diversity Writers Program and the WGA Showrunner Training Program and author of Hollywood Game Plan
Stuck! is a valuable addition to the desk or bookshelf of anybody serious about learning the craft of screenwriting. Josh knows this business well and shares his experience with comradely insight and self-deprecating humour. – Scot Morison, screenwriter (Finding Bobbi, Jake and the Kid)
Josh Miller reminds us that when it comes to story, the storyteller is still the most important part of the most powerful cultural force on the planet. If you’re interested in being a professional storyteller, Stuck! is an essential part of your narrative arsenal. – Michael Jorgensen, Emmy-winning producer (Unclaimed, Battle of the X-Planes)
Practical, highly insightful and masterfully crafted, Josh Miller has pooled years of intimate knowledge, experience and mentoring into a remarkable craft of screenwriting bible. Presenting complex techniques in a relatable form and offering copious in-depth examples makes this a must-read for beginners, and definitely an inspiring refresher for all content creators! – Margaret Mardirossian, producer (The Liquidator, X-Weighted)
Stuck! is a must read for every aspiring and experienced screen writer. It truly does show “a path through the script wilderness” in an eminently refreshing and practical way. – Robert Frederick, producer (MacGyver, Witness Protection, The Wild Guys)
Stuck! is filled with all the basics seasoned with lots of valuable tips, wisdom and solid ideas on how to get unstuck. Josh has been in the industry a long time and is sharing a wealth of experience. – Dennis Foon, novelist/playwright/screenwriter (Indian Horse, Life Above All)
Honest, entertaining and thorough, Stuck! is an indispensable tool for everyone from emerging screenwriters to established filmmakers. – Jim Bigham, producer/production manager (Ballers, Magic Mike, Dolphin Tale)
Stuck! is a back-to-basics, easy-to-follow guide for all screenwriters. Miller's solid understanding of good story telling is highlighted by the wide variety of movie examples that make it interesting and instructive. No fancy formulas or gimmicks, just solid fundamentals. A must read. – Francis Damberger, director (Heartland, Due South, Honey I Shrunk the Kids)