David Trottier Talks Screenwriting
March 11th, 2004
As a produced screenwriter, script consultant, script doctor, and national seminar leader for 12 years, Dave gets results for his clients and students.
Interview by: CHRISTOPHER WEHNER
Mr. Trottier is one of the true experts on the craft of screenwriting. This interview, along with getting a copy of his book THE SCREENWRITER'S BIBLE is your first giant step in becoming as good a screenwriter as you possibly can.
Now for my interview with David Trottier:
David, could you give us a little background?
I'm a schizophrenic. I have a strong business background, middle management for a corporate giant, top management for a midsized company, marketing consultant to several name companiesand a writing side. I've sold several feature scripts, two of which have been produced (but not yet distributed). Some of my tape programs and my formatting guide have won awards. The formatting guide has since become a section in the topselling The Screenwriter's Bible. I've also published a short story collection and over a hundred articles, mostly on writing. I guess I should mention that I've been a national seminar leader for years as well as a professional script consultant. However, I have severely reduced my seminar load at the command of loved ones.
What screenwriter, past or present, do you admire the most, and why?
There are many I admire, but William Goldman has always been my man. He can do it all. Imagine writing a comedy Western with virtually no action that ends in the death of the central characters. Try pitching that sometime. He can write anything.
Your book, The Screenwriter's Bible, is the best constructed book about screenwriting that I have thus far encountered. It seems the more books about screenplay format one reads, the more confused one becomes. If you could recommend only three books about screenwriting, what would they be?
Thank you. According to the Hollywood Film Institute, there is only one book to buy if you're buying just one: The Screenwriter's Bible. I blush to point that out, but that's how I wrote it, it's five books in one. I have found Linda Seger's books to be very helpful, particularly Making a Good Script Great and the one on character. I like Michael Hauge's book. Of course, Lajos Egri's book, though written for playwrights, is a classic. Most formatting books out there are either difficult to understand or not completely accurate.
In your book, you discussed how the writer should define the main conflict early. As you noted, Henry (in REGARDING HENRY) was shot on page 7. Why is it so hard to get to the central conflict within the first ten pages? What mistakes do writers commonly make in those first pages?
We don't necessarily need to know the main conflict by page 10; but we need a conflict. Something has to happen to give the central character a goal, mission, desire, or problem. And it doesn't have to be a gunshot to the head, it can be a holographic image of Princess Leia asking Obiwan for help. The idea is to get the character moving. After all, this is a movie, and movies move. Later in the first act (somewhere between pages 15 and 30), a big event (a major turningpoint) will more severely affect the central character's life and move us into the body of the story.
In my script consulting work, I find that most writers make the mistake of loading up on exposition in the first 10 or 20 pages. A common error is to present flashbacks in the first 20 pages. The reader doesn't even care what's happening in the present yet; why should he/she care about the past? Look at your first ten or so pages, and ask yourself: Are they static? Do you have people telling each other things they already know? Are you overloading us with exposition before we care about what is happening in the present? Obviously, a superior writer can get away with more in that respect, but dialogue virtually always works better when something is happening. It doesn't have to be major action and it doesn't have to be fast, just get the story moving and the hero moving.
There's a rule of thumb about writing scenes that says you should get into a scene as late in that scene as possible. Apply that to your screenplay. Would it hurt the story to lop off the first scene or two?
Some writers use index cards to construct their story before writing, while other writers dotreatments and outlines, and then there are still other writers who: "let the story take them for a ride". What advice would you give?
Do what works best for you. We all find a different way of working. The writer using the index cards is doing the same thing as the writer creating the treatment and outline, he or she is creating a tentative structure for the story (I emphasize the word tentative). And that's how most professional screenwriters proceed. I personally believe that the writer who lets the story take him/her there is going to take longer to get there. It is true that we need to dismiss our inner critic, our parental side, and let those childlike creative urges flow freely when we write. However, occasionally, we need some adult supervision, and that's the purpose of outlining and editing.
Is screenwriting a science or art?
It is both, whether creating the movie or the script. As implied above, we write from the heart and hope the characters will tell us what they want to do; but we also have to return as parents and make the playhouse presentable to an audience. There's a balance, I think, between the intuitive and the analytical. A solely analytical approach often results in a formulaic screenplay; a solely intuitive approach often results in a slice-of-life that is not dramatic, but felt good to the writer.
Have computers made screenwriters better, or worse?
Computers are neutral. Some writers use the computer as a tool to help them craft great stories. Others become lazy, hoping the software will write the story for them.
How much detail should a writer include in action (fighting) scenes?
The reader needs to see what's happening. The narrative description should always present images and actions, but only those that are necessary to move the story forward. Although I emphasize lean writing, I also advise that you dramatize dramatic moments. You don't need to describe every punch, but I need to see the fight. Don't write, They fight or They make love. Use concrete language in presenting specific images and specific actions.
What's the first word that comes to mind when you think about Tarantino or Eszterhaus?
Depraved. (You want honesty, right?) What I like about PULP FICTION is the twists and turns. Essentially, we have two short stories, each with a beginning, middle, and end. But they are inventively entwined together and presented (chronologically) out of order.
When I read the spec script for BASIC INSTINCT, I was absolutely amazed. The script is so lean and nary a word is wasted. There are no camera angles, no editing directions, no fancy transitions, nothing. I thought this guy had taken my class or studied my book. My only criticism is an overuse of the word beat. I highly recommend it as an example of a spec script if you can get your hands on it.
has BASIC INSTINCT to download for your viewing pleasure.]
A professional writer told me in an interview that he wrote ten scripts before he sold one. He wrote about all the things that were passionate to him, and wrote good stuff. But it wasn't until he tried to write to the market that he finally sold. Should we throw away our passion and write only what we think will sell?
Never throw away your passion. There are other stories of writers who wrote for the market, and then sold the one script that came from their passion. Here's my advice.
Your first screenplay should come solely from your passion. I wouldn't worry about market; I would write what I want to write about. You will need the passion to carry you through that first endeavor. To be honest, that first script is often autobiographical. You need to get it out, so that other stuff can emerge unblocked. It will be therapeutic to you as a person and as a writer.
In subsequent scripts, choose characters, themes, and stories that appeal to you; but then ask yourself, What is the most sensible approach to the material? Of all these ideas that you love, which is the one you can realistically see people pile into a theater to see. Once you have settled on a writing project and have considered the market for it, then write it without the market in mind. Write passionately. You can always revise it later. Professional writers know how to channel their passion into commercial projects. Friends, it is not a perfect world.
As a final word, let me invite you to my web site Maybe you'll find something there that will help you. And by all means, keep writing.
This interview may not be republished without written permission by David Trottier and the Screenwriters Utopia.
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