I got an email the other day from an aspiring screenwriter who had an idea for an unusual structure for her screenplay. She asked whether I thought it would be safer to stick to the traditional three-act structure and “maybe just drop in a few more unusual elements.”
Of course it’s hard to give advice on a specific project when you don’t know the story or the details of the alternative structure, but in general I agree with this advice from painter Courtney Jordan about mixed media artwork:
“Mixed media artists can’t be faint of heart. You have to be brave to try mixed media techniques that you’ve never tried before, but I’ve discovered that you won’t get anywhere–and you kind of feel let down–if you don’t push it enough to show you are actually mixing media.”
I think the same is true for screenwriters. If you have an unconventional way to tell your story–and you’re using it because it’s the best way, not just to be different for the sake of it–go for it.
Trying to stick to the rules and be just a little unconventional probably will make your novel or script just as muddy and unconvincing as a mixed media artwork by an artist who lacked the confidence to go all the way.
In the world of screenwriting, scripts that stand out often are not the first ones to be bought, but they capture the attention of those who read them. Those readers know they’re dealing with a writer who has the courage to venture out of the safe territory. Ironically, they may then hire you to write something more conventional, but at least you’ll have your foot in the door.
WANT MORE IDEAS? GET INTO FLOW
A lot has been written in the past few years about the state of “flow,” in which whatever you’re doing seems to come to you effortlessly. I had an experience with this recently, on a ten-hour plane trip to the US. Let’s see whether that experience can help you create your own flow.
THE CONDITIONS FOR FLOW
The conditions seem to be:
- being away from your usual workspace – in this case, an airplane
- being in a place with low external stimulus – this was an overnight flight, the cabin was dark, and most people were sleeping. When we got on the plane I thought there might be a LOT of external stimulus, since the middle row opposite was occupied by two dads, a little girl, and two very young babies. The little girl was well-behaved and, amazingly, the infants didn’t cry even once.
- having few interruptions – there were two meal services, one of which I skipped, the rest of the time the flight attendants were rarely seen.
- not stopping to re-read or critique the material
That’s not to say that flow happens every time those conditions are met. I’ve made that flight many times, and have been super productive on only one out of five or six.
CAN WE CREATE THE CONDITIONS?
How to create such conditions without getting on an airplane? Some writers do it by going to a hotel for a few days or weeks, not turning on the TV, not hooking up to the wi-fi, and taking at least some of their meals via room service. That’s a fairly drastic approach, though (as well as expensive).
Working in a cafe, ideally without internet access, can be a mini-version of that, although here in the centre of London it’s hard to find one that doesn’t have the distraction of people-watching and the obligation to move on after you’ve had a couple of cups of coffee. Maybe I just need to look harder for an unpopular place.
Getting on a train (obviously not during peak times) for a couple of hours might do it, although given the price of train travel it could be an expensive option.
If you want more ideas to flow, consider creating the conditions above and notice what works best for you.
Jurgen Wolff is a writer, teacher, and creativity consultant. In the United States, he wrote for sitcoms including Benson and Family Ties. He wrote the feature film, The Real Howard Spitz, starring Kelsey Grammer and directed by Vadim Jean. He was a script doctor on the hit film, Mannequin and others starring Michael Caine, Walter Matthau, and Eddie Murphy. For Germany, he co-created the comedy series, Lukas, which ran for 65 episodes, and an original comedy series called Krista. He also wrote nine episodes of the series, Relic Hunter. He wrote two TV movies for the Olsen Twins, and several the German TV movies including, On Top of the Volcano, starring Maria Schrader and Sebastian Koch (2007). His play, Killing Mother, was produced at the Gorky Theatre in Berlin, and he’s also had plays produced in New York, Los Angeles, and London.
As a writing and creativity teacher, his courses include Beyond Brainstorming, Create Your Future, The Creative Breakthrough Workshop and the ground-breaking Script Coach Series developed exclusively for Raindance. He has presented his courses at the University of Southern California, the University of Barcelona, the Skyros Institute, many films schools, and groups and organisations including The Academy for Chief Executives, Egmont, Grundy-UFA, and Columbia-Tri-Star. For eight years he was a visiting lecturer for the Pilots Program in Sitges.
His books include Your Writing Coach and Your Creative Writing Masterclass (Nicholas Brealey Publishing), Creativity Now (Pearson), Do Something Different (Virgin Business Books), Successful Scriptwriting (Writers Digest Press), Top Secrets: Screenwriting (Lone Eagle Press), and Successful Sitcom Writing (St. Martin’s Press).
He has written for many publications including the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, Broadcast Magazine, and he is the editor of Brainstorm, the creativity ebulletin.