Each year the Cinequest Film Festival is held in San Jose, CA and four years ago I went to (and wrote about) the Cinequest Day of the Writer event and for this year's iteration, Writers Celebration, there was some tremendously interesting takeaways from the three different parts.
Part one - screenwriting wisdom
In the first session, talent manager Diane McGee and writer James Dalessandro spoke and answered audience questions about successful screenwriting. While both speakers excellent, Dalessandro probably spoke more and passed along a number of his thoughts and experiences as a successful writer and teacher of screenwriting. Some of his past work includes 1906: A Novel that he optioned for a large amount of money to be made into a film and the 2010 Playboy Magazine story "Petrosino v. The Black Hand", now slated to be a 10-hour TV mini-series about Joseph Petrosino, the turn of the 20th Century New York City Police Detective.
Some of the main takeaways from Dalessandro and McGee were as follows...
Structure in writing - Repeatedly spoken of was the importance of outlining a screenplay... with the idea that both plot and subplot should be done in the outline prior to actually writing the screenplay. Not in opposition, though, was also that someone should be willing to write out of sequence if stuck. Basically to write a section that is clear as a writer and then go back later, the phrase used for this was "letting the puddles run together."
Formula in writing - Formula as a concept was referring to as repeating dumb ideas, but it also noted that formula can be a jumping off point with taking what people have done and then putting a twist on it. It was said that there's little out there that's completely original, but can certainly be things presented in a new way that will get attention.
Writing for television - It was mentioned that if something can't get made as a movie, a TV show is a great alternative as film can be considered a directors medium and TV one for writers, and there's simply more opportunities in TV than film.
Writing detail - Dalessandro noted that a writer shouldn't write details if they don't know any of them to be correct and he does a lot of research as many of his ideas are based in reality. Included along with this was his quote that "a writer is a storehouse of useless information."
Importance of character in writing - It was said repeatedly that while a plot idea or concept may be the first thing a writer has, a story need to have an interesting main character... otherwise, who cares? Part of the concept was that a character has to have two problems, one internal and one external. On a progression, the steps for a writer could be viewed as (a) premise, (b) character, (c) rising conflict and (d) resolution.
Approach towards success at screenwriting - Dalessandro said both that first novel was rejected by seven agents and thirty-seven publishers and 1906 abandoned as a movie project by a prominent director and may not ever get made. Regardless, though, you just keep working at it. One point made was that screenplays a foreign language compared to books and articles so if someone wants to be a screenwriter, they should read a lot of scripts (with Fargo mentioned as a great one). It was also mentioned that scripts are now 95-100 pages only and screenwriting competitions a great place to take a first script. Additionally, two sites for aspiring screenwriters noted were The Black List and The Tracking Board.
Part two - selling a screenplay panel
Between the three sessions there was a lot of great ideas put forth, with of course the most profound one being to put in the work and see where it takes you.