Top 5 Tips Writing for TV and Film by Johnathan McClain

Welcome to an entire month of Top 5 Tips for Authors!

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Every day this month my friends and I will bring you a new set of Top 5 Tips to help you along on your author journey. 2017 was a year of change in the Indie author world for sure. So many happenings. So many new things to learn. So many old things that didn’t quite do what you’d hoped. Well, every day is a new day. And every year is a new year. So we hope that this month’s worth of tips will get you the kick start you need to make 2018 your best yet and please feel free to ask questions and leave comments.

I have a very special topic today. So that warranted a very special guest to blog about it. Johnathan McClain’s award winning acting and writing career spans two decades. He thinks it is impossible to write a bio in less than 100 words, so he encourages you to discover more about him at IMDB or HussMcClain.com. You can also follow him on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. For he wants for nothing so much as your love. He is currently at work on a series of novels with his personal hero, JA Huss, having somehow managed to con her into becoming his writing partner.

I was flattered when Julie asked if I would contribute to this project and we kicked around what the theme should be that I would write on today.  We decided that perhaps “5 tips on screenwriting” would be a cool way to proceed. In addition to being an actor and a member of all the various actors’ unions, I’m lucky to also count myself as a dues-paying member of The WGA (The Writers Guild of America, if acronyms aren’t your shit) and I’ve been fortunate to have sold a few scripts as well as had some things that I wrote, filmed and then aired on the TV box. (That’s my way of credentialing myself so you don’t have to ask yourself the, “why the hell should I care what this guy says?” question. Spoiler: You shouldn’t care particularly what the hell this guy says, but in case you are curious what the hell this guy says, read on…)

So, the point is, this was intended to be 5 tips about how to approach screenwriting.

But as I started writing stuff like “First, download Final Draft…” (which, don’t get me wrong, you totally should do, but still …) and got into it further, I found that my real thoughts and offerings are far more broad-spectrum than just talking about screenwriting and crap.

So, if you’ll indulge me, I would like to ruminate here on that which has helped and inspired me along my journey, in the hopes that it may also aid and inspire you.

Please use any of what I say below in your own process if it seems beneficial, disregard it all if you feel like none of it resonates, but no matter what, and above all else …

  1. NEVER STOP WRITING. NEVER GIVE UP.

There was this writer who graduated from film school ready to take on Hollywood. But after graduating, this writer had a hard time getting Hollywood to care at all that this writer was ready to take it on. Couldn’t get a writing job. Couldn’t even get an agent. Spent years sitting at home. But while sitting there, would write. Eventually wrote a script for a TV pilot that this writer showed around to everyone. Believed in it. Thought it represented this writer’s truest, best voice.

As this writer showed it around, this writer would hear, “Wow. You have no idea what you’re doing.” Or, “This is the most uncommercial thing I’ve ever read.” Or, “Get out of my office.” And stuff like that.

Eventually the script made its way into the hands of an important writer/showrunner who at the time was a very big deal. The showrunner said, “You’ll never get this made, but I kind of like the way you write and I like you, so why don’t you come on as a writer on my show?” This writer didn’t think twice and did come on to the showrunner’s TV show, and worked up through the ranks to become an Executive Producer and lived Happily Ever After. THE END.

Except of course it isn’t.

This writer still had the script that started the whole journey and still believed it could become a TV show. And even after the success of having been staffed on a successful TV series, people would still say, “Seriously. That thing you wrote way back when is never going to get made. It did its job. It got you hired on this big, important TV show! Be happy! Let it go…”

But this writer never did let it go. And eventually this writer got a meeting with a small TV channel. One that was just starting to think about trying to do new stuff. And they said, “Okay. Sure. We have nothing to lose. We’ll give it a try.” And people said, “Oh shit. I’m so sorry. I know you believed the thing you wrote SEVEN YEARS AGO was going to one day be something special, but now it’s stuck out in the TV hinterlands and no one will ever see it and let’s go to dinner and not talk about it…”

The showrunner that hired this writer because the showrunner saw this writer’s potential was called David Chase.

The show David Chase hired this writer to write on was called THE SOPRANOS.

This writer that he hired was called Matthew Weiner.

The script Matt had written that got him the job on THE SOPRANOS and ultimately made it onto the little TV channel that no one would ever watch was called MAD MEN.

Never stop writing. Never give up.

  1. READ SCRIPTS BY WRITERS YOU ADMIRE. AND THOSE YOU DON’T.

Read scripts. Here is a solid list of websites that store screenplays and TV scripts on-line.

(If there’s a script you really, really want and can’t find on the internet, you can also reach out to me at JH_JM@hussmcclain.com and I can likely track it down through one of my silly agents or the WGA. Point is … read scripts.)

I have learned an incredible amount about the things I admire and want to emulate in my work from reading other writers whose work I enjoy. Another way to say this is “If someone does something you really like … steal it. Because they stole it from someone else.” (That’s not my quote. I think I stole it from Michael Caine. Dunno who he stole it from.)

I have also learned an incredible amount from reading writers who aren’t so great and who I don’t admire. And not because “it teaches you what NOT to do.” People will say that shit and it drives me crazy. Because I don’t believe you should strive to learn lessons in negative space. Learning what not to do is not learning. It’s being risk averse.

If you read a script that doesn’t work, don’t analyze it for what went wrong so you “can avoid those pitfalls.” That’s a coward’s lesson. Examine it from the perspective of what you would have done differently. What you would have added. How you would have approached it differently.

To quote Plutarch: “It’s a thing of no great difficulty to raise objections against another man’s oration, it is a very easy matter; but to produce a better in its place is a work extremely troublesome.”

Trouble yourself with betterment.

  1. LISTEN TO THE MUSIC.

By which I mean the music of language. This holds especially true for dialogue, but is applicable throughout all the telling of a story.

Think about it from the perspective of song-writing. “Imagine” by John Lennon is a great song with great lyrics and a great message, but if the melody that is its delivery mechanism wasn’t pleasing to hear, nobody would listen. Make the music of language a priority.

I understand that not everyone has a musical ear, but everyone can try this: Say the words you’re writing aloud. (Again, this holds especially true for dialogue.) Is it melodious? Does it feel comfortable in your mouth? Would you say that shit? Or is it a ham-fisted and clumsy attempt to just shoehorn an idea into being through wooden language that has not meter nor cadence? If it’s the latter … work harder.

And it can be work. Not everyone comes to it naturally. Not everyone is Aaron Sorkin. But it is a learnable skill. Practice and eventually YOUR natural melody will emerge and that then becomes your voice. And once you’ve developed your voice, you can sing anytime you want.

Words matter. Language is precious. Know why? Because it’s a shitty communicator. It can be confused, misinterpreted and misunderstood with startling ease. So, do yourself a favor and cultivate a mastery of it to the best of your ability. And then play the fuck out of it.

  1. LIVE IN THE WORLD. EXPERIENCE LIFE. BEFRIEND THOSE WHOSE OPINIONS AND WORLDVIEW DIFFER FROM YOURS.

This one actually doesn’t require a ton of explaining and is also critically important. The only way you can understand the world is by living in it. If your intention is to tell a story that reaches beyond your own personal borders, it becomes necessary to reach out your hand.

Learn about things that seem boring. Watch movies that you don’t think you’ll like. Do stuff that you hate. I do this shit all the time. It doesn’t necessarily make the things I’m engaging in/with any less boring, likable, or hated, but it does almost always grant me insight.

Because … you have to learn to never judge your characters. People don’t typically analyze everything they do (I do, but it sucks and is fucking exhausting – and nobody’s writing a screenplay about my trifling ass), they just do it. If you wanna write about sharecroppers, you don’t have to go become one, but you should understand why they are what they are. Talk to one. Take him out to dinner. Whatever. Engage with the world, not just your imagination.

Everything I write is 1/3 my experiences, 1/3 my imagination, and 1/3 the people I’ve seen, places I’ve been, and things I’ve learned.

And by the way, as an actor first, this is critical to that part of my career as well. Indeed, acting IS writing IS living my life. The more empathy you can cultivate in your work, the more empathy you’ll cultivate in the world, and the richer and rounder a person you will become. And not only will your work benefit, but you’ll benefit as a carbon-based life-form.

We are all interdependent beings. When you breathe, you are borrowing air from the trees, the sky, the fish, the birds, and me. So, breathe in deeply, and when you breathe out again, fill the air with the richness of all you’ve experienced.

  1. MAKE FRIENDS WITH YOUR EGO

(This is a long one, encompassing probably more than one actual bullet point, but I’m cheating so I can say everything I think is important.)

There is this romanticized version of how creation works wherein a masterwork will magically spring forth from the mind of the creator in a show of complete genius, like Athena springing from the head of Zeus. Maybe. Once in a while. But usually all you’ll have is a fucking headache.

Here’s why: It’s a slog. And to pretend it’s otherwise is doing a disservice to the work. There may be great stuff hidden inside the messy afterbirth of whatever has sprung from your brain (yeah, I’m running with this metaphor), but chances are, like afterbirth, there’s a bunch of cleaning up that still has to happen before it looks like – y’know – a baby.

I have a friend who is an accomplished screenwriter. Has an Academy Award and shit. The first draft of his Academy Award winning screenplay was roughly 300 pages long. One year, six drafts, and lots and lots of suggestions by trusted friends and colleagues whom-he-let-read-it later, he had finally culled it down to a tight 114 page opus that would top The Black List and go on to win him an Oscar for screenwriting. He did this by being unafraid and unashamed to expose his process, show his ugly brushstrokes, and not take it personally when criticism would come back his way.

Writing is a solitary endeavor, but sometimes, it’s also a group effort. Every person who weighed in on that script had a role in its crafting. And every single one had the chance to help make it better. (See: #4) Your name may go on the finished product, but often there are dozens of names that must needs show up in the “special thanks” section of the credits. It can be incredibly painful to kill your babies (our birth analogy takes a macabre turn) but there will absolutely be ideas/plot twists/bits of dialogue that you LOVE, that simply have no home in the thing you’re making and you will have to toss them out.

(Side note/point of reference: Julie and I are writing one of the books in our first series at present. A bit ago I turned in some words for her review that had a big plot point percolating. I mean, like, huge. Like an event that would drive the action for one of the characters for pretty much the rest of the books. Julie read it and said, “I love it. It’s super interesting and well written. I don’t think it’s right for these books. I think we have to jettison it wholesale and start over with a fresh take.”

That was a lot of work being tossed over the side and a lot of new work that was going to have to be done to re-imagine this character’s journey. But Julie was right. So, we chucked it and went back to the drawing board. And the books are better for it. And … we now have an idea that can find its way into another book perhaps. No idea is ever dead, it just goes into turnaround.)

All of this falls under the rubric of ‘making friends with your ego.’ You have to find a way to decide that YOU are not important. THE WORK is what is important. Your ego will want you to believe that you have all the fucking secrets to writing the next great … whatever. Bullshit. You don’t. Because even if you do, you don’t. Ideas are not YOURS. They swim around in the ether and if you’re the lucky one upon whose head the great idea lands, then be grateful and say thank you.

You may be gifted, but remember what that means. You have been gift-ED. Given a gift. YOU are not the gift. You may be fortunate. But you’re not special. Fuck you.

This, by the way, is not me pontificating from a place of remove or judgement. When I say, “fuck you,” I’m saying it to me too. Maybe me first. I struggle with my ego every fucking day. Every day. It has been the cause of my downfall more than once. On a couple of instances, it caused falls that looked like they could not be gotten up from. And when those spills occurred, I had to look for inspiration on how to get back up and keep going. Keep acting. Keep writing. Keep trying.

And so … I will leave you with two quotes that helped me do that and summarize how I feel about what it takes to keep … making.

The first is from Barack Obama, and irrespective of where you fall on the political spectrum, these words are simply correct. (If you have beef with Obama, pretend someone you like said it.)

“I first ran for Congress in 1999, and I got beat. I just got whooped… Then for me to run and lose that bad, I was thinking maybe this isn’t what I was cut out to do. I was forty years old, and I’d invested a lot of time and effort into something that didn’t seem to be working. But the thing that got me through that moment, and any other time that I’ve felt stuck, is to remind myself that it’s about the work. Because if you’re worrying about yourself—if you’re thinking: ‘Am I succeeding? Am I in the right position? Am I being appreciated?’ — then you’re going to end up feeling frustrated and stuck. But if you can keep it about the work, you’ll always have a path. There’s always something to be done.

And the second is from John Patrick Shanley, playwright, screenwriter, and major personal influence on me and my entire career. (If you don’t know Shanley’s work, he has a Pulitzer for his play Doubt, which was made into a film with Meryl Streep, an Academy Award for MOONSTRUCK, and – less probably – he also wrote the screenplay for CONGO. See? They’re not all going to be winners.) This is an excised sampling of something originally written as advice to actors, but it applies to writing as well. I have changed the word *acting* to *writing* where it applies.

“We live in an era of enormous cynicism. Do not be fooled.

Don’t write for money. You’ll start to feel dead and bitter.

Don’t write for glory. You’ll start to feel dead, fat, and fearful.

We live in an era of enormous cynicism. Do not be fooled.

You can’t avoid all the pitfalls. There are lies you must tell. But experience the lie. See it as something dead and unconnected you clutch. And let it go.

Write from the depth of your feeling imagination. Write for celebration, for search, for grieving, for worship, to express that desolate sensation of wandering through the howling wilderness.

Don’t worry about Art.

Do these things, and it will be Art.”

And so. Returning to the first point, always, and above all else … just write. Even when you don’t feel like it. Especially when you don’t feel like it. Know that you are not alone, sitting behind your screen, pounding frantically on the keyboard. We are here with you. All of us who struggle along with you and who silently cheer you on. Who can’t WAIT to see what fanciful flight of invention we will be taken on by the words that spill down from the ether and through you to all of us.

We’re with you.

Don’t stop. Never give up.

-JM

12/7/17

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4 Comments

  1. Best tip article I have read in a long, long time. Johnathan has obviously lived the life of a creator with determined perspicuity, and it was a pleasure to experience some of his insights. In addition, his writing is not that bad. 🙂

  2. Great post. I love that bit about what Barack Obama said. It’s speaking to me because right now I’m standing at a crossroads regarding my books and the literary world. I saw a quote not too long ago that said something like: “If that door doesn’t open for you, it’s not your door.”. No matter how hard I’ve tried–and it’s been fucking years, dude–that damn door hasn’t opened. So, maybe the literary world isn’t where I’m supposed to be. Who the fuck knows? All I know is I’m going to continue writing my books because I love to write them and continue on with other plans for my future. Hopefully, there will be a door with my name on it, that’ll open for me. In the meantime, I’ll refer back to Barack’s quote to remind myself to keep it about the work.

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