After a year or so, I returned to the Screenwriters Association of Santa Barbara, to hear Oscar nominated screenwriter Jeff Arch, and I’m so glad I did.
His talk was named “Writing the Story Only You Can Write,” but he left a structured speech presentation aside and dove directly into questions and answers. One of the works he’s most known for, which he wrote when he was 35 years old, is Sleepless in Seattle, which, captivated many of the audience’s questions.
Twenty-two years after selling his script, he’s now writing the script for the theater version of the same title, which will open at the Pasadena Playhouse.
I was delighted to hear the life lessons of a screenwriter in short meaningful, matter of fact statements, sprinkled throughout the evening; among them were the following:
- As a screenwriter, the only things you have control over are the words on the paper
- You gotta be a real whore for a good idea.
- Ask everyone: What worked for you, and what didn’t?
- I don’t like villains. People don’t need bad characters they usually create their own problems.
In his answers he also had spatters of methodology and procedural wisdom including:
- As a rule don’t use flashbacks
- You need an agent or an entertainment lawyer
- Junior staff attend film festivals
- Finish a draft. Take a 3 week break and come back to it. Mark it up, and edit. Do this a total of 3 times.
- In your screenplay don’t overuse adjectives. The questions to be sure to answer are: Can ‘they’ see it? Can ‘they’ hear it? No need to describe a cafe in endless detail, a simple ‘Tired, 50s, Retro Cafe’ will suffice. Leave the rest to the production crew.
He shared the anecdote Sylvester Stallone’s tenacity to write the story of a down and out man that faces a challenge and becomes a boxing champion, during a time when nobody bought or made boxing movies. To top it off, after he wrote Rocky, studios execs told Stallone he wouldn’t star in the film because he couldn’t act.
The core of Jeff’s message:
“Everyone has at least one story. The story only you can write, you already know. It’s those things you wonder about, it’s those ‘what ifs’, it’s anything that makes you angry, wistful…” The person you are when you write the story changes and grows, but if you’re not writing to grow, then it’s not worth reading.”
Jeff asked the audience, “How many of you have had a broken heart?” Many hands in the packed room went up. He then asked, “How many of you died from it?” From here he went on describe the basic methodology of writing THAT story – the one we’re meant to write. “It’s the architecture of a broken heart that creates that connection with others. You had a desire, expectation, dreams and there it all went. Write HONESTLY. Write with your heart and soul. Don’t hold anything back. Get vicious with your own work. When you’re done leave it for a little while. Run diagnostics tests. Ask others, “Does this scene work for you? If you were to take a break and decide to finish reading it, in which scene and place exactly does that happen?”
Like books, and other writers and endless courses, Jeff reminded us that the screenwriters’ job is to capture the attention of the reader (or viewer) and to keep it, however, Jeff was so approachable, personable, and sincere that his version was like a new lesson learned.