Within this column, I relate my thoughts and theories on creativity, discipline, craft, collaboration, and the (unspectacular) day-to-workings of your spectacular masterpieces ...

Are You a Dangerous Writer?

Writing can be dangerous...

... because it observes, probes, dissects, challenges, and assaults life. At least it should. And, as we all know, life is dangerous. And since life and art are dangerous, and writers are intimately involved in both, they should be dangerous too.

Now, I understand there are different levels and definitions of "danger" but what I want to explore is danger's essence: that which is on the edge, which goes beyond the marked boundaries, which looks over the known into the scary and not-yet-discovered. That’s the nature of danger. And the nature of life, art, and artists.

Of course, every writer faces his own dilemmas, demons, and detractors that are specific to his own unique artistic journey, but all in all it's the same battle whether one is writing fact or fiction, for the few or for the masses.  Listen to what these noted dangerous writers have to say:

"Surely all art is the result of one's having been in danger, of having gone through an experience all the way to the end, to where no one can go any further." - Rainer Maria Rilke

"I know that every good and excellent thing in the world stands moment by moment on the razor-edge of danger and must be fought for..." - Thornton Wilder

"Books... in which each thought is of unusual daring... which even make us dangerous to existing institutions - such call I good books." - Henry David Thoreau

What does a dangerous writer look like?

·         He VENTURES beyond safe and accepted wisdom and experience.

·         She PURSUES fresh ideas and never-before-addressed topics.

·         He ABANDONS the common and comfy and boldly enter scary, unchartered waters.

·         She RISKS the possibility of obscurity, isolation, failure, and death.

·         He WRESTLES the unknown, mysterious, and unformed and creates something new.

·         She DISMISSES fear and peer pressure and heeds the calling for higher and better ideas.

·         He TRUSTS that what is in his soul is not only important to him but to others also.

Are you a dangerous writer? An adventurer, a discoverer, an uncoverer, a crusader? Or merely a scribe, a chronicler, a documentarian, an observer?  Is your material dangerous?  Do you tackle the complicated, the risky, the volatile, the uncomfortable? Or do you only dabble in the safe, known, and predictable?

Dare to become a dangerous writer, not for danger’s sake, for that is foolishness and pride, but for the quest of knowing and living life to its deepest, highest, and widest.  If you do, you may very well become like the artists of which Queen Victoria cautioned her daughter, the Crown Princess of Prussia, "I would venture to warn against too great intimacy with artists as it is very seductive and a little dangerous."

Dangerous writing is the hardest to produce - but the most exhilarating to create - and the only type worth reading.

What a Screenplay Is ... and Isn't

Aristotle wrote, "The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms." Steven Covey added, “'The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” Zig Ziglar said, "If you aim at nothing, you'll hit it every time." And when Alice asked the Cheshire Cat which way she ought to go, he responded, “It depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”

Philosophers, business experts, motivational speakers, and even mischievous cats agree that if you want to succeed at a task, you must first know what that task is before you attempt to master it. Screenwriting is no different: a successful screenwriter must first and foremost know what a screenplay is… and isn’t if he's to reach his ultimate artistic and profession and goals.

1. A screenplay is MASS COMMUNICATION, not your own PERSONAL PET PROJECT.

This sounds pretty obvious but many a screenwriter has yet to realize that screenwriting is a profession – a business involving the talents of many others and for the ultimate goal of reaching millions of others - and making millions of dollars in the process. It’s not an individual sport. In fact, it may well be the most collaborative art form in the history of art forms.

Someone who wants to lock himself in his room and write all day, doesn’t read the trades to know who’s who and what’s what, doesn’t know what audiences have seen and/or want to see, and doesn’t have practical and reachable deadlines and goals will find himself better suited for the solitary society of the private poet, not the cluttered community of the celluloid scribe.

Professional screenwriters think more of the big picture of getting projects produced than in promoting their own personal agendas.


I know a writer who has literally spent more than 10 years on a single screenplay, writing and rewriting, organizing and re-organizing, polishing and re-polishing. And though her work is no doubt getting incrementally better, it may be wiser for her to “retire” this script and start on another.

Your goal in writing a script is not to write the perfect piece of prose. Or win a Pulitzer. Or impress anyone of your word usage, outlining ability, or formatting skills. Your goal is to create a map for a feature film from which others will act, shoot, design, rewrite, purchase, envision, and ultimately watch. You don’t get any extra credit for flawless spelling or knowledge of the 3- or 4- of 5-act structure.

Professional screenwriters think more in practicalities than in perfection.


Have you ever counted the number of credited people on a movie? It may well be in the hundreds. And those are only the ones who received credit. Scores of others wrote, acted, costumed, directed, edited, and labored to get that idea off the set and into the theaters with no recognition at all.

The writer is only one part of the puzzle – albeit one of the most important parts (ask any writer). But the writer is incomplete without the rest of the movie community. Your story and characters and themes have to be handled and re-handled by a score of capable and inspired artists who have as much skill in their field as you have in your own. You can’t do it by yourself and shouldn't even try.

In fact, you’ll often find that it is the actor’s touch that breathed life into a role you hadn’t anticipated, the producers’ expertise that knew how to best finance and package a project, the director’s expertise that caught and executed the film’s greatest vision, and the editor’s hand that most contributed to the rhythm and style of your screenplay.

Professional screenwriters think synergy, not segmentation.

So if you want to be taken seriously and become successful at the art and business of screenwriting, think of your script in relational and not personal terms, treat it as a working draft and not an untouchable work of art, and welcome collaboration and inclusion wherever you can get it.  It may well make the difference between your script resonating with others and reaching the big screen or remaining anonymous and undiscovered on your laptop, whose screen is much less impressive.

What's an Action-Reaction-ometer?

At a screenwriting seminar, I once heard a panelist who had pitched an idea to Stephen Spielberg say that Spielberg intermittently interrupted him during their session, asking, "What's the audience feeling now?

The point? Film is an intimate, introspective, engaging art form communicating truth from one highly emotional being to another. And your story needs to constantly relate to your audience on a visceral, emotional, and personal level.

That's why, as a part of my pitching material - it also helps in the rewriting process - I include what I call an Action/Reaction-ometer diagram. Here's how it works:

As the above illustration shows, I have plotted two series of horizontal line graphs detailing the events and corresponding emotions of act one of my script, "Gray Matters." The top line graphs show the predominant events/actions that occur in these most crucial first pages, with each given a relative high/low value.The bottom line graph show the corresponding emotion/reaction to those actions/events, also with a high/low relational value.

Let me be more specific: In the middle of the chart, an event with one of the highest value ratings is when the protagonist, Hugh, has a "confrontation with Kaufman," his key rival. That's seen on the top line graph. The corresponding reaction - shown on the bottom line graph - is "bold," because Hugh has finally found enough courage to confront his arch nemesis.

Shortly after that event, we see one of the lowest value readings when "Hugh escapes" - top line graph - and is correspondingly "desperate" - bottom line graph.

If you look at the overall first act of "Gray Matters," you'll see that there are progressive and extreme emotional swings that conclude with an extreme low and then extreme high value at the end of the act (leading into plot point one). Which is exactly my intention.

Below is the Action/Reaction-ometer chart for act two. Same thing. You can see the consistent emotional swings throughout the act, ending in an extreme low value at the end of the middle act (leading into the second plot point and act three).

Sure, it's a relative and subjective process, but the point is to visually show the emotional ups and downs of the character and story - which will most likely mirror what the audience is experiencing. It's also a good way to show the depth and breadth of character and story throughout your entire script.

Is it rocket science? No. Is it helpful? It has been for me. And as I start to promote "Gray Matters," I hope that producers and agents can literally see that I've not only created a well designed story but one that takes them on a fully developed, emotional, and satisfying roller coaster ride.

And one about which they will feel deeply.

Making a Scene - CITY LIGHTS

Where do you start analyzing this priceless gem? It would take an eternity to break down the mastery of this scene. Lasting only a few minutes. No words. A million emotions. Brilliantly staged and emoted. Ending in a simple, satisfied smile.

Setup: A down-and-out but hopeful tramp meets a beautiful, blind flower girl on the streets, who mistakes him for a wealthy man. Having fallen in love with her and learning she and her grandmother are being evicted from her home, he undergoes a series of attempts to save her from her financial woes and restore her sight with a fantastic, new cure.

All his former attempts failing miserably, he saves a drunken millionaire attempting suicide, who rewards him handsomely. The tramp gives the money to the girl but he is accused of robbing the now-sober millionaire, who doesn't recognize him. He is thrown in jail and eventually set free.

0:00 - The tramp is back on the harsh, unforgiving streets.
0:16 - He is abused by street punks, the butt of their cruel mockery.
1:03 - The beautiful owner of a flower shop spots the tramp, amused.
1:10 - He is oblivious to her onlooking.
1:30 - He turns and NOTICES the beautiful owner from outside,
1:32 - slowly RECOGNIZES the blind girl he tried to save,
1:34 - is STUNNED at seeing her again,
1:36 - then ELATED, her sight obviously restored.
1:39 - She is TICKLED that the tramp has fallen for her,
1:40 - even remarking, "I've made a conquest!"
1:47 - He is GIDDY at the sight of her again, ADMIRING her,
1:49 - the flower in his hand unknowingly being de-petaled.
1:53 - She alerts him to his flower's demise,
1:58 - and mercifully offers him another from her shop.
2:01 - He ADORES her from the safely of outside.
2:09 - She offers a flower again and even some charity.
2:18 - As she get us to give them to him, he FEARFULLY flees.
2:21 - She catches him outside and offers him a flower again.
2:23 - He stops and FACES her, CAUTIOUS but drawn to her.
2:29 - She offers him the flower again and he SMILES.
2:36 - He slowly and HAPPILY takes the flower from her.
2:39 - She offers a coin, walks over to him, and gives it to him.
2:46 - As she grabs his hand and speaks to him,
2:4? - she slowly RECOGNIZES him by touch,
2:58 - touching his shoulder and knowing he is her benefactor.
3:01 - NERVOUSLY, finger in mouth, he watches her reaction.
3:06 - She grabs her face, asking, "You?"
3:10 - He slowly and SHYLY nods affirmatively, still NERVOUS.
3:17 - He inquires, "You can see now?"
3:25 - She confirms thankfully, deeply MOVED and in SHOCK.
3:38 - She takes his hand, putting it to her chest in deep GRATITUDE.
3:41 - He smiles back, beaming shyly, HAPPY for her.

Personal. Powerful. Redeeming. Wonderful. Genius.

What John Wesley Knew about Pitching

“I set myself on fire and people come to see me burn.”
                                                                                John Wesley

What does an 18th century theologian and itinerant preacher know about pitching a screenplay? For a man who travelled 250,000 miles, preached more than 400,000 sermons, and founded a movement that at his death included 135,000 faithful members and today numbers 30 million, I'd say quite a bit!

Now, I know screenplays aren't sermons (at least they shouldn't be) but whether you're winning over congregants to a cause or producers to a script, the fundamentals are the same: it's all about grabbing attention, keeping your audience engaged, and being unforgettable.

Here's how John Wesley did it:


When Wesley was five years old he was rescued from his father’s burning rectory. The dramatic incident left such a deep impression on him and he regarded himself as providentially set apart, “as a brand plucked from the burning.” He felt a special “calling” from that point on.

Thirty years later, as a struggling minister with next to no followers and often defeated and depressed, he heard a sermon in London that so touched his soul that it resulted in his penning the now famous lines, “I felt my heart strangely warmed.” After that experience he devoted his life to evangelism and the rest is history.

People can see passion. I’m guessing Wesley had it in spades. Do you? Be inspired and you'll be inspiring.


250,000 miles is quite a distance. On horseback. Along unpaved roads. And because he was so controversial, Wesley was forbidden by the Anglican Church to preach from its pulpits. So with few congregations welcoming him, he would ride out to a cottage or meeting hall or most likely an open field and simply begin to preach.

And even though Wesley and his followers were denounced as “promulgators of strange doctrines,” “fomenters of religious disturbances,” “blind fanatics who led people astray,” and “attackers of the clergy of the Church of England,” they continued their efforts with zeal, compassion, and effectiveness. Methodism itself has always been known for its strict adherence to a disciplined, committed, and rigorous life.

Wesley articulated his commitment this way, “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”

That's dedication you don't see much of today, or ever. How dedicated are you? Commit unconditionally to your cause and people will see it and believe you.


Having attended Oxford, ordained into the Anglican Church, and being a fine scholar who spent 3 hours every afternoon studying the Bible, Wesley had a crystal clear idea of what his message was and how to communicate it. Anyone who preached 400,000 sermons definitely had something to say and said it effectively.

A brilliant organizer, Wesley set up Methodist societies across the country, building the brand of his new movement. He did this largely though the appointment of un-ordained itinerant preachers who, like him, traveled far and wide to spread their message. He also partnered with many other social justice causes like prison reform and abolition. Summing up the focus of his ministry, he simply said, “The world is my parish.”

There was no question in himself or in those who heard him what his mission was.

So, search deep within yourself for your motivation, dedicate yourself to the scope and intensity of your dedication, and focus your efforts in a practical and purposeful plan and you’ll not only set yourself but also your world on fire.



Writing ISN'T ...

... reading about writing ..
... studying scripts.
... going to writing festivals.
... outlining.
... watching film.
... socializing with other film folk.
... marketing.
... learning the ins and outs of the industry.
... getting an agent.
... character study.
... acting.
... directing. 
... producing. 
... making your own independent film.
... research.
... blogging about the writing process.
... podcasting about the industry.

All of the above can add perspective
and depth to your writing, but ...

... writing is writing.

Aspirational ART-iculations

"I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free."  Michelangelo

"Failure is unimportant. It takes courage to make a fool of yourself."  Charlie Chaplin

"It's kind of fun to do the impossible."  Walt Disney

"Necessity knows no law."  St. Augustine

"Art is not a pasttime but a priesthood."  Jean Cocteau

"Every time I get a script it's a matter of trying to know what I could do with it. I see colors, imagery. It has to have a smell. It's like falling in love."  Paul Newman

"A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."  Antoine de Saint-Exupery

"There's nothing more exhilarating than being shot at and missed."  Winston Churchill

"Art, like morality, consists in drawing the line somewhere."  G. K. Chesterton

"If you knew how much work went into it, you wouldn't call it genius."  Michelangelo

"A writer needs a pen. A painter needs a brush. A filmmaker needs an army."  Orson Welles

"Art is a collaboration between God and the artist, and the less the artist does the better."  Andre Gide