Q & A with Buzz McLaughlin

Buzz McLaughin photo

Buzz McLaughlin is a playwright and screenwriter, theatre and film producer, script consultant, and teacher. His plays have been produced throughout the U.S. and Canada and have won numerous awards including the National Repertory Theatre Foundation’s National Play Award for Sister Calling My Name, the most recent staging of which was at the Sheen Center, NYC in early 2020. With his wife Kris he has written several screenplays and teleplays.

He is co-founder/producing partner of the independent film company Either/Or Films (The Sensation of Sight), the Founding Director and former Artistic Director of Writers Theatre of New Jersey, and for many years was professor of Theatre Arts at Drew University. The author of The Playwright’s Process: Learning the Craft from Today’s Leading Dramatists, he holds a doctorate in theatre and dramatic literature from the University of Wisconsin, Madison and is a member of the Dramatists Guild and Writers Guild of America. Currently he teaches playwriting and screenwriting in New England College’s Creative Writing MFA program.

His website is www.buzzmclaughlin.com and he can be reached at buzzmclaughlin@gmail.com.

What’s the last thing you read or watched you thought was incredibly well-written?

THE TWO POPES, written by Anthony McCarten, based on his play. The film was directed by Fernando Meirelles and stars Jonathan Price and Anthony Hopkins. Nominated for best screenplay by the Academy Awards and Golden Globes as well as for best actor and best supporting actor. A wonderful example of excellent writing scene after scene with a script so real that you forget you’re watching a make-believe story as the actors really sink their teeth into the material.

Another film I must mention here is the indie PIECES OF APRIL, written and directed by Peter Hedges and co-starring Patricia Clarkson, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actress by the Academy Awards and Golden Globes. The film was also nominated for Best Screenplay by the Independent Spirit Awards. It was one of the first films shot on all digital and has become somewhat of a classic, especially in regard to its impeccable dramatic structure. I have used it for years as a teaching tool on how to construct a successful story for the screen. Well worth a close look.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

As a stage actor and director, then later I moved to writing because I started having my own ideas for scripts and felt I could do this, too (if not better than most).

What do you consider the components of a good script?

A well-constructed story with relatable characters that draws you in and keeps you engaged from start to finish. There are many ways to accomplish this, obviously, but that in a nutshell is what makes a good script. The main components are having one central character who wants something badly but who runs into road blocks preventing him or her achieving it. In the best stories, this central figure discovers along the way that what they think they wanted isn’t what they really need and as a result the character comes out a very different person at the end of the journey. And this gives the story its ultimate emotional power. My book The Playwright’s Process goes into the details of how you build or construct this kind of story one step at a time.

What are some of the most common screenwriting mistakes you see?

By far the biggest screenwriting mistake I encounter is faulty dramatic construction, scripts that wander too far away from some configuration of the three-act paradigm and as a result stall out and are unable to deliver the goods as all successful storytelling must do. Writing snappy and engaging dialogue is important, obviously, but if the story’s foundational structural underpinnings are faulty, the whole script comes tumbling down.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

Formula and predictable action films and stories that are obviously agenda driven. In other words, stories that are primarily designed to thrill with violence and manufactured suspense or those that promote – sometimes quite heavy-handedly – a particular political or cultural persuasion.

What are some key rules/guidelines every writer should know?

-Determine who is your central character and what his or her primary external want and true internal need are going to be.

-Your central character should be a changed person by the end of the story.

-Take the time and effort to get to know your characters’ backstories well before plunging into your first draft. Burn into your brain that nine-tenths of the iceberg is under the surface. Remember that you are already writing your script when you engage in this pre-draft exploratory work.

-Make an initial attempt to define your dramatic premise up front – what the overall point of your story is going to be – and believe it fully yourself.

-Allow yourself to become the structural engineer and work out a three-act outline of your story with a well-defined beginning, middle, and end before starting your first draft. In other words, create a road map that will take you through your story’s journey so if and when you find yourself lost (which you most likely will) you still have that roadmap on the seat next to you and you have a way to get back on track.

-If at all possible, set your story in a world you know well.  Otherwise, research it to death.

-Train yourself to never listen to the negative voice as you develop your project.

-Never share a work in progress with anyone until you have a completed draft you think is ready to release to others. The creative process is precious and intimate and it should be shared between only you and your characters. This should be your private creative world. The time will come soon enough to get outside input, but it shouldn’t happen until you have something substantially complete to share. Otherwise your own personal vision for the script is contaminated and you risk having your whole project derailed prematurely. The only exception to this rule is when you’re working with a collaborator or a script consultant – folks whom you have invited into a creative partnership with you.

What would you consider are some key similarities and differences between writing for the stage and the screen?

The biggest similarity between a play and a screenplay is the structural design of the story itself. Both have a version of the three-act configuration: the set up, the struggle, and the solution.

The biggest difference is that plays are primarily verbal and films are primarily visual, meaning the stage play’s story is largely communicated through dialogue coupled with physical action and the film story is largely communicated through what the camera sees action-wise, coupled with dialogue as needed.

Another way to compare the two mediums is to look at the opportunity for theatricality in writing for the stage – inviting the audience to engage imaginatively with passages of time and shifts in settings and so forth – as opposed to the numerous cinematic devices available in writing for the screen such as using the dissolve, narrative voice-overs, etc. In a real sense, the two mediums are attempting to accomplish the same thing – inviting the audience to creatively enter into the unfolding story. And this is one reason why writers are often able to shift back and forth between writing for the theatre and writing for film or television.

A common recommendation to screenwriters is to take an acting or improv class. As someone who works with both writers and actors, do you agree or disagree?

I strongly agree. My experience has shown me that writers who are also actors (or have had some acting experience) are generally ahead in the game in terms of motivations and getting under the skin of a character.

As a producer, is it difficult for you to read a script without using your “reader’s eye”?

This is definitely difficult for me regardless if I’m experiencing a screenplay or play. And it starts on page one. Call it the curse of the producer. I’m so conditioned to look and wait for the inciting incident to grab me that if it doesn’t happen within the first ten pages the read often becomes an exercise in frustration.

How can people find out more about you and the services you provide?

Check out my website at www.buzzmclaughlin.com. Or email me at buzzmclaughlin@gmail.com. As a script consultant I can work with you on a finished draft or help you structure an idea into workable pre-draft shape. In other words, I can meet you where you’re at with your project.

Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?

Warm apple, with a slice of cheddar cheese.

apple pie w:cheese

Dorothy Parker was half-right

d parker

“I hate writing, I love having written.”

For a writer, truer words were never spoken.

Well, almost. For this one, anyway.

It took a bit longer than I’d hoped, what with sheltering-in-place and all, but I finally managed to complete the rewrite of the horror-comedy. It’s now in the hands of some of my trusted readers.

Despite how long it took, I actually enjoyed putting the whole thing together. Granted, working on a rewrite is always a bit easier than cranking out a first draft.

Do I love that the script’s done? Without a doubt.

Did I not like writing it? Not really. (that might sound a little confusing. In other words, I did like it.)

Maybe it was because coming up with all the ideas and putting them onto the page was just a lot of fun.

Or maybe it was from developing my take on a traditional story in a genre I enjoy.

Or maybe I simply allowed myself to control the process, rather than vice versa.

It’s totally understandable why a writer would gripe about having to sit down and write. This is hard work. It takes a long time to learn how to not just do it right, but to do it well.

Hopefully once you get the hang of it, you start to see it less like work and more like an opportunity. One where you can really let yourself enjoy doing it.

Sometimes a writer will operate under the mindset of “I HAVE TO GET THIS DONE!”. While that can definitely be the case when working with a deadline, if you’re free to work at your own pace, the lack of stress and self-imposed pressure is practically liberating.

When I’m working on pages, I set a goal of completing at least three pages a day. If that’s all I get done, so be it. If I manage more, that’s great. I get done as much as I allow myself to. Removing the pressure part of the equation helps me feel more relaxed, which in turn helps me with the writing.

More than a few times during this rewrite I’d think “what’s something different that could happen here, AND that would also be funny?” and be able to come up with something. Hard to say if I would have able to do so if I was stressing myself out over the writing. And regarding the jokes, whether or not they pay off – well, that’s another issue.

This was something else that came from enjoying the writing: I think the jokes are a little stronger than in previous efforts. A lot of those were more just snarky comments, but this feels different – in a positive way.

A few sets of reader notes for this script have already come in, and once the rest of them do, it’s a foregone conclusion that I’ll embark on another draft.

And I suspect that one will be just as enjoyable to write, which means I’ll probably be practically euphoric once it’s done.

Footing finally found

keaton wind

Well, that was fun.

After what seemed like endless attempts, I finally came up with what is hopefully a solid beginning for the sci-fi adventure spec. Or at least the first ten to twelve pages or so. If I haven’t grasped you in my yarn-spinning clutches by then and have you begging to turn the page, I’m in trouble.

But with all those previous drafts at hand, along with heeding the guideline that the events of the story need to KEEP PUSHING FORWARD, it all (slowly) came together.

And to make sure I wasn’t deceiving myself, or working with a “Eh. Good enough” mindset, I took a short break (to work on another script, of course). A quick perusal upon my return showed that, yep, it still works.

Finding the right beginning was truly the biggest obstacle. I wanted to really put this world on display, along with better establishing the main characters – primarily the hero and the villain, along with the supporting characters. Numerous options were explored, but none seemed to fully fulfill my requirements. The journey to find that solution was a long and frustrating one, and it was tough to not get annoyed.

But I held on and kept trying, over and over, finally hitting on a solution. Even though the rest of the story looms, I couldn’t have moved forward without reaching this point. Fortunately, most of it is pretty set in place, so hopefully it won’t take too long to work through it.

Quick addendum – during one of my moments of downtime working on this script, I saw several “scripts wanted” listings that were asking for low-budget horror. Last year I cranked out a first draft of a horror-comedy that wouldn’t be too tough to trim down the number of locations and characters so as to make it cheaper to produce. Figure it’s worth a try.

-Writer/filmmaker/friend-of-the-blog Venita Ozols-Graham has put together a crowdfunding campaign to produce a filme version of her award-winning psychological thriller short script WHO WANTS DESSERT? Donate if you can!

Bit of a mishmash, but it works

goulash
Try it. You’ll like it.

The overhaul/revision of the sci-fi adventure outline continues, with some significant progress being made – especially over the past few days.

There’ve actually been a few rough spots just to get here.

One being letting go of how the previous drafts started out, story-wise, and not letting those details affect the new one.

Another has been being able to present important and relevant details and backstory without things being way too expository.

Still another has been figuring out how some, but definitely not all, of the story details could be reorganized, restructured, pretty much rebuilt from the ground up but still have it all work within the context of the story.

It’s been quite the challenge, but the gears have been constantly and consistently turning during the search for a solution.

Took a while to get there, but looks like it’s yielding some results.

But first – a little background info.

I make a point of holding onto previous drafts of outlines and scripts, because you never know if part of it will come in handy for a future draft.

Thus was the case here.

There were sections of the story that were going to stay, but some others simply weren’t a solid fit for the new draft – but there was something about them that still worked and that I wanted to keep.

Getting them to that point took several attempts, approaches and revisions. Took a while, but I got there.

Despite being a slow and somewhat drawn-out process, the new story is gradually coming together. I’m not one to impose deadlines on myself, but once I get all of this a little more organized, the outline should come together relatively quickly.

I like the idea of having a completed first draft, possibly even a revised second draft, by years’ end.

No pressure, but we’ll see how it goes. Probably helps that I’m really enjoying putting this one together.

A few words from the gentleman from Salinas…

Steinbeck
Didja know he wrote the story for Hitchcock’s LIFEBOAT? But he also didn’t like some of the changes Hitch made to it.

Big thanks to author/blogger Chad Schimke for inspiring today’s post.

John Steinbeck is one of, if not my absolute, favorite authors. I just love the way he writes, and many of his works occupy space on my bookshelf. If you haven’t read him lately – or at all, I highly recommend it.

I’m also very fortunate to live relatively close to his hometown of Salinas, California, where the National Steinbeck Center is worth a visit.

Here are his six writing tips, as originally published in an interview with The Paris Review from 1975.

-Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.

-Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.

-Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.

-If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.

-Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.

-If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.

Now these are all great, but the really interesting part is that in 1963, a full 12 years prior, after being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, he wrote this letter of “Advice for Beginning Writers”, which includes the following:

“If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes, but by no means always, find the way to do it. You must perceive the excellence that makes a good story good or the errors that makes a bad story. For a bad story is only an ineffective story.”

True, screenwriters should read a lot of scripts, but that’s not all you should read. Books. Plays. Comics. So many choices. Whatever floats your boat.

Take it all in. Read. Enjoy.