Q & A with Jim Mercurio

img_7574_edited_paul-option-e1548902704525.png

Jim Mercurio is a writer, author, screenwriter, and filmmaker. His book The Craft of Scene Writing is the first-ever screenwriting book that focuses solely on scenes. He has directed and produced five feature films, and helped countless writers as a teacher, story analyst, and script doctor. He directed more than 40 DVDs on screenwriting, including his own 6-disc set, Complete Screenwriting. One of the country’s top story consultants, Jim works with Oscar-nominated and A-List writers as well as beginners.

Editor’s note 1 – a q&a with Jim was featured in a series of interviews with script consultants that ran on this blog between 2014 and 2015.

Editor’s note 2 – full disclosure: Jim played the role of adviser/sounding board for the rewrite of my dramedy spec.

What was the inspiration/motivation for this book?

I was prepping my webinar on February 7th for The Writers Store on Personal Voice, (FYI – Feb 1 is the last day to save $20 on registering) and I stumbled upon the idea that a writer must figure out what is special about what he does and then focus on that. I feel like it is the same way with me and the book.

I have always focused on the nitty-gritty of craft. Probably because I worked so hard trying to figure it out for myself as a writer. When I directed the 40ish DVDs in the Expo Series, I did my own class concentrating only on theme.

Years ago, I happened to be prepping for a feature I was directing. In a week, I saw the same scene performed more than 200 times by a hundred different actresses. I was trying to figure out what I could do that hadn’t been done before as far as a screenwriting book. My experience as a filmmaker has always informed my approach to understanding and teaching screenwriting. I’m not sure why it didn’t come to me sooner. I had an “A-ha!” or better yet a “Duh!” moment — SCENE WRITING!

There are a lot of screenwriting books out there. What makes this one unique?

The obvious distinction is that it focuses solely on scene writing… the first screenwriting book to do so.

I was fortunate enough to have story gurus Richard Walter and Michael Hauge review the book. Something Michael said really touched me. He said that there were a lot of ideas in the book he hadn’t even thought of. I wanted to cover new ideas or at least some seldom taught concepts in a novel way.

Having been in the screenwriting education niche writing for Creative Screenwriting, directing, creating 50 hours of educational DVDs and working as a consultant, I know what’s out there. I believe this book will carry the torch and be among the next go-to books for all screenwriters entering the field.

As I mentioned, my filmmaking experience and the fact that I am actively writing screenplays and making projects impacts my perspective. I try to be very specific in my examples. For a given topic, I may start with theory but I always try to end with concrete principles and tools that you can apply to your writing on the spot.

Some books are geared more towards covering the screenwriting basics, while others “go beyond (or way beyond) the basics”. Is this a book that both new and experienced writers could use?

I feel very strongly that this book will appeal to writers across a wide spectrum of skill levels. A friend of mine said I teach the last hundred pages of “the screenwriting book” more than I do the first hundred. So, if anything, I would be more concerned about whether this would serve beginners.

I even asked my editor if it did and she gave me a great response. But then out of the blue, the universe gave me a better answer. My 23-year-old stepson who is a computer engineer texted me. He said he was halfway through the book and said “It’s very accessible… nothing’s confusing.”

The only research I did while writing this book was to watch movies and think about them. Each chapter is like a stand-alone piece on topics such as exposition, concept, theme, and rewriting. I tried to begin with my, at least somewhat, original and basic take on a topic to ease the reader in and to orient them. A new writer can jump right in.

More advanced writers might recognize my approach as somewhat novel. I then try to go as deep as I can with the material, so that even professional writers might benefit. A writer who read the book said that 70-80% of it was stuff he had never heard before. He might be overstating it, but I’m proud that the book feels that way. I wanted to offer new insight into the nitty-gritty challenge of craft.

Even though the book’s title is THE CRAFT OF SCENE WRITING, what else does it cover besides writing scenes?

At its essence, scene writing is storytelling and the same principles apply. You are poring over characters, characterization, idiosyncrasies of the world, setups – to create reversals. You’ve heard of turning points, right? Writers have to turn a story. They also have to learn how to turn a scene. Or a line of dialogue.

However, I wanted this to complement all of the other screenwriting books that cover story structure. I am looking at screenplays at the molecular level. In the final section of the book, I cover rewriting in a parallel way to how I discuss scene structure. And then I explore how to discover and use your personal voice in your screenplays.

One of the phrases you really emphasized during the process with my script was “write to concept.” Can you elaborate on what you mean by that?

Whew, no softballs here. Making me earn my pie.

There are 7500 words in my chapter on concept, which have been through the wringer with my 18 copyeditors, but I will try to summarize with insightful pithiness.

Like I mentioned, as a writer you should use what’s special about yourself and your writing. Writing to concept means that you are using what’s special about your story as the main inspiration for its surprises. For fun, consider a 3-D horror movie where an axe flies across the screen left to right. Do you see how on some level that’s just wrong? It should be flying toward the camera. Otherwise, it’s ignoring the most prominent element of its medium.

Of course, I’m not that rigid, but writers have to narrow down the handful of elements that are essential to their concept because not only do their surprises spin out of them, but, for the most part, they spin out only from them. I don’t know if I can teach that here. Hopefully, I can intrigue you to go to the source.

Writing to concept allows you to find a unique way to express what otherwise might be a familiar story beat. Based on their concept, the moments will look very different. In Memento, Natalie hurts Leonard by hiding pencils. In Her, Samantha, an operating system, hurts her lover by telling him she’s in love with 641 other people.

Another of your favorite phrases during the writing process was “go deeper.” What should that mean to a writer?

It refers to a missed opportunity to get at more emotion with a character or to complicate a relationship, which would hopefully do the same. While we were working on your script, there’s a scene I pointed out featuring a moment where you were on the verge of discovering a powerful and transcendent moment, but then it was all over too soon. Sometimes writers hit a beat (in the broader sense), and maybe they are worried about a looming expansive page count or don’t appreciate what they have stumbled upon, so they move on too quickly. They might be better off — pick your metaphor — milking or massaging a moment for a bit longer and letting it play out.

Take a look at the long and emotional monologue in Good Will Hunting where Will’s best friend Chuckie tells him that he should “cash the winning lottery ticket” and get out of town to find a better life. He even tells him that the best part of the day is in the morning when he comes to pick him up, he has a moment of hope that Will has left — without even leaving a note. Imagine, if we cut that down to a sentence: “I will miss you but you gotta get the hell out of here.” We lose Chuckie’s voice, the suspense of it, the emotional heft and importance. It goes from a set-piece scene to a bland, merely functional one.

In addition to the book, Jim also provides a script consulting service. How can people get in touch to find out more?

Easy. Go to my site at www.jamespmercurio.com. I discuss why coaching is my preferred mode of working with writers. You can check out my DVD set and sign up for my free e-newsletter Craft & Career, which will also let you stay informed about classes and workshops I’m offering later in the year.

Last time around, you said your favorite kind of pie was the metaphoric “gross points from my last film”. Still the same today, or something different?

A pie in the hand is worth two gross points in a bush. Or 20 for that matter. So, hand me some Dutch Apple, please.

dutchapplepie

Characters are people!

soylent green
Go ahead. Say it like he would. You know you want to.

I’d always heard how your script should somehow reflect “the human condition”, but never really had a firm grasp of eactly what it meant or how you would accomplish that.

I mentioned the phrase in a discussion with another writer, to which they responded “I don’t care about that. I just want to tell good stories.”

But isn’t the story about the characters to begin with? And a story with under-developed characters won’t be as good as one where the characters feel like actual people.

Accomplishing that has always been one of my biggest challenges.

A comment I’ve received more than a few times in the past is that the reader finds my characters good, but somewhat incomplete. They’re established and believable, but only to a point. This isn’t saying they’re flat, one-dimensional caricatures (something I’ve unfortunately seen in many other spec scripts), but they don’t feel completely real.

Readers/audiences want to be able to relate to the characters in your script. They might feel they’re only getting a glimpse into what kind of person the protagonist is, or know there’s more to them, but that “more” isn’t there, and they want to see that. And this doesn’t just apply to the main characters; it’s everybody.

Digging a little deeper and offering up a few more details would help flesh them out, which in turn would make for a stronger story.

When I recently sent a script out for notes, the reader asked if there was anything specific I wanted them to focus on. Without a doubt, it was the protagonist and the antagonist. I felt while they were good, there was definitely a need to make them better.

The reader agreed and made some good suggestions about how that could be achieved. “We don’t know as much about these two characters as you might think,” they wrote. Since I was the writer, I had a little more insight into their respective backstories and what made them the people we see, but some of those details had stayed in my head, rather than been transferred onto the page.

So I went about adding in some small details here and there; a line of dialogue or a seemingly insignificant action. A few touches to give a little more insight into what makes them tick; why they are the way they are.

All of this, combined with a few alterations with the plot, makes this latest draft feel really different, and hopefully stronger, than its predecessors. I’m giving it a few more days to simmer, and will then give it another look to see if that vibe still holds.

What I’m also hoping is that from here on in, I’ll be able to apply this kind of approach to all future drafts, which would in theory, help achieve the same results but in a shorter amount of time.

Hope and ambition. Just two parts of the human condition, right?

A rather introspective Q&A with Lauren Sapala

Lauren-Pic-2
Lauren Sapala is the author of Between the Shadow and Lo, an autobiographical novel based on her experiences as an alcoholic. She is also the author of The INFJ Writer, a writing guide made specifically for sensitive intuitive writers. She currently lives in San Francisco.

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

The best book I’ve read this year is Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84. I was absolutely mesmerized and couldn’t put it down. The blend of fantasy with serious fiction was just enthralling.

Tell us a little about your writing background.

I’ve been writing seriously for over a decade and started my blog for writers in 2013. Shortly after I started the blog I went into business as a writing coach and I quickly noticed a pattern with my new clients. Nearly all of them were intuitive, introverted personality types. Using the insights I gained from working with my clients I wrote a book called The INFJ Writer, which came out in 2016. This year I released my addiction memoir, Between the Shadow and Lo. So, I currently juggle a few different writing responsibilities—I still write regularly for my blog, I work on my own books, and then I help my clients with their manuscripts.

Is recognizing good writing something you think can be taught or learned?

Wow, this is a tricky question and I have heavily biased opinions on it. I have a degree in English Literature, and I would say that it’s actually been one of the biggest obstacles in my own writing journey. Studying literature at the university level put me in an environment with a lot of “experts” who felt they definitely knew how to “recognize good writing.” But from my observations, this basically came down to the writers who have won awards, been canonized in some way, or who everyone has agreed is a “master.”

When I was a kid growing up in the 80s, for example, Stephen King was dismissed by a lot of people who liked good literature. Even when I was working in a bookstore in the early 2000s, a lot of the booksellers looked down on his books. Today, he’s been recognized as a “master” and so now it’s a different story. So, no, I don’t think “recognizing good writing” is something that can be taught. I think you have to learn how to read everything with an open mind and trust your own judgement. If you like something, you like something and that’s that,

Your book is called THE INFJ Writer. What does INFJ mean, and how does it apply to writers?

INFJ is one of the 16 different personality types in the Myers-Briggs Typology personality system. The letters stand for Introverted (I) Intuitive (N) Feeling (F) Judging (J). Another way of putting it is that INFJs are introverts who interpret the world through their intuition and use emotion to make the majority of their value judgements. INFJs are about 1% of the population, but from my observations they make up a much larger percentage of the writers out there.

What inspired you to write it?

It was a combination of different factors. I struggled for many years to write anything. I wanted to write more than anything else, but I did horribly in the creative writing classes I took in college. The whole “critique circle” thing didn’t work for me at all. I also couldn’t write in a linear fashion or use any sort of an outline. I had a lot of shame around these issues for years. It wasn’t until I painstakingly stitched together my first novel that I realized I wrote in a radically different way from the norm. When I started talking about these issues on my blog I got a huge response, and then, as I mentioned, I started taking on clients as a writing coach. Almost all of these people had found me through one article or another that I wrote on being an INFJ writer. I saw immediately that we all had the same problems. I knew then that I needed to write a book about this.

Some writers feel their talent and/or creativity might not be strong enough. How would you approach that?

A lot of people say creativity is a muscle, and I do agree with that to a certain extent, but for me, personally, it’s more like a portal. The more you open yourself up, open your heart and let things just show up in your mind without judgment, the more the portal widens and lets more cool things come through. If an idea pops in your head and you instantly go into rational mode and start judging it, or try to analyze how it will work as a plot or how readers will respond to it, you’ve pretty much set yourself up to kill the idea right there. If you’re habitually in judgement mode (toward yourself or others) you’re just not going to get very far with strengthening your creativity.

Is there a “proper mindset” to being a writer?

I don’t know if there’s a “proper mindset” but I would say there is a “helpful mindset” and that would be: Just Chill Out. Almost every single blockage or obstacle I work with my clients on can be traced back to the root of anxiety. Almost every writer is anxious that they’re not talented, they’re not doing it right, everyone else is doing it better, they’re not published yet, their novel doesn’t look like it’s supposed to, etc. If you’re serious about being a writer, you have to chill out on all this stuff. You’ll have good days and bad days and nothing is the end of the world. You’ll write stuff and be convinced it’s the work of a genius and look back a few years later and hate it. You’ll write stuff that you don’t think is very good and then other people will love it. You just have to hang in there and lighten up most of the time.

Are there some basic guidelines you suggest for writers, for both what they write and how (scheduling, timing, etc)?

Honestly, I think our culture is way too obsessed with rules. This also comes back to being in judgment mode. We live in a culture where people judge themselves and others relentlessly. We are so used to our media constantly bombarding us with what other people are doing wrong or how they’re being stupid, and we’re endlessly encouraged to make judgments about those people and their actions. Most people devote probably about 60-70% of their mind power to self-judgment—so when we see the blog post that reads “5 essential rules for successful writers” we eat it up. However, it’s not nourishing. It might feel familiar, because it’s got that judgment energy attached to it, but it’s actually not helpful.

I think most creative people flourish with NO guidelines in place. Write what you want to write. If you haven’t written anything in two weeks, whatever. Try writing something right now. If you’re not feeling it, then you’re not feeling it. I know this runs counter to the standard writing advice out there that “writing is work” and you have to “sit your butt in the chair and get it done,” and yes, I do understand that sometimes you just have to make it happen for yourself, but it shouldn’t be a constant swimming upstream battle either.

You recently released your autobiographical novel Between the Shadow and Lo. Can you talk a little bit about that and how it came about?

Between the Shadow and Lo is an addiction memoir (in the guise of a fictional novel) all about my alcoholic years in Seattle. I’ve been sober for 12 years now, but when I was drinking I was pretty much a lunatic. Between the Shadow and Lo is the story of how I felt like I had a split personality during that time. “Lo” was my other, sociopathic half and she only came out when I was too drunk to fight her off.

The book is very dark, and very gritty. It’s also one of the few transgressive fiction novels you’ll find out there written by a woman. Jean Genet and Charles Bukowski are two of my favorite writers and they were huge influences in terms of the style of that book.

How can people can get in touch with you to find out more about the services you provide?

They can email me at writecitysf@gmail.com. I get a lot of emails so sometimes it takes me a day or two to respond, but I do respond to every email I receive.

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

Does vegetarian Shepherd’s Pie count? I don’t eat a lot of sweet things, but I love vegetables.