Pen Densham writes for both TV and feature films and is personally responsible for reviving ‘The Outer Limits’ and ‘The Twilight Zone’ series to television. Here are his views on navigating your screenwriting career.
1) WRITE FROM YOUR HEART
As a writer, trust your instinctual creativity and write from your passion. When you don’t value what you create, why should anybody else? When you love what you are working on, it feels less like work and more like a personal discovery. It brings your original and unique voice to the front. Even when you are hired to write, bring your authenticity to the game. Passion is a great way to help immunize yourself from the pain and uncertainty of the artistic process. And sometimes it can be enrapturing. Things are beautiful if you love them.
2) DON’T WORRY ABOUT RULES
Collect ideas any way they come. Write the way things feel to you. Have fun! A well laid-out script with no feeling is crap no matter what. I often break the supposed “cardinal” rules. I write my scripts partly as poetry, I write my characters’ thoughts in the descriptions, I write in BLOCK LETTERS to make points. I call it “fusion writing.” Write from your voice. Imagine there is a roof inside your head that limits your upward thinking. Now reach in and toss it away. Your personal creative universe is up there! A fresh, inventive, and passionate script is more likely to sell. More likely to attract major actors. More likely to satisfy and grow you as an artist.
3) DON’T OVERWHELM YOURSELF
Scripts are not as complex as they seem. Movies are really short stories. If you took all the whitespace out of a feature script and looked at it just as prose, there are probably only 40 to 60 pages’ worth of words. Features usually break down into three acts: beginning, middle, and end. (Maybe in a shuffled order if you use flashbacks). Act 1 – The characters get into gear. Act 2 – They explore but fail to reach their goals. Act 3 – They recover and develop as people as they struggle to reach their ultimate resolution. Scripts are often not as complicated or as overwhelming when you look at them like this.
4) IGNORE YOUR INNER NAGGING THOUGHTS
They are seldom accurate perceptions of what you are actually achieving. It is deeply unfair to criticize your navigation skills when taking a journey into unknown territory. Try not to demoralize yourself. I call my first draft the “Lewis & Clark.” Any freaking way that gets you to the coast is the correct way! Do not criticize yourself for the odd wrong turn, the weather slowing you down, having to stop for supplies. There is no bad route when you are on a voyage of discovery. Just keep going! Look at your early script drafts as explorative, until you find solidly what you like. When you get to the Pacific Ocean — your script’s ending — celebrate! Next, put the freeway through with a polish, knowing what you have discovered and which signposts are needed to bring your readers on the journey with you. Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.
5) GIVE YOUR CHARACTERS A MAJOR FLAW IN THEIR BACKSTORY
I struggle to find my character’s inner demon. Usually one, defining horrific incident in their lives that they have not recovered from or invested their courage in changing. I call these back story incidents “Nuggets.” Like the seed in a fruit, my story is really servicing the character overcoming this damage and becoming who they should be. The character is defined by the effect of his or her demon. When the character struggles to change, we see the conflict in his soul and root for him to become the fulfilled person that is crumpled inside. Even villains are heroes in their own mind and can have a potent back story issue, a nugget that drives them. I firmly believe we are creatures who are evolutionarily conditioned to pay deep attention to the behaviors of others as a survival and success strategy. It makes the writer’s task much easier when you realize you are exploring a nugget, a single very simple, but compelling, internal human story. And by the way, everything in life is writeable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self doubt.
6) DON’T JUDGE YOUR PROGRESS BY OTHER FINISHED MOVIES
Evaluating your fledgling work in comparison to the successes of others can be demoralizing. You don’t know how they got made. Maybe their journeys were more perilous than you think. Regard your first draft as a pencil sketch. When museums x-ray the paintings of great masters like da Vinci, they find many false starts, sometimes total compositions that have been erased or painted over. Does that mean that Leonardo was an indecisive idiot? Being perfect is impossible! Expect some speed bumps on your creative journey. Writing is naturally a series of discoveries, growing your vision is a normal part of the artistic process. Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.
7) YOU ARE NEVER TOO OVERWHELMED TO WRITE
Here is the best way to fight procrastination. WRITE A SINGLE LINE A DAY. This is the most undemanding and easiest way to overcome resistance and writer’s block. Make a point to open your files and write the least threatening amount of work. One line! It keeps your mind primed. Even on a day filled with the clutter and debris of modern life, you will have assigned a portion of your personal processor to the task of your creative passion. It will be working away in the unconscious. Truthfully, we don’t write, we get out of the way and let our inner mind free. And some days when you are only going to write “just one line,” you will find a treasure of new thoughts pouring forth.
8) CAREFULLY CHOSE WHO YOU SHARE YOUR EARLY WORK WITH
I never show a first draft to the outside world. I share it with trusted people who I call Story Midwives: Empathetic kin, who understand the artistic process. Sensitive people who want to help you push through the pain of creative birth without making demands about what the child should be. Midwives help my child grow with supportive comments. Eventually my writing gets strong enough to face the less caring and dogmatic business world it will eventually have to succeed in. Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others. Jonathan Swift
9) TRUST YOUR BRAIN TO SOLVE YOUR PROBLEMS
It is normal not to have all the solutions at once. Take a break when you run into a block. Sleeping on it works! Tell yourself you are just playing. Don’t make the stakes gigantic. I find I get some of my best ideas in the shower. Using my muscles seems to free my mind. All art is built on the foundation of the discoveries of others. Sometimes I watch other movies that feel like they might inform me. Ideas often ricochet from the screen into my head and come out as entirely different but powerful contributions. Lesser artists borrow, great artists steal. Igor Stravinsky
10) TREAT YOUR WORK WITH THE RESPECT IT DESERVES
You have invested a lot of time and effort. First impressions are important. You need that financier, star, director, etc. to see the best version of your work. To sell a script that is the foundation for a large investment, it must make sense to the widest audience. Before your script goes into the wild: Proof the spelling. Make the layout as eye-friendly as possible. Make sure that your story points are really clear; I call this “A-hole Proofing.” Every obstacle you remove to a good read is one less reason for a pass. Use trusted readers to give you feedback to make sure you have achieved your goals with clarity. Then share it with the rest of the world. True art is characterized by an irresistible urge in the creative artist. Albert Einstein
11) FIND AN EMOTIONALLY POWERFUL TITLE
A great title is like the wrapping on a gift. It makes you want to open it – Did the word SECRETS and SUCCESS in this email’s Subject line get you to read this? I love to share my observations, philosophy and hopes with fellow artists. I consider it a great honor to be a literary Story Midwife to others. But, I also have a rule: “Ignore everything I say that goes against your natural creative instincts.” Your process is sacred to me.