Christopher McQuarrie on writing

The most important thing I learned was this: everything can always happen much sooner, much faster, and with much less said about it.

Source: Go Into The Story


Character Design tip

When designing new characters, you want to get the most amount of personality across in your sketches. One way of doing that easily is drawing a day in the life of that character. Where do they wake up? Are they a morning person? Who’s the first person they speak to? Are they late for anything? What do they fill their time with? Who’s giving them a hard time? Who is cheering them up? What do they do at night? How late do they stay up?

Seriously, you’ll learn a ton of information about your character, and you’ll be drawing them in situations that tell a story, rather than static poses. I don’t know if this will help you, but I’ve just started doing this and it helps me massively.


Concept versus Execution

Concept is your one stellar idea. You hang an entire story around it. It carries your title, characters and plot all the way to awesomeville and back again. Hollywood prizes high concepts above all else, they’re pretty much the currency they trade in and people’s careers have been made (and sustained) on them. So there’s a lot of emphasis, and rightly so.

Examples of excellent concepts are things like LIAR LIAR (a lawyer can’t lie), TRADING PLACES (rich guy and poor guy swap lives) and FINAL DESTINATION (death comes back for people he missed). Boom, you’ve got the movie in your head in one second. A thousand possibilities immediately spring to mind. Half your work is done for you – your concept is a series of ‘What If?’ questions and all you need to do is answer them. A good concept can even sell a bad script, because studios know they can fix the details later as long as the magic is there at the beginning. But here’s the thing… I think the details ARE the concept, or at the very least, they’re how you present it to the world. And presentation is everything.

Take a concept and look at two executions of it. Let’s say it’s the idea of entering a world inside the human mind. On the one hand you’ve got INCEPTION and on the other you’ve got THE LAWNMOWER MAN. Pretty big difference.

Execution lessons

Think about BACK TO THE FUTURE. That is a prime example of perfect execution. You name it, they nailed it. I like to think about the million other directions it could have taken. I remember seeing the film for the first time as a kid with my Dad. I was bouncing down the street afterwards, and I asked my Dad if he liked it. He did, although he was surprised they had a time machine but only went back thirty years. He thought they were going to visit Ancient Rome or somewhere, all these places throughout history (he would have made a shitty screenwriter). Now, with the concept they had (guy invents time machine, kid accidentally uses it), they had that option – but they restrained themselves and it was a great choice. Hell, the time machine itself was originally a fridge. Doc Brown was originally called Professor Brown, and he had a chimpanzee called Shemp. Eric Stoltz was Marty McFly. God have mercy on us all.

The point is, having an idea is one thing. Inspiration hits us all the time. But the execution of that idea is everything. What you chose to focus on, what you chose to leave out, how you take something that exists and give it a twist – this is just as important as the concept itself, maybe more so.

What I learned: This is where I’m at with a sci-fi thriller I’m writing. The concept has a lot to do with time travel, so I’m facing world of infinite possibilities and choices. It’s the easiest thing to overload a project with ‘cool shit’, but that’s a mistake. Do what best serves your concept and edit all the other stuff out. Take what you DO have and make it the best, most exciting version possible. That way you’ll be writing the next BACK TO THE FUTURE and not the next FREEJACK.


Learning how to write a script just got easier

There’s been some interesting developments in the land of screenwriting advice recently. Some sites are joining forces and others are branching out, which is great news if you’re like me and want to steal ideas from people that actually have them. Here’s a quick rundown:


John August has been running his invaluable (for stealing from) blog since forever, now he’s added a podcast with Craig Mazin. These two know screenwriting backwards and forwards and they’re eager to share their knowledge. It also helps that they have reassuring voices, their dulcet tones make you think everything’s going to be alright. WELL, IT’S NOT. Anyway, subscribe. It will be useful.

The Black List is an annual list of the best unmade scripts floating around Hollywood. Started by Franklin Leonard, it looks like he’s leveling up his empire as he’s added ‘Go in to the Story’ and ‘Screenwriting Tips… You Hack’ to the official site. These are the two best sources of screenwriting advice out there, and the Black List is hugely influential, so I’m excited to see them combine like Devastator.


This isn’t recent, but I just discovered it on Twitter, so it counts. The hashtag #scriptchat is used by a bunch of writers to talk about screenwriting and give out solid advice about the industry. It’s great for finding out about specific stuff like what contests are worth entering and how to break in. I followed a transcript on the site and found a prod co. who opened their doors to unsolicited queries for a week, so I followed it up and got a request. BAM! You see that? That’s social media in action.

What I learned: There’s never been a better time to learn about writing screenplays. Those sites above, plus Scriptshadow, The Tracking Board and IMDb Pro will absolutely give you all you need in terms of help. So what I’m saying is, if you fail, it’s totally your fault.



One of the biggest challenges writers face is finding the time to write, while still juggling their butt-numbing day job and butt-numbing personal life. At least, I think it is. I don’t know any other writers. I should say, one of the biggest challenges *I* face, is finding time to write, whilst still being able to watch two episodes of The Wire per evening. (I’m on a strict schedule).

Well, it ain’t easy… but it can be!

It all depends on when and where you write. I think I’m lucky, I can write anywhere – at home, in bed, at a loud bar, in a swanky coffee shop, underneath the Manhattan Bridge… it’s all the same. Just open the laptop and press them letter buttons. Some people need their special comfy chair or absolute peace and quiet in order to get the juices flowing. That’s sometimes hard to find, so if you don’t have those things, it gives you an excuse to put it off.

Putting things off is bad.

Always keep going. It’s the editing phase where you need to do some serious concentrating and that’s when you need to remove all distractions. Editing also works best if you can do it in big blocks, a whole day devoted to going through the script start to finish. Doing that sort of thing in short bursts will make you cry later because you screwed it up.

Plain old writing, however, can be tackled a little at a time. You’re just setting up the building blocks after all, and ninety minutes to blast through some pages is longer than you think. The sad fact that my concentration cannot last longer than two and half hours make a longer session redundant anyway. So if you can grab two hours a day to write, you have all the time you need. Caveat: Once you’re a professional writer, I’m sure things will change – you’ll need to write longer to get more things done, and that’s a whole other set of techniques.

Now I’m finding another problem – between work, The Wire, dinner, talking to my wife, The Wire, and sleep, I have almost no time to watch new movies. I can feel my movie knowledge fading away like Arnie’s biceps.


Writing Movies for Fun and Profit: How We Made a Billion Dollars at the Box Office and You Can, Too!

I gave Writing Movies for Fun and Profit: How We Made a Billion Dollars at the Box Office and You Can, Too! a shot and grabbed the Kindle version. It’s written by Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon, the guys in shorts from Reno:911, who now write shitty tentpole comedies deep inside the heart of the modern studio system. And what a place it is. If you need a reason to never move to LA, they have plenty. And if you have a single artistic bone in your body, this is one of the most discouraging books available. Luckily I don’t and I loved it.

These cats lay it all out. People are named and shamed for being dicks, straightforward explanations are given for why movies turn out terrible, and free lunches with stars are given their deserved recognition. They tell you how to do stuff you don’t want to do (you do it), why you will definitely get fired (100% definitely) and what to do when it happens (drink). This book is nothing short of a truth bomb.

What I learned: Probably the most useful book about that business I’ve read, because it’s honest. It demystifies the industry completely. There’s at least fifteen counter-intuitive things anyone would get wrong in Hollywood that they teach you to avoid. And it’s worth it for the chapter on Billy Crystal alone.


Stuck on page 63

I took Old Betsy the laptop out for a stretch today – blew the cobwebs off the mummified remains of Windows XP and like a total word warrior, went to a coffee shop to write.

I set myself up in a bright and breezy place on 5th Ave. It was a blazingly hot day, but the air inside was as cool as a glacial spring. They love me in here, and I love them back, even though the food’s not that good. (Also, every single other seating area in Park Slope is occupied by 8.15 am sharp on the weekend. Don’t people have homes they can write in?!). So I open up my free scriptwriting software of choice, and see I’m on page 63 of my spec. It’s goddamn perfect so far. Only about 30 pages to go. Easy.

Except it wasn’t. After taking a massive break from writing, I couldn’t remember where I was in the story. Had to re-read the whole thing again, and then gently – carefully – caress the words out of their hiding place like nervous kittens. Wrote two pages. Took three hours. And I’m not even sure I’m going to keep those, seeing as they felt so clunky.

There’s a lesson there somewhere (in fact, completely obvious) – No matter what, don’t take a break in the middle of a project. Just keep going.


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