Sunday, July 11, 2010

Writing Screenplays

The itch to write is an overwhelming desire to take an ego trip into a thick fog.

As we blunder through life we tend to pick up a bit of knowledge here and there that helps us grow along the way. About 30 years ago I got the itch to write. I was living in the Hollywood Hills at the time, overlooking Universal Studios, and figured I could crank out a couple of screenplays, hit it big and live happily ever after.

Besides, I'm too lazy to work, too honest to steal and too opinionated to keep quiet. Writing seemed like a good way to glide through life with the greatest of ease.

I attended Sherwood Oaks Experimental College, an outfit that specialized in the motion picture business, and took every screenwriting seminar and workshop they offered for a couple of years. The instructors were all top professionals who felt obligated to give something back to the industry that had been so good to them.

TV producer, Maurice Singer, taught a class at Sherwood Oaks about TV series writing and production. From him I learned about the business of writing and the art of selling your material.

Robert Mundy was the editor of a movie industry magazine and a film critic. He would screen movies and meticulously dissect every plot-point and nuance. From him I learned foreshadowing and plotting.

Sid Field was a screenwriter and an associate producer for Wolper Productions. He was also the author of SCREENPLAY -- THE ART OF SCREENWRITING, one of the definitive screenwriting books. He taught a seminar about the basic formula of writing. From him I learned how to structure a story.

Robert Getchell, author of many successful screenplays including ALICE DOESN'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE, BOUND FOR GLORY, MOMMIE DEAREST, POINT OF NO RETURN, THE CLIENT and others, taught a screenwriting class where he emphasized characterization. From him I learned how to define characters and construct dialogue.

Screenwriting legend, Ernest Lehman, conducted a workshop that included the screening of some of his films and lots of commentary about the process involved. Some of his works included SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, NORTH BY NORTHWEST, HELLO DOLLY, WEST SIDE STORY, SBBRINA, WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF and many, many more. He was a grand old man with a wealth of knowledge. From him I learned many subtle tricks of the trade.

After my experience at Sherwood Oaks, I hooked up with two professional screenwriters, Peter Bellwood and Larry Ferguson, who were attempting to put a production staff of screenwriters together. They took me under their respective wings and taught me a great deal about writing. We eventually became good friends.

Peter Bellwood had won an Emmy for co-writing a TV comedy special and has had several of his screenplays produced, including MOUNT ST. HELENS, STEEL, PHOBIA, HIGHLANDER, and HIGHLANDER II. The last time I spoke to him, he was on his way back to England to work on another movie project. From him I learned how to make a manuscript flow.

Larry Ferguson went on to become a highly successful screenwriter, creating such works as THE PRESIDIO, BEVERLY HILLS COP II, ALIEN III, THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER, MASTER AND COMMANDER, many more. He now lives in rural Oregon and still teaches screenwriting classes. From him I learned how to be spontaneously creative.

I’ve been truly blessed to have had such brilliant mentors. I learned something from each one of them, and am eternally grateful.

Over the next few years, I wrote three full-length screenplays -- NINE-BALL JOHNNY (episodic pool hall adventures), OVEREXPOSURE (suspense/thriller) and MINOR CHANGE (suspense/thriller). I signed with a literary agent (Writer's West Unlimited) in Beverly Hills whereupon OVEREXPOSURE seemed to draw some interest from a major studio and an independent film producer.

I eventually moved away from southern California to a more secluded lifestyle and switched to writing novels. My four novels were published in the 1990s -- THE DOGMAN OF TOPANGA (romantic suspense/thriller), A BAD RUN OF FATE (psychological thriller), GOOMBA IN MONTANA (suspense/thriller) and THE ELEVENTH SAGE (metaphysical mystery).

In 2001-2007, I wrote a weekly newspaper column. After butting heads with editors for seven years, I switched to the freedom of writing blogs and have written over 200 blogs since the summer of 2008.

Writing is a lot like golf – it looks easy but takes a ton of practice just to reach par. And so far, I've had plenty of practice. I didn’t exactly hit it big, but I did manage to live happily ever after.

If you have a fertile mind and an itch to write, your only two choices are to do it or to spend the rest of your life wondering when you're ever going to get around to doing it. Once you start writing, the desire to write grows as you go along and the only way to fail is to stop.

If you have any other type of itch, consult your physician.

Quote for the Day -- "Characters should never enter. They should storm in, they should skulk in, they should tremble in. These are the only chances you have to create visual pictures in people's brains." Larry Ferguson

Bret Burquest is an award-winning columnist and author of four novels. He lives in the Ozark Mountains with a dog named Buddy Lee and has the itch to have no more itches. His blogs appear on several websites, including


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