Personal highlights or take-aways from Day Two of the Toronto Screenwriting Conference:
Darlene Hunt – Masterclass (creator, showrunner for Showtime’s The Big C)
Take your time responding to questions: When someone is asking you about a specific line or scene, whether in meeting on or set, give yourself time to think about it, because you may not remember exactly why you wrote that scene that way. At the same time, even if you can explain why you went that way, make sure you remain open to new interpretations or new ideas that may work better.
Bob Kushell—Anatomy of a Pilot (creator of BBC series Way to Go)
Pilots suck: All pilots suck to one extent or another and he explains why using the analogy of an approaching tornado. You’re living your life when suddenly you hear that a tornado is coming. Quickly, you run into the storm shelter with several other people and try to prepare for the coming storm. At the same time, as each of you goes about your tasks, you remind one of the people about that time she ran over your cat, which is why you don’t like her. But hey, you love the fact that another individual’s here despite those awkward feelings after that drunken fling at the cottage. Oh, but you still need to prepare for the coming tornado.
Within an ever-shortening time span (now around 21 minutes), you need to fill in useless backstory that everyone in the show should know (it’s their backstory) and still manage to tell a coherent plot that somehow illustrates the show’s premise.
Penny Penniston—Not Just Talk: How Writers Think About Dialogue (professor at Northwestern University)
Dialogue is not conversation: If words were keys on a piano keyboard, then the difference between conversation and dialogue is the difference between noise and music. Dialogue is precise and crafted, gives voice and describes themes. It gives clear direction to the artists interpreting it and a chance for them to show off. And like learning to play music, learning to craft dialogue takes practice to develop muscle memory, but at the same time, understanding the theory behind dialogue will allow you to step back from your work and find the good and bad things about it.
Aaron Korsh – Masterclass (creator and showrunner of USA Network’s Suits)
Understand your scene’s goal: Reading a scene out loud can be very helpful when it comes to determining if it’s working, as some scenes may read well, but something goes wrong when it becomes audible. And if the scene isn’t working, it’s often because you haven’t really established what the scene’s dynamic or purpose is.
When my son was in college he attended a screenwriter’s panel discussion. He found it very interesting. He was very impressed with the writer from Mad Men.
Thanks for sharing.
The challenge I find with a lot of these conferences (less so with Toronto or the Austin Film Festival) is you walk away with little practical information that you can use to improve your screenwriting.
The panel discussions can be incredibly entertaining, and the speakers tell some amazing stories, but then the talk ends and you have absolutely nothing (or damned little) of use in your notebooks.
Mad Men is an incredibly well-crafted show, so it doesn’t surprise me it has incredible writers.
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