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Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Killer Scenes

By Steven Pressfield
Published: January 27, 2015

Paul Schrader is the much-honored director and screenwriter (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, many others) and, for me, a major role model for many years. Here’s what he said in an interview once on the subject of pitching a film idea:

"You talkin' to me?" Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver.

Have a strong early scene, preferably the opening, a clear but simple spine to the story, one or two killer scenes, and a clear sense of the evolution of the main character or central relationship. And an ending. Any more gets in the way.

I’ve stolen this system lock, stock, and barrel. It’s exactly how I pitch. One of the secret weapons here is “killer scenes.” Why? Because a killer scene gives the writer a chance to get on his feet in a meeting and act out a part of the movie he’s seeing in his head. Moments like this, when they work, can be dynamite. The writer gets to show off his passion and enthusiasm. Often this is more important that content or reason or even dollars and cents. Think of Taxi Driver. Can you imagine Paul Schrader in a meeting, acting out the “You talkin’ to me?” scene that Robert DeNiro later made immortal?

Another critical aspect of Schrader’s pitching philosophy is keeping it brief. ”Any more gets in the way.” It’s a terrible mistake to over-pitch. Attention spans are short. You want to get in, fire your broadside, and get out. But you can’t make it too short or your audience won’t get it, they won’t see the movie (or book) that’s in your head.

Schrader’s method, to me, is just right weight-wise and length-wise.

It’s also an invaluable conceptual tool for you and me as writers, even if we have no intention of pitching our stuff to anybody. Schrader’s principles are like the Foolscap Method, or the Clothesline Method, or the David Lean Rule. They’re a way for you and me to get a bead on our story, particularly when we’re still wrestling with it in the early stages, just for ourselves. Schrader’s principles help us answer these critical questions:

1. Is my story interesting?

2. Is it dramatic? Does it have horsepower? Will it hook the reader?

3. Is it actually about something?

4. Does it progress from A to Z?

5. Does it pay off in the climax?

In the Foolscap Method, we ask ourselves of our story:

What’s the genre? What’s the theme? What’s the narrative device? What’s Act One, Act Two, Act Three? What’s the climax?
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