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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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ADDITIONAL READING » ON WRITING

Additional Reading: On Writing

Bambi versus Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose and Practice of the Movie Business

by Mamet, David

Technically this isn’t a book about writing. It’s about Tinseltown and David Mamet’s love-hate relationship with it. But, along with Mamet’s witty and cantankerous evisceration of show biz, Bambi vs. Godzilla delivers masterly and extremely useful insights on getting movies made, surviving criticism, paying the rent and in general surviving Hollywood while retaining some scrap of sanity and integrity. Mamet is not just any writer. When he takes on a subject, you get it in context succeeding context—commercial, aesthetic, moral, ethical, legal, Talmudic, Tantric and Vedic. It’s like reading Thucydides if he’d loaded his stuff into a ‘65 Mustang and split for the Coast.

Ernest Hemingway on Writing

by Phillips, Larry W.

Papa never actually sat down and wrote a book about writing. Rather, editor Larry Phillips has compiled 140 pages of hard-core Hemingwayisms from the author’s books, stories, and letters. Great material, particularly the fragments of correspondence to Scott Fitzgerald.

First Five Pages, The

by Lukeman, Noah

As an agent and editor, Noah Lukeman read thousands of manuscripts from aspiring writers. He got to where he could tell in the first five pages if a submission was worth his time. In this gem of a book, he tells you the most common mistakes writers make—and how to eradicate them from your manuscript.

How To Be Inspired

by Williams, Nick

A no-nonsense how-to manual and psych-yourself-up kit, for those of us who sometimes need a swift kick in the butt to get us going.

Journal of a Novel

by Steinbeck, John

When he was writing East of Eden, Steinbeck kept a journal—just a few pages each morning, which he’d scribble as a kind of warm-up before turning to the actual manuscript. Fascinating insights into the writer’s life, inside and outside the covers of a book.

Robert McKee’s Story Seminar

by McKee, Robert

I always say that McKee is not only the best teacher of writing I’ve ever seen, but the best teacher of anything. I’ve taken this three-day intensive course twice—and I’ll take it again. Yes, McKee has been spoofed (in the movie Adaptation) and lionized (in a New Yorker profile.) But that’s because he’s the best. Full disclosure: McKee and I are friends. McKee wrote the foreword for The War of Art. McKee teaches this class in cities all over the U.S. and Europe, even as far away as Israel and Singapore.

Story

by McKee, Robert

This is the book that goes with Robert McKee’s Story Seminar. Terrific for writers in all media, but take the “live” McKee first. You’ll get more out of the book if you’ve heard the man deliver his stuff in-person.

Three Uses of the Knife

by Mamet, David

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