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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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Posted in Writing Wednesdays
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WAR STORIES

War Stories

Over thirty-plus years of reading and researching, I've compiled a wild and crazy library in my head. In this series, I want to share some of it--the arcane, the obscure, the occult. It'll be eclectic. The posts will bounce all over the place. I plan to feature stuff from Hemingway to Homer, from von Manstein to Moshe Dayan. Posts will come from movies and plays, myths and legends, from journalism and personal correspondence and combat reports. Not all of it will be "war stuff." But it will all deal with issues of honor and virtue and courage in the face of adversity. A lot of it will be real literature. All of it, I hope, will be inspiring.

I also want to invite everyone to chip in with their own stories. Write me at steve {at} stevenpressfield {dot} com. Suggest passages—1000 words or less—from favorite books. Or send in something you've written yourself. Tell us about a patrol in Kunar province, or a letter your Dad sent to you from Pleiku in 1969. If it's great, we'll run it.

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"What It Takes" is a journal of the campaign to make The Profession a New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller. You'll be in on the meetings, the marketing and publicity, what works and doesn't work—everything. Expect a play-by-play as the campaign unfolds.

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I wrote The War of Art primarily for writers (its original title was The Writer's Life), but since it was published in 2002, I've received hundreds of e-mails from business entrepreneurs, actors, dancers, painters, photographers, filmmakers, military service members and others, telling me how the book seemed to have been written specifically for them—and how much it has helped their creative and entrepreneurial endeavors. Sometimes the e-mails are short, a sentence or two of thanks. Other times they've been sagas, life-stories packed with more drama and heartbreak than a soap opera. I know exactly what these correspondents are talking about. Resistance kicks everybody's ass—and the desperate desire to defeat it is equally as universal. Writing Wednesdays is an ongoing, blog-version of The War of Art. It's the chapters I would have written if I'd kept on writing the book. Then there's the added dimension of the comments from readers. I always scroll down and take a look. Some of the insights are better than the post itself. "Why didn't I think of that?"

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THE CREATIVE PROCESS

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I always want to know more about the people behind the work I admire. How do they do it? What does the process feel like from inside their heads? Wouldn't it have been amazing to sit with Hemingway, the way he sat with Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein and others, to discuss writing? The Creative Process is a Q&A with a wide range of creative people—from writers to business entrepreneurs and beyond—probing how they do that thing they do.

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