Posted in Screenwriting, Writing

6 Quotes by Nora Ephron to Make You a Better Writer


Nora Ephron (1941–2012) was the celebrated writer/director of classic films like Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail, she was the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of When Harry Met Sally, and she was the hilarious essay writer of I Feel Bad About My Neck and other amazing collections.

Here are six wonderful quotes she left us that will help you in your writing life!

1. Reading is everything. Reading makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something, learned something, become a better person. Reading makes me smarter. Reading gives me something to talk about later on. Reading is the unbelievably healthy way my attention deficit disorder medicates itself. Reading is escape, and the opposite of escape; it’s a way to make contact with reality after a day of making things up, and it’s a way of making contact with someone else’s imagination after a day that’s all too real. Reading is grist. Reading is bliss.

This quote comes from one of Nora Ephron’s many essays that have delighted me for years on end. I actually have two of her audiobooks and still play them in my car to this day. Even though she died in 2012, listening to Ephron’s voice in my vehicle makes her feel like she’s still alive in a way. Still available to inspire me and make me laugh. Ephron is one of my all time favorites.

And I particularly love this quote she shared about reading. Because I feel the same way, don’t you? That reading is everything. Well maybe not everything, but boy is it relaxing to just sit for an hour and read. Especially when it’s for pleasure. Lately I’ve been taking a bath late at night and taking two or three books with me. How had I never really done this before this past month?

Sitting in a warm bath while reading a great book is something almost otherworldly. It’s divine. And reading this quote by Ephron reminds me once again that when life gets hectic, one of the best remedies is to sit and read. To forget my own writing. To forget reading like a writer at all times. To just read for pleasure’s sake. Just read to relax and have fun.

2. I don’t care who you are. When you sit down to write the first page of your screenplay, in your head, you’re also writing your Oscar acceptance speech.

When I sit down to write a new screenplay or a new novel, I’m sort of the opposite — I just hope and pray I don’t screw it up. I’m not thinking about awards this latest writing project might give me. I’m basically hoping I just survive to see the end of the first draft… and maybe, if I’m lucky, that first draft will be halfway decent!

But sure, there is always a little voice in my head when I start something new that says, all that hard work you’ve done for the past decade has led to this moment. That voice tells me, this is the one, this is going to make you lots of money, this is going to be published and become a hit and be adored by millions of reads the whole world over.

None of that ever happens, of course. And I wouldn’t really ever expect it to. But it’s fun to dream about, isn’t it? You’re spending six months or a year or two years (or sometimes longer!) to work on this one creative writing project. You’re putting your heart and soul into the thing. You’re putting hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of hours into creating something new.

So yes, go ahead and dream a little that this latest manuscript might win you some awards, might win you recognition. There’s no harm in it!

3. I go through periods where I work a great deal at all hours of the day whenever I am around a typewriter, and then I go through spells where I don’t do anything. I just sort of have lunch — all day. I never have been able to stick to a schedule. I work when there is something due or when I am really excited about a piece.

I had never heard this quote from Ephron before, and I love it — even though I disagree with her writing schedule. From what I’ve read from her, Ephron seems like the kind of artist who would work like this. Who wouldn’t stick to a schedule necessarily and just write when she’s inspired or excited by a project, or when there’s a pressing deadline. She did work in journalism for much of her young life, after all.

However, I’ve suggested since day one that one of the best things you can do for your writing career is to create a schedule for yourself, and stick to it. When I’m writing the first draft of a new novel, I write 2,000+ words a day until it’s done. When I’m revising a novel, I’ll usually work on one chapter every day until that’s done. When I write a screenplay, I’ll try to write 5 pages a day every day until I complete it.

I think if you’re talented and super disciplined, you can sort of get away without having a proper schedule. If the writing bug is within you, you’ll probably write most days of the week anyway, like I do.

But if you’re someone who hasn’t written a whole lot and who wants to write more, if you’re someone who tends to procrastinate often and never finish anything, then you should absolutely stick to a schedule at all times.

4. I try to write parts for women that are as complicated and interesting as women actually are.

Something Ephron is really known for is writing tremendous parts for women in her screenplays. Consider the lead female roles in Silkwood, When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail, Julie & Julia. She creates women who are complicated and interesting and flawed and courageous and memorable. She’s written some of the best women roles certainly in romantic comedies in the last thirty years.

And something you should always be thinking about no matter what kind of material you write — short fiction, novels, screenplays, plays — is to create memorable roles for both men and women. I’ve written twenty novels to date. Many of those novels feature male protagonists, and only a few of them feature female protagonists, but in every new novel I take on I try to create three-dimensional female characters that feel in every way as important to the narrative as the male characters.

You can’t just write guy after guy if you’re a guy. You have to include more female characters in your fiction. You have to include more diversity in your fiction. Don’t just write characters similar to yourself. Take chances and evolve and create a character in your next creative piece that’s unlike anyone you’ve written before. Make her interesting, make her an integral part of your narrative. Always make the women in your storytelling as complicated and interesting as real women actually are.

5. I just want to go on making movies, and some of them will be completely meaningless, except, of course, to me.

Something every artist needs to do if they are serious about writing is to just keep going always. Whether or not your last five projects failed. Whether or not your last project was a monumental success. Nora Ephron had highs and lows in her career definitely. She was nominated for three Academy Awards and had a handful of major success in her long career, but she also had huge flops, too — Lucky Numbers, anyone?

She could have stopped after a couple of those flops, but she kept going anyway, and the final film she made before her untimely death is one of my favorites — 2009’s Julie & Julia, starring Meryl Streep as Julia Child. Even after a flop here and there, Ephron kept going because each new project held meaning for her, even if it held no meaning for anyone else.

You want to think about this in the same way with your own writing. Even if you haven’t published anything yet. Even if you’re just getting started. You have to keep in mind that some, possibly many, of the writing projects you take on won’t actually go anywhere, might end up in a drawer in a year’s time. So that’s why I always tell writers to work on projects they’re passionate about. Don’t write something because you think it will make you money. Write something that has some kind of meaning to you.

If the project has meaning, then you won’t have any failures, not really. And when that meaning is there, often readers will see it, and want to read more from you.

6. All I do when I write scripts is think about food: ‘Have I worked long enough to justify a walk to the kitchen?’

Finally, I couldn’t leave a piece discussing Nora Ephron without bringing food into the conversation! Ephron of course was one of the ultimate foodies. You would know that if you watch her movies closely (and if you watch any five minutes of Julie & Julia), but you would especially know it if you read her essays. She doesn’t just love a great meal. She would literally think about food all throughout the day. Ponder what she might eat next. Dream about what her next dish might be, and get excited for it.

Although I do think you should maintain a flow in your writing schedule, and that it’s not in your best interest to get up every twenty minutes to peruse the fridge or the pantry, I do believe in giving yourself celebratory snack breaks when you reach a new word count or milestone in your latest project.

The snack break I like to take is when I hit another 1,000 words in my latest first draft. I will sit down at 9am or 10am or whenever and decide I’m going to write 2,000 words of my latest project today. I won’t get up all the time, but I will get up once, when I hit 1,000 words, the halfway point— and take a 5-minute break to treat myself to a yummy snack. I feel like 1,000 words on the page is justification for a break.

And then, once you hit 2,000 words and have reached your goal for the day, then you can go nuts in the kitchen! Make a lavish lunch if you want. You should of course be completely focused on the story you’re telling and not on the food you want to eat next, but if you’re a foodie like Nora Ephron, then go ahead and treat yourself!

Posted in Screenwriting, Writing

Why You Need to Avoid Play-by-Play Narration in Your Writing


In her 2012 craft book Writing Irresistible Kidlit, author Mary Kole says,

A writer often indulges in play-by-play narration when he sees a scene vividly in his mind’s eye and wants the reader to see it precisely, too. Moments with lots of physical action are magnets for this mistake. What some writers don’t realize is that the reader can fill in lots of blanks on her own. In most cases, leave the play-by-play narration to the reader’s imagination and fight the urge to describe every minute detail of otherwise unimportant events or physical actions.

Your writing will always come alive when you avoid too much play-by-play narration.

These last few weeks I’ve been hard at work on the second draft of my new young adult thriller, Fear of Water. This is my twentieth novel in less than ten years, and I’m bound and determined to get this one right! I wrote it in 31 days last summer — so, yeah, really fast — but I’ve been going super slow on the second draft, taking eight long weeks to work my way through the manuscript.

Just yesterday I revised chapter fifteen, about twelve pages of writing where lots of events happen, a couple major revelations are revealed, and an emotional cliffhanger takes place. Reading through this chapter I kept telling myself, this should be more riveting. This should be one of the most powerful chapters yet.

Yet much of the writing of this particular chapter just felt dead on the page. The rhythm seemed off. I wasn’t connecting to the writing in this chapter than I have been in most of my other chapters.

By the final page of the chapter I was getting frustrated, partly because I didn’t think the chapter was working as well as it should have, but mostly because I couldn’t figure out exactly what was wrong with it. Was I just a bad writer??

No. The problem, I discovered, was that there was way too much play-by-play narration.

It actually wasn’t until reading Mary Kole’s terrific craft book that I finally found a name for this.

I’d never called it play-by-play narration before, but I have that name for it now thankfully, and I’ll be keeping a look out for it in the days to come as I continue revising my latest work.

It’s something that completely deadens a scene. That makes it read awkwardly, tiredly. That makes it feel twice as long than it really is, and even just one instance of this early in your novel might tip the reader off that you don’t really know what you’re doing, and that reader might put your book down for good, you never know.

Play-by-play narration is essentially telling the reader every single little thing that happens in a scene. Telling the reader every single time your character walks from point A to point B. Every single time your character lifts her eyebrows or puts her hands on her waist.

It’s essentially treating a scene like it’s playing out in real time, when, just like in movies, you should always get to the heart of the scene… and then get out. Show us what really matters, then move onto the next scene, and the next one after that.

This is something I taught my students in a screenwriting class last year.

You can sort of get away with more play-by-play narration in a novel because you have more space to write than you do in a screenplay. If you want your next chapter to be seventeen pages long, there’s no rule to say it can’t be done. Your chapters can be as long as you want, within reason.

Screenplays are a different beast because, unless you’re Quentin Tarantino or Christopher Nolan, you kind of have to follow the rules about keeping your scenes to about two to four pages.

So many of my students were writing scenes that went on for ten, twenty, sometimes thirty pages, and what I found them to be doing always was writing play-by-play narration. Having a scene begin where two characters walk into a room, and the scene wouldn’t end until both characters left the room.

Think about movies you watch. When a character leaves a house and drives across town to the mall, do we see every bit of the journey? The grabbing the keys, the walking to the garage, the getting into the car, the opening of the garage door, the backing away from the driveway, all ten minutes of the drive itself, then parking the car, getting out of the car, walking to the mall, opening an entrance door, entering the mall.

It’s exhausting, right? And so totally unnecessary. No, you most often will see a character step out of a room, and then boom, in the next shot, they’re entering the mall.

Your viewers can put two and two together. They can figure out what happened between the cut.

You don’t need to give us every detail, whether you’re writing a screenplay, a short story, or a novel.

Again, you might be tempted in your fiction writing, especially in a novel, to write out every single beat of a scene. You have the room to do it, so why not?

Try to avoid doing this whenever possible. Sure, in a first draft, you can write a lot of play-by-play narration. Go nuts if it gets words down on the page, and if it helps get you to the next scene, the next chapter. As I said, I’ve written twenty novels, and I’m certainly guilty of writing lots of play-by-play narration in each of my first drafts.

It’s why I usually end up cutting 10,000 words or more in each of my second drafts. The first draft of Fear of Water was 81,000 words. I still have six more chapters to revise in my second draft… and the book is now at 72,000 words. My second draft might get all the way down to 67,000 or even 66,000 words.

That’s 15,000 words deleted without changing anything major about the story’s narrative! That’s 15,000 words mostly of eliminated play-by-play narration.

This is of course the very nature and importance of revision. To find those scenes that tell too much and shave it down in a way that gets to the heart of what’s going on, of what the reader truly needs to know.

Mary Kole is absolutely right: you want to leave most of the play-by-play to the reader’s imagination. You want to trust that the reader understands more about your characters, about your scenes, than you think.

So avoid play-by-play narration whenever possible. Your writing will always be the better for it!

Posted in Screenwriting, Writing

What are 5 ways to make your screenplay suck?


I have written three screenplays in the last eighteen months, and I’m in the early stages of outlining a fourth. I did a lot of good work in these scripts, especially when it came to pacing, character development, and third act twists.

But I also made a ton of mistakes. One of the three scripts I definitely screwed up on big time. And the other two have their share of flaws, no doubt about it.

It’s easy to read books and articles about how to make your screenplays great… but here’s a piece that discusses the five sure-fire ways to screw your screenplay up.

There are basic ways to mess up your screenplay. Wrongly formatted cover page. Amateur scene headers. Misspellings. Typos everywhere. Things like that.

But on a more macro level, here are five easy ways to make your screenplay suck!

1. Too much description.

Description is a great addition to novel writing, short story writing. Description opens up the world of your story and offers the reader countless images of how to picture every scene.

When it comes to screenwriting, however, description, for the most part, is unnecessary.

A little bit of description can go a long way, telling the reader just enough to get across what a character looks like or what a setting looks like.

It’s when you overload your screenplay with description that the suck factor comes in. Do not — I repeat, do not — treat a screenplay like a novel. Don’t fill up an entire page with description! You’re going to lose your readers fast because they’ll recognize you don’t know what you’re doing.

There should be lots and lots of white space in your screenplays, not huge blocks of text.

2. Scenes that go on too long.

The general rule of a scene in a screenplay is two to three pages. You can go a little shorter than two pages, and sometimes a scene simply have to go on to a fourth page, sometimes even a fifth page.

But for the most part, if every scene you’re writing in your script goes on to seven pages, something is wrong. Remember it this way: one page of a screenplay is on average one scene in a movie.

Think about the last movie you watched: were there a ton of seven minute scenes?

Of course not. Most of the scenes were on average two to three minutes in length, and outside of a few exceptions, this is the length you always want to meet.

When you’re Quentin Tarantino, then sure, write a ten-page scene of dialogue. Write a fifteen-page scene!

But if you’re a newbie, try to stick to the golden rule of two to three pages and not ruin your chances of success by writing too long of scenes.

3. Characters without personality or goals.

This is another big one. I feel like some readers will be able to withstand your excessive description or your scenes that go on too long if you’ve written characters with strong personalities and clear goals.

But if your characters, especially your protagonist, are flat on the page, offer nothing unique or interesting, and don’t have strong goals and motivations from the beginning of your screenplay? Forget about it.

You must create wholly original characters, and yes, that includes your supporting characters.

You can’t go all in on your protagonist, making him or her super well defined, with a goal that makes sense, but then offer ten supporting characters that are all one-dimensional caricatures.

Do the work on your characters before you start the first draft. Make sure they’re all extremely well-defined.

4. Not enough conflict.

Yet another biggie. Without conflict, there’s no movie. Without conflict, the reader will put down the screenplay. Without conflict, you might as well not even get started on the screenplay.

Can you think of a movie you recently saw and enjoyed that had little or no conflict? Probably not.

Conflict and raising stakes are what make movies fun to watch.

Whenever conflict begins in a movie is when most of the audiences gets involved and wants to see for the next hour or longer just how that central conflict is going to be resolved.

Go big with your screenplay’s conflict, never go small. If there’s not enough conflict, your screenplay will be dead on arrival.

5. A weak ending.

The last way to truly increase the suck factor of your screenplay is delivering a weak ending. An implausible ending. A rushed ending. A stupid ending.

Any of the above, really. What’s the classic saying of a movie? “Wow them in the end, and you’ve got a hit.” Another saying that might not be classic but you should still pay attention?

“Disappoint them in the end, and you’ve got a flop.”

It’s so true, sadly enough. A movie can be working great for 90% of the running time, but if the end doesn’t deliver, audience members won’t tell their friends to see it.

And if the end doesn’t deliver in your screenplay, the important readers won’t pass it on to more important readers.

It’s stressful, I know, but put a lot of thought and effort into your ending, and ask yourself if there’s anything you can do to make it better.

Have some friends look at it. Give it to writers you trust and await their feedback.

You’re competing with thousands of other screenwriters out there. Make sure you do everything you can to write a great script, and avoid the suck factor.

Posted in Film, Screenwriting, Writing

10 Things You Should Know Before Becoming a Screenwriter


Although my focus for the past ten years has been writing novels, I have also attempted writing screenplays from time to time, first when I lived in Los Angeles and earned a Bachelor’s degree in Film Production from Loyola Marymount University, and second when I spent the last eighteen months, sort of on a whim, writing three different feature-length screenplays that I’ve since sent out into the world.

Screenwriting is a whole different beast than novel writing, and I thought I would share with you ten things I’ve learned over the years that you should absolutely know if you want to give a screenwriting career a go…

1. Learn the basics first.

It’s in your best interest before you dive in to buy a few craft books on screenwriting and learn the basics. Learn what scene headers are. Learn how long each scene should be (usually 2–3 pages). Learn how long a screenplay should be (on average, 100 to 110 pages). Essentially learn how a screenplay should look. Buy the right software (Final Draft). Before you figure out the story you want to tell, learn the basics of screenwriting first.

2. Read lots and lots of screenplays.

The other thing you should do before writing your first screenplay is read lots and lots of scripts. As many as you can stand. Scripts that have been made into movies, the good and the bad. Scripts that have never been made. Old scripts. New scripts. Anything. There are plenty of web sites that have hundreds of free screenplays at your disposal, like Simply Scripts and Drew’s Script-o-Rama. You’ll be a better screenwriter if you’re well read in screenplays, and you will have more confidence moving forward.

3. A career in screenwriting is almost impossible if you don’t live in Los Angeles.

This is something else worth considering. It’s sad but true: for the most part, you’ll struggle getting your career as a screenwriter going anywhere if you don’t live in L.A. There are exceptions, of course. You can write screenplays from anywhere, sure, and if your work is stellar, you will get recognized. But it is expected of you to at least make the trip to L.A. from time to time to take meetings and pitch your ideas, and the farther away you live from Los Angeles the more difficult this will be.

4. Write an outline of every scene in detail before you begin writing the actual screenplay.

I only write a limited outline when it comes to my novels, but when it comes to my screenplays, I write out every single scene before I begin. The reason this is so essential is that, unlike novels, screenplays have such a strict structure. You can’t just write 160 pages, or 76 pages. The screenplay, even the first draft, should come in somewhere between 95 and 115 pages, and if you have a clear outline to work from, this important goal will be met. Also, it’s always super helpful to sit down at the computer every day knowing the two or three scenes you’re going to be writing.

5. It’s important to write a marketable screenplay, not just any screenplay.

When it comes to novels, you can essentially attempt any kind of story you want, but in screenplays, your options aren’t as numerous. When it comes to a screenplay, you need to understand the market. What genres do well financially? What are harder sells for a newbie screenwriter? What markets might your screenplay be aimed at in the future? These are questions you should absolutely ask yourself before you begin writing. It will be a waste of time if you spend the next six months writing and revising a screenplay that has no market value.

6. Screenwriting competitions are, for the most part, a waste of time and money.

There are exceptions, of course. If you win one of the big competitions like Nicholl or Big Break or Austin Film Festival, you will make contacts and potentially be able to sell your script. However, the problem with most competitions is that they cost a lot of money (usually $50 and up), and odds of being in the top ten, let alone the winner, are so outrageously unlikely due to the fact that there are thousands of submissions being reviewed. When it comes to screenwriting competitions, you can spend $500 easy, and then receive nothing in return. If you are going to submit to competitions, do your research, and pick two or three you feel you might have the best chance in, and that offer something significant if you win.

7. Script listing sites are similarly a waste of time and money.

The big ones are Inktip and The Black List. Apparently some screenwriters have found success on one or the other, but from the experience I’ve had and the research I’ve done, they’re mostly just ways for people to prey on naive screenwriters by taking your money. Again, if you feel like you have a super marketable script and want to take a shot at one or the other, feel free, but keep in mind that six months later you might have paid $100 or more for nothing in return.

8. It’s almost impossible to sign with a literary agent as a new screenwriter. Instead, a literary manager is your best option.

When it comes to novel writing, literary agents are your best options, but when it comes to screenwriting, you want to query literary MANAGERS, not literary agents. Literary agents in the film world won’t look at your work without a manager. So if you feel your screenplay is the best it can be and you want to find representation, the best thing to do is send a short letter to literary managers that are open to unsolicited queries. You can find their e-mails on (a service that costs $149 a year). You might be able to find their contact info elsewhere, but has worked the best for me. You won’t hear from many of them, but, if you’re lucky, a select few might reach out and ask to read your screenplay! So make sure your script is ready before you query.

9. Your screenplay probably won’t get made into a movie.

This is the hardest one to take in, but it’s simply the truth. Thousands and thousands of scripts are written and registered with the WGA every year (by the way, you need to register your script with the WGA! It’s only $20 and lasts for five years, so do it to protect yourself.) Of those, only a few hundred are purchased, let alone made into an actual movie. The odds are not on your side. If you’re lucky, you might place well at a screenwriting competition, or sign with a literary manager, or, if you’re super, super lucky, you might even sell your screenplay! But the odds of actually getting to the point where your screenplay is turned into a movie is rare. Super rare. Which is why…

10. If you want to be a screenwriter, you need to write lots and lots of screenplays.

You can’t just write one screenplay, send it out, and wait for the money to pour in. You can’t write write one script and think your life is about to change. If you’re compelled to be a screenwriter, by all means, go for it and start writing! But realize you’re going to have to write lots and lots of scripts. Ten, or fifteen, or even twenty — that’s right — before your luck might change. Again, there are exceptions of the occasional wunderkinds who write the perfect script the first time out and find representation and make good money, but those people are few and far between. Yes, you’re probably going to need to write ten scripts or more. And if that scares you or bothers you, screenwriting might not be for you.

In the end, if you’re serious about screenwriting, you’re going to have to be in it for the long haul. Accept that. EMBRACE that. Have fun with it! And never give up.

Posted in Books, Film, Filmmaking, Screenwriting, Writing

Why Authorship Matters When it Comes to Adaptations


In the early 1970s, Stephen King was like any other aspiring novelist: writing manuscript after manuscript, working hard to improve his craft, hoping for someone in the publishing industry to take a chance on him. While teaching high school to make ends meet, he began writing a novel called Carrie, a spooky horror tale of a plain-faced high school loner who has the ability to move objects with her mind. Soon after completing the manuscript, he sold his novel to Doubleday and then quickly to the movies. The acclaimed 1976 film Carrie, directed by Brian De Palma, not only catapulted King to the A-list of novelists, but it also started a trend of adapting King’s work to other mediums, including a notorious Broadway flop, two additional feature films, and an audiobook recorded by none other than the Oscar-winning star of the original movie.

A novel being adapted to both film and theater isn’t unheard of — two famous examples are The Color Purple and Mary Poppins — but it is unusual, and what can’t be denied, particularly in the case of Carrie, is how different artists bring their own visions and sensibilities to their versions of the work, in each occurrence taking someone else’s property and making it his or her own. This then raises the question: who in each of these cases is the true author of Carrie? Many might argue that King is the one and only author of Carrie, that the many adaptations are simply different spins on the exact same story, that no matter the scene alterations or song additions or endless diversions from the original text that King and King alone is the only true author of these works. However, despite King’s origination of the story itself and his influence on all the adaptations that came later, it’s clear in looking at the works themselves, from their variety of styles to their successes and failures, that the author of Carrie definitively changes from one project to the next.

King’s 1974 novel is a slim and experimental work of debut fiction, certainly not something on the surface that begs for adaptation to film or musical theater. The book has an odd structure in that only half of it plays out like a straightforward narrative, the story of a sixteen-year-old named Carrie White who’s bullied by the other girls at school when she has her period for the first time in the locker room and thinks the blood running down her thighs means she’s dying, King writing, “Carrie backed into the side of one of the four large shower compartments and slowly collapsed into a sitting position. Slow, helpless groans jerked out of her” (8). Carrie has always struggled to fit in, soft-spoken and shy, unattractive and pimply-faced, but the humiliation in the locker room sends her to the darkest of places, her religious zealot of a mother at home named Margaret not helping in the way she torments Carrie on a nightly basis. Even worse is Carrie’s fear of her increasingly disruptive telepathic abilities, not just the ability to shut books and heavy doors with only her mind but her ability to float various items through the air like she’s an all-powerful witch.

Things look up for Carrie though when a cute boy at school named Tommy asks her to be his date for the prom, and even though she believes deep down Tommy’s playing some kind of trick on her, she agrees to go and is amazed when she not only has an unexpectedly romantic time with one of the most popular guys in school but also wins prom queen next to Tommy’s prom king. The night gets better and better for Carrie, but then as soon as she reaches the podium, a bucket of pig’s blood is dumped on Carrie’s head, leaving her hair and her dress in red ruins, King writing in his exacting manner, “[Carrie] looked like she had been dipped in a bucket of red paint” (136). And then in classic King fashion, Carrie unleashes an all-out assault of her telepathic abilities on the crowded auditorium of unsuspecting victims. After she wipes out hundreds of people young and old, she returns home, kills her mother, and dies when her own house crumbles in on her.

This half of the book one could argue calls out for film treatment, but the other half, in which King includes fake newspaper clippings and extended courtroom depositions and interviews with the massacre survivors, disrupts the narrative pacing and doesn’t make for easy translation to other mediums. For example, toward the end King includes specific definitions to slang terms, like this one: “to rip off a Carrie: to cause either violence or destruction; mayhem, confusion; (2) to commit arson” (198). Also, King gives away many of the narrative’s surprises at the beginning of the book, like when he reveals on the second page that “what none of them knew, of course, was that Carrie White was telekinetic” (2). A lot of these specific details and early revelations add to the world King has created, but how does something like that make it to screen?

To do the novel justice as a film would have had to blend segments of fake documentary snippets with the more cinematic narrative, but screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen was smart to nix all the experimental material in the book and focus completely on the harrowing story at the heart of the project — Carrie’s tumultuous journey that ends in tragedy. And an even bigger stroke of genius at the time was the hiring of the up-and-coming director Brian De Palma, who had made a name for himself on horror films like Sisters and Obsession and was known for his dazzling cinematic style. De Palma could have tried to translate King’s novel beat by beat without offering his own take on the material, but instead he brings his unique gift for storytelling to his version of Carrie, which at the time was his biggest hit to date. Many argue that De Palma’s film is better than the novel, even King himself: “He handled the material deftly and artistically and got a fine performance out of Sissy Spacek. In many ways, the movie is more stylish than my book” (Rogak 82).

But whether the film or the novel is necessarily better isn’t the argument here, although it deserves to be noted; the argument is whether or not King is the true author of the 1976 film, and I believe De Palma’s fascinating stylistic approach to the material proves he and he alone is the author of the film. Take the opening for example, the way he reveals Carrie in the locker room. Instead of the novel, which cuts straight to Carrie in the shower, the film features an extended tracking shot that follows various naked and almost-naked women in the locker room for at a minute or more until we finally find Carrie huddled in the mist of the shower, the haunting musical score playing underneath that effectively builds a sense of mystery. Or take the prom bloodbath scene, in which De Palma amps up the tension by not only drenching the film stock of the sequence in dark, eerie red, but also using the unusual and unsettling and rarely utilized split-screen format.

And then of course there is that shocking final scene, “perhaps the film’s greatest departure from the novel,” in which Sue Snell, played by Amy Irving, walks up to Carrie’s grave, only to have Carrie’s hand shoot out from the ground and grab Sue by her wrist (Magistrale 3). This is a scene I would argue made the film the hit that it was, De Palma giving the audience one of the all-time great boo scares before the end credits. Additionally, in her book Haunted Heart, Lisa Rogak writes, “Some things had to be changed in the movie. In the book, as she wandered back home in shock after the prom, Carrie blew up a few gas stations, which sent the entire town into flames. De Palma struck it from the movie because the special effects would cost too much” (82). The author of a novel doesn’t have to worry about a budget, doesn’t have to worry about how to capture an entire city burning to the ground on rolling cameras, but a filmmaker has to take into account so many elements to get from pre-production to post-production, and in this capacity De Palma made important artistic and budgetary decisions to create his legendary horror film.

These reasons for why De Palma is the author of the film and not King takes us to a deeper, more complex scenario: is the director of a film always the author, even if that director follows the novel his film is based on extremely closely and doesn’t offer anything remotely innovative in terms of style? Ultimately the decision to stay close to an author’s text and not take the material too far sideways is, in a way, a major authorial decision, and it’s the decision directors David Carson (Star Trek: Generations) and Kimberly Pierce (Boys Don’t Cry) both made in their respective versions of Carrie. Carson’s 2002 TV movie is the most faithful adaptation of the novel to date, staying closely tied to the book from beginning to end, including its depictions of some of the aftermath of the massacre in ways that the 1976 movie never touched on, with a “screenplay [representing] an accurate picture of the source material’s complete storyline” (David Nusair). However, De Palma’s film is so beloved and familiar that it’s been difficult for filmmakers to pave new ground with this source material, the 2002 version suffering from “an almost excessively low-rent feel that’s perpetuated by Carson’s less-than-cinematic directorial choices” (David Nusair).

Furthermore, Pierce’s 2013 theatrical film, despite updating the story to modern times, with the bullies taunting Carrie with their cell phones in the locker room, and offering new tricks of special effects, like giving Carrie at the prom the ability to fly, ultimately skews closer to the book than De Palma’s film, particularly in the way it gives the character of Sue Snell, who begs her boyfriend Tommy to take Carrie to the prom, a bigger role throughout. Also, like in the novel, Carrie is less a tragic figure in Pierce’s film adaptation and more of a purely vengeful source of rage at the end, with Pierce “making us complicit in Carrie’s violence. The demise of the villain that was presented in such a matter-of-fact fashion in the 1976 film is instead depicted [in this version] in long, grotesque detail” (James Berardinelli). In the end, both Carson and Pierce made specific decisions, some for the good and some for the bad, to their own adaptations that make them the specific authors of these films.

The adaptation one would argue is most separate from the novel and clearly is the work of a different author than King is the 1988 Broadway flop, Carrie: The Musical. Universally considered one of the most wrongheaded theater adaptations ever made, this musical tells the novel’s horrific story through, bizarrely, singing and dancing. It’s possible for horror to work in the musical medium — Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera is currently the longest running musical on Broadway, and The Evil Dead: The Musical has been performed all over the United States to great success. But Carrie: The Musical had a lot of problems going for it, starting with a disastrous preview in London before, as John Kenrick says in his book, Musical Theatre: A History, “the producers ignored all warning signs and brought the show to Broadway with only minimal revisions” (354). For the New York production, the stage was painted completely black, and the show featured a song-and-dance number at inappropriate times, like in the brutal slaying of pigs that only gets a couple of pages in the novel and less than a minute of screen-time in the De Palma film. Additionally, there’s a moment where “a blood-soaked Carrie dripped her way down a long, impossibly white staircase [that] left many audience members laughing out loud,” suggesting that the make-up effects could have used a few more weeks of prep time to reach a point of believability (355).

Another problem with the show, an unfortunate authorial decision on behalf of its director Terry Hands, was its tone, as Ethan Mordden explains in his book, The Happiest Corpse I’ve Ever Seen: “[There was] a complete lack of humor. By 1988 we were used to dark shows, but most of them could at least affect a little sarcasm here and there” (67). The show closed after five performances, and nearly thirty years since it’s hilariously quick Broadway run, Carrie: The Musical has “proved to be the most infamous flop musical of its time, one whose title remains a byword for theatrical disaster” (Kenrick 354). Mordden additionally says, “There’s no other flop like it; there’s no other show like it” (69). But how can this be? How can a highly successful novel that was translated into one of the most beloved horror films of the 1970s, one that broke records at the box office and secured Academy Award nominations for both its female leads, have been turned into a disaster of a theater production? The reason is that King is not the author of this project, and neither is De Palma. The reason for Carrie: The Musical’s failure is purely one of authorship, director Hands not having a firm grasp on what makes the original story so compelling, and additionally not understanding how to translate that story into an emotionally resonant stage musical. Carrie: The Musical is the most fascinating example of authorship because it shows how different artists can create not just successful adaptations but also ones that are downright embarrassing.

The one medium of adaptation that doesn’t necessarily make a case for featuring a different author than the novelist himself is the audiobook. Unlike a film which has a specifically structured way to present the story of a novel, and unlike a Broadway musical which by its nature will need to create much of the book of the show from scratch to pave way for lyrics and music, the audiobook is simply a person reading the novel out loud. In the case of the 2005 audiobook of Carrie, Sissy Spacek, who played the title role in the 1976 film, lends her vocal talent as the sole reader of King’s original work. Bringing her soulful, calming voice to the project, and allowing the listener to hear King’s classic story through her words, Spacek “easily [recreates] the moods of that odd young girl” and “successfully takes on the personae of the small town’s other disparate residents” while also “[moving] smoothly from the magazine, newspaper, and official reports to dramatic scenes” (Publishers Weekly).

But could one really argue that Spacek is the author of the Carrie audiobook? I still say yes, although in the case of the audiobook I would argue that she’s the co-author with King. When a reader is alone and spending his or her time with text on the page, the author in this example is the one and only author of the text. If a teenager picks up a hardcover or paperback or ebook of Carrie, he or she will take a journey with the storyteller of the novel, who in this case is Stephen King. However, when someone speaks the words of the book to the listener, the experience between author and reader becomes a filtered one in which there is a third important body in the middle. That third body, whether he or she expects to or not, becomes co-author of the text by infusing the words with pauses and meaning, and bringing personality to all its characters. Spacek is not just robotically reading words on the page; when it comes to the “teenagers, teachers, moms, patrons, the town drunk — Spacek finds a voice for each of them” (Publishers Weekly). In the case of an audiobook, a person listening in the car or at home falls under the spell of a speaker infusing the novel’s words with a special and notable personality, not merely the words themselves, so I would argue that King and Spacek are effectively co-authors of the 2005 audiobook.

In looking at the various adaptations of Carrie, it should be clear that each new version of King’s story invites a different author to interpret the words on the manuscript page and make it his or her own, whether it’s a film, a piece of theater, or an audiobook. These various authors have the ability to build upon the original text, completely alter the text, sadly destroy the very nature of that text, but in each case, a different person is bringing his or her own talent and energy and thoughtfulness to one singular story that is inarguably part of the public consciousness and a highly significant entry in the horror canon, both in literature and in film. King will always be the original author of Carrie, but other authors like De Palma, Carson, Pierce, Hands, and Spacek have given the rich material further life in their respective adaptations. King is one of the most influential authors of the last fifty years, but it needs to be said that he’s not the author of every version made from his work; hundreds of talented artists have brought his stories to life with their own styles and visions through a vast collection of mediums that prove how incredibly unique different authors can be. Even when they’re all telling the same story, there’s always something new to discover.

Works Cited

Berardinelli, James. “Carrie (2013).” ReelViews. James Berardinelli, 18 October 2013. Web. 17 Feb. 2017

“Carrie.” Publishers Weekly, 28 October 2013. Web. 17 Feb. 2017.

Kenrick, John. Musical Theatre: A History. The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc: New York, 2008.

King, Stephen. Carrie. Doubleday: New York, 1974. Print.

Magistrale, Tony. The Films of Stephen King: From Carrie to Secret Window. Palgrave Macmillan: New York, 2008. Print.

Mordden, Ethan. The Happiest Corpse I’ve Ever Seen: The Last Twenty-Five Years of the Broadway Musical. Palgrave Macmillan: New York, 2004. Print.

Nusair, David. “Four Thrillers from MGM.” Reel Film Reviews. David Nusair, 26 July 2014. Web. 17 Feb. 2017.

Rogak, Lisa. Haunted Heart. Thomas Dunne Books: New York, 2008. Print.

Posted in Film, Screenwriting

Why was Nora Ephron So Influential?


Nora Ephron — author, playwright, filmmaker, three-time-Oscar-nominated screenwriter — was a pioneer for women movie directors. In a time when men (still) dominate the profession, Ephron broke through with a string of hits that included Sleepless in Seattle, Michael, You’ve Got Mail, and Julie & Julia.

In the ’80s she became one of the industry’s top screenwriters after penning three award-winning films. Her first two screenplays — Silkwood and Heartburn, the latter based on her novel of the same name — were made into award-winning movies starring Meryl Streep. The Oscar-nominated screenplay for Silkwood by Alice Arlen and Nora Ephron is delicate in its handling of Karen’s controversial death. While the film doesn’t offer any answers, it also doesn’t glorify the death in any way or use it in a tacky manner to create unnecessary tension. Other screenwriters might have used the car crash as a wrap-around to the central story, possibly opening the movie with the accident and then coming back to it in the end. But screenwriters Arlen and Ephron are interested in Karen’s human story, and so the film plays out more like a drama than a thriller.

1986’s Heartburn isn’t as successful as Silkwood, although there’s still a lot to like. It’s not a secret that Ephron’s novel and later screenplay were based on true life experiences — Ephron said at Meryl Streep’s 2004 AFI Lifetime Achievement Award ceremony, “the true stretch (for Meryl), if I do say so, was playing me, in Heartburn.” Sometimes writers are able to infuse even more honesty into their work when the experiences of the narrative come from their own lives, but other times, writers get so close to the real events that they struggle to give the story personality, or any surprises. Heartburn is a case in which another ten years might have given Ephron distance to write a more biting, satirical story.

Ephron’s third screenplay was made into my favorite romantic comedy of all time, When Harry Met Sally, starring Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan. Since my introduction to the 1989 Rob Reiner-directed romantic comedy in my high school years, I’ve probably watched it more than fifteen times. It’s one of the few romantic comedies ever made that I find nearly perfect, with great chemistry between the two leads, terrific pacing, the sharpest of dialogue, and a fabulous ending. I love this movie so much, and for her screenplay, Ephron netted her second Academy Award nomination.

In 1992 Ephron directed her first feature — This is My Life, starring Julie Kavner — and she went on to direct seven more movies. Sleepless in Seattle, which earned her a third Academy Award nomination for her script, is considered by many her best, but I have a soft spot in my heart for You’ve Got Mail, which is just so damn delightful I’ve never been able to get enough of it. Back in my middle school days, when I was chasing after girls (gasp!), You’ve Got Mail played a major role in wooing not just one but two girls. On one occasion, I put a VHS copy of You’ve Got Mail in a girl’s mailbox, as my birthday gift to her!

Ephron was known to be a foodie, and an incredible cook, so it seems fitting her last film would be 2009’s Julie & Julia. None of Ephron’s movies are necessarily considered masterpieces; they’re comfort viewing, almost like comfort food, and Julie & Julia was able to mix in both. The Julia Child segments in the film were probably the best moments Ephron ever caught on film, with Meryl Streep giving one of her most memorable performances as the famous chef and television personality.

Julie & Julia marked Streep’s only film with Ephron that Ephron directed as well, which makes this being her swan song as a filmmaker particularly poignant. It may be silly to suggest that a writer/director’s final movie has to be one of his or her better ones, but after the two unfortunate bombs Lucky Numbers in 2000, with John Travolta, and Bewitched in 2005, with Nicole Kidman, it’s a relief that Ephron’s last movie marked a return to form for the artist, who had achieved success with Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail, and especially her screenplay for When Harry Met Sally. Julie & Julia shows everything that makes Ephron wonderful — her attention to detail, her infectious sense of humor, her fantastic way with actors, and, of course, her obsession with food. And what better way to end a directing career than to work with the best, Meryl Streep.

Ephron was a noted author of fiction and essays as well, and some of her titles include Crazy Salad, Wallflower at the Orgy, I Feel Bad About My Neck, and, her last, I Remember Nothing: And Other Reflections. She also wrote the stage-plays Imaginary Friends, in 2002, and Lucky Guy, which premiered on Broadway with Tom Hanks in 2013. She was one of the funniest writers of her generation, a fabulous director and voice for the cinema, and six years since her passing, her status as a legend only continues to grow.

Posted in Film, Screenwriting

After 8 Years, I Have Returned to Screenwriting


In the fall of 2016, one of my MFA professors sat me down in his office and told me something complimentary about my newest story I had recently turned into his class. “You’re writing is super cinematic,” he said. “I could visualize the movie in every scene.” And then he asked me a question I never could have expected: “Have you ever thought about writing a screenplay?”

I laughed, I couldn’t help myself. Yes, I had thought about writing a screenplay. I’d done a little more than that, as a matter of fact.

Between 2001 and 2010 I wrote seven feature-length screenplays and probably thirty to forty short screenplays, many of which I turned into movies. I made short films all throughout high school, culminating into a 92-minute feature film I made over the course of eight months during my senior year.

After that, I studied film production at Loyola Marymount University for four years, making a ton of short movies, including a documentary about actors I made in Germany, and a senior year thesis horror film I shot on 16mm.

When my film school experience ended in 2007, I continued making movies, and also wrote three feature-length screenplays I submitted to contests in 2008 and 2009.

It wasn’t until 2010 that I wrote my first novel, Slate, and turned my full creative attention to fiction writing. In early 2011 I left Los Angeles and returned to Reno, and ever since I have been working on novels and short stories, pitching my work to agents and editors.

I left my film work behind — for good.

Outside of the occasional film production class for teenagers I’ve taught in Reno, as well as a couple of films I made during my graduate school experience, my work in both movie production and screenwriting were behind me. I didn’t even let myself think about writing another screenplay. There was never a temptation. Never a fleeting thought about trying it again. My focus was to remain on fiction, and only fiction.

My feeling about the matter was that I had left L.A., and by driving out of that city, I had officially kissed good-bye to any potential career in the film world. And I was okay with that. As long as I was telling stories, and being creative every single day, I was happy. And the world of fiction has been more than fulfilling.

It’s been a way of life for nearly a decade.

So when this professor asked me this question, I simply told him about my film school experience, and that I had written a few screenplays over the years, but that lately my sole focus was fiction writing. He said he understood, but that I should at least consider giving screenwriting another try. He said he thought I could be great at it. I told him I didn’t live in L.A. anymore, so what would be the point? He said he had sold a few scripts over the years, and that he, of course, lived in Reno, and not Los Angeles. He said it was harder to get screenplays sold when you’re not in L.A., but certainly not impossible, and that if I wrote consistently excellent work and pitched the right managers and entered the right contests, I could absolutely get noticed.

I left the meeting and sat down for lunch and thought about the possibility of writing a screenplay for the first time in six years. The last time I had spent time writing and revising a script had been March 2010, right before I moved on to writing my first novel in April and May of the same year.

I surfed the web. Read probably twenty articles about the same subject: Can you be a screenwriter if you don’t live near Hollywood? Most of them, of course, say it’s difficult. That if you’re serious about screenwriting, you need to live in L.A., no ifs, ands, or buts.

But the articles pointed out plenty of talented screenwriters who live in different parts of the country, even a few who live in other countries, who have sold scripts over the years and had their work turned into movies.

I shoved my elbows against the table and thought about it for a few minutes.

Could I? Should I?

To read more of this story, click here.

And if you’re not a Medium member, feel free to join my Patreon for just $1 a month to read this article in full and subscribe to all my content.