Pen Densham. Riding the Alligator: Strategies for a Career in Screenplay Writingland and Not Getting Eaten. Studio City, Ca.: Michael Wise Productions, 2011.
The author quit school in Britain at age 15 and became a self-taught filmmaker. He present his personal guide to the filmmaking process while advising people to follow their instincts in finding what works for them.
Densham believes one needs a passion to do what they want. He notes the Hollywood distribution system has the ability to provide an average of about one movie a day. He advises trying to make what moves your spirit into something that similarly moves others.
A part of the brain, mirror neutrons, become active when observing other humans. The brain considers how it might respond in similar situations. These receptors are often lacking in people with autism. Thus, Hollywood literally is correct in calling itself a “Dream Factory”. Movies activate brain receptors and places ourselves into what we watch. From this, we learn the brain the brain responds to challenging situation, realism, and happy endings that allow the characters watched achieve goals.
People like heroes. A study of six year olds had them view a film of a movie where a block helped another block climb an incline while another block pushed the block down. When offered which block to play with, the babies usually chose the block that helped move the block up. From birth, most humans prefer heroes over villains.
Cultural studies of myths and legends indicate there are variations of similar stories in every culture through time. The stories relate to “primary needs” and to “experiences”. There are about seven general plots behind all stories. There are love stories/finding a mate, survival stories/finding food and shelter, avoid dying/murder and detective stories, avoid being eaten/fear and horror, and achieving dominance/reproduction. These dominance tales include precautionary tales about achieving too much dominance.
Creativity expands stories to new points. Movie scripts, due to limitations of 90 to 120 pages, are short stories. Writer’s block can be overcome by just writing anything and then looking at what creativity exists in what was written. Avoid being so unique that others can’t comprehend it.
A problem in the movie industry is that audience surveys indicate people most want to see new and different types of movies. Yet, movie executives need to justify their spending based on past successes. Fox Studios expected “Star Wars” to fail. Universal Studios feared “American Graffiti” would be a disaster.
Movies have themes that teach about something that touches our basic biological senses. Denshall calls this “hiding the medicine”. Densham recommends providing characters with a dark, life changing past that leads to an internal journey. The external story haunts the internal turmoil. The lead character’s world should fall apart, usually around page 28 of the script. The lead character uses past lifelong knowledge to cope. Things, though, only get worse. The character discovers a new path and is reborn. This should relate to our feelings and common experiences.
A script needs an interesting beginning, a middle with conflict, and an explosive end. Densham advises ending quickly to create a more positive feeling.
Densham recommends taking a lead character and placing the character into a situation contrary to the character’s personality. Let the character’s voice come through, he advises.
An antagonist should attack a lead character’s weakness. The hero overcomes the weakness to succeed. The hero should have failure before overcoming tribulations around the third challenge.
When writing to sell a script, Densham recommends researching the background of the person being contacted. He advises personalizing the letter. He recommends developing contacts with assistants. He advises choosing agents, managers, and lawyers who are moral.
Use stress to your advantage, Densham advises. It can yield insights. It can make others care more for you. Prepare for possible outcomes.
Densham recommends screenwriters dedicate themselves to ther career and not to one screenplay.