Intro & disclaimer

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Academy Award ®-nominated writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio co-wrote the DreamWorks animated feature SHREK, winner of the first Academy Award for Best Animated Film in 2002.
In 1992, the pair co-wrote the highest grossing film of the year, Disney animated feature ALADDIN, starring Robin Williams. Their live-action feature film credits include: LITTLE MONSTERS, starring Fred Savage; SMALL SOLDIERS, starring Kirsten Dunst; GODZILLA, starring Matthew Broderick; and THE MASK OF ZORRO, starring Anthony Hopkins and Antonio Banderas.
In 1996, Elliott and Rossio became the first writers signed to an overall writing and producing deal at DreamWorks SKG. Their animated projects at DreamWorks include: SHREK, with Mike Meyers and Eddie Murphy; THE ROAD TO EL DORADO, featuring Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh; ANTZ (creative consultants), featuring Woody Allen; and SINBAD (creative consultants), featuring Brad Pitt and Catherine Zeta-Jones.
In 2003, Elliott and Rossio co-wrote the feature film PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN, winner of the People's Choice Award for Best Picture, and recipient of five Academy Award ® nominations, including Best Actor for Johnny Depp.
Under their Scheherazade Productions banner, Elliott and Rossio are overseeing development of JINGLE (written by Bill Marsilii), in association with Fortis Films, and the feature film INSTANT KARMA, in association with Digital Domain and New Line Cinema.


This is the part where I attempt to explain what Wordplay is, rationalize and justify its existence, and manipulate your attitude about the material. Specifically, try to really lower your expectations, so there's a chance later on you'll actually be impressed. In other words, you can skip this page, and go straight on to the Wordplay columns' Table of Contents if you want to. You've already seen the basic message: WELCOME!
Writing about writing You can't teach writing. I know it, and you know it. So why a website devoted to a bunch of columns on writing screenplays? Well, money, of course. Except... there's no charge for accessing this site, and no fee for downloading the columns. They are yours if you want them; I only ask that if you reprint or repost them, please keep my name on them. But there's no thousand dollar cassette series to buy, and I don't want you to send me your scripts for my professional analysis for just $150.00.

You want to come visit here, be my guest, have fun. It's free.

Okay, so it must be ego.

Mine, specifically. My big ego.

Those who know me would say that's definitely a possibility.

Except... deep down, I know that time spent writing 'how-to' columns isn't real writing, it's a way of avoiding writing. And it doesn't show me in a particularly favorable light (no offense to Syd Field, Linda Seeger, Jack Truby, et al). But I know the reader can't help but wonder, if I know so damn much about screenplays, why don't I just go write the next Academy Award-winning script? (Answer: because it's really, really hard.) I'm well aware of the "Those who can, do, those who can't, teach" maxim. Writing about writing is, in a way, an admission of defeat.

So if writing can't be taught, I make zero money out of this, and it makes me look silly, why do it?

Writing can't be taught.

But it can be learned.

And dammit, I'm going to figure it out.

Writing these essays causes me to focus on different aspects of the craft, analyze them, and truly figure out my thoughts and opinions. This is my way of learning. After all, you can't tell something to somebody if you don't have anything to say. Writing a column on screenwriting makes me concentrate on the art with a discipline that would be hard to achieve otherwise. Especially while working full-time as a screenwriter.

Or, to use another favorite quote: "You teach best what you most need to learn."

And... okay, it's fun, too.

And... okay, so I get to meet lots of neat people along the way (many of whom keep asking for more columns!).

And... finally, when I was just starting out, this is exactly the sort of information I thought should exist for new writers. But it didn't.

Now it does.

Though I never thought I'd be the one who would write it!
Follywood refugees "Wordplay" began in 1995 as a weekly column in the old Follywood section of America Online, an offshoot of the very popular and successful MOTLEY FOOL investment forum. The deal was, I submitted a column every week, and oversaw a message board, and got unlimited free use of AOL in return. (This was back in the olden days, before the advent of the flat-rate fee.) The column was originally designed to run 52 weeks, the total series amounting to an online course covering the essentials of screenwriting.

Well, despite the column's brilliance, Follywood was discontinued due to lack of use, and Wordplay was orphaned at week number 32.

So, to all the readers from the old Follywood days who have made their way here, WELCOME BACK! Your response is why Wordplay exists.

I realize previous readers will likely be disappointed we're starting the run of columns over again. After all, people want new information, and they want the series to be completed. But to those readers, I offer the following:

1. There are new columns interspersed with the reposted ones.

2. All previous columns have been revised and polished. (Written, as they were, under deadline, many of them did get a bit ragged, and needed editing.)

3. New material is archived... interviews, screenplays, text files, etc.

4. We've put together an entire Letters section where you'll find answers to readers' questions.

5. Guest columns by Industry Pros are always in the works. (Pros, if you want to 'do a Wordplay,' drop me an e-mail!)

6. We've set up a couple of message boards for readers to discuss screenwriting and post general questions -- the Columns and Letters Forums.

The idea is to have a Website that continues to be useful beyond just the columns.
So, what's 'Wordplay'?

No bones about it, this column is for beginners. As my writing partner, Ted Elliott, once brilliantly observed: "Theory is only useful as a diagnostic tool." If you've got it all figured out, if your writing is happening, then you don't need to be here.

This site isn't about writing that inspired, Academy Award-winning screenplay (you could argue that it might even prohibit the effort, as would any attempt to formalize the writing process). If anything, this site is about discovery -- that search to find one or two tools or techniques that are in fact helpful in the terrible, terrific effort it takes to complete a script.

When I was a kid I studied magic -- card tricks, coin tricks, mostly close-up, sleight-of-hand stuff. So I read a lot of books on magic, the ones that let you in on THE SECRET. There was always the part about how the effect looked to the audience, and then the behind-the-scenes, in-the-know part, the actual SECRET technique on how it was done. For magic instruction, there wasn't any way around it -- you either gave away the secret, or you didn't.

So it's always frustrated me when, in interviews, columns, or even how-to essays, professionals would always avoid sharing the actual experience of things, the actual process by which stuff gets done. The actual essence of whatever it is they do. Whether it is sports or the arts or technical expertise, the pro would always talk in general terms about working hard, focusing, sacrificing, whatever. But they wouldn't say how EXACTLY they did it, what is step one, what is step two, what is going through their mind at the time, etc.

I want to know the SECRET, dammit!

So I think my sensibilities for writing about screenwriting come from that early influence of reading books on magic.

Simply put, these columns are about giving away secrets. Professional secrets. As many as I can find and write down.

My rule is for each column to try to have at least one bit of practical, useful advice. A technique, or a new way of thinking about writing, weighted specifically toward making a sale to Hollywood.

It's definitely a lot harder to try to provide useful content. And I won't claim that any single idea here may be of huge significance. But taken as a whole, I do believe that the reader will come away with a better understanding of the business of screenwriting today.

As your career continues and you grow as a writer, maybe that Academy Award-winning script will come. But the first goal is to learn the basics, enough to get into the game. You're a beginning writer, you want to make a sale, get an assignment, be able to quit that day job, and spend your total energies learning how to write.

Wordplay is designed to help do that.

How to use the Wordplay columns

Okay, let me put a final spin on how a writer starting out can approach this material. Here's one way to go: be extraordinarily talented, glance through this stuff, laugh with disdain, and go on to write a spectacular script on your own. (This method is highly recommended.)

Another approach: read all the columns, and do exactly what they say. The only problem with this is that it is doomed to fail. A slightly better technique would be to read all the columns and do the exact opposite of what they suggest.

But what you really should do is this: read the information with a critical eye. Adopt what you think makes sense, ignore the ideas that seem wonky. Use the material as a challenge, a springboard for your own critical thinking. Do the opposite when you want, break the rules when you want, find power in playing with the conventions.

It's a bit ironic, yes, but all the stuff here is important to know, yet designed to be thrown away.

Because in the end, we know that artistic excellence will never come from Truby, or Syd Field, or the Script Doctor, or Wordplay. Artistic excellence springs from the soul of the writer, and is a fortunate combination of inspiration, passion, personality, experience, vision, talent and craft.

Good luck!

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