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The Screenwriter’s Toolbox

Danny Rubin teaches the “impossible” craft.

July-August 2013

Screenwriter Danny Rubin at home

Screenwriter Danny Rubin at home

Photograph by Jim Harrison

Writing a screenplay “isn’t that hard,” says Danny Rubin, Briggs-Copeland lecturer on English. “It’s only impossible.” In other words, turning out a 120-page script—the standard length for a two-hour feature film, computed at one page per screen minute—isn’t an especially difficult challenge, but writing “one that actually works, that reaches the audience, comes alive, engages us emotionally” certainly is. In 2008, when the English department decided to add screenwriting to its creative-writing offerings, it tapped Rubin, who has written dozens of screenplays in the past two decades. Three have been produced, including his big hit, Groundhog Day, the 1993 existential comedy starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell.

In Cambridge, Rubin has taught the screenwriter’s craft to Harvard undergraduates, graduate students, and even Nieman Fellows in workshop-format courses, “Dramatic Screenwriting” I and II. His students write short films of eight to 10 minutes; in many other screenwriting courses, students frequently attempt a full-length movie but end up completing only the first act. (The standard formula breaks feature films down into three acts, roughly equivalent to the story’s set-up, development, and resolution.) Rubin wants his aspiring writers to have the experience of finishing a full story, with a beginning, middle, and end. “Anyone can write a first act,” he says, “but when you are done with my course, you will have the tools to write a feature film.”

Movie storytelling, he explains, boils down to “three basic things: who is your character, what do they want, and why can’t they have it?” Suspense helps drive the narrative, and its most basic form is: “How does this story turn out?” Suspense can also energize a scene, keeping viewers on the edge of their seats: “You have to expect something to happen, and then it doesn’t.” Expectation alone can do it: an Alfred Hitchcock scene might show two people conversing, and then reveal a bomb beneath the table. “Now that conversation becomes filled with dramatic energy,” Rubin explains. To keep the audience hooked, “You ask a question and then don’t answer it. Keep that ball up in the air as long as possible. Once you answer the question, the dramatic energy is over.”

Perhaps the most fundamental tool is writing in a visual, not literary, mode. “One of the things I have to train out of prose writers is the idea that it’s about the language,” he says. “The script uses a visual language: that means scenes where people are doing things, not saying things.” A novelist can describe the inner experience of a character in great detail—think Henry James—but that doesn’t exploit the power of film, which tells its stories in pictures, with a strong assist from sound. “We get a lot more information that way than we realize,” Rubin explains. “In the first 10 minutes of ET, for example, there isn’t a single line of dialogue. You don’t want characters telling the story. Free up the dialogue to do more interesting things, like crack a joke or establish a character.”

A standard screenwriting technique is to externalize the characters’ inner states. For example, “You can give value to an object,” he notes. “Like taking a wedding ring and throwing it into the toilet. Or later reaching into a toilet to retrieve a wedding ring to show a change of heart.” Another tool is to build a routine and then break it. A character might line up for his daily bus ride to work, get on the bus, pay the fare, and then get off the bus before it leaves. “That could show that somebody has changed his mind,” says Rubin. “If the story has set it up, we’ll already know where the character has decided to go instead.”

During his five-year Harvard appointment, now nearly complete, Rubin has written and sold an original script, completed two rewrite jobs, and also published the book How to Write Groundhog Day (2012), which contains the screenplay, Rubin’s notes, and his saga of how the classic film came into being, via the tortuous Hollywood path of agents, studios, producers, directors, and actors. It isn’t, though, a “how-to” book on screenwriting, of which there are dozens. “Everyone in Hollywood reads these books,” he explains, “and they think they understand how to write a screenplay. But it’s like looking for the secret of how to live your life. You go to see the philosophers, and each sage has a different piece of wisdom. The books give guidelines and rules to follow, but the craft is knowing when and where to apply them. No one can tell you how to live your life.” ~craig lambert

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