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Scott Sublett, MFA UCLA in Screenwriting, teaches at San Jose State University.
Interviewed by Robinson Rea, Screenmancer Producer:
Robin Rea: What common mistakes or misconceptions about screenwriting do you see in your students?
Scott Sublett: Most commonly, beginning writers write a long first act. They fail to decide in advance what their story is about and thrash around trying to find it in act one.
They fail to decide on one story or one protagonist. They have bits of a variety of stories, sometimes jumping from one first act to another first act, without ever moving on to a second act. They seem to enjoy the part of the process where you create and get to know characters, but when it comes to the second act work of actually setting a conflict in motion, developing and complicating it, they seem to be somehow timid.
A lot of first-time writers have to overcome a natural timidity – at least on the page, if not in their lives.
Robin Rea: Do you tell your students to write the “personal story”?
Scott Sublett: I tell my students to write a dramatizable story.
That being: a story that has conflict in it and a story where a hero pursues a goal. However, the personal story can be an excellent choice for the first-time screenwriter, because the personal story is often more interesting than the made-up story they have in mind. Their lives are ready-made sources of dramatizable incidents.
Also, stories that are drawn from life often have the smell and feel of authenticity.
As for whether there is a market for those stories, I think that the fabulous explosion in independent cinema will provide that market, and that many of these students will go on to direct their own scripts.
Robin Rea: Do you recommend first-time screenwriters write within the established genres?
Scott Sublett: At one time I would have, but now I believe that they shouldn’t. It seems to me that it’s hard enough to develop a story honestly and plausibly with believable character motivations without adding the confusing burden of genre conventions.
The problem when students write within the genres is that they’re constantly telling themselves “this should happen” or “that should happen” based on what sort of things happen in that genre, not based on the internal demands of the situation they’re dramatizing or the characters they’re building.
Robin Rea: Do you enjoy teaching screenwriting?
Scott Sublett: Enormously.
The great thing is that people (undergraduates especially) are familiar with the form of feature film. Students understand film instinctively and are engaged in writing the wave of a change in its conventions. “Clerks” seems to be their ideal; where, when I was an undergraduate, “Chinatown” or “The Godfather” or Woody Allen would be the model.
It’s exciting to have access to the explosive and innovative creativity. It’s wonderful to be able to teach a kind of writing in which [people] are actually interested.
Professor Sublett is available for private consultations for which he charges “through the nose.” He can be reached at 408/286-5106.