Million-Dollar Advice: Screenwriter Diane Drake on Strengthening Loglines, Finding “Seed Scenes” and More
Diane Drake is one of just four female screenwriters with sole credit who have earned $1 million or more for their screenplays in the United States.
Her first produced script, Only You, sold for $1 million and starred Robert Downey, Jr. and Marisa Tomei, while her second, What Women Want, is the second-highest grossing romantic comedy of all time with Mel Gibson and Helen Hunt. Both films have recently been remade in China. Drake is currently working on a sitcom pilot.
Prior to becoming a screenwriter, Drake served as Vice President of Creative Affairs for Academy Award-winning director/producer Sydney Pollack. Drake has been an instructor/speaker for the Austin Film Festival, UCLA Extension Writer’s Program, Scriptwriters Network, Story Development Group, University Club and Writer’s Store. She recently published Get Your Story Straight: A Step-By-Step Guide To Screenwriting By a Million Dollar Screenwriter (Reel Life Publishing, May 2016), and has launched her own online screenwriting course and workshops at dianedrake.com.
Drake has a gift for helping screenwriters transform themselves and their screenplays to higher levels in the playing field of the film industry. We asked for some of her most fundamental advice.
Ann Baldwin, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Writing, you’ve said, is “deceptively hard-work, the sort of work that can easily drive one to Margaritaville long before it’s 5 o’clock anywhere.” Why do we write in the first place?
Diane Drake (DD): For me writing is not only a great excuse to learn, explore and observe; it’s also a way to both live more and to try to stay sane. The act of putting one’s thoughts, fears or fantasies down on paper helps to both kind of distance yourself from them, see them more objectively, and at the same time, conversely, to vicariously live them.
I wrote the script for my film Only You in a small, characterless apartment on the west side of Los Angeles. I’d been to Italy once before and dreamed of returning. The characters in the movie went to Positano because I wanted to go to Positano. I got to live their fantasy adventure in my mind as I wrote it, and then got to live it—not to mention hang with Robert Downey Jr.—in reality. It doesn’t get much better.
Of course, if you’re really lucky and work really hard, you and your work get to add meaning and enjoyment to the lives of others. That’s a pretty great reward.
MM: Most movies are about change, yet that’s something that in real life most people resist so much.
DD: We tend to accept the status quo, whatever that may be, until something—in screenwriting terms, the Inciting Incident—really forces our hand and triggers a necessity for change in our circumstances, and thus usually somehow a change in ourselves as well. My guess as to why we love seeing characters challenged over and over again in stories is that most of us feel challenged by life a lot of the time, and are often wondering if we’re up to the task. To see a character, particularly one whom the world at large may have underestimated or who has been mistreated by the fates, rise to the occasion, struggle, grow, persevere and ultimately overcome is, I think, intrinsically heartening and inspiring. It touches something deep in most all of us.
MM: What is your first advice for someone trying to come up with a story?
DD: A wonderful writer from the 1930s, Dorothea Brande, suggested that writers “pay attention to what inspires strong emotion in you; to what you love and what you hate.” I think that’s excellent advice. What do you really love in life? What do you love in other stories and in movies you’ve seen? What resonates for you? That’s a good place to start. Just brainstorm a bit, see if you can identify some commonalities. Then perhaps think about what makes you mad. What gets your blood boiling? Also consider what you’re curious about—what life question do you want to know the answer to? And maybe what makes you feel desperate. Movies are often about someone who feels cornered by life somehow, and then desperate times call for desperate measures, which force the person into action. That’s what movies are really about, by the way: the critical point at which somebody’s life changes and what they do about it.
Another thing I mention in my book, in terms of finding and keeping inspiration, are “seed scenes,” a term I recently came across from a writer named Clive Davies-Frayne. These are little snippets of action or bits of dialogue that come to you that become sort of touchstones for the whole.
A critical seed scene in writing What Women Want was the moment when Mel Gibson’s character first realizes what’s happening to him—that he’s hearing the private, innermost thoughts of the women all around him—and it completely freaks him out. He frantically confides in his best friend, who is the first one to recognize and articulate the true beauty of the situation: that Mel now knows what women want. And then, with a touch of awe in his voice, he adds, “You could rule the world.”
Coming up with that scene was not only fun and inspiring, it was a guiding light for me and kept me going. It not only encapsulated what the movie was about, it felt fun, funny and tonally like what I was aiming for. And I didn’t want to let that scene go to waste.
MM: You talk about the connection between “Plot Point 1” and the logline in your book, which I found incredibly helpful. Can you explain what this connection is?
DD: I actually sort of happened upon this discovery of the connection between the two by chance. I started noticing that the first Plot Point—that first significant action the hero takes at the end of Act I to try to address his problem, or at least what he perceives his problem to be—was often the essence of the movie’s logline. For example:
Tootsie: “A desperately unemployed, self-involved actor puts on a dress in order to get a job. In the process of impersonating a woman, he gradually becomes a better man.”
The 40-Year-Old Virgin: “A painfully shy 40-year-old virgin is determined to finally get laid.”
The King’s Speech: “The Duke of York, who suffers from a severe speech impediment, is unexpectedly thrust into the spotlight and the position of king of England when his father, King George V, dies, and his brother abdicates to marry an American divorcee.”
And to cite one of my own movies, What Women Want: “A chauvinistic advertising executive has a freak accident that enables him to read women’s minds. Suddenly, for the first time in his life, he truly knows what women want.”
Now, I don’t mean for people to take from this that the logline and Plot Point 1 need always match, but I think it can be helpful if you’re having trouble with one or the other to examine them both and see if there’s a connection. If you’re struggling with your logline, check your Plot Point 1 and, assuming it is a significant first turning point of action for your hero, see if that element is effectively captured and communicated in your logline. Conversely, if you think your logline is solid, check to see if Plot Point 1 is where the story you described is really kicking in, if that’s the point at which the thing that most made you want to write the script in the first place is front and center.