Story is Story: Art Holcomb on Screenwriting
When Art Holcomb was eight years old, his maternal grandmother, a poet, gave him a blank book. It was to encourage him to write out his feelings. She also shared with him books by the greats, like Shakespeare and Cummings. By the time he watched A Midsummer Night’s Dream at ten, he was hooked on writing. So much so that he began his writing career at the precocious age of thirteen, when one of his plays, The Birnbaum Guide to Hell on Five Dollars a Day was professionally performed by the American Conservatory Theater. That was just the beginning.
Since his professional preteen debut, Holcomb has published a number of poetry, essays and short stories, has written more than 50 comic book stories for franchises such as The X-Men, as well as contributed to a number of television shows, including Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine.
Given his success, it’s not surprising that Holcomb is a much sought-after script consultant and mentor. We caught up with the scribe to discuss story, what he finds most fascinating about screenwriting and the importance of premise.
You write for a number of media, including comic books, TV and movies. Is there a difference, or is a story a story?
Absolutely true that story is story and I believe once writers see that, their world opens up in an amazing way. Once you have developed your premise completely, the story itself will tell you the best format to explore it through. Not every idea is a movie or novel. And if you’re not willing and able to embrace these different forms, you’re not giving your idea the best chance to fully live.
Were you always a fan of movies?
More of a fan of TV in the beginning, but I always saw films as an event, the spectacle of the curtain going up and the silence that fills a theatre as a movie begins. It still thrills me every time.
The first time I was really affected by a film was in 1964 when my cousin took me to see Fail-Safe, a film about a tactical error that resulted in a nuclear exchange. That film stayed with me for months; the drama, the power of the message and its ability to completely control my entire world for a couple of hours. This was, for me, the full force and power of cinema. From that moment on, I was hooked.
In terms of screenwriting, what was your big break?
Completing my first screenplay Shades in the early 90’s gave me two great breaks.
The first was joining a group of writers who were invited to pitch story ideas to the Star Trek franchise. Over the next 15 years and through all four of the new Star Trek TV series, I pitched my story ideas once a month to the show’s writers and producers, received notes and spent time talking about writing with working television writers – a fantastic experience!
And in 1992, I inadvertently got into an argument on a panel discussion with some comic book writers at Comic-Con in San Diego. This oddly lead to a chance to write a series for the legendary Jim Shooter at Defiant Comics, who taught me the soul of comic book writing. It was there that I saw the power of that incredible format. It became my goal to be published and/or produced in every form I could master.
What is it about screenwriting that you find so fascinating?
Film is as close as humans have ever come to bringing their emotional dreams to light. They are our eternal emotional proxies. Films speak in ways that we cannot and dream that we could – wholly, deeply. They can be, at their best, our most fluid arguments for what we believe in – a deep look at the human condition. When they are well done, they speak as the collaborative dreams of us all.
You segued from writing to teaching about writing. How did that come about?
I am consumed with the idea that there are thousands of people longing to tell their stories through film, spending countless millions of hours each year with virtually no real chance of that ever happening. Although there are some brilliant teachers and mentors both within film schools and elsewhere who are doing a great job, the vast majority of aspiring screenwriters are toiling away without good educations, good mentors or adequate guidance. How can we be happy with the fact that script readers and producers repeatedly tell us that 95-99% of all screenplays written are unusable! I felt I had to do something about that.
What do a lot of emerging screenwriters miss while writing their first screenplays? Is there anything that they may overcompensate with?
I believe that a good portion of aspirants treat the writing of a screenplay as a form of lottery, that they can cobble together what they believe is a new take on an old idea, read a couple of books of the subject and make a high price sale. That’s ridiculous! The best of us are crafts-persons who have worked hard at what we do.
For everyone else, start with really learning the fundamentals of storytelling. There are only about one hundred aspects of the craft that you need to know, but you must become well trained in those basics. These are the tools you will use to craft your story. There is no way to compensate for this. Only then can you afford to forget them and move on to create art.
If there was one thing I could tell all beginning screenwriters, it’s to spend the time creating the best, most compelling and interesting premise you can. And be ruthless about it. All the writing skill in the world cannot make a great screenplay out of a mediocre premise. Test it, challenge it. And if it fails, toss it out and look for another. The last thing you need it to work for months on an idea that never had the legs to go the distance.
When a writer is editing her first draft, what should she be looking out for?
The rewrite is the time to fix holes in the script and to strengthen and deepen it. You must look at it objectively now. Understand the different levels at which a film communicates with its audience. Make your characters irresistible. Refine each word of dialogue so that it leaps off the page. Develop the moments in the story – those seconds that the audience will remember forever. Design your scenes for maximum impact. Sit for a moment in the producer’s chair and see the story as s/he will. And most importantly, realize what isn’t working and develop it – sometimes the worst writing offers an opportunity for creating great moments.
What should a novice writer be focused on primarily when first starting out?
Again, the fundamentals – but more than that. Start refining your writing process. The way you look at your story and how you get the dream that you see in your mind out and onto the page. There’s no mysticism involved here. Be confident that you can learn the skills you will need. But you must seek out the best guidance. There are excellent classes and sites on the web that can really help, but there is even more bad advice that will hurt you process if taken to heart. A great place to start is Scott Myers’ Go into the Story blog.
What mistakes, or weaknesses, do you notice professional writers still make?
I think one of the greatest failures of professionals is that they do not look at the story from the viewpoint of the people who will be interpreting their work and actually creating the film. What does the producer need? What kind of role does an actor crave? Can I see this story from the director’s POV, or even the film’s editors? A sale only happens when a scripts meets the criteria of a producer. Wouldn’t be wonderful to know what the producer really needed beforehand?
How does a writer acquire the necessary skills to evolve? Is it a case of mentoring, taking classes or constantly rewriting — or all three?
It is a craft no different than becoming a professional musician. It takes study and practice – not just writing and rewriting your script but expanding your repertoire – writing outside your comfort zone, doing scene studies, taking on difficult emotional topics, and exploring your take on the human experience.
It is not enough to just say something – you must have something to say! And like a musician, you must perform: submit your work to criticism and review; learn how to take that criticism and how to judge its value.
How important are timelines/deadlines?
Failing to make one’s deadlines is the leading cause of failure in professional screenwriters. But deadlines are vital to all writers. Get used to them and meet them always. Set your own deadlines and meet them as well.
That’s what a professional does.
I read an article of yours on “The Personal Story Arc” on Story Fix. How important is it that writers invoke their personal story into their work?
As in acting, the writer only has his or her own experiences to draw emotion from. Your personal story arc – your challenges, your limitations, your experiences and your losses – are the building blocks of every character you create and, as you explore your own history, you will become more attuned to the emotions of other.
Soon you’ll see the world for what it is – a swirling theatre of emotion. See it. Use it.
What are your thoughts on the three act structure? Does story ever trump structure?
Does story trump structure? That’s become a very popular notion, but it’s complete nonsense. Like asking whether an apple trumps a bicycle. You can’t compare the two because they are both integral parts of the whole – one can never work without the other. A story without structure is just typing and will never find its audience, and structure without a story is nothing at all.
One of the problems with the current state of informal screenwriting education is that the restorative three act structure (RTA) is treated as the be-all and end-all in education. The truth is that it is only a small part of the elementary education of any aspiring screenwriter. Absolutely vital in the same way that training wheels are vital to a child learning to ride a bike. It’s Screenwriting 101 and should be taught that way. But it has been expanded on and cherished like the Holy Grail.
Dependence upon the RTA, or any of the popular formulas derived from it, gives young writers the wrong impression – that all you have to do is learn the formula that they’ve been told Hollywood prefers and you’re golden. It contributes to the lottery mentality of screenwriting today and it serves everyone poorly.
Instead, decide whether you’re willing to pay the price to be good at your craft. You write to find your voice, the stories inside you that you would want to see on screen. Be professional. Be serious about your writing and you’ve got a chance.
What’s your personal favorite piece of writing advice?
‘It’s not enough to say something – you must have something to say’. And the great thing about humans is that they are, deep down, great storytellers. But so many fail to write with a story in mind that is deep and meaningful – whether it’s a heartfelt piece or an action film.
All stories are statements about the human conditions regardless of how we write them or what we are trying to say. I long to hear the voices of my fellow writers come through but, so often, they end up telling us a version of a story we have all heard time and time again.
What producers want – whether it’s Hollywood or Bollywood – is not the rehash of the last popular blockbuster or for you to work out your childhood trauma on the page. More than anything, they want is a compelling, page-turner of a story that can only come from you!
I think every writer experiences some sort of “Eureka!” moment when something clicked that didn’t click before in terms of craft. What was that moment for you?
I had been working on story ideas at Paramount with the Star Trek: The Next Generation producers, pitching to people like Brannon Braga, Ron Moore and Rene Echevarra. We were tossing around an idea that just wasn’t working. It was a great idea (one that I used later elsewhere) when I finally realized just how the story – even though a good one – just was never going to work for them. It was in that moment that I really began to see the process from the producer’s standpoint and it changed everything for me.
You’ve been writing and teaching about writing for a long time. How does a writer create a career of longevity?
I think most writers dream about their next sale, but what I always wanted was a career, the ability to make a living with nothing more than a computer and my imagination. I wanted not just the next sale but a body of work to leave behind, a compilation of my dreams and a cogent view into how I saw the world. But, in the end, it was really just about not stopping, not giving up and trying at each turn to write something a little better, a little different than I had done before.
What are some of your favorite TV shows and movies you’ve watched recently, and what about them did you like?
I have loved recent offerings like Fargo, Better Call Saul, Damages and Breaking Bad. These examples of creators who are paving the way for the future of television, which has been much more adventurous than features of late.
As for films this past year, I liked The Martian and Inside Out domestically. Of foreign films, I quite liked Madonna out of South Korea by Shin Su-won and The Guests by Shane Danielsen of Australia.