Sandy Frank, author of The Inner Game of Screenwriting: 20 Winning Story Forms, was briefly a Park Avenue lawyer before quitting to write for Late Night with David Letterman. He went on to write sketch, sitcom, drama, and features. And now, non-fiction.
How did you make the jump from lawyer to comedy writer?
My law firm’s offices were in 30 Rock, a few floors above NBC, and one of my best friends from college (and from the humor magazine we both wrote for) had become the head writer of Late Night with David Letterman, so we ran into each other all the time. One night, he and I were having dinner, complaining about our jobs, when he said if I were really tired of being a lawyer he thought I could write on the show. He helped me get my material together, and I ended up quitting my law job and writing for Dave for four years, during which we won four Emmy Awards for comedy-variety writing.
Why did you write The Inner Game of Screenwriting?
Having been a math major, computer programmer, and lawyer, I always took an analytic approach to writing. As I went from comedy-variety to sketch to sitcom to drama to features, I always wanted to know, ‘how do I do this?’ Then, a couple years ago, I woke up and realized that I finally got what it was all about, how it really works. And I thought it would be great to help other writers get it, too.
What was your process for writing it? Why did you choose the story forms format?
As I wrote about Inner Story, I ended up cataloging and analyzing all its types, and they became the story forms in the subtitle. So the format arose quite organically from the material.
What are three things screenwriters need to know?
My book is really about the one thing that all screenwriters – up-and-coming or other wise – need to know: that the Inner Story is the most important element of any screenplay. Maybe you’ve heard of Isaiah Berlin’s essay about the hedgehog and the fox: the fox knows many little things; the hedgehog knows one big thing. Most screenwriting books teach many little things: how to write dialog, how to craft scenes, where to put your act breaks, etc. My book teaches one big thing: how to write an emotionally satisfying Inner Story.
What was your favorite part of writing this book? The greatest challenge?
Writing non-fiction is hard. You stare at your screen and think, this made so much sense when I thought it, how come it’s so confusing the way I wrote it. But the great part is it really forces you to think your hypotheses through. The old saying is true: you don’t really understand something until you can write it down clearly enough for someone else to understand it.
Additional advice for screenwriters?
Learn to gauge your emotional reactions as you watch movies or read screenplays. Are you fascinated? Are you bored? Then try to figure out why.
Advice for non-fiction book writers?
Clarity is the most important goal. Get it down, then read it with a fresh (ignorant) eye and revise it till it’s clear.
What do you know now that you wish you knew at the beginning of your writing career?
That what makes a screenplay successful is the emotional Inner Story. It’s easy to tell screenwriters that the main character has to want something and has trouble getting it. But what really determines a screenplay’s success is what’s going on inside the characters. That’s really what The Inner Game of Screenwriting is all about: it’s everything I’ve finally learned that I wish I knew years ago. To me, it’s the key that unlocks the art of screenwriting.