Monday, August 18, 2014

INTRODUCING A NEW COLUMN By Screenwriter Robert Gosnell

I'm so pleased to bring you Robert Gosnell's opinions, thoughts, and tips on screenwriting.
Novelists will get a great deal of information out of his columns as well, so don't pass up these opportunities to see inside the mind of a multi-produced screenwriter.

Crash On The Information Highway

I love movies, and as politically incorrect as it may be to admit publicly, I love television, too. I can't help it. We grew up together. As a youth, I was enthralled by stories, in any form. I not only watched films and TV and read books incessantly, but I also enjoyed sitting quietly in a room full of adults and listening intently to the stories they told.

So, when I made the somewhat radical decision to abandon my  blue-collar existence and become a screenwriter, it seemed like a logical choice. I had searched for years, as many of us do, to find my "true calling," and now I had found it. But, I had a problem.

I knew the "what," but I didn't know the "how." To echo Hamlet's lament, "there's the rub!"

At that time, writing for the screen was a relatively elite vocation, so the availability of information was, to say the least, limited. Therefore, my first obstacle was a pretty basic one.

What the hell does a script look like?

Since my initial goal was to write situation comedy for TV, I picked one of my favorites, a show called "Barney Miller," and made the acquisition of a script from that show my immediate target. But again, how?

"Simple enough," I decided. "I'll write to the show and ask them to send me a script." Ignorance is bliss.

Astonishingly, I received a reply, although not the one I was hoping for, from the prolific and talented writer/producer Tony Sheehan. It was a rather lengthy letter, explaining in diplomatically phrased detail why my desire to write for "Barney Miller" was an impossible dream. "Barney" was a tough show to get a handle on. "Barney" wasn't soliciting outside writers. In short, I would never write for "Barney Miller."

Mr. Sheehan had missed the point, entirely! So, I wrote him back.

I explained that I chose his show because it represented the quality of programming I was aspiring to write. I never expected an invitation to actually write for "Barney Miller." I just wanted to know what a sitcom script looked like!

To my further astonishment, a couple of weeks later, I received a "Barney Miller" script in the mail, with this brief note from Mr. Sheehan:

"Dear Mr. Gosnell,
I guess, the second time's the charm."

I'm sure that Mr. Sheehan doesn't know, to this day, that his generosity kick-started my career, but I certainly never forgot it.

After churning out some spec scripts and doing some research, I made my trek to Hollywood. Over the years of honing my craft from the trenches, information became more readily available. I learned not only from books, seminars and classes, but most importantly, from mentors and peers who were kind enough to share their knowledge and experience with me. Eventually, I hit pay dirt, and have had the good fortune to write for feature films, independent films, TV and cable. I vowed, way back then, that when I reached a point where I felt confident in my ability to pass that information along, I would do so.

A few years ago, I began teaching a screenwriting class of my own. It was a surprisingly rewarding experience, not only because it gave me a forum to share the information I had garnered, over the years, but because it challenged me to dig deeper and expand my own knowledge of the craft. Soon after, the thought of writing a book on the subject began to creep into the recesses of my brain.

And then came the internet, and suddenly, there became available a flood of information on the subject. There are blogs and posts and websites, online classes and seminars, contests and "script doctors" of every manner. "Experts" are springing up from out of nowhere. I mean, literally, nowhere. For a time, I put my thoughts of writing a book out of my mind. Why jump into the middle of that mess? Why become just another voice in that cacophony?

However, when I started reading and analyzing the information being offered, I was appalled to discover how much of it was  misleading, incomplete or just, plain wrong, and that many of those experts were not experts, at all. So many people who have never written, sold or had produced a screenplay are now out there teaching people how to write screenplays. The blind are leading the blind...and charging money to do so.

Having scraped and clawed my way through the trenches of Hollywood to reach my goal, I found this approach offensive. That, as much as anything, re-ignited my desire to write "The Blue Collar Screenwriter and the Elements of Screenplay." If nothing else, I hoped to set the record straight, at least to some degree. Even at that, I don't consider myself an expert. I don't claim or pretend to have all the answers, or to know the one-and-only secret to success. Perhaps, I could make more money if I had the brass balls necessary to make that claim, but I just can't do it.

However, I have gathered a lot of information on the subject over my thirty-plus years in the business, and I felt compelled to share it. At the least, I've actually done what I teach, and that has to count for something.

In recent years, I have also been enlightened on another perspective that previously had escaped me. Some of my screenwriting students are novelists; many of them successful. Their goal, now, is to adapt their novels for the screen. These dedicated writers opened my eyes to the similarities and the differences between the forms. A story is a story, but a novel is not a screenplay. How to make the "twain" meet?

That is the purpose of today's blog; my first. In an excerpt from my book, I will present an issue which is common to all stories, but approached in a manner which is unique to the screenwriting form. I hope that novelists, screenwriters and those who aspire to either or both will find something of value within it.

So, sit back, relax and allow me to introduce you to "Physical Proxies."

Physical Proxies

Once you have established your character's backstory, you must now find ways to reflect that backstory in a character's actions and words. If you want to reveal a character's inner-workings visually, then you must do so with, guess what? Action.
The internal thought or emotion you want to reveal must be delivered in a manner which is visual, and allows the actor and director to interpret it. For my own edification, I've termed these actions "Physical Proxies."
There's really no mystery to it, or anything new. It's simply a reflection of the old "show, don't tell" rule.
Let's utilize a scene from "Rocky" to examine some physical proxies.
Early in the story, Rocky has been offered the fight with Apollo Creed, for the championship. Mickey, the boxing trainer, wants to be Rocky's manager. The trouble is, the men had an earlier run-in, when Mickey took away Rocky's locker at the gym and gave it to another fighter, whom he deemed a "contender." Rocky, however, was a "tomato," who fought like an ape, and should retire.

Now, here's Mickey, showing up at the door of Rocky's shabby little apartment, hat-in-hand.

Once inside, Mickey follows Rocky around the apartment, making his case. He talks about his experiences and shows Rocky pictures of young Mickey as a boxer.
And, what does Rocky do? He keeps moving away from Mickey. He throws darts at a dart board. He gets a beer from the refrigerator. He walks to his bedroom. Finally, when all else fails, Rocky goes into the bathroom and closes the door.
These are the physical proxies Rocky employs to express what he's feeling. Here's a big, tough, heavyweight fighter, and what is he doing? Avoiding confrontation! He can go toe-to-toe with brutes in the ring, but emotional confrontation makes him uncomfortable.
This scene is just such an emotional confrontation. The more Mickey persists, the more uncomfortable Rocky grows. He's squirming, before our eyes. That's a reveal of a characteristic which is demonstrated throughout the story, not just in this scene.
Rocky keeps telling Mickey that the fight is set, and he doesn't need a manager. That's the text, but we know what's really going on. Mickey gave up on him. Mickey told him to quit. Mickey hurt his feelings. You could see it, churning around inside him. You knew the reason he was saying "no." Nobody had to tell us, because Rocky showed us.
The only time it was really addressed verbally was when Rocky, still trying to avoid the subject, steps into the doorway of his bedroom. Mickey follows him in and there sees a poster of the heavyweight legend Rocky Marciano on the wall. Mickey remarks that Rocky reminds him of Marciano. He moves like the champ. He's got heart. Rocky's deadpan reply:
"Yeah, I got heart. But, I ain't got no locker, do I, Mick?"
There it is, in glorious subtext. It's personal.
Another fine example can be found in "Forrest Gump." In this scene, Forrest and Jenny, the girl he loves, have returned to the house where Jenny grew up, which is now abandoned. Jenny, venting her anger, begins to throw rocks at the house, one after another, with a growing fervor, until she sinks to the ground, weeping.
Forrest moves to her and sits beside her. Then, in Voice Over narration, we hear Forrest say:
"Sometimes, I guess, there just aren't enough rocks."
While it was never stated verbally in this scene, is there any doubt that Jenny was abused in that house? We can only imagine what indignities she suffered, but we certainly know that bad things happened to her, there.
That information, that backstory, was expressed through action. The throwing of rocks became the Physical Proxy to express the anger Jenny was feeling. Talking about it could never have had the same impact as this action.
Think of it as mime, if you like. Think of it in terms of a silent film. Ask yourself:
"What if there is no sound? How can I show what my character is feeling?"
If your character is well developed; well rounded, the right action for that character to express his inner feelings will be there. Rocky was a brute with a soft spot. Tough and crude, yet also sensitive and vulnerable.
Those conflicting traits going on inside him caused him to react to a given situation in his own unique, personal way. When he could no longer control his anger and frustration, he struck out physically, but always at inanimate objects. Never at people, unless he was in the ring. He struggled to conceal his inner feelings, fearing that expressing them would show weakness.
Rocky's Physical Proxies were his, alone. The better developed your characters, the more mannerisms and characteristics you can create to visually express their feelings.

~ ~ ~ 
A professional screenwriter for more than thirty years, Robert Gosnell has produced credits in feature films, network television, syndicated television, basic cable and pay cable, and is a member of the Writers Guild of America, West and the Writers Guild of Canada.

Robert began his career writing situation comedy as a staff writer for the ABC series Baby Makes Five. As a freelance writer, he wrote episodes for Too Close for Comfort and the TBS comedies Safe at Home and Rocky Road. In cable, he has scripted numerous projects for the Disney Channel, including Just Perfect, a Disney Channel movie featuring Jennie Garth. In 1998, he wrote the Showtime original movie, Escape from Wildcat Canyon, which starred Dennis Weaver and won the national "Parents Choice Award." Robert's feature credits include the Chuck Norris/Louis Gosset Jr. film Firewalker, an uncredited rewrite on the motion picture Number One With A Bullet starring Robert Carradine and Billy Dee Williams, and the sale of his original screenplay Kick And Kick Back to Cannon Films. Robert was also selected as a judge for the 1990 Cable Ace awards, in the Comedy Special category.

In 1990, Robert left Hollywood for Denver, where he became active in the local independent film community. His screenplay Tiger Street was produced by the Pagoda Group of Denver, and premiered on Showtime Extreme in August of 2003. In 1999, Denver’s Inferno Films produced the action film Dragon and the Hawk from his script. In 2001, Robert co-wrote the screenplay for the independent feature Siren for Las Vegas company Stage Left Productions. His feature script Juncture was produced by Front Range Films in March of 2006.

Robert is a principal member of the Denver production company "Conspiracy Films." He is frequently an invited speaker for local writers organizations, served on the faculty of the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Conference in 2002, and in 2007 was chosen to participate as a panelist for the Aspen Film Festival Short Screenplay Contest. Robert regularly presents his screenwriting class "The Elements of Screenplay," along with advanced classes and workshops, in the Denver area.

Robert's book, "The Blue Collar Screenwriter and The Elements of Screenplay" is currently available at:
Amazon digital and paperback
Barnes & Noble

Find Robert at:
Website (with information on classes)


  1. Great article. Love the advice to think of a silent film!

  2. Thanks, Debra!

  3. Bob, I loved the article, including the nuggets to think about.

    Suzanne Philippus