- Discussing the basic outlining process for a screenplay.
- Conflict is what drives the story onward.
- How to write great dialogue.
I craft extensive outlines for all my writing.
Welcome to the thirty-seventh episode of Interviews from the Void, where I interview writers about their writing process, discussing the mechanics and physicality of the craft.
In this episode, I chat with screenwriter Josh Hughes.
Arthur: Tell me more about your writing journey. How did you learn the format and craft of screenwriting?
Josh: I can remember back to when I was 9 or 10 I would tag along with my mom to her office on Sunday’s to “help clean.” The only reason I wanted to go was to play around on the computer. I ended up just writing these extravagant stories which were basically re-writes of the movies I watched with my parents. That pretty much started my interest in crafting a story. I got really interested in writing screenplays when I got to college. I had just switched from a marketing to a film degree and I wanted to be a director because I thought they had total control over films. Turns out they don’t and writing is where the real magic happens… well at least to me. I wrote my first short film to be produced based off the Stephen King short story Strawberry Spring. Here is a link. In my last couple years of college I wrote some Beavis and Butthead specs and started my first feature. I took a few classes on how to write a screenplay and proper format but the internet and books have been big helps on how to really hone the craft. Over the past 7 years I’ve been writing features and mainly pilots in varying genres but mainly horror and dark comedy. I always like to throw in bits of history as well. I’m a major history buff.
Arthur: Do you have any specific writing techniques you employ to hone your craft?
Josh: Write what you know and take it to a place you’re scared of going. If you’re an ex ballerina dancer and want to write a movie about the war in Iraq… what makes you qualified? People won’t take that serious. But if you write a movie about an ex vet that takes up ballerina dancing to combat PTSD, well now we have a movie. You need to write what you’re good at and what you know and take it to a place you aren’t familiar with, something you can research and explore. You need to always be pushing the envelope and doing things different, breaking the mold, and don’t write cliché.
I’ve always been afraid of things underwater. Specifically ships and really the Titanic. When that boom started after finding the ship I was obsessed with it but one day I just became terrified of looking at it and basically anything underwater. I found out that’s a phobia! Megalohydrothalassophobia. So I wrote a screenplay about an ex diver that develops this phobia and has to fight it to save his wife who’s lost in search of a shipwreck. It’s titled Hadal. Write what you know (or are scared of) take it to a new place and break the mold.
It’s not just a story but a world with rules to play by or you’re going to die by.
Arthur: What other screenplays and screenwriters influence your writing? What about them specifically is inspiring to you and why?
Josh: I really enjoyed Robert Eggers and what he did with THE WITCH. He completely submersed you into the 1600’s with that movie. I would say Max Landis to an extent just because he has such a grand personality and he comes off arrogant but I think it’s just confidence in himself and his writing. Tom Holland just because CHILD’S PLAY which is an all-time favorite… I would say him and Stephen King are the two biggest influences on why I love horror so much. I reached out to Mr. Holland after reading an unproduced script of his and his son got back to me almost instantly. Always nice to give the big time writers praise and to actually get a thank you back. I think all these writers have in common an element of crafting an environment and totally sucking you into it. It’s not just a story but a world with rules to play by or you’re going to die.
Arthur: Robert McKee wrote a book called STORY, where he talks about the mechanics of screenwriting and using conflict and tension to drive the story forward. How do you outline your screenplays? Do you plan the pacing and beats of the story?
Josh: Great book to read for a screenwriter on every level. When I started writing, I never used an outline. I would have an idea, an opening, a character, and I would just write. Most of my unfinished screenplays end around 20 pages just because I ran out of ideas or wrote myself into a corner. My first outline was for a historical horror called THE GHOST and I vividly remember it being the first time I outlined. The process was just so much smoother! Now I craft extensive outlines for all my writing. I do a 6-8 beat sheet and each beat has 3-4 beats within it. So it basically outlines a section of the script. Each beat should have about 10 pages so by the end of it I’ll have a solid 80-100 page script. The first section will be the first 10 pages, very fast and lots happening, you can expect 2-4 to be fun and games, 5-6, to be the height of the second act, 7 is the lowest point, and section 8 is redemption and final scenes. The system almost always works for me. Of my last 4-5 screenplays I’m still working on one that I, ironically, didn’t outline well enough before starting.
Figuring out resolution is the fun part.
Arthur: How do you determine the driving conflict of the story?
Josh: What is going to carry us through the whole movie and be solved by the end? Sure there are little problems and each character has their own conflict but as I’m coming up with premise, conflict usually goes hand in hand from the get go. I usually ask a question and that determines conflict, figuring out resolution is the fun part and I’ve got 100 pages to get there. One of my more “out there” scripts asked the question: what if a kid thought his dad was Rick Moranis? I then formed it into a script titled, My Father. About a former child start, now all grown up, and he still thinks his dad is Rick Moranis. It’s wild, dramatic, funny, and pulls at the 90’s heart strings. Convincing you that this person actually thinks his dad is a famous comedian is half the battle. Having him figure out that this isn’t his father is the other half. While the idea was absolutely ludicrous, it’s tame, enjoyable, and actually believable.
Arthur: Do you pick themes to write around? Or do you start with the story first?
Josh: I almost always start with story first and then craft a theme around it as I’m outlining. Certain characters or scenes will pop into my head and it’ll be the perfect spot to inject themes. I might have something in the back of my head or a few things on paper about theme, but I try not to worry too much about that because it always fleshes itself out in the outlining process.
Everything about screenwriting is difficult but that’s why we do it. We dream of greatness and put it on paper.
Arthur: What has been the hardest thing for you to learn in screenwriting?
Josh: The hardest thing I feel will always be what to write. Sure I have ideas but which idea is the right idea to write? I do think it’s helpful to keep my notebook handy and I often find combining ideas, themes, or characters makes for a great story. Everything about screenwriting is difficult but that’s why we do it. We dream of greatness and put it on paper. The second most difficult thing is contests, queries, getting your material out there. But that’s a whole new ballgame.
Arthur: Do you have beta readers or editors you work with for your screenplays? Is that process different than it is for novel writing?
Josh: I primarily write screenplays by myself and with one co-writer. I recently finished a horror piece with another co-writer who was a long time beta reader of mine. It was a project that is going to be produced and I thought he would be perfect to finally work together on something that needed to be written fast. When I finish a screenplay I have about 4-5 dedicated readers that I know I can always send a script to. Over time a few more will come about and others won’t be invited to read anymore and that’s just how things work out. Once I get feedback, I almost always confirm issues I knew I’d have and new ones come up as well. Re-writing is the most fun part of writing to me.
Re-writing is the most fun part of writing to me.
Arthur: Your characters in both BUTZEMANN and BLUE MOON have great dialogue. Do you have any specific techniques for writing dialogue?
Josh: Well these two scripts had characters that I drew heavily from real life people or myself. BUTZEMANN was about a traumatic childhood experience that I went through. So I just went back in time to how I used to act, think, and talk… which isn’t much different from now haha. In BLUE MOON, Katherine and Evan are married friends of mine. They are the goofiest, most bizarre, and interesting people I know. They are already TV show characters in my mind so that was a piece of cake. The key to writing great dialogue is to say it out loud while you’re writing it. Does it sound good? Does it make sense? Is it too long or too short, does it hit at the right time? All great questions to ask yourself.
Arthur: Do you have a writing group you are part of? Who do you bounce ideas off of for your stories?
Josh: Like I said, I write with one co-writer and collaborate with another sometimes. We just bounce ideas off each other on Facebook and honestly we’ve never met in person so we don’t hurt each other’s feelings and are brutally honest.
I got involved with my first writing group about four years ago and I’d say this is when I got the most serious about writing. We met once a week and shared around 10 pages. The feedback was beyond helpful and it was a profound experience chatting with other writers about their dreams, writing, and everything going on in their lives. Since then I’ve been involved with a few other groups and I’m cautious about who I involve myself with. There are a lot of writers out there that only want to harm your projects and what you think of your skills.
The key to writing great dialogue is to say it out loud while you’re writing it.
Arthur; There are very creepy scenes in your horror screenplay, BUTZEMANN. How did you envision these before you wrote it? How did you know if it would be “creepy” or “scary?” What was your vision of this story before you wrote it? Did it match that vision when you completed it?
Josh: Butzemann is based off The Hat Man. If you’ve seen the Netflix documentary “The Nightmare” you’ll know what I’m talking about. I used to see this creature when I was young. It terrified me. I’m getting goosebumps as I write this. I didn’t know this was a real thing that other people saw until I saw the documentary. I started hyperventilating and crying when the hat man came up on the documentary. It was uncontrollable fear that I hadn’t experienced in over 20 years but was back in an instant. My wife was flabbergasted because I didn’t cry at our wedding and here I am crying over this figure. She knew the fear was real. I knew these things were scary as a kid and I drew on that fear to write the script. I feel the script was pretty close to how I wanted it but, again, it was so easy to write because I lived it.
Arthur: I love the ending to BUTZEMANN. So cool. Without giving too much away, how did you decide upon this ending? Did you have other potential endings in mind before finishing the screenplay?
Josh: This was a screenplay I didn’t quite know how I wanted it to end. I knew the basic timeline of events but once the characters got there, I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. When I got to that point in the script I had a few ideas and ultimately went with the one that is predictable once you re-read it but still a shock just like The Sixth Sense. But I didn’t want it to end so abruptly so I added a little teaser at the end to wrap things up and hopefully present enough for a sequel. I feel if you don’t have an ending rock solid before starting you will write yourself into a corner and getting out is tough. Beginnings and endings are crucial and can’t be overlooked.
Beginnings and endings are crucial and can’t be overlooked.
Arthur: Do you partake in the direction of your films as well? What is it like seeing your screenplay go from paper to the screen? Do you make changes to the story during this process?
Josh: I’ve directed, acted, and edited in a few of the films I’ve written. With my most recent feature that is going into production I just wanted to step back and write. I hate being on set and having to do everything. I know how to run a camera, lights, sound, and act so people know they can rely up on me. I would rather just write and make changes on set. I would say it’s satisfying and always upsetting to see your films go from page to screen. You spent so much time on it, writing and re-writing, and now it’s finally done.
Arthur: When you get a new idea for a story, how do you decide if you’re going to pursue it over another? How do you do know if one idea will be more successful as a book or short story with your audience versus another?
Josh: This is an interesting question. I like to keep a notebook of ideas… just ideas. I write the date and all I know about it. Mostly these are going to be the ones I never write but occasionally they make it onto the outline and writing phase. I feel ideas, good ideas, come to you in an instant and control your thoughts for the next week until you get it on the page. Most of my ideas come from dreams, well specifically that weird space between awake and sleeping where you aren’t sure what’s reality and dreams. At least four of my screenplays are solely based on dreams. More recently I started writing more for the audience and what’s popular but if I write a popular trend now, it won’t ever get made. You have to be ahead of the curve and write what will be popular in 2, 3, 5 years.
You have to get ahead of the curve and write what will be popular in 2, 3, 5 years.
Arthur: Do you monitor trends in the movie and television markets? Before you write a screenplay, do you perform any research to see if it will sell? How do you do know if one story idea will be more successful over another?
Josh: I like to follow trends but you have to be ahead of the trend… essentially make the trend to be successful. I like to think if someone likes my writing they are going to hire me to write something else anyway. So I’ll just write the best damn screenplay I can and hope I get hired to write something else.
Josh, thank you so much for an incredible and insightful interview. I can’t wait to see one of your films and read more of your scripts. Keep an eye out for Josh’s future work. Feel free to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.