16 Ways Proust Can Help Your Screenplays

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by Fiona Wheeler

A century ago, Marcel Proust changed storytelling forever with his epic groundbreaking novel. To celebrate his birthday today, let’s take a look at the lessons we can learn from the father of modern fiction writing.

1. LIVE LIFE

Proust was quite the social butterfly throughout his early life. When he came to write, he had a lot of material.

How can you write profound, unique and compelling stories if you’ve only ever Facebooked and Googled life? Turn the technology off (after you finish reading this), go and experience life.

2. DON’T FEAR FAILURE

Proust was a late bloomer; many great writers are. By the age of twenty-eight, he hadn’t made a cent and had spent four years writing his first, very terrible novel.

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He abandoned the doomed novel and started reading. From his reading he found he had a talent for academia, which led to success as a translator, which improved his standing in Paris society, which got him into ever-more-exclusive parties, which he ended up writing about in his one famous opus. All because he wasn’t afraid to try and fail.

Your first screenplays aren’t going to be great. No one’s are. Keep writing, keep taking risks, and you’ll get where you belong.

3. DISTANCE YOURSELF FROM DETRACTORS

Proust’s mother encouraged his artistic endeavors and acted as buffer between Marcel and his overbearing father.

Truly supportive people are thin on the ground, but you can distance yourself from detractors. They can hate anyone, they don’t need you. And you don’t need them.

4. BE REVOLUTIONARY

Proust wrote in ways that hadn’t been done before, both in his style and content.

Great screenwriters also change the way we see both cinema and the world. The Jazz Singer, Citizen Kane, The Matrix broke new ground both in how we tell action and how we define genre. The works of Woody Allen and Charlie Kaufman constantly question and recalibrate the screenwriter’s voice in film.

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What awesome ways do you wish you could alter our understanding and concept of film? Why aren’t you writing the screenplay that embodies those theories? Be the paradigm-shift you want to see in the world.

5. MAKE WRITING A PRIORITY

When he decided to take another kick at writing, Marcel literally retired from life.

Unless you’re very rich, that’s simply not practical, but you can make a number of choices that prioritize your writing above other aspects.

6. SEEK OUT GREAT COLLABORATORS

Why a bed-ridden writer needs a chauffeur is beyond me, but Marcel, his housekeeper and his chauffeur formed a formidable unit. Without their fussing, prods, protection and their unexpected inspirations, Marcel’s work wouldn’t have the richness it does.

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Screenwriting can be lonely. As your career progresses find a loyal agent and manager who aren’t just there for their ten percent, but truly want your long-term success. Seek out producers, directors, and great and interesting actors with whom you can collaborate.

7. FIND THE BEST CREATIVE PROCESS FOR YOU

For Marcel that meant writing in bed, surrounded by trinkets which evoked the greatest joys and memories.

Whatever your unique process, identify and cultivate it. It doesn’t matter what other people think: you’re unique, and your process only has to work for you.

8. REWRITE WELL AND OFTEN

Marcel wrote each day. Do you?

9. TREAT YOURSELF

When he’d accomplished a rather tricky part of text, Marcel would send his chauffeur out to the Ritz to get some ice cream and beer.

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Few of us can afford snacks from iconic restaurants, but a delectable pastry is within reach. If you’re doing it right, writing is hard, emotionally-grueling work. You deserve the occasional treat.

10. HAVE A CLEAR TITLE

Marcel’s epic novel has a million different titles. It’s too confusing. Most people give up before they’ve ever read a word. Don’t let that happen to you.

Make sure your screenplay has a clear, concise title. Chinatown, Jaws, When Harry Met Sally, Home Alone. No matter what genre, we need a title we can say and remember.

11. NO BORING BEGINNINGS

Those who do read Swann’s Way (the first volume) often get stuck part way through. We all know Proust is a great author, so we keep at it.

Make your first ten pages gripping. Make them an easy read.

12. SIMPLE PLOT, COMPLEX CHARACTERS

There aren’t a whole lot of plot points in his novel: a guy wishes he could control love. He tries to control his lover, she runs off, he tries to find her, he doesn’t. Gradually he comes to accept he has no control over others. It’s not the plot that keeps you reading those sprawling seven volumes; it’s the complex, flawed, deeply human characters.

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Ask any top studio exec what the recipe is for a truly great film, they won’t even pause before they say, “Simple plot, complex characters.” Make sure your script has them.

13. TIME IS RELATIVE. TALES CAN BE NON-NARRATIVE

Proust’s protagonist stops time to delve back and journey though his own memories. Flashback, fluid time, stream-of-consciousness; these are all techniques we have thanks to him.

Without a complex, internally-alive protagonist, they’re just pretty little tricks. Your screenplay should only ever use flashback or voice over if it’s integral to the emotional journey of your main character.

14. AN AMAZING ENDING

Those who’ve read the last volume, Time Regained, know it to be the most truly rewarding book they’ve ever read. It’s the culmination of an epic journey. The end is like a greatest hits album, it’s also the payoff of all that has come before.

The last ten pages of your script either disappoint your reader, or make them fall in love. Re-write and re-write again your crucial last ten pages.

15. BELIEVE IN YOURSELF WHEN NO ONE ELSE DOES

Initially, publishers didn’t even read Proust’s novel before rejecting it. A former society butterfly writes an epic novel! A century on, it’s Proust we remember, not them.

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Don’t give up. Good things aren’t ever easy, but they are worthwhile.

16. BE UNIQUE AND BE FABULOUS

There’s no doubting Proust was eccentric. A unique voice is a good thing. Find yours.

So, go out in search of your lost fabulous-ness. And have a delicious petite cake today in honor of your budding screenwriting career and Marcel Proust’s birthday.

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Fiona Wheeler began writing for the stage, has a Master’s in Screenwriting from a top film school (VCA), and has a feature in development. Born in Australia, she’s lived in several different countries and cultures. This is reflected in the diverse, global screen stories she tells.

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