Thursday, May 31, 2012

What I Wish I'd Heard At Graduation, Part 3: They Can’t Buy You, They Can Only Buy Your Material

Connections are great.  Impressing people at parties is great.  Being the most well-liked writer in town is great.  All of these things open doors.  But the whole point of all of this, the whole point of “getting in the door,” is to get them to ask that one magical question: “What else ya got?”  If you say “Nothing yet”, then all that work you did was for nothing. 

A shoe-gazer with a great script will always be worth more than the nicest guy in town with a so-so script.  Stop schmoozing, go home, write. 

If you’re waiting until you get signed to start writing seriously, you’ll never make it.  Reps don’t sign you in order to make you money.  They sign you in order to intercept some of the money that’s about to hit you.  

You can’t fall into the trap of asking, “Why isn’t my agent talking me up so that I get more writing assignments?”  That’s not your agent’s job, and it would be impossible anyway.  Your agent’s mouth can’t sell you, only your material can sell you.  Your agent’s only job is to get your best material to people who will love it, so that they will either buy it or meet with you about writing something else.   

Another reason that you need a lot of good material before getting signed is because it’s a lot harder to write afterward. This is true for a few reasons:
  1. Your new rep will probably send you out right away on some meetings, and some of those people you meet with will want to come up with free ten-page pitches for their own projects, so you’ll be busy with that.  (P.S., That free work usually goes nowhere.  Consider it hazing.)
  2. It becomes much harder to hear your own voice after you’ve been signed.  You’ll be hit with so many derisive “everybody knows” screenwriting “truisms” that you’ll start to doubt everything you think you know. 
  3. Even if your rep manages to sell your sample, then it probably won’t make you much money, because you’re not a name yet.  Once that’s sold, you make your real money on your second sale. 
The good news is that you can stop beating yourself up about not having any representation.  You’re in the prime of your career right now: the period where, without encumbrances, you can write spec after spec.  Those specs are not just your ticket towards getting signed, they’re going to be your ticket long after as well. 

In the meantime, you need to help out your peers, which well get to tomorrow...

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

What I Wish I'd Heard At Graduation, Part 2: Stockpile Your Work Until Everyone Is Telling You That You’re Ready

A lot of aspiring screenwriters keep churning out self-indulgent scripts, thinking that their goal is to find one “enlightened” executive who sees the value in their material, hands them a golden ticket, and stove-pipes them to the top of the profession.  No.  That executive doesn’t exist.  He died forty years ago. 

What if you did actually find that lone powerful decision-maker who liked your stuff, even though no one else did?  All he could do is say, “Okay!  I love this!  Now I’ll put you in a room with ten of my colleagues and you’ll have to sell it to all of them.  And by the way, if nine of them love it, and one hates it?  It’s dead.”  

There is only one way to get ahead in the world of screenwriting: popular acclaim.  Write a script that everybody loves. 

(“Popular acclaim” is not the same thing as “broad appeal,” but your level of talent does have to match the difficulty level of your screenplay.  If it’s about a leprosy epidemic in an old folks’ home, you’re going to have a harder time getting everybody to love it, obviously.  But if you’re amazing enough to pull that off, then go for it.  If you write a truly great script on that topic, people might say, “this isn’t my thing”, then they’ll follow that up with “but the writing is brilliant and we have to hire this writer for something.”)

This is why you need to wait before you send out your material, rather than pouncing on every opportunity early on.  If a powerful person asks to read a sample of your writing, that’s a dangerous opportunity. 

Those doors don’t open very often, and memories are long.  If you send them a piece of material that they hate, they will shut the door, remember your name, and warn others against you.  Don’t just send them a piece of writing that you think is good, send them something that everybody thinks is good.  If you don’t have a piece of material like that, don’t send them anything.

Let’s say that you just finished your first screenplay, and your uncle mentions that his stepson is Martin Scorsese’s assistant.  What should you do about this?  Nothing!  It’s your first screenplay! If this really is an opportunity, don’t blow it.  This is only an “opportunity” if you happen to have something that everybody is telling you that Scorsese would buy. 

Would you try to sell the first painting you did in kindergarten to a museum?  Would you try to sell the first poem you wrote when you were sixteen to “The New Yorker”?  Everybody knows that one painting doesn’t make you “a painter.”  Everybody knows that one poem doesn’t make you “a poet.” Likewise, one screenplay doesn’t make you “a screenwriter.” 

A capital-s Screenwriter is someone who has started to really master the format.  How will you know when you’re ready?  When people you trust are insisting that you send your stuff out.  Tomorrow we’ll talk about what you can do in the meantime…

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

What I Wish I'd Heard At Graduation, Part 1: Don’t Confuse Your Goals With Your Strategies

Before I go on summer hiatus, here’s a round-up of some advice I really wish I’d gotten for a career in the arts…  
You probably think that employees should be allowed to criticize their boss’s decisions without fear of being fired, right?  And I agree with you: that should be possible.  But you can’t say, “Therefore I will criticize my boss’s decisions without fear of being fired.” 

In college, we frequently advised each other to “be the change you want to see in the world,” and sometimes, if you’re really brave, you can pull that off and make the world a better place.  But if you follow that advice at the wrong time, it can be a recipe for disaster.  The more I live, the more I realize that the way to achieve a better world is not to pretend a better world already exists.  Just because, for instance, you think we should get money out of politics, doesn’t mean that you should refuse to help the politicians you support raise any money. 

Before I become a screenwriter, I was a union organizer and I still think that the best way, in the long term, for any employee to get ahead, is to form a bond of solidarity with his/her fellow workers and raise up everybody’s standards and working conditions at the same time.  But in this series, unfortunately, I’m going to give a lot of advice that directly contradicts that. 

For instance, I’m going to recommend that you do a lot of free work, despite the fact that I believe free work is basically a form of scabbing, and it devalues not only your own work but the work of all of your fellow writers.  I wish I could tell you that now is the perfect time for the unemployed to stand together, refuse to be exploited, and demand a fair deal for all, but that only works when you’ve got some leverage.

The dream, of course, is that, once you do have some power, you’ll use it to make things less exploitative for the next generation, though it rarely works that way, since people usually delight in passing along the indignities that they had thrust upon themselves.  But there’s reason to think that that chain of reprisals is finally about to break…

More and more, top screenwriters are being re-subjected to the same exploitation that they thought they had left behind years ago.  Hopefully, they will soon be pushed to the place where they feel they have to use their leverage to rectify the situation for everybody. In the meantime…

The trick is to embrace humility without surrendering your dignity.  In this series, we’ll look at ways to do that.  We’ll start with asking the toughest, most humbling question of all: When are you ready to go for it? 

Monday, May 28, 2012

Warning: Upcoming Summer Hiatus

So folks, have you noticed that the advice has been getting a bit more hard-edged on this blog recently?  That’s because I’m sick and tired of my stalled-out career and I need to make some changes. Unfortunately, part of this drive involves taking the summer off from this blog, starting in two weeks. 

I started this blog two and a half years ago because I had hit a ceiling in the quality of my specs and I wanted to figure out what I was doing wrong.  The good news is that I learned more than I ever thought possible.  I feel like this blog has turned me (and hopefully even one or two of you) into a spec-script-super-genius.  The bad news is that I haven’t actually written any new specs in the last two years. 

This happens frequently to writers at the beginning of their career.  You’re taking a lot of meetings and people are (vaguely) promising you a lot of money to write up their ideas, so you re-configure your brain to be write their way, not your way.  Unfortunately, you gradually realize that 90% of the hype you’re hearing is bogus, and most of these producers never actually pay you anything.  You find yourself writing endless free re-writes “on spec” for people who aren’t releasing any movies.

So then you have to get back to writing original screenplays, which is hard, because there are suddenly no deadlines, no notes to address, and no hype to pump you up.  But that’s what I’m going to try to do. 

So why does the blog have to go on summer hiatus?  Part of the problem is that this blog has just been too damn fulfilling.  I wake up with the urge to write blog posts, not screenplays.  After all, I get to publish everyday, get responses everyday, and track each post’s popularity online.  Screenwriting just can’t compete with that sort of instant gratification.  It’s going to be painful to deny myself that joy for three months.  But I have to do it in order to refocus my energies where they need to be. 

Of course, I can’t help but think of Diane leaving Sam at the altar on “Cheers” and promising, “I’ll be back in six months” only to stay away for six years. So the real question is: Am I really coming back in September?

The answer is: Yeah, probably.  At this point, I basically generate one Storyteller’s Rulebook post for every page of actual screenwriting I complete, and that’s great, because it helps me codify what I’m learning.  I don’t think that’ll change, so I expect to be stockpiling new rules all summer, until I get to roll them out in September.  I’m also only an eighth of the way through “What Could’ve Won”, and I’d love to finish that.  The bigger question is: Will any of you guys come back?  Obviously, my circulation will take a huge hit, and I may have to rebuild from scratch.  We’ll see…

So why am I announcing this now if it’s not beginning yet?  Because it leads into the last epic, 12-part series before the summer vacation called “What I Wish I'd Heard At Graduation,” featuring the sort of hard-nosed advice I really wish I’d gotten when I needed it, about screenwriting or just about life. That begins tomorrow…

Sunday, May 27, 2012

What Should’ve Won That Could’ve Won: 1937

What Did Win: The Life of Emile Zola
How It’s Aged: It’s okay, but pretty stodgy and sterile.  A fast-forward through the greatest hits of Zola’s life, without anything making much of an impact.  Silly wigs abound. 

What Should’ve Won: The Awful Truth
How Hard Was the Decision: McCarey won best director for this but he complained in his speech that he won for the wrong movie, since he was far more proud of Make Way for Tomorrow, his heartbreaking portrait of life without Social Security, in which an aging couple loses their home and have to throw themselves on the mercy of their adult children. It would have been a deserving winner, but sorry, Leo, it just can’t compete with this.   

Director: Leo McCarey
Writer: Vina Delmar, based on the play by Arthur Richman
Stars: Irene Dunne, Cary Grant, Ralph Bellamy, Asta

The Story: Society bon vivant Grant comes back from a fake vacation (presumably he was away on a tryst) to find that his witty wife Dunne might have strayed too, so they agree to get a divorce, but they share custody of the dog, which gives him lots of opportunities to sabotage her rebound fling with buffoonish oil tycoon Ralph Bellamy. When will those crazy kids get back together?

Any Nominations or Wins: In addition to picture and director, there were nominations for Grant, Dunne, Delmar and editor Al Clark.
Why It Didn’t Win: It almost did, obviously—the director winner usually wins picture too, but somehow the vote got split and the weaker movie won, due to the Academy’s perpetual prejudice against comedies (and an understandable soft spot for movies like Zola that denounce anti-Semitism). 

Why It Should Have Won:
  1. This was the moment that Grant truly became Grant: he achieves a level of effervescent wit that had never been seen onscreen before, and yet every line is laced with bittersweet regret for the failed relationship.  The greatest tribute to Grant’s acting ability is that everybody thought he was just being himself. 
  2. Bizarrely, you often read in write-ups of the movie that Grant’s character was falsely accused of infidelity, and indeed they never say otherwise, but come on! This shows the true power of the Hays productions code: It allowed the movies to cover up wickedness with a wink, and it also allowed tender-hearted viewers to ignore the wink if they chose to. 
  3. In my write-up of another 1937 classic, I mentioned that Betsy always knows when there was a woman writer, because male writers don’t give women characters their own sense of humor.  And indeed, the witty pen of Vina Delmar gives this movie its spark, making this the most equally-matched of all screwballs, and therefore the liveliest. 
  4. From this point on, screwball would be almost synonymous with the “comedy of remarriage.”  Grant tries to sabotage Dunne’s new relationship over and over, until the moment he could deliver the coup de grace but doesn’t, and of course that’s the moment he wins her back. 
  5. Its amazing the number of people that one meets from Oklahoma City.  Believe me, I know, because every time I meet one, I must suppress the urge to mention Grants cheerful mockery of Bellamy’s home town: “Oklahoma City!  Every since I was a small boy, that name has been filled with magic for me.  And if it should get dull, you can always go over to Tulsa for the weekend!”
How Available Is It?: Alas, Netflix’s DVD is barebones.

Ah, 1937: Listen to Me, You Idiot!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Storyteller’s Rulebook #138: People Don’t Speak in Complex Sentences

People don’t speak in complex sentences. This is not only because our minds aren’t quite fast enough to nest clauses on the fly, but also because we know that we’re always about to be interrupted, so we lay out our thoughts one at a time, in case we don’t get to finish.

People, as a rule, don’t listen to each other. Even when we try, we frequently hear only the version we want to hear, not what the other person is actually saying. But the truth is that we rarely even try to listen carefully. Instead, we generally do one of two things:
  • Listen just long enough to guess at the gist of what the other person is saying and jump in to complete the thought if we think we agree, or jump in to dispute it if we disagree. 
  • Simply ignore what the other person is saying, and wait for a chance to complete whatever statement we were making before we got interrupted.
We do this to others, and we know they’ll do it to us, so we speak to others with the assumption that we’ll be interrupted. We know that if we’re interrupted in the middle of a dependent clause, our entire sentence will be meaningless.

Even when we know for certain that we won’t be interrupted, such as when we’re giving a speech, it sounds awkward to speak with dependent clauses.  It sounds like a prepared text, and not extemporaneous talk.  Linguists criticized John Kerry for using too many dependent clauses in the 2004 presidential race, and praised George W. Bush for speaking simply, even if his speech patterns greatly distressed the American intelligentsia. 

Another problem with dependent clauses, especially out of the mouth of someone like Kerry, is that they sound like prevarication, so they’re inherently unsympathetic.  If you say “If A and B, then C”, that sounds weasel-y.  If, on the other hand you say, “C!  Because A!  Because B!  C!”, then you’ve said basically the same thing but you sound like more of a leader. 

Writers are used to seeing their words on a page, where dependent clauses can nest comfortably, which is why we’re often shocked to hear how mealy-mouthed and wishy-washy our dialogue sounds when spoken out loud. 

Simon Kinberg said that when he was shepherding Mr. and Mrs. Smith to the screen, he learned that you get completely different types of notes at each level of development... 
  1. First, junior execs give you nothing but plot logic and structure notes. 
  2. If you make it past them, you get to the studio heads, who only want it to be “tight” with a lot of set-up and pay-off.
  3. If you make it past them, you get to the directors, who only care about tone and set-pieces.
  4. If you make it past them, you get to the true seat of power: the actors, who are the first and only people who care about the dialogue.  First they insist you cut out all the exposition.  Then they want you to eliminate all that set-up and pay-off, which sounds phony.  Then they want to eliminate not just the complex sentences, but all the complete sentences.
Actors insist that nobody they know speaks in complete sentences.  Writers insist that this is because all the people they know are actors.  Nevertheless, they have a point.  When in doubt, chop it up. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Common First Draft Notes, Part 3: Dialogue Notes

Okay, to conclude this series the notes I most often give to first drafts, let’s look at some dialogue notes: 
  1. Too much how it is, not enough how it feels, When we write a first draft, our primary concern is laying out the plot and making it make sense.  We tend to have characters explain their situation carefully, so that the reader understands the story.  But resist this urge: The characters don’t know they’re in a story and they don’t know that anyone is listening.  Furthermore, since they’re in a crisis, they’re going to be emotional and not very analytical.  From a character perspective, this is great for you, because you want them to display a lot of personality, but from a plot perspective, it’s more problematic, since they’re not going to explain their actions very well.  This is why the best plots visualize the problem, freeing the characters up to talk about other things.
  2. Plotting on the page: In first drafts, characters spend too much time discussing what they can and can’t do before they act.  Even worse, they discuss what they did and didn’t do after they act.  This is death.  Figuring out the plot is your job, not theirs.  Let the audience see their motivation and their obstacles before they act, without a lot of discussion, and never let them Monday-morning-quarterback their decisions. 
  3. More personality: All too often in a first draft, a character’s reactions aren’t unique enough… They say what anyone would say, or they ask something in the way that anyone would ask it.
  4. Nobody would say that.  Here’s an example from The Hurt Locker of dialogue that drives me crazy. The guys are going though Jeremy Renner’s stuff and asking about it.  He explains, “This box is full of stuff that almost killed me.”  Then Anthony Mackie takes out a wedding ring and blankly asks, “And what about this one?” Renner smiles ruefully: “It's my wedding ring.”  Mackie looks confused until Renner says “Like I said, stuff that almost killed me.”  The problem, of course, is that people don’t give each other big, fat set-ups like these. We’re always trying to guess what the other person’s going to say.  If one of your characters has something clever to say, let them jump right in and say it, don’t force another character to set them up for the line. 
  5. Characters are listening too much, not interrupting each other enough: Unless someone is explicitly making a speech, they shouldn’t get in more than four lines of dialogue before they’re interrupted.  Speaking of which, I’ll talk more about this tomorrow…

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Common First Draft Notes, Part 2: Character Notes

Okay, yesterday we talked about some of the general notes that I typically give when I read people’s first drafts.  Now let’s talk about some of the character notes: 
  1. Why does the character feel this way? And/Or: What were they expecting to happen?  Too often, especially if the hero is based on yourself, you assume that the reader will instantly share your character’s crushes, grudges and expectations.  But when someone else reads it, you’re shocked to discover that the reader doesn’t know why the character would have that crush or that grudge, or resent that particular piece of advice from dad.  This is your world and you have to create it from scratch… and that includes creating the feelings.  Even if these are feelings that the character already has (such as a long-standing crush), you have to create those feeling in the audience for the first time.  In order to empathize, we have to fall in love ourselves, based on behavior, not looks. Superman Returns, in addition to a thousand other faults, never thought to show why Superman, or the audience, might like Lois Lane.  From the first moment, it was all anguished sighs on both sides. 
  2. Too passive: First draft heroes are almost always too passive.  Could the hero have made this happen, instead of this just happening? Instead of this clue landing in their lap, could the hero have sought out the clue?  Instead of the villain finding the hero, could the hero have found the villain?
  3. Hero just says no:  The hero should be the person pushing the forward, not the one holding everything back.  If heroes say no, they must propose alternatives, not just say “No, this is wrong, I’m not going to do it,” even if “it” is a despicable thing. 
  4. Too easy: In order to coax our heroes all the way to page 110, we tend to make things too easy for them in our first drafts.  Rather than scatter a dozen small obstacles in their way which are easily overcome, substitute a few big conflicts that really force the hero to change. 
  5. Judging your characters:  If you don’t empathize with your hero, then nobody else will.  If your hero, or even your villain, is stupid or shallow or a hypocrite, then you have to portray this flaw in a way that makes us identify and recognize the same flaw in ourselves.  Don’t just mock their failings.  Scoring points off your own characters is the easiest thing in the world to do, so it’s boring.  In life as in screenwriting, every failure of empathy begins with the assumption that people you dislike have no real reason for what they do. Your job as a writer is to show that everybody has their reasons and their own rules.
Tomorrow, well wrap up with dialogue notes...

Monday, May 21, 2012

Common First Draft Notes, Part 1: General Notes

We spent the last week and a half talking about how to re-write a script based on notes.  As part of that, I went back and re-read the notes I gave to several peers when they send me first drafts of their scripts.  The notes I gave the most fit pretty nicely into three groups of five, so let’s start with some general notes… 
  1. Too generic and/or cliché: This is the most common note.  First drafts are filled with generic stuff, and thats fine, but now it’s time to dig deeper and find something specific. 
  2. Repeated beat: You don’t want the same basic plot point to happen twice. You don’t want to have someone get cold feet twice, or confront their dad about their childhood twice, or reminisce about the past with their ex twice, or defeat two villains using the same method.  One strong scene is better than two weak ones. Some directors go so far as to insist that the characters never visit the same location twice.  That’s a bit extreme, but it’s a good way to keep moving forward. 
  3. Extraneous characters: Producers don’t hire great actors for one-day roles, so you want to have as few characters as possible and give the remaining characters as many lines as possible.  In your second draft, look for ways to combine two uninteresting characters into one interesting character. Can the love interest be combined with an obstacle character?  
  4. Not differentiating between important characters and unimportant characters: It’s considered “cheating” in the screenplay world, but there are a million ways to let us know which characters are more or less important.  You can give totally unimportant characters no name or description (SECURITY GUARD), somewhat important characters one name and an age range (FLEISHMAN, mid-30s) and major characters a full name, specific age, and trait (ANNE RENAULT, 29, not someone you want to mess with).  When I introduce my hero, especially if he or she doesn’t appear in the first scene, I come right out and say (SCOTT, 24, our hero, a charming rogue…)  Screenwriting purists will say, “You can’t shoot that”, but they’re wrong—Directors have special camera moves reserved for introducing the hero.
  5. Emotion causes action, not action causes emotion: It’s usually stronger to have the emotion be the set-up and the action be the pay-off, rather than the other way around. He felt bad so he punched somebody, not he punched somebody so he felt bad.  You can do it the other way if you want, but it will be less satisfying to the audience, who want to build to a cathartic release.  But wait, does this mean you can never make a movie about regret?  Well, you can — I prefer Fat City to Rocky any day— but it’s a hard sell.  In most movies, action is the solution of problems, not the cause.    
Tomorrow, we move on to character notes...

Sunday, May 20, 2012

How to Re-Write, Part 7: Allow Your Changes to Snowball

So now you have a list of all the changes you want to make, but you’re still not quite ready to dive into the rewrite.  Before you implement any of your changes, it’s good to go back to outline form and figure out the cumulative impact of each one. 

I convert my first drafts back into beatsheet-form, then I plug that beatsheet into the left hand column of a two-column chart.  Alongside those beats, in the right hand column, I note which scenes will be deleted and which will have major surgery.  Then I look at the rest of the scenes, the ones that I didn’t plan to change, and I figure out how each of those scenes will be affected as my big changes begin to ripple through the scipt.   

Every change, for better or for worse, is like a snowball at the top of a ski-lift: as soon as you start it rolling, it will get bigger and bigger.  If you decide to eliminate one minor character, you’ll be shocked to realize how many scenes he was in, and how many little contributions to the plot he made that will now have to be handed off to other characters.   

Summer blockbusters, which always have a million cooks in the kitchen, tend to do a terrible job at this.  The Avengers was a really fun movie, but it had several plot holes, motivation holes and empathy holes, many of which were obviously caused by last-minute notes.  As with Van Helsing, I could read the notes as if they were written directly on the screen. 
SPOILERS FROM HERE ON IN:  Clearly they got a note that said “Give Agent Coulson a more heroic death,” so they had him pull out a big-ass laser cannon and shoot down Loki with his dying breath.  Yay!  But the next time we see Loki, later on in the same action sequence, he’s happily completing his escape, none the worse for wear.  They addressed the note but ignored the effect it would have on subsequent scenes.  

Another example: It’s not hard to guess that they got a bigger note saying, “The Avengers are just tools of the government the whole time, they should show some independence!”  So they added in a very awkward subplot in which the Avengers work together to uncover Fury’s dirty secret: he’s not just using the tesseract for energy, he’s building weapons!  Gasp! 

This tacked-on subplot not only goes nowhere, it’s also totally out of character.  The Avengers love weapons.  They’re each defined by their weapons…Quick quiz, who’s who:  Shield.  Hammer.  Armor.  Bow.  Guns.  Muscles.  Any questions?  They’re also at war.  This is a movie that ends with Iron Man happily wiping out his enemies with a nuclear missile!  

If they wanted to add a quick anti-weapons-proliferation sub-plot in the middle of an intensely pro-weapon movie, then they should have figured out a way to have that issue resonate in the second half of the movie as well, instead of being instantly forgotten.    

Okay, so now youre pretty much ready to re-write, but before you do, lets do a few days on common first draft problems...

Thursday, May 17, 2012

How to Re-Write, Part 6: Pair Off Your Problems

It’s important to get lots of notes piled up before you start fixing any of them individually.  The danger is that you’ll deal with notes one by one, adding dozens of “fixes” to your screenplay that don’t integrate with each other or the story as a whole.  

For example, let’s look at my old series The Meddler, where I suggested fixes for problematic screenplays and books.  In each of these cases, I suggested ways to fix two huge problems with one simple change:
  1. In The Ghost Writer, We never get to see the supposed charm or Brosnan’s Tony Blair-like character, and McGregor’s hero is a passive protagonist who doesn’t really care about the mystery.  If we saw Brosnan charmingly seduce McGregor into joining his cause, then the revelation of Brosnan’s lies would feel like a personal betrayal and give McGregor a stronger motivation to investigate. 
  2. The title character in Hugo has no reason to assume that the automaton will have a message for him, and his good father and bad uncle are inert characters who serve overly-similar roles in the narrative.  If they were combined into one complex father-figure who lies to Hugo about the automaton, his quest would have more motivation, it would be more touching, and the backstory would be more streamlined.
  3. In “Harry Potter” Book 4, Hermione’s “pet cause” of freeing the house elves is too awkward, and it’s weird that the kids suddenly stop caring that Sirius Black was falsely accused.  It would be more streamlined and compelling if her pet cause was a new trial for Sirius Black. 
  4. In “Harry Potter” Book 5, the flashes of Voldemort’s doings that Harry gets are overly convenient, and his Occlumency classes are too passive. Instead of merely trying to block out Voldemort, if Harry was being trained to pry into Voldemort’s mind, then he can actually earn the useful flashes he gets, and feel more culpable when it turns out that Voldemort has been trapping him as well.
Don’t just dive in and start fixing your problems one by one.   First make a list of every problem, then brainstorm a list of dozens of possible solution to each problem.  Truly brainstorm: If you’re trying to avoid the dumb solutions, you’ll block up your mind.  When you write your worst ideas down, either you’ll realize they’re not so dumb, or you’ll spot how to improve them, or you’ll open up a blocked neural pathway and discover a better solution hidden behind the dumb one. 

Now you have dozens of problems and dozens of possible solutions for each one.  Scan through them all to find those solutions that will eliminate multiple problems.  What if the person trying to kill them was changed from an angry postal worker to a corrupt cop?  That would explain why they can’t go the police and also how the killer was able to identify to track them down (by using their fingerprints).

Now you’ve got a list of fixes that are each doing double-duty, but you’re nevertheless going to be making a lot of changes.  How do you keep track of them all?  Tomorrow we’ll look at what happens when you start rolling a snowball down a mountain…

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

How to Re-Write, Part 5: Don’t Paper Over the Problem

I love it when I’m watching a troubled movie and I can actually see the studio’s notes being physically inserted into the text before my very eyes. 

My all-time favorite example was in Van Helsing.  Some producer obviously read a book that said every hero needs to have a spiritual crisis in which they engage in “self-realization”, so he demanded that the writer toss some of that in. And so, after a full hour of back-to-back action scenes, Hugh Jackman and Kate Beckinsale suddenly decide to take a thoughtful walk around the grounds of a castle, where they have this delightful 19th century conversation:
  • KATE: Why do you do it, this job of yours? What do you hope to get out of it?
  • HUGH: I don't know... Maybe some self-realization.
Psst, Van Helsing, your notes are showing!  Okay, let’s take a tour of the various ways you can fix your problems, from the worst to the best:
  1. WORST: Tack on an “explainer” afterwards, letting your characters retroactively explain to the audience that what seemed like a problem wasn’t actually a problem. Inception does this over and over, such as when they pause in the middle of a ski chase to retroactively explain that the people they just killed weren’t real people, so it’s okay. 
  2. SLIGHTLY BETTER: Set up foreshadowing of the problematic scene beforehand, so that the audience will be too busy making the connection to notice the problem. Source Code papered over several massive plot holes by distracting the audience with clever set-ups and pay-offs. 
  3. SOMEWHAT BETTER: For each problem, write a new scene that adds a missing element.  If the character isn’t sympathetic enough, then add a “save the cat” scene.  If they don’t have enough motivation, add a spouse in harm’s way.
  4. MUCH BETTER: For each problem, remove the scene that sets up the expectation that isn’t met. Instead of adding a pay-off for a “problems at work” sub-plot that goes nowhere, simply eliminate the sub-plot altogether. The girlfriends role was under-written in Michael Clayton, and rather than artificially beef it up, they just cut it, and nobody missed it.
  5. BEST: Pair up the problems, so that every change eliminates more than one problem.
The thing you have to remember is that the goal of a re-write should always be to simplify the story, not complicate it.  The ultimate goal should be to have a simple story about complex characters, and not vice versa! With each draft, your characters should become deeper and richer, while the story becomes more streamlined and elegant. 

Tomorrow we’ll look at ways to pair up and then knock off your problems... 

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

How to Re-Write, Part 4: It’s Hard to Fill a Hole Without Digging a New One

When building a house, it’s not immediately obvious where the load-bearing walls are.  If the client comes in and says, “I want to make this place a little airier, why don’t we take out that wall, that wall, and that wall?”, then the architect has to jump in and say “ the first two walls are no problem, but that third wall is the only thing that supporting the second floor.” 

This is what’s so frustrating about getting notes.  Somebody swoops in and says “Oh, it’s too hard to sympathize with the guy if he cheats on his wife, so take that out,” and the writer can only stammer, “But it’s a redemption story!  If he doesn’t cheat on his wife, he has no motivation to do any of the things he does to redeem himself!”  In the case of Phone Booth, as I discussed here, the writer lost that battle, so the movie became simply inane. 
An even more egregious example was Tom Fontana’s ill-fated NBC show “The Philanthropist” The whole concept of the show was that a rich asshole gets evacuated from a resort during a flood, only to realize  that a poor local boy has been left to drown in order to make room for him.  He belatedly goes back and to save the boy, but fails.  As a result, he pledges his life to philanthropy.  Insanely, by the time it made it to air, he did save the boy!  Once again, motivation was sacrificed on the altar of sympathy, robbing the pilot and the entire series of its emotional weight.  

If we go back to the “hole” metaphor, then the problem becomes obvious: Everybody knows that it’s hard to fill one hole without digging a new one.  Let’s say you want to give a character more motivation by blowing up his planet, but a later scene is set on that planet’s moon, which is unaffected.  You’ve filled a motivation hole by digging a plot hole.

In Training Day, as I pointed out before, it turns out that Denzel Washington planned long in advance to frame Ethan Hawke for everything.  This gives Hawke a lot of motivation to solve the problem, but it takes away our empathy for the character: instead of bravely choosing to stand up to corruption, he merely reacts to being framed in the way that anybody would.  It’s good to give a character strong motivation, but you can’t take all other their choices away, because choices are the key to empathy.  

“Hey Matt, weren’t you just saying yesterday that you have to take every note?”  Yes, you do, but that’s why you have to re-write, not just revise.  If the producer says you’re losing too much sympathy for the hero when a child dies in his place, then you have to agree with that note…then you have to prove to the producer that letting the kid live isn’t the solution.  

Instead, you have ask yourself why the death of the child is alienating the producer from the hero, rather than causing an empathic bond to form. Rather than take the easy solution that the producer has suggested (just let the kid live), perhaps you can front-load more moments of humanity for the hero before the kid dies so that the producer will intensely identify with the hero’s pain at the death of the child, rather than just get pissed at the hero for not saving him. 

You have to somehow fill one hole without digging another.  We’ll talk about various types of problem-fixing strategies tomorrow.    

Monday, May 14, 2012

How to Re-Write, Part 3: Heed The Notes You Get and the Notes You Don’t Get

You can only see one dimension of your own work.  If you want to know the shape of it, you have to seek out other eyes that can see all the dark corners that are hidden from you.  The more perspectives you get, the better you’ll be able to see the whole stereoscopic portrait, allowing every flaw to stand out in sharp relief. 

As vampires need blood, writers need notes.  Beg your family, your friends, and especially your fellow screenwriters to open their veins and replenish you, so that you can survive one more day.  The gift of a note is the most precious one that a writer can receive.  Appreciate it…even if it seems idiotic the first time you hear it. 

If you get a note from a producer, then you have to accommodate it, every time. Even with agents and managers, notes are pretty much non-negotiable, unless you’re willing to abandon the script or the rep.  With friends and peers, it’s a little trickier, which is why you have to follow the Back to the Future rule: As soon as you hear the same note more than once, you have to address it. 

But what does it mean to address a note?  You have two choices: you can implement the specific change they asked for, or you can make a bigger change that addresses or eliminates the underlying problem.  Here’s the bad news: For every note you get, there will be two you didn’t get that are even more important. 

Ultimately, you’re trying to identify three different types of problems:
  • Plot Holes: Anything that breaks your own rules, or doesn’t flow from one scene to the next, or doesn’t seem logical.
  • Motivation Holes: Anytime any character acts without proper motivation.
  • Empathy Holes: The most common and most disastrous kind of hole—anything that makes the audience lose interest in the hero or feel alienated. 
Note-givers are usually pretty good at pointing out plot holes:
  • “This doesn’t make any sense”
  • “I didn’t get what was happening here”
  • “Didn’t that character die two scenes ago?”
You’re less likely to hear about motivation holes.  Instead of saying “the hero needs more motivation,” they’re more likely to say things like,
  • “This seems a dumb, Hollywood story”
  • “I didn’t buy it”
  • “This feels too convenient”
  • “Everything seemed too easy”
Empathy holes are even worse: you’ll almost never hear anything like, “I didn’t empathize with the hero enough,” or, “It wasn’t emotional enough.” People don’t realize that they want to be emotionally manipulated, so they’re not going to ask you to do that.  But you know that they secretly love it.  If people aren’t emotionally engaged enough, they tend to say things like,
  • “It wasn’t very interesting.”
  • “The middle was boring.”
  • “I wasn’t sure what you were trying to say”
  • “The story just kind of ends.”
  • “The villain was a lot more interesting than the hero”
Of course your nice friends prefer to point out plot holes because they can theoretically be fixed by just changing one scene.  They’re reluctant to tell you that you have empathy or motivation problems, because then you have to re-conceive your whole movie, but you need to re-assure them that those are exactly the sort of notes you want to hear. 

Remember the scene in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull near the end where they survive all the waterfalls, and realize that they’ve beaten the Commies to the Skull cave.  Suddenly they stop and ask, “Wait a minute, now that we’re here, what do we want to do?  Do we even want these skulls or not?  I dunno…I guess, maybe…”  Wow!  Biggest motivation hole ever! 

This was a big budget movie…Why did no one point that out?  Because there would have been no way to fix it without re-writing the first two acts so that Indy either craved or despised the skulls, rather than getting roped into a drama he didn’t really care about based on very weak motivation.  Nobody wanted to pick at that scab because they knew the whole movie would start hemorrhaging and bleed out.

Character notes are even more painful to deliver.  After all, most writers base their heroes on themselves!  If you say, “I hate your passive, petulant, self-righteous hero,” you might as well say, “And you might want to fix your own personality while you’re at it!”  In the end, you either have to beat these notes out of people, or you have to infer them from what they’re not saying. 

So now you’ve got three separate lists of the three types of holes, how do you start filling them?  Let’s pick up there tomorrow.