Sunday, March 31, 2013

Storyteller's Rulebook #179: Be Happy to Start On the Ground Floor (UPDATED)

Here are two of the dangerous things a writer can think:
  • “I like these creators, so that means I’m now good enough to write for them.”
  • “I’m not impressed by those creators, therefore I’m already too good to write for them.”
As Ira Glass points out in this great interview, you can’t confuse your taste as a consumer with your ability as a creator.  At the beginning of your career, you’re not going to be good enough to write for any of the people you really respect.  And you’ll probably never be good enough to write for your very favorite creators.  This just makes sense: There’s a huge difference between liking the very best and being the very best.  Your taste will, and should, always exceed your talent.
Here’s one of my biggest regrets of my career: One day in film school, I casually mentioned to my mentor that I’d had an idea for a tween show.  He liked the idea and suggested that he set up a meeting with a producer he knew in that world.  But I then realized that I didn’t really care enough to develop the pitch that far: “Are you kidding?  I’m busy writing spec scripts for all the deep, complex, dark shows on TV, and now you want me to change gears and pitch for some kiddie network I’d never even watch?”

A lot of writers say that you should never write something you wouldn’t watch yourself.  On the surface, this seems to make sense, but it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny: Do the writers of “Dora the Explorer” really love to watch “Dora the Explorer”?  The fact is that most unsophisticated kids’ shows are actually written by sophisticated adults…and that’s the way it should be.

Actually, it gets worse: when you first start out, not only are you not experienced enough to write for the shows you love, you’re not even experienced enough to know why you like them.

So many of of us in film school would say “I love ‘Sopranos’, ‘Mad Men’, and ‘Breaking Bad’ because those shows prove that you don’t need a sympathetic protagonist!”  We failed to perceive that while, yes, those shows chose to sacrifice some sympathy, they made up for it by generating more empathy: we don’t like Tony, Don, and Walt but we do love them.

I have nothing but respect for those shows, but I now realize that part of their design is to flatter the audience in a very cynical way: On the one hand, they say, “You’re a sophisticated audience that doesn’t need likable heroes”, but on the other hand, they work extra hard to subtly manipulate us into loving them.

Of course, I only figured that out later, once I’d tried to create some unsympathetic heroes of my own and discovered that everybody hated them.

I should have dropped everything else and written that kids’ show.  I should have started on the ground floor.  I should have tried to figure out how to get an audience to like a likable character (which is, believe it or not, very hard to do) before I tried to get people to love an unlikable character (which is even harder).

UPDATE: Two day after I posted this, the Onion AV Club ran a great interview with the supremely talented Graham Yost (“Band of Brothers”, “Justified”) where they talked about this:
  • GY: Hey Dude was my first real “paid to write scripted television” experience. It was very low-budget. We were shooting on location at a real dude ranch in Tucson, so it looked pretty good for the paltry sum. We’d shoot an episode in three days so we were shooting 10 to 15 pages a day in the half-hour format. It was a great experience. The budget was a challenge, but the big challenge was just that we weren’t necessarily the best writers; we all became better. Lisa Melamed started on that show, and she’s gone on to a long career in television. That was the starting point for me, and we learned a lot by doing, and that was really cool. You could just see things to do and not do. 
  • I got asked recently, I think it was by TV Guide, to write a short thing about Hey Dude. There’s a story I always tell: This producer from Knoxville, Tennessee—after I had this character give this long bit of exposition about how they ended up where they are—said, “You know, you could have just had her say, ‘I’ll tell you later.’” And I was like, “Oh my God. You’re absolutely right. I should have done that. That would have been so much better.” I still kind of overwrite, so I haven’t entirely learned the lesson.
  • AVC: There are so many good TV writers who have come out of children’s TV. What do you think makes that a good proving ground or a good learning ground?
  • GY: The thing that jumps to mind is that it’s the equivalent of writing a sonnet, which is that there are limitations, and you have to be creative within those limitations. So perhaps you come up with solutions that you wouldn’t have otherwise. If you could do anything you want, you might not have thought of [this]. I think that discipline is very helpful in television. It’s just also the volume. For me, I think we did 65 episodes of Hey Dude, and I wrote 13 of them. So one in five episodes I wrote, as well as doing a lot of rewriting. It was just a lot of work, and that discipline of just getting up and having to write. It was pretty wonderful.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Storyteller's Rulebook #178: Add A "Holy Crap!" Scene

Yesterday, I talked about the extreme difficulty of getting from “really good” to “great”.  It’s painful, because you’ve finally gotten everything working perfectly, and you’re getting nothing but praise, but it’s still just not enough.  Everyone who reads it would be willing to pay $10 to see it in a theater, but nobody wants to raise a million dollars or more to produce it.

One secret is to unpolish your screenplay. You’ve smoothed things out enough to have everything finally slide into place, and provide your readers with a pleasant reading experience.  But now you’ve got to strip some of that polish off and expose some jagged edges.  Something for the reader to trip over and get a busted lip.

I’ve talked before about the gutpunch scene: these happen mostly in dramas—the Oscar-worthy scene where the subtext falls away and the actors finally get to wallop each other with all of their suppressed emotions.

But for other genres, you need to go even further: For comedy, action, and thriller, you need the OMFG scene.  Think of the trailer.  What’s the one moment that will make people need to see this movie?  What ceiling are you going to smash through that nobody else has even touched?
  • Comedy: American Pie famously revived a dead genre by showing a kid violating a pie in the trailer (a gag so funny they named the movie after it) and I mentioned before that I saw The Campaign because Will Farrell’s character punched a baby in the trailer.  I literally thought, “okay, this isn’t going to play it safe, this is going to go for big laughs.”
  • Thriller: People flocked to see The Grey because the trailer implied that Liam Neeson was going to get in a fistfight with a wolf (…only to discover that the movie ends with his preparation for that fight.  They did shoot the actual fight, but it looked too silly.  Because of course it did.).
  • Action: Everybody went out and saw Independence Day because of the shot where they blew up the White House.  Now the same director is using the same lure a second time, but I suspect he’ll have diminishing returns. An OMFG moment requires the audience to say “I can’t believe they went there!”  But if you’ve done it before, they can believe it. 
These are the scenes that get producers to spend a million dollars.  If they’ve got one unique thing that everybody wants to see, but nobody’s seen before, then they hope that maybe, even if the finished product sucks, they’ll still be able to sell it based off that scene alone.  The movie won’t be “execution-dependent.”

Obviously, it’s easy to get cynical about such scenes (When writing a broad comedy, I watched 20 recent comedy trailers and jotted down the biggest laugh in each one: a shocking number involved raccoon attacks, or head injuries, or both) but these scenes actually can make your script better.  Your story needs a reason to exist.  People choose these three genres in order to get juiced up, so deliver the juice.

But wait, you say, I don’t want to write an outrageous, over the top movie, I want to do a muted, ‘70s style, thoughtful movie: Oh, you mean like Annie Hall?
Or The Godfather?

EDITED TO ADD: Hmm... I just realized, looking at those two clips and the image above them, that they all involve casually destroying another person's most prized possession. Obviously, that's a good way to start. This goes back to the idea that people hate stuff.

EDITED AGAIN: This used to be called the OMFG scene, but I decided that sounded too dated, so I changed it to “Holy Crap!”

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Storyteller's Rulebook #177: Don’t Mistake Good Feedback for Great Feedback

I’ve said before that you shouldn’t send out your work until everyone is telling you to send it out, but even that’s not quite true…

If your reader says, “This is really funny, you should send this out,” then don’t send it out.  Wait until a reader says, “This is hilarious!  I was laughing so hard I was crying!  Did you really write this??” Likewise, if your reader says, “This works really well, I could really see this as a movie, you should send this out,” then don’t.  Wait until you hear something like, “Wow!  I was so terrified you were going to kill off [character x]! I read the whole thing in one sitting!”

We all live in terror that our readers will say “I hate it,” or, even worse, “Eh, it was okay.”  As a result, any sort of genuine positivity sends us over the moon.  But don’t confuse “They really like it” with “They love it.”  If your comedy isn’t making people laugh out loud… If your drama isn’t making them cry real tears… If your horror movie isn’t making them leave the lights on all night, then don’t send it out yet!

You are competing against hundreds of thousands of very talented screenwriters!  It costs at least a million dollars to make a movie.  Is someone going to read your script and feel excited about spending a million dollars to make it?

It’s really hard to get from very good to great, because it’s really tempting to say, “Everybody likes it, that’s good enough for me!”  It feels petulant and mopey to say, “Yes, but they don’t like it enough.”  But that’s what you need to say.  In fact, you need to go back to those people who praised it and ask them what you need to change.

When I’m lucky enough to read an amateur screenplay that I really like, I usually say something like “This is fantastic—but it needs two big fixes to put it over the top…” Unfortunately, I quickly realize that their ears tuned out as soon as I said “fantastic”, and they could care less about the notes .

Your fans are precisely those people whose notes are the most vital.  These people are simpatico with you.  They’re on your wavelength.  They get it.  If they think there are a few more vital changes to make, then take those requests very seriously.

Here’s a good Times article on the advice Steven Spielberg gives after screenings, which often make the movies much better.  I particularly like the tiny tweak he suggested for the end of Cloverfield that made the movie much more satisfying while still keeping the ending ambiguous.

So next time someone tells you they love it, say “Great! Thanks! What would you change?”

(Tomorrow: one suggestion)

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Storyteller's Rulebook #176: There's No Such Thing As A Bad Note

There’s no such thing as a bad note.  Every note is an indication of an unmet expectation, and that’s always good to know.  The problem is that most notes come in the form of suggestions for changes, and the changes they suggest are often terrible.  The trick is to see past the bad suggestion to the good note underneath.

Here’s a classic example.  I had written a dark TV pilot about the CIA, and I showed it to my sort-of mentor at film school.  He read it and liked it but he said that I needed to add a scene at the beginning where our undercover hero planted a bomb and then calmly walked away while it blew up.

I was totally aghast: What a horrible note!  Those scenes are so idiotic!  Failing to react to an explosion doesn’t show that you’re a cool unflappable spy, it shows that you’re an bumbling amateur: Obviously, if you’re the only who doesn’t act surprised by an explosion, then you’re the one who set it, and everybody’s going to instantly tackle you.  And even if these scenes weren’t silly to begin with, by now they’ve become painfully predictable clichés!  I can’t believe this guy wants me to add one of those stupid, stupid scenes!

But all he meant, I later realized, was that I should include that type of scene: a bit of bad-ass, exciting, I wanna-be-that-guy spy action, before I got to all the intrigue, political infighting and moral recriminations.

I could have blanched and said that that wasn’t the sort of show I wanted to do… After all, I wanted more a LeCarre-type show about double-crosses and unexpected real-world consequences, but I then realized that this was all the more reason to begin with a scene that satisfied the urges that get people to watch this type of show.

I wanted my show to be subversive, but if I started downbeat and finished downbeat, then I would merely be attracting downbeat viewers and, in the end, fulfilling their expectations.  Instead, I wanted to take normal spy fans and subvert their expectations.  That meant that first I had to create false expectations about the greatness of my heroes and the efficacy of spy work.  That way, when it all unravels, the audience will feel shocked and unsettled. It’s impossible to subvert expectations you didn’t create.

So how do you take the note, but not the suggested fix?  You have to replace the hoary old suggestion with something fresh: in this case, either a unique twist on a classic spy behavior or, even better, some real-life bit of bad-ass tradecraft from a non-fiction book (as long as it’s instantly visually obvious why it’s cool, without you having to explain.)

P.S.: I've posted this before, but I can’t resist doing it again, because I love it so:

Monday, March 25, 2013

Storyteller's Rulebook #175: Don't Fight Straw Men

AMC has a pretty good track record, but I’m not enthused about this trailer for their new cop show “Low Winter Sun.”  I was flabbergasted that every single line was a cliché.

Who cut this trailer?  Didn’t they realize how generic it all sounds?   What’s supposed to be the brand of this show?  My sneaking suspicion is that they were thinking, “Wow, it’s a dirty cop! —That’ll blow their minds!”

No, it won’t.  When writing such a series, it’s tempting to fight against some imaginary squeaky-clean cop show that only exists in your mind.  But you have to pay attention to what’s actually out there right now. If you look at what’s actually on TV, where you’ll find over a dozen shows about cops who are at least partially crooked.  This trailer doesn’t explode conventional notions of morality, it regurgitates conventional notions of immorality.

This trailer is the exact opposite of shocking.  Now that the subject has become familiar, it’s no longer enough to simply show that there’s such as thing as corruption, you have to have something unique and original to say about the how, what, and why of it.  You have to make the old clichés of corruption come alive again in new ways by finding a lot of unique-but-universal details that we haven’t seen before.
The movie Young Adult suffered from a similar problem.  I heard Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman speak about the movie, and they made it clear that this movie was supposed to blow the minds of everyone who was expecting a neat and tidy redemption arc. But who expects that these days?  

When was the last drama with a neat-and-tidy redemption arc?  Certainly not any of the recent indie dramas that played to their audience, like The Wrestler, Big Fan, Greenberg, Margot at the Wedding or a dozen others.  In reality, Young Adult was just another dime-a-dozen “people suck” movie, which has become a very over-exposed genre.

That “squeaky-clean cop show” and the “neat-and-tidy redemption arc” are classic straw-men.  Anyone can win an argument against an imaginary, disingenuous foe that you propped up just so that it could take a fall.  Instead of failing into this trap, acknowledge the current reality of your genre and compete with the smartest stuff out there.  Don’t go for mind-blowing, go for better.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Storyteller's Rulebook #174: Not All Villains Are The Heroes Of Their Own Story

I originally posted a version of this in the comments last time, but I wanted to re-phrase it and give it a post of its own, so that I can link back to it later, sorry for the repeat...
There was a debate in the comments last time about whether or not most villains think of themselves as the heroes of their own story.  My argument was that this claim is overstated.  I would say that most villains think of themselves as righteous and justified, but not “heroic”: they know that they are violating society’s ethics and morals in an unlovable way.  Most either enjoy being hated or just don’t care.

Veteran commenter J.S. proposed that only psychopaths know that they’re doing wrong and don’t care, but I countered with my own diametrically-opposed belief that only psychopathic villains truly think of themselves at the hero of their own stories, whereas the corrupt and criminal are more likely to think of themselves as “the bad guy.”

To wit: lets look at three members of TV’s dog-killer club:

Patty Hewes (Glenn Close) kills her client’s dog and frames her opponent for it at the end of the pilot episode of “Damages”. Does she think that this is the right thing to do? I say no. She knows that she’s chosen to do an evil thing. Does she think that her larger goal is justified? Well, she keeps saying that her goal is justice for her defrauded working-class class-action clients…but we can tell that she doesn’t really believe that anymore.

She still pays lip service to idealism, but she’s basically just a shark at this point, gobbling up money and power for the sake of money and power. Like Walter White, the only motivation she has left is spite (for a world that she feels is unfair to powerful women). Unlike Walter, however, she feels guilt for what she’s doing, and occasionally breaks down crying when she realizes what a wretch she is, which shows to me that she’s not a psychopath.

Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) one-ups Patty by killing a dog in the opening minutes of “House of Cards”. Does he think that this is the right thing to do? Yes, as he explains directly to the camera, he thinks that the dog needed to be put out of its suffering. Does he think this makes him a good guy? No. He knows that his actions are cold, Machiavellian and unlovable. Does he think of himself as a good guy in general? No, like Patty, he accepts that he is ruled mostly by his own petty hatreds.

Unlike Patty, he thinks that he can still do some good politically, but only once he has total power, and he’s more than willing to do things that he himself considers to be evil in order to get that power. Unlike Patty, he cannot cry about his wretched state, but his narration to us lets us know that he is aware (and slightly regretful) that he is hurting people, which, once again, shows me that he is not a psychopath.

Contrast this with King Joffrey on “Game of Thrones”, who orders his fiancé’s wolf killed, giving him an honorary membership in the club. I say that Joffrey is the only one of the three who does think of himself as a hero because he’s the only one of the three who is a psychopath.

Joffrey is incapable of feeling empathy-- incapable of understanding that the needs and wants of others are equally valid as his needs and wants. The dog hurt him, and so it dies, and if his fiancé disagrees, then she’s an idiot, because she should realize that it’s the job of everything in the universe to please Joffrey. Unlike Patty and Francis, he truly believes that he is hero of his story: he thinks that he’s never done anything wrong, and that everybody loves him, because he’s their king.

Now don’t get me wrong, we have empathy for Joffrey: we see that he was purposely spoiled by his sadistic parents, who saw him as their weapon of revenge against the world. Joffrey is merely what he was raised to be. So we have empathy for him, but no sympathy, and we recognize that he will never have any empathy for others.

So I feel that, amongst villains, only psychopaths see themselves as the hero of their story, while corrupt people, like Patty and Francis think of themselves as people who have decided to willfully transgress society’s commonly-accepted notions of morality and ethics for their own personal reasons, even if that means that others will think of them as “The bad guy”.

(One big request: I have only seen the first four episodes of “House of Cards” and I’m on season two, episode two of “Game of Thrones”, so pretty please don’t spoil anything I haven’t seen.) (On the other hand, I only watched the first season of “Damages”, but I’m probably not going to finish it, so spoil away.)

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Storyteller's Rulebook #173: Know How to Dog Whistle

Writing dialogue for corrupt politicians and businessmen can be hard.  On the one hand, they rarely say, “So I’m corrupt, so what?” or, “The law doesn’t apply to us!” or “We may have to threaten violence,” or “Screw the voters,” but on the other hand, they don’t simply deny everything either.  Skilled corrupters know how to express all of the above sentiments without actually saying those words.

How do you master the language of the corrupt?  You read their repugnant memoirs, or books of interviews with them.  Whenever I do so, I add to a glossary of corruption that I’ve slowly been building:
  • Laws we don’t like = Legalities
  • Rules we don’t like = Niceties, “Marquis of Queensbury rules”
  • Lawful or non-violent = Risk-averse
  • Our scandal = A “flap”
  • Brutal and/or illegal  = Uncompromising, “Not afraid to take the gloves off”
  • Brutality= vigor
  • Brutalized = “cracked down on”
  • Accountability = “The blame game”, Nitpicking
  • Our critics = Hand-wringers
  • We lied = “We showed a lack of candor”
  • We screwed up = “Our plans were overtaken by events”
  • We chose evil = “Our choices were unattractive”
  • Criticism = Negative thinking
There’s a great line in “Havana Nocturne”, T.J. English’s wonderful history of the American mafia in Cuba:  Santo Trafficante’s men would threaten people by saying, “You’d better be careful or the man with green eyes will come and see you.”

Actual dog whistles are supposedly out of the range of human hearing, but they aren’t really.  We don’t hear them, but we feel them: they make the hair on the back of our neck stand up.  That’s what so great about this language.  I would sound innocuous in court, but in person its meaning is all too clear.

When writing dialogue for anyone who’s breaking or bending the law, write as if an incorruptible cop is sitting right there in the room, listening to everything. These guys talk as if that were true in real life, not just out of fear of wiretaps or snitches, but also because they know it’s a lot more chilling for their victims if they say it without saying it.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Storyteller’s Rulebook #173: Beware of Instant Conflict!

Did we all watch “Zero Hour” ABC’s short-lived, overheated “DaVinci Code” knock-off?  No?  Well, if you missed it, that’s your loss, because it was bad writing at its finest.  One scene from the pilot stood out, because it was an extreme example of a problem that shows in a lot of trainwrecks, from Daredevil to John Carter.

We all know that every scene needs conflict, yes?  Case in point: It’s often said that His Girl Friday has some of the greatest dialogue of all time, so much so that it has now become the template for every male-female relationship on screen: “We bicker all the time with rapid-fire, razor sharp wit, but we really just want to jump each other’s bones!”

But the heroes of that movie don’t just have conflicting personalities, they have conflicting goals.  He wants to win her back, both as his wife and his best reporter, while she wants to get free and move on with her life.  They disagree about the past (what ruined their marriage), the present (the best way to get this story), and the future (whether or not they should get back together).  That’s genuine conflict.

The problem with so many modern stories is that they show the very first meeting of a man and woman, only to have the two of them instantly launch into combative, flirtatious banter.
Let’s return to that tragic “New Yorker” interview with Andrew Stanton about John Carter.  Stanton is meeting with his editor, who is desperately trying to save the project.  The editor shows him a scene where our hero first meets a humanoid alien on another planet:
  • They watched Taylor Kitsch soar up to save Lynn Collins as she fell from her airship—the Superman catch—and the newly met couple then carve up an enemy platoon. “Do you have a take where Lynn isn’t smiling when she says, ‘Let me know when it gets dangerous’? ” Giacchino asked. “She just met the guy. Why would she be smiling playfully?”
  • “Mm-hmm,” Stanton said. He folded his hands behind his head.
  • “It was a bump in the movie for me.”
  • “Interesting.”
  • Afterward, Stanton told me, “I was mentally kicking my own ass, because I don’t think I have a take where she didn’t smile—and I don’t want my learning curve to be the reason a scene doesn’t work.”
Daredevil was even nuttier.  In the comics, Daredevil and Electra were college sweethearts who were now on opposite sides of the law. The movie cut out all the history, but still had them sparring like old lovers instantly.  They meet in a café, flirt like crazy, then walk outside and start beating each other up in a playground.  Which is worse, his decision to beat up a random woman who turned down his advances, or her desire to beat up a blind man??
“Zero Hour” combined the “instant flirtatious conflict” scene with another dumb cliché: “instant conflict with law enforcement”. Anthony Edwards’s wife has been kidnapped, and he’s just a meek magazine editor with no experience at this stuff, but as soon as a hot FBI agent shows up at his door, he starts firing off rapid-fire sarcastic retorts.*

Yes, every scene needs conflict, but that should be because the characters have conflicting goals!  Until their goals conflict, they should get along just fine!  If she had doubted that the kidnapping had taken place, or accused him of being involved, or implied that the case wasn’t a priority, then you’d have a reason for conflict.  (And a reason for him to investigate on his own.)  Instead, we see that she’s obviously hyper-competent and totally committed to finding his wife, whatever it takes.  So what’s the conflict??

* These scenes are especially infuriating in our hypersensitive post-9/11 security state.  Yelling at cops or feds these days is a very dangerous activity that can instantly ruin your life.  And, of course, withholding evidence when your wife disappears, which Edwards does for no reason, will automatically make you the sole target of the investigation.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Storyteller's Rulebook #172: Commas Are Death

I’m really enjoying “The Americans” on FX, and the dialogue is mostly excellent, but one problematic line stuck out in the pilot: The Russian deep cover spies are debating a crisis, and the husband reminds the wife:  “Don’t forget, we’ve been at this a long time.”

Don’t do that!  Just cut out the “don’t forget”!  While you’re at it, cut out “As you know” and “As I’m sure you know” and “As we discussed before”. These words are like nails on a chalkboard to audiences.  If you’ve got a good reason for one of your characters to deliver a fact the other person would already know, then that’s fine: just have them do it.

Don’t panic and think, “Wait, the other person would already know that, I’d better make it clear in the dialogue that they aren’t hearing this for the first time.”  People tell each other things they already know all the time, but they don’t remind the other person that they already know it.

In this case, the husband had a good reason for reminding his wife they’ve been at this a long time—he was steeling up her courage for a tough job by reminding her that they knew what they were doing.  But he had no good reason for saying “Don’t forget” first.

The fact is that almost all dialogue with commas in it sounds weasel-y.  Characters shouldn’t preface things, they should just say them.  Here’s a trick that always works: When characters answer questions, cut out every “Yes” and “No.”  Compare these exchanges:
  • “Are you going to the fair?” “No, I’m going to the bar” vs. “Are you going to the fair?”  “I’m going to the bar”
  • “Do you love me?”  “No, but I need you.” vs. “Do you love me?”  “I need you.”
  • “Did you hear the news?” “Yes, I’m so sorry” vs. “Did you hear the news?” “I’m so sorry”
  • “Are you visiting Iowa?” “Yes, we need the rural vote” vs. “Are you visiting Iowa?” “We need the rural vote.”
Just lop off anything before a comma.  I’ve gotten pretty good at this, but I still overuse “Well, I…,” and “Look, I…,”  These are “change gears” words that allow characters to deflect or transition the conversation in the direction they want it to go, but you don’t need them.  Just let the character shift on the fly, even if it results in a little grinding of the gears.

For each of these, you may be thinking, “But then things might not be clear!”  Good!  Life isn’t clear.  Your goal should be to write dialogue with maximum personality and the minimum necessary amount of clarity.  The audience doesn’t want you to hold their hand.  They’d rather you play hard to get and give them the thrill of the chase.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

How To Write Every Day, Conclusion: Is Your Goal to Keep Writing or Stop Writing?

My whole generation of screenwriters was raised on tales of the ‘90s spec boom, and it twisted our heads.  Like the rubes in “The Grapes of Wrath”, we believed that, once we got to California, we could just reach out our hands and pick the fruit of wealth off the trees.  Instead, we arrived and found armed guards at the border, keeping us out.  As with the Joads, it’s hard to get over that shock.  Many of us never have.

It used to be quite common to hear life plans like this: “I’ll go out to Hollywood, work for five years, make my ‘fuck you money’, and then move to a more artsy city and do what I really want to do.”  Of course, even at the time, this plan was short-sighted and naïve, but these days, it seems painfully quixotic.

Not only does this delusion leave writers unprepared for the reality of the marketplace, but it keeps them from ever getting near that market to begin with, because it makes it very hard to move seamlessly from project to project.

If you’re trying to write that silver-bullet, million-dollar spec, then you’ll probably be unable to resist the temptation to put all your eggs in one basket.  You’ll polish that gem over and over, send it out and then start dreaming of beach houses and fast cars, instead of dreaming up your next project.  Only when you realize that nobody wants that last script will you reluctantly force yourself to start all over again.

If your goal is to one day stop working and start coasting, then that’s exactly what you’ll do, over and over again.  In the end, you’ll achieve your goal, albeit with one small change: they’ll get all the money, and all you’ll get is the ‘fuck you.’

Instead of dreaming of the day you’ll be able to stop working, aim higher: Picture a fantasy in which you’ll be able to keep working.  Write because you want to write and write and write.  Write because you want to get paid to do what you would have been doing anyway.

That’s a much more ambitious fantasy, and it helps you create a much better reality in the meantime, because if you picture yourself writing in the future, then it’s far more likely that you’ll write today.
And writing everyday is the only way that you’ll ever get good enough to sell your work.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

How To Write Every Day, Part 4: Work on Multiple Projects

I talked last time about the overwhelming urge to take a break from writing when you reach a tricky fork in the road, at which point you can simply write the bad version, or you can brainstorm new versions of the scene, as long as you don’t count that as your writing for the day.

But sometimes you just get that sinking sensation: You’ve strayed too far from your outline and now you’re waist-deep in the big muddy.  The big fool inside your head says to push on, but should you listen?  Sometimes you become obsessed with making the wrong solution work, but it never will.  Instead, you realize that you need to step back and spot that much better, much simpler solution that’s been eluding you. 

But try as you might, you fail.  You know it’s there, and you know that there’s no point in going on until you spot it, but you just can’t see it…yet.

This is why, if you’re committed to writing everyday, you need to be able to jump to a parallel project.  Some writers advise against this, because they say that you need to be able to totally immerse yourself in your world, rather than dipping your toe into different ponds, but I disagree.  I would say that it’s more important to maintain perspective, and the only way to do that is to take a step back occasionally.

Writing a few pages of another project is helpful in multiple ways:
  • It buoys you up out of that sinking sensation and allows you to start fresh on new challenges.
  • It reminds you that not everything is riding on your main project, so it can be what it needs to be, instead of being all things to all people.
  • It allows you to move that big problem to the back of your mind, but it keeps working the muscles that you need to solve it, which makes it more likely that you’ll have that “Eureka!” moment, when a solution for the supposedly forgotten problem suddenly flashes into your head.  If you take days off to just think about the main problem, it’s more likely that you’ll forget it entirely.
But what if you don’t have another project ready to go?  That’s fine.  Go through your old abandoned projects and dream up radical re-writes, and try writing the first three pages.  Find another abandoned screenplays and write the bad version of the next scene you were never able to tackle.  Maybe, now that you have some perspective on those projects, they’ll come roaring back to life.

But it doesn’t really matter—Just keep flexing that muscle until you’re ready to go back to your main project in a few days.  You might just find that all those false solutions have melted away, and the real solution is staring you right in the face.  (And, most importantly, you haven’t broken your writing momentum.)

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

How To Write Every Day, Part 3: Turn on a Dime

My film school should have more accurately been called “Film Fantasy Camp”.  Whenever one student would gingerly suggest that another might want to re-conceive a troubled project, the teachers would explode with anger: That’s a bad note!  You can’t suggest major changes!  You’re supposed to be helping your peers perfect their own unique and personal vision, not impose foreign, external notions of how movies “should” work!

And that would have been true ...if we’d been on a “Screenwriting Cruise” with a bunch of moonlighting dentists who wanted to finally write those dream projects they’d been tinkering with, and then use their savings to turn those screenplays into a real-life, honest-to-gosh movies.

But we were kids, borrowing hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans, and desperate to pay them off one day by selling screenplays to willing buyers.  For those of us who made it the marketplace, here’s what we discovered: There is no “i” in film. Writers are not there to please themselves, and producers aren’t there to please themselves, either.  They are both supposed to serve the same god: that aforementioned foreign, external notion of how movies work.

The best book about the reality of working in Hollywood is “Writing Movies for Fun and Profit” by Robert Ben Garant and Tom Lennon.  In their very first chapter, they say:
  • Why do you need to be writing compulsively?  Because so much of your work will be thrown away.
  • To survive in the studio system, you cannot fall in love with everything you write.  Be prepared to throw LOTS of it away and start over from scratch.  As a studio writer, you are more contractor than artiste.  Look at it as though they have hired you “write” them a new kitchen or bathroom.  Don’t let it break your heart when you have to throw out a week’s worth of writing.  It happens all the time, for reasons you can’t predict—the star of the film hay have just made a CROQUET film and subsequently will not GOLF or even hold a MALLET in your film because it will seem as if they’ve “done that before.”  So you will have to rewrite an entire sequence.  You will be rewriting all the time.  Learn to love it.  Or at least not hate it.  And most importantly, LEARN from your rewriting.  Keep making the script better.
As Lennon and Ben Garant continually point out, this doesn’t mean that the system is broken.  Casablanca was written this way.  The ending was totally re-written while Bogart and Bergman were standing on the tarmac.  Moves are collaborative, and they’re supposed to be.

But graduates of my school find themselves totally unprepared for this reality.  Now they have to learn real re-writing from scratch, which is going to be almost impossible because not only have they not been taught it, they’ve been explicitly told they shouldn’t have to learn it.  Good luck paying back those loans.

You have to be able to turn on a dime, not only because that’s a good way to serve your producers but because that’s a good way to serve your script.  Re-write scenes from scratch all the time, just for the hell of it.  Maybe there’s a better version.

Running into a problem on page 90?  Maybe you should trying changing a plot twist on page 60, and re-writing the last 30 pages.  Why not?  You aren’t running out of room on a 5-inch floppy disk.  You’ll still have all the older versions saved.  Re-writing those 30 pages might be productive, or it might not, but at least you’re writing.  You may or may not be making your script any better, but as long as you’re writing pages, you’re definitely making yourself a better writer, and that’s what really matters.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

How To Write Every Day, Part 2: Write it Badly Today So You Can Write It Better Tomorrow

Here’s the number one thing that used to trip me up: I would sit down to write the next scene in my outline, only to realize that what I had planned didn’t quite work.  Then I would sit there, fingers perched above the keyboard, trying to fix it in my head before I began writing.  Soon I would boil over with frustration and give up.

One solution to this problem is to close the screenwriting software, open up Word, and start brainstorming new ways to write the scene.  This is sometimes necessary, but once again, as I warned of yesterday, it involves abandoning the hard work of writing pages in favor of the fun work of spitballing.

Inevitably, as soon as I re-entered “anything-is-possible-land”, I couldn’t stand to go back to the cold, hard reality of writing actual pages, which are always much more disappointing.  Instead, I would fall in love with the world of possibilities I had opened up, and give myself “a night to think it over”.  But that meant I had gone a day without writing any actual pages, and once I had taken a day off, the force of habit was broken, and it become too easy to stop altogether.

Now I know better: If I can’t figure out a better version of that scene, then that’s fine: I just write the lame, clichéd first-instinct version in my head.  As a result, one of three things tends to happen:
  • In rare cases, everything suddenly snaps together and I write my way out of the problem, resulting in a great scene.
  • More commonly, the scene sucks, but at least now I can look at the problem….
  • …But what happens most often is that I discover the problems I thought would ruin the scene (too boring, not enough conflict, too much exposition) are nothing compared to the huge problems that I only uncovered by trying to write it.  (There’s no good reason for him to admit to the scheme!  My heroine doesn’t actually find that come-on to be charming!  The explosion would have eliminated the evidence!)
All too often, if you can’t solve a problem with the scene you’re about to write, it’s because you’re misdiagnosing the problem.  If so, the only way to correct that diagnosis is to start writing the scene, even if you already know it’s not going to be any good.

George Lucas didn’t wait until Luke Skywalker was perfected in his head to start writing Star Wars.  He wrote down the dumb first version that popped into his head, The Adventures of Luke Starkiller as Taken from the Journal of the Whills, then said, “Gee, this isn’t very good,” but there are a few elements that work, so let’s start re-writing, and re-writing, and re-writing…

Once you accept this, it makes writing everyday a lot easier.  Even if all you do is re-write from scratch the same scene you wrote yesterday, that still counts!  Writing three pages a day doesn’t mean that you’re going to finish a 120 page screenplay in exactly 40 days.  If you’re constantly re-writing bad pages from scratch, it might be more like 90 days.  But at that rate you’ll still be writing four screenplays a year, which is plenty.  The important thing is that you never stopped writing pages, and never lost your momentum.

But wait, you may ask, what if I can’t go forward, but I’m not ready to re-write what I just wrote, either.  That’s tomorrow...

Monday, March 11, 2013

How To Write Every Day, Part 1: Pitches Are Fantasy, Pages Are Reality

When we discussed this before, I wasn’t sure whether or not writing outlines should count towards daily writing goals, but now...
Whenever any profession hits a new peak in pay, even if that peak is the result of speculative bubble, the practitioners instantly declare that peak to be the new normal, and any decrease, even it’s just a decrease to previous norms, will forever after be seen as unforgivable.

So it was with screenwriting.  During the spec script bubble of the early ‘90s, studios lost their heads.  They were overpaying for scripts, and even paying princely sums for movies that hadn’t been written.  In the most infamous example, Joe Eszterhas scribbled a pitch on the back of a napkin and sold it for four million dollars.  The movie was called One Night Stand with Wesley Snipes.  Ever see it?  Me neither.

After the flop of that movie and many others, studios cut their spending way back.  Soon, with a few notable exceptions, they stopped buying pitches and returned to their previous policy of only buying finished scripts.  To this day, screenwriters lament the end of the glory days, and await the day when we can once again sell ideas before we write anything.

But the studios are right: Pitches aren’t worth anything yet.  This is actually true in a court of law: You can’t copyright an idea.  You can only copyright the expression of an idea.  Only pages are valuable, and that’s the way it should be.

For years, whenever I would try to force myself to write everyday, I would start out writing actual pages, but after the pages stopped flowing, I would start writing outlines for future stories instead.  What’s the difference?  It’s all writing, isn’t it?

No, it isn’t.  Anything other than actual pages is just pre-writing.  Don’t get me wrong, outlines and treatments are very important, but you can’t confuse that with real writing.   What would inevitably happen when I would switch to writing outlines, is that I would never want to switch back. Pre-writing is addictive because it’s a lot more rewarding than writing pages.  Potential is always better than reality.

Before you start writing, you can say, “What’s my movie like? Well, let me tell you: Imagine that Han Solo and Hannibal Lecter have to team up free the guys from the Great Escape!” That sounds great!  What a cool idea!  Then you sit down to write it and you realize that, unless you’re writing an especially silly (and yet awesome) piece of fan fiction, you can’t just appropriate the pre-existing value of those characters. Instead, you have to re-create all that value from scratch, which is damn hard.

It’s one thing to say, “My new character is going to be like Han Solo”!  It’s entirely different to say, “I just wrote some pages and the new character I’ve created is just as appealing as Han Solo!” The first is worthless, the second is priceless.

Force yourself to stop saying “I have a good idea for a movie!”  Instead, you should say, “I may have a good idea for a movie.” If you think you’ve got a good idea for movie, then find out by writing some pages. Ideas aren’t copyrightable because they’re a dime a dozen.  An outline is just a doorway that leads you to a character.  Step through it, get to know that character by writing pages of dialogue, and then you’ll know if have something real, or just another One Night Stand.

So if you shouldn’t switch to outlines, what should you do when the pages stop flowing?  We’ll pick up there tomorrow…

Sunday, March 10, 2013

How To Write Every Day, Prologue: It’s Been a Hell of a Month

Funny story: A month ago, my weight loss and sweats returned. Two weeks ago, a PET scan indicated a 50/50 chance that my cancer was back.  Last week, I had a biopsy in the OR. Three days ago, around noon, my oncologist called me to tell me the results: Yes, sadly, the cancer had returned. But wait… two hours later, after the full pathologist’s report arrived, he called back and said that actually no, it wasn’t cancer after all--just an infection that has now passed and I’m totally fine.


Long-time readers will recall that the last time things went wrong, it snuffed out a hot streak in my career.  That was hardly a danger this time, but this latest scare also seemed to me to be particularly ill-timed, because even though I have very little career heat right now, I am doing two things better than I ever have before: writing steadily everyday, and moving seamlessly from project to project.

Of course, if you’ve been following my progress in the sidebar, you know that I’ve been sort of making a mockery of the concept: I’ve been forcing myself to write at least a page a day, but the result that been that I’ve been writing precisely one page a day.  To a certain degree, that’s because of my infection (my oncologist blames my flu shot) and the resulting flurry of tests and uncertainty, but that’s not entirely it…

You’re recall that the last time I tentatively broached this subject, I was forcing myself to write 3-8 pages a day.  But I soon discovered that I couldn’t even keep up with that longer than a month.  I still needed to feel “inspired” to write those three pages, and inspiration can’t last forever.

It was only once I got down to one page that true force of habit kicked in.  I discovered that, no matter how busy or stressed I was in any given day, if I just had to write one, I could still do it, just to say I hadn’t broken the streak.  And sure enough, as I predicted last time, the 21-day cliché kicked into gear.  It soon got to the point where it was painful to go to bed without dashing one off.

But now that I’m officially fine, starting today I’m once again holding myself to the standard to 3 to 8 pages a day, because I now feel that I have the additional resources I need to keep that going. This week, I’ll talk about some of the conclusions I’ve drawn that have enabled me to start forming better habits.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Know More Than You Show, Conclusion: Theme

You’ve probably heard before that you should withhold elements of the plot and backstory, but it’s not often pointed out that you should also play keep-away with your theme.

I’ve mentioned before that I disagree with the oft-repeated advice that you should have a wise statement of philosophy on page five.  If you’ve done that, you should delete the scene, and maybe replace it with a misguided statement of philosophy that will get replaced much later, shortly before the climax.  I’ve also talked about how, if you have a character who asks the thematic question early on, then it’s good to interrupt them before they can get an answer, because the story itself should be the answer.

As with character and plot, this is hard to do.  You’ve got something to say, and now you want to say it …but you have to stop yourself.  You don’t actually want your audience to hear it, you want them to feel it.  And they’ll only feel it if they’ve been allowed to draw their own conclusions.

The meaning of a movie is created not by the composition of the shot but by the opposition of the cut. It’s no accident that the inventor of most powerful cinematic cutting techniques, Sergei Eisenstein, was such a fan of Georg Hegel, who believed that new ideas could only emerge from the collision of old ideas.  Eisenstein knew that butting two contrasting images against each other created more meaning than any one shot could on its own.

It’s tempting to process your own conflict and then present your audience with a finalized synthesis, because that way you can carefully control what their takeaway will be, but there’s no point, because they won’t care.  Instead, present them with a thesis and an antithesis, slam them against each other, and let your audience do the rest.  Force them to synthesize it, even if that means that they might reach a different conclusion than you would.

What were Shakespeare’s politics? Did he agree with Brutus or Marc Antony?  Prince Hal or Falstaff?  No one knows.  His plays are filled with huge ideological conflicts but few definitive statements.  He gives us a thesis and antithesis and leaves the synthesis to us.  That’s why he’s immortal.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Know More Than You Show, Part 2: Plot

I don’t use the word “plot” very often, because I prefer to talk about structure, but there is a difference.  “Plot” refers to everything that happens, from start to finish, including everything that happens off screen, whereas structure refers to the story as experienced by the audience.  Obviously, since I’m audience-focused, I tend to focus on the latter, but it’s important not to blur that distinction.

I’ve said before that explaining the plot is not your characters’ job: the obstacles and conflicts, external and internal, should be visibly apparent, without forcing your characters to explain them to the audience.  But now I’ll go further and point out that your audience should never really know the full plot.  As with character backstories, you need to know more than you show.

You’ve created this big, beautiful story, and now you want to show it off …but you can’t.  Your audience doesn’t want to be told your story, they want to figure it out.  The second that they understand everything that’s going on, they’ll lose interest.

I’ve mentioned before that I always ask people who don’t finish what I sent them where they stopped reading.  Likewise, whenever I start writing something and don’t finish it, I go back to check where I stopped writing.  As I mentioned here, it’s often about the halfway point.  Why?  Because that’s the point where I’ve finally laid everything on the table.

This seems counterintuitive: I’ve spend the first half assembling my characters and plot elements, and now that everything is in place, we’re off and running, right?   Wrong.  It means the story just died.

Not only do you need to have an overarching dramatic question that is posed at the very beginning and answered at the very end, but you need to have lots of additional mysteries propelling each scene forward into the next.  The reader is always looking for excuses to quit reading, just as you the writer are looking for excuses to quit writing.  The perfect set-it-down place for both of you is the moment when everything finally makes sense.

Don’t get me wrong, you need to have a logical and cohesive plot, but also you have to hide some of that cohesiveness from your readers.  They do not want things to fully cohere until the very end.

Sketch out your whole plot, then figure out which facts it would be most compelling to withhold from your audience.  First cut it down to just what they need to know, then cut it down even more.  Give them just enough to fall in love with the story, but withhold the crucial plot elements that they’ll crave.
  • Show them that the villain is up to something, but don’t show them enough to guess what it is.
  • Show then that hero has a plan, but withhold the linchpin of that plan until it goes into effect.
  • Imply that the hero and villain know each other, but don’t tell them how.
  • Show them the arrival of an interloper but make them guess why he’s there.
In short, make your audience participate in putting your story together, rather than passively receive the information you’re ladling out.

Obviously, this can go very, very wrong: “Lost” and “Battlestar Galactica” never cohered and their audiences were infuriated (even through they’d been thoroughly entertained for most of the journey...)

J. K. Rowling, on the other hand, did a much better job with the Harry Potter saga: A big part of the thrill of that series came from the fact that she had obviously figured out the entire, massive history of her world, but she wasn’t going to reveal each aspect of it until we desperately wanted to know it.  Unlike with “Lost” and “BSG”, most Potter fans felt tremendously gratified by the final picture that had emerged by the end of the last book.  (And it’s worth pointing out that, even at the end, she still knew more than she ever showed, as one shocked Q and A participant found out.)

Next, we finish up with theme…

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Know More Than You Show, Part 1: Character

There are certain rules that I’ve frequently referenced indirectly on this blog but never explored in their own rite.  One of those is “Know more than you show.” Let’s spend this week breaking it down into three parts, starting with character:
Some gurus such as Syd Field insist that you know every possible fact about your hero, all the way back to where his or her grandmother went to college.  I would argue that you should be more focused on your hero’s present and future.  If you actually take the time to list out 500 facts about the past, then you might run into a few different dangers:
  • You’ll bore yourself to tears, getting sick of your hero long before he or she has a chance to come alive on the page.
  • You’ll commit yourself to randomly-selected story details, and feel less willing to change your hero’s past on the fly as you write, in order to add special skills, or tangled relationships from the past that can juice up the conflict, or additional ironies.
  • Once you’ve created this epic backstory, you’ll feel compelled to reveal it at some point, even though the audience won’t care.
  • You’ll be tempted to use backstory as a substitute for front story, differentiating your characters based on where they’ve been, rather than how they act. In the terrible pilot for “NYC 22” each rookie cop stopped the story dead in order to reveal a complicated backstory, but their current plans and tactics were virtually identical.
Instead, I usually suggest that you should just focus on those aspects of your heroes backstories that generate their metaphor families, whether that happens to be their home region, past job, current job, or developmental state (kid, teen, parent, etc.)

But, with all those caveats out of the way, it can, in fact, be a useful exercise to write out a full bio of each character, as long as you understand that you should never show all that you know.  Just because your heroes have baggage, doesn’t mean that they should take it out of their overhead bin during flight.

One of the advantages of writing of a bio for your characters is that it allows you to search for new ways to bond with them.  Give your characters gifts from your own life until they come alive in your head.  Don’t assume that backstory will get your audience to fall in love with the character, but do anything you can to makes sure that you fall in love, even if your audience never knows why. 

Even when you’ve cut out unnecessary backstory, there are other ways to know more than you show when it comes to character.  Beware of moments that perfectly sum up a character’s personality, all in one scene.  Ironically, this might be the scene that made you want to write this story in the first place, because it made the character instantly come to life in your mind, but now it’s time to kill your darlings and cut it, because you don’t want a character that can be summed up in one scene.

The audience doesn’t want the whole package neatly laid out before them: they want to piece the character together out of different parts.  A great character is compelling because we are compelled to find out more about him or her.   That’s not true if the character is neatly summed up right away.  This also applies to plot, which we’ll get to tomorrow…