Thursday, April 28, 2016

Book Examples Needed, Day 6: Moments of Humanity

Okay guys, the book isn’t due until Monday, so we can do one or two more. Even though this is one of my marquee pieces of advice, I still don't have enough examples. And I just realized to my horror that I pulled Aladdin right out of “Save the Cat”, so that has to go. Any ideas for books for any of these?

Does the hero have a moment of humanity early on?

Your heroes have a lot of work to do, so it’s tempting to simply hit the ground running, and instantly start dumping problems on their heads until they’re ready to stand up and do something about it. But you can’t assume we’ll automatically bond with your heroes just because we’re told to identify with them. The audience is actually inclined to distrust and reject your heroes, for all the reasons listed in Part I.

We won’t go anywhere with your heroes until they win us over. Logically, we know this is fiction and we shouldn’t care about a bunch of lies, but you need to overcome our resistance and make us care, against our better judgment.

So how do you do that? You need to give your hero at least one moment of humanity, which will break through that resistance and bond us to the hero. This is the moment the audience forgets this is fiction and starts to believe in the character.

The moment of humanity can take different forms:

Something Funny: This is easiest to do in first-person novels, of course, where the hero can win us over on the first page with a snarky point of view. In movies, this just means cracking wise, usually in a perceptive way, as with the heroes of Casablanca, Ocean’s Eleven, Groundhog Day, and Juno. This can also bond us to characters who are scared to be funny out loud, but have a very funny, perceptive, and self-deprecating voiceover, such as the heroes of The Apartment, Spider-Man, and Mean Girls.

An Out-of-Character Moment, where we realize this character won’t just be one-note. This may seem odd: How is it possible to introduce your character with an out-of-character moment? It takes very little time to establish expectations before you start to upset them. Jokes are written according to the “rule of threes:” something happens twice, which establishes a pattern, and then the third time something different happens, which upsets the pattern. That’s all it takes.
  • Tony Stark in Iron Man proves himself to be a boastful alpha-male billionaire in the first scene as he boldly shows off his new weapon to a group of generals, but then he asks to share a Hum-V with some soldiers and becomes self-deprecating and gregarious, making jokes about gang-signs in selfies.
Compassionate: This is tricky, because you want to avoid generically benevolent “save-the-cat” moments, which actually alienate an audience. The best compassionate moments are ones that are also out-of-character moments:
  • Aladdin has a great song about being a fun-loving thief, but after he gets away with his bread, he reluctantly lets starving kids beg it off of him. This is a clear-cut “save-the-cat” moment, but it only works because it’s out of character. If he had stolen the bread for the kids, we wouldn’t like him as much. That would actually be more sympathetic, but less compelling.
Otherwise, compassionate moments should be rooted in the hero’s own sense of emotional vulnerability. Ben Stiller stands up for Cameron Diaz’s mentally disabled brother in There’s Something About Mary because he feels like a fellow outcast. Katniss volunteers in her sister’s place in The Hunger Games because she feels she’s already hardened herself, and whether or not she survives the games, she doesn’t want her innocent sister to lose her humanity, as well.

An Oddball Moment, where the character, rather than single-mindedly pursuing a goal, indulges in a bit of idiosyncratic behavior that briefly interrupts the momentum of the story in a good way.
  • The French Connection: We never really get any moments of weakness or humility from Popeye, but we fall in love with him when he suddenly veers off script in an interrogation and starts asking the suspect if he ever picked his feet in Poughkeepsie.
  • Blazing Saddles: Ex-slave, track-layer Bart is ordered to sing an old slave song as he works, so he smirks and breaks out into an anachronistic rendition of “I Get a Kick Out of You.” We now love this guy. 
Comically Vain: A variation of the “laugh-with” funny moment is the “laugh-at” moment in which the character is comically vain.
  • Han Solo in Star Wars is wounded that Luke and Obi-Wan have never heard of his ship.
  • The hero of Rushmore imagines he is a math genius and the hero of the school, only to wake up to a more modest reality.
  • Ted on How I Met Your Mother describes to a girl in a bar his imaginary wedding in an adorably deluded way.
  • Annie in Bridesmaids sneaks out of her lover’s bed in the morning to do herself up, then climbs back in so that she’ll look like she’s woken up looking beautiful.
A Unique-But-Universal Moment that has nothing to do with the story, where the character does something we’ve all done, but we’ve never seen portrayed before.
  • My favorite movie, the silent drama The Crowd, begins with a dead-simple example: Our hero is nervously preparing for a date in front of the mirror, when he notices a spot on his face. He keeps trying to rub it off, to no avail, until he realizes that it’s a spot on the mirror.
  • Modern Times gets us on the side of the Little Tramp by introducing him as he’s working an assembly line, and can’t take his hands off for a second, but he has to scratch his nose.
  • William Goldman, in his book “Adventures in the Screen Trade”, writes about how nobody was bonding with the hero in his movie Harper, so he added a brief scene in the beginning where Harper gets up in the morning, starts to make coffee, and realizes that he’s out of filters. Harper thinks for a second, then fishes yesterday’s filthy filter out of the garbage, brushes it off and re-uses it. Suddenly, the audience is ready to go anywhere with this guy.
  • In the case of The 40 Year Old Virgin, it’s the very first shot: Andy tries to pee while coping with a painful morning erection. That’s certainly a unique-but-universal moment I never thought I'd see portrayed onscreen.
No matter which kind you choose, these moments of humanity are essential for building quick identification. You have a very short time to get your audience to say, “I love this person” before they give up and tune out.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Book Examples Needed, Day 5: Dialogue

Okay guys, the book is due on Friday, so we’ve almost reached the end of this. Here are two checklist questions about dialogue that could sorely use some book examples

Is the dialogue more concise than real talk?

Dialogue should be as realistic as possible, with two big exceptions: It should be more succinct and have more personality. The danger, of course, is you’ll accomplish this by giving every character the gift of sparkling, sophisticated banter, but that’s not what I mean at all.

Instead, consider this exchange from the first X-Men movie, after Wolverine returns from fighting a shape-shifting villain:
  • Wolverine: Easy, it's me.
  • Cyclops: Prove it
  • Wolverine: [thinks, then] You’re a dick.
  • Cyclops: [thinks, then] Okay.
That is one of the few memorable moments in the movie, but the offhand delivery of these three little words is enough to make Hugh Jackman a star and launch a franchise—and it’s the opposite of sophisticated banter. Never write a page of banter when three words will do.

Does the dialogue have more personality than real talk?

I don’t know about you, but I don’t have enough personality to be a fictional character. For one thing, I have no pet names for my wife. On those rare occasions I feel it would be appropriate to tack an endearment onto the end of a sentence, I fall back on the old standbys like sweetheart, darling, or baby. But I’m not a fictional character. And the one thing you need to understand about fictional characters is they have more personality than us.

When your characters use endearments, that’s one more chance for you to give them a little more personality. Use something specific, something no one else in the story would say. Sometimes, you can even find language that amplifies the keynotes of their personalities:
  • Vince Vaughn in Swingers doesn’t say, “You’re awesome, dude!” like he probably would in real life. Instead, he says, “You’re so money and you don’t even know it!” That’s wonderfully specific, and it speaks to his predatory tendency to value people according to what they can do for him.
  • In the great film noir Scarlet Street, when the sleazy low-life played by Dan Duryea calls his girlfriend “lazy legs” and she loves it, we pretty much know everything we need to about both of them.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Book Examples Needed, Part 4: "I Understand You" moments

Okay guys, not much more of this because the book is due some day soon! In the meantime, this one has a negative book example, but not a positive book example  What’s a great book “I understand you” moment?

Does the hero have at least one big “I understand you” moment with her love interest or primary emotional partner? 

We’ve all had the experience. You’re sure you’ve met your perfect match. You rhapsodize for hours about everything that made you fall head over heels, but at the end, your friend just shrugs and says, “Are you kidding me?”

The problem, of course, is your hormonal response is distorting your reality, and your cool-eyed friends are evaluating the shelf-life of this new relationship dispassionately, asking: Do these two have enough in common? Will they treat each other well? Do they need each other?

It’s great to capture the subjective experience of falling in love, of course, though novelists have a much better chance of doing that than screenwriters.

Screenwriters can try to cheat, like West Side Story did, by using subjective camera effects to capture Tony’s besotted vision of Maria, but even back then, viewers just rolled their eyes. The camera eye is not the hero’s eye, and we will always see more than he sees, no matter how much Vaseline you smear on the lens.

But in some ways the screenwriter has the advantage, because a well-written story, in any medium, will capture both the subjective experience and an objective perspective on this relationship. Allow the audience to be both the besotted hero and the dubious friend.

So this is one case where you don’t want to “write what you know.” Don’t trust your own distorted memories of love and/or heartbreak. Instead, think back to your friends’ relationships. Which relationships did you root for and which infuriated you? Which ones endangered your friends and which saved them? Most importantly, how did you know they were right for each other, maybe even before they did?

Whether your first draft is one huge love story or the romance is a minor element, once you’ve gotten some notes, you may be shocked to discover that nobody sees what you see in the love interest.

The reason so many love stories fail, and so many lame love interests drag stories down, is the writers have failed to add “I understand you” scenes. I’m a huge Harry Potter fan, but the series has a huge flaw: Nowhere in the course of these seven massive books does Rowling ever put in a single “I understand you” scene between either of the main couples: Harry/Ginny or Ron/Hermione! Ginny is especially thin; she’s basically just “the girlfriend.” Finally, years later, Rowling acknowledged her mistake publicly: Hermione is the one who understands Harry, and they should have ended up together.

Of course, given that your hero starts off with a false goal and a false statement of philosophy, it’s tempting to make the love interest the character lecturing your hero from the start. But then, you risk drifting into another category of alienating character: Just as you don’t want a hero who just says no, likewise you don’t want a stick-in-the-mud love interest, such as the kind you find in Old School, and many other manchild comedies.

Better “I understand you” moments don’t have anything to do with wanting to change the other person and everything to do with accepting: We don’t root for the Beauty and the Beast to get together until the beast gives Belle his library.

Sometimes, you can establish they understand each other before they even meet. We know in advance that the heroes in Friends with Benefits will bond because we see they have an ironically shared dislike of relationships. And what could be more romantic than the song that drifts from Maurice Chavalier in the city out to Jeanette MacDonald in the country in Love Me Tonight, uniting their hearts before either knows the other exists?

Just as you must occasionally check with your friends to make sure you’re not blinded by love in real life, you must get notes to find out how well your fictional romance is playing with your readers. Don’t be surprised if you need to give it a firmer foundation.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Book Examples Needed, Part 3: Small Thematic Details

I always have a hard time answering this question when I run my checklists, not because it’s not there, but because, when it’s done right, it’s hard to spot unless you’re looking for it specifically, and I’ve got 140 questions to answer.  For whatever reason, Enemy of the State was the best I could come up with, but this is a prime spot for plugging in a book instead.  What do you say? 

Do many small details throughout subtly (and ironically) tie into the thematic dilemma? 

As you write your first draft, you can’t worry very much about your theme. You have to simply assume that, if the thematic question is linked to the dramatic question, and everything is sufficiently ironic, then meaning will accrue. As a result, however, when it’s time to tackle later drafts, you may find that your theme is so indistinct that it’s barely detectable.

But wait, you say, isn’t it good that the theme is hard to spot? After all, you want your theme to resonate in the audience’s bones, not rattle around in their skulls, so shouldn’t you pitch it just below the frequency of human hearing? Well, yes, but if that’s the case then, like any good sub-audible hum, it has to be persistent.

Once your story and characters are set, you can go back and second-guess every minor choice you made and change many of them to subtly reinforce your theme. When we write, we inevitably make a lot of choices at random, just to keep writing: What job does the hero’s spouse have? Where are the heroes when they get the big news? Which blunt object is used for the killing? And etc. But now it’s time to go back and make all of those choices more meaningful.

Enemy of the State is a fun little thriller about a labor lawyer who receives damning evidence about the NSA from an old friend, then has to go on the run for his life. The movie has the “good vs. good” theme of security vs. privacy. This thematic dilemma is floated early on by a series of open questions posed by the hero’s wife, who works for the ACLU, but it’s also reinforced throughout in subtler ways...
  • In the beginning, the lawyer is trying to win a labor law case by using a secret videotape against some gangsters. It’s not admissible in court, but the gangsters don’t want it exposed.
  • Who got the lawyer the tape? A young woman he once had an affair with. The affair is over, but now he must hide the fact from his wife that he’s still working with her.
  • Where is he when he runs into his friend? A lingerie store, shopping for his wife, but because of his past affair, he’s afraid that she would assume he’s buying for someone else.
  • Why is he there? It’s Christmastime, which means that they’re hiding presents from their son, and he’s hiding the fact he’s raided their gift stash, which complicates things later on.
These are all things that subtly make that point that we all do things that we don’t want exposed to scrutiny, even if they’re not illegal.

I suspect that none of these details were in the first draft, since none of them is essential to the story, but once the plot had been worked out, writer David Marconi went back and replaced whatever random choices he had originally made with new details that subtly tied into the theme. I’ve heard this referred to as making a “theme tree”, yoking every detail together into a vast system of root and branch that all feeds into an organic whole. Every choice is a chance to multiply the meaning.

What do you say, any books come to mind?

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Book Examples Needed, Day 2: False Goals

Thanks so much for your helpful suggestions on Day 1! For whatever reason, I have a hard time coming up with book examples that are well-known and on-point , but you guys are nailing it. Can you help me out on these three subcategories?

Does the hero have a false or short-sighted goal in the first half?

Just as your hero begins with a false or short-sighted philosophy, he should also pursue a false or short-sighted goal for the first half of your story. This can take many forms:

Wrong Solution to Right Solution: In 2006, the Lupus Foundation gave the TV show House an award for all it had done to spread awareness for the disease. But it was strange because, at the time, Dr. House had never correctly identified a case of Lupus. Instead, on several occasions, House’s team falsely identifies the patient’s mysterious ailment as Lupus before they realize the patient has a far-more exotic disease. Lupus is a little-understood, catch-all diagnosis that can explain all sorts of symptoms that don’t normally fit together, so for House’s team, it’s a tempting but false way to think of the puzzle in front of them. Nevertheless, it gives them tests to run, and these tests unexpectedly lead them to the real diagnosis they hadn’t suspected before.

Micro-Goal to Macro-Goal: This is a simpler form of false goal. In Star Wars, Luke goes from wanting to fix his runaway droid to wanting to blow up the Death Star. John McClane in Die Hard spends the first half of the movie just trying to call the cops before he realizes he’ll have to take on a terrorist cell single-handedly. These false goals make character motivations far more believable. If the heroes just woke up one day and decided to do a hugely daunting task, it would be hard to swallow. It’s far more compelling to watch them get sucked into greatness against their better judgment.

Total Reversal of Values: Juno goes off searching for a “cool” parent to entrust her kid to, then realizes in the end that she wants just the opposite. Dave in Breaking Away starts off trying to defeat the college kids, then realizes he really wants to join them. Peter Parker in Spider-Man wants to use his powers to make his own life better until his callousness gets his uncle killed. Jake Sully in Avatar goes from wanting to rejoin the marines to killing them en masse.

So what do you say? Any book suggestion for these three? 

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Book Examples Needed, Part 1

Thanks so much, guys, crowd-sourcing the revisions of the book has been so fun! Since we last spoke, I finally got my edits back from my editor, which is thrilling but weird. The edits are great, but it feels like coming home to discover that someone has been in your house, touching your stuff. Of note: Either she has a pronounced hatred of the word “that”, or I have an perverse addiction to it, or both.

One issue that comes up in the notes in this: Writer’s Digest books are aimed at aspiring novelists moreso than screenwriters, but I'm still over-relying on movie examples. So if you’re willing to keep helping me out, I thought we might try something new: I’ll share with you some places in which my editor wants some more book examples, and you can help me brainstorm.

Of course, this brings us to one of the big reasons I tend to focus on movies rather than books. Because there are a limited number of movies released, we all tend to see the same ones, and we all tend to agree on which ones are great, but books are totally different: Readers tend to have their own niches, hundreds of well-reviewed books come out every year in every niche, and individual reader taste varies much more than moviegoer taste.

If you’re talking about books that can be cited as examples, you have a pretty small list: On the one hand, you have high school lit: Austen, Dickens, the Brontes, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Morrison, etc. On the other hand you have those few bestsellers so big that they cross over to all readers: Rowling, Collins, Larsson, Flynn, etc. So it’s tough! Can you come up with examples that enough people have read?

So let’s try it! Here’s a typical list from the book illustrated solely by movie examples.

Does this challenge become something that’s not just hard for the hero to do (an obstacle) but hard for the hero to want to do (a conflict)? 

Not all conflict is created equal. Genuine conflict occurs when characters don’t want to do something, for reasons such as these:
  • It would require them to question their deep-seated assumptions: Jason Schwartzman refuses to consider the possibility that he doesn’t rule the school in Rushmore.
  • It would require them to overcome an inner weakness: Steve Carrell has built up an extreme reluctance to mature in The 40 Year Old Virgin.
  • They promised someone they wouldn’t do it: Mark Wahlberg feels he cannot go off on his own in The Fighter without betraying his family.
  • It would reveal their painful secrets to others: Harrison Ford in The Fugitive cannot investigate his wife’s murder without exposing himself to the police.
  • It would get their love interest or a family member in trouble: Tobey Maguire is constantly afraid his activities will endanger his family members in the Spider-Man movies. 
For any of these five, can you help me come up with a book example, citing a book that most of us have actually read?  

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Great Un-Purge, Day 3: Does the ending satisfy most of the expectations of the genre, and defy a few others?

Let’s try to rescue another question from the Tone section, which was cut from the book for space.

On appeal: Does the ending satisfy most of the expectations of the genre, and defy a few others?

Why it was added: This is a good idea. When a story tries to defy all expectations, the audience quickly catches on to the gag, and simply loses all expectations (and engagement) ...but they also check out when a story slavishly checks off every box. They only way to keep their attention is to alternate between the two.

How do the checklist movies answer this question?
  • Alien: Yes, it fulfills all except one: the male leader dies and a subordinate woman survives and becomes the sole survivor.
  • An Education: Satisfies almost all. She doesn’t realize the boring boy is right for her, but that’s not universal in these movies.
  • The Babadook: The monster is both defeated and not, but nobody dies.
  • Blazing Saddles: It works as a straightforward western, a straightforward character comedy, a spoof and a satire.
  • Blue Velvet: Yes, the villain is killed and the girl is got, but we suspect that the hero will never be satisfied now that he’s seen the dark side.
  • The Bourne Identity: Yes, they reshot the ending to add more action, but kept the hero commited to his newfound pacifism.
  • Bridesmaids: Happy wedding, she gets guy, but he doesn’t save the day and the villain is befriended instead of getting comeuppance.
  • Casablanca: Yes, they admit they love each other and kiss…but then he sends her away. They shoot one Nazi…but forgive the other.
  • Donnie Brasco: Yes, the mob has a falling out, which is common, but the feds win, which is uncommon.
  • Do the Right Thing: Comedy and drama come with fewer expectations than other genres, and it meets them all.
  • The Fighter: It satisfies just about all.
  • The Fugitive: Yes, everybody is caught, but none of the bad guys are killed, which is why this movie was nominated for best picture: it rises above the base violent urges that usually fuel these genres.
  • Groundhog Day: He gets the girl and finds happiness, but only through not wanting to have sex with her that night.
  • How to Train Your Dragon: They win the big battle but they also make peace. Hiccup wins but he also loses his foot.
  • In a Lonely Place: No, it doesn’t satisfy any of them, but that’s the point: this is a feminist film (albeit much less so than the book) that wants us to be aware of and worried about our urges to see violent pay-offs. It works brilliantly.
  • Iron Man: Villain is defeated, girl is lost (which is common for this genre), but secret identity is rejected, which is shockingly new.
  • Raising Arizona: They get an unlikely happy ending (getting forgiven for the crime), but not as happy as it could have been (if they had gotten to keep the kid)
  • Rushmore: All are satisfied.
  • The Shining: It satisfies them all: the black guy is killed, the ax murderer is killed by the innocents who live, there is a brief implication at the end that events may re-occur, etc. Nevertheless, many genre-fans are not satisfied with this movie, because of the reluctance to commit to the supernatural element.
  • Sideways: He ends up with the girl, but he doesn’t have to change in order to do it.
  • Silence of the Lambs: Bill is caught, but Lecter gets away.
  • Star Wars: The hero, the rogue and the mentor are all fairly traditional, but the princess is kick-ass, which defied expectations at the time.
  • Sunset Boulevard: Yes, our hard-boiled narrator is killed and the murderer is arrested, but it’s all oddly funny.
Deliberations: Some of those answers are a little contorted. This is a valuable concept, but it’s vague enough that it’s hard to answer. These answers sort of overlap with the Urges question, which we’ve moved to “Concept”, so it’s somewhat redundant.

The verdict: I guess it can go. In the book, every chapter has a “Misconceptions” section, so maybe this point can be moved there, possibly under “Concept”, or maybe under “Structure”?

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Great Un-Purge, Day 2: Are there characters whose situations prefigure various fates that might await the hero?

We’re still trying to rescue some questions from the Tone section, which was cut from the book for space.

On appeal: Are there characters whose situations prefigure various fates that might await the hero?

Why it was added: I really like this idea. It’s a great way to subtly add power to your story.

How do the checklist movies answer this question?
  • Alien: Yes, she’s afraid of getting killed like the others, afraid of becoming Ash.
  • An Education: Very much so. She’s terrified of becoming her teachers, her parents, and Helen the moll.
  • The Babadook: The dog for the boy, etc.
  • Blazing Saddles: We see others getting hanged, and the previous sheriff getting killed.
  • Blue Velvet: Yes, he doesn’t want to end up like his father, he’s afraid he’ll end up like Frank.
  • The Bourne Identity: Yes, the other Treadstone assassins for Jason. The dead landlady for Marie.
  • Bridesmaids: The rest of the bridal party provide examples of her concerns: one is unhappily married, one married naively, one is a trophy wife, etc.
  • Casablanca: Yes, Rick is worried that he’s as bad as Ugarte, or as corrupt as Renault. He also sees that he’ll never be as good as Victor.
  • Donnie Brasco: Yes, Lefty, the other inept undercover Fed, Bruno Kirby’s character that gets killed for being sloppy. etc.
  • Do the Right Thing: Will Mookie end up like Da Mayor? Like Sal? Should he be more like Buggin’ Out? Like his sister?
  • The Fighter: Dicky is a cautionary tale for Micky.
  • The Fugitive: Gerard catches and kills the other fugitive.
  • Groundhog Day: Phil keeps running into people he could be: Nice Rita, dopey Larry covering the swallows at Capistrano eight years in a row, the drunks at the bar, etc. How to Train Your Dragon: Lots of people with missing body parts, etc.
  • In a Lonely Place: Yes, Laurel is afraid she’ll be killed like the girl, Dix is afraid he’ll end up like the old drunk.
  • Iron Man: Co-inventor who dies shows him that he will eventually have to choose, Stane represents what he’s afraid he’ll become.
  • Raising Arizona: Her sister and brother-in-law represent his worst fears of becoming a dad, and the brothers represent his worst fears of returning to a life of crime.
  • Rushmore: Not really. Max is one-of-a-kind.
  • The Shining: Yes. The previous caretaker and his family.
  • Sideways: He fears he can’t pursue love without becoming Jack.
  • Silence of the Lambs: Lecter, Chilton and Crawford all share her interest in criminal psychology. Which will she end up like?
  • Star Wars: Not really. Again, these were cut (contrasting Luke with his friends who didn’t leave and his friend who did leave.) Han isn’t really a parallel character because he and Luke haven’t faced the same choices.
  • Sunset Boulevard: Yes, many: the monkey, John the Baptist, Max.
Deliberations: I like those answers! It would be a shame to lose this one.

The verdict: Have you found this question useful? Should I save it? Move it to concept? Move it to theme? Would it need to be rephrased?

Monday, April 11, 2016

The Great Un-Purge, Day 1: Does the story satisfy the basic human urges that get people to buy and recommend this genre and sub-genre?

We’re doing things a bit differently this week. As I explained yesterday, I’ve already cut the whole Tone chapter from the manuscript, but I’d like to salvage some questions, if possible.

On appeal: Does the story satisfy the basic human urges that get people to buy and recommend this genre and sub-genre?

Why it was added: This is hugely important. It’s easy to come up with a perfect concept/character/structure, etc. only to discover that there’s no reason for anyone to actually like the story.

How do the checklist movies answer this question?
  • Alien: Yes, lots of big scares and gory kills
  • An Education: Sort of. It substitutes aesthetic pleasures for sexual, romantic, or crime pleasure. It’s entirely execution-dependent.
  • The Babadook: Yes and no. It’s very scary, but there are no deaths! There is very little sexuality or transgression to be punished.
  • Blazing Saddles: It’s hilarious.
  • Blue Velvet: Yes and no. It’s an effective Hitchcockian/erotic thriller in the end, but it doesn’t “feel” like a thriller for most of its run time. What it feels like is an art film, and it mostly satisfies those viewers, but not entirely. It’s stuck somewhat between the two audiences.
  • The Bourne Identity: Yes and no. It subtly replaces our normal spy movie expectations (gadgets, secret lairs), with more modest ones, then it fulfills those expertly: awesome car chase in a beat-up car, down-and-dirty fight scenes, etc.
  • Bridesmaids: Lots of raunchy laughs.
  • Casablanca: Yes and no. It’s got romance and international intrigue, but both are muted. This movie is ultimately execution-dependent.
  • Donnie Brasco: Yes, lots of whacking and suspense.
  • Do the Right Thing: Yes, it’s very funny also a satisfying drama.
  • The Fighter: Very much so: All four sub-genres end heroically.
  • The Fugitive: Very much so.
  • Groundhog Day: Somewhat: Guys might feel it’s not quite raunchy enough for comedy or sci-fi enough for sci-fi, but seems too male-centric for girls at first glance. Of course, everybody loves it once they actually see it, but it’s a hard sell beforehand, and it had to build its own audience through word-of-mouth.
  • How to Train Your Dragon: Lots of eye-popping 3-D, lots of action, lots of giggle-worthy-comedy, beautiful imagery.
  • In a Lonely Place: No. No crimes are committed onscreen, there is no climactic act of violence, the crime is also solved offscreen, and the perpetrator is someone we don’t know.
  • Iron Man: Very much so.
  • Raising Arizona: Lots of big laughs, such as the big chase scene.
  • Rushmore: Yes, it’s funny and touching.
  • The Shining: Yes, lots of blood and scares.
  • Sideways: Not really. It has little of the usual joys of the manchild-driven comedy (T&A, turning tables on snobs, etc.).
  • Silence of the Lambs: There are only a few scenes of physical danger, but they’re exciting enough to satisfy all urges.
  • Star Wars: Lots of swashbuckling fun and otherworldly imagery
  • Sunset Boulevard: Pretty much. The movie goes down easy, despite its unusual elements: it’s enjoyably funny and creepy throughout.
Deliberations: Those are pretty interesting answers. A shocking number of great movies here have mixed responses, but it’s interesting to see how movies break this rule cleverly and carefully.

The verdict: I’d really like to keep this one. I think maybe I should move it to the concept section?

Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Great Purge, Day 7: The Entire Tone Section!

So here are the facts, people: If we’re going to cut 20 questions, then we need to get drastic. And what could be more drastic than lopping off one of our seven skills?

On trial: The entire “Tone” section of the checklist!

Why it was added: Tone is one of the least-discussed aspects of writing, but it’s one of the most important. Tone is how you control your audience’s overall experience and enjoyment. In some ways, controlling your tone is even more important than having a compelling hero: If your audience loves your tone, you’ve got them where you want them, even if everything else about your story sucks.

Which questions were those again?
Genre: Does the story tap into pre-established expectations?
 Is the story limited to one genre (or multiple genres that are merged from the beginning, without introducing a new genre after the first quarter?)
 Is the story limited to one sub-genre (or multiple sub-genres that are compatible with each other, without mixing metaphors)?
 Does the story satisfy the basic human urges that get people to buy and recommend this genre and sub-genre?

Mood: Does the story create a certain feeling?
 Separate from the genre, is a consistent mood (goofy, grim, ‘fairy tale’, etc.) established early and maintained throughout?
 Are the physics of the world (realistic or stylized?) established early and maintained throughout?

Framing: Does the story set, reset, upset and ultimately exceed its own expectations?
 Is there a dramatic question posed early on, which will establish in the audience’s mind which moment will mark the end of the story?
 Does the story use framing devices to establish genre, mood and expectations?
 Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?
 Are set-up and pay-off used to dazzle the audience (and maybe distract attention from plot contrivances)?
 Are reversible behaviors used to foreshadow and then confirm change?
 Is the dramatic question answered at the very end of the story?

Deliberations: So each of these is vitally important, but are they actually useful questions to ask? As I’ve done my checklists, I’ve found these to be some of the most annoying questions to answer. Many of the questions have un-illuminating answers (identifying the genre and sub-genres). Some are phrased so oddly that few stories say yes. Some are phrased so vaguely that few stories can say no.

The verdict: So here’s where I admit something: I’ve already cut this chapter from the book. The book was just too damn long, and a whole chapter needed to go to get the page count down, so I finally just lopped this out in an impetuous moment. But now I have some remorse. For the rest of this project, let’s look for questions we may want to rescue from this section and move to other sections.

But first I’ll open it up to you. How useful is this section to you? If we lose the whole thing, which questions would you miss the most?

Thursday, April 07, 2016

The Great Purge, Day 6: If this is a big scene, is it broken down into a series of mini-goals?

What oh what can we cut from the checklist? Today’s candidate:

On trial: If this is a big scene, is it broken down into a series of mini-goals?

Why it was added: To be honest, I don’t know. I had written a piece on a “Breaking Bad” scene that was cool, and I wanted an excuse to put it in the book? This is good advice, of course, but is it a useful question to ask when evaluating your work?

How do the checklist movies answer this question?
  • Alien: It’s a small scene.
  • An Education: It’s a pretty simple scene.
  • The Babadook: First: knock her out, then win her over.
  • Blazing Saddles: Give a speech, then get out alive.
  • Blue Velvet: Yes.
  • The Bourne Identity: Yes. We become very aware that they have two different types of weapon (sniper rifle vs. shotgun), with different ranges and so therefore they’ll have different tactics in this fight. It’s not just all out shooting and ducking.
  • Bridesmaids: First about drunkenness, then about tail light, then about date.
  • Casablanca: It’s not a big scene, and has one goal.
  • Donnie Brasco: Yes. First Donnie must mollify Lefty, then figure out Sonny, then resist him.
  • Do the Right Thing: First, get some free extra cheese, then get some brothers on the wall, then get Buggin’ out of there before violence starts.
  • The Fighter: Introduce Charlene, stand up to family, win him back over.
  • The Fugitive: It’s a small scene.
  • Groundhog Day: First he wants sympathy, then he wants to convince her, then he wants her to leave with him.
  • How to Train Your Dragon: Several strategies for confronting the dragon are progressed through.
  • In a Lonely Place: Yes, many.
  • Iron Man: It’s a small scene.
  • Raising Arizona: First they want in, then they want to find out about the baby, then they want to stay.
  • Rushmore: It’s a small scene.
  • The Shining: Yes: fix the stain, find out who’s buying the drinks, pass on role of killer, warn about Halloran.
  • Sideways: No.
  • Silence of the Lambs: The main goals of the questionnaire remains the same, but she progresses through a few hidden goals.
  • Star Wars: Find shelter, locate the tractor beam, go destroy it, convince Luke to stay, search for the princess, convince Han to help.
  • Sunset Boulevard: Yes, first she wants a monkey funeral, and then wants someone to collaborate with.
Deliberations: First of all, there’s nothing wrong with having a small scene, so this doesn’t even apply to many well-written scenes, and even when it does, it’s not a particularly illuminating question.

The verdict: Surely this one can go, right?

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

The Great Purge, Day 5: Do the characters listen poorly?

Thanks for your help in deciding if these questions should remain in the checklist!

On trial: Do the characters listen poorly?

Why it was added: This is a tricky one. I, personally, love scenes where neither character is listening to others, but my brother says that this is because I, personally, don’t listen to what others are saying. This is possible. Regular reader James Kennedy raised an objection to this one, pointing out that improv teachers teach actors to always listen closely to the other character in order to act better. So which is it?

How do the checklist movies answer this question?
  • Alien: Yes, they all keep ignoring each other’s concerns.
  • An Education: Yes.
  • The Babadook: Yes. Davis has a great “not really listening” face.
  • Blazing Saddles: Not really.
  • Blue Velvet: They’re fairly good listeners.
  • The Bourne Identity: Not really, they’re pretty good listeners
  • Bridesmaids: Lillian doesn’t hear that Annie doesn’t want to do it, etc.
  • Casablanca: Yes. Rick keeps asking Sam for advice and then failing to hear it.
  • Donnie Brasco: Yes.
  • Do the Right Thing: Very much so.
  • The Fighter: Very much so.
  • The Fugitive: Very much so.
  • Groundhog Day: Yes.
  • How to Train Your Dragon: Very much so.
  • In a Lonely Place: Very much so.
  • Iron Man: Very much so. Tony never listens, period.
  • Raising Arizona: Yes.
  • Rushmore: Yes.
  • The Shining: Yes, very much so.
  • Sideways: Very much so.
  • Silence of the Lambs: Sort of, Clarice and Lecter both listen very well, but that’s key to their characters, so it’s fine.
  • Star Wars: Owen and Luke talk past each other, nobody listens to Threepio, etc. 
  • Sunset Boulevard: Very much so. He and Norma never seem to hear a thing the other says.
Deliberations: All but three answer yes, and for many it’s enthusiastic (but for the three that don’t, it’s not a problem.) Obviously, I find this to be important, but is it possible that I’m wrong. If I cut it, is it implied anyway by the surrounding questions?

The verdict: Combine with the following questions to become “Do the characters listen poorly and/or interrupt each other more often than not?”? And/or is there a better way to rephrase it to eliminate James’s objection? What say you: Does listening generally help or hurt a scene/story/perfomance?

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

The Great Purge, Day 4: Does the dialogue capture the tradecraft of the profession being portrayed?

We’re still looking for questions we can snip out of checklist:

On trial: Does the dialogue capture the tradecraft of the profession being portrayed?

Why it was added: I think that focusing on tradecraft is important and little-recognized, and it’s one of the most marketable skills a writer-for-hire can have. As I pointed out in the original piece, this is what makes you the “go-to writer” for jobs in your wheelhouse.

How do the checklist movies answer this question?
  • Alien: Yes, lots of talk about shares, quarantine procedure, etc.
  • An Education: The “stats” scam, for instance.
  • The Babadook: NA. Other than those snippets of dialogue, there’s no real profession being portrayed.
  • Blazing Saddles: Yes. He’s a real sheriff: he puts up wanted posters, dries out drunks in his cells, etc. The rail-laying is also believable.
  • Blue Velvet: No. Almost everybody is an amateur, and the dialogue is oddly stylized.
  • The Bourne Identity: Very much so.
  • Bridesmaids: Not really. Professions don’t play a big role in this movie.
  • Casablanca: Yes, for each profession: “Round up the usual suspects.”
  • Donnie Brasco: Very much so, the difference between friend of mine / friend of ours, etc.
  • Do the Right Thing: Not really. We don’t learn very much about the pizza business here.
  • The Fighter: Very much so. “Stepping-stone” “Head-body-head” etc.
  • The Fugitive: Very much so, with both doctors and marshals.
  • Groundhog Day: Yes, we see how travel weather segments are produced and how “the talent” is managed. It all feels right.
  • How to Train Your Dragon: Believably re-creates the feeling of basic training.
  • In a Lonely Place: Yes, in many ways. For example: Dix’s monologue about how the breakfast scene is the ideal love scene, not suspecting that she no longer loves him, shows how the false omniscience of the screenwriter has blinded him to reality.
  • Iron Man: A good portrayal of how research and development of new technology actually works, and how corporate takeovers happen.
  • Raising Arizona: Somewhat: committing crimes with an unloaded gun because the sentences are so much shorter, banks putting in paint packets, etc.
  • Rushmore: Max’s expertise in theatre, caligraphy, etc
  • The Shining: Yes, a long description of the duties of caretakers.
  • Sideways: Of the vineyards, yes.
  • Silence of the Lambs: Very much so. This is a masterclass in FBI techniques.
  • Star Wars: Good smuggling tradecraft. Believable structure of the rebellion (hiding behind the cover of a phony diplomatic mission, etc.)
  • Sunset Boulevard: Yes, very much so.
Deliberations: It’s useful for some movies but very un-useful on a lot of others. This is one of those questions that I sigh when I get to and find myself twisting the material to answer it if it doesn’t seem to fit the movie. (Does Blazing Saddles really capture the tradecraft of track laying or sheriffing, and does it matter?) Nevertheless, this is a good thing to keep in mind, and it elicited some interesting answers. I think I have a solution:

The verdict: Combine it with the previous question to become “Does the dialogue capture the jargon and tradecraft of the profession and/or setting?”

Monday, April 04, 2016

The Great Purge, Day 3: Does the hero (and/or villain) get to have a little fun at this point, in a way that exemplifies the appeal of the concept?

Hi guys. Once again, we’re working our way through the Checklist trying to cut out twenty questions, which is proving to be pretty hard. Today’s candidate:

On trial: Does the hero (and/or villain) get to have a little fun at this point, in a way that exemplifies the appeal of the concept?

Why it was added: It’s tricky. I never set out to craft an entirely new structure. At first I was just tweaking others’ models, and this is one step that appeared in others’ lists that I agreed with, so I didn’t give it much thought.

How do the checklist movies answer this question?
  • Alien: Yes, we enjoy the gory deaths, the creeping dread and final reveal of the creature.
  • An Education: Very much so. They have delightful trips to Oxford and Paris.
  • The Babadook: We get traditional horror movie things: the book shows back up, scary phone calls. The Babadook is toying with his prey.
  • Blazing Saddles: He enjoys bamboozling them, and makes a friend in the Waco Kid.
  • Blue Velvet: Yes, he enjoys his voyeurism, and even gets to have sex with his target.
  • The Bourne Identity: Yes, he discovers what a badass fighter and driver he is.
  • Bridesmaids: Bridesmaids bond somewhat.
  • Casablanca: Not Rick, who’s miserable, but we do get a long flashback to happier times here, so the audience gets some relief from Rick’s misery.
  • Donnie Brasco: Yes. Has a lot of amusing conversations, bonds with Lefty, feeds the lion.
  • Do the Right Thing: Yes, he has fun with Vito, Senor Love Daddy, etc.
  • The Fighter: They have a strong relationship.
  • The Fugitive: Just a little tiny bit, when he jokes with the cop in the first hospital “Every time I look in the mirror, pal”
  • Groundhog Day: He gets in car chases, steals money, seduces his boss.
  • How to Train Your Dragon: Loves first flight with the dragon.
  • In a Lonely Place: The hero has some fun, but the concept remains vague and we get no genre thrills.
  • Iron Man: He loves flying around with the armor.
  • Raising Arizona: They love having the kid.
  • Rushmore :He has a lot of fun. His Serpico play is hilarious.
  • The Shining: In horror movies, it’s usually the villain who has fun at this point (which the audience enjoys and the heroes hate) but this is more like a standard movie: Jack seems to do well here, (but we later find out he was faking it all). Danny definitely has fun here, big wheeling around and going through maze is fun for both he and Wendy.
  • Sideways: Not at this point, but it happens in the first and third quarter, with lots of beautiful driving and drinking montages.
  • Silence of the Lambs: She flirts with moth guys, shows some people up, seems to get good value out of Lecter.
  • Star Wars: Fun lightspeed effect, actual fun and games with chess game, lightsaber practice.
  • Sunset Boulevard: Yes, as in a horror film, the villain has fun instead of the hero, and the audience enjoys that.
Deliberations: It’s tough! Those are some pretty illuminating answers, and this is definitely a big step that almost every story needs to hit, but if I keep it, the problem isn’t just that it’s too similar to others’ lists, it’s that my structure is “human nature” based: These are “the steps and missteps we all go through when solving large problems.” But this one is the only one explicitly cites market demands, so it doesn’t fit. So what do I do? Can I re-conceive it or rephrase the question to eliminate the problem? Or should I just cut it?

The verdict: I don’t know. It doesn’t fit but I’m loath to cut it. I leave it up to you! What do I do?

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Get My Book!

I was sitting on the big cover reveal for a while, but to my surprise the book just went up on Amazon, so here we go! What do you think? I mostly like it.  This also means that you can now order the book!  UPDATE: You can now also order the audiobook from Recorded Books!

The book was also announced on Galley Cat, and they actually did some journalism, looking up the blog to write about the crowdsourcing we’ve been doing for the last two weeks.

I want to thank you all again for all your help so far and especially thank those of you who pre-order the book.  I’ve always taken a lot of pride in the fact that I give my ideas away for free, and it’s embarrassing to me to ask anybody to pay for them, but the time has come.

Allow me to reassure long-time blog readers that there’s a ton of new material in the book that is never-before-seen.  It started out years ago as a collection of blog posts, but then it was totally rewritten to be something that feels wholly new.  The centerpiece of the book is the 13 Laws of Storytelling, for instance, which is a category which has never appeared here.

So please pre-order, then please come back so we can keep crowdsourcing this week!