Tuesday, December 29, 2009

TODAY'S NUGGET: Getting Unstuck

I'm in the middle of a rewrite & I got stuck today. I wanted to include some exposition via an argument, move the characters, and bridge to the next scene.

To make matters worse, my mind kept going back to a spec I'd read that was so entertaining, so fun, that I despaired measuring up.

But there was one silver lining: the spec reminded me that I was trying to stuff too many things into one scene.

Hmmm..writing less meant packing in more into a smaller space. How do I write less, but also write more? I believe I will take Shane Black's advice & go read a Walter Hill script, which inspired him to be very concise.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I get unstuck by the greats who have gone before me.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

TODAY'S NUGGET: Quirks are the Doilies of Scripts

I see scripts where the characters have a lot of quirks, tics, & other unusual behaviors, but lack traits. The writer seems to think the more quirks, the better to hide there's no three dimensional character.

Quirks are like lace doilies, i.e., they should be used sparingly. I wince at the thought of a doily laden table. Think of how I'd stomp all over a doily laden script.

Traits, on the other hand, are the bricks that build the story. They're not as exciting, but hold steady, because there is a purpose, a long gestating reason that characters have them.

Quirks are only good in the moment & can be used for spice & surprise.
Traits can play out over a series of scenes & usually tell you something more...gives you a foothold for subtext.

For example:
Quirk - Woman eats only white foods at the big banquet.
Trait - Woman cheats in her food journal about how many calories she eats (a la Bridget Jones' Diary).

Quirk - Man will not step on a crack.
Trait - Man avoids all authority, including traffic signs, and jaywalks deliberately.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Don't doily your scripts. Please. Restrain yourself.

Friday, December 25, 2009

TODAY'S CHRISTMAS NUGGET: Outlining & Rewriting

You drew a crisp outline.
You maneuvered your way through the 1st draft.
Now you need to rewrite, but you feel lost.
Has your outline has misled you?

Not exactly. Before and during writing, your outlines aren’t very precise. It’s like using a machete to hack your way through the jungle. It’s not pretty, but it will do.

However, the outline takes on a different purpose in rewriting. Now it’s a laser that cuts through the fat.

A few tips:

1. Before rewriting, look at your outline for holes.
- Does your script still have all the turning points?
- What page does your protagonist show up? Antagonist? How often do they conflict?
- Where does the tension screw stop tightening?

2. When you locate a hole, check internal, external conflict, subtext, emotional arcs, story arc. Five passes? I have to make five passes on one hole? Well, yes.

3. Does the fix continue to push the story? IT MUST PUSH STORY FORWARD. ALWAYS FORWARD.

4. Write with one eye on the script, one eye on the outline.

WHAT I’VE LEARNED: By now, your outline should be battered & well used. Kind of like a badge of the battle.

You’re circling the gold at this point. Even if you experience major earthquakes, don’t throw away the map! It can still help you avoid dead ends and paths already traveled.

Merry Christmas & Happy Holidays to all!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

TODAY'S NUGGET: Outlining in the Trenches (During Writing)

I write.
I discover.
My script changes dramatically.
Crap.
That means I've got to revamp my outline too.

Question: So how do you maintain a cohesive story during the exploratory writing phase?

Answer: You got your map, er, uh, outline?

A couple tips:

1 - Realize your outline WILL change as you write. As your story adjusts with new setups and payoffs, adjust your outline to respond. Don't wait until after you write to adjust. Yeah, it's a pain, but it's really what you want. Otherwise, you'll have B story lines that no longer hold up.

2 - Problems are your friends. They bring to light weaknesses of the B.S. (Before Script) phase. If you get stuck, use your outline to help you define your target for the next scene.

ex. I get stuck on Scene #20 of my action script. The protagonist has met the antagonist & lost a fight. Now she is tracking the antagonist. But this is very boring. Now what? I look in my outline & see that these two characters are locked in a meat locker together in Scene #25.

So the target is Scene #25. First, I figure out what I'm trying to say at #25:

- Maybe the meat locker is the big reveal. (So I need to increase the tension in Scenes 21, 22, 23, 24 so the meat locker scene explodes from their fight.)
- Maybe the meat locker is a twist. (So I need to throw red herrings in #21-24 and #25 will be a surprise.)
- Maybe the meat locker was foreshadowed earlier. (So now #21-24 need to be filled with suspense for the payoff at #25.)

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Even though outlines are fluid things, they help you keep your eye on the trajectory of your arrow to the bulls-eye. Don't leave home without one.

* Tomorrow's Nugget: Outlining & Rewriting

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

TODAY'S NUGGET: Outlining B.S.

I do not like to outline.
I do not like it with a spoon.
I do not like it with the moon.
I do not like to outline.

I know that outlining B.S. (Before Script) is a necessary evil. But I don't have to like it.

How can I make it more efficient and more effective? Here are 3 things I learned from reading some great spec scripts:

1. Check so that your protagonist faces the antagonist in every scene. (Every scene? YES. In some way, shape, memory, or form, the antagonist needs to be there.)

2. Check so that your protagonist & antagonist both face his/her flaw & fear in escalating steps. It must be clear one wins, the other loses...then it switches. Is there enough one upmanships?

3. If you are too easy on your protagonist, you will struggle with plot. You'll run out of obstacles. You'll wonder why you're always stuck on p. 60. Throw everything you've got at him/her.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Skipping the outline is like going to the Grand Canyon without a map.

Smart adventurers know that no matter how many times you've been there, you always take a map.

*Tomorrow's Nugget: Outlining In the Trenches (During Writing)

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

TODAY'S NUGGET: "Location" vs. Story

I listened to a recent /Film podcast interview with Jason Reitman. Around the 2:08 mark, he said that the one thing his father taught him was that "location" isn't story.

In essence, he was using the term "location" to talk about the surface meaning, but story is really what the film is about.

ex. The location for "Thank You for Smoking" is cigarette lobbying, but the story is really about personal choice.

ex. The location for "Juno" is teen pregnancy, but the story is really the moment these characters must decide to grow up.

I see writers who don't understand this difference. They insist that the surface meaning = story. They argue it's obvious what they story is about. Yet, when I ask, it takes them two paragraphs to answer. I think I shook one writer when I said would probably pass on his script b/c the story was all about "location" & there was no point to the film.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Story is usually is very simple and understandable, even if the "location" is complex.

Monday, December 21, 2009

TODAY'S 2ND NUGGET: Voice Overs

As another follow up on the #scriptchat discussion…

I agree with Steve Kaplan’s comment on the thread that V.O. is ok. I honestly don’t mind V.O., but newbies often overuse it as a substitute for ‘telling’ rather than showing.

Ex. The script opens up with the lead standing on a cliff. The newbie writer will write: “LEAD (V.O.): ‘I’m here on a mission of death.’”

What should the newbie do? Show him scouting the location, sharpening knives, counting bullets. Let us SEE rather than HEAR that he’s on a mission of death.

TODAY'S NUGGET: #scriptchat Follow Up - 1st 10 pgs.

Last night, I got a call to join a Twitter chat on the 1st 10 pages.

(This group, #scriptchat, gathers every Sunday night at 8 PM EST for a discussion. There’s an European version at 3pm EST. Yesterday they encouraged the participants to call their reader friends to join and answer questions. Hence, my call to join. Unfortunately, I couldn’t post due to a glitch. )

As I read the transcript ( http://www.scriptchat.blogspot.com/), I saw that everyone knows the 1st 10 pages should hook the reader, set up the universe, the rules, and the tone.

But I didn’t see any answers HOW to do it.

I don’t have all the answers, but I do have an example of what I think development folks generally want (though I can’t speak for anyone but myself.)

Yesterday, I helped a fellow writer who was having difficulty with the 1st 10 pgs. of her rom-com.

Here are the questions we went through that might help you as you write:

1. What is your main character’s biggest flaw?

The writer said her character was a workaholic. “Hmmmm… that’s a little vague. Drill down to more specifics,” I said. “The flaw is the key to the conflict, the structure, the dialogue.” We batted more ideas back & forth. Finally, it surfaced that this character was selfish. Ah-HA! That’s a very personal flaw, and more specific than ‘workaholic,’ which could mean a million things.

2. What do you want people to think when they meet your character for the first time?
A - Do you want to fool them?
B - Do you want to see him/her as he/she really is?
C - Do you want to show that this character wears a mask?

The writer chose B – she wanted to show the real character, not a mask.

3. How can you show the audience the character’s flaw and introduce you to her problem?

The writer wanted to tell the audience this character had very unrealistic and selfish expectations of others. The story begins with her getting dumped. So we brainstormed different ways to get dumped while being selfish.

WHAT I’VE LEARNED: The 1st 10 pages are important because they show the reader why they should follow this character for the next 90-120 pgs.

Things to do: Challenge your characters. Show their flaws. Give them hard obstacles.

Things not to do: Too much narrative setting up the universe. Too much useless action.

Friday, December 18, 2009

TODAY'S NUGGET: Good Title = Leg Up

At this prod. co., we get to choose scripts to read from a pile. As a writer myself, I always find it interesting what the other readers grab first, and what they leave to others to read.

Today I gazed at the bottom of the pile - about 5 scripts that no one wanted to touch, myself included.

The first script I did not like the title.

Two scripts were true life stories whose titles were unappealing.

So I had to choose between the remaining three. Two hit me as boring and I ended up with the one that might be somewhat entertaining.

I think the first key to having the readers fight over your script is to have a good title. What makes a good one?

I don’t like “Untitled Project.”

I don’t like titles that need explanation. Ex. “Skating 3-D” doesn’t tell me much, except it might be an animated movie.

I do like titles that capture my imagination. ex. "Interview with a Vampire" is an instantly intriguing title because how’d that person get to interview a notoriously reclusive vampire?

I do like mysteries, so I’m a fan of titles that make me curious or are a play on words. Ex. “Up in the Air” is more than a guy in a plane. “It’s Complicated” made me curious about what was so complicated?


WHAT I’VE LEARNED: Can a title put your script at the bottom of the pile? Yes...I’ve got 5 to show you.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

TODAY'S NUGGET: One Pages

When you're writing a one page summary ("one pager") for your script, I'd like you to remember me, i.e., the receiving end of that document.

I hate amateur one pages because they're filled with facts. Snore.

I do not want facts. I want story. Story story story!

What's the difference? Glad you asked.

If you want facts, check out the label of a soup can. Wow - that's a lot of salt. Didn't know that had phenylalanine (which isn't harmful unless you have PKU. Look it up.)

If you want story, check out the teaser on the back of a paperback novel. See how they lure you in with the promise of a good tale? See how they give you the gist, but not an encyclopedia? See how it MOVES you to WANT to read it? It sucks you in with emotion.

Your one page should look like that teaser. It should MOVE ME TO READ YOUR SCRIPT.

Your one pager is a SELLING DOCUMENT.

NO ENCYCLOPEDIA. SHORT. BAIT THE HOOK. SELL ME ON YOUR STORY!

AM I SHOUTING?! Why, yes I am.

WHY? Because I think newbie writers consider them a nuisance, an afterthought. They may not put as much time into them, thinking, "They'll read my script and see what I can really do. After all, it's the script that matters, right?"

Would you eat cake with garbage frosting? I wouldn't.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: During the sorting process, the one page can put you in Pile 1 (exec's desk) or Pile 2 (slush).

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

TODAY'S 2nd NUGGET: Plain Sight Double Meaning

Did you ever hear hear this riddle?

Mr. Smith and his son get into an accident. Mr. Smith dies, and the son is rushed to the hospital. The doctor looks at the boy and says, "I can't operate, he's my son!" How is that possible?

Before I tell you the answer, look at the setup of the riddle.

The father dies, but the doctor claims the child too. Is the doctor lying? Maybe it wasn't the child's real father. Maybe the son was adopted. Maybe this is the step-father.

These presumptions are wrong. The riddle sets you up to avoid looking at the doctor. All the pieces are in plain sight, but something is missing.

The answer is that the doctor is the boy's MOTHER.

Did you jump to that idea that the doctor must be male because the other two characters were also male? Notice how the misdirect was easy to make, yet when you see the answer, you say, "How could I've missed that?"

I read a great script that did this to me with a double meaning, and a missing piece.

The entire script is based on Woman A blaming Woman B for her misfortunes. Woman B dies, and everyone is sad. Woman A finds out it actually was Woman C in the background who was guilty.

The twist is that the surrounding characters know it is Woman C. Away from Woman A, they weave in and out talking seamlessly about Woman B and Woman C.

However, you, as the audience, think B & C are the same person. AT NO TIME do you realize they're two separate women! So the same time Woman A finds out it's Woman C, you find out it's Woman C!

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I'm stunned, STUNNED by this simple, yet extremely effective technique. Come back tomorrow when I've recovered.

TODAY'S NUGGET: Support Your Ensembles Correctly

Ensemble writing is a high wire act. And not everyone can do it.

Today I read a stunningly good ensemble script. Why was it so good?

The easy answer: It was balanced.

The more complex answer: It followed the rule that even in an ensemble, there is a lead character.

The biggest problem I usually see is that the writer does not realize when a supporting character has stolen the script from the lead.

And by “steal,” I do not mean “borrow.”

And by “steal,” I do not mean “oops! I stepped on your line.”

I do mean:
1) The supporting character’s story line is much, much more interesting than the lead’s wimpy one;
2) The supporting character’s story arc doesn’t have anything to do with the lead’s arc.
3) The supporting character takes over the scene, and the lead does nothing about it;
4) The supporting character has a defined arc, and the lead does not.

Today’s script was about woman who confronts a group of friends.

It was unusually good because:
a) It laid out the main character and her story early. No stepping on her toes by accident.
b) The supporting characters’ story lines were COMPLEMENTARY. Everything that was revealed about the supporting characters directly affected the main character.
c) Even when the main character was not onscreen, her shadow loomed over whatever was going on.
d) The lead had the biggest arc. And the supporting had smaller arcs.

As I closed the script, I knew I had gotten across the chasm on a thin wire, and didn't fall even once. It doesn't get better than that.

WHAT I’VE LEARNED: There is always a hierarchy in an ensemble piece.

Supporting roles don’t necessarily mean they’re unimportant. The trick is to make each character’s conflict so juicy that even a few lines make a big difference for the whole.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

TODAY'S NUGGET: Sorry, I'm Feeling lll Today

Today I read a script by a new writer. It's an action flick, studded with graphic violence.

What disturbs me is the level of violence, and gleeful methods to degrade other humans. The description is that this is the "Tarantino style." I don't know exactly what that means, but I've read Tarantino's scripts, and though they are loaded, there is still some cause and effect for the violence. Here, it seems gratuitous.

I don't consider myself to have a queasy stomach, but I feel ill now.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: As terrible as you may think some of the movies in the theater are, trust me, you're glad that some of these never see the light of day.

Friday, December 11, 2009

TODAY'S 2ND NUGGET: Burn Down the House

I started to read a script today that's been kicking around for awhile. It's had a couple of writers and is still not there yet.

It made me curious...why not?

The script is basically about a smarmy slacker who has to break away from his group of friends to grow up and find love. His goal is to get the girl and get his dream job.

But what if he doesn't get the girl or the job?

And there's the rub.

For all it's wild fun and comedy, the script's weakness was that it did not stick the protagonist between a rock and a hard place. He really doesn't have to make this decision. He can just go back to his slacker job with his slacker life. There are no consequences if he doesn't go on this journey.

I heard a writer put it this way: "Burn down the house."

Create a situation that there is no turning back. Block the character from retreating to her safe former life. Here, the friends could put him in a compromising position that gets him fired. Or his #1 enemy gets the girl he's wanted all his life, then the enemy goes overseas for a few weeks.


WHAT I'VE LEARNED: This is the moment in the script when you say, "Wake up characters! Your day of reckoning has come!"

TODAY'S NUGGET: Notes & Confusion

Last night I heard an A list writer speak how a bad note could be a good thing.

As writers, we get so immersed in our writing world & sometimes become stale. We know the relationships & the mythology so well. The characters are with us 24/7 and go around and around and around with the same ideas.

The speaker said that a note, even a bad one, is an opportunity to point us in a new direction.

Inconsequential bad notes generally fall away. But the writer's job is to sift through all of them for the diamond in the rough. If you can pinpoint the underlying meaning of the note, it actually might help you.

To take this a step further, I cover scripts daily & give lots of notes. Most of them revolve clarity & simplicity. If I tell you I'm confused, it's not because I don't like you personally, or because I think you have a funny name.

I get confused because all I have to go on is the print on the page. I get confused because your script does not convey the vision of what you intend, and you're not here to answer my questions. So to help you & me out, let me give you my short list of tips:

Top 5 Ways to Tell Me What Your Vision Means & Confuse Me Less:

1. Economy of words

2. Clarity

3. Fewer mindless action sequences, more character development. I hate these pages upon pages of single lined action shots to "increase the white space" but there is no story development DURING the action.

ex. "He shoots the guy on the left.

He shoots the guy on the right.

He gets shot."

See? No story development. Tells me less than squat.

4. Can you answer the question: "What is the meaning of this film?" Many cannot tell me.

5. For heaven's sake, tell me your lead character's motive. This is my #1 pet peeve of the week.


WHAT I'VE LEARNED: The note is there b/c you're not clear of your intent. Only YOU are in charge of that.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

TODAY'S NUGGET: Beware the Tangents

I read a marvelous comedy spec that I will definitely give a consider. I mentioned it to a writer friend (our conversation shamelessly paraphrased & masked to protect the innocent):

FRIEND: Why does it need to be cut down? You liked it.
ME: Besides for time, it is too long.
FRIEND: But why? It entertained you, & you like it as it is.
ME: Because it just does!

"It just does" is not defensible in court, & the fact I had no other explanation bothered me for days. Even it wasn't a time issue, why did those fun scenes need to be cut?

Was I one of those readers who was being picky for no reason?

Had I lost my touch with my grounded roots and had become a picayune flunky?

I quailed at the thought I might've lost my objectivity.

After some soulful reflection and a quart of ice cream, I thought about what the outline would've looked for this script. I loved the characters, the tone, the tangential side stories, the organic twists, the .....wait....tangents?

And there it was.

The subplots and side stories need to: 1) echo/reflect, and 2) complement the main conflict.

Here, they did, but the writers became so engrossed in such fun characters, the main story was set aside.

ex. The sidekicks were stuck together because of the main characters. A flirty, forbidden romance developed that was so much fun. However, the sidekicks are there to give the main characters more eyes and ears as they solved the mystery. Because the romance bit was increased, the antagonist had less time onscreen. In fact, the antagonist isn't seen for 20 pages...that's a big problem.

WHAT I LEARNED: Subplots are great, if kept in check. Beware when they get too greedy and take up more space than you've allotted.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

TODAY'S NUGGET: Prison Escapee Wannabe

Today I was given a contained thriller inspired by a true prisoner escapee story (in the vein of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood).

I have to admit, the title didn't inspire me. There are lots and lots of prison break stories...how was this one going to stand apart?

The script was well paced with characters with significant flaws. The story pushed to Act 3 and had an ending I did not expect. I liked the strong conflict because I knew what the characters wanted. And the dialogue read well.

However (and you knew there was a however), I do not think the writers understood the marketplace for this genre. It's not enough that it's based on a true story, that it's unbelievable a family went through this horror, that there were moments of true heroism.

I thought about how I was going to pitch this to the exec. I didn't know. I couldn't find any hook that differentiated it from the last 10 prison escapee movies....something that's also integral to the plot, not tacked on like more gunfire or explosions.

ex. I recall the trailers for the Shawshank Redemption. Do you remember how they played up the fact that the Tim Robbins character had a secret? It gave something mysterious to the plot that the audience had to uncover. Also, the average moviegoer who didn't like prison movies might still be drawn to the mystery aspect.

ex. The facts of In Cold Blood were shocking for its time. But other than that, Capote, who was known for lighter fare, got so personally invested he didn't write much after that. The prison break was one component, but the aftermath was fascinating as well.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I know you've heard it before, but I need to see something that twists the expectations of the genre.

ex. Maybe a prisoner sets a mouse free outside the prison and it causes the plague. And now the prison is the only safe place. Maybe prisoners who want to stay. Gotta turn the genre inside out.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

TODAY'S 2nd NUGGET: Writing Humor into Comedy Scripts

I'm feeling ornery today. Not a good mood to read spec scripts.

I shuffled through the pile and picked out one with an interesting title. Nothing on the cover page to tell me the genre. But as I flipped through, there was plenty of white space and it looked like it moved on the page.

I get back to my cubicle and settle in.

The opening was about minor characters. Eh. (But later the info is important.)

Then I reached page 4 where the main couple is introduced. Six paragraphs in, I liked them. Another page, I chuckled. By page 6, I'd follow them anywhere.

The key was a tongue in cheek sense of humor and clear, sharp riparte in very little space.

It occurred to me that this is what I look for in comedies, this is my standard. No taking yourself too seriously, and being very clear where the joke lies (yet not heavy handed).

ex. Man tells wry truth about his wife to his father-in-law. 1st line AFTER the joke: "Only the father-in-law is amused."

See what the writer did? First, razzle dazzle line. Then in five words, the writers has directed your eye to the reaction shot. The reaction shot is important because it tells the audience something about the relationship between the man & his father-in-law, namely that they have the same sense of humor.

If you do this, you'll avoid the mistake I see in a lot of comedy scripts. Often the story stops for jokes. Or it's joke, joke, joke. There's no relationship building during and in between the jokes. (I have a similar complaint in action movies about how the story stops for fight scenes.)

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: To make me sit up & take notice, make the jokes work double duty. Keep the story going through and after the joke. Yeah, I know. I didn't say it would be easy. Comedy is serious business.

TODAY'S NUGGET: Script for the Stars

I covered a drama over a month ago that now has an A lister attached.

At the time, I knew it was out to this actor for consideration. I also knew in my gut that that this actor would risk it, even though the role went against everything the actor had done before. In particular, it was a combo of the character's manipulative trait and co-dependency.

How did I know then that the script had legs?

First, I could talk about the big set pieces, and the storyline without looking back at my notes. In fact, it's a month later and I can STILL tell you about the script. The main character has a clear purpose that's easy to explain, with clean action lines.

Also, there was a deep range of emotions for the actor to play. ex. The writer included several scenes where everyone else was talking about the main character. When the main character appears in the doorway, the combination of the gossiping and the main character reacting/knowing they were gossiping that gave the scene tremendous subtext.

Second, it hung together. I tried to stomp on it, peer inside, crack it apart, but it hung together. It was a lean script and only had some minor issues that were fixable.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: The core of that story was its vulnerability. It was so real that you feared you'd lose the moment if you didn't turn the pages fast enough. Great stuff.

Monday, December 7, 2009

TODAY'S NUGGET: Inciting Incident & The Lazy Ass Lead Character

Do NOT send me any more scripts where the lead does not even step up to the plate at the inciting incident.

Remember the inciting incident? The moment where the lead must DECIDE to go on a journey?

Recently, I've seen scripts where the lead just goes along with someone else's decision at the inciting incident. (BTW, this is different than the reluctant hero. "Hero" implies that he has the guts to make that choice, even though he doesn't want to.)

ex. I read a script the other day where the inciting incident is set at a school. The shy young male lead sees the pretty girl across the room. Then he experiences the ultimate male fantasy: she approaches him, she asks him out, she gives him her phone number, she pursues him.

What the *&S(%^(%^&$#&@%$%)#$&@(#%^@!_#$*#%^ hell?

Yes, this happens in real life.

Yes, it's a different twist on the traditional story.

Here's the problem: Your lead does not make the most important first step, so he's not really the most interesting character, is he? I would argue that the pretty girl has more guts, & I want to see her journey, not his.

If he's not willing to take that first step, then the escalation of decisions can't happen. What usually occurs later in the script is that the writer realizes the lead needs to save the day, and suddenly the lead is leaping over tall buildings in a single bound.

And I ding him in my coverage.

I don't believe that the lazy ass lead who couldn't lift a finger on p. 12 is the same guy making life & death decisions on p. 70. I just don't believe him.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Your lead character needs to EARN the crisis moment. The first step is the inciting incident. If he/she fails to lay the foundation at this stage, the rest of the story will fall like a house of cards.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

TODAY'S NUGGET: "Rocking Chair" Scenes

I've been seeing a lot of scripts that only create conflict for the present scene.

Either:
- All loose ends are wrapped up at the end of the scene.
- Or the scene demonstrates one of the character traits, but does not interweave into the overall plot.

In other words, there's no reason for the next scene.

THE END.

*Crickets chirping*

[MY INNER WHINER: Uh, isn't this supposed to be a nugget in here somewhere?
ME: Why? There's no conflict, i.e., they're not giving me anything to work with.
MY INNER WHINER: Plllleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeease?
ME: Fine. But you're gonna think this is SO obvious.]

Like a trail of gunpowder, the conflict in Scene A should spark in Scene B.

Unfortunately, I see a lot of Scene As that are like rocking chairs - they have a lot of conflict but it doesn't go anywhere. There's a start-stop-start-stop motion rather than a smooth, escalating ride.


WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I often write in coverage that the scene "lacked conflict and did not push the story forward." Did you keep the scene in b/c you fell in love with your writing? Did you think about how it will fit into the bigger picture?

Make sure each scene contains some conflict ready to blow so I have to turn the page to see how it was resolved.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

TODAY'S NUGGET: Your Script vs. The Catalogue in My Brain

BAD NEWS: Christopher Lockhart, story editor at William Morris/Endeavor, states the real truth in his blog:

"Because I’ve read tens of thousands of screenplays, quite a few similar to the one you’re pitching, I’m going to have lots of questions (based on previous scripts I’ve read). I might ask a question about character motivation or story logic. My question might be rooted in various elements that undermined those other screenplays to see how your story avoids the trappings.

Know your story. Have the answers."

GOOD NEWS: I think Billy Mernit has a great explanation of how to know your story & have answers.

"Tip #5: Selling screenplays exude the confidence of knowing what they're about."

"Many times I've seen a student rush to market with a draft that I knew was only half-cooked - that didn't really pulse with a clearly understood subtext. The specs that sell have a peculiar, distinctive feeling and energy - a unique kind of confidence in their storytelling - that tells a reader in no uncertain terms, "I've gone beyond the surface of this story and broken through to what it's really about.""

Does it really happen this way? Yup - I saw it before my eyes this week, both the good & bad.

Script A was about a historical event. I rifled through the catalogue in my brain and remembered turning down a very similar script like it because the character arc was incomplete. I scrutinzed Script A's character arc to see if it was a problem, and unfortunately, it was.

Script B was a vampire script that didn't follow the usual vampire conventions. But the writer nailed the subtext between the male and female leads. I was pleased to see this was not an ordinary tale about the supernatural, but the selfish human side.

WHAT I LEARNED: As a writer, I might not have the catalogue of an exec in my head, but I do have the control to master my script with complete confidence.

*Lockhart blog: http://twoadverbs.blogspot.com/2009/12/some-advice-on-pitching.html
*Mernit blog: http://www.livingromcom.typepad.com/

Friday, December 4, 2009

TODAY'S 2nd NUGGET: Horror Requires Psychology

Longtime readers know that I read lots of horror scripts b/c they translate overseas.

Horror isn't my favorite genre, but after reading bunches of horror scripts, I have a real appreciation for the Stephen King level of mastery.

Today I read a Misery wannabe, but it failed to explain the psychology of the characters, which King does so well. (Mind you, I don't have to approve of the psychology...I just need to understand it.)

In this script, the male & female leads are trapped in a house with a terrifying version of Annie Wilkes. This script begins with promise of a bloody battle, which it delivers. But it fails to be emotionally satisfying.

I peered inside with my script laryngoscope, and found that this one lacks an antagonist that is layered with Annie's desire to be needed and wanted. (This is what Paul Sheldon uses to get to Annie and eventually triumph over her. )

Here, the antagonist does not engage in psychological cat and mouse that raises fears, releases, raises more fears, releases. Thus, the only thing the leads can do is use brute force to fight the woman. Frankly, it's as boring as watching a jackhammer pummel concrete.

Where's the challenge to my mind? Where's the anticipation and the drawn out suspense? Pass.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Stephen King doesn't just make your skin crawl with mind's eye visuals, but he has a free-for-all inside your head. Copy that.

TODAY'S NUGGET: Loglines Tell All

After I read a script I'm covering, the very first thing I do is I write my own logline.

Even though some scripts come with a cover letter that states the logline, I still write my own. It's not just an exercise for me. It tells me if I can sum up your script to pitch or give the exec a visual.

Sometimes these loglines are flat and hard to write. Not a good sign.

If it takes me more than 10 min. to figure your logline out, it's even worse sign.

The most common reasons:

1. Your concept is hard to locate. This is akin to someone walking out of the theater not knowing what they've seen.

2. Your character didn't have enough challenges or was handed everything on a platter.

3. The story is so scattered and about too much. There's no theme.

Luckily, sometimes the loglines are a snap. That's when I know I've got a potential winner.

ex. Today I read a script that I spotted the logline by p. 13. It's vampire script with a twist I have not seen. Immediately this script stands out!

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: The longer I take on your logline => the harder it is to explain => the less likely I'm going to recommend your script.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

TODAY'S 2nd NUGGET: Flaws vs. Goals vs. Motives

I'm still wrestling with yesterday's comedy spec.

Yesterday, I wrote that I couldn't find the character's flaws. FLAW = what the character is supposed to learn by the end of the film.

Today it occurred to me why I'm struggling. The writer got so wrapped up in making the character overcome a flaw, that he forgot to complete the GOAL & give the character a solid MOTIVE, both which he lacks.

The character's supposed motive is to stay employed at a company in construction. His goal is to stay there so he can build one of his own buildings.

By the end of the script, he solves his flaw, but doesn't reach his goal. . . suddenly his motive is flimsy. I didn't believe he really wanted to stay there. There wasn't enough at stake for him. Why not move to another company?

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Writing is really hard b/c characters are doing multiple things at once. Make sure they have 1)a flaw to overcome while 2) reaching for a goal and 3) keeping the motive/stakes in the forefront. Easy, right?

TODAY'S NUGGET: I Am Curmudgeonly

Billy Mernit, rom-com script guru & author, has a great hook to get his UCLA Extension Writers' Program students to be prompt to class: He promises them a Million Dollar Screenplay Tip at the beginning of every class. If you're 5 min. late, you'll miss it.

He shares 5 tips this week on his blog: http://livingromcom.typepad.com/my_weblog/

Billy's tips are, as always fantastic, but I especially like this line :

"...readers - the biz's first line of resistance - are often the most curmudgeonly sticklers of all when it comes to format and length."

He is SO right. I have noticed as I cover more & more scripts I have become a virtual Scrooge.

He speaks of what I label the Golden Triad:

1. WHITE FREAKIN' SPACE - Have you read my blog on Vertical Reading? Have you? Read it again.

2. Traditional format - He notes that "continuous" in slug lines is passe. How many of you are still including the "cut to:"?

3. Shorter scripts. 'Nuff said.

WHAT I KNOW: Sing it, Billy. You know me too well.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

TODAY'S NUGGET: Honestly, What's Your Flaw?

Each week there's somehow there's a common thread in the scripts I see. One of the most common, and the star of this week, is characters without significant, impeding flaws.

Often, the protagonist is the writer's alter ego, so they tend to go easy on him/her & the result is disastrous.

The protagonist doesn't have anything to challenge them. They go through 120 pgs and sort of overcome their problem b/c you didn't tell them what it is. These are the kinds of movies you leave and scratch your head saying, "What was that about?"

I covered a comedy script today that I couldn't figure out the lead's flaw. He's a good guy and has a lot of obstacles. But at the end of the script, what did he learn, i.e., what was I supposed to learn?

I beg of you, I implore, I beseech, I supplicate, I petition you to give your leads a flaw. Do a variation on one of the 7 deadly sins (Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Anger, Envy, Pride). Add a venial sin. Combine a couple. Change the degree of severity.

WHAT I KNOW: In scripts, flaws are good because they are very human behaviors that connect us immediately. They give you something to play with, to twist, to make the character stretch. All very interesting things to watch, i.e., make great films.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

TODAY'S 2nd NUGGET: Great family comedy

Today I covered a four quadrant family comedy, a rarity for me.

The script was well written and the premise was simple: X lives in a house. Y wants the house and forces X out by hook & crook.

The great thing about this script was how the writer took situations we all know and exaggerated it mightily so we're all laughing. But did not exaggerate so much that it's out of the realm of possibility and truth.

Ex. The uptight protagonist drags the green, peace loving, annoyingly calm antagonist toward the courthouse. The only problem is that the antagonist has a herd of animals that follow him and make noise wherever he goes - in conversations with authorities, inside the courtroom, in tense moments.

Now this is great comedy for the family because we all have experienced: 1) pets in places they should not be; 2) annoying neighbors; and 3) wanting to drag them to court.

The comedy grew out of A) CLEAR, B) CONFLICTING goals for the characters and C) a dash of unpredictability.

This writer had me hooked without bloodshed, or cars blowing up, or CGI. The bonus is that this probably can be done for a low budget, with a no name actor, & will likely do well at the box office.

WHAT I LEARNED: They say comedy doesn't translate overseas. However I think that applies to comedy heavily dependent on language. Stories like this one that relies on slapstick and visual conflict will get a laugh no matter where it's shown.

Today's Nugget: These Are Your Odds

I'm reading scripts at a mid-sized production co. & we don't take unsolicited submissions. So how do the scripts get here? It's amazing.

Every executive here from the top man to the low man gets them from agencies, other production companies, studios. They basically want scripts from reliable sources.

So what are your odds if you did get in the door? I thought I'd do a little math:

On average, we get about 40 scripts a week. Sometimes less, sometimes more, depending on the season.

Let's say there are about 5 interns/readers/assistants to cover the bulk of the scripts. Some people don't come in every day, so estimate the group covers 15 scripts a week (or about 38%).

Of that 38%, how many get a consider? I'm guessing maybe 3-4 (about 13% of the original 40).

And mind you, the scripts being read today are usually the scripts that didn't get read last week & the week before & the week before. The current week's incoming scripts usually have a lag time of a couple weeks...unless you're the hot script. Then you get the A-1 priority rush coverage (which I've done too.)

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: These are your odds. What are you going to do about it? You must have a polished high concept product that shines from page 1 and sucks the reader in. Don't provoke the reader with misspellings, dense black print on the page or failure to entertain.