Sunday, January 31, 2010

BOOK CLUB: Today's Greek Chorus (Ch. 25)

[Today we're reading Ch. 25 How to Cheat If You Can't Hire a Whole Chorus, by Michael Tierno (2002).]

Greek chorus was used to "make[] moral comments on what is happening by raising questions." A modern chorus could be a secondary character.

I've never really looked at minor characters this way, but it's a good thing to have in your back pocket.

WHAT I’VE LEARNED: If you need to debate the morality of a situation, let your minor character speak up.

[DISCLAIMER: I have not been asked, nor paid, to read or comment on this book.]

BOOK CLUB: Tone Dense (Ch. 24)

[Today we're reading Ch. 24 It's the Thought Behind the Action That Counts: Creating the Tone of Your Screenplay, by Michael Tierno (2002).]

According to the author, tone is "the unified emotional quality" & is the reasoning behind the actions. p. 117-118.

(Maybe I'm dense, but this doesn't really clarify tone for me.)

But let's go with the "thought behind the action" theory. What does that look like?

ex. Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes often acts in erratic ways. Sometimes he is grandiose & jovial. Sometimes he's sullen & a recluse. The actions stem from Holmes' deductions and moods. He's dressed as an old man because he knows he needs to fool his observers.

His thought jump around, and so his actions also jump around. Thus, we get a definite tone of surprise and mystery.

WHAT I’VE LEARNED: I still think tone is hard to pinpoint. To me, it's how the story is told - cheeky, solemn, funny, sad.

[DISCLAIMER: I have not been asked, nor paid, to read or comment on this book.]

QUESTION: Comedies Not For the 18-25s

Deb S., a smart cookie who reads my blog, asks, "Do you think writers should aim totally for the crucial 18-25 year old movie-tickets-purchasing-male demographic when pitching a comedic script?"

Answer: No.

But beware of these facts:

1. You must understand WHY the 18-25 y.o. male demo is such a lure for studios:

a) They have more disposable income;
b) They have more time, are willing to go to the theaters to support films they like;
c) They are repeat customers for the same film.

2. If you're going to write comedies for another audience, then you must be smart about crafting your script.

a) Your comedy must appeal to at least two quadrants.

ex. The Blind Side (though not a comedy) drew in two unusual audiences: older women and football loving males. These are not the the usual quadrants, but it worked liked gangbusters. This $29M film has grossed $237M+ in 10 weeks. Not many films get 10 weeks in the theaters these days, so this shows this film's popularity & staying power.

b) Your comedy must stir a "feel good feeling" to get people excited to see it in theaters.

OK, I know this sounds obvious, you'd be surprised how many writers forget people go to the movies to ESCAPE, i.e., they DEMAND a happy ending.

ex. Mamma Mia! got some bad reviews, but the one thing that everyone agreed on was that it was joyful & fun...& translated into a huge success.

c) Your comedy must make money (so you can write more comedies).

I don't think writers quite understand what a flop does. It drives the risk adverse money men back to something that's safe, i.e., movies for the 18-25 y.o. demo. It also makes it harder for them to take a risk on your NEXT comedy.

To NOT flop, your script has got to have that I've-got-to-take-work-off-to-see-this-film buzz.

ex. Whether you love or hate Sex in the City, it got women of all ages into the theaters. Remember that a movie is a luxury for women with families. They have to get time away, pay for babysitters, have to pay for parking.

Your film has to inspire them to make that effort. Otherwise, why shouldn't they just wait for the DVD?

d) Your comedy must find the right home (studio, marketing, director, etc.)

I can't emphasize this strongly enough.

ex. I covered a fantastic comedy spec about a working mother. I was skeptical if the (mostly) male higher ups would "get it," but amazingly, they jumped on it! I think they got that this was going to be a seriously awesome breakout role for some actress wanting to showcase a singing, dancing, comedic side.

Because your comedy may not be the easy no-brainer, look for that prod. co. that specializes in your brand of comedy. Yes, you'll have to do more research, but trust me, your chances also rise

WHAT I KNOW: You have more to prove if you're going to color outside the lines. I encourage you to do so b/c I do believe there is a market...you just gotta be prepared to work harder!

Friday, January 29, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: Plausibility is the Key to Thrillers

One of the coolest thriller specs I read recently dropped just enough bread crumbs that I couldn't stop turning the pages.

I scratched my head & asked, "How'd he do that?"

Roger Ebert explains how one new release did it in today's review today of a S. Korean thriller, The Chaser:

"The story is an exercise in audience manipulation, especially with the corruption and incompetence of the police. The director, Na Hong-jin, knows exactly what he's doing. Like Hitchcock, he gives the audience precisely enough information to be frustrated. It is obvious to us what the characters should be doing, but there are excellent reasons why it isn't obvious to them. If you can contrive that in a screenplay, you have already surpassed the level of the usual modern thriller."

Get that? There's an "EXCELLENT reason why it isn't obvious" to the characters.

It must be plausible why they pick the wrong fork in the road.

It must be plausible why he narrowly misses catching the good guy.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Aristotle says that the choices must be plausible. Need I say more?


The review: http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20100127/REVIEWS/100129976/-1/email_headlines

BOOK CLUB: Good vs. Evil (Ch. 23)

[Today we're reading Ch. 23 The Good, The Bad & The Intermediate Hero, from Aristotle's Poetics for Screenwriters, by Michael Tierno (2002).]

Today's chapter is about how good characters have a mix of good & bad traits. I like this quote from the Poetics:

"...[T]he line between virtue & vice is one dividing the whole of mankind." p. 114.

What makes people interesting are how they're tempted with virtue and vice.

Tempted by virtue? Why yes, indeed. I think people are drawn to elevate themselves, but the road is tough, so sometimes it's easier to fall into vice.

How does your character deal with the tug-of-war? Some do it well, some terribly. That's why we go to the movies.

WHAT I’VE LEARNED: Good vs. Evil. Yup, it's that simple.

[DISCLAIMER: I have not been asked, nor paid, to read or comment on this book.]

Thursday, January 28, 2010

BOOK CLUB: Villains & Universality (Ch. 22)

[Today we're reading Ch. 22 Move Your Audience by Teaching Them What They Already Know, from Aristotle's Poetics for Screenwriters, by Michael Tierno (2002).]

The author writes, "Pity, fear, and catharsis come not from learning new esoteric facts but from a
RE-cognition of what one ALREADY thinks and feels. P.109.

I re-learned this lesson yesterday when I covered a graphic novel with a horror story. Interestingly, it wasn't being submitted for the story itself, but to perhaps be made into another movie using one of the villains.

I recognized this villain as the familiar & evil bad guy. However, I didn't feel fear or pity for him, nor did I want to follow his story.

What could the writer have done to pique my interest? I've thought long & hard about this (mostly b/c I'm struggling with the same thing in my own script).

I think the scariest thing about good villains are that they're usually normal people with warped agendas. They have kids, they have bills, they bleed, they're kind to old ladies and dogs. That's why they're scary - they could be us on a really, really bad day.

But in this story, the villain is so obviously bad all the time that there's not even a glimmer of hope for redemption. I don't even want to identify with him or rescue him. He's someone I can too easily give up on.

WHAT I’VE LEARNED: I need a villain that pushes me to agree his side of the story could actually be the better one.

[DISCLAIMER: I have not been asked, nor paid, to read or comment on this book.]

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

BOOK CLUB: A Plot to Avoid (Ch. 21)

[Today we're reading Ch. 21 The Perfect Hollywood Sad/Happy Plot vs. the Perfect Poetics Sad Plot, from Aristotle's Poetics for Screenwriters, by Michael Tierno (2002).]

The author writes about “happy/sad” Hollywood endings where “dramas of tragic stature succeed despite ending on an upbeat note.” P. 106.

Ex. He cites the sad death at the end of Gladiator, which is a happy ending b/c Maximus is reunited with his family in heaven.

He also writes about 3 plots to avoid. The one that caught my eye is “a bad man passing from misery to happiness…it does not appeal either to the human feeling in us, or to our pity, or to our fears.” P. 106.

I’ve seen this “loose ends” kind of script recently. In that script, the good guy died a useless death in the end, & the bad guy triumphed.

Though it was a perfect setup for a sequel, I really didn’t like the ending. It left me feeling unsettled, as if everything the good guy fought for was futile. I was left feeling numb – not fearful or sad...just numb. Not a good sign.

WHAT I’VE LEARNED: If the bad guy wins in the end, give us a solid reason why.


[DISCLAIMER: I have not been asked, nor paid, to read or comment on this book.]

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

BOOK CLUB: You Don’t Need To Know the Message, Right? (Ch. 20)

[Today we're reading Ch. 20 Actions Speak Louder Than Words, But Together They Can Speak Volumes, from Aristotle's Poetics for Screenwriters, by Michael Tierno (2002).]

The author writes that "all action is geared to the expression of the message." p. 102.

Most writers get that action should push the story/message forward.

However, sometimes they fail to remember that it must be there for EVERY single scene.

What I hate seeing:

- A setup without any foreshadowing or hint it’s relevant. Ex. Man is on vacation in Hawaii, and he buys a snowsuit. The entire script is in Hawaii. What was the point of the snowsuit?

- An action that creates a good set piece, but doesn’t tell me anything about the story. Ex. Woman races for the helicopter, but ninjas get in the way & there’s a big battle with swords. What is the point of the fight? Is there a ticking clock? Does she have to save Scruffy before he’s dognapped for good?

- A writer who doesn’t know what the message is.
ME: “What is this about?”
Writer: “Uh…..?”
Ergo, you have an non-cohesive script.

WHAT I’VE LEARNED: Although you may not know what your message is at first, make sure you do by the time it gets to me.


[DISCLAIMER: I have not been asked, nor paid, to read or comment on this book.]

Monday, January 25, 2010

BOOK CLUB: Release! (Ch. 19)

[Today we're reading Ch. 19 A Movie Gave You a Bad Case of Pity & Fear? The Doctor Recommends a Catharsis, from Aristotle's Poetics for Screenwriters, by Michael Tierno (2002).]

I read a script last week that built and built and built pity, fear, suspense, of 90 pages, but then addressed the catharsis in a few paragraphs.

I scritched my head. (Yes, scritched. Scratched would mean I was looking at something logical.)

What the heck happened?

I think that we as writers are often afraid to let our characters suffer...but are also afraid of letting them reach success, because that means the arc is complete.

A catharsis must be carefully planned out so the audience can see the consequences of the actions. What has the character has learned, or not learned? What are the aftershocks of the decisions?

This is the moment of release, the moment we'll pinpoint as the moment the character realizes what he/she has to live with forever. Make sure you've channel that feeling of remorse or happiness or satisfaction into their actions so we have no doubt what the journey has done for them.

WHAT I’VE LEARNED: Catharsis is a moment where we sigh in relief or weep in sadness with the main character. We finally know what the journey is all about.

[DISCLAIMER: I have not been asked, nor paid, to read or comment on this book.]

Sunday, January 24, 2010

BOOK CLUB: Beyond SHOW & TELL (Ch. 18)

[Today we're reading Ch. 18 Whatever Causes the Action Better Be Up There On the Screen, from Aristotle's Poetics for Screenwriters, by Michael Tierno (2002).]

The phrase "SHOW, not TELL" often means that the writer is telling you what is happening rather than showing it.

ex. MAN: "I'm going to open a red wine. Then I will toss it in your face."

Most of us avoid this, so let's look at the next most frequent problem: What if you're SHOWING, but there's no story? What does that look like?

I saw a script that described the situation, but it was like reading a map.

ex. John turned to Judy. He shouted. She cowered.

The characters are obviously in conflict. We show that John is loud, and Judy is scared. But is this a story?

NO.

It is static scene & a story is a series of moving, connected scenes. If it does not push forward, it's dead weight.

WHAT I’VE LEARNED: SHOW, not TELL, & PUSH FORWARD.

[DISCLAIMER: I have not been asked, nor paid, to read or comment on this book.]

Saturday, January 23, 2010

BOOK CLUB: Revealing Backstory in Plot (Ch. 17)

[Today we're reading Ch. 17 The Devil is in the Realistic Details of the Plot of Angel Heart, from Aristotle's Poetics for Screenwriters, by Michael Tierno (2002).]

Backstory is all the stuff you really don't need to know right now.

It'a sortof like your best friend is interested in a guy & wants to tell you every teeny, tiny, excruciatingly boring detail.

But if it is an important detail, how do you reveal it?

Answer: By SHOWING (not telling) how the past backstory still impacts the present.

ex. In the movie Angel Heart, X tells the Main Character (with amnesia) to search for Y, not realizing that the Main Character is actually Y. As the Main Character uncovers his backstory, he also realizes that he's Y & must cover it up!

Very clever & important to the plot. I don't mind learning the past b/c it explains who this Main Character is & why X is searching for him.

WHAT I’VE LEARNED: Don't write characters like the yack yack friend.

Write cool characters so that I want to know their past.

[DISCLAIMER: I have not been asked, nor paid, to read or comment on this book.]

Friday, January 22, 2010

BOOK CLUB: Power of Suggestion (Ch. 16)

[Today we're reading Ch. 16 "It Scared Me Because I Saw It Coming" ...The Rolls Royce of Complex Plots, from Aristotle's Poetics for Screenwriters, by Michael Tierno (2002).]

The Rolls Royce of plots is a predictable surprise.

What? That's right. I meant exactly what I wrote.

We've all seen it before: a clue in plain sight trips up the bad guy, or you saw hints that Rosemary had a devil spawn, but SHE didn't realize it until WHAMMO! Predictable surprise.

The trick is what PRECEDES the predictable surprise, i.e., suggested hints, suggested clues, grey suggestions, on-the-fence suggestions.

ex. I saw a script that had a great surprise, but no hint dropping through the script. The problem was that to drop hints, the writer would have to entirely change the dynamic of the protagonist & antagonist. The traits had to be redone. The writer had to figure what each really had at stake & who would want to hide the clues the most.

Not easy work.

WHAT I’VE LEARNED: I whammmy you to send me a million bucks for more blog posts. Did it work? Oops. Didn't start early enough with the suggestions.

[DISCLAIMER: I have not been asked, nor paid, to read or comment on this book.]

Thursday, January 21, 2010

BOOK CLUB: Necessary vs. Probable (Ch. 15)

[Today we're reading Ch. 15 If You’re Happy & You Know It…Time for a Reversal of Fortune & Discovery, from Aristotle's Poetics for Screenwriters, by Michael Tierno (2002).]

Today’s chapter tells us that the main action must CAUSE the reversal of fortune/discovery in a way that is necessary or probable.

Well, no duh.

Except that yesterday I saw a script that kept circumventing the rule by leaning more on “necessary” than “probable.”

The story: A man with superhuman something is chased by the bad guys. (He doesn’t even really know what the superhuman something is.)

He is trapped in a hospital. He ducks & dodges into empty rooms to figure how to escape. (So far so good. The main character is causing the reversal.)

In a series of waaaay too convenient coincidences, the man just “happens” to see an employee swipe card lying in the open. He doesn’t know he needs it, but takes it anyway. Later, it gets him out. (Seriously, if you were panicked and saw a swipe card, would you grab it? Necessary: 1. Probable: 0)

He “happens” to know where all the hallway light switches are. He turns them off to fool the baddies. (Ooooh, bad. I slap my forehead. Necessary: 2, Probable: 0.)

The script never let up & soon it was Necessary: 20, Probable: 0.

I can see the audience rolling it’s eyes. Lame.

Why? Movies are notorious for improbable coincidences. Sure, taxis pull every time you need one. Sure, women are always in full makeup with perfect hair when they wake up.

But when necessary continuously trumps probable, you’re pulled out of possible to impossible.

WHAT I’VE LEARNED: Sometimes an open parking spot does magically appear.

However, if too many spots open, you soon realize you’re not in a bustling shopping center – you’re in an empty lot.

[DISCLAIMER: I have not been asked, nor paid, to read or comment on this book.]

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

BOOK CLUB: Morals & Reversal of Fortune

[Today we're reading Ch.13 How a Little Moralizing Turned a Gladiator Gore Fest into a Best Picture, & Ch.14 A Movie is Long Enough So It Ends...Happy or Sad, from Aristotle's Poetics for Screenwriters, by Michael Tierno (2002).]

*Forgive the two chapters in one. My computer crashed yesterday, sending me in a
slight panic. I'm on another computer, praying my laptop is ok.

These two chapters address the fact that a story needs a moral contradiction and
a reversal of fortune.

1. Moral contradiction is that the character is doing the wrong thing when the
right thing is happening. And vice versa.

The audience wants to experience that dilemma through someone else. How would they handle such a sticky wicket?

One can also look at the moral contradiction as the problem the character wrestles with, & as a result, changes.

2. Aristotle was also big on " reversal of fortune," i.e., from happy to sad, or
sad to happy.

Why? I think it's b/c it's a natural arc of transformation. If the character is static, there's not much need for a story, right?

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: #1 I've taken my laptop for granted & won't do that again. I'm not ready for it to go to laptop heaven.

#2 Imagine moral contradictions as decision points, and reversal of fortune is the yellow brick road between those decision points.

Monday, January 18, 2010

INSIDE THE READER'S MIND: Dialogue (Part 4 of 4)

For me, dialogue is probably the “easiest” and least analyzed of the four parts of coverage.

Why? It’s either on the nose, or it isn’t.

It’s either got subtext, or not.

Dialogue is like tennis. Tennis is not the racket and the ball. It’s two people swinging it back & forth

A few tips:

- Say what you mean, but don’t go all existential on me. Ex. I read a script whose dialogue was trying SO hard not to be on the nose, SO hard to be clever, SO lofty that I had NO idea what the heck they were saying.

- If dialogue is hard for you, listen to people in a coffee shop & see how much of dialogue is really gestures, innuendo, & glances. This is why dialogue should never be huge solid blocks of print.

- Dialogue should push your scene into the next scene. This is the most frequent mistake. The conversation ends & everything is neatly wrapped up. There’s no reason to go to the next scene.

- The whole purpose of dialogue is to glaze the ham. It’s not the meat (conflict). It’s not the table setting (structure). The only reason dialogue is there is to sweeten what’s already there. Unfortunately, newbies tend to rely too much on dialogue and you get a mouthful of glaze. Ugh.

- If you’re going to use voice over, make darn sure you’ve explored every other option. I will not stomach lazy V.O. like: “I was destined to do something grand.” You’re trying to tell instead of show. That is cheating.

WHAT I’VE LEARNED: Dialogue can easily be rewritten. Do you really want to be rewritten?

INSIDE THE READER'S MIND: Conflict (Part 3 of 4)

Conflict must build to the climax.

(Wow - so profound, huh?)

It's kind of like when you're driving & your kid in the back seat complains he has to use the restroom NOW.

I know you're focused on the road, you missed the right exit, it's raining, you only have one headlight, a police siren is chasing you, but remember: you've got to deliver that kid in the back seat to a restroom ASAP.

A few hints:

- When you have an ensemble cast, the conflict must build for all the characters. It doesn't have to be a big conflict or earth shattering, but each must rise.

- Make the protagonist's conflict singularly clear. ex. I saw a script where the protagonist wants the lifestyle of the rich and famous. However, that's too much to tackle. It's got to be either money, or status, or something more concrete.

- I can tell the minute the conflict dies b/c the scene goes on a tangent or the story stops. ex. In one script, a protagonist is thwarted in Act 1. He puts down the goal A and picks up goal B. This tells me that the conflict isn't strong enough to sustain a script, i.e., something is off in the traits or structure.

- Conflict only works if there is give and take. I know this sounds basic, but I've seen scripts where characters never really clash. Even if they never meet in person, they've got to fight for dominance.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Conflict is a combination of urgency, pacing, stakes, and a battle.

BOOK CLUB: The Grey Zone (Ch. 12)

[Today we're reading Ch. 12 Oops! I Caused My Own Undeserved Misfortune Again , from Aristotle's Poetics for Screenwriters, by Michael Tierno (2002).]

Aristotle wrote: “...The change in the hero's fortunes...must lie not in any depravity, but in some great error on his part.” p. 63.

The author of this book goes into depth on how the protagonist makes a faulty decision, which causes his problems.

I get what he’s saying, but, “faulty” seems to mean there’s a right or wrong decision. That’s not always true. Most of the time, it’s grey.

Even if it is black & white, it usually is only really apparent in hindsight. Your characters live in the now, and have no idea they’re facing decisions that might be wrong vs. wronger.

I often see writers trying to help their characters by “telegraphing” the future, i.e., somehow their characters have insight of what is going to happen.

It’s ok if the audience knows what’s coming.

It’s even ok if one character is causing what’s going to happen.

But for heaven’s sake, don’t let your protagonist know, otherwise he’d be frozen with indecision.

WHAT I’VE LEARNED: Allow the grey zone to happen. Don’t telegraph.

[DISCLAIMER: I have not been asked, nor paid, to read or comment on this book.]

Sunday, January 17, 2010

BOOK CLUB: The Tragic Deed (Ch. 11)

[Today we're reading Ch. 11 Keep It in the Family, from Aristotle's Poetics for Screenwriters, by Michael Tierno (2002).]

This sounds easy to apply, but it's not:

"The tragic deed is the most intense, horrible thing that happens in the story. It usually is caused BY the hero, or happens TO the hero, & it involves 'an action of a destructive or painful nature, such as murders, tortures, woundings, & the like.'" p. 59. (emphasis mine)

Sometimes writers are afraid to challenge their protagonist. They're afraid to let their protagonist fail. Or experience intense pain.

Perhaps this is b/c the focus is too much on the pain, & not enough on the catharsis. The purpose for the pain is the release at the end.

WHAT I’VE LEARNED: Remember that pain is only 1/2 of the equation. So go there. Really go there.

[DISCLAIMER: I have not been asked, nor paid, to read or comment on this book.]

Saturday, January 16, 2010

INSIDE THE READER'S MIND: Structure (Part 2 of 4)

When you have solid character traits, the structure should rapidly crescendo and crash the ending.

Crash = “put everything you’ve got into it & don’t leave anything behind for a sequel b/c there may not be a sequel.”

The biggest problems come when writers fail to escalate/crescendo in Act 2.

A few tips:

- More car crashes or train wrecks do not mean you’ve escalated the tension.

- Tension arises from the protagonist and antagonist traits that clash in increasing increments. (Ironically, writers often pick traits that are too easily solved in a few scenes. Pick a good trait that needs a whole script to be worked out.)

- Allow the character to gloat once in awhile. Then hit ‘em hard in the next scene.

- Does it have to be 3 acts? Not necessarily, although that is usually the easiest.

- I imagine the turning points as telephone poles, and the scenes as the cables strung between them. You wouldn’t believe how many times there are cables that go into the ground (scenes that go off on tangents) or cut cables (the action stops, starts, stops, starts). It’s no wonder electricity can’t get through.

WHAT I’VE LEARNED: Structure isn’t by accident. You have to deliberately drill where the telephone poles will go, and use the right kind & amount of cable so it will reach from pole to pole.

BOOK CLUB: Chance or Fate? (Ch. 10)

[Today we're reading Ch. 10 Destiny Is An Accident Waiting to Happen, by Michael Tierno (2002).]

I liked this sentence: "The fluctuation between chance elements and fate allows viewers to make up their own minds about destiny." p. 57

WHAT I’VE LEARNED: The problem is when there's too much chance (b/c it comes off as way too coincidental), or too much fate (b/c it comes off as too expected).

[DISCLAIMER: I have not been asked, nor paid, to read or comment on this book.]

Friday, January 15, 2010

INSIDE THE READER'S MIND: Character

Yesterday, someone asked me what I look for in evaluating whether to recommend or pass.

So step inside my mind and let me give you a tour.

The four main things I look for are: Character, Structure, Conflict, Dialogue.

Why this particular order? I've learned that dialogue problems are usually conflict problem. Conflict problems are based in structure. And Structure issues almost always crop because the character traits are weak.

So it makes sense that that is my 1st stop.

Here a few tips:

- When you get a note that say your character wasn't "sympathetic enough, " that's the nice way of saying he/she was boring. That's my way of saying I didn't want to root for your character.

- I must see a character with a flaw or something he/she is trying to overcome. Perfect characters get an automatic "pass" because it means there's no conflict. Flawed characters make you want to sit and watch to see what happens.

- Antagonists must be as smart as the protagonists. We like to see closely matched games on tv. Why not closely matched characters?

- I saw a character that was sympathetic, had a flaw, had a protagonist. But I still passed. She didn't have that "something extra"...she didn't have a real internal struggle. When you construct your character, give them two traits that fight against each other. ex. She's manipulative, but is guilt ridden. He's brave, but shy.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: If you nail the character, I estimate you have about 50% of the work done.

TODAY'S 2nd Nugget: Tone of Two Scripts

I read two scripts that target the same demographic. Both extremely well written. Both great roles for women. But I gave thumbs up to one and not the other. Why?

It all came down to tone.

The first script was fun. It felt like a friend who bursts out dancing, and then next thing you know you're boogeying down on the dance floor, having the best time of your life.

The second was also fun, but more sophisticated fare. It felt like the friend who takes you for your first glorious high tea at Harrods.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Someone will buy both these script, they're that good. However, who & where will depend on the mandate of the prod. co. I know one fits here, but the other not so much.

TODAY'S NUGGET: Timing

Recently I've seen writers asking questions recently about how long things take in Hollywood.

How long do I need to prep for a meeting? How long does it take for a prod. co. to read my script? Does it really take them months? What are they doing with all that time?

Until I moved to LA, I too had no idea of the pace of the development process.

So let me clue you in on what makes a new writer stand out vs. a professional:

1 - If you have a meeting with a producer, say in March, a new writer thinks she has plenty of time to rewrite.

A pro will get professional level feedback/story notes ASAP because he knows that it could change everything, even his pitch.

2 - If you submit your script and the producer doesn't get back to you in two weeks, the newbie will call and call and call week after week just to "check in." (True story.)

A pro knows you are allowed ONE AND ONLY ONE "check in" phone call on THAT project. If you are wise, you will use that call to pitch another project you have. Yes, you read that right. You do NOT need to call - they will call you if they're interested.

Trust me. If they're ga-ga over your project, nothing on heaven or earth will prevent them from hunting you down.

You should not be waiting for them to call. You should've already moved on to writing your next project.

3- The smart newbie thinks his agent will get him work and waits and waits.

The pro knows she has to drum up work. If an opportunity presents itself at an odd moment, she must seize it - or it will pass her by.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: First, you're shooting yourself in the foot if you don't master the timing thing.

Second, be prepared for this to take longer than you think. Be prepared to encourage yourself when no one is around to make you feel better. Be prepared to persevere. Many like to write, but not many are writers, i.e., people who write even when no one is around.

BOOK CLUB: Time Warp (Ch. 9)

[Today we're reading Ch. 9 What the Poetics Say about Epics Like Lord of the Rings, from Aristotle's Poetics for Screenwriters, by Michael Tierno (2002).]

Whether you’re writing an epic (that can cover huge spans of time) or a drama (usually compressed time), the story should follow one action line, no matter how much time you jump.

Makes sense, but what does that mean?

Ex. I read an epic script recently which started the action 20 yrs. ago between two children. Then the script jumped to the present time.

The funny thing was that after the time warp, the antagonist suddenly became the prominent focus. I actually thought the antagonist was the main character. (The only reason I knew that wasn’t the case was b/c of the title.)

What happened? In the past, the protagonist was the stronger, scrappy lead who was captured. In the time warp, the protagonist was stewing in jail. Jumping to the present, the antagonist now was the more powerful character, so it was easier to focus on him.

As you can see, this violated the “follow one action line” rule.

WHAT I’VE LEARNED: Don’t get your antagonist & protagonist lost in the time warp.

[DISCLAIMER: I have not been asked, nor paid, to read or comment on this book.]

Thursday, January 14, 2010

BOOK CLUB: Falling into the Plot Trap (Ch. 8)

[Today we're reading Ch. 8 The Four Species of Plot, from Aristotle's Poetics for Screenwriters, by Michael Tierno (2002).]

According to Aristotle, all stories are one or a combination of the following:

1. Complex - reversal of fortune/discovery

2. Tragedy of suffering

3. Tragedy of character

4. Spectacle

I get impatient with writers who don’t know which category/categories they’re in, or worse, fail to really stick to their chosen plot.

Even earnest writers can fall into this trap.

How? Usually they try to create great window dressing while avoiding the white elephant.

My top 3 ways I know you have no clue your plot is suffering:

#1 Self-indulgent narrative that strays from the plot.

#2 Great banter that leads nowhere (no depth, doesn’t add to emotion, doesn’t push forward into the next scene).

#3 Starting with a character study, then switching on a whim to spectacle/suffering/reversal of fortune.

WHAT I’VE LEARNED: Resist the temptation to believe you’re objective.

I’d stick to the “2 out of 3 people” rule, i.e., if 2 people mention a problem with the same thing, it’s probably confusing.


[DISCLAIMER: I have not been asked, nor paid, to read or comment on this book.]

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Today's 2nd Nugget: Searing Dialogue

Roger Ebert twittered that James Joyce died today in 1941. He linked to his review of The Dead (1987), John Houston's last film. It is based on Joyce's novel and seems unfilmable.

The review mentions these powerful lines of dialogue:

"What was it he died of so young?" asks Gabriel. "Consumption, was it?"
"She replies, "I think he died from me."

Wow! Her six words say it all ...A man who loved her so much he literally died from it when they were parted.

Does that not encapsulate the depth of this man's longing?

Does that not sear your soul?

Can you not sense her subtext of regret, even these many years later?

Pay attention! This is what A list actors are looking for.

http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20051009/REVIEWS08/510090301/1023

BOOK CLUB: One Heart (Ch. 7)

[Today we're reading Ch. 7 Why is My Beautiful Plot Growing a Hand Out of Its Head?, from Aristotle's Poetics for Screenwriters, by Michael Tierno (2002).]

“The ‘organs,’ or scenes, work together to give ‘life’ to the plot, which means you don’t add scenes to make the action-idea have more & more plot lines, you add scenes to make the action-idea have more emotional impact on the audience.” P. 38.

Your high concept (i.e., action-idea) is the heart of the story. It keeps everything alive.

The problem comes when the writer wants two hearts, or to change the heart to a foot mid-way in Act 2.

I am very stubborn about only one heart per script.

In fact, I drove a writer crazy recently because I wouldn’t budge. He wanted to change the goal mid-way through the script and I said no. He wanted to add more plot lines, and I said no because the original plot would be obscured. He wanted this, because of that, because of those. Nope, I said, absolutely not.

Finally, I got my point across. If you feel the need for two hearts, more plot lines, more, more, more, than you don’t know what your original high concept is.

WHAT I’VE LEARNED: Real high concepts are clean and unfettered.

[DISCLAIMER: I have not been asked, nor paid, to read or comment on this book.]

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

TODAY'S 2nd NUGGET: Comedy Done With Excellence

Today I read a three quadrant comedy script that had me smiling 1/8 page in.

By 1/4 page, I was grinning like a loon.

By page 1, I knew the entire movie. That's how it's done, folks.

I. Loved. It. Sublime. Classic. My butt didn’t move as I read from top to bottom. Quite simply, these folks can write.

The keys:

1st - The story came first, and the funny parts second. This script was grounded in a well crafted story. The jokes had more punch & impact b/c they didn’t have to do the heavy lifting.

2nd - Strong conflict in each scene. The writer knew precisely what every character wanted, what beats the character needed to hit, & brought to the forefront. (Not every script does that.)

3rd - Good character traits. Each had a flaw & an arc. I was rooting for these people from p. 1 and it didn’t end until the last page.

4th – Clean. Everything about this script was clean and uncluttererd. The flow was forward, and at a crisp pace. It allowed me to easily vertically read. I couldn’t wait to turn the page.

This movie feels like chicken soup and apple pie and the American flag all rolled into one. I was so sad that the story ended, I wanted to re-read it for fun. FOR FUN.

WHAT I’VE LEARNED: This script was so good I wanted to bronze it.

TODAY'S NUGGET: Rare Souffle

Yesterday I came across one of the rarest storylines: the antagonist provided storyline, i.e., the antagonist establishes the journey.

This is an extremely rare beast b/c most newbies & intermediate writers overplay it. It is an extremely delicate balance.

Usually the writer will let the antagonist take over, which stirs my wrath, b/c the script almost always drags with a reactionary protagonist.

(If you have a reactionary protagonist, I do not know why you're writing the story about him/her. ...well, unless you have a bazillion movies under your belt & don't really have to worry about readers like me.)

The trick of this script was that the antagonist provided the situation AND THE PROTAGONIST CHOSE - SEE THAT? CHOSE - TO GO ON THE JOURNEY.

The protagonist didn't limp into the journey.

The protagonist wasn't cornered into the journey.

The protagonist agrees to go --> the antagonist provides roadblocks --> the protagonist overcomes the roadblocks and continues on the journey, despite the antagonist's best ploys.

What does the finished film look like? Oftentimes, a road trip, a buddy movie or a character piece.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I do not recommend this type of storyline for most scripts b/c: 1) it only works for certain storylines, and 2) only a writer with lots of experience will understand the mechanics of how to make it work.

It's kind of like a souffle. Most of us know what it looks like, how to eat it, what it requires (water bath, quiet, altitude, etc.) However, not all of us have the patience to practice making it, or the experience to correct a bad batter.

BOOK CLUB: Ends as Means (Ch. 6)

[Today we're reading Ch. 6 The Ends Are Always The Means of the Plot, from Aristotle's Poetics for Screenwriters, by Michael Tierno (2002).]

You’d think that writers would start with the end in mind. However, I often see scripts with flat endings. It’s as if the journey changed the ending and it no longer fits.

The difference between a “false Act 3 problem” and a “true Act 3 problem” is the setup.

If the plot is properly setup, Act 3 is a snap.

If the plot is not properly setup, it’s a “false Act 3” problem, and the writer should go back to Acts 1 & 2. (This is the majority of cases.)

If the plot is properly setup & Act 3 is still a problem, then it’s a “true Act 3” problem. Usually this means that the climax was too abrupt (ex. the character learned his lesson in one paragraph).

Or the writer is trying to shoehorn an improved story into the original ending that no longer fits.

WHAT I’VE LEARNED: Keep asking yourself in each scene: “Are we there yet?” b/c it will tell you what to do to get there.

[DISCLAIMER: I have not been asked, nor paid, to read or comment on this book.]

Monday, January 11, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: How Good is Good?

It doesn't happen every day.

But today is one of those days when I read a spec script that is so good, I want to stand up in my cubicle and tell the whole office to stop working - we must buy this script.

This script is so good I can already pitch it without notes.

This script is so good that you'd be a fool not to invest.

This script is so good that I'd put my personal money on the line.

This script is so good that it's an Oprah show waiting to happen.

This script is so heart-warming, so gut-wrenching, so hit-close-to-home, that I've had to go to quadruple hyphenated adjectives to describe it.

To all writers out there: this is the kind of script you want to send in. Every time I read even a few pages, I'm swept up in a passion that it must get to the screen.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Lightning does strike.

BOOK CLUB: The Root of Plots (Ch. 5)

[Today we're reading Ch. 5 Plot is Soul, from Aristotle's Poetics for Screenwriters, by Michael Tierno (2002). ]

A confused writer told me she had a plot problem.

I usually respond: "No, it's not plot that's your problem, 99% of the time it's a character issue."

How can I say that?

I liked how this sentence in this book puts it: "The key is to have the plot action connected to the deep desiring soul of your hero." p. 31.

First, you must nail down the character’s want, need, & his/her flaw to overcome. Then, and only then, will the path will become clear what you need to write to get there.

(This is A LOT easier said than done when you’re writing.)

Let’s analyze a sample:

Ex. I read a horror script about a 18 y.o. guy locked in a house with a crazy witch. Naturally, he’s trying to get out of the house ASAP. I felt the plot was flat.

If you look at this guy’s desire/want, it’s to change from a boy to a man, i.e., to mature. Unfortunately, the writer was more focused on multiple variations of escaping the house (action) than challenging the guy’s desire to show he’s able to make wise decisions in an emergency situation (want).

I wished the witch would’ve given the guy choices between a rock and a hard place. I wished the setups would push the guy to self-sacrifice for the right reasons.

Only then would we be able to see the guy’s desires through action. See how the plot then falls naturally into place?

WHAT I’VE LEARNED: “When a strong desire of a hero relates to all the action, the the plot can depict a simple 'portrait' of the hero." p. 32


[DISCLAIMER: I have not been asked, nor paid, to read or comment on this book.]

Sunday, January 10, 2010

BOOK CLUB: To Subplot or Not to Subplot? (Ch. 4)

BOOK CLUB: To Subplot or Not to Subplot

[Today we're reading Ch. 4 Forget Sub-plotting - The Best Plots Have One Track Minds, from Aristotle's Poetics for Screenwriters, by Michael Tierno (2002). ]

I found this chapter misleading - what, no more subplots?

I think the confusion stems from the fact that: 1) the author defines "issues" as sub-plots (I don't think they're the same); and 2) what I call sub-plots, he renames them "sub-actions."

But however it's defined, a script must only have ONE main issue. Any supporting plots/actions must be necessary and bolster the main issue.

I think writers understand the concept of the ONE main issue. It's when the writer creates supporting plots/actions that are semi-related, but are not necessary, for the main issue.

ex. I read a script about a female villain who wants to capture a superhuman female fighter. The issue was that the villain wanted to control the fighter. The numerous supporting plots did not support this issue. Instead, there was a plot about a second antagonist, a smuggling run that went bad, etc. The result: a script without focus or vision.

WHAT I’VE LEARNED: A minor character is there to mirror or echo whatever is happening to the main character., i.e., the minor character 's actions, words, & thoughts need to should come back to affect the main character.

[DISCLAIMER: I have not been asked, nor paid, to read or comment on this book.]

Saturday, January 9, 2010

BOOK CLUB: Spine-Tingling Plots (Ch. 3)

[Today we're reading Ch. 3 The Subject is an Action…not a Person, from Aristotle's Poetics for Screenwriters by Michael Tierno (2002).]

I like this chapter because it makes me revisit things I already know about plot, but in a fresh way.

Let’s go back to basics:

Each scene must be connected together to form a story spine. Or SPINE = PLOT.

Unfortunately, I see spec plots/spines with a lot of fat on them. Or the writer tries to fuse on a useless spine. Or subplots herniate into the spine and stop the story. .

Why does this happen?

- “[Aristotle] knew that writers [are] often fooled into thinking that because they used one hero throughout an entire story, this alone unified their plots.”
- If the actions are not probable or necessary, the effects will not be not probable or necessary.

How to create good cause-effect scenes? Make sure the action-idea pushes every scene.

Ex. I saw a script about a woman losing her high flying job, and now must start over by helping the common folk she once scorned. The action-idea was that she had to help these folks succeed. Her success was tied to their success, so there wasn’t room for excess action.

WHAT I’VE LEARNED: You need connected, cause-effect scenes to make sure electricity can flow through. If there are bad scenes, the electricity stops.

[DISCLAIMER: I have not been asked, nor paid, to read or comment on this book.]

Friday, January 8, 2010

QUESTION: What Do You See That Works in Horror?

A regular reader asked me what I'm seeing in horror & what does/doesn't work.

The one genre I generally do not like is horror.

I avoid horror movies at all costs. I do not want to read, touch, or analyze horror.

That being said, I've had to read, touch, & analyze more horror scripts than I'd like.

Horror writers might worry that I'm the worst reader for the genre, but actually I think I'm the best audience. If you can get my attention, you know it's got legs.

1. What kind of horror scripts am I seeing?

For awhile, there was a run of gore, which turned me off with the incessant boring how-far-can-I-gross-you-out.

But the writers got smarter and moved to more sophisticated fare:
- psychological horror
- contained horror (in a single location), and
- cross genre horror (usually with a thriller or action).

Horror is probably far more about technique than you'd think. The trick is to deliver the old fashioned story, build the fear, & keep the suspense all at once.

2. What does or doesn't work in a script?

Things that don't work:
- Surprise. Surprise. Surprise. Surprise. Surprise. Surprise should be an accent, not the main course.
- Lack of character development. We must want these characters to succeed. We must like them.
- Predictability
- Anything that numbs the reader.

Things that do work:
- Clever puzzles
- Something familiar that is scary. Ex. Mail slot bangs downstairs while you’re upstairs
- Antagonist makes protagonist uneasy, but protagonist is romantically drawn to her
- Protagonist torn in two unpleasant directions.

WHAT I KNOW: If there's one thing I'd recommend, it's studying tension building AND release.

It can be a familiar story, but if you fiddle with when and where tension skyrockets or disappears, you'll automatically be unpredictable.

TODAY'S NUGGET: Chick Lit Scripts

My heart has cracked in two. There’s a huge cavity inside my chest & I just want to crawl under the covers.

Yesterday I was fine, happy, and the sun was shining despite my problems.

….Or was this just me after reading two different chick lit scripts (both adaptions by two different A list writers)?

Chick lit isn’t my favorite genre. It ranges widely, sometimes obsessively, over everyday issues that don’t mean as much to me. I can understand a rom-com, because it’s essentially about the relationship.

But chick lit? It’s heavy into an individual’s point of view.

However, these two excellent scripts moved me to laughter (yesterday) & stifled tears (today). I am also very, very impressed by their clarity. The conflict is never hidden – who vs. who, why, where, the consequences. The basics are rock solid, and it is the nuances that tell me this is a writer in command.


WHAT I’VE LEARNED: The secret to these scripts is that they steal past your guard, and create a lump in your throat. And you have no idea how they did it.
TO

BOOK CLUB: ONE (& only one) Question (Ch. 2)

[Today we're reading Ch. 2 Why You Want Your Movie to be a Bomb!, from Aristotle's Poetics for Screenwriters by Michael Tierno (2002).]

After the I.I., a script usually asks the ONE (and only one) central dramatic question, i.e., the question the movie is going to answer.

Not everyone knows that there should only be ONE (and only one) question.

So let me apply today’s lesson to the script I finished up today. It did ask ONE (sortof) question, but it didn’t stay central as you will see.

Basically, a guy kills a police officer, and now is being chased. The guy hides with his buddies, but the police catch up. The Question is: Did the guy really kill the officer or was it self defense?

The problem is the guy dies, and the police chase the buddies for questioning. So the question is still in play, but is it really important any more?

Answer: Nope. The buddies spend the rest of the script thinking about their own problems, now they're in this jam. No one cares about if it was self-defense or not. As you might guess, the story plateaus in Act 2.

It’s tough to see the forest from the trees when you’re writing, but hopefully, you’ll remember to stick to ONE question.

WHAT I’VE LEARNED: ONE (and only one) Central (not tangential) Question per script, please.

[DISCLAIMER: I have not been asked, nor paid, to read or comment on this book.]

Thursday, January 7, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: Slaying Someone Else's Dragons

Today I analyzed a script that ties in well to my previous blog on inciting incidents. (In fact, it's the precursor to a good I.I.)

Here's the basic story:

Helen of Troy spurns Bob, a good guy.
His loose cannon brother, John, is incensed.
Helen flaunts her relationship with the new guy, Leo.
John baits Leo again & again to defend Bob's honor.

I sense you're uneasy 'cause you know I'm going to say something is wrong with this setup.

And you're right. The script felt flabby, but I didn't know why.

So I backtracked one step at a time:

1) What is the inciting incident? John baiting Leo. From the previous blog, we know that something inside John made him bait Leo.

2) What inside John made him do this? To get back at Leo.

3) What was his motive? To get back at Leo for hurting Bob.

4) That's Bob's problem. What's John's problem with Leo? Uh....dunno.

That's exactly why this script does not work: Your protagonist cannot slay his brother's dragons.

Why? John needs an inner conflict of his own to sustain an entire story. He cannot borrow Bob's conflict, nor take on Bob's foes. He has no direct conflict with Leo except through Bob.

(Now, if John loved Helen too, that's different b/c now he has a conflict with Leo directly for taking Helen away.)

WHAT I KNOW: Before crafting an I.I., make sure you have a good character & motive.

I know this sounds simple, but you wouldn't believe how many times writers can't tell me what the motive is.

If you're having trouble, go back to the character's flaw. Flaw will tell you motive.

BOOK CLUB: I.I./1st Cause of Action (Ch.1)

[Today we're reading Ch. 1 - Let's Start at the Beginning, Middle and End, from Aristotle's Poetics for Screenwriters by Michael Tierno (2002).]

On p. 9, I like how the author makes two important points re: the inciting incident (a.k.a. catalyst, or 1st Cause of Action):

1. “In Dead Poets’ Society, Mr. Keating shows his students old photos of now deceased students & tells them ‘seize the day…’ Nothing in the plot has caused Keating to challenge his students in this way.”

In other words, something INSIDE the protagonist MADE the decision. He didn’t fall into the decision, or limp noodley went through the motions.

2. “This action was only necessary from his point of view.”

No one else could do it. Only the protagonist.


I do see scripts that fail these basic principles. I made up the examples below, but they're based on problematic scripts I’ve seen:

Ex. The supporting cast makes the decision to rob the bank. (external people)

Ex. LA smog chokes the protagonist, so then he reacts. (external situation)

Ex. The tsunami’s aftermath causes the protagonist to loot the village. (rather than an internal flaw in the character)

I get irritated when the writer thinks it’s ok to pass the buck & let the protagonist off easy.

WHAT I’VE LEARNED: Since there must be an I.I. early in the script, this failure affects the entire script. It's like building your house on sand.


[DISCLAIMER: I have not been asked, nor paid, to read or comment on this book.]

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

TODAY'S 2nd NUGGET: In the Boxing Ring with Me

Stepping into the ring is Script, a 120 page newbie. We have great hopes for Script, who is a repped thriller/mystery, and looks ready to spar.

In the opposite corner is Reader, a wily son-of-a-gun who has chewed up lesser scripts, and plays dirty. Reader holds up two fingers toward Script, two back at Reader: I've got my eyes on you.

On p. 1-3, Script swings with his best characters. Are these the protagonists? Antagonists? Can't tell. Oops. Script just fell.

Reader is yawning. Script bounces back up, still trying.

On p. 3, a trio of characters show up. Who is the main character again?

Script ducks and dodges. No one lands a punch.

On p. 28, Reader realizes what the story is about, who the characters are, and that this Script is following a predictable pattern. Reader is unimpressed with more of the same. Script swings at air and can't connect.

On p. 36, Reader decks Script with a mean left uppercut. Script is knocked out. It cannot recover, even though the stakes rise in p. 36-120, and there is a satisfying ending.

Script was prepped with a story arc, tension, characters with something to protect, ok dialogue.

What went wrong? Though Script contained a different location, different characters, there were no twists and turns. Reader knew exactly what was going to happen.

Reader walks away, saddened. Script wasn't a worthy opponent.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: The Reader is looking for a contender.

TODAY'S NUGGET: A Cheery Note

I'm always cheered to hear that a script I gave a hearty thumbs up is now steaming forward.

Some background: Several months ago I read a fantastic sci-fi/fantasy road trip.

I couldn't believe the exec had doubts, but I could see why from a business standpoint. The budget did seem small for the CGI, and it was also packaged with an untested director.

From a writer's perspective, it was a great look on how to give a new perspective on an old tale. I still remember this script because of its wondrous set pieces. It wasn't just where the characters were, but how they came up with inventive solutions to old problems.

ex. Up a tree? Let's get down with a flying beast!
ex. Stranded? Nothing like nomads to help a guy out.

WHAT I LEARNED: I feel all tingly when I know I'm part of something bigger. Isn't that what it's all about?

BOOK CLUB: Action-Idea (Introduction)

[DISCLAIMER: I have not been asked, nor paid, to read or comment on this book.]

In the Introduction of Aristotle's Poetics For Screenwriters, the author writes that Aristotle's Poetics focuses so much on action because it is the essential idea, and it is what makes a story possible.

The author then discusses his tool, Action-Idea. When someone hears your Action-Idea, they can see the whole film. To me, it seems like this is basically the same thing as a logline.

However, I am intrigued by looking at loglines as action-ideas. Boiling it down, I was struck that I could leave out nouns, pronouns, objects -- but the VERB is essential.

When I pitch an idea, I'm pitching the verb, i.e., the action.

ex. This is a story about robbing.
ex. This is a story about swimming.
ex. This is a story about dying.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: The next time I get lost in my script, I will focus on the logline verb to point me to where I'm headed.

New - BOOK CLUB

A kind friend sent me a book, Aristotle's Poetics for Screenwriters (2002), by Michael Tierno. It has 33 very short chapters that are no more than 4-5 pgs each.

For the next 33 days, I plan to lead a virtual book club here. I will read a chapter a day, and pick out something unusual or practical to talk about.

I will not be summarizing the chapters.
I will not do your reading for you.
So get your own book if you want to follow along.

I do hope that you will join me for discussion and comment.

[DISCLAIMER: I have not been asked, nor paid, to read or comment on this book.]

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Question: I've Got A Solid Spec, Now What?

Dangerous Screenwriter sent me a very nice email asking:

"Any advice for writers who have solid specs (no, really) and are about to start querying managers?"

Before I moved to LA, I had no real conception what the development process was like, and what my competition was. I had no idea how to get or impress a manager.

Since then, I've kept these as my Top 3 Rules:

Rule #1, of course, is to have a rock solid, 100% polished spec.

Rule #2 is to have two more in the wings now (or ASAP).

Rule #3 is to have polished one page/synopsis and loglines.

Here's how it goes:

a) Solid Spec #1 will get you in the manager's door. He/she might like your style, your point of view, your flair.

b) But Solid Specs #2 & 3 will show them that you're not a one script pony. A manager is going to sink a lot of time & energy on your behalf. Scripts #2 & 3 will show them (& prod. co.) that you are repeat business. You are here for the long haul.

c) A one page/synopsis is a DEVELOPMENT TOOL. It's like gift wrap - it's purpose is to SELL your script. It is NOT A PLODDING SUMMARY. I REPEAT, IT IS NOT A PLODDING SUMMARY OF YOUR SCRIPT.

Make sure it is as stunning as your script. It should show the reader the best possible vision of your script. It should fill me with such emotion that I snatch it from the slush pile, snarling at all the other readers, "MINE!"

d) Managers looking for top notch talent want to know that YOU know how the biz works. You can really set yourself apart by showing them you're business savvy even before they sign you.

My last 2 cents: Managers say they want writers who are "easy to work with," but what does that mean? Simply that you're not desperate. You're cooperative and take direction well. You have more ideas in your endless bag of tricks.

WHAT I KNOW: My advice is to first realize your success is in your control. It lies with you - NOT in another person, even in a manager or agent. If you truly, TRULY have a good script, it will get snapped up. I've seen it happen before my eyes.

[I think that many writers delude themselves thinking they truly have a good script. What is the criteria? It's hard to pin down, though I know it when I see it. If you're smart, do not pin your hopes to one script. You've already started writing the next one.]

Second, as you interview managers, look to see who else they represent. Ask yourself:
- Are their clients happy?
- Do they have a good reputation?
- Are they fair? Generous? Good people of integrity?
- What is their map for your career? Do they strategize well?

Best of luck!

TODAY'S 2nd NUGGET: Gasket Mad

I am about to breathe fire. I'm gasket erupting, grenade throwing, punching a hole in the cubicle mad.

I just read a 120+ pg. script that lacks structure, plot, characters, or dialogue. The only person who has an arc is a minor character. The main characters don't face real obstacles.

Let me lay out the framework: Essentially, a group decides to go on a trip. They plan for the trip. They discuss the trip.

This is not a story, much less a film.

Whoever came up with the concept probably had a bright idea, but not a story. Examples of bright ideas that go nowhere: "Let's go on a road trip!" "Let's bungee jump at midnight!" "Let's eat dirt for fun!"

Furthermore, the story has no legs because 1) there is no central conflict, thus, there is nothing to write about, so, 2) it goes off on meaningless tangents.

WHAT I"VE LEARNED: I feel insulted. I feel disrespected. Every time I crack open a script, I hope this will be the one I can champion. But then I get this kind of treatment?

Makes me not want to take my toys and go home. I do not want to play with you.

TODAY'S NUGGET: Get Out of My Sight, Subplot!

Don't you hate it when you're watching tv and someone stands right in front of you? Veerrrry annoying.

Today I had a script whose subplot was standing in the way of the main story. The writer kept going on and on about this VIP subplot, but all I wanted to shout was, "Get out of the way!" so I could watch the main story.

These are the kind of notes that say the same thing:
- The subplot didn't support the main story.
- The subplot didn't intertwine with the main story.
- The subplot should weave around the main story, like a braided rope. Here, there is such a loose braid that it does not hang together.
- There are two distinct stories here. The subplot and main story have nothing (or tangentially) to do with each other.

The subplot should not overshadow the main plot.

This is not earth shattering news. But I do see it in specs.

Either:
1) the writer thinks she's conveying one thing, but delivering another, or
2) the writer is trying to shoehorn his story into a genre (ex. there's a request for a horror script, but you wrote a drama and are trying to change the drama to meet the horror request), or
3) the writer didn't realize how far apart the two stories are.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: The solution is either to:
a) rewrite the subplot so it mirrors the main story, or
b) excise it entirely, which will require you to write another subplot.

Monday, January 4, 2010

TODAY'S 2nd NUGGET: More Grousing on Play by Play

I'm writing coverage now and am skipping most of the sports play by play detail.

To me, showing a play by play is like showing a fight scene. Thus, the same rules apply.

Say it with me: Story SHOULD NOT STOP for the game/fight scene. Character MUST CONTINUE DURING the game/fight scene.

Do NOT stick in a sports game just to show cool moves.

Do NOT stop the stakes because the game is going. If anything, the stakes should be higher after the game.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: If I wanted to watch a game, I'd stop reading your script and go watch ESPN.

Of course if you want me to stop reading your script, go ahead & include game scenes that don't push the story forward...

Whew! Glad I got that off my chest.

Now back to your regularly scheduled programming.

TODAY'S NUGGET: The Wrath Unleashed on Sports Stories

After a couple weeks without reading a spec, I was chomping at the bit to read today. I actually pitied the first script to cross my desk.

I tore into a sports drama. (As you know, sports stories can be notoriously boring for outsiders. But if done well, however, they can also be a canvas to discuss a bigger issue and inspire.)

I groused when I saw that today's script fell into a trap that I see often with this genre: The same old blood, sweat, and tears. In other words, it is not enough to only have a "rags to riches" or "overcome big odds story."

Sports is an equalizer of men/women. If you've got the talent, you're in. However, so many people have used sports to get out of poverty, or to overcome odds, that that particular story, standing alone, has become commonplace.

I'm not saying that the long hours of practice, discipline, and sacrifice are not honorable. I'm not even saying that they aren't amazing feats in real life.

However, I am saying that almost every sports script tries to sell me that "he/she overcame huge odds!" I'm unimpressed. You can't win me over with the same story.

HOW TO IMPRESS:

1. Find a character we haven't seen. ex. We may have seen a character like Michael Oher, but not a character like Leigh Anne Tuohy. I'd argue that the Blind Side is as much about a powerhouse behind the football player as it is about the player.

ex. Seabiscuit is about an underdog horse. But have you ever seen horse racing from the horse's point of view? From those angles?

ex. Ali is about an unusual boxer. But have you ever seen a boxer who drew national attention to the sport for his beliefs, his stance on war, etc. like that?

2. The athlete must overcome personal circumstances that we have not seen. An alcoholic parent is not enough. Poverty is not enough. Perhaps an unusual WAY he/she overcame the parent and or escaped poverty. (Can't think of an example at the moment. Can anyone else?)

3. To really get the tears flowing, the play by play action should ECHO the personal issues. Sortof like how the subplot should echo the main plot.

ex. Each sack of the main character during the game should stand for a sack in his personal life. (Or you can contrast them. ex. He wins on the field, but his personal life is a wreck.)

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Make sports accessible to the public by focusing on the character, not the sport. The sport is a vehicle for your character to express him/herself. Don't let the intricacies of the sport dominate.