Friday, February 26, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: Bleeding Onto the Page

Do I believe in writer's block?  Yes, but only as another name for a doubting, bullying, waking-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night kind of cloud that prevents you from writing.

I make time to write every day, but recently was getting really, really irritated because no matter how much time I set aside, nothing would appear on the page.

Some have suggested I should just allow myself to write crap & just let it flow.

But that wasn't the case here. I wrote lots of crap, until one day even that dried up.  I got to a point where I'd welcome crap.  I was paralyzed, but had no idea how much, nor why.

Was it fear of failure? Actually, no.

It was much more fearsome than that.

What really freaked me out is the cracking of myself wide open and letting someone in on the innermost feelings of vulnerability, of looking like a fool.

Maybe no one else would know, but my psyche is on that page. You'd be able to see me, at a particular stage in my life, at a particular location, with all the pain and angst. 

For those of us who write seriously, that personal mental space is prime real estate.  We protect at all costs.  Once you let someone in, it's still yours... but it also isn't. 

I tried everything during this time of paralysis.  I tried giving myself permission to fail. I half-heartedly tried meditation.  I tried reading good produced scripts.  But to no avail. 

Then one day I broke through only when I concentrated on really bleeding onto the page and not protecting myself from those raw emotions.  I let the characters matter so much, it was if I were describing my pain instead of theirs, my triumph instead of theirs.   I put on their irritations, their outrage, and their longings.  There was no barrier as I transfused my soul into theirs.

And the sun finally shown.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: It takes immense courage to bleed on the page.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

QUESTION FROM A READER: What's Coverage?!

Peter, a new writer, sent me a query: What exactly is coverage?

Before I came to LA, I wondered at all the hoopla about coverage.  Who could I trust? Was it worth the money? Why do I need it?

Now that I've written coverage for a production company, I know the truth. 

So let me answer a few questions.  (If you have others, feel free to email me or post comments.)

1. What is coverage? 

Glad you asked.  "Coverage" in the industry is a loose term.  Usually "production company/studio style coverage" means a 1-3 pg. book report type summary of your script.  The purpose is to give the exec a basic idea of the main story points, characters, dialogue, plot, conflict.   It points out the good stuff and the weak spots.  This usually a bare bones outline and talking points.

Coverage services may also offer supplemental services:
- story notes
- synopsis & treatment reviews
- tv spec services
- web series services

2.  What kind of coverage should I get? 

It depends on your needs.  But for the majority of writers who want the most for their money, I'd say story notes/coverage.

Why? Because it's the best of both worlds.  Straight coverage doesn't really help from the writer's point of view. You really want story notes b/c: 1) they explain WHY something isn't working, and 2) they may offer suggestions how to fix problems.

ex. Coverage - "This scene doesn't push the story."

ex. Story notes - "This scene doesn't push the story b/c Bill and Ted aren't in conflict over escaping the harem.  It plateaus here, and thus we aren't eager to move to find out what happens in the next scene. Keep escalating the tension between them. For example, Bill wants to hide out because the guards are looking for him.  But Ted needs to go rescue his sister. This could also plant the seeds of doubt in Bill's head that Ted doesn't have his back, which will also pay off on p. 75 when the harem guards find them again."

2.  When should you get coverage?

Some people write one draft and get coverage.  Some want a more "development process" and get multiple coverages after each draft.  Frankly, I think this just gets expensive. 

If you're writing a spec that hasn't been bought, l'd recommend polishing your script to the best of your ability, then get coverage. In other words, you've polished it to a shine & you're just about to submit it to a production company/agent/manager.  

2.  Should you wait to get coverage until you have 5-10 screenplays under your belt first? 

No.  I'd definitely send it for coverage if you get a request from a production company.   I'd also send it for coverage if you think your spec could really sell.

3.  It's expensive! Why should I get coverage? 

Honestly, I don't blame you.  I thought this too before coming to LA. 

However, the truth is that you need to get a feel for how your script will do in the industry.  Coverage/story notes is the quickest way to assess your scripts against others.

The two things a lot of writers don't have is: 1) experience, and 2) knowing the competition.

Example of Experience - You won't know why other spec thrillers before you did not interest an exec.  A good script consultant will have covered thriller scripts so they can explain to you why X needed to be bigger, or Y has been done before.

Example of Knowing the Competition - You might think your script is high concept, but you didn't know there are four other specs out there with the same topic.  A good script consultant who's in the know could alert you & suggest how you can distinguish your script.

As for the cost, think of it as an investment.  It takes a lot of time cracking story spines.

4. What should I look for in a coverage specialist?

Look for someone whose style you feel comfortable with and will give it to you straight.  Also make sure he/she is able to troubleshoot and EXPLAIN to you why it's not working without confusing you. 

ex. I sat down once with a well know story consultant in LA for a quick assessment on my own script.  Something about him made me uncomfortable, and I couldn't hear a word he said. 

WHAT I KNOW: Coverage is like a tune up.  It's not as painful as you think.  In fact, some have said that it's therapeutic to know where they stand.

TODAY'S NUGGET: "Doggie Breath" Conflict

Recently I was at my sister's house and sat on the floor.  I was sleepy and briefly closed my eyes.

I heard something and opened my eyes to smelly doggie breath in my face and a snout THISUNCOMFORTABLYCLOSE in my face.  Her dog had no idea what personal space is.

This image came to mind when I read a new logline today.  The story is about a wounded woman who must stand by her best friend during a big reunion while the best friend suffers a similar situation as the woman.

Can you see how uncomfortable this is? How this is really personal to the main character? It's in her face and she's got to solve it, or it won't go away.

I often see scripts where the character is able to keep the conflicts comfortably at arm's distance.  However, this is terribly boring.  Nothing is truly at stake for the lead.  It's got to be near and dear...uncomfortably so.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Conflict should arouse a reaction much like doggie breath in your face: It is extremely urgent that we solve the problem, and solve it NOW.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Mea Culpa (My Fault) Re: Two previous posts

Ann, a sharp reader, sent me a note about the non-sequitur of two previous posts...and I'm gonna swallow my ego & admit she's right.

I re-read my post & was chagrined that I didn't really answer David's question (apologies, David).

So I'm going to re-do the second post & answer his question as I should have.  Because after all, darn it, I swore an oath when I became a reader.  (OK, I made up my own oath, but the fact is that I'm sticking by it.)

The first post  - Scorsese's one liner was unusual for the very fact that the attractive one line of dialogue embodied the movie and AT THE SAME TIME could easily be the logline.  This is very rare & doesn't happen in every script. That's why I was so excited. 

The second post - David asked whether this one line of dialogue should focus on theme or plot.

[Here's where I went off on a tangent in post #2. I didn't focused on the one liner being dialogue -- I focused on a one liner being a logline.]

On further reflection, I'm gonna say both, if possible. ex. The "man or beast" line from Shutter Island sums up the struggle and the arc all in one.

But if I HAD to choose, I'd probably say theme.  To me, the theme tells me your idea - where you want to go, what you want to do, what you're aspiring to reach, i.e., the arc.  The plot I can figure out later, as long as I know the germ of the idea.

Examples of theme:
ex. Tootsie - When a man is forced to pretend to be a woman, he experiences a world he's never known
ex. Jaws - A man eating shark menaces a small town (man vs. beast)
ex. ET - A family pulls together to help an alien who's landed on earth to return home

QUESTION FOR THE READER: One Liners That Work

In the comments to Friday's post, David asked if 'boil down to one sentence' mean "the thematic essence of the story, rather than the plot"?

Short answer: If it helps you to think in terms of thematic essence or plot, go for it.

But I'll tell you the real truth: It doesn't matter. It's whatever works, whatever paints the best picture, whatever attracts attention and sets your script apart.

When I practice a one liner for an exec, I do try on different categories.

For example, if I were to pitch Toy Story, I might go through a series of categories:

- Theme: When a young boy hits an important birthday, he leaves his youthful toys behind.
- Plot: When a young boy gets a new toy, his old toys must readjust.
- Catchy phrase: What do your toys do when you're not around?
- Characters: Woody the cowboy hates the new toy, Buzz Lightyear the astronaut, and gets him into trouble, then must rescue him.
- Etc.

As you can see, I didn't have all winners. Some are better than others.

How do you know what works? I hate to say it, but there's no substitute for experience. I suggest regularly trying a few out on your friends & see how soon they get the picture.

Why? Because speed and clarity is key. If they don't get it, then you can be sure it's going to be a hard sell to folks who see and hear loglines all day long.

WHAT I KNOW: If you think you're good at one liners, you haven't practiced enough.

Friday, February 19, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: Scorsese's One Liner

On one of the morning talk shows today, Martin Scorsese mentioned that he wanted to make his latest movie, Shutter Island, in part because of this line: "Is it better to live a monster or die a good man?"

Wow. Now that's what I want to see in a script. One spectacular line that makes an A-lister salivate.

Mind you, I haven't seen the movie nor read the script, but I'm captivated by this one sentence.

Why?

It's got interesting characters - man or beast?

It's got universal conflict - I could be shunned, but still live, OR I could die a hero.

It contains an idea-action, i.e., the idea is monster vs. human, & the action is a man vacillating between both worlds.

It captures my imagination. The movie poster will capture the moment of indecision.

It's an easy sell. ex. "This is a modern day Jekyll and Hyde."

Wish I'd written that line...Or better yet - wish I'd written a script that Scorsese jumped on!

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I've seen too many scripts that I can't boil down to one sentence. This tells me a one liner is still the gold standard.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: I Can't Read Your Mind

OK, fun folks, I know I'm smart, but I can't read your mind.

1 - If it's not there on the page, I can't read your mind to figure out what you mean.

2 - If you don't make it clear in the narrative, I can't read your mind where you want to go.

3 - If you don't raise the stakes, I can't read your mind why this is a story.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I used to think I was asking too much from writers. Not anymore.

If writers aren't willing to work at the craft and put it on the page, I don't have to be nice either. Pass. I'll wait for the writer who SHOWS me, not TELLS me, great writing.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: Rom-com 1st 10 Pages

Today I read a well written rom-comedy whose 1st 10 pages:

1) introduces the main female character & her flaw in a realistic way
2) puts you right in the middle of the action in the 1st 2 pages
3) introduces the love interest in a way that allows a guy to be a real guy, and
4) crosses the couple's paths & hints at obstacles up ahead.

The script immediately had my interest b/c of:

a) movement on the page (vertical reading was easy) and
b) movement in the narrative (good verb choices that kept action flowing from scene to scene).

I liked how these two NEED each other. She's got a problem, and the guy steps up to help. A few pages later, we learn he has a problem that only she can solve.

Also, the writer didn't try to do too much and took the time to get the reader invested in the character. He wasn't impatient to jump to the next scene, and got several details in that are likely setups for the future.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Getting the audience invested in the couple are what well written rom-coms do splendidly.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: Interesting Intros

I like meeting characters & enjoy reading introductions to see what I'm in for.

Are they an accurate snapshot or clunky? It's kind of like when someone describes their spouse, but when you meet him/her, you realize it's skewed, or dead on.

A few things I like to see:

1. Active descriptions that show the character in mid-action. ex. "SAM (30), dressed in a pink tutu, pranced through the market. Somehow she was the distraction as well as the ringmaster."

2. If you're going to describe their internal attitude, use adjectives that lend themselves to physical action. ex. "TONY (50) was a sarcastic atheist, yet he still said a prayer every time he entered Yankee stadium."

3. A character's traits should be seen in his/her clothes, accessories, haircut, etc. But don't add details that don't matter. ex. I don't need to know he likes the color green if it doesn't affect the plot.

4. The best intro I saw was one that built so I couldn't wait for the character to speak. The writer gave little clues, little glimpses, little actions, then BAM! a visual of the whole character that contradicted all the little stuff. I couldn't wait for the first line of dialogue!

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: You only have one chance for a first introduction.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: Mass Feeding Frenzy

Recently, I saw something that I normally do not see: Development folks in a frenzied excitement over a script.

Apparently the script hit LA in the last couple of days & the email inquiries came in fast & furious. Is the script as good as the logline? Does it deliver what it promises? Who has it? Has anyone read the script? What is it like?

Here's my two cents why the concept & logline have the jaded in LA excited:

1. It's a recognizable, bankable story. The premise is CLEAR & is a tale that expands its genre, rather than a repeat of the same old, same old.

ex. Pirates of the Caribbean expanded the pirate genre, rather than repeated the same old story.

2. The logline moves. Yes, the logline BRISTLES with action. It has active verbs, and is not static.

3. There are STAKES. Already, I'm worried about the characters. For me, this is the toughest part to get into a logline.

4. There are characters who must overcome their FLAWS, or all is lost. The entire story hinges on the protagonist doing the right thing. We're rooting for this character even though we haven't seen a trailer or poster. This is key for marketing people. It's going to be easy to sell to audiences seeking someone they want to grow up to be like.

WHAT I LEARNED: Scriptdreric on Twitter said it best: "Most script readers [execs, assistants, etc.] actually WANT your screenplay to be good. We'd love to find that next big hit."

BOOK CLUB: Keepin' Comedy Loose (Ch. 33); Last Chapter!)

[Today we're reading Ch. 33 Aristotle Took Comedy Seriously, from Aristotle's Poetics for Screenwriters, by Michael Tierno (2002).]

The author writes, "Comedy uses the tools of the dramatic structure but it shapes a looser & more episodic plot so the jokes can carry it."

Hmmm...how does this really work?

I thought back to a comedy spec script that I really liked. The main female character is dating a rich, older guy and the script focuses on this unlikely romance.

However in a minor storyline, she must deal with her wimpy ex-boyfriend who camps out on her doorstep to win her back. There are several scenes where the ex-boyfriend is pretty funny. Were they absolutely necessary? No, but these episodes with ex-boyfriend did have a purpose: they were good fodder for jokes and laughter.

WHAT I’VE LEARNED: It's still plot 1st, jokes last...but perhaps I can be more conscious of playing more with plot to create more opportunities for jokes.

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

Sunday, February 7, 2010

BOOK CLUB: Psychological Suffering (Ch. 32)

[Today we're reading Ch. 32 Aristotle's Take on the Importance of Drama, from Aristotle's Poetics for Screenwriters, by Michael Tierno (2002).]

Today's chapter mentions intense emotional or psychological suffering & I thought I'd write a few words on a popular genre, the psychological thriller.

I've read a bunch of purported "psychological thriller" specs and was unimpressed. They were predictable & not truly playing with a person's mind.

What impresses me? A good lead up to the epiphany. Let me elaborate:

First, you need to lay out what the lead character's sore point is psychologically, i.e., why he is having issues.

Second, you need to gradually hammer at that sore point. Newbies make the mistake of thinking that to " hammer" means starting with HUGE FORCE. Uh, no. If you do, there's nowhere to go.
And it's creepier if you start with small discomforts and crescendo to a GIGANTOR conflict at the climax.

Third, when you reach that climax/epiphany/GIGANTOR moment, don't overplay it. Give us a beat of the antagonist remaining controlled as the protagonist explodes. THEN let the antagonist unravel.

ex. At the climax, cool, collected antagonist confesses that he killed protagonist's beloved father & buried him in a hidden location. Protagonist is reeling & is shoved into her worst fear: Her father truly is dead. Protagonist is melting down, and sobbing.

If you overplay it, you could make the protagonist leap up and confront the antagonist with a "You'll never get the best of me!" speech. *Yawn.*

If you're smart, you'll let the protagonist sob, mentally collect herself, and reach for something in her psychological arsenal that will trump the antagonist. This does 2 things: 1) It beats the bad guy at his game at the right time; & 2) It shows that the protagonist has completed her character arc.

WHAT I’VE LEARNED: Psychological thrillers are hot properties. But make sure to set it up properly for the most powerful effect.


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

TODAY'S NUGGET: Mr. Hyde, I Presume?

You will probably never actually see what readers look like when they're getting a head of steam as they cover scripts, so I thought I'd give you a glimpse what I looked like this past week.

I read on the nose dialogue, and my shoulders hunched.

(IN MY HEAD: Why are you telling me what they're thinking? Have you EVER heard someone say, "Of course I know how to dance. I was a cheerleader in high school."?)

I saw character arcs that plateaued, and my brow furrowed so deeply that I had a unibrow.

(IN MY HEAD: They're the same at the beginning and end. This is NOT A STORY.)

I read episodic scenes that just jogged in place, and I busted muscles Hulk style and threw the script across the room.

(IN MY HEAD: Where was the forward movement? Are we there yet? Are we there yet? If you're not going to take me somewhere, I don't want to get in the car. )

I turned one script upside down, and crossed my eyes, hoping that it would help clarify a plot that made no sense.

(IN MY HEAD: Just because the story takes place at a funeral doesn't mean it is interesting. Did anything happen in the middle of the story that would lead to heightened drama at the actual funeral? No. Did anything happen in the middle that would explain why a funeral was even necessary? NO. Why the )(@*#$^$#@#$!!! are we at a funeral?!)

WHAT I KNOW: Readers are people too.

Well, except the Mr. Hyde that lurks inside me. 'Course you'll never know... 'cause I keep him under wraps...until your script ticks me off...

Friday, February 5, 2010

BOOK CLUB: Bending History (Ch. 31)

[Today we're reading Ch. 31 History Repeats Itself...Real & Imagined, from Aristotle's Poetics for Screenwriters, by Michael Tierno (2002).]

I'm a big fan of using history in scripts.

How do you balance the accuracy of history & story? My rule is that good story rules, but use as much accurate history as possible.

Be judicial which facts need to be bent, O Grasshopper. Look hard for anything that rings false, or truly implausible...because if you screw it up, there are a hundred history buffs ready to jump.

ex. I read a spec script about a female Hollywood actress. The story was based on some facts, but also some imaginings of the undocumented periods of her life. I believed it all, even though I knew much had to have come from the writer's imagination.

The key was that it could've REALLY happened just as it was laid out. There wasn't a false note.

WHAT I’VE LEARNED: If you want a totally non-dramatic, entirely truthful retelling of the boring parts of a person's life, the movies are not for you.

(I actually knew a guy who didn't like "suspending disbelief." No surprise he wasn't a moviegoer.)

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

BOOK CLUB: Sly Hints (Ch. 30)

[Today we're reading Ch. 30 If Your Were a Musical, Where Would the Numbers Be?, from Aristotle's Poetics for Screenwriters, by Michael Tierno (2002).]

The author of this book writes that the “[Greek] chorus developed the magnitude of the story, making it seem more frightening, more intense & more real.”

What does that mean to us today? Imagine a chorus of a hundred men eerily chanting the hero’s doom. I feel goosebumps.

Today, we don’t use choruses, but you can this idea to great effect.

How? Use your minor characters as your chorus to drop clues & eerily predict stuff the hero is going to face.

Ex. In the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy introduced us to three awkward farmhands, & the mean neighbor. We had no idea that they’d play big roles in her journey as the Cowardly Lion, Tin Man, Scarecrow, & Wicked Witch.

WHAT I’VE LEARNED: I always like it when the minor characters know more than the protagonist & then slyly hint at what he/she knows. This conflict is more interesting to watch & gets in more information in than the protagonist just divulging it.


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

Thursday, February 4, 2010

BOOK CLUB: Playing with the Timeline (Ch. 29)

[Today we're reading Ch. 29 The Non-Lienar Soul of Quentin Tarantino, the Movie Won’t Either, from Aristotle's Poetics for Screenwriters, by Michael Tierno (2002).]

The author writes: “The chronological shuffling must work to create MEANING, & jolts in the movie's time line must call attention to themselves (& better be used for a good reason!)” P. 139.

Many people have tried to copy Tarantino's Pulp Fiction timeline construction. However, I think he split the middle & stuck it in the beginning & end to emphasize what is the new 'middle.' I don't think imitators quite have his flair of how and why to juxtapose scenes.

WHAT I’VE LEARNED: The only reason to play with chronology is if it will dramatically increase conflict. Otherwise, leave it alone.

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

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

BOOK CLUB: Pitch = Sale (Ch. 28)

[Today we're reading Ch. 28 If the Pitch Doesn’t Fill Me with Horror & Pity, the Movie Won’t Either, from Aristotle's Poetics for Screenwriters, by Michael Tierno (2002).]

The author writes: “Dramatic story is first & foremost an oratorical art; the incidents have to sound good to the ear (& mind) if they are going to entertain….” P. 135.

Ancient Greece’s version of movie stars were famous orators. These men had such powerful speaking skills that they could move a crowd to riot or to action.

Does your pitch create this kind of deep emotion? Or at least "I've GOT to see this opening weekend?" It should.

Tap into the primal fears, dreams, & longings we all have. Don’t settle for the surface.

Ex. The Blair Witch Project had great buzz b/c even if you didn’t like horror, you couldn’t help be captivated by the raw, palpable fear on faces in the ads.

WHAT I’VE LEARNED: The easier the pitch, the quicker the sale.


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

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

BOOK CLUB: Verbal Fightfest (Ch. 27)

[Today we're reading Ch. 27 Dialog is a Piece of the Action, from Aristotle's Poetics for Screenwriters, by Michael Tierno (2002).]

Aristotle had an interesting concept on how to construct dialogue. He called it a dialectic.

1st – A makes a statement (thesis): “You drive slower than my grandmother.”
2nd – B makes the opposite statement (anti-thesis): “Your grandmother is dead.”
3rd – The 2 statements collide and form a synthesis & we start all over again. “Exactly.”

Because of the clash, it is action and moves the story forward.

This is different from conversation which doesn’t really go anywhere.

C – “That’s a nice sweater.”
D – “I got it at a rummage sale.”
C – “Cool.”

The author suggests mixing dialectic (action dialog) & conversation in varying degrees for an interesting mix.

WHAT I’VE LEARNED: Whenever I see on the nose dialogue, it’s almost always conversation rather than dialectic.

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

Monday, February 1, 2010

BOOK CLUB: How You Order Coffee (Ch. 26)

[Today we're reading Ch. 26 How to Create Characters That Are Really Really Really Alive, from Aristotle's Poetics for Screenwriters, by Michael Tierno (2002).]

In this chapter, the author writes that Aristotle considered 5 areas that make up a person’s psychology, & thus can be useful in creating characters:

1. Nutritive Life – eating habits
2. Desiring Life – hero’s desires
3. Sensitive Life – 5 senses
4. Locomotion – how they move
5. Capacity for Rational Thought – irrational vs. rational

I found this helpful, as I’m always looking for new ideas to express a character through action.

I hadn’t thought about eating habits, nor the 5 senses. But if you think about it, how someone orders a coffee tells you a lot about their mental state.

Ex. “Coffee, black.” Vs. “I’d like a choco choco chip moccachino with whipped cream, but real cream, not the kind in a can, & I’ll take carob chips if you have them, but if not, then regular chips are ok.”

WHAT I’VE LEARNED: I don’t drink coffee. Maybe I'll have my character order something non-caffeinated in a coffee shop.

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