Wednesday, March 31, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: Theme & Symbolism

Last night I attended a free panel "Getting Staffed [for TV]!" at the Writer's Boot Camp in Santa Monica & co-sponsored by Script magazine.

The panelists consisted of 2 writers (Mark Wilding, Steven Binder) & 2 execs (Jen Grisanti, Zack Sherman). 

To me, the most interesting point made was that the most successful, most unique tv programs today are very strong in theme & symbolism.  One exec said that this is often the key to give one script the edge over another perfectly good script.

ex. In Mad Men, there's a power struggle theme that permeates home, work, play.
ex. In House, M.D., Dr. House's cane & limp are strong symbols of who he is, how he uses his infirmities as a sword to keep people at bay.

Theme & symbols have a big impact because they make it easier for the reader to understand your bigger idea.

Remember the "Heart of the Sea" necklace in Titanic?  It's not just any priceless necklace. It's a symbol of Rose's captivity into the life her mother & fiancee wanted her to have.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Theme & symbols must be used carefully. They're like lasers - they can be really effective, or really disastrous.

Don't just stick in symbols that make no sense.  Don't carry a theme of greed, if greed doesn't make your point.

Monday, March 29, 2010

QUESTION: 5 Questions No One Asked on #scriptchat

Yesterday I participated in #scriptchat, a lively Twitter discussion group held every Sunday for an hour.  There's a UK version (noon EST) & a US version (8pm EST).

The topics change & this week participants could ask 5 readers (one of which was moi) questions. It was fast & furious fun!

For those who didn't catch it, here's the transcript:

Here are the questions I know you wanted to ask but didn't.  (At least these are things I'd want to ask)

1. Do you have a recommended eating routine for writers?  Yes, but the starving artist's diet isn't very popular.

2. Are you a real person?  No, I'm a figment of my own imagination.

3. Do I have to live in LA?  No, you may teleport in.

4. How do I grow a thick hide?  You're allowed to cry for the first 200 times in the privacy of your home.

5.  What would you pay me to write?  Something that evokes PASSION, something that keeps me wondering, "What's next?"

WHAT I'VE LEARNED:  When you have questions on writing, read David Mamet's great memo:

Monday, March 22, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: Should I Try to Sell a "Trendy" Script?

[NOTE: Sorry blogosphere for not blogging as frequently of late. I'm writing my own script and am on a real tear.  Now back to your regularly scheduled programming.]

There are few rules I will proclaim are eternal, but here is one: Hollywood will always, always, always buy material that sells.

Predicting what the public will consume is the tricky part.  They try to bank on stuff that's sold before.  Anything too new or different is scary b/c it won't make back a profit to survive another day.

So on the one hand, Hollywood proclaims it wants something new (which it does), but also wants something repeatable & reliable (which it does).

So how do they deal with the dichotomy?  They rely & watch trends.

The way to deal with trends is to recognize:

1) What the trends are
2) What the fatigue level is in Hollywood for the trend

3) Is your script really about the trend or about something universal? (Hint: It should be about the latter.)

Here are 2 examples of specs I read recently:

ex. Script A gives H'wood the bro-mance trend.  But frankly, there are so many copycats, there is a fatigue...unless your "trend" is more universal & just happens to touch on the trend, which this script does not.  I wasn't a big fan.

ex. Script B also gives H'wood the vampire trend, which is rather played out too & a new vampire flick will not stand out.

But what if your script is about the dynamics of a husband-wife or father-son dynamic & they just happen to be vampires? What if this story focused wasn't so much about being vampires, but feeling like a stranger in your own family?  And that's the reason I liked the script so much. Vampire was secondary.

Now you may ask, how do I make my vampire or bro-mance script stand out in a sea of copycats?  Won't the execs just dump my script b/c they think I'm following the passe trend?

My answer: If your script is unusual enough (& by that I mean it is: 1) so clear & fascinating; & 2) a simple phrase summarizes it so it hypes up jaded execs & their assistants), it won't matter when it's submitted.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED:  Trends don't mean much if it's a really, really, really, unusually good script.

When it will be made, that's another story.

Monday, March 15, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: Unlikeable (for Antagonists)

A crackerjack writer, Ann, liked the previous blog on "Unlikeable" protagonists & asked if I had suggestions for antagonists.

It reminds me about a graphic novel I covered a couple months ago. 

This was an "updated" fairy tale with a "twist."  The producers were hopeful the antagonist could be a jumping off point for a script.  In fact, the graphic novel was "out to writers" for ideas.

Between you and me, the writers had their work cut out for them.

GOOD STUFF: The antagonist did everything an antagonist is supposed to do: threatened the protagonist, raised the stakes, caused problems the protagonist had to solve, etc.

BAD STUFF: The antagonist was unlikeable, but not in a good way, and was an unremarkable, unexciting persona.  It's like surveying a Halloween party and seeing a dozen devil look alikes.  No one stands out.

What would I recommend to potential writers?

- Identify why the antagonist needs the protagonist & vice versa. 

ex. Here, I was unconvinced that the antagonist's journey depended on the protagonist.  It could've been any Joe Schmoe.  Why does it have to be THIS protagonist? 

- Create an antagonist with substance. 

ex.  Here, not much thought is given to the antagonist's motives, his flaws, or why he wants to conquer the world.

And no, it's not enough just to baldly state that the antagonist is bad, evil, mean.  You must show WHY he is making these decisions.

- Your antagonist should naturally be "unlikeable" b/c he opposes the protagonist's goal.  (Make sure your protagonist has a goal & it's stated early on.)  But don't stop at the superficial.

What is very intriguing is if you can create an antagonist who deliberately flirts with the grey area and paints your antagonist into a corner.  Let the antagonist make good moral arguments why his viewpoint is valid. 

ex. Here, the antagonist never waffled with doubt or fear.  How realistic is that?

- Your antagonist will also be "unlikeable in a good way" if he violates what people perceive as fair or reasonable. Small touches always help tilt the balance against the bad guy.

ex.  Antagonist feels entitled & always jumps the line at the grocery story, the restaurant, etc.
ex. Antagonist steals coins from a blind man.
ex. Antagonist yells at a child in pain.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Spend more time with your antagonist than you think.

Ironically, if your antagonist is strong, your protagonist (& your script) will be better.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: "Unlikeable"

I hate the dumbing down of characters.  Not every protagonist needs to be likeable.

Sympathetic, yes. But not sanitized, cookie cutter likeable.

So when you get the note, “Character needs to be more likeable,” what the hell does that mean?

(BTW, I don’t like notes like that – it’s vague and simply lazy.  It could mean anything from “I didn’t understand him” to “She’s too abrasive.”)

In reality, non-writers (executives/family/well meaning friends) use this as code for: "I don't like your character, but I don't have the time to figure out why, so please just fix it."

GOOD NEWS: You are the master of the universe.  You’re the writer, and therefore the problem solver.  You can solve this problem.

BAD NEWS: You’ve got unspecific notes from the exec that the character needs to be more likeable. You’re on a deadline.  Now what?

I read a good spec script recently that might shed some light on this eternal question.

The story is about a guy who barters with a dating expert for help.  The character is unlikeable, a cad, and rather shallow, but it didn’t bother me.

Read that again. Didn’t. Bother. Me.


-    He serves up attitude with a side of vulnerability, which keeps it interesting in the usually dead Act 2.
-    He’s unrepentant about dating women like kleenex.  There are hints he’s protecting a sore spot in the script.  The writer did an admirable job of showing it in the subtext.
-    Even though I might not agree with his decisions, I sense his motivation (which leads back to me identifying with the character).


On draft 1 - If your character is “unlikeable,” check to make sure we SEE why we should empathize with the character.

On 1+ drafts – If your character is “unlikeable,” always check that you’ve explained WHY we should empathize with the character.  Have you laid out or hinted at his motivation clearly enough?

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Monday, March 8, 2010


I've been invited to guest blog on Story Spot, a site for story consultants, script doctors, etc. tomorrow! Check out a very vulnerable post...

TODAY'S NUGGET: I've Got a Request! Now What?

Last night at an Oscar party, I met a new writer who had just gotten a script request.  I noticed that the glow from the request was fading & it was beginning to sink in that the hard work was about to begin. 

It's like you've been practicing on a tricycle, & suddenly you're handed a two wheeler. You're thinking to yourself, "I've-accomplished-a-big-step-what-the-hell-do-I-do-now?"

A few tips:

1 - Relax.  Take a day to decompress.

2 - Realize this is a new reality of being a writer.  Be proud of yourself for taking another step in your career.  Now, take what you've learned from this blog & put it into practice.  The worst thing you can do is forget what you've learned.

3 - Speak words of encouragement to yourself every day.  As the demands of life begin to take over your attention, you'll be tempted to think, "I can't do this" and "I'll just forget this request." 

You, and only you, are responsible for keeping your emotions in check & your creative floodgates open. 

Do NOT talk down to yourself when you have a bad writing day.

Do NOT talk about failure, because there is no failure. Even if you get a "no," it's a "no" on this project - not on projects forever.  And b/c you have a relationship, you can submit again.

If you're not confident in your vision (or able to fake it until you make it), then you're not cut out for life as a writer.  That's what we're paid for - our vision.

4 - A few words on perfectionism. 

You've put time aside & made writing a priority to make this script request in 30 days.  (Good)

Your rewrite is stalling.  (Bad)

You POLITELY inquire if you could have another 30 days, & it is granted. (Good)

You're refusing to show your script to anyone, but the time is ticking down. (Bad)

You miss the deadline again. (Very bad)

You just don't submit. (Very, very bad b/c you're not acting professionally)

What's the morale of the story?  Realize you need help sooner than later.  GET HELP.  Ask a friend to read your script, even unfinished.  Get story notes, get coverage, get SOMETHING to help you finish.

Also, don't defeat yourself by measuring yourself against a shooting draft of an Oscar nominated script, or someone else's work.  Those have multiple passes with development notes & have been polished & polished & polished FOR YEARS.

Your job: Hand in the VERY VERY BEST draft you can.  But if it has a small hole, that is ok. 

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Your job is to deliver the vision.

A reader is thinking, "Do I like this script as a whole?" 

The small stuff can be easily fixed, but the vision can't.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Today's Nugget: Tin Man Needs a Heart

TODAY'S NUGGET: Tin Man Needs A Heart

I'm determined to finish reading the action spec I started yesterday.  I'm pausing at p. 58+ to write this blog b/c I'm struggling to stay awake.

Let's examine what the writer did right & wrong:

- It's about one concept, i.e., getting a VIP out of trouble.
- The writer sticks to that one concept.
- Every scene builds so we wonder how the main character will rescue the VIP.
- Some good conflict in here & there.

- I'm not engaged emotionally.
- Lots of action, action, action, but I'm not engaged emotionally.
- Because I'm not engaged emotionally, I don't really care about the character.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I can't identify with someone who isn't at least a little bit vulnerable. I can't crack his shell & identify with him.  For heaven's sake, give the Tin Man a heart!

Friday, March 5, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: Don't Forget to Solve the Sore Spot

Today I read a spec that's making the rounds.

The writer is clearly action oriented, and aiming for a tent pole audience.  There's plenty of whizz-bang-crash, & a clear villain.  But I'm kinda tired & it's only page 22.

On the surface, it seems to have the whole checklist:

Flawed hero? Check.

Unusual situation? Got it.

Stakes? Uh...sortof...He's a problem solver for other people.  Not sure what his stakes are yet.

Good problem? Not really. Bingo - this is the issue!  He needs money to get him out of a ditch, but I'm just not convinced money will really solve his real flaw, i.e., his emotional distance from his family. Say he saves the day & he'll be a hero to the world...but he doesn't address the emotional flaw.  If this isn't fixed, he'll still be far away from what really matters to him (family), & that's just a really sad ending to a film that should end with him reunited with his family.

Here, what's the point of getting the money?  It doesn't do much because it doesn't solve his sore spot.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED:  The character's goal should help him solve his personal sore spot.  Otherwise, why are we watching this movie?

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: Becoming A Couple

Billy Mernit's excellent recent blog reminds us that "the primary job of a rom-com writer, is to convince the audience that these two people must become a couple."

There should be such a sense of longing and belonging between these two that we pull for them, & we despair when they're apart.

This is what all rom-com fans are looking for.  However, some critics also say that this is what makes rom-coms too predictable. 

As Billy says (& I can attest from specs), too many scripts focus on the obstacles, not the couple.

So what to do?   I think the secret for a good rom-com (or romantic story line) lies in a proper set up for the inevitable split and reconciliation.  If you can properly drive the story toward that split, you can satisfy (maybe) both fans & critics. 

What does this mean?  Show the main character's world without the love interest.   Place the love interest in a position that shakes up the main character's world.  The two characters bond, & we see how they are better together than apart.

Then rip them apart to test the strength of that bond, and make them struggle to reconcile, because it's that testing that clarifies to us that these two should be together.

ex. Although not a rom-com, George Clooney's character in Up in the Air does have a well set up romance.  The audience sees him alone and satisfied with his no-strings-attached, black-and-white vision.

Then Vera Farmiga's character enters and he suddenly, he sees color for the first time. We're rooting hard for him as he changes in her presence & we're aghast at the split. We root even harder for them.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Everything in a rom-com (or romantic story line) should be engineered so that we can see why these two must be together.

Billy Mernit's blog:
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