Monday, June 28, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: Feelin' Sorry for Me

I'd like to talk today about feelin' sorry. (And if I can get you to feel sorry for me, all the better.)

Recently, I read in an article that the top 3 techniques to get to the emotional core of a character is pathos (feelin' sorry), humanity & admiration.* 

Pathos is the quickest way of the three.  (It happens to be my favorite & I'm not apologizing for it. So there.)

But how do you write pathos?

For those of you who have the magazine, go read the article & its well thought out answers.

For those who don't, you have the rest of this blog. (Be afraid. Be very afraid.)

So here's my two cents: I firmly believe that sympathizing with a character requires showing a FLAW.  I've written about it in several places, but it all boils down to feelin' sorry for the sad sap ...who's got problems just like you & me.

But you knew that b/c you're a regular blog reader, right?

[What do you mean you haven't been reading my blog? For all that's holy, do it now, man, NOW!

Flaws vs. Goals vs. Motives
Honestly, What Is Your Flaw?]

WHAT I'VE LEARNED:  I like feelin' sorry, b/c that means the character has something really at stake, and thus has an arc to travel.  


* The article is "Pixar's Emotional Core: The Secret to Successful Storytelling," Creative Screenwriting Magazine, May/June 2010, by Karl Iglesias, p. 54-57.  He's also written a book, "Writing for Emotional Impact."

And no, I am not being paid to write about this article.  Just sayin'.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: When a Cat Brings You a Baby Bird

I'm cat sitting and was stunned today when the cat raced into the house with a FLAPPING BABY BIRD in her mouth. 

Holy cow! What was I supposed to do? I wanted to run screaming "EWWW!" from the room, but knew I needed to get that bird away.

This is the kind of situation you want for your characters: They MUST make a decision either one way or the other, & there's no way out.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Don't run like a pansy and let the cat run the show.  The main character must take charge & make pro-active decisions.

(Yes, I did get the baby bird away.  Unfortunately, the damage had already been done & it passed to Shady Acres soon thereafter.)

Sunday, June 20, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: Push Me Forward

Question: What is the most common problem I see in scripts? 
Answer: A narrative that lists to the left or right (or outright sinks the boat).

My most consistent comment/complaint/prayer/begging in coverage is: You Don't Push Me Forward.  You MUST push me forward.

But what does that mean in practical terms?

It means that every line ADVANCES the story. 

The tendency is to bask in the moment, especially in the reaction shots.  Every line - YES, EVERY LINE - should leave us wondering, rooting, curious, aghast, horrified at what is coming next. 

ex. Heroine steps on the gas to make the red light, and just swerves to miss a traffic cop. She weakly smiles and waves apologetically.

Let's focus on the weak reaction shot.  It shows that the character feels guilty.  Fine, but it's a dead end narrative b/c it does nothing to keep us reading. 

[This is the perfect time for me to take a snack break.  Hint: Don't give me an excuse to eat Cheetos.  Once my face is covered in cheese dust, there's no reason to return to your script.]

Here are some better alternatives:

ex. She taunts him with a "f- you" smile, and speeds up, despite the flashing red lights.  [Horrific! What cop would stand for that disrespect? Must read on...]

ex. Heavy with guilt, she shouts, "I'm sorry! I'm so sorry! I'm --" Suddenly, she collapses at the wheel.  [Holy cow! Is this woman epileptic? Must read on...]

ex. When the cop pulls her over, she's "penitent" - and palms him a get-out-of-jail-free card.  [Bribery! Good conflict.]

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: These are called "moving pictures" because something must be moving on the screen.

And yes, there is an hierarchy of snacks.  If I'm deep into my second pint of mint chocolate chip, then you've lost me for good.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: Monkey on Your Back

I started to read a drama spec written by an A list writer about a month ago.  But I had to put it down, but not for the usual reasons.

Frankly, it was scary as hell.

I've read more violent horror scripts.

I've read more psychologically jarring scripts.

But this script crept into the space between my body and my soul, & freaked me out about the things I take for granted, like being able to identify my blind spot.

It was like a monkey that clings to your back. You get rid of the monkey & think you're safe. But then you look in the mirror & see that that monkey has hidden in that blind spot & never left - - & may never leave.

The writer kept the pressure on, even in the lulls.  He increased the tension to pitch levels by mixing a few false sightings of that monkey, a few real reflections of the Evil Antagonist, and false imaginations. 

Oh, and add the disappointment of your family? Deadly.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Sometimes fear is knowing that a monkey is going to give you rabies & you just can't avoid it.

Friday, June 11, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: How I Know It's Good Writing

Today I want to talk about good writing.

[Why? Because I've seen too much bad writing this week, but I digress.]

I know it's Good Writing when...

- I remember your scene even though it's six months later.

- I quote your dialogue back to you.  (And I rarely quote dialogue word for word.)

- I can act out your scene to strangers in the grocery store.

- I can pitch your script to my far-from-the-industry-sister without a pained expression because I actually get your script. (And she likes it, which is a good sign. Because after all, she's your if-I-like-it-I-will-buy-all-the-paraphernalia type.)

- You made me glad you scared the crap out of me.  Because I don't like to be scared, and if you can make me glad, then you've really done an outstanding job.  (Didja follow that?)

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Good writing inspires others to get passionate, to get behind the script, to fund the movie. 

So it all comes back to the page.  You're only as good (or bad) as your product.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: The Importance of Being Urgent

I am cranky. Again.

OK, it's not an unusual sight, but I really am cranky after reading a tween sci-fi spec spec that didn't have a sense of urgency.

Urgency = "This Very Important Problem must be solved because..."

Here are the top 3 reasons this story lacked urgency:

1 - The story structure wanders & does not increase in tension. 

ex. The script indulges in unnecessary back story of the adults, and goes into depth with their storylines. (Uh, excuse me, this is a TWEEN movie.)

2- The main character is a Teen Boy who is never really in jeopardy.

ex. Teen Boy doesn't have to face the antagonist even at the most crucial moment.  Even at the climax, the best friend defeats the enemy and rescues everyone. 

3 - MOST GLARING: There is no reason to go on this journey because there's nothing really at stake for the Teen Boy. 

ex.  He's going on this trip for the good of mankind.  Not to save a dog. Or to impress a girl. Or to defend his home from the enemy. 

I'm all about helping mankind, but in a movie, it's too far removed and frankly, non-visual.  I need to SEE something at stake.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Urgency stems from the character's need to accomplish a TASK THAT MATTERS.

This script had a lot of action, action, action.  But without consequences or stakes, the endless action seemed fruitless and boring.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: I Am Afraid of Virginia Woolf

Furious Love was just released yesterday.  It's a book of love letters between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, written with the cooperation of Miss White Diamonds herself.

Why do we still care about the Taylor-Burton relationship?

1) They lived on a really grand scale when stars were STARS;
2) They were two very talented people from very different backgrounds; and
3) The love-hate, can't-live-with-you-can't-live-without-you, let's-get-married-divorced-married-divorced dynamic.  In other words, conflict.

Conflict kept them together, but drove them apart.

And their movie roles were similarly at odds.

I confess I could barely stand watching Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? because the conflict made me sweat bullets.  But I couldn't but help watch Taylor go off the deep end.  I really wanted Burton's facade to crack and slap her. 

I realize that a lot of scripts don't keep up that level of conflict & driving need to win.  Smart writers know that even the lulls aren't really lulls.  Conflict must be there all the time. 

It's exhausting.  Which is why movies aren't exactly real life.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: After the movie ended, I saw why this couple mesmerized the public both on screen and off.

CONFLICT.   (And that level of hostility is why Virginia Woolf was darn scary.)

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: "A Star is Born" Times Four

When I heard that the movie "A Star is Born" may be remade for the fourth time, I wondered why it is continually remade approx. every 20 years (1937, 1954, 1976)?

What is the fascination with this tale of a rising star and destruction of another falling star?

Hmmm.  I knew I must investigate.

So over the weekend, I watched the 1976 Barbara Streisand and 1954 Judy Garland versions. 

(I would've watched the 1937 version, but don't have access to a VHS right now.  This is another reason I will never throw away my VHS at home. The end.)

Here's three things I saw & my hopes for the 2011 (2012? 2013?) version:

- Every 20 yrs., there is a new "Esther Blodgett" who epitomizes that decade.  Judy Garland was right for 1954.  She was a career woman who shone as a movie musical star. Streisand was a more woman's lib Esther who toured as a headliner. 

The new Esther won't be hemmed in as a paid player in the studio system (Garland), or have to prove she can headline (Streisand). 

Today's Esther is an independent contractor who absolutely headlines her own tour.  I'd be curious to see how she handles actually have too many choices. She might have fewer excuses, more demands, less privacy, more invasive press. 

- In both versions, it's Esther vs. her husband in a universal conflict of her success vs. his success. Only one can win.

I liked that both versions didn't try to dilute how tough that dynamic is. 

Judy Garland especially has a powerful scenes where she explains she's at the edge and can't take it any more as she watches her husband slowly destroy himself day after day.

- I think this movie is about 1) pride, and 2) functioning in the glare of fame.  Today's Esther will have to face a different world than Judy or Barbara. 

There is less respect for privacy, and much more public pressure & discussion of "what a star should do" on talk shows & magazine covers.  Whether or not successful stars want to admit it, it's hard to not be influenced by people's opinion of your spouse. 

I'd like to see a new demon coming from within Esther rather than from the outside.  How does she deal with her own feelings of disappointment?

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: The story is timeless because there can only be one "head of household." 

The question is: Can we agree who that breadwinner is?