Set Up = Death

Just critiqued a client’s script and without going into story specifics, I thought I’d give you some of the take-aways.

It was one of the best scripts I’ve ever had a client deliver. Still, there were areas to improve.

The cliched rule-of-thumb with first draft (and this was a third draft) scripts is, “Rip out the first 20 pages.” I did it with a script of mine about four scripts ago.

This writer wanted to show how the hero got to where he is. That his mother had died. That his uncle was giving him a place to live. The hero meets the girl (a set up which, in the phone conference, we decided he keep). We meet the hero’s friends, adorable goofy losers. We see him get his first real job since his mother died. We do not meet the person who will be the eventual opponent, with whom the hero will do battle at the end.

I kept making notes on the pages… “where is tension?” “story not started” “where conflict?”

I do that a lot, by the way. I need a “Where CONFLICT?!” rubber stamp!

Because the scenes were just set up… telling us where the character was and sort of how he got there… it was impossible for there to be any real tension, because the story had not yet started. Once the story begins, you can have real, meaningful conflict. Not chit-chat argument that isn’t “about” anything.

The hero didn’t have a goal. Not one we could see, like, at night, a super columnated beam of light from a lighthouse was shining on it. Imagine how bright a light that would be, shining on your hero’s goal… Or this one… spotlights slung under the wings of a B-17, swooping in low (again at night) as the bad guy zig zags across the desert in a jeep, trying to stay out of that bright white light. The bomber’s machine guns cutting into the desert scrub as the hero’s goal tries to elude the writer / pilot… once the jeep gets in the light, lock on and stay on, and then get rid of all that zig zagging through the desert before you got the light on your hero’s goal.

A tortured image that I will probably give up on now.

Tell us / showing us how the hero GOT to where his predicament began is a recipe for slow, boring doom and a reader stopping at page 8 or 9. That assumes you’ve gotten your script past the coverage stage, to a person who is legally allowed to STOP reading… like an agent.

The story has to START with the hero with a problem, not waiting for it to begin. It may be a low grade problem, like a fever, but the beginning is not before the hero has a problem. The problem just gets WORSE as he moves forward. I kept writing FADE IN: and scratching it out, and a few pages later, writing FADE IN: and scratching it out… until I finally found what I suspected would end up being the opening of the movie… the hero trying to attain his goal, with a plan… and then (guessing here) about 14 pages later, that plan explodes and the hero hurtles toward the end of act one.

I suggested the writer keep the stuff that pertained to the last fifteen pages of his script, and cut most of the first 20 pages. I hope that is what he’ll do. Because suddenly, his script will be easier to write.


Filed under Uncategorized

Emphasize the Drama

I notice I’ve written this on my students’ short film scripts a lot this week. Blame them for my radio silence, as they suck up a ton of time. Anyway.

One thing several of them seem to do (besides ignoring my wise counsel a lot of the time) is skate past the most interesting, critical moment in the story.

I’ve been working with them all semester to get their stories right, format right, cutting boring stuff, etc. Now, their scripts are in good shape and I find myself pushing them to find the real meaning in their script. “How can you now put something of yourself into this story?” “How can you make it be about something, something that matters?” “How can you make it more emotional?”

I suggest they, and you, go to the points in the story where important things happen (like the end) and see what you can do to wedge in more intensity. More emotion. More conflict.

Look at your climactic scene and see where a teacher would write MORE in red pen.

Is there more dialogue to be added between the hero and opponent? Something that relates to the core idea of your story?

What from your own life and experience can you work into those characters?

Are you fully exploring the relationships between the characters? This will lead to an enormous amount of depth. Just because you’ve done nine drafts doesn’t mean you can’t figure out more about your characters and how they relate to each other and the core idea of your story. Write their names down on a piece of paper. Good guys on one side. Bad guys on the other. Draw arrows from every character to every other character. See if there are connections to be made that you have, up to now, ignored. Who might have interaction with someone you didn’t expect, and can that help your story?

Is it as INTENSE as possible?

How can you make the scene WORSE for the character? What can you do to amp up the agony for everyone in the scene? What can you do to amp up the joy?

Rewriting is all about questions.
What questions do you ask the actors who are playing the characters?
What questions might the reader ask you?
What things might be better left unsaid? Turn a line of dialogue into a look. Actors love it when you cut their dialogue as it gives them something to do with their faces.


Make sure, when you are looking at an important scene, that you have squeezed each moment and each character dry before you feel it’s time to move on.


Filed under character, Good Writing, Rewriting, Screenwriting

Is anything about writing easy? The Little Voice in Your Head…

I have a tiny little voice in the back of my head. Sadly, it does not give me football scores before the games. It does warn me when there is something wrong with my writing.

But, it is SO quiet. So distant. So almost not there…

I ignore it a lot.

Can’t do that. Not ever, because it’s always, always, always right.

Generally, what happens is… it says, so softly as to be inaudible, “This isn’t working.” And, generally, I drown it out with, “It’ll be fine.” You think by now, I’d have learned. When the tiny voice tells you something isn’t working, and you think it will be fine anyway, most likely you are wrong. But it may take draft after draft after draft before you realize that the thing is NEVER going to work, and you’re going to have to buckle down and do the work and fix it.

As long as you do the work before you hand in your writing, you’ll be fine.

This thing I’m working on, has two scenes in a bath house. As I write this down, it seems so obvious, but I can tell you, it wasn’t. The little voice would tickle me and say, “One of those scenes is kinda like the other one.” And I would tamp the voice down… which is VERY EASY TO DO, as I weigh a lot and the voice is thin as smoke. Finally, after getting notes from a friend, I saw that the two scenes were basically saying the same thing, so I combined them into one. Saved some pages. Saved some dead weight. Saved some useless repetition. And finally shut the voice up.

The instant I made the change, I knew the scene worked. At last I felt better.

Disregard the Little Voice at your peril. Find a way to listen. Which is a lot more difficult than you may think.


Filed under Criticism, Good Writing, Rewriting, Screenwriting, Uncategorized

WOLF OF WALL STREET… seems to be all true…

Or at least enough to suit me, the screenwriter.

Scorsese has done this before. Just before THE AVIATOR came out, I read two Howard Hughes biographies. Not to prep for the movie, but it just worked out that way. And man, about 90% of everything in that movie was exactly what happened in real life. And it worked dramatically. Wow.

So, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, seems to be the same thing. It mostly all happened, pretty much just like in the guy’s book.

[I can't make the links work on this thing, so you'll have to cut and paste. So sorry.]

Slate article about THE WOLF OF WALL STREET…

I love that the FBI guy, who’d chased him for ten years, says, “Yeah, that’s what happened.”

Quibbling is for fanboys. “They changed his name.” That means nothing. “This event didn’t happen just that way.” Write your own damn movie.

You can’t make a movie that is EXACTLY like real life, and, if you try, you are an idiot who won’t sell your script. You will get the massive satisfaction of telling your writing group at Starbucks or the Farmer’s Market, “My script is true to history.” but they will be the only ones who ever read it.


Filed under Bad Writing, character, Good Writing, Screenwriting, Writing Process

3×5 Cards Are A Movie!

Go from medium to medium to medium. Outline to script to outline to 3×5 cards to script to outline… etc. Hopping from method to method jiggles the brain in a good way.
I’m currently going from outline on paper to 3×5 cards.

It’s a great discipline to write down in about five words what goes on in a scene. Do NOT use the big index cards! When you know your story well, you only need shorthand to know what happens. DELI. JOE, FRANK ARGUE OVER IOLA. And, while you write down what happens in the scene, you get ideas on scenes that more or less say the same thing in a slightly different way… so combine them. Or cut them.

And when you’ve got your story on 3×5 cards, you flip through.

Like a movie!

You can see it.

It’s so, so so easy to move a 3×5 card down the pile or up the pile… much easier than moving a scene in a script.

I number my cards in one corner to start… the original pile, from the outline I want to repair. I can always reconstitute the past by going back to the numbers in the top right. After I reorganize them, cutting, moving, combining, I renumber… in a different corner this time. Put the date on each corner on your ACT ONE card, so you know when each draft of the stack of cards was done.

It’s amazing how flipping through cards in your lap or on your desk is like watching a movie. I have never been able to use a bulletin board with push pins. It doesn’t work for me. When I want to see the whole tale, I lay the cards out on the dining room table. Much more mobile than pinned to a wall like butterflies. Move ‘em around on the table. Move a few to the Discard Pile. Gather them up. Flip through them in my lap. Back to the table. Back to my lap. Again and again and again.

I haven’t used cards on this script in a long time. Always a swell idea to jiggle the brain.


Filed under Good Writing, Rewriting, Screenwriting, Uncategorized, Writing Process

Add CONFLICT… always always always

If your scene is not fantastic, you’ll want to cut it. If you don’t want to cut it, you can add conflict and magically, it will improve.

Or, if there is conflict, make it greater…

Here is an example. This little woman is on a shelf. I saw her standing there, in her bowl… and I thought, “Story!” I wonder how she got there. Wonder what she wants. Maybe she’s trying to get out of the bowl. But in the end, I didn’t want to look at her for all that long… because her story, frankly is kind of boring.

What do you think?

lady in bowl

So, I added conflict.

Makes it a LOT more interesting.

lady in bowl with conflict


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Just got back from the three hour extravaganza. Hmmmmm.

Needed a bit more time in the editing department. I hate saying that, because Thelma Schoonmaker is amazingly talented, but this time she stumbled.

The final bit of the movie, literally the last minute, is a textbook example of when you should cut, but don’t…

Early in the movie, the hero is at a booth in a restaurant and says to his buddies, “Sell me this pen.” One of them takes him up on it, and does a great job of being a salesman.

CUT TO: a couple of hours later.

Very end of the movie…
Hero is talking to a room full of people.
Leans forward to a guy, smiles the smile we’ve come to know, and says, “Sell me this pen.” BANG. CUT TO BLACK. DIRECTED BY MARTIN SCORSESE.

That’s what they should have done, but didn’t.

He says, “Sell me this pen,” and the guy he’s talking to stumbles through a couple of dumb sentences about why the pen is great. And they do it two more times. “Sell me this pen.” Bland sales dialogue. “Sell me this pen.” Bland sales attempt. And then, finally, CUT TO BLACK. DIRECTED BY MARTIN SCORSESE.

The correct end point was the instant after he said “Sell me this pen.” the first time. The perfect place to end the scene. And many scenes in the movie just kept on… going… When you see the movie, see if you think I’m right.

When you read your rough draft, look to see if you’ve got places you can cut out of a scene… but keep… on… going… Just because you have momentum, doesn’t mean you should freewheel forward.

The guy sitting in front of me, when we all stood up, said, “Is it 2015?”

I really, really wanted to like the movie, because the trailer was fantastic, but it was a snooze fest. I’m so sad to say.

Do you agree?


Filed under Uncategorized