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Nobody likes conflict.
Well, some people thrive on it. Come to think of it, I’ve dealt with people who wake up in the morning looking for ways to stir the pot. Ick. Us normal folks avoid conflict whenever possible. If you’re a writer, this is not a recipe for success.
Watch a movie. Watch television. See how much conflict they cram in, everywhere, all the time. Large and small. Have you seen DEAD TO ME? Netflix. They have so much conflict all over everywhere that, were you not totally sucked into the story, you’d think it was ridiculous. But it’s not.
See how many kinds of conflict are in each scene…
1. Character vs Character
2. Character vs Nature
3. Character vs Society
4. Character vs Self (all that internal angsty stuff)
5. Character vs the Supernatural
6. Character vs Technology
“Conflict” does not automatically mean “fist fight.” It can mean, “I can’t get this tube of paint to open. Dammit.” It can be as small as a paper cut or as large as running away from the bulls in Pamplona or an asteroid exploding. Characters who have no problems and live a happy life without woes or concerns… are boring. People don’t want to read about them. Actors don’t want to play them.
If character is action, which it is, then good drama is conflict. Don’t ever forget it. I often see scenes that are conflict-free. Things just happen. There’s no energy. Conflict-free scenes suck.
Here is John Le Carré’s idea of story.
1.) The cat sat on the mat.
Dull as dishwater. No conflict. No drama. No paycheck.
After the rewrite…
2.) The cat sat on the dog’s mat.
Bingo! Everything changes! For the better!
Your job is to tap your finger on that scene, or part of that scene, or line of dialogue, and slide it up the Conflict-O-Meter higher and higher until it goes into the red — where it becomes unbelievable. When the reader thinks, “No way! There’s zero chance this’d ever happen in real life.”, you scoot the Conflict-O-Meter down a notch, back into the realm of believability.
Scene by scene, do a conflict pass through your script. Ask yourself, “What can I do to make this more intense, even just a teeny bit?”
When I wrote Your Screenplay Sucks!, I did not understand how many writers have a crippling aversion to conflict. I see it constantly. You gotta have CONFLICT! If you don’t, your script won’t sell and your husband will leave you. Jam conflict into every crevice of your script, make money, stay married, live happily ever after.
Once upon a time I wrote a scene about a nebbishy hit man who goes into a men’s room to pick up a revolver hidden in the stall Michael Corleone-style. Fun movie reference! He finds the gun. He gets the bullets. He loads the pistol and goes out into the restaurant to take care of, as we say in the South, “bidnis.”
No conflict whatsoever! Yukko!
Being a superbly gifted rewriter, I realized I had written crap that needed improvement. Just like Aaron Sorkin! And most likely, you. “How can I add conflict to this miserable scene?”, I asked myself.
First, I made it more difficult to load the pistol. Our tyro hitman is nervous so he fumbles putting the bullets in the gun and one falls on the floor. Does he reach down and easily pick it up and slip it into the cylinder? He does not! He reaches down to the sticky bathroom floor, grabs at the bullet skittering across the tile and… misses!
To make it worse, I decided to have the bullet roll out all the way out to the sinks! That makes our hero more anxious! It makes the reader more anxious! I asked myself, “Can I make the reader even more anxious?!” Bien sûr! I made a list of all kinds of problems to make the hero’s situation worse! That was not hard work. Heck, it wasn’t even writing. It was just thinking of obstacles. A Pet Rock could do it.
I settled on a man at a sink, washing his hands. Who, OMG!, might see that bullet rolling by! Some actor somewhere might get a paycheck, when 16 seconds ago, that part didn’t exist… Then, the topper. I decided, “What if the guy’s a cop?!”
And… the bullet rolls right up next to his shoe…
You can always find a way, in every scene, to raise the conflict level. Just because you start at DEFCON 5 doesn’t mean you can’t get it up to DEFCON 2. Ask yourself, “How can I make him suffer more?” “What can I do to make this worse for her?” “What’s the most unpleasant thing that could possibly happen, right now?”
Have you read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo? You should. Lisbeth Salander is such a great heroine. One night, she went to her enemy’s apartment, bent on taking him down.
“The plan began to go wrong almost from the start.”
Fantastic! The clever hero, in whom we have extraordinary confidence, faced awful problems. She’s super-duper smart, but her plan, no doubt superb, was collapsing. Guess who did that to her? Not her opponent. The writer!
Just because you wrote it, doesn’t mean you have to stick with it. Your first idea may be your best idea. But your 19th may be far better. Your mission, Mr. Phelps, should you choose to accept it, is to look at every single beat of every single scene and ask, “How can I crank up the tension for my characters and my readers?” You’ll be surprised at what you can figure out. It’s just about applying pen to paper, fingers to keys, butt to seat.
What scenes from your favorite movies stick with you the most? What was the conflict in those scenes? Make a list! Instead of just passively watching television, write things down. Scene analysis really develops your writing chops. Plus, it gives you a record you can go back to again and again.
One of the most intense scenes I ever saw was in THE KILLING FIELDS. The stakes were life and death. The conflict revolved around a small photograph and an errant, tiny… spot of glue.
Phnom Penh, Cambodia. 1975. The government is slaughtering citizens by the tens of thousands. For next to no reason. Or no reason at all. A terrifying time to be alive and to be attempting to stay alive a day longer. In the scene, at the Embassy, the character’s goal is to glue a photograph into a forged passport so he can get out of the country on an airplane. If he can finish the passport, he has a prayer of survival. There is time pressure because the Khmer Rouge are coming.
Nice story element: a ticking clock! Steal it for your own work.
I saw the movie 36 years ago and the scene still affects me. As I write this, my palms are sweaty. Because there is only one photograph and one passport, he’s only got one chance at it. There can be no mistakes or failure. The slightest slip up equals death.
He carefully puts the glue on the passport and pushes the photograph down, squeezing evenly to get it fully cemented. Then, oh fuck!, a small blob of glue oozes out the side!! I cannot adequately describe how terrifying that was. Now he has to clean up the glue without marring the photograph. If he gets glue on the picture, he dies. And the bad guys are closing in!
Watch the movie. See how it turns out.
Hell of a film, based on a true story. It would be interesting to know if the photograph and glue incident happened in real life or was it invented by Bruce Robinson, the screenwriter, to jack up the conflict?
Full disclosure. At it turns out, the scene didn’t happen in real life nor was it thought up by Bruce Robinson.
It was invented by me.
To make sure I had the story order correct, I rented THE KILLING FIELDS. To my surprise, the scene doesn’t exist. There’s a scene about a photograph but it has nothing to do with glue. Funny how your memory messes with you. I searched to see if there’s another movie with a passport photo and glue and turned up nothing.
Here’s what actually happens… Oh so tense, but different.
Sam Waterston plays Sydney Schanberg, an American journalist. Haing S. Ngor plays Dith Pran, his journalist interpreter and friend. John Malkovich and Julian Sands are photographers. If the Khmer Rouge get Ngor, there’s no way he’ll survive. They kill every journalist.
Sands tells Malkovich that he has an expired passport, but the visa is still good. They just need a photograph of Ngor and they can stick it on the passport. Malkovich hopes Ngor has a photograph of himself, because he has no film.
Nearby, the bad guys round up citizens.
Across town, Ngor is leaving to escape with dozens of his friends. Waterston says, “Give me an hour. I need some time to think.” Ngor hasn’t got time and starts to go… Malkovich runs up and says, “I’ve got an idea.” Ngor’s friends all leave.
At the Embassy, Malkovich and Waterston ask Ngor if he has a photograph of himself. Old passport picture, press card photo. He has nothing. The bad guys took everything. Malkovich says they’ll find the film somewhere at the Embassy!
They need to find chemicals they can make into photo developer. Worse, the water in the Embassy has been shut off. A friendly contractor says they can drain the air-conditioning units to get the water.
Malkovich runs up to Waterston. He’s found a roll of film! He can use the men’s room as a darkroom! He and Waterston hug, intensely happy.
They are ready to shoot the photograph of Ngor. It’s difficult to keep him from smiling. Conflict! Malkovich takes the picture. CUT TO: the darkroom.
Malkovich and Sands have developed the film. From a wee black envelope, Malkovich removes a square of photo paper.
Outside in the hall, Ngor rehearses his new name out loud. Over and over.
In the darkroom, they make a contact print. They put it in the developer. They get an image! With extreme care, Malkovich moves the little photograph into the fixer. But, the photograph turns completely gray. Crud! They have to start again.
Waterston and Ngor wait. Ngor paces, terrified.
Another try developing a picture. This time, it fades to white. They have to adjust the chemicals. This is a disaster. They are crushed. Wound tight, Malkovich sends Sands out. The bathroom is too small and driving him crazy. He has to do this alone.
Waterston and Ngor sit on a swing. Ngor is so afraid. Waterston smiles encouragingly.
In the darkroom, Malkovich has printed another photograph. This time, it does not fade. “Yeah!”
CUT TO: A knife blade scraping the old name off the passport.
Malkovich tells Ngor he’s going to New York! They got it! Huge hug! Huge relief!
A British government official collects everyone’s passports preparatory to beginning the journey home. Outside, heavily armed bad guys search a car. Waterston turns in his passport along with Ngor’s. Winks at him. We feel good.
CUT TO: Pouring rain, bad guy trucks and cars roll into the Embassy compound. Armed Khmer Rouge get out.
Inside the crowded Embassy, a Frenchman brings Sands a piece of paper. Sands reads it aloud and says that the trucks are there for everyone’s evacuation. But, that has to be confirmed. Waterston and Ngor stare at each other, afraid. Happy French people sing their national anthem.
Pouring rain. Sands and the helpful contractor are digging up bodies. The Frenchman comes, takes Sands off to the side under his umbrella. He gives Sands Ngor’s passport. The photograph has turned completely gray. The Frenchman says he’s sorry and walks off. In a wide shot, Sands stands in the rain. In CU, it comes down on the now useless passport.
Embassy. Ngor is still rehearsing his new name, out loud. Waterston comes and shakes his head. No dialogue! It’s over. Waterston pats Ngor’s hand. We feel terrible. Now, Ngor has to escape overland, through the jungle. The worst possible outcome.
Either I saw the scene with a passport photograph and glue in a different movie, or I imagined it.
Just delivered notes on a client’s script and want to share…
My last three clients totally had their ducks in a row when it came to physical writing. By that I mean the words on the page were succinct, perfectly chosen, and, essentially, invisible.
I was thrilled Your Screenplay Sucks! was named Number One Best Screenwriting Book to Read in 2020 by Script Reader Pro. [see link above!] One thing they mentioned was that I spent time talking about sentences.
Warm my black heart!
I don’t know if screenwriting is the most difficult form of writing. For sure it’s bloody hard. I’ve never tried poetry, but I imagine it’s like cracking rocks on a chain gang. Hell, all writing is tough.
At the beginning of your writing life, and every step of the way until the pen slips from your warm, dead hand, you’re asking your reader to read to the next page. And the next page and all the way to the end. Your only job, continually, page after page after page after page after page, is to never disappoint your esteemed and precious reader. You must make that happen on every single page,otherwise you will have spent all that time gestating a child who dies before ever going through the birth canal.
Use every tool on your workbench to get them to turn the page! All that hooha about plot and story and character and rising action and dénouement matters. To succeed, you better have your game on in all those departments. But, if your prose is mediocre, you don’t have wisp of a prayer.
If your sentences aren’t at “Hollywood level,” you will not get an agent. You will not sell your script. You will not get laid by a super hot actor. If you learn something, the experience will not have been a waste of time. But if you don’t learn and do fail to adjust, all that travail will have been for naught.
The foundation of good writing is good writing. That means: sentences.
Your Screenplay Sucks! is divided into three acts. Act Two, Physical Writing, is the most boring material in the entire book, and because fixing prose is a pain in the ass, I bet people skip it. Before they send their script, I tell every client to massage the prose. I email them examples of what to do. [above, click Handouts, click Physical Writing handout] They often say, “Oh no, don’t worry. I’m ready.” Meaning, “My prose is in tiptop shape.” After they see the bright red line notes on their first 20 pages, which often look like I slit a hog’s throat on ’em, I get chagrined emails saying, “I had no idea…”
Study the middle of my book. Soak up The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. Read websites that talk about this stuff. If you find good ones, send them and I’ll put them here to help other writers.
I say this all the time: I only have so much time to deal with your script. I am hardwired to work on physical writing first. If you make me waste time cleaning up your prose, I will have less time to help you with story, structure, and character, which is what I am really good at.
I also say this all the time: “When they pick up your script, after they check the page count, first thing they’re going to do is read page one. They will have no clue if you understand structure or character or storytelling. But, they will know if you can write a clear, clean, concise sentence.”
These people read screenplays all day long. If your physical writing is not top-flight, they’ll decide you don’t care about professional-level attention to detail. If they stop reading, the only person you’ll have made happy is the dude who sells you toner.
You are in the Emotion Pictures business. So, when writing a scene, ask, “How are these people feeling?” All these people. What are they feeling now?
At the beginning… what was he doing before he walked into this elegant bar? What had happened and how did it make him feel? How is he showing us what he’s feeling? In the middle of the scene, stuff is happening. How is it affecting him? Is it changing his (or her) mood? And, at the end, how does he feel NOW? Where will he go next? Infused with this new feeling / mood that the scene fostered in him, what will he do?
When I say, “Go around the room,” I mean check in with every character, not just the ones with dialogue. Take everyone’s pulse at various points during the scene. Not just the principals. If we need to know how they feel, show us. Please don’t tell us about every single character all the time, but look around the room and, if someone’s doing or feeling something useful, communicate it. It will be interesting to see what fresh, strong, wonderful moments you find.
A superb reason to add reaction shots to your script is, when you make the movie, they will help your editor. Often, laughs happen on reaction shots, not on the person speaking. If you don’t have the coverage, your editor can’t get the laugh. For all kinds of important reasons, your editor will want to cut away from the primary players in a conversation. But, if a reaction shot is not on your shot list, you’re not going to shoot it.
When your editor says, “Have you got a single of Matilda?”, she needs that shot. If you don’t have it, she’ll smile, think you’re an idiot, and keep working. Reaction shots start with the screenplay. If you don’t go around the room while you’re writing, you won’t have reaction shots when you get to the editing room.
I can’t overstress the need for reaction shots. Put them in your script. They perk up the read and will give your editor the coverage she’ll need to save your ass.
I’ve been radio silent because I’ve been in deep consultation with a client in France and am just coming up for air. She has an interesting situation in that much of what she’s writing is based on real people and real events.
This can be wonderful, especially if the events start off basically working as a “story”, because you have much less to invent. To a buyer, Intellectual Property is catnip. It’s easier to sell something that happened because you can point to it and say, “Look, this blew people’s minds. You can make money here, easy!” The less they have to use their imagination to see dollar signs, the quicker those dollars will work their way into your pocket.
The trick with real life into drama is you sometimes have to wrench your story and characters away from “what really happened” and into the best possible story. You cannot be a slave to the truth. When turning real life into drama, you do not owe anyone anything unless you signed an agreement where they have any degree of creative control. Then you’re dead.
It’s tempting to think, “When this happened in real life, it was exciting! I’m going to do that!” No, you’re not. Not all the time, anyway. If your story demands it, you’ll slide it away from the true events because, while a slavish devotion to the past will delight your high school history teacher, they don’t write checks.
It can be exceedingly difficult to change “what happened in real life” in favor of a rearrangement, as it were, of the facts. The pull of “staying with the truth” is a tractor beam that at times, must be escaped. Above all, you are there to serve the story and the characters. If the real characters did something that doesn’t help your fictional version of their story, keep in mind that your job is to enhance life and turn it into art. Not repeat the past.
This can be very, very hard to do.
This is especially hard if you’re writing about your own life. Like my client in France. Unlike most writers turning real life into drama, all of whom must let fiction ride herd on the truth, the truth actually happened to her. That makes it doubly more difficult. Fortunately she hired me to keep her out of trouble. We’ll see how I do.
You have to allow your characters to do things they would do as a character in a drama, not what they did in real life. Just because it happened doesn’t mean it needs to be on the pages of your story.
“This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, screenplay by James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck.
This real life into drama problem happened to me.
A producer wandered out of the Hollywood jungle up the path to my door with IP, a book a man had written about his days as a pro hockey player, playing in a league one notch below the NHL. He wanted to finance a movie based on his book. Excellent! I’m always interested in people of means with open checkbooks.
The book worked delightfully well as drama. Nearly every step the hero took in real life worked smoothly in the story. A fabulous arena, cast of fascinating characters, humor, a solid three act structure… All elements tough to find in a true story. In this case, it was all there. Except…
The sticking point came with the climax and the overall reason for the story to be told. The “What is this story ABOUT?” conundrum. In drama, the audience wants an uptick at the end, a “happy” ending, but, because in real life the book’s writer never made it to the NHL and that part of the story couldn’t be changed, that “loss” had to be constructed to be a victory.
This works in stories all the time. It did in ROCKY. As you no doubt recall, Rocky lost the fight with Apollo Creed. But, because the story was structured so that, if he stayed on his feet until the last round bell and “went the distance,” he would feel great and so would we.
The ending doesn’t have to be happy. Just satisfying.
So, I had to figure out a way for a character who doesn’t get into the NHL to be content with what some might perceive as failure. The answer came through his father. In real life, father and son lived, ate, breathed, slept and dreamed the National Hockey League.
After pondering, I took that truth and turned it around.
In my version, the father (I recreated him as the hero’s Opponent) wanted the son to be in the NHL and drove him hard to achieve that dream. Toward the end of my version, the son discovers that he wants to stop this senseless pain. He wants to do things he wants to do, not what his father wants him to do. So he quits hockey and becomes his own person.
Worked perfectly. The hero gets the victory the audience craves and it fit the incontrovertible fact that he never made it to the big time. A stumbling block came when the guy with the money and the control refused to sell his real life father down the river for the sake of drama. I understood the sentiment, but it killed the story and the deal went away.
Real life can be excellent subject matter for stories. But if the drama asks, be ready to jump ship
Perhaps the single most important post in all of yourscreenplaysucks.com…
You may be getting weary of my proselytizing for typewriters as a useful writing tool. Old fashioned technology, right? You know, like the quill pen or papyrus. I don’t tout the lowly typewriter all that often. Last time was three years ago. [Search: In Praise of Typewriters. May 21, 2017] But, as yet another semester ends, it has again struck me how incredibly useful a typewriter can be.
Especially for people who have never written on anything but a computer.
The inability to get words on the page stems from a fear that the thing you’re about to write won’t be perfect. So why write it, right? With a computer, you can so easily work it and work it and work it until it’s either perfect or… until you give up, go out back, and weed the garden. With a typewriter, you Do. Not. Have. That. Option. You write it and it sucks and then you write the next sentence and it sucks and you write the next one and the next one and so on, and none are perfect, but once you get to the bottom of the page and pull it out of the machine, the page exists.
I ask my clients and students, “Do you write a sentence, erase it, and then hate yourself?” Some look at me like I’m stupid. Others… sag, moan, and glaze over. To them, I say, “You need to try writing on a typewriter.” At my film department, we have a Writing Room dedicated to a typewriter — with correcting tape removed. You can go in there and write to your heart’s content and you cannot erase a single word. Whether you like it or not, you move forward.
The idea for the Writing Room was born from the superb documentary, CALIFORNIA TYPEWRITER. Check it out on Criterion. It’s fantastic. Here is the relevant clip…
And the relevant quote…
“I can’t get to stream of consciousness when I’m involved in my own editorial process as I’m trying to be a wacko. I’m trying to be an absolute whack job when I’m typing. And it’s like, the typewriter doesn’t judge you, it just goes, ‘right away, sir. Right away sir. However you want it to be.'”
Again, boiled down…
“I can’t get to stream of consciousness when I’m involved in my own editorial process…”
If you can’t get to the fragile zone you need to be in to write, and stay there, it’s game over.
If you write a sentence and hate yourself, you may as well go be a banker. Just to get to the bottom of the page, you have to think you’re Thor.
One student this past semester had crippling writer’s block. The computer was her deadliest enemy. She’d write a page, highlight it, and delete it. Again and again. The rough part was that she could really write. She had the talent to earn money. I finally took her to the Writing Room and basically locked her in. On the typewriter for a couple of hours, she ended up writing five pages, the most pages she’d ever gotten done that fast in her entire life. She was flabbergasted.
The nail in her writer’s block coffin was a line I got from Ellen Sandler, “Write fast, write badly.” After I told my student that was her goal, just to fill the page and fix it later, then it was, for her: don’t spare the horses! Every assignment she turned in began with, “You asked me write fast and badly. I have written fast and badly.”
After she wrote fast and badly, she had something she could print, hold in her hand, and rewrite. If it doesn’t exist, you can’t fix it. I tell my students, “I can help you make anything better, but if the page isn’t there, there’s nothing I can do.”
If you rewrite while you’re writing, get a typewriter.
Spend $300. Change your life.
Have you seen PARASITE? Soooooo well directed. If you’re interested in directing, spend a fruitful week carefully analyzing Bong Joon Ho’s camera placement and staging of camera and actors. His blocking is second to none. Effortless. Invisible. Seemingly simple. It’s not.
However, this blog’s not about directing, but about writers’ problems. One I see over and over is writers wasting time getting their story going. Set up. Dithering. Set up. Explaining. No conflict. Set up. No clear desire from the hero. No hero’s overwhelming desire.
In PARASITE, the story starts right away. I mean, instantly. Zero time wasted. No explaino. Problems, problems, problems. Big ones! And we’re hooked. Were it a script, we’d turn the page. Which is your goal.
The story opens with a view of a city street through the narrow window of a grotty below-ground-level apartment. BOOM DOWN to reveal a boy on his phone, texting. 20 seconds into that shot, the Wi-Fi goes out. First line of dialogue: “We’re screwed.” That piques your interest. A character with a problem. “No more free Wi-Fi.”
A big problem, because they’re poor. Important information delivered to the audience! “The lady upstairs put a password on ‘iptime’.” Problem gets worse. There’s no character set up. There’s no explanation about who these people are. A two hour and ten minute movie and the story starts, with a bang, halfway down page one.
Then their problem gets even worse.
The mother is worried because they don’t have WhatsApp. This is not an idle line of dialogue. It’s story. While the boy and his sister are dashing around figuring out how to get Internet, we learn their phones were shut off. Wife asks Husband what his plan is to deal with this problem. Again, not a waste of dialogue because “having a plan” is a theme for the whole story. Melancholy, he eats a piece of bread and finds a stinkbug.
They’re poor! They need Wi-Fi! Their home is infested with nasty insects!
Just below the ceiling in a grim overcrowded bathroom that feels worse than any bathroom I’ve ever imagined, Brother and Sister locate Wi-Fi. Mom asks them to check WhatsApp. “Pizza Generation said they would contact me.” She’s only talking about problems. Son checks his phone, “Here it is. Pizza Generation.”
The family folds pizza boxes. As fast as they can. Son shows up with a video of a master pizza box folder. They pay close attention. If they go as fast as she can, they can finish today and get paid. So, they need WhatsApp and Wi-Fi to make money! All they have to eat is old bread. It’s awful. We’re less than two minutes in.
Up on the street, a fumigation man blows white fog everywhere. They leave the windows open because that will get rid of the stinkbugs. They’re clever at problem solving and we’re reminded they’re broke! As with all good writing, it gets worse. Clouds of pesticide roll into their living area, making them cough and choke. Despite near zero visibility, Father watches the video and, lost in the swirling fog, folds pizza boxes as fast as he can.
Lots of story! We’re less than three minutes in. That’s three pages! Remember, it’s a two hour movie. Look at your first three pages. Have you moved your characters this far down the road?
A nasty young woman from Pizza Generation snidely tells them they messed up and are getting their pay cut by 10%. Conflict! A quarter of their boxes are done wrong. The family is heartsick and feels terrible. So do we. Conflict! “You know what one shitty box can do to our brand image?!”
The stakes are as high as can possibly be imagined! Are you exhausted from reading about this family’s worse-and-worse problems? I am! Good writing!
I teach a class where students write a five page script that they will direct the next semester. Five pages. 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. That’s not a lot of pages. End of Act I is bottom of page 1. Mid-point is middle of page 3. End of Act II is bottom of page 4. Page 5 is final conflict and resolution. That’s it! Simple.
You’d be astounded how many times their stories don’t start until the middle of page 3. For two and a half pages, nothing happens! Half their movie. People have conflict-free dialogue. They walk around. They look at things. We see stuff in their apartment. No conflict. No problems. No prayer of our connecting with a character who desperately wants something more than anything in the world.
Mere words on a page do not constitute story. You have to hook our emotional wagon to the main character as fast as possible. Pour on problems and striving and more problems and bigger ones and give them to us soon!
But don’t worry about it.
While it’s a fine idea to tape your “premise” to your computer and write with that idea in mind, don’t be welded to it. Just because you think you know what your story is about doesn’t mean you know what your story is about.
Everything you hear about writing being “a journey” is 1,000% true.
In my Advanced Screenwriting class, students write a first pass of a complete screenplay, get notes, and do a rewrite. It’s critically important they write an entire script, look back, and see the journey from that first 15 page homework… to FADE OUT. Where they planned on ending is often not where they actually wind up.
Then my students do their final draft. n.b. In real life, where you live, getting from first draft to last draft may take a year and fifteen passes.
When you’ve got that (incredibly satisfying!) stack of pages in front of you for the first time, you’re ready to figure out what story you’ve really been telling. But, you had to write the whole damn thing to discover what you wanted to write about in the first place.
Sometimes you know from the beginning. Count yourself lucky. Most of us have to slog through the wasteland trying and discarding options. That first pass is, by definition, a mess, and getting (at last!) to the final draft fixes that mess.
This happened when I wrote my children’s book, Mrs. Ravenbach’s Way. During the outlining phase and writing the first pass phase, I thought I was writing about a little boy’s battle with his awful teacher. That was part of it. But not what the story was really “about.” When I got to the end of the first pass and looked back, I discovered that all along, I’d been writing about a little boy who was scared to say what was on his mind, a hero afraid to use his voice.
Once I figured that out, the rewriting process became clear. Now that I knew what I was doing, which I had only figured out by writing the first pass, every step in the story flowed from that controlling idea. Every scene was, in some way, pushing toward that simple premise.
Did I feel stupid because I hadn’t figured this out earlier? I did not. I was overjoyed I’d learned what my story was about, in only one draft!
Because there’s a solid chance you’re young enough not to have seen the M. Night Shyamalan film THE SIXTH SENSE, I won’t give away the premise. Why be a jerk? But, know this: Shyamalan did not know what his story was about until he had written five drafts. Only then did the big lightbulb go off. After five drafts, he thought, “so, this is what I’m writing about!!” Once he solved that thorny problem, it took him one more draft to get to the story you can watch today.
You will be awestruck when you consider that he had no absolutely idea what he was really doing until after he’d written five drafts.
If you do watch THE SIXTH SENSE, do not look at anything about it beforehand. Not even the poster. Just pay the money, enjoy the movie, and think, “obviously this Shyamalan guy knew that when he started. That’s his whole movie! How could he not have known?!”
Because writing is a journey, but not like a normal journey where you buy a ticket, get on a train, and get off at your destination. Writing is a journey, blindfolded. You start down the path not knowing where you’re going.
So, if you don’t know what you’re writing about, don’t sweat. You’ll figure it out. Once you get comfortable with that scary unknown unknown, you’ll be fine. It’s okay to not know where you’re going. Don’t worry so much. You’ll get there.
All will be well.
Trust me on this.
Simple to fix. Difficult to discover. Especially if you’re not looking for it!
Elsewhere on this earth, like my series of packed house lectures on storytelling at Lincoln Center, (not really, but my, doesn’t it look just dandy in print?) I’ve mentioned the “M-80 in the mailbox” drama theory. When I was a kid, an M-80 was the biggest firecracker we could get. Supposedly, a quarter of a stick of dynamite. I doubt it. But we certainly bought that legend when I was 12.
It was a ton of fun to blow an M-80 up in the middle of your driveway. But, if you stuck it inside an unsuspecting neighbor’s mailbox and then blew it up, my oh my, now you’re talking some entertainment! As well as a Federal crime. But I digress…
The tighter the confinement, the more effective the explosion. This has a lot to do with writing, especially how long your story lasts. But I digress…
The same is true about “place.” Keep your story planted in the same place and it will be wrapped tighter, more confined, and any explosions will be felt the more strongly by your characters and readers.
Does your whole story take place in Tuscaloosa except for one wild trip to Paris? If your redneck character needs a sumptuous meal, why drag her to Paris if she can just as effectively learn her lesson in Birmingham? Well, me, I’d much rather eat dinner in Paris than Birmingham, but I’m not living and struggling in a plot centered in Tuscaloosa paper mill.
I didn’t invent this. This “unity of place” wisdom comes from our buddy Aristotle. Dude knew what he was about. Rooting your story in the place the story “needs” to be often strengthens your narrative. If an event takes place far from where 95% of the story happens, take a deep, hard look at that action and see if it can be moved to the character’s backyard, or neighborhood, or, at least town.
THE BREAKFAST CLUB is a superb example. The whole movie takes place in a high school. For one thing, it’s a lot less expensive to shoot. More important, the story is about people in high school and it stays at the high school.
The whole time.
Often, when you move your story away from its core location, it weakens your tale. A lot like lighting an M-80, tossing it in a mailbox, and… forgetting to shut the door.
When I lived in Los Angeles, my father went duck hunting in Louisiana. At the end of his trip, he FedExed me a cooler with eight ducks in it. Those ducks are why I have CHINATOWN #1.
I was in grad school at USC, taking a class in production design. Richard Sylbert, probably the best living production designer, gave, as I recall, three lectures. The first thing he said, and I remember distinctly, was, “what I do, and how I think, are monumentally different from everyone else.” That got my attention.
I learned a lot from his lectures. The trickle down through my career from just those three classroom visits has been profound. Sadly, those notes have been lost to the mists of time. In one of his lectures, he mentioned that the best way to prepare duck is to pour Château Margaux into a syringe and inject it into the meat before you cook it. That got my attention too.
When Daddy sent me the ducks, I cooked four of them and had a nice dinner with friends. They were wild ducks, not pen-raised. The taste is distinctive and some people don’t like it. Wild ducks are basically impossible to get and people who love the taste, prize them as a rarity.
As I had no one to give the leftover ducks to, I called Mr. Sylbert and explained the situation. “You’re the only person in the city of Los Angeles I think might want these ducks. Would you?”
“I’m at home. Bring them right over.”
Giving someone something they desperately want and asking nothing in return is a superb way to make someone’s acquaintance. At some point, he gave me the early draft of CHINATOWN. We were buddies until he died.
For your learning pleasure, here are the old script and the rewritten version. Comparing the two, and comparing them to the final film, is one hell of a class in rewriting.