“What are you doing?!” Automatic “change me” in dialogue!

If you have a character looking at a guy who’s running with a knife pointed right at him and says, “What are you doing?” either your character is an idiot or you are. Hopefully not both.

“What are you talking about?”
“What do you want?”
“What is that?”
“What did you say?”
“Is that a gun in your hand?”

That kinda thing. I see these all the time and they are generally tip offs that the line should be improved.

Don’t have someone ask an unbelievably obvious question! Figure out a way to let that valuable space on the page help move the story forward.

Check your script to see if lines like this are there… then change ’em!

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Use All 5 Senses

Well, not all the time. But keep them in mind.

When writing / rewriting each scene, briefly consider each of the 5 Senses and if you can include some of them in that scene…

You don’t have to do it all the time, as that would get bizarre, but it’s a good question to be in the habit of asking.

Sight
Sound
Taste
Smell
Touch

I’m critiquing a scene where two men are having a silent dinner and I asked the writer if they hear a TV, radio, CD, or other sound… like neighbors or a neighbor’s radio… could end up being an interesting story element.

Another weapon to put in your writing quiver.

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When Writing Isn’t Going Well…

Here’s what I tell myself when my writing is not going well…

“You will not solve the problem if you are not sitting there actively trying to solve the problem. Being afraid you will never solve the problem is not a way to get yourself to sit down to try to solve the problem. Telling yourself it’s too difficult to solve is stupid. If you sit down and work on it, you will chip away a tiny piece and feel a bit of success and that is good. A little good here, a little more there, and slowly but surely you will build momentum. Eventually, it will become less painful to sit down to try to solve the problem. Then you’ll chip away larger chunks of the problem. Sometimes, you may actually get a breakthrough. None of this will happen if you are wrapped up in fear, afraid that you will not be able to solve the problem.”

If you have not done much writing, this will be difficult to believe. If you attempt to solve the problem enough times, you will solve the problem. And you’ll feel better about life, your work, and your worth as a human being on this planet. If you don’t sit down to try to solve the problem, no matter how thorny and Gordian knot-ish the problem may be, you will begin to feel terrible about yourself, and wish you lived in a dark, dirt hole where no one will ever find you, talk to you, feed you, or love you. The longer it takes to sit down to attempt to scale the Eiger, your sense of worthlessness will increase logarithmically.

You may be the kind of person who can walk around thinking about baseball scores and old boyfriends and the problems you have with your parents, and suddenly the right idea for your story will pop into your head. I am not that kind of person. I can only think about writing when I am either dictating (like now!) or sitting in a chair with a computer in front of me or a pencil in my hand. When I am “writing,” my brain engages. Otherwise, it goes flatline.

Like I did, you have to figure out who you are and where you fit on the Repairing Your Writing spectrum from suicidal depression to elation and joy…

“Most writers enjoy two periods of happiness — when a glorious idea comes to mind and, secondly, when a last page has been written and you haven’t had time to know how much better it ought to be.”
J.B. Priestley

Boy, did he get that right! There’s nothing in the world is thrilling as finishing a first draft. It is sooooo exciting and bubbling over with happiness and untrammeled joy. A great feeling, to be savored and treasured and, especially, remembered. After you solve all the horrible problems and get to “The End,” you deserve a vacation in Hawaii. Or at least a period of jumping around your office, screaming like a nine-year-old who just hit a home run.

A great idea is also a wonderful thing. The problem with a great idea is that you have to decide if, in fact, it is a really great idea. Not all great ideas are clearly visible as something worth spending years of your time on. Of course, the best way to get a “great” idea is to be in trouble on your current writing project. When that happens, “great” ideas spring up like mushrooms in the night. They stand there in perfect little circles, beckoning you to step in and partake of their magic and promise.

Everything looks wonderful and filled with fairy dust when you’re drowning in quicksand.

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Badly Written Scene Description Kills Your Actor’s Choices!

You are writing this script to be made. Crew members are going to read it. Heads of departments are going to read it. At least, that’s the theory. Actors are going to read it.

When you write, you imagine a scene, floating in glorious living color above your computer. You watch the scene. Over and over, you replay the scene and redo it. When you’re satisfied, you write it down. Generally, the first draft is exactly what you saw floating above your computer. That’s fine.

The problem comes when you don’t rewrite to make it more actor friendly.

“She sits at the table and puts her face in her hands.”

Actors hate this. You should hate it too.

You should be telling the actor what you want them to feel at this moment, not do. If you write detailed physical description of action, an actor is going to do precisely what she is told. She may question you about it… but, she may silently acquiesce. Once you tell an actor to “put her face in her hands,” she is going to assume, because it’s in the script, that it is very, very important.

That gesture may have been something from the scene hovering above your computer that you simply transcribed onto paper. It may not have been that big a deal to you. But if you leave it in the script, it becomes a big deal.

Just because it got written does not necessarily mean it is good writing.

When the actor puts her face in her hands, you just eliminated a host of other options that had been open to her. Now, all she can do is put her face in her hands. Why would you take away an actor’s opportunity to give you a thoroughly nuanced performance? Why would you force an actor to do something that might be considered ham-fisted or lame?

If you wrote…

“Janine feels wretched.”

She can take that feeling and translate it into physical action in countless possible ways. Give your actor the freedom to make the best possible choice for that moment in that scene. Avoid making the choice for them.

If a character runs out of the room and slams the door, and it’s crucial to the story, then of course keep it in. Micromanaging the actor’s physical performance on paper is not a great way to have the most successful experience when you are shooting. Give the actor emotional moments to play not tiny, detailed, “she lifted her eyebrow in suspicion” moments.

If you have a tendency to give an actor precise physical directions, try to figure out a way to un-have that tendency. That’s what rewriting’s for!

Go through your script, all of it!, and see how many times you give the actor specific physical instructions. Ask, “is this something I have to say?” Or “can I turn this action into an emotion and let the actor choose what to do when the camera’s rolling?”

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Do the Big Stuff FIRST! Fix the Pages Before the Phrases!

I have had to fight hard to be in a position to tell you this, and I am feeling pretty good about it too.

When you’ve finally got a draft, solve the story problems and the character problems and the structure woes before you go in and massage the prose.

Fix the pages before the phrases!

I like making the sentences sing. I like to fix this word and that word in my endless quest to find the PERFECT word. It’s fun for me. Perhaps I’m psychotic, but so it goes.

This can turn out into a giant waste of time, which I fervently have to avoid because I’m 97 and probably don’t have that much time left to get stuff out there. What you don’t want to do is spend fifteen minutes getting a paragraph jussst riiight, and later, while you’re working on structure, cutting the whole shebang. What a pain!

It’s difficult for me to do all that restructuring stuff because it’s no fun. Trimming sentences until they’re so tight they squeak is fun. Solving character problems (that I generated in the first place) is hard work. It’s painful. Figuring out what the story problems are is brutally difficult. Figuring out how to solve those story problems is agonizing and takes tons of time.

What I think I have finally learned is to force myself not to go in with the red pen and repair sentences before I get the story working. Why waste time fixing prose when there’s a chance you might cut that whole section?

But, wow, it’s hard to do.

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Start Your Own Bugaboo List!

I’ve got one. It comes in handy.

What do I mean by a Bugaboo List…? Stuff you do, pretty much automatically, with your writing that you had better root out before you turn it in.

A list of things you do wrong. Your own personal list of mistakes.

I’m noticing that “look” is like mouse droppings all over my writing. I tell about people looking from one person to another ALL THE TIME. Once I’d noticed it was there, I started seeing “He looked at me. I looked at him.” CONSTANTLY. So, I added “look” to my list. Kinda like the 7 Deadly Sins of Writing checklist, but this one is just for me.

My own particular sins, all in a row.

I have a penchant (embarrassed to admit) for starting sentences with “And.” I do it a TON. Using the computer to search and destroy is easy. Once you have the list, you don’t have to think about it. When you have a draft, you go through it with a weedeater and get rid of that stuff automatically.

I start sentences with “But.”
I use the word “stupid” way too much. Same with “weird” and “jerk.”

I’m sure you’ve got things you do that you shouldn’t. Once you find that you have bad habits, make a list of ’em and then root them out.

Finally, you’ll either not make the mistake any more… or you’ll have a great Bugaboo List and will at least be able to get rid of the mistakes once you’ve made ’em. I’ve never managed to stop starting sentences with “And…” but at least they’re not there in the final product.

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What I Learned From Seeing FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF in a Crowded Theater!

It’s Ferris and Cameron’s 30th Anniversary! I don’t know if it’s playing in your town. Perhaps it is. Hope so!

At my school, we regularly screen movies so students can get a chance to see them on a big screen. The first one we showed was 2001: A Space Odyssey. Very few students had ever seen it. On a big screen, it is breathtaking. One student told me the next day, “After it was over, I couldn’t talk for 45 minutes.”

We don’t just show big spectaculars. Last semester, we showed Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, which all of them had seen, repeatedly. Not only had none of them seen it on a big screen, none had seen it in a crowded theater.

Watching a comedy with 250 people is a completely different experience than watching it at home with five people, or on your smartphone, or on an airplane with headphones, in a cocoon of loneliness. Movies, one must remind oneself, were created to be witnessed and enjoyed with other people. Filmgoing is not supposed to be a solitary art, yet, we forget this.

Watching Ferris Bueller with 250 other people taught me something important: physical humor is a lot funnier than witty dialogue.

I noticed this fairly quickly. When 250 people are laughing, things that are not funny when you’re alone become hilarious. The tone of the room is different. Lots of people laughing get you laughing. Moments that get glossed over when you watch alone, are actually funny. How do you know it’s funny? Because people laugh.

A funny moment in Ferris Bueller was much funnier when done physically. Once I noticed this phenomenon, I began to pay attention. The laughs that came from physical comedy were much deeper, more emotional, more enjoyable, and lasted longer than the laughs that came from dialogue.

For the first time, I deeply understood why filmmakers in the 1920s and 30s lamented the arrival of sound. It’s easier to think up funny dialogue that it is to think up a funny moments for physical action. But, it’s worth it. But after my Ferris Bueller screening, I understood and I hope you do too, that physical funny is a much better and more satisfying laugh than word funny.

Keep this in mind as you write your script.

I suggest watching shorts by Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd. There is a lot to learn from the guys who did it at the beginning, before they could write witty dialogue.

In honor of Ferris’ 30th Anniversary… “Oh Yeah,” by Yello.


Oh Yeah by Mello

And, one of the finest scenes in all of movies… sorry for the synch problem.


1961 Ferrari GT California

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