Beware your tics!

One thing you must hunt down are your own writing quirks. Like weeds in the yard, they just show up uninvited.

One of mine is “And”.

I start sentences with “And” ALL THE TIME. In dialogue. In action description. It’s just something I do, like breathing. Can’t help it. Where’s James Whitmore with the Miracle Gro weed killer when I need him?!

The good news is that I’m aware of my flaw. Wish it were the only one. What are writing tics you find yourself in need of eradicating?

Just went through a script I’m working on. Searched for “And” and made it case sensitive. Twenty of the little devils, or more, in the draft.

And they’re sure not there now.


Filed under Bad Writing, Details, Rewriting, Scenes

“Just in time delivery” is great in manufacturing. Sucks in storytelling.

This mostly happens where there is some kind of fantasy, a made-up world, sword and sorcery, where anything or anyone has a special power. I have no idea why this is. Just because you’re not writing sword and sorcery, however, doesn’t mean you’re not making the same mistake!

“Just in time manufacturing” means you don’t keep a pile of parts on your warehouse shelves waiting around to be used when called upon. When you’re running low, you ask the supplier to bring you more. The new stack of parts arrives the instant before you need them on your assembly line and you use them right then. Nothing is lying around taking up warehouse space when it is not needed.

It is also known as the Toyota production system because it was invented at Toyota.

This works great if you have a 50,000 square foot warehouse you are desperately trying not to lose money on. It doesn’t work in storytelling. Not at all.

The most common example is when there are special weapons or superpowers. When a character is in a pickle and is about to have his head chopped off by the Gorgon, he looks under the carpet and finds a magic sword and slices off the Gorgon’s head. The supersecret, fabulous thing was delivered to him just in the nick of time! Delivered by writer who did not have his act together.

You can’t gives the character the thing that he or she needs just as they need it. You cannot have a payoff with no setup. You have to gently set up the thing they need far in advance of their needing it, so when you do deliver it, the enraged audience does not scour the internet, looking for your home address.

This also works with characters. If suddenly towards the end of your story, during the incredibly tense riverfront standoff, the hero needs someone to be able to read lips, that character is magically sitting on the riverbank, reading a newspaper, waiting to be summoned at the climactic moment of the scene… to save the hero’s ass.

Little Mr. Lip Reader must be set up an hour earlier, so it is credible for him to be at the river, when he at last is needed.

A fabulously well done example of this is in Shane. You should have seen it, so I don’t care if I’m going to spoil the ending for you.

At the end, Shane, a retired gunfire is in a bar with the main bad guy and his hired gun, Wilson. There’s a shoot out. Shane kills Wilson and the boss. Shane is a very good shot. The entire conversation and shootout is witnessed by the little boy, on whose ranch Shane lives and works. As Shane is leaving the bar, the little boy looks up and sees a henchmen on the balcony, with a rifle aimed at Shane. The boy screams, “Shane! Look out!” Shane twirls around and shoots the guy.

It is totally, completely unbelievable that that little boy would be up this late at night, peeking under the door to the bar. But. The writer has to have him there to save Shane’s life. If the kid isn’t there, Shane dies, and there are no sequels and no merchandising.

So what did A.B. Guthrie, jr., the writer, do?

Working our way backwards, so that it is very clear the set up is set up correctly… Before the boy slides under the door to watch Shane talk to the bad guys…

Shane rides his horse across most of Wyoming. The boy runs after him. Shane rides and the boy follows, across what looks like ten to twenty miles of rugged Day For Night terrain.

Before that, at the ranch, Shane is on his horse riding towards town. The boy calls after him, “Shane, I’m sorry.” The boy’s mother tells him that Shane did not hear him. Now the boy has an excellent motivation to follow Shane across the Western landscape. He wants to apologize, but Shane didn’t hear him. What does the boy want to apologize for? It must be something extraordinarily powerful because it pushes him to run several miles after a man on a horse.

Before that, the boy is crouched down beside his mother and his returning-to-consciousness father, who’s lying in the dirt. The mother says, “you don’t hate Shane.”

Before that, Shane unties the father’s horse, slaps it and sends it away. As he’s walking past the boy, the child yells at him “you hit them with your gun! I hate you!” Shane has been idolized by the boy for most of the movie. “I hate you” is a terrible thing for Shane to hear.

Before that, Shane and the father get in an intense fistfight, ending with both of them leaning against a huge stump that they had pulled out of the ground together long before. It is a visual representation of their friendship. That closeness has been destroyed by the fistfight. The fistfight is so out of the ordinary, so strange, so horrible that all of the animals are jumping out of the corrals howling, screeching, and going crazy. The world is truly thrown out of joint by this horrific fight.

Before that, Shane tells the father he’s going into town to fight Wilson. The father feels it is his duty to go into town and fight for the honor of his farm. Shane knows that if the father faces Wilson, the father will die. But, because the father is a proud man he will not listen to reason. So, Shane has to fight him and eventually knock him out with his gun.

All of this setup, very carefully pieced together, exists only so we will not feel any kind of story bump when the boy saves Shane’s life at the end.

If you give a character a magic gizmo, you need to explain the rules of the gizmo as soon as it is introduced. Sort of like Q showing James Bond his gadgets. Q tells Bond all about them, so when they are used, nothing is a surprise.

What you cannot do, ever, is have the magic gizmo is appear out of the blue or suddenly do something we had no idea it was able to do… just in time for the hero or the bad guy or someone to use that hitherto un-set-up power.

This also applies to knowledge. Character traits. Special abilities that a person suddenly finds. But, at its lowest level (and the one that is easiest to spot) is the magic gizmo or talent arriving right when it is needed in the story. It has to be set up ahead of time, like in Shane.


Filed under Good Writing, Rewriting, Screenwriting, Uncategorized

TRAINWRECK has a perfect example of a False Loop!

Saw TRAINWRECK last night. It’s not very good. Sadly.

It’s very funny, but it doesn’t work as a movie. One reason: it’s boring.

The second reason is that the lead character, Amy, is so reprehensible and unpleasant to be around that, in the end, I wished I’d not spent any time with her at all.

The best thing about the movie (besides LeBron James) is Tilda Swinton. Look at her collected works, and find them amazing! Who she is in each movie is awesomely different, like a chameleon, depending on her surroundings. In TRAINWRECK, she is almost unrecognizable, oddly, even though they haven’t done much to her. Her voice gives her away. What an amazingly wonderful character! So well drawn.

Unlike the Amy character.

The trailer sets you up for all kinds of sexual shenanigans and bad behavior. That’s not what the movie is about. It’s about her relationship with her dim boyfriend who she dumps, her new boyfriend, sister, co-workers, and awful father, who she says loved her a lot, when he never really seems to have loved her at all. Plus, the love she has for her boyfriend, while discussed, is never really seen.

Anyway. The False Loop.

Which is when a character enters a scene, or series of scenes, and leaves in exactly the same spot they were in when they entered. No story motion. Which renders the scene worthless.

Normally, I would say “if the scene is funny and doesn’t move the plot forward, that’s okay. Keep it.” In this instance, I do not say that. A first year film student’s teacher would tell her to cut this scene, so why didn’t anyone tell Judd Apatow? Probably because he’s too powerful to have anyone speak the truth to him, which is an awful place to live.

The Bill Hader character has broken up with Amy. Good move, actually, but they try to make you think it’s a bad move. He gets a call from one of his clients saying he’s injured himself and needs Bill to come over to the locker room and help. Hader walks in and discovers that it’s an intervention. Chris Evert, Matthew Broderick, LeBron James, and Marv Albert are lined up to tell him why he’s been acting badly towards his now ex-girlfriend. They say some stupid things. They say some funny things. They say some incredibly stupid things.

Marv Albert acts like a person from another planet, without a shred of human consideration for other people… Commenting on the intervention as if it were a sporting event. What real person would ever do such a thing? It completely alters the tone of the movie. And it’s not funny.

Finally, Hader tells them they’re stupid, stomps out, and leaves exactly as he entered the scene. He has learned nothing. Grown, not at all. The entire scene is a waste of time. Nothing happened in the scene that affects the character or the story. It’s never mentioned or thought about again. If it disappeared from the movie, the story would not notice.

Therefore, because it is a False Loop, it should have disappeared in editing. Of the script, not the movie!

While I’m commenting on the ridiculous character Marv Albert plays, I bring up the superb (500) DAYS OF SUMMER. When they created the story, the writers made a pact. No one in the script was ever going to do anything that a real person would not do. Unlike most romantic comedies, e.g., the Marv Albert character in TRAINWRECK where the writers want the reader to say, “oh, this is a romantic comedy. I’ll accept insane behavior from people doing ridiculous and stupid things, because it’s a romantic comedy. Oh, I so get it. Check your brain at the door.”



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What is your story “about”?

This is a piece of a homework I give my writing students. Just thought it up last semester and found it was very helpful. The idea being: just because you’re writing, or have written something — script, novel, short story — doesn’t mean you are actually telling the story you think you are. This is a way to check to make sure.


1.) Write a prose version of your story. Just tell the story, as you see it. Not the dialogue, just what happens and what the characters are feeling. See if what you think the story is about is actually on the script pages. You may be surprised at what you find. Telling me directly what the story is, will help us both.

2.) Then, write what you are trying to say with the story. Books about writing always pontificate that you’re supposed to sit down the first day and decide “your premise.” And then, that’s what you’re supposedly writing about the whole time. That’s hooey. I think you write and write and write and only slowly figure out what the heck your story is really about as you go along.

Tell me what the story is “about” (on a deeper level for you than just surface action) and what you want to get across about the characters.
Why do you want to tell this story? What is important to you to make sure you say? What do you believe in the core of your being that you want this film to get across to the world?
Whose story is it? Why?
What do you want the main character to feel at the beginning vs. at the end — about the other characters and about themselves?


Hope that helps. Have someone read your “what is your story about” piece and then read your script (or vice versa) and see if they feel you’re on track or not…


Filed under Good Writing, Rewriting, Screenwriting, Uncategorized

You gotta want it. A lotty lot.

Figuring out a way to wrench out time to write, especially after working all the livelong day at your horridly painful job, is excruciatingly difficult. Especially if you’ve never had any real success writing. You have to maneuver forward as best you can, trying to convince yourself that this is a good idea. Brutally difficult at best, writing is physically debilitating, emotionally draining, and a big fat waste of time… at worst.

However, I do not believe in the worst. Especially the “waste of time” part. You’re always learning, always improving. If only by dull banging-your-head-against-the-wall repetition, you get better. It’s never a waste of time.

Writing is so vague and semi-invisible, it’s hard to make yourself do it when all you have is the little voice inside telling you you should do it. Doing battle against naysayers, like a spouse, or friends or false friends, or the evil little voice inside that soothes, “this is never going to work. Why don’t you just go to bed at a normal time?” Defeating the voices around you and defeating the one inside yourself is, in a lot of ways, more difficult than writing. When you have so many other forces tugging at you, just sitting down to write can be the hardest thing.

Well, solving the puzzle that is the incredible mess you made of the project you’re working on is more difficult than sitting down to write. Hell, all of it’s difficult.

However! When it is moving forward, nicely, at a good clip, and you feel like you’re not the biggest idiot in the world, writing feels pretty good. That’s the best you can hope for — to feel pretty good a reasonable percentage of the time.

Get in a writing group. Find like-minded people. Get some encouragement. Try to get far away from people who make you feel bad about yourself for doing what you’re doing.

To rip a “writing hour” a day out of your 24 hour day is critical, and savagely difficult. Two hours a day would be a miracle.

“I still have vivid recollections of putting in day after day of trying a case in front of a jury, which is one of the most exhausting activities I know about, dashing up to the law library after court had adjourned to spend three or four hours looking up law points with which I could trap my adversary the next day, then going home, grabbing a glass of milk with an egg in it, dashing upstairs to my study, ripping the cover off my typewriter, noticing it was 11:30 p.m. and settling down with grim determination to get a plot for a story. Along about 3:00 in the morning I would have completed my daily stint of a 4,000-word minimum and would crawl into bed.”

Erle Stanley Gardner (whose Perry Mason novels have sold 300 million copies)

You’ve got to be like Erle Stanley Gardner. You have to really, really want it.

Wanting it “a lot” is not going to be enough. To make screenwriting or any other artistic medium actually happen, you have to want it like a drowning man clawing for the surface so he can get a lungful of oxygen and not die.


Filed under Good Writing, Rewriting, Screenwriting, Writing Process

“The Wire” dialogue. Bunk to Omar.

Bunk is a cop. Talking to Omar, a man who kills drug dealers.

“All this death, you don’t think it ripples out? You don’t even know what the fuck I’m talking about. I was a few years ahead of you at Edmondson, but I know you remember the neighborhood, how it was. We had some bad boys, for real. Wasn’t about guns so much as knowing what to do with your hands. Those boys could really rack. My father had me on the straight, but like any young man, I wanted to be hard too, so I’d turn up at all the house parties where the tough boys hung. Shit, they knew I wasn’t one of them. Them hard cases would come up to me and say, “Go home, schoolboy, you don’t belong here.” Didn’t realize at the time what they were doing for me. As rough as that neighborhood could be, we had us a community. Nobody, no victim, who didn’t matter. And now all we got is bodies, and predatory motherfuckers like you. And out where that girl fell, I saw kids acting like Omar, calling you by name, glorifying your ass. Makes me sick, motherfucker, how far we done fell.”

Doesn’t sound like a writer wrote it, does it?

Sooooo fine.

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Picking the right genre… Write what’s natural…

I’d like to change what I said in the first book, if you’ll allow me to rewrite history a little bit.

I said, “write what you’re interested in.” I said, “what genre of movies do you watch the most? That’s probably the kind of movie you should write.”

It is better to suggest that you write the kind of movie that is natural for you to write. Not necessarily what interests you or the kind of movies you find yourself watching all the time… Like shoot ’em ups, or caper films, or intense political thrillers… These are the kinds of movies that I enjoyed watching.

I have absolutely no business writing them.

I need to write things that come easily to me and so should you. Stretching outside your comfort zone as far as genre can be a disastrous waste of time. You have very little time to waste even if you’re 19 years old.

It sounds weird, but one day you wake up and you’ll be 45. You’ll wonder what happened. You’ll wonder where the time went. You’ll wonder why you wrote all those screenplays you should not have written.

Of course, they seemed like good ideas at the time.

While you’re making it, a mistake causes very little pain. It’s only way later that you wake up in the dark, screaming.


But then, again… if you don’t push yourself, you don’t learn anything new.
So, disregard my suggestion if you like.
Just be careful when you do it.

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