Category Archives: character

Bill Watterson Knows About Writing!

I recently read Watterson’s The Complete Calvin and Hobbes. It is wonderful and you should buy it today. Available at Amazon or a bookstore near you.

Imagine it’s a television series and pay attention to how fast he establishes uniquely unique characters and a perfectly described world unlike any we’ve ever seen…

If you’re too young to have lived and breathed Calvin and Hobbes, get this book. You’re in for a monumental treat.

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From time to time I wonder if this is how some beginning writers feel

“I spent a lot of time drawing, but I don’t recall that I ever attempted much realism. Like most kids, I wanted instant results, not a learning process.”

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This applies to writing pretty much any kind of story

“Unemployed with no prospects, I drew up a comic strip about a loudmouth spaceman and his dim witted assistant, based on characters I’d drawn for a German class in high school. I sent the strip off to the newspaper syndicates, and about six weeks later, as my savings continued to dwindle, I opened the form letter rejections of my work. By the fall of 1981, I was living with my parents again, trying to come up with a different comic strip. At this point, I had four years to go before drawing Calvin and Hobbes.

“Four years is a pretty long time, especially when there’s no indication that the story will end well. On weekdays, I designed car and grocery ad layouts in the windowless basement office of a free weekly shopper for minimum wage. I learned a bit about design doing this job, but one might charitably say the boss had rage issues, so the office environment was dreary and oppressive, except when enlivened with episodes of fire-breathing insanity. For relief on my half-hour lunch break, I read books in a cemetery. On weekends, I drew editorial cartoons ($25 each) for the local suburban newspaper, where my specialty was weather commentary. My used car frequently needed repairs of the engine-removal type, and so on. Such were the prime years of my youth. After a certain amount of this sort of life, a reasonable person cuts his losses and opts for a different career, but I don’t recall that this ever seriously crossed my mind. In the free time I had, I drew up more comic strips

“In hindsight, all this failure was my good fortune. I’m honestly grateful that all my early strip submissions were flatly rejected. This was not a case of syndicate editors failing to recognize latent genius. My strips had serious flaws, so I’m very lucky I didn’t get stuck trying to make one of them fly. The hard part of coming up with a comic strip is finding strong characters that come alive and “write themselves,” suggesting new material as you go. Newspaper cartooning is an endurance sport, and you need characters and situations that won’t run dry in a few months. My early strip proposals were unevenly written – an occasional good character surrounded by flat ones, put into limited or clichéd worlds beyond my experience. These are common mistakes, but the only way to learn how to write and draw is by writing and drawing. The good thing about working with almost no audience was that I felt free to experiment. Nobody cared what I did, so I tried pretty much anything that came into my head, acquired some new skills along the way, and gradually learned a bit about what worked and what didn’t.

“As I say, that’s what I think in retrospect. At the time, it all just seemed like banging my head against a wall. To persist in the face of continual rejection requires a deep love of the work itself, and learning that lesson kept me from ever taking Calvin and Hobbes for granted when the strip took off years later. But in the midst of repeated failure, some self-delusion about your abilities comes in handy.

“Eventually, one syndicate expressed some interest in my work. They didn’t like the strip I had done, but they liked one of the secondary characters – a boy with an imaginary stuffed tiger. The syndicate gave me a contract to develop them into a comic strip of their own. I knew these characters had more life than any of the others are done. The more I wrote… the better the boy seemed to be, and I had the sensation that the strip was “clicking.” The syndicate had mixed reactions to it however, and eventually rejected it. This was as close as I had ever gotten, so it was quite discouraging.

“Back to square one yet again, I sent my rejected strip about the boy and a tiger to two other syndicates. One of them rejected it, but Universal Press Syndicate asked to see more samples. Desperate to impress, I called Jake Morrissey, the editor who had written me, and asked what the syndicate was looking for, what I should try to do. His answer was a total surprise: just do more of what I liked. I drew up another month of strips, and after waiting on pins and needles, I was offered a contract.

“For the first couple of years, I submitted my rough ideas to my editors at the syndicate. Back in the 80s, this was done by mail of course, which meant it took a week or more to find out which strips were approved for inking up. And earliest days, many ideas would come back marked “No.” This was always sobering, at least because I then had to write replacement strips (and get those approved) just to get back to where I thought I was on the deadlines. Occasionally I disagreed with the editors’ vetoes, but I decided never to argue on behalf of one of my ideas. Any strip that needed a defense wasn’t something I wanted published. I basically trusted my editors’ judgments, and having them as a safety net, I often submitted ideas I wasn’t sure about, just to see what reaction they got.

“When I first came up with the characters, Calvin was a little more than a mischievous loudmouth and Hobbes was simply his somewhat more sensible friend. As the characters expanded, Calvin’s and Hobbes’ personalities became more like my own. Their words and actions are fictitious, sometimes the opposite of what I would say or do, but their emotional centers are very true to the way I think. Hobbes got all my better qualities (and a few quirks from our cats), and Calvin got my ranting, escapist side. Together, they’re pretty much a transcript of my mental diary. I didn’t set out to do this, but that’s what came out, and frankly it’s pretty startling to reread the strips and see my personality exposed so plainly right there on paper. I meant to disguise that better.

“In Calvin and Hobbes, I used my childhood – sometimes straight out of the can, sometimes wildly fictionalized and sometimes as a metaphor for my 20s and 30s – to talk about my life and the issues that interested me. Without exactly intending to I learned a lot about what I love –imagination, deep friendship, animals, family, the natural world, ideas, ideals… and silliness. These things make my life meaningful, and having the opportunity to consider it all at length through the medium of drawing was the most personally rewarding part of Calvin and Hobbes. Giving words and form to what had previously been jumbled, half-conscious thoughts, I occasionally felt like I hit some truth, and in doing so, got to know myself a bit better.”

Bill Watterson

The Complete Calvin and Hobbes

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Cut the Mom’s Head Off with a Sword!

Whatever you do, don’t be too protective of your idea or script. Don’t worry about bad guys in Hollywood stealing your inimitable idea and sailing to the Maldives. The odds of that actually happening are extraordinarily limited, but the odds of a producer thinking you’re paranoid and running like blazes are quite real.

So, quick advice: tell your story to anyone who’ll listen. Saying it out loud will help. A ton.

Once upon a time, I was directing a short film and, the day of the last shoot, was having breakfast with a friend. He asked me what my story was about and, not being paranoid, I told him.

As I described the climactic confrontation between the heroine and her oppressive mother, I realized, to my shock, dismay, consternation, horror and amazement! that I had neglected to include that oh-so-critical final confrontation in the script and, therefore, it was not on the shot list! and was not going to show up in the editing room! ARRGGHHHH!!!

I quickly wrote a titanic battle between daughter and mother on the steps leading to the girl’s bedroom. My image was two Arnold Schwarzenegger types with broadswords hacking their way up and down blood-soaked stairs until finally, the exhausted daughter slices off her mother’s head and is victorious.

It was a useful way to write an argument.

Which brings me to a couple of thoughts…

1.) However you define “mortal combat”, it has to happen at the climax between your hero and opponent. That face off must be as intense as your story’s tone will allow, yet still be believable.

But you have to have it!

We waited the entire movie to get here! Don’t be stupid like I was and forget that, at the end, you gotta have a slugfest.

Happily for me, both actors were superb and the mother cried when her daughter announced she was going to live her life free from her mother’s shackles. That’s not what she said, but you get the point.

2.) Telling my story out loud saved the movie. Because I was speaking, my mind operated in a different way than had I been writing. Jiggling your brain around will work miracles for your story.

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Filed under character, Rewriting, Screenwriting, Short Film

Go Around The Room – Add Emotion When You Need It!

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.

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

Who’s Your FAVORITE Bad Guy?!

Working on Your Screenplay STILL Sucks!. Writing about Opponents… wondering who you think are the finest Bad Guys in the history of movies or TV…

Who do you love to hate?
Who’s the most complex?
Who’s the most unusual?
Who do you find endlessly fascinating?
Who was the biggest problem for the hero?
Who do you enjoy watching again and again?

I’m sure you’ve got favorites I’ve not considered… hence the question!

Thank you for letting me know.

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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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Filed under character, Details, Good Writing, Screenwriting, Uncategorized, Writing Process

Tell us what the Bad Guy wants, and fast!

I just watched The Boxtrolls. Wonderful movie.

One of the most important things in storytelling is for the bad guy to be clearly identified, and early. We need to know two things about him or her: 1.) What does he want? 2.) Why does he want it?

In The Boxtrolls, the bad guy, Archibald Snatcher, (artfully voiced by Ben Kingsley) is a grubby lower-class workman who catches Boxtrolls. He wears a red hat. His henchmen also wear red hats, signifying that they too are of an inferior class. The upper class wears white hats.

Snatcher really, really wants a white hat. Why does he want to wear a white hat, you ask? Because people who wear white hats get to eat all the cheese they want. Cheese is the Birkin bag of this grim, little world. The bad guy wants more cheese. The only way he can get it is to wear a white hat. So, first thing in the movie, he makes a deal with the aristocrat in charge of handing out white hats… “For a white hat, I will destroy every Boxtroll in this town.”

What does Snatcher want? To kill all Boxtrolls. Why? So he can get a white hat and eat all the cheese he could ever desire. A simple goal. What is extraordinary about The Boxtrolls is how quickly the opponent’s desire is established. At 1 minute 30 seconds in, and that includes head titles! Or, page 4 of the screenplay. That quick enough for you?

That’s a feature film. It lasts an hour and a half and they tell you about the Bad Guy right off the bat.

Just like the opponent’s problem in most movies is caused by his desire… In The Boxtrolls, Snatcher’s desire and his downfall are motivated by cheese. If, late in the story, the hero was not able to take advantage of the opponent’s desire to eat cheese, the hero would never have won.

A strange example, you think? Yes! If you don’t like it, come up with a better one!

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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.

So.

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.

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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…

http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2013/12/31/wolf_of_wall_street_true_story_jordan_belfort_and_other_real_people_in_dicaprio.html

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.

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

Why do robot characters do stupid stuff?

Greetings. I’m rawther busy as a highly-paid full time professor of filmmaking, so bad writing is not foremost in my thoughts. Well, it will be in the spring when I start teaching screenwriting. Maybe publishing student homework on line and the fear of public humiliation will get them to run their spell check. Who knows.

Anywho.

Finished my book-in-the-car about a finance guy and the computer he created that runs amok. The Fear Factor by a Mr. Harris. I enjoyed it. It got me back and forth to work. And, as I got it at the library, for FREE.

So, on to the learning… once you set up a character, you have to keep him / her / IT set up. You can’t change characteristics because you want to or worse, NEED to. I will stand over your shoulder and cry, “Foul!”

The hero is breaking into an office building that Bad Computer bought, set up, and where it’s running financial programs at just under the Speed of Light — busy wrecking world financial networks while reaping immense profit for the company. Hero has come with jerrycans of gasoline to burn the building and kill Bad Computer. B.C. has cameras in every office of every building, every room of Hero’s house, and knows everything. B.C. controls everything and is hyper smart. So, when Hero comes up to the Ft. Knox secure building, presents his face to the security camera (sporting gas cans) and retina scan, Bad Computer LETS HIM IN.

Why?

Because if the doors don’t open, there’s no other way into the building… or, at least, no way in that the author thought of.

If Bad Computer is so all powerful, how come he doesn’t control the Security system? Hmmmm.

Perhaps take a cue from THANK YOU FOR SMOKING…

Jeff Megall: Sony has a futuristic sci-fi movie they’re looking to make.
Nick Naylor: Cigarettes in space?
Jeff Megall: It’s the final frontier, Nick.
Nick Naylor: But wouldn’t they blow up in an all oxygen environment?
Jeff Megall: Probably. But it’s an easy fix. One line of dialogue. ‘Thank God we invented the… you know, whatever device.’

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Filed under Bad Writing, character, Screenwriting

Comment from a client… Unearned Gift & Off Screen Action

This will be two complete chapters in the sequel to my book.

Got this email from a client. I had critiqued his Middle Grade children’s novel. He felt like he was channeling me…

I had crit group this last Wednesday. I found myself repeating your comments about my writing. “The action is being done by the secondary characters, giving the solution to the main character at no cost.”

The hero is the guy who has to win the day. Don’t give the cool stuff to someone who’s not the hero, or not a lot of it. Let the hero win the battles himself.

And, does the main character earn every rung on the ladder that you give him as he climbs toward the solution to the Problem? If he finds it on the ground with no effort, perhaps rethink.

Very bad writing in Disney’s PINOCCHIO… When Pinocchio comes home and Gepetto is not there… and there are no clues to lead Pinocchio toward his beloved father… the Blue Fairy drops a note and tells Pinocchio where to look for him. He should have searched and found a clue.

There. Two chapters I now don’t have to think up!

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Filed under character, Criticism, Good Writing, Screenwriting