Category Archives: Good Writing

You Don’t Know What You’re Writing About Until the End!

Supposedly you have gotten into this writing dodge because you’re a storyteller. You have something gnawing inside you, burning, chewing at your guts that you can’t wait to get out into the world. To share with others. To make people feel, strongly. Something! Anything! What story do you cease to exist if you don’t tell? Why?!

Writing teachers will say, “Figure out your theme, tape it above your computer and write about that.” As if it were anywhere near that easy!

I think the opposite is true, especially if you’re telling a tale that is “about” something. Something, hopefully, that has profound meaning for you and thereby, everyone. If you do a piece of writing the correct way, it will be to some degree a journey of exploration and discovery, perhaps self-discovery. That journey must be free form, fluid, and wide open to change.

In seeming contradiction to that, I also advocate use of an outline. In Your Screenplay Sucks!, I talked about how important it is to delay writing pages until you have pounded your outline to death.

The earlier it is in your writing career, the tighter the outline should be before you write actual screenplay pages. If your outline is on the money, your overall writing time will be shorter. If you really think about what you’re doing before you write FADE IN:, you’ll waste less time in revision mode.

Even then, you still can’t know what it is you’re really writing about until you have a draft.

Deeper into your writing career, I advocate for a more free-form version of the outline, precisely what Robert Olen Butler tells you to do in his magnificent book From Where You Dream.

https://www.amazon.com/Where-You-Dream-Process-Writing/dp/0802142575

Presumably, as you’re working on your script, your characters are alive and malleable. You may think of something halfway through the script that never occurred to you when you started. That’s fine! Change and improvement are wonderful. Foolish changes, sad to say, will send you off in the wrong direction. But, as this is a process, you can always figure out a way to get back on the path.

As you write pages with action description and dialogue and character and all that stuff, the journey your hero is on as well as the journey you are on will begin to deviate from whatever you thought that journey was going to be when you set out to write the outline, followed by pages. Things happen. Better ideas! Something changes on page 5 that will affect page 50. This stuff is normal. Do not reject change in favor of your “carved in stone” outline.

As you churn forward, writing, do not change the pages behind you (rule of thumb, nothing is law except, “Don’t be boring.”) but drop your “changes” ideas in a file and when you’re done with the first pass, go back and perform surgery on your patient.

Only as you move toward the end of the draft can you look back and see from whence you came and truly begin to understand what your story is about. Begin to understand why you are telling this story. Begin to understand what your character’s real problem is. Begin to understand what your problem is.

“I have a problem. I make a movie about it. It’s not a problem anymore.”

supposedly Andy Warhol

At the beginning of the journey, you can certainly think you know what the hero’s problem is, but you may be wrong about even something as fundamental as that. You certainly may not know what the solution to the problem is. Not at the beginning. You find this along the way. Hey, the writing teachers are right when they say it’s a journey! Your first pass is not your tenth draft! Embrace that you will fail for a while and don’t sweat it. Press on and feel good about it.

You may decide at the beginning that your movie is about a man in a divorce. You may change your mind partway through when you discover the main character is really his wife. The reason you’re telling the story can shift and that moment, that epiphany about why you’re really here, is fun! When you gasp and yell, “So that’s why I’m writing this!”, that’s a mind-blowingly wonderful feeling.

I don’t think you can get that feeling unless you stay open to change through the writing process. At last, perhaps suddenly, the truth will be revealed to you and you go back into the story and fix all the things you need to repair that will lead to the point you now know you’re trying to make.

The point you can only understand how to make after you’ve done a LOT of writing.

Once you figure out what your story is about, it may only be a matter of going back to the beginning to do some gentle spadework to alter this or that or these five scenes to help point the reader in the direction the story needs to go. Or, maybe it takes dynamite and a crane, a ton of heavy lifting, to blow it up and start all over again. Once you know what you really, really are there for, rewriting becomes much easier. And on target.

Scenes that don’t fit the new “theme” shout, “Hey, dummy! I don’t belong here! Get rid of me!” They can’t do that at the beginning of the writing process because they are locked into whatever your original thoughts were. Once all the players (your story and your characters and you) know why you’re really at the party, then you can roll up your sleeves and get some really good work done.

So, don’t sweat it if, up front, you don’t have a clue why the heck you’re sitting there writing.

If you have any examples of this, please send them to me and I will post them. Have you figured out much later in the game than you had first anticipated what your story was about?

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

You Gotta Set Up the Magic Sword!

I told a client he needed to add a set up scene well before his big climax, where the Opponent is killed. To disguise his story point, I’ll tell you there is a stake driven in the ground that is part of the machinery for the fight to the finish. It gets pulled out during the fight, and voilà!, exeunt bad guy. I felt my client needed to set up the stake.

He emailed:

I try to avoid set up scenes, readers can figure it out.

EG, I could write a scene of the [let’s call it a tent!] tent being delivered — but it wouldn’t be a very interesting scene.

I emailed him back:

So, instead, you write a really interesting scene that your story needs, about something important, or take a scene you already have and combine it with the delivery so the scene is about the one important thing, set against the unimportant tent delivery scene… BUT, later, when you have totally forgotten about the stake, there it is right when needed.

The tent installation guy can be philosophical about women, which Franklin needs to hear or have a conversation about. Or weird in some fascinating way. He has an ass crack we see every time he bends to steady the stake that keeps falling over when he swings the sledgehammer to drive it in. He’s got a tattoo on his ass that Franklin tries to read without looking like a pervert. Or something.

Make the delivery guy unforgettable, and we’ll forget about the stake. We’ve sure never seen a waitress like this one, who was in HELL OR HIGH WATER. In the history of the movies, we’ve never seen anyone like her. In this case, the scene bonds the two men together, which (other than being funny) is probably the point to the scene.

I see this Magic Sword Problem a lot in clients’ scripts, especially about sword and sorcery. I do not know why that is. Drives me nuts.

What you have in your story, seems to me, is a magical sword lying on the ground. Right when your hero needs a way to defeat the uber bad guy, he reaches out and there it is! He picks up the exact magical sword he needs and uses it to slay his enemy.

It sort of just happens to be there, for no reason at all, right when he needs it. No reason it’s there other than to save him.

But, if you set up the magical sword far earlier in the story, in a way we completely forget about, when he reaches for it, it will be there and we won’t scream, “Holy fucking shit where did that fucking magic sword come from?!”

My favorite example of buried set up is from THE GAME, with Michael Douglas. At the end of act two, he is walking in a Mexican desert in a very nice linen suit, no shoes no socks. All he has is his Rolex watch. He has no money. He has nothing. All his bank accounts have been emptied and he is at a very low low point.

He hocks the watch, goes back to San Francisco, to their offices, where he filled out the forms and signed up for the game. That entire floor is empty. Oh hell. So now, he has no way to find the bad guys and get his money in his life back. He has nothing.

Except…

The one thing that he knows about the bad guys is where they eat lunch.

Way way earlier, he goes to their offices to fill out a big stack of forms that allow him to sign up for the game. Releases, etc. The forms, on a clipboard, are handed to him by the boss, who walked into the reception area carrying a sack of to-go Chinese food boxes and the clipboard.

The scene is about filling out the forms. That is why the scene exists. But, the hidden reason for the scene was to establish where the people get their takeout Chinese, to save the hero later.

The bag of takeout orders drips sauce on the forms, and the boss does a bit of a ballet swinging the bag out of the way, and makes a joke about it, “Man Lung, drippy as hell, but best Chinese in San Francisco.” You laugh and never notice the secret note being slipped under your door.

So, an hour and a half later, when he is waiting outside of Man Lung, we know where he got that crucial bit of information and you think, “Smart fella.”

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Filed under Details, Good Writing, Screenwriting

Get details right!

Why do writers submit work that’s not as perfectly perfect as they can possibly make it?

I often see the wrong word being used. Literally, the wrong word. Just because you ran your spellcheck doesn’t mean you’re done. If your sentence is about a hairy beast, don’t describe his hair as “course.”

Don’t use words you don’t actually know. You would not describe a fortress as “adamantine,” even though the word sort of means “unyielding.” Don’t use words you don’t know. Especially if not one other word in your piece is half as brainy as “adamantine.” A person can have an adamantine personality, but a fort can’t. You’re not trying to impress someone with fancy words. You’re not writing an English paper. You are trying to communicate a simple idea as effectively as possible. Or, horrors, a complicated idea. Do not attempt to impress the reader with knowledge you do not have. It will only make you look like you’re reaching.

Or dim.

Not just use of language, but events that have no set up or moments that seem important that have no pay off. Or dialogue at the end of scenes that just peters out into nothing, that should have been trimmed so the page is as tight as it possibly can be. Or characters names that change several times in the course of a script. Details that may bump with a reader.

“Everything matters.”
Jack Nicholson

Every teeny detail must be right, or they’ll think you don’t care and will move on to the next thing in their stack.

I hope you’re not sitting in your nifty little writing space thinking, “Well, that book I just read or that movie I just saw was garbage. I can do better than that!” Well, that garbage got published or got produced, so it probably wasn’t garbage when they wrote it. The odds of something, anything… a thing you wrote, getting published or produced are infinitesimal, which means “very, very, very tiny.”

Every detail must be polished to perfection or your work will die a grim death.

Imagine you’re running across a windswept battlefield clutching your draft, racing toward a producer willing to read it… and charging at your heels, an army of Lord of the Rings Orcs, each with a finished script or manuscript in hand. They think their writing is good. You think yours is good. If you’re going to win the race with that river of Orcs, you had better take the time to get your writing as perfectly perfect as possible. Otherwise, one of those ten thousand Orcs will get a check, not you.

Some of my clients understand the degree of difficulty of what they’re trying to do. Others live in La La Land (not the movie!) and nothing good will ever happen to their writing. I’m sorry to say that, but that’s the way it is.

I suggest my clients use Your Screenplay Sucks! to do three drafts, which is how many it takes to exhaust the book. That may take as long as a year, depending on what your work schedule and writing schedule will allow. The book only costs $20. Cheap, for what you can squeeze out of it. Free, if you steal it! That’s a lot less expensive than my consulting fee. Do three drafts. Use the book up. Then send your work to me for notes. I can talk about high end stuff like plot, character, tone, structure… important things… not your misuse of “adamantine.”

I recently told a client, “Take you time. Read the book. Do the stuff you agree with. Get it right. Then send it to me.” He said, “No need. I’m ready now.” False bravado will sink your lifeboat. Ignoring my my advice, he sent his “ready to go” script. After I finished my notes, his pages looked like I’d severed my carotid artery all over them. When I sent him the notes, he was terribly embarrassed. Rarely are people able to judge their own work. He was certain it was ready. T’wasn’t close.

It’s okay to be embarrassed when it’s a script consultant. It’s not okay to be embarrassed if it’s an agent ’cause that’s the last you’ll ever hear from her. Never forget, you only get one crack at someone “real.” They’re hard to find. Excruciatingly difficult to get them to read your work. You only have one chance at them.

Better make it perfect.

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

Kitchen Timer Method

A good way to make yourself write. Don Roos, the clever mind behind The Opposite of Sex and Web Therapy, gave me this.

“KITCHEN TIMER”

The principle of Kitchen Timer is that every writer deserves a definite and do-able way of being and feeling successful every day.

To do this, we learn to judge ourselves on behavior rather than content. (We leave content to our unconscious; experience will teach us to trust that.) We set up a goal for ourselves as writers which is easy, measurable, free of anxiety, and fail-proof, because everyone can sit, and an hour will always pass.

Here’s how it works:

1. Buy a kitchen timer, one that goes to 60 minutes.

2. We decide on Monday how many hours of writing we will do Tuesday. When in doubt or under pressure or self-attack, we choose fewer hours rather than more. A good, strong beginning is one hour a day.

3. The Kitchen Timer Hour:
No phones. No listening to the machine to see who it is. We turn ringers off if possible. It is our life; we are entitled to one hour without interruption, particularly from loved ones. We ask for their support. “I was on an hour” is something they learn to understand. But they will not respect it unless we do first.
No music with words, unless it’s a language we don’t understand.
No internet, absolutely.
No reading.
No “desk re-design/landscaping”, no pencil-sharpening.

4. Immediately upon beginning the hour, we open two documents: our journal, and the project we are working on. If we don’t have a project we’re actively working on, we just open our journal.

5. An hour consists of TIME SPENT keeping our writing appointment. We don’t have to write at all, if we are happy to stare at the screen. Nor do we have to write a single word on our current project; we may spend the entire hour writing in our journal. Anything we write in our journal is fine; ideas for future projects, complaints about loved ones, even “I hate writing” typed four hundred times.

When we wish or if we wish, we pop over to the current project document and write for as long as we like. When we get tired or want a break, we pop back to the journal.

The point is, when disgust or fatigue with the current project arises, we don’t take a break by getting up from our desk. We take a break by returning to the comforting arms of our journal, until that in turn bores us. Then we are ready to write on our project again, and so on. We use our boredom in this way.

IT IS ALWAYS OKAY TO WRITE EXCLUSIVELY IN OUR JOURNAL. In practice it will rarely occur that we spend the full hour in our journal, but it’s fine, good, and right that we do when we feel like it. It is just as good a writing day as one spent entirely in our current project.

6. It is infinitely better to write fewer hours every day, than many hours one day and none the next. If we have a crowded weekend, we choose a half-hour as our time, put in that time, and go on with our day. We are always trying to minimize our resistance, and beginning an hour on Monday after two days off is a challenge.

7. When the hour is up, we stop, even if we’re in the middle of a sentence. If we have scheduled another hour, we give ourselves a break before beginning again — to read, eat, go on errands. We are not trying to create a cocoon we must stay in between hours; the “I’m sorry I can’t see anyone or leave my house, I’m on a deadline” method. Rather, inside the hour is the inviolate time.

8. If we fail to make our hours for the day, we have probably scheduled too many. Four hours a day is an enormous amount of time spent in this manner, for example. If on Wednesday we planned to write three hours and didn’t make it, we subtract the time we didn’t write from our schedule for the next day. If we fail to make a one-hour commitment, we make a one-hour or a half-hour appointment for the next day. WE REALIZE WE CANNOT MAKE UP HOURS, and that continuing to fail to meet our commitment will result in the extinguishing of our voice.

9. When we have fulfilled our commitment, we make sure we credit ourselves for doing so. We have satisfied our obligation to ourselves, and the rest of the day is ours to do with as we wish.

10. A word about content: This may seem to be all about form, but the knowledge that we have satisfied our commitment to ourselves, the freedom from anxiety and resistance, and the stilling of that hectoring voice inside of us which used to yell at us that we weren’t writing enough — all this opens us up creatively. When we stop whipping ourselves, our voices rise up inside.

Good luck!

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Filed under Good Writing, Screenwriting, Uncategorized

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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Filed under character, Good Writing, Screenwriting

Action / Reaction… and the lack thereof.

Good thing I’m a teacher. Good thing I’m a script consultant. Good thing my clients make mistakes on which I can capitalize and earn money based on what I learn!

Here’s my most recent discovery. I make this mistake too. That’s one of the wonderful things about teaching… you automatically become a better writer. Good news! While your students drive you to the looney bin, at the same time, you can make money.

So, Action / Reaction. What the heck is that?

Well, dumbass, for one thing, it’s Newton’s Third Law of Motion. “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” “Yeah, so?” you say. “How does this apply to writing? Dude’s been dead, for like three hundred years. Were movies even invented then? Duuh.”

In story, something happens. That’s the Action. It causes something else to happen, the Reaction. What’s bad is if you have an Action with no Reaction. This is something to be wary of in your work.

Writers often have Actions in their stories without Reactions. Forget equal and opposite! What works in physics doesn’t always work in drama. In fiction, sometimes an Action has an opposite Reaction that is way, WAY unequal to the Action. Like in BREAKING BAD, when Walter White is about to have surgery and is under pre-anesthesia… kinda stoned, actually, and his wife asks him a simple little question… “Did you pack your cell phone?” He says, “Which one?” A tiny little answer. A tiny little Action. But hoo boy, does it have a Reaction! A giant one. The size of the Bikini atomic bomb test, if not Krakatoa. After all, that tiny Action, “Which one?” led to the cataclysmic Season Two finale.

But, because it was good writing, the Action had a Reaction. It doesn’t always happen in early drafts.

If you introduce a character on page 1 and she’s got a half finished tattoo across her back… well, that’s an Action. The reader takes note and waits for a Reaction. If you don’t have one, the reader / gate keeper / intern / agent / producer / studio head (if your Actions have no Reactions, forget that one) will make a little black mark by your name…

If you have a character who phones his elderly mother and gets no answer… that’s an Action. Any normal human being is going to go over there to check on her, or call a neighbor, or the cops or something. If the character does nothing, it’s going to be a bump for the reader. An Action with no Reaction.

If a character says, “Five years ago, I tried to kill myself.” that’s an Action. The reader is straining at the leash, asking, “Why did she try to kill herself?” If you don’t give that information, you deny the reader the promised Reaction.

The opposite is also true. You can make the mistake of having a Reaction with no Action to make it happen. If, late in a story, you have a character whose father moves into a nursing home, without the requisite argument, anger, conversations, agony, etc. to force the father out of his house… you have a Reaction with no Action that would force it to happen. An old guy doesn’t just move into a nursing home without a lot of blood on the walls. Don’t have a Reaction without an Action to force it into being. Remember Bikini?

The guys who were at the Able and Baker Atomic bomb tests were just over the horizon from the explosions. That’s an Action. A lot of them got cancer. At twice the normal rate. That’s a Reaction.

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Filed under Bad Writing, Details, Good Writing, Rewriting, Screenwriting

Question from a student… Is low budget filmmaking worth it?

Low budget does not have to mean bad. Just in the way that high budget does not necessarily mean good.

Everything is based on an idea, an emotion, and finally, a superb screenplay. If you don’t have a killer script, you have nothing. Beginning filmmakers get a draft done and think they are finished. Or ten drafts. You are never finished until you reach the day when you have to give the script to the actors to memorize. That’s when you’re done.

When you’re working on a low budget script, you have all the time in the world and your time is free. You can use that time to improve the script. Once you give the script to someone and it gets covered, especially in Hollywood, you can’t change it and you can’t improve it and you can’t fix its reputation.

To specifically answer your question, yes you can make money with a low budget movie but you have to have a good script and then you have to be careful with everything. You also have to have a sales plan built in from the get-go. A lot of beginning filmmakers finish their movie, have a DVD, and then say, “Gosharootie, how do I sell this thing?” If you don’t think about it long, long, long before the end of the production process, you are lost.

The more you learn about the market. The more you learn about finance. The more you will understand about how to get a movie made.

If you don’t make money, you don’t stay in business.

Even with no money, if you’re fun and professional, you can get a good crew. You can get a good script. It does not take an enormous amount of money to rent gear. Someone may own the gear. You can pare down expenses to basically these two: sound and food. On a low budget movie, you still have to pay the location sound recordist and the caterer. The caterer is for your crew to be happy. The sound is so you won’t have crappy sound and have to spend a fortune in post fixing the mess you made. I tell this to students and they don’t listen.

Sound is the most difficult aspect of the low-budget film. Perhaps because it is invisible. I don’t know.

As Kelley Baker says, you need three things to make a good low-budget film. Good script. Good sound. Good actors. If you don’t have all three of those, there is no point in proceeding with the production.

If you do, you have a shot at making money.

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Filed under Good Writing, Screenwriting, The Business, Writing Process