Category Archives: Good Writing

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.

*

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.”

*

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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Filed under character, Good Writing, Writing Process

Burning Shoe Leather

I see this a lot. In nightmares!

It is difficult to get one’s head around the fact that a movie is not real life, but a reasonable approximation dedicated to giving a reader / audience an emotional experience.

Face it. Real life is boring. Why you think they invented movies?! Showing “real life” in a screenplay is not a good idea. Showing a shortened, heightened, more intense version of real life: drama! is a delightful idea. Anything that slows the drama is to be avoided.

“Shoe Leather” is when a character travels from one place to another. Across a room. From a car to the hospital entrance or a saunter through the hurly burly of a city street. Anytime someone goes from here to there. By foot, normally, but cars, airplanes, intergalactic spaceships also fill the bill.

That’s shoe leather. The burning thereof mostly is a waste of time. So cut it. Mostly.

Just because a guy Ubers up to his house, gets his luggage and wheels it up the sidewalk toward his front door doesn’t mean you have to show it. Even if, during a rewrite you switch it to a carry on…

At the bottom of page 1, here’s the scene.

*Pretend this is in Courier font! I used to be able to change the font. No more.

EXT. RICK & SUZANNE’S HOUSE – SUNRISE

Uber pulls up to a hyper-cool modern house. Mercedes SUV. Range Rover. Underground sprinklers douse lush lawn.

Rick carries his scant luggage into his wonderful home.

INT. RICK & SUZANNE’S BEDROOM – DAY

Luggage barely unpacked. High ceilings. King size bed. Rick, usually easy going, good-under-pressure, sleeps and twists in the sheets.

In a Jets jersey, his wife, SUZANNE PERRARO, 30s, clever, used to winning, sleeps deeply. Clock reads 5:56.

*

After I printed the pages (to rewrite!), I discovered I’d violated a cardinal sin: burning shoe leather.

EXT. RICK & SUZANNE’S HOUSE – SUNRISE

Uber pulls up to a hyper-cool modern house. Mercedes SUV. Range Rover. Underground sprinklers douse lush lawn.

Rick carries his scant luggage into his wonderful home.

INT. RICK & SUZANNE’S BEDROOM – DAY

Luggage barely unpacked. High ceilings. King size bed. Rick, usually easy going, good-under-pressure, sleeps and twists in the sheets.

In a Jets jersey, his wife, SUZANNE PERRARO, 30s, clever, used to winning, sleeps deeply. Clock reads 5:56.

*

I shifted the Uber arrival to the end of the paragraph, ending on action, and cut the “Rick carries” paragraph. Lo and behold, look what slipped up from the top of page 2 to the bottom of page 1?! A character with a problem. Nice work!

EXT. RICK & SUZANNE’S HOUSE – SUNRISE

Hyper-cool modern house. Mercedes SUV. Range Rover. Underground sprinklers douse lush lawn. Uber pulls up.

INT. RICK & SUZANNE’S BEDROOM – DAY

Luggage barely unpacked. High ceilings. King size bed. Rick, usually easy going, good-under-pressure, sleeps and twists in the sheets.

In a Jets jersey, his wife, SUZANNE PERRARO, 30s, clever, used to winning, sleeps deeply. Clock reads 5:56.

Rick wakes stressed.

*

This is a movie! (or television, of course) Not real life. Like Samantha in BEWITCHED, characters can go places in the blink of an eye. You don’t have to show them go there for us to understand that they got there.

I would love to know if this is true: supposedly… until the James Bond films, characters always entered rooms. That editor decided he didn’t need to show someone coming into a room. Because she’s there, the audience will understand that the woman in the living room must have opened the door and walked in… By cutting needless entrances, he gave those films a little snap that hadn’t existed before.

It deftly illustrates my point and it’d be swell were it true.

It’s hard to comprehend how little time a film audience has to waste. Anything you can do to speed up the read or the viewing experience, do. This includes people going places for more or less no reason.

If you mark out a moment of burning shoe leather and it doesn’t affect our understanding of the scene or the following scene, why keep it? Look at the end of every scene. Does the scene end with someone getting up and going somewhere? Driving to a new location? Walking across a room toward another room?

These activities wear out their shoes. Because these days a good shoe repair shop is hard to find, you want to add wear to your characters’ shoes as little as possible. Common courtesy! While you’re looking after your characters’ shoes, you’re also taking care of your reader. Most burning of shoe leather can be cut. Not all, mind you, but muchly much.

Once upon a time, I gave a screenwriting master class in Perpignan, at a film studio in southern France. Nice work if you can get it.

There were 25 students at a conference room table. At my end, the screenwriting students. At the far end, animators. We were discussing rewriting.

One writing student asked about a scene he was about to shoot. “The character leaves their apartment building, goes down the street to the train station. Buys a ticket and gets on a train and goes to the next town. From the station, he goes to the casino.”

I said, “Why does he take a train to the next town?”

“Because that’s where the casino is.”

“Who cares if, in real life, the casino’s not in Perpignan? What if you just have him walk out of the apartment, go down the street, and enter the casino?”

The writer nodded, blown away at the agony I’d just saved him and his crew.

At the end of the table, an ashen animator spoke. “I wish I’d had you as a teacher. We had a scene where a character gets on a train in Paris, rides to the south, gets out of the train in Marseille and leaves the station. In the end, we cut the train ride, so now the character gets on the train in Paris and comes out of the station in Marseille.

Horrified, he added, “The train ride sequence took us a month to animate.”

That is my finest, and most painful, example of burning shoe leather. Would that they had cut it during the rewriting process!

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

Description, Brautigan Style

Action description and character description need not be bland. Your writing, even in a form as regimented as screenwriting, should let the reader know, “This person is a writer.”

In high school, I found and adored Richard Brautigan’s writing. It felt different and created wonderful images.

*

The novelist was in his late forties, tall, reddish, and looked as if life had given him an endless stream of two-timing girlfriends, five-day drunks and cars with bad transmissions.

Now the dare had been completed and I turned around in that house which was like a shallow garden and all my fears collapsed upon me like a landslide of flowers and I ran screaming at the top of my lungs outside and down the stairs. I sounded as if I had stepped in a wheelbarrow-sized pile of steaming dragon shit.

The place was small and muddy and smelled like stale rain and had a large unmade bed that looked as if it had been a partner to some of the saddest love-making this side of The Cross.

The men who worked in the office were all about middle-age and they did not show any sign of ever having been handsome in their youth or actually anything in their youth. They all looked like people whose names you forget.

Life is as simple as driving through New Mexico in a borrowed Jeep, sitting next to a girl who is so pretty that every time I look at her I just feel good all over.

A few years ago (World War II) I lived in a motel next to a Swift packing plant which is a nice way of saying slaughterhouse. They killed pigs there, hour after hour, day after day, week after week, month after month until spring became summer and summer became fall, by cutting their throats after which would follow a squealing lament equal to an opera being run through a garbage disposal.

The auctioneer was selling things so fast that it was possible to buy stuff that wouldn’t be for sale until next year. He had false teeth that sounded like crickets jumping up and down inside the jaws of a skeleton.

This might have been a funny story if it weren’t for the fact that people need a little loving and, God, sometimes it’s sad all the shit they have to go through to find some.

The garage was very complicated in the light of a 15 watt globe fastened to a piece of yellow string that looked as if it had come off a mummy.

He looked like an insurance agent instead of a night watchman. I wondered about his capability and desire to defend the sawmill against sawmill thieves because he looked as if he couldn’t defend a marshmallow against a three-year-old.

Anyway, she died of pneumonia and Thank God, it wasn’t me. When I heard she had died of pneumonia, I really said my prayers that night. I promised to be so good that I would make a saint seem like a sack of coal.

Also, he had eyes that were born to look at things that he could steal.

The next morning I got out of bed and put my clothes on very quietly, like a mouse putting on a Kleenex, and went over to the house where the little girl used to live before she died of pneumonia.

The dock itself was three ten-inch planks that were about two inches thick. They were also hand-carved and then finely polished until the king could’ve eaten off them. It would’ve been interesting to watch a king eat directly off a dock.

It was like a little brother to the dock. It was totally handmade from an elegant wood that was varnished to a beautiful sheen like finely diluted sunlight.

The old man looked away from their approach and took a spoonful of his stew, which starred a lot of potatoes, featured carrots and peas, and from where I was standing, it looked as if a hot dog sliced very thin had a minor role in his stew.

He was also the best dancer in school and sang “Blue Moon” at student body assemblies. His version of “Blue Moon” made the girls’ hearts beat like the hearts of excited kittens.

Foster loves to drink and it’s always easy for him to find somebody to drink with. Foster is about forty years old and always wears a T-shirt, no matter what the weather is about, rain or shine, hot or cold, it’s all the same to his T-shirt because his T-shirt is an eternal garment that only death will rob from his body.

She was so beautiful that the advertising people would have made her into a national park if they would have gotten their hands on her.

She kissed me again, but this time with her tongue. Her tongue slid past my tongue like a piece of hot glass.

… and for your enjoyment, a Brautigan short story, best word last…

The Scarlatti Tilt

“It’s very hard to live in a studio apartment in San Jose with a man who is learning to play the violin.” That’s what she told the police when she handed them the empty revolver.

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Filed under Good Writing, Screenwriting, Uncategorized, Writing Process

A Rewrite Does Not Have to be a Mountain of Despair

When surging forward on your first pass, attacking that diabolical blank screen, it’s crucial to feel you’re Wonder Woman or Thor, knocking away bullets of self-doubt with your magic bracelets or Mjölnir, your super duper hammer! Rocket forward so fast that the gremlin of failure is left choking in your dust and Get. That. Draft. Finished. You do that by successfully pretending to be all-powerful, Almighty, all-knowing, and really, really talented.

Only after you write FADE OUT. are you allowed to turn into a runny-mascara puddle of insecurity.

Sadly, stewing on the epic list of disastrous messes in your first pass can turn a rewrite into a Gibraltar of pain and misery. How could anyone ever solve all these horrible problems? How could anyone ever eat this granite mountain one tiny stone at a time? Staring down the double-barrels of an entire rewrite is a daunting assignment.

However, there are pain-free actions to keep you chugging toward the distant goal of: Next Draft! Non-anguish-inducing exercises will move you forward with minimum to zero stress.

Make a list of simple projects that won’t push you to suicidal thoughts.

Fix your slug lines! Check punctuation at the end of each sentence! Go through every line of dialogue, character by character, to see if that dialogue sounds like them… say, Catherine the Great instead of Emo Phillips! See if an action is followed by no reaction! Or, if a reaction is not set up by some kind of action! Simple!! Do any characters say two lines that basically repeat the same thought?! Cut the weak one! Would adding a prop to this scene help?! In each scene, can you raise the conflict, even a little?!

What about research?! Less pressure than rewriting, and now that you’ve got a draft, you’ll waste far less time researching dead ends! Lose starter words in dialogue! Easy peasy! Go through each paragraph of action description and tighten it until it squeaks! Are there words in there that you don’t quite know the meaning of?! Ask that simplest of questions, “Are my character names confusing?!” Read scenes out loud! See if your sentences end with the most powerful word! Check for eighth grade grammar mistakes! Check for fourth grade grammar mistakes!

Solving a small puzzle, Sherlock, does not require higher brain function anything like cracking the Enigma code of “I can’t fix my main character so I’m gonna die in a ditch…”

Find simple tasks that will help.

The great thing about non-depressing mechanical chores is that they effortlessly get your head in the story and, from time to time, grand ideas will shimmer to the surface and easily solve part of that whole giant Gibraltar rewrite agony.

Small steps lead to big bites.

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Physical Writing. Get it right.

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.

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

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

Real Life Into Drama

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

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In Praise of Typewriters – II

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…”

John Mayer

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.

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

Start FASTER and SOONER and BIGGER

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.”

CUT TO:

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?

CUT TO:

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!

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Filed under Bad Writing, Dialogue, Good Writing, Rewriting, Scenes, Screenwriting

It’s Too Early to Know What Your Story is About!

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.

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