Category Archives: Good Writing

The Cat In The Hat teaches You Story Structure!

Story structure is story structure. What works has worked for a long, long time. Even children’s books have a hero with a problem, an Inciting Incident, Act breaks, a Midpoint, and an All is Lost moment, just like what’s playing at the OmniPlex or computer screen near you!

The Cat In The Hat is 61 pages. Double that and pretend it’s a feature script. Remember it was written in 1957 when scripts were 120 pages…

Page 1. The hero and his sister, Sally, are at home and already have a problem. It’s raining and they can’t go out to play. There’s no backstory. They WANT something. They want ONE THING and they want it badly. On page 1, they’re sitting at the window, bored out of their skulls, wishing someone would hurry up and invent video games.

Guess what?! There’s an Inciting Incident…! On page 5, something goes BUMP! and the Cat In The Hat steps in on the mat. He’s wildly different from Sally and her brother. He says, that zany goofball, “We can have lots of good fun that is funny!” The children (conflicted!) don’t know what to say, but they sure know their mother is out of the house for the day.

Fish knows what to say! On page 7, Fish ramps up the conflict and says, “No no!… “He should not be here when your mother is out!” A splash of cold water that slows Cat down… not at all!

The Cat In The Hat then has fun hopping up and down on a ball while balancing Fish and more and more and more and more household items and showing how much fun all this is… until… page 21 (a tad late, but never mind), at the Act I break… everything he’s done in Act I comes crashing down. Just like in a Hollywood movie!

For the first part of Act II, Fish continues to scold the children and warn them and generally harass them for the bonehead mistake they made letting this dude into their house. The children try to convince Cat to leave. He won’t leave. No lack of conflict here! Just before we get bored, Cat decides to take us in a new direction. When, pray tell, does he do that?

Page 29! Right in the very middly middle! A Midpoint! Just like a movie!

Cat blasts in the front door with a big red wood box. What’s this?! He yanks it open! Out race Thing 1 and Thing 2! Everything changes! This is Act II, so things get worse! Now three people are causing trouble for the home team! Thing 1 and Thing 2 do terrible things like fly kites indoors! They knock things over! They tear pictures off the wall! They have so much fun ripping up the children’s home!

Then, the Worst Possible Thing happens! Thing 1 and Thing 2 wreak their brand of havoc in… not the basement… not the laundry room, but… the mother’s bedroom! The stakes are now so high, the consequences are cataclysmic.

Terrified, the hero asks what would their mother say if she saw all this…

The very next page (46, right on schedule) is the end of Act II. We see, OMG, Mom walk up the sidewalk! She’s baaaaack!! Fish shakes with fear and worries what she’ll do!

Making a daring move, the hero catches Thing 1 and Thing 2 in his net. The Cat, who only wanted to have fun, feels terrible about what they’ve done and says, “What a shame!”

On page 54, The Cat shuts the Things in the box and leaves.

Hero and Sally and Fish stare at the wreckage of their home, shattered. No matter how hard they might try, they will never be able to clean up this mess. Depressed, they face utter destruction. This children’s book has a dark, dark All Is Lost moment!

Then, the Cat In The Hat zooms back in to show them another trick!! Driving a crazy cleaning-up machine, he completely tidies up the entire house! Everything he and his henchmen messed up is put back in place. And, with a tip of his hat, Cat scoots out the door — just before Mom comes in. Whewwwwweee!

The last page is a rhyming image of the second page, with the children looking out the window, Fish in his bowl at their side. Opening Image vs. Closing Image! As Mom steps in, all is right with the world — but the children have survived a harrowing journey, weren’t bored for a second, and their world is different.

The Hero asks if you would tell your mother what had happened… The End.

Dr. Seuss uses three act structure! So can you!

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Filed under Good Writing, Rhyming Scenes, Uncategorized, Writing Process

Bury That Set Up!

I’m enjoying Carry On, Jeeves, a collection of Bertie Wooster short stories by P.G. Wodehouse. “Without The Option” is one of the best. At the end, when Jeeves explains the sublime way he vanquished the opponent, his victory depends on a gigantic coincidence.

To bring you up to speed, Bertie tries to help his friend Oliver (beholden to his Aunt Vera for 100% of his financial support) out of a romantic jam by suggesting he steal a policeman’s hat. A reasonable solution to most problems! Naturally, Oliver is thrown into jail for thirty days. If hair-trigger Aunt Vera finds out, she’ll cut him off forever. Disastrously high stakes! Bertie’s plan goes pear shaped and, at the worst possible time for it to happen, the worst possible thing happens — he finds himself in the same room with the dreaded Aunt Vera. There’s nothing to do but confess the truth…

Keep in mind that she’s a conservative, wealthy, frightening, ancient battleaxe and Bertie is terrified of the scorched-earth destruction she’ll wreak on his chum.

And now, the climax!

How does Jeeves save Bertie’s bacon? A cousin who’s a copper.

“There’s no way,” I mused, “this providential piece of good-luck-lightning could accidentally strike in a story written by someone as careful as Mr. Wodehouse.” I went back, looked, and there it was: an artfully placed, oh-so-useful set up, neatly tucked where we wouldn’t notice it, under a stack of socks.

Enjoy Wodehouse’s subtle set up! Know that Bertie has a crushing hangover…

As far as Jeeves’ eventual ability to solve Bertie’s problem, the fact that Jeeves has a cousin in the town where the opponent lives is the story’s most important piece of information. That set up is buried under the business of Bertie’s hangover pushing him to tell Jeeves not to interrupt. Jeeves interrupts anyway and Bertie chastises him. The instant the “cousin set up” appears, it is obscured by a scolding. The set up is, like a cat sleeping in a dark doorway for you to trip over at 2:00 a.m…. present, but invisible.

You can’t just willy nilly lob a cousin in at the finale and that cousin be the machinery that saves Bertie from Aunt Vera’s Doom. Deus ex machina works when you’re in fifth grade, but not in the summer following fifth grade or ever after.

Don’t give your character a magic sword at the moment they need it. Tuck it away it much, much earlier, hidden from view, in their underwear drawer.

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Filed under Screenwriting, Scenes, Writing Process, Good Writing

Are You a Professional?

Do you have an amateur’s point of view or a professional’s? One way to tell: “How do you react to notes?”

A TV producer-director friend, who’s directed hundreds and hundreds of hours of television, comes across a lot of writers. A lot of beginning writers. A lot of intermediate writers. A lot of professionals. He recently told me he no longer reads scripts by non-pros. “If they’re not professional, all they want is praise.” He stopped wasting his time.

There’s always that straw that knocks the camel into the dung heap. For my buddy, this was it…

“I read the script by this guy. It was terrible. But it had a good idea. So when I met with him, I told him he had to throw the whole thing out and start over, but the core idea was worth the effort. He said, ‘Yeah, I know that. But would you show it to your agent?’ I told him again that it was not good, needed total rewriting, and wasn’t ready. He said, ‘I know, I know. But would you show it to your agent?’ I told him a third time and he asked me to show it to my agent.”

As the British would say, that tore it. End of that particular wannabe’s relationship with someone who could help him.

If all you want is praise, go hang out with your grandparents. If you want to get into the movie and television business, get ready for notes. All you’re ever going to get is notes. Criticism piled on more criticism with spicy criticism sauce poured on top. Plus… the lack of praise makes you feel bad. Get over it. I did.

All I ever want anyone to say about my writing is, “I weep at your genius.” I’m still waiting.

John Lloyd Miller, who’s a helluva filmmaker, says this and I agree, “Every note is an opportunity for you to improve your work.” You need to buy into that mantra, wholeheartedly. When someone takes time to give you notes, take the time to actually listen, nod attentively and appreciatively, write down every single painful thing they say, and pay for the lunch.

If you don’t want notes, can’t welcome notes, can’t smile when you get punched in the gut, find something other than writing to occupy your time because you don’t want to be a writer.

Not a better one anyway. Certainly not a professional.

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Filed under Uncategorized, Writing Process, Criticism, Good Writing

When To Start Your Story

Until you know your story’s precise timeframe, it’s a horrible idea to start writing.

When does it begin? When does it end? As short an overall story-length as possible! Do not start when the problem starts. Begin only when you have to. You don’t have to start the story now, if you can FADE IN: later.

MICHAEL CLAYTON takes place over four or five days. Tony Gilroy wrote several complete screenplays, entire movies (!), that he cut, before he finally realized when to begin his movie… because he was trying to tell too much story. He tried to cram it ALL in and discovered he had to cut reams, figure out precisely what story he was telling, and lose all the useless chaff.

Decide exactly what your story is and tell that story. Don’t tell any other story, just that one. That’s the only one you need to tell, that one story.

Go find a pencil and a piece of paper. I’ll wait.

Got it? Do you really have it? Because this won’t work if you don’t have a pencil in your hand. Or a pen. Or a crayon.

Draw a horizontal line. All the way across your page. Be generous with your line. Pencils’re cheap. Use it up, you can buy another one anytime. Draw a long line.

It represents your character’s life. Not, hopefully, when they’re born and when they die, but the area of time their Big Problem encompasses — from well before the problem’s birth until way past forgetting she ever had a problem. The line covers everything your story could possibly be about.

Your job is to draw a vertical hash on that line and another one further to the right. Your story begins and your story ends at those two moments. Endeavor to keep those marks as close together as possible, so you’re telling as little of the main character’s life as you can. As long as you’re telling juuuuusst enough!

Find the two inches or half an inch or three inches on that line that’s “a movie”. Don’t tell us anything other than the part that’s a “movie”, that works as a complete story with as little effort on your part as possible. If you can find this sweet spot quickly, you’re the luckiest person in the world. When you start the story, your main character’s already deep in trouble. They have a problem. They’re not happy. Nothing’s working out.

When the inciting incident slams her, her life gets MUCH worse and you’re off to the races! Pick the right place to begin and a host of your problems will vanish. Then, how close to that beginning can you stick your finale? [See my May 7 2020 “Unity of Place” blog post. It touches on the M-80 Theory of Drama, something you must understand.]

Cut that “teaching us who they are and how they got here” crud and your wonderful setup of their tedious, mostly ho-hum lives. Start with her already grappling with a problem. All that explanation you had in those piles of early drafts can go and no one will notice. The instant you figure out the main pulse of your story, you’ll forget you ever wrote all that nonsense you just cut.

Pick the wrong places to start and stop and you could write for decades until you figure out that exact perfect spot to put FADE IN:

The excellent Robert Redford / Sydney Pollack movie, THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR, was based on a book. Six Days of the Condor.

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Filed under Uncategorized, Screenwriting, Writing Process, Good Writing

The Lego Sandwich: Everything Is Specific

When, for your dining enjoyment, a child hands you a sandwich made of Legos, it’s a superb idea to ask her what every single Lego block is. You’d better remember which is the patty, the Volcano Sauce, the Sea Horseradish, the multiple mustards, and the Jellyfish Jelly. Woe unto you if you assume any one of those Legos isn’t important. Or is not there for a specific and incredibly useful reason. Each Lego in that foot tall sandwich has a function or it absolutely would not be there.

The same is true for a small child’s drawing. What looks like aimlessly scribbled scrawls of pencil lines and infinitesimal dots… to you… has essential and well-thought-out meaning for the artist. Nothing is there without an objective. Their creator can damn well tell you the reason for every hen scratch. Just ’cause it looks like gobbledygook gooey goo to you doesn’t mean it is. All has meaning. Each line adds to the work’s overall goal.

With writing, the opposite is true. Material often clouds the page solely because the writer can type fast.

If we wrote with quill pens we repeatedly dipped in ink, this pernicious word-vomitorium would be less of a thing. As the quill has gone the way of the Dodo, we tend to make our readers suffer.

When constructing a sentence, writers are WAY less diligent than children making art. Grownups are sloppy. When someone writes with next to no deliberation, sentences can have heaps of greasy fat, settling hard on the tum-tum unwanted and unappreciated. A paragraph can contain wasted words, useless phrases, or (gasp!) entire sentences that have no cause for existence.

If you don’t have one caroming around the house, either rent a kid to proofread your work and tear out every single word you don’t need… like getting rid of extra lettuce in a Lego sandwich… OR make the perhaps unfamiliar effort to proofread and rewrite exactingly all by yourself.

When it’s over, be certain nothing is on your page without a raison d’être. Just ’cause it’s there doesn’t mean you gotta keep it, unlike the six Lego mustards.

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

Dumped in Love = Rewriting!

Once Upon A Time, did someone break up with you? Hurt like hell, didn’t it? Everything was terrible. Nothing worked. Life would never be the same. As Jon Stewart says, “Food no longer tastes good.”

When writing is not going well, you get more or less that same wretched feeling. It’s all your fault! You’ll never be any good at this! You’re wasting your time! The page will never love you! Everything you’ve ever done or ever will do is wrong! Why did you, for one second, think you could do this?! You’re a bad, bad person!!!

The good news… everybody feels like that!

To some degree, writers are masochists and when it’s not going well, they mangle themselves. Totally normal! Writing is interior stuff, part of your soul, and when your soul is victim of an acid throwing, you feel supremely ghastly. To return to the “Miserable in the Romance Dept.” metaphor, when writing goes on the rocks, it’s heartbreaking.

But… after your ex shreds your heart, someday the painful feeling will fade. It may take a year. It may take five. But, finally, you get back to normal. More experienced. Sadder but wiser. But, able to function and open your heart. Life improves. You feel good again.

I ask my students, “Those of you who’ve been dumped in love, have you ever been dumped more than once?” A few raise their hands. I say, “The second time felt just as horrible didn’t it?” It’s pretty much the same ripped-to-pieces feeling. Every time. When you’re six, when it first happened to me, or when you’re forty. Just like when a piece of writing goes south, it always feels awful.

The second time your heart is broken, it feels as miserable as the first… except… you survived the first one and now, in the middle of the second go-round, you can look back and think, “My life didn’t stay bleak and dark.” You have the wisdom and experience to understand that, while you’re in the middle of the second heartbreak and it’s impossible to breathe… at least you know that one of these days the pain will go away.

Just like writing.

The first time you write yourself into a hole, it’s like you’re thrown in a deep, deep well by the evil witch in SNOW WHITE. When you’re far underground and look up, above you there’s no light. But, if you go back to your desk, dig in, and keep writing, in the end you will figure out a solution. It takes time, but you will get there. Life improves. You feel good again.

It’s like the end of WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT?. Toontown, all gorgeous, happy, and beautifully lit, is right on the other side of a giant factory brick wall. Frustratingly, try as they might, the heroes cannot find Toontown. Struggle. Struggle. Struggle! Eventually, a gigantic clanking, self-propelled vat of Dip smashes through the wall… And lo and behold: The entire time, in all its colorful glory, Toontown was right there!

That’s like solving a writing problem. When you at long, long last think of the solution, it may seem amazingly simple. “Why didn’t I think of this a week ago?!” You fume. “Why didn’t I think of this yesterday?!” The answer is, “Because you didn’t.” Don’t beat yourself up. Just like Bob Hoskins and Roger Rabbit, you had to go through the steps before you could arrive at your oh-so-elegant solution. As you rewrite, know that the answer is… there… tantalizingly close… and all you have to do is hit the wall over and over and it will come crashing down.

Grokking that it takes time to mend a broken heart allows you to survive Heartbreaks 2 – 12. Hopefully not that many… but after you’ve repeatedly written yourself out of dark and stormy holes, it seeps into your DNA that you can solve every writing problem — no matter how hideously thorny.

Yippee!

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

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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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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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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Filed under Good Writing, Rewriting, Screenwriting, Writing Process