Category Archives: Good Writing

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

Unity of Place

Simple to fix. Difficult to discover. Especially if you’re not looking for it!

Elsewhere on this earth, like my series of packed house lectures on storytelling at Lincoln Center, (not really, but my, doesn’t it look just dandy in print?) I’ve mentioned the “M-80 in the mailbox” drama theory. When I was a kid, an M-80 was the biggest firecracker we could get. Supposedly, a quarter of a stick of dynamite. I doubt it. But we certainly bought that legend when I was 12.

It was a ton of fun to blow an M-80 up in the middle of your driveway. But, if you stuck it inside an unsuspecting neighbor’s mailbox and then blew it up, my oh my, now you’re talking some entertainment! As well as a Federal crime. But I digress…

The tighter the confinement, the more effective the explosion. This has a lot to do with writing, especially how long your story lasts. But I digress…

The same is true about “place.” Keep your story planted in the same place and it will be wrapped tighter, more confined, and any explosions will be felt the more strongly by your characters and readers.

Does your whole story take place in Tuscaloosa except for one wild trip to Paris? If your redneck character needs a sumptuous meal, why drag her to Paris if she can just as effectively learn her lesson in Birmingham? Well, me, I’d much rather eat dinner in Paris than Birmingham, but I’m not living and struggling in a plot centered in Tuscaloosa paper mill.

I didn’t invent this. This “unity of place” wisdom comes from our buddy Aristotle. Dude knew what he was about. Rooting your story in the place the story “needs” to be often strengthens your narrative. If an event takes place far from where 95% of the story happens, take a deep, hard look at that action and see if it can be moved to the character’s backyard, or neighborhood, or, at least town.

THE BREAKFAST CLUB is a superb example. The whole movie takes place in a high school. For one thing, it’s a lot less expensive to shoot. More important, the story is about people in high school and it stays at the high school.

The whole time.

Often, when you move your story away from its core location, it weakens your tale. A lot like lighting an M-80, tossing it in a mailbox, and… forgetting to shut the door.

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

CHINATOWN #1

When I lived in Los Angeles, my father went duck hunting in Louisiana. At the end of his trip, he FedExed me a cooler with eight ducks in it. Those ducks are why I have CHINATOWN #1.

I was in grad school at USC, taking a class in production design. Richard Sylbert, probably the best living production designer, gave, as I recall, three lectures. The first thing he said, and I remember distinctly, was, “what I do, and how I think, are monumentally different from everyone else.” That got my attention.

I learned a lot from his lectures. The trickle down through my career from just those three classroom visits has been profound. Sadly, those notes have been lost to the mists of time. In one of his lectures, he mentioned that the best way to prepare duck is to pour Château Margaux into a syringe and inject it into the meat before you cook it. That got my attention too.

When Daddy sent me the ducks, I cooked four of them and had a nice dinner with friends. They were wild ducks, not pen-raised. The taste is distinctive and some people don’t like it. Wild ducks are basically impossible to get and people who love the taste, prize them as a rarity.

As I had no one to give the leftover ducks to, I called Mr. Sylbert and explained the situation. “You’re the only person in the city of Los Angeles I think might want these ducks. Would you?”

“I’m at home. Bring them right over.”

Giving someone something they desperately want and asking nothing in return is a superb way to make someone’s acquaintance. At some point, he gave me the early draft of CHINATOWN. We were buddies until he died.

For your learning pleasure, here are the old script and the rewritten version. Comparing the two, and comparing them to the final film, is one hell of a class in rewriting.

CHINATOWN #1

CHINATOWN

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Filed under Good Writing, Rewriting, Screenwriting

Shuffling Papers

Elsewhere I have suggested that too much research is dangerous. I still agree with myself on that score. Too much knowledge can clog your story pipes and slow the flow of pages to a trickle. Too much research can kill your story deader than Generalísimo Francisco Franco.

But.

You have to know enough for the reader to not think you’re stupid. Or lazy. Or worse, someone who doesn’t care. This writing business, especially at the professional end thereof, is filled with people who care. About writing. Not a paycheck or glory, but writing. They care a lot. A lotty lot. And what they don’t care about is people who don’t care.

You have to give a shit enough about what you’re writing to get the details correct. That involves what people do for living. And how they do it. Lots of people write scenes in offices. I’ve got nothing against that.

But.

I cannot tell you how many times I read a scene that takes place in someone’s office, where the writer who doesn’t care, in order to give you the idea that the person in the office is doing authentic work-related stuff says something to the effect of: “At her desk, Sally shuffles papers.”

That shouts to the rooftops that you have no idea what Sally does for a living. You’re just filling the pages with words and hoping nobody notices you don’t give a two penny damn about attention to detail. The great thing about writing is that if you don’t care, you can always do another draft. They only find out you don’t care if you let them. It’s only finished when you turn it in.

Know what your character does for a living! Know the language of that job! Know the details of that job! Hopefully enough detail so the reader will think you do that job for a living. At least enough detail to make the reader think you care about doing quality work.

They have a tendency not to buy writing from people who don’t care. So, don’t be one of those people!

If you find yourself writing “shuffling papers” or something of that ilk, put an asterisk in front of it so you can come back later, while searching for *’s, and repair the damage you are about to inflict on your scene and your reputation…

All before you send out work to be read by people who care.

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

How Difficult is it to Write at the Level Where Your Work Will Sell?

Extraordinarily difficult.

Here’s a musical illustration that, every time I hear it, scares me to death.

“Because the Night” was written by Bruce Springsteen & Patti Smith in 1977. Reached 13 on the Billboard Hot 100. Springsteen wrote a draft, but, after struggling for four months, stopped working on it. His producer, Jimmy Iovine, suggest giving the song to Patti Smith. Iovine took her Springsteen’s recording and she finished the song. It became her biggest hit.

In 1993, “Because the Night” was covered by 10,000 Maniacs, with vocals by Natalie Merchant. It reached 11 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Do not watch the 10,000 Maniacs video. Just listen. It’s a superb recording. She can really sing. Their version has got a lot of strength and emotion.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UYZv-o01Qis

The single most terrifying thing about making art is that, if your screen, novel, poetry, or song writing is only at that level of achievement, you have to keep working on it. “Really good” is not enough. “A lot of emotion” is not going to get you a check. You have to blow the reader out the back of the theater. They have to pick themselves up off the floor in awe of whatever it was your work just did to them.

What 10,000 Maniacs did was very good, but it’s a pale thing next to the massive passion and power Patti Smith brings — with fewer instruments. To get you where you want to be, your creative work has to be at the Patti Smith level.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c_BcivBprM0

This creative stuff is in no way easy.

On YouTube, the 10,000 Maniacs version has 499,000 views.

The Patti Smith recording has 9.6 million.

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

In Book Soup in Los Angeles!

In very good company!  David Diamond’s new book.  Pam Douglas.  Christine Vachon!!

YSS at Book Soup 2

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Filed under Good Writing, Screenwriting, Writing Process

Know Thy Antagonist!

My son’s a writer. Go figure.

He’s made a living as a writer since he graduated from college. He’s a game designer, had five or six plays produced in New York and now, he’s got a novel coming out. The folks at Save The Cat! asked him to write a guest column.

Interestingly, he and I reached the same storytelling conclusion, separately. Know what your Antagonist wants. And, importantly, why does she want it? It’s the whole ball game. Everything good and useful flows from those two decisions.

I’ll let him tell you about it.

http://www.savethecat.com/novelwriting/know-your-villains

Please pass this post around to your writer buddies and your reader buddies. Repurposing his existing material means I just had my morning handed back to me and I’d like to help the guy sell a few books!

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Filed under Blake Snyder, Good Writing, Screenwriting, Writing Process

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