Category Archives: Rewriting

Karl’s Writing Method

My children think this is mindblowingly helpful. I’ve never managed to convince anyone else to give it a try, but, as you’re serious about writing, consider it.

Like most all of us, my friend Karl writes the first pass of his screenplay in Final Draft. To rewrite, he prints it and marks it up with a red pen. What is unique about his method is what he does next.

Most people open up Final Draft and enter the changes from the scribbled-on pages into the existing FD file. Not Karl. He sets the script next to his computer, opens a brand new Final Draft file and re-types the entire screenplay. Because we’re all inherently lazy, we will leave out any word we do not have to type. Karl’s method automatically tightens up the writing.

Karl has been the executive producer on 11 television series, writer on 12. His method works for him. You might want to try it.

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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

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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Cut the Mom’s Head Off with a Sword!

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

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

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

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

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

It was a useful way to write an argument.

Which brings me to a couple of thoughts…

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

But you have to have it!

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

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

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

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Filed under character, Rewriting, Screenwriting, Short Film

Bugaboo words! Writer beware!!

You have them. I have them. David Mamet has them. Maybe he has fewer than I do, but probably not.

You need to start a list of your own personal Bugaboo words. “How can I do that?” you say… “I don’t know what a Bugaboo word is!” Thank you for mentioning that. I hadn’t realized.

It’s a word you use a lot. A lotty lot. Like, overuse, dude. You’re not aware you do it, because it’s invisible and insidious like the Communist conspiracy to sap our precious bodily fluids. It’s a word that you overuse, like a crutch, a habit, a tic. A word that creeps into your writing naturally, repeatedly, with malice aforethought. And you don’t notice until, in rewriting, you actually look.

It’s important not to worry about Bugaboo words, or anything else, really, while you’re cranking through your first pass, which is between you and nobody. As you chug along on your first pass, don’t worry about anything! Pretend you’re Aaron Sorkin and: Get. The. Words. On. The. Page. Assume they’re genius. Mush on!

When it’s time to rewrite, pull out your list of Bugaboo words… the more you add, the more you can get rid of. I will now plug a book I did not write. Imagine that! The Synonym Finder by J. I. Rodale is the finest thesaurus I’ve ever seen. I have a hard copy. I use it constantly. It is especially helpful when replacing Bugaboo words.

You can get a copy online for as little as $1.00. Or more.

Me, I have a tendency to start sentences with “And”. See four paragraphs above. This is okay, every now and then. “Every now and then,” only. I don’t want to look like an idiot. Do I?

Here’s my list. Notice how many are on the 7 Deadly Sins of Writing list. Mistakes you make, I make too!

And, appears, become, begin, both, cheap, colossal, completely, comprehend, down, exquisite, face, feel, feeling, flinch, gigantic, hauls, huge, immense, jerk, just, look, marvel, massive, percolate, pleasant, prodigious, pulls, rapid fire, realize, really, revel, seems, sit, some, stand, start, still, tremble, turn, very, walk, yank

One of my Bugaboo words is “immense.”

I search my script for “immense.” First time I find it, I leave it alone. But, after that, I insert other words in its place. Opening my trusty Synonym Finder, I check out “immense.” It gets to be a game. How can I clear out as many “immenses” as possible and the writing still feel like I wrote it?

Immense, adj.

1. vast, extensive, broad, wide, expansive, Archaic. vastly, Archaic. immane; voluminous, bulky, capacious, massive; huge, enormous, large, big, prodigious; great, towering, staggering, great big, stupendous, tremendous, Sl. humongous, Sl. hulking; titanic, cyclopean, Atlantean, Brobdingnagian; colossal, mammoth, gigantic, monstrous, monumental, jumbo; elephantine, hippopotamic, leviathan, behemoth, dinosaurian, metatherian.

2. immeasurable, boundless, illimitable, unlimited, uncircumscribed, unbounded, limitless, shoreless; endless, interminable, infinite, inexhaustible, never-ending; incalculable, measureless, fathomless, unfathomable, undeterminable, indeterminate.

Stephen King sniffs at anyone who uses a thesaurus. He gets to be Stephen King. I don’t. In Mr. Jensen’s “Primal Forces of Nature” speech in NETWORK, Paddy Chayefsky used “immane”. I’m not Chayefsky either. I need all the help I can get. Then again, he may have had Rodale’s book.

If I’m looking for sentences that start with “And,” I click Match Case so I won’t find every “and”, only those at the beginning of a sentence. I search for “And with a space after it” which steers me clear of words like Anderson.

Repeated words… Readers notice this stuff. Other writers notice. Overuse of words is a sign of weak writing, which is fine, but also a sign of pathetic rewriting. Not a resume builder.

Start your Bugaboo list today. Why wait? Like much of rewriting, the Bugaboo search & replace is mechanical. It moves you forward but induces no angst. Unless you mislaid your trusty copy of Rodale’s Synonym Finder. Then, angst galore!

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Filed under Rewriting, Screenwriting, Writing Process

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

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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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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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