Category Archives: Scenes

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

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

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

Emotion is All

Because emotion’s why everybody comes to the table, you better deliver one whale of a satisfying meal.

At every step along the way, whether it’s with your idea, beat sheet, outline, first pass, first draft, and every subsequent draft until you actually hand it to actors to memorize their lines, constantly ask, “Am I delivering as much emotion in this scene, in this sequence, in this story, as I possibly, possibly can?”

“We are in the emotion picture business.”

Ken Kwapis, director of SHE’S JUST NOT THAT INTO YOU, THE OFFICE, BERNIE MAC, A WALK IN THE WOODS… etc., etc.

Don’t you ever forget it.

If you’re writing a nine-part self-published fiction series, a TV pilot for Amazon, or five page script to shoot in your backyard with friends, start by asking…

1.) What emotion do you want the audience to feel at the end of the story?

2.) What emotion you want the main character to feel at the beginning?

3.) What emotion do you want the main character to feel at the end?

You go write those questions down. I’ll wait.

The answers, which will likely morph through the story’s development, will be your mantra until you finally finish. Emotion is not only everything, it is the only thing.

When looking at a whole story or scene or part of a scene, whether it is in an outline or a nearly finished piece of work, ask yourself, “Are there moments in here where I can add even a tiny bit more emotion? Or much more?! What can I do to the character to make the character feel more strongly? What can I do in the scene to make the reader (audience!) feel more strongly? Is there something from the heroine’s past I can adjust to make us feel a stronger emotion here?”

You’re smart. You can think of more questions than those.

You can almost always push emotion up a notch. Think about the worst thing that could possibly happen to them and see if it’s in your script. If it’s not, make it happen!

“Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.”

Make your character suffer so your reader can suffer. They pay the money to feel something. So give it to ’em, but only as much as is believable.

My wonderfully wonderful children’s novel https://www.amazon.com/Mrs-Ravenbachs-Way-Amazing-Escapades/dp/1941393586 is about a little boy brutalized by the meanest fourth-grade teacher in the history of teaching. Because the wrenching emotion was too much for her to handle, my gritty New York publicist had to stop reading the book halfway through. She put it away for two days and then started again, calmed down enough to be able to finish. One of my former college students called me, also halfway through Mrs. Ravenbach’s Way, and said, “Please tell me that things get better for this kid…” They had a strong emotional reaction because I put that trap door in there for them to fall through.

Amp up the emotion in your work, every chance you can. Even it’s to give your heroine a splinter in her finger.

When she feels, so do we.

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Filed under Scenes, Screenwriting, Writing Process

You Gotta Set Up the Magic Sword!

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

He emailed:

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

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

I emailed him back:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Except…

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Details, Good Writing, Screenwriting

Get details right!

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

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

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

Or dim.

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

“Everything matters.”
Jack Nicholson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Better make it perfect.

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Action / Reaction… and the lack thereof.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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