Category Archives: Scenes

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

The WOLVES “3 Reads” Rewriting Rule

When I was rewriting my first script, THE WOLVES OF WILLOUGHBY CHASE, I had next to no idea what I was doing. There was the draft, three hole punched, in a three ring binder… and I was struggling to figure out what the hell to do next.

To keep myself out of trouble, I made up a rule… I would read each page out loud, three times, before I could turn to the next page. If I made a single change, even a comma, I would have to start back at the first read.

Often I would get to the last sentence of the third read, make a change and begin all over again.

It was a silly rule and mineblowingly tedious, I admit, but my pages continued and continued to improve. Far beyond my wildest expectations. It took forever, but when I was done, the pages were flawless.

A dumb rule, sure, but the script sold and the movie got made.

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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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Isolate Character Scenes

Try anything! Guess what?! It may help. A useful tool is isolating character relationships.

“Why isolate character relationships and what the hey is it, anyway?” you ask.

“Happy I dropped by.” I say.

Look at only the scenes with Oswego and Rosalie. Constance will be in some of those scenes, too. Without the clutter of everybody else’s stories and plot threads screeching like a million seagulls, study just the Oswego and Rosalie relationship. When you only have one relationship to consider, you can calmly reflect on its imperfections.

Do it like this…

Save the draft as Oswego & Rosalie Sept 11 22 and cut every scene they’re not in, inserting ##### between their scenes so you know when one ends and one begins. Make sure you keep slug lines and scene numbers. Next to ####, write the number of pages between the last scene and this one.

I print everything, but it’s not mandated by federal law. Check state and local statutes to see if you are required to print to rewrite.

With the entire relationship spread across a few pages, problems nearly impossible to see while staring at the pile-of-horror that is your entire screenplay will stick out like a s’more in campfire coals, such as the mournful woe that, from pages 32 – 56, Oswego is nowhere to be found! How could he have vanished for 24 pages?! No way it could have been, egads, pilot error. Could it?

Studying characters’ scenes makes their relationship crystal clear. What’s missing leaps out. Are the progressions as smooth as silk? Do Oswego and Rosalie make a giant leap in their relationship that calls for three added scenes halfway through? You can see what’s moving too fast and what’s dragging. If you’ve written (more or less) the same story point three times, pick the best one and cut two.

The more you look, the more you’ll see. Soon you’ll wonder how you wrote without isolating characters’ scene.

When you’ve scribbled all over the “Oswego / Rosalie” pages, print Oswego and Constance’s scenes for the same repair lookyloo. Then print Rosalie and Constance’s! You’ll be amazed what you discover. By solving small, simple-to-find puzzles in your story, the entire tale will be strengthened… without the paralyzing depression of “I have to fix this GIGANTIC 110 page snarl of mess?! Shonda Rhimes couldn’t solve these problems!!”

Isolating character scenes is simple and delightfully effective.

Remember, try anything. What if it helps?

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

Go Around The Room – Add Emotion When You Need It!

You are in the Emotion Pictures business. So, when writing a scene, ask, “How are these people feeling?” All these people. What are they feeling now?

At the beginning… what was he doing before he walked into this elegant bar? What had happened and how did it make him feel? How is he showing us what he’s feeling? In the middle of the scene, stuff is happening. How is it affecting him? Is it changing his (or her) mood? And, at the end, how does he feel NOW? Where will he go next? Infused with this new feeling / mood that the scene fostered in him, what will he do?

When I say, “Go around the room,” I mean check in with every character, not just the ones with dialogue. Take everyone’s pulse at various points during the scene. Not just the principals. If we need to know how they feel, show us. Please don’t tell us about every single character all the time, but look around the room and, if someone’s doing or feeling something useful, communicate it. It will be interesting to see what fresh, strong, wonderful moments you find.

A superb reason to add reaction shots to your script is, when you make the movie, they will help your editor. Often, laughs happen on reaction shots, not on the person speaking. If you don’t have the coverage, your editor can’t get the laugh. For all kinds of important reasons, your editor will want to cut away from the primary players in a conversation. But, if a reaction shot is not on your shot list, you’re not going to shoot it.

When your editor says, “Have you got a single of Matilda?”, she needs that shot. If you don’t have it, she’ll smile, think you’re an idiot, and keep working. Reaction shots start with the screenplay. If you don’t go around the room while you’re writing, you won’t have reaction shots when you get to the editing room.

I can’t overstress the need for reaction shots. Put them in your script. They perk up the read and will give your editor the coverage she’ll need to save your ass.

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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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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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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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