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Don’t Give Characters Numbers For Names

I was 100% dead certain this superduper learning experience was in my book. It’s not!

Ooops.

Beginning writers constantly (and irritatingly) give characters numbers instead of “names”. You know, COP 1, COP 2, COP 3, or TEACHER #1, TEACHER #2. It’s soooooo boring. A name with a number tells us nothing but “Lookit, three cops!”

Even a tiny addition will boost the read. How’s about GENTLE COP, TWITCHY COP, SAD COP?

AWESOME TEACHER, PSYCHO TEACHER

SO SO BOWLER, WRETCHED BOWLER

SCARRED THUG, MUSTACHIOED THUG, OPERA-LOVING THUG

Give us something and create an image in our mind other than people bopping in who are identical except for numbers on their chests.

I refer you to my all-time-favorite Functional Character Names (which are in Your Screenplay Sucks!)… the guys in ANIMAL HOUSE who say, “Do you mind if we dance with your dates?”

BIG DUDE… BIGGER DUDE… GIGANTIC DUDE

THING 1 and THING 2 worked fine for Dr. Seuss, but 1.) they were supposed to be exactly alike and, 2.) you’re not him.

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The Hunter Thompson Writing Method

Learn about writing from famous people!

Deep in this website is The Keith Richards Writing Method (dictate while falling asleep), an amazingly useful tool. It may have brought him an entire career, because, in 1965, during his sleepy activity he wrote “Satisfaction,” the Rolling Stones first #1 in the U.S., and without Richards’ in-his-sleep opening riff, would the Stones be where they are today?

You never know.

My latest famous person writing method is named for Hunter S. Thompson. Hard to believe that one of the great writers of my generation was at one point a beginner.

Just like all of us.

He asked himself, “How can I learn to write well? What writers do I admire?” He answered his question, “F. Scott Fitzgerald! He’s good! Hey, so’s Ernest Hemingway!” Two gifted writers with wildly different writing styles.

Because Hunter S. Thompson was Hunter S. Thompson and not us, after choosing Fitzgerald and Hemingway to admire, he did not do what we’d do. He didn’t just read The Great Gatsby and A Farewell To Arms, and think, “What wonderful prose. These guys certainly can write a ripping great sentence, can’t they? What talented writers! I’ll read more…”

He didn’t do that.

Instead of simply reading The Great Gatsby and A Farewell To Arms and trying to absorb how Fitzgerald and Hemingway wrote a sentence, a page, a scene, novel… Thompson sat at his typewriter with an open copy of The Great Gatsby and A Farewell To Arms and typed ’em up! Both books. Every word. He did it at work, so to his boss, he sounded like the world’s most dedicated employee.

When he finished, he knew down in his bones exactly how his favorite writers wrote.

Recently, I was critiquing students’ homework… which entails a lot of red ink on their pages, telling how to rewrite them… not necessarily for story, but mostly for flow, clarity, and overall tightness of the prose. Like a bolt from the sky, I realized, that if they only read my red ink notes, they wouldn’t learn as much as they could. To actually learn from my notes, they must employ the Hunter Thompson Writing Method.

They needed to retype their homework and load in the changes. Keep in mind, what I’m talking about is not character and story but sentences: basic writing machinery, rhythm and style, the “be clear” “less is more” rulebook.

Not being stupid, I knew that “get better at writing” is rarely sufficient incentive so I told them, “If you do this, I’ll raise your grade.” That worked! Afterward, they told me Hunter Thompson Writing Method gave their prose an amazing boost.

The second (and way more fun) iteration of the Hunter Thompson Writing Method involves, exactly as Thompson did, learning from someone you admire. Type up six scenes written by Greta Gerwig. Or a complete play by Suzan Lori-Parks. Work by Rebecca Gilman, Aaron Sorkin, William Goldman, Diablo Cody. Who’s killer good? To learn how they do it, type up chunks by your favorite comedians – old and new. You wanna be a composer? Learn orchestration by hand copying The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky. “How did he do that?” Like this!

Do it enough, it’ll stick.

Long ago, my children’s second grade teacher, Robin Smith, their favorite teacher of all time, taught every child in her classes how to knit. Every year. It was an unforgettable sight to see six little boys at recess, sitting in a row under the basketball goal, knitting. For my second son, knitting latched on like phosphorous fire. He adored it and knitted all the time. I nearly went bankrupt buying yarn. He got exceedingly good at it. He could knit with his hands behind his back.

Time moved on. He went to high school. When he was 16, he decided that for Halloween he wanted to be Waldo of Where’s Waldo fame. He couldn’t find a Waldo hat anywhere and had forgotten how to knit, so he called Robin Smith. Delighted to hear from him, she told him what size needles and how much yarn to buy and to come to her house Sunday afternoon.

She helped him get set up, showed him what to do, and within five minutes, he was knitting equally as fluently as when he was in second grade.

Writing this has brought tears to my eyes because Robin is no longer with us, except as she flows through the souls of my children, and one of these days, through their children too.

When I called her later, to first of all thank her for helping my child, but also to express my amazement at, after a decade, how quickly he picked up knitting. I could hear the smile in her voice when she said, “Once it’s in the muscle memory, it never goes away.”

Which is where the Hunter Thompson Writing Method comes in handy.

If you type someone else’s words, over and over and over again, gradually the knowledge will enter your DNA. If, instead of just reading it, you retype the homework that has been restructured and trimmed by your teacher, that skill too will slowly seep into your muscle memory.

You’ll be surprised what you’ll learn.

The only way to really understand how someone else writes sentences, or writes dialogue, or anything else, is to type it up. It’s a pain in the ass, but so is writing.

If you give Hunter Thompson Writing Method a try, please let me know what effect it had. I’m excited by this idea and hope someone out there will let me know how it worked for them.

Happy typing.

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Start Your Story With an Ax

Does this get your attention? Why?

“Where is Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

“Out to the hoghouse,” replied Mrs. Arable. “Some pigs were born last night.”

“I don’t see why he needs an ax,” continued Fern, who was only eight.

“Well,” said her mother, “One of the pigs is a runt.” It’s very small and weak, and it will never amount to anything. So your father has decided to do away with it.”

“Do away with it?” shrieked Fern. “You mean kill it? Just because it’s smaller than the others?”

Mrs. Arable put a pitcher of cream on the table. “Don’t yell, Fern!” she said. “Your father is right. The pig would probably die anyway.”

Fern pushed a chair out of the way and ran outdoors

*

That’s the opening of Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White, a 184 page novel and one of the best books in the English language.

Guess what? That very, very, very long piece of writing doesn’t start with backstory! There is no set up. We don’t learn anything about Fern’s hopes and dreams or friends or her love for sparkly notebooks or her homework or her painful history with her dopey brother Avery. We find out she lives on a farm, but who cares if it’s near a town in a state in some country somewhere? White starts his story with action, terror, yelling, running, and sympathy for someone smaller. Plus an ax in the first sentence!

We meet Fern when she’s under stress. She has a problem and it’s gigantic. The writer starts with story, not a shred of anything else. If Mr. White doesn’t start his story with a lot of useless backstory and set up and character description and more and more and more set up, then you should consider not doing it either!

Does the writer tell us what Fern looks like? Does she describe Fern’s mother’s hair and where she went to college or her apron?

The number one problem storytellers have is an insatiable desire to tell us stuff we don’t need to know just yet. Get us rolling. Get us very, very, very interested and tell us that world building stuff later.

I teach a class where students stand up and tell stories. Some are only one minute long! Beginning, middle, and end in sixty seconds. Try it sometime. It’s a lot harder than you might suspect. Some students dither and give us useless introduction before the story starts. Sometimes fifteen or twenty seconds of set up and explanation and Godknowswhatall before the story (that they now have to cram into forty seconds) begins.

Don’t do that.

Start your one minute story or screenplay or novel with story. Not necessarily with an ax. But drama and conflict and interesting things happening.

Like, for instance, what some regard as the best first line in all of literature, from One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

No ax, but a firing squad. Makes me want to read the second sentence.

If you haven’t read Charlotte’s Web, you’re in for an amazing experience. Like all good stories, including stories that last only one minute, it’s “about” something. Something more than just the plot. Here’s a bit of its New York Times Book Review review by Eudora Welty.

“What the book is about is friendship on earth, affection and protection, adventure and miracle, life and death, trust and treachery, pleasure and pain, and the passing of time. As a piece of work it is just about perfect, and just about magical in the way it is done.”

That’s enough “abouts” to fill a 184 page story. If you have a one page or a five page or fifteen page story, you better slim your “abouts” down to one and only one. Not two. One.

Then, start with that thing. Not backstory or set up.

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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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Add an Extra Layer

I’ve been watching a BBC series: CALL THE MIDWIFE. Just started season nine out of nine. Sad it’s about to end… The show aired in Britain beginning in 2012. Now it’s on Netflix. I could write an entire book about this wonderful series and the myriad of things they do correctly.

The show takes place in 1950s-1960s London’s East End, an area of woeful poverty. In a small Anglican convent live eight or nine nuns. They are midwives. Four or five nurses, also midwives, live there too. They go out and serve the district, delivering at home healthcare for free, superb advice for free, and they help women give birth. The series certainly delivers a stunning example of the wonders of socialized medicine.

One teeny tiny little thing that bears mentioning is their uncanny ability to add an extra element to a scene, making it a wee bit more interesting. Sometimes that lagniappe is baked in from the moment the need for a scene first appears, but most of these improvements come while rewriting.

Last night’s episode’s first scene takes place in a high-ceilinged, grim bedroom room in a low-end building. A midwife is helping a woman in labor. The scene is short and the delivery is successful. As there’s no anesthesia, there’s lots of strenuous breathing and yelling and pain. There’s also, at the end, an explosion of joy.

At the scene’s beginning, while the midwife is encouraging and the mother-to-be is howling, we hear a huge rumbling background sound and plaster dust sifts from the ceiling, all the way down to the bed.

What the hell?!

Between contractions, the mother mentions that the wrecking ball has been nonstop all day long. As this woman struggles to give birth, the building next door is being demolished. Life and death at the same time, adding weight to a continuing urban renewal story thread.

What a deft, scene-deepening touch! What a nice piece of writing. Not hard to think of, if you’re concentrating on tiny, interesting details to make the read just that extra tad more interesting.

No reason why you, as you peruse your outline or pages, can’t burn a few gray cells, make a delicate flick of the pen and add a bit of zing to your scenes. For more on this, visit chapter 39 of Your Screenplay Sucks!.

Watch CALL THE MIDWIFE. As the show is essentially lighthearted, it’s precisely what I need in these unsettled times. The stakes are gigantic because the show is about the most important moment in a family’s existence: the birth of a child. But! The overall tone is light, which I need. It’s worth your time.

Also, it has delightful in-scene details that instruct and give pleasure.

Happily, Season 10 is rumored to be showing up in the fall.

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Description, Brautigan Style

Action description and character description need not be bland. Your writing, even in a form as regimented as screenwriting, should let the reader know, “This person is a writer.”

In high school, I found and adored Richard Brautigan’s writing. It felt different and created wonderful images.

*

The novelist was in his late forties, tall, reddish, and looked as if life had given him an endless stream of two-timing girlfriends, five-day drunks and cars with bad transmissions.

Now the dare had been completed and I turned around in that house which was like a shallow garden and all my fears collapsed upon me like a landslide of flowers and I ran screaming at the top of my lungs outside and down the stairs. I sounded as if I had stepped in a wheelbarrow-sized pile of steaming dragon shit.

The place was small and muddy and smelled like stale rain and had a large unmade bed that looked as if it had been a partner to some of the saddest love-making this side of The Cross.

The men who worked in the office were all about middle-age and they did not show any sign of ever having been handsome in their youth or actually anything in their youth. They all looked like people whose names you forget.

Life is as simple as driving through New Mexico in a borrowed Jeep, sitting next to a girl who is so pretty that every time I look at her I just feel good all over.

A few years ago (World War II) I lived in a motel next to a Swift packing plant which is a nice way of saying slaughterhouse. They killed pigs there, hour after hour, day after day, week after week, month after month until spring became summer and summer became fall, by cutting their throats after which would follow a squealing lament equal to an opera being run through a garbage disposal.

The auctioneer was selling things so fast that it was possible to buy stuff that wouldn’t be for sale until next year. He had false teeth that sounded like crickets jumping up and down inside the jaws of a skeleton.

This might have been a funny story if it weren’t for the fact that people need a little loving and, God, sometimes it’s sad all the shit they have to go through to find some.

The garage was very complicated in the light of a 15 watt globe fastened to a piece of yellow string that looked as if it had come off a mummy.

He looked like an insurance agent instead of a night watchman. I wondered about his capability and desire to defend the sawmill against sawmill thieves because he looked as if he couldn’t defend a marshmallow against a three-year-old.

Anyway, she died of pneumonia and Thank God, it wasn’t me. When I heard she had died of pneumonia, I really said my prayers that night. I promised to be so good that I would make a saint seem like a sack of coal.

Also, he had eyes that were born to look at things that he could steal.

The next morning I got out of bed and put my clothes on very quietly, like a mouse putting on a Kleenex, and went over to the house where the little girl used to live before she died of pneumonia.

The dock itself was three ten-inch planks that were about two inches thick. They were also hand-carved and then finely polished until the king could’ve eaten off them. It would’ve been interesting to watch a king eat directly off a dock.

It was like a little brother to the dock. It was totally handmade from an elegant wood that was varnished to a beautiful sheen like finely diluted sunlight.

The old man looked away from their approach and took a spoonful of his stew, which starred a lot of potatoes, featured carrots and peas, and from where I was standing, it looked as if a hot dog sliced very thin had a minor role in his stew.

He was also the best dancer in school and sang “Blue Moon” at student body assemblies. His version of “Blue Moon” made the girls’ hearts beat like the hearts of excited kittens.

Foster loves to drink and it’s always easy for him to find somebody to drink with. Foster is about forty years old and always wears a T-shirt, no matter what the weather is about, rain or shine, hot or cold, it’s all the same to his T-shirt because his T-shirt is an eternal garment that only death will rob from his body.

She was so beautiful that the advertising people would have made her into a national park if they would have gotten their hands on her.

She kissed me again, but this time with her tongue. Her tongue slid past my tongue like a piece of hot glass.

… and for your enjoyment, a Brautigan short story, best word last…

The Scarlatti Tilt

“It’s very hard to live in a studio apartment in San Jose with a man who is learning to play the violin.” That’s what she told the police when she handed them the empty revolver.

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Amp Up the Pressure

Nobody likes conflict.

Well, some people thrive on it. Come to think of it, I’ve dealt with people who wake up in the morning looking for ways to stir the pot. Ick. Us normal folks avoid conflict whenever possible. If you’re a writer, this is not a recipe for success.

Watch a movie. Watch television. See how much conflict they cram in, everywhere, all the time. Large and small. Have you seen DEAD TO ME? Netflix. They have so much conflict all over everywhere that, were you not totally sucked into the story, you’d think it was ridiculous. But it’s not.

See how many kinds of conflict are in each scene…

1. Character vs Character

2. Character vs Nature

3. Character vs Society

4. Character vs Self (all that internal angsty stuff)

5. Character vs the Supernatural

6. Character vs Technology

“Conflict” does not automatically mean “fist fight.” It can mean, “I can’t get this tube of paint to open. Dammit.” It can be as small as a paper cut or as large as running away from the bulls in Pamplona or an asteroid exploding. Characters who have no problems and live a happy life without woes or concerns… are boring. People don’t want to read about them. Actors don’t want to play them.

If character is action, which it is, then good drama is conflict. Don’t ever forget it. I often see scenes that are conflict-free. Things just happen. There’s no energy. Conflict-free scenes suck.

Here is John Le Carré’s idea of story.

1.) The cat sat on the mat.

Dull as dishwater. No conflict. No drama. No paycheck.

After the rewrite…

2.) The cat sat on the dog’s mat.

Bingo! Everything changes! For the better!

Your job is to tap your finger on that scene, or part of that scene, or line of dialogue, and slide it up the Conflict-O-Meter higher and higher until it goes into the red — where it becomes unbelievable. When the reader thinks, “No way! There’s zero chance this’d ever happen in real life.”, you scoot the Conflict-O-Meter down a notch, back into the realm of believability.

Scene by scene, do a conflict pass through your script. Ask yourself, “What can I do to make this more intense, even just a teeny bit?”

When I wrote Your Screenplay Sucks!, I did not understand how many writers have a crippling aversion to conflict. I see it constantly. You gotta have CONFLICT! If you don’t, your script won’t sell and your husband will leave you. Jam conflict into every crevice of your script, make money, stay married, live happily ever after.

Once upon a time I wrote a scene about a nebbishy hit man who goes into a men’s room to pick up a revolver hidden in the stall Michael Corleone-style. Fun movie reference! He finds the gun. He gets the bullets. He loads the pistol and goes out into the restaurant to take care of, as we say in the South, “bidnis.”

No conflict whatsoever! Yukko!

Being a superbly gifted rewriter, I realized I had written crap that needed improvement. Just like Aaron Sorkin! And most likely, you. “How can I add conflict to this miserable scene?”, I asked myself.

First, I made it more difficult to load the pistol. Our tyro hitman is nervous so he fumbles putting the bullets in the gun and one falls on the floor. Does he reach down and easily pick it up and slip it into the cylinder? He does not! He reaches down to the sticky bathroom floor, grabs at the bullet skittering across the tile and… misses!

To make it worse, I decided to have the bullet roll out all the way out to the sinks! That makes our hero more anxious! It makes the reader more anxious! I asked myself, “Can I make the reader even more anxious?!” Bien sûr! I made a list of all kinds of problems to make the hero’s situation worse! That was not hard work. Heck, it wasn’t even writing. It was just thinking of obstacles. A Pet Rock could do it.

I settled on a man at a sink, washing his hands. Who, OMG!, might see that bullet rolling by! Some actor somewhere might get a paycheck, when 16 seconds ago, that part didn’t exist… Then, the topper. I decided, “What if the guy’s a cop?!”

And… the bullet rolls right up next to his shoe…

You can always find a way, in every scene, to raise the conflict level. Just because you start at DEFCON 5 doesn’t mean you can’t get it up to DEFCON 2. Ask yourself, “How can I make him suffer more?” “What can I do to make this worse for her?” “What’s the most unpleasant thing that could possibly happen, right now?”

Have you read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo? You should. Lisbeth Salander is such a great heroine. One night, she went to her enemy’s apartment, bent on taking him down.

“The plan began to go wrong almost from the start.”

Fantastic! The clever hero, in whom we have extraordinary confidence, faced awful problems. She’s super-duper smart, but her plan, no doubt superb, was collapsing. Guess who did that to her? Not her opponent. The writer!

Just because you wrote it, doesn’t mean you have to stick with it. Your first idea may be your best idea. But your 19th may be far better. Your mission, Mr. Phelps, should you choose to accept it, is to look at every single beat of every single scene and ask, “How can I crank up the tension for my characters and my readers?” You’ll be surprised at what you can figure out. It’s just about applying pen to paper, fingers to keys, butt to seat.

What scenes from your favorite movies stick with you the most? What was the conflict in those scenes? Make a list! Instead of just passively watching television, write things down. Scene analysis really develops your writing chops. Plus, it gives you a record you can go back to again and again.

One of the most intense scenes I ever saw was in THE KILLING FIELDS. The stakes were life and death. The conflict revolved around a small photograph and an errant, tiny… spot of glue.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia. 1975. The government is slaughtering citizens by the tens of thousands. For next to no reason. Or no reason at all. A terrifying time to be alive and to be attempting to stay alive a day longer. In the scene, at the Embassy, the character’s goal is to glue a photograph into a forged passport so he can get out of the country on an airplane. If he can finish the passport, he has a prayer of survival. There is time pressure because the Khmer Rouge are coming.

Nice story element: a ticking clock! Steal it for your own work.

I saw the movie 36 years ago and the scene still affects me. As I write this, my palms are sweaty. Because there is only one photograph and one passport, he’s only got one chance at it. There can be no mistakes or failure. The slightest slip up equals death.

He carefully puts the glue on the passport and pushes the photograph down, squeezing evenly to get it fully cemented. Then, oh fuck!, a small blob of glue oozes out the side!! I cannot adequately describe how terrifying that was. Now he has to clean up the glue without marring the photograph. If he gets glue on the picture, he dies. And the bad guys are closing in!

Watch the movie. See how it turns out.

Hell of a film, based on a true story. It would be interesting to know if the photograph and glue incident happened in real life or was it invented by Bruce Robinson, the screenwriter, to jack up the conflict?

Except… Oops

Full disclosure. At it turns out, the scene didn’t happen in real life nor was it thought up by Bruce Robinson.

It was invented by me.

To make sure I had the story order correct, I rented THE KILLING FIELDS. To my surprise, the scene doesn’t exist. There’s a scene about a photograph but it has nothing to do with glue. Funny how your memory messes with you. I searched to see if there’s another movie with a passport photo and glue and turned up nothing.

Here’s what actually happens… Oh so tense, but different.

Sam Waterston plays Sydney Schanberg, an American journalist. Haing S. Ngor plays Dith Pran, his journalist interpreter and friend. John Malkovich and Julian Sands are photographers. If the Khmer Rouge get Ngor, there’s no way he’ll survive. They kill every journalist.

Sands tells Malkovich that he has an expired passport, but the visa is still good. They just need a photograph of Ngor and they can stick it on the passport. Malkovich hopes Ngor has a photograph of himself, because he has no film.

Nearby, the bad guys round up citizens.

Across town, Ngor is leaving to escape with dozens of his friends. Waterston says, “Give me an hour. I need some time to think.” Ngor hasn’t got time and starts to go… Malkovich runs up and says, “I’ve got an idea.” Ngor’s friends all leave.

At the Embassy, Malkovich and Waterston ask Ngor if he has a photograph of himself. Old passport picture, press card photo. He has nothing. The bad guys took everything. Malkovich says they’ll find the film somewhere at the Embassy!

They need to find chemicals they can make into photo developer. Worse, the water in the Embassy has been shut off. A friendly contractor says they can drain the air-conditioning units to get the water.

Malkovich runs up to Waterston. He’s found a roll of film! He can use the men’s room as a darkroom! He and Waterston hug, intensely happy.

They are ready to shoot the photograph of Ngor. It’s difficult to keep him from smiling. Conflict! Malkovich takes the picture. CUT TO: the darkroom.

Malkovich and Sands have developed the film. From a wee black envelope, Malkovich removes a square of photo paper.

Outside in the hall, Ngor rehearses his new name out loud. Over and over.

In the darkroom, they make a contact print. They put it in the developer. They get an image! With extreme care, Malkovich moves the little photograph into the fixer. But, the photograph turns completely gray. Crud! They have to start again.

Waterston and Ngor wait. Ngor paces, terrified.

Another try developing a picture. This time, it fades to white. They have to adjust the chemicals. This is a disaster. They are crushed. Wound tight, Malkovich sends Sands out. The bathroom is too small and driving him crazy. He has to do this alone.

Waterston and Ngor sit on a swing. Ngor is so afraid. Waterston smiles encouragingly.

In the darkroom, Malkovich has printed another photograph. This time, it does not fade. “Yeah!”

CUT TO: A knife blade scraping the old name off the passport.

Malkovich tells Ngor he’s going to New York! They got it! Huge hug! Huge relief!

A British government official collects everyone’s passports preparatory to beginning the journey home. Outside, heavily armed bad guys search a car. Waterston turns in his passport along with Ngor’s. Winks at him. We feel good.

CUT TO: Pouring rain, bad guy trucks and cars roll into the Embassy compound. Armed Khmer Rouge get out.

Inside the crowded Embassy, a Frenchman brings Sands a piece of paper. Sands reads it aloud and says that the trucks are there for everyone’s evacuation. But, that has to be confirmed. Waterston and Ngor stare at each other, afraid. Happy French people sing their national anthem.

Pouring rain. Sands and the helpful contractor are digging up bodies. The Frenchman comes, takes Sands off to the side under his umbrella. He gives Sands Ngor’s passport. The photograph has turned completely gray. The Frenchman says he’s sorry and walks off. In a wide shot, Sands stands in the rain. In CU, it comes down on the now useless passport.

Embassy. Ngor is still rehearsing his new name, out loud. Waterston comes and shakes his head. No dialogue! It’s over. Waterston pats Ngor’s hand. We feel terrible. Now, Ngor has to escape overland, through the jungle. The worst possible outcome.

Either I saw the scene with a passport photograph and glue in a different movie, or I imagined it.

Fascinating.

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#1 BEST Screenwriting Book!

Script Reader Pro has hella great taste. Tell your friends!

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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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In Praise of Typewriters – II

Perhaps the single most important post in all of yourscreenplaysucks.com…

You may be getting weary of my proselytizing for typewriters as a useful writing tool. Old fashioned technology, right? You know, like the quill pen or papyrus. I don’t tout the lowly typewriter all that often. Last time was three years ago. [Search: In Praise of Typewriters. May 21, 2017] But, as yet another semester ends, it has again struck me how incredibly useful a typewriter can be.

Especially for people who have never written on anything but a computer.

The inability to get words on the page stems from a fear that the thing you’re about to write won’t be perfect. So why write it, right? With a computer, you can so easily work it and work it and work it until it’s either perfect or… until you give up, go out back, and weed the garden. With a typewriter, you Do. Not. Have. That. Option. You write it and it sucks and then you write the next sentence and it sucks and you write the next one and the next one and so on, and none are perfect, but once you get to the bottom of the page and pull it out of the machine, the page exists.

I ask my clients and students, “Do you write a sentence, erase it, and then hate yourself?” Some look at me like I’m stupid. Others… sag, moan, and glaze over. To them, I say, “You need to try writing on a typewriter.” At my film department, we have a Writing Room dedicated to a typewriter — with correcting tape removed. You can go in there and write to your heart’s content and you cannot erase a single word. Whether you like it or not, you move forward.

The idea for the Writing Room was born from the superb documentary, CALIFORNIA TYPEWRITER. Check it out on Criterion. It’s fantastic. Here is the relevant clip…

And the relevant quote…

“I can’t get to stream of consciousness when I’m involved in my own editorial process as I’m trying to be a wacko. I’m trying to be an absolute whack job when I’m typing. And it’s like, the typewriter doesn’t judge you, it just goes, ‘right away, sir. Right away sir. However you want it to be.'”

Again, boiled down…

“I can’t get to stream of consciousness when I’m involved in my own editorial process…”

John Mayer

If you can’t get to the fragile zone you need to be in to write, and stay there, it’s game over.

If you write a sentence and hate yourself, you may as well go be a banker. Just to get to the bottom of the page, you have to think you’re Thor.

One student this past semester had crippling writer’s block. The computer was her deadliest enemy. She’d write a page, highlight it, and delete it. Again and again. The rough part was that she could really write. She had the talent to earn money. I finally took her to the Writing Room and basically locked her in. On the typewriter for a couple of hours, she ended up writing five pages, the most pages she’d ever gotten done that fast in her entire life. She was flabbergasted.

The nail in her writer’s block coffin was a line I got from Ellen Sandler, “Write fast, write badly.” After I told my student that was her goal, just to fill the page and fix it later, then it was, for her: don’t spare the horses! Every assignment she turned in began with, “You asked me write fast and badly. I have written fast and badly.”

After she wrote fast and badly, she had something she could print, hold in her hand, and rewrite. If it doesn’t exist, you can’t fix it. I tell my students, “I can help you make anything better, but if the page isn’t there, there’s nothing I can do.”

If you rewrite while you’re writing, get a typewriter.

Spend $300. Change your life.

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