You Don’t Know What You’re Writing About Until the End!

Supposedly you have gotten into this writing dodge because you’re a storyteller. You have something gnawing inside you, burning, chewing at your guts that you can’t wait to get out into the world. To share with others. To make people feel, strongly. Something! Anything! What story do you cease to exist if you don’t tell? Why?!

Writing teachers will say, “Figure out your theme, tape it above your computer and write about that.” As if it were anywhere near that easy!

I think the opposite is true, especially if you’re telling a tale that is “about” something. Something, hopefully, that has profound meaning for you and thereby, everyone. If you do a piece of writing the correct way, it will be to some degree a journey of exploration and discovery, perhaps self-discovery. That journey must be free form, fluid, and wide open to change.

In seeming contradiction to that, I also advocate use of an outline. In Your Screenplay Sucks!, I talked about how important it is to delay writing pages until you have pounded your outline to death.

The earlier it is in your writing career, the tighter the outline should be before you write actual screenplay pages. If your outline is on the money, your overall writing time will be shorter. If you really think about what you’re doing before you write FADE IN:, you’ll waste less time in revision mode.

Even then, you still can’t know what it is you’re really writing about until you have a draft.

Deeper into your writing career, I advocate for a more free-form version of the outline, precisely what Robert Olen Butler tells you to do in his magnificent book From Where You Dream.

https://www.amazon.com/Where-You-Dream-Process-Writing/dp/0802142575

Presumably, as you’re working on your script, your characters are alive and malleable. You may think of something halfway through the script that never occurred to you when you started. That’s fine! Change and improvement are wonderful. Foolish changes, sad to say, will send you off in the wrong direction. But, as this is a process, you can always figure out a way to get back on the path.

As you write pages with action description and dialogue and character and all that stuff, the journey your hero is on as well as the journey you are on will begin to deviate from whatever you thought that journey was going to be when you set out to write the outline, followed by pages. Things happen. Better ideas! Something changes on page 5 that will affect page 50. This stuff is normal. Do not reject change in favor of your “carved in stone” outline.

As you churn forward, writing, do not change the pages behind you (rule of thumb, nothing is law except, “Don’t be boring.”) but drop your “changes” ideas in a file and when you’re done with the first pass, go back and perform surgery on your patient.

Only as you move toward the end of the draft can you look back and see from whence you came and truly begin to understand what your story is about. Begin to understand why you are telling this story. Begin to understand what your character’s real problem is. Begin to understand what your problem is.

“I have a problem. I make a movie about it. It’s not a problem anymore.”

supposedly Andy Warhol

At the beginning of the journey, you can certainly think you know what the hero’s problem is, but you may be wrong about even something as fundamental as that. You certainly may not know what the solution to the problem is. Not at the beginning. You find this along the way. Hey, the writing teachers are right when they say it’s a journey! Your first pass is not your tenth draft! Embrace that you will fail for a while and don’t sweat it. Press on and feel good about it.

You may decide at the beginning that your movie is about a man in a divorce. You may change your mind partway through when you discover the main character is really his wife. The reason you’re telling the story can shift and that moment, that epiphany about why you’re really here, is fun! When you gasp and yell, “So that’s why I’m writing this!”, that’s a mind-blowingly wonderful feeling.

I don’t think you can get that feeling unless you stay open to change through the writing process. At last, perhaps suddenly, the truth will be revealed to you and you go back into the story and fix all the things you need to repair that will lead to the point you now know you’re trying to make.

The point you can only understand how to make after you’ve done a LOT of writing.

Once you figure out what your story is about, it may only be a matter of going back to the beginning to do some gentle spadework to alter this or that or these five scenes to help point the reader in the direction the story needs to go. Or, maybe it takes dynamite and a crane, a ton of heavy lifting, to blow it up and start all over again. Once you know what you really, really are there for, rewriting becomes much easier. And on target.

Scenes that don’t fit the new “theme” shout, “Hey, dummy! I don’t belong here! Get rid of me!” They can’t do that at the beginning of the writing process because they are locked into whatever your original thoughts were. Once all the players (your story and your characters and you) know why you’re really at the party, then you can roll up your sleeves and get some really good work done.

So, don’t sweat it if, up front, you don’t have a clue why the heck you’re sitting there writing.

If you have any examples of this, please send them to me and I will post them. Have you figured out much later in the game than you had first anticipated what your story was about?

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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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MISSION IMPOSSIBLE TO UNDERSTAND

Anybody see MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT?

Everybody told me it was the best one.  I was excited to see it and came away disappointed.  Disappointed and confused.  I’m not a dim guy but I had no idea what was going on in the plot.  None.

Well, there was some plutonium.  And two women.

Who looked EXACTLY alike!  Same color hair.  Same unusual mouth.  I didn’t realize there were two of them until late in the movie.  Imagine my bewilderment!

Am I the only one?  I mean, I was able to follow TINKER TAILER SOLDIER SPY and that was a plot and a half.

They kept throwing twists at me until I had zero idea which people were on his side and which ones were on the bad guy’s side.  Every henchman had the same build, wardrobe and facial structure.  The plot, or my ability to keep the plates spinning, went flying out the window fairly early on.  After that it was just a ride.  A fun one with cool chases, but story?

I imagined the studio executive reading the script, thinking, “What the hell is going on here?  If I tell ’em I’m confused, they’re gonna say I’m stupid.  I’ll stay mum and pray they know what they’re doing.  But, whoa, this’s like following a single strand of spaghetti through an Olive Garden-sized bowl of pasta.”

Who was the bad guy?  He or she or they seemed to morph and change and waver, like a wisp of cigarette smoke in a barely lit room.  Hard to see or remember.

And, hey, read my book!  One bad guy’s name was LANE.  Another one was named, I swear, LARK.  I never knew which was which.  I’m old and decrepit and have two feet in the grave, but please:  LA** as two characters’ names?  Why not LANE and LAIN, to make it more entertaining?

Oh well.

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the Book works…

Got this email from a former student, working for a lit agency in Los Angeles.

“I cannot tell you how many times I wish writers would have read your book. We had one submission where the character names were Simon, Sarah, Mitch, Mikey, and Emily. Needless to say, we don’t rep that writer…”

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Top 5 Screenwriting Book of 2018! I blush.

I’m happy to report that Your Screenplay Sucks! has been chosen by EzVid Wiki as the #5 best screenwriting book on the planet.

Best Screenwriting Books

Founded in 2011, Ezvid Wiki was the world’s first video wiki. Their YouTube channel has over 300,000 subscribers, 175 million views since its founding.

Pretty cool.

Tell your friends.

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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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Is what you think is there, there?

Once you have a draft, you have to go through every scene and ask yourself, with brutal honesty, “I know what happens in this scene, but that’s because I wrote it. Does someone who has no idea what is going on have the exact same idea I do about what’s going on?”

Just because you know what happens doesn’t mean a reader is going to know what happens. Ha ha, I see this happen all the time!

If you write a scene where a man wants to have sex with a woman, and he’s standing at the end of the bed, and she’s on the bed fully dressed… and that’s the scene out… the fact that you showed him unbutton his shirt doesn’t mean we know, for certain, that they have sex. You know they have sex. But no one else will know, for sure.

If you add a moment where he grabs her ankle and draws it towards him and she smiles, and you end on that image, we will know what happens in the scene.

You have to be ruthless. You have to figure out a way to remove your writer’s hat and put on your director’s hat, or, more importantly, your editor’s hat. You must get yourself in the mindset of your editor, sneering, saying, “What you thought was there, isn’t there. How do you want to do this? What story are you gonna tell now?”

Just because you think it means what you hope it means doesn’t mean an audience is going to understand it.

You are going from your mind to the page and on to the reader’s mind. A very crooked journey, fraught with peril. Easy for me to say. Hard for you to do.

But, you have to do it. You have to exercise rigor in the rewriting process to make certain that when the reader reads it, the reader is going to be in your head.

If you show a character running in one scene and, in the next, he enters his apartment… That is going to tell us that he ran all the way to the apartment. The next, perhaps unintended meaning, is that the apartment is very close to the warehouse. When, in fact, they’re five miles apart… That means you need to write an in-between scene of him walking, exhausted, down the sidewalk.

The reader is going to make it mean what you give them. From reading what’s on the page, they cannot figure out what is in your head unless you tell them: the correct story, the correct images, in the correct order.

This is brutally difficult to do, but, if you keep yourself aware of the problem, you can solve it.

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