Tag Archives: Bad Writing

A tad more on happy endings.

Yesterday, watched a very old movie with Gerard Depardieu. At the end, he’s dead. It’s very sad. I felt awful.

But.

They bury him outside the walls of a lonely fort in a Saharan desert hell, with a ton of his loyal soldiers looking on. And his young and elegant wife. And their little boy, holding her hand… His adoring commander says wonderful things about dead Depardieu. It made me feel a little better. Then, the little boy looks to one side and there, standing on the edge of the desert is the Arab soldier whose life Depardieu had saved long ago.

The boy runs over and takes his hand. They tell each other their names. I got choked up.

Then the Arab puts the boy on a camel and they take a ride. Wonderfully moving. I felt great.

And that’s all the happy ending I needed. Just a bit to make me fee there is hope for us all. And as I felt that jolt of a feeling, I thought I should share it.

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TRUTH. Shoulda had a happy-ish ending.

Have you seen TRUTH? I doubt it. It flashed through the theaters as fast as a writer feeling good about his work while a producer reads it.

I haven’t looked up the box office because I don’t have time.
But I bet it didn’t make a ton of money.

God, the ending is depressing. I felt bad about America, the news, politics, and myself for being alive.
Not my advice to writers.

Give the viewer / reader an uptick of happiness, somehow. TITANIC ends with “everyone alive.” That’s a happy ending! We walk out of the theater and don’t want to slit our throats. Unlike TRUTH. I just felt awful when it was over. They give Cate Blanchett a hell of an end speech where she kicks ass, same for Topher Grace, but everyone still loses. The bad guys win and win big. The lesson I took from that: Move to France. But that’s not possible. If it were, I’d have done it years ago.

TRUTH is a motivational speech wrapped in script pages: “power corrupts and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it. Even if you’re rich and powerful and connected, there’s someone above you who’s richer, more powerful, and better connected.. and evil.” I guess the film did motivate me in a way. It motivated me to step in front of a bus.

I have no idea what they could have done to make this film end on an upbeat moment. What happened in real life was horrible and the off screen bad guys held all the cards. The fix was in. But I don’t want to buy a ticket to see a movie where the fix is in and the good guys get clobbered.

See SPOTLIGHT. Same story: evil, powerful opponents who do whatever the heck they want… but at the end, they get crucified and we feel good when the phones start ringing with phone calls that will destroy all those stinking bastards.

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Beware your tics!

One thing you must hunt down are your own writing quirks. Like weeds in the yard, they just show up uninvited.

One of mine is “And”.

I start sentences with “And” ALL THE TIME. In dialogue. In action description. It’s just something I do, like breathing. Can’t help it. Where’s James Whitmore with the Miracle Gro weed killer when I need him?!

The good news is that I’m aware of my flaw. Wish it were the only one. What are writing tics you find yourself in need of eradicating?

Just went through a script I’m working on. Searched for “And” and made it case sensitive. Twenty of the little devils, or more, in the draft.

And they’re sure not there now.

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“Just in time delivery” is great in manufacturing. Sucks in storytelling.

This mostly happens where there is some kind of fantasy, a made-up world, sword and sorcery, where anything or anyone has a special power. I have no idea why this is. Just because you’re not writing sword and sorcery, however, doesn’t mean you’re not making the same mistake!

“Just in time manufacturing” means you don’t keep a pile of parts on your warehouse shelves waiting around to be used when called upon. When you’re running low, you ask the supplier to bring you more. The new stack of parts arrives the instant before you need them on your assembly line and you use them right then. Nothing is lying around taking up warehouse space when it is not needed.

It is also known as the Toyota production system because it was invented at Toyota.

This works great if you have a 50,000 square foot warehouse you are desperately trying not to lose money on. It doesn’t work in storytelling. Not at all.

The most common example is when there are special weapons or superpowers. When a character is in a pickle and is about to have his head chopped off by the Gorgon, he looks under the carpet and finds a magic sword and slices off the Gorgon’s head. The supersecret, fabulous thing was delivered to him just in the nick of time! Delivered by writer who did not have his act together.

You can’t gives the character the thing that he or she needs just as they need it. You cannot have a payoff with no setup. You have to gently set up the thing they need far in advance of their needing it, so when you do deliver it, the enraged audience does not scour the internet, looking for your home address.

This also works with characters. If suddenly towards the end of your story, during the incredibly tense riverfront standoff, the hero needs someone to be able to read lips, that character is magically sitting on the riverbank, reading a newspaper, waiting to be summoned at the climactic moment of the scene… to save the hero’s ass.

Little Mr. Lip Reader must be set up an hour earlier, so it is credible for him to be at the river, when he at last is needed.

A fabulously well done example of this is in Shane. You should have seen it, so I don’t care if I’m going to spoil the ending for you.

At the end, Shane, a retired gunfire is in a bar with the main bad guy and his hired gun, Wilson. There’s a shoot out. Shane kills Wilson and the boss. Shane is a very good shot. The entire conversation and shootout is witnessed by the little boy, on whose ranch Shane lives and works. As Shane is leaving the bar, the little boy looks up and sees a henchmen on the balcony, with a rifle aimed at Shane. The boy screams, “Shane! Look out!” Shane twirls around and shoots the guy.

It is totally, completely unbelievable that that little boy would be up this late at night, peeking under the door to the bar. But. The writer has to have him there to save Shane’s life. If the kid isn’t there, Shane dies, and there are no sequels and no merchandising.

So what did A.B. Guthrie, jr., the writer, do?

Working our way backwards, so that it is very clear the set up is set up correctly… Before the boy slides under the door to watch Shane talk to the bad guys…

Shane rides his horse across most of Wyoming. The boy runs after him. Shane rides and the boy follows, across what looks like ten to twenty miles of rugged Day For Night terrain.

Before that, at the ranch, Shane is on his horse riding towards town. The boy calls after him, “Shane, I’m sorry.” The boy’s mother tells him that Shane did not hear him. Now the boy has an excellent motivation to follow Shane across the Western landscape. He wants to apologize, but Shane didn’t hear him. What does the boy want to apologize for? It must be something extraordinarily powerful because it pushes him to run several miles after a man on a horse.

Before that, the boy is crouched down beside his mother and his returning-to-consciousness father, who’s lying in the dirt. The mother says, “you don’t hate Shane.”

Before that, Shane unties the father’s horse, slaps it and sends it away. As he’s walking past the boy, the child yells at him “you hit them with your gun! I hate you!” Shane has been idolized by the boy for most of the movie. “I hate you” is a terrible thing for Shane to hear.

Before that, Shane and the father get in an intense fistfight, ending with both of them leaning against a huge stump that they had pulled out of the ground together long before. It is a visual representation of their friendship. That closeness has been destroyed by the fistfight. The fistfight is so out of the ordinary, so strange, so horrible that all of the animals are jumping out of the corrals howling, screeching, and going crazy. The world is truly thrown out of joint by this horrific fight.

Before that, Shane tells the father he’s going into town to fight Wilson. The father feels it is his duty to go into town and fight for the honor of his farm. Shane knows that if the father faces Wilson, the father will die. But, because the father is a proud man he will not listen to reason. So, Shane has to fight him and eventually knock him out with his gun.

All of this setup, very carefully pieced together, exists only so we will not feel any kind of story bump when the boy saves Shane’s life at the end.

If you give a character a magic gizmo, you need to explain the rules of the gizmo as soon as it is introduced. Sort of like Q showing James Bond his gadgets. Q tells Bond all about them, so when they are used, nothing is a surprise.

What you cannot do, ever, is have the magic gizmo is appear out of the blue or suddenly do something we had no idea it was able to do… just in time for the hero or the bad guy or someone to use that hitherto un-set-up power.

This also applies to knowledge. Character traits. Special abilities that a person suddenly finds. But, at its lowest level (and the one that is easiest to spot) is the magic gizmo or talent arriving right when it is needed in the story. It has to be set up ahead of time, like in Shane.

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Drawing a Line

I just went up to my office door, which has a Post-It note or two stuck there. My office is a wreck, always has been. But a vertical space is pretty easy to keep tidy. At least it is for me.

One of the Post-Its is a list of the major projects I’m working on. Since I put it up, I’ve drawn three lines through projects. Two are finished. THAT felt good.

One I abandoned.

That felt even better, in some ways.

I had this great idea for a TV series for a long time. Based on true events from our nation’s past, I had the idea to set it in the modern era and repeat history. Great idea. The problem was, I had no business writing it. None. Just because I thought it a lovely idea, didn’t mean I needed to waste my precious time working on it. For years, I’ve thought, “I’m capable of anything. There’s nothing I can’t do well, if I spend enough time and energy on it.”

Moron.

Knowing when to quit is a wonderful thing. I am not suited to write a political thriller. I need to be writing what is more or less easy for me to write, not make some giant (impossible) stretch into, not only, unknown territory, but suicide mission territory. Why be stupid?

Drawing the line through that project suddenly gave me MONTHS of free time, yawning ahead of me, to devote to something I am suited to write.

I am changing my tune about this stuff. I used to tell people, “If you watch bank robbery movies more than anything else, you should really think about writing bank robbery stories.” I don’t think that any more. I think you need to write what you want to write, but to take a long hard look at your skill set before you dive into the deep end. What are you naturally suited to write? What are you better at than the other folks on their laptops at the Starbucks? What are you better at than anybody?

That’s what you need to be doing.

I can’t tell you how good it feels to look at that Post-It note, knowing I won’t waste a year of my life on an idea that I am 100% unqualified to write.

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“Look” is a Four Letter Word

Working on a screenplay. Thought I’d pass on a little of my own advice, which I took myself. Came in handy.
What are you doing? I hope, lying on a beach with an umbrella drink and someone you like.

Looked at my own list of “7 Deadly Sins of Writing” t’other day. One of them is “look.”

Did a search for “look” through the whole script. AMAZING. So many of them! So many times I tried to over-control the read. I’ve been doing this a long, long time, and still am making bush league mistakes. This writing, it’s not easy.

Changed a lot of “looks” to other things. I was kinda stunned how many there were. Embarrassing that I don’t even follow my own rules. Goes to show, that writing is a lot about “fixing it later,” rewriting.

*

3 lines
Joe won’t leave. She eases him up. Points down the long hall. A dead man walking, he shuffles away. Looking back, so worried.

2 lines
Joe won’t leave. She eases him toward the long hall. A dead man walking, he shuffles away, so worried.

*

Everywhere Joe looks, he sees happy FATHERS with many happy CHILDREN. A FRIENDLY WIFE leaves her FAMILY, goes to Joe.

Joe sees happy FATHERS with many happy CHILDREN. A FRIENDLY WIFE leaves her FAMILY, goes to Joe.

*

Kirschenbaum turns away. Frightened. Joe grabs his face. Looks in his eyes. Stacked Blonde breathes a little faster.

Kirschenbaum turns away, frightened. Joe grabs his face. Stacked Blonde breathes a little faster.

*

Joe looks up to see THREE COPS and the hard ass POLICE CHIEF, (Henry J. Garvin), 60s. Stacked Blonde vanishes like smoke.

THREE COPS and hard ass POLICE CHIEF, (Henry J. Garvin), 60s, arrive. Stacked Blonde vanishes like smoke.

*

And on and on and on and ON!

If you look at “look” in your script, please let me know what you discover…

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“I hate to read.”

This is perhaps a new wrinkle on a familiar theme. But it may make you look at your work a tad differently.

A former student of mine does development for a company in Los Angeles. A small company, with four employees, but they make movies and television. They get things done. She reads scripts, sits down with writers and gives notes. She prepares pitches, breaks down stories… all the things a creative exec does. It’s all about story and she’s great at it. They are sooo lucky to have her.

I was talking to her about her workload and scripts that come in, etc. Asked her if she wasn’t amazed by the number of bad screenplays that have agency reputation. Always a conundrum for a writer… if it’s so bloody difficult to get an agent, why are so many agents sending out horrible screenplays? I asked her about reading. She leaned forward, and with a degree of viciousness I had never seen in her, said…

“I HATE to read.”

It’s the last thing she wants to do, because so many of the scripts are terrible. She’d be happy if she never read another script, ever.

I thought about you, dear reader, and the work you are doing. Writing a screenplay, planning to send it out there to sell. I know you’ve imagined the reader, on a lounge chair by the pool, flipping through the pages of your script. Making the occasional note. Ooohing and aahing at the good stuff. And at the end, marking “Consider.”

That is one image. If you write toward that benign image, I don’t think you’ll get as far as if you write toward the image of a reader who HATES to read.

Imagine you are giving your script to someone, a reader, an agent, a producer, who, whey they turn to the title page, is already angry. They turn to page 1, pissed off. As they read your first slug line and first paragraph of action description, they are fuming because they would rather be doing anything than reading your damned screenplay.

How does that make you feel?

Intimidated?
Nervous? Fearful?
Thinking you’d better go back and rewrite that first paragraph?

Imagine someone sitting down to read who has steam coming from their collar… already upset with you… and your job is to make them happy. Wouldn’t you do EVERYTHING you could to calm them down? No extra lines of dialogue. No extra words in the slug lines. No shilly shallying around with the first act… etc., etc. All those things that are so difficult to do, and when they aren’t done well, make the reader loathe you.

Because they hate to read but have to read your script, do five more drafts so that it is perfect.
Make them smile at your intense professionalism.
Make your prose interesting.
Make your story work.

Do the job.
Do not assume your grandmother is sitting down to read your script, all warm and loving.
Assume it’s Tina Turner from TOMMY. Or Maleficent. Or that horrid teacher you had in fifth grade. Or your ex-wife’s mother, who never, ever liked you and now says, “I told you so,” with every breath.

Someone who scares you and will perhaps prod you into doing one more draft. Or five.

Good luck!

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Ask A Friend to Read it to You

Incredibly useful technique.
Do this repeatedly as you do draft after draft.
Obviously, much easier to ask this with a short script than a feature.

But, if you have a friend THAT good, give it a try with your feature or pilot.

Sit with your friend, a hard copy of the script, and your laptop. Ask them to read scene #1. When the are finished, ask them what happened in the scene. Do not prompt them. Just ask them what happened in the scene.

Write it down.

This is what they got from the scene, not what you hoped they’d get or what you think the scene is about, but what they, the reader who is only able to deal with what is there, think the scene is about.

You can ask questions, but they have to be non-leading questions, bland questions, that will in no way color their read of scene #2.

Then, they read scene #2 and tell you what they think happens in scene #2.

Etc.

If you can keep your fingers out of the pie, you will learn a lot. But it’s very tough to do, because you’re going to want to fight their misperception of your fantastic scene.

Whatever they think the scene is about, that perception is coming from what’s on the page, not straight from your fabulous brain. What you think the scene is about is not necessarily what is actually on the page.

A harsh reality, but this is a relatively (since it’s a friend) non-brutal way to find out that what you thought happened in the scene is not really on the page.

Now, do it with another friend and another friend.

Figure out where your idea of what the scene was supposed to be about got short-circuited.

And now rewrite!

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WOLF OF WALL STREET… seems to be all true…

Or at least enough to suit me, the screenwriter.

Scorsese has done this before. Just before THE AVIATOR came out, I read two Howard Hughes biographies. Not to prep for the movie, but it just worked out that way. And man, about 90% of everything in that movie was exactly what happened in real life. And it worked dramatically. Wow.

So, THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, seems to be the same thing. It mostly all happened, pretty much just like in the guy’s book.

[I can’t make the links work on this thing, so you’ll have to cut and paste. So sorry.]

Slate article about THE WOLF OF WALL STREET…

http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2013/12/31/wolf_of_wall_street_true_story_jordan_belfort_and_other_real_people_in_dicaprio.html

I love that the FBI guy, who’d chased him for ten years, says, “Yeah, that’s what happened.”

Quibbling is for fanboys. “They changed his name.” That means nothing. “This event didn’t happen just that way.” Write your own damn movie.

You can’t make a movie that is EXACTLY like real life, and, if you try, you are an idiot who won’t sell your script. You will get the massive satisfaction of telling your writing group at Starbucks or the Farmer’s Market, “My script is true to history.” but they will be the only ones who ever read it.

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UNWILLING Suspension of Disbelief

Recently went to a screening of student films. If you are a student, you want to try very hard NOT to make a student film. One hallmark of student films is the unwilling suspension of disbelief that often must occur for the story to work.

The student filmmaker sometimes asks the audience to buy something that is impossible or ridiculous or just idiotic. The student filmmaker often asks the viewer to make excuses for the student filmmaker’s youth and lack of money.

This is great when you are in sixth grade. Fine. No problem. I get it. You tape a sign saying “Nuclear Reactor Room” to your bedroom door, shoot your movie, show it to your buddies, and it’s fantastic. Everyone has a good time, and understands the rules. No problemo. However. Unwilling suspension of disbelief must fall by the wayside fairly soon, though, if the filmmaker is to advance in her learning.

In one scene I saw the other night, a group of people were held captive by an evil scientist. The door was locked, and they repeatedly threw themselves against it in a vain effort to break it down so they could escape. SLAM. SLAM. SLAM. However, the hinges were on the inside of the room. The INSIDE. That means the door opens inward. There was no way that door was going to bust open, unless one clever character suddenly found a Mack truck under a blanket in the room. The filmmakers were asking the viewer to accept the fact that the door might break down.

They were asking us to pretend.

You can’t do that. You can’t do it in filmmaking and you can’t do it in writing. If it works, it works. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. It’s binary. It is right. Or it is not right. There is zero gray area.

You’re pregnant. You’re not pregnant. Easy to tell which.

Hoping is NOT going to make it work on the page.

Do not hope we’ll get it.
Do not hope we’ll pretend it works, when, deep in your guts, you know it doesn’t. Do the work and rewrite your scene until it is right.

And when it is, you’ll know.
And it will feel very very good.

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