Tag Archives: character

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

Know Thy Antagonist!

My son’s a writer. Go figure.

He’s made a living as a writer since he graduated from college. He’s a game designer, had five or six plays produced in New York and now, he’s got a novel coming out. The folks at Save The Cat! asked him to write a guest column.

Interestingly, he and I reached the same storytelling conclusion, separately. Know what your Antagonist wants. And, importantly, why does she want it? It’s the whole ball game. Everything good and useful flows from those two decisions.

I’ll let him tell you about it.

http://www.savethecat.com/novelwriting/know-your-villains

Please pass this post around to your writer buddies and your reader buddies. Repurposing his existing material means I just had my morning handed back to me and I’d like to help the guy sell a few books!

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Filed under Blake Snyder, Good Writing, Screenwriting, Writing Process

Complaints on Confusing Names in NETWORK

Pointed out to me by my student Haley Crutcher.  I’m not a fan of confusing names.  Here from master writer Paddy Chayefsky, are some beauts.  Thank you, Haley!

 

Harry & Howard & Hackett & Haywood & Herron

Howard Beale & unimportant Howard  K. Smith. Harry Hunter & unimportant Harry Reasoner.  BTW, these are all four in same paragraph description on p.1.

Willie Stein and Milton Steinman

Louise & Laureen & Lennie

Robert then Bob McDonough

Bob & Bill & Barbara

Max & Milton & Michael

Jack & Joe & George & John

Lou & Lew… Are they the same person?! I still don’t know.

Roughly 30 first and last names/descriptions to remember. Repetitive caps (although sometimes useful, mostly confusing). Who the capital H is important to remember?! Pay attention.

Women’s descriptions either best ass, chunky, handsome (Laureen),  or didn’t get names (secretaries/housekeeper)

Some last names used and some first names. Harry Hunter is Harry to everyone else, but his dialogue is under Hunter, even though at first his dialogue is under Harry Hunter.

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Filed under Criticism, Screenwriting, Writing Process

Emotion is All

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

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

“We are in the emotion picture business.”

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

Don’t you ever forget it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When she feels, so do we.

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Filed under Scenes, Screenwriting, Writing Process

Who’s Your FAVORITE Bad Guy?!

Working on Your Screenplay STILL Sucks!. Writing about Opponents… wondering who you think are the finest Bad Guys in the history of movies or TV…

Who do you love to hate?
Who’s the most complex?
Who’s the most unusual?
Who do you find endlessly fascinating?
Who was the biggest problem for the hero?
Who do you enjoy watching again and again?

I’m sure you’ve got favorites I’ve not considered… hence the question!

Thank you for letting me know.

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Filed under character, Good Writing, Screenwriting

Tell us what the Bad Guy wants, and fast!

I just watched The Boxtrolls. Wonderful movie.

One of the most important things in storytelling is for the bad guy to be clearly identified, and early. We need to know two things about him or her: 1.) What does he want? 2.) Why does he want it?

In The Boxtrolls, the bad guy, Archibald Snatcher, (artfully voiced by Ben Kingsley) is a grubby lower-class workman who catches Boxtrolls. He wears a red hat. His henchmen also wear red hats, signifying that they too are of an inferior class. The upper class wears white hats.

Snatcher really, really wants a white hat. Why does he want to wear a white hat, you ask? Because people who wear white hats get to eat all the cheese they want. Cheese is the Birkin bag of this grim, little world. The bad guy wants more cheese. The only way he can get it is to wear a white hat. So, first thing in the movie, he makes a deal with the aristocrat in charge of handing out white hats… “For a white hat, I will destroy every Boxtroll in this town.”

What does Snatcher want? To kill all Boxtrolls. Why? So he can get a white hat and eat all the cheese he could ever desire. A simple goal. What is extraordinary about The Boxtrolls is how quickly the opponent’s desire is established. At 1 minute 30 seconds in, and that includes head titles! Or, page 4 of the screenplay. That quick enough for you?

That’s a feature film. It lasts an hour and a half and they tell you about the Bad Guy right off the bat.

Just like the opponent’s problem in most movies is caused by his desire… In The Boxtrolls, Snatcher’s desire and his downfall are motivated by cheese. If, late in the story, the hero was not able to take advantage of the opponent’s desire to eat cheese, the hero would never have won.

A strange example, you think? Yes! If you don’t like it, come up with a better one!

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Filed under character, Good Writing

JOY. Best “low point” in recent memory.

Go see JOY.
Learn a ton from the “visit to death” “low point” etc. moment.

Whatever the hell it’s called by writing teachers, the low point in JOY is the clearest and “worst” in years. It was so low that someone I was with said something OUT LOUD to the effect that she couldn’t believe what was happening.

Not gonna tell you anything more. Go to the theater and see for yourself. I’ll discuss it later, when it’s out of the theaters.

Reminds me of an “in theater” moment eons ago. Went to a screening of SNOW WHITE at UCLA. A man behind me had his little girl on his lap. Right at the moment when the Queen, disguised as an old hag, reaches out to Snow White with the poisoned apple and tells her how good it is…

The little girl behind me, with true horror in her voice, said, “She’s lying…”

An amazing moment where the drama was real to the viewer. Just like my friend, who didn’t believe the bad part in JOY.

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Filed under Good Writing, Screenwriting

What is your story “about”?

This is a piece of a homework I give my writing students. Just thought it up last semester and found it was very helpful. The idea being: just because you’re writing, or have written something — script, novel, short story — doesn’t mean you are actually telling the story you think you are. This is a way to check to make sure.

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1.) Write a prose version of your story. Just tell the story, as you see it. Not the dialogue, just what happens and what the characters are feeling. See if what you think the story is about is actually on the script pages. You may be surprised at what you find. Telling me directly what the story is, will help us both.

2.) Then, write what you are trying to say with the story. Books about writing always pontificate that you’re supposed to sit down the first day and decide “your premise.” And then, that’s what you’re supposedly writing about the whole time. That’s hooey. I think you write and write and write and only slowly figure out what the heck your story is really about as you go along.

Tell me what the story is “about” (on a deeper level for you than just surface action) and what you want to get across about the characters.
Why do you want to tell this story? What is important to you to make sure you say? What do you believe in the core of your being that you want this film to get across to the world?
Whose story is it? Why?
What do you want the main character to feel at the beginning vs. at the end — about the other characters and about themselves?

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Hope that helps. Have someone read your “what is your story about” piece and then read your script (or vice versa) and see if they feel you’re on track or not…

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Filed under Good Writing, Rewriting, Screenwriting, Uncategorized

EDGE OF TOMORROW – Tom Cruise & Emily Blunt Can Pick ‘Em!

Go see EDGE OF TOMORROW and read NOTHING about it ahead of time if you can.
I knew nothing of the story whatsoever. Lucky me!

I knew the movie had a good Rotten Tomatoes rating, and that’s all I knew. Well, I knew who was in it.

It is SO fresh, so new, so interesting, so surprising… it will make an ocean of money and the screenwriters are to be congratulated over and over and over because all those who are connected with the film got work, got paid, will profit, etc. All because someone had a VERY COOL IDEA and executed it beautifully.

I’d love to see the first draft or the pitch pages, to see how it worked its way through development.

I have not seen a movie that I enjoyed this much in a long time. Certainly not this year.

It’s been out a while, so it will be leaving the theater soon, but it’s well worth a trip to the theater. Don’t wait for DVD or whatever the hell people wait for these days. Shell out the big bucks and enjoy yourself.

The script is so complex, and so is the movie, but it’s never hard to follow. It must have hurt their heads to write. Hat’s off to them all!

Let me know what you think.

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Filed under Good Writing, Screenwriting, Writing Process

Juggling Dynamite – the “Ray Donovan” pilot

Watching “Ray Donovan” on Showtime. Wow. What a killer show. You should watch the pilot. It’s realllllly good. You’ll learn a lot.

Spoiler Alert.

What’s amazing about it is how many horrible possibilities for the hero are set up in the pilot. More than you can shake a stick at. More than you can shake a stick of dynamite at.

What the writers have done, and it’s terribly clever, is give the hero a family and a business and friends where each and every one is a potential for life-altering disaster.
It’s incredibly compelling.

I also watched the pilot for “Penny Dreadful” and it was soooo tepid in comparison. Nothing was going on. It kinda had one plot and that plot was dull.
Especially compared to “Ray Donovan.” The episode lasted the same amount of time, but we found out nothing about the heroine. Nothing about her problems were as compelling as Ray’s.
None.
And she had so few of them.
Ray, however, has problems galore. Big ones.

Ray is an old fashioned fixer to the wealthy and corrupt in Hollywood.
Ray has to deal with a bunch of stuff.

This is a tad more than what was in the pilot, but most of this is set up in the pilot. These are the sticks of dynamite Ray has to juggle:

His crazy father, who we really hate and fear. He’s back five years early from the penitentiary. Ray did not expect his showing up. Big monkey wrench in Ray’s life.
His gentle ex-boxer brother, who has Parkinson’s. He’s sweet. But I worry.
His alcoholic loser brother, who was molested by a priest when he was younger. A jittery, dim-bulb time bomb.
His wife, who loves him but loathes his job. Spends a lot of time being angry at our Ray.
His half brother, by his father’s former girlfriend. A surprise that this guy even exists.
In the pilot, Ray does something truly horrible that may come back to haunt him. In the pilot!
Did I mention that his father served 20 years and blames Ray for it?
A movie studio executive who’s screwing an ex client / ex lover of Ray’s. Ray works for him and they hate each other.
An FBI agent who’s after Ray’s father, who informed for him in prison. (Episode 3, I think)
A nutty business partner who is profane and angry.
An incredibly guilty business partner who, with Ray, did something awful in the past, and feels horribly guilty for it. His wife has died and now he wants to confess his sins. Quite worrisome for us and for Ray.
Ray’s lesbian Eye in the Sky who takes care of surveillance back at the office. Very feisty. Sexy and competent.
A VERY tough guy from some Eastern European country. He works for Ray and seems to be 100% loyal. No one else in the whole show is that loyal to Ray. Well, maybe the Eye in the Sky.

Who else? Anybody else? Who else is trouble for our buddy Ray?
Well, there are his kids. A boy and a girl who each show questionable judgement — keeping Ray from being happy.

At the end of the pilot, you’re exhausted with worry.
And alive with interest in finding out how our buddy Ray, with all his problems, is going to negotiate this ghastly minefield… that is mostly of his own creation.

His job keeps Ray going and threatens to destroy him.

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Filed under Good Writing, Screenwriting, Uncategorized