Tag Archives: Details

Be Kind To Your Reader

Keep in mind that everyone who will ever read your work is always overworked and overwhelmed. So you need to give them the information they need to stay comfortable in the easiest way for them to get it.

Make it easy for them to understand what is in your head. Just because you know something doesn’t mean they’re going to get the same image, same action, same meaning from the dialogue that you do.

Imagine your reader, sitting down to read your work, totally exhausted. Not chipper and “first thing in the day” bright and perky.

If you make them work too hard to figure out what you’re telling them, they won’t get it…

For instance… Do not make them read dates and expect them to do math.

Your movie takes place in 1980. Dad left Mom in 1968 and daughter is getting married now. Dad comes back for the wedding. Is Daughter thirteen now? Forty? Don’t assume your reader can do math and read at the same time. You’re lucky they’re reading your work, so make it easy for them. Say, “Today is 1980.” Dad left Mom 12 years ago, when Sally was ten. Now she’s 22 and getting married.” So much simpler.

Be nice.

Do not tax the reader’s overtired brain for any reason. Just cause you know something doesn’t mean the reader can easily do the work required to gain that knowledge. Assume they’re very sleepy and everything is difficult for them to figure out.

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Badly Written Scene Description Kills Your Actor’s Choices!

You are writing this script to be made. Crew members are going to read it. Heads of departments are going to read it. At least, that’s the theory. Actors are going to read it.

When you write, you imagine a scene, floating in glorious living color above your computer. You watch the scene. Over and over, you replay the scene and redo it. When you’re satisfied, you write it down. Generally, the first draft is exactly what you saw floating above your computer. That’s fine.

The problem comes when you don’t rewrite to make it more actor friendly.

“She sits at the table and puts her face in her hands.”

Actors hate this. You should hate it too.

You should be telling the actor what you want them to feel at this moment, not do. If you write detailed physical description of action, an actor is going to do precisely what she is told. She may question you about it… but, she may silently acquiesce. Once you tell an actor to “put her face in her hands,” she is going to assume, because it’s in the script, that it is very, very important.

That gesture may have been something from the scene hovering above your computer that you simply transcribed onto paper. It may not have been that big a deal to you. But if you leave it in the script, it becomes a big deal.

Just because it got written does not necessarily mean it is good writing.

When the actor puts her face in her hands, you just eliminated a host of other options that had been open to her. Now, all she can do is put her face in her hands. Why would you take away an actor’s opportunity to give you a thoroughly nuanced performance? Why would you force an actor to do something that might be considered ham-fisted or lame?

If you wrote…

“Janine feels wretched.”

She can take that feeling and translate it into physical action in countless possible ways. Give your actor the freedom to make the best possible choice for that moment in that scene. Avoid making the choice for them.

If a character runs out of the room and slams the door, and it’s crucial to the story, then of course keep it in. Micromanaging the actor’s physical performance on paper is not a great way to have the most successful experience when you are shooting. Give the actor emotional moments to play not tiny, detailed, “she lifted her eyebrow in suspicion” moments.

If you have a tendency to give an actor precise physical directions, try to figure out a way to un-have that tendency. That’s what rewriting’s for!

Go through your script, all of it!, and see how many times you give the actor specific physical instructions. Ask, “is this something I have to say?” Or “can I turn this action into an emotion and let the actor choose what to do when the camera’s rolling?”

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Do the Big Stuff FIRST! Fix the Pages Before the Phrases!

I have had to fight hard to be in a position to tell you this, and I am feeling pretty good about it too.

When you’ve finally got a draft, solve the story problems and the character problems and the structure woes before you go in and massage the prose.

Fix the pages before the phrases!

I like making the sentences sing. I like to fix this word and that word in my endless quest to find the PERFECT word. It’s fun for me. Perhaps I’m psychotic, but so it goes.

This can turn out into a giant waste of time, which I fervently have to avoid because I’m 97 and probably don’t have that much time left to get stuff out there. What you don’t want to do is spend fifteen minutes getting a paragraph jussst riiight, and later, while you’re working on structure, cutting the whole shebang. What a pain!

It’s difficult for me to do all that restructuring stuff because it’s no fun. Trimming sentences until they’re so tight they squeak is fun. Solving character problems (that I generated in the first place) is hard work. It’s painful. Figuring out what the story problems are is brutally difficult. Figuring out how to solve those story problems is agonizing and takes tons of time.

What I think I have finally learned is to force myself not to go in with the red pen and repair sentences before I get the story working. Why waste time fixing prose when there’s a chance you might cut that whole section?

But, wow, it’s hard to do.

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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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What “The Music Man” teaches about dialogue research!

Do your research. Get your dialogue right! When it’s right, no one notices because it’s so smooth and accurate. When it’s wrong, you go to hell.

The film was made in 1964. The musical, 1957. The story takes place in 1912. The dialogue is incredibly specific.

“Trouble in River City”

Great scene. You can learn a lot about story structure from this scene! Look how the action builds!

Here’s a guy with a burning desire, for money (as well as the local librarian). He wants to stay in town to court the librarian and, to do that, because he sells band instruments, he must create a need in the townspeople to have a boy’s band. Does the town need a boy’s band? No town needs a boy’s band.

HAROLD
Well, either you are closing your eyes
To a situation you do not wish to acknowledge
Or you are not aware of the caliber of disaster indicated
By the presence of a pool table in your community.
Ya got trouble, my friend, right here,
I say, trouble right here in River City.
Why sure I’m a billiard player,
Certainly mighty proud I say
I’m always mighty proud to say it.
I consider that the hours I spend
With a cue in my hand are golden.
Help you cultivate horse sense
And a cool head and a keen eye.
Did you ever take and try to give
An iron-clad leave to yourself
From a three-rail billiard shot?
But just as I say,
It takes judgement, brains, and maturity to score
In a balkline game,
I say that any boob can take
And shove a ball in a pocket.
And I call that sloth.
The first big step on the road
To the depths of deg-ra-Day–
I say, first, medicinal wine from a teaspoon,
Then beer from a bottle.
And the next thing ya know,
Your son is playin’ for money
In a pinch-back suit.
And listening to some big out-a-town Jasper
Hearin’ him tell about horse-race gamblin’.
Not a wholesome trottin’ race, no!
But a race where they set down right on the horse!
Like to see some stuck-up jockey boy
Sittin’ on Dan Patch? Make your blood boil?
Well, I should say.
Now, friends, lemme tell you what I mean.
Ya got one, two, three, four, five, six pockets in a table.
Pockets that mark the difference
Between a gentlemen and a bum,
With a capital “B,”
And that rhymes with “P” and that stands for pool!
And all week long your River City
Youth’ll be fritterin’ away,
I say your young men’ll be fritterin’!
Fritterin’ away their noontime, suppertime, chore time too!
Get the ball in the pocket,
Never mind gettin’ Dandelions pulled
Or the screen door patched or the beefsteak pounded.
Never mind pumpin’ any water
‘Till your parents are caught with the cistern empty
On a Saturday night and that’s trouble,
Oh, yes we got lots and lots a’ trouble.
I’m thinkin’ of the kids in the knickerbockers,
Shirt-tail young ones, peekin’ in the pool
Hall window after school
You got trouble, folks!
Right here in River City.
Trouble with a capital “T”
And that rhymes with “P” and that stands for pool!
Now, I know all you folks are the right kinda parents.
I’m gonna be perfectly frank.
Would ya like to know what kinda conversation goes
On while they’re loafin’ around that hall?
They’re tryin’ out Bevo, tryin’ out cubebs,
Tryin’ out Tailor Mades like Cigarette Fiends!
And braggin’ all about
How they’re gonna cover up a tell-tale breath with Sen-Sen.
One fine night, they leave the pool hall,
Headin’ for the dance at the Armory!
Libertine men and Scarlet women!
And Ragtime, shameless music
That’ll grab your son and your daughter
With the arms of a jungle animal instinct!
Mass-steria!
Friends, the idle brain is the devil’s playground!

TOWNSPEOPLE
Trouble, oh we got trouble,
Right here in River City!
With a capital “T”
That rhymes with “P”
And that stands for Pool,
That stands for pool.
We’ve surely got trouble!
Right here in River City,
Right here!
Gotta figure out a way
To keep the young ones moral after school!
Trouble, trouble, trouble, trouble, trouble…

HAROLD
Mothers of River City!
Heed that warning before it’s too late!
Watch for the tell-tale signs of corruption!
The minute your son leaves the house,
Does he rebuckle his knickerbockers below the knee?
Is there a nicotine stain on his index finger?
A dime novel hidden in the corn crib?
Is he starting to memorize jokes from Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang?
Are certain words creeping into his conversation?
Words like “swell?”
And “so’s your old man?”
Well, if so my friends,
Ya got trouble,
Right here in River city!
With a capital “T”
And that rhymes with “P”
And that stands for Pool.
We’ve surely got trouble!
Right here in River City!
Remember the Maine, Plymouth Rock and the Golden Rule!
Oh, we’ve got trouble.
We’re in terrible, terrible trouble.
That game with the fifteen numbered balls is the devil’s tool!
Oh yes we got trouble, trouble, trouble!
With a “T”! That rhymes with “P”!
And that stands for Pool!!!

And here’s the meaning of the specific dialogue that the writer got right.

rig — slang for any carriage or coach

tank town — A small town. So called because trains would stop there only to replenish water.

grip — A suitcase or valise.

Billiards — Also known as caroom (or carom) billiards, played with three balls (one cue ball and two object balls) on a pocketless table

Pool — Developed much later than billiards. Also known as pocket billiards, using a cue ball and 15 object balls on a table with six pockets
iron clad leave to yourself from a three-rail billiard shot — leave is slang for a favorable position for a stroke in billiards (circa 1850). Three-rail billiard shot refers to the fact that in caroom (or carom) billiards, the cue ball must contact at least 3 cushions before it hits the second object ball in order to score any points. This sentence seems to imply that the player has, through excellent strategy and difficult maneuvers, put the balls in such a position as to give him an excellent shot at making points.

balkline — A line parallel to one end of a billiard table, from behind which opening shots with the cue ball are made.

pinch-back suit — from pinchbeck – serving as an imitation or substitute; “pinchbeck heroism” (noun): an alloy of copper and zinc that is used in cheap jewelry to imitate gold. Made of pinchbeck; sham; cheap; spurious; unreal.

Jasper — any male fellow or chum, usually a stranger

Trotting race — A horse that trots, especially one trained for harness racing. Very genteel pastime.

Horse race — With a jockey on the horses back, running much quicker than the trotting race.

Dan Patch — (1897-1916) Most famous trotting horse ever, from Indiana. Dan Patch was a pacer, under his second owner he lost only five heats in 56 starts. Dan Patch had his own private railway car to travel in, and at home he lived in a huge barn that was so grand it was called the “Taj Mahal.” There is still a trotting competition named for him, and an historical railroad line because “Dan Patch was a famous race horse a hundred years ago, and the railroad was named after him because its tracks between Minneapolis and Northfield passed very close to his owner’s farm.” There seem to be whole districts in Indiana still named after this horse, and there was a movie called The Great Dan Patch (1949)

Frittering away their time — To reduce or squander little by little; frittered his inheritance away. To waste.

cistern — A receptacle for holding water or other liquid, especially a tank for catching and storing rainwater.

knickerbockers — Full breeches gathered and banded just below the knee (which is why moving them above the knee is such a shocking thing to do)

shirt-tail young ones — 1) Very young; shirttail kids. 2) Of little value; inadequate or small; a shirttail cabin in the woods

Bevo — From Anheuser-Busch. A non-alcoholic drink that tasted like beer. “Anheuser-Busch introduced Bevo, its new nonalcoholic beverage, in 1916 and elsewhere the flood of cereal beverages (near beer) were introduced during the 1917-18 period.”

Cubebs — the dried unripe berry of a tropical shrub (Piper cubeba) of the pepper family that is crushed and smoked in cigarettes for as a medicine for catarrh, an inflammation of the nose and throat with increased production of mucus. There were several cubeb cigarettes made–Marshall’s Prepared Cubeb
Cigarettes are perhaps the best known.

Tailor Mades — A tailor-made cigarette referred to any cigarette made in a factory on a cigarette making machine. A roll-your-own cigarette was made by the smoker from a sack of Bull Durham or the like. James Jones in From Here to Eternity mentioned tailor-mades being smoked by soldiers when they had money. Until 1883 cigarettes were handmade. In 1880 a 21 year old Virginian named James Bonsack invented a cigarette making machine that dramatically increased production. A skilled cigarette roller made 4 cigarettes a minute, whereas Mr. Bonsack’s machine turned out 200 a minute. These were called “tailor mades” to distinguish them from handmade cigarettes.
NOTE: This section talking about the boys down at the pool hall means they are trying to mimic adults, and look as if they are drinking beer and smoking tobacco, although they are drinking fake beer and smoking fake cigarettes.

Sen Sen — When a country swain went courting his rural sweetheart, he often carried in his pocket an unobtrusive little envelope of Sen-Sen. When his younger brother indulged in smoking behind the barn, he too, had use for the exotic little pellets. For Sen-Sen was to the 19th century what breath mints are to our time. Any country store worth its salt, prominently displayed a box of the handy little packets within easy reach of its customers.

Rag-time — A style of jazz characterized by elaborately syncopated rhythm in the melody and a steadily accented accompaniment.

corn crib — A structure for storing and drying ears of corn.

Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang — Started in 1919 (too late for Music Man, but I guess Wilson wasn’t worried about that!). From the book Humor Magazines and Comic Periodicals, “Few periodicals reflect the post-World War I cultural change in American life as well as Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang. To some people [it] represented the decline of morality and the flaunting of sexual immodesty; to others it signified an increase in openness. For much of the 1920’s, Captain Billy’s was the most prominent comic magazine in America with its mix of racy poetry and naughty jokes and puns, aimed at a small-town audience with pretensions of ‘sophistication’” This publication was to the male adolescent culture of the 1920s what Playboy was in the 1960s. Quit publishing sometime from 1932-36. This magazine created the foundation for Fawcett Publications, the publishing company that later created True Confessions and Mechanix Illustrated.

swell — (slang) excellent, wonderful, delightful (mid 19th century)

so’s your old man — catch phrase from 1900. An exclamation, used as a retort to an insult or slur.

The Maine — U.S. battleship sunk (Feb. 15, 1898) in Havana harbor, killing 260, in an incident that helped precipitate the Spanish-American War. The cause of the explosion was never satisfactorily explained, and separate American and Spanish inquiries produced different results. But the American jingoistic press blamed the Spanish government, and Remember the Maine became the rallying cry of the war.

Plymouth Rock — Plymouth, Massachusetts, is the oldest settlement in New England, founded in 1620. Plymouth Rock is on the beach where the Mayflower landed.

The Golden Rule — saying of Jesus, from the Bible — As ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise. Evolved into modern saying — Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

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If you allow us the opportunity to misunderstand your story, we’ll take that opportunity!!

I have a student who is writing a short film. The climax of the story involves the kids upstairs, getting their backpacks ready for school. They argue a little. Then they hear a huge crash from the kitchen. And another one. They run down stairs. Their mother is sitting in the kitchen amidst a pile of glass, crying. The father says he didn’t know the kids were there and leaves for work.

When I read the part about the huge crash, I thought, “Oh my. Mom has dropped a bunch of dishes.”

When I read the part about Mom sitting in a pile of broken dishes, I thought, “Oh my. Mom has dropped a bunch of dishes.”

You may have gotten it, but I did not.

Dad had been throwing the dishes at Mom. This was the big reveal that he is abusive and triggered her leaving. I missed it completely.

The writer knew exactly what she had in mind. She thought it was totally clear to the reader. I missed it. Is that the fault of the reader? I don’t think so. As my film school teacher said, “You can’t stand next to the screen and explain it.”

The writer’s job is to tell the story in such a way that the reader can only interpret it the way the writer intends. If you give the reader the chance to get it wrong, the reader will get it wrong.

This is also true in filmmaking. A shot that says exactly what the student means when they roll camera can take on a shockingly different meaning when they show dailies in class. “Oh my!” is what I hear from time to time. It meant one thing on the set and something else when screened for an audience.

Guess which one wins?

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Michael Arndt on Beginnings

This is on the TOY STORY 3 Blu-Ray DVD feature. Thought I’d share. This is amazingly helpful.

introduce the character
introduce the world
the thing they love to do most – their grand passion
Woody loves to play with Andy.
Marlin loves his family and a wife
Mr. Incredible (a.k.a. Bob) loves being a superhero.

and they have a flaw
Woody loves being Andy’s favorite toy
Marlin is insecure about being a parent
Mr. Incredible doesn’t want to share being #1

introduce dark storm clouds
Andy… birthday party … everyone frets…
Nemo… outdoors where they are not safe
Bob… things will change when they marry… resentment from normal people against super heros

something blows the hero’s life apart! (inciting incident!)
Buzz arrives. Woody is displaced.
Nemo… family is killed except one egg
Mr. Incredible, and superheros get banned…

and their grand passion… is taken away from them!
changes their sense of their future will be

add insult to injury
Woody is replaced by a doofus… Buzz thinks he’s not a toy, thinks he can fly, and they think he can fly… everyone is impressed for wrong reasons
Nemo… we know the world he lives in in unfair
Mr. Incredible is trying to do wright thing, ad they are banned…

comes to fork in road
must make choice on how to adjust
if they do the right thing, the story is over
make the unhealthy choice… we are rooting for him to do the unhealthy thing, because we feel his pain

Woody knocks Buzz out the window, and now he can’t stay in Andy’s room without getting Buzz back
Marlin must get Nemo in open ocean… he has to go after his son, who says I hate you… gets caught by diver… Marlin has a goal for rest of story
Bob’s wife tells him to make choice, and it’s boring, but he lies to wife, and we are rooting for that, because we saw how much he loves being a super hero… sneaking around leads to crisis and then you’re into the SECOND ACT…

story comes out of deepest desires
and darkest fears
the thing they love is taken away
and it’s unfair
and they have to take journey and will get back what they lost…
and fix the flaw

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