Tag Archives: rewriting

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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Karl’s Writing Method

My children think this is mindblowingly helpful. I’ve never managed to convince anyone else to give it a try, but, as you’re serious about writing, consider it.

Like most all of us, my friend Karl writes the first pass of his screenplay in Final Draft. To rewrite, he prints it and marks it up with a red pen. What is unique about his method is what he does next.

Most people open up Final Draft and enter the changes from the scribbled-on pages into the existing FD file. Not Karl. He sets the script next to his computer, opens a brand new Final Draft file and re-types the entire screenplay. Because we’re all inherently lazy, we will leave out any word we do not have to type. Karl’s method automatically tightens up the writing.

Karl has been the executive producer on 11 television series, writer on 12. His method works for him. You might want to try it.

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If You Can Keep Your Head When All About You…

Kipling was one hell of a writer, not a filmmaker. As you so well know, writing is a solitary event. A novelist may deal with an editor or publisher, but, unless you need a new typewriter ribbon or more ink for your pen, you don’t rub up against many people.

Filmmaking is not like that. You’re in the soup with a lot of other people. Your agent, producer, director, sound person, DP, actors, caterer, editor, colorist, sales rep… are your collaborators. They have your best interest at heart. Listen to them even if, from time to time you must ignore Kipling and his legendary poem, “If.”

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46473/if—

In the film department I run, I see this a bunch: despite the best and repeated advice of their crew and teacher, filmmakers at times insist on doing it “their way” and fly the entire operation into the ground.

This is a thin line to walk and I get the degree of difficulty in successfully negotiating the “But they just don’t understand what I’m trying to do!” aspect of filmmaking.

Your crew is your first audience. There’s no way they can see inside your head to understand what you planned and hope for, but they can see the script, they can see the dailies, and they can see the rough cut. They can see your mistakes and if you absolutely won’t be swayed from the gleaming railroad tracks running oh-so-straight across the desert toward distant Paradise, there’s a chance those tracks will drop your train into a deep canyon.

Talking to someone who won’t listen is as rewarding as talking to a wall. At some point your crew may give up trying to give you advice.

When I was in film school, we were required to crew on a 480 (15 minute thesis film) before we were allowed to direct one. The semester before I directed, I was a cinematographer. Together, all the crews watched all the dailies for all the films. All the teachers were in the theater and gave notes as we watched each crew’s footage or cuts and the directors’ reasons for and defense of their choices.

One film was about a Sikh’s decision to cut his hair. The director had a scene where the man is in his bathroom and his girlfriend is waiting in the hall. He takes off his turban and his long hair comes down past his shoulders. He takes one hair between two fingers and pulls it down in front of his face. Holding nail scissors, he looks at the solitary hair and his face in the mirror and… cuts the hair. Nothing happens. Lightning does not strike him and, using the scissors, he hacks at all of his hair, chopping, chopping, chopping.

The scissors were too small to do the job right and the lame attempt to cut all that hair looked ridiculous. Everybody told the director that he had absolute gold if he went from the shot of the one hair being cut, to the hero’s tense wait for lighting to strike, to the girlfriend waiting in the hall, and to the man coming out of the bathroom with short hair. We all felt that, if he showed the character taking the scissors to the rest of his hair, it would be a disastrous mistake. He disagreed. He stuck to his artistic guns and did it precisely like he had always wanted. In the final film, the scene didn’t work. By then, of course, it was too late.

Next semester, when it was my turn to direct, I told my editor that if everyone told me I was doing something wrong, to make sure I listened.

If you’re making a film based on events that happened to them, you are constantly in danger of falling out of the life boat into heavy seas. Creating narrative based on personal history clouds the mind. It takes experience to understand how that, just because something was dramatic when it happened to you, it may not succeed dramatically when it gets to the screen. Be aware: real-life-into-drama can be quicksand.

My 480 was about a girlfriend I’d had in Paris. And a woman I’d dated in Los Angeles. And a French friend I yearned for but who had no romantic interest in me. Claude Lelouch was my favorite director and I wrapped these three stories around each other to tell my story like Lelouch.

It didn’t work. The only one who could follow the complex story structure was me… but I loved it. It was exactly what I’d written and shot. Everything I’d hoped for.

Late in the semester, when we were about to lock picture, my crew and editor said I needed to strongly consider cutting the thread about unrequited love. Nearly one third of the film.

The three part intercutting structure was vitally important. Losing the “friend in Paris” scenes would wreck what I’d been writing, planning and working on for a year. I really, really, really didn’t want to let go of my initial idea.

Luckily, I remembered the previous semester’s director and The Advice Not Taken. As wrenching as the decision was to go against my instincts, I decided that, because everyone was telling me I was wrong, I’d better listen. I told the editor to cut the character. Away she went.

Suddenly the film made perfect sense, worked nicely, and did well for me.

Decades later, I cannot remember anything about that missing story thread except the super cool modern house in the Hollywood Hills we shot in. It’s as if that character’s story never existed. I’d been wrong when everyone around me was right. My team helped me save my film.

If you’re making a film or writing something and everybody’s telling you you’re wrong, there’s a slim chance they could be wrong and holding on to your original plan might be the correct decision. Most likely though, they’re right and you’re not.

When that many people tell you you’ve made a mistake, listen very, very, very carefully.

When you’ve shown your film to an audience or given your writing to an agent, it’s out of your hands and there’s nothing you can do to bring it back. As Ken Robinson, my teacher at USC, told us, “You don’t get to stand next to the screen and explain it.”

I dedicated both my books to the man who gave me that piece of wisdom.

And now, I give it to you.

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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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Cut the Mom’s Head Off with a Sword!

Whatever you do, don’t be too protective of your idea or script. Don’t worry about bad guys in Hollywood stealing your inimitable idea and sailing to the Maldives. The odds of that actually happening are extraordinarily limited, but the odds of a producer thinking you’re paranoid and running like blazes are quite real.

So, quick advice: tell your story to anyone who’ll listen. Saying it out loud will help. A ton.

Once upon a time, I was directing a short film and, the day of the last shoot, was having breakfast with a friend. He asked me what my story was about and, not being paranoid, I told him.

As I described the climactic confrontation between the heroine and her oppressive mother, I realized, to my shock, dismay, consternation, horror and amazement! that I had neglected to include that oh-so-critical final confrontation in the script and, therefore, it was not on the shot list! and was not going to show up in the editing room! ARRGGHHHH!!!

I quickly wrote a titanic battle between daughter and mother on the steps leading to the girl’s bedroom. My image was two Arnold Schwarzenegger types with broadswords hacking their way up and down blood-soaked stairs until finally, the exhausted daughter slices off her mother’s head and is victorious.

It was a useful way to write an argument.

Which brings me to a couple of thoughts…

1.) However you define “mortal combat”, it has to happen at the climax between your hero and opponent. That face off must be as intense as your story’s tone will allow, yet still be believable.

But you have to have it!

We waited the entire movie to get here! Don’t be stupid like I was and forget that, at the end, you gotta have a slugfest.

Happily for me, both actors were superb and the mother cried when her daughter announced she was going to live her life free from her mother’s shackles. That’s not what she said, but you get the point.

2.) Telling my story out loud saved the movie. Because I was speaking, my mind operated in a different way than had I been writing. Jiggling your brain around will work miracles for your story.

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Filed under character, Rewriting, Screenwriting, Short Film

Bugaboo words! Writer beware!!

You have them. I have them. David Mamet has them. Maybe he has fewer than I do, but probably not.

You need to start a list of your own personal Bugaboo words. “How can I do that?” you say… “I don’t know what a Bugaboo word is!” Thank you for mentioning that. I hadn’t realized.

It’s a word you use a lot. A lotty lot. Like, overuse, dude. You’re not aware you do it, because it’s invisible and insidious like the Communist conspiracy to sap our precious bodily fluids. It’s a word that you overuse, like a crutch, a habit, a tic. A word that creeps into your writing naturally, repeatedly, with malice aforethought. And you don’t notice until, in rewriting, you actually look.

It’s important not to worry about Bugaboo words, or anything else, really, while you’re cranking through your first pass, which is between you and nobody. As you chug along on your first pass, don’t worry about anything! Pretend you’re Aaron Sorkin and: Get. The. Words. On. The. Page. Assume they’re genius. Mush on!

When it’s time to rewrite, pull out your list of Bugaboo words… the more you add, the more you can get rid of. I will now plug a book I did not write. Imagine that! The Synonym Finder by J. I. Rodale is the finest thesaurus I’ve ever seen. I have a hard copy. I use it constantly. It is especially helpful when replacing Bugaboo words.

You can get a copy online for as little as $1.00. Or more.

Me, I have a tendency to start sentences with “And”. See four paragraphs above. This is okay, every now and then. “Every now and then,” only. I don’t want to look like an idiot. Do I?

Here’s my list. Notice how many are on the 7 Deadly Sins of Writing list. Mistakes you make, I make too!

And, appears, become, begin, both, cheap, colossal, completely, comprehend, down, exquisite, face, feel, feeling, flinch, gigantic, hauls, huge, immense, jerk, just, look, marvel, massive, percolate, pleasant, prodigious, pulls, rapid fire, realize, really, revel, seems, sit, some, stand, start, still, tremble, turn, very, walk, yank

One of my Bugaboo words is “immense.”

I search my script for “immense.” First time I find it, I leave it alone. But, after that, I insert other words in its place. Opening my trusty Synonym Finder, I check out “immense.” It gets to be a game. How can I clear out as many “immenses” as possible and the writing still feel like I wrote it?

Immense, adj.

1. vast, extensive, broad, wide, expansive, Archaic. vastly, Archaic. immane; voluminous, bulky, capacious, massive; huge, enormous, large, big, prodigious; great, towering, staggering, great big, stupendous, tremendous, Sl. humongous, Sl. hulking; titanic, cyclopean, Atlantean, Brobdingnagian; colossal, mammoth, gigantic, monstrous, monumental, jumbo; elephantine, hippopotamic, leviathan, behemoth, dinosaurian, metatherian.

2. immeasurable, boundless, illimitable, unlimited, uncircumscribed, unbounded, limitless, shoreless; endless, interminable, infinite, inexhaustible, never-ending; incalculable, measureless, fathomless, unfathomable, undeterminable, indeterminate.

Stephen King sniffs at anyone who uses a thesaurus. He gets to be Stephen King. I don’t. In Mr. Jensen’s “Primal Forces of Nature” speech in NETWORK, Paddy Chayefsky used “immane”. I’m not Chayefsky either. I need all the help I can get. Then again, he may have had Rodale’s book.

If I’m looking for sentences that start with “And,” I click Match Case so I won’t find every “and”, only those at the beginning of a sentence. I search for “And with a space after it” which steers me clear of words like Anderson.

Repeated words… Readers notice this stuff. Other writers notice. Overuse of words is a sign of weak writing, which is fine, but also a sign of pathetic rewriting. Not a resume builder.

Start your Bugaboo list today. Why wait? Like much of rewriting, the Bugaboo search & replace is mechanical. It moves you forward but induces no angst. Unless you mislaid your trusty copy of Rodale’s Synonym Finder. Then, angst galore!

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Physical Writing. Get it right.

Just delivered notes on a client’s script and want to share…

My last three clients totally had their ducks in a row when it came to physical writing. By that I mean the words on the page were succinct, perfectly chosen, and, essentially, invisible.

I was thrilled Your Screenplay Sucks! was named Number One Best Screenwriting Book to Read in 2020 by Script Reader Pro. [see link above!] One thing they mentioned was that I spent time talking about sentences.

Warm my black heart!

I don’t know if screenwriting is the most difficult form of writing. For sure it’s bloody hard. I’ve never tried poetry, but I imagine it’s like cracking rocks on a chain gang. Hell, all writing is tough.

At the beginning of your writing life, and every step of the way until the pen slips from your warm, dead hand, you’re asking your reader to read to the next page. And the next page and all the way to the end. Your only job, continually, page after page after page after page after page, is to never disappoint your esteemed and precious reader. You must make that happen on every single page,otherwise you will have spent all that time gestating a child who dies before ever going through the birth canal.

Use every tool on your workbench to get them to turn the page! All that hooha about plot and story and character and rising action and dénouement matters. To succeed, you better have your game on in all those departments. But, if your prose is mediocre, you don’t have wisp of a prayer.

If your sentences aren’t at “Hollywood level,” you will not get an agent. You will not sell your script. You will not get laid by a super hot actor. If you learn something, the experience will not have been a waste of time. But if you don’t learn and do fail to adjust, all that travail will have been for naught.

The foundation of good writing is good writing. That means: sentences.

Your Screenplay Sucks! is divided into three acts. Act Two, Physical Writing, is the most boring material in the entire book, and because fixing prose is a pain in the ass, I bet people skip it. Before they send their script, I tell every client to massage the prose. I email them examples of what to do. [above, click Handouts, click Physical Writing handout] They often say, “Oh no, don’t worry. I’m ready.” Meaning, “My prose is in tiptop shape.” After they see the bright red line notes on their first 20 pages, which often look like I slit a hog’s throat on ’em, I get chagrined emails saying, “I had no idea…”

Study the middle of my book. Soak up The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. Read websites that talk about this stuff. If you find good ones, send them and I’ll put them here to help other writers.

I say this all the time: I only have so much time to deal with your script. I am hardwired to work on physical writing first. If you make me waste time cleaning up your prose, I will have less time to help you with story, structure, and character, which is what I am really good at.

I also say this all the time: “When they pick up your script, after they check the page count, first thing they’re going to do is read page one. They will have no clue if you understand structure or character or storytelling. But, they will know if you can write a clear, clean, concise sentence.”

These people read screenplays all day long. If your physical writing is not top-flight, they’ll decide you don’t care about professional-level attention to detail. If they stop reading, the only person you’ll have made happy is the dude who sells you toner.

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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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Action / Reaction… and the lack thereof.

Good thing I’m a teacher. Good thing I’m a script consultant. Good thing my clients make mistakes on which I can capitalize and earn money based on what I learn!

Here’s my most recent discovery. I make this mistake too. That’s one of the wonderful things about teaching… you automatically become a better writer. Good news! While your students drive you to the looney bin, at the same time, you can make money.

So, Action / Reaction. What the heck is that?

Well, dumbass, for one thing, it’s Newton’s Third Law of Motion. “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” “Yeah, so?” you say. “How does this apply to writing? Dude’s been dead, for like three hundred years. Were movies even invented then? Duuh.”

In story, something happens. That’s the Action. It causes something else to happen, the Reaction. What’s bad is if you have an Action with no Reaction. This is something to be wary of in your work.

Writers often have Actions in their stories without Reactions. Forget equal and opposite! What works in physics doesn’t always work in drama. In fiction, sometimes an Action has an opposite Reaction that is way, WAY unequal to the Action. Like in BREAKING BAD, when Walter White is about to have surgery and is under pre-anesthesia… kinda stoned, actually, and his wife asks him a simple little question… “Did you pack your cell phone?” He says, “Which one?” A tiny little answer. A tiny little Action. But hoo boy, does it have a Reaction! A giant one. The size of the Bikini atomic bomb test, if not Krakatoa. After all, that tiny Action, “Which one?” led to the cataclysmic Season Two finale.

But, because it was good writing, the Action had a Reaction. It doesn’t always happen in early drafts.

If you introduce a character on page 1 and she’s got a half finished tattoo across her back… well, that’s an Action. The reader takes note and waits for a Reaction. If you don’t have one, the reader / gate keeper / intern / agent / producer / studio head (if your Actions have no Reactions, forget that one) will make a little black mark by your name…

If you have a character who phones his elderly mother and gets no answer… that’s an Action. Any normal human being is going to go over there to check on her, or call a neighbor, or the cops or something. If the character does nothing, it’s going to be a bump for the reader. An Action with no Reaction.

If a character says, “Five years ago, I tried to kill myself.” that’s an Action. The reader is straining at the leash, asking, “Why did she try to kill herself?” If you don’t give that information, you deny the reader the promised Reaction.

The opposite is also true. You can make the mistake of having a Reaction with no Action to make it happen. If, late in a story, you have a character whose father moves into a nursing home, without the requisite argument, anger, conversations, agony, etc. to force the father out of his house… you have a Reaction with no Action that would force it to happen. An old guy doesn’t just move into a nursing home without a lot of blood on the walls. Don’t have a Reaction without an Action to force it into being. Remember Bikini?

The guys who were at the Able and Baker Atomic bomb tests were just over the horizon from the explosions. That’s an Action. A lot of them got cancer. At twice the normal rate. That’s a Reaction.

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Filed under Bad Writing, Details, Good Writing, Rewriting, Screenwriting