Tag Archives: Scenes

Bury That Set Up!

I’m enjoying Carry On, Jeeves, a collection of Bertie Wooster short stories by P.G. Wodehouse. “Without The Option” is one of the best. At the end, when Jeeves explains the sublime way he vanquished the opponent, his victory depends on a gigantic coincidence.

To bring you up to speed, Bertie tries to help his friend Oliver (beholden to his Aunt Vera for 100% of his financial support) out of a romantic jam by suggesting he steal a policeman’s hat. A reasonable solution to most problems! Naturally, Oliver is thrown into jail for thirty days. If hair-trigger Aunt Vera finds out, she’ll cut him off forever. Disastrously high stakes! Bertie’s plan goes pear shaped and, at the worst possible time for it to happen, the worst possible thing happens — he finds himself in the same room with the dreaded Aunt Vera. There’s nothing to do but confess the truth…

Keep in mind that she’s a conservative, wealthy, frightening, ancient battleaxe and Bertie is terrified of the scorched-earth destruction she’ll wreak on his chum.

And now, the climax!

How does Jeeves save Bertie’s bacon? A cousin who’s a copper.

“There’s no way,” I mused, “this providential piece of good-luck-lightning could accidentally strike in a story written by someone as careful as Mr. Wodehouse.” I went back, looked, and there it was: an artfully placed, oh-so-useful set up, neatly tucked where we wouldn’t notice it, under a stack of socks.

Enjoy Wodehouse’s subtle set up! Know that Bertie has a crushing hangover…

As far as Jeeves’ eventual ability to solve Bertie’s problem, the fact that Jeeves has a cousin in the town where the opponent lives is the story’s most important piece of information. That set up is buried under the business of Bertie’s hangover pushing him to tell Jeeves not to interrupt. Jeeves interrupts anyway and Bertie chastises him. The instant the “cousin set up” appears, it is obscured by a scolding. The set up is, like a cat sleeping in a dark doorway for you to trip over at 2:00 a.m…. present, but invisible.

You can’t just willy nilly lob a cousin in at the finale and that cousin be the machinery that saves Bertie from Aunt Vera’s Doom. Deus ex machina works when you’re in fifth grade, but not in the summer following fifth grade or ever after.

Don’t give your character a magic sword at the moment they need it. Tuck it away it much, much earlier, hidden from view, in their underwear drawer.

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Isolate Character Scenes

Try anything! Guess what?! It may help. A useful tool is isolating character relationships.

“Why isolate character relationships and what the hey is it, anyway?” you ask.

“Happy I dropped by.” I say.

Look at only the scenes with Oswego and Rosalie. Constance will be in some of those scenes, too. Without the clutter of everybody else’s stories and plot threads screeching like a million seagulls, study just the Oswego and Rosalie relationship. When you only have one relationship to consider, you can calmly reflect on its imperfections.

Do it like this…

Save the draft as Oswego & Rosalie Sept 11 22 and cut every scene they’re not in, inserting ##### between their scenes so you know when one ends and one begins. Make sure you keep slug lines and scene numbers. Next to ####, write the number of pages between the last scene and this one.

I print everything, but it’s not mandated by federal law. Check state and local statutes to see if you are required to print to rewrite.

With the entire relationship spread across a few pages, problems nearly impossible to see while staring at the pile-of-horror that is your entire screenplay will stick out like a s’more in campfire coals, such as the mournful woe that, from pages 32 – 56, Oswego is nowhere to be found! How could he have vanished for 24 pages?! No way it could have been, egads, pilot error. Could it?

Studying characters’ scenes makes their relationship crystal clear. What’s missing leaps out. Are the progressions as smooth as silk? Do Oswego and Rosalie make a giant leap in their relationship that calls for three added scenes halfway through? You can see what’s moving too fast and what’s dragging. If you’ve written (more or less) the same story point three times, pick the best one and cut two.

The more you look, the more you’ll see. Soon you’ll wonder how you wrote without isolating characters’ scene.

When you’ve scribbled all over the “Oswego / Rosalie” pages, print Oswego and Constance’s scenes for the same repair lookyloo. Then print Rosalie and Constance’s! You’ll be amazed what you discover. By solving small, simple-to-find puzzles in your story, the entire tale will be strengthened… without the paralyzing depression of “I have to fix this GIGANTIC 110 page snarl of mess?! Shonda Rhimes couldn’t solve these problems!!”

Isolating character scenes is simple and delightfully effective.

Remember, try anything. What if it helps?

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Filed under Editing, Rewriting, Scenes, Screenwriting, Uncategorized, Writing Process

The Lego Sandwich: Everything Is Specific

When, for your dining enjoyment, a child hands you a sandwich made of Legos, it’s a superb idea to ask her what every single Lego block is. You’d better remember which is the patty, the Volcano Sauce, the Sea Horseradish, the multiple mustards, and the Jellyfish Jelly. Woe unto you if you assume any one of those Legos isn’t important. Or is not there for a specific and incredibly useful reason. Each Lego in that foot tall sandwich has a function or it absolutely would not be there.

The same is true for a small child’s drawing. What looks like aimlessly scribbled scrawls of pencil lines and infinitesimal dots… to you… has essential and well-thought-out meaning for the artist. Nothing is there without an objective. Their creator can damn well tell you the reason for every hen scratch. Just ’cause it looks like gobbledygook gooey goo to you doesn’t mean it is. All has meaning. Each line adds to the work’s overall goal.

With writing, the opposite is true. Material often clouds the page solely because the writer can type fast.

If we wrote with quill pens we repeatedly dipped in ink, this pernicious word-vomitorium would be less of a thing. As the quill has gone the way of the Dodo, we tend to make our readers suffer.

When constructing a sentence, writers are WAY less diligent than children making art. Grownups are sloppy. When someone writes with next to no deliberation, sentences can have heaps of greasy fat, settling hard on the tum-tum unwanted and unappreciated. A paragraph can contain wasted words, useless phrases, or (gasp!) entire sentences that have no cause for existence.

If you don’t have one caroming around the house, either rent a kid to proofread your work and tear out every single word you don’t need… like getting rid of extra lettuce in a Lego sandwich… OR make the perhaps unfamiliar effort to proofread and rewrite exactingly all by yourself.

When it’s over, be certain nothing is on your page without a raison d’être. Just ’cause it’s there doesn’t mean you gotta keep it, unlike the six Lego mustards.

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The Hunter Thompson Writing Method

Learn about writing from famous people!

Deep in this website is The Keith Richards Writing Method (dictate while falling asleep), an amazingly useful tool. It may have brought him an entire career, because, in 1965, during his sleepy activity he wrote “Satisfaction,” the Rolling Stones first #1 in the U.S., and without Richards’ in-his-sleep opening riff, would the Stones be where they are today?

You never know.

My latest famous person writing method is named for Hunter S. Thompson. Hard to believe that one of the great writers of my generation was at one point a beginner.

Just like all of us.

He asked himself, “How can I learn to write well? What writers do I admire?” He answered his question, “F. Scott Fitzgerald! He’s good! Hey, so’s Ernest Hemingway!” Two gifted writers with wildly different writing styles.

Because Hunter S. Thompson was Hunter S. Thompson and not us, after choosing Fitzgerald and Hemingway to admire, he did not do what we’d do. He didn’t just read The Great Gatsby and A Farewell To Arms, and think, “What wonderful prose. These guys certainly can write a ripping great sentence, can’t they? What talented writers! I’ll read more…”

He didn’t do that.

Instead of simply reading The Great Gatsby and A Farewell To Arms and trying to absorb how Fitzgerald and Hemingway wrote a sentence, a page, a scene, novel… Thompson sat at his typewriter with an open copy of The Great Gatsby and A Farewell To Arms and typed ’em up! Both books. Every word. He did it at work, so to his boss, he sounded like the world’s most dedicated employee.

When he finished, he knew down in his bones exactly how his favorite writers wrote.

Recently, I was critiquing students’ homework… which entails a lot of red ink on their pages, telling how to rewrite them… not necessarily for story, but mostly for flow, clarity, and overall tightness of the prose. Like a bolt from the sky, I realized, that if they only read my red ink notes, they wouldn’t learn as much as they could. To actually learn from my notes, they must employ the Hunter Thompson Writing Method.

They needed to retype their homework and load in the changes. Keep in mind, what I’m talking about is not character and story but sentences: basic writing machinery, rhythm and style, the “be clear” “less is more” rulebook.

Not being stupid, I knew that “get better at writing” is rarely sufficient incentive so I told them, “If you do this, I’ll raise your grade.” That worked! Afterward, they told me Hunter Thompson Writing Method gave their prose an amazing boost.

The second (and way more fun) iteration of the Hunter Thompson Writing Method involves, exactly as Thompson did, learning from someone you admire. Type up six scenes written by Greta Gerwig. Or a complete play by Suzan Lori-Parks. Work by Rebecca Gilman, Aaron Sorkin, William Goldman, Diablo Cody. Who’s killer good? To learn how they do it, type up chunks by your favorite comedians – old and new. You wanna be a composer? Learn orchestration by hand copying The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky. “How did he do that?” Like this!

Do it enough, it’ll stick.

Long ago, my children’s second grade teacher, Robin Smith, their favorite teacher of all time, taught every child in her classes how to knit. Every year. It was an unforgettable sight to see six little boys at recess, sitting in a row under the basketball goal, knitting. For my second son, knitting latched on like phosphorous fire. He adored it and knitted all the time. I nearly went bankrupt buying yarn. He got exceedingly good at it. He could knit with his hands behind his back.

Time moved on. He went to high school. When he was 16, he decided that for Halloween he wanted to be Waldo of Where’s Waldo fame. He couldn’t find a Waldo hat anywhere and had forgotten how to knit, so he called Robin Smith. Delighted to hear from him, she told him what size needles and how much yarn to buy and to come to her house Sunday afternoon.

She helped him get set up, showed him what to do, and within five minutes, he was knitting equally as fluently as when he was in second grade.

Writing this has brought tears to my eyes because Robin is no longer with us, except as she flows through the souls of my children, and one of these days, through their children too.

When I called her later, to first of all thank her for helping my child, but also to express my amazement at, after a decade, how quickly he picked up knitting. I could hear the smile in her voice when she said, “Once it’s in the muscle memory, it never goes away.”

Which is where the Hunter Thompson Writing Method comes in handy.

If you type someone else’s words, over and over and over again, gradually the knowledge will enter your DNA. If, instead of just reading it, you retype the homework that has been restructured and trimmed by your teacher, that skill too will slowly seep into your muscle memory.

You’ll be surprised what you’ll learn.

The only way to really understand how someone else writes sentences, or writes dialogue, or anything else, is to type it up. It’s a pain in the ass, but so is writing.

If you give Hunter Thompson Writing Method a try, please let me know what effect it had. I’m excited by this idea and hope someone out there will let me know how it worked for them.

Happy typing.

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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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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

It’s Too Early to Know What Your Story is About!

But don’t worry about it.

While it’s a fine idea to tape your “premise” to your computer and write with that idea in mind, don’t be welded to it. Just because you think you know what your story is about doesn’t mean you know what your story is about.

Everything you hear about writing being “a journey” is 1,000% true.

In my Advanced Screenwriting class, students write a first pass of a complete screenplay, get notes, and do a rewrite. It’s critically important they write an entire script, look back, and see the journey from that first 15 page homework… to FADE OUT. Where they planned on ending is often not where they actually wind up.

Then my students do their final draft. n.b. In real life, where you live, getting from first draft to last draft may take a year and fifteen passes.

When you’ve got that (incredibly satisfying!) stack of pages in front of you for the first time, you’re ready to figure out what story you’ve really been telling. But, you had to write the whole damn thing to discover what you wanted to write about in the first place.

Sometimes you know from the beginning. Count yourself lucky. Most of us have to slog through the wasteland trying and discarding options. That first pass is, by definition, a mess, and getting (at last!) to the final draft fixes that mess.

This happened when I wrote my children’s book, Mrs. Ravenbach’s Way. During the outlining phase and writing the first pass phase, I thought I was writing about a little boy’s battle with his awful teacher. That was part of it. But not what the story was really “about.” When I got to the end of the first pass and looked back, I discovered that all along, I’d been writing about a little boy who was scared to say what was on his mind, a hero afraid to use his voice.

Once I figured that out, the rewriting process became clear. Now that I knew what I was doing, which I had only figured out by writing the first pass, every step in the story flowed from that controlling idea. Every scene was, in some way, pushing toward that simple premise.

Did I feel stupid because I hadn’t figured this out earlier? I did not. I was overjoyed I’d learned what my story was about, in only one draft!

Because there’s a solid chance you’re young enough not to have seen the M. Night Shyamalan film THE SIXTH SENSE, I won’t give away the premise. Why be a jerk? But, know this: Shyamalan did not know what his story was about until he had written five drafts. Only then did the big lightbulb go off. After five drafts, he thought, “so, this is what I’m writing about!!” Once he solved that thorny problem, it took him one more draft to get to the story you can watch today.

You will be awestruck when you consider that he had no absolutely idea what he was really doing until after he’d written five drafts.

If you do watch THE SIXTH SENSE, do not look at anything about it beforehand. Not even the poster. Just pay the money, enjoy the movie, and think, “obviously this Shyamalan guy knew that when he started. That’s his whole movie! How could he not have known?!”

Because writing is a journey, but not like a normal journey where you buy a ticket, get on a train, and get off at your destination. Writing is a journey, blindfolded. You start down the path not knowing where you’re going.

So, if you don’t know what you’re writing about, don’t sweat. You’ll figure it out. Once you get comfortable with that scary unknown unknown, you’ll be fine. It’s okay to not know where you’re going. Don’t worry so much. You’ll get there.

All will be well.

Trust me on this.

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

Unity of Place

Simple to fix. Difficult to discover. Especially if you’re not looking for it!

Elsewhere on this earth, like my series of packed house lectures on storytelling at Lincoln Center, (not really, but my, doesn’t it look just dandy in print?) I’ve mentioned the “M-80 in the mailbox” drama theory. When I was a kid, an M-80 was the biggest firecracker we could get. Supposedly, a quarter of a stick of dynamite. I doubt it. But we certainly bought that legend when I was 12.

It was a ton of fun to blow an M-80 up in the middle of your driveway. But, if you stuck it inside an unsuspecting neighbor’s mailbox and then blew it up, my oh my, now you’re talking some entertainment! As well as a Federal crime. But I digress…

The tighter the confinement, the more effective the explosion. This has a lot to do with writing, especially how long your story lasts. But I digress…

The same is true about “place.” Keep your story planted in the same place and it will be wrapped tighter, more confined, and any explosions will be felt the more strongly by your characters and readers.

Does your whole story take place in Tuscaloosa except for one wild trip to Paris? If your redneck character needs a sumptuous meal, why drag her to Paris if she can just as effectively learn her lesson in Birmingham? Well, me, I’d much rather eat dinner in Paris than Birmingham, but I’m not living and struggling in a plot centered in Tuscaloosa paper mill.

I didn’t invent this. This “unity of place” wisdom comes from our buddy Aristotle. Dude knew what he was about. Rooting your story in the place the story “needs” to be often strengthens your narrative. If an event takes place far from where 95% of the story happens, take a deep, hard look at that action and see if it can be moved to the character’s backyard, or neighborhood, or, at least town.

THE BREAKFAST CLUB is a superb example. The whole movie takes place in a high school. For one thing, it’s a lot less expensive to shoot. More important, the story is about people in high school and it stays at the high school.

The whole time.

Often, when you move your story away from its core location, it weakens your tale. A lot like lighting an M-80, tossing it in a mailbox, and… forgetting to shut the door.

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Filed under Details, Good Writing, Rewriting, Screenwriting, Uncategorized, Writing Process

What I Learned From Seeing FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF in a Crowded Theater!

It’s Ferris and Cameron’s 30th Anniversary! I don’t know if it’s playing in your town. Perhaps it is. Hope so!

At my school, we regularly screen movies so students can get a chance to see them on a big screen. The first one we showed was 2001: A Space Odyssey. Very few students had ever seen it. On a big screen, it is breathtaking. One student told me the next day, “After it was over, I couldn’t talk for 45 minutes.”

We don’t just show big spectaculars. Last semester, we showed Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, which all of them had seen, repeatedly. Not only had none of them seen it on a big screen, none had seen it in a crowded theater.

Watching a comedy with 250 people is a completely different experience than watching it at home with five people, or on your smartphone, or on an airplane with headphones, in a cocoon of loneliness. Movies, one must remind oneself, were created to be witnessed and enjoyed with other people. Filmgoing is not supposed to be a solitary art, yet, we forget this.

Watching Ferris Bueller with 250 other people taught me something important: physical humor is a lot funnier than witty dialogue.

I noticed this fairly quickly. When 250 people are laughing, things that are not funny when you’re alone become hilarious. The tone of the room is different. Lots of people laughing get you laughing. Moments that get glossed over when you watch alone, are actually funny. How do you know it’s funny? Because people laugh.

A funny moment in Ferris Bueller was much funnier when done physically. Once I noticed this phenomenon, I began to pay attention. The laughs that came from physical comedy were much deeper, more emotional, more enjoyable, and lasted longer than the laughs that came from dialogue.

For the first time, I deeply understood why filmmakers in the 1920s and 30s lamented the arrival of sound. It’s easier to think up funny dialogue that it is to think up a funny moments for physical action. But, it’s worth it. But after my Ferris Bueller screening, I understood and I hope you do too, that physical funny is a much better and more satisfying laugh than word funny.

Keep this in mind as you write your script.

I suggest watching shorts by Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd. There is a lot to learn from the guys who did it at the beginning, before they could write witty dialogue.

In honor of Ferris’ 30th Anniversary… “Oh Yeah,” by Yello.


Oh Yeah by Mello

And, one of the finest scenes in all of movies… sorry for the synch problem.


1961 Ferrari GT California

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Work on the big stuff first.

Don’t waste time on sentences if you haven’t fixed your paragraphs. Don’t waste time on the paragraph if you haven’t fixed the page. Worry about big picture first, then the details.

If you spend a monumental amount of time tweaking sentences and then cut the whole scene, you will feel like an idiot.

This is true in editing as well as writing. Get the story structure right, then start worrying about what’s happening in the scenes.

What you don’t want to do, ever, ever, ever, ever, is spend one second on something you’re going to throw away later.

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