Tag Archives: Scenes

Beware your tics!

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

One of mine is “And”.

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

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

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

And they’re sure not there now.


Filed under Bad Writing, Details, Rewriting, Scenes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Filed under Good Writing, Rewriting, Screenwriting, Uncategorized

What’s up?! My talk on Beating Writers Block…

Been out of the country. Took students to London and Paris to make films. They made ’em. We came back. Didn’t lose a one!

On the 20th of June, I’m giving a conference call talk on Beating Writers Block. It’s at 10:25 a.m. Pacific time. And, it’s free. Sign up now…


Working on a screenplay, which is different, I must say, than working on student homework. I can maybe sell the screenplay. Never found much of a market for used student homework, sad to say.
Working on the sequel to my children’s book. Or my novel for grownups. We’ll find out what it is when the book actually comes out in March. The first book is about the hero’s battle with his 5th grade homeroom teacher. The sequel is about his battle with his baseball coach.
Researching baseball, about which I know next to nothing. A long uphill event, that’s for sure.

Reading Cheryl Klein’s superb book on writing: Second Sight. It’s about children’s books, but boy oh boy does she understand story. You might find it helpful in your writing.

Dying to see MAD MAX. Have you seen it? What did you think?
I adored THE WOMAN IN GOLD. Best film I’ve seen in a long, long time.

And, finally, have discovered wonderful author of witty English books: Barbara Pym. What a delight!

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Filed under Good Writing, Screenwriting, Writing Process

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?


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

The Judge… watch me judge…

You want my advice? I assume.

Do not write a movie that makes the reader / viewer feel bad at the end. Simple enough. I suffered through THE JUDGE last night. Lord, what on earth made someone greenlight that?

Odd, actually, to be watching a screener after the movie has already come and gone through the theaters like crap through a goose.

It’s no fun and ends on a downer note. Yuk. I should have stopped watching, but didn’t… Maybe because it was a holiday and I felt flush with time.

The story is excellent. Well, the story idea is. Robert Downey, jr. is a hot shot lawyer and Robert Duvall, his grumpy judge father, hits someone with a car and goes on trial. He’s the world’s worst client and it’s up to Downey to save his old man. They got along horribly for their whole lives, and now they’re forced together.

Over and over and over and over they have arguments, horrible arguments. Then they have wonderful, heartwarming moments where they bond. Some of those moments are truly lovely. Well worth the price (well, for me, free) of admission. But Duvall keeps acting like a jerk. Downey keeps acting like a jerk. And it’s no fun at all to participate in and goes on and on past the point of numbness. Seems a huge chunk of that back and forth could have been cut.

Finally, Duvall decides that he must have done it and sort of confesses in the courtroom, destroying all the work his son did to save him. Downer. And he goes to jail. Downer. And once he gets out of jail and everything is hunky dory, Duvall dies. Another downer. They try to pick it up at the end and make you feel good because Downey ends up with a nice girlfriend, but it’s too damn late. Too much down, down, down, down, down, down.

And then it’s over. Ugh.

When you come up with an idea, try to make the reader feel at least slightly jolly at the end, or you’re done. It’s SO difficult to get a movie made these days, you’re shooting yourself in the foot or, more likely, the head, if you make the reader feel bad. Give them some hope. Make them feel good. Make them feel like it was worth their time — either in the theater or at their desk.

It takes eons to write a movie, so don’t base it on an idea that’s going to make the reader wish they hadn’t read it…


Filed under Good Writing, Screenwriting, Uncategorized

Ask A Friend to Read it to You

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

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

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

Write it down.

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

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

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


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

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

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

Now, do it with another friend and another friend.

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

And now rewrite!

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Filed under Good Writing, Rewriting, Scenes, Screenwriting

Emphasize the Drama

I notice I’ve written this on my students’ short film scripts a lot this week. Blame them for my radio silence, as they suck up a ton of time. Anyway.

One thing several of them seem to do (besides ignoring my wise counsel a lot of the time) is skate past the most interesting, critical moment in the story.

I’ve been working with them all semester to get their stories right, format right, cutting boring stuff, etc. Now, their scripts are in good shape and I find myself pushing them to find the real meaning in their script. “How can you now put something of yourself into this story?” “How can you make it be about something, something that matters?” “How can you make it more emotional?”

I suggest they, and you, go to the points in the story where important things happen (like the end) and see what you can do to wedge in more intensity. More emotion. More conflict.

Look at your climactic scene and see where a teacher would write MORE in red pen.

Is there more dialogue to be added between the hero and opponent? Something that relates to the core idea of your story?

What from your own life and experience can you work into those characters?

Are you fully exploring the relationships between the characters? This will lead to an enormous amount of depth. Just because you’ve done nine drafts doesn’t mean you can’t figure out more about your characters and how they relate to each other and the core idea of your story. Write their names down on a piece of paper. Good guys on one side. Bad guys on the other. Draw arrows from every character to every other character. See if there are connections to be made that you have, up to now, ignored. Who might have interaction with someone you didn’t expect, and can that help your story?

Is it as INTENSE as possible?

How can you make the scene WORSE for the character? What can you do to amp up the agony for everyone in the scene? What can you do to amp up the joy?

Rewriting is all about questions.
What questions do you ask the actors who are playing the characters?
What questions might the reader ask you?
What things might be better left unsaid? Turn a line of dialogue into a look. Actors love it when you cut their dialogue as it gives them something to do with their faces.


Make sure, when you are looking at an important scene, that you have squeezed each moment and each character dry before you feel it’s time to move on.


Filed under character, Good Writing, Rewriting, Screenwriting

UNWILLING Suspension of Disbelief

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

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

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

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

They were asking us to pretend.

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Bad Writing, Criticism, Details, Rewriting, Uncategorized, Writing Process

Rewriting… What happened before? What happens after?

Oh my, this rewriting is a dangerous, dangerous thing.
Not like defusing an unexploded bomb or anything, but still…

When you have a complete story / screenplay / outline, etc., and you’re rewriting it, injecting new scenes here or there requires a LOT of thought.

I’ve got a script. It’s written all the way down to FADE OUT. And I’m still working on it. Because it’s not right yet. When it’s right, I’ll stop. Please God, let that blessed moment happen…

Anyway, I am adding a series of five new scenes that will change one crucial aspect of the script. I’ve worked out what happens in each scene. I did that first with a pencil and paper. Scene 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5. Made those five scenes flow correctly, so that the “story” in the new scenes works. That took a while. Then I had to figure out where each scene will go in the script. Where do they fit best? Did that with a one line outline and a pencil.

So, now I’ve got a new one line outline, with the new scenes stuck in.

And I have to go back to the reality of the story and figure out if the scenes actually work.

One thing to consider is “What happened before the scene? What happens after it?” A new scene has to be aware of how it fits in the whole story. And it is VERY easy to not realize what came before that affects the scene and what that scene affects that comes after.

What you don’t want is a logic problem. You don’t want the new scene to say, “Let’s go over to Bob’s house for dinner.” and after you send the script to an agent, for the agent to say, “Hey, moron, Bob was blown up in a mineshaft accident twenty pages ago!”

Be very aware of what happened earlier that will affect the new scene.
Be very aware of the trickle down effect your fabulous new scene will have on what comes after it.

This whole screenwriting thing is a giant puzzle, and it has lots and lots of moving parts to solve.

Good luck!

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Filed under Rewriting, Scenes, Screenwriting, Uncategorized

Logic is king, queen, and pope rolled into one.

You better pay attention to it.

Just because you wrote it, doesn’t mean it makes sense. Just because you see a scene flowing effortlessly by on the page, doesn’t mean the reader won’t shriek out, “What the hell?!” and throw your script across the room.

When you say something in a scene, like a fact, then that fact, now established, flows forward through the story, always true until you make a statement that changes it. Whether you remember it was there or not.

I just repaired a logic flaw in the script I am working on.

Scene 31.
Our heros talk about some guys they want to hire. The guys are “In from St. Louis.” is the dialogue.

Scene 32.
Airport. The three guys from St. Louis get off a plane.


How can they get off a plane in Scene 32 when, in the previous scene, they are already in town?!

And, this mistake has been in the script for draft after draft after draft. No one noticed until just now.

Don’t do what I did.
Be smarter.

But at least I found it!


Filed under Bad Writing, Details, Rewriting, Scenes, Screenwriting, Uncategorized