Tag Archives: writing

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

CHINATOWN #1

When I lived in Los Angeles, my father went duck hunting in Louisiana. At the end of his trip, he FedExed me a cooler with eight ducks in it. Those ducks are why I have CHINATOWN #1.

I was in grad school at USC, taking a class in production design. Richard Sylbert, probably the best living production designer, gave, as I recall, three lectures. The first thing he said, and I remember distinctly, was, “what I do, and how I think, are monumentally different from everyone else.” That got my attention.

I learned a lot from his lectures. The trickle down through my career from just those three classroom visits has been profound. Sadly, those notes have been lost to the mists of time. In one of his lectures, he mentioned that the best way to prepare duck is to pour Château Margaux into a syringe and inject it into the meat before you cook it. That got my attention too.

When Daddy sent me the ducks, I cooked four of them and had a nice dinner with friends. They were wild ducks, not pen-raised. The taste is distinctive and some people don’t like it. Wild ducks are basically impossible to get and people who love the taste, prize them as a rarity.

As I had no one to give the leftover ducks to, I called Mr. Sylbert and explained the situation. “You’re the only person in the city of Los Angeles I think might want these ducks. Would you?”

“I’m at home. Bring them right over.”

Giving someone something they desperately want and asking nothing in return is a superb way to make someone’s acquaintance. At some point, he gave me the early draft of CHINATOWN. We were buddies until he died.

For your learning pleasure, here are the old script and the rewritten version. Comparing the two, and comparing them to the final film, is one hell of a class in rewriting.

CHINATOWN #1

CHINATOWN

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Filed under Good Writing, Rewriting, Screenwriting

Shuffling Papers

Elsewhere I have suggested that too much research is dangerous. I still agree with myself on that score. Too much knowledge can clog your story pipes and slow the flow of pages to a trickle. Too much research can kill your story deader than Generalísimo Francisco Franco.

But.

You have to know enough for the reader to not think you’re stupid. Or lazy. Or worse, someone who doesn’t care. This writing business, especially at the professional end thereof, is filled with people who care. About writing. Not a paycheck or glory, but writing. They care a lot. A lotty lot. And what they don’t care about is people who don’t care.

You have to give a shit enough about what you’re writing to get the details correct. That involves what people do for living. And how they do it. Lots of people write scenes in offices. I’ve got nothing against that.

But.

I cannot tell you how many times I read a scene that takes place in someone’s office, where the writer who doesn’t care, in order to give you the idea that the person in the office is doing authentic work-related stuff says something to the effect of: “At her desk, Sally shuffles papers.”

That shouts to the rooftops that you have no idea what Sally does for a living. You’re just filling the pages with words and hoping nobody notices you don’t give a two penny damn about attention to detail. The great thing about writing is that if you don’t care, you can always do another draft. They only find out you don’t care if you let them. It’s only finished when you turn it in.

Know what your character does for a living! Know the language of that job! Know the details of that job! Hopefully enough detail so the reader will think you do that job for a living. At least enough detail to make the reader think you care about doing quality work.

They have a tendency not to buy writing from people who don’t care. So, don’t be one of those people!

If you find yourself writing “shuffling papers” or something of that ilk, put an asterisk in front of it so you can come back later, while searching for *’s, and repair the damage you are about to inflict on your scene and your reputation…

All before you send out work to be read by people who care.

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

How Difficult is it to Write at the Level Where Your Work Will Sell?

Extraordinarily difficult.

Here’s a musical illustration that, every time I hear it, scares me to death.

“Because the Night” was written by Bruce Springsteen & Patti Smith in 1977. Reached 13 on the Billboard Hot 100. Springsteen wrote a draft, but, after struggling for four months, stopped working on it. His producer, Jimmy Iovine, suggest giving the song to Patti Smith. Iovine took her Springsteen’s recording and she finished the song. It became her biggest hit.

In 1993, “Because the Night” was covered by 10,000 Maniacs, with vocals by Natalie Merchant. It reached 11 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Do not watch the 10,000 Maniacs video. Just listen. It’s a superb recording. She can really sing. Their version has got a lot of strength and emotion.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UYZv-o01Qis

The single most terrifying thing about making art is that, if your screen, novel, poetry, or song writing is only at that level of achievement, you have to keep working on it. “Really good” is not enough. “A lot of emotion” is not going to get you a check. You have to blow the reader out the back of the theater. They have to pick themselves up off the floor in awe of whatever it was your work just did to them.

What 10,000 Maniacs did was very good, but it’s a pale thing next to the massive passion and power Patti Smith brings — with fewer instruments. To get you where you want to be, your creative work has to be at the Patti Smith level.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c_BcivBprM0

This creative stuff is in no way easy.

On YouTube, the 10,000 Maniacs version has 499,000 views.

The Patti Smith recording has 9.6 million.

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

Rewriting… Trouble So Hard & Natural Blues

This is your first draft…

Vera Hall

“Trouble So Hard”

written by Vera Hall & Alan Lomax

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r9SENzRLk_M

Moby sampled “Trouble So Hard” but had difficulties with the mix and almost cut the song from the album. In the end, Giant Leap assisted, as did Monster.

Draft after draft after draft after draft after draft after draft after draft after draft after draft after draft after draft after draft after draft after draft after draft after draft after draft after draft after draft after draft after draft after draft after draft after draft after draft after draft after draft after draft and, at last…

This is your polish…

Moby

“Natural Blues”

mixed by Moby, Jamie Catto & Duncan Bridgeman and Dean Honer & Jarrod Gosling

Don’t watch the video.  Just listen.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SC6-TiN19uE

It takes forever to get it right.

But, when you do…

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Filed under Rewriting, Screenwriting, Writing Process

In Book Soup in Los Angeles!

In very good company!  David Diamond’s new book.  Pam Douglas.  Christine Vachon!!

YSS at Book Soup 2

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Filed under Good Writing, Screenwriting, Writing Process

Know Thy Antagonist!

My son’s a writer. Go figure.

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

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

I’ll let him tell you about it.

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

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

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

Complaints on Confusing Names in NETWORK

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

 

Harry & Howard & Hackett & Haywood & Herron

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

Willie Stein and Milton Steinman

Louise & Laureen & Lennie

Robert then Bob McDonough

Bob & Bill & Barbara

Max & Milton & Michael

Jack & Joe & George & John

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Criticism, Screenwriting, Writing Process