In very good company! David Diamond’s new book. Pam Douglas. Christine Vachon!!
In very good company! David Diamond’s new book. Pam Douglas. Christine Vachon!!
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.
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!
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.
Because emotion’s why everybody comes to the table, you better deliver one whale of a satisfying meal.
At every step along the way, whether it’s with your idea, beat sheet, outline, first pass, first draft, and every subsequent draft until you actually hand it to actors to memorize their lines, constantly ask, “Am I delivering as much emotion in this scene, in this sequence, in this story, as I possibly, possibly can?”
“We are in the emotion picture business.”
Ken Kwapis, director of SHE’S JUST NOT THAT INTO YOU, THE OFFICE, BERNIE MAC, A WALK IN THE WOODS… etc., etc.
Don’t you ever forget it.
If you’re writing a nine-part self-published fiction series, a TV pilot for Amazon, or five page script to shoot in your backyard with friends, start by asking…
1.) What emotion do you want the audience to feel at the end of the story?
2.) What emotion you want the main character to feel at the beginning?
3.) What emotion do you want the main character to feel at the end?
You go write those questions down. I’ll wait.
The answers, which will likely morph through the story’s development, will be your mantra until you finally finish. Emotion is not only everything, it is the only thing.
When looking at a whole story or scene or part of a scene, whether it is in an outline or a nearly finished piece of work, ask yourself, “Are there moments in here where I can add even a tiny bit more emotion? Or much more?! What can I do to the character to make the character feel more strongly? What can I do in the scene to make the reader (audience!) feel more strongly? Is there something from the heroine’s past I can adjust to make us feel a stronger emotion here?”
You’re smart. You can think of more questions than those.
You can almost always push emotion up a notch. Think about the worst thing that could possibly happen to them and see if it’s in your script. If it’s not, make it happen!
“Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.”
Make your character suffer so your reader can suffer. They pay the money to feel something. So give it to ’em, but only as much as is believable.
My wonderfully wonderful children’s novel https://www.amazon.com/Mrs-Ravenbachs-Way-Amazing-Escapades/dp/1941393586 is about a little boy brutalized by the meanest fourth-grade teacher in the history of teaching. Because the wrenching emotion was too much for her to handle, my gritty New York publicist had to stop reading the book halfway through. She put it away for two days and then started again, calmed down enough to be able to finish. One of my former college students called me, also halfway through Mrs. Ravenbach’s Way, and said, “Please tell me that things get better for this kid…” They had a strong emotional reaction because I put that trap door in there for them to fall through.
Amp up the emotion in your work, every chance you can. Even it’s to give your heroine a splinter in her finger.
When she feels, so do we.
Supposedly you have gotten into this writing dodge because you’re a storyteller. You have something gnawing inside you, burning, chewing at your guts that you can’t wait to get out into the world. To share with others. To make people feel, strongly. Something! Anything! What story do you cease to exist if you don’t tell? Why?!
Writing teachers will say, “Figure out your theme, tape it above your computer and write about that.” As if it were anywhere near that easy!
I think the opposite is true, especially if you’re telling a tale that is “about” something. Something, hopefully, that has profound meaning for you and thereby, everyone. If you do a piece of writing the correct way, it will be to some degree a journey of exploration and discovery, perhaps self-discovery. That journey must be free form, fluid, and wide open to change.
In seeming contradiction to that, I also advocate use of an outline. In Your Screenplay Sucks!, I talked about how important it is to delay writing pages until you have pounded your outline to death.
The earlier it is in your writing career, the tighter the outline should be before you write actual screenplay pages. If your outline is on the money, your overall writing time will be shorter. If you really think about what you’re doing before you write FADE IN:, you’ll waste less time in revision mode.
Even then, you still can’t know what it is you’re really writing about until you have a draft.
Deeper into your writing career, I advocate for a more free-form version of the outline, precisely what Robert Olen Butler tells you to do in his magnificent book From Where You Dream.
Presumably, as you’re working on your script, your characters are alive and malleable. You may think of something halfway through the script that never occurred to you when you started. That’s fine! Change and improvement are wonderful. Foolish changes, sad to say, will send you off in the wrong direction. But, as this is a process, you can always figure out a way to get back on the path.
As you write pages with action description and dialogue and character and all that stuff, the journey your hero is on as well as the journey you are on will begin to deviate from whatever you thought that journey was going to be when you set out to write the outline, followed by pages. Things happen. Better ideas! Something changes on page 5 that will affect page 50. This stuff is normal. Do not reject change in favor of your “carved in stone” outline.
As you churn forward, writing, do not change the pages behind you (rule of thumb, nothing is law except, “Don’t be boring.”) but drop your “changes” ideas in a file and when you’re done with the first pass, go back and perform surgery on your patient.
Only as you move toward the end of the draft can you look back and see from whence you came and truly begin to understand what your story is about. Begin to understand why you are telling this story. Begin to understand what your character’s real problem is. Begin to understand what your problem is.
“I have a problem. I make a movie about it. It’s not a problem anymore.”
supposedly Andy Warhol
At the beginning of the journey, you can certainly think you know what the hero’s problem is, but you may be wrong about even something as fundamental as that. You certainly may not know what the solution to the problem is. Not at the beginning. You find this along the way. Hey, the writing teachers are right when they say it’s a journey! Your first pass is not your tenth draft! Embrace that you will fail for a while and don’t sweat it. Press on and feel good about it.
You may decide at the beginning that your movie is about a man in a divorce. You may change your mind partway through when you discover the main character is really his wife. The reason you’re telling the story can shift and that moment, that epiphany about why you’re really here, is fun! When you gasp and yell, “So that’s why I’m writing this!”, that’s a mind-blowingly wonderful feeling.
I don’t think you can get that feeling unless you stay open to change through the writing process. At last, perhaps suddenly, the truth will be revealed to you and you go back into the story and fix all the things you need to repair that will lead to the point you now know you’re trying to make.
The point you can only understand how to make after you’ve done a LOT of writing.
Once you figure out what your story is about, it may only be a matter of going back to the beginning to do some gentle spadework to alter this or that or these five scenes to help point the reader in the direction the story needs to go. Or, maybe it takes dynamite and a crane, a ton of heavy lifting, to blow it up and start all over again. Once you know what you really, really are there for, rewriting becomes much easier. And on target.
Scenes that don’t fit the new “theme” shout, “Hey, dummy! I don’t belong here! Get rid of me!” They can’t do that at the beginning of the writing process because they are locked into whatever your original thoughts were. Once all the players (your story and your characters and you) know why you’re really at the party, then you can roll up your sleeves and get some really good work done.
So, don’t sweat it if, up front, you don’t have a clue why the heck you’re sitting there writing.
If you have any examples of this, please send them to me and I will post them. Have you figured out much later in the game than you had first anticipated what your story was about?
A good way to make yourself write. Don Roos, the clever mind behind The Opposite of Sex and Web Therapy, gave me this.
The principle of Kitchen Timer is that every writer deserves a definite and do-able way of being and feeling successful every day.
To do this, we learn to judge ourselves on behavior rather than content. (We leave content to our unconscious; experience will teach us to trust that.) We set up a goal for ourselves as writers which is easy, measurable, free of anxiety, and fail-proof, because everyone can sit, and an hour will always pass.
Here’s how it works:
1. Buy a kitchen timer, one that goes to 60 minutes.
2. We decide on Monday how many hours of writing we will do Tuesday. When in doubt or under pressure or self-attack, we choose fewer hours rather than more. A good, strong beginning is one hour a day.
3. The Kitchen Timer Hour:
No phones. No listening to the machine to see who it is. We turn ringers off if possible. It is our life; we are entitled to one hour without interruption, particularly from loved ones. We ask for their support. “I was on an hour” is something they learn to understand. But they will not respect it unless we do first.
No music with words, unless it’s a language we don’t understand.
No internet, absolutely.
No “desk re-design/landscaping”, no pencil-sharpening.
4. Immediately upon beginning the hour, we open two documents: our journal, and the project we are working on. If we don’t have a project we’re actively working on, we just open our journal.
5. An hour consists of TIME SPENT keeping our writing appointment. We don’t have to write at all, if we are happy to stare at the screen. Nor do we have to write a single word on our current project; we may spend the entire hour writing in our journal. Anything we write in our journal is fine; ideas for future projects, complaints about loved ones, even “I hate writing” typed four hundred times.
When we wish or if we wish, we pop over to the current project document and write for as long as we like. When we get tired or want a break, we pop back to the journal.
The point is, when disgust or fatigue with the current project arises, we don’t take a break by getting up from our desk. We take a break by returning to the comforting arms of our journal, until that in turn bores us. Then we are ready to write on our project again, and so on. We use our boredom in this way.
IT IS ALWAYS OKAY TO WRITE EXCLUSIVELY IN OUR JOURNAL. In practice it will rarely occur that we spend the full hour in our journal, but it’s fine, good, and right that we do when we feel like it. It is just as good a writing day as one spent entirely in our current project.
6. It is infinitely better to write fewer hours every day, than many hours one day and none the next. If we have a crowded weekend, we choose a half-hour as our time, put in that time, and go on with our day. We are always trying to minimize our resistance, and beginning an hour on Monday after two days off is a challenge.
7. When the hour is up, we stop, even if we’re in the middle of a sentence. If we have scheduled another hour, we give ourselves a break before beginning again — to read, eat, go on errands. We are not trying to create a cocoon we must stay in between hours; the “I’m sorry I can’t see anyone or leave my house, I’m on a deadline” method. Rather, inside the hour is the inviolate time.
8. If we fail to make our hours for the day, we have probably scheduled too many. Four hours a day is an enormous amount of time spent in this manner, for example. If on Wednesday we planned to write three hours and didn’t make it, we subtract the time we didn’t write from our schedule for the next day. If we fail to make a one-hour commitment, we make a one-hour or a half-hour appointment for the next day. WE REALIZE WE CANNOT MAKE UP HOURS, and that continuing to fail to meet our commitment will result in the extinguishing of our voice.
9. When we have fulfilled our commitment, we make sure we credit ourselves for doing so. We have satisfied our obligation to ourselves, and the rest of the day is ours to do with as we wish.
10. A word about content: This may seem to be all about form, but the knowledge that we have satisfied our commitment to ourselves, the freedom from anxiety and resistance, and the stilling of that hectoring voice inside of us which used to yell at us that we weren’t writing enough — all this opens us up creatively. When we stop whipping ourselves, our voices rise up inside.
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.