Friday, April 4, 2014

Vince Gilligan at Harvard

This past week, Breaking Bad creator (and The X-Files writer) Vince Gilligan visited Harvard University as part of the Learning from Performers Speaker Series. As someone who's currently making his way through Breaking Bad, this struck me as a terrific opportunity to learn more about the craft from one of its modern masters.

University President Drew Faust queried him on the show for the first 45 minutes of the program, and the latter 45 was opened up to the packed crowd for a Q&A.

Of particular note was Gilligan's emphasis on collaboration between the writers themselves as well as the cast when it came to developing and exploring character. He discussed a particular example of a scene in which characters (and meth cooks) Walter White and Jesse Pinkman are pursued to a dead end situation in which a police officer has them cornered in a junkyard, seconds away from forcing open the door to their RV/rolling meth lab. How could they possibly escape from such a situation? Gilligan himself admits, "At first we said that there was no way out of this."

Gilligan noted that it took his team a week to figure it out. Collaborating with other writers is a useful tool not only to help you explore the potential within your own script, but also to give you the freedom to paint your characters into such a corner that you yourself don't know how they'll ever make it out. If you write the scene and you don't know, your audience won't either. This makes it all the more entertaining (for your audience) and rewarding (for you) when ultimately, you (and/or those with whom you consult on story) do come up with the answer. Gilligan said, "What makes Walter White so brilliant is that he can come up in minutes with an answer that it took us probably hundreds of man-hours to figure out."

Gilligan also stressed the importance of visual storytelling. This is a lesson I drill into my own students. Something needs to happen in a scene. What is an action or series of actions that can take the place of dialogue? Is dialogue even necessary for the scene? Dialogue might be a few to a few dozen words, but an image is truly worth a thousand. Keep dialogue sparse, and use it only when necessary. How is showing a far more effective storytelling tool than telling?

As a further example from Breaking Bad, Gilligan noted the characters of the Cousins (Leonel and Marco), cartel hitmen. Between the two of them, over the course of several episodes, they speak barely a dozen lines. However, they cut a bloody swath of rampaging death from Mexico to Albuquerque. There's no doubt that these characters are serious and deadly. But they never issue a verbal threat. Not once. And they're terrifying. Moral of the story? Dialogue should be in your bag of tricks, but shouldn't always be a first line of attack. It's a film/TV show, after all. Not a radio play.

Perhaps most importantly, Gilligan stressed the significance of character transition. He alluded to shows that had no set end date and how charting a character's emotional arc would be considerably complicated if there was no ending point for their internal journey. On the character of Walter White, the question was raised as to whether Walter underwent a metamorphosis from good to bad, or if he was always bad and his actions simply unveiled who he really was. Gilligan seemed to like keeping that question open-ended, as in life, it can also be. 

By the same token, "you don't want to change your characters too fast," Gilligan warned, "but your only job is to get people excited about the story you're telling. But there's no one right way to do it. Grab the reader." 

I had the great luck to be able to ask him, "How do you construct a character who an actor will want to play?"

He replied, "Actors are looking for the same thing that the reader of the script is looking for. Think of all the ways you've seen that particular archetype, and then go the opposite way or change things up as much as possible. If you can make something feel fresh, that's a good starting point. Actors respond to that like viewers do. What haven't they seen before? You have to really grab them quick and know the story you're telling. Be really interested in the character, yourself."

A great talk from a true class act. Now back to my Breaking Bad binge-watching.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Three Paths to High Concept

Someone's hungry for a good story.
The industry calls it High Concept. Screenwriter Terry Rossio calls it the Strange Attractor. I've called it the needlessly wordy Why Didn't I Come up with That First. Whatever you call it, it's all about concept - it's all about story.

And for goodness' sake: it must be simple.

If someone asks you what your film/script is about and it takes you longer than three sentences, then it's not simple enough. It has to be an idea at once clever, ironic, and easily imagined. It's hard work, which is why scripts sell for as much as they do when they sell.

Jurassic Park: people are stuck on a theme park island full of genetically engineered dinosaurs.
The Godfather: a straight-edge former soldier must commit mass murder to protect his crime family.
Up: An elderly widower physically moves his house from the U.S.A. to Paradise Falls in order to keep a promise he made to his late wife.

Films turn the ordinary into the extraordinary. An ordinary character often (and should) become extraordinary over the course of the story: they awake something within themselves and perform tasks that they (and the audience) never believed they had the power to accomplish.

So much the better if the circumstances in which your characters find themselves are extraordinary. This means coming up with an idea that's at once simple and yet brilliant. Taking something that everyone has heard of and turning it on its head. Dinosaurs - but alive today on an island theme park. A geeky introvert - but an expert on seeing how people connect (The Social Network). Kids going off to boarding school for seven years - to train to be wizards and witches (Harry Potter). Reality - actually virtual reality (The Matrix). A famous, doomed ship - with a love story (Titanic).

The point is, you want a reader to hear your idea and say, why didn't I come up with that? Start with something simple and recognizable - then twist it in a way that only you can do. How?

1. Be Literate - Read the news. Read books. Read classical literature. Read mythology. Read the back of a cereal box. Whatever you choose, make it your business to learn at least half a dozen things each day that you didn't know the prior day. The point is to glean conflict. Who's fighting whom? What's the latest scandal? What's the plot twist in Oedipus Rex? Now how can you turn that on its head? Sure, there's tension between North and South Korea. What if there was a similar tension between North and South Dakota? Or between neighbors? How can you blow up the conflict? How can you shift it to something more comedic? Or darker?

2. Be Primal - Beyond a certain age, we all experience loss, love, pain, death, fear, and desire. Whether you're in America or Nicaragua or Sweden or Ethiopia or China, everyone has a relationship with these primal, human experiences. But not everyone has the same relationship. In fact, no two people have the same relationship with these constants. What's yours? What do you fear or desire? What's something you wish you had? Or wish you never lost? Or wish you had the power to do? See what I'm saying? Luke Skywalker dreamed of adventure... and adventure appeared in his lap in the form of R2-D2 and C-3PO. What little kid doesn't wish for the power to fight bullies and injustice? Thanks to an invitation to Hogwarts, Harry Potter learned just that. What's something we all experience? What's an engaging way to explore it?

3. Be Yourself - Use your voice. It takes that which everyone experiences and distills it down to what you experience, alone. What are your interests, hobbies, tics, superstitions? How can you develop those into full-blown situations? How could you play with time period, setting, and circumstance?

Here's an example: let's say you like board games. Now let's set this idea in the near future - the human race might be expanding into space, and on long interstellar flights, they have to remain occupied in zero-gravity. But how will checkers and chess work in a zero-gravity environment? What if your character came up with a way to create games with artificial gravity, but NASA realizes that your invention could work on a larger scale (i.e., for the humans themselves)? And what if, once abused, this technology could have direct and awful ramifications for gravity on earth?

This is far, far away from the best idea in the world. However, the point is that it only needed to start with something small, something personal, and with a dash of imagination, could become something potentially much, much bigger.

The irony of storytelling is that in telling your own story, you're telling everyone else's story (and vice-versa). In Finding Nemo, Andrew Stanton was telling a tale about relationships between parents and children. However, as a premature baby who was himself not expected to survive (like Nemo himself), Stanton was also telling his own story. Being literal, primal, and yourself means being clever, relatable, and personal. And that's what the very best stories are.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Flaws Are Awesome

Character flaws? They're awesome!
"Human beings can't see anything without wanting to destroy it. That's Original Sin." - Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass

"You are the Special. And so am I. And so is everyone. The prophecy is made up, but it's also true. It's about all of us. Right now, it's about you. And you... still... can change everything." - Phil Lord & Christopher Miller, The Lego Movie

I was recently asked in a class, "How can I simultaneously make my character flawed and yet lovable? Aren't flaws usually dislikable parts of a person? Like someone who's too jealous? Or too greedy?"

It's a good question. But a better one would be, "How does my character's flaw make my character lovable?"

A sympathetic character won't hurt anyone other than him or herself. In hurting him/herself, a character who is his or her own worst enemy is ironic: a character with the most to learn - and is the most fun to watch as he/she undergoes rich conflict to perform the learning.

The Godfather's Michael Corleone - he destroys his family to "save" it.
The Shawshank Redemption's Andy Dufresne - he lands in hopeless situations repeatedly to bring hope to his fellow inmates.
Star Wars's Luke Skywalker - his anger at Darth Vader threatens to destroy everyone he holds dear.
Dallas Buyers Club's Ron Woodruff - those he detests the most are the ones he must befriend in order to save himself and others.
The Lego Movie's Emmet - his low self-image jeopardizes the entire world.
A Clockwork Orange's Alex - his drive to victimize render him into the ultimate victim.
Groundhog Day's Phil Conners - thinks so highly of himself that no one else thinks highly of him.
Harry Potter becomes powerful enough to rival Voldemort - but will his anger and despair drive him to make the same murderous decisions to retain that power?

Here are some questions to ask yourself about character development:

How has your character felt that he/she "missed the boat" on something? What does he/she regret?
What does your character cling to a little too hard?
What does your character take for granted?
Is your protagonist in a funk when the story starts? Why?
Is there an injustice that your character suffers? Is it an actual injustice? Or is it only an injustice from her/her point of view?
What makes that (perceived) injustice relatable?
What or who is the biggest loss your character has ever suffered?
What makes your character likable? And dislikable?

Flawed doesn't mean evil: it means human. It means relatable and universal. Further, a character who overcomes his/her flaw doesn't become a perfect person, but he/she can become perfect for the situation, perfect for handling that which threatens what they hold most dear. Becoming is always more engaging than being and the only characters who have a direction in which to become are those who start as troubled.

You don't have to watch a film to see this in action. Look at any celebrity or politician scandal of the past day (missed today's? There will be more tomorrow). Why are these stories so popular? Celebrity meltdowns and the indiscretions of politicians remind us of something. Those who we put atop pedestals are not that much different from ourselves. As they fall, there is a corresponding elevation - this omnipresent idea that in some way, we're all the same.

A character who learns how to overcome his/her flaw attracts attention like a lightning rod. A new character stands in the place of their old self, who has been destroyed. Destruction means change. It means new life. And that's ultimately good news for your character.

When an audience member projects him/herself upon your character onscreen, or a reader imagines him/herself as the protagonist of your novel (either of which would be ideal for you), you've reminded them of something about themselves. If your character is victimized, a reader/watcher recalls himself or herself as a victim. If your character experiences the healing joy of a long-coming reunification, your audience should feel that, too. We experience the highs because we know the lows, and we experience the lows because we're experts on the highs. We've lived them both, after all. By the same token, to accept a complete character at the end of your work, your audience must be familiar with the character as incomplete. As flawed.

Really, as themselves.

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Visual Makes the Film

"Your hair's not visual enough."
Recently, I discussed a feature script I was writing with a talented fellow screenwriter friend who's also a contributing writer for Script Magazine. After discussing my premise ("A young man, hoping to break out of his drought-stricken town, must stop his brother, in league with a major agricultural concern, from bleeding the town's water supply dry."), he asked, "What makes it visual?"

I was struck by the question. The very fact that I was writing it as a screenplay made it visual! Or so I thought. He followed up my silence with, "What makes it a movie?"

They're the same question.

I tell my students that they're writing a film, not a radio play. You must keep it interesting to watch, first and foremost.

Sounds obvious? It's astonishing how many scenes, even in popular films, violate this basic tenet. It turns out, not every story is visual.

A lightsaber duel is visual. Two characters having a long conversation over dinner is not. A husband walking in on his wife having an affair in their children's bedroom is visual. A character sitting and thinking isn't. Popeye Doyle's chase scene in The French Connection (or just about any chase scene) is visual. A character standing across the desk from his boss and talking is not.

Here's my definition: a visual scene invests you by virtue of what you see onscreen. Great dialogue doesn't make a scene visual. Even an unusual setting, alone, won't make a scene visual (though it helps, especially if it's integrated with the action). Why can this scene not be a radio play? Having solid answers to that question is the first step.

Films are made of scenes. Guess what happens if you don't pump enough visual action into your scenes? The film stops being visual, as a whole. It becomes that radio play I cautioned you against.

I recently saw Enough Said, James Gandolfini's final film. While well-acted on his part, the greater film struck me as one of the least visual works I had seen in recent memory. There were no less than a half-dozen (that I can immediately recall) scenes of characters sitting around, talking, and eating. Just shooting the breeze. What made the settings interesting? What made the conversations have to take place inside of these restaurants or back patios? Why did the characters have to be sitting and eating in the first place? They didn't. They were just truck stops for exposition. They stuck out as if the filmmaker was saying, "Let's take a break from the story for a moment and catch our breath with a bit of character development."

If the film is remembered for anything other than Gandolfini, it'll assuredly be for the scenes that took place outside of the restaurants, outside of the let's-laugh-over-guacamole-on-the-patio scenes. And that shouldn't be. Your whole film should be memorable. Every scene of Jurassic Park, every scene of Captain Phillips, and every scene of American Hustle, for example, is visual. Something happens in each scene. Each scene has a defining action. You're able to sum up what happened in each scene in a word!

More than a way to sit - a way to threaten.
I've been taught to think of such a thing as "trailer moments." What are the scenes, the actions, that will make someone want to see your film, all else being equal? Can you assign a defining verb to each of your scenes? Here's a hint: if "talk" or "think" is the defining verb, then go back to the drawing board. Sure, characters can talk during a scene. The point is that there needs to be something else going on under the dialogue. A threat, for example. In American Beauty, Lester Burnham is told that he has to write out a job description for himself or else risk losing his corporate middle-management position. The scene takes place in an office, with Lester sitting on the wrong side of the desk from an efficiency expert. They're sitting and talking, but there's an implied threat: do this or be fired. It's more than just sitting and talking.

I did a similar exercise with a colleague's script just last week. He showed me a scene with the protagonist sitting at a restaurant table and reminiscing with his family. When I asked the writer what the scene's defining action was, he said, "Remembering." That wont work. Imagine telling your audience, "Now we're going to watch a scene about a character remembering." Is it fun to watch someone remember something? Not nearly as engaging as it is watching a threat. Keep it visual. Keep it a film. Visual scenes are the scenes you should be writing.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Rough Draft to Final Draft

Since my last post, I completed production of Are You with Me. It's amazing how having a great cast and crew make a director's job far easier than it otherwise could've been. Directing, regardless, is not an easy task. When I ask my production students at the beginning of the semester who wants to direct, most hands go up. As they find out over the course of the semester, if it comes easy to you, you're doing it wrong.

My favorite director is Stanley Kubrick. His daughter, Vivian, made a 35-minute documentary on her father's directing of The Shining. It's astounding to watch Kubrick prioritize, direct, and come up with some of the film's most iconic shots. I highly recommend it, not just for fans of the film, but for fans of the art.

As I'm sure you might imagine, Are You with Me went through several drafts and changes. Very often, I'm presented with an obvious first or second draft from a writer who thinks that they're ready to roll. With only one exception that I've ever heard, two drafts won't cut it. Nor will five. Or 10. Good writing is hard. Period.

What's the exception? In Virginia in 2010, I heard screenwriter Scott Kosar (The Machinist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Crazies) tell an audience that he had only written one and a half drafts of The Machinist before it was picked up. Kosar is phenomenally talented, but stories like his, I promise, are the exceptions to the rule. Children's book author Avi is known to have written over 50 drafts of the first chapter to his book Crispin: The Cross of Lead. Chapter one is only four and a half pages.

A lot can and should change between draft one and the final version. But for what in particular should you keep an eye out?

As an example, I thought I'd share my first draft and final draft of Are You with Me.

Here's the first draft.

As you can see, the first difference starts on the title page. The original working title was Under the Blanket. Like a lot of working titles, this one changed over the course of production. But why? True, there's a little boy under a blanket within the film, but the phrase "under the blanket" doesn't really evoke the film's theme on its own. It sounds like it could be a horror film, or worse, something dirty! That's definitely not what I wanted folks to think!

The first draft also begins with Courtney the babysitter, speaking to Lorraine and Jeff. On page two is our exposition moment, and it's painful. It's not integrated. We don't see it. We just hear about it. Far more effective would be to see Courtney's discovery of the drugs. To see the pain on her face. Like I tell my students, it's not a radio play. Show, don't tell.

It's hard enough to exhibit a character's emotional transition in a feature film. In a short, it's a monumental challenge. In the first draft, it's unclear when or if Courtney's transition from unforgiving to merciful takes place. Jackie cries, Courtney rolls her eyes, and simply embraces him. But what does she learn?

Finally, on pages four and five, comes the twist. It may not have been Eddie under the blanket at all. Hysterical parents over the phone. Lots of conflict. But is it the best way to spend the limited time in the script? Another phone call?

Here's the final draft.

The title is different. As mentioned in my prior blog post, it's a quote taken right from a conversation I had with my late Aunt Wendy. "Are You with Me" struck me as evocative of the theme. Literally, are you with me or against me? What will you decide?

This draft begins with Courtney arriving home to discover the drugs in a beloved stuffed animal. We see it. We don't hear about it afterward. That surprise, anguish, and fury are all there for us to see. Far more interesting than hearing about it all afterward.

I have to be honest. The line "Monsters aren't real. Or is that your word for scared and alone?" gave me the most trouble. That line must have gone through about a dozen rewrites. It's a key line, as it's what triggers a switch in Courtney's head. It's the moment at which she realizes what she's been doing and what her new purpose must be. I wanted little Eddie to be a parallel to Courtney's brother Phil, and the words she speaks to Eddie to soothe him are really being said to Phil. The word "monster" is also integrated into the film, being said three times. Once to refer to Phil, once to refer to Eddie, and once when Eddie challenges Courtney to redefine it. Far tighter.

The decision to drop the final phone conversation was a late change. However, I realized two things: one, if Jackie's spirit was really under the blanket, he wouldn't leave it behind for his parents to discover. Second, the phone call put the focus less on Courtney's decision to forgive Phil and more on the supernatural aspects of the story. This was always meant to be a story about a girl forgiving her brother, not about a girl encountering a possible ghost. So I dropped the phone call and instead inserted the quicker visual image of the blanket simply not being there anymore. Show, don't tell.

Incidentally, I'm running a Kickstarter for the film. The following link has the trailer as well as other information to help you become involved with this exciting project. I hope you enjoy it!

Thursday, November 7, 2013

What it Means to Use Your Voice

When I tell my students to "use your voice" as a writer, I can't help but feel that I'm telling them something trite and Hallmark-esque. "Who else's voice am I supposed to use?" I can almost hear them ask.

Some of the greatest advice I heard from Tim Albaugh of Hollins and UCLA, it refers to taking the archetypal/universal and baking it into your art as only you can do. There are experiences, once you're past a certain age, that you're guaranteed to experience: love, loss, and death to name a few (in Save the Cat, screenwriter Blake Snyder refers to these themes as primal: survival, protection of loved ones, hunger, sex, and fear of death).

Regardless of culture or home country, you're bound to these themes. They transcend boundaries. They are human experiences. Your unique take on them, fed by your unique experiences with them, are what comprise your voice.

Look at the work of Alan Ball (American Beauty, Six Feet Under, True Blood): in each of his works, you can almost hear him say, "Life is great, but it'll all be over one day and sooner than you'd like."
Or how about Alfred Hitchcock (Psycho, Shadow of a Doubt, Rear Window, The Birds)? His voice concerns the uncanny: a mild-mannered motel clerk, a beloved uncle, neighbors, or a flock of pigeons – all turn from the unexceptional to the dreadful.

And let's not forget Stanley Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey, Dr. Strangelove, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket). Omnipresent in each of his works is the theme of irony. Humankind is its own worst enemy. You can take the animal out of the jungle, but you can never take the jungle out of the animal.

When people say, "Alan Ball," "Alfred Hitchcock," "Stanley Kubrick," "Steven Spielberg," "Marleen Gorris," "Tim Burton," or "Ron Howard," images instantly spring to mind, images of a type of film. You know, in general, what you're in for if you pop in anything by one of these artists.

Why should it be any different for you and your work? It shouldn't.

I'd like to share one such experience with you, one that has sharply focused this idea for me.

Back in 2006, I received a frightening call. My Aunt Wendy, then 54, had fallen down some stairs and was in a hospital in New York. I was living in Massachusetts at the time and zipped down to her bedside.

Wendy and I had always had a tight relationship. She was my most vocal supporter when I told my family that I had decided to cease my studies of electrical engineering and go into film. She'd always ask me about my projects and how she could help. Wendy was an aunt, an ally, and a friend. So much so that she's credited as executive producer on each of my films.

So you can imagine how matters were complicated when it came out that she had fallen down the stairs after blacking out due to a bit too much cocaine. I, Wendy's two siblings, and my cousins were upset and hurt. However, I was surprised to discover the depths of the family's anger.

"If she behaves this way, we'll turn our back," became the party line. "She has to choose: the drugs or her family."

At Wendy's bedside, I told her how hurt I felt and how colossally stupid I thought she had been. She said, "I can accept that. But you need to know that I don't mean to stop. I don't want help, I like my life, and I don't want to change anything."

Then, as I'm assuming that both of us had the rest of the family in mind, she asked me something I'll never forget:

"Will you turn your back with the rest of them, or are you with me?"

She had been irresponsible, selfish, and careless.

On the other hand, she was family. She was Wendy.

I told her, "You're an adult. You'll do these things whether I want you to or not. But I can't judge you. I'm with you, Wen. Even if you're an asshole."

She liked that.

The family was upset with me, some going far enough to accuse me of undermining their "plan" to make her quit. They didn't understand that Wendy was Wendy, and that she wasn't going to quit whether we cut contact or not. Given that, while I didn't endorse her life choices, I certainly wanted to maximize whatever time with her that I had left.

As years passed, some of the family returned to speaking terms with her and some didn't. Me? I couldn't turn my back. She had always supported me. I'd be ashamed to turn on her, but I also wasn't afraid to call her on her crap. We continued a strong relationship until she passed away suddenly this past August, due to natural, non-drug-related causes. She was 62.

What's a lesson I took from the experience? That it's okay to be unpopular if you choose the right thing. That people who make bad decisions need love and forgiveness, not vengefulness and victimization.

In the past month, I've written a new short film. It's about a hard, angry young woman who, after a night babysitting a difficult child with a secret, comes to forgive her addict younger brother for hurting her feelings.

I'm in pre-production on it, and production is scheduled for early December.

It's entitled Are You with Me.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

All in the Image

The best images are mirrors in which we see ourselves.

I want something more to my life:

I'm afraid for a loved one:

I have to let someone go, even though it's ripping me to pieces:

I hope:

The best actors wear the same expressions on their faces as we do while we watch them. The writer's job is to make the reader wear the same expression as he/she reads. To elicit emotion from a black and white page is no easy task, but that's what makes writing so difficult - and so important.

As your reader likely won't have access to actors to perform the script live in front of them, you must rely on dialogue and action to make your point. This means keeping your reader on his/her toes and making your characters pop from page one.

Once you've crafted your character and the situation in which they find themselves, what's your poster image? What's a defining snapshot (literally - imagine a photo) that tells us as much as possible about who your character is and what they're up against? What makes them iconic?

How is your beginning the promise of your end? How will you bookend your story? In what way has your protagonist changed?

Of course, it's not enough to think of defining images for your work at large. Can you think of a defining image in each individual sequence? Or scene?

Many actors use a device known as sense memory which reminds them of similar circumstances to those in your script. If you have a scene in which they have to commit an illegal act, they might place themselves back to when they were 17 and sneaked into a neighbor's yard to steal a lawn gnome.

Bottom line, actors become characters through accurately evoking emotion. You become a writer the same way. So when you write a scene and you're not sure how to make a character react, base your conflict on what you've seen in real life, not other films. You relate to it. Your actors will relate to it.

Most importantly, your audience will relate to it, and they'll be back for more from you.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Expositionally Yours

"I choose to expose myself."
"Please! There are ladies present!"

Exposition is like a vegetable on a kid's plate. If you want it eaten, you must disguise it.

While necessary to a point of being obvious, exposition's strength lies in its subtlety. It must be fed to your audience without their knowing. Unlike in this example:

There's a difference between telling and showing. A smart audience picks up on the difference, and a good writer defaults to the latter, every time:


There's drama in the latter example. There's conflict. There's action. Exposition through conflict is the best and most effective way to mask exposition.

In real life, no one ever performs a "catch-up" conversation to bring us up to speed. If it's necessary to transmit to your audience that a character graduated as valedictorian of his business school, has a family, and runs a handful of businesses, you'd never hear someone say, "Ever since he graduated as valedictorian of his business school, got married, had five kids, and successfully ran four businesses, he's been a jerk."

Best to show it. And the best way to show it? Conflict! Every time. You might show the degree on his wall. You might show him on the phone with his business partners while sitting in the front row during his kids' school play. It's an image that shows us way more than any line of dialogue ever could. Show us through visuals. Through action. Through conflict!

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Dialogue Isn't Cheap

That's nothing. You should see inside a writer's head.
I'm a judge for the NYC Midnight Screenwriting Challenge. The first-round participants are asked to write short scripts, no longer than 12 pages each, while incorporating a particular genre, person, and location (i.e., sci-fi, a sports coach, and a hospital. Or comedy, pro golfer, and Times Square). It's gratifying to see how creative and varied the writers can be, given the time limits and constraints imposed upon them.

One thing that's stuck out about a lot of the entries is the dialogue. Broadly, that there's far too much of it. Dialogue is a sticking point for a lot of writers, both novice and experienced. It's the first thing that freshly-minted screenwriters want to write (who doesn't want to take on multiple personalities and make 'em fight?), but among the hardest aspects of the craft to master.

I'm frequently asked by my students, "How can I make the dialogue sound more realistic?" or "I want my dialogue to sound like real people talking. How do I do that?"

My response to these questions is simple. Don't.

UCLA screenwriting co-chair Richard Walter says, "You can hear how real people talk on any street corner for free. Film dialogue is worth the price of admission." But it's more than that.

A common exercise that screenwriting professors give to their students is to have them eavesdrop on a conversation and transcribe it verbatim into screenplay format. Chances are if you're reading this, at some point in your past, an eager screenwriting student sat near you and overheard your conversation about what to buy at the grocery store, or about who's dating whom, or about that weird rash that even your dermatologist can't figure out.

Here's the thing about the way real people talk: it's boring. We say "um," "uh," and "you know." We pause. We lose our train of thought. We go on tangents. Basically, we do everything that should not be put into your characters' dialogue. No one wants to hear how real people talk. On the flip side, if you make your dialogue too pedantic and impeccable, there's the trap of falling into the unrealistic dialogue category. You don't want everyone in your script to sound like they're all the same person.

Bottom line, a lot of thought must go into dialogue. A lot. It needs to be integrated, the idea being that every line has to tell us something more about the character and simultaneously advance the story.

Here's the basics of how I tell my students to think about it:

1. Write it. For starters, just write down whatever you want, at first. Don't worry about making it perfect the first time through. It won't be. This frequently leads to scenes such as:


JIM, 14, in a too-big football jersey, munches cereal at the table. His droopy eyes are red.

BELLA, 44, t-crosser and i-dotter, explodes in. A tornado in a scrap yard. She spots an open milk carton on the counter.

              I don't know why you don't listen to me,
              Jim. If I've told you once, I've told
              you a thousand times: put the milk in
              the fridge when you're done with it! Do
              you know what happens to warm milk?
              It stinks up the whole kitchen, and I
              won't tolerate another bad-smelling
              room in this house. Yours is enough.

We learn a lot in this scene, but it can be better.

2. Truncate it. Take one sentence to say what five sentences say. This is a per-situation directive, but the point is to say the dialogue in as few sentences as possible. This is the foundation of wit:

              You want my kitchen to smell like your
              shit-house room?

Saying the same thing with less is more effective. But is it the most effective way of all?

3. Default to an action. Go dialogue-free. It's possibly the most powerful and universal method for telling the story (it is "lights, camera, action, after all).

Bella spots an open milk carton on the counter.

She grabs it, throws it into the fridge, slams the door shut.

Jim jumps, his spoonful of cereal flies into his face.


Bella spots an open milk carton on the counter.

She grabs it, stomps out.


A catastrophe of biblical proportions. Clothing piles creep up the wall like frozen ocean waves.

Bella pounds in, wrinkles her nose, sets the milk carton atop the clothing pile on Jim's hidden bed, exits.

Either way, Bella makes her point, and without saying a word. In fact, we learn quite a bit about Bella, Jim, and their relationship in very few, dialogue-free lines.

The point is, you'll have trouble going dialogue-free all the time, but if you apply the "less is more" adage, then you may be surprised at how cleverer and more streamlined your script will become.

Another great example of this (thanks to Tim Albaugh for pointing this one out) can be found in Charlie Kaufman's Being John Malkovich screenplay. In this scene, Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) attempts to relay the experience of being in Malkovich's head to his disinterested love interest, Maxine Lund (Catherine Keener). She can say almost anything in response to his rambling, fantastical, dorky story, but she defaults to an action, and it's the scene's punch line:

Sometimes the very best dialogue is no dialogue at all.

But sometimes, you have to use it. That's fine. The point is that it's better to first ask, "Should I use dialogue here?" than "What dialogue should I use here?" at least to start. When you do need dialogue, keep it quick and to the point.

In Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight trilogy, there are scores of examples of tight, well-written dialogue. There's a lot of story packed into every scene, and it's because there's only as much talking as there needs to be.

In the following scene from The Dark Knight, a lot needs to happen:

1. District Attorney Harvey Dent needs to meet Batman.
2. We need to understand that both Lieutenant Jim Gordon and Dent have people working for them who may not be trustworthy.
3. Dent and Gordon don't even necessarily trust each other.
4. The mob's money launderer, Lau, has fled to Hong Kong.
5. Gordon and Dent need Lau back in Gotham.
6. Dent and Gordon lack the legal means to bring Lau back.
7. Are they all on the same page with regards to what will happen to Lau if he's brought back?
8. Are all three men clear on the possible consequences to themselves if Lau's brought back?

That's most of it. But screenwriters Christopher and Jonathan Nolan convey this information in just over a page:

The scene pushes the story ahead. Batman has the green light to "extradite" Lau in his own way. Even the last line, thrown in for a bit of comic relief, also proves to Dent that Batman's the right man for the job. Lots of information in tightly-packed dialogue. Such is good screenwriting, and thus a central tenet of the craft can be distilled: it takes no time to write a lot, but it takes a lot of practice to write a little. Dialogue should not be cheap, and a practiced writer won't use it cheaply.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Know Thy Craft

Okay, Katniss: how wide, in
inches, is a dialogue column?
I had the pleasure of meeting an aspiring screenwriter at a Starbucks. He had written a five-page crime drama. I asked him for the premise. He took six minutes to describe the plot, which is a minute longer than the final film will likely run.

I glanced it over and immediately noticed that it had improper formatting, font, and a dislikable protagonist. And that was before I had made it halfway down the first page.

Stanley Kubrick said, "If you can talk brilliantly enough about a subject, you can create the consoling illusion it has been mastered."

Granted, screenwriting takes years to master, but with these tips, you can create the consoling reality that you know what you're doing. And that is no illusion:

1. Hone Your Logline

When someone asks you, "What's the story?" with regards to your film, the logline is your answer. Keep it short. If it's longer than two sentences, my attention wanes. A logline should be concise, to the point, and make me want to know more. Far too often, when writers describe their stories to me, I end up wanting to know less. Saying more doesn't indicate that you know your story more. Quite often, it shows that you don't know how to prioritize your story's events.

Even a film as riveting as The Godfather can be rendered insipid based on how the story is related:

"So a guy comes back home from military service during his sister's wedding and they're a big crime family and these gangsters try to rub out the family patriarch, but before that the bad guys kill the crime family's main hitman, but then the guy has two older brothers and his sister's new husband is really a bad guy, and so they all decide to retaliate but the oldest brother is killed and the youngest one has to go off to Sicily to lie low for a year after killing a drug kingpin and a police chief, but when he comes back he gets married even though he got married in Sicily but his wife there was killed and so now he's married back in America and he has to reassert his family's dominance and become the new godfather and there's this awesome scene of killings happening during a baptism..."

Compare that to the following:

"Reluctant, inexperienced Michael Corleone must assume command of his family's crime empire before five other gangster families eradicate his family."

All in a sentence, we have an idea of tone, character arc, irony, and story. I want to know more, and that's the point.

2. Format Correctly

There's no real way around it: if you want to screenwrite, you need screenwriting software. It's possible to use MS Word for a script, but a program like Celtx or Final Draft formats about as fast as you think, which is invaluable. I don't have to read a word of your script for me to see if you have proper formatting, and improper formatting will make me wonder what else there is to worry about, with regards to content.

A terrific book to peruse is The Complete Screenwriter's Manual by Stephen Bowles, Ronald Mangravite, and Peter Zorn. Learn to write your spec from such a book, not from William Goldman or Aaron Sorkin scripts. When you're William Goldman or Aaron Sorkin, you can hand-write a script on a cocktail napkin and sell it for millions regardless of formatting. Until then, it's expected that your script will conform to industry standards. Make no mistake: books (and screenplays) are judged by their covers, and no one will want to read the remaining 99 pages of your 100-page feature if page one is incorrectly formatted.

3. "Make Me Care"

In the aforementioned script, the protagonist is a low-level thief who needlessly kills a defenseless chef right at the outset. The writer informed me, "I want him to come across as cold-blooded." My response was, "Do you want him to come across as likable?" You never tell a story in a vacuum, and audiences bring their morality to the theater. Whether they know it or not, they're seeking a character on whom to project themselves. No one wants to project themselves onto a gratuitous murderer.

Of course, not every protagonist is a paragon. In The Godfather, Michael surely comes across as cold-blooded, but he does what he does to protect his family. In There Will Be Blood, the ornery Daniel Plainview does what he does to protect his (idea of) family. These are ironic characters, killing to preserve life, or at least a way of living, that is precious to them.

Before you write page one, you must have an answer to the question, "Why will my audience care about this character in this situation?" Whether you're writing a novel, a short story, a poem, or a screenplay, this is every writer's primary job.

Each of these tips has the same ultimate goal: to make someone want to read your work. If you want to write, you already have the odds stacked against you. Everything you can do, however seemingly small (even font type and size matter in a screenplay) will make it more probable that said odds will ever be in your favor.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Sequel Trek

Spock forgot the Triscuits. Again.
"It wasn't as good as the first one," is a common phrase heard around the sequel-happy time of year that is summer blockbuster season.

Sometimes, to buck this trend, a sequel comes along that equals (if not exceeds) the first in the franchise: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, The Empire Strikes Back, The Godfather Part II, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, to name a few.

Here's the basic danger inherent to sequels: if your protagonist learns something to enable him/herself to overcome their flaw and become a better person in the first film, then where is there for them to go (emotionally) in the second (and subsequent) films?

This is done deftly in the original Star Wars trilogy:

1. In A New Hope, Luke goes from technology-trusting farm boy to self-trusting Force adept.
2. In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke progresses from Force adept to a deeper understanding, choosing whether he will repeat his father's fall.
3. In Return of the Jedi, Luke the Jedi Knight becomes Luke the Jedi Master, casting aside his weapon when Darth Vader is at his mercy. He demonstrates compassion, the final lesson.

I posit that it's the very humanity that the writer injects into the character in the first film that makes it so difficult to pull off a sequel that can justify its own existence. If you tell a complete story the first time around, why is there a need for a second, third, fourth, or fifth story? And how do you know that you've told a complete story?

It comes down to stakes:

In The Matrix, Neo proves, by the end, that he can save humanity. Therefore, in The Matrix: Reloaded and The Matrix: Revolutions when the stakes are saving the city of Zion, well, if we already know he can save everyone, then saving a city really isn't all that exciting.

In Star Trek (the Abrams reboot), Nero (the villain) can travel through time and implode entire planets. In its sequel, Into Darkness, John Harrison can... punch really, really hard. As the budget rises, the stakes simply don't, and excitement drops.

Contrast this with Star Wars, The Dark Knight, and The Lord of the Rings. There's an escalation: the idea, present before the first film even goes into production, of scope. All of the cards aren't shown in film one. Rather, the stakes rise for the hero and for whom the hero protects. The more protecting the hero does, ironically, the more danger the world is in. That's an ironic arc, and that's good writing. The more Luke learns about himself, the greater the fallout from any fall, on his part. His father Anakin was a powerful Jedi before he was a powerful Sith.

Let me be clear that I don't take issue with reboots. Tim Burton did it with the Batman franchise in 1989, as did Christopher Nolan in 2005. J. J. Abrams did it with Star Trek in 2009. Superman has been through several incarnations. Beloved characters ought not to be shelved forever. However, in each of these cases, although the central character's archetypal role (hero, captain, courageous leader, etc.) always has certain elements in common with his/her predecessor(s) (or risk being unrecognizable to the audience/rabid fan base), the character him/herself and the world he/she inhabits is always different. The Gotham City of Adam West's Batman is strikingly different from the Gotham of Michael Keaton or Christian Bale. The Batmans (Batmen?) that each actor portrayed were also strikingly different, despite the character's ever-present dedication to protecting the city.

I tend to value reboots over tired sequels, but over both I value the introduction of completely new franchises, altogether. The Matrix, The Hangover, Harold and Kumar, and Toy Story are modern examples of clever, original ideas. True, these franchises each have multiple sequels (of arguable quality), but the point is that they began as risks, as stories that hadn't been told before.

I've seen Iron Man 3 and Star Trek: Into Darkness in recent weeks. Both films had spectacular visuals. Both had decent examples of solid acting. One of them, yes, had lots and lots of lens flare. But both paled in comparison to their predecessors, and whether or not you agree, I think we can concur that whatever kind of story you like to be told, the best ones tell us more about how a character handles his/her biggest challenge rather than what that character does after he/she overcomes it.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Location, Location, Location

Six miles to Exposition City.
Ten kilometers, using the metric system.
Professor Richard Walter of UCLA is a proponent of integrated screenplays. Namely, that every line, action, scene, and script tells us something about character as well as moves the story forward.

To paraphrase him, he discusses the extension of this idea to setting, and how far too many scenes are set in coffee shops and restaurants. Blake Snyder calls this idea "the pope in the pool."

Professor Tim Albaugh of UCLA and Hollins University tells us that the world of your film should create physical/plot and emotional/thematic conflict, including but not limited to affecting character (location can act as one, can define one, or establish stakes, etc.), mood/tone, plot complications, or even reflecting the story, itself.

I instruct my own students to always default, in their writing, to action. I tell them that if an action will perform the work of a line of dialogue, choose the action. Dialogue, I tell them, is one method of communicating to an audience, but it is not the only method, and not always the preferred method.

What I (and these instructors) are saying is that you should use the same line of thinking before writing your slugline. If you need to have a conversation between two characters, it's the easiest thing in the world to write:


...for a meeting between two characters. But unless it's integrated, it's boring. We've seen it a thousand times. How many restaurant and coffee shop scenes have you seen? Too many. Just as you need to train yourself to think, "action over dialogue," you need to think, "integrated setting over non-integrated setting."

I'll use a few examples, starting with Snyder's "pope in the pool." Snyder states our goal: relay information while keeping audience attention. He relates a scene from the script, The Plot to Kill the Pope by George Englund, in which the audience is told that someone plans to kill the pope. However, instead of this scene taking place in a stuffy office or in a restaurant, it takes place at the Vatican swimming pool, with the pope in a bathing suit. It's a terrific, unusual image, and we're so entertained by it that the writer's job of slipping us expository information becomes that much easier.

Another great example comes from George Lucas's screenplay to Star Wars: Episode IV. Obi Wan throws the gauntlet at Luke's feet: "You must learn the ways of the force if you're to come with me to Alderaan." But the galaxy is a dangerous place, which we learn before even setting foot off of Tatooine. Make no mistake: Mos Eisley spaceport is a setting that screams integration. Like Luke, we're blindsided by scum and villainy. From catchy lounge music to scoundrel smugglers to aliens with the strangest-shaped heads in the universe, the expository information that flows into our brains through Han Solo and Obi Wan's negotiations is passed deftly under the cloak of the setting. Lucas doesn't merely tell us that Mos Eisley is dangerous: he shows us, from the stormtrooper guards at the gate to the bloody incident with the fellow who's wanted in twelve systems. By the time our heroes sit down over a drink, the setting has already been established as its own character.

In the opening scene of The Social Network, we're treated to a packed restaurant. However, this scene is assuredly integrated. Look no further than the line, "The reason we're able to sit here and drink right now is because you used to sleep with the door guy." Mark's entire outlook on his relationship and on social stratification is summed up in this line, and it could only be said in such a place, at such a time.

If two characters need to talk about something, if they have to tell us something, always show us something engaging, simultaneously. Have them doing something. Give them hobbies, habits, superstitions, and the like. In Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, we have two hitmen, having a conversation about fast food in Europe and foot massages, on their way to a hit. It could be a standard conversation, but there's something to see in every frame.

For reasons I can't recall, my favorite go-to example is to have a character conversation over a bike repair. It could be a conversation about anything, but having a character fixing a bike can show us a lot about the character as well as give us needed information in a way that's a bit sneaky, yet most effective. As Andrew Stanton of Pixar says, "The audience wants to work for their meal: they just don't want to know that they're doing it."

It takes work, however, to make the audience work, and a good place to start is with setting. Bring us there and show us what you have.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Selfishness Is a Virtue

Film hasn't been invented, yet. Why am I screenwriting?
Two things are required for a story: a character and a situation. The former must be complex, the latter should be simple. Both must be ironic. If it sounds easy, you're doing it wrong.

Over the course of a well-told story, a flawed, sympathetic, interesting protagonist struggles for what he/she wants more than anything, ultimately changing him/herself or inspiring change in others. Someone, over the course of your story, grows up. Films are, to borrow a phrase from author Philip Pullman, about the transition of "innocence into experience."

However, interesting ≠ likable. A protagonist does not need to be likable. However, if they're not likeable, they had better darn well be charismatic and interesting. And ideally, they've experienced an injustice or loss (i.e., they must be sympathetic). But this does not mean that they must be the nicest person in the room. Oftentimes, they're not.

Some of the best film characters have been anything but likable. The Godfather's Michael Corleone, There Will Be Blood's Daniel Plainview, Casablanca's Rick Blaine, Citizen Kane's Charles Foster Kane, A Clockwork Orange's Alex DeLarge, Amadeus's Antonio Salieri... each of these characters have displayed elements of selfishness and/or violence, but they're certainly interesting and complex.

A good place to start would be to imagine a conversation between two secondary characters about your protagonist. What would they say?

"He's a brilliant composer."

"He is, but his vanity will be his downfall."

Right there, we have two key attributes that lend considerable weight to characterization. A brilliant composer who is his own worst enemy. I'd go even further and say that every protagonist must in some way be selfish. Selfish does not mean dislikable, but by definition, an active protagonist is willing to move heaven and earth to obtain what he/she wants. Isn't that a bit selfish? A protagonist needs to sacrifice to make his/her plans come to fruition, but what if a protagonist, in his/her drive to the goal, ends up marginalizing or hurting others? A truly sympathetic protagonist should intentionally hurt no one other then him/herself, and oftentimes, the great irony of a protagonist is that the further they stretch toward their goal, the more they hurt themselves. In either case, in order to attain his/her goal, a protagonist will have some big decisions to make, and acting on such decisions will show us more about your character than anything you could otherwise tell us.

Some characters are selfish to the end. See Citizen Kane:

Some characters aren't. See Up:

But in both cases, there exist characters who need to make it over themselves. Your protagonist must start in a situation wherein they have a long way to go. Their own internal complexities are what make a potentially otherwise easy journey especially difficult. They might have a worthy antagonist to defeat, but first, they must slay their own selfish natures.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

When Cameron Wasn't in Egypt Land

One of these four (car included) will not survive the day.
I recently re-watched John Hughes's Ferris Bueller's Day Off. It was my first time watching it in years, and I wasn't surprised to find myself seeing it through a more critical eye. Specifically, I realized that while Ferris is the titular and the most active character, his greatest acts are how he changes everyone around him: his ornery sister, his girlfriend, and most importantly, his anxious friend, Cameron.

Howard Suber has taught innumerable courses at UCLA. He is a gifted teacher of screenwriting, and I highly recommend his book, The Power of Film. In it, Suber writes, "There are two basic kinds of change in storytelling: of circumstances and of character." In changes of circumstances, he goes on to say, "the circumstances of the central character change, but by the film's end the characters are still essentially who they were in the beginning."

In changes of character, he says, "the central characters... are not only in greatly changed circumstances by the end of the film – they are not who they were at the beginning" and "Such changes of character are even more important than the changes in circumstances."

Ferris undergoes a change of circumstances. His grumpy principal, Ed Rooney, takes it upon himself to catch Ferris in the act of skipping school. And, for the first time, he does. It's a position in which Ferris has never before been. His own sister comments that everything works out for him. But on this day, it doesn't. Ferris is stuck in a situation that he can't escape on his own. The look in his eyes (and the script) when Rooney finally confronts him tells us so:

But of all the characters in the film, Cameron has the clearest change of character, the greatest barrier to overcome, and is, in my opinion, the most interesting character in the story. Where does he start? He won't even climb out of bed until Ferris annoys him enough to leave his own room. He says, "I can't handle anything: school, parents, the future." Where does he end up? Killing his father's prized car. It might be Ferris's day off, but it's Cameron who grows up.

How do you inject such a powerful emotional arc into your own stories?

In The Godfather, Michael Corleone goes from, "That's my family, Kay. It's not me" to "Just lie here, Pop. I'll take care of you, now. I'm with you now. I'm with you."

In Finding Nemo, Marlin goes from "You think you can do these things, but you can't, Nemo!" to "You're right. I know you can."

In The Shawshank Redemption, Red goes from, "Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane" to "I hope."

In Up, Carl goes from, "Stay away from our mailbox! I don't want you to touch it!" to "You know, it's just a house."

These are lines, of course, and they're not a bad place to start. But when it comes to really plotting out character arc, better still would be to find defining actions:

In The Graduate, Benjamin floats directionless in a swimming pool. In the end, he steals Elaine from her own wedding.

In As Good as it Gets, Melvin Udall goes from shoving a dog down a garbage chute to demonstrating care and compassion for said dog.

In Jurassic Park, Dr. Alan Grant goes from threatening a child to saving children.

In Ferris Bueller, Cameron goes from bedridden to car-killer.

Cameron starts in Egypt. He makes it to his Promised Land, and it's better than anything for which Ferris could've prepared him. If you're not sure what to do with your character, then having a clear idea as to where they start and where they end is a great way to begin the process.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Trial by Writer

"My writing and my coffee could be stronger."
I've run and been a member of a few screenwriting workshop groups, the sole intent of each has been to meet, commiserate over the craft, and most importantly, to read and review our own work. Ideally, we'd point out the strengths of each piece as well as heap upon it as much constructive criticism as possible, with the intent to improve a work.

I'm a firm believer that if you workshop your work with more writers, your work will become better. You'll hear what's working and what isn't. You'll come across new ideas that you can make your own. There's really no downside. However, the double-edged sword inherent regards knowing which advice is good advice, and, perhaps more importantly, knowing that constructive criticism is not an attack.

A first draft will never be perfect. Period. I don't care if you're a Nobel Prize, Man Booker, Newbery, Academy Award, or Pulitzer winner. Your favorite author or screenwriter, I promise you, takes dozens, sometimes scores, sometimes more, drafts to turn what he/she is trying to say into what he/she says.

We are writers. We dare to take emotions and describe them with mere words. It takes more than a first draft to effectively accomplish that.

I ran a group screenwriting meeting about a year ago, during which a young woman brought in a dozen pages of her own script. The content doesn't really matter for this story. After reading her pages in-group, the dozen of us around the table discussed what we liked about her characterizations, her story, and the conflict. She thanked us for our input.

Then, different writers suggested that she remove a scene, cut down a long stretch of dialogue, and end another scene differently. There was general agreement among those assembled that this might help the work and focus it stronger onto her main story.

She defended each critique, point by point, as if to the death. "But she tells us in that scene how she's been hurt in the past!" "But that dialogue sets up another conversation for later on!" "But she has to say how angry she is, otherwise how will we know?"

To sum up the criticism, we were challenging her to make the same points more effectively and concisely. Avoid redundancy. Show, don't tell. Granted, not all advice is good advice, but to assume that all advice misses the mark, misses the point.

Being a good writer means more than simply completing draft after draft. Unless you're writing only for yourself, it means writing for an audience, which means that your work will be evaluated. If not by other writers, then by agents, managers, editors, producers, actors, investors, directors, and the public. You might write alone, but your work, by design, is hopefully destined for anything but obscurity. Making it onto the bestseller list or the screen means exposing it to other people along the way: other creatives, marketers, and potential buyers. A reputation as a writer is hard enough to establish: a reputation as a writer who doesn't take constructive criticism can kill a career.

I can't tell you that all advice is good, but I extol as wise whoever takes criticism and makes it his or her own. And it's not enough to expect that your work will be torn up a bit. Desire it. Your favorite writers often work with editors to make their work even better. You've written for so long about characters who undergo a trial by fire and emerge stronger. Why should your own experience be any different?

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Problem with Argo

The line for Epcot is insane.
I enjoyed Ben Affleck's Argo, Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty, and Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran's 24, formerly on Fox. These three properties have a bit in common:

1. They include some of the best suspense writing of the past dozen years.
2. I probably won't ever watch them again.

It comes down to character. It's fun to watch characters change. I could watch Pixar's Up once a week. Tom Hooper's Les Miserables, also. The difference I'm talking about is one regarding plot-driven vs. character-driven. Reactive vs. active. And when I refer to active, I don't mean just physically. A storyteller knows that the physical journey (the trip to Iran to free the Americans, the hunt for Bin Laden, stopping a bomb) is only half the story. The other half is the emotional component: how does Carl Fredricksen change over the course of Up? How does Jean Valjean change in Les Miserables?

Slate critic Dana Stevens writes that Ben Affleck's Tony Mendez, "...remains something of an emotional cipher, and not in a mysterious way, just in a dull one... The night before Mendez and the houseguests make their big break for the airport, Affleck gives us a dusk-to-dawn montage of Mendez alone in his hotel room, smoking cigarettes and drinking whiskey as he wrestles with whether or not to go through with the plan. With the right actor, this wordless interlude could have made for a powerful existential mini-drama: the dark night of the CIA-agent soul. Instead, it just sort of felt like watching Ben Affleck get hammered."

I'd say that it's even more than picking the right actor. The bit about Mendez "taking a break" from his wife and child seems tacked on, and resolves itself so quickly in the end that one is forced to wonder if it was written by the same writer. How is Mendez a lackluster father? Why does he need to "take a break" from his family? How do his actions in Iran help him realize that his son needs him as a role model? They don't. He has a job. He does it. The end. The film is entertaining, but you already know how it ends. There's a plot in Argo, but it lacks a theme. What's Argo trying to tell us? Something about courage, I'd guess, but for who's sake? Mendez is driven, but why? For himself? His son? His country? We simply don't know why he does what he does. We just know that he does it, and while it's suspenseful, a potential flat performance comes out of a flat character.

There's a similar issue at work in Zero Dark Thirty. Like Argo, the direction, cinematography, and production design are notably tight. But I'm looking at this through screenwriting glasses, and the view dismays.

Jessica Chastain plays firebrand CIA operative Maya. Detroit News critic Tom Long says, "Here's how good an actress Jessica Chastain is: She can make a hero out of nobody... Chastain is basically working with nothing here: We have no insights into Maya's background, her personal life, her inner turmoils, nothing."

The plot question of Zero is, "Will Maya catch Bin Laden?" The thematic question, the emotional component is... do you know? Because I don't. Maya's obsessed with finding Bin Laden. That's all the information we have about her. Sure, her friend Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) dies in a terrorist attack (mid-film) and that strengthens Maya's resolve... but Maya's already firing on all cylinders, by then. Does her friend's death change anything? No, it doesn't. Maya was already treating the hunt like a personal crusade, so much so that when it does become a personal crusade, the energy level, already high, doesn't creep much higher.

Did Maya lose someone in the 9/11 attacks? Does she come from a family of federal operatives, and she was never good enough for her father? What drives her? What drives Tony Mendez in Argo? What drives Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) in 24?

They work for the government: it's their job to be driven, to catch the bad guys. But not everyone is drawn to that line of work, and the people who are appear endlessly fascinating to those of us on the outside. Look at the success of a show like Dick Wolf's Law and Order. Of course, Law and Order is also plot-driven. It's the process that interests us, as opposed to the people.

Argo and Zero Dark Thirty are films about processes. In the midst of all their suspense, people take a back seat.

To me, at least, people are more fascinating. I'm not saying that every film should be just about character or just about story.

I'm saying that every film should be just about both.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Three Ways to Introduce Your Protagonist

She'll be back.
I recently read a first draft script from a promising writer about a young woman battling hormone-drenched desires while growing up in a conservative, religious environment. The very first scene in which we encounter the young woman, she's masturbating in a school bathroom. While it's an eyebrow-raising introduction to the character, I ultimately advised the writer against it.

When it comes to introducing your protagonist, there's a fine line to walk for any writer. Here are three things to keep in mind:

1. Your Character vs. the World.

The first introduction to a character is crucial, and it usually comes around the same time as our introduction to the world you've created. Some writers establish the world first. Some establish the character first. My advice is to establish both at once. Show the fishbowl along with the fish. How is your character at once a part of and at the same time separate from the world of your film? How do they see things? How do their friends/family/coworkers see them? Alan Ball's American Beauty script does a fantastic job of setting up Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) and the world of the film within the film's first five minutes. We not only have a good handle on how Lester perceives himself, but also how those around him perceive him. "Both my wife and daughter think I'm this gigantic loser. And they're right. I have lost something." He spends the rest of the film clawing to grab it back.

2. Avoid the Gratuitous.

Opening up on a masturbation scene will attract viewer attention like a lightning rod. That's good if you're going for attention, in the same way that opening on a gruesome murder is a good way to go for attention. However, consider the opening to any episode of Law and Order: there's an illegal act, which is oftentimes shocking, but the act itself is only as shocking as the context in which it appears. Why else do we spend the rest of the episode clamoring for justice? We care about those who have been wronged, and we want justice served.

Even in a film like Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill: Volume One, the opening scene, a blood-spattered bride on a chapel floor, is full of character, story, and context. Check out the dialogue for that scene:

We have one shot, and it's a disturbing one, at that. It's dark, violent, and grabs our attention immediately. It's iconic. But it's more than a beaten woman, shot on a floor. We learn so many things about the woman and her assailant in this scene that, if we don't mind the violence, we can't help but tune in for the remaining minutes of volumes one and two. This scene sets up so much, but ultimately, it forces us to ask two questions:

A. Why does a man who commits such a sadistic act consider himself, instead, masochistic?

B. What's the deal with the baby?

The two films are about a woman who seeks revenge for her own attempted murder and the apparent murder of her unborn child. The first scene of the first film tells us everything we need to know. It grabs attention, tells us a lot about the characters, and moves the story forward. It's a lot to do, but you absolutely must do it.

3. Show Us Their Uniqueness and Specific Problem.

Your protagonist sticks out. We're following him/her as opposed to his/her friends, parents, teachers, and so on.

So why are we doing that? What makes your character notable? It needs to be more than, "they're the only one who masturbates in the school lavatory." What will make your character unique is indeed what they do, but also why they do it. Why does Lester Burnham pursue the affections of a cheerleader? Why does Tony Stark seek to keep his own company's weapons out of the hands of terrorists in Iron Man? Why does Rick Blaine seek to use the letters of transit as leverage in Casablanca?

Your character is larger than life: he or she is the very best at something or the very worst at something. This is why we're following this character as opposed to another. Furthermore, your character has two problems: the first being the internal, thematic dilemma - what your character needs to do to become a better person. Then, there's the external, plot issue - what your character must do to fix unfortunate external circumstances. How your specific character grapples with both of these creates your entire story.

Regardless of what your character fights internally and externally, you have to show these to your audience as quickly as possible. Not to jam it down their throats, but to create a need to know and most importantly, a need to care. Andrew Stanton of Pixar calls this the number one commandment of storytelling: make me care. Within the first 10 pages of your feature, if we don't care, you've lost us. Tarantino does it in 30 seconds in Kill Bill.

You can do it, too.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

This Changes Everything

"Sorry, but your father's in another castle."
One of the most recent scripts I've read was about the frontman for a Christian rock group who secretly snorts coke, drinks, and womanizes. A fun, ironic character, to be sure. Of course, he's his own worst enemy and winds up losing everything and teaching kids' choir in suburbia. At the end of the film, he picks up on one particular child's considerable talents and steals an original song from him in an effort to relaunch his career.

There was plenty of conflict between the protagonist and his bandmates, his fans, the priest at his church, and the choir kids. What, then, was the problem?

At issue was the fact that this guy started out being vain, selfish, and dislikable. He ended up as... well, vain, selfish, and dislikable. There are plenty of reasons behind why audiences go to see films: the visual effects, if it's based on an existing franchise with a built-in audience, a particular actor, and so on.

But I maintain that there's only one reason as to why audiences like a given story, whether high-budget studio or low-budget indie:

Character transition.

Over the course of your entire narrative (macrocosmic) and in every scene (microcosmic), your character must change. They cannot leave a scene, emotionally, the same way in which they entered it. They cannot leave your script, emotionally, the same way, either.

Look at Star Wars. In episodes IV through VI, Luke goes from country farmboy to savior of the galaxy and possessor of great wisdom. From angry and impulsive to cautious and measured. From hasty to responsible. Luke undergoes experiences, shakily walks the path of wisdom, then turns around and offers that wisdom to others. A nice, clean arc. Audiences like arcs.

In episodes I through III, however, we meet Luke's father, Anakin. Anakin starts out as angry, narcissistic, and whiny. In episode II, he's angry, narcissistic, whiny, and homicidal. In episode III, he's angry, narcissistic, whiny, and genocidal. Anakin doesn't arc. Sure, the new trilogy was a commercial blockbuster, but because of the built-in Star Wars brand. If episode I came out first and you had no further context, would the franchise have been taken seriously? How would you have convinced your friends to go see a film about a little boy and his six-foot, floppy-eared, frog friend trying to fight an army of droids?

To step back for a moment, consider that an audience, knowingly or not, projects itself onto your protagonist. A viewer can't help it. It's normal and natural. Whether a film, play, or novel, we instinctively search out bits of information about your protagonist that tell us, "I'm just like you. I want to be better than what I am."

By extension, I posit that it's far easier for your audience to like your protagonist, indeed to project themselves onto and invest themselves in the plight of your protagonist, if you make them relatable. How better to make a character relatable than to change them. And not only to change them, but to change their outlook on something to which we all relate.

The Harry Potter series is about a young man coming to terms with his own mortality. Will he master himself or fall prey to fear, as his nemesis has?

The Lord of the Rings series is about a young Hobbit coming to terms with desire. Will he master himself or fall prey to it, as his nemesis has?

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is about a young man coming to terms with the inevitability of how relationships change. Will he accept it or give up, as his former girlfriend apparently has?

The Shawshank Redemption is about a falsely convicted felon attempting to maintain hope in a hopeless situation. Will he keep it alive or give up, as the warden and guards want him to do?

If your plot question is whether your protagonist will succeed in his/her physical journey, your thematic question is: will your protagonist grow?

If you want to write something commercially (and critically) successful, your characters must change. Simple as that.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Three Attributes Your Protagonist Must Have

The bench was reserved for someone named, "Wet Paint."
I was giving coverage to a colleague's short science fiction screenplay just recently, when I noticed something missing. There was plenty of action, suspense, and conflict. It told a good, ironic tale about the dangers of drug abuse (in space). However, the more I read it, the more I found myself simply not identifying with the protagonist. I didn't like her. And it didn't have to be that way.

Whether a screenplay, stage play, novel, video game, or short story, there are fundamental character attributes that you must include. These are:

1. A Goal

Too many writers fall into the, "I'm just writing a character study" trap. If you'd like your story to be at all engaging, then you must give your protagonist a tangible goal. A noun. And not just any noun will do. Their goal must be the single most important noun that they have ever pursued in their life, and what's more, the audience must be made to see why it's as important to your protagonist as it is.

In Casablanca Rick wants Ilsa. In American Beauty, Lester wants Angela. In Finding Nemo, Marlin wants Nemo. In Up, Carl wants to move his house to Paradise Falls. In Star Wars, Luke wants to save the princess. In Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, Harold and Kumar want to go to White Castle. In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indiana wants the Holy Grail.

Characters need goals that spur them into action. The goal is the physical (as opposed to emotional) finish line. But as mentioned, we need to understand why these goals are important to the protagonist. The larger component of goal pursuit is the idea of emotional healing. Characters are hurt, and their pursuit of these goals, in their minds, will help them feel better.

Ilsa broke Rick's heart. Lester's wife, daughter, and employer give him no respect. Marlin lost most of his family. Carl lost his wife before he could keep a life-long promise to her. Luke couldn't protect his family. Harold and Kumar are dominated by parental expectations. Indiana has daddy issues. Across the board, we're dealing with characters who have issues. "Troubled people become people in trouble," as UCLA/Hollins screenwriting professor Tim Albaugh says.

What also helps to humanize them?

2. A Flaw

Perfect characters are boring. Your characters can't simply be victims. In some way, however small, your character must also be a victimizer. A little bit selfish. A little bit pigheaded. A little bit creepy. In a word, your character needs to be human.

Rick's wounded heart prevents him from giving Ilsa and her husband the letters of transit. Lester's a lousy role model and a creep. Marlin's a suffocating parent, overprotective to a fault. Carl resorts to violence when a construction worker touches his mailbox. Luke has a lot of anger within him. Harold and Kumar are layabout stoners. Indiana Jones wants to please his un-please-able father.

Not only are these characters flawed, but they see the world through their flaws. Their flaws are often their main characteristic, and it's through their flaws that they act. It's what needs to be fixed, so that these characters can end the script at a stage of completion, as having acquired wisdom. Wisdom with which they did not start out.

Every story is a coming-of-age story.

3. Compassion

Blake Snyder calls it "saving the cat." I call it common sense. Your character must be likable. Note that I didn't say "friendly" or "huggable." The Social Network's Mark Zuckerberg, There Will Be Blood's Daniel Plainview, and Citizen Kane's Charles Foster Kane are not your friends. However, they're the most interesting characters in the room. They have a deep dimensionality and rich complexity, and somewhere, deep down, they do have a soft spot for something. In Network, Mark just wants his girlfriend back. In Blood, Daniel just wants the family he never had. In Kane, Kane pines for the childhood that was denied him.

Despite how callous and selfish these characters are, who can't relate to what motivates them? True, we don't endorse their methods for doing it, but we understand how circumstances and psychology have forced their hands. How can you make a murderer sympathetic? Or a drug abuser? Or a pedophile? Just ask Dexter Morgan in James Manos, Jr.'s Dexter series, or Mark Renton in Danny Boyle's Trainspotting, or Ronnie McGorvey in Todd Field's Little Children. These characters, though more than occasionally reprehensible, evoke audience sympathy.

Despicable acts by sympathetic characters. The ones we relate to the most remind us, in some way, of mistakes we've made: promises broken, friends hurt, opportunities lost.

If nothing else, the best protagonists remind us that no matter how awful we've been, we can always be better.

Make sure your protagonist figures that out.