Tuesday, July 21, 2015

A Writer's One Job

Write something? Us?
Libraries are packed with books on how to write. I've even listed a few in a prior post. You should absolutely read and read and read some more if you want to write. After all, if you want to build a house or a car it's helpful to see a final version of one so you know what yours should resemble. At the very least they should both have doors and windows.

There are plenty of great teachers out there, many of whom even disagree on certain tenets. I once attended a lecture with two UCLA professors in which one of them encouraged those aspiring writers in attendance to write from character desire while the other implored his students to write from theme. Both professors had successful students. Who's right?

I encourage my students to read as much as possible and fixate on the points of agreement. Every writing teacher will tell you to include conflict, a protagonist, an antagonist (or antagonistic force), and an ending. Can't argue with that.

I have over 40 single-spaced, typed pages of notes with writing wisdom and advice I've collected from storytelling heavyweights like Hal Ackerman, Richard Walter, Tim Albaugh, Mari Kornhauser, Michael Arndt, Pete Docter, Joe Gilford, Kelly Fullerton, Barbara Chapman, and Blake Snyder, among others. However, what if I were to sum up all of the best advice I've ever received with a single statement? Impossible? Hardly.

In true writer-ly form, a writer's single job can be summed up in a sentence:

Create an amazing character.

That's it. Create an evocative, astonishing, surprising, relatable protagonist. If you do that, the character him/herself, by virtue of who they are, will create the story. Pixar's Andrew Stanton says, "Stories are inevitable if they're good, but they're not predictable." What makes stories inevitable? The character. What makes it unpredictable? How the character changes.

Walking into any Indiana Jones film, we know that Indiana will inevitably recover the artifact. In Star Wars, we know that Luke will rescue the princess. In Inside Out, we know that Joy will assuredly save Riley.

But we don't know how they'll do it. That comes down to character. How Luke would do it is very different from how Indiana would do it, which is very different from how Joy would do it.

Could The Big Lebowski have been as memorable without The Dude? Could There Will Be Blood have been as kinetic and catastrophic if Daniel Plainview was someone else? Would Clueless have become the cultural touchstone it did without Alicia Silverstone's Cher? As if! Character is everything.

Of course, this is easier said than done. An amazing character is many things: flawed, wounded, fearful, courageous, powerful, weak, wise, silly, jealous, lazy, bright, slow, talented, and far more. An amazing character is us, in other words.

The character creates the story. To put it even better, the character is the story. Who is yours?

Write on.

Jared teaches screenwriting at Emerson College and Salem State University. His creative work has appeared on MTV Networks, in the Tribeca Film Festival, and the Austin Film Festival. He offers screenplay coverage at www.screenplay.guru.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Six Steps to the Next Step

"Relax, guys. It's just my first draft."
I was recently asked a really good question by a member of my writing group: "Will my script be ready after a rewrite?"

That depends on your definitions of "ready" and "rewrite." David Koepp, writer of Jurassic Park and Spider-Man said that he's successful because he can tolerate 17 drafts. Scott Kosar, writer of The Machinist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, claims that he only wrote one and a half drafts of the former before it was green-lit. So what's the answer?

First off, a first draft is your plot draft. Your barf draft. Whatever colorful name you have for it, it's the draft that delivers the wood, cement, plaster, and bricks to the building site. But it is in no way a completed house. For all intents and purposes, a first draft is never, ever the final draft. Accepting this is a major hurdle in drawing the distinction between amateur and professional writers.

Assuming you're done after a first draft is assuming you can build a Frank Lloyd Wright house on the first try, and not even Frank Lloyd Wright himself did it right the first time. But whereas you can look at a house and discover reasonably quickly the parts that need more attention, a script's weaknesses can be more subtle.

There are several methods at your disposal to find out which rooms to improve and which to knock down:

1. Let it Sit

Take a week. Two weeks. A month. As much time as you can stand away from your baby. The more time, the better. Then return to it with a fresh eye. Does that dialogue still work? Is that scene still necessary? Is that character still required? Is that plot line a dead end?

2. Print it Out

I'm not really sure what the scientific explanation is for this but follow me, here. Back in college, despite the magic of spelling and grammar check, I discovered nearly twice as many mistakes upon proofreading a paper copy of an essay than I did rereading it on my computer screen. Print out your script. Keep a pen in your hand. Make lots of notes. Having a physical copy (as opposed to a virtual one) of your thought processes can be a major help in identifying the parts that work and the pieces that don't.

3. Join a Writers' Group

In graduate school at Hollins University, I took a course in which about a dozen fellow screenwriters would sit around a table to read and workshop each other's scripts. Led by an experienced professor, the sessions were invaluable in teaching me what worked and what didn't. When I brought in 10 pages to workshop that I thought were great, only to hear the group unanimously agree that they could be far stronger... well, those were the moments of my greatest education. Everyone's goal is the same, and that's to see you as the best writer you can be.

Since finishing at Hollins, I started Cambridge Screenwriters in Boston, which is now the largest established screenwriting group in New England. The modus operandi of Cambridge Screenwriters is precisely like the workshopping elements of my grad school: bring in your work for us to read and critique. However you do it, finding (or creating) a community of like-minded writers can be a tremendous asset to your development. Even Academy Award-winning screenwriter Paul Haggis has brought his work to such groups for constructive feedback. Their value can't be understated, and can give you that much-needed second look.

4. Let Mom Read It


4. Coverage

Full discosure: I offer coverage. Coverage is the act of a professional reader looking over your script and giving you a comprehensive breakdown of its strong points and weak elements. There are a lot of coverage services out there. Check their testimonials and their records. Never a bad idea to even try more than one. If a few professional readers all agree on a specific point, then that's likely well worth discovering. Coverage comes with a price, but in my experience, it has been a huge help to have an experienced set of eyes reading and rereading my work. I want it to be great, and I believe it worth the investment.

5. Competitions

A great way to spread the word about your work is by entering it into screenplay contests and festivals. There are hundreds of them, all of which have entry fees. Should you just pick some at random and hope for the best? No! Despite the number of opportunities, there are roughly 10 competitions that are absolutely worth the price, and these are the contests on which you should focus like a protagonist on a goal. Rather than mere cash prizes, these contests have proven track records of exposing their winners to representation, which is far and away more valuable. These are:

The Nicholl Fellowship, Bluecat, PAGE, TrackingB, Script Pipeline, Austin, Sundance Screenwriters Lab, CineStory, and Zoetrope. I might write a future post about the virtues of each of these in particular. Some of these competitions, including Bluecat, offer coverage as part of the evaluation process.

6. Read

Good readers make good writers. Reading expands your vocabulary and exposes you to characters and conflicts that can help you through your own creative roadblocks. With your script in hand, grab a screenwriting book by a writer you respect and determine if your own work fits the bill.

I recommend the following:

The Complete Screenwriters Manual
Stephen Bowles, Ronald Mangravite, Peter Zorn

Essentials of Screenwriting
Richard Walter

Writing Screenplays that Sell
Hal Ackerman

The Writer's Journey
Christopher Vogler

The Power of Film
Howard Suber

The Hero with a Thousand Faces
Joseph Campbell

The War of Art
Steven Pressfield
(at least the first two thirds)

The Screenwriter Within
D. B. Gilles

Paul Chitlik

Save the Cat (weird title, great book)
Blake Snyder

The Art of Dramatic Writing
Lajos Egri

Why Does the Screenwriter Cross the Road?
Joe Gilford

David Magee, screenwriter of Finding Neverland and Life of Pi said, "If you ask 100 writers how they made it, you'll receive 100 different answers." I absolutely agree, and any one of these methods (or perhaps none of them) will ease you closer to your goals. But I'm positive that none of them can hurt, and that's an encouraging thought.

Write on.

Jared teaches screenwriting at Emerson College and Salem State University. His creative work has appeared on MTV Networks, in the Tribeca Film Festival, and the Austin Film Festival. He offers screenplay coverage at www.screenplay.guru.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Better Call Lajos Egri

"Premise time!"
I love to read, and I'm convinced that the best writers are avid readers. After all, if media excites you, you can learn how to make it excite others.

I'm often asked to recommend screenwriting books. While different screenwriting teachers have different points of view, I think it's worth paying most attention to the elements on which they all agree (i.e., conflict, character development, strong premise). The most recent one I've read far and away belongs in a prime space on your bookshelf.

I refer to The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri. Originally published in the 1940s, it was first recommended to me by Tim Albaugh of Hollins University and UCLA. Upon reading it, I've discovered how much a debt screenwriting classics such as Blake Snyder's Save the Cat, Richard Walter's Essentials of Screenwriting, and Hal Ackerman's Writing Screenplays that Sell owe to Egri's work.

Save the Cat discusses the need for a strong logline to precede the writing process. Snyder alludes to the logline as the story's central pillar, the touchstone to which a writer must adhere through thick and thin.

Egri boils this down to an even more elementary principle: the premise. A premise consists of multiple elements, expressed as simply as possible:

1. A point of view. Pick a side. What are you trying to say? What's your voice?
2. A defining character element. Blind belief? Unchecked ambition? Excessive pride? Overprotection? Status obsession?
3. A logical end result of said character element. Tragedy? Death? Loss? The conquering of death?
4. Irony. How does the premise deliver an unexpected turn?

Romeo & Juliet = Love conquers death.
Finding Nemo = Overprotection leads to loss.
Macbeth = Ruthless ambition leads to destruction.
The Social Network = Obsession with status leads to isolation.
Casablanca = Compassion conquers hopelessness.
Birdman = Self-delusion leads to loss.

How do I imagine a premise? I take a page out of Hal Ackerman's book and imagine my character's low point. In his treatise, Ackerman mentions that the most important element you need to know in a screenplay is what happens on page 90. Page 90 is traditionally the act break from II to III. It's the protagonist's emotional low point. It's what the protagonist least desires. The character is as far as possible from what they need. It's also the logical result of their defining characteristic.

Therefore, if you're stuck with regards to formulating a premise, start here:

[Flaw] leads to [low point].

The premise is the DNA of your protagonist. And as character = story, it's the DNA of your plot as well. Every scene and character act must be rooted in the premise. It defines your character, it defines your story. Every piece of your story is a microcosm of the premise. And if you populate your story with complex characters who prove the premise, then most of the heavy lifting you must perform as a writer is done.

Egri also discusses his differences with Aristotle, namely regarding the relationship between character and story (Egri takes the position that character creates story - one with which I agree). And that a truly three-dimensional character must be plotted via the three dimensions of physiology, sociology, and psychology. How a character looks, the circumstances of their environment, and who they are within will each play paramount roles in the actions the character performs to attain his/her desire.

The idea of a unity of opposites also appears in Egri's work. How do circumstances force a character to act? How is compromise impossible, both within and without? Every script, indeed, every scene, must have a winner and a loser. Egri writes, "If we are given the opportunity of seeing how a murderer is forced by necessity, environment, and inner and outer contradictions to commit a crime, we are witnessing the unity of opposites in action."

This is the bedrock upon which shows like Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul  are built. How have circumstances forced Walter White into becoming a meth kingpin? What circumstances forced naive young Jimmy McGill to become jaded, cynical Saul Goodman? This is unity of opposites. This is Egri.

As mentioned, the more you read, the better a writer you'll be. If you read Egri, case in point.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Larger than Life

Mess up again and I'll hit you in the face with a T-Rex.
"You can go for years saying, 'I'm gonna get this thing real,' because they really haven't seen it real, do you know? They just keep seeing one fashion of unreal after the other that passes as real and you go mad with realism and then you come up against someone like Stanley [Kubrick] who says, 'Yeah it's real, but it's not interesting.'" - Jack Nicholson

I can recall a surprise guest in one of my undergraduate classes: Richard Dreyfuss. He screened Captain Blood. It was every bit a swashbuckling Errol Flynn pirate flick as you can imagine. Once the film was over, Dreyfuss noted the fair number of "real world" films that were packing the box office.

He said, to paraphrase, "When I go to a film, I want to be taken away. Give me The Wizard of Oz. Give me pirates. Anything that doesn't hold up a mirror to the everyday."

I wondered for years if that meant that he didn't like films about suburban angst, yuppie love lost, and low-budget indies about middle-class people doing middle-class things. When Richard Dreyfuss went to the multiplex, did he automatically filter out American Beauty in favor of the latest Pirates of the Caribbean?

More to the point, which was better to write? Should I focus on writing stories that ship audiences to Narnia, Middle-Earth, Hogwarts, or Jurassic Park? But why would I do that when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences seems to favor lower-budget, suburban-set fare such as Juno or Little Miss Sunshine?

It took me a while, but I figured out the answer.

Was Richard Dreyfuss right?

Yes. Sorta.

Here's the thing: Dreyfuss likes stories that are larger than life. But so do we all. The Wizard of Oz takes place in a faraway, munchkin-filled kingdom with an ornery witch. Harry Potter takes place at Hogwarts. Captain Blood commits romantic, sword-swinging piracy on the high seas. These take us away just as Dreyfuss said.

But is an unusual setting the only element of storytelling that has that power? Of course not. So what's the key element?

Once you apply the idea of "larger than life" to everything in your story, it all falls into place.

American Beauty takes place in a suburban setting, liberally peppered with angst, insecurity, lust, and powerlessness. But its characters are awesome. We cheer for Lester with every scrap of respect he recovers.

Little Miss Sunshine presents us with a dysfunctional family on an even more dysfunctional road trip. But every family member is nuanced, complex, and fascinating.

Juno, also set in a quiet suburb, asks if a pregnant teen with a mistake-riddled history can make the ultimate right decision.

You don't need to send us to Saturn and beyond, such as in Christopher Nolan's Interstellar, to take your audience away. You can do it in an office building. You can do it in the suburbs. You can do it at a Starbucks. The point is, as a writer, you must ask yourself:

What in my story is larger than life? Is it the characters? The setting? The central conflict?

Ideally, it should be everything. You'll turn every audience member into a wide-eyed five-year-old as they experience your story. Bring them from wonderment to wonderment. And that doesn't necessarily mean that you must bring them from Munchkin-Land to the Emerald City. It means that your characters had better damn well be titanic, compromise-proof forces of nature. Larger than life. Bake it into everything you write.

Take Damien Chazelle's Whiplash. We're taken to an exclusive music academy in the heart of Manhattan. But this isn't a story of witches, dinosaurs, dragons, or multidimensional travel. It's about a boy who wants to be the best drummer in the world and a teacher who would probably sneer at the Sistine Chapel as a pedestrian artistic effort. This is a story about an unstoppable force smashing into an immovable object. It's about real people with real dreams doing real things, sure. There are no ruby slippers or rings of power. But it's really freakin' interesting.

A music school likely wouldn't be at the top of anyone's list of exotic locales. But Andrew and Fletcher are gigantic, fantastic personalities. They are larger than life in their motivations, actions, goals, and desires. They are complex and richly layered. So what if Andrew's goal isn't to save the world or if Fletcher's dream isn't to be the first man to walk on Mars? The film convinces us that to these characters, saving the world and walking on Mars amount to mere molehills when compared to what they really want. They're both convinced that there's nothing more important, and they will move heaven and earth to pursue their goals.

Best of all? We're on board. We don't want to see Andrew save the world. We want to see him become the best drummer the world has ever seen. Any art form that can invest us in the story of an awkward, hapless music student, a good-hearted pregnant teen, a family driving their smallest member to a youth beauty pageant, or a creepy father pursuing a high school cheerleader is doing its job. Their stakes become our stakes.

Does this hold up a mirror, like Dreyfuss cautioned us against? Sure, but it's not a mirror to the everyday. The best characters take us away and show us a place far more interesting than Oz, Middle-Earth, Hogwarts, Jurassic Park, or Narnia.

They show us themselves, or more accurately, they show us versions of ourselves pushed to extremes. Best of all, they're really, really amazing characters. Write your characters as the most intriguing folks your audience has ever met. Larger than life. Let them take us away!

Monday, December 22, 2014

My Favorite Films of 2014

It's awards season. That's good news for audiences and writers, alike. The former because it's important to remember how important good storytelling is. The latter because the storyteller must be in a constant state of self-education. How can we, as writers, become better? Foremost by writing, but also by reading and watching successful stories. What makes for a commercial and critical success, such as awards-season fare?

As a trained (and continually aspiring) writer, I like to be reminded of why I went into writing in the first place. So I'd like to offer a different sort of top list. This is targeted primarily toward those with an interest in storytelling and character development. What makes certain stories work? Which employ the tenets of good storytelling effectively? What makes them my favorites of the year?

Each of these has something in common. Namely, they're about the process of becoming leaders, both willing and not. What does it take to lead? What mistakes must be avoided? Can just anyone call the shots? This year's best films ask these questions.

In no particular order:

The Lego Movie
Written and Directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller
Protagonist: Emmet
Tangible goal: Emmet must prove himself "The Special" by using the piece of resistance to destroy the "kragel" super-weapon.
Character flaw: Emmet tries too hard to fit in.
Theme: Prove yourself special by being yourself.

With a cast of dynamite characters and enough cultural references to even make Shrek blush, The Lego Movie is an exercise in balancing fan service with phenomenal storytelling. Emmet's goal is simple and clear-cut. In a world where so many things are the same, what can stand out? Not just Emmet, of course, but everyone. The critical element about the concept of "special" is that it always changes. Unlike the permanent-glue state in which Lord Business wants to preserve his world, to be truly special isn't about being unique: it's about becoming unique. Everything is awesome, indeed.

The Imitation Game
Directed by Morten Tyldum
Adapted by Graham Moore
Protagonist: Alan Turing
Tangible goal: Alan Turing must crack the Nazis' Enigma code.
Character flaw: Alan Turing's refusal to trust others jeopardizes the very existence of the machine that may be the allies' only hope.
Theme: Trust others and they will come to trust you.

What makes a hero? Is it one who puts their passions aside for others? Is it one who makes the tough call that the needs of the many outweigh the lives of the few? Perhaps more importantly, how do we treat those we brand as heroes? No less than the entire allied effort of World War II is at stake in The Imitation Game, the once-secret true story of the allied effort to break "unbreakable" Nazi codes. A film about secrets and those who keep them, mathematician Alan Turing's extreme introversion, mistaken as vanity by his peers, threatens to derail the one good lead the British forces have at cracking Enigma. But who is Alan Turing? Is he all that he appears to be? How is a man who is possibly the world's foremost expert in code-breaking quite possibly himself the world's greatest cypher? Excellent performances by Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley turn a film about a room full of eggheads into an ever-engaging, heartbreaking tale about how the human heart is possibly the most unbreakable code of all.

Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu
Written by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo
Protagonist: Riggan Thomson
Tangible goal: Riggan Thomson must successfully run his Broadway adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story.
Character flaw: Riggan wants to matter to everyone for the wrong reasons.
Theme: Far better to matter to just one person than to be a spectacle to everyone.

Be somebody. Easier said than done? Emma Stone's Sam shrieks to her father, Riggan, "You’re doing this because you’re scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don’t matter. And you know what? You’re right. You don’t." Birdman is a lot of things, but it never lies to its audience. As much a critique of itself as it is of the very industry it lampoons, it treads the fine line between those who stand on pedestals and those who are the pedestals. What is a celebrity worth but the value his/her audience ascribes to them? Do performers perform for performance's sake? Is it the performance itself or the results or rewards of the performance that drives them? At once silly, surreal, dark, uncomfortable, and ultimately incisive, Birdman gives us a cast of characters who are each desperate for adoration while asking what any of them have done that's remotely worthy of it. If Riggan only ever mattered because he was once Birdman, then this film is about how Riggan can matter by being himself.

How to Train Your Dragon 2

Written and Adapted by Dean DeBlois
Protagonist: Hiccup
Tangible goal: Hiccup and friends must stop Drago's conquest of the known world.
Character flaw: Hiccup's too reluctant to lead.
Theme: Leadership – indeed, heroism – means putting yourself on the line for the good of others.

An unusual sequel that builds and expands upon the considerable strength of its predecessor, How to Train Your Dragon 2 gives us more dragons, more action, and most importantly, more Hiccup. The second block of a trilogy, another (albeit more boring) title for the franchise could be, How to Be a Kick-Ass Leader. We're sitting front row to Hiccup's education in how to become a brave, forthright chief. Like Lego, we're treated to another simple story (with a far less humorous and arguably more dangerous antagonist) with an ever-complex protagonist who finds clever, unexpected ways to outwit his nemeses and bring honor to himself and his kin. Hiccup (and his dragon, Toothless) is presented with a number of different leaders and leadership styles over the course of the film, ultimately shaping him into a capable commander who trusts, relies upon, and values his lieutenants. After all, as Reverend Charles Bayard Miliken of Methodist Episcopal in Chicago (and Harry Potter's Sirius Black) said, "It is the way one treats his inferiors more than the way he treats his equals which reveals one’s real character." 

Written and Directed by John Michael McDonagh
Protagonist: Father James
Tangible goal: Father James must find a way to survive after an anonymous parishioner threatens to kill him in a week.
Character flaw: Father James sees the townsfolk as a collection of problems to be fixed.
Theme: Compassion is the best way to prove yourself as a true example to others.

John Michael McDonagh clearly shares his brother Martin's (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) considerable talent and pulls off an explosive story of sin, redemption, and sacrifice. When a vengeful victim of a pedophile priest targets good Father James for assassination, Father James must not only contemplate fleeing rather than be crucified for the sins of others, but also what would be best for his flock, all of whom are quite obviously sinful, themselves. As an unappreciated (perhaps the most unappreciated) member of his community, how can those who sin without a care in the world come to care for a priest whose mere presence reminds them of how much better they could have been? What can Father James do in a week to save his life and change - truly change - a town who seems to have passed him by? What will it take to save them? Are they worth saving? Is Father James?

Honorable mentions:

The Theory of Everything
Directed by James Marsh
Adapted by Anthony McCarten
The marriage of physicist Stephen Hawking is our protagonist. While I found the film of average quality, it was Eddie Redmayne's breakout performance as Hawking that far and away stole the show. He is the one to beat for Best Actor.

Written and Directed by Richard Linklater
Childhood and growing up never really end. What kind of a man is Mason going to be? Like Dragon's Hiccup, he's presented with a series of potential role models, all of whom shape him into the man he will be for the rest of his life. And while the story takes a long time to bring us there, we ultimately like him.

Written and Directed by Damien Chazelle
Like a negative-space Dead Poets Society, we're treated to a music professor who encourages greatness in his protégé, an aspiring drummer, by tearing him to microscopic shreds. Every scene is a powder keg. It will make you shake as you ask what you're willing to pay for greatness.

Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée
Adapted by Nick Hornby
Love and loss are two of my favorite archetypal themes (indeed, once you're past a certain age, they're unavoidable) and Wild treats us to Reese Witherspoon's career-best performance in an exploration thereof. After the death of her beloved mother (a masterful Laura Dern), a spiraling young woman hikes the 1,000-mile Pacific Crest Trail in search of a home she doesn't have. As an avid hiker and road-tripper, I found the cinematography and moments of solitude amidst nature particularly resonant.

Not sure which of these to see? See them all. Support storytelling. And remember:

"If your destination is the journey, you are the map." - Me

Happy holidays!

Monday, November 10, 2014

Austin Film Festival Notes

Not actual size.
The Austin Film Festival and Conference was held this past month in sunny, hip Austin, Texas. It was my first time at the festival, and it was a thrill.

My action drama sci-fi script, Seize the Sky, was a second-round selection in the screenplay competition. I had heard a terrific podcast on The Handsome Timmy D Express with screenwriter (and Austin alum) Mike Sundy. He had great advice for Austin attendees, but what stuck with me the most was his emphasis on horizontal networking, as opposed to vertical networking. This is the idea that you'll gain more creative and professional traction from connecting with people at the same professional level at which you are (i.e., other filmmakers with official selections, other second-rounders, other semi-finalists) than with people at professional levels above you (i.e., the writer of Groundhog Day, the writer of Guardians of the Galaxy). I took this to heart while attending the festival, and it was the right way to go.

First off, the festival had booked a phenomenal set of panelists. Quite often, there'd be up to a dozen panels running concurrently and my biggest problem was deciding whether to attend the panel with Tom Schulman (Dead Poets Society), Linda Woolverton (Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Maleficent), Craig Borten (Dallas Buyers Club), or Matthew Weiner (Mad Men). Inevitably, I missed some great speakers but the panels I attended were still creative juggernauts for the mind.

Dig BBQ? REALLY dig BBQ? You need to be here.
The festival organizers asked that attendees refrain from taking photographs of the panelists. However, I took a lot of notes at the panels, and I'm pleased to share some with you.

For the most part, the panelists discussed a broad array of topics, relating to the craft and business of screenwriting. I'm reminded of a talk David Magee (Finding Neverland, Life of Pi) gave at Emerson College once, in which he said that if you asked 100 writers how they broke in, you'd receive 100 different answers. While that's true, the AFF helped me discover some commonalities to every writer's experience, which I take as encouraging.

The first panel I attended was with Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King, Behind the Candelabra, The Bridges of Madison County), Michael H. Weber ((500) Days of Summer), and Vanessa Taylor (Hope Springs, Divergent, Game of Thrones). The theme of the panel was Romancing the Screenplay, including a discussion about writing the process of romantic love into a script.

Among the tips were:

1. Romance means knowing thyself. What truths have you personally learned that will translate into an on-screen construction (or deconstruction) of two people coming together?

2. "Normal is just a disguise word - there is no normal."

3. A good jumping-off point when you're stuck is to ask, "What would really happen?" and then take it from there. Veer from that, if necessary. Defy how other films have done it.

4. Have a strong obstacle.

I then attended a roundtable discussion in which I was able to speak with Danny Rubin (Groundhog Day), Jason Headley (It's Not About the Nail), and Vanessa Taylor. Headley mentioned how Michael Arndt's (Little Miss. Sunshine, Toy Story 3) work had influenced him, especially with regards to character stakes. It was the first time I had heard mention of philosophical stakes in addition to external stakes (plot) and internal stakes (theme). If external is the pursuit of the tangible goal and internal is the emotional goal, then philosophical refers to the values of the wider community versus the individual. How are these reconciled? Or are they?

The next panel I attended was held with John August (Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), Franklin Leonard (creator of The Blacklist), and Ilyse McKimmie (Feature Film Program Director, Sundance Labs). They went over the first three pages of a few competition scripts and discussed what made them want to read the remaining 90-100 pages.

While a lot of good tips were thrown at the audience, my biggest takeaway was the idea of energy. Namely, scripts need to have it. Sounds obvious, right? But even in my own classes back in cozy New England, it astounds me how often my students will write in a scene in which a character sits and thinks or sits and studies or naps or sleeps. Keep us moving! It's lights, camera, action! Not lights, camera, sit! Film is a visual medium and should be written as such. Other takeaways:

1. Good enough is never good enough. Be beyond exceptional.

2. Activate the passive.

3. Exude full confidence in your story.

My next panel was with the venerable Tom Schulman, who wrote Dead Poets Society. He spoke of working with director Peter Weir and how they encouraged improv among the cast of the film. On writing, Schulman encouraged us to "trust your instincts amidst the pressure" and to ask ourselves "what does it mean to rebel?" I think you can expand that even further and ask yourself, "what does it mean to ____?" where the blank represents the theme of your film. In Dead Poets, since it refers to rebelling, how do characters show their resistance to change?

The following panel was about development hell and featured Craig Borten, co-writer of my favorite film of 2013, Dallas Buyers Club. Did you know that from concept to finished film, it took 20 years for Dallas Buyers to be made? Holy crap. Borten's persistence and patience paid off, but it was a sobering reminder of how difficult it could be to achieve any measure of success.

Borten discussed writing characters who were outliers and yet how important it was to show them going about their everyday tasks. Of course, how you and I perform everyday tasks would be quite different from how Dallas Buyers's Ron Woodroof would do it. Borten also cautioned against excessive sentimentality and discussed how characters are often defined by their fates: how it took a death sentence for Woodroof to really begin to live. "A decent character," Borten said, "will never run out of plot. Make the mundane interesting."

The following morning, I attended a panel on comedy writing. The panelists included Steve Faber (We're the Millers, Wedding Crashers), Phil Rosenthal (Everybody Loves Raymond), and Ed Solomon (Men in Black, Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure). It was a lively (and hysterical) discussion. Notes of note include:

1. If you're writing a comedy, line it up like a drama all the same. The stakes still need to be important to the character and the audience. There still must be an element of dramatic truth inherent. What would carry the story if it wasn't a comedy?

2. Humor = tragedy + time.

3. Start with an actual situation and push it into different directions. Then keep pushing.

4. Jokes come last. Story comes first. If need be, go to the darkest place and then bring it back from there.

5. When it comes to developing your own voice, in what are you the only expert?

The next panel included Tom Schulman, Craig Borten, and Jim Uhls (Fight Club). The panel's theme was Status Quo and how characters attempt to fit into and/or subvert it. Takeaways:

1. All films ought to be somehow subversive, embracing the idea of rejecting the status quo. And make the audience agree with a character's reasons for wanting to upend it. After all, hope for the character in many ways means hope for ourselves.

2. The character who changes the most is usually the most interesting character.

3. A character typically starts out with a desire to change things for themselves and ultimately changes things for everyone.

4. Steps in rebelling against the status quo are your main plot points.

5. There must be consequences for the rebellion. What is sacrificed?

6. Characters want to live. How do they define that for themselves?

The following discussion I attended was with Linda Woolverton, the screenwriter behind Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Alice in Wonderland, and Maleficient. The panel topic was Heroes, Villains, and Happily Ever After. Ideas from this panel included:

1. Very often, the captive changes the captor.

2. What are the constant, direct threats?

3. Why is every character the way they are?

4. Sidekicks reflect the tone, but they also must possess their own stakes and agendas.

5. What's the element of tragedy around each character?

6. What is the story's emotional center? This is why you're writing the story in the first place.

I then attended a talk entitled "Writing Relatable Space Raccoons" with Nicole Perlman (Guardians of the Galaxy). She mentioned how important it was to write down as many ideas as possible, to pay attention to how characters grow together, and ultimately how vulnerability leads to compassion for not only heroes but also for villains.

My final panel was with Mary Coleman, Senior Development Executive at Pixar. It was a hands-on panel, by which I mean that the attendees actually moved about to define signature gestures for ourselves as well as for our characters. A signature gesture is an integrated element, a repeated action a character performs that helps to define a core characteristic. Examples:

1. "Cross your heart!" in Up.

2. WALL-E's desire to hold EVE's hand in WALL-E.

3. Maximus's grasping of the soil beneath his feet in Gladiator.

Signature gestures reinforce that films are visual, and that it's important to write for the eye rather than the ear. This was an enjoyable workshop, and it was nice to stand up and perform after so many seated discussions.

Overall, I was extremely impressed with the AFF. If the hard part is choosing a panel out of so many awesome ones, then they must be doing something right. Quite often, some panelists would appear at the hotel bar, available to talk to any attendees. Even better, everyone in attendance was united by the desire to tell the best damn stories we possibly could. I met some terrific fellow writers and I look forward to keeping up with their endeavors as well as hopefully working with them on future projects.

While at Austin, I came up with an idea for a feature script as well as a pilot. It goes to show, I suppose, that in spending time with the inspirational, you can't help but take a little inspiration for yourself. If the lessons of the AFF are to write, collaborate, and cheer each other on, then I aspire to continue.

I hope this was helpful. In the continuing spirit of AFF, let me know if I could be of any help on your project(s)!

Monday, September 22, 2014

Wound Up

She's a little bit rock 'n roll, he's a lot country. 
Why is your story about one character as opposed to another? If your tale takes place in a city of 7,000,000 people, there are at least 7,000,000 stories there. How do you know which is the most compelling to explore? Which will keep your audience riveted for an entire novel? Or film?

Ideally, your focus will be on the character who has the furthest to grow. The one who has the greatest odds stacked against him. The one with the most to lose. The one with the most relatable wound.

How do wounds happen to characters? Well, how do they happen to us? In one of two ways: passive and active. Passive would be if a forest fire burned your house to the ground through no fault of your own. Active would be if you were the one playing with matches in the woods. Either way, you'll wind up a changed person. However in only one of those examples does the situation paint a more complex, detailed picture of a character.

Either way, if your house burns down, we can learn a lot about you. What do you prioritize? Who/what do you save first? Do you shake a fist at the skies? Do you start rebuilding immediately? But a character who inadvertently burns down her own house instantly has us asking questions. She immediately invests us. Something's wrong. She's troubled. And the best stories are about troubled people becoming people in trouble.

To boil it down simply, the flaw creates the wound. A character's defining characteristic directly causes the inciting incident. In the beginning of your story, your protagonist digs themselves into a mighty hole with a backhoe, and the bulk of your tale is you handing them an olive fork to dig themselves out.

In The Social Network, Mark's flaw is that he's status-obsessed. He creates the wound by demeaning Erica at dinner. She leaves. He spends the rest of the film trying to recover her.

In Finding Nemo, Marlin's flaw is that he's overprotective. He creates the wound by demeaning his son at school. Nemo's abducted. Marlin spends the rest of the film trying to save him.

In Dallas Buyers Club, Ron Woodroof is a homophobe who believes himself invincible. His fast and loose 1980s lifestyle leads to his contraction of HIV, and he spends the rest of the film trying to save his own life as well as the lives of all those infected.

In Casablanca, Rick's broken heart threatens to put Ilsa and Laszlo into unspeakable danger. He spends the film working his way through his bitterness to ultimately make the right decision at the key moment.

In Jurassic Park, Alan Grant doesn't like kids (to an extreme). Then he's thrown into a situation wherein he must save two of them from becoming dinosaur chow. At least one of the children ends up saving his life in the process, and by the end of the film he has a child under each arm, sleeping up against him. Who'd have thought?

Bottom line, your character, by virtue of who they are, must land themselves into huge trouble. By virtue of who they can be and should be, they pull themselves out. When who they are turns into who they can be, their potential, there's your story.

Friday, August 15, 2014

What's on Page 12?

Someone will believe you.
Writing isn't something you just do for fun. You do it because you love the act of creation. The act of making something exist that previously didn't. Of making someone else feel because of something you made. If you sit down every day and write, whether your work sits on your hard drive or the bestseller list on Amazon, you're a writer.

But no one's good at it on the first try. That's why not everyone is a writer. They try it, think they've written something not too shabby, pass it around, and receive a generally lukewarm reception. "I guess I'm not a writer," they say, and continue on with their lives, not-writing. It's like sitting at a piano for the first time and expecting to be Mozart or Marvin Hamlisch. But Mozart and Hamlisch sat down at the piano every day for years and very likely sucked the first time they did it. Maybe even the second time. Maybe even the first dozen times. And beyond that. But we don't hear about those early days. We hear their music as it sounded at the peak of their form.

That can be you. Of course it can. But you need to realize that most of your writing will suck. With courage, you'll realize that if you do it every day, each day it will suck just a bit less. But it's painfully incremental. It takes a patience on the order of years, which again is why so many people spend their lives not-writing. "A thankless, no-paying job that I park myself down to do day after day, year after year? No thanks." As writers, we can understand that. Not everyone is cut out for the job, just as not everyone is cut out to be an astronaut. But being an astronaut is really cool. So is being a writer. If not more so. After all, more people read books or watch films than watch astronauts.

UCLA's Hal Ackerman says, "The reason most of us write is corny, it's sentimental, it's tragically unhip, but it's the truth. We do it because it's what we want to do."


David Koepp, screenwriter of Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible, and Spider-Man, has mentioned that he's successful because he can tolerate 17 drafts. Often, a writer presents me with a first draft script, I mark it up considerably, pass it back to them, and they scratch their head, thinking that what they had given me was the next Writers Guild award-winner. The issue is that they presented me with a first draft script. Or even a second draft. Or a 10th. Or even a shooting script.

Point being: writers have a lot of obstacles to overcome. I'd posit that nearly half (if not more) of those obstacles exist solely in the mind of the writer. You have to accept that your work won't be very good on the first try, just as your first time playing Beethoven's Für Elise won't be up to Beethoven's standards. But do yourself a favor and do more than accept it: expect it. If you expect magnificent writing to flow from you the first time you put pen to paper, you're setting yourself up for an impossible standard. But if you expect that you'll have more work to do after the first, second, and third drafts, then that's a large part of what separates the professionals from the amateurs. The writers from the not-writers. The fruits of any creative labor can almost certainly be made even better. That applies to writers, painters, sculptors, musicians, and anyone working in the arts.

There's an apocryphal story about an older gentleman strolling into an art gallery, setting up a stool in front of a displayed artwork, and painting over a part of the canvas with his own addition. Horrified, a security guard barreled over and the painter revealed that the work on the original canvas was his own. He was merely "fixing" his own painting to his own specifications.

When I was stuck on page 11 of my 2010 science fiction comedy short, Timothy Feathergrass, I sought the advice of local screenwriter (and scribe of Groundhog Day) Danny Rubin. "All of my ideas suck," I told him, "It's all too complicated and I'm bogged in the minutiae. I'm stuck on page 11."

He asked, "What's on page 12?"

"Nothing. I'm stuck, remember?"

He said, "Any writing is better than nothing. Just plow forward. Even if you think your idea is terrible. You can always turn a bad idea into a better one. But if your page 12 is blank, then what are you going to do with it?"

Sage wisdom. I indeed plowed ahead. Page 12 indeed sucked. But with time and effort and rewrites and coffee, it turned from a chunk of marble into something resembling a sculpture.

In your own writing, don't mistake the chunk of marble for the statue. Take your time. Take the effort. Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. You're a writer, after all. That's your job, isn't it?

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Eight Story Fixes

Congratulations! The easy part's over.
Something's wrong. You can't put your finger on it, but that brand new manuscript you've been working on for years lacks that something that Stephen King, George R. R. Martin, and R. A. Salvatore have in spades. Or maybe it's your screenplay that for some reason lacks the snappy dialogue you'd expect from a Quentin Tarantino or Aaron Sorkin script. Or your play that's missing the emotional gravitas of an Edward Albee, Martin McDonagh, or Tom Stoppard work. Maybe a short story that aspires to be regarded like the works of James Joyce or John Updike.

Whatever it is, it's yours. You wrote something. You're a writer. And that's awesome. Period.

But could it be better? How?

1. Setting Fatigue

In J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, most of the series's action takes place in a single location: Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. But the location is really interesting. There are even chapter and book titles named after the various rooms and places on the castle grounds (i.e., The Unknowable Room, The Chamber of Secrets, The Forbidden Forest). The point is, a film audience will grow tired of a single setting after about three minutes. Unless it's the site of a major action set piece (i.e., a race track, a boxing ring, a shootout), if it's in a screenplay, you have about three pages per setting before the scene becomes more of a stage play.

One setting. A zillion possibilities.
But what about a stage play? In so many, most (if not all) of the action takes place in the same place. Neil Simon's Plaza Suite? Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman? How is it that a play can do it but a screenplay usually can't?

In a play, oftentimes a single setting is used (at first) as a blank slate - be it a hotel room in Plaza Suite or a backyard in Arthur Miller's All My Sons. In examples such as these, it's the characters who use the setting (itself arguably a character) to its maximum potential, and no such setting is ever chosen arbitrarily.

In a film, however, you have a bit over 100 pages to move us from place to place to place. Keep it moving, and take us to locations that we don't expect. As much thought should be given to your settings as to your characters.

2. Flat Protagonist

Write or I'll jump out of your closet, tonight.
Stories must move us. The characters who move the stories must be moving, themselves. There's a physical journey (find the grail, rescue the prince/princess, find my father, stop the bad guy, move my house to Paradise Falls, etc.) but too often neglected (and far more important) is the internal journey that the character takes in becoming a new character by story's end. In Braveheart, how does young William Wallace turn into an ideal? A legend? How does Luke Skywalker turn from bumpkin farm boy to savior of the rebellion? How does Red go from hopeless to brimming with hope, in The Shawshank Redemption?

The best protagonists are imperfect. They're flawed. Their flaw is oftentimes their defining characteristic. Why a flaw? Because we are flawed in various ways, and we like projecting ourselves onto screens and imagining ourselves as the hero of the rebellion, as being full of hope, and as leading a charge of disgruntled Scotsmen across a field. It's so much easier when those who do it remind us of ourselves. Ditch the perfect character. They have to learn something the hard way.

3. Flat Antagonist

"Trust me."
It's often easier to name the attributes of an antagonist than those of a main character. "Evil," "mean," "cruel," "sadistic," "British accent," and such. But "antagonist" doesn't mean "bad guy" so much as it means, "person or force who stands in the way of the protagonist." That doesn't always mean evil. In fact, it shouldn't. Why? Because like your protagonist, your antagonist should also be sympathetic. Tragic, even. Your audience should be shaking their heads, saying to themselves, "If only the antagonist had made the right decision at the right moment, he/she'd be a good person." While a protagonist rises to the challenge of overcoming their flaw, an antagonist often falls victim to and is dominated by their issue.

Sometimes, this is turned on its head. In The Social Network, for example, the antagonists are really more sympathetic than the protagonist. The Mark Zuckerberg character comes across as opportunistic and treacherous. Those he tricked sue him and become his antagonists, but they're certainly not awful people. What makes this such a strong script is that each character is worthy of sympathy. Only we're shaking our heads at Mark rather than the Winklevoss twins.

In most cases, however, antagonists are characters we'd like to see put in their place. If only Anakin Skywalker had realized that death was the natural way of things, he never would've turned into a homicidal maniac... if only the Joker had used his incredible intellect to help and believe in society rather than give up on it and subvert it... if only Warden Samuel Norton wasn't corrupt and had a strong sense of justice, he'd have been a champion of Andy's cause in Shawshank... if only Senator Paul Thurman had more faith in humanity and didn't initiate an apocalyptic plot in Hugh Howey's Silo Trilogy...

The road to a good antagonist is paved with if onlys.

4. No Subplots

Subplot on a U.S. postage stamp!
The main plot is your alpha story. It's what you pitch. It's what your audience will relay when someone asks them, "What's it about?" Subplots carry the emotional thread of the story.  If the main plot is the story of the physical journey, then subplots carry the emotional thread of that all-important inner character journey. As such, subplots are character relationships.

In Up, it's Dug the dog's relationship with Carl that ultimately changes Dug from lowest-on-the-totem-pole to pack leader. In In Bruges, it's Ray's relationship with Ken that ultimately ejects him from his suicidal funk. In The Social Network, it's Mark's growing relationship with Sean Parker that undermines and ultimately obliterates his relationship with Eduardo Saverin, completing his journey to full-fledged asshole.

Subplots are relationships that support your main story, and your main story is your story's main relationship. Your subplots demand your attention and care, so don't be stingy.

5. No Conflict

"Why aren't WE on a postage stamp?"
I ran a writers' meeting recently in which I stated that every scene, without exception, must have conflict. A writer laughed at that and asked me why. Simply stated, nothing is more interesting, more arresting, than conflict. Want proof? Glance at the news. Glance at your Facebook feed. Which posts have the most comments? Those that report an injustice, or are otherwise polarizing.

Remember that old saying about how you never really know a person until you see how they perform under pressure? Well, we really want to know your characters, so you had best put them under boatloads of pressure. How best to accomplish that? Conflict! Characters grow through conflict. Characters accomplish through conflict. Characters act through conflict. In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indy grows closer to his father but only after fighting through a phalanx of Nazis. We learn more about characters through conflict, and the story charges forward because of it. It's absolutely necessary. Embrace the conflict.

6. Tired Concept

"I like you, too. Why are you holding a lamp?"
"It's similar to Nicholas Sparks" or "It's similar to Jaws" or "It's similar to Alfred Hitchcock." If you begin a description of your story with one of these phrases, then you may want to reconsider. Let me ask you: do you think that Nicholas Sparks, Peter Benchley and Steven Spielberg, or Alfred Hitchcock described the works they set out to make as, "Well, it's similar to such-and-such"?

Of course they didn't.

That's because they came up with new ways to tell stories and they had absolute faith that their particular takes had not been done before. There were romantic tales for over a thousand years before Nicholas Sparks penned The Notebook. Stories of horror long before Jaws. Yarns of the uncanny ages before Hitchcock. Write what only you can write. That doesn't mean tell your life story, but it does mean that if horror interests you, then what's your specific take on the respected old genre? What's your take on the romantic comedy? On drama? What can you bring to it to make it fresh? New? Something we've never, ever seen before? If it's too similar to something that's already been done, then that doesn't make an audience say, "Awesome! Another vampire book!" They'll ask, "Why should I spend my time reading another vampire book? What makes this one different from the flood of vampire books we've already read this summer?"

The trick is to focus less on the story, when you're starting out, and more on the characters. When you're asked, "What's your story about?" you don't want to say, "It's a romantic comedy." You'd be much better off describing it as, "A cynical, obsessive-compulsive romance novelist attempts to woo a struggling single mother who thinks he's creepy. But once he generously pays for her son's medication, they begin a relationship." That's far more specific, far more image-based, and far more intriguing (the film is Oscar winner As Good as it Gets).

I Love You, Man is an example of a romantic comedy... with two guys coming together (platonically) as opposed to a guy chasing a woman. It takes the standard rom-com engine and spins it in a new direction. It's fresh and funny, even if it goes overboard on iPhone product placement. Bridget Jones's Diary is another example, this time of a woman chasing a guy. It's funny and different, and was a success. Maybe every story has already been done... but every character sure as heck hasn't, and that gives you a colossal advantage.

You want people to hear your logline and say, "Why didn't I think of that?"

Don't write the familiar. Write the uniquely familiar

7. Passive Plot

At least it's not a Sharknado.
I call this Twister Syndrome. In a film in which the natural disasters cause the plot, the natural disasters become the most interesting characters in the film. And that shouldn't be. Your protagonist must cause the plot and be the source of every action that pushes it forward.

I read a colleague's script recently about a likable, powerful politician who orders his underlings to stop his rival politician from seizing control of the government. High intrigue, sure, but if all your protagonist does is sit in his armchair and dole out orders, he stops being altogether interesting. He should be the one out there, boots on the ground, stopping his adversary at every turn. After all, that's what makes a hero a hero. They're willing to stick their neck out.

In The Lord of the Rings, Sauron is content to hang out atop his tower and send out everyone and everything to stop his foes... but he never leads the charge himself. He's a static antagonist who literally remains in the same place for the entire trilogy. He's willing to sacrifice legions for his cause, but he never once sets foot on the battlefield (at least during the time period exhibited in the story). He's powerful, but in many ways he remains impotent.

Don't let an impotent protagonist happen to you. Your protagonist must lead the charge into every plot event. Events shouldn't happen to your protagonist so much as your protagonist causes events. The antagonist should take interest in your protagonist because your protagonist is already off somewhere, driving the plot. That's when the antagonist strikes, forcing your active protagonist to strike back, and so on.

In Braveheart, William Wallace tempts fate (and the ire of the aristocracy) by secretly marrying his childhood sweetheart in order to save her from rape. The king's men then execute Wallace's sweetheart, Wallace strikes back, and the conflict spirals out of control from there. All because Wallace acts to help someone he loves. But in doing so, he makes things worse for himself. That's a terrific irony, and all because he's an active fellow.

Bang bang, she shot me down.
8. Low Stakes

What if Darth Vader shot Luke out of the sky in Star Wars? What if Dr. Alan Grant didn't save Lex and Tim in Jurassic Park? What if the Nazis caught up with Victor Laszlo in Casablanca? What happens if your protagonist fails at their quest? Writer/producer Jim Cirile says that if at any point your protagonist can just throw his hands up during the quest and say, "The hell with this," then you shouldn't be writing that story.

The cost of failure on the part of your protagonist must be absolutely dire.

How do you ratchet up the stakes? A great place to start is death. If your protagonist doesn't win, he/she will die. That's a pretty big deal. But it's not necessarily even the biggest of the stakes you can write. For many people, there exist situations that are a fate worse than death. In Finding Nemo, Marlin would rather die than have a life without his beloved son. In Casablanca, Rick would rather die than lose the love of his life a second time ("Go ahead and shoot," he tells Ilsa, "You'll be doing me a favor."). In The Shawshank Redemption, Andy fears a loss of hope more than death.

Whatever represents death or a fate worse than death for your protagonist must be that which hangs over your story. Screenwriter Blake Snyder made this point succinctly when he wrote that the prime motivators were sex, hunger, fear of death, protection of loved ones, and survival. These are primal motivators, and everyone can relate to them. Any one of these must be threatened over the course of your story in order for the audience to genuinely care about and fear for your protagonist. Keep the stakes high!

Throw an active character into an intriguing setting with a deep antagonist, rich subplot relationships, and plenty of life-or-death conflict. Your readers will thank you for it!

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Beginning Is the End Is the Beginning

"You're wearing my nightgown."
Why do we see films? Character transition. It’s fun to watch a character connect the dots from flawed to complete. From wounded to healed. From partial to whole. From fool to master. Whether you’re writing a short story, a novel, a stage play or screenplay, this is a fundamental (among many) that must be internalized and demonstrated for your audience to care about your characters. In a word, it’s fun to watch a character struggle to acquire wisdom.

A final scene that demonstrates this mastery hammers this point home. This happens in real life. It will remind audiences of themselves, reassuring them that despite our individual idiosyncrasies, we’re all human. We’re in this together. And what’s more, this truth is played out every day. In grade school, if a bully shoves you into a locker, you might catch up with him after school and plant a fist between his eyes. After growing up, you learn that there are more mature (and lasting) ways to handle such a situation. Your character learns that he/she can’t continue with the emotional status quo if he/she is to save him/herself and save the day.

Showing your character’s flaw, as you know, is far more evocative than telling it. How does your character land him/herself in trouble in the story’s beginning, as a result of his/her personal problem? Whether greedy, airheaded, overprotective, status-obsessed, or prone to fits of rage, how are they a good person except for that one thing? And how is that one thing their defining characteristic?

Situation A + character with flaw = character fails critical test. The beginning of your story.
Situation A + character with flaw overcome = character passes critical test. The end of your story.

In Finding Nemo, Nemo jumps on his father Marlin at the beginning of the story: “Time for school!” but Marlin is hesitant. It’s the first day that he’ll be separated from Nemo, and he doesn’t like that idea. At the end of the film, Marlin jumps on Nemo and says the same thing: “Time for school!” He can’t wait for Nemo to go out and have an adventure. This same scene, played over twice, has the same characters at first glance, but as storytellers we know that the Marlin at the film’s end is a very different character from the one at the beginning. Same situation. Very different characteristics in play. The beginning is the promise of the end.

This is why sequels often don’t hold up to their predecessors. Once a character has become a master, where else is there for him/her to go? Once they’ve overcome their flaw, how else can they evolve? Of course, it can happen. In Star Wars, Luke learns that there’s more to the Force than being able to blow up the Death Star. Can he slay the enemy within? That becomes the franchise’s central question, and it takes two more films to answer it. It’s a tough strategy to pull off, but not impossible. Of course, just like people, as your characters’ circumstances change, so too will their personalities in reaction. For example, your character starts out as a flawed pauper, overcomes his flaw, and becomes the king at the story’s end. How about in part two, your character, as king, realizes that with his first taste of power comes the high potential that it can/will be abused? A new situation, a new flaw, and a new chance for growth.

In what ways must your character grow? In James Joyce’s The Dead, one of my favorite short stories, the confident, set-in-his-ways Gabriel Conroy’s life view is shaken when he realizes that passion and a release of control perhaps lead to a more fulfilling, albeit unpredictable, way of living. And perhaps the life he’s been living is not truly a full life at all. In the beginning of the story, he quips about housemaid Lily’s love life (“I suppose we'll be going to your wedding one of these fine days with your young man, eh?”) and in the end is left to reflect on his own love life with his wife, Gretta. Is there love? Is there passion? When he asks similar questions to his wife about her former paramour (“the dull fires of his lust began to glow angrily in his veins”), it’s clear that ultimately, his feelings on it have evolved, and the Gabriel at the end, when presented with a similar situation, is very different.

In Gail E. Haley’s The Green Man, a haughty lord learns that humility and generosity make him into a better person than arrogance. In the beginning, he scoffs at villagers who leave offerings for a legendary forest spirit. In the last scene, he leaves an offering, himself.

In the Arthurian myth, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Sir Gawain brashly volunteers himself to undertake a for-all-appearances simple challenge (decapitate a mysterious green knight) before the entire royal court. But when Gawain realizes that his brashness carries with it a deadly price (the supernatural green knight puts his head back on his shoulders and tells mortal Gawain that Gawain must undergo the same beheading a year hence), he must learn that courage is more than great deeds. At the story’s end, when it’s Gawain who faces a deadly axe, will his courage ultimately save him?

In Breaking Bad, Walter and Jesse cook meth for the first time in a deserted New Mexico canyon. Four seasons later, he buries his money (and ultimately engages in a fateful firefight) in the same exact canyon. On one hand is the Walter who does for his family and on the other is the Walter who does for himself. How does he carry himself differently the second time?

Think of a story’s beginning and end like bookends. They look the same but face opposite directions. Whether it’s two first days of school, two queries about love, two offerings for a forest spirit, or two axes, showing how your character has changed from one to the other can best be accomplished by showing us how the character has changed between the two similar situations – and how, when presented with it the second time, they change beyond where they – or better yet your audience – ever thought they could.

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.