Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Curious Case of John McCain

I saw The Curious Case of Benjamin Button the other night. It's one of those gorgeous movies that makes you sit through plodding, pro forma scenes every 20 minutes or so. Ah, Hollywood. I'm not sure how I would have approached a project like that. The story sounds like it's best left on a page. Benjamin Button is born an old man, and dies a newborn. Through most of it Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett are aged digitally. If you're thinking it's not a good idea to stick two of the most beautiful people on the planet in a mask (digital or no) for a long (very long) movie, you're thinking what I was thinking. But they pulled it off reasonably well.

There's a great deal of bravery even taking on a tale like this. The writer, Eric Roth, is an old hand. He's written everything from The Good Shepherd to Forrest Gump to The Concorde...Airport '79. He writes well, and he writes to industry expectations.

Forrest Gump is a textbook case of what many screenwriters refer to as misbehavior. There's one trait that defines a character throughout a story. It's how we know we're watching that character. It's how we place bets or worry or otherwise engage in what's about to happen. American audiences view a story vicariously through the main character. If that misbehavior isn't clear, they can't see the drama clearly. New writers often look on the misbehavior as the root of all evil in screenwriting. My characters are too complex to be summed up like that! That's why movies are too predictable and safe! It's also why their stories tend to be completely impenetrable. They don't leave a clue for how an audience should approach the story, so the events lack the significance the writer intends.

Benjamin Button is another classic example of misbehavior. Because it follows one man from birth to death, it offers a good way to explain how misbehavior works in a complex, real-life situation. Just about any trait you can think about will play out differently in an adolescent than it will in an old man. Quick to anger. Gullible. Dogmatic. Cowardly. Choose your own. Now you understand misbehavior. And now you understand the charm of Benjamin Button. He never looks his age, but the misbehavior reads as it should for his chronological age. We see a development. We're constantly looking under that clever but inevitably annoying digital mask. When the misbehavior does get murky the story lags.

The story held a strange resonance for me with the tale of John McCain. Campaigns these days are all about establishing narratives. This is not news. So much of our perception of John McCain was taken up with the task of lining up the POW in grainy black and white with the elder statesman of 2008. There are innumerable elements that make John McCain John McCain. And at the base of them is a misbehavior (in the screenwriting sense) that makes him immediately John McCain.

I was fascinated by an article in the New York Times magazine entitled The Making (and Remaking) of McCain It gets to the heart of why the poor guy went down in flames. Quite simply, his campaign made some rookie screenwriting mistakes. They started writing before they'd mapped out the story. They ran up against plot point after plot point that might make reasonable drama in their own stories, but failed to line up with the one the electorate had tuned into the week before. If you liked McCain in 2000, you'd almost inevitably be turned off by the McCain of 2008, when he hired the demons who slew him eight years previous. If you liked the experienced McCain in August, you'd have trouble with the same guy in October. This may be a sign of complexity or lack of focus. I'll let you decide. The article documents some shifts that are fairly clever (and others that, uh, weren't so clever). What they inevitably failed to see was the context that they themselves created. They looked at what wasn't working about the narrative, rather than the narrative itself.

It's worth noting that a campaign that failed to develop a compelling narrative can itself become one. The journalist was able to stand back and find that misbehavior. He found the quest and the obstacles and the rest that would illuminate and develop out a beautiful misbehavior. There's something to be learned from this. It's probably essential to a tragedy that the players can't step back in time to see the potential that their mistakes opens up. We all know that a good setback makes a bigger victory possible. Screenwriters are supposed to make it darkest before they let the dawn in. Campaigns, not so much. Or, well, who knows. Maybe this is what Karl Rove has in mind.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Subtext, Text, and Doubt

Screenwriters are very different from most writers. While your typical novelist is urged to challenge what they know and explore uncharted territory, your average screenwriter is told to hew to the straight and narrow. Baby prose writers thrive on subtext. They get a whiff of its power early on. Writing teachers and girlfriends and open mic audiences only fuel that drive into the ineffable resonance that distinguishes a real character from words on a page.

must survive a much more difficult path if they are to succeed. This path is a minefield of "five easy ways" to build a compelling character, or the ten commandments of plot, or the thirty two dozen things you must never do lest ye be cast into the slush pile for ever more. We're taught to keep our heads down and plow all our creativity into a very narrow range. It's a lot like Catholic school. If your desire to write and learn survives, you're probably better for it.

Subtext doesn't come naturally to screenwriters. My personal suspicion is that it simply falls between the cracks. We learn how to construct a non-heretical plot. We learn that characters need dialogue that moves much faster than real-life dialogue. We learn to construct the elements of character and play them through to the end.

But we tend to get a little lost with something like subtext, which is a function of not just dialogue, but also plot. And not just plot, but character also. Dialogue doesn't show up on the page like a good set up. It doesn't jump out at you like a carefully constructed misbehavior, patiently placed and coaxed from action line to action line. Subtext requires being there.

There where? There, in the story -- and off the page in front of you. It's the opposite of so much right thinking about screenwriting.

I've had more than one student come up to me half way through a semester and ask, fidgeting, what subtext really is. They want a neat little definition to put in their writer's toolbox. Truth is that subtext is like love. You know when it's there.

If you're one of those who thinks he knows, or thinks she should, do yourself a favor and watch Doubt, starring Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman. There's great subtext throughout, but it truly shines in the scene where Sisters Aloysius and James and discussing the Christmas pageant with Father Flynn.

Try transcribing this dialogue in your head. Can you find the subtext? You certainly know it's there. But it's not on the page.

It's in the audience's mind. They know the plot. They have an expectation. The discussion of the Christmas pageant (and the suspicious carol "Frosty the Snowman") conflicts with the expectation of that meeting. It conflicts with how we expect everyone to talk. And there you have subtext.

Subtext is relying on the strength of your story. It's hard to do that. We're very much like novelists and playwrights and every other kind of writer in one important respect: we're neurotic.

But writing has a strange way of rewarding faith. In a way, the more you rely on your story, the more it reveals itself. The more you rely on an audience, the bigger the bet they'll place on you (and the afternoon they're willing to risk with your work). Give yourself the chance to find that subtext. You'll fidget, looking for the simpler, page-centric answer. But you'll let that go eventuallly.

Twelve Point

A nice screenwriting blog with access to a lot of nice resources and free articles.

Enjoy twelvepoint.com.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Thought for the Day

A poem to remind us of how story is eternal and ancient and new and universal and personal and the greatest gift our little brains and hearts ever gave us:

Two girls discover
The secret of life
in a sudden line
of poetry.

I who don't know the
secret wrote
the line. They
told me

(through a person)
they had found it
but not what it was
not even

what line it was. No doubt
by now, more than a week
later, they have forgotten
the secret,

the line, the name of
the poem. I love them
for finding what
I can't find,

and for loving me
for the line I wrote,
and for forgetting it
so that

a thousand times, till death
finds them, they may
discover it again, in
other lines

in other
happenings. And for
wanting to know it,

assuming there is
such a secret, yes,
for that,
most of all.

Denis Levertov, "The Secret"

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Apocalypse! And the Lambada!

Back in the early 90's I worked as a tour manager for charter groups to the Soviet Union. I remember one trip I worked for a Western Kansas radio personality and his farmer listeners. They wanted to witness the fall of communism firsthand.

Travel to the Soviet Union had been, until then, a very ordered and orderly affair. You got visas from the governments international tourist bureau, Inturist. You stayed at one of several hotels. You got on and off buses. You saw the Kremlin. You saw Swan Lake. You tried to keep tourists away from the prostitutes and vice versa. It was straightforward.

But chaos was descending. Inturist wasn't responding. There was some strange little company no one had ever heard of in its place. They had sent my visa but none of the other 72. Those were in an office in Moscow. This defeats the purpose of visas. We had reservations in a hotel no one had heard of. I was pretty much sure it was a scam.

We were on a one-day layover in Berlin, and the group was headed to Kiev, Ukraine. We were told that Ukraine was now an independent country. Americans don't need a visa. This was new.

We decided I would go to Moscow and try to score the visas and check out what was happening. The other tour manager would take the 72 farmers and the radio personality to Ukraine. I remember landing at the international airport in Moscow, and seeing no one at the counter where foreigners were required to check in. Some half-drunk meathead walked up to me and eventually took me to get the visas. There were no officials in sight. The airport was pure chaos. I asked him about the hotel, and he told me it was "almost finished".

The whole trip was like this. The government, which had provided everything, had basically vanished. Ukraine had declared independence, but no one really believed it yet. The Kansas radio personality droned on about capitalism and this and that. He wanted people dancing in the streets, and pronto. It's hard to dance in the streets when you don't know what money to use, or if your money actually means anything. It's hard to dance in the streets when you don't know what country you live in.

The trip was a seat-of-the-pants affair. We fed 72 tourists very well with a few dollars. We couldn't order tickets to the ballet from the non-existent government bureau. But we could scalp them for lunch money. The plane tickets from Kiev to Moscow never arrived, but we bribed our way onto the plane. The country was coming apart at the seams.

We ended up in Moscow, staying at a brand new hotel in the middle of an endless sea of mud. On the last night this strange little company put together a massive feast with endless vodka for us. We were their first customers. It's hard to express the desperation and elation and just overall weirdness of the time. No one knew what to expect. A young woman I barely knew proposed marriage to me. And that's when they started to play the lambada.

My coworker, Jennifer, looked over at me. She knew what the young woman next to me was saying. We'd both received a few offers in the past week. She pulled me to my feet, and we tore the place up as only two drunk gringos can. We couldn't believe we'd made it to this final day. Each and every day we'd been besieged with absurd and unimaginable changes in a familiar landscape. I looked out the window of this tacky Russian disco at the endless field of mud and realized I was crying. There's a point where you can't feel any more dislocated. There's a point when it really does feel like the end of the world. The lambada still means that to me.

What does this have to do with screenwriting?

How many movies will Hollywood make about the end of the world? Why does Hollywood make so many movies about the end of the world?

The first rule of storytelling is that the subject and main action has to be significant. And you don't get much more significant than apocalypse. It doesn't take a lot of explaining to get across the import. It's easy to tell a story about the end of the world. Throw in some CGI and Keanu Reeves and you've got yourself a movie. No matter that the first rule of storytelling is that the subject and main action must be significant relative to the context. The end of a marriage or a bank heist can mean everything in the same way.

We're suckers for tidal waves and alien ships and megastorms. We feel, on some level, that we deserve this. Or suspect we might deserve it. The tsunami washes over us and we're somehow cleansed. Some spark of humanity is all that's left, and that's enough to save us. We're new again.

But the end of the world isn't so neat and clean. There's a chaos and a dislocation that makes it difficult to tell the tale. There's no three-act structure. It's the absence of that structure. There are tinges of it running through American society right now.

I wonder how we'll tell tales about this period. I've been working on a script for a few months now. I feel the dislocation whenever I sit down to write. Last August was a different time. We've traveled farther than we know.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Thought for the Day

"The world of novels, there's corruption and mediocrity, but in the end it's still a republic of letters. But film is a tyranny, and the tyrant is money. The great thing is that, in spite of that, impossibly, some people keep on smuggling out messages of hope from the other side, past the tyrant. I mean, there shouldn't be one good movie made given the way it's structured, and yet there are many good movies made. That seems to me to be implausible and marvelous at the same time"

– Australia's Richard Flanagan

Monday, December 8, 2008


... is one of those words that doesn't look write no matter how you spell it: as one word, two words, or hyphenated.

It's also a blog about writers and how they found their voices. I'm not big on this kind of thing usually. But it's compelling here. Check it out:


Sunday, December 7, 2008

More on Symmetry

I saw Quantum of Solace the other day. Can't say I was terribly excited about it -- it was just the only reasonable choice given time and companionship constraints. But there was something there.

The script is by Paul Haggis, who wrote Million Dollar Baby, Crash, and Casino Royale among many others.

Screenplays, for better or worse, run like clockwork. It might sound like a paradox at first: you have to create an audience expectation before you can exceed it. You have to mark your starting point before you can mark distance away from it. This is why symmetry is important in a script. This is why you'll usually find symmetry built into a story even when you don't consciously experience it. After you hit a midpoint, you start finding scenes and moments that bookend what you've experienced so far. As the mirror effect brings the audience back to the beginning of the story, the dramatic distance increases and the audience has a good subconscious gauge of where they are in the story -- allowing them to settle in for the long haul.

Haggis is routinely adored and reviled for his straightforward approach to this. He pulls no punches. He isn't afraid to be obvious or even manipulative. For some, this means his stories are powerful. Others love to accuse him of false depth. (Many of these accusers have a tad bit of jealousy regarding Mr. Haggis' incredible success.)

Now, a Bond film is not really about emotional depth. Generally you'll get farther with assorted car chases and a shirtless Daniel Craig than 007 walking alone on a beach, cursing seagulls for their ability to fly. The depth is secondary, but it does play a vital role. It allows you to sit down and watch 90 minutes of improbable and impossible developments without looking up and wondering whether the plants need watering.

It takes a really good movie for me to put aside my structure-head and simply enjoy a film. Quantum of Solace is not one of those really good movies. I marveled at how carefully it was put together -- watching the clockwork spin around. What struck me is that the movie did in fact shoot for a bit more than I was expecting.

I've talked about how knowing the climax of your script can usually lead you to the inciting event, or vice versa. You look for what's the same, and what's different. You want the two scenes to resonate, to set each other up. But Haggis went a bit beyond this. The climax doesn't have much to do with the inciting event. Instead, it resonates with the backstory of Monica, the Bond girl. It resonates with a story she tells us at the low point. It allows us to go a little bit deeper with her, and therefore with Bond as he helps her and frees her from her demons. There's something there that matters, if only for a while.

The resolution actually resonates with Casino Royale (which I never saw). He solves the problem of his earlier betrayal, and the fact that he actually fell in love with someone who's now gone. There's an attempt to build something here -- to make Bond not just a dashing fellow with a troublesome libido and a penchant for throwing people off buildings. He changes. He undergoes growth. And he grows from story to story. I think Ian Fleming was aiming for something like this. It's not exactly The Lives of Others, but it does toss a bone to old romantics like myself.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Ask the Dust and Dating Tips

My creative writing class is drawing toward the end of the semester. We hit that awful end-of-the-semester question last Tuesday: How do you make this work in the real world? After 12 weeks of getting them to follow their own lead, dig for their own inspiration, and express their innermost freak outs and tender moments, I turn around and dare to bring up the fact that they'll be writing for other people if they stick to this.

Writing for other people sounds like a drag at first. In fact, it can be a drag. Not every idea is a winner, but you have to pursue it faithfully. You have to find someone else's voice, and then proceed from there.

Now, every week I expose these unsuspecting teens to literature that they probably would not otherwise see. There's a value to pushing them a little out of their comfort zone. William S. Burroughs, it turns out, was a lot out of their comfort zone. Still valuable, if slightly traumatizing.

Last class we read an excerpt from Ask the Dust by John Fante. In chapter 12, Arturo Bandini, a self-proclaimed mix of Casanova and Rimbaud living on the cheap side of Downtown LA in the fifties, slithers his way through the bedroom of an aging, self-hating bachelorette in an attempt to build himself back up for another shot at the woman he's stalking. Then he sits on the beach when an earthquake strikes -- which he's convinced is the earth buckling under the weight of his guilt. Arturo's a real prize.

So, I had them imagine they came upon a writing job on Craig's List or guru.com -- posting to Arturo Bandini's dating tips blog. In other words -- a truly dreadful way to make a living.

Except, well, it's not so bad if you approach Arturo Bandini, employer, with the same respect you would any character. There's a way of thinking yourself into another voice. It takes practice. But it frees you up. There are how many different voices in your script? How many employers to write for? Now you've got it.

In three hours we had several months' worth of dating tips, all written fairly convincingly in the style of Arturo Bandini. Mr. Bandini took on a life of his own -- a kind of weird feedback loop between the original text and the different students' take on him. After weeks of fiddling around with character -- theoretical approaches, free-writes, structural techniques, backstory-driven, dialogue-driven, on and on -- I think I hit on something valuable just when I expected it least.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Convergence, Structure and New Energy

I'm not sure where to start this post.

I went to see The Sisters of Mercy in concert on Wednesday. They're a band you would have known about had not grunge music drop-kicked goth into a corner in the early 90's. Goth music's found a strange and peaceable immortality in that corner. My boyfriend, an otherwise respectable individual, can't quite free himself from the lure of the drum machine to this day. I try to stay tolerant.

Now, Goth came out of the same musical explosion/implosion that brought about a lot of good musicians. Think punk, post-punk, hardcore, art rock -- on and on. There was a huge upwelling of talent in and around Birmingham, UK, that made music what it is today. It was real, creative, new. Just watch this documentary about Joy Division. You don't have to like Joy Division to understand that something important happened when Ian Curtis got on stage.

None of this made me excited to see The Sisters of Mercy, of course. Nothing sadder than a bunch of people older than yourself singing along with a drum machine. But something amazing did happen before they came on.


What's a Hypernova. It's a star exploding, like a supernova. But larger.

It's also a rock band from Iran. And a damn good one. They played with a kind of excitement I haven't seen in a long time. Two guitars, a bass, drums and vocals. The lead singer, Raam, sounded like an Ian Curtis coming down off the lithium -- more and more excited, excitable, out of control. The band kept growing into the night. It was remarkable.

On stage you couldn't help but draw parallels to Joy Division. Their album sounds like a cross between The Strokes and Joy Division.

Now, neither of these groups demand a significant portion of my attention. But that's what made me think about screenwriting.

I'm doing more and more teaching these days. There's a great deal of screenwriting that needs to be taught -- how a character is constructed. How a plot works. How readers read. There are 32 rules that all point toward One Thing. I get tired sometimes. You can follow all 32 rules and come up with a passable story. But that's not something worth spending time with, is it?

Hypernova beat the pants off The Sisters of Mercy because they cared more. There's probably nothing as corrosive to The Islamic Republic as Joy Division. Nothing so liberating to hear than the voice of a few post-punk Birmingham artsy types singing for the right to live. It'd be wrong to speak for them, of course. But it's hard not to see them at 12 years of age caught up in something illicit, beautiful and alien as rock music. And understanding better than almost any poor American soul who grew up surrounded by it, with full access at record stores and friends' houses.

They studied it. They used the structure. They write good songs. Then they pour something meaningful into it to communicate to an audience in San Francisco, decades later.

This is why we write. This is what's worth caring about. But you can't get there without knowing how it's put together. You can't break the 32 rules until you've mastered them first.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Putting the Important Ahead of the Urgent

The holidays are upon us -- waiting just outside the door, leaving cloven hoofprints in the snow. The end of the semester looms -- with pages and pages of grief and anxiety before the final projects even hit. And then there's football. And way too much scotch, butter, and really bad music in the offing. Then, on December 24, there's the shopping.

It's a dreadful time. Each year I debate my approach -- whether to officially put the whole thing off, remove it from the calendar, or gamely smile and step in on the right foot. Of course it doesn't matter. The holidays will win. We will all be sodden with drink, sleep deprived, and weepy with family drama before long. It's been lovely knowing you all.

Needless to say, writing suffers. But does it have to to?

I try to follow a basic plan throughout the year. "Important comes before the urgent". This means writing for myself, going outside, breathing, and similar activities get a place in my life even when they don't seem fated to happen. Stopping to smell the roses is important because it works. It keeps you functional. The rose of the day might be dinner with your boyfriend, or going to see a play, or simply a day at the desk with the wifi turned off and your screenplay in front of you.

Inevitably these things end up making life run more smoothly. Sure, you'll spend all morning suffering through what should be an easy scene. But you'll remember what the scene's about or maybe even learn something about your character. Inevitably you'll listen to the rest of the day with a new ear.

Please don't quote me on any of this in a few weeks. But I do try to formulate a survival plan for the important around this time of year. I'll spend an hour writing before I hit email. I'll make food at home. I won't go to more than two holiday parties in a row. I'll spend some time choosing presents and trying to remember what this is all supposed to be about. There's an abundance out there worth being grateful for -- even around the holidays.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Lord of Obstacles

I've always had a fondness for the Hindu god Ganesha.

He's not a god of war or the harvest or fertility. He's his own god, a kind of deity without portfolio. He fits in where he's needed -- a kind of generous, humorous personality that understands human nature. Plus, he's got an elephant head, anywhere from 2 to 16 arms, and he rides around on a rat.

Ganesha is the son of Shiva, who created the universe in Hindu mythology. Shiva's a bit more lively than our Judeo-Christian god. He didn't state the universe into existence. He danced it into existence. There are numerous myths around how he came to have a son. One is that Ganesha was born of his laughter.

And Ganesha couldn't quite stop laughing soon enough. He loves to tease, and in fact made fun of his dad and his dancing. The end result? He dances the arts and music into existence. In some myths, Shiva chopped off his human head out of anger at this impertinence. Ganesha's mom had to make do with an elephant head in a pinch. If that's not a recipe for character sympathy, I don't know what is.

Ganesha is a trickster. He likes to play. He's the god of obstacles. He both places them and removes them. He brings about change. You can pray to Ganesha if you want to make things move smoothly. But Ganesha might just stick an obstacle in your path if it's going to teach you something in the long run.

By all rights, that should make Ganesha the god of screenwriting.

Ganesha knows something about what makes an obstacle effective. He knows what draws us on is often the same thing that draws us astray. It's important to remember this when you're struggling to make your character compelling and complex. There's a simplicity at the base of all complexity. Ganesha knows it.

I wrote in my previous post about trying to get a little girl into a car in time to hear a conversation the whole script hinged on. There didn't seem to be a way without pulling back on the conflict and forcing the characters to back down on their misbehaviors. I teased myself that perhaps they were all learning something -- getting past their problems. But I knew it wouldn't work. I got the square block halfway into the round hole, then spent the afternoon trying to extricate it.

A good obstacle forces you to think. It forces you to admit something important. The story isn't about you. It's not there to make things easy on you. It's there, primarily, to help you learn. That's why we write, even if we've got visions of first-look deals dancing in our heads.

And you realize at some point that your character can be lead astray quite easily. And that 'astray' is often exactly where you want to be. You can trick your character. You can force them to confront things they'd never look at. You can force them to grow.

There's something fascinating here, like watching a parrot figure out how to get a nut out of a tube, or a toddler figure out how to use a doorknob. Something greater than you planned on comes out of nowhere. And writing is worthwhile again.

Always remember your character's goal. Always remember their in-the-moment context. And always remember their problem -- even when it seems to be working against you. And remember that there might just be a fat guy with an elephant head giggling just above your head at that very moment.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Finishing with Symmetry

For me, good screenwriting is largely a question of modeling complexity effectively. Good characters are complex. They have a depth and a resonance to them. But they arise out of two simple traits -- a misbehavior or flaw, and a goal or desire. It's not that those two completely define the character. It's that those two give the audience access to the rest of the character.

Take a good conceit, also known as a strategy for unity. It's what gives a script its 'thingness', its identity. How do you know you're watching Wall-E or Jaws? There's a key concept that permeates every good script that gives it uniqueness. It's present at virtually any moment in the story, but it's not the story. It gives the audience access to the story. For that matter, it gives the WRITER access to the story. It helps you find the tale. It tells you where it is, or what it might be, rather that what's right or wrong. You find association and affinity with a story through a well-derived conceit. You go beyond the fact of the matter and find a dynamic with your conceit.

Plot is no different. Screenwriters plot and plot (or plod and plod) through synopses and loglines and treatments before actually tackling a script. There's a reason for it. For one, it's actually less work in the long run, because you work out most of your problems on a single page rather than in 120. Second, it lets you know what's important. It helps you find the unity.

But then, sooner or later, you actually start to write. Now, if you've worked out most of what's happening, it's relatively smooth. But small problems and shifts inevitably occur. There is no science here. It's like ironing a shirt or laying down a piece of carpet. You roll out one small wrinkle, but it never quite makes it all the way out. As soon as you think it's gone, it's popped up on the other side. You attack and attack, but that wrinkle just moves around to wherever you aren't paying attention.

I'm drafting a story now with this problem. In my synopsis, I let a little girl eavesdrop on an adult conversation. When I got to the scene, she ended up on the wrong side of a car door. No big deal, you think. But of course, she doesn't know what happens inside the car anymore. Which affects the next beat, which affects the beat beyond that, and so on.

You might try solving the problem by putting the little girl in the car. No big deal, right? You've papered over the crack, and saved yourself an awful lot of work. You go onto the next beat. Everything seems fine. You aren't quite as sold on how the whole thing fits together as you might be. But it works. And you write another beat. And you wonder if maybe you need to rethink the misbehaviors a bit. This, of course, means you stare at the ceiling for at least an afternoon. And then your thirty pages down, and the little girl and the old man have to steal a car. And there's absolutely no way to make it work. They just wouldn't do it. They wouldn't think about it. They aren't that crafty or resourceful. They don't fight that way. And strangely, somehow, that's all because you let the little girl in the car to hear the conversation.


What happened when you let the little girl into the car. First, you probably sidestepped some necessary conflict. You were choosing your own needs over those of the main character, who really had no desire to have the little girl in the car. You lost a chance to express their misbehaviors. You muddled the whole question of what the characters ultimately want. You didn't let them fight for it.

And thirty pages later, it comes back to bite you.

How do you find your way out of the wilderness?

The blanket answer is you go back to your tools. There's plenty you could do here with character, but just for today, let's talk about symmetry.

If you've read anything about screenwriting, you know something about the three-act structure. If you've read this blog before, you'll probably know that virtually all the gurus and schools of screenwriting essentially rehash Aristotle.

Aristotle was big on UNITY. Why can't you start a rom-com halfway through Jaws? Because you're breaking unity. You're working against expectations. You're deflating your own drama. The audience wants to see dramatic distance covered -- real developments. And those changes, those developments, are all contextual. They are relevant to the story. If Sleepless in Seattle ended with Tom Hanks becoming president of the United States or defeating a gigantic shark, he'd be a good guy. But the story wouldn't make sense.

Symmetry is the activation of that unity within the plot. The inciting event has symmetry with the climax. The opening has symmetry with the resolution. The first plot point has symmetry with the second, and so on. What does this mean? It means that SOME things are the same, and some things are different. You can gauge the differences -- and therefore the dramatic distance -- by measuring them against the elements that are the same.

There's something incredibly key here for a writer. Say you're struggling with your climax. Where do you find a cue? In your inciting event. Or the reverse. Say your little girl character is outside of a car you thought she'd be in. Look at the symmetric beat. And, voila, you find the bigger picture. In this case, the older male protagonist is pushing the little girl away and damaging himself. In the symmetric beat, he more or less rights that wrong -- by having another secret conversation, and learning from his mistake.

Say you find yourself at a loss when your characters just won't steal the car they need to steal for the plot to move forward. Take a look at the corresponding beat earlier in the script (i.e. equidistant from the midpoint). Guess what. They're actually taking a car that doesn't really belong to them.

Surprise! We have unity in our heads. We aim for symmetry, even when we don't realize it. Look at any story -- your own or someone else's. Find the structure, and I'll bet you'll be able to locate symmetries you hadn't noticed before.

Suddenly you're master of your universe again. You look to the beat, what's same and what's different. And soon you've deepened BOTH beats, and found a lot more story.

How does this affect the reader/viewer? Listening to a story is more or less recognizing a pattern. When you see a character in a parallel situation, but acting differently, you can gauge where you are in the story. And you settle in, relax, and wait for that pattern to unfold.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Lives of Others

I've finally cleared out some space in my head. It's been a week to remember. The end of the Bush administration now at hand. Friends of mine who woke up Wednesday morning uncertain if they're married anymore. It tears you apart.

I've been obsessed with the election, and very nearly broke out of my screenwriting blog mode to pursue something more general about media and narrative. That may happen, but not today.

I finally saw The Lives of Others. It's a German film about a famous playwright and the State Security officer who put him under surveillance. It's a deeply moving film, and a picture of careful, passionate screenwriting. If you desire to be a careful yet passionate screenwriter, check it out.

The script answers some critical questions for new writers. I'll delve into a couple today.

It's common for new writers to reject any kind of formula for their main characters. How can it be as simple as a misbehavior and a goal? My character is so much richer than that! (And I have 100 pages to go! How am I supposed to fill that with one trait?)

I'll give a class on dramatic distance -- setting your main character as far back from the finish line as possible. New writers nod and agree that's a good idea. Then you start seeing their drafts and you realize the slightly distant look was as long as you don't put them *too* far away from the goal.

You go on and on about symmetry, about how knowing your ending can tell you how to write your beginning, or how one plot point can flesh out another. That's all well and good, they think. But it's too damn hard. Or it's a recipe for formula.

Watch The Lives of Others.

The main character, Wiesler, is a fairly unpleasant individual at the beginning. He not only interrogates enemies of the East German state, he trains others to do it too. He's a whiz at his job because he understands human nature only too well. He knows how to listen.

He's ruthless at his job. He in fact fingers the playwright, Georg Dreyman, for surveillance when all others considered him above reproach.

Did you see the flaw? He knows how to listen. He's obsessed with listening and finding the subtext. He worships at the altar of human nature. And that's not necessarily a good thing when you work for the Stasi. He's too good at his job.

As Georg's best friend commits suicide and his wife gets pawed by a powerful politician, Wiesler can't help but feel sympathy for the man. When he encounters Georg's wife by chance, he knows exactly what to say to her to strengthen the marriage. And the drama continues.

Georg and some friends discuss smuggling one of them into West Germany. Wiesler hears the whole thing, and decides not to report the future crime "just this once". But Georg and friends were simply running a test -- to see if the apartment was bugged. They never counted on Wiesler's sympathy. And they start to hatch a bigger plan without taking precautions. He's put both Georg and himself in greater danger.

Now Wiesler has a choice. Come clean or continue the lie. He continues the lie -- in fact coming up with a fake play to cover up real work his subject doing. He gets another security man off the case, arousing the suspicion of his boss. Soon Wiesler is risking literally everything to save the couple -- all without their knowledge.

At the end, Wiesler is the interrogated, not the interrogator. He's come full circle. He's covered more dramatic distance than you can imagine. And you believed it every step of the way.

I've summarized here. I've taken a hugely dramatic script with multiple storylines and subplots and turned it into the answer to an essay question. That's a problem with blogging. It's not finding something new. It's reporting what you saw.

I'm going to insist that you watch this movie with one thing in mind. Not merely "can I identify the screenwriter's tools?" Look a little deeper, and see that a beautiful, true story is beautiful and true BECAUSE it has these tools. They aren't tools once they've left your head anymore. They're simply true. They're simply beautiful.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Vote Obama

Rebuild our democracy.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Gigantic Releasing

The indie film world has been on the cusp of a distribution revolution for...years and years and years. There's always a big bold world of endless availability for even small filmmakers just around the corner. Somehow it never quite happens. I'm not sure why. We all thought Netflix would be a huge boon. Not so much. Itunes Movie Store. Hmmm.

The latest iteration of the coming online revolution is here now. Gigantic Releasing is moving into distribution of independent films online the day of release in theaters. So, you'll be able to see the tiny little flick with a heart of gold that never gets to your town. And it'll cost $2.99 (popcorn not included). It's higher picture quality than you're used to. No ads. And they're throwing in a freebie: unlimited free access to a huge library of documentary and short films. Who knows? It might just work.

Check out this article in Indiewire.

Monday, October 20, 2008

What the Audience Understands

I've been thinking a lot about what the audience understands implicitly about a story. Knowing what the audience gets immediately is a big part of the writer's toolbox. And so today I want to talk about conceit.

No -- not conceit as in conceited. Conceit as in concept. Conceit is an approach, a strategy, a pose. Conceit is the way you bring unity to your work.

I went to see Max Raabe and The Palast Orchester last Saturday. Mr. Raabe and his band are some of the foremost advocates of the music of the 1920's and 30's. They dress in period coat and tails. They play original orchestrations and they take it very seriously. It's almost strange not to hear the scrapes and scratches of the old victrola recording. The concert took place in Oakland's art deco gem, The Paramount, and it was hard not to feel a bit of nostalgia for a time I never actually experienced. The immersion was total. It didn't matter if you weren't particularly a fan of music most of us remember from The Great Gatsby. You were caught up in the experience. You were rewarded for going with it.

That's what conceit is.

Conceit is following a good idea to its full unfurling. You might mistake Raabe's music as a nostalgic play at first. But it's done with incredible care and attention to detail. You might mistake the outfits as kitsch -- until you see that he's truly aiming for the kind of elegance that contemporary music has lost. He wants to regain that. He wants to bring something back. He wants to make something new again.

I took my seat with a grain of salt at first. I hadn't chosen the concert -- just to go along. But within a song or two I couldn't help but feel I was back in the Weimar Republic, that time of loose morals, political strife, and great fun before Hitler came to power. You could hear something real from then in the music. It made you think. It made you compare your own time to that period. It made me teeter back and forth between optimism and pessimism about where we might be in five years. My Little Green Cactus actually got me thinking about history and the world and what's going on in it. I don't know if Mr. Raabe had that in mind, exactly. But any strong conceit -- any idea worked out organically -- has that kind of resonance. It means more. It's dynamic. It has a dynamic that gives it life in a listener.

Raabe got a standing ovation that night. He came out for his encore and played a cover of... Britney Spears. It's worth a listen.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Quote for the Day

"If you can tell stories, create characters, devise incidents, and have sincerity and passion, it doesn't matter a damn how you write."

– Somerset Maugham

Saturday, October 11, 2008

первый блин комом

For some reason I had a class from 1987 stuck in my head all yesterday. I was studying in the Soviet Union, and locked into an incredibly torturous class on Russian aphorisms. The teacher was writing a dissertation contrasting English and Russian sayings, and the class basically consisted of her trying to milk us for as much new material as she could come up with.

We'd sit there, she'd fire off a saying at us, and grill us into providing an English language equivalent. Then she'd scribble it down in her notes -- "A steetch een time saves nine... steetches?" -- then she'd pretend to teach us another aphorism. This went on for weeks.

One day she offered up this little gem of Russian wisdom: "The first blini is комом." I've never come up with a good translation for комом. It basically means a misshapen mess. We sat there in silence. She demanded an answer. Finally one student said, "The first pancake always sucks." And she wrote it down. "Socks?" No. Sucks. The first pancake always sucks. She seemed skeptical. Then we explained that 'sucks' has an idiomatic meaning. "Ah!" A two-fer. She scribbled frantically.

I think this stuck with me because "The first pancake always sucks" probably should be an aphorism. The first pancake is either burnt or undercooked. It runs too much to one side. It sticks to the griddle or bubbles in the butter. The purpose of the first pancake is not to be eaten. The purpose of the first pancake is to prepare the way for the next pancake. The first pancake gets the amount of butter adjusted correctly. It probably adds a microscopic dose of batter to the griddle that paves the way for better pancakes down the line. It tells you the pan's too hot. But it's not a good pancake.

First pancakes are like first drafts. You can't aim for too much. You have to get it down on the page -- but there's no doubt that the second draft will be better. You can mix your batter all morning but you won't get to the perfect pancake until you've made your way past the first one. It's just a fact. For me, it makes writing easier.

Now, I firmly believe in planning. There's no substitute for it. You MUST work out a strong concept before you begin. It doesn't matter how many cauliflower pancakes you make -- they aren't going to get significantly better with practice. But even the best concept won't get you past the testing stage. And that's all a first draft really is. You'll adjust the batter. You'll adjust the temperature. Maybe you'll add a bit of vanilla, or some berries from the freezer. But you won't know until you try it out.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

We Are What We Repeatedly Do

It rained for the first time in six months last night.

This is normal for the Bay Area. All summer long the fog rolls in nightly, but not a drop will fall. By October everything is dusty. There's a collective crick in everyone's throat. Worries about drought fill the airwaves. You (and everyone around you) physically crave rain falling from the sky. By law, meteorologists must predict rain four times before it actually falls. It's torturous. And when it finally arrives no one wastes time to find their raincoat to run outside and breathe in the astounding smells of wet pavement. The trees seem to take a collective deep breath. The earth opens up. Dogs dance around frantically.

Last night was the meteorologists' first prediction of rain. You see clouds, but you know the rain won't come. I went to an outdoor Sigur Ros concert. The band is much like the weather -- it takes it's time getting there, but you're glad when it finally happens. They open up a great, gorgeous sound. The lead singer is a counter tenor. It's all quite ethereal and quirky. Toy pianos and weird meters eventually give way to guitars and drums. But like I said, you have to wait for it. I sat in a great Greek amphitheater as gigantic eucalyptus trees bowed in the wind. It wasn't until the encore that it all made sense. They played a crowd favorite: Track 8. The song repeats some Icelandic phrase over and over. Droplets started to fall. And as the song built to its incredible climax, the rain started to pour down. I'm a very modern person, but I couldn't help but feel they'd called it down, demanded it from the gods, made it come down and quench California's thirst with the proper offering.

There was rock concert ecstasy. There was crazy Norse raindance ecstasy. It all fed together like some well thought out movie plot. They called the rain down. It made me think about Aristotle.

Aristotle had a surprisingly simple view of human nature: We are what we repeatedly do. He applied this to every field of endeavor he touched. He believed that the ethical basis for a human being was repeated good action, that habits would bring out the best in people. He was an optimist in this. He believed we were basically good, and that it just took some work for us to realize it and make the best of ourselves.

Aristotle also laid the foundation for our understanding of drama. He is the first to sketch out the three-act structure. He is the first to dig into the relation between character and plot. Almost all western drama goes back to Aristotle.

And, in a way, it's all about uncovering what is best in humans through repeated action. When you start a movie, what do you see? The main character's world is defined by his repeated action. There's something healthy and good there, or there's something not so good there. Then he reacts with the same basic reflex at the inciting event. His world is thrown out of balance. He hews to his basic reflexes even more -- and gets stuck in the plot. He continues down this path, repeating the same basic reflex action over and over again. It keeps him from getting the girl. It gets him punched in the face. It makes him rich and miserable. It drives him to hate himself. It doesn't matter. It's the same action, over and over. Only the context really changes. Until the climax.

And in the climax he wakes up. He overcomes that action. He sees he past his little world. He opens up. And the reward comes down upon him. (Or, in Greek drama, he doesn't -- and pays with his life).

The protagonist wins a battle by overcoming the self. He connects to something bigger. It's the repeated act that drives him to a better understanding.

Back when Aristotle was bopping around the acropolis, drama was part and parcel with magic and religion. He saw this repeated action as a call for intervention from above. We'd laugh and say that you can't call rain down from the sky with a song that repeats the same phrase over and over. But we seem to agree with everything else he had to say, so maybe it's worth at least wondering if he was on to something here.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Foot-Foot and Butt-Butt

I was exercising my god-given right as a writer to eavesdrop the other day when I stumbled upon a conversation. It made me think of a quote from Mark Twain:

"The humorous story is told gravely; the teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it."

I actually remembered the quote as its converse: that a grave tale is best told with humor. That's just me.

As I sipped my coffee, a laid back Californian-style hipster chatted with his very east coast fiancee. His dog, Foot-Foot, had eaten the strap off her handbag. It was a disaster. Foot-Foot was a terror, and clearly jealous of the hold the fiancee had on her master. The young man was of the no-problem-without-a-solution type. They spend Saturday finding a new handbag, make an adventure of it. She'd be happy. I think he was stoned.

She was not convinced. There seemed to be a bigger problem in general: dogs. She would brook no opposition, least of all from canines. Failure to prosecute Foot-Foot for his crime was a serious issue. Just as serious: the very name of the young man's second dog: Butt-Butt.

Now, these are great dog names, if you ask me. You can see Foot-Foot, Butt-Butt, and the young man having a great time, making a mess of the kitchen, chasing slobber-covered tennis balls, barking at passing fire engines. It all makes sense.

But she was putting her foot down. She doesn't like slobber-covered tennis balls, or scratches on the door, or midnight pee runs. The man tried to lighten the moment by joking that he planned to get a third dog and call it Nut-Nut.

Like I said, I think he was stoned.

Was she expected to call out to Nut-Nut in public? What about when her parents came to visit? You sensed that Nut-Nut would have complete power to chew up any accessory. She wasn't about to shout Nut-Nut out loud. It was completely unacceptable.

Nut-Nut quickly rose up, like a scowling head of Putin in the airspace over Alaska. The issue of Nut-Nut became, you sensed, the main conflict that would either break this relationship, or test it for many years to come. The young man had never realized just how serious this was. It was incomprehensible to him. But it was becoming very clear now. The plot was moving forward. We'd learned more about the characters. More importantly, the characters were learning more about each other.

Many new writers of drama do their best to shove as much drama as possible into a dramatic scene. It's as if the presence of a joke (or, god forbid, a humorous premise) will shake the scene's gravitas to its core. Scripts move from unrelenting conflict to unrelenting conflict... that's what the screenwriting books tell you to do, right? Never let up? It can very quickly become unrelentingly monotonous.

You'll find higher highs to contrast with your lower lows if you allow your audience to breathe, to laugh, to enter the situation. Tell a story, enjoy yourself, and find what sounds true.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Thought for the Day

"Character gives us qualities, but it is in actions -- what we do -- that we are happy or the reverse. All human happiness and misery take the form of action."


Thursday, September 25, 2008

Misbehavior and Desire

There's a basic structure to almost every movie you've ever seen. It doesn't matter if the movie you're watching is Killer Klowns from Outer Space or 3:10 to Yuma or Kung Fu Panda. It doesn't actually matter if it's The Godfather or a commercial for laundry detergent. There's a common structure there. It's present in 'serious' indie stuff and Disney films (and their spoofs).

Why is the structure there? Because people expect it. It's a chicken and egg thing. It's vaguely disturbing how prevalent the three-act structure is. If I were in a better mood, I'd find it endlessly fascinating just how productive this structure is. I'd wonder if humans weren't hard-wired for this story structure. I'd go on and on about how formulaic films do everything they can to fit into the structure, while more challenging films merely use the structure to help create new and better story. But it's been a long week, so it's just vaguely disturbing right now.

What is this structure, exactly? You can find a description of it in Aristotle's Poetics. You can find reams of paper written on the hero's journey, the writer's journey, George Lucas' journey. Syd Field will bisect the middle act, and make three acts into four. Individuals throughout history have produced incredibly insightful and careful analyses of the basic story structure that has fueled drama and literature for as long as we've existed.

If you're not up for a big research project right now, let me sum it up for you. Your hero walks carefree and/or miserable through the equilibrium of his life until wham -- something throws everything out of balance. The hero reacts indignantly -- as any of us would. But things get worse -- he can't get away from the plot. Just has to power through. Things start looking up -- our guy even learns a bit about himself -- but it lasts just long enough to find a bigger problem. "Hey -- here's something I didn't know I could do!" he thinks. And of course, he can't actually do it. It's all going to hell now. The train's riding down the tracks, the alien forces are massing overhead, or you find yourself facing a debate in front of 100 million people right after humiliating yourself with a transparent political stunt. But lo and behold, you learn how to escape what got you into trouble in the first place. You overcome it. You gain knowledge. You gain love. You gain That Which Means Most to You. Or, in some dreadful cases, you don't.

How does this all fit together? Well, the character is usually constructed from two main elements: the goal of the story and the inability to reach that goal. That inability is usually neatly summarized as a flaw or misbehavior. Even in fairly complex characters there's one main defining trait because it helps the audience recognize the character.

Now why on earth would that appeal to human beings? Like it or not, we're all tied up with our own misbehaviors and desires. We're tied up in our own cycles. We usually are responsible for these cycles because of some behavior we can't get past. We drink too much. We surf the web too much. We avoid conflict, or race toward it. We're bullies, or we're wimps. We've got a basic nature, and that means the stories we experience tend to repeat themselves. Every Tuesday afternoon I teach for six hours. Every Tuesday morning about 10 AM I'm frantic with worry about what I forgot to do. Every Tuesday at 10:15 I remember it's eating and bathing that I've forgotten. At 10:45 I'm running out the door to catch the train. It doesn't matter how much I plan. I'm bound to do it.

Think about it.

There's something hugely cathartic about people escaping their cycles. Watching others do it is powerful. It's rare in real life. But it's a gorgeous thing when it does. Maybe that's all movies are really about.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Prodigal Sons

A few years ago I met Kim Reed at a screenwriters' conference. She was working on a story about three siblings: a high school football star and class president who underwent a sex change, a gay man, and an adopted brother who found out he was the son of Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth. Naturally, I assumed this was a rather far-fetched feature.

It's not. Prodigal Sons is a documentary about the true story of Kim's family, and it's bursting onto the indie documentary scene after an incredibly successful debut at the Telluride Film Festival.

Here's what Variety had to say. If you get a chance, check it out.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Getting Unreasonable with 'em

I was rooting around this morning for pithy online resources for my Creative Writing students. This is the kind of activity which engenders far more ambivalence in me than you might expect. I'm not down with pithy advice to writers. I'm firmly of a mind that writing is more or less like teaching a rider to become the horse. You have to learn to to let the animal take the reins. But that's much too frightening a reality to teach new writers, and so I spent the morning looking for comforting baby steps that'll keep them writing long enough to find out the dirty bits themselves. And I stumbled upon this in an article entitled Five Tips to Avoiding Total Disaster as a Novelist:

Tip #5. Ignore all reasonable sounding advice like “write about what you know,” “read as much as you can,” or “try to write every day.” If you need to hear this advice you are in the wrong game. But more importantly, reasonableness won’t get the job done. One day in an ice-stricken back alley in Boston I saw a fat little Irishman beat the daylights out of four larger, stronger assailants. When it was over, and it was over astonishingly quickly, he brushed himself off and said simply, “I had to get unreasonable with ‘em.” Unless you are willing to face the unreasonable in yourself -- unless you are willing to entertain some strange notions (and deal with them when they stick around) -- unless you are willing to get lost, confused and even terrified -- then what you’re doing won’t have any meaning. The famous device of conflict upon which all stories are supposed to hinge starts within the writer. You are all the characters in your dreams and so too with a novel. You can’t put your creations into jeopardy or into embarrassing or miraculous situations without going there yourself, and that is not a sensible ambition for a grown person to have. As a writer who has made more mistakes than most, my goal above all else is to be very, very unreasonable.

I'm less than convinced about some of his other tips. As he says, spending years collecting odd material and playing with weird writing styles is absolutely a waste of time. He's entirely correct. I just wish it wasn't entirely necessary to the development of a writing style. I nevertheless hold author Kris Saknussemm in a high regard. You can find out more about his novel Zanesville here.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Mr. Gary on the Feedback Show

Mr. Gary is playing in the ATA Film and Video Festival Friday, October 3. If you're in San Francisco, check it out! It's in a pretty decent line up of underground and indie films. Well worth a day away from the multiplex, if I do say so myself.

Mr. Gary on the Feedback Show is the story of Flora, an elderly shut in who calls in to a surreal Dr. Phil-like radio personality and ends up controlling the universe. It's shot in a set designed by Megan Wilson.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Immediate and Real, like a Dream

Writing is one of those things nobody really understands. We can build devices that shoot our thoughts and words off across great distances. But we can't really understand how we form those thoughts, or how they're rebuilt in the mind of the listener. We're in the middle of some information age -- be it evolution, revolution or death spiral -- and somehow we still dawdle around wondering if words came first or images or meaning. Sooner or later you're right back praying to the muses, just like the Greeks a couple millenia ago.

Things get no easier when you try to build a life around writing. You think you get your head around it, then it humbles you again. You dare to 'teach' it -- and wham, there's always something more. You foolishly rush into the profession of writing, and there you are with your toolbox full of plot and character and elements of drama, standing dumbfounded by the monster in front of you. Writing is like love. It pays to recognize ahead of time that you'll be regularly dumbfounded.

I've settled on the comfortingly obtuse idea that our brains are basically quantum machines. We bring things into being by observing them, by making choices about them, by pointing our intention at them. It explains to me why a character that I've constructed roughly out of a couple basic elements can just start chattering back at me one day. There's a real act of creation here. It doesn't matter that the character isn't standing there in front of you. Apparently we can't directly experience seven of the ten major dimensions anyway. What's another protagonist or two?

There's a lot of research implying that as far as the brain is concerned, dreams and memory are pretty much the same as actual experience. "Show, don't tell" indeed.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Play/Work/Screenplay/Scene Work

I'm of the belief that you're not truly a writer until you've been dumped for shouting "I'm working!" at a loved one through a door as you stare at an empty page one time too many. Writing is work.

I won't bore you with the old chestnut that writing is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration, because you've heard it before. But it is true.

I know that writing is several kinds of work. From planning it out to developing characters to revising and editing to ruthless self-examination to god-knows-what the next script will demand of me. Few jobs require as many different skills as writing does. And I'm not even counting the business end here.

Writing is work. Writing wears you out. Writing builds muscles. Writing is The Man. Some days you need a few beers and burgers just to feel normal again afterward. I've done every imaginable job from Fedex courier to cab driver to teacher to manager to waiter at snotty, understaffed restaurants. Writing is the hardest.

So don't look at me funny when I tell you that writing is play.

Writing is play. Writing has to be play. To wit:

You can plan a screenplay to within an inch of its life. I mean this. While you must plan out your script if you hope to get anywhere, you can also kill a script by overplanning it. Where's the balance?

I know I've hit the limit on planning when I stop finding toys to play with. I plan to increase my enjoyment. I plan to find scenes I want to write and characters that will surprise me. I plan to take a trip that I want to take. I plan ahead. I plan to be surprised. I plan to be happy.

I used to plan for careful symmetry. I used to plan for Syd Field. I used to plan for meaning, for significance, for something literary.

Now I plan to tell stories. In a shockingly straightforward kind of way, that's all most storytellers really want to do.

Last night I was watching The Seventh Seal. For those of you not familiar with Ingmar Bergman's opus, it's the story of a crusader's return to a Sweden ravaged by the Black Death. I didn't actually choose to watch it. The boyfriend wanted to, and it seemed like a reasonable alternative to the unbearable pathos that Brooke Knows Best inevitably brings on.

What caught me up was the scene where the traveling band of actors is singing this very silly song about sheep laying eggs and hens meowing while Death goes for a walk on the beach. Off behind the stage, the actor who plays Death is busy seducing an entirely willing milkmaid. And I realized just how much fun Bergman -- yes, Bergman -- must have gotten from putting this all together. The Seventh Seal stopped being something you're supposed to watch. Something very heavy became very light.

How do you apply something like this to the work you've got in front of you?

I was coaching a student on building climaxes before the all-too-numerous act breaks in a Movie of the Week script the other day. It's one of those things that seems terribly complex until you get the hang of it. (Then it's a bit too boring/restrictive for words). And I remember back -- way, way back -- to when I was a grad student, and a friend visited me from the Soviet Union. He'd never seen a commercial in his life.

We were watching a movie of the week. He didn't speak English, and I was providing a kind of running translation. Just as we reached the first act break, the movie of course went to commercial. What? "What the $%^$?! Who is this woman on the TV? And why is she having an orgasm folding her laundry?!" How could anyone do something so mean-spirited, so tricky, so evil as to build the tension then try to sell you detergent?

I still don't have a good answer to those questions. But I don't think I could write an MOW without thinking of him.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Changing "The Narrative"

I do my best to avoid topics that will likely turn off readers. I want everyone to feel welcome here, whether we agree or disagree. It's nothing more than a screenwriting blog, yo. My politics aren't the issue.

I have been thinking about starting a blog about how the fundamentals of drama are moving out into the broader world. Now that we're all connected by intertubes, it seems only natural that this tendency will grow. You can control how people see events and characters by framing their context. There are some extremely effective strategies for doing this, and they've been around for thousands of years. Who wouldn't access this knowledge?

This is why Republicans and Democrats are constantly screwing with each other's back stories. This is why they're always muddying each other's inciting events. On and on. And this is the only conceivable reason I can think for McCain choosing Sarah Palin.

Unless you're staunchly anti-abortion, you were probably scratching your head on this one. Google got a bit of a headache from everyone trying to figure out who she was. Apparently McCain met her once before this week, so he wasn't exactly sure who she was either. For that matter, she wasn't too clear on what the VP job entailed.

So even if you think she's a great pick, you have to ask yourself how she got picked.

From a screenwriting standpoint it does make sense.

Old screenwriters love to sit around and talk about 'setting traps'. How do you do this? McCain's rewriting the narrative to make it more difficult for Obama. He's setting traps. It's not how well known she is, or what she stands for. Her main asset as a trap has more to do with how powerless and out of her element she is, in a way.

To wit: Obama attacks her for being inexperienced. McCain keeps the 'inexperienced' meme in the narrative. Obama's slogging through sand here. It's not so much that he's defeating his own argument as making it harder for Obama to make his.

The Obama camp attacks her for getting her ex-brother-in-law fired -- i.e. allegations of corruption. McCain keeps the Tony Rezko issue in the debate.

Whenever Obama's surrogates reference the excitement at a first black president, they're now cutting against the excitement about a woman in the White House.

In other words, all the obvious attacks backfire. In other words, this is not a stupid or reckless choice. It's not a choice made from a position of power. But it is a crafty choice. When does a screenwriter make a choice like this?

A screenwriter builds a trap by giving the trap a number of analogous traits to the hero. And they give the trap to the opponent. The hero can't really attack the opponent without damaging someone like themselves. They have to find a way to get to their goal without endangering this person like them.

The trap is a hostage. And I think this may well lay at the base of McCain's thinking. This is Princess Leia captured by Darth Vader, in a way. It's Saddamn Hussein's 'human shields'.

Yes, I know. She's a gun-toting Christian hockey mom who appeals to the Republican base. I know. Could he really not come up with someone better to make his point? I don't think he's interested in having someone he views as an equal on the ticket. Yeah, she'll pull a couple Clinton voters. But I can't see them really crossing over in droves. No one can.

In my view, McCain's probably made a mistake here. He's basically reacting to the hero's plot. He's thinking like a villain. He's casting himself as the villain in Obama's narrative. And villains have a knack for not winning in the end.

Or maybe that's just in the movies.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Film Arts Finally Goes Under

Film Arts Foundation, after a long history of supporting the creation of independent film in San Francisco, has officially gone under. This is a surprise to no one. It's been hobbling along for years now. It was always one of those organizations that you felt should be and do more than it is. But, as a friend of mine put it, there's no 'there' there. You tried to be good and faithful member. You'd try to see how you could access them for help making a film. But they weren't as relevant as they could have been.

The news is that the SF Film Society is taking over their filmmaker services. This seems a bit of a stretch. SFFS puts on the San Francisco International Film Festival. They have fancy screenings and the like. But their mandate has been about bringing independent film to viewers, rather than working with the film community here. That's a real shift in culture for any organization, but I'm cautiously optimistic.

Why? There are a huge number of filmmakers in this town, with a great deal of energy. Most of them had run up against the limitations of FAF shortly after signing up for fiscal sponsorship. They ALL want a more vibrant center for filmmaking. I think most of them will give SFFS a shot.

Here's hoping, in any case. If you're interested in reading more, check out this article. It's well worth your time even if you aren't in San Francisco. There are a lot of changes going on in indie film. Some are great, some are not. The pattern is the same all over the country.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Immanuel Kant and Why You're Procrastinating

... or why we're both procrastinating, actually.

This is a posting about two of the most central elements to any rewarding writing life: intention and concentration. Just want to lay that out there before I crawl out onto a limb and hang myself.

Back in the 1700's The Enlightenment was in full swing. More happened to shape who we are in this century than most people realize. The arts, philosophy, science all snapped the tether that had leashed them to the church for over a millenium. Reason took hold and life in many ways became what we know today. This was the time of "I think therefore I am". It was the time of the Declaration of Independence and the birth of the scientific method. It let Mozart write Don Giovanni one day and a mass the next. Isaac Newton and the apple. It was an astonishing time. Humanity saw itself in an entirely new light. Not all of it was good, of course. The French Revolution comes to mind.

There was an explosion of philosophers. Most of them can be seen as engaging in the untethering of thought from the church. It's like they're figuring out how to untie the boat from the dock. Some are cautious. Others not so much. 'I think therefore I am' replaces 'God made me, and therefore I am'. The Enlightenment allowed us to measure and manipulate knowledge without falling back on some mystical unknowable relying on faith.

Immanuel Kant was at the head of the pack. He came up with a couple swell ideas. We can't truly know the reality of other individuals -- only our perception of them. And we can't act on objects across a distance.

This adds up to a couple problems. First, well, you can't really know anyone else. There's a loneliness there. We're all separated out. It's depressing. This has been sinking in for a few centuries now.

Second, it makes no difference what we intend. By intention, I mean things like prayer. We can pray, but we're not affecting anything. Some supreme being may observe it, but we're not really doing anything but bouncing thoughts off our own craniums.

Like I said, it's depressing. (And by the way, I don't think he really even believed it. He just had to say it in order to win an argument.)

Frankly, I think Kant was dead wrong on this one. If he was right, we wouldn't be praying anymore. We'd probably distantly remember religion at best. We'd have truly outgrown it. If Kant was right, then quantum physics wouldn't exist. But it does.

If you have a positive mental attitude, you know the power of intention. If you meditate, you know the power of intention. If you worship in a church, you know the power of intention. If you psych yourself up before the big game, you're using intention. We all use intention in some way.

And of course, if you write, you know the power of intention. You can bring a world into being. You can create characters that breathe and act and doubt in the existence of their creator. Writing exercises that same capacity -- that muscle of thought. We all settle into cliches of 'being creative' and forget that we are truly creating something. And we're creating it out of pure intention. Readers recreate that world out of their own intention. So screw Kant.

Of course, intention requires concentration. And why is it so damn hard to concentrate? Why are you surfing the internets right now instead of writing that story? To my eyes, we're busy 'pinging'. We're putting out beacons, seeing if the real world is out there. We're fighting that loneliness. And most of the time we're losing. We're confirming everthing Kant

Writing is requires more concentration than the average individual has anymore. It works a capacity that our culture has largely forgotten we have. It takes work and practice to learn it again. So pray, intend, meditate, wish well, whatever it takes. Do it every day. And get writing.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Dark Knight

I'm a little late out of the blocks on this one, so I'll keep it short. This is one of the films that managed to catch me up as a screenwriter and scare the pants off me. And it does it while largely centering on some fairly heady thematics about the nature of a hero in a society governed by random acts and raw power, an effective response to nihilism, America's deepening fear that it's about to eat itself, and, well... I'll stop now. The film searches for meaning in a way that few indie films dare without diminishing the blockbuster impact in the slightest. If you've got a budget of $185M, you can do both! It seems there are more and more big movies willing to mean something these days. It's a very good thing.

I'm overcoming my kneejerk reaction to John Truby here and linking to his post on The Dark Knight. I'd post a spoiler alert, but I think everybody's seen the movie anyway..

Check out Truby's article in Storylink.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Saturday Morning Inspiration

I was thinking I'd make this somehow screenwriting-relevant with some comment about planning being a boon to creativity or the like, but I'll pass. Living in a head full of visions is always better than a head full of nuthin. Next time you grimace at revision, think of this video and how much beauty there is in erasing it all and starting again.

MUTO a wall-painted animation by BLU from blu on Vimeo.

For more on the artist, check out the website.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Finding Perspective and Clarity

One of the best screenwriting tips I ever heard was this: write your synopsis for a distracted teenager. And, if you're lucky enough to have a distracted teenager at your disposal, test it out on them.

Why is this valuable advice? Studio readers aren't distracted teenagers (we hope). Big producers, directors, and agents don't watch TV while simultaneously playing Nintendo, texting friends, and updating their myspace page.

But they are busy, distracted people. They live in the 21st century, and therefore have short attention spans and an unquenchable need for constant information input. This makes them anxious and lazy at the same time.

Writing for your probable reader, rather than your optimal reader, forces you to be incredibly clear about your story. It requires you to think it through so it

1. makes sense and

2. is something other people care about.

(I forgot about #2 for the first decade of my writing career. But enough about me.)

This is very difficult, of course. Many (mostly new) writers punt on the whole synopsis issue, and wait to write it only after they've written the script. I'm not sure why they do this. Why wouldn't you want to sort out story problems on one page instead of spending months writing and rewriting a hundred or more just to get it to make sense?

But if writing for a difficult teen just isn't your bag, then consider some other options.

I'm working on a script that's aimed at an adult audience. It's about family and loneliness and all that good stuff. I tried writing it for a child. I made it a fairy tale.

What happens? The same thing that happens when you talk to a child: you break things down into simpler and simpler chunks. Often there's no way around the honesty that arises out of that process. You have to explain things carefully, and lay them out gently. My boyfriend's 6-year-old niece once froze me with the question, "Why do you and he sleep in the same bed?" Then I got on the kid level and answered, "Because he's my favorite person in the whole world." And she smiles and runs off to play. It's that simple. And it's true.

Do that with your synopsis and you're liable to find what you're really writing about, and why it matters. Your characters hew to type a bit. All your three-act gobbledygook transforms into some beautiful archetype.

Next I tried imagining the story from the perspective of my main character. He's a fifty-year-old functional drug addict who's shut himself off from the planet. It's a daydream as he glazes over in front of the computer. Some more issues come into focus: why he'd suddenly sacrifice his safe existence; what he truly cares about and won't let himself have; what he WOULDN'T do that I've been trying to make him do.

It's a worthwhile exercise. It's also very close to what professional writers do regularly when they tailor their synopses, treatments, and query letters to specific individuals.

But for now, realize that this is a tooling for *creating* your story, rather than selling it. These shifts in contexts remind us just how infinite stories are. One slight shift in perspective, and it's all new again.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Breathe In, Breathe Out

Have you ever written a beautiful scene that mysteriously turns to nonsense overnight? Have you ever found a brilliant solution to a story problem one day, only to find it unbearably ridiculous the next?

If you have, you're in very good company. If you haven't, well -- the rest of us don't like you very much.

Insecurity it a part of writing, of course. But why does it happen so often? Why must it happen so often? My theory is that we go to bed as writers and wake up as editors. With the glow of inspiration behind you and a long slog ahead things start to look very different.

Getting past this unfortunate phenomenon is part of becoming a professional writer. Embracing this phenomenon is the mark of a happy writer.

Let me explain. When you wrote the scene or reworked the synopsis last night and all was light and brilliance, you were discovering something about your story. This morning when you were trying to re-enter writing head, you'd changed. You'd acquired the knowledge already. You assimilated it last night in a sea of beautiful, technicolor, exquisitely structured dreams. And this morning you woke a new person. You had new eyes. You had new knowledge. You had a new perspective. You woke a little bit smarter.

And it hurts. Thank god it's exactly where you want to be. You never would have had the opportunity to look down your nose at this brilliant idea otherwise.

Writing is all about gaining knowledge. It's about incremental gains and the occasional giant leap. When your inner editor puts down his coffee, gazes wearily out over his bifocals and asks, "What were you thinking," you need to answer honestly and fearlessly. There's a dialectic at work here. You need to respond. How do you respond?

When I'm developing a story, I work and rework synopses and loglines. I'll scratch out back stories and then slowly, maybe fiddle with some scene work. Somewhere along the line the synopses and so on start to build up on top of each other. One document decides to become the story encyclopedia. Things start to take on their own weight. I get away from my structure. I let things fall where they may. It starts to feel organic. I am enjoying the process.

But as I prepare to actually write the script, I see all the things that I've stepped away from. The SIMPLE structure. The conceit that conveys itself in a few words. The careful and straightforward construction of the main characters. Minor characters have stepped out of their place, and are mucking up the garden, building digressions and gossiping away about back story. It's a mess. The editor is asking unavoidable questions, and the writer is terrified.

But you pick yourself up and respond. You go back to your ideas about character -- the misbehavior and the goal -- and you start to apply it. You look at your 4.5-act mess through the eyes of your three-act model. You relax. You embrace the art. There's something speaking here, and it's not your conscious mind. The story is more important than your structure. The story had better be more than you had in your conscious mind.

I've wanted to write a posting like this for a while. I hit my readers over the head with the need for structure even when I don't remotely believe they somehow always magically hold the answers. Structure and careful back story development and good character hygiene and all that can make you productive, aware, even professional. They're a pretty good way of telling you when you're screwing up. But don't expect them to write the story for you.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Thought for the Day

"As a young child I wanted to be a writer because writers were rich and famous. They lounged around Singapore and Rangoon smoking opium in a yellow pongee suit. They sniffed cocaine in Mayfair and penetrated forbidden swamps with a faithful native boy and lived in the native quarter of Tangier smoking hashish and languidly caressing a pet gazelle."

William S. Burroughs
The Adding Machine

Half Nelson

I finally saw Half Nelson last night. A tremendous film about a white progressive teacher teaching black youth at an inner city school. As he devolves into a serious crack addiction, he clings to the only thing that won't die -- his unlikely friendship with a female student.

I'd actively avoided the film. When your main character is a white, well-meaning liberal teaching history in an inner city school, you're going to get preachy sooner or later. Add drugs and you'll have difficulty not sailing that ship into the shoals of escapism from white guilt. No matter how sensitive and well-drawn the characters, I just knew that sooner or later he'd be busting down a door and saving her from an evil drug lord.

But it wasn't like that. Not at all. It's a beautiful, well-written film. It can teach us a lot.

This movie had to deal with some heavy expectations (see above). The filmmakers clearly didn't want to make that film. So a lot of making it was AVOIDING that easy, hackneyed interpretation. I want to point to three issues here.

First, structure. The white liberal drug movie set in the inner city makes fairly straightforward use of the three-act structure. In other words, it's predictable. You'll see the well-meaning liberal teacher. You'll get a nice inciting event, act break, midpoint, blah blah blah. It'll be darkest before the dawn -- his students reecting him and running off to a life of crime and inhumanity. And he'll save the day. Yada yada.

So the writers had a task here. Subvert that. Subvert it quick. And keep subverting it. And use it too.

What do I mean?

The audience is EXPECTING these beats. You're expecting a high point, where it looks like the teacher might get off drugs and make things work. It doesn't come -- and so your pulled into the character. The events of the script are open: you can't necessarily predict where the plot is going, because it's more of a life shape. Things fall into place as they go. It's open to interpretation. When we see the teacher stepping over the line physically with the student at the dance, we learn to watch the moment, rather than check the mental box for midpoint.

The teacher will likely get fired. We know that. It isn't the point. The viewer is still cradled in the plot, but not as a passive observer. You need to watch carefully since you have no idea what's coming next.

Second, character. One of the most interesting moments for me was when the teacher DOES have the face off with the drug dealer over the fate of his friend and student. He knows he has no moral ground to stand on. But he's got to do something. And he says that: "I'm supposed to do something, right?!"

What happens? The drug dealer is also a complex character. He's not just evil. He is -- in his own way -- looking out for her when he brings her into his business. And when the teacher keeps fighting his losing battle to stop him, he realizes that they do share something. They both want what's best for her. He invites him into his house (and yeah, gets him high).

It's an incredibly dramatic shift. And while you'll find evidence of it on the written script page, it's really the hard work of some determined screenwriters to produce this set up in the script *up to* that moment.

Third, dialogue. How do a teacher and student speak about the teacher's drug habit in real life? They don't. And virtually none of the dialogue in this movie is driven by the screenwriter's desire to get the issue down on the page. It's driven by the set up. There's not a single moment of 'stop doing the drugs or you'll die'.

Many screenwriters would insist on that scene, or at least not see a way around it. What happens when you do away with it? The audience member wonders what's going on with the kid. They remember that fear of seeing your teacher in a non-school environment. They remember the first time they really saw into the world of adults. They remember when they lost a friend to something they couldn't stop. They remember feeling powerless in their own environment.

It's an astonishing thing when a movie can have us both dig that deep into our own past AND get us that involved in a character.

And isn't that why we go to see movies?

Thursday, July 31, 2008

What's a Beat?

I apologize for jumping around a bit with my blogging. One week I'm dwelling on my own fairly esoteric musings, then switching over to very basic stuff the next. I'm sure I'm boring the working screenwriters and confusing the beginners. So, apologies to all.

Today's a day for the beginners with maybe a warm fuzzy moment of recognition for the more advanced readers as well.

What's a beat? Virtually anyone new to dramatic writing asks this question. And there are many answers. A beat is first and foremost a unit of drama. It's a pearl in the necklace. It's a step forward.

It's scalable. When talking about structure, screenwriters are talking about 'big' beats -- your act breaks and midpoint and low point and so on. When you're deep in scene work, a beat means the same thing it does to an actor. It's a shift in action, objective, or circumstance. It's the moment to moment shifts, the step by step modulations that make a scene work or fall flat.

A beat is universal. Everyone involved in drama talks about beats. It's a way of connecting your work to other people's efforts. You learn to find the beats very quickly. You know a beat when you see one.

It's a beat, as in music. Beats have to line up correctly. Beats define pacing. Beats create tension or excitement. Beats invite the audience into the song of your story.

A beat might be a line of dialogue. A beat can be a new shot. A beat can be action, or a simple, intuitive shift in a character's objective. A beat is what makes the story make sense moment to moment.

It's the hard stuff. Beats will always call bulls*** on what seemed like a good idea when you were working out your synopsis. Beats are what sell or sink your scene. If the reader just doesn't believe what's going on (or even if she isn't particularly engaged), there's usually a problem with the beats.

What's that problem? Usually the writer is forgetting (or ignoring) something that's perfectly obvious a beat or two before. A character is on the verge of starvation one moment, then chatting amicably about Augustine's use of Aristotle the next. Or a character's bent on wooing a beautiful girl one moment, then when given the perfect opportunity a few beats later, steals a car instead. We've all done it. It's inevitable. Reality is slippery. Stories are slippery. It's always more complex than we know starting out.

For me, screenwriting is about working out the big beats first -- in a careful synopsis I write and rewrite until I'm happy. Then I move down into smaller beats: getting each 'big' beat to work. And after I'm happy at that level, I'll get into the really tiny beats that make a script sing. It takes a lot of work. But it keeps you focused on where the audience is. It keeps you locked into a couple absolutely central issues that are too easily forgotten.

CHARACTER. Who is the character? How does he or she react? What's his misbehavior? Her overall goal?

RELATIONSHIP. What's the power dynamic between the characters? What's really going on beneath the words on the page? How well do they know each other? How do I communicate this to an audience?

OBJECTIVE. In almost every good scene, the characters' objectives are in conflict. Frequently one character doesn't understand the other character's objective. But you do. Write to make it clear.

WHERE. Where are they? Do you REALLY know where they are? What's going on? Work hard to make that space less cloudy. Make some good choices. You'll find the beats you're looking for in the comforts and obstacles inherent in the location. And you'll be grounding the audience in the space too. They'll feel it. They'll buy it. And that'll do more to sell your script than you expect.

You've no doubt heard a million times that a winning script reads quickly. Readers will read the entire thing in a couple houra. They'll eat it up, take it in, absorb it, and remember everything. Yeah, you need a brilliant idea to start. But you also need to get everything working beat to beat.

You can lose a reader in a moment. There's always a distraction. The moment something doesn't ring true they'll be up checking their email or putting on the stereo. The moment the action feels guided by the writer's objectives rather than the characters', the reader's thinking about their aching back, or the fact that they haven't been to the gym all week. One beat out of tune can do that.

And the moment they're thinking about that stuff, you're sunk.