Friday, September 21, 2007
I'm only halfway through Season Two at the moment. I can however unreservedly recommend three episodes:
1.10 Hired Guns - Lori and Brad defend a woman who is accused of murdering her husband and his mistress while they were in bed together. Alan's life becomes in danger when he helps a woman whose ex-husband plans to kidnap their children. This episode shows how two smart people go about trying a very difficult case, and builds to a nice crosscutting climax.
1.13 'Til We Meat Again - While out with Tara, Alan ends up causing a bar room brawl and as a result, becomes arrested for conspiracy to commit assault and battery. Shirley and Denny represent a man whose steakhouse is being put out of business because the public wants to ban red meat for fear of Mad Cow disease. An excellent exploration of Alan Shore's character.
2.9 Gone - When the FBI's hands are tied with red tape, Brad helps Denise go undercover as a rogue agent in order to find a missing boy who is close to her heart. But when legal and ethical roadblocks appear, they must make some difficult decisions. Meanwhile, Denny's nonchalance regarding the use of firearms becomes a real concern for the other senior partners when he shoots a homeless man in the head with a paintball gun. This ep uses an incredibly serious child-kidnapping case to create a pisstake of Without A Trace, and pits Alan Shore against Denny Crane for the first time.
Thursday, September 20, 2007
This one's about how I create characters. What you're about to read are snippets I've cut-n-pasted from previous posts.
To me, 3D means a character feels ‘real’. Achieving that means writing someone whose actions are ‘plausible’ and who audiences find ‘fascinating’. I can think of at least 7 qualities that you need to consider.
Uniqueness. Back story. Subtext. Attitude. Motivation. Sex Appeal. Humour.
1) Uniqueness. Is this someone we’ve never seen before?
2) Back story. Lots of juicy secrets, hidden agendas and a colourful past, all just waiting to be revealed in the current plot. My (borrowed) rule of thumb: ‘Never devise a new character or piece of the setting without coming up with a secret about them.’
3) Subtext. In this case, subtext means having them involved in two storylines; the pressure of one storyline informing the other. But it could also mean that the character has a secret we know about but the other members of the cast don’t.
4) Attitude. Make sure they differentiated from the other members of the cast in the way they approach conflict and think about life. See any Joss Whedon series for examples of this, but especially Buffy from Season 1 to 5, watching how each new recurring character is introduced.
5) Sex Appeal – what type of sexy are they?
6) Humour - what type of funny are they?
Last and most important:
7) Motivation. It needs to be consistent from week to week as well as within episodes. Everwood provides a good example. However, motivation is a defining characteristic of 3D characters. The things they want are what we find gripping to watch. So motivations need to be plausible (consistent with what we know about the characters and what the writers know about their backstories), fascinating and unique.
Just thinking about a couple of examples of where backstory has been used to really good effect.
There’s the graphic novel, Preacher – where many of its more powerful story-arcs rely on things that happened to the characters over 20 years ago (and I feel like author Garth Ennis had this all planned out before he began writing). Halfway through Season 2 of Buffy there’s a revelation about Angel that not only explains his withdrawn mopiness but turns him into a character worthy of a spin-off series. And – although I haven’t watched much of it yet – backstory seems to be a defining feature of Lost; so much so that I wonder what they’re going to do with their format in Season 2 once they’ve played out most of the secrets about the characters’ pasts.
Joss Whedon likes to create backstories for characters that contradict how they currently appear.
Examples. Giles the librarian used to be a drug-taking upper-crust British wild child. In Firefly, Shepherd Book the mild mannered preacher is probably a recovering Bad Lieutenant type of ex-cop* and hired killer Jayne has a mother who likes to knit for him.
The point: if you want to dimensionalise a character, you can use their backstory to create dualities.
Why would you do that? Well, you’re creating story material to reveal and play with in later seasons if you want. One use for it is to easily change existing relationships between characters. That lets you introduce new tensions if you’ve played out tensions that originally drove the show.
* If anyone wants the evidence supporting that theory, I’ll be glad to expand.
"I like to fall in love with my characters," says Joss Whedon in this interview and the commentary track to "A Hole in the World" (Angel, Season 5).
He also talks about his desire to punish characters - what I call 'finding their vulnerabilities'. The theory is that characters who are in control of their lives are boring; you only get to find out what's interesting about them when you destabilise either them, their lives or something they care about.
Among many other things, we talked about a beloved old game he'd GMed; particularly, we talked about how rich and alive its setting was, how detailed. His players ate it up, he said, they'd go on and on about how compelling, complete, fully realized the setting was.
Then he told me how he'd done it. He'd taken three principles - I wish I could remember them in particular, J please step in here, but they were like "nobody thinks that they themselves are evil," "the Grand Galactic Empire is procedurally conservative," and "nobody really enjoys their job" - three principles something like those, and whenever any of his players asked him about anything in the setting, he'd simply apply those principles to create the answer.
"I duck into a broom closet." "Okay. There are a bunch of reg-77f portbrushes in there, but someone hasn't bothered to replace them yet, they're all slimy and they smell." All the details you'd need to bring the setting home, give it weight and momentum, and yet J didn't precreate the contents of a single broom closet.
There's lots more in the Comments section, but the basic idea I'd rip from this is to define characters via a series basic principles which you can communicate to your writers. For instance, Xander off Buffy would be ... let's say the one who makes pop culture jokes, the heart of the group and the one who no-one listens to but who always knows what's really going on.
The fundamental problem seems to be "Who is Taine?". In other words, that I don't clearly understand one of the main characters. That's a problem because he is a character everyone else is willing to go to extremes for.
The big lesson: don't write the first draft till I get all the main characters:
-- as characters I'm dying want to write
The small lesson: each character should have a separate folder for the notes about them.
Sympathy for Taine. That’s what I feel now, which is a first.
By understanding his place in the family & why his life is so shitty, I’m that much closer to being able to pile pressure on him. Just like with all the other characters in the script, I want to try and make him crack.
We had another brainstorming session last night in which - due to lack of sleep - I was Mr. Grumpy. However, we roughed out another good idea for a TV series and in the process I thought of several things it'd be worth brainstorming when you are designing characters.
Career, Character Traits and Secrets.
Trajectory (or Destiny). Chris suggested this; it's where a character appears they're going to end up, at the start of a show.
Then I think you should brainstorm 20 Facts everyone's sure of about the character, 20 Ideas or wild possibilities for them, and 20 Questions that nobody's sure of the answer to about the character.
After that brainstorming, choose the issues that seem most fundamental and go through brainstorm possibilities and solutions to those.
The point is: You don't want to settle for the easy option. You have to go deep so that you're convinced by the answers.
How do characters change?
Okay, the obvious: characters change as a result of things happening to them.
The not-obvious (and bear with me, I'm still working this out ...)
I've talked before about my new approach of not pre-planning plot twists or cool things that could happen in a story. The idea is to just start with an opening situation (a What-If), introduce characters as needed and then see what they do.
"Seeing what they do," involves brainstorming possibility after possibility until I come up with something surprising, satisfying and that forces other characters to react. After getting the answer to "What would this character do?" I propose you ask "Why did they do that?" either straight away or in an extensive post-draft analysis.
The point: deepen your understanding of the character at every point.
Now here's where the character change kicks in (and this especially applies to a TV series):
... When you've gotten to the point where you know what your characters will do (their actions are consistent, even predictable), when you understand the limits they're bound within, when they're no longer surprising you with their decisions, then it's time to consider changing a character's Situation.
To take an example and reverse-engineer it, let's look at Buffy:
** Massive Spoilers **
Start of Season 1: Buffy's job is to slay vampires. She doesn't enjoy it.
S1, Ep 7: Her boyfriend is a vampire.
S1, Finale: She dies, kills the Master and saves the world.
Start of S2: Buffy is emotionally disconnected from the world and cynical, as a result of killing the Master.
S2, Ep 13: Her boyfriend becomes an evil vampire.
S2, Finale: Buffy kills her boyfriend, quits & runs away.
I could go on (Faith, graduating from high school, what happens to Joyce) but hopefully you begin to see my point - whenever we're just getting a handle on Buffy and the show, Whedon and his team change something fundamental, something that strikes at Buffy's core.
Whedon likes to think of it as being cruel to his characters. My approach is to think of something that puts your characters off-balance, because when their lives are out of control then they start making interesting (and possibly bad) decisions.
I think I’ve already suggested that characters have Wants. Central objectives that define the reason they’re on the show. Watching Veronica Mars, I’ve become aware that the more Wants a character has, the more dimensions they have – because those Wants can be placed in opposition with each other.
For example, Veronica wants to be accepted, defend her dad, and find out who killed Lily Kane. What if two of those things turn out to be incompatible?
The next step up from understanding a character is to understand the relationship between a pair of characters. I’m just starting to think about the sort of questions I should ask in order to explore how a particular relationship works. Questions like: Who has the power? Who’s dominant? Is there an official hierarchy? How do they make decisions?
Do they have a secret that they both keep (together)? What secrets do they keep from each other?
How’d they first meet?
Who has the power? Who’s dominant? Is there an official hierarchy? How do they make decisions?
I’m also getting to better understand the nuances of each character’s motivations. Watching Buffy Season 4 taught me that you really only need to know what characters have just been through and how that makes them feel RIGHT NOW in order to be consistent. Let’s call it the ‘stay one step ahead’ mode of writing.
I really like this quote from Sid Field's Going to the Movies. It's Robert Towne (Chinatown) about creating characters. He first asks himself, What is this character afraid of? In other words, what is his or her deepest fear?
In Chinatown, Jake Gittes, a private detective specialising in "discreet investigation," has a certain reputation to uphold, so he does everything to make a good impression. He dresses immaculately, has his shoes shined everyday and has his own code of ethics. Gittes' deepest fear is not being taken seriously.
I’ve also been consulting on a small town drama-comedy TV series set in NZ (which means all my close watching of the Gilmore Girls is finally paying off). Contributing to this project has made me aware that I’ve taken something from Universalis – I’m becoming extremely focused on consistent characterisation and making the plot flow out of the ramifications of that.
Knowing a character's background helps you figure out their voice.
That's because the way a person speaks reflects their interests. The metaphors they use, the subjects they talk about, and the grammatical structure of how they talk about them.
Examples ... A journalist who asks incisive questions, likes finding out facts, and enjoys talking about current events. A computer programmer whose sentences are logical and precise. In real-life, I've recently noticed how much I use television shows and script-writing techniques in conversation. I compared a job situation to working on a 'West Wing' election campaign; if I want to know about someone's past, I ask "What's their backstory?" Frankly, it's begun to irritate me.
Conclusion: if a person's focused (or obsessive) about what they're interested in, their speech becomes more one-dimensional. Which is great, because it makes them easier to characterise, ... and not so good if you're a real person.
What else affects speech patterns? Class, education, temperament, ethnicity, friends. There's a whole bunch of continuums that are useful to think about - does this person have high or low self-esteem? How certain or ambivalent are they? Where do they fit on continuums like:
- clear thinking/fuzzy thinking
When two people meet, they also talk about the things they have in common - which can be their social group or it can be shared interests. And what they talk about can be the thing they care most about at that moment. That's possibly not so useful for creating conflict in a scene, but it gives me two good questions for figuring out a scene's starting point, to create a sense of reality.
What do these people have in common?
What do they care about most, right now?
Sunday, September 09, 2007
This one's about how I redraft scripts. What you're about to read are snippets I've cut-n-pasted from previous posts.
Anyway, my goal from here is to simplify. In this last read-through, I saw that in spite of all the padding I’ve put into the script to get it up to time, a clear and powerful throughline is beginning to emerge.
I’m at that neat point in the polish where I start intuiting how to make the treatment more readable. I take huge paragraphs in which every sentence has the form “Forster does this,” or “Trace says that,” and simplify them into something cleaner, more like poetry.
For instance, this:
Peter turns and bolts, throwing looks back.
And his path takes him through the black valleys of the dunes where the moonlight doesn’t reach.
Through twists and turns.
Peter loses himself.
Settling deep into the shadows of a dune,
Comes from this:
Peter realises he has been betrayed. He scuttles backwards, escapes. Settling deep into the shadows of a dune, Peter again tries to process what he just saw. He's in tears.
Some new thoughts on how I could edit a script:
Read through the script.
Mark off how ‘engaged’ I am with it, on a scale of 1-10.
That’s in order to create a Whammo Chart. A graph of the script’s highs and lows.
Read through with a blue pen and circle any bits where the story seems to be off.
Then go through each character’s journey. Use a red pen to mark any points where they don’t seem to be acting true to themselves.
If they go significantly off-beam, go back to the start and red-pen every other character’s journey up to that point. Try to understand at the level of Motivation what’s going on.
If that doesn’t clear things up, look at the conflict in the scene. Is it being expressed clearly.
What about sub-text? Is the scene about more than it appears to be about? Does it have layers to it?
Trying to cut 10% of the script (down to about 90 pages) is fun.
The script analysis is completed. Halving my time estimates really has resulted in me doing the work faster. So much so that my Safety Buffer is back up to 20 days. Conclusion: if I want to get work done fast I should focus on it until it’s freakin’ done.
Now I’m going to start on the edit. 4 days seems even more ridiculous now I’ve seen what needs to be done on the script. I’m going to take it as a challenge … to see if I can get back up to ‘TV writing’ speed.
For future business reference: That was a full script analysis in 2.5 days.
My goal’s to have a second draft of The Limit on the market by August 7. Doing that requires a massive amount of focus and time-management. Since applying the concepts from Critical Chain (a book on project management) worked for finishing off Draft 1, I’m going to use them again.
Some of the relevant ideas are:
- Assume all work gets done at the last minute.
- With that in mind, halve my time estimates for how long it’ll take to do things.
- Put the 50% of time I’ve saved into a safety buffer at the end of the project. That time can get fed into the project if any particular step starts running behind.
Here’s my plan.
A. Edit Draft 1 [finished by 3 July]
B. Send script out to readers. [12 July]
C. Polish Draft 2 [17 July]
D. Send script out to producers. [18 July]
A. Edit Draft 1
Read it. [0.25 days]
Emotional Engagement Chart. [0.25 days]
6 Hat review. [1.5 days]
Boil 6 Hat notes down to 1 page. [0.25]
Write up a ‘Gut’ report of what I feel about the script. [0.25]
Compare 1 page note and Gut report. [0.25]
Consult with Andrew (depending on his availability). [0.5]
Distill core problems. [0.25]
Re-edit. [4 days]
So, assuming everything goes according to plan … which it won’t … there will be a leaner draft to send out to a select few readers on July 3. It’s a totally insane schedule and I’m feeling slightly stressed even writing about writing it … but I have a couple of aces up my sleeve.
First, I’ve done this sort of thing, under these constraints, many times before – on the TV series and on at least a couple of feature films. Second, I have that safety buffer. Say the re-edit gets bogged down. I have days I can draw out of the buffer and spend on the rewrite.
Third, once I’ve finished that rewrite and handed it off to our readers, I can relax again for at least a couple of days. So it’s not like this is persistent pressure through to the first week of August. There actually will be ebbs and flows. It’ll be tough, but I think it’ll be achievable.
Read … Take the whole day to do it.
Should I take notes on that first pass through?
Build a Whammo Chart.
6 Hat the script on six passes.
Polish with Andrew.
Send to Sean and Ainsley.
ID main problems.
Send out 2nd Draft.
There’s also Directors’ Notes, the Pitch and Marketing to start thinking about.
There’s more work beyond the end of this draft. Like taking my new understanding of the characters and the plot - and feeding it back into the start of the script, refining the story. All I’m hoping is that the amount of intense thought I’ve been putting into the writing this time round is going to remove my standard errors from the script. Of course there will be mistakes – that’s what a first draft is :) - but I’d like to be dealing with a higher level of mistakes.
Read and analyze, collect the feedback and solve the biggest problems.
Then a really deep re-edit of the script and, while it's away at the proof readers, finish up my submission letters and send them off.
Then I reread the new draft, hoped that it's finished, do the final proof and send it off.
Followed by which I celebrate, fall on the floor and sleep for four days.
Let's leave aside that I still re-edit hopeless and episodes of lovebites in my head 5+ years later. Eventually you have to send something you've written out into the wild. I guess I have three measures that let me know the time is right:
1) I can visualise how a scene needs to be shot.
2) I really want to film it.
And most importantly
3) When I read it from start to finish, I'm absorbed - taking hardly any notes.
I mentioned the "doing it right vs. getting it done fast" dilemma a few days ago. When I was first writing this draft, I laboured over each sequence until I felt it was working as good as I could get it. At the moment, my writing is nowhere that intensive.
However, I think it's like sculpting*. My first draft was like taking a lot of care to get the general shape correct. Now I've stepped back, assessed what it looks like and am making some of the quick, obvious hacks and cuts to get everything in proportion. It means my concern is I'll cut too much or that I'll stray from the heart of the piece, but - unlike sculpting - I can put material back into the script. I guess it's like sculpting with play-doh ... and I think I'll end the metaphor there cos I can sense it starting to collapse.
*I've never sculpted anything, so this is what I imagine it's like.
Anyway, enough writing about writing. Back to it. The update boils down to this: 1) the work's going slower than I thought, and 2) regardless of the final quality of this draft, I won't put it on the market till I'm happy with it. (This may lead to another post about why 'happy' and 'finished' are two completely different - and achievable - measures from 'good enough' and 'perfect'; the benchmarks I used to aim for.)
When your busy friends agree to do you a favour and read your script for free, you should add a week to the schedule for each friend. Because they have lives.
The purpose of all this reading and thinking is to ID problems. Then choose which ones have to be solved. Some problems aren’t worth it; that temptation to make the script ‘perfect’ – that’s just be a way to avoid finishing. Next, each problem gets a page and I have to come up with 20 solutions for each one.
Yesterday I quoted Joss Whedon saying, "... as a script doctor, the issue is always the same: “We want you to make the third act more exciting and cheaper.” And my response inevitably is, “The problem with the third act is the first two acts.” This response is never listened to."
Basic problem-solving theory: deal with the most important problem first (and in the process you’ll solve smaller related problems). Well, one problem stands out as a deal-breaker for 80% of my readers: “The Plan” that sets the events of the script in motion.
All The Limit’s gimmicks and cleverness don’t matter because the villains are coming across as implausible (in terms of what they do and how others react to them).
So, simultaneously brainstorming solutions to all the problems – like I was describing a couple of days ago, and which was beginning to feel overwhelming – isn’t the best approach. I need to focus. The Limit is a thriller, meaning ‘what’s going on’ has to be crystal clear by the end. Everything else gets subordinated to that; and the main way to achieve that clarity is by understanding and caring about every character.
But this feedback process has worked. Reading through other people's eyes has revealed the problems that were invisible to me.
I think I've finished with The Plan and its ramifications. Now to write the one-page summary for Andrew, so he can bounce ideas off it.
And then it's time to sort out the rest of the problems. First I should see how dealing with this fundamental one has altered the script - and whether dealing with it has eliminated any other outstanding issues. After that, I should choose the next most fundamental issue and analyse it.
Now I’ve brainstormed options for all the problems that were raised … man, that was kinda exhausting and fun.
Maybe I *should* re-read it next but I feel like continuing to work with the ideal, abstracted script in my head rather than the real thing. So I might do something different.
Take a couple of big bits of paper – maybe one to draw a mind-map on & two or three for notes about each Act. Work my way from the start of the movie towards the finish, taking notes for the restructure – and as I run into a problem for the first time, look at my brainstormed options and choose the one that feels best right at that moment.
(And if I’m not satisfied, then it’s time for more brainstorming …)
Also, I should cross-reference this Scribbled Chart of Restructuring with my brainstorming notes – to refer to them during the slog of the rewrite
I’ve finished brainstorming solutions for A3 & gotten answers from Ray Van Beynen about specific AOS issues, like their procedures and language. Now I’m finally sitting down to rewrite the script – and for a while I was in a whole new realm of procrastination
Reluctant to finish the script – possibly daunted at the amount of work in front of me. Uncertain about whether I should only be roughing out solutions to all the scenes or fixing everything as I go.
The most important thing was to make a decision – maybe not to finish the whole thing (that seems too remote at the moment) but at least to complete work on this first act. So I went through the whole script & ABC’d the scenes - to see what required totally new scenes (A) , significant edits (B) or minor rewrites (C).
There are 90 sequences to edit. 42% of them are totally new A-scenes. Almost half of them are in Act 1 (80% of them are in either A1 or A3).
… Enough numbers. While knowing what’s going on hasn’t totally eliminated my fear, it’s given me a way forward. I just going to read the C-scenes. For B-scenes, I’ll brainstorm 20 ideas for each problem they present (to give me some options when I go through the full rewrite). A-scenes, though, need a full Stakes & Conflicts workup and then have to be Beat-by-Beaten out.
[Note to self: when making a Whammo Chart, either use a hard copy or a .doc I don’t make notes on. At the moment my chart doesn’t correlate to the script’s page numbers.]
So, I’ll be even more focused on the script over the next week or so. I’ve scheduled 20 days to finish this section; hopefully I can finish much quicker. After that, organise all my brainstorming and then finalise it. And then the final ‘tighten up & proofread’ draft.
"Draft D done"
Reduced from 115 pages of puffiness to a lean 93 pages of action, the script's ready for Andrew to read through it. Then we'll decide whether it needs any more radical rewrites. I'm hoping not.
Couple of things I learned during this redraft:
1. There's always more stuff you can take out.
I adhere to Stephen King's rule, that the 2nd Draft = the 1st Draft - 10% (except in my blog posts). This time round, I discovered moments within a single scene that duplicated each other, moments that didn't make any sense because they referred to previous versions, simple spelling mistakes ('streaks' became 'steaks').
In fixing all this, I took out beats I was fond of but thought distracted from getting to the story. Mostly those were slightly jokey moments or actions I wasn't 100% convinced by.
2. I always have a warm-up period where the writing doesn't come easily.
It'd be great to figure out a way around this - where it comes from and how to deal with it. That would increase my productivity.
3. I'll feel whatever I'm writing about.
That's the only way it seems to work for me. And, with this script, a lot of good's come out of it. I used to be afraid of feeling angry. Now I understand it more: the way it's powerful and it feels good - but how I nearly make bad decisions under its influence.
4. I have a new benchmark to aim for.
Earlier this year, I locked on to something new to explore in my writing - being aware of a script's central conflict and making sure every scene hooked into that. I'm still learning how to do that but now I have an even more demanding goal to reach for.
You see, I read a script and rate how engaged I am with it (out of 10) on every page. Next script, I want to aim for 10 out of 10 for all of it. I don't even know if that's achievable but there is definitely no harm in trying.
That's the great thing about writing: the process is still fun (even when it's frustrating and heart-breaking), but the benchmark for my satisfaction keeps moving.
I've restarted work on (hopefully) the final draft of The Limit. So far, there are 3 main problems: that the setup's too long - it feels puffy, repetitive, boring; there's also a subplot that I've recently introduced that's destroying the script's momentum; and last, the ending has too much exposition in it & not quite enough emotion. Overall, the script's a little too long - 115 pages where I think it should be 90-100 at most.
On the other hand, I really enjoyed reading it. The story has a dread & tension to it that I found riviting, and finally the third act is starting to play the way I've always wanted it to. So, there's a bit of work ahead of me if I'm going to finish this before New Years, but I do think it's possible. This thing could have stopped dominating my life within the next 10 days.
Now, some formatting, printing out and feedback from Andrew. Then the final tighten and polish (and rigorous proof-reading - my favourite part!). I suspect after that, I'll be asking 5 people if they want to read it, just to get a final idiot-check on the whole thing. 'Idiot' in the sense of 'did I write anything totally stupid (continuity errors & such).
After this, a short break to organise stuff for my sister’s wedding and the flat, then a sweep through the script to tidy up descriptions and format dialogue.
One mechanical thing I found useful on this draft was to put the script feedback into ‘endnote’ format, so that all the potential edits are together on one page. I put each Endnote under the Scene Heading, so it’s very clear what needs to be worked on.
Contacted readers yesterday. Good response so far. Also started working on letters to producers. Very excited.
I've thought a lot about whether I should post this, but given that I'm trying to keep a full record of my writing process I think I have to go through the last fortnight.
Two Fridays ago - DBS gave me feedback on the script. Much of it was good, some of it was really challenging. I enjoyed the session a lot.
Two Saturdays ago - I finally read through the script myself. My emotions went through two phases:
- 1) the actual reading, where I thought that the script was terrible. Unrealistic, badly motivated, lame writing. It totally didn't live up to the ideal in my head and I was pretty much devastated by the end;
- 2) drawing the whammo chart - my graph of how interested I was in the script. This revealed that many of my problems lay in the first act but that the middle of the script still wasn't as strong as I hoped. Two reasons for that were that it was unclear what Peter wanted to achieve in his first intense conversation with Forster, and that Tracy's midpoint is misplaced. So, I was slightly lifted by that. Slightly.
Two Sundays ago - acted in the Wasps. My character was supposed to receive utterly devastating news to his ego. I drew on the memory of just having read the script.
I took a week off, where I couldn't face reading or thinking about the thing. I drew some solace from a book on script-editing where another writer was described as adopting the fetal position for two days, curled up in bed with a hot water bottle. I was not that bad.
Last Saturday - Morgue and Pearce described how Clive Barker reads his books aloud when he finishes writing them. I resolved to do that with this script.
Last Sunday and Monday - I forced myself to read through the script, taking notes. While most of them were pretty specific, what I was really trying to do was get an understanding of the big picture.
Today - just read it aloud, and it really gave me a clear idea of why certain scenes (like Peter deciding to take revenge) weren't working. I'm feeling better about the script.
So the big picture changes are:
Act 1 - tighten up the family stuff
Act 2i - clarify Peter's motivations and restructure the mid-points.
Act 2ii - make sure the action scenes relate to characters. Possibly put Tracy into a much darker place, emotionally.
Act 3 - focus on the three main characters, plus handle the exposition 2000% better.
Now to look at everyone else's feedback and see where they and I agree.
At the moment, I actually feel pretty confident about the script. Everyone's feedback works together & ... more importantly to me ... I feel like the script is now 'telling' me what it wants to be. Adjusting scenes feels like a natural process now, one that doesn't require that much thinking about it. It's like there's an ideal version of this draft that I'm chiselling the unnecessary material away from.
The Midpoint of the script consists of an argument plus a new threat for one of the lead characters. Now, the threat's always worked fine but the argument has always seemed to slow things down. I've tried a lot of fixes on it over the last five drafts and nothing's worked.
So what did I realise during this edit? That none of these quick fixes had addressed the main problem. That the midpoints for the two leads were separated by about 10 pages ... and that that distance was killing momentum the script's momentum.
So, lessons to apply in future:
1) Coming up with a quick fix is fine, if I'm utterly convinced by it.
2) If I'm not convinced, then analyse the problem thoroughly. I've been finding that Deviation Analysis works well as a tool.
3) Analyse anything that looks like a massive drop in engagement when I draft my Whammo Chart.
4) If, after coming up with a quick fix, a problem still remains in the next draft, analyse it.
Further to my last post, about what to do at this stage of the script, I found going for a long walk and just jotting down thoughts about the script as they came to was a good way of organising my memories of what needed to be improved with the script.
I used a mind-map, and drew four spokes (one for each act) and then placed each memory on the appropriate spoke.
Then I fine-tuned the proper notes.
Today, I just had a long bath and a re-read of the script - where I found myself jotting down ideas and suggestions. The script was much more enjoyable this time round (perhaps I was less judgmental?) and the flaws seemed obvious - or at least the obvious flaws did.
Next step is to go through all the feedback and the marked up script and see if there are any global problems (affecting the whole story) that need to be resolved before I start rewriting. If not, I'll just go scene by scene - which has worked well for me in the last few drafts.
(Idea: I should set up another folder for each script, to store all of my Engagement Charts, so I can easily find them and compare between drafts.)
So, I've just drawn up the chart for how engaged I was during this read.
Now I have to:
- write down (on one page) the fundamentals of what needs to be done with this draft, based solely my memories of reading it. I will not refer to either the script or my notes during this process.
- tidy up my more in-depth notes, which will involve comparing them to the .wav file that I dictated, and possibly simplifying or categorising my observations.
- re-read the script.
Re-read the script after about a month off. There was a six page stretch (of restructured and new material) in the middle where I was just thinking "Oh my god" over and over again at how tense the writing was making me.
Now to chop a little bit out of the first act, rework Turning Point 2 a lot, and figure out the ending again (it's still not quite working).
I'm not sure what to do next - probably draw up my Engagement Chart, do the notes and then re-read it.
Other script tip stuff, while I remember:
Have two folders - one for the current draft, and one for the next draft.
Jane Espenson pointed out that you can ask what's the script about, and then you can ask what it's really about. Both questions are useful for keeping your writing on track.
9.25 am: I'm about to read The Limit. I'm nervous. Fair enough; this draft is supposed to be the last one, and this read will determine whether I'm finished.
So, I want it to be good. But I know it can't match the ideal in my head, and it isn't perfect.
10.51 am: Finished the read.
Well, it's good. Not great. But I do think this is the final polish of the script.
Acts One and Two move pretty damn well (after a couple of year of rewriting). Act Three is puffy, and now it needs to be lifted. It's got a repetitive start; the logic behind what's happened to Peter isn't clear; the climax isn't sharp or moving enough.
Now to do up my notes, and hear back from Andrew.
The final polish is going smoothly but slowly. I'm making longhand notes, and I'm up to page 70 (out of 98). Then typing in the corrections, making final editorial decisions, and the proof and spell.
1. making sure there's the same number of spaces after each full-stop
2. making all the '...' in the script consistently spaced
3. spell-checking stuff. Turns out that adding words to the dictionary makes the process go faster
4. formatting all the remaining dialogue. I used Page Preview for this. Next time, I really need to set up a script template with macros.
Gripping stuff, I know. But getting the presentation right is important at a "It's a good read" level.
As usual, I stalled on doing this, then found it was much quicker than I anticipated. (All hail the Auto-replace function.)
Next up, I'll be:
5. putting the (CONT.) into the script
6. making sure the scene headings are formatted consistently (in style and names of locations).
Then to print it out, and reverse-proof it - starting from the end of the script and going back a sentence at a time.
After that's all done, I've got to:
- enter the final changes
- paginate it all
- turn it into a PDF (which may be unnecessary)
- register it with the NZWG
- send it off to a producer.
***A couple of months back, Morgue described writing a second draft as
... like being inside a giant and massively complex sudoku puzzle, erasing and checking and erasing again as you try and get the damn thing to have the right balance of numbers. Equal parts fascinating and frustrating, but always compelling.
I'd add to that, that there's a constant deepening of your understanding of the characters. Every scene that's been problematic in this rewrite, I've had to say why is it in the script? That question has led to me amping up its structural importance (the sudoku aspect, above), but I've also had to 'get' previously minor characters. That deeper understanding feeds back into the start of the script and affects how other characters react to each other.
Anyway, like I said, typing, proofing, and sending out are next. I expect the secondary project I'll focus on now is to collect all of these script writing posts and start to refine and publish my process.
This entry is about continuing to develop your career while writing.
Just had an intense interview with an industry professional. She suggested I focus on the following GOALS :
a) Developing a sustainable income.
b) Figuring out how 'the system' works - how funding decisions are made and who makes them.
c) Networking myself into the industry.
d) Knowing the Auckland world of film and television equally as well as Wellington's.
Her summary of the SITUATION was:
The Industry way of working is to network. "Networking" is making sure that people know who you are and what your track record is.
That means you have to (1) do things and (2) tell people what you have done.
That means joining industry organisations, going to their meetings and conferences, giving out my CONTACT CARD (name, occupation, cellphone, e-mail) and having an industry tailored CV.
I have to:
* research the industry and find out what areas I fit into.
* join and know people in SPADA, New Zealand Writers Guild & Screen Directors Guild. Be aware that Creative New Zealand's goal is to develop an artist's craft and that the New Zealand Film Commission's goal is to have a commercial outcome.
* systematically understand an organisation and then moving on to figuring out the next one.
Now I have had a lot of good experience with networking in the past - I got my job with Gibson Group because of it. But this'll move my efforts up 2 levels. Much to think about.
Third, when someone asks you if it's funny enough, you need to know their sense of humour . This boils down to Steve's Three Laws of Humour:
1. If someone thinks it's funny and you don't, you're wrong.
2. If you think it is funny and they don't, you're wrong.
3. The opposite is also true ... for the exact same joke.
This is hard fought-for knowledge. You can NEVER convince someone they are wrong when it comes to what they think is funny. The sense of humour, your funnybone, is one of the most deeply held convictions any human possesses. Even the most timid of door-stopping Yes-droids will refuse to cave into their crippling insecurity if told to really really laugh at something they don't think is funny.
Here’s a rant about network executives.
This is back in 1999. We’d gotten through the initial meet-and-greets with the execs at TV3, made friends, negotiated our creative positions and everything was approaching being lovey-dovey.
Cue: regime change. There’s a new CEO at TV3 and we get a new Head of Drama. This is the person we’ll be liasing with. Now both these people are due to speak at the SPADA conference for 1 hour only. But at the same time, the Weta guys from Lord of the Rings are having their first presentation ever about all the cool shit they’re about to unleash on us.
Now I’m a geek. Finding out about this stuff is essential to my well-being. And Sean and Andrew feel kinda the same. So we say to Larry that we’ll catch up with him later, we’ll just pop across to the LotR seminar rather than look at what TV3’s plans are for the next year.
Read the shocking true story of what happened next!
Pay attention. The point’s coming up in about 2 paragraphs, but it depends on what you’re about to read.
Larry reassures us that he knows the Weta guys. He’ll set us up with an inside look at the studio, so don’t worry about that, come along and check on what the execs have to say. We go along, we listen … and Larry never gives us that tour he promised.
Did Larry lie? That’s not important. What’s important is what he should have said, which is this: “Guys. Grow up. These are the only people who have to like our show for things to go well for us. We will go to their seminar, we will meet them and be nice to them … and in return you may have a shot at succeeding. So stop sulking about your little robot monsters or whatever, and get with the programme. Get in there. March. March!”
Why should he have said that? Why should he have slapped us in an inconspicous location until we obeyed with good grace and grins on our faces?
Think of a TV show like a product. That’s what everyone else in the ‘industry’ does.
The 2 basic things you do with a product are make it and figure out what to do with it. The people at the TV network are the ones who figure out what to do with it. Now think of it this way: you know all the politics and wrangling that go on inside your company? They go on inside a TV network. Only in a network, your performance is measured by Neilsen ratings every day. It’s paranoia and fiefdoms and people who want to get involved in the creative process. Hunter S. Thompson was talking about TV news when he said it was:
"... a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. "
But really it applies to all TV shows. Certainly, I copied it and stuck it to the wall of our writing office to look at when I was trying to get inspiration for a comedy scene.
Anyway, in that minefield of insecurity, belligerence and competing agendas comes your show. If people like it, it will get treated well. What determines likeability? Is it any good? Is it sexy? Will advertisers pay for time during it? Lots of other stuff, including …
Do the people who have just received this programme like you?
You see you need someone who will champion you inside the network. So as a writer or producer your goal here is simple and fundamental: Establish a good working relationship with whoever it is that you are dealing with at the network.
I’m running out of steam here, so I’ll go into details about what that relationship is and maybe another (maybe slightly more bitter) rant about what happens when you don’t realise that’s the goal later.
These notes are from Peak Performers by Charles Garfield.
Team building/playing involves being able to start a project AND contribute to someone else's. Peak performers have a drive to stand in while they stand out; leading the teams they build and also joining them.
3 essential skills for this: 1) Spirit - keeping the mission alive. 2) Peer Pressure - enforcing performance via reminders of the mission and its values (not via intimidation). 3) Communication - keeping the channels open and clear.
Leaders have a vision of the entire project. They keep communicating this vision around the team. Best way is to get everyone in a big room. Effective communication calls for: Empathy. Authenticity. Concreteness.
Rather than rewards and punishments, make certain each member understands the simple fact of teamwork: "If my end of the boat sinks, so does yours."
LEADERSHIP communicates the mission clearly to people who will catch fire from it and generate their own motivations and drive for results. It’s seeing possibilities before they become obvious: A leader gives power and responsibilities to others, " carrying water for his people so they can get on with their jobs."
Much of a peak performer’s impact is achieved by making sure other people perceive their goals as worthy (and of benefit to them). The real source of good results is the wholehearted personal commitment of everyone involved. Think longer and harder about building your people structure than anything else.
HOW TO BUILD A TEAM
- Delegate to empower. Releasing power in others, whether in co-workers or customers, benefits peak performers in the long run.
- Stretch the abilities of others.
- Encourage educated risk-taking.
- Concentrate on solving problems rather than placing blame for them.
- Persuade more than order. Listen to people, get them to align willingly with the team effort instead of merely obeying orders.
- Seek input from others.
- Show political sensitivity.
- Share rewards and recognition willingly.
- Assume people in the team have needs. For self esteem, belonging to an organisation one can be proud of, standing out while standing in, self-actualisation. Satisfy these needs by offering autonomy and responsibility at work. People want acceptance, recognition and to know their work matters.
- Vigorously share information; have regular brainstorming sessions.
Don't go in with piles of notes.
Have one page in front of you and on it make 2 simple lists.
The first is what you like about the show. Be sure to pitch this first.
During the friendly chatting - getting to know each other - sitting down to business phases, try to understand your place in the hierarchy, how much this team has worked together before (and therefore has pre-existing norms).
When in doubt, listen.
In this first meeting, it's not your job to be the person who says the most.
But you do want to get an idea of how locked down the elements of the show are - and maybe even what is their decision-making process for whether things need changing.
Your second list is no more than 10 points of suggested changes and things you don't like about the show.
Because you don't want to overwhelm them or come off as the nay-sayer. (And actually, now I think about it, maybe even a list of just 3 points would be even better. More focused.)
Rank them in order of importance, so you know which battles are worth fighting, to you.
And for every thing you don't like about the show, bring 2 possible solutions.
You also don't want to be the one who puts forward the things on your list one after another.
Take your time, take your turn, listen to everyone else. Try to stay flexible. Agree if someone hits a point on your list (and then cross that point off).
Anyone else got any tips for going into a meeting as the new guy?
The following is taken verbatim from Why teams don't work by Harvey Robbins and Michael Finley.
It is everyone's responsibility to create a team. Here are the characteristics of effective team members:
Goals. Interest. Conflict. Listening. Decisions. Differences. Ideas. Feedback. Accomplishments.
Having a commitment to goals. It is difficult to work enthusiastically towards an outcome if you don't know what the outcome is. The first thing good team members to is clarify what they're after - what their team goals and objectives are. With this clarified, good team members commit themselves to the outcome; whatever it takes (within ethical boundaries), they are willing to do.
Showing a genuine interest in other team members. People don't have to like each other to work together. That may be true, in the short term. But good team members develop a genuine interest in the well-being of other team members. Not as a team survival mechanism, but as a human bond. It may sound like small talk, but it's more caring: "How was your weekend?" "Is your child still sick?" "Is there anything I can do?"
Confronting conflict. Good team members can tell the difference between confrontation and conflict - between directness and having a chip on one's shoulder. The only way to discover and resolve differences with the team is to open up, acknowledge the disagreement, and negotiate a solution. Avoid the plague, but own up to conflict. As a matter of fact, effective team members intercede when other team members are in conflict, to help resolve the disagreement. Bad or weak team members turn their back on conflict and either ignore it, and hope it will disappear, or let the other team members battle it out, squandering precious team time and goodwill.
Listening empathically. Empathic, active listening is important for anyone, whether you are on a team or not. It is particularly important for open communication between effective team members. Empathic listening means being sensitive to not just the content of the message the other person is sending but to the emotion behind the message. Good listening means more than shutting up and waiting for your turn - it means getting into the other person's head and heart.
Practising inclusive decision-making. Good team members run their "first draft" decision by other team members before they pool the trigger. One never knows what additional inputs you may acquire that may make your tentative decision even better. Not only may you get additional information this way, but you have a communication device online that lets people know where your thoughts are headed - thus minimising surprises later.
Valuing individual differences. Effective team members look at differences as positive. They respect the opinions of others and view others' perspectives as pluses, not minuses. They figure out how to use the natural differences to benefit the team's outcomes and not as excuses to avoid working with each other.
Contributing ideas freely. Good team members don't hold back their ideas. When they have an opinion about something, they express it, even if it's just to support someone else's opinion. If you have an idea about the topic being discussed and you keep your mouth shut (very typical for the Midwest, where we are), you're not being an effective team member.
Providing feedback on team performance. Good teams develop a method for providing continuous feedback on how the team is working, what's going right, what's going wrong, and what to do about it. Effective team members also solicit feedback from other team members ("How'm I doing?"). No matter what formal performance feedback system their organisations provide, good teams develop methods for more frequent, real-time, relevant feedback on people, processes, team support structures, and outcomes. [See also 'Gung Ho'.]
Celebrating accomplishments. One of the first questions Harvey asks when doing teaming within an organisation is, "When was the last time you folks had a party?" If you haven't had a party lately, you haven't had a formal excuse to celebrate. Maybe your goals are long-term ones; it's hard to break off in the middle and celebrate. So - do it anyway. Effective teams find excuses to celebrate, usually related to the accomplishment of some shorter term outcome. Look for ways to lift the morale through celebration, both personal and professional.
***In Tom Peter’s book, The Project50, he outlines the project life-cycle as being:
1) Create. 2) Sell. 3) Implement. That works for me – and it corresponds nicely to 1) Creating the show, 2) Preparing the show, 3) Producing the show. But also each of these phases will have their own create-sell-implement moments inside them.
How to entitle script inquiry e-mails is something I haven't seen written about in any scriptwriting book or blog. So, naturally, after working on a submission letter for the last week this has had me puzzling for about the last hour.
The challenge is to get a person you don't know to open an e-mail about something they've never heard about before.
After thinking it through, here are some of the qualities that were important to me:
- Short (seven words or less - so they can read the entire title before opening the email)
- Not a question the producer can say ‘No’ to at the just-reading-the-subject-line stage (for instance, "Can I submit a feature film script to you?")
- If it's a choice between mentioning genre or the title, I'll go with the genre
- I prefer a functional subject line over a humourous one
- Script inquiry about a vigilante thriller (the winning title)
- Script submission inquiry
- Inquiry about feature film submission
- Script submission inquiry for a vigilante thriller
- Thriller script seeks producer
- Thriller script, seeking producer
- Finished script seeks producer
- I'd like to submit a feature film script to you
- Can I submit a feature film script to you
- Are you accepting script submissions?
- Have script, need producer
- I have a script I'd like you to read
- The Limit - a completed script for your perusal
- Would you like to read a script?
- Submission inquiry for a vigilante thriller
- Inquiry about submitting scripts
- Submitting a feature script to you
- Inquiry about your script policy
- Gauging interest in a feature film
- I’d like to submit a script to you
This entry is about the process of writing scenes.
-- -- --
I’m also getting a lot of experience treating drama scenes as action scenes – a little dodge I wanted to try out because action is easy for me to write and visualise, whereas drama and emotions, quieter stuff, is opaque.
The first 3 days of the rough redraft have gone fast and slow. Fast: I’ve already broken all the scenes, figured out what I want to do with them. Slow: even though it’s just transcribing for the most part, putting scenes on paper for the first time, I’m still tweaking them to make them play.
I'm treating this primarily dialogue-driven scene as an action scene.
You see, action scenes are easy to write. I'm not sure why I find that yet - but I build a clear visual image in my mind of what happens, and I find it easy to see where the gaps are and edit accordingly. I also find it easy to create and maintain the point of view (sympathy for the hero) in an action scene, and to increase tension and put the people I like under stress.*
Drama scenes lack that clarity for me. I feel they should build tension and maintain interest in the same way that action scenes do, but because the (opposing force?) is non-physical, that clear visual image is harder to create in my head.
How to represent an intangible (not physical or visual) form of jeopardy. What I'm trying is:
Clearly determine the main characters motivations.
Break the scene down into acts and turning points.
Visualise how the characters will move within those acts and turning points.
Use those movements to inspire deeper tensions and oppositions.
Boy, thinking along these lines may start me questioning exactly what a scene is.
* For me to write it effectively, an action scene has a person in jeopardy and something putting them in jeopardy. In the case of The Limit, that something is usually a person. Typically the person IN jeopardy as the hero or the person we have sympathy with in the scene. Because The Limit is a vigilante thriller, the person causing pain is the hero. So I'm constantly finding I have to tweak the scene to keep the hero sympthetic.
Finished the early section of The Limit. Those first 4 pages took 2 days to edit, I think because it’s very first-drafty (IOW, not worth paying $13 to see)*. But the second four pages took 15 minutes. So, out of drudgery, building momentum.
Had an insight while rewriting an interrogation scene. I was giving all the dialogue to the main character. Doing that forced her through sudden changes in her motivation and emotions. For instance, Trace was disbelieving everything Forster said, and then she'd clarify a point he’d made. An odd shift from hatred to logical.
So the Insight was: I’d use a third person in the scene to ask all of Trace's rational questions. And extrapolating from that: put as many players in a scene as there are positions to adopt.
[theory] Characters can shift positions, just not constantly. I mean, one big shift in position per scene is probably good. When I put more than 3 or 4 into a scene, I get actors complaining that they can't see where their character’s head is at. Of course, the longer the scene the more changes a character could go through – see Richard’s seduction of Lady Anne in King Richard the Third, Act 1, Scene 2.[/theory]
[from Freaks and Geeks] One line from the directors' commentary I thought was true is that on a TV show, ideally you're going to be working with the actors you've cast for 5 or more years. So you adjust the script towards them. You want to have fun with the actors, explore the little moments in their character relationships and most of all make them feel comfortable so they can bring a bit more realism to their roles.
What’s the most important line of a scene?
The last line.
It raises a question. Creates a tension we want released. Primes us for what we expect to see in the next scene.
Yesterday's scene was too on-the-nose. So I've brainstormed up a lot of ways to make it work.
A lot of money gets spent on famous actors and CG. Flashy things are supposed to keep our interest, our eyes glued to the screen (a pretty disgusting visual now I think about it). However, with a no-budget movie or Season 1 of a normal budget TV series, there’ll be no cash to spend on those things. In this case, emotions are your special effect.
Emotions can grip the audience. They can be complex and spectacular. You can find emotions that haven’t been tackled before. Best of all, they are cheap. And if they’re cool enough, maybe you’ll attract the funding to get those famous actors and flashy CG effects.
Some random thoughts on emotion
The first principle in the first book on screenwriting I ever read was that the primary goal of any screenplay is to elicit emotion from the audience.
Scripts deal in emotions and motivations. As script-writers, those are our 2 basic tools. We can make characters behave in plausible and fascinating ways.
We can aim to make the reader (and hopefully the eventual viewer) feel a certain way.
An well-drawn action setpiece can illustrate these 2 things working together just as effectively as a moving on-screen declaration of love.
James Cameron says, “Audiences don’t think in scenes. They think in a continuously dynamic and evolving force field of emotions and ideas.” Sometimes when I’m considering the overall script, I don’t think in terms of plot or character; I just go through it feeling what the audience will feel at every stage. Then I ask myself, “Is this a good journey to go on?”
“Do we buy it?” was a question often asked in the latter stages of writing lovebites. Do we believe in what we’re reading. Maybe you don’t buy it because the script hasn’t made you care enough … or maybe you don’t buy it because you care so much that you think what the character’s doing is (a) wrong, (b) against type or (c) just something you don’t want to see them do …
I think it’s important to know the emotion you’re trying to produce with each scene. That’ll go on the checklist.
While talking to DBS last week, he mentioned that the biggest thing he’d learned from writing on Insiders’ Guide was to ‘layer scenes’. To have at least 2 (but more like 3 or 4) things going on. Part of this is to do with subtext, part of it’s about having stuff going on in the background and still more is about keeping the scene alive, filled with energy and keeping the viewer engaged.
The idea is to make scenes multi-dimensional as well.
So now we’ve got the starts of a checklist:
- What’s the scene about: Stakes and Conflicts.
- What’s the scene really about: Subtext.
- What else is going on: background stories – and secondary characters.
- Off-screen stories: (see the sound design commentary track on the Se7en DVD for many examples of this).
- How should the scene make us feel: Emotion
I’m really happy with where this in-the-car confrontation scene is going now. After doing all the prep work of looking at their motivations, I think I may have found a new technique to breathe life, shove energy into this (any?) scene.
The idea is to think of each character’s input into the scene as a Bang (I’ll provide a link to a fuller definition of this later), something that must provoke a reaction from at least one of the other characters. Obviously this is simplest when there’s only 2 people around. What I’m doing is drawing a step diagram down the page, taking it very methodically and asking “If Forster does this, what is Peter’s reaction? Okay, if Peter reacts like that, what would Forster say?”
Seems obvious. Except that the reactions have to be big and personalised and surprising. My intention is to keep all the characters in a scene off-balance. Force them to respond to things they’re not expecting. Trap them in a rapidly evolving situation that’s at least partly out of their control. Kind of like life.
So at a scene level, what I’m doing is:
1. Defining stakes and conflicts.
2. Building up motivations at a beat by beat level.
3. Reaching a point where those feel artificial, where I’m bored with them.
4. Building a Step Diagram and keeping the idea of Bangs in mind.
A. Disappointed because I've wasted a lot of time today.
B. Satisfied because I've kept asking myself what this scene is about until I realised it's about 'Peter facing the consequences of becoming a vigilante'. I think I'm ready to write and finish this thing.
Reached the 50% mark on Saturday. Took a couple of days off and now I’m back working on the scene where we turn Michelle into the hero. It’s good; it’s action again, so all I need to do to write a good scene is a) keep coming up with ways to block her from escaping and b) figure out how to make the situation worse.
As ever, I know the scene is good when I can see it playing like a film in my head.
The longer I write a scene, the more chance I have of fucking up what the scene’s about.
Action obeys Harold Ramis’ rule for writing comedy: it should take as long to read it as it would to see it.
Just talked to Jenni’s brother-in-law, Jason, who’s a school teacher. He gave me lots of insights into how fights between students work in primary schools, plus a neat idea about how to personalize this scene I’m working*.What’s cool is that this scene – which I originally thought would just be a pause in the story - is starting to emerge as a thematic representation of the script as a whole.
So I’m heading back from Gino’s tomorrow. There’ll be a period of just resettling into my life and then a day where I’m working on my 24 game for this month’s competition, and then maybe a day off.
At the moment The Limit’s going really well – I’ve worked through the big rewrites at the start of the movie & now I’m at the point where I can get through vast swathes in a day. However, last time I took a break I kinda … forgot how to write.
So, for my mind-prodding, here’s some thoughts (I may have written something like this already) …
To write a scene, I – repeat, ‘I’ – need to set some stakes (What’s the question this scene’s going to answer? What do we care about?).
Then know what’s the conflict (If the question has 2 possible answers, then I need 2 characters/forces fighting or advocating for each side). As soon as one side’s one, it’s time to wrap up the scene. If at all possible, the sides of the conflict have something to do with the thematic conflict at the heart of the story. In The Limit, that’s Law vs Vigilantism (vs. Criminality). It’s all very Story by Bob McKee (c.f. Adapatation by Charlie Kaufmann).
What does each character want? These motivations need to naturally come out of each character’s previous scene.
Next I either brainstorm 20 things that could happen in the scene – issues, cool moments, motivations, lines of dialogue, things I want to see, random oddball ideas – in no particular order. It’s just stuff to inspire me.
Then I reorder that stuff into rough chronological order.
Otherwise, if I’ve got a clear idea of where the scene’s going I brainstorm a starting point, and then brainstorm again – what’s the worst they could do, to trigger a response from the other person in the scene? I keep swapping through each character’s perspective, trying to continually increase the tension in the scene.
I brainstorm 20 things because I read a book that recommended doing that.
I am a drone.
Seriously, I’ve always brainstormed multiple options for moments in my script. Off my own back though, I used to only devise about 7 different options for things – like punchlines when I was writing eps of lovebites. With 7, I found I came up with something that worked.
But with 20, I start getting oddball and insightful ideas towards the end of the process. If I don’t, I take a break and then keep going. I want to get the 'right' idea by the end of this process. Not some idealised 'perfect idea' - just have a decent range of good options to choose from, so I can move on.
Finally, I need to know the resolution to the scene. That means at some point, there needs to be a turning point in the scene where things head towards that resolution. And I need to bear in mind that that has an affect on the person who didn’t get their way.
A lot of the time, I was watching the film going "Where's the conflict in this scene?" And I realise that my recent experiences with Primetime Adventures have been subtly educating me in this screen-writing tool. Creating conflicts and having to decide which ones are meaningful up to 15 times a game is a really effective way of building up your chops.
Not so much procrastination in the re-starting of the writing this time. Maybe because I’m already three-quarters of the way through the script – because it’s in media res, I’m immediately interested, whereas starting from the beginning involves slowly relearning why I like the characters and then building up interesting situations for them.
Anyway, I took a crack at the confrontation scene between Tracy and Forster on Tuesday. By about halfway through Draft 1, I stopped. Here’s what I wrote about that:
Fuck, I really want to mine the subtext – but I think I have to write the scene out first, then figure out what it’s about – and how that adds to the About of the film (‘2 dads vying for the love of their son’), and then simplify the scene down. I’m talking about writing and editing, really … and then re-reading the whole thing in sequence, so I can see how it all fits together. So … no need to panic about ‘getting it right’.
All I was doing here was taking the pressure off myself - to remind myself that while I was doing the best I could with the scene, there were going to be plenty more opportunities before the script was finished to judge how it worked.
So I backed up, started a Draft 2, and stalled again.
Time to take a break, think through it again. In the middle of doing dishes, I realised what each character wanted, that it was actually a pretty simple conflict (and that I’d been circling around articulating it that simply for about 2 years). Tracy wants Forster to live and face justice, while Forster wants to die, in a very specific way.
I also realised that I wanted to create a connection between the 2 of them, to show that they had common ground, having been through the same stuff. It’s a technique I admired in Lost, in the Sayid/AnaLucia conversations after Shannon’s death.
So, I worked yesterday, mulled over the scene and came back to it this morning after a bit of internet procrastination.
First things first, what’s at stake? Well, I know that the lead character will live, and I know that she’s going to ‘get’ Forster. What’s at stake is how she’ll do it: will she use the law and reason, or anger and brute force. It help, having already written the brute force scene that I know I can make that plausible.
I wrote down the fundamental beats I want to see in the scene, and ID’d the next point to get to – which is Tracy’s realisation that Forster wants to die. I decided that Tracy had to be the one who realised, because (a) it makes her active, and (b) it shows her doing some detecting.
The dialogue came easily to start with, because the characters’ Wants are so diametrically opposed. I was handwriting everything, and if I couldn’t get an exact phrasing, then I just jotted down the idea behind the dialogue – to work it up later.
I came across a couple of things repeatedly:
1. An impression that some lines were either clichéd, or contained a repetitive subtext. (Have I talked before about how (for me) subtext has to be deliberately constructed and hammered into a scene? That was certainly the case here, with Tracy’s concern for her Dad.) Anyway, I decided to leave judging all that to the next readthrough.
2. If the audience knows some information is coming, withhold it. Create tension. It’s very natural to pop that stuff too early.
Toward the end of the scene's second act, Tracy learns some bad news. It's a Bang - I'm fascinated in how she'll react because I have no idea what she'll do. So I start brainstorming 20 ideas. At #8, I get to one I like - that she confronts the situation. I'm able to write out two or three more lines between Tracy and Forster, and then the dialogue dries up. After half an hour, I admit that to myself & back up, brainstorm some more ideas and adopt a subtler, softer approach. The scene flows pretty easily from that point to its end.
I wasn't sure exactly how Tracy would subdue Forster, so when I reached that moment I wrote from the heart. The end result is probably way over-long, but I was really INTO it while writing.
Anyway, I’ve roughed out the scene, I’m ready to move on now. Tracy has a real hero moment; I understand the characters better; their conversation NEEDED to happen; and it’s probably made the remainder of the film about 70% to 240% more interesting than it was before.
Sometimes the writing of a scene just flows – every line clicks into place; it’s easy to visualise the action – and that is awesome.
Other times, not so easy. That’s when I have to get a bit mechanical. I roughly outline the beats that I know will be in a scene, and then I B20 (brainstorm 20 options) for each character in the scene – for their overall motivation, all their reactions, and every line of dialogue.
When I do that, I’m looking to find truth about the characters, insight into them, and either originality or authenticity.
Every time I go through the B20 process, I tend to got through the same emotions and reactions. What I’m trying to do here is describe that pattern and then (hopefully) isolate some key questions to ask, that’ll speed up the whole thing up.
- First off, the obvious lines are the ones I write down.
- Then variations (sometimes very slight) on those obvious lines.
- Random lines, as they occur to me.
- Come up with a few arbitrary lines, that don’t really fit with what the beat’s trying to do.
- Write a line that hits the mark. Experience satisfaction, then slack off / consider giving up or settling. This (and every point here) can happen multiple times during a B20.
- Spell out the subtext behind the line.
- Play around with that.
- Try another subtext. Every subtext I find is a different area to explore and mine for possibilities.
- Realise that the line doesn’t exist in isolation and link it back to the previous one(s), so it flows.
- Imagine the actor who’s saying the line.
- I get exhausted towards the end, and struggle to come up with lines.
- That’s when I re-read it all and jot down any lines that occur to me from reading all the others.
- Towards the end, I almost always get a fresh insight (or two) into what’s really going on.
- And I usually write down some crazy, usually rude or sociopathic stuff just to get the thing finished off.
So, what can I distil from that?
Before I begin:
Bear in mind that the line doesn’t exist in isolation. It needs to flow from what has come before.
Imagine the actor who’s saying the line.
- First off, write down the obvious lines.
- Then spell out the subtext behind the beat, and play around with that.
- Once those lines dry up, try another subtext. Feel free to write down random lines, as they occur to me.
- Then re-read it all. Jot down any lines that occur to me from that.
- I always get a fresh insight (or two) towards the end.
- Finish off with some arbitrary stuff.
Then I go through the list of 20 options, circling the ones that appeal to me. Create a separate list of those options and choose the one that most appeals. The point is not to get it perfect; it’s to get it done. This is the point to rust my instinct and save ‘perfection’ for the rewrite, once I see how the line plays in the context of the whole show.
If, at any point, the scene just completely tries up for me, I use the Brian Johnson trick of tracking back a few lines or a page and seeing where it all started to go wrong. It’s usually quite obvious in hindsight.
I don’t get the scenes completely right using this process, but so far every time I’ve re-read one it’s been obvious where it works and where it doesn’t.
Man, this frickin' script. I had a great start to the rewrite (5 pages in one day, which is fantastic for my first day). Then I hit this big father-son scene at page 14 and get bogged down in it for 2 and a half weeks until I figure out what it's really about (clue: it's personal).
Anyway, once I figured out the heart of the scene, it flowed easily & the script has kept going at a nice rate.
The more important I think a scene is, the longer it seems to take me to write. Thinking of something as "important" makes me freak out, because I need to get it "right".
But at this stage of the script, every scene should be important. Every scene needs to contribute. Every moment, too.
That means I'm going to have to develop some way off de-freaking-out. Being a full-time writer would be good too (more dedicated time to solve problems and get into a groove). Unfortunately, I may have to let that ambition go for a while, and content myself writing on the bus.
(Example: It's taken me five days to work on a single line of the script. It's an important line -- it has to let us know what Peter's worst fear is, and hint at some of the oddness that is to come.)
With our recent changes this whole sequence has to be reconsidered. 50% of what’s there has to be scrapped. It has to be rebuilt at a motivational level, starting with what Peter and Forster want. Then moving between their heads, asking “What do I think he should do if I were him?”. The goal is to make each reaction something that boggles the other character.
A. Disappointed because I've wasted a lot of time today.
B. Satisfied because I've kept asking myself what this scene is about until I realised it's about 'Peter facing the consequences of becoming a vigilante'. I think I'm ready to write and finish this thing.