Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Death Proof

The script gets off to a slow start and middle, but there's a point to it. And that point is the final third of the movie - which is brilliant, and completely justifies casting Zoe Bell as herself.

The dialogue almost never reaches super-quotable Tarantino levels from 16 years ago, but the action at the end makes up for it, for me.

Also, funniest ending to a feature film in recent memory.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

[Process] I've shifted it all to a wiki

I've created a wiki for my screen-writing process.

Rather than do all the gruntwork on the blog, it's proving more efficient to wikify it all, and do all the editing over there. Plus, it means a return to shorter (less-than-seven-pages-long) posts.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

[Process] - Breaking the Story (a list of insights)

This post is about how to create a story at a very broad level.

It's a collection of direct quotes culled from the last 3 years of my script-writing diary. At the moment, I've simply arranged it into sections and left it. My intention is work up
and refine these notes on as 'as-I-need-them' basis. To start with, I'll be redrafting the notes on
the overview of how I want to write scripts.

Ultimately, what I want to create is a list of general principles, common problems and their solutions, and examples of how I write. The act and process of writing is personalised - varying greatly between writers. Ideally, this is all stuff that'll give me a leg up on the next script I write.

The sections in this post are:

-- My script-writing aims
-- Tensions & Questions
-- Brainstorming 20 ideas (B20)
-- Creating a Structure
-- Essential elements of a story
-- The Pitch
-- An overview of my script-writing process (2007)


My major concerns for a script are ‘plausible character motivations’ and making sure I understand the cumulative ‘emotional effect’ each scene is having on the audience.

Basically, I look at each page and ask whether it’s worth 14 cents –the price of a movie ticket divided by the number of pages.

Can you articulate the bundle of images and associations that have you jazzed about working on your project?

Try writing a paragraph or a list or a manifesto or whatever of why you really want to write this thing – and then try and stay true to it over the next 3 years.



What is the main unresolved Tension in this show? What exactly are we watching to see what happens? The Tension that drives an entire show has to be big (in terms of its ramifications). If the show has a main character - and that's another section to add in - then the Tension is intimately tied to them.

There will be a fundamental question your story will (or seeks to) answer. The question for The Limit is "Will Peter find out who killed his son?" Knowing the question seems to help focus on telling the story.

In "Writing screenplays that sell", Robert Hauge describes the script-writer's primary job as "eliciting emotion from the person reading the screenplay."

My take on the script-writer's primary job: to construct a question that's interesting enough that the audience will keep watching to find out the answer.

How to apply that structurally is to introduce the question as early as possible, and answer it as late as possible.


I wanted to brainstorm 20 ideas for what could set this plot in motion.

My normal approach to writing has been to fly through it and fix the stuff later. Now I realise that I’m always going to fixing stuff later, so why not try and get things as right as possible at first draft. Having a higher quality of stuff to fix will hopefully mean less work later.

"Whether you make a kick ass story or not is not the point. The point is, for it to work, you and your fellow players are playfully playing as if this just gonna be great by the time its done: making choices, sifting through options, recalling patterns and motifs, creating new high and low points, forcing the characters into choices (that spark creative actions on the part of the players) and so on.

Draft, in short, is not a 'warm up.' "

If it's a tie between which option will create the most interesting situation, go for the one that causes the most pain/problems.

Case in point: Veronica Mars, the election result.


I like my Act 1 turning points to represent an utter failure for the heroes.

The last line of a scene is the most important line. The last line can clearly prime the audience for what they should expect to see next. In other words, the last line can set the Stakes for the next scene.

A Stake is a question that we are emotionally invested in learning the answer to. For instance, "Will Peter survive?" While there are stakes for the overall movie, they are most immediately applicable on a scene and sequence level.* The answer to the Stake is provided by the Conflict.

Scenes that I like tend to have a Conflict in them. You can represent this with the formula, "[something] versus [something]". Typically there will be at least two people in a scene, with each of them representing one side of the versus. At some point during the scene, you that the writer will make a choice for one side or the other. This is similar to what Robert McKee calls the Turning Point in his book Story. This choice will set up the stakes for the next scene.

Incoming Stake - Will Peter kill the suspect?
Conflict - Peter's respect for the Law versus Peter's certainty of the suspect needs to be punished.
Resolution - Peter lets the suspect live.
New Stake - What will Peter do with the suspect?

Importantly, I believe that both sides of the Conflict should represent aspects of your story's Premise. For example, all Conflicts in The Limit deal with The Law versus Vigilantism.**

So, each scene has a Stake and a Conflict.
The "versus" of the Conflict provides a choice that needs to be made.
The results of that choice also answer the question of the Stakes (and set up a new Stake).

* Have to expand on the relationship between these macro- and micro-Stakes at some stage.
** The Premise is your story's underlying theme or message. Really, it's a moral. It says if you do [something], it will lead to [something]. For instance, 'Greed leads to loneliness'. The idea of the Premise is expanded on much more clearly in The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri.

To write drama, ask yourself what's the worst that can happen? Right now? (Same with comedy, actually.)

Map out the general emotional arc.

Tim [Minear] used the term emotional arc in contrast to plot moves, as in, he was interested in the characters' emotional beats more than fancy plots and mysteries. He was not so much interested in the details of the plot, and when someone brought up an intricate plot idea, Tim would say, "That could be interesting, but it doesn't matter. What's the emotion underlying the moves?" Following the characters' emotions was more important than "Well, what happens next? How does Angel manage to beat the baddie?"

Big lesson from this bout of gaming is ‘never be afraid to increase the adversity’. Adversity forces people to be creative, it makes them stand up for what they really want, to say what they value and what’s worth fighting for … and adversity makes you feel like you’ve earned survival or success.

Plus, adversity creates a situation. Stories need conflict; focusing on the right conflict at the right time creates a throughline for your story.


What’s the (line?) of this novel, its (essence?) that all the scenes in an adaptation would have to reflect or expand on in order for the movie to be true to itself? I’m talking about its (subtextual (truth? identity?)), ... at any rate it’s another form of subtext … that (core?) which makes something the thing that it is.

A film has a distinct identity. You could say “a film has [this] sort of character.”

This expresses itself in at least three ways: its Genre, its Premise [as defined by Egri] and its Style (what is unique about the feel and vibe of your movie).

Once you’ve figured out these 3 elements, you need to make sure you put ‘moments’ into your story that establish and re-inforce that. What will that do? It’ll: a) reward the audience, b) create consistency, c) keep the film on track, and d) remind people what they’re watching …

It's pretty basic stuff really: a horror movie needs horror moments in it (Genre) but they need to be what you define as horrific for the movie you're writing (Style) and they need to be specific to the themes of your movie (Premise). The idea of 'moments' is to make your story unique.

So: identify what your ‘moments’ are, then create them … and then make sure they’re spaced just frequently enough.

At the heart of your show are three things:
The Emotion you want to produce.
Your Central Character.
The Main Relationship.

Know these three things. It’ll focus the series design. And be aware - the answers will change.

I asked David about the four things I need to understand in order to 'get' a show. Those are: Situation, Main Character, Main Relationship and Emotion.

Emotion = "How do you want to the audience to come away from an episode feeling?" Related to this are issues of genre and themes. The Emotion is what I reckon you should produce once an act.

Main Character = "Is there a central character? Someone whose issues reflect the themes of the show?"

The Main Character and Main Relationship are who you would expect to see often in an episode.

I think that most of the ideas I write start off as pulp, genre stories where I'm jazzed about the set-pieces I can come up with and the cool twists I can write in.

It's only through revision and digging deeper that I start to care about the characters and stay engaged the whole way through the story when I read it.

The point: is to maybe get through the pulp phase into the real as fast as possible.


All I really want is for the pitch to do the job:

1) Clearly communicate the emotions of each sequence;
2) Be succinct (10 minutes max); and
3) As much as possible, be visual.

I described the basic emotional beats of each sequence through to the end of Act 2. That sort of work is tough for me - it involves abstracting out from the details that my head's been previously stuck in.

I'll be
rehearsing my pitch for The Limit aloud. It'll start very quiet and cautious. For a lot of the time, I won't even be able to finish sentences because I'll be too self-conscious about getting them 'right'. Then things should start to click together an hour, 2 hours in.

When it comes to doing the pitch, 'Imagining the action' seems to be key.

A couple of times today, while practicing the pitch, I had insights into the structure.

Pitching is acting: trying to find The Limit's character and convey its emotions.


The pitch led to me massively re-editing the ending. This simplification may end up in the film; replacing a fight with a single word.

: 1st Reading: 12 m 55 s … so, that's good. Whispered the whole thing, focused on the words, not the emotions or performance. And I can see lots of places where it could be tightened.
I know from my speech at the premiere of hopeless that I can hold 9 minutes of speech in my head (especially if I've got the pitchboard to prompt me).

Going through these scenes fast, not fine-tuning or timing them. There’ll be a bit of fat to trim off them tomorrow if the pitch duration is too long.

3.05: Nine minutes and fifty seconds! It is accomplished! I even got some bursts of emotion from this reading, especially around the end of Act 2.


Now it’s time to become obsessed by whether I’m getting the emotions of this pitch across.

Insight: I have to figure out the emotion that I want each sequence to convey. Then, change the pitch’s language so it’s not so much about what’s happening but how I feel about what’s happening.

Again, this pitching process reveals more about how to present the story in the final film.

This read-through of the pitch was great. Long stretches where the emotion’s sustained.
I’m simplifying this re-write, focusing on character motivations.


Pitching to someone else is fun. You learn lots about your movie quickly.

This pitch will be my guide when I write the first draft. The emotional story in these 8 pages is clearer than the 60 page treatment that I sent to Andrew and Ainsley.



If I were designing a pitch from scratch today, here’s what I’d do:
1) Define the Title, Genre, and overall Effect.
2) Be succinct.
3) ‘Emotion’ and ‘character motivation’ are more important than duration or plot.
4) Be visual.
5) Start pitching to other people ASAP.

What is a pitch?
In Hollywood terms, it’s whatever sells a movie – so a pitch could be as short as ‘Jaws meets The Sixth Sense’.

But in scriptwriting terms, it’s telling someone your storyline. It’s a quick way to get feedback – to see what’s entertaining and what’s weak. But the important thing is to create an accurate (and short) impression of your story.

So, to expand on the above list:
1) ….. Define the Title, Genre, and Emotion or Effect you’re going for.* If it’s a comedy, what sort of stuff are we laughing at? What is the basic comic tension?
2) ….. Be succinct. A five minute pitch (or even two minutes) is preferable. The maximum duration you should be thinking for a presentation is 10 minutes; and entertaining someone for 10 minutes is hard work.

I’d start the pitch as short as possible and from there build up the moments that you think are weak and unconvincing.

You’re not really telling a ‘this happened and then this happened’ type of story in a pitch. It’s more about describing the broad sequences of your movie. See this Wordplay column for advice on how to accomplish that.

3) ….. ‘Emotion’ and ‘character motivation’ are more important than duration or plot. Of course, if you’re pitching a comedy it’s important to make the listener laugh.
But here’s some stuff I learned:.....
a) To connect two sequences smoothly, link the emotion at the end of one to the start of the next......
b) Clearly communicate the emotions of each sequence. Figure out the emotion you want each sequence to convey. Then, change the pitch’s language so it’s not so much about what’s happening but how I feel about what’s happening......
c) Pitching is acting: trying to find your film’s ‘character’ and convey its emotions......
d) Rely on your performance (rather than emotive words) to convey the feeling......
e) If there’s a choice between describing plot details and a simple emotion, choose the emotion (at least, I found that when pitching a thriller).

4) ..... As much as possible, be visual.
Have a board with the sequences and photos of the key characters on it for the person you’re pitching to to follow along.
'Imagining the action' seems to be key for me. I like to act out the events, to dramatise them.

5) ..... Start pitching to other people ASAP.Pitching to someone else is fun. You learn lots about your movie quickly.I’d recommend pitching to one new person a day – and if you can find people who are willing to listen to it multiple times, come back to them after a week of pitching to everyone else.

The Goal:Engage and entertain the person you’re pitching to.Create an accurate impression of your story so they can give you feedback.Pitch to several people.Are you getting the same feedback from all of them?Fix or address these issues (if necessary).Start pitching again.

* (from the Bo Zenga article in Creative Screenwriting)


[Talking about analysing a finished outline] - My method is go through the previous outline scene by scene, brainstorming, critiquing - basically overhauling whatever needs it without committing to anything. Then I transcribe those notes (in a very loose order) into the PC. The draft after that is the keeper. Going through, I lock things down, get the language right ... making sure the emotional flow of the script feels 'right'.

Trust me, it's a lot easier than launching into a script waaaay too soon then rewriting dialogue 20 or 30 times without addressing fundamental problems in the story.*

* my current approach does have its own risk: never being willing to say 'Right, it's done. Let's start writing.'

What’s an A-Plot?
It's what you say when someone asks you what 'last night's episode' was about. It's the main story.

How do you write an A-plot?
First, have an overall idea. Are you reporting to a producer? Then pitch that idea, make sure they’re on-board with it.

Second, break down the Acts. Specifically, know how the A-Plot has advanced by the time you go to each commercial break. Call them cliff-hangers, plot-points, reversals, big developments, whatever … … These Act Breaks are your signposts for writing a clear and understandable story. Someday I’ll write about how I got fired for not doing this.

Third, make sure the Act Breaks are of high-quality. They’re true to your characters. Original - within the genre you’re working in and within the show you’re writing. They develop character, plot and/or the series arc. They shouldn’t repeat what has gone before. Note that well: don’t have 2 Act Breaks that are basically the same thing. Always develop. Always raise the stakes. There’s probably more, but that’ll do for an initial brain dump.

Fourth, clearly introduce the situation. At the start of each episode, we want answers to these questions ... * What's the status of the relationships that will apply to this A-plot? * What do these characters want out of life? * What do they think will happen if they fail? * Why do they need to act? Call these the emotional stakes. Make sure we know and care about them.

Fifth, fill in the space between the Act Breaks. You’ve probably generated a lot of ideas for scenes while breaking down the Acts. Now’s the time to provisionally put them where you think they should go. NB: Prepare to drop scenes, combine them or realise they’re repetitive at any time. NB: Acknowledge if a scene doesn’t fit, leads the A-plot astray or says something untrue about your characters.

So, filling the space between the Act Breaks. Reprise the situation soon after coming back from commercials. Have at least one scene about the A-plot to link this reprise to the next Act Break. If your show has no sub-plots, every scene between commercials will be about the A-plot. And if your show does have sub-plots? It depends on whether your characters regularly interact (like an ensemble) or have very seperate lives. It's the difference between Buffy and 24. In 24, you'll have B, C and even D-plots that have no interaction with the A. Simple. Just write the damn thing, follow the rules above. (But even then, you'll want something connecting the plots, whether it's theme or situation.) When your characters are an ensemble and have a lot to do with each other's lives ... You'll probably have separate A, B, and C-plot scenes. You'll also need scenes that interweave the A-plot with other sub-plots. This isn’t so hard ... ... just keep track of the motivations and emotions of character involved in the A-plot as they meet other people and deal with 'unrelated' problems.*

Sixth, wrap up the A-plot.
Did people succeed or fail?
How do they feel?
Are the emotions you’ve created from the A-plot consistent with how you want people to feel after watching an episode of your show?

If I were to start a new script today, I’d adopt these principles :

1) Characters are true to themselves. They make internally consistent decisions.
2) Establish their emotional starting point in great detail. What do they do? What are their lives like? Is anything in their lives going to change on its own?……If no, then a Plot Event occurs. How do your characters react?
3) Follow the characters for a while, see what happens. If they become pro-active, fine. If they stay reactive, introduce another Plot Event.
4) Know your genre (if you’re writing in one) and make sure you have genre beats often enough to keep it in that genre.
5) As soon as you’ve figured out the story from start to finish, tell it to another person. Or five.

(1) is all about having characters NOT make decisions just because it’d be a cool direction for the plot to go in. It’s about respecting the plot that comes out of character decisions.

(2) is about starting with a Hook or a ‘What if’ idea for the movie then coming up with the characters who could be involved. Draw a relationship map of how these characters interact with each other AT THE START. Get opinions on what people think the most interesting relationships are.

(3) de-emphasises the textbook Act 1, Act 2, Act 3 structure. I’ve been thinking up Turning Points first. But the story and the climax should 'look like' they flow naturally out of the characters anyway, so why not make them the starting point of your process?

(4) ... man, it's just a kick-in-the-pants to keep the vibe of your movie focused and on-track.This all started after watching Storytelling by Todd Solondz. But it’s been influenced by Crafty Screenwriting by Alex Epstein, watching lots of Everwood and writing for Shortland Street.

Summary:What makes characters understandable and entertaining is consistent dialogue and attitude within a scene and consistent motivations across scenes.

So what did I learn from Draft 1 of this script?

To outline thoroughly, then write. Maybe not four years of outlining (like with this project), but analysing the script pays off.

Don't settle. Try and make each sequence as good as I can without pressuring myself to get it right first time out. In fact, each pass can be crappy and unformed - but the idea is to build the sequence into something I'm happy to sign off on.

How do I do that?

First, ask myself what is the question I want the scene to raise in the audience's mind. Hopefully that question follows logically from what they just seen (I've just written). This question is what I interpret others mean when they ask "What are the stakes?"

The conflict: I suspect that works best when the conflict centres around two different answers to the question. That way, the answer to the question is uncertain and keeps you in suspense.

"What is the emotion I want to produce?" I kind of forgot about this as I got further into the script.

Brainstorming conflicts, beats and lines of dialogue until I'm happy. Come up with at least 20 ideas, and then add 10 more until I'm satisfied.

Make sure that at least every 10 pages there are moments reflect your genre and unique moments that could only appear in your movie.


It made me believe that a well-worked out outline really would create speedy fun writing for me. That’s the goal for next time. I feel I got distracted by the pitch … put it at the wrong stage of the process. Oral should be 1st or 2nd – and then last.

I’m trying to train myself to write dramatic scenes by keeping track of the Stakes (the question we want the scene to answer) and Conflict (the people who represent the opposing answers) in a scene.

What I’ve realised is that I need to have a living stakes & conflict document right from Draft 1. It travels along and develops with the script as it goes through each new draft, constantly getting adjusted and updated – and eventually handed off to the director (hopefully me).

The reason is so that I can tell exactly what each scene is about and whether it’s contributing to what the movie is about.

With Possessions (hopefully my next script, based on Sean’s story), when I start work on a rough outline I should be keeping track of the characters’ wants, making sure they are consistent from scene to scene (which’ll be vital). As the story solidifies, I can make sure I’m driving towards conflict all the time, and build up the stakes.

What's your story about? I need to know this so that when I'm reading the script I can tell whether each scene is adding to the story that I want to see unfold.

'What's your story about?' is not what it's about at a premise level - where, for example The Limit is about Vigilantism vs. The Law, which is more effective & how using each method changes you.

It's what your story is about at an emotional level, about what's grabbing the audience and making them want to watch more. The Limit, in this case, is about 2 dads vying for the love of their son.


Here's the stripped down, mechanical version of the writing process I want to try.

Intro characters. Present them with a Kicker, a situation that cannot be ignored
Brainstorm 20 (B20) ideas for each character’s reaction.
Choose the most interesting.
Write down on a separate page for each character, what I’ve discovered about them in making that choice.
Create the new situation based on that choice.
Write a synopsis of it on a Word doc.

Characters have to react to the new situation. Intro any new characters that that situation demands. Repeat the B20, writing process.
Soon I’ll have ‘character sheets’ filled with traits that allow me to make decisions that are consistent with their characterisation.

If I come up with awesome new ideas, write them down on a page that says Act 1,2,3. But keep going with my current story – to see what I learn. Why? Well, the idea is that I won’t know if these new ideas are the 'right' ones – all I’ll know is that they’re better – but I could come up with more if I keep going. So rather than keep getting distracted by - let's face it - an inexhaustible supply of new possibilities, I'll work through the entire story and then be able to make a decision based on overviewing the whole thing.

Read aloud. Record.
Take notes.

Go back to the start and start with the most interesting situation I've now devised. Rebuild.
Repeat till I’m confident.


This whole process is more character based, with a structure that (I assume) will naturally get imposed on it over time. The question of what it's 'about' also needs to be answered - but I have another post on that coming up, based on my recent consulting work on this TV show.



Script-writing is an open ended situation. Use lateral thinking. Examine all the angles.


I’m coming to believe Subtext is vital to writing a good script. (a good script = a script I’m happy with)


David Mamet, on what he's learned from writing for Hollywood: "Tell the story as straightforward as possible and play fair with the audience."


Another way of looking at storytelling in the movies* is that each phase of the film has a different 'energy' about it.

Taking War of the Worlds (2005) as an example (because that's where I first noticed this), you have four different types of energy in the story. The move from the normal domestic set up to the full on terror of the invasion is almost unnoticeable. The transition between the two happens in a bravura 15 minutes set piece involving lightning strikes and a stolen car. That full on terror of being pursued is sustained for what seems like a full hour. But then there is a noticeable gear change when Tim Robbins arrives in the film. All of the action becomes confined to a single location and the emotions darken towards paranoia and despair.

The trick, I think, is to be aware of the emotions and mood you're generating & how the audience feel about that.

*I think this applies much more to films than television because the film is designed to be watched in one uninterrupted burst, so you are more attuned to variations in tone and intensity.


From a talk by Dylan Horrocks:

1) You should reveal yourself, or truths about you, in a world you create.

2) Worlds implicitly convey that self revelation. What that means is that even when you remove the characters and what they do from a story, the world that you're left with (its geography, population and history, for example) still convey themes and conflict.Worlds have meaning.


Titles I've come up with that I think work: I think what they do is give a clue about what I think the hook is, and they use a pop-cultural phrase.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

[Script] Good script, Bad script - my notes

Good Script, Bad Script by Tom Pope is a screen-writing manual that compares notable successes and failures from Hollywood. Here's what I extracted from this book:


There are no rules. This may be the single most important idea in this entire book. The only rule (sic) is that the script must work, and if it works by breaking all the accepted rules and more power to.

Aristotle believes a drama begins when the problem begins and ends when the problem is resolved.

All stories must contain both external and internal problems. Ideally these internal and external problems will resolve themselves at the same point of highest tension. Ideally the internal and external problems should dance together, one creating the other, where character creates action, and action catalyses character. If you avoid any internal conflict, your film is completely reliant upon external conflict to carry the ball.

Typically the first act ends with the protagonist's decision to grapple with the initial problem.

The second act complicates the initial problem and serves as the playing field on which the characters reach for a dramatic arc of change or catharsis, and in which action is initiated by, and in turn serves to catalyse, the characters.

The third act generally begins in a physical and psychological low point for the protagonist. Scenes with the greatest emotional weight come at the end.

The strongest narrative strategy is to build on existing problems and make things steadily worse. For example, each scene in the first act of Singing in the Rain either creates a new problem or augments an existing problem and makes it more complex.

When in doubt, combine.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

[Process] - The Writing Headspace (a list of insights)

This is a collection of direct quotes, culled from the last 3 years of my script-writing diary. At the moment, I've arranged it into sections and left it. Once I've finished doing this for every section of my script-writing process, I'll come back and refine these notes. What I want to create are a list of general principles, common problems and their solutions, and examples of how I write. It's all stuff that will (hopefully) give me a leg up on the next script I write.

The sections in this post are:

-- Procrastination.
-- Gaining Motivation.
-- Making progress.
-- Relaxing.
-- Rewards
-- Handling distractions


I think I've found a way to overcome my first-day-back syndrome. It's a 5-step process: First I ask myself why I'm writing it, then what the absolute best case scenario for when I've finished it could be. After that I brainstorm a whole bunch of ideas, organise them and figure out what I have to do next.

- My standard first day slowness where I get my head round the fact that I’m in a new phase of the project continues.

So, back to my three days on after one day off. And yet again, I find that first day back goes a little slow. I thought it was only when I started a new phase of a project, but maybe it's after any type of break.

I was feeling frustrated, angry and a little depressed. Probably due to my impatience at not making progress on the script.

So now, let's see if I can use that impatience to overcome my first-day-back syndrome.

While the pitch currently is good for the purpose of timing, I have to accept it doesn’t plausibly convey this sudden shift. So I have to re-write it so it does.... and that's made me stall out.

It’ll be hard work but probably not anywhere near as hard as I’m imagining. In fact, I’ll probably spend longer procrastinating than I will in re-writing it.

Finally [started writing]. I was a little freaked out about starting to tackle it - but decided to break it down into a manageable bit.

I wasted a week by coming up with reasons not to write. The reason was: I wasn’t inspired by what I was writing.

And then I got disillusioned because this all felt like a sterile, mechanical exercise. So, a week of avoidance.

Then I started trying to vividly visualise the scene. I remember I tried this before, with Trace outside Forster’s farm. And so far it’s working. The scene is fun to work on again.

I was finding the mis-direction scene a bit difficult. Coupled with my now consuming desire to FINISH something, I spent Thursday through to Saturday morning writing a playtest draft of my new RPG, The Luck of the Joneses.

After that, I came back to the scene I’m been blocked on and finished it in a couple of hours.

Spent Wednesday procrastinating about writing the script. I felt like I had to do two things at once: come up with cool new stuff AND rigorously proof read the script.

I told myself to get a good night's sleep and try and settle back to my daily routine of exercise, writing and everything else. That took a lot of the pressure off and at some point I was able to just say to myself, "Don't proof read. Just write."

From there, finishing the script - which had seemed such a huge deal the day before - was over in a matter of three hours. My goal became to create something that was readable for others as opposed to getting it perfect right now. That took a lot of the pressure off

There was much procrastination this morning. "IT'S TOO IMPORTANT!" screamed the editorial static in my head. "I'm scared of getting it wrong."

Eventually I plunged in (after working up bits and and pieces of ideas in layers over a couple of hours).

I’ve been procrastinating a little the last couple of days. Working on a dialogue scene, trying to find Taine's voice. But I may have just had a break-through with how the parents find out Taine's gone missing - I can visualise it very clearly, so that immediately puts it at the top of the list of all the ideas I've had.

I mentioned a 'breakthrough' a couple of days ago? Yesterday I realised the ramifications of it meant a HUGE rewrite of the script. First I was angry, then panicky ... then, slowly, I calmed down and am now gunna look through it methodically, seeing exactly what would need to be changed.

I have been getting less than an hour of work done on The Limit every day. I may even just not use the internet at all - after all it is the timesuck of doom for me.

I’ve mapped out this rewrite on four A3 pages – and today I crossed over into the fourth and final page. Once again, I slowed down - kind of freaked out & scared – and began a massive blast of procrastination.

Then I remembered how angry I am at this script. How much I want to finish it so I can get it out of my life and do something new. That anger’s built through the day until now I am fully focused on bring this thing home.

Taking a day off to let my mind refill with creative goodness & get some distance from it.

I always take a long time to ramp up to full-writing-speed when I start a new draft. One of the causes (I’ve just discovered) is that it takes me a while to regain the confidence to make rapid decisions about the writing – as I start getting back into it, I’d prefer to fluff around paralysed by the choices I could be making rather than commit to something & lock it down.

I think I'm facing a psychological block - I need to make a change that has big ramifications for the rest of the film. It's a simple change, but I think its implications are stopping me from going ahead with making it. Instead I'm analysing.

Unlike working on the 48-hour competition, there is no immediate pressure on me to make a decision about a line of dialogue or an approach to the scene. This leads to perfectionism - which is my curse & the reason I've been working on this goddamn project for what seems like most of the decade - and this two-page scene for the last four days.

A realisation that I'm trying to make this perfect, which leads to procrastination. I should make rough, necessary changes, and complete this draft.

I started to procrastinate / freak out about finishing, again. So after letting that happen for a few minutes, I bit off the smallest part of the very next problem I had to solve and tackled it. Which worked pretty well.

I find that if I'm blocked on a script, I actually get a lot of work done if I take a train up to the Kapiti Coast. The secret is to not bring anything else to read or do . There's something about boredom that really forces me to write.

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.


It’s that sense of mission that gives me most of the drive to work on it. And more and more, it’s getting to be not work but play.

Thought I'd try kicking my energy back up by pitching it again and again, letting the edits come naturally, through performance, not writing. At first my brain blocked me ... but when I finally did it, I broke through!

[W]hat would happen if you treated your screenplay-in-progress like someone you had recently fallen in love with. What if you courted your story, wooed it, gave it your very best, and loved it madly?

Our conclusion was that if we were willing to throw ourselves into falling in love with our work, risking heartache, holding nothing back, the inner muses responded in kind.

Cynthia Whitcomb
Writer’s Guide to Writing Your Screenplay

"Going slow & devising solutions that convince me" is a good goal, but I think I'm starting to feel the lack of that obsessive quality, the need to get it finished by a certain goal.

[*** Obviously, I've needed to feel almost mono-maniacally passionate about a project in the past in order to work on it. What conflicts with this is my analytical hesitation about deciding whether any given project is the 'best' use of my time.]

The home stretch. Less than 20 pages to go. Decisions are easier to make now.

The rewriting got faster and faster as I went through.

I got sick of taking notes and preparing to do it - so I've just launched straight in [to the final rewrite].

1. Be passionate. You have to love something about the show, whether it's the situation or the characters. This love is a big part of what will get you through all the hard work ahead. I used to have the following phrase taped above my computer as I wrote - "The Goal is to create a world I completely believe in and care about." That's not a bad starting point.


I decided that if I was going to build this confrontation scene up in my head as something big, tough to conquer, then I was going to approach it with rock-climbing-like determination. So at the start of today (yes, after my sleep-in), I set the goal of finishing the scene no matter what ... and set up base-camps at certain sections of the scene that I would reach, rest and then move on from.

In this one early scene I kept re-finessing details. So I forced myself to keep moving - and in the process clarified what the two leads have in common.

Thought I'd try kicking my energy back up by pitching it again and again, letting the edits come naturally, through performance, not writing. At first my brain blocked me ... but when I finally did it, I broke through!

Yesterday I wrote a terrible version of a crucial scene and I don't care. Writing a feature film on spec means having the time to make sure a scene works.

Unlike working on the 48-hour competition, there is no immediate pressure on me to make a decision about a line of dialogue or an approach to the scene. This leads to perfectionism - which is my curse & the reason I've been working on this goddamn project for what seems like most of the decade - and this two-page scene for the last four days.

Next film I write, I'm getting myself a year to complete it. One year, and then I'm getting out no matter what state it's in.
Next project, I'd like to do something shorter form, with a development process that is completely out in the open, and it's driven by attitude and immediacy.


- My ‘enjoy myself’ philosophy seems to be working. I’m very comfortable writing until my body tenses up or my brain gets logjammed – and then just doing something else, relaxing until this signal in my head tells me it’s time to go back to the keyboard.

Finished The Limit’s rough outline. I promised myself three days holiday after this - and by holiday I mean dabbling on some other writing projects - but I am keen to keep pushing on. So:

Do I keep my promise to myself or follow my current inclination?
Do I stick to the plan or stay in the moment?

[...] Yesterday's decision turned out to simple. I've already had a holiday in the lead-up to Xmas and I really want to write, so I'm going with the flow. Restarting things on Thursday.

Feeling stressed out at the thought of trying to finish all of Act 1 today. So I've set myself a couple of small goals.

Quite often when I'm starting a dialogue draft, I won't shave until the story has quickened and the dialogue is coming naturally and rapidly out of me. (The beard, unfortunately, stops me from sleeping well).


I love finishing short, cool bits of writing. Achieving rocks!

I’d forgotten how good it feels to just write – solving problems at a dialogue level, trying to figure out character and get the scenes to do their jobs. Also, I’m loving the pace. I have a deadline, but I also have enough time to reflect on how to fine-tune scenes. It all feels very contemplative.

Today was That Day where I started to get enthused about the work again. I love That Day.

When I finished making changes to The Limit last night, the sense of quiet satisfaction I felt seemed exactly the same as what I feel when I finish any project - of whatever magnitude. To be specific, finishing the script after seven years gave me the same amount of satisfaction as working on a 48-hour film, writing a role-playing game, or locking down a well-constructed sketch.

  • I found the writing process itself to be rewarding - challenging, sure, but satisfying and worthwhile
  • from working on hopeless, I'm aware that there are many moments that you celebrate during the life of a script (including realising you're filming a scene that matches up to your imagination; seeing a cut of the film that finally works; and the Premiere)
There wasn't some big Hollywood rush of triumph. It was a quiet moment. If anything, I would call it contentment.


my bugbear – attempting to focus on completing one idea while I’m continually coming up with new (fresher) ideas


[from working on lovebites]
What does 'enough' mean?

I’m disturbed at how little craft I applied to Act 3. Basically I burned through it today, wanting to write from the heart and follow my old outline rather than re-break the scenes by Stakes and Conflicts.

I get sucked into the emotion I'm writing about.

Taking a break between drafts means ideas are popping into my head all the time –scribble down images & snippets that’ll flesh out scenes. Guess I’m refuelling.

I'm enjoying the writing. It's starting to go faster - and I'm expecting to keep up that pace until I hit the big re-writes in Act 3.

For the first time with the Limit, I'm not that sure what edits I'd like to make to it. I've had that feeling before - with other scripts - and it's usually indicated that further tinkering tips the story over the edge and starts to break it.

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;

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.

I feel like the script is now 'telling' me what it wants to be. It's like there's an ideal version of this draft that I'm chiselling the unnecessary material away from.

I need to relax and have fun while I'm writing, and b) the scene didn't need to be perfect - I'm going to go back, read the script aloud when I've finished this re-edit, and make adjustments.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

[Process] - An update

I've finished combing through my old script-writing posts for insights. Now I'm going to bold those points (in their existing posts). Coming soon, I'll extract those points and create new, separate posts. It's all a work-in-progress, and I'm having lots of fun.

Also, from combing through the archives, I think I've found another topic to do up some reminder notes for myself about. How to write in a group.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

[Boost] An apt quote

"If men were angels, no government would be necessary."

-- James Madison

Friday, September 21, 2007

[TV] - Boston Legal

This show tries to be both outrageously entertaining and an expose of problems in American society (using the dramatic devices of lawsuits and court cases to explore all sides of an issue). It mostly succeeds in being pretty good fun.

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

[Process] - Character

For the last two and a half years, I've kept notes about what I learned while writing the Limit. Now I'm creating posts that will cover each phase of my script-writing process. They'll be added to as I trawl through the blog (and linked to on the sidebar).

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:

-- historically
-- psychologically
-- emotionally
-- dramatically
-- 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?


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:

- caring/selfish
- honest/deceitful
- ambitious/contented
- direct/passive-aggressive
- clear thinking/fuzzy thinking
- practical/dreamer?

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

[Process] - Redrafting

For the last two and a half years, I've kept notes about what I learned while writing the Limit. Now I'm creating posts that will cover each phase of my script-writing process. They'll be added to as I trawl through the blog (and linked to on the sidebar).

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,
He hides.

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:

  1. Assume all work gets done at the last minute.
  2. With that in mind, halve my time estimates for how long it’ll take to do things.
  3. 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

26 July
Read it. [0.25 days]
Emotional Engagement Chart. [0.25 days]
6 Hat review. [1.5 days]

28 July
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]

29 July
Consult with Andrew (depending on his availability). [0.5]
Distill core problems. [0.25]

30 July
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.


I've been:

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.