Notes on Craft – (Part 2 of 6): Structure

PART 1: Premise & Concept

PART 2: Structure

PART 3: Character

PART 4: The First 20 Pages

PART 5: Dialogue & Scene

PART 6: Rewriting & Polishing

CRAIG MAZIN (Scary Movie 3, 4; The Hangover Part II)

– “‘Story’ and ‘Screenplay’ are two different things; you need to know the story before you write the screenplay.”

– “Most important when trying to figure out what stories to tell is to ask: ‘Is it pertinent to the human condition?'”

– “I try to look at structure as the character’s relation to theme.”

– “A character starts the story believing one thing and finishes believing the opposite.  Pixar movies do this well- check out Little Nemo… also Up, which are both the exact same movie.”

– “When you’re writing with someone else you have to be incredibly specific.  When you’re on your own you have to wonder a bit because you don’t have anyone to tell you if it’s good.”

– “When writing set pieces, make sure they’re also advancing the story.”

– “The midpoint is the first time your hero sees himself in a new way.”

– “We admire characters, not for what they can do, but for what they can endure.”

BEN GARANT & THOMAS LENNON (Night at the Museum, Reno 911, Herbie Fully Loaded… also co-authors of How to Write for Fun & Profit)

– (BG) “When you’re writing you need to check in with your story so you know where it’s going.  It’s like Jazz; it’s improvised but you know where it’s going.”

– (TL) “If you’re not sure whether you should use structure then look at Purple Rain.”

– (TL) “Structure is simple. You get a likable guy thrown up in a tree, toss rocks at him, then you get him down.”

– (BG) “In comedy, the ‘rocks’ you throw at your hero in Act 2 are ‘sketches.'”

– (BG) The midpoint is the worst obstacle you can throw at your hero.  In The Matrix, Neo is told by the Oracle he’s not The One.”

– (TL) “You need to have conflict so that your characters want to kill one another.”

– (TL) “You’re first script should be shocking in some way. Fresh, original- so you stand out.”

ROBIN SWICORD (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Memoirs of a Geisha, Matilda)

– “My husband (Nicholas Kazan), needs just enough story to get started writing so that he can progress while keeping his creative juices alive.”

– “I will follow a character if I know what she wants.  A great desire can propel a story.  A strong desire should meet an impossible obstacle.  Then at the end they’ll have achieved something.”

– “Theme is what drives each story.  Once you know what your theme is you should disguise it within the writing.”

– “At the end of Act 2 the Gods flick your character.”

– “At midpoint, the story gets a whole lot ‘deeper’.  In Little Miss Sunshine her grandfather dies.”

– “Writing a script won’t change your life.  Making a film will.  Go make your movie.”

Qs:

– How important do you think adhering to a structure is for your script?

– Do you outline and/or write a treatment before you start writing the script?

– Do you think all the best movies have a formula?

Notes on Craft – (Part 1 of 6): Premise and Concept

I just finished a 6-part series of screenwriting seminars, called Notes on Craft, through the Writer’s Guild Foundation.  Here is a paraphrased list of gleaned gems from the pros themselves.  I will post a new category every day for the rest of this week.

PART 1: Premise & Concept

PART 2: Structure

PART 3: Character

PART 4: The First 20 Pages

PART 5: Dialogue & Scene

PART 6: Rewriting & Polishing

DAN FOGELMAN (Cars; Tangled; Crazy, Stupid, Love)

– “People over think too much.  When I receive a script with a 4-page cover letter of why it’s worth reading, I know it’s got problems.”

– “My writing always begins with figuring out where my character starts and where he ends up.”

– (Re: when thinking about how to pitch an idea) “Here’s the premise, here’s the character, and here re 5 big things that happen in the movie.”

-“I know the beginning and end and kinda vomit the middle and let other people sort it out.”

– “Structuring is easy.  By page 30 the audience should know the premise of your movie; by mid-point, there should be a negative turn; by page 80, there should be sad music and you should be heading for the end.”

– “If you have the beginning and end then that should inform the middle.  Wherever you decide your character is at the end of the movie, put him at the beginning in the opposite spot.”

– “Notting Hill was a great script to read. Very efficient story-telling.”

– “If I’m trying to write 10 pages of my script and I get lost I’ll put up a Word document and write out 10 pages of beats instead.”

– “Live-Action is solitary and tough.  Animation is a group process; animators drawing your ideas as you’re developing them.”

ANNIE MUMOLO (Bridesmaids)

– “If, when reading my own script, I can fly through the pages then I know it’s worth pursuing.”

– “When creating an idea I start with a key scene and work around that.”

JAMES VANDERBILT (Zodiac, The Losers, The Rundown)

– “I always plan. I never regret over-planning. And when I start writing I go as fast as I can.”

– “I need to know where it ends (emotionally) before I can start writing.”

– “The best scripts are always well-structured but are invisible in it’s execution.”

JOHN REQUA (Bad Santa; I Love You Phillip Morris; Cats & Dogs)

– “I always figure out the ending first- where the character must be emotionally.”

– “Ideas are easy.  CHaracters are hard.  Story is easy when you have character.”

Qs:

– Who’s your favorite screenwriter above?

– Anything you disagrees with above?

– What you would add to Premise and Concept?

Creating a “Likable” Protagonist

Okay. You just finished writing your script. Its action-packed, full of dramatic irony, dripping with eloquent poignancy as well as poignant eloquence. You send it to your agent, your girlfriend, your gardener- and they all love it… except for one thing… They hate your main character.

And not just “kind of” hate. They want your hero to die, be burned at the stake, and then ridiculed for being such a douche.

–And then you think to yourself “Shit, that sucks.”

–And then you think “Oh they don’t know what they’re talking about. Why did I send it to my gardener who knows nothing about screenwriting.?”

–And then you think “Well maybe I’ll just create a ‘Save the Cat’ moment (thank you Blake Snyder) and my hero will be worshipped again.”

Congrats. That is just 1 of 5 tools I have compiled for your blog-viewing pleasure on how to make your protagonist(s) more likable. Because without that key ingredient no will follow your hero to the end of the story… especially your gardener!

Tip #1

Have your hero perform… AN ACT OF KINDNESS

…or as Blake Snyder (B.S.) would refer to it: your hero’s “Save the Cat” moment. Everyone in Hollywood knows this trick thanks to his best-selling screenwriting book. But for all you cave-dwellers it’s when your lead character performs an act of kindness, proving to the audience she has a good soul.

Its important that it occurs early in Act 1 so we jump on board from the get-go. It’s also important that it is an action and not just a nice thing your lead character says; because words are cheap and we all know your characters are liars.

Watch pretty much any movie in the last several years (thanks to B.S.) and you’ll see thousands of examples; some including actually saving a cat from a tree- or an equally perilous structure that appeals to felines who’s courage to climb is quickly followed by their fear of falling.

One particular movie’s entire premise is based on this concept: Pay it Forward. Remember how good everyone thought that was when it came out? Yeah. Not so much.  But the principle is still valid. Good for character development- bad for movie premise.

The example B.S. likes to use is Al Pacino in Sea of Love when he busts a bunch of parole violators at a Yankees game. After the sting operation’s executed this blissfully ignorant criminal shows up late with his bright-eyed son excited to see his first ball game. Al decides what to do… then winks “I’ll catch you later…” and lets the guy go; you know, for the kid’s sake.

So you think “Ahhh, Al’s got a big heart.  He’s a ball-buster; he likes to yell his lines a lot.  But he’s got heart.”

Tip #2

Give your hero… A MASSIVE BEAT-DOWN

This is sorta the opposite of your hero performing an act of kindness. Its basically when you physically- or emotionally- destroy your protagonist so we feel sorry for him and, thus, want him to succeed.

I’ve also heard this concept referred to as “Kill the Cat”… yet I’ve also heard that phrase refer to something your antagonist does (perform an evil act) that gets you to hate him. Screw the phrase. Lets focus on how to get your audience to feel so bad for your hero for being wronged that they want to see him get redemption.

IMAGINE: the opening image of a movie… you find an entire wedding party massacred, bodies everywhere, your heroine sprawled on the ground (wedding dress and all), beaten to a bloody pulp, and a bullet put through her head- oh, and lets say she was pregnant (why not?)…

Some might call that a “Massive Beat-Down”… Tarantino would call that the opening to Kill Bill.

C’mon, how much do you want Uma Thurman to kill this Bill fucker for doing this to her… on her wedding day…?  While she was pregnant…?!  I am immediately drawn in to this story andI have no idea who Bill is… but I want him DEAD!

So congrats to Tarantino for perfectly illustrating this point.

Tip #3

Make your character… FUNNY

I’ll throw “charming” in to this category as well but I think humor is vastly more important for winning over an audience. With some characters it doesn’t matter how many sinful acts they commit… as long as they make us laugh, we’ll follow them to the depths of hell.

Take the doctor of all evils: Dr Evil.

He has no redeeming qualities. He’s a jerk to everyone. He describes a massive beat down scenario from his abusive father but hearing it doesn’t seem to have the same impact as seeing it in action (yet, in the case of the “shorn scrotum” I’m glad we didn’t). Despite all these transgressions- and even outweighing our main hero, Austin Powers- I root for Dr Evil to take over the world and do as he pleases with us as his slaves… because he’s so fricking hilarious.

Tip #4

Make your hero… TALENTED

Why do we like James Bond?

He may perform little acts of kindness but, really–? he’s a pretty selfish guy. He doesn’t really have a massive beat-down (unless you count Casino Royale when he loses his girl- and then apply that to the rest of the series of movies). While he’s certainly charming, he’s really more “cheeky” than “funny”. And when all’s said and done he doesn’t really change from one movie to the next. So why are we on board with him…?

Because he is damn good at what he does. Whether he’s ordering a pimp martini, playing baccarat, picking up femme fatales, or jumping out of a burning plane and onto a jet-propelled wave-runner that’s about to explode in 5-4-3… and he saves the world in time to down his martini, collect his gambling winnings, and bone the hot chick who was just trying to kill him.

How could you not like him?

When I was first compiling this list for my records I had just watched The Social Network, marveling at the fact that on the surface Mark Zuckerberg appears to be a total dick-wad. No acts of kindness. Doesn’t really get beaten down (except for losing the girl out of being an asshole)… and yet, we somehow root for him to win! Why…?

A) He’s funny.

B) He’s good at what he does.

Even without a precious “Save the Cat” moment, this movie proves that combining two other techniques elicits empathy for your protagonist.

Tip #5

Make your hero… RELATABLE

Well this seems obvious. Right? Aren’t all of our heroes relatable, you ask?

I say “No of course not. Why would you think that? Look at Superman. What is relatable about a guy who crash-landed on earth, who can fly, repel bullets, and who wears red & blue tights? I ask you, what, sir?!”  To which you may reply

“Well, what about his very human relationship with Lois, douche?” To which I’ll retort:

“Touché”.

Aside from those romantic tropes, which are cheaply tacked on to every movie, the big problem with superheroes is they are typically “super-human” dudes with “super-human” powers. At least Spiderman originated as a regular dorky kid who gains super powers. From the beginning we relate to his awkward bookishness and inability to interact with women.

(Not me though. Sure, I was equally awkward growing up. But, to be honest, I never liked Spiderman… mostly because of the red & blue tights. “What is with the red & blue tights?!”)

Some might consider Frank Sinatra a sort of “crooning superhero”. He was aware of the danger of disconnecting from an audience who worshipped him, placing him on am unattainable podium. To combat his pristine image on stage he would start a song, purposely screw up the lyrics, pretend it was the wrong song, and start again, apologizing to his audience for his humane mistake.

“We forgive you, Ol Blue Eyes. Mafia ties- Schmafia ties.”

It seems the recent trend of comedies involve people we can relate to; regular guys working nine-to-five jobs who…

  • …have to deal with their Horrible Bosses
  • …get into a “Friends with Benefits” situation with a girl where there are No Strings Attached (yeah, same movie)…
  • …go to Vegas for a bachelor party, forgetting what happened the night before due to.. The Hangover...

Anyway, you get the point. The relatability is built in to their movie’s premise. Even the title screams out “You will connect with this movie!”

Maybe if you combined all five of these techniques you’d have the most likeable character in the history of film. Then all you have to do is write a good script.

Can you think of any more ways to make your hero likable…? (cuz I’d like to know)

~ JW

10 Reasons “Game of Thrones” is Successful

Its been just over a week since the season 1 finale of Game of Thrones (GoT) ended. While lamenting over the fact that I have to wait several months for its inevitable return I made a list of the reasons why I think it was such a successful show.

SPOILERS BELOW!  You’ve been warned.

1) Quality

Game of Thrones displays spectacular quality across the board: Acting, writing, directing, casting, production design, costume, sound, score, cinematography. You name the craft and they’ve invested in the best.

I’ve found very few qualitative flaws with GoT. I’m constantly reminded that I’m in good hands with every passing scene.

2) Theme of Power

Take a poll of the top 5 movies of all time. Consistently you’ll find Citizen Kane, Casablanca, The Godfather, Gone with the Wind, Lawrence of Arabia, etc. If these films had one thread of consistency what would it be?

The Theme of Power- and overcoming great odds to achieve a goal, often involving the primal element of revenge and life-or-death stakes. Recent history has shown with Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter the resounding impact a protagonist’s rise to power has on an audience.

Or how about comparing it to some of the top TV Dramas of the last decade: The Wire, The Sopranos, Mad Men, Battlestar Gallactica, etc, all of which have similar themes.

Game of Thrones is no exception. LOGLINE: “Kings, queens, knights and renegades use schemes and swords to battle for the throne.”

A simple, basic through-line for the audience to connect with allows for complex characters and intricate story-lines to permeate our brains. We even excuse the things we don’t understand because we do understand the basic conceit.

3) Adaptation

Frustrating as it is for a young screenwriter trying to break into this industry, the fact is Studios are investing in the long-lasting trend of the Adaptation.

Can’t argue with the effectiveness of having an audience already built in to a property. I’ve never read the Game of Thrones books but I hear they’re amazing.

 

 

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4) Awesome Title Sequence

There are few shows where I opt not to fast-forward past the title sequence. Dexter was one of those shows. The Borgias is in there. I remember thinking the opening was the best part of Carnivale.  And Game of Thrones gets me every time with its epic exploration of the map of  Westeros; over an epic score, structures are built mechanically, like clockwork; the only other recognizable object is a sword being forged before our eyes. All of which conveys the show perfectly. To flaunt the individual cast members would betray what the show is truly about: seizing the throne.

5) Memorable Characters

Whenever you watch something and you or friends go “Which character are you?” you know you’re holding a gem. The ability to relate to a character’s POV, to find an “in” to the story, makes it that much more powerful to watch.

For the record, while Tyrion Lannister is my favorite character, I most relate to Robb Stark.  I often refer to my wife as “Khaleesi” (after Daenerys Targaryen). And I refer to my newborn as a “Dothraki” (after Khal Drogo).

Which character are you?!

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6) Quotable Dialogue

“Your mother was whore with a fat ass. Did you know that?”

My friend, Yav, comes to poker every week quoting Robert Baratheon’s first line in the entire series which perfectly captures this character’s personality.

There are so many great quotes on this show I imagine they could sell a compendium when all seven seasons are complete. It seems every line coming from Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) is legendary.

“All dwarves are bastards in their father’s eyes.”

(When defending his second accusation of murder) “Oh, did I kill him, too? I’ve been a very busy man.”

Or… “Should I explain to you the meaning of a closed door in a whorehouse?”

Unsure who deserves more credit I bestow equal kudos to both DB Weiss and David Benioff.

7) The Mystery Box

Maybe you’ve seen JJ Abrams TED episode where he explains the theory behind “The Mystery Box”. Using the analogy of refusing to open a box despite how intriguing the contents inside may be JJ effectively argues that “Mystery is more important than knowledge.” Because most likely what was in that box is meaningless compared to what you think could be in there.

JJ isn’t the inventor of this concept though he utilizes it brilliantly (lets not turn this into a Lost debate forum please). Game of Thrones also is effective at presenting something to look forward to in the short term (with “Will Bran Stark pull around?”) and in the long run (with the promise of the existence of dragons).

Audiences love a good mystery only to be replaced with another mystery upon discovering the secret behind the first.

8 ) The Unexpected Twist

Episode 9 of Game of Thrones proves that NO ONE IS SAFE on this show, not even who we thought was the hero of the entire show! We have been trained to think our main protagonist will carry us through the run of the show and that our story will be beautifully book-ended at the finale wrapping up the character’s arc as well as the theme of said show.

But not in GoT. They had the balls to say “This show is bigger than Ned Stark.” This, of course, caused an uproar with many who think the show will fall apart because of this betrayal of our expectations.

HINT: I don’t think so.

9) Budget

Okay, $50-$60 million for the series ($5-$10 mil for the pilot) is not exactly “…Always Sunny in Philadelphia” numbers. But I can’t think of another show that looks better than this show. Comparing it to 24 (with all its “modern-day” special effects, explosions, etc) isn’t fair because its a different time period completely (not to mention Network vs Cable money).

A fair comparison would be to HBO’s Rome a few years back with its whopping $100 – $110 million investment for 12 episodes. That’s $8-$9 mil per episode for Rome, and $5-$6 mil for Game of Thrones. For $3 mil less per episode HBO is investing in a similar quality show that already has a following.

While $10 mil sounds like a lot for a tv pilot, compare that to Boardwalk Empire‘s estimated $20 million (the construction of the Boardwalk alone costing close to $5 mil) and GoT starts to sound like a bargain.

Expect to see a lot more dramatic tv shows adopting the practice of shooting entire seasons as if its an epic film shoot in order to save money in the long run.

10) The Letter “N”

A friend of mine said it best when talking about the opening of Game of Thrones: “Every time I read the ratings list and I see the letter N (for Nudity) I go ‘Yes!’ [accompanied with a victory fist-pump]”.

I’m sure we’ve all seen a porno and thought “I wonder if this could be done well?” Stanley Kubrick allegedly considered this while making Dr Strangelove and eventually made Eyes Wide Shut.

They say the key is to disguise the nudity so it doesn’t feel gratuitous. And I say GoT does it blatantly, shamelessly- and masterfully!

~~~

The only thing that really upsets me about Game of Thrones is how long I have to wait for Season 2.

~ JW

Top 10 Greatest Character Names- and Why!

“What’s in a name?”

You ever just hear a name and there’s nothing else to say but: “What a great f—ing name?

Growing up, certain artists’ names jumped out at me, like Trent Reznor, Laurence Fishburne, Delroy Lindo, Rip Torn. What makes these names so awesome…?

Recently I’ve been meditating on the most legendary character names in movies and why they stand out above the rest. I came up with a list of Seven attributes that seem to do the trick.

A) Alliteration

B) The Plain w/the Bold

C) Syllabic Echo

D) Rolling off the Tongue

E) Ending Strong

F) Describing Essence of Character

G) Initials

(NOTE: Often times, a single name can fit into more than one category) 

…Lets break em down.

 

A) Alliteration

The occurrence of the same consonant in two adjacent words can be pleasing to the ear. Its almost as if the first word sets the stage and the second word repeats a consonant in a connective way that makes you go “They make sense together.”

~ Tyler Durden

~ Keyser Soze

~ Holly Golightly

Its especially effective when they share the first consonant.

~ Dirk Diggler

~ Donnie Darko

~ Ratso Rizzo

(notice with the ‘TS’ and the ‘Z’ its the sound made by the letters, rather than consonants themselves)

   

B) The ‘Plain’ w/the ‘Bold’ 

Taking an ‘Average Joe’ name and coupling it with something particularly fancy or bold can make for a relatable character who is simultaneously special.

~ Indiana Jones

~ Sam Spade

~ Sweeney Todd

This also works by mixing a common profession with a fancy name.

~ Dr Strangelove

~ Nurse Ratched

~ Professor Snape

  

C) Syllabic Echo

Probably the easiest way to make a name sound pleasing is to mimic the stressing pattern in each word.

~ Sidney Falco

~ Charlie Babbit

~ Ellen Ripley

~ Sarah Connor

~ Norma Desmond

     

D) Rolling Off the Tongue

Then there are those jam-packed with syllables that just flow out beautifully.

~ Rollo Tomasi

~ Inigo Montoya

~ Napolean Dynamite

~ Royal Tenenbaum

     

E) Ending Strong

You can almost put anything in front of a strong sounding single-syllabic last name and it will work.

~ Barton Fink

~ James Bond

~ Atticus Finch

~ John Shaft

   

F) Describing Essence of Character

It can be effective to use a word that captures the essence of your character (adjective or noun)

~ Donnie Darko

~ Han Solo

~ Ethan Hunt

~ Ratso Rizzo

~ Chester Rockwell

or the more obvious “nickname” approach

~ Tony Rocky Horror

~ Bill ‘The Butcher’ Cutting

~ Teddy KGB

or single word characters (arguably more memorable for the characters themselves rather than their names)…

~ Lurch

~ Gollum

~ Maverick

  

F) Initials 

For some reason adding something as simple as initials to a name can provide a certain flavor, even with no other connection.

~ Frank TJ Mackey

~ JJ Hunsecker

TE Lawrence

My Top 10 Favorite Character Names

This was tough. There are a lot of great names out there. I left out many that will surely make people angry (and tried to avoid Star Wars). I also strived to pick my favorite character names over the characters themselves. These are the ones that stuck out to me (and which of the seven categories they fulfill.)

10) SAM SPADE

This is a vert simple, straight-forward name that captures Bogart’s detective character in The Maltese Falcon. It also plays off the Queen of Spades image they use in the film.

a) Alliteration

b) Plan w/the Bold

c) Syllabic Echo

e) Ending Strong

f) Describing Essence of Character

 

 

 

9) TYLER DURDEN

Brad Pitt as Ed Norton’s lovable alter ego. Granted, part of what makes this legendary character name so “household” is due to the character itself. But it always pops in my head as a great character name. I’m not one to ignore my instincts.

a) Alliteration

c) Syllabic Echo

 

 

 

 

 

 

8 ) DONNIE DARKO

Another character that always haunted me well after the movie was watched. I attribute a large part of this to the name.

a) Alliteration

b) The Plain w/the Bold

c) Syllabic Echo

F) Describing Essence of Character

 

 

7) RATSO RIZZO

Hoffman as the sickly little rat-like con-man in Midnight Cowboy.

a) Alliteration

c) Syllabic Echo

F) Describing Essence of Character

 

 

 

 

 

 

6) BARTON FINK

This name just perfectly captures this schlubby, misunderstood, intellectual playwright, played brilliantly by Turturo. When going over my list with my wife, Autumn, she expressed her distaste for this choice… which reinforces my love for it even more! I can’t even describe what makes it work so well for me… “He’s just such a Barton Fink.”

e) Ending Strong

f) Describing Essence of Character

 

 

 

5) ATTICUS FINCH

I don’t recall the symbolism with the mockingbirds and finches in To Kill a Mockingbird but there’s a reason he’s named after a bird. I have a soft spot for characters- like Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch- that stand up for their ethics when society isn’t ready for it. For that reason, I almost named my soon-to-be born child ‘Atticus’. However, I’ve been informed its pretentious; so I learned never to share names with people before the birth.

e) Ending Strong

f) Describing Essence of Character

 

 

 

4) KEYSER SOZE

In case people haven’t seen the film, this is the best representation of the devil-spawned character- who is only spoken about- in The Usual Suspects. If that’s the premise of the character, he’d better have a kick-ass name!

a) Alliteration

c) Syllabic Echo

d) Rolling off the Tongue

 

 

 

3) ROLO TOMASSI

There actually is no picture available for “Rolo Tomassi”, an invented persona described by Pearce’s character in LA Confidential. (yes, I’m leaving it at that). Much like Keyser Soze, an unseen character talked about throughout the story better have a kick-ass name. This name only fits one of the categories but for some reason it just sticks in my mind.

d) Rolling Off the Tongue

 

 

 

 

2) SIDNEY FALCO

God- I love this name. It just rings perfection to me. It so captures this slime-ball opportunist press agent, played by Tony Curtis, in Sweet Smell of Success. To me it even captures his piercing “falcon-like” determination. Having a great name helps you go along for the ride with this love-able villain. 

a) Alliteration

b) The Plain w/the Bold

c) Syllabic Echo

F) Describing the Essence of the Character

 

1) INIGO MONTOYA

Almost synonymous with thinking of The Princess Bride is… “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” Makes me smile every time.

a) Alliteration

c) Syllabic Echo

d) Rolling Off the Tongue

  

  

I know what you’re thinking: Where are all the great female names?” That’s what I wanna know! It was a struggle to find ones that really stood out.  I’m hoping someone reminds me of one that can replace one from my Top 10!

What are your favorites?

(Try to pick your favorite CHARACTER NAMES over your favorite characters.)

~ JW

Writing for Inevitability

Writing a screenplay is hard. Whether its making time to work on it, selling it, or (what I’m interested in exploring) deciding what to write about…

1) The Procrastinator… never makes time to create. Why don’t they write more…?because they’re not really writers.

2) The Dilettante… is closely related to the Procrastinator; a lazy artist who may or may not be talented yet miraculously sold a screenplay by targeting a genre and throwing obvious characters and dialogue on a page. Their success lowers the bar for everyone and that’s how we end up with the majority of movies you see today. (We have another word for this guy: “Dick.”)

3) The Struggling Artist… is forced to make ends meet which keeps this potentially talented artist from creating more.

4) The Professional… could probably crank out a screenplay every other month. Yet he’s spending his time researching, evaluating the market, exploring his ideas, and ultimately looking for that one thing that’s going to take his piece of entertainment and make it art… Inevitability.

When developing an idea, I work in a circular manner, taking copious notes on character, story (plot), story (emotional), and theme. These all should be related in my opinion. And should culminate to an ending that is “surprising… yet inevitable.” If the title represents this entire idea then that’s a bonus as well.

I typically start with what I’m interested in writing about. The Idea. And I brainstorm everything I can think of about that idea, creating a folder with a tab for brain-storming, characters, theme, and structure to name the most important few.

The first thing that usually comes to me in this idea is the story. “Its about a guy who…” This is the reason I wrote this idea down in the first place. Sometimes the structure just comes to me and I plot it out in very broad strokes.

In the process of brainstorming plot and scene ideas, there are certain characters that inevitably come to mind that will serve the story. I jot down every one I can think of, even if there’s a possibility I won’t use them later.

Early on in the process I ask myself what I want this story to be about- what is the theme? Typically the most obvious “its about power” goes on the page and then I try to expand that by brainstorming appropriate alternatives: “a rite of passage”, “a story of redemption.” And hopefully the right answer will be obvious and then I’ll try to deepen that theme by introducing an idea that hasn’t been expressed about that theme before- or is a new angle on an idea people are used to seeing.

Then I go back and rework those three aspects in a circular manner… character-theme-story, theme-story character, story-character-theme… until the character’s “emotional journey” matches not only the actual story but the theme as well. A good plot is fine but if the character hasn’t changed in some meaningful way by the end (or if his “lack of change” doesn’t address theme) then what’s the reason to tell the story?

Hopefully the end culminates in a surprising yet inevitable ending. The only way to do that is to have these three aspects in a perfect marriage.

Here are three of my favorite films that I think do this really well.

Se7en

If you haven’t seen Se7en then stop whatever you’re doing and watch it right now…

“What’s in the box?!”

Awesome, right…? I know some people hate this movie for the “dark ending” it leaves you with- but I think it is so representative of what the movie is about that its poetic.

First you have a great story about two detectives hunting a serial killer with lots of twists and turns (also executed masterfully by Fincher). In accordance with the theme, you realize John Doe (Kevin Spacey) is killing people based on their sins. This movie is about how everyone is sinful and how easily we accept our own sins. Now throw in Brad Pitt’s character who becomes the epitome of ‘Wrath’ and you have a meaningful ending that ties in all the elements making it an entertaining, yet meaningful, film.

You’re left with Morgan Freeman’s character (arguably representing our conscience) quoting Hemingway:

‘ “The World is a fine place and worth fighting for” I agree with the second part. ‘

Memento

The story of a guy with short-term memory loss hunting for his wife’s killer, John G. This is a movie used to distinguish the difference between plot and story, with one narrative being told backward, the other forward, both culminating at the end.

Based on the title, the theme is based on memories and perception; but more accurately about “what you choose to perceive”. Our lead character, suffering from memory loss, a character trait in direct alignment with our theme, is searching for a ‘John G’ who supposedly broke in their house and murdered his wife. Simultaneously we learn of how he’s been studying a patient with a similar form of memory loss who’s wife killed herself because she couldn’t handle that her husband couldn’t remember her. Around the same time we realize that this is a story about his own wife, he realizes he may have killed the wrong John G (since the real John G is himself).

Haunted by this idea, he uses his short-term memory to his advantage by targeting Teddy- a guy who’s been messing with him the whole time. Our hero hopes that he’ll later think he found the guy who killed his wife so he can live with himself. In this sense we have a culmination of story, character and theme that is extremely satisfying.

“Now where was I?”

Inception

Yes, another Christopher Nolan movie!

I think Inception is a brilliant, and misunderstood, film about a guy who is forced to implant an idea into someone’s mind by going layer upon layer into their subconscious to make them feel like they came up with the idea.

Everyone always talks about the faux ending, of whether he is living in a dream or a reality based on the spinning totem. But that is only scratching the surface of how deep this film goes.

As well as most people think this is just a cerebral exercise in plot-twists and multiple layers, blah-blah-blah. But if you analyze the theme and the character in alignment with the story you end up with a very emotionally satisfying film.

In fact, when I watched it a second time through the filter of what I thought was actually happening, I just about balled my eyes out.

To sum it up…

We know that Cobb’s (Leo’s) emotional story is about convincing his wife, Mal, that she was living in a dream so she would come back to reality; but when she ends up killing herself it haunts him throughout the story.

But what if the whole movie was an inception on Cobb designed by Mal?

That idea is inevitable… based on the theme, what they explain as the rules of the story, as well as the emotional journey of our lead character.

But in order for her to pull this off she would have to create something so elaborate in order for Cobb to feel like he was the one who came up with the idea to save her. Imagine this one scene between her and her father, (Caine), that happens before the movie ever starts.

Mal (to her father): “I think Cobb is getting too involved with this Inception stuff. He’s starting to feel distant and I’m afraid if he keeps this up he’s going to lose me and the kids. What if we perform an Inception on him to make him see what could happen to our lives if he goes down this path?”

And so what the movie calls reality is really the first level of the Inception on Cobb. But Nolan can’t tell us that because it would break the thematic construct of the film. And on he goes, thinking he’s come up with this idea of performing an inception on his wife, when Mal knows that’s the only way to get him to come around.

When you watch the movie from this point of view it is a wonderful piece of work, transcending a “clever script” into an exercise in inevitability.

I don’t mean to suggest that every film should have mind-bending, complex endings. I think The Godfather, Citizen Kane, Sophie’s Choice, each satisfy this criteria. Accomplishing this can be extremely difficult but they make watching movies not only an entertaining waste of time, but a meaningful artistic experience.

~ JW

Turning Inspiration Into Dedication

The spark of inspiration is one of the most beautiful, yet fleeting, emotions; yet, without cultivation will disappear as quickly as it arrived.

in-spi-ra-tion

-noun

1. an inspiring or animating action of influence.

in-spire

-verb

1. To inhale.

2. The drawing of air into the lungs.

3. To breathe life into.

I love those latter definitions. I’m sure you recall being struck with an epiphany, which is almost immediately accompanied by a quick, deep inhalation. The euphoric surge of energy driving the body and mind to act.

…You might even tell your friends about this new change in your life.

…The next day you could still be thinking about that stroke of genius that could change your life forever. Won’t that be great?! Yet it’ll have to wait til tomorrow to because today you have to attend to more important matters.

…No worries. The idea’s golden; there’s no way it can escape your mind.

Of course by then the spark is gone. Just as soon as you inhaled to receive this epiphany, so did you exhale to release it.

Using the match analogy, as soon as you inhale the match is struck. You have moments to do something with it, to capture it, before its extinguished. Or else your own exhalation blows it out.

How do we prevent that spark from dying out…?

The answer is “Turn Inspiration Into Dedication.”

What is Dedication…?

ded-i-ca-tion

-noun

1. To devote wholly and earnestly, as to some person or purpose.

(…or apparently its a view of a lighthouse at sunset…?)

For me, again, I like to use the match lighting a candle analogy. Even when you’re match goes out you have a fresh candle that will last much longer.

Ways to Create Dedication

STEP 1) Start While Inspired.

STEP 2)Write Down Your Idea, Brainstorm. and Research.

STEP 3) Write a Plan of Action.

STEP 4) Share the Plan with Someone.

STEP 5) Execute the Plan!

…And I want to explore three different ideas that each step could be applied to…

IDEA 1: “I’m going to Quit Smoking.”

IDEA 2: “I’m Going to Write a Screenplay.”

IDEA 3: “I Need to Make Amends With Someone.”

…and here we go…

STEP 1) Start While Inspired

For Chrissakes, don’t wait to do Step 2 in any category. Do something- NOW! Just by turning inspiration into initiative you have used your match to light your first candle- we’ll call it the Initiative Candle. Had you waited a month, a week, even a day could mean you allowed the match to burn out, losing the spark of inspiration forever. Now that you have this candle, know that it will burn out eventually as well; so we’re applying this first step… to Step 2…

–IDEA 1) Quit Smoking

Start now!

–IDEA 2) Write Screenplay

Start now!

–IDEA 3) Make Amends

Start now!

STEP 2) Write Down Your Idea, Brainstorm, and Research

They say if you want to do something, writing it down makes it 1000% more likely to happen. There’s something so powerful about stating your idea in such a way that your mind tells your hand what to write. That process does something to you.

The next part of this is brainstorming everything you can think of revolving around that idea.

And finally research how others have done what you’re trying to do or anything relating to your project.

–IDEA 1) Quit Smoking

Literally write down “I am going to quit smoking today.” Write it on a note pad, on a Word document, tattoo it on your forehead. Just let that idea out of the prison of your mind and give credence to it by writing it down.

Then Brainstorm. And don’t edit. Here’s an example…

“I’m going to call my friends. gonna throw out my cigarette packs, i hate smoking. i’m gonna tell my friends. gonna google “How to quit smoking”. gonna become an advocate of not smoking. they’ll put posters up of me as anti-smoking campaign. i hate that my fingernails turn yellow, bad breath. not as cool as i thought. James dean died decades ago. Healthy lungs are sexy.”

I’ve never been a smoker so I’m speculating here. But you get the point. If I was a smoker but didn’t know how to quit I’d probably do what i said in my Free-Think and google “How to Quit Smoking”.

–IDEA 2) Write Screenplay

Write the title if you have it; the log-line if you know it. But don’t get stuck if you don’t know. Just write.

When I work on my screenplays, every time I sit down I open up the notebook for whatever project I’m working on, I click on the “Free-Think” tab and I brainstorm (without editing) in a similar way that I just did for the “Quit Smoking” brainstorm. I do this for about 15 minutes or so. And I often will make it about particular obstacles I’m working out. For instance…

“What does this character want? He’s looking for his daughter. But why does he ned to find her? What is his goal? why is she gone. she went missing cuz she had to find out for herself why he did what he did. and now he has a drive- not only to find her but to redeem himself in his daughter’s eyes…”

…for 15 minutes. The point is to open the flood gates. A lot of people can’t write because they sit in front of their computer, open up Final Draft and don’t know where to begin. This “Free-Think” is one of the basic things I do in my craft every day. And I use it for story, for dialogue, or just as a way to open up my the channels of my mind.

–IDEA 3) Make Amends

Sure, you can write down who you want to make amends with, but honestly, for this kind of idea I’d skip this step.

STEP 3) Write a Plan of Action

This can be key to knowing what to do. This is like creating a roadmap for yourself. Without it, the whole process becomes nebulous.

–IDEA 1) Quit Smoking

Again, I cheated on this one. I just googled “How to Quit Smoking”.  The only thing I’d add is giving yourself deadlines for each of these steps. And don’t feel stuck to one way of executing your plan. Research more. Find what works for you. But commit to  something!

–IDEA 2) Write Screenplay

Decide that you want your first draft written in, say, 3 months (this might change but give yourself a goal).

Month 1: Research, notes and brainstorming

Month 2: Outlining story and writing treament.

Month 3: Write screenplay.

This, to me, is a really short turnaround but lets go with it. Now lets break down the 3rd month into 4 weeks.

Week 1: Write Act 1.

Week 2: Write Act 2A.

Week 3: Write Act 2B.

Week 4: Write Act 3

With this as my guide, I have something to keep me accountable. I can gauge where I am in the process. I have to say I don’t always do this- but when I do I get shit done!

–IDEA 3) Make Amends

Again, I think we can skip this step for this category.

STEP 4) Share the Plan with Someone

Nothing keeps you more accountable than a trusted friend whom you ask to keep you accountable.

–IDEA 1) Quit Smoking

This step is actually covered in the Smoking link I found. Its very important obviously but its not everything. I have friends who say they’re going to quit smoking. They tell everyone, tricking themselves into thinking they’re taking action. The statement is usually made while they’re puffing their “last cigarette”.

(I don’t mean to be insensitive. I haven’t had to deal with it personally- I’m just observing. But I respect it can be very difficult and painful to quit.)

–IDEA 2) Write Screenplay

Tell someone your idea. Your spouse, your friend. You have a writer’s group…? A mentor…? Tell them about it. Fuck protecting your ideas (see previous blog: “Protecting Your Ideas: Is it a Good Idea?”). You need to keep your ideas flowing so you can execute your script.

IDEA 3) Make Amends

Sure, you can tell someone about your plan to make amends with someone else. Maybe you need advice on how to approach it. More than likely you know what to do and you just need to go on to the last step.

STEP 5) Execute the Plan!

Now you just have to do it. No excuses. Just do the plan! Hurry! Before you lose the inspiration. Ideally, the action of dedication will keep spreading the flames. By now your original match has long burned out but you have 4 candles burning.

Now imagine combining them into a torch. The torch is a large powerful flame that represents your plan, though can still be extinguished if neglected.

Your candles long blown out by now, all you have is this torch waiting to reach its destination…

And like the Olympic games you pass the torch, run to the next stop, and pass the torch again, once for every step in your plan that you accomplish. Soon the torch reaches its destination where the flame blazes throughout the entire competition. What a wonderful image: your idea being set ablaze when put into action.

IDEA 1) Quit Smoking

This seems like an ongoing process that gets easier with time. Its one decision that has to be made every day, every minute until you don’t think about it any more.

IDEA 2) Write Screenplay

To me it is so rewarding to clock each step of the writing process. It connects effort with reward in such a motivating way. You know you’ll be rewriting after the first draft is done. But that’s not what this first stage is about. As long as you’re not just writing words on a page and you’ve done your homework, there are few things more gratifying to me than completing a screenplay.

IDEA 3) Make Amends

This may seem like the hardest yet may be the easiest of the three. I thought it was important to include because its just a phone call. Not everything requires these other steps to get done. Whether its making amends, making plans with your wife, or making a reservation, some things just require immediate action.

For suggestions on how to spark that initial match you can take a look at my previous blog on ideas. In my research and personal experience it seems opening your network of association possibilities is the best thing you can do. As Kazan would suggest, live life, go see movies, drink at a coffee shop, dance, sing, play, read, fuck, build, destroy…

You never know what’s going to inspire that first match. But when it happens- and it will happen- make sure you do something with it!

~ JW