Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Putting Dreams on Paper

Know what this is? At first glance, it looks like a hundred other houses you've seen with grass, sky, fluffy clouds and a big yellow sun. But this is not a typical house.

This is a bed and breakfast designed by my eleven year old. Yup. He has decided that he wants to open a bed and breakfast when he's older. Funny thing is I didn't even know he'd ever heard of a bed and breakfast until he showed me his design.

Not being the connoisseur of eleven year old art that I am, you most likely missed the wood blinds in the windows and the carriage lights on the porch. Those little trees are crepe myrtles because they are his Mommy's favorite tree second only to the Magnolia tree which, coincidentally, sports that lovely tire swing.

Kids are remarkable teachers. They're unafraid to dream and they boldly proclaim those dreams. Why is dreaming acceptable, charming, and encouraged in children but something we are embarrassed and reluctant to do as adults?

Well, gee, my peers may think I'm a kook if I tell them I quit working in local government to write movies, especially if I've never been to film school, don't know anyone in the industry and have no concrete reason to think I'll ever actually sell one of my screenplays. And yet, like my little boy, I have dreams.

Ya think a blog about screenwriting is the same as a drawing of a bed and breakfast?

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Software Worth Every Penny

Never heard of this screenwriting software? Well, maybe I'm the only one on the face of the planet that uses it, but when I began this screenwriting adventure less than two years ago, the $29.99 was more attractive to me than the more advanced softwares that most writers use. I decided to buy the bargainware and upgrade later depending on whether or not my scripts were laughingly passed around water coolors like the latest William Hung CD or received with interest.

This past year, I've had some nibbles from a few good indy producers and a whole barrell of aspiring producers who have never actually completed a project but are looking for the script that will launch their career. Meanwhile, a few readers have said that my margins are wanky and skewing the number of my pages.

So, a few months ago, I decided it was time to upgrade my software and yikes! Final Draft is expensive. But I'm a serious writer, right? So, I started setting money aside in a jar over my refrigerator and prepared to buy Final Draft at the end of the month.

Then my computer crashed. So, I used my Final Draft money on a new computer and started saving again for the next month.

But when the next month came and I was all ready to buy my new software, my singing group was booked at an opry and we needed glitzy costumes. So, my Final Draft money bought a Dolly dress and I started saving again.

Then, the next month came along with hurricanes Katrina and Rita. How could I possibly buy Final Draft when there were people covered in mud and grime who needed clean undies?

The next month, I dinked in both the AFF and Nicholl fellowships. I didn't exactly expect to win either one but I thought I'd at least advance! So, I had a six week long pity party, kept giving my spare money to hurricane evacuees, and bought my son's class ring.

Six weeks later, I was through pouting and was ready to buy Final Draft. Then my laptop died. So, there went my software money again.

This past month, I tried one more time. I saved the money for Final Draft and then opened up a a six hundred dollar electric bill. No, this is not a joke. I don't know what it costs where you live but six hundred dollars for electricity in my house is insane!

Meanwhile, in all that time, my wanky little software program helped me finish a first draft of my latest project. So, I'm not saving for Final Draft anymore but I am still putting money in a jar over my refrigerator. What is it for? I have no idea but it won't be spent on Final Draft.

By the way, look closely at the bottom of that box in the pic. It says "Write polished professional scripts within minutes of opening the box!" I have yet to write a screenplay in minutes!

Monday, November 28, 2005

Seducing the Audience

Marlene Dietrich seduced every camera lens ever put in front of her. She made it look effortless. She was a natural. Yesterday, a blog led me to an interview with with Alan Moore where he discusses seducing the audience as opposed to demanding they see your perspective. Seduction? This is a new screenwriting concept for me.

Moore said "in the story, in the telling of it, the dialogue, the characters, I introduce myself to the reader, I talk to them interestingly, fascinatingly, calmingly, I get them to sort of follow me up the alleyways of the narrative until they are so far within it that they probably can't find their way out, and then you can do whatever you want to them."

I took his comments to heart and started reading at the beginning of a completed project with one question in mind: "am I seducing the audience?". Four pages later, there was no doubt about it. I had reeled the audience in. Very cool. I strutted around with script in hand saying, "oh yeah" and "you got 'em right there".

Hmm. But what kind of a seductress am I? Am I a natural that seduces in first draft? Or, do I have to work on it?

So I started at the beginning of a first draft I'm working on. Ususally, I'm not too critical until I start the second draft. First draft is a "get the outline in screenplay form" stage for me.

In this particular project, I was going about the story in kind of a "Regarding Henry" fashion. You may recall that in the screenplay, Henry gets shot on page eight. Page eight! The story is intelligently written and explores people as they change to meet the challenges of a tragedy.

So, I got started. Okay, first eight pages, did I seduce the audience? No, not yet. I went further. Got to page fifteen. Did I seduce my audience? Nope, still waiting to be seduced. I went on through page twenty five and quit.

It's a good story. It's a strong story. It's a compelling story. But it doesn't seduce the audience. I am not a natural seductress. I have to work on it. It takes time and multiple drafts. The interesting thing here is that even though I didn't verbalize it as "seducing the audience", I knew it had to be done.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Readers Taking Sides

Maybe this should be one of my "mysteries of life" posts, but it does have a screenwriting perspective because it's really not about sports, but about a formula I need to master in my screenplays.

(1) I turn on a football, baseball or basketball game that I have absolutely no emotional stake in but decide to watch anyway because there's nothing better on television and whadya know? It turns out to be an awesome game!

(2) By the end of the first quarter, inning, or period, I have a mild interest and am secretly pulling for one the teams.

(3) Halfway through the game, I'm desperately, but quietly, pulling my hair out and gnawing on my thumbnail, unless the phone rings, in which case, heaven help the person on the other line if he/she isn't giving birth, being transported by helicopter ambulance, or collecting a lottery check.

(4) By the two minute warning, final inning, or last minute on the clock, I am screaming at the television, shouting encouragement, and damning those officials who are one more bad call away from meeting my cousin Guido's dark hooded friends.

(5) When it's all over, regardless of the outcome, I am exhausted and sooooooooooo glad I didn't change the channel. Then I talk about the game with everyone I know who likes baseball, football, or basketball.

How does that happen? I need to recreate this formula!

Maybe a reader picks up my script because it's his job, he's judging a contest, or his production company was interested enough in my logline to accept my script. He has no particular or vested interest in it, but hey, it's in his reading pile and whadya know? It turns out to be an awesome screenplay!

The reader doesn't know my characters in the first scenes but by the end of the first act, he has a vested interest in my protagonist.

By the end of the second act, the reader cares desperately about what's going on.

By Fade-Out, he's either been holding his bladder for the last forty five minutes because he couldn't put the screenplay down or he's been sobbing in his hanky for the past ten or fifteen pages.

When he finally does put the screenplay down, the reader is so glad he read my screenplay that he talks about it with anyone who will listen.

Now that I've identified this "ballgame" formula, all I have to do is figure out how to make readers take sides the way ballgame viewers do. I guess I'll just have to keep watching ballgames until I figure it out.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

The Critical Rhythm of Dialogue

Oh, the depths to which I've sunk! Yesterday, I heard the cast of Seinfeld on "Live with Regis and Kelly" and they were discussing the critical role of rhythm in dialogue. Stop snickering! I wasn't watching Regis and Kelly. The kids left the television on. Really. I was busy ordering books at Barnes and Noble online with a gift card from my mother (happy birthday to me!). Of course, when I heard discussion about scriptwriting and dialogue, I did step away from my computer and pay attention.

Now, puhleeeze stay with me on this. I think it's important.

The point made by the Seinfeld cast was that producers and directors rarely, if ever, allowed any of them to deviate even one word from the script. It wasn't that the cast didn't have good ideas, but the rhythm was critical to the comic value of the dialogue. No flexibility.

Okay, so botch up the rhythm and the laughs are gone. That's the first thing you learn in Stand-Up-Comedian 1.01, right? But, I'd heard it before related to script writing.

Ted Elliott says something similar on the Pirates of the Caribbean commentary. There was a portion of dialogue that one of the actors felt was too harsh or brutal or out of character. I don't remember it exactly so if you want a direct quote, put your DVD in. Ted's response was not an objection to change in dialogue as long as the rhythm didn't change. Flexibility as long as the rhythm doesn't change.

Okay, that got me to thinking about other films, programs, and characters who relied heavily on the rhythm of the dialogue. All the examples that come to my mind, however, seem to be for comedic effect. At the moment, I cannot not come up with a single non-comedic situation where I think changing the rhythm of the dialogue would ruin the dialogue.

So, this is my quest: to find out from screenwriters and from studying films if rhythm can be critical in non-comedic situations. I'll report my findings later.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The Gal Who Set Terry Off

Sometime back in October, I posted a link on Wordplay to an article that had some very cool set and production information for Dead Man's Chest including great spoilers about a giant squid! A squid! Can you imagine? Who, but Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio would put a giant squid on the deck of a ship?

Anyway, Mr. Rossio read the article and promptly took exception to remarks made by the article writer regarding the success of Pirates of the Caribbean resting solely on the shoulders of Johnny Depp. He then spilled out a much justified rant insisting that a performance is created by an actor, but the role is created by writers, directors, producers, editors, costume, hair, makeup, sound, background, etc and he concluded by saying he really didn't understand why writers (entertainment article writers, I'm assuming) keep getting it wrong.

That's easy. Human beings are superficial.

The writer of the article, like many movie viewers, saw the finished product and discounted everything underneath, all of the components that went into making Pirates of the Caribbean work. I would compare that to the body of a car getting credit for the V8 under the hood. Poor analogy? No, I don't think so. An actor being credited with the success of a film is just as unreliable as body styles being credited for the performance of a vehicle. But, it happens. It's all about the surface.

Take my all time favorite car, the Ford Mustang. When they came out, Ford could have sold those things with a lawnmower moter and women still would have bought them because the car looked hot! Superficial. Sad. True.

Dodge Chargers had terrible sales in 1966 even though they came standard with a 318 V-8 producing 230 hp at 4400 rpm. Why? Because the body was ugly. They only sold 468 of them with the 426 Hemi. The body was hideous! (and Hemi amounted to about a third of the cost of the car) Point? Dodge had to make body style changes so one of the hottest running vehicles outside the racing world would be attractive to consumers.

Same thing with movies. I want to watch a well made film on all levels, but unfortunately, I actually do enjoy a lot of very bad films with very bad performances. Why? Because I'm superficial enough to sit through Master of Ballentrae for Errol Flynn, of course!

Some days ago, I was in a chat room for screenwriters and screenwriting wannabes when somebody recognized my name and said "hey, you're the gal that set Terry off!". He told the room about Terry's rant and how my post had ignited it. No, I corrected him, I didn't set Terry off. The author of the article set Terry off.

You see? This guy in the chat room, this guy who would be the first to shout AMEN after reading Terry's post, this guy only remembered the surface of what Terry Rossio had to say.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Writing Silly Putty Characters

Remember silly putty? It bounces, bends into all kinds of shapes and will even take on an image if you smash it into the newspaper? Well, I wrote a character like that recently.

Many times, I'll write some kind of on-the-nose dialogue that I know is lame, but I'll put it there as a placeholder and edit it later. This works pretty well for me. So, I tried an experiment doing the same thing with a character in my current project.

My outline was complete but something still didn't feel right. Something was too contrived and predictable. Okay, so technically, I guess that means the story was IN-complete and I knew it. As I was writing the screenplay, I decided to add a vague character. This character was basically a "placeholder" for a future character and he was drawn in a way that I could make him jump on any side of the fence depending on where I built that fence. He could bounce, bend, and take on any traits I needed depending on where I stuck him in the story.

I was reasonably certain this was one of the most irresponsible screenwriting stunts I've pulled yet and I had no idea what I was going to do with this character. I fully expected to cut him and his chessy pointless on-the-nose dialogue in my second draft. He was poorly drawn, wishy washy and sometimes mirrored another character. He added absolutely nothing to the story.

My red pen was readyto kill off this waste of paper as I went through the draft and started marking weaknesses in the story. Then I found a hole. It was a big gaping ugly crack in the story. Could my placeholder character fix it? I studied it for a day or two. Nope. No way he could fix it and even if he could, he's in all the wrong scenes. This was a really stupid idea. So my red pen killed him. It was quick and painless.

Yesterday, a bright cliche went off over my head. (That would be a yellow light bulb because as much as I've sought out strobe lights, lava lamps, blacklights and even a lazer pen, I always get those boring yellow light bulbs.) The solution was simple.

All I had to do was alter the crack in the story. It wasn't a bad crack. It was just too clean a crack. It was a symmetrical crack that affected each character the same way. Aha! That was the problem. I should have known better. Cracks aren't symmetrical. They zig and zag, get wider and fatter, and take bizarre nonsensical turns.

So, I put my silly putty placeholder character back in and guess what? He still didn't work.

Morale to the story? Characters aren't characters without a purpose. Maybe somebody else can make this idea work. I couldn't. But at least I was right about one thing. Writing a silly putty character was one of the most irresponsible screenwriting stunts I've pulled yet.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Mysteries of Life - Squirrels on Crack

If this is an urban legend, I sure wish I'd been the one to start it. I've scanned newspapers online and am unable to verify, to my own satisfaction, the validity of the story that squirrels in South London are digging up stashes of hidden cocaine in front yards and are becoming addicted to crack.

Now, the first and most important question is: how do you know if these spastic little rodents are on crack? Isn't that like choking a Smurf and waiting for him to turn blue? Squirrels are scary mean little beasts anyway. Oh sure, you think they are sweet bushy little tree dwellers, but try to pet one and you'll draw back a nub!

Second, if the story is true, then why are the reporting authorities being so vague about the identities of witnesses? Quotes are coming from "a neighbor", "an unnamed police officer", "a local backyard wildlife specialist" and an "anonymous gardner"? No witness wants to be quoted pointing an accusing finger at a squirrel? Well, I have some theories on this whole squirrel situation and why witnesses wish to remain anonymous.

Theory Number One - Squirrels are being used as the new weapons of mass destruction. Yup. Al Qaeda has created a whole species of suicide squirrels who are strung out on crack and planting explosive walnuts on subways, in hoods of cars, trash cans, mailboxes and birdhouses.

Theory Number Two - The FBI caught so much grief when those dolphins-packing-heat got loose after New Orleans flooded, that they are now stashing microphones in the bushy tails of squirrels to gather intelligence. The squirrels only appear to be on crack because every time a squirrel relives himself, the little microphones zap his teeny tiny testacles.

Theory Number Three - Tim Burton has something to do with it. I don't know what. My mind doesn't go that dark but you can bet that Johnny Depp is lurking around someplace waiting to be called on the set.

Feel free to dismiss any or all of these theories in whole or in part but if your mailbox explodes and you see Johnny Depp slinking away with an electricuted squirrel under his arm, I'm gonna say "I told you so".

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Writer Idiosyncrasies

We writers are peculiar folk. In fact, artists of all kind seem to have idiosyncratic habits and traits that make some people nod and say "yeah, I know what that's like" and others shake their heads and think "what is wrong with that guy?". Creativity is in the eye of the beholder apparently.

I have a few of these idiosyncratic behaviors or so it would seem to the uncreative eye. I like chedder cheese dipped in ketchup and am terrified of balloons, King Kong, bank tellers (so I always use the drive-through), and clowns. Yikes. Clowns are scary stuff. Really. Also, I would sooner invite the public to watch me shower than discuss my work with strangers or let anyone read a work in progress. It's just unnatural! What I write is my business.

Case in point -- A librarian this morning commented that I'd been missing for a week or so and said it was good to see me. I shouldn't have told her that I'd been busy writing because her natural response was "Oh, really? What kind of writing do you do?" Argghh. I really wanted to say, "None of your busybody business. I'm not here to chit chat, make friends, buy cosmetics from you, or apply for a job. Please just scan my card, give me my stinkin' books, and let me get to the bank so I can be first in line when the drive through opens!"

But, I smiled and instead of saying any of that, my answer to "Oh really, what kind of writing do you do?" was a very simple.... "very good writing, thank you." Did she take it lying down? No.

Some time while I wasn't looking, that crafty woman must have dialed the bat phone under her desk and notified the whole library that an idiosyncratic writer with an attitude problem was up front because directly behind me arrived a man checking out a VHS. What tape? Well, on the cover was King Kong and Fay Wray! Gasp! This was a sign of a very bad day.

I immediately realized I should have been nicer to that library lady. Providence was ticked off. I smiled sweetly, bid her have a nice day, and prayed that I had redeemed myself before any other calamity befell me. I was wrong.

As I darted through the metal detector, I bumped right into ...yikes, a clown! He had white paint, green circles on his cheeks, and either painted his teeth yellow or missed his last few dental appointments. I took two careful steps backward, moved to the left and proceeded cautiously to door. Then you know what that maniac did? He tried to give me a balloon! Aaaaaaaccckkkkkk!

I dropped my books and ran out into the parking lot screaming like a schoolyard sissy. I guess sooner or later, I ought to go back and see what became of my books. That clown probably stole them and I will have a hefty fine to pay. You know what that means? Another trip to the bank...

Note to reader: I used a picture of Fay Wray without King Kong because I don't want to to wet my chair.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Mysteries of Life - Train Graffiti

Have you ever taken a look at the art on a train? I was sitting at the crossing guards this morning and stopped counting freight cars because (1) I was getting dizzy and (2) I started looking at the art on the sides of those things. It's remarkable! Among the single color spray painted political statements and tic tac toes, I saw complexly drawn cryptic texts, multi-colored naked women, a volcano spitting out dollar bills and one very well drawn sneaker.

Who paints those anyway? Bums? Teenagers? Graphic artists with too much time on their hands? Do people walk around train yards with three or four of their favorite colors of paint in their pockets? I smell a marvelous documentary in the making!

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

High Concepticide

Okay, no "concepticide" is not a real word, but I accomplish it now and then none the less with my screenplays that asphyxiate their initial high concepts. So, concepticide, by my definition, is death of a high concept.

How do you kill a high concept? Well, you choke the life out of it. Yeah, really. You start out with a fresh high concept outline that you've slaved for weeks to perfect. Then, as you start writing, you can't resist the urge to cram it full of additional themes, symbolism and subtext like an obsessive horticulturalist filling a patio garden with four seasons of veggies, a fruit of the month for the next year, an herb assortment for a homeopathic cure to everything from the the common cold to bunyons, and then add a few hanging vines and perennial flowers to make it look nice.

On the positive side, you're almost certain to have NO weeds. There's very little room for them. However, virtually every reader will be allergic to something on your patio. Can the high concept be saved? I'm not sure yet. I haven't finished digging the turnips out of my screenplay.

Gumball Management

Dallas voters, for the second time in six months, defeated a proposal to amend the charter to give more administrative and management authority to the mayor. Voters are smarter than we are given credit for being. Most of us understand that elected officials don't necessarily have management skills and elections are volatile and unpredictable. The change in mayoral power would affect future mayors as well as this one. There's a reason so few large cities have strong mayor governments. It's like putting a loaded gun in a vending machine. You may get somebody who knows how to use the gun responsibly. But you may get some kid with a pocket full of quarters.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Only a Writer Could Love

Can you imagine snuggling up with this little bugger on the sofa? Yikes! Few people probably appreciate this guy's value as a pet. But somebody loves him. His owner enters him every year in the ugliest dog contest and he has won three times in a row. He's probably a great pet.

If a writer is the only one who loves his story, does that mean it's not a very good story or could it be that the story is just one not easily appreciated? And, if the writer knows he's the only one who will appreciate his story, does that mean he shouldn't write it?

Writers aren't wired that way. We have to write the story in our heads and give our stories the same tender loving care this hideous beast gets. Maybe somebody else will snuggle up with my darlin' some day and appreciate it for the art I'm certain that it is. Then, again, maybe I've written an ugly dog with a face that only a mother could love.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Writing as a Marathon Part 3

My son's cross country team continues to demonstrate the payoffs of endurance, hard work, and a refusal to accept mediocrity. They advanced in the regionals yesterday and qualified for the state meet next weekend. Out of one hundred and fifty seven of the best runners in the region, my son finished tenth even after suffering from a virus that left him dehydrated earlier in the week. I learn a lot from this boy.

Some day, I'll explain why his head was reconstructed as an infant and why he wasn't allowed to learn to walk and why watching the boy run is a testimony to willpower and the miracles of pediatric neurosurgery. That's him out front. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a screenplay to improve.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Horses Circling the Airport

I love mixing my metaphors! Oh, and also Chicklets soaked in Big Red but that's for another post. This post is a concoction of equine and aviation metaphors but is really about outlining.

I plan to quote people with more cells than I in the screenwriting lobe of the trilobed structure of the brain, lying posterior to the pons and medulla oblongata and inferior to the occipital lobes of the cerebral hemispheres... oh wait. No, that is the portion of the brain that regulates voluntary muscle use and balance. Anyway, please take advantage of the web addresses, where provided, and get the information straight from the horses' mouths as I have a tendency to confuse horses with mules, zebras, small giraffes, an occasional political figure and even now and again, the lead singer of a geriatric rock band.

Perhaps you are one of those few people who can knock out a darned good first draft without outlining. Terry Rossio ( says that in this case, your first draft is actually functioning as an outline. Everyone outlines, says he and he's a thoroughbred so no need to examine his teeth. Just take his word for it.

I've often compared writing without an outline to taking a road trip without a map. Sure, it's easily done, but the driver risks getting lost, taking unnecessary side trips, wasting fuel, and making the journey longer and more frustrating than it has to be. Many writers buck at this analogy but Charles Edward Pogue says that while non‑outliners always think that outlining precludes "wandering", it doesn't. Rather, because we have the road map, we are free to wander, explore interesting by‑paths and curious dead‑ends, without losing our way and still, we know how to get back to the main road without all the grief, and confusion of getting lost.

I saw a remark yesterday by Dave Olden on an Artful Writer forum ( where he compares writing without an outline to circling the airport and looking for a place to land. Dave is not a seasoned horse like Misters Pogue and Rossio, but you can check out his blog just the same at

Though I've never seen a flying horse, nor elephant for that matter, many writers do this very thing. They circle because they really don't know where they are going, much less where they are landing. I know because I've done it myself.

Yes, on the rare occasion when I was liquored up on arrogance, I deluded myself into thinking that I was a unicorn, a mythological version of the horse that doesn't observe the laws of nature or gravity that mortal horses do. Naturally, stories written while I was in that state either fell from the sky, crashed into mountains, or exploded into fireballs.

By the way, I did eventually locate the little black boxes for each of these doomed screenplays. They all said the same thing: pilot error.

Friday, November 04, 2005

The Nicholl Farewellowship

Okay, this makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, but finding out today that two guys who frequent Wordplay got Nicholl Fellowships felt like hugging a warm puppy. Up to that point, my day had been terrible. I mean, this was the kind of day that made me want to shave my head just so I could feel in control of something. Then I read about these two guys and I was suddenly proud for people I've never met.

Isn't that bizarre? Pride for something I had no part in accomplishing? Beats the heck out of me. I'm usually rather miserly with my applause and have a predisposition for eating sour grapes when it comes to these sorts of things but right now, I'd really like to give my best Hugh Beaumont imitation, brush my fist past their chins and say "atta boy, Beav!" to each of them.

As for me.. well, I may not have gotten a fellowship, but a great many nifty things rhyme with fellowship. Maybe I can make due with a few of them while I'm improving my craft. Let's see...pleasure trip, skinny dip, cruise ship, tortilla chip and guacamole dip all rhyme with fellowship. Sounds like a nice vacation in the Caribbean, doesn't it?

Or, how about pistol grip, leather whip, roach clip and guilt trip? I don't know what that sounds like but somebody's probably going to jail.

How about tie clip, ego trip, unzip and pink slip? Okay, moving on.

Maybe I should just write a better screenplay and one day see my own film clip. Sounds like a good plan. Well, right after I finish reading Funky Winkerbean.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Research Beyond Ratings

A movie rating does not absolve a parent from making educated decisions about what their kids watch. There. I’ve said it. MPAA’s rating standards cannot possibly reflect the moral and censorship standards of every household in America as words like “offensive” and “appropriate” are subjective terms that vary from parent to parent.

I’ve been reading today about the alleged violence and adult humor in Chicken Little and the objections of some viewers. Maybe it’s excessive. Maybe it’s not. It’s gonna depend on who you ask.

People like to point to old cartoons either as a defence for current day animated violence or as a participant in the decline of America. (Funny. Seems like there'd be a rash of anvil related crimes in the 60's). It’s simple parental prerogative. You don’t like Roadrunner cartoons? Don’t let your kids watch them. You think Popeye was a racist? Don’t buy his DVD’s.

I saw a Tweety cartoon the other day that I hadn't seen since I was a little girl. The Abbott cat tells the Costello cat to give him the bird. Costello cat says, “yeah, I’ll give ya the bird”. It was hysterical and I don't care if my kids see it. But, it didn’t even merit a chuckle when I was ten. On the other hand, I never allowed my kids to see the animated Hercules film. My son, who was thirteen at the time picked up a picture book of the movie and saw a dead Megara floating in a green fog in hell. He had just lost his grandmother to Cancer and was very disturbed by the image. So, no Hercules. My circumstance. My kids. My prerogative. No biggie.

Parents are still in charge of what they send their kids to see and can investigate films before their little darlin’s are exposed to them. If it worries you, then listen to what other parents say, watch movie reviews, look the film up on the internet or even view the film first and then form an opinion about the appropriateness of the film.

You think Chicken Little might give your kid War of the World nightmares about uzi wielding farm animals? Don’t spend the $8 plus $10 or so in snacks. Nobody is twisting your arm.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Backstory Cacciatore

Once again, I’m speaking as a writer with nothing on my resume to defend the authority of my pen on the subject of screenwriting. What I am defending here today is the absence of backstories. Character development is not dependent on backstories and backstories are not a substitute for character development.

DISCLAIMER: Nothing in this post is meant to infer, suggest, intimate, hint, or insinuate that Mario Andretti is a hot headed reckless Italian. Please don’t sick your lawyers on me, Mr. Andretti, this is a hypothetical example for education purposes only.

Since I argue much better by clacking on my keyboard than in person, I warn you now that it will be very difficult to disagree with my position. If you prefer to spend your time digesting opinions that ignite in you a belligerent ire, you may want pop in or the Washington Post for some choice political blogs.

I’m really quite sick of aspiring screenwriters claiming that an antagonist without a backstory is not a well developed character. These two phrases, “backstory” and “developed”, are not synonymous. The measurement of a well drawn villain and/or antagonist is not whether or not he comes with a compelling backstory.

Ever been in the passenger seat of a car driven by a maniac? By maniac, I mean a guy who jumps curbs, drives over medians, takes out a few mailboxes and doesn’t hesitate to roll down an embankment or gun it through a red light at a busy intersection. If he’s flippin’ the bird at a guy wielding a sawed off shotgun out his window, do you really care WHY either one of them became an insane driver? No. You’re in the middle of a nightmarish adventure, caught up in the moment (oh how I hate that phrase) and only interested in getting out of this situation with your body parts still in tact. No backstory necessary.

Okay, same situation. You’re the passenger in a maniac’s car. But this maniac happens to be Mario Andretti. Now, if you don’t know who Mario Andretti is, then a little backstory here may be helpful, interesting or even a little important. You do, after all, need to know that he is a racecar driver. It might raise your confidence level in the driver and lesson your fear of becoming road pizza. But the driver’s character as a daredevil is demonstrated by the way he drives, not by the fact that he’s Mario Andretti. And, do we care, as we face the dude with the sawed off shotgun, that Mario grew up in post-Mussolini Italy and became a racecar driver after seeing Ascari compete in the Italian Grand Prix at Monza?

In The Fugitive, we don’t know how Gerrard became the uncompromising diehard that he is. We know nothing about his backstory. When his partner is held at gunpoint, Gerrard shoots the gunman without negotiating so we can guess that maybe at some point, Gerrard came out on the losing end of a compromise, but we don’t’ know that. He says simply that he doesn’t bargain. No backstory, but a well drawn character.

In Pirates of the Caribbean, we know that Barbossa stole the Black Pearl from Jack Sparrow so we have a little history. But Barbossa is well spoken and a shrewd negotiator so we can guess that he may have been a lawyer in the King’s court before he became a pirate but he could just as easily have been a banker. So, why did he become a pirate? No idea and we really don’t need to know.

We, as writers, need to know the backstory for most of our characters. If we don’t, then we may not know our own story very well. But some writers try to use backstory as a substitute for character development and what they get is a cacciatore of backstories instead of well drawn characters.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Writing Sources of Conflict

We’ve all read them: screenplays written as dramas, but the stakes aren’t real or the conflicts are so flimsy that they aren’t credible. If there are, according to Georges Polti, only thirty six dramatic situations to choose from, shouldn’t we be able to just pick one and write it knowing that it will work? Why then are so many dramas crammed full of conflicts that don’t work or leave the reader apathetic?

If drama, in its most simplistic definition, is conflict, then characteristics of drama will be as variable as those components that formulate conflict. Sources of conflict are made up of opposing goals, views, forces, and desires. The sources of drama will change as those same goals, views, forces and desires respond to our changing world. Time moves forward. Sources of conflict move with it.

How is that possible if there are only 36 dramatic situations and they never change?

Bonnie and Clyde, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Fugitive and Les Miserables all fall into the category of pursuit. A fugitive is being pursued for some kind of offense. The dramatic situation is the same in all four, but the sources of conflict in each one are different. Bonnie didn’t have to ride a horse over scorching desert and Butch didn’t have newspapers reporting his every move. Jean Valjean hid from justice for over 20 years but Richard Kimball lived in an age of instant information. Four very different films. One dramatic situation.

What does this mean to me, as the writer developing a drama? It means that not only must a I intelligently convey the drama, but I must also portray the conflicts (1) within the bounds of logic for the period I’m writing and (2) within the context of the reality I’ve created in my story.

Does this mean that a conflict in 1940 won’t work in 2005? No, but if conflict is a car metaphor and your protagonist is driving a shiny new 1940 Plymouth coup still sporting a $645 window sticker, he would never pass a Ford Mustang on the highway. Mustangs came out officially in 1965 (although I happen to own one of the 1964 1/2's). In the same respect, a pregnant teenager in high school doesn’t experience the same sources of conflict in 1950 that she would today. The conflict is there, but the shock value, attitudes about teenage pregnancy, education resources and her alternatives have changed. As a fashion metaphor, your conflict is no longer a poodle skirt. It’s a belly ring.

Generational conflicts that existed 50 years ago are still around. Take Rebel Without a Cause, for example. While the film was made in 1952, the conflicts between Jim and his parents, the teens with each other, and the conformity of society being forced upon them are all conflicts that exist for young people today. Change their clothes, stick them in modern cars and get rid of a few cheesy slang words and portions of that film could be re-shot word for word in 2005. They may argue over Internet privileges instead of telephone privileges, but hair, clothing, language, curfew and choice of friends are all pretty much unchanged sources of conflict with teenagers.

To the contrary, when Imitation of Life was made in 1959, the sources of conflict had to be adjusted to fit attitudes about race and changes in the roles of black Americans that had taken place since the original adaptation of Fannie Hurt’s novel in 1934. The black daughter still longs to be white but the modernized story had to base her desires on the segregation issues valid in 1959, not 1934. The conflict was the same, but the source of the conflict changed. Were the story to be remade in 2005, the daughter not wanting to black would be a harder sell altogether since her motivation for wanting to be white in 1934 was that blacks were treated as subhuman and in 1959 that race and affluence were conjoined. Race issues still exist in 2005, but they’ve increased, decreased, branched off and mutated. A 2005 remake of Imitation of Life would need (1) a differently defined source of conflict (2) a different conflict altogether or (3) a different reality (or lack of it). Race conflicts have regrettably withstood time, but the sources of those conflicts have changed. The daughter may still want to be white in 2005, but maybe it’s to get into a particular college or profession where white Americans have an advantage over black Americans.

Last year, I read a screenplay that I would consider a modern day version of the 1957 film Twelve Angry Men. With our current preoccupation with courtroom drama and crime shows, I thought this was a clever premise for a low budget indy film. But the 2005 story didn’t work using the same basic sources of conflict that the 1957 film used. The primary conflict of one juror holding out for acquittal against the other eleven worked but the conflicts between the individual jurors lacked credibility. Instead of twelve white men on a jury whose bigotries are based on age, education, and social class, a 2005 story would need a more diverse jury where gender, race and probably religion play a role in the conflicts.

In the 1937 civil war era film Jezebel, the female protagonist and her fiancĂ© have conflicts in their relationship when she defies acceptable behavior of the time. She wears a red dress to a party instead of white and shamelessly enters a bank where all respectable ladies know that women are not permitted. We would assume this conflict wouldn’t work in 2005. But defying acceptable behavior is a timeless conflict. Only the sources have changed. We could write the protagonist walking into a men’s restroom because the ladies’ room line was too long and achieve
the same effect. Same conflict. Different source.

I read a short story recently where an older sister was trying to protect her little sister from Nazis. The author was insulted that I said the conflict was weak. “How would you feel if you were protecting your little sister from Nazis?” she demanded. In her story, everyone was protecting somebody from a horrible fate so the protagonist’s conflict blended with everyone else’s. This story was the equivalent of 500,000 salmon swimming upstream. Their conflicts are identical. They’re all swimming upstream and they’re all trying to get to the same place. Which fish am I supposed to care about and why? Point him out to me.

Dramas encompass everything: wars, sports, show business, literature, economy, politics, natural disasters, mental illness, social problems, disaffected youth, biographies, race, societal conditions, current events, law enforcement, technology, health, history and science. It’s only logical that as time progresses, new sources of conflict will be born while others fade into extinction. That doesn't mean the dramatic situations change, only the sources of conflict. Good drama requires credible conflict. Credible conflict requires legitimate sources of that conflict.

If sources of conflict change as mankind progresses. The key for us, as writers of drama, is knowing our Plymouth coups from our Ford Mustangs and our poodle skirts from our belly rings.