Saturday, February 25, 2006

POTC 3 Ahoy!

Terry Rossio's blog.
Incredible new post today.
Go there.
Enough said.

Monk On the Way

My Tony Shalhoub pic is on the way -- autographed just for me.

I don't have single autograph. Not one autographed baseball, concert ticket, t-shirt or breast. I'm not an autograph kind of gal. Never asked for one. I firmly believe that people are basically all noteworthy and all not worthy. This makes me a fan of very few and allows me to speak comfortably and naturally with just about anyone regardless of their celebrity or lack of it. That's my press training. But it's Tony! He is one of the few.

My Hollywood friend is a friend of Mary Goldberg, who manages Tony. No, she is not (thank you for setting me straight, Lee) related to Lee Goldberg, Linda Woods, Karen Dinino, and Tod Goldberg . I love people like this friend who say and do nice things for no other reason than the joy of performing random acts of kindness.


Ya see, I don't care for Valentine's Day, Mother's Day, birthdays or even the uber commercial Christmas holidays. They make me blue. I hate it when people feel obligated to buy things for others but I reluctantly participate seemingly to the very edge of bankruptcy because I can't bear the thought of a child somewhere (maybe of a dually employed single parent) without a gift under the tree.

But I love giving random gifts throughout the year on non holidays, especially as thank-you gifts and to people I barely know. Why? To give them a hint of the way I feel at this very moment, that there are people with heart in unexpected places and the world is not such a dark and hopeless place after all.

My friend said Mary Goldberg asked if I wanted my Tony pic written to Mary, MaryAn, MaryAnita, or some term of endearment. I would have opted for Poopsy, Love Muffin, or Hot Junk in the Trunk, but then how could I prove it was signed for me?

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Skill Versus Talent -- Again

Last December, I wrote a post about skill versus talent because my eleven year old son surprised me with newly discovered archery skills which reinforced my conviction that while certain skills can be taught and acquired, talent is something you're born with. Bold statement, I know and I've read hundreds of arguments that dispute it. But geez, this boy had never fired a bow until three months ago and tomorrow he competes in the Texas Field Archery Association's State Indoor Championship Tournament. It just comes naturally to him. My boys are all ball players and runners and musicians and artists, but archers? Who knew!

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Writing the Wrong Story

So I was learning music this week, convinced that it was the wrong song for me, and I had an epiphany...or car sickness. I'm not sure. Either way I began to wonder if that sinking feeling also comes to screenwriters who force themselves to write something that they know in their guts they don't have a knack for writing. I am not talking about professionals here because yeah, SO MANY of them read this blog. I mean wannabe writers who are good at one form or genre of writing but insist on writing another.

I should back up.

I probably haven't mentioned that I sing. I am the absolute very best of the mediocre. I'm also one sixth of an all female ensemble. We don't advertise, don't have a web site, and never sell CD's, t-shirts, or autographed photos at any of our performances. Still, we get plenty of bookings. Somebody who hears us tells their great Aunt Bertha and next thing you know, we're invited on a cruise or to sing at a women's event, opry house, or baseball game. We're amateurs but our combined voices get us star treatment wherever we sing.

Word of mouth. No advertising. How does that happen?

We're very careful that what we sing is perfect for the collective "voice" of our group. Not every song, no matter how good it is, works for us. A great arrangement could be disastrous if it doesn't fit our balance, the textures of our voices, or personalities. We've learned the hard way where our weaknesses are. We don't sing songs that are heavy in the middle and rarely sing two part arrangements. They just sound lazy. We like complex arrangements, tight harmony and three or more parts. Most importantly, we insist on learning the music so well that we aren't focused on mechanics during a performance.

On American Idol, the judges often say something like, "You're a good singer and it's a great song, but it was the wrong song for you." In many cases, NO song will work for that voice and they're just softening the blow. But usually, that statement means that the singer just needed a better fit for his or her voice. Just because you love the song doesn't mean you can sing it. Well, just because you love the story, does that qualify you to write it?

In screenwriting, we are advised by some to write what we know and by others to write what we love. But shouldn't we also write what we're good at writing? What if we have no knack for writing what we love? If we are supposed to write the stories in our heads, is it even possible to write the wrong story?

We writers need to know where our strengths and weaknesses are. I don't write rom coms because I frequently misplace my sense of humor (hey, I sing at a LOT of funerals). My strength is in drama. That's not to say that a drama writer can't learn to write rom coms or that there is not humor in drama, but unproduced writers should certainly showcase their best work.

We know that there are good stories that are poorly written, but aren't there also bad stories that are well written?

I'm reminded of a line from Who Framed Roger Rabbit where Jessica says, "I'm not bad, I'm just drawn that way." I don't want to give anyone who reads my work cause to say, "it's not a bad story, it's just written that way."

So, you tell me. Can a screenwriter actually write the wrong story?

Monday, February 20, 2006

Shortest Feature Length Ever

My most recent feature, after five months of work, came in as a 101 page second draft. Either I have learned to write a tighter script in the past two years, learned to speak in shorthand, or something vital is missing from this screenplay.

I am hopeful that it is the former and that I have become a much better writer over the past twenty four months, but my penchant, predilection, predisposition, proclivity, and propensity for alliteration and taking a simple concept, such as a greeting, lamentation, compliment, criticism, or observation, and dragging it out into a compound sentence so complex, circuitous, composite, conglomerate, and convoluted that it takes no fewer than three breaths to read the sentence out loud, provided of course that you need not stop and research a word such as penchant, predilection, predisposition, proclivity, or propensity, causes me grave and somewhat perplexing concern that I may have neglected scene description, character development, or (gasp) misaligned my margins!

Maybe I just deleted all sentences over 100 words.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

And One

Today is my brother Quentin's birthday, a birthday he shares with our grandmother who lost her battle with cancer many years ago. Isn't she lovely? An ugly divorce between Quentin's mother and our father resulted in a seemingly permanent schism with the children of our father's other marriages. But when my grandmother died, both her children and five of her six grandchildren were present. Her last words were a joyful "Oh, honey!" when I told her that all her grandchildren were there. May God forgive me for stretching the truth by one. Yeah, pain is a great inspiration for writers.

Blog About My Missing Brother

Friday, February 17, 2006

Character Empathy

Karl Iglesias, in the first of a three part series for Creative Screenwriting, cites three emotional responses that connect the audience with a character. The first of these is recognition, or understanding and empathy. Karl uses As Good As It Gets as a case study. This is a must read. Future articles will address the second and third responses, fascination and mystery.

Regarding recognition, Iglesias says the key is to create emotions that all readers (and viewers) recognize by exploiting three basic truths about human nature and empathy:

(1) We care about individuals we feel sorry for
(2) We care about individuals who display humanistic traits
(3) We care about individuals who have traits we all admire

I loathe boxing. To me, boxing is the most reprehensible sport to afflict the "civilized" world since the gladiators. My aspirations as a screenwriter, however, require me to familiarize myself, for educational purposes, with films such as Million Dollar Baby and Cinderella Man.

Who am I to improve upon or detract from Iglesias? Perhaps this is all semantics, but still, I would add a partial truth to this list.

(4) We care about individuals who are walking in our own shoes

Cinderella Man - Numbers one, two, and three got me right off the bat. I felt sorry for his lost career, saw his humanistic traits, and I saw traits I instantly admired like his devotion to his children, refusal to break a promise, and honesty.

But isn't it possible to NOT feel sorry for characters, NOT recognize their humanistic traits, and NOT admire them but still empathize solely BECAUSE they are walking in our shoes?

Million Dollar Baby - The reason I ultimately related to Maggie and became her champion was because of her relationship with her family. I know what it's like for a daughter to try to please her mother. Most daughters do. And, I know what it's like to have an absentee father. Many adults do. But until those reveals, I didn't care for her or about her and none of those three truths applied to me.

On the other hand, walking in my shoes alone is usually not enough. I don't relate to every woman who has kids, every person in my profession, or everyone my age. But throw in a little pity, a few humanistic traits with a dash of admiration, and suddenly I'm on board.

Maybe the next installments, in which Iglesias discusses fascination and mystery, will prompt me to rethink this. Perhaps, I never related to Maggie at all on the recognition level and it was one of the other two responses that drew me in to her character. Whatever the reason, with my distaste for boxing, I am in awe that either script was so expertly crafted that it took me out of the ring and into the story.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Screenwriting Allodoxaphobia

Don't look it up. Allodoxaphobia is the fear of opinions, as opposed to doxophobia, the fear of expressing one. My reluctance to post a piece of work on Zoetrope or Triggerstreet or even my favorite writer's workshop, The Writer's Building, is not allodoxaphobia. Nor am I a cleptophobic who is afraid of my work being stolen, as you may have been misled to believe by I Saw What You Stole Last Summer. For me, the benefits from posting my work in such a public forum do not outweigh the time, effort, risks, and frustration. Plain and simple.

Time and Effort - usually, you are required a certain number of points from reviewing others' work in order to have yours reviewed. Maybe you have to review four scripts. By the time you spend two hours reading and another couple of hours writing notes, you've given up about sixteen hours of valuable research and writing time. Many forums offer the author the opportunity to reject your notes and all your effort was for naught.

Risks - I really don't think anyone who steals dialogue, scenes, loglines, story ideas, or whole stories would get very far. If they had the work ethic and determination to get very far, they wouldn't have to steal. But the risk is there. The greater risk is that you, once you realize any degree of success with your work, may be accused of stealing something from this forum because somebody posted a similar idea to the one you are already working on.

Frustration - The reviews that you receive on your own work may offer some helpful ideas and advice, but to get those little grains of wisdom, you usually have to read a lot of useless reviews from budding writers who aren't qualified to give story notes, but must in order to get the points they need to post their own work for review. And dare I even mention that some of these groups have spores of hostile mentality resulting in very public (online) jealousy, name calling, and temper tantrums?

Nothing in this post is meant to proport that these groups are not right for anyone. Some of them are simply not right for me. I highly recommend The Writer's Building, even though I don't post my completed work. I've participated in workshops and even developed a draft of a feature length screenplay, in my private office, with three other writers. In addition, several professionals participate now and then in this forum and post notes in a workshop environment. I think what prevents some of the riff raff from participating is the $25.00 annual fee to join. By riff raff, I mean guys like the one I mentioned in I Saw What You Stole Last Summer, who was only looking to publicize his band. Most of the amateurs in The Writer's Building appear to be very serious about becoming professional writers.

So, although I am most certainly coulrophobic, I am not allodoxaphobic. I welcome opinions, even ones in direct opposition to my own, unless of course, that opinion is expressed from behind clown paint.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Blogger Archetypes

Meet the singers, the wingers, the fingers, the ringers, the stringers, and the flingers. Blogger Archetypes Which one are you? By these definitions, I'm assuming I fall into the stringer category although I like to think of myself as a semi-ringer or ringer in training. However, since posts are in the first person and some are about ME, that would make me a singer. Yet, since I am commenting on and linking to another post, that may make me a winger. I guess I'm a little bit of all of them. So that makes me what? A whole thing-er?

I Saw What You Stole Last Summer

I was cleaning out my emails and ran across one I saved to blog about regarding a screenplay I reluctantly agreed to read a few weeks ago. This month has been insanely busy and I had all but forgotten this little adventure.

The screenplay was written by the friend of a casual acquaintance (who is now no acquaintance whatsoever and you're about to see why). I don't read many amateur scripts because (1) I am an amateur (2) I don't have Tour d' France input -- I'm on a bicycle with training wheels, and (3) my limited reading time is better spent on novels, produced screenplays, noteworthy blogs and an occasional bathroom wall. (people, please use Sharpies, I can't read those skinny ball point numbers without getting closer than is sanitary)

The casual acquaintance said this "author" needed some feedback and she was recruiting people to give it to him because he didn't know anyone else. The word "author", in this instance, means would-be boyfriend she was trying to score points with. But he's clever, she assured me, tells great stories, and has a quick wit. She loved his script. Would I help? Fine, I bit. I must admit that I was a little flattered to be considered knowledgeable enough to help. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid ego!

A few pages into the script, I knew I had made a terrible mistake. There was nothing positive, and I do mean NOTHING, I could say about this screenplay except that it was positively terrible -- dozens of misspelled words in the first pages, poor grammar, helter skelter dialogue, and no comprehension of story elements. It was a mess. No professional reader would have gone past page one. But, out of obligation and after a shot of tequila, I kept reading. Please don't give me that "you can always find something constructive to say" baloney because, I'm very sorry to say, that is simply not true in every case.

Then I saw a line of dialogue that I recognized. I spewed my second shot of tequila all over my monitor and then emailed the guy.

The line was mine.

How did he get that line? Why would he steal dialogue from an unproduced nobody? I gave him the opportunity to say it was a joke, a spoof, or placeholder dialogue until he thought of something better. It took several emails but I finally collected all the sordid details.

This guy never reads. Never. He plays in a fairly successful garage band by which he earns a modest living. He doesn't even read music. He plays by ear. He gets online now and then to IM and email his friends but never picks up a book, magazine, newspaper, or anything that doesn't have cartoons in it. Why in the Sam Hill would he want to write? Because his potential girlfriend knows people and it would be good for his band. Oh, good grief!

He'd always wanted to write, he also claimed, but he "can't think up stuff for people to say" so his friend emailed him some screenplays to read including one of mine that she had exchanged with me for feedback last year during my brief participation in a well known screenwriter's forum. (Argh. I knew I shouldn't have posted on that site) She had told him to familiarize himself with dialogue. She didn't tell him to shop for lines. But, he figured scanning other screenplays for dialogue was easier than writing it himself so he took random lines from several unproduced nobodies and put them all together in a big melting pot of plagiarism.

He stole lines and then emailed evidence of his theft to one of the people he stole from? Please, where are the stupid criminal cameras when you need them?

Rather than restate my position on the increasing illiteracy of society, I'll just point to my 2004 Wordplay post where I rant about the decline of the written word in lieu of video games and DVD's and the dismal future of generations who don't read.

As for that plagiarist, I fabricated a story about a scornful screenwriter who once enacted a Lorena Bobbitt form of retaliation on a guy who stole her lines. Then I gave him notice that, as a warning to other screenwriters about passing their own and other writers' work around, I would be commenting about his theft on my blog.

"Cool," he said, "nobody I know would read it anyway. Can you mention my band?"


Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Good Story or Pain Release?

My latest screenplay is about a mixed race girl who is separated from her brother by a stepmother who can't see past her own racial bias. While I didn't dwell too much on my inspiration for the story, the core is autobiographical. I have a that brother I have not seen since he was four years old.

The similarity ends there.

An old post by Jennifer Weiner has me wondering about my motives for writing this most recent screenplay. Weiner says publishers have a running gag about what sells and the joke says that all they gotta do is pick out an unhappy child and come back 20 years later and ask "where's the book?". She discusses in this article how pained childhoods, troubled love lifes, agents, discipline, employment and education affect the life of the writer. Then she says what we already know. A writer must write the story in his head, not what he thinks will sell.

Everything we say, everything we do, and everything we think is a product of accumulated knowledge which is formed, in part, by personal experience. That means authors leave their DNA in all of their stories one way or another, do they not? So, I don't think it matters whether I wrote this most recent story because I wanted to take a childhood lump of clay and sculpt it into a gleaming porcelain teapot as long as (1) it's the story in my head and (2) it's a damned good story.

50 Per Day?

That's about how many visitors there are on my blog every day according to Sitemeter (recently traded up from Blogpatrol). Of course, most of you are passing through on your way someplace else, but that's not the point! Nine or ten of you actually read what I write. Oh, the pressure!

Shilling for the Home Team

One of the privilages of being a red shirt is watching the game from the bench while the big boys do their thing. That's what the internet and my limited industry contacts do for me -- give me the opportunity to watch the game up close and train while observing the varsity team. Some weeks go by and I don't think I've learned much. Other weeks, I get eye strain from reading gold mines of input.

Josh Friedman was missing for a few weeks while he slayed a dragon. That same dragon goes after all of us randomly with disregard to demographics. Josh concluded his hiatus by sharing some of his cancer ordeal in that brutally frank way that makes us chuckle despite the gravity of the message. Thankfully, Josh is back and again using that brutal frankness to expose the dirty, holey, underwear of Hollywood. If you haven't read his last two posts, leave this lousy imitation blog and go straight to the real thing.

The History of Debate Parts One and Two between Craig Mazin and Josh Olson were still raking up comments from the heavy hitters as of an hour ago at 257 remarks on part two. Screenwriters, this is a must read. Really, it's like watching a somewhat polite boxing match. Alex Epstein has a remark or two about "film by" credit on his blog, too.

Speaking of Josh Friedman, pop over to this Wordplayer thread called Why War of the Worlds Ending Sucked -and How to Fix It. Andy Wardlaw has some comments about time tested family values that gave me pause. However, if you have no problem with the "oh by the way, they all died of disease, good night, everyone!" ending to War of the Worlds, don't waste your time on this one.

The Thinking Writer has a post about enrolling champions. While some will likely disagree with the opinion that the key to enrolling champions is to be normal, intelligent, professional, and friendly, it's a good read and reminds me of something Terry Rossio once wrote -- trouble is, I can't recall whether it was in a column, a thread, or an email. Oh well.

Make sure you read John August's blog today about the Hollywood Reporter entitled "If a Trade Paper has a Blog, Is it Still a Trade?"

Finally, and as always, it's fun to catch up with the latest Monk news from Lee Goldberg, just back from Hawaii. I only wish he would let me answer his fan mail. I'd write, "Dear XYZ, Bite me. Regards, Lee."

Monday, February 13, 2006

Stereotypical Screenwriters

"I'm not the stereotypical screenwriter."

I am exposing my Hollywood ignorance in public, but just what does that mean? What are the screenwriter stereotypes? That a screenwriter is a white male? Well, that doesn't work because everyone who has ever said to me, "I am not the stereotypical screenwriter" has been a white male.

The first time I heard it was from a writer I met at the Austin Film Festival two years ago. I was working the round table registration and he plopped himself down next to me and started telling me his net worth. I hung my head in shame and admitted that I had not seen any of his films to which he replied, "well, I'm not the stereotypical screenwriter." He then invited me to have a drink with him where he'd tell me all about it. So, by his definition, "stereotypical" does not mean "self important blowhard using his resume to pick up women".

My next encounter with this phrase was from a screenwriter who had one very successful film and an Emmy in his closet, which he pulled out now and then late at night in case he needed to bludgeon would-be burglars. He's a sharp guy with sound screenwriting advice. "Don't write screenplays," he told me in his best Father Knows Best voice, "You have four strikes against you. You are not male. You are not young. You live outside of Hollywood. You are not sleeping with a producer." Okay, so by his definition, "stereotypical" is a writer who doesn't "suck on sour grapes and spit the seeds at wannabes". Got it.

Another "not your stereotypical screenwriter" comment came from a guy I met in an online screenwriter's forum. He knew enough people to convince me that he was who he claimed and could speak intelligently about projects he'd worked on. Naturally, I checked him out with the few industry professionals I actually know. He's for real. Oddly, this writer asked very little about me. He didn't ask what genre I write, whether I have any industry connections, or whether I went to film school. He only wanted to know my age, measurements, and what I was wearing. Ah, so to him "stereotypical" is a writer who doesn't "pimp himself online and type with one hand".

This is a sincere question. Besides being a white male, what are screenwriter stereotypes? Are there any? Is this just an empty pickup line?

Are screenwriters dark and brooding? Met some that aren't. Are they fast talking caffeine addicts? Met some that aren't. Are they witty? Some. Boring? Some. Bookworms? Party animals? What mental image am I supposed to conjure up when somebody tells me "I am not the stereotypical screenwriter"?

The only common denominator I see among these three men is that each is not enjoying the degree of success he thinks he's due. If that makes them atypical, then the big deal, big name, big figure screenwriter is typical? Pffft.

Really. My newbie roots are showing. A little help here? Anyone?

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Sweating the Small Stitches

Yesterday, I copied my latest screenplay to send to my agent and as I was preparing to mail it, I noticed a word, ONE WORD on ONE PAGE, that I had meant to change. I made the correction, took the screenplay apart, and inserted the new page only to realize that the inkjet page looked much different from the copied pages. Argh. I took the page to the copy machine just so it would look like the other pages.

This brings me to the blanket in the picture. Yeah, I'll tie it all together. Be patient.

I finished this blanket a few weeks ago. I meticulously made sure every stitch was straight, every hem was even, and every thread perfectly matched the fabric. Then I carefully packed it in a box and mailed it to a little old lady in Arkansas who machine quilts. She came highly recommended by a friend and I was very impressed with her intricate scrollwork. After a long telephone chat with her about everything from her new marriage and her recently deceased mother to her lazy neighbors who live off welfare, I was confident that this industrious lady would do a good job on my quilt.

The blanket arrived in the mail the other day, quilted and bound, with a sweet note from this lady praising my work. She wasn't paid to bind the quilt but she did it out of the goodness of her heart because she said it was so pretty, she simply couldn't send it back unfinished. It was very thoughtful of her.

As a whole, it looks awesome. Much better than the picture, in fact. Then I examined it. While her scrollwork is lovely, her stitches are not so even and her straight seams are not at all straight. The thread bunches up a little, the corners are crooked and the binding doesn't lay correctly.

For several days now, I've pondered over whether to rip the binding out and redo it. It would only take a couple of hours and it might give me some peace of mind. But once I did that, I might decide to rip out some of the other seams that look kind of wanky. Where would it end?

As I look at the thing draped over the back of my couch, I remember our conversation and can almost hear her dear little voice saying "That lady in Texas worked so hard on this. Why don't I just bind it for her..."

I think I'll leave it like it is.

You know, my screenplays are never really finished either. I could correct, improve, substitute and redo every line of every scene and still think something was not quite right. That's the Monk in me, I suppose. But, I think at some point, you just have to just stop writing, step back, and look at the project as a whole.

Meanwhile, I'm packing up another blanket to send my quilting lady.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Forgetting Fundamentals

Is it possible to overthink a story?

At my son's basketball game the other day, something odd happened in the final quarter. The boys were down by twelve (which is a huge spread at his age) and suddenly all the team's discipline disappeared. I don't know enough about basketball to speak intelligently about it, but with three sons and twenty one collective seasons of watching peewee basketball, I could tell this much: there were holes all over the place. After the game, I asked my son what was different in the last quarter.

"Forget the fundamentals," the coach had said, "Don't think. Just play."

This was a dangerous move on the coach's part. Was he really telling them to ignore fundamentals? To forget their setups? Or, was he was trusting that the team knew the fundamentals well enough to play by instinct and not evaluate every move they made?

Creative Screenwriting last month had an article about The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada in which the writer, Guillermo Arriaga, gives his perspective on non-linear writing and explains why he doesn't care that the film has some inconclusive narrative threads.

"I'm against closing every story in a perfect way," CS quotes the writer. "I always like to have the sense of life, that it never ends."

His position is to focus on the perspectives of the primary characters. They won't get all the answers so apparently neither do we. If the protagonist is confused, Arriaga says he wants the audience to feel the same confusion.

Not having seen the movie, this whole "unfinished business" concept is perplexing to me. Isn't wrapping up loose ends a screenwriting fundamental? It seems like the audience would be unsatisfied by being left dangling at the jagged edge of an unfinished narrative. However, if the protagonist is satisfied and we're along for his ride from his POV, Arriaga seems to think it works.

Maybe Arriaga is an experienced enough writer that he instinctively knows when to cling to fundamentals and when not to. Not having seen Three Burials , I can't comment on how satisfying the conclusion is. But it worked in basketball. The boys won in final seconds of the game.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Screenwriting Relationships Part 2

In case you haven't read my other blogs, (1) I am a fan of very few (don't have a single celebrity autograph), (2) I have stalker insurance (because you never know when somebody will decide your online photo is singing them love songs), (3) some of my phobias are wholly irrational (I don't care if King Kong is a love story), and (4) I'm highly skeptical of friendships formed online (that doesn't mean I don't have any).

Last year I befriended a producer when I queried her online, she read my work, and then called me for a two hour chat about life, humanity, and films that make a difference. Technically, that friendship was formed over the telephone. We exchange emails and love to chat about things that much of the rest of the world finds trite and trivial. For whatever reason, I never got around to mentioning my Monkoholism. Then she read Confessions of a Monkie Junkie and the jig was up.

Well, whadya know? She emailed me and said that an autographed photo of the object of my addiction is on its way. One of her best friends is Mary Goldberg who manages Tony Shalhoub whom I actually first fell in love with when I saw the movie, Polly. Moral of the story? Be mindful of what you write online. Don't be a doormat, but you never know if somebody reading your words may one day be a person whose opinion matters to you.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Character over Gimmick

Don't let the title of this article on the Writers' Guild of Canada page lead you to believe it doesn't apply to you because (1) you are not Canadian and (2) you don't write science fiction. The article borrows wisdom from Alex Epstein and the final paragraph where it speaks to the use of great character over the use of gimmicks in science fiction, applies to us all, regardless of what genre we write.

Comedy - Character is timeless. Jokes and gags can be trendy, dated, or overused to the point that what was funny the first time you saw a film, eventually becomes tiresome. Example: Napolean Dynomite. The film worked. It was funny. It made money. Nothing wrong with that. But I don't need to see another t-shirt or hear another teenager quoting this film and would glady live out my days never seeing that movie again. The Jerk, written by Steve Martin, came out in 1979 and even though the gags are cheesy by today's standards, the characters sustain it as a good view twenty seven years later. Character over gimmick.

Drama - Classic drama seems to have more staying power than other films. Why? Because character development is intrinsic to drama. Other genres can get away with weak characters if the film has a good gimmick going for it. While I'm not discounting the story, films like Gone With the Wind and Casa Blanca have extraordinary characters that appeal to new generations regardless of the era the film is set in.

Adventure - Why do we watch more classic dramas than classic adventure films? Because without memorable characters, the ancient props, sets, special effects and (gasp) lack of color turn us off. But, I bet my grandchildren watch Pirates of the Caribbean by whatever technologically miraculous means future films are viewed on. Why? Characters.

Character over gimmick. This is true for any genre or genre hybrid including rom coms, westerns, murder mysteries, fantasy and sci fi. There are plenty of great films that rely on gags, gimmicks, special effects, animation, dated events, and the video game of the month. But the films that withstand the brutal tests of time and technology are the ones that incorporate all else with great characters.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The Silent Treatment

That's what I write. Lousy treatments.

My screenplays may induce readers to send flowers to their mothers, write a sonnet to a lost love, or distribute dollar bills at homeless shelters, but my treatments are cold, clinical, and colorless. They are uninspiring and don't say what I want them to say so they are, basically, useless. So, you know what? I don't write them unless I'm asked to.

How does a good writer write such sorry treatments? Well, it's simple.

My background is in local government and press information. I'm a "just the facts" kind of gal which makes screenwriting a good fit for me. (1) Screenwriting follows a specific format and there are only so many variations in structure used to present the story. (2) Creation of the story is up to me. I can handle that.

Treatments are different. There is not a single widely accepted rule of thought on how a treatment should look, what the purpose of the treatment is, what it should accomplish, how long it should be, how much subtext to spill, whether to throw in bits of prose, whether you should single space or double space, tell the whole story or only hit the high points, and whether or not the treatment is a hybrid of an outline or a synopsis or a pitch or a narrative interpretation of a script.


Too many variables. You cannot please everyone. No matter what you write in a treatment, it won't be a perfect fit for everyone who reads it and most likely, won't be a perfect fit for anyone at all who reads it.

Solution? There's not one. But you could try these. They won't work, but try them anyway.

(1) Study everything you can get your hands on regarding treatments - Even though every person, seminar, speech, book, and article tell you something that contradicts another person seminar, speech, book, or article, this is still a good thing. Kind of like taking driver's ed. One teacher will say it's okay to enter on yellow if you drive slow. Another teacher will tell you to slowly stop. They both know full well, you're gonna gun it the first time you hit a yellow light with no teacher in the car. But still, we take driver's ed.

(2) Study some treatments that have been successful - However, this only means that the treatment for that particular story was successful for a particular person at a particular point in time. Maybe the recipient of the treatment was having a good day and would have passed had he not just inherited an $80,000 car from a great aunt he didn't even know he had. Maybe the treatment would have been successful no matter what because this particular guy has been waiting years for a flesh eating Pokemon story and you happened to have one. Or, back to the driver's ed analogy, ask your friend how he passed his driver's test. Maybe he's a really good driver. But maybe, he slept with the officer giving the test or slipped a clerk a $50 bill.

(3) Study unsuccessful treatments - Well, first of all these are hard to find, but if you know writers who've dinked with a treatment, ask to look at it. You know what you'll learn from it? Nothing. Because you have no idea why it didn't work. Maybe it was poorly written. Maybe the execs who read it had just opted a similar story. Maybe it's a brilliant story but the style and format of the treatment rubbed the reader the wrong way. He likes Times New Roman and your friend used Arial fonts. In other words, maybe your friend was wearing offensive cologne during his driving test and the officer got ticked off when the window wouldn't roll down. Or, maybe your friend crashed his car into a telephone pole.

This is just one of those cruel uncertainties in writing. Everyone expects something different in a treatment and we, screenwriters, are supposed to give them exactly what they want. Don't believe me? Just compare what the experts say and also check out what Dave Trottier's Screenwriting Bible has to say about treatments.

Writing Treatments That Sell Re: Treatments

Creative Screenwriting Re: Treatments

How to Write a Film Treatment

Terry Rossio - "Proper Treatment"

So, why don't I just write the way I want to write, include what I think is important, leave out the superfluous stuff, and put it together the best way I know how? Well, that's exactly what I do... except it's called a screenplay.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Oh, My Pod!

Either I slept through this last year or it hasn't been this nuts before, but iPods everywhere are furiously downloading the Superbowl commercials. I don't know how much of it is legally done through avenues like Podcast and iTunes or how long before the copyright police shuts down the illegal downloads, but it's a marketing dream come true. The target audience is buying and stealing the ads for your product!

The Superbowl commercials, for the most part, were advertising at its best and I only wish I could make a short film half as good as most of them.

True to my advertising background though, I spotted little things in most spots that I thought could have been done better, but these were great spots and choosing favorites is no easy task. Even though I never tire of seeing the trailer for POTC 2 and I loved the FedEx caveman and the Budweiser streaker (truth be told, I spewed diet Dr. Pepper out my nose, I laughed so hard), I'm looking at this from a Female 25-54 demographic sales viewpoint. With that in mind, my top three Superbowl spots are:

(3) Miss Piggy doing her Jessica Simpson impersonation for Pizza Hut - The Jessica Simpson version made me nauseous but hey, I was not the target audience in that one. The Miss Piggy spot was written for women and it works.

(2) Dove's Campaign for Real Beauty - I loved the spot and the message but am a little squeamish about's plea for donations to keep the campaign going. Where will the money go? To pay the $2.5 million for a thirty second spot during the Superbowl? But again, written to make me, the female viewer, feel good about running out and buying Dove products.

(1) The Budweiser barn with the Clydesdale colt - this was brilliant. A junior Clydesdale getting a little confidence boost from his parents. I absolutely loved this spot and can't find a single fault with it. Nobody crosses over demographics better than Budweiser. If I were an iPod'r, I'd be dowloading this one right now!

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Life With the Boring Parts Taken Out

Yeah, stole that from Hitchcock but he did it first! Philip Morton's blog has some great stuff on editing and while I can't recall ever shilling somebody else's blog outside the right column, I highly recommend you read Philip's latest post in its entirety several times. This is only the Cliffs Notes version of what to look for as you edit your screenplay. Don't forget to look at the replies for the explanation of #4 from Bill Cunningham.

(1) Trim excess setup, exposition, & dialogue
(2) Cut out repeated action
(3) Multiply action to condense the story
(4) Avengers' technique

Billy Mernit also has a great post today about technique that's worthy of your refrigerator door. What a marvelous thing this internet is!

Friday, February 03, 2006

Character Lesson

A 6.5-foot saltwater crocodile leapt out of a roadside culvert in Sydney, Australia, yesterday and slammed into the side of a passing car. The croc died in the collision and was given to local Aborigines, who ate it.

Meanwhile back in the states....

In an apparent copy cat incident, or maybe the Aussie croc was a sibling, a naked man in Wittenberg, Wisconsin, decided to charge oncoming cars in busy commute traffic. A woman drove around the guy, but he charged the vehicle anyway, jumped on the hood, and smashed her windshield. He slid off, got into a football-type stance and slammed into a second vehicle as it approached. He then casually opened the passenger door, climbed in the vehicle and sat down very matter-of-factly. Police had no trouble taking the man in for medical treatment and physchological assessment.

I think I like the Australian punishment for body slamming into vehicles better. But, hey, I now know what my emotionally distraught character is going to do as an outward display of his inward fury at his dilapidated domestic automobile.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Repugnant Protagonists

Argh! I think it's uber cool that five of you read me regularly and even cooler when you send me email but I loathe being misconstrued. Yeah, you right there. The one slinking into your chair. You know who you are. Covering your face won't work, pal, cuz I can't see you anyway! But in your defense, maybe I am vague. Perhaps, I need to work on improving my thought regurgitation and work harder to relay my perspectives more clearly. Oh wait. That's the whole purpose of this blog. Okay, skip that.

Never have I said that the villain cannot be the protagonist. He/she most certainly can. Villain and antagonist are not apposite. Okay, stop right here. You may think I said "opposite". I did not. I said "apposite" as in "synonymous". Just want to make sure I'm speaking clearly.. uh, clicking clearly? Anyway, the protagonist can be the biggest, baddest, most beastly bottom feeder to ever blight a book or big screen. (good to know my powers of alliteration never fail me) However, if your protagonist is a bad guy, there'd better be something about him or her that the audience can relate to.

Audiences will empathize with a villain, even one driven to commit a horrific crime, by identifying with part of his story. They'll grieve with a grieving mother, bleed with a bleeding soldier, and suffer with somebody who is suffering unjustly. Even if they don't, a clever screenwriter can draw the audience in with a ninety minute version of Stockholm Syndrome where the kidnapped audience befriends the onscreen villain through his ordeal.

Why is it not done more often? Because it's challenging to execute properly and we don't like going to see movies that make us feel bad about ourselves. Repugnant protagonists muddy the water between good and evil. That reminds me. I still have to go see Munich.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Defecting Club Capricious

Let me be perfectly clear on this point. I know nothing. None of my screenplays has been opted, sold, or produced under a pseudonym, although if you want to think I'm Frank Darabont in disguise, that's perfectly all right with me. Frank, however, may object since there is a substantial difference in our bra sizes. My blog musings are the thoughts of an English major, a diehard Terry Rossio disciple, and an undergraduate of the screenwriting school of "if you write it, they will come", which I don't really believe, by the way.

This is a great interview with Frank Darabont where Frank discusses a "certain anxiety" that filmmakers experience when a film is about to open. It's a dated interview (two years after he wrote Green Mile) but fascinating none the less. The one portion of the interview that jumped out at me was his response to a comment about his love for comedy and why he doesn't write it.

Hey, I love music too, but I have no aptitude for it either. But I live for music. It’s like blood in my veins. I wouldn’t know how to make music if you held a gun to my head. It’s something for which I have no talent.
How many times have you seen or heard comments by wannabe screenwriters who say they KNOW they are meant to write because they love it so? Live for it? Can't imagine taking a breath without a pen in hand?

Having a passion for something is just not enough. Ask any of those poor schmucks on American Idol who only get out of bed in the morning to sing but couldn't carry a tune if it was a hump on their backs! No, don't ask them. They're deluded. They'll tell you that they have rare, unique, and inexhaustible talent but the judges don't know anything.

That's what we writers want to believe every time we dink in a contest, get a rejection letter or receive a pass on our screenplay. Those readers don't know anything. Sure, that's it. And William Hung can sing.

Putting through a lot of singers on American Idol that judges know will crash and burn would not be an act of kindness. There are many of those auditions that judges would genuinely like to see go in the singer's favor because the candidate is personable or quirky. But they can't send those people to the next level just because a few singers are sweet and have a soft shell. It would be commercial suicide. The audience would (1) stop watching the show or (2) vote those people off and then stop watching the show. Ratings drop, advertisers bail, fingers start pointing and this runaway train we call American Idol derails and explodes into a firey ball of regret.

Same thing with our screenplays. Yeah, writers need a tough shell and we'd better be able to take criticism, but it's not only unkind to lead writers on, it makes bad business sense and jeapordizes a lot more than the writer's feelings. But, how do we know if we are a joke at screenwriting? If our screenplays are laughingly passed around the water cooler like the latest William Hung CD? How do we know when to quit?

In one of his most notorious columns, Terry Rossio says it's time to quit this capricious industry when (1) you've given yourself a legitimate shot and (2) trying is no longer fun.

"At some point, though, you should take seriously the charge of living a good life. Once you've satisfied yourself that you've given every effort, and failed, and it's no longer fun to you, then it is, truly, time to find a new challenge and move on. Something else that will bring more satisfaction.

And if, even then, you're the type to choose to not give up, you love movies that much, well, all I have to say is...

Welcome to the club."
Sound advice... unless this capricious club is for sea turtles and you happen to be a hermit crab. Don't sneak in. You may get away with it at first but your shell will probably get crushed under the weight of a sea turtle and there you'll stand, exposing yourself to the whole ocean as a fraud and a hermit crab. But, like I said, I don't know anything.