Monday, October 30, 2006

Pigeon-holing Protag Deaths

Whew! Well, this was a daunting task that I regretted shortly after it began. Convinced that the death of the primary protagonist must have a story value that can be named, categorized and later replicated, I sifted through films where a primary protagonist dies, looking for logic and common threads. It was so depressing to keep watching the good guy die that I had to watch The Chipmunk Adventure to get out of my funk.

I've broken protagonist deaths into eleven categories but it's important to keep in mind that --

(1) there are likely many more categories - I couldn't find them all

(2) these categories pertain ONLY to the primary protagonist(s)

(3) this study only applies to protagonists that are still dead at film's end

(4) most films mentioned fall into more than one of these categories

(5) I'm not categorizing films. I'm categorizing death.

Why is it important to keep those five things in mind? Because I have NO IDEA WHAT I'M DOING, THAT'S WHY! And because the parameters of the study affect the results. Please feel free to call my attention to a category I may have missed.

So, here we go --

Death Biographical - The purpose of deaths in biographical films is self evident. Quite simply, the primary protagonist(s) die because the character(s) portrayed actually died. While there is not always a demand for deep meaning or structural purpose of the death, screenwriters are not exonerated from crafting a compelling story. The death scenes in Bonnie and Clyde and Amadeus are unforgettable for me but many biographical films stop short of showing the character's death onscreen because the filmmakers may not see an artistic, structural, or creative benefit to showing the onscreen death, particularly the death of a beloved icon like Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, or Selena Quintanilla.

Death Historical - There is no other way for films like A Perfect Storm, The Alamo and United 93 to end without rewriting history. They all die. So the screenwriter's role in portraying these deaths is to orchestrate a story that makes viewers want to see the film even though we may already know the ending. Viewers need order, sequence, a driving force, or character motives that help us relate to events that are foreign to us. Even though the events are recorded in history books, the story still has to be written.

Death Emancipatory - Sometimes, death is viewed as a last act of defiance but I don't think it's that simple. Thelma and Louise were used, exploited, mistreated and oppressed by men. Death was preferable to going to jail and once again, living under the control and at the mercy of men. Suicide is in character for them and not the cop out ending I expected. It's about taking control and breaking free of the real or perceived bonds on their lives, much the way Maggie Fitzgerald dies in Million Dollar Baby. She doesn't want to live the way anyone else tells her to and in the end, she fights for death rather than live as an invalid. In both these films, death is liberation. Death is control. Death is ownership.

Death Ostentatious - Quiet and contemplative death or blaze of glory? Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid aren't going to sit around and be victimized. The end of their story has to do justice to the lives portrayed. I think this may be the same reason Oliver and Barbara Rose both die at the end of War of the Roses. The marriage ends with the ultimate visual punchline -- until death do us part. It reminds me of a line in Amadeus where Salieri tells Mozart that the audience needs a big bang at the end so the they will know when to clap. Films sometimes need a big bang, too. An ostentatious death ending is one way to do it.

Death Anticipatory - Films are tense and angst ridden when we know that at any minute, the protagonist could die. Death is an ever present anticipation in many disaster films, crime dramas, gunslingers, and war films. Is there any question that Michael Sullivan's days are numbered in Road to Perdition and that he will, indeed, eventually reap what he sows? We hope Captain John Miller won't die in Saving Private Ryan but in war and in disaster films like the Poseidon Adventure, bad things happen to good people so every gunshot, every falling beam and every explosion is the adrenaline rushing potential death of a character we are growing increasingly invested in. We're on the edge of our seats and that's good writing. But it has to be logical. In Diehard, the reality established in the film for John McClain makes him all but invincible. We cringe as he walks across broken glass in bare feet but he isn't going to die and we know it. We don't know that in Saving Private Ryan because the reality of that film tries to mirror the reality of war where good guys are gonna die. How many bullets can you dodge? All of them in some films. All but one in others.

Death Matrimonial - Until death do us part? Not always. Love can bridge the gap between life and death onscreen. In both Ghost and The Sixth Sense, the protagonist is dead from the beginning but hangs around because of a love too great to be separated by death. In The Notebook, Duke is so devoted to his wife, Allie, who suffers from Alzheimers, that life would be intolerable for either of them if one were to die. Their simultaneous deaths serve as a snapshot of love everlasting.

Death as Synthesis - Sometimes death is a means of bringing a story full circle -- or full triangle. In Titanic, Rose wanted to die (thesis) until she met Jack who taught her to live (antithesis). By the end of the film, she welcomed death as a means of continuing life as opposed to earlier in the film when she longed for death as an escape from life (synthesis). Most of the protagonist deaths I've watched this week feel like some kind of effort to bring synthesis to the story. Sometimes it works. Other times, I scratch my head.

Death Sacramental - Death of the protagonist can bring reconciliation or social, moral, or governmental reform. Braveheart and Gladiator are based-on-history protagonists. Much is still unknown about William Wallace but he most certainly did not do much of what the film portrays. Even less is known about Narcissus, the slave who killed Lucius Aurelius Commodus and whose name was changed to Maximus some time after David Franzoni finished the first draft of Gladiator. But these films are not documentaries so the protagonists' deaths in both were carefully crafted to do three things: make the protagonist a hero, avenge the death of their wives, and bring about a reformation in government. It makes them noble, heroic and admirable and brings synthesis to the story at the same time.

Death Explanatory - This is what I would call films like Sunset Boulevard and American Beauty where the dead protagonist narrates and explains how he met his demise. Norma Desmond destroyed Joe Gillis rather than lose him. His death is the culmination of her insanity. But the death of Lestor Burnham? Well, I guess are were meant to understand that everyone in his life who thought they would be better off if he was dead -- his daughter, wife, neighbor and himself -- will now have to find out.

Death Antagonistic - So what do you do when your protagonists are also your antagonists? In Troy and in War of the Roses, we are drawn into the stories of opposing sides. Since both the primary protagonists are also the primary antagonists, somebody we are rooting for must lose. In these examples, it's everyone.

Death Recanted - Ever so often, we get thrown an ersatz death when there is a sequel afoot. Dead Man's Chest ends with Jack Sparrow's demise but we're confident that he'll be back. Jack is either fighting for his life in the belly of the beast or a piece of jewelry he stole from Tia Dalma happens to have some kind of resurrection value. We also went through this with Hans Solo in the Empire Strikes Back. The protagonist is gone and we grieve, but only a little. We know he'll be back.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Need More Dead Protagonists

My list is growing but I still need more names of films where the protagonist dies. I'm at about twenty films now and while I don't plan to dissect each of them, I do want to find the story purpose behind the primary (or an important secondary) protagonist's death. Is it about character? Plot? What's does the death accomplish? Obviously this takes time because I have to watch or re-watch several films. Already, I've seen great variety in purpose and can't wait to map these out on paper. I Netflixed Thema and Louise (is Netflixed a verb?) because although I've never been interested in seeing it before, now I must.


Tuesday, October 24, 2006

His Name Was Little John

. . . and sometimes I can still feel his head growing strangely heavy against my chest as he took his last breath. It's been one year ago today since I killed my best friend...again. The first time was fourteen years ago. Little John was a replacement puppy who slept at my feet, had a fetish for pacifiers, and liked to yodel. I refused to let him die alone, so I held his little head as the doctor put the needle in his leg and promised me there'd be no pain. He lied. It still hurts.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Death of the Protagonist

As if I don’t have enough on my plate – unfinished writing projects, a demanding job, even more demanding family life, music to learn, and migraines that reproduce, mutate, and slowly infest every inch of my head the way those cane frogs are plaguing Australia. Nasty little buggers. Anyway, on top of all of that, I get these questions that not even the migraines can quash. What makes a romantic comedy timeless? Is there a purpose behind battle speeches? An now, the latest questions that demand exploring -- the death of the protagonist(s). Why do we kill them and when should they die?

Killing off the protagonist at story’s end is not only about getting shock value, creating emotion, or closing an un-closeable story. While the death of the protagonist may accomplish those things, there also has to be a story purpose for the character’s demise. But what I read are a lot of wannabe's stories where the protagonist’s death feels like an after thought tacked on because the author wanted to add a few tears, a suspenseful ending, or a solution to an impossible situation. Or, he had third act writer's block.

I’ve begun dissecting and categorizing a few films where the protagonist(s) die at the end but I could certainly use additional suggestions and slashers do not count. Slashers are an exception to my “death with a purpose” theory because in slashers, death can be utterly pointless since the point of the whole film IS death. Usually, somebody survives (room for a sequel), but even if the protagonist does die, it is often to end the film with a bang -- a bizarre, unusual, or totally unexpected way to knock the protagonist off.

At least, that's what I'm thinking NOW. These thoughts are subject to change following my little study. I have ten films on my “death of a protagonist" study list and they will take some time for me to dissect and theorize but the floor is also open for suggestions.

Starting --- now.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Feast Findings

Snickers outnumber scares in FEAST, the third, and likely final, product of Project Greenlight. But, what do I know? Maybe in this genre, like pizza, you can't get enough cheese. Seems to me, though, in a horror film, I shouldn't be scratching my head more than squirming in my seat.

Lest anyone misunderstand, I believe John Gulager has a busy film future -- at least I hope he does. While I'm far from qualified to render a verdict on this genre, if I had to point out the biggest shortcoming in the film, it would be character development.

Characters are so purposely over the top cliche and play such a degree of absurdity that the gags take the bite out of the horror. Having said that, watching Judah Friedlander's character alone, Beer Guy, is worth renting the DVD -- but beware of maggots.

Still if you like horror and aren't lactose intolerant (can stomach cheese), this film is for you, but be forewarned -- FEAST is appropriately titled, not because of the people eating monsters, but because FEAST is a caricatural smorgasborg that pushes the boundaries of taste.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Warming Up To Reality

In the past, my only reality show addiction has been American Idol. Oh, shut up! I'm a singer! But I don't watch much television and reality shows just don't do much for me. I've never even seen a single episode of Survivor. Never. Really.

Then there was Emmitt.

Who'd have thought I'd ever watch Dancing With the Stars? But Emmitt is utterly charming. Even Jerry Springer has some charisma when he's not surrounded by trailer trash.

You'd think thirty minutes of Meerkat Manor would be enough but I am quite distraught over Mozart's banishment. Come on, Flower! She's a kid! And, yeah, Bill Nighy's narrations humanize the little buggers but just where is our brave hero, Shakespeare? Did anyone even look for Tosca? Where for art thou, ya little monkey-looking herpestids?

Monday, October 16, 2006

Breaking In or Breaking Out

In March of 2004, I completed my first screenplay -- sort of. It took almost five months to write. It sucked then and countless rewrites later, it still sucks. By the time I finished my second screenplay, I had an agent on the wrong coast and a story beloved by several indy producers (or so they said) but too dark, edgy and expensive to make. More importantly, I had fallen into a trap -- an imaginary and self imposed trap which demanded that I "break in" or admit that I was not a real screenwriter.

Basura. (rubbish)

I didn't start out that way. I started out wanting nothing more than to write great stories. Okay, so they were written in crayon about magic pennies that made Davy Jones fall in love with me and a jealous one legged princess who resembled those goons on Popeye and turned me into a troll so I couldn't sing with the Monkees and cause the group to break up. Thank goodness Gumby and Pokey showed up when they did. Stupid princess. It was a troll that ate her other leg! Was she not worried that I would eat her remaining one? No, she was too wrapped up in that whole leprechaun discrimination thing. Come one! As if lephrechauns PURPOSELY put pots of magic pennies too far for a one legged princess to walk!

I digress... point, point, what was the point?

Oh, yes. The point is that until one ugly day last year, it never mattered to me if anyone read my stories, liked them, or rejected them. Writing was reward enough. I had something to say and I wanted to say it.

Then something happened. No, it wasn't déjà vu and Yoko Ono.

Maybe screenwriters are simply and inherently passionate for breaking in, getting validation, and seeing their work onscreen and maybe it is that passion which drives us to seek out "peer" reviews on sources like Zoetrope and Triggerstreet, befriend other screenwriters, move to Hollywood, and lament day after day over our founts of talent being overlooked because we don't have the right connections.

Whatever the reason, I adopted another way of thinking.

Suddenly, I cared about getting my work onscreen more than I did about the work itself. Story suffered. Creativity suffered. My mind was not full of insane ideas and creative ways to put them on paper. My mind was occupied with an urgency to get inside the gate before it closed, was reinforced with iron bars, and equipped with rookie sensitive cattle prods.

The fun was over.

It was all so serious and unpleasant, tedious and tense. No longer a creative outlet, a release, a thrilling opportunity to clack worlds into existence, writing was now just another overworked, underpaid, and misunderstood part of my life. It was a drag.

So, I quit.

For months, I didn't work on screenplays and vowed not to write another word until --

* I found more joy in writing a single sentence than in the thought of making a sale

* I got that "first love" feeling back every time I crafted a new character

* I wrote for the sheer love of storytelling

It's liberating.

Oh sure, I still sweat over the Nicholl and the AFF but it's the same kind of anxiety I feel when I watch one of my three sons run track, play football, enter an art competition, train for a wresting match, sing, dance, high jump, or play a trumpet solo. I want the whole world to recognize, admit, and publicly proclaim that my kids are better than everyone else's.

Is that too much to ask for my screenplay? I mean -- my kids?

But what I don't do is think about scholarships, commercial art opportunities, dance careers, the Olympics, drum corps recruitment, or professional wrestling contracts. None of that matters right now.

Honestly, I just enjoy watching my kids become who they want to be and I really, really want to raise great kids.

Likewise, I do not submit queries or worry about making a sale. Nor do I maintain a detailed contact list and strategize about how to "break in". It doesn't mean that I purposely miss opportunities and do nothing to promote myself. It simply means that story is what matters most.

Honestly, I just want to enjoy becoming the kind of writer I know I can be and I really, really want to write great stories.

I say this, not to urge anyone to quit writing or to discourage writers from seeking agents, producers, managers, or other writers to help market their work. That's all part of becoming a screenwriter. But I pen this as a plea -- to beg my fellow writers to not allow the desperation of trying to get produced to strangle the joy out of writing.

If that opt or sale or phone call comes that changes your life, I will celebrate for you and if it comes for me, I hope some of you party in my honor. But it's not THE MOST IMPORTANT part of writing.

Break out of that trap -- that vile, deceitful and consuming trap. While I have nothing to support my theory, I suspect that we all have to break out before we can actually break in. Why? Because we'll be much better writers.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

My Blog Anniversary

In honor of my one year anniversary (this past Tuesday), I've perused all 270 posts to see what, if any, real value I've gleaned or shared in the past year and I'm pleased to say that it has not been an entire waste of time -- although it has been a PARTIAL waste of time. I've listed some of the more useful posts and conveniently NOT listed the most babbling, obtuse, and nonsensical ones.

By the way, if you need anniversary gift suggestions -- Final Draft, squirrel repellant, Tijuana Brass CD's and does anyone know if the 1968 Banana Splits program is available on DVD?

Four banana, three banana, two bananas, one
All bananas playing in the bright warm sun
Flipping like a pancake, popping like a cork,
Fleagle, Bingo, Drooper and Snork
So, I guess I'll keep this up another year -- or, until I run out of things to say.

You Don't Bring Me Flowers Anymore
Why Characters Say No
How Many is Too Many?
Inconsistent Characters
Fish With Feet
Mysterious Characters
Fascinating Characters
Character Empathy
Character Over Gimmick

My Rom Com Question
Rom Com-mon Denominator
Learning the Rom Com
Finding the Romance Part Two
Finding the Romance Part One

Disappearing Subtext
Deciphering Subtext

Properly Exposing
Exposition ABC's
Over Exposure

Purpose of Battle Speeches
More On Battle Speeches

Thematic Reflexivity
Architects and Designers
How Many Pages Per Diem?
How Good is Good?
Sensible Stories
What Producers Look For
Repugnant Protagonists
Crushing the Villain
Seducing the Audience
Tactics for Making Passes
The Silent Treatment

Monday, October 09, 2006

Over Exposure

Of all the exposition no-no's, advice, and complaints I've come across this week, this one seems to be the most frequently addressed so I've decided that it merits its own post -- OVER EXPOSURE -- which (I can't help it) reminds me of Peter Venkman. Ghostbusters 2, for all its shortcomings, has some great lines.

Ray: Don't talk to me; talk to my attorney.
Louis Tully: And that's me! My guys are still under a judicial mistrangement order... that blue thing I got from her! They could be exposing themselves!
Peter Venkman: And you don't want us exposing ourselves!

That line could almost be the screenwriter's motto -- "you don't want us exposing ourselves!" Except -- it wouldn't be true. Exposition is a necessary evil. We want the viewer to see us exposing ourselves. We just don't want them to KNOW that's what we're doing.

It's kind of a reverse "Emperor's New Clothes" form of screenwriting. The emperor thought he was in magnificent robes so light and fine that they were invisible to anyone too stupid to appreciate them. If you don't see them, you're an idiot. If you do see them, you're normal. We want the same thing in reverse -- exposition so well weaved that it is invisible to anyone not purposely looking for it. If you don't see it, you're an average viewer. If you do see it, you're in film school.

But OVER exposure plays a major role in thousands of specs that implode on reader desks all over Hollywood. Most of the books, articles, & web logs that discuss exposition warn against giving the reader too much information. This seems to be the number one way for a screenplay to self destruct -- inundate your reader with busy exposition, flashbacks, and talking heads.

My top three list of the most annoying over exposure methods:

(1) YOU SEE, TIMMY - Not to be confused with "as you know, Bob"s, the "you see, Timmy" (as defined in the movie Speechless) is the lesson, theme, or moral of a story summed up the way Timmy's mother might close an episode of Lassie with something like, "You see, Timmy, birds have to be free. They don't want your affection. But Lassie always comes home because she'd die without your love."

Cue giant dog hug.

Yes, the lines are lame and cheesy (I made them deliberately lame and cheesy to illustrate a point), but they serve a purpose in summing up what Timmy learned and what the episode was trying to say. Used at the beginning of a story, it would give away the whole episode too early and rob the audience of experiencing the story from Timmy's perspective.

No fun for the viewer.

But surprising to me, half or more of the screenplays I've read by aspiring writers give all the details in the first act. Instead of dropping clues, they spoon feed the answers.

When I was a little girl, my grandmother used to tell me that if you show a little flesh, a man will hang around to see what else you've got. Show it all and there are no more secrets - no reason for him to stick around. We need readers to stick around.

(2) PRESS CONFERENCES - Oh, it pains my public relations soul to criticize the single most effective way for a government to confront a time sensitive, easily misconstrued, or volatile event. But I must. I once read a screenplay with an eighteen page press conference with one purpose - to detail how a man was logistically able to keep his sperm alive long enough to sell it on eBay. All the reader needs is a plausible explanation, not a detailed one. Press conferences are getting harder and harder to write because (1) they are BORING (2) they are PREDICTABLE and (3) they are BORING.

If you must, must, must write a press conference because it's a fundamental requirement of your story OR because it actually WILL move the story along, give your confrontation with reporters a twist, spin, or unexpected dialogue to lighten it up and separate it from every other press conference we've ever seen. Make it memorable.

In The Fugitive, when Lieutenant Gerard interrupts the sheriff in charge of the train wreck as he's showboating his investigation for the television cameras, we find out who Gerard is, the authority of the U.S. Marshals' Office, checkpoint locations, fugitive information, the search perimeter, and we get an unforgettable peek into the mind of Gerard as he announces that he wants a hard target search of every "gas station, residence, warehouse, farmhouse, hen house, outhouse and dog house". Cameras still flashing.

(2) NEWS PROGRAMS - So yeah, a twelve car pile up, bomb threat, or freakish weather event is news, but a news broadcast as the primary means of exposition is painful and seriously, while some stations do frequent human interest stories, how many of them really care that a fireman rescued a cat out of a tree? Like the press conference, news programs should be used to move the story along, not just reveal exposition.

Two favorites come to mind:

Bruce Almighty is about a beat reporter who does human interest stories but wants a seat at the desk. Still, each on-camera news scene is not just original and amusing, but it tells us something about the characters in the scene. Bruce is jealous, Evan is insecure, etc.

In the 1989 Batman, news reporters are shown on aira succumbing to the poisonous effects of cosmetics and grooming products. Others are later seen with no makeup and suffering from baggy eyes, bad skin and graying lifeless hair

So there ya have it -- the three abuses of exposition that annoy me the most -- too much information too soon, press conferences and news programs. What are yours?

Friday, October 06, 2006

2006 Nicholl Finalists

“Abilene,” Michael Raymond, Auckland, New Zealand, and Seattle, Washington

“Armored,” James V. Simpson, New Westminster, British Columbia, Canada

“Beatrice Creek,” Eric J. Litra, Monroe, Michigan

“The Free Republic of Bobistan,” Arthur M. Jolly, Marina del Rey, California

“Mr. Burnout,” Eric T. Gravning, Santa Monica, California

“Palau Rain,” Stephanie Lord, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

“Peepers,” Clark E. Morrow, Olathe, Kansas

“10 Day Contract,” Josh D. Schorr, South Pasadena, California

“38 Mercury,” Alfred E. Carpenter, Alexandria, Virginia, and Mark A. Matusof, Woodbridge, Virginia

“Tides of Summer,” Scott K. Simonsen, Hermosa Beach, California

Academy Announces
Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowship
Finalists for 2006

Heartfelt congrats to each one! Deux, is that you?? And, FYI, from Greg Beal, the genres break down as follows:

ABILENE / drama
ARMORED / action thriller
BEATRICE CREEK drama (crime)
MR. BURNOUT / comedy
PALAU RAIN / drama adventure
PEEPERS / crime thriller
10 DAY CONTRACT / sports drama
38 MERCURY / science fiction fantasy
TIDES OF SUMMER / coming of age drama

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Exposition ABC's

In case you're looking, there's not a lot on the internet about exposition as it applies to screenwriting.

"As You Know, Bob" is apparently an expression which means "exposition that sucks" but until Karl Iglesias used the phrase as the title for his Creative Screenwriting article, I had never heard it.


Karl has five tips for writing good (invisible) exposition:

  1. Surround Exposition With Conflict - Create fights, arguments, complications and life-or-death situations.
  2. Present Exposition When the Reader is Eager to Know it - Set up the desire to know it.
  3. Make Exposition Active and Purposeful - Make a character need to say it because it contributes to the character's objective.
  4. Twist a Character's Emotions to Get Exposition - Make the character need the information and have to fight to get it.
  5. Add Dramatic Irony - Create tension by letting your character in on a secret.
John August also has five suggestions for writing better exposition:

  1. Show the information, rather than having a character say it.
  2. Try to follow a natural line of thought: A to B to C.
  3. Simplify. The reader may not need to know everything.
  4. Keep your hero active in learning the information, rather than passively listening.
  5. Balance natural speech patterns with efficiency. People rarely say things as concisely as they could.
All noteworthy.

Okay, now here comes my arrogance. As much as I know I'm not qualified to dispute professionals, session four of the American Film Institute's "Basics of Screenwriting" uses the phrase "exposition" and "backstory" synonymously. Backstory is not always exposition and exposition is not always backstory. Somebody who knows more than me, please set me straight on this.


Karl Iglesias quotes Humphrey Bogart as saying that if he ever had to spout exposition, there'd better be two camels humping in the background to distract the audience. But Dave Trottier warns us in "The Screenwriter's Bible" against making the exposition too exciting and uses the second Indiana Jones movie as an example. Funny -- I've seen the first and third Indy films more times than I can count, but with Temple of Doom, once was enough. Dave says that primary exposition is presented over a meal so revolting, that the attention of the audience is diverted from the dialogue. I wouldn't know. It diverted my attention from the entire remainder of the film -- I guess I'm just not entertained by humping camels.

Another crutch in introducing exposition is the flashback. Dave says that ninety-five percent of flashbacks in unsold scripts do not work for two reasons (1) it doesn't move the story forward and (2) we don't care about the characters or story BEFORE we get flung into the past.

Linda Seger's "Making a Good Script Great" says that expository speeches and flashbacks are most frequently to blame for the common mistake amateurs make in explaining motivation instead of showing it, which over-emphasizes backstory and the influences of other characters on the situation at hand. She says flashbacks don't work when (1) they are informational instead of dramatic, (2) they stop the action, and (3) the motivation is not here, now, or imminent.


Bill Martell's "The Secrets of Action Screenwriting" sums up dialogue this way:

"Make sure every line of dialogue:

  1. Exposes Character
  2. Moves the Story Forward
  3. Is Entertaining"

If every line of dialogue exposes character, then there's not much need to explain character motivation and the writer has more freedom to craft a story that doesn't need crutches.

One of my all time favorite lines comes from the John Lennon song, Beautiful Boy, used in Mr. Holland's Opus. "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." Life is happening. You just don't see it. This somehow reminded me that good exposition is always happening. You just don't see it.

ADDENDUM: Make sure that when you skeedaddle, you follow up this post with one from Unknown Screenwriter who also has a list of five exposition rules. What is it with the fives?

  1. Set limits on what your reader or audience needs to know.
  2. Spoon feed the reader and the audience just enough exposition and backstory so that you leave them wanting even more.
  3. Make the characters in your story want the information as bad as WE do.
  4. Use exposition as a setup for future action.
  5. Combine exposition and action.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Properly Exposing

In search of a page to post in response to the one page gauntlet, I skimmed some of my screenwriting efforts from the past year and -- well -- ouch. Those screenplays are collecting dust bunnies under the bed for a reason. More painful than recognizing the flawed writing is realizing that a year from now, I will likely have the same yuck-in-my-gut reaction to what I am working on today.

I don't know which parts read the worst, but I'm thinking it's a tie between my dead-on dialogue and poorly crafted exposition. Did I say it was poor? I meant tragic, calamitous, pitiable, and shockingly lamentable.

Okay, poor.

So, I'm on a quest for the keys to crafting a screenplay without insulting the intelligence of the reader by using exposition that couldn't be more offensively obvious if you pointed it out with flashing neon lights.

I have nothing against neon, mind you. It can be useful in pointing the way to ATM machines, pool halls, nail salons, tanning beds, tattoo parlors, slot machines, the exits of smoke filled aircraft, and -- beer. Oh, and anyone who has ever consumed two full bottles of Snapple green tea while driving four hours to Austin can ballyhoo the merits of neon signs over restroom doors in crowded convenience stores.

Neon has its place. Exposition, too, has its place. So why is it that some exposition works and some sounds like dialogue from a Dick and Jane early reader? Could it be that exposition often uses neon signs where better craftsmanship would require only a small blinking light? Or, do we sometimes use so many blinking lights that it spoils the view of everything else?

Karl Iglesias has an article about exposition in this month's Creative Screenwriting Magazine. My magazine arrives in the mailbox weeks after everyone gets theirs (and the mail lady wonders why I chase her down?), so I haven't gotten to read it yet but I'm thinking that on this quest to better write and better understand exposition, that article is the place to start.

Monday, October 02, 2006

One Page Challenge

Apparantly, Red Right Hand started this challenge and being too self absorbed of late to read my blog roll and somewhat preoccupied with job, kids, job, father's house, job, singing engagements, job, closet cleaning, job, and my new workout CD (latin dance, this is uber exhausting) I missed it. However, Unknown Screenwriter set me straight and here we are -- one page of an unfinished screenplay. Why unfinished? Uh, hello -- job, kids, job, father's house, job, singing engagements, job, closet cleaning, job, and my new workout CD.

This screenplay seems particularly appropriate at the moment. But, let me make this very clear. There was NO fly paper on my father's walls, no toilet in the yard and no fish in his bathtub.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

The B Movie Life, Part 3

If you ever need to sneak off and call a psychologist friend for advice about your pecan phobic daughter, don’t do it in the driveway next to the patio where she’s laying tile. Window screens do not make particularly effective sound barriers.

Sheesh. As if it was my fault!

Halfway finished with the floor, I noticed an odd lump and realized that I had tiled over a remnant left from piecing around the door. I went off in search of a putty knife so I could pull the tile up and when I returned, my brother was trying to stomp it flat.

ME: That’s not going to work.
HIM: Dad said you need a break.
ME: It's probably a pecan.
HIM: Naw, you'd have noticed it.
ME: Not if it's a haunted pecan.
HIM: It didn't crack when I jumped on it.
ME: Because it's haunted.
HIM: Geez, you're whacked. Gimme that.

I handed him the putty knife and went to get my Diet Dr. Pepper from the table, but about the time I noticed it missing --

HIM: Found your pecan only it's a lizard!
ME: Not funny. Did you drink my Dr. Pepper?
HIM: He's road pizza.
ME: Knock it off.

But when I reached the patio my brother was studying the tile in one hand with a putty blade of lizard mush in the other. Then in his best Steve Irwin voice --

HIM: Crikey. His tail is still stuck.