Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Best of Times and the Worst of Times

Perhaps what has been one of the most aggravating months of my life is finally ending on a good note. After a barrage of Frankenstein-ish pokes and prods, we've got a diagnosis for my freakish event earlier in the month - there's nothing wrong with me - and a second EEG proves that I do NOT have epilepsy or any other seizure activity.

DIAGNOSIS - Hypertension, migraines and certain herbal supplements can trigger temporary spurts in high blood pressure. The regular ingestion of unnecessary blood pressure medication can lower your heart rate to dangerous levels and cause you to pass out ...

It really is that simple.

I'm not trivializing high blood pressure. Every day high blood pressure goes untreated results in damage to your eyes, liver, and kidneys, among other organs, which is why the Fire Chief started all this.

I don't blame the Chief. He was looking after me. But, I'm mad as hell at the doctor who put me on medication that lowered my heart rate to life threatening levels instead of listening to me.

I told the doctor that high blood pressure had to be a symptom of something else. I'm healthy and active. Not a soul in my family had ever had high blood pressure and not even pregnant and big as Rasputia was my blood pressure ever above normal.

But the doctor showed me a film, talked about being over forty, and convinced me that I was in denial. I had high blood pressure. Fine. I took the medicine. And, on January 7th, reacting to the meds, my heart rate dropped so low and my blood pressure sky rocketed so high that I wound up in the hospital for three days.

January has been awful. Grounded from my car while we made sure I didn't have a stroke, heart attack, or seizure, the men in my life had to chauffeur me everywhere. All I needed were a few mothballs, an AARP card, and a pair of droopy stockings to feel more ancient.

One son drives a Frontier pickup. Another drives a Honda. I am the queen of carsickness. By the time I ride four miles in the passenger side of a Frontier or Honda, then crawl across the gravel parking lot, barfing my way to the office doors, nobody can convince I don't have a brain tumor.

But, it's over. I'm fine. I have a medication for migraines that seems to be working well. Two entire weeks with no migraines. That's somewhat of a record for me. No high blood pressure. No blood pressure medication.

And the important things here are -- (1) I'm not dead (2) I've got the Nicholl to look forward to and (3) I've got my car keys back!

Friday, January 26, 2007

Screenwriting for Dummies

I realize the "Dummies" and "Idiot's Guide" books are uber cool and supposedly the ultimate easy learn in just about any topic of every day life, but does anyone else have a problem with this title? Do we really WANT to encourage dummies to write screenplays? Aren't there enough of us writing them already?


For me, there's just something insulting about the title of this book. It insults the book's authors and compares learning the craft of screenwriting to learning Word, AOL, or Quickbooks. No, it doesn't say that! But, that's what the title implies and how many screenplays have you read where it's obvious that the "screenwriter" simply opened up a screenwriting software program and started clacking?

Let me make this clear. My issue is NOT The book. It may be genius. I haven't read it. It's the TITLE of this book that chaps me.

I have "HTML for Dummies" because unfortunately, I am, now and then, required to write some html code on the job and am such a dummy that even the "HTML for Dummies" book is over my head. So, just for grins, I looked up some of the other "for dummies" books at Dummies.com (which is a lot of fun, by the way) and here are a few interesting ones I noted for future gifts. There's something here for just about every dummy in the family!
Puppies for Dummies is just funny to me. I don't know why it's funny, but it is. Little boys have been bringing home puppies for centuries and now we need a book to tell us how. That third edition of Sex for Dummies is even funnier -- it's a third edition in case you read the first two editions and still don't get it. Heartburn and Reflux for Dummies is for those of us who choose not to read Anger Management for Dummies. Somebody was preparing ahead.

Screenwriting for Dummies sounds bad! But not as bad as --
There's a special deal at Amazon right now if you buy Blogging for Dummies and Buzz Marking with Blogs for Dummies together. There doesn't, however, seem to be a "Not Taking Dummy Book Titles Personally for Dummies". Somebody should write that one.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Time Enough, At Last

What's better than a library card? Not much. But, my friends gave me Barnes and Noble gift cards for Christmas. Lots of them. And, that means books for keeps.

I have a king's ransom to spend because what else do you give a writer who pretty much loathes the holidays and already has everything her heart desires? Books. It's pretty awesome, really. And Barnes and Noble online delivers to my front door in two days, FREE.

Now, I can make guilt-free purchases of every screenwriting book I don't already have so Robert McKee, Syd Field, Christopher Vogler, Ron Suppa, and David Trottier, among others, can point their accusing fingers at me in new ways and make me second guess myself more than I already do.


So, what to do with all these gift cards? I feel like that near sighted guy, Mr. Beamis, in the Twilight Zone. He was the sole survivor after a nuclear holocaust and stumbled on his heart's desire, a library, and for the first time in his busy banking life, he had time enough to read. Alas, just as he put his books in order, his glasses slid off his face and shattered.

Circumstances of late have isolated me in a similar way. I have my health and my job but there are some temporary restrictions pending resolution of a couple of things and I'm somewhat sick of being looked at like a spore in a petri dish. Sometimes, I think doctors just get their jollies hooking me up to electronic stuff and poking at me.

The blessing here is that we are finally, at long last, finding a cause and prevention for the incessant migraines that have plagued me for so very long.

Unlike Mr. Beamis, I have a computer and Barnes and Noble cards which equate to limitless books, videos and cd's at my disposal. And, lucky me, I have contact lenses and two pair of glasses.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Best Screenplay = Best Picture?

Surprises? At least one for me. But I think it's noteworthy that all the best pictures were also nominated for either best original screenplay or best adapted screenplay. Okay, actually all but ONE were original screenplays. Anyway, in case you read ME before you watch television, read variety or check your influx of film related email --

"Babel" Guillermo Arriaga
"Letters from Iwo Jima" Iris Yamashita, Paul Haggis
"Little Miss Sunshine" Michael Arndt
"Pan's Labyrinth" Guillermo del Toro
"The Queen" Peter Morgan

"Borat" Sacha Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Peter Baynham, Dan Mazer, Todd Phillips
"Children of Men" David Arata, Alfonso Cuarón, Mark Fergus, Timothy J. Sexton, Hawk Ostby
"The Departed" Wiliam Monahan
"Little Children" Todd Field, Tom Perrotta
"Notes on a Scandal" Patrick Marber

"Babel" Steve Golin, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Jon Kilik, producers; Anonymous Content Production/Una Producción De Zeta Film/Central Films Production; Paramount Pictures/Paramount Vantage (Paramount Vantage)
"The Departed" Brad Grey, Graham King, Brad Pitt, Martin Scorsese, producers; Vertigo Entertainment/Plan B Entertainment/Warner Bros. Pictures (Warner Bros.)
"Little Miss Sunshine" Albert Berger, David T. Friendly, producers; Big Beach/Bonafide Productions (Fox Searchlight Pictures)
"Letters from Iwo Jima" Clint Eastwood, Robert Lorenz, Steven Spielberg, producers; Malpaso Productions (Warner Bros.)
"The Queen" Andy Harries, Christine Langan, Tracey Seaward, producers; A Granada production (Miramax)

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Pan Fried Characters

Remember the anti-drug commercial that shows you an egg and says "This is your brain," and when the egg cracks open into a hot skillet, the voiceover says "This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?"

That's the mental image that kept coming to mind as I read through Unknown Screenwriter's posts about character depth. It was as if he held up an egg and said, "This is your character," and then dropped it into a scorching pan of scrutiny and said, "This is the depth of your character. Any questions?"

Oh yeah. I had questions. My yolk splattered everywhere.


Certainly, there is truth in the notion that writers can over-think individual aspects of their craft to the degree that spontaneity and creativity suffers, but character development is critical and SHOULD be overthought. Read these posts and remember the egg:

Depth Charging Your Characters
Depth Charging Your Characters Part 2
Depth Charging Clarifications

Any questions?

Friday, January 19, 2007

Symbolism and Foreshadowing

So far, in this season of rewrites, I've examined my Nicholl entry for:
  1. Contrived Conflict
  2. Sidekick Story Problems
  3. Dialogue which doesn't sound overheard
  4. Characters who aren't specific
  5. Main characters without edges
  6. Absence of specificity to scenes, characters, and dialogue
  7. Absence of texture to scenes, characters, and dialogue
  8. Weak verbs and pansy words

There's much more to do and steps that need repeating so this rewrite may never actually be "done". I'll just one day stop editing because the Nicholl deadline is upon me. Tick. Tick. Tick. Now, it's time to take a look at my screenplay with a view toward evaluating --

Symbolism and foreshadowing

Why did I lump two very different literary tools together? Because we writers often make the same mistake with both of them -- we think them to death. Some brilliant somebody in a classroom someplace taught us that these two devices were pinnacles, cornerstones, or defining characteristics of a great story so we respond by contriving, calculating and then planting symbolism and foreshadowing in just the right place. But didn't that brilliant somebody also mention --

  1. that the WRITER doesn't tell the reader where the symbolism is or what it means -- the STORY does?
  2. that the WRITER doesn't show the reader where the foreshadowing is -- the STORY does?

Writers can't just ordain that a symbol has certain meaning. It comes from the context of the story. And, foreshadowing isn't a shadow until the story casts light on it. Mis-using these two devices will likely garner a response from a reader that the story feels contrived.

SYMBOLISM - in Pirates of the Caribbean Curse of the Black Pearl, the corset is a blatant symbol of how stifled and restricted Elizabeth Swann feels. Nowhere in the film or screenplay does anyone call attention to the corset as a symbol, but it's obvious. However, it's NOT obvious until the story makes it such. In the beginning, the corset is just a corset. But, without it, there'd be no story at all, literally OR figuratively.

A word of caution about symbolism - don't overdue it. How many times did we need to see Superman Returns make symbolic comparisons between the man of steel and Jesus Christ? Once was interesting. Twice was too much. After that, it got downright annoying.

FORESHADOWING - in Mystic River, when Kevin Bacon's character is pondering over a murder and asks how a woman so small got the jump on her attacker, he's just asking a question as a normal part of an investigation. Most of the audience didn't realize it was foreshadowing until the end of the film and maybe not even then. The comment about the killer is both foreshadowing AND an important key to the story.

A word of caution about foreshadowing - too much makes the story predictable and throwing in a lot of fake foreshadowing (red herrings), well that may work in horror films but in most genres, it just ticks readers off.

IMPORTANT SAFETY TIP: As a screenwriter, you will likely identify foreshadowing that other viewers miss. If you happen to be watching a film in the theatre -- oh let's use Mystic River as an example -- and happen to identify foreshadowing early in a film, do not blurt out "oh, man, that means the kid did it!" lest the audience pummel you with snack food.

FYI: Mustard will wipe off your leather jacket without leaving a stain but it will take at least three shampoos to get the nacho cheese out of your hair.

You've been warned.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Weak Verbs and Pansy Words

I set out to write a detailed post about how to use stronger verbs. This is the extent of what I came up with:
Weak verbs and pansy words. Don't use them.
I can no more tell a person to stop using weak verbs than I can tell a person to stop snoring. It's not logical. A person doesn't KNOW when he's snoring. How can I tell him to stop? Writers who can't identify weak verbs can't stop using them. It's that simple.

What are weak verbs? Well, weak verbs are verbs that are, you know -- weak. Sit, stand, look, walk, run. These can be, but aren't necessarily always, weak verbs. Most of us use them in our initial drafts, outlines, and beat sheets but trade up with each draft.

And pansy words? Well, let's see... um. I would say that they are overly simplistic words that don't contribute to a visual description of action. I guess it's like the difference between writing that a girl "tied her shoes" and that same girl "fumbled with the Sponge Bob laces in her red high tops ".

Just how do you TEACH somebody to form more visual sentences by eliminating weak verbs and pansy words?

Honestly, I don't think you can.

This issue is one that defines where the rubber meets the road, where the peanut butter meets the jelly, and where the Captain meets Tenille -- weak verbs and pansy words will separate the real screenwriters from the posers.

Here's why --

I caught some grief from this reprint of Jim Mercurio's article, "Everything I Needed to Know About Screenwriting, I Learned from American Idol" but after watching AI last night, I gotta tell ya, the one similarity Mercurio doesn't draw between amateur singers and amateur screenwriters is the parallel that seems the most profoundly on the money to me -- people don't know when they suck.

How does that happen?

A subterranean fear of mine is that one day, when I finally become a Nicholl finalist, I'll be exposed as a fraud and learn that not only am I NOT a Nicholl finalist, but I'm in some kind Twilight Zone-ish solitude toleration chamber, wearing Underdog pajamas and drawing with crayons in my Wizard of Id coloring book, while producers, directors, and accomplished screenwriters observe through sound proof Plexiglas, shaking their heads in feigned sympathy and wondering why nobody ever told me that I couldn't write.

It happens! Just watch American Idol. Many of those people live in their own red carpet worlds of screaming fans and mega-bucks recording contracts and the only thing standing between them and stardom is sound proof Plexiglass, behind which judges, who can't hear amazing talent, shake their heads in feigned sympathy and wonder why nobody ever told those people they can't sing.

People who suck don't know they suck. You can't tell them they suck and you can't teach them not to suck. It's a great American tragedy. We're deaf and blind to our own suckdom (suckness?) so we challenge, berate, and flog anyone who tries to uncover our ears or drag us out of denial and into the painful truth-revealing light.

You can't teach a person who thinks they already know it all and you can't call attention to weak verbs or pansy words if the writer is incapable of recognizing their own flaws, even when those flaws are potentially fatal and identified with warning labels and detour signs.

The good news about weak verbs and pansy words - when you point them out to real writers, they will instantly know what you're talking about - no explanation necessary- and they'll wonder why the heck they didn't notice those problems themselves.

The bad news about weak verbs and pansy words - when you mention them to posers, they'll wonder what you mean, ask you to explain why the words are weak, scratch their heads in confusion when you elaborate, and most likely, walk away thinking you are the Simon Cowell of screenwriting -- unreasonable, nit-picky, blind to their talent and vague.

So, I can't write a post explaining weak verbs. Perhaps a better writer can. Nor can I go into great length about puny, lame, or pansy-ish descriptions. Again, maybe a more seasoned screenwriter can. All I can say with total confidence is that when it comes to using weak verbs or pansy words, don't.

Yeah, that's pretty vague - like telling a contestant to stop being a bad singer and be a good one.

But I do know this -- Point out pitch problems to real singers and they will adjust. Point out weak verbs and pansy words to real writers and they will trade up. However, pointing out weak verbs and pansy words to a poser is like trying to teach a tone-deaf person to sing. You might just as well tell them to stop snoring.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Bill Marsilii and High Concept

Bill Marsilii, co-author of Deja Vu with Terry Rossio, talks about his start in screenwriting to Michael Cortson via a cell phone conversation turned podcast. Most interesting in this podcast is how Bill learned high concept and more importantly, how it was high concept that got him out of the theatre and into screenwriting. High concept is what ignited his career.

For those of you who don't do podcasts, it basically goes like this--

Bill Marsilii, originally from Wilmington, Delaware, began doing theatre in high school and then went to NY to study drama. He and some friends formed Bad Neighbors, a theatre company, when they got out of school and realized they had no idea what a head shot was or how to get an agent. Turns out, the theatre company was great screenwriting training because they couldn’t afford to pay royalties and had to write all their own stuff. When he saw that the New York Times published off-off Broadway theatre titles with a one line synopsis, Bill figured out that he needed a premise that could be thoroughly conveyed in single sentence.

While he also discusses his film, how he got together with Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, and his near miss with a producer/Heidi Fleisch patron, the crux of the interview is this: high concept is why he is where he is today.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Golden Globe Results 2007

A few surprises, a few no brainers, a snub or two and one no-show. He was stuck in traffic. Poor Prince.

Best Supporting Actress – Jennifer Hudson for Dreamgirls
Best Original Song - "The Song Of The Heart" – Prince for Happy Feet
Best Supporting Actor in Series, Mini Series or TV Movie – Jeremy Irons, Elizabeth I
Best Actress in a Television Drama – Kyra Sedewick, the Closer
Best Supporting Actress in a Series, Min Series or TV Movie – Emily Blunt, Gideon’s Daughter
Best Actor in a TV Series Drama – Hugh Laurie, House
Best Animated Feature Film – Cars
Best Actress in Motion Picture Musical or Comedy – Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada
Best Miniseries or TV Movie – Elizabeth I
Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture – Eddie Murphy, Dreamgirls
Best Actor in Miniseries or TV Movie – Bill Nighy, Gideon’s Daughter
Best Actress in Miniseries or TV Movie – Helen Mirren, Elizabeth I
Best Screenplay – Peter Morgan, the Queen
Best Actor in a TV Series or Comedy – Alec Baldwin, 30 Rock
Best TV Series Comedy – Ugly Betty
Best Foreign Language Film – Letters from Iwo Jima directed by Clint Eastwood
Best Original Score Motion Picture – Alexandre Desplat for The Painted Veil
Best Actress Musical or Comedy – America Ferrera for Ugly Betty
Best Director Motion Picture – Martin Scorsese for The Departed
Best Actor in Motion Picture Musical or Comedy – Sacha Baron Cohen for Borat
Best Motion Picture Musical or Comedy – Dreamgirls
Best Television Series Drama – Grey’s Anatomy
Best Actress Motion Picture Drama – Helen Mirren, The Queen
Best Actor Motion Picture – Forrest Whittaker for Last King of Scotland
Best Motion Picture Drama - Babel

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

No Place Like Home

So far, this hasn’t been such a great week for me. I kind of got caught burning the candle at both ends and well, see hottie cartoon me? Yeah, that's where I wound up after a bizarre lightning in my head episode. All is well. No worries. It took two days and thousands of dollars in catscans, EEG's, MRI's , EKG's, and chest x-rays to diagnose me as overworked, exhausted, and stressed beyond human capacity -- but in perfect health.

For future reference, if you should ever feel like your eyes are suddenly inflating, your brain is full of helium and you have an odd vertigo-type feeling that makes you mistake the floor for an ocean swell, surf ye to a fire station lest ye find yeeself sprawled out on an unmopped floor in a public place and in an unladylike position.

Kowabunga, baby.

Oh, and remember what your mom said about clean underwear in case you need to go the hospital? Well, if you have frequent migraines, you might also consider sports bras. No underwire. You can keep them on during catscans.

A hospital is no place for rest, by the way, especially if you room with Mrs. Roper and she insists on describing, in minute detail, her hemorrhoids, hernias, and displaced bladder. Then there's Stanley's waning virility...

I'll be back after I've had some sleep.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

The Eyes of a Closer

So far, in my season of rewrites, we've looked at contrived conflict and problems with sidekicks. But instead of relying solely on myself and a few screenwriting pals to figure out problem areas in my work, I've also decided to take a look at my screenplay through the eyes of a closer.

Creative Screenwriting had an article about screenwriting top guns who rewrite green lit scripts that need to be tweaked. Closers basically ride in on white horses, identify problems, clean up, and then ride out with big fat checks in their boots. Don Roos is the Wyatt Earp of closers so who better to tap into for rewrite points?

Careful to never use the term "script doctor", Don Roos told CS that the diagnoses are always the same:

* dialogue which doesn't sound overheard
* characters who aren't specific - seem taken from other films
* main characters without edges - uncomplicated & too likeable
* absence of specificity & texture to scenes, characters and dialogue

Good list.

So the first three are pretty much no brainers and while we amateurs are guilty of overlooking these kinds of flaws, I'm somewhat surprised that professionals don't grind their teeth to the roots when they read forced dialogue.

Still, this is my list as I review my Nicholl Fellowship entry for the umpteenth time but I wish Roos had elaborated a little on the fourth one. The specificity part I understand. It's the absence of texture to scenes and characters and dialogue that has me scratching my head. I've read a lot of guru books but for some reason this term, texture, isn't making a screenwriting love connection in my cerebellum.

A little help?

Friday, January 05, 2007

The Sidekick Story

Remember those brutal notes I wrote on the screenplay I reviewed the other day? Well, not only did the characters lack some very basic differences that would make the conflicts come naturally, but my sidekick had story problems.

Every character has a story. While the viewer may not need to know the whole story, the writer most certainly should. Since the sidekick is usually a sounding board or voice of reason for the protagonist and often helps shape a conclusion or define the theme or morality of the whole film, his back story is sometimes critical.

Common sidekick problems I've noticed in amateur screenplays:

  • The sidekick is just there. No story at all.
  • His back story conflicts with his character's behavior.
  • His back story is a superfluous waste of time
  • His back story is a poorly executed red herring
  • We learn too much about his back story
  • We don't learn enough about his back story
  • His story is too big for the role he plays in the film

My story notes told the author that her sidekick had a back story that was bigger than his role in the film AND her sidekick was entirely too wimpy for the back story she'd given him. Double whammy. Something had to change. My opinion was that not only did her sidekick need to grow a pair, but she also needed to adjust his back story.

As usual, she took it well.

The trick is knowing how much back story is enough. Where's the balance? Well, that's like asking how long to cook a turkey. You need to know the oven size, altitude, turkey weight, and whether it's a standard, convection or microwave oven. Or, you just figure it out as you go. (yeah, I know, bad analogy)

The point is that if the sidekick is gonna be handing out advice and sewing a moral thread in the story, we need to know a little something about what he's basing his opinions on. Is he telling your protagonist that home is in the heart because he grew up in an orphanage or because he read it in a Hallmark card? Is he a minor sidekick with major consequences in the story or a major sidekick who is basically only there so the main character has something to throw humor at?

It matters. It's a balancing act.

The best comparison for my sidekick problem I can think of is Forrest Gump. Bubba Blue is a relatively minor character who leaves early in the film, but he's there long enough to make Forrest want to buy a shrimp boat. Why? Because Bubba knows shrimp. We know that Bubba knows shrimp and that's about all we really need to know about his background. Forrest and Bubba become fast friends and that's the rest of Forrest's motivation to begin the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company. But the beginning? It's because Bubba knows shrimp.

Now, back to me. What did the author decide to do with my brutal notes? Well, I set my ego aside and realized that my sidekick problem would be the equivalent of giving Bubba a huge overblown family history. So I'm working on a "fruit of the sea" type solution.

In case you don't know what a "fruit of the sea" solution is --

BUBBA: . . . shrimp is the fruit of the sea. You can barbecue it, boil it, broil it, bake it, saute it. Dey's uh, shrimp-kabobs, shrimp creole, shrimp gumbo. Pan fried, deep fried, stir-fried. There's pineapple shrimp, lemon shrimp, coconut shrimp, pepper shrimp, shrimp soup, shrimp stew, shrimp salad, shrimp and potatoes, shrimp burger, shrimp sandwich. That- that's about it.

Yup, that's about it.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Contriving Conflict

Yesterday, I reviewed a screenplay that had problems. Overall the screenplay was decent, but some of the character conflicts felt contrived. The writer had gotten so wrapped up in the theme and execution of certain plot elements that she tried to re-invent the wheel and created more work for herself than was really necessary.

My notes were brutal. The characters lacked some very basic and inherent differences that would make the conflicts come naturally. Instead, those differences were built-in after the fact so the conflicts felt contrived. They felt contrived because they WERE contrived.

Stupid Example (because I'm too jacked up on black eyed peas to come up with a good one): Four people sit at a table and argue about what appetizers to order. Simple scene to stage if you already know who likes what. Difficult if you have to figure it all out at the table.

AA - Character one is allergic to shellfish and hates mushrooms
BB - Character two loves shellfish and loves mushrooms
AB - Character three hates shellfish and loves mushrooms
BA - Character four loves shellfish and is allergic to mushrooms

That same character grid creates natural conflicts over more relative character issues like love interests, career goals, sexual orientation, religion, politics, and child raising.

Oh, and the author took my notes very positively. After all, the screenplay was my 2006 Nicholl Fellowship application.