Saturday, May 31, 2008

We All Have Our Crack Pipes

After twenty solid minutes of playing outside, this obsessed little mutt promptly brought me his slobber soaked ball and demanded - yes, DEMANDED (watch the video) - that we continue our exercise in the hallway - half the hallway actually as it runs the entire length of the house and I was afraid he'd have a stroke. He CAN'T stop. Even if his tongue is hanging out and he's gasping for his last breath, he can't help himself. He can't stop. Oh, and no hesitating in between throws either or he gets very testy! He needs his fix!

Toby is an addict and that yellow tennis ball is his crack pipe. That ball stalks me. Wherever I go in my house, it suddenly appears. Look up and there's half an ear or nose waiting around the door for me to get the hint. I go to the bathroom and the ball appears. Look up. The ear is waiting around the door again. It's like a fetch horror movie.

And, today it dawned on me.

I, too, have a crack pipe. Even when I'm dog tired and collapsing in my bed, there are still stories swirling around in my head. I'll go to my laptop with an agonizing migraine (yeah, they're back - I dropped my meds) rather than let a story fade with time. Last night - er, this morning, I was writing notes at 4:00 a.m. because I had a brilliant - BRILLIANT - idea on the way to the bathroom.

I shudder to think what that idea reads like in the light of day, but that's not the point. The point is that we all have our crack pipes - metaphorically speaking. Writing is mine. And, possibly yours since you obviously read writer blogs...

Friday, May 30, 2008

Snorting Screenwriter Flames

Few blogs incite me, annoy me, or make me want to egg a guy's typewriter. After all, everyone is entitled to an opinion, even a shallow or ignorant one. This post, however, flaps a red cape and frustrates the flaming snot out of me as it squares off at Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio by suggesting that they had no business writing POTC2 and POTC3. Oh please. That's like saying Benjamin Franklin shouldn't have flown a kite.

Whether a critic, writer, or blogger likes a film or hates it, he ought to be able recognize the no-brainer contributions of these two writers to filmmaking and screenwriting, let alone the Pirates of the Caribbean phenomenon. There's a huge difference between an opinion -- "I didn't like the film" or "I had a hard time following that film" -- and the twaddletype passed off as an opinion -- "the narrative mess that was Dead Man’s Chest should have been enough for Bruckheimer to have these two walk the plank before At World’s End went before the lens". Oh, and Gore Verbinski "lacks vision". Yeah. On planet Moron. You want vision? Watch the Kraken in POTC2 or mailstrom in POTC3. You want films that dumb down for viewers? Go rent Baby Geniuses.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

What Does Your Audience Want?

Do you know what your reader expects from you when he picks up your screenplay? Can you be unpredictable without being erratic? Can you be erratic without seeming accidental? Screenwriting lessons come from the most unlikely places. The latest? Don't laugh. Wrestling. Go right ahead and roll your eyes but there are real and effective object lessons in our everyday lives. All we have to do is watch audiences, not just in movie theatres, but wherever we go.

From east Texas to west, my camera and I follow my oldest boy every week as he pursues his dream to beat people up for a living. I marvel as men envy and women worship my baby dumpling. They reach out to touch him, scream in rapt pleasure when he brushes by, ask for his autograph, and beg him to pose for photos. All the while, I remember how fearless he was as a toddler only until there was a cricket in his shoe or a lizard in the bathtub. It's the same time-in-a-tornado mixture of pride and post adolescent nostalgia all parents endure as they realize their children no longer are.

This MAN's goal (yes, he is indeed a man and I choke as I say it) is to one day join the likes of Steve Austin, the Rock, and a bunch of other WWE'r's whose names I don't find interesting enough to bother recalling. I loathe wrestling. But, it's my son's dream, not mine, and he's doing an impressive job of chasing it down. No stage parent help. All I did was pay for his first gym membership eight years ago.

So what is this Odyssey of his teaching me about screenwriting?

Sure, the success of these wrestling extravaganzas which take place in only the finest warehouses, abandoned retail districts and ag barns across Texas are also dependent on clever marketing (bright colored poster board) but once the butts are in the seats and the cracks are sufficiently exposed, it's much like any other live entertainment. If the audience is bored, they don't come back.

In stage plays, the story and characters are the same performance after performance. No so in this combative form of entertainment. The dramatic storylines evolve week after week much like in a soap opera. The execution of that drama is in the form of drop kicks, body slams, and moves with all kinds of masculine catch phrases which, again, I don't bother to remember.

The circuits where the drama works well are the ones with clearly defined characters - good, bad, ambiguous - it doesn't matter as long as it's clear which ones are good, bad, and ambiguous. These people want you to paint it on their foreheads-- cheer for this guy, boo that one, and beware of Frank Poncherello. We don't know what's up with him. Having done that, it's easy to shock them later with a transformation or character flip.

The organizations that don't execute the drama very well are the ones that make audiences figure out things for themselves or they flip their characters from hero to heel and then hero again too fast and too soon. They can't decide on the dramatization or they perform inconsistent dramatizations. These shows are so unpredictable that shock value is diminished (non-existent) and audiences are forced to learn everything anew every single week. You can take Popeye's spinach away and cut Samson's hair but the audience won't give a rip unless they've come to appreciate the full import of spinach and hair.

What does your audience want?

The wrestling audience wants the adrenaline that comes from being surprised, enraged, enraptured, sympathetic, and horrified. They want to feel every human emotion you can possibly cram into one evening of leotards, speedos, and men dressed as Power Rangers. Any Sybil-like herky jerky characterizations leave audiences unsatisfied and their seats empty the next week.

Last night, my boy worked the opening of a new "arena". Aside from the giant dead fish on the gravel parking lot and the lady breast feeding on the front bleacher, it was an okay place. This audience had never seen any of the wrestlers before. Event runners did a brilliant job of guiding the audience and introducing the good, the bad, and the "oh my gosh, when did Ringo Starr start professional wrestling?". They didn't make the audience figure it out for themselves and they understood that dramatization and characterization are critical in this performance sport. Even if they didn't KNOW that's what they understood, that's what they understood.

Okay, so what have I learned about screenwriting and what do I hope to share with you from all this?

  1. Know your audience. You probably don't write for a wrestling audience but your audience has specific needs. Those who know their audience are working it. Those who don't are sinking.

  2. Clearly define your characters. If you don't, nobody will appreciate it when characters change.

  3. Story elements must be well established before they change. Otherwise, who cares?

  4. Dramatization must be consistent. Don't drop a storyline without resolving it first. The audience will hold it against you.

  5. Chase your dream. People who think it's silly probably don't have a dream of their own. All progress is good. Kiss your mother. She's your biggest fan even when she's not.

  6. If you need bizarre characters for your screenplay, attend a wrestling match and watch the audience. Bring tissue. There's probably no toilet paper or paper towels in the bathroom. Flick cayenne pepper at that brat who keeps kicking you and he'll spend the night rinsing his eyes out in the bathroom with no paper towels. Make sure you pee first.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

The Deed is Done

My Nicholl is in the mail. If yours isn't, don't bother unless you live on the west coast and your mailman pulls a graveyard shift or your post office is open until midnight. Let's see, it's only 9:00 p.m. in Alaska...

Fourteen of my last one hundred visitors arrived here by Googling the Don and Gee Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting or something along those lines. Another fifteen or so searched information on battle speeches and a handful found my "That Would Never Happen" post by searching the death of an Austin schoolteacher in 1978. Good post. You ought to read it if I must (and I must) say so myself.

Who'd have thought those battle speech posts would get so much heat? They're ancient. And, I haven't even written much about the Nicholl this year. But, once on the web, always on the web.

If you Google "how to win a Nicholl fellowship", my blog pops up first as if I would have any idea how to win one more than any other screenwriter. Not stealing your thunder on purpose, Greg Beal, but I first noticed this weird phenom last year around this time. Back then, my blog came up sixth. So I blogged about it. Now my blog shows up ahead of even the Nicholl site. Yeah. That's how much I've bored everyone with my Nicholl obsession -- er, I mean posts.

In that last post, I said "by this time next year, maybe when people Google "How to Win a Nicholl Fellowship", they'll arrive here to find an article about how I actually won a Nicholl Fellowship."

Didn't happen. Maybe next year.

So, I'll repeat what I said last year. If you arrived here by Googling "how to win a Nicholl Fellowship", you should know two things:
  1. I have not won a Nicholl Fellowship -- YET.
  2. The way to win is to write a great screenplay.