Sunday, September 30, 2012

Another Podcast, The Wire and Dickens, and More Head Heart Gut to Come

It’s happened again, I’ve co-hosted another episode of James Monohan and Cheryl Klein’s storytelling podcast “The Narrative Breakdown”.  This episode is about creating ensembles. 

Inevitably, we talk quite a bit about my “head, heart, gut” theory, which began here and continued here, here, here, here, here and here, but keeps expanding in my mind, so come back tomorrow (and maybe longer) where I’ll try to integrate all those previous pieces for the first time, with some nifty visuals.  


Meanwhile, in the podcast, you’ll hear that we repeat the common wisdom that “The Wire” is Dickensian in nature.  As it turns out, shortly after we recorded this episode, Cheryl was amused to see that Salon’s book editor Laura Miller had apparently heard us and disagreed vociferously.  This was my response to Cheryl:

That’s funny, but I’m not sure I buy it.  She digs for traits that “The Wire” doesn’t have in common with Dickens, but none of these are traits that all Dickens novels have.  If you’re prepared to talk about “Dickens” as one body of work, then you’ve already accepted that you’re going to generalize. 

I would say that the heart of the comparison lies in shared traits she didn’t mention: 

  • An impossibly large cast of resourceful-but-ultimately-tragic characters who are ground up by the wheels of institutional indifference, but find moments of happy transcendence in their everyday lives.  
  • The lack of focus on immediate goals, replaced by the pleasure of visiting and re-visiting members of that cast as their fortunes rise and fall multiple times over many years. Just when you think you’re never going to see a character again, they pop back up in a different phase of their life.  
  • Taking an anthropologist’s joy in replicating the strange and witty jargon of the streets.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Storyteller’s Rulebook #149: The Villain’s Plan Should Be Good For the Villain

We all know that the villain’s plan must be bad for the hero: “Oh no, he knows everything about me, he’s been plotting against me for weeks, he can taunt me with intimate knowledge of my every weakness!”  This keeps escalating, as the villain outsmarts the hero at every turn, making the situation more and more desperate…

…But as you have fun ruining your hero’s life, please stop once in a while and remind yourself of one thing: the villain’s plan must be bad for the hero…and good for the villain.

We’ve seen this plot in thrillers so many times, I’ve almost lost count, the innocent blackmailed into committing a crime: Nick of Time, Reindeer Games, Training Day, Collateral, Flightplan, Vantage Point, The Lookout, Eagle Eye, Salt, etc…  And it will re-appear in upcoming movies like The Driver and Autobahn, but the concept is nonsensical in oh so many ways:
  1. Why would you want someone doing the job who wants the whole thing to fail and for you to go to jail?  How hard is it to just hire a willing accomplice? America is filled with desperately-poor people, who do horrible things in return for just a few bucks.  Some of these people are longtime gang members, or underpaid cops, or ex-military, or survivalists… They’re gonna have the skills you need.  Just hire one. 
  2. So often in these movies (see: The Lookout, Reindeer Games, etc.) a big part of the villain’s plan is to have his girlfriend offer lots of great sex to our unsuspecting hero, as a way to lure him into the world of crime.  But that’s just not the way a man’s mind works.  Guys use money to get a girlfriend, they don’t use their girlfriend to get money (Maybe if the guy’s a pimp with a stable of girls that he doesn’t care about, but that’s never the case in these movies…the crook always has one girlfriend and he’s burning with jealousy the whole time!)
  3. The only conceivable reason to blackmail someone into committing a crime is if they’re the only person with the access to do it.  Maybe this person has the code to the vault, or watches over the state’s witness as he sleeps, or is the only one the president trusts…  And yet, the biggest problem with these movies is the person being blackmailed is always given an impossibly hard task that they have no idea how to accomplish! 
  4. Even worse, there’s often another person who does have the required access and we can see that they’re the one who should have been blackmailed:  

  • In Salt, they blackmail the one person at the CIA who isn’t on the detail protecting their target.  She has to fight every other agent in order to get to him.  Why not blackmail one of those guys?  In fact, it later turns out that one of those protectors has been helping the bad guys all along.  Why not simply have him kill the target? 
  • Likewise in Vantage Point, they blackmail a random guy into killing the president, despite the fact that someone on the president’s detail is working for them!  Have him do it!
  • In The Lookout, the bad guy uses his girlfriend to coerce the brain-damaged janitor into helping him break into the vault…even though the janitor has no vault access!  Meanwhile, we see that there’s a sad sack female teller who’s so lovelorn that she’s pining for the janitor…Why doesn’t the bad guy just seduce her??  She actually has access!  And that way the bad guy is the one who gets to sleep around, instead of watching his girlfriend do it! 
I’ll say it again: People only want what they want!  For characters to be believable, whether good or evil, they must pursue their own self-interest!  Characters who only care about tormenting the hero make just as little sense as characters that only care about helping the hero.

The appeal of these movies is very cynical.  We like to live vicariously through characters who pull off spectacular crimes, but we feel morally alienated from them…unless the perpetrators are being blackmailed, in which case we can sympathize with their predicament and enjoy their transgressions.  This person literally gets to be “criminal for a day”, and who wouldn’t want to try that?

But these movies made no damn sense, as audiences tend to realize two hours after they’ve left the movie theater.  They’re just empty calories, and it’s time we abandoned this worn-out cliché.

(And before you can ask, “Hey, what about your beloved Red Eye?”, allow me to point out that it’s a clear exception: she is the only one with the required access, they’re asking her to do something that is easy for her to do, and they’re not seducing her into it, but rather confronting her directly, so there’s no vicarious thrill, just a painful dilemma… Red Eye is how you do it right.)

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Storyteller’s Rulebook #148: Be Like Cable News

 In keeping with my comment discussion yesterday with J.S. about false balance, a post that synthesizes some previous posts:
Pay off is what goes into the trailer, but you should spend most of your actual screentime on set-up.  It takes a lot longer to roll the rock up the hill than it does to roll it back down. In fact, by the time you’ve done all that setting up and paying off, that you won’t have much time for anything else.  

You can’t have “slow character scenes” and “fast plot scenes”.  You have “set-up” scenes in which tension slowly builds as the characters reveal themselves in ways that put them in opposition, then, when the tension twists too tight, you burst into a big plot-filled pay-off. 

This can happen within one scene or over the course of several… you can devote ten minutes of screentime to one long wind-up that ends in a big confrontation, or you can devote that same time to six short character interactions, set over the course of six months, that culminate in a big showdown at the end of that sequence.

As I said here, there is another type of slow scene other than set-up: aftermath or “fallout” scenes, but these should mostly be avoided.  You should just skip right to the next set-up.

This is especially true for comedy.  A dialogue exchange or even a whole scene that sets up a comedic pay-off is great: the audience will get more and more excited as they anticipate the coming joke, then go crazy when it arrives.  But if you show the aftermath of the joke, or let the characters discuss the punchline after it’s been delivered, everything deflates. 

Now don’t get me wrong, this is actually very unrealistic: In real life, nobody ignores a devastating zinger or a massive pratfall, but it’s standard in comedy, because it’s necessary in order to keep things moving at a fast, funny clip.  Everyone should be in too much of a hurry to set up the next joke.  

Here’s a strange example of this principle at work: As predicted by Network, news programming now see itself primarily as entertainment programming.  Sure enough, they follow this rule religiously, even thought it results in terrible news. 

About ten years ago, cable news totally transformed itself.  Previously, the news model had always been to tell people what happened over the course of the previous 24 hours.  But these days the networks almost never do that.  Instead, 95% of their airtime is devoted to speculation about what might happen in the next 24 hours.  This is true for several reasons:
  • Even if something only happened an hour ago, the networks are terrified that it will be considered old news because it’s already appeared on the internet. 
  • They’re even more terrified of seeming biased towards one political party or the other, and nothing is more biased than actual facts: Either the president delivered on his promise or he didn’t.  Either the opposition party’s prediction came true or it didn’t.  (And of course, what terrifies the networks the most is the notion that both parties may be wrong.)  But if all you ever talk about is what might happen, then you can be totally even-handed: perhaps one party will turn our right, or perhaps the other one will.  Who can say?
  • But the most important reason is this: talking about the future is far more dramatic.  Since their goal is to entertain, they have no interest in fallout (aka: the actual news).  “What’s done is done,” they now say, “but the question of what will happen next is so much more dramatically compelling! 
This is a principal that makes for horrible journalism, but it undeniably makes for great entertainment, so you should do as they do: keep the focus on what’s going to happen.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Storyteller's Rulebook #147: A Skewer Is Better Than A Slam

I love Louis C.K.  Except when I don’t, like when he was on “The Daily Show”  defending Daniel Tosh’s rape humor.  The problem with almost every modern comic, even my favorites like Louis and Patton Oswalt, is that they give in to bitter rage too easily.  The greatest comedians are irreverent, but never cruel.  They skewer, but they don’t slam.  This isn’t out of deference to propriety, it’s out of an understanding of what devastates people and what doesn’t.

When you skewer someone deftly, you make them think, “there’s something wrong with me.” When you simply slam them, they just think that there’s something wrong with you.  To skewer, you must find the one weak spot in their armor and slide the knife into their gut at just the right angle.  Otherwise, you’re simply whacking away at their armor with blunt force, which doesn’t make a dent. 
George Carlin, who all of these guys acknowledge as the greatest stand-up of his generation, was an expert skewerer, and he proved it by sticking it to his own side just as effectively as the other.

For instance, he would make fun of right-wingers for retroactively re-naming things to reshape the world in their image, then he’d turn around and do the same thing to the environmentalists on his side, pointing out that one day they realized, “Hey nobody wants to spend any money to preserve jungles and swamps”, so they invented “rainforests” and “wetlands” because that sounded better—“but hey, you’re not fooling me, those are just jungles and swamps!”

Hearing that really stuck it to me.  It’s not like I heard this and decided that we should no longer preserve rainforests and wetlands, it’s just that I thought, “Huh, I love to rail against the bad guys for twisting language, but my side does it, too, in helpful ways, so I guess I’m not really against that tactic, I’m just against the way they use it, so I should be less hypocritical in the way that I howl about this stuff.”  

That’s what it feels like to be skewered: this guy has snuck his hooks into your head and he’s changing the way you think.  When Louis C.K. says that feminists never shut up, do you think that any feminist thought, “Wow, he’s right, I guess I should shut up.”?

Storyteller’s Rulebook #146: Every Scene is a Mini-Movie

Last time, we were talking about how an action sequence had to break down into a series of mini-goals, with the hero gathering clues and figuring out how to succeed. Let’s look at a short scene that’s full of mini-goals from this last season of “Breaking Bad.”

At the end of the episode “Buyout,” things have gone sour between Walt and his business partner Mike, so Mike zip-ties Walt’s wrist to a radiator to keep him out of the way while Mike goes to shut down their business. Walt sits there feeling furious, wanting to stop Mike’s plan, but what can he do?

In a remarkable silent sequence, we follow Walt’s every thought as he tries to get out, ultimately going through a ten-step problem solving sequence that should seem fairly familiar:

  1. Problem: Walt has been tied up with a zip tie connecting his wrist to a radiator, while his business is being shut down.
  2. Opportunity: He notices the coffeepot.  Maybe he can break the glass and use it cut the zip tie…
  3. Conflict: … But he can’t reach it.
  4. Hero tries the easy way: He hooks the coffeepot cord with his foot.
  5. The easy way culminates in a midpoint disaster: He yanks but the pot goes flying all the way across the room.  Walt is crushed.
  6. Hero finds the special weapon in the darkness of the cave: He realizes that the cord in his hand has another use…
  7. Hero tries the hard way: He strips the wires with his teeth...
  8. Spiritual crisis: He winces as he realizes that he must burn his own wrist, creating stigmata-like wounds…
  9. Commits to the right path, though he still has a long way to go: He grimaces as he slowly burns through the cord, and his wrist….
  10. Triumph: The cord breaks, Walt cools his wrist with water, then goes out to ruin Mike’s deal.
As I’ve said before, movie structure was discovered, not invented. It derives from the fact that most movies are about the solving of a big problem, and most human beings go through a familiar sequence of steps when trying to solve a big problem.

Once you embrace this model you see it everywhere. I pointed out here that I myself go through every step in my screenplay model whenever I attempt to write a screenplay. This sequence shows that the structure can also be shrunk down apply to individual scenes. This is just one silent scene, but it’s about a man trying to solve a huge problem, so, unsurprisingly, all of the necessary beats are there—they just go by really fast.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Storyteller’s Rulebook #145: Say No Way To Melee

Okay, okay, so we’ve established that John Carter and Green Lantern have nonsensical stories and flat characters…but who cares, am I right?  These are big sci-fi action spectacles!  We come for the adrenaline pumping hell-yeah moments!  All that other stuff is just what you fast-forward past on the Blu-Ray! 

Well…no.  As stultifying as the character scenes were in these movies, nothing could have prepared me for how profoundly boring the action scenes were.  Matthias Stork has edited together an excellent series of video essays about how poorly shot, poorly edited and generally chaotic action movies are today.  But at least some of the sequences he features were well-written, before the directors messed them up.  What has become more and more common, however, are action scenes that die on the page.  
The main problem, in a word, is melee.  With the help of CGI, writers know that directors can simply throw whole armies at each other and let them lash out wildly at each other for twenty minutes.  Why put one thing onscreen when you can put everything?  But watching a hundred Green Lanterns shoot beams at a yellow blob isn’t very interesting, nor is watching a thousand green Martians hack away at a thousand red Martians.  


Yes, in the old days, there were budgetary reasons to cut away from the main action, but there were also story reasons.  We can only invest ourselves in the goals of the main character, and that goal can’t just be “to win”.  A good action sequence must be broken down into a series of mini-goals, with lots of ups and downs: shifting tactics, surprises, reversals, etc.  An action scene is a mystery scene: the mystery of “how can I overcome this opponent?” so the hero should be gathering clues the whole time.

Which leads us to another CGI-inspired problem, the villains are just way too big.  In the book, John Carter defeats a normal-sized white ape bare-handed, which makes for a thrilling action scene.  In the movie, he defeats two 50-foot high white apes, which is just boring.  In order to root for a hero, we have to be right in there with him, helping him figure out his next move.  We have to have some sense of the strengths and weaknesses of the villains while we root for the hero to overcome the former and exploit the latter. 

This may sound counter-intuitive: defeating one 6-foot ape is bad-ass, so it should be more bad-ass to defeat two 50-foot apes…but no.  The first feels like a man-to-man fight, which triggers our primitive instincts and gets our adrenaline pumping.   The second is clearly a man vs. effect fight, which just makes us idly wonder how big the budget was.

The ultimate bad guy in John Carter (who wasn’t in the book at all) is literally a god: he can fly, teleport, read minds, turn invisible, turn intangible, and create laser guns out of thin air.  How are we supposed to root for anybody to defeat this guy?  (And don’t ask me how or if he did get defeated, I was totally lost by that point.)

Likewise in Green Lantern, the yellow blob defeats every other Green Lantern simultaneously, then goes on to destroy whole planets, but when the new rookie Green Lantern faces it, he just says, “I dunno, why don’t I try to push it into the sun?”  And yup, that works.   Like John Carter, he never investigates anything, never discovers any hidden weakness, never learns anything new from experience…he just keeps saying, “Maybe this will work” and it pretty much always does.  

So I could go on for several more weeks about the flaws of these movies, but Ill go ahead and call an end to this postmortem.  I watched them so that you don’t have to.  Heed the wisdom of my scars.  

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Storyteller’s Rulebook #144: Women Shouldn’t Have To Have It All

Both John Carter and Green Lantern shared a big flaw with Attack of the Clones: the love interest who has six stressful jobs but still wants to spend all of her time soothing, scolding or smooching the hero. 
  • As I pointed out here, Natalie Portman in AOTC is a queen and a senator and handy with a laser pistol, but she really just wants to hang out with her psychopathic boyfriend. 
  • Lynn Collins in John Carter is a scientist, a princess and a warrior, but when she meets her very first space alien in a chaotic mid-air collision, she’s already flirting like crazy by the time they hit the ground.   
  • 23 year old Blake Lively in Green Lantern is the CEO of an Aviation company, and a superstar test pilot (these were two separate characters in the comics that were combined into one), but she spends every night throwing herself at her douchebag ex-boyfriend, despite the fact that he’s doing everything he can to wreck her company, literally and figuratively.  
“So what?”, you may ask.  “Who says women can’t have it all?  Why can’t they bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and still never ever let him forget he’s a man?”  Well, okay, they can…but they shouldn’t have to.  You would never have a male character that’s a flirty scientist-warrior.  It’s a bizarre agglomeration of traits. 

Of course, these writers’ hearts may be in the right place…They don’t want a love interest that’s just a love interest, and they don’t want her to be useless in the action scenes for fear of presenting a bad role-model. But the real reason that they’re piling all these roles onto the female lead is that they desperately want to avoid having any other female characters in the movie. 

If you want to say that “women can be anything”, that’s great, but the way to show that is to have multiple women doing multiple things, not to have one woman do everything. 

I hate to keep going back to Superman, but in the Superman comics I read as a kid, he had lots of positive female characters in his life: the love of his life was a tough investigative reporter, but he also worked with a kick-ass lesbian police lieutenant and had a platonic partnership with an even more kick-ass Amazon princess. 
That’s the way to do it.  If you combined all of these women into one character, who was all those things but still selflessly devoted herself to soothing Superman’s tortured brow every night, then that would be pretty damn silly. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Storyteller’s Rulebook #143: The Difference Between an Action Movie and a Thriller

At the beginning of Green Lantern, a voiceover tells us about the rich tradition of the Green Lantern Corps.  Over time, we see them training, we see them fight a yellow blob in space that wants to kill them, and we see them gather in a big amphitheater, where they stand at attention while an angry man with a funny little mustache tells them that they will remain mighty because they worship “willpower”.  Then they all raise one hand in salute. 

Do these sound like good guys to you? 

Nevertheless, the movie might have possibly overcome its Hitler-ish overtones if it had once, just once, shown any of these non-Earth Green Lanterns helping anybody. Even after our Earth-bound Green Lantern accepts the job, he never once helps anybody who’s not in danger because of something related to…the Green Lanterns. 

Every single threat in the movie traces back to that yellow blob, and the yellow blog was itself created by, you guessed it, the Green Lantern Corps!  This is one of those movies where the heroes could have solved the whole problem by not doing anything.   
Remember that montage in Superman: The Movie where Superman catches the cat burglar and the crooks on the boat, then gets a cat out of a tree?  They would cut it out sometimes on TV, but I always missed it.  Green Lantern could learn a thing or two from that.  These scenes showed why it was all worth it.     

The big difference between an action movie and a thriller is civilians.  You’re allowed to have a noir-ish thriller in which nobody but our hero is ever in danger, but action heroes can’t just be victims of the fickle finger of fate.  They’re taking responsibility for other people.  And they didn’t create the menace in the first place.  Popeye Doyle didn’t start the drug trade.  John McClaine didn’t hire Hans Gruber.  Keanu Reeves didn’t put that bomb on that bus.  These guys saw that civilians were in trouble so they stepped in to help.

Yes it’s ridiculous in super-hero movies whenever they have that clichéd scene of a girl in a dark alley being menaced by the inevitable gang of multicultural thugs.  But you know what’s even more ridiculous?  Not having that scene.  Because what’s the point of being a superhero if you’re not going to help? 

Monday, September 17, 2012

Storyteller’s Rulebook #142: Audiences Don’t Actually Care About Stories


With both John Carter and Green Lantern, I knew after five minutes that I was in for an epic disaster, because both movies begin with a long, ponderous voice-over and SFX montage showing us the whole history of an alien civilization. This is almost always a sign that you’ve watching a flop: Dune, The Chronicles of Riddick, The Golden Compass, etc…

These montages represent a fundamental misunderstanding of how movies work: they assume that the audience is going to care about the story.  The fact is that audiences, no matter how much they love the movie, never really care about the story, they only care about the hero (or heroes).

This is illustrated by a painful profile of John Carter director Andrew Stanton that ran in the “New Yorker” two weeks before the movie opened.  Stanton just didn’t get it, despite the best efforts of his colleagues to set him straight:
  • At most studios, filmmakers try to keep the execs at bay, but at Pixar the Braintrust of six to twelve story gurus is intimately involved in revising every movie—“plussing” it, in Pixar’s term. They were confused by the film’s beginning, in which Princess Dejah delivered a lecture about the state of the Barsoomian wars, and they found her arch and stony. John Lasseter asked Stanton, “What are people going to hang on to and care about?”
  • Stanton is famously candid in other people’s Braintrust sessions, and famously prickly in his own. The Braintrust suggested a fix for the opening: why don’t we discover Mars through John Carter’s eyes, when he arrives? “That’s lazy thinking, guys,” Stanton replied. “If I do that, then thirty minutes in I’m going to have to stop the film to explain the war, and Dejah, and who everyone is, and we’re going to have even bigger problems.”
…But he had it backwards.  It may seem sad to hear that the audience will never care about your story, but it’s actually great news, since it makes your job a lot easier.  On the one hand, as I’ve discussed many times, it’s insanely hard to get an audience to truly care about your hero, but the pay-off is that this is all you have to do. 

Stanton put himself in an impossible position: He asked his audience to care about a lot of disconnected things, one after another.  His movie had five unrelated framing sequences (I’m not kidding) and he expected his audience to find a new way to care about each one. 
Pixar’s braintrust was right: we weren’t going to care about Mars until John cared about Mars.  First we should invest ourselves in his journey, then we should see the way that Mars represents his greatest wish, or his greatest fear, or an ironic answer to his big question.  If we care about John, we’ll care about Mars.  Otherwise, the movie is screwed. 

But wait, you may ask, haven’t I previously suggested opening a movie with a framing sequence?  Sure enough, I suggested:
  • A prologue scene that leaves a big question in the viewer’s mind: maybe a framing sequence, or mysterious crime, or a flashforward, or a moment of absurdity, or a self-contained interaction that represents the theme.
…But the key words here are “big question.”  The opening info-dumps in John Carter and Green Lantern aren’t starting us off with questions, they’re starting us off with answers…answers to questions that nobody asked.  This brings us back to another rule: Withhold exposition until the hero and the audience are demanding to know it!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Beginning Tomorrow: Truly Terrible Movies Week…

Recently, we’ve a long run of really-low-quality Hollywood blockbusters, but at the same time we’ve had a rising culture of movie-reviewer intimidation, coming from three directions:
  • From studios, who have always tried but are now succeeding more than ever.
  • From entertainment editors, who are afraid that if the reviewer pisses anybody off that the paper will just cut the section altogether
  • And, most disturbingly, from fanatic trolls who have started mass-emailing death threats to any reviewer who lowers the Rotten Tomatoes ranking of their favorite movies. 
As a result, even artless sludge like The Hunger Games adaptation and Dark Knight Rises get sky-high rankings on Rotten Tomatoes, just because they aren’t terrible. 

So all this begs the question: Just how bad does a blockbuster have to be to get savaged by the critics these days?  You need to make a movie that fails on absolutely every level, that’s physically painful to sit through...You need to make John Carter and Green Lantern. 

I rented these movies this summer and watched each of them with my jaw on the floor.  I realized that I had discovered two timeless masterpieces of awfulness.  Since they both failed in similar ways, I’m going to spend this week drawing lessons on what not to do from this gruesome twosome. 

(Quick note: fans of movies like these tend to attack critics from two sides, either saying, “Your can’t criticize it if you haven’t read the books!” or, “You’re only criticizing it because you won’t accept that it’s not exactly like the book!”  So allow me to say that I have read and enjoyed the source material for both movies, but I’m only a casual fan in both cases.)

So we’ll begin tomorrow with the biggest revelation I had while watching these, which is applicable to every type of movie… 

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Storyteller’s Rulebook #141: Write What You Know, But Bigger

Recently I’ve finally caved and hopped onboard the Mark Maron hype train.  Sure enough, it’s true: his WTF Podcast is pretty amazing.

Maron candidly presents himself as coulda-been-somebody aging stand-up-comic who’s finally given up on making it big and decided to just camp out in his garage interviewing all his fellow-comedians who found success and left him behind.  With wonderful irony, this has led to Maron finally making it big, as he turns out to a great interviewer, using his own brutally honest self-recriminations as a tool to get lots of smart people to open up about their own insecurities and their process in ways they never would in a TV interview.

In this great, rollicking interview, Danny McBride talks about the origin of his hilariously crude HBO show “Eastbound and Down”.  McBride graduated from film school and moved out to Hollywood with big dreams.  A year later, having had his ass kicked, he moved back to his small Virginia town and got a job as a substitute teacher. 

On his first day subbing, as he faced his students, McBride found himself compelled to explain to them that he didn’t really belong there, since he was actually a big shot screenwriter, and he was going back to Hollywood any day and he’d show them!  The kids, of course, could have cared less. Even at the time, McBride had enough self-awareness to realize how hilariously pitiful his vainglorious boasting was.  And that moment stayed with him for years… 

In the meantime, a friend of his back home invited him to co-write and star in a locally-shot movie, which became a minor hit at Sundance and won him a lot of fans in Hollywood, so he wound becoming a big success after all.  Soon enough, he got a chance to pitch a show to HBO, and he thought back to that moment…  Was there a show there?  We’ve all heard that we should “write what you know”, and that’s what he did, sort of... 

He could have taken that maxim literally, and written about a 22 year-old would-be screenwriter turned substitute, but who cares? Instead, he took that situation and made it bigger.  The would-be screenwriter became a famous ex-baseball star.  “Giving up on Hollywood” became “having an epic meltdown on national TV.”  Suddenly, this loser substitute boasting to his class became a much funnier character, with further to fall and further to climb back up. 

“Write what you know really means “write the emotions you know”, not “write about the particulars of your life.”  With a little research, you can transpose your emotional journey into a much more exciting world. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Storyteller’s Rulebook #140: Give Your Hero Job-Interview Flaws

Every screenplay, whether you like it or not, is a business proposition, and the most important personnel decision you will make is who to hire to be the hero of the story. The hero will be the face of the whole operation, with the job of winning the confidence of your customers and carrying the enterprise through to its success or failure, so interrogate each candidate thoroughly.

In any job interview, the trickiest moment is when you ask the applicants about their flaws.  The biggest mistake any job applicant can make, of course, is to admit to no flaws at all. It sounds a little suspicious, doesn’t it? Every honest person has flaws, and that’s good, because no one could relate to them if they didn’t. So every hero needs a flaw...

...But let’s not go crazy. You don’t want to choose a hero that has dozens of flaws. A good hero has one big flaw, one that they’ll have to fix if they want to succeed in this endeavor. If they have way too many flaws (as did the heroes of longtime CC punching bags Greenberg and Big Fan) then what’s the point? Why would we root for them to overcome today’s problem, knowing that they’ll immediately screw up whatever short-lived victory they achieve?

But when searching for a hero with one big flaw, be aware that not all flaws are created equal. If your interviewees are vicious, or cruel, or misogynist, then you should be reluctant to hire them. Even worse, if the prospects are lazy, or apathetic, or sit around waiting for instructions, you mustn’t hire them under any circumstances. We want self-starters here!

If your movie has a hero we’re supposed to root for, then think of the sort of flaws you’d admit to in a job interview: too perfectionist, too rational, too passionate, too detail-oriented, too big-picture-oriented, too humble, too proud, too work-focused, too nice, too honest, too focused on short-term gain, not focused enough on long-term security. Any one of these is a flaw that, if the applicant shows an honest desire to do better, can pass muster with an H.R. director. Not coincidentally, these are the sorts of flaws that are unlikely to alienate an audience.

One thing that these flaws have in common is that each can be the flip side of a strength. Such flaws are great for two-reasons:
  • We will be more sympathetic to the flaw if we see that it came about as a result of too much of a good thing. 
  • Your hero will be reluctant to overcome that flaw for fear of losing the accompanying strength. Overcoming it won’t just be hard to do, it will be hard to want to do. 
One of the most entertaining “flaw” scenes of all time was in Larry Gelbart’s wonderful script for Tootsie. Michael Dorsey’s exasperated agent explains that nobody will hire him because he’s too intense:
  • Agent: You played a *tomato* for 30 seconds - they went a half a day over schedule because you wouldn't sit down. 
  • Michael: Of course not, It was illogical: if he can't move, how's he gonna sit down? I was a stand-up tomato: a juicy, sexy, beefsteak tomato. Nobody does vegetables like me. I did an evening of vegetables off-Broadway. I did the best tomato, the best cucumber... I did an endive salad that knocked the critics on their ass! 
Casting directors may not what to hire Michael, but we in the audience are more than willing to hire him to be our hero. We sympathize with his flaw, even though we hope that he will eventually overcome it.  We can work with this guy, because he’s well worth rooting for.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

How To Create A Compelling Character, Addendum: One Quick Shortcut To Finding A Character’s Voice

As I wrote about here, I tried to “road-test” some of my ideas this summer, and ran into a few bumps. For me, the hardest part of writing is creating a character’s unique voice, so I’ve been focused on that since the beginning of the blog. In my How To Create A Compelling Character posts, I came up with several ways to do this…

…But what I’ve discovered is that, while these categories are very useful for honing my characterization later on in the process, they’re less useful when I’m just starting to create a character from scratch. Before I’ve put the character into actual situations on the page, it’s hard to pre-determine what their metaphor family, default personality trait, default argument strategy, etc., will be.

Part of the problem is that, in a first draft, the characters are inevitably forced to serve the plot, and only in later drafts do the characters become strong enough that they can force the plot to serve them. In this tug-of-war, your characters will attempt to act logically and de-escalate their conflicts, while you try to drag them against their will into an escalating sequence of crises.

Once you and your characters have reached a compromise that satisfies their desire to act logically and your desire to make things happen, then you can start shrinking and de-emphasizing your plot while you enrich and deepen your characterization. But if you load down each major character with a dozen traits before you start writing the first draft, they’ll be too obstinate, and defeat your desire to fire things up.

What I’ve discovered is that I can’t really lock down all my character’s traits until I’m at least half-way through the first draft. This is where writers tend to enter the “second-act doldrums”, and you lose sight of what you originally wanted to say. If you find yourself flagging, then you can re-read what you have, discover who your characters actually are, and sharpen them until you know how to proceed with the rest of the script.

But in the meantime, how do you get started? Over the years, I’ve tried two separate tricks: One is that I would imagine an actor playing the part who has a strong “voice” that he or she brings to each movie: Robert Downey Jr., Robert DeNiro, Sigourney Weaver, Tina Fey, etc. This gives me a strong voice that I can hear in my head, but the problem, of course, is that this is a derivative voice, drawn from other movies and not from real life.

Another method I’ve used is to picture someone I actually know. This connects me back to the real world and gives me a deep well of unique and non-cliché behavior to tap into, but it quickly becomes a problem: these “real world” characters keep resisting me, saying “I would never say that” or “I would never do that.” It’s hard to imagine what your best friend would do after the robot apocalypse, except run and hide.

But I had a breakthrough when I split the difference. Now, if I want to dive right into writing, even though I’m not ready to define every trait of my character, I simply imagine a voice that combines a famous persona with someone I actually know.

For instance, I defined one character as [Will Farrell] + [my beloved, crazy old manager from Papa John’s who lived in his van in the parking lot]. My old manager gave the character a unique world-view and sympathetic, un-clichéd flaws, but adding in Will Farrell made him a bolded, wilder, and funnier. In a matter of minutes, I could hear the voice of this unique new character talking in my head, and I was off to the races.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Rulebook Casefile: Un-Racist Writing and Metaphor Families in “The Wire”

Like a lot of writers, I saw “The Wire” and thought, “I’d love to write something like that!”  So I wrote a script about a loose cannon white cop causing havoc in a housing project. The script was “progressive” in that, in the end, the white cop was the victimizer and the black people were the victims, but I was shocked to discover that, when people read it, some of them thought that the script sounded vaguely racist.  Not so much the plot, but the fact that I had black drug dealers talking what I thought was street lingo.  Well, what did they want?  Should they speak the queen’s English? 

Only later did I go back and realize that yeah, despite my good intentions, the dialogue did sound unintentionally racist, but I still didn’t understand why.  It wasn’t until I re-watched the first season of the “The Wire” that I figured it out: my dialogue wasn’t specific enough.  It was generic “black projects drug dealer” jargon, which was a problem in several ways:
  1. Inspired by some news articles, I had set my script in Newark, a city I had never actually been to, so I couldn’t drop a lot of specifics about local places, local issues, local slang.  When you don’t have specifics, you fall back on generics, and generics always sound phony and condescending.
  2. My black characters weren’t witty like the guys on “The Wire”.  When the audience laughs at a character’s humor, they bond with that character, and they sense that the writer has bonded with that character. 
  3. Most importantly, my character’s metaphor families were all the same: “black projects” and “drugs”.  The result was that when you read the script, it seemed like I was just saying “black projects = drugs”.  Worse, I was saying that that was all that these characters were. On “The Wire”, all of the black drug-world characters do indeed have the metaphor families  of “black projects” and “drugs”, but each of them has their own individual metaphor family, too:
  • Stringer Bell’s is business school: “Y’all see, what we got here is an inelastic product.”
  • Avon’s is family: “What’s the rule?  Don’t say shit to anybody who ain’t us! [hug] You know it’s always love.”
  • DeAngelo talks the language of a reformer: “The game ain’t gotta be played like that, yo.”
  • Wallace keeps betraying that he’s a little too smart to keep doing this: DeAngelo holds up a fake bill next to a ten and says that real money has presidents on it, but Wallace mutters, “Hamilton wasn’t no president...”
  • The biggest shock was Omar: I had remembered him as being the crudest, but he actually refuses to use R-rated language and chastises others for it.  His metaphor family is “ethical pirate”, constantly talking about how he wants to “parley” because “a man’s gotta have a code.” 
The characters on “The Wire” were all in the same world for the time being, but you didn’t have to listen to them long to realize that they all started out in different places and they were all headed in different directions. 

Sunday, September 09, 2012

My Podcast Debut


My friends James Monohan and Cheryl Klein are both story-masters: She’s a big-time book editor who worked on the Harry Potter books and runs the super-useful blog Brooklyn Arden.  James is a USC-trained video editor and screenwriter who has been developing a neat writing-app called The Storyometer

As if all that’s not enough, the two have recently started their own podcast: The Narrative Breakdown.  All seven episodes are well-worth a listen (True story: I was listening to the last one and missed my subway stop for first time in years) but I especially recommend the most recent, since their guest co-host is this guy right here! 

They had me out to their place in Brooklyn, where we discussed scene construction, drawing from this series and especially this piece.  I thought it went awfully well.  Luckily, my voice is no longer as squeaky as it was when I was a young rake. 

Friday, September 07, 2012

Rulebook Casefile: Reversible Behavior and Polarized Ensemble in Ghostbusters

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So as you might have noticed, I didn’t post yesterday. I’m only committing myself to Monday-Wednesday-Friday posts now that I’ve returned, but on the other days, I might have a full entry, or nothing, or something inbetween, such as more Casefile pieces.  I’d meant to have one of these run yesterday, but here they both are today, completing what has now become Ghostbusters Week.

Reversible Behavior
Another interesting thing I noticed when re-watching Ghostbusters was how muted and subtle the character arc was.  Our hero, Bill Murray, never has a midpoint disaster or a spiritual crisis. He never seems to doubt himself or get humbled.  He seems like the same cocky rogue all the way through…or is he?

He does in fact change quite a bit, and it’s set up very nicely through reversible behavior.  In the very first scene, Murray’s paranormal researcher is sabotaging his own ESP experiment just so that he can hit on the test subject.  He doesn’t truly believe in or care about the supernatural, he’s just using it to get dates.  
This scene is neatly reversed two thirds of the way in, when the new object of Murray’s affections, who has so far resisted his advances, throws herself at him.  He’s very tempted, but instead he forces himself to admit that she’s possessed, and he now values solving her problem more than scoring with her.  It’s not played like a big moment, nor should it be.  By subtly contrasting this scene with the first, the movie allows us to notice the difference for ourselves, whether consciously or subconsciously. 

Polarized Ensemble

Watching the movie with my recent criteria in mind, it became readily apparent that the founding Ghostbusters fit very nicely into the trichotomy of head, heart and gut (Ramis on the commentary says that his character was described in the script as a “new-age Spock” so he decided that he would never fully smile.) 

But what about when Ernie Hudson joins the team?  Ramis admits that they didn’t quite know what to do with him, which only makes sense, since the original trio already represented the three-part self, but I think they actually came up with a neat solution to the problem: Hudson comes to represent a fourth element hovering above the other three: Faith. 

Incidentally, this got me thinking about other four-way-polarized groups.  Where do they fit that fourth person in?  One interesting example is “The Fantastic Four”.  It’s pretty clear that Reed Richards, Sue Storm, and the Thing represent a classic head-heart-gut trio, but where does that leave Johnny Storm, aka the Human Torch?  He certainly doesn’t represent faith! 
 I realized that the FF has sub-divided the “gut” category.  A character like Murray’s in Ghostbusters runs the full gamut of “gut” traits (cowardly, crude, horny, self-serving, etc.) but the FF has two “gut” characters.  The Thing loves eating, smoking and playing pranks, but he’s literally neutered, so Johnny gets to be the cocky fast-cars-and-faster-women playboy. 

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Storyteller's Rulebook #139: Simplify It (Or They'll Do It For You)

Ghostbusters was sold to the studio in the form of a 40 page treatment.  It was set in the future.  New York had been under siege by ghosts for years.  There were dozens of teams of competing ghostbusters.  Our heroes were tired and bored with their jobs when the story began.  The Marshmallow Man showed up on page 20.  The budget would have been bigger than any movie ever made, and far more than anybody was willing to spend.

So why did the studio buy it? Because they liked one image: a bunch of guys who live in a firehouse slide down a pole and hop in an old-fashioned ambulance, then go out to catch ghosts. So the studio stripped away all the other stuff, put that image in the middle of the movie, spent the first half of the movie getting us from a normal world gradually towards that moment, and spent the second half of the movie creating a heroic payoff to that situation.

When studios buy a high-concept story, more often than not, they’re just buying one element that they like from a big, weird sprawling mess, then they take that image out and plop it into an elegant, simple, pre-established structure.

A few years after the success of Ghostbusters, one of the writer/stars of that movie, Harold Ramis, signed up to direct someone else’s script. In the first draft of Groundhog Day, the weatherman had already been repeating the same day for 10,000 years. Everybody loved it, but most directors told screenwriter Danny Rubin that they would want him to rewrite it so that it started out with the origin of the situation. Ramis won the bidding war by promising Rubin that he would stick to the medias res version.
Guess what happened? By the time the movie made it to the screen, they spent the first half of the movie getting the weatherman into that situation, and spent the rest of the movie moving him towards the most heroic solution.

Can anybody dispute that the studios did the right thing in both cases? Would you really like to give up the beloved finished versions of Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day for those original versions?

This brings up the question: how did those scripts end up so overly complicated in the first place? Why start each script so far in the future, instead of starting at the beginning? The answer, I think, is that it seemed perfectly natural to the writers to write about heroes who already had been living with these situations for years, because, by the time the writers completed that draft, they, too, had been living with that situation for years.

If their process is anything like mine, they probably had the germ of the idea years before, then had a long time to get comfortable with it, so comfortable that the original idea didn’t seem novel enough anymore. Instead, they became interested in the permutations of the idea: What if there were lots of ghostbusters? How would the weatherman feel if he’d already been stuck in this loop for centuries? They’d forgotten just how strange the original idea was in the first place.

When your audience sits down to watch a movie, they’re at zero. No matter how hard you slam down the gas pedal, they’re going to take a while to rev up…so long, in fact, that by the time they’re at top speed, it’ll already be time to start looking for the off ramp. All you’ll have time to do, when all is said and done, is to get your hero into a strange situation and then have your hero triumph over it. If you want, you can compound that strangeness a thousand times over, but the studio is just going to strip all that away.