Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Losing My Religion, Part 6: Misconceptions About Theme

Many writers avoid discussing theme for fear of being moralistic, but this is a fundamental misunderstanding...

What I Used to Think: Your theme is a statement of the moral of your story.
  • What I Now Realize: The theme of your story is derived from the irreconcilable ethical or moral dilemma that underlies the dramatic question.
What I Used to Think: The hero should choose between good and evil.
  • What I Now Realize: A choice between good and evil is a no brainer, so it will be dramatically inert.  The hero should be forced to choose between good vs. good, or evil vs. evil.
What I Used to Think: The moral dilemma should be solved at the end of the movie
  • What I Now Realize: Your story should make a statement about this dilemma without entirely resolving it.  The hero should be forced to choose between those two goods or two evils, and that choice should have consequences, but the dilemma should live on in the audience’s heads.
What I Used to Think: Irony is the same thing as sarcasm, so only tongue-in-cheek stories are ironic. 
What I Used to Think: Literature is more worthwhile and/or harder to write than pure entertainment. 
  • What I Now Realize: It is extremely difficult to write a story that reliably entertains large numbers of people.  Both great literature and great entertainment are badly needed, very worthwhile, and highly useful to society as a whole.
What I Used to Think: “Literature” refers to serious stories with sad endings. “Entertainment” refers to fun stories with happy endings. 
  • What I Now Realize: Just because a particular episode of “Mad Men” may be funny or have a happy ending doesn’t mean that it’s pure entertainment without any literary qualities. Likewise, just because a “Burn Notice” episode ends with that week’s bad guy getting away doesn’t mean it was intended to be literary.  The primary distinction is that literary stories tend to be about the unintended consequences of the characters’ actions, while purely entertaining stories tend to be about the intended consequences of their actions. 
What I Used to Think: The audience will internalize your theme once you state your theme.  
  • What I Now Realize: If you want your theme to resonate with an audience, your story must ring true-- it must reflect human nature and the way the world works.  
What I Used to Think: Good characters serve good, evil characters serve evil, and supporting characters serve the needs of characters they support.
  • What I Now Realize: Human nature dictates that people only want what they want.  All characters must be motivated by their own self-interest, as they see it. Heroes and villains should never pursue good or evil as abstract goals.  No character should ever ask a co-worker, “What’s wrong?”, or selflessly say, “Do you know what your problem is?” All of these ring phony.  Ironically, audiences admire most those characters that care about themselves.
What I Used to Think: Writers of stylized genre stories don’t need to worry about how the world really works.
 Next, the seventh and final core skill: Tone. 

Hey Guys

Regular reader (and former X-Files staff writer!) Mike Wollaegar is co-hosting a Google+ Pitch Fest this weekend (Don’t worry, it’s free and you’re pitching to your fellow writers for feedback, so it’s not one of “those” pitch fests) and he asked me to throw up a link. I usually beg off, let's make an exception this time. Check it out.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Losing My Religion, Part 5: Misconceptions About Dialogue

 
Let’s talk about talk.

What I Used to Think: Good dialogue sounds like real life.
  • What I Now Realize: In order to write a story, life must be dramatized.  Dialogue should be more succinct, more proactive and filled with more personality than it would be in real life.  Even passive characters should be aggressively passive. Nevertheless, don’t think that…
What I Used to Think: Characters in a story can sound like they’re in a story.
  • What I Now Realize: Dialogue cannot sound exactly as it would be in real life, but it must mirror the structure, language, and cadence of how people actually talk, to a startling degree. In bold, fresh ways, their speech should reflect the internal logic and odd tactics that people use in real life conversations.
What I Used to Think: You can learn to write dialogue by getting an MFA in writing. 
  • What I Now Realize: MFA programs are bad dialogue echo-chambers. Instead, you have to get out in the world and listen carefully to how real people talk.  You have to listen to what they’re saying and what they’re not saying, to ways in which their feelings are universal and ways in which their jargon is unique.
What I Used to Think: Characters in the same time, place, and job will pretty much talk alike. 
  • What I Now Realize: No matter how much they have in common, characters must each have unique metaphor families that determine their slang, their points of comparison, their exclamations, etc.  These might be determined by their home region, developmental state, or the specifics of their individual job category. 
What I Used to Think: Your characters’ personalities will be totally transformed over the course of the story. 
  • What I Now Realize: In order to remain believable, your characters’ language should reveal at least one default personality trait that always tinges their dialogue, no matter how much everything changes.  (Even when he’s happy, a depressive character will say, “I’m actually happy for once.”)
What I Used to Think: Your characters should use whatever argument strategy is most useful at the time. 
  • What I Now Realize: They can try new strategies when necessary, but each character should have a default argument strategy, such as evidence-based, passive aggressive, faux naïve, etc.
What I Used to Think: Every member of an ensemble should be well-rounded and three-dimensional
  • What I Now Realize: Polarized, extreme characters are often create more dramatic and interesting dialogue than well-rounded, three-dimensional characters.  The most common way to polarize three characters is to one who is “all-heart”, another who is “all-head”, and the third who is “all-gut”.  Dialogue between three-dimensional characters reminds us of our external debates, but dialogue between polarized characters reminds us of our internal thought process, which is equally valid.
Tomorrow: Theme!

Monday, November 26, 2012

Losing My Religion, Part 4: Misconceptions About Scenework

Why are some scenes so much more compelling than others?

What I Used to Think: A scene is primarily an exchange of dialogue.
What I Used to Think: A conversation happens when two people want to have a conversation.
  • What I Now Realize: Usually only one person wants to have a conversation.  The other should already be doing something important, and that other activity should continue to distract them both as the conversation continues.  This is why you have to know what every minor character does all day.  No one should ever be sitting around waiting to have a conversation when the hero arrives.
What I Used to Think: Couples like to sit down and talk about their relationship.
  • What I Now Realize: Couples hate that.  This is why the love interest should have another role in the story, so that the couple can talk about the plot on one level while talking about their relationship in the subtext.
What I Used to Think: A disagreement makes for good conflict.
  • What I Now Realize: Rather than simply disputing each other, both scene partners should try, one way or another, to get the other to do something that he or she does not want to do, and one or both of them should succeed. 
What I Used to Think: Morally upright characters will speak plainly and directly about their goals and feelings, rather than engage in surreptitious tricks and traps to get what they want.
  • What I Now Realize: It is human nature to avoid direct conflict, both because it is unpleasant and because it is usually ineffective.  Everybody, even nice folks, gets they want through subtle verbal tricks and traps, including seduction, flirtation, passive aggression, blackmail, outwitting, and many more. 
What I Used to Think: It’s your characters’ job to tell the audience what the plot is.
  • What I Now Realize: As the writer, it’s your job to show the plot to the audience, not have the audience explain it through dialogue.  The characters should not be thinking about or talking about the plot.  They should be talking about their own wants and needs, openly, surreptitiously, or unconsciously.
What I Used to Think: Exposition scenes must be avoided.
  • What I Now Realize: Exposition is necessary for every story, and there is no reason that exposition scenes can’t be great, if you’re careful to ensure these three things:
  1. Exposition should be withheld until both the hero and the audience are demanding to know it.  Let the questions start to burn before you answer them.
  2. Ideally, one should trick or trap the other into revealing the exposition.
  3. The scene partner who reluctantly reveals the exposition should nevertheless do so in a way that advances his or her own goals, whether openly, surreptitiously, or unconsciously.
What I Used to Think: A scene is about what the characters are talking about.
  • What I Now Realize: Scenes are equally about what the characters are not talking about.  This is either because they are intentionally avoiding the main topic, or because they’re unintentionally bringing up a topic that they’re trying to ignore.  
What I Used to Think: You should whisk your characters through scenes as quickly as possible so that they can keep pushing the story forward.
  • What I Now Realize: You must allow your characters’ volatile personalities, their emotional baggage from previous scenes, and the inherent obstacles of the setting to create friction, even if that friction slows down your scene. 
What I Used to Think: Characters should let us know through dialogue that they are shocked by a reversal of expectations.
  • What I Now Realize: We should know before the scene begins what the characters’ false expectations are, and we should share their shock and disappointment (or happiness and relief) as the reversal of expectations occurs.  
 Tomorrow: Dialogue!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Losing My Religion, Part 3: Misconceptions About Structure

Many writers are dubious about learning structure, but these fears, like most, tend to be based on false assumptions... 

What I Used to Think: Your story is about your hero’s life.
  • What I Now Realize: Your story is about your hero’s problem. Charles Dickens could spin out big sprawling epics in serialized installments, telling the whole life story of a person, or even of an entire era, but our current conception of story tends to be far more focused.  Not only do most great stories these days focus on one person, they focus more specifically on one big problem in that person’s life, and the various ways it manifests itself.  This may also be a societal problem, but we are experiencing the way that this problem affects one person.
What I Used to Think: To begin your story, you should ask yourself, “How does my hero’s day begin?”
  • What I Now Realize: To begin, ask yourself “At what point does my hero’s problem become acute?”  Usually this is a longstanding problem (internal or external) that has only now become undeniable. 
What I Used to Think: After every scene, you should get to the next scene by asking yourself, “What does my hero do next?” 
  • What I Now Realize: It doesn’t matter where the hero goes next.  After every scene, you should ask, “What is the next step in the escalation or resolution of this problem?” Feel free to jump ahead an hour, or a week or a year until the next moment that the problem progresses.
What I Used to Think: Story structure was artificially invented.
What I Used to Think: If your story conforms to classical structure, it will feel overly formulaic.
  • What I Now Realize: That will only happen if you start with an artificial structure and work backwards, but if you start by afflicting your hero with a large problem and work forward from there, you will find yourself re-discovering classical structure from scratch.
What I Used to Think: Structure provides a locked-down, paint-by numbers formula.
  • What I Now Realize: Your structure should not dictate what will happen on which page number, nor should it be used to force your hero to do anything that he or she doesn’t naturally want to do.  Instead, it is there to remind you of what will probably happen next if you want to write a lean, powerful story that is focused on a person’s problem and true to human nature.
What I Used to Think: Because there have been successful stories that don’t conform to classical structure, writers should reject it as outdated. 
  • What I Now Realize: Even the most iconoclastic creators usually begin their careers by creating traditionally-structured works.  Even those rare exceptions, such as Richard Linklater (whose debut Slacker had a brilliantly original structure), those creators maintain their careers by making later works that conform to traditional structure.  Every creator who desires a long-term career, even those who love to break the mold, has to master traditional structure. 
What I Used to Think: Heroes should be happy and content with their lives before an “inciting incident” occurs, and then they should attempt to restore their status quo.
  • What I Now Realize:  Stories should begin not with the arrival of a new problem, but with the arrival of a potential solution to a longstanding problem that has recently become acute. Stories are more compelling when heroes pursue opportunities that will make their lives better, rather than merely attempting to return to the starting point. 
What I Used to Think: Your hero should know before committing what it will take to get to the climax.
  • What I Now Realize: It’s more believable and sympathetic if the hero has a limited perspective, and runs into unexpected conflict which keeps escalating.  The hero should try to solve the entire problem throughout the story, and be constantly surprised that things only get worse as a result until he or she finally figures out the right way.
What I Used to Think: Once committed, the hero can pursue one plan throughout the story.
  • What I Now Realize: If you’re being true to human nature, heroes should try the easy way until this leads to a midpoint disaster, then admit defeat and try to solve the problem the hard way for the rest of the story.  When writers think of the middle of their story as an undifferentiated mass, they are likely to miss this important divide. 
What I Used to Think: All you need to do is subject your hero to a series of social and/or physical threats.
  • What I Now Realize: In the best stories, no matter what the genre, the hero is first challenged socially (often in the form of a humiliation at the beginning), then challenged physically (often in the form of a midpoint disaster), then challenged spiritually, as the hero is forced to either change or accept who he or she really is (often around the ¾ mark).
What I Used to Think: Heroes should declare a wise overall philosophy on page five that will see them through the whole story.
  • What I Now Realize: If anything, heroes should declare an ill-conceived philosophy early on. Only as a result of their spiritual crisis should they arrive at a better philosophy, which will allow them to finally resolve the problem in the climax.  The makers of Chinatown smartly deleted the scene early on in which the hero gave a wise statement of philosophy (“You gotta be rich to kill somebody!”) so that it would be more powerful when the we saw him learn this later on.  
Now on to scenework...

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Losing My Religion, Part 2: Misconceptions About Character

A massive post to get you through the holidays (Loosen a belt loop before reading...) The most important skill for a writer to have is character creation.  Unfortunately, this is also the area that is most misunderstood…

What I Used to Think: Any sort of character can be the hero of your story.
  • What I Now Realize: “Heroes” can be good or evil, smart or dumb, triumphant or tragic, but every hero must have two essential qualities: They must be active and they must be resourceful. Active doesn’t mean running, jumping and shooting, it just meant that they pursue their goals.  Likewise, resourceful just means that heroes must figure out novel ways to solve their problems. Even fools can be resourceful, which is why it’s impossible to invent anything that’s foolproof.
What I Used to Think: The audience wants to like your hero.
  • What I Now Realize: Audiences must make themselves emotionally vulnerable in order to truly care about your hero. This is why your audience will look for any excuse to reject your hero, for fear of getting their feelings hurt if your hero turns out to be passive and uninteresting.  You must win the audience over against their will.
What I Used to Think: It’s easy and boring to create a likable character, but it’s much harder and more ambitious to create an ambiguous character.
  • What I Now Realize: The opposite is true.  It’s relatively easy to create an ambiguous character.  Any conglomeration of likable and unlikeable traits, chosen at random, will result in an ambiguous character.  Getting an audience to deeply identify with a character, on the other hand, is one of the hardest things in the world to do
What I Used to Think: In order to be likable, a hero has to do sympathetic things, like saving cats.
What I Used to Think: There have been several recent examples of successful stories about morally dubious anti-heroes, so that proves that a main character does not have to be likable.
  • What I Now Realize: It proves just the opposite, that a great writer can make a character likeable even though that character is morally dubious. In fact, the audience loves Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Michael Scott, et al., and we do so despite their unsympathetic behavior. The writers have used hundreds of clever little tricks to force us to fall in love with them, despite our initial revulsion.   
What I Used to Think: Some heroes are defined by the strengths, and other heroes by their flaws.
  • What I Now Realize: Some heroes seem more bad-ass or loser-ish than others, but they all must have a mixture of strengths and flaws, and of confidence and insecurity.  Only a careful balance of these traits will cause a dubious audience to identify with your hero. 
What I Used to Think: All flaws are good flaws
  • What I Now Realize: All heroes need flaws, but some flaws are less alienating than others. If you want the audience to root for your heroes, it’s better to give them the kinds of flaws that you would admit to in a job interview, and those flaws should be the flip side of their strengths.
What I Used to Think: The hero will be interesting because of an interesting backstory. 
What I Used to Think: A hero is someone who would be heroic in any situation.
  • What I Now Realize: More often than not, the hero just happens to be the right person to solve this problem because his/her unique qualities are sorely lacking in this place at this time. The hero is the person who has the quality that everyone else lacks in this situation, even if it’s a quality that would make the hero seem villainous in other situations.  Vin Diesel’s character in Pitch Black would be the villain in any other place or time, but on that planet, on that day, he’s the ideal hero.  
What I Used to Think: A hero should be an “everyman” who reacts the way that anybody would. 

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Losing My Religion, Part 1: Misconceptions About Concept

Concept is not the most important aspect of story, but it’s your hook to lure people in, so let’s start with that.  Here are some of the misconceptions about concept that I started out with…

What I Used to Think: It’s easy and boring to write a simple story, but it’s much harder and more ambitious to write a big, complicated story. 
  • What I Now Realize: The opposite is true: Every first draft is naturally going to be big and complicated.  Streamlining those events down to a simple, meaningful story is one of the hardest things to do in the world. 
What I Used to Think: The more big ideas you pack into your story, the more meaningful it will be to an audience. 
  • What I Now Realize: The audience will be far more affected if you develop one idea powerfully than if you toss in several ideas that have no thematic connection to each other.
What I Used to Think: Don’t tell too many people about your valuable concept.
  • What I Now Realize: The gatekeepers have already heard every possible concept a million times.  They’re looking for a unique voice and a unique vision that can reinvigorate classic stories.  If you can sell them that, then they’ll have to hire you to write it, since you can’t steal somebody’s voice and vision. 
What I Used to Think: A good story idea is one that is one that has never been done before. 
  • What I Now Realize:  If you’ve never seen a certain concept done before, it’s not because they’ve never heard it, it’s because they’ve consistently rejected it. The story ideas that buyers buy over and over are those that resonate the most with audiences. A great writer is one that can take a classic idea, infuse it with new meaning, and make people care about it in a new way. 
What I Used to Think: In order to create a unique story, you need to create a never-before-seen type of hero. 
  • What I Now Realize: It’s hard to create a character that is unlike any other and still have that character be recognizable and relatable.  A better way to create a unique story is to write about a relationship that’s never been seen onscreen before.  Before Silence of the Lambs, we had seen both brilliant psychopaths and and hard-charging FBI rookies, but we hadn’t seen a story in which these two were suddenly dependent on each other.  It was the uniqueness of that relationship that sold the story, more than the uniqueness of the characters themselves. 
What I Used to Think: You can create a great story by throwing lots of obstacles in your hero’s path.
  • What I Now Realize: Obstacles are fine, but conflicts are better. An obstacle is anything that makes a task physically difficult to do. A conflict is anything that makes a character not want to do that task.  Defeating a ninja is hard to do.  Defeating your brother is hard to want to do. 
What I Used to Think: You should just develop and perfect one concept at a time.
  • What I Now Realize: You should always be developing more than one concept, for several reasons:
  1. You can compare and contrast the various concepts with each other, you’ll get a much better sense of each concept’s strengths and flaws. 
  2. It reminds you that not all stories can be all things to all people. You don’t want to be tempted to shoehorn a dozen great unrelated characters into one story.  Let each one find the right story for them.
  3. The holy grail of writing is to finish one script and start another the next day, so you always need to be preparing the next one so that it will be ready to go.  
What I Used to Think: “High concept” ideas are complicated.
  • What I Now Realize: The term “high concept” has changed in meaning over the years.  It used to refer to complicated, “highly conceptual” ideas, but it now it refers to the opposite: a concept that is uniquely simple. Limitless was high concept because you instantly understand the appeal of the premise: what if a pill could make you rich and powerful?  In the case of Wedding Crashers, you got the unique appeal of it as soon as you heard the title.  “High concept” now refers to a simple one-sentence concept that makes everybody say, “Stop right there, I love it!”
What I Used to Think: A movie should have two hours of plot.
  • What I Now Realize: A two-hour movie shouldn’t have more than an hour of plot.  By the halfway point, most of the unexpected external events should cease, and the rest of the movie should be driven by your hero’s uniquely volatile reaction to the events of the first half.  Your concept should allow some room for friction, which will occur as your characters develop minds of their own. 
What I Used to Think: When an audience watches a movie, they care about the story.
  • What I Now Realize: At first, concept is king: That’s what you’re selling in your pitch, and it’s what the studio is marketing to audiences.  But as soon as the lights go down, the audience loses interest in all of that, and from now on they’re only able to care about the characters.  They care about the story only to the degree that it affects the well-being of the characters. 
So let’s bring the lights down, forget about concept, and move on to the most important skill of all: Character Creation...

Monday, November 19, 2012

Losing My Religion, Prologue: General Misconceptions About Writing

Writing is really hard.  Making a living as a writer is even harder.  The hardest part is overcoming all of the harmful misconceptions that have attached themselves to writing.  In this series, I’ll summarize many of the misconceptions I started out with, and what I know now... 

What I Used to Think: First and foremost, writers should listen to their inner muse.  
  • What I Now Realize: There are two types of writers who work to please their inner muse, those with tons of clout and unserious beginners.  If you’re anywhere in between then you have to work to please an audience. Your inner muse is way too self-satisfied.  Only an audience will reliably tell you know if you’re on the right track and doing good work.
What I Used to Think: Writing is like prospecting for flecks of gold in the wellspring of your imagination. When you’ve collected enough gold, you sell it and get rich. 
  • What I Now Realize: Professional writing is more akin to alchemy than prospecting.  You either have to create gold from scratch or from the hunks of lead that other people give you.  And you have to be able to do it on cue, everyday, so you have no time to wait for inspiration to come flowing by.  The only way to be a working writer is to be able to create new stories on a moment’s notice according to pre-determined specifications.   
What I Used to Think: Anybody can write anything at any time and expect others to want to read it.
  • What I Now Realize: You can write anything you want, if you only want to please yourself.  But if you expect others to want to read it, you have to be willing to write what your audience is willing to read and you have to write it according to their standards of what makes a good story.  
What I Used to Think: You should seek the widest possible audience for everything you write. 
  • What I Now Realize: At first, you should share your work with your peers and enter it into contests, if they aren’t too expensive. Only after outside peers (non-friend, non-family, non-paid-instructor) tell you that they are impressed with your work (or you win one of those contests), then you should try to get it seen.  Even then, you should try to make sure that you get it into the hands of a specific gatekeeper who will be impressed by that specific story.
What I Used to Think: The person judging your story will be excited to read it and eager to discover a good story.
  •  What I Now Realize: The person judging your story will not want to read it at all, and will read it with a strong presumption that it will suck.  This person has been forced to read twenty submissions in a row, and the first nineteen were all insultingly bad, so why should yours be any different?  Picture a traveling salesman on an airplane, who desperately needs to take a nap, but the person next to him insists on telling him a long, rambling story instead.  How good does that story have to be to make the salesman overcome his annoyance, forget all about his nap and listen with rapt attention?  That’s how good you have to be. 
Next question: What makes for a good story?  I was even more misguided about that...

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Seven Skills of Screenwriting (and Almost Every Other Kind of Writing)

Hi gang, thanks so much for all the advice I got in the reader survey! Now let’s start looking at some of the work I’ve done on the book. My very first weeklong was called “Beyond Good Vs. Sucky”, but this is a total re-write of that, and sets up this week’s series. (Some of which will be re-contextualization of old stuff, but everyone is allowed some re-runs during Thanksgiving week)
The biggest misconception that anyone makes about writing is the idea that writing is “a talent”, and you either have it or you don’t.  But it's more helpful to think of writing as a discipline, made up of seven separate skills.  Most people who choose to become writers are pretty sure they have a natural talent for at least one of these skills. But once they begin, they belatedly realize that they still have to learn all the other skills that they don’t know. 

This happens to everybody: we all have to learn how to write.  At first we focus on learning whichever skill we totally lack: Maybe you’re great at structure but terrible at dialogue.  Maybe you come up with exciting concepts but you have trouble attaching a meaning theme to those stories.  So you teach yourself (or get taught by someone else) the skills you lack, one by one. 

And then, once you’ve mastered all those unfamiliar skills, guess what happens?  That one skill that you had a natural talent for is now your weakest area, because you’ve been doing it instinctively, rather than intentionally. Instinct isn’t reliable, but well-learned tools are.  By the time you’re done, you jettison your “talents” altogether, and you learn every skill, even re-learning the stuff you already knew. 

For this reason, it’s way too vague to say that any given manuscript is “well written” or “poorly written”.  There’s nothing more painful for a beginning writer than to lovingly craft your first story, masterfully showing off your natural talent for dialogue, then be told “it sucks” because the person reading it thinks it’s a lousy concept.  You mutter to yourself, “That jerk didn’t even say anything about the dialogue!”

The problem is that, all too often, writers and their early readers are totally mis-communicating, because they’re each referring to a different skill when they talk about “good writing”.  In order to figure out how good or bad your work is, you have to move beyond “It’s great!” or “It sucks!”  You have to separately examine the seven skills of writing, evaluate how good you are at each one, and develop them one by one. 

I’ve found this breakdown to be very useful, both when improving my own work and when evaluating the work of others. Here are the seven separate skills:
  1. Concept
  2. Character
  3. Structure
  4. Scenework
  5. Dialogue
  6. Tone
  7. Theme
In this series, I’ll look at the misconceptions I had about each skill, and what I’ve figured out since.  But first let’s start with more misconceptions about writing in general…

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

First Ever Cockeyed Caravan Reader Survey!

So I’ve started toying around with a book, though I’ve been reluctant to do so...

After all, I love the altruistic nature of blogging, and I hate the idea of the endless cycle: The writing instruction industry creates out too many writers, who then fail to make a living off their writing in an over-saturated market, who then have no choice but join the writing instruction industry, creating yet more unemployable writers, who then have no choice but to….etc.

But people have asked for a book, so I eventually asked myself: Is there anything left to offer that all the hundreds of existing books haven’t already said? And the answer is… yeah, maybe. But I’m not quite sure what it is.

As I suspected, my initial attempt to simply drop my existing pieces into chapters proved unsatisfying, which means, inevitably, that I’ll have to re-write the whole thing from scratch.  This means that, for the first time, I’ll have to explicitly line it all up around an overall thesis, which is…what? 

From the beginning, I’ve had certain unwritten rules of thumb in my head for my posts: (always give an example, try to have counterintuitive titles, etc…)  Looking back on it, these seen to be the general qualities I’ve aimed for, overall:
  1. Counterintuitive: opposed to the conventional wisdom, focused on paradoxes
  2. Anti-Solipsistic: Against listening to yourself, pro listening to others
  3. Audience-Focused: Based on how an audience will react
  4. Example-Based: Supported by examples from classic and underrated movies
  5. Systematic: breaking writing down into separate, specific skills
  6. Unsentimental: tough-love tone
  7. Hard-Learned: stories based on my own failures, fighting my own bad instincts.
  8. Emotional: Focused more on emotional impact than big ideas.
  9. Irreverent: Un-solemn and a little silly
  10. Populist: Anti-MFA, pro-real-world experience, pro-wide-appeal
  11. Practical: Step-by-step how-to advice.
So the question to you is, are any of these my “brand”? I’m not fishing for compliments here.  I’m just admitting that I don’t know which of these aspects that people associate in their minds with this blog, and I need to know that if I’m going to try to re-focus it around one thesis and market it. 

And of course, the next big question is, “What should the title be?”  Based on the eleven tendencies listed above, I’ve generated eleven possible titles.  Inevitably, I’m sure I’ll generate one hundred more before I’m done, but here’s a start:
  1. Everything You Know about Writing Is Wrong: How to Kill Your Inner Muse and Connect With An Audience
  2. Kill Your Muse: How to Write for An Audience
  3. How to Write for an Audience
  4. How Do They Do It?  The Less-Than-Obvious Reasons That Great Stories Work
  5. The Seven Skills Every Writer Must Master: A Step-By-Step Guide to Storytelling
  6. Writers’ Boot Camp: How to Write for Others, Not Just Yourself
  7. How to Re-Write: When You’re Ready to Get Serious
  8. Make Them Care: How to Write for Audience Impact 
  9. Why is Writing So Damn Hard? 
  10. Writing is Hard Work: The Seven Skills Writers Must Master
  11. The Storyteller’s Rulebook: 165 Writing Tips You’ve Never Heard Before
Do any of these sound right to you? (And feel free to mix and match the sub-titles)

Let me reiterate: my goal is not to fish for compliments.  I just know that people often misperceive what their own brand is, and they’re often shocked to find out what their audience really thinks of what they do.  So I’m coming to you with my first ever reader survey: If you’d be willing to buy a book, why would you consider that book to be different from the other books on your shelf?

Thanks so much for any advice you can offer!  Coming soon, I’ll be delving into some of the big-picture contextualization I’ve generated as part of this process.     

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Storyteller’s Rulebook #165: Your Hero Can Go From Y to Z

I generally tend to agree with the advice of Robert McKee (even if I find his tone far too lofty), but not always.  For instance: he insists that audiences always wants to the hero to go on the longest possible emotional journey, all the way from A to Z.

But as I pointed out before, Black Swan didn’t start Natalie Portman’s character off as a happy-go-lucky ingénue who is dragged all the way from sunshine to darkness. Instead, when the movie begins, she’s already pretty far gone, worn down to a state of near-madness by years of maintaining an inhuman amount of discipline in order to get to her current position.

You might think that this would make her too unsympathetic, or not worth rooting for, since she may already be too far gone, but we actually care more about her because she’s not an everywoman. She’s already given up so much, but now she fears that she’ll have to give up her last shred of dignity in order to cross the finish line. We respect her accomplishment, empathize with what it has cost her, and feel anguish over this final crisis.

Why waste screen time dragging her all the way from happiness to the crisis point? In my original write-up, I predicted that Portman would win Best Actress, because she got to spend the whole movie going from Y-Z, which gave her time to explore the full emotional intensity of that crisis.

Compare this to another Portman role. The graphic novel “V for Vendetta” begins when anti-fascist terrorist V saves a miserable young girl from entering a life of prostitution and invites her to live in his secret refuge, where he gradually grooms her to be his successor. Even though the girl has already lost everything she ever loved to the fascist government, she’s still horrified by V at first, and reluctant to embrace his extreme ways.

The limp movie adaptation has many problems, but one of the biggest was the baffling decision to start Portman’s character off as a strong, independent go-getter assistant at a TV station whose biggest problem is an unrequited crush on her boss. We’re supposed to believe that this girl will soon decide to become an anti-government terrorist leader??

The book takes her from rock-bottom refugee to terrorist over the course of 300 dense pages, which makes for an emotionally devastating journey. The movie takes her from rom-com heroine to terrorist in under two hours, which is just silly. Feel free to start your characters out on the edge of a crisis, and trust your audience to be willing to jump right in up to their necks as the story begins.

Monday, November 12, 2012

What I Wish I'd Heard At Graduation, Addendum: Would You Hire You?

True story: After a few failed attempts at post-college dating, I had reached the point where I’d pretty much given up. I decided that I would just wait until some girl came along, took pity on my aimless 20-something life, and saved me from myself. Amazingly, this didn’t work.

Then, one day, something occurred to me.  I asked myself: “Hey, Matt, would you date you?” Could I look at myself and say, “Hey, what a catch! He’s living the kind of life I’d love to lead! We’d have so much fun together!” I had to admit that, if I met myself on a blind date, I’d run away.

So I quit my pizza delivery job for a somewhat-interesting desk job, traded in my junker for the cheapest new car they sold, and started going out on the weekends, doing the sort of thing I would be doing if I had a girlfriend. One month later, I met Betsy. If she had met me a month earlier, would she have liked what she saw? We’ll never know.

It works the same way with writing.  I keep having to remind myself that I can sit around hating on others for getting the interviews or assistant gigs or staff gigs that I wanted, but I should never stop asking myself, “Would I hire me? Am I what a showrunner is looking for? Am I a catch?” And if not, why not?  Because there’s a lot of things I can’t control, but I can always be upping my game. 

The wonderful thing about writing is that, unlike dating, anybody can do it at anytime. You don’t need permission to write the great American story. In fact, even if somebody wanted to stop you, they couldn’t. Writers write. It’s free, fun, and you can do it all day long.

If you want to be hired to write an episode of a TV show every month, here’s one good way to prepare: write an episode of a TV show every month. Yes, it sucks that you have to do it for free for the time being, and it would be nice to work in an the industry that had an outreach program and paid for on-the-job training, but we’re masochists, and we’ve chosen an industry that only needs 0.001% of applicants, so they don’t feel any incentive to do that.

The best way to get a writing gig is the best way to get a date: Act like you already have one.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Storyteller's Rulebook #164: Ideas are the Enemy of Observations

I used to pride myself on being a “man of ideas”.  And that’s one reason I became a screenwriter: so that I could spread those ideas to others.  But now I realize that ideas are actually poison for a screenwriter.

Breaking myself of my addiction to ideas has been a big struggle.  As with any other withdrawal, you gain the ability to see what you’re doing wrong long before you learn to stop yourself…

A while ago, it was announced that there had been another mass shooting that seemed vaguely political in nature, but none of the reporters could figure out what the shooter’s ideology was.  This was increasingly annoying to me throughout the day, because I needed to know where to slot this in my brain: if the killer was on “my side” then I had to prepare my explanations for why this was one bad apple, and if the killer was on “the other side”, then I couldn’t wait to launch into attack-mode, tarring the other side with this guy’s brush.  Finally, they announced that the guy had no ideology, but he was just home from fighting in Afghanistan.  I felt a great weight leave me, and I announced to Betsy, “I’m not surprised, the incidents of PTSD for those guys is a lot higher than anybody’s reporting.” 

As soon as I said it, I realized what an ass I was. I had desperately searched for some pre-established narrative in my head until I found one that could explain the horror away, so that I could stop thinking about it.  I had waited all day for the chance to say, “I’m not surprised…” because if I was surprised then I might have to learn something. 

An idea is a set of smug certainties that allow you to stop looking, listening and learning.  Observation is the antidote to those certainties.  Ideas are rigid, observations adapt. Ideas make you seem smart, observations make you smarter ...But for a writer, the most important distinction is this: Ideas are generic, and observations are specific.

Everyday, try to write down ten observations.  Then re-read them and make sure that none of them carry the tainted whiff of your ideas.  Write down what you see and hear on the street, not what you expected to see and hear, and not what you presume is actually going on.  This is really hard.  At first, all you will see are things that confirm your pre-conceived notions.

But wait, isn’t this an overly conservative worldview?  After all, to have ideas is to be active, but to merely observe is to be passive and complacent, right?  That’s what I used to believe, but now I feel the opposite.

When it comes to changing the world, nothing is more powerful than a truthful observation.  If you want to take on the meat industry, you don’t write a healthy-eating manifesto, you write “The Jungle”.  If you want to say something meaningful about race, don’t pile up a bunch of high-minded, heavy-handed parables, like in Crash, pile up a ton of true-to-life observations, like on “Homicide” or “The Wire”. 

Ideas, I now see, are the true recipe for passivity, and observations are the true spur to action. But you can’t observe anything if you’re using your ideas as an excuse not to pay attention.  The worst bias a writer can have is confirmation bias.  

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Storyteller’s Rulebook #163: Heroes Should Run Into Unexpected Antagonism

Here’s another problem with “character motivates, plot complicates” stories: since your heroes are dealing with a problems of their own making, they know too much about what they’re getting into. They’re choosing to put themselves into a potentially bad situation, which instantly opens up both motivation holes and empathy holes: Why would they do that? And why should we care about characters who don’t protect themselves?

But this is something to keep in mind for plot-driven movies as well: Heroes shouldn’t know what they’re getting into. If the hero already knows how big the problem is by page 30, then you’ll just be marking time through the second act, waiting for the finale.

Here’s the bad version of Die Hard: 30 minutes in, John McClane gets on the P.A. and announces to Hans Gruber, “My mission is to kill you, Hans!” Hans announces over the same system, “You will never get to me, John, because one of my three master henchmen will kill you first!” John then spends the next hour defeating the three henchmen, and the last half hour confronting Hans directly. We’ve all seen versions of this, and they’re terrible.

This is a problem in too many heist movies: they know what the goal is early on, spend the whole middle hour planning, and only go into action at the end. I recently watched Fast Five which suffered from this problem: the heist gang decides who they want to rob, and they know where the safe is, then they sit around waiting to do it until the end.

One good way to avoid this problem is to add more sources of antagonism, all of which spring from the original problem. The original Fast and the Furious wasn’t just one big mano-a-mano confrontation between Paul Walker and Vin Diesel. Diesel’s gang may have committed the original crime that launched Walker’s investigation, but by the time he’s figured that out, he’s got a lot of problems on his hands:
  • Walker has wormed his way into the gang by romancing Diesel’s sister, which makes him feel like a heel and puts him in addition danger from Diesel and her original suitor. 
  • Walker’s LAPD boss rightly suspects that he’s losing perspective, and wants to pull him off the case. 
  • The FBI wants Walker to mover quicker and arrest the wrong guys. 
  • As a result, Rick Yune’s violent biker gang gets falsely arrested, so they target both Walker and Diesel’s gang for retribution. 
  • The truckers who are getting robbed have armed themselves. 
Nobody is sitting around waiting for an inevitable one-on-one confrontation here. One crime has led to a believable cascade of problems, which keep things surprising.  Every scene has multiple sources of conflict.

Likewise in Die Hard, the competing agendas of several groups (the cop, the crooks, a dubious rival police department, the feds, the press) keeps things lively. This takes the pressure off the main villain, who doesn’t have to provide all of the conflict in every scene, and it makes it more believable that the hero would get sucked into this ever-escalating situation, without knowing what he was getting into.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Books Vs. Movies, Addendum: In Books, Character Can Motivate

In movies, plot should motivate and character should complicate. There are plenty of books that also fit this formula, but it’s less of a hard-and-fast rule. Because of the differences between books and movies, books can sometimes get away with flipping it.

I mentioned before that Updike’s “Rabbit, Run” has the reverse structure of a movie: On the first page the young husband willfully chooses to run away, baffling everyone he knows, and only in the second half does he return home to his stifling town and deal with the external complications that are ruining his marriage.

“Moby-Dick” is also a “character motivates, plot complicates” story. Ishmael just decides to go to sea for no good reason, and only in the second half does the plot complicate things and make him doubt his decision. Let’s look at Ishmael’s odd explanation of his motivation on page one:
  • Call me Ishmael. Some years ago--never mind how long precisely--having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off--then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. 
This is a strange and delightful introduction. Who could read this and not want to dive into the book, spending as much time with this guy as possible?

Movies are, by their nature, about the life of the body but books are often about the life of the mind. As I said here, a movie hero’s behavior must be understandable, because if we cannot fathom the mind of a movie hero, then we blame the moviemakers, not ourselves. After all, they should know that we can only spend two hours in the movie theater, and that’s not enough time to dissect inexplicable information.

In books like “Moby-Dick,” on the other hand, we readers are committing ourselves to spending at least 20 hours inside Ishmael’s head. In this case, a hero with a bizarre motivation becomes an asset, not a liability. Ishmael’s absurd thought process assures us that we have an interesting enigma on our hands, one that’s big enough to justify the 20-hour investigation we’ve just committed ourselves to.

As I said yesterday, Jaws would never work if Brody just decided to go out and kill a shark, because he would have to have way too many speeches and/or voice-overs to explain that choice. We go to a move to see people act, not to hear them explain their actions. But we read a book to enter a character’s mind, and, while we’re there, we’re more than willing to hear bizarre rambling explanations of their behavior.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Storyteller’s Rulebook #162: Plot Motivates, Character Complicates

I just talked about how on “Breaking Bad”, Walt started out with a million reasons to deal meth, and it was only after most of those external reasons had fallen away that the audience was left with only one motivation: the volatile psychology of the character.

This has led me to a new rule (which builds on this previous one): In most stories, external plot developments should drive the first half, but then volatile character complications should drive the second half. The alternative is the sort of story in which character motivates for the first half and plot complicates in the second half, which can work in books, but almost never in moves and rarely on TV.

Imagine a different version of Jaws: Sheriff Brody has a midlife crisis and decides that, in order to re-connect with his masculinity, he wants to go find a shark and kill it. He befriends a marine biologist and hires a cantankerous shark-hunting boat captain, but once they’re out on the water, they discover that things get worse and worse.

It wouldn’t work. It would take a hell of a lot of monologues to convince us that Brody had enough internal motivation to do this in the first place, and even then it would be totally unbelievable that he would stick with it when the going got tough.  Instead, the first half of Jaws is all plot-driven and then the second half has no surprises at all: it’s just three men on a boat, learning to work together to do what they need to do.

Movies that are motivated by character choices almost never work. It might get you through the first half of the movie to simply have the hero say, “Hey, wouldn’t it be crazy if I…”, (See romantic comedies such as 40 Days and 40 Nights and How To Lose a Guy in 10 Dates), but in the second half, where the going gets tougher, it doesn’t make any sense for the hero to stick with it. It’s at that point, in order to keep things going, that they have to toss in last-minute plot developments.

In retrospect, this problem plagues Say Anything as well. A guy decides to go after a girl who’s out of his league, and succeeds. This is why it’s a beloved movie, but it also results in story problems. After this character-motivated beginning, the movie runs out of steam halfway through, so Crowe has no choice but to throw in an out-of-nowhere plot complication, wherein the girl’s father gets arrested.

(But wait, don’t lots of movies have second-half plot twists? Actually, most of the time, those are  character twists, not plot developments. Nothing new happens to Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense, he just overcomes his denial and accepts the truth about himself. Likewise with The Crying Game, The Usual Suspects, and Fight Club: each plot twist involves the hero finally being willing to see what he’s been foolishly blind to the whole time.)

Whether dealing with a two-hour movie or the arc of an epic like “Breaking Bad”, it’s best to wrap up the plot complications early and have the rest be driven by the character’s uniquely volatile reaction to what’s happened. Any big twists in the second half should be preferably be character reveals, not unforeseeable events. Everything in the second half should be a consequence of the first half.

This is getting long, so tomorrow we’ll examine reasons why this rule doesn’t always apply to books.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Storyteller's Rulebook #161: Genius Doesn’t Innovate, It Cultivates

When we look back at an artwork that has become known as a work of genius, it often seems as if this work innovated a bunch of new concepts, and that’s why it’s great.  In fact, this is almost never true.

We don’t know how to talk about genius because we’re reluctant to talk qualitatively and prefer to talk quantitatively: this thing didn’t exist, and then it did.  We’re ashamed to use our subjective judgment and say “best”, so we attempt to make an objective statement and say “first.”

Film histories will often claim that Citizen Kane is great because it was the first movie to use that type of non-linear structure, or the first to use deep-focus photography.  In fact, neither of these is true: Kane’s structure and subject matter are very indebted to The Power and the Glory, written by none other than Preston Sturges, which told the story of the rise and fall of a railroad magnate though non-linear flashbacks. Likewise, Welles admired cinematographer Gregg Toland’s deep focus work on The Long Journey Home  and hired him to bring that look to Kane.  
Finding these works doesn’t detract from the genius of Welles, but rather magnifies it.  It shows that the supposed innovations he’s credited with are not enough to explain his success, since The Power and the Glory and The Long Journey Home are both good-but-not-great movies.

Welles’s genius was to spot the value of these innovations and bring them together, along with an underutilized screenwriter, a hand-picked acting troupe, and lots of other elements to make something that was greater than anyone thought possible.  He didn’t innovate, he cultivated. 
    
The myth of Citizen Kane as a movie of firsts arose because the earlier films weren’t great enough to be remembered decades later.  Once they had fallen out of the collective memory, Kane seemed to be the first to do these things, while in fact, it was merely the first to do them in a way that could not be forgotten. 

One of my favorite finds of recent years was Bob Dylan’s XM Satellite Radio show. Surprisingly, Dylan was a relaxed, humble and funny D.J.  Less surprising was his great and eclectic taste in music.  He rarely played music from his own genres, folk and rock, roaming instead across dozens of forgotten musical trends of the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, playing obscure tracks that he deeply revered. 
But a funny thing happened over the course of the show: Dylan was quietly destroying the myth of Bob Dylan.  By the time his listeners had immersed themselves in hundreds of his favorite forgotten songs, Dylan’s own musical achievements didn’t seem so shocking anymore.  All he did was take the best parts of these obscure genres and put them together.  And now, like a magician on a valedictory tour, he was opening the curtain to show us how he pulled it off.
 
The myth of the innovative genius is one that can paralyze writers.  It can discourage us from drawing on the past, or from learning traditional structures, because we feel that we should be making stuff up from scratch.  It can cause us to dismiss great artists who aren’t iconoclasts, or overvalue ones that are.  But it’s good to keep in mind that true genius has more to do with cultivating pre-existing innovations, combining them in artistically brilliant ways.