Judgment (turn your doubt inside out).

January 12, 2011

As  mentioned before (maybe here, but possibly somewhere else), my writing partner and I have completed drafts of 5 feature-length screenplays (4 original + 1 adaptation).  Pretty cool (I suppose).  The stories may not always be better than their predecessor (arguable), but the execution of the script always improves.

We’ve also completed outlines for 3 other features.  I should’ve had the first draft of one of these outlines complete before Christmas (I’ve written 5 pages).  Moving a little slow.

What the hell is happening to me?

Two factors weigh heavily on my ability to write:

1. Time

2. Confidence

I don’t have enough of either and am getting desperate for more of both.

In terms of confidence, my biggest problem is finding, then getting feedback from someone who is qualified to give it.  And then believing it when it comes back positive.  It drives me nuts.  Mainly because it’s all subjective bullshit.

I am remembering something that’s making me feel better.  We did receive some negative comments on the first couple of scripts…but after that almost nothing negative.  That’s impossible.  There has to be something wrong.  Why?  I don’t know…maybe because it would be unrealistic to believe it’s perfect.

What we receive are suggestions as to how we can take a good story and make it better.  Surprisingly, I get very excited when people offer a good suggestion.  I thought I would maybe be possessive.  Nope.

Coincidentally – you know what gets the most criticism?  The titles.  Yep.  Very superficial, but very important in a culture with little time to be anything more than superficial.

It’s a love/hate relationship trying to craft the perfect title.  We’ll spend hours over days (months) working out potential titles for our scripts.  In the end, it doesn’t really bother me.  It’s much easier to change the title page, then it is to change any page after it!!

The First Fifteen Pages of a Script (Tossable?)

March 22, 2008

The first fifteen pages of a screenplay are the most critical.  Think about it in terms of how you work.  By virtue of your job’s routine, you learn a pattern and the signs which indicate a problem.  If there’s a problem, there’s definitely a groan somewhere inside yourself.  I know that groan.  You know that groan.  The reflexive reaction is to avoid the problem.

Step in the professional script reader, the person who will be the first to read your script, the same person who reads at least 30 scripts a week.  These readers long for the tossing – the point at which they’ve determined your script is crap.  The sooner the tossing, the better the tossing.  More often than not, the professional reader does not have to read much more than ten to fifteen pages.

If the first fifteen pages have problems, then anything that follows will be flawed.  So many things have to be established in these pages that one of three things can happen.  1// You miss some elements = weak beginning.  2// You get everything in, but it’s too formulaic (unnatural).  3//  You nail it and it’s captivating!

For instance, we need to meet and be sympathetic with the protagonist(s).  We have to understand something of their flaw(s), character and their need (mission).  We need to meet the antagonist(s) and have a sense of their strength (willingness to oppose).  This establishes the conflict, the depth of resistance against the protagonist’s mission.  There needs to be an inciting incident – the event which gets the plot moving.  Their needs to be a big event (arguably, not in the first fifteen pages) – the point at which the protagonist loses control of their world.

Speaking of worlds, you also need to establish the reality (mis-en-scene) in which your story occurs.  Plus you have to give establish the sense or feeling (genre) of the story.  It does not matter what type of story, there definitely needs to be some form of mystery, suspense and conflict and it needs to be established subtly, but immediately.

The sub-plot(s) must also be introduced and catalyzed.  The sub-plot(s) should be (but don’t have to be) complimentary to the main plot.  It’s nice when they are intertwined from the beginning to the end; where one constantly feeds the other.

A perfect example of this is THE VALLEY OF ELAH (written & directed by Paul Haggis) – first thing the audience hears is a military radio transmission (or recording) of one soldier yelling at another.  Then Tommy Lee Jones receives a phone call.  His son returned from his tour of duty in Iraq four days ago and has been AWOL ever since.  Boom!  Main plot – Tommy Lee Jones needs to find his son.  Sub-plot – the events in Iraq (what happened to his son there?).  The two plots are related but distinct.  They feed each other as the story progresses.  They reach their resolutions together.  Both plots are ripe with mystery.  Best part – both plots are established within the first two minutes of the movie.  Paul Haggis is an incredibly gifted writer.

Other things to be mindful of – these are important throughout the script – are spelling, grammar, the use of language appropriate to genre.  Every sentence is a shot.  Every action grouping is limited to a specific motion on screen.  If one character does something and another character does something else, then the action should be written in two groupings.  No single action grouping should be longer than four lines.  Every page is a screen minute.  If a scene runs longer than two pages, you might need to reconsider it’s execution.

Start scenes late and get out early.  Essentially, start each scene as close to it’s conclusion as is possible without causing confusion or screwing up your story.  Don’t repeat things the audience already knows.  Show, don’t tell.  Actions speak louder than words.  When you are looking at a scene – ask yourself if the story would be any different if you took it out.  If the answer is ‘no’, then take it out.  Everything needs to move the story forward.  Every word, sentence, scene, page needs a purpose.

Dialogue is tricky.  There is subtext – that which the character is thinking.  And there is dialogue, that which the character is speaking.  Never should the two be identical.  People rarely say precisely what they thinking.  Whenever a character opens their mouth, ask yourself – is this what they are thinking?  Does this sound like something they would say?

So here we are.  The basic structure of a story is: beginning, middle, end.  If the beginning is weak, then the middle and end couldn’t possibly be strong (or as strong as they ought to be!).

I can understand how easy it is for a professional reader to toss a script.  You’re pretty much selling your story in the first fifteen pages.  You’re cooked in you haven’t hooked the reader by then.  Oh yeah, which reminds me of the most important thing, your story has to have an excellent concept.

Someone can fix a poorly-executed high-concept.  However, you cannot fix a well-executed crap-concept.

Don’t Ask What I’m Up To?

October 12, 2007

I’ve realized that it isn’t worth talking about screen writing. 

I spend a good deal of my time thinking about, reading about and actually writing.  The people closest to me would say I am consumed with it.  Fine.  This is something I’ve decided I am going to achieve and I will work on it until I do so.  However, I spent a good deal of time in university (6 full credits) on writing.  I ‘ve spent the last four years fine tuning my craft.  I’ve agonized over it.  I’ve lost sleep.  I’ve been so excited I could barely contain myself.  I’ve written four feature-length screenplays (three with partner).  I think I am getting close to being a capable screenwriter.  It’s more work than you think.

So, if all you’ve done is thought about writing a script…keep it to yourself.  I’m not interested in what you’re not doing.  Your mentioning it is belittling to my efforts.  You are not in my category of aspiring screenwriter.

Who knows?

September 28, 2007

I don’t have a noble profession.  I work in the alcohol industry.  I don’t like drinking.  I don’t like drunk people.  I especially don’t (really) like myself when I am drunk.  It’s a poison & through virtue of association, I become evil when I imbibe.

I would like to entertain people in movie theatres and bookstores (someday!), but I am not sure this is a noble profession either.  I am not sure of anything anymore.  Writing is noble if it’s intent is to provoke thought, to teach.  I like to create uniquely dystopian realities and fiddle about with human actions within.  You would never want to be a hero in one of our stories, maybe in the new one, but this one is different.

The new story is fun.  I want to entertain with this one.  I want action from the beginning to the end.  There’s no time for romance.  I took something that bothers me about movies and switched it around.  I won’t ever write about the specifics of any of my ideas here.

I was hung up for five weeks at a certain point.  I didn’t think about the problem for the whole time, I needed a little holiday.  I finally figured it out the other night.  Essentially, I was stuck in the middle of some farmer’s field in the middle of Oklahoma.  I had a way out, but it wasn’t complete.  I mean, I could get away from the field, but I couldn’t get away from this means of conveyance once away from the field.


I think it will work.  I’ve been working on it for the past few nights.

I’m running long.  If I want to stick with a 120-page limit, then I’ve got 24 pages left.  I’m close to the conclusion, but not that close!  Damn.  I’ve read and re-read the first eighty pages so many times…I don’t know what I could cut out.  It’s lean & it moves.  I have a couple of scenes which aren’t essential to the plot, but these are only three lines of action each (at most!).

I still don’t know if I like it or not.  I am always up & down.  Right now…down.  I think it’s shit.  I would like to finish in the next week or so, then start re-working.  H & I are due to start working together in about four-five weeks.  That’s my deadline.

I need to be doing this.  I need H to be happy with it.  We need to have some fresh output for this year.  I want to be clear of #7 by the end of next year.  I am a firm believer in moving forward.  We learn something new every time we start a new project.  I think these lessons would be missed if we kept reworking the same material over and over again.  We always try writing something a little different than what we’ve done before.  We always try to do something that’s never really been done…not sure we’re going to be successful if we follow that formula!!

We can always return to some old (crappy) project and edit.  The more first draft material we have down, the better.  For instance, we already have three…all three need to be reworked – no doubt.  Knowing this, it is better for us to move forward and try something new, learn something more, move forward a few more steps.

We haven’t edited #1 since it was written.  We’ve edited #3 three times.  #3 still needs work.  I think we might have made changes too soon, or we didn’t make the right changes.  Time and experience are the only things that can help us with this.  When we finally edit #1 – the work we do will be far better than the sum of all three edits on #3.  We will have spent more time gaining more experience and will be better writers then than now.

The first draft is the toughest.  Just get something on paper.  It’s much easier to change something than to craft from nothing, even if you’re completely yanking the scene (it’s one less option – plus you have a better sense of what will work by seeing something that doesn’t!).

 So there I am…page 96…and still a long way to go.  Home sweet home.

I have a confession.  This is the first feature length script I have written alone.  Do I prefer it to working with a partner?  I don’t think so.  I really enjoy the creative energy and dynamic of working with H.  I think we compel each other to be better, to excel.  I will probably always have a side project on the go (from here on in), but the main focus is the partnership.  We started together and we will finish together.  This is the nature of true partnerships.  This is why I am confident we will succeed together.  It will take time, but mark my words, we will succeed.

We are exceptional at what we do…we just need to work on format!!  That’s the easy part (I think!).

Propel the Plot

August 2, 2007

The best I can hope for right now is to be the least shit amongst the shitty.  We entered two screenplays into a couple of prestigious writing competitions.  The final results aren’t due until mid-September and early October.  We may have entered five months ago, but waiting two more months is going to be tough.  I am anxious.  I think we’ll do all right, but the pessimist in me is not sure.

Our writing is creative and original, but in terms of professional presentation & format, we’re not quite there yet.  I think our narrative paragraphs are too detailed and long.  I have to correct this in my current project. 

There are so many things to pay attention to.  You need an strong & original concept.  You need compelling characters, both heroic and villainous.  You need to create purposeful scenes, which propel the plot forward.  You need an unpredictable resolution.  These things are the creative elements.

But there’s a whole other set of conditions and rules you need to be aware of & there’s no single repository (that I can find) where every one of them is accounted for.  Structure, format, grammar.

Okay…I started writing this post a week or so ago, forgot it existed.  Quick update – we got blown out of one of the contests & I imagine a similar fate awaits us in the other contest.  This is not wholly negative.  It is the slight kick in the ass I need every once in a while to keep me on the path to perfection!!

I found a book which answers most (if not all) of my formatting questions.  THE SCREENWRITER’S BIBLE.  I recommend this to any aspiring screenwriter.

Blank Page Big Words

July 18, 2007

I received my first issue to a screenwriting magazine.  I can’t remember which…the magazine is on my desk at home & I’m at the office!!  [Yep…killing a little time at the end of the day!!]

Great writers allow their work to speak for itself.  Mediocre writers philosophize about their average work as though we should be impressed with their multi-syllabic sophist vocabulary.

I don’t give a shit how young you were when you began Marxist deconstructions of films. 

Maybe we should spend a little less time learning other people’s means of interpretation and more time honing our own word crafting.  Writers are very insecure & like Primo (see Feces of the Species post), writers create false realities where insecurity is flipped into confidence.  If I’m not confident with my work, I bolster my interpretation of it with heavy, hard to define words & hopefully make my audience insecure before they have anything negative to say.

This is the thing with art.  If you don’t like my piece, I will try to make you feel like you’re missing the point, probably a result of your ‘limited’ understanding.  None of this is real.  I like beef.  You like salmon.

Everyone’s looking for the next great screenplay, so where are all the great movies?

Job v. Dream v. Me

May 17, 2007

Today is one of those where I don’t feel like working on my job, but on my dream.  My job sustains me.  My dream lifts me up.  One does not exist without the other.  I do not exist without either.  They conflict with each, fighting for my time, my attention.  I give too much to the job and not enough to the dream.  I am going to change this.  Life is too hectic, too screwed up and ever changing.  I love it some days.  I want to be set free from the confines of what I need to do for sustenance.  I want to feed & live on the dream.

I am not happy when I am not writing.  The crap I throw on here is temporary relief of the pressure, but does nothing to help in a larger sense.  I have developed a physical imperative to tell stories, to teach, to entertain, to provoke – to write.  When I do not satisfy this imperative, I become dark, dreary, moody, head-achy, and generally unpleasant to be around.  I don’t like myself when I am not writing.  I feel like shit.  If nothing is ever read, published, produced.  Well, that’s life.  I won’t ever stop.  I can’t.

Now I have to go and do what I need to do to get paid.  My back hurts when I think about it.