Ripped from the Headlines

August 31, 2009

Speaking of news clips, I’m finding a gold mine of story-relevant material from an issue of the Trinidad Express newspaper, sent to me by G. Anthony Joseph, who is presently in Trinidad working on a different production. It could take me a long time to make it through the paper at the rate I’m going. Here, for example, is a single page from the August 9 issue of the Sunday Express:


As you can see by my notations, every single article provided me something useful — information about police and the public perception of police, info about politics, murder rate statistics, cultural differences, and more. For instance, let’s start with…

This article about a murdered dentist:


It caught my eye for a couple of reasons. First, it underscores the alarming — and worsening — murder rate that is scorching the reputation of this Caribbean paradise. It notes that this murder pushed the year’s toll to 325. To understand the significance of that number, consider that:

  • The murder rate represents a 600% increase in roughly a decade (a total of 97 murders in 1998).
  • This latest murder puts Trinidad & Tobago on the way to 650 murders by the end of the year. Pretty shocking when you consider that its population is about 1.2 million. By comparison, the population of Los Angeles is roughly 9 times greater, and will likely end the year with less than 300 murders. To equal the per capita murder rate of Trinidad & Tobago, LA would need 5,300 murders this year!
  • Trinidad & Tobago’s per capita murder rate is even higher than that of LA South Central’s Compton City, which in 2006 was rated by the Morgan Quitno Corporation as the most dangerous city in the US.

Second, the article demonstrates a cultural difference in how news is reported in Trinidad compared to what you find in a US newspaper: greater graphic detail. The article describes how the dentist was shot three times in the face, and that he “died on the spot, remaining in a sitting position with his head slumped back into his body was removed from the scene.” It paints a stark visual in the mind’s eye — useful for a filmmaker, but puts the fear of God in the average reader, I suspect.

As a writer, the article interested me because I’m writing about a Caribbean cop trying to make a difference in his country amidst rising crime. So, here’s an example of what officers deal with there, and how the people react to it. The press has a central part in the story too, so it’s wise for me to get familiar with the way it is actually reported there. Then, there’s this real shocker article about…

Guns, ammo, and drugs secreted in a police station ceiling!

guns-stashed-police-stationThat’s right — stashed away in the ceiling inside the office of the senior officer at a police station. The article is full of factual information I can use as a writer (such as police division rolls and titles, like Crime Intelligence Unit and Special Anti-Crime Unit, plus officer titles and roles). The article also underscores the current issue of rising public distrust of the police. Some citizens suspect officers of collusion with criminals or of engaging directly in criminal activities, such as this illegal drugs and weapon cache inside a senior officer’s office implies.

The brainstorming synaptications of my cranium also picked up on an interesting side note of the story, about how business at the station “…continued as usual despite the resulting investigation,” with members of the public being “allowed inside to make their complaints and queries.” Why did that capture my attention? It occurred to me that, were this type of event fictionalized into a story, the writer could use that “police business as usual” activity to serve as a smokescreen, allowing the guilty officer to sneak out further illegal contraband through a member of the public) under the guise of coming in to register a complaint) before the crime investigation unit discovered it. And speaking of police, there’s also this other article about…

Hero cop in murder-suicide:

cop-in-murder-suicideThe article is generally reporting the reactions of loved ones at a police officer’s funeral. Many things caught my writer’s eye in this one. First, I found it to be a strange oversight that the article barely mentioned the woman that this policeman murdered before turning the gun on himself. The cop was apparently considered a hero, sure, but the article either has some serious bias or journalistic oversight in focusing entirely on the sad loss of the police officer… who (did I mention?) MURDERED a woman! So the apparent bias created a bit of mystery.

Second, I found myself drawn into the story because of the way that the reporter revealed some intrigue and drama surrounding the murder-suicide. For instance, one mourner wonders “why wasn’t the nation there for him during his darkest hour?” What was that dark hour? Why was it dark? We get a hint, nothing more, implied by a quote from one of the officers at the funeral: “Why can’t systems be put in place so that a person doesn’t have to go through the legal system to get a chance for promotion?” So, does this mean that the suicidal cop was so distressed over his inability to get a promotion that he murdered someone? More likely, the promotion trouble was but one trial he was facing…

We also get a look here into the real-world grief reaction of a fellow officer who “refused to knowledge that James had died after the incident took place.” We think of law officers and soldiers as stoic, but they mourn just like the rest of us do. In fact, the bonds between fellow officers is surely stronger than that of coworkers in most other professions. After all, most of us go our entire lives without being shot at or purposely stepping into the line of danger, which soldiers and cops may face daily. The shared knowledge of that risk would draw a team together in a meaningful, if unspoken, way.

Third, the article’s suggestion of seemingly insurmountable bureaucracy preventing due promotions provides me a very specific example of something I’m trying to create in the story — the way onerous government processes make the ordinary business of living unnecessarily difficult. Just a couple more real-world examples, and I’ll be set.

All good stuff for a writer to think about.

And from this final article…

students-invest-ur-moneyMostly what captured my attention here was a quotation from the speech of the electricity commission’s chairman, Clement Imbert, speaking to a group of children at a graduation awards ceremony. He said, “Some things that are important to living well cannot be taught that must be learned,” indicating that experience can be as important to one’s development as their formal education. Whether or not you are a writer, it’s a quotation we can all appreciate and learn from.

All that from just one page of a newspaper!

Of course, the struggle that just about any writer faces is finding the balance between research and the writing itself. Between libraries, newspapers, live interviews, and the Internet, there is no end to the amount of research one can do… but eventually, one’s gotta stop researching and start writing the story.  🙂

Being There….From Here: Remote Location Research

August 28, 2009

Once further funding is in place, I’m hoping to do a story research trip to Trinidad and Tobago, which is where we will likely be shooting the entire movie. But while I’m creating this story from my home office in LA, I already need a strong sense of the geography, culture, and environment to help me make the story more realistic and to take full advantage of the rich diversity of that land.

From LA? How do you do that?

There are a few things helping me to have a leg up in envisioning the locale while my legs are still down here in California:

  1. Personal experience
    In the ’90s, I traveled and worked in Trinidad three times, and also lived there with my family for nearly 10 months. I find that there is no better way than being there to pick up on many things that can influence the story and how you shoot the movie. For example, while I was living there, producer G. Anthony Joseph (Trinidadian by birth) took me to a pan yard. This is a behind-the-scenes Carnival experience that the average Carnival tourist would not even know about, and it impressed me as a fantastic location for a movie scene. A pan yard is essentially a rehearsal area set up weeks or months in advance of Carnival by the large orchestras of steel drum musicians that compete around that time. This particular pan yard was a dimly lit open area behind a dilapidated cinderblock truck repair shop in a light industrial district, surrounded by rusty, corrugated steel fencing. What an experiential contrast to what then transpired there! The aural sensation of being directly in the middle of one of these 80-plus member percussion bands is indescribably exhilarating, and the simple yet precisely choreographed rhythmic movement of the musicians is hypnotizing to watch. Whether such a steel drum rehearsal is just a creative backdrop to a scene or becomes central to the drama of the scene itself, it would be an intriguing and memorable experience for the viewer — one that I would never have dreamed up had I not been there to experience it. I could give you a dozen more examples of culturally specific dialogue, locations, and events that ended up in Men of Gray and Flight of the Ibis (both shot entirely in Trinidad and Tobago) because I was influenced by things I experienced while living there before shooting began.
  2. Book and newspaper research
    This movie will be seasoned with many historical and cultural references that will make the story more personal and meaningful for viewers from that region. To make the references appropriate and relevent, I’ve been absorbing just about any book I can get my hands on related to the history, politics, culture, dialects, and geography of Trinidad and Tobago, using that input to enrich my understanding of the land and people.  
  3. Online resources
    I’ve got a list of great sites I can give you that would be useful for anyone doing geographic research on locations worldwide. And there are several other sites specific to Trinidad and Tobago that I turn to regularly to immerse myself as much as possible in the hot local issues regarding the economy, politics, social infrastructure, and crime situation. As the list of reference links would be rather long — and yet very interesting — I’ll devote a post or page to this in the future.
  4. Map-oholism
    One blog reader asked about the maps that they’ve seen on the wall in the story structuring board photos I posted here. Yes, they are part of my story process. In fact, what you could not see in those pictures is that the walls of my office are almost completely covered in maps of Trinidad and Tobago — one way of immersing myself in the geography while I’m creating a story. It started off with just a couple of smaller maps like these…Map-1
    … which were helpful, but didn’t have nearly enough detail to give me more than a geographic overview. So, I added a couple of larger maps, one that details the terrain and this one below, which is large enough (about 3′ x 4′) to list just about every town in the country and identifies the major roads:Map-2
    But, since much of this movie will take place in specific areas or along specific streets in the northernmost third of Trinidad, I really needed a street level understanding so that, if someone in this story is, let’s say, following a suspect into a neighborhood, I’ll have real street names to draw from in appropriate neighborhoods with the right kind of topographical features. For that, I’ve started building out a gigantic map of the primary population areas in which I needed that level of detail. I keep expanding the map as the story develops.  As you can see here, it’s presently about 8 feet wide and 4 feet high …Map-big
    …and displays as far West as Chaguaramas, as far North as the north coast, as far South as Chaguanas (I’ll eventually extend it to San Fernando), and it goes as far East as … well, as far as I could go before my window got in the way, which is just short of Sangre Grande.  As you can imagine, this detailed map has been useful in plotting out very specific locations. So, for instance, if I’m envisioning a car chase that would start downtown and end up on on Saut D’ eau Road a couple kilometers north of Saddle Road …Map-big-XCU…I can know exactly what the terrain is and what possible escape routes the suspects might take.  Thanks to satellite imagery available online, I can even identify houses, pastures, patches of woodland, etc. that I can employ in my vision of where the scene might occur:

    It may not turn out to be the location in which the scene gets shot, but having a real location in my mind from which to model the geography of a scene helps me to design a richer, more dimensional and plausible moment.  And it’s a fun way to decorate a wall.  😉

None of this is an adequate substitute for the immersive experience of actually being there for story research in person and in the current year, but all these research activities are valid and useful things that I might have done anyway, even if I’d already done the field research.

News Clippings: Fodder for Story Ideas

August 27, 2009

Responding to a question from one of the blog readers, who wondered about the newspaper clippings he noticed on the story structuring board photo in this article: Yes, those clippings are related to the current story  development. Here’s a close-up of what he saw in that photo:news-clippings

The four or five news clips presently pushpinned along the fringe of the corkboard are…

Just the tip of the iceberg!

Over the past 15 years, I’ve developed a fairly substantial collection of news clippings, which I started on the advice of one of my USC screenwriting college professors, Paul Lucey, author of Story Sense.

The general idea is to capture and catalog things you read in the news that, for whatever reason, capture your creative fancy in case it might help when brainstorming story concepts or solutions to story problems. How so? For example, the clipping might:

  • Become the real-life event around which you create a fictional character affected by that event
  • Be so bizarre as to not be directly useful itself, and yet might inspire the “what if” creative juices
  • Be the actual basis for a story, especially if clipping is about a major event (a political scandal, a prison riot, a terrorist attack, etc.)
  • Help you enrich the dialogue based on a quote from the news article

About the clippings now on my corkboard:

These are articles I pulled from my files or from recent news stories that I thought might be useful to keep handy as I’m working on this in-progress screenplay. For example

  • One is a recent LA Times article about the role that Brazil had in supporting President Nixon’s interest in overthrowing the Chilean government’s leadership.
    Why I clipped it: Since one of our story threads involves the US government and its interests in preventing the use of the Caribbean as a transshipment station for South American drug smugglers, I saw some real-world similarities in this article that could help me construct a credible US involvement story thread.
  • Another clipping is from a circa 1990 Reader’s Digest article about Mary Thompson, a mother and a volunteer anti-gang activist in the community who, as the police eventually learned, was in reality the gang leader, neck-deep in gang activity herself, and ultimately convicted as an accomplice to murder — a hit that she had ordered.
    Why I clipped it: What impressed me about the article is how she had masked her evil activities from the community for years by coming across as simply a loving mom and community organizer. I’m not likely to model any character after her directly, but the article is more a reminder that I can avoid creating stereotypical criminals types by using the wilds of my imagination.
  • In another clipping on the board from last Sunday’s LA Times, I was only interested in a single sentence that caught my eye. The article was about a possible change in the election laws being considered by the Supreme Court right now that would remove corporate spending limits in campaign funding. A Washington lawyer who is opposed to change says that this could “… take us back to the era when people referred to the senator from Standard Oil,” implying that elected officials could become heavily swayed by a single corporation that is a particularly generous campaign sponsor.
    Why I clipped it: Since I’m creating a couple of politically corrupt parliamentarians for this story, and we may even have a parliamentary session scene or two, I love the idea of creating a line similar to this as a way to have one politician imply the dishonesty of another politician in the room without outwardly accusing him.

Getting’ digi- with it…

Of course these days, most of my news article “clippings” are digital — copied from an online article and pasted into a Microsoft OneNote notebook. The newspaper clipping file folders in my filing cabinet are still useful to me, but it’s tons easier to locate a collected article using a computer search.



Step Outline Advances

August 26, 2009

I made good progress today on the step outline for acts two and three. I’d go into more detail, but I’m a bit brain dead from the effort and need a break. For me, that usually means watching a movie. Ironically.


More later…


Visualizing a better story

August 25, 2009

I’ve marked here four examples that show how the process of visually clustering story elements to the step outline has helped me identify problems and opportunities so far in this story — before their oversight drags me down when I begin writing the screenplay.


The numbers in the picture above correspond with the numbered list items below.

  1. On the “Orlando LaSalle Pursues” card, notice that I’ve used two arrows to temporarily assign that card to two concurrent steps. After eyeballing the clusters, I realized that I need the story beats on that one card to be represented in both steps, allowing me to reveal successively more about the character Orlando as the story progresses through these two steps.
  2. If you look closely, you can see that the “Businesses collapse” card, which comes from the Economy/Infrastructure story thread, is incomplete. When I mapped out that story thread in early August, I knew that it was important to show urban decay early in the first act, but wasn’t yet sure precisely where or how. So I made the card but left the details blank. However, with the story now developed into a step outline, and now that this visual clustering allows me to easily see what else is happening in that step, several ideas poured forth as I pondered the map, giving me the answer, which I’ll now go back to the step sheet and write up.
  3. You’ll notice that I have handwritten a story thread card called “Press Status.” What happened is, as I begin to assign story beats to each step, I could see that I hadn’t fully anticipated the opportunities this step presented for helping to establish the status quo relationship of the press to the police, which is very important for the audience to understand early on and throughout the story, so they can be at least subconsciously aware of the antagonistic turbulence of that interrelationship as its tension ebbs and flows. So, to not interrupt my progress, I just jotted on a blank card the missing info as a reminder to add to this step outline later.
  4. This notation identifies where I’ve handwritten notes on two of the cards reminding me to represent this story element within other numbered steps in the outline. As I stepped back from the board, I could see that the story threads from which these two cards came were inadequately represented elsewhere on the storyline. I then analyzed and identified appropriate steps along the outline I could use to more gradually develop these two story elements and keep them fresh in the audience’s mind.

These are just four examples of story gaps and opportunities I discovered as a result of the graphical representation that this physical assembly process presented me. I might have found them in other ways, but they easily popped into view with this visual map.

Deal me in!

August 24, 2009

With Act I’s step outline on the corkboard, it was time to play cards — to shuffle around and, ultimately, assign each card from each story thread to a step in the outline, which I’ve done here:clustering

As you can see, I have clustered the story thread cards below each step card, identifying which step in the act it belongs to. The main difference you’ll see from how I organized the corkboard earlier is that, during story deconstruction (see example here), when the primary goal was to identify story threads and plot out their primary beats, the cards were positioned horizontally, linking them visually to form the threads. Now that each story element is already matched to a thread (color-coded for easy identification), we can mix up the positioning on the board, aligning them to a step rather than to their story thread siblings. That’s what you see in the picture above.

How this visual clustering helps

Once I’ve rearranged all the individual elements of each story thread, assigning them to a “parent” step in the outline, several questions become easily answered that, viewed just in a document full of words, would be much harder to identify, such as:

  • How important is this step to the story? A massive cluster of story elements certainly applies that many critical parts of the story need to be revealed in this one brief passage, which may indicate not only great importance, but identify unique challenges in how this scene will need to be written with great economy.
  • Are the story threads adequately represented and well-paced in their revelation? If a great passage of space shows up on the board for a particular story thread, that may indicate a flaw in how the thread is revealed.
  • Do any of the steps need to be updated? When shuffling the story thread cards around on the board to figure out which step in the outline should adopt it, this step may need to be rewritten to reflect a newly-assigned story thread element.
  • Are there any orphaned story thread elements? If a card doesn’t belong in any cluster, that tells me that either there is a gap in the step outline or that the story beat represented by this orphaned card maybe isn’t as important to the story as I thought it would be.

I’ll show in my next entry how the visual clustering has help me with Liberty in the Fires this week.

Step Outline Moves to Corkboard

August 23, 2009

As I described in yesterday’s entry, my first task today was to mount onto my corkboard the first act steps, each on its own card, as you see here:Stepping-Out-the-Steps-on-Corkboard

I’ve represented the timeline of the story’s first act horizontally, from left to right, just as it was in the story thread deconstruction phase. The reason I pushed the step cards to the top of the board is to make room for the story thread cards, which I will place below each step card later on.

I know it’s hard to tell in a small picture, so, in case you were wondering…

What is on each step card?

Each card has essentially three parts.

  • The card number and title, describing in a short phrase either where the step occurs (“Return to the Bat Cave”) or an overarching description of what happens (“Dynamic Duo Searches for Clues”). The card number indicates in what order that step occurs along the story timeline.
  • The step analysis — that gray-shaded area below the step title — is a dramaturgical analysis of the step, describing why this step is important and why it should happen at this point in the story.
  • The step description — the main area with no shading — is for the primary story elements or “beats” that collectively walk us through what happens in this step. It’s a highlight — just the key beats in the step — lacking the details that you will eventually see in a story’s final screenplay form.

Can you show an example?

Sure, why not? I won’t be giving away too much if I show you something from early in the first act. The card below represents Act I’s second step in the step outline. It should help clarify the value of the analysis shown in the gray-shaded area and explain by example what I mean by story beats:


If it’s too hard to read at this size, you can download that step as a PDF file here.