The Weakest Link—Lack of Vision

October 4, 2011


The chain be broken, broken indeed.

By which I’m referring to my goal, introduced in the blog Don’t Break the Chain, to write at least once daily for the entire year.  The idea was to create a daily cross-off (on a linear daily calendar chart of writing) that, together with the cross-offs before it, form an unbroken chain.

But I broke it.  Big time.  Like nearly three months of breakage.

What happened?

Lack of vision happened. I hit a major roadblock in the script that I was working on and, when I couldn’t figure a way past it, I lost steam.  And, you know what they say; Without a vision, the scripts perish.

Or something like that.

Then, life happened.  A new job – the kind that hasn’t the decency to contain itself within a 40-hour workweek – combined with a new interest that was taking more and more of my free time (running) – put the screenplay on a back burner, not even simmering.  Just collecting dust.

So, let’s build a new chain!

That’s my goal.  The contract job has ended, and I’ve got some new ideas on how to fix the script, and that means I’ve got a vision of reinstating my New Year’s goal, even if it’s got that summer-long gap. 

Two chains are better than none.   Smile

Transforming caterpillars

August 24, 2010

I’ve added a couple new quotes to my writer quotations collection—one quotation for the story structure section, and one for the writer motivation section—and both from screenwriter Blake Snyder.  I hope you find them as motivating or thought provoking as I did.  The first:

“All stories are about transformation.  In every story a caterpillar becomes a butterfly.”

It’s hard to think of a major film in which the lead character or characters did not go through a major transformation.  And as Robert, a writer-director friend of mine, pointed out yesterday, this is probably one of the least realistic aspects of movies because, in real life, people rarely change.  Not real, root-structure changes. 

Which, I figure, is why character transformation makes for such good storytelling:

  • We all have this vision of what we want to be, even as we wallow in the quagmire of who we are.
  • We all know those whose persons who never change and we desperately wish they would.

So when a story can take us to a world where people really change, it inspires us—gives us hope. 

That’s my theory.  And Blake Snyder’s, apparently.  His words are a good reminder that writers must let their characters not only affect their world but be effected by it.

And, in other news…

Blake Snyder gave this advice to yet-unknown screenwriters, which he wrote on his blog the day before he died in July of 2009:

“Have fun! The most important thing to do is to love what you’re doing. That way, getting better at it isn’t a struggle, it’s a pleasure.” 

I love that.  What a wonderful reminder when one is getting bogged down in the business of trying to create a screenwriting career that you got into the business because, hopefully, you enjoyed the art of creating with words and language.  Yeah, sure, it’s hard work.  But so is mountain climbing or playing soccer.  If writing isn’t just as fun, why not flip burgers instead?  Much less stressful.

Screenplay—Who’s Your Audience?

May 20, 2010

What a productive story session that was last night!  I had my weekly meeting at a local coffee shop with fellow writer Jeff Schnaufer that, as usual and appropriate, was focused on the screenplay he and I are collaborating on.  But because he had recently started reading my step outline quasi-treatment for Men of Gray III (the inspiration for MoG-Blog), we went off course on a 10-minute tangent to discuss the step outline for Men of Gray III.

The tangent—Who is the screenplay’s audience?

…and how does that knowledge of the who the intended reader is affect the way you write a screenplay compare to, say, how you would write the same story as a novel?  Because, while most literary forms are written to be read by the consumer, not so the screenplay.  I’d guess that more than 99.9% of those who saw the movie Titanic, for instance, probably have not read the screenplay, and probably never will.

So the audience for a screenplay is who, if not the viewing public?  I discuss that at length in this blog about The Princess Bride screenplay, so just the short answer here: the first draft is likely for a producer or investor.

And that was got us on our MOG3 tangent last night.  In Jeff’s notes to me about the step outline, he mentioned that he had sniffed out the suspected mole in lead character Joe Cameron’s drug squad in the first scene.  He was thinking it should be less obvious.

My question back to him: But how obtuse should the screenplay be about a character’s truth, considering that the target reader is a potential producer?  In other words—

How much do you reveal in a screenplay . . . and when?

While you may want a movie viewer to catch on to who the bad guys are, for example, at the moment you introduce them into the story, you might want the producer to know—to understand that this character or that character, though barely noticed here, becomes central to the story later on.  Because the producer is not just reading the screenplay as a story, but as a blueprint for making a movie.

Jeff disagreed on the grounds that, if there is a way for the writer to make the screenplay a compelling read without revealing to the producer that a significant story element or character is significant—effectively saying “so pay attention here”—then all the better.

I think Jeff’s point is valid.  Of course, I can also think of examples from William Goldman screenplays in which he literally tells the reader things to the extent of, “We don’t know who this is yet, but that’s okay, because we soon will.”  i.e., he is literally telling the reader what he wants the viewer to know or think at this point in the story.

And who am I to say that William Goldman’s style is invalid?

But the inspiring moment of the coffee shop discussion with Jeff last night was in the practical application of his—I still say valid—assertion.  In other words, while a Bill Goldman technique for calling out a characters significance will do, if a better way presents itself, take it. 

For the MOG3 screenplay, he felt that there is indeed no need to reveal this particular character’s truth early in the screenplay, because there’s a better way to do so later in the story.  When we analyzed why it was bugging Jeff that he knew a certain cop was the mole, it had more to do with the fact that:

  1. The action that tipped him off seemed extraneous, so it felt like a plant.
  2. It would be easy to be more subtle in the first scene by capitalizing on an opportunity in an upcoming scene to begin revealing the mole’s true character.

That, ultimately, was the motivational part of our talk—that the most minor of tweaks to an upcoming scene would let me easily reveal to the reader what the viewer will start to sniff out at the same time—that I can keep the police squad’s mole disguised in the opening moments without harming the producer’s or investor’s reading.

And so I shall.

Balancing Form and Function in the Screenplay

April 23, 2010

I recently added a Rod Serling quote to my Writer Quotations collection—a quote passed on to me by my writer friend Jeff Schnaufer—that I find both inspiring and cautionary:

“Whenever you write, whatever you write, never make the mistake of assuming the audience is any less intelligent than you are.”  (Rod Serling)

I purposely sandwiched this new addition in between the two following quotes on my On Narrative and Storytelling page because of their connected theme:

Good screenwriting plays against the grain, plays against the obvious, plays against the way you would expect things to happen.”  (Syd Field, from his book Four Screenplays)

In art, the obvious is a sin.”  (Edward Dmytryk)

Here’s the thing though…

How do you balance these harmonious, complementary words with this seemingly antithetical advice from an equally esteemed individual:

Don’t write so that you can be understood — write so that you can’t be misunderstood.”  (William Howard Taft, U.S. President)

Sure: since President Taft isn’t known for his creative writing, you could write it off (pardon the pun) as being less relevent advice.   But here is why I do not disregard it;  what writer has not experienced the frustration of finding that their carefully crafted message—which seemed sufficiently clear when they wrote it—confused the reader, or generated an unexpected and undesired response?  

Whether you’re writing a story or just a simple e-mail message, you know what I’m talking about here, right?

And you KNOW that misunderstanding can happen easily with creative writing in particular.  Words have different meanings.  Phrases have different meanings … potential subtext, for instance … that a writer must continually consider.   That’s part of the appeal of creative writing—that words have so much potential to carry meaning and symbolism and emotion, and it’s a ton of fun to play with it, to mold it.   But those very possibilities also invite misinterpretation. 

So, while “the obvious” in a screenplay may be a sin … 

The inobvious or misconstrued is a cardinal sin

… because a screenplay is only sorta’ kinda’ art, Mr. Dmytryk.  It is also a blueprint.  An instruction manual.  So, I try to write the screenplay to entertain, as you advise, Mr. Goldman (“Executives read a guh-zillion scripts on the weekend.  It would be idiotic for me not to have him try and enjoy the ride.”), but a screenplay can never sell if it is just artful.  Writing the screenplay artfully is a great goal, but it must also be written so that it cannot be misunderstood.  It must also communicate, initially to production company execs and then, if sold, to production technicians and artisans. 

To write a screenplay effectively, I try to step outside myself and consider my audience’s frame of reference.  Then, with that perspective firmly in mind, I hope to write in a way that I will not be misunderstood, even as I work to make the reading of it a fun ride.

We’ll see.

Anyone else struggle with this balancing act between form and function in creative writing?  Let’s talk about it.

Red Letter Day – Step Outline Done & Delivered

February 1, 2010

As of 7 pm today, my baby—the 30-page step outline—is in the hands of producer G. Anthony Joseph.

And I’m a little nervous. It’s been a labor. Of love, yes. But many, many countless hours of labor.

Of course, one hopes that it’s received with giddy delight—with unequivocal approval of every single word.

Just as one hopes that their stock portfolio will triple in value this year and next.

And just about as likely.

But leave me alone tonight while I hope for that.

Basking in it,


Step Outline Basically Complete

January 27, 2010

Pardon my recent silence—my work on the screenplay has been dogged by a number of competing priorities from some of my WriteWorks Agency clients with time sensitive marketing copy and Web site copy needs.

But the good news—the step outline for the screenplay is essentially done.


It’s coming in at 27 pages—a substantial foundation for the screenplay.

One last thing though…

Before passing it on to the producer, I’m going to spend a day or two, going through it with a more objective eye, cleaning it up, spell checking, and filling any overlooked holes or gaps. Otherwise, it is ready for delivery.

Took you long enough

Yes, yes, it was a long time in coming: longer than the step outline for most other stories I’ve worked on.

In fact, many stories, simpler ones, can be written without creating a step outline.

Not this one though. Too complex. This has been structurally one of the most challenging stories I have ever worked on.

The biggest challenge so far?

So far, it has been the continual effort required to keep this inherently complex story from being unnecessarily complex—continually trimming away anything that isn’t essential so as to keep it from becoming an epic.

And how much smarter it is to trim the fat before writing out the full screenplay! I’ve done that before, and it’s just way too painful. By making the story structurally sound from beginning to end and getting agreement from the producer before I invest so much emotion in time into writing out the complete 110 pages or so of a screenplay—while it is still in outline form—will save me from many gray hairs.

Sure, rewriting and rewriting and rewriting is a seemingly inevitable part of any screenplay development. But starting from a structurally sound foundation will at least reduce the number or severity of rewrites.

I hope.

Optimistically yours,

Writers Write

January 7, 2010

One quotation I just added to the Writer Motivation and Inspiration quotations page on my blog is this one by Aristotle: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act, but a habit.”

In reading the introduction to the book The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters, written by Karl Iglesias, I find one of those stupidly simple truths; you know—the kind of simple truth that smacks you upside the head and calls you “stupid!” for not already consciously knowing that truth and taking it to heart.

And that stupidly simple truth is…?

Simply this: that writers write.

Well, duh! … but … yeah!

Iglesias doesn’t use those exact words in the intro, but it’s a central theme of the passage.

The simple truth of this point—that writers write (and write and write and write)—is that most people who want to be great writers don’t do it nearly enough to ever hone their craft or prove their prowess.

The value of this simple (but not simplistic, mind you) truth is borne out in the background of several of the highly successful writers that Iglesias interviewed for this book. Many of them, such as Ron Bass, Steven DeSouza, Scott Rosenberg, and Michael Schiffer, talk about the volume of writing they did before they finally sold a piece or hit the big time.

Schiffer, for example, wrote 14 spec scripts (i.e., on speculation of ever selling it, as opposed to writing a script on assignment) before he was hired to write Colors. And Bass wrote four scripts during an 18-month period while he was doing daddy duty and practicing law, no less!

So much for any of the rest of us complaining that we don’t have time to write, ‘eh?

Write early and write often…

Here’s one more quote from the book’s intro that drove this “writers write” point home.

One hasn’t become a writer until one has distilled writing into a habit, and that habit has been forced into an obsession. Writing has to be an obsession. It has to be something as organic, physiological, and psychological as speaking or sleeping or eating. (Niyi Osundare)

I’m not as successful a screenwriter as I would like to be. However, having sold one original screenplay and several co-written ones, I am propelled to write more, seeing these smaller successes as solid indicators of my potential to get to where I want to be as a screenwriter (i.e., making a reliable living from it). And having now completed reading the introduction of Iglesias’ book The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters, I know (duh) that I can boost my screenwriting success quotient by making it more of a habit and thus having a butt load of spec scripts ready to show.

Good book. So far.