Limited Respite for Our Hero

December 31, 2009

The audience will need a break from the ever-mounting tension of the sequences that lead up to antagonist Cain’s apparent destruction of Joe Cameron. They will get that break in the house-arrest confinement moments that follow the disastrous botched drug bust, during which his mother and others close console and support as Joe wallows in pre-trial self-condemnation. However, such a reprieve must not impede the story’s forward momentum.

The devastating botched bust scene that marked the Midpoint Moment of the second act naturally changes the course of the story. Instead of being on the attack, as Joe has been throughout the second act up to this point, the Midpoint event forces Joe into a defensive position for the rest of Act 2.  And that, I figure, is my opportunity to reignite the dramatic tension, even during this necessary lull of introspection (necessary to Joe’s character arc as well as to the viewer’s attention span). How? By seeding the introspective passage with…

Plot-thickening cutaways

Joe’s brother Cain is an underlying source of antagonism throughout the first act, which become increasingly overt in the second act. Now, it’s time to bring Cain’s battle against Joe fully to the surface. By doing so during the relatively pacific passage of Joe’s confinement and consolation from friends and family, rather than waiting until the softer moment is over, I can reignite the forward propulsion of the story.

To do so subtly, I’m interjecting brief cutaway snippets into this introspective passage, revealing that Cain is busy hammering nails into the coffin of Joe’s fate by tampering with evidence, coercing witnesses, and influencing the prosecutor as the impending case against Joe takes shape.

Building the tension

My goal though is to create a rising sense of anxiety throughout this sequence, such that the viewer will initially only sense the developing threat on some subconscious level while focusing on what Joe is going through. Then, by increasing the pace and intensity of these intercutting scenes, the viewer will be slowly drawn deeper in to the rising tension of the inquisition against Joe. If I craft this right, the viewers should feel increasingly disturbed in this sequence—a feeling brought on by the unfolding plot—even as they receive an emotionally satisfying sense of resolution from that most important thing—the restoration of Joe’s goodness and morality.

By weaving this into the introspective scenes of Joe’s post-tragedy remorse, I hope to keep viewers concerned about Joe’s fate at the same time that they find peace in the restoration of Joe’s moral compass. While the latter is not as inherently visual as the playing out of Cain’s inquisition against Joe, Joe’s ethical restoration is more central to the overriding moral premise of the story and, therefore, critical to its thematic resolution.

This restoration is also essential to the culmination of the story, since Joe’s abandonment of principle (to bring about the admirable results of overcoming the crime bosses’ stranglehold over the country) is what brought about our growing discomfort throughout the first half of the second act because we see Joe becoming the very thing he’s trying to destroy, and since his restored principle is the very thing that empowers him to battle his brother’s Act 3 plot to prevent Joe’s success in the election.

Oh, and one more thing…

Happy New Year.  🙂


Midpoint Moment in the Bag

December 27, 2009

Exciting day at the keyboard: Today, I hammered out the rapid series of events that culminate in (and include) the critical Midpoint moment of Act II.

Probably half of all that has happened in the second act so far is effectively the necessary lead-up events (character and story development activities) to bring about this explosive moment, in which all Joe’s efforts to crush the criminal element’s stranglehold and disrupt the activities of the corrupt politico suddenly come crashing down, destroyed by his brother’s plot. And the way it happens turns this moment into an international event. 

If I achieve the right effect, this event will appear to the audience as the complete annihilation of Joe’s efforts.  Time will tell if I’ve succeeded…


Fiction Validated by Real-World Happenings

December 24, 2009

Truth, once again, has proven to be as real as fiction, if not as strange.

Reading last Sunday’s LA Times, I see this article about Tijuana’s top police officer Julian Leyzaola and his effort to restore the peace and the reputation of the police. The details of his effort, his results, his detractors, and his legal roadblocks almost seem to have been ripped from the fiction of our in-progress movie script. But I won’t accuse him of copyright infringement.  😉

While it’s a bit alarming when something like this happens (after all, it may look as though we ripped our story from their reality), it’s also a nice confirmation that my story is plausible and relevant.


When I’m Not Screenwriting or Directing…

December 22, 2009

For most screenwriters or directors, the work is irregular: unpredictable.  Someone recently asked me, what then am I doing for money in the downtimes between screenplay or directing endeavors?  The answer: related stuff usually. Such as:

WriteWorks Agency

WriteWorks is a writing, copyediting, and proofreading business I operate. Most of my clients are those who need wordsmiths for Web sites, marketing endeavors (banners, print ads, e-mail campaigns, sales letters, customer testimonial acquisitions, etc.), and corporate communications (press releases, internal memos, etc.).

Marketing copy may not be as fun as fiction, but it’s bread-n-butter, it’s creatively stimulating, and it’s a great way to keep the dust off the keyboard’s exclamation mark.  😉

Web Program Management/Consulting

I’ve got a deep background in Web program leadership and consulting, including project management, program management, Web strategy, usability design, information architecture, resource management, accessibility consultation, workflow/publication process design and management.

While Web management may not seem at a glance to be related to writing or directing, I have found that the skills it takes to succeed as a director are not that different. Whether leading a Web initiative or directing a movie, you’re crafting a vision that’s based on requisites (i.e., business requirements or a script), selling the vision to stakeholders, hiring people and companies with the right skills to bring life to that vision, communicating the vision to technicians and creative artisans, managing a team of talented individuals, managing to a budget, balancing the competing needs of investors and consumers, being resourceful and level-headed when things don’t go as planned, and staying objective enough to hold to the big picture while being sufficiently versed in all nitty gritty aspects of the process to orchestrate the right results through each step. Consequently, I find that every Web gig improves my directing readiness, and every directing gig boosts my success as a Web program manager.  

Yes, related but…

But there’s a difference. While I enjoy the business of Web leadership, and have the skills to do a bang-up job of it, it’s film directing that I do whether or not I’m getting paid to do it. It “tickles my fancy,” as my grandmother would say.  Likewise, while i enjoy just about any work that involves the manipulation of the written or spoken language, screenwriting is the one type of writing that I do whether or not I’m getting paid to do it.

Retired LA TV Weatherman George Fishbeck once said, “The secret of success is: Find a job you like so much you would do it for nothing. Then do it.” 

I’m doing it.  🙂


Healthy Distractions

December 4, 2009

Hearing crickets? The rustle of a skittering leaf?

Yes, it’s been silent here of late.

Taking care of family matters and writing client projects, both with steep deadlines, has silenced my typing on the screenplay and the blog for a bunch of days.

And I mean "silenced" my typing literally, since I often use voice recognition software to type.

But never you fear…

…not only because that’s a pretty stupid thing for you to be afraid of—unless you’re the one who paid me to write—but because creative writing still springs forth from my verbal quill (again: the voice recognition software); it just springs from a different fountain: a different screenplay.

The scoop:

For the the past two weeks or so, between the rush of duties related to family, holiday, and the copyedit client gigs, I’ve been unfaithful to the Liberty in the Fires/Men of Gray III story, sneaking out to the nearby Buffalo Bruce’s Mercantile coffee shop and engaging in screenplay brainstorming sessions on a completely different story with my friend and fellow writer Jeff Schnaufer. image

Jeff is the bearded guy in the picture you see here. No, he doesn’t dress like this normally. He co-wrote an episode of Star Trek Voyager. Thus, the getup.  Jeff is also a teacher, a blogger (you can read his entertaining blog here), and a seasoned, award-winning news journalist. You can get the full scoop on him at JeffSchnaufer.com.

I’ve never done a true co-writing effort with a screenplay, but Jeff and I have decided to give it go. I’m finding the process to be a real adrenaline kick.

True co-writing? as opposed to…fake co-writing?

No, as opposed to co-brainstorming on creative story concepts, which I have done with producer-actor G. Anthony Joseph. While both processes are similar at first (the brainstorming sessions in particular), co-writing will be a much more interwoven experience from beginning to end, requiring constant interaction: give and take.

When working creatively with G.—which was also a creative adrenaline kick—one of us would come up with an idea, then we’d brainstorm together on how to make it into a story, then I would go off and write the whole thing. Once I completed it, we would either (A.) e-mail back and forth subsequent iterations of the story—a G. tweak, then a Ric tweak, then a G. tweak, etc.—until we eventually tweaked the story to completion, or (B.) we would meet up after he had read my first draft and have another brainstorm session to get agreement on what adjustments the story needed, and then I would keep writing.

Creative and enjoyable, but not what I would call co-writing.

What then does co-writing look like?

By contrast, the creative process of true co-writing is much more conjoined, with every step of the creative process done in partnership. The writers work together on devising the concept, choosing the primary plotline, creating the characters, crafting the scenes, and so forth.

Maybe one will be the primary typist throughout, or maybe that effort will alternate. Maybe one is stronger in dialogue and the other in scene or story structure, so some aspects may fall more to one writer or the other. But it will be a tandem effort.

Exactly how Jeff and I will divvy up the work is TBD, since we’ve never worked together before. And it’s too early to tell yet.

What about MOG3? Are you still writing it?

Absolutely. It’s still not done, and I’m still writing it.  Just not in the last 10 days or so. The Men of Gray III story is too exciting and important to let it go.

And I don’t think it will suffer from the occasional creative jousts with Jeff on our co-writing venture (a nominal time commitment so far). In fact, I suspect that the alternative screenwriting interludes with this other screenplay may actually stimulate my creativity on the MOG3 story, since the styles of the two stories are wildly different, but both involve similar skills. MOG3 is a political drama. The story I’m co-writing with Jeff is a comedy. Both will put a healthy dose of synaptic sizzle into my life.

As for working with Jeff, I suspect that we won’t always be nodding our heads in agreement with every idea that gets tossed up for consideration. It certainly hasn’t been that way so far. And I’m glad. I think it’s great when we both get jazzed on a certain idea. I think it’s equally great when when one of us has to fight to "sell" an idea to the other. If we don’t reach consensus, then we just keep pushing creatively until we find an idea that we both buy.  Like iron sharpens iron. 

Now, if I can just convince him that Chicago style is better than AP style…

But that’s not going to happen.


Story Timeline Progresses

November 21, 2009

I gave up on the idea of using Microsoft Project to help me create a visual timeline of the story, as I originally described in this previous entry. Microsoft Project proved to be way too constricting for my purposes. While the visual timeline elements looked great, it was a pain to keep each entry (representing a single step in the story outline) simple to represent.

I briefly tried using Microsoft Word’s table features, but moving line items right or left was unwieldy, and the page size constraints kept getting in my way.

But one program excels…

As it turns out, Microsoft Excel is serving gracefully as the timeline foundation, giving me more control than using a Microsoft Word table, and giving me more flexibility than Project.

image

As you can (barely) see in this image, I’ve . . .

  1. formed each step in the story outline into a row item.
  2. broken down morning, afternoon, and night of each day into columns, grouped into days, and days into weeks.
  3. placed each step into its rightful place in time by dragging it horizontally, revealing the chronological flow of the story.

One example problem I’m trying to solve for:

I’ve got a group of American college students visiting the country on their Spring break, and I want to keep at least one of them central to the developing story. The problem I’m having is that the main storyline, which is interwoven with a major court preceding and an approaching political election, doesn’t fit within the weeklong length of the typical Spring break. So, how do I keep the visiting students involved in the plot?

That problem is what initially alerted me to the timeline challenges.  Drawing up a physical timeline, like the snippet shown above, is helping me to reveal any other time-related plot problems and, I hope, helping me to solve them as well.

Though initially daunting…

I’m finding that this particular time problem isn’t insurmountable. It kept me awake at night for a time, until I finally laid out the story onto this timeline, which made it easy to brainstorm my options, and make a visual check of the effects of initiating such options.

Toward solving the weeklong student break, for example, I’ve mulled over several possible solutions as:

  • Create a weather-related event back home (a freak snowstorm, perhaps, big enough to close airports) that prevents the students from returning at the end of the week, or causes extended school closings.
  • Have an injurious event happen to one or several of the students, requiring hospitalization locally, thus forcing a trip extension.
  • Extend the political events of the main story timeline, such that some of the visiting students (or at least the primary student, who ends up romantically involved with one of the Caribbean characters) return to the island at the end of the school year, reengaging with the storyline at the key moment.
  • Change the motive for the students being in the country from a Spring vacation to being on a student exchange program or college-funded research project, which eliminates the one-week-norm problem. 

So far, this last idea is my favorite solution for a couple reasons:

  1. It’s highly plausible—no stretch for the audience to buy into.
  2. It opens up some excellent opportunities for visual and cultural variety in the story.  For example, let’s say I make it an archeological exploration instead of a Spring break trip; then, we have a wonderful excuse to explore Trinidad’s La Brea tar pits and the pitch lake. Or perhaps it’s a sociological thesis expedition, in which case we can weave some of the indigenous Amerindian Arawak tribal remnants and practices into the story, or the fascinating intermixing of Christian and pagan customs, which are practiced in certain regions of the country, or the Canboulay festival practices, including violent stick fighting and hypnotic drumming. Or, if I make it an ecological expedition, there’s limitless location opportunities open to us, given Trinidad & Tobago’s extraordinarily diverse ecosystem (swamps, rain forests, plains, coastal regions, coral reefs, and more).

Suddenly, with the help of the story timeline and the brainstorming that it evoked, what initially looked like an insurmountable story obstacle has become an enriching new story element.

Although I’m not fully decided which solution to invoke, I know I will sleep easily tonight, confident that the story will be stronger as a result of this exercise.


Starting a Story Timeline

November 15, 2009

As I dig further into the development of the story, keeping the time-space continuum intact is getting tricky. The plot contains many twists and simultaneous or overlapping forces that come up against the hero’s efforts. Each of these forces, which include different characters or events, has its own timelines, so to speak—things that must happen before and things that must happen after—for each to make sense.  Even if the before or after moment isn’t necessary to show in the movie, I still need to at least reveal that they happened.

For example…

I’ve mentioned before that there’s a “Judas” character—a member of Joe’s police squad that is secretly undermining Joe’s efforts. After Joe catches the Judas in his deception and forces him out, he turns against Joe by supporting Joe’s main enemy, making up stories to incriminate Joe. For those two major actions of the Judas character (Joe’s exposing/shunning of the Judas, and the Judas character’s false testimony against Joe) to take place, a chain reaction of events must first happen to make these moments believable and emotionally engaging to the audience. These steps look something like this:

  • We must meet the Judas character and trust him as much as Joe trusts him.
  • We need to see that Joe knows he has a leak in the force: that someone close to him must be informing to the criminals, thwarting their efforts to bust the cartels.
  • We need to see subtle hints that Joe is beginning to question this squad member, but we must not be able to figure this out before Joe figures it out.
  • Joe must establish the importance of loyalty to his team, so we understand the consequences of disloyalty when it’s discovered.
  • We must see the status quo of loyalty in the way the squad operates, so we can empathize with Joe and the squad when the busted Judas is ousted.
  • Joe needs to test his suspicions against this officer.
  • The Judas officer needs to fail the test, revealing his guilt to Joe.

All of that must first happen before the first big moment I mentioned, where Joe confronts the officer.  Also, for the officer to become bitter enough to testify falsely against Joe later, the moment must be sufficiently degrading; i.e., in front of the squad and with Joe’s wrath against this traitor at its worst. And the other officers need to be in the right place at the right time throughout these preceding moments, so we’re “with them” emotionally at this moment.

And, while these things are happening, the story is still traveling forward, including what Joe’s older brother, the primary antagonist, is doing, and how the press is responding to the major events that Joe is creating, and how the crooked politicians are affect by and reacting to all this.

And so forth.

To keep this growing garden of forking paths smoothly interwoven, and to keep the story cohesive and interesting, I’ve come up with a solution, which is to…

“Timeline” the Story

Today, I began to map out the steps of the story outline chronologically, representing the major steps on a timeline. More than just putting the steps in order, it’s putting all the story threads on a calendar: a time breakout. What it will reveal: How many hours or days have transpired from this moment to the next and the next, and what other parallel events are happening, or need to happen?

The Goal:

I’m hoping to accomplish a few things by doing this:

  • Identify character “presence” gaps  (Hey, we just passed through two days of the story time without hearing anything about the reporter Orlando; shouldn’t he be following Joe’s activities?)
  • Reveal any impossible situations based on time (Wait a minute here … the American students on Spring break wouldn’t still be here on the Island after 14 days! Can we have them arrive later? or add a scene to explain why their trip got extended?)
  • Seek compression opportunities (Say, maybe we can combine Cain’s discovery of Joe’s actions against Bishop with Orlando’s discovery of it, since they both need to happen about the same time.)

I’m envisioning that it will a kind of Gannt chart, maybe even using Microsoft Project to do it, so I can change the view to a standard calendar format, and back, with ease. Not sure yet. But I’ll let you know how it goes.


The Princess Bride Screenplay—A Good Read?

November 7, 2009

I just finished reading the screenplay for the movie The Princess Bride by William Goldman, and it was, in my opinion, a page turner. I was spellbound, unable to put it down.

You know what’s strange about that? It’s a screenplay, not a novel. And, by the nature of the beast, screenplays are…

Not designed to be spellbinding

By nature, a screenplay is effectively a blueprint—a kind of instruction manual for assembling a movie. By nature, it isn’t written for the enjoyment of the consumer. So it’s unnatural when reading a screenplay feels natural: pleasurable.

But isn’t a screenplay meant to tell a story too?

Yes, of course. But, in a screenplay, that conveyance of the story is stilted—structured in a way that it is inevitably non-narrative: not easily read with the familiar, graceful sentence-to-sentence and paragraph-to-paragraph flow of the standard narrative form, such as you would expect in a short story or novel. 

No, the screenplay is broken up visually into a series of mismatched text chunks of varying widths, alignment justifications, andimage capitalization rules, something like this:

So it’s a strain to the reader’s mind to consistently entertain and maintain the flow of the story as it hopscotches its way through the tangled form of the screenplay.

In spite of all this, reading this William Goldman screenplay—in fact, reading just about any of his screenplays—was as captivating as reading a good novel. Which should come as no surprise, given his own words on this:

“I try to make my screenplays as readable an experience as I can, for a good and greedy reason—I want the executives, who read them and who have the power to greenlight a flick, to say, ‘Hey, I can make money out of this.’” (from his book Four Screenplays with Essays)

From that same book, in his essay about writing the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid screenplay, he points out that:

“We all want the movies we write to get made. And that’s only going to happen if someone likes the script. Executives read a guh-zillion scripts on the weekend. It would be idiotic for me not to have him try and enjoy the ride.” (William Goldman)

That’s a great thing for me to remember as I approach the transition from constructing the step outline to writing the screenplay, as I now am. While it’s important to follow the industry-standard constructs of the screenplay format—to not do so could be a distraction to the reader—doing so doesn’t prevent the writer from making the process of the reading more enjoyable for the executive than the guh-zillion others they’re reading this weekend.

Consider an example of this from The Princess Bride screenplay:

Finally INIGO goes back to cliff edge, starts to talk. It’s instant death if the MAN IN BLACK falls, but neither gives that possibility much credence. This is our two heroes meeting. They don’t know it yet; but that’s what it is.

The last two sentences do two things; first, they tell the screenplay reader (who is usually going to be a producer or director or a hired reader initially, but me in this case) something important about this scene that the viewer will either not know at all, or may only be subconsciously aware of. Second, these words allow Goldman to draw me into the tale, creating anticipation, while making sure that I understand the spinal significance of this moment, which may not be fully clear this early in the story.

He also uses a lot of humor in his screenplays for the benefit of no one but the reader. Consider this example from the same script:

…And what we are starting now is one of the two greatest swordfights in modern movies (the other one happens later on), and right from the beginning…

These words are never spoken by the characters. In fact, both of these example passages are from descriptions of actions within scenes: words the viewer will never witness or hear. They’re only written for the benefit of the director, the producer, and others involved in the making of the movie.

Goldman does that a lot, and with all his screenplays (of the nine I’ve read, anyway). Which makes the reading enjoyable, and even sort of makes the reader feel special … privileged. Like they’re in on something secret. Given his commercial success, I’d say this writing technique works; his movies are getting made because the executives with the power to greenlight them are enjoying the ride of reading his screenplays.

You can read more of Goldman’s wise words to the writer in my writer quotations collection.