Stepping On to Act III

January 5, 2010

Just completed the step outline for Act II. And the story still feels solid, which means that stepping out the third act will be a piece of cake, at least by comparison. From way back to the initial six-page story synopsis, the vision for how the third act should play out was already solid. The tough stuff was figuring out how to get us there (i.e., stepping out Act I and Act II).

I expect then to complete the step outline by the the end of the week, not only because it’s the shortest act, but because it’s fully formed in my mind already.

Few steps to the finish line

One strong advantage of a solid step outline is that it saves a ton of missteps by giving you a solid and objective understanding of the drama, front to back. This means that, when you get to the heavy lifting of the screenplay’s first draft, it isn’t that heavy at all, because you know what to write; the step outline informs you.

I hear the some writers (Stephen King being one of them) throw themselves into a first draft of their story without first planning out what the story is that they want to tell, and then end up throwing out half of what they wrote in future drafts.  I contend this is because they didn’t map out their route in advance, which may yield some unexpected delights on the side roads, but will put a ton of wear and tear on their schedule. 

I don’t know about you, but I barely have time to write out the story from beginning to end when I know exactly where I’m going. I would find the process too painful and frustratingly inefficient if I was regularly throwing out half of what I wrote, which is likely to happen without a step outline or some other pre-screenplay mapping process.

Also, the way I create the step outline (you can read about the process here and here), it’s very much a substantial iteration toward a finished screenplay—all the scenes either suggested or already designed, minus dialogue. The outline will probably end up at 30 pages in length. And with the finished screenplay likely coming in around 105 pages, I’m virtually a third of the way to a first draft of the screenplay when I’ve wrapped up the step outline. image

So, though no laurels to rest upon yet, I’m nonetheless tickled to have hit this progress marker.

Or, to quote my son: "Woot!"

The final moment of Act II…

This moment, just written, is where Joe awakens to his true calling and accepts his destiny as a leader of the people, not just a leader of the police. It marks the end of Joe’s police role and his resurrection as a statesman—as the one potential candidate most qualified on a moral basis to run for the top office and make a solid effort to reform the country’s government … that’s *if* he can win the election, when he is coming up against a dangerous, determined, and powerful incumbency.  Which is the core plotline of the third act.

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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.