More Work Today on Step Outline

October 30, 2009

In Act 2, several course-altering events occur in rapid succession, including:

  • Joe’s first-ever blatant refusal to subordinate himself to his elder brother, who is also a rung above Joe in the country’s police. This forces a new dynamic and tension into their relationship.
  • Joe’s active elimination of the criminal elements puts Joe’s brother Cain and the other political cronies on edge, Joe-prepares-2-fireWeaponwhich causes the politico to rise up against Cain’s unspoken authority, which further pits Cain against Joe.
  • At the same time, Joe begins to employ tactics that he’s learned from, and once despised in, his big brother: using the press to his advantage.
  • As this is developing, Joe’s new take-no-prisoners strategy puts him at odds with his mother and other family members who symbolically serve as his moral compass and have previously been his greatest ally. This puts Joe emotionally adrift, separated from his support system.
  • In the midst of all this, Joe springs a trap he had set, flushing out the suspected Judas on his team. His harsh treatment and banishment of the traitorous squad member sends a message to anyone else operating against him to watch out.

These and several other interweaving threads of shifting pressures should cause us to react on several levels, if I can craft this right.

  • On one level, we revel in Joe’s victories and allow ourselves to believe that that he’s doing the right thing.
  • On another level, we know that his methods, though effective, seem morally wrong and seem to skirt the legal limits of the law. If done right, we should be torn between wanting him to do right, but wanting him to win, but not by becoming that which he’s trying to stop.
  • On a third level, we should feel alarm as we see forces rising up against him from all around, which should evoke empathy.

Keeping these threads fast and active and balanced in what will become just a 10-minute passage of screen time is the challenge of the day. And probably of tomorrow too, along with taking a morning hike with my daughter in the Verdugo mountains.

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Crafted Two Steps of Act II Today

October 29, 2009

Sometimes it’s a labor of love, sometimes it’s no labor at all.  Today was one of those lovely days where the story took me along for the ride as I wrote out two of the story steps in the 2nd act.

The labor was done long ago, when I wrote the story threads—those parallel universes of the various characters and other story elements that get woven into the fabric of the story.  Having done that thread work before, filling story gaps and interweaving story elements for these passages today was magically easy.

Fun stuff.

Looking forward to launching back into the story tomorrow.


Birthing Believable Characters

October 27, 2009

The late film director Edward Dmytryk said in his book On Screen Directing that It is desirable that all characters, even those only briefly shown, be presented as whole human beings. Any character worth keeping is worth developing."

While he’s addressing directors here, this bit of wisdom is at least as valuableimage for the screenwriter to consider (which is why you’ll also find this on the Story Characters and Characterization page of my collection of favorite writer quotations).

In fact, even though I direct as much as write, I feel that this perspective on story characters is more important for the writer to take to heart because…

They are your babies, baby!

One often painful reality for screenwriters is the business of what happens to the story after they’ve crafted their vision of it. The collaborative nature of filmmaking often diminishes the holiness of your written words to mere suggestions.  The producer, the studio, the director, the actors, the distributors, and a host of others—who may all want a voice in what the movie should be about, and even how your story should be told—will pull, tug, and rip at the the fabric of your story as they make their mark on the outcome of the movie. If you’re lucky, the spine of your story remains intact.  The rest is up for grabs.

So, if you want the story to remain as close to your original intentions as possible, then consider the significance of Dmytryk’s perspective when birthing your characters, long before the director will be in a position to question whether or not one of your characters is important enough to “keep.”

With that in mind, my plan is to…

Make it real to keep it real

If I create story characters that feel real—fully formed: as multidimensional as you or me—no matter how briefly the story reveals them, then the actor or director is more likely to be inspired to invoke rather fabricate each character’s reality. And this Dmytryk quote inspires me to remember this.

For inspiration by example…

I turn to the 1991 movie The Silence of the Lambs.  Although the powerful portrayals of the main characters is the first thing that likely comes to mind, I ask you to think about the many supporting and bit characters: the victims, the possible witnesses, the agents, the guards. I easily recall how even those shown ever-so-briefly were “presented as whole human beings,” as Dmytryk implores.

For example, when I watch the scene where FBI agent Clarice Starling spends less than 30 seconds at a woman’s doorway, questioning her, I get the distinct impression that this lady is a real woman, not a “day player”—that she has a long and rich personal history, that her universe began long before we see her, and will continue without us once the door is closed.

Silly though, isn’t it? She’s a little bitty slice of fiction, that’s all.

But through the combined talents of the actor and director, the lady at the door, artfully created by novelist Thomas Harris and modified for screen by Ted Tally, has become a real person for us, the viewers. 

As a director I find that inspiring. As a writer, I am also challenged by this to make it a goal in my own stories: to birth characters that, no matter how briefly I present them, will intrigue the reader, drawing them into the apparent reality of each and every character.

What about you?

Any movies you recall whose bit parts drew you in and compelled you to want to know more about them?  Do tell!


Anesthetized

October 23, 2009

Working on a tedious passage of the story’s step outline, my brain needed a little visual stimulation, so I grabbed my laptop and left my home office to go check out a local establishment here in my new ‘hood that advertised good espresso and free Wi-Fi Internet.

As I entered, the atmosphere looked nice enough, but the lack of a/c gave me pause (it’s about 93 degrees here today).  A bevy of big ceiling fans made it tolerable though, so I ordered an Americano and cranked up the laptop.

As I did so, the shop’s sound system loudly pumped out its “background” music. Some instrumental piece with a middle eastern flavor. A tolerable tune, but tediously repetitive.

Well, no biggie; how long can the song be, right?

So, I tuned it out in my mind and got busy on the story.

Good coffee, by the way.

Ten minutes later, I suddenly noticed that the song was still going. And it didn’t seem to build or fade or change keys or …

What the… Could it be stuck in a loop? How would that even be possible, unless they’re using a turntable record player? But surely it was stuck.

So I began paying close attention to the song…

Well, I’ll be hornswaggled.  Indeed, it seems just too repetitive to be anything more than the same three or four bars of music repeating, and there was this little, tiny hiccup in the rhythm that could very well be the skip point causing the song passage loop endlessly.

I should say something about it to the employee, I thought. 

But, no; there’s a line and she looks busy and what if I’m wrong about the song looping because what if it’s supposed to repeat endlessly in this trancelike way and I’m just being culturally ignorant to not recognize that and then I’d be insulting her to tell her that her music is “stuck”and besides I’m here to work on the script, not stand in a line so I can whine about the background music, which is now utterly in the FOREGROUND of my mind, by the way, and doesn’t seem to be bothering anyone else…

So, okay, I’ll push it out of my mind.

I’ve got brains. I’ve got willpower. I’ll employ both to ignore it and get back to work. 

Which I did.

45 minutes later, I awakened to the realization that the damned song was still playing. 

And, yes, it was the same three incessant, mind-numbing bars.

I looked around, wondering how it’s possible that no other patrons—nor even the employee behind the counter, who had been there the entire time, and who knows for how long she’d been hearing the song before I got here—seemed the least bit conscious of this never-ending musical faucet drip. How is this possible!?

Had they become completely anesthetized to it?

Those brainless sheep!

Of course, before I spent too much time pondering how stupid everyone must be to remain so unaware of this diabolical melodic torture technique (which was probably also insidiously pumping subliminal anti-American messages into our subconscious, right?), I had to first humbly (sheepishly?) recognize that I had been able to work on the story for nearly an hour without any conscious awareness of it either.

Like the proverbial slow-boiled lobster, I thought.

Which made me smile.  Because that’s at the heart of this story I’m birthing—how we all become anesthetized to an evolving or devolving social situation when it happens gradually—how we can come to shrug off a condition that would enrage us if thrown suddenly upon us—how we are numbed into a state of resignation when a distasteful situation is fed to us initially in an eye dropper, and then in tiny sips before more lethally poisoning our system with big gulps of it, until utterly drowning us in torrents of bile—how we’re unhappy about the bile, yet willingly stomaching it when it’s gently morphed its way into being the status quo.

Made me smile?  No, not the bile, and not the slow poisoning of a passive society, but the symbolic significance of the anesthetization that I just went through with that endless musical loop. It showed me how easy it is to fall prey to it—how, even when I was conscious of the situation, I felt pressured by social mores to not make a scene: to take action.

I could use this in the story.

As soon as that blasted song-loop stops!

So, like my protagonist Joe Cameron, I set aside my work to pick up the cause of the people—to save them from becoming boiled lobsters.

“May I help you, sir?”

“Yes, m’am. First, I’d like to say that your coffee is very good.”

“Thank you,” she said, glancing at the tip jar.

“Second, I have to ask … is this song really so repetitive, or could it be … stuck?”

She looked confused for a moment—maybe the word “repetitive” wasn’t in her vocabulary?—and then tilted an ear toward the ceiling, listening. 

After less than five seconds, she nodded. “I think you’re right.”

She disappeared backstage and stopped the song. I heard a collective sigh of relief throughout the shop. 

Oh, wait.  It was just me.

But it felt collective, if that counts.

I guess they really had all been numbed into ignorance. 

Wow.

A hero’s sacrifices often go unnoticed, I figured.  Yep, they may never know the great good that I’ve done for them.  Still, I felt pretty good about taking a stand—about becoming a shepherd instead of a sheep.

That’s the good news. Unfortunately, my social activism had plucked me…

Out of the boiling pot, and into the skillet:

So now, the repetitive instrumental music is gone, replaced with Elton John’s Greatest Hits, which the employee must be very fond of, because it’s playing even louder than the preceding 50-minute-long instrumental loop that I’d just rescued her from.

Like replacing one tyrannical form of government for another.

Yep.

So, with Elton blaring as the FOREGROUND atmosphere of the shop as I write this story, don’t be surprised if there’s a scene in the movie in which a crocodile rocks a tiny dancer on a Saturday night until it’s knocked out by a candle in the wind thrown by some honky cat called Benny who then jets outa’ there before anyone lets the sun goes down on him.

And we CUT TO…


Quotes for Writers on Narrative and Storytelling

October 22, 2009

This category of quotations from my favorite writers quotes collection is about the bigger picture of storytelling– the theme, tone, motive, intent, pacing. A lot of good advice.

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“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, from his book Four Screenplays with Essays)

“Movies are finally, centrally, crucially, primarily only about story.”
(William Goldman, from the introduction in his book Five Screenplays with Essays)

“What is happening now is apt to be less dramatically interesting than what may or may not happen next.”
(Alexander Mackendrick)

“All drama is conflict. Without conflict, you have no character; without character you have no action. Without action, you have no story, and without story, you have no screenplay.”
(Syd Field, from his book Four Screenplays)

“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)

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

“The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.” (William Arthur Ward) Substitute the word “teacher” with “writer” and you have a powerful, relevent piece of advice for the screenwriter.

“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.’”
(William Goldman, from his book Four Screenplays with Essays)

“Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.” (Stephen King)


Readying Step Outline for Delivery

October 17, 2009

While I’m already deep into the step outline for the second act, I’ve gone back briefly today to the first act, cleaning it up for delivery to the producer.

Going back? Say it isn’t so!

No, no — this “going back” isn’t like a retreat. It’s a good thing. And truly a step forward.

You see, there’s an interesting statement by William Goldman in his book Four Screenplays with Essays that inspired me to go back and polish up that Act I step outline before delivery. In his essay introducing the script Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, he talks about how the standard screenplay format is so structurally counterintuitive to a good read, being loaded with conventions that almost seem designed to interrupt the narrative flow. Which, he explains, is why, “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.'”

How I’m applying that

Even though this step outline is mostly for me, the writer, to help me structure the story and test out the narrative flow before I invest so many more hours in the detailed structuring of the entire screenplay with all the dialogue, I figured that the rules change for the delivery. This outline will be, in two days, mostly for the producer, not me.

As the producer reads it, he will be less focused on how artfully structured I have or haven’t made this first act than how much this outline version of the first act will or will not already begin to inspire him as being a potentially good movie. Or not.

So, borrowing on the wisdom of William Goldman, I’m modifying the first act step outline to read well: to flow compellingly from one step to the next, and using turns of phrase designed to make the reading more enjoyable. For the same good and greedy reason. 😉


More Step Outline Progress

October 13, 2009

Things are progressing slowly these days, as you may have noticed.  Competing priorities!  But at least there is progress.

And it was a really enjoyable part of the step outline process — the last sequence of the first act. This is a dramaturgically critical point in the story; it’s that all important Plot Point 1 — that surprising, major event in which the hero’s life is radically changed.

In the case of this story, this will be where the story really takes off — where Joe finally does that thing that we have been wanting him to do all along during the first act: to take off the gloves with both the criminal element and the senior government officials who have been squelching his attempts to achieve justice by traditional means.

In short, this is where things start to get really ugly. 🙂