Step Outline Solid up to Midpoint of Act II

December 19, 2009

Writing again, after over a week away from the story. It’s good to be back at it!

Today’s goal was to solidify the step outline up until the critical Midpoint moment of the second act, which is where the tide of fortune will suddenly and dramatically turn against Joe. It felt rewarding to reach "up to" that moment… though not as rewarding as it would have been if I had also written that actual moment. Hopefully, I can achieve that in the next couple of days.

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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.


No screenplay progress while I…

November 10, 2009

…upgrade to Windows 7 on my desktop and notebook PCs. 

The simple Vista-to-7 upgrade of the desktop PC seems to have gone swimmingly: about six hours total, between prepping, performing, and verifying. 

The laptop is taking much more time, as I’m completely reformatting the drive at the same time to also upgrade from 32- to 64-bit, which means also reinstalling all applications and most of the settings (although the Windows Easy Transfer tool—a perfectly worthless tool in previous system restorations or upgrades—did a remarkable job this time, not freezing up and genuinely helping out with the settings restoration). 

So, the screenplay is simmering on the back burner for now. Stay tuned…


Just Delivered Act 1 Step Outline to Producer

October 26, 2009

A light-red letter day.

I’ll call it a red-letter day when I deliver the entire step outline.  But the effort involved in reaching today’s delivery was substantial enough that I’m feeling pretty dang peachy.

Step Outline TOC

I’d go out on the town to celebrate, if I weren’t so sleepy. So instead, I’ll have a glass of wine, rent a movie, and retire early.  Smiling.

Tomorrow, I get back on the horse and ride; the step outline for the second and third acts are calling to me.

FADE OUT


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…