Writing On Spec

An award caliber procrastinator discovers a new and dangerous pursuit to keep him from actually writing another script. Why another Blog? I love to talk screenwriting. I love to talk story. I live in Richmond, VA. It's almost easier to get produced than find another screenwriter here. We are the anti-LA.

Monday, July 31, 2006

There's Nothing on TV

I hear that so many times, and I'm not even IN the TV business.

Just watched the preview from We. The Screenwriter

It looks great, but one of the comments that bugged me was when a TV writer said that whenever he says he's a TV writer, the response is, "how come there's nothing good on TV?"

I just don't understand that comment at all. Do they mean there's really nothing on the channel I watch? There's nothing at the time of day I want to watch TV? My television is really just an aquarium and I don't like the fish? Really? I believe currently, television represents just about any kind of show you could want to watch. So much more than used to be on television (as far as the spectrum or range of shows that is).

What were the shows you thought were good? They're pretty much there now, perhaps disguised a little differently, but they're there. Maybe you just got tire of looking through the listings or you don't watch commercials so you miss all the previews of new shows.

Are you a big 3 snob? Only watch shows on NBC, CBS or ABC?

I just don't get it.

I've enjoyed a variety of shows for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, it's TV... that's television. What are the expectations from television these days? Has it changed since the days of Leave it to Beaver, My 3 Sons, Quincy, Rockford Files, Dallas, etc.? I don't think so. It's still there to entertain.

Maybe the problem is that there are good shows, but you're not paying attention so you don't watch and then they're cancelled. Gone are the days when a good show would get a couple years to develop an audience. You get a few episodes and pray for a hit.

This past year sported three engaging and creative sci-fi type shows (Threshold, Surface and Invasion) on the Big 3 networks. But all 3 were cancelled. Over There and Thief both came and went from FX. Critically acclaimed and fantastic shows. Gone. Nobody watched them.

Maybe it's just that you don't recognize the show, so you don't tune in? Do you only give a show one viewing? Maybe the reason there's "nothing good on tv" anymore is your fault. Maybe you're just not tuning in or giving some of the new shows a chance.

I know that for myself, often my favorite cd from an artist is the one that first drew me to them. The other cd's often just aren't as good for some reason. Perhaps that's the way it's going with TV. Many of the popular actors are out of TV from the past generation and now nobody recognizes the new popular actors/acresses. Maybe it's fewer spinoffs, so all the shows are "new" and original so there's no familiarity inherent to the show.

I don't know.

I do think it's a falacy that there's nothing good on TV anymore. They may not be your "cup of tea" but here are some shows that are entertaining to watch:

Nip/Tuck, Rescue Me, Blade, Smallville, Supernatural, House, CSI NY, CSI LV, CSI Miami, Eureka, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, 4400, Windfall, Numbers, NCIS, Medium, Las Vegas, Monk, Psych, The Loop, Scrubs, The Dead Zone, Criminal Minds, The Shield, New Adventures of Old Christine & Saved.

These are all night shows, so we're not even counting shows during the day or on channels like discovery or history that show a variety of educational materials.

And that's excluding all the reality shows (since I despise them on pure principal - doesn't appear to be much "creative" writing - although I understand there are writers on the shows).

If you still can't find anything on TV, maybe you should just sell it and play outside instead.


Monday, July 24, 2006

The Relativity of Danger

So I'm driving down the road the other day - Interstate 95. It's a pretty busy road - all kinds of traffic from Florida to NY and above. Three lanes, busy 24/7. I say this because I don't want to give the impression that this is a back road or anything remotely similar to a deserted highway.

I'm doing, I think about 70mph. The speed limit is 60 or 65 and traffic is just groovin' along. Not many slouches at this time of day. It's about 5pm on a Saturday.

I see a motorcycle come zipping along in the rear-view, so I pull into the center lane. Less than a minute later, the bike goes by.

I must add, that although I've ridden motorcycles in my youth, they were always the offroad variety. Nothing on the road. So, while I have some experience, I'm not an expert. I do know though that what this guy is wearing, isn't the typical safety gear.

T-shirt, shorts, sneakers & a helmet. He's doing about 85mph, riding one-handed and looking back over his shoulder as he zips by me.

He continues to look over his shoulder (and drive one-handed) as he zips by three other vehicles about 300 feet ahead.

So I'm thinking, holy cow, that guy's crazy wearing just what he has on and going that fast - must be up to 90mph by now as fast as he's going by cars.

Then he does it - pops a wheelie. Ninety mph on the open highway and he's on one wheel passing a minivan or something. I about crapped my pants just seeing it.

So there it is - two perspectives. To him, it's exciting, but not a huge risk. To me, all I can think about is the 300 feet of body parts and flesh strewn across the highway that would be him if he made the slightest mistake.

Danger is relative to the person in the situation.

When you're writing your action sequence, try to put your hero in situations that are dangerous to us, but not him, to show his competence, but situations that are dangerous to him to show his courage. Dangerous doesn't always have to be an action sequence either. Dangerous could be something as simple as placing him in the vicinity of something he's allergic too. Perhaps even something that the majority of folks are not.

Just make sure that when you're writing, you remember that the person in danger is your character and not you - so the things that are pushing them are not things that necessarily affect you.


Saturday, July 22, 2006

Hard to Believe

I must admit, that although I'm a huge screenwriting fan and I love films, I haven't been as rabid as some are - plowing through the history of film and writers as far back as the written word goes.

So I decided recently to watch The Seven Year Itch. I'm almost ashamed to say I haven't seen it just because it's one of the "biggies" that I just believe is on the must-see list.

I must say that I was underwhelmed by the first act just because it was so chock full of monologue and setup. There really wasn't much going on at all. However, once Marilyn is introduced, things started rolling. I'm not a huge Monroe fan, but I would have to agree that she's something else on screen.

What is really great is there is a backstory section on the dvd that talks about the the stars, the writers, the history of the film, etc. For somebody who isn't in the industry and hasn't been a history fan, it was quite an eye-opener.

For starters, I certainly feel for Marilyn Monroe. I'm peripherally aware of her career and how things ended, but this short featurette really put a different slant on how things were for her. To be honest, it was just as bad as anything today, if you ask me, because although stars have privacy issues, they are privacy issues. It would appear that back in the 50's the subject of a star having privacy wasn't an issue. She seemed more to be "owned" by the studio and they would do whatever they wanted if they felt it was in their best interest - regardless of the impact on her.

Secondly, I'm stunned about the Hayes office and the Legion of Decency. It's no wonder all the films of yesteryear seemed so damned innocent - they had the life censored out of them. From the featurette, which has interviews with Billy Wilder and George Axelrod (the writer), you learn that the original play was much spicier - with lots of sexual banter and - wait for it - an *actual* affair! In the film, there is no affair - merely a few kisses.

The Hayes office created a list of rules that films had to adhere to - one of these rules being that you could not speak of sexual infidelity in a humorous manner. There were many restrictions on subject matter, language, etc. In addition to the censorship going on, the Legion of Decency would also stamp movies they approved of with their seal of approval. If a film didn't have them seal of approval, they would recommend to all Catholics that they avoid the film.

It's akin to allowing Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson censor all our films before we see them.

Think about that. Let that sink in.


Then think about some of the films that Billy Wilder did during that time and all of a sudden, you realize why this guy is such an icon. It's not just the films, it was he was able to do at the time he did them.


Wednesday, July 19, 2006

It's all William Martell's fault

This guy writes a ton of scripts and does a ton of articles. Regardless of what you think of his advice, he's definately one of the most giving individuals when it comes to sharing knowledge that I think you'll find.

I don't think there's a screenwriting magazine he hasn't contributed to, frequents festivals, visits forums & blogs and, oh, he actually makes time to write scripts too. I believe he's had a fair amount of success. I'd say for someone with his success, he's being unbelievably kind to the rest of us by sharing what he's learned.

Anyhoo - he chirps up with an aritcle in the latest Script mag (that I spoke about last post) and it's got me wondering about characters.

So here we go - here's some of the shows I watch and their main characters:

1) Numbers - main characters are emotionally unavailable. Both too scared, for one reason or another, to commit to a relationship. Both obsessed with their work.

2) NCIS - main character is obsessed with work and an extreme hardass.

3) Medium - obsessed with work (that would be *dead people*).

4) Las Vegas - obsessed with work and hard ass (sneaky spy background as well)

5) Monk - Phobic beyond belief. Obsessed with cleanliness.

6) Still Standing - Both parents are callous and selfish. Obsessed with their own needs regardless of consequences to others.

7) Smallville - Obsessed with doing good and keeping his secret.

8) Rescue Me - Good god... what an asshole.

9) It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia - Bunch of selfish pricks.

10) Criminal Minds - Waaay too obsessed with work.

11) Supernatural - Again...see a theme? Obsessed with their work (as it is) and unable to emotionally connect with anybody because of it.

12) New Adventures of Old Christine - Obsessed with what others think.

13) Saved - Gambler and chronic underachiever.

14) Seinfeld (for kicks) - Another bunch of assholes.

Ok, I could go on, but you get the idea. The point is, probably the majority of characters we see on television, and film, are not really "nice" people. Many are jerks and the like. They consistently find ways to disappoint those that care about them.

They are *not* real people. The supporting cast is often made up of more realistic people, but the main characters are defective in some concrete ways. They are not people I would like. Not people I'd hang around with. Not because I feel I'm better, but if you think about it, wouldn't you find yourself saying, "Oh my God! Can you just get beyond this?" I mean, really, Gibbs is made out to be a good guy, but it's a valid history that he's been married 4 times. Who the hell would want a man who is hardly ever home and cares more about work than their family?

The comedies are funny, Still Standing, Philadelphia & Seinfeld - but, good god, if these were real people, how sad. I've always heard that Rosanne was well received because the characters were more realistic and I finally see why now. Their humor came out of everyday situations, not the outlandish skits that are written in many of the other shows. Everybody Loves Raymond and Mad About You followed similar models. These were often people you knew or wanted to know, not people you laughed at - people you laughed with.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Oh My God! Is That All You Think About?

William Martell has a good article in the last Script magazine.

He talks about how the main character in The Incredibles (dad) is obsessed with caring/giving. It's what drives him to be a superhero, save the character that sues them and kills the super hero biz for all of them. It's what drives him to moonlight as a superhero and results in his getting fired. It's was causes him to get involved with the bad guys and drives - yes - the entire story. His obsession with trying to help.

In this light, he doesn't seem like such a good guy. He's almost negligent when it comes to his family.

So I started looking at a few other flicks.

Bruce Almighty. Career driven - obsessed with it. It's the reason for the majority of his actions. What an ass!

Sky High - the kid is obsessed with his power (or lack of it). It's what binds him to his best friend and why he ends up pushing her away.

Collateral - Jamie Foxx is afraid - afraid to step out of his safe world. The world he knows so well (driving a cab). It drives all his actions until he's forced out of it by Vincent.

Laws of Attraction - The character is driven to win at all costs.

This isn't the case for every movie, but it does appear that a large cross-section of films have a main character that in our own personal lives, we very well might consider an asshole. They pursue their lives based off a single desire, regardless of the consequences.

What the writers have done, however, is to show us this one trait, mixed in with several other more palatable traits that endear us to them. We are then able to root for them as the story progresses. However, whenever a decision needs to be made - it's always based off their single desire (until, of course, they get to learn their lesson - or in European cinema they don't).

I love Bruce Almighty, but if you take a minute and look at that story from the girl's perspective, you really wonder why she's with him in the first place and exactly how much of a jack ass he is. The trick in that film is that he is shown to be downtrodden so many times, always put upon so that we feel sorry for him. He's funny and, probably most of all, she loves him - therefore, he must be worth loving.

Take a look at some of the films you've watched and see if the main character fits this obsessive type behavior. If so, are they really likable? How do the writer's get you to feel for them despite their selfish behavior? If it's resolved in the end (i.e. they see the error of their ways) is there a dramatic scene where they realize this? Did it work for you?

While some might construe this as formula, I tend to think of it more as the necessary ingredients for a type of story.

After all, when we tell stories, we're trying to tell somebody else, through story, that the type of behavior of our main character is either acceptable and expected or not acceptable and thus subject to punishment.

Friday, July 14, 2006

The Handicapped

There are some things that just piss you off, regardless of how bad you feel about being pissed off about them.

For me, it's bloody handicapped markers on license plates, the handicapped spots at stores and the hangers for the car rear-view mirror.

I can't drive drunk because it impairs my ability to drive a vehicle. As a teenager, I'm charged out the ass for insurance because I'm "reckless". But a handicapped driver? They're the fucking bomb. Exactly what qualifies for getting the handicapped moniker? I really should look it up. I just might now. I mean, really.

The loss of a limb? Can you be mentally handicapped and get it?

Now before you go looking me up to send a death squad to my door. I could really care less about weather the handicapped drive or not. More power to them. Progress is great, no?

What bugs me is they get the special treatment. Why? All the time I see somebody park in the handicapped spot, hop out and walk to the store.

You know. If you're too handicapped to walk from wherever you park, perhaps you're too handicapped to drive? If it's somebody else driving because the handicapped person is in a wheelchair, then where's the heartache? They're on wheels! The person pushing isn't handicapped, so normally they don't get to park that close.

See, what's pissing me off is that it doesn't make sense.

These are like pity perks for people who probably don't even want them. I'd wager that the most popular users of these perks are friends/relatives of the handicapped who take advantage of their perks. Which is cheating, which is akin to cutting in line, etc. Pisses me off.

How could this possibly relate to writing you ask?

Well, there are way too many times when something happens that just makes no damned sense.

My favorite example is a film I love to hate: Arlington Road.

This smart guy is duped so completely that not only is his every action and reaction known, but so is the timing of his actions. If he's so damned smart, how can he be such a fucking idiot? How did everybody at the end of that story get beaten with an idiot stick?

Pisses me off.

You're allowed one coincidence in your story. Typically early and what gets the whole shabang going, after that your audience will be on guard, so don't try it again because...

you'll piss 'em off.

This goes for character flip-flops just as much as plot implausibles. If you've written yourself into a corner, don't cheat to get out.

p.s. I don't drink alcohol at all (sadly), so I don't drink & drive, so put the flame-mails away.

ppss - I did look it up and apparently, a Dr. completes the form and it's their opinion of what consitutes a handicapp. A physician's opinion. Because they're so right. Here's two blurbs from physicians: "A patient always knows their body better than a dr." Yet, somehow, "A dr. is the worst patient."

but i digress

Sunday, July 09, 2006

The Psychic In All of Us

We've all been there - well, those of us who have chosen to drive on the highways.

You can see it coming - seems like from a mile away. The jackass that has to go around you to pull in front of you when:

a) The traffic just isn't moving fast enough to warrant the move
b) It gets them nowhere but in front of you
c) There really isn't enough room between you and the car in front, let alone for them to pull in between the two of you.

They don't even need to use an indicator. You can just feel it.

That feeling is what we're getting when we go see a movie. Every 20-30 minutes, we're leading the audience up to that moment - the moment when they'll say, "oh yeah, I saw that coming a mile away." However, we need to make them say, 'Oh... I didn't see that coming."

It doesn't have to be big - it can be small. You want to avoid the, "Where the hell did that come from?" reaction as well. Recently, there has been some criticism of Superman Returns. One moment that raises the WTF? is when Lois is able to turn around on their plane and rescue SM. I know that in film we have to use cuts, but that was using CUT TO in the real world and you can't do that.

A good example is from Under the Tuscan Sun. She purchases a home in Italy on a spur of the moment decision. It's something you don't expect - sort of -- with a title like Under the Tuscan Sun, you know where she'll be, you just don't realize the length of time at the outset.

A lot of folks dislike M. Night's movies, but for better or worse, they do one thing effectively - they show you a story from one perspective and then when you're believing, "I know exactly where this is going", he shows you the story from another perspective. Whether you're entertained up until that point is disputable; however, I don't think many folks have seen it coming from a mile away.

This is an important aspect of knowing your story and your beats. You are writing toward an end-point, just writing to fill space. All of your build-up to that beat should be leading your audience toward or away from their expectation and your revelation.

The worst thing you can do is intentionally fool your audience by lying to them; so don't resort to that. Make sure that you plant all your clues along the way, but deflect them in creative ways. Many mysteries will show a culpret or a piece of evidence and then have somebody in authority dismiss it for what would appear to be a valid reason. The audience will believe that if it's done authentically. But then, later, you can show why this dismissal was invalid and the audience will feel like a sucker for accepting it so blindly when they *knew* they shouldn't have...

After all, the goal isn't to fool the audience, it's to make them feel smart and involved.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006


Well, after my most recent double post, it would appear somebody wants an article on redundancy.

That is, saying the same thing again. When you've already said it. Or shown it.

Doing the same thing over again, because, you believe, some people are thick (they really are) and they're just not getting it.

So, you say it again. Or show it again.


It's only really good on a network.

See, we have a habit of doing it in our stories when we're not paying attention. We'll show something happen, then turn right around and have a character repeat what just happened. Doh!

I've seen many a script have a scene with somebody talking on the phone, they'll chat away with another character beside them, and then, when they are finished on the phone, they repeat what the phone conversation was about. Now, maybe your other character is really polite and not listening to what was said on the phone, but, you'd better hope your audience is not that well-mannered. My recommendation for things like that is to either start the phone conversation off-screen so we don't hear it - we just see them hang up. Or have the conversation mean something - i.e. the other character should not be listening, but is and then the other person lies to them about the call.

There is also the situation which replays itself over and over through your story because you're *sure* the audience just isn't going to get it the first time. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that if you've made it fairly obvious, then just let it ride and see how reactions go before adding it into the story again. If Marge is seen getting shot, we don't need to hear somebody say, "did you hear Marge was shot?"

A sort of exception to this would be in line with the Rule of Threes. Whereby you could relay the same information again; however, it would have to be either interpreted differently each time or the first two times would be the same and we would expect the third to be the same, but it is totally different and story/character impacting as a result.

This doesn't just apply to characters and story. It also applies to the very words you put on the page. Just as the word "like" is being overused, you don't want to put the same descriptive word down over and over. Obviously, words such as "the" will be repetitive, but you want to avoid stuff like: "It was a quiet night. He walked quietly across the room trying not to wake the person sleeping on the couch." You get the picture.

With characters, you can use this to a good effect if it's in their character to use a word over and over. Simple example is the word "like" or "dude" which has been popular for surfer guys and gals.

It could be a character who uses a particular curse word and is trying to stop - yet can't. Perhaps they have a string of creative substitutes they fail to utilize in the moment of truth.

As you go through that rewrite, keep a heads-up for the redundancy factor.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

i love disc golf

This is supposed to be all about "writing on spec", but for me, I needed to recharge, and it's been through disc golf. It's a great sport, doesn't kill you, doesn't cost much and doesn't take too long.

It's just like regular golf, only you throw special frisbees and land them in chain baskets instead of holes. Every hole is a par 3, so there's no worry about different pars.

Courses are all over the world - probably a bunch within driving distance of you.

If you're looking for something fun to do outside in the pretty weather, give it a shot.