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.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Critique or Critic by K. Michael Bolk

Over my years in our writing group, we've made a point of discussing the qualities of a good critique and how best to help our fellow writers when commenting on their submitted work. The following article from K. Michael Bolk sums it up with a nice little story.

There is a point in our writing endeavors where we start to find out about improving our technique. We buy reference books, attend classes and begin to network. For me, this time of transition was monumental. Not only did I learn that verbs really do liven up a story, but I also found out about critiquing.

one of the most valuable ways we can improve our writing is by receiving input from others. Hence, we offer our work to be critiqued.

My first experience with a critique group was over twenty years ago, but what I learned during this initial exposure stays with me today. It was a unique experience, so let me tell you what happened.

I was seated in an old, musty classroom, when my Drill Sergeant began passing out booklets. "This is a copy of the newest Air Defense Artillery Manual, " he barked while rhythmically placing the books on each desk. "You will review this document, evaluate its contents and provide viable input for possible revisions. The words are simple, so even pea-brains like you can understand them."

Since we all knew what 'traverse target vectoring' was, no problem, right? Wrong. After the first chapter was read, some poor private made the mistake of commenting that the manual started off incorrectly and had to be completely rewritten. His critique was met by the full facial screams of the Drill Sergeant.

"Private, the Army has spent thousands of dollars and man hours to produce this document. Do you get my message, Soldier?"

Quivering with fear, the private nodded his acknowledgement and sat down.

The Drill Sergeant began pacing the room, then placed his hand behind his back. "Obviously some of you have already forgotten what I told you. You will evaluate its content, not judge. Do I make myself clear?"

In the tradition of the military, we all shouted in unison, "Yes, Drill Sergeant."

Now, I like to think of myself as an intelligent individual. The smarter response to this situation might have been to sit back quietly as we moved to the second chapter, but he had asked for my evaluation, and that first chapter was really bad. Of course, I couldn't come out and say it. I had already seen the response to that suggestion. So I had to think of what the chapter needed, and how I could present it to the Drill Sergeant. I figured that in this situation it would be helpful to use my best military tact (if you don't know what military tact is, it's the ability to tell someone to go to hell in such a way that they anxiously await the trip).

Taking a deep breath, I jumped to my feet and snapped to 'parade rest'. "Drill Sergeant." My voice echoed in the room.

He shot me a menacing stare. "Yes, Private Bolk?"

"I have evaluated this chapter."

"Do you have a problem with it?" he scowled.

"Yes, Drill Sergeant," I shouted. "Although it is a well written technical manual, I believe if the second and fifth paragraphs were reversed, the flow of events would be more realistic. Also, it appears to me as if the author is attempting to show his advanced expertise with this piece of equipment by giving a complete description of the radar set when it would best be infused gradually in each section pertaining to the specific component. Additionally, the trailer maintenance is repetitious because it is included in another manual and does not pertain to the material at hand."

I quickly returned to my seat. My heart pounded furiously in my chest, awaiting the retaliation of the Drill Sergeant. I only hoped my recommendation would be evaluated in a positive way, and without retribution.

He folded his arms and began slowly nodding his head. Taking a deep breath he looked around the room. "That, gentleman, is a critique. Don't just tell me what's wrong. Tell me how to fix it easily, and without rewriting the entire book." A sinister smile crept over his face. "Keep in mind, this is my radar and only I can tell you about it. If I lose you, or you don't understand what I'm telling you, then I have not shown you my radar."

At that point I realized the difference between a critique and a critic. One provides input, where the other judges. Also, it is necessary to point out flaws to improve the story without trying to completely re-write it.

I found out that critiquing is an art performed in a positive manner. When I critique, I always compliment the work by mentioning a part that grabbed my interest. I try to make good recommendations, and back them up with reasons for the possible change. I always try to evaluate and recommend, rather than judge. After all, I'm a critiquer, not a critic.


Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Creating An Opponent

This is information I picked up from the Tennessee Screenwriting Association Newsletter years ago. I thought the info was good, so thought I'd share.

While the forces of Conflict (or Antagonism) may be presented in any one or combination of four ways:

1. Conflict with self

2. Conflict with others,

3. Conflict with the environment,

4. Conflict with the supernatural.

The most common is conflict with another who is a strong opponent. The reasons why...
The role of the Protagonist is only as interesting as his Antagonist is strong. The Antagonist must be as complex and valuable to the story as the Protagonist. The Antagonist must have great power or status.

Only by competing for the same goal in the story do the Protagonist and Antagonist drive each other to great heights.

The Antagonist is necessary to the Hero's story because he is the one person in the world best able to attack the Hero's weakness (which must be established in the hero's persona).

The purpose driving the Antagonist's actions must be strong enough to create a unity of opposites (believable reasons why both hero and opponent must get to the same place at the same time).
Only because of the Antagonist's actions is the Protagonist forced to learn (or arc) by examining his own actions.

The Antagonist should not be an exact opposite of the hero; he should have similarities as well as distinct differences.

The Antagonist's rationale toward his actions should make sense to an audience as to why he's doing what he's doing.

The conflict between the Antagonist and Protagonist should establish the Moral Argument of the Story (the difference between what each character does to reach their goal and ending with the Hero's actions forcing him to make a self-realization that the Antagonist is usually unwilling or unable to make).

To create a strong opponent, here are some good basic rules to follow:

1. You must set up the opposition early. Make sure you know the Opponent's set of values vs. the Hero's set of values.
2. If the opponent is some type of system, choose a character to personify the system.
3. If the protagonist must face a series of opponents, create a Hierarchy of opponents that clearly show which opponent is the strongest.

Jonathan Hensleigh created a pair of great opponents in "The Rock." Although Hummel's reasons for fighting are good, his choice of getting his message out is flawed. This makes for a complex character with whom the audience can sympathize. Although you want (and rightfully so) the hero to succeed, there is still the nagging feeling that you want Hummel to succeed as well. This is because he has a just cause. This mixture of emotions you feel when watching The Rock is because of the character development of Hummel.

Another good example os The Joker from the first Batman movie, by Sam Hamm & Warren Skaaren. Although he is a bad guy, you feel for the position he has been put in by Batman. Batman is, after all, the reason for his disfigurement. The sense of humor that was injected into the character only added to the part. Although we don't feel sorry for the Joker when Batman triumphs, there is still a twinge of regret that the whole episode happened to him.

Top Gun, written by Chip Proser, created a good match of opponents in Maverick (Tom Cruise) and Iceman (Val Kilmer). The Iceman character is the type of character you love to hate because he is so good. Maverick is the perfect underdog because he wants so much, like most of us, and yet he runs into somebody that has more skill than he does - Iceman. We can all associate with Maverick's plight, and, therefore, we are all thrust into the film by being able to relate to Maverick's situation.

A more recent example of great character development for the hero and opponent is Face Off with Nick Cage and John Travolta. Nick Cage's character is as bad as they come, but he has a real soft spot when it comes to his brother. He really does care about what happens to him (just like a big brother should). John Travolta's character appears to have everything, but is in the process of tossing it all away because of his obsession with Nick Cage. If you want to create a great set of opposing characters, check out this film written by Mike Werb & Michael Colleary.

Next time you watch a movie, check out the antagonist and see if they are really a good opponent, or if they are just a bad guy.


Monday, November 27, 2006

Character Basics

Here's some great information on character basics. Creating a great character takes work and there are some simple touches that can be applied to your existing characters that may make them a little more memorable for your audience.

Characters who are compelling and believable, who display understandable actions and justifiable emotions, are the very heart of good fictions. The protagonist, or main character, should be likable and sympathetic - but not perfect. Imperfections make a character more real, more human. Readers need to be able to identify with, and care about, the protagonist. Or even better, to be the protagonist. Readers should feel the protagonist's fears, share the protagonist's hopes, strive for the protagonist's goals. It's like the difference between driving by a horrible accident involving strangers, and driving by one that involves your loved ones. Emotional intensity increases when the reader can identify with the situation on a more personal, visceral level.

Characters should be unforgettable, lingering in the reader's mind long after the story is finished. They should be full-bodied and well developed, but not cardboard cut-outs or caricatures. How does a writer create memorable characters? Begin by observing the people around you. Use your eyes first, but don't dwell on the physical description. Make use of your other senses. What does a person sound like? How does their handshake feel? How do they smell? Take not of their behavior. Are there any nervous habits, mannerisms, or idiosyncrasies that make them notable? If so, what do these suggest about their personality? What is their facial expression? How are they dressed? What sort of posture do they have? For instance, if a woman is tall, and her posture is slump-shouldered, might that suggest she is, or at least has been, self-conscious about her height? In each person you know or meet, identify one or two intriguing or telling characteristics for your files. Collect those files every day, whether they are written or stored only in your head. Build yourself a portfolio of character traits that you can later pull from. Make use of every opportunity. If you're standing in line at the grocery store, watch the check-out clerk. If you're stuck in traffic, study the drivers in the cars around you. What can you surmise about these people during your brief and limited observations? If the guy in the car beside you is wearing a suit and drive a Mercedes convertible, what does that suggest? What if the guy in the Mercedes is wearing a raggy old T-shirt, has messy hair, and a four-day growth of beard?

Which brings us to consistency. It's important for your character's motivations and actions to be consistent for them to be believable. That doesn't mean you must avoid all inconsistencies. But your baseline must be firmly established first. Let's say you have a character who is obsessive about her appearance. Her makeup is always impeccable, her hair meticulously coifed. Her fingernails are well manicured, and flawlessly polished. Her clothes are designer fashions, well cared for and neatly pressed, with never a wrinkle to be found. She would rather be dead than be caught in public looking anything less than perfect. Would this character make a quick run to the 7-11 without her makeup? Certainly not under any ordinary circumstances. But suppose someone has broken into her house in the middle of the night and is now holding her young son hostage at gunpoint. Suppose this someone told her to go to the 7-11 and buy him some cigarettes, and that she had exactly 10 minutes to get there and back, or else her kid's brains would be decorating the walls. Would that prompt her to go out without her makeup? And might someone seeing her, someone who knows about her usual obsession, not sense something is very wrong?

Let's go back to the man in the Mercedes, the one wearing the grungy T-shirt. Here, implausibility might be a key tool. The inconsistency of the image - the rich man's car being driven by someone who appears to be just shy of a vagabond, might be used to reveal a significant fact about the character. Perhaps the driver was once rich and successful, but then he fell on hard times and lost everything. Now he's broke, drifting from one menial job to another, never knowing where his next meal will come from. Yet he clings to the car, even though he could eat for several months on the money he'd make if he sold it. Why? Does the car have some special meaning for him? Is his identity, his sense of self, somehow tied to that car? Is he, perhaps living in it? Does he clean and care for the car with great tenderness, even though he doesn't care for himself very well?

Whatever the scenario, it must be believable. Real life is full of inconsistencies and unexplainable behavior. Fiction should not be.

A good writer brings his characters to life on the page. To do that, the writer must know the character inside and out, every thought, every nuance, every trait. Much of this character information will never be used and, in fact, shouldn't be. A handful of telling and identifiable characteristics - the primary characteristics that truly define and communicate who the character is - are all that is necessary. Finding the perfect balance between revealing too little or too much about character can be difficult. Too often, beginning writers portray their characters through snapshots - brief glimpses of static time that reveal nothing about the person inside the hull. Overexposure can be just as deadly. Don't overwhelm your reader with details up front, but rather leak them out as the story progresses. Let your reader get to know your characters the same way we get to know people in real life. When you meet somebody for the first time, they don't usually tell you all the details about themselves or their lives. You're provided with a few clues, an initial impression that may or may not be on target. If you spend more time with that person, additional details are often revealed, allowing you to adjust and expand upon that initial impression. Many of those details are gleaned through your own observations, not because someone spells them out for you. A good writer will let readers do their own gleaning by showing what the characters are like, rather than simply telling them. If a writer does her job well, her characters will eventually become instantly identifiable to the reader through their gestures, patterns of speech, actions and motivations.

Consider the following examples:

David Martin, three years old, was a little hellion. He was always getting into trouble. Today was no different. While his mother was busy with the laundry down in the basement, he scribbled on the kitchen wall with a purple crayon. He knew he wasn't supposed to write on the walls, but he did it anyway. When he heard his mother start back up the stairs, he ran and hid behind the couch, thinking she couldn't punish him if she couldn't find him. But his mother wasn't fooled for one minute. She heard him, running his truck along the floor behind the couch, making engine noises with his throat.

Hearing his mother's footsteps on the cellar stairs, Davie froze for one long moment, his hand poised before his scribbled creation. His face resembled the wide-eyed stare of the head he'd torn off his sister's doll this morning - unblinking and startled. And then he sprang into action, darting from the room, running for his hiding place behind the couch. In one chubby hand, he clutched his favorite Tonka dump truck, scraped and battered, with one wheel missing. In the other, was the purple crayon he'd just used on the kitchen wall. He dropped to his knees near the end of the couch, shoving the offending crayon beneath it. Then he scrambled into the safety of his fortress, pausing a moment to listen for his mother. His eyes drifted from the space at the end of the couch to the truck still clutched in his hand. He reached over with one finger and spun a wheel on it's axle. Then he set the truck on the floor and began to push it back and forth, making growling engine noises from the back of his throat.

The first example tells the reader about David. The voice is mostly passive, distancing the reader from the action. The second example does a better job of showing the reader who David is. The use of the diminutive form of his name, Davie, as opposed to David, gives a clue to his age. The items he carries with him, and the action of using the crayon on the wall give another. The fact that he tries to hide the crayon show an immature understanding of right and wrong. And while he's smart enough to try to hide the evidence, he's not smart enough to remain quiet while hidden. The brevity of his attention span further shows his character. As does the fact that he ripped the head off his sister's doll. While readers may not know exactly how old David is, they will certainly have a good idea. And the second example does a better job of involving readers in the action. Note that neither example gives us any type of physical description of David. Readers will create their own mental image of a character when one is lacking. Which of the above examples creates a more vivid and detailed image? How important is it if your image doesn't exactly match someone else's? How important is it that David's character, or to the reader, if David's hair is blonde or black?

Don't overlook the importance of character interactions. How will Davie's mother react to her son's misadventures? Will she laugh and gently scold him for drawing on the wall? Or will she stomp her feet and rake her hands through her hair and drag Davie from behind the couch, threatening him with severe punishment? How will Davie's sister react to the whole scenario? Will she sympathize with her little brother's troubles, or take delight in the fact that he's been caught and punished? Will Davie's mother tell Davie's father about the incident? Or keep it to herself? The interplay of emotions, and the way one character behaves with another can often reveal telling details about the relationship between the two characters, as well as their personalities.


Brilliance Toward a Few Steps by James K. Shea

Once again, digging around and found a great article. Can't remember where it came from, but it's some good info from James K. Shea.

Hollywood literary agents talk in the shorthand of the business when they describe scripts. Either they're "brilliant"… or "they suck." There is no middle ground. Screenplays that are "okay," or "not bad" or "have potential" really fall under the category of "they suck. Because of the staggering cost of a film today, Hollywood is only interested in the "home run," the potential blockbuster, the screenplay that all agree seems Brilliant.

The dictionary definition of "Brilliant" uses key words and phrases such as: "striking," "distinctive," and "distinguished by unusual mental keenness." In writing it relates to a concept that is unique, a story that captivates emotionally, and a superbly crafted script.

This article presupposes that you have reached a level of craftsmanship where writing aspects such as structure, conflict, setting, plot, multi-dimensional characters, and scripts, individualizing dialogue that reflects those characters are all second nature to you.

Following are some steps that may help you elevate your script in the areas of emotion and uniqueness.


The purpose of writing is to communicate. The purpose of writing fiction is to communicate emotion. There are other forms of writing - statistical, informational, instructional - where emotion plays no part. But for fiction emotion is the key.

It is possible to build emotion into your premise, your story, and conceivably into your plot. But far and away the easier single area to generate emotion is with your characters.

The character's passion for his goal is one of the most engaging elements that causes an audience to care. Add to this his internal struggle, and you have humanized your character. Then every obstacle you place in his path will move, intrigue, and captivate your audience. Accomplish this and you're well on your way to "brilliant."

The passion can be as obvious as Dorothy's desire to get back to Kansas, or a John Wayne-style "We're not giving up this island." It can be the catalyst that incites the story as in Jimmy Stewart's decision to commit suicide at the beginning of It's A Wonderful Life - or as subtle as in the seething understatement of Casablanca.

Show me any good movie and I'll show you a protagonist who exudes anger at some point and fear at another. Anger demonstrates his passion, fear his humanity - both qualities we can identify with and admire. If your script fails to grab the audience emotionally, you've missed the boat.


An excellent writing instructor once said the key phrase to what ever produced ultimately wants is: Amaze me! Th3e foundation of "amaze me" is creating something unique.

Syd Field says in his book Four Screenplays (Dell Books, 1994), "Make the impossible plausible." If you can do this, you are creating the unique.

The most valuable (and most difficult) tool for creating the unique is:

The Tenth Level of Solution

We all write from our subconscious. The subconscious takes thoughts and ideas it has heard, observed or acquired, and twists them around to offer new suggestions in the form of thoughts. But these thoughts are often based on material we have recently seen and therefore they seem derivative. How do we break this cycle to create unique and original stories?

If a writer has a problem of any kind with his/her script (especially the premise), make a list of 10 solutions to the problem. The first three or four will tend to be taken from shows seen in the past few months or years. Around solution number five, you will start to be original, and by number ten, it may b genius. Obviously, coming up with ten solutions to a problem will take some strenuous thinking, but maybe that's what "brilliant" is all about.

We are all basically lazy, it's part of being human. Most people are more at ease doing things they are familiar with. We know the things within our comfort zone. But comfort can be a curse - it limits the writer to the mundane.

Success lies beyond the comfort zone. It lies in risking the unknown; that's the only place you will find the unique.

But don't take a blank sheet of paper, listing numbers one to 10 down the left hand column. This is more than just a bit intimidating, this is instantly overwhelming.

Merely list number one, and write down a solution. Anyone can find one solution. It's okay if the first one stinks, this is just a beginning. Only when it is finished write the number two, and create your second answer. This "one at a time" process is less intimidating and can jump-start your creativity. Do you have to go all the way to number 10 What if seven or eight is great? Use it! This process is a tool to stimulate your creativity. Be committed to excellence in your writing, not obsessed with procedure.

An aside that dove-tails with this concept: An executive I know said it usually takes a writer five or six scripts before they begin creating worthwhile material. It's partly the learning process, and mastering your craft, but it's also getting beyond the derivative script and into the unique.

Programming Subconscious Response

Another technique used successfully is to pin-point a specific problem and study it from as many aspects as possible. Program your subconscious to come up with a solution within a specified time - say the next morning.

The French Mathematician Henri Poincare, in his treatise Science And Method, tells of being stumped on a math problem. He analyzed it from every aspect, but could not come up with an answer. He put the problem aside and went for a walk, "my mind was preoccupied with very different matters." When he returned to the problem, the solution suddenly flashed before him. He used this process repeatedly throughout his brilliant career.

Again, here are the three key steps:
1. Analyze all aspects of the problem.
2. Get your mind totally off the problem and, if possible, actively engage your mind in an unrelated subject.
3. Focus again on the original problem, and the solution will appear in a flash of inspiration.

Twists and Surprises

One of the most consistently brilliant screenwriters in America is William Goldman (Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid, The Princess Bride, The Ghost and The Darkness, [which contains the quintessential dream sequence], Marathon Man, and many more). He is also the author of one of the most often quoted books on motion pictures and writing, Adventures in The Screen Trade (Warner Books, 1994).

One of my favorite techniques comes from him. In essence he says set up a situation, look for the most obvious solution, then go in the exact opposite direction. Never give them what they can predict. Always find a twist to surprise them. If you must give them what they expected, i.e. "Boy meets Girl" give it to them in a way they would never expect.

Writing From A Parallel Universe

John Vorhaus, author of The Comic Toolkit (Silman-James Press, 1994), gave this advice to members of the "Scriptwriters Network" in an article in their newsletter. Suppose you've painted yourself into a corner. There is no possible solution to the problem you've created within the limits of our universe.

A possible method of finding the solution is to approach it from an Alternate universe, where our limitations don't apply. Viewed from a limitless universe, do new solutions present themselves? Can you then rewrite your set-up to allow some manner of loop-hole that permits this new solution in our universe?


Several writing instructors have stressed the value of "Brainstorming." This means taking an idea and exploring it, twisting it, randomly looking for new aspects of it, flipping it over, looking at it upside down, inside out, etc.

The first script that I wrote which won a contest was the brainstorming of a treatment that I had sold years before.

Background: I wanted to make my villains stronger, so I took a class called Scream Writing by Alan Ormsby, who had just written the modernization of the old horror classic Cat. In the class, each student was to write a horror premise.

The premise I came up with was that a rogue army office needs to hide some nerve gas he had been ordered to destroy. He sends a truckload to a remote station in the piney-backwoods of New England. A forest fire breaks out, the truck topples over and the combination of pine smoke and nerve gas turns the soldiers into flesh-eating monsters. If you have any taste at all, this premise will make you gag.

Now, just over the hill, is the closing week of a girl's summer camp. So you have young girls in jeopardy from both the forest fire and flesh-eating monsters. Because of the execution of the materiel I was able to sell this, in treatment form, to a producer.

Several years later, I took David S. Freeman's class, "Beyond Structure." He discussed ways of brainstorming, by reversing the gender of the lead(s), changing the location, the time period, etc.

During the class I realized, "Wait a minute, I know this odd aspect of nature that has never been explored on film. Why not use it to create a new monster, and take the kids in jeopardy (from the summer camp story) and put them in outer space in the future?"

The result is an entirely new script, Terraformed, based on a concept that was good enough to sell, plus a new monster, new arena, and sufficient twists to make it completely original.

Brainstorming is readily found throughout the film industry. West Side Story is a modernization of Romeo & Juliet, Outland, took High Noon into outer space. Independence Day is a modernization of War of The Worlds, with a brilliant twist of substituting a computer virus for the original bacterial virus.

Most recently, Disney's A Bug's Life was a comedic retelling of the Magnificent Seven which in turn was a westernization of the Japanese film The Seven Samurai. In a Bug's Life, instead of seven warriors, circus bugs are mistaken for warriors. This comedic twist on the original story is a perfect example of brainstorming.

Strengthening Your Female Characters

One of the judges of a contest was discussing a script with me. Since all the scripts in the contest are read blind, he didn't know I was the author. He felt sure this script was written by a female. When I asked why, he said "Because the female characters are so well written." I couldn't ask for a nicer compliment.

This is especially important to me, because when I first started writing female characters, they merely served the plot, and were usually so dumb they walked into walls.

Where, then, were the shifts to create well written females? The first shift I'm aware of came when I had my females wanting to support the lead in achieving his goals, and being the best that he can be.

This hasn't been discussed a lot, but I think this may be a universal desire among males, to have a woman support his dreams. This is seen in The King and I, My Cousin Vinny and most recently in As Good As It Gets with Jack Nicholson's line, "You make me want to be a better man."

The next shift came from a book called The Secrets of Action Screenwriting (self-published) by William C. Martell. He pointed out that the days of women standing around and saying "oh! Oh! Oh1" while their boyfriends are in the middle of a fight to save them are now ancient history. Today's woman wants to be an equal partner, and damn well finds a way to help. The females in my scripts are very much active, aggressive, supportive "buddies."

Objectives & Subtext

Every principal character, male or female, must have an objective, a goal to strive for in each and every scene. The clash of those goals creates conflict, the heart of both drama and comedy. Optimally, you have created those objectives in such a way that for social reasons, fear of rejection, embarrassment, or whatever, they cannot be discussed openly.

When characters are driven by an objective they can't discussed openly, you have automatically generated subtext. Subtext eliminates boring "on-the-nose" dialogue where characters say exactly what they mean. It is the single richest area for enhancing both your scene work and dialogue. For the best example of this, rent the Academy Award winning Sense and Sensibility. It is wall-to-wall subtext.

The Masked Avenger

Many years ago, Johnny Hart, the author of B. C. Comics, added a character to his strip that I believe was called The Masked Avenger. It was just one of his ordinary caveman characters, but when the moon was up, he put on a cape and mask, and was capable of doing extraordinary things.
One sunny day the somewhat klutzy caveman was playing golf. It was the 18th green and if he sank this putt, it would be his best score ever. He squared off to the golf ball, but the pressure became intense. His hands began to shake and his knees began to wobble uncontrollably.

Then he had an idea. He ducked behind a tree, waited for the moon to come up, approached the ball as The Masked Avenger, and confidently sank the putt!

While the comic strip was done in pure fun, I believe we all have The Masked Avenger within us. We all have the ability, under pressure, to go beyond our own fears and limitations.

It's almost as if we asked ourselves, "How would I solve this if I were a Pro?" Maybe we substitute our favorite author. "How would I solve this if I were William Goldman, or Shane Black, or whoever?" We then drag ourselves beyond our own limitations.

On Subtlety

A while back there was a television tribute to the great writer-director Billy Wilder. Walter Matthau, who had worked in many Wilder films, was one of the guest speakers. It seems he was discussing a part with Billy, and said, "But there are subtleties in acting." To which Wilder responded, "Of course there are subtleties, just make them obvious!"

Examples of doing it well are difficult to see, because when it's done right, even blatantly, it blends in and seems natural. Let's suppose two devout church women, Sara and Mary, are talking at a social tea. Sarah whispers that one of the parish women is having an affair. If Mary's reaction is to look down and quietly whisper, "Are you sure?" this subtle reaction could be interpreted as her concern over the reputation of the congregation.

However, if Mary's reaction is to almost spill her tea, deliberately avoid Sarah's look, then struggle, searching for the right words before whispering, "Do you have any evidence?", it should be obvious to the reader/audience that Mary is experiencing some guilt. Especially when Sarah says, "It's Alice Smith," and Mary giggles in relief.

Okay, this example goes beyond natural and into the comedic, but the point holds true. Just remember the words of Billy Wilder.

There are countless aspects to writing a great script, and these seemingly disparate elements are merely facets, the awareness of which may enhance your overall writing and possibly lead you a few steps closer to Brilliance.


Sunday, November 26, 2006

Blake Snyder's beat sheet

Found this pretty nifty little program if you use Blake's beat sheet.

If you've never heard of Blake Snyder or his book, Save the Cat, check out his website for details.


Friday, November 24, 2006

The ABC's of Character Development

Can't remember where I found this, but it's an interesting tool for building characters.

A - Appearance. What are the character's basic physical descriptors (height, weight, hair, eyes, complexion, grooming and clothing). What does her appearance reveal about her personality?

B - Behavior. What is the character's general manner and bearing? Is he polite or rude? Domineering or deferential? Nervous or calm? Any mental health problems? List some mannerisms uniquely his own.

C - Chronology. What is the character's history? How did she get to where she is now? What sort of childhood did she have? What were the major influences and experiences that shaped her personality?

D - Demographics. What is the character's age? Sex? How much income does he have? What's his marital status? What's his cultural background?

E - Education. How much education does the character have? High school drop-out or Ph.D? What areas has she studied? How good a student was she?

F - Fears. What are the primary fears that drive the character's actions? Does he have any phobias? How does he deal with his fears? Face them head-on or avoid them at all costs?

G - Goals. What are the character's main goals, both in terms of life in general and the story in particular? What will she need to do to accomplish those goals?

H - Hobbies/Habits. Does the character have any favorite pastimes? Does he have any rituals or patterns in his life? What knowledge does he have because of his areas of interest?

I - Idiosyncrasies. Does the character have any unusual and identifying quirks or peculiarities? How about nervous tics? Does she have any catch phrases?

J - Job. What does the character do for a living? Why? What skills does he have because of his job training and experience? What jobs has he held in the past, and what skills did he gain from those?

K - Kinfolk. Who are the character's family and close friends? What type of relationship do they have? How important are they in her day-to-day life? Does she have siblings? What's her birth order?

L - Language. What is the character's voice? Is it unique and consistent enough to identify his dialogue without attributions? What does his body language reveal?

M - Motivation. What is the character's primary motivation in the story? Is it believable? Consistent throughout?

N - Name. What is the character's name? Does it say anything about her? Does she like it? Is it ethnically appropriate? Are all of your character's different enough to avoid reader confusion?

O - Obstacles. What obstacles will the character encounter? How will he overcome them? What skills will he use? How will this dictate his actions and thoughts?

P - Perceptions. How does the character experience her environment? Use all five of her senses to determine her response to each scene. How does her current world look, smell, feel, sound and taste?

Q - Qualities. What are the character's dominant qualities? Is he brave? Kind? Loving? Remember, even evil characters can possess a good quality or two.

R - Religion. What are the character's religious beliefs? How important is religion in her life? How do her beliefs influence her actions and decisions?

S - Strengths. What are the character's main strengths? Are they physical? Mental? Emotional? Intellectual? How will he capitalize on those strengths to reach his goals and overcome obstacles?

T - Temperament. What is the character's usual disposition? Is she a Type A, a Type B, or a mix of both? What might cause her to deviate from her normal temperament?

U - Universals. What universal emotions will the character experience in the story? Love? Hate? Jealousy? Hurt? Fear? How can you make the reader feel those emotions along with the character?

V - Values. List the principles, morals, ideals, standards and ethics the character subscribes to. How do they influence his actions and behavior? Will any of his values change in the course of the story?

W - Weaknesses. What is the character's overall state of health? Does he have any limitations, impairments, injuries or handicaps? How important is health to him, and how does it influence his lifestyle?

X - X-Rays. What is the character's overall state of health? Does he have any limitations, impairments, injuries or handicaps? How important is health to him, and how does it influence his lifestyle?

Y - Yearnings. What longings and desires will the character experience in the course of the story? Will they be basic (hunger, thirst) or superfluous (greed, recognition)? Will she obtain them?

Z - Zip code. Where does the character live? Why does he live there? How did he come to be there? What does his home environment reveal about his personality? Is the home consistent with income?


Monday, November 20, 2006

That's Just The Way I Planned It

Read a great article in, I think, Creative Screenwriting where they were talking about the history behind one of my favorite movies/scripts - Die Hard. While you can disagree with my love for this movie, it really does have a lot going for it:

1) Action
2) Comedy
3) Romance/Love
4) Fantastic bad guy
5) Imortalized tag lines

One of the thing I love about the script is how effortlessly it moves. Each scene moves quickly into the next in seemingly inconsequential episodes/scenes, but they all have value. They reveal information, character or plot (or a combination of the three).

I knew that the script was adapted from a novel, but did not realize how much was changed from the original material. It seems just about everything changed slightly or in a major way. One of the more amusing notes was the original main character's name was John Ford. That was until somebody pointed out the famous director's name and thus, the writer headed to the phone book for something new... thus, John McClane is born.

One of the groundbreaking elements of the script is the screen time and development of the bad guy in the story - Hans Gruber. Of course, it's not until you find out that the reason Bruce Willis isn't in every freakin' scene like he would be today is because he was working on Moonlighting during the day and Die Hard at night. He only had so much time, thus, his screen time was cut and others boosted so they could work around him while he wasn't on the set.

It's a testament to the writers that they were able to create so many scenes that contributed to the overal story structure, yet didn't contain Bruce. The humor in all this new information is that, typically, you write a story and put your main character in every scene you can and yet, here we have an example of a story which was written with the specific intention of scaling back the protagonist's involvement.

Just goes to show, as Unk so recently mentioned, that screenplays, while originally a writer's product, are eventually a collaboration for film and thus anything goes! Keep this in mind when studying films or scripts.


Friday, November 17, 2006

Best New earphones for the iPod

totally unrelated to screenwriting, but if you own an ipod and looking for some great headphones, Bose just spat out a fantastic set for $99. This is about the same price (or less) than some of the other uber in-ear phones on the market, but the Bose are absolutely fantastic. They have a great sense of bass without having to seal them in your ears like some others.

I've tried a variety of headphones and these are really good if you can swing it. A much better option than the $300 Shure ear phones.


Saturday, November 11, 2006


It's an important word. Important realization. You are not who you think you are - you are who you are perceived to be by others.

I have been a real victim of this in the everyday workforce and was fortunate enough to have somebody on the other side looking out for me. I'm a do-gooder. I like things to be done right, so when a manager sends out a blast with a set of instructions and asks for feedback, I'd give it. The problem is, they really didn't want feedback all the time, on every little thing. That was perceived as whining or complaining. I was perceived as somebody that was never happy.

This was far from the truth.

As a writer, we come up with a story, characters and write the script all by ourselves. It's terribly exciting. We may spend months or years on this material it's so fantastic to us. Then, when we believe we have it all as perfect as we can make it, we sent it out to others in the hope that they'll enjoy it enough to purchase it and turn it into a movie.

Then it happens. They have the audacity to make recommendations! Request changes! The nerve! What the hell are they thinking? I just wrote this thing - it's perfect. They're not even writers for godsake. What idiots!

Let's look at the other side though. You're a producer, agent, whatever - but you see this script - it's going to be made and you're one of any number of people involved in making the movie. You just LOVE this story. It's fantastic. You've read hundreds of scripts looking for something this good. My GOD you're going to love working on this - you can't wait to get started. It's all laid out, the story, the characters, etc. But... in this one part, you'd really like to X happen instead of what's written. It would make the movie so much better, you just know it. So you make the suggestion to the writer and they wig out.

Something I don't think writers really take into account is that in order for a movie to be made, people HAVE to be excited about your script. Let that sink in. They HAVE TO BE EXCITED ABOUT YOUR SCRIPT. If they're not, it doesn't get made. Now. If you throw a script down in front of 15 different people, they will all have ideas that just pop into their heads that they honestly believe will make the story better. They are excited, their creative juices are flowing and they want this movie to be great. Think about all the ideas you get when you review a buddies script.

If you whine or complain about the comments you receive on your script, you will be perceived as somebody hard to work with and thus you will be replaced. Your goal as a writer is to be a great collaborator. If you disagree with a suggestion, you don't need to refuse it on the spot. You can mull it over and come back later with an honest, well-thought out reason for not incorporating the idea. At first, you will be just reacting to the though of change in your story. You must not react to that feeling as it's not an honest one. Some ideas may well be worth pursuing, others may be way off, some may be interesting but present other problems.

As a writer, it's your job to take all suggestions as honest intentions to improve the story and see if they will or they won't. If they won't explain clearly why you think they won't work so that the people understand what's a stake should they insist on the changes.

This is also a character lesson when writing your characters. Your main character is performing specific actions and doing certain things in order to achieve a definate perception of themselves. This is typically not who they are in reality - and thus the problem for them. It's the person who dates manically to show that they're not alone when in fact, they are lonely. It's the individual who fakes bravado by bullying others so they appear powerful or strong when in fact they are weak.