Some Thoughts on Hope

pandora-etbscreenwritingGiven the incredible drama of the run-up to the American Presidential Inauguration it seems superficial to write about any other kind of drama.  Instead here are some thoughts on hope.

From Wikipedia: “Hope was personified in Greek mythology as Elpis. When Pandora opened Pandora’s Box, she let out all the evils except one: hope. Apparently, the Greeks considered hope to be as dangerous as all the world’s evils. But without hope to accompany all their troubles, humanity was filled with despair.”

“It was a great relief when Pandora revisited her box and let out hope as well. It may be worthy to note that in the story, hope is represented as weakly leaving the box but is in effect far more potent than any of the major evils.”

“The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof.” Barbara Kingsolver

We all have a lot of work to do. Let’s get to it.

Live, Love and Write – Happy New Year

fireworks_etbscreenwritingI can think of no better way to start off 2009 than with love. Love is what powers us along our journey as writers and storytellers– love of craft, love of our characters and love of our calling.

As we look forward to the tremendous shifts and changes this coming year will bring in technology, finance, entertainment and politics let us fully and completely embrace the indomitable and unconquerable force of love in our work.

In my rambles on the web this holiday season, I found the following list of the ways we can and must love as writers and storytellers. I wanted to share it with you. Tack this list up over your computer. May you tell your stories with love this year and write your best self in 2009!

Practice these 11 principles:

l) Love of telling a story–the belief that your vision can be expressed only through story, that characters can be more real than people, that the fictional world is more profound than the concrete.

2) Love of the dramatic– a fascination with the sudden surprises and revelations that bring sea-changes in life.

3) Love of truth– the belief that lies cripple the artist, that every truth in life must be questioned, down to one’s own secret motives; the ability to see and exorcise your own shit and to bring it up courageously and mercilessly.

4) Love of humanity–a willingness to empathize with suffering souls, to crawl inside their skins, and see the world through their eyes.

5) Love of sensation– the desire to indulge in and bring to life the pleasures of the five senses.

6) Love of humor–even the most sober domestic dramas need that light touch, the twist of irony, the bite of satire, or the warm, gentle mirth that makes the most mundane scene glow.

7) Love of language–a delight in sound and sense, syntax and semantics.

8) Love of process–a joy in the journey of the story and the solitude of writing.

9) Love of uniqueness–the thrill of audacity and a stone-faced calm when it is met by ridicule.

10) Love of beauty–the courage and skill to develop your own style.

11) Love of duality, conflict, argumentation and the energy to orchestrate scene dynamics.

Unlike the stories of personal essays, memoirs and autobiographical novels, a screenplay must use and transcend or deepen self into the collective unconscious to create a story with universal appeal. Each person has a life story with endless encyclopedic variations. The mark of a master is to select only a few moments but give us a lifetime.

Excerpted from Julia Keefer’s essay

Writing Routine

writing-with-quill-etbscreenwritingI discovered a great website that discusses how various writers and artists approach their work and organize their day. Check out Daily Routines. Below is a discussion of the simple method Anthony Trollope used to write forty-nine novels in thirty-five years!

According to The New Yorker, June 14, 2004:  “Every day for years, Trollope reported in his “Autobiography,” he woke in darkness and wrote from 5:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., with his watch in front of him.

He required of himself two hundred and fifty words every quarter of an hour. If he finished one novel before eight-thirty, he took out a fresh piece of paper and started the next.

The writing session was followed, for a long stretch of time, by a day job with the postal service. Plus, he said, he always hunted at least twice a week.

Under this regimen, he produced forty-nine novels in thirty-five years.

Having prospered so well, he urged his method on all writers: “Let their work be to them as is his common work to the common laborer. No gigantic efforts will then be necessary. He need tie no wet towels round his brow, nor sit for thirty hours at his desk without moving,—as men have sat, or said that they have sat.”

The article goes on to discuss how the notion of and approach to writing has been romanticized since Trollope.

The One Hour Screenwriter helps take blocked or stymied writers back to a simpler, more sustainable method of working. It helps temper those idealistic approaches that are impossible to realize in every day life and only block genuine creative impulses.

Subtext – Unspoken Communication

Body Language ETB ScreenwritingI’ve been in Europe working with a variety of television dramas and one recurring issue is the most effective use of subtext.  If a scene is about what it is about—the writing is dangerously close to being boring.  Great scenes are always about something deeper than what, on the surface, appears to be going on.

The subtext of a scene is the underlying emotion that changes or alters the meaning of the words spoken or the actions taken.  Or it is what is “under the skin of a character.”  Or it is what is under the surface of what a character says or does.  Subtext is what is left unsaid, or what is actively concealed or what is not right out in the open.  It is the part of the scene the audience must “fill in.”

For example: A mom finishes preparing dinner. A plate with chocolates sits on a nearby kitchen counter.  As her very young son heads directly toward the chocolate, she says, “Tommy come here.” Why does his mom call to Tommy?

If you say “because she doesn’t want him to eat the chocolate before dinner,” you have understood the subtext in this simple scene. The dialog never directly says his mom doesn’t want him to eat the chocolate. You inferred that from the juxtaposition of the description of the scene and the dialogue.

Is that subtext? Mom is really telling Tommy to “come here.”  There is no hidden or concealed meaning in her words. Subtext does not necessarily need to be “hidden” in the sense that the characters have some secret or unspoken agenda.  Mom really does want Tommy to come here.  Subtext is the additional meaning we infer from the words spoken.

Now let’s say the mom says, “Tommy come here.  You know you can’t eat sweets before dinner.  It is very bad for you.  Come here and eat a nice nutritious meal first.  You can have the chocolates later for dessert.”

This version of the scene adds much more information.  It spells out exactly what is going on in much more detail than we need to understand the scene. It doesn’t allow the audience to fill in any spaces themselves.  The scene is less interesting and is “too talky.”  In writing, less is always more.

If you don’t allow the audience to be engaged in creating the scene they become bored.  Think of a time when someone gave you more information than you needed to understand something—It felt dull and repetitious. Trust your audience to fill in the meaning of the scene.

The text is what is on the page.  It is narrative description, action and dialogue.  Subtext is what is not on the page.  Subtext is the emotional meaning of the scene.  People don’t say all they mean in a conversation.  Sometimes, they don’t say what they mean at all.

In real life, we rarely speak exactly what is on our minds.  We rarely ask for what we actually need.  We rarely confront emotional issues head on.  We talk around things and expect others infer what we mean or to fill in the gaps.  Research has shown as much as 70% of communication is unspoken. Is that the case in your scripts?  Or do your characters speak their minds too directly to be realistic or engaging?

For example:  In real life, an argument about “taking out the garbage” is rarely about emptying out the kitchen wastebasket and carrying the contents to the outside bin.

In life, such an argument is probably about who is responsible for what, who respects (or doesn’t respect) whom, who is shirking households responsibilities and who is doing an unfair share, who is not paying enough attention to the home or the relationship or who is rebelling against another’s order or control.  The scene appears to be about one thing but it is really about another.

Does every conversation have to have subtext?  Is any communication direct?  Doesn’t “no” sometime just mean “no”?  Ask yourself what is the person actually refusing?  Let’s say a woman offers a man a box of chocolates and the man says “no.”  Why?  What are the surrounding circumstances?   What emotional exchange is really taking place?  What does the character’s “no” mean?

Is he on a diet?  Is he trying to maintain his discipline and refusing to give into temptation? Does she know this and is subtly trying to sabotage him?  Or does she think he is fine as he is and he should just enjoy the treat offered?  Or is he furious because he told her he is severely allergic to chocolate and he thinks she is being insensitive or cruel?  Or does he think she is offering this box of chocolates with a hidden agenda or that she is trying obligate him in some way? If set up properly, all that emotional information is processed in connection with the simple word “no.”

We call this additional information “subtext” because the real communication isn’t on the surface of what is said.  The real communication is just underneath the actual verbal exchange.

Let’s say two lovers are having a romantic Valentines Day dinner.  One lover gives the other a beautiful box of chocolate and says, “I love you.”  That is a very boring scene.  Everything is spelled out and right on the surface.

Now let’s say the audience knows one lover is actually married to someone else (and the other lover doesn’t know this).  Or let’s say the audience knows the box of chocolate is poisoned and one lover is actually plotting the murder of the other lover.  Now the simple scene is much more interesting.

What if the lovers really do love each other?  If this is the case they should express their love in a way that allows their feelings to be communicated through subtext. The lovers should be talking about something else but really saying “I love you.” They might discuss or compare wines and really be talking about the nature of their love for each other.

Actors do a much better job of communicating their emotions if they aren’t saddled with “on the nose” dialogue.  Dialogue is “on the nose” if it communicates exactly what is on the surface and nothing more. Remember that real people always infer much more than what is actually spoken.

It feels more real and is more emotionally engaging if the audience is allowed to make the emotional connections between what a character says and what a character actually means or feels. Trust your actors and trust your audience to fill in the gaps.  It will vastly improve your writing.

#ThinkpieceThursday – Einstein and Writing

AlbertEinstein ETB ScreenwritingThe German-born theoretical physicist, Albert Einstein, is best known for his theory of relativity and his Nobel Prize in Physics.  His keen observations apply to writing as well as science.  His concise quotes are invaluable and timeless.

Here are five of my favorites.  I’ve commented on them as they apply to the creative process and writing compelling stories.

1.  “A perfection of means, and confusion of aims, seems to be our main problem.” What specifically are you trying to achieve in telling your story? What do you want your audience to feel?  Who exactly is your audience?  How well do you know them?  Is your character’s emotional struggle well defined?  How well does it reflect your audience’s struggle?  Perfection of everything else (setting, acting, production values, etc.) is meaningless if you don’t know where your characters are headed.

2.   “Strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value.” This is an ideology of humility and authenticity.  You are here to serve the audience.  Your story must add some kind of value to their day.  What value are you adding to your audience?  What is it that the audience needs and how are you filling that need.  Too often we believe we are creating television shows or feature films for our own artistic fulfillment and satisfaction.  In reality, we create to fulfill and satisfy our audiences.  It is only when we are of real value to others that we find true success as artists.

3.   “Any fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage — to move in the opposite direction.” The buzz word these days is “edgy.”  Often what is termed “edgy” is simply vulgar, inappropriate, crude, gross, aggressive or destructive. None of these things is truly edgy.  It is quite common to encounter the gross, the vulgar or the destructive.  In fact, what is riskiest, the most dangerous and what really pushes the envelope is– to simply tell the truth.  Tell the truth about who you are and tell the truth about who your characters are.  Nothing takes more courage.  Nothing is as a daunting.  Nothing is as surprising or as shocking.  Nothing is more rare.

4.  “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” Plots should be very simple.  They should be clear and uncomplicated.  You should be able to communicate the plot of your story in a few quick sentences. Fable, parables or fairytales stand the test of time because their plots are simple and easy to remember.  The most memorable stories are very simple ones– but ones filled with deep, rich, complex emotions.

5.  “Most people say that it is intellect which makes a great scientist.
They are wrong: it is character.”  The same applies to writers and storytellers of all kinds.  You cannot write authentic characters if you are not authentic yourself.  You cannot write vulnerable characters unless you make yourself vulnerable first.  You cannot write from the heart unless you are generous and open up your own heart.  The character of the writer to a large extent determines the quality of the writing.

Mad Men – Art vs Commerce

Mad Men ETB StorywritingMad Men has had wide-spread critical acclaim, won numerous awards and has become a cultural reference– but it has a very small audience.  The show is not widely popular with television viewers.  This struggle between art vs commerce and high brow vs low prestige mass entertainment is a dilemma writers and producers wrestle with continually.

The question boils down to:  What audience do you want?  Once you target the audience the question becomes:  What does that audience want?  High brow audiences look for a very different experience than mass appeal audiences.  In fact, the very things that attract one audience repel the other.

This is not to say art is better or worse than commerce– they just are DIFFERENT.

What exactly are the differences?  What is necessary to attract a wide audience?  Below are a couple of articles on Mad Men I have annotated that get to the core of the art vs. commerce divide.  My comments follow.

LA Times: The TV Hits That No One Watches
By Scott Collins

Mad Men” was the most-honored of any drama series this year, a surprising achievement given that it represented AMC’s first real stab at traditional series development. It was only the latest stop in “Mad Men’s” astonishing trip from a spec script hammered out by a moonlighting TV writer to cultural phenomenon, critics’ darling and Golden Globe winner.

…Too bad, then, that about 98% of Americans have never watched the show. In fact, whatever the interest in this acting showdown or that snub, this year’s Emmy nominations may be most notable for underscoring a growing cultural trend: the yawning gap between what critics and industry veterans cherish and what the rest of the public actually watches.

It’s the relentless narrowing of what was once, in a pre-Internet era, a mass culture, a shift that mirrors what’s happening in movies, books and other art forms.“In terms of nominations, it is a very elite group,” said Shari Anne Brill, an analyst at New York-based ad firm Carat.

Referring to today’s most-honored TV shows, she added: “They get an upscale audience; they just don’t get a mass audience. ”Scripted series, from “I Love Lucy” to “Dallas” to “Friends,” traditionally netted some of the biggest audiences in television history. But now TV’s comedies and dramas are, with a sprinkling of exceptions, becoming expensive diversions for the cultural elite, akin to opera in the 19th century or foreign films in the 1960s.

Critics may love shows such as “Mad Men,” FX’s “Damages” (seven nominations) and HBO’s “The Wire,” but not many other Americans have caught the fever. Even popular network dramas such as ABC’s “Lost” and NBC’s “Heroes” have far fewer viewers than comparable series even a few years ago.

Instead, the TV masses tend to flock these days to major sporting events– such as February’s Super Bowl telecast on Fox, which drew a record audience of 97.5 million– and live reality shows such as “American Idol” or “Dancing With the Stars.” The latter were Emmy-nominated but mostly in the relatively low-prestige “reality competition” category.

My comments:  What makes these “low prestige” show so compelling to audiences?  They are immediate, urgent and authentic. Yes, these shows (and their contestants) are also manufactured, manipulated and managed.  But the contestants, in any situation or challenge created for them, respond by revealing their true characters.

They are real people struggling, failing or overcoming obstacles in real time.  They can’t help showing us who they truly are– that’s what every human being does under extreme pressure.  Over time these contestants’ facades are stripped away.  The audience sees everyone at his or her most vulnerable.  Strengths and weaknesses are exposed. The contestants fall and battle to rise again.

Forget the shiny floor or the flashy lighting.  In these shows something is at stake.  There is struggle, pain, and disappointment but most importantly there is hope.  If your football team falls to take home the trophy at this year’s Super Bowl, there is always next season.  If your favorite singer or dancer is defeated there still is joy in seeing a new star emerge.  And you can pick a new favorite next year.

Another key factor is that these “low prestige” shows are entertainment the whole family can watch together.  This is viewing that isn’t dark.  It isn’t edgy.  It doesn’t “push the envelope.”  And then at the end, there is a sense of affirmation, joy, triiumph or even redemption.

Contrast this with Mad Men and it’s dark relentlessly downbeat tone and stylish but rather empty lives. The characters seem to drift through the story much like the cigarette smoke that fills their homes and offices.  There is little flesh and blood urgency and little worth fighting for.  There is pervasive disillusionment, detachment and disappointment.  Each of the characters is distanced from their emotions (and from us as viewers). The show is stunning in its careful attention to period detail.  It looks beautiful and is beautifully written.  It is also as slow, measured and somber as a classic Requiem Mass.

The Hollywood Reporter
Mad Men Bottom Line: All Pitch and Windup with a Soft Delivery

By Randee Dawn

…(I)f the pieces are in place for “Mad Men” to break big, why does its center feel so hollow? Watching characters indulge with relish in what today are vices has a transgressive quality, yet it’s all done with an insider’s wink to the audience. A fawning tone would grow just as tiresome, but who can identify with characters from whom even the writers seem to shrink?

…There’s much to admire about “Mad Men,” and much worth tuning in for. But so far, it’s all soft sell. At one point, Draper advises a cigarette exec (John Cullum) that they’ll promote his product’s “toasted” quality,” thus ushering in the era of pitching lifestyle over product, the birth of selling nothing. Unfortunately, at this stage, “Mad Men” is giving its audience pretty much the same thing.

If you are a fanatic fan.  Here is a great site analyzing each episode along with PDF episode scripts.  High art or “low prestige” mass audience. It is your choice.

#MondayMusings – Creating a New Character: Backstory

Behind_the_curtain ETB ScreenwritingSome or the shows I am working with are introducing new characters.  One of the immediate questions is what is the character’s backstory?  How and when should a new character’s history or past be revealed?

When something is revealed is as important as what is revealed.  Layer your exposition like an onion— let each successive layer bring us closer to your character’s essential inner core. Let the audience experience the backstory bit by bit as it becomes relevant to an urgent present situation.

Let’s say a character comes from a very wealthy background.  What does it say about a character if this is something the character reveals immediately upon meeting another person?  What does it say about the character if this information is withheld until the middle of a relationship and the character knows the person well? What does it say about the character if this information is withheld until the end of a relationship?  When and how a character reveals information is a defining aspect of the character’s personality.

Before revealing a character’s past ask:  Why does the character need to reveal this information now?  What critical or pressing situation demands the backstory be revealed at this precise moment?  Is the exposition revealed to someone for whom this is new information?  Is the information revealed through some kind of conflict?  Is the exposition active and urgent?  Is it surprising?  Is it unexpected?  What circumstances make the past somehow vital, critical or necessary to the immediate situation at hand?

What is the least amount of backstory, exposition or explanation that the audience needs to understand the story now?  Cut this material to the bone. How can the past be made more alive or active by something that happens in the present?  How does the past have immediacy for your character?  Can your reveals be delayed to have a greater impact?

Be especially careful when using flashbacks.   A flashback takes the audience out of the intimacy and immediacy of the present situation and reminds them they are watching a television show or movie.  Although flashbacks can be effective in some cases, they are very expensive emotionally.   Make sure your story can afford them.   Is the flashback absolutely necessary?  Is it active?  How does it increase the pressure, stress or conflict in the present moment?

An audience is most interested in “what happens next.”  Audiences are much less concerned about “what happened previously.”  Don’t deflect or deflate audience interest by long digressions into the past or long explanations of how a character got to where he or she is right now.

Creating a New Character – Fear

edvard-munch ETB ScreenwritingI have been silent on the blog these last few days because I’ve been struggling with a terrible cold.  Not a pleasant way to spend a romantic holiday in Paris with my husband (he’s been sick too)– but there you have it.  It’s a good thing we are staying with loving family members who have taken good care of us.

I am now preparing for a television show I’ll be working with in Europe. I just received a bio which describes a new character soon to be added to the show’s ensemble.  It is a male character, a father, whose greatest fear is described as the terror that something might happen to his daughter.

When I first developed the Character Map I asked writers “What is your biggest fear?”  This kind of answer would often come up.  As adults we often fear most for those we love, especially our children.

I realized this was the wrong way to ask the question.  I then asked “What was your biggest worry as a child?”

This question yielded much more useful answers.  How do we turn around the character’s natural fear about a child’s welfare into something more specific to that particular character?

We must look at the ways the character is most worried about failing others and becoming unloved or unlovable.  This often is traceable back to the character’s own childhood fears.  These early fears powerfully stay with us and color our adult lives.

The question to ask the character (a father) in this case is– “How do you fear you might be the cause of something terrible happening to your child?”

This makes the fear specific and personal and keys it directly to the Character Type.  Here are some examples:

I fear I am not strong enough to protect my child.  If I show any weakness my family might be exposed to danger.  This is at the root of the fear for a Power of Will father (like Tony Soprano on The Sopranos).

I fear I am not good enough to protect my child.  If I don’t judge correctly or make bad choices my family might be exposed to danger.  This is at the root of the fear for a Power of Conscience father (like Coach Eric Taylor on Friday Night Lights).

I fear I am not cautious enough to protect my child.  If I don’t see all the hidden dangers my family might be exposed to danger.  This is at the root of the fear for a Power of Truth father (like the father fish, Marlin, in Finding Nemo).

I fear I am not extraordinary enough to protect my child.  If I don’t act with honor and heroism my family might be exposed to danger.  This at the root of the fear for a Power of Idealism father (like William Wallace in Braveheart).

I fear I am not objective enough to protect my child.  If I don’t act rationally my family might be exposed to danger.  This at the root of the fear for a Power of Reason father (like Dr.Matt Fowler in In the Bedroom)

I fear I am not successful enough to protect my child.  If I don’t have enough money my family might be exposed to danger.  This is at the root of the fear for a Power of Ambition father (like Fletcher Reed in Liar Liar)

I fear I am not responsible enough to protect my child.  If I don’t have enough maturity my family might be exposed to danger.  This is at the root of the fear for a Power of Excitement father (like Samuel Faulkner in Nine Months).

I fear I am not useful enough to protect my child.  If I my family doesn’t realize I know best they might be exposed to danger. This is at the root of the fear for a Power of Love father (like Stanley Banks in Father of the Bride).

I fear I am not significant enough to protect my child. If I am too simple my family might be exposed to danger.  This is at the root of the fear for a Power of Imagination father (like Guido Orefice in Life is Beautiful).

The trick is to make the fear personal to the character and fit the Character Type.  Simply fearing for a child is too general.  The fear must speak directly to the character’s own Worldview, View of Love and how one protects and cherishes those one loves.  Or how specifically one might fail to do so.

Fear in Politics, Life and Storytelling

John McCain ETB ScreenwritingIn my Character Map workshops I talk a lot about fear.  This article from the Huffington Post makes a clear statements about fear in politics, everyday life and storytelling.  It is a wonderful summary of the discussion of fear I have with workshop participants. (The italic in parenthesis are my additional comments to the author’s statements.)

The following article excerpt was written by Kathlyn and Gay Hendricks:

If we could counsel John McCain at this moment in history, when he has squandered much of the honor and good will Americans used to grant him, we’d embrace him, look him in the eye and say this:

“Go ahead and let yourself feel scared. It’s normal, it’s human and it helps you connect with the rest of us. When you feel scared, let yourself feel it. (Face it) Breathe with it. Dance with it. Above all, don’t tempt the universe by shaking a fist at fear and saying that you will not acknowledge its existence. Doing that puts you on a collision course with the forces of nature, like shaking your fist at thunder and saying you’re never going to listen to it again.

Instead, let your fear in. Speak about it to the ones you love. (Make yourself vulnerable and let intimacy and love in.) …Ultimately, love is the best cure for fear. If you really want to have a great relationship with yourself and other people, love your fear (face your fear) just as it is, and watch the miracles that unfold as a result.”

What happens when you let yourself feel your fear is that it opens up a direct connection to your creativity. The more you’re willing to open up (face) and embrace your fear (and be vulnerable), the more creativity flows through you. We would never have believed that remarkable fact until we experienced the truth of it ourselves and saw it work its magic on many other people.

An Integrity Problem

Being cut off from fear or any emotion puts you out of integrity with yourself. As one our mentors, Jack Downing, M.D., put it, “Integrity glitches cause body twitches.” The source of John McCain’s odd display of twitches, jaw-clenches and chilly grins is a fault-line gap of integrity (and authenticity) at the center of himself, a place where he has cut himself off from fear and the rest of us.

He wants to become a super hero, The Man Without Fear. That’s not a bad idea for a cartoon, but in real life (and in most storytelling) it would be a disaster. In real life (and in real stories), we need real heroes, people who are willing to acknowledge fear (and face fear) and look within it, to the gift it brings.

Read the whole article here:

Equinoxe Germany

schloss-elmau-ETB ScreenwritingI’ve been at beautiful Schloss Elmau in the Bavarian Alps. It was a fabulous setting for the recent Equinoxe Germany workshop.

Here is a description from the Equinoxe workshop website

“An international jury selects 10 talented screenwriters to participate in the workshop. These ten screenwriters come to the one-week workshops and meet on the basis of one-to-one discussions with ten advisors from all over the world – internationally known and experienced writers, directors and producers– who without remuneration share their knowledge and experiences with the most promising talent the European and international film scene has to offer.”

“Twice a year scripts can be submitted for selection. Mid-May is the deadline for the autumn workshop. Beginning of November is the deadline for submission for the spring workshop.”