John McCain – Power of Idealism

john_mccain ETBScreenwritingIn watching the grand drama of the American election play out, it’s interesting to look at the candidates’ Character Type.  John McCain is a classic Power of Idealism character.

John McCain’s campaign slogan during the primaries was: “Never Surrender.”

The words McCain and others use in describing him and his campaign are:  courageous, hero, honor, valor and maverick.  When he is criticized his opponents often use words like:  hot-tempered, cranky, loose cannon, temperamental and stubborn. These are the keywords in describing or deriding a Power of Idealism character.

Power of Idealism characters often play the role of the rebel, the outsider, the iconoclast or the maverick.  That has always been McCain’s role in the Republican party. He has prided himself (whether true or not) on his independence, autonomy and straight talk.

His statement on his current campaign his website is:  “I am running for President of the United States because I believe in the greatness of this nation as a beacon of goodwill throughout the world.”

These characters often look to the greatness of a more glorious and noble past. Their stories often take place at the end of an era.  McCain harks back to what he sees as a nobler era of American world dominance.

He views patriotism in terms of traditions and symbols.  That’s what the whole flag pin controversy is about.  How can you respect flag and country unless you display it proudly?

Barack Obama is a Power of Imagination character and sees his role, the country and patriotism very differently. I did a detailed analysis of Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton in a previous newsletter.

#TypesTuesday – Revolutionary or Rebel Part Two

che-guevara-etbscreenwritingI am back in sunny California.  Sea breezes and Mexican food tonight.  I had a wonderful time in Wisconsin and am lucky to have a beautiful lakeside apartment to stay in for the duration.  But it is always good to be back home.

I had a question about my last post.  Can a revolutionary also be a rebel?

The answer is real life, of course, is yes.  Real life is messy and complicated.  Storytelling is not.  The stories in film and television help us make sense of the world.  They lift us above the chaos of life.  They condense time, put things in context and give meaning to cause, effect and experience.

In order to have real power, a story and a character must have a single clear emotional focus.  That means a story must be about one true thing.  Intuitively, it would seem that if a story is about many things it would appeal to a wider audience.  In fact, the opposite is true.

When a story is about one true thing the audience brings their philosophy, experience and view of life and they measure that against the choices the character makes.  They bring their perspective to the story and test it against the one true thing on the screen.  In doing so, they make the story about themselves.

When a story is about too many things, it is confusing.  The audience can’t make the story about themselves because there is no clear hook or connection.  When a story is about too many things, it is about nothing.  The audience can’t find a clear way in.

Going back to the original question:  Is the character a revolutionary or a rebel?  What is the most true about the character.

Both a revolutionary and a rebel challenge the status quo.  Is the challenge to authority about changing or reforming a situation or society as a whole (the Power of Conscience) or is the challenge to authority about asserting personal individuality or personal autonomy against the dictates of the state or society (Power of Idealism).  (See yesterday’s post for examples.)

Once you’ve made your choice then bring all the decisions and conflicts back to that one true thing.  Answer all the Story Questions about that choice.  What’s a Story Question?

A character’s Story Questions are the defining personal, philosophical  and psychological questions that drive the character’s actions in the story.  They give the character’s emotional journey shape and meaning.

Each of the Nine Character Types wrestles with one specific and clear set of Story Questions.   The character’s answer to those questions define the one true thing at the core of the film.

What about a novel?  There’s more room to explore in the longer form of a novel.

The best novels also have a very clear set of Story Questions at their core.  These questions might be expanded upon in more depth in a novel than in a film.  But the best novels don’t stray from the essential truth about what’s driving the character forward through the story.  Clarity of emotional focus is essential in every storytelling medium regardless of length or form.

Revolutionary or Rebel

tom_joad_ETB ScreenwritingMy last day in Milwaukee is a sausage buying extravaganza.  I stopped at Usingers and bought several varieties with their own special spices.  Flying back to Santa Monica tomorrow.

I’ve been working on the final edit of the Power of Conscience eBook.  That particular Character Type is often confused with the Power of Idealism character.  The distinction between the two is subtle but clear. It is rather like the difference between a revolutionary and a rebel.

A revolutionary is someone who works for political or social change.  The orientation is toward changing and improving society.  The basic orientation of a Power of Conscience character is to seek moral and ethical perfection. They believe they could do better, others could improve and the world could be a better place.

A rebel is a person who resists authority, control, or tradition.  The orientation is more individualistic. The basic orientation of the Power of Idealism character is to seek aesthetic perfection.  Noteworthiness, rarity, distinctiveness, individuality and/or the unusual, idiosyncratic or eccentric are what these characters value most highly in themselves and others.

Power of Conscience characters cause revolution to conform society, as a whole, to a higher moral or ethical standard. Power of Idealism characters rebel against the status quo to resist authority or conformity and to promote or preserve their personal autonomy.

A Power of Conscience character looks at the world like this:

“Wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build– I’ll be there, too.”  Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) in The Grapes of Wrath

A  Power of Idealism character looks at the world like this:

Mildred: “What’re you rebelling against, Johnny?”
Johnny: “Whaddya got?”  Johnny Strable (Marlon Brando) in The Wild One

“And maybe there’s no peace in this world, for us or for anyone else, I don’t know. But I do know that, as long as we live, we must remain true to ourselves.”  Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) in Spartacus

Ideas in the Air

idea_bulb ETB ScreenwritingI spent the day at the Wisconsin State Fair.  One amazing fairground feature is the Exposition Area where “amazing” new products are demonstrated by a wide variety of pitchmen, salesmen and promoters.  It’s like being inside a giant telemarketing program– loud and live.

That experience got me thinking about innovation and new ideas.  A question I frequently get asked is:  “What if someone steals my idea?” The fact is, you cannot protect an idea.  You can only protect the expression of the idea.  Your unique expression or individual point of view is what makes any of your script ideas valuable or protect-able.

Sometime subject matters, concepts or story ideas are just “in the air.”  A number of similar and widely disbursed individuals can all have the same idea at once.  Malcolm Gladwell wrote a fascinating study of how this happens in a very interesting New Yorker article about scientific or technological achievements.

The same thing can happen with script ideas.  Several people can write very similar scripts independently and all at approximately the same time.  Each person thinks their idea was “stolen.”

I’m not saying that theft of intellectual property never occurs in Hollywood but, quite often, coincidence plays a major role.  Your job is to make your expression of your idea so unique, so clear and so particular to your point of view that your script prevails in the marketplace.

Writers have told every story there is to tell over the course of millenniums.  There are only so many plots under the sun.  The only thing that makes your script commercial is your unique point of view.  That cannot be duplicated by anyone anywhere.

Ron Bass, perhaps Hollywood’s most prolific writer (and he’s a producer as well), once told me that when he is offering a writing assignment he asks a potential writer for ten pages from a sample script.  The ten pages can be from anywhere in the script.  He said:  “I can teach structure, I can teach story and character development.  But I can’t teach point of view.  That is the writer’s unique voice.”  He can tell in just ten pages if the writer has a passionate individual voice (or not).

That’s why every script should be personal.  Why are you the only one who can write your story?  How is the script urgent and authentic to you?  What drives you to write this script?  How are you making the story yours?  The answers to those questions add up to your unique voice.

Of course, you should also register your script in the US Copyright office.  My eBook, The One Hour Screenwriter, explains in detail how to do this.

Registering your script at the Writers Guild (WGA) or any other script registry services does not afford any legal protection.  It only establishes the date you wrote the script.  You need to copyright your script to get the full protection of US law.

The One Hour Screenwriter also explains how to draw on and use your personal experience in your writing.  It asks a series of question which helps you discover your own authentic writer’s voice.

Wall-E – Getting to the Essence of Things

wall e ETB ScreenwritingI am here on the lake front and just have had my wireless router installed.  I am writing on my trusty MAC and catching up on email and newsletters.  This caught my eye from earlier in July:

“In Disney Pixar’s new movie, “Wall-E,” the female heroine is a shiny all-white robot with no seams or overt buttons showing. Remind you of anything? Actually, it brings to mind most of the Apple product line.  Could this be the product-placement model of the future?”  This is a quote from an interesting newsletter article from Ad Age.

What does this have to do with screenwriters?  There is a really important lesson here.

The article goes on to say:

“The idea is that your logo isn’t going to be featured or your product isn’t going to be shown … but your essence runs through the whole thing instead… ‘How many companies could do that?’ Not too many, I think.”

A strong brand is crucial for marketers.  Apple has such a strong brand it doesn’t even need to be mentioned by name in the hit film, Wall-E. The MAC start up tone and the sleek design is all you need to say “Apple.”

Essence is defined as: the intrinsic nature or indispensable quality of something.  Synonyms are: soul, spirit, nature; core, heart, crux, fundamental quality

Every pitch you write, every character in your story and every script you finish should have an equally strong brand.  What is the soul or spirit of what you are trying to convey?  Is there an iconic image that captures this  perfectly for your script and your character?  If not, find one.

In a few seconds the audience (or executive in a pitch session) should be able to get the essential core of your story and character. One of my favorite quotes is by Albert Einstein:  “If you can’t say it simply and briefly you probably don’t understand it well enough.”

Do your understand your story and character well enough to distill them down to their most fundamental quality?  Can you convey that briefly and simply?  Do you have an iconic image that sums everything up?  What I am asking is incredibly hard.  It requires immense effort and a bit of creative genius.  You must care enough about your script to go that extra mile, if you want it to succeed.

The Nine Character Types helps distill the essence of a character and story instantly.  It helps you understand the fundamental principles at the core of your script.

Brett Favre – The Power of Truth

brett.favre ETB ScreenwritingIt is impossible to be in Wisconsin and not be caught up by the Brett Favre/Green Bay Packers drama.  Brett is a real life example of a Power of Truth character and the recent contretemps has played out in classic form.

Power of Truth characters value loyalty and commitment very highly, but they can be very unsettled and indecisive. They can become self-doubting and suspicious to the point of paralysis.  At that point, they no longer trust their own instincts.

What kicked the current drama off was Brett’s indecisiveness.  After much back and forth (will he or won’t he), Brett finally retired after the 2007 football season.  Except maybe not.  The Packers’ GM and Head Coach were ready to fly to Brett’s hometown and meet with him, about playing the 2008 season, when Brett changed his mind again.  No, he didn’t want to talk.  And then Brett decided yes he would play.

The Packers’ wanted a statement of loyal commitment before proceeding further.  Brett refused to give such a statement.  He seemed to think his loyalty was obvious and he was hurt by the Packers’ disloyalty to him.  He seemed to spiral into increasing distrust.

In their darkest moments, these characters worry that they can’t believe anyone or anything.  They suspect everyone is lying to them and every situation is not what it seems.  They constantly look for little clues to confirm their doubts, suspicions and anxieties.

These characters continually test and probe when operating out of fear. They insist others constantly prove themselves.  They try to read the secret meaning in, or second-guess every move, every action and every decision made by others.

Relativity and Human Personality

Leonard-Susskind-etbscreenwritingI read this in a fascinating discussion of Leonard Susskind’s new book The Black Hole War:

“Einstein, in the special theory of relativity, proved that different observers, in different states of motion, see different realities.”

That universal statement of the laws of physics and humanity is at the essence of the Nine Character Types.

The Nine Character Types details how individuals are propelled into action.  These different states of motion (and motivation) cause different kinds of characters to see the world vastly differently.  Each Character Type has a unique perspective based on his or her actions.  And any character’s actions define his or her perspective

There are only three possible biological responses (actions) in response to anything.  These are Fight (Confront), Flight (Withdraw) or Submit (Embrace).

Each Character Type has:  1) Immediate Tactics (what the character does in response to an unexpected problem, challenge, threat or opportunity;  2) a Long-term Orientation (what the character does in response to any ongoing situation;  3) Strategic Approach the character uses to obtain any long-term goal or objective.

A character (and any human being) has a flight, flight or submit response to each of these differing situations.  Conflicting impulses and actions create the internal tension and conflict a character feels.

Let’s take a Power of Love mom as an example:  She bops her son over the head to discipline him when he brings home a bad report card from school (unexpected problem), gives him a warm embrace to tell him she loves him (on-going relationship/situation), and then bops him again to get him motivated to get better grades (achieve her long goal of having her son better himself).

These conflicting impulses will cause many an internal conflict in the mother over the years– the conflicting desire to smack a kid and embrace him.

Any Character Type can be a mom and each has a vastly different approach to parenting.  I used the Power of Love mom because she is a strong character stereotype easily recognized for the purpose of example.

#MondayMusings – Put It All Online

google-video-ETBScreenwritingEvery new media mimics what has gone before until it discovers its own form.  The films that followed live theater were created with a single static camera.  A single long shot replicated the audience’s perspective in viewing a stage show. It was assumed that was the perspective an audience would want in viewing filmed entertainment.  Finally, filmmakers realized they could move the camera and create an entirely new perspective and viewing experience.

Most online series are presented in episodic form, just like television.  If you create 22 or whatever number of episodes of bite-sized narrative, each is doled out, one at a time, over weeks and months.  Why is this a good idea?

No one likes to wait.  The Internet is the most impatient medium ever invented.  Going online is all about instant access all the time.  Why not put up a whole series (all episodes) in one shot?  Then the audience can view as much or as little of the narrative as THEY want exactly when THEY want to view it.

They won’t have to wait.  They can sample the series in order or out of order or however they like. Why do we think audiences have the patience or the attention span to come back to very short narrative snippets over time?  Isn’t this just the automatic mimicking of an old medium– episodic television?  Is that one reason why so many narrative series in this new medium fail?

Third Cocktail Question

cocktail-party ETBScreenwritingFinishing up with the third cocktail question: “Would you like to hear a great idea for a movie?”  For some reason, when people know you are a screenwriter they feel compelled to tell you their story or ask your opinion on their idea.

As you are listening, realize you are sitting in the place of a beleaguered studio executive.  What can you learn from this experience?

Always listen to the idea carefully because it’s a great opportunity to learn two of the most valuable lessons about pitching.  Pretend you listen to screenplay ideas for a living.

First, notice the person isn’t nervous.  They are simply sharing something that they are interested in and feel  passionate about.  They are hoping you will like the idea but the fun is in just communicating the it.  That is the greatest lesson of pitching.  Don’t go into a pitch meeting with the expectation or desire to sell the pitch.  Just enjoy sharing your story.  That goes a long way in eliminating nervousness.  Have fun.  Make it fascinating cocktail conversation.

Second, keep it short and punchy.  You want a strong opening, a series of interesting complications and a satisfying payoff.  That’s it.  Any more than ten to fifteen minutes is overkill.  Einstein once said”  “If you can’t explain it briefly and simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”  And he was talking about physics!  The best thing you can get anyone to say in a meeting is: “Tell me more.”  Then you have permission and the interest and attention to elaborate.  You don’t want someone looking at the watch and thinking:  “Get to the point already.”

Isn’t that what anyone wants in a cocktail conversation:  A fun story that is mercifully short.  Get in. Get out.  Leave them wanting more.

Three Cocktail Questions

kurt_vonnegut ETB ScreenwritingI have a theory that every professional gets asked three annoying questions at a cocktail party.  These differ by profession.

If you are a screenwriter the questions are some variation of:  “Where do you get your ideas?”  “How do you find time to write?’ and “Would you like to hear a great idea for a movie?”  If we move past the irritation these questions turn out to be quite profound.

The first stupid question:  “Where do you get your ideas?”  is both a mystery and a terror.  No writer knows where inspiration comes from and every writer is terrified the spigot might somehow get turned off.

Inspiration is a gift pure and simple.  No one can control a gift.  It is given or not.  You can’t necessarily can’t earn it. And you probably don’t deserve it, in the grand scheme of things.

That leads me to Samuel Johnson, who wrote the following words in his diary on April 3, 1753, while working on his Dictionary of English.

“O God, who hast hitherto supported me, enable me to proceed in this labour & in the Whole task of my present state, that when I shall render up at the last day an account of the talent committed to me, I may receive pardon for the sake of Jesus Christ. Amen.”

Kurt Vonnegut said once that he used the passage himself as a sort of writer’s prayer to say before work ,

That seems to be a wish to carry his (Samuel Johnson’s) talent as far and as fast as he can.

Yes. He was a notorious hack.

And you consider yourself a hack?

Of a sort.

If you’ve got a writer’s prayer or a way you cross your fingers, knock wood or seek the writing spark, please send it on!   Genius or hack all writers are nervous about the gift of inspiration– and what they do with it.  Including me!

Tomorrow: Stupid Question Number Two