The Invitation

oriah ETB ScreenwritingI am back from Australia.  I had a wonderful time in Melbourne and Sydney.  Both are beautiful cities in their own way.  This trip, as my trips always do, has convinced me yet again that the creative people I work with know EVERYTHING.

When I was in my Master’s Program at the UCLA Film School I got a handout with a copy of a wonderful poem published in a book by Jean Houston, A Passion for the Possible. For me, the poem definitively sums up what the audience is looking for in the characters of a screenplay.

In my discussions, workshops and consulting I had been crediting the poem to Houston.  One of the writers I worked with in Melbourne knew the poem and told me it was, in fact, titled The Invitation and is attributed it to Oriah Mountain Dreamer.

She sent me Oriah’s Website and I Googled further and sure enough.  There the poem was.  Copyright © 1999 by Oriah Mountain Dreamer.  Apparently, it was just reprinted in Houston’s book.

It is a wonderful poem and I am sure the book based on the poem must be extraordinary as well. I have it on order.   You might want to check out the book as well.

Here is the poem from the book The Invitation —  And the best description I’ve ever found of what the AUDIENCE wants to know about your characters.

The Invitation
(by Oriah, Mountain Dreamer)

It doesn’t interest me what you do for a living.
I want to know what you ache for
and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart’s longing.

It doesn’t interest me how old you are.
I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool
for love
for your dream or
for the adventure of being alive.

It doesn’t interest me what planets are squaring your moon…
I want to know if you have touched the centre of your own sorrow
if you have been opened by life’s betrayals
or have become shrivelled and closed
from fear of further pain.

I want to know if you can sit with pain
mine or your own
without moving to hide it
or fade it
or fix it.

I want to know if you can be with joy
mine or your own
if you can dance with wildness
and let the ecstasy fill you to the tips of your fingers and toes
without cautioning us
to be careful
to be realistic
to remember the limitations of being human.

It doesn’t interest me if the story you are telling me
is true.
I want to know if you can
disappoint another
to be true to yourself.
If you can bear the accusation of betrayal
and not betray your own soul.
If you can be faithless
and therefore trustworthy.

I want to know if you can see Beauty
even when it is not pretty
every day.
And if you can source your own life
from its presence.

I want to know if you can live with failure
yours and mine
and still stand at the edge of the lake
and shout to the silver of the full moon,

It doesn’t interest me
to know where you live or how much money you have.
I want to know if you can get up
after the night of grief and despair
weary and bruised to the bone
and do what needs to be done
to feed the children.

It doesn’t interest me who you know
or how you came to be here.
I want to know if you will stand
in the centre of the fire
with me
and not shrink back.

It doesn’t interest me where or what or with whom
you have studied.
I want to know what sustains you
from the inside
when all else falls away.

I want to know if you can be alone
with yourself
and if you truly like the company you keep
in the empty moments.

A Moment of Inspiration

BlowFlower ETBScreenwritingI’m on my way to Australia and will be posting from there.  I will be crossing the International Date Line so I won’t be arriving in Melbourne until Thursday.

I came across this item and found it to a perfect recipe for a terrific creative life.


To live content with small means;
to seek elegance rather than luxury,
and refinement rather than fashion.
To be worthy, not respectable,
and wealthy, not rich.
To study hard, think quietly
talk gently and act frankly.
To listen to stars and birds,
to babes and sages,
with an open heart.
To bear all cheerfully, do all bravely,
await occasions and hurry never.
To let the spiritual, unbidden and unconscious,
grow up through the common.
This is to be my symphony.

William Ellery Channing
(1780 – 1842)

Loss and Grief

grief-ETB ScreenwritingI am busy getting ready to leave for Australia on Tuesday.  This is my second trip “down under.”  I really love Melbourne and this trip I will have a chance to visit Sydney as well.

I’ll be working on a long-running drama. series  Those kinds of shows (or any television show or feature film) have issues of loss and grief at their core.

Whenever a character is disappointed, rejected, humiliated or spurned (or has a set-back of any kind), he or she experiences a loss.  This could be a loss of self-esteem, pride, self-confidence or hope for the future.  It could be the loss of a love interest, an opportunity, a job or a friendship.

The question is, how does experiencing this loss reveal character?  Is the character experiencing the full range of emotion?  How does the character’s reaction provide plot and story opportunities?

The loss and grief cycle includes these character revealing steps:

1.  Shock: Paralysis “I can’t believe this is happening.”
How do we see the character in shock?  What does he or she do?
2.  Denial: Disbelief “There must be some mistake.”
How does the character actively deny the situation?  What does he or she do that is contrary to the facts?
3. Anger: Outrage “I won’t stand for this.”  “This isn’t right.”
How does the character act out his or her anger.  What action shows the character taking out his or anger on others?
4. Guilt/Shame/Blame:  Fault  “It’s all because of you.”  “I never should have…”
What does the character do to shift the blame?  How does the character blame him or her self?  What does the character do as a result?
5. Acting Out:  Rebellion “Screw it.”
What does the character do to rebel against or defy the situtation?  What happens as a result?
6. Bargaining: Deal-making “I promise…”  “If only you will let…”
How does the character make deals or promises or beg for help?  How do we seek this active desperation?
7.  Depression: Realization  “There is no way out.”  “This is really happening.”
How do we see the character come to grips with the reality of the situation?  What doe the character do?
8. Testing: New Reality “Maybe I can survive this if I…”  “Maybe I still could…”  “What if I do this instead?
How does the character test or try on new ways of being, acting or thinking?  How does the character make the best of the situation, as bad as it is?
9.  Acceptance: Forward “Even if the worst happens, I will be okay.”
How does the character accept his or her fate, however dire?  What leap of faith does the character make?  How does the character make it okay for him or her self    and/or others?

Show the character moving through the whole process of grief and anger.  Create plot points that incorporate each step.  Allow your character to fully experience and act on each step.   Create action (not just dialog) that reveal the character’s inner depths.

Great Student Film Competition

angelus_film ETB ScreenwritingI spent the day with the finalists for the Angelus Film Festival.  The grand prize is $10,000.  There are several other money prizes.  Also included are screenings at the DGA, trips to Sundance, the Toronto Film Festival and a special festival in Prague or Rome.  If any readers are still in film school, read on and check out this wonderful organization.

The 208 winners were announced today. I was the featured speaker at this happy event. And we had a wonderful lunch prepared by Chef Brian from “Top Chef.”

Here is a bit more about the organization:

Voted “Best” Student Film Festival by MovieMaker Magazine, the Angelus Student Film Festival draws entries from graduate and undergraduate students of film from around the world. The future of the film industry gathers each year during the Angelus Student Film Festival to showcase their films of artistic excellence that reflect human dignity. With over 500 entries, from over 100 film schools, in over 20 countries, Angelus Student Film Festival draws a diverse, passionate audience of college students and those working in all areas of the film industry.

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.