#ThinkpieceThursday – The Comedy and Drama of Change

 

CHANGEWriters are advised to write what they know. What writers (and all other human beings) know the most about is change. Living, by definition, is to change. Nothing in life is static. Change and transformation are all around you. Both impact you every day.

You live in an unsettling and constantly changing world. Your world is full of uncertainty, evolving relationships, personal and professional ups and downs and conflicting responsibilities, loyalties, commitments and desires. Your characters should experience their world in exactly the same way.

You know exactly how painful change and transformation can be. You have experienced extreme, dramatic and sometimes excruciating change. Your life has been full of unexpected reversals, complex di- lemmas and difficult growth experiences-and so should the lives of your characters. (And there’s no reason why all this turmoil and pain shouldn’t be hilarious. Great comedians know- If it don’t hurt, it ain’t funny.)

Change doesn’t come easily and it isn’t without opposition. No change ever continues unchecked. Someone or something always stands in the way. Transformation is always upsetting. Emotions run high. The situation and characters are in turmoil. Someone or something resists the change with all his or her might. Who or what stands in the way? Is your character resisting the change or is someone or something resisting the transformation your character is bringing about or is undergoing.”

What kicks this change off? Who or what action changes or transforms your character? What is lost? What is gained? Who opposes the change? What does your character want? What does your character need? What is the cost of either choice? What does your character fear most? How much is your character willing to sacrifice? To what extreme is your character willing to go? The answers to these questions form the emotional core of your story. They also get to the heart of who your character really is. They give depth and meaning to your story structure.

John Cleese on Creativity

The brilliant comedian tackles the serious subject of creativity

#TypesTuesday – Tracy Flick and Hillary Clinton : Power of Conscience

Tracy-Flick-Hillary-Clinton-EtbScreenwritingHillary Clinton and Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) in the movie Election are a great examples of hard-driving intense Power of Conscience characters.

I found a fantastic clip of Tracy and Hillary intercut in a scene from Election.  It is a wonderful sketch of everything that is most important to this Character Type.  The clip refers back to Clinton’s run against Barack Obama (a Power of Imagination character) in 2008.

Power of Conscience characters believe that leadership must be earned by dedication, hard work, thorough preparation, and devotion to duty.  Leadership must be deserved. One must be worthy in order to lead. At their worst, these characters can become rigid, accusatory, sanctimonious, judgmental, and hypocritical.

 

Valdimir Putin and the Power of Will

putin and horse

Valdimir Putin,  the President of Russia, has been much in the news lately, specifically regarding the Russian invasion/annexation of the Crimea.  The New Republic magazine has an interesting analysis of Putin’s personality and goals.  He is described in the magazine and in other news reports as a classic Power of Will character.

Putin, sees the world according to his own logic, and the logic goes like this: it is better to be feared than loved, it is better to be overly strong than to risk appearing weak, and Russia was, is, and will be an empire with an eternal appetite for expansion. And it will gather whatever spurious reasons it needs to insulate itself territorially from what it still perceives to be a large and growing NATO threat.  New Republic Magazine

From the LA Times this week:  Across a resurgent Russia, Stalin lives again, at least in the minds and hearts of Russian nationalists who see Putin as heir to the former dictator’s model of iron-fisted rule. Recent tributes celebrate Stalin’s military command acumen and geopolitical prowess. His ruthless repression of enemies, real and imagined, has been brushed aside by today’s Kremlin leader as the cost to be paid for defeating the Nazis.

As Putin has sought to recover territory lost in the 1991 Soviet breakup, his Stalinesque claim to a right to a “sphere of influence” has allowed him to legitimize the seizure of Crimea from Ukraine and declare an obligation to defend Russians and Russian speakers beyond his nation’s borders.

Power of Will characters believe that expanding their power base, extending their territory, protecting and defending what is rightfully theirs (according to them) and swiftly avenging any wrong (or perceived wrong) is how one gets along, gets ahead and stays ahead in the world.

These characters take what they want, fight for every inch of turf, refuse to show any weakness themselves and pounce decisively on the weakness of others. They have a kill or be killed framework for everything. They believe absolutely in the Law of the Jungle and divide the world into aggressors and victims, hunters and prey, and the strong and the weak. They believe it is better to be feared than to be loved. They never want to be seen as “soft” or vulnerable. They show no mercy and they expect none.

Power of Will characters fear showing any sign of weakness or vulnerability. They fear that remorse, compassion, empathy, compromise or forgiveness leaves them soft and open to possible attack by others. These characters believe there is no mercy in the jungle that is the world. There is only survival of the fittest. The biggest, toughest, meanest dog wins. Might makes right. Speak decisively and back it up with big guns.

For more on the Power of Will character visit the ETB Screenwriting Shop.

 

#WritingAdviceWednesday – Great Comedy Advice from Bill Hicks

This advice from comedian Bill Hicks (who died of cancer in 1993) is applicable to many other activities besides stand-up comedy.

  1. If you can be yourself on stage nobody else can be you and you have the law of supply and demand covered.
  2. The act is something you fall back on if you can’t think of anything else to say.
  3. Only do what you think is funny, never just what you think they will like, even though it’s not that funny to you.
  4. Never ask them is this funny – you tell them this is funny.
  5. You are not married to any of this shit – if something happens, taking you off on a tangent, NEVER go back and finish a bit, just move on.
  6. NEVER ask the audience “How You Doing?” People who do that can’t think of an opening line. They came to see you to tell them how they’re doing, asking that stupid question up front just digs a hole. This is The Most Common Mistake made by performers. I want to leave as soon as they say that.
  7. Write what entertains you. If you can’t be funny be interesting. You haven’t lost the crowd. Have something to say and then do it in a funny way.
  8. I close my eyes and walk out there and that’s where I start, Honest.
  9. Listen to what you are saying, ask yourself, “Why am I saying it and is it Necessary?” (This will filter all your material and cut the unnecessary words, economy of words)
  10. Play to the top of the intelligence of the room. There aren’t any bad crowds, just wrong choices.
  11. Remember this is the hardest thing there is to do. If you can do this you can do anything.
  12. I love my cracker roots. Get to know your family, be friends with them.

VIDEO HERE

I would modify this list for screenwriters–

  1. We’ve been telling stories for eons.  There are no new stories.  The only thing that make you commercial (or unique) is your voice and your perspective.
  2. How can you tell the story in a new way?  Don’t fall back on cliches.
  3. Never follow the market.  Tell stories that excite you– not ones you think the market wants to buy.
  4. Tell the market yours is a great story by how you tell it.
  5. Don’t keep going back and rewriting old bits every day, just move on.  Finish the story.  Let the first draft be crappy.  Or you won’t ever have a first draft.
  6. Just jump right into the story.  Don’t waste time with long introductions or back story.
  7. Write what entertains you. Be interesting. Have something to say and then say it in a uniquely personal way.
  8. I close my eyes and walk out there and that’s where I start, Honest.
  9. Read what you are are writing, ask yourself, “Why am I telling this and is it Necessary?” (This will filter all your material and cut the unnecessary words, economy of words).
  10. Play to the top of the intelligence of the reader or viewer. There aren’t any bad audiences, just wrong choices.
  11. Remember this is the hardest thing there is to do. If you can do this you can do anything.
  12. I love my own Wisconsin roots. Get to know your family, be friends with them. Learn from the storytelling of your tribe.

 

Interesting vs Profound

Characters quirks and unusual events that make a story interesting don’t necessarily give it a depth. Unconventional characters or unique circumstances can grab an audience’s attention but not make a story  particularly rich or profound. Alternatively, a story can be very deep and complex but uninteresting and tedious.

Jack Warner once said: “If you want to send a message, call Western Union and send a telegram.”  The primary purpose of entertainment is to entertain.  The most entertaining stories incorporate elements that are both interesting AND have some kind of deeper meaning.  All great movies have both.

“Beware of the allure of the bizarre, a quality that may attract but ultimately fails to satisfy. For strange effects and extraordinary combinations, we must go to life itself. When you see ordinary situations with extraordinary insight it’s like discovering a jewel in the rubbish.” Stephen Kendrick, HOLY CLUES: The Gospel According to Sherlock Holmes.

Loss is the key element giving every great film meaning because loss is the one thing that transcends culture, race, religion, sex, age, social, economic or political situation.  It is the one thing we all share as human beings.

We all lose the comfort and safety of the womb, lose our baby teeth, lose our innocence, lose our virginity, lose a friend or loved one through separation, death or betrayal, we face reversals of fortune, if we live long enough we lose our parents, if we live long enough we lose our children.  In the end we lose our own lives.  Life is made up of a series of loses, how we cope with loss is what determines our characters. How character is revealed through loss is what gives a story meaning.  What does your character have to lose?

 

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer as a Classic Hero

I have been going through my notes and files and came across this gem– a handout from Howard Suber’s UCLA class on character and structure.  And since it fits a holiday theme I thought I would share it.

Here’s all you need to know about writing Mythic Heroes, Power of Imagination Heroes, like the ones described by Joseph Campbell.

Rudolph the red nosed reindeer…
The Hero’s name is the first word of the story.

had a very shiny nose, and if you ever saw it you would even say it glows.
The Hero has a distinguishing flaw

All of the other reindeer…
The rest of the community

used to laugh and call him names.
The Hero is wounded

They never let poor Rudolf  join in any reindeer games.
The hero is rejected by the community

Then one foggy Christmas eve…
In a crisis situation, the “normal” characters are powerless

Santa came to say…
Aged, quasi-spiritual. mentor, recruits the reluctant Hero

Rudolph with your nose so bright…
The Hero’s weakness becomes his strength

‘Won’t you guide my sleigh tonight
The Hero leads the community out of danger

Then all the reindeer loved him, and they shouted out with glee…
The Hero is revered by the community on his return

Rudolf the red nosed reindeer, you’ll go down in history
The Hero lives in our memory

More insights in Howard Suber’s wonderful books.  Check them out HERE

#MondayMusings – Celebrate the Small Victories!

Too often we are so focused on where we are going, we forget how far we’ve come.  Today take a moment to look at your diary or calendar to see where you were a year ago, two years ago, and five years ago.

Several years ago I really felt I had hit a slump.  It felt like I’d made no progress and would never make progress.  I signed up for a Women in Film New Year’s workshop.

One of the assignments was to go though your calendar day-by-day and make a list of everything you’d done– every script mailed out, every meeting, every research session, every phone call!  When I tallied up the year I was amazed at what I have accomplished– progress I had completely forgotten about.

My career was moving forward!  The next assignment was to analyze what was the most effective use of my time.  What paid off and what seemed less productive.  Looking at that whole year day-by-day as it added up was a revelation.

The step by step by step of  incremental progress is always what makes a lasting career.  List the small steps you’ve taken so far this year and be sure to count ALL  the little victories.  Celebrate the mistakes you made that taught you valuable lessons and enabled you to move forward in new ways.

“Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than an unsuccessful person with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”  Calvin Coolidge

Your small, seemingly insignificant, steps and your continued little victories make up the persistence that turns into a solid career!

Fast for Writing Fitness

Newspapers, magazines, books, television, radio, and the Internet stream millions upon millions of words into our brains telling us all manner of factual and fictional tales. Smart phones put this information at our fingertips 24/7.

When stumbling against a block in creating your story, I strongly suggest you undertake a media fast. What is a media fast? It is similar, in concept, to a food fast.

Dietary fasting helps lighten the body’s physical load and allows it to rest digestively. Taking a break from all the stories in the media can lighten the load on your brain and allow more space for your own story to gestate and form.

For years, holistic physician Dr. Andrew Weil has recommended occasionally taking a media break. He believes media fasts are an integral part of good health and are outlined in his book, Eight Weeks to Optimum Health.

Dr. Weil writes, “I think it’s useful to broaden the concept of nutrition to include what we put into our consciousness as well (as into our bodies).” He writes, “Many people do not exercise much control…and as a result take in a lot of mental junk food.”

I strongly recommend that you take a break from all factual and fictional media stories to get over a block in your story.

Don’t read the newspaper or any magazines. Don’t watch any television news or entertainment programs. Don’t listen to talk radio. Don’t search the Internet for news, entertainment, or research.

Don’t read any other books, fact or fiction. Don’t even read the jokes and stories people send via email.

When you have down time allow yourself to be surrounded by silence or instrumental music. Go for a long walk, sit in a park, take relaxing bath. Keep the din of media story words at bay as completely as possible.

Why is a media fast important? It will help you feel calmer, more relaxed, and focused. When you still the relentless media clatter, you make more time for idle silence, quiet moments of reflection, and staring off into space. Allow yourself to be bored.

In those empty moment you will find time to daydream, muse, and think. Without media distractions, your story will begin to fill your head effortlessly. Be quiet enough to listen to your story whisper to you.

Turning off and tuning out all those competing stories will help you tune in and communicate more clearly with your characters. Let them fill in the blank space of your quiet moments. Listen to your characters’ voices in your head. Hear what they have to say.

Don’t forget to get more sleep and allow your unconscious mind to do its important work. I cannot stress enough that proper rest is a crucial tool to aid your imagination. Resting allows our creative impulses to bubble to the surface.

Do you dream at night? Write down your dreams. Are there any specific dream images or fragments that stick with you after waking? Write them down. What might these wisps have to do with your story?

Think about a story problem before going to bed and see what emerges when morning comes. Write down your first thoughts on waking. Even if they don’t make sense in the moment, write them down and come back to them later.

Don’t worry about being politically or socially irresponsible or missing out on essential news during your fast. It’s impossible in today’s invasive media world to miss truly significant events. Believe me, someone will tell you if anything really important happens.

Give yourself the gift of a few weeks of silence to allow your story to fill the void you create.

Sit, stare and think. Be still. Be at rest. Your story will coalesce in those empty moments. Listen to the quiet inner voice that is your creative consciousness. Allow your own words to fill the stillness and listen carefully as your characters begin to speak more clearly!

Hermann Hesse, Nobel Prize winner for Literature says it clearly: “Within you there is a stillness and a sanctuary to which you can retreat at any time and be yourself.” Go inside when facing a writing block.

Adaptation

I’ve been working with Enter the Pitch, which runs a competition with a £25,000 prize to make a short film.  The subject must be inspired by a character or story in the Bible.  Choose from an amazing range of powerful, dynamic, complex, troubled characters in stories that have persisted for thousands of years.

The short film adaptation can be a science fiction, gangster, horror, mystery, romance, or any other type of film genre set in any time period, real or imaginary.  But the adaptation must remain true to the emotional core of the original story or character.

When I advise anyone about making an adaptation I stress that an artist doesn’t need to be overly concerned about the literal truth but always must stay absolutely true to the emotional truth.  That means staying true to the deeper essence of what the story is about.  In other words, how does what happens in the story speak to a larger truth about who we are as human beings, what we are in danger of becoming, what we can and should aspire to,  how we fail ourselves or others, or how we recover from tragedy, set-backs, or horrible mistakes.

Adapting a novel, a Bible story, or any other text requires the cutting away of everything extraneous. The story must be paired down to its most essential elements. In an “epic story” like that of King David, you will have to choose a single incident in the main narrative. If a  scene or a theme moves the story you’ve chosen off track, eliminate it. Keep asking— What is this film about? What does it have to say about today?

A film works best if it is set in the present (whenever that “present” might be in history or your imagination). It must be active and immediate and drive inexorably toward the future. Avoid adaptations that rely heavily on narration or flashbacks that interrupt forward momentum or  pull the audience out of the “now” of the story.

Film audiences want to know what happens next. There is only time to experience and very little time to muse or reflect, especially in a short film. Keep asking— How can the audience experience this story more immediately and more emotionally? How can action evoke the feelings in the original material? What external objects and action make internal thoughts and feelings observable.

A number of critics thought that the main story of the film based on the Toni Morrison novel, BELOVED, was confusing and too often derailed by beautiful images that slowed the story movement. Keep asking—How does this image or action move the story forward? If the image isn’t key to character development or plot then let it go.

Cut anything that sidetracks the main story. Choose your main character carefully. If the narrative’s main character is too reflective and is not active enough, is it possible to elevate a more active character or sub-plot to center stage as in THE ENGLISH PATIENT?  How does this change of point of view support or enhance the emotional core of the story? If it doesn’t then it’s not the right choice.

Choose a single point of view and stay with that main character. If the main character is not in a scene eliminate it (unless it is absolutely vitally important and we would lose an important story thread without it).

Just because a particular life in the Bible is fascinating doesn’t mean it lends itself to film. Life can be random, messy and rather chaotic— All of which is death to film. Beware of lives lived with too much luck or co-incidence. Film is about action and consequence. If success is the result of happenstance it isn’t dramatic.

Keep asking—Can you distill this life story into a just few essential elements and strong conflicts? Is it possible to choose just one critical incident that reveals who this person is? Does that incident have rising action that drives toward a dramatic and powerful climax? Can you condense and re-order actual events to make them more cinematic?

Does this particular life say something important about our own lives? Does the person struggle against a powerful antagonist? Lives that require a lot of back-story to be understood tend to be difficult to adapt. Material that is too internal or psychological poses the same problem.

Sticking too closely to the original material may work against the spirit of the story. Can you find a way to evoke what was powerful about the material in a fresh new way? Keep asking yourself—How does this old material speak to our time? Can you distill the story into its essential elements and find new ways to interpret those elements? What is at the heart of this story? How can a new look at the character and situations expose the beating heart of the story in a way that shows us why it is timeless?

Check out Enter the Pitch here.