#WritingAdviceWednesday – Writing Exercise: Cars and Chairs

Writing Advice Wednesday

I hope you’ve been enjoying Writing Advice Wednesday for the last few months, but I’m trying something different for the rest of the year’s posts. As well as a relevant video essay I’ve found, I’ll be giving you writing exercises to stimulate your imagination.

It’s exercises like this that form part of my One Hour Screenwriter course, which will help you write an entire feature film script in 22 weeks. You can purchase it at the shop here. You can also read testimonies here that show my methods have worked for other people.

This week, you’ll be writing description:

Describe your first vehicle

Sit back and remember your first “solo flight”. The first vehicle under your exclusive control might have been your first car, your first bicycle, your first skateboard or your first boat. It might have been a first trip on public transportation all by
yourself, or it might have been some other means of transportation that enabled you to “fly solo” and travel on your own.

Describe as completely as you can your first means of independent travel. If this journey was in your own personal vehicle, when did you get your first mode of transportation? Who gave it to you? Did you pay for it yourself? What did you do to earn the money? Whether it was your own vehicle or other means of transportation (or public conveyance), what did it look like? What did it feel like?

Where did you first ride, drive or sail? Who or what did you see along the way?

What other sense memories do you have of those first “solo flights”? What about your experiences were particularly memorable? How did it make you feel?

If you can’t remember a first- time experience, describe in detail any other memorable journey, trip or excursion in a vehicle. Where did you travel? How did it make you feel? What made that jaunt unforgettable for you?

Take 10 to 15 minutes to complete this exercise. Do not censor yourself; write what ever comes to mind.

Don’t be worried about being articulate, artistic or interesting. Just write.

Don’t worry about style, tone or form. Just keep writing.

Let your memories flow. Make your descriptions as detailed, vivid and personal as possible. If these memories spark something else write about that as well.

How was your first journey alone similar to and different than writing this new story? Are the feelings similar? How have you changed since that “first solo flight”? How are you the same?

Write as much as you can in the time allowed or keep going until you want to stop.

Next, do the exercise from your character’s perspective. What was your character’s “first solo flight” like? How did it feel? How has your character changed since those early days? How is your character the same?

Did this exercise spark any ideas or insights into your story or character?

Video Essay of the Week

This week’s video essay from Tony Zhou proves the importance of an object – chairs. Just as your first vehicle meant a lot to you in some way, chairs can tell us as much as about a person as their car, or first journey alone somewhere.

Let me know what you think of this week’s writing exercise by emailing me at ETBHelp@gmail.com. I’d love to hear from you as we go forward with more of these writing exercises. Next week, we’ll be taking some risks…

Until then, remember- all you need to do is Get Started and Keep Going!

– Laurie

#WritingAdviceWednesday – Working with a Writing Partner

Writing Advice Wednesday

Over the last few weeks, I’ve offered insight into how to receive feedback and how to give it. Now it’s time to look at another key dynamic- writing with others. Do you currently work with a writing partner? Have you ever considered doing so? Would you like to improve your chances of success as a team?

All successful creative teams share three basic characteristics. When any one of these characteristics is missing, it becomes more difficult to produce high- quality, original work on schedule. When writers fall behind, the whole television production process suffers and it becomes harder and harder for the writers to catch up. Here are the key characteristics of a highly productive creative team:

1. Team members trust one another.

The writers create a safe place to experiment and fail.

Creativity demands a very high tolerance for failure. The definition of creativity is original ideas that break new ground. If writers don’t encourage each other to take risks, then it’s impossible to create a script that feels fresh and new. Writers who don’t build trust between each other also fear being open and honest about their creative strengths and weaknesses. They are reluctant to ask for help or to offer it to their partner. When collaboration doesn’t feel safe, each writer shuts down personally and imaginatively.

2. Team members engage in unfiltered conflict around ideas.

Both writers direct the debate toward improving the work.

Writers must be able to engage in passionate open debate around creative ideas. This clash of ideas must always be about the work. Conflict in the partnership must never become personal. In a healthy creative team the best idea wins, regardless of its source. When conflict isn’t professional, creative debates can become individual disputes. Writers who are competitive rather than collaborative don’t elevate the team effort. Personal pride and jealousy always hinders and compromises a team’s creativity.

3. Team members focus on the achievements of the team and not individual contributions.

A good partnership is committed and helps both partners succeed.

Both members of the team must feel as if they are integral to the creative effort. Each writer must understand the expectations of the other. Work assignments and the division of labor must be reasonable and delineated clearly.

Each writer must take responsibility for his or her deadlines and be honest, accountable and communicative with the other. Each writer must be able to ask for and give help. Both writers must be committed to helping the team succeed.

Negativity, backbiting and jockeying for position is unprofessional and sabotages a creative atmosphere. Selfishness, irresponsibility, and lack of generosity destroy team effort. Unspoken expectations lead to feelings of betrayal when those expectations aren’t met. Lack of candor and clarity always results in frustration and disappointment.

All successful partnerships are built on generosity, responsibility and open, honest communication. Each partner brings a distinct set of gifts to the relationship that together forms a greater whole than what could be achieved separately. Both partners rise above personal competitiveness and become true collaborators. If you keep track of who wrote what, your partnership can never be truly successful.

Hopefully, the past 3 articles have given you some useful insight into the area of writing not enough people talk about- the collaborative aspect creativity, whether it is in a writer’s room, with a partner, or with executives. These are useful lessons to learn for those of you starting out, and reminders for those of us who are more established. Never forget the importance of clear honest communication.

If you want to catch up on the last two articles, or writing advice in general, you can check out the Writing Advice Wednesdays archive.

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#WritingAdviceWednesday – Giving Writing Notes on a Script

Writing Advice Wednesday

Last week I wrote about being on the receiving end of feedback. now it’s time for some advice on how to be the person giving that feedback, without stifling creativity and disrupting writers.

In any television writers room, you are expected to give feedback to other writers and receive notes on your own work. What’s the most effective way to offer comments that are useful and valuable? This is a very thorny challenge.

Giving notes is one of the most difficult jobs for a producer working with a writer. Offering feedback presents a potential minefield when reading a script for a friend, client or colleague.

The value of participating in any writing workshop can either be greatly enhanced or utterly destroyed by the type of criticism a writer receives from the other participants. Real damage can be done by criticism that isn’t skillful in delivery and content.

When notes are given in a way that is too harsh, brutal or blunt there is a very real danger the writer will simply shut down. That defeats objective number one: Keep the writer writing. If a writer shuts down, then the hope for an improved script drains away. That result doesn’t benefit anyone. Here are the six key elements of giving criticism that is constructive and helpful.

1. Start Positive.

Every writer feels vulnerable and exposed when presenting his or her work for critique or comment. Begin each notes session with a summary of what worked in the script and/or what moments, dialogue or characterisations were particularly effective, striking or memorable. At the very least acknowledge the writer’s hard work, effort, and accomplishment in completing the draft. It means a lot. Beginning on a positive note is simply an act of professional courtesy. Honesty and courtesy are not mutually exclusive. The most effective criticism incorporates both. Also, it gets things off to a good start.

2. Comment on the work, not the writer.

Keep your objective in mind. It’s not your job to pass judgment on the writer. Nor is it helpful. Your job is to assist in improving the script. Keep your questions and comments specific to the action, dialogue, characters, and story. Negative personal comments are counter-productive and don’t accomplish your objective. You cannot inspire a writer to dig deeper, reach higher or work harder by personally attacking or demoralizing him or her. Concentrating on elevating and enhancing the level of the work helps make even the most difficult notes session more palatable and productive.

3. Start with the biggest questions, issues or problems.

If you prepare with notes, and organise your thoughts, this part is going to be much easier. Begin with the most serious areas of concern in the script. Continue to address problems in the order of their importance. Keep the focus on the major issues. Don’t confuse the writer by skipping back and forth between minor nitpicking comments and bigger more problematic challenges. If you do have smaller issues or minor corrections, they are best addressed in pencil notes directly on the script. Return the script with those notations. Reserve your verbal or written notes for your most important points.

4. Ask questions rather than making statements.

When a problem is framed as a question, it feels less threatening and engages the writer more creatively and less defensively. Asking questions is the best way to keep the writer engaged, positive and open. If the writer feels under attack he or she shuts down. Someone who has shut down cannot hear what you have to say and certainly, can’t assimilate or act on your concerns. Questions also help you learn the writer’s intent. Learning this intent can often clarify the issue considerably. Most script problems are problems with execution. If you understand what the writer meant to do, it’s easier to explore why that attempt fell short or didn’t work.

5. Be specific in your questions, not in your solutions.

Don’t speak in sweeping generalities, it doesn’t help anyone. Note the specific areas of the script that need work. Ask concrete questions about the areas where the story or the characters lose focus, don’t make sense or aren’t believable. Resist the temptation to offer specific solutions. Finding solutions is the writer’s job. When you have the urge to offer a particular solution (“Can’t you give the character a dog?”), instead you should look behind that comment and try to determine what problem or issue prompted your question. This isn’t easy. It takes some thought. Specific solutions can sidetrack the issue. Writers often take specific solutions too literally (plugging in the idea or suggestion but never solving the underlying problem) or they dismiss the solution out of hand (because the suggestion itself doesn’t seem that useful). In both cases, the underlying problem never is addressed or solved.

6. End Positive.

Finish your notes session by thanking the writer for his or her hard work. Recap the parts of the script that work well (and which you don’t want to lose or compromise). Restate your commitment to and/or your enthusiasm for the project and the writer. You want to inspire and empower the writer to dig deeper, reach higher and work harder. You don’t want to discourage, demoralise, or depress the writer. Ending on a positive and encouraging note is the best way to keep the writer writing. And that is the only way to achieve your objective or get what you want, which should be the best script possible.

In the final part of this series about notes and working with others, I’ll be examining how successful writing partnerships remain successful.

#WritingAdviceWednesday – Taking Writing Notes on Your Script

Writing Advice Wednesday

Whether you work in television, film or video games, learning to accept criticism gracefully and incorporating notes effectively is an important part of a writer’s job. Here are the key elements to making the most of the notes and criticism you receive:

1. Listen carefully. Control the urge to argue or explain. Be fully present to the critique. Listen to what the other person is saying. It’s impossible to hear notes if you are busy thinking up arguments, justifications, and explanations in response to comments. No response to criticism is immediately necessary.

Let the other person speak freely and without interruption. Write down all the notes or better yet listen attentively and tape the session. Reserve any immediate judgment or comment. Simply take in every word. The more carefully you listen, the more likely you will hear something that, on reflection, will dramatically improve your material. The best response to criticism is to simply thank the person for taking the time to read and consider your work. Adding that you need time to think about and assimilate the notes or comments is an honest and thoughtful way to conclude a notes session.

2. Detach emotionally. Reject the urge to take things personally. Every writer feels vulnerable and exposed when presenting his or her work for critique or comment. You must remember that the issue being considered is your writing and not you, personally. It’s always extremely difficult to separate yourself from your work. But good writing demands just that kind of personal objectivity.

Writers who can leave their tender egos at the door and consider their work dispassionately are the ones most likely to improve. Realize that the notes given, whether graceful or not, are offered to help make your material better. Keep your focus on improving the work and control any personal disappointment, displeasure or desire for unconditional approval.

Look at it this way) You want to tighten storylines, improve characterizations, deepen motivations, create compelling pacing, and add emotional impact to your opening, obstacles and story climax. If you can do all that by listening to criticism, however harsh or difficult, and if you can incorporate those ideas and improvements) it’s worth swallowing hard and leaving your emotions out of it. What if you disagree with the criticism? If you are busy disagreeing it means you aren’t listening. Listen and take careful notes. Suspend all judgment in your notes session.

3. Respect the itch. Resist the urge to take things too literally. People who give notes want to be helpful. It’s simply human nature to want to propose a practical solution or a specific suggestion. Avoid getting hung up on any particular idea that is o!ered. Identifying the underlying problem is far more helpful. When the notes do offer a specific solution “Can’t you give the character a dog?”, look behind that comment and try to determine what problem or issue prompted the question.

What’s the itch? What’s missing? What’s causing a bump in the road? Why does the person think that adding a dog might be useful? Don’t tune out or dismiss any specific solution out of hand; instead, listen and probe for the underlying problem. The person is trying to tell you something deeper isn’t working. What is it? Try to grasp the bigger picture. What’s really at issue here? Dig deep and find the underlying concern.

4. Consider the source. Control the urge to get angry. There is a real art to delivering effective criticism. Not everyone who gives you notes will be able to do so elegantly, efficiently, or gracefully. In most cases, the person doesn’t intend to be cruel or mean spirited; he or she just doesn’t know how to be more effective. How do you handle a critique that seems to be exceptionally difficult or unnecessarily harsh?

Follow the suggestions listed above and then take a deep breath. Look through your all notes and rewrite them for yourself. First, thank yourself for your hard work and dedication. If you got no positive feedback, list whatever you think is working in the script. Some people who give notes believe that if something works it doesn’t merit comment. Make those positive notations for yourself. Reframe all the comments and suggestions in the form of questions. Make these questions specific, direct, and non-judgmental.

What are the underlying issues that seemed the most problematic in the script? List all questions and areas of concern in the order of their importance. Look at the critique as a powerful challenge to improve. End your rewritten notes with a positive statement and the belief you can rise to the challenge effectively. Dig in and make the most of this opportunity.

5. Deliver on expectations. Resist the urge to be artistically arrogant. If a producer has hired you to do a specific job, do it. The art of making a living as a writer requires you to find interesting and elegant solutions to a producer’s practical problems. Make sure you are clear about the producer’s expectations. Ask questions until you are positive you understand what he or she wants from you and from the script or project. It’s your job to deliver on those expectations creatively.

You don’t know better than the person who has financed the project and/or created the opportunity for you to work as a writer. Don’t try to make a project into something it isn’t. Don’t impose your own will on the project. You are there to follow someone else’s lead and implement someone else’s vision. That doesn’t mean you can’t have tremendous creative input. Just be very clear that your input must always be in service to what the producer wants to achieve.

The real art is to do your job with integrity and to find a way to make the producer’s vision your own. And not the other way around!- For example, let’s revisit point 2 above. Let’s say that when you get right down to the bottom of the itch, the producer really does want a dog in the story for very practical financial reasons. It’s your job to find the emotional purpose that a dog would serve.

Your challenge is to weave the dog into the story with real originality, integrity, and truth. At the end of the day, a writer is a problem-solver. Critiques, comment, and notes provide the laundry list of problems to be solved. The fun is to solve those problems in a way that is unexpected but which feels absolutely honest, authentic, and inevitable. The audience should be able to say, “I was really surprised at every turn but, looking back, that is the only way the story could have possibly ended.”

#WritingAdviceWednesday – Pixar and Relatability

Writing Advice Wednesday

 

if anyone knows how to make a story relatable, it’s the masterminds at Pixar Animation Studios. KaptainKristian’s wonderful video essay explains his take on their methods.

I don’t agree that Cars, Brave, or Frozen rises to the Pixar stellar quality level   My essay on Brave:  How Good is Good Enough is here.  My essay on Frozen is here.  My opinions are controversial and in the distinct minority.  Remember, it is possible to love something that is deeply flawed and sub-par.  Don’t confuse loving something as a fan with the clarity of thinking needed to be a professional. But lots in this video essay ring absolutely true.

 

If you’re on Pinterest, why not follow my Pinterest board full of Writing Advice? It will be updated weekly, so you can keep track if you ever need an excellent video essay suggested solutions to whatever problems you are facing. You can always drop me a line at etbscreenwriting@gmail.com with the subject “Ask Laurie” and I will do my best to answer it. I might even include it in an upcoming edition of Writing Advice Wednesday!

#WritingAdviceWednesday – Objects as Symbols

Writing Advice Wednesday

When I am stuck writing a project I like to use this exercise to get me thinking about my character and story in a different way.

I look around and collect a variety of ordinary objects: These can be such things as an ordinary dinner fork, a ceramic figurine, a pair of shoes, a key, a hat, a hammer or any other household or personal object.

Put all the objects in a box. Without looking, pull one of the objects out. Imagine this object is incredibly precious to you. Write about the object as quickly as you can. Imagine its personal value to you is beyond price. Describe why.

Here are some questions to start you off: Was the object a gift? Was it a hard-won trophy? Was it the only thing left behind by someone you loved? Has it played some significant role in your life? Is it a reminder of an important first experience? It is it a reminder of a terrible tragedy or a cautionary tale? Is the object standing in for someone or something else that was lost? Is it something you traded for something else?

Write about the imaginary personal value of the object. Next, imagine that you decide to give the object to another person. Under what circumstances would you part with this most precious object? What would you be telling the person by giving the object to them? How might they react? What would giving the object to the person mean?

Write about the deeper significance of this imaginary gift. Alternatively, imagine you decide to throw the object away. Under what circumstances would you toss it out or destroy it? How would you do this? What would that action mean symbolically? What would you be saying about yourself or your future by leaving the item behind? What impact would this action have on you?

Next, imagine that you decide to give the object to another person. Under what circumstances would you part with this most precious object? What would you be telling the person by giving the object to them? How might they react? What would giving the object to the person mean? Write about the deeper significance of this imaginary gift.

A good way to show emotions is through objects. What object has a deep significance for your main character? What does that object say about your character? What might happen to that object over the course of your story? What might the object signify? How might your character’s feelings change about the object? How might the character express their emotions through the object’s use or physical presence? How might your character communicate to others by discarding, giving away or destroying the object? How can you use objects to externalize what your character’s thinking and feeling?

If you’re on Pinterest, why not follow my Pinterest board full of useful writing advice? It will be updated weekly, so you can keep track if you ever need an excellent video essay, or some relevant advice to whatever problems you are facing. You can always drop me a line at etbhelp@gmail.com with the subject “Ask Laurie” and I will do my best to answer it. I might even include it in an upcoming edition of Writing Advice Wednesday!

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#WritingAdviceWednesday – Filling the Well

Writing Advice Wednesday

It’s not possible for a creative person to continually draw from the well of inspiration without occasionally stopping to refill the source.

What, other than television or film,  inspires you? Is it music? Dance? Painting? Swimming? Walking? Climbing? Canoeing? Gardening? Take some time to enjoy what you love every week (but certainly every month). My inspiration and renewal day is Wednesday. It might be a new exhibition at a local museum, a gallery walk, or a new yoga class I haven’t tried.

Be really selfish and do whatever it is that makes your body relax or your heart soar. Do this alone. Give yourself the freedom to completely indulge yourself or in one of your passions without any distractions, interruptions, or demands from anyone else.

Buy a single ticket to a concert, or other non-verbal performance. Spend an hour wandering around a museum alone. See some new museum exhibit or part of the permanent collection that you’ve never seen before.

Take some time to enjoy nature or revel in the Great Outdoors. Wander around a public park or flower garden on your own. See and do exactly what you want for one hour all on your own.


Whatever you do, don’t go to a movie or a play. The object of this exercise is to get away from actors and dialogue and to find rest, renewal, and refreshment elsewhere.

Experiment with something new. If you’ve never seen a professional dance performance, buy a ticket and see what one is like. Seek out an odd or unusual museum. Explore a neglected corner of the countryside or an unexplored corner of your city.

Ride a bus and watch the world go by. People watch. Give your unconscious mind time to reflect and create by doing or thinking about something else. Get a massage. If nothing else, take a long hot bath filled with scented bubbles. Turn the lights down low and play some soft, soothing music. Relax, enjoy, and let your mind wander.

But you say, “I have so much to do!! I have so little time to write as it is.”  Trust me, a break like this will make you all the more productive and focused when you get back to your computer!

If you’re on Pinterest, why not follow my Pinterest board full of useful writing advice? It will be updated weekly, so you can keep track if you ever need an excellent video essay, or some relevant advice to whatever problems you are facing. You can always drop me a line at etbhelp@gmail.com with the subject “Ask Laurie” and I will do my best to answer it. I might even include it in an upcoming edition of Writing Advice Wednesday!

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#WritingAdviceWednesday – Breaking The Mold : When Harry Met Sally

Writing Advice Wednesday

I like the video below, another excellent video essay from Lessons From The Screenplay, but my opinion differs somewhat. I am not a fan of genre.  Genre is useful for consumers and Netflix lists but not useful for writers.  Genre most often describes style, tone, and setting.  Instead, I find it more useful to look at a film’s emotional playing field.

Each of the Nine Character Types books contains a precise set of tools to create one specific kind of character’s emotional playing field and establish his or her driving force in a story. A character’s emotional playing field defines the internal framework (structure) of the story. It is the range of action and behavior (from predatory to spiritually enlightened) that instantaneously establishes a particular type of character to an audience. A character’s driving force is the combination of actions and reactions that propel the character through the story.

For example, Chinatown and Apocalypse Now would never be put on the same genre list.  But emotionally they are the same film.  In the beginning, the protagonist searches for the truth about one simple thing (Who killed Hollis Mulray. Where is Colonel Kurtz?)  Over the course of the story the protagonist finds out the truth about a much larger thing. (The corruption in the water system in Los Angeles. The moral quagmire and craziness of the war in Viet Nam.)  In the end, the protagonist finds out the truth about himself. (Not asking for help– not trusting his colleagues– results in disaster.  I could easily become the monster who was Kurtz.)

The Buddy Movie has all the same elements of a typical Romantic Comedy (without the sex).  The buddies are thrown together.  They don’t like each other. By being forced together they learn from each other.  In the end, in the highest act of love between buddies, they are willing to take a bullet for each other.

The best thing about this post is how what we think of a romantic comedy is turned on its head in in When Harry Met Sally. Also, it’s a wonderful excuse to revisit this enchanting film. Go and watch it tonight, especially if you’ve never seen it!

If you’re on Pinterest, why not follow my Pinterest board full of useful writing advice? It will be updated weekly, so you can keep track if you ever need an excellent video essay, or some relevant advice to whatever problems you are facing. You can always drop me a line at etbhelp@gmail.com with the subject “Ask Laurie” and I will do my best to answer it. I might even include it in an upcoming edition of Writing Advice Wednesday!

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#WritingAdviceWednesday – Cut Cut Cut

WRITING ADVICE WEDNESDAY

Following on from last Wednesday’s article about adaptation and American Beauty,  here is the final part of a screenwriting essay trilogy on this film

Lessons From The Screenplay’s essasy are all informative and well-produced but this one in particularl is a favorite:  Less is More!

Remember, if you have any writing questions you want me to answer, drop me an email at etbhelp@gmail,com with the subject “Ask Laurie” and I might include it in an upcoming edition of Writing Advice Wednesday.

#WritingAdviceWednesday – Adaptation Part Two

Wednesday Writing Advice

In my post last Wednesday, I discussed why all film adaptations should look like a fish. Click HERE

The key takeaway from that post is: “All the disparate elements have to support the spine. All creatives choices must connect directly to the film’s emotional core.”

This video essay talks about this concept in terms of all the characters in the film.  All the characters must relate back to the emotional core of the story.  This unification of theme from different perspectives is one of the things that raises a film to greatness!

If you’re on Pinterest, why not follow my Pinterest board full of useful writing advice? It will be updated weekly, so you can keep track if you ever need an excellent video essay, or some relevant advice to whatever problems you are facing. You can always drop me a line at etbhelp@gmail.com with the subject “Ask Laurie” and I will do my best to answer it. I might even include it in an upcoming edition of Writing Advice Wednesday!