#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!

 

#WritingAdviceWednesday – Adaptation

WEDNESDAY WRITING ADVICE

A producer I’ve worked with often over the last few years has a continuing question in his work: how do we stay true to the original source material and create a good cinematic adaptation?

I believe a writer/producer/director needs only to honor the emotional truth of an adapted work.  Facts, “what really happened”, ancillary characters, and chronology can all be altered or shifted in service of portraying the emotional core of the story on screen.

Your job is to tell what is MOST TRUE about the character and story.  Lots of things might be true or were true over time, but that’s not a movie.  Life is chaotic, contradictory, and confusing.  Film is not.

That doesn’t mean it’s okay to disregard key factual elements of the story for no reason. Hue to the original story structure until it gets in the way of the emotional through line. Then, toss out anything that detracts from what the film is meant to convey at its heart.

It’s rather like a fish.  All the disparate elements have to support the spine. All creatives choices must connect directly to the emotional core.  Ancillary characters might need to be eliminated or combined, facts might need to be ignored or glossed over, chronology might need to be shifted. All the story “bones” must directly connect with the film’s “spine”.  Concentrate on what is most true. Leave the rest behind.

The way to determine the emotional core of the film is to find what is at the center of the protagonist’s emotional journey. Drawing a Character Map will help you do this.  Click HERE

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 – 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.

 

#WritingAdviceWednesday – Unspoken Communication

Photo by: Jeansman Lee. All Rights Reserved.

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

The subtext of a scene is the underlying emotion that changes or alters the meaning of the words spoke or the actions taken. Or it is what is “under the skin of a character.” Or it is what is under the surface of what a character says or does.
Subtext is what is left unsaid, or what is active concealed or what is just not right out in the open. It is the part of the scene the audience must “fill in.”
For example: A mom finishes preparing dinner. A plate with chocolates sits on a nearby kitchen counter. As her very young son heads directly toward the chocolate and is about to reach up, she says, “Josh come here.”
Why does his mom call to Josh?

If you say “because she doesn’t want him to eat the chocolates before dinner,” you have understood the subtext in this simple scene.

The dialog never directly says his mom doesn’t want Josh to eat the chocolate. You inferred that from the juxtaposition of the description of the scene and the dialogue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

For example: In real life, an argument about “taking out the garbage” is rarely about emptying out the kitchen wastebasket and carrying the contents to the outside bin. In life, such an argument is probably about who is responsible for what, who respects (or doesn’t respect) whom, who is shirking households responsibilities and who is doing an unfair share, who is not paying enough attention to the home, or the relationship, or who is rebelling against another’s sense of order or desire for control. The scene appears to be about one thing but it is really about another.

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

Is he on a diet? Is he trying to maintain his discipline and refusing to give into temptation? Does she know this and is subtly trying to sabotage him? Or does she think he is fine as he is and he should just enjoy the treat offered? Or is he furious because he told her he is allergic to chocolate and he thinks she is being insensitive or cruel? Or does he think she is offering this box of chocolates with a hidden agenda or that she is trying obligate him to her in some way?

If set up properly, all that emotional information is processed in connection with the simple word “no.” We call this additional information “subtext” because the real communication isn’t on the surface of what is said. The real communication is just underneath the actual verbal exchange.

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

Now let’s say the audience knows one lover is actually married to someone else (and the other lover doesn’t know this). In fact, the person’s spouse gave the chocolates now being “re-gifted.” Or let’s say the audience knows the box of chocolate is poisoned and one lover is actually plotting the murder of the other lover. Now the simple scene is much more interesting.

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

Actors do a much better job of communicating their emotions if they aren’t saddled with “on the nose” dialogue. Dialogue is “on the nose” if it communicates exactly what is on the surface and nothing more. Remember that real people always infer more than what is actually spoken. It feels more real and is more emotionally engaging if the audience is allowed to make the emotional connections between what a character says and what a character actually means or feels. Trust your actors and trust your audience to fill in the gaps. It will vastly improve your writing.

#WritingAdviceWednesday – Ego vs Misson: Want vs Need

Photo credit: www.planetofsuccess.com/blog/

I love the website – http://www.brainpickings.org – There is always lots to think about in their posts.  The Brain Pickings post below reminds me of lectures I’ve done on Want vs Need.  My comments below are in italics.

Your ego and your “calling” in life can look surprisingly similar. Both pull you toward the realization of your desires. Both can completely consume your waking (and sometimes sleeping) hours with frenetic thoughts and sparks of brilliance. They can also manifest very similar outcomes–money, fame, and power. And they can both leave you feeling exhausted.

Ego is necessary and important because it does the work to assemble your personality. It manages your fragile identity while you figure out who you are. It protects you from the onslaught of societal expectations and motivates you to work hard and achieve great things.

Ego leads us forward toward what we want.  It provides the goals we pursue.

But ego alone can also skew you toward thinking that hard work and achievement are the greatest goals in life.

If your ego is what assembles your personality and manages your identity, then your calling is invested in making sure it’s authentic–who you really are–not just a persona you show the world.

What you need is the manifestation of your deepest human longings.  Every story ever told and every life ever lived is the struggle between things of the world and the things of the heart, the soul, and the spirit.  The world values the trappings of success, the achievements in life, and the prizes and material profit earned.  The heart, the soul, and spirit is fed by authenticity, love, openness, and generosity. 

Here are some ways to decipher which one is really driving your work.

Ego fears not having or doing something.

Calling fears not expressing or being something.

The lifeblood of the ego is fear. Its primary function is to preserve your identity, but it fears your unworthiness. As a result, ego pushes you harder in order to achieve more. Ego communicates to you through “oughts,” “musts,” and “shoulds,” persuading you to believe that by achieving more and more, you must be worthy, right?

A calling expresses itself quietly, through the expression of subtle clues throughout your life. It is unconcerned with you attaining or accomplishing anything. Its primary function is to be a conduit for expressing your true self to the world. What you DO with that expression is less important.

Ego needs anxiety to survive. Calling needs silence (calmness and  faith) to survive.

I define faith as the rock solid and bone deep belief that no matter what happens you, the essence of you, will still be okay.  The worst that you can image happening can happen and you will still be okay– even in death.  Death is pretty much the worst thing that most of us can imagine happening. If you live a life filled with authenticity, truth, love, openness, and generosity you will have lived the fullest expression of yourself.  Even if dying is sad you will die knowing you stood in the truth of who you are and you did not shrink back.  That is why people are able to die with great serenity knowing they did what they were supposed to do on this earthly plane. They lived their life’s mission.

Ego not only breeds on anxiety, it requires anxiety in order to decide which aspects of your personality will be dominant, and which ones will be dormant.

Wherever you feel the most insecurity is where your ego will work overtime to “fix.” The ego needs anxiety to pinpoint the problem, then course corrects by disavowing this pesky aspect of your personality. Unfortunately, what the ego finds annoying or disruptive can also be your greatest gift to the world.

A calling, on the other hand, is discovered through observation and reflection, which is rarely found in a noisy environment. Listening to your life and discovering what it’s asking of you is your calling and it requires more silence than most of us are comfortable with.

Ego manifests as burnout.

Calling manifests as fulfillment.

My favorite definition of burnout is this: burnout is not about giving too much of yourself, it’s about trying to give what you do not possess.

Ego ends in burnout because it’s consuming resources you don’t have in order to push you toward a bigger, better version of yourself.

Because a calling is an expression of your true nature, it can only end in fulfillment. You know that feeling of deep satisfaction when you’re doing something you absolutely love, that’s an aspect of your calling showing itself to you.

Ego focuses on the result.

Calling focuses on the process.

Those who have heard me lecture know that I believe that any decision based on fear is the wrong decision.  Let me repeat that.  Any decision that is based on fear is the wrong decision.  This is true of characters, it is true of people, and it is true of countries.  Fear leads us to the worst of ourselves.  Faith (as defined above) leads to the the best, truest, and highest expression of ourselves.

Because ego wants to manage anxiety by achieving more, it is especially concerned with the results of all this striving. By focusing on the outcome, your ego gets validation that all this work is worth it. Without a satisfactory result, all the striving is pointless.

A calling reveals itself through self-discovery. Your calling comes from within and can only be revealed by paying attention to how your life is unfolding. Instead of managing the outcome, your calling can handle the stress of ambiguity. It knows that the tension is revealing something that you couldn’t otherwise learn.

Ego wants to preserve the self.

Calling wants to impact others.

This also reminds me of the difference between power and influence.  Power always shifts, or fades, or falls.  Power is dependent on other people’s assessments (and often it depends on manipulating their fear).  Influence has no power but the inspiration of others.  Power takes. Influence gives.

Ego is concerned with the self and preserving what it wants. The ego may be interested in helping others. But it isn’t inherently motivated by serving others. It is motivated by maintaining and managing your identity.

A calling might begin with the expression of the self, but it moves toward the needs of others. Author Frederick Buechner says that your calling is “the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.”

While your ego does a necessary job of helping you function in the world, it is your calling that creates a more authentic, soulful way to be in the world.

 

#WritingAdviceWednesday – Advice from Script Lab on Scenes

I agree with every word of the following post by Script Lab.  Writers– take this to heart!

Scenes can come in all shapes and sizes: a one-sentence establishing, a half-page aftermath, a three-page reversal, the list goes on. And clearly there’s a lot that goes into crafting a great scene: start late; get out early; maintain conflict; keep lines of dialogue brief; keep action paragraphs short; maximize white space; avoid “I” and block pages; incorporate subtext and indirection; create audience connection through suspense, mystery, and revelation; and show the story in a visually interesting way, all while writing with a unique original voice. But that’s all execution.

Screenplays are built on “What happens next?” and, therefore, the root of every scene comes down to two fundamental objectives: (1) moving the story forward and/or (2) revealing character. The very best scenes do both.

But here’s the hard part, and something I call the 100% rule: if you’re not 100% positive that at least one of these two scene objectives is necessary, you must absolutely kill it! Even if you love it, even if it’s funny, or witty, or clever, if it doesn’t move the story forward or reveal some essential complexity of character, you simply do not need it.

#WritingAdviceWednesday – Incremental Progress to Write One Novel or Screenplay a Year

doctorow_150x224In The One-Hour Screenwriter and my upcoming Thriller and The Power of Truth book, I recommend writing for one hour a day.  Cory Doctorow, an extremely prolific writer, has his schedule down to 20 minutes a day.

Cory is co-parenting new father who writes at least a book per year, half-a-dozen columns a month, ten or more blog posts a day, plus assorted novellas and stories and speeches.

Here is his take on incremental progress and he recommends:

Short, regular work schedule
When I’m working on a story or novel, I set a modest daily goal — usually a page or two — and then I meet it every day, doing nothing else while I’m working on it.
Leave yourself a rough edge
When you hit your daily word-goal, stop. Stop even if you’re in the middle of a sentence. Especially if you’re in the middle of a sentence. That way, when you sit down at the keyboard the next day, your first five or ten words are already ordained, so that you get a little push before you begin your work.
Don’t research
Researching isn’t writing and vice-versa. When you come to a factual matter that you could google in a matter of seconds, don’t. … type “TK” where your fact should go, as in “The Brooklyn bridge, all TK feet of it, sailed into the air like a kite.” “TK” appears in very few English words … so a quick search through your document for “TK” will tell you whether you have any fact-checking to do afterwards.
Don’t be ceremonious
Forget advice about finding the right atmosphere to coax your muse into the room. … You can put up with noise/silence/kids/discomfort/hunger for 20 minutes.
http://www.locusmag.com/Features/2009/01/cory-doctorow-writing-in-age-of.html
1. A short, regular work schedule
When I’m working on a story or novel, I set a modest daily goal — usually a page or two — and then I meet it every day, doing nothing else while I’m working on it (for 20 minutes a day).
.
2. Leaving yourself a rough edge
When you hit your daily word-goal, stop. Stop even if you’re in the middle of a sentence. Especially if you’re in the middle of a sentence. That way, when you sit down at the keyboard the next day, your first five or ten words are already ordained, so that you get a little push before you begin your work.
.
3. Don’t research
Researching isn’t writing and vice-versa. When you come to a factual matter that you could google in a matter of seconds, don’t. … type “TK” where your fact should go, as in “The Brooklyn bridge, all TK feet of it, sailed into the air like a kite.” “TK” appears in very few English words … so a quick search through your document for “TK” will tell you whether you have any fact-checking to do afterwards.
.
4. Don’t be ceremonious
Forget advice about finding the right atmosphere to coax your muse into the room. … You can put up with noise/silence/kids/discomfort/hunger for 20 minutes. (For those 20 minutes all you do is write and don’t all ANY distractions in.)

#WritingAdviceWednesday – Average Is Over

Friedman_New-articleInlineI saw this in an Op Ed piece by Thomas L. Friedman in the New York Times and I believe it applies as much to writing in this market as to any other kind of job:

In the past, workers with average skills, doing an average job, could earn an average lifestyle. But, today, average is officially over. Being average just won’t earn you what it used to. It can’t when so many more employers have so much more access to so much more above average cheap foreign labor, cheap robotics, cheap software, cheap automation and cheap genius. Therefore, everyone needs to find their extra — their unique value contribution that makes them stand out in whatever is their field of employment. Average is over.

Okay– so why are there so many average or sub-par movies around?  Because those all come attached with Big Names.  If you are trying to get noticed today you either need Big Name attachments or an outstanding script.  A good script won’t make it any more.  A great script probably won’t either.  You need an outstanding script.  You need to be, in sports terms, a number one draft pick.

It’s more important than ever to hone your craft.  Be meticulous in your presentation. Be fresh. Be original. And don’t fall into common kinds of errors that derail your story enough to make it a “pass” rather than a “highly recommend.”

I’ve distilled everything I know about story analysis into a short eBook.  It will be my first Kindle, Amazon, iBooks, Sony Reader, Nook publication.  It’s priced at $4.99 for an introductory time.  Let me know if you’d like to be on the pre-order list. You can contact me through the site or leave a comment– I can get your email address on the back end.  It’s not published in the comment.

#WritingAdviceWednesday – Curiosity and Rigor: The Keys to Success

I’ve just discovered a wonderful new website called The 99%.  One of the videos on the site is a discussion by the photographer and now filmmaker Andrew Zuckerman on creativity, wisdom, curiosity and success.  This is really worth your time and may even change the way you think about success–

Andrew Zuckerman: On Curiosity, Rigor, and Learning As You Go from 99% on Vimeo.

#WritingAdviceWednesday – Words of Wisdom from Francis Ford Coppola

francis-ford-coppola-01“Always make your work be personal. And, you never have to lie.

If you lie, you will only trip yourself up. You will always get caught in a lie.

It is very important for an artist not to lie, and most important is not to lie to yourself.

There are some questions that are inappropriate to ask, and rather than lie, I will not answer them because it’s not a question I accept.

So many times we are asked things in our work or in life that you want to lie, and all you have to do is say, ‘No, that is an improper question.’

So when you get into a habit of not lying when you are writing, directing, or making a film, that will carry your personal conviction into your work.

And, in a society where you say you are very free but you’re not entirely free, you have to try.

There is something we know that’s connected with beauty and truth. There is something ancient.

We know that art is about beauty, and therefore it has to be about truth.” ~ Francis Ford Coppola