#WritingAdviceWednesday – Coming of Age Films and Power of Idealism

400blows ETBScreenwriterComing of Age films, as I define them, are Power of Idealism films.  Anyone telling stories about young people should see a wide selection from the following films.

They offer a broad diverse but incredibly consistent view of the struggles, values at stake and conflicts involved in growing-up and defining one’s self as an individual.  Get out your Netfilx list!  Drop me a line if I’ve missed one of your favorites.

▪  The 400 Blows
▪    8 Mile
▪    Almost Famous
▪    Amarcord
▪    American Graffiti
▪    Angus
▪    Au revoir, les enfants
▪    The Basketball Diaries
▪    Bend It Like Beckham
▪    Boyz n the Hood
▪    The Breakfast Club
▪    Breaking Away
▪    The Chosen
▪    Cinema Paradiso
▪    Dead Poets Society
▪    Dear Frankie
▪    Diner
▪    Dirty Dancing
▪    Donnie Darko
▪    Driving Lessons
▪    East of Eden
▪    Educating Rita
▪    Endless Love
▪    Footloose
▪    Giant
▪    Girl, Interrupted
▪    The Graduate
▪    A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints
▪    Juno
▪    The Karate Kid
▪    Labyrinth
▪    The Last Picture Show
▪    The Lion King
▪    A Little Romance
▪    Little Women (1949 film)
▪    The Lost Boys
▪    Love & Basketball
▪    My Brilliant Career
▪    My Girl
▪    Old Yeller (1957 film)
▪    The Outsiders
▪    Pretty in Pink
▪    Real Women Have Curves
▪    Reality Bites
▪    Rebel Without a Cause
▪    A River Runs Through It
▪    Say Anything…
▪    Sixteen Candles
▪    Sounder
▪    Splendor in the Grass
▪    St. Elmo’s Fire
▪    Stand by Me
▪    Summer of ’42
▪    A Walk to Remember
▪    Whale Rider
▪    What’s Eating Gilbert Grape
▪    The Wild Ones
▪    White Oleander
▪    Y tu mamá también

Values at Stake – Film

oskar-schindler ETB ScreenwritingValues are defined as a person’s principles or judgments about what is most important in life.

Competing values are neutral.  They are a simple (often one word) expression of a fundamental truth or an ideal a person holds dear.  No value is inherently better or worse than another.  For example:  Freedom and Security are two fundamental American values.

America sees itself as “the home of the brave and the land of the free.”  Lady Liberty is an iconic symbol of the nation.  But to survive, every nation (or person) must be secure in its person, property and borders.  Security is also a fundamental American value, especially in these potentially very dangerous times.

The question is:  What happens when a character (or country) is forced to make starker and starker choices in favor of one value over (or to the exclusion of) another?

How much freedom are you willing to sacrifice or surrender in order to be secure?  As citizens are pushed to give up more personal autonomy, liberty or privacy, when do they cease to be free? Alternatively, how much security are you willing to sacrifice or surrender in order to be free?  If safety measures are too often thwarted by civil libertarians can a nation be adequately secure?

As the risk rises and a nation (or person) is pushed to the brink, it is forced to chose one value over the other.  These choices build up over time.  A final definitive choice should negate or eliminate one value in favor of another.   The payoff to a feature film well and satisfyingly written is to show this kind of final climactic choice at the end of the story.

For example:  In Schindler’s List, Oskar Schindler discovers war is the road to riches.  His Jewish accountant pads the factory payroll to save people from the camps.  At first, Schindler resists then, as he gets to know the factory workers, he gives away his watch, then his ring and then his cigarette case in making deals to shield them.  Schindler makes his final value choice when he gives his last trunk of money to protect those workers who are now finally and fully “his” responsibility. Schindler finishes the film penniless and dressed in the rags.  In a Power of Conscience film, like Schindler’s List, the values at stake are Personal Well-Being vs. Moral Responsibility.

In series television, this choice is paid off more slowly and over multiple episodes or seasons.  A television series shows how this choice is made through incremental action, over time, leading to a climactic series finale.

For example:  In NYPD Blues, Andy Sipowicz choses to face his demons one by one.  He battles his temper and his rage. First he reigns himself in and gets sober, then he gets married, has a baby, reconciles with his eldest son, loses that son, loses his wife and cares for his remaining child. Over 17 years the drunken, racist, misanthrope we met in the pilot becomes, in a final leap of faith, a temperate respected leader of the men in his precinct. In a Power of Will series, like NYPD Blues, each choice involves the competing values of Impluse vs Restraint.

Getting back to our earlier example: How is freedom finally sacrificed? What is the tipping point?  Alternatively, what well-meaning policies deal security a fatal blow?   The audience wants to see how this final value choice is driven by faith or by fear.   They want to see how the character is pushed to extremes that provoke action that conclusively defines his or her character.

Values + Action = Character

The obstacles in a film or television series should create the kind of risk, peril or danger that pushes the character to take actions that define what is most fundamentally important or true in a character’s life. This is the case even in comedy.  There is no greater risk or peril than the vulnerability that makes a character funny.

The character should be forced to make a stark, definitive and active choice. As one value is ultimately chosen, the character finally negates or surrenders the other contrasting value.  What price is paid for the character’s choice?  What are the consequences for the character?  The more expensive the price, the more dire the consequences are for your character, the more compelling and urgent your story will be for your audience.

I am still hard at work on my books about the Nine Character Types.  Stay tuned! And email me to get on a Special Offer List.

Values at Stake – Televison

sipowicz ETBScreenwritingValues are defined as a person’s principles or judgments about what is most important in life.

Competing values are neutral.  They are a simple (often one word) expression of a fundamental truth or an ideal a person holds dear.  No value is inherently better or worse than another.  For example:  Freedom and Security are two fundamental American values.

America sees itself as “the home of the brave and the land of the free.”  Lady Liberty is an iconic symbol of the nation.  But to survive, every nation (or person) must be secure in its person, property and borders.  Security is also a fundamental American value, especially in these potentially very dangerous times.

The question is:  What happens when a character (or country) is forced to make starker and starker choices in favor of one value over (or to the exclusion of) another?

How much freedom are you willing to sacrifice or surrender in order to be secure?  As citizens are pushed to give up more personal autonomy, liberty or privacy, when do they cease to be free? Alternatively, how much security are you willing to sacrifice or surrender in order to be free?  If safety measures are too often thwarted by civil libertarians can a nation be adequately secure?

As the risk rises and a nation (or person) is pushed to the brink, it is forced to chose one value over the other.  These choices build up over time.  A final definitive choice should negate or eliminate one value in favor of another.   The payoff to a feature film well and satisfyingly written is to show this kind of final climactic choice at the end of the story.

For example:  In Schindler’s List, Oskar Schindler discovers war is the road to riches.  His Jewish accountant pads the factory payroll to save people from the camps.  At first, Schindler resists then, as he gets to know the factory workers, he gives away his watch, then his ring and then his cigarette case in making deals to shield them.  Schindler makes his final value choice when he gives his last trunk of money to protect those workers who are now finally and fully “his” responsibility. Schindler finishes the film penniless and dressed in the rags.  In a Power of Conscience film, like Schindler’s List, the values at stake are Personal Well-Being vs. Moral Responsibility.

In series television, this choice is paid off more slowly and over multiple episodes or seasons.  A television series shows how this choice is made through incremental action, over time, leading to a climactic series finale.

For example:  In NYPD Blue, Andy Sipowicz choses to face his demons one by one.  He battles his temper and his rage. First he reigns himself in and gets sober, then he gets married, has a baby, reconciles with his eldest son, loses that son, loses his wife and cares for his remaining child. Over 17 years the drunken, racist, misanthrope we met in the pilot becomes, in a final leap of faith, a temperate respected leader of the men in his precinct. In a Power of Will series, like NYPD Blue, each choice involves the competing values of Impulse vs Restraint.

Getting back to our earlier example: How is freedom finally sacrificed? What is the tipping point?  Alternatively, what well-meaning policies deal security a fatal blow?   The audience wants to see how this final value choice is driven by faith or by fear.   They want to see how the character is pushed to extremes that provoke action that conclusively defines his or her character.

Values + Action = Character

The obstacles in a film or television series should create the kind of risk, peril or danger that pushes the character to take actions that define what is most fundamentally important or true in a character’s life. This is the case even in comedy.  There is no greater risk or peril than the vulnerability that makes a character funny.

The character should be forced to make a stark, definitive and active choice. As one value is ultimately chosen, the character finally negates or surrenders the other contrasting value.  What price is paid for the character’s choice?  What are the consequences for the character?  The more expensive the price, the more dire the consequences are for your character, the more compelling and urgent your story will be for your audience.

Emotional Status Quo

Brokovich-ETBScreenwritingI drove along the Great Ocean Road along the West Coast of Victoria to the Twelve Apostles Rock formations.  It was a spectacular and slightly harrowing journey with a friend.  Lots of fog and high twisty mountain roads on the very dark way back.

Along the way we got to talking about the emotional status quo of characters.  Too often characters seem to have emotional amnesia, especially when off stage for a couple of scenes.  What’s a character’s emotional status quo?

It’s the emotional temperature of the character when he or she enters a scene.  What has happened to the character in the previous scene?  How does that event drive the character into the next scene?  If, for example, the character’s internal Fear is activated how is that made external in action in the next scene?

Where on the Character Map does the character move?  Does the Fear drive the character to act against his or her self-interest by lashing out with a Trouble Trait?  Or does the Fear drive the character to retreat into his or her Mask?  Perhaps the character tries to cope with the Fear by pushing forward with the Strongest Trait.

Each scene must build on the emotion of the previous scene.  Each scene must be propelled by cause and effect. In other words, your character does something, which causes something else to happen or forces the character to try a different tactic.  This has an effect on the character’s emotions which causes your character to do something else, etc.

Each and every scene must have conflict, conflict, conflict. Without conflict there is no way to struggle toward a character’s inner truth.  Without conflict, the audience has no edge-of-the-seat eagerness and excitement to see what will happen next.

Your principle character must drive the action in each individual scene and in the cumulative sequences.  His or her actions must set off the chain of events that propel the story forward.  If all your main character is doing is reacting to the actions of others, rethink the scene or sequence.  What can your character do to set events in motion?

Here are some examples from Erin Brockovich:  Erin’s vulnerability and Fear is activated by the disapproval of the office staff.  That leads her to lash out with her confrontational and defensive Trouble Traits. When she needs help the staff rejects her.  That activates her Strongest Traits. She takes on the problem alone and her determination and moral concern leads her to investigate the toxic spill.

INT. MASRY & VITITOE – RECEPTION AREA – DAY

Morning. Erin walks in, wearing her usual garb.  She passes
the coffee area, where Jane, Brenda, and Anna are milling.
Brenda sees her, gives Anna a nudge.  They both check out her
short hem.  Anna nudges Jane, who looks as well.  Erin
glances over just in time to see all three of them staring at
her judgmentally.  She stops in her tracks and stares back.

ERIN
Y’all got something you wanna discuss?

The women go back to stirring their coffees.  Erin walks on.

INT. MASRY & VITITOE – ED’S OFFICE – DAY

Ed is walking into his office with a coffee cup in his hand
when he trips over the same box of files again.

ED
Damn it!
(calling out)
Brenda!
(no answer)
BRENDA!

INT. MASRY & VITITOE – FILE ROOM – DAY

Erin is alone, filing as she talks on the phone.

ED
Where’s Anna?

ERIN
Out to lunch with the girls.

ED
Oh. Huh.
(beat)
Well, look, I have to open a file. Real
estate thing. Pro-bono.

He plunks the box of papers & files on her desk.  She stares
at it, with no idea of how to go about that.

ERIN
Oh.  Okay.

He sees her staring at the box.

ED
You do know how to do that, don’t you?

ERIN
Yeah.  I got it.  No problem.

ED
Good.

Ed heads out, but pauses before leaving.

ED
You’re a girl.

ERIN
Excuse me?

ED
How come you’re not at lunch with the
girls?  You’re a girl.

ERIN
I guess I’m not the right kind.

Erin goes back to work. Ed starts out then stops.

ED
Look, you may want to – I mean, now that
you’re working here – you may want to
rethink your..wardrobe a little.

ERIN
Why is that?

ED
Well…I think maybe..some of the girls
are a little uncomfortable because of
what you wear.

ERIN
Is that so? Well, it just so happens, I
think I look nice. And as long as I have
one ass instead of two, like most of the
“girls” you have working here, I’m gonna
wear what I like if that’s alright with
you?

Ed hides a smile. He nods. As he exits, Erin returns to work
and remarks, without looking up….

ERIN (CONT’D)
You may want to re-think those ties you
wear..

Suddenly self-conscious, Ed looks down to his chest…

INT. MASRY & VITITOE – FILE ROOM – NIGHT

Erin is at her desk, staring bewildered at the files from the
box Ed gave her, which are now spread across her desktop.
She sees Anna packing up her things to leave.

ERIN
Anna?  With this real-estate stuff —
could you remind me, cause I’m a little
confused about how exactly we do that.
Why are there medical records and blood
samples in real estate files?

ANNA
(exasperated)
Erin, you’ve been here long enough.  If
you don’t know how to do your job by now,
I am not about to do it for you.

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.

#WritingAdviceWednesday – Making It Personal

writers_block ETB ScreenwritingI was talking to a friend in London on phone today about storytelling and how to liberate one’s self and others to tell their own stories.  How do you unblock yourself?

A quick writing exercise is the best way I’ve found to quit obsessing and start writing.  Here are some examples.

Set a timer for fifteen minutes and choose one of the following:

1.  Write about something or someone you left behind.  Then do the same for your character.  Who or what has your character left behind?  Why?

2.  Write about an unexpected moment of kindness.  Then do the same for your character.  What small bit of consideration or compassion suddenly upended your character’s expectations?

3.  Write about something you have in excess.  Then do the same for your character.  What does your character have too much of?  What happens as a result?

4.  Write about the exact moment you knew you loved someone.  Then do the same for your character.  What was the specific moment, time, place, observation or activity that said “this is the one”?  What did the character do as a result?

6.  Write about a hole in your life.  Then do the same for your character.  What is missing in your character?  What feels like a big empty space in your character’s life or self?

These small explorations sometimes are just enough to break open a new area in yourself or in your character.  I think of them as priming the creative pump.   When you are blocked or stymied the best thing to do is write something– write anything.  The simple act of writing will get your creative juices flowing again.

My eBook The One Hour Screenwriter provides lots more exercises and ideas to keep you writing until your screenplay is done.

Relativity and Human Personality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Make the Strongest Choice

Scales Justice ETBScreenwriterI recently did a film consulting job for a very talented screenwriter.  The script involved a romantic rivalry subplot.  Two men were in love with the same woman.

One man was rich and powerful.  The other man was poor but intelligent and savvy.  Both men needed the other to succeed and they owed substantial debts of honor and respect to each other.

The woman was the rich and powerful man’s servant.  My first question about this romantic triangle was– what would drive the powerful and important man the most crazy?

Would this influential pillar of the community be driven to extremes if the intelligent and savvy man stole his servant or his WIFE?  The answer is, of course, is his wife.

That much more intimate betrayal would produce a nuclear reaction of outrage, shame and revenge.  No servant girl, however, beautiful and desirable, matches the humiliation of being cuckolded by one’s wife and best friend.

In another consulting job, two best friends decide to embark on a road trip.  The night before they leave they hook up with some local girls.  The girls are generally supportive of the two guys’ dream of heading out on the open road.

What would cause more conflict?  Telling your FIANCE that you are leaving town indefinitely or some easy-going girls you might never see again.  The answer is clear.  Telling your fiance involves intense angst, incredible turmoil and probably a torrent of tears.  (Along with a lot of guilt over a loved one’s sense of abandonment)

Always ask yourself– What would make the situation more impossible?  What would torture your character more intensely.  Then make the strongest choice.  Ramp up the conflict.  Make it more personal.  Make it more intimate and emotional.  The higher the stakes for the character the more the audience cares about what happens next.

#MondayMusings – Put It All Online

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

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

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

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

Third Cocktail Question

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

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

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

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

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

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