#BeFabFriday – The Magic of Ruthlessness

Be Fabulous Friday

This week’s advice comes from the writing wizard, J. K. Rowling:

It doesn’t matter where you do your writing or what hour of the day you dedicate to making your dream a reality. The only thing that matters is picking the same hour each day and consistently reserving that particular 60 minutes for your screenplay. Keeping to the same schedule is key. Good writers write consistently. They find a time to write and stick to their schedule no matter what. They make a sacred promise to themselves that they will allow no distractions, no interruptions, no excuses and no exceptions to invade their private writing time. Be 100% selfish about protecting your “writing hour.” At first, it may be hard to stick to your guns.Modern life is filled with distractions and competing claims for your attention. It is so easy to be tempted to put your writing off because some “crisis” intervened. Don’t give in! Turn off your cell phone, turn off your landline, and turn off your pager, iPhone or PDA.

Keeping to the same schedule is key. Good writers write consistently. They find a time to write and stick to their schedule no matter what. They make a sacred promise to themselves that they will allow no distractions, no interruptions, no excuses and no exceptions to invade their private writing time. Be 100% selfish about protecting your “writing hour.” At first, it may be hard to stick to your guns.Modern life is filled with distractions and competing claims for your attention. It is so easy to be tempted to put your writing off because some “crisis” intervened. Don’t give in! Turn off your cell phone, turn off your landline, and turn off your pager, iPhone or PDA.

Be 100% selfish about protecting your “writing hour.” At first, it may be hard to stick to your guns. Modern life is filled with distractions and competing claims for your attention. It is so easy to be tempted to put your writing off because some “crisis” intervened. Don’t give in! Turn off your cell phone, turn off your landline, and turn off your pager, iPhone or PDA. It can wait an hour for your attention.

If you’re on Pinterest, why not follow my Pinterest board for these weekly motivational posts? It will be updated weekly.  Find quotes and inspiration that have helped me.

 

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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!

 

#BeFabFriday – Be Bold. Be Brave. Be You.

BE FABULOUS FRIDAY

What better way to wrap up the week than with some inspiration, motivation, or encouragement?

Whether you’re just starting out, or have written Oscar-worthy screenplays, all of us are striving to fill that blank page with emotion and meaning.

It’s important to remember that the only thing that makes your writing compelling or commercial is your point of view.  All the stories that can be told have been told.  There are no “new” stories.  The only thing really new is your original vision or interpretation.  Don’t self-conscious and shrink back, worried what others will think or how they will judge you.  Be bold.  Be brave. Be you. Write your best self.

This week’s advice from Andre Dubus III:

 

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#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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Use This Storytelling Game

girl-blowing-bubbles-etbscreenwritingA friend sent me the following inspirational tidbit.

A six year old was asked to create a story for her homework project using “The Story Telling Game.” This simple game has profound application to anyone who wants to write a compelling screenplay or novel.

The child was instructed to ask family members to play along. To create a story each person was supposed to say a sentence in turn starting with following words:

ONCE UPON A TIME…

THEN ONE DAY…

BUT SUDDENLY…

AND NEXT, UNFORTUNATELY…

THEN THINGS GOT MUCH WORSE BECAUSE…

FINALLY IT WAS DISCOVERED THAT…

AND LUCKILY IN THE END…

Simple and effective! Story and structure comes innately to children. The child got the concept immediately and was able to create any number of stories.

Sometimes we need to think like children and remember that storytelling is all about the excitement and joy of discovery. It is the delight in finding out what happens next, who it affects, and learning how it all comes out in the end.

Here is another version of the same idea–

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Turning Loss into Action

media_xll_3335913I have been consulting on the development of a new show in Amsterdam– a spinoff of one of my favorite shows– one I’ve been working on for about ten years.

In a new storyline, a major character gets some devastating news and experiences a tragic sense of personal loss.  We discussed how to spin this out over a multitude of episodes.

Whenever a character is disappointed, rejected, humiliated or spurned (or has a major set-back or stunning defeat of any kind), he or she experiences a sense of 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 important missed opportunity, a job loss, or a severed friendship.

The question is, how does experiencing this loss reveal character?  Is the character experiencing the full range of emotion?  Is his or her reaction played to the maximum effect and not rushed or short changed?  How does the character’s reaction provide plot and story opportunities?

The loss and grief cycle in a story should include these steps:

  1. Shock: Paralysis:  “I can’t believe this is happening.”  
How do we see the character in shock or stunned by the situation?  What does he or she do?
  1. Denial: Disbelief : “There must be some mistake.”  
 “This can’t possibly be happening.”  How does the character actively deny the situation?  What does he or she do that is contrary to the facts?
  1. Anger: Outrage:  “I won’t stand for this.”  “This isn’t right.”   “It’s not fair.” “Why me?” How does the character act out his or her anger.  What action shows the character taking out his or her anger on him/herself or others?
  1. 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?
  1. Acting Out: Rebellion:  “Screw it.”
  “All is lost anyway.”  What does the character do to rebel against or defy the situation?  What happens as a result?
  1. Bargaining: Deal-making:  “I promise…”  “If only…”
  How does the character make deals or promises or beg for help?  How do we see this active desperation?
  1. 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?
  1. Testing: New Reality: “Maybe I can go on 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?
  1. Acceptance: Moving 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 turmoil and troubled emotional journey.

Why is the Cop on the Job?

In a serialized cop drama the mechanics of “How” a crime is solved is so much less important than “Why” the cops are doing what they are doing and “Why” they are affected by the job. If there is no “Why” it’s just cops going through the motions, which can make a serialized story feel by-the-numbers and hollow.

The “Why” provides the emotion, passion, and inter-personal conflict between the individuals in the story (and all the internal conflict within the character). Too often writers simply project their general idea of being a cop and use the mechanics of “How” to put the cops through their paces— Instead of being specific about “Why” one particular individual is a cop and “Why” he/she does the job in a particular or unique way.

There are four basic categories of “Why” anyone becomes a cop (or a doctor, or any other professional):

1. It’s a job. Being a cop is solid union employment and a dependable way to make a living and support a family. The cop does what is expected and punches out. The cop puts in the time and is concerned and responsible on the job. But he or she doesn’t take the job home and retires as soon as is feasible.

2. It’s a career. Being a cop is a good opportunity for advancement. The cop is working to achieve something else. The job is a means to an end (rising through the ranks, running for political office, becoming a consultant, etc.) It is a stepping- stone to something else and worth the hard work and extra effort to achieve a larger goal.

3. It’s a vocation. Being a cop is a life mission or a higher calling. The cop is there to make a difference, have an important impact, or change people’s lives. The work is a consuming passion for the cop. There is no dividing line between work and personal life. Work is the cop’s life.

4. It’s a mistake. Being a cop is not a good fit. The individual is a cop for the wrong reasons or the wrong motivations. Or the reality of the job doesn’t conform to the ideal of the job or the fantasy of being a cop. In any case, the individual puts in the time and effort, got the job, and now is trapped.

Any kind of employment, but particularly policing, has a variety of people who look at the “Why” of doing the job very differently. All individuals naturally assume their “Why” is the most valid reason or, if everyone else was honest, is the real motivation for anyone doing the job. This is a great opportunity for personal conflict in a story. Too often in cop shows (or shows featuring the medical profession) everyone is doing the job for the same reason. That isn’t the case in life and it shouldn’t be the case in drama.

Layered onto “Why” someone is employed as a police officer (it’s a job, a career, a vocation, or a mistake) is the “Why” of the individual’s Character Type. Looking down on nine different police officers toiling away long into the night it might be easy or convenient to believe they are all working hard for the same internal motivation or with the same value system and world view in mind. But every one of the Nine Character Types sees the world very differently, believes very different things about how the world works, and sees the primary role of a cop from a unique perspective.

1. Power of Conscience cops believe policing is an important duty and carries with it the responsibility of making the world a better place. Doing the right thing is crucial to these kinds of cops. Their struggle is what is the higher duty or the most right—law or justice. (These two principles are not the same thing). Hill Street Blues‘ Joyce Davenport (Veronica Hamel) is this kind of character. Howard Hunter (James B. Sikking) is the comic version on the same show. Homicide’s Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor) is also a Power of Conscience character. Rylan Givens (Timothy Oliphant) in Justified is a more recent example. Although not a cop show, the sheriff Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) in The Walking Dead, was a Power of Conscience law enforcement officer.

2. Power of Will cops believe policing is a matter of strength and the ability to dominate the situation. The use of power is crucial to these kinds of cops. Their struggle is what actually constitutes strength or power— excess or restraint. (Does compassion and tolerance make you stronger or weaker?) NYPD Blue’s Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) is this kind of character. A more recent example is Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) on The Shield.  In The Walking Dead, Shane Walsh (Jon” Bernthal) is a Power of Will law enforcement officer.

3. Power of Ambition cops believe policing is a matter of winning or losing. Appealing to other’s self-interest is the way to get things done. Their struggle is with short cuts vs. the long hard patient slog—results or process. (If no one else plays by the rules why should they?) Hill Street Blues‘ John “JD” LaRue (Kiel Martin) is a Power of Ambition character. A more recent example is Lieutenant Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick) on The Wire.  Shane Vendrell (Walton Goggins) is another example of this kind of cop in The Shield.

4. Power of Love cops believe policing is caring for others and helping them succeed. Compassion and understanding is crucial to how they get the job done. Their struggle is when to employ “tough love” or just give up on someone. (When does empathy or understanding simply enable bad or destructive behavior?) NYPD Blue’s Bobby Simone (Jimmy Smits) is this kind of character. Another example is Phil Esterhaus (Michael Conrad) on Hill Street Blues. Woody Harrelson as Detective Marty Hart in True Detective is a Power of Love cop.

5. Power of Idealism cops believe policing is a matter of individual style and personal excellence. Use of unique talents and refusing to buckle under to stupid bureaucrats is crucial to their method of policing. Their struggle is how to maintain their individuality and still be part of a larger organization. (When does being a maverick or a rebel cause more harm than good?) Homicide’s Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher) illustrates the Power of Idealism character as a cop.  Another example is Detective Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) on The Wire.

6. Power of Reason cops believe policing is a matter of keeping personal self-control and maintaining the social order. Objectivity, expertise and a depth of knowledge are crucial to getting the job done. Their struggle is to connect with their own emotions. Dexter’s title character (Michael C. Hall) is one of the best recent examples of this kind of character on the police force. Monk’s title character (Tony Shalhoub) is the comedic example. Sofia Helin as Saga Norén in the Swedish series The Bridge is another great example of this kind of cop.

7. Power of Truth cops believe policing is a matter of uncovering secret agendas and avoiding hidden pitfalls. Establishing trust, knowing who your friends are, and being attuned to conspiracies are crucial to getting the job done. Their struggle is to accept the ambiguity of the job and the possibility of never finding real certainty. (Is the “truth” a moving target or something fixed and certain?) Homicide’s conspiracy obsessed Steve Crosetti (Jon Polito) is this kind of character. Hill Street Blues’ loyal to the core Frank Furillo (Daniel J. Travanti) is another example.  Kurt Wallander (Kenneth Branagh) on the UK version of Wallendar is a Power of Truth detective so is Matthew McConaughey as Detective Rusty Cohle in True Detective.

8. Power of Imagination cops believe policing is a matter of listening to your instincts, following hunches, or special intuitive clues. Often access to what others cannot see or hear or a quirky special kind of insight is crucial to doing their job. Their struggle is how to interpret their unusual intuition or how best to communicate it to others. (Do they take me seriously or do they think I’m crazy?) This kind of cop is rare on television. Hill Street Blues’ Michael (Mick) Belker (Bruce Weitz) is an uncouth ruffian version of the Power of Imagination character.  Another example is police consultant Allison DuBois (Patricia Arquette) in Medium.

9. Power of Excitement cops believe policing is an adventure and a thrill ride. Their charm, good-humor and ability to get themselves in and out of traps is crucial to how they do their job. Their struggle is in following orthodox rules when it is so much more interesting to play fast and loose, improvise, and shoot from the hip. (Are we having fun yet?) Beverly Hills Cop’s Axel Foley (Eddie Murphy) is the quintessential example of this character.

The “Why” of policing combined with Character Type creates a variety of complex and interesting individuals. It would be possible, for example, to create four very different Power of Conscience characters depending on whether they view policing as a job, as a career, as a vocation or as a mistake.

Their values and their world views would not change but their attitudes would clash. For example: How these characters define their “higher duty” or what is the “most right” is hugely influenced by the reason they are on the job. Those different perspectives provide enormous potential conflict. Here is the breakdown:

1. A Power of Conscience cop who sees policing as a job would probably believe the higher duty is owed to family. This cop would follow the rules, be conscientious, but not take the job home.

2. A Power of Conscience cop who sees policing as a career would probably believe the higher duty is owed to the organization or society. The higher the cop rises, the more effective the position becomes to do good and improve the larger situation. This cop would be relentless in seeking opportunities to advance a larger moral agenda.  And the issue of “how much bad am I willing to do in service to a good cause” would be a recurring personal theme.

3. A Power of Conscience cop who sees policing as a vocation probably believes the higher duty is owed to the victims of crime. This cop’s passion would be justice for the victims and punishment for the criminals. His or her personal life would be consumed by this life mission.

4. A Power of Conscience cop who see policing as a mistake would probably believe the higher duty is owed to one’s self. Policing can be a dirty murky business where there often is no right answer and true justice is hard to find. This lack of clear-cut black and white or right and wrong would probably be an unbearable burden on this individual– giving rise to external moral outrage and internal guilt or self-loathing. How can I be good or worthy in a cesspool?

Creating an ensemble which clearly addresses “Why” the cop is on the job combined with Character Type provides an endless source of internal and external conflict. Making use of the full variety of human experience in specific combination creates memorable partnerships, unforgettable enemies, and extraordinary individual characters.

#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.

#MondayMusings – In Italy with RAI Television

mont_perugia-05

I am on my way to Perugia, Italy to work with the talented team from RAI, the Italian State Broadcaster, much like the BBC in in the UK.

Although it is very basic it’s always good to start with the five most important questions in constructing a story.

What Does the Character Want?

What the main character wants is a clear and simple ego-driven goal. It is something that directly benefits the main character that he or she can physically have or obtain. It is concrete. It is specific. It is the finite object of the character’s personal desire. For example: Win the championship trophy, get the promotion, pay the rent, solve the crime, buy the fancy car, steal the jewel, get the girl (or guy), etc.

To obtain the want, the character must abandon the need.

What Does the Character Need?

What the character needs is an inner ache or yearning that the character is unaware of, denies, suppresses, or ignores. It is a deeper, more abstract or intangible human longing. It is not physical or concrete. It is an emotional or spiritual urge or inner call to live up to one’s higher nature. For example: To become a better parent, to forgive another, to act with integrity, to find one’s faith, to become more altruistic, to be a more reliable friend, to face the truth, to love unselfishly, etc.

To embrace the need, the character must abandon the specific self-centered goal (or object of desire) and address more fundamental and far-reaching human concerns.

What is the Conflict Between the Want and the Need?

One of the most common problems with stories that don’t work is the lack of a clear and specific want vs. a deep and powerful inner longing. The want pulls us through the story. The need draws us deeper into or inside the character. If this bedrock conflict isn’t clear the story won’t add up to very much.

Does the Story Clearly Distinguish the Want and the Need?

Does the main character have a specific physical or concrete object of personal desire? What does he or she want? What is the concrete physical goal or specific objective? Does the main character actively pursue this objective through the story? Does the main character have a clearly delineated deeper human longing? What is missing deep inside the character?

What is the Price?

What is the main character willing to sacrifice or surrender to obtain the want or to embrace the need? Is there a high cost for each choice?  If the character obtains the want and lets go of the need the character pays a high price in unhappiness and emotional loss.

Does that mean that no character ever gets what he or she wants? We know that’s not true. Characters get what they want all the time. But this happens in a one of two ways.

1) The character gets what he or she wants and finds that it is hollow:

For example, in Jerry Maguire, Jerry (Tom Cruise) gets what he wants, to get back in the agent game by representing a major NFL player. He finds his victory is hollow and emotionally empty when he realizes he has no one to call or with whom to celebrate after a big win. This is when he returns to his wife and family and embraces what he needs.

In Dangerous Liaisons, Vicomte Valmont (John Malkovich) gets what he wants: To seduce the un-seducible woman. He finds his victory is poisonous when he realizes he has destroyed the only woman he has ever loved and who truly loves him. The story ends tragically with his death and hers.

2) The character lets go of the want and embraces the need and then, in the classic comedic turnaround, he or she finds something even better or finds that the want comes around on the other side:

In life, this is the story of a young couple that wants to start a family. What they want is a biological child. They try and try to no avail. They realize what they need is to make a family with a child who needs them. They adopt and are deliriously happy. What happens one year later? The wife gets pregnant. This happy turnaround happens enough in life that we believe it in fiction.

Or for example, in Pretty Woman, Vivian Ward (Julia Roberts) wants to pay the rent. That’s why she picks up Edward Lewis (Richard Gere) in the first place. It’s why she stays with him over the course of the story. When he offers to meet that want by buying her a condo (and pay her rent in perpetuity) she turns him down. What she needs is to live a life of honesty and integrity. If she accepts his proposition she will always be a whore. She rejects his offer and it is that act of integrity that brings him back to her as a real suitor and a true partner (rather than as a man who is simply “buying” her).

The tougher the choice is, the better the story.

Does the main character pay dearly for whatever he or she pursues and chooses? The price is the end of the long road where the character comes face-to-face with the ultimate truth. Who is the character really? This supreme price is what the audience is waiting eagerly to see.

If the price is not high enough, the story suffers and the audience isn’t really invested in the outcome.