Thursday, November 27, 2008

Five Great Ways To Keep Your Writing Fresh

The worst thing for a screenplay is the cliché. Heroes we’ve seen too often, entirely predictable arcs, scenes we know back to front, lines we can mime in sync, and so on.

The cliché is usually the first thing that comes to your mind, precisely because you’ve seen it so often. So here are some ways to get beyond the cliché into more interesting and original territory:

  1. Say no to the first thing that comes to mind. Linda Seger advocates a “list of ten” approach in her book Making a Good Writer Great. When you’re thinking about how to portray an emotion in action, or turn a scene, or reveal something about a character by means of appearance, or whatever it may be, list the first thing that comes to mind and then force yourself to come up with at least nine additional options.

  2. Write yourself into a corner. A method famously promoted by the Coen Brothers, but by others too. Make your character do something that in the normal run of things would stop the story dead in its tracks. Then see where salvation comes from (usually an unexpected and amusing direction).

  3. Turn things upside down. You’ll be surprised how often this one works like a dream, especially if your brain is as cross-wired and chaotic as mine is. Turn an accusation into an apology, a come-on into an insult, day into night, interior into exterior, etc.

  4. Change some physical aspect of your writing. Write somewhere you don’t usually write, whether that’s somewhere else in your home or a different location altogether (have you ever written on a train?). Use pen and paper if you usually work on a computer, or vice versa. Write standing up (the Hemingway method) or lying down (like Amy Holden-Jones). Write at a different time of day or night than you’re used to.

  5. Laugh at yourself. Visit some sites which poke fun at the worst movie clichés, such as PLOT-O-MATIC (a truly hilarious satire of the worst excesses of formulaic logline writing) and (which does what it says on the tin).

And in that vein, to conclude …

Seen from behind, Raving Dave steps calmly towards the door. With one hand on the door handle, he stops and turns back to make one last comment before he leaves:

....................RAVING DAVE

..........Of course, clichés are not all
..........bad news. In fact they’re the blood of great satire and
................(smiles wryly)
..........But more on that some other time.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Responding Rather Than Reacting To Powerful People’s Priorities

It happens all the time: You struggle to have a piece of work ready in time for a meeting, only to be told a day beforehand that someone with more clout than you has moved the meeting up a week.

My initial reaction is usually anger.

It’s partly ego. I don’t want to be told there are more pressing matters than my script. It’s partly annoyance. The nuisance of having to change my schedule. It’s partly fear. It’s unsettling to be reminded I’m lower down the food chain that someone else.

But here’s the thing: It’s better to respond than to react. This is a distinction that’s common among educators, anger management trainers, spiritual teachers and many other disciplines.

A response is an intentional rather than an impulsive action, informed by perspective. You take a step back and see the situation for what it really is. In the case of a script meeting being put off: It’s a change forced on you by powers beyond your control. Or, if you like, it’s life. Like I said, it happens all the time.

What’s the remedy for screenwriters?

Here’s one I like: Make sure you have more than one pot on the boil. Don’t limit yourself to working on one story/script/idea at a time. So if a meeting suddenly falls through, it’s no longer a problem, it’s an opportunity. To get on with another project that had to wait because of the meeting. Turn the situation on its head and you end up feeling grateful the meeting was cancelled, because now you can get your head back into something that’s a lot more fun.

Anyway, I’ll give you three guesses what happened to me this morning …

Yep. So now I’m off to have some fun with the script I said I’d finish before December 1.

P.S. I’ve added a link to my Twitter presence (see sidebar). Feel free to check it out and follow me!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Why Sweating Over A Very Short Synopsis Is Worth The Effort

I recently submitted a number of projects to the wittily entitled Son of The Pitch competition, organized by the Cheltenham Screenwriters Festival. The brief was straightforward: A logline of 25 words or less plus a synopsis of no more than 150 words. A simple written pitch, designed to pique the interest of the jury and eventually a panel of industry pros at the festival itself in the summer of 2009.

Now, I’ve written hundreds of loglines before, so that part of the assignment wasn’t too challenging. But as I got down to work on the synopses, I realized I’d never had to write within such strict limitations in terms of length before. I’d always taken as my yard stick a maximum of one page, which can run anywhere up to about 450 words. Three times the maximum set for this competition!

And you know what? Having such a limited number of words with which to sell my stories, actually made my pitches sharper! Not only did I have loads of fun doing it, it also taught me a few valuable lessons, all of which have to do with discriminating between essential and superfluous information. Here are some of my conclusions, not necessarily to be digested in this order …

  • Whereas in a logline you don’t have room for much more than an adjective and an occupation with which to describe a main character (e.g., a psychopathic window cleaner), in the synopsis you can flesh out the character by briefly describing how they respond to a dilemma or challenge. In other words, a dynamic image of the character struggling with something or someone carries more information than a flowery but static description of their personality.

  • Rather than attempt a blow-by-blow summary of the plot tent poles, describe one or two key dilemmas which show what kind of arena the story is set in. This gives a sense of the “size” of the story (big action set pieces, small domestic scenes, a confrontation in outer space, etc.).

  • If it’s relevant, then mention a specific location. This immediately conjures up images and associations in the reader’s mind and sets your story apart from the crowd. For example, a synopsis of Pixar’s Ratatouille just wouldn’t be the same if it didn’t mention the story is set in Paris …

  • Reserve some space to name the screenplay's genre, or perhaps what kind of existing film it’s similar to. This indicates what audience you have in mind.

  • Take a sentence to say something about what theme the story addresses, what questions it’s asking. This provides some insight as to what has moved you to write the screenplay, what your motive or interest is in the story.

I’m sure I’ve left out some important stuff, but these are the main points that I gleaned from a few days’ hard work. They are all ways of including one or more distinguishing elements from your screenplay in the pitch. Something that emphasizes its originality, while also demonstrating that you’re familiar with the industry’s parameters.

Whether or not the sweat I put into my very short synopses will convince the selectors to choose one of my ideas for Cheltenham, remains to be seen. But I promise if they do, I’ll put the synopsis up here for your enjoyment …

Thursday, November 6, 2008

What Is The Conscience Of Your Screenplay?

Not in a superficial, politically correct or zeitgeisty green way. But rather in a more fundamental sense: If you were character X or Y, would you know what to do? Would you dare to follow your conscience?

Your conscience is your personal, individual measure of good and bad. It’s in your own mind. No one can see it, and it’s one of the things that makes you as a human being a lot more complex than, say, a snail.

Humans mostly operate on a very simple level. In any situation we instantly evaluate possible risks and benefits. However, our decisions to take this or that action are also determined by conscience. In other words, an awareness of the moral consequences of our actions, especially for other people.

I’ve mentioned psychologist Philip Zimbardo here before, and one of his 20 hints for resisting unwanted influence, is this:

Be ready to say the three most difficult phrases in the world: “I was wrong,” “I made a mistake,” and “I’ve changed my mind.” Cut bait, accept immediate loss of money, face, etc. that could lead to bigger long term losses …

Sound advice, indeed, but extremely difficult to put into practice sometimes!

Imagine your character saying one or more of those simple lines in a critical situation. In a situation where any other answer would be the safe option, but would run contrary to their conscience.

What temptation must they resist? Is it money? Power? Security? Approval? Safe passage?

What’s the principle at stake? Is it honesty in business? Fidelity? Fairness? Equal rights?

And what about you? When have you ignored your conscience? What temptations have you been offered in your life which entailed an unacceptable pay-off? Did you resist?

A character listening to their conscience and standing up against temptation and influence, is a powerful dramatic concept. It requires the character to wilfully take a risk in order to remain true to a principle. Something quintessentially human about that, right?

As a story element, illustrating your story’s conscience creates dramatic tension because you know the character is going to be in for some unpleasant consequences. But it also demonstrates who the character is by showing their inner process as action. In addition, it’s a way of illustrating your theme without being preachy or heavy-handed.

What is the conscience of your screenplay? Altogether a question worth asking yourself.