Friday, July 24, 2015

Three Traps to Avoid in Love Stories

(Minor spoilers: The Theory of Everything, Along Came Polly, Notorious, The Fighter, Sweet Home Alabama, 50 First Dates, Wedding Crashers)

Love stories are common in film. They are the A plot in romantic comedies, romantic dramas, and often in melodrama; and they are often the B story in other genres. But romantic storylines can be tricky. Here are three common flaws to watch out for – and ways to fix them.

1. The characters love each other because it’s a movie.

Too often filmmakers assume that if they cast two attractive movie stars, we will believe they are in love. Or in an action movie with a romantic subplot, the love interest may be the only female in the film so of course the hero will fall for her, right? But neither of those scenarios makes the romance truly compelling. You want the audience rooting for the two characters to be together, and for that to happen we need to understand why these people need each other. Otherwise it won’t feel like there’s much at stake in the romance.

Try asking yourself how each character makes the other better. Ideally, the characters fulfill some psychological or emotional need of their partner. One common approach in romantic comedies is the uptight guy who needs to loosen up and the free spirited woman who needs someone to ground her (Along Came Polly (written by John Hamburg) would be a good example).

In The Theory of Everything (screenplay by Anthony McCarten), Jane gives the shiftless Stephen ambition – at first to take physics seriously and later to fight his disease. In return, Stephen opens Jane’s eyes to the wonder and beauty of the universe. He’s drawn to her inner strength and she’s drawn to his brilliance.

In the classic Notorious (written by Ben Hecht), Alicia needs someone to believe she’s good at heart while Devlin needs someone to awaken his dormant emotional side. Devlin sees Alicia for who she really is – someone with a strong moral core despite her reputation, and Alicia’s passion brings out Devlin’s emotions.

Be sure to do this for both sides of the love story. I’ve seen some stories where it’s obvious why the main character would fall for the love interest, but not so clear why the love interest would reciprocate.

2. We spend Act Two watching them be happy.

There’s an old writing adage: Happy people are boring. For drama we need obstacles to the romance. This can take two forms: internal and external.

External obstacles are things like a rival suitor, social convention and competing interests. Social convention is a tried and true obstacle but is getting harder as society becomes more progressive. These days mixed race and mixed class romances are more accepted - good for humanity, bad for screenwriters. Arthur (written by Steve Gordon) is an example of a movie that managed to use class differences as an obstacle to the romance.

The Fighter (story by Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson & Keith Dorrington, screenplay by Scott Silver and Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson) demonstrates a more unique external obstacle. In this case, Micky’s mother fears losing influence over him. She opposes his romance with Charlene because Charlene encourages Micky to do what’s right for him, even if it means disappointing his family. So the family fights back.

Internal obstacles come from the character needing to overcome a psychological flaw to have a successful relationship. Maybe it’s the womanizing hero who needs to give up his bad boy ways, or the workaholic who has to get his priorities straight. In Notorious it’s Devlin’s stubbornness and loyalty to his job.

In The Theory of Everything, the obstacle may appear to be Stephen’s disease (external), and that’s part of it, but the bigger challenge to the relationship is Stephen taking Jane for granted and not recognizing how much she’s sacrificing for him. Ultimately it’s not the disease that sends Jane away, it’s the lack of emotional fulfillment.

You can have multiple obstacles to the romance, but it’s usually smart to have one primary obstacle so the movie stays focused. If you’re working in a romantic genre, often the external obstacle is the A story and an internal obstacle will be the B story or vice versa. This adds complexity without diluting the focus. For example, in 50 First Dates (written by George Wing) the A obstacle is Lucy’s unusual form of amnesia, while the B story is Henry’s fear of commitment.

3. The obviously bad romantic rival.

One of the most common obstacles is the alternate suitor – known as a love triangle. But there’s a pitfall here. In order to get the audience rooting for one suitor over another, many writers make one good and the other bad. But if the choice is obvious and our hero or heroine doesn’t see that, we start to lose respect for them. In Wedding Crashers (written by Steve Faber and Bob Fisher), for example, Claire is with Sack who is such a jerk we start to wonder about Claire. Do we really want John to end up with a woman who would date a guy like that?

One solution that has become cliché is the rival cheating on the love interest. In this case, the hero and audience learn of the infidelity but the love interest is oblivious. This can work, but if the rival isn’t really good at hiding his philandering we’ll again wonder about the love interest’s intelligence.

This is where it becomes important to show why two characters are right for each other. You can have one suitor help the character be a better person, while the other suitor encourages their less desirable behavior. Neither suitor needs to be bad per se, but one is right for the character while the other is not.

This is what we did in Sweet Home Alabama: Melanie needs to reconcile with her past to be truly happy. Andrew represents a fantasy life that ignores her roots. Jake represents her roots but also her aspiration to something more. Jake is the right person for her, but first she will have to overcome the guilt and fear she has about her past. She will have to be honest with herself.

Great romances can draw out powerful emotion in the audience – as long as you avoid these traps.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Report from Comic-Con Part 2

If you read my last post, you’ll know that last week I was down in Comic-Con in San Diego. While there, I attended several panels of potential interest to aspiring screenwriters. I reported on a couple last week, and today I will cover some of the highlights of a few more.

Indie Comics Marketing & PR

I attended this because I am working up an idea for a graphic novel. Most of the content of the panel is a little off-topic for this blog, but one thing that I wanted to mention was this quote: “The thing you love is the thing that will resonate and sell.” Also fairly true in screenwriting.

Children of Tendu Live Podcast

If you’re interested in television writing, you should be listening to the Children of Tendu podcast by Javier Grillo-Marxuach (Lost, The Middle Man, The 100) and Jose Molina (The Vampire Diaries, Sleepy Hollow, Agent Carter). Javier and Jose did a live version of the podcast at Comic-Con. Some of the points they made:

If you get on a show, it’s important to know how to behave "in the room" (meaning the writers' room). Javier and Jose discussed the importance of not “stopping the fun train.” Your job is not to point out all the flaws in the ideas being thrown around. “Pitch, don’t criticize,” Javier said.

They also encouraged new writers to check their ego and learn on the job. Be patient – you don’t have to prove yourself the first day. It takes time to learn when to speak up and how to contribute.

Answering a question from the audience, they stressed the importance of moving to Los Angeles if you want to work in television. American television is written in L.A., no matter where it’s made. They acknowledged the financial risk this entails, but you can’t break in from out of town.

They also addressed the reality that your career will always have ups and downs. Javier said no matter what level you reach in the business, “You always feel like the train is leaving the station without you.” (I can attest to the truth of that sentiment!)

From Comics to Animation

The last panel I attended was a group of comic creators who had moved into animation. There was a lot of discussion of pitching on the panel. Johnen Vasquez (Invader Zim) said, “To me, pitching is just being in a room with people and talking about what’s a good idea.” Later, referring to the need to have a solid core concept, he said, “That’s why God invented log lines. If it’s a good idea, it’s right there.”

Executive and creator Reginald Hudlin (Black Panther) discussed the new trend of making pitch reels. He said you can sell something without one, but having something to look at makes it easier for an executive to pull the trigger on a project. He’s seen buyers push for creators to make pitch reels. However, there are some dangers. He’s seen people “go down the hole with it.” Conversely, he’s seen good ideas ruined by bad art or production. (My note: these days writers and especially directors in live action are increasingly being pushed to do pitch reels – and the same advantages and pitfalls apply.)

More on Publicity

As it happened, I had two friends who were at the Con actively promoting projects (this is in addition to those like my animation writer friends who are kind of always promoting their shows). One was James Murray from the show Impractical Jokers (watch it on Tru-TV!) and the other was Zack Lipovsky, director of Dead Rising: Watchtower (watch it on Crackle!). Both had publicists who were getting them on panels and into industry parties.

I bring this up because it does become part of your job when you are a creator of entertainment product. Publicists play a critical role largely invisible to the outside world. Sometimes the publicists are appointed by the studio, but sometimes it can be useful to hire your own publicist to help promote your career as an artist as well as the individual project.

Publicists aren’t cheap, though. So when should you consider hiring one? When you have a product launching in the marketplace, and ideally when you have a promotional platform like Comic-Con to leverage. You’ll want to start working with the publicist a few months before the release/event. But you only need them for a few months. You should have a specific idea of who you want to reach and why, and work with the publicist to figure out how to do that.

Hope you enjoyed this report from Comic-Con 2015.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Report from Comic-Con San Diego

Hi readers. I’m currently at Comic-Con San Diego (why this blog post is a little late).

In addition to being a whole lot of fun, a lot of entertainment business gets conducted down here. There’s a lot of networking - my con roommate, Eugene Son, now running an animated television show, got some of his early animation writing gigs from someone he met at Comic-Con. That’s why it’s important to go to places where the industry gathers to meet and talk to people, especially when you’re trying to break in. Not that I’m saying you have to go to Comic-Con specifically – unless you’re an established industry pro, it’s extremely difficult to get passes these days even if you want to go. But there are other events and festivals where the industry gathers – get out there! The other big aspect of Comic-Con from a professional standpoint is the craft and business oriented panels. I’ve been to several so far and I thought I would report the highlights of a couple.

Studio Production Chiefs Speak 

The first panel I went to had three studio production executives talking about the state of the business from a studio standpoint. They described their job as buying, developing and overseeing production of movies from nascent ideas through completion of production. But they also said there job is really one of advocacy. They fight for the projects they believe are good. Other takeaways:

They acknowledge the value of underlying intellectual property (IP). Executive Jim Miller said, with existing properties, “the fans are telling you what stories you’re going to tell.” They said original fare can get made, but there is budget pressure on original product. They also said for smaller projects, the executive is often pitching their vision to the writer, where for big projects they’re looking for a writer or director to come in with a unique point of view. Finally, it is important that someone in the creative process be a fan of the IP, not so much to protect it but because they will know best how to change it to make it filmic.

They agreed that these days they have to consider franchise potential for all projects from the get-go. From a business standpoint they always want something they can franchise. But creatively not every story lends itself to world-building, and not everything has to be a franchise. One of the advantages of working on tent pole projects for the execs is they know the movie will get made.

They said the greenlight decision is as much a creative one as a financial one. They do get financial models done, but since each film is so unique, the models are, at best, estimates. In the current media environment, the biggest question is, what is going to be compelling enough to get people to leave their homes and go to a theate?

Finally, Drew Craig emphasized the importance of passion when working with new talent, saying, “If they’re not writing from a passionate place, we won’t get a good script.”

Animation Showrunners Panel 

The group of showrunners (called Story Editors in animation – different than what a Story Editor is in live action), included my friends Charlotte Fullerton and Eugene Son. They spoke mostly about how to break into the TV animation business. Their advice really applies to breaking in to any part of the business, though.

They talked about networking horizontally. There’s a writers group that Charlotte allows to meet in her living room. At the start, none of the members of the group were in the business, but they’ve been breaking in one-by-one and then helping the others in the group to break in. That's the kind of networking that's valuable.

Another big point was, “Don’t be an asshole.” They said you need two things – good writing samples and a pleasant personality. The story editors are too busy to have to deal with a difficult writer.

They also stressed the importance of watching everything in the genre you write in. You have to know the tropes.

Finally, they acknowledged the difficulty of getting anyone to pay attention to you when you have no experience. But they suggested the internet can be a great tool. Producing a stand-out short piece that goes viral will get attention.

That’s it for now – I want to get back to the convention. I’ll report on more next week.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Interview with David Simkins

The Hollywood Pitching Bible, the book I co-authored with producer Ken Aguado, is now available as an audiobook. Screen and television writer David Simkins (Adventures in Babysitting, Warehouse 13, Grimm, The Lizzie Borden Chronicles, and many, many more) kindly read the book for us. So today, I am running a brief interview with David done by audiobook producer Pavan Ojha. Hope you enjoy!

Filmmaker and audiobook producer Pavan Ojha interviews screenwriter and show-runner David Simkins about the making of “The Hollywood Pitching Bible” audiobook.

Ojha: David, you’ve had a long and amazing career as a screenwriter and show-runner. Why did you agree to read the audiobook edition of “The Hollywood Pitching Bible”?

Simkins: The authors sent me a copy of the paperback version. I loved it. I thought it was a terrific and necessary treasure of insights and information that needs to be given every method of dissemination possible.

Ojha: Do you recall your first attempts at pitching when you started your career? And how important has pitching been in your career?

Simkins: I’d rather not discuss my first attempts at pitching. The pain and humiliation is still too fresh after all these years. Slowly, by trial and error (and working with a few folks much more successful at pitching than me) I began to get the hang of it. Pitching is a very important part of any storyteller’s career. It’s how I usually figure out what a story is trying to be by stumbling through a potential pitch with friends and family.

Ojha: Having read the book, do you have any insight or advice for people just starting out about how to approach pitching?

Simkins: Ken and Doug said it all better than I ever could. One thing I might stress (and it’s something they cover) is to be relaxed. Don’t fake it, earn it by knowing your material backwards and forwards. Keep it conversational, and find the humor where you can.

Ojha: You have a great voice. Did you ever consider pursuing something along those lines?

Simkins: When I was a teenager I was part of a locally produced television comedy sketch show. My voice had just changed (and I was listening to The Firesign Theater’s comedy albums in almost every waking moment) so I ended up as the announcer, using many different voices, in a lot of the bits. Only recently did begin to consider the possibility of doing voice work professionally.

Ojha: What’s next for you? What are you working on now?

Simkins: I recently did the narration for a documentary about the revitalization of Old Pasadena in California. I’m also working on season 2 of POWERS (based on a series of graphic novels) for Sony’s Playstation Network.


Thanks guys!

If you'd like to hear a sample of the audiobook, here it is:

Thursday, June 25, 2015

7 Questions for Better Scenes

You’ve got your outline all worked out and you’re writing your first draft. You sit down and prepare to write the next scene. What should you be thinking about? Is there any special preparation or planning? Or do you just dive in and start imagining stuff?

I don’t believe in over-planning scenes. That risks creating wooden dialogue or characters acting to fulfill plot points. I like to keep a little spontaneity in the process. But diving right in tends to result in underdeveloped scenes that move too linearly to the story goal. So I spend a little time developing ideas freehand on a piece of paper (I like freehand because the tactile nature of pen and paper seems to spur creativity, and I like to be able to circle things, draw arrows, etc.)

When I’m developing the scene I ask myself several questions:

1. What is the purpose of this scene in the screenplay? Is it a major plot point? The introduction of a character? A story revelation? A character revelation? A scene of preparation? A scene of aftermath? Exposition? Of course it may be more than one of these – should be more than one, most often. If I can’t identify the purpose of the scene, it probably means it doesn't belong in the script.

2. How does the scene change things? In other words, how has the story progressed at the end of the scene? This is closely related to question 1. The obvious reason to identify these things is to make sure you accomplish the goal of the scene. But there’s another reason: if I know how the scene has to end, I’ll often start the scene so that it appears to be heading in another direction. This will give me the opportunity to include a twist and keep the scene from feeling predictable or perfunctory.

3. What do the characters want? The main character of the scene (not necessarily the main character of the movie) should have an urgent want to give the scene drama. But the others characters should also have their own goals for the scene. If you can put some of these goals in opposition to each other, all the better.

4. What is the character doing to get what they want? The character needs to be taking action to achieve their goal. This action could be in the form of dialogue, of course. The character could be seducing or deceiving or threatening the other characters – that’s still active. But the thing the character is doing to achieve their goal is what will drive the scene forward. (They may ultimately try multiple things to get what they want - see question 6.)

5. What stands in the way of the character achieving their goal? Often this is another character’s want (and the other character’s action to achieve that want). But if not, I will make sure there are obstacles in the environment or situation or even internally within the character.

If you know what the characters want, what they are trying to do to achieve those goals, and what stands in their way, then your characters will practically write the scene for you. But there are a couple other things I like to ask myself to get the most out of the scene:

6. When does the character change their approach? Often in good scenes the character will realize their initial approach – the thing they are doing to achieve their goal – is not working, and they will change that approach. They try harder, dig deeper, take bigger risks.

7. What could happen? Finally I just brainstorm a bunch of ideas of things that can happen in the scene. I won’t necessarily use them all. But often I’ll come up with some great idea that I wouldn’t necessarily have had if I simply wrote the scene as it came to me. (See last week's post on brainstorming.)

A note here on what I mean when I say scene: In film, a technical scene is a discrete unit of action in a single location in continuous time. If the location changes – even if the character walks from one room of a house to another – or if there’s a break in time, that’s a different technical scene. It requires a new slug line.

But from a storytelling standpoint it’s useful to think of scenes as a single unit of dramatic action – what I call a “dramatic scene." A dramatic scene may, of course, take place in a single technical scene. But sometimes in film we spread a dramatic scene over several technical scenes (or more rarely set more than one dramatic scene in a single technical scene). That means every technical scene does not have to contain an entire dramatic scene that changes the story and has a twist and so on, as long as it’s part of a dramatic scene that does.

Not every scene is a big dramatic scene, either. Sometimes we just need to drop in a short scene to establish a bit of exposition or plant something for a bigger dramatic scene. But if you go more than ten pages without a good, well-developed dramatic scene, you will lose reader/audience engagement.

So take some planning time to get the most drama from your big scenes.

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Art of Brainstorming

There’s a technique some stand-up comedians and comedy writers use to develop their joke writing skills. Every day they open the newspaper (or whatever news website they prefer) and find a current event. They then write ten jokes about that current event. They repeat this with ten other current events, resulting in one hundred jokes. Some then choose ten of those jokes to submit to one of the late night talk shows that buy jokes, while stand-ups might choose one joke out of the hundred to work into their act. Others do the exercise simply for practice.

The theory here is that trying to craft a single perfect joke will cause you to freeze up. Our writer brains work in two modes: creative and critic. In order to free the creative mode, you need to turn off the critic. So the joke writer focuses on quantity rather than quality. (That inner critic isn’t bad – you’ve got to turn it back on when you evaluate the results of the brainstorm process.)

Many comedians find the first three jokes that they come up with will be the same ones everyone else would come up with. But the professional comedian can’t just tell the same jokes everyone else does. Jokes four, five and six will be original – but awful. Around joke seven or eight is where they’ll get a really original, really good joke. Things often start to go downhill from there, but sometimes joke ten ends up being a winner. The goal is to push the comedian beyond the first thing that pops into their mind to get to something insightful and personal.

Screenwriters need to find similar ways to apply brainstorming techniques to their process.

I attended Wonder-Con this year, and one of the panels I went to was “Inside the Writers’ Room,” a panel of television writers. There, panelist Steve Holland from The Big Bang Theory mentioned that they had a bunch of white boards in the writers’ room, one of which was labeled “Shit That Could Happen.” Whenever they had an idea for a story, they would go to the board and start thinking of shit that could happen. If they filled up the board, it meant the idea was probably good enough to be an episode.

The same technique can be useful in the early stages of feature film development. You’ve got an idea – a character, a dilemma, and a situation. What could happen? Start coming up with ideas. If you can fill up several pages of possible incident and event, then the premise is probably large enough for a feature film. If you have difficulty even filling a page, it’s probably an indication that you will run out of steam in the middle of act two. The idea just may not be big enough. (There are other considerations for choosing an idea as well, of course.)

You won’t necessarily use all of the ideas you come up with. In fact, one of the tenets of brainstorming is that you should only select the very best ideas. This is what turns off your inner critic: you allow yourself to write down bad ideas. Go for quantity. Then select the quality that bubbles out.

Another thing to ask when developing your idea: “Given this premise, what do I want to see in this movie?” Imagine you are a viewer watching the trailer for your movie. You’re intrigued so you head off to the theater. What are you expecting to see? What would disappoint you if it weren’t in the movie? Make sure you deliver these things. It can also be helpful to pitch your log line to friends and ask them what they would want to see in such a movie.

Brainstorming is also a useful technique to employ before writing the first draft of a scene. Before diving in, ask yourself, “What could happen?” List every possible idea for fun events or twists or lines of dialogue you can think of. Remember, the goal is not to use them all; it’s to push yourself beyond the first thing that comes to mind.

Like professional comedians, the professional screenwriter can’t just write the same scene anyone else would. You have to find that cool thing that nobody else would have thought of. That’s your “voice” as a writer, and it’s the only thing of value that you really have in this business.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Report from the WGA Lake Arrowhead Craft Conference

A couple weeks ago I attended the WGA Lake Arrowhead Craft Conference. This is a weekend long retreat at Lake Arrowhead for WGA members (meaning all the attendees have to have sold something or worked for a signatory studio or television company).

The event is built around five speakers giving “master class” workshops over the course of three days. This year the speakers were Michelle Ashford (Masters of Sex), Jill Soloway (Transparent, Afternoon Delight), Chip Johannessen (Homeland, 24), David Milch (Deadwood, NYPD Blue) and Paul Weitz (American Pie, About a Boy, Grandma). There are also breakout sessions – and, full disclosure, I ran a breakout session on “Crafting the Perfect Pitch.”

I thought today I’d report back on some of the larger insights I took from the master classes.

The first session was Michelle Ashford talking about writing historical pieces. She discussed the importance of honoring the truth of history, but also the necessity to forget the history and get inside the characters and the motivations for their actions. Ms. Ashford does extensive research. I mean she reads everything she can about the subject. This gives her the confidence to make decisions where the historical record is contradictory or missing, because she feels she understands the people and what would be true to them. Though she feels bound to honor the truth in Masters of Sex, she also discussed a major subplot line that was entirely invented. She felt justified in that case because the events could have happened and they stayed true to what she knew about the actual person.

Jill Soloway ran the second session. Much of the focus was on providing opportunities both behind and in front of the camera for diverse types of people – certainly an important issue (and more on that in a moment). But there was also a lot of craft advice in her talk.

Ms. Soloway said that most writers know how important it is to identify what the character wants in a scene, but it’s equally important to identify what they’re doing to get what they want. That’s the action of the scene. She also talked about the moment in the scene where the character realizes what they’re doing isn’t working and they then change tactics and try harder. She advocated choosing character actions that carry emotion. So rather than thinking a character is “walking out of the room,” think that they are “escaping.”

Both Jill Soloway and David Milch talked about doing work that was authentic and personal. As I said, Ms. Soloway made a passionate plea for diverse voices. She said that she used to try to find ways to put bits of herself into other things; but now she works to reveal herself through her writing. Mr. Milch’s master class was focused on letting the truth of the character drive the plot of the story. My favorite quote from his talk was, “In the fullness of time, you’ll outlast your own inauthenticity.”

As somewhat of a contrast, my big takeaway from Chip Johannessen’s master class was his term, WOOS, which means “Writer Out Of the Script.” He talked about the varying levels of realism of the shows he’s worked on, letting character drive story (echoes of Milch), and how for Homeland he polices the scripts for any line of dialogue that sounds “written.” He showed an intensely dramatic clip from Homeland and pointed out how the dialogue was fairly cliché and mundane – but that’s how real people talk. What made the scene work was the subtext – the drama that was set up by the situation and the desires of the characters. Interestingly, that scene also provided and excellent illustration of Soloway’s “they try harder” moment.

On Sunday morning, Paul Weitz spoke. He showed a long scene from his upcoming movie Grandma and went through how the drama was generated by authentic character desire, subtext and changing beats – in many ways bringing together all of the themes of the weekend. He made the point that story is really about why characters are doing things.

Mr. Weitz also talked about the importance of taking the pressure off of the process. My favorite quote: “When I go to work, I’m not sitting down to write well, I’m just sitting down to write.”

There were two bits of directing advice I jotted down as well:

From Jill Soloway: In staging the scene, you must privilege the emotional moment.

From Paul Weitz: Directing is about making decisions, right or wrong. The worst decision is standing around not making a decision.

Overall, the conference was an inspiring experience and has prompted me to look back at some great scenes in movies I love for how they build drama.


In other news: The Hollywood Pitching Bible is now available as an audiobook! It is read by the talented David Simkins (Grimm, Adventures in Babysitting)