Writing Scenes That don’t Exist

 

So after I wrote my last blog on Christine Conradt’s GLAWS presentation, I thought I’d check out her two articles in the two “Now Write” books.  In, “Now Write!  Screenwriting” she has an exercise called “The Scene That Doesn’t Exist”.  It is an exercise to help overcome writer’s block.  Basically, you take your two main characters and just put them in a scene you know won’t be in your screenplay.  She uses the example of a pizza parlor.  Then just see what happens, what they talk about, etc.  The idea is to get to know your characters better.  Sometimes they surprise you.

The thing is I often do this inadvertently.  I’m a nonlinear writer.  I jump around from scene to scene.  If I get stuck on one scene, I’ll jump to another scene further down the road.  When I started on my current steampunk script, I started at the beginning.  But there was a chase scene on a moving train that I really wanted to write.  So I wrote it, then I went back and built up to it.   I have a friend and fellow writer, Kristen Roach Harris ( Fireplace Girl on Krypton Radio’s “The Corsair’s Closet”) who cannot wrap her head around this style of writing.  She is a romance writer and she has to write from start to finish.  I have only ever written one script like that.

Actually, I had a professor at USC Cinema/Television who had us write the first twenty pages of our scripts first, then the last twenty pages.  Those are usually the easiest to write.  Most people know how their story is going to start and they know what the climactic scene is going to be.  It’s the stuff in the middle that gets hard.  At USC they would have us outline our stories, use index cards and other devices like that.  That never worked for me.  Now I think about a story I want to write – maybe for a couple of months.  I imagine scenes I want and develop characters and conflicts.  Then, when I have about 80% plotted out, I start writing.

But sometimes you do end up with a scene that will never be in the final script.  I wrote a scene where one of my protagonist’s brothers fancies my protagonist’s best friend.  He thinks no one has noticed, but everyone knows.  And when it comes out, he is embarrassed and tries to deny it.  I liked the scene because I wrote it with a very Monty Pythonish flavor.  But as I developed the story, I changed their relationship.  They fancy each other and everyone knows it.  No big deal.  So that scene can never be in the script.

So was that a waste of time?  No, I don’t think so.  It helped me develop his character and gave me practice in a particular style of comedy writing, a style which I intend to use with my protagonist’s love interest in the second part of the steampunk trilogy.  He is the straight-laced business type who’s brain flies out the window when he sees her.  This style of comedy is better suited for his character.  In the end, it’s all practicing your art.

How do you practice your art?

On a side note, in “Now Write!  Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror”, Christine Conradt has a chapter on The Eleven Tenets of Fear.  But what caught my attention was the very first chapter of the book, “Where Does He Got Those Wonderful Ideas?  Making Speculative Fiction Speculative”.  Finally, about thirty five years later, my offence to that horribly titled film strip, “Where the Weird Ideas Cone From” is vindicated.

GLAWS Special Speaker Event:  Christine Conradt

Less than twenty-four hours ago as I write this, I was attending Christine Conradt’s presentation on Creating Strong Female Characters.  Going into this, my thought was, “how is creating a strong female character different than creating a strong male character?”  The answer is that it is not.  This lecture was more about gender biases and how to overcome them.

Every culture has its gender biases, and as writer’s we have them too.  A bias is a generalization we have about gender roles.  What is a male role and what is a female role.  If we create characters that fit into these generalizations, we aren’t creating anything  new or different.  As writer’s, it is our job to create characters (male and female) that go beyond these roles.  That’s how you create interesting characters.

There has been criticism lately that there is a lack of strong women characters is film.  Ms. Conradt mentioned that there is actually a test to determine if a film has strong female characters:  The Bechdel Test.  The test goes as follows:  1)  Are there two named female characters? 2) Do they talk to each other?  3) Do they talk about something other than men?  Wikipeda has a comprehensive article about this test http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bechdel_test .  But for now, think about it.  If two women in a film don’t talk about anything other than men, how deep can their characters be?  You may think that is obvious.  If two character only talk about one subject throughout a whole story, how believable can those characters be?  How three dimensional?  Yet most films, according to Conradt and the Wikipeda article fail this test.  And in failing, these films make less money than those that pass the test.

So why do these films keep being made?  Partly because of the bias producers have.  Some feel that the female character can’t save the male character.  It makes the male look weak.  But that’s the wrong attitude.   If you have to make the male character weak to make the female character look strong, then you’re doing it wrong.

Conradt covered a myriad of other topics.  Some of them were obstacles writers have to overcome, history of gender roles, helpful and harmful generalizations, and overcoming the feminism trap.  Conradt’s powerpoint  presentation is available at www.writersstore.com .  I would also suggest you look up her website www.christineconradt.com .  She has published articles she has written, movie reviews from a story structure standpoint and offers small group seminars and script consulting.  You can also check out her Facebook page.

As for the lack of strong women characters in films, I’m not so sure.  America Ferrera, Astrid of “How to Train Your Dragon”, has expressed similar concerns.  But there is her character in “How to Train Your Dragon 2”.  And while her character is not as central as it was in the first movie, Hiccup’s mother, Valka, is.  Then there is Anna and Elsa from “Frozen”, and Katniss from “The Hunger Games” movies.

Maybe it’s just the movies I see.  What do you think?

Perfecting Your Premise

Back in September of last year, GLAWS’ monthly speaker event featured writer Art Holcomb.  Mr. Holcomb has been a writer for fourty five years working in film, television, theater and comic books. The topic of this event:  Perfecting Your Premise in Ten Solid Steps.  Here is an outline from my notes of that meeting

  1. Find something only you can write.  This means something from your unique perspective, knowledge or insight.  Most stories fail right at this level.  Hollywood wants something unique.  They don’t want another Harry Potter unless it’s written by J. K. Rowling.
  2. Mine all the possibilities that you can out of your idea.  Figure out what it is that you have.  Is it a movie, novel or television series?  Each medium has its limitations and strengths.  And writing in each medium requires different skill sets.  Whatever it is you have, you must have the matching skill set for it.  If you don’t, set it aside for now.  Just because you don’t have a certain skill set now, doesn’t mean you won’t have it in the future.
  3. What is the design principle of the model?  Each genre has its rules.  For example, a mystery is search for the truth.  Horror is about defeating a monster, and often defining what is human and what is not.  Science fiction is about creating a better world – and often how that can go wrong.  But all stories must answer the following questions:  Who am I?  Why am I here? And what happens next?
  4. What do you get first, story or character?  For every story there is a best character to tell it.  Which character is best suited to answer the central question?  Or as Art Holcomb put it, what character can you torture the most?  The satisfaction in a story is in watching your character grow and learn.  You want your character to get to the “I can’t, but I must” moment.
  5. Stories are about conflict.  What is the central conflict of the story?  Conflict is the clenching and releasing of tension.  Conflict is the vehicle of the story.
  6. Single cause and effect pathway.  You have to be able to see what the character goes through and where it will end.  Plot is the skeleton of the story.  Story is everything else on it.
  7. The single most important part of the story is the change in your character.   A writer pulls away all the layers until the true character is revealed.  Only when your character is the most vulnerable is he the most powerful.  Your character has to be a martyr at the end.  “I don’t care what happens, I have to do what is right.”
  8. The character must make a moral choice.  That is you as the writer talking through your character.
  9. Is your character appealing?  A relatable character is not 100% perfect.  Not 100% good or 100% evil.  Make them quirky.  Make them strange.  Everyone has an irrational fear.  Give your character one.
  10. Send your work out.  This is probably the most important one and the one that takes the most courage.  Your work doesn’t mean a thing if you don’t send it out to an agent, editor, publisher or studio.  Your success as a writer depends on your body of work, not a single story.  What one agent doesn’t like, another one might.  And if an agent does like one of your works, he may ask the golden question, “What else do you have?”  You should always have at least three stories:  One completed, one in the works and the idea for your next story.

How does your story stand up to these guidelines?

INTERVIEW:  TONY TADARO

Over the course of this blog I have mentioned GLAWS, the Greater Los Angeles Writer’s Society, of which I am a member.  GLAWS is a great organization of peers helping peers and professionals mentoring aspiring writers.  I am in one of their screenwriting critique groups which meets at Los Angeles Valley College.  They have critique groups for virtually every kind of writing.  They also have monthly Special Events which are free to the public, usually held Saturdays at the Palms-Rancho Park Library in Los Angeles.  And they have three yearly Writer’s Conferences.  You can check that all out at www.glaws.org

At last year’s Loscon, I caught up with the president of GLAWS, Tony N. Tadaro, after one of the various writing panels held at the convention.  I interviewed him for our radio show, The Corsair’s Closet, on Krypton Radio, and asked him what GLAWS is and how it can help aspiring writers.  Below is the link to that episode of The Corsair’s Closet.  The interview starts about a quarter of the way in.  The rest of the show was a review of Loscon.

http://corsairs-closet.com/podcasts/2013/The%20Corsair’s%20Closet%202.12%20-%20GLAWS%20Interview%20and%20Loscon%20Review.mp3

The 100% Character

Back in USC Cinema/Television we had a professor that would talk about the 100% Character.   That is a character that will do ANYTHING to achieve his goal.  This kind of character is either extra dangerous or extra courageous, depending on whether it’s the protagonist or antagonist.

The best example I can think of is Kahn from “Star Trek:  the Wrath of Kahn.”  Kahn was stranded on Ceti Alpha Four by Kirk back on the original series.  Then Ceti Alpha Three crashed into its sun, changing the orbit of Four, making it inhospitable.  More than half of Kahn’s people died, including his wife.  When Starfleet accidently finds them, all he wants is revenge on Kirk.  At one point, one of his people points out that they have a starship and the Genesis device, they can go anywhere in the universe and make their own paradise.  But that isn’t enough for Kahn.  He wants to kill Kirk.  Even the well being of his own people doesn’t matter anymore.  In the end, with his ship about to explode, he would rather take Kirk with him than be rescued.

Ripley from ALIENS is another example.  Once she and the Marines find Newt, she promises to protect her.  And she means it.  She will practically take over the platoon, fight off face huggers and even face her biggest nightmare – ALIENS – to get Newt back.  She will also do anything to ensure the ALIENS never reach Earth.

Sometimes it a character’s growth into a 100% character that is the driving force of the story.  Take, for example, Tony Stark, Iron Man, in the Marvel Avengers franchise.  He starts out as a self-centered playboy who becomes a super hero through his scientific genius.  But it is not until the Avengers movie that he becomes a real hero.  Captain America challenges him:  Would he do ANYTHING to save the lives of other people?  Would he make the ultimate sacrifice?  In the end he does.  He is willing to sacrifice himself in order to save New York from an atomic missle.  He is subsequently rescued by the other Avengers, but the point is he was willing to make the sacrifice.

But wait a minute.  Let’s go back to “Star Trek:  The Wrath of Kahn”.  There’s another 100% character there, Mr. Spock.  In the end, Spock sacrifices himself to save Kirk and the Enterprise.  He would do anything to save the Enterprise and Kirk.  100% characters don’t always have to sacrifice themselves – but it’s a good way to demonstrate it.

And then in Star Trek 3, Spock comes back and from then on nobody really dies in Science Fiction.  Thank you, Mr. Spock.

What would your character do to achieve his goal?

Where the Weird Ideas Come From

When I was a senior in high school, I was in AP English.  Once in a while our teacher, Mr. John Durand, would get a new piece of educational material to look at and comment on.  He would then pass it to some of us to look at and rate.  One of them was a film strip (anyone remember those?) entitled, “Where the Weird Ideas Come From”.

It was a film strip about science fiction.  First off, I was offended that science fiction was considered a bunch of “weird ideas”.  I still am.  Why is speculative fiction, in and of itself, “weird’?  Let’s see, “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”:   submarine that attacks ships from below the surface, that’ll never happen.  “Master of the World”:  a flying ship that attacks from above.  That could never happen either.  Of course, the earliest submarines were used in the Civil War.   And Ferdinand Count Von Zeppelin studied the use of hot air balloons in the Civil War before going back to Germany.

So where did these “weird” ideas come from?  Looks like speculating on current events to me.  Is that weird?  If so, then I guess we don’t have to worry about a nuclear winter caused by a nuclear war.  After all, that’s just a weird idea.  And as Sting put it, “It’s a good thing the Russians love their children, too.”

One of science fiction’s strongest uses is in allegory.  Let’s look a classic Star Trek the original series.  “Let that Be Your Last Battlefield” and “Devil in the Dark” were about prejudice.  “Balance of Terror” was about the cold war.   This show was produced in the late ‘60s.  Where do you think these ideas came from?

So what about more modern science fiction?   “The Six Million Dollar Man” and “Bionic Woman”:  aren’t we trying to make bionic limbs for amputees?  “2001:  A Space Odyssey”, “I, Robot”, “A.I.”:  aren’t we working on artificial intelligence?  The ALIEN franchise, “ET”, even “Galaxy Quest”:  aren’t we looking for signs of life out in space?

And how many times have these “weird” ideas turned around and become reality?  The submarine, the airplane, the artificial limb.  Even your smart phone can do more than Captain Kirk’s communicator and fits in your pocket.  How about the sliding door at your supermarket?  Once a group of university engineers asked Star Trek how they got the doors to open automatically when someone approached them.  The production company had to answer that it was two stage hands off camera.

I think the only people who still think of all this as “weird ideas” are hard core mundanes (people who aren’t into science fiction at all).   But with science fiction now in the mainstream, they are few and far between.

Where do your “weird ideas” come from?

Thanks For Nothing, You Useless Reptile

With “How to Train You Dragon 2” out, my wife and I pulled out our DVD of the first movie.  After watching it, we watched the deleted scenes.  Since I’m in the process of editing my own script, it occurred to me that the deleted scenes are a good study in rewriting.  Pick your favorite DVD and watch the deleted scenes.  Try to figure out why they were deleted.  The usual reasons are for pace, cutting down screen time, and getting rid of information that’s not needed.

In Dragon 1, there was a scene that changed and shortened.  It was voice recorded and storyboarded, but never made it to the final CGI version.  In it Hiccup is working with Gobber in the blacksmith shop.  It start with some dialogue that was moved to another scene.  Then Gobber starts talking about how Hiccup has a crush on Astrid.  Then Astrid stops by to get her axe sharpened and Gobber pushes them together.  We see that she’s a tough, no nonsense Viking.  While Hiccup sharpens her axe – and has trouble lifting it – she sees his drawings of a dragon net catapult.  By the end, we see that she has no interest in Hiccup and goes off to train with the other young Vikings.

So why was this scene cut?  Let’s look at it.  In the final version of the film, we are introduced to Astrid by Hiccup’s voiceover.  In a dreamy voice he says, “Astrid….”.  That tells us all we need to know about how Hiccup feels about Astrid.  We also see how tough she is.  And finally, in the very next scene, we see Hiccup’s dragon net catapult in action.  There is no need to see the drawings.  It’s all about getting the information to the audience in the most efficient, logical and dramatic way.  Seeing the catapult is more dramatic than seeing drawings of it.

I’m struggling with the same thing in my steampunk script.  I’ve already taken fifteen pages, rewrote it to cut out two scenes and got it down to ten pages.  In the process, I got rid of one character we will never see again and spent more time between my protagonist and her mother, which is where the real conflict is.

There was also a famous deleted scene in the movie ALIENS, one that was actually filmed.  Shortly after Ripley is found in space and revived, Burk brings her information about her daughter.  Ripley left her daughter on Earth when she was six years old, planning to be back in a couple of months.  But then her crew gets killed off by an ALIEN and she gets stuck in suspended animation for over sixty years.  In the meantime, her daughter grows up and dies of old age.  Ripley has completely missed her daughter’s entire life and this leaves her with an unfulfilled maternal instinct.  You can see how this maternal instinct is then transferred to Newt, a little girl they find on the colony planet who is the only survivor of an ALIEN attack.

Personally, I wish they had left the scene in.  But is it really necessary?  No.  Ripley is the only civilian woman on the rescue team.  The rest are hardened Marines.  So it’s understandable that Ripley is the only one who reaches out to Newt in a maternal way.  She and Newt are also the only ones who have survived an ALIEN attack, so they have that in common as well.  So while the deleted scene is moving, it’s not really necessary to the emotional connection Ripley forms with Newt.

Most people see a movie once in the theater, or rent it.  Fans of a film buy the DVD or Blu-Ray.  That’s why the discs have deleted scenes, extended versions and director’s cuts.  Fans want to see more of their favorite characters and they don’t mind if the pace of the movie slows down a bit.

What scenes do you wish would have stayed in your favorite film?  What scene do you need to cut from yours?

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

Last Monday was our biweekly meeting of GLAWS Screenwriting Critique Group that meets at Los Angeles Valley College.  Every other meeting we take fifteen pages of two submitted scripts, read through them and critique them.  This is the second time since I have joined the group that my work has been up.

The first time showed me some big problems I had.  My steampunk screenplay starts with the birth of my protagonist on the night a meteor hits just outside of town.  The point of the meteor is that it causes my protagonist’s father to leave his wife while giving birth.  He is a doctor and his skills are needed.  There is a midwife, so he really isn’t needed there.  And later on, you discover that the meteor marks the point where history changed from being as we know it to being an alternative, steampunk reality.

That’s it!  That was the importance of the meteor.  But that’s not how the group saw it.  I opened up with a bang (literally) and people expected the meteor to be more significant.  Bear in mind that this group is not particularly versed in steampunk.  They do not know that there is a whole subgenre of the supernatural in the alternate Victorian world.  Yet quite a large percentage of them thought that the meteor was endowing my protagonist with some kind of supernatural ability.  That is a completely different direction than where I am going.

What this showed me was that I way overplayed the meteor.  Sometimes you are so close to your subject that you miss obvious problems.  In the second version they read (actually, the eighth draft) I cut back the whole meteor thing to less than half a page.  Only two people speculated on supernatural abilities, which isn’t bad.  That was one step forward.

Of course it can go the other way.  You can know your character in your head so well that you forget to tell the reader some really important detail about them.  Or, in rewrites, you can delete a character’s introduction.  Then they just pop up in the middle of your story with no explanation.

These are some examples of major story problems.  But a key reason for having a group read your work is to listen for repeated comments.  In this second reading, a lot of people said they liked my dialogue.  That’s encouraging, it’s something I’m doing right, and it’s my second step forward.

A lot also said I had too much exposition.  I explain things too much.  As one person put it, my characters are telling each other what they already know.  That’s my one step back.  But this is also a good thing.  I tend to write long.  My screenplay is 149 pages long.  It should be about 120.  Now I have a better idea of where to cut.

There is a natural progression of getting feedback.  First, you show your work to your family.  But they’re most likely to love anything you write because they love you.  “That’s great, honey.  Keep it up.”  Then, you show it to your friends.  Really good friends will tell you when something stinks.  But they might not have the professional eye to tell you why.  They might just say something like, “It just didn’t catch me.”  But if you are serious about your writing, you need to take it to others who are equally serious.  And hopefully led by a teacher or industry professionals.  As I tell anyone who will read my work, “I rather you tell me it stinks than an agent or producer.”

If you live in or near the Los Angeles area, I strongly recommend you look up   http://www.glaws.org/html/mainmenu.html .  Their critique groups are one of the best opportunities they offer.

Where are you getting your feedback?

HERE’S THE PITCH

A pitch is what it sounds like. It’s a sales pitch. When you write a script, you wait for the opportunity to pitch it to a production company. Sometimes they have already read your script, sometimes not. Sometimes you go in cold, sometimes you go in recommended. It all depends on a lot of things.

Back when I was going to USC Cinema/Television, we didn’t spend a lot of time on pitching. What little we did was usually in a writing class. We would spend the first two or three classes pitching our stories, get some feedback, then start writing our scripts.

What I’m learning in my GLAWS Screenwriting Critique Group is completely different. Every other week we practice pitching. The two moderators, Dan and Saran, roll play studio executives and someone in the group pitches to them. A typical session starts with some small talk, then gets into the story.   The first time we did this, Dan would keep interrupting and asking questions. I kept thinking to myself, how can you hear his story if you keep interrupting? But there was a reason for this.

Both Dan and Saran have worked in the industry and have heard thousands of pitches. First, the small talk is there to get you to relax.   Execs know you’re nervous. But it’s also there so they can get to know you outside of what you’re pitching. One question often asked is what’s your favorite movie? And why is it your favorite movie? They’re trying to see if you’re story driven, character driven, special effects driven, or what.

The pitching part of this group is new. We just started doing it this year. To be fair, the first few people that pitched were not actually telling a story. They were giving an elevator pitch (Two or three sentences) or the premise of their story. So Dan and Saran were interrupting to drag more out of them. The pitcher was laying down plot, Dan and Saran wanted to know what was unique about these characters, what drives them, what is the twist in this story we haven’t seen before.

As Dan explained it, two minutes into the pitch, the exec is jumping ahead. You’re saying boy meets girl. He’s heard that a million times before. He wants to know what’s different about this story. He’s also thinking about the five other projects he has in development, and how he may be able to use you on them. The truth is you’re not just selling your story in a pitch, you’re selling yourself. If they buy your script, they will be in a relationship with your for at least two years. Are you someone they can work with? And if they don’t buy your script, are you someone they may want to have work on something else?

I was taught that a pitch is a presentation. But it’s not. It’s a conversation. You not just tell your story, all of you talk about your story. Ideas get thrown around. Things in the story may change. A script is never completed until its shot.

I was also taught that the goal of a pitch is to sell you script. But that’s not true, either. The goal is to be asked to come back. The first exec you meet with does not have the power to buy your script. So you want to be invited back to pitch to his boss.   Then his boss, and so on up the ladder.

Saran’s advice is to know your story backwards and forwards. Be prepared to answer questions. And if you don’t know the answer, be prepared to make something up on the fly. And she constantly repeats, tell a story. Don’t talk about demographics and who you think will see the film. Tell a story. We all want to hear a story. It’s in our DNA. And she also wants to hear your passion.

What are you passionate about?

A LONG TIME AGO…

In a Starlog magazine far, far, away science fiction writer David Gerrold wrote about being a writer. He often wrote about being a writer, and one of the things he said is that a writer has to be an egotist. If you are walking into a publisher’s office, or are about to pitch your script to a producer, you have to be excited about your story. You have to believe it’s the best story in the world. Why? Because if you’re not excited about it, you can’t expect anyone else to be. Publishers and producers listen to pitches every day. You can’t walk in and say, “Here’s something I wrote. I hope you like it.” You have to walk in with the attitude of, “I’ve got this great story. Let me tell you about it!” Of course, there are limits. You don’t want to be obnoxious. And you want to stop and listen to what the person you’re pitching to has to say.

The point is to be excited about your work. And that starts with writing something you’re excited about, a story you want to tell, an idea you want to explore. Right now, I’m excited about steampunk, so that’s what I’m writing. Some writers make the mistake of trying to follow a trend. For example, zombie movies are big now. But let’s say you started writing one right now and sold it within a year. It will still take at least two years to produce. The trend will probably be over. But if you happen to be passionate about zombie movies, there’s a greater chance you’ll write something original, with a new twist. And even if the trend is waning, some studio might still say, “Nobody has done THIS before.”

The truth is that writing can be a long, hard process. Not every scene is going to be a thrill-a-minute or a laugh riot. Some days you’ll just get stuck or write yourself into a corner and have to back track. And there is no guaranteed payoff. Write because you love writing. Even if only your friends and family will ever see it. David Gerrold once wrote that he writes because there are books he wants to read, but no one has written them yet. So he has to write them. That’s my philosophy. There are books I want to read, movies I want to see, but no one’s written them yet. So it’s up to me.

What’s your story?