6 August 2009 - 16:17Blake Snyder - Rest in Peace

I was really shocked to hear that Blake Snyder died a couple of days ago of cardiac arrest.

If you don’t know who he is, he wrote a ground-breaking screenwriting book called “Save the Cat”.  That book is the most important writing book (not just screenwriting) that I ever read, because even though it gives you a lot of formulas for plot and how to write a logline and choosing a story structure, it transcends genre as no other screenwriting book ever has. (And I’m including “Story” here.)

What Snyder did was look at story with the kind of perspective you see in psychologists and anthropologists who study folk tale.  Genre, for him, is not about whether the first murder or first kiss appears on page 8, but rather on what kind of hero you have and what’s his journey about.  Genre isn’t just marketing category, and it sure isn’t formula - but it does provide insight into the audience for both the writer and the marketing department to understand.

I’m so sorry to hear he’s gone.

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13 February 2009 - 20:26Wisdom from the Pen

A few months ago I was listening to NPR, and they were doing a story on some brilliant and powerful Latino gang in Los Angeles.  The thing that they singled out as a major factor in this gang’s success is that the leaders were lifers — in prison for life, but also dedicated “careerists” who devoted themselves to the gang.

One thing they did was when in solitary confinement, they had to come up with 1000, that’s ONE THOUSAND, ideas a day.  Every day.

Talk about your mental discipline! These guys have turned prison into a top think tank.

Of course, a writer I know who has a family to take care of said something like “Oh, yeah, well that’s easy when you don’t have to change diapers and clean house and run to the day job, and fill out taxes…”

Maybe we need to put ourselves in solitary once in a while.  And I don’t mean like the self-funded fellowship I’m saving up for. I don’t mean for writing.  I mean for THINKING.  For brainstorming.   That’s one of the bits of wisdom world leaders were overheard giving to Obama when he travelled overseas before the election.  “Schedule time just to think.”

Fortunately, that’s something that’s a part of the job when doing something like writing the tiny articles I’ve been doing.  It’s also one of the things that those pulp writers learned, having churn out story after story.  Donald Westlake was ingenious because he had trained his brain to stretch the limits on new ideas.

A few more of my eHow articles:

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20 July 2008 - 8:36Orange You Glad I Didn’t Say Banana?

I’m reading a pile of scripts right now.  Funny how a lot of common issues pop right out at you. Today’s script had a curious but common problem: There was no give an take in the scenes.  The beats were in the right place, the pacing was okay. The characters probably do have decent motivations and a character arc, but you couldn’t really tell because the scenes were so flat.

Give and take is the basis of scene structure.  You have two characters who want something. Their desires are in conflict.  In order to get what they want, they have to play a little chess game.  To play chess, you’ve got to move the pieces.  It doesn’t matter how safe your character feels behind a wall of other pieces, one of those pieces has to move with every beat.  Every bit of dialog, every action by a character changes the board.

Most people instinctively know this, but they don’t know how to do it.  So they start out with a character who, say, wants to be left alone.  And then there is somebody who desperately needs her help.  So you establish the situation with “Help me, please!”  “No!” …. and get stuck.  How do you get from there to “Okay I’ll help you”?  It shouldn’t be easy.  It’s got to take up some time.

So the writer puts in a place holder, and it goes like this:

Help me!
Help me, please.
No, I won’t.
Help me!
Please help me! Help me help me!
Oh, all right.

It’s like the Banana Knock Knock Joke.  It just repeats the exact same beat, exact same info, exact same character posture, until it changes, much to the relief of every one.  And while a lot of writers might use this just for a place holder, you NEVER let this kind of thing live to be read by anyone.

Maybe you aren’t sure now to fix this, but it’s really pretty simple.  (It takes practice, but it’s simple.)  Make your characters negotiate.  Maybe one of them can be stupid and stubborn, but the other will have to pick up on the very first beat that she has to change tactics to persuade, force or cajole the other into changing.

Really great scenes are like a dance.  It’s step and counter-step.  There’s movement.  There’s progress.  It can be serious, subtle, playful, wild, but it does move.

(The Banana Knock Knock Joke, for those who managed to somehow miss it in childhood, goes thusly:

Knock knock.  Who’s there? Banana.  Banana who?
Knock knock.  Who’s there? Banana.  Banana who?
(repeat until nauseated)
Knock knock.  Who’s there?  Orange.  Orange who?
Orange you glad I didn’t say Banana?

Here’s a particularly extreme version on YouTube, featuring an animated banana and orange. )

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9 July 2008 - 21:58Boulders, Sand and Jokes

A wise teacher once set a bucket and three boxes before his students.  He opened the first box, and pulled out some very large stones (or “boulders” as they call them in Zen Koan speak, although my idea of a boulder wouldn’t fit in a bucket).  He piled the rocks into the bucket until he couldn’t fit any more in.

“Is this bucket full?” he asked his students.

“You can’t fit any more stones in it, so yes, it’s full,” said the students.

So the teacher opened the second box and scooped out handfuls of pebbles. He dumped them into the bucket and shook the bucket so they would trickle down between the stones.

“Is the bucket full?” he asked again.  And again the students said “ah, yes, NOW it’s full.  You can’t get any more pebbles into it either.”

So the teacher opened the third box and he started scooping sand into the bucket, and the sand trickled down between the pebbles.

“Full now?”

The students hesitated, but seeing that he only had three boxes, they said “yes, it is now full.”

“You’re right,” said the teacher, and he dumped the bucket out.

This time he filled the bucket first with sand, all the way to the top.

“Is it full now?”

“No?” said the students.

“Can you fit any rocks or pebbles into it now that it is full of sand?”

“No,” agreed the students.  “It is too full of sand.”

And here’s where the teacher lectured them about how they should identify the most important things and make sure there is room for them FIRST, then let the unimportant things trickle in later.

I tell you this story because Complications Ensue just posted an excellent tip about comedy writing that really fits some of my philosophy of writing:  Always start with the best, coolest, most intense, most exciting, most important elements of your story.  They are your boulders.  Sand can trickle in later.

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29 March 2008 - 15:53Taking it to the Protagonist

Jane Espenson has a post up about keeping the attention on the protagonist in a spec pilot. (A friend had got some notes telling her to focus on the protag on each ad break.) She has good advice, but it inspired me to riff a little further on the subject of disparate elements of your story.

She points out that, even though it is good to keep the story on your protagonist, if you want to break for commercial on a revealation that your protag doesn’t know about, that’s okay. It works for the story and the drama. (And if the revealation is something that brings the protag to mind, he’s still the subject of the moment.)

My immediate thought was that if your producer really wanted the protagonist’s face as the last sight before every ad break, you could still make it work for you. So the cliffhanger scene is the Hero’s best friend betraying him to the Villain. Cut to the Hero walking his dog in the park, whistling. Maybe telling someone that things are going so great. (Of course, you could also do the opposite. Hero tells someone about how his Best Friend is going to save his bacon, and then we cut to the friend betraying him.)

That sort of thing can become artificial if pushed too far, but pushed even further, it can also be stylish.

I’m working on stylish right now in the work-in-progress. It’s an action thriller, and has multiple threads. I’ve decided to push in extra connections into transitions from one plotline to the other. For instance, at the end of a scene where the heroine and her boyfriend discuss matters while driving along the road, an ambulance passes them. They have no connection yet with what is going on in the ambulance, but it acts as the transition when we cut from them to the scene in the hospital where the other plotline continues.

In another scene I try to do something more elaborate — have one of the kidnappers drive by the heroine’s father , who is a State Trooper, just as as he gets an alert on a vague description of the kidnapper’s car. The description is so vague that every car in the parking lot fits it. He makes a sarcastic comment and exits to chase speeders, while the story shifts from him to the kidnapper. This one pushes the coincidence factor, but if you weave it properly, there is a point when coincidence becomes irony. And irony is a part of style. Especially when you are working in a heightened reality genre, like action or comedy.

One of the reasons I think that scene will work is because it just happened to grow organically from the existing story. The State Trooper hangs out in a speed trap on a freeway. It’s a part of the badguy’s plan to make a call from a rest stop. Both elements were already in the story. It was just natural to cross them.

(It also was a good way to make the father more of a character in the story. At first he was just a background character, but after this scene, I realized I should replace any anonymous cop at the end with him. And then I realized he could play a bigger part, and still keep the budget down by more efficient use of cast….)

The key is not to force connections into the story, but to be alert to what the natural connections are. Sometimes it’s a matter of ideas. If you notice a touch of dialog among the badguys happens to hook up with something the good guys will do at some point. Look at it. Might it be a good place to cut from one scene to the other?

Of course, there is a danger of cliches, and of being too ironic or too subtle, or just throwing off the tone of the rest of the story. But the only way to learn to do it right is to practice it. That’s what I’m doing.

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21 March 2008 - 19:28The Pancake God (or what to write first)

Listening to a podcast the other day. (On The Page — a good talk show style screenwriting show, available on iTunes.) A listener wrote in to ask an important question. He has a passion project that he’d like to write, but he’s a complete beginner and doesn’t want to screw it up. He seemed intimidated by it. He asked if he should maybe write something else to learn his craft first.

I was surprised when the hosts of the show said, “NO! Write the passion project.” Which is not bad advice. What surprised me was their reasons: a beginner shouldn’t waste time trying to write something more commercial because it will be out of date by the time it is done anyway. I realized they were making an “insider leap”. Instead of listening to the question, they imagined their own most common reason to put aside a passion project - that’s when your agent tells you to write something easier to sell.

But this guy didn’t ask about easier to sell. He asked about whether he should do something easier to WRITE. And by golly, there are kinds of stories that are easier to write. Unfortunately, those kinds of stories are are most certainly not easier to sell, which could be why the hosts didn’t think of it. Pretty much everything easy has already been done. (Which is a clue to what it is….)

Write a cliché.

Go ahead. Don’t be scared. Sit down and figure out what formula-type story is your worst guilty pleasure, and write one of those. Just pure trash, but something that’s fun. It can be a cheezy romance, or a bloody horror, or a 1940s tough guy adventure. Go ahead and write something that no one in their right mind would produce today.

My first novel was a swashbuckler. My first screenplay was a western. (And not one of your gritty realistic nouvelle westerns either. Straight old-fashioned Gunsmoke type.) I learned a heck of a lot writing both of them. And here’s the kicker — even though neither of them have been published or produced, they have both got much more attention than a first work ever should have got. (The western got me a “just missed the quarters” note in the Nicholl a couple of years ago.)

Why? Because they were fun. By not bogging myself down in difficult writing chores, I could concentrate on figuring out what was appealing about the genres and the ideas involved, and I could work on THAT.

Nobody’s first script is going to be great. It’s always awkward and misconceived, and really hard to fix. It’s like making pancakes. The first one is misshapen, and the pan was either too cold or two hot. We always called those the “sacrifice to the pancake god” and tossed it to the dog. (The dog, Molly, was high priestess to the pancake god.)

So, while you certainly can work on your passion project while you are learning your craft, it is perfectly reasonable to do a project or two as sacrifices to the pancake god.

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