An Album a Day: Week 1

So first let me explain some stuff. 
Ideally, I will be following this template every week for 2019, thought I certainly reserve the right to tinker with it if I feel it’s necessary. One thing I do wish to explain is the difference between my “cohesiveness score” and my “average song score.”

Cohesion is a dangerous thing, because while I don’t think an album should feel disjointed and random, I also can’t stand albums that make me feel like I’m listening to the same song over and over again. It’s possible to be so cohesive that you end up looking like a one trick pony, and that’s not great either. I’ve decided albums that cross this line will actually score ABOVE 5. So 6/5, 7/5 etc. depending on how bad I think the problem is. Songs that score below 5 score that way because they lack cohesion, whereas the perfect 5/5 score is reserved for those albums that I feel reconcile these two things and balance cohesion with variety.

The “average song score” is just that. I’ll give each song it’s own individual rating from 1-5 and then average them up. That score is as follows:
1/5 = A song that is shit
2/5 = A song that has redeeming qualities but isn’t GOOD. I don’t like it, but don’t abhor it.
3/5 = Decent song, but nothing special.
4/5 = A legitimately good song and the album is better off for having it.
5/5 = Fucking spectacular song that makes me realize what music is supposed to be.

I hope that these two separate scores help give you an idea of how good each individual song is on its own as well as how these songs function together as a unit. All other criteria in the template are pretty self-explanatory.

January 1, What If Nothing by Walk The Moon

Image result for what if nothing 300 x 300Genre: Pop rock/Alternative
Year: 2017
Runtime: 58:01*
Total Number of Tracks: 13
Number of tracks I had heard before: All of them
Why I picked it: It was in my car’s cd player and as much as I enjoy the other cds in my car’s cd player, this was speaking to me at that time.
Cohesiveness score: 4/5, and honestly would probably be a 5/5 if not for “Sound of Awakening”
Average song score: 3.5/5

*According to Wikipedia, the physical album (which I have) is 58:01 but the streaming version is 55:46. Who knew?

Singles you might know: 
– “One Foot”
– “Kamikaze”
– “Tiger Teeth”

Songs that stand out for the right reasons: 
– “One Foot”
– “Surrender”
– “Kamikaze”
– “Tiger Teeth”
– “Can’t Sleep (Wolves)”

Each of these is so special and amazing in its own way. They’re all beautifully emotional and somehow the electronic nature of the music doesn’t lessen the authenticity of that emotion. I semi-routinely just skip between these five.

Songs that stand out for the wrong reasons:
“Sound of Awakening” has always been a little too experimental for my tastes. It just feels out of place among all the other songs. This is not aided by the fact that it’s over six minutes long. I’ve also never been a big fan of “Headphones” but I can at least see how it fits into the album and makes for an upbeat, angsty addition to an album that can at times feel very melancholy.

Songs that don’t stand out at all:
I legit forget “Lost in the Wild” is on here ALL the time, but it’s a decent enough song.

Do I recommend it: Yes. Even most of the songs I skip over to get to my favorites are still bops.

January 2, It’s About Us by Alex & Sierra 

Image result for It's about us
Genre: Acoustic folksy pop.
Year: 2014
Runtime: 42:03
Total Number of Tracks: 13, including a 1-minute interlude.
Number of tracks I had heard before: Two, I think. “Scarecrow” because it’s a single and “I Love You” because I’d heard a rumor Harry Styles wrote that one.
Why I picked it: My friend Dillan suggested it. (Thanks Dillan!)
Cohesiveness score: 4/5
Average song score: 3/5

Singles you might know:
– “Scarecrow”
– “Little Do You Know”

Songs that stand out for the right reasons:
– “Scarecrow”
– “Bumper Cars”
– “Here We Go”

“Scarecrow” does a fabulous job of balancing sad lyrics with an upbeat melody to come up with something truly special: a song that capture the desperate pleas of a broken heart while also sounding hopeful and optimistic. “Bumper Cars” is a much slower ballad, but its fresh analogy makes it stand out from the other sad ballads on the album. “Here We Go” is one of the more upbeat songs and it’s so good I wish there were more like it.

Songs that stand out for the wrong reasons:

The 1-minute interlude “It’s About Us” feels like an idea for a song that was not properly fleshed out. They put a weird effect on the vocals that isn’t present anywhere else on the album and it makes this track stick out like a sore thumb. The song/interlude is weak on its own and it also disrupts the flow of the album.

I also found “Just Kids” to be (and I know this sounds dumb) overly childish. It feels like one of those music videos I would’ve seen on Disney Channel in my youth. That isn’t necessarily a BAD thing, but since so many of these songs do have a more mature tone, this just feels like an obligatory “try to appeal to younger people” song that a marketing dude said they needed. And it’s also just not that good.

Songs that don’t stand out at all:
After listening to this album four times in three days, I have no recollection of what “Back to You” sounds like. You could probably make a playlist of all the other songs together, tell me it’s the full album and I would not notice the omission. “Give Me Something” is on the more forgettable side as well.

Do I recommend it: If you’re into white people with acoustic guitars singing about their feelings, you need this album in your life. But if that’s not your thing, this certainly doesn’t break the mold enough to make it your thing.

January 3, Bleed American by Jimmy Eat World 

Image result for bleed american

 

Genre: Pop punk
Year: 2001
Runtime: 46:36
Total Number of Tracks: 11
Number of tracks I had heard before: 4. The three you probably know, and then “Hear You Me”
Why I picked it: Suggested by my friend Bonnie!
Cohesiveness score: 6/5
Average song score: 3.3/5

 

Singles you might know:
“A Praise Chorus” (ft. Davey Vonbohlen)
“The Middle”
– “Sweetness”

So before moving on, I do feel the cohesive score needs a little explanation on this one. While there are several ballads on here to help break up the monotony, there really isn’t THAT much differentiating each angsty rock song from the other angsty rock songs, nor is there all that much differentiating the gentle ballads from the other gentle ballads. While there aren’t any true bad songs on here, I definitely found myself getting bored after track 6, “Hear You Me.” It just feels like after you get past this track, you’ve heard all the album has to offer, and what lies beyond is just a rehash of what you already heard. That’s why it gets the “too cohesive” score despite 4 out of 11 tracks sounding significantly different from the other 7.

Songs that stand out for the right reasons:
– “A Praise Chorus” (ft. Davey Vonbohlen)
– “The Middle”
– “Hear You Me”

The world may never know if “The Middle” made it onto this list because it’s actually one of the best songs or simply by way of nostalgia, but either way it’s damn near impossible to be sad while I’m listening to it. When I really think about it though, I think I actually prefer the dynamic shifts of “A Praise Chorus.” Most other songs on the album establish their sound within the first 10 seconds and don’t stray from it, so I really appreciate how this one goes for a quieter chorus and gives you some contrast within a single song. “Hear You Me” is just a beautiful, sad ballad full of raw emotion and vulnerability. It has an authenticity to it, like they didn’t just throw it on here simply to prove they could do a ballad as sometimes happens with pop punk/alternative albums.

Songs that stand out for the wrong reasons: 
Again, I don’t really think there are BAD songs, but the album has a nasty habit of making the slower ballads a little too long for what they are. “Cautioners” and “My Sundown” are the most egregious examples of this, ringing in at 5:21 and 5:47, respectively. Unfortunately, neither really grows and builds the way a song has to in order to justify being over 5 minutes long. Decent songs, but possibly better if they were one minute shorter.

Songs that don’t stand out at all:
I kinda feel shitty having to be this hard on it, because again NONE OF THESE SONGS ARE BAD. But after probably 5ish listens within one week none of the later tracks on the album really stuck with me. So that leaves the following in this category:
– “If You Don’t, Don’t”
– “Get It Faster”
– “Cautioners”
– “Authority Song”
– “My Sundown”

Do I recommend it: Sort of? I really love certain songs from this album and respect Jimmy Eat World as a band. However, I will say this is one of those albums that actually did make some of its best songs the singles. Outside of “Hear You Me” I don’t really think there are any hidden gems here that are better than the songs you most likely already know. So if you love “The Middle” and need more songs like it, great! This has them. But in the future, I really don’t see myself listening to this in-full without skipping any tracks, so take that for what it’s worth.

January 4, dont smile at me by Billie Eilish 

Genre: Electropop. Or maybe synthpop? I don’t know the difference tbh.
Year: 2017
Runtime: 29:00
Total Number of Tracks: 9
Number of tracks I had heard before: 2? I think? I’d definitely heard “Ocean Eyes” and “Idontwannabeyouanymore.”
Why I picked it: I was trying to fall asleep and from what I knew of Billie, this was something that could relax me but still be interesting.
Cohesiveness score: 5/5
Average song score: 3.4/5

 

Singles you might know: 
– “Ocean Eyes”
– “Idontwannabeyouanymore”
– “bellyache”

Before moving on with the “review” portion, I do want to address the whole EP vs. Album thing. Technically, this is an “EP” however when it comes to MY parameters outlined in the introductory post, this counts as an album. It hits the song minimum of 9 and is just one minute shy of the time minimum of 30 minutes. There’s also enough going on here that I don’t think it’s unfair to judge it as an album the way it’s unfair to just an EP of 4 or 5 radio-friendly pop songs as though it’s a full album. I actually have a lot of respect for Billie and her brother/collaborator Finneas for not throwing a couple more subpar tracks on here just for the sake of calling it an album, as some other people might have. They’ve chosen consistency and quality over quantity, and that’s to be commended. Anyway, moving on with the review.

Songs that stand out for the right reasons:
– “Idontwannabeyouanymore”
– “bellyache”

“Idontwannabeyouanymore” is a really great balance between live instrumentation and more electronic vocals, plus I found it to have the most memorable lyrics. “bellyache” is probably the only song I would describe as “catchy” and it manages this without sounding bubblegum-y or like it was trying too hard. It maintains the dark, haunting tone that runs throughout the whole album while still giving us a faster tempo that gives the album some contrast.

Songs that stand out for the wrong reasons: There really aren’t any. If you like one of these songs, odds are you will like all of them.

Songs that don’t stand out at all: “watch” is pretty damn forgettable. In fact, I didn’t even notice that the last track is a remix of this song until I read it on Wikipedia. Even though it’s track 4, I totally forgot what it sounded like by the time I got to track 9.

Do I recommend it: Her sound isn’t for everyone, and I would definitely say you should skip it if catchy hooks and powerful vocals are a high priority for you. That’s just not what Billie Eilish is about. However, if you’re on the fence, I would definitely encourage you to give dont smile a chance. Eilish is the type of artist that’s hard to appreciate after just one song, and I don’t think you’ll really know if you like her or not until you give the whole EP several listens. Getting lost in this kind of music for a half hour is ethereal in a way that “Ocean Eyes” alone never can be.

January 5, Fly by Dixie Chicks

Image result for fly dixie chicks

 

Genre: Country
Year: 1999
Runtime: 48:02
Total Number of Tracks: 13
Number of tracks I had heard before: 13
Why I picked it: I’d had the same 6 cds in my car stereo for too long and decided I needed a change, so I busted out this oldie-but-a-goodie.
Cohesiveness score: 5/5
Average song score: 3.5/5

 

 

Singles you might know:
– “Ready to Run”
– “Cowboy Take Me Away”
– “Goodbye Earl”

Songs that stand out for the right reasons:
– “Ready to Run”
– “If I Fall You’re Going Down With Me”
– “Goodbye Earl”
– “Sin Wagon”

This is one of those albums that’s so good it’s hard to pick favorites, but I tried. “Ready to Run” has a celtic vibe and relatable lyrics that give it a timeless quality. “If I Fall You’re Going Down With Me” is upbeat and fun, and a nice hybrid between rock and country, like if the Eagles had a top notch fiddle player. “Goodbye Earl” has original lyrics that tell a proper story which make it the most memorable of any song on the album. “Sin Wagon” is perhaps the best showcase of Emily’s banjo skills and Martie’s fiddle skills, plus it’s just an-all around fun song. I could probably go on and include damn near every track on this list, but that defeats the point of picking favorites, doesn’t it?

Songs that stand out for the wrong reasons: I could live without “Hole In My Head” but I wouldn’t say it’s bad enough to worsen the album.

Songs that don’t stand out at all: There are a few ballads that seem a little underwhelming next to some of the more upbeat songs, “Heartbreak Town”  and “Without You” probably being the best contenders. But they’re still damn good songs, as are the other ballads, they just take a few more listens before you really appreciate them.

Do I recommend it: This is one of those magic albums where virtually every song reaches high standards of amazingness while still sounding unlike any other song on the album. Highly recommend, even if you don’t typically go for country music (I don’t).

January 6, Last Young Renegade by All Time Low

Last Young Renegade.jpgGenre: Pop punk, emphasis on pop more than punk
Year: 2017
Runtime: 36:31
Total Number of Tracks: 10
Number of tracks I had heard before: 10
Why I picked it: I needed an album I was fairly familiar with and could review without listening to it too many times, so it seemed like this would be fun to revisit.
Cohesiveness score: 4/5
Average song score: 3.6/5

 

Singles you might know:
– “Dirty Laundry”
– “Good Times”

Songs that stand out for the right reasons:
– “Last Young Renegade”
– “Dark Side of Your Room”
– “Afterglow”

“Last Young Renegade” used to be on the rotation at my old place of work, and it singlehandedly got me to listen to the whole album. Both this track and “Dark Side of Your Room” are full of the youthful exuberance I crave when I’m in the mood to listen to pop punk. “Afterglow” is a bit gentler and more vulnerable, and it’s a perfect mix of All Time Low’s typical sound as well as the synthpop trends of 2017 (I think it’s synthpop, not electropop). The result is something euphoric, but delicate.

Songs that stand out for the wrong reasons: There really aren’t any.

Songs that don’t stand out at all: “Ground Control” ft. Tegan and Sara doesn’t really offer much of anything, which is sad because it feels like a waste of Tegan and Sara’s talent. Despite playing this album pretty consistently for a solid week less than a year ago, this was the ONLY song where I couldn’t remember the chorus. “Nightmares” is also on the more forgettable side.

Do I recommend it: It’s a solid album, albeit rather unoriginal. There’s a stronger pop feel compared to what I know of All Time Low’s earlier work. That might put some people off, but it also might make this fairly palatable to people who aren’t usually into this genre.

Other albums I listened to this week:
LM5 by Little Mix 
19 by Adele
Ten
by Pearl Jam
Conscious by Broods
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles
The Spirit Room by Michelle Branch

With the exception of LM5 which I’m already fairly familiar with, these are mostly albums I haven’t listened to enough to do a proper writeup for, but hopefully within the coming weeks that will change. Stay tuned!

Introducing: An Album a Day!!!

Okay. So this might be a bit of a bother to some of my subscribers who initially followed me for movie/tv/writing related content. In 2019, I’m going to be seriously upping the music content of this blog. That’s not to say there won’t be more thoughts about movies and tv (hell maybe even books), but I want to get more into music, specifically albums. Maybe that suits you maybe it doesn’t, but hopefully my charm can make music critiques interesting enough to you.

In 2019, I will listen to a full album of music everyday. By “album” I mean

  • Music that was all recorded by the same artist (movie/theater soundtracks don’t count, although albums that include collabs do count.)
  • Albums that are NOT greatest hits/compilations
  • Albums that are AT LEAST 30 minutes long or 9 songs long (the idea being that no, I can’t count EPs of 4-6 songs as albums. However, it was also brought to my attention that the Ramones’ eponymous debut album is only 29 minutes long despite being 14 songs, hence a song quota AND a time limit quota.)

Other rules in play:

  • I must listen to ALL songs in album order (though ALL songs doesn’t have to include bonus tracks on special editions and the like).
  • I cannot pause the album for more than 4 minutes. Pausing music to get my Dunkin coffee at the drive thru is okay. Listening to half the album on the way to a work gig and then the other half on the way back is not okay.
  • No repeats, sort of. I AM allowed to listen to the same album as many times as I want/need to, but it can only be the official Album of the Day once. Meaning that by the end of the year, I will have listened to at least 365 different albums.
  • I’m not allowed to count a standard edition and a deluxe edition of the same album as two separate things.
  • Unlike any of my movie/tv watching challenges, I AM allowed to listen to an album while I’m doing other stuff.

The point of this, more than anything, is to force myself to process music as albums rather than singles and playlists. There’s nothing inherently wrong with singles and playlists and I probably will continue to bump them in 2019 as well, but there’s also something beautiful about the album. I know there are artists who make beautiful albums and the single that Google tells you about is nowhere near enough to capture that beauty. Janelle Monaé’s “Make Me Feel” is a perfectly good song but once you listen to Dirty Computer you realize that this single is just a tiny fraction of what Monaé is capable of.

I know this is true for a multitude of artists/albums, yet all too often when I’m considering letting a new artist into the rotation, I STILL judge them based on the first single or two that Google spits out for me. I need to correct this paradox in my life, and so 2019 will be the year of listening to albums.

I will not be blogging every single day, but I hope to publish a weekly recap that lets you know what I listened to and some brief thoughts. To be honest with you, this is almost entirely selfish so that I can keep track of which albums I’ve listened to and which ones I haven’t. There may even be more detailed monthly recaps, though that might end up not happening. I’d like to keep the blogging aspect of this whole deal painless enough that I still have motivation to write other kinds of content as the ideas hit me, so a lengthy monthly recap might not happen.

I hope this challenge inspires me to rediscover artists I haven’t listened to in years.

I hope this challenge gives me a new respect for artists who make great music but could never get their marketing team to pick the right singles.

I hope this challenge forces me to listen to new genres outside of my comfort zone.

I hope this challenge motivates me to stop defining artists of decades gone by simply by their greatest hits compilations.

I hope this challenge expands my mind and my music tastes.

Writing About Writing: I Suck At Endings

This is the last Writing About Writing I’m obligated to write for November 2018 (though I’ll certainly add more to the series if I come up with ideas I like). So I thought it only appropriate to write about how to end your screenplay.

The only problem here is that there’s a damn fine reason I never wrote about this in one of the other 29 posts. I’m not good at writing endings. So think of this less as a “How to write a good ending” blog post and more just a young writer trying to give her future self some advice for the next time she is struggling with an ending.

1. Make it unpredictable. 

I really can’t stand predictability, especially in mystery/suspense projects. Sometimes I’ll actually ask myself halfway through a movie “what do I think will happen” just so I can judge how predictable a film is. Life is unpredictable, so the stories that represent it should be too.

2. But also don’t try too hard. 

A twist ending just for the sake of a twist ending is also not great. There’s a great article on Wordplayer.com that talks about how endings need to be both unexpected, but also inevitable. If we’re being honest, that whole article is probably more helpful than the one you’re reading now so I highly suggest going through and reading the whole thing. The gist though is that endings still need to be set up by earlier scenes. We don’t want to feel like it came from nowhere simply because some writer was trying to surprise us.

3. It should answer our questions. 

Your earlier scenes should establish questions that keep an audience interested. The last thing you want to do is send your audience away still not knowing (unless you’ve already made the deal to write a sequel, in which case mad props to you). Ask yourself about literally every question you’ve ever tried to raise in prior scenes, even the inconsequential subplots. If you want to leave certain things ambiguous it might still work, but that should only happen if you consciously decide it’s what you want. It shouldn’t be a case of “oh crap I forgot about that cute guy who gave my protagonist his phone number on p. 17.”

 

Writing About Writing: Action Builds Relationships

I’ve mentioned before how knowledge of behavioral science can help improve your writing. Continuing with this theme I’d like to introduce you to a good old friend of mine: Cognitive Dissonance Theory. I had to give a presentation about it one time six years ago. I’m basically an expert.

Cognitive Dissonance Theory says that the way we behave shapes our thoughts, opinions, and values. This may seem a tad counterintuitive, since most of us like to think it is our thoughts, opinions, and values that govern our behavior, not the other way around.

This is why certain organizations choose to haze their members. Once you’re forced to go through a lot of bullshit to join an organization, your brain is naturally going to hold that organization in higher regard. After all, a smart young whippersnapper like yourself wouldn’t go through such great lengths for something that wasn’t worth it.

Once you’ve behaved a certain way, your brain wants to rationalize it. This can lead to shifts in your worldview without you consciously changing your mind about anything.

So what does this mean for writers?

Forcing your characters to behave a certain way will change them.

I know in a former blog post I talked about figuring out the importance of defining your characters’ framework for decision making. I still stand by that, but it’s also important to recognize the value of throwing your characters in a situation where they don’t have a choice. Once they’ve done whatever deed you want them to do, they can change accordingly.

I’ve started trying to get back into Breaking Bad recently and this is what inspired the post. There is no logical reason for Walter White and Jesse Pinkman to partner up. They have two fundamentally different sets of core values that would typically prevent them from working with each other. Neither character would ever actively choose to enter into the partnership that defines the series. So how did that relationship come to happen?

Vince Gilligan created a set of circumstances where the two characters had no choice but to work together. In the pilot, Pinkman loses his partner and Walter is diagnosed with cancer, meaning he needs more money. They don’t choose to start a crystal meth empire. They choose to cook a single batch. But complications from that one experience forces them to do other things. They kill people. They destroy the evidence together. They go on to do darker and darker things together. So OF COURSE they’re going to forge a partnership that lasts much longer than a single batch of meth. But yet the two characters still remain different enough that they can still butt heads while also being partners.

Choices are important. We learn about characters by seeing what choices they make. But when we take choices away from characters, when they HAVE to do dire things they never would’ve done otherwise, that’s how you get yourself a character arc.

Writing About Writing: What Can You Write In An Hour?

A shockingly high number of these blog posts are thrown together around 11 pm because I feel like I need to get something published before midnight. Most of the time, if you ask me at 9 pm what I’ll be writing, I have no freaking clue.

But with just a few exceptions, I’ve figured something out every day. It’s amazing how if you force yourself to write something RIGHT NOW, you are able to liberate yourself from what that writing actually is.

It’s all too easy to come up with all sorts of ideas that you plan to write sometime eventually. We’ve all done it. But until you actually write those ideas you have nothing. It doesn’t matter how good those ideas are if they’re just floating around your head. Whether it be the struggles of life or fear of writing something bad that keeps you from writing, the outcome is still the same. You’re still just a person with ideas rather than a writer.

But when you force yourself to just get something done within the next hour, you’re free. There isn’t a long term commitment to that project and that can make it less intimidating. When the goal to write anything now can supersede the goal to write something good eventually, that’s where the magic happens.

So I dare you to sit down and write something. Maybe it’s a script, a poem, a blog post, a short story. The catch is simply that you must write it in an hour. If you really want to light a fire under your ass, force yourself to publish your work when that hour is up, regardless of how good it is. What you can come up might surprise you. If you force yourself to do this exercise everyday for an extended period of time, you’re bound to come up with something good eventually.

(The above blog post was only about half an hour. Not too shabby.)

Writing About Writing: Believing In Yourself

“You’re too hard on yourself.”

“I’m sure it’s better than you think it is!”

“You just need to believe in yourself!”

These are the kinds of things some people in my life like to tell me. Most, if not all of them, come from people who are not writers.

The thing about confidence is that there’s a huge difference between confidence in yourself and confidence that a specific project you’ve done is good. If anything, there’s an inverse relationship between the two. Because I believe myself to be a good writer, I oftentimes don’t have a ton of confidence in specific scripts. There’s almost always a nagging thought of “I could do better” in the back of my mind.

Personally, I have yet to meet a single writer I respect who displays a lot of confidence in specific projects. Most of them talk about their work simply by saying “Here’s a thing I did” or “Here you go.” I don’t trust writers who talk too much about how good their writing is. When I meet one who talks about their finished scripts in a “well, I guess that’ll do” sort of tone, that’s when I think maybe they know what they’re talking about and actually have some skills.

Now, this is not to say that I think it’s a wise idea to obsessively revise the same script over and over again, because it isn’t. I’m simply saying that believing in yourself and your ability to write good scripts is different than believing that scripts you’ve already written are amazing. If you believe you’re a good writer, you’re probably never going to silence the voice inside your head that says “but wouldn’t it be better if _____ happened?” However after a few drafts you probably will reach a point where any more revising won’t improve the script enough to really be worth your time, and you’d be better off investing that time in a fresh script.

Don’t strive for that point where you think your script is perfect. Because the moment you do is the moment you STOP believing you can do better. And the best writers never get there.

Writing On Writing: Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions

In a previous blot post, I mentioned how I thought writers should familiarize themselves with behavioral sciences as this can lead to more realistic characters. There’s a particular theory that stands out to me as a “thing I wish writers knew.” That would be Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions.

The theory is often taught to people studying international business or communication, as it’s a tool for defining what makes one culture different from another culture. I’ll link something here and then type my own summary and how it relates to screenwriting below.

The reason why this tool is so helpful is because as writers, we have to build worlds. This is especially true in sci-fi or fantasy works, but it’s actually a needed skill across the board. If we’re telling a story of a different time period or a different part of the world, we need to build that world and make sure our audience is aware of relevant cultural norms. Hell, even New York City has a culture separate from that of say, Iowa, but because the city is portrayed in mass media so often, stories set here don’t necessarily need to invest as much time in defining the world.

The cultural dimensions help you figure out what kind of a world you’re building. And oftentimes, a protagonist is going to be out-of-the-norm in some way. It can clarify a lot to know that your protagonist is an individualist while your society is collectivist, or that your protagonist is future-oriented while your society is present-oriented. So what are they?

1. Power Distance Index

Power is ALWAYS going to be distributed unequally, but different societies have different levels of accepting this fact. In the U.S., we have a low-ish power distance. Most Americans buy into the idea that all members of a society should have some kind of a say in the society, and that leadership should be held accountable to its people. Regardless of how exactly this is carried out in practice, the cultural ideal is there.

This is radically different from a society where there is a king and the peasants simply accept that they are not king and that is the way the world works. A LOT of great movies play with the power distance index. Any time you have a tyrannical villain and a small band of misfits who refuses to accept it, that’s the power distance index. These types of stories don’t work unless we first establish that MOST people in the society are content to accept the tyranny, or at least they have been until recent events. That’s what makes our heroes the heroes that they are.

2. Individualism v. Collectivism 

To what extent do individuals have an obligation to make sacrifices for the common good? As you can probably guess, the United States is pretty damn individualist, even though this is an issue that different political factions within the U.S. will disagree on. Overall, we still reject the idea that individuals owe society blind loyalty. We like the idea of individuals being able to forge their own path in life and as long as they are able to support themselves, we don’t necessarily think they have to go above and beyond to support the rest of society too.

In other cultures, and perhaps even in the one you’re writing, individuals are expected to shove their own wants, needs, dreams, ambitions, and emotions to the back burner in order to look after the society. Think about Mulan. The story starts by establishing how important family honor was within that culture. Not even honor for Mulan specifically, but for her family. Mulan was expected to prioritize family honor over her own ambitions because her role as a member of a group (both her family and society at large) was more important than her role as an individual.

3. Masculinity v. Femininity

In this context, the words “masculine” and “feminine” have nothing to do with whether you like pink or blue, or prefer football to ballet. Instead, it has to do with what a society values. “Masculine” societies value assertiveness, and material success and are highly competitive. “Feminine” societies value collaboration and modesty. One might think that this is the same as individualism v. collectivism, but that’s not the case.

If you’re writing a war movie, odds are you’re looking at a culture that’s highly collectivist but also highly masculine. Individuals are expected to put the needs of their side over their individual needs, but victory and assertiveness are still top priority. That’s different from a say, a small business where assertiveness and victory within the marketplace is still a priority but individuals might not be expected to make the same level of sacrifice.

Knowing if you’re writing within a masculine or feminine cultural can help you figure out what kinds of obstacles your character is going to face. In a masculine society, you might have an assertive antagonist actively trying to destroy your protagonist (Oddly enough, some “chick flicks” such as The Devil Wears Prada or Legally Blonde provide some great examples of this). In a feminine culture, it’s less likely that you’re going to have a traditional “villain” but you might have a protagonist who wants to reach high levels of success and those cultural ideals of modesty will be what creates conflict.

4. Uncertainty Avoidance Index

Different societies (and people for that matter) have different risk tolerance levels. That’s what Uncertainty Avoidance is all about. Cultures with high levels of uncertainty avoidance are more likely to pass different laws and regulations to try to control the future The people in such a society are scared of ambiguity.

Think of the difference between a dystopian story like The Giver, and say an old John Wayne western. One culture strives for predictability while the other attracts people who aren’t afraid of the unknown. In a movie script, we always need a certain degree of uncertainty so it’s important to understand how the world you create will react to that. If your society has high Uncertainty Avoidance, it might only take a relatively small, simple change to set your story into motion. In a society where people are more comfortable with chaos, you might need something much bigger to cause drama.

5. Long-term v. Short-term Orientation

To what extent does a society care about preserving the traditions of the past? To what extent are they willing to change in order to have a brighter future? This is long-term v. short-term orientation.

Traditions oftentimes cause conflict in movies. “Young rebel wants to go against tradition” will continue to inspire stories from now until the end of time. Crazy Rich Asians does a great job of explaining why certain characters value tradition as much as they do while also giving the younger generation compelling reasons to break from tradition.

6. Indulgence v. Restraint

A newer dimension added in 2010, indulgence v. restraint is kind of self explanatory. While it does bear SOME similarities to individualism v. collectivism, this has more to do selfish pleasures and vices than say long term ambitions. How socially acceptable are things like sex, drugs, alcohol, smoking, etc.? Are individuals free to engage in whatever brings them joy or do cultural norms shame them? If so, what specific cultural norms are keeping people unhappy?

Boiling down “culture” into six different dimensions is surprisingly helpful when trying to figure out what sort of world your story takes place in. It can also enlighten which aspects of a culture really need to hit home because they’re relevant to your story and your character arcs, and which ones don’t really need that much screentime.

Writing About Writing: Making Choices

Today, I made a choice.

I made a choice not to get my blog done before midnight. Instead, I was decorating a pirate bar for Christmas because that’s just the sort of interesting life I lead. After coming home, I chose to hop on Ulta.com because Cyber Monday waits for no one. (Click here for my Ebates referral code!)

I chose to put off blogging because the idea that I had was taking too long and I had other stuff that just had to take priority at that particular time. Given the circumstances and incentives in front of me, my daily blog could wait until 4:00 in the morning.

I re-emphasize this point of choices over and over again because ultimately, we (and the characters we write) are defined by the choices we make. The choices we will make are always going to change based on the options in front of us.

You can have an awesome abstract idea for a character but your audience won’t really know who they are until they see that character make choices that reflect that aspect of their character. They also need to understand the context under which that choice was made.

Bear in mind that most of us constantly say our priorities are one thing, but don’t make the choices to back that up. Think of how many things you’ve put on your Netflix list but never watched because you’d rather watch your comfort zone shows over and over again. That’s why it’s not enough just to have your character say they care about certain things or have certain ambitions. A character that has ambitions but is consistently choosing other things over their stated ambitions is different from a character that is actually prioritizing that thing with actions.

Don’t just ask yourself “who is this character?” ask yourself “What choices must this character make in order for the audience to get it?”

Writing About Writing: The Two Types of Conflict Every Story Needs

Stories need conflict. But then you knew that already, didn’t you? Everyone says that. So what’s my angle here?

Stories actually need TWO types of conflict. Or at least, it helps to think of conflict in two different ways. There are microconflicts and macroconflicts. MAYBE you can get away with one but not the other but when you can double team it that’s when real storytelling magic happens.

microconflict is an internal struggle within a single character that your audience can relate to. Some examples include:

– Work vs. family life balance
– A financially secure but boring career vs. a less stable, but more fulfilling career

macroconflict is a larger-than-life dilemma with high stakes for virtually everyone involved. Some examples include:

– A pyschopath trying to take over the world
– The mafia is going to shoot your whole family

Defining these two types of conflict and then forcing them to collide with each other is one of my favorite storytelling strategies. We need microconflicts because they’re relatable and let our audience put themselves in our characters’ shoes. But we also need macroconflicts because movies are supposed to take our audience on a journey their real life doesn’t. The macroconflict serves that purpose, giving our story a heightened level of suspense and drama.

Oftentimes a microconflict is something that’s been boiling under the surface for years before our story begins. It’s something mildly annoying to a particular character, but nothing they would ever fix on their own. The macroconflict shows up and forces the character to face it.

So maybe you have a timid soccer mom who’s always chosen to put the opinions of other soccer moms over her kid. She’s too self-conscious to live her life any other way. That’s a microconflict.

But then 10 minutes into your film, someone kidnaps her kid and suddenly the opinions of other soccer moms don’t matter, just getting that kid back. THAT is a macroconflict. If we really want to raise the stakes, we’ll throw in a ransom note or something like that. We make the soccer mom team up with some less popular mom who’s kid is in the chess club. We see her skip out on an Avon party or something stupid in order to focus on the mission at hand.

By the end of the movie, she gets her kid back, but she’s also learned how to live life on her own terms without letting the opinions of others govern her or the relationship she has with her kid.

Another interesting strategy is to give different characters different microconflicts and then have them face the same macroconflict. In Finding Nemo Marlin’s microconflict is that he’s too anxious whereas Dory’s short-term memory loss often leads her to recklessly pursue adventure.

When you think of conflict in these two types of categories it helps you figure out both your characters and your story. It’s not enough to have a really cool idea for a macroconflict if your characters don’t have microconflicts. You also need a macroconflict that is going to help your characters overcome their microconflicts. Likewise, it’s totally fine if you want to explore some dude’s struggle with work-life balance in corporate America, but odds are it’s not going to be terribly interesting until you introduce some cool new conflict like aliens or ghosts or drugs or  something that people DON’T deal with in their day-to-day life

Writing About Writing: What Makes for A Good Scene?

I’ve written a lot about character development and story structure shenanigans. However it crossed my mind that I haven’t focused on the building blocks of a script: scenes. If you can’t write scenes, you can’t write a script. Period. Sometimes mapping out the big picture is actually easier than writing scenes. So let’s talk about the characteristics of a good scene. (Scene-eristics? Maybe?)

1. It should take us somewhere we haven’t been before. 

Is this scene showing us something we haven’t seen before? Is it revealing new information? When evaluating scenes as individual units it’s important to ask if the story serves the story. Maybe it’s revealing new information about a character. Maybe it’s giving us more insight into to the challenges facing our characters. But try to shy away from “oh I think this would be funny” or “oh I think this would be cool looking” if that scene isn’t actually advancing the story.

2. It should give us some indication of other scenes to come.

An expertly crafted scene makes us excited to watch another scene. You could write the most interesting conversation between the most interesting characters but if there isn’t at least a hint at other plot points to come it’s easy for audiences to feel like “Where are we going with this?”

If two people meet and set up a first date, now we’re waiting to see that date.

If our villain lets a monster loose, now we’re waiting to see if that monster attacks anyone.

You need to build tension, which means that most of your scenes should leave your audience waiting to see how the scenario will play out.

3. It should fit the tone of the overall film.

There’s a little bit more flexibility here, but in general comedy films should have funny scenes. Action movies should have scenes with action. While it probably will do more harm than good to try to make EVERY scene overly scary/funny/adventurous, at the very least you need to avoid violating your chosen tone.

Not every scene in a horror movie should be scary, but you definitely need to keep funny scenes to a minimum. You don’t necessarily need to be consistent 100% of the time, but you at least can’t go so far in the opposite direction that you confuse your audience about the tone.

4. It should entertain. 

At the end of the day, we watch movies to be entertained. Therefore, scenes should entertain. I’ve seen some movies that take the notion of setting up other scenes too far. You spend 90+ minutes just WAITING for stuff to happen. Making your audience excited for other scenes is important, but there’s also something to be said for making your audience love the moment that’s unfolding right now. The journey needs to be just as exciting as the destination.

So try to ask yourself, “what, if any entertainment value does this scene have all on its own?” if it is a relatively boring scene but is necessary to set up something else, try to find a way to have your cake and eat it too. Challenge yourself to find entertaining ways to set up all the plot points you need to advance your story.

I know it sounds hard, but the ability to write good scenes and the ability to write good outlines is what separates writers from people who have really good outlines. I know some of this advice seems contradictory, but in a lot of ways screenwriting is a precarious balancing act. You’re constantly trying to solve story problems without creating new problems for yourself. But if you think you’re up to the task, go ahead and write some. It’s the only way to get better.