Writing About Writing: Let Other People Read Your Stuff

Yesterday, I had the horrifying pleasure of letting other people give me notes on a script I’m working on. It was not finished, nor was I exceptionally proud of what I had written. However, I had agreed to share some work in my writing group so I did.

One of the things that was both helpful and humbling is that I had broken some rules I had professed in earlier blog posts. Most notably, I Guess I Should Talk About Tone. The work as a whole is going to be a rather light-hearted fantasy/comedy set against a political back drop.

The problem is that my first scene was a rather intense scene of government officials denying food to starving people. The logic was that I wanted to establish my villain as the villain he is so as to make my heroes more sympathetic. Unfortunately I essentially lied to my audience about what sort of tone they should expect from the rest of the script, and this is going to be something I need to change in future drafts.

I tell you this story because I KNOW on an intellectual level that this is a bad idea. You need to be clear about your tone. I’ve criticized other movies that broke this rule. I lectured you all on this topic just a few days ago. And yet I made the same mistake in my own writing. It’s ridiculously easy to separate abstract knowledge about good writing and bad writing from your actual writing. The way your brain works in the moment writing scripts and piecing them together is different than the way it works when I’m critiquing other people’s writing or trying to brainstorm writing tips for all of you.

No matter how much you think you know about writing, you are not immune to making mistakes. No matter how much you think you know, you will never be able to write a perfect first draft. Giving trusted critics the opportunity to call you out on your bullshit is an integral part of the process.

All too often, writers think they can revise without this outside help. They’re scared. They don’t want to show their work to anyone until they’re confident it’s perfect. And I suppose this is fine if you’re only writing for personal enjoyment and fulfillment and are not terribly concerned with the quality of your writing. But if you’re actually looking to improve and be somewhat good at this craft, you NEED the input of others. It will not matter how many books or blog posts you’ve read about writing. It will not matter how many times you’ve read your own writing. You need to have the courage to ask for notes and the humility to take those notes seriously.

Writing About Writing: Ideas Are Overrated

Yesterday, my recently retired father started asking me about writing. He was considering taking a creative writing class but was worried about his ability to come up with ideas. His question seemed so simple.

“How do you come up with your ideas?”

And my eyes lit up. I rambled on and on about different scripts I’d written and how those ideas came to me. I encouraged him to just start writing without fear of criticism. Take that class! Seize the day!

What I did NOT do was give a straightforward answer to that simple question.

“How do you come up with our ideas?”

And the reason is I don’t know. There’s no particular method that I feel is more likely to generate awesome ideas than another.

But as I’ve given this question more thought today, I’ve realized something. Writing has virtually nothing to do with your ability to come up with good ideas. I imagine this is a common misconception among non-writers, but seriously. You don’t need good ideas to be a great writer.

Writing is not about having good ideas. It’s about having the skills needed to turn any idea into a good story. 

We’ve all seen movies that had a promising premise but fell flat. I can also think of some movies that seemed like they shouldn’t work but somehow they do. It was never about the initial premise at all. It was about execution.

Perhaps the best example of this is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s masterpiece known as Hamilton. No, it’s not a movie but the example will still work, trust me. On its surface “let’s make a rap musical about Alexander Hamilton” really isn’t that great an idea at all. “Let’s write rap songs about central banking policy” is an absolutely dumbass idea.

The genius of Miranda is not that he had these ideas in the first place, it’s that he had the ability to make something great out of ideas that would’ve probably been a hot mess in anyone else’s hands. Furthermore, he had the confidence to know that idea COULD turn into something special if only he worked at it. He had the fortitude to power through the process of writing and re-writing and then re-writing some more. It’s that process that separates people like Miranda from the rest of us, not his ideas.

An idea is only as good as the work you’re willing to put into it. Supposedly “good ideas” are worthless if you’re unwilling to put in the time to make that idea into something. Supposedly “bad ideas” still have potential if you play around with them and write and re-write until they become a worthwhile script. If an idea inspires you enough to pour your blood, sweat, and tears into it until it’s good, THAT’S the idea you should write, not the idea that you don’t want to commit to but seems interesting at first glance.

So if the thing currently holding you back is a lack of belief in your ideas, that’s fine. Don’t believe in your ideas. Believe in your ability to do something with them.

Writing About Writing: Likable vs. Interesting Characters

There are the characters that you want to drink a beer with, and there are the characters that you fear could throw a beer across the room at any moment.

These are the two types of characters that every work needs: A likable character, and an interesting character. Now of course these two things are not mutually exclusive. However I’ve seen certain people allege that your protagonist needs to be “likable,” other people allege that they need to be “compelling” and I think both schools of thought SORT OF get it but are not quite there.

A few years back I went through a rather intense Scandal phase which helped prompt this revelation. I had two favorite characters on this show: Olivia and Huck. I liked these two characters for two entirely different reasons.

Image result for olivia popeOlivia was a badass. I want her to be a real person who will be my best friend. She’s inspiring. She’s fierce. She’s the exact type of character that made Shonda Rhimes famous.

Huck is different. It’s hard to say exactly why he’s so interesting without revealing some spoilers, so SPOILER ALERT. Huck likes killing people. Like, genuinely enjoys killing and torturing people. But he’s not evil. He understands how unethical these actions are, but it doesn’t lessen his enjoyment. This causes internal strife within Huck that is matched by very few other characters. All of this is the result of a rather tragic backstory where he was part of a super secret government spy program. Unlike Olivia, I really DON’T want Huck to be a real person. I’d like to believe there is no super secret spy program turning otherwise normal people into psychopathic torturers.

Image result for huck scandalBut Huck had something Olivia didn’t. Huck felt like a character I had never seen before, rather than Olivia, who’s amazing but also not terribly different from the Super Publicists of other DC political dramas. Huck made the show as a whole more intriguing. And while I never got around to watching the last couple seasons of Scandal, the desire to know what ultimately happened to Huck would probably motivate me to go back more than my desire to know what happened to Olivia.

Again, it’s totally possible for a character to be both likable and interesting (Olivia Pope is still interesting in her own right, just not to the extent that Huck is.) But I find it helpful to look at these two types of character appeal as separate entities. It can allow you to figure out what’s missing from a protagonist, and make sure that if you want a character that’s only one or the other, at least it feels deliberate. It can also help inform what other types of characters you need in your script. Unlikable protagonists like Rick Sanchez oftentimes only work if they’re interesting, and a super likable but not-so-interesting sidekick like Morty certainly helps balance the equation.

Once you realize that it’s possible for a likable character to be uninteresting and it’s possible for interesting characters to be unlikable, you can ask yourself the important questions. Who do I want to be likable? Who do I want to be interesting? Then take the necessary steps to make it happen.

Writing About Writing: I Guess I Should Talk About Tone

I’ve just passed the halfway point in this project and it crossed my mind that I have yet to dedicate a post to the rather important topic of “tone.”

“Tone” is what makes the 1971 Mel Stuart film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and the 2005 Tim Burton film Charlie and the Chocolate Factory entirely different movies. They have essentially the same characters following along essentially the same story beats. Yet, I challenge you to find a person who would say “Yeah, those films are one in the same. I’m equally happy watching either one of them.”

Now tone, like anything else, is not 100% in the hands of the screenwriter. The director has a lot to do with it too. However, it’s still important to have a tone in mind as a writer. Tone gives you the sort of clarity you need to zero in on what your writing will be. If I gave you a simple prompt of “Describe the setting of your film” that’s not as clear as “describe the setting of your creepy, horror film” or “describe the setting of your family comedy.”

The best question I can think of to ask yourself when considering tone “how do I want my audience to feel during this two hour experience?” Please note that that’s not “how should this particular scene make my audience feel?” Some movies help us relax, while some movies are intentionally designed to make us uncomfortable. Some movies are designed to stimulate us intellectually while others focus more on touching our emotions. None of these are right or wrong choices, but I think it’s important to ask yourself not only “does my story work?” but also “what do I want this movie to really do for people?”

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory strikes me as pure escapism. It’s fun. It makes you want to live in this wonderful candy world and forget the miserable world you actually live in.

Regardless of whether or not you enjoy Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (I know I prefer the 1971 version) I just can’t help but think that Tim Burton wasn’t TRYING to do what the 1971 movie did. He wanted to make his audience feel a little uneasy. Perhaps he was trying to make some statement about how fantasy worlds are never all they’re cracked up to be or how being a creative genius means nothing if you don’t have a loving family. I’m not sure what he considered his mission to be, but I definitely think it was something beyond just “make a movie that’s fun.”

What do you want your movie to do for an audience? Once you know that, you can figure out what kind of tone you want, and then can help you fill in some of the nooks and crannies of your script beyond main story points.

Writing About Writing: Make Your Protagonist Active

So I consume a lot of different movies/television of a lot of different genres and over the years I’ve noticed there’s one quality that can make or break a protagonist. I like my protagonists active. Passive protagonists bore the hell out of me.

What is the difference, you ask? Passive protagonists are defined almost exclusively by whatever situation they’re thrown into. Active protagonists are defined by the choices they make in those situations.  Passive protagonists are victims of circumstance. Active protagonists create new circumstances for themselves.

Lately, I’ve been watching some of the earlier seasons of American Horror Story. Now due to this show’s ensemble-y nature one might disagree with me as to who THE protagonist is, but I’m going to say that in Season 1 it’s Vivian (played by Connie Britton) and in Season 2, it’s Lana.

Image result for vivian ahsVivian is a passive protagonist. Sure, life is tossing a ton of different challenges at her, but it is those challenges rather than the way that Vivian handles them that makes her life even remotely interesting. At no point does Vivian ever make a choice other than the predictable choice any other ho hum character would make if they moved across the country into a haunted house. Vivian does not dictate her story, but rather the story dictates Vivian.

Image result for lana ahsIn Season 2, Lana is an active protagonist. She is a lesbian journalist in 1964 who has decided to try to write an exposé on an insane asylum. Just the first episode shows Lana making a lot of interesting choices. She’s chosen to to be in a same-sex relationship despite the taboos of the era, when others with similar inclinations might have chosen to suppress their urges. She chooses to chase down a story about Briarcliff Sanitarium. And while no, she doesn’t commit herself to the sanitarium as a patient, she does continue to make interesting choices once she’s inside. Which alliances will she form with other patients? What will her escape plans be? Lana doesn’t just sit around and wait for shit to happen. Lana is the reason shit happens.

For the record, I don’t think passive characters as a whole are a bad idea. Perhaps a passive character might learn to take control of their own destiny over the course of the story. Perhaps you need a more passive supporting cast to really demonstrate just how active your protagonist is, as is the case with the second season of American Horror Story. But I do think it’s incredibly difficult, if not straight up impossible, to make your central protagonist overly passive and still have a strong story. In film and tv, we learn about characters largely by seeing what choices they will make. A character who only makes boring, predictable choices is destined to be a boring, predictable character.

Writing About Writing: The Well-Informed Mystery Paradox

There’s a great paradox that exists in screenwriting. How do you keep an audience in suspense while also keeping them informed? How do you make sure they understand your story without spoon-feeding it to them in a way that feels patronizing and belittling? How do you make sure they’re in the dark about enough things to keep them guessing while also making sure they care enough to guess?

Your script needs to be mysterious. But your script also needs to be informative. It’s a bit of a pickle, isn’t it?

I do not claim to have mastered this paradox in all my own writing myself, but it is something I’m constantly aware of. I long for my writing to be unpredictable. But I am also constantly asking “ok but what does my audience need to know in order to really get it?” So here’s a few strategies I’ve come up with.

I’ve already said in The Four Things You Need To Know what I consider to be essential for telling a good story:

  • What does my character want?
  • Why does my character want that thing?
  • What is my character’s plan to get this thing?
  • What will happen if this particular plan doesn’t work?

I think it’s INCREDIBLY difficult to write engaging if you are attempting to keep one of these factors a secret. Though it is worth mentioning that not necessarily ALL characters’ motives need to be evident from the get go. In a current piece I’m working on, I have a protagonist with a relatively straightforward mission while the antagonist has goals and plans far more sinister than they first appear. In general, I think it’s pretty much always easier to make the situation mysterious rather than making your main characters mysterious. If your audience knows enough about your protagonist to become invested in them, they’ll care when that character wanders into a mysterious house and we’re unsure

I also think this is another issue where you’re better off picking one extreme and then sticking to it. I’ve enjoyed some movies that falsely lured me into believing I was watching a formulaic, predictable story only to throw in a twist at the very end (Disney’s Frozen is a great example of this).

On the other end of the spectrum, we have one of my favorite films of recent memory, Bad Times at the El Royale. This one avoids giving you any background info until the exact moment that the story requires it to move forward. You watch with this constant feeling that anything can happen at any moment. There’s a confidence in the mysteries being laid out, as if the writer says “I know I’m not explaining much, but trust me. It’ll all be worth it.” Both are totally fine strategies that make for unpredictable movies.

What doesn’t work though are those stories that give you a lot of information, except it’s not all that relevant, or at least not relevant right now. While it’s kinda an apples-to-oranges comparison because this is a series instead of a film, American Horror Story: Murder House has this issue for me. I will grant you that the season is unpredictable, but it also gives you a fair amount of information that either doesn’t really need to be there at all or won’t be relevant for several more episodes. There were enough plot points on the table that I felt like I SHOULD be able to piece them together into a story and got confused and pissed off when I couldn’t. I got even MORE confused and pissed off when I reached the end of the season and realized just how much of it was pointless diversions. All the while the writing failed to give me information it probably SHOULD have given me. I wasn’t emotionally invested in most of the main characters and this was largely because every episode spent a fair amount of time on less relevant characters in an attempt to establish mystery.

Not every script really NEEDS a super dramatic plot twist, but it does need just enough mystery to make us say “hmm, I don’t know what will happen next but I want to.” When writing your script, ask yourself at the end of each scene “have I established a question about what will happen in another scene?” But also make sure you’ve made your characters interesting enough that people care enough to ask.

 

Writing About Writing: Know Thyself

I done messed up.

I’ve been trying my very best to get each and every blog post of this daily challenge up before midnight. Due to circumstances, today that did not happen. It is currently 12:55 a.m. as I am writing this. This blog post is overdue.

One of the hardest parts of being a writer is that it’s ridiculously easy to say you couldn’t make time to write “due to circumstances.” I have been guilty of this on a multitude of occasions and will probably be guilty of it on a multitude more to come.

But the most important thing to keep in mind here is that I am still writing. I WILL get this blog post up before I fall asleep tonight. Because if there’s one thing I know about myself it’s that if I don’t get anything up at all today I probably won’t stick it out and write the other 16 blog posts of writing advice I owe you.

As writers, we need to be aware of our own processes. We need to know our weaknesses and limitations. We need to accept that tips that might work for others don’t necessarily work for us. For example, are you the kind of person who can write a little everyday or do you need to dedicate 4+ hours to your work to get anything done? Are you better off with time goals (I will write for an hour a day) or content goals (I will write 5 pages a day)?

I don’t know about you as a writer. There are certain things you will only learn about yourself by forcing yourself to write. But I DO know that I need to give you at least some blog post today in a desperate attempt to keep this whole project on track. I am not the type of person that can just skip a day and then come back and pick up where I left off. The reason I know this is because I’ve made this mistake before and I am trying to learn from my failures and prevent similar ones.

If there is one thing I beg of you, please do not let “circumstances” shut you down altogether. Ultimately, it’s better to post something an hour late than let it ruin your morale and keep you from writing at all. The more you write, the more you’ll learn about yourself and what you need in order to keep yourself producing work.

Writing About Writing: Commitment Is Key

I am a firm believer that the most frustrating type of movie is not a bad one, but one just good enough to show you the potential it failed to reach. I’m talking about the movies that WANTED to be hardcore action flicks that wasted a little too much time on emotional drama. I’m talking about the movies that could’ve been ridiculously good horror movies if they hadn’t had one too many comic relief scenes. I’m talking about the movies that were afraid to commit.

Image result for don't half ass one thing ron swanson

I totally get the temptation to try to push the limits and do something no one has ever done before. But there’s also something to be said for knowing what you’re good at, owning it, and embracing what’s going to make your script work. Because for every script that pulls off some weird experimental mix of genres there’s far more that fail simply because they “didn’t know what they wanted to be.”

One of the things that makes screenwriting so fascinating is that for every “rule” of screenwriting there is a movie somewhere that broke that rule and was amazing. Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Boondock Saints. Krampus. These are not the kinds of movies that screenwriting textbooks teach you to write, but at the same time they just work. They work because they know what they want to be and they fucking committed to it.

It’s okay to write ridiculous comedy. It’s okay to write badass action flicks with a relatively weak story. Even if such pieces aren’t necessarily my cup of tea I’d rather walk out of a movie thinking “Well, it it did what it was trying to do” than “it was trying to so hard to be so many things that it accomplished none of them.

So figure out what you want your movie to be. Let that purpose dictate all your other writing decisions. Don’t be afraid of commitment.

Writing About Writing: A Case for Something Instead of Character Bios

Maybe I’m beating a dead horse at this point, but thinking through your characters is really REALLY important. And I think sometimes conventional writing exercises designed to help you with characterization aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. (See Writing About Writing: A Case Against Character Bios)

When I first realized that I enjoyed creative writing, I oftentimes would “characterize” simply by thinking about the vague adjectives that applied to a character. Maybe they were adventurous, maybe they were shy. Maybe they were funny, maybe they were serious. And again this isn’t COMPLETELY useless… but I think we can do better.

The number one thing you need for a character is a framework for how they make decisions. This is especially true in screenwriting, where you often don’t have the luxury of an inner monologue explaining your characters’ thoughts. We need to watch them make choices to learn about who they are, and we need to understand WHY they’re making the choices they’re making. So let’s go through some questions that might help you get you there.

1. What does your character like most about themselves?

Our confidences are one of the things that drive our behavior. If a dude decides to post a shirtless selfie on Instagram and another one doesn’t, odds are it’s at least in part because he believe that selfie is attractive (whether or not it actually is is besides the point). The parts we like most about ourselves are the parts we have no problem sharing with other people. They’re oftentimes some of the first things others learn about us, or in the case of a fictional character, the first thing an audience will learn. Is your character more proud of their brain or their brawn? Are they confident in their business savvy? Their sex life? It all varies but it all determines why people behave the way they do.

2. What are your character’s insecurities? 

So shirtless Instagram boy probably wouldn’t post the picture if he genuinely believed it was ugly. HOWEVER, there also might be a part of him that wants external validation. He’s not quite confident enough that he’s willing to go without explicit reassurance that he’s as attractive as he thinks he is (we’ve all been there). Just as confidences drive behavior, so do insecurities. The parts of ourselves that we hide, or continually seek validation can have an even bigger impact on the relationships we form with other humans.

Sometimes characters are insecure about things that are totally fine (like the beautiful girl who wears glasses and a ponytail because she doesn’t see how beautiful she is). Other times those insecurities are reflective of actual flaws and that’s cool too. Just remember that a character flaw doesn’t actually change how that character will behave. Perceived flaws will, regardless of whether or not it makes sense for them to be there in the first place.

3. What is your character’s level of risk tolerance? 

We all have different levels of risk tolerance, and it’s relatively easy to show what a fictional character’s risk tolerance is even before you really get into your important plot points. For example, Marlin from Finding Nemo hates anything risky or dangerous, and this is established on Nemo’s first day of school before Marlin ever actually has to do anything dangerous. Dory on the other hand has a much higher level of risk tolerance which is why she oftentimes makes decisions Marlin wouldn’t have made on his own.

4. Does your character care more about the future or the present?

Some of us are here for a long time, some of us are here for a good time. Characters that are making their choices because they believe those choices will pay off in the future will behave much differently from characters who like to live in the moment. Again, there’s all sorts of ways to reveal this information before it’s about something important. When two friends go out to a nightclub, who is worried about a hangover the next morning and who is living life like it’s a 2010 Ke$ha song? This is a key factor in knowing how your character might handle the challenges you’re about to throw at them.

5. Whose opinion is your character most worried about? 

Some people really don’t care what anyone else says or thinks about them. They are content to live life however they like and they don’t care about others. Sometimes this is portrayed as a flaw (Bojack Horseman, Rick Sanchez), but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. Other times we’re worried about what “other people” think. This could be a boss’s opinion, a love interest’s opinion, a parent’s opinion, or maybe just abstract notions of what’s “socially acceptable.” Either way, there’s pretty much always some human being that we are trying to please when we decide to make one choice over another one. Know who that guiding force is in each of your character’s lives.

6. What can inspire them to change? 

This is perhaps the most important one of them all. As mentioned in another previous post, movie magic really happens when characters go on some kind of transformational journey. Therefore, it’s important to know what is such a high priority for this character that they are willing to blow off your answers to the first five questions just for this one thing. Family is a common example. I already mentioned Finding Nemo, and that applies here. Marlin’s love for Nemo was so powerful that it was able to prompt Marlin into doing things he never would have done otherwise. A similar theme is in action in Breaking Bad where an otherwise typical suburban dad is prompted to cook meth because he wants to provide for his family after he leaves. But maybe it isn’t family. Maybe it’s a romance. Maybe it’s something more sinister like money or power. Maybe it’s an adorable puppy, I don’t know. But either way your character needs some force in their life so powerful it can render every other aspect of their decision-making framework irrelevant. That’s what you need in order to make change occur.

Is this an exhaustive list? No. It’s something I threw together in less than an hour of real writing, plus some casual outlining. The real takeaway here is that you need to define your characters in terms that will help you define what choices they will make. Just knowing that a character is “adventurous” may not be enough to do that.

Writing About Writing: Go Meet Some People

I am a bit of an anomaly as I am an extroverted writer. Maybe it’s not as exceptional as I perceive it is, but I always think of writing as a very introspective activity. But while extroversion sometimes makes it difficult to lock myself away and crank out pages the way I sometimes wish I could, I think in other ways it really benefits me. I have a lot of friends who I am immensely grateful to for a multitude of reasons, but one of them is that it makes me a better writer.

Ultimately writing is about people. Even if you’re writing characters who are not human, you need to find a way to humanize them to really be successful (go watch some Pixar if you’re not sure what I mean by this). The challenge is that people are different. Everyone has different world views shaped by their unique set of experiences and challenges. When different types of people interact you get conflict, and that’s where you get a story.

So go meet some people. Meet a diverse group of people. And by “diverse” I don’t just mean checking the boxes of ethnic diversity, gender diversity, religious diversity etc. etc. How are people who played sports different than the people who did theater? How do the challenges of being married with kids different from the challenges of being single?Go meet people of different generations. Go meet people who have made different life choices. Get to know some introverts and some extroverts. Meet some starving artists, some business people, some engineers. Let them tell you about their lives. Let them tell you about their hopes, dreams, and ambitions. Let them tell you how they see the world and how they’d like to shape it into something else.

Because the more people you meet, the more you learn how different types of experiences shape people. And more importantly, you learn about what’s consistent. You’ll learn how everyone struggles with similar insecurities. You’ll learn about the kinds of dreams and ambitions that nearly everyone has. As touched upon in a previous post, you need to know what those universally relatable truths of human existence are to work them into your writing.

So as important as it is to work on your own writing and revising, as important as it is to read textbooks and amazingly insightful blog posts, it’s also important to get out in the world and meet people. Ultimately learning about people gives you the kinds of insights that can improve your writing without even realizing that it’s happening.