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: 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.

Writing About Writing: Love Actually Syndrome

It’s that time of year again when people are more likely to to watch the 2003 film Love, Actually, since many people believe it to be a Christmas film. I am grateful to this film not because I like it but because it is one of those films that taught me an important lesson of writing. It has such a bad case of a certain problem that when I encounter other films that have this issue, I will say the other movie has “Love Actually Syndrome.”

Image result for love actually

The problem is that Love, Actually has so many unrelated plotlines going on that it forces audiences to pick favorites. It has roughly 9 different plotlines? I think?

– Laura Linney has an office crush but also has to take care of her mentally ill brother
– Alan Rickman is being seduced by some chick in his office and his wife (Emma Thompson) grows increasingly suspicious about it.
– Some dude named Collin who’s played by a non-famous person travels to the United States to cash in on his British accent.
– Hugh Grant is Prime Minister and crushing on some pretty girl in his office.
– Some dude has a crush on Keira Knightley which presents a problem since Keira Knightley just married his best friend.
– Liam Neeson has to deal with the death of his wife while trying to bond with his young stepson.
– Bill Nighy tries to get a Christmas #1 song.
– Colin Firth tries to write a novel while falling in love with the housekeeper who does not speak English.
– Martin Freeman is a porn stand-in and falls in love with the chick he has to pretend to have sex with.

None of these stories are really BAD. Each one has everything it needs in order to be the cute little love story it’s intended to be. The problem is that NO ONE is going to watch all 9 of these stories and become equally invested in all 9 of them. No one is going to be just as curious about all plot lines. No one is going to find all protagonists equally likable or all antagonists equally despicable.

Whenever I watch the movie, I always have moments of “Yeah, Colin Firth is cool I guess, but what’s happening with Hugh Grant?” There’s an adverse effect on the viewing experience when you have to spend an inordinate amount of time waiting for the movie to go back to a plot line you actually care about.

If you want to juggle several different plot lines, it’s not completely impossible, but I definitely think you should stop short of 9, and I also think it helps to make a more obvious connection between them. One movie that I think does this decently well is Zach Braff’s Wish I Was Here. There’s several different plot lines happening but all the different characters are still part of the same family. It’s hard to have a “favorite” plot line, because each plot line has an obvious impact on the others. It’s hard to just not care about how much Kate Hudson hates her job because that job is directly connected to Zach Braff’s ability to stay home and homeschool the kids.

That’s different from Love, Actually where the characters are TECHNICALLY connected, but one mini-story often doesn’t have a direct impact on the well-being of characters outside that mini-plot. Sure, Collin the dude who can’t get laid in the UK was invited to Keira Knightley’s wedding, but it’s not like his excursion to the states has any real impact on anyone other than himself. Sure, Emma Thompson and Hugh Grant are siblings, but how does Grant’s ability to woo his subordinate actually affect Rickman and Thompson?

As a writer, I think you have somewhat of an obligation to tell your audience who their favorites should be. Yes, those feelings can evolve over the course of a story. Yes, sometimes it can be interesting to have intricate ethical dilemmas where reasonable people can disagree about who’s “right.” But don’t just throw a bunch of characters at your audience and let the chips fall where they may. Don’t give your movie Love, Actually syndrome.

 

 

Writing About Writing: The Struggle Is Real (Also a Bohemian Rhapsody review!)

I just came back from seeing one of the numerous movies on my “I should probably see that” list. On today’s episode of “Anne ruins a movie everyone else liked by being too analytical,” is Bohemian Rhapsody, which tells the story of Freddie Mercury and his bandmates.

Image result for bohemian rhapsody movieI can’t say the movie was BAD or that I regret seeing it, but I also didn’t really love all the storytelling decisions either. The basic problem is that this movie makes becoming Queen look freakishly simple. The band forms and almost instantly signs a record deal, starts performing on tv, charts in the US, and is touring the world. There was no struggle. The movie dove almost immediately into a “happily ever after” phase. This became an issue later on when the band starts to butt heads with each other. Losing what they had didn’t mean as much because we didn’t see how hard they had to work to get to that level.

Stories are about struggles. This is one of those pieces of conventional wisdom that truly is non-negotiable. Make your characters work for their success. Make them work hard enough that it really hurts when you take that success away.

When you write ask yourself: “what parts of this movie do I want to make truly painful? What parts should overflow with triumph?” and then write your conflict accordingly.

We need enough struggle to make success feel triumphant. Conversely, we need enough time to enjoy the highs of our stories before we hit the lows.

I wish Bohemian Rhapsody had put more time into developing the relationship of the band. There was occasional conflict, but it always dissipated in the next scene with no real struggle. We bounced back and forth between scenes where the band hated each other and scenes where they were fiercely loyal to each other and it was often unclear as to why. Towards the end of the movie as the band actually started to fall apart, I felt like I didn’t have a sense for what the band was truly losing. You need to ask yourself:

“What will I take away from my characters? What do I need to establish about that thing beforehand to make sure it’s a real struggle when they lose it?”

AND

“What will my character gain over the course of their story arc? How do I make sure it’s enough of a fight that my audience isn’t sitting around wondering why they didn’t have this all along? How do I make sure that this victory exudes euphoria?”

THAT is how you write. You make the struggle real.

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.