Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Anatomy of a (brief) partnership

The second half of 2010 has been kind of all over the place, writing-wise. In May I got married and went on my honeymoon having just completed the best script I ever wrote -- the first one that I could honestly say showcased my strengths as a writer. It earned a high score from ScriptShark, which meant it would be scouted to a variety of management and production companies. In the grand scheme of things this was a relatively small amount of validation, but it felt pretty great nonetheless; I mean, if one professional script reader thinks I have talent, I can at least hypothesize that there might be others out there who agree with him.

Anyway, when I returned from my hybrid Costa Rica-Las Vegas honeymoon (no, it wasn't planned that way), it was time to get cracking on a new project. Earlier in the year I'd talked with a writer friend about collaborating, and in June the time was finally right for both of us. We feel that we each have strengths we can bring to the table, as well as the added advantage of extra brainpower to tackle whatever problems come up.

Here's how that ends up going.

In early June, I work up a quick pitch for an espionage thriller/romantic comedy and meet my new writing partner for drinks to run it by him. He likes it! We're off to the races, bouncing around plot and character ideas, recommending movies to each other to watch for inspiration, and generally being excited about the prospect of writing a great script together.

Over the next couple weeks we exchange a lot of emails, discussing ways to improve the premise, strengthen the conflicts, and so forth. Then we meet up again to hash out our plan for moving forward. During that meeting we realize that what we have probably won't work. There are elements we like a lot, but also some very big, very fundamental problems that we can't see a way past. So we put our idea aside and start spitballing a new one along similar lines. By the end of the meeting we have a solid character and premise that seems like it'll sustain a movie.

Another week or so goes by. More emails, more spitballing, more story problems cropping up. When two people have to agree on everything that goes into a story, I begin to realize, the process is a lot less quick. We talk on the phone at one point and it feels like we've hit the wall once again. This time, the idea seems pretty solid but we're not at all sure it's going to be funny. (Our purpose from the beginning has been to write a great script that's both thrilling and hilarious.) Long silences on the line as we each try to think up a way to rescue the idea from the jaws of extinction. Finally, it occurs to me to change the story's setting to something more conducive to comedy. That we we can play the life-or-death stuff absolutely straight and rely on the incongruous surroundings to make people laugh. My partner likes this. He likes it a lot. Once more, we're off to the races!

Within a week, my partner is getting cold feet again. He's not sure it's going to work. But this time I really feel confident in the concept, so I decide to bang out the first 12 pages of the script to show him what I have in mind. And when I say "bang out," I really mean it. I haven't written a single page of script in months at this point and I can barely stand it. All the pent-up creative energy I've been storing up comes bursting forth, and it's every bit as thrilling and hilarious as I've imagined. I send it to my partner, he's fully on board with the approach, and -- you guessed it -- we're off to the races.

For a while. Then we start hitting more walls. We're exchanging lots of emails, can't seem to find a way to move forward, and then finally I toss out a brand-new idea for a completely different movie. Just something that popped into my head. Another espionage thriller/comedy, this time a sort of Spy vs. Spy with a romantic twist.

He loves it. I love it. We quickly decide to abandon our previous idea and move on to this one. It's fun, it's funny, it's easily pitchable, it's everything I've been wanting to write.

We're off! To! The! Races!

I'm about to leave town for a few days for another wedding, so we meet up before I leave and hash out a writing plan. We're not fooling around this time -- we feel like there's a real spark with this one, so we want to get right on it. I whip up the beginnings of an opening sequence from the road, and it doesn't flow as easily as I'd hoped but that doesn't faze me because I'm still in love with the concept. There are ideas that you really have to finesse to turn into a good script, and there are ideas that you just have to avoid screwing up, and this one is definitely the latter. Once I get home, my partner and I really get to work. I'm writing pages, he's writing pages, new ideas are coming fast and furious. Yes, progress has been slow up to now, but the great thing about working with a partner is that once you're really moving, you can move twice as fast.

Once again we hit some logistical snags with the plot and characters. The scenario is brilliant, but we're not sure how we arrive at it in a believable way. It's kind of like when Hitchcock demanded that the finale of North by Northwest take place on the faces of Mount Rushmore, and left it up to Ernest Lehman to figure out a natural way to end the story there. He did, but his account of how painful that process was is legendary. (The only difference with us is that there's no Hitchcock involved and also that we're not getting paid.) Undeterred, we continue working out story beats and writing pages. This will work, we think. It has to. It's great.

But within a few weeks I start to have serious doubts. The big problem, as I see it, is our insistence on making it a genuine action/comedy. For a movie in that genre to work, the premise has to be absolutely solid as an action flick, and then you can start dropping in the laughs. If the premise isn't solid, then you've only got a comedy, and that's not what we're going for. (True Lies is an action-comedy; Austin Powers is just a comedy, even though it has just as many guns and spies. We want to write a movie more like True Lies.) There just doesn't seem to be a way to keep all the story elements we want and make it believable. We wrack our brains over this issue for days and come up with nothing.

Finally, I meekly propose going back to the story idea that we had abandoned in favor of this one -- the idea for which I wrote those great first 12 pages. Maybe we were too hasty in moving on from that one, I suggest. Luckily, my partner is pretty malleable in these types of situations, so he says, sure, let's pick it up again. The advantage of having shifted gears for the past month is that we're able to look at the old idea with a fresher perspective. Now, with a few changes, it seems absolutely doable.

We meet up to hash out the story. (The Borders in Century City has been serving as our war room. It's a good spot for conversation, there's free parking, and nobody tries to kick you out for not ordering enough.) After an hour or so of discussion, we feel like we're ready to get going. This was always a good idea, and now it feels better than ever. With both of us cranking out pages on a regular basis, we should have a first draft in a month and a polished and ready-to-go script before Thanksgiving.

This time we're more tenacious than ever. When something doesn't work, we keep hammering at it until it's fixed. For a solid month and a half we're writing and rewriting, outlining and re-outlining, fully committed to producing an actual script. Sometimes it really feels like it's going to work.

But sometimes it really, really doesn't. And frankly, I'm getting impatient. By now I've devoted four months to this endeavor; it took me less time than that to produce the best script I've written. I'm anxious to keep moving toward my goal, which is to have a great portfolio of scripts that can get me paying work. It's starting to seem like this collaboration isn't the best way to get there. I share my frustrations with Alexis and her opinion is that I should do as much as I can to make the partnership work, because at the very least it will turn out to be a good learning experience for me. I agree with her logic; she knows that I tend to be impatient with just about everything, and it would be a shame to sacrifice all these months of effort.

Still, I can't help but hedge a little. It's been a long time since I've worked on anything that was my own, and I can't stop new ideas from coming to me. One day, when I feel like my writing self really needs cheering up, I take the day off work and challenge myself to come up with ten good story pitches in a variety of genres. That night, I read them to Alexis and our friend Rossanna over drinks and ask for their opinion. One idea in particular -- pitch number eight -- stands out to both of them as a winner, especially based on my personal writing strengths. Naturally, I start itching to write it.

Meanwhile, the collaboration is faring no better. The next time my partner and I meet up, we realize that we simply don't have enough story, and don't have any ideas for making it longer. Long silence ensues. It feels like we've hit every possible wall at this point, and I think we're both questioning our ability to cross the finish line.

I can't hold back any longer. I desperately want another script under my belt in 2010, I have a great idea for one, and if I start now I can make it happen. So, after a long sigh, I tell my partner that maybe the best solution is to step back from the material for a while and work on other projects. We can return to it later, with fresher minds.

He's okay with that plan.

I tell him about the idea I've hatched, the one that I already successfully pitched to my wife and our friend.

"That's the best idea you've ever had," he says. "You should go write that."

And like that, it's over. I go back to my world; he goes back to his. I drive straight to the nearest Umami Burger, whip out my notepad and start jotting down ideas. This time, when I hit a wall, I have no one but myself to consult... but I feel okay about that. It's worked for me up to now. If I'm diligent, I might just get a first draft done before 2010 is out.

The partnership didn't end up working the way I'd hoped, but that doesn't mean I won't try it again. Collaborating was interesting, even enlightening. It forced me to think in different ways than I'm used to, which is never a bad thing. Maybe best of all, it kept me focused on my own strengths as a writer, because I always wanted to be sure I was bringing something useful to the table. Hopefully, I'll be bringing a lot more the next time I team up with someone.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


I'm a pretty big fan of Mission: Impossible 3, though I acknowledge that my opinion is colored by my overall enthusiasm for the work of J.J. Abrams in general, and the TV show Alias in particular.* Some people have criticized MI3 by saying that it's just a big-screen version of Alias, but to me that's what makes it great, and Tom Cruise clearly thought that the sensibilities of the two franchises were compatible when he hand-picked Abrams for the gig.

I bring this movie up because it's one of the few big-budget action thrillers in the last several years that has actually taught me a useful lesson about screenwriting. It's not a very complicated lesson, but it's a useful one and it applies to pretty much every genre. Since I can't find the script online, I'll describe the scene in question here:

Outside a remote German factory building, Ethan Hunt and his team have just staged a complex assault on a villain's hideout in order to rescue a kidnapped CIA trainee, Lindsey Farris. Ethan gets Lindsey aboard the helicopter and the team takes off, only to be pursued by two more helicopters piloted by some of the villain's men.

Pretty good so far, right? This was all quite thrilling on the big screen; I don't know how it looked on paper. I do know this, though: it's pretty standard action-flick stuff up to this point. Let's keep going:

Ethan's ace pilot maneuvers the helicopter through the spinning blades of an enormous windmill farm to escape the bad guys. One of the bad-guy helicopters crashes; the other manages to keep up.

Then -- all of a sudden -- Lindsey grabs her head in pain, screaming that she hears a loud noise (no one else can hear it). Ethan performs an x-ray scan with a handheld device and finds that a tiny bomb has been injected into her brain -- and it's been activated -- and she'll die if he can't defuse it in time.

Now things have really gotten interesting. On top of the helicopter chase, there's the imminent danger of Lindsey's brain-bomb. The chase is big-scale and threatens the entire team; the bomb is small-scale and threatens only Lindsey. Both elements are thrilling on their own, but the fact that they're happening at the same time, and in the same space, elevates the tension to an almost unbearable level.

Those bolded words up there are the crux of this whole thing. Most of screenwriting is, to use an industry buzzphrase, execution dependent -- meaning that just writing something (a script, a scene, a line of dialogue) is meaningless; you have to write it well to get any credit.** However, the example I've cited is an exception because the mere existence of those two elements side-by-side makes the scene thrilling. As a writer, you'd win points for that scene even if the execution were just so-so. To me, that makes it a pretty great technique to know about.

But there's more to this trick than just adding stuff to other stuff, and that's why I'm calling it layering. You need the elements of the scene to fit neatly together. In this case, the writers started with the helicopter chase and then inserted the brain-bomb crisis. The two elements are wildly different in scope (helicopter: huge, threatens entire team; bomb: tiny, threatens only Lindsey), which makes it possible for them to co-exist onscreen without being totally overwhelming or numbing to the audience. (Simply adding more pursuing helicopters to the mix would elevate the danger, but after the initial thrill of "ooh, there's more helicopters chasing them," the audience isn't going to perceive the threat much differently.) Furthermore, the brain-bomb has the added benefit of pulling on the audience's heartstrings in a way that the helicopter chase doesn't. Putting a single character in peril, rather than a bunch of them, is almost always more emotionally powerful.

The key to successful deployment of this technique is being aware of how often you can get away with using it. Too many scenes like the one above would exhaust the audience to the point of numbness; they'd cease to be surprised or thrilled by anything else in the movie. In MI3, there are only a few instances of layering; the majority of the action scenes focus on one element at a time, and as such they just have to rely on good old-fashioned execution.

*Really just the first two seasons of that show, to be even more particular.

**Actually, "execution dependent" usually refers to the kind of script that may be well-written but would require skillful acting and filmmaking to turn into a successful movie. Most studios and producers tend to reject that kind of material in favor of something that would be a hit even if it were directed by a blind guy and acted by the cast of a a local morning news show.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Advantages and disadvantages

I was talking with my writing partner last night about what makes a script a fun, easy read. Having a good writing style (prose/dialogue/layout) helps greatly, of course, but equally crucial is the way in which the story unfolds. In the course of our discussion, I realized that two principles in particular are key:

1. Almost any reversal/twist that hurts the protagonist will be welcomed by the reader/audience. They want to see how the protagonist is going to get out of whatever fresh hell this is, so they'll keep reading/watching.

2. However, a reversal/twist that helps the protagonist will usually be met with something between wariness and outright scorn -- unless the twist has been set up beforehand, in which case it can be very satisfying.

It might seem odd that I use the terms "reader" and "audience" interchangeably, given that a person reading a script most likely knows a fair amount about screenwriting, whereas the average moviegoer has never so much as cracked a book on the subject. In fact, audiences know quite a bit about writing, even if they don't know they know it. They certainly know enough to distinguish clever writing from lazy, sloppy writing.

Case in point: If James Bond spends ten minutes/pages battling his way through a small army of Russian soldiers to retrieve a jetpack the size of a pencil, the audience will have no problem believing that he can use that tiny gadget to fly to safety. On the other hand, if Bond is being chased on foot by evil agents through the streets of London and just happens to come upon an unlocked car with the keys in the ignition, the audience will call bullshit immediately. And why? I mean, which is actually more likely -- a six-ounce cylinder that makes you fly, or one person in a huge city accidentally leaving their keys in the car?

The answer is that it doesn't matter. The audience isn't responding to the actual plausibility of those things; they're responding to the strength (or weakness) of the writing. When they say, "That wasn't believable!" what they really mean is, "The writer didn't earn my suspension of disbelief."

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


I've been hearing about the Pomodoro system for several months now, and finally gave it a try yesterday. Upon reflection, I'd say it's easily one of the best tomato-based productivity enhancers I've come across, certainly more effective than downing a Bloody Mary before launching Final Draft, but maybe not quite as motivating as having a friend stand by with a jar of pasta sauce that he threatens to dump on your head if you don't meet your page quota.

For those unfamiliar, let's control-c/control-v some Wikipediary exposition:
The Pomodoro Technique is a time management method developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s.[1] The technique uses a timer to break down periods of work into 25-minute intervals called 'pomodoros' (from the Italian word for 'tomato') separated by breaks.
No doubt, there are any number of Ben Franklin-type people who will be eager to leap forth from the grave and claim that they were doing this exact same thing centuries or millenia earlier; but the point is that none of them came up with a catchy name for it. Speaking of which, that name comes from the kitschy kitchen timer that Signor Cirillo used in college:

It breaks down like so: 25 minutes on, 5 minutes off. The exactness of using a timer turns out to be fairly helpful in stimulating focus and creativity: no matter how much time you have left in the day, it feels really important to be productive while the clock is running. The break is also timed, which prevents you from getting too engrossed in your chosen distraction. (You've got enough time to get a glass of water and check a few blog headlines, but not enough to go on a snacks-and-YouTube binge.)

The physical object shown above can be purchased here, but who wants an actual ticking clock taking up space when there are easily downloadable apps that accomplish the same thing?

OSX: Pomodoro sticks a little ticking clock in your upper-right status bar and uses Growl notifications to tell you when the timer starts and ends. This is what I used, and recommend.

Windows: Keep Focused is much smaller and simpler; it uses a little hovering clock that, annoyingly, doesn't seem to be dock-able. There are probably other programs out there but this is what I was able to find with some quick googling.

iPhone: Pomodoro Timer costs 99 cents but looks snazzy and seems worth checking out.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Doubling down

In real life, people don't change easily. Even small adjustments in behavior or attitude often take years or more. In a movie, a character needs to change pretty dramatically in two hours. Getting him or her there in a believable, compelling way is one of the greatest challenges of being a writer, and by "greatest challenges" I mean, of course, "hugest pains in the ass."

One thing is for certain -- a character to have an important, defining trait that the audience wants to see change. That's a given. If the audience doesn't think there's anything wrong with the character, they're going to lose interest, no matter what kind of fancy plot mechanics and exotic locations we toss into the mix. "Cares a lot about the environment" probably isn't a trait that we would want to see change, unless we're Dick Cheney. "Cares a lot about the environment but neglects daughter," now we're in the ballpark.

With that trait defined, our next task is to come up with a mechanism for changing it (i.e., the plot). For our environmentalist, what could that mechanism be? Maybe he's presented with a great opportunity to spend more time with the kid, to be a truly meaningful presence in the kid's life. That sounds nice, except there's a big problem with it, because it's not believable that the environmentalist would choose that path. And if he does choose it, right now at the beginning of the movie, he's already made the big change and the story is already over.

As an alternative, then, consider this -- the environmentalist is presented with an opportunity to be an even better environmentalist, except it requires neglecting the kid even more. Is it believable that the character would choose this path? Sure, since we already know that the environmentalism is a lot more important to him than the kid is. So instead of choosing to change his/her negative trait, the character chooses to double down on it. And hopefully, what that will do is bring the consequences of his life choices into much sharper focus and force him to realize the truth that he's been studiously ignoring this whole time, whatever that may be. Only now is he truly susceptible to change.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The right way to steal an idea

Sometimes great story ideas just pop into my head. Other times, I have to struggle to come up with one. (This is often because that great idea that came to me turned out to be impossible to, you know, execute.) During that struggle, I'll mine a variety of sources, including but not limited to:

1. My own life and people I know.
2. Things in the world that interest me.
3. Other movies.

That third one is inevitable for most writers, I think. Few of us like the idea of "stealing" an idea from another movie, but the more you write scripts and see movies, the more you come to realize that anything you write is going to have similarities to existing material. This isn't because it's 2010 and we're so starved for ideas that we're turning Mafia Wars into a movie; it's been true for a very long time. (Blah blah ancient Greece, Aristotle's Poetics, etc.)

It's okay, though. If you go about it the right way, you can extract a great idea from an existing movie without anyone noticing. It requires stripping away a lot of "story veneer" (for lack of a better term) to get at the core ideas that make the story special.

Novice writers often do the opposite, and keep only the veneer of a movie they like without touching any of the underlying principles. (This is also the case 99% of the time a studio chooses to "reboot" or "reimagine" an older movie.)

Example: Let's say you've picked Rocky to mine for material. Since it's such an obscure film, let's summarize it first. A small-time boxer and loan shark enforcer gets a shot at a high-profile match with the heavyweight champ.

To me, the "story veneer" on this is everything to do with sports/boxing. If you try to use Rocky as a model for another sports underdog movie, you're treading on territory that's so well-worn, you can see the concrete under the floorboards. And you may be more likely to miss out or gloss over the real heart of the story.

So what is the real heart of Rocky?

To me? It's about having lived through so much disappointment that your expectations are through the floor. You're at peace (or as close to it as possible) with the prospect of never meaning anything to anyone, including yourself. You'll just get by for as long as you can, and then you're done.

And then out of nowhere comes the opportunity to prove that you really are somebody -- and not just somebody, but one of the very best at something that truly means something to you. If you succeed, you'll be on top of the world, but if you fail you'll never live it down; you won't even have the luxury of toiling in obscurity, since everyone will know that you blew it.

So, if you're going to pull this off, you have to exterminate all the negativity that's been infecting your brain all this time -- learn to trust yourself, to love yourself. Build your self-esteem up to a level where it can be truly validated... or truly annihilated.

And then you have to take on the single hardest task that's ever been put in front of you.


Does that sound like it needs to be a story about sports?

Of course not. It could be anything from a romantic comedy to a heist flick. It's a general set of circumstances than affords a certain type of character the opportunity to become something much greater. There are a ton of ways to turn this into a blueprint for a great movie, without inviting any obvious comparisons to Rocky.

Notice that this story archetype, while highly flexible, comes with its own creative limitations that are helpful in funneling our thought process. For example, the protagonist clearly isn't going to be the President of the United States, or a superstar homicide detective, or the captain of the Harvard debate team. (If you want to put one of those characters in the lead, chances the story will have to focus on something vital being taken away from them, rather than the chance to get even more than they already have.)

Friday, February 26, 2010

Plan A

To be a good screenwriter, you must be a master of misdirection. Yes, just like a magician. (The Prestige is a great movie precisely because it recognizes the inherent link between magic and filmmaking and embraces it.) Fortunately, learning this skill as a writer is not as difficult (I don't think) as learning it as a magician. It merely requires us to envision a larger story than the one we're presenting on the page or the screen.

For example: Let's say we introduce a protagonist on page one or two. We want the audience to get a feel for him, we want them to invest in him... but we don't want to tell them everything he's going to be required to do over the course of the movie, because that would ruin the fun. In fact, the less we can tell the audience plotwise without losing their interest, the better. There's plenty of time for plot in the pages ahead; right now we need them to understand the person they're going to be spending the next hour and a half with. Often, the best way to do this is to set the protagonist up with a very specific plan for getting what he wants out of life. The audience will see very little of this plan played out in the movie (perhaps even none) , and that's fine; its mere introduction serves two very important purposes. One of them is, as already explained, to tell the audience some important things about the character's psychology. The other is to create drama when the plot comes along and derails our protagonist's preconceived ideas for what to do with her life.

Alternatively, it gives the protagonist a reason to refuse to embark on the quest that the plot represents. This reluctance was often a part of mythological tales, leading Joseph Campbell to coin the apt phrase "Refusal of the Call" to describe the initial unwillingness (or unreadiness) of a hero-to-be. Typically, the protagonist's ambivalence will be at least partially resolved by the end of the first act, which is to say that while he does accept his quest, he may not be doing so for the right reasons or with a fully committed heart. Nonetheless, the progression from "totally unwilling" to "partially willing" represents an important segment of the character arc. It's not always feasible to include this element -- action movies in particular have a need to get things moving quickly, which can leave little time for a character to refuse anything -- but screenplays that do a good job of incorporating it are often more satisfying.

If a character has a plan before the real plot begins, she also has something she can return to later in the story when the plot leaves her beaten and exhausted. Furthermore, the way that plan now appears to both the character and the audience -- somewhere between "no longer valid" and "utterly ridiculous" -- should demonstrate the vast distance that the character has traveled internally over the course of the story. The audience will be seriously impatient with the protagonist at this point -- "Why is he going back to the job/girlfriend/belief system that I thought he'd advanced beyond?" -- but on some level, they'll understand why he's retreating. The sense of hope and satisfaction that arises when the character finally throws off the old shackles and heads forward into Act Three can't exist if we haven't set up a solid "Plan A" in Act One.