The Process

February 9, 2012

It took my years to finish my first feature-length screenplay. I’d done a zillion kinds of writing in the meantime, including TV show development, co-authoring a sitcom spec, and co-authoring a book, but finishing my first solo feature script took an unprecedented level of integrity and determination.

Then I got caught up in the agony of rewrites. Ah, rewrites. (Sigh.)

What I discovered out of finishing that screenplay was a process that works for me. Outline. Refine the outline. When I get blocked, create a beat board. Enter the outline, in its entirety, into Final Draft. And then write at least one scene a day, paying no attention to the order, and just writing what seemed like a good scene to write at that particular moment.

I was shocked to discover that scenes that seemed so hard to write last week, were suddenly easy to write today. I gave up the perfectionism of it, and just got it on paper. Can always rewrite later. (Ah, rewrites. Sigh.) But I was even able to keep this process going on a vacation, disappearing into my room for an hour when I really wanted to be in the living room partying with all my friends, or sleeping or jacuzziing away the exhaustion from the ski slope.

I also discovered my brand. I am, at heart, an editor. An editor with a good eye for story and a wicked sense of dialogue, but an editor nonetheless, which means that as a screenwriter, what I want to focus on is adaptations. No coming up with anything on my own, just rewriting other people’s stuff. (Ah, rewrites. Sigh.) And after all, that’s one of the best ways to get paid in Hollywood. It also has the added benefit of that sense of accountability that comes from someone else waiting for my work to be done. Notice that all the things I was able to finish for those first few years involved other people. (And rewriting their stuff. Ah, rewrites. Sigh.)

As I write this, I’m at the tail end of Dances with Fat (working title), the true story of plus-sized dancer Ragen Chastain‘s quest to win her first national dance championship. Although it’s not quite the kind of source material that I first envisioned when I said I wanted to write adaptations, I do have the tremendous advantage of a vast canon of actual events to draw on. And, as it turns out, the truth is often much stranger than fiction. Since I’m doing this as part of a class, I wasn’t able to perfectly follow the process that I so brilliantly devised for Postville. But the way the class is designed, I was able to get pretty close.

So now I’ve got 5 scenes left to write. And then I get to spend the next couple of months on rewrites.

Ah. Rewrites.


July 31, 2011

Of the handful of people I’ve sent Postville to, so far I’ve gotten two responses, and both have indicated that the pacing in the second act is too slow. Which explains the lack of response I’ve gotten from everyone else, since in this business silence is the new “no.” So it’s time to take another crack at it and take it to the next level.

Hal Croasmun, of ScreenwritingU, has a series of philosophy tips on becoming a screenwriter. One of these is Kaizen: he says that 1% improvement per day leads to 365% improvement after a year. He’s actually incorrect about that. 1% improvement per day leads to 3678% improvement per year. We’ll call it “compound improvement”: After day 2, your script has improved by 2.01%. After day 3, by 3.03%. After day 4, by 4.06%, and so on. Just like the interest in your bank account, the improvement adds up after a while.

So I’ve been going back through Postville with my eye on improving it at least 1% per day. A few days ago I improved the children’s dialogue. The day before that I cut several lines in the first 10 or 15 pages that could be construed as obvious exposition. Yesterday I cut a thematic scene that I quite liked, but ultimately took 3/8ths of a page of description and just slowed the script down. I’m cutting a few words here and there to make that 5 lines of dialogue into 4. A whole page and a half has come off the script, and I’m only about halfway through.

Next I think I’m going to give the script to someone whose only job is to look for cliches. And in 3 months, hopefully I’ll have a script that’s 145% better.

‘Cause that’s kaizen.

Childish Dialogue

July 26, 2011

One of the things that scripts consistently get wrong is dialogue involving children. It seems adults are inexorably bad at coming up with things that children say. Behold a sample from my own script, as it is currently being circulated in screenwriting contests:

Postville screenplay - before


Are you done yawning yet? I have four nephews and nieces, and I don’t think any of them would respond to that question that way. And even if they would, we shouldn’t write it that way, because it’s just plain boring.

So as I thought about this, I wondered aloud what I have heard my nieces and nephews say when I walk into the room and they’re excited to see me. Behold the updated version of this scene:

Postville Script pages - after


Is it the best moment in the script? No. But all of a sudden, this line of dialogue is no longer a mound of coal that the reader has to dig through in order to get to the diamond in the scene. It’s something that actually entertains. Suddenly this little girl is funny and adorable, so we immediately care about her and (more importantly), by proxy, her father, a protagonist who needs all the help he can get in being portrayed as sympathetic.

The fact that this interaction takes place in the first five pages of the script makes it all the more important that it’s an interesting read and drives us powerfully toward the main action in the scene.

I Finished My Screenplay. Wanh.

June 1, 2011

I’ve finished Postville. Sort of. Since today is the deadline for two of the festivals I’m submitting it to, I’ve submitted it. But I’m still cleaning up a thing or two here, a thing or two there, as the deadlines for several other contests come up over the next couple of months. But I’m suddenly really anxious about it.

Winning a screenwriting contest has slightly better odds than winning the lottery, but not by much. And given that, you’re a fool if that’s your plan for retirement. So what, then?

I have contacts in the industry. Nobody who greenlights tentpole projects, but I do know some working writers, and some agents, and some lawyers, and some indie producers, and I’m terrified that if I send this to them they’re going to tell me I’m a hack. I don’t think that’s going to happen. No one at the reading said it sucked, and this particular group isn’t known for holding back on its criticism. I think at worst they’ll say “You have potential,” or perhaps “It didn’t really grab me in the first few pages,” or “It started off well but . . .”.

But is it really the next great thing? I don’t know.

I recognize this feeling. It’s a lot like the one you get after the end of a play’s run, or the one I got after I was done walking across the Alps. The best thing for it is to hop on another project. Feed the addiction.

It’s time to start another project.

Getting Out of the House

May 30, 2011

I wrote the following several weeks ago, submitted as a guest blog, but it didn’t quite fit their need so I’m now posting it here:

I’ve been working on a screenplay rewrite that’s been kicking my butt. It seems that my wildly inventive, foolproof plan for finishing the first draft (a.k.a. writing every day) completely failed me during the rewrite process, and I let roughly a month go by before I sat down to do any meaningful work on it.

Fortunately, I know that I work best under deadlines, so as the May 15th deadline for Austin Film Festival’s screenplay competition drew closer, I was more likely to sit down and get the darn thing done. But I was still having a horrendous time working at home, because for whatever reason I associate home with “the place to play video games and watch TV.”

So I posted a message on Facebook, asking if someone would loan me their house for the weekend, for the express purpose of getting some concentrated work done on the screenplay. After a few hours I got a text message from a friend of mine, saying she was going out of town from Friday to Tuesday and volunteering to let me use her house while she was gone. I snatched up the opportunity, and by Saturday night I was sending the author of my screenplay’s source material a draft, with the promise that he’d have edits back to me by noon Sunday.

As I [wrote] this it [was] now Wednesday, 11 days before the AFF deadline, and I [was] one scene away from having a working draft to send to some other screenwriter friends while I tighten up the characters’ voices. Oh, and tomorrow my mom goes out of town for three weeks and is letting me use her house as my office while she’s gone. I’m a genius.

So, obviously, that was written on May 4th, and it is now May 30th, Some three and a half weeks later. Turns out my mom’s place wasn’t really ideal for working either. Not sure why. But Postville is pretty much finished, and registered with the U.S. Copyright Office and WGA. I will soon be submitting it to various festivals, and then setting it aside for several months, probably.

Now, what to work on next …

Violence, Writing & Postville

April 25, 2011

The current issue of Poets & Writers magazine has an excellent article called “Spilling Blood: The Art of Writing Violence” that as of this post hasn’t been reprinted online, but hopefully will be some time in the near future. The article addresses the role that violence plays in literature, defending its use, particularly anti-violence — the parts that we don’t see — as being most powerful in stretching our imaginations. One of the best examples used is the shower scene in Psycho,

shot over seven days and featuring seventy-seven camera angles and fifty cuts. Almost every shot is a close-up, each of them flashing on screen for the briefest moment, giving us a shutter-speed collage of horror. A screaming mouth. An outstretched hand. A bulging eye. Knife, knife, knife. You imagine you see the murder, but not once during these three minutes do we actually witness skin penetrated, an artery severed, a blade catching against a rbb–nothing that we would have observed had the scene been shown continuously or at a wider angle.

Hitchcock described this as “transferring the menace from the screen into the mind of the audience.” And isn’t that your goal? To make an audience feel? To turn the bystander into an accomplice? Hitchcock makes this possible by supplying minute particles, never showing us everything, only glimpses that anchor the moment and allow us to fill in the rest of the nightmare.

The article’s authors also describe examples of counterpoint within a story itself–where one scene depicts the violence in two pages of gruesome detail, where another is completely understated–and the effect that has on us, the readers.

One of the best lessons I learned in college was in one session of a playwrighting class. The TA had us each write the most offensive scene we could think of, and then we read them out loud. At first, we were all laughing. After ten or fifteen minutes, we were all sick. It wasn’t funny anymore. It was just grotesque. I learned that while there’s nothing wrong with including offensive material in your work, you want to be conscious of how you’re doing it, what effect you’re going for, and how you’re providing it. Is your goal to glorify and anesthetize, as in Natural Born Killers? To sadden, as in The Hurt Locker? To horrify, as in Se7en? To titillate, as in Silence of the Lambs? Each of these requires a different approach, a different treatment, and it requires a respect far beyond what is allowed by traditional “torture porn” with its buckets of corn syrup.

A month ago I wrote on this blog about the reading of Postville that I had, and I mentioned that “People argued over whether or not I should keep the scene showing the workings of the meat packing plant, because it was so graphic and visceral, it took them a while to get back into the story.” After 40 pages of comedy, right here is this scene of graphic violence: two pages of description that walk the audience through the slaughter ritual, describing the cows being funneled to their doom, manure everywhere, knife across the throat, the blood spewing out in the arc, and so on.

My intention here was to ask the question “Who is the hero and who is the villain?”; to juxtapose the cruel with the humane, the comedy with the drama. People have said the funneling the animals to slaughter reminded them of the holocaust, of Jews in concentration camps, with the corresponding irony that in this case the Jews are doing the slaughter. That symbolism was unintentional, although if art is about the viewer’s experience, I’m certainly happy to leave people with that one.

But whether or not a director will choose to depict this scene as graphically as I have is anyone’s guess. After all, does the depiction actually serve the story and the art, or does it take you out, as it did for this one reader? The authors of the PW article point out that if it takes you out of the story, then it’s not leaving you with an emotion, which is kind of the whole point of telling a story. They also point out that the violence must be earned — if “husband walks in on his wife in bed with another man” gets one paragraph, do we care about him, or his wife, or her lover when “torturing and killing wife’s lover” gets 15 pages? Which leaves me wondering whether I’ve earned the violence here in Postville. Another point: would it be more disturbing, as in Psycho not to show the violence than to show it? I generally feel no: my biggest problem with The Dark Knight was that they cut away and let us “imagine” the Joker slicing open that guy’s mouth, no doubt a casualty of the PG-13 rating; whereas my favorite moment was the first time we see Two Face, in all his glory. I think the graphic violence does leave us with a strong emotion, the question is whether that’s the emotion we want to leave you with.

It’s something I’ll have to consider as I’m working on Postville. But regardless, check out that article from PW when you can, and make sure all your violence — and the rest of your obscenities — are well founded.

The Three Act Structure Is a Load of Crap

March 22, 2011

This morning, I woke up to a reply from Linda Aronson on my Flashbacks discussion with Michael Hauge (scroll to the comments at the bottom). One of the things she brings up is the fact that not all scripts have to follow the three-act structure, which works only for a certain type of film.

One of the things I’m wrestling with in my current screenplay is that the low point, in the last draft, occurred on page 98 (out of 112). At my reading a few weeks ago, I was told that I need to have it about 20 pages earlier. I’ve been really struggling with this, because I know that the script has some structural issues, but I don’t quite see how to gut the entire first two acts AND add in some of the stronger suggestions they made and still accommodate this change.

After doing a little more research I discovered that yes, in Snyderesque BS2 format, the “All Is Lost” moment needs to happen on page 75, leading to the “Dark Night of the Soul” (75-85) and then the 2nd turning point driving us into Act 3. But then I kept looking and discovered, much to my relief, that this doesn’t always have to be the case. In The Jumper of Maine, which won a Nicholl Fellowship and the AFF Screenplay Competition this year, the low point occurs much later, around page 91 (of 107), leading to a VERY short final act, and the climax.

Then I re-read the “Act Design” chapter of McKee’s Story, which corroborated the idea that you don’t have to shoehorn every story into three acts. Which is good news, because one of the things I’ve been keenly aware of through this whole process is that the closer you stick to the formula, the more formulaic your movie becomes.

So in rewriting Postville, my low point is going to occur earlier than it did in the previous draft (mostly a function of trimming the fat), but then I’m also going to extend out particularly the final act, to give the audience some time to deal with these characters as they’re going through their final crisis.

Still haven’t quite figured out how to do that just yet … but I’m getting closer.

%d bloggers like this: