10.03 – Forever Odd

February 21, 2010

Forever Odd is the sequel to Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas, about a small-town guy who can see dead people.

Having now read three of Koontz’s books, I’m noticing a few trends:

  1. As a creator of characters, Koontz is second to none. What makes Odd Thomas so interesting is his sarcastic wit, and his insistence on bringing that sarcasm to the most tense of moments – both in dialogue and as a narrator. Furthermore, Koontz’s villains are just extraordinary. Like, truly demented and bizarre, and yet somehow we buy into their actions. I think Forever Odd actually had the weakest of Koontz’s villains of the three books I’ve read to date, and yet it was still so much fun hating her.
  2. Oh my God, stop dragging out your second acts. In all three of the Koontz books I’ve read, there’s a point shortly after the inciting incident – say, a fifth of the way into it – until roughly halfway through, where it just starts to get boooring. I shared recently that in From the Corner of His Eye in manifested itself as, “I’m wondering when he’ll get to the point.” Then he got to it shortly after that. In Forever Odd, though, it’s just a series of this happens, then this happens, gradually plodding along until we actually get to some action. I remember that in Odd Thomas as well.

Next up is a nonfiction marketing title, which I started reading last night and I’m already a third of the way through.


The Cold Open

January 13, 2009

A couple of nights ago I watched The Invasion, the 2007 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, with Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig.

While I wouldn’t call it boring, the first act is riddled with exposition and it takes a long time to get going.  The villains of the film are body snatchers who show no emotion, and they turn from humans to aliens while they’re sleeping, so the intensity doesn’t pick up  until there are enough of them to pose an imminent threat, which necessarily won’t happen until the Act II.

So that being the case, the beginning of the movie is pretty dull.  And if you were reading this script, you’d stop paying attention after page 5, if not for one thing: the cold open.

The first 30-60 seconds of the film is an intense sequence that takes place, in real time, somewhere around the second turning point.  Nicole Kidman (meet our hero!) is shown weak and bleary eyed, desperately grasping for drugs in a ransacked pharmacy.  When the sequence is over, we’re left wondering how we get to this point, and it’s this foreshadowing that keeps us interested through 30 minutes of exposition and mundane nonthreatening villains.

I remember a similar technique used in Maverick, starring Mel Gibson.  While that was long enough ago that I couldn’t possibly remember the first act, I do remember that the film opens with our hero about to get hanged, which we then get to in real time … somewhere around the second turning point.

So while there are a lot of things that could/should be done to prevent lethargy in the first act of your sci-fi action thriller, from the perspective of a film festival reader it’s a great trick to keep someone paying attention if your  beginning develops slowly.

Subplots – The Love Story

January 11, 2009

When I started writing Charisma, I was really trying to avoid a love story between our heroine and Ben, her roommate/mentor.  As a general rule I hate romantic B-plots in action movies, because they’re so trite and predictable, so I wanted to have the love between them be completely in the subtext and not addressed on screen.

But the more I write, the more glaring is the omission.  While I like the fact that it’s all in the background, it’s becoming obvious to me that something in there has to be addressed, or else it’s going to hang out in the room like a really nasty fart.  And the more I think about it, the more I realize that no producer or director would let the screenplay go to production without it being addressed somewhere.

One of the themes of this film is the dichotomy between nudity and sexiness; the nudity in strip clubs is so gratuitous that it stops being sexy, and were I to direct this film, one of the ways I would do it is to exploit that theme by having the nudity (in the strip clubs only) be so rampant that you stop noticing it, while the other moments in life – when Ben and Chelsea are having an honest conversation, or when Chelsea is seen doing something completely banal and human – would play up the sexiness.

I have no idea, yet, how I want to address it, so I was bouncing ideas off my wife, and as soon as I mentioned the idea of Chelsea and Ben having a sex scene, she went through the roof.  “No, you can’t do that to Ben!” she exclaimed.

I was a little surprised, and not a little pleased by her reaction, because it meant that I’d created characters she cared about and hit on an idea that elicited an emotional reaction, which is what film is all about.  So in spite of her protests that I was being a jerk, I continued down that train of thought.

If they were to have sex, I like the idea of an incident not unlike the Meredith/George debacle from Grey’s Anatomy.  Because the stripper with the heart of gold who falls in love with the boy who’s trying to save her is cliche, and that’s the thing I have to avoid.  On the other hand, I kind of like it when films hint at that love or sexuality, where they have an almost experience, and then decide not to, for whatever reason – which would be easy to manufacture given the vast amount of history between these two characters and the vast amount of baggage each of them carries.  It would also set up some good internal conflict, and would make for a good Gap Between Expectation and Result and break the stripper cliche, since you’d expect sex to be no big deal to her, except that it is.

So I’m still thinking about it.  In an early draft outline, I had Chelsea walk in on Ben while he was masturbating.  I loved the idea, but it didn’t fit into the plot, so I replaced it with something else entirely, and now I get to bring it back.  That excites me.  But more than that, I like the fact that I’m opening up my second act , and giving myself more to not to say in those unspoken love scenes.

Montage Overboard

January 7, 2009

How many montage sequences is too many?

In reworking my second act, I’ve noticed that I now have four montage sequences in the first 50-odd pages of the screenplay, and I’m worried I’ve gone overboard.

In part this is a stylistic choice – the first such sequence occurs in pages 1-4, and it was very much intentional, and very much a cool way to introduce our heroine.  During the opening credit sequence, we’re interspersing a phone conversation with shots of her getting ready for work.

The second is pages 29-34, and it’s basically the first turning point.  I’m worried about that, because I think it may be a cop-out for me to avoid having to write the scene. That said, it’s supremely cool because of the visual imagery, and because we’re again cutting back and forth time-wise – this time even more so, moving between “before the decision” and “after the decision” until the “before” catches up to the “after” and we see how she got there.  So although I think it needs a little work to make the “after” scene stronger, I feel pretty good about it structurally.

The next one, which is the one I  just reworked, starts only 6 pages later.  This is worrisome.  Plot-wise, Chelsea needs to spend the entire day in the library reading, fall asleep in the library, wake up at 6 am, find a group of people doing Tai Chi in the park, giving her the idea to take martial arts classes, and then spend the entire day at the martial arts studio, before going home where she gets arrested.

As the “hero develops his mad skillz at the top of the second act” sequence, it makes perfect sense to make it a montage, but looking at it in context, just 6 pages after the one before it, it feels a little cheap.  I employed the same before/after time-cut device, and now that I’ve done it I realize that I’m just being lazy and trying to avoid creating multi-dimensional scenes.

So now I need to figure out how to make this multi-dimensional.  Which is hard because right now it’s conceived purely to advance the plot.  But if I can eliminate this montage, I can probably keep the one that comes after her arrest, which is basically the midpoint, establishing a theme that the major moments of the film occur in time-cut montage sequences.

So I guess it’s time to put my thinking cap back on.  Thematic scenes?  You bet.

Closing the Gap

December 1, 2008

Of all the things I read in Robert McKee’s Story, this is the one that sticks out the most: that story happens in the gap between expectation and result.  I get inspiration from this in all kinds of weird ways, and it doesn’t always make sense, but I’ll try to explain.

I finished the first act of Charisma two weeks ago and immediately ran into a wall.  How the hell do I start the second act?  Something needed to go in there, after she “embraces her ability” but before she is arrested. This was a huge gap in my outline, and though I knew it needed to be the B-plot – her attempt to graduate from college – I had no idea how to execute it.

I wrote this fun little scene where she goes to her Academic Dean and tries to use a Jedi mind trick on her, but the tone of the scene was off – when she’s arrested, a few minutes later (in screen time), she still needs to be scared and confused, and I can’t see taking two huge swings in such a short time frame.  So I cut the scene and looked again.  She needs to be arrested, but what does the arrest scene look like?  I keep going back to McKee’s Closing the Gap example in Chinatown (which I just watched for the first time last week), where the butler doesn’t open the door … then she’s happy to see him … then she won’t reveal her secret … then she does. Do I need to have my hero try to run away from the police, when they come to arrest her?  That would certainly bring about a change of pace and a gap between what she expects of herself and the action that instinctively comes to her.  Although I’m not crazy about the idea of writing a chase scene for her arrest, I think it’s the right move.

Still, I needed something to set it up.  The arrest needs to happen at night, but what does she do in the day up until then? The segment has so many requirements:  It needs to set up the B plot and demonstrate her attempted development of her skill, while maintaining the tone that keeps her arrestable.

Once I figured it out in those terms, it was quite easy.  I started by re-inserting the cut scene, and instead cutting the last three or four lines of the previous scene.  They were lines I liked, but they shifted the tone from scared and confused to giggly and convivial.  By making that change, the entire tone of the next scene became much more sombre, and rather than being “fun” it became a desperate attempt for our hero to understand the world around her.  Amazing how cutting these few lines gave the “Fun & Games” scene a rich layer of subtext that wasn’t there before.  (Sidenote: I’m reminded of a famous story of an Orson Welles theatrical production of Julius Caesar, which went from mediocre to excellent in audience’s eyes, simply by adding back in – and using expressionistic lighting to accent – the lynching of Cinna the Poet.)

Then, she goes to her mentor for help … and he helps her.  She spends the rest of the day in the library reading and absorbing knowledge, and then she checks out some books that will help to incriminate her later on.  Problem solved.  And at every step, the gap occurs in what the characters expect of themselves.

Now we get to move on to the chase, followed by the accusal, followed by the rescue and the Ordeal, and hopefully the next 30 pages will be a breeze for me to write.

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