One singular sensation

One

Well, that’s Draft Seven done. Talk about your long rows to hoe.

How long did you spend crafting and recrafting, conceiving and revising? Months? Years?

But you have it about as polished as you can make it, and in all likelihood, your brain hurts and you’re sick of the story.

Congratulations. You have achieved a wondrous thing. I mean that sincerely.

Now, take that radical writing, dazzling dialogue, cogent characterization, amazing action, and tell the exact same story in a single page.

No playing with page margins and point sizes. A single page that is easy and enjoyable to read.

It’s no easy task, under the best of conditions, but you should be able to do it. And if you can’t, it likely means that you don’t have a good handle on your story.

ScreenU one page

Not just for producers

Even if you don’t have any meetings with producers or agents planned—in fact, BECAUSE you don’t yet have any meetings with producers or agents planned—you should develop a one-page synopsis of your work just to make sure you understand your story and that your story is solid.

The one-pager forces you to cut away all of the excesses that might disguise fundamental problems with your story and bring any such issues into the glaring light of day.

The one-pager forces you to understand how well you can concisely and clearly convey your thinking, and perhaps just as importantly, highlights how universal your idea is.

 

Not even one page

If you thought rewrites were a pain, you can only imagine how difficult these things are to write; at least for us mere mortals.

And to make matters worse, you don’t even have a full page to write your synopsis because of everything else that needs to be included.

  • Who are you and how does anyone get hold of you?
  • What is the name and nature of your project (i.e., title, genre, medium)?
  • Why are you the best person to tell this story (i.e., any special skills, knowledge, background)?
  • Logline or one/two-sentence synopsis of the story

And then a short handful of paragraphs that highlight:

  • Your protagonist & the world he/she inhabits
  • The goals and more importantly, what’s at stake
  • The main antagonisms/conflicts

And somehow you must do this in a manner that is interesting, engaging and entertaining, that reflects the mood and genre of the piece, and most importantly, reflects your voice and style.

TNL poster

As an example of a one-pager, I offer The Naughty List. I’m not saying it is a good one-pager, but it is one page and conveys my story (and me).

 

TNL oneb

Good luck.

 

Award-winning screenwriter Randall C Willis is Story Analyst & Coach at So, What’s Your Story? (Facebook page). He also teaches screenwriting in Toronto at Raindance Canada and George Brown College.

Writers beating off

The dog next door has been barking non-stop for days, maybe weeks. The first couple of times, you got up to see why, but never seeing anything, you barely hear the sound any more. It is just noise.

Alternatively, you’d never know your neighbour owns a dog, the creature is so quiet. But then, it suddenly barks. Jarred by the new noise, you look out your window only to find someone climbing through one of your neighbour’s windows.

Which dog are you most likely to notice: The one that barks incessantly or the one that doesn’t but just did?

barkingdogcartoon

(Property of Jerry King: http://www.jerryking.com Used without permission but for educational purposes.)

If there is one function that I wish Final Draft and Movie Magic and all the other screenwriting software would remove, it’s the ability to insert the parenthetical (beat).

At the very least, when you type it, I would love a pop-up window to appear asking: “Are you sure it’s necessary?”

Because more often than not, it is completely UNnecessary. If anything, it is typically a nuisance.

As I understand it, (beat) is used to indicate a delay between one line of dialogue and the next.

In this example from The Imitation Game, the 2014 film screenwritten by Graham Moore, it is used to break up a phone conversation where we only hear one character speak. In this case, (beat) indicates a pause while Detective Nock listens to the party on the other end of the line.

Imitation Game phone

(Used without permission but for educational purposes.)

Unfortunately, (beat) is also often inserted by the screenwriter for dramatic reasons.

The writer believes that the brief pause makes the prior line stand out before moving onto the next spoken thought. A dramatic moment is revealed in the dialogue, and (beat) gives the line space to be heard.

Or at least, that’s the theory.

Too often, unfortunately, writers use (beat) in place of drama. Unable to devise a truly dramatic or powerful line, they instead insert (beat) in a vain attempt to imply drama.

It’s tantamount to someone Tweeting about how powerful, smart or cagey they are to compensate for none of those qualities being obvious in their person or demeanor.

In the writer’s defence—and this happens more with newer writers—the (beat) is exactly how they “hear” the dialogue in their head. The character takes a moment when speaking and so the writer types (beat).

This would be fine if it happened a couple of times in a screenplay, but what I’ve found is that:

Once a writer starts (beat)ing off, it’s hard to get them to stop.

 

The more dramatic the scene they’re trying to write, the more aggressively they (beat) off. And they don’t stop (beat)ing off until the scene or sequence achieves climax.

Although the writer may gain some satisfaction in this, few others do.

The pace of the read and therefore the pace of the story slows for the reader. The Director doesn’t want to be told how to direct, nor the performer how to act.

To a person, each simply ignores the writer’s directive to (beat). The constantly barking dog is effectively silenced.

When everything is dramatic, nothing is dramatic.

And worse, once the (beat) moves on, the reader, Director and performer are left with lines of dialogue that are not dramatic, that have no weight, that dampen the drama.

So, what’s the writer to do?

 

One: Write better, more powerful dialogue.

Writing is an art, but it is also a craft.

Write the best line that you can, and then rewrite it better and better, layering the drama into the words, the cadence, the subtext, the timing within the plot.

Two: Trust the process.

Know that you are not the only arbiter of your words and trust others down the line to find the drama you so carefully crafted.

Below, see another example from The Imitation Game, where Benedict Cumberbatch’s script is un(beat)en and yet he imbues his lines with drama and significance.

 

Imitation Game interview

(Used without permission but for educational purposes.)

If people cannot find the drama without constant insertions of (beat), they won’t find it with your direction (because it’s likely not there).

By being judicious in your use of (beat), those moments you do decide to use it will become the dog that never barks but just did.

The (beat) will stand out as something special, noteworthy; and so will your story.

 

Award-winning screenwriter Randall C Willis is Story Analyst & Coach at So, What’s Your Story (Facebook page). He also teaches screenwriting in Toronto at Raindance Canada and George Brown College.

Why story coaching?

Coaching

No matter where you are in your writing career, your work can almost always be helped by feedback from fresh eyes that do not have a vested interest in the work itself.

Story analysis can help you see challenges in your story that might be invisible to you, whether through inherent biases or because you see the story clearer in your head than it has been recorded on the page.

Story analysis can also help you see opportunities in your work that you overlooked, if only because you are too close to it. Your priority for that early draft, in all likelihood, was simply to get things out of your head and onto the page, and we all walk with the fear of wandering down so many blind alleys that we never come out of the other end, wherever that end may be.

 

So fine, story analysis is helpful. But what the hell is story coaching?

Almost by definition, story analysis happens AFTER you have completed a draft (or several). It comes AFTER you have wandered the desert of creative confusion. It comes AFTER you have bled your creative juices onto the page and have become smitten with your creation.

And in some very unfortunate cases, it never comes at all, because the storyteller never completed the project, whether due to fear of failure, a sense of being intractably lost, or simply because Life intervened to distract from the task at hand.

This is where story coaching can help.

Story coaching is about a work-in-progress, whether a screenplay, a novel, the writer him or herself…whatever the storyteller needs most.

Hurdles

As with life coaching, business coaching or athletics coaching, story coaching is about providing guidance to the storyteller on a regular basis, whether simply as a second set of eyes to critique the work or as a mentor who uses the work-in-progress as a framework within which to help the storyteller develop as an artist.

Story coaching is also about commitment and accountability for the storyteller.

By hiring a story coach, the writer has made his or her creative art a priority in life. Why else spend the money?

And working with the storyteller, the story coach establishes expectations and deliverables, whether that is new story ideas, number of newly written pages, rewrites. These are the foundations of creative habits that can be difficult to develop and entrench in solitude because the creative process is so personal and fraught with self-doubt and self-recrimination.

 

But I can get this from a writing course or a writers’ group.

Yes, this is true…to an extent.

Writing classes can be invaluable, depending on the composition of your classmates and the skill of your instructor.

With a roomful of students, however, it can be difficult for the instructor to provide truly focused guidance to an individual student. More typically, the student is presented with a spectrum of general direction, all of which can be valuable but only some of which may be germane to a given work-in-progress.

Writers’ groups can also be a wonderful resource, again depending on the composition of the group. That composition and the individual writer’s position within the skill hierarchy, however, are critical.

Most writers’ groups are comprised of peers with relatively equal experience, and so may not be able to provide the more advanced analysis and mentorship that an individual wants or needs. And if an individual is the most advanced or skilled within a given writers’ group, he or she may find little opportunity for improvement.

[NOTE: I firmly believe that you will always find something in the feedback of any group of readers. The question is more whether it is worth the effort you put into the group.]

Sports

Although it is not impossible, you are very unlikely to ever become a professional football or hockey player by spending any amount of time playing flag football or pond hockey with friends. Why would we expect storytelling to be any different?

 

How do I know a story coach is right for me?

You don’t. Well, you don’t until you start a conversation with him or her.

 

Oh, hey! Is the story coach going to try to tell me what stories to tell?

Absolutely not.

The story coach is here to understand what story you want to tell or help you understand it better yourself, and then help you tell it in the most effective manner.

You are the Creator. The story coach is not.

 

If you want to learn more about Story Coaching, feel free to reach out to me (no obligation) at:

So, What’s Your Story? (web site)

So, What’s Your Story? (Facebook)

SWYS-Facebook-Cover

Authenticity

who-is-this

This election is about authenticity.

Michelle Obama’s speech resonated with so many people because she was the most authentic person on stage.

There seems to be a great need in the world for people to be authentic, to be honest about their needs and desires, hopes and dreams.

His word is his bond.

What you see is what you get.

I work every day to be an honest practitioner of me, and yet, it continues to be a struggle if only because I do not yet know who I am.

In my defense, however, I never had a fighting chance, because from our earliest days, Western society impels us to fit into molds.

In school, we are taught to behave in a specific manner; to sit in regimented rows and speak only when spoken to. Our excellence is constantly measured against that of our peers on a scale that doesn’t really seem to prepare us for anything except more of same.

When we find employment, we are slotted into roles beyond which it is counterproductive to stray. We are hemmed in by job descriptions and told not to get above our station. To strive for something bigger is to earn the threatened enmity of our “superiors”, as well as our supposed equals.

set-de-moules-pour-personnages-pme

More often than not, to break from our confines and achieve improvement let alone greatness is to go it alone; to be ostracized from our fellows. And even in achieving something, there is a vast pool of people waiting for you to fail, snapping at your heels, if only to validate their decisions not to strive.

And while I find that sad—and admit to having wallowed in that group myself—I cannot blame these people for feeling, thinking and behaving in this manner. They, like I, bought the lie that if we behaved ourselves, if we followed the rules, if we lay our souls down to society, to industry, to community, we would be taken care of, we would be protected.

The lie is crumbling, however. It is becoming more difficult to not see beyond the façade. To remain blind is becoming increasingly difficult even for the most determined.

Children are graduating from school to find nothing awaiting them. Get your high school diploma; get your Bachelor’s degree; get a graduate degree. The bar keeps moving if only to delay arrival at the precipice, an abyss that grows deeper with every tuition payment.

Middle-aged and older employees who remained bound to a company, addicted to seniority, pensions and steady salary, are suddenly finding themselves cut loose after 15, 20, 25 years and staring back at a ravenous pack of un- and underemployed juniors—local and international—willing to work for lower wages.

In many ways, these poor souls are the victims of the very investment portfolios and pension funds they fought so hard to build, stakeholder groups that demand increasing returns with little concern for how companies achieve those returns.

lockedgate

And so the cry goes up for politicians and administrators and executives to be more authentic, to be more honest with those they oversee, to live up to their promises.

We point vehemently to the walls of the molds into which we poured our lives as though they were legally, morally and ethically binding contracts, and implore others to save our lives.

And as has happened in every decade that preceded this one, we will fail and we will fall as institutions redefine and reconstruct themselves on the old models.

The same hue and cry that triggered the Reformation and the Renaissance also triggered the Inquisition and Fascist Europe.

What I have come to believe is that I cannot change the world. Rather, I can only change me or perhaps more correctly, stop changing me. The person who needs to be authentic, to be honest, to live up to promises is the one I see in the mirror; he is me.

Rather than distort myself to fit boxes constructed by society and its micro-collectives in the mistaken belief that this will keep me safe, I need to risk all and not only discover who I am, but also express that person to the world.

My first steps to do just this have been awkward and timorous. It is uncharted territory and demands a certain amount of trial-and-error.

But as I continue to move toward authenticity, I am finding the footing firmer. Dirt-grasping shuffles are becoming steps, and will hopefully one day be strides.

And whereas society is not always welcoming of my decision, I have been lucky enough to find that the people in my life have been almost universally supportive.

It is unlikely that I will change the world, but it is a certainty that I will change my world.

And if I am authentic, that is enough.

authentic

Historectomy – Brexit edition

Those who do not learn from history represent 100% of the human population.

We have plenty of examples where ignoring history has preceded disaster, and in some cases, preceded a very similar event or process. But correlation does not indicate causation. For one thing, I cannot think of a single example where someone stood up and cited something from history, thereby averting a disaster.

That said, I adore the study of history and so playfully offer the following commentaries on recent efforts to “make Britain great again.”

GreatImmigrationLordy

 

 

Screw the cat

First Draft

So, you want to write a screenplay.

Maybe you’ve read some books on screenplay writing—names like Cowgill, McKee and Field dot your bookshelf. Perhaps you’ve taken some screenwriting classes whether at a local university or community centre. You may have even—saints be praised—read some screenplays.

Great. Good on you. Way to go.

Now, before you type your first letter onto a page, do yourself a huge favour and forget all of it.

Okay, don’t forget it, but definitely shelve it. Put it aside, because almost none of it is useful to you yet.

In short, you can’t handle the truth…and that’s okay.

Leave the lessons for Draft Two and onward

Leave the lessons for Draft Two and onward

You’re about to write your first first draft (no accidental duplication there) and your only purpose right now is to tell a story.

Should my inciting incident happen around page 10? Doesn’t matter.

How much detail is okay in my narrative? As much as you need.

When is it okay to use voiceovers? Whenever you want.

None of what you learned really matters at this stage and is more likely to make your job harder than easier. It will become useful, later, when you’re doing rewrites—and you will do a lot of those.

But for right now, all of that information—much of which can appear and may be conflicting—is just a barrier between the blank page before you and the story you want to tell. Or perhaps more importantly, between you and the best story you can tell.

In my experience, it is a 1000X easier to fix bad structure than it is to fix a bad story. (This is not to say that any story cannot be improved.)

If you need three pages of narrative to get you to the first line of dialogue, then write three pages of narrative.

If it takes you 347 pages to tell your story, then that’s what it takes.

If you read yesterday’s pages and they sound like shit, stop reading yesterday’s pages. Keep writing until you’ve told your story.

Contrary to the name of the software package—thanks for the pressure, Final Draft—this is your first draft and it’s going to have a lot of shitty bits and pieces; they all do. I don’t know that in the history of screenwriting, anyone has ever filmed the first draft.

So write like no one is watching; because other than you, no one is. And tell the story you want to tell.

When you finally write “FADE TO BLACK” or “END” or “FIN” (pretentious move, btw), those books, blogs and lessons will still be there to help you get to drafts two, eight and fifteen.

(Please note: When I say ignore everything, I’m also including this blog post. If it is easier for you to tell your story by considering any or all structural and formatting elements, then do so.)

Blaze the trail that works for you, regardless of whether anyone has been down that trail before.

Let the cat write his or her own damned story

Let the cat write his or her own damned story

Valuable lessons in Legs Crossed Hands On Your Lap at Toronto Fringe

Teachers say the darndest things!

Teachers say the darndest things!

The first day of school can be a pretty scary time; learning all new rules, meeting so many kids, and finding out which teachers are the mean ones. And as Ms. X (Debra Hale) shows us in Legs Crossed Hands On Your Lap, it can be harder on the teachers than the kids. Her story opened its Toronto Fringe run today at the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace.

Legs Crossed Hands On Your Lap follows a year in the life of new teacher Ms. X as she tries to figure out students and adults alike. The result is a heart-felt and often funny tribute to the second oldest profession. Or as playwright Yael Sirlin describes it, an open love letter to teachers.

Although Hale carries the bulk of the dialogue on stage, she is given amazing support by Jamillah Ross and Stevie Jay, who from my seat, seemed to be having the bulk of the fun on stage. Playing anything from teachers to students, principals to parents, Ross and Jay are a whirlwind of strange voices and oddball body language. And as cute as their child characters were, it was their portrayals of control-freak teachers that seemed to generate the most laughs from the audience.

Stevie Jay has some issues with teacher Debra Hale and fellow student Jamillah Ross

Stevie Jay has some issues with teacher Debra Hale and fellow student Jamillah Ross

The play isn’t simply Kids Say the Darndest Things Live, however. In a couple of places, the tone took a darker turn as the actors dealt with more serious issues like bullying. This was where the opportunity for a teacher to touch a student’s life took centre stage.

Those moments aside, as Fringe fare goes, Legs Crossed Hands On Your Lap felt pretty light. It likely won’t make you re-examine your life or challenge your thoughts on art.

But then I don’t think that was the intention of the piece. Instead, it is here to entertain and to celebrate teachers with all of their foibles. And in this, I felt it totally succeeded as a highly enjoyable hour of smiles and laughter.

[Review first published at Mooney on Theatre.]