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.

The Commuter shoulda stayed home (a review)

Commuter poster

Liam Neeson is a special actor with a unique set of skills. Unfortunately, few of those skills are on display in The Commuter, his latest outing.

A thriller with few thrills, The Commuter tells us the story of a really unusual day in the life of insurance salesman Michael (Neeson) who meets a mystery woman (Vera Farmiga) during his commute home one evening. She presents him with an opportunity to make $100K if he takes on one little assignment, identifying someone who seems out of place.

Despite being an ex-cop and an intelligent person, Michael takes on the task, which quickly spirals out of control (else we have no movie) and the body count ratchets up. For most of the movie, we then watch an agitated Michael run, walk, crawl, slide and sidle up and down the commuter train, examining and re-examining the same passengers.

To tell you any more would be to present spoilers, but truthfully, this movie really can’t have any because the plot is largely telegraphed.

If you’ve seen Taken, you’ve seen this movie…and Taken was much better.

Forget driving a truck, you could drive a whole network of Amtrak trains through the plot holes in this story, which begins implausibly, becomes ridiculous and then gets downright silly. Had a dragon or demonic nun suddenly appeared, they would not have been out of place in this film.

I add demonic nun, by the way, because it seems there is a clause in Vera Farmiga’s contract that stipulates she must only appear in movies with her The Conjuring series co-star Patrick Wilson. I think it has something to do with the two actors having the dynamic range of granite countertops.

Commuter conjuring cast

At several points in the movie, Neeson’s Michael makes reference to his advancing age (he is 60 years old here), and all I kept thinking was “yes, and you should know better”. Despite no outward sign of an exercise regimen—“It’s either walk up and down the aisle or take up yoga.”—this character has the fighting skills of a Navy Seal half his age rather than what might be expected from a decade-long retired NYPD officer.

More broadly, if we ignore the general stupidity of the plot, this movie is a wonderful example of why it is so difficult to effectively tell a self-contained story; a story that takes place within a confined space over a defined period of time. Effectively, after the first few laps through the train, we’ve run out of new things to try.

I’ve tried talking to people. I’ve tried punching people. Now what? More of same, I guess, for the next 45 minutes.

In writing parlance, this is called “running in place” or “repeating beats”; a repetition of actions until complete boredom or a novel insight sets in. Without ham-fistedly introducing “screenwriter ex machina”, what is the poor protagonist to do?

We accept this challenge more easily in a film like Taken if only because the writer gives us new locations and different implementations of kicking ass. We get visual variety even if the actual action is effectively the same.

Confine characters to a single set, however, and that visual variety is eliminated. The plot repetition becomes more glaringly obvious.

There is a reason that most confined space films are shorts. It is truly challenging to reveal anything novel after more than 20 minutes.

If you’re heading out to the movies and this is your best option, stay on the train…and don’t talk to strangers.

Commuter Farmiga-Neeson

Thor: Ragnarok – Review

thor-ragnarok-imax-poster-1723x2500

I would not have blinked had one of the characters in Thor: Ragnarok suddenly broken into song, bellowing “Kill the wabbit!”, because this movie was a live-action Bugs Bunny cartoon devoid only of Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd and Daffy Duck.

And I enjoyed it, exactly for that.

Unlike previous Thor outings that tried to delve into the frat boy-cum-reluctant prince (Chris Hemsworth’s Thor) and then dueling brothers (add in Tom Hiddleston’s Loki), this third treatise tossed aside any pretense at character development and plot, replacing it with 2+ hours of slapstick and one-liners designed to tickle the 12-year-old boy in all of us, regardless of gender.

By design, this movie was stupid and silly and wocka-wocka, and in that, it worked on all cylinders.

At best, the plot was a series of expositional “what you need to know now” moments that extended the sibling rivalry to include a supremely ambitious sister (Cate Blanchett aka Hela, God of Death) who felt slighted by Dad (Anthony Hopkin’s aging Odin).

Interwoven with this story was a side-plot that attempted to quantify whose dick was bigger: Thor’s or Hulk’s. Not surprisingly, the biggest dick actually belonged to alcoholic side-kick and fallen warrior Scrapper 142 (Tessa Thompson).

Despite the carnage—LOTS of people get brutally wiped out, so not sure if this is kiddie fare—the movie was downright fluffy and vapid, and your memory of it will likely evaporate by the time you get home. That said, the process of watching the film is fun, and one or two elements come to light (NO SPOILERS) that you know will feature in an upcoming Avengers saga.

And while we wait for that film, I suggest you YouTube What’s Opera, Doc?

On the page

typewriter_jammed-letter-keys

Frenzied creativity can keep you from getting all of your thoughts down

One challenge of being creative is that our minds often work much faster than the rest of our bodies can. Ideas can come at such a rate, our enthusiasm for a topic or story can be so intense, that we can find ourselves tripping over our words or leaving out things like nouns and verbs.

When I was much younger, I would see this challenge play out on my typewriter.

My thoughts were so frenzied and my fingers so quick that I would physically overwhelm the ability of the typewriter hammers to rise at the key stroke, strike the ribbon against the paper, and fall back into place before the next key stroke catapulted the next letter. Time and again, I would sigh in frustration as I would stop to manually separate the two letter arms that had become entangled.

But even in the absence of mechanical typing, such enthusiasm can result in conceptual clogging, where thoughts that cross your mind fail to find a home on the page.

Although this happens more in fiction than nonfiction writing, I have read examples in both situations where a writer has failed to include important information about their characters, the plot or even the settings of events. Because we see everything in our heads, because our thoughts move so quickly, we may not realize that we have failed to put this on the page.

When I write a line of dialogue for a character, for example, I hear the character’s voice in my head and I know his or her emotional state, so I hear the intonation that reflects that state.

On a good day, the same information is relayed in the words the character speaks and/or in the actions the character performs while saying those words. (On a really good day, the words spoken and the actions taken don’t exactly align, revealing subtext.)

As often as not, however, I threw down the first dialogue that came into my head or described a relatively generic action to get to the really cool moment a couple of pages from now.

Again, I heard the intonation. I know how the character is feeling. So, in my head, nothing is missing. Everything a reader needs to understand what is happening is found in the black letters that stripe the white screen or page.

 

Am I reading what you’re writing?

Your reader is not in your head, however. She doesn’t necessarily know how the character feels or where the story is going.

She will likely fill in those blanks with her best guess based on what she’s already read, and she might be right.

But if she’s not, if her assumptions are wrong, the moment of realization might be quite jarring, and she may have to drop back to re-read one or more passages to catch up to you.

NOTE: These moments are particularly noticeable if you have someone or a group do a cold-read of your work. The minute a reader starts the line “wrong”, you see (or hear) the potential train wreck ahead.

Any success you had in engrossing your reader and revealing your creative genius dissipates, and has to be newly won in the subsequent pages.

As the reader, if I need – or even just want – to know something to help me understand a character, relationship or scene, make sure I do. Make sure the idea or concept is on the page.

You ultimately cannot control what goes on inside the head of any reader, whether their personal perspectives or attitudes or what kind of day they’re having, but you can do as much as you can to get your idea, your story across with as few filters as possible.

You don’t necessarily have to do this with Draft One – anything you can do to ride the wave of enthusiasm and get Draft One completed takes priority.

But as you transition to Draft Two, Four or Eleven, look for opportunities to be clearer in your intent for your characters and your story.

31429063-close-up-of-a-page-from-a-screenplay

Aiming for clarity

How many ways could a given line or sentence be read?

Unless you’re purposefully pulling for subtext Nirvana, try to reduce that number, if for no other reason than the number in your head is probably three to five times lower than what it actually is.

Sometimes, clarity comes in the perfectly chosen word.

“Cameron put his glass down.”

“Cameron slammed his glass down.”

“Cameron let his glass drop.”

“The glass slipped from Cameron’s hand.”

Sometimes, clarity comes with more information/words.

“Cameron put his glass down.”

“Cameron gingerly nestled the glass into its condensation ring.”

“Avoiding a fist of broken glass, Cameron lowered his drink to the table.”

Yes, you run the risk of over-writing, and it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been accused of writing travelogues rather than setting descriptions in early drafts.

I would argue, however, that it is better to cut back something over-written than omit vital information.

And yes, for genres such as thriller or horror, you may want to avoid providing too much information for fear of ruining the suspense.

I’ll talk more about genre another time, but in the interim will suggest that while you may wish to mislead your reader, you never want to lie to them, even by omission.

Once the final reveal is made, the reader should be able to go back and see all the connecting dots. Simply leaving out an important point is a cheat, from my perspective, especially if it prevents someone from making connections.

Misdirect, fine. Leave things open to interpretation, certainly. But never lie.

 

Seeing what’s not there

So, how do you know what you’ve inadvertently left off the page?

Time away helps.

Once that initial energy has dissipated, put the work away for a while. Clear your head by working on something else, and only then come back to it and see if it reads like you wrote it.

Alternatively, as suggested above, have someone (or some-many) read it aloud to you while you sit completely silent – not easy. You will hear every clunk and every reinterpretation of your intent.

And sometimes, you simply cannot see it, which is where people like me come in: experienced story analysts who know the standard or common issues that arise and can not only identify where they occur in your work, but also offer insights or possible fixes.

This is feedback at a higher level than editing – although many of us instinctively edit – and the best story analysts help you find your way of telling your story, not theirs.

Because the story analyst didn’t write your story, they’ll see the gaps or holes much faster and more clearly than you will, and will help you fill those gaps, ensuring that you have left it all on the page.

 

So, What’s Your Story is a story analysis service designed to help anyone tell their story better, whether fiction or nonfiction, long or short, written or verbal. Even if you’re just looking for a quick sense of how well you’ve told your story, we should talk.

Story is everywhere

[First part of a weekly series related to my new story analysis service So, What’s Your Story.]

bookshelf

Even the most esoteric subjects have story, with all the elements of a fictional novel or screenplay…even text books about business or biochemistry or writing.

There’s no story in text books!

Yes, there is.

Only here, plot is less about action sequences and more about the interplay of the different aspects of your subject and the causes and effects that drive your theses or perspectives forward. This can be reflected in the cadence of your descriptions, as you walk the reader through your arguments, leading them to your conclusion.

Likewise, your characters are less about personalities and more a sense of the…you guessed it…characteristics of your subjects. In the broadest sense, the conflicts and synergies between the component parts or ideas of any topic are what effectively humanize the topic, providing a familiarity to the reader or viewer.

Without story, your manuscript or presentation has no narrative drive, nothing to draw the reader or viewer forward. Instead, it reads like a specification sheet or spreadsheet; a series of minimally connected facts and figures that provide information but only to the most intrepid reader.

Story is one of the reasons why you can have hundreds (thousands?) of different versions of the same facts, and how publishers and book retailers stay in business.

So, if you’re working on a nonfiction manuscript or presentation, let’s talk and see how well you are bringing your ideas to your audience.

Reach out and tell me: What’s your story?

Twitter: @createdbyrcw

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/storyanalysis/

Website: [to come]

The Man from UNCLE – see it while you can (a review)

MfU poster

As a literal child of the 60s, I am barely old enough to remember the television series The Man from UNCLE, yet another show centred on Cold-War America’s fascination with the spy world. While Bond, Flint and Helm were doing their thing in theatres, The Men were joined by the likes of The Saint, I Spy, The Persuaders and Get Smart.

Unfortunately, whereas I can quote lines from Get Smart (don’t judge me) and have fond memories of The Saint, things are a little foggier when it comes to The Man from UNCLE. Thus, when I took in the newly released movie, my mind was open.

Essentially, an origin story for the UNCLE organization—United Network Command for Law and Enforcement—the movie introduces us to the two men on which the series hinged, American spy Napoleon Solo and Soviet spy Illya Kuryakin, and how they are forced to work as a team despite their complete distrust both of each other and of their own governments.

I won’t go into great detail about the plot as it really doesn’t matter—much as the plot of a typical Bond flick doesn’t matter. The only reason for the central plot conflict is to force these two guys together and watch them play “whose dick is bigger.” Really. I mean it.

Over a two hour span, I think there was maybe 30 minutes of actual story. The rest of the time was spent in a great variety of chase scenes, some of which were quite funny, or watching Solo (Henry Cavill) and Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) argue over fashion, spy gadgets and how badly the Soviet needs to get laid.

Now & Then: Chemistry is key for bickering twosome Napoleon Solo (dark hair) and Illya Kuryakin

Now & Then: Chemistry is key for bickering twosome Napoleon Solo (dark hair) and Illya Kuryakin

All of the friends who saw this movie with me had issues with this. The story wasn’t particularly engrossing and they felt like director Guy Ritchie had simply provided a light dessert; enjoyable in the moment, but offering little satisfaction.

To some extent, I agree with them. I am a fan of Ritchie’s earlier efforts with the Sherlock Holmes movies (Robert Downey, Jr., Jude Law). Here, the stories were quite rich and complicated, as one would hope with a Sherlock Holmes tale. Using this barometer, The Man from UNCLE definitely failed.

But to some extent, I think my friends missed the point (but then, I would). I don’t think Ritchie was going so much for a story that you might find in the most recent Bond films, filled with character complexities and inner conflicts, longer story arcs, generous back story.

Rather, I think Ritchie was going for the vibe and energy of that earlier generation of spy films, which were more a vehicle for the star than anything and featured much shallower stories. To me, this film was more about Dean Martin’s Matt Helm, James Coburn’s Derek Flint, and if only for the humoured banter, Roger Moore’s James Bond.

Ritchie is trying to capture a time and place, or perhaps more specifically, a style. And if we have learned anything about Guy Ritchie, in a battle between style and substance, he will always go with style. In some ways, I see him more as a painter than a director, as his primary goal seems to be a luxurious visual. Dialogue is simply a necessary evil for him.

Although, this is not to say that the dialogue was a burden here. The chemistry between Cavill and Hammer is palpable, much as it was between Downey Jr. and Law. And the addition of Alicia Vikander’s character Gaby simply enriches that dance.

Alicia Vikander's Gaby complicates life for the boys

Alicia Vikander’s Gaby complicates life for the boys

She is a very capable actor and this role is perhaps the complete opposite of her performance in Ex Machina (my review). Although, you may end up questioning which role was more manipulative.

Unfortunately, Ritchie may have overestimated the power of his painter’s brush in this film if my friends and the 2/3-filled Friday night opener was any indication of how this movie is being received. This film was obviously set up to be a franchise, but as we have seen in the past, that decision doesn’t rest with the studios as much as with the audience (aka box office).

I’m hoping the movie does financially better than it looked. I’d like to see more of these movies. May have to live with reruns of the original series, instead.

200px-ManFromUNCLEbook

Other reviews of The Man from UNCLE:

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. about more than just the cool clothes: review – Peter Howell, The Toronto Star

Movie Review: The Man from U.N.C.L.E. – Danny F Santos

Marvel plotlines assemble – Comment on Age of Ultron

Avengers-Age-of-Ultron

So, you plunk down your $20 for the new IMAX 3-D Star Wars film. You saw the two previous trilogies, so you think: “This is going to be so cool.”

But then you get a glimpse of Captain Jean Luc Picard and think: “What the feck?”

And then a few minutes later, there is a reference to the smoke monster, and you scratch your head: “How did Lost get in here?”

That’s the way I felt after watching The Avengers: Age of Ultron…or perhaps, more accurately, after sitting in a bar for 4 hours after seeing Ultron with friends who are completely immersed in the Marvel universe.

In fairness, I went into this movie with the attitude that it was a comic book movie and therefore, I had low expectations other than visual stimulation. And for the most part, I was pleased with the result.

The CGI was stunning. The characters were witty in their banter. And nothing in the movie was very surprising…if you didn’t know how this movie was going to end, you really shouldn’t be watching comic book movies.

My challenge with the film—and the subject of beer-laden discussion afterward—was the sheer volume of references to and characters from previous films and television series of the Marvel pantheon.

Marvel universe study aids.

Marvel universe study aids.

For the record, I saw the first Captain America movie, all of the Iron Man franchise, two Thor movies, the first Avengers movie, all of the Spiderman movies (keep asking myself why, however), and just started watching the Daredevil television series.

And yet for all of that leg work, when the movie started, I had no idea why the Avengers were fighting who they were fighting and who the enemy were. Apparently, if you missed Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the Agents of Shield television series, you missed a lot that sets up this movie.

Now, having that background doesn’t necessarily keep you from understanding the main plot of this movie—can James Spader actually outsmarm Robert Downey Jr. (no spoilers)—but I’m the kind of person who likes to understand why things are happening.

They didn't invent smarm, but they've taken it to new heights!

They didn’t invent smarm, but they’ve taken it to new heights!

And to writer/director Josh Whedon’s credit (or condemnation), the dialogue throughout the film was one long stream of exposition—I wasn’t expecting character arcs in a comic book film.

Unfortunately, with the exception of a couple of short sequences, all of this exposition comes as things are exploding and/or in the midst of battle scenes, so your eyes and ears are being bombarded at the same time as your brain is trying to puzzle things together.

Thus, I spent a lot of time shrugging my shoulders when things happened without relatable context to me.

A guy with wings shows up…hunh, there’s a guy with wings. Thor slides into a pond in a cave…I guess this is something important.

[A couple of friends in my group were seeing the movie for the second time…apparently, this helps a lot. Nice move, Marvel marketing department!]

Now, I am not the demographic for this film series. I don’t still read the comic books and have not rushed to see ALL of the Marvel films or television series. And more importantly, I don’t want to do the Internet-searching homework necessary to fill in any blanks that arise (which was another activity in that 4-hour bar discussion).

And that’s why I have described this post as a comment rather than a review.

I cannot review this film because I don’t really know enough about the Marvel universe, other than to say “boom”, “ooooh”, “wow” and “okay, sure, whatever”.

You’ll be hard-pressed to be bored by The Avengers: Age of Ultron, but you may not be any further ahead at the end of the movie than you were at the beginning.

And when all is said and done (or blown up), that may ultimately be the reason I step away from the whole damned thing and leave the adulation to my friends.

Other reviews/thoughts on Age of Ultron:

Howard Casner – Rantings & Ravings

Ryviews

Lady Geek Girl

Wilson Reviews

22 questions about Avengers: Age of Ultron answered (Den of Geek; nothing but spoiler so only click if you must have the answers)