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

Left-handed (DNA) compliment

While attending the surprise birthday party for a friend in the sciences, I noticed he owned a coffee mug from a group called Life Sciences Career Development Society based at the University of Toronto. Actually, to be more accurate, what caught my eye was the DNA double-helix on the mug…and the fact that it was wrong.

Wrong

BOOM! My head explodes.

As someone with biochemistry & genetics degrees who has written about the life sciences for ~15 years, this seemingly innocuous error drives me crazy. This must be how copy editors feel when they see a misused semi-colon (and I’m sorry about that).

right v wrong

For the non-biochemists, through a characteristic known as chirality (look it up…too hard to explain here), the typical DNA double-helix in human cells—the famous Watson-Crick-Franklin structure or B-DNA—has a right-handed helix. This means that if you could see the double-helix (above) and let your fingers follow along the curve of one side as it wraps around the other, you could only do this comfortably with your right hand.

You can see that in an example of a single helix that curves either to the left (left) or the right (right).

handed

Unfortunately, somewhere in the mists of science illustrations time, an artist drew the double-helix of DNA in the wrong direction and that double-helical abomination has perpetuated ad nauseum, including irritatingly enough, in science publications and scientific logos such as a recent health article in the Toronto Star (image below), the cover of a sci-fi novel and the LSCDS logo.

DNA - backwards

And if I only saw this in 50% of the images, I’d be irritated but probably not the raving loony I am now. But no, this freak of nature is everywhere. The correct right-handed DNA illustration is the anomaly.

So why does this matter? Maybe it doesn’t, and I am just a raving loony.

Certifiable loony!

Certifiable loony!

But for me, I struggle with what else might be wrong in a life science or healthcare story if they can’t get the DNA helix right. Do I trust the math of an investment planner who doesn’t know that four quarters equals one dollar?

Luckily, the fix is an easy one. Simply mirror the image you have (not turn it upside down) and the left-handed double-helix becomes a right-handed one. (In a mirror, your actual left hand looks like a right hand.)

So, medical illustrators everywhere, please fix your catalogues of scientific illustrations. My head can’t take too many more explosions.

So much better

Nerves already calming.

[Also, from a design perspective, up and to the right is more palatable for North American audiences as it implies future success (e.g., rising value). Has nothing to do with handedness, here.]

For the more biochemically savvy:

Yes, there is left-handed DNA, which is also known as Z-DNA. But as you can see from the illustration below, its structure is significantly different from the smooth-flowing curves of B-DNA (and the equally unusual A-DNA).

Two rights don't make a left

Two rights don’t make a left

Re: Rewrites (Part Two)—Toronto Screenwriting Conference 2014

Chitlik_2

In Part One of this post, we examined Paul Chitlik’s approach to reviewing the structural elements of a story, including the idea that a screenplay is actually comprised of four stories: The plot-based Main Story, the relationship-led Emotional Story, the protagonist’s internal Personal Growth Story, and the humanizing Antagonist’s Story.

 

Dissecting character

To truly understand your main characters, Chitlik recommends building something of a character profile that you can use as a steady reference while examining how the character acts and speaks within the screenplay. This is critical, Chitlik says, because often when you start writing a screenplay, you really don’t know your main characters and as you write, they will become more defined.

For assistance and more insights, Chitlik highly recommends Lajos Egri’s book The Art of Dramatic Writing.

 

Protagonist

Physiology – develop a sense of what your character looks like even if you don’t incorporate it into your story (something beyond “tall man in his mid-20s”)

Sociology – imbue the character with a social history: family life, school, jobs, etc.

Psychology – how does your character think and respond to his or her environment? Here is where the personal flaw comes to the fore

How is the character reflected in his/her dialogue? – in how he sounds, the word and grammar he uses, and how he acts

What is your character’s defining line? – Think Dirty Harry, a battle-weary cop with a strong moral center who is begging the criminal to make him shoot “Go ahead, make my day.”

 

Antagonist

Physiology

Sociology

Psychology

Human quality – what makes your antagonist more than a 2-D character? Why should we empathize with him or her?

How is the character reflected in his or her dialogue?

What is the antagonist’s defining line? – Think Terminator and “I’ll be back.”

 

Dissecting the screenplay itself

Chitlik then lifts his view slightly higher from the page, offering ways to dissect the screenplay in a more technical manner from its content to the paper itself.

 

Seeing the Scene

Each scene has all 7 of the structural elements of your story, so be sure you can identify them, although be aware that some elements may not occur within the lines of the scene but rather are implied or referenced within the lines.

Does the scene have any/enough/appropriate conflict? Chitlik finds conflict to be the #1 problem of new writers, which leads us to a discussion of goals

He is adamant that every character within a scene must have his or her own goal, however prominent or minimal to the plot. The conflict, he suggests, comes from the points at which these goals thwart or oppose each other.

Also, look at the emotions of the characters within the scene. Do you maintain them throughout the scene or when they change, do they change when something acts to cause the change?

And for emphasis, re-examine the conflict of the scene.

 

Looking for Cuts

Chitlik suggests he has never read a screenplay that couldn’t benefit from cutting about 10%.

He suggests you start by looking for scenes that lack conflict, don’t move the story forward (treading water) or fail to illuminate one or more characters in some manner.

Either eliminate these scenes or find some way to incorporate the missing ingredient.

Then look to cut off the heads and tails of scenes, starting later or ending earlier. An example he gives for the tails is leaving the scene when the final challenge arises or is issued, and he points at the work of David E. Kelley in this regard. The resolution of the challenge, he argues, can easily be worked out by the audience through the start or context of a subsequent scene. You don’t have to always spell things out.

 

Presently Presentable

This is the challenge of first impressions. Chitlik gives the example of a former student who sent him a screenplay she wrote and on the title page, she misspelled her own name. This, he says, did not bode well for what was to be found inside.

Chitlik describes this as the Mercedes Benz theory of script presentation. If you are going to spend $100K on a new Benz and you are presented with two cars—one that is absolutely beautiful and immaculate and one that is dinged up and dirty—which one would you choose to spend your money on?

Look at the pages of your screenplay and ask yourself how much of the page is black and how much white. Before looking at a single word, readers will be repelled by heavy screenplays with long descriptive sections or heavy dialogue. Find ways to break this up to leave more white space on the page.

Chitlik’s other cautions are: Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar.

 

The Rewrite Plan

Chitlik’s plan is straightforward and iterative:

  1. Write a biography of the protagonist in his/her own words/language
  2. Write a biography of the antagonist in his/her own words/language
  3. Reread the screenplay, making notes on the above topics
  4. Create a new beat sheet of the screenplay, adding new scenes that help your story play out and cutting old ones that don’t work or aren’t necessary
  5. Write new pages and rewrite old ones from the beginning
  6. Go back to Step 3

If it sounds like a lot of work, it is, but Chitlik promises that with each iterative run, the work gets easier and the outcome improves.

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Re: Rewrites (Part One)—Toronto Screenwriting Conference 2014

Chitlik

One of the definite highlights for me at this year’s TSC was the rewrite session offered by screenwriter, director and producer Paul Chitlik, who is now also a professor of screenwriting at Loyola Marymount University. For me, the practical sessions resonate much longer than the advice or adoration panels.

If there was one disappointment with Chitlik’s session it was that the 90 minutes apportioned to him were not nearly enough for him to really explain his process, try as he might. Thus, in many respects, the session was more of an appetite whetter for his book Rewrite: A Step-by-Step Guide to Strengthen Structure, Characters, and Drama in Your Screenplay.

 

Stages of review

For Chitlik, a good rewrite means taking 8 separate passes at your screenplay, which include:

  1. A review for structure
  2. A review for conflict
  3. A review of descriptive paragraphs
  4. A review of the protagonist’s dialogue
  5. A review of the antagonist’s dialogue
  6. A review of the supporting character’s dialogue
  7. A review of cuts that can be made
  8. A review of the presentation of the screenplay

According to Chitlik, this iterative review process causes many of his students to groan, but his attitude is that if you don’t like your script enough to read it eight times, you seriously need to rewrite your script or you need to throw it away and work on something else.

 

Structure: The main story elements

Before starting his specific rewrite techniques, Chitlik took us on a bit of an overview of the main elements of the main story, acknowledging that this number will vary depending on who you read or to what storytelling philosophy you ascribe.

His main points or pillars are: Ordinary life, inciting incident, end of Act I (goal or plan), midpoint, low point, final challenge, return to the now-forever-changed normal life.

In the ordinary life, we find our protagonist impressionable and naïve, and from Chitlik’s perspective, our first visual of the protagonist should give us some clue as to his or her character flaw. This is where we see the character in context and how the person’s flaw interferes with his or her normal life.

With the inciting incident, something external to the protagonist impacts his or her world, changing the world forever and forcing the character to take action. Chitlik acknowledges there is a lot of debate on where precisely within a screenplay the inciting incident should occur. He actually prefers later (toward page 15) to give us time to get to know the protagonist.

By the end of Act I, the protagonist has had a chance to reflect on the inciting incident and formulate a response. This is where the story really begins as the protagonist takes the lead. Chitlik acknowledges that this isn’t always the case, however, and offers the example of Thelma & Louise where Thelma doesn’t really take control of her world until the midpoint.

By the midpoint, the protagonist has been pursuing his or her goal but an external force spins the story on its axis, leaving the protagonist to come up with a new goal or plan. For Chitlik, the protagonist should also learn something new about him or herself when this happens.

By the end of Act II, though, the protagonist reaches the low point, ideally triggered by his or her flaw, where all is lost and the goal seems completely unattainable. As Chitlik notes the cliché, the dark night of the soul.

At some point, an external force triggers the protagonist to engage in the final challenge. Here, the protagonist must overcome his or her flaw, and often repairs a relationship. Chitlik notes that while this final challenge is often large and dramatic (e.g., a battle), it can also be quite small and subtle, but it must involve the protagonist overcoming the fatal flaw.

The protagonist then returns to the new normal. Life often moves just as it did in the beginning, but the protagonist’s approach or viewpoint is forever changed in some way.

 

Chitlik then suggested that the story is actually four stories, each of which has its own version of the 7 story elements, but are ideally intertwined with each other:

The Main Story included the basic plot points or challenges the protagonist faces

The Emotional Story describes the central relationship of the protagonist, whether with the antagonist, a love interest, or some other form

The Personal Growth Story shows how the protagonist comes to face and then overcome his or her flaw

The Antagonist’s Story highlights that the antagonist has his or her own goals in life (wants and needs)

Chitlik adds that we may never see the antagonist’s ordinary life and instead of a flaw, we want to show his or her human quality, which makes the antagonist both more empathetic to the audience and a bit more chilling.

 

In Part Two of this post, we will look more closely at Chitlik’s advice on dissecting first your main characters and then the actual screenplay itself.

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Story before structure

Over the last couple decades, I have taken classes at a variety of post-secondary centres teaching everything from magazine writing to sketch writing to screenwriting, and one thing has always amazed and frustrated me about the majority of my classmates: They all think they are going to finish the class with a template for success.

For some reason, they believe that there is an inherent structure for a successful story that they can just drape story elements over. If I can just map out the three-act structure, I will win that Academy Award.

When in your lives have you ever walked out of a class with a structure for success? Ever! Ever!

Even the alphabet was merely a building block to communication. Please let me know who has gotten a job and achieved a pinnacle of success through the strict application of the alphabet as taught in pre-K or kindergarten. The alphabet is useless unless you rearrange and duplicate some of the letters, and even then there is more to it.

Don’t ask the instructor on what page the Act I turning point should come because not all screenplays are 110 pages and not all stories have their Act I turning point at the 25% point of the screenplay. (If you want your head to explode, try figuring out the Act I turning point of the movie Memento.)

Write the story that demands to be written, regardless of the canonical film, novel or sketch structure. Let the story and its characters tell you when things should happen. Luckily, because few of us still spit charcoal onto our hands against rock walls, we can easily move the elements of our story around later.

You can have the strongest architecture in the world, but if your story sucks, your screenplay sucks. If your characters aren’t truthful to themselves and your story, no one will believe them. Much as a roadmap doesn’t a vacation make, neither does a story structure a story make.

We learn these elements, the points in our writing, as guiding principles for our own thoughts, not as immovable stone markers for what must be.

When used correctly, this information can enhance a beautiful story, but when used as a crutch, it destroys creativity; we focus too much on the next point and not enough on the journey.

Write your play. Write your novel. Write your screenplay. Write your poem. Write your story.

Once you’ve done that, then check the beams and girders of your construction to make sure everything is exactly where it needs to be for the sake of that story.