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.

We could be heroes

A new day starts, and you rise from your bed. As you head to the shower, your mind drifts to the challenges your boss is having connecting with her 20-year-old son.

As your boss has focused on her career, both her son and husband have come to feel like second-class citizens, the younger adult acting out by joining a gang.

It’s not your place, but as you’ve known your boss for 15 years, you feel drawn into the family drama and spend your morning devising ways to intervene on her behalf while simultaneously coping with the poison-pill clause in the hostile takeover bid.

Hold it. Wait a second. No, you’re not.

Sure, if your boss is a friend and she’s struggling, you’d likely help. You have your own life, your family and your job, however, to worry about.

You don’t merely exist to serve your boss’s life.

Shrek_Hero-1

(Character likenesses are the property of DreamWorks Animation & are used here for teaching purposes only.)

Consider the movie Shrek, for a moment.

Among the characters, we have Shrek, Fiona, Farquad, Donkey, Dragon and Gingie.

Of those, who was the hero of that movie?

Given the movie’s title, it is pretty likely that the central protagonist of the story is Shrek. And given the way the narrative plays out, based on the scenes we watch, Shrek is indeed the hero of the movie.

But do the other characters see it that way?

Did Donkey wake up one morning with a mission to help an irascible ogre find acceptance not only within a community openly hostile to him, but also within himself through his sacrifice for another?

No, he had his own issues.

Did Fiona allow herself to be locked in a tower, guarded by a knight-immolating dragon, so that Shrek could see her example of isolation as a metaphor for his own, and in rescuing Fiona, he rescued himself?

Not so much. Girlfriend had her own agenda.

So, I ask again: Who was the hero of Shrek?

EVERYONE!

(At least from his or her own perspective.)

Shrek_Hero-2

Everyone saw the same events unfold, but everyone saw them differently.

Shrek followed his life course. Donkey followed his. Fiona hers. Farquad, Gingie, the Three Blind Mice, theirs.

And in seeking to fulfill their own wants and needs, they each experienced their own character arcs. They each suffered their own Hero’s Journey.

As a screenwriter—or more broadly, a storyteller—this understanding is vital to doing proper service to your characters. The secondary and maybe even tertiary characters cannot simply be treated as plot devices, or at least not if you hope to make them seem real.

As you introduce your characters to your story, give thought to what their journeys would look like. Consider what they hope to accomplish by spending time with your main protagonist or the other characters. See their various relationships through their eyes.

And then write them with that in mind.

When they react to a situation or another’s action, they must do so with their own interests at heart, at least as much if not more than their counterpart’s interests.

When one character acts, consider the consequences and stakes for each character, and then watch the dramatic tension rise.

Look for those moments when a character must choose between his or her agenda and the greater good, or those moments where another’s behaviour threatens his or her agenda. There lies conflict.

Hear the words a character speaks and consider if those words mean one thing to the larger story and a different thing to that character’s journey. This is the subtext—conscious or subconscious—that you seek.

You may not—likely won’t—accomplish this level of intricacy on your first draft. First drafts are about getting the central story line onto paper (or whatever medium you prefer).

It gives you several starting points, however, as you enter rewrites and search for ways to tighten and heighten your story.

And at the end of that process, you should be able to write a logline for each of the major characters’ perspectives.

Shrek_Hero-3

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.

A call to live your passion

My friend Jarrod Terrell, whom I met through Kevin Scott‘s Effortless Alphas group, recently challenged his fellow Alphas to share their goals and dreams for life in a Facebook video.

In part, the idea was that verbalizing your dreams made them real for you, but it also opened the door to others in your community who might be able to help make those dreams come to fruition.

Here is my video.

How can I help you discover, explore and share your passion?

See also:

So, What’s Your Story? (web site)

So, What’s Your Story? (FB page)

Contagious Adrenaline (FB page)

 

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.]

Approaches not panaceas

Image

As I said in Birth of a Reader, I am addicted to books. But even with my addiction, I must admit that every now and again, I wish there were no books on writing and most specific to me, screenwriting.

I say this not because the books available are particularly badly written, but more because they are well written by the author but often poorly understood by the reader; readers who more often than not are looking for the One True Way to screenplay writing.

The same is true in business books. If you tell me your favourite business author, I can tell you how—and possibly what—you think.

Seth Godin. Philip Kotler. Clayton Christensen. John C. Maxwell. Each of these authors has their own approach to various aspects of business, and the more you engage with each, the more your mind thinks in those directions. (It is probably more that they help you rationalize where you were going anyways.)

Linda Cowgill. Chris Vogler. Robert McKee. Michael Hague. Paul Joseph Gulino. Dara Marks. Each of these authors also has a trigger onto which student after student latches, like a remora on a shark, looking for their next artistic meal. Each offers an approach to screenplay writing that he or she found particularly useful.

Unfortunately, too many students miss the point that these are approaches or ways of thinking about screenwriting and not road maps to success. Each book offers one or more lessons that a writer can incorporate into his or her work today to make it better, but none of them are the One True Way.

In fact, too close a focus on any one author and you will never find Your True Way.

Too much focus on Dara Marks’ Inside Story and you will find yourself in a tailspin about Theme, as you struggle to force-fit your characters’ actions and dialogue around a theme that may or may not be true to your story.

If you find yourself able to quote Chris Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey, you’re likely describing your characters in terms of mythic archetypes a la Joseph Campbell and drawing parallels with The Wizard of Oz and Star Wars.

I’m not saying that novice writers should avoid these authors. I am simply saying that each should be approached cautiously as the novice writer—or seasoned writer, for that matter—can’t hope to achieve everything these authors discuss. The authors have the luxury of looking at a screenplay as a completed item and so discuss aspects and approaches for which you and/or your screenplay may not yet be ready. There is a reason that you will still find many of these books on the shelves of seasoned screenwriters…because they continue to find new lessons in old books as they develop their craft.

The authors and their tomes are more like a screenwriting buffet, offering you a variety of flavours that hopefully provide nourishment, but can also cause artistic indigestion.

So, sorry folks. The books offer no clues as to the One True Way. It doesn’t exist. And like everyone that came before you and will likely come after, you will continue to struggle as you search for Your True Way.

PS I own and have read books by all of the authors discussed here (and in Book larnin’), and every time I reread them, I find something new to apply to my screenwriting—including, interestingly enough, from the business writers.

Unintended misogyny

According to the Cambridge Dictionaries Onlinemisogyny (n) Feelings of hating women or the belief that men are much better than women.

Image

Let me state for the record that I do not hate women, but over the last decade or so, I have come to realize the insidious ways in which I felt (or made it appear that I felt) men to be superior to women.

As a male writer, I have historically written stories from the male perspective. My protagonists were male. My antagonists were male. My peripheral characters were predominantly male. And when I did include a female character, she tended to be rather two-dimensional (see also my blog post For my friend Emma).

Several years ago, I had the fortunate happenstance to take a sketch comedy writing class at Toronto’s Second City Training Centre under the guidance of actress and writer Aurora Browne, best known locally as one of the actors from the show Comedy Inc. and former mainstage performer at Second City. Perhaps not surprisingly, the class was mostly comprised of men. And to a man, we wrote sketches about guys.

After the first couple of classes, however, when we had each produced a few sketches, Aurora challenged the men in the room to either rewrite one of their existing sketches or write a completely new sketch with a woman (or several) in the lead.

It was at that moment that I realized my unintended misogyny.

Aurora was tired of trying to find material with strong and/or well-defined female characters. She was tired of simply playing the girlfriend, the ex-wife, the nurse, the teacher. Not that there was anything inherently wrong in playing any of these roles, but more that they were almost always written as two-dimensional…if they could even be said to aspire to a second dimension.

This was her opportunity to put her heels into the dirt in moulding the next generation of comedy writers.

From my perspective, the task was amazingly daunting and very surprising, as I found myself breaking down walls and obstructions I never realized I had put in place. I had to think how might a woman character function differently in this scene, without getting cliché, and how would that change the dynamics of the scene. Or even would it?

In the years since, no matter what I write—sketch, screenplay, teleplay, poem—I watch for places where I might fall into gender bias. The minute I decide on my main characters, I ask myself if the protagonist or antagonist could be a woman (sadly, I still typically default to males). If the answer is yes, then I take a second run at my idea to see which way would make for a better story.

As a result, I have both dramatically increased the repertoire of characters I can bring to life and greatly enriched my stories. In fact, the two most recent screenplays I am developing have female protagonists, as do a couple of my television pilot concepts—not out of a sense of political correctness or fairness, but because those choices made the most sense for the story.

So thanks, Aurora, for the creative kick upside the head.

(Illustration used without permission.)