Writing a single, continuous 9 page scene with no time cuts or location changes is a challenge.

More later.

Cinematic Writing

It surprises me, talking to folks who are new to screenwriting, how many of them don't have a movie in their head. If you don't see a film, how are you going to make anyone else see it? They are telling a story, not creating a film. This often becomes clear if you ask them - what is character y doing while x and z are talking here? Or some other detail about something they put in the room and then left alone. They aren't *seeing* the scene.

Of course, I've always imagined somewhat cinematically. Even my most abstract poems (with the exception of a couple of grad-school literary cut-up experiments) run in my head as a short film. And I can tell you what every detail of each frame looks like.

Then there's the other sticking point - once you have the movie in your head, knowing how much to put down on paper to evoke those images in another person's head. Most of us have been told enough times not to overwrite that it's less common to see an overly florid screenplay than one which chooses such generic descriptions/dialogue that they flatten out and the flavor of the imagined story is lost. You can do a lot with the flavor of the language, rather than endless description - something I learned from poetry.

Yes, the language of a screenplay is stripped down, basic and straight-forward. That doesn't mean it can't be evocative. Your hero can walk down a wet street, or they can splash through the wet grime of rain-slicked asphalt.

My signature on Triggerstreet is: "Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass..." (Chekhov) and it illustrated perfectly what I mean. The moon may be shining, but what we see is the glint of light...and that piece of glass can add to a threatening or a down-trodden tone, depending on context.

Every word matters, every word is a chance to evoke the movie you see, in your reader's head.

By the Sequence

I've written about the sequence approach to structure before here, but recently discussed the actual progression of sequences on the boards at Triggerstreet. Thought I'd share that here as well.

The idea behind the sequence approach is that each section has a beginning, middle and end, and each has its own conflict and resolution or reversal. This not only helps to assure you have tension and stakes all the way through, but gives the rhythm a rise and fall, peaks and valleys.

These sequences can blend well with a three-act structure, the mini-resolutions falling around the turning points, or they can be seen as following their own rhythm. Shorter sequences, interspersed, can be used to develop sub-plots.

At any rate, you only have to think 12 pages at a time. And if you feel you need one or two more sequences, that's possible.

Here are breakdowns for It Happened One Night and Rushmore.

Now, the guy who wrote the book on the sequence approach lays them out like this (but other uses of the sequences are possible):

- Setup: The hook - a puzzle, conundrum, question in the audiences mind - used to stimulate curiosity. Then a picture of the protagonist before the story proper begins, the kind of person and type of life they have now. Ends with a Catalyst, the intrusion of instability into normal events.

- Development: The main plot point (or central dramatic question) is set out. Protag comes to terms w/ the change in circumstance, or tries to put things back as they were. This attempt fails - usually with some kind of big event (first act turning point) which signals the point of no return

- Special World: Protagonist tries to solve the problems posed at the end of the last sequence, usually an easy fix attempt which fails. Protag ventures out of their usual world and they have to learn the rules of the new domain that they have entered before they can move forward. (often a training or learning sequence)

- Game: The easy fix inevitably makes things worse, there is a desperate attempt to return to normality. Usually results in a revelation which makes everything more complicated and difficult for the protagonist. The protagonist may have a very real chance of winning only to have this feeling rapidly reversed. (midpoint reversal)

- Grace: Protagonist grapples with a new situation after the midpoint culmination and twist - leading to new situations (or a new view of them). Sometimes the quest changes direction. Usually ends w/ another change, another raise in stakes, and often confrontation w/ the antagonist

- Intensification: The main dramatic question is answered, the main tension is resolved. Can either be a dark night or a bright spot before the last reversal.

- Sprint: The apparent resolution brings unexpected consequences, which have to be dealt with immediately. Often a complete reversal of apparent objectives. The final showdown.

- Resolution: wrap up and come-down

Characters I Love

I'm a bit of an oddity, in that for much of my adult life, I haven't had TV. A television, to watch movies on, sure. But no TV service.

Since I've been living with my sister, though, she subscribes and I've gotten into watching several shows. The thing I find I love most is the ability for TV to create complex characters over time. People can display far more unlikable qualities but still win you over. They can be contradictory or surprising in ways that are much harder to get to in a movie.

Some of my favorites:

House - the perfect example of someone unlikable that you end up loving. Major kudos to the writers, but especially to Hugh Laurie, who can convey an iceberg worth of subtext with a single close-up, so that there doesn't ever have to be dialogue spelling out his deeper feelings.

Mary Shannon on In Plain Sight - again, in no small part due to the acting of Mary McCarthy, but also skilled writing that always places her in a situation that's designed to push and stretch her.

Also brilliant, the way she basically plays a typical man (her car, her tastes, her view of right and wrong, her difficulty having relationships, etc) and her partner is a man who displays all the typical qualities of a woman (sensitivity, nurturing, into poetry, indirect in his communication, and so on). Watch her on one or two shows, she's amusing. (In fact, the series took a season or so to find balance so that she wasn't over the top.) Over the course of the series, she's fascinating.

Criminal Minds has two great characters I love. They used to have three, but one left the show. Reed, the savant and Penelope, the hacker. In a movie Reed would not be dynamic enough to carry it, and would probably be a lesser member of an ensemble. Given a series, there's time to tease out the background of a character who is internal and socially awkward. In a movie, Penelope would probably just be a joke, the comic relief. Cut to the quirky hacker chick. But on the show, she's had time to develop into a tender and loving woman, who is, in many ways, the heart of the show.

Other characters who would be simply lost in a film, and likely would barely have a chance to breathe and develop are the secondary characters Heddy on NCIS Los Angeles and Walter in Fringe. Heddy is still a relatively minor character, but man, do I want to be her when I grow up. The hints at her exotic and exciting life, )without ever revealing too much) her cultured sensibilities, and her ability to dig in and be a bitch when needed make her a delight. And, well, it *is* Linda Hunt. Walter is wonderful because he runs the gamut from childlike and lost to brilliant and threatening. The ability to have a character who is at once endearing and terrifying is rare. I haven't seen Splice yet, but suspect that what they wanted from their creature is something akin to what Fringe captures in Walter.

Finally, my favorite character on Television: Dexter.
Need I say more?
OK, maybe you're not a fan of the series. Maybe you're one of those who think the obsession with serial killers is a sign of a sick society - but the serial killer thing is just what gets people to turn the show on. What keeps them watching is how relatable Dexter is.
We've all had times when we were confused by other people, when we didn't understand what the social norm was, or what was expected from us. When other people felt like another species, and we had to watch carefully to guess how to act (and sometimes get it wrong.) As a sociopath, Dexter has to work to pick up the social rules and cues that most of us get by default, but most of us have had times when we felt as uncertain around others as he does.
We all have a dark part of ourselves we hide, and have been in danger of it coming out. Maybe we even fear that we'll lose our loved ones if they knew about our dark secret. It's not as dark as Dexter's - but many of us have a "dark passenger" of some kind.
Many of us also have a strong internal code that guides us, and have to deal with times that our code may come into conflict with either society's laws or our own desires.

I'm definitely seeing the usefulness for TV as a storytelling medium as I learn to love these complex characters.

Reviving Desire's Revenge

I'm pulling up my short Desire's Revenge and turning it into a feature in response to a challenge on Triggerstreet.

I've always intended to, but planned to finish some other projects first...which has gone real well (not). At any rate, there's a deadline, and deadlines are my best friend for creative projects. Without them I tend to tinker and rethink and retool and re-imagine for ages.

followup to last post

Excellent blog from Danny Stack on "original voice."

He essentially says not to be afraid to be more writerly, to use language to paint pictures, to tell a story.


Ever read something and know immediately who wrote it?

Most of us have a clear voice in our casual writing. Our blog posts and e-mails tend to reflect our speaking style. And yet when it comes to creative writing, many find it a struggle to develop a unique voice.

I've been using the internet since the very earliest days, before it was the WWW. Back then, we all knew each other. No, I'm serious.

It was Usenet, in 1989 or 90. I learned how distinct my voice was in my casual writing in the early days of online interaction when I tried to post anonymously to a group. I was trying to be anonymous (did I mention we all knew each other?,) and consciously changed my capitalization and punctuation style to hide who I was...and said a couple of snarky things about an acquaintance. When he confronted me, it was clear he didn't even realize I'd been trying to hide. This made me wonder what it was that constituted my voice.

(note: I've also since come to realize that our casual writing voice and our creative voice is not the same thing - the former comes more naturally, while the latter takes time to nurture)

Stephen King says that a writer must pen a million words before they develop their voice. (I always wonder - do re-writes count?) When I started asking people about my "voice" as a writer, several said that I had a strong one as a poet. Of course, poetry is distilled writing. Like greek yogurt, the watery stuff drained out and intensified. (Yes, it's a goofy metaphor, but it fits and I didn't sleep well last night.) Perhaps writing in that form honed my voice earlier. Then again, most critics consider a poet under 40 to be young. Of course, I'd been writing poetry regularly for about ten years, so maybe I had hit my million words.

Reading voraciously helped. Having read nearly all the works of Shakespeare (plays and sonnets) before I was 17. Most of the work of the Romantics, plus ee cummings and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Not to mention fantasy novels. Scary stories. Mysteries. And by the time I was doing this investigation into voice (at age 19 or 20,) a great deal of postmodern literature and criticism. In fact, at that point I was so into Derrida and Foucault and Hakim Bey that I'm sure their influence came out even in my most casual writing.

That year, my third year of college, I was in a poetry workshop. Some of the young writers disdained reading other poets, for fear they would dilute or corrupt their own voice. One week, an outspoken champions of this idea objected to the reading assignments and passed around his work prefaced by a speech on the subject. I read his poem. Then I asked him if he'd read any novels lately. He said, of course. I then asked whether that might be Bret Easton Ellis he was reading. He seemed surprised - but his work sounded like a bad imitation of Ellis, broken into verse on the page.

What we read influences us. What we hear and see. There's no way around it. On Star Trek, when Data is trying to learn to play the violin, he struggles to find his voice as a musician. He consciously makes the choices we all make subconsciously - assembling his performance out of pieces of the masters' performances. Someone points out to him that this assemblage is his voice. That the particular combination in his knowledge base, and his choices about how to combine them became something new and unique. The best choice to make is to seek out an array of influences. To bombard ourselves with so many voices that no single one stands out when we sit to write.

So, other than reading a lot and writing a lot - what else can we do to develop and strengthen our voice? Some suggestions:

Trust your instincts. Your internal voice will come out in your creative writing, if you let it. (If it doesn't work, that's what rewrites are for.)

Enjoy what you're doing. If you allow your imagination to play with language, you will make more creative choices.

Know the rules. Having a strong grasp of the basics of grammar and storytelling will free you to stop thinking about those things, and focus your attention on the story, and the telling of it.

Go ahead and borrow. One of my favorite exercises for a developing writer, and one I still use when I'm studying someone, is to consciously imitate them. Try writing 5 pages in the style of Minghella, or Shane Black - and it will make you think about the choices they made, and what makes their style distinctive.

Listen. Your influences are all around you. Your family, friends and neighbors contribute to your voice as much as who you read and try to emulate.

Get rid of your favorite tricks. Like "murder your darlings," this points out the difference between what we think works for us and what does. If you have any consciously adopted stylistic tricks or flourishes, try writing without them. You may find (as I did with my anonymous Usenet post) that your voice shines through even more clearly.

Finally - after you've done all that: stop trying. Ultimately, your voice is you. How hard can that be to express?

Now, this is (primarily) a screenwriting blog. Screenplays are minimalist, blueprints. They're about story and character, not style. So is there even a place for voice in them? I'd say, yes. Absolutely. If you have any doubt - go back and read the work of three of your favorite screenwriters.

I'm Pissed at You

Mystery Man, I'm mad at you.
Not "golly, you rascal, you had me going gee gosh I'm so mad"
but white-hot furious.
I thought better of you.
I even said as much multiple times.
I said you wouldn't allow people who cared about you to grieve. That you would not be that cruel or careless. That you were a gentleman, and simply a good guy.

I was wrong.
I *grieved* for you, you son of a bitch.
I *cried* for days.
I was heartbroken.
And it was just some kind of stunt?

We all understand you needed to leave the Mystery Man persona behind, and would have understood retiring it. To tell people you were dead was a crappy way to do it.

I've lost respect for you.
I have added your accounts on facebook and twitter because I know I will forgive you (I'm very forgiving for a Scorpio) and don't want to lose track of you in the meantime.


Creativity and Decisions

So, I have an idea. I think it's a really good idea. It falls into a sub-genre of thrillers I think of as daddy-daughter flicks, in which a father must rescue or revenge his little (often teenage) girl.

The problem I'm having is that I have an abundance of ideas about how to approach it.

I know who the main character is. I know who his antagonist and con-tagonists are. I know what the ending is, and I know everyone's motivations.

That still leaves me with a HUGE range of creative choices. I could write two or three complete screenplays based on these characters in this situation and have them be distinctly different.

The first dillemma: how much backstory do I front-load?
I could open with the scene of what happened to this man's daughter, showing just enough but leaving out some details that would be revealed later. The main character has suppressed parts of this event, but is also driven by it.
Or, flash back to it a few times as he encounters the individuals he's seeking revenge on, and as he remembers more. A little of this will happen regardless, because of the memory issue, but flashbacks are so tricky, perhaps they are best left alone. They seem natural to this storyline, but perhaps the audience will be more involved, and the structure will be simpler if I go with the first option.
Another approach: only hint at the event, dropping information through conversations and confrontations, without ever really showing it. I *could* even do this combined with the first option - showing very little in the opening scene, through the protag's faulty memory, and then hinting through the reactions of others that there was much more to the story

None of those are bad choices. Honestly, I love the third approach - not even showing the event, but teasing information about it through each scene, until we have a good idea - but never a 100% complete one...I'm just not sure my craft is strong enough to make that work on the page without being confusing. It's a problem I've had before.

The other major dramatic choice I'm making is between two basic approaches to the story. Make it a standard thriller-hunt type film like Taken? Or a mostly-single location psychological drama like The Negotiator and Albino Alligator?

The hunt has terrific possibilities for chase scenes, big set pieces, and lots of great cathartic torture them for info then blow them away moments. Basically, he knows where one of the people he's hunting for is, and uses them to get to the next one, leaving a trail of carnage and attracting the attention of the police. The pacing would be fast, and the story would be visceral.

The second option - have most of the people he's hunting gathered in one location, where he secures them and isolates them, then confronts each of them for information about the "truth" and the location/identity of the person who is really responsible for the bad thing that happened. Again, I lean toward this, but it's trickier to keep it interesting and tense.

Of course, I could actually write two screenplays...but since I've not written any (feature-length) scripts in a while, I think I'd better focus on just one!

Getting Back Into It

Finally read and reviewed another screenplay on Triggerstreet:
Read Here

Hey, it took me almost 6 years to get my life back on track after my husband died. This period of grief wasn't nearly so bad. I even started a new career... just let my writing go by the wayside and let all my friends fade from my life.

I'll be honest, I missed the former more than the latter. Nothing meant to slight any old friends - but the writing has always meant more to me. Friends have always been more separate, some of them genuinely adored, but not really taken in to my heart. People I actually felt close to very, very rare.

Freedom, Structure & Creativity

Recently, I stumbled on "another bored college student" blogging that she "really want(s) to write a screenplay," but she is

so used to free writing which is a better fit for novel writing. Screenplay writing is very specific and every scene needs to have a purpose and function to the pace and story as a whole. So by definition it's more of a formulaic writing than free flow writing. It sucks the creativity out of it.

There's the popular-with-youngsters idea that free writing is truly creative, because it's free. If I read a novel and there are chapters that don't serve the overall purpose in some way, I get frustrated. In poetry, each stanza (each word) should be relevant and appropriate. Free writing is useful only in diaries and exercises - not for anything intended to be communicated to others.

But more than that is the complaint I came across often among poets when I was studying writing in college: that form and structure, that limits in general, were antithetical to creativity. In fact, the opposite is true. Limits engender creativity.

Interesting and original art typically comes from the streets, the poor, the oppressed. The people who have the most limits. People whose time, resources, and even daily activities are the most circumscribed.

Interesting and original art creates it's own form, where a form did not exist.

In grad school, I found that wrestling an unformed thought into the bindings of a sonnet, villanelle, or pantoum forced me to exercise my mind in a way that free form poetry does not. Giving it those limits forced me to be more careful with my phrases, and allowed me to play the language against the structure in ways that created meaning that is not possible in free verse. The form allows you to draw attention to specific words by their placement, and to tie one word or stanza to another - through the form - and create layers of meaning. You build layers, like a good wall (or a cake!), and repetition gives it strength. Or like passes of ink over a silkscreen, the color intensifying each time it's pushed through the form.

If you really want to write a screenplay, you want to write something that is identifiable as a movie. Movies have certain specific limits, and the limits of narrative in that medium also create opportunities for creativity. Where else can you have image and reaction? Where you have the complexities of visual storytelling possible in painting paired with the dynamism of movement? Where you can contrast an image or action with sound and create meaning from that? And yet, yes, it has to have a story. It has to have a beginning, middle, and an end. It has to make sense to others. And there's no point in having scenes that, well, don't have a point.

If you really want to write a screenplay, you also have to want to write something that reads well on the page. That does not ramble, that does not turn inward, and that does not waste time on anything that is not the movie. That is tight, and neat, with lots of white space.

If you really want to write a screenplay, you want to write something that moves, on the page. That the reading of it takes you on the journey - whether it's a stroll, a dance, or a hard run. The structure of the segments and scenes, of the short dialogue and brief descriptions are kinetic. Good screenplays use the limits of the medium to create an experience on the page that moves.

Creativity does not end with formula and structure. Creativity rejoices - because like water flowing in a river, it only gets to sing when it passes over the stones.

Getting Organized

My goal for this year (I wouldn't call it a resolution) is to get organized. My room, my office, and my kitchen are a mess - lots of stuff, in piles, randomly stuck into drawers or cabinets and forgotten about or lost.

This is partly because I'm, well, lazy. But largely because I moved into this house while my mother was dying, and have only in the last few weeks really begun to feel back to myself. In fact, just yesterday, felt good, good in a way that made it clear how rarely I've felt more than OK in the past few years. I grieve for a long time.

I've read that when people whose space is organized are more organized and productive in their work, and that matches my own experience. It's not simply a matter of habits carrying over - it's the setting. Clutter is distracting. Makes for messy thinking. Also, for me, provides a constant nagging "I should be" that keeps me from diving in to projects I care about.

So, my goal is to spend my vacation organizing, finding places for my stuff, weeding out stuff I don't need, cleaning. Then to set about organizing my activities, finding room for my writing, exercise, play time with the dog, and going out to movies and dinner... and then to keep organized throughout the year.