Thursday, October 24, 2013

No Country for Timid Men

A screenplay is no place to be timid, tentative, or reserved.

I've read eight spec scripts in the past few days, by unknown writers. Most of the scripts were garbage, two were salvageable (in theory, at least). One of the salvageables was a romantic comedy. The problem with the comedy was that it was good, but not great. I liked it but didn't love it.

Why didn't I love it? First, the scene descriptions were novelistic instead of telegraphic. That's easy to fix. Secondly, the dialog in each scene began "too early," with throwaway lines (the characters greeting each other); too much setup. Again, not hard to fix.

Not so easy to fix is the fact that the humor just wasn't over-the-top. The author fell in love with her characters and thought everything they did was inherently adorable and/or hilarious.

I suggested some touch-ups here and there, but frankly it's the author's job to make it great. All I could do is point out some really obvious areas of potential that were glossed over.

The hero of one script, an adorable nerd (think Forty-Year-Old Virgin), has managed to convince a beautiful woman to accompany him to Hawaii. One scene has him sulking in the bar, alone. The bartender, a burly Hawaiian, finds the hero sulking, sipping at a drink, listening to a ukulele player. He asks our hero something like: "You look like you could use a friend. Want to talk about it?" The hero says "Nah, I'm just going to listen." The bartender: "Talk to me, bro. I have a B.A. in psychology." Mr. Sad Sack says no.

Well, if this is a comedy, I don't like sad bar scenes. My rewrite of this encounter has the bartender saying: "Talk to me, bro. I have a Ph.D. in psychology." Our hero perks up. "What are you doing working here?" Bartender: "Dude. This is where the crazy people are."

Not a knee-slapper, but enough to keep the interest going. It has the ring of truth. People with doctorates sometimes do end up tending bar, in this great economy of ours. And yeah, bars are where the crazies often hang out. In the next scene, when the author has the hero wanting to comfort a young lady nearby who's crying in her beer, the bartender (in the original version of the script) warns our hero off: "Don't do it, man. She a crazy one." The line had zero impact before I gave the man a Ph.D.

At one point, the hero admits to his traveling companion (the beauty-girl) that he was engaged once. He explains that it didn't work out. Boring scene. Not at all in keeping with the character's virginity (or apparent virginity, up to that point). I suggested changing it to him saying: "Actually, I was engaged once. To the Little Mermaid." His partner says: "A cartoon character?" He says: "But it was doomed. She had this, you know, fishy smell."

Again, not exactly a knee-slapper, but the point is, this is a comedy with far too many boring backstory scenes. Why not try to make the boring parts a little more interesting? It's not an option, it's a requirement.

Turns out the heroine was also engaged (and still is) to a Fabio-like muscle dude with a cleft chin. I suggested a line or two of our hero warning her that if she marries Fabio, she's going to wake up looking at a butt-chin about 17,000 times in her life. "And if you smell inside there? There's chin smegma. No, it's true. Chinegma. Chin cheese." Etc.

This comedy's premise is that the main character (the 40-year-old nerd/virgin) has a brain tumor, and he's trying to scratch off items on his decidedly eccentric "bucket list." What the author didn't do is take advantage of the obvious liberty this guy has to do whatever he wants and say whatever he wants to whomever he wants. If he's dying, he's free to go nuts. Right? Instead, he does the most tepid, boring stuff.

It takes courage to write comedy. I told the author, the first thing you have to do is go through the whole script and exaggerate everything you possibly can. When the tattoo artist tells our guy to bring a stick to bite on, that's not good enough. The tattoo artist should tell him to bring a broom handle to bite on, or a baseball bat, or whatever. Think big, think outlandish, magnify things, make them colorful (bigger than life, as we say). We're at the movies. Let's see something fun.

Another comedy script I read suffered from the same problem of too-tameness. Everything was tame when it should have been out-of-control, outlandish. The hero, at one point, robs a bank. His stick-up line: "I know this is going to be a drag for some of you, but this is a stickup."


In my mind, I had the guy leaping onto a counter or table, firing a gun in the air, and saying (in Roddy Piper fashion) "Listen up assholes! I'm here to floss my teeth, and kick ass. And I'm all, out, of dental floss!"

Women scream. A man tries to make a phone call.

The hero points his gun at the man's crotch. "I wouldn't try it, Superman, unless you want to be a GODDAM SOPRANO!"

When you're writing for the big screen, you have to be visual (not just talk-talk-talk, which is another common problem with spec scripts) and you have to think big/outlandish. Don't be timid. Leave timidity behind. Write like you mean it. Slay the audience, or die trying.

If you're a screenwriter, novelist, actor, director, agent, or industry person and you'd like to get a sneak peek at my script, "Greeners," write to me (and include your Twitter handle if you have one). My hushmail dot com address is kasthomas. All inquiries kept confidential.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

What Makes a Script Work?

Yesterday I read, and wrote coverage for, four spec scripts by unknown writers. I don't want to go into too much detail about the specifics, but let's just say this: Doing coverage is hard. It's hard under good circumstances. But when the scripts are stinky (as most are) it's actually a punishing experience all the way around.

One script I read was a lighthearted comedy set in Manhattan. The premise was just plain silly. A privately owned publishing house that churns out romance novels (written by people sitting at cubicles!) struggles to remain solvent. A young couple working there tries to save the ailing firm. Hijinks ensue.

Another script involved a card game with a demon-in-disguise. The hero finds a way to chase the demon into the demon's alternate reality, where he must master the rules of the Other World before doing battle with the demon in order to save a sick child whose soul the demon has claimed.

A third script was a substance-abuse comedy a la Cheech and Chong.

All three of these were terrible in various ways.

The least-sucky of the three, the comedy involving the Manhattan "paperback factory," had wooden characters, zero conflict, almost no plot, and for a so-called comedy it had vanishingly few laughs. 

The demon fantasy was mercifully short (88 pages); that's the best thing I can say about it.

The Cheech and Chong epic was dismal, with super-verbose scene descriptions, long speeches, and frequent references to specific song lyrics by specific artists (a no-no).

All three suction-enabled scripts had a few things in common. First, the characters were bland (the opposite of unforgettable) and sounded alike. The publishing-world comedy had no ethnic characters at all (in New York City??) and the characters sounded as if they came out of the same womb and attended the same prep schools. Secondly, the scripts relied far too much on dialog to tell the story. Often, the dialog was horribly stilted. ("My sister, you are a nincompoop" is funny, but for the wrong reasons. The author wasn't trying to be funny.) Most of all, though, the dialog was just incessant, often with "(beat)" inserted to control the rhythm.

The bad scripts had cardboard characters who simply existed, with no backstories, no texture, no complexity, no personality, and minimal (if any) character arc. They were the same lifeless characters at the end of the tale that they were at the beginning.

What you quickly realize when you start reading scripts is that all of the elements of a story play off each other: colorful characters say and do interesting things that both generate conflict and make their response(s) to conflicts all the more interesting. Strange synergies happen. When all the elements are working, they reinforce each other in remarkable ways. Conversely, when you start with flat characters and low stakes, nothing interesting can happen. It's strange how, in a good script, everything tends to work, whereas in a bad script nothing tends to work.

The fourth script I read was a winner. It was a psychological noir thriller in which a 25-year-old cab driver with a 6-year-old sister goes in search of the sociopathic father who ruined their lives. The characters were vivid, the dialog was some of the best I've ever read, the scene construction was crisp, and basically you could tell in the first five pages you were in the hands of an expert. (So yeah, it's true what they say. Ten pages is plenty of time in which to judge the expertise of the writer.)

Now here's the interesting thing. The author of the A+ script made a few boo-boos. He didn't mention until page seven what part of the world the story takes place in (Detroit). On page one, he had a line of dialog that said "Alright, lets go then." I don't know how you feel, but as a professional writer I've always hated the non-word "alright." There's "all right," or there's "okay," but there is (in English) no "alright." Also, "let us" contracts to "let's," not "lets."

The writer used "alright" about 30 times in the script. He also used the f-word way, way, way too much, greatly diminishing its impact. And at the most critical point in the action, he lapsed into passive voice!

And yet, I absolutely loved the script. The level of craft was so undeniably high, the dialog so crisp and believable, the scenes so superbly crafted, the timing and pacing so deft, the plot's twists so unpredictable, the characters so memorable, the ending so poignant, I couldn't help but throw my hands up at the end and go "Yesss!!!"

Bottom line, you can commit a certain number of sins and still get a rave review. But your script better sing. It better do the important stuff so incredibly well that the reviewer is ashamed to give you anything but an A+ grade. That's what happened with the knockout script I read. It kicked major ass. Flaws and all.

If you're a screenwriter, novelist, actor, director, agent, or industry person and you'd like to get a sneak peek at my script, "Greeners," write to me (and include your Twitter handle if you have one). My hushmail dot com address is kasthomas. All inquiries kept confidential.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

When Characters All Sound the Same

The screenwriting books all say that one of the most common complaints around scripts (of all kinds) is that the characters sound the same, instead of each character having a distinct, unique voice.

But how can you establish distinct "voices" in a script's characters in the first 10 pages? (That's how long you've got, basically.) 

It helps, obviously, to have a vivid image, in your mind, of a real-life person (such as a certain actor who fits the part) for each character. As you write, imagine what kind of language that person would use.

The other more-or-less standard bit of advice you encounter a lot in books and articles on screenwriting: Go through and edit all of one character's dialog, whether it's the first 10 pages or the whole script, without looking at any other character's dialog. Then do that for the next character. And so on. This way, you have some hope of achieving consistency in dialect and clean separation of diction patterns from one character to the next.

But how can you achieve characterwise speech differentiation quickly, without resorting to patois or other gimmicks?

I'll tell you a trick I was able to use in the script I just finished. The trick is pretty simple: Have one character mock the other's diction. In my script, Greeners, the hero is a 29-year-old American grad student (think Mickey Rourke 1983). His future partner is a 23-year-old Hindustani woman from New Delhi, a post-doctoral fellow in his department. By page 7, she owes him, bigtime, for putting out a car fire. A few pages later they meet again, and she realizes she never properly thanked him. She tells him so. Then asks: "How shall I repay you?"

No American talks like that. No one says "shall I" in conversation. He says (mocking): "How shall you... 'repay me'? Come on, I didn't do anything."

It's a subtle reinforcement of the fact that they're from two different cultures. She learned British English as a second language. He's James Dean's lost brother. (When he suggests she "thank him" by letting him take her out to dinner, she doesn't nod. She does a little figure-eight head-wobble, Indian for okay/perhaps/why not.)

She's prim, well educated, polite to a fault, and therefore uses proper fully expanded English. Instead of "can't" she tends to say "cannot," for example. He can say "wouldn't've" (as in, "I wouldn't've done that..."); she has to say "would not have."

A few pages of this, and it's pretty clear who's the homie and who's here on a visa.

Another tip: People's true speech patterns always surface in a crisis. One person might shout "Bleedin' Christ!" whereas the next person might say "Oh dear Lord no," etc. So put a crisis on page 5 and differentiate the characters right then and there.

You were planning to do that anyway, though. Right?

If you'd like to see my (WGA-registered) screenplay, drop me a line. My hushmail dot com address is kasthomas. Inquiries held in strictest confidence.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Lessons from the Script

The screenplay draft is complete. It ended up at 114 pages rather than 112. Boo hoo.

Here's some of what I've learned so far.

The books all say that screenwriting is hard. And it is. IMHO, it's harder than poetry. Makes writing a novel seem like a stroll on the beach.

Screenwriting is a lot like a stroll on the beach—Omaha Beach.

In his book On Writing (a fine book, BTW), Stephen King talks about how he develops stories. Basically, he creates interesting characters, puts them in a dramatic situation, and lets them figure it out. There is no conscious attempt to plot or create subplots; the characters do what they must, inevitably (given their proclivities and their situation) do. King merely transcribes. He gets all the way through a novel this way; following the headlights all the way to the destination, so to speak.

It works for King because he's a master at what he does, and the form (the novel) allows it.

Screenwriting is so constraint-intensive, there is precious little room (although there is some) for organic story growth. You almost have to come at it with a complete structure in mind. Screenwriter Matt Bird has a story structure checklist (encompassing character development and all sorts of other things) that's 100+ items long. You're not going to hit even a third of the points in that list using an unprepared "structure it as you go" approach. If you can, well, congratulations; maybe you're channeling Robert Towne; in which case please accept my unworthy bow as I exit stage-left.
Alien would work well as a silent movie. The dialog augments the story.

You'll run out of room. Guaranteed. Budget 32 pages for Act I and you'll go sailing through that mark like a drunk through a stop sign. Set an absolute page limit of 110 and you'll be at 120 before you know it.

Therefore the best advice I can give you is: Enlarge all margins and tab limits at the start, just a smidge, so you'll get fewer words per page. You'll gladly kill any number of grandmothers later to widen them out again.

Another tip that may keep you from busting your page count: One day when you're thoroughly blocked, write the ending. Write the final two scenes (more, if you can) of the script, complete. Behold: Your "active writing area" is now bookended by the already-written beginning and the already-in-place ending. You have less surface area in which to work, and the paint dries faster, forcing you to up the pace. Which you were wanting to do anyway, right?

Thirty pages seems like a lot in the beginning. But when you've got just thirty pages left to write, it's never enough.

Let actions and situations do the talking whenever possible. Let characters speak only if and when they must, and even then, let subtext, not the actual words, tell the story.

Never forget one thing. Watching a movie is an act of voyeurism. Hence, all dialog is overheard. Hence, no conversation needs to begin at the beginning. Think of the times you've overheard a conversation (whether at a bar, a social function, standing in line, or whatever) in real life. Did you ever hear the actual start of the conversation? Chances are you came along in the middle. Yet within a few seconds, you figured out the essentials of the conversation (who, what, where, when, why) from context. That's how all movie dialog works. The film viewer is an eavesdropper, not a court stenographer.

Take a scene, any scene. Cut the first line of dialog. Does the scene still work? Yes? Then why did you ever think you needed that line of dialog?

More often than not, dialog is about subtext, backstory, misdirection, and/or foreshadowing, not just what's going on at the moment. We can see what's going on at the moment.

Dialog, properly done, wears a hairpiece. It's never bald.

It helps to know something about stage magic and its crazy stepsister, comedy. Both are all about misdirection.

Would your script still make for a good moviegoing experience with the sound off? Alien would play damn well as a silent movie. My Dinner with Andre would not. Look at your script with dialog turned off (in your head, at least). Which did you write? Alien, or My Dinner with Andre?

I was fortunate, with the script I just wrote, to have a multinational story, with lots of non-English-speaking characters (but zero subtitles, thanks). Try it sometime. Write a scene that involves foreign nationals, speaking their native tongues, using no subtitles, with the idea that the scene has to be understandable to anyone, of any language. See how far you can take it. Can you still make the scene work? Why or why not?

There's more to tell. Suffice it to say, the screenplay-writing process has taught me a lot. And I thought I already knew a thing or two. I was right, as it turns out. I knew a thing. Maybe two at the most.

If you'd like to see my (WGA-registered) screenplay, drop me a line. My hushmail dot com address is kasthomas. Inquiries held in strictest confidence. Please mention your Twitter handle (if applicable).

Thursday, October 17, 2013

112 Pages of "What If?"

I haven't blogged a heck of a lot over the past month or so, because I'm in the middle of a Quixotic quest to finish a screenplay. It's been heck of a journey; and the journey is (in many ways) just beginning.

I can't say a lot about the project just yet (although I'll definitely be saying more in future posts, so watch this space). Here's what I can say.

First, writing a screenlay is hard. It's harder than a novel. By quite a bit, I'm afraid.

Secondly, it's difficult writing something with the knowledge that maybe only a handful of people will ever read it. I keep telling myself: It's good exercise. Even if it goes nowhere, it leaves me with all the scaffolding for a novel: well-defined characters with character arcs, a story, backstories, plot points, subplots, reversals, key dialog, key visuals.

Thirdly, having said all this, I wouldn't waste my own (nor anybody else's) time on a project I didn't think was truly epic, relevant, commercial, original, and flat-out un-putdownable. The project is based on an original idea I had about two years ago. It's been germinating and blossoming ever since.

It's a high-concept story involving world hunger, with a Philip K. Dick slant. The concept proceeds from the idea: What if you (or someone you knew) stumbled onto a tool, technique, technology, or idea that really, truly could make a dent in world hunger? What then?

"What then" is 112 pages of screenplay.

My first stab at this was a manuscript for a young adult novel that I got 100 pages into (a year ago) before making the unforgivable mistake of sending off a few queries to agents, on a lark. To my shock and horror, I got an immediate request for a full read. And of course, there I sat with 25,000 words written and 45,000 unwritten. I never got back to the agent.

Instead, I put the project away for a while and thought about it some more. And I realized that the story would play out a lot better if the hero was significantly older. Rather than have the hero be a 17-year-old Indian-American whiz kid, I decided it would be better to make him a 29-year-old white-upper-middle-class American grad student with a female Hindustani lab partner (a post-doc) who, as his intellectual equal (and cultural superior, in many ways), can keep our hero honest, point up his faults, challenge him, goad him, infuriate him, and eventually (of course) fall in love with him—when he finally slays the (figurative) dragon.

But wait, you're saying, 29 is awfully old for a grad student, isn't it? Actually, I've met the type before. They get a master's degree right off the bat, but when it comes time to finish the Ph.D., the lab work just never seems to add up to a thesis. Nature takes its time handing out dissertation-worthy scientific discoveries. You can't force a discovery. Laboratory science is an art. Luck is involved. In my grad student days at U.C. Davis, I knew several "older" students who had labored valiantly for six years (seven being the max allowed by many universities) to achieve a coherent set of results for a thesis, without ever actually getting there. If you're one of these people, it can be frustrating to watch a younger grad student move into the lab, work on something for a year, stumble onto a great scientific result, and have a Ph.D. in 24 months. The two-year science Ph.D. is a very real phenomenon. So is the seven-year Ph.D., unfortunately.

My "what if" story follows the pair of young scientists on a journey that takes them from New Haven, Conneticut to Madhya Pradesh, India. It's epic in scale, global in relevance (and multi-ethnic in cast), has all the elements of a good suspense drama, and forces the viewer (or reader) to confront hard questions. What if X? What if Y? What if Z? What if all three?

I'll be able to reveal more specifics soon. I need to nail Act III first. And that could take a while. But I'm working on a self-imposed deadline. In two weeks, the screenplay will be done—or I'll stop eating until it is done. Hopefully it won't come to that.

On the theory that it is never too early to attach talent, I invite any actors or film people who might be interested in seeing the WGA-registered script when it's available (which is soon—days, not months) to drop me an e-mail. My hushmail dot com address is kasthomas. Inquiries will be kept in confidence.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Online Vocabulary by Gender

Do men and women use language differently in the real world? It may seem obvious, but yeah, they do, at least on Facebook. A recent paper in PLoS sheds light on the issue. I thought the following graphic was interesting. (Click it to get a bigger version.) The data come from 75,000 users of Facebook.

Language usage by women is depicted above, with male vocabulary below. The size of the word indicates the strength of the correlation whereas color indicates relative frequency of usage. Underscores connect words of multiword phrases. Words and phrases are in the center; topics, represented as the 15 most prevalent words, surround.

The paper from which this diagram comes, "Personality, Gender, and Age in the Language of Social Media: The Open-Vocabulary Approach," by Schwartz et al. (Univ. of Pennsylvania and Univ. of Cambridge), contains a good many additional great nuggets of information, including a great set of graphs showing (among other things) how hate words correlate with age. The unsurprising result: Hate words go down as age goes up. Also interesting: Older people talk more about the future. The older you are, the more future-oriented you become. This makes sense. When you're young, you don't think about the future quite as much. Why should you, when you're going to live forever?

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Richard Brautigan's Best Essay?

You can't expect to become a good writer without reading good writing. Below, I present what I feel is one of the finest short essays written by a 20th-century American: "Corporal," by Richard Brautigan. I present it in exactly the form I found it online, which is to say, as an image (rather than a text file), at Google Books, here.

It's short, it's simple, it's honest.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

How to Revise a Tweet

I recently tweeted something that got several dozen immediate retweets:
When you get to the end of a first draft, it's always a great feeling because you know you're at least 1% of the way there.
Many of the retweets and "amens" were from screenwriters, journalists, and professional wordsmiths.

The tweet came about because I was reading William M. Akers's Your Screenplay Sucks (a fine book, BTW), and I found myself smirking when Akers said, on p. 126, "When you get to the bottom of your first draft, congratulations, you're about 1/10 of the way done!" Smirking because, as any writer knows, "1/10 of the way done" is off by a factor of ten. With a screenplay, especially, you're nowhere near 1/10 of the way done after a first draft.

So yeah, I swiped Akers's line for my tweet, but I rewrote it (Akers won't mind, he's a screenwriter), because frankly it needed work. "Get to the bottom" needed shortening to "get to the end," and the word "congratulations" isn't exactly right; it conveys sarcasm rather than conjuring the false sense of security you get when you've finally written a draft of something.

I thought about replacing  "you're about 1/10 of the way done" with "you're about 1/100 of the way done," but the latter is weak. The word "about" weakens it, plus 1/100 is low-impact/fuzzy. Far better to say 1% (crisp, light, less filling).

When I thought I was done, I had:
When you get to the end of a first draft, it's always a great feeling because you know you're 1% of the way there.
Still not the best wording, because I wanted to maximize the irony of "1%." Remember, the whole point is that you have a tremendous false sense of confidence after finishing a first draft. To bring out the irony a bit more, I decided to say "at least 1%."

Every writer knows that the real writing happens during revision. (As Hemingway famously quipped, every first draft of something is shit.) Turns out, it applies even to tweets.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

What Your Customers Care About

I've been in business for myself many times over the years, and it's been my experience that when you're in business for yourself (especially if the product is YOU), you have to unlearn some common marketing myths before you can expect to succeed. For example:

No one really cares how long you've been in business.

No one cares how many happy customers you have. (Have you ever eaten at McDonald's? Do you really care how many burgers they've sold?)

No one cares that you won an award, unless it's a Nobel Prize.

No one cares about most of the stuff that's on your resume.

No one cares that your product sucks less than the competition's. McDonalds, IBM, Ford, General Motors, Microsoft (the list goes on) all compete in markets where competitors make better goods than they do. It's not always necessary to have the best product.

Was Bruce Springsteen the best singer in the world? Was Prince? Madonna?

No one cares about your moneyback guarantee. Because if you screw up, nine times out of ten the damage done won't be undone by merely refunding someone's money.

No one cares about your special two-for-one discount offer or your "special introductory price" or other price gimmicks.

If you have what someone needs, price is seldom, if ever, an issue.

What do people care about, then?

People care that you have a stable, predictable business or product that won't introduce new risk to whatever they're doing.

People care that you will commit to taking care of their needs and that you'll make good on your commitments.

People care that whatever special thing you bring to the project helps them get the results they're unable to get any other way.

People care that once they've decided to go with whatever you're offering, they'll never regret the decision.

People care about trust.

People care about flexibility.

People care about their own reputation. Yours is secondary.

Your job is to deliver what people care about. All the other stuff, all the stuff on your resume and website, all the stuff in the media kits and brochures, that's all important, but it's only there to validate and justify, after the fact, the decision that's already been made based on other, more important things.

Deliver on those important things.