Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Screenwriter's Prequel

If writing for the screen is what you want to do, this is where you need to be this August 1st.


  • What are the basic skill sets of screenwriting?  How do your skills rate?
  • What is your writing process?  How can it be more productive?
  • What are the essential elements of a story?  What makes a story cinematic?
  • What makes a story matter?  What makes it unforgettable?
  • Do you have a feature idea? A short? A teleplay? A web series?
  • How do you make a character better than the real?
  • How can you make the audience care about your character?
  • How is formatting a screenplay an art and a science?
  • What is the right structure to support your plot? To highlight your theme?
  • How do you find and work with writing partners, producers, investors?
  • (Extra for writing teachers) How do you develop a syllabus for an effective screenwriting program?
Each writer will have the opportunity for an introductory and exit interview in which we tailor particular help according to their career hopes and plans. We will help each draft a “What Comes Next?” plan for after the program.
Post-Workshop Mentoring: Writers who complete the eight-day workshop will have the opportunity to contract with Catharsis at a special rate to continue a mentoring phase on a project or projects for the next ten months. Mentoring will consist of monthly page number targets for the writer and feedback from Catharsis on the student’s work. Writers will complete two projects during their mentoring period: either a short film and a feature or two TV projects; We will also consider proposals for web series.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

The One Thing You Need To Be A Screenwriter

There is really only one thing that you need to be a successful screenwriter. Drive.

I don't mean the cheesy, Hollywood-stereotyped, cocaine-laced, Alpha-person, short-fused, high burnout, megalomaniac version of Drive. That's the mask of ego that can only be worn so long before a person self-destructs. The Drive you need is a slow, steady burn. Drive is what keeps you writing long after the fickle Muse leaves you for someone else. Drive is the still, quiet voice in your soul that whispers, in spite of all circumstances, "Keep going."

Lots of people start screenwriting projects, but very few finish them. Many screenwriters loathe and fear the inevitable rejection that comes with the territory of being a writer, but in fact, it's not the rejection of others that stall out most screenwriting careers. Most screenwriters don't even make it far enough to send work out to be rejected. The greatest threat to a screenwriter's career is abandoning one's own project. Many writers simply give up. Many writers lack Drive.

Drive means that if you have an opportunity to learn or grow in your craft, you do it. You don't wait. You don't second guess it. You don't hope that some profound ability will manifest via osmosis or magic without training and practice. If you have Drive, you know that you must constantly invest in your education.

Drive means you write. You write when you don't feel like writing. You write when you know it's not working. You write when you don't have time to write.

Drive means you are in motion. You take steps (like writing) every day to further your goals. As the metaphor goes, you may not see far down the path, but so long as you put one foot in front of the other, you will go somewhere.

Drive means that you take charge of your own life. You don't blame circumstances for getting in the way of your goals. Drive means you work with the challenges you have. You find a way to make it work in addition to your other life responsibilities.

All writers have productive days and not-so productive days. Even the best succumb to what Steven Pressfield describes in his book, The War of Art, "The Resistance." The difference for writers who have Drive is they know that one unproductive day is just one lost battle. Drive means they are still winning the war. Drive is an accumulation of grace. So keep going. And when you're tired, keep going. And when you doubt you can go any farther, keep going. And when you feel like quitting, keep going. Just keep going.

Write What YOUR SOUL Knows

What does it mean, “Write what you know”? I come from an Italian-French family. I worked in a fish market in RI for a Mormon minister fisherman. I lived in the servants quarters of the Marble House in Newport. I have worked in Hollywood for twenty years. I have a family member who is an alcoholic. Does that oft-used exhortation to writers mean that I can only write characters whose lives dovetail with mine?  Wouldn't it be like saying that a doctor can only cure cancer if he first had cancer?

The expression, "Write what you know," first means, DO YOUR HOMEWORK. "Write What You Know" refers to the part of the writer's task that precedes the actual writing. On this level, editors and producers have a right to bemoan those writers who literally aren't filling their place at the table. The writer’s job is to do the research. It is to fill out a new world, or to add fresh details to a world we thought we knew so that we now see it in depth. 

Research is always doable. It helps me to set a script in Newport, RI because I have already done the research by my life experience. But part of the crafting of a screenplay is to enter into new worlds through research and make them tangible for the reader/viewer. Don’t set a script in a scuba diving school near the Great Barrier Reef unless you have done your research in the kind of people who become divers, intricacies of scuba gear, diving education approaches, ways divers die, how cool the underwater thing is, Australians, and the Great Barrier Reef. So, the first sense of "Write what you know" is WRITE WHAT YOU HAVE COME TO KNOW ABOUT.

But editors and producers and readers mean more than this too. "Write what you know" is an appeal for you to basically write what your soul knows. I was tempted to say “heart” here, particularly because it sounds warmer and fuzzier to say, “Write What Your Heart Knows,” but I mean more than just your emotions. Animals have emotions. Your soul, in the classical sense, is where your intellect, will and desires reside. Your soul is the place where your essential humanity is. Write from that place. It is where you brood from – as opposed to just reason. It’s where you dream from. It’s where you suffer from. It’s where you feel remorse from. It is where you choose from. It is where you love from. It is where you pray from. If you write from that place, then you are speaking soul to soul with your reader. And hence, what you produce will transcend mere demographics.  

A great writer doen't write to “young adults” but to “young souls.” Not to aging Boomers, but to weathered souls.  Not to children but to “baby human souls.” Speak to their fundamental condition not to their particular situation. What is it they yearn for? If you write to kids as if they are yearning mainly for the newest skinny jeans, or the latest iPod, you are dehumanizing them and they will disdain you. Rightly so. These are not truly the things for which a human soul yearns.  They are the manifestation of that deeper yearning.

You speak to human souls through beauty. Using words to achieve wholeness, harmony and radiance is the primary task of the writer. We have to remind ourselves over and over, with Dostoevsky, that it is beauty that will save the world. Not cleverness. Not cuteness. Not the mere witness to social justice. 

The philosopher Etienne Gilson says that beauty is in more than just wholeness, harmony and radiance. He says there is also style, originality and universality. Style has to do with talent. Originality has to do with a new thought. Universality has to do with the fact that it speaks to thoughtful people beyond their time or culture. Don’t write a jealous character until you have something unique to say about jealousy. Or at least, a fresh way of showing us how it looks when it is asking for the salt shaker at dinner. Don’t write about the power of art. Write about the way the purple paint feels on the fingers of the three year old as she smears it with wonder across the new white carpet in the living room. Don’t write about heartbreak until you have something profound to say about heartbreak. Or at least, how it looks on Joe’s seven year old face the first time his best friend, Mike, opts to throw the ball to Matt the fourth grader instead of Joe.

If there is anything that is clear, it’s that writing is more than any other art form, an attempt to communicate in an articulate way. The sole color on the pallet of the writer is words. Great writing moves immediately from being a rambling monologue, and becomes a dialogue with the reader’s heart and mind. The pictures you create with your words get matched to the reader’s memory and imagination, and he or she begins to edit and highlight and fill-out what you offer from his or her own experience. This happens more or less according to whatever level of history the reader brings to your work. When your experience connects with the viewer's experience they feel a wave of delight - part of which is the sudden comfort of knowing they aren't alone. But this can't happen unless you are really recreating what your sol has learned first.

Great writing is basically just great communication, great communication means you are speaking to the receiver’s humanity, not to their particular moment. Flannery O’Connor was great because she mastered the art of writing from the inside of her readers. She was very conscious of human psychology and the dynamic process that a reader goes on in a story. She wasn’t thinking about writing for Southerners, or for academics, or even for Christians or unbelievers. She was writing to any one who was engaged in the activity of dodging moments of grace. Basically all of us.  Write about the way you dodge your moments of grace.  That will have an authority that will speak to the reader soul to soul and make your work fascinating and healing for them.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

A Good Visual Image is Worth a Thousand Words

Poetry is the most respectful of art forms.  The whole reason for a poem is the acknowledgment that reality is too complex and mysterious to be reduced to the limits of wordy definitions.  Poetry searches for metaphors to reveal facets of reality by likening them to other things.  In the famous poem “The Blind Men and the Elephant” by John Godfrey Saxe, we laugh to hear that an elephant is alternately like a wall, and then, like a spear, and then like a snake, and a tree, a fan and a rope.  The poem assures us that an elephant isn’t any of those things, but is something like all of them.

Poetry is also eminently respectful of the reader, because it has to have faith in his or her intelligence, sensitivity and imagination – an act of faith basically in the reader’s humanity – to succeed.  The poet is a riddler who crafts a puzzle for the visual imagination and hopes that someone will be enticed to go through the difficult process of unraveling it.  If they do, the labor they have expended will make the solution valuable to them.  You know what I mean if you have ever been driving along on a country road, and then suddenly understood what Emily Dickinson meant when she wrote,
                                     I had been hungry all the years-
My noon had come, to dine-
I, trembling, drew the table near
And touched the curious wine.
Suddenly, as C.S. Lewis said about the purpose of literature, you know you’re not alone.

So what happened to us?  Why is so much contemporary art and literature banal and lacking in meaty metaphors?  Why do our works not only not cause the world to brood, but leave them feeling unsatisfied and even resentful for the time they spent with us?  Along with the general lack of artistic rigor that characterizes so much of contemporary artistic efforts, part of the problem is that so little work today has any powerful lyrical imagery.  All of art is basically metaphor, but the most evocative and resonant art offers metaphors not only in the general, but as the key to the deepest meanings meant to be communicated from artist to audience.By leaving out metaphor, we separate ourselves from storytellers like Homer and Dante and Hawthorne and Poe, all of whom were masters of visual paradox.  My sense is that many contemporary writers couldn’t even say what a lyrical image is or why it is important in a story. 

At it’s basic level, a lyrical image is sacramental in a story, giving the reader something to see in their mind’s eye that points to hidden realities. Imagery should come into play particularly to get an audience to brood over a project’s theme, but also can be very helpful in making a character’s motivations and choices more resonant.

The primary virtue of a metaphor is that it is clearer than the underlying truth you are trying to explicate.  

The second necessary quality of a metaphor is that it applies. As Naval scholar Alfred Thayer Mahan noted in his work of training officers, "A great leader is the one who knows all the principles from history and then knows in the situation before him, that a principle applies when it applies and doesn't apply when it doesn't apply."  It's the same with a great artist.  

The third quality of a metaphor is that it provides the emotional resonance that is harder to access in the simple unaided truth.  Consider the most famous allegory in philosophical literature, Plato's Cave.  

Plato could have simply said that the movement from double ignorance to wisdom necessitates many bracing shocks along the way as one is wrenched out of one's comfort zone, stripped of illusion and slowly is able to encounter reality.  But that statement washes over most hearers without any urgency and makes no connection to the life of most heaers.  But tell people that they are prisoners in a cave chained and deceived.  Tell them that they experience terror when the light first strikes their darkened eyes and that they have to be dragged forcibly out of the place in which hey feel safe.  Tell them that that moving from blindness to sight is a slow process but that finally the presence and light of the sun will become their dearest and most cherished gift.  There is energy and passion and fascination and attraction in the metaphor that the simple truth lacks.

In her story Good Country People, the great one, Flannery O’Connor, created a character who was a PhD with a wooden leg. O'Connor wrote about the device to highlight an important aspect of utilizing metaphor in narrative writing.
“She (the character, Hulga) believes in nothing but her own belief in nothing, and we perceive that there is a wooden part of her soul that corresponds to her wooden leg. Now of course this is never stated. The fiction writer states as little as possible. The reader makes this connection from things he is shown. He may not even know that he makes the connection, but the connection is there nevertheless and it has its effect on him.” (Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners)

The truth is, it is easier to tell people what you think, then to entice them to think on something, which is what a good visual image does.  Coming up with a good visual image for a story requires a double portion of the intelligence, sensitivity and imagination that a reader will need to unravel it. 

Friday, March 20, 2015

Screenwriting Grammar Matters

Somebody wrote us recently that their project got rejected in Hollywood for improper formatting. The writer was irate that such a small thing would be used to reject his script. Here, for the general edification was my response....

I wanted to express a brief defense on behalf of those of us who are sticklers about screenwriting grammar, aka formatting. Considered under a professional lens, formatting is not irrelevant. In the vast majority of projects, a correctly formatted page equals one minute of time on the screen. The margins for dialogue are shorter and allow for the actors to add expression. The longer margins allow the audience to get a good enough look at whatever is being described. Beyond timing, capitalizations are signposts to casting agents, line producers, directors and DP's for all their respective tasks. 

The best way to consider a screenplay is like unto an architectural drawing. People outside the profession do not appreciate all the industry standard norms for drawing, and would probably dismiss them. But they have their uses. Essential uses from a professional standpoint. 

People who haven't learned the industry standard for formatting are better off writing their story in a straight narrative fashion, as in a treatment. There are some expectations for a treatment, but few people in the business will quibble over them.   

So, yes, if you are going to write screenplays, do shovel over the cash and buy Final Draft or Movie Magic Screenwriter, or Scriptware.  It's like buying a ruler for an architect. 

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Kindness and Corsets: The Spectacle of Cinderella

My seven year old daughter loves princesses, and I was inevitably one of the contributors to Mr. Mouse's $70 million box office haul last weekend. There's a lot to like about this adaptation. It's a solid story, supported by gorgeous production design, and absolutely stunning costumes. Oh dear Lord, the costumes. Amazing. They are currently on display at the El Capitan Theater in Hollywood, and they are even more impressive in person up close. It's worth the second mortgage to see this show at the El Capitan, by the way. Especially if you take a seven year old in a princess dress.

The spectacle in Cinderella is, well, spectacular. It is truly a feast for the eyes. However, the reason the spectacle works so well is because it has a solid story to hang on.

It has been said that every story is either The Odyssey or Cinderella, so it's not surprising that the audience has certain expectations for the plot. We know what happens. The way it happens in this adaptation is so satisfying, you might find yourself sporting a perma-grin while sitting in a dark theater staring at the screen. Disney's animated Cinderella is more famous than the original fairy tale it was based on by Charles Perrault. It is a tall order to offer a new, fresh take on the world's most well-known fairy tale and also improve upon it. But they did. For starters, they made Cinderella a more active character. Instead of passively letting her step family take advantage of her, Cinderella makes an active choice and compelling reason to stay in spite of her challenges. She is not a victim. She takes ownership of her values, kindness and courage, which cause her to make decisions that are difficult and heroic. Kindness is Cinderella's superpower. Because of her values, she brings nobility and honor to her suffering.

Granted, the message of the story, "Have courage and be kind," is hammered into the audience and repeated about seventeen times too many, but I almost never find this sort of thing to be the fault of the writer. It was probably some studio note to make it so obvious that everyone over the age of five wants to yell at the screen, "Come on! I get it already!" Even so, it's forgivable, because it works. Guess what message my daughter walked away with. Kindness wins. As a parent and as a storyteller, this message is a welcome and refreshing change from most kid stories, which usually amount to something cliche and banal, like, "Just be yourself," or, "Just try." I don't need my kid to go to the movies to learn to just be herself. I want my kid to aspire to be someone slightly better than herself. I want her to choose to stick to her values in the face of adversity.

In addition to being integral to the theme, kindness is also the spectacle of the story. In a plot that offers almost no surprises, kindness is the lynchpin which causes the reactions, moves the story forward, and creates the moments which become so visually powerful. In our book, Notes to Screenwriters, we describe spectacle as being the servant to all the other elements of story: plot, character, theme, dialogue and tone. The reason Cinderella works is because it's not just about pretty dresses. It works because it offers a complete story.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

So you think you have an idea for a movie?

      I got another one last night. A person who heard me give a speech sent me a message asking me to evaluate his life story as a good spine for a movie. We folks in the movie business get this kind of message a lot. As a rule, people have absolutely no idea how big and developed an idea needs to be to become fodder for the entertainment industry to start tossing it around. Below is a two-pager I worked up for my undergrads, basically as a guideline for their final project for me in my Story and Character class. From now on, when somebody writes me that they have a "good idea for a movie" I am going to ask them to complete this sheet - which I am estimating will come in at between 8-12 pages.

Movie Proposal Format

PROPOSED PROJECT TITLE:  How does this title give a sense of your theme, genre and character?

LOGLINE:  One sentence that sums up what this movie is about.

SHORT PITCH:  In one paragraph, sell this story to me.  The following information should be included in a breezy, well-written style.
-  What is the genre of this piece? How would you classify its style and tone?
-  Where does it take place and in what time period?
-  What is the scope of the movie (ie.  Epic studio movie?  Quirky indie film? Etc.) and who will be its primary audience?
-  What will make people want to see this movie?  How will it be fun/entertaining for the audience?  (Think something to learn, something to feel, something to dream about.  Think universal truth and spectacle.)

MOVIE THEME:  State in one artfully-written, arguable sentence the main theme of this project.  You can also include lesser themes in other sentences.

ARENA:  Describe the unique and visual world through which we will travel in this movie.  What will this movie look like on the screen?  How will the visuals help set the tone and the theme?  If it is a standard location (ie. courtroom, bar, restaurant, living room, office), describe how we will see this standard location in a new way in the movie.

MAIN CHARACTER PROFILES:  This section should be at least three pages.  It should include everything about your main two or three characters that Aristotle and McKee - and um, me - says  goes into a good character (not necessarily in this order), including:
-  Characterization (how old?  How smart/educated/articulate?  How rich or poor?Where she lives?  How he looks – his personal style and quirks.  Give me a thorough sense of the way this character is going to look and handle herself on screen.)
-  Character (What is his genius?  Her charm? Why will audiences be drawn to him?  What are his values and how did he find them?  What would she say she needs most?  What stands in his way?)
-  What are the main conflicts in her life?  What are some of the deep paradoxes in her life?
-  Who or what is his support system?
-  What is her transformational arc in the movie?  What leads up to his moment of grace and does he accept it or not?  How is she irrevocably changed at the end of the movie?  How is his ending a new beginning?

SUPPORTING CHARACTER PROFILES:  Write at least a paragraph for each of the other principal characters in the piece.  Give details of their character and characterizations and indicate what transformational arc they will travel in the story.

STORY SYNOPSIS:  Divide the main action of the story into acts.  This section should be at least five pages. 
                  ACT ONE:  Take us through the main action of the first half hour of this movie.  Include the way the main character is introduced. Include how you are going to introduce your theme and any visual imagery you will be using.  Hook us by indicating the entertaining spectacle that the audience will enjoy in the story.  Then, take us through the inciting incident that draws the character into launching the journey of the story by making a choice.  Describe the various kinds of conflict that stand in the character’s way.Introduce supporting characters and subplots.  End with a high stakes, visual action/choice that puts the character in a new dilemma.
                 ACT TWO:  Take us through the next hour of the film.  How does the character’s situation become more complicated?  What actions does the character take which drive the story?  What changes do we start to see in the arena?  Where is the character and his personal relationships in Act Three? What is it that heightens the stakes and suspense?  What will continue to make this entertaining for the audience?  What is the main reversal that comes at the mid-point?  At the end of Act Two, how is the character’s situation as bad as it can be?  What is the test that you have set up for the third act?
                ACT THREE:  Take us through the main action of the third act.  What does the character do in the third act?  What are the remaining sources of conflict and how does the character engage them?  Where is the character in his relationship in Act Three?  How does the character’s genius come into play in getting to the resolution of the story?  How does the character “die” so as to live?  How is the arena changed at the end of the story?  What is the new beginning at the end?

Why My Screenplay Was In Desperate Need Of Notes

I don't know how you typically feel after writing those blessed words, "Fade Out" at the end of a first draft, but I fluctuate somewhere between a fat cat in a patch of sunlight and a dog with his head out the window of the family Buick. Basically euphoric. The happy dance ensues, the champagne flows, and my inner child sings, "I wrote a screenplay! Nanny, nanny, nanny!" It's beautiful. For the rest of the week, I give my laptop a breather and bask in my accomplishment. "I would love to brunch with you! No need to write today, you see." "Why not go shopping? I'll be rich when they see my screenplay!" "This movie is so horribly written. I could have done much better, as evidenced by the future award winner living in my laptop's hard drive." 

Then I read the thing.

"WHAT IS THIS CRAP?" Suddenly clouds cover the sun and the Buick breaks down on the side of the road. "What happened to the life changing piece of art I finished writing only a week ago? Why is everything so boring? I completely forgot about this character! How did I miss this GIGANTIC plot hole? Wow, I suck." 

At that point I often fall into one of three traps:

1) Convince myself it really is wonderful and that I simply need to make a couple minor grammar tweaks; make those tweaks and call the thing done(ish). After all, I loved it for a reason, right? It must be mostly brilliant. I'm probably being too hard on myself.

2) Scrap the whole darn thing. Accept the fact that I ruined the project and it is beyond saving.

3) Rewrite, and rewrite, and rewrite, and rewrite, and rewrite, and rewrite, and rewrite, and rewrite, and rewrite, et. until it no longer resembles anything close to the initial pitch and still has the same structural, thematic, or character problems the first draft had.

I'm pretty sure I'm not alone in this. At least I hope I'm not. If you've ever been in the same place as me, perhaps these words will give you some confidence.

First drafts will never be brilliant. They're first drafts. They should, however, show the potential for brilliance. More than likely, I totally nailed at least one thing I was going for. (You probably did too!) The truth of the matter is rewrites are completely, 100% necessary to the screenwriting process but (and here's the kicker) I will never be far enough removed from my work to rewrite with purpose. And purpose is the main thing a rewrite needs to have.

How do you find a purpose for your rewrite? Notes, my friend. Get notes.

Notes [from the right person] will...

Identify what works well.

Remember how stoked you were when you finished the draft? There must be at lease the potential for brilliance in there. A note-giver can read your story without the bitterness of falling short and highlight the moments of brilliance you can expand in the rewrite.

Pinpoint exactly what isn't working.

When you've been with this story for weeks or months on end, it's easy to make allowances. You answer questions subconsciously to which your audience won't have access. A note-giver can help you find those plot holes and figure out how to fill them.

Your note-giver also won't have any loyalties. If a scene, line, or character isn't working, your note-giver is free to admit it without feeling like he or she is betraying a friend or killing a darling. The story is king. Your note-giver can keep to that rule much more naturally than you can.

Help you figure out exactly what your story is about.

Often I've found that my story theme changes midway through the first draft. I don't even realize it's about something new until the second time I've read it all the way through. Your note-giver can help you determine which theme is stronger and how you can make the whole thing consistent.

This is also true with the whole feel of a piece. Asking your note-giver how he or she felt about characters, moments, and themes will help you figure out if you're succeeding with the feel you were aiming for. Then you can decide if it's still the feel you'd like to have or if you'd like to change it in the rewrites.

Catch all the little grammatical and formatting mistakes you missed.

Cut yourself some slack, you were probably staring at that screen for a while. That said, it is never acceptable to submit a script with grammar or formatting errors to contests or executives. 

Get you pumped.

Let's face it. No one writes a screenplay just to have it. We write a screenplay so it will become a movie so people will see it. Having someone else read your work feels sort of like a baby version of that. It's step one. Yes, it's scary. Yes, it's taking a chance. Yes, they might hate it. But they're reading it. And that means they can probably help you make it better. So get pumped!

Now go out there and get notes from someone. Give your rewrite a purpose! I know I will!

Need help deciphering the notes you've received?

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Practice Safe Storytelling

The truth is, the tragic note that should be given about many scripts that are on the floors, desks, chairs and trunks in Hollywood is, “This script should never have been written.” Scripts get written that shouldn’t, in the same way unplanned pregnancies happen. People who may or may not be writers have a one night stand with a cheap idea and then, a few weeks or months later, push out a draft. What should have happened is a hard conversation between the person and their story idea before they jumped into Final Draft together. “Are you really the one for me?” “Are you going to be able to support a whole screenplay?” “Is there any theme underneath your spectacle?” “Is it really you I love, or is it because you remind me of somebody else?” “Is this going to be something we both get sick of in a few months?” The only good news is, you never really get naked with a bad story, but you are rarely better for having let yourself get seduced by a sexy pitch.
Once the script exists, very few people have the obnoxiousness and intestinal fortitude to say to the hapless and half-had creator, “You made a big mistake in starting this.” I wish I had the courage to say it more often, because, if you don’t say it, then you end up spending a tremendous amount of time doing what I think of as, “Tweaking Crap Around the Edges.” It always reminds me of when I was a little girl and how I hated eating liver. My cousin told me to cut it up in really really small pieces and get it down that way. But I remember trying the experiment and concluding at about age six, that you could cut up and cover up crap, but it’s still gonna taste like crap.
Not long ago, I gave notes on a script that is, for reasons known only to the movie gods – whom I’m convinced more and more are dark, dark spirits – going ahead at a production company. Basically the company knows the project is in trouble but they have already spent too much money on it to abandon it so they are going to plunge ahead hoping against all probability that a wonder of a movie will come out of a script of chopped liver.
Still, it’s an ill wind that doesn’t blow some good, and so I thought I could share some of the reasons why the project is failing for folks out there struggling with their own difficult screenplay relationships. Here are notes to help you not get used.
A) First Note: This Script Was Not Written By a Writer 
Writing is a talent. Talent means you are naturally, weirdly good at something that other people can not do. You know you have writing talent if your writing elicits an emotional response from people. You know you have talent if you know what you write is good. You KNOW it.
And then, even natural born writers need some degree of training. You can no more sit down and spew out a screenplay without having studied the craft, than a brain surgeon could just crack open a skull and start scalping. Training gives a writer appreciation for the complexity of good writing. As Thomas Mann so wonderfully noted, “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”
This is the kind of note that gets written on scripts that are not written by people with writing talent or training (examples are all from real scripts):
– The language in this script is clunky and the word choices awkward. (i.e. “Mary straddled a phone on her shoulder.”
– The scenes are over-written (ie. John stands nervously looking at his face in the bathroom mirror over the sink near the shower two feet from the window.”).
– There doesn’t seem to be any theme or subtext underlying this piece. The writer doesn’t seem to have any burning thing she wants to say. She has done a job, but never taken ownership.
– There is no charm here. No fun. No magic. Nothing that feels fresh or creative.
– There is nothing to learn here. The writer has nothing to teach or share.
B) Second Note: Not a Story but Lots of Chit-Chat in Different Places
Aristotle says that human beings are driven to story by two powerful instincts: for imitation and for beauty. It’s the imitation thing we are interested in here. The kind of imitation that we are driven to stare at in stories is what Aristotle calls, “Men in action.” Movement. Choices. Change. And real change that can’t just be reversed or taken back. We say “Show don’t tell,” when we are working with writers but, it’s amazing how so few people can apply this when it comes to their own work. So, I’m not going to just tell you, show don’t tell. Here’s me showing you the notes you get when a story is all talky no chantey.
– Time and time again, the writers fail dramatically in that they have characters say who they are, what they want, what the problems are and what the point of everything is, instead of showing it through visual, high stakes choices.
– Because so much of this comes down to conversations, most of the story feels unmotivated. It lacks the compelling quality that comes from “seeing is believing.”
– No one is building anything in this script. No one is climbing a mountain or slaying a dragon or doing anything enviable or, frankly, anything filmic.
– Apparently, the writer wants us to believe that these characters resolved their huge problems offscreen and without losing any limbs or jobs or jobs or even just a smashed brandy glass.
C) Third Note: Not Cross-Genre, Really Just a Mess
When I talk about genre with my students, it always turns into a discussion of their First Amendment freedoms. Many wannabe writers feel constrained by the idea of genre as if it is something outside being imposed on them. But genre isn’t something that you fit your story into. Genre is the essence that flows out of your stuff. It’s the soul in your project that pushes it to fulfillment the way Aristotle says the soul of a zebra pushes it to have black and white stripes and so that the zebra never wakes up one day with the mane of a lion. Signs you are unclear in the soul of your story are notes like this:
– What kind of movie is this? Is it a family film? Is it a comedy? A romantic comedy? A drama? A drama with romantic comedy elements? A murder mystery? This script is trying to be all things to all but isn’t attaining to any of them.
– The story never really gets us to tears, and it never really gets us to laughs. It never gets us to fear and suspense, and it never gets us to inspiration.
– This script feels like two different movies. It started feeling like “The Insider,” but then devolved into “Hang Over.”
– The writer seems to be going for black comedy here. But the thing about comedy is, it’s funny. Even when it’s black.
– This movie has a twelve year old protagonist, but then there are scenes full of R-rated language. Who is the audience for this piece?

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Getting the Most Out of Script Consultations

  The bulk of the business we do at Catharsis, besides writing and being generally fabulous, is script consulting. Or rather, writer consulting. We groom writers to become the people they need to be to execute their masterpieces and enjoy a meaningful career. We've seen our share of starry-eyed hopefuls, rough and tumble go-getters, anxious self-doubters, over-confident newbies, and more. We wrote our book, Notes to Screenwriters, from the many years of giving notes to our students and clients, and also from receiving notes as writers ourselves.

One of the most disheartening things we see in our line of work is that newbie writers will squander hundreds of dollars on script consultations because they didn't properly prepare for them. It's for this reason we do preliminary evaluations on scripts to deem if they are ready for extensive feedback. We aren't interested in wasting time (yours or ours) if a script is not ready.

Here are the top ten ways to make the most of your next script consultation:

1. Learn the craft. Before dropping several hundred bucks on a script consultation, make sure you've first invested in some training, instruction, and materials. It's surprising how many writers don't do this. If you wanted to be a surgeon, would you want someone to evaluate your first surgical procedure before you've attended med school? We don't think so. At the very, very least, read some books on screenwriting. (Like ours.) There's a ton of basic how-to classes out there. Take some seminars. (Ours are great.) Watch great movies. Read the top screenplays. If you're just starting out, consider signing up for a mentorship with us instead of a consultation. We'll tailor it toward specific areas in which you need to grow.

2. Proofread your script before you send it to a consultant. Please. Pretty please. If you know you're bad at proofreading, ask a friend to help you.

3. Make sure you're sending your very best work. Never send a script to anyone- not even your writers group- that isn't a good representation of what you can do. Write to the very best of your ability and knowledge. Most emerging writers see a gap between their abilities and where they want their writing to be. Take note of this gap, and ask your consultant questions based on where you perceive your own deficit.

4. When you get written feedback, read for clarity. Us poor writers are creatures of ego. When we get feedback, what we really want to know- from the depths of our beings- is whether our work is truly and deeply loved by another. In most cases, especially with drafts in progress, that answer is no. So get over it. Be objective. Be professional. Strive to understand the feedback your consultant gives you, whether you agree with it or not.

5. Ask thoughtful, specific questions. When you meet with your consultant, come prepared with a list of several specific questions you have about your work. The more specific you are, the more satisfying answers you'll get. Move away from asking generalizations, like, "So did you like it? Do you think it can sell?" Instead, ask questions like, "On page 24, I wanted to create a visual metaphor for the hero's descent into hell, so that's why everything is orange. Did you pick up on that?"

6. Resist taking offense or defending your work. See #4. Script consultations are often the first experiences new writers have with getting professional quality feedback, and it can be intimidating for some. Trust us, we're the kind ones. If you stick with it, there will be plenty of uncaring, snarky, and inconsiderate note-givers in your future. It's best to grow some thicker skin now. If you find yourself getting defensive, take a step back and remember that consultants are deeply invested in helping you grow.

7. Say, "Thank you." These magic words open more doors in Hollywood than any other, and your professionalism as a screenwriter starts here.

8. Don't expect a script consultant to act as an agent. The role of a consultant is to give you the notes you need to make your script really great. Don't ask them to slip your script to Spielberg. Just don't.

9. Expect a lot more work ahead.  Many scripts we consult on are several drafts away from professional quality work, mainly because the writer didn't consider several of the points above. Professional quality writing takes years of commitment and practice.

10. The more you learn, you'll learn that you have more to learn. The wisest among us make this a lifelong habit. The most prolific writers are constantly growing in their craft, taking seminars, reading, and attending retreats, like this one.  

We should also say, as former development executives, that many of these same rules apply to sending your script to a production company. DON'T DO IT unless you're given the green light from professionals (like us) who agree that it's ready.
Learn more about Catharsis script consulting here!

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Why Pixar's 'Inside Out' Premise is Brilliant

Pixar released the extended trailer yesterday for its upcoming feature, Inside Out:

The premise is that characters who each represent an emotion live in the control center (get it?) of a human's brain and tries to "help". Of course, we can assume these emotions get in each others' way and muddle things up as much as possible.

The premise might at first seem like a risky move for Pixar. For one thing, it's unlike anything we've seen before. For risk-averse Hollywood, cranking out another Cars sequel might seem like a better financial move. Pixar, known and respected for creating delightfully original content, has been playing it safe lately, so this is a welcome and hopeful nod to their strong storytelling roots.

In spite of theoretical risk, Inside Out, from a story perspective, is a brilliant idea. Why? The premise taps into the very reason people go see movies: to feel something.

In our chapter on story in Notes to Screenwriters, we discuss why a story has to matter. A story is something to learn. The primary lesson that people want to learn in story has to do with a better way to live. A story is also something to dream. The societal point for story is for audience members to watch the trials and tribulations of a made up character and then import those lessons into their real lives. And finally, a story is something to feel.

"Stories are meant to provide a variety of human experience. Especially emotional experience. Our psyches are programmed for a wide spectrum of emotional sensations, ranging from sidesplitting laughter to gut-wrenching sobs, from the thrill of wonder to goose bumps and shrieks of terror. When we feel intense emotions, they can act as a cathartic release or purge."

Also in Notes to Screenwriters, we break down the various emotions and their corresponding genres. People go to dramas to experience pathos and sympathy. they go to comedies to experience surprise and the absurd. They see horror films to experience the limits of their own courage.

It's safe to assume that Inside Out will deliver all of these emotions and more. Perhaps this is the new meta-genre. Pixar is the best at establishing ultimate mass appeal, and this film suggests that whatever you want to feel at the movies, Inside Out will have it.

Of course, this premise is so "high concept" it could backfire by trying to accomplish too much and thereby please no one, but if anyone can pull something off like this, it's Pixar. We won't know for another three months if they deliver on the premise, but we hope they do! 

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Four Great Reasons to Love Kimmy Schmidt

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, now streaming on Netflix, is a new comedy by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock in which a woman escapes a doomsday cult and starts life over again in New York City. In the pilot, Kimmy (Ellie Kemper) delightful, effervescent, and determined to not let fifteen years of horrific abuse get her down, takes charge of her new circumstances to find a job and an apartment with world's most contagious smile on her face.

Not everyone can say they know what it's like to live in a post-apocalyptic bunker for fifteen years, so what makes Kimmy so darn likeable and relatable? 

In our book, Notes to Screenwriters, we break down the four qualities of a relatable character as described by Aristotle in Poetics. Here are just a few things Kimmy does to model these qualities:

1. Goodness
Kimmy's goodness in the face of adversity is what makes her so refreshing and delightful. She is not just basically good, she is almost wholly good. She made the most of a horrific situation and she is determined not to be labeled a victim. And just when her brightness and positivity might be brushed off as innocence or denial, she springs into action to defend herself and others. Her flaws are sympathetic, too. Her occasional post-traumatic flashbacks set her off in surprising ways. She blurts out details from the bunker that she otherwise would bury.

2. Propriety
In the pilot, Kimmy catches a boy stealing candy (twice) and chases after him. This action inadvertently leads her to her new employer, Jacqueline Vorhees (Jane Krakowski) whom she quasi-mistakes as a woman trapped in an oppressive relationship needing help. Kimmy is a hero who stands up for justice. But she is also quirky and upbeat while doing so. Aristotle says that a relatable character should be quirky and strange, but not grotesque or scary. Juxtaposed with her captor, the bearded megalomaniac by day and party DJ by night, she is by far a more sympathetic character.

3. Consistency
Kimmy makes consistent choices which support her motivation to defend the weak and free the oppressed. As positive as she is, she is no shrinking violet. She stands up to bullies, including Vorhee's rotten step-daughter Xanthippe (Dylan Gelula) who try to tear her down. She is steadfast in her quest to improve her life, make a living, get an education, and protect the innocent.

4. Truth 
Kimmy and her fellow "mole women" were fed horrible lies about the apocalypse for fifteen years. They were told that they were dumb and bad. They were forced to worship a lunatic. It is precisely because of this back story that Kimmy stands for truth. Interestingly enough, the four mole women react differently to their experience after they are freed. One cashes in on her "victim" status and accepts plenty of pity perks, including a boyfriend who doesn't love her. Another starts a "Mole" business- that is, the Mexican sauce, mole (get it?). The third continues to dress in plain clothes and sympathize with her oppressor. Kimmy is the only one who clings to what is good, noble, and true.