Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Writing Week (Vol. 3) part 143 - The Act Two Hump

Ask just about any writer what the most difficult pages to write are, and I bet you'll frequently hear, "pages 60 through 70." If not that, then "the second half of act two" or "the pages right after the midpoint." Ask me the same question, and I'll invariably tell you the same thing.

I like to call it the "60-70 slump" or, a bit more generally, the "Act Two hump." Basically, these are the pages that just plain suck to write. Act One often breezes by. It involves a lot of set up, but also a lot of fun. The stakes aren't necessarily too high yet - in fact, theoretically they're as low as they'll be throughout the whole script, since the stakes should build steadily as the film goes on. This first half of Act Two (pages 30-60 in a conventional three act, 120 page script) build rapidly, as does the action or conflict or tension. The midpoint (60) hits, and should hit hard - for better or worse. The protagonist meets with great defeat here or is thrown off the path he's been following or experiences a great success from which she might fall later. Things change at the midpoint. It's what comes next that's the hard part.

I often get past the midpoint and, even though I know what has to happen in toward the end of Act Two and into Act Three, I usually stop and think, "what's next?" Things often just stagnate here. My characters and story are not yet at a point where the later events can come to fruition - there are a couple missing beats in between - but they also can't backtrack. In short, they're stuck. Rather, I'm stuck. 

With the firefighter script that I'm working on now, I spent no fewer than two days last week essentially staring at a blinking cursor for an hour a day, trying to figure out what would come next and why my characters couldn't just skip ahead to the end. Granted, I needed the pages in between to bulk up the script, but the main concern in the writing for me at this point is the actual story progression. If it seems like the natural next move is the one that immediately brings about the end of Act Two, then perhaps I've missed something earlier or have not given enough credit to something that needs to happen. Of course, it could also mean that my story's short and warrants a bit more exploration somewhere. 

Ultimately, in this case, the solution came about in two ways. For one, I realized that the order of a few scenes building up to, including, and immediately following the midpoint turn was wrong. I had laid things out in such a way that, in order to fill a scene gap and convey some necessary information, I was going to have to write a highly redundant scene between two characters no more than a couple pages after their last one. Bad news. What's more, other gratuitous scenes and bits of information were going to be thrown in later, since the best places to achieve those moments had already been taken by earlier, similar beats. Reshuffling the scene order not only saved me wasted space in the form of redundant dialogue and action, but it got me thinking about how the rest of the script would likely play out. And when the juices started flowing, they flooded. As if lightning had struck, I raced to hammer out a very terse beat sheet detailing nine or ten sequences that would carry me through most of the rest of the film. They just all clicked right into place, connecting naturally end to end in what seemed like seamless fashion. There's no guarantee that these sequences will generate perfect pacing or pages, of course, but they at least helped me to get through the 60-70 slump, over the Act Two hump.

Don't worry that you're not cut out for this whole writing thing just because you hit a wall in your writing. It's totally natural for writers to experience that at some point. Just work through the slump - it might take some time, but it'll be so worth it when you do - and you'll be in the home stretch. 

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Logline Central - Ender's Game

Logline Central is an irregular segment that takes a deeper look at loglines of scripts or projects that have just been purchased, as listed on DoneDealPro.

I don't actually have a ton to say about this week's logline. It's fair to middling as a logline in and of its own, but it's more the project and director that I'm excited about.  Just a SPOILER ALERT warning to anyone who has not read (the awesome) Ender's Game and plans to some day - the logline pretty much gives away the ending, twist, and oomf of the book.
Title: Ender's Game
Logline: Set in a world in which humans face a serious threat from an alien race known as the Formics and begin training elite military units in response. Andrew Wiggin, also known as Ender, a child becomes a top-flight solider and helps to save Earth by fighting simulations that turn out to be real.
Writer: Gavin Hood
 More: Rewrite. Adapted from the Orson Scott Card's bestselling books. Gavin Hood will also direct. Last set up in February 2004 at Warner Bros.
If the name rings a bell, Gavin Hood is the filmmaker who directed X-Men Origins: Wolverine and gets most of the blame for the consensus that the movie generally sucked. (To be fair, I didn't think it blew that bad, but I also saw it after hearing how awful it was for about three weeks.) Still, whether he ruined your X-world or not, Hood deserves much more credit - and more chances - in my book. A few years ago, the South African native directed one of my all-time favorite films, the beautiful, under-appreciated gem TSOTSI. It was such an incredibly powerful character story focused on redemption and salvation, that Hood earned my $12.50 for his next few films. I'd like to see what he does with Ender's Game, since there's a lot there about the the characters (hopefully he can mine their emotions a bit deeper than he did in Wolverine).

It's always interesting to me when a filmmaker breaks into the American market with a beautiful, small film, and then almost immediately heads franchise pics like Wolverine and Ender. That must be a tremendous amount of pressure on someone who is not of the system originally and not accustomed to the kind of budgets handed over to them. Still, despite the widely-accepted notion that Wolverine sucked, Hood got Ender, which I know holds a special place in a lot of fans' hearts. Hell, I haven't read a lot of sci-fi (despite the fact that I tend to write it these days), and even I hold Ender's Game in very high regard. I was even just talking about it this weekend, as a matter of fact. 

Let's just hope that Hood guides the ship successfully to the screen. Ender's Game is difficult material in the sense that an adaptation has a lot to live up to, but I like to think that Gavin Hood is up to the challenge. If it makes it to the screen, I'll be there.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Writing Week (Vol. 3) part 142 - How to Use Slugg Lines

I really can't tell you how great it feels to be working on something new after so much time dedicated to my post-Apocalyptic spec. Not that I disliked working on that script - in fact, the complete opposite is true. I loved writing (and re-writing) it. After a while, though, my "new script" muscles were beginning to atrophy, so a change to an unexplored project was a welcome one. 

While I was writing this week (almost to page 50 of an intended 90), I got to thinking a lot about slugg lines and the way that they're best utilized. I'm pretty content with the way I handle them, but considering this blog is primarily intended to share our experiences and discoveries with other aspiring writers, I figured it couldn't hurt to talk about them a bit this week. After all, we all use them every day in our writing, and I certainly have a number of them in my week's pages, so why not.

To recap quickly in case you're not 100% sure what I'm talking about, the slugg line is the heading that appears before each scene, usually formatted like this:  INT. HOSPITAL ROOM -- DAY (or something very similar). The "INT." or "EXT." offer the environment (i.e. inside or outside). "HOSPITAL ROOM" is the specific location, with "DAY" being the time of day the scene is set. It's generally understood that the time of day be written either as day or night, with few exceptions leaning either way between or outside those general markers (afternoon, morning, evening). You can also use "LATER" or "MOMENTS LATER" or "CONTINUOUS" in place of day or night. For more on Continuous, check out this earlier post.

The reason that Day and Night are the most typical time indicators is that, for the most part, there are other people who will go through your script and prep it for production, a task that involves determining the shooting schedule. Unless it is absolutely imperative that a particular scene occur in the wee hours of the morning or at sundown, unnecessarily adding anything other than day or night makes planning the shooting schedule that much more difficult. The last thing you want to do as a new (or any) writer is make other people's jobs more difficult. Sticking with those two should not hinder your writing in most cases. 

As for Later, Moments Later, and Continuous, these are a bit different. In theory, all action is "continuous" (the movie doesn't just stop between scenes), so you do not need to use it all the time. If things are happening at the same time, you can do it - or "SIMULTANEOUS" if you want. For Later and Moments Later, I like to use them as such: both are used to denote a scene that takes place on the same day as the previous one. For example, something occurs during the day, and the following scene is still during the day, only a bit later on, I would use Later. If it is within the same 24 hours but now it's dark out, go with Night. If something happens during the day, and the following scene is a continuation of it that we have jumped to (perhaps set up to fifteen minutes later) but the locale, characters, and beat are the same, instead of writing in JUMP CUT TO, I go with Moments Later. There can even be a change of location here. If action is the next day (i.e. two "day" scenes back to back with 24 hours between them), I would use Day again in the slugg line, but specify "The next day" at the beginning of the description/action.

Your last option - and one that I like a lot - is to use Secondary Headings, especially in cases where action continues in the same location. Basically, these are modified slugg lines, which contain neither the interior/exterior designation, nor information about the time of day. You don't have to bog down the page with extra text to describe a scene set in a house, for example, in which the characters go from room to room. Rather than constantly typing INT. BILL'S HOUSE, [SPECIFIC] ROOM -- CONTINUOUS for each subsequent room, start with an overview - INT. BILL'S HOUSE -- DAY - and then follow the characters into the... DINING ROOM and then into the... LIVING ROOM and so on and so forth. "DINING ROOM" stands alone on the slugg line, followed by the action or dialogue, and then LIVING ROOM taking us into the next chunk. It reads quicker and looks cleaner. Some writers even use secondary headings almost exclusively. I like them quite a bit myself.

Remember, slugg lines are malleable. They involve words that you still have to type out, and therefore, you can change them as need be. However, there's also an accepted format to them, which you would do well to work within for the most part.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Fall and Oscar Movie Preview - 2010

Fall is here, and in movie land, that means Oscar season. The following three articles are definitely worth reading if you're trying to track what's coming out between now and the end of the year and which - if any - of the releases are potential Oscar fodder.

Ken Levine does his annual fall movie preview in two parts here and here. Always good for a laugh, Levine's previews offer a good-natured (I think), usually well-deserved mocking look at what Hollywood has lined up for the final months of the year. When he lists them all out side by side that way, it's baffling to see just how many are remakes, sequels, three-quels, and adaptations. Count the original stuff. I doubt you need more than two hands.

While Nikki Finke is on vacation, Pete Hammond sums up the potential Oscar nominees at Deadline Hollywood. Granted, you don't have to care or buy into any of this if you don't want to. But lists like these are always useful as tracking devices (at the very least) for me. Regardless of how much stock you put in the Academy's decisions each year, knowing what's getting a lot of buzz at the festivals is generally pretty important for anyone looking to break into the industry, as being able to speak about what's hot (and understand the references when producers or agents make them to you) is crucial.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Writing Week (Vol. 3) part 141 - Positive Response from Agents and A New Approach to Writing

Three weeks ago, my post-Apocalyptic spec went out to a handful of agents at some of the largest agencies. Two weeks ago, all I knew was that one had passed. My manager didn't expect to hear much until after Labor Day, as most people were out of town for the end of the summer then. Last week, as expected, we got word from the other two we went out to initially.

I was thrilled to hear that both responses were quite positive. While I can't say who or where (though obviously I know both), I can say that these are agents at companies that any emerging writer would love to wind up at. If anything, they could be considered too big - in the sense that they would have other clients earning more and therefore more "important" right now - but that doesn't seem to be a concern in either case. The agents have teams working with them, and it's likely that there would be a few people handling the material. Of the two, we're still waiting to hear from one who liked the script, but recently signed a client writing similar work (which could be a conflict of interest). Either way, two people interested in the work and a few others we're hoping to hear from this week - some of which have La and NYC offices, which could be really nice. 

As the post-Apocalyptic spec slowly moves along, I've been getting further into the firefighter one, as well. It's been an interesting writing process for me, unique in many ways. I almost immediately cast my outline aside. Sure, I still open it each day and work by it - loosely - but it's definitely not guiding my daily writing. Rather, each day I sit down to the computer (which regrettably was not every day this week), I find myself carefully crafting the day's scene(s), unsure exactly what will come up in the action or dialogue. It's a much more painstaking process than I'm used to. Normally, I can produce 4 to 5 pages per hour-long writing session; with this script, my average has dropped to somewhere around 3. I'm not complaining by any means. At the same time, though, I can't say if that change in pace and approach is affecting me positively or negatively or differently at all. Nor am I sure quite where the change from. 

Last Thursday, I reviewed Richard Walter's Essentials of Screenwriting. Perhaps the lessons emphasized in that book are governing the new writing tactics. Maybe I'm subconsciously working from a place where I'm reminded of all the re-writes I had to do on the post-Apocalyptic spec and am trying to preempt them by being more careful in my first draft. Maybe it's a combination of both. Maybe it's neither. Either way, I'm eager to see how the draft turns out. It feels much more like I'm crafting a story now, fitting the puzzle together while at the same time allowing it to evolve as it needs to, as it organically should. I like it. I'm slower now, but hopefully, even if this draft isn't solid, this new method will prove to be.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Book Alert - Essentials of Screenwriting by Richard Walter

If there’s one thing that can be said about screenwriting books, it’s that there are a lot of them. It seems as though most people who sold a screenplay once in the 1970s have since written a “definitive” guide to screenwriting. So the question for those of us seeking out the rare few books that are worth our time and money obviously becomes, how do you know which book is good?

I recently had the pleasure of reading Richard Walter’s Essentials of Screenwriting, and while I read it, the answer became very obvious to me. Unlike many of the “how-to gurus,” Richard Walter is in an undeniable place to dole out advice and instruction. A long-time educator, he is the head of UCLA’s graduate program in screenwriting. His years of overseeing emerging and eager talent are credentials enough, but they’re not what make the book worth reading.

I cannot deny that Walter’s style can at times be repetitive – and I truly mean this in the most appreciative way possible. In fact, it's the most valuable thing about his book. He hammers home that the beginning (of a script, a scene, a line of dialogue) is the point before which nothing else is necessary. The end, on the flip side, is the moment after which everything else is gratuitous. These basic tenets help form the foundation of his guidance; get them down, and you’re on your way to a successful (at least structurally) screenplay. And by the end of the book, you will most certainly have them ingrained in your mind, as they are mentioned time and time again. The same with many other key points to craft: write more with less (no novels, please), show your skill by bringing elements back throughout the script (i.e. don’t explain everything right when it happens), and above all else, present your script in a professional format (no illustrations, industry accepted font and spacing, proper tense-usage, spelling, and grammar).

As I read the book, encountering the same reminders again and again, always building upon one another with other tidbits offered in later chapters, I really got a sense of Richard Walter’s style. I felt as though I was in the lecture hall hearing him speak. He wasn’t repeating points because he had nothing else to say; he was repeating them because they were crucial; they were, not to get cheeky, essential to remember. They warranted saying more than once. And you know what? They quickly started to sink in.

I was still working on re-writes for an action/adventure script I was writing while I was reading Essentials of Screenwriting and I was amazed to find that – mid-sentence sometimes – I would often stop and think back on something I had just read in the book. Was I starting my scene in the right place? Was that last line of dialogue I just wrote a bit too long – did it need to end where it did, or was it really over sooner? Richard Walter had, over the course of 400 pages, so firmly rooted certain tips and guidelines in my mind that I could in no way deny that I was using them. His advice to me, the reader, was instantly incorporated and appreciated.

So how do you know which screenwriting book is good? It’ll be the one that offers suggestions and instructions you immediately begin to implement in your writing, not because you have no other guidance, but because they make perfect sense and, more importantly, they make you a better writer. After seven years of screenwriting education (both during and after school), I was not sure how much I could glean from another how-to book. Essentials of Screenwriting proved that I had a number of lessons yet to learn, lessons that have proven invaluable in my writing since. Even after all my years of writing, I found I could still benefit from a few “essential” reminders from someone who truly knows.

Essentials of Screenwriting is on sale now.

Monday, September 06, 2010

The Writing Week (Vol. 3) part 140 - New Script and Agent Updates

It feels good to be writing something new again. I mean, really writing something - not just jotting down a few random notes here or typing up a rough outline there. No, I mean actually sitting down, opening Movie Magic 2000, and putting words to the page, working my way up from a blank page one all over again.

I haven't gone through this process in quite a while now. Most of my time the past two years has been dedicated to my post-Apocalyptic spec. However, as it's now in the hands of the creative exec at the production company in LA and out to agents, there's not a whole lot I can do for it these days. Not until some decisions are made by people who aren't me. And, if I'm at all serious about trying to become a working, career screenwriter, I know that I can't just let the time pass and not use it to produce other pages for a new project.

Time's too valuable to waste right now - if, (knock on wood) I have to take some meetings in the coming month, I certainly don't want to show up at them empty handed. It's all well and good to have the post-Apocalyptic spec open the door to that meeting for me, but I know that one of the very first questions (once the basic "tell me about yourself" stuff is done with) is going to be, "So what else do you have?" The thing is, I don't necessarily have to have a library of scripts ready to be messaged over right then and there. What I will need, though, is the ability to talk about other ideas in specific details. The more I have written of a script, the more I should know about it. And even if I don't have pages, the more I've worked an idea out, the better able I'll be to talk about it in a meeting without getting flustered. It just so happens that I do have pages for this new thing - the firefighter script - and while I'm just at page 18 of a first draft, that's better than nothing.

So on the writing front, you could say that it was a pretty good wee. Regarding the post-Apocalyptic spec, it was just so-so. We still waiting to hear back from one of the two agents that we initially went to with the hopes of finding me some representation. Unfortunately, the agent that we did hear back from passed. I'm not 100% sure why, just not for them, I guess. Still, I don't know whether that says more about my writing or the state of the industry. I'm hoping it's the latter, of course. This agent was brought a script that a production company is already basically behind, which people want to go out and try to sell very soon. We just want the agent behind it. Even having an A-list producer's name behind the project didn't seal representation, which just goes to show that you never know what will work. 

Far as I know, we're still waiting to hear back from the other agent, and - in light of the one's pass - have gone out to a few others. My manager didn't expect we'd hear anything before Labor Day, so hopefully this coming week will bring news from a few of the others we've reached out to. And, more hopefully, one of them will like it and like me. I think we can still go ahead if I wind up being un-repped (those very same agents could come knocking if I make a sale without an agent behind me), but it would be nice to land some representation now that we're actually putting the script out there with that intent. No one likes to come away empty-handed. We'll see what this coming week brings.