Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Writing Week (Vol. 5) part 220 - Everything's Connected

I've been mired in outline land for the past few weeks, as you probably know, and this week has been no exception. After a short hiatus following the submission of my outline to my co-writer, W.A., I met with him to get notes. I have to say, getting notes is downright fun sometimes. It can also be aggravating as hell, but there's often no rush like the rush of figuring out story beats. Sitting there, talking things over while drinking coffee or whiskey or a beer, playing creator of worlds and people - what could be better?

I love that part of working on a story. W.A. and I met at his office again and though we were a little pressed for time, we made a lot of progress in the outline. Many of his notes were, to filch the term from him, "cosmetic." "We can't use the pyramids, because this similar movie did." That sort of thing. (And believe you me, those are important things to pay attention to.) Other notes were slightly bigger - "This reveal comes too late; we should probably push it up." 

"Yeah, but..." I'd start to counter. But you can only rebuff an idea for so long. In fact, when going over notes with a writing partner in particular (though the rule applies when speaking with anyone about your script), you should be as open as possible to everything thrown down on the table. After a few moments' deliberation, I would see where he was coming from. "Ok, next?" 

Some suggestions were mutual, though on the spot. We nixed a character then and there, which felt great. I waffled back and forth on the decision later, but a comment he sent via text message a few nights later cemented the decision for me. We realized that certain things couldn't happen as outlined. "These characters are stuck in prison, but I've given them an easy out, which they don't seem to realize until it's necessary. That clearly doesn't work." All told, the notes, changes, and ideas that spun out of our meeting brought to light things that I might not have otherwise noticed on my own, and then they sent me back into edit and outline mode.

The "cosmetic" changes proved not to be quite as simple as I thought they would be. Locations I had chosen appeared more difficult to swap out then I wanted. Conversely, ditching the one character helped fit a lot of other beats and character interactions/motivations into place. Moving the reveal up further heightened a pivotal sequence at the midpoint of the script and allowed me to bring in a missing element that W.A. and I both wanted in the script. Why did all these dominoes fall the way they did? Because everything is connected. 

Few if any changes can be made in a story, especially one in the outline process, which don't affect the rest of the piece. Perhaps altering a character's name can be trivial enough to not cause ripples, but anything more substantial than that will resonate throughout the entire piece. That's the mark of a cohesive story. If making changes throughout the script doesn't have larger effects on the piece as a whole, then it might not be as fluid and structurally sound as you think.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Writing Week (Vol. 5) part 219 - Two Outlines In the Bag, or How To Write an Outline

It was a busy week for outlining. I used to deplore outlining. My ego didn't permit me to do them ("I like to surprise myself and see where the story goes"), and multiple drafts that continued to produce failure were never proof enough that I needed to remedy my ways. This month, though, I've been working on two projects - my spec demon thriller and a sci-fi collaboration with a known writer/director/actor we'll call W.A. - and there's no way I could have achieved any progress without outlines.

To add a disclaimer, if it sounds like I only just began outlining consistently for these two projects, that's far from true. I've been outlining for years. I started making it a regular part of my process sometime in college, and no longer do I attempt a script without an outline. It just proves to be too great a waste of time to do so.

At any rate, outlines are an interesting point of discussion between my friends in the League. How long should an outline be? How detailed? Does it need to feature ever single shot, or scene, or just sequences?

The outline (perhaps treatment is a better word, but I tend to use them interchangeably in my screenwriting vernacular) that W.A. presented me on our sci-fi collaboration was just over 21 full pages long, courier new. After I retooled it, which wound up taking a long time by the end, since I was stuck on a couple key beats, I sent him back an 8 page, Times New Roman document, no spaces between paragraphs, each point bulleted. What I emailed him wasn't the most detailed; I didn't state exactly how we first met each character or how certain ones died or whatnot, but their introductory and final beats were all clearly marked. Everything was broken up by beat, primarily, with small transitional scenes wrapped up for the most part in a larger chunk of text. 

I get very finicky about my outlines and how long each section is. I stick to traditional three act structure, breaking the script up into four equal parts (act one, act two part one, act two part two, and act three). If act three comes in a little under, then that's fine. I actually prefer a shorter third act, and mine typically wrap up in 15, rather than 25 pages. This is where I get particular - if act one has a total of 8 bullet points, then I aim for each subsequent section to have that exact number, no more, and no less. Generally, I hit this mark on the head naturally. For the demon thriller, each section had 11 beats; for the sci-fi one, eight. Act three is the exception, with perhaps three fewer beats/bullets than the rest. 

Both projects turned out well, I feel. W.A. and I have a meeting tomorrow to discuss the sci-fi outline, for which he suggested I watch a movie tonight. His comments so far seem mainly cosmetic, addressing a few set pieces that might feel familiar compared to other movies, and similar tweaks. We'll get into the details at our meeting. As for the demon thriller, the Leaguers who have read it have responded pretty well to it so far, with only a few minor suggestions. At this point, it sounds as if I'm good to move forward with actual pages on both. Can you imagine how much harder those pages would have been, had I not taken the time to outline? Just think - what stumped me for a few days in an outline and necessitated changing a few prior beats could have been a week's stalemate with pages in front of me and an immediate rewrite as a result.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Writing Fellowship Alert

Attention all New York City-based playwrights - see below for a writing fellowship opportunity. It's free to apply, which is all the more reason to go ahead and do so if you have a play you think is ready to be shown.

For more information and to apply, visit 

The following release is from The Playwrights Realm.

The Playwrights Realm is now accepting submissions to the 
2012-2013 Writing Fellows Residency

About the Program
The Writing Fellows Program is at the heart of what we do—helping writers write. Four promising playwrights will receive nine months of resources, readings, and feedback – designed to craft and complete a single new work. Our season of creative development is tailored to meet each individual writer’s professional goals with development opportunities in two broad categories: new play development and professional development.

Fellows work one-on-one with our artistic director and staff to bring their play from rough draft to a production-ready. Monthly group meetings allow fellows to discuss and revise their work in a collaborative, motivating setting. Fellows also attend meetings with industry professionals designed to provide them with a widened network of resources and help build their professional careers.

Finalists for the program will be interviewed in the early summer and final selections will be announced in September.

What We’re Looking For
Above all, we look for dedicated early-career writers who crave a long-term, rigorous dramaturgical process. We value intellectual curiosity, evocative language and the contemplation of big unanswerable questions; stories that embrace the complexity of life and demonstrate an understanding of the possibilities of dramaturgical structure.

Find out more here

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Writing Week (Vol. 5) part 218 - Well, That's a First

After months of little to no activity, it feels amazing to have a project that I'm excited about and making continual headway on. The demon thriller outline is off to my manager and a few Leaguers for a second opinion, which has allowed me to immerse myself in the sci-fi collaboration I'm working on with a known director/writer/actor (W.A.). This is a completely new experience for me - writing based on someone else's idea - and I have to say it's been pretty rewarding so far.

Initially, I wasn't too sure what to expect. Before I even got the treatment pages, I was psyching myself out. "What if I don't deliver? What if I can't do it or don't like the idea?" All for naught. When a mutual producer paired W.A. and I, she knew what she was doing. I took to the idea quickly, and W.A. took to my suggestions. Sure, there were some things I was unclear on and elements that I didn't think were necessary any more, but to his credit, W.A. was all ears. He gave me free reign to do what I thought best, and for the past week and a bit, that's what I've been doing.

Starting from a pre-existing 22 page document makes the writing a lot easier in the planning stage. I know which characters I have at my disposal, which I won't need, and where any gaps might be. The same for plot points. In fact, the outlining has come pretty naturally. I think W.A. will be pleased by the fact that most of the structure he put in place remains, if only altered or streamlined. I think I've simplified certain things and cut extraneous elements, but the foundation of the story is untouched. I've been zipping through the latter half of act two and act three, and every beat seems both organic and necessary. There's very little fat that I can see.

However, I'm still missing 25% of the outline. Oddly, that quarter is the first half of act two. Rarely - if ever - is this the problematic portion of a screenplay. Act Two should coat along until the midpoint, when pages 60-70 drag you down and make you want to pull your hair out while drinking yourself into an early grave. This go 'round, though, I cruised right on past that. The second half of the script is - if anything - a little overwhelming in terms of how much happens, but it's all necessary, far as I can tell. 

So why is the first half of act two vacant still? I hope that doesn't mean that it's going to be dull. The rest was just so exciting to write, though, and flowed so naturally. Nah... I think I'll be fine. I just got swept up in the resolution, and knowing how tough it can be to write a compelling climax, I don't mind having that part done already. 

I just hope W.A. is as keen on it as I am. 

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

One Look Says A Lot

My second article has gone up at Screenwriters Utopia. You can check a portion of it out below.

I recently watched the 2011 Fright Night remake with some friends. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it,Fright Night is about a high school boy who comes to realize that his new neighbor is a dangerous vampire. It was fun enough, worth throwing on to go with dinner and drinks, as was our plan last Thursday after work. Very early on in the film, though, protagonist Charley (Anton Yelchin) does something that got me thinking much more than anyone probably intended.

He checked out a girl.

So what, you might ask? Every guy does that. (Yours truly does it a lot; I just can’t help it.) It’s only natural. Sure thing, you’re damn skippy it is. Every person checks out people of the opposite or same sex, depending on their inclinations. They do it on a daily basis.

In this instance, though, it didn’t sit well with me. When we meet Charley, he’s wheeling a broken dirt bike down the street, muttering to the bike about its inadequacies and failings as a vehicle. This in and of itself is a funny and effective enough intro; we get that he’s trying to fit in by having a motorcycle – or motorcycle-ish – vehicle while in high school, but we also understand that the image he wants is probably not the one he has. Yeah, he has a bike, but it doesn’t even work! What a loooooser. It also makes perfect sense, then, that when his smoking hot neighbor, Doris (Emily Montague) comes out of her house to drop the trash off at the curb, his eyes would run wild over her before settling on her butt as she walks away. What high school guy wouldn’t do that?

The problem arises (no pun intended, stop being dirty) when – minutes later – we meet Charley’s girlfriend, Amy (Imogen Poots). Not only does this protagonist who was just checking someone out have a girlfriend, but she is equally attractive. And, from a passing comment Charley makes to his mother when she enquires about Amy (“Well, she hasn’t broken up with me yet”), we get the sense that Charley thinks Amy is out of his league. When they get to school, Charley’s friends express this sentiment. We’re supposed to think it, too...

Click here to continue reading.

Monday, March 05, 2012

The Writing Week (Vol. 5) part 217 - Let the Collaboration Begin!

Two weeks ago, I received a short email from my manager, Kevin, alerting me to the fact that one of the producers who had been shopping around my post-apocalyptic spec was working on a project with another writer-producer-director, and they were in need of a writer. Particularly, they wanted one based in New York. When this multi-hyphenate collaborator - let's call him W.A., since I can't go into a lot of detail about who or what with this project - asked the producer if she knew of anyone, she immediately thought of me. (And though I can't quite reveal who W.A. is, you'd definitely recognize him, or at least his films, if I gave you his name.)

The following week, I got an email from the producer to set up a time to talk about the script. She sent me a 22 page treatment on the project, as well as other reading material: research conducted on some of the sci-fi themes, images and tidbits on elements involved, and a couple other core articles and documents to help me prep for our chat. Then, Friday of the week before this past one, W.A., the producer, and I got on the phone for 15 minutes and spit-balled about the project. It was a good chat, with W.A. and I clicking pretty much off the bat. Over the weekend, he sent me character bios, story notes, and a few other things to read over. We met last Thursday.

This was my first real story meeting with an industry collaborator. Yes, I've had phone and email exchanges with the producers on my post-Apocalyptic spec before, but this was an in-office meeting with a known talent about a project. Suffice it to say, I was pretty damn excited. I also was pretty damn prepared. I had reread the outline and all other documents, done some research, and made notes for myself of thoughts and questions for W.A. For an hour and a half, we chatted about the project; I threw out some not-so-small ideas for changes and alterations, and we had a good back and forth on the ideas. This weekend, I put those notes down into a new document for him, which we'll use to help us move forward with the story.

To be completely honest, this collaborative endeavor comes at a great time for me. I was feeling a little stalled on my demon thriller (which I finished outlining over the weekend, by the way!). Having a new project - and one much further along in the developmental stages - helped get the ball rolling for me. I worked through the rest of my idea and was able to jump onto this sci-fi collaboration guns a-blazing. My mind is working on the two stories to varying degrees most of the day. Besides that, I'm having other ideas for scripts, which is a welcome change from the drought I'd been in. And, not to mention the excitement of having a collaboration to work on. 

I've tried collaborating with other Leaguers in the past, but those attempts, while not long lived, were always on ideas we both helped create. This experience is my first with material that didn't originate at least in half from me. That is, it's my first foray into what being a commission-earning writer is like. As professional scribes, we'll (likely) want to write on spec when we can, but the sustainable career comes from being able to land rewriting or commission-based gigs. I'm fortunate to have found a collaborator whose idea I responded so well to and who himself is so receptive to my work and ideas. There's no doubt in my mind that this can prove to be a great learning experience. I just have to be sure to deliver the goods.