Wednesday, December 17, 2008

All I Want for Christmas

A couple of years ago, I did a little game on here just before the holidays. My family kept asking, as they do every year, what I want for Christmas. And every year, the answer is always the same: "I have no idea."

So, once again, I cast my Christmas gift fate to the winds of the Internets. Here's what I really want, according to Google, Yahoo, and MSN:

Alan wants a jet boat.
...that doubles as a flying car with an annoyingly repetitive theme song...

Alan wants a Churro!
...¡y él ahora lo quiere, perra!...

Alan wants a first-rate plan.
...for a third-rate bank job...

Alan wants a family that would help him stay in touch with his foster parents.
...tonight at 8:00, only on Lifetime®...

Alan wants a practical system that warns people in the most obvious way, because TeX has this curious blind spot.
...maybe something involving a diesel truck horn...

Alan wants a burger in half an hour.
...because churros aren't very filling...

To make shopping easy on your loved ones this year, simply have them type in "[your first name] wants a" and see what you get under your tree. And as with any blog game, let the tagging begin. Shell, Lydia, Dave, WriterDad...consider yourselves "it".

Thursday, December 04, 2008

An Ounce of Behavior

If you ask anyone about the most memorable part of their favorite film, many will mention a great line of dialogue. All of us are able to quote a few well-loved lines from classic movies, good or bad. Monty Python fans are phenomenally good at this. We spout off the line and smiling heads nod in synchronous recollection. A well-remembered line of dialogue cuts to the center of mutual appreciation of a particular film. When we try and explain a favorite moment of action, however, we end up meandering down a crooked path of personal interpretations that the other party may or may not share. That's because we all see a scene in our own way. We see the same scene, but we each remember different moments and we remember them through our own emotional filters. Dialogue is literal; it can be printed in black and white and everyone hears exactly the same words, no matter how many people watch it. However, the way in which we interpret a line or an exchange of several lines varies greatly. And that can affect our basic understanding of the story's main plot points.

Take the famous scene from Gone With The Wind in which Rhett leaves Scarlett for the last time with his now famous line, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." While I might think that Rhett did the right thing and Scarlett got exactly what she deserved, you, on the other hand, may consider Rhett's departure a cruel abandonment. It's all dependent on each viewer's emotional individuality outside the realm of the film's story.

Okay. Time for a quick explanation. See the handsome gentleman in the photo? He is Don Biehn, an acting professor from the ECU Theatre Arts department back in the mid 1980s. Don, who is currently enjoying what I hear is a great retirement, had the most intense focus of any professor I've ever had. He had some great sayings, which he posted on the classroom walls. And if you look over his left shoulder, you can spot one of my favorites.

"An ounce of behavior is worth a pound of words."

Don is a firm believer that what a character does is infinitely more important that what he says. You can have all the great dialogue you want – really catchy, witty, memorable stuff – but if the behavior behind it isn't honest and real, then the scene loses its believability and truthfulness.

This is pretty heavy stuff for actors; it puts the responsibility for the emotional element of the film squarely in their hands. But where does that leave the screenwriter? Aren't we tasked to come up with dialogue? Aren't we supposed to breathe life into our characters and give them the gift of intelligent speech? Isn't the writer – the person responsible for creating the story, the characters, and the action – the most important element of the film?

Not really. Ask the average moviegoer who uttered the classic line, "Here's looking at you, kid." Easy question, right? Now ask him who wrote it. You'll probably get a shrug, followed by, "No idea." It's not because Julius Epstein was a forgettable writer. The screenplay for Casablanca is considered by many to be probably the most perfect screenplay ever written. We usually don't remember the writer because when we watch a film, we gain the most understanding by our comprehension of the visuals.

Try this: Take a random scene from a film you've never seen before. First, try just listening to it without watching it. Only the audio. See if you can figure out what's happening in the scene using only the dialogue. Now, reverse it. Watch another part of the film, but this time with the sound muted. If you're like most people, you'll understand the meaning of a scene much easier by watching it because our minds are trained to look to a person's face and body language for understanding. In fact, when I tried just listening to a scene, I found myself picturing the actors in my mind, imagining their facial expressions as the scene progressed. We can hear all the dialogue from a film but it just doesn't ring true for us unless we can see the actors as they speak it and react to it.

Take, for example, the first fifteen minutes of the film There Will Be Blood. There is no dialogue at all. However, we still are able to learn the complete backstory of Dainel Planview and his son. After an accident claims the life of one of his co-workers, there is a moment where Daniel stands before the man's orphaned son, sizing up what to do with him. You can just see the wheels of thought on his face. He's scheming a future for himself as "family man" running a "family business" – a man people will admire and want to invest their money in. No dialogue needed.

Film producers and screenwriting teachers all say the same thing when a script is considered to be too dialogue-heavy: "Don't tell me. Show me."

It's the balance of action and dialogue that defines a film. I think most films fall easily into one (sometimes two) of three categories: Action, character-driven, and excessively intellectual. Now, before you throw a bucket of popcorn at me, let me explain each one:

Action: An action film is typically sparse in dialogue, allowing action to move the story along. Watch a Michael Bay film. Within the first few minutes, you'll probably stop caring about what the characters are saying in favor of the sheer thrill of seemingly non-stop action.

Character-driven: A character-driven piece usually features more dialogue than action, however, the dialogue only serves to spark the characters into an emotional reaction with one another. A good indie film will usually fall into this category, not only because of an artistic preference of characters' emotional exchange over raw action, but because a limited budget prohibits a lot of stunts and special effects.

Excessively Intellectual: These are films that feature very little action, very little meaningful character interaction, but an extraordinary amount of pretentious pseudo-analytical dialogue. Just a bunch of intellectuals sitting around talking. Henry Jaglom, you know who you are.

These three classifications are, of course, very different. They contain decidedly varying balances of action and dialogue and, in the case of the third example, not much of a balance at all. While the first two examples stand successfully on their own, a really great film might combine heavy action and character-driven dialogue.

In the end, I think characters' actions are responsible for our emotional understanding of a film. Dialogue gives us, the audience, the logical grounding for the explanations of a character's behavior. But the behavior itself is what really connects us on a human level. We have to believe in what the characters are doing to themselves and each other – and we have to know that what they're doing is truthful and real.

This all makes perfect sense while watching a film, but what about while writing one? As screenwriters, how do we get emotionally rich characters onto our pages? Here are a few suggestions:

1. Take an acting class. A good acting workshop will help you more fully understand the emotional exchange between characters. The Meisner technique is particularly good at this, since it focuses more on a spontaneous moment-to-moment emotional relationship between characters.

2. Trash the dialogue. Try getting rid of all the dialogue in your script. Do you still have a basic idea of what's going on by reading only the action? If not, you probably have too much dialogue.

3. It's not what you do, it's what the other person makes you do. This is another great "Meisnerism". A character's emotional state shouldn't originate from his own state, but rather the state that his interaction with the other character puts him in. It's just basic cause and effect. You're emotionless until an outside force triggers your emotion.

4. Place characters in emotionally charged situations before the scene starts. Make sure your characters enter the scene coming from someplace that affects them. The husband isn't just coming home from the store after buying milk; he's coming home from the store where he ran into his ex-wife. If a character is already in the scene at the start, decide what she was doing before the scene starts. Maybe she's folding laundry. But she's not just folding laundry, of course – she's folding laundry after getting a phone call from a friend regarding her husband. Now, that's going to be a highly charged scene.

5. Give your character a difficult and emotionally charged task. Don't just have your character cooking dinner. He's cooking an elaborate Japanese meal to surprise his wife for their anniversary, hoping it will help revive their failing marriage – and she's due home in 10 minutes. Amazing things can happen when a character distracts another character who is doing something difficult at the last minute.

6. Act it out. Grab a willing partner and try acting out the scene. Be aware of what the other person is making you do. Look for moments when the action doesn't seem to have any emotional basis. Sometimes it's hard to tell when those moments occur so try getting a third person to stop the action and ask one of you, "What is he making you want to do?"

Once you've given your characters a strong emotional base for their actions, you'll have a story that is more believable and truthful. The kind of story we humans can truly relate to.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A Block of Granite

From today's NaNoWriMo pep talk email:
"You know how hard it is to get granite out of the quarry? You have to carefully score the rock and put the explosive in to make the great granite block break loose from the face of the stone. Then you have to attach the block to the chains so that the cranes can lift it slowly out of the hole a nd put it on the waiting truck. That’s the first draft. It’s hard, dangerous work, and when you’ve finished, all you’ve really got is a block of stone. But now you have something now to work on. Now you can take your block down to the shed to carve and polish it and turn it into something of beauty. That’s revision."

– Katherine Paterson, author of Bridge to Terabithia
Great advice on not killing yourself over a bad first draft.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The 50,000-Word Monster

It's November. The weather gets brisk, the leaves turn those lovely colors I look forward to every year, and families join together in love and fellowship.

Thanksgiving? Nah. It's NaNoWriMo!

While we were basking in a nice afternoon on a family outing, one of Shell's friends, Lydia, mentioned that she had signed up for this year's NaNoWriMo. The National Novel Writing Month is a group event that challenges participants to write an entire novel in only 30 days. You can do all the research and prep work you want before November 1st, but you're only allowed to actually write it during the month of November. Not the best month to pick for writing a novel, but I think it's an absolutely fantastic idea, on which I'll elaborate in a minute.

Apparently Shell also thought this was a great idea. I knew this because after Lydia explained it, she sat bolt upright and said, "Wow! What a great idea. I think I'll do it, too." She's been wanting to write a western and I think she'd do a fantastic job of it. She has a keen sense of the genre and knows what makes a good tale of the old West. I guess she just needed the peer pressure to get to the liftoff stage.

And that's exactly what gives the NaNoWriMo concept its mojo. Peer pressure. The way it works is this: you register for a free account on the NaNoWriMo site, then enter some details about the book you plan to write. You actually start writing your pages no earlier than 12:00am November 1st. Once you begin writing, you post your progress on the site by entering your current word count. As an added bonus, you can create writing buddy lists -- friends who, like you, are trying to finish their books before the 30-day deadline. Basically, it's the same buddy system that makes Weight Watchers and AA work so well. It's called public commitment.

When you set a goal for yourself and keep it to yourself, it's remarkably easy to procrastinate, fudge the deadline, or just drop the project altogether. You piddle away at it for a bit then get stuck on something like a story issue or a problem with character motivation -- or your own motivation. So you walk away, returning a week later just to delete your weak attempt and move on to something else you'll likely abandon later. But tell a few people what you're working on and you've created outside interest. You've made an audience. Someone else is now looking forward to one day reading your work. Go one step further and tell them your deadline and you really have someone to answer to. They're expecting you to finish and they want to see pages on a certain date. And if they really care about your project, they'll ask you for updates along the way.

"How many pages have you done?"

"Do you think you'll be done by the 30th?"

"Two weeks left? You'd better get cracking, slacker."

Annoying? Yep. But the folks at NaNoWriMo have made the journey a little more enjoyable with things like local "pep rallies" and encouraging emails. And if, like me, you prefer screenwriting, their sister site, Script Frenzy, offers the same kind of group support to get you to a completed screenplay in 30 days. Unfortunately, the annual Script Frenzy event starts in April so all you screen scribes will have to wait. Or maybe not.

Even if writing a novel isn't your bag, you can still participate in a publicly committed writing project. Just plan out a story, tell a few friends what you're up to, and get to work. Be sure to give yourself a deadline - two weeks, thirty days, three months. Pick a time span in which you think you can reasonably finish a script and hack some time off of it. You don't have to wait for some web site to tell you to start. Remember, it's peer pressure and the challenge of a tight deadline that gets you moving.

Now, I've never had the urge (or the cojones) to write a novel, but I'm giving it a shot, even though I'm starting really late in the game. I have a great script idea and wanted to try developing it as a treatment first. A really long treatment. Here's hoping we meet on the other side of our deadlines with something truly awesome.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Losing It All

Many writers have long professed a love of writing in the morning. Sitting down in the wee hours of the dawn with nothing but a coffee and some thoughts. Oh, and a computer. For some, it takes a lot to get motivated to become early writers. Not me. Once I'm out of bed, I'm ready to go. It's the getting out of bed part that's tough. I mean, emotionally tough. Sometimes, I actually get a bit weepy when the alarm goes off, but as soon as my feet hit the cold floor, the anxiety goes away.

Most people write in the morning because it's typically a time of uninterrupted bliss. I have four children so morning writing time is truly a treat whenever I can get it. But since I usually take the bus to the office, I crack open the laptop on the back row and tap away. Luckily, my college actor training gives me the ability to block out all the commotion found on a city bus.

Wednesday, I spent the entire ride home writing some great material. I mean this was stuff that was really getting me choked up. I had just saved it and written a few more lines when the battery went dead and the laptop shut off. Deep in the throes of writing, I wasn't keeping track of the power meter, so the sudden loss of power wasn't expected. But I had definitely saved my work and had written just a few more lines before the portable blackout.

Since I was working on a new series of essays, I wasn't using my usual favorite writing tool, Celtx. Instead, I was writing in OpenOffice Writer. I'm a huge fan of open source software and typically opt for it if it's designed well and does what I need. And since OpenOffice does practically everything Microsoft Word does, it seemed like a natural choice.

Now, with all its fantastical features, OpenOffice has this hemorrhoid of a feature called Document Recovery. What's supposed to happen in the event of an in-writing meltdown is this: When you power back up and start OpenOffice, it asks you if you want it to try and recover the data you lost. Then it looks through some kind of temp file and adds it into the most recently saved version. What should have happened is that it should have recovered the few lines I didn't get a chance to save as well as the parts that I did save.

What I got instead was nothing. Nada. Zipperooni. It gave me the same material I started with the day before. It was as though Wednesday's bit of literary brilliance never existed.

I actually felt sick to my stomach. I've tried to sum up the emotional state this put me in and the best I can come up with is this: It was like saving up $5,000 to buy a white rug, getting it home, and having the dog take a runny dump all over it.

I know that sounds pretty bad, but here's the worst part. When I opened the laptop to try to rewrite it, I discovered that I was still so upset that I couldn't even look at the part I left off with two days before.

I'm sure you've had something similar happen to your own writing and if you haven't, you certainly will one day. And it will happen to the best bit of writing you'll do. And you'll be pissed. And you'll get the same lump in your stomach. And you won't feel like working on it again because you know that the stuff you lost was infinitely better than anything you could ever come up with again.

But instead of giving up and walking away from it, try taking a day off from it. Give the ideas you had and lost a chance to work themselves up again and come back. For me, the music I was listening to while writing brought it all back to me. For you, it may be something else. The place you were in. The time of day you were writing before. If you were that upset about losing your work, then you know it's worth coming back to.

And if you manage to take away any lesson from my misfortune, let it be to always check your battery.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Time Mining

Not so very long ago, the "big studio" system used to stick writers in a room with a typewriter, reams of paper, and little else. Like monkeys in a cage. At least that's what I've heard. I imagine there wasn't much a writer could do in such a circumstance but...write.

Now, with everyone being plugged in and logged on, today's writer faces a threat to his very creativity and attention -- the massive time-suck known as the Internet.

Between life, work, email, instant messaging, social networking, and mind-numbing slack-jawed web browsing, keeping your head in the game is absolutely impossible sometimes. I know you're reading this thinking, "Not me, brother. I have that Mr. Miyagi kind of focus." But even you, sensei, can fall victim at any time.

Merlin Mann, offers a simple solution that socks you right in the nose as soon as your web browser pops to life. Leo Babauta of ZenHabits has a few additional tips for keeping your dreams on track. (And believe me, you'll want to check out the other random bits of coolness on both of these sites.)

Since a lot of these suggestions are good for just about any task you happen to face, I thought I'd offer six simple time-making ideas specifically for writers. Are some of them tough to do? Sure. Do I do all of them? Not all, but some. At least it's a start.

1. Set a deadline. Even if it has no real-life monetary significance, you can invent a circumstance where your family's survival depends on getting that draft done on time. Hey, you're a writer...make it exciting.

2. Put the desktop on the deskbottom. Having all those reminders, pingers, and alerts flashing like a marquee across your screen can easily send you into an ADD nosedive. Applications like JDarkroom and Writeroom let you hide everything except your writing screen. These are two splendid tools that black out the desktop, leaving you with nothing but a lean word processor and your awesomeness.

3. Make down time the write time. Stuck in traffic? Pull out a pad and pen and get some stuff on paper. Got time to kill on the bus? Pull out the laptop and get tapping. I take the bus to the office, so I already have four allocated hours of me-time that I can spend reading, writing, or thinking about story ideas.

4. Rise and shine. This one's a no-brainer and has been covered by other screenbloggers out there, but it makes perfect sense. If you want more hours in your day, create them. My day typically starts at 5:00 am, and while I'm usually more in a mood to punch a rooster in the mouth than write, it's uninterrupted time I wouldn't have otherwise. NOTE: I've found that a 20-minute nap in the afternoon (Pzizz is great for this) does wonders for your mental state and keeps you from sleep-deprived insanity.

5. Group therapy. Sometimes, a little peer pressure is a wonderful thing. Except when it involves jumping off something or tequila. When you don't feel like writing, get others to give you a pedal to the posterior. Writers groups keep you writing because on one wants to show up at another meeting with no pages to show. Find one in your area and join. No groups around? Start one.

6. Kill your television. Go ahead. Unplug it. Sell it. There's nothing on anyway.

7. It's up to you. I'm leaving this one blank because this list is all about making time for YOU. Now, close this and go write.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Making Progress

One of my favorite screenwriting bloggers, Dave Anaxagoras, recently updated his blog. Changed the design, the categories, revamped the entire thing. It really looks fantastic now and is much easier to get around. Unfortunately, he seems to have dumped some pretty good articles during the transition. One of those lost posts explained how to create a progress bar that you can easily use on your own site to track your writing. And if you're not a writer, you can use it to track the progress of just about anything else. If you look over to the right, you'll see mine. They let others know not only what I'm working on, but the varying degrees of productivity -- or procrastination. C'mon, you all know how that goes.

The progress bar is über-easy to set up. And if you know even a little CSS and HTML, it's that much easier. Here's the code, followed by the inevitable explanation...


.prog-border {
height: 17px;
width: 205px;
background: #113355;
border: 1px solid silver;
margin: 0;
padding: 0;

.prog-bar {
height: 13px;
margin: 2px;
padding: 0px;
background: #C9DDEC;
color: #113355;
font-size: 12px;
text-align: center;
line-height: 13px


<div class="prog-border">
<div style="width: 75%;" class="prog-bar"><em>75%</em></div>

First, add the CSS code to your current CSS style definition, which should be found either in the header of the page's code or in a separate file. You can also change the colors to match your site if you feel the need.

Then, paste the HTML wherever you want the bars to appear. When you're ready to update your progress, simply change the percentages in the bar's HTML code. (The version I have here has a slight issue with the bar width once you get to 100%...and you WILL get to 100%, right? When the bar width is set to 100%, it extends past the frame. So, I use a 98% width to show a nice and neat 100% bar.) 

And there you have it. Now you can proudly display the fruits of your never ending labor to the world. Oh, and when you're done, be sure to visit Earl Newton's excellent collection of short films, Stranger Things...He's the one who asked me about the progress bars.