A small matter of interpretation

princess bride
“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Amidst all the hubbub currently surrounding my ongoing rewriting efforts, I’ve been extremely fortunate to have received some high-quality feedback on each of them.

(Incidentally, concurrently working on three scripts may be a good exercise in productivity, but it sure is an exhausting one.)

Among this trio of projects is a round of notes on the pulp sci-fi.

Some great stuff being provided by my legion of savvy readers, which includes a comment made by more than one person.

But first, a little background…

As I mentioned, I refer to this script as “pulp sci-fi”. To me, it’s reminiscent of old-timey adventure (Flash Gordon, Doc Savage, etc), which is the kind of story I enjoy reading. It’s also the filter through which I wrote it, and had a great time doing.

What’s been extremely interesting is how people interpret that phrase.

A few readers tended to share my same opinion/viewpoint, and felt the story and script reflected that. Others thought calling it a “pulp” story indicated it would be somewhat darker and grittier (which it really isn’t). And there’ve also been some who weren’t sure if what’s on the page was supposed to be taken at face value or if I was intentionally satirizing the genre.

Quite a wide variety of opinions and reactions, all of which are perfectly valid. But the responsibility falls squarely on my shoulders to provide the story with the tone I find the most applicable.

Don’t underestimate the importance of tone. This may not be the best explanation, but I see it as the story’s attitude; how it presents itself. The writing should reflect not only the components of the genre, but also the emotions the story seeks/needs to invoke in the reader.

So while I offered up what I considered to be a fun romp of a tale through the fantastic, maybe with tongue slightly pressed against cheek, that’s not what how others saw it.

Admittedly, I probably could have cleared up a lot of the confusion at the outset by adding something like “It’s pulpy sci-fi in the vein of MEN IN BLACK, HELLBOY, and THE ADVENTURES OF BUCKAROO BANZAI,” as opposed to leaving it open to interpretation. For all I know, someone saw “pulp sci-fi” and thought, “Oh, like BLADE RUNNER.” Which it most definitely is not.

Laying down that kind of foundation lets the reader know what to expect before they start, but then it’s up to the writer to consistently maintain that tone for the entirety of the script.

Sums it up succinctly

bttf1
“Spaceman from Pluto”?*

While taking a break from working on the comedy spec this weekend, I took an unexpected dip into my file of “ideas in development” – scripts I plan on eventually writing.

One had more details to the bare-bones outline than I remember. In fact, I barely recall even writing it. Still, pretty impressive.

Another was just a logline and three potential titles. While the story really adheres to my ongoing attempt at trying to write material of a smaller nature (i.e. not as big-budget), what really stood out was those three titles and how different they were from each other.

The first stirred up a kind of noble nostalgia, and in retrospect might be better suited for another story.

The second was pretty generic; almost like something you’d see on a VHS copy of a mid-90s B-movie gathering dust on a lower shelf at your local video rental store. If you’re of a certain age, you totally get that reference.

The third was very reminscent of a certain genre and style of older films, and the final word in the title tells you what kind of story to expect. Such was the case here, but as much as I like the word, it wasn’t exactly the right fit for the story I wanted to tell.

Fortunately, the word in question has a lot of synonyms, and one in particular really jumped out at me. Some might consider it of a vulgar nature, but wow did it fit. In fact, as soon as it popped into my head, I actually laughed out loud, thinking “oh my gosh, this is PERFECT.”

Because not only is the new word an ideal fit for the story, but it really drives home the tone.

Although work on this script goes into the ever-growing pool of “future projects”, at least now the concept and story are a little more developed than they were. And any progress is good progress.

There can’t be enough emphasis on the importance of a strong title for your script. It’s the entry point for your reader. You want them to know what kind of story they’re getting, what to potentially expect, and most importantly, you want them to be excited about reading it.

Sometimes your initial title is good, but there’s nothing wrong with a little tinkering to find an even better one. Like your script, it can always do with a little rewriting.

*Universal Studios head Sid Sheinberg didn’t like the title “Back to the Future,” claiming nobody would see a movie with “future” in the title. In a memo to Zemeckis, Sheinberg suggested the title be changed to “Spaceman from Pluto,” and the title reference be worked into the film.

In response, Spielberg sent a memo back to Sheinberg, thanking him for sending his wonderful “joke memo” and that the office “got a kick out of it.” Embarrassed, Sheinberg let Zemeckis and Spielberg keep the film’s original title.

At least 11 choice “re-” words

teacher
No, class. “Relapse” is not one of them.

Progress on the latest draft of the comedy spec is coming along. Slowly, but still coming along.

Among the highlights:

repairing the script. Previous drafts had some notable and sizable problems on several fronts, so this is all about fixing them, or at least figuring stuff out to make it better overall. This is the main priority.

revising the story. Some of the scenes still work. The ones that don’t are out, with variations and totally new ones being developed and considered. A work in progress is a beautiful thing.

reviving older ideas. I keep all the notes and items jotted down over the course of working out the story, so there’s always a few items worthy of dusting off. This time around is no exception.

reorganizing the tone. Notes on a previous draft stated how uneven the story felt; like it was a few opposing ideas competing for attention. Currently working on streamlining things to make it all mesh better.

refurbishing characters and/or their traits. From the protagonist and antagonist to supporting characters to those appearing in one scene, everybody gets some kind of modification. Some big, some not-so-big.

reinvigorating the jokes. With comedy already being a subjective topic, I’m trying to come up with stuff I think is funny. Influences abound, and I want my sense of humor to be what runs that particular engine.

remaining calm. Finishing this draft won’t happen overnight, and trying to force creativeness or rush progress is the absolute wrong approach. Preferred method – taking it one step at a time.

resuscitating self-confidence. Writing a comedy’s tough enough to begin with. I’ve done it before, and despite a few missteps along the way, feel pretty solid about my chances this time around.

relinquishing the self-imposed pressure. Naturally, I want to have a good, solid script when I’m done (hopefully it won’t take many more drafts). Stressing about getting to that point won’t do me any good, which leads to the final point…

relaxing and recharging the writer. A good portion of my available time is spent writing or at least thinking about it. Working on it too much runs the risk of burnout, which would be completely counterproductive. Therefore, I allow myself time to simply step away and do something totally non-writing-oriented.

And when the time is right, I return to the rewrite.

Whew! Took me a while to refine this, but I don’t recall being so resplendently relieved to be done. Even better, none of it had to be redacted.

Finding my forte. Mining my milieu. Spelunking my specialty.

e-ticket
A reference only a select few will get. (85 cents?? Truly a bygone age)

While engaged in a very engaging conversation about screenwriting earlier this week, the person with whom I was conversing with asked the simplest and most straight-forward of questions:

“What do you like to write?”

Without a moment’s hesitation, I proudly stated, “Adventures.”

You can’t even say the word without implying the thrills and excitement it entails. Hands on hips, chest out, shoulders back, and a firmly-set jaw are automatically included.

I’ve enjoyed dabbling in other genres (such as drama and comedy), but nothing really grabs me like thinking up and writing out some sort of heart-pounding, edge-of-your-seat rollercoaster ride of a scene or sequence.

Those really never get old.

They say “Write what you know,” and although I’ve never actually fought monsters, manned a runaway train, or flown a space-faring vessel, years of reading and watching material of that type and nature has taught me an effective way of how to effectively inject adrenaline into what I’m writing.

More than a few readers have commented that my love and appreciation of the material and genre are boldly evident on the page, which is what I’m hoping  to accomplish every time.

My mantra has always been “Write something I would want to see”, and my list of future projects is jam-packed with numerous ideas and concepts that neatly fall into that category; each one a variation on the topic of discussion.

If these are the kinds of stories I was meant to write, you’ll get no complaints from me. I get a real kick out of cranking this stuff out. There’s no reason to think this can’t develop into what I build a career on and eventually become known for (he said, his fingers firmly crossed). My scripts. Rewriting someone else’s. Contributing to another. It’s all cool as far as I’m concerned.

Until then, all I can do is keep writing and making my readers feel their pulses quicken as they eagerly turn the page, absolutely spellbound to find out how the hero gets themselves out of this particular pickle, and, more importantly, what happens next.

Strap yourselves in, chums. This is going to be one helluva ride.

Digging towards the emotional core

big-dig
I don’t think you’ll need that much gear

Due to both of our busy schedules, my daughter and I go for some quality father-daughter time when we can. Sometimes that means we’ll watch something together.

It might be a movie or a TV show. We’re not picky. No shame in admitting she’s picked up my enjoyment of superhero- and fantasy-based (LOTR, Hobbit, etc) material.

Despite her occasionally sullen and blase teen exterior, V is, at heart, an empathetic and sensitive soul, so no matter what we’re watching, if there’s any kind of hint of emotional resonance in a particular scene, she will feel the full brunt of whatever emotion the film/program is conveying.

Almost any kind of a joke (the sillier the better), and she laughs her head off. Something scary and she hides under the blanket. Something sad and she immediately tears up. Even after years of me saying, “You do know this is just a movie/TV show, right?”, her emotional receptors remain cranked up to 11 (and the teenager reappears with the immediate response, “Will you stop saying that?”)

Looking at these from the writer’s perspective, I can’t help but examine how the writers were able to do that. How did they get to the emotional core of the scene? Jokes and scares aren’t hard to figure out, even though each is pretty subjective, but a good, solid tug at the heartstrings, when done effectively, can be some pretty intense stuff.

A key part is making it relatable. Love. Joy. Heartbreak. Loss. All are universal. Everyone’s experienced them in some form or another. As the writer, you want to convey that emotion so anybody reading or watching your story will not only immediately identify it, but also connect with it on a personal level.

Like this. One of the most effective emotional sequences ever. And not a single word spoken. If you don’t feel anything as a result of watching it, you have no soul.

Even though we may not have gone through the same things as Carl and Ellie, we can relate to a lot, if not all of it.

This isn’t saying that every scene has to be a major tearjerker, but you want to really let us know how the characters are feeling in that particular moment. They’re human, so they feel the exact same things we do. Make us feel how they’re feeling.

Each scene serves three purposes: to advance the story, the characters, and the theme. Let the emotions come through via the best way you envision them enhancing the scene (making sure not to overdo it). It might take a few tries, but the deeper you venture into the emotional level, the easier it’ll get for you to show it, and it’ll also be easier for us to identify it and relate to it.