Characters are people!

soylent green
Go ahead. Say it like he would. You know you want to.

I’d always heard how your script should somehow reflect “the human condition”, but never really had a firm grasp of eactly what it meant or how you would accomplish that.

I mentioned the phrase in a discussion with another writer, to which they responded “I don’t care about that. I just want to tell good stories.”

But isn’t the story about the characters to begin with? And a story with under-developed characters won’t be as good as one where the characters feel like actual people.

Accomplishing that has always been one of my biggest challenges.

A comment I’ve received more than a few times in the past is that the reader finds my characters good, but somewhat incomplete. They’re established and believable, but only to a point. This isn’t saying they’re flat, one-dimensional caricatures (something I’ve unfortunately seen in many other spec scripts), but they don’t feel completely real.

Readers/audiences want to be able to relate to the characters in your script. They might feel they’re only getting a glimpse into what kind of person the protagonist is, or know there’s more to them, but that “more” isn’t there, and they want to see that. And this doesn’t just apply to the main characters; it’s everybody.

Digging a little deeper and offering up a few more details would help flesh them out, which in turn would make for a stronger story.

When I recently sent a script out for notes, the reader asked if there was anything specific I wanted them to focus on. Without a doubt, it was the protagonist and the antagonist. I felt while they were good, there was definitely a need to make them better.

The reader agreed and made some good suggestions about how that could be achieved. “We don’t know as much about these two characters as you might think,” they wrote. Since I was the writer, I had a little more insight into their respective backstories and what made them the people we see, but some of those details had stayed in my head, rather than been transferred onto the page.

So I went about adding in some small details here and there; a line of dialogue or a seemingly insignificant action. A few touches to give a little more insight into what makes them tick; why they are the way they are.

All of this, combined with a few alterations with the plot, makes this latest draft feel really different, and hopefully stronger, than its predecessors. I’m giving it a few more days to simmer, and will then give it another look to see if that vibe still holds.

What I’m also hoping is that from here on in, I’ll be able to apply this kind of approach to all future drafts, which would in theory, help achieve the same results but in a shorter amount of time.

Hope and ambition. Just two parts of the human condition, right?

The drive. The motivation.

feather quill
This would probably be easier with a typewriter or a computer

I’ve been on quite a bit of a tear the past few weeks, with a lot of rewriting, revising and polishing going on for a few scripts. Definitely couldn’t have gotten to this point without some extremely helpful and insightful notes for each one.

Since a few of them involve working with other people, I like to do the polite thing and keep each person updated regarding the progress on the respective script. Where I am in the story, how it went with scenes or sequences that needed work, that sort of thing.

I tend to include my enthusiasm for latest developments and optimism for continuing success in those updates, which seems to garner responses along the lines of:

“I can see it in your energy.”

“I love your work ethic!”

Making headway on a script, no matter how big or small, is addicting. You’re able to make something better, and you want to keep doing it.

To me, it’s really just loving doing this. And the more I do it, I like to think I get a little bit better each time. Probably also safe to say that seeing as how this is what I want to do for a living, enjoying it is a bit of necessity.

It’s always great to see or hear another writer really get into talking about their script because you can see their excitement about it shine through. It’s infectious. But there are also those, myself included, who get frustrated or depressed about their lack of progress. That’s understandable. We’ve all been there. Even the most successful pros.

But at the heart of it all we keep pushing forward, doing our best to not only make the material better, but to also improve how we go about making it better. It’s a challenge, to be certain. One that requires constant effort. Even when you don’t want to, or think it’s all for nothing.

Nobody ever achieved success by giving up.

And I’ve no intention of giving up.

Gosh, what a full plate!

primanti bros
It’ll take time, but feeling confident I’ll accomplish that which I set out to do. (In the meantime, anybody up for Primanti Brothers? (Pittsburgh shout-out!))

My projects over the next couple of months are shaping up nicely.

-Finish overhauling the outline for the comedy spec and convert it into pages

-Some more fine-tuning on the pulp sci-fi (courtesy of a steady influx of good notes)

-Maybe one more pass on the western. Yeah, I know. But I recently got some keen insight on a few parts which could do with a little improvement.

The potential is still strong for all three, both in terms of contests and queries.

I have to say that this time around, my analytical and editing/proofreading abilities feel a bit stronger. Not that they’re the pinnacle of perfection, but at least slightly more developed than, say, a few years ago. That’s a definite plus. Nor would I hesitate to take full advantage of the sage advice of my squadron of savvy readers.

I feel a bit more prepared now, as well as a little more confident about ending up with a triad of really solid scripts.

That’s the hope, anyway.

Another part of my enthusiasm comes from seeing the results of some of the major screenwriting contests, some of which I entered and didn’t fare as well as I’d hoped. I’ll work on these scripts, send ’em out and hope for the best.

On a brief side note, I recently read the comment on an online forum – “Waiting for notes. What should I do to occupy my time?”

I suggested “Start working on your next project.” It’s what I would do. Can’t think of a better way to get your mind off a finished script than starting a new one or digging into the archives and touching up an older one. Gets the creativeness pumped up and really does help pass the time.

Anything that lets you flex your writing muscles while adding to your arsenal of material can only be seen as a good thing.

Things that get in the way

david silverman

Today’s guest post comes courtesy of psychotherapist and script doctor/coach David Silverman.

As a writer-producer in film and tv, David Silverman worked on shows like Mork and Mindy, One Day at a Time, ALF, Newhart, Dilbert, Duckman and South Park. He learned firsthand that “staring into a computer screen day after day could make you feel isolated, frustrated, anxious and even depressed.” Today, he works as a script doctor/coach and as a psychotherapist where he “tries to help writers cope with creative blocks, mountains of rejection, job insecurities, stress, couples problems and the occasional knife in the back.”

A while back, I gave a talk to a group for writers trying to get back into the workforce after a hiatus. It was titled “Things That Get In The Way of Writing”. A quick bit of backstory about this organization: it’s made up of television writers; WGA members who won a class action suit against the studios based on ageism. 

They were able to show that they’d lost income and jobs because they were labeled as “old.” The studios paid out some settlements and included was membership in this group. So there were a lot of older disgruntled writers; some who’d created TV shows, some who’d won Emmys.

They were all so used to getting paid lots of money to write when they were last working, the prospect of writing on speculation didn’t motivate them much. Yet they all wanted to reinvent themselves and restart their writing careers. Some were writing screenplays, others were writing half-hour and hour TV writing samples.

Everything seemed to get in the way of writing for them. So we talked about how writers get motivated to write  – without being paid. They’d done it before, but times were different now.

Having done so much research into the subject of productivity and motivation for screenwriters and TV writers, I didn’t know where to begin. I ended up talking about the methods that make the most sense to me, that I actually use myself, or that I find most interesting.

Most ideas about how people can change themselves involve changing the way they think about things. Psychologists call this “reframing.” Look at things differently. For example, too many writers believe they’ll write one screenplay that will sell and make them rich and famous. Not likely. Sorry.

Instead, it helps to think of this whole selling scripts thing as a long-term process. Tell yourself you’re going to write dozens of spec screenplays over your career. It’s possible that none of them will sell. However, they may get you an agent or a pitch session with a producer.

The producer will hopefully say, “I love the writing in your script! Tell me about some of your other ideas.” They may also say, “Your writing is great and we think you’d be perfect to write this feature idea.” Either way you get paid to write.

So don’t get hung up about having to sell each screenplay you write. Hopefully you will sell one or two. However, writing spec screenplays can have many positive outcomes besides selling. Some writers get locked into this wrong-headed way of thinking. If that first script doesn’t sell, they give up. Or they keep trying to sell that same script for the rest of their lives.

Thinking about the long view also helps you handle rejection better. A rejection (such as when the studio says they’re not going to buy your script) isn’t a soul-crushing experience when you realize there are other positive outcomes that come from writing a spec script.

Another favorite reframe comes from the Woody Allen quote “80% of success is showing up.” It simplifies the writing process. It’s always overwhelming to think of sitting down and immediately writing this great Nicholl-winning script.

Break down the process. The simplest piece is “show up at the keyboard.” A screenplay is not going to pop out fully-formed. Everybody should think about writing as a process. You show up. You have some ideas. You figure it out.

You break the script down into an outline, a treatment, a first draft. Don’t expect perfection in a first draft. In fact, don’t think about writing a perfect script. Write a great script, or a script that will sell.

I remember trying to be a perfectionist about writing a screenplay. I got all detail-oriented, and polished each scene and every piece of dialogue. However, the more I focused on polishing up the little stuff, I seemed to lose track of the big picture. Be careful – the big picture is the one that counts. Tell a great story.

So I brought up these ways to think about writing differently in my talk. Some of the writers thought they could put these ideas to work. I noticed, however, that some of these writers were truly stuck and needed real psychotherapy.

There’s another thing that gets in the way of writing – overthinking. How can you write when your mind is telling you you’re not good enough? Because that’s what your parents told you your whole life? How can you write when you have doubts? Will this sell? Am I wasting my time with this genre?

You have to center yourself and stop dwelling on all these thought while you write. You have to be able to clear your mind. And that’s not easy, because we have all these expectations. Our brains are more than happy to supply us with reasons we’ll never succeed. Learn to let go of those thoughts.

It’s basically Darwinism at play – the survival of the species. A gazillion years ago when sabertooth tigers were lurking around every corner, our brains needed to keep us hyper-vigilant. We doubted all our moves. We lived in a state of “fight, flight or freeze.”

We got civilized, but our brains didn’t catch up. We still overthink everything and have doubts. You can’t write with all those thoughts getting in the way. You have to center. Different writers have done it in different ways. Some hole up in a beach house, or a cabin in the woods. Some go to Starbucks.

Some, like Stephen King, wrote through a haze of beer and cocaine. Phillip K Dick wrote everything – the stories that spawned Minority Report, Blade Runner, and The Man in the High Castle – on amphetamines.

The key is not to let all the noise and overthinking interfere with your writing. Some people have simple rituals that help them center. They make a cup of tea and listen to their favorite music. They go to the same hotel lobby everyday to write.     

Rituals calm us down because of their familiarity. So get that latte at Starbucks, drive to the art gallery where you like to write, open your laptop, plug in your earbuds and listen to U2. Whatever works for you. Then stick to it.

Perseverance pays off.

Remember that bunch of “old” writers? I found out they sold a pilot – no doubt from putting all of my advice to work. But in all seriousness, it was more likely they were doing what I advised them to do – not because I gave that talk, but because that’s why they were successful in the first place.

A lot of writers have learned these lessons, these ways of thinking about their craft and their careers, through experience. Some might have known about them instinctively. Hopefully some of this advice can help you skip years of learning the hard way.

Words properly arranged

typist
Behind that disarming smile lurks the constantly-devising mind of a creative genius

Jumping back to focus on the pulp adventure spec, along with a return of that certain ZING! one gets when quite psyched about a story. Yep, still going strong.

Gotta say, this whole “break down each scene to its individual elements” thing is really working out nicely. It’s tremendously easier to have a line-by-line description of what happens rather than trying to figure it all out on the fly.

The most recent wrinkle has been manipulating the events that lead up to and just after the midpoint of the story. I originally had the antagonist explaining their sinister plan, but seeing as how it sounded a lot better in the outline than it does on the page, there’s been some extensive editing, rewriting, cutting and pasting going on over the past couple of days.

And this was just for a couple of pages’ worth of material.

Among the pleasant surprises:

-discovering that a line or action in one scene could easily be relocated, thereby making the new scene that much stronger. All the elements were in place; it was just a matter of finding the right order in which to put them.

-being reminded of the concept of “less is more”. Some scenes as originally written turned out to be simply overly complicated – just too much going on. By eliminating everything EXCEPT what’s necessary in that scene naturally tightens things up, but also really moves things along and gets the point across that much faster.

-figuring out a way to present details of the plot without being so blatantly obvious about it. Implying seems to be much more effective.

It took a while, but the changes that have been made have proven to be most satisfying. No doubt there will be more of this sort of thing in future drafts, but for now it works.