That elephant. That one. Right there. In the middle of the damn room.

5 11 2009

There’s an old story that is sometimes told in journalism school. It goes something like this.

A new reporter, in his first assignment, is sent by his editor to cover a dog show for the evening edition. The reporter goes out, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and stumbles back in the office just barely under the wire. When asked why he was late the reporter tells him that on the way there a truck jackknifed on the freeway, spraying rocket fuel all over the road. A car flipped and caught the whole mess on fire, trapping the driver, when suddenly an off-duty fireman ran into the flames, pulled the truck door of its hinges with his bare hands, and pulled the driver to safety.

He then handed his editor a late, but thorough account of the dog show.

This story illustrates an important journalistic point. Go where the story is.

Still today, reporters don’t follow this advice. I just got done reading a story with a killer headline: Bricklayer shows up at his own funeral in Brazil. Now, who out there reading this post hasn’t fantasized about showing up alive to their own funeral?

So the story goes on giving a detailed account of how the local authorities misidentified the body. But no where in the entire article does it mention the WTF moment OF A MAN SHOWING UP ALIVE TO HIS OWN FUNERAL!!!

That’s the story! Sure, I want to know about the mix-up, but what did people think? Did he just run in? Did he wait in the back to see what people were saying about him? Did anyone have a heart attack and die?

It’s insufferable. But this isn’t just a problem for reporters; writers deal with this problem too.

Don’t get caught in the minutia of your story. Details are great. Yeah, you want to foreshadow that bit at the beginning, and refer back to it at the end. It’s so fricking cool. Yeah, you want to make sure every character has their little moment.

But remember what the story is about. And go over what you’ve written. Is there another, more interesting story growing out of it? Follow it.

Always follow the story.


The Importance of a Second Read

16 10 2009

I used to not like rereading my work. Not my writing or homework or anything. I had already read it once. Hell, I wrote the thing.

If you’re like this, get over it, please. Reread your work. And reread other people’s work. Give a video a second viewing. You owe it to the piece.

It isn’t that first reads/viewings are worthless. First reads give you insight. After all, most of your audience will only give it one go, so it’s important to know how they may react.

But there’s so much to be learned in the second read/view. You’ve put all your preconceived notions to bed. You’re not infected with the giggles, like so often happens around a writers table. The second go is less reactionary, but more honest, and you’ll get more out of it. It’s where you really absorb what’s being said, and can finally start to dissect the piece.

Not like that! Like this!

14 10 2009

My first real education in film making (not that I ever make films) came in the form of a Dov SS Simens weekend film crash course seminar. It was good. I highly recommend it. The most important thing he taught me was that no one needs a license to make a movie. But that’s not the point of this post. The point of this post is the second most important thing he taught me: let actors do their jobs.

On set, everyone has a job to do. The director envisions a project and tries (often in vain) to steer the project in that direction (see? that’s where they get the word). The lighting guys do lighting. The cinematographer does the camera work (yes, I’m drastically underplaying their roles, but I don’t want to get off on a tangent), and the actor is charges with pulling life and humanity out of the words on his/her script.

The writer, often enough, isn’t even there. And when they are there, they should not go around telling people how to do things. You’re stepping on the directors toes by doing that. And you should never repeat a line back to an actor (say it like this: “YOU”RE out of order. This whole COURT is out of order!”). It’s stepping on his toes.

Some actors get insulted by that. Others don’t. Even if they aren’t insulted, still don’t do it. Because all that’s going to happen is they’ll start taking their cues from you, and you’ll be the one doing the performing. They’ll be your puppet. And yes, they may start saying lines just the way you want them, but you’ll be losing out on different, often better takes on your characters.

This is a rule I’ve lived by in scripting, and why I often don’t even go to shoots. However, I’m starting to reexamine my position on this, slightly.

Last week, pretty much because I wanted to get out of the house, I went to a Transylvania Television shoot. They were shooting my material exclusively, and I technically went under the pretense that I’d be available for consultation and rewrites, but I really didn’t expect anyone to want my help. It’s not because they’re rude, but because everyone on this show knows their jobs.

They filmed a couple of short bits with Charles, and though he did an outstanding job, he wasn’t hitting the same tone for the character that I intended. In fact, there was one or two jokes he didn’t get at all. Firstly, that’s my fault. If you have to explain a joke to someone, it’s not funny, or at the bare minimum it’s not clear. Scripting is tough. You can’t really write in the inflections much. And a lot of people in the business frown on even italicizing words. You just have to be as clear as possible, and let the director and actors add their magic.

But eventually it did come up that someone wanted me to chime in on a line. Again, I was very uncomfortable with saying the line the way I wanted it said, but I did tell them which words in the line I’d like stressed. And the line came out better. In fact, the producer said having me on set for that was a big help!

So where does this leave us? To interfere or not interfere? Is it helpful, or stepping on toes. I suppose there’s no good answer; everyone is different. So the answer is, find out who you’re working with before you chime in. Would they find it helpful?

Second, do your job in the scripting stage. Make it as clear as possible. I don’t want to use the term “idiot-proof” but that’s sort of what you have to shoot for. Have someone else read it and give their take, or read it dry. If the comedy comes from the inflection and performance and not the writing, then you’re not really writing comedy, are you? You’re acting on paper.

Third, take some time to have a read-through with the director if you can. He calls the shots on the performance, but if he doesn’t know what the writer is thinking, then that’s information he can’t bring to the set. He might find it useful, and if he doesn’t like you’re take, he’ll have a jumping point to take it somewhere else.

And just to twist the knife, I got a preview of the first bit they filmed, before I chimed in, and while I think people will like it, I know it could have been better if I chimed in at some point. So lesson learned…hopefully.

The 10 Commandments of the prophet, Chuck Dixon

7 05 2009

I used to work a bit in comics, and was a big comic book fan. I never considered that I knew very much about the business of writing comics until someone wanting to get into the graphic novel scene asked me for advice at a wedding rehersal dinner recently, and I talked about it for over a half hour to a captivated audience. It’s amazing what you discover you know when you’re pressed to talk about it. That’s one of the reason I’m doing this blog.

The best piece of writing advice for comics, however, doesn’t come from me, it comes from longtime comic book writer, Chuck Dixon, who has written, and gives panels on the Ten Commandments of Comic Book Writing.

Get your story off and running.
Just the talking you need to put the point across.
They can be mixed major or minor action but there has to be something visual and in motion in your story.
Take pity on the penciller. Don’t make him draw something difficult over and over again.
Even Dr. Doom has his good points.
Even Batman can be aggravating or Robin self-centered.
If your character’s on a motorcycle crossing a bridge there’s no reason to state this in writing.
Keep your storytelling simple, basic, and easy to follow.
Something exciting or mysterious in that final panel. “It’s YOU!
Folks don’t pay good money for you to show off your college degrees. They want a good, fast paced story. Tell that story and get out of the way!

These are rules that should be tattooed onto the inner eyelids of every wannabe and professional comic book writer out there. In fact, you’d be surprised at the number of reasonably successful comic book writers out there who ignore some of these rules. Those writers, it goes without saying, are overpaid and overrated.

The best part about this is these rules, with only a little modification, are rules that every writer should follow in every genre. Even Commandment 4. Remember, the reader may not have to draw what you write, but they will have to imagine it, and overly complex scenery and machinations dull the effect. I’m a big fan of Age of Sail books, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve skipped over over-detailed, over-elaborate action description (or even details on the working of ships rigging) to get back to the story and the characters.

In fact, I really wish more book and movie writers would take a turn writing for the funny books. There’s no better lesson in pacing and visual storytelling available.

Thoughts on Suspense

5 05 2009

My Dad once told me two stories that both had a large effect on my outlook as it comes to passing on your knowledge. One story involved my godfather, who is a respected magician (my father is also a magician). My godfather was once giving a lecture on performance and got a question about how one deals with heckling. He gave his opinion on exactly how he handles hecklers. I asked my dad about it and he pointed out something very important. My godfather doesn’t usually perform in front of crowds, he’s a trick designer. So he never deals with hecklers.

Don’t give advice on something you don’t know about. It’s tacky.

Suspense is not something I usually write. Sure, there’s suspense in just about any story; that’s about good pacing and wit. But hardcore mystery/suspense isn’t something I’ve had much practice in, so I’m not going to give you tips or lectures or anything.

But I can give my thoughts, and share some interesting things I’ve found.

Suspense, to me, is when you let the audience fill in the blanks themselves. There’s an axiom in writing: show, don’t tell. It’s a good one. That is very important to pacing. But in that same context, suspense can be summed up as: don’t show or tell; imply. There will never be a special effect or movie scene that can come close to anything the human imagination can concoct. All you have to do as a creator is when you do show, when the pay off does come, to not let it be a let down.

Here’s J.J. Abrams talking about this much better than I ever could, in a TED lecture, The Mystery Box.

Suspense, to me, is when the audience is presented with possibilities. Yesterday I was watching an episode of South Park from season 12 in which Wendy challenges Cartman to a fight after school. South Park isn’t the go-to show when one thinks about suspense, but I was actually on the edge of my seat for a bit, because South Park is known for twists and being unpredictable. Reputation is important in suspense. Take M. Night Shaymalan. People consider his movies suspenseful, many of them are, but The Sixth Sense isn’t really that suspenseful because the unpredictability of it comes at the end. The Sixth Sense is what made Unbreakable so suspenseful.

Anyway, in South Park I wasn’t sure how this fight was going to end. The odds were that Wendy would beat up Cartman. But maybe Cartman beat up Wendy. After all, he’s got, like, 100lbs on her. Or maybe Stan would jump in there (they put out the possibility) and fight Cartman. Hell, Stan might fight Wendy. Double hell, aliens might land. I mean, it’s South Park. Who knows?

The point is, because of the story, and in part, because of the reputation, I was presented with multiple, different results, each viable. It was like a Choose Your Own Adventure Book, except I didn’t get to choose, of course. I was in suspense because I didn’t know what was going to happen, and because of that, I had to watch until I found out.

Suspense, to me, is when something in me wants to know what something is for. In my senior year of school, in Advanced Writing Class, we did presentations. Alison McGhee, the instructor, gave us each the option of doing a verbal report on an author or a literary element. Everyone in class (for years, I think) did an author, I did a literary element. I wasn’t trying to be impressive, I just don’t care about most authors, and when I learn about the ones I do like, I’m generally disappointed.

I did my presentation on Chekov’s Gun and the art of introducing things in literature. Chekov’s Gun literally refers to something Chekov said which sums up as if there’s a gun placed on the mantle in Act 1, it had better be fired in Act 3.

More broadly, don’t introduce an item, a character, or even an idea into a story unless you intend to use that later. There has to be a pay off. You can’t leave loose threads hanging around.

It’s not just out of good form, it’s about people’s expectations. They expect you to use that item later. This works to your advantage, because the introduction of that item becomes foreshadowing.

In the future I’ll have to remember to write a post about Harry Potter and the Proper Placement of Chekov’s Guns

So that’s what I do know, at least, and I’m passing it on.

Oh, I almost forgot. The second story my dad told me which affected my outlook.

…I don’t have a second story. I lied. It was just a lame attempt at creating suspense. You can do that too, if you’re lazy.

Transylvania Television and Going For the Dead Baby Gags

4 05 2009

My work on Transylvania Television continues. As of January I became head writer for the show, and as such everything filters through me before it gets to the showrunners. It’s a lot of responsibility and a lot of work. Creatively, it’s been going really well (getting hard to dedicated the time, though, but I will press on!), and the script output has increased a lot. We’ve lost some writers, but the team we have now is very talented, and I love their work. it’s a pleasure to do rewrites on it. I’ll have to make a post soon about rewriting a colleague’s work. For now, though, I’d like to revisit an older topic: being offensive.

The toughest thing about writing for TVTV is this edict that we have to be edgy. It was said in the first meeting that we wanted to be an adult show in the vein of South Park. In the year that followed, that didn’t really play out. At least not with me. Edgy is about pushing the envelope on what’s comfortable. I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s supposed to “make you think” but it is supposed to make you pause. And being edgy is equal parts of testing people’s sensibilities, and digging on their preconceived notions.

It’s hard to write.

It’s easy to mess up.

Shock is not the same as edgy. Artists make this mistake all the time. They want their audience to feel something, and if they go balls out offensive and illicit shock, then they think they’ve made them feel something. There are two problems with this, however.

One – Shock is the only emotion they ever illicit. They ignore joy, sadness, peace, anger, envy, etc, which are all much better emotions, because those are the ones which have been so dulled with the information age.

Two – Uhh… shock isn’t an emotion, losers. Shock is the lack of emotion. Your brain sees something, overloads, and switches off. Worse yet, is switches the amygdala back to the lizard brain, which turns the viewer into an emotional “fight or flight” personality. I mean, do you get this? Shock actually de-evolves the mind.

I haven’t been writing anything particularly edgy since we’ve started. Oh, I’ll throw in a butt rape reference here or there because it makes me laugh, and that’s fine, but for the most part it’s been all I can do to keep the show from becoming a parody of a sitcom, complete with sitcom cliches.

The reason is because I’m pretty out of practice writing edgy things. Luckily, however, that stuff comes back with practice.

Half the point of a writers meeting is to try to make the other people laugh, even if you’re not scripting, just screwing around. You can tell all the crass and offensive jokes you want around a writers’ table. The easiest way to know if you’re pitching something shocking or something edgy is to gage the reactions. If the immediate gut reaction is uncontrolled laughing, it’s edgy. Put it in a script. If the reaction is nothing, or pensive in some way, shitcan the idea, because you’re not doing any favors.

The main thing, I think, is to explore humor and ideas, and let the filtering be done, by you or someone else, later, because sometimes even edgy isn’t exactly smart.

And, of course, some things aren’t even exactly edgy, they’re just flippin’ funny, like the occasional dead baby gag.

Context is important, though. Dead baby jokes on Friends doesn’t work. Dead baby jokes on South Park are fine. 5/8ths of context is audience expectation.

Understanding and respecting source material

1 05 2009

There’s a Solomon Kane movie being made. Solomon Kane is one of my all time favorite characters, and it goes without saying that Hollywood isn’t interested in source material as much as it is im marketability. That’s fine and it’s something that writers have to understand. In fact, it’s why we should keep marketability in mind when writing. However, one can make changes to the source material all they want, as long as they stay true to the characters and concept. There is no sin in this. The new Star Trek movie is a perfect example. It changes a lot, but Kirk is still Kirk, etc. When you stray from the premise, and when you don’t understand the source characters, not only will your project fail, but it may as well be considered theft.

There is no similarity between Howard’s Solomon Kane, and this movie’s Solomon Kane, save for the name and the funny hat. In effect, someone stole the name and the funny hat for their own, entirely different character, and that’s sad.

Here is the summary of the new Solomon Kane:

Based on the character created by Robert E. Howard. CAPTAIN SOLOMON KANE is a brutally efficient 16th Century killing machine. Armed with his signature pistols, cutlass and rapier, he and his men unleash their bloodlust as they fight for England in war after war on all continents. As the story opens, Kane and his men are carving a bloody path through hordes of defenders of a city in northern Africa. But when Kane decides to attack a mysterious nearby castle to plunder its rumored riches, things start to get strange. It turns out that the castle is inhabited by evil demons but Kane and his men push on deeper into the keep, hell-bent for of treasure. His men are picked off one by one and eventually Kane is left alone facing down a ten-foot beast … THE REAPER. The demon tells Kane that he’s come from Hell specifically to get him. Though Kane manages to escape the demon, he knows that he must redeem himself by renouncing violence and living a life of peace and purity. It isn’t long before his newfound spirituality is tested when he journeys across an England ravaged by diabolical human raiders who fight under the command of a terrifying, masked Overlord. When he fails to stop the slaughter of a family that has befriended him, Kane vows to free their daughter, who has been enslaved—even if it means putting his own soul in peril by renouncing his vow of peace. His search brings him face to face with the brother he thought dead and the evil sorcerer who has manipulated him for his own ends. In the process of saving the girl and defeating the magician, Kane learns that he has been saved from the Reaper in order to fulfil a new destiny—to defend the innocent and fight evil wherever it may occur.

This is an origin story explaining how Solomon Kane became who he was. It is utterly unnecessary to the viewer, just as it was unnecessary to the reader. Solomon Kane is a puritan and holy warrior. He’s cut from the Oliver Cromwell cloth. He’s not about God’s love, he’s about God’s wrath. He’s a killer, but he’s a just killer. Nothing is mentioned about why he’s the way he is, and if I had to guess, I’d say he didn’t suffer any major tragedy. He’s not crazy. He was never crazy. He’s simply a believer. A very zealous believer.

In fact, it does Kane a disservice to explore his emotions and motives, because questioning the nature of reality, and his world view is the cornerstone of some of the best Solomon Kane stories. For instance, he stumbles upon an African village where witchdoctors are able to possess other people and reanimate the dead. This so completely blows Kane away that he actually travels with a fetish staff, something demonic in his opinion, to remind himself that he doesn’t fully understand the world, no matter what his experiences are. That’s powerful.

There’s this pathetic fashion in todays entertainment that we either have to know (and justify) precisely why someone kills, and we so limit the acceptable excuses. He can kill because he’s because he’s greedy, because he’s crazy, or because he’s in some kind of emotional pain that excuses (if not justifies) his actions. That’s about it.

Take the punisher. There have been two recent Punisher movies, with two different takes on why the punisher kills bad guys. The first was because he was in emotional pain. His family was killed, and he wanted revenge, and to avenge their deaths. This movie was a failure, and this is not why The Punisher kills bad guys.

The second movie I didn’t see. I heard it was fun, but not a good movie, and the Punisher came across cartoonish and, well, basically crazy. There are two possibilities here. One, that the makers did intend for him to come across as crazy, which is not the reason the Punisher kills. The other possibility is they nailed the reason the Punisher kills, and the elitist, sensitive, pansy movie critics couldn’t fathom the reason, so they just assumed he was crazy. I really hope it’s the latter.

The Punisher kills because… wait for it… he’s punishing killers. Duh. The world is better off without the bad guys in it, so he kills them. He’s not motivated by revenge, or grief. What happened to his family should never happen to anyone else, and he does his part to make that dream come true. That’s it. It’s simple. It’s basic. It’s visceral. And it’s completely over the heads of most creative writers today. They think the concept is overly-simplistic, black and while, immature, whatever. No, it’s not. It’s just something they don’t understand.

Solomon Kane is the same way. He kills bad guys because they deserve it. That’s it. Understand it. Respect it. And then write about what that’s so intersting, because it really, really is interesting.