No time to hate

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I’ve seen a lot of hate and anger in my social media feeds lately, directed at people of different religions, heritages, philosophies, and lifestyle choices, and it makes me sad.

I am sorry that the individuals who have posted this stuff feel this way and think these things. They are not bad people. They have their reasons of which I cannot possibly fathom. I can only offer them my love.

If I have contributed to these feelings in any way, through my humour, sarcasm or cynicism, I am sorry. That was not my intent. I meant only to induce people to smile and think.

The world can be an amazingly shitty place that naturally prompts fear, anger, hatred. The challenge is that these feelings only serve to make a shitty situation that much shittier.

The world can also be an amazingly beautiful place that hopefully prompts feelings of wonder, awe, unity and love. And just as in the previous situation, these feelings too serve to make a beautiful place that much more beautiful.

I cannot ask you to set aside your negative feelings. We all feel pain in our lives. To even suggest that you ignore these feelings is to invalidate them. That would be wrong of me.

I can only ask that you try love whenever you are able.

Not in the hope that it will cure your ills or diminish the slights you have suffered. Merely in the hope that a surfeit of love in the world will make those ills and slights easier to bear, if only because you will find you do not have to bear them alone.

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(Images are property of their owners and are used here without permission but in the hope that I have done them justice.)

Bible or Anachronism – The Elements of Style

EoS

As we approach the 100th anniversary of this well worn tome on writing correctly, I would like to survey my social media environment to determine how often Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style is actually referenced by people on a regular basis.

NOT do you own it.

NOT have you cracked it open at some point.

BUT do you actually use it to improve your writing.

OR do you not even know about what I am talking.

Those of you who know me well, already know my stance on the book. At the same time, as I have seen the book referenced countless times as a classic must-have, I have come to consider that my bias regarding the book may have been a product of the era in which it was thrown at me, and thus, I should be open to reconsidering the tome.

Enemy—The movie with the meta title

Enemy

So, it was $5-Tuesday yesterday at the Carlton Cinema in Toronto and a friend invited me to see a movie called Enemy, starring Jake Gyllenhaal. Like any weary movie-goer, I immediately jumped online to look at the trailer and thought, “Hmmm, weird, but interesting”.

I was half right. The movie was weird.

At this point, I should probably say “SPOILER ALERT”, but truth be told, I am not sure that if I laid out every event that occurred in this movie, you would know what was happening. I sat through it and I don’t know what happened.

As the trailer indicates, the movie is about a man who is dissatisfied with his life—never explains why, he just is—and is merely going through the motions of living until one day when he realizes that his exact doppelganger lives in town.

Terrified at this revelation—never explains why, he just is—he is nonetheless drawn to his twin and after jumping through a series of over-complicated hoops, he meets the twin. At which point, he second-guesses his decision and it is his twin’s turn to go neurotic—never explains why, he just does.

As you may have guessed from my above repetition of “never explains why”, my greatest issue with this movie is unclear character motivation. Perhaps it says more about me and my life history, but I have no idea why any of these characters acts as extremely as they do.

I am confident that it is part of the artistic conceit of the piece that at numerous moment are you fully sure which Jake Gyllenhaal character you are watching onscreen. The challenge with this is that the emotional rollercoaster of each of the characters is such that from cut-to-cut within the same scene, I am never sure which Jake Gyllenhaal character I am watching. I ended up watching the characters’ clothing rather than the actor’s face to try to follow the story.

And the motivations of the secondary characters are just as muddy for me, although at least here, we have different actors and so don’t have the Gyllenhaal rabbit hole with which to contend. Like a faucet tap, the emotions of these characters change with a flick—questioning in one moment, horny in the next, and angry in the third, and all in the span of 30-45 seconds.

A definite statement of who I am, I spent much of the movie trying to predict the reveal of the story based on the clues or purely on conjecture.

Twins separated at birth? Time travel with a glitch? Parallel universes collide? Psychotic episode of one man leading two lives?

No SPOILER ALERT to say none of these came to fruition, but that still doesn’t mean that any of them may not be true. Hell, all of them might be true. I don’t know.

And any hope of a conclusion is muddied by a massive metaphor that scurries through this movie—I won’t tell you what it is—and yet offers no satisfying explanation.

Enemy is described everywhere as a thriller. I’d be more inclined to call it a puzzler…and even that may be too lofty. Head-scratcher and headache-giver might be more accurate.

As I read up on the movie to write this, I learned the film won Canadian Screen Awards (our Oscar) for Best Director and Best Supporting Actress, and was nominated for Best Film. I find that disturbing.

The film was based on the 2002 novel The Double (O Homem Duplicado), by Portuguese author José Saramango. Part of me wants to find the novel to see if it is any clearer than the movie, but as of this moment, a bigger part of me just wants to walk away from this entire episode in my life.

 

Previous posts about characters in writing and film:

Just Tell The Story – Austin Film Festival

The Dignity of Characters

A Matter of Character

Can You Relate?

I Am Always Right (Motivation)

Dara Marks at Toronto Screenwriting Conference 2013

Unpacking Baggage (Part One)

Unpacking Baggage (Part Two)

Re: Rewrites (Part Two)—Toronto Screenwriting Conference 2014

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In Part One of this post, we examined Paul Chitlik’s approach to reviewing the structural elements of a story, including the idea that a screenplay is actually comprised of four stories: The plot-based Main Story, the relationship-led Emotional Story, the protagonist’s internal Personal Growth Story, and the humanizing Antagonist’s Story.

 

Dissecting character

To truly understand your main characters, Chitlik recommends building something of a character profile that you can use as a steady reference while examining how the character acts and speaks within the screenplay. This is critical, Chitlik says, because often when you start writing a screenplay, you really don’t know your main characters and as you write, they will become more defined.

For assistance and more insights, Chitlik highly recommends Lajos Egri’s book The Art of Dramatic Writing.

 

Protagonist

Physiology – develop a sense of what your character looks like even if you don’t incorporate it into your story (something beyond “tall man in his mid-20s”)

Sociology – imbue the character with a social history: family life, school, jobs, etc.

Psychology – how does your character think and respond to his or her environment? Here is where the personal flaw comes to the fore

How is the character reflected in his/her dialogue? – in how he sounds, the word and grammar he uses, and how he acts

What is your character’s defining line? – Think Dirty Harry, a battle-weary cop with a strong moral center who is begging the criminal to make him shoot “Go ahead, make my day.”

 

Antagonist

Physiology

Sociology

Psychology

Human quality – what makes your antagonist more than a 2-D character? Why should we empathize with him or her?

How is the character reflected in his or her dialogue?

What is the antagonist’s defining line? – Think Terminator and “I’ll be back.”

 

Dissecting the screenplay itself

Chitlik then lifts his view slightly higher from the page, offering ways to dissect the screenplay in a more technical manner from its content to the paper itself.

 

Seeing the Scene

Each scene has all 7 of the structural elements of your story, so be sure you can identify them, although be aware that some elements may not occur within the lines of the scene but rather are implied or referenced within the lines.

Does the scene have any/enough/appropriate conflict? Chitlik finds conflict to be the #1 problem of new writers, which leads us to a discussion of goals

He is adamant that every character within a scene must have his or her own goal, however prominent or minimal to the plot. The conflict, he suggests, comes from the points at which these goals thwart or oppose each other.

Also, look at the emotions of the characters within the scene. Do you maintain them throughout the scene or when they change, do they change when something acts to cause the change?

And for emphasis, re-examine the conflict of the scene.

 

Looking for Cuts

Chitlik suggests he has never read a screenplay that couldn’t benefit from cutting about 10%.

He suggests you start by looking for scenes that lack conflict, don’t move the story forward (treading water) or fail to illuminate one or more characters in some manner.

Either eliminate these scenes or find some way to incorporate the missing ingredient.

Then look to cut off the heads and tails of scenes, starting later or ending earlier. An example he gives for the tails is leaving the scene when the final challenge arises or is issued, and he points at the work of David E. Kelley in this regard. The resolution of the challenge, he argues, can easily be worked out by the audience through the start or context of a subsequent scene. You don’t have to always spell things out.

 

Presently Presentable

This is the challenge of first impressions. Chitlik gives the example of a former student who sent him a screenplay she wrote and on the title page, she misspelled her own name. This, he says, did not bode well for what was to be found inside.

Chitlik describes this as the Mercedes Benz theory of script presentation. If you are going to spend $100K on a new Benz and you are presented with two cars—one that is absolutely beautiful and immaculate and one that is dinged up and dirty—which one would you choose to spend your money on?

Look at the pages of your screenplay and ask yourself how much of the page is black and how much white. Before looking at a single word, readers will be repelled by heavy screenplays with long descriptive sections or heavy dialogue. Find ways to break this up to leave more white space on the page.

Chitlik’s other cautions are: Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar.

 

The Rewrite Plan

Chitlik’s plan is straightforward and iterative:

  1. Write a biography of the protagonist in his/her own words/language
  2. Write a biography of the antagonist in his/her own words/language
  3. Reread the screenplay, making notes on the above topics
  4. Create a new beat sheet of the screenplay, adding new scenes that help your story play out and cutting old ones that don’t work or aren’t necessary
  5. Write new pages and rewrite old ones from the beginning
  6. Go back to Step 3

If it sounds like a lot of work, it is, but Chitlik promises that with each iterative run, the work gets easier and the outcome improves.

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Re: Rewrites (Part One)—Toronto Screenwriting Conference 2014

Chitlik

One of the definite highlights for me at this year’s TSC was the rewrite session offered by screenwriter, director and producer Paul Chitlik, who is now also a professor of screenwriting at Loyola Marymount University. For me, the practical sessions resonate much longer than the advice or adoration panels.

If there was one disappointment with Chitlik’s session it was that the 90 minutes apportioned to him were not nearly enough for him to really explain his process, try as he might. Thus, in many respects, the session was more of an appetite whetter for his book Rewrite: A Step-by-Step Guide to Strengthen Structure, Characters, and Drama in Your Screenplay.

 

Stages of review

For Chitlik, a good rewrite means taking 8 separate passes at your screenplay, which include:

  1. A review for structure
  2. A review for conflict
  3. A review of descriptive paragraphs
  4. A review of the protagonist’s dialogue
  5. A review of the antagonist’s dialogue
  6. A review of the supporting character’s dialogue
  7. A review of cuts that can be made
  8. A review of the presentation of the screenplay

According to Chitlik, this iterative review process causes many of his students to groan, but his attitude is that if you don’t like your script enough to read it eight times, you seriously need to rewrite your script or you need to throw it away and work on something else.

 

Structure: The main story elements

Before starting his specific rewrite techniques, Chitlik took us on a bit of an overview of the main elements of the main story, acknowledging that this number will vary depending on who you read or to what storytelling philosophy you ascribe.

His main points or pillars are: Ordinary life, inciting incident, end of Act I (goal or plan), midpoint, low point, final challenge, return to the now-forever-changed normal life.

In the ordinary life, we find our protagonist impressionable and naïve, and from Chitlik’s perspective, our first visual of the protagonist should give us some clue as to his or her character flaw. This is where we see the character in context and how the person’s flaw interferes with his or her normal life.

With the inciting incident, something external to the protagonist impacts his or her world, changing the world forever and forcing the character to take action. Chitlik acknowledges there is a lot of debate on where precisely within a screenplay the inciting incident should occur. He actually prefers later (toward page 15) to give us time to get to know the protagonist.

By the end of Act I, the protagonist has had a chance to reflect on the inciting incident and formulate a response. This is where the story really begins as the protagonist takes the lead. Chitlik acknowledges that this isn’t always the case, however, and offers the example of Thelma & Louise where Thelma doesn’t really take control of her world until the midpoint.

By the midpoint, the protagonist has been pursuing his or her goal but an external force spins the story on its axis, leaving the protagonist to come up with a new goal or plan. For Chitlik, the protagonist should also learn something new about him or herself when this happens.

By the end of Act II, though, the protagonist reaches the low point, ideally triggered by his or her flaw, where all is lost and the goal seems completely unattainable. As Chitlik notes the cliché, the dark night of the soul.

At some point, an external force triggers the protagonist to engage in the final challenge. Here, the protagonist must overcome his or her flaw, and often repairs a relationship. Chitlik notes that while this final challenge is often large and dramatic (e.g., a battle), it can also be quite small and subtle, but it must involve the protagonist overcoming the fatal flaw.

The protagonist then returns to the new normal. Life often moves just as it did in the beginning, but the protagonist’s approach or viewpoint is forever changed in some way.

 

Chitlik then suggested that the story is actually four stories, each of which has its own version of the 7 story elements, but are ideally intertwined with each other:

The Main Story included the basic plot points or challenges the protagonist faces

The Emotional Story describes the central relationship of the protagonist, whether with the antagonist, a love interest, or some other form

The Personal Growth Story shows how the protagonist comes to face and then overcome his or her flaw

The Antagonist’s Story highlights that the antagonist has his or her own goals in life (wants and needs)

Chitlik adds that we may never see the antagonist’s ordinary life and instead of a flaw, we want to show his or her human quality, which makes the antagonist both more empathetic to the audience and a bit more chilling.

 

In Part Two of this post, we will look more closely at Chitlik’s advice on dissecting first your main characters and then the actual screenplay itself.

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Talking Comedy—Toronto Screenwriting Conference 2014

(L to R): Jeff Biederman, Katie Ford, Joseph Raso, Andrew Clark

(L to R): Jeff Biederman, Katie Ford, Joseph Raso, Andrew Clark

This past weekend, TSC2014 convened a panel of sitcom showrunners entitled Comedy Is A Funny Business, where the panelists discussed various aspects of developing comedy for Canadian television.

The panel was comprised of Jeff Biederman (showrunner for Spun Out), Joseph Raso (showrunner for Seed) and Katie Ford (showrunner for Working the Engels), and was moderated by Andrew Clark, Director of Humber College’s Comedy Writing and Performance Program.

 

How do you know you or something is funny?

From Raso’s perspective, most people who want to write comedy typically have good comedic sense, and that it is important to trust your own instincts on what is funny. The rest of the writing process comes down to mechanics. Ford added that it is often about what you watched as a kid, the shows you grew up with.

Biederman mentioned that he had taken improv and stand-up comedy classes several years earlier, but had never really enjoyed them. He still wanted to be associated with comedy, however, so he gravitated to comedy television. Ford is an advocate of such classes, however, as she feels it gives the writer a sense of what you are up against. And Raso echoed those sentiments suggesting it also makes sure that you give actors solid material with which to work.

 

Can you discuss the seeming renaissance of sitcoms in Canada?

According to Raso, it is important to have a solid premise or conceit for a show, a distinct way to describe the core idea, because simply having ideas for individual episodes won’t cut it. One of the challenges for Canadian sitcoms, he warns, however, is that it is so hard to get networks to see beyond the first year—one and done, as he describes it—which has doomed many shows in the past. For most shows, the first season is difficult as the show hasn’t yet managed an identity or found its audience.

For writers, Biederman adds, this can be a big challenge as it can take a while for a new writer to break through, and there are not a lot of places to build the necessary skills or unique voice needed to be successful.

 

Can you describe the pitching process?

For Biederman, it is about going in with a story. Rather than try to tell jokes or act things out, he prefers to focus on why this show, what is particularly interesting about this premise. And if you already have a spec pilot script, all the better, because it helps the creator and writer maintain his or her power in the conversation and gives the network something more definitive to look at.

For Ford, it is about walking in with your logline, introducing a sense of theme, outlining a typical episode and then describing the characters. But perhaps most importantly, letting people see your passion for the project and how you connect with the subject matter.

Raso couldn’t agree more. For him, the personal angle is key.

Ford also suggests that it is vital you engage the executive you are pitching because he, she or they are your first audience.

 

Can you talk about the writers’ room?

Biederman describes the mix as people sharing responsibility for the final product, more as partners than anything in a hierarchical sense. He even brings in outsiders to punch-up the script (e.g., jokes). He describes the room as ruthless but welcoming and admits that it’s not always easy to be in the room or to run it.

Ford agrees, suggesting that it is a collaborative environment, but is by no means a creative free-for-all. Her job is to listen for the voices that add to the show. Raso, meanwhile suggests that the hardest part of the job for him is that he has to say no a lot, but despite that difficulty, it is vital that the room start off with real, honest and open discussion.

Biederman suggests that table reads with the actors can be invaluable to the writers but that they don’t always happen. Scripts for a multi-camera show can change 50 or 60 times over the course of a week, Ford adds, limiting the usefulness of table reads. And single-camera shows tend to work on tighter timelines, so again table reads are not always possible.

 

So, how does a new writer get into the room?

Biederman suggests starting as a script coordinator rather than try to get in with samples of your writing. The job will give the novice writer invaluable production experience. Ford agrees, suggesting that her own script coordinator kept things together on her show.

Ford also suggests that new writers need to be heard, to get their voice out there by whatever mechanism they can find, whether Twitter feeds, blogs, anything. It’s about demonstrating your strengths and your personality to show you’d be a good fit for the room.

According to Biederman, the make-up of the room has steadily changed over the years. It’s not just television writers, but also stand-up comedians and performers who bring unique voices into the mix.

The biggest place he sees new writers fail is in not sending their work when he offers to look at it. The fear of it being not quite perfect kills a lot of opportunities. Just send the work, he says.

 

Spec script or spec pilot?

Both Raso and Ford were adamant that they much prefer to read original work over spec scripts. According to Ford, they’re just not interested in reading yet another Big Bang Theory spec or whatever show is popular. She finds it much harder to get a sense of a writer’s unique voice by looking at a script that is trying to be someone else’s voice.

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On Second Thought

Do you think?

Why do we give our second thoughts so much more sway than our firsts? What is so magical about the second thought that makes it more believable, more honest, more sensible?

I had second thoughts about writing this simply because it was prompted by a conversation with a friend who is struggling with a dilemma. Would my friend be upset I was talking about him or her? Making light of his or her dilemma? Sharing secrets that weren’t mine?

I can deal with that.

Rare is the person who completely trusts his gut; who goes with the first thought that comes into his head. To the outside world, such a person is often considered rash or impulsive, perhaps even flighty. Rarely is he described as definitive or confident.

Second thought, in contrast, is seen as considered, rational, reasoned…well, thoughtful (or thought full).

The Senate of Canada’s Parliament has oft been described as the chamber of sober second thought, as though the House of Commons is populated by ADHD-riddled chickens, prone to explode at the slightest provocation.

(The realities of the Canadian Parliamentary system are fodder for a different blog post.)

The concept of sobriety does point to one of the benefits of second thought. The decision not to pursue flights of drunken fancy such as driving home after drinking too much rather than take a taxi. But while this points to the benefits of second thought, it also points to its source: Fear.

We have and listen to second thoughts because we are afraid. We are afraid that our first thought was ill-considered (rash) and might result in failure. And because we don’t want to take responsibility for that failure, we build a rationale for our alternative thoughts, thus making ourselves more confident in our decision.

The harsh truth, however, is that no matter what our final decision, there is always a risk of failure, perhaps catastrophic. The Titanic and Hindenburg were well-considered ventures based on sound and common practices. It was the unforeseen (if not unforeseeable) incidences that doomed the exercises.

To a greater or lesser extent, gut instincts and reactions are You unencumbered by rules and conventions. They represent the way you view the world and yourself without the censorship of social pressures. Thus, I believe, they more accurately represent your goals and desires, and ultimately what will make you happy.

Now, this is not a belief that was reasoned on the basis of careful study. If nothing else, that would defeat my argument. It does, however come from a lifetime of observing others and myself.

I have no reason to lie to myself when under my own control, in the absence of other influences—chemical or human. Thus, my gut instinct is my truth.

This doesn’t mean that I have to follow it—there may be extenuating circumstances to go another way—but I should never deny the instinct.

In denying it, I will never have the opportunity to build faith in it, and ultimately, second thought is a lack of faith in myself.

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