I was in the library at AFI yesterday for a faculty meeting. We were discussing the recent ho-ha over the LA Times article and the impression it paints of AFI. The article focused on our criminal lack of air conditioning. Yes it is remarkable what will happen to a federally funded institution when a Republican is in office. Reagan and Bush 1 both cut back the institute's funding then with Clinton it turned around only to be re-cut by Bush 2. Now of course there's no funding for anything because the economy's in the toilet. Anyhow, smack dab in the middle of the meeting the head of the screenwriting department came in and announced that two recent AFI graduates were among the five selected for the Nicholls Fellowship - the most prestigious award given for screenwriting short of winning an Oscar. Imagine what we could accomplish if we had AC!
I went to the WGA Foundation panel discussion on Character this week. The panel was moderated by Dan Petrie Jr. and featured Dianne English, Bruce Joel Rubin and AFI's own Tom Rickman. I'm always a little iffy about these sorts of events because if the moderator doesn't do their job you're trapped in a conversation that may go nowhere for two hours. Be particularly wary of any panel discussion moderated by a celebrity. They just don't have the time to come up with insightful questions and they turn it over to Q&A at the first opportunity. Q&A never goes well as it's a chance for the crazy and the desperate to get some face time with the object of their personal obsession. Anyhow, long story short, Dan Petrie Jr. did an amazing job moderating the panel and the Q&A (while fully stocked with crazy/desperate questions) was not nearly as painful as it normally is. Here, with no further introduction, are the notes I took from that night.
Structure is a function of the behavior of the character. You can lay out all the structure you want, but it all comes from character. It's that question: what happens next.
Start your scene deeper into the scene than you thought. Repeated inforrmation is dull. Each scene should contain more and new information about your characters.
They are this and that. Contradictory information about your characters gives them depth and life. It is true that everyone we know contains contradictions in their personality. Your hero can't be all good and your villain can't be all bad.
Don't forget the theatricality - Good structure without character is mechanical and lifeless. Write big moments and scenes for your character. These are the kinds of moments that make an actor excited to play the part.
Have a character become someone you don't know. The good guy becoming the bad guy makes it much more interesting for the audience.
Build the anticipation before we see your character. This is particularly useful for your "bad guy" as you can create a mystique around them before we ever see them.
Characters come from self exploration. Writers of shallow characters are writing from off the top of their head. You, the writer, contain all aspects of the human experience within yourself - dig into that to find your character. Ask yourself, how are they like you? In the process of writing you are exposed to a massive level of self.
If as a writer you wind up not living a life you will not be able to draw on all that's out there in the world and you will not be able to write convincing characters and tell moving stories.
Do not base your characters on characters from other movies- you've got to bring more than that. Watch how people move. If we've seen it and heard it before we are not surprised. TV and movies are not research. Life is research.
Introduce a character with the weight that that character is going to have in the story. Small characters can be "COP 1" big characters must have a name, a life and a voice.
In the script be consistent with your name usage. Mrs. Peggy Winthrop, Peggy, Mrs. Winthrop, Peg. Pick one and stick with it - not all three (same goes for locations).
Characters who say what they mean are dull. Drama is getting to what they mean. Where are they hiding their truth? Do not have characters whose names all begin with the same letter. Glen Gary will lead to confusion.
Morris the explainer. Don't write the character who comes in and tells everybody what they need to know then disappears from the movie. This is sloppy and lame.
Let go of logic and predictability and be open to possibility.
Characters are self deluded. Slowly as you get toward the last act the truth your character has been avoiding comes out and bursts the bubble. The truth of self is revealed . Every story is the journey to truth. Getting to truth is what it's all about.
Just wanted to invite you all to a great event next Monday, October 26...
Final Draft software, "Script" magazine, and Writers Boot Camp are hosting a series of FREE writing panels designed to help film and TV writers navigate Hollywood... and I'll be speaking on next week's TV panel, "Getting Into the Writers Room."
I'll be joined by four other AMAZING panelists...
• Rich Hatem (writer/producer: The Dead Zone, Mothman Prophecies, Supernatural) • Jen Grisanti (former Spelling exec, now running Jen Grisanti Consultancy) • Carole Kirschner (former VP at Amblin Ent. and CBS, now running the WGA Showrunners Program and CBS Writers Mentoring Program) • Cary Okmin (head of Disney Online)
Here's some more info...
Getting in the Writers Room Writing for television is challenging, and even more so now that shrinking budgets mean shrinking writing staffs and salaries. Learn from working television writers what the inroads to the writers room are today, and how you can find success in the changing television landscape.
Date: Monday, 10/26/2009 Time: 7:30 - 9:30 Location: Writers Boot Camp Headquarters, Bergamot Station Bldg. I, 2525 Michigan Ave , Santa Monica , 90404
That said, my annual tradition of examining scripted webisodes for the comedy workshop continues. This year the fellows submitted dozens of webisodes for consideration. Here is a sampling of that list.
Lately I've been interested in how it is that good scripts successfully draw you into the story. I think it comes down to having a rooting interest in the plight of the main character. There are several components to this and it's important that they work together to achieve the desired effect. If your reader/audience does not root for the main character they will be alienated from the script. In a sense they will be fighting with it the whole time and by the end they will be frustrated.
I went to see Whip It last night and very much identified with or rooted for the main character. I went with my husband and he did not. The reasons why are less important - but suffice it to say we don't always see eye to eye on movies. I still remember sobbing during Synecdoche New York only to look over and see him literally snoring in his seat.
So what are the components of rooting interest?
1. We want what they want. That is to say they have a good plan that makes sense and we can see how it would be a good thing. In Whip It she wants to be a roller derby star. And why not? She's got a talent for it. Plus she LOVES IT. She's making friends, she's having fun, all of it seems like a good thing for her to be doing with her time.
2. We understand and identify with what the character is going through. In Whip It the main character is the oddball outcast in her small town. She doesn't fit in at school. She doesn't fit in at home with her mom and for sure she doesn't fit in to the pageant world her mom is trying to make her a part of. If you've never been an oddball then maybe you don't know what it feels like - and this may keep you from connecting with the story. Also, you may have been an oddball and have hated that part of your life - so again, this would not be the story for you. The question of identifying with your character plays into how marketable a film is. This is why executives routinely favor male point of view stories. They figure gals and gays can identify with anyone but men in that 18 - 24 demographic they desperately want are incapable of empathy for anyone but their own group. I couldn't disagree more, but that's an argument for another day.
3. It will help fix the damage in her life. Now this is a subtle an difficult area to get right. In Whip It the main character is on the edge of giving up. She is about to become the girl she is not. She could go along to get along. This is an act of defiance in a way that will help her establish her own unique identity. Over the weekend I read Legally Blonde to see how they handled this "damage" question. Elle Woods is kind of frivolous. Kind of. Okay, a lot. It's what we love about her but she's in danger of overlooking her real talents. Her mom can't understand why she'd go to law school, chiding "You were Miss Hawaiian Tropic! You're going to throw all that away on law school?" Even when she shows up at Harvard she's still frivolous. She doesn't take it seriously. She writes notes with a fuzzy pen in a pink journal. Eventually though, she hunkers down and does become serious. So much so that she wins the big case. The journey helps her fix the damage within herself. In both movies we can see how every scene "educates" the main character, teaching them the lessons they need to be a better, more complete person in life. In the process of educating the character you are also educating the audience. When you do so with cliche moments, refrigerator magnets as I like to say, you insult us. That is why these moments of education have to be insightful, fresh and true.
A great way to identify the components of rooting interest is to read a script and make note of them in the margin. I can't stress how important it is to read a script rather than watch a movie. Movies happen too quickly. You're caught up in other things when you watch them. Only by being slow and deliberate can you deconstruct these moments. You'll also find that reading a produced script is a delight compared to work that needs work. It lets you see what the script experience should be.
I saw this last night and thought of you. It confirms something I've long held - yes, innate talent is important but persistence and devotion are just as, if not more important in getting you where you want to go as a writer. When I was a fellow at AFI there was a guy in my workshop who was by far more talented than all of us combined. The trouble was he would do anything to not write. He avoided the hell out of writing. I'm not sure why - but he did and... nothing happened. As in, no sale.
Writing is about sitting down and doing it. About failing, over and over and over until finally you figure out what works. Each morning I sit down to work and I welcome failure into the room. Make friends with it, get comfortable with it because you will always fail until you succeed. That is a fact of life and there's no use running from it.