We’ve all been burned by bad feedback. Rude, insensitive, bossy, arrogant, wrong-headed, cruel even. Oh, I have some bad memories of that. I gave my very, very first script to a demi-friend and he said he thought it was “pablum”. I’ll save you the Google look up: Trite, insipid, or simplistic writing, speech, or conceptualization.
He was probably right – it was my first script – ever. I was lucky to have slug lines and page numbers, actually. But he went straight for the jugular. That comment hurt me deeply and really took the wind out of my sails for some time. That hasn’t been my only bad experience but obviously the story has stuck with me.
Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. You put your heart and soul into the script, for months and weeks. And now somebody is going to pass judgment. Writers awaiting feedback are in a very vulnerable position. Yes, yes, we have to have thick skin but writers are sensitive, let’s face it. This is not a new toilet we have installed; our stories are our hearts.
I’m not very comfortable giving advice to other writers. Writing just doesn’t come easy for me. Actually, it’s pretty much constant FAILURE. But that’s normal... I think. It’s a process—and until the day comes that your story works, it sucks. Big time.
What was it Nietzsche said? That which does not kill us makes us... well, depressed. And I think living with all that failure makes us vulnerable. It makes us weak. And it explains why all those goddamn screenwriting books fill the bookstores. Don’t be fooled, friends. They can’t save you.
Why not? Because once you’ve come to understand the basics of storytelling, you can’t LEARN your way into solving story problems.
Still, it’s always tempting to try. Especially after you’ve put your hero on a tightrope, and you can’t FEEL in your gut what he or she wants to do next.
That’s why most screenwriting books provide a safety net of structural marks your story is supposed to hit. Plot points. Act breaks. Dramatic templates distilled by Aristotle, by Joseph Campbell, by today’s hip new screenwriting guru—and we try to apply those abstract story formulas to our story.
Yet no matter how well the outline of your story may conform to these theories, if your individual story beats (the moments) suck, your scenes will suck— and your screenplay will really, really suck. I don’t think you can get around it: good writing’s INSPIRED. Period.
#1: It’s the characters, stupid.
Check out your own short-list of favorite romantic comedies and I guarantee it’s the character-driven factor (usually hitched to a neat story concept) that makes them memorable – people like Tootsie, Annie Hall, Arthur, Harry/Sally and the rest. So much of good comedy comes out of strong, vivid character ideas. Creating two unique characters an audience will fall in love with and need to see united is the most important key to your screenplay’s success. All great characters have purpose and credibility, are empathic and complex. But romantic comedy leads have additional requirements. They’re emotionally incomplete people who get completed by their mate-to-be. One (if not both) of your protagonists should have an inner conflict that the story’s romantic relationship confronts and ultimately resolves. And take the time to create a truthful, resonating "chemical equation" between two distinctive leads, i.e. write their chemistry on the page (instead of leaving it to casting); we need to believe that these two people have to, must, absolutely belong together in the end.
I've been fortunate enough to be fairly successful writing comic strips for almost two years. I've been extra double plus fortunate to have those comics drawn by one of my best friends, Chris Haley.
Mechanics of Writing a Comic Strip
By no means am I any kind of authority on this, so if you're still sitting here reading this, I'd seek out Scott McCloud's books on understanding comics if you haven't already, and only come back to reading my advice when you've exhausted all other options or possibly just want to quickly drop into a comatose state.
It's an old adage: show, don't tell. And it's one of those incredibly simple things that everyone knows but frequently forgets. I like to write dialogue. I like it when I write something and people compliment me on the natural sound of it or they say they can hear the character's voice and cadence in their head. That strokes my ego and I am a prideful being. But I'm constantly reminded of how little dialogue is necessary when I start to look over classic comics like 'The Spirit'. So many emotions you can get across with just a look, or the lighting in a scene, or how the characters are standing relative to one another. Don't forget, you've got an unlimited budget and a wide-open toolbox, with dialogue just one of many, many ways to get a character's ideas or feelings across.
I create a comic called Axe Cop with my 5 year old brother, Malachai. He "writes it" and I turn it into a readable comic book. It's a fun process and when Script Frenzy invited me to do a cameo article I figured this would be a good place to really talk about the process. One thing I want to make clear before I get into this is that I don't want to take away from the fact that my little brother has a brilliant mind. He is a hilarious kid and he never ceases to amaze me with the things he comes up with. That said, turning a 5 year old's ideas into something somewhat coherent is an art form all it's own and it's one I really have come to enjoy.
I think I could best classify it as a form of comedy writing vaguely similar to what the guys on Mystery Science Theater 3000 do. The creator is given something that is conventionally ignored (they use bad movies, I use the insane ramblings of a five year old) then it is up to us to sort of re-present it in a new and entertaining way. This is something we have to do all the time in writing. A good story is always comprised of some cliches, so consider this a lesson in making the best of something you're stuck with, even if it's 3 act structure or a moral premise.
I recently finished my first solo show, MazelTov Cocktail. It was developed at the Comedy Central Stage in LA, it then toured across the country and finally it made its off-Broadway debut this year in New York City.
As a solo performer I feel like I would be cheating if I tried to separate the discussion about the writing from the acting. I have to talk about both because the two go hand in hand. I approach my writing through the lens that I know I will eventually be performing it. My hope is that some of these techniques might offer you a different approach to your writing.
When I read a script, it can take a while for me to figure out if the characters are really fascinating and original, and if the plotting is satisfying, and if the stage directions reveal an engaged and engaging writer. I usually need to read several pages to get a feel for all of that. But I can tell right away if the dialogue is bad. Other than something like a typo, this kind of error is probably the first one that your readers are going to notice. It's also one of the easiest to avoid. A thirty-minute pass through your script can probably eliminate the worst examples of unnatural dialogue writing. Here's what to look for and how to fix it:
Stilted Dialogue. This is usually a result of trying too hard to squeeze character out of every line. Let's say your character is a rich businessman. When he enters a meeting with a longtime business foe, you might be tempted to have him say something like: "Gordon. Please, take a seat. I think you'll find the room sufficient for your comfort. I hope that phalanx of lawyers you've brought with you is an indication that you're ready to actually negotiate this time, not just waste both of our time with needless delays."
"A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” -Thomas Mann
No kidding, Mr. Mann.
If you're anything like me, you put a lot of pressure on yourself as a writer. With every new screenplay, your hopes and expectations are sky-high. You want your finished script to crackle with wit, thrill with energy and sparkle with originality. Most of all, you just hope it doesn't suck.
Well, don't sweat it. Because the truth, is you don't need flashy prose and elaborate set-pieces to craft a good screenplay. What you need is a kick-ass protagonist.
I've read a lot of not-so-good screenplays, and I'll let you in on a little secret: they all fail in exactly the same way. 'The hero's emotional journey didn't map to her external journey through the plot'. 'The minor characters were more interesting than the lead'. 'The protagonist's goals and motivations were unclear'. There are a hundred ways to say it, but they all boil down to this: your main character did not kick enough ass.
Here are three ways to ensure that she does.
by Daniel Heath
The playwright's job can be summed up in two cardinal rules:
1. To write the best script that she or he can possibly write, and
2. To keep his or her actors well-supplied with whiskey
The second rule is self-explanatory; we'll focus on the first. Write the best possible script, for your actors, for your director, and for your audience.
WRITE FOR YOUR ACTORS
We have the benefit of writing our words in the dark where no one can see us. Our actors have to give a voice and a body to our words, and perform them publicly. We owe it to them to send them out on stage with the best tools we can give them.
Having a hard time making your womanizing, meth dealing, wife-beating protagonist redeemable so your audience can share in his triumphant return as a featherweight champ? Does your post second world war drama about that quadriplegic hopelessly in love with that Jewish gal he was separated from at the fire bombing of Dresden have you feeling a little glum? Can’t quite wrap your head around that brilliantly eloquent but devilishly complex British villain who likes to wear her victim’s underwear and skin? Well, why not try something a little more fun this Script Frenzy and…
WRITE A CHILDREN’S PLAY, DUDE!
Don’t give me that crap about how you’re an artist and you need to write the next Schindler’s List or Shawshank Redemption. Do yourself a favor, tap into that inner tree fort building kid you once were before you started hanging out with that pretentious art crowd, and write a children’s play. I guarantee you will find it awesomely fun, completely liberating, and if you want to get all self-worthy about it, kids need you to show them how to be awesome people before MTV ruins their brains.
Are you with me? Let’s do this!
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