Q & A with Peter Russell

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Peter Russell is a screenwriter who sold two television pilots in 2018 – a crime procedural and a biographical mini-series. He is also a long-time story doctor in Hollywood whose clients include Imagine, HBO, Participant, Viacom, CBS Television and many more. Peter is in demand for his legendary seminars and master classes on film and TV story. Peter’s charismatic speaking style won him UCLA Teacher of the Year in 2009.

Peter ghostwrites for both new and established film and television writers and producers. He has consulted on many TV shows, including GENIUS (National Geographic series 2017-present) MR. ROBOT (Emmy for Best New Television Drama 2015), Chronicles Of Narnia (Lion, Witch & Wardrobe), The Da Vinci Code (Imagine Films) and many others.

Peter privately collaborates with producers, writers, and actors on film and TV story from treatments to pilots and full story development. He teaches his own classes online at: http://peterrussellscriptdoctor.com/, and live at major universities, including UCLA.

What’s the last thing you read or watched that you thought was incredibly well-written?

SNOWFALL. Fantastic writing. The way both the showrunner and the staff-written eps broke the beats in every ep was insanely good. They used every trick in the book to surprise you. The beat almost NEVER went where you thought it was gonna go. Surprises, reversals, ticking clocks, raising stakes – I admire the craftsmanship of that TV writing wonderfully. SNEAKY PETE – the storylines – my god, the storylines! Sometimes 12 in a single episode! And they were wonderful. THE DEUCE – again, with the beats and the storylines! Such amazing juggling. My hats off to them. My tv eps have five storylines max, and even then it’s hard to get those to mesh.

Also just saw McQueen’s WIDOWS. Mystery thrillers are so hard to do. He probably wanted to take a swing at a commercial story. He really hit a home run. It’s such a relief, in a way, to watch a movie these days when you work in TV. The form feels so much simpler. It’s not any easier, but it is simpler. I adore McQueen. If you want to see how I talk about to do what they do, go to my newest TV lecture on creating a great story beat: https://peterrussellscriptdoctor.com/course/creating-the-great-tv-beats/

How’d you get your start in the industry?

Script reading. I read scripts for CBS and then for companies like Imagine. I learned so much from Brian Grazer and Ron Howard. I read scripts for seven years – waaaay too long for anybody in their right mind – it’s suppose to be a year and then you become a supersuccessful industry DYNAMO! LOL. I loooved it, though – I learned so, so much about story, sooo much about every genre. Brian and Ron taught me that a zeal and excitement for the WORLD you wanted to write about was everything.

Is recognizing good writing something you think can be taught or learned?

You can definitely learn how to recognize good writing for sure – just read tons and tons of great scripts. Watch any great story and read along with the script. You can learn it; it just takes a while. Learning how to write? That’s a LOT harder than learning how to recognize great story. It takes a shit-ton more time to do that. I only feel like I’ve done that in the last few years, since I started selling my own stuff. But it took for-fucking-ever! LOL. That’s what you gotta know. And I’m no smarter than anybody – here’s a tip – just watch the movie or tv show 50 times! I’m not kidding. Watch the same show fifty times! You’ll see EVERY device behind the curtain. Don’t take my class, don’t listen to me, never buy a thing from me – just WATCH ONE TV SHOW or one movie FIFTY TIMES.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

Scripts are the most amazingly complex devices on the planet — far more so than an algorithm. It’s a bit like asking me to explain differential equations in a sentence. Okay, I’ll try. In a movie, a hero is a wounded person given a chance to heal (or bleed out.) In TV, it’s a wounded hero with a fascinating objective and fascinating obstacles in his way. You want more? Right here: peterrussellscriptdoctor.com. Okay, I lied. I DO want you to look at my stuff.

What are some of the most common screenwriting mistakes you see?

Characters who don’t have great core wounds. A great core wound (whether in film or TV) is the basis for 90 percent of how good a story is, especially in the first act. Bleed him (or her, or it). BLEED THEM! Show their pain! Instantly!

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

I can’t watch 90 percent of network television, simply because the grooves of most of the genres are worn out for me. I loathe seeing hero-worshipping stories about superhero cops and superhero lawyers and superhero doctors – all the old, straight from radio shows (Blue Bloods, CSI, stuff like that.)

None of those professions are worthy of such praise – in fact those professions contain a higher than average proportion of assholes – probably far higher than most professions, and it makes me gag to see the hagiography. But audiences looove to see the make-believe that these people are gods on earth. It depresses the hell out of me.

I realize network TV is a factory and I honor how hard these folks work and the high level of professional product they turn out on an incredibly tight schedule – but that doesn’t mean the product interests me at all. The TALENT involved – both in front of and behind the camera – is insanely great! The level of competence and extraordinary grace under pressure is heroic. Everybody who works in TV has to have extraordinary abilities, or they don’t get on staff. I mean that. The writers I know personally who work in TV – both in writer’s rooms and out – my god, they are sooo talented! It’s just that I find the product godawful. Dick Wolf is a genius, but his product makes me despair.

I do think dark heroes are popular because most people have realized the world is a lot more like a Russian novel than a comic book. Speaking of which, fantasy superheroes, played straight, especially in the DC story world (which suffers from execs who don’t know what they’re doing), are also monumentally boring to me now. Twist the genre – DEADPOOL is genius, THOR: RAGNAROK, too, and the first GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY – they are FUNNY. My god, that’s the greatest thing on earth to be.

What are some important rules every writer should know?

-Know your craft.

-Know you’ll never really know your craft and that you’ll write a lot of crap. Write anyway.

-Know that you’ve picked a profession that requires either – a) genius-level talent, or b) an enormous work ethic and persistence far beyond what you’ve imagined and that will take you far longer than you believed possible.

-None of these rules apply to a true genius. They can do anything.

-If you have neither genius nor an enormous work ethic, you will absolutely fail. Writing in Hollywood is a job for people who are as smart, or smarter, than nuclear physicists or mathematicians. It’s far harder than, say, brain surgery. I’ve never met smarter, or more mercilessly competitive people, than people in Hollywood. By the way, most of them are also massively unhealthy. This isn’t a business for well-balanced people, in the main.

-The best way forward is to LEARN how to write.

Have you ever read a script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”? If so, what were the reasons why?

In my entire scriptreading life, the number of scripts I have fully recommended is a grand total of two. That’s not unusual, by the way. 95 percent of scripts you read are not good (and this is from the very best screenwriters in the biz). But the big secret is – you don’t have to be very good. You just have to be better than most people.

How do you feel about screenwriting contests? Worth it or not?

If they motivate you to write, great. Most screenwriting contests are run by mercenary assholes who are making their money by taking your contest fees. There are a couple of big ‘screenwriting’ websites who do nothing but that – they’ve turned it into a marketing algorithm. That’s okay – if they honor their pact with you and legitimately judge your work and then publicize it if you win or place. Some do, some don’t. Most just want your money. Not saying that’s dishonorable. But it’s true and they’re very, very smart in how they market.

How can people can get in touch with you to find out more about the services you provide?

Just e-mail me at: russell310@mac.com, or go to peterrussellscriptdoctor.com. Mention  this interview, and I’ll give you a ten percent discount.

Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?

There is nothing better than true key lime pie. Not the type that is mostly white froth. The kind with a dense, green, wonderful pie stuffing, and under that – a buttery, flaky, heart attack-inducing crust.

key lime pie

A most informative Q & A with Andrew Zinnes

 

andrew zinnes

Andrew Zinnes is a UK-based screenwriter, screenwriting consultant and producer who’s worked for production companies, read for contests, and co-author of The Documentary Film Makers Handbook: The Ultimate Guide to Documentary Filmmaking and The Guerilla Film Makers Pocketbook: The Ultimate Guide to Digital Film Making. He currently holds the position of Lecturer in Screenwriting at The Bournemouth Film School at Arts University Bournemouth, the London Film Academy, and the University of Portsmouth.

What’s the last thing you read/watched you thought was incredibly well-written?

I have small children so I don’t get to the theater as much as I’d like, but I recently saw I, TONYA and thought it was fantastic – a real pleasant surprise! I remember the Nancy Kerrigan incident vividly and, at the time, there wasn’t a bigger villain than Tonya. Yet Steve Rogers managed to make her sympathetic by focusing on her relationship with her mother and other aspects of her home life. Then you add breaking the fourth wall and other stylistic choices, and the characters became self-aware in a manner that added to their depth and relatability. BABY DRIVER was great, too. Loved the way they used music to tell the story. Very Edgar Wright.

How’d you get your start in the industry?

I became a script reader for a small production company based at Sony. I read for free as I wanted anyway into the machine. I would go in on off days or they would messenger me scripts, back when that was a thing, and I would write up coverage and fax it back to them, when that was a thing. I became friends with the assistants in the office and when I said I wanted to do development, they put me up for other assistant gigs.

Is recognizing good writing something you think can be taught or learned?

From my experience, recognizing good writing is innate. Many years ago, I went home for Thanksgiving and took my weekend read with me. My sister got curious and started reading some of them. She read one that was a spec from an unknown writer and she was surprised at its mediocrity. She stopped reading after 40 pages and picked up another. This time she started laughing straight away and continued through the whole 100 pages. That script turned out to be AMERICAN PIE. She knew the difference between the two scripts quality-wise with no training, but what she wasn’t able to do was tell me what was wrong with them via screenplay/story theory or how she would have fixed any issues. That part needs to be learned and practiced as one would with any craft.

What do you consider the components of a good script?

The biggest component revolves around making the story or premise personal to you, the writer. If it’s not something you’re passionate about then how are you going to put 100% effort into it? If you can’t connect to the premise, then how can the reader or the viewer? John Truby says this issue leads to generic, unoriginal work and I have seen this first hand with my college/university students. Just recently, one wanted to do a crime thriller that had an okay hook, but was otherwise unremarkable. I asked why he wanted to do this project and he said it was because he loved those kind of movies and this sounded cool. I told him my doubts and he got frustrated. He said that he has trouble making decisions about writing because he doesn’t want to make mistakes that can’t be undone easily. When I pressed, he said he felt that way about many things in life, not just writing. I told him he should write about that concept. His eyes lit up!

The other key component are the forces of antagonism. I don’t just mean the villain. I mean everything that holds back the protagonist(s) from their goals. The better they are, the better the tension, drama and comedy become.

What are some of the most common screenwriting mistakes you see?

Because I work with many writers in the development of stories from early in their conception, impatience reigns the king of mistakes. Often times writers want to rush into the actual writing before they’ve explored a premise fully. The don’t want to do enough research to make the story richer or come up with alternative character motivations and story points that might make their project surprising and original. They don’t want to take hard looks at their structure because they have something in their head and want to get it out.  I get it. I’ve felt the rush of getting something down in Final Draft, too. However, whenever I’ve let a client or student get on with it despite my objections, it always goes wrong. They create a story and/or characters that are generic or derivative. They come to the point where the structure doesn’t work and either get stuck or plow forward anyway and there’s structure or story flaws. Now for some writers, this is the process they need to go through. This is how their brains process information. That’s fine, but whether that is the case or they are just steadfast, we end up going back to the drawing board to pull everything apart as we should have done originally.

Aside from that, overwriting tends to be an issue, especially with newer writers. Screenplays are meant to be quick reads and having a lot of black on the page slows that down. Learning economy of writing is essential. I realize that many people, myself included, like Wes Anderson or Quentin Tarantino’s style, which creates these dense, epic screenplays and, that further, feel they should follow suit. However, one, that’s being derivative; two, they’re directing the work so they probably doing it partially because they don’t want to forget anything; and three, they’ve earned it as they had to fund their first films in this style mostly themselves and became successful with it.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

Tropes don’t bother me. It’s what is done with the tropes that matters. Whenever a superhero movie comes out social media garners a a lot of eye rolls and hate from various creative or general public communities and then WONDER WOMAN, DEADPOOL or BLACK PANTHER comes out and shakes things up. Teen horror films is another one that gets a lot of grief, and then HAPPY DEATH DAY hits the screens and all of a sudden cyberspace is hit with short memory syndrome. Take tropes and tell them in unique ways.

What are some important rules every writer should know?

-Observe people, places, things and ideas.
-Observe by asking questions and listening to what people say and don’ t cut them off to speak about yourself.
-Travel and observe what’s around you.
-Write down what you observe and think about what universal truths of the human condition emerge that matter to you.
-Read good scripts and watch good movies so you know what works.
-Read bad scripts and watch bad movies so you can recognize problems to avoid.
-Notes are opinions. They aren’t personal.

Have you ever read a script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”? If so, what were the reasons why?

I haven’t read many. TRAINING DAY may have been one. THE SIXTH SENSE may have been one, too. The reasons are for the usual hallmarks: great voice, original take on a premise, explored some kind or large idea, writing that moved my emotions (tense, scary, etc) and structured well. Then the other side of the equation, the business side, saw great roles for movie stars to play, was something my company might do and had general commercial appeal.

How do you feel about screenwriting contests? Worth it or not?

That’s a tricky one. On the one hand, if you can win one or at least become a finalist, it can get you noticed. The bigger the competition the better your chances, obviously. If you live outside of Los Angeles or don’t have a friend that works in the industry, it may be one of the only ways that you can garner attention. On the other hand, if you enter many of them, it can get expensive. Also there is a fundamental truth about screenplay competitions: there has to be a winner. It’s the best of what a competition gets that year, not necessarily the best written thing that would attract an agent or manager and that sometimes makes Hollywood impatient with competitions. But all in all, I say they are worth it. Especially if there’s some sort of networking attached to winning or placing.

How can people can get in touch with you to find out more about the services you provide?

I’m very easy to find: andrewzinnes.co.uk. You can message me from there. I live in the UK, but work with writers all over the world. Thank you FaceTime, Skype and WhatsApp!

Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?

Blueberry! I make a mean one, too.

blueberry pie

Digging towards the emotional core

big-dig
I don’t think you’ll need that much gear

Due to both of our busy schedules, my daughter and I go for some quality father-daughter time when we can. Sometimes that means we’ll watch something together.

It might be a movie or a TV show. We’re not picky. No shame in admitting she’s picked up my enjoyment of superhero- and fantasy-based (LOTR, Hobbit, etc) material.

Despite her occasionally sullen and blase teen exterior, V is, at heart, an empathetic and sensitive soul, so no matter what we’re watching, if there’s any kind of hint of emotional resonance in a particular scene, she will feel the full brunt of whatever emotion the film/program is conveying.

Almost any kind of a joke (the sillier the better), and she laughs her head off. Something scary and she hides under the blanket. Something sad and she immediately tears up. Even after years of me saying, “You do know this is just a movie/TV show, right?”, her emotional receptors remain cranked up to 11 (and the teenager reappears with the immediate response, “Will you stop saying that?”)

Looking at these from the writer’s perspective, I can’t help but examine how the writers were able to do that. How did they get to the emotional core of the scene? Jokes and scares aren’t hard to figure out, even though each is pretty subjective, but a good, solid tug at the heartstrings, when done effectively, can be some pretty intense stuff.

A key part is making it relatable. Love. Joy. Heartbreak. Loss. All are universal. Everyone’s experienced them in some form or another. As the writer, you want to convey that emotion so anybody reading or watching your story will not only immediately identify it, but also connect with it on a personal level.

Like this. One of the most effective emotional sequences ever. And not a single word spoken. If you don’t feel anything as a result of watching it, you have no soul.

Even though we may not have gone through the same things as Carl and Ellie, we can relate to a lot, if not all of it.

This isn’t saying that every scene has to be a major tearjerker, but you want to really let us know how the characters are feeling in that particular moment. They’re human, so they feel the exact same things we do. Make us feel how they’re feeling.

Each scene serves three purposes: to advance the story, the characters, and the theme. Let the emotions come through via the best way you envision them enhancing the scene (making sure not to overdo it). It might take a few tries, but the deeper you venture into the emotional level, the easier it’ll get for you to show it, and it’ll also be easier for us to identify it and relate to it.

Ask an Up-through-the-ranks Script Consultant!

Bill Pace

The latest in a series of interviews with script readers and consultants who would be worth your while to work with if you want to get your script in shape. Today’s spotlight is on William Pace of scripteach.com.

*Editor’s note – April 2016: Bill is currently teaching at Seton Hall University, so has temporarily put his consulting services on hold. He plans to resume consulting in the summer. Contact him at his website for details.

William Pace received a Masters of Fine Arts in Film Production from New York University’s acclaimed Graduate Film & TV program where he wrote and directed “Echo Canyon,” an award-winning short film that was televised nationally on the USA Network.

His script CHARMING BILLY was a finalist for the Sundance Institute’s prestigious Screenwriting Lab. William also directed the award-winning feature film of the script, which premiered at the AFI/Los Angeles International Film Festival, whereupon a lead VARIETY review proclaimed his “notable cinematic and storytelling craft.” CHARMING BILLY was then distributed by a division of Miramax and broadcast on the Independent Film Channel.

William teaches filmmaking and screenwriting at The New School in New York City, where he serves as its Screenwriting Certificate Director. He is also a screenplay consultant who’s worked with such authors as Douglas Blackmon in adapting his Pulitzer Prize-winning book SLAVERY BY ANOTHER NAME, and many others whose scripts have gone on to success, from making the influential Black List, winning competitions at Slamdance, obtaining mangers & agents and being produced & distributed.

Currently he’s Creative Consultant & Associate Producer for the independent feature film HARROW, which is now in post-production.

And — believe it or not — he’s actually listed in Warren Allen Smith‘s book CELEBRITIES IN HELL.

1. What’s the last thing you read/watched that you thought was incredibly well-written?

There are a lot of good movies that are out right now, but I’m going to go to left field and say THE GOOD WIFE.

It’s TV, and not even one of the “hot” shows that’s popular to tout, but this is a damn well-written show with rich characters who the writers aren’t afraid to have do the wrong thing, and sometimes for the wrong reasons. The journey Julianna Margulies’s character has gone on is almost as transformative as Walter White’s in BREAKING BAD. Different arena, different stakes, but almost every bit as cynical and sometimes almost as dark.

That’s what leaps out at me first thing, but to include a film…

BIRDMAN. But it’s really hard to separate the filming of that movie from its script, as they are seamlessly enmeshed and were designed that way from the start – even though it’s supposed to look like there are no cuts in the film, the editors were actually brought in before shooting begin to help design where the cuts could most effectively be digitally “erased”. That kind of “writing” and planning, along with the audaciousness of the film’s story & thematic concepts, really spoke to me as something on a higher level.

2. How’d you get your start reading scripts?

When I was a film student at NYU’s Grad program (during the — cough-cough — Paleolithic period), the only scripts around to read were hardcopies, and you had to either know someone in the business to get a hold of one or buy one of the badly Xeroxed copies from the guy in Union Square selling them from his folding card table. It wasn’t until I started teaching and the internet came into wide existence that I began to really read a lot of scripts. Once I could download them, I started devouring them. I especially loved reading early drafts of produced scripts because you could see more of the process that went into crafting the final film by noticing what had changed from its initial drafts. I mean, how else would you know that the scene in INDIANA JONES & THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL (ugh) where Indy seals himself in a refrigerator to escape a nuclear blast was originally the concept for how Marty McFly traveled in time!?

3. Is recognizing good writing something you think can be taught or learned?

Absolutely it can be taught. And teaching how to recognize good writing is a hell of a lot easier than teaching how to write “good”.

4. What are the components of a good script?

Oh man… how many pages can I go on here? Okay, I’ll try to be a good screenwriter and shorten it into a condensed version: As much as we teachers and analysts can go on about strong characters, good technique, use of genre, theme, etc. – and they are really, really important — I think that if you have a bad story idea, the rest doesn’t matter.

Not one… little… bit.

Now, what makes a good story? For that I would need lots of writing room to expound upon, but for now let me say that I’ve become a big believer in the logline, the one sentence “pitch” for your script – if you can’t create a compelling logline about your script’s story idea, then nothing else is really going to matter. If you can’t, people might read the script and you say, “Oh, I really like the protagonist,” or its imagery or nuance or its tone/mood/feel, blah-blah-blah…” But they won’t spend money and buy it if the story isn’t there.

I’m not saying you have to write what used to be call high-concept scripts – even if you’re writing a kitchen sink kind of realistic drama, the story should still have sufficient and clear conflict and stakes and that can create an interesting logline.

Once you have the story, then everything has to be in the right balance and proportion and wrap up with a resonating theme to be a really good script. But start with a compelling good story and we can work on all of the rest.

5. What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

• The “I’ve seen other movies get away with this kind of crap so I can too” kind of approach. To stand out in a highly competitive field, your script needs to be better than what you see in the movies. It needs to be fresh and cliché-free.

• Protagonists who are not active, whose goals and actions do not make the story happen. Instead, the story happens to them, not because of them, which significantly lowers our interest in both them and what happens to them.

• “It’s just a script, so the writing don’t have to be good.” Just because it’s going to be a movie does not free you from the work of knowing your writing craft and presenting a grammatically correct and enticing read.

6. What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

Hmmm… can I put superhero stories here? Growing up I loved comic books and I still enjoy a great superhero movie now and then, but really, do we need the entire Marvel universe brought to life and each one getting its own movie? And zombies. Getting tired of them. Love THE WALKING DEAD to death (although it constantly breaks my heart) and I thought that both ZOMBIELAND and WARM BODIES were fun takes on the genre, but enough now. Let TWD ride it for as long as that show works, but that should be it. But those are genres more than tropes. When I think of tropes, I think of clichés, and any screenwriter using a tired old cliché is just shooting themself in the foot. If you feel you simply can’t avoid one, then you have to put a fresh, unique spin on it. SCREAM still stands as one of the best scripts ever to take clichés and use them while at the same time standing them on their head. Great, smart writing.

7. What are the 3 most important rules every writer should know?

Instead of rules, I’ll state qualities: Passion, Dedication & Persistence.

You need all three or you can forget it. If you’re in screenwriting just so you can “cash in on all that big money,” you’re doomed for the start. Most writers never see anything happen with their first half-dozen — and often even more — screenplays. If you can’t look at that fact and honestly say, “I can deal with that,” then you will fail. It takes time to get better at your craft, develop your writing voice and find avenues to get your work seen and appreciated.

“What about talent?,” you ask. Yes, that is required, but too many writers value talent above the three qualities I stated because they want to believe that if they have true talent they’ll write something so great they can skip all the hard work it takes to succeed. If you think that, then you might as well play the PowerBall — your odds might even be better.

8. Have you ever read a script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”? If so, could you give the logline?

I’ve read a couple, but the one I’m happiest about was JUG FACE, written by Chad Kinkle, an alumnus of The New School (where I teach). Before JUG FACE, Chad had written several very good, interesting and highly intriguing scripts, but with this one everything just came together in that special way that makes the story, characters and words leap off the page. And it wasn’t just me that that thought so, as he not only won the Grand Prize at Slamdance’s Screenwriting Contest, he was able to parlay that into getting the film produced with him directing it. It came out in 2013 and was named by many critics as one of the best indie horror films of the year.

Now, the logline – but first, you have to understand that it is a horror film and a particularly disturbing one at that… which should be quickly evident: “A young woman, pregnant with her brother’s child, fights to not be sacrificed by her clan to the entity they worship lurking within in a backwoods pit.” Yeah… I warned you. But despite such a potentially off-putting premise, the writing was so strong that it won several awards and got made.

9. How do you feel about screenwriting contests? Worth it or not?

Absolutely worth it, as Chad’s story directly above should make abundantly clear. And even if you don’t win the grand prize and get to make your film, if you place well in a contest you get to use that as a calling card to help bring attention to your work. Another student of mine made the Black List and had her script sold, moved to LA, now has an agent and a manager, and is working in the industry.

10. How can people can get in touch with you to find out more about the services you provide?

Either directly via email at bill@scripteach.com or at my website: www.scripteach.com

11. Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?

My lifetime favorite is pumpkin pie. I don’t care what time of year it is – it can be stifling hot in the dead of summer, and I will still want a slice of pumpkin pie. The vanilla bean ice cream melting on top will help deal with the heat. And to be even more specific, I have to admit that both my wife and I have developed an incredible love for Whole Foods’ pumpkin pies. There’s something about the combo of spices and the “heft” of their pie’s consistency that I have not found anywhere else. I know it is probably heretical to proclaim a love for a store-made pie, but forbidden loves are often the strongest.