Making it not what it was before

spiderverse
Well-known material, executed in an entirely new and original way

The key word for this overhaul of the pulpy sci-fi spec is exactly that: an overhaul.

And a really big one at that.

One of the notes I got on the previous draft was “It’s a fun story, but there’s still a feeling of ‘we’ve seen this before'”.

What a powerful motivator to really shake things up. The last thing a writer wants to hear is that their work is predictable or just filling in the blanks for a template with this kind of story. Readers and audiences want originality, so that’s what we need to give them.

Regarding this story, while the overall concept and primary plotline are still the same, a good majority of the rest of the details have changed in some way or another, with no doubt more to come.

Even though I’ll jot down ideas for particular moments, scenes or sequences occurring throughout the story, I gather them up and then write/develop them in a linear manner – working my way through the story from start to finish. A leads to B, which leads to C, and so on and so on. Not everybody’s style, but it work for me.

It’s probably safe to say I worked my way through at least four or five versions of Act One before arriving at its current version – the one I felt was the strongest. And even that’s been tweaked here and there since then.

Despite having a hard copy of the previous draft readily available – more as reference material than anything, a key part of this process has been for me to NOT look at it – especially when I was feeling stuck. My objective is to keep trying something really different, and sneaking a peek at what I’m trying to avoid won’t help. If anything, it would probably point me in a wrong direction.

I’ve written before about a writer should do what they can to avoid having the reader/audience know what’s going to come next. Such is the case for this rewrite.

As I work my way through, it’s with a mindset that looks at a scene or sequence as a whole, along with “what’s the most likely thing to happen here?”

That’s followed immediately by “what would be the total opposite of that?” or “what would be completely and totally unexpected here, but still works within the context of the story?” Really striving towards taking a new approach is yielding some positive results. It’s quite a thrill when an idea pops out of nowhere, and it works even better than expected.

Added bonus – by forcing myself to come up with new ideas, there’s less need for me to keep the hard copy of the previous draft nearby. The more I avoid looking at it along with figuring things out for this draft, the more changes it produces. All that being said, I’ll still hold onto it, since there’s always a chance I might need something in there, but with the story constantly changing, even that’s becoming less likely.

The whole point of overhauling this story is to take what I had before and put an entirely new spin on the initial concept. I have a pretty good idea of what needs to happen, what I’d like to happen, and that big nebulous category of what could potentially happen (still working out the kinks on that one).

The road between what I started with and what the end result will be is without a doubt one that’s going to be very long, very twisted, fraught with hazards of numerous kinds, and might, at times, seem to go on forever.

Sounds like quite a hellish journey. And I’m loving every step of the way.

Q & A with Jim Mercurio

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Jim Mercurio is a writer, author, screenwriter, and filmmaker. His book The Craft of Scene Writing is the first-ever screenwriting book that focuses solely on scenes. He has directed and produced five feature films, and helped countless writers as a teacher, story analyst, and script doctor. He directed more than 40 DVDs on screenwriting, including his own 6-disc set, Complete Screenwriting. One of the country’s top story consultants, Jim works with Oscar-nominated and A-List writers as well as beginners.

Editor’s note 1 – a q&a with Jim was featured in a series of interviews with script consultants that ran on this blog between 2014 and 2015.

Editor’s note 2 – full disclosure: Jim played the role of adviser/sounding board for the rewrite of my dramedy spec.

What was the inspiration/motivation for this book?

I was prepping my webinar on February 7th for The Writers Store on Personal Voice, (FYI – Feb 1 is the last day to save $20 on registering) and I stumbled upon the idea that a writer must figure out what is special about what he does and then focus on that. I feel like it is the same way with me and the book.

I have always focused on the nitty-gritty of craft. Probably because I worked so hard trying to figure it out for myself as a writer. When I directed the 40ish DVDs in the Expo Series, I did my own class concentrating only on theme.

Years ago, I happened to be prepping for a feature I was directing. In a week, I saw the same scene performed more than 200 times by a hundred different actresses. I was trying to figure out what I could do that hadn’t been done before as far as a screenwriting book. My experience as a filmmaker has always informed my approach to understanding and teaching screenwriting. I’m not sure why it didn’t come to me sooner. I had an “A-ha!” or better yet a “Duh!” moment — SCENE WRITING!

There are a lot of screenwriting books out there. What makes this one unique?

The obvious distinction is that it focuses solely on scene writing… the first screenwriting book to do so.

I was fortunate enough to have story gurus Richard Walter and Michael Hauge review the book. Something Michael said really touched me. He said that there were a lot of ideas in the book he hadn’t even thought of. I wanted to cover new ideas or at least some seldom taught concepts in a novel way.

Having been in the screenwriting education niche writing for Creative Screenwriting, directing, creating 50 hours of educational DVDs and working as a consultant, I know what’s out there. I believe this book will carry the torch and be among the next go-to books for all screenwriters entering the field.

As I mentioned, my filmmaking experience and the fact that I am actively writing screenplays and making projects impacts my perspective. I try to be very specific in my examples. For a given topic, I may start with theory but I always try to end with concrete principles and tools that you can apply to your writing on the spot.

Some books are geared more towards covering the screenwriting basics, while others “go beyond (or way beyond) the basics”. Is this a book that both new and experienced writers could use?

I feel very strongly that this book will appeal to writers across a wide spectrum of skill levels. A friend of mine said I teach the last hundred pages of “the screenwriting book” more than I do the first hundred. So, if anything, I would be more concerned about whether this would serve beginners.

I even asked my editor if it did and she gave me a great response. But then out of the blue, the universe gave me a better answer. My 23-year-old stepson who is a computer engineer texted me. He said he was halfway through the book and said “It’s very accessible… nothing’s confusing.”

The only research I did while writing this book was to watch movies and think about them. Each chapter is like a stand-alone piece on topics such as exposition, concept, theme, and rewriting. I tried to begin with my, at least somewhat, original and basic take on a topic to ease the reader in and to orient them. A new writer can jump right in.

More advanced writers might recognize my approach as somewhat novel. I then try to go as deep as I can with the material, so that even professional writers might benefit. A writer who read the book said that 70-80% of it was stuff he had never heard before. He might be overstating it, but I’m proud that the book feels that way. I wanted to offer new insight into the nitty-gritty challenge of craft.

Even though the book’s title is THE CRAFT OF SCENE WRITING, what else does it cover besides writing scenes?

At its essence, scene writing is storytelling and the same principles apply. You are poring over characters, characterization, idiosyncrasies of the world, setups – to create reversals. You’ve heard of turning points, right? Writers have to turn a story. They also have to learn how to turn a scene. Or a line of dialogue.

However, I wanted this to complement all of the other screenwriting books that cover story structure. I am looking at screenplays at the molecular level. In the final section of the book, I cover rewriting in a parallel way to how I discuss scene structure. And then I explore how to discover and use your personal voice in your screenplays.

One of the phrases you really emphasized during the process with my script was “write to concept.” Can you elaborate on what you mean by that?

Whew, no softballs here. Making me earn my pie.

There are 7500 words in my chapter on concept, which have been through the wringer with my 18 copyeditors, but I will try to summarize with insightful pithiness.

Like I mentioned, as a writer you should use what’s special about yourself and your writing. Writing to concept means that you are using what’s special about your story as the main inspiration for its surprises. For fun, consider a 3-D horror movie where an axe flies across the screen left to right. Do you see how on some level that’s just wrong? It should be flying toward the camera. Otherwise, it’s ignoring the most prominent element of its medium.

Of course, I’m not that rigid, but writers have to narrow down the handful of elements that are essential to their concept because not only do their surprises spin out of them, but, for the most part, they spin out only from them. I don’t know if I can teach that here. Hopefully, I can intrigue you to go to the source.

Writing to concept allows you to find a unique way to express what otherwise might be a familiar story beat. Based on their concept, the moments will look very different. In Memento, Natalie hurts Leonard by hiding pencils. In Her, Samantha, an operating system, hurts her lover by telling him she’s in love with 641 other people.

Another of your favorite phrases during the writing process was “go deeper.” What should that mean to a writer?

It refers to a missed opportunity to get at more emotion with a character or to complicate a relationship, which would hopefully do the same. While we were working on your script, there’s a scene I pointed out featuring a moment where you were on the verge of discovering a powerful and transcendent moment, but then it was all over too soon. Sometimes writers hit a beat (in the broader sense), and maybe they are worried about a looming expansive page count or don’t appreciate what they have stumbled upon, so they move on too quickly. They might be better off — pick your metaphor — milking or massaging a moment for a bit longer and letting it play out.

Take a look at the long and emotional monologue in Good Will Hunting where Will’s best friend Chuckie tells him that he should “cash the winning lottery ticket” and get out of town to find a better life. He even tells him that the best part of the day is in the morning when he comes to pick him up, he has a moment of hope that Will has left — without even leaving a note. Imagine, if we cut that down to a sentence: “I will miss you but you gotta get the hell out of here.” We lose Chuckie’s voice, the suspense of it, the emotional heft and importance. It goes from a set-piece scene to a bland, merely functional one.

In addition to the book, Jim also provides a script consulting service. How can people get in touch to find out more?

Easy. Go to my site at www.jamespmercurio.com. I discuss why coaching is my preferred mode of working with writers. You can check out my DVD set and sign up for my free e-newsletter Craft & Career, which will also let you stay informed about classes and workshops I’m offering later in the year.

Last time around, you said your favorite kind of pie was the metaphoric “gross points from my last film”. Still the same today, or something different?

A pie in the hand is worth two gross points in a bush. Or 20 for that matter. So, hand me some Dutch Apple, please.

dutchapplepie

30 days. 1 script. Go!

cruise MI
The way you actually write doesn’t have to be as challenging

Although not an officially recognized holiday, or even one the general public is aware of, January 5th is still considered National Screenwriters Day; a day to celebrate us hard-working folks who crank out the pages containing the stories of what you’re seeing and hearing in all that content on all those screens.

No doubt you’ve probably heard of NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, aka November.

Well, since we’re just over a month away from National Screenwriters Day, why not make December be the month you write and finish a script?

For your consideration: The Thirty Day Screenplay

It’s not a class, or a competition, or even a clever scheme to part screenwriters from their hard-earned money. Instead, it’s just a writer-friendly Facebook page where people can come for inspiration, motivation, encouragement and conversation.

But mostly, they’ll come where they can proclaim to the public regarding their plans and process as part of the Thirty Day Screenplay challenge.

(Yes, we know there are 31 days in December, plus the first four days of January, but seeing as how December is more likely to be chock-full of holiday activities, you’re more likely to have some time to write during at least 30 of those days.)

This is entirely a personal choice. If you want to do it, go ahead. If not, that’s cool too. But you have to admit it would be pretty cool to start off 2019 with a brand spanking-new script.

The page is brought to you by screenwriter/crime writer consultant Scotty Cornfield and ScreenwritingU‘s Hal Croasmun.

And to help get you started, here are a few words of encouragement from Hal.

Taking it scene by scene

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Fortunately, I don’t expect this to take 17 years

The daily churning-out of pages for the first draft of the horror-comedy continues – still in Act One as of this writing – and now that November is underway, if I can maintain my current output of approximately 3 pages a day, there’s no reason the typing-out of FADE OUT couldn’t happen by mid-to-late December.

I’d probably be a little further along if it weren’t for my ongoing desire to keep going back and editing/revising what I’ve already written, which is a lot more tempting than you’d expect. But doing what I can to just write a scene and move on to the next one. Once again, the more you do it, the easier it gets.

And since this is supposed to be a horror-comedy, I’ve also gotten into the habit of trying to make sure each scene features some element of each genre – something scary and something funny. Trying being the key word here. This is a much bigger challenge, but again, doing what I can. Also helping – recent touch-up work on my two other comedies.

With one of the definitive screenwriting mantras being “it’s a marathon, not a sprint”, I don’t have any problems with taking an evenly paced and semi-methodical approach. There are some writers who can sit and crank out a draft in record time, but I’m not one of them. I lean towards the “hope I can hit my page goal today” camp.

But most importantly, I’m just trying to not stress about it and enjoy the whole process. It’s a fun story, and I like the concept, so why not make it a positive experience rather than fret and obsess? That way, it seems a lot less like work and more like “here I am having a blast being a writer and stuff”.

Because I’ll take that mindset any day.

Q & A with Christopher Lockhart of WME

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Christopher Lockhart is the Story Editor at WME, the world’s largest talent agency. He has produced several feature films and is an adjunct professor in screenwriting. He earned his MFA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. He is a member of the WGA, PGA, and the Television Academy. He moderates a screenwriting group on Facebook called “The Inside Pitch.”

What’s the last thing you read/watched you considered to be exceptionally well-written?

Because I deal with writers and filmmakers, I tend not to answer these kinds of questions. I’d never want anyone to think I have favorites. I’ll say that I’m lucky because I get to read the very best screenplays circulating town. In my personal life, I tend not to share my opinions on these kinds of things. For instance, I rarely recommend a movie to anyone – even if I loved it. I guess because my work day involves having to share my opinion with others (or force it upon them), I’d prefer to keep my opinion to myself when I’m off the clock.

How’d you get your start?

I wrote and taught for a decade until an opportunity arose to interview at talent agency ICM as the story consultant to Ed Limato, one of the industry’s most powerful agents. He ran his own fiefdom within the agency and needed someone to comb through the vast amount of material for his client list, which, at that time, included the likes of Mel Gibson, Richard Gere, Steve Martin, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Denzel Washington. It wasn’t something I wanted to do, but met with him for the hell of it. It was a short interview and afterward I found myself being escorted into a tiny office piled high with screenplays to read. I was hired on the spot and didn’t seem to have any say in whether or not I wanted the job. I had no interest in the agency business but figured I’d give it a chance until the end of the week, and if I hated it, I’d quit. I was asked to read a particular script for Mel Gibson, who was one of the biggest movie stars in the world. On my second day, I was called into the boss’s office to discuss my thoughts. And Mel Gibson was there. We spoke about the script, and it was exhilarating. This is a business where there’s lots of talk and wheelspinning, but these people weren’t talkers, they really made movies, and I could have a small voice in that process. It was pretty cool. There’s been all sorts of ups, downs, and changes since then, but I’m now in my 21st year in the agency business.

Your official title is Story Editor. What does that job entail and what are your responsibilities?

In some ways, I do what a dramaturg in a theater does.  I’m sort of a matchmaker – looking to match projects with a handful of A-list actors. I read a lot, do research, share my opinion and recommendations, give story notes. I work with writers and directors to develop and focus their material. I work in post with filmmakers (like in the editing room) to help them crystalize their story. My whole world is story, and I do anything and everything I can to serve writers, actors, and filmmakers in reaching their creative story goals.

Follow-up – what does the Story Department at an agency handle?

A Story Department is the screenplay hub in an agency, studio, production company.  Generally, it oversees the “coverage” of material (judging the creative value of the work) through a cadre of story analysts. It also looks to bring material into the company.

When you’re reading a script, what about it indicates to you “this writer really gets it”?

The way conflict is utilized. The way it’s used in the concept, the characters, the plotting. For example, in screenplays creating complex characters doesn’t mean layers of backstory and psychology. It means how conflict is used to create the complexities. When a writer is adept at using conflict, I know she gets it.

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

I don’t look for good writing. I look for good movies. And there’s a difference. I read lots of scripts that are well written but will never be movies (for a variety of reasons), and they serve no purpose for me. Good writing can win you attention, get you representation, lead to writing assignments, and so on. But that’s not the business I’m in. I’m looking for movies for movie stars. In Hollywood, good writing is subjective, of course, so each person defines it in whatever way suits her needs. While there’s some subjectivity in what I do, I’m also dealing in facts. For example, maybe an actor doesn’t want to play a particular kind of role. That eliminates certain scripts, regardless of their quality. I think the recognition skills you ask about are both taught and learned. When I started reading scripts I was armed with what I was taught in film school. But in the 30 years since, I’ve read over 60,000 screenplays, and I’ve absorbed a lot of knowledge about what works, what doesn’t work, and – most importantly – why. My head is a filing cabinet of stories and story elements, which gives me a large dramaturgical perspective. That stuff I learned.

What do you consider the components of a good solid script?

I take a holistic approach to judging material.  I have to read and swallow the whole script. Scripts can often work in spite of themselves.  The one component I see missing from most scripts – especially scripts from new writers – is the story purpose. This is that singular goal your hero pursues through the story. More often than not, there is no goal. If there is a goal, it’s vague or not substantial enough to sustain 120 pages (or our interest). Another component is conflict (drama). A strong story purpose should create strong conflict. Many stories do not seem to be conceived in conflict. They’re born from themes, ideas, ideals that lack conflict; they  are not dramatized.

What are some very important rules every writer should know?

I guess my previous answer covers this question. I don’t believe in rules, per se. Rules only apply to bad writing. If you’ve written a great script, no one will quote you the rules.

Are there any trends, themes, or story ideas you feel are overused? “Not this again.”

Because I’ve read so much, nothing is new to me. I have seen it all. Georges Polti gave us The 36 Dramatic Situations, which he claimed covered all possible stories. Others theorists have reduced them to 12 or even 3. In theory, everything has been used and will be used again. Ideas are only overused in the hands of inexperienced writers. Great writers with unique voices will take the old and dress it up in a new, refreshing way.

Follow-up – are they are any cliches or tropes you’re just tired of seeing?

I try not to judge those kinds of things until I see how they’re utilized.

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

I’m not much of a pie eater.  I only ever ate apple pie – baked by my great-grandmother. When I moved to Los Angeles, she would write me once a month and enclose a five-dollar bill to buy a frozen apple pie to remember her. I was low on funds in those days, and that money would often find its way to buy other things like a few gallons of gas. She’s been gone 25 years, but on the rare occasions I eat apple pie, I remember her.

apple pie