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technique Archives

May 30, 2009

Collaborative Unblocking posted by Aimee


Friend of Spitball! Aimee Larsen lives in Oakland, and was kind enough to talk about her process for your amusement, which is usually the state I find myself in whenever interacting with her thanks to her wicked sense of humor. She’s on Twitter as @valkyreez, and can be reached — Martin

During a long-overdue shoot-the-shit session with man-scribe Martin McClellan (which was so goddamn felicitous, in many, many ways, not the least of which was that it took place by way of Facebook chat — I’m eternally grateful when someone, anyone, jerks me out of an FB-induced coma/zombie state by introducing some topic of actual interest and importance), I rambled at length about my semi-regular meetings with a certain Alison of my acquaintance, an unassuming pixie-genius whose brilliance lends itself to, amongst many other worthy pursuits, painting. Our (kind-of sort-of) weekly collusions — which are decidedly non-sinister but slightly secretive — involve the location of a green, relatively quiet space where we talk about our progress on the work outlined in a book called The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron. This book lays out techniques that it asserts will “clear the channel” between what (Alison and I call) our Higher Powers and ourselves. It’s pretty damn critical to note that our Higher Powers (hereafter referred to as HPs) are decidedly respective — hers is hers and mine is definitely mine. They are (I’m assuming) different and, for the most part, private in conception. I really have no idea what Alison’s HP looks like or acts like, how it smells or dresses, or what it does on its days off. Damn, I can’t believe I just wrote that. It is bizarre and, frankly, embarrassing for a former punk-rock, dyed-in-the-wool, down-to-the-bone religion-hater like me to admit. (Come to think of it, I’m still fairly antagonistic about religion.)

What, you may rightly ask does this whoo-whoo, California-type spiritual practice (“channel clearing” and all that) have to do with writing and collaboration? Well, here it is, kids. We are operating on the principle that creation is a divine act. That our HPs are innately creative. And that they want us to create. That we were, in fact, created in order to create. This is, in my collaboration with Alison, the keystone of The Artist’s Way.

It’s a surprisingly powerful book. People have been telling me about it for years (from which you may rightfully infer that I’ve been blocked for years), and I finally got desperate enough to try it after discovering and accepting that not writing fucked with my health. Yes, really. I did write a 200-plus-page first draft of a novel during last November’s NaNoWriMo. When it was done, I printed the whole thing out, tied it up with rubber bands, and put it on my coffee table. The manuscript’s bulky, stolid presence was supposed to motivate me to revise it. A few of my foolishly generous friends asked to read portions of it, but I just could not relinquish it. And could not bring myself to revise it. Earlier this year, though, I finally shoveled out big heaping piles of the extraneous bullshit that was absorbing my attention. And I knew, without doubt or hesitation, that I had to write or continue to be unhappy and unwell.

You traversed the introductory metaphysical thicket. Now, bravehearts, let’s prepare to navigate the clear, sweet waters known as “the particulars.” Let’s dive right the fuck in to what the book outlines as practices essential to smashing the artist’s block.

Morning Pages

Just like it sounds: every morning (sort of), we write three pages. Of whatever. Generally stream of consciousness-generated material.

The Artist’s Date

Once a week (sort of), we go somewhere and do something (all by our lonesomes) that piques our creative interest.


The book is broken up into process-specific chapters (e.g., Week One, we’re “Recovering a Sense of Safety” and Week Two, we’re “Recovering a Sense of Identity,” etc., etc.). Each chapter ends with a series of exercises (e.g., “List five things you personally would never do that sound fun.” Chapter 4, “Recovering a Sense of Identity,” pg. 86.)

So there it is. A little tiny bit of it. Three essential parts: morning pages, artist’s date, exercises. Oh yeah, and, in our case, sitting down once a week (or thereabouts) with the other person to share the details of the last week’s odyssey and the fruits of the exercises we’ve completed.

Chapter the next. In which I describe how these practices have worked for Alison and for me, and how we actually collaborate in the deconstruction of one another’s reluctance/fear in the face of the creative process. ‘Til then.

Illustration by Christine Marie Larsen

Comments (0) — Category: Collaboration

Jan 29, 2009

The Collection at the Beginning of Creative Process posted by Martin

I’m always fascinated with the process of creative types. Because, of course, it might teach me something about my own process which has been doggedly formed from ignorant persistence. I long for some sort of validation that I’m doing it “right” (make of that what you will, psychology buffs).

Merlin Mann has been digging into process, and I think his Macworld presentation Towards Patterns for Creativity was interesting beyond his charismatic manitude.

He talks about Twyla Tharp and her book The Creative Habit (haven’t read it yet. Definitely on my list). Tharp starts each project with a box that she collects loose items associated with the choreography she’s creating. The box gets filled in a loose association and inspiration gathering, and then when it’s time to work it serves as muse and inspiration.

Compare this technique with Steven Johnson who, on his recent guest gig at Boing Boing wrote a post called DIY: How to write a Book. He captures information into software called DEVONthink, which acts as digital equivalents to Twyla’s Boxes (as Mr. Mann, sans external wink, likes to call them):

The first stage, which is crucial, is a completely disorganized capture of every little snippet of text that seems vaguely interesting. I grab paragraphs from web pages, from digital books, and transcribe pages from printed text — and each little snippet I just drop into Devonthink with no organization other than a citation of where it came from.

DEVONthink has the advantage of, once captured, of connecting text:

It has a very elegant semantic algorithm that can detect relationships between short excerpts of text, so you can use the software as a kind of connection machine, a supplement to your own memory.

Capture — the first step. In thinking back, all of my projects start with a single question “What if we lived in a world that was X instead of Y?” Knowing that question, capturing disparate information about that topic is how I approach it, albeit more loosely than either Ms. Tharp or Mr. Johnson (my process includes folders, Scrivener files, Yojimbo, and lost-to-the-ages software that didn’t stand the test of time).

Tangentially related to this topic is John Gruber’s talk at Macworld which gave us a maxim (Gruber’s Law?) which may or may not bear relationship to Mr. Beeson and my more democratic attempts at working together, but is still relevant to those who collaborate:

The quality of any collaborative creative endeavor tends to approach the level of taste of whoever is in charge.

Comments (0) — Category: technique

Jun 26, 2007

Shockah's Time to Die Pitch: 1.0 posted by kza

Here’s my first try, and I’ve already failed, by the standards of the challenge: I’m pretty sure it’s too long, and there’s no blank meets blank statement. That’s what iterations are fer.

It also may seem strange, at first glance, that there’s no new information about the story. But again, that’s not what a pitch is. A pitch is an attempt to sell the idea of the story to someone who knows nothing about it. Or put it more bluntly, a pitch is an attempt to sell the sizzle, not the steak. It is not the place to tell the story — it’s simply the means to get your hook into someone so that they’ll want to read the story themselves (i.e., the screenplay).

Here’s my pitch:

What if death had a cure? What if there was a serum that you could inject into someone and, as long as they weren’t dead for more than an hour, they could come back to life, good as new? You could be with the one you love forever. September Rose has a love like that. He proposed to her on the moon, and they honeymooned aboard a personal starship, waking up each morning, literally amongst the stars.

But her husband has a job that keeps him away half the year: he works at a high-security prison on a desolate asteroid. Since no one can really die, the lifers here are more like forevers, and the stress of their existence is a simmering pot, always threatening to blow.

And then, the day September Rose arrives to pick her husband up, it does. And in the riot, he’s killed by one of the inmates. If his body is recovered, he can be revived… but the warden tells her: sorry, but I’m not sending in any more men, when the riot will burn itself out. My condolences.

Hell no. She escapes from the guards, arms herself, and ventures into the chaos of the rioting wing to get her husband’s body back and revive him within an hour. Little does she know that the body is being held by the man who killed him — the most dangerous murderer there. And he’s going to use the body as his ticket out of there.

Time to Die’s gonna be a tough one to pitch, I think, because I feel like so much real estate needs to be devoted to setting up the conflict that comes within the first ten minutes or so. To me, this feels even more like a tease than most pitches.

Then again, the pitchee — catcher? — doesn’t know that this is only the first ten or twenty minutes. But then again then again, it seems like a selling point that this is only the tip of the iceberg — that there’s more. How to get that across?

Comments (0) — Category: communications

Jun 26, 2007

Re [2]: Pitch by Example posted by kza

One thing he did well is make the reader / viewer complicit in the story. He says:

We�re gonna send him down to South America�

I think it could be a tricky strategy to do that, but it seems to have worked for him.

I don’t think that’s exactly what he’s doing here — it’s more like he’s speaking in the voice of Charlie’s church. It’s very difficult to translate into text — the use of quotations would make it more confusing — but I think it’s clear when you hear it.

Comments (0) — Category: communications

Jun 25, 2007

Re: Pitch by Example posted by Martin

I think that pitch is excellent. I think it totally carries through to reading, but I’m curious how his voice and energy made it better in person. And if Carrie Fisher didn’t snark at him, it must have been amazing.

One thing he did well is make the reader / viewer complicit in the story. He says:

We’re gonna send him down to South America…

I think it could be a tricky strategy to do that, but it seems to have worked for him.

As Shockah knows, I’ve been working on pitches lately, trying to hone the craft of them. I’ll have one for Time To Die up soon.

Comments (0) — Category: communications

Jun 22, 2007

Pitch by Example posted by kza

Here’s the pitch I was talking about in my last post. The pitch is by Andrew Hunt, and he was given the logline, “A priest meets the woman of his dreams before he is to be ordained.” I’m curious to see what you think, Burley. (I’m assuming that you haven’t seen the show.) Does it work only as text? Or does it need the excellent delivery to really make it sing? (As judge Carrie Fisher remarked aftewards, “You inspire confidence by being so confident.”)

Here it is, pretty much verbatim:

Charlie Potts has been raised through the Catholic Church in Boston, Massachusetts. This guy is gonna be the next big bishop — hell, this guy might be the first American Pope. We’re gonna send him down to South America, have him work at a missionary before we ordain him. But there’s this one girl, her name is Alex and she’s a pilot. She flies in and brings in cargo and supplies for this missionary. And what happens is Charlie and Alex start to develop this relationship. She’s wild, she’s crazy, she’s everything that he’s not. She’s teaching him things like how to dance for the first time, how to take shots of tequilia. And finally it’s getting to the point where he’s falling in love with this woman. All of a sudden it starts raining. Raining for one day, two days, three days, four days — boom! A levee breaks. A flood comes in and just rips through this village, Alex and Charlie are trying to grab all the different people and get them to higher ground. And as they’re doing it, they get separated. Next day, stops raining, everything is calm. On the roof, he sees Alex, she’s passed out, or she’s dead. He’s looking up, saying, “I have never asked you for anything, but I’m asking you for one thing right now.” And finally she coughs up water, she’s alive. We’re now in Boston, Massachusetts. A huge church. And we see Charlie standing there, about ready to get ordained. But then we pull back to see that it’s actually a wedding. We’re out.

Total time (assuming nothing was edited out in the broadcast; it looked “whole” to me): 1 minute, 13 seconds. Word count: 263.

I’ll provide some commentary on this pitch later. Right now, I’m more interested in what you (and the readers) have to say.

Anyway, I gots to get working on me own pitch…

Comments (0) — Category: communications

Jun 21, 2007

RE: I challenge thee! posted by kza

Dude — it’s like you’re reading my mind. Like, trippy. I just picked up “Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds: The Guaranteed Way to Get Your Screenplay or Novel Read” from the library, for crying out loud.

I’ve been thinking about pitches for a couple weeks now, ever since the debut episode of On The Lot, that new reality show/director contest thingy. (Show’s crap, btw; it started off well, but they kept changing the format and, incredibly, skipping stuff — at the end of one episode, the contestants are given an hour to direct a one-page script, and then we never hear about it again. WTF?) Anyway, in the first episode, the contestants are given one of four loglines to build a one-minute pitch around, and after some remarkably embarrassing attempts, this one dude gets up and just throws one straight down the plate, 100 mph.

(See what I did there? I literalized the phrase “pitch”. Comedy gold!)

I have the episode saved so that I could transcribe his pitch — it really was terrific. And between that, and a book Burley and I talked about offline a few weeks back, “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die” , I’ve become interested in the idea of simplicity, and how it applies to screenwriting. And the most direct way it applies is the pitch.

Burley and I haven’t really thought much about pitches, generally speaking. (Or if he has, he hasn’t been telling me.) I suspect that, for me at least, the main reason is a kind of artistic snobbery. Pitches are what those slick, know-nothing Hollywoof types do, right? It couldn’t have anything to do with art and film, could it?

Yet, I’m beginning to believe that they have everything to do with art and film. No, not every kind of film — pitches would seem kinda meaningless for a Brakhage piece, and maybe even certain David Lynch films. But that’s not what we’re trying to do here at Spitball!. I think the ideal here is for something that hits two targets that are rarely hit together: mainstream and smart. And in order to hit that first one, the pitch is absolutely necessary. Nearly every movie that’s considered mainstream (and I imagine quite a few that are considered smart) began life as a pitch. So we’ll begin there as well.

But what is a pitch, exactly?

A pitch is both an idea for a movie and the attempt to sell said movie — “sell” in this case meaning to persuade an audience that your idea is a good one. The pitch itself tells you just enough about the main character, what they want, what kind of obstacles they might face, and most importantly, why the hell you should care. This last one is key. Everything in the pitch is completely worthless if you can’t make the audience care about the main character. (Which is what makes the pitch so tricky — you don’t have time to go into detail about the protagonist’s dead dog. Time is running out! Press A! Press A!)

Note again that the pitch is just the idea for a movie — although the pitch might be based on a completed work, it will only communicate the bare essentials. It’s likely that the pitch will never detail the obstacles, or the name of the protagonist, or even how the story ends. (Note: our Time to Die pitches will include the ending.) It’s understood that the pitch will only bear a passing resemblance to the finished screenplay, in the same way a TV Guide entry only kinda looks like the real movie. There’s always going to be a sense of “yeah, but…” about the enterprise. That’s normal. Go with it.

In fact, I’m starting to think that a lot of “blank space”, so to speak, is a pitch’s secret weapon. Since a pitch is by definition just a sketch, there’s a lot of room for the listener to mentally inhabit the idea, either by imagining the rest herself, or just by enjoying the unresolved tension created by the idea. For example, I really love the idea of Fred Claus: Santa’s bitter older brother is forced to move to the North Pole. The contrast between the standard image of Saint Nick — jolly and goodhearted — with an older brother, who is probably an asshole (it’s Vince Vaughn!) — is just delicious. I have no idea if the actual movie will live up to these expectations it’s created in me, but that’s not the point — the point is to create the expectations in the first place.

(OT: Santa is gonna be played by Paul Giamatti!? Holy shit!)

Now, most pitches (barring the bad ones that go into too much detail) have blank space anyway. But I’m wondering: is there a way to, I don’t know, maximize the blank space payout? A way to create expectations, only, y’know, better? I don’t know, but it’s something I’m going to think about when writing the Time to Die pitch.

Comments (0) — Category: technique

Jun 19, 2007

Fictional posted by Martin

I’ve been writing a lot of short fiction lately. While we’ve read a million books on how to write screenplays, and worked a lot of drafts into one form or another, the fact remains that a good story is a good story. Some stories are right for certain mediums, and some are better for others.

Screenplays are not, in my opinion, the medium for ideas. They are the medium for experiences. I don’t like movies that try to make me think — not because I don’t like to think, but because movies that try to make you think usually have an agenda about how you should think. They are trying to teach you something.

Unless an audience comes to us and asks to be taught, who the hell are we to assign ourselves as teachers? What makes me think that a member of the audience who believes differently than me will change their mind because I manipulate them with images and sound?

Which is not to say that films can’t raise issues and deal with themes — but films should let you experience something and draw your own conclusions from it. I don’t like films that try to make me think — I like films that make me think. The films that do leave things open. They don’t tie off every plot line neatly, they don’t sacrifice ambiguity for resolution. They let people maintain some of their human failings.

Short fiction, on the other hand, is a great medium for ideas. It’s a medium of questions. One story I wrote recently started with the question “What if foot binding hadn’t been outlawed in China, and in fact had caught in as a fashion craze in the US?” Is it so unrealistic, thinking about other things women do in the name of beauty? What about things men do in the name of chastity and controlling women?

In a short story, I was able to deal with that issue in a way that was actually very concrete and based on action, but would have been totally unsuitable for the screen.

So how do you know which medium to express an idea in? I always base it on the first flash I have. Do I see a scene, or do I see a question? If it’s the former, then it’s a screenplay idea. If it’s the latter, it’s a literary idea. I capture the idea in my little notebook and then when I’m digging for things to write, see if it sparks me.

Or, as is sometimes the case, see if I can stop thinking about it. If I can’t, time to get writing.

Comments (0) — Category: inspiration

Jun 19, 2007

Man vs. Wild -- No, Really posted by kza

No, this isn’t about the so-called three kinds of conflict. I’m literally talking about a new show on the Discovery channel, Man vs. Wild. There’s this British guy with the wonderful name of Bear Grylls who is dropped into some harsh territory, like the Alaskan mountain range or the Costa Rican rainforest, and he attempts to survive and make it back to civilization, usually with no more than a water bottle, some flint, and the clothes on his back. Obviously, he (and his camera crew) make it every time, but it’s always pretty gripping.

But why should it be? Again, it’s not like Mr. Grylls is going to die on camera, and if you watch the editing closely, the way the shots jump from the crew’s camera to Gryll’s personal camera, it’s clear that, while what we’re seeing isn’t necessarily staged, there’s some typical reality-show-style trickery going on. (Hey, Bear’s swimming down those rapids, but we just saw him talking to his camera and now the camera isn’t there!) I don’t mean this as a criticism, either; this stuff is what makes the show work. But while in other shows, these kinds of shots stick out like a sore thumb, I’m nearly always swept away (no pun intended) by the show. Again, why?

After watching four episodes, I think I figured it out — the show, while maintaining a documentary feel, uses the time-tested three-act structure. After Grylls is dropped into the wilderness, he’s faced with a series of obstacles to overcome, and they steadily build to a climax. Each obstacle is discrete, with a clear set-up of the problem and a clear resolution. While it’s a given that, with no food, he’s very hungry, this only comes into play during the “scene” where he tries to find something to eat. More often than not, there’s some kind of reversal, especially between “acts” two and three. In the Mount Kilauea episode, in the first act, he crosses a lava field, to make it to, in act two, a rainforest that he thinks will lead him to the shore, only to discover, at the beginning of act three, that he has another lava field to cross, only this one is jagged like glass. In the Sierra Nevada episode, he happens across some wild horses, and actually tries to snag one with a rope made from a vine. Of course, this fails, but a story wouldn’t be a story without some setbacks. In two of the four I’ve seen, the last obstacle is a body of water between him and some kind of indicator of civilization — a house or a road. I mean, that’s basic visual storytelling right there.

This use of three-act structure in a documentary form isn’t completely unheard of. While we usually think of documentaries as something unmediated, an account of stuff that “just happens” (despite all the work that goes into getting the shots and editing them together) I can think of two documentaries that brazenly adopt the three-act structure to great returns: Capturing the Friedmans and The Times of Harvey Milk. Is the use of the three-act structure “cheating”? Is placing all the events of your documentary in such of way that rising action and tension are created — is that manipulative? I’m not sure. Yeah, Frederick Wiseman wouldn’t approve, but it’s hard to dismiss the power it creates.

All in all, it’s a great show, but if it makes me think anything, it’s: goddamn, I wish I’d seen the Moab Desert and Mount Kilauea episodes before I started writing the novella of Little Black Stray. The drama of it is just right there for the taking. I might even finished the stupid thing by now.

Comments (0) — Category: inspiration

Aug 15, 2006

The Subtext of the World posted by kza

In his book, The Culture Code, Clotaire Rapaille tells us that things and concepts, such as cheese, alcohol, love, and America, have a hidden code word that reveals their true meaning.

By subjecting a group of people to a series of increasingly personal interviews (usually at the behest of corporations trying to sell something), he can, he claims, find the word or phrase that serves as a metaphor that communicates something about the culture. For Rapaille, the world is full of subtext, and through careful observation, critical thinking, and copious research, that subtext can be revealed and dealt with consciously.

While quite a few of Rapaille’s code words are a bit obvious and uninteresting (the Germans see Americans as cowboys!), a few border on poetry — the American code word for alcohol is “gun”, and the French code word for America is “space travelers”. And of course, the same word has completely different meanings, depending on the culture. For example, in France, the code for cheese is “life” (their cheese is alive, it’s kept room temperature, etc.), while the code for cheese in America is “death” (ours are kept refrigerated, like, as Rapaille says, in a morgue).

Clearly this is more art than science, assuming you don’t think it’s a bunch of phony-baloney to begin with. It doesn’t help that Rapaille only provides a few quotes to demonstrate his research — presumably, each code word involves hundreds of hours of interviews and other work, but we only see a tiny sample of that, and thus his insights seem easy and unearned.

Still, my brief overview doesn’t do justice to Rapaille’s book — his explanations and examinations of the various code words are incredibly entertaining, even as bullshit detectors occasionally go off. Read it and decide for yourself. (Preferably, check it out from the library — it’s one of those books, like The Tipping Point, you can read in a day.)

But let’s tie this in with our ostensible subject, screenwriting and movies. As I read the book, I tried to guess the code for each word that came up. Although I was close on some, I only nailed one, which, as I was drawing upon my own biases, gave credibility to Rapaille’s ideas. The word was “seduction”. Any guesses on its American code word?


The American code word for “seduction” is “manipulation”. Americans see seduction as something inherently dishonest, manipulating someone’s perception of you — and hence, their feelings — as opposed to being “truthful” and “authentic”. This, by the way, is completely different from the French code word (which I don’t remember, unfortunately), which posited it as something more like performance — it’s not about hiding, but about presenting oneself as is.

Does that jibe with you? It does for me. And it explains certain American genres. How many noirs have we seen where the protagonist is seduced into murdering someone or something equally foolish? (A: Likely all of them.) Hell, if the code word for seduction is manipulation, I’d say that the code word for noir is seduction. They’re so intertwined as to be inseparable. And have you ever seen a romantic comedy that involved intentional seduction? I can’t think of one off-hand. Instead of seduction, we get the “meet cute” — a moment when the young man and the young woman first meet that reveals their inherent attractive qualities to each other. While there may be some kind of misunderstanding present at the meeting (perhaps over their social class or some kind of role), there is never any dishonesty about their personalities — what they see at that first meeting is what they get.

Ultimately, though, whether or not Rapaille is correct about the various cultural biases he writes about is not that interesting to me. What is interesting about it is how, as a screenwriter, it provides me with a different way of thinking about subtext.

Subtext, of course, is what is meant but not overtly said. In screenplays, it usually refers to dialogue. (In fact, Grymz and I were discussing this the other day. We’ve noticed that, too often, we use subtext not only in the dialogue, but also in the action text as well — meaning, rather than coming out and saying something, like “The tower is surrounded by scientists”, we’ll say “The tower is surrounded by men in white coats”. I can’t speak for Grymz, but I know I end up doing this because it was drilled into me that screenplays should only contain what can be filmed, and over the years I’ve twisted this into meaning that everything should be described by what is literally seen, not what it is. This kinda deserves its own post, so I’ll end this anecdote with our new Spitball! slogan: Subtext In Dialogue, Not Action!)

Anyway, subtext is about dialogue. What did he really mean when he said, “I’m so glad you’re here”? What did she really mean when she said, “Oh, I don’t mind, really”? And so on. But Rapaille’s book sparked the idea that there can be more to subtext than just dialogue. People, objects, ideas, even stories can have a hidden meaning. (It should be noted that Rapaille gets his research not just by interviewing people, but having them talk about their memories — stories — about their past associations with the word in question.) This strikes me as a powerful tool in the screenwriting process, particularly during rewriting. If a scene is flat, it’s likely there is some kind of conflict missing. But conflict delivered into the script from on high is always a poor choice — it needs to come from somewhere, preferably the characters. But if it just isn’t working, why not look deeper into the characters, past their wants and needs and surface characteristics, and into the code word that holds them together?

Ask yourself: What is the code word for your story or screenplay you’re working on? What is the code word for your protagonist? Your antagonist? What is the code word for the various places or important props in the story? Do the various code words have any commonality? If so, what is it? If not, does it work as is, or does it reveal the story as being scattershot or unfocused?

I haven’t yet fully explored the ramifications of using this tool, but it seems promising. As the Spitball! Tourney of Story Ideas continues, you will likely see me bring some of these ideas to the table. Don’t know if any of it will work, but them’s the breaks.

(Confidential to Grymz: You know our Italian character, from that one script? If The Culture Code is correct, then, as an Italian, he is, as Rapaille would say, off-code. That is, he doesn’t quite share the attitudes and biases that might be expected of an Italian. In fact, he seems to be — surprise, surprise — more American than Italian. I’m not saying this character should change to dovetail with some kind of stereotype — characters are individuals, after all (what an American thing to say!) — but that simply it might be something to be aware of.)

Comments (0) — Category: inspiration

Jul 13, 2006

CUT TO: posted by Martin

We usually write screenplays formatted with a close approximation of the Cole & Haag style. Slugline, action, etc., but we skip the transitions unless they are absolutely necessary to the story, following the more modern method of using sluglines to break scenes. But, there is a problem with sluglines, and that is that they really can break up narrative action.

After reading some William Goldman screenplays, though, we became enamored with his simple method of getting rid of the sluglines altogether, and simply using a left-aligned CUT TO:

This may not be a good idea for making a script sellable, and obviously sluglines will need to be added for production, but the more I experiment with the technique, the more I like it. I’m writing all of my first drafts this way now.

It keeps you focused in the present tense. I have a tendency to slip into past tense when writing (a holdover from learning writing based on fiction and short stories), but the CUT TO: method snaps you into place, since you read the CUT TO: as part of the action, as opposed to a slugline which always reads as a distinct aside.

So, traditionally I might say:


Amanda lounges on her chaise while Esmerelda polishes her nails.

Now, I say:


Amanda on her chaise offering her nails to Esmerelda for polishing.

It’s a small change in the large scheme of things, but makes a huge difference in my mind and the way I write and keeping the script sounding active.

Comments (0) — Category: technique

Jun 03, 2006

Let The Audience Do The Work posted by kza

(Yep, it’s another Signal vs. Noise-style missive. I’m not sure why these are coming to me; some kind of pent-up frustration, I guess. And it should be noted that, despite the philosophy I’m imparting here, I’ve done the opposite of what I’m saying time and again, and I continue to do so. In other words, this is just as much for me as anyone else.)

Comments (0) — Category: technique

May 30, 2006

Loose Ends posted by kza

(The following is an attempt at the kind of post they sometimes do over at Signal vs. Noise — that is, a “statement of purpose” kind of deal that’s both kind of controversial but also kind of vague. Is mine a homage or a parody? I’m thinking a little of both.)


Stop tying shit together.

Yes, if you’re writing a mainstream narrative, cause and effect is often necessary. Foreshadowing — that’s usually a good thing. It’s good to be introduced to a character, concept, event, etc. in a “teasing” way, only to get the full introduction later on.

But not everything needs to tie into something previously shown, nor does it need to tie into something later on. Not everything needs to be a “plant”. Not everything needs to be a payoff. I don’t need to be constantly paid off. What am I, a mob shakedown guy?

When everything is a plant with an accompanying payoff, you’ve gone from creating a world to creating an artificial world. It’s not clever. It’s not “good writing”. It’s hermetic. In a sense, it’s paranoid. Ultimately, it’s suffocating.

Open that world up. Bring up something — a character, an image, a place — and then drop it. The real world is too big to encompass in a screenplay. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t suggest that enormity. And just because your screenplay takes place on the dragon-infested island of Mythia doesn’t mean you can get away with hermeticism. For every noble prince, there’s a peasant somewhere toiling in the mud. For every exciting quest, there’s a courtier who’s fallen in love with the princess, or a steward trying to run a castle, or wizard trying to make the mortgage on his tower. We don’t need the full stories — we can fill them in ourselves. But we need the sense that this is a living, breathing world, one that exists outside the boundaries of the protagonist.

And living, breathing worlds have loose ends.

Comments (0) — Category: technique

Apr 26, 2006

Air Vent Chastity posted by kza

Over at his great blog, Go and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory screenwriter John August has proposed a Screenwriter’s Vow of Air Vent Chastity:

I, John August, hereby swear that I shall never place a character inside an air duct, ventilation shaft, or any other euphemism for a building system designed to move air around.

Last time I checked, several people have “signed” the vow (or whatever it would be on the internets), and I think there have been suggestions for other types of anti-clich� vows.

Not to be a stick in the mud (especially with something as tongue-in-cheek as this), but I won’t be signing. I understand the frustration with the overuse of the air vent escape; I understand the ridiculousness of it. But in the comments section, someone brought up the counter-example of the toys in Toy Story 2, or the possibility of squirrel characters running around in the vents, and noted that for these characters, using the vents would be a natural (non-contrived) method of getting about. But for August, a clich�, even if it makes sense in context, is still a clich�.

And that’s where I part ways. I mean, why is the air vent thing an issue to begin with? Is it simply because it’s overused? Or is it because it’s overused and very unrealistic? If the answer is the latter, then the squirrel example should suffice as a good use of the air vent, and the vow shouldn’t be necessary. If it’s the former… well, what isn’t overused in mainstream screenwriting? As nice as it might seem to have action movies without explosions, romantic comedies without “meet cutes”, Westerns without shootouts… y’know, these things aren’t going anywhere, and have their place as well. And while the air vent is too often the escape hatch of the hacky screenwriter, if it’s used in an interesting fashion, I’m not going to complain. After all, a clich� is really only a clich� when no thought or imagination go into the presentation, and I’m not going to take a vow that preemptively hamstrings my ability to use either of those things.

(Yeah, it’s a slow night over here at the Spitball! — y’wanna fight about it?)

(New character bios soon.)

Comments (0) — Category: screenwriters

Apr 25, 2006

More Meta Commentary posted by kza

Shockah? Did I forget something?

Don’t think so. I told you about the crazy opening scene of Sam Fuller’s The Naked Kiss and how I saw that in connection with the potential opening of Time to Die, with the brutal violence that starts without any context, but other than that, I think that was it.

One thing we did talk about that you didn’t mention (probably because I haven’t written my bio for it yet) is the stuff we discussed about Rasputin the Translator. Way back when, I mentioned how I didn’t want the Rasputin character to be an out-and-out Bad Guy, in the same way that I don’t want either Okkervil or the warden to be Bad Guys. But now that we’ve started on characters, we’ve hit upon an odd and interesting way of defining Rasputin: by who he isn’t. He’s not Jake, he’s not Jones, he’s not Cemile, he’s not any of the other characters. He’s defined by the negative space created by these characters. I even proposed that we not know (and thus, not define) anything about Rasputin except for what he wants, the major definition of a character in a mainstream screenplay. And because of this idea, I came around 180 on my position: I think it’s okay, perhaps even mandatory, that Rasputin be a capital “B” Bad Guy.

(Oh, and you had an idea where each character sees Rasputin differently, and thus his personality and even looks seem to change depend on who he’s talking to, which is a cool crazy-ass idea. Assuming I presented it correctly.)

This is interesting commenting on a different character and thinking about how they might dovetail with the character I did the bio for in the movie—this feels so much smoother than working on the same character and having to deal with the things that don’t fit in with your vision of the character. We’ll play it by ear, but I might just pick other characters than you do in the next round.

Good idea — I say we continue with this mode until we come to a situation where it doesn’t seem to work. It’s interesting: part of me says that we’re bound to come to a story where we severely disagree about the presentation of a character… but part of me says that the disagreement will be more about the kind of a story that character represents (like what happened in Round Nine) and not about the character per se. But, you know, keep writin’ them like you did for Round Ten and that’ll never happen.

So, what’s Round Eleven again?


Little Black Stray v. Terminal Connection

Oh fuck me.

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Mar 24, 2006

Re: Character Sketches: My Philosophy (I Think Very Deeply) posted by Martin

I’ve never really sat down and thought very hard about my philosophy in characters sketches, but reading your post I realized that my unthunk philosophy follows yours very closely. Which is why it took me a while to respond to this. I had to thunk about it for awhile.

Just a few points of interest or divergence:

1. I love naming characters.
Love love love it. If I had to pick my favorite part of the whole shebang, this would be in the top five, and possibly even pushing the top 2. Give me a character and I’ll find you a name. Not, that I am not claiming any ascendancy here—my names might just stink up the script, but that does nothing to mitigate the unadulterated pleasure I get from actually doing it.

My names usually follow historical people who have inspired me. In YELLOW the college is named the Bierce Academy, after Ambrose Bierce. There is a character named Sharpe, after radio man-on-the-street masters Coyle & Sharpe (we had a Coyle in an early draft, but he’s dropped into the background. Shockah brilliantly named a musician Valerie Plum (from Plame), and her CD is titled Identity Exposed. Or, my latest historical homage, Zheng James McNab, named after the great Chinese mariner Zheng He, with James because it sounds cool with Zheng, and McNab is the name of the clan in Scotland that looked out for us much smaller McClellans. Plus, I love the idea of a Chinese-Scottish family (yes, I know that Zheng is a surname, but that too tells you something about the characters background, doesn’t it?).

Other times, I’ll name them after lesser known, but still deserving people. In YELLOW there is the artist that helped found the Bierce Institute named Hart Frenkel. He was named after my friend Nina Frenkel, who is a brilliant artist and illustrator (not to mention exceptionally kind and cool human being), and the name also serves as an ode to her Hungarian roots, that included a number of artists, designers and amazing creative types.

My rule for names is that they have to be unique enough that you can remember them for the movie, they have to be interesting enough to entertain me as I’m writing them hundreds of times and not get sick of them, and then have to be lyrical to say. I always say the names I pick aloud to myself to make sure they sound good.

2. On the sketch being not so interesting.
I see your point here, but my goal is to entertain myself, and that usually means forming some sort of story in the backstory. Still, what you say is true—if it’s stronger then the story in the script, then something is wrong there. But that in of itself could be an indicator that the script isn’t as solid as it could be, and maybe the interesting story about this character you’ve dreamt up is actually an event that takes place earlier in their lives. My criteria for this is that my character sketches have to be entertaining to myself.

3. Support Network
This is a very good point, and one to always refer back to. No person lives in a vacuum, even if they’re completely anti-social. Even insane loner criminals encounter people—land lords, clerks, psychiatrists. They leave traces. A more normal people will have an extended social network, so says Malcolm Gladwell, of 150 people or so. That’s a big world to draw on and learn about characters through their interactions with other characters.

4. The Well
Also a very good idea. I can’t say that I’ve ever considered this, but in my own way I do something similar. My well, though, is made up on the spot of losing interest. What is the thing that would energize the script when it’s getting boring? What is the subplot I’m missing? Sometimes those things take on lives of their own and become fully fleshed out subplots. In our script YELLOW, our character Bernardo’s father is a somewhat well known film director. He had his son, when quite young, act in a scene that has been an embarrassment his entire life, and when people in the school find out about it, the of course give it to him. This small idea grew when we needed something to happen to embarrass Bernardo, and grew into one of the themes of his life—trying to live outside of his father’s shadow.

5. Character’s Personality
I agree that this is no place to discuss it. For me, it goes back to “show don’t tell.” The sketch should be biographical about the bullet points in the persons life. Where have they been, what have they done, and how did they come to the place where the story really starts?

Besides, I don’t feel that personality is a good way to get to know somebody on paper. In real life, yes, but their actions, reactions and the paths they’ve chosen (there must be choice in those paths at some point, no matter how crazy their childhood) are all more important to summing up a fictional character then what their personality supposedly is.

Comments (0) — Category: technique

Mar 22, 2006

Re:[10] Sequence Method Question posted by Martin

I’ll formalize a technique and form with my Blue Velvet post, and then you can tweak it and suggest changes as need be.

I’m on board for the Matrix. Let me just finish chewing what I’ve already bit off.

Maybe we can start a database of these.

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Mar 22, 2006

Re:[9] Sequence Method Question posted by kza

That’s a little more detailed than I was planning, but it certainly couldn’t hurt. I’ll see how big my workload is, and start doing this.

Well, the time stamps are completely optional — I like them for the info they provide, but also because I’m anal-retentive that way :-)

But I can’t imagine doing a breakdown without a scene list. I mean, if you can do it, more power to ya, but that’s out of my range.

Which reminds me, maybe we should start defining a format for breaking a film down. A form, if you will, that we could follow to aid in our dissections, analyzation and discussions.

Good idea. I’ll be looking at your Blue Velvet post carefully.

Also, when I have a few of these under my belt, it might be interesting to pick a film—a non-obvious one, if possible—and each do a breakdown on it. Then, we can compare notes and see if we were both on the same page.

I had the same idea. I was going to save The Matrix for myself, but since I know we both own it, should we go with that? (Also, it’s an “easy” one to start with.)

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Mar 22, 2006

Re:[8] Sequence Method Question posted by Martin

a list of the scenes, in chronological order, and with time stamps

That’s a little more detailed than I was planning, but it certainly couldn’t hurt. I’ll see how big my workload is, and start doing this.

Which reminds me, maybe we should start defining a format for breaking a film down. A form, if you will, that we could follow to aid in our dissections, analyzation and discussions.

Also, when I have a few of these under my belt, it might be interesting to pick a film—a non-obvious one, if possible—and each do a breakdown on it. Then, we can compare notes and see if we were both on the same page.

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Mar 22, 2006

Re:[7] Sequence Method Question posted by kza

What I would like to see (if you have it, but maybe this is exactly what you’re working on!) is a list of the scenes, in chronological order, and with time stamps, if you got ‘em. I don’t think I’ll be watching Blue Velvet anytime soon, but I’d love to get my hands dirty with this.

That said, I think I’ve settled on the PONR being the moment where Dorothy discovers him in the closet. This propels him from voyeur and passive (at least in this sequence) observer to active participant.

That sounds pretty good to me!

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Mar 22, 2006

Re:[6] Sequence Method Question posted by Martin

Going by what info I have, it sounds like you’re trying to slice it too thin.

That’s very likely. In my quest for understanding and applying these techniques I tend towards the microscopic, and have to remember to zoom out and look at the big picture.

But, it would difficult to include all of my potential PONR into one broad PONR because then the entire 3rd sequence would be the PONR.

That said, I think I’ve settled on the PONR being the moment where Dorothy discovers him in the closet. This propels him from voyeur and passive (at least in this sequence) observer to active participant. The events that take place at her knife seduce him into desiring her, and it either answers or makes more ambiguous the question that seemingly innocent Sandy raises when she tells him:

“I can’t tell if you’re a detective or a pervert.”

As I post my theories and break down of this, I’d be very curious for more feedback from you, of course, and from readers if there are any challenges to the logic of my breakdown.

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Mar 22, 2006

Re:[5] Sequence Method Question posted by kza

That’s the rub, in a way, because four out of the five events I’ve described take place during the third sequence.

Ah — if they’re all in the same sequence, then the PONR is probably a sentence that takes them all into account (Jeffrey sneaks into Dorothy’s closet but gets caught by Frank, or whatever.) Going by what info I have, it sounds like you’re trying to slice it too thin.

But part of the confusion comes because later Jeffrey has the opportunity to leave the situation for good. If that opportunity is presented to the Protagonist, doesn’t that sort of negate the PONR?

No, not necessarily. If the opportunity arises, and Jeffrey doesn’t take it, then what’s compelling him to stay? (I’m assuming something emotional.) That answer would probably be another kind of PONR.

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Mar 22, 2006

Re:[4] Sequence Method Question posted by Martin

See, this is where I start to get confused over the (seemingly, to me) arbitrary rules placed around events in the narrative line. More to the point, I find the dividing line between sequences occasionally arbitrary. In Blue Velvet, some are very clear (fade to black, pause, fade up), while some are much less clear, but only exist in my head so that I can define the movie given the constraints of the model we’re using.

You said:

the PONR is generally slotted in the third sequence (the very first sequence in the second act), that’s the latest it can appear.

That’s the rub, in a way, because four out of the five events I’ve described take place during the third sequence. However, only one (Jeffrey sneaking into her place) really propels him into the drama where he emotionally is trapped, and physically, at least for awhile, is trapped as well.

But part of the confusion comes because later Jeffrey has the opportunity to leave the situation for good. If that opportunity is presented to the Protagonist, doesn’t that sort of negate the PONR?

In any case, your clarification did help me figure out a few things, so I’m forging on. Thanks also for clarifying the difference between the Predicament and the the PONR.

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Mar 21, 2006

Re:[3] Sequence Method Question posted by kza

Remember, although the PONR is generally slotted in the third sequence (the very first sequence in the second act), that’s the latest it can appear. It can appear in the very first moment of the screenplay, if it makes sense. And there should always be moments throughout that “lock in” the protagonist further, a continuous tightening, like a giant python.

But the question is: when can Jeffrey simply not turn around and leave town? And I think either the answer can be either physical or emotional in nature (i.e., either Frank or Dorothy). Unfortunately, I haven’t seen Blue Velvet in years, so I can’t really offer anything past this. Except: assuming that, per David Howard, that Lynch’s stories are only unusual in that they don’t offer character motivation, I’d look around the 20 to 30 minute mark and see what scenes are there. That could answer your question.

One last thing: the PONR doesn’t draw the action into the second act; the Predicament, and the protagonist’s choice towards the Predicament, does.

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Mar 21, 2006

Re:[2] Sequence Method Question posted by Martin

If, however you’re dealing with some Altman Short Cuts type shit, then you’ve got several stories on your hands, and you probably should chart out each one.

I don’t think my ambiguity is really serving any purpose here but to guard me from potential failure and looking foolish, and that’s not a very good reason. In fact, it might be more useful to myself and everybody if I reasoned this breakdown I’m doing out loud, since it’s the first I’ve attempted.

The movie I picked is: Blue Velvet (I just watched it again for the first time in quite a while). So, the questions of PONR come up in conjunction with protagonist Jeffrey Beaumont. Here are a few of the PONR I’ve identified: (it goes without saying, but we’re just the type to say things that might usually go without: SPOILERS AHEAD).

1. When he hides in Dorothy Vallen’s apartment (can’t go back then!). This relates to the plot thread of Jeffrey as detective and / or voyeur, which is his motivation for getting involved in what happens.
2. When Dorothy discovers him in his closet, and attempts to seduce (er, rape?) him at knife point.
3. When he witnesses the “ritualistic rape” (as it is often referred to) and first sees Frank. This relates to his emotional involvement and sexual attraction to Dorothy Vallens. He is pulled so far into the story that he won’t let himself back out.
4. When he is discovered with Dorothy by Frank. This PONR, like number 2, is completely out of his hands, so may actually be the one that stands the strongest in relation to the sequence method since it compels a lot of action and thrusts him into a very dangerous situation. But, it doesn’t really speak to the fact that he already was drawn in and completely absorbed. This event is actually a consequence of 1 and 2 and 3 combined, which pulled him back to her apartment when he probably should have just stayed away. Which leads me to (out of linear order)
5. Going back to Dorothy Vallens apartment of his own free will. Twice.

I guess one question can be: 1. Which of those five draws the action into the second act? That’s tricky, because I’m still deciding where the dividing line for the sequences are, especially during the long second act.

Obviously, this is very different than an Altman sort of many-threads-converging thing. It’s all one story, but very layered and nuanced, so the line is anything but direct. Any ideas?

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Mar 21, 2006

Re: Character Sketches: My Philosophy (I Think Very Deeply) posted by Martin

I doubt I could force him even if I wanted to, at least not without the use of a whip and cheese-covered apple pie

I’m replying properly to today’s posts here, but I couldn’t let this slide. Can a fella get anybody to testify to the greatness of hot apple pie with cheddar cheese for breakfast? Mr. Shockah’s palate won’t allow for such deliciosity, and I’m eager to prove to him that this is not an personal idiosyncrasy, but accepted culinary practice.

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Mar 21, 2006

Character Sketches: My Philosophy (I Think Very Deeply) posted by kza

Note: The following has absolutely nothing to do with Burley’s excellent character bios, as seen below. It’s just that, when I started my bios, I felt like I needed to definitively state what it was I was trying to accomplish, so I created a list of guidelines and “talking points”, if you will, to guide me. While I certainly hope that I can engage Burley into a conversation about this topic, he’s not honor-bound to share my philosophy or use my ideas. (I doubt I could force him even if I wanted to, at least not without the use of a whip and cheese-covered apple pie.) I share them with you now because… well, when it comes to grand theorizing about writing, I’m a Chatty Cathy.

The following are my notes, and expanded thoughts, on creating a character sketch for a screenplay.

Name. Obvious, sure, but god, I’m awful at names. I really, really hate coming up with them, and I don’t have the cojones to name deities after candies. But I force myself anyway, but because I force myself, I usually end up with very bland, WASPy names. Sometimes I wish I could create names like Vonnegut or Bester, but I bet they’d just look silly to me. I usually look at movies or other media that inspired the original story in some way and steal that (i.e., Atmosphere = “Curtis Ian”, the Dario Argento-inspired Yellow = “Fiore”, Argento’s daughter’s name.)

Support Network: Too often when I think of a story and just start writing, it’s like I have a main character, a handful of necessary supporting characters, and that’s it. The problem is that, at least in a screenplay, it starts to feel like the world is severely underpopulated, like an old cartoon. What I keep failing to take into account is that nearly everyone has some kind of support network in their life. Who are the character’s friends? What would they do for him or her? Who takes care of this character when she’s sick? Who does the character go to when he’s in love and needs to talk to someone? Sometimes this is family, but sometimes it isn’t. And if it isn’t, why not?

The purpose of the Support Network is two-fold: one, to provide a realistic backdrop for the story (assuming it needs one) and two, to be a Well.

The Well: The Well is for people like me who sometimes need a kick in the butt to get a story going, particularly while deep in the hell of the second act. The Well is like a goodie bag that you can reach into and draw some kind of prize that can (hopefully) inspire you when you’re stuck. It could be filled with just about anything: you could literally create a bag and fill it with pictures or Oblique Strategy-styled bits of prose to help inspire, or just keep it all in your head. What I do (because this is an area I’m weak in) is to use the Support Network as my well. If I’m stuck and I don’t know where to take my protagonist, I can reach into the Well and remember that he has a sister he loves but had a falling out with. What if he has to go to the sister to proceed towards his goal? Now the protagonist has a goal and an obstacle (the sister), and the collision of the two is going to reveal background information in an organic way, and deepen the material. (Well, we hope.)

3 Significant Events. This is here mostly to structure the sketch material in some way, and add stuff to the Well. I do add one requirement, however: that each event has some kind of common theme. For example, in my sketch for The Atheist, issues of belief and faith run through the bio, and in Atmosphere, the sketch is held together by the character’s autism — a kind of stasis or wall — and the character’s attempt to transform himself.

Status Quo: This (along with the Well) is actually the whole purpose of the sketch exercise. If a story is pretty much defined as the upending of a character’s status quo and his/her attempt to right it again, then that Status Quo needs to be defined. Obviously, this is built from the Support Network, but is defined by the long-standing but unresolved conflicts in the character’s life. In terms of the sequence method, I think it’s okay to include Status Quo material in the first act, if necessary, but it should the sketch should never include the Predicament. Everything up until that point, sure, but not the actual event that upsets the Status Quo. While I suspect that a lot of us think of the Status Quo as a kind of large, heavy boulder — tough to move — I prefer to think of it as more like a station wagon that’s balanced precariously on the edge of a precipice — one ounce of pressure from safety or certain doom. (I’m not always successful in this, I’ll admit.)

However: Despite all this (potentially) interesting stuff, I feel that the sketch should not be so interesting that it could be the screenplay itself. While there should be dramatic events in the life of the character, they’re only there to be drawn upon for the actual screenplay — the character’s life up until the Status Quo-altering Predicament should, ideally, be as chaotic and unstructured and maybe a little boring as a real person’s life.

(I’ll admit, again, that I probably failed here re: Atmosphere. The problem there was, to understand the character’s background, details of this future world had to be explained, and expository material like that works best when couched in terms of a flowing story. In fact, after our two sketches, I’m thinking Atmosphere might work best with the prison sequence as the third act, with the character’s life up until that point filling the first two acts. In a sense, that’s a failure, but you have to eventually go with what works.)

I also feel that, as counter-intuitive as it sounds, the character sketch is no place for talking about a character’s personality. You won’t see me write something like “He’s a happy-go-lucky guy” or “She’s moody and depressive”. I’m kind of a “existence precedes essence” guy when it comes to this stuff. I just want the fact’s, ma’am, about a character’s life, and when I go to write the script, I’ll use that as a basis as to determining the character’s personality. (Which isn’t to say that the personality, as it develops, won’t change the story somewhat — I think it’s imperative that the story remain elastic enough to incorporate on-the-fly change — just that starting with personality seems backwards to me.)

Ultimately, the character sketch should ask more questions than it answers. If there are answers, they will be provided by the screenplay. If not, then they’re there for thematic purposes or jumping off points for the plot.

Comments (0) — Category: technique

Mar 21, 2006

Re: Sequence Method Question posted by kza

Since I don’t know what film you’re doing, it’s a little tough. I’ll start with: where does the film fall on that McKee story triangle thingie? That is, if it’s pretty much a standard, mainstream story, or even a “miniplot”, you probably should only have one PONR and one Predicament. If, however you’re dealing with some Altman Short Cuts type shit, then you’ve got several stories on your hands, and you probably should chart out each one. (Or I suppose, if you have a film that has one strong, but somewhat tangential subplot — like an old Simpsons episode — then that subplot should probably be charted out on its own.)

Then again, it’s not like an exact science or anything, so make up new rules if you have to!

Does that help or hinder?

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Mar 21, 2006

Sequence Method Question posted by Martin

Should each plot thread have its own Point of no return? I’m dissecting a movie right now, and I think I’ve identified five potential PONR, but each have different impact on the primary story (which is muddy to begin with, and cross pollinated with other issues). Any feedback on this? Should the PONR focus on the primary story line, or should each have its own?

And, if it does, should each also have its own predicament and main tension? How microscopic should one get with these things.

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Mar 13, 2006

Re:[2] Structurally Speaking: Jaws (Part II) posted by kza

Lindbergh’s publicist or wife can now take center stage for awhile.

Dude, does it really say publicist? Before wife? If so, Howard’s book’s a lot funnier than I remembered.

Spitball! Tourney update: I apologize to everyone for the lateness of my reply. Things kept getting in the way of work and the Jaws thing took a little more time than expected. However! Because this train must roll, I’m giving myself a deadline of tomorrow at 8pm. Some kind of reply regarding Rachel, My Dear will be posted here at that time — I gare-un-tee it.

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Mar 13, 2006

Re: Structurally Speaking: Jaws (Part II) posted by Martin

(The example subplot given in David Howard’s book is, during a story about Lindbergh crossing the Atlantic, about his wife worrying about him. Something like that. Maybe Burley can fill in the details here. Did I mention I don’t have the books in front of me?)

Not only do I got your books, I got your back too. Howard, How to Build a Great Screenplay. pgs 328-329.

Main Subplot and Main Character

After the intensity of the midpoint, there is a tendency for a story to suffer what is known as the second-act sag. This is a sense of letdown we experience after a major emotional event. Our hero has made a concerted effort and it has not had the result he and we had hoped. He might have succeeded in what he was trying to do, but that merely turned the dilemma upside down. Or he might have failed and the failure has made the predicament even worse. Either way, we have just come from a major high or low contrasting moment — the midpoint — and there is a tendency to sink, lose energy, or lose focus. The best way to overcome second-act sag is to let the major subplot take over for a while. We haven’t yet had any truly significant change or first culmination in that second most important story, so it can arrive energized, hopeful or fearful, and very tense.

The mention to Linbergh’s wife is brief and in the next paragraph:

Linbergh’s publicist or wife can now take center stage for awhile.

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Mar 12, 2006

Structurally Speaking: Jaws (Part II) posted by kza

Welcome back to my “sequence method” analysis of Jaws. For those just tuning in, an explanation of the sequence method can be found here (the first four points) and here (the last four points), but you may want to start with the “Why structure, anyway?” post. The first part of the Jaws analysis can be found here. Questions? Disagreements? Think I should be discussing the brilliance of Jaws 4? Go to the Forums, by clicking here. Finally, there’s a discussion about casting a theoretical remake of Jaws that needs, nay, demands your input.

And now… Part II.

Sequence Five (15:34)

The fifth sequence in the story consists of three scenes. In the first, Brody is depressed because of his failure as a sheriff, but Hooper comes to his house to convince him to cut up the caught shark and prove that it isn’t Jaws. (For those new here, I refer to the villainous shark as “Jaws”.) In the second scene, they sneak onto the dock and cut up the shark; when it’s clear it’s not Jaws, they go out onto the water and find Ben Gardner’s boat, Ben Gardner’s head, and the shark tooth (dropped). In the third scene, Brody and Hooper try to convince the Mayor to close the beaches on the 4th of July, but the Mayor aint havin’ it — especially with no tooth.

In a screenplay constructed “by-the-book”, if you will, Sequence Five is kind of an odd duck. If you’ll remember, there are eight sequences in an average screenplay, and eight points that hold the sequences together. Seems natch’ral that each point would correspond with a sequence, but they don’t — Sequence Three has two points associated with it (the Main Tension and the Point of No Return), and so Sequence Five doesn’t have any any. Instead, it’s suggested that Sequence Five is the “Subplot Sequence” — a moment in the story when the focus is redirected towards one of the supporting characters and their subplot. (The example subplot given in David Howard’s book is, during a story about Lindbergh crossing the Atlantic, about his wife worrying about him. Something like that. Maybe Burley can fill in the details here. Did I mention I don’t have the books in front of me?)

What’s interesting is that while there is no subplot in Jaws, look at the scene list for this sequence carefully. Notice anything? Throughout nearly the entirety of the sequence, it’s Hooper who’s calling the shots, in a sense taking over the protagonist role from Brody. It’s Hooper’s idea to cut up the shark, it’s Hooper’s idea to go out on the water, it’s Hooper that finds the tooth, and it’s Hooper that argues most vociferously with Mayor Larry Vaughn. It follows the sequence method, in spirit if not to the letter.

Sequence Six (19:07)

Three scenes in Sequence Six, although, like Sequence Four, more could be argued. The first scene is the 4th of July. It starts with the arrival of the tourists (no, not those tourists), builds as the extent of Brody’s police security is revealed and the Mayor urges people to go into the water, and finally climaxes — one false (the kids with the cardboard fin) and the real one, the sh-sh-sh-shark! In the pond! While definitely the highlight of the sequence, there are two more scenes necessary to make it complete. In the second scene, Brody finally gets the Mayor’s approval to hire Quint to kill the shark. In the third scene, Brody convinces Quint to allow him and Hooper to accompany him, setting up the third act.

The structuring point of Sequence Six is the Second Culmination. To recap, the Second Culmination answers the question posed by the Main Tension, back in Sequence Three. Back in Part I, I stated the Main Tension as “Will Brody be able to solve the shark problem before the beaches open up again?” The answer, of course, is “No”. While the Second Culmination is intended to match up with the highest point of action and tension in Sequence Six (and that’s what happens here; the Fourth of July scene answers the Main Tension), note that, in this case, it doesn’t come at the end of the sequence — in fact, it starts the sequence. While we generally associate words like culmination, climax, action, tension with a story’s ending, in actuality these qualities can come at any time. Since the answer to the Main Tension creates such chaos, there needs to be enough scenes for this chaos to be absorbed by the characters so that some kind of response can be given (and the third act set up); hence, the much slower-paced scene at Quint’s place, where Brody negotiates his and Hooper’s place on the boat.

Please note again, however, that every part of this sequence method analysis is a judgment call — there are no right answers. And every choice made can create difficulties or oddities that may not seem to fit in with the sequence method structure. For example, I’ve decided that the end of the second act is when Brody goes off with Quint and Hooper to find Jaws. Seems right, doesn’t it? The first act ends and the second act begins with the city council meeting, and the second act ends and third act begins with the trio out at sea. I mean, doesn’t that feel right? I think it does, yet it brings up an interesting conundrum: it means the third act is 49 minute and 56 seconds long — only 4 minutes and 29 seconds shorter than the second act.

That’s a long third act. Most third acts are usually, at most, 30 minutes long, and usually in the 15-20 minute range. Did I do something wrong, or does Jaws simply have a longer-than-normal third act? As I’ve suggested, there is no right answer. If I’ve demonstrated that Jaws has a 50 minute third act, then it does. And someone else can come along and demonstrate how the real end of the second act doesn’t occur for another 30 minutes, making the story more “normal”, and they’d be right, too. (And hopefully said someone will post their findings in the Forum.)

After much deliberation, I’ve decided that the extra-long third act is the way to go. However, this has some unintended effects, detailed below.

Sequence Seven (23:46)

Three scenes here as well, each organized by an encounter with Jaws. In the first, Quint hooks the shark, but loses him. In the second, Jaws makes his first real appearance (“We’re gonna need a bigger boat”) and they hit him with a barrel, but he gets away. In the third scene, Quint gives his Indianapolis monologue, and Jaws hits them again, disabling the boat.

A note here about sequences. Two things define a sequence, I believe, and they’re interrelated. One, a sequence, while part of a larger whole, also has a beginning, middle, and end, and is held together by some idea or action or theme. Second, there is a real time limit to a sequence — generally, a sequence should not be much longer than 20 minutes. Although this originated from real physical limits (the length of a film reel) now overcome through technology, I think twenty minutes is a real (for lack of a better word) psychic limit. How long can a person pay attention to a dramatic story before they begin to break what they’re seeing into comprehensible chunks? If this is going to happen anyway (and I believe it will), then it makes sense to take control of that process at the beginning, during the writing, and use that natural inclination to tell stories better. (It should be stated that, although the Platonically Ideal screenplay has eight sequences, longer movies, like The Godfather or The Lord of the Rings, have more than eight. A normal length movie can also have more, or fewer, than eight sequences if circumstances call for it.)

That said, note the length of this sequence. While it clearly breaks the “rules” I’ve just set up, it has an excuse: Quint’s monologue. The famous monologue, of Quint’s experience during WWII, is an incredible moment, a revealing look into the hard-hearted sea captain and the soul of the movie. It’s also, in terms of plot, completely superfluous, and if the four-minute story were excised, the sequence would drop to a more manageable 19 minutes. But pushing the time envelope here is a good move — I can’t imagine Jaws without this moment.

Now, normally, Sequence Seven is the location of the seventh point: The Third Act Twist/Tension. However, having such a long third act means one of two things: either having two extremely long sequences of nearly 30 minutes apiece… or having an extra sequence. I’ve opted for the latter, and since this, the Seventh Sequence, doesn’t have any correlating sequence points, I’m considering it to be the extra sequence.

Sequence Eight (14:24)

Another three scenes. Scene one: They repair the boat, but when Brody tries to use the radio to call for help, Quint destroys it. Scene two: They hit Jaws with a second barrel, and Jaws responds by towing the boat, damaging it further. Scene three: Quint tries to lure Jaws into the shallows, but he burns out the engine in the process, stranding them.

In the sequence method, the third act is, like the second act, kind of its own little story. Although the third act is (usually) fairly short, it also needs something like a Predicament or a Point of No Return to turn the story upside-down, to goose it and keep the audience on their toes. Enter the Third Act Twist/Tension. What is the twist in this sequence? The destruction of the radio is a truly shocking moment, as it’s the only moment on the boat where one of the characters takes a dangerous, antagonist stance towards another character, a stance that’s been reserved for Jaws up until this point. This would be a fine choice; however, I’m going to choose the engine burn-out instead, if only for more writerly reasons. (The loss of the radio is unfortunate, but it isn’t until they’re dead in the water, so to speak, that the story really twists — their options are now extremely limited.)

It should be noted that the David Howard book calls it simply “The Third Act Twist”. I’ve added the “Tension” part of it, since it seems that the Twist portion of it suggests a question, much like the Main Tension of Sequence Three. Since I’m adding it and it’s not “official”, I’m not going to demand that the question be answered with a simple Yes or No; instead, I’ll suggest that the question posed here is something along the lines of “How will they defeat the shark now?”

Sequence Nine (11:37)
Four scenes conclude the movie. In the first, Brody and Quint lower Hooper into the cage to poison Jaws, but Jaws destroys the cage and chases Hooper away. The second scene is Jaws getting onto the boat and eating Quint right in front Brody. The third scene quickly follows: Brody tosses the tank into Jaws’ mouth, and as the shark rushes towards him, Brody shoots the tank, blowing Jaws to smithereens. In the final scene, Hooper reemerges, and he and Brody paddle back to shore.

The final point of the method is the Resolution. The Resolution is pretty simple, and I imagine most people grasp it intuitively. Simply stated, the Resolution answers any outstanding questions raised by the movie, so that the movie can end. Using more literary terms as a reference, the Resolution combines both the Climax and the Denouement. The shark blows up. Quint is eaten. Brody and Hooper are alive, and they get back to shore alive (watch the end credits if you doubt this). We can imagine more questions and scenarios from this point (for example, will the town of Amity survive, even though Jaws is now dead?), but in terms of the questions raised and conflicts established by the story, there is nothing else that needs to be said.

(It’s true that some endings can be “open” or ambiguous — but I seriously question if films with those kinds of endings truly don’t have a Resolution. For example, Limbo has a ridiculously open ending — but the questions and conflicts of the story, the ones that matter, are answered before that moment. For a film that really, truly doesn’t have a Resolution — and is amusingly self-conscious about it — see the previously mentioned Valdez is Coming.)

And that’s that. I hope this look at Jaws, while not as deep as it could be, was a good introduction to the somewhat-obscure ideas of the sequence method. I plan to do a few more of these (starting with The Matrix), but now that I feel like I’ve explained these terms as well as I can for now, they’ll probably be a lot shorter. If you have any questions, or would like to suggest your own structural breakdown of Jaws, please post here. Thanks!

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Mar 05, 2006

Structurally Speaking: Jaws (Part I) posted by kza

So now that we’ve gone through the sequence method (albeit in a brief, condensed form), let’s apply that to some popular movies and see what happens.

I’m going to start with my favorite movie of all-time, bar none: Jaws. As you probably know, Jaws was the movie that, for better or worse, kick-started the concept of the “blockbuster summer movie”. It’s a pretty straightforward story (a clear protagonist, a clear antagonist, no flashbacks or other narrative tricks), and it seems like it should be a prime example of basic mainstream film structure.

Well… yes and no. Although for the most part it follows the sequence method mark for mark, there is a little twist, one that demonstrates the elasticity of the sequence method.

Let’s take a gander (the length of each sequence is indicated in bold):

Sequence One (3:56, or 5:09 if you count the opening credits)
In the first five minutes, two hippie-ish youths at a beach bonfire run off to the ocean, but the guy passes out drunk on the sand and the woman, Chrissie Watkins, is eaten by a shark, whom we’ll call Jaws, because we can. Sequence one consists of a single scene, and this scene contains the Point of Attack. The Point of Attack, you’ll recall, is when we see the dark storm clouds on the horizon for the protagonist, and know that his or her life is about to be turned upside down. Clearly, the PoA here is the appearance of Jaws, literally disrupting the surface by chomping a young woman in half. Note that no one else sees the attack, and at this point, we don’t know who the protagonist is yet. (It could be the drunk guy for all we know.)

Sequence Two (13:04)
The next sequence consists of (by my count) three scenes. In the first one, we are introduced to Martin Brody, the sheriff of Amity Island, as he wakes up to a call that leads to the discovery of the Chrissie’s dismembered hand. In the second scene, Brody decides to shut down the beach by his own authority, but the Mayor talks him out of it. In the third scene, Brody is trying to relax on the beach with his wife (but not succeeding, his mind playing tricks on him due to his conscience and his fears) when a little boy and his yellow raft are eaten by Jaws in front of everyone. (Also, the dog “Pippet” is probably eaten as well, but no one ever mentions poor Pippet. Well, I will. R.I.P., Pippet.)

In sequence two, the key moment is the identification of the Predicament. The Predicament is when the Protagonist’s world goes topsy-turvy, and this happens with the death of Alex Kintner. Up until this point, it seems like (within the world of the story) the problem of the shark is taken care of (if only by ignoring it). Brody is on the beach — is he there at the behest of his wife, or is he there to make sure nothing happens, or perhaps both? — and his conscience and his fears are bugging him, which Spielberg visualizes with a number of nifty cinematic tricks. Brody has essentially covered up the shark attack, and has the most to lose if the shark reappears. If it doesn’t, then life can continue as normal. But of course, Jaws is hungry, and so the eating of little Alex and his yellow raft changes Brody’s status-quo — not only does he have a damaging secret, but as the designated protector of the community, he has a shark problem on his hands. What is he going to do about it?

The first two sequences comprise the first act.

Sequence Three (9:29)

There are three scenes in Sequence Three. In the first, the city council convenes to figure out what to do about the shark. The second is primarily expositional: Brody reads up on sharks, and passes information on to his wife, and by extension, the audience. There is a small amount of drama, as Brody and his wife argue about their sons sitting in a boat not faaaah from the yaaaaahd. In the third scene, two locals attempt to get the reward money for Jaws by using a “holiday roast” as bait, but get more than they bargained for.

The two important points of Sequence Three are the Main Tension and the Point of No Return.

The Point of No Return is what keeps the protagonist from simply walking away from the Predicament. While this is an important quality to consider for most stories, especially those that use relationships as the stakes for the drama, I think it’s fair to consider that Brody’s position as sheriff creates an “automatic”, permanent state of PONR. True, he could walk away, but its clear by this point that at the very least, his wife enjoys their position in this society (even though they will never be considered “islanders”), not to mention they just bought a beachside house. However, I think there is an additional PONR, one that ties into the Main Tension. Brody’s solution to the shark problem is to close the beaches, but the Mayor amends that: “Only twenty-four hours.” The closing of the beaches is somewhat of a passive move on Brody’s part; it’s an attempt to buy time, to keep the story, in a meta sense, under his control. But stories are rarely controlled by the protagonists — they are more often playing catchup and having to react instinctively to the stuff the world throws at them — and the time limit imposed upon Brody is an example of that. And it’s a PONR because he’s locked into producing results in a specific amount of time.

A quick detour: when using some kind of model, like the sequence method, to analyze a story, it must be understood that there are no correct answers. Some answers are better than others, and technically one answer could be the best, but, if you can make a case, that, for example, Quint is the protagonist of Jaws, then Quint is the protagonist of Jaws. It’s perfectly okay for two radically different interpretations to stand side by side. (And to be clear, I don’t for a minute consider my analysis to be the best.)

With that in mind, the Main Tension is a question posed by the story (always starting with “Will”), relating to the protagonist, that is answered at the end of the second act. It (like any point of the story core) is a choice, but this choice has implications beyond itself. By choosing a Main Tension, you’re also choosing a scene or a moment in which to answer the Main Tension, and in the process, determining the beginning and the ending of the second act. This can create some interesting results, as we’ll see later on.

What’s interesting about the city council scene is that the council and the townspeople aren’t so much worried about the shark per se, but about how the presence of the shark affects them economically. The question that arises isn’t, “Will you kill the shark?” but “Will you close the beaches?”. If the beaches aren’t open, then, as Quint says, they’ll be on welfare for the winter. So, Brody, the protector of the community, is not asked to keep them safe physically (although there is that), but to keep them safe financially. The Main Tension is “Will Brody be able to solve the shark problem before the beaches open up again?”

Sequence Four (10:16)

I count only two scenes in Sequence Four, although it could be argued there are actually three. In the first scene, Hooper arrives to help out Brody, while at the same time, a mass of local fishermen go after Jaws in attempt to cash in on Mrs. Kinter’s bounty. In the second scene, one group of fishermen come back with a shark, that Hooper doesn’t believe is the real culprit, and at the end, Mrs. Kintner reveals that she found out about Brody’s cover-up and shames him.

The key point of Sequence Four is the First Culmination. I’ll admit, the concept of the First Culmination is still a little nebulous to me. As I wrote earlier, it seems to be more of a construction for the writer than the audience, although it has its uses for the audience as well. If we think of the mainstream screenplay as a series of beginnings, middles, and ends, from the “atomic level” of the beat to the larger level of the scene, all the way to the macro level of the act, then the First Culmination is an “end” that occurs within the first part of the second act. The idea is to have a moment that occurs around the midpoint of the story that represents a kind of climax — not a final one, obviously, but one that looks back at where the story has been and where the story is going.

In Jaws, this sequence reflects on both the past (the deaths of the Chrissie Watkins and Alex Kintner seem to have been avenged, and Brody pays for his mistake in the cover-up) and the future (Hooper, whose technical expertise we’ve been convinced of, believes the shark is still at large). Since we understand (from years of examples) that a mainstream film story ends with a confrontation between the protagonist and the antagonist, the image of the dead shark is a suggestion of the film’s end, without being literal — we know that the real shark is much bigger (thanks to Hooper), much smarter (by avoiding capture by the multitude of reward-crazy fishermen, not to mention nearly eating the two men who tried to capture him earlier) and likely, much tougher. The dead shark on the pier is as much a representation of the folly of trying to kill Jaws as it is the possible death of Jaws — so the outcome is still in doubt.

(That’s enough for now, until Part II. A note, however: an analysis like this, because it can never be absolutely right, is always, at worst, a conversation with the film itself, and at best, a conversation with other people. I invite everyone to continue this conversation about structure, the sequence method, and Jaws in the Spitball! forums.)

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Feb 27, 2006

Talkin' 'Bout Structure, Part III posted by kza

Annnndddd… we’re back. Thanks for joining us.

So again, we’re talking about the sequence method of structuring a screenplay, as expounded by David Howard and Paul Joseph Gulino, in their books, How to Build a Great Screenplay and Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach, respectively . Back in Part II, I talked about the first four of eight important “qualities” (I couldn’t think of a better word) that make up a screenplay using the sequence method: the Point of Attack, the Predicament, the Main Tension, and the Point of No Return. If you haven’t read it (especially the part about not having the books in front of me), you may want to before continuing.

And before I continue, some more general comments. One thing I want to be clear about, if I haven’t already, is that I don’t see this (or any other theory of structure) as a One True Way. Just following it word for word isn’t going to create a great screenplay; in fact, it’s possible to follow it too closely, to the detriment of the story you’re trying to tell. (Wonder why the third act of Wedding Crashers goes on for frickin’ forever? Or why Red Eye is so bare-bones? There’s your answer.) I think of learning structure to be like learning a martial art — you learn it to know when to use and when not to use it.

Another thing to be clear about: this process, whether it’s to figure out the structure of a potential screenplay, or to analyze the structure of an existing screenplay or movie, can’t really tell you anything about why the work in question is beautiful or artistically worthy or deep. In mainstream filmmaking, great movies and shitty movies share the same structure, and what separates one from the other can’t necessarily be teased out by looking at Predicaments or Resolutions. To use another simile, examining structure is like an autopsy; we can open it up and see how the bones are connected, how the heart is made up of four chambers, how long the digestive tract is, but we can’t see where the soul is located.

One last thing: In Part II, I talked about the Point of No Return. Although, for the simplicity of explanation, the Point of No Return is slotted into the third sequence, that’s actually the latest in the story that it can appear. It can, and usually does, come earlier, even in the very first sequence, if it makes sense. For example, in The Matrix, the PONR is when Neo takes the pill, and this occurs near the end of the first act, in sequence two. I suspect that, in an ideal screenplay, every action taken is a kind of PONR, one that irrevocably moves the protagonist towards his or her final destination.

So, to continue:

First Culmination: This happens around the midpoint of the screenplay, and as the name indicates, is a kind of a climax and summing up of the action so far, but not the final one. Although the second act (sequences three through six) is all about answering the Main Tension, the First Culmination allows you to answer the Main Tension in a tentative way, giving a clue or preview as to the outcome of the Second Culmination (although that preview or clue can be, probably should be, misleading.) Another use of the First Culmination is to give a hint as to the potential outcome of the story, by either mirroring it (e.g., a positive culmination to a positive resolution) or contradicting it (a negative culmination to a positive resolution).

Unlike the Predicament or the Main Tension, which I feel to be the very heart of screenplay storytelling (if not storytelling in general), the First Culmination seems to be a tool more for the storyteller than the audience. It’s a organizing principle, a way to make sure that the story, despite any narrative detours, stays on point. Part of classic storytelling is the use of recapitulation scenes & dialogue — scenes and dialogue that repeat information we already know, as a kind of reminder as to what’s happened so we can fully absorb the complications that are forthcoming. (Bill Paxton’s Hudson in Aliens, IIRC, is the designated recapitulator, continually whining about what bad stuff has already happened and what bad stuff is likely to happen in the future.) The Culminations aren’t really recapitulations, but they seem to be what the recapitulations are pointing towards — a kind of marker that indicates how far we’ve come in the story, and how much further we have, and where the characters stand at that point in time.

Second Culmination: This is almost exactly like the First Culmination (only this time, the only clue points towards a potential outcome), with one important difference: this is where the question posed by the Main Tension is answered. And the answer is a simple “yes” or “no”. That “yes” or “no” may reveal complications or ambiguities of a physical, philosophical, or moral nature that belie that straightforward answer, but the question and its answer should be clear and unambiguous. For example, in High Noon, can the sheriff get the townspeople to help him? No. In King Kong, will the crew rescue Ann Darrow? Yes. In A History of Violence, will Tom end the threat of Carl Fogarty and his goons? Yes.

(“Hired goons?”)

Now, note again, what’s going on with the second act, and within it, the Main Tension and the Second Culmination. The second act is, in a sense, it’s own short film, much like how a sequence is like a mini-movie. There’s a question that deals directly with the protagonist — Will they do something or other — and the Second Culmination answers that question. The second act is, in a sense, a complete unit; while it needs the first act to set up the circumstances and context that frame the Main Tension, the story could, conceivably end right there. The crew could leave Skull Island, and that’s that. Tom Stall could just stay home and hope no one else comes after him and his family. The sheriff goes off to face the bad guys and we could fade out right there. (That’d be kinda odd and unnerving, wouldn’t it? If you want to see a film that tries something like that, check out the unusual Burt Lancaster Western, Valdez is Coming.)

But of course, it doesn’t end there. From the ashes, another story — the third act — rises, one with its own tension that must be answered. (See below.) Looking over various movies, what I’m seeing is that while the Second Culmination sows the seeds for the third act, what actually pushes the story from one act to another is a decision on the part of the protagonist. Tom decides to face his brother in Philadelphia. Carl Denham decides to bring Kong back to New York. Neo decides to risk his life to save Morpheus. What’s interesting, to me, is that this seems to be the flipside to the external event that causes the Predicament that creates the second act. Thus: external events create the second act, but protagonist decisions create the third.

Third Act Twist/Tension: So the third act begins, and it usually begins quietly. After the Predicament has caused the protagonist’s life to turn upside down, he or she answers the Main Tension and a new status quo is established, even if we, the audience, know it’s only temporary. Denham and company are back in New York and Kong is on stage. Tom is reunited with his gangster brother. The Matrix’s idea of a quiet beginning is mowing down security guards and rescuing Morpheus — and in the context of what’s to come, it is a quiet beginning.

But then something happens — the Twist — to disrupt the new status quo, and a new Tension is created. Kong breaks free and goes on a rampage. Tom’s brother orders him killed. Neo is trapped in the subway with Agent Smith, whom he can’t kill.

The Third Act Twist/Tension appears to be an organizing principle for the writer — what am I building toward, and how? — much like the First Culmination. But after thinking about the third acts of various mainstream movies, it seems like the third act is where the writer deals with the theme of the piece in the most direct way. (That seems rather obvious after writing it, but it never occurred to me in that way until now.) I’m thinking of Kong climbing the Empire State and finding death there, of Neo becoming The One, of Tom Stall coming to terms with the history of violence between him and his brother. While the concept of theme is an important one, and Burley and I will certainly tackle it in the future, for now, it’s slightly outside the scope of what I want to talk about. Nevertheless, it seems pretty clear that while we expect the protagonist to confront the greatest obstacle here, at the same time, this is where we expect to see the greatest elucidation of the theme. And these two parts (obstacle and theme) may be encoded within the same scene, and they may not be.

Resolution: This is pretty basic: every story reaches a point where there are no more questions that need to be answered. The key word here is “need”; there are always more questions that can be asked when it seems like everything’s been wrapped up, including the impossible-to-avoid “What happens next?” But, generally, once the Tension created by the Twist has been dealt with, this creates a final status quo, and this is usually where the story ends.

And there you have it — the eight important qualities of the sequence method. I’ve tried to be as clear as can, with concepts that can be very nebulous, and, admittedly, not fully understood by myself. I hope I can engage the readers of this site (and Burley, of course) into a continuing discussion of structure, one that can further illuminate these concepts. If you’re interested, click here and the discussion will begin!

Coming up next: A close look at Jaws.

(And speaking of which: Who would you cast in Jaws if you were remaking it today? Tell me here. I wanna know.)

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Feb 24, 2006

Re: I've Made A Terrible Mistake posted by Martin

If you’re not confused, then you don’t understand Tip Scum. I think that’s my new motto. Basically, every screenwriting technique book I’ve ever read ends up with complex diagrams (McKee is particularly fond) to explain ideas that really don’t need them. Everyone has you tracking threads of information that, if mapped on corkboard with string, would look like one of those airline diagrams that shows worldwide flights. Everyone is so complex that even people who understand it can’t succinctly explain it, because if they could then they couldn’t charge so much for seminars.

So, in retaliation, I think that it would be appropriate if Tip Scum is all about confusion, because if you’re not confused than your plot isn’t complex enough. If you’re not confused, then you’re not relating to your batter, er, protagonist enough, because if your protagonist isn’t confused, then there is no drama in their life worth exploring and therefore no story.

In any case, the Sandshoe Crusher, if expressed in mathematical terms, would be: Sandshoe Crusher = (Inciting Incident + Predicament) / Point of Attack. Does that help confuse things better? Good! You’re catching on.

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Feb 24, 2006

I've Made A Terrible Mistake posted by kza

D’oh! I got confused. For some reason (even though it’s perfectly clear what you wrote), I thought the Sandshoe Crusher was the supposed to be the equivalent of the Point of Attack, not the Predicament — I guess cuz it was the first definition you put up there, and I immediately thought of it in terms of the first part of the sequence method, the Point of Attack.

So, unless I’m still confused, Predicament = Sandshoe Crusher = Inciting Incident.

(I know, the audience is just swooning.)

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Feb 23, 2006

Re: Talkin' Bout Structure, Part II posted by Martin

which, contrary to what Burley said below, I think is the equivalent to McKee’s Inciting Incident, but then again, he’s got the books, not me

So he got them out to look it up. I present you with:

THE INCITING INCIDENT VS. THE POINT OF ATTACK / PREDICAMENT (aren’t you just juiced about this?)

First, the definitions.

From Story, by Robert McKee, pg 189:

The INCITING INCIDENT radically upsets the balance of forces in the protagonists life.

pg. 190

…the Inciting Incident is a single event that either happens directly to the protagonist or is caused by the protagonist. Consequently, he’s immediately aware that life is out of balance for better or worse.

So, to sum up, the Inciting Incident is the event that really kicks the story in. Everything before is for empathizing what life would be like without the event.

Next, from How to Build a Great Screenplay, by David Howard.

No mention of the Inciting Incident, but this on page 288:

The point of attack is the first revelation of the material that will eventually create the main story. Imagine the main story is a thunderstorm and the undisturbed status quo of the protagonist is the quiet life on the farm. The point of attack would be the moment when we first hear thunder in the distance.

That’s very different than McKee’s Inciting Incident—this sounds more like a thematic foreshadowing. Howard doesn’t talk about the Predicament, he just goes straight into the main tension.

Finally, from Screenwriting, the Sequence Approach, by Paul Joseph Gulino. Page 14:

Usually, by the end of the first sequence, there arises a moment in the picture called the point of attack, or inciting incident. This is the first intrusion of instability on the initial flow of life, forcing the protagonist to respond in some way.

So, this sounds much more like McKee and less like Howard. But Howard always seems to dance around ideas more than just nail them down. He’d rather talk about the chicken or the egg problem of whether stories or story tellers came first.

Then, on page 15, Gulino says this about the predicament:

Whatever solutions the protagonist attempts during the second sequence lead only to a bigger problem, or predicament, marking the end of the first act and setting up the main tension, which occupies the second.

It sounds like he’s saying that the Predicament is like the second part of the Inciting Incident—whereas McKee tends to bundle the whole package—incident and response—Gulino breaks them up. The Incident and then the Predicament, which is essentially the character’s conscious desire to confront the issues raised by the Inciting Incident. I would say the character has some say in the Predicament, since it springs from her conscious attempts to restore order, and ends up with her creating more disorder.

I personally like the expansion of the Inciting Incident, so will take this into consideration with further developments of Tip Scum.

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Feb 22, 2006

Talkin' 'Bout Structure, Part II posted by kza

Now where was I? Oh right, the so-called sequence method.

(Again, as Burley mentioned, I don’t have the books in front of me, so what follows is based on memory, along with stuff borrowed from other writers [like McKee] and my own additions. I probably won’t delineate between what’s from the book and my own crazed imaginings, so take all this stuff with an added pinch of salt.)

What’s interesting about the sequence method is that it was developed, not as an alternative or rebuttal to the Aristotelian three act structure, but from observation of how actual movies were put together. The guy who came up with the sequence method (whose name escapes me) realized that, since a projected film consisted of a number of reels that had to be changed, the writers and directors, since the silent era, were (either consciously or unconsciously) choosing to end each reel with a kind of climax, as if each reel were a mini-movie in its own right. This was done so that the transition from reel to reel (which, in the early days, meant a brief gap in the show, as the reel was physically swapped) felt smoother. (Imagine if the reel ended in the middle of a chase or a gunfight, and then a couple minutes of blank screen passed before it resumed.) Even when the technology was in place for seamless transitions, reels were still ending with some kind of climax. This guy decided to see if this was something that unified all the movies that had been coming out of Hollywood since the beginning, and if there was something there to help his film students write their screenplays. This is how the sequence method came about.

So, what is it?

Basically, it’s breaking a story down into 8 sequences, usually around 7 to 15 pages (minutes) apiece. Each sequence is, in a sense, a kind of short story or mini-movie, with a beginning, middle, and end, and while it isn’t complete in regards to the story as a whole, there’s a completeness in and of itself, in what the sequence is trying to accomplish.

And to a certain extent, that’s it. I know, not exactly mind-blowing. In fact, kinda obvious, innit? If you have a story you want to fill out to 100 or 120 pages, then breaking it down into smaller pieces is just common sense. Yet, when talking about structure, for the longest time, the only terminology we had was the (in)famous three act structure. And while coming up with a first act is probably within most people’s grasp (“It’s about a guy who falls in love with a girl but it turns out she’s a vampire on the run from a group of vampire hunters but she’s actually a good vampire, see, not like her dad who’s the one who killed a whole village but the hunters don’t know that”) and a third act probably is as well (“Uh, they all team up to beat Daddy Vampire, and they live happily ever after”), it’s that damn second act that causes all sorts of problems. And that’s because it’s the biggest part of any movie — usually about 50-70% of the script. (Well, except for maybe Die Hard… but that’s for later.) How do you fill all that space? If, as I’ve said before, you’re a natural storyteller, then you use your silver Scheherazadian tongue and just go until you’re finished. But if you’re like the rest of us, you need some guidance. And so, if you think of the second act as 4 sequences of varying length, suddenly the problem seems a whole lot more manageable.

Now you could, conceivably, write a feature-length screenplay if you just put eight short scripts together. Sure, it would be awfully patchy, and if it didn’t have a recurring main character, it would be more like an omnibus than what we think of as a proper feature-length. But it’d still be a feature-length.

But what say you have a main character you want to follow through the entire story, a character who has some kind of problem to deal with and who grows in some way. (I know, I know, it sounds clich� and banal, but 90% of all stories are about this. 75% of all people know that.) How can the story attain the kind of momentum needed to achieve this?

This is where the real value of the sequence method comes into play, IMO. Now before I get into it, I’ll admit a lot of this is an adaptation and expansion of concepts that have been popularized elsewhere. You’ll see stuff that isn’t too different from what Syd Field was talking about all those years ago. And of course, it’s all based on Aristotle’s Poetics anyway. But the way Howard puts them together really works for me. So:

There are 8 other qualities (that almost, but not quite, line up with the 8 sequences) that, once defined for the story, become what I call the story core. They are, in order: Point of Attack, Predicament, Main Tension, Point of No Return (PONR), First Culmination, Second Culmination, Third Act Twist/Tension, and Resolution. Everything that you really need to know about a script before you write it is contained in these 8 qualities. Define them, and you have a solid foundation from which to work. (Also, I don’t know anything about pitching story ideas to other people — I’m hoping I get a chance to learn — but right now, if I had to, I’d use the story core as my pitch outline.)

So what are they?

The first two make up what we think of as Act One:

Point of Attack: This is the moment in the script when we get a sense that the placid status quo of the characters is going to be shaken up. Howard uses the metaphor of “storm clouds on the horizon”, which I like quite a bit. This isn’t when the protagonist’s status quo is shaken — that’s next — but merely a warning that some kind of earthquake is coming. There’s usually some continuous link between this and the next quality, the Predicament — in Jaws, both revolve around the shark. But I’m not sure there always has to be; it can also simply be one of causality. For example, in A History of Violence, the Point of Attack is when Tom Stall is attacked by the thrill killers and he miraculously takes them out. How did he do it? How is he and his family going to react to the media blitz? The status quo has been shaken up, but at the same time, it could just end right there, with Tom being praised as a hero and then returning to the quiet life of a caf� owner. But of course, it doesn’t — it’s just a lead-in to the…

Predicament: Although all 8 of these qualities are important, there are a couple that are the heart and soul of the method, and this is one of them. The Predicament (which, contrary to what Burley said below, I think is the equivalent to McKee’s Inciting Incident, but then again, he’s got the books, not me) is the thing that happens to the main character that upsets his or her life. I think it’s important to note again, it’s an outside force (another character, the environment, a social system) that impacts the character — it usually isn’t some kind of choice the character brings on herself. (However, and this goes for all eight of these, I’m sure there are exceptions.) Instead, the character makes a choice because of the Predicament. And the Predicament can be something very physical (like Woody knocking Buzz out of the window in Toy Story) or it could be emotional or social in nature (as in a woman in her 30s realizes to her disappointment that she isn’t young and hip anymore, in A Shockah Script That I’ve Been Working On, For Like, Fucking Forever). The point is, the main character is knocked for a loop, and that’s ultimately what starts the story. And that’s why I consider it to be, oh let’s call it the “heart”, of the method. Go up to somebody and ask them, “What’s your predicament?” Assuming they don’t look at you crazy, you might get an answer like, “Well, I’m ten thousand bucks in debt, and my girlfriend is leaving me, but I know that if I can get my inheritance from my grandfather, I can get my life back together”. (Or whatever.) In other words, the spark for a story. (Which is also why I like the term “Predicament”. If you went up to someone and asked, “What’s your inciting incident?”, hopefully they would look at you crazy.)

The next four make up what we think of as Act Two:

Main Tension: If the Predicament is the heart, the Main Tension is the soul. When the Predicament strikes the main character, she’s going to have to make a decision regarding it. What’s she gonna do? Is she gonna run to Vegas to get her fianc� back from that hussy? Is she going to use this opportunity to re-examine her life, maybe decide to become a rabbi? Whatever the character decides, that will become the Main Tension. The Main Tension is always phrased as a question, starting with “Will”. Will the character get her fianc� back? Will the character become a rabbi? During the course of the next three sequences, the character will attempt to answer that question, ideally (from their perspective, not necessarily ours) with a “yes”. The Main Tension is the engine that drives the second act; nearly every scene relates to how that character is trying to answer (or failing to try to answer) the question the Main Tension poses.

What’s interesting about the Main Tension and needs to be said again so it’s understood (although it might take some time to fully grok it), is that the Main Tension applies only to the second act. For example, the Main Tension of High Noon is “Will the Sheriff get the townspeople on his side to defeat the bad guys?”, not “Will the Sheriff defeat the bad guys?”. (That last one is part of the third act.) In some senses, a screenplay constructed to these principles is not really one story, but three, mapped to each act. But we’ll get to that later.

Point of No Return: The Point of No Return, or PONR is an important quality that is often overlooked by novice screenwriters and screenwriters named “Shockah”. Simply put: what keeps the main character from throwing up his hands and saying “Fuck it”? It’s important to think about, and (especially with stories that are more about emotions and relationships than shit blowing up and life-and-death stakes) not always easy to determine. Clearly not everything works — you can’t have the PONR be a deadly world-threatening virus in the middle of your romantic comedy. (Or if you do, please let me read your screenplay.) I haven’t looked into too deeply, but I suspect that the PONR is usually another form of Predicament — another external event that forces the main character into action and a decision. (Although sometimes, I suspect the decision has already been made for them by the circumstances.) In The Matrix, the PONR is the choice between the red and blue pill — which I’d normally decry as blatant and uncouth, but it’s pretty cleverly encoded into the mythology of the world.

(I once had an idea for a screenplay where a guy gets on a train and ends up in a town, and the first act is clearly set up as a horror story, with the guy as the hero. But after the elaborate setup, the hero decides to just get back on the train and go home rather than risk his life, and the rest of the story is about something else, and the horror stuff never comes up again.)

Okay, I’m going to take a break here. I don’t know about you, but when faced with overly-long blog entries, I tend to get a little impatient and start to skim before long. (Damn TV! Taking away my ability to.. uh… something something.) Hopefully y’all didn’t skim. In Part III, I’ll talk about the First and Second Culminations (a.k.a. the second half of the second act), the Third Act Twist/Tension, and the Resolution. Then, in Part IV, I’ll apply these terms to some popular movies (Jaws, The Matrix, and at least something non-actiony, maybe Sideways) and see if any of it makes sense to me.

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Feb 20, 2006

Tip Scum Is Here! posted by Martin

Shockah will be happy to learn that I’ve finally started reading the books he loaned me on the sequence method. This means two things: 1. He’ll get his books back eventually (we have an ongoing thing, where we dump tons of books/dvd/comics/whatever on the other guy and then watch him squirm under the weight of the borrowed pile. Somethings are read/watched quickly and returned. Some are in a holding pattern for processing, and still others are being held in the quiet suspicion that one of us might turn out to be a rat and hold out on returning everything he has. In the interim, one of us will occasionally ask “So, have you read/watched blank yet?” and watch the other one guiltily come up with reasons why they’ve neglected our impossibly large duties. The asker will stand and nod and wait….), and 2. I’ll be able to join this conversation while actually, you know, talking about what I’m talking about.

Since I’m beginning this, I thought I’d also start, little by little, to put together The Patented Spitball! Cricket Method (TPSCM, or tip-scum) of screenwriting.

All scripts begin when something happens to someone and starts the imbalance in their lives. The sequence method calls this the point of attack. The McKee method calls this the inciting incident. In TPSCM this is called the Sandshoe Crusher. This fine page about cricket has defined a Sandshoe Crusher as a ball that actually hits the batsman on a foot. In my mind, getting a hard ball thrown at your foot would certainly set you off your game. If you were playing a game, and the normal course of the game would be a boring life, but the game being thrown off would create drama, a Sandshoe Crusher would seem to do this. So, formally:

TPSCM Definition #1

Sandhoe Crusher: That event which causes the primary character’s normal life to be unbalanced, and that they set to rebalancing.

(please note: I know nothing about cricket. I may have well made the curling method of screenwriting, but I worried about finding the proper place for the term “broom.” If there are cricket fans out there who would like to correct me on proper usage of terms, I would be most appreciative, and will do my best to make sure the TPSCM does its best to respect the language of the game, in context of the game being used a metaphor for writing a screenplay).

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Feb 15, 2006

Structure Doesn't Only Hold Up Buildings posted by Martin

I decided to pipe my own few cents on the structure questions, after Shockah’s fine post on the matter.

I was reminded, reading his description of his college writing experiences, of the Mamet quote that “the Avant Garde is to the left what jingoism is to the right. Both are a refuge in nonsense.” This is not to downplay abstraction or disregard completely avant material, but what I took from Shockah’s point about his college experience is much that I took from nearly every writing class I’ve experienced: They don’t teach you how to write.

Instead, they teach you to think as abstractly as possible. They try to get your mind into creative spaces. Often, there is flowery talk about personal self-expression, which millions of writers take to mean that the only craft in writing is just to express their feelings. Just ask the editors of any poetry magazine about how many unpublishable entries they receive every day (thus giving rise to the guaranteed-to-be-published poetry anthologized subsidized by the authors themselves).

What’s wrong with this? It ignores that there is craft involved in writing at all. You teach painters how to paint by teaching them how to draw and how to see. They take life drawing classes, and burn through charcoal. They study perspective. The great avant artists of the 20th century weren’t great because they were really creative, man—they were great because they understood the medium deeply. Rockwell, a huge admirer of cubism, once went to study in Paris. The instructor pulled him aside and asked for advice how to sell illustrations.

Point being this: the only education that taught me about writing was in classes where I was forced to write essays. I learned that I had to make a point, make it fast, and defend it. I had to create a narrative that the reader might be interested in—specifically, the instructor whom I was trying to impress to get a high grade.

Most of the writing classes I’ve taken are filled with the same post-modern-at-its-worst drivel about personal expression. The fact is, writing is not subjective in the least. We can judge good writing. Dickens is not subjectively a good writer, he just was a good writer. Heather McHugh is not subjectively a good poet, she just is a good poet. Both of them have mastered language in a very specific way. While I personally don’t like some authors very much, it doesn’t mean their craft is poor, it’s often a personal taste thing. What’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with not liking something?

A good beginning writing instructor would start by saying that all interesting stories share a few basic traits. Master those first, then go as outside as you want. Learn that you need a character and something needs to happen to that character. Teach Aristotle and the seven stories of the world, or just teach the three basic stories: man against man, man against nature, man against himself.

Then, let the students experiment with breaking those boundaries, pushing them, and also with working within them. Teach them how to hook a reader with a story that they care about, and that’s a skill they’ll always be able to use.

Writing instructors—and, to be fair, they may be much better these days then in my school days—are like an early Jan Tschichold. Tshichold was one of the great typographers and designers of the 20th century modernist movement. Early on, in his book Die Neue Typographie, he decried poor typography, and declared sans-serif fonts as the modernist masterpieces that would replace serifed typefaces. He was a firebrand of high order—he pissed the Nazi’s off something fierce. But, riding out the war in England, he designed the Penguin library and came to realize that 600 years of typographic refinement really didn’t happen arbitrarily—serifed typefaces are easier to read in print. The idea, of course, is that the words disappear and the message comes through. This is, what famous typography writer Beatrice Warde called the Crystal Goblet.

The same thing is true for great writing. The words should disappear and be replaced in the readers head with the message or story being told. If the person keeps thinking to themselves “Wow, this writing is really beautiful” then the writing is about the words themselves. There’s an argument for that, I think, but there’s another big argument for just telling the story.

In any case, relating to screeplay writing: I am with Shockah that methods are more like models: views of looking at your script and seeing it from a different angle. They aren’t meant to be the one true path to writing successfully. Ironically, if you read a few of these books, they all reference the same great screenplays as proof of their analysis. Wow—seems like China Town used fifteen different methods.

I am, though, nowhere near as good of a student as Shockah is. Or, rather, he has a much better memory than I do. I tend to jumble all of the terms together. And, I plan on developing my own method of screenwriting based on the game cricket just to confuse things even more. Keep tuned for that.

But in the meantime, I just have to say that these books are so needed and so popular because many writers, despite degrees or many hours spent in classrooms, don’t know how to tell a fucking story. Maybe if the world was different they wouldn’t be so needed, but what’s the harm in using the theories? If you write a good screenplay, the only thing that matters is that people will read it and forget that it’s words on paper, and they won’t give a shit which method you used to lay it down.

As for telling a story: it should be the first damn thing that you learn in any creative program. Start with how to hold the brush.

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Feb 14, 2006

Talkin' 'Bout Structure, Part I posted by kza

See, although we plan on writing a screenplay in front of the entire internet and his mom and everything, for me, this is the real screenwriting without a net. I’m going to expound on an issue of screenwriting technique — structure — without any sort of professional credit to my name. What’s more, I’m going to be talking about a method of dealing with structure that’s the focus of two pretty good books — David Howard’s How to Build a Great Screenplay and Paul Joseph Gulino’s Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach — without benefit of having the books on hand. Mistakes will be made, laughs will be had, cease-and-desists will be delivered.

But — But! — since, as mentioned earlier, we plan to use the sequence method in the writing of the Spitball! screenplay, some kind of introduction is necessary for those that don’t know, won’t show, or don’t care what’s going on in the hood.

What do we mean when we talk about structure? Good question, and there’s probably a good answer for it, but for right now, we’ll have to use my definition that I’m making up right now. What I mean by the word is simply how the various parts of a screenplay (usually meaning scenes) are put together into a whole, and how those parts do a number of things: how they tell a story that moves from event to event, generating a kind of momentum that (ideally) hooks a reader into the story; how the parts of a screenplay communicate ideas by virtue of how they are placed together; and how those parts are ultimately shaped to deliver some kind of effect — usually a cathartic climax.

Why is this important? There are some who would say it isn’t, and more importantly, would say the very idea of structure is a bane on screenwriting (conjured by an evil wizard, named either McKeedemort or Fieldemort, accounts vary) that has resulted in bland, stupid, predictable color-by-number scripts that’s crippled both Hollywood and the indie scene — and that screenwriters should abandon structure and “write from the heart” or “more organically” or “without boundaries” or the like, and the result will be better screenplays that are creative, profound and artistically successful.

There is some truth to this.

Any theory of structure, at least any that attempt to take into account 90% of the films Hollywood made from the beginning of the medium to today, will result in something that looks an awful lot like a formula. And anything that looks like a formula will be used as a formula. There are a lot of cookie-cutter scripts out there, both spec and produced, and I don’t doubt for a second that the rise of Syd Field and Robert McKee empowered a lot of people, people who wouldn’t otherwise bother, to try their hand at screenwriting. I mean, it’s just three acts and an inciting incident and three (or is it four?) plot points — just plug and play, right?

So I’m sympathetic. And, for the record, I definitely think there’s no correct way to write, whether it be screenplay or novel or play or what have you. If it works, it works. But, ultimately, I’m going to side with the structuralists (no, not that kind of structuralism) and make a case for structure in screenplay, and this “sequence method” in particular.


Because I have to.

Some people are natural storytellers. They know just how to hook you, and how to keep reeling you in through the entire story, so that by the end of five minutes, twenty-two minutes, forty-five minutes, two hours, you clap and cry “more! more!” and yet at the same time, feel satisfied. They don’t need no stinkin’ plot points; they know that all they need to do is make you ask, “what happens next?”

I am not one of those people.

Although I graduated with a degree in theater and (while we technically didn’t have specializations within the degree) considered myself a playwright, one thing that wasn’t really taught was structure. No, that’s not entirely true — we did discuss it, but as a way of analyzing existing texts, and this was more for the directors. No, the writers were told to write, literally, whatever the fuck they wanted, however bizarre or nonsensical, and it was the director’s responsibility to figure it out. (I shit you not.) If you know me, then you know that, if given the chance to be as ridiculous and absurd as possible, I’ll return your investment 300%.

(Maybe, if we’re lucky, we’ll get Todd Reidy to post on the forums about how he had to direct a scene I wrote — a conversation between two cleaning ladies that was composed entirely of fragments from a dream journal I had, a scene that made Ionesco look like friggin’ Miller. I thought it was hilarious, but no one who had to work on it was amused.)

And so, freed from the responsibility of constraining my off-the-wall ideas and experimental prose, I continued in this manner for my 4 years in the theater program. And while that seemed nice at the time, when I decided that film was the place to be and screenwriting was what I wanted to do, I found myself completely unprepared for the task at hand. I had stories I wanted to tell, but when I sat down to write them, they either meandered (and ungracefully so) or I was at a loss on how to fill 90 to 120 pages with content. What I was missing was structure. I didn’t know, really, where to stop, because for years I was encouraged to stop whenever I felt like. Or I didn’t know how to fill in spaces from point A to point B, because for years I was encouraged to go in any direction I wanted without a goal in mind.

I’m sure there are people out there who think this is exactly what Hollywood needs more of, and again, I’m sympathetic. I’m sure there are plenty of wannabes (and professionals) who could do with a bit of the ol’ “hang loose” philosophy. (Sure didn’t hurt Charlie Kaufman, who started in the very rigid, structurally-speaking, world of TV.) But frankly, I had been ingrained to take my creative freedom for granted, but the result of unfocused creative freedom is wank. I needed something to enforce some discipline. I needed to (as horrible as it sounds) constrain my freedom.

Because structure is, ultimately, something that constrains — or, perhaps better put, contains. It’s a vessel, it’s a box, it’s a scrapbook. It comes in all shapes and sizes (despite what you might’ve heard). The shape you choose influences what the content looks like, but you can still put any content you want into it, and it’s naturally shaped to push your story along and help it achieve its aims. Inna final analysis, though, it’s a tool. It’s there for you to use. It’s there to help you. And it can get the job done a lot faster. As long, of course, as you know how to use it, and more importantly, when to use it.

So, if you wonder why I’m pushing structure pretty hard during this Spitball! experiment — well, you would too if you spent years trying to push nails into wooden planks with your thumb.

(Well, lookee that — over a thousand words, and I never even got into the whole sequence method thing. Part II, coming soon!)

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Jan 23, 2006

In A World -- Thoughts on the Process posted by kza

Some random thoughts on what we just did….

On idea length: As you noticed, my entries (and yours as well) started to get longer the more we did them. Honestly, I’m not 100% happy with that — I still think there’s something to be said for an idea that can be expressed simply and concisely. Of course, I’m not making any arguments that the first ideas are better because they’re shorter — clearly they aren’t — but at times I wished I could’ve found a way to keep them even more bite-sized. For me, there was one big reason why they were getting longer: because I was relying on some outside source (songs, images) for inspiration, I found myself at a loss as to what to say, and while the earlier ones were simply a flash of a good idea jotted down quickly, these later ones were literally written word by word, without any idea of where the hell they’d end up. (This is particularly true of your favorite, The Scabs, as well as Chimerica and Reminiscence, and you can probably tell with that last one.) That’s why they’re long, and that’s probably why they’re deeper, more detailed, and perhaps better.

On your “favorites” list: I suspect I was more shocked by your list than you were with mine — if you look at the numbers, as your Top 8 goes up, my numbers go down. I’m genuinely shocked by the high placement of The Scabs and Rachel My Dear. (Have you even heard that song?) (Actually, have you heard of any of the songs from that list?) Speaking of which…

On “The Interpreter”: Goddam you and your iTunes! Roky’s my all-time fave and because of the whole new computer cock-up, Roky ain’t on this laptop. I’ve always wanted to write something based on it (I had a vague idea for a play back in my Humboldt days). Of course, mine woulda been a completely different thing, but yours is fantastic as well — but maybe I should save it for the playoffs… :-) (Oh, and that was the only song I knew from your list.)

On “The Angry Youth”: These words either mean everything or nothing to you: “Stevie Washington. The angry youth. Born to die. New York’s New York. The turn of the century. All crime.”

On the playoffs: Thing here is, while there are a couple matchups I could just pick a winner right now, the majority of them are dead heats. And round one: my two #1 choices! Aaarrgh! It’s not fair, it’s not faaaiir

Round One, coming up!

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Jan 13, 2006

Re:[2] Sci Fi? posted by Martin

A. Unless we were seriously going to explore the idea of “Prison Planet” as a metaphor, of course its going to be SF in some sense.

Maybe I should have tagged it with the “humor” category. I posted that because it was a blatantly stupid thing to think, and therefore funny that I caught myself thinking it. Kind of like thinking “Hmmm. Ford is really pushing the F-150 into that truck genre.” Or, “Wow. This dialogue is really pushing itself into the webpage genre.”

B. Genre isn’t for marketers. Genre is legitimate framework or window through which to view a story. Every genre has its conventions, and you can play them straight or subvert them.

I would argue that genre is to movies was genus is to animals. The animal doesn’t care if it’s a grizzly bear, but the biologist cares that it belongs to the genus Ursinae. By the same token, I don’t really care what genre we’re in, and see it as a construct of critics, analytics and marketers. I’ve never once met a musician who said “I’m going for AOR mid-tempo with an alternative edge,” and I’ve never met a story that said “I need to be seen as a love story to be appreciated.” Quite the opposite, I think the best of any creative categories are the ones that seem to be within one genre or another, and then transcend it.

It’s like the old saw about the painter who is walking down the street and meets a critic. The critic says “Hey, I just saw your show, and it’s incredible. Your use of chiaroscuro is masterful, and your brush strokes are sublime. You are truly emulating the Dutch Masters.” Then the painter walked down the street and met another painter who says “Hey, I just saw your show. What kind of turpentine do you use?”

But in the end, isn’t the basic idea of character meets resistance to achieving their desires, and the struggle that ensues what is really important? Or, to put a big meta hat on it, man vs. himself, man vs. man, or man vs. nature is all the genre you need.

Or, what came first: the genre or the story?

Okay—to many ors in the water here….

All that said, there are times when you want to follow genre tropes, and times when you want to avoid them. There are times where I argue that creativity flourishes most in constraint rather than vacuum. And, I’m not at all arguing that genre isn’t valuable in context, but in my mind, to start categorizing before you create is to start limiting. Since we will hopefully have experiences of having to do that (“Hey kid. Write me a slasher flick”), I don’t think I’ll be paying too much attention to it right now. But, if it helps your process, more power yo.

D. Anyway, the point is, when you think “SF” you think of limited boundaries; when I think of “SF”, I think of a lack of them. Therefore, SF, to me, really isn’t a genre.

Let me clarify. When I think “SF” I don’t think limited boundaries, when I think genre I think limited boundaries. Let me state that I love SF, I read and watch SF, and SF is my favorite genre (well, Sci-Fi Horror really). So, I make these statements not to detract from the oeuvre, but to make my point that all genre contains constraint to me. If I start thinking genre too soon, I’ll start plotting along genre lines, and measuring against trope, and making sure I hit the genre talking points. If I think Western, I’ll start thinking classic Western, but I may want to think Dead Man or that episode of Futurama where they went to Amy’s family homestead on Mars. My final point being, I don’t want to limit myself so early in the game that I miss an angle that might become the key for us to unlock this monster.

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What is Spitball!?

Spitball! is two guys collaborating to write about writing and collaboration. We're writing partners who have worked together since 2000, and placed in the top 100 in the last Project Greenlight for our script YELLOW.

Currently, we are both working on multiple screenplay, short story, and novel ideas independently and together, and collaborate on this blog.

What Spitball! used to be

Spitball! started as an attempt to collaborate on a screenplay online in real time. From January 2006 to July 2007 we worked on an interactive process to decide the story we were going to make. A full postmortem is coming, but you can find the find all the posts by looking in the category Original Version.

During this period, we affected the personalities of two of the most famous spitball pitchers from the early 20th Century. Look at our brief bios for more info about this, and so as not to be confused as to who is talking when.

We rebooted the franchise in early 2009 in its current form.

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Kent M. Beeson

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Kent M. Beeson (aka Urban Shockah) is a stay-at-home dad and stay-at-home writer, living in Seattle, WA with his wife, 2 year old daughter and an insane cat. In 2007, he was a contributor to the film blog ScreenGrab, where he presciently suggested Jackie Earle Haley to play Rorschach in the Watchmen movie, and in 2008, he wrote a film column for the comic-book site ComiXology called The Watchman. (He's a big fan of the book, if you couldn't tell.) In 2009, he gave up the thrill of freelance writing to focus on screenplays and novels, although he sometimes posts to his blog This Can't End Well, which a continuation of his first blog, he loved him some movies. He's a Pisces, and his favorite movie of all time is Jaws. Coincidence? I think not.

Martin McClellan

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Martin (aka Burley Grymz) is a designer and writer. He occasionally blogs at his beloved Hellbox, and keeps a longer ostensibly more interesting bio over here at his eponymous website. You can also find him on Twitter.