Tasks, Resistance, Pick Up Sticks, Prerequisites.

Many of the tasks we do actually require prerequisite tasks (or, to make that a little more street, and you gotta do thing one before you do thing two, cabron).

I was talking to a client about her process, and we talked about the importance of her desk being clean (thematic upshot, your desk is a focusing tool, not for storing papers – if you’re blocked creatively, clean your desk).  I thought the topic might make for a good blog, so I took some notes and put them in my trusted system.  Later, when I sat down to write,  I recalled that there was a cool quote from Anthony Bourdain’s kitchen confidential that I wanted to use, but which I didn’t have readily available.  The blog would have to wait.

Then I remembered that I had started this same blog three times and each time I’d hit the same stumbling block. I had an emotional attachment to the quote but I didn’t have the book.  As past events are an indicator of future performance, the desk Blog won’t get written until I get that book.  So I have to schedule time to get to a library or bookstore or find a way to immediately bring up tasks relevant to a location when I’m at that location.

I decided to turn this example of a bad process into a teachable moment and/badly needed content for my anemic blog.  Tasks are like pickup sticks.  The lesson I take is that tasks are like pickup sticks ***, and and often the task you want to do is buried under three more tasks that you’re barely aware of.


So when you’re stuck, in a scene, in a process, or in life, reflect on all the steps the task requires, past present and future. Odds are, the psychology/reluctance that makes you stuck is based on a subconscious knowledge that your past self screwed your present self by skipping a step. So identity the next step and do that instead.

* This blog is set in a hypothetical, better, world where pirating books isn’t an option. 

** The lack of a desk Blog is holding up a grander idea I have for making a cool flow chart of how to start writing. Procrastination begets procrastination.

***I asked a bunch of 20 something at a mall if they’d heard of pickup sticks. They were all vaguely aware of them. I’m happy for their cultural literacy, but genuinely curious as to how they all had pickup sticks as kids.   They had Nintendo 64’s. Why were they playing with colored wood? ****

**** I’m a little footnote happy this week because I’ve been reading/inspired by Bill Simmons.  That dude loves footnotes.

After the logline, before the outline, you should tell your story in a numbered list of 40 beats.

* Note: A better version of this draft can be found here.

Movies start with a basic idea or concept. This concept should lend itself to one of the marketable movie genres. You’ll want this concept to involve a main character who could be credibly played by a castable movie star. Then you’ll want to which should be expressed as a logline.

Logline (noun): The story in one active sentence, focusing on the concept,
main character and main conflict. Ideally in 25 words or less (someday I’ll
write a blog on this concept, negating the need to reference another site,
but for now, this definition from flixer.com will suffice).

The logline should give a casual reader a rough idea of what the script will look like, but before you write the script you must (or at least should) write an outline/treatment (see post on outlines). But before you do that, you’ll want to write a list of beats. Forty of them to be exact.

A beat is major event in the story that makes fundamental changes to the world of the story. “Bob and Joe fight and end their partnership” is a beat.  “Bob gets off the plane” is not, unless Bob is Mr. Bean. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself if your beat could plausibly take up 1/40th of a script (three pages). If it can’t, it’s not a beat.

Your list can take any number of forms. An excel spreadsheet, cards on a corkboard, post-its on a bedroom mirror, pen and ink. It doesn’t matter, they’re all different ways expressing the same idea. For added cogency, try expressing the high concept of the beat in 7 words. John August prefers scene cards to a straight up list, but his advice is
universally applicable. 

So you need 40 beats of seven words a piece. That’s 280 words, barely a page. Easy! Get them done, and rush to the outline. You’re a natural, you screenwriting prodigy, you!

But seriously, this should be hard. I’ve done it a hundred times and it’s still hard for me.  My next blog will be about the factors that cause this to be hard, and some tricks and tips to make these 40 beats just a little easier.

On Genre

We screenwrite to produce spec scripts that communicate our talent to a decision-maker who will then pay us to write. To this end, your spec script should be familiar. Familiar means in a recognizable genre. We know genres – if a comedy makes us laugh it works. If a horror movie scares us, it works.

Genres work because they’re familiar, we have the tools to analyze them. But if you say “My script is an experimental piece, very stream of consciousness, a mix of Truffaut and Malick,” I have no way of knowing if you succeeded. The pile of papers you hand me might be brilliant, or it might be a pretentious pile of crap. Lacking a genre, I lack the tools to confidently make that decision, so I’ll cover my ass and I’ll recommend the competent comedy over the potentially brilliant new thing. And that’s the opinion of me, a relatively literate, neurotic writer. The average reader in the studio system is far less kind than I.

Genre can get fairly subjective, so I’m going to cite IMDB: there are 26 genres.

Action Adventure Animation Biography
Comedy Crime Documentary Drama
Family Fantasy Film-Noir Game-Show
History Horror Music Musical
Mystery News Reality-TV Romance
Scifi Sport Talk-Show Thriller
War Western

Six of these aren’t useful to narrative screenwriting, the rest merit further discussion. Again, this is my subjective take, if you have a different opinion, there’s plenty of room for us both to be right. Additionally, please don’t cite Blake Snyder’s theory of 10 genres. Those will apply when Variety announces that Universal just bought a new “Dude with a Problem” script.

History, Fantasy, Scifi, & Western aren’t genres, they’re settings. There’s no such thing as a pure scifi movie – there are scifi dramas, scifi comedies, scifi horror.    Harry Potter and Pan’s Labyrinth are both technically fantasy, but they’re very different.  History pertains to setting, history movies always have a second genre.  Animation is a style generally associated with family entertainment, but as Millenium Actress, Waking Life, and tentacle hentai prove, animation isn’t exclusive to family and can contain any genre.

My thoughts on the remaining genres.
1. Action – if the script is basically action setpieces with connective tissue in between, you’ve got an action.
2. Adventure – incredibly poorly defined, but let’s pretend it’s a viable genre.
3. Biography -Biopics work by taking the highlight moments of a person’s life then assigning a simple Freudian excuse for that behavior. Any historical figure interesting enough to merit a biopic is going to be way more complex and nuanced then their movie makes them seem.
4. Comedy – subgenres include rom-coms, buddy comedies, and unlikely sports comedies.  Please, no more unlikely sports comedies.
5. Crime – includes heist flicks, mob stories, and con artist stories
6. Drama – the section of the video store that lazy video store clerks used as a catchall.  Includes tragedies, coming-of-age tales, etc.  The problem with drama is if you say you’re writing one, I don’t get an idea of what that movie looks like unless you throw in a bunch more adjectives.
7. Family more of a rating than a genre – there are family comedies, family dramas, etc.
8. Film-Noir – also kind of a setting, but I lack the dramaturgical knowledge to argue against it.  Influential in the history of cinema, but there’s a dearth of recent film noir hits.  Pro-tip: Resist your urge to go full-noir, rather steal the best elements of the style and use them in a more viable genre.
9. Horror – always a safe bet.  Like comedy, you know when it’s working.
10. Musical – please don’t write a musical as a first spec.
11. Mystery –  you hear about horror stars and comedy stars, but not mystery stars.  That said, if a writer turns in a good mystery, it’s a very promising sign of their talent..
12. Romance – most movies include a romantic subplot, but romance movies make the romance the stakes of the story.  Sample dialogue: “Wow, it took the battle of Seattle to bring us together!”  Pro-tip: ask yourself if your romance is like Nicholas Sparks’ work.  If not, make it so.
13. Sports – there are enough sports movie cliches that I’m arguing for its genre-icity.  Any Given Sunday was about pro-athletes making money.  It didn’t do very well.  Most successful sports movies tie sports to a larger social issue.  I’m just saying.
14. Thriller – general rule – in an action movie, both guys have guns, only the bad guy gets one in the thriller.
15. War – often includes a bit of the biopic, the historical epic, prison break, etc…

There are hybrids, of course.  Les Miserables is a drama, historical and a musical.  When Harry Met Sally is a romantic comedy.  Robocop is a scifi action movie.  Lord of the Rings is a fantasy war movie (among many other things).  Still, as a newbie, and as a writer who wants to be easily digested by the cynical reader, your safe bet is to write in a strongly defined genre that’s been reasonably commercially successful in the last two years.

In closing, I strongly suggest you pick a genre.  When in doubt, you can’t go wrong with a solid comedy, action, horror or thriller.