Shane, zen, and imperfect answers. What a 60-year-old movie teaches us about learning.

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” ~ Aristotle, an early screenwriting guru.

Have you seen Shane? If you haven’t, shame on you, go to Netflix and watch it twice. Take notes.  But because we both know you’re not going to do that, let’s talk about my favorite part.

The scene, for those of you who don’t’ feel like watching a video, is this: Shane is a wandering gunslinger who stays with the family of Joey, a little boy who idolizes him. Shane shows Joey how to draw a gun.  He gets real technical.

JOEY: Gosh! Is that what real gunfighters do?
SHANE: No, Joey. Most of them have tricks of their own. One, for instance, likes a shoulder holster. Another one puts it in the belt of his pants. And some like two guns. But one’s all you need if you can use it…
JOEY: Which is the best way?
SHANE What I’m telling you is as good a way as any, better than most.

Good as any, better than most. That blew my mind. I was used to Batman being unbeatable, to James Bond always saving the day, to Magic Johnson having the tightest basketball game of any human being ever. Shane blew my mind, got me to see that everything had strengths and weaknesses, everything was fallible, and that so many gurus were really just talking about taking different paths to the same road.  You could be technical, you could be instinctive, but in the end all advice aims for that unreachable heaven of excellence.  The stoner and the student council president were just enjoying high school in different ways. Ju Jitsu was no better or worse than Wing Chun, they were just different ways to explore the martial arts.  And in screenwriting, William Froug, Syd Field, Robert McKee, Blake Snyder (and all people who offer advice with good intentions) are just offering different paths for advancement, the best way they know how.

Sometimes you get lucky and get a piece of good advice early, one that informs your entire world view. I saw this scene when I was seven years old, and I have never forgotten it.   I’ve wanted to write about Shane for sometime, but I’ve been trying to let my previous blog steer the contents of my next one (a useful skill for screenwriting scenes and conversation in general). I finally got my chance.

Da Bomb

In my last blog, I wrote about the basics of screenwriting. I approached this gingerly, like a person disarming a bomb. I put up seven basic elements of screenwriting. Sensing danger, I put up a caveat:

“Author’s note: Every time I open my big fat mouth about some sweeping generalization, someone comes out of the woodwork to argue about it… In the (probably vain) hopes of subverting arguments, let me say that the following “basics” are simply a … list of good advice I put together for the sake of argument because I need to illustrate some points about basics. Seriously, these basics are just a list of things I cobbled together at 2AM to illustrate a wider point.” – Me

Versions of this disclaimer were repeated numerous time throughout the blog. I thought I was drilling the point to death. I was wrong.  I got this response:

“I learn by failure. The way for me to learn the “basics” is by violating them until I come to understand them. So it’s pointless for someone like me to even think about what someone else considers to be the basics.  And, in any case, the last thing i want to do is install someone’s network of creative barriers in my brain. That process is more about learning the maze than finding the cheese. I’m just here for the cheese.” – Some other, cheese-loving person.

I question how carefully the person read the original text*, but I’m glad for the response because it’s an illustration on human nature, on why it’s so hard to get a straight answer on simple things, like “how long should my treatment be,” or “how should I go about creating my characters.” When people hear information, it goes through a minefield of their own prejudices. If it flatters their assumptions, they’ll like it. If it doesn’t, they’ll be inclined to hate it. My most popular articles are the vaguer, agnostic ones that encourage hard work (it’s really hard to argue with them), but as soon as I say anything specific, it’ll inevitably piss someone off and set off a firestorm of arguments.**  The safe play is to keep it vague and vaguely inspiring, and most people do.***

if you take anything from this post, it should be watch Shane. The second thing is that when I offer advice, it’s usually with a little more irony than I’m given credit for. This is my way, a way that works for me, and a way that helps other people learn in as efficient a manner as possible. It may not be for you, and if you have a better path, I’d love for you to drop your wisdom on me.**** This blog is here to help, it doesn’t offer THE way, but A way that is (in my not-so-humble opinion) good as any and better than most.

FOOTNOTES

* Later, when I pointed out my disclaimer, they said, “ Didn’t really pay that much attention. I guess I had my own axe to grind and didn’t really care what it said.”
** Arguments are actually better for blog traffic, but as a child of divorce, I really, really hate them, outside of the safe confines of dramatic writing.
*** I hate keeping things vague.  I love specific, actionable advice.  The corollary to that, is that people with useful, actionable advice tend to be real dicks about it.  I really try not to be.
**** Potential blog – times when I was wrong. It would be lengthy, to say the least.

Basics about the Basics.

Reader Eric was kind enough to read my last post.  He asks [You talk about fundamentals of writing.  what are they] what specific steps are you taking to improve them?  

Author’s note: Every time I open my big fat mouth about some sweeping generalization, someone comes out of the woodwork to argue about it. Even worse, sometimes they have a point.

In the (probably vain) hopes of subverting arguments, let me say that the following seven “basics” are simply a collection of received wisdom. They are not the ten commandments, they are simply a list of good advice I put together for the sake of argument because I need to illustrate some points about basics. Seriously, these basics are just a list of things I cobbled together at 2AM to illustrate a wider point.  

The basics:
1. Write every day.
2. Enter scenes late, leave early.
3. Scenes are about conflict. Characters must be in opposition.
4. Midpoint splits the second act into two thematically distinct halves.
5. Show, don’t tell.
6. Characters should have a distinct voice, you should be able to ID them just by their dialogue.
7. Outline before you write.

So, for the sake of argument, there are our basics (not really, but if I were to make a list of 35 basics, these would be among them). I know them, you know them, probably knew them years ago, and yet our scripts sit unfinished. Why?

KNOWING ABOUT A RULE IS NOT THE SAME AS KNOWING IT
Everyone knows show don’t tell.  Still, when I read my work, I often say, “huh, I certainly told rather than showed there.  Way to write, Lazarus.”  Your name may differ.  People often treat knowledge like a Pokemon.  Capture it once, and it will live deathlessly in it’s container, ready to serve at a moments notice.

If there was any confusion...
If there was any confusion…

When I was 17, I set a fitness goal: I wanted six pack abs, like Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon. I was in the best shape of my life, a high school athlete, and it just never happened.

Google six pack abs and you’ll get one truism: “abs are made in the kitchen, not in the gym.” There are two basic steps to getting six pack abs: 1) lose weight/body fat, 2) work your core (2 is far less important than one).

bruce lee 2

Despite how ridiculously simple this is, I don’t have six pack abs, and most of the guys I know don’t, despite the various advantages they have in this superficial world we live in. Our screenwriting basics are the same. You can’t just bookmark this blog and think “okay, got it.” The basics, like my atrophied, fat covered abs, need to be worked every day if they’re going to make an appearance in your every day life.

CompetencyMatrix

BASICS TAKE MONTHS TO INGRAIN
You have finite attention. Concentrating on even three things at once will derail you. Skilled (#insertSkilledPracticionerTypeHere) will only focus on one thing at high levels, the breath. By making the breath conscious, they make everything else unconscious.*  See also: Chess experts use Brains Differently, for a glib popsci explanation of another thing aspiring writers should know about. They got their basics to be “unconscious” by isolating them, drilling them over and over again. Why do piano teachers make their students play scales, when songs are more fun and might actually get students to practice the piano? They’re trying to isolate the basics.

BASICS PUT THE ENORMITY OF THE TASK INTO SHARP, HUMILIATING RELIEF

A skill tree a musician made.  Yikes.
A skill tree a musician made. Yikes.

So if there are seven basics (Seriously, there aren’t. I cannot stress how little interest I have in arguing over the seven I chose) and it takes, let’s say a year to internalize each of them, you’ll have the basics down in only seven short years. That’s horrifying! I’ll be, like, old then! And there aren’t seven basics, there are dozens, if not hundreds of them. Dozens of things to fail at. Dozens of programming bugs ready to derail your screenplay. Dozens of blindingly obvious amateur mistakes that even pros make, dozens of ways for even your best work to sputter and die on.

I moved to Los Angeles at 18. I thought I was hot shit, and that the town would fall to its knees to acknowledge my greatness. I knew there would be hardships, but I thought I was on the verge. Eleven years later, I’m still on the verge. It’s a big freaking verge, like as big as the Sahara desert.  Level One writers** think they know the enormity of the task, but they don’t.  That’s actually a blessing, it gives them courage, gives them hope, frees them up to rush in where angels fear to tread.

BASICS ARE BOTH THE FIRST AND LAST THING YOU LEARN

It’s easy to say “write every day, show don’t tell,” but it takes months to do it consistantly, years to do it gracefully, and years more to approach an understanding of all the whys and wherefores.  No one understands anything perfectly.  I’ve been at this for years, and in a way, I’m just starting to care about the basics.  Earlier me would have just scoffed at the list and continued writing sloppily, secure in the knowledge that I was good enough.

Ben Franklin had a list of 13 Virtues. He couldn’t focus on all of them at once, but he’d focus on one for a couple of months, hoping that the rest would improve in its wake (they did). So should it be with these basics (again, these are not all there is to know about screenwriting, please come up with your own list of basics). Drill one for a month***, then move on, keep cycling through the list.  Keep doing that, over and over until you can write like Larry Bird can shoot****  The funny thing about drilling one area of expertise is that when you get comfortable with a drill, really get into it, entire scenes of your screenplay often pop up unbidden.

FOOTNOTES

*There’s a great analogy I heard in a documentary on Starcraft that I will blog about if anyone asks me about this ever.

** I find myself dropping a lot of game references in these blogs.  I should probably do less of that or much, much more of it.

*** “But what are these drills, Matt,” is probably the smart question.  I’m hoping no one asks so I don’t have to spend a week talking about actionable drills for a list of hypothetical basics.

**** Few writers know sports well, everyone should.  That’s the blog I really want to write.

Malcolm Gladwell explains why outlining, writing and rewriting is so hard.

“[It’s]a question I’m obsessed with: Why don’t people work hard when it’s in their best interest to do so? The (short) answer is that it’s really risky to work hard, because then if you fail you can no longer say that you failed because you didn’t work hard. It’s a form of self-protection… Most of the psychological research on this is focused on why some kids don’t study for tests. If you get drunk the night before an exam instead of studying and you fail, then the problem is that you got drunk. If you do study and you fail, the problem is that you’re stupid — and stupid, for a student, is a death sentence. The point is that it is far more psychologically dangerous and difficult to prepare for a task than not to prepare.”

Malcolm Gladwell, From an interview with Bill Simmons.

A friend of a friend has a great script. It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s fresh, it’s original, and he loves talking about it. His friends, industry kids, say “Write it and send it,” a sentence that is rarely said. Whenever this happens, he disappears for a while. I’ve thought a lot about this, and my read is that that script, that dream project is his lottery ticket, his last and only chance to escape the sad life of normalcy and errands he lives in, the last avenue left that could make him the supermodel-fucking rock star that youth in the 90’s prepared him to be. To write the script, to suffer through it, would be to see the flaws in it. He might get a project, but he would kill the warming dream that gets him through the cold days of endless, ordinary struggle.

It’s a sad thought. But my motto has always been “whatever gets you through the day.” That guy is not a screenwriter. He’s a guy with a screenwriter fantasy, and if it’s anywhere near as awesome as my personal James Bond villain fantasy, I can see why he doesn’t want to leave it. But there comes a time to put childish things away. If you want to be a writer, you must write and write well.

The vast majority of newbie writers are both careless and slow. Their drafts take forever, they refuse to be nailed down by best practices like an outline or a careful plan going in.  When they get notes, they start a new project, continuing on an endless cycle of first drafts.

That’s the hardest and most important work I do with clients. I get them to slow down, get the fundamentals, take a fearless look at themselves, and get them to kill the “brilliant but lazy” self image they have of being a misunderstood boy (or girl) wonder, and get them to see the real person, flawed, imperfectly skilled, and able to improve. It’s the cave that you don’t want to go into that contains the dragon.

I could end the article here with a pithy quote, but I’d like to add my own name to the list of people who’ve let fear for their own stupid, shitty ego slow them down. When I was young, I was praised for being “bright,” but never for hard work. I was facile, but sloppy, always rushing ahead to the next step by cutting corners on the previous. I never learned the fundamentals, a part of me knew it, so I kept going fast to hide my deficiencies. As a result of this sloppiness, I spent most of my 20’s watching people less “gifted” but harder working become more successful than me.

Writing was my saving grace – I might be single, fat and dateless, but I had my spec. And yet, perfection, heck, competence eluded me. A common thought for me was/is, “I’ve spent my entire adult life writing, mortgaged my entire future, missed out on so much fun, how am I this fucking bad at this?”

Eventually, after many false starts, missed opportunities, and incredible failures, I finally took the blow to the ego, saw my flaws, and endeavored to improve every aspect of my writing, bit by bit, slowly and meticulously, so my fundamentals would be deeply ingrained and unconscious. It’s a work in progress, but I feel like I’ve built a base that will allow more interesting development. I’ll leave you with a quote from Cus D’Amato, the man who trained Mike Tyson.

“You must understand fear so you can manipulate it. Fear is like fire. You can make it work for you: it can warm you in the winter, cook your food when you’re hungry, give you light when you are in the dark, and produce energy. Let it go out of control and it can hurt you, even kill you…“Fear is a friend of exceptional people.

You are fucking exceptional. Go and write something. Slowly and carefully.

CHARACTER TIP: CAST YOUR PROJECT WITH A STAR (IN YOUR HEAD, NOT ON THE PAGE)

I love starting a new project notebook for a new project. I like to make entries for all the characters: protagonist, antagonist, love interest, side kick, etc. And then I do my favorite step of all: I find pictures of the stars I want to play my characters. Like all choices in screenwriting, this approach has its proponents and detractors.  These reasons are why I like it, with a few reservations.

Casting keeps things realistic.
Your protagonist should be based on an actual star. You can write a part for a young Dustin Hoffman, but barring a time machine, you’re not getting him. Instead, consider movie stars who have successfully carried actual in the genre you’re writing in the last year, then tell your story using them. This keeps your script in the realm of the plausible, your spec probably won’t get made, but keeping it castable will save it from setting off the bullshit detectors of cynical, savvy script analysts.bullshit detector

For extra credit, look at the kinds of movies and the kinds of budgets your ideal star works in, and then look at how they’ve been doing. If Ryan Gosling has ten flops in a row, his cachet as an inspiration may diminish. If William Hung suddenly becomes the hottest box office star in China, he may be worth considering. Examining movies from this angle gives you a hint of what life is like for studio execs, who have to play this fame vs. cost game of fantasy football every day.

Screenshot (68)

Don’t cite your casting inspiration in your actual script.
Your casting is for you too understand your own material, not to use as a shorthand for others to see your world. You don’t want to lose out on opportunities because you call your black cowboy a “Will Smith-type,” only to inadvertently offend Jamie Foxx.

“Casting” frees your imagination for other tasks.
Contrary to what Albert Einstein may have said, imagination is finite. You only have so many cerebral resources to devote to the task at hand. It’s tough to render a fully realized character in your head, to truly envision their face and manner.  It becomes even tougher when you juggle this image alongside all the action, dialogue, choreography and scene description that you’re going to have to keep track of while you’re writing your scene.

If you cast bad guys 1, 2, and 3 as Vinnie Jones, Ray Park, and Jet Li, tack up their pictures to your board. Externalizing the visualization will free up your mental resources to work on other details, like plot, arc, tone, and setting (though so long as your finding pictures, you could also grab one of your dream setting).

Casting locks you into specificity.
Many writers like to keep things open. Rather than making a strong choice which might be wrong, they keep things vague. Rather than say the bad guy is a tall Chinese woman or a short black man, they’ll keep it open, like a variable in a computer program. The urge to keep things loose is understandable, but ultimately the variables overwhelm the fabric of the script. It’s better to make a strong choice, be wrong, and then make another strong choice than it is to avoid making the decisions.  Writing is about making tough choices.  Choosing option A over option B.  You’re writing a script, not a Choose Your Own Adventure novel.  When you cast your secret agent protagonist as Tom Cruise, you are definitively stating that he is a Tom Cruise type, not a Brad Pitt type. You can always change your mind.  A wrong decision will teach you more than being afraid to make one at all.Cave_of_time

Casting helps dialogue.
A client had trouble writing a scene between a father and daughter. I pitched Tracy Morgan and Joy Bryant, and suddenly the scene began writing itself. Ultimately she went with Gabrielle Union and Denzel Washington, and that was funny in a completely different way. “Casting” gave her permission to explore different kinds of lines for her characters.

Sometimes competence is just a matter of knowing the right protips that will help in certain situations. Casting is not a magic bullet and it might not be for you, but it’s worth keeping in your toolbox for the times when it can get you unstuck.

Common problem: The Geopolitics of Fictional Places (or the perils of world building)

“The world of Xanthagar has four factions. The Avian REGLAXIANS, the psychic WOOTMEN, the undead HRASIS, and the multicolored SENTAGAR. They have lived in an constant war for fifteen centuries since the ARTAX CONFERENCE, but it is said a prophesied hero will…” A composite sketch of the opening of a certain kind of bad script. People hate reading these and they never get made.

250px-TSR2408_Dragon_KingsScripts like these are written by scifi loving nerds who grew up reading Star Wars encyclopedias and Dungeons and Dragons source books, and came away with the notion that that’s how screenwriting is supposed to work. Their scripts hit a problem that I call “the Geopolitics of fictional places.”

As of this writing, the current House Minority Whip is Steny Hoyer. I’m pretty certain you didn’t know that, and it’s also a safe assumption that you join me and the rest of America in not knowing who the Rohingya people are, nor are you taking any action to stop the genocide that they’re experiencing in Myanmar.  It’s hard enough to care about real life factions in real life government, so when someone asks me to remember the distinctions between the various trade guilds of the Reglaxian empire, I just shut down. These are worlds that ask for a lot of investment, but generally lack a payoff that might make the reader glad he made the investment. The vast, vast majority of these worlds lack the really great story to justify the effort, simply because all that world building takes up the space necessary to deliver the narrative goods.  Besides, why would they buy the world of Xanthagar, when they could just as easily option a game, comic, or novel?

Targtree2

A disproportionate percentage of writers are nerds, and nerds tend to gravitate towards deeply textured worlds, where the events of the story are like the tip of an iceberg, a fraction of a much greater whole. Worlds like these work well in comics and novels, and it’s these that get made into movies (HARRY POTTER, LORD OF THE RINGS). Movies with dense, original worlds (WILLOW, DELGO) work less well, unless they originated from very famous directors (AVATAR, INCEPTION). Even these stories work in SIMPLE DICHOTOMIES: good/evil, hot/cold, red/blue. When you get a world where there are 8 different factions with a different elemental alignment, you’ve created a world that’s too complicated to follow, that gets crushed under the gravity of it’s own world building.

WRITERS DON’T MAKE THEIR LIVING OFF OF SPECS, they get hired to adapt other people’s ideas. You’re writing a sample with the hopes of getting hired off of it, so focus on character and structure, don’t waste your time rendering a needlessly complicated world. Scripts like the example above don’t get sold, and read more like a wiki for a videogame than a self contained narrative. Remember, you’re writing a screen story for a mass audience, not a political treatise on the geopolitics of a fictional place.

P.S.  I know someone’s gonna say “STAR WARS.”  Look, it was one movie from 36 years ago.  I’m glad it happened, but it’s not exactly a relevant, modern example.

UPDATE: My friend the wise and accomplished screenwriter Garret made the following observation way more eloquent and smartily than I managed to.  It was too good not to use.

Your actual point is about simplifying world-building, which is great advice.  Keep things simple and streamlined, Don’t bog down in labyrinthine details. Don’t overload your audience with minutiae. All of this is very sound writing strategy that has nothing to do with merchandising or even budgets.

And it’s a lesson that classic STAR WARS took to heart and was a better film for it. When the prequels started off by talking about trade disputes and politics, everyone’s eyes immediately began to glaze over.

Or, more succinctly:

starwars4_0250