Wraithmore – A work in progress

When people ask for advice on how to write a script, they’re usually disappointed by the complexity of the answers they receive. Writing is complicated. There are some guidelines, but few hard rules. There are many methods for writing a script, but they’re all custom – every writer has their own approach, style and methodology.

I’ve been working on a project on Reddit, where I’ve been writing a project from idea to draft, illustrating every step. You can follow along here.

PART ONE: Stating a premise.
PART TWO: Reacting to feedback.
PART THREE: World Building
PART FOUR: Applying three act structure
PART FIVE: Turning 3 acts into a beat sheet and/or outline
PART SIX: Vetting an outline.
PART SEVEN: Get unstuck by getting organized
PART EIGHT: Kill variables in the outline
PART NINE: The fun part of the second act
PART TEN – Midpoint and beyond

Premise Test – notes on Adjective

You’ll often hear me talk about the premise of a movie. When I do, I’m usually talking about the premise test:

An <ADJECTIVE> <PROTAGONIST TYPE> must <GOAL> or else <STAKES>. They do this by <DOING> and learns <THEME>.

An <ADJECTIVE> suggests the characters main trait. It also gives them the start of a personality and starts to individuate them from other people who are similar. It’s basically the principal character trait in the movie. Characters will have more than one trait, but the<ADJECTIVE> is the one that they show the most, the one that most informs the story.

Look at Captains on Star Trek. They all have the same job, but you’d never confuse Sisko for Kirk for Janeway for Picard for Archer. They’re all their own people.

Here are some tips for adjectives:

AVOID REDUNDANCY: A fierce warrior. A commanding commander. A suspicious IRS auditor. A loving mother. All these are wasted words. If your main characters’ adjective is one of the first five words most people would associate with a type, then you might not be digging deeply enough.

BE SPECIFIC: Even if “eccentric millionaire” wasn’t redundant, I don’t know what eccentricity looks like. Does he have a dozen cats? Collect shrunken heads? Bathe in the blood of his manservants? Just as with type, you want the reader to get a picture of what their trait might look like. Be as specific as possible.

LOOK FOR IRONY: A cowardly knight. A reluctant father. A virginal President of the United States. All these represent a break from the expected, and make your character more memorable. However, this can lead to overuse, you don’t want to be clever for clever’s sake, so…

THE CHARACTER TYPE SHOULD INFORM THE DOING IN THE SECOND ACT: Imagine PINEAPPLE EXPRESS with James Bond. Bond easily kills all the low-rent thug and goes on to an actual challenge. Imagine MACBETH and OTHELLO with switched characters: MacBeth carefully sees through Iago’s schemes, Othello kills the usurping uncle in a bold and public coup.

A NEGATIVE TRAIT INFORMS THE ARC: If a knight is cowardly, its a pretty good bet that his adventure will cause him to overcome his cowardice while doing knight stuff.

RANDOM ADJECTIVE NOTES

The second act should push the character out of their comfort zone. If they’re fighting zombies, they should be unlikely zombie fighters. If they fight zombies every, this zombie adventure should push them far past their comfort zone.

Consider dimensionalizing the trait a little. If the night is cowardly, have him be cowardly but generous with his meager possessions. That’s won’t show up in the premise test, but it’s worth thinking about.

Don’t forget to give a character something that’s likeable. If a character is a depressed sad sack, but he has a girlfriend, she must see something in him. Make sure you have a rough idea of what that is. Again, this won’t show in the premise test, but it’s worth thinking about.

This post on aligned traits might help. http://www.reddit.com/r/Screenwriting/comments/299czd/writing_multidimensional_characters_unaligned_and/

Premise Test – Notes on Type

You’ll often hear me talk about the premise of a movie. When I do, I’m usually talking about the premise test:

An <ADJECTIVE> <PROTAGONIST TYPE> must <GOAL> or else <STAKES>. They do this by <DOING> and learns <THEME>.

A type boils a character down into one word, an oversimplified conceptual handle so we get a grasp on who they are and or what they do.

A TYPE COULD BE A PROFESSION: Look at Wikipedia bios. They always begin like this:  Hulk Hogan, is an American professional wrestler, actor, television personality, entrepreneur, and musician. Tenzin Gyatso is the current Dalai Lama. Barack Hussein Obama is the 44th and current President of the United States, A person may wear many hats in their life, but they’ll always have one first. Madonna is a pop singer. Caruso is an opera singer. Magic Johnson might be a businessman and broadcaster, but he’ll always be a retired basketball player first.

A TYPE COULD BE A REFERENCE: Some people are too specific or to be typed easily.They become types of their own. A Marilyn Manson-type. A Tony Stark-Type. A Mike Tyson-type.

A TYPE COULD BE AN LITERARY ARCHETYPE: A hooker with a heart of gold. A young man on the make. A has-been starlet.

THE TYPE SHOULD GIVE A ROLE OF A CHARACTER’S ROLE IN THE STORY: Take MAJOR DAD. He’s a dad who’s in the military, but the dad part comes first. If you were adapting this, you could switch his job, but you’d be hard pressed to make him a bachelor. It’s the same in a story: P.L. Travers might have been a bisexual free spirit, but SAVING MR. BANKS needed her to be a joyless spinster, so that’s the type she (unfairly) occupied in this story.

FINAL TYPE THOUGHTS
Keep types short, 1-3 words. What you’re looking for is accuracy. You should be able to say my story is about a <TYPE> and have a perfect stranger roughly understand the type of person you’re creating.

Your type says a lot about the character, the adjective says more and differentiates him.

People often struggle to be original and eschew types, but it’s really hard to escape. Don’t worry about creating a new type, most of the time it’ll be too weird or novel to ring true. Rather work on finding a unique spin on a type that makes an old idea feel fresh and new.

USEFUL TERM: Thin-slicing

“Thin-slicing is a term used in psychology and philosophy to describe the ability to find patterns in events based only on “thin slices,” or narrow windows, of experience.” Wikipedia

When I hear an idea for a movie, I thin-slice it in my head. A lot of the time, I realize the premise isn’t robust enough to support 100 pages of movie. As you develop your skills and write more screenplays, you develop your ability to thin slice, so you’ll spend less time on characters, premises and choices that are unlikely to work, and more time in directions that are more likely to bear fruit.

Coloring a plot

Here’s something I believe: plot and character aren’t a dichotomy. They’re both tools, a means to an end. That end is entertainment.

A reader asks: I’m just trying to understand how you feel about plot. What makes a good plot? Is there such a thing as a good plot? Are all plots equally uninteresting until colored?

That’s a really good question. I think the answer is yes. You need to color plot with character or substance otherwise it’s just a plot. Nobody comes out of a movie theater saying: my god! What a plot! People like the emotional experiences the plot enables, the journey the plot enables, not the plot qua plot. Take speed – the action set pieces aren’t necessarily plot, they’re moments the plot makes possible.

Consider the color advance exercise. Plot by itself isn’t interesting without something else. In an anecdote texture and detail, in movies, it’s something else.

The reason why the premise test focuses on the “doing” part so much is that the doing is generally what’s going to make the most entertainment. In an action movie, it’s mostly going to be doing, while the character part ads wonderful specificity and originality to the setpieces. In a drama, that’s usually reversed. The scenes are going to be more based on talking, so the exact nature of the characters carries the entertainment and drives the action.

Someone’s going to say that all movies are based on character decisions. I think that’s a little dichotomous, and I’ve never seen anyone successfully prove that. if you think you can do it prove me wrong.

If you were to walk into a packed, 500 seat theater and start telling jokes, you’d want a pretty solid grasp on what an audience finds entertaining in stand up comedy. If you’re going to spend 6 months writing a script, you want to have a grasp on what the audience for that might find entertaining. You’d think that’d be common sense, but oddly, it’s not. Sadly, the people who most need this lesson are the most resistant to learning it. Don’t be that guy. This is the kind of idea that comes from a subjective opinion, but one that will yield more value if you entertain it rather than fight against it.

Dichotomy 101

A dichotomy is any splitting of a whole into exactly two non-overlapping parts. We humans have a lot of them:

Male/female. Good/evil. Wrong/right. Gay/straight. Republican/Democrat. Young/old. Day/Night. Logical/emotional. Mac/PC. Playstation/Xbox. North/South. You get the idea.

JOKE : There are two types of people in the world, the ones that use dichotomies and the ones that don’t.

Dichotomies are always wrong, but occasionally useful enough for this not to matter. Some are funny. Some are useful. But none are right. Still, they’re a vivid illustration of how most people, most of the audience works.

Human nature:

The vast majority of people (read the audience) hate uncertainty. The audience demands faith in an a universe that makes sense. People tend to think in dichotomies. It kind of makes sense, we’re a bilaterally symmetrical race, two hands, two eyes, two brain hemispheres, etc. I have no idea if that’s the reason why, but it’s got a ring of Colbertian truthiness to it, which further underscores my point.

You’d think people would understand that dichotomies are oversimplifications and have a sense of nuance on them, but a surprising amount of people don’t. You see it all over the world, in Youtube comments, in talk radio, in sports fandoms, in fanfic ship communities.

Dichotomies are a form of personal narrative, a complicated subject. Reductively, the world is too complicated for our human brain to take in all the information. If we didn’t have some kind of filter, we’d all be schizophrenics. These assumptions are complex and layered. How we feel about things deeply influences how we feel about them. Call it axiomatic thinking, call it an anchoring heuristic, call it human nature.

TANGENT: The worst are people who believe they have an empirically clear and unalloyed rational perspective on the world. These people are not fun to disagree with. FURTHER TANGENT: Yes, I’m fully aware of the irony that if I was the kind of person I’m describing, I would have no idea if I was that kind of person or not.

The more nuanced that personal narrative is, the more likely it is to be correct. On the other hand, the more nuanced a position is, the less well it communicates (see soundbites, twitter, bumper stickers). There’s a sweet spot.

Fortunately, the natural human tendency to split things into dichotomies allows a number of opportunities for writers.

Dichotomies aren’t all bad.

Some people lean in the complete opposite direction. They understand that dichotomies are reductive and therefore avoid them completely. But too clever is stupid, if we avoid the world of dichotomies too much we run the risk of creating stories that don’t connect to the audience’s common reference pool. Even if an author doesn’t think polygamy is bad, the story will benefit from having a character who does (fairly representing the point of the mainstream) so he can ask the hard questions and have mainstream logic shown to be wrong in a dramatic way.

Dichotomies are useful. Everything we do on a computer can be accomplished with the simple binary of ones and zeroes. Every animal that’s ever existed can be classified in the branching dichotomies of Linnaean classification. The MBTI uses four dichotomies to explain 16 personality type that create a rough framework for understanding the rainbow of personality types. Dichotomies are neither good nor bad, there’s nuances to everything.

The absolute easiest way to handle a dichotomy is to synthesize a third option.

In the war between good and evil, only a formerly evil man can save the day.

In the battle of the sexes, we learn that it takes both energies to make a dynamic partnership.

Bob is a rule follower. Alice is a rebel. They clash, mesh and change and each learn from the other.

The point of this is that if you understand the binary, you can find a way out of them. Every strength is also a weakness. Every sword is double edged. There’s always a happy medium between two conflicting ideologies. One of my favorite axioms is that mainstream stories should explore cynicism to the hilt, but find a wise and clever way to reaffirm optimism.

EXAMPLES:

South Park excels at this.

Relevant XKCD:

TvTropes likes to group things on sliding scales between x and y:

Dichotomies in writing

Plot vs character. Outlining or not outlining. Is Save the Cat bad or good? Artistic movies vs entertaining. 3 act vs not three act. Abstract vs Concrete. Rules vs no rules (and rules themselves are always argued because rules suggests a dichotomy between true and false, where most rules are really presented as guidelines).

You see it all the time in writing questions, on forums, in books, in podcasts. People ask dichotomous questions, and the answer is almost always some form of “both are important, but the intersection is more complicated than you might think.” At some point, beginners grasp this pattern and become journeymen, but owing to human nature, the demand for “It’s not option X, it’s not option Y, it’s option Z” style advice is inelastic and evergreen. As it is in writing advice, so it is in stories.

Looking back on early blogs…

I thought about blogging about screenwriting long before I actually started doing it. I just ran across an early version of this blog that has five posts of wildly varying quality.

This one always amused me. It’s a metaphor about rewriting, using a classic scene from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure as a metaphor. It’s the one where they need keys, so they promise themselves to go forward in a time machine at some later date to steal the keys they need, then magically find the keys.

Capsule summary: Stories are about cause and effect. You are selling people a guided tour of a magical alternate reality where things make sense and effort is rewarded. Everything in story has to make sense (see links). It there are no links, I haven’t written that bit yet). A good story is a marvel of cause and effect. Everything you set up must pay off, if a gun goes off in the third act, it must be shown in the first and loaded in the second. The reading process is incredibly linear, if the story loses a sense of cause and effect, you lose the reader’s attention. Fortunately, we have our own Bill and Ted time machine. It’s called the rewrite process.

My early work has always embarrassed me, but I leave it alone because it reminds me of who I used to be. If there’s any greater lesson to this, it’s don’t be afraid to try and fail, be open to getting better, and don’t wait years to start getting better at writing, get better now.