WRITING EXERCISE: The “I Want” Song. Make your character more compelling by giving them a single, overriding desire.

“Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” Kurt Vonnegut

“You gotta have a dream, if you don’t have a dream, How you gonna have a dream come true?” South Pacific

Most scripts fall flat because most characters are flat. They don’t want anything. Desire is a powerful tool that we instantly relate to.  If I see a kid walking down the street, who cares? If I see that kid looking longingly at a $6,000 motorcycle, I get him.

WRITE AN I WANT SONG

In most American musicals, the hero is a little guy (or girl) who doesn’t amount to much right now, but dreams of a brighter future. Usually, they do this with an “I Want” Song, where they sing of how this little town is too small and they know there’s a great big world out there for them. This is always so the audience can identify with them. Because the hero, just like you, isn’t a movie star or a princess or anybody else officially special, but is really special deep down if they try, and (unlike those conformist drones around you) wants to try. The lyric to the song may well include the actual words “I want” or some variant thereof to hammer the point home. – TV TROPES

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/IWantSong

The problem with most first acts is that I don’t get a clear sense of what the rooting interest is. I don’t get the main characters deal, and he doesn’t have a clear cut want. A lot of times, the author hasn’t seen fit to give him one.

So try this – write an I Want Song as if he’s a character in a Disney Musical. This probably won’t be very good song, because we’re mostly screenwriters, not song writers. Please god, don’t put this song in your script. But write the song, then make sure the first ten pages communicate that want as clearly and charismatically as if you were Alan Mencken and this was a showstopping number in an animated feature.

How to maintain suspension of disbelief

Truth is stranger than fiction because there are limits to the kind of stuff we’ll accept in fiction.

This comes down to “suspension of disbelief.” People will accept that Superman can fly, but it drives them crazy that his friends don’t recognize him when he puts on glasses.

If you aspire to a greater realism than a comic book from the 1930’s, you’ll need to account for suspension of disbelief. You need the audience to accept that your story is actually happening, on a more meta level, you need your audience to believe that you know what you’re doing.

COMPLIANCE is an example of the vagaries of suspension of disbelief. The movie is a beat-for-beat dramatization of a real event – a scam where a pervert convinced McDonalds managers to strip search employees. Even though the story is 100% true, people didn’t buy it. When I saw it at the WGA theater people walked out muttering “bullshit. The movie needed to do a better job of explaining why a reasonable person might do what the actual people did.

We can maintain the suspension of disbelief with a number of techniques.

EXAMPLE:

JENNY, a beautiful secretary, leaves the nightclub. She walks through a bad neighborhood, to her car. She hears a phone ring in a dark alley. Curious, she goes to investigate.

Except bullshit, no she doesn’t. Dark alleys are scary, this situation is scary, and it’s really hard to believe that a beautiful woman would willingly walk into such a comic book scenario. People have a nasty tendency to blame the victim, and here the writer is making it hard for an audience to sympathize with anything that might happen.

The writer might say, “Hey, this is based on a true story and if you knew my friend Jenny, you’d accept that.” This may be true, but I don’t know Jenny. To maintain suspension of disbelief, we’d have to use a little technique:

FIRST WE NEED TO CALL IT OUT:

It’s unusual for Jenny to behave like she does. It doesn’t mean she shouldn’t do it, or couldn’t do it, but we need to acknowledge this as unusual, lest we look like idiots who can’t write human behavior.

  • A friend could mention this earlier, at the club. “Jenny, you’ve got to learn to think ahead.”
  • We could see Jenny with her psychologist – “Jenny, you have a negative pattern of self harm.”
  • Jenny could do this to herself. As she walks down the alley, she could say “Jesus, this is how every episode of SVU starts…”

Given that this unusual behavior exists, we should then JUSTIFY it.

We don’t have to. The third example is a case of “lampshade hanging,” we get a lot of mileage just by tacitly admitting to the audience that we know this is fucked up. But if we want to build more identification with the character, we’d have to ground her behavior in a relatable reason.

  • It could be that Jenny is too trusting. She grew up in Mayberry, so she doesn’t have a normal person’s sense of danger. That would inform every other aspect of her character.
  • It could be that Jenny believes that her Tae Bo class makes her a modern day Ninja. We’d probably want to see that put to the test – she’s either right or she’s wrong.
  • It could be that, owing to a horrible childhood, she might put herself in situations where she could get hurt.

IN CLOSING

The audience goes into a story with certain expectations of what human behavior is. Everyone’s a little different, but part of writing is gauging what people will accept. Calling it out and justifying become powerful tools for maintaining the psychological credibility of your work.

Five things to consider when you’re writing a TV pilot

  1. The high concept of a show is usually found in its character archetypes, not a “big idea.”
  2. Shows are about a family, de facto or otherwise. Show the dynamics of that family.
  3. Most spec pilots get this note: cut all this plot into the first act, explore the situation in the second, third, fourth act – odds are the pilot will be your only time the characters exist, don’t save anything.
  4. Pilots usually work like this: ordinary world (setup character dynamics)/ break from expectations (explore the dynamics via chaos that follows) /new status quo (sets up dynamic that the rest of the season will explore).
  5. Avoid premise pilots. A pilot should feel like an illustrative episode of the series, not a completely separate story that fails to set up what you find interesting about the concept and cast.

Common Mistakes in Beginner Scripts

Over the years, I’ve noticed some trends in beginner scripts, and I’ve seen some of the same problems again and again. Here are some archetypal weak scripts.

1. The Combover

This is a script that lacks a true second act. If the premise is werewolf cop, the cop won’t become a werewolf until midpoint.

Writing eight vivid, high concept sequences that fully utilize a premise is hard work, it’s much easier to write stalls and dialogue. These scripts communicate poorly because they show a lack of faith in the idea they’re selling. It’s like a combover – a doomed attempt to hide a lack of content.

SOLUTION: Condense the first 50 pages to the first 25. Write 4-8 dynamite ideas that stem from premise and reflect an understanding of genre and make sure they’re actively explored in the second act.

2. Too much World Building

Combover scripts tend to be a underimagined. These scripts are vividly imagined, but in the wrong direction. If the premise is werewolf cop, there will be 50 pages about the origins of werewolves, the politics of werewolves, the need for the masquerade, and the sixteen types of werewolves, but few coherent action sequences.

Writers of these tend to be nerds who found comfort in vivid worlds during unhappy childhoods (1). They’re writing to create a world of their own, but their early drafts are more about showing off the world than they are about using them to entertain others.

SOLUTION: Tell the story in one page in a different setting. That will shake the story loose from the setting and show the universal, archetypal base at the core.

3. Affable Chatter

These scripts are written by people with an ear for dialogue, who know it and lean on it. Like an athlete coasting on athletic ability, these scripts coast on an ability to write pleasing dialogue at the cost of actual jokes or dramatic content.

These scripts tend to be glib, readable, but thin. Often times, they suffer from a certain reluctance to put the characters in any real pain, which is great for life but death for drama.

SOLUTION: Make the protagonist sweat. Start him in a comfort zone and then make him suffer and change. Find out what would really make him suffer, then do it to him. The gift of gab is an armor, take it away so he has to earn it back.

4. Hopeless Romance

These scripts tend to be written by the lonely. They’re romantic movies where the girl is the girl ends up being the stakes (there are female driven and gay versions of this archetype, but not nearly as many). These tend to reflect a lack of practical experience dating.

Making the girl the stakes makes the main character seem weak and dippy and tends to make the woman feel like a trophy to be earned.

SOLUTION: Give the main character a goal that isn’t tied to the love interest. Then the story gains frisson based on how the love interest complicates the pursuit of the main goal.

5. Glorified short

These tend to be stories that could be told as a 3 minute music videos that have been stretched out to feature length, because, let’s face it, screenwriting is a lottery business. These tend to have a lot of filler, a lot of talking about the action.

SOLUTION: If you suspect that you might have this problem, try writing a 10-20 page short version of your script. If you don’t miss anything about it, just make that short.

6. Artistic to a fault

These scripts are written by the kinds of people who write off all screenwriting books as worthless hackery. They tend to be atmospheric, narratively loose, and marked by dream sequences and cinematic homages.

These scripts reflect an admirable contempt for convention and a nice courage, but often fail to fully communicate what’s in the writer’s heads. It’s hard to note these because the authors often will take any whiff of the familiar to mean “make it hacky.”

SOLUTION: Be clear. Articulate exactly what you want to say and ask yourself if that’s being conveyed. If it’s not, make it so. If it is, but most people are turned off by it, consider how it makes you feel.

7. Fill in the Blanks

The opposite of the previous. These are scripts that are blatantly written in SAVE THE CAT/HERO’S JOURNEY beats. The problem is, they lack the fun scenic moments to obscure the bones.

Beginning writers often mistake the ability to frame a story in conventional beats with being entertaining. These scripts have the structure, but they lack any sense of poetry, or even lowbrow fun.

SOLUTION: If you can write one of these, you’ve internalized the structure, now it’s time to stop leaning on it. Write something more organic and find the structure after the fact.

NOTES
(1) I get more flack from this line than almost anything I’ve written. I’m tempted to redact it, but it’s honest, and as a nerd who found comfort in vivid worlds during my unhappy childhood, I’m claiming N word privileges here.

Screenwriting in four words: Imagine vividly, communicate clearly.

There are a lot of things to learn: character arcs, structures, set ups, payoffs, foreshadowing, all that English major crap, but it’s all for naught if you’re not doing those two things.

This might seem like an oversimplification, this might seem incredibly obvious, but in my years as a reader, writer, and coach, I’ve noticed that the failure to do one or both of these things is at the root of all screenwriting failures.

We tend take both of these things for granted, and as a result, we do both haphazardly, carelessly.

I want to spend a little time talking about both things. If you have a question about either, ask me and I’ll try to formulate a good answer. My plan is to write a series of articles that will help writers delve into these two fundamental pillars of the craft.