Case Study – Vlad

Vlad (not his real name) is a client I’ve been working with for a while. When he started, he had me do notes on a few scripts. They were all “combover” type scripts, all setup, no middle.

https://thestorycoach.net/2015/02/19/common-mistakes-in-beginner-scripts/

I gave him my standard advice – build out the middle by writing one awesome second act scene. People often have a hard time with this, Vlad was no exception. We fell out of touch for about six months.

https://thestorycoach.net/2014/11/17/before-you-write-a-script-make-sure-you-have-one-dynamite-scene-for-the-second-act-one-that-couldnt-exist-without-your-premise-one-that-you-cant-wait-to-write/

He rehired me about a month ago – he was a man on a mission. He finishes grad school soon, and he wants to work in showbiz with a passion and focus that blew me away. He pitched me a science fiction story (not his real project) about a girl and a guy who end up on the run from bad men.

I ran him through a simple exercise: tell me the story in five minutes. This produced a simple outline, but it was pretty thin and it wasn’t one he was happy with. We played with this outline via email for a bit, and then  had an aha moment.

The outline read like it was afraid to be interesting. Any time the characters got in hot water, a third party would come to save them, deus ex machina style. It made the characters inactive, and it prevented it from gaining any narrative frisson.

Finally, I asked him: “Vlad, do you know how to write genre scenes?”

It takes a lot of courage to admit when you straight up don’t know something. Vlad admitted he did not.

So I gave him this exercise:

EXERCISE: WRITING AN ACTION SCENE BY MAKING LISTS

Given that the characters are in an apartment trying to recover the macguffin, given that a radioactive, murderous monster is also in the apartment, and given that neither character is a trained fighter, how can we get them out?

List one: props. everything that’s at hand in the apartment.

List two: character skills. every special skill and life experience that could even faintly come in handy here.

List three: cool moves. Everything from a similar movie that you could co-opt, homage or improve upon.

This gives you a thousand permutations to run together. At least one of those combinations will yield an interesting move.

I had Vlad write three versions of the scene. Each were better than the last. I was surprised by how well it worked, I’m always looking for that magic moment when someone “gets it” and this was Vlads.

I asked him to write another scene, later in the story. He came back with a servicable chase scene. Not great, but an easy fix, a solid B-.

So I tried something else:

EXERCISE: POPULATING THE SECOND ACT
Given that we have a solid fight scene and a solid chase scene, write everything that happens in between.

Vlad complied, and just like that we had a second act. We identified all the potentially cool scenes that occurred within that span of time (we came up with about 6, 3 genre scenes, 3 dramatic scenes). He wrote them all in about two days.

This took his game up a level – rather than trying to explain exploration, premise tests, or conceptual specificity, he had a real, workable draft that was easy to improve.

The haters out there are going to say, “Where’s his success?” “What did he win?” “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?” These are fair points, and I hope to shut you up in a few months when he semi-finals in something good. Still, an overnight switch from being paralyzed by a second act to being able to render almost anything in decent scenework is a quantum leap for a beginner, and what I’m trying to move all my clients to.

The details of this have been fudged to protect client confidentiality and the specifics of his idea. Used with permission.

Fundamentals

People often learn to run before they learn to walk. I was always guilty of this. When I was young, a teacher told me this story about slightly corny, thoroughly brilliant coaching genius John Wooden, which I hated then, but have since passed on to most of my clients:

Wooden also paid rapt attention to the little things. For example, on the first day of practice John would spend half an hour teaching his players the proper way to put on a sweat sock.

“Wrinkles can lead to blisters,” he’d warn. “

http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Society/2010/0605/John-Wooden-Lessons-for-basketball-and-life

Also

http://www.nydailynews.com/sports/college/kareem-abdul-jabbar-bill-walton-ucla-john-wooden-coach-article-1.179134

Exercise: Write one thing well (Improv for Screenwriters)

THE EXERCISE

  1. Start with a random noun. It should be a tangible, common thing like mug, clock, sword. Courage is too abstract, postitronic laser metric is too esoteric. This is a good resource if you work alone.
  2. Write a normal statement about this thing. For instance, a mug: it’s a cheap ceramic mug from Crate and Barrel.
  3. Write another normal statement about this thing. For instance, it’s full of lukewarm coffee.
  4. Write an unusual thing about this thing. For instance, the porcelain is splashed with a spray of dried blood.

Blood spray is cliché as hell, but use it if you can’t think of anything else. It’s the most useful, because it gives you an instant lead-in to a scene. Who’s blood is on it and how was it shed?

EXAMPLES

The unusual thing doesn’t necessarily need to be big. For instance a client once pitched me a clock.

It’s digital. It’s made in Taiwan. It was inherited from my aunt.

That’s not a big choice, but it’s big enough. It reminds me of Rope. If she inherited it, she doesn’t know much about it.

Maybe something’s inside. Maybe one day, two big scary guys in Armani trench coats come and gruffly offer $500 for the clock. Maybe she closes the door in a huff, but the guys don’t leave. Maybe she calls the police, goes to open the clock and finds…

Now you have another item to describe.

APPLICATIONS

This drill develops imagination and improv sklls.

This drill helps you compose de facto shots. If Chuck is at a table drinking coffee, the cup need not be described. But if we spend an action line saying three things about the clock, it’s probably going to be a discreet shot, which you’re implying, not telling.

Beginners often struggle to write scripts because they can’t write acts because they can’t write sequences because they can’t write scenes, because they can’t write shots. This exercise gives you an instant shot, and it’s much easier to build from something than nothing.

This exercise gives you an automatic opening image. Rather than blurt a bunch of information about Grace, her shitty apartment, her mannerisms, and her beloved cat (as well as indicating the clock unsubtlely in the background), you can start with:

EXT. GRACE'S APARTMENT – NIGHT

The aging digital clock flips from 8:59 to 9:00 PM. It's cheap plastic, meant to look nice. It rests on a thrifted Ikea nightstand.

GRACE (20's) drops her mail by the clock, and curses when she notes the hour. She picks up her orange cat as she kicks off her shoes. She goes into her tiny, messy kitchen and holds the cat with one hand while grabbing a can of cat food with the other.

Someone knocks on the door... hard.

And you’re off to the races.

BACKGROUND I’ve often wrote about improv and how it helps in screenwriting. A surprising number of my clients have a hard time with this. They’re not comfortable with improv, so they shut down, refusing to give ideas in the moment. That’s a natural reaction, but it’s not a helpful one, especially for writers who’s efforts aren’t producing the results they want (and let’s face it, whose are?).

Improv isn’t about coming up with the perfect idea every time, it’s about freeing yourself to have lots of ideas. The better you are at generating, the more likely you are to have a great idea when you need it. Plus, improv is easy. Once you get over the fear, anyone can improv. If you don’t believe me, go to an amateur night. Yikes.

Improv is the ability to pull ideas from your imagination quickly and usefully. Given that you already know you’re imaginative, you should be better at it than the average improv, kid not worse. If it’s hard for you, it’s you judging yourself. Relevant Ira Glass quote.

The Ira Glass quote

I drop this one a lot:

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.” ~ Ira Glass

Ironically, this has gone so viral that we’re rapidly approaching a world where everyone tells this to creative people. It’s still true.

Exercise: Tell the story in five minutes.

This is one of the first exercises I like to run people through when they hire me as a coach:

“Imagine you’re at a bar and your film making hero comes in. For me, its Tarantino or Scorcese, yours may vary. You mention your project, and he says, alright, what’s the story. You have five minutes.”

I then set a clock and write down everything they’re saying in a shared Google document while they pitch.

If you can’t tell a story in 200 words, you probably can’t tell the story. If you can’t tell the story in five minutes, you definitely can’t tell the story.

Most beginners tend to write “combover scripts,” all first act, no second act. This is exposed with this exercise, because they end up spending the entire five minutes without even getting to midpoint. Other common problems:blurting (treating an interesting thing as just one more thing to get through) and vagueness (one thing leads to another, and finally they’re at the castle).

This works best if you have someone type for you, because we tend to be better at communicating when we’re talking to someone. If you don’t, record yourself with your phone or dictaphone and transcribe it later. Resist the temptation to fix it, just record the exercise.

Then do it again. And again. You should be sharper on your third iteration than you are on your first. Imagine if you did this three times a day for a week. Try that.

That’s the five minute exercise.

On pronouns (a programming metaphor from me, a guy who doesn’t understand programming)

Q: As I write an action I am using the Characters name to start the sentence followed by using ‘She’ for the next line.
For ex: Jane wakes in the dense forest. Her eyes closed, still in the moment. She hides quickly, rubbing her neck and ankle, feeling the pain that she has never experienced before. Is this a problem?

Think of it as programming. You create a character by naming them. Then you describe them a little so the audience can see them. Then anything you do with that character already has all that good stuff attached to it. Pronouns are fine, so long as they’re not confusing. If you introduce Jane neand she’s the only character in the scene, she is fine. If there are four women and they all share focus, you might want to use their names to keep things clear.

Reader question: How did you get started?

I moved to LA in 2003, when I was 18. I came from Vermont. Like many, I worked an unpaid internship along with a shitty job at a movie theater. My internship was at Untitled Entertainment, a management company. We had THE RING-era Naomi Watts and PUNK’D era Ashton Kutcher as clients. It was excited. I started reading scripts to stand out and in the hopes of getting the managers to read my laughable specs.
Eventually I went to CAA, to the mailroom, where they had a program where you could read scripts for $40 bonuses. I read a lot, so many that they revised the system. After that I went to a development job at a comic company. After that I freelanced, reading for a diverse array of producers and management companies, until about 2008, when most of those jobs dried up. I was able to bridge this till about 2011, because I had some paid WGA stuff (which was awesome, and I didn’t appreciate as much as I should). In 2011, I started building my coaching practice.