Finding an angle on material

When working with a client, I like to develop their sense of what is interesting about idea, what can be done with it. To do this, we go to the front page of /r/todayilearned, and I ask them which story jumps out to them.

Today client picked this one: TIL the Morton salt company raised the national IQ by 3.5 points when they iodinized salt in America. Iodine is critical for normal neurodevelopment particularly during gestation.

I didn’t think it was much of a story, because who wants to see a period piece about some executive working in a salt factory? Happily, the client liked something more abstract. He said, “I like the idea of someone who makes a product that accidentally does good and how that changes them.”

That’s what I call an angle on material. He wasn’t looking at the boring, mundane details of the tale. He was looking for thematic angle. That opens up the idea substantially. Rather than making it about a salt factory (basically boring) you can look for more imaginative visuals that give you more to play with.

For instance, a drug dealer accidentally develops a drug that makes the world a better place. He ends up on the run from people who want to seize his creation, and he must fight them using whatever crazy visual superpowers the drug gives them a la NEXT or LIMITLESS.

So the next time you’re looking through old news stories, don’t just look at the literal specifics. Ask yourself what a good angle on this idea might be, it may yield a better movie idea that’s more illustrative of what is special about your imagination.

Case study – fixing a script that’s all romance and nothing else.

Tomasino (not his real name) first hired me in 2014. He had me read three of his scripts, which all had what I call the “hopeless romantic problem.” It’s one of the seven types of beginner scripts I run into a lot.

Scripts like this tend to prioritize pathos and urgency of the romance over and beyond the story itself. They tend to read as “emo.”

There’s nothing wrong with romantic scripts, but scripts like this tend to prioritize internal love over a rewarding plot, strong setpieces, or anything visual. WHEN HARRY MET SALLY, which you reference, is more about the impossibility of men and women being friends than it is about Harry needing love for the entirety of the story.

I have trouble coming up with a hard fast rubric for what does and doesn’t fall into this category, but if you read a lot of beginner scripts, boy do you know it when you see it.

Tomasino’s scripts were pleasant enough. They had clear characters he plainly gave a shit about, but something was missing. They all had these traits:

  • A lot of talking scenes between two male characters largely defined by their relationships/attitudes towards women.
  • Titles that pertained to stakes which involve getting a girl or not.
  • Drafts more interested in idealizing love than exploring it through any kind of cynicism.

This is a hard problem to fix, because romantics, by nature, are romantic about their take on romance.After writing versions of the same note, I ended up offering a discounted ½ hour of phone coaching to talk to him about it and he took me up on it.

He resurfaced a weeks ago during one of my screenwriting live shows on youtube.

He had upped his game. His characters had edge, his action was internal, and while his enthusiasm for relationships was still present, it augmented the story rather than overshadowed it. I’d love to take credit for his improvement, but really it was all thanks to his two years of focused work and honest self reflection. Still, I had to ask him some questions, and he graciously answered.

What did you get out of phone coaching?

I remember always getting told “Show more… say less… Show more… Say less” and I kept understanding that WRONG, to the point where you insisted a phone conversation take place. In that conversation over the phone, despite my shortcomings as a writer you were pulling so strongly for me, rooting for me and the tone of your voice suggested you wanted me so badly to understand what I was missing. It’s one thing (And a good thing at that) to have somebody read what you’ve written and provide good, honest help but when somebody like you comes along and makes it evident in your feedback that you’d love the writer to succeed.

Did it take you a while to recognize the “hopeless romance” problem?

It took me way too long to recognize the “lovelorn script” issue fully. I focused all my attention on building characters and not enough on plot originality.

How did you feel when you first got the note?

I could grasp it and understand it, but it was hard for me to apply it and I don’t know why. Perhaps it was because I was so surrounded in a particular way of writing, it made it all the more difficult to adapt changes. I wanted to though, and it was just a matter of working on it and re-fining certain things.

How did you overcome it?

What pushed me over the point of overcoming this issue was writing an action driven script. I learned to love descriptions as much if not more than dialogue and learned how fun it was to write conflict. From that point on there was an even split among character and plot progression and the more I applied that thought to my writing, the more I watched my story points (Character/conflict) battle each other for dominance over the other, which I loved.

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?” Writing is a process, and often times there are simple fundamental problems that need to be addressed so that people’s work can improved. Still, a switch from always telling to always showing 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. Used with permission.