Thursday, May 27, 2010

Memorable Characters Take Memorable Writing

To create memorable characters, I’d like to make a suggestion.

Keep a journal of overheard dialogue. Gasp! ScreenwriterChic, are you telling me to eavesdrop? Yep! I’m not saying stalk anyone, but you can grasp different rhythms, different accents when you eavesdrop. No one wants to hear characters that all sound like you. Each character must have a distinct voice. Each character must be different.

One of my favorite lines from a movie is, “Yeah. You blend.” It’s from MY COUSIN VINNY, written by Dale Launer (whom I have had the privilege of speaking with… but about RUTHLESS PEOPLE). I love this line so much that I posted it as a status on Facebook the other day.

You’d be surprised the reception it had! For three pages, people posted their favorite lines from the movie. Which tells me it was great writing.

When you make your character, each one MUST have their own voice. Lisa didn’t sound a THING like Vinny (of course she was female!) They both had thick New York accents, but her rhythm, her speech pattern was different. Her ideas were different. Her focus was different, which crafted her character. By the time Marisa Tomei got a hold of the part, it was just finishing touches that were needed.

Each character had a distinct voice. You could tell each character was DRAMATICALLY different.

“Are you mockin’ me in that outfit?”

“Mrs. Reilly. And only Mrs. Reilly!”

“A doe eyed little de-uh!”

“I don’t know! I’m a fast cook, I guess!”

“Same make and model tire!”

“Aidin’ and abettin’!”

“Maybe the laws of physics cease to exist on your stove! Were these magic grits?”

“Ladies and gentlemen of the j-j-j-j-j-j-j-j-j-j-j-jury.”

“Seb’n bushes!”

“The two what?”
“Did you say, Utes?”
Oh, excuse me, Your Honor. The two youths.”

Can you see these characters? The diversity adds so much depth to the story, a reality to it, if you will, and every scene becomes memorable. So much so that Marisa Tomei walked away with an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

Make your characters memorable. They will make or break your script, and ultimately, your movie.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Confusion = Bad

When you write a script, you are writing it for the READER. The reader is not the producer or the director, your mom or your dad. The reader is the one who holds the power. Why? Because they give coverage on your script with the ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down’ to move it along TO the producer or director.


Yes, it’s an actual job. It’s thankless and overwhelming and time consuming. I know this will be a shocker, but they WILL toss your script into the doomed circular file if:

1.) they get confused
2.) they hate your script or
3.) your script isn’t properly formatted

Don’t blame me, I don’t make the rules! I’m going to break this down in the next few blogs for you. So, let’s take Number 1.

How can a reader get confused?

Besides a poorly constructed script, I’m going to focus on the most recent and one of the most pertinent errors to cause confusion in a script: NAMES.

I recently read a man’s script which was pretty good, however, he had three characters that all started with the same first letter. To make matters worse, he had a dialogue with all three of them. I was completely lost and if I wasn’t critiquing it for the guy the script would have been deep sixed. It was extremely hard to follow.

Jesse, Jessup, and Justice.

Sweet Lord, people. Don’t give your characters the same first letter. You have an entire alphabet at your disposal. Please use it. There are baby names books that can help if you get stuck!

Another note: try to change the syllables of the names.

Your goal is to make it as easy as possible for the reader to intake the information, keep up as they speed read, and give you a good mark. Don’t have Bob and Tom. Have Bobby and Tom. Or Bob and Tommy. Bonnie and Annie should become Bonnie and Ann. Make it easy.

Don’t have rhyming characters. Kelly and Shelly. Mindy and Cindy. Craig and Greg.

Let me try to break it down a bit better for you.

Imagine an office. Desk. Fluorescent lights. Office supplies. Starbucks.

Now imagine the desk with stacks upon stacks of 110-115 page scripts. You can’t see the office supplies. You can’t see the desk. There are scripts in stacks on the floor. Two things can be made out in this room. The chair and the rather large wastebasket. And your script is in the stack.

The reader picks up a script. Not one with an embellished covering or title page. Those reek of amateurism and are immediately tossed into the dream eating can. She looks at the title page. If it looks good, she flips it open.

A reader will know by page 10 whether he or she will continue. It’s not that he or she doesn’t like you. It’s not that he or she doesn’t like your idea. It’s the fact that he or she has to understand what you’re trying to say. What takes us an hour or so to read will take them thirty minutes. They’re speed reading demons!

Why wouldn’t you want to make it easy for them? If you make it easy for them, you make it easy for them to give you great coverage and move your script along.

“Now, hold on a minute!” you say. “I’ve seen movies where there are rhyming names, and people start with the same first letter!”

Yes, that’s true. Most of those movies were written by the producers or already had money behind them.

Let’s take Twilight, New Moon, and Eclipse for example.
Two of the characters names are Jacob and Jasper. I have heard countless people get Jacob and Jasper confused. Even more so with the folks who read the book. Did it hinder the success of the movies? Nope! But Stephenie Meyer was approached to make her book into a movie and had a screenwriter adapt her work. This wasn’t a script she sent in.

You can do what you want. Take my advice or leave it, it’s up to you. I’m just trying to give you some insight to offer you the best possible chance to get your work up on that coveted silver screen.

Why make it harder for the reader?

Why make it harder for yourself?

Friday, May 14, 2010

There's A Method To My Madness!


There’s nothing more exhilarating than typing FADE OUT, sitting back, and letting out that sigh that says, “I’m done with this one!” It’s a great feeling of accomplishment. I pat myself on the back for ten seconds and then print it out.

“Oh! You shop it around?” you ask.


I’m going to share with you my method of making a kick butt screenplay.

First, write the darn thing! You’re not a writer if all you do is complain that someone stole your idea and you’ve not written a lick about it. Write it!

Then, find yourself a group of people who will not kiss your butt, yet are supportive in your endeavor.

I happen to be surrounded by people who love my ideas and I’m constantly bouncing ideas off of them. When their eyes light up and they exclaim, “I would SO go see that!” I start making rough outlines.

By rough outline, I mean I take a beat sheet and give my idea a small amount of framing. Then, I start fleshing it out a bit. I ask people what outcomes would be better, what twists would be cool… the point is, I get a free focus group on what people want to see. I write the script. I let people read the script.

“What confuses you about the plot?” I’ll ask. “Can you see everything I’ve written?” If the answer is no, I tackle that section. If they are confused, I know I need to work on setting things up earlier.

I enjoy this part of the writing because this is where I really get to “meet” my characters.

Melissa Scrivner, a writer on the hit series CSI: Miami stated in an earlier interview, “I feel like on the first draft, the characters don’t speak to you until you go through the pain of rewrites. Then they become real to you.”

I couldn’t agree more.

I’ve recently completed a script. I’ve been working on it close to a year. I don’t even know how many rewrites I’ve already done on it. My main character, in the first draft, was calculating, cold, and could kick some serious tail. Action packed, yes, but there was nothing human about her. At all. It was through the rewrites that I found out why she did what she did and why she was who she was. She revealed her humanity to me, not me forcing humanity on her. The character became a breathing person on my pages. Strange to say, but it’s true. And right now, on my pages, she’s in her truest form. A director will see her differently. A producer will see her differently. The actress will see the character differently. And I’ll have to let her go and be who they want her to be. I'm okay with that.

I wrote this for me.

That doesn’t mean I throw what people tell me out the window. The people I have who read my stuff critique it. They know what to look for. They show me grammatical errors and mistakes. I’m glad to have them around! If they say that something confuses them, then it will confuse the READER and that’s who I need to be on my side!

I do not use flowery description. That screams you’re an amateur if you do. Precise. Short. Words. Bingo.

I have to say, I’m a blessed woman to have the people around me that I do. They read my drafts, lines of dialogue, scene descriptions… and willingly! What a great group of people I know! And the best part, is that when I say, “Gut it!” or “Bathe it in blood!” (Meaning red ink, of course!) They do. They know my feelings aren’t going to be hurt. I want to know what is wrong. I don’t want to send out something that is not professional. If you don’t have that kind of support and you want critiques, feel free to shoot me an email. If I have time, I’ll do it.

Just don’t act like Raul. (check him out on a few posts past).

Different people have different methods. Don't be afraid to try! What method works best for you?

Monday, May 10, 2010

Just Slug Away!

Let’s talk slug lines.

For beginners that read this blog, a slug line is that one scene description in one line:


That’s a slug line. But it’s not terribly descriptive, is it? You want to get as much information across to your reader has humanly possible in that one line. Make the slug line work for you!


Now, you know four things:
1. The scene takes place in an office
2. The scene takes place in MY office
3. My office is empty.
4. It’s daytime.

That gives out a lot of information. Which is a great thing! I read one guy’s script that said:


Well, what does that mean? Is it a shooting range? A cattle range? A range in Kansas is WAY different than a range in Colorado. Help the reader out!


Gives a better description of where you are, doesn’t it?

Slug lines are your friend. They’ll work for you if you let them. Which brings me to NAKED slug lines. Ever heard of those?

Naked slug lines are slug lines that have no description under them at all.


              Hand me that there shovel, Curly.

What? There’s a shovel? What is going on? You don’t want to confuse the reader! So… always have your slug line follow with some sort of description. It can even be two words.


Busy. Crowded.

Annabelle prepares the deposit.

So, now you know that you’re in an old musty bank (because new banks aren’t musty) and it’s a busy day in there. The slug line has set the stage for you to then tell us what Annabelle is doing. You get a better feel of her surroundings and is the framework of that scene.

You’ve used the slug line to work for you AND you’ve probably saved two or three lines of writing thanks to your precise writing skills…two or three lines that can now be used on your witty dialogue!

Great job, Slugger!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Don't Cheat The Audience!

When it came to theaters, I was like, “Oooooh…interesting!”

But then I heard reviews. And I decided to save my money and wait until THE LOVELY BONES came out on Netflix. Which I did. I saw it last night.

Now, I want to offer a disclaimer here. I have not read the book. So, I have nothing to compare with the movie. And this is not a movie review. When I see something in a movie that is the writer’s fault, I simply WANT to point it out to HELP all of you future Oscar winners out there.

I agree with critics and I’ll tell you why.

While I cannot say enough about Saoirse Ronan’s spectacular performance as Susie Salmon (like the fish), I can see why people turned up their noses at what could have been a great movie. And let it be known, I did like the movie. I didn’t like the ending.

I’ll tell you why.

For the entire movie, we see Susie’s killer plodding along. For the entire movie we see Susie’s family in shambles. Susie’s caught in the “in-between”. She watches her family. She’s close with her father. Her mother can’t stand the fact that her daughter was murdered and leaves for a bit. Their grandmother comes to help out. Susie’s murder was a horrific event that toppled this poor family. To make matters worse, no one ever found the body. Just a hat and a large amount of blood. I could think of nothing worse to happen.

There was an enormous set up throughout the movie.

Act 1 established Susie as a bright, sweet girl who had dreams and crushes like the rest of us. She was at odds with her mom about wearing knitted gifts and close with her father as was shown in the model boat scene. She’s a very trusting little girl and is lured into a bad situation.

Act 2. Enter Susie’s new world of the in between. Sometimes she’s happy, sometimes she’s sad, or angry. Meanwhile, the killer rolls a charm of a dollhouse in his hand. He took it from Susie’s bracelet. We see him fidget with it throughout the movie. He’s interested in Susie’s younger sister, Lindsey, now. While he is plotting her demise, Susie’s father, wracked with grief, attempts to find who murdered his daughter. It drives the mother to the breaking point, and she leaves. The grandmother comes to help with the family. Susie watches from the in between as Lindsey gets her first kiss. We see the heartbreak of all that has been lost. We really want this killer to suffer. What a bad man!


After awhile, Lindsey gets a feeling of who the killer is. The father develops a roll of Susie’s film and he remembers the strange neighbor who, ironically, paints his flowers red. The dad has a conversation with the killer. Susie watches and gives Dad a sign. Dad chases the killer into the killer’s home. The police speak to Dad and explain that no charges will be pressed. Guess what the killer has rolling around in his hand? Susie’s charm! We hate the killer even more. He’s mocking this poor father. He said that he was sorry for his loss! The nerve of that guy!

Let’s go to Act 3. Lindsey has had enough of this. She sneaks into the killer’s house, finds damning evidence, and barely escapes. HA! Take THAT Killer! Now he’s on the run! Or is he?

Susie watches him load up her body (which is stuffed into a safe) and heads to a sinkhole.

And here is when the movie loses EVERYONE.

The killer rolls the safe end on end. Susie possesses a girl who took her boyfriend after the murder. Instead of screaming, “HEY! There’s a body in that safe!!!!” What does she do? She gets her first kiss from the boyfriend. Granted, that was sweet. But Susie seems to be the type that hates to watch her family suffer. It seems that it would be out of character for her. Meanwhile, the killer rolls her body into the sinkhole and it’s consumed by water. No one will ever find her! So, we feel like that was stupid. Maybe we could have gotten over that every little girl wants a magical first kiss. Maybe. There’s room to wiggle. A LITTLE. VERY little.

So, the writer has lost some of the folks. Let’s move on and see why people were so upset with this movie, why they felt so cheated.

Police swarm the killer’s house. He’s obviously gone. The only closure the parents have is that the killer was a neighbor. No body to bury. No face to face with the killer. No mom screaming, “How could you?!?!” No justice.

Outside a diner, the killer, still fiddling with Susie’s charm, attempts offer a girl a ride home. An icicle falls, and he topples over a ledge.


The audience was completely cheated!!!

The set up was so great throughout the movie. We WANTED the killer to get caught; we WANTED to see the parents and family have closure. We WANTED to see Susie’s body returned to her parents. For Susie to have HER closure with her parents. And it’s not so much what we WANTED to see, it’s what we, the audience NEEDED to see. While there was a little voice over tying everything in together, it was a horrible ending to a beautiful film.

Why tease with a charm that won’t be used later in the film? If you, as a writer, do that, there has to be some sort of closure for that as well.

Now granted, this was based on a book. Perhaps the resolution in the book was better. They have more time to get things across in novels. This movie was apparently difficult to write for, since it had three, count ‘em THREE, screenwriters. You would think of the three, someone would understand what the audience wants to see. I know the book may have ended one way and the book is probably better, but it’s the screenwriter’s job to ADAPT the book.

So, if you have learned nothing from this rant, learn this: DO NOT EVER EVER EVER CHEAT THE AUDIENCE.

If they’ve put in the time to follow characters on a journey, don’t let them down.

And Saoirse Ronan: Should you ever read this. I became your fan watching this movie.