Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Wesley Rowe: Proactive Protagonists

Of all the notes a screenwriter can receive from a reader, one deserves a special, more fiery and rusty-nail-pierced coffin in hell: "The protagonist needs to be more proactive." I have seen it applied to nearly every genre, and it is almost never the story's actual problem. I think it's worth discussing here, though, because the issue of proactiveness reveals so much about who we are and what draws us to be writers and readers in the first place.

It is one of the most jarring of all notes, in large part because it sounds like such an all-encompassing, page-one rewrite sort of criticism. It is also one of the most frustrating because, while the reader may have found a flaw that needs to be addressed, he probably doesn't have even the foggiest notion of what the real problem is. It immediately puts you on the defensive and tempts you to debate story principles instead of critiquing your story.

A quick dissection of Back to the Future, for example, might help your case: It features a protagonist who sighs a lot at how lame his family is, listens to endless exposition by super-chatty dog lover Doc Brown, flees from terrorists in the only vehicle available, and finds himself the victim of a vicious case of oedipal trouble. Actually making this argument to defend yourself would be a mistake, though, because it will prevent your reader from teasing out the underlying problem.

Instead, probe your reader about the major beats of the story and whether each one "worked" for him or her. This simple, vague question focuses the reader not only on her response to particular story beats, but on her expectations for those beats. When you find the emotional spine of your story and get the pieces of the story integrated with its genre, the passive character complaint will hopefully drop away.

One of my favorite horror characters is the teenage boy in The Hills Have Eyes (both Wes Craven's original and the remake). He is the only character with direct evidence that something dangerous lurks, yet he fails to tell anyone about the slaughtered dog. Whether his motive is fear or denial is never explained, yet the behavior is frustratingly human. Similarly, Marty McFly's perspective of teenage repression, and his exasperated inability to even find a ride to the lake for a night of romance, is identifiable to anyone who ever felt oppressed by the limitations of youth. His eventual triumph -- fixing his family -- is really the fulfillment of a collective wish that we could control the things beyond our control.

We live from one decision to the next, and so generally do our heroes. What makes drama or comedy captivating is the uniquely realized relationship between the circumstances and the character. Monster protagonist Aileen Wuornos' turn toward serial killing starts with a violent but nonetheless passive case of self-defense. Another protagonist, such as in Thelma & Louise, might have stopped after the first murder.

Readers, along with the rest of us, are cut from the same cloth as the prototypical hero of the Hero's Journey story archetype. Even when "called to action" on page 12, we keep looking for an easier path until page 25 or 30. Even then, we have to be chased into action by an old Volkswagen van bristling with terrorists. We only start to take the reins when the stakes have raised to a point that we will be destroyed if we don't forge ahead. If only we could find a way every day be the daring Hero of the third act Confrontation! But I usually feel like I'm muddling through an endless series of second-act complications.

Wesley Rowe, a freelance writer and independent producer, draws upon work experience ranging from, more recently, creative executive positions at two studio-based production companies, to, in his youth, designing mechanical parts for an NASA satellite that tested Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. He lives in L.A.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Meet the Reader: Flashback Back(f)lash

I just finished reading a spec script that began with a flashback. Literally -- the first words in the script were:



Aside from the fact that this opening makes it clear the author of this particular script doesn’t understand that to in order to flashback, you must first have something to flash back from, it serves as a good example of a really irritating (to me, anyway) trend that I’ve seen develop in spec scripts in recent years -- the overuse and misuse of the flashback device. I would estimate that 75% of the specs that I read these days contain at least one flashback and at least 40% are riddled with the things. I’m not really sure how to account for this, but I suspect it has to do with the heavy use of the device in popular films such as the Tarantino oeuvre and Memento and of television series such as the various CSIs, Family Guy, Scrubs, and Lost. No matter what the reason, however, the use of the flashback has become epidemic in recent years and that’s something I take issue with for a number of reasons:

1. It’s bad writing. The flashback is a tool designed to provide exposition to the audience that cannot be comfortably incorporated into the primary narrative. From this perspective, any use of a flashback can be considered a failure on the part of the writer to find a coherent way to place all of the information needed to tell a story into that story. There are, of course, many valid creative and practical reasons to employ flashbacks, but in most of the specs I read, it appears as if the device has been used because the writers weren’t clever or skilled enough to fit the exposition in any other way. As a result, the final product often comes across as unimaginative, clumsy, and ham-fisted.

2. It’s bad storytelling. A flashback is by its very nature an intrusion into the primary narrative, which is why traditionally the device has been used only sparingly. However, most of the specs that I read tend to use them very liberally. As a result, the primary narrative is constantly being interrupted, which makes for some very choppy and often very hard to follow storytelling. This is an especially big problem when -- as often is the case -- these multitudes of flashbacks are concentrated in the first 10 to 15 pages of the screenplay.

Since the purpose of a flashback is to provide information vital to our understanding of a script’s plot or the characters, it follows that, for a flashback to be effective we would first need to know what that plot is or who those characters are first. Which means that, ideally, a flashback should be introduced well into the story -- after the plot has been set up and the characters established. Despite this logic, many of the scripts I read begin using flashbacks on the first page and often in the first paragraph, before the writer has the chance to establish much of anything.

The problem with doing this, of course, is that before the readers can figure out what’s going on in the script’s present tense, they’re yanked out of that situation and plopped down into an entirely new one only to be re-yanked and re-plopped back down into the original circumstances a few lines later. If this happens -- as it usually does -- over and over again, the result is almost always total narrative confusion and disorientation. To repeat a piece of advice I’ve given on several previous occasions, if you can’t get through the first 10 to 15 pages of your screenplay without flashing back, then perhaps you should consider starting your script at an earlier point in time, since your story so obviously does.

3. It’s gimmicky. In the past decade, non-linear storytelling -- the jumping back and forth from past to present to future rather than simply telling a story in chronological order -- has become all the rage. While I do think that non-linear storytelling can be an interesting and effective tool when it is an organic outgrowth of a particular piece’s theme and/or content -- Memento and Betrayal come to mind as excellent examples -- otherwise I think it’s just a gimmick -- something tossed in to jazz up a piece to make it seem more exciting. My feeling about this is that the excitement in your script should come from your story, not the way the story is told. If the tale you’re telling isn’t inherently compelling, then all of the bells and whistles in the world aren’t going to make it so. If it is, then trust it to take us where you want us to go.


Ray Morton is a writer and script consultant. His books Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Making of Steven Spielberg's Classic Film and King Kong: The History of a Movie Icon from Fay Wray to Peter Jackson are available in stores and online. He analyzes screenplays for production companies, producers, and individual writers. Morton is available for consultation and can be reached at ray@raymorton.com.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Mystery Man: On Adaptations

Let me get on my Project Gutenberg soapbox.

One of the most under-appreciated opportunities for aspiring screenwriters is Project Gutenberg. As many of you know very well, most of the assignment jobs screenwriters pick-up are adaptations of known works. I truly believe that before you ever step onto the world stage with your writings, you should already have lots of good experience under your belt adapting books into screenplays.

I’d say you should adapt at least 5-10 books just to be safe.

No, I’m not kidding.

Your fabulous, original, award-winning screenplay may open a couple of doors and get you a couple of meetings, but the question will inevitably surface, “Have you ever adapted a book before?” And what’s the correct answer to that question? “Are you kidding? I love adaptations. I’ve already adapted this, this, this, this, and this.”

But, wait, how do you get around that little copyright thing?

Thus, new writers should take advantage of Project Gutenberg, which has over 25,000 free online books that are all in the public domain. Consider the fact that a couple of scripts on the 2008 Black List are adaptations of classic works in the public domain. There was, as I recall, A Tale of Two Cities, from Dickens, of course, and Galahad, a retelling of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table through the eyes of, well, Galahad. That’s not unusual. Playwright Tom Stoppard made a name for himself with Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead, which was a play about two very minor characters from Hamlet in a world that sort of echoes Waiting for Godot.

In any case, something you may want to do for yourself in 2009 is adapt a book into a screenplay. Do this not for the sake of getting a sale but for the more important experience of internalizing a story and transforming it into a film. And do that at least 5-10 times. And yes, many of those are books have been adapted endlessly over the years. So try to look at the source material from a completely fresh perspective. Do a modern reinterpretation. Do the story from the perspective of a secondary character -- or the antagonist, like Gregory Maguire did with Wicked. Restructure the book. Make it non-linear. Do it in reverse. Explore aspects about characters that didn’t get explored back then, like sexuality. What if the lead was a female instead of a male? Or vice versa? Consider adapting lesser known works by famous authors. Take one of those generic science, political, or social works of non-fiction and be totally inventive with it as Kaufman did in Adaptation. Adapt a book no one has ever dreamed of adapting. Add an unexpected twist. What would the story be like if something didn’t happen or happened differently? Write a sequel.

There was a recent roundtable discussion in the Hollywood Reporter with Oscar-hopeful screenwriters on adaptations. British playwright David Hare said that when it comes to adapting literary works for the big screen one must be “promiscuous to be faithful. You can't simply step your way through a book with perfect fidelity. If you do, the whole thing is completely dead.” Pay attention to these guys!

And finally, consider Project Gutenberg’s Top 100 authors:

Dickens, Charles
Twain, Mark
Shakespeare, William
Doyle, Arthur Conan, Sir
Austen, Jane
Thomson, J. Arthur
Jacob, P. L.
Verne, Jules
Maspero, G. (Gaston)
Baum, L. Frank (Lyman Frank)
Litchfield, Frederick
Wilde, Oscar
Carroll, Lewis
Wells, H. G. (Herbert George)
Beard, Charles A. (Charles Austin)
Beard, Mary Ritter
Poe, Edgar Allan
Burroughs, Edgar Rice
Sayce, A. H. (Archibald Henry)
Stevenson, Robert Louis
McClure, M. L.
Dumas père, Alexandre
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von
Spicer, William Ambrose
Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm
Nichols, J. L. (James Lawrence)
Burbank, Emily
Jefferis, B. G.
Chesterton, G. K. (Gilbert Keith)
Doré, Gustave
Hugo, Victor
Milton, John
Landor, Arnold Henry Savage
Dawson, William Francis
Joyce, James
Conrad, Joseph
Grimm, Jacob
Grimm, Wilhelm
Pope, Alexander
Tolstoy, Leo, graf
Kipling, Rudyard
Pierce, Ray Vaughn
Stoker, Bram
Brontë, Charlotte
Kafka, Franz
Buckley, Theodore Alois
Montgomery, D. H. (David Henry)
Montgomery, L. M. (Lucy Maud)
Dante Alighieri
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor
Wodehouse, P. G. (Pelham Grenville)
Lang, Andrew
Balzac, Honoré de
Guizot, François Pierre Guillaume
Eliot, George
Defoe, Daniel
Williamson, Robert Wood
Potter, Beatrix
James, Henry
Jowett, Benjamin
Alcott, Louisa May
Sunzi, 6th cent. B.C.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel
Cervantes Saavedra, Miguel de
Campbell, Douglas Houghton
Clark, Bertha M.
Haggard, H. Rider (Henry Rider)
London, Jack
Speed, Harold
Ibsen, Henrik
Stanton, Henry
Garnett, Constance
Andersen, H. C. (Hans Christian)
Scott, Walter, Sir
Shaw, Edward R. (Edward Richard)
Chekhov, Anton Pavlovich
Giles, Lionel
Wyllie, David
Rawlinson, George
Hardy, Thomas
Stockton, Frank Richard
Darwin, Charles
Berens, E.M.
Swift, Jonathan
Machiavelli, Niccolò
Barrie, J. M. (James Matthew)
Rolt-Wheeler, Francis
Henry, O.
Thomson, Alexis
Miles, Alexander
Maupassant, Guy de
Melville, Herman
Shaw, George Bernard
Dudeney, Henry Ernest
Bierce, Ambrose
Davis, Richard Harding
Seaman, Owen, Sir

Mystery Man is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. He blogs at MysteryManOnFilm.blogspot.com and tweets at Twitter.com/MMonFilm. And he has nice shoes.

This post originally appeared on Mystery Man on Film.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Meet the Reader: The Long and Long of It

In a recent article, I endorsed the long-standing “rule” that a spec script should never be more than 120 pages in length, a position that a number of my readers -- who I assume are spec-script writers that have had their overlong pieces rejected -- took exception to. As objectors to this rule often do, they cited a number of wonderful films that run longer than two hours and so, given the old rule of thumb that one page of script equals one minute of script time (which is, by the way, pretty darn accurate), must have had screenplays longer than 120 pages: The Godfather, Pulp Fiction, The Dark Knight, etc. My readers are correct -- these are all great movies with screenplays much longer than the accepted norm. However, they have overlooked one very important point -- none of these films began life as a spec.

Movies begin their journeys to the screen in a number of different ways -- as spec scripts from outside writers, as adaptations of best-selling material from other media (books, plays, comics, old TV shows) to which a studio or producer has acquired the rights, or as properties developed by talent (actors and directors) as projects for themselves. If a project begins life in one of the latter two ways, then the script “rules” tend to be loosened. If it takes three hours to tell the story of a particular best-selling novel, then a studio will let both the script and the film run that long (if doing so will make the film a gigantic hit). And if a highly sought-after star’s or director’s pet project runs long, the studio will allow it to run long in direct proportion to how much that particular talent’s name is worth at the box office. But when it comes to original pieces of material, the rules tend to be adhered to pretty strictly (at least in the initial evaluation stage). Besides the usual concerns about budgets (the cost of a film rises exponentially the longer it runs) and the desire to make movies as short a possible (so that they can be screened as many times a day as possible), there is another and I think extremely legitimate reason for this.

A spec script is an original story conceived directly for the screen. To attempt one, a writer needs to have a firm understanding of the parameters of cinematic storytelling. For many reasons, both creative and practical, it is generally accepted that the running time of the average commercial narrative film should be somewhere between 90 and 120 minutes, so a screenwriter needs to figure out how to tell his/her story in that amount of time. The existence of the thousands and thousands of feature films made over the past 90 years proves it is possible to do so, and numerous paradigms and guidelines have emerged that, if followed, can help a writer get the job done. So when anyone involved in motion picture story development picks up a script that runs longer than 120 pages, he or she is going to assume that the writer couldn’t get the job done and that the script is either going to be poorly structured or contain lots of extraneous material -- or both. And 99 times out of 100, that development professional is going to be right.

Now, you may indeed have a story that truly justifies a page-length longer than 120 pages and if you do, then the reader will recognize this and is not going to penalize you for running long -- after all, a great story is a great story. But just make sure that you aren’t fooling yourself, because I warn you that in all of the years that I have been reading and analyzing specs, I have only once come across one that ran longer than 120 pages and deserved to. The rest all needed to be seriously restructured or else have 10 or 15 pages chopped out of them.

Ultimately I think the lesson here is that you have to be as ruthless in editing and streamlining your work as you possibly can be, because if you don’t, someone else will be. The difference is that if you do it, you’ll end up with a leaner, tighter, and probably better script. If someone else does it, all you’ll end up with is a PASS. As my old high school English teacher, Sister Catherine, always used to say: “Brevity is a virtue.” And, as she also used to say: “Listen to Sister Catherine.”


Ray Morton is a writer and script consultant. His books Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Making of Steven Spielberg's Classic Film and King Kong: The History of a Movie Icon from Fay Wray to Peter Jackson are available in stores and online. He analyzes screenplays for production companies, producers, and individual writers. Morton is available for consultation and can be reached at ray@raymorton.com.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Discussing May/June With Andrew Shearer, Pt 2

When I first saw the title of Mystery Man’s recent article I [Heart] Unsympathetic Protags, I was very excited, as I naturally “heart” unsympathetic protagonists. But after reading it, I’m not so sure “unsympathetic” is the right word anymore. (And yes, his name is Mystery Man -- check out his “head” shot in the mag.) On one side of the coin, I think Mystery Man is right on when he talks about how you can enjoy an unsympathetic protag for his “contradictions and depth” and how you sympathize with the people affected by that protag.

Although not a protagonist, I think the substance of that idea is what makes The Joker from The Dark Knight so fun to watch. Ray Morton mentions in his article, Good Examples: Jonathan Nolan on The Dark Knight, that writers Nolan and Goyer left out any kind of definitive backstory to The Joker on purpose. So instead of winding up with forced sympathy for The Joker, we’re left with a Joker maniacally offering contradicting reasons for his scars, making him all the more fascinating to watch. But more often, despite how unsympathetic a protagonist you construct, I think it’s important at some point to eventually feel at least a little sympathy for him or her.

The very first film I think of when I think unsympathetic protagonists is In the Company of Men, the dark comedy by Neil LaBute. It’s a brilliant film about two corporate execs who are so bitter about love, they decide to find a woman, simultaneously date her, then both break up with her at the same time to screw all women over in one fell swoop. See it if you dare. These guys are the definition of assholes, no holds barred, but when one guy starts competing with the other for the girl, we actually start to feel sympathy for the guy losing out. It doesn’t make the guy a “sympathetic” person in general, but having sympathy for him during his pathetic downfall is the only reason the story stays engaging.

Mystery Man cites Clint Eastwood’s character in Gran Torino as unsympathetic, but I disagree. He is flawed, not unsympathetic. His racial slurs, the way he takes things into his own hands, are flaws which make him interesting to watch. But we also know he just lost his wife. If that doesn’t immediately make him a sympathetic protag, then I don’t know what does. I think this last example underlines the point that a deeply flawed protagonist is often one audiences will wrap themselves up in, but not a purely unsympathetic one. I agree with Mystery Man -- down with the wimpy execs and the phony pro-readers! But the movie I want to see, the ride I want to go on, is the one where I’m presented with a protag so flawed there’s no way I’ll ever love him or her, but then by the end, I feel true sympathy for what they are going through. What do you think?


A redneck from Small Town, North Carolina (population 8,000, high school drop-out rate 40%), one day decided to tackle the film industry. Andrew’s film-school short, Son Up, based off his experience teaching at a juvenile hall, ended up winning seven festival awards and made the regionals for the Student Academy Awards. Andrew’s feature script version of Son Up, co-written with Nick Sherman, went on to win first prize at Cinequest. Then one day, the screenwriting gods shined their rarely shown light down from the Heavens and awarded the Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowship to Andrew and Nick for their feature script, Holy Irresistible. The duo is now repped by Endeavor and Brillstein Entertainment. They have two projects in development and are lucky enough to be co-writing a spec with another writer they’ve admired for years.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Women & Hollywood: Vendela Vida

I knew nothing about Vendela Vida before I spoke with her a couple of weeks ago in conjunction with the release of her first film Away We Go which she co-wrote with husband Dave Eggers. (The film opens Friday and I liked it very much.) I very much enjoyed the conversation and am now going to make sure I read all her books which includes And Now You Can Go and Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name. She also co-edits The Believer magazine.

Women & Hollywood: Talk about how the idea for writing this film came about.

Vendela Vida: It started in 2005 and I was pregnant with our first (we now have 2 children) and I basically started taking notes. As a writer that’s how I process the world. I go out and take notes of things that have happened. I was basically surprised when I was pregnant at how much it was an invitation to start talking to me about their experiences with pregnancy and birth and give me advice that I hadn’t necessarily asked for on how to raise my child. It was basically my way of processing other people’s reactions to pregnancy and also my own reaction.

I was taking these notes and a lot of them were about funny stuff I had overheard, conversations I had or things I read in books and didn’t quite know what to do with. I would come home and tell Dave and we would laugh about it and say that would be a funny scene in a movie so we just started experimenting with dialogue for these two characters. We knew the material lent itself more to a movie than a novel because there was so much dialogue. It felt very cinematic to us. We started writing scenes not expecting it to evolve into something we were just trying to make each other laugh. It kind of just went from there.

W&H: Had the two of you ever written together before?

VV: No. The screenplay format seemed to lend itself to the collaboration much more so than obviously a novel.

W&H: Did you write Verona intentionally as a mixed race woman?

VV: Yes we did and we wrote her with Maya Rudolph in mind. It was important to me that she be mixed race and it was also important that she and her partner not have any conversations between the two of them of her being mixed race. Other people could comment on it but it’s never an issue between Burt and Verona.

W&H: What’s the difference between writing fiction, non-fiction and film?

VV: I love writing dialogue and with film the pleasure and difficulty is that you are constricted by space. In a film you have to make sure the dialogue is advancing the plot. With a screenplay you are writing a skeletal outline and you know that the director and actors are going to bring so much more, whereas when you are writing a novel it is all on you. Every period is one you. Every quote is on you. It’s fun to do a collaboration especially because when you are writing a novel you are spending so much time with yourself in your room with your thoughts. I do love novels and they will always be my first love but this was a great experience especially because we started writing after I finished my novel Northern Lights Erase Your Name which is set in the Arctic circle. It’s kind of a dark novel in many ways so it was refreshing to write something more lighthearted.

W&H: I was intrigued that you write the non-fiction book Girls on the Verge (about girl gangs.) Why were you so drawn to that world?

VV: It kind of came about by accident. I wrote one essay in grad school about a female gang initiation ritual I had observed in San Francisco and people suggested that I write another and pretty soon I had a book. I wrote the book when I was a lot younger and I don’t know if I would have written it the same way now but I am very proud of it.

Non-fiction is a lot harder than fiction because you have to be so true to facts. I remember being in a small apartment in NY with all these files and transcripts wishing this person had said this. But you can’t tinker with facts. That’s why I turned to fiction because you so have the opportunity to make things up.

W&H: Women’s novels gets pegged as chick lit just like women’s films get pegged as chick flicks. Any thoughts on that?

VV: It’s hard for me to say because I always look for films and books by women so for me they don’t feel pigeon-holed because I am actively seeking them out. I have Wendy & Lucy in front of me. Whenever there is a female writer or director I go out of my way to find their work.

W&H: Do you have any advice for women writers?

VV: Write female characters that you feel are strong and real. That was the one thing we were trying to do when we wrote Verona. We wanted to make her as real as possible and make her have moments when she was happy and moments when she was not. You have to make female characters as well rounded and representative of the women you know in real life. I don’t think I am in a position to give anyone advice but I look to make female characters real and that’s the responsibility we share as women writers.

W&H: You do so many different things in your life is that how you balance writing novels by yourself?

VV: When you write you are very solipsistic. I am by myself trying to create something and it feels very detached from the rest of the world. So for me one of the most important things is teaching. I teach at 826 Valencia. I teach a number of classes but my favorite one is writing the college essay in October. It is the most rewarding class because you’re helping kids get into college and helping them see themselves in a way they might not realize is unique.

W&H: Do you have an amount of hours you write each day?

VV: I do it by the word count. I used to do it by the hour but I would find that 3 hours and 45 minutes would pass and then I would get to work for 15 minutes. That has been the solution for me. Word count can vary between where you are in the book. It’s always something that’s realistic but is still pushing myself a little.

W&H: What’s next for you?

VV: I’m finishing up a novel that’s set in Turkey about a woman who is 48 has two kids and her husband has passed away. She goes to Turkey to revisit where her marriage started. I have to turn in the final version this week.

Away We Go opens Friday and will roll out across the country over the next few weeks.

Read Script's interview with Vida and husband Dave Eggers in the upcoming July/August issue.

Stay up to date with Women and Hollywood at Womenandhollywood.com.


Melissa Silverstein is a marketing consultant, writer and blogger. She specializes in the area of women issues, with an emphasis on women and Hollywood. Her blog Women & Hollywood has become a respected site for issues related to feminism and pop culture. In 2008 it was named by More Magazine as one of the “blogs to watch,” and in 2009 it was named “Best Hollywood blog” by totalfilm.com. She is also an entertainment correspondent for wowOwow. Read her full bio at http://womenandhollywood.com/bio/.