Nightmares

pilots, screenwriting, storytelling, T.V. writing

Someone trapped a girl in a carved out space beneath the cushions of a shitty yellow sofa for an entire year.

That’s the  nightmare that woke me up.

I’m putting it in my new pilot. I’ll tweak it — would a person fit inside a sofa? But the point is I love using dreams in my work — a nightmare a few months ago became an important piece of the plot of my Iraq pilot.

Dreams are important because they are made of meaning. It’s usually not clear at first what they mean. Either the act of writing them down forces you to project your conscious logic onto them to show you what you’re thinking, or the act of writing them down processes the unconscious into the known. What arises in these written descriptions are like crystal balls to what’s inside us. And what’s inside us is what needs to go on the page. Because that’s what’s inside our characters, and inside our audience.

In this new pilot, I knew I needed a horrific, long-term crime hiding in plain sight among the characters — something they could live with and not know they were living with it, like cancer if someone could go home from their job at night and make a little cancer. Perhaps that’s what abuse is, in the context of a family. Perhaps one character goes home to reveal she’s living with abuse — and the other goes home to reveal he’s living with a girl trapped inside his sofa. Haven’t nailed this down yet.

This is my process. I didn’t even know this character existed until I woke with my heart racing in the middle of the night. I just knew something ominous needed to be hiding in plain sight among these characters. I leave everything loose and then nail pieces down bit by bit as they make sense to me. First comes knowing there needs to be an ominous plain-sight crime (because of the subject matter of the piece), then I wake with a nightmare supplying the crime, then I realize there has to be a character who works with the main character to be the perpetrator of the crime, and so on. Structure and character evolve from metaphor.

When the nightmare woke me up, I felt like the girl stuffed beneath the sofa cushions meant I had been feeling locked down, invisible, muzzled. Suppressed. So porting the dream straight into my pilot leverages all that meaning for me, accesses the feeling I wasn’t aware of until I described it. Stories tell what you’re feeling without having to unpack it — because often we don’t want to put into words our most important stuff. One great image is enough.

You Should Change Your Audience

drama, pilots, screenwriting, storytelling, T.V. writing

When my Iraq pilot ends, I want the audience to be different.

They’ll be different because they shifted. Because the characters shift. The audience identifies with the characters, forms a bond with them that pulls them up and down through the piece, changes them as the character changes.

Stories help us feel what it would be like to be in someone else’s shoes. They give us the gift of empathy, the gift of identifying from a different direction. A woman walks away identifying as a man.

You help your characters shift by making the powers that oppose them overwhelming. The more acute the opposition, the more we’ll feel the urgency of the situation, and the more vital and primal the bond we’ll form. That person struggles. I struggle. I understand how that person feels. A man walks away identifying as a woman.

In my pilot, male soldiers discover they have to work with women during active combat, and they feel dragged down, challenged, threatened, unsafe. The female soldiers feel unprepared, untrained, unwelcome, unsupported.

Most of them experience a shift. If the piece works, the audience identifies with them at the start and shifts along with them.

By the end, the characters circle near the feeling –

We are all women. And we are all men.

If the story works, my audience will feel that too.

Find A Way To Make It Acute

drama, features, pilots, screenwriting, storytelling, T.V. writing

Last year I wrote a pilot about modern day pirates that was set in Haiti. I chose Haiti because it’s one of the poorest countries on Earth — both left behind and close to home. I felt it was real life Sci Fi. The sense of place was an important part of the piece. Now Haiti has been destroyed a thousand times more — before it was a silent catastrophe in our midst, now it will be a devastatingly loud one. While I was writing, I felt frustrated because all I wanted to do was talk about it. And no one wanted to hear it.

Now I’m writing a pilot about Iraq, and everything’s that wrong over there feels overwhelming to me. Horrifying suicide rates among active duty soldiers and veterans. Sickeningly high sexual assault rates for female soldiers, by fellow soldiers — as high as 30%. Unnecessary civilian deaths. Unnecessary soldier deaths. Outrageously corrupt war profiteering. No one over there seems to know what we’re doing over there. This is all going on — and no one cares. No one wants to hear about it, no one wants to listen. No one gives a fuck. We are members of a democratic society who have orchestrated this, and by not rising up and expressing our outrage and ending this, we are responsible. A tragedy occurs in our midst, and we are responsible.

No one cares because the Iraq story is not acute. Like the Haiti story, it was just happening. It was horrific and terrible and outrageous, but there was no moment that was more horrific and terrible and outrageous than the next. There was no acute focus to the story, no lens to help us understand how to feel about it.

With Haiti, those people had always been crushingly poor and betrayed by corrupt leaders, right? How is one day different from the next? Many people have difficulty feeling empathy for people they don’t relate to — or they don’t find a way to relate to people whose plights aren’t right in front of them. Suddenly there’s a horrible earthquake — something that any of us might experience any day — it taps into our fears about our own safety — we could lose our homes just like they did, we could be wandering the streets just like them — then as we wallow in the disaster porn because it stirs up all those feelings so many of us yearn to feel every day but don’t have access to — empathy, understanding, fear, grief — feelings that get buried by everyday life’s efficiency and competency and need to look emotionally stable — disaster porn allows us to access all those feelings — and once accessed, we get it. Wait a minute, they were fucked before this horrible earthquake. They’ve been fucked for a very long time. I just wasn’t thinking about it. It took this acute story, the flurry of excitement, the urgency and concentration of focus centered on the need to find people, find shelter, find medical aid, find water, the sheer drama of it all — that’s what it took for us to care.

If there were a terrible earthquake in Iraq, would people care about the war?

The other big story this week has been the Leno/Conan/NBC war, with virtually everyone I know declaring for “Team Conan.” Both Team Leno and Team Conan are teams that do not hire any women writers. How is it possible that with all this media coverage, no one discusses that fact? If Conan O’Brien released a carefully worded statement declaring his intention to never hire women writers, there would be a public outcry. No one would join “Team Conan” then. However, by not declaring his intention but instead just doing it, no one calls him out on it, no one gives a fuck. It’s the Haiti, Iraq problem: the story is outrageous but not acute. People shrug it off as just the way it is. There’s no urgency, no face on the story — no highly qualified woman who should have gotten a job on the show and was told “we don’t hire women” walking out of the studio with a brave face. No disaster porn to allow people to access their empathy.

The lesson here is this: if you have an important story you want to spread, find a way to make it acute. Give it a face and a focus and make it urgent. Shape it into disaster porn.

Vulnerability Delivery Machine

novels, pilots, screenwriting, storytelling, T.V. writing

You don’t want to know what I think. You want to know that I never stop worrying about my career, my future. I never feel safe.

You want to know that relationships leave me feeling unsettled, like I never know when the other shoe will drop. And that I keep editing this piece about relationships. That’s how uncertain I feel about my place in the world.

You want to know that I’m afraid I spend too much time alone. But that I feel like I can’t afford to spend any less time writing, if I have any hope of getting my career off the ground.

You want to hear about how I’ve been so focused, so determined, so intense this year, that I’m afraid a hardness is setting in. And how that doesn’t feel like who I am — how I’m soft and vulnerable by nature, or I used to be. Before my entire life became devoted to finding safety, securing my future. Finding writing jobs.

Maybe you want to know that I both love sex and fear it. I don’t want to feel that way. Maybe you don’t want to know.

Maybe you want to know that I feel adrift in the world. Distant and disconnected. I feel increasingly distant from my parents — both concerned about them and unable to help them. I’ve felt distant from my sister for many years.

Maybe you don’t want to know that this blog scares me — though it’s good for my inner life, my writing life, because here I force myself to get big and bold and confrontational and honest — it makes me feel naked in public, like I’m doing emotional porn — and it makes me feel connected to people in a way I don’t trust. When I share these carefully edited, raw glimpses inside me, it’s easy for people to think they like me. But I don’t show all the stuff you wouldn’t like. That’s the next step.

Story functions to deliver vulnerability: when it operates efficiently, we feel what you feel. Problems rise when you’re afraid to let us feel what you feel. Because of pride, shame, fear of exposure, ego, or because you don’t really know what you feel. You throw wrenches in the cogs or you drain the oil or you cover the whole machinery with a tarp because you don’t really want to get vulnerable. You resist the function of story, the very reason you set the machine to running.

Would you run up to a person and say “I have something really important to tell you — listen to this –” and then turn your back, cross your arms and scowl? Maybe you would, that tells a certain kind of story. But it doesn’t tell much. And that’s what you do when you tell a story that doesn’t deliver vulnerability. You shut off the audience, deny them access to you. You may still speak, but they can’t hear you.

Most protagonists are common folks, down on their luck, in the middle of crisis — we encounter them when they’ve lost a child, lost a job, hate their job, hate their spouse, can’t find love, hate their parents, don’t have parents, don’t have a country — and then something really bad happens to them, the action of the story. They’re low to start because they’re vulnerable, so we can access them. In stories, characters’ external circumstances reflect their internal circumstances. This is true of life as well. If you want to show that a character feels distant and disconnected, have her write a blog post like this one. Well, maybe not — the act of writing is difficult to dramatize. Perhaps have her attempt to teach these things to a mentoring student who has contempt and doesn’t listen and then have her emerge to find her car has been stolen. And she doesn’t know who to call.

If you did one thing today that felt like a risk, where you felt exposed, where you left yourself open to criticism in public, you left a placeholder in your heart that keeps that spot open when you sit down to tell stories. You drive wedges in there day after day to keep your heart open. Let your story machine function as it should: remove the wrenches and tarps, replace the oil. The story that pops out will run fast, function on max capacity.

Your Story Boils Down To One Joke

comedy writing, drama, jokes, novels, pilots, screenwriting, T.V. writing

Your story is one joke. Even if it lasts 10 seasons. It’s one joke. At least — it should be if your Prius is running on all fuel cells. Whether you’re writing comedy or drama, your entire premise boils down to “. . . but the joke’s on them.” Where “them” = your main characters.

The joke isn’t necessarily funny. But it has that thing that all jokes share: surprise. We start in one world, and we wind up in another, with the old world blown up in our face. That’s what a joke is. When it’s short and tight and sharp, it’s funny. When it depends on context and character, it’s dramatic irony.

Dramatic irony is what happens when we know more than the characters do — because we know them better than they know themselves. Because we perceive something in the situation they don’t. Because we’ve picked up clues they’ve missed. So the joke is on them: they strive, struggle, blithely unaware of what’s about to happen. And we enjoy it. Because when we know more than they do, tension builds as we watch them struggle to find out what we know — because the joke’s on them. And we win. We’re in the superior position.

Dramatic irony happens when a character doesn’t know he’s in a joke, and he’s surprised by the punchline.

Dramatic irony is the joke your character finds least funny right now. Because we want them to suffer. Because that’s what we find funny — or alarming — or affecting — or profound.

Your character may run into variations of the same joke over and over, or she may live out the consequences of the joke slowly over the course of the story. The joke must be clear, and your entire story must boil down to this one joke. To test this, see if you can answer “how is the joke on them?” about your story. Here are some examples:

People survive a plane crash only to fight for their lives against mysterious Others who force them to confront their past lives. (LOST) (joke’s on them.)

A boss loves his office like family but taints everything in it with his incompetence. (THE OFFICE) (joke’s on him — and the other people in his office.)

Humans create a race of machines who now want to destroy them. (BATTLESTAR GALACTICA) (joke’s on them.)

These are TV examples, but it works for all stories.

Distill your story to its essential joke — ask how is this situation a joke on them? — and then repeat that same joke on a larger and larger scale, with greater consequences, until you reach your conclusion or 100th episode. Here’s my post on how to tell a joke.

Telling jokes keeps you tight and light on your feet. And it’s fun. Try it.

You Always Talk About Yourself. (How To “Mad Men” Your Series)

drama, pilots, screenwriting, T.V. writing

You always talk about yourself. That’s what your boyfriend/therapist/mime teacher always says.

And it’s true: everything you say is about you.

“You’re so selfish.” [Translation: I’m so selfish. I hate that quality in myself, but I also love myself. I’m selfish. Loving selfish you is another way to love myself.]

“You should be more careful about the impression you make.” [Translation: I should be more careful about the impression I make. When your choices lie outside my comfort zone, I react with alarm, as if your choices reflect me.]

“You’re young. You can do anything you want.” [Translation: I think I can no longer do anything I want. I feel badly about that, and I think I’m doing you a favor by planting the root of that chain in you.]

“You’re beautiful and free.” [Translation: I’m beautiful and free.]

Write dialogue that reflects the person who speaks. Take “Mad Men” for example. Nuanced and layered, the show’s characters speak to each other as if they were mirrors in which they see themselves.

“Who are you?” says Don when the spark of a new life arouses him — Joy in Palm Springs and Miss Farrell near the beginning of their affair. Who is this exciting, fresh, new life? Can I inhabit it? Who am I? Whoever she claims to be might be who I am, because now I’m with her.

“Who do you think you’re talking to?” says Don to underlings. Whoever they think they’re talking to must be who I am.

When Betty uncovers his web of lies, she asks him “What would you do, if you were me? Would you love you?” This single line sums up the entire series. Every character goes around wondering, asking, finding out what they would do if they were another person — and whether they could love themselves if they were. That’s what advertising is — asking the consumer “What would you do, if you were this other kind of person? Would you (finally) love you (then)?. Every question Don asks is a variation of ‘Would you love you (if you were me)?’ — when he asks ‘who are you?’ — ‘who do you think you’re talking to?’ — he’s always asking ‘would you love you?’

When Betty asks it, she asks it of herself. ‘What would I do, if I were you? Would I love me?’ Because she is Don — when she accuses him of changing his name, he says “People change their names. You did.” Every interaction is a mirror.

How do you “Mad Men” your series? Look for the parallels. The symmetry. If a character does something once, make him do it again, in another form, to himself or another character. Make every interaction a chance for each character to see himself in another — or walk away blind to the reflection in the pool. Write every line of dialogue as a container, a frame, in which to display their image of themselves — what they see when they look in the mirror. Because that’s all we ever do when we see other people: we see ourselves.

You Have Been Radicalized (Why Write Like A Pussy?)

advice, novels, pilots, screenwriting, T.V. writing

How do I know you’ve been radicalized? Because you’ve got something to say. Speech radicalizes you.

Don’t neuter your words. If you’ve got something to say, say it. Say it bold. Don’t fear conflict: cause it. Tension and anxiety rise as you near the heart of your subject. Trouble creates story. You are dangerous now. You find dangerous places, and you stay there, despite discomfort. You do it because your audience turns to you to do it for them.

Remove weakening language. We weaken our words because we feel uncertain. If it’s worth saying, it’s worth writing, and if it’s worth writing, it’s worth writing with conviction — brave, confident, stripped to its most radical core.

Weakening language weakens you. Write the weakening language because it allows you to write at all. Padding comforts you enough to venture out onto the field or into the arena or down the dark alley. Once there, remove it. Leaving it implies you don’t deserve to be radical, that you must pad your self against the world seeing you. But you do not need to speak if you’re not going to be heard. You diminish your authority — in your own mind and in the mind of the world — and make it harder to be radical next time.

Everything you say and write prints on a boldface sign the world sees. The world takes you seriously, and we consider every act of speech you make to be a billboard on which you speak to the world. So make it bold, make it clear, and make it count.

Following are weakening words. To experiment, take a current writing project and save it as a new file. Run a search for these words and remove all of them. Yes, you’ll have to go back and replace some of them. But say goodbye to most of them for good — they were the incompetent employees whose absence you celebrate. The draft emerges tighter, cleaner, leaner, less burdened. It stands as a sign blasting your good ideas rather than a manifesto burying them.

WEAKENING WORDS:

well, sure, you know, seems, much, in, bit, I, you, [first names], here, and, then, once, [-ing], when, suddenly, now, appears, to, that, right, okay, [repeated words/phrases/ideas], is, little, might, maybe, first, probably, well, so, among, all, the, but, hi, how, are, try, start, begin, which, about, why, continue, slowly, for, what, it, it’s, actually, totally, very, [adjectives], [adverbs], almost, [cliches], pretty, [anything ending in -ly], however, [anything ending or sounding like -ish], oh, own, ?, [comma clauses], just, really,

Anyone have anything to add?

How To Be Profound: Top Ten Tips

advice, drama, novels, pilots, screenwriting, storytelling, T.V. writing

So your neighbor is all “why won’t you stop calling cheese stores and telling them you’re throwing a benefit for the homeless they have to donate to” and you’re all “I jack fancy cheese stores out of cheese because it’s profound.” Because everything I do is profound. Because I’m doing it, it’s profound, and the fact I’m doing it means something. Tricking fancy cheese stores into donating me cheese is a mirror standing before my life, showing me what I am.

My superhero power is a curse: I see meaning in everything around me.

A life is a novel in practice: meaning and symbols and structure and symmetry lie everywhere you look, waiting to be exposed. Being profound means that even when your life centers around tricking fancy cheese stores into donating you free cheese, you see meaning.

So here they are, MY TOP TEN TIPS for how to be profound:

  1. Go Beneath The Surface. First, show us what’s on the surface. What’s on the surface is a symptom of what’s beneath the surface. Profundity is like acne: it erupts all over your face as an expression of your body’s secrets. So once you’ve established what’s on the surface, you’ve got a basis to ….
  2. Drill Down. Reject face values. Whatever you see on the surface of your world — your parking ticket, the pollution in the bay that bars you from surfing, the garbage juice you just poured all over your apartment — exist as indicators to show us what’s really going on. Parking tickets are society’s notices that we shouldn’t linger here, this isn’t our place. We can’t surf because we live in our own filth, waiting for the rain to wash it all away into the toilet that is our bay. Garbage juice … eh, see Reason #2. Why the fuck doesn’t it rain inside?
  3. Get Open. If you are closed, it’s going to be a hell of a lot more difficult to see how things relate to one another. Because you’re too busy guarding the fortress, making sure none of them relate to you. But once you make efforts to open up, you can …
  4. Connect. See the connections between one thing and another. How does one thing resemble another? What’s bothering you? What makes you angry? What does it remind you of? Anger is a flag that something is important. What makes us angry often reflects in our own life.
  5. Get Free. Some people fear connections — between ideas, between things, between themselves and others — because they’re afraid of being tied down, afraid of tying this Buzz Ballads II 2-CD disc compilation to the time you drove around all night in Atlanta listening to that song about rubbing lotion on someone, wondering if some boy was home and if not what he was doing and why he wasn’t home and with whom wasn’t he home, to the times you used to sit out on the curb as a child waiting for your father to get you and wondering the same thing. They’re afraid of tying these things together because of the fear there’s no end, no bottom, and because of the fear that once locked into one series of connections, that’s it. You’re done. You’re never done. Once you choose freedom, you’re always free, and all the things and people in your life can say and do whatever they want, and you’re still free. You’re never tied down to one story.
  6. Understand. How do you interpret what you see around you? It doesn’t matter whether it’s right or wrong. It’s true and it matters because you say so. Your understanding is a precious gift you share with the rest of us. And you share it by how you show one character looking at another, how you focus on a specific object on a table. That look and that object help us see your understanding through your connections, and they help us form our own.
  7. Get Bigger. Some people live a small life and tell small stories. Others choose to be profound. A life isn’t small because of a person’s profession or status or friends or attractiveness: a life is small because a person chooses not to grow. Every time we’re faced with an obstacle we make a choice: we shrink or we get bigger. Profundity gets bigger, and circles in other people under its wing, and takes the long view, and the deep view, and the transparent view.
  8. Get Inclusive. The most shallow people and ideas are the most exclusive. Anything that excludes — people, ideas, interpretations, experiences — clings to the surface, fights any effort to discover the meaning therein. Because that meaning is dark. Being profound means going deep, going broad, getting significant, including everything and everyone. I’m looking at you Hollywood.
  9. Get Pervasive. Profundity understands the way you do anything is the way you do everything, and the way the world does anything is the way the world does everything. Everything is the same all the time, and nothing really changes though things appear to change all the time. What looks to us like change are things happening on different scales or in different forms, and it’s our job as storytellers to reveal how these things have not changed but are in fact the same. Profundity is intense, thorough and complete.
  10. Find Origins. The roots of our current world originate in the past. To change the future, we change the present. Profundity honors the link between today’s garbage juice and the garbage juice of every waitress job you’ve ever held, and the garbage juice of the world, today’s parking ticket and tomorrow’s medical lab results and the mountain of social paperwork that documents and drives us through our roles in life, as determined as we are to resist.

Okay! Now it’s time to get out there and be profound.

Start With the Ship In A Bottle

advice, novels, pilots, T.V. writing

Battlestar/Buffy writer Jane Espenson’s blog about writing specs is still incredibly useful, even though she’s not updating it anymore. I perused it over a break today and saw this entry in which she discussed her friend Jeff Greenstein’s advice that pilots’ opening images should contain the series in microcosm. Following is the very persuasive list he composed. (I agree with this idea and would argue it’s a pretty good idea for novels as well.)

In the Cheers pilot, the teaser is Sam with an underage kid who’s trying to get a drink using a fake military ID. Kid says he was in the war. Sam asks what it was like. “It was gross,” the kid replies with a shudder. “Yeah, that’s what they say — war is gross,” Sam replies. The teaser gives you a sense of the place and the guy.

The Battlestar pilot has that great opening scene with Number Six and the emissary from Earth. The scene says, “Remember those metal robots? They look like humans now. And they’re going to fucking kill you.”

The Lost pilot starts with a close-up of an eye opening, and the aftermath of the plane crash. This show is about consciousness and strandedness and tragedy.

Will & Grace starts with Grace in bed with her sleeping fiancé, yet on the phone dishing with Will about George Clooney’s hotness. It’s the perfect encapsulation of their odd relationship.

The Desperate Housewives teaser: In the midst of tranquil suburban splendor, Mary Alice blows her head off.

The West Wing pilot: In a bar, talking off-the-record with a reporter, Sam Seaborn is distracted by a hot girl who’s giving him the eye. This show is about politics and sex (well, it started out that way), and the “backstage” lives of people in government.

via Jane Espenson.