If you come up with a new idea and you tell your agents and managers about it, or some executives or producers you know, or your friends, and everyone loves it, that’s a bad sign. That means it’s not fresh enough. That means it’s sitting too close to the surface, too obvious, too similar to what’s already happening in the zeitgeist, in the culture.
Your reps’ jobs are to hate your really great ideas. Because they are focused on what’s selling right now and what they predict might sell tomorrow based on that — in other words, yesterday’s great ideas.
But if your ideas are really good, they’re not going to look good to anyone at first. And that’s the magic window where — if you have the courage to follow your instincts and your gut — you can capitalize on the lag time between the moment that you know it’s good and the day the rest of the world wakes up to it.
Your job isn’t to follow the zeitgeist, it’s to make it.
People don’t really believe in secrets anymore. But secrets exist. It’s just a matter of learning how to find them.
Risk aversion and complacency discourage people from thinking about secrets. Existing conventions are much more comfortable. But secret truths can be incredibly valuable. Importantly, they are discoverable; by definition, any answers to the questions in Lesson 2 above are secrets. Perhaps the biggest secret of all is that there are many more secrets in the world that are waiting to be found. The question of how many secrets exist in our world is roughly equivalent to how many startups people should start. From a business perspective, then, there are many great companies that could still be—indeed,are waiting to be—started.”
Someone asked me to answer this question on Quora, so I thought I may as well throw it up here:
What is the difference between story writing and screenplay writing for movies?
There is no difference.
People who don’t know what they’re doing or are not particularly confident in their screenwriting will go on and on about structure and formulas and hitting this goalpost at that mark and blah blah but the fact remains –
A screenplay is a story told visually (and with some dialogue). There is absolutely no other difference. It’s just a different style of telling a story (through pictures, sounds and spoken words rather than written words).
The more you focus on telling a story (rather than hitting all the goalposts the books talk about) – the better off you will be.
Today’s “What I’m Reading” is a “What I’m Listening To” –
I really love podcasts. There’s a handful that I listen to every episode they do. I’ll try to post about all of my favorites, but today’s favorite is “Extra Hot Great” – a podcast by three true lovers of T.V. and movies and all things pop culture. (They are Tara Ariano, David T. Cole and Joe Reid). They’re funny, insightful, and best of all they infect you with their love and sense of ownership over wonderful (and some terrible) things to watch.
I want every line of dialogue I write to land like a punchline.
Even in the most serious, least funny stuff I write — I still strive for that rhythm. Each line sets up the next. And each line has to land. And if it doesn’t, you tighten it (by cutting off the top of the line, the first half of the sentence, which the eye skips over anyway) — or you cut filler words — or you reorder the line so that the highest-impact word falls last. Or conversely — you reorder the line so that it falls away, it’s a throwaway, the intensity and conviction of the words and the speaker drop from the start of the line till the end. And this is a kind of punchline too, where we suddenly look at the speaker, knowing there’s a story there. He’s the butt of the joke. Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s not.
What we’re talking about is a way to make your dialogue rhythmic, musical and responsive. Just make each line feel like the punchline to the joke that was the last line. I’m not saying make it funny — I did this in death scenes in my Iraq pilot. Ok maybe there was a little humor there, I don’t remember.
It’s why credits matter so much. Credits don’t mean experience – you could have a 3 mile long IMDB page, but if all your credits are shit no one’s ever heard of, doesn’t matter. If you’ve got one good credit on something that’s in the canon – that’s better. Because that’s status and status beats experience.
It’s why women have such a hard time in this town. Because in our culture women inherently have less status than men. And in a town where status is everything – where people hire you because on a gut level they think you’re cool and want to hang out with you – people who came into the world with less status, like women and minorities and those with disabilities, are always going to be picked last for the team.
Writers rooms on TV shows are full of struggles over status – and rightly so, because everyone knows, consciously or not, that that’s the root of what they’re being evaluated on. The following can be applied to how people act in the room, in life — or how you write characters, to show them engaging in these power struggles.
How You Raise Your Status:
Give permission to do things — or withhold it.
Evaluate others’ work.
Keep others at arms’ length while appearing to summon them closer.
Talk frankly about things others find upsetting.
Look with with your eyes down at people.
Speak authoritatively, with or without the expertise to do so.
Make decisions for groups.
Speak cryptically, in code or inside jokes.
Surround yourself with an entourage of any kind.
How Others Lower Your Status:
Correct you, especially in front of others.
Prove how you are wrong.
Tell you what to do.
Give you unsolicited advice.
Approve or disapprove of something about you or something you do.
Pick a fight with you.
Refuse to engage you — act as if they don’t hear you or aren’t concerned enough about you to notice.
Ignore what you’re saying and change the subject.
One-up you. Always top you with something better, or worse, or more absurd, or more dramatic in their own lives.
Win. Beat you at something.
Talk sarcastically to you.
Disregard your opinion.
Announce something great about themselves in your presence.
Make you wait.
Never wait for you.
Taunt you. Tease you.
Violate your boundaries.
Beat you up in front of your friends or rivals.
Make you back down.
I’m not saying I endorse any of this. I’m just an observer, making sense of what I witness. And using it to inform my characters, and you.
As an artist, I threaten the status quo. I test boundaries. I push limits.
Now, that isn’t to say I don’t get along with people or don’t follow directions or don’t take notes. I do. I believe in storytelling as a collaboration, and TV as one of the most collaborative media there is. And I believe in creating stories that are true to the show you’re making, and true to the network you’re on.
But collaborating and staying true to the show’s voice are no excuses for staying in the middle. Or being boring. Not threatening the status quo because that’s safe. You can plod along turning in recycled ideas and you’ll probably never get fired for it — because what are they going to point to? How reliable you were? How you always turned in material that you knew for sure would make it on the air, and that 68% of your audience would kinda like because it wouldn’t upset them and they’d kinda never even notice it go by?
Instead you can become an artist. And you can turn in material that may push the edge of what the show may do — and make the show bigger, and deeper, and bolder, and funnier, and more interesting, and more lasting. You’ll still turn in stuff or pitch stuff that you know is safe — because that’s part of your job, to repeat — but part of your job too is to get dangerous.
I met M at our “Welcome to the Writers Guild!” meeting earlier this year. I don’t know if he would mark it earlier, but I would put it at the conversation in the parking garage that night that I felt like I understood him and him me – I felt connected to him, which for me is very rare.
M and I are both TV writers. Because we want to keep our skills tight, we started a new scene-writing exercise, just the two of us. Every day we’re creating a scene assignment for each other, to be completed in less than 30 minutes, no online research. It’s just as much fun to make the assignments as it is to write the scenes – because in my mind, they don’t exist in a vacuum. The assignments, the scenes, communicate with each other and with our lives outside the project, creating a story with a life of its own.
So because I’ve got scenes on the brain, I’m going to share my cheat sheet with you. This is what I bust out when I find myself staring into space for 20 minutes – a file I have on my computer called “Drama Questions.” It’s a list of questions cobbled together from a variety of sources — David Mamet, John August, others I can’t remember. I gathered them from all over into one Break In Case Of Emergency File.
Here They Are:
Who wants what?
What happens if they don’t get it?
What is the hero’s problem that starts the scene?
In the end, how are the characters thwarted or turned in another direction?
What are we left wondering?
What’s the silent movie version?
How does the scene advance the story?
How does the scene reveal character?
How does the scene expand on an idea? What theme does it explore?
How does the scene build an image? What does this image mean?
What’s funny in this scene?
What’s the most surprising thing that could happen in this scene?
Where could this scene take place?
What’s the worst that would happen if this scene were omitted?
Who absolutely needs to be in this scene?
Where could this scene possibly take place?
What’s the next thing this character would realistically do?
What’s the most interesting thing this character could do?
Where do I want the story to go next?
Where do I want the story to end up eventually?
Does this scene stand up on its own merit, or is it just setting stuff up for later?
What are the later repercussions of this scene? How could I maximize them?
I want to be clear that I didn’t write these questions. But this is pretty basic drama stuff, and I don’t want to keep it from you just because I can’t source it properly. If I’m really stuck, I actually write out the answers for the scene I’m working on. Or I just read them over to give myself a kick start. Most of the time I don’t need them – but sometimes I do. And that’s what they’re there for, like a map or a wooden stretcher to stretch a canvas painting over.
If you go through and answer all these questions for the scene you’re in, guarantee it’ll get better. And as for what to do next, the next scene is a conversation with the scene you’re in – the way M and my scenes and assignments speak to each other, asking and answering questions.
Whenever I get stuck working on a script (which is often), I remind myself of the only two things that matter:
Screenwriting is that simple.
You can find a way to make any story beat more visual. If you’re stuck, ask yourself — what’s the silent movie version? (that’s Mamet’s advice) — how can I see what I want to say here.
And every story beat should be emotional. That means it matters to the characters, on a gut level. And we should empathize enough with the characters that it matters to us. So if you’re stuck, ask yourself — what matters here? why? how can it matter more, and more, and more …. Emotion can be fear or anger or love or contempt or pride or despair or — whatever matters to them and to you and to us.
Then repeat these steps a bunch of times, and you’ve got a script.
One of my creative writing professors in college — Joyce Carol Oates — used to draw lines through words, sentences and entire paragraphs of our stories and write above the rejected pieces: “cliche”.
This was very painful.
We wanted nothing more than to please her — we admired her.
I admired her. I wanted her to like me and approve of me and say I was a good writer.
So when she wrote “cliche” on my stories, I found it upsetting.
She told us “a cliche is anything you’ve ever heard before.”
This definition seemed too harsh, too limiting to us. We protested. Wouldn’t there come a point where you were just writing stuff you hadn’t heard before, to avoid cliche?
Indeed, she told us a reviewer once wrote of her that she writes as if to avoid cliche. Still, we had no excuse to lapse into lazy habits.
Joyce was brisk, fresh, controlled, and she expected the same of us.
I often walked home from her class stirred up. I was either elated because she had praised my work, told me I was a good writer, or despondent because she had marked it all through, dismissed it.
But the power of seeing her strike through those words with her pen — that awful little word cliche that made me feel like I was lazy, average, common — that feeling stayed with me.
Now I’m on high alert for it. I wince when I find it in my own work. Other people have told me I’m too harsh in pointing it out everywhere. But that’s how we get better —
Because it’s an easy test. If I or you or anyone has ever heard or read or seen it before, it’s a cliche. And it doesn’t have to be painful — getting better is liberating. It might tweak your ego a little in the moment, but that’s good. Notching your ego and making your art better makes you bigger, not smaller.
Your story’s world is a reflection — a result — of what’s happening inside your characters.
The world doesn’t create the character. The character creates the world around her. You create the world around you.
Like a prism refracting colors or a digital projector — the image starts with the emotional footprint inside your main characters. You project this inner image outside them. That becomes their world.
Here’s how it works: I believe I can be successful, that I deserve success — so I act in ways that confirm that belief. I filter what I see for stories that confirm that belief and fail to see those that don’t. I set up my world in ways that support this belief. I gradually adhere to a system of rules that affirm this belief. Rules like if you don’t hold on to what you’ve got, it may be taken away from you and you don’t deserve success, you earn it. These rules build out and become my world. I don’t even recognize parts of the world that don’t agree. I know I’m in Julie-world because Julie-world is defined by these rules — rules that started inside me and served me at one time, and then, because I gave them power-of-attorney over my life, grew strong like a sentient computer program and jumped outside my head and started governing the world around me. Now, not only do I walk around following these rules in my head — but I insist on seeing the world as if this is how the world operates too. Because Julie-world starts inside me and is projected, reflected out. Julie-world is something I inflict on the world.
Many storytellers will start world-building by asking themselves tons of questions — how does this place work? what are the physical laws, political laws, cultural rules of this period — what does this place look like? —
Start by asking how these characters work — what are their internal physical laws, political laws, cultural rules — these answers will tell you what this place looks like. If your characters are haunted by past lives they can’t shake, their environs will be haunted. They may even have established an elaborate system of rules, laws, customs, moral strictures disallowing the past from sticking around — this started inside them. If your characters are liars, they will inhabit a world of false fronts. If your characters love, they inhabit a world that loves.
Worlds aren’t built top-down (what galaxy is this?), bottom-up (what does a wedding ring look like?) — worlds are built inside out. What don’t you know about yourself, that we can see all around you? What rules are you following unconsciously? These rules limn your world.
You build their world by establishing the rules that govern them.
The world IS the rules. And the rules are a by-product of the emotional life of your main characters — a structure organizing their hopes and fears. Because deep down they think that by following these rules they’ll get what they want.
Worlds are anchored, buoyed inside our main characters’ guts. The more the characters’ guts direct their outer world, the more we feel the piece. The bigger emotional impact. Bigger experience. The more we feel like we live in this world. These are people in our world.
A given character could walk into my house and her world would still be different from my world. Because her world isn’t bound by geography, it’s bound by the rules she feels she’s bound by. They feel they’re bound by.
The world is symptoms helping us diagnose what’s going on inside the character. Eczema doesn’t just exist and then a person finds himself inside it: he produces it. We see the skin rash, and that’s how we know what’s going on inside him. This strange place exists because they do, because they are the way they are and their world can’t be any other way. When they change, their world changes. Often, that’s how we know a character has changed — we see their world change.
My first T.V. job was writing for a show called “The Dish” on Style and E! — a spin-off of “The Soup” with Joel McHale, a clip show where a host stands in front of a green screen and shows clips of other shows and says jokes about them. Occasionally we did little sketches and trailer re-cuts, and we had characters (played by the writers or production staff) who would come out and do very stupid stuff. It was fun and low-budget, and there was a lot of room to try wacky stuff. Pitch Jerry the Fashion Crab on Monday and on Thursday the prop guy is spray-painting a foam cut-out in the shape of a crab — and the writer wearing it is dizzy from the fumes.
Once during punch-up we wrote a joke about a commercial for a female stand-up urinator — I don’t remember the exact punchline, but the commercial had a line like “I learned it in Europe.” So then we cut out of the commercial on that line, had our host Danielle look like she’s peeing while standing there. Then she said “I learned it from the host of The European Dish.” (Then the window over her shoulder flashed to a mocked-up photo of Danielle with a huge wart and a unibrow, in a gypsy costume, pushing a plough through a rutted field in Transylvania — with the logo of The European Dish superimposed over the whole thing.)
The joke killed in taping. We the writers loved this joke and laughed really hard when she did it. But the powers that be killed it in the booth because they didn’t want to seem “xenophobic.” We came up with something else on the floor. But I was sad to see the Host of the European Dish get iced, because building mythology is important.
Whether you’re writing a tiny little clip show on a cable channel somewhere in the upper 300’s or a huge-budget space opera on one of the antenna channels, mythology is what makes your show sticky.
Seeing the Host of the European Dish — or Jerry the Fashion Crab — or any other dumb little one-note characters we did on that show — once is funny. But then if European Danielle comes back — and this time she’s there to talk about the Paris runway shows, say in a tape segment, and then she pees herself again … now you’ve got a bit. But then say every time European Danielle comes back on the show, she drops little tidbits about how she got her gig as Host of the European Dish — maybe she was coyoted by a band of gypsies and she has to pay off her debt to them by hosting this clip show … Then we cut back to Danielle in the studio with fake tears rolling down her cheeks, going “They said there’d be opportunity in America … I didn’t know I was going to be a clip show host ….” You’re building the mythology of this character, populating the world of this clip-show, and creating a narrative myth that gives fans an armature to congregate around. Suddenly they don’t just love watching stupid Real Housewives clips, but they also love when European Danielle comes on, and it seems like no matter how outrageous things in Europe are, they’re gonna be more outrageous back in the home studio . . . . It brings people back. It makes you feel like you’re part of it. Fans know they’re fans by knowing that European Danielle became a clip show host via indentured servitude. Late Night with Conan O’Brien did this so well.
Human beings like stories. Tuning into a clip show is fun, mindless entertainment. But if there’s a chance that a character I recognize from a few weeks back will make a surprise appearance, even just to toss off a stray line that may add to his weird back-story — even if that character is just a foam spray-painted crab played by one of the writers — it’s satisfying. It makes us want to stick around, tune in again, see what happens next. Because what if we find out that European Danielle and Jerry the Fashion Crab know each other — what if European Danielle caught a case of Jerry the Fashion Crabs during her time working the Marseilles docks and now she won’t even look at him in the studio for fear of them being recognized together?
This is pure silliness because that’s what that show is. But the principles are the same, no matter what kind of show you’re writing. If you’re writing a serialized drama, mythology is that much more important. Every time you introduce one character or artifact or motif, and then bring it back — you’ve given it a story that has the potential to impact other stories. Tracing the pattern of these collisions, what impacts what and how that changes what can happen next — who has collided into whom in the past, and what that has produced — it becomes a puzzle for the audience to solve. It pulls them in, putting connections together and being rewarded when connections and histories are revealed. It turns your show sticky, holding onto eyeballs.
Because who wants to watch plot? We want to watch stories. We come back to create myths.