Audacity

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

Hesitant, cautious, careful, wondering — no one gives a shit. I can get that anywhere, from anyone. From everyone.

I want to see audacity.

People warn you not to be audacious for fear you’ll get hurt, you’ll look foolish, you’ll hurt them. They speak to their own fear, to the voice that says they must follow the rules. They don’t. You don’t. Rules exist for other people’s convenience, not yours. They’re there to comfort and guide those who don’t know how, or don’t have the balls to create rules of their own.

Somewhere along the way we absorbed limits. This catalogue of stuff I’ve already seen in T.V. and movies is allowable to pitch, on the list. These stories and images and references are on the approved list. This is what we can draw from. We stay within these limits so we won’t be laughed at, so we won’t be challenged. So when we’re in the room and we pitch gay robots and people sneer or laugh we can feel okay about ourselves knowing they already did gay robots on Battlestar or wherever the fuck. So I know I’m not a complete fucking loon.

But you know what, they hired you to be a complete fucking loon. I mean, not completely. You have to understand the map before you veer off it. And if you’ve got a map that’s working, no need to bring in a new map. Especially if you’re working for someone else. But no matter what the map says, you always have the option to grab the wheel and drive off-road. Don’t be safe. Be audacious. That’s what people remember — both people who hire and people who watch. They — we — don’t care about how well you stay within the lines, follow form. That does not interest me at all. What we crave is stuff that thrills us. What thrills us is when you break rules. When you get big and then you fucking explode and take the ship down with you, leaving us feeling real fear and empowerment at once — those were all his options. Now what? That’s what storytelling is.

Know your craft, know the form you’re writing, the genre, make sure we’re rooted and hooked from minute one and then — blow shit up in our faces. Set up our expectations and defy them. Slow down when it’s time to speed up. Throw away jokes, as Jane Espenson says. Go psychological when all convention says it’s time for action. Surprise us. Be brave. Be bold. Shoot your wad — the more you give, the more you’ll get.

As the firemen say — the hotter you are, the faster we’ll come.

Themes Emerge

drama, screenwriting, storytelling, T.V. writing

Themes exist in our world.

Being awake means noticing when themes emerge.

Some people argue that invoking theme in your work is artificial — theme is a by-product of the story you’re telling, and your audience will see what they want in it.

I argue that watching and tracing the ways in which themes emerge — in stories, out there in the world — is what storytelling is.

This is an anxious time for T.V writers — staffing season, when the network shows hire their writers. This morning a friend let me know that my manager’s client’s show had just gotten picked up, and his agent told him they were desperate for women writers. I asked my manager about it, and she said not true, they’ve already got the women they want. And they’re all lawyers. Even the staff writer they want is a lawyer. The janitor’s a lawyer. The dog is a lawyer. Ok. Got it. I should have gone to law school to be a T.V. writer.

And I’m anxious about other stuff too. I want to be loved.

I know a piece — whether it’s a pilot, a blog post, a joke, whatever — feels like one of mine when it starts dovetailing —

Writing I want to be loved just now brought me close, after roaming on this post for two days —

I went to a teahouse in Koreatown and back to my couch, changed clothes three times. I’ve eaten and eaten — am I getting fatter or is that another feeling I’m dodging, that wants to speak?

I abandon most of these posts. I write far more of them than I publish.

The word “abandoned” is such a fucking cliche. I hate saying it, and I wouldn’t if it weren’t such an accurate word. It’s such a joke now to talk about people with abandonment issues, but how do you explain people who roam, whose thoughts are restless, who can’t or won’t focus until they finally write the words “I want to be loved.” And when you do , a fresh wave rises —

I vowed the other day to be funnier in these posts. They’re getting Czech arthouse dreary. Next thing you know I’m going to have a table of indigent old people sitting around cracking hard-boiled eggs until one of them gets dragged away by the state interrogators.

So the anxiety is not free-floating. It’s specific, and it emerges. It shape-shifts. It takes the form of lawyers getting all the T.V. writer jobs. And it takes the form of my hunger. Of not knowing where my next meal’s coming from, if it’s coming at all. My lack of faith. I don’t know if I’ll have a job, and I don’t know if I’ll be loved. I don’t know when I’ll find out.

Themes emerge. I knew I wanted to write about theme, because I loved what John August said about it here, and blogging is a conversation. But when I started this post, I didn’t know how I was going to write about theme — in what context, with what examples. You start, you have an idea in mind, you find places in your story to bounce that idea around. Your story becomes an echo chamber, and you carve out more and more interesting folds in the walls. The tracing of the bounce becomes your theme.

In the story here, I wanted to write about theme, I wanted to make it immediate and personal and emotional. So that narrowed the frame greatly, because what’s going on today? Anxiety. But I could have told any number of stories about anxiety and staffing season, anxiety and love — it becomes a story about theme when you draw the parallel between them, waiting, the hunger for them both, the jar of sunflower seed butter I won’t stop eating — a jar that never fills my hunger. The way I can’t stop touching my belly. What connects T.V.-writing-lawyers to the touching of my belly.

The joke I wrote on Twitter last week about douchey guys who try to worm their way in by reassuring you about your body — and I’m like, reassure me about my career, jerk-off. This joke hits deep with me, where stuff hurts.

Hey, I put a joke on here — and proved I’m completely incapable of being funny here. This must be my ponderous, serious space, like when Americans go to Europe and feel we have to prove ourselves. This is my Europe. God help you all.

For theme to emerge, give it a space, a context, two adjoining contexts, and then pop your idea inside like a pinball. Watch it bounce around. What emerges will be a tracing that’s dense, provocative, layered. This is your theme.

How A Scene Is Like A Joke

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

I’m working on scenes right now. So I’m thinking about scenes as discrete units, like jokes. A mentor taught me this, and a showrunner he worked for taught it to him.

A good scene is pithy like a good joke. It takes leaps and accomplishes its mission in shorter than expected time and distance. It doesn’t explain itself, doesn’t tip its hand — it leaves its most important points unsaid, to the imagination, to be completed by the audience. Any time you let the audience step in to fill in the space you’ve supplied between Set-Up A and Punchline B, they’ll love you for it. Because you’ve let them become the heroes of the telling.

Whether you’re writing a joke or a scene — you wanna get in there as late as possible, get out early. But not too late, not too early. Finding those right moments to jump in and out of scenes (or jokes) is an art. A great scene will have a beginning, a middle and an end, turned like a little three-act play, as will a great joke (even a one-liner, if you look hard enough).

Think of the beginning of the scene (Act 1) as the set-up of the joke: Why does this person need something, here, right now? The set-up builds expectations.

Middle of the scene (Act 2): a reversal happens, a set-back. The twist in the joke. The moment we realize all is not right in joke-world.

End of the scene (Act 3): the character is thwarted or spun a new direction. Surprise! Punchline.

The punchline is the most important part of the joke. Your punchline lands your joke and lands your scene. Scenes finish with a twist, a turn, another obstacle for the character — they finish dramatically, and whatever you go out on is your punchline. The body of your scene was the setup, so you made it pithy and tight and turned it, then you killed with your punchline. Maybe it’s the hero’s final line as he blows out, maybe it’s what the hero does, maybe it’s what you reveal, maybe it’s an explosion. Whatever it is, it’s a punchline, something we lock onto, digest, understand what’s being turned or thwarted or revealed and then wonder what happens next.

Set ’em up. Knock ’em down. Always leave ’em wanting more.

Because in both joke-telling and scene-writing, the business we’re really in is keeping them wondering what happens next.

My post on how to write jokes can be found here.

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.

Teach Empathy

screenwriting, storytelling, T.V. writing

I have a day job: I teach empathy.

I write action scripts and I write comedy and I write novels and I do all this shit but the reality is — my job is to teach empathy.

Story’s job is to allow us to feel the feelings of others. Our job is to craft the story so that we see through another’s eyes, so that, given enough context and circumstances and choices, we understand how it feels to be another human being. Stories teach empathy.

Your job is to teach empathy.

Even in the darkest, most life-denying piece — you set up a world that helps your audience feel despair. So that when they leave the theater and encounter a person who lives in despair, they see themselves in that person. They’ve had that person’s experience, in the world of your darkest, most life-denying piece. You’ve given them a touchstone of recognition, added to their emotional lexicon. You’ve taught empathy.

Every kind of story teaches us empathy — comedy, drama, light, dark. What matters is we feel what someone else feels. Every kind of story has an emotional heart, a character whose feelings we make our own.

Failures of empathy underlie most of the problems we face as human beings. Sharing stories with one another — teaching each other empathy — can set us straight.

What kind of asshole am I? I sit around lecturing people they don’t have enough empathy.

Write Back To Front

screenwriting, storytelling, T.V. writing

Start with your target.

Your target is the moment you build to — that big reveal, big stand-off, joke on the scene, revealing look, twist — whatever pushes us stumbling forward, searching our hearts for more. This is the last moment in the novel, last beat in the scene, last beat in the act.

Drive the arrow of your story through the target where you want it to land. Find that last beat — of the story, of the scene, of the act — start with where you’re going.

Unless you experiment with rhythm and timing by placing your big moments in the middle or the beginning, your biggest moments should go last. Your end beats stand as booster rockets pushing us forward, constantly building tension and emotion, propelling us all the way past THE END to continue the story in our minds and in our hearts.

Instead of loading up your arrow and launching it, hoping it will stay on course and land where you want it, target these end beats first. Then, pull back — what happened right before the arrow nailed the target? What happened right before that? Follow the line of the arrow back all the way from where it hit its target to where you loaded your bow. You’ll find the path between target and pulling the string a lot shorter than it might have been had you started with the quiver.

I’ve been writing back to front for a long time — both within scenes and over entire scripts and novels — but it didn’t occur to me to write a post about it until I read this post at Screenwriting Foxhole in which Michael Lee discusses how to structure a scene — from back to front. Ensuring the last beat is caused by the beat immediately preceding it, which is caused by the beat preceding it, and so on. Like a director organizing a shot list, ensuring that every beat has a shot and that these shots flow in a tight, inter-dependent chain like a spine through the back of the scene.

Begin where you want to go. You’ll get there fast.

Story Shorthand

screenwriting, storytelling, T.V. writing

Fiona Akerman

I used to write slowly. As a novelist, I would meander, let myself go, simmer, get stopped up, go around in circles, find my way again and again. I still do that, I just do it very fast now.

If you’re on a deadline, but want to write a rich story fast, here’s a shorthand:

Every character gets an arc that hits at least three beats:

  • We meet them when they’re low — or don’t know yet they’re about to take a big fall.
  • They struggle with a new challenge.
  • They change as a result.

Show each of these beats in a scene or scenes consisting of:

  • a visual image
  • an emotion
  • a question in the mind of the audience — what comes next?

Weave these scenes together like a building conversation: each scene interviews the next, asking a more insistent question that’s only partially answered by the next, which answers a question with its own question in turn. Building in speed and intensity.

Every moment in your story is a great moment — if it’s not, lose it.

If you’re on a tight deadline, you can use this shorthand to develop a pretty tight story. Once you’ve got the story down, you can get profound.

How I Write: Motifs

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

I love motifs. If there’s some physical law where the number of motifs in your story threatens to reverse the chemical ratio of metaphor to action, I’m the person to test it.

A motif is a detail that repeats through a story to draw attention to an idea or theme. The motif can be a word, phrase, color, character, monster, sign, place, image, way of describing something, way of talking, alliteration, simile, character trait, situation, anything. The point is that it repeats. Once it repeats it becomes a trail of breadcrumbs we leave to help the reader or viewer find depth and meaning in our stories. When motifs cross and combine, they reflect and magnify each other, drawing a map that points the audience down paths of allusions, partly inherent in the story and partly supplied by the audience’s experience. This is the theme.

I’ll use my Iraq pilot LIONESS as an example to show how I use motifs. I decided to introduce a new motif in each act, like a recurring chord in a symphony, that, once introduced, would blend together in the end. Each act’s motif shapes the act, giving it a guiding metaphor to direct the action.

These are the ideas that take root in the imaginations of my characters in each act. They discuss them, they see evidence of them all around themselves, they see parallels to them in their environment, more importantly, they DON’T see parallels to them in their environment. These motifs show up in both subtle and un-subtle ways, as jokes, as images, as plot points, as looping topics of conversation.

Act 1:  Motif: Bloodshed.

Act 2: Motif: University of Texas Cheerleaders.

Act 3: Motif: Missing Humvee and Suicided Soldier.

Act 4: Motif: We Don’t Leave A Man Behind.

Act 5: Motif: Innards.

You don’t have to tell a serious story to use motifs — my sitcom pilot was standard network fare but also very motif-driven. You can bury them beneath the surface or not. What they give you is a deeper, more meaningful, more textural world.

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.