Commercial Can Be Important

It is something that a lot of artists say, myself included. They don’t want to do shallow art just for the sake of selling it. There is no real interest in creating the next big franchise or money maker. That art is shallow. In fact, it may not even be art, and just a product people create to sell and line their pockets. There’s also a certain bitterness that more ‘important’ and ‘thoughtful’ fiction is not as widely seen as the latest big action film. People have a hard time quoting a French film about the Holocaust, but most people can drop lines from any Schwarzenegger action epic.

But commercial art can have messages that are important, and packaging it right can help that message reach more people.

Take for example the Disney film Zootopia. This recent smash has been making waves and gaining praise for much more than just its animation. While on it’s surface it looks like a mere cartoon about cute anthropomorphic animals, it discusses a much more important and relevant topic.

In Zootopia, the populace is divided into predators and prey, though the two no longer eat each other. A series of strange incidents start occurring where predators go insane and revert back to their predatory instincts. The two main characters are a cop bunny named Judy Hopps and a con artist fox named Nick Wilde, prey and predator respectively.

After uncovering that predators are reverting to their natural instincts seemingly without cause, Hopps holds a press conference, speculating that these attacks are due to natural instincts. The exchange between her and Nick after the conference sounds a lot like something out of a different kind of film.

Nick

Clearly there’s a biological component? That these predators may be reverting back to their primitive savage ways? Are you serious?

Judy

I just stated the facts of the case! I mean, its not like a bunny can go savage.

Nick

Right. But a fox could, huh?

Judy

Nick stop it! You’re not like them.

Nick

Oh, so there’s a them now?

Judy

You know what I mean! You’re not that kind of predator.

Nick

The kind that needs to be muzzled? The kind that makes you believe that you need to carry around fox repellent? Yeah the only thing I did notice that little thing on the first time we met. So l-let me ask you a question; Are you afraid of me? You think I might go nuts? That I’ll go savage? You think that I might try to eat you!?

Judy reaches for her fox spray. Nick’s face drops.

Nick

I knew it. Just when I thought someone actually believed in me.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know what this movie is about. One reviewer said it best when they said  Zootopia was Disney’s answer to Crash.

Some will say it’s a cheap bait and switch, advertising something as a children’s film only for it to be a ‘message movie.’ Here’s the thing though. Shouldn’t that be what mainstream movies try to do?

You see this in a lot of different eras and a lot of different genres. The 1980s saw a slew of highly commercial and highly profitable movies dealing with the Cold War and the dangers of nuclear proliferation. One of the most famous of which, War Games, had a computer attempting to start World War III, unable to tell the difference between the projections in its program and the real people it was going to kill. When the young hero, played by Matthew Broderick, uses a game of tick tack toe to teach the computer that nuclear war is a no win scenario, the computer laments the following.

“Strange game. The only winning move is not to play.”

The preview audience cheered at the line.

Two of my favorite science fiction/horror films of all time, Alien and Aliens, feature strong anti-corporate messages. The best example is in Aliens where a corporate CEO, played by Paul Reiser, attempting to smuggle one of the deadly creatures back to Earth for use in their bioweapons division. When his plan is revealed, the heroic Ellen Ripley calls him to the carpet for his greed, saying he is lower than the monsters she and the marines are fighting.

“You know Burke, I don’t know which species is worse. You don’t see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage.”

While it’s sometimes popular to disregard commercial film and literature as being just that, the fact remains that this work is the most widely seen. Experimental art films are wonderful, visually stunning, and psychologically unsettling pieces, but they don’t appeal to the masses. A story about a young boy going to a school for wizards does. People may not be too interested in seeing another documentary warning about the dangers of climate change, but an adventure to preserve the beauty of the far away Pandora is something people will flock to. An anti-corporate message will bore most people, but throw in acid bleeding aliens and you will draw a crowd.

Important and relevant messages can reach a wide audience if they’re packaged right. This isn’t a cop out and it doesn’t diminish the purpose os your art. Doing this only increases its chances of reaching more people, ensuring your message is heard by a wider audience, and allows the to have fun while you’re discussing potentially hot button topics.

Balancing both commercial and topical art can be difficult, but if you go too far in either direction, you have failures. The Transformers movies may earn a lot of bank, but they’re pretty shallow and exploitive action films. A French art film about genocide may be well made and heartfelt, but people need to see it for the message to be heard. If you find the healthy middle ground, you can make something people love, something that lasts, and something that gives an audience food for thought.

Zootopia has a cast of cute animals, but it’s still about the problems our society continues to face with ethnic and racial groups continuing to mistrust and categorize each other. If that message is still there, who cares if it’s told with a fox and a bunny?

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Working with Writing Editors: Why and How

Getting an editor for your writing can seem like a waste of money. Such editors often go for around two to four thousand dollars if they have been working in the field for a number of years. Also, why should someone need an editor? What do you need to worry about other than typos?

The answer is a lot. A lot can go wrong when writing a book or a script, and if you find the right editor, you have an opportunity to fix those mistakes. I have been working with my editor for roughly a month now and can say that her input in my project has been most insightful. Working with an editor can help expose your shortcomings as an artist, and this can be a gut punch. But instead of taking it that way, you can accept those weaknesses and take it as a challenge to make your writing better.

First things first, don’t have someone you know be the editor unless you’re sure they can view it objectively. You can have such a person sweep for typos, but if they know you will it is hard for them to take a step back and provide an honest opinion. They know who you are, can pick up on little in jokes that a general audience probably won’t, and will often do their best to be encouraging. You won’t get an honest critical evaluation from your own mother. Think of your writing like a pool. Those you know have already waded in and are comfortable with it, but most people are going to be jumping in cold. If it’s uncomfortable, they’ll just leave and move on to warmer waters.

The best editors are ones you don’t have extensive connections to, because they can come into the story cold from the point of view of your audience, as someone who doesn’t know you, is meeting your characters for the first time, and just getting ready to explore the world you have made. This brings us to the problem of objectivity, not just for them, but for the writer.

Objectivity is a big one for writers, myself included. When delving into your story, you often feel a flood of emotions and are aware at any given moment what your characters’ innermost thoughts and secrets are. Nobody knows the story better than you. That is a big risk since you know the story so well, you may not communicate what you feel because you already know it.

Unless your audience is also aware of those things, a character’s actions will probably not have the same impact for them. Editors, like your audience, offer an objective point of view. If they are unable to get the ideas you are trying to put across, chances are your audience will be the same way.

Take me for example. I’m not terribly fond of depressed or angsty characters. I just have a difficult time connecting with someone who complains about the meaningless of life on a regular basis. While editing my book, my editor made the comment that my protagonist seemed angsty at times. When she revealed this to me, I was somewhat distressed. I was going for more a gruff and angry kind of character who complained, but did it in an intimidating or even funny fashion. Since my editor didn’t quite get that, it doesn’t mean she didn’t ‘get’ the story. It just means I didn’t communicate my character properly.

So my editor and I arranged a meeting where she addressed her feelings, and I told her what I was going for.

Her response was something to the effect of “Ah, yes. I can see that now.”

Then I said “Okay. So how can I communicate that better?”

The tips and examples she offered me after that meeting were most helpful, and helped me improve my manuscript greatly. Lines of dialogue and certain actions now stuck out as being against everything I wanted my character to be, so a few strokes of the keys and they were fixed. That’s what you should do. If something doesn’t work for your editor, talk to them, tell them what your goal is, and ask for tips on how to help that come across.

This brings us to another advantage of having an editor. They can be a good partner to work with, and even make the editing process very fun. A good editor will talk to you, try to understand who your characters are and ask you what you want your story to be. Once they know that, an editor can be a lot like a coach or personal trainer. They’ll be over your shoulder and offering input and criticism, but it’s all to help you build those writing muscles. Eventually, you will work those common mistakes out of your system, and you’ll be a better artist for it.

This doesn’t mean you should listen to everything an editor says. Sometimes you’ll have a strong idea in a story that means a lot to you and you want to keep. My editor has suggested the deletion of passages or lines that I find it difficult to part with. Sometimes they’ll suggest deleting something, only to go through the manuscript and see you were trying to set something up before, then tell you to go ahead and leave it in.

If something means a lot to you and not to the editor though, you can take that as another sign that it doesn’t quite work. That doesn’t mean you have to get rid of it. It just means that element needs some fixing.

Now, not every writer needs to work with an editor. Sometimes it is a more comfortably process to work on something alone to keep any distractions from clouding your thinking. Sometimes every word just means so much to you, it is impossible to part with any of them. If however you are insecure with your work or want to go through a test run with it, I would suggest seeking an editor out. I can say for my first time working with an editor, this has been an enjoyable experience that has helped my manuscript get re-energized. There are not many joys greater than seeing a manuscript you already love come to life as your ideas leave your head and become words on the page. You work with a good editor, that joy can be yours as well.

When Do You Kill The Kid In Your Story

You have to look a good long while to find a work of fiction where someone doesn’t die. It happens all the time, from the most blood soaked of Goodfellas style movies to the most seemingly innocent of Bambi like stories of fluffy animals frolicking through the forest. Inevitably, someone is going to take anything from a tumble to a bullet. But there are a few no-nos in such stories, namely that killing a child is generally frowned upon.

It’s one of the things that most fiction writers try to steer clear of, be they screenwriters or novelists or anything in between. Generally there’s a fear that doing something like this will turn off one’s audience, and often this type of thing is used for no other purpose then to stir controversy. Sometimes though, taking that extra step can help a story, and be used as a great dramatic device. Let’s start with the death of a child in something relatively well known, like Jaws.

Jaws, both the book and film, has a child getting horribly killed before the closing of the first act. The film is especially graphic in its depiction, a fountain of blood surging out of the water as the child is torn to pieces by the shark. I’m honestly surprised it didn’t get an R from this scene alone.

The scene does help the film though. The unexpected violence of the scene puts the audience on edge, and the stakes are raised immediately. The film’s hero, Chief Brody, has several children, and now their safety is not guaranteed to him or us. More interestingly, the aftereffects on Brody become an important part of the plot, him getting angrily confronted by the dead child’s mother, and sinking into an alcoholic stupor afterwards. The death of the young boy does serve the story well. Alligator is not nearly as good an example.

Alligator is nothing special, a Jaws knock off from the 80s. There’s a scene where the monster is hiding in a backyard swimming pool during a child’s birthday party. Seeking to bully the the toddler, his older brother pushes him into the pool, where he is killed in a geyser of gore in front of horrified onlookers.

This scene fails for a number of reasons. One, it should be horrific, but unlike Jaws, it comes across as laughable. Worse yet, it in no way effects the plot. The leading characters are never aware of this attack. It doesn’t clue them in to the monster’s location, and afterwards it’s never mentioned again. What could have been a terrifying and even poignant scene is but a brief aside in the story. Cutting this element out of the film, it moves just as smoothly with no sense of anything being lost. It has no effect on the plot, so it has no place in the narrative. While the scene in this film is useless, it doesn’t come across as insulting and is actually good for a laugh. That isn’t the case for Aliens. vs. Predator Requiem.

Words cannot express how much I despise this picture. Not only does it ruin my two favorite science fiction icons of all time, but it contains some of the most shameless and exploitive violence ever put on film, and all for the purpose of garnering controversy. The film gets off to a poor start when a child is attacked by a facehugger and gives birth to the chestburster inside of him on camera. It is well known to fans of the series that the facehugger is a rape allegory, so using it on a child, and onscreen, was incredibly ill advised. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the film sinks to new lows when we witness one of the leading monsters massacre a nursery and a ward filled with pregnant women.

Now, the previous films in both the Alien and Predator series are not family material by any stretch. Aliens for example does kill many children, but it’s off screen. When either series was at its best, they were tense, suspenseful and well made films with well rounded characters that didn’t need gore or violence to sell themselves. There is no such tact or skill to be found in Aliens. vs. Predator Requiem. The above mentioned scenes are not well made in any sense of the word, and are blatant attempts to sell the film by stirring the pot. It’s only appropriate that the film failed. Now that doesn’t mean you can’t have something in bad taste and still have it serve a story. Arguably the best example on this list is one of the most disgusting sequences ever put to film.

John Carpenter’s Assault On Precinct 13 is an underrated gem that serves as the first in a series of incredible films from the talented director, and is easily one of the best action films of the 1970s. The plot concerns a team of police officers and convicts who try to fend off an attack on their precinct by a violent street gang.

In the film’s most famous sequence, a child is shot with a silencer by the head of the gang. It is sickening, in bad taste, and absolutely brilliant in how it’s executed. You could teach an entire class on editing from this scene alone, but lets take a look at how it effects the plot. After the little girl is killed, her father takes revenge on her killer, retreats inside the titular precinct for safety, and is followed by the gang bent on revenge. In one fell swoop, Carpenter both gets the plot of his siege thriller started, and removes any sympathy the audience might otherwise have for the gang. The entire story hinges on this horrific scene, for it creates the conflict that the characters must resolve.

In closing, killing a child in your story doesn’t have to be purely exploitive. It can be a very potent, dramatic, even tragic device. It can get your plot rolling, let your characters know how serious a situation is, or just put your audience on edge for the rest of the ride. There are however many other ways to do this. Use this dramatic device as you would any other that could be controversial, and use it responsibly.

Books or Movies? Evaluating My Career Path

In these two years since I got out of college, a lot has happened in my professional life to give me pause over which career would be best for me, film or books.

When I was a young boy of around six years old, I saw Indiana Jones and the Temple Of Doom. The movie was so rich with imagination, action and creative imagery, I fell in love with it right away. Looking at what was playing out on the screen, I asked a question that changed my life forever.

“How did they do that?”

I had never considered the question before when watching a movie. I had always assumed these wonderful things just winked themselves into existence. After that question, I watched documentary after documentary on how these works of art were created, and made the declaration when I was 10 years old.

“That’s what I want to do.” So I went to college for it, aced my grades, and learned everything I could about the elaborate and complex craft of filmmaking, from conception to the screen. I was going to be the greatest director ever. Now 27, I have only made a few short films, no features, and have a small job in a film company. They are good achievements to be sure, but not my greatest. My greatest was that I wrote a book.

Over one hundred thousand words, over three hundred pages. I sooner saw myself directing a massive budget epic then I did writing so much as a short story, but here it is. Locked away in my external hard drive is a book, and I had the time of my life doing it. It has made me wonder which art form is more right for me as a career path.

Two questions go into choosing books or film, how each works as an art form, and what goes into making either one.

Movies are an art for that interest me a lot more than books, because they are every art form rolled into one. They have writing, acting, music, digital and painted art, architecture, everything. Whenever a new art or technology comes along, movies absorb it, growing as humanity grows. They are in many ways the universal art form. Not everyone has the time or the patience to read a book or play a video game, but with a movie all you need to do is sit back and take it all in.

Books by contrast only deal in writing. There is no music, no acting, no effects work of any kind. They are just words on a page. Unlike movies, books ask a lot of their readers. They ask for time, concentration, but greatest of all, they ask for imagination. That is the one thing books will always win at. A book is different for each person, and on each reading. The words change and grow with you, and you are in control of it all. How the sunset looks, how the birds sing, how the couple kiss under the moonlight. Movies have the personality of their makers, while books have a lot more of their readers in them.

Movies and books are both wonderful, beautiful things. Thing is, I know much more about movies than books as I’m a very visual thinker. I couldn’t tell you the first thing about the great authors of our time, but you ask me one question about any film from a Hollywood blockbuster to an 80s slasher film and I can spew out more trivia than your average google search.

As for reading books, I’ll freely admit my guilt in not reading some of the best ever written. The Great Gatsby, Gone With the Wind, Slaughterhouse Five, 1984, the list goes on and on of great books which never graced my unfortunate eyes. Perhaps it’s because I better process the auditory and visual information in movies. I like seeing and hearing all these things, looking at a good piece of cinematography or hearing a great score to go along with it. With books however, you get to make your own. Chose your own actors, write your own music. You could have Dumbledore played by everyone from Gregory Peck to Harrison Ford.

Harrison Ford as Dumbledore. How kickass is that?

What about what goes into making either one? That perhaps is where the two differ the most. Though I always dreamed of being a film maker, the actual making part always filled me with dread.

Movies require many things. They require money, untold numbers of man hours, crew, safety regulations, you name it. These are all things one must consider when making a motion picture, because movies do have limitations. A first time director isn’t going to get a job directing a megabucks movie.

Also, as much as this pains me to admit, you don’t have that much creative freedom in movies, especially a big studio film. Studios give you the money, and they want a product they can sell. I suppose this does make sense. If I shoveled that amount of cash at someone, I would want them to follow certain rules also. Studios won’t give you that kind of money to see your dreams come true. Movies are art, but they’re expensive art, and expensive art has to sell.

With a book though, there is no crew, there is no limit on budget, and there is no person looking over your shoulder whispering yay or nay. You just set your fingers loose on a keyboard and watch them dance. You can do this anywhere you want. On a lake, in the few hours before work, on a vacation to Universal Studios, wherever your fingers can meet those keys. If something goes wrong, just erase it and start over. No time to reset the effects and actors. It’s ready to go as soon as you are.

Best part about a book though, is there is no waiting. No waiting for someone to green-light a passion project you’ve been wanting to make for the last twenty years. No waiting for a bigwig to take a passing interest in that baby that means so much to you. Whatever project you want to do, whichever one is most in your heart at that moment, that’s the one you make.

You can do whatever you want, whenever you want when writing a book, and that’s the dream of any artist. You want to sink an entire continent into the sea? Have an entire city fly to the moon? Whatever you can imagine, it only costs the ink to print it and the paper to put it on, available at any fine retailer. It takes only two things, your patience, and your time.

Still, making a movie is an experience. It’s collaborative. You meet and work with a lot of people. You make memories while making a movie, of late nights and early mornings, hanging out and trying the catering, all the things that have gone wrong and all the things that went right. It may be stressful, but it’s the stuff memories are made of. When all is said and done, it’s a mountainous achievement.

Making a movie is much more challenging than writing a book, but in the end, both are just as rewarding for the artist and their audience. Honestly, I’m not sure which is better for me now. Film has made a much greater impact on me. They were my focus on college and in my dreams for almost twenty years. But the writing of a book was such an enjoyable and free process, it was the first time in my life where I felt free of any limitations. Whatever story I wished to tell, I could just get started.

I’m still working on both careers. I have a meeting with someone who’s wanting to work together on shorts and features, and you better believe I’m completing my fantasy/adventure book series. The question now is which one I find more fulfilling, the challenge of filmmaking, or the freedom of book writing.

It has given me a lot to think about.

 

The Perks of Hearing Criticism

Since the hiring of a professional editor for my first book, the project has been moving in very interesting directions. I have always said on this blog that receiving criticism is one of the most important parts of the writing process, and that has certainly applied here.

Chapter 4 of my book is a brief vignette where the characters swing by a city in order to establish it. The city in question serves as the location for the climax of the story, so it seemed appropriate to set it up as well as several of the characters in it beforehand. As it was written, it served as a brief action scene where my main character, a dragon, intimidates the residents of the town.

Writing the scene, I couldn’t help but feel it was very tedious. True there was some colorful description, but the scene of fire and mayhem lasted two pages without a line of dialogue to break the action.

Upon completing her edit of Chapter 4, my editor and I held a meeting on Skype. We talked about some of our issues with the manuscript, with me talking about my concerns and ideas I wanted to get across. While discussing chapter 4, she made a very interesting point.

“I really enjoyed this city you set up, but was disappointed we didn’t get to explore it.”she said.

Hearing that small phrase created a flood of questions and ideas. Why does this have to be an action scene? Why can’t it be more based on exploration and dialogue? How does the action help establish the characters? And so forth.

The flood of creativity that came next was like a dam breaking. After applying her suggested edits to my work, I went back over the chapter, deleted the entire action scene out of the chapter and replaced it instead with a scene of quiet intimidation. There is much more to enjoy this this newer version, a fair bit of humor, seeing more of the town and its culture, and focusing more on character as opposed to spectacle.

It was longer, more detailed, and a lot more fun to write as well as read.

I honestly don’t know how I got an editor as good as this for as cheap as I got her, but she has been amazing, and her input on this project has been nothing but beneficial.

Developing a Character Over A Series

It’s been three years since the completion of Breaking Bad, and it’s still considered a chilling and effective character study of a man slowly losing his soul. The saga of Walter White’s descent into depravity is regarded as one of the most well rounded and defined character arcs ever put to the screen, small or large. You talk to anyone, they’ll tell you the same thing.

“Walt was such a nice guy at the start of the show.”

Breaking Bad is one of the best examples of developing a character over a series, something that in writing, can be incredibly difficult. Organizing and executing an effective character arc is difficult enough in one book or film. To do it in several requires great tact and precision.

In a series, like in any individual book or film, you want your character to be changed by the end. To see them go through the same arc over and over again would make any sequels dull and repetitive. Where’s the fun in a sequel if it’s just a repeat? There are plenty of solid examples of characters that go through amazing changes in their respective series, and looking at individual cases can teach you any number of methods to use.

Luke-Skywalker-1

Luke Skywalker of Star Wars is a good example. At the start of A New Hope, he is an idealist who yearns to escape from his home and be something great. It’s an old story, but where it goes next is what makes the character work. Over the series, he learns painful truths about his past, calling into question his black and white views of good and evil. With his newfound insight, his quest changes from one of destroying his enemy, to saving him.

A quest or journey where the goal itself changes does a lot to show a character’s growth. Previously a journey that seeks destruction, Luke’s changes to one of liberation, and shows how he has matured in his views of conflict. This is one way to develop a character over a series. Another way is to reveal something new about them, like the Indiana Jones character.

Indiana-Jones

Each film in the Indiana Jones series focuses on a distinct area of his journey as an archeologist, coming to appreciate the value of the artifact he’s after or overcoming greed and giving an artifact back to its rightful owners. Last Crusade is the most interesting, which delves into his relationship with his father. The character is laid bare before the audience, causing us to more closely look over and scrutinize his actions.

Looking at his once troubled home life and desperate attempts to reconnect with his father, one looks at the previous films with new eyes. Is he trying to outdo his father? Is he finally trying to win his approval? Last Crusade isn’t just character development, but a revelation. This revelation doesn’t just flesh him out in Last Crusade, it ads dimension to him in the previous films, an astounding accomplishment in storytelling.

A character’s quest changing to a reveal about who they are both work great in developing characters over a series. Still, there are other ways, like having a character seeming to embody one set of ideals, when in truth, they embody something else.

Harry-Callahan-1

Inspector Harry Callahan, aka Dirty Harry, is a hot button character. He’s a cop who doesn’t play by the rules in a system he views as broken, violating numerous laws and Constitutional codes on his quest for what he views as justice. In the first film, Harry regularly complains about what law has become, dispensing with civil liberties and allowing his magnum to do the talking. The sequels however show someone far more fascinating.

In the second film, Magnum Force, he’s confronted by a gang of dirty cops executing criminals. Instead of siding with them, Harry sees them for the criminals they are and deals with them exactly the same as anyone else. Then there’s the forth film, Sudden Impact. After finding out a serial killer he’s tracking is a rape victim killing her attackers, Harry has come to empathize with her so strongly, he can’t arrest her. The once lethally effective cop has developed such empathy, he can’t even do his job anymore.

Harry is a good example of a character who seems one note when truth, there’s a far deeper humanity within him. In many ways he tricks his audience with an urban wild west, and delivers instead something more provocative. This series doesn’t just see its character change, but speaks directly to its audience in an effort to teach them something new. That’s exactly what a character and a story should do.

From Walter White to Indiana Jones, from Callahan leaning right before bolting to the left, each of these characters shows many different ways to which a character can grow and evolve over a series, be it books, films, or any other medium.

One must find a balance thought. By the end of Breaking Bad, Walter White is still human enough to do something selfless and admit he was wrong. In Sudden Impact, Harry still pulls out his six shooter and blows some bad guys out of their socks. People do enjoy coming back to see a favorite character over and over again. One must remember that people change in real life. Going on a journey with a character and seeing them change is like watching a real life friend or relative change. It makes the audience feel that much closer to them, because it makes them that much more real.

Writing with Discipline

Writing can certainly be a tedious task. It inevitably means hours upon hours of sitting at a keyboard, pounding away at the little lettered boxes at your fingertips and hoping to capture some kind of magic. Most of the time it doesn’t work out and people give up before they even hit their stride. How does one complete so mountainous a task as writing a story?

I never thought I would complete a book, much less a series of them. I have ADHD. I was diagnosed as a child, had a hard time focusing in school, and was on stimulants until my late teens. Trust me, the medication did help with my school work, but not enough for me to focus on writing. I drew pictures, jotted down ideas and notes, and even made models, all of which seemed far less challenging than crafting a novel or a feature script.

Upon entering college and delving deeper into screenwriting, the complexity of stories was finally revealed to me. A story requires a delicate balance in order to succeed. Three act structure is a tried and true method to map out the emotional highs and lows of any narrative in any genre. The graph pictured below shows how the vast majority of stories are put together. Apply this to some of your favorites, and will will be surprised how well things fall into place.

Screenplay Structure For tips

Understanding stories and how they work is one thing. Successfully executing one is another. Eventually though, I grew tired of waiting to see my characters come to life on the big screen, so I decided to give birth to them on the page. Overcoming how easily distractible I am did prove challenging, but there were a few things that helped me get through each one of my projects.

1: MUSIC

Listening to music while writing is actually a good way to get yourself pumped up. Pop a pair of headphones in and turn something on that is appropriate for your story. While writing my adventure novel, I listened to the soundtrack for Indiana Jones on a loop. While writing my latest horror script, I cranked up Morricone’s chilling score for The Thing.

Whatever music you use is ultimately your decision. I would recommend not using lyrical music as the words in a song can distract you from your writing. Instrumental melodies tend to work better.

2: MAKE IT YOUR ONLY ENTERTAINMENT

Writing can be a chore, but it doesn’t have to be. The act of writing itself can be a very entertaining thing to do, but it does require concentration. That’s why I like to put myself in situations where it is the only thing I can do to pass the time. It took me about three months to complete each draft of my novel, much less than I thought it would take. One of the things I did was go to areas where there was no internet access.

With no social media or internet videos to distract me and home a long ways off, sitting and writing became just about the only way to pass the time. When in that situation, the time and the words go flying by. Find yourself a favorite sitting spot, be it outside on the beach or at a coffee shop, and just start working for the next few hours.

3: SET DAILY GOALS

Stephen King claims to try and write ten pages a day while working on new manuscripts. Setting goals such as this can do a lot in boosting your productivity. I for example try to knock out five thousand words a day while working with novel manuscript, and about five to ten pages a day while working with scripts.

Writing is a lot like working out in the gym. If you set your goal to do twenty lifts on a machine, you can’t very well stop at fifteen. Crossing the halfway point of a daily goal is a very liberating experience, and with the end in site, the rest comes much easier.

4: DON’T BE AFRAID TO WRITE CRAP

The dreaded writer’s block brings the progress of any story to a screeching halt. Really though, it’s just the fear of putting something bad on the page, and you really shouldn’t be afraid of that. Writing something that isn’t up to your standards is a good way to get it out of your system. Better yet, the beginnings of a good idea may be inside what you perceive as junk.

Whenever you get stuck, sometimes it is best just to go nuts. You writing a detective story? Drop a pink elephant on them. You may not keep the pink elephant, but you might get a good line of dialogue that could get you re-energized.

These were the things that help me the most when working. I have a second book beginning next month, and I am pretty nervous about it. But with a completed manuscript undergoing its final edit, I’ve seen that writing a book isn’t an impossible dream, and you shouldn’t either. Scripts, books, shorts, all of them are doable. If you have the passion, the drive, and can figure out the right balance of discipline, you can make it something very fun to do.

Ego Can Destroy Art

Artists who let their egos run rampant.

We have all heard the stories. They come time and time again of artists, often once talented and revered, spiraling into a pit of mediocrity, all while claiming they are misunderstood geniuses. There is a certain tragedy to this, seeing a great visionary fall into this trap of believing they are indestructible, or a newcomer unable to overcome the belief they have no more to learn. That feeling of indestructibility can destroy works of art that may have otherwise been great, and stop great careers before they even begin.

A big ego is a dangerous thing to have, particularly if you’re an artist. With it comes the assumption that everything you do is flawless. Surrounding themselves with ‘yes men’, no one ever questions what they do, and by the time the art is finished and available to the public, it’s too late for the criticism to make any difference. There are few examples as great as the saga of Michael Cimino and Heaven’s Gate.

The story of Heaven’s Gate is a tragic tale of an up and coming artist’s self destruction. Drunk off the success of The Deer Hunter, Cimino sought to make the great American Western. Given full creative control and a budget of twenty million, the film ran over time and over budget, Cimino frequently clashed with his producers at United Artists, and the incidents that happened on set caused ripples still being felt to this day.

The film was eventually completed on a budget of 50 million in 1980 dollars, only making 3 million at the box office. It flopped so hard that it closed United Artists, which had been the studio for creative freedom. The rampant mistreating of animals on set, ranging from live cockfights to a horse getting blown up with dynamite, resulted in new regulations against such cruelty. In the ensuing fallout, Cimino destroyed many careers, including his own.

This incident ended the era of creative freedom in Hollywood. Not enough people said ‘no’ to Cimino, and he refused to listen to those who did. There is a lot tragic about this story, from the destroyed careers, to the resulting restrictions on creativity, not to mention the the animals harmed on set. Another tragedy is this film was Cimino’s passion project, the film that meant more to him than anything in the world, and he bungled it. It is forever a part of film history not as a rousing success, but as a crushing failure.

If you see Heaven’s Gate, it’s a beautiful film to look at. Not a single frame in the movie doesn’t qualify as modern art. The acting is astonishing, the direction is top notch, the sets are breathtaking, even its plot deals with the Johnson County War, an important chapter in American History. All of it however, is wrapped around a script that is dull and uninteresting. Had Cimino listened to those around him, he may have been able to improve the script enough to make the film his masterpiece, paving the way for a great future in movies.

In the making of documentary, one of Cimino’s friends said it best. ‘No one wants to believe they have an ugly baby.’ That’s true, especially when that baby means as much to you as Heaven’s Gate did to Cimino. It becomes more damaging when you believe you’re a genius, because then a legitimate criticism can be written off without a second thought. Looking at the saga of his botched western, one can’t help but get the feeling that Cimino thought of it as his show, and not the show of the characters or story.

I personally believe that’s what every artist should remember. The show isn’t yours. The show belongs to the art. People didn’t go to see Raiders because of Spielberg. They went to see Indiana Jones. People didn’t read To Kill a Mockingbird because of Harper Lee. They read it because of the Finch family.

You can point to celebrities and artists who are beloved and revered, but it doesn’t really have much to do with their personalities or private lives. People don’t chat with Spielberg about that time he and his mother snuck a few lobsters, or how Harper Lee took a spring walk with her father in the south. They talk about the art and how it moved them. 

There’s something oddly liberating about taking that stance. You don’t worry about what people think of you and don’t have a drive to prove yourself. You don’t have that thought nagging you all the time of ‘I’ll be famous.’ You just want to make the art the best it can be, and if it makes you famous, that’s nice too.

Artists always have a lot to prove, and the desire for recognition is one of the bigger drives in a creative mind. We all make art with the goals of making better lives for ourselves and building successful careers. Remember though, it’s not you who makes the art famous, but the art that makes you famous. A good work of art can elevate its creator to new heights, gaining you a place in history and making all your dreams come true.

This is not to say you shouldn’t be confident. Confidence is a great thing that lets an artist take that risk of putting their work into the public eye. Confidence can keep you from giving up, not stopping until you’re finished. Its also a great thing to make something you’re proud of. Validation at making something great is one of the best things a human being can feel, but there is such a thing as taking it too far.

There are also many artists who can be called vain, but they may have developed that vanity over years of success. Many artists boast of how they will one day be famous, and never get there because they don’t try to get better. They effectively put themselves in a trap, and refuse to leave to greener pastures.

There’s a fine line between feeling proud of your accomplishments and declaring yourself a perfect genius. If you keep yourself from crossing that line, you’ll find things are much easier. There’s always more to learn, and always time to stop and take a look around before making a mistake. If you put your own feelings aside and give the art the care it deserves, it will be good to you.

Plot vs. Story

The difference between plot and story can be hard to figure out for a beginning writer. Often confused for the same thing, the two really couldn’t be more different, or more dependent on each other. After writing for a while, you do start to differentiate them. Knowing the difference can help you gain a greater appreciation for the stories you love, and help you improve your work in ways you never thought possible.

There is one project that has been giving me such trouble, a thriller that I’ve been wanting to do since I was a good deal shorter. Everything seemed in place with a setting I loved and a topic I was passionate about. When I tried writing it though, I had to stop 15 pages in because it was clear it wasn’t working. Reading my characters, I just didn’t care. They were only going through a sequence of events, no significant changes to be had by the end. I had a plot, but there was nothing inside that put magic in it.

That’s the best way to tell the difference between plot and story. You take a look at a story you love, and at first glance it look’s pretty easy to say what it’s about. Take Star Wars for example. That’s pretty simple, a group of rebels try to take down an oppressive empire in a galaxy far, far away. It is a fun western style space adventure. But stopping there is a mistake, because that’s not what makes Star Wars special.

Ultimately, Star Wars is the story of two characters, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. Vader has sided with the Empire and seeks to destroy the things his son holds dear, while Luke tries to find a way to convince his father that his views are worth fighting for. In the end, Vader choses his son over his old viewpoints and sacrifices his life to save him, paving the way for a better, more peaceful galaxy. That’s the story of Star Wars. All the space battles and lightsaber duels are just dressing for what lies underneath.

How about To Kill a Mockingbird? The plot is a lawyer risks his reputation by defending an African American man falsely accused of rape. What’s the story though? The story is about his children. Witnessing bigotry in all its ugliness, their childhood innocence is shattered, but they get it back due to an act of random kindness from a neighbor they once feared.

A story keeps your reader or viewer from asking that question ‘Why should I care?’ In all of the above listed examples, the viewer has a good reason to care. Plenty of science fiction stories came out with aspirations to be the next Star Wars, but none of them achieved the same level of success because they were nothing but lasers and space fights. Many books and films came out dealing with racism and hatred after To Kill a Mockingbird, but none had the gut punch of showing how those evils destroy children.

This is not to say that plot isn’t important. Plot is what gives a story its character, providing a unique finish that creates something completely new. You can make a quest about destroying an evil ring or killing a giant shark. You can set a tale of reconciliation in a suburban neighborhood or a high rise overrun by terrorists. You can put a tale of lost innocence on a set of railroad tracks in Oregon or on a river in Vietnam’s jungles.

Plots are the little differences between stories that allow us to tell them apart. They are ways to customize stories for any type of viewer with a variety of genres like horror, fantasy, science fiction, and action, allowing you to reach people that were otherwise uninterested. Someone might not be too interested in the tale of a working woman overcoming her past demons, but if that woman is Sigourney Weaver and those demons are acid bleeding monsters, you will turn a few more heads.

The plot is great, but sometimes it’s too easy to get lost in it and lose sight of what gives a narrative its power. It’s not hard to see why, especially in genres that rely on creative worlds, frightening imagery and spectacular set pieces, but those things can’t sustain a narrative on its own. You look something like the recent flop, Gods of Egypt. It has a simple straightforward plot and is jam packed with creative and beautiful creatures and set pieces. Underneath it though, there’s nothing. Having plot with no story is like coming to a party with the most delicious icing in the world, but forgetting the cake to put it on.

It seems my thriller fell into that same trap, with an over reliance on its premise and no real care or attention given to the characters to go through it. I asked myself why the journey was important, and realized by page 15 that it wasn’t important. That was a hard realization for me when I reached page 15. It isn’t important enough for a reader, and it’s not important enough for me to waste my time on, at least not yet. I am off to a decent start with a delicious icing of creative imagery, pretty spooky sequences, and a nice serving of tension and dread. Now it’s time for the hard part, baking the cake to put it on.

But oh, so many flavors to chose from.