Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Feature writing lessons

I recently finished a fifth draft of my romantic comedy feature, and I think I'm really getting close to something final. But in addition to a script I'm proud of, I think I've acquired some really useful knowledge and insight. Pardon me for stating the obvious, but the more you write, the better you get! This shit starts to make sense! Yay.

Now, I do owe a lot of this to the amazing writer/director/producer/mentor/badass I've been working with. She's helped me realize a lot of things about features and the writing and rewriting process. I'm sure some of this works for TV too.

1. You really have to know your characters. But it's more than just who they are, what has happened to them and what they want. You need to track how feelings throughout every scene, and really think about how they react to situations. You need to show how they change and what they learn. And we need to believe it. We need to buy the decisions they make. We need to understand WHY they do what they do - even if their logic is flawed or misguided. In comedy, you also have to restrain yourself from writing the first joke that pops in your head. Even if it's a funny line, is it a line your character would say? It's important to differentiate your characters with dialogue, action, attitudes, etc. Don't let two characters experience the same arc and journey; that's boring - and their scenes will feel repetitive. They should have their own unique problems and arcs.

2. You need to provide fun performances for actors. Don't let your characters take the easy way out. Thrust them into awkward, terrifying situations and make them try to get out. The more that goes wrong, the more the actor has to work with.

3. There's more than one way to tell a story. Try stuff out. See what works. If something is too long or too much or too expositional, you can always throw it out. It's usually easier to write everything you think of and cut later instead of staring at an 80-page screenplay and trying to figure out what you're missing.

4. But you DO need to cut stuff. It's sad, but you may have to cut your funniest joke. If it makes you feel better, copy it into a new document and tell yourself you may be able to use it later (you probably won't). If you find yourself dreaming up entire plots to sustain a joke, that's a problem. Just let go. I always tell myself: if you wrote funny stuff before, you'll write funny stuff again.

5. Make the second half of act two intense. I am a big fan of Blake Snyder's Save the Cat (at right), but I've always had trouble with the section "Bad Guys Close In." Because in some romantic comedies and comedies, there isn't really a bad guy. In my script, it's the protagonist's job that's the enemy. I found it much more helpful to think of the phrase "World Closes In." Basically, everything that can go wrong should go wrong. Relationship, work, friends, whatever. Everything that was so fun in the beginning of the second act and maybe at the midpoint is coming back to bite her in the ass. Because she hasn't really confronted her the issues that have set this entire movie into motion. She's making bad decisions, and they're backfiring.

6. Add your own voice to common moments. You won't always be shockingly original. Sometimes you need to show a breakup, a fistfight, a first date, a sex scene, or a shootout...something we've seen in hundreds of movies. Make yours unique by making your characters unique, making your description specific and perhaps tossing in an unexpected surprise, setting or joke. Not all characters would respond to a conflict in the same way...and even a serious moment can have a moment of lightness.

7. Use transitions deliberately. Do you need to show that time is passing or that we're moving to another part of town? Should we see the outside of the building? Would it be jarring to jump from a very serious confrontation to a happier moment? Think about your script visually and show your voice in quick establishing descriptions.

8. Tackle one issue at a time. You may have a big heap of notes, but I find it most effective to focus on one problem in each pass. If you're having trouble differentiating characters, go through the entire script and make sure that person's voice is clear in every scene. Then do it again for another character. You might do a separate joke pass. Then maybe a separate visual description pass. I think this makes you focus and really be critical of yourself...and also prevent you from feeling too overwhelmed. If I get stuck, I like to highlight things to do in yellow and move on. Rewriting something is always better than rewriting nothing.

9. It's all about the arc. What does your character learn? What happens to make her change? How does she apply this knowledge to her life? What's your theme? How is it present in subplots? How can you show us these things and not insult our intelligence or be too obvious?

10. Think big. Can you add a ticking clock? Raise the stakes? Make your set pieces more exciting? Your jokes funnier? It's a movie, you know? Have some fun.

What have you guys learned?

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Dan Williams said...

Interesting! Congrats on getting so far with your feature!

I've learned that in the Second Half of Act Two, things need to go wrong and each thing has to be bigger (more worse) than the one before until the worst possible thing happens (such as the heroine or hero getting arrested!)as this keeps up the dramatic tension, which might release if a less worse thing occurred.

Anyway, hope the spec gets some wheels turning!

Jeff said...

a big thing thing for, which sounds relatively obvious and I'm sure it is to some people, is to make sure your character's actions show the audience who they are and how they feel. Too often, you see characters directly stating emotions instead of showing the audience who they are, or what they feel. Almost always, that comes off as cheap and it's the easy way out while also being boring.

naomi said...

In the new (third) Save The Cat book, Blake went into how the Bad Guys Close In section is made up of both external forces (like you said, the world closing in) as well as internal forces (how the hero or team is reacting to the world closing in and basically falling apart/trying to hold it together). Don't know if you'll find that useful, but it's been a help to me in thinking about what needs to happen in that section.

Kristan said...

SO many of those lessons apply to writing a book too. I think the hardest thing for me is with #5 -- the idea of making things intense. There's a little realist inside me that says, Oh that's not believable, or Peh that would never happen. And it's like, SHUT UP! This is supposed to be dramatic and fun!

So I'm learning to silence her.


The Bitter Script Reader said...

Great list, and everyone should have a checklist like it after doing their first draft.

Romantic comedies are harder than they look, with the second half of Act Two being the hardest. This is the part where the main couple has to fight, break up and usually never want to see each other again. Then the next act is stuck reversing all that in a non-contrived way.

It's hard to pull that off organically, so guess what a lot of writers do? They resort to a misunderstanding so that neither the guy nor the girl is the "bad guy" in the break-up, thus making so much easier to undo their split when the truth comes out. (Though usually Act Three has some contrived reason to keep them from talking and working out the misunderstanding.)

That's why the most important item on your list is "Know your characters." If you know them inside and out, it's a lot easier to target their specific hot buttons and use that in a way to not only provoke the break-up, but show how they grow and get beyond it.

This is why I like Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Peter screws up in a horrible way, but one that's still in his character. He then does the decent thing and confesses, which understandably lands him in hot water - and then he still goes back and recovers the picture of Rachel from the men's room. On top of that, the script has a plausible reason for them to be separated by distance (he goes home) and it's credible that once she cooled off, she'd be willing to give him another chance.

Good luck with the spec.

Gimme said...

This is amazing blog that explain the tv writing contest tips. These tips are very much helpful to stand first in contest.

GregM said...

Excellent list. Main thing to remember:
1) Writing is hard. It just is.

The part about cutting jokes is a useful reminder; Faulkner once said "You have to murder your darlings."