Since there are already too many blogs about the Top 10 Christmas movies, or Top Whatever Whatever lists that glorify the already famous and well known, I’ve decided to compile a list of the the top 25 average people whose holiday photos place them solidly within the category of “characters.” This list might make you appreciate your own family just a smidge more, so without further ado…
Last Night: Abridged
Last night, during a house party, a complete stranger came up to me and drilled a hole in the base of my spine. First my knees buckled, then I lost all feeling in the left side of my face. Drool dribbled down my chin as my lips flapped in a pitiful attempt to ask, “What’s happening to me?” It sounded more like, “Wuh appelang oo ee?” I proceeded to flail around, trying to get any one of the dozens of party goers to help me. They believed me to be drunk and began to murmur about cabs and bad form. I was humiliated and scared, but no one would listen to me because no one could understand me.
I began to shake people. They shook me off. I stumbled around saying something that approximated “hey” and got a lit cigarette shoved in my mouth. I coughed so hard on it that not only did I choke, but I pissed my own pants. At that point, a good and trusted friend led me away from the party and left me standing under a patch of moonlight by the woods. All the while, the pea-sized hole in my back gaped open, mocking me in its dryness, its lack of oozing blood or anything that I could point to as proof that I was hurt. The unknown person who had done the damage stood on the stoop holding up the electric drill, whizzing it to life for the benefit of saying,”Don’t you dare come back.”
Standing alone in the darkness just beyond the reach of the porch lights, staring back at this person that I didn’t even know but hated to the core of my person, my whole body went numb. My knees threatened to give way, but I managed to hold my ground. Probably just for spite. My feet planted themselves in the freshly dead leaves, and refused to move from that spot, until, one moment after many moments very much like it, I began to move. Step by agonizing step I trudged and wobbled my way back to the party. Back to the lights. The noise. The people. The person. Back to confront my worst fear…
Yep, you guessed it. That was a dream. But I’d have been an idiot to preface it with that. That’s Rule #1, and pretty much the only “rule” when it comes to translating one’s dreams into a dramatically told story. Repeat: do not let us know that the story you’re telling us is a dream either at all, or until the proper moment, which absolutely is not at the beginning. I’ve seen even seasoned writer’s make this mistake, and there’s just no excuse for it. Did you know, for instance, that Frank Darabont had originally written a dream sequence into the 3rd Act of The Shawshank Redemption that was never shot? Old Frank thought it was perhaps his best bit of writing in the entire script (which is saying something, since the script is phenomenally good), but the producers and execs took one look at it and said, “Cut it.” Or something along those lines. As much as I admire Darabont’s writing, I have to agree with the big wigs. The reason that and most other dream sequences don’t work is simply this: when we know it’s a dream, the stakes are so low as to rob us of drama, tension, and conflict. Unless, of course, we’re talking about Nightmare on Elm Street where the consequence of dreaming is death, or Inception where one is invading dreams, and again there is the possibility of fatal injury.
Okay now that you have that rule down let’s look at some helpful hints.
Helpful Hint #1
If you’re going to pull more than a moment from your dream, and are in fact trying to create a work of any length, there are a few writing styles that dreams really adapt to well: Expressionism, Surrealism, Magic Realism, and Horror. I would suggest that you take a look at the most inspiring moment from your dream, figure out which style it naturally lends itself to, and after you’ve chosen one of these styles, try to work within that particular “box.”
Having trouble deciding? Here’s a rough breakdown of these styles that might help. Horror, for instance lends itself nicely to nightmares when we, the audience, either don’t realize it’s a dream or, like, in Nightmare on Elm Street there are real stakes to the characters falling asleep. Magic Realism tends to lend itself to dream-like stories full of fantasy and the sort of fantastical imagery that sparks the imagination and doesn’t need to play by the logical rules of the universe. (However, if you’re going to write in that style you do want to force your story into some sort of logical box lest you stray into the territory of Surrealism.) Expressionism is handy because you can get away with a lot of things like writing stereotypical characters (and in a dream, people tend to be like that), plus you have the whole “am I insane or is just this world?” thing going for you. Surrealism is an obvious choice considering that’s what it was made for and the farther you get from logic, the better. On the subject of logic…
Helpful Hint #2
The glass is structure. Like any screenplay, your dream-story must have structure (see previous posts for structure breakdowns). No matter which of these styles you chose to write in, you must establish a sense of order or “logic”(a.k.a the rules of the world), and the writing conventions you’re using in the 1st Act. This is key, otherwise people will feel like you’re cheating, using cheap tricks to get your protagonist in or out of trouble, or that you have tone issues. That’s actually true of any cinematic story, so please do file it away.
Helpful Hint #3
Dreams, as much as they can be inspiring are death to internalize. Do not, under any circumstances try to analyze your dream. Don’t look up the meaning of your dream on the interwebs, don’t pretend you or your best friend is Freud, and definitely do not try to write your dream exactly as it happened (unless you dream in perfect story form, which I highly doubt, because stories are organized and structured, whereas dreams are free flowing). Instead, think of your dream as a jumping off point. Pick the moments that stand out in your mind, and had the most resonance with your feelings, and build a story around them. Not on them, but around them. If you build the foundation of your story on a moment from a dream, the problem is that people likely won’t get it. Usually there’s a lot of backstory and personal baggage that come along with dreams and help the dreamer get their bearings. Those are lost on outsiders. Remember too that just like any other screenplay, you have to establish and maintain conflict, tension, and dramatic visuals. But the main thing to take away from this hint is that YOU, the writer assigns meaning to the story; the dream does not.
Helpful Hint #4
The antidote is the same for writing a dream-story as it is for writing any other story. First, figure out who your protagonist is, then what they want (their goal), and their need (the thing they need to learn). This will help keep you track, and make your screenplay read like it should. Without a clear protagonist set on a journey, all the cool visuals you’re working with will corrode all your good intentions down to nothing. Secondly, like in any other screenplay you need a strong inciting incident to get the ball rolling. Thirdly, remember that a story, unlike a dream, has to have a beginning, middle, and and end.
Helpful Hint #5
This last bit goes back to Rule #1. Ask a friend to read your screenplay, but don’t tell them it was based on a dream. If they come back to you and say, “Wow, you have a really active imagination,” then you know you’re on the right track. The last thing you want to do is give credit to your subconscious, because, remember, the dream is just the jumping off point. It’s your diligence, active thinking and plotting that will turn that inspiration into a full fledged screenplay.
And with those 5 simple hints, you’re off and running.
Sometimes the best way to get the creative juices flowing is to write about things you haven’t thought about in a long time, but that are bound to have left some kind of impression on you. The way this works is I give you a prompt, you read it, and after, say, 10 seconds you start writing. Try not to think to hard about what you’re going to write, and definitely don’t delete/edit as you go. What you do want to do is zero your focus in on the little details of these moments. The tastes, the touch, the sounds, smells, and whatever other odd bit of information your subconscious has stored away for the long haul. Ready? Okay, here we go!
(p.s. try not to look ahead to the next prompt, and just focus on one at a time.)
1. Your first kiss.
2. The first time you went swimming.
3. Where you sat in elementary or high school.
4. Where you were likely to be on a Saturday morning when you were a kid.
5. What you did this past Thursday.
6. Write about the person you have the most baggage around right now.
7. Write a dialogue between two people: A wants B to do something that B doesn’t want to do.
And now you’re on a roll!
When I did this writing exercise it resulted in this cool, existential story about people choosing how they’re going to die before they’re even born. So, you know, that was pretty rad. Hope you come up with some equally surprising and satisfying results!
Oh, man, I love these games. So I went to I Write Like.com to get the low down on my writing style, inserted a chapter from my novel (in progress) about Cupid (since it was like the only thing I had that wasn’t in screenplay format, which I thought might throw off the system), and it turns out that I write like…
Not really sure I got that considering he wrote “cosmic horrors”, one of the defining elements of which is the underlying belief that there is no divine presence in the universe, and my whole novel is about how the Greek gods are still running amok creating havoc in the lives of us wee people. But whatevs. I guess my writing fits into the category of “weird fiction.” Personally, though, I think I write more like this guy…
Hilariously, when curiosity got the best of me and I submitted part of my screenplay Coming Out, the little doo-dad came back and told me I write like Jane Austen. Now that’s funny. Why? Because I do like to take the piss out of the upper class. Boom. That’s two points for the text analyzer!
Anywho, as long as they don’t tell me I write like Earnest Hemmingway, I’m cool. Good thing I stay away from such thrilling topics as fishing. Okay, to be fair, he did write a lot about war too, but that’s just one more reason to believe that war is stupid. But enough about him, and back to me.
What do you guys think? Does my writing remind you more of Austen or Lovecraft?
Say this is all you had to start with…
And let’s just say for the sake of argument that this is a short film produced in Scotland, with a run time of 13 seconds…What would be wrong with this picture?
The picture I’m talking about is the abstract one of the elements of storytelling as both an art and a craft. Trampoline, Trampoline is a great as a beginning as much for a short film as the words would make for the great beginning to a poem or short story. The thing most people don’t think about in movies is that it all starts with the words on the page, and that makes it a brother to the prose writing arts.
No. There is not. Because this is what separates us from the animals.
Honestly, kids, I didn’t know where I was going with this post when I began it, and it’s taken on a mind of it’s own, so I’d just like to step back and make a point about “the process.”
I’ve been talking a lot about writer’s block and procrastination recently, and I just want to point out that often times these can both be cured by a simple spark of inspiration. Trampoline, Trampoline set something off in me, and maybe it or something like it will spark something for you too. It doesn’t have to prove HUGE results to be of value. Take me for instance. There is something interesting and metaphysical about writing about writer’s block, especially as I’m experiencing writer’s block.
I think it’s interesting to think that when you put two things together it makes a third thing. Like staring a fire or writing a blog. Let’s look at how these two things work. Blogs for instance are stories told by blending of images (1st mode of communication) and words (2nd mode of communication) which in turn creates a third way of communicating via the intermedia text. In a nutshell, 1 + 2 = 3. Same goes for fire. combustible material + flash point = fire.
And now that I’ve gone from trampolines to hypothetical math I shall stop this train of thought.
I’ve often been caught sitting in my pj’s in the middle of the day, eating a ball of port wine cheddar (sans crackers) while in the midst of a movie marathon.
No, it doesn’t look like I’m doing much, but I’m actually writing. How can that be, you ask? Well, every time I watch a film I am actively watching it, analyzing it, critiquing it, figuring out what works, what doesn’t work, and how and why certain screenwriting and cinematic storytelling techniques should succeed or fail. As I do this in regards to what’s on the screen, I am also actively thinking about how my work stands up to these questions. Usually there are holes in what I know about a project I’m working on, as most stories do not come to the writer fully fleshed out and in 100% perfect condition. It is the writer’s job to sit and think about their stories! This should be common sense, but I often find new writers skipping over this fundamental part of the writing process. This might be because they don’t yet know what questions they should be asking about their work. I suggest watching and analyzing tons of the great films that there are out there, and for every one of them, ask yourselves these questions. Once you get into the swing of analyzing and critiquing the work of others, you’ll have the tools necessary to broach your writing projects with a finely tuned “kino” eye.
*Kino eye is a reference to Russian film making, meaning literally, the camera eye (kino – camera).
The Ins & Outs of Screenplay Analysis
- What is the point of story acquisition? This is when you have your first sense of the story, i.e. we have enough information on setting, character and universe to understand what we believe this movie is “about.” Some call this the “hook” or “inciting incident.” It is the moment when all of the elements have first come together in a real story form, and reach a state of critical mass that jump starts the main drama. It usually happens in the first ten to twenty minutes/pages of a feature film/screenplay, and within the first minute of a ten minute/page short/screenplay. This is not formulaic: if an audience cannot grasp a sense of story within the first ten or twenty minutes, they’ll leave the theater and demand they’re money back. Just think how long you’d listen to someone telling a story with no apparent point. You wouldn’t sit still for long of that. Likewise, you can imagine the point of story acquisition as being the thesis statement of a film. It lets us know what we’re in for. So remember, the point of story acquisition is when you first engaged by the elements coming together as a graspable story that gets you hooked.
- What are the central conflicts the character(s) face throughout the film? The protagonist in particular? How are these conflicts related to the point of story acquisition? They should all be encompassed in that action/event.
- What are the ways the characters and their circumstances are articulated by the filmmakers?
- What are the main tensions? Tension is the question raised in the mind of the audience, the thing that keeps them in their seats waiting to learn the answer. In this way, every story has the element of suspense.
- What is the Major Dramatic Question (MDQ)?
- When is the first act turn? This is the point when Act I, the beginning, gives way, and we enter Act II, the middle? These are usually highlighted by a major “sign post” or “turning point,” a noticeable shit in the story. Usually part of the major dramatic question has been answered, and new questions arise out of that. This is akin to first paragraph in the body of an academic essay.
- When do you get a sense that the major tension is first answered? How is this related to tracking the characters’ wants & needs.
- What are the major questions/tensions raised at the midpoint of the movie that the film them pursues for the duration. Can you identify what those questions are? Where do you sense the shift from tracking the protagonist’s want to tracking his or her need? Remember, the want of the character is related to his or her goal or objective. It is something tangible that the character both aware of and is actively pursuing. The characters need is more of a psychological or subconscious state that they need to overcome in order to change or have an arc. All characters in the film should have a want and a need, though the one we’re most concerned with is the protagonist’s because these are the points that the story revolves around.
- How is the Act II tension resolved? How does that propel us into Act III?
- Can you identify the turning from Act II to Act III, the end; the point in the story where we jump into overdrive on our way to the climax and resolution?
- What are the Act III conflicts and tensions? Remember that conflict arises when a character’s need/wants/circumstances are unacceptable to the character, who then aims to change his or her situation. Tension is the question as to whether or not the character will be successful in this aim, and achieve his goal. Conflict is the collision of the character on a mission met with resistance, obstacles, and/or complications. Tension is the question of the outcome.
- Overall, where do you feel a distinct story structure, be it Acts or sequences? Sequences, as opposed to Acts are a series of scenes strung together in a what’s called a scene sequence. In features, they tend to consist of around 9-11 scenes, and around 10 minutes long (therefore you find roughly 9 -12 sequences in a film that’s 90-120 minutes long) that tell a solid chunk of the story. Usually in feature, they interweave the A Story, B Story, C Story and so on. This is terminology mostly used when discussing television writing, but is applicable to screenplays too. However, in film, we usually refer to these other stories within the large whole as subplots.
- What is the overall effect of the weaving together of the above dramatic elements in terms of the story, and audience understanding/enjoyment of the film?
- Identify elements of artistry and entertainment within and throughout the story.
Suggested Films to Watch:
ANY MOVIE EVER MADE.
Yes, even I the Sage One experiences writer’s block. In fact, I’ve got it right now. But the interesting thing is that I only have it around 2 out of my 4 classes, or I should say 2 out of 4 of my writing projects. Why is that? Bruce Holland Rogers, an award winning short fiction writer offers some thoughts on the matter in his essay Myth of Writer’s Block that are worth taking a look at, especially since he describes Writer’s block as is “a real live monster that you
ignore at your peril.”
Personally, I responded to the idea that I have writer’s block simply because something is wrong with what I’m writing. Not that the writing is bad, but that when I sit down to work on these projects all my thoughts vanish behind my brain’s version of the Berlin Wall (clearly a situation where everyone loses). Since this only happens 1/2 the time, there must be something amiss about the blocky 1/2.
I think it’s as simple as this: I don’t give a shit about what I’m writing. Honestly. I wish I could just drop these two projects and work on the zillion or so other ideas that I have and am excited about. But I can’t, because that’s not how academia works. To get the grade you simply have to put your head down, do the work to the best of your ability, and be done with it. I wish I had some better news for you other student-writer’s out there struggling to get your final drafts on the page. I know how you feel, but the only light at the end of the tunnel that I can see is this: if you really don’t give a shit, then really don’t give a shit.
What I mean by that is just do whatever. Write some crap and call it a day, because here’s the gods honest truth about how college creative writing teachers grade (and I know because I am one): they really don’t care so long as you hand something in. That automatically gets you a B for effort, and a B ain’t bad. So if you want my advice, just have a fucking field day and write whatever bullshit comes to mind, string it together with some creative formatting, and laugh your ass off that you’re going to get away with the writer’s equivalent of murder (i.e. producing bad work). In this way you will turn a negative into a positive!
Now, I’d like to point out that this method of overcoming writer’s block is only to be used as a last-ditch chance to save your ass. There are many other ways to overcome writer’s block that aren’t so cynical or potentially disastrous to your reputation. Let’s look at what those other methods might consist of.
First, you might want to try sneaking around writer’s block.
What I mean by that is this: write, but don’t write exactly how you should. If you’re having trouble writing a screenplay maybe sit down with your trusty marble notebook and write the first few pages as prose. That way you have something you can simply translate into the proper format. Or try this: write it in an email to a friend (though you might just want to save it as a draft and not actually send it). There’s something really soothing and comfortable-making about addressing your thoughts to a trusted friend. Most of the time it’s starring at the blank page that makes writer’s block feel so debilitating, so anything you can do to just get some words down with set you off down the right path.
Next. Just try your best in areas other than writing.
Okay, I know I said your professors don’t give a shit about what you write so long as you meet the page requirement, but I lied. We do care, and there’s nothing more heartwarming than a student who clearly puts their all into their work. But here’s the thing: some students just aren’t good writers. That’s not their fault, and I’m certainly not going to dock them for not being born with natural talent. Also, some very good writers are just going through a rough time (creativity has been linked to insanity throughout the ages, so…). I’m not going to dock for that either. What I will dock them for is not trying. Come to office hours, write me a lengthy email about your current mental state, talk to me about what you’re thinking about writing, and always always come to class. Just do anything that shows that you care about your work. Your professors appreciate things like that and if you think you’re getting to the point where you might not turn in your final project, they’ll want to know why.
Thirdly, a lot of writer’s block actually arises out of perfectionism.
We think if it isn’t perfect then it isn’t worth writing. But here’s two great (and sometimes frustrating) things about creative writing: a. the work is never done, and b. all art is subjective, which means that there is no perfection in art. Once you realize that, you’re free to make mistakes, experiment, and enjoy whatever stage of the writing process you’re at. Also, along with point (a.), a lot of times when we’re experiencing writer’s block we’re usually jumping ahead, wishing we could just finish and be done with it, but the truth is even if you get to that last page and type the words THE END, that doesn’t mean the process stops there. You can always go back and revise once you’ve got a little more inspiration in you.
And one last final note. DON’T THINK OF IT AS WORK!!! Think of it as an “excercise.” This is especially useful if you’re a student-writer (as opposed to, say, an author accepted a writing grant but is now in the doldrums). Along with my last point about perfectionism, I’ll add that just as you should not expect perfection of yourself, your professors are also not expecting perfection. If you were perfect you wouldn’t need to be in school learning the tools of your craft. Instead, you are there to learn, and learning always always involves making mistakes. So be open to that, and remember that whatever project you’re working on it’s not like you’re competing in the Olympics. This is just an exercise leading up to that point.
Hope that’s helpful!