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A Morning Friendly Writing Exercise

This is a very fun and easy exercise that I stole from Neal Dandade that I think is great to do when your mind is still subjected to your subconscious nonsense. Takes approximately 5 minutes, and is great to do over a cup of coffee while you think about the crossword puzzle.  Grab a pen and paper (this exercise is better to do free hand), and try really really hard not to think too much about your answers. Just go with the fucking flow.

First, jot down 3 lists numbered 1 -10.

That done, name the first list of 10 “characters.” That done, write down anything from “nuns” to “squirrels” to “presidents” to “Martin Luther King, Jr.”.

That done, move onto the second list, with you should name “locations.” Name any ten locations, e.g. “‘an aircraft carrier,” “the moon,” or “Domino’s Pizza”).

Lastly with the lists, go down to the third list and name it “activities.” As with the previous two lists, write down any activity. Could be anything from “write a novel,” to “play tennis,” to “use the toilet.”

After you generate the lists, go back and start paring items from each list. Notice that any item in list one can be combined with an item from the other two lists to generate an idea for a scene/short film (“nuns” on “an aircraft carrier” “playing tennis” or “Martin Luther King, Jr.” at “Dominos Pizza” “writing a novel”). I should emphasize here the fact that you can get great ideas by tapping the subconscious, which means not thinking too hard about things and “letting” the mind spill out good fodder.

Good work. Now look at this cute shit.

This baby rat sleeping with a teddy bear.

A different rat, a full grown Dumbo rat who stole the bear. And is shit-eatin’-grin happy about it.

This panda’s butt.

And, of course, a baby chipmunk.


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Who knew people like babies?

If you like babies, this post is for you. I was thinking today how Hollywood loves babies and families.

And Disney loves dead moms.

Uh…what? Moving on. Kids are a great market. They’re fun to write for, and they enjoy pretty much everything that you do. And don’t worry. Crying is natural.

Seriously? Cute.

Who wouldn’t want to write for that? And it gets better. Writing for babies and small children is fun and easy because they like simple things with interesting visuals. Screenwriting at its basic fundamentals.

I watched this YouTube video “Who’s Your Favorite?” and thought, what a lovely example of a short film. I know that’s not what it was meant to be, probably, but it actually has a nice arc, a fun premise that is explored, complicated, and resolved (though not really to Daddy’s liking), and it left me with that satisfied feeling I get when I watch something that has a beginning, middle, and end. I love that this is set up as an interrogation (just from the one BUM! from the opening of every Law & Order episode ever made), and it’s of a baby about which one of her parents is the favorite. So simple it’s genius.

 


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What I Didn’t Know About Novel Writing (until about an hour ago)

Normally, in screenwriting the gurus say that story begins with character or possibly structure, but what I learned today in my nifty fiction workshop is that novels begin with setting, and that location begets character not the other way around. Whodduh thunk it? Now, in the land of common sense this might seem to be obvious. You can’t have a person existing in a vacuum, and thus it would be a logical assumption to make that they have to have ground under their feet before you can plunk them down and set them off running on their journey. But somehow I missed that.

Oops.

On the bright side, my background as both a screenwriter and a visual artist puts me in a good position to come up with proper settings for characters as fast as you can say…

Cracker Jack.

So, I’m working on my first novel, and surprise surprise, I’m basing it on an idea that was originally for a screenplay. The thing is, I know all the secondary locations, but not where the meat of the story will be set. Worse still is that all I can think about is this 7 ft. mixed media installation that I did a few years back during my undergrad days at Sarah Lawrence. It looked like this…

Yeah, get a load of that one.

The most interesting thing about this piece, which you can’t see from here, is that in the very far right corner, right where the tunnel meets the plaster outcropping is a faint but distinct silhouette of a man in a tuxedo offering a woman in a Victorian bustle a rose. Well, that, and that this piece came to represent what my brain must look like when I’m suffering writer’s block. As I was telling a friend earlier this evening, I’m not sure how or when it was that I began to conflate the issue of true love with my work as an artist, but there it is. Plain as day for all to see.

Okay, okay, in typical Holly fashion this may all seem very tangential, but I actually have a point to make. I think. The point being that the novel I’m writing is about Cupid, the god of Love, and a young female demi-god who is coming in with the aim to restructure Love as it have been done through the ages (very much an “Up In the Air” knock-off). So what I’m thinking is… do Cupid and the demi-god need to spend the majority of their journey in a desolate limbo place like my brain on writer’s block? Obvi, they spend some time on Olympus, and some time on Earth, but as far as each one of them going through a self-as-artist self-discovery journey, do they need to be in a place that only exists within the human soul? Because, if the story is about Love, where else could it be set without it being about love in, say, New York City, or Bangladesh? This story is not about Love in a place, it’s about Love within the human condition. So that makes sense.

But. But. Okay, so there’s this fantastical place that may or may not exist within ourselves. The next task is how do I ground that in sights and sounds and smells and tastes and PLACES that are familiar to us all? This is where I ask ya’ll for your help. If you have an inner-life what does it look like? Or does it not matter? Should I just write what my inner-life looks like and assume that people will be able to relate because anyone who would pick up a copy of my book will have a rich inner-life and can just imagine what it would be like for them?

While you think about that, here’s a beautiful video to watch. It’s by William Kentridge, and is a stop-motion video of him erasing and drawing over the same images. Words cannot describe.

Click the link below.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IJ-c4N2njwg

P.S. I swear by next week I will be offering more information rather than asking a bunch of unanswerable questions. In the meantime, enjoy the video.

 


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Top 25 Unsung Christmas Characters of All Time

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…

#25. This trio of Christmas hipsters.

#24. Zombie Santa and the little girl that loves him.

#23. This baby that is just overflowing with the Christmas spirit. And vomit.

#22. This kid for doing whatever he did to end up in Christmas lights jail.

#21. This family of Christmas trees. Not for their costumes, but for managing to look happy about wearing them.

#20. This guy's wife, for putting up with him.

#19. This family that thinks they need special glasses to see life in 3D.

#18. This Santa for his unrelenting patience.

#17. The kid in the middle for not being afraid of shrinkage.

#16. This homicidal toddler in a plush velvet track suit.

#15. Dad, for lettin' it all hang out there.

#14. Hunky Santa for managing to keep a straight face.

#13. Mom, for wearing Frederick's of Hollywood in and out of the bedroom.

#12. The kid in the back for having the cajones to ruin a family photo.

#11. The property owner with enough enthusiasm about Jesus to buy and install the sign, but not enough to repair it.

#10. For everything about this picture, but especially the baby goat.

#9. This family for confusing Genesis with the birth of Christ.

#8. This couple for saying, "Baby Jesus, bulldog. Potato, pot-ah-to."

#7. This guy, for convincing the cops to let him keep his hat on for the mug shot.

#6. This woman, for her will to live.

#5. These guys, 'cause I want them to come over to my house and do the same thing.

#4. That cat, for being a trooper.

#3. This guy, for livening up the holidays with his sweet gymnastics skills.

#2. Because who doesn't love a gay Christmas elf?

#1. Because Jesus loves winners!


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How To Turn a Dream into a Screenplay

The woods behind the house illuminated by the porch light.

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…

And then I woke up.

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

Pick your poison.

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

Put your poison in a glass.

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

Don't drink your poison.

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

Stir in the antidote.

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

Give your poison to a friend and tell them it's Kool-Aid.

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.

Happy writing!

Holly


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Formatting – To Begin

FADE IN:

INT. CLASS ROOM – DAY

Your FIRST IMAGE goes right here. Make it something visually interesting and that sets the TONE of the piece. CAPS anything that needs to stand out including SOUND, but don’t go crazy with them. Be descriptive, yet concise.

By now one should probably have introduced some CHARACTERS, which should always include some description of their physical appearance, age, and what they are currently doing. Remember to CAP their names only the first time they appear.

If you have more than one character in a scene, really think about their entrance. Try to connect it to some kind of action that will advance the story in some way.

Note here that my actions blocks are four line or less. As a general rule that is the MAX length for an action block. Try breaking up the action into different CAMERA SHOTS. This technique makes reading easier and implies direction.

Let’s puts all these rules together now.

CUT TO:

EXT. ABANDONED BUILDING – NIGHT

To establish. The building is in decay, with many windows broken and graffiti tags on all sides. A rat scuttles out of the ally nearby.

INT. ABANDONED BUILDING – NIGHT – SAME

JENNY, mid-twenties but looks about a hundred is tweeking on coke and rummaging around the various piles of junk in the room looking for something.

A RAT jumps down from the window sill and makes its way across the room.

Jenny, muttering incoherently to herself does not notice the rat as it runs into the pile of trash and clothes that she is tearing apart.

The rat pops up on top of the pile. Just then, Jenny’s hand comes down on it unexpectedly. She SHRIEKS, and the rat SQUEEKS and wiggles to get free.

End Scene.