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You Feel Me?

If you haven’t noticed already, being a screenwriter, or professional writer of any kind means always having homework. It never ends. The thinking. The scheming, daydreaming, plotting, twisting, turning. Like Charlie Chaplin said, “Ninety percent of writing is thinking, just thinking.”

"The other 10 percent is part stimulants, part scribble scribble."

Toss in a Hitler mustache and some eyeliner…trailing off, trailing off. Which brings me to my point. While it is true that so much of writing requires one to live in their head, it is also true that to be a good writer requires an awareness of and occassional abandonment to the moment. Yup, it’s about being in the “now.”

With that in mind, let’s talk about a good exercise to do anytime, but especially over the weekend. All you have to do is scan this list (see below)  of common psychological states that people often feel but don’t know the word for, and pick one that interests you. Take a notebook with you and jot down every time you have an incling of this feeling. Doing so will give you the freedom to experience the emotion in the moment without trying to remember exactly what it was. Hopefully you forget that you even wrote it down or felt it as you continue to go from one moment to the next as you enjoy your weekend. Come Sunday morning, try to write a page describing every detail associated with your latest experience(s) with your chosen emotion. When it struck, what it felt like, where you were, what it smelled like, whatever.

Once you’ve given yourself time to process that, go back over the list and try to find the opposite emotion. Congratulations. You now know what a hypothetical protagonist’s high and low points are. Cool how that works right?

"Cool."

Happy writing!

1. Dysphoria
Often used to describe depression in psychological disorders, dysphoria is general state of sadness that includes restlessness, lack of energy, anxiety, and vague irritation. It is the opposite of euphoria, and is different from typical sadness because it often includes a kind of jumpiness and some anger. You have probably experienced it when coming down from a stimulant like chocolate, coffee, or something stronger. Or you may have felt it in response to a distressing situation, extreme boredom, or depression.

2. Enthrallment
Psychology professor W. Gerrod Parrott has broken down human emotions into subcategories, which themselves have their own subcategories. Most of the emotions he identifies, like joy and anger, are pretty recognizable. But one subset of joy, “enthrallment,” you may not have heard of before. Unlike the perkier subcategories of joy like cheerfulness, zest, and relief, enthrallment is a state of intense rapture. It is not the same as love or lust. You might experience it when you see an incredible spectacle — a concert, a movie, a rocket taking off — that captures all your attention and elevates your mood to tremendous heights.

3. Normopathy
Psychiatric theorist Christopher Bollas invented the idea of normopathy to describe people who are so focused on blending in and conforming to social norms that it becomes a kind of mania. A person who is normotic is often unhealthily fixated on having no personality at all, and only doing exactly what is expected by society. Extreme normopathy is punctuated by breaks from the norm, where normotic person cracks under the pressure of conforming and becomes violent or does something very dangerous. Many people experience mild normopathy at different times in their lives, especially when trying to fit into a new social situation, or when trying to hide behaviors they believe other people would condemn.

4. Abjection
There are a few ways to define abjection, but French philosopher Julia Kristeva (literally) wrote the book on what it means to experience abjection. She suggests that every human goes through a period of abjection as tiny children when we first realize that our bodies are separate from our parents’ bodies — this sense of separation causes a feeling of extreme horror we carry with us throughout our lives. That feeling of abjection gets re-activated when we experience events that, however briefly, cause us to question the boundaries of our sense of self. Often, abjection is what you are feeling when you witness or experience something so horrific that it causes you to throw up. A classic example is seeing a corpse, but abjection can also be caused by seeing shit or open wounds. These visions all remind us, at some level, that our selfhood is contained in what Star Trek aliens would call “ugly bags of mostly water.” The only thing separating you from being a dead body is . . . almost nothing. When you feel the full weight of that sentence, or are confronted by its reality in the form of a corpse, your nausea is abjection.

5. Sublimation
If you’ve ever taken a class where you learned about Sigmund Freud’s theories about sex, you probably have heard of sublimation. Freud believed that human emotions were sort of like a steam engine, and sexual desire was the steam. If you blocked the steam from coming out of one valve, pressure would build up and force it out of another. Sublimation is the process of redirecting your steamy desires from having naughty sex, to doing something socially productive like writing an article about psychology or fixing the lawnmower or developing a software program. If you’ve ever gotten your frustrations out by building something, or gotten a weirdly intense pleasure from creating an art project, you’re sublimating. Other psychiatrists have refined the idea of sublimation, however. Following French theorist Jacques Lacan, they say that sublimation doesn’t have to mean converting sexual desire into another activity like building a house. It could just mean transferring sexual desire from one object to another — moving your affections from your boyfriend to your neighbor, for example.

6. Repetition compulsion
Ah, Freud. You gave us so many new feelings and psychological states to explore! The repetition compulsion is a bit more complicated than Freud’s famous definition — “the desire to return to an earlier state of things.” On the surface, a repetition compulsion is something you experience fairly often. It’s the urge to do something again and again. Maybe you feel compelled to always order the same thing at your favorite restaurant, or always take the same route home, even though there are other yummy foods and other easy ways to get home. Maybe your repetition compulsion is a bit more sinister, and you always feel the urge to date people who treat you like crap, over and over, even though you know in advance it will turn out badly (just like the last ten times). Freud was fascinated by this sinister side of the repetition compulsion, which is why he ultimately decided that the cause of our urge to repeat was directly linked to what he called “the death drive,” or the urge to cease existing. After all, he reasoned, the ultimate “earlier state of things” is a state of non-existence before we were born. With each repetition, we act out our desire to go back to a pre-living state. Maybe that’s why so many people have the urge to repeat actions that are destructive, or unproductive.

7. Repressive desublimation
Political theorist Herbert Marcuse was a big fan of Freud and lived through the social upheavals of the 1960s. He wanted to explain how societies could go through periods of social liberation, like the countercultures and revolutions of the mid-twentieth century, and yet still remain under the (often strict) control of governments and corporations. How could the U.S. have gone through all those protests in the 60s but never actually overthrown the government? The answer, he decided, was a peculiar emotional state known as “repressive desublimation.” Remember, Freud said sublimation is when you route your sexual energies into something non-sexual. But Marcuse lived during a time when people were very much routing their sexual energies into sex — it was the sexual liberation era, when free love reigned. People were desublimating. And yet they continued to be repressed by many other social strictures, coming from corporate life, the military, and the government. Marcuse suggested that desublimation can actually help to solidify repression. It acts as an escape valve for our desires so that we don’t attempt to liberate ourselves from other social restrictions. A good example of repressive desublimation is the intense partying that takes place in college. Often, people in college do a lot of drinking, drugging and hooking up — while at the same time studying very hard and trying to get ready for jobs. Instead of questioning why we have to pay tons of money to engage in rote learning and get corporate jobs, we just obey the rules and have crazy drunken sex every weekend. Repressive desublimation!

8. Aporia
You know that feeling of crazy emptiness you get when you realize that something you believed isn’t actually true? And then things feel even more weird when you realize that actually, the thing you believed might be true and might not — and you’ll never really know? That’s aporia. The term comes from ancient Greek, but is also beloved of post-structuralist theorists like Jacques Derrida and Gayatri Spivak. The reason modern theorists love the idea of aporia is that it helps to describe the feeling people have in a world of information overload, where you are often bombarded with contradictory messages that seem equally true.

9. Compersion
We’ve gotten into some pretty philosophical territory, so now it’s time to return to some good, old-fashioned internet memes. The word compersion was popularized by people in online communites devoted to polyamory and open relationships, in order to describe the opposite of feeling jealous when your partner dates somebody else. Though a monogamous person would feel jealous seeing their partner kiss another person, a non-monogamous person could feel compersion, a sense of joy in seeing their partner happy with another person. But monogamous people can feel compersion, too, if we extend the definition out to mean any situation where you feel the opposite of jealous. If a friend wins an award you hoped to win, you can still feel compersion (though you might be a little jealous too).

10. Group feelings
Some psychologists argue that there are some feelings we can only have as members of a group — these are called intergroup and intragroup feelings. Often you notice them when they are in contradiction with your personal feelings. For example, many people feel intergroup pride and guilt for things that their countries have done, even if they weren’t born when their countries did those things. Though you did not fight in a war, and are therefore not personally responsible for what happened, you share in an intergroup feeling of pride or guilt. Group feelings often cause painful contradictions. A person may have an intragroup feeling (from one group to another) that homosexuality is morally wrong. But that person may personally have homosexual feelings. Likewise, a person may have an intragroup feeling that certain races or religions are inferior to those of their group. And yet they may personally know very honorable, good people from those races and religions whom they consider friends. A group feeling can only come about through membership in a group, and isn’t something that you would ever have on your own. But that doesn’t mean group feelings are any less powerful than personal ones.

*written by Annalee Newitz for io9.


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So You Do Want to Be on the Black List: Cornering the Market

I was pondering the whole to be or not to be on the Black List issue, when I had an epiphany. A plan really. One that I think anyone who is seriously interested in being a writer and wants to make a name for herself can do. It’s a simple idea really. Be a triple threat.

Like this cat this is doing yoga, giving itself a bath, and flashing us a look at his goods all at the same time.

Here’s the plan. First, write a YA novel, then get it published, then write the screenplay while you wait for the book to rise to the top of the best sellers list, and finally sell the rights to your book and your screenplay.  This plan is even better if you write a series of YA book, because Hollywood loves a good franchise. Of course all of this will feel so neat and tidy while your in the process, but give yourself, say, 5 years for this plan to come fully into fruition, maybe 10, and you’re outlook will be much brighter.  If you are so inclined to go down this path, as I am, I suggest you sit down tonight and jot down some ideas. As you do, try to keep in mind that you will be translating your own story from one medium into another. Think about what elements of your idea are cinematic and which parts will be better served by the novel. If you do take on this project, make sure you have a true and firm grasp on the major themes, character arcs, and the essential plot points of your story.  If you are lucky enough to get your book published and establish a fan base, those fans are going to hold you to your word. It’s just a fact. Audiences always compare the book and the movie. So fucking pre-empt them. Take responsibility for it. And be happy that you did. If nothing else, you’ll have two strong pieces for your portfolio and will have exercised writing muscles like you wouldn’t believe.

I mean how cool would it have been if Suzanne Collins had written the screenplay for The Hunger Games?

Now at this point your head is probably reeling with swirling thoughts and exploding synapses ‘cause you’re like, “Shhhhh-ugar, how did I not think of this before!” And all these ideas are swarming forward calling out to you, “Write me! Write me!” But before your itchy hands reach for that pen let’s address the fact that I said this plan requires one to be a triple threat, and thus far we’ve only addressed two of the three routs of attack. The last one is simply to really really think about how you want to brand your writing style, your story, and you as a motha’ fuckin’ writing machine.

No, not that kind of writing machine.

Branding yourself and your work is perhaps one of the most important factors to consider when taking on a project of such size. It won’t work if it’s sloppy and all over the place and you don’t really know what you’re doing or why. So, that said, take a moment and think to yourself, “What kind of writer do I want to be? What are the characters that I want to be associated with? What do I want to say to the world above all else?” If you can answer those questions you’ll be off to a bangin’ start. But if you’re itching to write right now, then do it, and worry about this component later. You can always talk about it with Random House.

Anyway, that’s what I’m gonna do to corner the market. And also have a lot of fun along the way.

Happy writing!


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Designing Dialogue

So you don’t want your dialogue to just sound like blah blah blah. You want it to be as rich, engaging, and true to form as possible. A good approach to dialogue throughout the writing process is to remember that it directly correlates to character. And as we all know by now, character is story. Dialogue is not story, though, just to clarify, but it does enrich the way you tell it. Just think, even now I am exercising this muscle as I talk as if to you. How did I decide on this laid back approach to academics? That’s just the way I am. And it will be easy for you to know how your characters would speak to you or anyone else once you have a firm grasp on who they are. If you’ve done your Character Detective Work you might be ahead of the pack on this next exercise, but you can always write up a quick character bio for any new character as well. When thinking about how your characters speak, and also the type of information that would go into their bio it is helpful to keep these factors that determine/defines how people speak in mind:

(in no particular order)

  • region of origin
  • class
  • age
  • gender
  • education
  • political leanings
  • state of mind
  • who talking to*
  • where they are talking (setting/environment)*
  • ethnicity
  • time period
  • self-image
  • what they want (motivations)*
  • if they are on any substances
  • occupation

The ones with asterisks are, of course, perhaps the most important to keep in mind.

Okay, cool. Moving on. Once we know how are characters speak we have to give them something to talk about. On the most basic level, language is about communicating information. In screenwriting we refer to the information needed to understand the story as exposition. Here’s an example of how exposition works in a screenplay. Read the following scene, then write down at least 10 things you learned about these characters.

Note: this excerpt is from an early and scrapped draft of one of my screenplays. You’ll surely notice that it’s not very good, but that can be explained with one word: pipe. Early drafts tend to be “pipey” when a writer is unsure of what is the most relevant information to present and the most clean and concise way to present it. That’s fine. Figuring all that stuff out is what drafting is for.

Okay, so for your homework, pick a script any script. Read the first 10 pages, and jot down 10 things you learned about these characters from the dialogue. Just the dialogue. Take note of how the information was presented (humorously? in a heated moment? off-hand? etc.), how it fit the scene, and how the characters react to the information. Your homework assignment is to write 5 – 10 pages of heavy exposition without it being clunky or obvious that that is what you’re doing. This might be the most difficult thing you do all year.

Happy writing!


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A Class You Can Do By Yourself – Week 1

As promised, class has begun. Sit down, take out pen and paper, play some music if you like, and follow along.

Screenwriting is an art and a craft that takes practice and diligence to perfect. This process will not be easy, but I hope it’s fun. It’s certainly fun for me. If you’re still on the fence about doing this class, know that all you have to produce over the next 8 weeks is an 8-10 page screenplay. Okay. Let’s start while the momentum is still hot.

Exercise 1

Getting Into The Groove

First, write down 1 – 3 of your favorite movies (or TV shows if you have trouble thinking of films). Save this in mind; we will be doing some more exercises with this list later. Next, write down 1 – 3 adjectives describing each film and why you like it. e.g. characters are engaging, world is beautiful, score is moving. Now, look for similarities between the films you chose. Take note of how and why these films speak to you, and what they are saying as far as a message or a moral goes.

Taking notice of what you are already familiar with and know you like to watch can help guide you in the direction of the story you should write. Maybe the story hasn’t come to you yet, but maybe you’re honing in on a genre, or the overall thing (for lack of a better term) that you want to say with your piece.

Exercise 2

Watch A Movie

Watch Lunch Date by clicking in the title. Refer back to How To Watch A Movie And Write At The Same Time as you watch, and think about each question thoughtfully in regards to this Academy Award winning short film.

By now, you should be in full on movie zone. A good place to be if movies are what you’re trying to write. Notice how using the How To Watch a Movie… guide makes you a more active watcher? Notice the specific vocabulary terms for working in this craft? Good.

Exercise 3

Read.

Read these handouts on premise and synopsis, and loglines.

Notice how a story can be told is as much or as little detail as time and space allows. Once you have your screenplay idea in mind try thinking about telling it in several different ways. This will help you crystallize your screenplay idea down to it’s small, workable essence.

Exercise 4

Write.

Write a premise for one of the films/shows on your list.

Notice how a premise is essentially comprised of an engaging character in a world filled with conflict. 

Exercise 5

Read some more.

Read this handout out on formatting. Make sure you have some screenwriting software (either Final Draft or Celtx), and that you familiarize yourself with it.

If you’re only going to play by one rule in Hollywood, make sure it’s this one. If it looks like a screenplay, you can get away with breaking a lot of rules in the narrative.

Exercise 6

Loosen up.

This writing exercise consists of making four lists as fast as you can can (speed is important to emphasize that you shouldn’t think too hard about what you’re putting in the lists).

Write down the numbers 1 -10. Title this list “Characters.” Write down anything from ‘nuns’ to ‘squirrels’ to ‘presidents’ to ‘Martin Luther King, Jr.’ We just want the people part of a noun.

The second list from 1 – 10 is  “locations,” e.g. ‘an aircraft carrier,’ ‘the moon,’ ‘Dominos Pizza’.Now we’re onto places.

The third list from 1-  10 is activities, such as ‘write a novel,’ ‘play tennis,’ ‘knit’. Here we are looking for actions/verbs.

The fourth list from 1 – 10 is things that someone could be doing an activity with.

Great. Once you have finished making your lists, combined with any one item from each of the lists to generate an idea for a scene/short film, a la ‘nuns on an aircraft carrier playing tennis with a mallet,’ or Martin Luther King, Jr. at Dominos Pizza writing a novel with a toy car.’

Notice how 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.

And that’s it!

Great job this week!


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Automatic Writing Exercise

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.

"Bitch, watchu doin' with my man?"

2. The first time you went swimming.

Rut roh.

3. Where you sat in elementary or high school.

I wish my classroom had looked that cool.

4. Where you were likely to be on a Saturday morning when you were a kid.

I was watching these guys.

5. What you did this past Thursday.

Yup.

6. Write about the person you have the most baggage around right now.

If only all my baggage was this pristine.

7. Write a dialogue between two people: A wants B to do something that B doesn’t want to do.

I dare you to try to get me to cut my hair.

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!

Happy writing!

Holly


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Procrastination Sensation

So it’s Monday night and you’ve got a lot of work to do, but if you’re anything like me you’re procrastinating by doing something else like this instead:

Iron Man. Yes, please.

…And 2 hours later it’s back to…

These guys. Smoke if you got 'em.

Then maybe a little of this…

Ahhh, but if only.

No, but seriously. Get back to work.