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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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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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How to Watch a Movie & Write at the Same Time!

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.

That's me in my pj's watching TV. ...Riiiiight.

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

Screenplay analysis is like those confusing social dances of the Victorian era; it may take you a while to learn the steps but once you do you'll get a husband. Er...

  • 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.


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4 Act & Mythogolical Structures Deconstructed

If you click on this button –> 4 ACT and MYTH <– you will be taken to magical pdf document that will show you how all films break down in a very general sense. When trying to hit your plot points remember to divide your act breaks by the length (pages) of your screenplay. So, if you’re writing a feature, the inciting incident could be anywhere from pg 8-17, but when writing a short (say 10 pages) it should occur within the first page, possibly before.