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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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Beginnings & Intermedia Text

Say this is all you had to start with…

Press the botton below to watch a very short film.

Trampoline, Trampoline.

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?

There's nothing wrong with this picture, except that it's the wrong picture you should be looking at.

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.

Is there any lovelier a senstation than your hand moving swiftly across the page?

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.

Yes, I know metaphysics can be a bit of a headache.

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.

My best,

Holly O’Brien

 

 


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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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Writer’s Block: Turning a Negative into a Positive

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.”

Medusa: The Writer's God of Misery. She'll turn your brain into stone!

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!

Positive 1 - Negative 0

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.

Like this guy who may look tough but is clearly hiding behind that column.

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.

Like jujitsu.

 

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.

This chick was a perfectionist and look where that got her.

 

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.

And remember, I think you're a champ!

Hope that’s helpful!

Happy writing,

Holly

 

 


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Top 10 Writerly Things to Do at 3am

1. Post on your blog even though you know no one reads it.

"I'm so sad. No body loves me."

2. Keep on drinkin’ away at that bottle of cheap red wine that depicts a foot or a penguin on the label.

"Screw you guys, I've got the Truth in a bottle."

3. Look up pictures of kittens doing everything you wish you were doing.

"Uhhh..." Oh that's right, you don't know what you want to be doing at 3am. Hence the problem.

4. List all the shitty things your significant other does to piss you off.

So obnoxious!

5. Look up all your old boy/girlfriends on face book and reminisce about your first kiss.

Steamy.

6. Look up job postings in your area. (A writer should always have 6 or 27 back up careers.)

You get the picture.

7. Make a list of all the words that annoy you. Like “moist” and “engine.” Seriously, en-gin. Ennn-gin. Who came up with that?

"Dunno. But I like my ride."

8. Make a list of all the people who have had the most influence on you life, good or bad.

"Rememer me? I did that thing that time."

8. Learn how to count.

"Mathz iz hard."

9. Have a snack.

I said a sanck, not a bloody feast!

10. Write about the thing that scares you the most.

"It wasn't me, I swear!"

But what ever you do, just don’t do this:

Seriously. Don't do it.

Ah, shit, it’s almost 4 am. Now what do I do?


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Writing on a Deadline

We all know deadlines are arbitrary things to get our lazy butts in gear to produce something that other people can judge our worth by. That’s just the way life works. But that doesn’t mean we have to like it. In fact, most of the time when you should be doing this…

Studying dilligently...

…all you really want to be doing is this…

This is a real photograph of me procrastinating.

This begs the question, how does one find the motivation and stick-to-it-iveness to sit down and crank out pages? Here are some helpful tips to keep you one the right track.

Professor Meow says you need glasses to stay focused, but I don't beleive him.

First things first. Wake your ass up, and sit your ass down in front of the computer screen. Sounds like common sense, I know, but often I find under-the-gun writers doing anything but sitting down and writing. It’s no small wonder, and I’ll tell you why. Usually when you’re coming up on your deadline, your self critic steps in and tells you everything you’re writing, or thinking, or thinking about writing is shit. That’s when things start to look like this:

Not a good look.

So just tell your self critic to shut the F up, and remember that you’re a tremendous writer who can do anything once you set your mind to it. All you need is a little focus.

Next tip: Focus. Here’s what it doesn’t look like.

Don't be like this guy. Lolling about in a dreamy daze is also not a good look to be wearing when someone comes in and says, like, "Don't you have a shit ton of work due in a few hours?"

So how do we focus? Anne Lamont suggests taking things “bird by bird” and I agree with her. Just imagine that whatever you’re working on is broken up into tiny segments that we shall now call “birds.” Oh, right, you don’t have to imagine it because screenplays are broken up into neat and tidy little sections called scenes. These scenes or “birds” are all you have to focus on. One. At. A. Time.

“I’m gonna git you birds!”

Do you see what’s wrong here? This kitten is trying to go after two birds at once. At look at him, he’s totally confused and incapacitated by his indecisiveness. He doesn’t know which bird to go after first. The obvious answer is the one closest to him. For you, a writer, that means picking up the idea that is the most fleshed out in your mind; the one that will require the least amount of thought to get down on the page. Picture that scene or “bird” in your mind, sit down at your computer, and start swatting at it. Start at the beginning and don’t stop writing until you’re at the end.

Now you're on a roll.

Awesome! Once that scene is done, go straight into the next one. Don’t even think about what you’re going to write. Just do it! You’ve probably got files on this scene stored in the dark recesses of your mind that will come to the fore once you clear out all your cluttered thoughts and let your unconscious do the work.

That’s it. Two tips. That’s all you need to get yourself going. Once the ball is rolling you just need to remember to stay calm, stay awake, and stay focused on catching that bird. And once you get all of them, I highly suggest that you do this:

That's right. Rock the fuck out.

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.