Category: screenwriting

Uh-oh

Me looking for anything else at all to get excited about.

Sunday night I couldn’t sleep. The day before I had read my novella out loud, making edits in preparation for next steps, and as I did that I kept returning to the same thought: This would really work as a screenplay.

The idea for the novella, sort of a Haruki Murakami-type story about two people exploring the weird crevices of their city, was originally meant as a noir screenplay. I first wrote it as a short story a few years ago, and then (having sort of given up on screenwriting), expanded it to a novella last year. I’ve revisited it from time-to-time since, always with an eye toward self-publishing, and it has always occurred to me that it might make a fun little indie film, but that’s not realistic. Movies are too big, too complex, too collaborative, and too expensive to just do. I spent nearly ten years learning that between Buffalo and DC.

Still, the simplicity of the dialogue-driven story. The rotating locations. The potential for actors to sink their teeth into these characters…

Sunday night I found myself fantasizing about self-funding the film, going home to Buffalo, gathering up the old crew, and shooting it. I lay in bed working out logistics, trying to figure out what sort of budget I’d need, thinking of locations, picturing the set-ups. It was bad. Really bad.

So, where I’m at is trying to adapt my own work. I’ve done this before, with my novel (which started as a screenplay), but I think it’s a bit easier to expand on ideas than the opposite.

This doesn’t change any of my short term plans surrounding the short story collection, or even self-publishing the novella. If, and it’s a big if, I were to seriously consider self-funding this film, it’d take a couple of years to get off the ground. It’s a lot of risk with very little chance of return. I’d really just be squandering away my family’s savings for a passion project that I’ve not demonstrated the talent to bring to fruition.

But there is something to be said about that giddy feeling of excitement I get when I think about it. I wish I felt that sort of passion about sitting in an office 8-10 hours per day.

So we’ll see.

Lessons From HELL OR HIGH WATER

2016’s HELL OR HIGH WATER, written by Taylor Sheridan and directed by David Mackenzie, is damn near a perfect film. Beautifully directed, wonderfully acted, and expertly written, the movie exemplifies many of the aspects of storytelling that I think elevates the artform.

Begin in Media Res

If you seek out enough writing advice you’ll start to notice the same things being said over and over, but interpreted differently every time. The most egregious of these, in my opinion, is to start with action. Lots of writers interpret this advice as meaning to start with a fight scene, or someone being chased, and sometimes that works. But what the advice is really saying, and what HELL OR HIGH WATER does, is starts in media res. Meaning, we start with the story already in motion.

In this case, that means we’re starting with a bank robbery. Not the planning for the robbery. Not Toby picking Tanner up from his latest stint in jail and asking him for help. We learn the why and how of the robbery over the course of the film, but to begin we’re thrust into the most important moment of these characters’ lives, and the exact moment that puts the story in motion.

Begin in media res.

Building Empathy Through Relationships and Balancing Tone

Between the desperation of the characters, the actions they take out of that desperation, and the overall message of the film, it could have been bleak. We could have watched as one desperate father and his borderline sociopathic, irreparably damaged brother hurt people while robbing banks and being chased by a sad, nearly retired Texas Ranger with no hope for his future.

Instead, we get something else. Something that balances that heaviness with moments of levity that connects the audience to the characters by relating the characters to one another. One of the things that surprised me most on my re-watch (I initially saw it when it was first released four years ago) is how funny the film can be. Ben Foster’s character, Tanner, is especially charismatic. The way he ribs his younger brother and leans into the worst aspects of his personality to defect from the awfulness of his actions becomes endearing. This scene, for example:

The scene gets intense and violent, all because Tanner only knows how to escalate a situation. If you look closely at the scene, Tanner is prepared to shoot the kid before Toby intervenes. When Toby opens the door, you can see the gun at Tanner’s side. Despite the seriousness of the situation, he immediately diffuses his brother’s anger by making fun of him for forgetting to keep someone’s gun away from them earlier in the movie (“You remembered the gun! You’re getting old hat at this.”) and then busts his balls for buying Mr. Pibb instead of Dr. Pepper.

By seeing that aspect of their relationship, by understanding how Toby could so easily be swayed by Tanner’s humor, we’re won over, too.

Simplicity of Story in Service of Theme

The film’s story isn’t complex. There are essentially three main characters, and on major supporting character. There are no twists or turns. Everything happens as it does, in the order it does, and the consequences play out as they will. Motivations and rationalizations are clearly explained. The story is what it is, no unnecessary bells or whistles.

This simplicity streamlines the story, keeping the focus tight on the characters and the themes, and allowing the audience to be swept up into the journey. The themes of family, land, racism, and economic disparity are all complex, needing engagement from the audience to think on these things after the film. Keeping the story simple, straightforward, challenging the audience in a different way than a Chris Nolan film might (for example), allows for the focus to be on what’s most important. If the film had double-crosses, or was told in non-chronological order, that would be lost.

Social Commentary Done Right

HELL OR HIGH WATER has a very clear point of view. Banks and the already-wealthy are the real thieves in our society. Multiple characters point this out when discussing the morality of the robberies, but it’s really summed up with a short monologue by Toby near the end of the film:

Monologue starts around the 2:15 mark.

After spending the entire movie in poor, dying towns with boarded up buildings and billboards for debt relief dotting the land, Toby simply and eloquently sums it up: being poor is a disease. One he didn’t want to pass on to his children.

As I said, the film has a clear point of view. But it allows the audience to come around to that point of view on their own, only hammering the point home with this final scene. By spending time in those dying towns, watching the characters act out of desperation, we’ve already come to understand their plight. Toby’s vocalizing it doesn’t change that, he only reinforces it.

I think that’s how it should be done. Social commentary can easily be a turn-off for audiences if they’re beat over the head with it. Doing it subtly, with characters we understand and like, might make it stick.

I Wrote a Book

I did something I never thought I’d be able to do: I wrote a novel.

It probably sounds weird that someone who considers themselves an aspiring writer, and someone that has proven able to finish projects, would think they’d never be able to write a novel. I know lots of people have written several novels, published or not, and don’t think of it as a huge milestone. But I sincerely believed that I didn’t have the focus, the idea, or the stamina to write an entire novel.

Well, I did it. And I learned that (for this particular story, anyway) I can write ~69,000 words in ~11 months (which, according to Google, is actually somewhat short for a novel of its ilk). It helped that the novel I wrote is a story that’s been gestating for five years, and something I’ve already written and revised as a screenplay.

I’m more proud of this accomplishment than maybe anything else I’ve ever done. It’s hard to overstate just how difficult this process was, but also hard to describe how fulfilling. Novels are a different beast than screenplays (not least because a typical novel is 80,000 to 100,000 words while an average screenplay is around 20,000) and, as new ground for me, I found that those differences were changing the way I thought about storytelling. First, the differences:

Novels have more dimensions than screenplays, but screenplays have more restrictions.

The biggest challenge in writing a novel for me was the amount of content I had to shape. I’m used to writing short stories and screenplays, which have a finite amount of space to work with. Screenplays, especially, are limited by the form itself. In a screenplay there are no inner thoughts, there is no memory, the only things that you write are the things that the audience will see or hear on screen. While you can add flashbacks or exposition to explain pieces of a character’s backstory, that sort of thing is generally frowned on and slows your story down. The challenge to screenwriting is using subtext and action to inform the audience of what they need to know.

Novels, on the other hand, have limitless space. I was afforded the opportunity to dive deep into the characters’ pysches, histories, and insecurities. I still had to pick and choose what was relevant and what wasn’t–you never want to clog the page with irrelevant bullshit–but being able to slow down and explore certain aspects of the characters’ lives was a new challenge. It allowed me to weave together narrative threads and add nuance to character actions that would be impossible in a screenplay. Which leads me to the next challenge…

There are a lot of balls to keep in the air.

The story I have is relatively simple; in the original screenplay there were only five characters we spent considerable time with, their relationships with people outside of their group were limited, and (because of a screenplay’s emphasis on forward-motion) there wasn’t a huge number of threads that made up the fabric of the story. Aside from introducing inner lives and complicated histories for every major and minor character in the novel, there were also several new, more detailed story threads to keep track of.

Characters that had bit roles in the screenplay were promoted to nearly full-fledged players. I invented several characters from whole clothe, two of which were major, and introduced several new subplots that tied into the theme of the story. It became a lot to keep track of and, while my memory (and documentation) is pretty good when it comes to character quirks and story threads, I’ve resolved myself to taking copious notes and inventories when I do my first edit. Things that in a screenplay just aren’t as important to have in your head because of the collaborative nature of filmmaking (and, again, the limitations of the form) take on added significance when you’re relying on the imagination of the reader to fill out a frame. How big is a certain character’s apartment? What is the layout of the building for that escape? Did I say it was on the fifth floor or the seventh floor earlier?

These types of questions are in every chapter as you build your story and layer details upon details on one another.

Writing a script is a sprint; writing a novel is a marathon.

Keeping momentum on the story was difficult, especially as I worked through the second act doldrums. The beginning of any story is always fun because it’s new and you’re introducing characters and story elements. The end of a story is fun because things are coming together and all of the groundwork laid earlier on is paying off. The middle of a story is confusing and messy because you’re deep in the woods, your compass is broken, and you can’t retrace your steps to the beginning because a fresh snow fell and covered your previous tracks.

This was especially difficult to deal with when I ran into moments of burn-out or I got busy with work and couldn’t write consistently. There were a few times when I turned my focus to writing a short story or developing a new idea simply because I was tired of looking at the novel. There were other times when I just couldn’t carve out the time to write because I was slammed at work. Inevitably, when I returned to the story I had a hard time regaining any momentum.

With a screenplay, being relatively short, it’s easy to reread everything you’ve done and reorient yourself with the story. When you’re 40,000 or 50,000 words deep into a novel all you’ve really got is your outline to keep you on track. My outlines are generally pretty light; I map out plot points and some specific details that will help me get to them, and then fill in the details as I go. I go back and fill in more details to the outline if I write something major that wasn’t originally there, but generally it doesn’t change too much as I go through the first draft.

I’m wholly expecting that in my first read-through I’m going to find a lot of inconsistencies and WTF moments simply because there was so much time between my writing certain chapters.

What I learned.

As I’ve alluded to several times in this post, stories are made of all sorts of different threads that come together. In screenwriting, it’s easy to overlook this fact because there is so little real estate to work with. Screenplays are very economical, so using what you introduce (or not) is easy to do. With the novel, though, those threads took on new significance because they informed where the story was going.

For me, this became most evident in some of the minor characters. In the screenplay, the minor characters are a footnote; just a way to move the plot forward or add dimension to the setting (i.e., townsfolk a character interacts with). But as I wrote the novel I started to learn ways to reuse minor characters in a way that enriched the major characters and the story as a whole.

In summation, I realized that when telling a story one should use every piece of it. There is always depth behind a character, or a plot point, or a setting that could help to tie things together later and make a more enriching experience for the reader or audience.

So what’s next?

As I was writing and I introduced new elements to the story or thought of ways to elaborate on things already written I took lots of notes on how and when to implement those. So, before anything, I’ll probably go back into certain chapters and write a few thousand more words of backstory and connective tissue for the plot.

Then, I plan to sit on it while I write a screenplay I’ve been noodling on. In that time I might edit the first couple of chapters (it’s been nearly a year since they’ve been written and, while I’ve glanced at them a few times since then, I haven’t really read them) and then give them to my writers’ group for feedback. Otherwise, though, it will sit for a few months while I write a new project.

When the new script is written and, itself, needs time to marinate, I’ll start my edit of the first draft. By that time I’ll likely hate what I’ve written and curse all the time and effort I put into it. But, as I revise, maybe I’ll take big steps toward making it great.

After the first revision, I’ll pass it around to people I trust for their opinions and edits. I may even pay some of them to do the job of an editor, as I know some talented people. (If there are major issues with it when all that is said and done, I’ve thought about hiring an experience industry editor, but that can be pricey.)

Using the notes I get from my trusted circle of fellow writers I’ll write a third draft. Then, and only then, will I decide whether or not to shop it around. I think the story and its hook are strong enough to garner some attention, but that isn’t where I’ve faltered in the past. Maybe the added space to let the story breathe will fulfill the potential of my execution.

If not, then at least now I know how to revise the screenplay again.

Age Ain’t Nothin’ but a Number

Look, I get that I can be kind of cynical and downright panicky sometimes, even if I do always find that little bit of hope that helps me to keep going. I spent all of my last post complaining about feeling old and several posts recently lamenting the inherent risk of choosing a subjective art form as my preferred career. I feel badly about that. To be honest, even though these are all feelings I (and I would imagine, many others) struggle with as we get older and the chances of success seem more slim, becoming a writer typically takes a long time.

This post is dedicated to those people who didn’t let their age deter them from following their dreams. The ones that spent years working their craft and made a modest career doing what they loved. The ones who struggled but kept the dream alive. The ones who maybe should have given up, but didn’t.

Let’s begin with the Nicholl Fellowship. This is the highest amateur competition around. Notice the word I italicized in the hopes of drawing your attention to it? It’s a great honor to be selected as a Nicholl Fellow and will surely lead to at least a little success, but I think you’ll find many Nicholl Fellows don’t go on to become world-famous writers. That being said, what’s the average age of a Nicholl Fellow?

36 years old, according to their Frequently Asked Questions.

Now, that doesn’t mean all of the Nicholl Fellows have been writing since they were 16 years old and took twenty years to gain even that modest bit of success. But it does mean most success stories (if not all) are not overnight.

Another example: What is the median age of writers in the WGA? The 2014 Hollywood Writers Report* states that the highest-earning writers – and the most employed – are between 41 and 50 years old. Not to say they’ve just gotten their start, but it’s taken them that long to earn their place at the top of the food chain – so to speak. You’ll also notice that only 5% of writers working in film are under the age of 31. That goes to show that those working in film, especially as writers, tend to be a bit older.

*If you read the Hollywood Writers Report, you’ll find the majority of its content is about the rather wide gap between white male writers and minority and women writers in Hollywood. That is an important topic to discuss (and broken down well in the report) but it’s way outside the purview of this particular post and maybe even this blog.

And, finally, there is this post from the Writer’s Store about relatively famous writers who didn’t succeed until much later in life. Did you know Raymond Chandler, he of the hard-boiled detective novels, didn’t publish his first novel until he was 51? That’s nearly 25 years older than I am right now!

Even though I often wonder what I’m doing as a 27 year old who wants to pursue a career as a screenwriter from Virginia of all places, I think it’s important to understand that these things don’t happen overnight. I’ve been writing for a long time, sure, but it’s only been a really serious pursuit for about two years. That’s nothing in the grand scheme of things. Now, if I’m still on this blog when I’m 47 complaining that I feel old I give any of my readers permission to tell me to quit.

Not that I will, of course.

The Constant Search for Inspiration

That title is a bit misleading. I, personally, don’t typically search for inspiration. I have no real need to. I’m bombarded by ideas, most of which are shitty and I forget as soon as they happen, all the time. Inspiration is everywhere. The last idea I got that I was excited about what as I was driving through a foggy Pennsylvania after visiting home for Easter. My girlfriend was sleeping in the passenger seat of the car, the fog was the thickest I’ve ever seen, there were woods on either side of us, and we suddenly passed an overturned semi. That atmosphere and jarring image were all it took to shake something loose in my mind, and I wrote up a short treatment as soon as I got home.

Easter may seem like a long time ago. And it was. But ideas (really good ones, anyhow) are fairly rare. For a screenplay I’m happy with maybe two or three ideas that could be considered high-concept per year. Novels are even less than that (although sometimes there is a choice to be made between an idea being right for a screenplay or a novel). Short stories are a different beast. Ray Bradbury believed in writing one short story per week. I’ve come to realize that I don’t have the ability (right now) to be that prolific. However, I think short stories can deal with much more mundane material, perhaps with a twist, and still be engaging. I’m a fan of the slice-of-life and think that sort of thing suits itself well to flash fiction and even longer short stories, if done well.

I’ve run into a problem, though. Recently I’ve lacked some inspiration. I know the cause – my life has been boring. That’s not even completely accurate; you’re life can be boring and still give you fantastical ideas. But you need to seek them out by reading more, observing more, studying more. I haven’t taken the time to do that recently. My more intellectual pursuits have fallen by the wayside. It’s difficult to know if that will change anytime soon. My summer, as of right now, looks like it might be full of work and not much else.

I know what you’re thinking: Who wants to live that way? I should clarify what I mean by “work.” I mean my day job, of course, but I also mean writing work. Finishing scripts, new projects, that bane of my existence I call Manifest Destiny (one day I will break you, Manifest Destiny! One day!). It’s just that between those things and whatever social life I can cobble together in this strange city, there is the risk of enveloping myself in a bubble that doesn’t allow for new experiences or learning new things.

So here’s my point: Inspiration is, literally, everywhere. But you still have to take the time and put in the effort to look. It may be hiding in plain sight, but it’s still hiding.

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