[Resource article – Creating characters ] Characters, Take the Wheel

Characters drive the story. The plot is the road taken. Structure is the map. Your main character’s goal is to get to his destination and he’ll do whatever it takes to get there. He chooses the route. Sometimes, he chooses right. More often, he chooses wrong. Though once in a while something bad might happen to him during his trip, such as a detour caused by construction, many times he causes his own misfortune. He fails to listen to his wife’s brilliant directions, he drives too fast and gets a speeding ticket, he runs out of fuel in his quest to find a station with gas pennies cheaper than the last one. He’s a good guy but he’s flawed. He needs to find his way and defeat the bad guy who slashed his tires. Finally, in most cases, he’ll reach his desired destination; a little worse for the wear, but wiser for the experience.
Okay, I’m getting carsick from this analogy. Hopefully, this road trip tale will help you to remember that characters drive the story, not the other way around. If the ride is nothing but construction detours, accidents, bad weather, and crossing deer, you’ve got a contrived story, not one that comes from characters taking the wheel.
Take the movie SPEED for example (sorry, I guess I just can’t stop….). The bomb on the bus isn’t just bad luck that happens to the good guys. It was planted there by a bad guy, which certainly shows his character. It is also the hero’s choice to climb aboard the doomed vehicle, showing his character and well, cojones. Complications ensue, such as nearly running out of gas, but even those complications arise out of the original problem caused by the villain. In addition, the occupants of the bus must use their wits to try to escape while being constantly watched, via remote camera, by the villain. By contrast, the fact that the road is not finished (a device used TWICE in the film) is an eye-rolling coincidence and is much less satisfactory because it’s an outside complication and not caused by any character in the story.
The character drives the story, but what drives her? “What’s my motivation” isn’t just a cliché. We need to know what motivates the character, otherwise we don’t care if she gets what she wants or not. Inigo Montoya wanted vengeance for his father’s death. We know some brute murdered his father when Inigo was just a young boy, so we can’t wait to see him kick some ass when he finally gets the chance. Ace Ventura goes on a quest to find a missing dolphin out of a love of animals and because it’s his job. Both E.T and Dorothy are motivated by a desire to go home. Harold and Kumar just want a burger.
Characters cause change in the story. Certainly, outside forces can act upon a character to cause great changes in his life. In Groundhog Day, Phil is forced to repeat the same day in his life and over and over again. What does he do with a challenge like that? At first, he uses it to his advantage. He learns things about other people and then uses the information the next “day” to get what he wants. Soon, he grows tired of this and tries – repeatedly – to kill himself. Finally, he uses his time to help others, thus ending the vicious cycle. Consider this same film with Forrest Gump instead of Phil Connors as the main character. Forrest is a swell guy. He doesn’t need the lesson that Groundhog Day teaches. Sure, he’s a bit slow and could probably use a couple of repeated days to catch up with the rest of us, but he would likely have started helping people by the second day. No conflict. Boring is as boring does.
The best method to ensure that the characters drive the story is to develop the characters AS you develop the plot. Don’t plot the course and then hang characters on there like hood ornaments. The main character must be in the driver’s seat. She controls the motion of the story. Don’t start planning the trip without her. Groundhog Day only works as Phil’s story. If he didn’t have the attitude that needed adjustment, there would be no story to tell. His dramatic need or goal is to be able to give and receive love. The goal (desired destination) of the protagonist is the whole focus of the story you’re telling. If we don’t have a clear idea of who he is and where he wants to be, why do we care if he ever gets there? The strongest stories are ones where the characters and plot are deeply integrated. You can’t have one without the other. Only when we truly care about the characters do we want to go along for the ride.

How To Write a Screenplay (Resource article)

The title of this article is not How To Write A Fantastic Screenplay. To write a fantastic screenplay, you need vivid, visual descriptions, multi-dimensional characters, and a compelling plot full of conflict and twists and turns. The first step to all that exciting stuff is to step back and take a look at the general structure of a screenplay.

Screenplays (and movies) can generally be broken down into three acts. In a two hour film, Act I averages 30 pages, Act II is 60 pages, and Act III is 30 pages. One page equals roughly one minute of screen time, meaning the average length of a script is 90-120 pages. Though it not necessarily critical to stick to the three-act structure, it is vital to carefully construct your screenplay if you’re going to stay within these page constraints. There’s no room to go on tangents in a screenplay. If a scene does not advance the story and/or the character, it doesn’t belong in the script. If you want to spend five pages describing your heroine’s wedding gown, write a novel. In a script, you’ll have to settle for “she enters, wearing a fancy wedding dress.” Sorry. A script’s gotta keep moving.

Pages 1-15 are for your setup. Get to the point of the story quickly. What is the story about? Something needs to happen to your main character by page 15 that really gets the story moving. In the first few minutes of THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, poor Andy Dufresne is sentenced to life in prison.

The first plot point should come around page 25. A plot point is an event that changes the direction of the story. Plot Point 1 sent Marty McFly back to 1955 in Back to the Future. The first major plot point that occurs in the script launches the story full-force into Act II. A second a major plot point leads into Act III. There can (and should be) many plot points along the way, but having a major one around page 25 and another major one around page 75 is helpful in a well-structured screenplay. There can also be a fairly major plot point that occurs halfway through the script. This is called a midpoint.

The second major plot point is usually the point where things look the worst for the protagonist. If your main character is gathering flowers and singing gaily at this point in the story, you’ve got problems. If everything is honky-dory, why keep reading the script? Around page 75, sweet little E.T. appears to be dead. Would you keep reading if he and Elliott were sitting around playing Parcheesi?

The climax, which arrives around page 90, is just what it sounds likes. This is do or die time, the smackdown between the good guy and the bad guy. This is where the lowly farmgirl from Kansas ices the witch with a bucket of water. Everything in the story has been leading up to this moment. If you haven’t very carefully structured your story up to this point, you will have nowhere to go.

Finally, there is the resolution. This is where you wrap things up. There shouldn’t be all that much to say at this point so don’t hang around. After the dinosaurs eat everybody and the main characters barely escape Jurassic Park with their lives, what else is there to say? John Hammond realizes his zoo from hell was NOT a good idea and finally admits it. Roll credits.

Choose a movie that you have heard is good or choose one that you’ve already seen and know to be entertaining. Try to identify the setup, the first plot point, the second plot point, the climax, and the resolution. In particular, notice how the story keeps moving. Each scene and even each line of dialogue is there for a reason. It either advances the story, advances the character, or does both.

Conversely, the next time you find yourself bored by a movie, ask yourself if it’s because there are unnecessary scenes that don’t really contribute much to the story. In a bad comedy, scenes are stuck in there for allegedly “humorous” purposes. In a subpar action film, random things explode and excess car chases ensue for added “excitement”. These things feel tacked on because they are. They are not an integral part of the story and thus do not generate emotion, except perhaps annoyance.

Many important elements go into making an entertaining script designed to result in a compelling movie. Though the three-act structure is not a hard and fast Hollywood rule, it can be argued that nearly all of the most successful films generally conform to this internal structure. The most interesting stories are the ones that continue to introduce conflict and consistently move forward. Any movie that bores you at the beginning but ends with an entertaining and memorable final act is not a good film. A good movie is one that grabs you from the first moment and never lets go. Audiences were stunned when Daddy Darth Vader was revealed because they were utterly spellbound by the rest of the story that came before. Donald being revealed as Howard the Duck’s father would have resulted in a big who cares? A clever twist only works if the rest of the story is structured well. A great movie starts with a great screenplay. And a great screenplay starts on page ONE.

Will Write for Ink

It’s been a busy week in my Wannabe life. On Wednesday, I finished a very lengthy and grueling third draft of my latest comedy screenplay. I was incredibly relieved to finish it. I really need some space from that one, so I am putting it away and not even looking at it until after Thanksgiving. After that, I hope to go through it and punch up the dialogue, strengthen the characters, and generally tighten up the story, all of which should be easier than banging out new pages every day. Of course, that’s what I thought this third draft would be like. It turns out, however, that the script sucked. I pretty much had to write it all over again.

When I finish a draft, especially a tough one like this, I can’t help but sometimes imagine that today’s accomplishment might be tomorrow’s rejection. I’ve been through the same drill with each script for the last decade and a half – draft a script, rewrite the hell out of it, query every producer that I can with it, some will read it, most won’t, and then once I’m out of production companies, I move on to the next script. Rinse, lather, repeat. I’m proud of the work that I’ve done so far on this script. I dragged myself out of bed at 5am every morning and worked on it whether I felt like it or not. I don’t wait for inspiration to strike. I don’t wait, I just DO. And somehow, between running a household, paying the bills, raising two kids, and working a full time job, I manage to finish a screenplay – one hour at a time. I’m proud of it, but I can’t help but wonder if it will eventually result in a success, or is this script just a bunch of future rejection letters waiting to happen?

I’ve been so busy writing this script that I haven’t had too much time lately to work on marketing the middle-grade novel I wrote last year. However, late Sunday, I took some time and sent out a few emails to literary agents. I can only do email because, at the moment, I cannot afford ink cartridges for my printer. If it wasn’t for my mother, I wouldn’t even have paper…The life of a starving writer.

On Monday, less than 24 hours after I sent out the email queries, I received a rejection. Such is life as a Wannabe in the digital age – bad news travels FAST.

On Thursday, the day after I finished my tough draft of the new screenplay and was wondering why I put myself through all this, I got another email. A literary agent in New York City requested the first 50 pages of my novel! I literally did a double take as I read the email. I finished this novel last year in November. For a solid year I’ve sent out queries to agents and for a year every single one of them said NO. It got to the point where I would sent out several queries, wait for the rejections, then plan to send more. It becomes so automatic after a year of rejections, I almost forget that once in a while, people do say YES.

The best case scenario is that the she will love the novel and decide to be my agent, perhaps putting me on the path to publication. Maybe I’ll look back and laugh – remembering that I actually had to wait for my next paycheck to buy ink so I could send out the pages. If nothing else, perhaps the agent will send me some notes on how to improve the novel. I know the story is strong – after all, the same story in screenplay version is currently optioned by a production company in L.A. The jury’s still out as far as whether or not I am any good as a novel writer.

Either way, it’s a win. I needed a win right now after having worked so long and hard on writing, even if it was on an unrelated script. It was wonderful reminder that today’s hard work really can be tomorrow’s success story. Even if it did take more than a year.

Resource Article for Wannabe Comics – How to Write Your First Standup Comedy Routine

The first step to writing your first standup comedy routine is to make sure your expectations are realistic. Start with a goal of 5 killer minutes. Trying to come up with a two-hour HBO special right away will only lead to frustration.

No matter what books and paid websites tell you, there is no one right way to write a comedy routine. However, there are a lot of wrong ways that you will want to avoid. If you find a different method of creating material as your career progresses, go for it. In the meantime, here are some tips to get you started.

Hello, Captain Obvious – Keep a notebook and pen with you at all times. Basic advice, but you’d be amazed at far this will take you. Be sure to write down anything that strikes you as a potential joke. Don’t wait for a brilliant line to simply materialize out of nowhere. Write down anything out of the ordinary that you see in your daily travels and any odd thought or observation that may occur to you – funny or not. You may develop your best material this way. As Mitch Hedberg said “If the pen’s too far away, I have to convince myself that what I thought of ain’t funny…”

Don’t Try Too Hard to be Funny – Great comedy bits do not spring forward from your head like Athena from her daddy’s noggin. You may write for an hour and only come up with one funny line. It’s worth it. Comics look like they are casually making this stuff up off the top of their head. I promise you. They’re not. It is often helpful to simply riff on a topic, either with a pen and paper or a tape recorder. Simply write down everything you can think of about the topic you’ve chosen. Sometimes the bit of comedy gold is mined on page 5 out of 10 pages of random thoughts.

Don’t Pick Funny Topics- You may think tampons, condoms, and bodily functions are funny enough on their own. They’re not. Sometimes the most memorable bits of comedy come from the most mundane of topics. Jerry Seinfeld is the crowned prince of comedy about “nothing” and has made a hugely successful career from jokes about things like taking a shower and buying groceries. If you simply choose a “funny” topic, chances are other people have thought of it first. Lots of other people. Take an unfunny topic and make it funny. Patton Oswalt has an absolutely hysterical bit about PAAs Easter Egg Dye. How many other comics have covered that one?

Develop a Persona, but Don’t Change Who You Are – As you write and perform your routines, you will develop a persona. This is not an alter-ego, but sort of a heightened, stage version of who you are. Don’t create a totally different character than your true self. Audience can smell insincerity – don’t joke about how hard it is to be married when you are, in fact, a swinging single. If you aren’t the loud, brash, life-of-the-party type, don’t try to fake it onstage. There are plenty of low-key comics, like Stephen Wright, Rita Rudner, Mike Birbiglia, and Dane Cook. Well, maybe not that last one.

Don’t Try to Invent a Catchphrase – Not all comics have them. Sometimes something will simply catch on and become a catchphrase (Hooot Pockets, of all things, for Jim Gaffigan). More often, it’s just your own unique style or persona that will resonate with your fans. Lewis Black does not really have a catchphrase, but he is known for the way he gestures and points with his hands when he is off on a political rant. Sam Kinison’s catchphrase was a scream – literally.

Enough About You – The audience does not care that you just broke up with your girlfriend. If your act is all about “I” and “Me”, people will tune out. Bring the audience with you on this comic journey. Start with “Relationships are tough, aren’t they?” and then tell us why your girlfriend is a bitch.

Don’t Tell Stories – A story that got huge laughs at your friend’s party will not amuse a paying audience. They don’t know you and they don’t know your friends. This is the classic “you had to be there” problem. Listen carefully to comics who you think are telling a story. They are…but they’re not. They may begin a tale – then make a joke. Then another part of the story – then spout witty commentary about it. Telling us WHAT happened is a story. Telling us how you FEEL about what happened; now that can be funny. In her must-read book The Comedy Bible, Judy Carter recommends using “attitude” words in your setups: hard, scary, weird, stupid.

Get on With It – Your setups – meaning the unfunny background of the joke – must be short and snappy. A joke with a long setup is rarely worth the wait and your audience will get restless. The setup is not supposed to be funny so don’t try to make it funny. Setup: Take my wife…Punchline: Please. Allegedly Funny Setup: Take my ugly heifer of a wife: Punchline: Just got ruined by a lousy setup. The pleasure of a joke is the surprise at the end. If you start with something funny, there’s nowhere else to go. The quick turn from “ordinary topic” to “funny observation” is the foundation of humor.

A Joke Should Be General and Specific – If you are confused by that statement, congratulations! That means you’re paying attention. The overall premise of your joke should be general, meaning relatable. “It’s hard when you spend a summer in Zimbabwe…” is not a relatable premise. “It’s weird living with a drug-addicted brother….” is relatable, even if the audience has not experienced it firsthand. After you’ve announced your general premise, get specific. “With him around, I’m always the good brother. When he’s passed out on the neighbor’s lawn wearing only tube socks, clutching my mom’s purse with a credit card receipt for $800 worth of paint thinner stuffed in his mouth, suddenly not taking out the trash ain’t so bad!” Now that’s specific.

Don’t be discouraged if you’re not funny right away. It can take a long time to develop truly funny material, so give it time. You will throw away far more material than you will ever use, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Sort through the garbage to find the gold. Someday you may even get paid for it.

Resource Article for Wannabe Writers : Tips for Rewriting Your Novel or Screenplay

It can be difficult to keep rewriting and revising when all you want to do is share your new novel or screenplay with the world. Resist the temptation to send out your work before it’s really ready. Your impatience will cost you dearly, in the form of wasted opportunities and lost time. It may take months or even years for you to get actual feedback from an editor, and by the time you realize how much work needs to be done on your manuscript, you may have sent it out to dozens of other editors or agents. You shouldn’t re-send your work to the same people unless you have been invited to do so, so those opportunities have been lost forever.

Rewriting can actually be a fun process. You will be amazed at how much better the final product is when compared to your first draft. You will discover new ideas, character traits, and lines of dialogue that help your creativity and unique voice stand out among your competition. Keep these tips in mind as you work to make your writing shine:

Put it away for several weeks. This is not an easy thing to do, but gaining a fresher perspective is vital and will reduce your time until publication in the long run.

Find a good book doctor or script analyst. Ask around to find those who are trustworthy and reasonably priced.

Take a workshop writing course or join a writers group. You will learn how to give and get criticism and how to become your own best editor!

Have someone experienced in editing or a professional go over your text to get rid of repetitions and nonsense, but don’t let him replace your vision with his own. A good rewrite will keep the dialect and characterization true to the original.

Read the work aloud. Fine-tune any dialogue that does not sound natural or seems out of character.

Don’t be afraid to cut the good stuff. Even if a line of dialogue or an entire subplot is brilliant, excise it if it simply doesn’t fit with the rest of the work. You may be able to use it in a future work.

Look for any passage that may be overlong and contain too much description.

Remember that it is easy to overlook left out words because the mind reads them into the text. This is easy to do even if the work is written by someone else.

Don’t keep editing the life out of your work. Do look it over for mistakes, but if you wait too long to finish, you will lose the original inspiration and write an entirely different version.

Many thanks to authors Jodi Picoult, Carolyn Haines, and Griffith Brownlee who generously contributed to this article.

Resource Article for Wannabe Actors – Seven Tips on How to Survive Your First Audition

Congratulations on heading to your first audition! May it be the first step in a long and successful performing career. The following are a few tips to get you through that first audition and make you look like a seasoned pro instead of a rookie. Break a leg!

Read the BREAKDOWN – the Breakdown has nothing to do with rap, so please do not “bust a rhyme” at your audition. The Breakdown is the information about the project and characters. Be sure to read all of the information that is provided so you are as prepared as possible and so you can determine if you are right for the part. If you are 5’3”, please do not try out for the stage version of Avatar. If you aren’t a good fit for the part, you’re just setting yourself up for rejection.

Don’t Forget the SIDES- If possible, ask for SIDES, and I don’t mean fries and cole slaw. Sides are the dialogue that you will read during the audition. Politely requesting the sides will make you look like a professional.

Be Timely – Arrive at least 20 minutes before your audition so you have time to fill out any audition sheets and read over any addition information you may be given.

Dress the Part – Be professional! Don’t dress in ripped jeans and a sideways baseball hat unless you are auditioning for the lead in Kevin Federline’s life story. Dress as you imagine the character would dress. If you really have no idea what he/she would wear, neutral or dark colors work best. Your clothing should not detract from your facial expressions and performance.

Be Comfortable With Yourself – Get out there and do what you came to do. Lose yourself in the part. Trust yourself. Don’t keep looking around to gauge the reaction you’re getting. You’ll only end up trying to change what you’re doing to try to please those who are watching you. Don’t second guess yourself, especially in the middle of a performance. You’re likely to misread the casting agent’s face anyway. She could look bored during your performance, but actually love what you’re doing.

Use Your Moment – Try not to worry about whether or not you will get the part. During your audition, the role is YOURS and yours alone. View each audition as a chance to perform in front of others, no matter what the outcome. After all, performing is what you love to do, right? Enjoy the opportunity NOW. Don’t wait for a phone call to get excited about your acting career.

Don’t Be Discouraged – This is easier said than done, but don’t feel too down if you don’t get that callback you’d hoped for. Sometimes you just aren’t right for a part, no matter how talented you are. Be proud that you made it through your very first audition. You had the courage to get up and perform, which is far more than most people do.

Many thanks to Professors Celia Madeoy and Michael Tolaydo for their expert advice.