Inspired by Larry Wilmore

I was privileged yesterday to attend the Austin Film Festival- sponsored “Conversation with Larry Wilmore.” Larry shared his insights on comedy writing from his well-rounded perspective as a television writer, producer, comedian, actor, and author.

The advice that resonated perhaps the most with me was the importance of finding the right delivery system for what you want to do. Larry stressed that it’s essential to choose the form that best fits your funny idea. Sometimes an idea may be big enough to fit the framework of a movie, but perhaps it could end up as a simple joke. (Although he concedes that a joke, while the shortest form to write, is “ironically one of the hardest.”)

Larry assesses his T.V. show ideas based on 3 criteria:

1. What’s going on in the culture that you’d like to exploit?

2. What’s going on in you that you need to express now? Is that a T.V. show?

3. What’s going on in the marketplace on T.V. now? Is this different?

I was inspired to sketch a flow-chart of Larry’s thinking process, as he described it. I don’t claim to be an artist, so view at your own risk!

 

 

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Exposed

As writers, we are artists. Not the kind of artists who perform directly in front of the audience, but artists nonetheless. We are called to expose ourselves through our words. To offer up emotions and events from our lives that we have perhaps kept hidden for many years. Sometimes even from ourselves. It can feel like quite a risk to share so openly, despite the fact that we may often sit behind our desks or screens, disconnected from others.We have something to learn from other artists who are out there relating with the audience, such as musician Amanda Palmer whose TED talk, “The Art of Asking,” recently went viral. She is a successful pioneer in a new era of crowd-funding. Through intimate connections with her audience, from online and after-show encounters to crowd-surfing and even couch-surfing (crashing) at fans’ homes, Amanda has found trust and fearlessness in relating to her audience. She describes the crowd and couch surfing experience: “…you’re falling into the audience and you’re trusting each other.” Trust. Such an important thing to have with an audience, when you are sharing yourself with them.

Amanda’s first encounters with “random closeness” came from acting as a living statue street performer. She says that for some of the individuals she encountered on the street, the eye contact shared as she would hand over one of her flowers seemed to hold a deep connection. To her, their eyes seemed to say, “Nobody ever sees me; Thank you.”

I like to think that we have the same goal as writers: to see people in a way they need to be seen. To uncover and reveal the human experience in an eye-opening way. The capturing and crafting of shared experiences brings us together with readers. We must remember that there is a purpose to revealing ourselves on the page. Even if we are not connecting directly at the moment the words are knitted into a story, our words are there to translate something meaningful to an audience. So that someone out there, while either reading or watching a scene unfold on screen, will experience that “Nobody ever sees me; Thank you.” moment.

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Show, Don’t Tell; A New Resource

I met with my book club recently. We all consistently liked the plot, the world, the idea of the book we were discussing. But something was missing. The author had failed to guide us into her world with her writing. In the end, there was only one scene that rewarded us with a vivid experience and an emotional reaction. In that one scene, the author had managed to show rather than tell.

As screenwriters, we craft stories to ultimately be seen through a visual medium. We are bound by the rule of show, don’t tell. Authors, screenwriters, and actors alike have been buzzing about a new resource by authors Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi, called The Emotion Thesaurus. You can hear Angela Ackerman chat about this book on the TV Writer Podcast, ep. 70. Angela points out that up to 95% of communication is nonverbal. Yet clichéd or melodramatic character responses can leave the reader cold.  Her resource allows writers to look up root emotions and discover lists of related responses. Reactions are broken down into three elements: physical signals (body language and actions), internal sensations, and mental responses. Some emotions are further linked to a “may escalate to…” field as well, in order to help the writer brainstorm further character reactions.

Ackerman’s blog, “The Bookshelf Muse,” is a valuable resource as well. It contains further writing aids, including thesauruses for symbolism, character traits, and setting. Given the reception of the first compendium, further writing thesaurus books are in the works.

Ackerman recommends using The Emotion Thesaurus merely as a starting point to visualize scenes. Other considerations will include the character’s disposition and how he or she would naturally respond, as well as the setting. Our characters must adjust their responses according to their surroundings as we do, for example by tempering their reactions in a workplace or public setting. The book also cautions against overuse of backstory, over-reliance on dialogue, and sudden jumps in emotion. All valuable wisdom for the screenwriter. I have my copy, and it’s a tool I can’t wait to put to use.

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And… Scene

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what makes a good scene. The improv class I’m taking has been an intense study in scene writing for me.  I get to watch so many scenes unfold and see first-hand what works, what doesn’t, and why. Even more helpful than watching my classmates’ scenes is experiencing the ones I’m in as they evolve.

I’ve learned a few important lessons. For one, it is crucial to establish your characters and relationships as soon as possible in a scene. You need to give the who, what, and where to the audience right up front. It really makes such a difference to get the ball rolling right away. No one wants to see an extended set-up or a bunch of boring dialogue. (Speaking of dialogue, I like Dave Trottier’s recent scriptmag list of 7 rookie dialogue mistakes.)

And I have found it so helpful to consider why on this day we are seeing a scene. Perhaps a scene unfolds between, say, a regular customer and business proprietor. Assuming they have had many mundane conversations in the past, what makes today worth watching? Is today the day that the store owner confesses his love? Does the customer decide to rob the store? One of their mundane days is not interesting. But the day when everything changes? That’s worth seeing.

In a related matter for screenwriting, John August hits the nail on the head in his How to Write a Scene post. He suggests that if a scene is not essential, it should be cut. He asks us to envision a screening of the movie, where a scene is accidentally left out. Does the movie still make sense? If so, then omit the scene. And I would add that a mundane exchange is rarely essential, unless it is full of hidden meaning or somehow manages to elucidate character development or plot. In that case, it would be a crucial scene. In Dave Trottier’s aforementioned list, he explains how chit chat can be revealing in some rare occasions.

I think the biggest considerations in presenting a scene should always be: 1) Is it interesting? and 2) Is it important? In the end, we are all about creating stories and being entertaining, and we need to do that the best way possible.

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The Multi-Camera Sitcom

I’ve written a spec Modern Family and an original drama pilot. But I was itching to create an original spec comedy pilot. So after brainstorming, I came up with an idea I was excited about, which includes a character to be portrayed by a stand-up comedian. Specifically Ralphie May, or perhaps a comedy actor of his type. The show I dreamed up lends itself to a multi-camera style. So in addition to my story research and outlining, I found that I had a bit of extra planning to do in order to figure out the formatting for a multi-camera script and show. One of my favorite multi-cam sitcoms is The Big Bang Theory, so I’ve had a good excuse to read online scripts and watch lots of episodes. In addition, I’ve jumped back into watching a variety of multi-cam sitcoms, old and new, and falling in love with the live-audience style all over again.

There is definitely something exciting about the performances of actors who are getting the feedback of a live audience. The punchline/ pause for laughs style of comedy in a multi-camera format is actually fun and familiar. It seems like styles cycle on television, and everything old is new again. Perhaps there is a resurgence of love emerging for the multi-cam format? Over the last few months, Up All Night, originally a single-camera sitcom, has been retooling to come back in April with a multi-camera format. It will certainly be interesting to see the difference and watch the show’s success.

The networks have several possible new multi-cam pilots on their radar for the 2013-2014 season, including a new project from Chuck Lorre, called Mom, about a newly-sober mom trying to make it in Napa Valley. And another that sounds promising, a Lorne Michaels project featuring stand-up comedian John Mulaney.

Anyway, returning to the issue of writing. Here’s a nice article about writing for multi-cam sitcoms that I found to be helpful.

So back to work I go! Although I must admit; this has been so much fun, it’s hard to call it work.

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Thinking On Your Feet

On the first day of the level 1 improv class I’m taking, several of the other students mentioned better communication and confidence as their reasons for being there. Improv courses are not only for comedians. People are going to improv classes for all sorts of reasons. Companies and colleges are getting in on the action too, as they realize that the techniques learned in improv create well-rounded employees.

Improv techniques are designed to improve creativity, risk-taking, and teamwork. This article mentions three essential improv lessons that help on the job: “Yes, and…” “Collaboration,” and “Failure is OK.”

I’ve been surprised how much I’ve learned already in the short time I’ve been taking improv. Many of these lessons I hope will carry over into my comedy writing — how to be more creative in scenes… awareness of pacing and timing… and just how essential honesty and emotion are to an audience.

And regarding the idea of failure, one of the best things about improv I’ve discovered is that failure is not only okay, but it can also lead to a more creative outcome. I think we can all use that life lesson.

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Silver Linings Playbook, Subtext and Character Development

SPOILER ALERT: Movie Plot Discussed

I highly recommend Silver Linings Playbook, if anyone has not yet seen it. One of the things I love most about the movie is the wonderful character arc of Pat, played by Bradley Cooper. The story (script by David O. Russell available here) allows us to experience his evolution, from a man completely lacking in self-awareness yet self-centered, out of touch with the world and normality, incapable of having a normal relationship… to a caring person fully in touch with the world and equipped to handle a loving relationship.

Of course there are the big scenes with Pat’s freak-outs, waking his parents in the middle of the night to rant about Hemingway, and again in a state of panic over not being able to locate a wedding video. Or reacting hysterically to hearing his wedding song. But the more subtle signs of his mental illness in the film are even more telling for the audience.

Pat’s disorder, as described by him, is Bipolar “with mood swings and weird thinking brought on by severe stress.” But Pat’s behavior at the outset shows that he does not really believe that he has a problem or understand his own altered thinking. The truth is all deftly conveyed to the audience through subtext, even as Pat lives in his world of denial.

In fact, as Pat retells the story of “the incident,” we see his cloudy perception in action.

I come home, what do I see? I walk in the door and I see underwear and pieces of clothing and a guy’s pants with his belt in it, and I walk up the stairs, and all of a sudden I see the DVD player, and on the DVD player is the CD and it’s playing our wedding song, and then I look down and I see my wife’s panties on the ground and then I look up and I see her naked in the shower… and I think, “Oh, that’s kinda sweet, she’s in the shower. What a perfect thing. I’m gonna find her and maybe I’ll go in there…”

In the film, we see the trail of clothes and the strange man’s pants on the ground, and yet Pat continues about his altered reality of considering that finding his wife in the shower could be a good thing. We get a hint at a bigger problem as he glosses over other problems, such as a fight with the high school principal and the strange accusations he made about his wife and her lover.

Pat is shown as oblivious to how other people see him in the scene where he frightens the principal but feels afterwards that their conversation went well. He lectures about how the toxic-sounding relationship with his wife was normal.

Yeah, we wanna change each other, but that’s normal, couples wanna do that, I want her to stop dressing like she dresses, I want her to stop acting so superior to me, okay? And she wanted me to lose weight and stop my mood swings, both of which I’ve done. I mean, people fight. Couples fight. We would fight, we wouldn’t talk for a couple weeks. That’s normal. She always wanted the best for me.

He speaks delusionally about how pefect everything will be with his wife when they get back together. And in a tense encounter with Tiffany (played by Jennifer Lawrence), he scoffs at the idea that his mental illness is as bad as hers.

But once Pat is on his medication, we see him making clearer choices. The ultimate moment of clarity is when he gets a rational wake-up call that he has been clinging to a fake letter. The trigger phrase about “reading the signs” is actually a moment when he himself is finally reading the signs. We, as the audience, know then that he has changed. The unheard, farewell conversation with his wife is the final proof that Pat is a healthy, new man. And we know that Pat is finally ready to be with Tiffany. What a satisfying conclusion.

I believe the ending is especially satisfying because we truly feel we have been through Pat’s journey along with him. He was a completely different person at the start than he was at the end. A very good lesson for us as writers.

 

 

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New Year, New Goals

How are those New Year’s writing resolutions going? Maybe you’ve already stumbled and feel like giving up on your new goals. Experts say to give yourself permission to slip up now and then. But maybe it’s time to take a second look at your writing goals.

Are your goals realistic?

Objectives should be small and achievable steps. It’s great to have an overall writing goal, but it needs to be broken down into smaller parts. If you have set your challenge level too high, simplify your objectives a bit. Allow yourself to succeed, but don’t go too easy on yourself. If you meet your goal quickly, make your next goal harder. If you find that you are lacking some skills that allow you to reach your goal, take some time out to build up those skills. Remember that all change must be gradual. Don’t expect too much from yourself at the start.

Do you have support?

Have you announced your intentions? Do you have friends or a group of other writers to talk to? There is nothing like making your goals real. A support system can help to keep you stay on track and stick with your plan.

Set yourself up for success.

Get your environment writer-ready. Turn off your distractions. You know what they are…

Keep it positive.

Make your objectives positive. Remember to reward yourself when you meet goals. It can be something small. And view the time working towards your writing as a gift you are giving to yourself.

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Stories From the Road

My family of five recently completed a 2000-mile road trip. I’m lucky to still be sane. Although I must say that the things you see along the highways and byways of America can be really humorous and inspirational. Especially for a writer. Here are a few of my observations that got me thinking…

CHUNKY, MISSISSIPPI

Why on earth is there a city by this name? Love it. The name got my wheels turning about a TV pilot, entitled Chunky. Still pondering this one.

MULLETS and BOWS

People still rock the mullet hairstyle in the Deep South. I witnessed it. Also I noticed some poor little girls with heads being entirely swallowed by giant bows. Their moms appeared completely unconcerned.

GAMBLING

Flashy casinos are not limited to Vegas. They’re everywhere. Though I spotted some folks content to merely stake out a spot beside aromatic gas station bathrooms to play slots. Some of the billboard ads have small print at the bottom giving a hotline number to call if you have a gambling problem. I hear that if you call it, they immediately send a limo over to take you to the nearest casino. Ha, just joking.

GAS STATION FRIED CHICKEN

Who would eat these slabs of heat lamp meat? You’d have to be pretty desperate. I suppose you could be swayed by an eager chicken mascot with outstretched wing, such as this one, offering up his family. His plea might go something like this: “Please, eat my meat. Won’t you like to nibble on my wife? It is my honor to serve you…my leg.” You gotta find laughs where you can on an endless road trip.

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Patience and Persistence

Writers must have thick skins and the ability to handle criticism. But what about outright rejection? We’ve all heard the stories of authors whose tenacity eventually paid off. This article says some recent studies found that rejection can actually increase creativity. That’s good news for those of us who are dealing with disappointments.

And here is an inspirational, stick-with-it story for screenwriters.  Oscar winner Marc Norman’s patience and persistence resulted in the film Shakespeare in Love. The movie production was halted and held in limbo for years before the film’s final incarnation as a winner of seven Academy Awards including Best Picture.

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