Character Quirks

I discovered that one of my main characters had been hiding an unusual fear. I’m so glad I realized this! Great conflicts and embarrassing moments are arising from the addition of this character quirk.

Here are two sites to get you started with brainstorming about character traits: a character development quiz with over a hundred questions and this list of character quirks and phobias.

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Dialogue in Action – Wedding Crashers

I was just reading the Wedding Crashers screenplay by Steve Faber & Bob Fisher. The version in the link is obviously an early one. There were quite a few changes made before the movie was shot.  For example, the expanded character of Chazz Reinhold (played by Will Ferrell) was not yet added.

In comparing the early script to the movie, one particular scene change really stands out to me. It’s the scene where Senator Cleary (Christopher Walken) puts the fear of God into Jeremy (Vince Vaughn), reminding Jeremy that he is a very powerful man. Here’s the movie clip.

The shortened dialogue in the movie gives the scene a big impact. It’s easy to see how the excess talk from the original script was unnecessary. The resulting scene is a great one.

To show the adjustments, I edited the original script. I crossed out the old dialogue. Anything new that was added in is in red. Pardon the formatting errors.

INT. CLEARY HALLWAY – CONTINUOUS

Jeremy and Gloria pass Sec. Cleary.

SEC. CLEARY

Get him all patched up, Glory-bug?

GLORIA

I sure did, Daddy.

SEC. CLEARY

Glory Bug — Well, you go change for dinner.

She gives Jeremy a peck on the cheek and walks away.

SEC. CLEARY

You really seem to make her happy, son.

JEREMY

Oh well…yeah.

 SEC. CLEARY

Hell, she’s my youngest and I spoil her a bit. I can only hope you treat her honorably. You know, she’s not just another notch on the ol’ belt.

JEREMY

Oh no, no. Of course not, sir. I don’t even wear a belt. Beltless.

SEC. CLEARY

 Good, good. Because that would make me angry in ways you cannot possibly imagine.   (beat) And I ‘ m a very powerful man.

JEREMY

Right. . .yes, sir. Yes you are.

SEC. CLEARY

Yeah. . .    (pondering) Boy, I wish to Christ we could get her off that mood medication.  Oh well, see you downstairs for dinner.

Cleary walks away. Jeremy is now horrified.

 

 

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Perks of Being a Parent

Sure, there are times when I wish my life was less kid-centric. But Christmas is an awesome time of year to have kids. Making Christmas lists…trips to see Santa…decorating gingerbread men… It reminds me to appreciate all the kid stuff I get to secretly enjoy year-round.

Here are just a few other perks of being a parent…

Colored foamy kids’ soap… I “pretend” to use this Mr. Bubble-brand kid soap to set a good example for my daughter. But I secretly love this stuff.

Play Doh… This is therapeutic. I could squish it all day.

Sprinkles… Need I say more? As a topping for anything. You could get your kid to eat broccoli if you topped it with sprinkles. But I must admit, I love them too!

Picture books… I love the stories as much as my little daughter does. And the art in some of the kids’ books is so amazing. I just discovered a new favorite the other day. Now if I could just get my daughter to request it.

Swings… I’m so happy to have a kid to swing with. What a great excuse. If you haven’t swung in a while, I totally recommend it.

Crayons… I love having a coloring partner. Even before I had kids, I occasionally treated myself to a new coloring book and a fresh box of crayons. Coloring is almost meditative. And the smell of a new box of crayons? Ahhhh…

I think I just must be a kid at heart.

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A Four-Course Meal

Some great tips from John August and Craig Mazin on Scriptnotes, ep. 65 today. They talked about what they often find lacking in scripts and included suggestions for handling these shortcomings.  As Craig pointed out, you could almost get a film degree from online lectures such as this. They are indeed a valuable resource. I thought I’d summarize some of the ideas from this useful podcast.

Tips from John August:

  • Make sure your main character is in charge. Don’t let your protagonist be an inactive pawn.
  • Make sure your logic holds up throughout the movie. Consider the character’s internal logic as he or she makes choices throughout the story. Is everything emotionally consistent for that character? Also are the rules of your story followed consistently?
  • Have you served up a complete “meal” to the viewer, or have you just tossed together a bunch of unrelated “appetizers?”
  • Was your character tested enough? Hurt your main character. Make things as difficult for him or her as possible. John says he has never read a script where he thought, “You were too hard on your hero!”
  • Make sure choices made are irrevocable and not something the character can un-do.

Tips from Craig Mazin:

  • Include meaning in your story. What’s the movie about? Include layered writing. Scenes should have layers of meaning, not just be about, say, action only. Or only about relationships, character, or theme. All these should come together.
  • Make sure your premise can support a whole movie. You must have a foundation for your story.
  • Make sure your characters are distinctive. “People go to movies for characters, more than anything else.”
  • Your character should evolve and change by the end. At the end, the character should be disgusted with his or her former self.
  • Comedies torture the main character more than other genres. Comedy evolves from this. Don’t forget that comedy always includes a drama at its core.
  • As executives say, “Make sure the stakes are high.” We have to care if characters fail.
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Staying in the Zone

Imagine you are a pitcher stepping up to the mound. The pounding of your heart muffled only by the roar of the crowd. The batter waits. But just before the baseball escapes from your fingertips, the familiar suddenly becomes unfamiliar. You are overly conscious of your motions, your pitch flies wildly. You choke. A pitcher’s nightmare.

In baseball, the sudden loss of pitching ability is known as Steve Blass Disorder, named after a Major League player who famously saw his career ended after self-awareness and negativity crippled his pitching.

As writers, we are not immune to similar fears. Fears that our creativity has limits. That we will run out of ideas. That we will never be able to complete another project.

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the memoir Eat, Pray, Love, addresses the artist’s mysterious creative genius on a TED talk, entitled “Your Elusive Creative Genius.” She says that pre-Renaissance cultures attributed inspiration to supernatural sources, putting distance between the artist and the creative process. This allowed the artist to take less credit for a success but also to take less blame for a failure. She suggests that artists of today can explore the idea of an external source of inspiration to relieve some of their anxiety.  To allow the writer to fearlessly do the work he or she feels called to do.

Many years after he left his professional career, Steve Blass learned how to trade negative thoughts for positive ones. He speaks of his struggles in this interview. He was able to return to the mound to pitch for games between former pros and amateurs. He again experienced the joy of baseball.

Whether athlete or artist, I believe it’s important for us to maintain a positive attitude. We can choose to set aside our fears and negativity. We can even allow ourselves to consider the existence of some unidentified source of influence that awakens ideas for us. Then we can continue to do our part of shaping words into something meaningful while we keep an eye out for that inspiration.

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Character Fireworks

There was a lively discussion on Scriptchat two days ago with guest Scott Myers. The topic was character-driven screenwriting. I joined in with the other busily-tweeting screenwriters near the end of the chat and was amazed at the great info flying around.

On a related note, I have recently been discovering how a minor scene change can make a big difference for a character. By merely altering the time or location of my scenes this week, I challenged my characters in intriguing ways.

Here’s one example. I needed my protagonist to confront another main character in the third act. But it wasn’t until I put the two together while the protagonist was already in a highly emotional state that the fireworks happened. How many times have we accidentally been on the receiving end of someone’s wrath merely because they were already in a foul mood? The wrong place at the wrong time. This is what happened to my poor character. Bad news for him, but good news for me as the writer.

Another example was setting a scene at night rather than day. I have a scene in which my protagonist finally accepts herself as an artist and sets to work on a sculpture. Initially I set this scene during the day. But when I decided to have her eschew sleep and work all night on her effort, it suddenly became much more dramatic.

We behave differently in various places and times, so our characters will too. It has amazed me how a small tweak can allow a scene and dialogue to flow much more naturally. It’s worth playing around with a small element of a scene to see what it can do to challenge a character and elicit changes. The right place. The right time. It can make a difference.

 

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In Honor of the Election, A Story

A New Beginning

She startled awake and looked around, wild-eyed, forgetting for a moment where she was.  The flickering TV cast a cold light over the room.  One AM.   She hadn’t slept for long.  She lay on her back with her head tilted awkwardly on the hard foam pillow and gazed down at her belly.  It wasn’t a mountain any more, really, more of a hill now.  Still, she had somehow expected to have her flat stomach back.  Naive again.

Rolling to her side brought a throbbing pain.  But the sight of the small face in the shadows eased the ache.  In her delirium, she had almost forgotten her baby was beside her.  Dark little eyes gazed knowingly at her through the transparent bassinet.

Sara pushed herself up and reached out, tugging the pink hat down over the fuzzy head as she pulled her baby close. She inhaled the warm, infant scent. “You’re awake.  Are you hungry?” she cooed.  The baby nuzzled a tiny face violently into Sara’s bosom, rooting around.  “Okay, okay, just a minute.”  She let her gown fall from one shoulder and guided the gaping mouth to her breast.  She winced, anticipating the discomfort.  She was already sore.  The baby’s lower lip formed an uncomfortable seal “Ow!” Sara cried, louder than she had intended.  She slipped a finger in to release the suction.  “Come on, we can do it, right?”  This time, the baby took a full, hungry mouthful and latched on, cheeks pumping like a machine.  But without reward – her milk hadn’t come in yet. Sara wondered if she would ever be able to satisfy this needy soul.

Suddenly, red and blue flashes from the TV screen caught her eye.  The crawl read, “LIVE.  Breaking News.”  Sara strained her arm to reach the volume button on the remote.  An ecstatic crowd cheered onscreen.  Cameras flashed.  A young girl seated on her father’s shoulders waved an American flag almost too big for her to hold.  “Ladies and Gentlemen, the next first family of the United States of America.”

“Oh!” Sara gasped.  The election had been decided.  The next president stood onstage, regal, waving at the crowd, long hair flowing in the breeze.  “Maria Martinez!” the announcer’s voice echoed.  The future president embraced her husband and teenage son before moving to the podium.  Sara couldn’t take her eyes off the stately profile with chin tilted slightly upwards, full lips, prominent nose.  Martinez could have been sculpted by an artist.  The cheering throng was too loud for her to speak.  But Martinez waited patiently, smiling.

All at once, Sara felt a new rush of warmth within her breast.  The baby gulped with soft rhythmic sounds.  Actually drinking!  One tiny hand clutched at her with a sharp-nailed grip.  “Yeah, you stick with me.  It’s you and me, huh?”  Sara stroked her fingertips across downy skin.  “Amazing.  You could be President one day, you know.”  A trickle of white traced the shape of Sara’s body.  She closed her eyes and smiled.

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Scene Transitions and The Wedding Planner

John August and Craig Mazin took on the topic of scene transitions recently in Scriptnotes Ep. 61. They were inspired upon noticing a Terry Rossio-led discussion in the Austin Film Festival (AFF) listings. (To learn about Terry Rossio’s other AFF session, see my previous post.) While Terry Rossio calls the scene transition “the throw,”  John imagines transitions as the falling of one scene into the next. Transitions should allow for a seamless flow, rather than a series of choppy scenes. Even when connecting scenes that have nothing to do with each other.

This topic got me thinking. I selected a mindless afternoon viewing of The Wedding Planner on Netflix yesterday. The Wedding Planner, written by Pamela Falk and Michael Ellis, is a 2001 romantic comedy starring Jennifer Lopez and Matthew McConaughey. Since I’ve seen that movie at least a couple of times before, I decided to consider the scene transitions while watching it this time.

My critical viewing revealed some clever transitions. If you’ve seen the movie before, you will definitely remember the first cutesy transition, because it was a technically well-constructed match cut at the start of the film. In a flashback, a young girl version of protagonist Mary (Jennifer Lopez’ character) plays with a Barbie doll bride. Her last words to Barbie are, “You are the luckiest girl in the world.” The final shot of the flashback scene is a close-up of Barbie in her veil and shiny hand band. The cut to the present shows us a real-life bride with an identical veil and head band. Jennifer Lopez repeats the line, “You are the luckiest girl in the world.” A little gimmicky, but memorable and effective.

The next notable cut helps illustrate the premise of the movie. It comes six minutes in. “She must lead such a romantic life,” asserts a wedding-goer observing wedding planner Mary. Cut to Mary bringing home a bag of groceries and eating a solitary meal in front of her TV.

Most of the transitions in the movie flow naturally from the action. But some transitions serve to answer questions or imply preceding actions. For example, at one point Mary is reluctant to accompany an insistent bride-to-be and her fiancé Steve (Matthew McConaughey) on an outing. “I’m coming?” Mary questions. Then cut to a scene with her assistant yelling at her, “You are not quitting the Donnelly wedding!” The cut wisely places us in the middle of this heated discussion, right at a line that answers the earlier question.

An example of a transition that hints at prior action follows a scene in which Mary has  a painful encounter with her ex and his newly pregnant wife. Cut to Steve helping a stumbling Mary back to her apartment. She carries a nearly empty six-pack of beers. We are able to skip the details of Mary drowning her sorrow in beers.

We hear a lot about Mary’s deceased mom throughout the movie. Eighty minutes in, we transition from Mary’s face at the end of one scene to a framed photo of her mom in the next. The scenes are not thematically connected. But the photo nicely ties them together and also provides the viewer with desired information – what her mom looked like. The mom’s photo is re-used later, as well, to establish an emotional connection.

So anyway, those are a few of the notable “throws” from The Wedding Planner. Just a movie I happened to re-watch this weekend. But with an eye towards scene transitions, I discovered something new.

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Considering the Actor

I was fortunate to attend a “Revisions” session with screenwriter Terry Rossio at the recent Austin Film Festival. Since then, I’ve been eagerly using my new found wisdom. One idea from Terry that really resonated with me is how to take the actor into consideration when writing.

Here are a few of Terry Rossio’s tips related to writing to support dramatic acting:

Regarding dialogue: Shorter is better.

“Words for actors are a problem. Silences in between words are an opportunity.”

Actors hate question marks.

It locks in their vocalization. If you have to write a question, preferably format it as a statement.

Exclamation points can limit acting.

End on words the actor can react to.

Get rid of “and” as well as other connecting words.

Lists are fun for actors.

Always use your dialogue ear.

Find rhythm and poetry in what you write.

Give the actor dramatic movement.

No half steps.

For example, don’t have your character “almost knock” someone backwards. Go ahead. Let the character knock them backwards.

For more of Terry Rossio’s wisdom, check out his website, Word Play.

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Four Comedians Talk Writing Process

Jumping jacks to facilitate blood flow to the brain? A rigorous daily writing ritual? Sometimes it’s hard to know what the best process is for writing.

Four comedy writers shared their own writing processes at a recent Austin Film Festival panel. Larry Doyle, former writer/director for The Simpsons and writer of I Love You, Beth Cooper… Dan French, comedy writer and former staffer for late night TV shows…Tim Talbott, screenwriter and Comedy Central staff writer… and Jay Wade Edwards, TV Producer and Editor for Adult Swim.

I found their individual styles intriguing.

Larry’s early writing work was as a reporter. Thus, he was accustomed to planning in his own mind. But when he went to work for The Simpsons, he had to learn how to think aloud. Now he can do both. But when he works on a project alone at home, he likes to listen to music on headphones as he writes. He always has a number of projects going and sometimes has trouble focusing on just one.

Dan has no trouble writing if he is interested in a topic.  He finds that he goes into his head constantly throughout the day to work on a project. He can even “write” in the back of his head while talking to someone else.

Tim likes having a writing partner to laugh and work along with.  Having grown accustomed to the South Park writer’s room, he is most productive while having someone to bounce ideas off of. Tim always writes to please himself as the audience.

Jay sets aside four hours on Saturdays and four hours on Sundays for writing.  He does laundry as he writes, so that he can have a frequent reason to get up and engage in physical activity.  His theory is that this helps him access the other side of his brain.

Thanks to all these gentlemen for sharing their insights in Austin.

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