Script Writing – Three Lines That Need to Go Away Forever

Posted by on Apr 11, 2014 in Creative Writing | 0 comments

Script Writing – Three Lines That Need to Go Away Forever

Urgent Alert: If you’re a writer, put down your…

Uh, well, I was going to say put down your pen, but let’s be honest nobody uses a pen anymore. Everyone types. And saying “Put down your fingers” makes even less sense. Also, it’s nearly impossible to do without a lot of needless blood loss. And you most likely weren’t typing anyway. You’re simply scrolling and clicking so…

Urgent Alert: If you’re a writer – ya know – continue reading this.

The following is an admittedly tiny list of lines you must stop using from this moment forward. Trust me, your characters will thank you.

I’m not sure why these three particular lines annoy me so much. Probably because they’re like mosquitoes – they suck and they’re EVERYWHERE. If you find any of these lines in your script, novel, or play, you have two options, eliminate them immediately or eliminate them sooner than that.

So without further rambling, I present the list…

1) Hey… be careful out there.

Oh damn, I was going to wander outside with complete and total disregard for my own safety but now that you mentioned it…

I mean, it was perfect timing too because I was about to reach for the door to head OUT THERE! And it makes sense that you’d say that to me because I was being a completely oblivious dolt IN HERE. So I totally needed the warning.

But wait, wait, wait. Run that by me again so I know we’re on the same page. There’s a monster out there destroying the city and I shouldn’t act like it’s just another typical Thursday night? I should creep around and be aware of my surroundings and like – do things to avoid being killed by the monster? That’s genius! I’m going to take your advice to heart and BE CAREFUL.

Where?

OUT THERE.

2) Little help here.

Aaaah, I’ve been scooped up into a tree by one of those pesky nets that everyone in the jungle seems to have. And I don’t want to make a big deal of it. Oh, here come my traveling companions. What do I say to both accurately relay the desperate situation I’m in while simultaneously making light of my helpless position?

Oh, I’ve got just the perfect thing.

Look at them. Look how much they’re chuckling. I bet it’s because they’ve never heard that line before from anyone – ever – anywhere. Because it’s so damned original.

Man, I should’ve really taken their advice to be careful out here.

3) I can hear you, ya know / I’m standing RIGHT HERE!

Wow, Brad and Lisa are just going on and on and on about how ugly my beard is. And it’s like they don’t even care that we’re practically rubbing elbows. I can’t believe that neither of them looked around to check my current proximity before they started verbally eviscerating my facial hair. What can I say that will both let them know I’m aware of the vile things they’re saying but that I’m also too much of a dweeby dope at this point in the story to really confront them about it?

The pressure is immense. I mean, there’s two different but practically equal ways to phrase my thoughts here – and both were SOOOOOO funny back in 1922 when Fatty Arbuckle first uttered them. Man, this is gonna be one hilarious turn of events. I can’t wait to see the looks on their smug faces when they realize that the whole time they’d been gossiping, GUESS WHO was in earshot. Boom goes the dynamite!

###

So there you go – three mosquito lines to avoid at all costs. And if you decide to ignore my advice, don’t say I didn’t warn you if your characters revolt.

Or you come down with malaria.

Seriously, be careful out there.

photo credit: Joe in DC via photopin cc

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The “How I Met Your Mother” Finale – What Writers Can Learn From Their Big Mistake

Posted by on Apr 1, 2014 in Creative Writing | 0 comments

The “How I Met Your Mother” Finale – What Writers Can Learn From Their Big Mistake

OK, first order of business is to reassure my sister (who edits this blog) that I won’t be spoiling the final season of HIMYM for her since she’s a season behind watching it on Netflix.

Kelly, I will not be spoiling the end of this series for you. The writers have done a wonderful job of that on their own over the last three years, but I personally won’t be the one to let you know how it ends. I will be speaking in generalities that will not give away the final big twist where you learn that for nine years, Ted was simply half a nacho lying on the floor of the bar, dreaming about the adventures of the surrounding humans. And Barney is an owl. And Marshall and Lily are the leg pads on a back up goalie desperately hoping for one last chance to prove himself. And Robin’s real name is Robyn. I didn’t see any of THAT coming at all. So please, continue to find and repair all of my forthcoming errors.

Even if you haven’t seen the show and know nothing about it, what you can get from this blog post is that the writers made a huge mistake in the finale. It’s a mistake that drew the ire of just about every fan of the show that I know.

Some examples from my Facebook feed include…

“What the hell, HIMYM? Are you $%^&* kidding me?”

“Thanks for nothing, “How I Met Your Mother!” I feel cheated out of the last nine years of my life!”

“HIMYM, you owe me a new television because I just put my elbow through mine!”

“AAAAAH, the HIMYM finale made me grow a third ear!”

*I don’t even know what that last one meant but we might need to get a doctor and a documentary film crew to my friend Jeff’s house stat.

The hatred knew no bounds. I mean, from my window I can see the smoldering ruins of at least five overturned cars. The terrible thing was that as a fan of the show, I was livid. But as a writer, I fully realized that their horrendous mistake actually made perfect structural sense. The writers managed to bring everything full circle, a tactic that typically leads to a satisfying ending and content viewers with no desire to flip a Nissan Versa. I mean, HIMYM did EXACTLY what the art of storytelling says they should’ve done. So why was it such a dreadful, kick to the tender bits of their fans? In the end, it’s simple. And it’s a mistake that as a writer, it’s very easy to make.

They didn’t listen to their characters.

The writers so desperately wanted to bring everything full circle that they forgot about the journey they’d sent their characters on over nine full seasons. They gave the main character (Ted) a circle instead of the arc his character yearned for. He didn’t want to be the same person hungering for the same things he did back in 2005. He wanted to move on. He wanted to evolve. He wanted to grow up. He wanted to live and experience everything that life has to offer and like most of us, find out that what you wish for at one point in time isn’t necessarily what you end up with – and that’s OK because life tends to give you what you need and not what you desire.

It was a lesson that we learned in our own lives during the nine years the show was on the air. HIMYM’s core audience went from young and carefree in a booming economy, through a major economic downturn (If you’re a fan of the show, you just saluted) to navigating marriage and kids, and divorce, and jobs, and monetary issues. By the end of it, we were desperately trying not to admit that somehow we’d ended up middle aged in a country that fundamentally wasn’t the same as it was when we’d first met the characters.

I think a big reason the audience was so angry at the ending of the show was because Ted needed to experience the same twists and turns that we have in the years we’ve been paying attention to him. He needed to end up somewhere different than he imagined at age 50 and be OK with it. Because when we all get to 50, we’re barely going to remember the future we envisioned for ourselves at 25. Our real lives aren’t a neat little package. They don’t tend to come full circle. If we’re lucky, we get a well-defined arc. We grow. We change. We meet new people. We stray from the path. And we needed the ending of HIMYM, a show that often held a mirror up to our own lives to tell us that’s OK.

But in the end, Ted got both what he needed AND what he desired and that just doesn’t fit with our experience. (I mean, for everyone other than Jeff, who now has that third ear he was always jabbering on about in college) In three minutes, they ripped away Ted’s entire journey by giving him just what he wanted all along. (Or what he thought he wanted) They ripped all nine years away from the audience and even more depressingly, ripped it all away from HIM by putting him right back where he started. And it was deeply unsatisfying. It was supposed to be uplifting, but because of the reasons I mentioned above, it turned out hollow and rage inducing.

The writers’ fatal mistake was not recognizing that Ted’s character no longer fit the predetermined ending they’d imagined years ago. And the lesson here for all writers is that sometimes you may dream up a fantastic finish, the spectacular ending to end all endings – whether it be a novel, play, short story, etc. And you outline it and you feel like a genius and tell yourself, “This is where I’m going damn it. And I’m not letting anything get in my way! I’m bringing this son of a bitch full circle!”

And by the time your characters get there, the ending no longer fits. It’s amazing how often that happens. Your characters find deeper pieces of themselves. They find more than you thought was there when you wrote FADE IN or LIGHTS UP or CHAPTER ONE. Maybe they’d no longer run headlong into enemy fire and so your dramatic death scene becomes one of gentle contemplation. Maybe they don’t hit the home run that wins the game because they no longer see that moment as their ultimate redemption. It’s amazing how often your characters have more to offer than you give them credit for.

So if you find yourself with the proverbial hammer trying to pound your rectangular characters into a round ending, the key is to recognize it as it’s happening. It’s not hard to figure out. It usually involves your inner dialogue saying, “I really love the place (character) ended up, but I really need her back over there. How can I force her back on the original track?” And the result ends up being a lot like a car on a nice country road suddenly swerving to the left, crashing through gulleys and electric fences and retaining ponds and whatever’s in the way to get back on the interstate. To which your audience will most likely go, “Hey, I wanted to see where that nice country road ended up. Why did we destroy the transmission, flatten two tires, and crack the windshield just to end up in the parking lot of a Chili’s?”

That’s how I felt watching the last three minutes of “How I Met Your Mother.” In my head, I was screaming “Why are we over here? Oh Jesus Christ, look out for that cow!” And that’s not often a good thing. Unless you’ve written a kick ass car chase scene that ACTUALLY goes off road and through a pasture. If that’s the case, don’t let me get in the way. Turn the wheel and stomp on the accelerator.

The great thing about all this, Kelly, is that you have an out. When you get to the final episode on Netflix, you have the ability to completely cancel out the writers’ one giant, awful, turd monster of a decision. I have instructions for you. Follow them very carefully and don’t deviate and you can still get out of this unscathed.

There will be an umbrella scene. When that scene is over, you do one thing for your brother and all the other fans who watched it live.

You hit stop. You mentally roll the credits. And you get up and walk away. YOU GET UP AND WALK AWAY AND NEVER RETURN! And you will say to yourself, “Yup, they nailed it.”

See, not only did I not spoil the ending for you, I enhanced it. What a kick ass brother I turned out to be.

But seriously though, Ted’s been a nacho the whole time.

photo credit: vagueonthehow via photopin cc

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A Grandpa Hank’s Story Sample Fragment Thingamabob

Posted by on Mar 27, 2014 in Creative Writing, Stories | 0 comments

A Grandpa Hank’s Story Sample Fragment Thingamabob

So after six months of writing this blog about writing, my sister (who does all the actual work for this site) suggested that I post a story or two so anyone happening upon this blog could get a taste of what I do creatively. That way, we could both stir things up a bit as well as let the readers have a chance to see if I truly know what I’m talking about. My first reaction to the idea was that it was somewhat dangerous – mainly because there’s a moderate to large chance I don’t actually know what I’m talking about. But being as I didn’t have much time to create something new this week, I decided to follow her advice, digging deep into my archives to find this little nugget. It’s from a novel that I started and subsequently didn’t know what to do with. I liked the character (who is basically me with a different name) so I just kept writing – hoping a plot would form in my head at some point.

Um, it didn’t.

I got about fourteen pages in, got distracted by other things and just sort of left it as an unfinished testament to incompleteness.

Anyway, the following is a snippet from that novel. I believe I wrote it sometime in the fall of 2006 while I was still trying to figure out what in the hell a railroad trash kid from Pittsburgh was doing wandering around Los Angeles.

Note: The following contains SWEARS! So if you are offended by particular letters arranged in certain orders, uh….I guess be prepared to mentally replace them with a BEEEEP sound or random characters like %&*#@&$!

Meeting

He sat down like he always did, chair scraping across the patio, plopping down without eye contact, pressing his fingers into the external brain he called his Blackberry. I studied him as I often did, smooth black shirt and stain-guarded Dockers, loafers and aviator shades that sat on a jet black haircut, one little gelled wave gliding across his scalp like it was about to swallow a body boarder. His thumbs did a dance as I drifted away, chewing on some sort of organic, new wave bread, and watching the traffic crawl down Sunset Boulevard. Everything around me was made of plastic or wishing to be.

“Jaaaaack,” he said, drawling out my name until he finished his email. “What’s up, buddy?”

“You good? You done there?”

“Hey, got shit coming at me from all sides,” he said, making an annoying clicking noise that always accompanied a more annoying wink. “Gotta keep rollin’, gotta keep moving or you’ll get eaten up. Here’s the deal. They love it. Love the script. And they want it. They’ll buy it. Mid-six figs. No kidding. Mid-six figs, that’s what they’re looking at.”

“I’m not turning the main character into a woman.”

“Hey, it’s mid six figs, let ‘em turn him into a fuckin’ monkey, mid-six figs.”

“It’s about my grandfather’s unit liberating Dachau.”

“Bianca DeBianca sells. You know this. I know this. She’s been looking for a World War II pic, huh? Rehab her image. Greatest generation and all that shit. Wanna get it in before they all die off. Check it, she’s an Italian nurse in war torn Europe. Hot little outfit. Falls for an American GI. Grenades and explosions – machine guns and shit. I can see the poster right now. Her and her giant fucking tits leaning over a dying soldier. “Sometimes we must liberate others to save ourselves,” some shit like that as the tagline. Fucking brilliant. And if that doesn’t get you worked up,” he tipped his glasses down and leaned across the table, reflecting the plastic woman with the plastic dog, eating plastic food behind me, “Mid fucking six fucking figs.”

I sat back, chewing on my hippie bread, in the first stages of realizing that my grandfather’s harrowing march from Sicily to Poland was rapidly falling into the cleavage of a twenty-two year old megastar who currently sat poolside at some Malibu rehab facility.

“Let me think on it, man.”

“This doesn’t come around every day. Right now you’re nobody. This makes you somebody. You wanna slum around stocking toasters your whole life?”

He had a point. I was twenty-eight with a Master’s Degree in Communication, stacking DVDs at Target, living in a converted garage behind my landlord’s house in Studio City with a Chinese undergrad that pretended not to understand me when I told him to get his fucking dishes out of the sink and quit pissing on the toilet flap. All for twice as much per month as Meaney was paying on his freaking mortgage back in East Pittsburgh. Cause after all, it’s a privilege to live in Southern California.

I chuckled. “I don’t just stock toasters ya know. I set a wealth of other products on top of each other as well.”

He didn’t hear my clever little joke. He was busy cracking his spine over the back of the chair, snapping for the waitress. “So you going home for Christmas? Hanukkah? Whatever you’re into there…” he said, one eye on his Blackberry. “Where you from? Philly? Right?”


“Pittsburgh.”

“Eh, cold… east coast. It’s all the fucking same.”

My eyes narrowed. Just long enough to put a mental fork in his eye. Calling me from Philly. Fucker was lucky he was buying me lunch.

The waitress strutted up like she was practicing for a modeling gig in that, “Hi, I’m an actress, may I take your order,” way that they all do, flirting with everyone that looks important on the off chance they’re actually important – waiting for the, “Hey doll, you got the face of a star,” that never comes. He patted her on the back and she leaned down, flopping her black-tipped blonde hair in his face so he could give her a kiss that flaunted his status.

“Hey hon, I’ll take a Heineken,” he said, flipping his shades on the table. “Have a beer, Jack. On me. Celebrate this deal, huh?”

The waitress perked up at the word, “deal,” her flirtatious smile only moving my direction upon realizing that someday I might be famous enough to direct. “And for you?”

“You don’t have Iron City here do you?”

It was like I’d just spit out Mandarin. Like all the other actresses I threw for a loop with that question, she answered with rote memorization. “We have Bud, Bud Light, Amstel,…”

“Sorry. It’s a Pennsylvania beer. Always ask on the off chance…”

He gestured across the table. “My man here’s from Pittsburgh. Ordering strange beers makes him feel at home.”

And here it came. I don’t know how her nose managed to shrivel up. Cartilage doesn’t typically have that property. “Pittsburgh? Eew, how do you even breathe the air there?”

And there it was. Smokestacks and open-hearth slag filled her eyes as the words fell from her mouth. I just looked up into the whitish brown haze that currently blurred the edges of the San Gabriels – the floating coat of varnish that was currently eating my lungs from the inside out. “Where are you from?”

“Glendale. But I live in North Hollywood now,” she answered.

My own nose shriveled up as I stared at the sky, trying to find where the clouds began and the exhaust ended. “I guess I’ll have a Heineken too.”

He twitched as she walked away, mentally slapping her ass, his eyebrows popping up as he nodded to me, the wrinkles in his forehead saying, ‘I could hit that if I felt like it.’

I sat through forty-five minutes of him bitching about the Lakers in that, ‘I don’t really know anything about sports, but I’m going to play general manager like I do’ kind of way. I nodded and chimed in every once in a while, thankful for the beer. He was an interesting guy in a flashy, LA sort of way. I often wondered what he was like back in Iowa City, before the tentacles of Hollywood sucked out his brain. Most of our conversations, I felt like I was trying to loosen the Vader helmet and find that last remaining glimpse of a soul. His name was Dominick Bates, a fact I’ve so far forgotten to mention.

Ok, back to reality. So that’s my novely snippet type thing for the day. I know, not an immensely satisfying ending, but hopefully it was at least mildly interesting. Sometimes you just need to create a character to give a voice to the confusion you feel about your current environment. Which is probably all I was trying to do at the time anyway.

And again, I apologize if you were offended by the swearing. Those characters did that all on their own with no prompting from me. I’m truly sorry. But for your troubles, let me offer you some better, more pleasing words to cleanse your mental palette.

Polite
Church
Genuflect
Children
Cooperate
Serenity
Nuns

Ah, there. That’s %^#*ing better.

photo credit: Jess Walters via photopin cc

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Professionalism in Communication – Don’t Be an Uncle Melvin

Posted by on Mar 20, 2014 in Business Writing | 1 comment

Professionalism in Communication – Don’t Be an Uncle Melvin

Back in middle school, a few friends and I made up a character named Uncle Melvin. Over the years, he’s sort of become this odd amalgam of bumbling male characteristics. I picture him with a fantastic shop-teacher-style comb over, big brown 70’s glasses, a bright Hawaiian shirt and khakis. He’s the type of guy who’d occasionally wear a beanie and chat your ear off about the hovercraft he’ll never actually get around to building. If you see a shattered jar of mayonnaise on the ground somewhere, it’s a good bet that Uncle Melvin did it. Consequently, many of the emails I’ll send my buddies end like this…

All right, man, let me know,

Uncle Melvin

And they chuckle because they know it’s me and not actually Uncle Melvin. The real (made-up) Uncle Melvin would’ve spent most of the email complaining about the crackers in his beard and railing against Obamacare. So they know it’s just me pretending.

Fortuitously for the transition I was hoping to make here, while I was in the middle of writing the previous paragraph, a business client of mine called. I’m currently helping her put together a brochure for her linen rental business so I just spent the last ten minutes firing a few emails back and forth to the design company she’s using. And wouldn’t you know it, Uncle Melvin decided to sit those emails out.

Now many of you might be saying, “Thanks Captain Obvious. Sign your own name at the end of a professional email. Got it. Groundbreaking information, buddy.”

And while something that dramatic might truly be obvious, what isn’t so easy to discern is at what point your professionalism begins to slip.

As a freelance writer, I’m constantly sending emails back and forth to various clients. Some of them I’ve gotten to know very well over the years. It would be very easy for me to respond to them with something like this…

John,

Yeah, bud. Give me a minute and I’ll get to it. What’s that sonuvabitch want changed now? Ha. Nah, I’m kidding. Send me the changes and I’ll get ‘em done as soon as I’m done dropping the Browns off at the Super Bowl. Been holding it in a while.

Uncle Melvin

No, Uncle Melvin, no! Totally unprofessional! Never talk about crapping OR the actual Browns in a professional email. Have you followed the Browns front office situation lately? Just admitting you know that franchise exists makes you seem like an amateur.

And while that was an extreme case that you’re probably laughing at, there are a lot of freelancers and small business owners who make that mistake on a regular basis. They forget to make a distinction between business communication and personal communication. Take this next one for example. It’s not as extreme as my previous example, but in many ways, just as bad.

John,

Thx. I’ll get 2 those as soon as I get a sec. Dave being meticulous again? LOL.

TTYL,

Uncle Melvin

Yeah, see, not as hard as you thought to slip from professional to wildly business inappropriate. Usually all it takes is a deadline, a little stress, and the assumption that you’re going to somehow put the three seconds you saved by abbreviating everything to REALLY GOOD USE.

Oh, crap, you sneezed. Well, there goes all that time you got back.

And I can see some millennial just out of college saying, “Hey old man, that’s how we communicate now. Everyone understands. I don’t see what the big deal is. You sure put the GRANDPA in GRANDPA HANK. Go put on a flannel and listen to your old NIRVANA and SOUNDGARDEN cassettes you ancient half-dead curmudgeon.”

Well that all might be true, but the big deal is that your clients aren’t the drunk girl whose digits you scored at the bar last night, bro. They’re probably not “DTF cause YOLO!” Fair or not, what you’re subconsciously showing them is laziness and a lack of intellect. If you were giving your money to someone, who would you want to communicate with?

This guy?

John,

BTW, I can’t find that attachment u sent. Can u shoot it to me again? Thx.

Or this guy?

John,

When you have a moment, can you send me the mock-up for the brochure again? I just want to make sure I have the latest copy so as I’m not working from a previous version.

Thanks so much,

Maybe you’d prefer the first one. That’s a fine decision. Have fun sleeping on that futon until you’re 45. But the second one is obviously much, much better.

With that said, here are my top three rules for writing professional emails.

1) It isn’t a text or a tweet. No stupid abbreviations for things you could easily type out. Good rule of thumb – if it’s an abbreviation that could easily fit into a middle school gigglefest, it probably doesn’t belong in that email you’re sending to the marketing director of a Fortune 500 company.

2) Take a second to proofread. We’ve all been there. We have sixteen things to do in the next hour and an email comes in that you figure you can just breeze through and send out in about fifteen seconds. One more thing crossed off the list. And then you realize you misspelled the recipient’s name Pual or Lidna. And now they know for certain that you dedicated as little time as possible to their issue and moved on to something else. So seriously, before you hit send, just take a deep breath and read it. Don’t scan it. Don’t breeze through it. Actually read it. You’ll be amazed at how much trouble that thirty seconds ends up saving you down the line. (And my god, if you’re a freelance writer, remember that clients are judging you on the quality of your work. If you misspell something in an email or write something that doesn’t make sense in your initial communication, how likely are they to hire you? I mean, how safe are you going to feel if you see your mechanic stranded on the side of the road in their own personal vehicle?)

3) Even if it’s a friend or acquaintance, work emails are for work. Talk about beers on Friday somewhere else. Because you never know, your friend’s boss might be standing behind them when your email pops up. You don’t want to accidentally get them in trouble. Also, people often need to forward business emails to other departments. One forward and next thing you know, Joanne in accounting knows all about your St. Patrick’s Day plans to get WASTED AS A MONTH OLD GALLON OF MILK, BABY!

Anyway, those are some tips to keep your writing professional. And if none of the other arguments sway you, just remember that a few extra seconds of mental effort can make you A LOT MORE MONEY.

Or as the teenagers like to say, AFESOMECMYALM$$$$$$$$$$!

L O flippin’ L,

Uncle Melvin

photo credit: byronv2 via photopin cc

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Rejection – It’s Not Always (Or Often) You

Posted by on Mar 13, 2014 in Creative Writing | 1 comment

Rejection – It’s Not Always (Or Often) You

I fully admit that many of the following words are simply a substitute for the cantankerous and somewhat bewildered letter I’d LIKE to pen to the people in charge of a certain local screenwriting contest here in Pittsburgh. The whole thing seems like an amazing idea. Due to a fantastic tax break offered by the state of Pennsylvania, our local film industry has absolutely taken off over the last decade. Movies are filming here all the time. Hell, they shot Batman all over my neighborhood. For a while there were a bunch of Gotham City police cars randomly parked in a lot between my house and downtown. Because of all that’s happening, a grant was established to help local writers and filmmakers bring their ideas to life. Thousands of dollars were set aside to help kick start these projects.

So how would the people with the money actually go about discovering those new and undiscovered writers and filmmakers? They’d have a contest. Anyone could write an 8-12 page script and send it in. Presumably, at that point, subjective but fair judging would occur until the best five scripts from the pile of submissions would be chosen as finalists while fifteen others were selected as honorable mention. Those scripts would be promoted throughout the city as well. I have to admit, when I first heard about it, the whole thing seemed pretty amazing. What a great idea.

Well…

Part of the contest involves a “community review.” So if you submitted a script, the people in charge of the contest would then send you three of the other submissions to cover and respond to, telling the judges what you liked or didn’t like about the script. Being that I submitted two scripts myself, I got the opportunity to review six others. I was excited because I really love reading other people’s work. It’s what I do for a living. And I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t love it.

Of the six scripts I reviewed, one was pretty good but randomly (and unintentionally) switched the protagonist halfway through, another was passable and would’ve been better had anything actually happened in the final five pages, and the remaining four were god-awful. Imagine sticking your tongue inside a dirty plastic bag you just fished out from inside a wet dumpster. These were worse.

One in particular stuck out to me. And it stuck out in a positive way at first. Upon reading the logline, I was really excited for what awaited.

When an old daredevil passes away of old age, he gets to heaven and meets the guardian angel who protected him on Earth.

Oooh! Now here’s a concept! Because that my friends is an amazing idea for a short script. Before I read it, I had images dancing around in my head….

Is the angel going to be absolutely exhausted from all she’s had to do for seventy years just trying to keep this whack job alive? Is she going to give serious thought to retiring from the guardian angel guild? Is he going to suffer a punch to his pride as he realizes that maybe it wasn’t solely his talent that got him through all along? Is he going to have to convince the angel that everything she did was worth it? Are they going to be able to reach some sort of mutual understanding?

All of it was right there for the writer to play with. So much potential conflict and nuanced bits of character to explore. Please writer, please use what you’ve set up to send the reader on a wonderful journey through the minds of these incredible…

Wait, what? What? The angel simply gives him a twelve-page tour of heaven?

That’s it? That can’t be it.

The daredevil is casually guided through the afterlife where he randomly meets Roberto Clemente and Noah and two sick children and then finds out God is real – THE END.

Scroll, scroll, scroll. Obviously I missed something…

Daredevil dies… goes to heaven… meets the angel… there’s Clemente… yup, there’s Noah… and the sick kids… and cue God… and the guardian angel shows up at the Regatta for no particular reason. THE END.

Sigh.

What’s more, the dialogue felt like it was written by someone who just learned their multiplication tables earlier in the day.

(The following isn’t actual dialogue from the script but it’s pretty close.)

Daredevil: “Wow, is that really Jimmy? The sick kid from way back when?”
Angel: “Yes it is. Why don’t we go over and say hi.”
Daredevil: “Hi Jimmy.”
Jimmy: “Wow, it’s the daredevil. Do you remember how you raised all those funds to help me back when I was sick?”
Daredevil: “I sure do, Jimmy.”
Angel: “See, look how many people you’ve helped over the years.”
Daredevil: “Wow, heaven sure is great!”

WET. DUMPSTER. BAG.

If you’ll notice, instead of even the tiniest bit of conflict, the angel and the daredevil are like bestie best friends just sort of taking a nice stroll on the clouds remembering what a great guy the daredevil was on Earth. And HEY LOOK, a dead Hall of Famer and some biblical characters! And a whole lot of inane sappiness! YAAAAAY!

Now in the end I’m not all that ticked off that neither of my scripts made the top twenty. That happens all the time and I’m used to it. You submit and hope for the best. But what I am rather peeved about is that neither of my well-crafted scripts were picked and the ridiculous piece of awful that I just mentioned WAS. (Along with the one where nothing happened in the last five pages) And that opens up a whole ‘nother can of worms. I can only come up with three possible explanations for what transpired.

A) No one with any authority or say in the judging process had the slightest understanding of what actually constitutes a good script. (And more alarmingly, had zero idea how to identify a BAD script)
B) The people running the contest simply rewarded the scripts of friends, family, and other people they know regardless of the quality.
C) Some combination of the two reasons I just mentioned.

Which is all a shame because I love my city and I’m very disappointed that what could really be a huge opportunity for burgeoning local writers seems to be an amateurish nepotistic joke.

Now obviously this can all be construed as sour grapes. Or sweet lemons, which I assume are still pretty damn sour. You can take it that way if you wish. Truth be told, there are probably some very good scripts by some fantastic writers that made the cut. I just wasn’t blessed with the opportunity to read them.

And to be perfectly honest, I do feel kind of bad publicly slamming that script because in the end, I’m a teacher and I’d never want to discourage anyone who feels the need to share a story with others. On the positive side, the concept is fantastic. I’d really encourage the writer to look at the incredible situation they’ve set up and not be afraid of it. It can still be a happy script, but only if the characters reach that blissful ending after a bit of turbulence. Because otherwise there’s no ride to share with them. There’s no joy at the fact that these characters have come together to find some common ground. There can’t be because they haven’t OVERCOME anything. I truly believe (with a sizable overhaul) that this daredevil script could be an excellent little film.

That said, the script in its current form didn’t deserve what it got. And what’s worse is now the writer is going to be under the false assumption that what they’ve done is somehow not only passable, but worthy of celebration. They won’t learn anything. They won’t have any reason to revisit and revise that script into the gem that the idea desperately wants it to be.

I guess my real point here is that as writers, we have no idea who is actually judging our work when we send it off to strangers. So don’t assume just because that agency, journal, theatre, or festival passed on your submission that the work itself isn’t worthy. Most times they’re just looking for something different than what you’ve provided. And on some occasions, they simply have no idea what they’re doing.

As writers, we have this perception that everyone we send our work to is some sort of omnipotent story expert and their opinion always MEANS something. Many times that assumption isn’t far off. But more times than we care to admit they’re just someone who’s been given a job by their brother-in-law.

Case in point. I was an RA for a year back in college. Because of my (chuckle) “authority” position, I was once asked to referee a night of intramural volleyball games. If I’m lucky I know half the rules of volleyball.

“Wait, if it hits the line is that in or out?”

But suddenly there I was making crucial decisions about which teams advanced to the next round – all because I was willing to carry around a walkie talkie three days a week in exchange for free room and board.

I know there’s a guy out there somewhere still seething after all these years muttering to himself, “If it wasn’t for that damned RA, I could be relaxing in my old 1998 Flagler College Intramural Volleyball Champions T-Shirt right at this very minute!” And to you, I’m truly sorry buddy. I now share your pain.

So that’s basically it. What it comes down to is that it’s pretty useless to weep or seethe or even spend time writing a sarcastic blog post when you get rejected. Just analyze your work, make it better, and keep on plowing ahead.

But in the end my best piece of advice here is…

Wait… wait. I’m having an inner vision.

OH MY GOD ARE THOSE THE GHOSTS OF WILLIE STARGELL AND JOHN THE BAPTIST BUILDING A HOMELESS SHELTER TOGETHER?

Sorry, I have to go. I have a bangin’ script idea.

I’m going to win for sure next year.

photo credit: Renato Ganoza via photopin cc

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When Clever Writing isn’t Necessarily Good Writing

Posted by on Mar 6, 2014 in Creative Writing | 1 comment

When Clever Writing isn’t Necessarily Good Writing

I’m not going to mention the show in question simply because I want to avoid potential hate mail from the three people who fall into the colorful Venn Diagram center of “People who read this blog” and “People who love the show I’m about to trash.” I’d heard about this particular show from many friends (well Facebook friends and we all know that’s not really the same thing) who said it was riveting. The show itself has garnered a lot of acclaim, and seems to really be striking a chord with the American populous at the moment. So last week while my kid was asleep, I sat down to watch the pilot to see what all the fuss was about.

And um, it wasn’t good. Not good at all. I mean, given the acting talent and the premise, it was surprisingly awful. I could focus on the directing and the fact that the entire episode seemed like they’d decided to tape the initial read-through, but since this blog focuses on writing, eh, I’ll go that route instead.

I watched the pilot twice just so I could fully examine what I hated about it. Why didn’t it work when it really, really should’ve? It had a great setting, incredible actors, and an interesting plot. A lot of the individual lines were very clever. So why did it suck?

What I realized is that in a lot of ways, it was too savvy for it’s own good. It was desperately trying to be clever. Every single line the main characters spewed was intricately crafted to shout, “Look how bleeping witty I am!” The dialogue never allowed the characters to breathe. They were all but choked to death by their own shrewdness. In the writers’ attempt to have their characters spitting brilliance, they forgot to do the simplest thing of all – make sure that those characters were human.

It’s fine to have smart, witty characters. Smart, witty characters are what keeps an audience coming back for more. But even smart, witty characters don’t have ALL the answers ALL the time.

To illustrate my point, I’m going to make up a half page of dialogue that looks pretty good on the page but is just atrocious in real life. Let’s say these two characters are cops at a crime scene.

Johnson: “I’ll tell you what, Barnes, this is a scene that the devil himself would only peek at through his cloven hooves.”
Barnes: “Well what’s that make us? Demons? Angels? Ghosts?”
Johnson: “Nah. Just a couple hardened vets putting a few more crow’s feet around our tired eyes.”
Barnes: “I’ll tell you what, Johnson, days like today make me wish I was one of those forgettable people out there in the world. One man in that horde of drones just facelessly drifting through a life nobody will remember.”
Johnson: “Just a grave stone. That’s all you get. A few letters and some numbers. Lines arranged in a pattern and carved into a piece of granite. In the end, that’s all you get. If you’re lucky.”
Barnes: “Guys like us don’t get lucky.”
Johnson: “What do we get then?”
Barnes: “Pain, heartbreak, a few ulcers, and if the stars decide to smile in our direction, a bottle of smokey bourbon on Friday night.”
Johnson. “Hell Barnes, maybe you’re right. Maybe we are ghosts.”

ENNNNNNNDDDD SCENE

In that little snippet, each individual line is (at least moderately) clever. But put together as a whole, that scene is completely ridiculous. Because who the hell has a conversation like that? It’s an exchange of dialogue that’s obviously been scripted. It doesn’t allow the audience to feel like they’re witnessing a real event involving two living, breathing human beings.

Ok, I’m still not going to mention the name of the show that “inspired” this post, but I am going to throw out a line from the pilot that perfectly illustrates my point. (So you can Google it if you really want to know) In the scene, a younger female character has presented an older, very powerful male with some interesting options. As she pesters him about whether they may or may not have mutual interests, he says….

“I’m sorry, I never make such big decisions so long after sunset, and so far from the dawn.”

On initial glance, that line looks incredibly witty. But then you examine further and realize that nobody, not the most pretentious, stuck-up, power hungry snob would ACTUALLY SAY THAT IN REAL LIFE! You might be able to get away with that in a novel, i.e. “he was the type of man who never made big decisions so long after sunset and so far from the dawn,” because people expect that kind of thing in the middle of a great descriptive paragraph. But when it spills from the mouth of a character that’s supposedly involved in a legitimate, true-life situation, it couldn’t sound any dumber. He might as well have said…

“I’m sorry, I never smear jam on my ass so close to story time and so far from trash day.”

They’re both equally ridiculous. Ok, maybe the jam thing was slightly more insane, but not by much.

The point here is that your characters are supposedly real people doing real things. They aren’t just a bullhorn for your brilliance. Let them live.

Let’s reimagine Johnson and Barnes in a scene that’s nowhere near as smart, but infinitely more realistic.

Johnson: “Jesus. What the hell happened in here?”
Barnes: “I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure we’re going to wish it wasn’t our job to find out.”
Johnson: “Know what I hate the most about all this crap?”
Barnes: “Hell… uh…”
Johnson: “The smell.”
Barnes: “You didn’t give me a chance to guess.”
Johnson: “Would you have been right?”
Barnes: “I might’ve been had you given me a chance to think about it.”
Johnson: “I don’t mind the blood and guts. I’ve seen it all by now. But the smell – body’s in the other room and it’s already ruining my lunch.”
Barnes: “Ya know, they make nose plugs.”
Johnson: “I tried that. It’s very hard to lead an investigation that way.”
Barnes: “Yeah, you look way more professional when you pull your shirt over your nose.”
Johnson: (Pulls shirt over his nose) “C’mon, let’s get this over with.”

See, not as clever. But somehow better. Because even though they occasionally say something relatively smart, it’s not overwhelming. The audience isn’t being executed by a constant barrage of unrealistic wit and wisdom.

Anyway, in the end I’m glad I watched that pilot because I was forced to ask myself exactly why I hideously disliked something that was made up of so many good elements. I assume the show gets better from that point on or they wouldn’t still be making it. (Of course they’re still shooting “Two Broke Girls,” so I guess that really doesn’t mean much) But anyway, that’s why clever writing doesn’t always equal good writing.

I’d continue on, but I never write my blogs so long after laundry and so very far from my next beer.

photo credit: arimoore via photopin cc

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Writing for Print Ads – Say Less

Posted by on Feb 24, 2014 in Business Writing | 0 comments

Writing for Print Ads – Say Less

Have you ever heard that phrase “less is more?” I have. That’s why I’m mentioning it. If I hadn’t, I’d probably have started with something completely different. That aside, “less is more,” is a pretty stupid thing to say. Because less is clearly less. I mean, even if you have two poisonous snakebites and your hiking partner has four poisonous snakebites, you’re probably more likely to survive, but you still have fewer snakebites. Less is never more. Otherwise mathematics falls apart and society collapses.

What we’re trying to say here is “less is occasionally better.” This is critical to remember when you’re writing for print advertisements. People read articles for the words. They look at advertisements to see big glossy pictures of good-looking people enjoying a nutritious breakfast in an unsettlingly clean kitchen or a hawk flying over a crystal clear mountain lake. Then for some reason they think…

“Oh wow, that’s a pretty scene, I’d better invest in some new tires!”

Remember that your words are simply a bit of information on the periphery of the real draw – the picture. If your advertisement is too wordy, the reader will probably just see it as an uninteresting article and skip right over it. Truthfully, it’s the biggest mistake that most startup businesses make. A print ad is not the place to tell the entire history of your plucky little company and every one of the nine hundred services you offer. It’s the place to put an engrossing image, a catchy tag line, and only the most crucial information.

When writing for advertising copy it’s easy to panic and think you’re not getting your money’s worth. I mean, you’re paying for a whole page – you have to let the public know about your landscaping services, and your botanical knowledge, and how great you are at building retaining walls, and oh yeah, there was that time we painted a lounge chair, and right, right, once Brad stepped on a really pesky spider and the client was thrilled! What if people DON’T FIND OUT ABOUT IT?

Want proof that you don’t need to do that? I’m going to flip through the last magazine I got and count the words in the first ten advertisements I see. (Ones that actually include text) And no, it’s not a dirty magazine unless you’re some oddball who’s obsessed with illustrations of kettlebell workouts.

*Note, the words I’m counting are simply in the text. I’m not including those odd little disclaimers at the bottom.

Product — Words

1) Truck — 47
2) Protein Supplement — 99
3) Hair Product — 104
4) Garage Door — 58
5) Workout Drink — 17
6) Almonds — 44
7) Luxury Car — 75
8) Vitamins — 95
9) Whey Supplement — 80
10) GPS system — 38

So what’s the average number of words for these ten randomly selected cross-genre advertisements?

Average words — 66

Now obviously that’s a small sample size, and if you’ll look at the supplement companies, they’ll trend more toward wordier advertisements simply because showing a bottle of powder isn’t quite as effective as a picture of a truck towing the moon through downtown Kansas City. In their particular industry, you have to explain that your product has some crazy new molecular breakthrough that will allow you to deadlift two more pounds. Thus, they tend to need more words.

But chances are, you don’t.

So think about it – if you only had sixty-six words to use, what would you do to highlight your business or the business you’ve been hired to write for? Here are some tips.

1) Sum up what the business does in a simple tag line. It doesn’t have to be the catchiest thing in the damn world as long as the reader knows what your business or product is. If you sell dirt and your tag line is “We know dirt,” you’ve done your job. And you’ve only used three words. People will read it and think, “Hey, these guys know their dirt. If I ever need dirt, I know who to call.”

2) Succinctly describe what’s unique about the business or product. If the dirt you’re selling is nitrogen enhanced, mention that. If your dirt is of better quality and yet cheaper than your competitors, mention that. If the best thing about your dirt is that it makes one hell of a pile, well I guess uh… mention that. What you don’t need to do is go on about the nitrogen enhancement process, or that you buy cheap from a wholesaler just outside of Toledo. It’s not a critical piece of information in relation to whether the customer will eventually make a purchase. They don’t care WHY the dirt is uh… dirt cheap, (sorry, I had to) they just care that it is.

3) Casually mention the great things the reader COULD do with the product. “Imagine a summer salad of organic vegetables grown entirely in your own backyard. With Mudd Brothers Dirt, you don’t have to imagine anymore.” It’s the same thing with any business. Get people thinking about the amazing future that awaits if that future includes your product. But don’t go overboard. Don’t start talking about the ripped abs, modeling contract, and extravagant yachts they can expect from eating vegetables grown in Mudd Brothers Dirt. Unless that’s your whole strategy. “It all started with Mudd Brothers Dirt!” (Why do I have the sinking feeling I just came up with a marketing campaign I’ll see during the next Super Bowl, sigh, and tell no one in particular, “That was my idea.” Then someone will snicker and I’ll yell “What? You don’t believe me? Check my blog last February, jagoff! That’s it, let’s fight. C’mon. C’mon. Let’s go Snickerin’ Sam!”)
*Sorry, I was a little drunk in those parentheses.

4) Give ‘em the website. That’s the place to mention the nitrogen infusion process and give a shout out to Stacey in Toledo. The key is to get them intrigued enough by your advertisement to voluntarily go get the rest of the information on their own.

And the great thing – it’s not as hard as you’d think to do those four things in sixty-six words. It’s all about choosing the right words and the correct message.

In other words, “less is occasionally better.”

You hearing me there hair product?

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