The Muse

One of the biggest issues I faced in college was coming up with ideas for scripts. Without too much self-pity, I have to admit that it’s difficult for college students to write a decent script. For one thing, they simply don’t have enough life experience. Production issues create another major problem. While film students may have brilliant ideas (probably not, but maybe), they don’t usually have the means to produce them. You can only shoot a dorm room from so many angles. Something that really would have helped and that I recommend all young writers do is find their muse.

The Muse

In classical Greek mythology, the Muses were goddesses (or nymphs) who flitted down from the ether and whispered ideas to artists. The Greeks (who were also ridiculously chauvinistic) believed that there was a pure, objective form of beauty and that the Muses themselves embodied it. Naturally, this is what the artists used as inspiration for their work.

In subsequent drama, the muses are often portrayed as beautiful women whom tortured artists obsess over. In an amazing example of life imitating art imitating life, Maxfield Parrish, who had a major influence on the look of fantasy in the early Twentieth Century, fell in love with his model, Susan Lewin. But when his wife died and he didn’t marry Lewin, she went off and married someone from her home town (at the age of 71!). Parrish never painted again.

Reveries 2(Who would think the guy that painted this would have relationship drama?)

But your inspiration needn’t be a woman. (In fact it’s probably better if it’s not.) Nature may be your inspiration. Or music. Or old literature. Or Irish folktales. Or history. Or true crime. Or you may even just jot ideas down and pull them out of a hat like Mad Libs. I, strangely enough, stumbled on NPR.

To be clear, I’m not necessarily talking about the news broadcast. But NPR does a lot of in-depth reporting about human-interest stories, technology, and even book reviews. And delving deeper into these subjects often tickles my brain. How will this technology change the world in ten years? Why was this peculiar law written in the first place? How would this news story unravel differently if the gender roles were reversed? I stash away all of these ideas, characters, and psychological puzzles, and I let them simmer until they coalesce into my next idea.

Hey, that was my idea!

If you’ve read my posts about copyright, you hopefully have a handle on how to protect your work. But what do you do when you’re sitting in a theater and see a preview that seems an awful lot like that script you’ve been working on for years? Well, sadly, probably nothing.

One theory of creativity questions whether we can ever come up with an original idea or merely recombine things we have already experienced.

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(image via a fun article at AmandaBarnes11)

Even if you don’t fully agree with that theory, it’s not hard to see that the zeitgeist, the “spirit” or “attitude” that’s driving societal trends, will have a major influence on what artists create. Something happens and then BAM, eighteen months later, you’re inundated with scripts that are all about the same thing.

When I started covering scripts years ago, I read three scripts in one month that tried to tackle Die Glocke. It was a supposed Nazi time travelling machine that crashed outside Pittsburg in the 1960s. The scripts were all very distinct from each other. None of them had the same characters or general plot outline so none of them infringed on the other’s copyright. Sadly, none of them were very good, either. But it did have me wondering where the sudden interest in Die Glocke originated. (Sidebar, I’d stay away from moon Nazis, time travelling Nazis, and really any sci-fi Nazis when you’re writing.)

nazi-mech-suit

(Thank you SciFiIdeas, but that’s a hard pass.)

This wasn’t the first time I’d noticed the phenomenon, either. 1995 brought us Braveheart and Rob Roy, true stories about Scots fighting the English for independence. Then there was 1998 with it’s hyper-realistic World War II epics Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line. Okay, sure, lots of war movies come out every year, but 1998 also brought Deep Impact and Armageddon as well as Antz and A Bug’s Life. True, especially in the last case, studios may be intentionally trying to steal market share from their competitors. But scripts don’t materialize overnight. The inspiration for the stories, the drive to produce the stories, and the technology required to make the films all coalesced independent of one another, but at the same time. (Wikipedia actually has a page dedicated to so-called “Twin Films.”)

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(Maybe we’d all be better off if one of these had been a documentary. Image via another fun article here.)

I’ve had to kick myself more than once for coming up with an idea, but getting beaten to the punch. (Not to say that my ideas, sketched out in a journal, would be as good as or even similar to the works that came out later.) In December of 2008, I made a note that I should write a dark comedy about cancer. I even wrote that “The Big C” would make a good title. In August of 2010, Showtime premiered The Big C. (Too bad you can’t copyright titles.) In April of 2013, I started jotting down notes for a TV series about pirates. It just felt like the time was right. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one. A few weeks later, watching previews before The Great Gatsby, I saw a trailer for the Starz series Black Sails. You can ask my wife, I nearly threw a shoe at the screen. In March of 2006, I scribbled down something about a love story for a musical I was brainstorming. It was about Aaron Burr…the man who shot Alexander Hamilton.

hamilton

There is a silver lining to all of this. At least I can say with confidence that my ideas are not totally off the mark. In fact, they’re not even off the market. You can’t copyright cancer or pirates or American history. So long as my expression of these topics is different than the others, I’m still good to go. Furthermore, when pitching my own version of the famous Burr/Hamilton duel, I can use the success of Hamilton to entice investors. Of course, I have to be careful not to use any of the fictionalized characters, dialogue, or other original plot devices that the brilliant Lin Manuel Miranda used.

Should you watch movies that are similar to your idea? Of course. Everyone else is. If you pitch an idea about a theme park full of cloned dinosaurs to an investor, you better be able to explain how it’s different than Jurassic Park and why it’s worthy of their money. Watching similar projects will also inform you about what works and doesn’t work for a particular genre or story. It may even spawn another, better idea. Don’t be afraid that watching similar work will influence what you’re writing. It will. But if your project is so similar that it risks copyright infringement, you should probably quit while you’re ahead.

What if one of these other movies was really, shockingly similar to a script you had already completed and registered with the copyright office? That was the case when FX was sued over its show The League. Two writers say the series had multiple similarities to their own work The Commissioner. While I couldn’t find the results of the lawsuit, I seem to recall it being settled out of court. http://deadline.com/2012/09/fx-networks-sued-for-copyright-infringement-over-the-league-joseph-balsamo-peter-ciancarelli-jeff-schaffer-337937/

Obviously, if you have legitimate reasons to believe that someone stole your “original work of authorship” that was “fixed in a tangible form,” you should fight for your rights. But my bigger point about the zeitgeist is, don’t get too paranoid.

Keep Writing

The biggest way to get over your slump is simply to keep writing. This is what you want to do, right? It’s very unlikely that you’ll come up with and execute an original idea perfectly on your first go. If you trust yourself as a writer, you’ll just get back to work with your next great idea and hopefully hit the market before the next guy. I’ve also noticed another peculiar phenomenon.

phenomenom powder(Coincidence?! Image via PopCultureCruchBlog)

Ideas beget ideas. You’ll be in the midst of doing research for some project and suddenly get hit with another brilliant premise. Or you’ll finish a project just to realize it’s complete trash, but that one minor character you created is pretty cool and maybe, just maybe, deserves their own story. The muse can come from anywhere. You may also discover that your billion dollar idea that was going to make all of your dreams come true is just a massive pain in the neck. You might not be able to look at it for ten more seconds without vomiting. That’s okay. It may be a good idea (maybe not), but it’s not going to be your idea. And maybe, just maybe writing period educational pieces for children isn’t what your destined to do. The only way to find out is to try it and follow that muse wherever she or he or it leads you.

The Tragedy of Tragedy Girls

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(image via: http://www.dreadcentral.com/news/264412/tragedy-girls-starring-alexandra-shipp-brianna-hildebrand-hits-blu-ray-february/)

With the Oscars this week, you’re probably scrambling to watch all of the films you’ve head about but haven’t seen. One little nugget that flew under the radar last year was Tragedy Girls. I only learned about it through the Queens of Crime podcast. (Highly recommended if you like true crime stories.) I enjoyed it for all of the reasons I thought I would: a ridiculous premise (high schoolers become murderers to publicize their blog), campy humor, ridiculous gore, and surprisingly high production value. The acting was spot on and the cinematography was creative and effective.

All that being said, there’s a reason this film flew under the radar, and it can be a lesson for the aspiring filmmaker. Tragedy Girls disregards many of the “rules” of screenwriting, and it shows. It wasn’t bad enough to be a B movie, but it wasn’t likable enough to be mainstream. The biggest thing I felt while watching it was discomfort. And here’s why.

Does your protagonist need to be likable?

No. But they do need to be relatable. The main characters, Sadie and McKayla, are snotty, narcissistic teens who are obsessed with social media. And while they can be funny, they aren’t likable. Nobody is rooting for them to succeed. The film never builds a bridge between these antiheroes and the audience. There is no “save the cat” moment or humanization of these sociopathic killers.

The film could have humanized them in a variety of ways. It could have better explained why they were killers (bullying? revenge?), given them their comeuppance in the end, or given them an opportunity to make amends for what they did. It also could have made their victims more despicable, turning Sadie and McKayla into the lesser of several evils (think of Dexter). But for some reason, everyone else in Tragedy Girls, is strangely guiltless and generally likable.

The Three Act Structure

Tragedy Girls disregards the three act structure, starting with Sadie and McKayla committing their first murder and capturing (and torturing) a serial killer. While it does get things moving quickly, it raises more questions than it answers. Who are these girls? What is their ordinary world? Why do they believe they are morally justified in killing people? Why is social media so important to them? Why do they want to be notorious killers? Answering even one of these questions would help endear them to the audience which is, after all, the primary function of the first act.

From there, the girls spiral into their killing spree–a kind of Mean Girls but with murder. And while it does have its comedic moments, that’s sort of it for the rest of the film. If you don’t find that entertaining, the film has lost you twenty minutes in.

The final act offers no real resolution or change. Sadie and McKayla are essentially the same on minute 1 and minute 91, giving the impression of a drawn out SNL sketch rather than a feature film.

Too Close to Home

When you strip away the jokes, you end up with a movie about two teens who kill their classmates and get away with it. The film offers no real alternative to the outcome, and it isn’t really a cautionary tale. If, for some perverse reason, you end up rooting for Sadie and McKayla, you end up rooting for high school murderers.

That really brings me full circle to discomfort. At every point in the movie, you’re not 100% sure if you should be laughing, cheering, or vomiting in disgust. I do have to tip my hat to the filmmakers because, production-wise, it’s very well put together. They also stick to their guns. They made a movie about unabashed serial killers who get away with their crimes. They bucked convention. As to whether or not it worked, you’ll have to judge for yourself. But as you build our own stories and craft your own characters, it’s important to keep in mind how some of these “rules” operate in screenplays and the reaction an audience can have if you disregard them.

 

Copy That (Part 2)

If you didn’t get enough of it last time, here are some more fun facts about copyrights! For example, did you know that like being a Scientologist or owning a gun, copyright is protected under the United States Constitution (Article 1 Section 8)? Or that Walt Disney successfully lobbied to extend copyright protections to their current length in order to preserve its copyright on Mickey Mouse. Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up. 

mickey-mouse-copyright

(image via: https://www.uprinting.com/blog/legal-concepts-need-know-content-marketing/)

Copyrights Never Die. They Just Pass into Public Domain

Seventy years after you die, all of your work will pass into the public domain or PD as they say. Public Domain means we the people now own your work and can do whatever we want with it for free. This is great for filmmakers who want to do a spinoff sequel to Hamlet or use Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata in their soundtrack. But be forewarned, while Beethoven’s music is PD, specific recordings of the Moonlight Sonata are copyrighted by the person who recorded them. You’ll have to make your own recording of Beethoven’s music.

Interestingly, too, while you can make an adaptation or derivative work from something in the public domain, you can’t use any elements from other derivative works that are still copyrighted. The Wizard of Oz is a great case study. The original L. Frank Baum works are public domain, but the 1939 Warner Bros. movie is not. What’s the difference? For one thing, L. Frank Baum does not describe the Wicked Witch of the West as green. So when Disney made its Oz the Great and Powerful a few years ago, they had to be careful not to use Warner Brothers copyrighted shade of green. Read more about The Wizard of Oz copyright here.

(Sidebar, my first job in television was securing music rights for a high school band concert. We needed separate rights to broadcast the music and rights to synchronize the music to the televised concert.)

Fair Use

Fair use allows you to use part of copyrighted works for specific, limited purposes. Courts generally consider four criteria in fair use litigation.

1) Nature of the use. Educational and informational purposes are generally permitted while commercial purposes are generally not. Since I run a free, educational blog, I’m not too concerned about including a copyrighted image in a post to help illustrate a point. (That being said, if you own the copyright and were not credited or don’t want to be associated with my blog, I’ll gladly remedy the situation.)

2) Nature of the copyrighted work. While audio and video recordings may be copyrighted, audio and video recordings of newsworthy events (facts), may not be copyrighted. Time magazine, for example, tried to purchase the rights to the Zapruder film–the assassination of President Kennedy. But as a matter of fact and public record, the court decided the film should be in the public domain.

3) Amount of the copyrighted work. Screening the first scene of Saving Private Ryan to educate film students on a particular cinematography technique is probably okay. Screening all of Saving Private Ryan to a packed theater, not so much.

4) Damages. Of course, all of this comes down to money. If you start selling pirated Game of Thrones DVDs or Game of Thrones themed T-shirts, you’re taking money out of HBO’s pocket. But if you reprint a promotional picture for educational or news stories, you’re probably okay.

4B) Parody. But wait there’s more! One dicey way that you can ride off of the success of copyrighted work is parody. That’s how we end up with all of those porn parody gems. The key here is that your new copyrighted work is parodying a specific other work, but not infringing on the same market. That is to say, people who want to watch the adventures of Jack Sparrow will not intentionally purchase Pirates XXX.

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(image via: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pirates_(2005_film))

Similarly, no one looking for a bowl of Campbell’s tomato soup will accidentally purchase Andy Warhol’s famous paintings. They’re different markets.

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(Image via: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Campbell%27s_Soup_Cans)

Other Intellectual Property

Intellectual property rights are largely covered in three categories: copyrights, trademarks (which I mentioned briefly in the previous post), and patents. Patents are distinct from copyrights in that copyrights protect “fixed works of authorship.” Patents protect processes. If you make the world’s first 5D film, you can copyright the film. But you’ll want to patent the process for making all future 5D films.

Copywriting

Copywriting is different than copyrighting. Writers may work on copy (text) for advertisements or articles. That’s called writing copy. And while copywriting may be copyrighted, make sure you’re using the right copy when writing copy about copyrights.

More fun with copyrights

Phew! That was exhausting. But the fun’s not over. www.copyright.gov actually does a really good job explaining copyrights. I highly recommend checking it out if you have questions.  In the mean time, get out there all of you creative people and fix some original work in a tangible form!

Copy That (Part 1)

I’ve had a wide range of bizarre and usually misinformed conversations with people about copyrights. Having just copyrighted my most recent script, I thought maybe I should write a post about it. As with other posts that get into legal matters, this is merely meant as a guide and a primer. If you need legal help with copyrights, please consult a lawyer.

Intellectual Property Rights

Owning physical property, like real estate, is pretty straightforward. There’s only one property at 123 Fake Street in Springfield, California. I can’t be enjoying the ocean breezes of 123 Fake Street in California if I am freezing my butt off in Ontario. But what about something a little less concrete? What about “intellectual property?”

You may have a hardcopy collector’s edition of The Hunger Games trilogy sitting on your shelf in California. I may be huddling with a secondhand, tattered paperback edition in Ontario. But we are both able to enjoy (or slog through) the series at the same time. Why? While the book is a physical piece of property, the story is intellectual property. Its main value isn’t derived by owning the actual book.

Lots of things are intellectual property: books, poems, screenplays, computer code, movies, music, choreography, architecture, photographs, paintings, and sculptures just to name a few. Ownership in these cases has less to do with the physical object than the idea. Catniss Everdeen isn’t real. She’s an idea. You can’t water your garden with The Rain Song. It’s an idea. And you can’t smoke tobacco in The Treachery of Images. It’s an idea (not a pipe!).

the-treachery-of-images-this-is-not-a-pipe-1948(2)

In all of these cases, the original manuscript or recording or painting becomes worth less as more and more copies are made. If I can download The Rain Song to my computer, I don’t need to hunt down Robert Plant to hear him sing it. The real value in intellectual property is being able to produce (and sell) copies or as those of us in the know call it… holding the copyright.

What is a Copyright?

Straight from www.copyright.gov “Copyright is a form of protection provided by the laws of the United States to the authors of ‘original works of authorship’ that are fixed in a tangible form of expression.” (Well, that was easy.)

Original

It may seem obvious, but copyrights are only allowed for unique works. If I write a screenplay about a modern day theme park full of dinosaurs created out of fossilized mosquito blood, it would be hard for me to argue that I wasn’t somewhat influenced by Jurassic Park. This flip side of this, however, is that copyrights do cover derivative works. Once you invent Jurassic Park or a Galaxy Far, Far Away, or The X-Men, all the spinoffs and sequels are still protected by that first copyright. That’s why movie studios are so interested in “intellectual properties” or IPs, as they say. You can make endless sequels merely by purchasing that first copyright. You can also see how well that initial IP did (say the New York Times bestseller The Girl on the Train) before you spend a lot of money turning it into a movie.

Curiously, some things—titles in particular—are too short to be deemed “original” and can’t be copyrighted. Otherwise, someone would just start smashing words together and copyright every title imaginable. Brand specific words like lightsaber or frappuccino, however, can be trademarked, another form of intellectual property protection. That’s how you know the Halloween store’s “Pubescent Frog of Silent War” isn’t official Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles merchandise.

TMNT

(image via: http://www.vorply.com/fail/list/names-of-products-gone-absolutely-wrong/9/)

Work of Authorship

You can only copyright something you’ve actually made. A painting of the ocean? Yes. A picture of the ocean? Yes. An audio recording of the ocean? Yes. A bucket of ocean water? Not so much. And despite what PETA thinks, no, a monkey cannot hold a copyright.

Interestingly, you cannot copyright facts, either. Something that is known to have happened is simply a fact. World War I happened. Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated. The Allies won. And any information published about that is now public knowledge. So why have you heard about companies purchasing “life rights?”

Life rights give the purchaser access to additional information from the subject (a diary, for example), which may not be public knowledge. It also protects the purchaser from being sued for defamation. You can’t sue me for defamation if I gave you the rights to publish my story. You really don’t need life rights for public figures (who have a lot of facts floating around about them), dead people (who can’t sue you for defamation), and dead public figures (who are pretty helpless). Want to claim Abraham Lincoln was a vampire hunter? You’re gonna be A-okay.

lincoln vampire

(image via: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Abraham-Lincoln-Vampire-Hunter-DVD/dp/B006DZUR5Y)

‘Fixed in a Tangible Form’

This is probably the part where people get most confused. While we’ve been talking about “intellectual property” and ideas, you can only copyright something once it is in a tangible form. You may have a great idea for a Nazis on the moon script, but until you write it down, or film it, or carve the plot into stone, you don’t actually have the copyright for it. Your idea must somehow be fixed—permanently and irrevocably set—into some kind of physical medium.

Could someone overhear you talking excitedly about your “brilliant” Nazis on the moon script, jot everything down on a napkin, and steal that copyright from you? Yes, they could. It would be unethical, but it wouldn’t be illegal.

Another way people describe this is that copyrights don’t actually protect ideas, merely the expression of an idea. Nazis on the moon is an (intriguing and ridiculous) idea. That scribble on the napkin is the “expression” of that idea. It is “fixed in a tangible form.” Now if you don’t have time to “fix” your Nazis on the moon idea by writing the screenplay, you could perhaps write a short story or a treatment and copyright that before you start talking about your idea in public. Then at least the basics of your story and the characters are satisfactorily “fixed.”

And to backtrack briefly, while you cannot copyright a fact, e.g. World War I, you can copyright the original expression of those facts, e.g. The Guns of August or Lawrence of Arabia.

lawrence of Arabia

(image via: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Lawrence-Arabia-DVD-Peter-OToole/dp/B0050A2J86/ref=sr_1_2?s=dvd&ie=UTF8&qid=1517316046&sr=1-2&keywords=lawrence+of+arabia)

How do I copyright something?

The good news is, as soon as you fix your original work of authorship in a tangible form, it is copyrighted. As the author of the work, you have the exclusive rights to copy, sell, distribute, or create derivate works from it. You also have the right to prevent anyone else from doing the same thing. Things start to get weird when someone else tries to claim credit for your work, which is why it’s highly recommended that you register your copyright.

It’s extremely easy and cheap. Simply go to www.copyright.gov, follow the prompts and voila. The United States government has a record of your creation! The only downside is (being the government) they often take a while to get back to you.

If you’re in a hurry, you can register your screenplay with the Writer’s Guild of America. WGA West if you’re west of the Mississippi, WGA East if you’re east of the Mississippi. This is slightly cheaper and must faster, but they apparently destroy all of their files after a few years, so you have to keep renewing it.

I’ve also read about the “poor man’s copyright” several times. Basically, you mail a copy of your script to yourself and leave it sealed, using the Post Office’s postmark date as proof of when you fixed your original work in a tangible form. It is not a substitute for registering your work with the copyright office and according to Snopes, has never actually been tested in court. So in the U.S. at least, you’re better off just registering your work.

That gives you some basics about copyrighting your scripts. Next time, I’ll cover some of the other interesting copyright situations you may find yourself in as a filmmaker. Copy that? Over and out.

Another Rant About Diction

In preparation for The Last Jedi, I’ve been re-watching the original Star Wars trilogy. And, of course, I was shouting all of my favorite lines at the screen. “But I was going to Toshi station to pick up some power converters.” “What is thy bidding, my master?” And of course, “Luke, I am your father.” But any of you true fans out there know that’s not what Darth Vader actually says. So why do so many people misquote him?

It’s actually a pretty common thing. “Beam me up, Scotty,” “Play it again, Sam,” and “Elementary, my dear Watson,” apparently never appear in the source material. (Although the misquotes themselves are often used later. For example, Woody Allen penned a script about a Casablanca obsessed film critic called Play it Again, Sam.) Yet we all know these famous misquotes, down to the pacing, accent, and sound effects where necessary. But the question remains, why?

The biggest reason is probably that people quote these famous lines in social situations. “Oh, you’re talking about Sherlock Holmes. Elementary.” Sounds kind of weird, doesn’t it? By adding Luke or Scotty or my dear Watson into the quote, you’re able to contextualize it and prove that you can contribute to the conversation (however erroneously).

Another reason is that people have terrible memories. The process of remembering something actually rewrites the original memory. So your memory is less about the actual words spoken and more about what you felt when they were spoken. And that brings me to my bigger point.

Darth Vader actually says, “No, I am your father.” By misquoting Darth Vader, people have preserved Vader’s original syntax. Saying, “I am your father,” while weighty, doesn’t have the same impact without that “whomp” at the beginning of it. As a performer, you want to get everyone’s attention, let them hang in suspense for a beat, then hit them with the truth. “I am your father.” You need a little something at the beginning of the quote to get that effect.

Saying “no” without an instigating reason is kind of weird. No what? No dessert? No, you’re wrong? No rest for the wicked? But this is the emotional moment when you and Luke, both learn that Vader is Luke’s father. It’s an easy and natural switch to change that “no” to “Luke.”

Your memory of the moment and of the syntax (if not the literal wording) is correct. Sometimes it’s how you say it not what you say. Keep that in mind as you write your own memorable lines. And may the force be with you, always.

Getting People to Like You(r Characters)

We’ve all been there: trying to impress your love interest, trying to convince your parents your tuition money hasn’t been wasted, or even just trying not to be picked last in dodge ball. It’s hard to get people to like you. So how can you convince them to root for your main character, especially if they’re an anti-hero or, well, frankly kind of a jerk? This won’t necessarily solve your problems, but here are a few tips.

Save the Cat

Save the Cat Cropped

This first one comes straight from Blake Snyder’s highly recommended Save the Cat. Simply put, have your protagonist save a cat or do some other altruistic thing to endear them to your audience. You could have them literally save a cat like Ripley in Alien, give bread to starving children like Aladdin in Aladdin, or take on charity cases like Lucy Kelson in Two Weeks Notice. In cases like Aladdin where you protagonist is a thief, your “save the cat” moment might be more necessary. But no matter what, people will find it easier to root for your characters if they actually seem like decent people.

Flaws

Even though we need to like them, your protagonist can’t be perfect. Generally, your protagonist’s going to have some major flaw. That’s the source of their “unconscious goal.” The thing that they need to fix that they don’t know they need to fix. Lightning McQueen must overcome his ego (Cars), Dianna must overcome her naiveté (Wonder Woman), and Alan Grant must overcome his fear of children (Jurassic Park).

But your characters also need smaller quirks whose primary function is to make them more human. In Save the Cat, Blake Snyder calls this the “six things that need fixing.” In Kramer Vs. Kramer, Ted Kramer needs to learn to be a good father, but he also needs to learn how to cook and struggles to find a new job. He goes through the same kind of shit we do. Indiana Jones may be the coolest professor ever, but he’s terrified of snakes. These character flaws don’t always affect the plot, but they do make your characters more endearing.

Primal Struggles

This is another Save the Cat tip. Snyder uses it in reference to the premise, but a relatable premise creates relatable characters. As Snyder explains it, your premise should be easy enough to explain to a caveman. It’s primal: revenge, trying to impress a love interest, trying to escape a monster. These are things we can all relate to. Maybe you’ve never had to run from a T. rex, but you may have had to run from Rex. It was terrifying, and you can relate.

Ever been a renown neurosurgeon by day who transitions into a destructive narcissist at exactly 8:25 every night? Me neither. I’m not saying it’s the only reason Do No Harm had the lowest ratings for a primetime drama premier ever, but it certainly didn’t help. It’s hard to relate to a character that’s so specific and so bizarre.

Familiar in Fantasy

But that doesn’t mean that you can’t do fantasy. Far from it. Fantasy and science fiction give writers immense creative freedom to explore new worlds and examine what it means to be human in unique contexts. Otherworldly characters do risk alienating the audience. I mean, who knows what it’s like to be a vampire or a hobbit? But there are still ways we can relate to these characters.

The key is to focus on the similarities between your audience and your subject matter. I don’t know anything about the blood feud between vampires and werewolves, but I can relate to forbidden love. I’ve never had to throw a ring of power into Mount Doom, but I’ve had to face difficult situations that even my closest fur-footed friends could not help me with.

A few months ago, Merriam-Webster posted this fantastic article looking at the different artistic approaches between Star Trek and Star Wars. Trust me, I know a lot of trekkies, but Star Trek doesn’t have quite the same mass following as the Force. The article’s definitely worth a look (and it really emphasizes the importance of diction, which I discuss here).

Empathy

All of these tricks have one goal: building empathy between your characters and your audience. You want your audience to go on an emotional journey with your characters. That’s empathy. And it’s different than sympathy.

If you hear about a successful lawyer who was diagnosed with AIDS, outed for being gay, and then fired for being outed, you might feel bad for him. That’s sympathy. But you don’t know what it’s like to be him. In 2017, AIDS isn’t as scary as it used to be and most people really don’t care if you’re gay. But when you watch Philadelphia, you go on a journey with Andrew Beckett. You learn what it was like to get AIDS in the early 90s. You experience the fear and the stigmatism. That’s empathy.

To illustrate the point further, consider two of M. Night Shyamalan’s films. In The Sixth Sense, we feel empathy for Dr. Malcolm Crowe. We go on a journey with him. We, the audience, learn that Dr. Crowe is (spoiler alert) dead at the same time he does. It’s just as shocking to him as it is to us. That’s why it works.

In The Village, however, something felt distinctly off. There was just something about The Village that didn’t add up. Most of the characters knew that the village and the monsters were a trick. You know who didn’t know? The audience. It was a gimmick.

Audiences felt taken advantage of and they didn’t like it. Ivy Walker, the blind main character, never learned the truth. It’s hard to go on a journey with someone who doesn’t go on a journey. Sure, you might feel bad for her. You may have sympathy for her. She does live with a bunch of delusional, conniving sociopaths, after all. But it’s difficult to experience empathy with her because you’re going on completely different journeys.

“But wait!” some of you are saying. “Isn’t that just dramatic irony? You know where the audience knows something that the main character doesn’t?” Why yes. Yes it is. In this clip from Harold Lloyd’s 1930 film Feet First, you can see dramatic irony in action. While he’s stuck in the sack, he doesn’t know that he’s being hoisted up on scaffolding. The same is true about the cigar that is thrown out a window and later dropped in the man’s hat and the bucket of paint that is knocked off of the scaffolding.

But you only get an effective emotional payout—you only get empathy—when Lloyd and the other characters come to the same realization as you.

Othello is one massive play of dramatic irony. We all know Iago is trying to ruin Othello’s life. Othello has no idea. When he finds out, his life is destroyed and Iago gets his comeuppance. If Othello was just about someone’s life turning to shit, it wouldn’t be a very good play. It’s the emotional journey and Othello’s realization that he’s been duped that make Othello a great tragedy.

If Ivy Walker learned the truth about her asshole parents, flipped them the bird, and wandered out of the village into the real world like Truman Burbank at the end of The Truman Show, it might of worked. Probably not, but it would have been better.

When you get right down to it, it’s hard to get people to like you, especially with all of your flaws, if you’ve only got ninety minutes to do it, and you’re not even a real person. But these tips will point you in the right direction.

A Good Dialogue (Part 2)

Diction is the main component of dialogue, the building blocks if you will. But what are you building?

Lego Fail

(Seriously. What is that?) In part two of my post on dialogue, I’m going to cover some of dialogue’s broader structural challenges.

Originality

Your characters should all sound unique. In part, this is to separate them from the panoply of movie characters who ever have and ever will exist. But it’s also to give your own characters depth and clarity. I can’t tell you the number of scenes I’ve had to re-read because the characters all sound the same, and I couldn’t follow the dialogue. (Wait. Who said what, now?)

It’s not difficult to identify a line of dialogue from Yoda or R2-D2, but the majority of your characters will likely be human. They may even have similar socio-economic backgrounds and come from the same regions. So how do you make them sound different?

Even close friends don’t have the same parents. They don’t have the same siblings. They may have different tastes in food, music, or movies. They may be different ethnicities. All of these differences will affect their diction, which will in turn define them and shape their character. In Stranger Things, Finn, as the main character “everyman,” has the least noteworthy diction. Dustin has a lisp and is more likely to offer some comic relief, Lucas is notably more cautious than his friends, and El’s vocabulary is decidedly limited. The friends have similar backgrounds, ages and interests, but they are different characters with different diction. No matter how similar your characters are, they should always sound at least a little bit different.

Diction is the primary tool that will define your character’s voice. An easy exercise is to pick some common phrase (a reprimand, thank you, greeting, etc.) and figure out how each of your character’s would say it differently. (“Hello.” “Hi.” “Howdy.” “‘Sup.” “Good morning.” “Shut up. Where’s the coffee?”)

Realism

This one’s a little harder. Hamlet does not sound like anyone you’d meet on the street today, but hopefully he sounds like someone from sixteenth century England (or what someone from sixteenth century England thought someone from thirteenth century Denmark sounded like). You get some leeway for writing dialogue for characters from different times or places, but remember my admonition about accents. Don’t overdo it!

Assuming you’re writing a contemporary script or at least want contemporary audiences to understand it, you’ll want to capture contemporary diction. You can wander around with a tape recorder like Carol Solomon from In a World…, but you’ll find that “real” dialogue often doesn’t sound that good.

Another option is to pick a person, whether that’s a fictional character or an actual human that you know, and base your character’s diction on them. Would your mother actually say that? Would Michael Corleone? It’s a reasonable tool, but it, too, involves a lot of research and a strong understanding of your subject’s use of language.

The best thing you can do is read your dialogue out loud. Better yet, have some friends read it. Even better, have some actors read it. Does it flow? Does it make sense? Is it engaging? Does it sound authentic to the characters? If not, you’ve got some more work to do. And you may want to consider adding…

Motivation

Bad dialogue is often described as “wooden.” It lacks emotion (which may be the actor’s fault), but it also lacks motivation (which is completely the writer’s fault). Lines like “Hi, how are you?” “I’m fine,” are boring! They don’t progress the plot. In Save the Cat, Blake Snyder calls these lines “hi how are you I’m fine” lines. It really emphasizes the total waste of space and time that they are.

In this penultimate example of bad dialogue from The Room, Johnny buys some flowers (first 17 seconds).

That’s it. He doesn’t grow as a character. He doesn’t overcome any adversity. He doesn’t discover that his mild-mannered local florist is actually a sociopath. Despite the fact that the flower shop owner claims “You’re my favorite customer,” she doesn’t recognize him when he comes in. It doesn’t even feel like they’re speaking to each other. Now, perhaps in some brilliant way we mere mortals can’t fully understand, Tommy Wisseau is commenting on the superficiality and meaninglessness of relationships in a service economy where our existential aloneness is defined by endless “friendly” conversation. More likely, it’s just a terribly written scene.

The great Pulitzer Prize winning and Tony nominated writer David Mamet said, “People only speak to get something.” What does Johnny want from the florist? What does the florist want from Johnny? Sadly the answer seems to just be flowers. If Johnny fails to get flowers here, he can probably just go somewhere else. And the florist doesn’t seem to be hurting for business. Her bizarre dialogue attempts to impart some meaning into the scene, but ends up just confusing things. “You’re my favorite customer.” Who says that? Is she in love with him? Is she a serial killer? Is there some subplot I missed? The dialogue (in fact the scene as a whole) really isn’t necessary to the plot of the movie. The scene could have started at the end of the transaction (Johnny has just purchased flowers) or better yet, just showed Johnny arriving at the next location with flowers. The audience would assume he has purchased them. The dialogue doesn’t achieve anything.

Reaction

A dialogue involves two (or more) people. It’s important that characters react (verbally) to each other. When Darth Vader says, “I am your father,” how does Luke react? “That’s great, but can you give me a hand?” (Ha!) No! He says, “No. No, that’s not true. It’s impossible.” He’s in denial. It’s an organic, realistic reaction to learning that the man who just tried to kill you and may be committing war crimes across the galaxy is also your father. It is stage one on the Kubler-Ross five stages of grief. It feels real because it’s based in reality.

Monologues don’t make good dialogue. When are the other characters supposed to respond to someone who won’t shut their gob? Will they be writing strongly worded letters of complaint after the screening? When one character says something that merits a response, it’s important that your characters respond to each other (visually, if not verbally) to keep the characters and audience engaged.

Exposition

While you want to avoid all of that pesky pontification, at some point, you’ve got to explain why Luke is shooting proton torpedoes down an exhaust chute or how John Hammond managed to clone dinosaurs. But how do you do that without boring your audience to tears?

First, minimize it! If it takes ten pages to explain the backstory, your plot is too complex! Even if you’ve created some mind-blowing fantasy world, you’re going to have to ground it in our reality. After all, you want humans (not hobbits) to watch it. Keep the critical fantasy elements and make everything else as realistic as possible. Then you have less explaining to do. (This is one of the reasons I think Game of Thrones is so successful. While Westeros is fake, the medieval detail feels wonderfully authentic. And true fans will know many of the plots and characters are based on actual history.)

Second, find a way to explain things organically. There’s the classic briefing room scene.

Jarhead Briefing

Then there’s the neophyte character: the intern, new recruit, or padawan. This guy always needs things explained to them! But it’s a natural part of the story. Whether your story takes place in a scifi universe or just a technical field like undersea exploration, the neophyte character serves as a go-between for the audience. They get to ask all of the stupid questions the audience cannot.

If all else fails, put the Pope in the pool. I explain that in more detail here. Remember, film is a visual medium. If you absolutely can’t get away from a page of exposition, give us something interesting to look at: floor charts, a power point, a time lapse of corn growing. Set your scene someplace visually interesting. Ever wonder why detectives are always interviewing people in strip clubs? It’s not for the buffet.

Subtext

You may have heard of dialogue being “on the nose.” This happens when characters say exactly what they’re thinking. In reality, people rarely say what they’re thinking. They measure their words carefully to cater to their audience and evoke a particular response. People also exhibit a lot of denial and avoidance. If they didn’t, we would have no need for self-help books and alcoholics anonymous.

To give a more concrete example, spouses in failing marriages dn’t argue about the fact that their marriages are failing. They argue about finances, the children, and taking the trash out because their marriage is failing. The nagging wife doesn’t say, “Trash night’s Tuesday, right?” because she can’t remember when the trash goes out. She says it to mean, “You forgot to take the trash out again. I caught you asleep at the wheel. You are a failure, and I could totally marry someone better.” That’s not what she says, but that’s what she means. Well written and acted dialogue will have the motivation behind the line. That’s subtext.

In this scene from Game of Thrones, Littlefinger sweetens up his nephew, the Lord of the Vale, with a gift.

Then he proceeds to threaten Lord Royce. But he never actually threatens Lord Royce. Nor does Lord Royce threaten him back, merely saying that a hypothetical man may “cross swords” with another hypothetical man. Yet everyone in the scene knows what’s really happening. The soldiers all reach for their swords and the Lord of the Vale suggests his favorite form of execution: the “moon door.” Littlefinger could have said, “You betrayed me, Lord Royce. Lord of the Vale, should we execute him?” But he doesn’t. That wouldn’t have any subtext, and it wouldn’t make a very good scene.

The movie Hot Rod hilariously flips subtext on it’s head, making Rod Kimble abundantly aware of his inner feelings, shortcomings and completely ridiculous goals. “One day I’ll punch you right in the face, and then you’ll respect me.” Great comedy, terrible subtext.

Craft

Ultimately, crafting great dialogue is an artistic endeavor. It involves a lot of listening, careful word choice, research, and revision. But it’s not a mystery. These last two posts are intended to give you the tools necessary to break down and analyze dialogue. Now if you hear something that is “wooden” or “on the nose,” you know what that means, and, more importantly, you can craft it into something beautiful.

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