Getting the Outline into Act II

So after taking a Sunday off, we got back to working on the outline.  We’ve completed the outline for Act I, and we’ve locked our main character, Jinx, into a difficult situation. Our resident bad guy, Hunter, was forming a plan to exact revenge on Jinx.  You can see the previous outline blog notes in previous posts.

Now as we go into Act II, we need to start creating obstacles for Jinx and begin raising the stakes for him. That can be in the form of human obstacles, or in many cases, moral ambiguities.  Both create the dramatic tension we’re looking for.  But it can’t all be emotional conflicts and head-butting, and you can’t get right to the dramatic showdown between Jinx and Hunter — you have to build to that point, constantly pulling the rubber band until it can’t stretch anymore, then let it snap into place.  And hope that you don’t stretch it too far and break it.

Starting with Act II, Jinx leaves the dock and wants to leave the party.   He’s looking for Tate, and goes to the lake house to find him. Not seeing him, he goes in the house, where students parade in and out.  Inside, he’s nowhere to be seen.  Students are situated around the house – it’s not a wild scene, but people are enjoying themselves.

One of the things we want to try and do with Jinx is show how he has had an effect on others, even when he doesn’t realize it.  Why do this?  Because one of the themes of this script will be that Jinx has had an impact on the lives of others, even when he can’t see it, especially in this world after the accident where he has built up this belief in his mind of how he’s now a pariah in this small Texas town.  So we’ll show small things that begin to add up as we go.

One girl, Savannah, stops Jinx, asks him where he’s going to college. University of Texas, he says.  Me, too, she responds.  She’s excited because she’ll be able to get help on her freshman history classes.  “You saved my ass on a half dozen exams junior year.” Another student with her pipes in. “Saved me too.” Jinx isn’t sure how to respond, but before he can figure it out, the girls are off to chat with someone else.

In addition, we’re going to drop in a little subtext.  In this instance, Jinx stops in front of a mantle above the fireplace, where there are various framed pictures. Several of them are of Lucas and Maggie, some with Lucas’ parents. It’s obvious the house belongs to Lucas’ family.  We finally land on one important picture:  It happens to be Jinx with four other people: one is Lucas.  The others are Ellie, Maggie and a guy we haven’t seen yet (Nick).  They look happy in the picture. Not a care in the world.  Jinx is transfixed by the picture.

From behind Jinx a voice arises: “Remember where that pic was taken?.” Jinx turns, and it’s Lucas. “San Antonio,” says Jinx.  “I remember you were surprised by how small the Alamo actually was,” replies Lucas.  Jinx agrees. “I imagined it being larger than life.”  Lucas follows up with: “I miss hanging out with you.  Let’s get together this summer, okay?” Jinx mumbles a half-hearted, “sure.”

The subtext, of course, is that we tend to make things bigger than they tend to be, and in particular, Jinx has made the accident bigger in his mind than it is in others. But Jinx of course can’t see that — yet.

We need to bring Hunter back for another appearance to offset the good feelings we just got from Jinx and Lucas.  So Lucas leaves the house and runs into Hunter and his goons. There is an argument over whose side Lucas is on.  Lucas makes it clear where he stands and moves on. Hunter mentions to his guys to watch out for Lucas.  He might get in the way of their plans, and if they have to, they’ll take care of him as well.

We’ll continue working on this and post the next part of our outline (and other random thoughts) soon.  In addition, because of some of you may want to see the continuing outline as we go so we’ll create a page that has our progress.  If there is anything else you’d like to see, please let us know!

Getting into Subtext with our Script

A good script is going to have a lot of layers to it, in other words, it’s not just A, then B, then C, then D.  That results in a pretty thin script.  One of the best ways to add subtlety to your script and build unique characters is by adding subtext.  As we’re building our outline, Rick and I are always looking for ways to add subtext to the story.

What is subtext you ask? It’s really just an underlying or deftly hidden action by a character.  Rick is a master of the subtext, and I’ll let him explain his thinking on the subject:

If there was a strength or skill to consistently work on as you ply your craft as a screenwriter, I’d recommend it be adding subtext to each of your scenes. It makes movies so much more impactful when you’re watching them and enhances your characters and story immensely. Sometimes, in ways you don’t even put together right away — I’ll offer two examples, one from an older film and one from a more contemporary film, that I use in my screenwriting workshops to illustrate:

1. Think back to “The Graduate.” – There are countless examples in this film alone (Mike Nichols was a genius and you’d do well to listen, watch and learn from his incredible body of work) but I specifically love this simple example: Remember, early in the film, Dustin Hoffman has graduated college and is basically loafing at his parent’s house, unsettled and unsure of what he wants to do with his life. This frustrates his career-minded father to no end. One day, the Father comes home and his shoulders collapse upon seeing Dustin Hoffman floating on a raft in their pool, just chilling and thinking. He, of course, pleads that it’s time to ‘do something with your life’ and Dustin merely looks at him and feels very misunderstood. For me, the beautiful subtext in this scene is that it’s set for our directionless character in a pool where he’s literally drifting aimlessly. The mere visual of him ‘drifting’ enhances the message so beautifully, yet it doesn’t hit you over the head and scream: This guy’s got no direction in his life! Subtext. It adds so much. Do it in every scene.

2. Then there’s “Titanic.” — James Cameron, ’the screenwriter’ is as equally talented as James Cameron, ‘the director.’ Reading his scripts, the visuals pop and he’s very conscious of subtext in pivotal scenes. Remember, toward the end of the first half of the film, Rose’s mother is helping her dress for the Captain’s dinner and making it very clear to Rose how important it is for her to stick with the ‘money and established’ suitor she’s positioned Rose for, rather than that impulsive bad boy Leonardo something-or-other. As she’s basically telling Rose what to do, what is Rose’s mother actually doing? Tightening her corset. She literally pulling the strings and tightening the pressure on Rose to her specifications. Rose is visibly uncomfortable yet her mother tightens and adds pressure. Again, it’s all very natural and organic because someone has to do it but the subtext of having Rose’s mother communicate her wishes this way, enhances the message, her character and the take-away from the scene exponentially.

Re-watch any of your favorite movies. There’s probably countless examples, some of which you may have missed on the first few watchings. Good subtext is often that — submerged in the words and actions of the very natural. Get good at it and screenwriters of the future will be citing examples from your scripts to screenwriters learning the craft. It’s a universal strength and powerful tool to make your scripts engaging on multiple levels.

Thanks to Rick for this valuable insight!  We’ll be back soon with more work on our outline!

Outline Distress

I can’t imagine there isn’t someone reading this who hasn’t felt the despair of sitting down and crafting out an outline, but then hitting a mental roadblock.  You’re trying to crank out the next five plot points, but it’s just not happening.  The characters are doing the same things, the plot seems stuck in place, you’re continually looking to see what the score is on the game or what Kim and Khloe are up to (EDITOR’S NOTE: Gary DOES NOT, in any way shape or form, watch “Keeping up with the Kardashians”  Gary cannot speak for Rick’s viewing tastes).

I spent yesterday doing everything except focusing on the outline.  I needed to do that to clear my head and try to find fresh direction for the characters and for the plot.  At times you can be too driven to finish your outline, perhaps because of some self-imposed deadline, and what you’re putting on the page is essentially dreck.  When you become overly obsessed with your writing, you get self-obsessed characters and overly convoluted plots. When that happens, take a day off and see if that helps get you back on track with more focus and energy.  If that doesn’t work, maybe it’s not you that’s the problem. Maybe it’s your characters and plot that are holding you back. Sometimes the hardest thing to do is let go of this world you’ve built in your head, but maybe getting them out of your head will clear up some place for new, more exciting characters and stories to tell.

I returned to our outline today, and found myself writing with a renewed sense of purpose after spending some time NOT thinking about the outline at all.  Let’s see if it helps.

When we last left our protagonist, Jinx, he was getting dressed down by Ellie for claiming he was leaving the small town he grew up in and deserting the family business.  After their argument, Ellie leaves.We need to leave the two hanging, because settling an argument easily doesn’t make for great drama.  You want that cloud hanging over them until sometime later, when they can either resolve their situation, one way or the other.  Is there an additional way to create a roadblock between them?

There are several options available.  A good one is to create a “distraction character” who may prevent him from hinder him from achieving a goal, even if it’s an unstated one.

In the case, we’ve going to introduce Cassie, a mysterious and attractive fellow student.  Jinx walks down to the dock and sits down and stares into the water, reflective. Cassie comes over, sits  next to him and tries to engage in a conversation.  Jinx has some hesitation – he didn’t expect this.  He talks about the lake and how it’s been a big part of his life, but now he looks at it, and all he sees is regret — hence, the name of the movie. Cassie offers some words of encouragement, and maybe even some words of advice.


And then there is an awkward silence, but the silence is broken by several girls running past them and jumping in the water.  Cassie jumps in with them, and gives Jinx a look as if to say: “are you going to join us?”  Jinx hesitates, and she’s off to join the girls.

An additional dilemma is now presented to Jinx:  should he pursue Cassie?  Giving the protagonist a moral conundrum tends to make for good drama — if handled correctly.

We’re now ready to close out Act I, but we need something that gets us honed in on what’s to come in Act II, and we find it in our old pal Hunter.  We land on him talking to other students about Jinxn about how it’s time to set things right for what happened a year ago.  It’s apparent that revenge is on their minds, and the die is now cast for our protagonist.

We’ll delve into Act II soon — I’m heading to the great city of Austin, Texas for a wedding, but we’ll add more of the outline shortly.  If you have comments or suggestions about how the outline is going so far, feel free to leave a comment below.  We’ll soon have a page dedicated to the outline in full so you can see how the outline looks in real time, and get an understanding of how we actively outline.

A Note About Our Screenplays (and writing)

We’ll get back to the screenplay outlining quickly, but just wanted to let everyone know that we’re going to start posting some of our screenplays on this site for you to peruse (and if you’re a producer, to option!).  You can see just a few of these screenplays using the link at the top of the page, or you can get there from here.

Note that for now, we’re focused on low budget scripts as a way to get produced, and that has worked in several cases (and maybe something you should consider as well, if you’re a beginning screenwriter, or maybe even a seasoned one).  Why is this?  Well, first of all, writing spec scripts, is just that, speculative.  VERY speculative.  To get through the front gates of the big production companies, you need to have been produced before (and consequently represented), or have an insanely great script.

Yet having an insanely great script still doesn’t guarantee anything.  You have to still get someone to read it, and that requires getting noticed.  Query letters almost NEVER work.  If you’re the less than 1% who got yours through the door, congrats.  The other 99% applaud and cry in their beers in between typing out another five pages of Act Two.

That’s why I’m a big proponent of Simply Scripts, which I find to be one of the best ways to get discovered as a writer.  I placed several scripts on that site and have been optioned four times.  There are a lot of other writers from that site as well who have similar success stories.  Do yourself a favor, if you’re a screenwriter, and hit that site up.  And if you’re a writer who frequents Simply Scripts and want to chime in on your success there, feel free to leave a comment below.  This is an encouraging, peer-review site that can provide you with a ton of reviews and resources to help you get better as a writer.

Good luck!

The Outline Continues

In our post, Getting the Characters Into Action, we started building the world of the characters.  We had them at a graduation party, and we discover two things: (1), that Jinx has a thing for Ellie, but it’s a lost cause, because (2) Jinx is leaving when summer’s gone and never coming back.  We also learned that Jinx is expected to take over the family business at some point, but this revelation will blow a hole in that plan, as well as create tension within the family.

As we further create the outline, we can’t just have the characters talking, talking, and talking some more.  There needs to be some action going on between characters.  And when we say “action” we need to make sure you understand that this doesn’t have to be the physically demanding type of action — we’re not making “Mission Impossible: Lake Party” here.  Action can take on a lot of forms.  It can be the way one character treats another, confrontation over something, or a sequence of events that creates tension.

If you saw “A Quiet Place” this summer, you were on the edge of your seats the most because they weren’t saying anything, and as they made their way from one place to another each step they took could lead to a disaster (I’m not going to spoil it and say why it could lead to a disaster).  Needless to say, there was a lot of tension built into those very quiet moments.

So the next thing in our outline we’re going to try to do is build up some additional tension with other students. Once Jinx reveals to Tate that he doesn’t want to take over the family business, they go get drinks and run into Maggie, who is surprised to see Jinx at the party.  She says he shouldn’t be there.  Before Jinx can ask why, another student, Hunter, gets in Jinx’s face and tells him to leave before he beats the crap out of him. Why?  Hunter doesn’t say, because Jinx beats him to the punch.  He says he’s leaving – permanently.  Hunter tells him that’s a good idea, because he’s ruined enough lives around this town.

There’s a moment when we think Hunter is actually going to take out Jinx, but Hunter is suddenly hit in the face with a poorly thrown football, and Hunter takes off after the hapless student who threw it.  Crisis averted, for the moment.

But Ellie overhears the discussion and now she’s in Jinx’s face, wondering what the hell is going on here.  Ever since the accident, he hasn’t been himself, and now he’s disappearing forever?  Jinx is taken aback – he didn’t think Ellie cared.  And now it’s too late to do anything about it.

Now we’ve created tension in two more arenas: that between Hunter and Jinx (physical animosity), and between Jinx and Ellie (a romantic tension).  The trick, of course, will be stretching this tension rubber band just enough to not cause it to snap (or pop back and hit us in the eye).

We’ll continue to stretch the rubber band in upcoming posts.  Continue to follow along!


To Write or Co-Write – Part Two

In his previous post, Rick had thoughts about why you shouldn’t write with someone. Today he talks about why you should take on a writing partner.

Here are Rick’s thoughts:

These are the guidelines I’d recommend using if you’re considering co-writing with someone. Everyone’s situation is different and these are by no means universal but intended to help those that have never co-written a screenplay with someone and are trying to evaluate if it will suit them. In reverse order of consideration:

5. Co-write to get out of a rut. Many times we’re ready to write a screenplay, but nothing in the idea journal or desk drawer really sparks interest. Herein lies opportunity. Seek out a writer you like, respect and/or admire and ask if there’s a project that he or she would be interested in collaborating on. Immediately, you’ve opened yourself up to whole new set of possible screenplays. It only takes one idea to get the creative juices flowing.

4. Co-write to learn. Maybe you’re an outliner and envious of the writers who just dive in and see what happens. Or vice-versa. There’s lessons to be learned from both approaches. Find someone that works differently and observe how they handle difficulties with story or act breaks or pacing. It’s important to be upfront and explain how you typically work but hopefully, you’ll be open enough to trying a different ‘process’ to see if it works for you. There’s no ‘right’ way — it’s a matter of finding and trying new methods. You can always revert to your comfort zone but at least try it. You’ll see a different perspective to the blank page.

3. Co-write to step up your game. Many television shows have writer’s rooms or a group of staff writers AND deadlines. To me, that’s the ultimate in pressure. You’re working with a bunch of talented writers and you know you need to nail a quality script by the end of the week. So, imagine being at a keyboard in that room while everyone else is tapping out their ‘A’ game. As I said, I can’t imagine more pressure. But pressure is good and co-writing a script is the shallow end of the pool rather than the high dive of a writer’s room. Yes, you’re signing on and committing to contributing but, if you work with a good partner, you’ll learn that the expectation of ‘delivering’ forces you to not slack. Moreover, once the characters and pages start to come alive, you’ll both become invested in raising the bar for the story and winner is the script reader or producer. Accepting that you will be read, daily or weekly, by a jury of your peers, is usually enough to keep you from typing over and over again: ’this script needs work’ just to say that ‘yes, I did write something today.’

2. Co-write if you’re ready to act like a paid ‘writer.’ Trust me, getting ’notes’ and ‘feedback’ from producers is incessant. Recently, I received just under 300 notes from a producer on a 94 page screenplay. Be ready for everyone, from producers, to agents or actors to competition readers — for cold sometimes brutal notes. Guess what? It’s the norm and the sooner you accept that no one likes everything, the better. It’s far better to get ‘it’s not working for me’ from a co-writer than a film executive. Maybe they’re wrong — Maybe it is working but that’s where you have to determine if you’ll be true to yourself. Are you willing to change your character, or the pages to suit someone else? Are you willing to bend? If not, maybe, in addition to co-writing, the whole concept of writing for the screen isn’t for you if you’re not willing to cater to notes from someone who might have the ability to get your script made. Making movies is the ultimate collaborative medium. Own it. Unless you’re able to produce and direct your own work, start to learn the collaborative process. If you want your words to remain your words — write a novel or a play. Novelists and playwrights have far greater control over their words.

1. Co-write to increase your body of work and give back. This seems like it should be two rules but I’ve found that they go hand in hand. I personally have a self-imposed mandate to write one feature screenplay a year. In addition, I’ll write a few shorts and try to get work rewriting a screenplay or working on things like commercials or video productions. My goal? Get paid to write. Everyday, you’ve got to shop your goods. I’ve got five unproduced feature screenplays that I shop by myself every chance I get. Marketing emails and trade journals take up time. How to keep generating fresh product? Write everyday. Don’t have a script you’re burning to write? Tough. You need content to shop. That’s where co-writing helps. You get to continually generate new material to shop and — bonus — you get another motivated writer to shop it right along with you. How does this all ‘give back?’ You’ve learned a craft and you apply it to writing a film that no one may make or see but countless other screenwriters are in the same boat. Give back to them by sharing your skills and unique voice. Give them the ‘reading’ diversion they need when they’re stuck on a story point. Most importantly, do not quit or not write anymore because things haven’t worked out thus far. Be someone’s inspiration. Find motivation in being the writer who is willing to do whatever it takes to pursue their screenwriting passion. Not all heroes wear capes. Write or co-write but do one or the other.

Great notes, Rick!  Hope you’re enjoying, and please share or follow if you are!

Getting the Characters Into Action

So we’ve said the first part of Act One is about world building and introducing characters.  In that post, we provided you with some of our main and supporting characters and a little bit about each of them.

Now, it’s time to start figuring out how we get them interacting and put them into this world that we’re building.

First, you might remember that we envisioned a couple of things for making this film:  First, that we could film it on a low to modest budget (meaning very few locations and could be shot in a minimal amount of time). Second, we wanted a film that focused on story and creating emotions.  If any of you saw the recent film “Eighth Grade” then you can imagine the type of film we’re looking to make.

We decided to make a film about a high school senior (we’ll call him “Jinx” for now) who has to try to move past a horrible accident, and because of the overwhelming guilt he feels, wants to leave his small Texas town forever.  Less than a year after the accident, he is coaxed to come to a graduation party at a lake house.

And so the outline begins.  The way Rick and I write together, one of us will start with the genesis of the story.  We’re not actually writing the script, mind you, we’re just putting in a Microsoft Word document a draft of ideas for the story.  I drew the short straw, so I’ll write a few ideas for the opening.  Rick will follow behind, edit my first draft and add some ideas of his own, and we’ll go back and forth until we’re somewhat happy with moving on to the next sequence.

I started with putting Jinx and his friend Ellie and Tate in a car on the way to the graduation party.  While they’re talking about graduation earlier that day and about the party to come, what we want to make sure in writing the script is that it’s not expositional dialogue.  In other words, we don’t want them describing everything that’s happened, and we don’t want to use flashbacks (or if we do, to use them sparingly). So we just drop hints at what’s happened in this past, to set up for a big reveal later.

We’ll have them drive through the small town that they live in, to give everyone a hint of this place that Jinx is trying to escape.  Thus, we don’t have to have a full discussion by the characters of what the town is like.  You’ll see it and understand.

Next, we have them arriving at the party.  Given the small town, we couldn’t have hundreds of students attending the party and it’s this huge blow out.  It’ll be maybe 50 to 75 students, and consequently everyone is going to know each other, meaning we don’t have to introduce characters to each other.  But we do have to introduce them to you, which we hope to do by the way they interact with each other.

Jinx, Ellie and Tate arrive at the party, and Jinx is self-conscious about the way people are looking at him (or how he perceives people are looking at him).  This will be a continuing theme — how people react to him versus how they might actually be reacting.  This world Jinx lives in is a world that he’s built to help him cope with what he’s done in the past.

Ellie leaves Jinx and Tate to go visit with some friends, and after she goes, Jinx tells Tate that he’s always had a crush on her.  Tate asks why he’s never acted on it, and that’s when he reveals he’s leaving for college when the summer’s over and never coming back.  Tate is clearly surprised — he didn’t think Jinx was going to college and was instead going to get involved in the family business (perhaps we’ve even seen this business during that opening drive through the town), but Jinx wants nothing of it.

Through this small but impactful exchange, we’ve established some important story points that will have to be developed and addressed throughout the film:  (1) Jinx’s relationship with Ellie, (2) Jinx’s desire to move on from this small town; and (3) the family business that he’s obviously expected to take over someday.

This is creating tension and important for making the film interesting to the viewer.  As we continue to develop the outline, we’ll continue to drop in these kind of plot points and create obstacles that will hinder our protagonist from achieving his goals.

Will delve further into the outline in future posts.  Hope you continue to follow along!