Shoving Forward, and Moving Back

Rick and I got back into the outline business, albeit on a superficial level, as I’m in the Pacific Northwest on vacation (I love Houston, but when it’s 95 degrees in September, it’s time to get the hell outta hell for a week to cooler climates).  But as I mentioned in our last post, I felt like we needed to give a little boost to our main protagonist’s decision to leave town on a permanent basis.

Now, for the moment, I’m not going to reveal what my suggestion to change was. Suffice to say, it was a very significant change to the character.  Rick’s was hesitant to make the change, as he thought that it would necessitate going back to the beginning and completely redoing the outline draft, and in addition, that it might change the tone of the movie from a dramedy in the vein of “Juno” or “Little Miss Sunshine” to a straight drama.

My argument was that the character change would already be known to the other characters, so it would only result in minor changes to the outline, and there was no need to change the tone of the film, because a film like “Juno” dealt with tough subject (abortion and teen pregnancy) while still making it an uplifting and, in many cases, a wildly funny film.

The bottom line is that we’re both wanting a film in the tone of “Juno” and we’re going to ponder this character turn and see where it leads us.  If we decide to make the change you’ll be the first to know.

So back to the outline as it’s currently situated: when we last left the outline, Jinx was in the house and Cass asked him to come over and sit on the couch with him while Hunter watches.  Hunter and Cass share a conspiratorial smile and then Hunter goes outside and find Ellie, and tells her that “her boyfriend Jinx is putting the moves on Cass”.

Ellie dismisses it — “he’s not my boyfriend” — but we can see that she’s fuming over this news.  More conflict created!

Back inside, Jinx has extricated himself from the situation and is going down the hallway looking for a restroom.  He accidentally opens the doorway to a spare room in the lake house where Lucas’ dad, Paul, is running on a treadmill. Jinx is embarrassed by the interruption, but Paul waves him in eagerly.  He stops the treadmill, and Jinx apologizes for the intrusion. Paul says he needed to stop anyway.  Can run and run all he wants on it, but never gets anywhere.  A little bit of subtext towards Jinx, who is intending to run away from this small town at the first chance he gets, but will he really get anywhere if he does?

Paul shows Jinx a picture on the wall.  It’s of Jinx and Lucas working at the hardware store.  Paul reminds Jinx that Jinx helped Lucas get a job with his parents’ business.  Kept him away from some bad people (like Hunter) at a time in his life when Lucas really needed it.  Jinx says he just wanted someone fun to work with during the summer.  Maybe it worked out for both of them.

And now we go on in for a reinforcement of why Jinx wants to leave.  Paul asks about Jinx taking over the parents’ business someday and Jinx fidgits for a response. “I get it. Not your thing.” Jinx is surprised at that reaction.

“So what are you doing instead?”
“Going to college,” Jinx replies.
“And?”
“That’s as far as I’ve gotten.”
“Well, that’ll be further than a lot of the kids in this town. This place is a black hole. Unless you get far enough away from it, you’re sucked in permanently.”

We’ve now established that even the adults in this town know that if you stay here, you’re stuck here, and that Jinx needs to go.

We’ll keep you updated on what we’re going to do with Jinx’ character, and I’ll be updating the post on screenwriting software soon!

 

Trying to Shake up the Outline

We’ll provide the second part regarding our overview of screenwriting programs soon, but our outline still beckons and I’m having some hesitation with where it is going at the moment.  I felt like it would have a different feel to it; Rick and I wanted a high school version of “It’s a Wonderful Life” — a feel-good story that could be easily made.

Right now it has taken on a darker tone and there’s a little bit of drift going on. From the one-pager we originally wrote for the premise, I think we have Acts I and III pretty much figured out, but Act II is getting to be a little bit of a struggle.

Here’s the dilemma. Our main character, Jinx, is determined to get out — forever — from the small town he’s lived all his life.  He was involved in an accident that killed his friend Nick, a popular student at school, and he feels like he’s always going to be “that guy” — and that he’ll never be forgiven for what he’s done.  Plus, he has bigger dreams than just running the family hardware business for the rest of his life and living amongst all these same people who do the same things every day.

small town.jpg

The trick, of course, is how do you show that? You can’t just have him talk about it for an hour and a half. That would be utterly boring and no producer would want to make it.  So we have to come up with devices to show his frustration, his dismay.  I think you can show it in pictures; for example, in the opening I envision Jinx, Ellie and Tate driving through the small town on the way to the party and the visuals show it as a drab, lifeless place.  And the way he sees it is the way we see it as well, so that we can empathize with him

ND high school dance

Maybe at the party we show the students as all acting alike, or thinking alike.  Or, like in “Napoleon Dynamite” (one of my all-time favorite movies), when they show up for the dance, the decorations and the way the students dress scream out “small town”. The same could be done here.  You can’t completely spell what the art direction for a movie — that’s the Art Director and Costume Designer’s jobs — but you can drop clues as to what the tone and look and feel is.  For example, when describing the town they’re driving through, it’s enough to say that “it feels as if they’re driving through a town stuck in the 1960’s,” or “mom and pop shops line the deserted main street.”  No need to over describe here.

Of course, at some point Jinx will have to verbally express his emotions at times — but expositional dialogue in a movie is boring to listen to.  So what he says needs to have impact in a way that we’ll feel it with him and that we’re not just listening to an actor recite some lines.  I have an idea that I need to share with Rick — I’m currently writing this 30,000 feet in the air flying to Seattle from Houston — and it might be a game changer.  Will see if I can convince Rick to buy in on this — stay tuned!

Part One – The Unending Question: Which Screenwriting Software to Use?

Celtx Final Draft image MMSW

Writer Duet     Fade In  Trelby

I’ve been asked what software I use for writing and for outlining, and what would I suggest for new writers who want to get into screenwriting but either can’t afford the top-end programs or don’t want to spend money on something that they may not get a lot of use from.

This is an endless debate that goes on and on and you will never find anyone that will give you the definitive answer on what program to use.  There will be people out there who tell you that you can do just fine with free software or web-based writing tools, like WriterDuet or Celtx, and others that tell you that if you have any hope of working with industry professionals, you’ll need professional software like Final Draft or Movie Magic Screenwriter.

Let’s start with the easy proposition, which is: outlining.  You do NOT need any professional software to outline.  You can handwrite on a legal pad, use note cards, or my preference, writing in Microsoft Word.  Of course, Word is not a free software, put if you have an iPad, you probably have “Pages”, which is fairly close.  I use Word because I can type and type and type my garbage draft outline, edit things easily, copy and paste, and use their pre-formatted outlining tool.  I can also easily send a copy of my draft to my writing partner, Rick, and he can edit it and add his own notes.  Can’t do that with a legal pad or Post It Notes!   It is a convenient tool and I highly recommend it.

 

But what about outlining software, you might ask?  Software that helps you develop your outline and characters?  I’ve looked at them and even tried a couple just to see what they were about.  Some of the ones out there that you may have heard of are Plot Control, Contour, Dramatica,  and Outline 4D.

These Plot Controlprograms are designed to help you along in the outlining process by asking you questions.  For example, Plot Control will prompt you to answer questions like “What is the unique or significant event that is happening to the main character?” or “What is the main character’s personal goal and what obstacles are preventing the character from achieving it?”  Answering these questions will supposedly help you propel the narrative forward and essentially get you a completed outline.  I’ve tried it and found that while the prompts help with explaining different stages of the story, like the “inciting incident,” and is somewhat easy in use, the layout is a little boring and is not great with providing many examples to help in the use.

Contour prompts you along on each of the plot points and sets up a series of “Yes/No” situations to create drama and conflicts for the characters.  Contour is good in that it can help in creating hurdles for your protagonist, and it provides a lot of examples to explain each question prompt (as well aContours provide a lot of completed storylines from actual movies so you can observe what the outline should look like).  The downside I have with it is that it seems to force you into a given scenario or type of film.  For example, every main character seems to have to be faced with either a literal or metaphorical “death” to propel the story along.  It’s a bit overdone, especially if you’re trying to write a comedy or lighter indie-film.

DramaticaDramatica is the most highly detailed of all and incredibly difficult to use.  It’s gets into a lot of minutia for something that should be a fairly short process.   You have to define your characters, get into a ton of options for what the character’s journey is, and then start building in the supporting characters and their journey.  You could have literally hundreds of different options at your disposal, which is great, but it is so confusing and frustrating to use that you’ll likely give up on it after an hour of use.  They do have videos explanations on how to use the software, but honestly, if you have to watch hours of explanations to write out your outline, then maybe this software isn’t for you.  Listen, they have a lot of people that swear by it, so maybe you just have to try their free trial version for yourself to see.  Note that the Windows and Mac versions are radically different – the Mac version is the more souped-up one.

If you just want a straightforward outlining program, then perhaps you can try Outline 4d.  It has a dual way of outlining, either in timeline version or a more standard outline. The timeline Outline 4dversion has the ability to show you, theoretically, how you’re progressing in terms of minutes into the movie with the various stages of your outline.  Thus, you can see whether your Act I is running forty minutes long (that’s too long!).  It’s a little distracting with the visuals in timeline.  The standard outline is more what you’re likely used to and you can type away to your heart’s delight.  The outline is pre-formatted so you don’t have to think, really, just type.  They also have several examples, like “Thelma and Louise,” that they have pre-populated in the program to show what your outline should ultimately look like.  It does not provide you any prompts or explain what certain elements of the story are, so it’s not very useful from that standpoint.

I should point out here that several of the screenwriting programs, like Final Draft and Movie Magic Screenwriter, have developed ways for you to create story notes and index cards within their program, so you don’t necessarily need an outlining program if you just prefer jotting notes down as you go.

For me the bottom line on all these programs is that these programs might be helpful in prompting questions you may not have been thinking of, but ultimately, you have to understand that they don’t write the story for you.  They can only provide the prompt, and if you need a program to ask you questions about a story you should already know, then maybe the problem is your story and your whole creative thinking process.  Your brain is the most important software you need, and if you can’t creatively craft a story without prompting from a piece of software, you’re never going to be able to get that story into a quality script.

My suggestion is you spend time with however you write, whether on a laptop, on a legal pad, or what have you, and begin with your idea.  Think about how you want it to begin and how you want it to end.   If it helps, write down your beginning on one side of a piece of paper, and the ending on the other side of the paper, and draw a line from that beginning to the end.  Now draw about 5 or 6 up and down lines through that line.  These will represent roadblocks for your characters (every main character needs roadblocks to hinder his journey) and it’s up to you to figure out how to get your character around these roadblocks.  This is a simple process and can help you more clearly define your story and build your outline!

In addition, spend some time writing two or three line descriptions about your main characters.  Once you’ve done that, go back and re-read them critically.  Do they all look like the same character?  Do they all have the same traits?  One helpful trick on this is to ask yourself the question:  What if this movie was about them, rather than the main character?  How would it be different?  How would they react in the same situations? Shining a light on the supporting characters and their unique roles can provide you with a richer, fuller, more dynamic movie.

In Part Two of this post, we’ll talk about screenwriting software programs and which ones we prefer.

Reaching the Midpoint of the Outline

We’re still balancing work life and family life and writing life in trying to finish our outline.  I’m sure this is never an issue for you (ducks as you hurl projectiles at my head), but it’s constantly something we all need to juggle as we try to conjure up things creatively.

I’m a big believer that a well-balanced life makes for a well-balanced writer.   If all you know if your work life or family life, that’s going to be reflected in your writing, as your world experience tends to color your writing style.  Maybe you’re the exception, maybe you can handle 14 hour work days and 6 hours of sleep, trying to cram in a couple of hours of writing in between fast food meals.  But what will that writing look like?

If you have an unbalanced life, take a look at some of your writing and see if it’s not having an effect. Better yet, have someone you trust to read it and give you an honest assessment of what’s in there. If it’s off in any way, take some time to go out and doing something enjoyable.  Hike.  Go to a baseball game.  Binge watch “Ozark”.  Drink some beers with friends.  Once your head is cleared of all the unhealthy crap, then you can be more productive.

So back to the outline.  When we last left our friends, Lucas and Hunter were having a little disagreement over whose side Lucas was on.  After Lucas sides with Jinx, Hunter tells his guys to be wary of him because he could get in the way.

Time to create some more complications for Jinx.

Music is playing and students are dancing.  Lucas asks Ellie to dance and she agrees. As they dance, Jinx watches them from the house through a window.  He thinks Lucas has feelings for Ellie.  He’s distracted as Cass walks behind him.  She sits on a couch and beckons Jinx.  He gives in to the temptation, goes over and sits down.

After the dance is over, Lucas tells Ellie about the picture on the mantle.  Ellie says that was the trip where Nick almost got ticketed for underage drinking and Jinx talked the cop out of it.  As they talk, Ellie folds a napkin, making a flower out of it.  She attaches it to a straw and sticks it in Lucas’ drink.  “What’s this?” asks Lucas.  Ellie isn’t even aware she was doing it. “Oh, that.  It’s a flower for your drink. Jinx used to always be annoyed that the Mexican restaurant that didn’t put a flower or umbrella in my virgin pina coladas and so he would make me one out of a napkin.  Guess I just picked up on it.” Lucas is a bit put off that everything is becoming about Jinx.

Back in the house, Cass makes small talk with Jinx.  When the small talk stalls, she gets more direct: “What’s the deal with you and Ellie?” Jinx is nothing if not honest, and tells her that at one time, he thought she might be the one, but now he’s basically resigned to just moving on – he’s leaving everything behind here, including her.  “Well,” Cass replies, “Maybe you ought to create a new memory you can take with you,” and slides her hand over to his leg.  Jinx is uncomfortable.

Hunter watches Cass and Jinx from across the room. Cass and Hunter’s eyes meet, and they share a conspiratorial smile.  Jinx sees Hunter, and as Cass slides in closer to Jinx, he extricates himself from the situation, embarrassed.

We’re now creating several scenarios where things could go wrong.  Hunter and Jinx, Lucas butting heads with Hunter, Cass interfering potentially between Jinx and Ellie, and whether Jinx and Ellie can truly express their feelings before it’s too late.

As we head into the second half of Act II, we’ll continue ramping up these tensions.  If you have any comments about how it’s going so far we’d love to hear them!

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.

sitting_dock_ocean-7371

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.