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Thanks for checking out my blog.

Herein I’ll be sharing tips on the art of communicating clear ideas through many channels and means.  This includes tips on writing fiction, storytelling concepts, writing screenplays, and some communication strategies gleaned from working for about fifteen years as a copywriter in ad agencies.

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Thanks for reading!

The Premise

It’s my belief that, in a very real sense, we create our world through the stories we tell – both to ourselves (inner dialogue) and to each other (confirmation). Make no mistake: THIS IS POWERFUL STUFF!

Storytelling is a phenomenal act with the potential to be full of raw courage and move the world (or at least the heart)  – or make you lighten up for a moment and forget your own tragedies. All the Archetypes are here – in every one of us. That is why seeking/using/hearing stories is so instinctual, why we know it in our guts when we have something good – or if it doesn’t ring true.

Storytelling is empowering. We can tell whatever stories we want, which makes us the Creators here in this world that we all live in, as well as the worlds within that eternally come along for the ride.

I will be updating and posting with an eye toward quality, not quantity, and promise to keep my articles informative, quick and hopefully helpful.

Collaboration is a joy to me, which is why I do what I do, so don’t hesitate to connect. Browse around, leave comments. I’m happy to reply to messages.

Email inquiries to:  abmonfort@yahoo.com


TranscendenceNot too long ago, I saw Johnny Depp’s movie, “Transcendence,” in the theater. I tried to think of a joke using the title that would describe how I felt while in the audience. Nap-tendence-y? I’m still working on it. I did catch myself squirming in my seat multiple times, longing for the movie to end. It was easy to pin why: I never cared. Not one bit. Who ARE these confusing and confused intellectuals explaining quantum computing and their love to us with equal raised eyebrow-time? The story structure didn’t invest in exposing the tender underbellies of the protagonists in an ordinarily human way for us to care about what happened to them during the subsequent and oh-so-long remainder of the film.

I went to the theater without reading any reviews, but reading them afterward, they echoed my experience. We love Depp. We love his movies. We all struggled to understand this movie because we wanted to love Depp in this one, too. But as the lights went up, a young man sitting in my aisle turned to his friend, his face aghast, and said, “So…the end of all technology is supposed to be some kind of ‘happy ending’!!?” (That’s not a spoiler. It’s where the film opens). Actually, I suppose the best thing you could say about the film is that the story structure follows a classic full circle: where it starts is where it ends, but in this case, that’s not an emotionally satisfying or even very clear beginning.

Besides registering as emotionally vapid, the story offered no unique message. “Beware of technology,” it seemed to say. Well, okay. How long have we been hearing that one? Since Charlie Chaplan’s “Modern Times?” The movie did not offer any solid emotional connections whatsoever: watch the girl scientist stumble-run down Kubrick-meets-Fellini-like hallways (repeatedly) as her dead husband’s projected yet self-aware cyber-image follows and watches her, wherever she goes…a love story!? Even the leading lady thought her cyber-love was creepy. How are WE supposed to feel any different? Over the whole of it, the movie was either emotionally confusing, barren, or skirting on repugnant. Give me a break. How the heck are we supposed to care against all that? There was too much emotional distance and muddy fields for an audience to overcome.

How important is it to get an audience invested in your characters? How important is eliciting an emotional response from an audience? How important is it to dig around so you can tell an emotionally honest story that others can feel? Evoking emotion in your audience, however you do it, is more important than any other single element in storytelling, whether you’re writing a novel or a screenplay, or even writing a damn TV commercial.

Here’s a very real-world example of why I believe this holds true, and not just for me:

Many years ago, I was invited to guest-judge adult fiction entries for the Kay Snow Award, given yearly by the Willamette Writers Group, based in Portland, Oregon. WW, as the members like to call it, is the largest and oldest writer’s group in the United States, which seems natural given that it was founded in a city containing a street hosting more published-author’s residences than any other street in our country. In addition to its plethora of traditionally published authors, Portland is a city populated by avid, cultivated and educated readers. Do a book signing event in Portland, and you best be ready for a crowd asking relevant questions about nuances you wrote deep in subtext that you thought only you noticed. So, being invited to judge adult fiction entries for this particular contest in this particular city was an honor, like receiving a seal of approval on one’s perspectives from a long-established, respected, and focused institution.

It was the first time I had been invited to judge any kind of writing contest, and I anticipated stumbling across great, undiscovered talent, of being humbled in the face of what would surely be impressive submissions to such an esteemed competition. 75-manuscripts (20-pages each) were handed to me at the WW Office, along with a printed page of judging guidelines, and a twinkle from the eye of WW’s mascot, office manager, and skilled author in his own right, Bill Johnson, who invited me to help with judging after reading some of my short stories.

He loosed the heavy box of submissions into my arms, stepped back, and nudged his aviator frame glasses back up the bridge of his nose. “You’ll need to decide on first, second and third places from these entries,” he said. “No pressure.” He chuckled. “There are other adult fiction judges, so all submissions are read by more than one judge, to keep things fair. It’s all anonymous. Nobody knows who else is judging, and there are no names on the manuscripts, just numbers for tracking. You’ve got two months. Most find that’s plenty of time.”

Once home, I dug in, unconvinced by Bill’s declaration that two months was long enough to contemplate and judge all 75-entries entrusted to me. What happened next stunned me. I reduced the pile of 75 to only 20 in about one hour! Entry after entry stumbled and bumbled so poorly across their first 3-pages that I read no further. It was painfully obvious that these quick eliminations could not hope to contend against even a dry yet skillfully written submission. The most common mistakes of the unpublished were presented like a tic list in bold letters. Next!

Judging the remaining twenty entries was where volunteering became work. It took another two weeks to cut those twenty to twelve, with many quiet, coffee-fueled reveries on each one. This is where the mountain got steep. All remaining entries were diverse in genre, all had strong merits. Unknown to me at the time, some remaining entries were already sold to publishing houses, such was the quality of the survivors, but eventually, I had to offer my opinion on which three stories should win and place, and back my decisions with a written explanation. My decisions would be hedged by those of the other two judges reading the same entries as I, but knowing that didn’t lessen my sense of determination to offer the most honest and professional assessment possible, no matter how green I was to this judging process.

After much deliberation, twelve became six. Now I was comparing tales with conscious applications of deep craft, all worthy of going to print just as they were, except for one humble story that gained entry to the pile of contenders in a manner vastly different, so different that no other remaining entry was in the same class. I had mysteries, check. A few of those. Crime thrillers, yes. All very well-crafted. Some brilliant short stories. One exploring modern concepts of fidelity that was very strong, acerbic and clever. So what was this little, bedraggled, grammar-challenged story that would not let me toss it aside for its petty sins? How could this piece that needed line-editing and polishing still be in the running with all these other stories that were honed to perfection, especially now, with the criteria so narrow and refined?

In the end, the bedraggled little story won. I had to do it. It was a brutally honest, gut-wrenching, gut-driven share, completely absent of false notes. This author was not trying to imitate the voice of any known, successful author. This author was not imitating any formulaic structure. No, this author shared a story based on a childhood memory, told by a damaged and authentic voice, with a decision to be made left hanging and unknown for an ending. The brave refusal of the author to offer any trite and easy answers was perfect, appropriate, and thought-provoking. Sure, it had grammar issues, but the story itself hit me hard emotionally and stuck with me emotionally, and it was the only story to do so with such quiet intensity and authenticity. In this sense, of the 75 contestants, it was unique.

After deliberating over the second and third places and finally choosing those, I submitted my findings to WW, and spoke with Bill about my experience. I shared my surprise that so many entries were just bad writing, easily eliminated from the list of contenders, and how I had expected better from this competition.

“I’ve been told by agents that the mix of writing skill one tends to see in competitions closely reflects the mix of quality in what they see submitted to them as literary agents,” he shared.

Really!? That single fact should give hope to anyone reading this who has worked on their craft. You’re already above the fray. Strike an emotional chord that can resonate with most readers, and you’ll be miles above the rest.

After all the judges’ votes were tallied, I had yet another surprise: the entries I chose to win and place in adult fiction were the entries that won those spots. Apparently, the other judges were as smitten by the honesty and fragility of the childhood memory piece as I had been. Like me, they decided the emotional impact of the story was more important than the occasional mistake in grammar, and therein is the moral of this story: whomever strikes a resounding emotional chord, wins.

Make Your Audience Care (dammit).

Easily typed, not easily done, I know. But this is the one single thing you can strive to accomplish in your storytelling that will help your work rise above the rest, whether submitting manuscripts or screenplays, to anyone, anywhere. If accomplished, this single feat will more than compensate for other errors your story might contain. Errors can be fixed and whining darlings slain. That’s why we need editors and other eyes on our work. But evoking emotion? That’s the job that only the author can wrest from their heart or their gut, and it’s where the magic lies, where your success resides, and where the keys to the kingdom are hidden.

You must, must, must make your readers care about your characters in order for your story to succeed. It’s up to you to figure out how to do that. Exposing a character’s vulnerabilities – the earlier in your story, the better – is a popular method. Exposing their vulnerabilities allows for natural human feelings of compassion and/or sympathy with your character. But if you don’t create a distinct and solid emotional connection between your protagonist/s and your audience early in your story, it doesn’t matter what calamities they must overcome, because nobody cares. Go ahead. Drop a bus on ‘em. But really, we so want to care. Heck, we paid for the experience! But the author/screenwriter must TAKE us there and MAKE us care about the characters they torture for our entertainment.

All this said, there are a few fiction elements and structures I can think of that tend to inherently create emotional distance. Not what you want, these are elements best left in deft and proven hands. In other words, if you are not thoroughly seasoned, critiqued and found adept, don’t try this in your own document.

Emotional Killers:

Heavy Dialogue. Talking head type of heavy dialogue is a killer for so many reasons. I got started on this topic after watching Depp’s “Transcendence.” Science fiction is often plagued with this problem due to the need to explain alien worlds with which readers are unfamiliar. Dialogue that explains is referred to as ‘exposition,’ and this is frowned upon for good reason. There are better ways to bring the audience into your worlds, and techniques that apply to film as well as fiction, such as ‘show, don’t tell.’ But heavy dialogue stories are also capable of delivering clever intimacy, such as what was achieved in “My Dinner with Andre.” Many films by Richard Linklater, for example, also skirt that razor edge of too-much dialogue in such a way that he exposes common frustrations and creates dramatic tension! Heavy dialogue requires fabulous actors with a great director to pull off in a film, as well, and I’m not sure any novelist can fill tens of pages with dialogue without losing tens of reams of readers. Best to avoid creating manuscripts of soliloquies. Even Tarantino went too far with his diatribes in “Kill Bill.” If he can’t do it…you know…so tighten your dialogue as much as you can stand, cut and cut, and let your deepest philosophies pump up the volume from deep within your subtext and plot. When it comes to dialogue, less is most definitely more. A grimace of pain from our hero makes us feel more for sympathy for him than we would feel if he was bitching for two minutes about it.

Inciting Incident and Action – Too Early.  Here again is where I think “Transcendence” failed. We are hit with a dreadful scenario immediately in the movie opening, and informed that, somehow, our leading couple, our protagonists whom we have yet to meet, are responsible for it all. Yikes! Emotionally, in the audience, our leading characters get a minus 10-points before we meet. The world is completely trashed now, so they must be jerks in some way, right? Then the story flashes back in time (the whole movie is a flashback), and we see the supposedly ‘loving couple’ cuddling in their lush garden that we already know is now vacant, dead, and in ruins like every other garden for a thousand miles. Pushing the protagonists even further from our emotional grasp, their ‘love’ reads as cool and intellectual, not flesh and desperate blood, (a lack of chemistry, perhaps?), and we know that our ‘creepy couple’ ruin the whole damn world in the end (since that’s how the story begins). The rest of the film shows us what happened, but we never really find a reason to like the scientist couple who destroy the world over their oh-so-special-but-we-don’t-get-why-love, so we don’t have the means to care. While the subject matter of the movie asked the audience to contemplate the nature of life and consciousness, and the changes that new technology might mean in the near future, the story failed to engage because it failed to connect.

Action movies also tend to hurl us into the plot before letting us in on and close to the protagonist. I suppose if you can get away with a lack of emotional connection, it might be in an action movie, but if you look at the best action movies, ones with real heart, like “Die Hard,” which is as much of a love story as an action story, you can easily see the difference that an emotional connection can make.

Regardless of our styles of word crafting and story structure, regardless of the genre in which we revel, in order for our audience to remain open to the spells we weave, we must connect them EMOTIONALLY with our characters before we hurl them all into hell. No modern storyteller can hope to pierce the toughened hide of a modern audience without FIRST evoking a sense of compassion and sympathy with their characters. Only then will audiences sit still and give a damn as we proclaim and illuminate some human truth through our characters’ struggles, choices, and metaphor-laden fates.

Strike an emotional chord in your writing like your career depends on it, because in many ways, for fiction writers and screenwriters, it actually does.

 


Image

Why? Because we all do.

Everybody lies at some point in their life. So should your characters.

Maybe you have a character who lies all the time and doesn’t even know they’re doing it, like one of the world’s great pathological liars, Blanche DuBois, of Tennessee Williams‘, A Streetcar Named Desire. She’s desperately tortured and flawed, and there is no richer loam for creating life-like beings who tantalize us and endure, to say nothing of making for classic roles pursued by the best actors.

There are also levels of using lying as well as types of liars. Some characters might do nothing but lie to advance a specific goal, something you usually find in plot-driven genres such as Thrillers and Mysteries. Lies can drive a plot or can be used for creating a second act reversal in a screenplay or plot twist in a novel.

Some characters lie on the deepest levels – to themselves – which initiates painful inner dissonance and thereby creates the inner drama that great writing requires. I’m thinking more literary fiction and scripted dramas here, which certainly includes our dear Blanche. Literary fiction also loans itself to the flip side of the lie, when a character is challenged by what they feel is true and it is the world that lies to them, such as Carissa Dalloway in Virginia Woolf‘s Mrs. Dalloway.

See where I’m going with this? Knowing what kind of liar your protagonist is and their relationship to falsehoods spun adds muscle and connective tissue to the skeleton of your character.

Some characters might lie for intellectual speculation and entertainment, such as the billionaire manipulator, Maurice Conchis, in The Magus by John Fowles. That character went to great lengths to sustain a string of lies; no illusion too costly or elaborate, and for no reason other than to satisfy his insatiable curiosity about human behavior. The lies of Conchis become a frustrating maze for the narrator/protagonist whose adult life has been shaped by a deep and persistent pattern of lying to himself. In The Magus,  lies reflect character motive and arc while driving the plot entirely. This method of weaving a tale made the truth revealed at the end all the more dramatic.

Maybe you have a character who is like most of us: not above bending the truth to save someone’s feelings, avoid judgment or to elude anticipated punishment should the truth be revealed, yet who essentially believes in candor and strives for honesty with others. In this case, can a white lie lead to real trouble?

Conversely, a character may set high stock on always being honest, wherein the act of lying has a deeper trigger and meaning and must be foresworn, even at great cost. In this sense, there is opportunity to put that character into a situation where they MUST lie, for whatever loaded reason, or suffer unbearable consequences. For a resolutely honest character, a lie can be an arc, inciting incident and/or plot twist.

So, the next time you’re building a character, doing back story to help you know them better, ask yourself:  what kind of liar is this character? Is it a big deal if they lie? Or does it roll out of them second nature, like a con artist? Are they emotionally invested in their lies? Do they consciously choose to lie, or is it pathological? What are they protecting or advancing when they lie? Are they good or bad at it? Will their lies backfire? How do their lies affect the secondary characters? And so on. This is a revealing thread to pull…

If your story is populated with mostly honest people but you want to write gripping dialogue (and who doesn’t?), ask yourself what each character really wants during the scene, and how they will lie or withhold information about that to the other/s. This will help you avoid any “on the nose” dialogue (where people say exactly what they want and mean), which can come across as wooden and (ironically) false.

I’m not saying that you need to create an entire premise based on lies alone, although playwright David Mamet would say it’s been done, as would author John Le Carre and screenwriter/director Chris McQuarrie, to name only a few.

Defining how your characters’ lies shape them and how you can use the act of lying to develop your plot might seem counter-intuitive, given how we seek to strike notes of honesty, to write from our guts, but this exercise will open entirely new perspectives AND DEPTH in your work.

Would I lie to you?  ;-)



Screenwriter of: Edward Scissorhands/The Addams Family/The Nightmare before Christmas/Black Beauty/Corpse Bride.

The Ballroom for this event was predictably packed with those eager to hear words of inspiration and career insights from this iconic screenwriter known mostly for her work with director Tim Burton. As she sat on the stage and shared her early childhood stories, I was immediately reminded of the character Scout, from To Kill a Mockingbird, and was a bit surprised when she eluded to feeling sympatico with that character herself. She was present at AFF 2011 to receive the AFF “Distinguised Screenwriter” award, presented to her by Johnny Depp, and to promote her new company, Small and Creepy Films. (www.smallandcreepy.com).

Caroline said that, since the age of four, she knew she wanted to “cast spells” with images and stories, adding that she has found that life is not about self-discovery, but about self-creation. She also said that every story she writes is essentially about dogs. “I think I was a dog in another life. All I want to write about is dogs,” Thompson said, citing her family dog as a remarkable animal who profoundly influenced her point of view from an early age.

Her first novel, First Born (1993) was inspired by a remark made to her by her mother, a woman not known for her tact or sensitivity of expression to others. As Caroline put it, the book was about an abortion that comes back to life to haunt its mother. Given Caroline’s proclivity to craft strange tales about strange characters, it seemed quite apropos that she would begin her writer’s journey with such a quirky fable. Yet, as she shared her writer’s journey, we got that her work is truly an honest extension of how she experiences life.

Of course, she had her share of Hollywood horror stories, saying that she has been fired five times from various projects over the course of her screenwriting career, and outright betrayed on a few occasions, saying, “I’ve learned not to put my soul in Hollywood’s way.”

She kept us laughing and amazed at her resilience, tossing off the hurt and disappointment, always focusing on what she wanted to do as a storyteller. On genre writing, she said, “Whatever it is that feeds you, let it feed you. Your only job is to find your voice.”

She also offered tips on dealing with various rights of passage to those who aspire to be screenwriters. On dealing with nerves before pitching, she said, “I just pretend it’s my cocktail party, and it’s my job to make them (studio execs) comfortable.”

For novelists and writers of fiction, she offered the tip that, when you sell a book, if you ask for the rights back after ten years, they have to give them back to you.

On getting through a complete screenplay, she outlined her own process. “I race through the first draft,” she said, “writing five pages a day before I let myself stop.” She said she doesn’t force herself to write more, even if she is inclined because she has learned that five pages a day is the right pace for her, adding that all writers have to find what works best for them. “My first draft is done in a month,” she said, then shared that she revises it about five times before she ever shows it to anyone else.

On creativity and finding that in oneself, she said, “Everything we do all day long is a creative act.” A remarkable, independent artist, when she said this, I’m pretty certain that everyone in the audience believed her.


Panelists:Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver (The Hand that Rocks the Cradle/Rise of The Planet of the Apes), Rhett Reese (Monsters, Inc./Zombieland), Alvaro Rodriguez (From Dusk ’til Dawn/Machete).

The room was packed as these four screenwriter panelists took their seats, and it’s no surprise. Horror is one of the most popular movie genres, translating better to other countries and cultures than other movie genres do. Horror has fans worldwide, and many aspiring screenwriters seek to break into Hollywood by building on familiar horror concepts – and adding a fresh twist to come up with something that audiences haven’t seen before.

Interestingly, the panel started by trying to define the meaning of the word “genre.” They all seemed at a loss with that, so here’s the definition.

Genre: A category of artistic composition, as in music or literature, marked by a distinctive style, form, or content. Taken from the latin root, genus, which in our case would be defined as: a class, group, or kind with common attributes.

Since we’re talking about Horror films here, we must assume the common attribute would be films that scare us, right? That was the next discussion: why do we like films that scare us? Why do people flock to theaters to be scared? The consensus was that the frightening things we see on the screen are always much worse than the fears we carry during our typical day. In this sense, a scary movie is cathartic. We get to scream and release our fears in a safe and mutually supportive environment, and that acts as an emotional release. That’s why people love scary movies.

And what scares us the most? The panel as a whole felt that fear is more profound when based on real or grounded possibilities. A normal day, a normal room and an old lady crawling like a fly on the ceiling sort of thing. It’s creepy. With the supernatural, the panel felt that content is more frightening when the events are grounded in reality. The panel cited the recent movie, Paranormal Events, but personally, that movie bored me, and was only scary during the last five minutes. That’s not structure that works for me, but you get the idea. For me, The Exorcist was much more effective as a supernatural thriller.

Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver spoke at length about how they came up with the idea for Rise of the Planet of the Apes by extrapolating on a character (Cesar) from the original movie Planet of the Apes, and using that character as a protagonist for a prequel story on how the chimps got smart to begin with through laboratory experiments, and how they escaped. They said it was really fun to devise a protagonist that could get an audience cheering for the apes instead of the humans.

Alvaro Rodriguez said he considers his genre (Dusk ’til Dawn/Machete) more exploitation than horror, and said he enjoys writing in that genre because he finds it very freeing. Everything is possible. You can throw everything at it – even the kitchen sink.

Rhett Reese (Zombieland) commented on how his latest is more of a comedy than a zombie movie, and that was what he intended – to make a comedic zombie movie as a way to reinvent the genre. He also cited the convenience of using what has been done before in the sense that nobody has to explain what a vampire or a zombie is before getting into the story, so you can build upon the past, and use it to launch right into your new ideas.

And the last bit of advice to writers trying to break in was one of those that I heard repeatedly throughout the conference and from many panelists.

RULE #1 FOR NEW WRITERS: Make sure that your first effort is a genre you love writing, because if it succeeds, you’ll be riding that genre wave for the next several years of your screenwriting career.


From the movie: Winter's Bone

Pamela Gray (credits as long as your arm with “twenty good scripts gathering dust in my garage,”) was honest and hilarious about writing stories told from a woman’s point of view, as well as seeing them through production. A bit of horror from the trenches launched the room into bursts of laughter over the difficulty in getting a female orgasm shown on the screen – if she’s over 40. Doesn’t matter if that’s the spine. But you had to be there. She shared keen insights on female mythology differing a bit within the classic Hero’s Journey.

Elizabeth Hunter (as in Director of Development for Universal-Apollo 13-Clockers-Crooklyn-Twelve Monkeys-Jumping The Broom and so very much more) was an elegant foil, with a lot on structure, plus lifting the skirt on writing and producing stories from the ethnic woman’s point of view.

Wish you were there for this powerful duo. Really. Hunter and Gray could take it on the road.

Pamela Gray

  •  The good news is, in 2008, four women were nominated for an Oscar for their original screenplays. That was big news for women. And it’s good to remind yourself of the positives. As often as possible.
  •  Forget all the reasons not to, and write female characters that the best actresses will want to play. (Jim Uhls also advised creating actor-attracting characters as a means to break into Hollywood. We see a pattern, here).

Elizabeth Hunter

  •  Everything starts with structure and story. If you don’t nail that, you’ll be called on it.
  • What stories should you tell? Pay attention to the stories you tell yourself over and over. Those are probably the stories you should tell. Just write the stories that you want to “tell to the world.” Movies told from a female perspectives are all “a story about a woman who…”

Conversation between Hunter & Gray

  • Unfortunate fact, but make sure your female protag, no matter what she’s dealing with or initiating, has a core that’s likable, as in a bad woman but a good mom. Both said if you don’t, you’ll get lots of notes to make your tortured fem “redeemable” and that as within a narrow confine of what execs might see as acceptable. (I guess that’s why, if she’s bad, she better be a hottie – if you want your film to be made).
  • TELEPLAY WRITERS: Take note. Television is friendlier towards a wider variety of interesting, female-driven stories than Hollywood is for film. (Note: If you’ve only written screenplays, you might want to do some reading on the 7-act structures required for accommodating the ad placements in network television. Grittier material would gravitate toward the cable market, without ads, so same 3-act structure as film applies for cable without ads).
  • Both panelists said they often return to reading favorite classic and contemporary feminine-perspective stories as those written by: Georgia Elliot, Emily Bronte, Jane Austin and Toni Morrison. (This is just what I wrote down, and does not reflect the full scope of all they cited as favorite authors).
  •  Structure holds everything together. Both panelists recommended “Writing Screenplays that Sell,” by Hal Ackerman, with Gray swearing by Ackerman’s Scene-o-gram for ensuring structure.

Pamela Gray

For those familiar with the archetypes in storytelling, understand that the Female Protagonist’s classic Hero’s Journey is a bit different than it is when using the same story arc for a male protagonist.

  •  In many aspects, the world itself is more repressing for a woman than it is for a man, so environment is often at least one of the female protag’s Antagonists or Threshold Guardians.
  • In the Call to Adventure, the female protag often says no to “the call” more than once before she finally succumbs and goes on her Journey. Her extra hesitation reads natural. The female protag is often more heavily invested in community and family than the male protag, so she has more at stake in leaving all that behind to pursue her Adventure.
  • The Mentor or Ally is different for women. Often more intimate and unexpected. It can be a friend who, without a clue, chirps in with bulls-eye honest insights. And who is capable of delivering the Betrayal 2nd Act Reversal from the Ally and/or Mentor, which occurs in both the classic Hero’s Journey story arc and in most good screenplay structure. (For the male protag, an example of that moment of betrayal/reversal might be “Obi Wan Kanobi dies without giving Luke the further training and help that he feels he desperately needs).
  • Threshold Guardian (can be antagonist): In a woman’s story, this can also come from intimate sources. It can often be her spouse who challenges her level of commitment (think Norma Rae). You rarely if ever find the spouse playing this role in the male Hero’s Journey.
  • Returning with The Prize and Sharing that with Community. This is the returning home conclusion in the Hero’s Journey story arc. A return home to share what she has learned and won is a very natural action for the Heroine’s Journey protagonist to take. It’s nearly a foregone conclusion.

The panel included an excited announcement about Hunter and Gray ganging up to offer a one-hour long series online entitled: Pitching: Making it Happen. Time on that TBD.

We wait with baited breath, and will share as soon as we know. Until then, may your female protagonists continue to push the envelope on what we expect from a buncha women.


Any lover of film, as well as audiences all over the world, have enjoyed the work of this legendary writer/producer/director. He spoke to a SRO crowd in a stuffy, cramped room; with all of us happy to bear the discomfort in order to hear what he had to say.

Mr. Kasdan’s movie credits include: Body Heat, The Accidental Tourist, The Big Chill, Wyatt Earp, Silverado, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi and The Bodyguard. He fought against a Hollywood system early on (that didn’t and still doesn’t understand the ensemble story) in order to make The Big Chill, a movie that MUST be studied if you want to write a script giving equal weight to every character. He helped George Lucas continue the Star Wars saga to become some of the most successful and influential movies ever made. But I suspect most of us were there out of love and respect for Kasdan’s body of work, and how he has kept alive the flame of art within his work throughout the years. I wish I had taken more notes, but here’s what I did scribble down during his wonderful talk. Make sure you attend his panels if you ever get the chance. His insights are consistently provocative and keen.

  1. Seven Samurai (a film by Akira Kurosawa) is the best movie ever made.

If you are not familiar with the films of Kurosawa, watch them, and watch them all. Kasdan considers this Japanese director to be one of the greatest to ever grace the screen with his work, producing perfect classics. If you really want to write good movies, Kurosawa’s body of work is one you absolutely cannot skip. Kasdan deconstructed some of Kurosawa’s stories and characters to give us examples of how they contain every necessary element for masterful storytelling in film. (One of my personal favorite gangster films is Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well).

  1. There are only three kinds of stories: 1). Someone comes to town. 2). Someone goes on a journey, and 3). Someone comes to town and then goes on a journey. He went on to elucidate with examples from well-known classics, and I’m betting you can look at your own favorites and see how his statement bears true.
  2. When writing an ensemble script, give each character a different, predominant personality trait such as reliability, vanity, courage, confusion, etc., in order to create differentiation and range that equates to a full “team” working together to tell your tale.
  3. Hollywood has cut jobs by 25% in recent years due to the suffering economy, making entry harder than ever. He is also of the opinion that the work coming out of Hollywood isn’t anywhere near as good as it used to be.

Writer’s be warned.


 

 

This panel degenerated into a steaming plate of Hollywood arrogance, but I did manage to wrestle a few gems of wisdom, especially those from Lawrence Kasdan, who kept nudging things back on topic.

 

Below are highlights on advice offered:

 

  •  Use what you know to write what you want. In other words, what you know can bring the stories you want to tell alive with the details of experience. This is good advice for all writers.
  • Hate your day job. This interesting POV from Kasdan was based on how he, like myself, started a writing career in advertising. He hated it (more than I did, apparently. But I’ve had worse jobs), and feels that if you can adapt to and tolerate your day job, it won’t give you the impetus you need to keep writing and trying to break into film. Interesting thought…
  • Define what’s important in your story, and defend that at all costs. Like much of the conversation by this panel, this was off-topic, and does not come into play until you’ve sold a screenplay, but it’s a good point that applies to much more than storytelling. We all have to compromise in life and in work. Defining what you’re not willing to compromise on is a strong foundation on which to stand. The rest, as we all know, is negotiable.
  • Stay relaxed in meetings, and don’t say “no” to notes. Again, not about breaking in but applies once you do. All writers get “notes” from executives on their story once their script is sold. The idea is that you never give a flat-out “no” when getting this feedback, but rather, you should stay relaxed, remember how terrified studio people are about betting on any project and the power the writer really has in the process (I heard of this prevailing fear in several panels), and try to figure out the spirit of the feedback received rather than the exact letter of it. One helpful hint was to make changes that YOU feel addresses the issue/s raised, and present those by prefacing with: “Inspired by your notes, I….” (which I think is rather brilliant).
  • Start your 2nd screenplay before marketing your 1st. Tapping into the excitement and inspiration inherent in a new project can help a writer deal with the ensuing “nos” they’re bound to get when starting out. One writer quipped: “You’ve got to be like the T-1000 in Terminator II, so no matter what happens, you morph back into your original shape.” Cute.
  • D.I.Y. Tremendous revolution in Independent film-making. A writer doesn’t have to go through the jaded Hollywood system anymore. They can shoot it themselves or collaborate with others who want to make films. (Good advice for the highly energetic. But be prepared for the real work this means).
  • Balance your writer’s solitude with community. Self explanatory, right? Otherwise, I think one turns into a sort of troll.
  • Write even when you’re afraid to write. The act alone will lead eventually to a momentary lapse of the fear.     Another gem from Kasdan.

Offering but a smidgeon of interesting tips over the course of a long hour, I did regret the time spent here because there were so many interesting panels I wanted to attend. Yes, consider the WGA a competent and required legal resource for protecting your intellectual property, but if my experience was the norm, don’t expect much from them at conferences.


Of all the sessions I attended during the conference, I have to say that the Creative Roundtables were the most rewarding. Attendees can only sign up for one roundtable, where about twelve panelists sit at various six-chaired tables, speak to conference attendees and answer questions. Time is short, and you change tables three times during the session. Who you sit with is by chance more than choice. I was most fortunate to sit with only five other attendees at a table with Jim Uhls (Fight Club), and Pen Densham (Moll Flanders).

PEN DENSHAM: Founder and Co-Chairman of Trilogy Entertainment Group. Film credits include Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Moll Flanders and Houdini. TV Credits include resurrecting Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone. Author of “Riding the Alligator” – on writing screenplays and strategies for a career in Hollywood.

A delightfully humble and helpful panelist, Pen shared his early start, from dropping out of high school in the U.K. and moving to Canada where his career start was funded in part by a government program. He also shared his early lack of confidence in his skills, which he eventually overcame. He advised us to write for ourselves; to write the stories we want to tell because, even if they don’t sell, this form of writing nurtures the writer’s creative spirit, and that approach constantly builds the writer’s confidence and skill. He repeatedly reminded us that he only knew his own story, that each writer must find their own path and methods for understanding what works, but he offered what I thought was a sound strategy for approaching the many drafts needed to complete a screenplay:

FIRST DRAFT: “Write crap.” He said the first draft is about exploration. Let yourself off your self-critical hook and just explore your story, whatever comes. The first draft is not about anything but letting the story unfold until you reach Fade Out. Allowing yourself total freedom is critical, according to Pen. Don’t worry about how “good” it is, rather, have fun and play with the possibilities.

SECOND DRAFT: Check for clear “sign posts.” Pen described this as each element logically leading and building to the next in your story. Are the scenes well chosen to move your story forward? Is your story clear? Do all your scenes make sense within the context of the whole story?

THIRD DRAFT: Cut words. Screenplays are what Pen described as “emotional poetry,” which is what all great screenplays must strive to be. Stories that elicit emotion is something I heard again and again at the conference. Must be something to that, huh?

FOURTH DRAFT: Dialogue. Quicken and tighten. Although soliloquies are occasionally found in the movies we love, most dialogue should be honed with an eye toward how it sounds when spoken. Is it natural? Is it abbreviated, like it is when we speak to each other in real life? Is it relevant? Is it “on the nose,” i.e., revealing too much of what the character really wants? Or does it skirt the issue a bit, like most humans do, reluctant to give away everything they are after?

FIFTH DRAFT: Check your descriptions. Pen said our descriptions should never read like laundry lists, but should imply emotion and conjure the readers imagination. Cut the fluff, and “challenge the reader to pay attention.” I thought that was great advice.

One of my favorite panelists at the conference, I’ll be buying Pen’s book and advise all aspiring screenwriters who want to tell powerful, heart-felt stories to do the same.

###

JIM UHLS: Screenwriter (adaptation) Fight Club.

For most film aficionados, the movie Fight Club needs no introduction. In my opinion, it is one of the more important films in recent years, both artistically and socially. The level of craft embodied in the writing, acting and direction (from the Godlike David Fincher) is about as good as Hollywood gets. If you really want to hunker down with this film as a study piece (highly advisable), be sure to watch it with all the fabulous commentary tracks, from which you will learn a great deal.

Jim Uhls spoke at length about writing in general. The one question I wanted answered and asked was: how did you get the job of writing the adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s controversial and ground-breaking novel? His answer was surprising, and one I found most helpful to all aspiring screenwriters.

He said he wrote a spec script that, though never sold, was well-received because it demonstrated his ability to create gritty characters capable of attracting the best actors. According to Uhls,writing a spec script full of characters that actors will fight to play, rather than one geared for more commercial appeal, is one of the best tactics for an unknown writer to get their foot in Hollywood’s proverbial door.

Prior to writing the Fight Club script, Jim had never sold a screenplay. How’s that for hitting a career bulls-eye right out of the gate? I am Jack’s bloated envy…


So, you wanna be a screenwriter?

This was my first year to participate in the AFF. First, as a judge for the screenplay competition, a volunteer service for which all judges had to be seriously vetted, as well as recommended by an existing reader/judge. The AFF received a record-setting number of entries this year (a hair under 6000), and over 100 first-round readers worked hard to narrow down the entries for the semi-finalist and finalist judges. Our work entailed reading over 100 screenplays each, and writing coverage notes on 70 of them, explaining why we were sending the work on or why we passed. These notes covered Concept, Plot, Structure, Characters and Dialogue. It was a lot of work! But resulted in an all-access Producer’s Badge, and a more refined understanding of what works – and what doesn’t – in the highly-specific form of screenplay storytelling.

Interestingly enough, the winner of this year’s AFF screenwriting competition also won the highly esteemed and coveted AIF Nichol award! This says a lot about the work of the winner, as well as the quality of the judges here in Austin. 

New articles will cover some panels I attended, offering highlights of what I considered to be the choice gems of wisdom offered by Hollywood icons and newcomers who write, direct and produce for both film and television, such as:

Michael Arndt (The Incredibles/Little Miss Sunshine), Alec Berg (Seinfeld/Curb Your Enthusiasm), Shane Black (Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang/Lethal Weapon), Pen Densham (Moll Flanders/Robin Hood/Twilight Zone), Pamela Gray (Music of the Heart), Elizabeth Hunter (Apollo 13/Twelve Monkeys/Jumping the Broom), Lawrence Kasdan (Body Heat/The Big Chill/Raiders of the Lost Ark, Return of the Jedi), Rhett Reese (Monsters, Inc./Zombieland), Alvaro Rodriguez (Machete), Juliet Snowden (Knowing), Caroline Thompson (Edward Scissorhands/Adams Family/Corpse Bride) and Jim Uhls (Fight Club) – to name just a few of their accomplishments.

What are these professionals saying that might be of interest to aspiring screenwriters? What tips can help a writer navigate and break into this highly competitive and rewarding field? This is the information I look to pass on to you, dear reader, within the articles on this page.

There were so many panels offered that attendees were wishing for clones. Some of the panels I chose were more helpful than others, but overall, the presenters seemed to offer both inspiration and a warning (repeated often): If there is any other work you can do in your life (other than writing for Hollywood) – DO IT! Horror stories abounded about precious screenplays gathering dust in the garage due to one political reason or another, and about the constant fight to preserve the spine of their stories from the malingering influence of studio executives who think they understand storytelling because they know on what page something should occur (structure), and what people will go see in the theater. If you’ve read any of the books written by those indoctrinated into the Hollywood system (and you should if you take a screenwriting career seriously), you know what I’m talking about. If you take your efforts seriously, you should also watch every movie to ever be nominated for an Oscar, and know what/who Film Noir, Werner Herzog, Fellini and Kurosawa are – a lacking I noticed in many of the younger conference attendees.

It has been my experience that any and all creative souls will struggle with ignorance and resistance regardless of the medium they pursue. So I offer the other repeated message from the panelists: If this is what you really want to do – DON’T EVER GIVE UP! Keep pushing and writing until something breaks open. It takes fierce determination to succeed as a screenwriter, and a willingness to keep learning and to cultivate the ability to brush off insults, resistance and a myriad of other dream-killers, including self-doubt. If you’re still interested; if you want to write movies no matter what anyone says, well, okay then.


As a writer, how do I give you more than just information? How do I break through this real and imagined ethereal wall that separates my mind and your own, here on the tangible page? How do I keep you engaged, oh precious reader? ANSWER: Through making conscious choices while crafting a “LIVING” tale that dares to touch you.

Letters and words are naught but symbols we’re in agreement on, at least within general parameters. Yet language is a living thing that adapts to the times as all else that lives. Language flows from one generation to the next, with each decade of teens and change in technology adding its “two cents.” Language is alive and malleable. It even has the rhythm of Breath and Pulse – and a Reason, when done right. Respect this living Being that you use to write your prose, but do let it be your friend. Put on your 3-D specs, then sit and breathe together. Hang out a little.

The magic of a story comes from the Art of Choice with the language practiced by the teller. There are countless ways to say things. What words will you use? Will you challenge yourself to say more? I think of a Joni Mitchell lyric that was so artful: “I met a woman, she had a mouth like yours, she knew your life, she knew the devil in your deeds.” So much better than “I met your mother.” Artful choices. How will your tale unfold and present itself? Yes, that’s structure. Is your tale so well-built that if you saw it walking down the street you would ask it on a date? Be careful now – writing fiction is Quixotic stuff, the Sorcerers Apprentice. You must both encourage exploration and keep a keen eye out for trouble!

Self-Editing Your Prose

Please, never send a first draft of anything you write to anyone other than a collaborator. Nobody’s that good. (The editor in me needed to get that out of the way. Thanks).

Your second and third drafts might still be about structure, which is absolutely foundational, so do whatever it takes to nail that. But if you’re on the draft where you’re scrutinizing your prose, this is the time to remember the rhythm, the pulse, the life and breath of your story like someone sitting at your table asking you to pass the salt. THAT is your narrator, the real teller of the tale. It might be your protagonist or other character, or perhaps a defined Aspect of your Omniscient orator. (Oh, yes; if God is telling your tale, you should know how it feels to hang out with the god of your making). If all-seeing eyes peer into your characters and read their very thoughts and feelings, and expose their souls, what sort of Omniscient being do you imagine that to be? Are They holy, ephemeral and wise, or disinterested and vengeful? Or do They appreciate the comedic side of human reality; with a big cigar and feet propped on a cloud? 3-D specs, remember. Approach your story as a living, breathing being. Do your sentences and the words you’ve chosen reflect that essence?

When it comes to debuting authors getting their fiction published, the competition is much more than fierce. Learning to become artful in your languaging and word choices is the deep level of self-editing that can turn aspiring writers into published authors. Plus, it’s how all storytellers develop the means to sneak through that “wall” in order to tap readers on the shoulder and nibble their ear.

Now, that didn’t hurt, did it?

 

 

 

 

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Brooke Monfort - Find me on Bloggers.com
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