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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Movie Scene Structure

There’s something directors (and actors) know that most beginning writer’s don’t; how to structure a scene. It’s bizarre but you will never find (at least I haven’t yet) anything in the screenwriting books and about this very vital part to the moviemaking process. Most of them are concerned with the structure of the overall screenplay but none that I found talk about the very simple yet incredibly important process of structuring an individual scene. I know in the top screenwriting MFA programs, USC, UCLA and NYU, directing courses are offered. I don’t know if they are required however.

It’s a very simple process I first learned when I took a stage directing course in college. It was reinforced when I picked up a film DIRECTING book a few years ago. Basically you structure a scene backwards. That is you take the very line that is spoken, or the very last action that is taken in a scene, called a beat, and then look at what immediately preceded it. That last beat was caused by the beat that preceded it.

The character said that final line because of what was said or done immediately prior to it.

For Example: Villain yells “See you in Hell!”

What happened just before he said that? He pulled the pin out of a hand grenade and hugged it to his body.

And that action was came about because of what happened immediately prior it.

Why did the villain pull a pin out of the hand grenade? The hero beat him up. The hero, having just kicked his butt tells him he’s going to rot in jail.

And so on and so forth until you have an unbroken chain of cause and effect going all the way back to the beginning of the scene.

A comes from B which comes from C which comes from D.

That is how you structure a scene. That is what actors talk about when they discuss the “spine” of a scene. You ever wonder how a director comes up with a shot list? He goes to the scene structure and makes sure every beat has its own shot. It is absolutely vital to having a coherent and shoot-able movie script yet it’s almost never covered in screenwriting seminars, books, or anything that floundering beginners cling to. This is why dialogue in real but not really real. Real dialogue has tangents that go no where. There are delayed reactions. You can’t have any of that in dramatic writing. It’s all an unbroken chain. Any tangents have to weave back to the central point. People just don’t suddenly remember, something has to happen or be said to jog their memory. It’s probably the reason why so first time writers get replaced soon after making a sale. Once a director gets attached the first thing he does is start breaking down scenes to get his shot list. If the writer hasn’t got a clear line of cause and effect in his scenes, they have to be rewritten.

I shouldn’t say that Nobody in the screenwriting world talks about this. Robert McKee makes it central to his seminars and book. But I think goes a little overboard. According to McKee the secret is constant outlining and that no scene can be saved by “rearranging dialogue.” That’s obviously wrong. And his instance that every new beat be the total opposite of what came before it tends towards histrionics instead of drama. It is possible to fix a scene that is loose and all over the place. Just decide what element is really vital for the story and make that the point of the scene. Then go back and make sure you’ve got a good cause and effect chain stretching from the beginning of the scene to the end.

Every scene is like a chess game. You know where you want to be at the end, it’s just a question of how you’re going to get there.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

How to Write a Sci-Fi Screenplay Part 2

Earlier I wrote about writing a sci-fi/fantasy screenplay. I argued that a successful one would be built around a single concept that A) influenced the entire story and imagined world of the story B) was cinematic, visual, and easy to grasp (i.e. High Concept) and C) lent itself easy to Geekiness, role playing, video games, fanfic. But there’s more to it than that. There’s always more.

INFO DUMPS

Let’s start with the biggest problem sci-fi writers have, info dumps and exposition. Those passages where you have to tell the reader what the heck is going on. In a recent scifichat on Twitter we had a discussion on the difference between adult and YA sci-fi. Some argued that the difference between the two was you could leave things unexplained. Having just completed The Hunger Games and Uglies I couldn’t disagree more. Things are most definitely explained in those two books, probably the two best known versions of YA sci-fi. There were definitely info dumps in those books, Mockingjays, Tracker Jackers, Hoverboards, and the Oil Plague were all explained in little info dumps. The difference was they didn’t feel like info dumps. I think, though I’m sure I’ll get a lot of disagreement on this, is that YA sci-fi has gotten good at disguising their info dumps. In regular sci-fi it’s become an accepted practice and hard core sci-fi readers don’t mind an occasional side trip into the imagined history of Planet Mongo. YA readers were pretty new to the genre and couldn’t be expected to wait so patiently, the writers of those books treated their info dumps very carefully. They revealed new info in one of two ways. First as an answer to a mystery. Throughout Uglies we see the results of the disaster that destroyed the old world, ruined cities with lines of rusted cars full of people trying to escape whatever happened. It’s never explained fully until late in the book that we finally learn about the oil plague, a bio engineered bug that infected petroleum and caused to explode. The author didn’t come right out and tell us. He planted the seed in the very beginning and went back to it a few more times before finally giving an answer near the end of the story. This is basically the same technique used in mystery stories like CSI. Nobody thinks of CSI as science fiction (though given some of their resolutions, maybe they should) but it’s a great template for sci-fi script writers in how to deal with exposition and info dumps, make them mysterious. Make the audience WANT to hear the explanation. So a real easy hint is never put an info dump in the beginning of a screenplay. Show its effects and have the audience wonder about it, then explain it later in the story.

Another method of info dumps is to make them part of the story or their own story. In Hunger Games we find out about the deadly bioengineered wasps, Tracker Jackers, when Katniss is stuck up a tree and finds a nest of them. In Uglies we find out about Hoverboards as Tally learns how to use one herself. In a lot of ways the writers treat these imagined creatures and technology no different from real life ones. The authors could have easily been describing a bald eagle or a windsurfing instead of Tracker Jackers and Hoverboards. That gives us the next method for info dumps, namely treat the imagined things as if they were real. When you come to a piece of alien tech or weird fantasy beast, do some research on something real and treat it the same way. Because after all isn’t a UFO supposed to be just a really, really advanced version of 747?

COMMON POINT OF ENTRY


The problem with info dumps is that they can take a reader right out of the story. But it’s an even bigger problem if the reader fails to get on board in the first place. As I blogged earlier, how to begin a screenplay is what stumps a lot of newbie writers. It’s even worse for sci-fi/fantasy writers. Sad but true, many sci-fi specs have been shot down in the first few pages. The writers give gigantic info dumps right off the bat, essentially wasting the first 5 to 10 pages of their script, or otherwise fail to make their imagined world real. That’s the real challenge of the sci-fi/fantasy writer, making it real. The only way to do that is go into this made up world and find something relatable to the real world. This is a technique as old as sci-fi itself. You have to find a Common Point of Entry for your reader. You have to be in territory that’s familiar to a large audience. Take the classic sci-fi novel Space Merchants for example. It features a resort in Antarctica, a gigantic cloned chicken heart, and far off space colonies, but it starts out like Mad Men. The hero is just a typical advertising exec trying to get ahead. That’s the Common Point of Entry (and a prime reason for adapting Space Merchants!) But there’s a problem. Prose writers have a huge advantage over screenwriters in that they can get inside the minds of their characters in just a few short paragraphs. A sci-fi writer may start off with a multi-tentacled Aldarian who’s zorging a Xxanx, but with a just quick peak inside the mind of said Aldraian the writer can define “zorging” as sex, drugs or rock n’ roll, whatever it needs to be. Screenwriters can’t get into the minds of their characters like that. They can’t convey anything other than sight and sound where as the prose writer can engage all the senses and emotions and memories as well. So where does that leave the screenwriter? The pattern over the last few decades for filmed sci-fi is to find their Common Point of Entry in typical activities or even in other genres. The Terminator doesn’t start off with a history of Skynet. It delivers an 80’s action film. The Terminator is just a cybernetic mafia hitman. Or look at SyFy. They’ve made it their signature style to take an easily understood set up then add a CGI monster to it. You’ve got Spring Break with an Ogre in it, a western with giant snakes, a reality show with alien invaders. That’s the extreme end of the spectrum but you can’t go too far from the normal without completely losing your audience. It’s pretty hard for people who specialize in wild imaginings to ground their stories in mundane details, but it’s those mundane details that lead the audience to those wild imaginings. You don’t have to be as simplified as SyFy originals, and I wouldn’t recommend trying unless you’ve got an in at the network, but don’t go all space cadet from the word “go” either.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Interview with Travis Legge of Raymond Did It

Travis Legge is a writer/director who’s in pre production for his first feature film Raymond Did It. Raymond is a throwback slasher movie that celebrates Travis’ love of the genre. I spoke with Travis a little bit about this project, his writing process, and how it all began for him.

How did you get started writing screenplays?

I had been writing comic book scripts. I don’t draw so I had to find an artist. That search eventually led to doing the horror role playing game Contagion. After that I enrolled in the excellent film production program at Rock Valley College. That taught me a lot about filmmaking. I started making very simple comedy shorts and just fell in love with the process of making movies. I worked my way up to where I felt ready to tackle a feature.

Were you always a horror fan?

Horror has always been one of my favorite genres. I grew up in a very small town. Its one saving grace was that it had a video store with an excellent B movie selection. I saw Evil Dead and I Spit On Your Grave probably at a much younger age than I should have. From there I discovered the classic EC Comics and then explored the rest of the genre.

How did you come up with the idea for Raymond Did It?

I’d always wanted to write a slasher film and on the Troma website there was an open call for screenplays. I started writing it but I liked it so much I decided to make it my feature film debut instead of submitting it.

How did you go about writing the script?

I just sat down and wrote it. Typically when I write, something just pops into my head and I sit down and bang out a first draft as fast as I can. I like to get that out of the way as quickly as possible then rewrite it. I’ll have music playing normally as I write, music that’s appropriate to the scene I’m working on. I also keep a number of windows open with Google or other search engines so I can research while I write. That’s a habit I picked up while working on Contagion. For example there’s a scene in the script where a character, who’s had a very rough time, is reaching for her prescribed medicine. Originally I just had “she reaches for her medicine” but after I did some research I found out what kind of pills she would be taken given the kind of trauma she had suffered. That helped further define the character.

What was the hardest part of writing the script?

Writing entire scenes where there was little or no dialogue. It’s a big change from my shorts which were comedies and had a lot of dialogue. But it helps that I will be directing this movie so I can be more visual with my writing.

What was the easiest part?

Writing the kills. We have a lot of them and they have a lot of variation. They were a lot of fun.

Were you at all concerned about the budget?

Budget should be the last thing a writer is concerned about. I am very fortunate to have Tim Stotz as my DP and Robert Williams as my editor. They were available when I was writing. If there was a section I had a question about, I’d just call up and ask, “Can you manage X, Y and Z” and they’d usually say “Sure, no problem.” I also can’t say enough about the Rock Valley College Filmmaking program which, when it comes to equipment and know how, I put on par with Columbia’s. I really learned a lot. I learned what you can shoot and what you can fix in post. So writing a practical script wasn’t a problem for me.

What are some of your other horror projects?

I did a short for Nation Undead. This is a site that is collecting zombie related shorts from all over. When they get enough they intend to edit them all together as a feature movie.

What is the status of Raymond?

We’re in pre-production. We’ve already acquired one half of our targeted budget. We’ve secured Lindsey Felton (Caitlin’s Way and Scream Queens) to play Tammy. We also have Elissa Dowling (Clive Barker’s Dread) on board as well. We sent Elissa the audition sides and she asked for the completed script. After she read the script she committed to the project.

Anything you’d like to add in closing?

Read a lot. Write a lot. Don’t be afraid to bend or break the rules. There are no such things as rules, there are guidelines. But apart from formatting the guidelines were all meant to be broken or bent. I got this far because I was too dumb to know better and it paid off.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Interview with Ben Cahan of Talentville

There’s a new Screenwriting Community Site up and operating called Talentville, you can check it out right here. The site is founded by Ben Cahan the original developer and co-founder of Final Draft™, the screenwriting software that has become the standard for the industry. And if you have any doubts about that you should check out craigslist LA under TV/Film work or the UTA jobs list. You’ll always find Final Draft™ under the list of requirements for internships and assistantships.

I talked with Ben about the Talentville site and about the early days of creating FD.

How did Final DraftTM get started and how did it become so successful?

Before I was doing work with movie production software. I had good contacts in the industry through that but I still took a severe beating. After that I looked around and I found that there was no good screenwriting software on the market at that time, nothing that offered the complete package. So I set out to create my own that would do everything for the screenwriter, format, word processing, the whole deal. It was a long process. I credit the success of it to fact that we (Cahan and current Final Draft CEO Marc Madnick) kept improving the product. We never stopped making Final Draft better. After I’d taken my beating, I had a powerful fear of losing which really drove me to make sure that never happened again. We poured our profits back into our product. We kept adding things. And we became the first cross platform software in the industry. We did this because Macs are used so extensively in the industry.

How did you first come up with idea for Talentville. How do you envision it being different from the other scriptwriting sites on the web?

Not to bash anyone else’s site but I’m looking to do for screenwriting sites what Final Draft did for screenwriting software, provide writers with the total package; part exposure, part feedback, part education, all of it in one site. In 2008 I was reading some scripts and I looked at ways to get them exposure. I contacted some of the sites that were up at the time and talked to the people who were running them. I found out there really wasn’t a site that really got its members exposure to people involved in the industry. There wasn’t anything out there that really satisfied my needs so I realized I was going to have to build one from the ground up. It was the same lesson I learned while making Final Draft. I started work on the site and added what I wanted to add. I wanted it to be a place not just for aspiring screenwriters but industry professionals as well; a place where the agencies and production companies could come to find a good screenplay. It can be done but you have to do it the right way.

The site is still under construction what features are available to writers now.

The site is new but the core basics are up. Writers can join, email each other, create groups, but the real heart of the site is the screenplay library and the review process. I put a lot of effort into creating the screenplay library and making it secure. The review process is crucial. This will allow us to see which scripts are really good and which ones still need work. That’s important. Writers need to set goals for themselves. Anything is possible if you put the work into it. But most people don’t put the work into it.

What features of the website can writers look forward to in the near future?

We’ll be having contests and rewards for both top writers and top reviewers. We’ll get this more integrated into the Hollywood community. We plan to have story gurus like Micheal Hauge give guest lectures on the site and provide reviews of scripts and do Q & A’s. Other features will be added on down the road to help screenwriters market themselves and make connections.

What’s the most important part of getting the industry involved with Talentville?

The review process. We need to get a large number of reviews and a larger number of talented reviewers, people who know what they’re talking about. You have to be able to demonstrate that the top reviewed scripts on the site are actually worth Hollywood’s time. That it’s not just a pipeline for more junk.

How do you see Talentville changing the industry?

Hopefully you won’t have to move to LA if you want to break into screenwriting. Writing you can do anywhere and with electronic formats you can carry around 40 scripts on a Kindle or a laptop. But Hollywood is a non-believer. You have to demonstrate that this can work. And hopefully we’re going to show them that it can.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

How to Write a Sci Fi Screenplay

To paraphrase Jack Palance in City Slickers, when it comes to writing a great sci-fi screenplay you just need one thing.

What is that one thing?

Well you tell me, it’s your story. What I mean is you have to focus on just One Big Idea and build your story around it. In science fiction literature they call this an Elevator Pitch which Charlie Jane Anders of IO9 explained here. In movie scripts they call this the concept or logline which I wrote about here.

Astounding Science Fiction July 1939 --Black Destroyer

A little genre history lesson will explain how this all came about. Science fiction back in the 20’s and 30’s had very little real science in it and what was there wasn’t integral to the plot. The stories were really just pulp adventures with aliens and rocketships taking the place of gangsters and fast cars. It wasn’t until John W. Campbell took over as the editor of Astounding Science Fiction (Later Analog Science Fiction) that things started to change. Campbell demanded more scientific rigor and better literary standards from his magazine and ushered in the modern era of Sci Fi Literature. Writers of the time responded by basing their stories around a single fantastic idea or scientific theory and extrapolating how that would effect the characters and the world as a whole. Where as before we’d have generic space hero X battle generic alien monster Y with generic raygun Z, under Campbell writers like Robert Heinlein wrote stories about what would happen if the country were crisscrossed with moving roads or what would happen if a stowaway snuck on board a rocket as it was about to land. It’s the standard template for a science fiction story to this day.

It’s also NOT the way science fiction scripts are written. It’s similar though. Sci-Fi movies and Sci-Fi literature are two completely different streams that only occasionally converge. Sci-Fi movies have a similar but very different history.

star-trek-tos-cast

Sci-fi movies and TV began like sci-fi literature, in the pulp stage. More often than not the movies were programmers with stock stories and situations. There were exceptions like Forbidden Planet or the Twilight Zone but most often the only thing distinguishing a sci-fi movie of the 30’s through the 60’s were the special effects or art design. But then everything changed. Gene Roddenberry started it all with Star Trek and George Lucas really got the ball rolling with Star Wars. The first helped create modern Geekdom and the second changed movies and pop culture forever. What did they do that was different? They were the first ones to present The Big Idea in science fiction. In some ways it was similar to what Campbell had done decades earlier at Astounding. But it went beyond that and into the area of High Concept years before Don Simpson codified it. They also created fertile worlds for others to explore and even “live” in for a little while. So a Sci-Fi big idea for movies or television can be one part Joseph W. Campbell, one part Don Simpson, and one part Gary Gygax.

star-wars-episode-iv-a-new-hope-20061222111307977

Campbell would have hated Star Wars and probably didn’t have anything nice to say about Star Trek. There wasn’t ANY real science in Star Wars and Star Trek played pretty fast and loose with the known laws of physics. Nevertheless both of these franchises are built off of Campbell’s early insistence on extrapolating a single idea. This is the most important part of The Big Idea. There is something that makes this imagined world run. In Star Wars it’s the Force, in Star Trek it’s the Constitution class starship. And everything about these two imagined universes runs off these ideas. Like Obi Wan said, these ideas surround, penetrate and bind their universes together. The entire plot of the Star Wars movies revolves around the struggle between the two sides of the Force. Every Star Trek movie is based on what you can do if you have one of these awesome ships at your command. You see it other movies and TV shows as well, Lost, X-Files, Avatar, The Terminator, Aliens, Blade Runner, Dollhouse, Buffy. All the various bits of tech, all the storylines are really fruits from the Big Idea tree. In this regard they are no different from today’s sci-fi literature.

diamond_age_hc

So why isn’t Hollywood optioning every title in the Sci-Fi racks at Borders? That’s because not every great Lit idea is a good Movie/TV idea. A Big Idea has to do more than satisfy the rigors of Campbell, it has to satisfy Don Simpson. In the 80’s Simpson codified the High Concept, that movies should be based on iconic, easy to visualize stories and conflicts and this applies to sci-fi films in a big way. Sci-Fi films cost more and will always cost more than say a comedy or drama that requires no special effects or bizarre sets. There’s much more pressure on the producers to make back their investment on sci-fi films. Star Wars wasn’t a series of philosophical debates, it was light sabers and dogfights. Star Trek wasn’t an engineering lecture, it was Horatio Hornblower in space. Here’s where sci-fi lit and sci-fi movies and TV go their separate ways. Sci-fi lit, especially short lit either has disposable ideas (Heinlein introduced the moving roads in one short story then barely mentioned them) or ideas that just don’t translate into High Concepts. Steampunk right now is the hottest trend in sci-fi but it’s near impossible to sell a Steampunk script. Most execs never even heard of Steampunk. It’s certainly nothing the general movie audience is familiar with. The closest Hollywood has come was last year’s Sherlock Holmes movie. A great movie idea has to lend itself not just to great visual elements but also to an easy to understand narrative. The Terminator is a near perfect example. The entire plot setup is summarized in just a few sentences. It’s easy to understand and lends itself to amazing action sequences and a terrifying reveal when the metal endoskeleton keeps coming after the heroes.

starfleetbattles-fedcon2

But even after that you’re still not done. The really great ideas live long after the movie or TV series ends. They inspire action figures, comic books, video games, role playing games. It’s the final one writers should give a little thought about. It’s usually a bad idea to get ahead of yourself, but sometimes a little game thought can help with the story. I remember reading a fantasy script for a contest. The hero and the villain were engaged in a magic battle. It was special effect, special effect, special effect. I couldn’t tell who was winning and who was losing or even what the whole point was. I wrote in my notes, “Think of this as a video game or role playing game. What’s the objective of the scene and what are the opposing strategies?” That may sound a little silly but really that’s the root of drama in any scene, what’s the objective, what are the opposing strategies. The only difference is that the objective might be a mystic gem and the opposing strategy might be a fire spell. The trick is to turn that into drama without losing the gameplay aspect of it. You see games rely on rules, and rules are necessary in a fantasy or science fiction story. You have to re-establish the limits of the universe. You establish that Luke Skywalker can move objects by using the Force but he can’t use it to teleport into Cloud City and thus avoid the trap altogether. The Enterprise can beam Captain Kirk down to a planet’s surface, but if it gets attacked when its shields are down, watch out.

So that’s the One Thing you need to write a sci-fi script, the Big Idea. An idea that is central to your story and universe, one that is visual and iconic, and one that has an organized set of rules governing it. Now you just need to find it.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Story Battle Plan

Before I begin, I’d just like to give a big thank to everyone who has been visiting my novel The Hidden Kitchen especially the folks at Examiner.com. You guys rock!

Also give a special welcome to all my buddies at #scriptchat. Any screenwriter out there, it’s a great Tweetchat hashtag to follow. It happens every Sunday, well almost every Sunday at 8 PM GMT and again at 8 PM EST.

Lately I’ve been thinking that writing a screenplay is a lot like fighting a war. Well actually I don’t know anything about real war. But I played a lot of wargames growing up, so let’s say writing is a lot like a wargame. I’m finding a lot of writers I cover need to pay better attention to their “battle plans.”

Specifically I’m talking about when it comes to finding their story. At first you may think that’s easy and obvious. The story is what I’m writing about. Right? Not exactly.

Here’s the thing. In any given situation that you can come up with, there are a near infinite number of characters and plot threads you can follow, an infinite number of rabbit holes for you to fall into. But which one do you follow? That’s the question that confounds so many writers. Bad dialogue can be corrected. Typos and formatting problems just a matter of diligent proofreading. But bad choices made at the beginning of the writing process? Now amount of polish can change those or fix what’s wrong. You have to go back to formula, back to the very bones of your script to rectify that problem. Just like in a battle (or wargame) if your battle plan is faulty, you will lose no matter how powerful your units or how lucky you are at the dice roll.

So how do you create a winning battle plan? That’s a little hard to quantify since that depends on circumstance. But there are general strategies for avoiding a losing battle plan. Here they are.

Send in the right troops:
In battle you don’t send mountain troops to take a beach. Similarly a huge part of finding your story is choosing the right characters for it. A little while ago I was reading a script by a new writer. She had decided to make it a romance about a woman who needed something (sorry to be this vague but Confidentiality Agreements and all) and the person who could help her achieve her goal was her love interest. They were nice and romantic and dreamy together and there was absolutely no drama. There was nothing really serious to prevent Character A from falling head over heels for Character B. So in order to make it interesting, the writer was forced to tack on a lot of “reasons” that were in no way shape or form reasonable. The result was two adult characters acting completely illogical. But the writer had the solution in her own story. She had her heroine in the beginning walk in on her then boyfriend as he was cheating on her. The boyfriend hung on briefly as a villain but he was never effective in that role. Now what if the writer had made the simple decision that the one person who could help her heroine was the one person who had just betrayed her? Then sparks fly naturally. That’s the difference between choosing the right characters and choosing the wrong characters. You need to focus on the characters who generate drama/comedy automatically in the given situation. If the environment is unfriendly to outsiders, your character damn well better be an outsider. If the situation requires nerves of steel, you want somebody who’s nervous as hell. Yes they have to be likable but it’s easier to soften up an edgy character, you really only need one Save the Cat scene to do it, (TY Blake Snyder) than it is to put an edge on a bland, safe character.

Objective: In a wargame you can send your troops anywhere you damn well please just as in writing you can go anywhere you want to with your plot. But there are only a few spots on the map worth occupying. There are only so many ways you can win the game and defeat your opponent. Furthermore you only have so many armies to work with. There are probably more vital areas on the map than you can cover. If you try to be everywhere your forces will be too spread out and you’ll be no where. Thus it is with story. You can follow any number of threads in a situation but only a few of them are truly dramatic and (if this is a concern) commercially appealing. The big part of being a writer is learning how to identify the dramatic hotspots of the situation. This is related to choosing the right characters. Once you have your characters you have to give them a goal or a setup worthy of them. Usually it’s almost like wargame strategy in reverse. Instead of taking the high ground or the secure locations, you want your characters at a low point in their lives. The drama isn’t that they defend the high ground, the drama is in them having to battle uphill to take the high ground. Recently I read a screenplay that started out with a beautiful set up. It was an action film and had the two main characters in an isolated location with unknown enemies. It had the makings of a classic thriller. But then he left that situation for a brand new one. The new situation was more expansive but it ruined the script. In order to tell that story he needed to keep introducing new characters well past the halfway point so naturally those characters were never fully developed nor did they elicit any sympathy. It was the equivalent to a general securing a vital strategic point and then midway through the battle abandoning it to the enemy to chase some other objective. Only he discovers that he brought inadequate forces to take the new objective so he has to call for reinforcements which can’t arrive in time!

Interior Lines:
Take interior lines and bring superior forces, aka get there the firstest with the mostest. That’s a golden nugget of strategy and it applies to writing as well. Once you have set your objective get there as fast as possible with as much of army in tact as possible. Once you’ve settled on your characters and their situation you need to tell their story, quickly. This is the part that trips up a lot of writers, they don’t begin their stories quick enough. I was working a contest that emphasized beginnings and it was shocking how many writers just wasted the first 15 pages, strolling along like they hadn’t a care in the world. They seemed to be saying, “Oh don’t worry, we don’t need to get serious until we reach the first act break.” Wrong. Your inciting incident must occur between page 10 and 15 at the latest. Arriving late to a battle is to invite defeat. Not starting your story ASAP is an invitation for the reader to stop reading. Some writers also try to take the most complex and circuitous route possible to tell their story. They want to surprise the reader. This is a noble effort but more often than not what they end up doing is losing the reader. If a reader can’t follow your plot line, then it isn’t surprising, it’s incomprehensible. You have to make sure you don’t lose the audience along the way before shocking them. That’s usually why the best twists come at the end of movies. The audience has followed all the way through 90% of the story and has been thoroughly entertained then POW! Something unexpected happens that knocks them off their feet. Remember you’re a magician. A magician draws your attention, usually to the wrong spot but it’s all about drawing that attention. He can’t have you unfocused and confused, then you won’t see the trick.

A caveat however, sometimes you can be too direct. I worked on a screenplay recently where several vital decisions were just made without being built up to. That’s equivalent of dragging your army through a malarial swamp or a barren desert without water. You may reach your objective quicker but chances are you’ll be in no position to fight. You have to take the route that will get you there in one piece! You want your characters at their full strength as well. That means setting up and paying off their dramatic decisions.

Great generals are usually the ones who see a battlefield with clear eyes. In chess they call it seeing the board. As writers we have our own battlefields and chessboards to conquer. But we need to look at them with clear eyes and make our decisions based on that.

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