It would be so easy to let a character stay in bed all day, wouldn’t it? She could lounge on fluffy pillows, eat Red Vines while watching Sports Center and daytime TV and do absolutely nothing! Hmm. Yeeeeaaah, that would be a boring story. This week we’ll dive into how we can get our central character out of bed. What motivates a character? Let’s take a look at two important pieces in motivating a character, goals and needs.
One sure fire way to kick that character out of the sheets – set goals for your character – I find that this generates questions that will require answers. What are the stakes involved in going after this goal? What can she lose/gain from achieving this goal? How will the character achieve this goal? Are the risks to achieving the goal life threatening to the character or someone the character cares about? As you begin writing down the goals you’ll begin to fill the character fuel tank.
It’s your job to figure out what your character needs. Your characters needs could be emotional, physical, economical, etc. Beware that sometimes the characters goals will clash with their needs and other times the goal will support the need. What does the character need and why? How does her need block her from achieving her goal?
There is always something deeper going on with our characters, we just need to dig to discover what they truly need. When you ask yourself what does my character need you’re going to think that the first thing that pops into your mind is correct, but is it really? Characters sometimes withhold what they really need when you’re developing them, which is fine until they wake you up at 2:42AM shouting at you. Ugh. Characters are so demanding.
If you’re struggling with motivating your character, take a step back and revaluate the goals and needs. You might discover that it’s exactly what finally kicks that character out of bed.
As much as we plot and plan, and plan and plot, sometimes our characters can stir up trouble and run away from us. This post will focus on issues that I recently encountered while working on my novel, which can also be applied to screenwriting.
Recently, I ran into a problem with the protagonist in my novel. Evidently, she became less interesting as the story crept into the midpoint. I panicked. In fact, I’m still kind of on edge that she lost her “sparkle”. I started to wonder how it could have happened? And when? And why? How could I lose her when I’ve worked so hard to build a protagonist that I know so well? I was really beating myself up for letting her slip away. And that’s when it hit me – it would be okay. Yes, I’m still angry with myself, but that’s just emotion and my ego having a go at me. Setting both of those things aside I needed to look at the facts.
Fact #1: I’m smack dab in the middle of rewrites. There will be plenty of problems and bumps to overcome during the rewrite process. Thankfully, I have two terrific readers who pointed this character flaw out to me, which means that I need to analyze the protagonist and control her voice and actions more closely.
Fact #2: There is no rush. The last thing that I need to do right now is to charge into the first half of the novel and try to force changes onto the character that do not make sense to her overall personality and plot.
Fact #3: Move forwards, not backwards. If I allow my emotions to run the show then I’d love to start from the beginning and start making changes (very willy nilly) on the rewritten material. This is not a good idea. My plan, from the midpoint, is to move forwards and not backwards until I complete this first round of rewrites on the entire book. (This sounds so simple, but it’s taking all of my will power not to go back to the beginning.)
Fact #4: The supporting characters are very dynamic. The characters surrounding my protagonist are lush, which may have dimmed the light on my protagonist.
Fact #5: I wrote my first draft in a month. This doesn’t sound all that amazing, but I did write the first draft rather quickly. I think writing fast may have contributed to my runaway protagonist.
Yes, my protagonist ran away from me. I don’t know when or how, but I know that it happened. This is a very difficult statement to hear and to say aloud. The good thing is that I know this can be fixed. Getting a character back on track is not easy, there is no quick fix, but at least now I know the angle to take when I approach the problem.
Over the years, I’ve had many discussions centered around writing shorts screenplays versus writing feature length screenplays. When I first started writing short films I had a hard time finding information on writing screenplays for the short film, so this week I will discuss some of the misconceptions regarding short screenplays and how to tackle these fallacies.
Common Misconceptions About Writing Short Films
I can you assure you that this is not the case. Writing a solid short film takes just as much development as a feature.
Nope. Try, again. I have dedicated as much time to short screenplays as I have feature scripts. There are no shortcuts in writing. If you have no problem shooting a shoddy short film then have at it, but why sacrifice quality when you can dedicate a little more time by writing a solid script and perhaps gaining some recognition for the work?
“It’s too hard to figure out the structure.”
My advice is to start the story in the second act. The great thing about a short is that you can skip the first act. No, this doesn’t make creating an outline easier, although it does allow you to begin with a story that is already in progress. Yes, you’ll still have to decide how the first act unfolds (I like to write out the first act for my own reference).
“I don’t want to tell a linear story.”
And you don’t have to with a short screenplay. I struggled with one of my short screenplays as it was not a linear story. It was a great learning opportunity and it was a fun to bend the rules. I have a tendency to think from point A to point B (yeah, linear), so I had to break out of that habit and learn to be more flexible in my craft. What I learned is that if I print out the pages and shuffle them around that it helps me really see the story. Also, highlighters, a pair of scissors and tape are awesome tools to help mash together the new structure.
“Short films are too short for viewers to know the characters.”
I disagree. If you spend the time on developing the characters and mining their backstories then there is no reason that viewers cannot relate (empathize, dislike, love, hate, etc.) to the characters.
“I can’t tell my story in a short screenplay, because it’s just too short.”
Really? Okay, if you cannot tell your story in one sentence, one paragraph, one page then you have bigger problems. Every story that I have created began with a logline. I start with the hook, because it is the fuel to start the fire. I started my most recent story idea with a sentence and it became a novel. Yes, a three hundred and some odd-pages novel. Writers should be able to write short and/or long format, so think about the story you really want to tell and try not to get discouraged.
A lot of people ask me if they need to go to film school and the short answer is no. No one really needs to attend film school. It is a luxury. Below I’ve broken down my thoughts in a series of pros and cons on the subject.
Hard work: I wrote a ridiculous amount in film school. I wrote over 13 short films and had 13 shorts produced. I wrote 4 feature length screenplays. I directed, produced, edited (baaah, not an editor by any means), worked on a feature, and did a multitude of jobs on set. (Heck, I even directed a stage production!) Most of the time I couldn’t tell you what time zone I was in and I only knew the passing of the hour when we were shooting outside (feared the magic hour slipping away). I loved every minute of it.
The connections: I hung out with a tight group of filmmakers (for more information on those film pals read my post on The Film Squad) who love film. I dig these guys! They’re amazing (yup, I’m jumping up and down).
Failure is a good thing: I was shooting a project on a Bolex and I loaded the film wrong. It was a disaster. I never did it again.
Stuff gets weird: I was working on a script for a friends thesis film and I took it to a strange place. There were animated bugs, slugs, and other slimy things (yeah, it got really bizarre). He didn’t care for it, which was okay. I realized that I was experimenting with my own writing, which really opened up my creativity and allowed me to step outside of my comfort zone.
Know thyself: Before I had decided on film school I had actually considered med school (not kidding), so before taking that giant leap, consider your career path, who you are, and what you really want in life.
It costs BIG bucks: Honestly, I paid way too much for film school. It’s like I own an invisible airplane, I mean I know I own it, but I just can’t find it.
You will work your ass off: If you’re not sleep deprived from writing, being on set, or editing then you’re doing it wrong.
The smell: Consider a high school boys locker room mixed with a school bus after someone has spewed up pizza and then consider that smell inside of a 9×9 editing bay. It’s not pretty.
Actors: You will work with actors who are just starting out as actors. Those beginners will act like they have been in the film business for decades. Their egos are HUGE. They are a pain in the ass. You can’t tell them they are a pain in the ass, because they have the emotional capacity of a teaspoon and you are desperate for them to hit their mark, know their lines, and not shag the boom operator. It’s a very love/hate relationship. My advice is to embrace neutrality like Switzerland.
You will gain weight and lose weight: Yeah, there is a lot of sitting around when you’re developing/writing, a more sitting while on set, and even more sitting in editing. It’s unhealthy. But the good thing is the stress also helps curb the appetite, but increase drinking. It’s a slippery slope. I went to film school in San Francisco, so the hills, walking, and frisbee helped keep the fluctuation to a minimum.
In the end it’s your choice, not mine, not your family, nor your junior high coach, so if you’re on the fence about film school then maybe you need to do more research. The landscape of the film business is changing, so maybe there are other options to consider like taking courses online, at a community college, or checking out some extensions (UCLA Extension offers some great courses).
Fine. I’ll admit it. I’m part Irish. And now that I’ve said it, you bastards, I’ll let you in on a secret, I like beer. I like beer on days that end in “y” and months that end in “s” (Monnnnnnths, get it?). And with this fact stated you need to understand that on every USA holiday I will ingest several alcoholic beverages and I will ramble on how the Irish are better than everyone and how every other country is inferior. Yes, I am that crazy for Irish history (Jebus, I’m listening to The Chieftains, Sinead and my mother text me, how Irish can you get?!). I’m so Irish that my blood is always, well, at least 75% alcohol and 25% potato (don’t judge, I like hash browns in the morning). Granted this should mean that I should be attending AA, but alas I have escaped their clutches for years. I’m just that good. It’s Labor Day in the USA and I started celebrating at a wee bit before 11AM. And what, you ask, does this have to do with screenwriting or writing? Well, little bastards, this means that my day has been spend drinking and formulating a new screenplay and/or book (nope, haven’t decided what this monster is going to be) and because I stared writing it while I was semi-sober, I’m thinking that it actually might be a good story to develop.
But the point of this post is don’t drink and write. It’s a bad idea. Don’t do it. I’m not Hemmingway. My liver is still intact (barely) and most of the time my notes, upon the morning sunshine, don’t makes sense. I hope you have a happy Labor Day weekend, I hope you don’t drink too much, and I hope, for your own sanity that you ignore all of texts from your mom. (Seriously, there’s too many texts, Mom. I only have two thumbs and both are busy holding on to bottles.)
This past week has been horrific for my southern neighbors that have endured Hurricane Harvey and they need all of the assistance that we can give in any shape and/or form. Even a small amount can help.
Please donate today to the American Red Cross
And please keep the families and friends of southern Texas in your thoughts and prayers.
A lot of writers fear the first draft. I have to admit that I love writing the first shitty draft. I love the puzzle that is the first draft. I love the frustration, the joy, and the copious amounts of notes inked on napkins, old envelopes, and student loan bills.
5 Reasons Why I Love First Shitty Drafts
- Vomit on the page. Yeah, that’s graphic, but it’s true. I can toss my cookies on the page and it’s totally okay, because it’s the first draft, BABY!!
- The great unknown. No matter how many outlines/backstory drafted, the first draft will reveal many things by the time I’ve completed it.
- It’s more fun than a bag of rattlesnakes. Hmm. Fine. I’ve never touched a bag of rattlesnakes, although writing the first draft often feels like this, because of all of the twists that I seem to encounter, which, yes, is fun for me.
- Rambling like a nutter. When I’m writing the first shitty draft I’m a crazy person. I tend to figure out scenes/dialogue while standing around in book stores and then have huge outbursts à la Tom Hanks in Big (1988) (pick a scene in that film, any scene).
- Roaring like a tiger. I get to yell, “I”M DONE!” Yeah, I know it’s not really done, because there will always be a shit ton of rewrites to do, but I get that sense of accomplishment after completing that first draft that no one can take way from me.
This week I thought I’d do something a bit different and share the news that The Film Squad is back! The Film Squad is comprised of an international group of pals (Dom, Moritz, Putri and me). Once upon a time, we used to review movies on a short lived podcast during our film school days. We decided to get the band back together and we are now reviewing film trailers and have posted them on YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCrrHrOx1j00o6q-V784_KZg.
Please feel free to visit us, add some comments and don’t forget to subscribe!
Ok, I’m secure enough to admit this, I don’t know everything. Utterly shocking, I know. I feel that the older I get the less I know, which you would think would be the opposite. What I may lack in knowledge I think I make up with passion. I don’t think I have to know everything to be a writer. I think knowing everything takes the fun out of research (uh huh, you read that right I’m one of those geeks). Discovering what it would be like to be a motivational speaker, a kid with weight issues or a stripper is part of development for my scripts/novel. And, yeah, research is fun especially when you’re surrounded by strippers.
So, we’ve established that I don’t know everything, but that I have passion. And how far does passion get you? Well, I have written a lot of scripts, had a lot of short films produced, and I’m rewriting my second book, so I guess passion fuels my work. But when does passion fail? I think passion fails when you don’t do the legwork and refuse to gain knowledge (research, interviews, etc.). I’ve found that when I was a T.A. in grad school and, later, as a Reader for a production company that a lot of the scripts that I read failed due to a lack of knowledge and lazy research.
The thing is that the reverse can happen, too. I can’t tell you how many ideas I’ve thrown down on paper only to realize that I may have accrued the knowledge, but that I didn’t have passion to continue the story beyond an idea. And that’s okay. Personally, I learn more with my failures than my successes.