You Had Me at Page Four

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It doesn’t require a Masters in Creative Writing to know that you have to grab your audience’s attention in the very beginning. When people flip through the books at Barnes & Noble, they don’t say, “The first page is boring, but I think I’ll spend $19.95 on this thing anyway because maybe, hopefully, the other 99.5% of the book doesn’t suck too.”

And in movies, the opening scene has to be, well, awesome, or what’s the point? If you can’t make the first four pages great, what does that say about the rest of the film?

Last night, my husband and I went out to the movies for his birthday. There wasn’t anything playing that we really wanted to see, so we went to 21 and Over, a comedy about college kids and a debauchery-packed night of drinking. The critics’ reviews were terrible, but the fan reviews were pretty good, so we gave it a shot.

It turns out, all the fans who reviewed it were 14 year old kids who think anything with people getting drunk and the word “fuck” in it is a stellar movie.

We did something I haven’t done in years: we walked out. At page 4. The opening was so poorly written that we figured the rest of the movie didn’t have much of a chance. We snuck into Identity Thief, which was just starting in the other theater (also not an award-winner, but it wasn’t total garbage.)

As written by Michael Hauge in his explanation of Story Mastery, “The opening 10% of your screenplay must draw the reader, and the audience, into the initial setting of the story, must reveal the everyday life your hero has been living, and must establish identification with your hero by making her sympathetic, threatened, likable, funny and/or powerful.”

Here are examples of some movies have opened:

Varsity Blues: We learn about Mox and the football culture of the town

Four Weddings and a Funeral: We learn about Charles and all the weddings he has to go to

Never Been Kissed: We learn about Josie and how she’s never been kissed

Heartbreak Kid: We learn that Eddie wants a woman.

13 Going on 30: We learn that Jenna isn’t happy with who she is

Bridesmaids: We learn that Annie wants to feel good about herself, but keeps putting herself into situations that get her the same bad results.

An example of a great opening (in my humble opinion).

American Psycho:

This opening not only illustrates almost exactly who this character is, but it sets the tone of the whole movie and its bizarre humor amidst creepy character details.

Considering all of the above, I wonder if my opening to my new script is as good as it should be. This script has three main characters, so I’m using the first 12 pages or so to spell out the situation each one of them is in. While the beauty of American Psycho’s opening is in the words, the beauty in Office Space‘s opening is in the visual:

I think I frequently rely too much on the words for description. This subject really should be its own separate blog post. Food for thought. Back to work.

It’s Not Lice, It’s Confusion

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Monkey scratching

I was the kid in school who never wanted to proof their test before bringing it up to the teacher. I was the kid who as soon as they got to the last line of their essay, they just hit print. I used to have a writing partner who could never let go of a script – he would do rewrite upon rewrite upon rewrite, never believing it was finished. Me? My script is done when I get to page 100.

Okay, in all seriousness, I’m not that sloppy of a writer anymore. Now I proof, I outline, I revise and revise. But it’s in my nature to say, “Are we done? Good. Onto the next.”

I’ve been working on this outline now for a couple of weeks (note: Robert McKee says your outline should take months, but he’s a blowhard windbag so whatever.) I wanna start writing. I don’t know what to do next with my outline, so I want to say, “Are we done? Good. Onto the script!” But I don’t want to get lost writing the script. So my question is…

When is your outline done?

My feeling? Your outline is done “enough” when you can write your entire script without once having to look up at the ceiling, scratching your head. (note: there is nothing wrong with looking up at the ceiling scratching your head when you’re searching for specific words, phrasing, or dialogue. But there should be no looking up at the ceiling, asking yourself “where do I go with this now?”)

Anyway, that’s just my opinion.

Bur I sit here, in the cafeteria of my local Whole Foods, looking up at the ceiling, scratching my head, and asking myself, “Can I start the damn script now?” I guess I’ll know when I get to page 50 and I know (or don’t know) where to go next.

You Don’t Have Writer’s Block- You Just Didn’t Finish Your Outline

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Working on an outline for a new script. Think Kristen Wiig, Amy Poehler, and Anna Faris.

I listened to a teleconference seminar on structure last week that was really interesting. It went into detail on the 15-minute segment method practiced by most Hollywood screenwriters. For those who are unaware, this is a process that divides your movie up into 8 even segments (i.e. if you have a 120 page script, each segment will be roughly 15 minutes.) Each segment has its own purpose, and its own rise and fall. Following this structure is a great way to lay out your script, avoid the second act slump, and more importantly, writer’s block.

cow writers block

As the teacher of the seminar said, “You don’t have writer’s block- you just didn’t finish your outline.”

Here is a (very) brief breakdown of the 15 minute segment method:

  1. Setting up the story
  2. Entering a new world
  3. Learning the new world
  4. The first major obstacle
  5. Things fall apart
  6. The hero hits rock bottom and the villain achieves his or her goal
  7. The hero takes on the villain’s allies
  8. The hero confronts the villain

Bruce Almighty

For people like me who write comedies, these breakdowns of action movies are sometimes a little difficult to translate into comedy-speak, but its doable. For example: “Things fall apart” in Bruce Almighty actually means “Bruce starts getting everything he wants.” I know, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but once you start overanalyzing a ton of comedies (like I’ve done these last few weeks, including Bridesmaids, 13 Going on 30, Bruce Almighty and Horrible Bosses) it starts become clearer.

By the way, overanalyzing movies is a great way for you to simultaneously appreciate the movies more and become totally sick of all comedies all at the same time. (If you ever feel the need to read a scene-by-scene play-by-play of any of those movies, oh yes, I’ve got it in MS Word.)

Some people can write without an outline, but most people (including everyone I know) can’t. I want my outline so perfectly laid out that by the time I open Final Draft, the thing is practically written for me already, and “writer’s block” is a virus I’m immune to.

How Doing Your Taxes Can Give You the F*ckits

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Just finished putting together all of our income, expenses, etc. and emailed it off to our accountant. Done.

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However, the IRS (and our accountant) is going to look at the ledger and say, “How are their expenses so much higher than their income?” Well, Mr. IRS Agent, we’ve had a financially complicated year. Between our car needing a heart and kidney transplant, me losing a couple of my internal body parts to a malfunction in my reproductive system, sending our older child to preschool for the first time, buying over $11K in gear and supplies for our business, all while losing our biggest client halfway through the year, can make for some uneven numbers in one’s taxes.

But today is Friday, and you know what that means? It’s a whole new day. Better yet, next Tuesday is the start of a whole new (tax) year. And I’m working on the (final?) revision of a kick-ass screenplay. Oh yes, that’s right- Kick. Ass.

My point? Just because 2012 looked like shitonastick, doesn’t mean you’re not going to be a superstar in 2013. Just because you couldn’t get a boyfriend last year, doesn’t mean you won’t get married this year. Just because your house blew away with some b*tch-of-a-storm named Sandy doesn’t mean you aren’t going to get it all back this year.

And just because you didn’t make a whole lot of money doing what you really love this year, doesn’t mean you won’t be taking Donald Trump out to dinner this year just so you can tell him he’s a douchebag.

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Secrets, Secrets Are No Fun (but great for inspiration!)

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I think it was in The Artist’s Way where I read that you shouldn’t tell people about the spiritual work you’re doing for yourself as their reaction may burst your bubble. Everyone has an opinion about this and that, and sharing with them something as intimate as your spiritual growth (particularly if you know a lot of scoffers) can stall your momentum. The same goes with creative inspiration. Last night I had a great idea for this new project I’m working on. I had been having a difficult time wrapping my head around this new script, as I didn’t know where to go with the story. But last night I figured it out.

Excited, and having an always-supportive husband, I shared it with him this morning. I said, “I figured out what I’m going to do with this script!” And I told him. But as soon as the words began coming out of my mouth, I heard how terrible they sounded. Boring. Dumb. Direction-less. I said, sort of fishing, you don’t like that idea, do you? He replied, “Nope!”

Crushed. Knowing myself, I usually would have taken his “nope” and ran with it all the way into a different career. But this time, I knew better. I realized I haven’t finished the new idea yet. It needed more thinking, more work. It’s a great idea, but it wasn’t ready to be shared… even with him.

Picasso

I mean, if Picasso had gone to his buddy and said, “Hey amigo, I’m gonna paint a whole bunch of shapes and colors that make people and places look all retarded and shit. Whadda ya think?” His buddy probably would’ve said “nope” too.

A Writer By Any Other Name Wouldn’t Smell as Sweet

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When can you call yourself a writer? Or an actor? Or a musician?

Once you’re playing music? Well, I played the piano yesterday, but I’m not a professional musician. Once you’ve acted in an independent film? Well, you didn’t make any money doing it, so can you still call yourself a professional actor? What if you wrote a book? Could you call yourself a writer? I’m writing a blog right now… does that make me a writer?

Work for free

Do I have to wait until I get my first paycheck for writing before I can answer the question from someone: “What do you do?” by saying “I’m a writer”?

This question has (sort of) haunted me since I graduated from college over 12 years ago. I moved to Los Angeles to become an actor, but I worked various jobs to pay my rent. If someone asked me what I did, I was hesitant to say “I’m a teacher”, or “I’m a bartender” because I didn’t really feel like that’s what I was doing. But I wasn’t making any money as an actor, and though I was going on the occasional audition and doing the occasional play or low-budget film, I also felt like kind of a liar to say “I’m an actor”. I pretty much gave up acting after a few years to pursue a career as a playwright and screenwriter. I’ve been doing that for a number of years now. But I haven’t made any money doing it yet.

But every day I work on my script that I intend to sell… yes, for real money. Plus now I’ve got a possible job to write the sequel for a movie that did pretty well a few years back. And that would be for real money too. (I’m not really talking about it until it’s more of a done deal.) In fact, these days I’m working more on my screenplay than I am running my and my husband’s business.

A parent at a music class for my daughter yesterday asked me if I worked, as she saw me without a job on a Thursday morning. I said, “Yes, I’m a writer and I help run our business.” I felt like kind of a poser, a “phony” as Holden Caulfield would call it, but the fact remains that I write. A lot. And I have every intention to make real money real soon.

Phony

As soon as that first paycheck comes in, though, there won’t be any phoniness coming out of my mouth. It’ll be a full fledged, “Yes! I’m a writer!” I guess this means that I believe in the argument that you need to be making money in order to say you do something. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not going to bring up the fact that I’m also a writer. Because I am.

A Whole Foods Vacation

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The Whole Foods on Columbus Avenue and 99th Street in Manhattan has a large dining room for customers to eat their goods recently purchased from the behemoth “Whole Paycheck” grocer. This dining area appeals to me greatly. I get to sit and work on my computer with no fear of (a) annoying a waitress who wants more than a tea-drinking customer; and (b) feeling guilty that I’m taking a table that someone else wants. There’s no table service here and plenty of tables for everyone, and then some. I buy my tea and I sit, unafraid of imposing on anyone. Free of guilt. There’s another type of person who loves the Whole Foods dining room: women taking care of small children.

This dining room is practically overrun by stay-at-home mothers and nannies, all with children under 2 years of age in a stroller. The children either sleep in their strollers while the nannies chat with their nanny friends or the toddlers sit in their little booster seat (thanks for providing, Whole Foods) while their mommies feed them mashed up and small pieces of food. I’ve never brought my kids here. The older one is too old now (sitting at a table in a big room she could otherwise be running around in = no fun) and I’m never alone long enough with the little one to require a place to go.

Do these women absolutely love the California Rolls at the sushi bar? Do they dream of the cous cous at the pre-made foods bar? No. They’re looking for a place to go. Yes, I’m making a grand generalization. They need a place to be OTHER than the living room. God save me from being at home all day with a small child.

On a rare day, you’ll meet a woman who looooves staying home with her kids and not working. On a rare day, you’ll meet a woman who looooves working a 9-5 and only seeing her kids for bedtime and on the weekends. But the majority of us yearn for a happy medium: lengthy, quality time with our little ones as they learn everything in front of them and time away to build our careers, our sense of independence, a sense of being something more than a mother.

Note: one of my tag words for Search Engine Optimization on this post is “stir crazy”.

I get two hours every day at the Whole Foods to work on my script. Not bad. I could use a lot more time, but childcare is too expensive for us right now. So I sit here in the morning, surrounded by women looking for respite from the howling on the living rug or the flashy noise of PBS Kids programming (on the Upper West Side, we watch PBS Kids. None of that Disney Jr. for us educated folk… okay, maybe a little Handy Manny and some Charlie and Lola.)

handy manny cover

30 minutes gone while writing this post. Now back to work on my screenplay. I’ve got 90 minutes left to find my career, my independence and feel like I’m not a liar (or a poser) when I say: My name is Awesome, and I’m a writer.

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