The First Ten Pages: Indiana Jones

We all know this scene.

We all know this scene.

(Written from Comic Con at 1 in the morning! Apologies for any of those kind of grammar snafus and snobbles that come up when one does such things… ON TO THE POST!)

So, one of my fellow bloggers wrote about Raiders and you can read his writing on it here.

(In his article he basically explores how Raiders manages to do exposition in an interesting yet realistic to the setting and non convoluted way)

I am continuing his grand tradition by also writing on Raiders of the Lost Arc. Which we are not the only ones to do of course. People have talked about how they hate the ending, or how they defend the ending. How the exposition scene is impressive, how Indy never takes off his hat but everyone remembers him going after it (Which only happens in the sequels).

Let us look instead of that at the most important part of the script. The first ten or so pages. Kasdan, the screen writer of Indiana Jones and many other excellent films was always worried about one thing. That Indy would be like the two fisted pulp heroes before him. A hero with no flaws. Someone that can take any situation, woo any woman, kill any badguy.

So, what does Kasdan do with the script? He writes some of the best opening pages of all time.

We open on a jungle. We see a guy who’s obviously the hero. Fedora and leather jacket = hero. Everyone knows this. Someone pulls a gun on our hero and CRACK! He’s disarmed by a bullwhip. The hero? Is also odd, but in a super manly and cool way. Established!

Then there’s the treasure cave. He finds a dead adventurer  like himself. He finds some spiders. A pit. Some deadly darts. He passes them all.

Then the idol. He measures out the sand and makes the switch and… fails.

He has to run from his failure, and his failures keep stacking up. His guide has tricked him and steals the idol. He is chased by a massive boulder. He then gets it back but finds that another treasure hunter has gone about this all much smarter than him and he only just barely escapes thanks to luck and determination.

He flies away a beaten man with his tail between his legs.

So, if really all the opening is, is one giant build up to Indy being in over his head and not up to the challenges around him, why is it one of the most parodied and memorable opening sequences of all time?

Because it’s all about Indy being in over his head and not up to the challenges around him. That’s what the WHOLE movie is about. Indy is powerful, he is manly, he is strong, smart, quick… and he is out of his depth. It’s the entire basis of the film. He is a pulp hero who is not quite up to snuff.

Think of the scene everyone remembers where he guns down the swordsmen. In this sequence he fights and beats dozens of men… and loses the girl. She’s kidnapped. He fails. It’s like this over and over again.

Remember the big man he boxes in front of the flying wing? The guy punches him and has him on the ground before the propeller saves him.

The key to the opening is the key to the whole movie. Indy is never invincible. For as over the top as he and his adventures are, the adventures are always literally one step away from killing him. His adventure is raw because it truly seems to be about to take his life. Everything is one milometer from the edge. Not in the James Bond sense of the bomb about toe explode. Indy is embarrassed by his failures. He’s bloodied by them. He’s laid low and often mocked by his mistakes.

The intro has many plants and pay offs. The bull whip, the opening where some of his guides turn on him, the discovery of the corpse of a rival adventurer, the talk of the ancient people and their beliefs. It all comes back around to show how human Indy is.

Then it ends on the note of his great fear of snakes. The final moment of the opening is to tell the audience Indy’s biggest weakness.

And somehow our hero still comes off as cool and awesome and fun in this intro. That… that is what makes the opening of Indian Jones such a master stroke. That Indiana Jones walks away from that series of well written failures as a cool main character the audience roots for. He’s in over his head, but he always swims as hard as he can. He struggles harder than most other pulp heroes, and that is why he’s so easy to get behind.

It’s easy to be the hero when you always come out on top. What Indy does is hard.

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Feedback… this time it’s personal.

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I was going to blog about a recent experience with feedback when this timely article by Bob Saenz popped up in my Twitter feed. It’s an insightful look at how to receive feedback with grace and aplomb… and also robs me of an opportunity to express a semi-original thought. It’s now been covered.

My post had to do with the giving part of the equation, but since there was entirely too much intersection between the two to justify adding my publication to the vast sea of blogdom, I’ll focus on another aspect of feedback: the value of a reliable peer group willing to give it fairly. I’d love to call this a companion piece to Bob Saenz’s post, but since I’m pretty much a nobody I’ll just call it piggybacking.

I recently got painful feedback from someone in my screenwriters group whom we’ll call Mr. T (because who wouldn’t want that moniker?). It was painful not because of my superfluous supporting character or my overdescribing an action or the extreme tonal shift in my second act. In fact it didn’t even pertain to my script at all. It was feedback on my feedback.

Mr. T had shared his first pass at a comedy piece. The first thing I said was that it was too long and the humor felt forced.

Then I basically repeated that, adding that it was too long and forced even for a first draft.

What was that all about? After all, that’s what first drafts are for: expunging the dreck from our heads. Usually my initial feedback notes vacillate from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other. I then refine the notes so they’re more constructive than damaging, more encouraging than cheerleading. Leave unhelpful comments to the YouTube trolls. So I never share the first draft of my feedback. Except this time I did.

Okay before I go on I want to be clear:  I’m talking about feedback that’s fair and helpful, not nice. I’m not from the EGAT (Everyone Gets A Trophy) Generation so I’d never argue that feedback has to be all smiles and sunshine. If our stuff isn’t that good we need to hear it. Therefore notes require a combination of honesty and tact for them to be truly effective. It doesn’t help to hear how awesome your stuff is – unless it’s accompanied by a check. At the same time, we don’t need another writer utterly crushing us like a giant Monty Python cartoon foot.

Whatever it was that moved me to spew that useless first draft comment – perhaps my own self-induced writing funk or my expectation that Mr. T could do better – I not only undermined his confidence in his script, but I threatened the uber-valuable peer relationship that I’d cultivated with him, as well as the others in the writers group.

I did note that the core part of the idea was super funny and it could be a hilarious piece. But that didn’t matter because he thought that rusty fork of a comment that I twisted inside of his gut summarized how I felt about the whole thing. Rather than go all Clubber Lang on me – which probably would’ve been justified – Mr. T simply took umbrage and told me as much when we spoke later. Much later.

Fortunately this writer and I are friends (um, right T?) and we’ve helped each other out many times, so we know there’s no ill will between us (right T?). But it never does any good to tear down another writer without offering to help build them back up.

And now to hope that nobody comments on how they feel about this article cuz I’m not sure I’m ready for that kind of feedback…

The Up and Down Emotional Beats of Scenes

storyI am a multitasker. I love to work on my next author interview, paint, or outline story ideas while I watch a movie or great television show (which really only means Game of Thrones, after I’ve seen the episode once or twice). But there are some movies that demand our full attention, no matter how skilled we are at multitasking.

One such film, which started as a book equally as intriguing, is The Fault in Our Stars.

But let’s not discuss the merits of the movie or the book. Instead let’s consider an idea that such writing books as Robert McKee’s Story mention, namely scenes having up and down emotional beats (or positive and negative charges), and how this concept is used in The Fault in Our Stars as a case study.  Continue reading

Can the romantic comedy live happily ever after?

Movie ending still - Editable Vector.For several years now, the romantic comedy has been kicked, maligned, and left for dead. Christopher Orr said in The Atlantic that they’ve been “lackluster for decades.” A.O. Scott of The New York Times thinks the actresses are too vanilla. And Linda Obst, producer of rom-coms like Sleepless in Seattle and One Fine Day says, “It is the hardest time of my 30 years in the business.”

And she’s got a point. The numbers don’t lie – when it comes to grossing big at the box office, traditional rom-coms have been disappointing at best. What was once considered one of the most bankable genres for studios and actors is suddenly risky business.

So what gives? Some say it’s just society changing. Marriage is no longer the life goal that it used to be. There are fewer obstacles to finding love. Technology has killed romance. And moviegoers are too savvy and cynical to believe in ‘happily ever after.’

Others blame the lack of charismatic movie stars: ‘They don’t make ‘em like Katherine Hepburn or Meg Ryan anymore!’ And the stars who really have that classic je-ne-sais-quoi are avoiding the genre altogether.

But to me, these arguments pinpoint symptoms of the rom-com problem rather than a diagnosis. Because the truth is, romantic comedies are an interesting beast. They’re inherently grounded in the social mores and cultural context that define courtship, sex, love, and marriage at that specific moment in time. For example, When Harry Met Sally wouldn’t be relevant today because well, these days, we know that men and women can be just friends.

Similarly, Working Girl, the 1989 romantic comedy that launched Melanie Griffith’s career, seems almost quaint now in its exploration of women in the workplace. At the time, the concept was novel – a beautiful woman with no breeding but serious smarts who wants to make it big on Wall Street. Maybe that’s why it attracted a big-name director (Mike Nichols), an all-star cast (Harrison Ford, Sigourney Weaver), and even a best-picture Oscar nomination.

The reality is, the best romantic comedies aren’t really timeless – they’re very much a product of their time. Think about the Katherine Hepburn classic Desk Set, in which a fact-checker falls in love with the man who’s installing a giant computer that’s threatening to steal her job. Or take Sleepless in Seattle, which is about a single dad’s search for love.

The problem with romantic comedies today isn’t that they’re out of touch with reality. On the contrary, they best ones have evolved to look nothing like rom-coms of the past – and they defy simple categorization. Think Juno, Bridesmaids, Silver Linings Playbook, or the upcoming Trainwreck. 

In other words, the true romantic comedy – the one that delights and inspires us – isn’t dead. It’s hiding in plain sight, inside movies that are widely regarded as witty, well-made, and very much relevant.

Romantic comedies don’t necessarily have a bleak future — they’re just in need of a genre makeover and a willingness to see them as a product of their time.

Why so hostile?

Angry voice!

Angry voice!

This is a repost of a post that originally appeared on June 27, 2014 on the Maximum Z blog.

I’ve been making an effort over the past few weeks to build my network of writing acquaintances, which has involved connecting on assorted social media networks.

Several of these include groups of like-minded people that offer up the opportunity to ask questions, get feedback, etc.

One of them was about loglines.

Feeling fairly confident but open to suggestions about the one for my western, I typed it in, hoping somebody might have some helpful comments.

Within minutes, the response came in: “…or? What’s at stake? What are the consequences?”

Hmm. Well, her train’s been stolen, which…puts her livelihood at stake?  And it’s going to be used in a major heist, so the consequences are…widespread? I’ve always hated this part. Maybe I’m not giving enough information?

I wrote back: “open to suggestions.”

Past experience with logline feedback via online forums, while occasionally frustrating, has sometimes yielded positive results.

Sometimes.

A few minutes later: “I’m a producer and script consultant, not a psychic. If I knew what the story was about, knew the protagonist’s motives, knew what the antagonist was doing and why, and knew what was at stake and the consequences of certain actions, I would make a suggestion. However, with so little on offer, there’s little I can do other repeat what I’ve already said.

I’m not arguing anything after the word ‘psychic’. It’s not easy to get all of that across in a logline. It’s much harder than most writers realize.

(Side note – I love it when somebody backs up their comments with the proclamation of their qualifications. As expected, a quick internet search of this person’s “producer and script consultant” credentials yielded both jack and squat. It took a lot of effort to not ask them for more details.)

Desperately seeking resolution, I offered: “Would you be willing to take a look at the 1-page synopsis to get a better understanding of the story?

Soon afterward: “based on your logline, no”

And that was that.

While I didn’t have a problem with the actual advice, there just seemed to be this overall tone of angry condescension in their text. “Grr! I know what I’m talking about! My advice is infallible and you’re an idiot if you don’t listen to me! Grr! Argh!” Maybe I was just reading too much into it?

Honestly, it kind of nagged at me for the rest of the day. I always thought the point of these groups was to help each other. Sure, sometimes people just don’t get it, but I’m more likely to appreciate your comments if you seem willing/interested in actually helping me.

Later in the day, somebody with no connection to me whatsoever called this person out for being unnecessarily cruel (a bit harsh, but I understood where they were coming from). I made a point of staying totally out of what soon became a snippy back-and-forth of “I’m right, you’re wrong”.

So much for taking part in that group again.

Still seeking some kind of help, I tried again on a different forum, but approached it from a different angle.

I listed the logline plus some key story details that might help, adding how I was seeking some bolstering in terms of including stakes and consequences. (The original responder may have come across as an asshole, but I didn’t think their advice was wrong.)

There was a significant difference in the responses. A lot were not only helpful, but practical and encouraging, including this gem – “I love this logline. If I were a producer I’d want to read it. Hell, I still want to read it, just because it sounds like fun.”

I felt a little better, had what I felt was a stronger logline, and a few requests to read the script. Nice.

As part of that aforementioned back-and-forth, my original responder said they were just preparing new writers for the kinds of responses they should expect from the industry if they submit “subpar material”.

While I can understand that kind of thinking, it seems that people are more likely to heed your advice or suggestions if you actually come across as helpful, rather than sound like we’re wasting your time and the last thing you want to deal with right now.

But then again, I’m just a nice guy to begin with, so what do I know?

Hitting a Brick Wall, or How I Learned to Love the Outline

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I used to write poetry. I only mention that because my first real training in the craft of writing was as a poet, not as a screenwriter. Writing poetry was a way of piecing together meaning, of exploring unexpected connections, of translating the sometimes bizarre images in my head onto the page. I wrote narrative poems, but knew nothing about narration. I had “characters,” but never considered their characteristics. I didn’t need to. Poems, even narrative poems, didn’t follow those rules. The “story” wasn’t what mattered.

When I first turned to screenwriting, I thought it would be a perfect fit. After all, film is a visual medium, at times elevating image the same way a poem does. Scripts have structure and format, something I understood well from writing poems. And screenwriting, like poetry, has to squeeze the most meaning into the fewest possible words. After learning some basic formatting rules, I was ready to begin.

The first script I wrote was based on the life of an art forger. The second was a write-for-hire adaptation of a best-selling novel. Because both scripts had “built-in” structures, I got away (or so I thought) with not learning about story. Until my third script. That’s when I hit the brick wall. Continue reading