Saturday, November 27, 2010

Trust this mysterious voice in your head

You’ve planed enough. You have a clear set-up, development and climax. You’ve sliced your project into sequences. Your plot and subplots are clear and cohesive. Your characters are motivated. Their objectives are comprehensible. Their goal set.  

Fine!  What to do next?

Well, forget about all you’ve planed and ignore all the rules!

When it’s time to write and struggle against the white pages, no advise, no expert, no script doctor or MFA can help you -  all you need is to fine tune into this voice in your head.

Just like Joan of Arc right before she charged the Brits!

Louis Ferdinand Celine called it his little music…And writing is the ability to tune into your inner music.

If you can’t tune into this voice of yours – your very own style -,  if you don’t feel that voice within you, and don’t get excited and moved into action by it, writing a full manuscript is going to be very difficult - by my experience, impossible.

We all have stories to tell. Great stories, really. Packed with actions and emotions. Twists and turns. But that doesn’t matter - because stories, and writing in general is not about what we have to say or report. It is NOT about how dramatic the situation or how original the set up.

It’s all about how we say it. How we hear it. When we follow and trust that voice in our head.  

So fine tune into your mental music… and dance…

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Oh baby we really need to talk about Love

Don’t worry. I’m not about to get on my knees and babble about the inevitability of us.

This post is not about being in love (though I wish it was), this post is about the need of a strong romantic subplot in any given story.

You can’t escape it. Even if your story is an action packed intergalactic slasher affair, they will be an element of love. The main question here is not if you need a romantic subplot in your story – because you do – the real problem is to build and intertwine it with your main storyline so they flow harmoniously and naturally together.

The best way to do that is by connecting the main events in your storyline with the main event in your romantic subplots.

Let me explain:

When you map your project, you can build a timeline connecting all the major events that form your story.

If you’re writing a survival story, all the major events on your main timeline will be related to surviving a given ordeal. If you’re writing a crime story, they will be related to finding who committed the crime, etc.

Beside the main timeline, you can build a set of secondary timelines, where you list chronologically all the major events that form the romantic subplots of your story.

For example, if you’re writing a story where all the major events relate to surviving a giant ape and escaping Skull Island, you can also build a set of secondary timelines (or romantic subplots) strictly focusing on all the events related to the developing love between Ann Darrow and Jack Driscoll as well as the destructive love between an ape and the girl.

You’ll find yourself with series of timelines that would look something like this (that’s my own timelines and subplots for How I Stole Johnny Depp’s Alien Girlfriend, by the way - and there's my chin and fingers too ;) :

The trick is to connect all the major events in the main storyline with all the essential turning points in the romantic subplots.

For example, Kong kidnapping Ann Darrow is definitely a major event in the main theme of surviving and escaping Skull Island. But it is also a main event in the romantic subplots concerning Ann Darrow and Jack Driscoll (Jack decides to go after the girl and save her) as well as in Kong and Ann subplot (the Beast meets the Beauty).

If the major events in your main storyline are disconnected from the romantic subplots, there are big chances that the love story within your main story will feel artificial, unbalanced and somehow unmotivated.

Your work as a writer is to connect the dots between the different timelines and make sure that every major event in your main storyline says something about your romantic subplots.

If you do so, you can successfully convince people that a girl can fall for a monkey.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Further slicing: sequencing your story

When you’re writing, there are tools and tricks that will help you sail through this vast chaotic ocean that’s a first draft.

Slicing your story into comprehensible and clear segments known as "sequences" is one of the important tricks I learned as a student of the late Frank Daniel.

Frank Daniel thought that any story could be divided in smaller units that carried their own coherent dramatic spine.

Sequences are like the building blocks of your story. I like to think of them as "mini-stories" with their own conflict and resolution.

Each sequence's resolution creates the situation which sets up the next sequence, moving the story forward. Basically, it means that when you start working on your story, instead of sailing off into an endless ocean of situations and words, you step out into a carefully mapped collection of short stories.

Each short story will be a single coherent step in the full journey of your character.

Personally, I like to divide all my projects into 8 “mini-stories” of about 5 to 10,000 words each (an arbitrary habit I developed while working as a scriptwriter - but the number of sequences needed to tell a story really depends of the particularity of any given project.) 

All my “mini stories” play an essential part in my manuscript, but I write them as if they stood alone.

What’s the point in that?

It allows me to ignore the fact that I’m sitting down to write a daunting 80,000 + words novel.


Divide your work into smaller pieces. Drive your character from one resolution to the next. And you will be right as rain.

And if your goal is to write the next Great American Novel – plan your work as if you were writing the Great American Collection of Short Stories ;)

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Are you a surfer or a writer?

Why do we do it?

Why do we spend countless hours typing words and chasing a dragon no one really cared about in the first place?

We don’t do it for the hard cash (for those of you thinking there’s plenty of money in publishing, I’d advise turning to more profitable enterprises, like waiting tables, car washing, or lawn mowing).

It’s not for the fame – I mean, your uncle Wayne has more chances of getting famous for eating 66 hot dogs in a row than you’ll ever be for getting published.

It’s not to shine.

Not to be different.

Nor to find a place in the world.

No, we do it for a reason no one would have ever suspected: we do it for the love of paddling out there, struggling and fronting the waves.

Writers and surfers have a lot in common.

Sure, there are a few writers and surfers becoming famous, enjoying PiƱa Colada with other celebrities while gazing at the grey blue ocean.

Most surfers and writers will never get famous - but then again I'm convinced most of us don’t give a dam about pictures, celebrity, money, or the quality of the rum in our cocktails.

We just want to do it.


Paddle. Rise. Surf.


I don’t know…

I guess it’s what we were meant to do. Writers. Surfers. Struggling. Paddling, Finding the perfect momentum for the perfect wave and… whoosh… off we go, like Icarus to the sun.

"Sometimes in the morning, when it's a good surf, I go out there, and I don't feel like it's a bad world."

Saturday, November 13, 2010

You want to help your character: become his worst enemy

You love your character so much, you’re ready to spend the next six month of your precious life telling his/her story.

But your job is not to help and protect.   

YOUR JOB AS A WRITER IS to hurt your HERO/HEROINE as hard as you POSSIBLY can.

There are two factors to assess the worth of a fictional character:  (1) the amount of troubles he’s in and, (2) the amount of energy he employs to solve them.

The more troubles, the more fascinating your story.

If your character’s problems are small or artificial, his actions will be proportionally small and artificial. You will end up with a weak story.

You should never help your character. Never lead him to a crucial clue. Never save him from a grave danger – your job is to hide the clue deeper and create even greater dangers. Then, you let your character solve his problems all by himself.

Actually, each time you fix a problem for your character, you’re closing the door for more storytelling and development. Instead, when you’re adding yet another set of insurmountable obstacles, you’re pushing the story forward and giving your character more opportunities to prove his worth and captivate our interest.

If your character wants to be the world fastest running athlete, cut is legs
If he needs to save the world, make him weak and cowardly
If he loves the girl, kill the girl


So remember, as a writer, you’re the baddy J

Thursday, November 4, 2010

My friend Karl needs to finish writing his novel - and so do you

I met Karl in central Stockholm yesterday. We talked about the novel he’s writing. Karl is an American expat, living in Sweden for the past 7 years. He’s writing wacky pieces about the life of a vinyl collector obsessed with the 70s rock scene.

The last time we met, he was just starting the very first pages.

3 years and 50 000 words later, Karl is sort of lost. He's right in the middle of his manuscript, but he’s not sure what he’s got so far and what to do with it next. Is the manuscript good? It looks like a mess right now. Does it make any sense? Surely there are pages that should go - others that should be added. And what about refining his ‘voice’ and making his novel funnier altogether.

Should he go back to page 1? Re-read it, and start rewriting it until the first 200 pages look like the proper first half of a novel?

What I told him is this: if he starts rewriting his novel before it’s finished, he will never complete it. He will spend the next 3 years rewording, rephrasing, randomly deleting and adding chapters until he will probably give up, like so many other writers before him.  

This is an important trick: first you COMPLETE a first draft. You push your project, add words, scenes, chapters all the way to the final page - no matter how unreadable, awful or sketchy the writting. Only then, you can start rewriting and making it great.

A story is always written from the stand point of the last chapter. Frank Daniel used to compare it to the Greek mythology. When a hero dies and climbs up Mont Olympus, Zeus sees the man's life in reverse - from death to birth -, making sense of an entire existence through the stand point of the very last moments of the hero's life.

It’s exactly the same with a story. Until you’ve reached the very end, you can not know what fit or doesn’t fit anymore in your manuscript. Until your character has completed his journey and said his/her last word, you don’t know what pages should go and what chapter you must add.

So here the rule: if you ever want to complete your manuscript, once you’ve started it, you must always push forward. Don’t try to reword it, don’t try to correct it. Don’t read the opening chapters the hundredth time.

Always move on!

If you don’t find the exact word, or the sentence, or dialogue, just describe it roughly and mark it ***like so***
As in:

She threw the ball at him, “good catch,” she said and smiled.
“I thought so,” he smiled back ***an interesting action here to impress her***

Also, COMPLETING a manuscript, no matter how messy and sketchy, is going to give you a feeling of success and an energy that are going to be most needed for the rewrite. 

So here’s the idea, Karl: finish the damned thing, add pages everyday until you reach a satisfactory and unavoidable conclusion to your story.

Then, we will talk about rewriting.

And with that said, we went for a beer at a cool place he knew near Medborgarplatsen and made more plans for more beers over the weekend.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Are you a book writer or a scriptwriter?

A good story. Solid characters. A laptop.

Same tools, two different jobs!

Were you born to write a great novel or pump-out screenplays?

Find out by answering the following quiz.  Write down the letters for your answers.

1. When someone dies

R. it’s sad
Y. You bury him

2. In Space…

A. It’s quiet
E. You’re alone

3. When you read the word “alcohol”, you’d rather think of...

T. A bottle of Jack Daniel’s
L. Your last night out

4. You have absolutely no money, you’re hungry

I. You wish you could eat a hot dog
P. You steal a hot-dog

5. Richard’s car is useless 

N. He crashed it
R. It’s a piece of junk

6. Meeting President Obama every day means…

W. You’re someone important
E. Moving to Washington D.C.

7. Janet loves to hide…

K. Since she was a child
E. Under the bed

8. Mary will get married because...

R. She’s engaged
O. John loves her

9. A knife…

O. through his heart
C. In his hand.

10. Little Johnny is sad because

B. He misses his mother
S. He fell on the floor

Now, reverse the letters. If you get anything close to “Book writer”, that’s it, you’re job is to write a great novel. If you get anything close to “Screenplay”, you might just be the next Billy Wilder.

If the result means absolutely nothing… nothing at all... I don’t know, you might be a playwright or, God forbid, a civilian…!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

At the beginning, there was your character

There are two types of stories:

- someone (or a group of people) wants something badly, and it’s really hard to get
- someone (or a group of people) doesn’t want something and it’s really hard to avoid

In other words, either your “characters” are running toward “something”, or they’re running away from “something”.

In the first pages of your manuscript, your main job is to make clear who are those “characters”, and to define clearly the “something” they either want or want to avoid.

There are four basics things you need to achieve in your first pages for the story to begin:

1. You need to introduce the character(s), and make them interesting – it doesn’t mean that they have to be particularly good or evil, or that your readers need to identify with them. It means that you need to make them remarkable enough so we will care about what happen to them through your story.

2. Introduce their predicament and/or goals CLEARLY. Meaning, that the goal or predicament of your characters are instinctively and undoubtedly understood by your readers (for example: surviving a killer, finding true love, saving the earth, destroying the Death Star, finding who murdered your kids, killing Bill, etc.)  

3. Defining all the obstacles and making your characters’ goal nearly unreachable (for example: the unstoppable comet on its way to splash earth, the strength of dark side of the force, the total lack of clues left by the murderer, Bill’s cool invincibility and deadly connections, etc.). The more obstacles - the stronger they are -, the more interesting becomes your story. It’s just like in life, if something is hard to get, it instantly becomes more desirable/valuable.  

4. Put your characters on their way to solve their predicament.  Meaning you need to define clearly and instinctively the sort of actions the character(s) need to take to reach their goal.

Take the first 10 pages of Kill Bill script by Quentin Tarantino.

1. Cut to: Page 1. Line 5. The Bride lies on the floor, bleeding. Half a page later, she takes a bullet in the head. When she wakes up, she goes onwhat the movie advertisements refer to as a Roaring Rampage of Revenge.” Within 10 pages, she is killed, resuscitated, escape another murder attempt, brutally dispatch 3 people (a female killer turned house wife, two men trying to sleep-rape her) and drive around in a Pussy Wagon - becoming one of the most memorable characters in movie history.  
2. What does she want? Is her goal clear? You bet.  QT makes it totally unambiguous. In the Bride’s own words: “When I arrive at my destination… I’m gonna kill Bill!” (page 4)  
3. Obstacle? Sure.  That would be Bill and his crew of blood thirsty professional killers. Each of them skilled, sadistic and most importantly nearly invincible. And there’s Bill, of course - portrayed as some sort of cool God of bad-assness. The type of boss-creature that’s going to be impossible to destroy. 
4. But the Bride has a plan to defeat the undefeatable. It’s a list on a notepad: THE DEATH LIST FIVE. “On the page are five names numbered and written in red ink.”. She will confront and kill everybody on that list, and when she will have crossed the first four names, she’s going to kill number one. She’s going to kill Bill. 

It’s almost as if the first 20 pages of Kill Bill are the blue print of what should be the beginning of any story. Clear, inviting, character orientated, grabbing and projecting us in the events to come.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Slicing your story is easy as counting 1 2 3


Every story can be roughly sliced into three distinctive parts.

1: the premise, where you set your characters and their predicament.

2: the development, where you characters struggle to fix their predicament.

3: the ending, where the characters and their predicament reach a satisfying conclusion.

When you’re initially thinking of your story, you’re probably thinking of “1”, the premise.

What if a guy realizes the world is a virtual reality called the Matrix.
What if a man wakes up one morning morphed into a beetle.
What if a group of friends are stalked and hunted down by a deformed killer with a chainsaw

Most of the times, you also have a very clear idea of “3”, the ending

The guy overcomes the Matrix and brings back humanity to reality
The man turned beetle succumbs to his wounds and starvation
Only one of the victims, Sally, escapes the chainsaw killer and survives.

When you start slicing your story,  “1” and “3” always come easily. They’re also the easiest part to write. They’re short, effective and intuitive:

1: Here’s my characters and here is their problem
3: Here’s how they solve their problem and how they will live their lives from now on.

“2” is the tough nut to crack and the one you can not afford to ignore when getting ready to write your story.

“2” is longer, harder and less predictable than the beginning and the end of your story. It’s where most writers will get lost and/or give up.

But you won’t give up, right? Because your story is absolutely great and it needs to be told.

So here is the trick: you need to map “2” very precisely before you start writing. You need to sit down with a pen and a piece of paper and list all the events that will make the guts of your story. You need to work on that list until you have enough material in there to make a full length story. Oh, and don’t worry about the emotional and abstract stuff at this stage, we will come to that later.

Keep it down to basic actions and events listed chronologically, so your list looks something like this:

- Kirk and Pam stumble upon a house near their homestead
- Kirk calls out, asking for gas, while Pam waits on the front steps.
- Kirk receives no answer but when he discovers the door is unlocked, he enters the house.
- Kirk gets killed by Leatherface.
- Pam gets impaled on a meathook.
- At sunset, Jerry, Sally's boyfriend, heads out to look for Pam and Kirk.
- He finds the couple's blanket outside the nearby house. He investigates and finds Pam inside a freezer. Before he can react, Leatherface murders him and stuffs him in the freezer with Pam.
- With darkness falling, Sally and Franklin set out to find their friends.
- As they near the neighboring house and call out, Leatherface lunges from the darkness and kills Franklin with a chainsaw.
- Sally escapes to the house and finds the desiccated remains of an elderly couple in an upstairs room.
- She escapes from Leatherface by jumping through a second floor window and flees to the gas station. Leatherface disappears into the night.
- The proprietor of the gas station calms her with offers of help, but then ties her up and forces her into his truck.
- He drives to the house.
- They bound and gag Sally, while Leatherface, now dressed as a woman, serves dinner. Leatherface and his brother bring an old man from upstairs to join the meal.
- During the night, they decide Sally should be killed by "Grandpa", who once worked at a slaughterhouse. "Grandpa" tries to hit Sally with a hammer, but he is too weak. In the confusion, Sally breaks free.

As you can see, “2” needs a lot of meat.

Happy slicing :)

All you will ever need to complete a great novel or script... is one single simple sentence


You have a great idea for a story. It will make a fantastic novel. An awesome script. You can’t wait to launch your word processor and type away.

But before you start, did you ask yourself:

Can I sum-up the core of my story with a single simple sentence?

As in:

“Two men disguise as women and join an all female band to escape the mob” (Some Like It Hot)
“A young widow discovers that her late husband has left a guideline to help her start a new life” (Cecelia Ahern’s PS I Love You)
“A paraplegic marine dispatched to far far away planet slowly morphs into his alien avatar” (Oh, and by the way, it will be in groundbreaking 3D)
“Let’s rewrite Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice adding lots of zombies” (Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies)
... Etc.
If you cannot sum up your idea in a single simple sentence, you’re going to have a lot of trouble finishing your manuscript… and then, even more trouble selling it.

Once you start to write a project, it will take months, years, and dozen of rewrites before you can complete a final draft. You’re going to spend a serious chunk of your life sweating over that story. So it’s essential that you get it right from the start.

If you can successfully sum-up the core of your story in a single simple sentence, it surely means that your concept is strong and clear. It will become the ID of your project. Whenever you will get lost, whenever you will suffer through writer block, whenever you will be in doubt, this single simple sentence will remind you what you were really trying to write from day one.

And most importantly, it will always remind you your initial enthusiasm, the one you had when you woke up with that eureka feeling and run to your laptop like you just invented warm water.


When you will finally complete a final draft, this single simple sentence will becomes even more important. If it’s clear and catchy, it will be the flag that you, your agent, your editor, or your producer will use to convince other people that indeed you might just have invented warm water.

So? Can you sum-up your idea in one single simple sentence? And if so …? Does it sound good? Good enough to spend the next two years of your life struggling with it?