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?