Tuesday, September 28, 2010

If you think you’re da shit, then your stuff is shit.

Giving and taking notes is a tricky business. I don’t read scripts from newbies (who aren’t friends) because most think their stuff is great and that's all they want to hear. How do I know? I was a deluded beginner once too and I expected nothing but praise for my genius.

But try telling that to smug, beginner screenwriters who think they are great writers. As the years go by and the delusion diminishes, I think I’m a horrible writer. For me, self-doubt and self-loathing are directly proportional with improvement. I wondered if this was just me or if it was a commonality among all writers.

I went to a WGA genre panel in July and I had a friend, who was attending via streaming (he asked me what question he should ask and I told him), ask the panelists (Scott Frank, Andrea Berloff and Adam Mazer) when they knew their stuff was good. They all laughed and Frank said “Never. Writers that love their shit it's because it's shit."

I was kinda’ looking for hope that some day I would feel better about my writing. But no, I guess I won't.

Beginners don’t want to hear the truth and they can't handle it very well. They’ll hate you for it and respond with a “Thank you for your opinion.” And they will never listen to advice on market realities. The only notes that are helpful are direct and honest. Sugar-coating makes things worse and it’s confusing as hell. These days, I abhor praise. You see, praise is an empty platitude that may feel good, but does mostly harm to a writer’s progress and improvement. Writers should tell each other what works, what doesn’t work and what needs to be done to improve the screenplay.

Check out this coverage I got from Slamdance years ago. I think I got diabetes just reading it again. It seemed harsh then; it seems sugar-coated now. It took me a while to recognize what was helpful about it.

Slamdance Screenplay Competition
Coverage for All About Akiki (Reader #38191)


Teen wants to be popular in the worst way, and so runs for student body president - her major opponents being a fake cholo and a Ugandan schemer. A story filled with hilarious situations, and telling the blackly humorous story of a school election, that mirrors the muck that is political elections in America today. A probing look at not only high-school cliques and poses/posers, but also the poses that constitute suburban life in America today... even the activists here, are wearing masks of fakery. What we would like to latch on to, is the singe beacon of truth in this sea of political scheming and fakery... but we fail to get it, in the weak, empty, emotionless character that is Franny, who fails to have an arc, and who, as the pages wind down, becomes more and more passive, until she is a mere reactor to events. We can't care about her, because there is no emotional journey, no relationship-in-transition - there's too much plot here, too much chatter, getting in the way. Franny is the core of the piece, and fixing her, will go a long way towards rendering this script into what it so SO could be, a great satire on politics and high-school and the emptiness of all self-serving political aspirations.....

What works:

The script is often hilarious, as we get a black portrait of high-school popularity. Casting this against a political backdrop has roots in ELECTION, another black comedy; it feels more like HEATHERS and GHOST WORLD, however, with Akika reminding us of MEAN GIRLS. We get "types" for all our characters, and that does tell us that this script intends itself to be a satire, much more than a standard comedy feature: every single person here is "flat," in the satiric model as such, and so they do work on that one level. The problem is that they are all so similar, so equally chatty and even appear to have the same motivations... the effect is one of strange confusion, so that one reads this and easily gets lost, amidst a parade of like characters, equally lacking in emotional arcs, equally scheming and hiding their true natures, equally chatting and reacting to others' chatter. The situations are funny, and rich in exploitation; the animals are always funny, and their untimely deaths (is this acceptable to say?) even funnier. Rob is Karl Rove by another name, and perhaps Akiki is supposed to be Rice, but also perhaps not; their scheming ways, couched in the tactics of a Machiavelli, are the best parts of the plot here, as we watch them scheme, claw, and rend Franny along the way to the top. As in good satire, they win, even though they lose; their winning was inevitable, but we are hoping that Franny will win in her own way along the way. Franny is the problem that lies at the core of this script, because - in a welter of types and plot-points - we want an emotionally-based, fully-rounded, arcing character, with a strong relationship-in-transition storyline (see below)... we get, alas, none of that, but instead one more flat type, among a host of flat types. Without a core to hold onto, the whole fails - the whole blends together, in fact, and can't distinguish itself, from itself. It's all very funny... but it's all too distancing, as well.

What doesn't work:

The main problem with ALL ABOUT AKIKI, is the fact that it is too politically based - it is too concerned with the machinations of plot, and of how the characters interacts on a plot basis, rather than with supplying real emotions, that an audience can adhere to. Everyone in here, after a while, begins to sound strangely the same; wether it's parents or students, it's so hard to keep track of everyone, to keep a bead on who's who, because all the characters have blended together. That's because everyone has a "political" agenda of one kind or another: there's no real difference between Rob and Noam, say, except that they are on different sides of the political fence. It's not just what they're saying or who they are with, which side of the story they're on - heroes or villians - it's that their motivations and drives are so similar; perhaps, too, it's the uniform lack of emotion, of emotional arcs and relationships-in-transition, that renders everything into a bland mush. In this respect it is similar to the tone of GHOST WORLD or HEATHERS, except that the first had real teen angst as its core, and exploited it; the second, a funny driving plot, that was emotionally based - and a satisfying arc to its lead character. But here, we get a rather dis-involved Franny: she wants to be class president (10th Grade president, which seems like low stakes at that), but not really - what she really wants, is to be "popular." But she is so utterly empty throughout: she never really emotionally bonds to anyone, not even Noam - Leila wants Noam, and we are moved by her sudden attraction to him, in an otherwise emotionally-distant story. Franny is more a reactor than pro-active, in her long campaign; she is constantly the fall-guy to Akika's and Rob's schemes, and then she finally is brought to bear by the end; she gives a rousing, but too out of the blue speech - during which, secondary characters Noam and Leila, like a deus ex machina, reveal the dastardly deeds of Akika/Rob, and Franny wins. It's a victory unearned, and uncared about. The script's title is itself a confusion: ALL ABOUT AKIKA implies Akika will be the heroine/protagonist... she is not... and again, we are left scratching our heads, at what to make of this ultimately too tedious comedy, that doesn't manage to really draw us in to its world.

How it can be improved:

The author must inject one character, at least, with an emotional arc - that character would have to be Franny, who is the central protagonist. All the other characters at this point are allowed to blend together, into an indistinguishable ball... even the animals, at times, are hard to distinguish. It can still work, but not if the main character blends in with them. We simply can't spend two hours with a lead character that is concerned with things that we, an audience, can't care about - an audience doesn't care about a student body president-ship, it doesn't care about the dirty tricks of one's opponents, it doesn't care about plans to be popular, about a million little plot elements that only serve to confuse ever more... we may *laugh* at these things, or be amused by them, but we don't *care* about them. And an audience wants to care when they see a movie, or at least be presented with a character who seems to care - we can all fake it, that's fine, but there has to be something at least to fake along with. Franny needs, thus, to have an emotional arc: she can want to become popular - as is explicitly stated as a goal of Jennifer Garner's character, in 13 GOING ON 30 - but then it has to, by the end, become the explicitly opposite of what the character needs, and finally turns to (as Garner gradually finds her fulfillment, in loving Mark Ruffalo). A lead character can't just abstractly learn that "being popular" is not a good thing; it's this abstract learning on Franny's part, that probably subconsciously led the author to have Franny's problems ultimately solved FOR her, rather than BY her - the farther we get into this story, the more we realize there is a central ingredient missing, and that's the fully-rounded central character. Now, in a sublime nutshell, movie-stories are about a character/s, who have A) goals to accomplish, subdivided a) external (the plot), and b) internal (the character/s inner "arc," the trajectory of the inner man/woman that changes from what's initially presented, to its opposite, and sometimes back again); and B) a relationship-in-transition, the real life-blood of any movie - wherein the character and another, usually the second lead, go through a relational journey, either evolving (most movies), achieving a new level of gnosis, knowledge (fewer movies), or actually devolving (fewest movies). This is your screenwriting primer, in a nutshell - every movie conforms to this simple formula. And here, we lack A/b), and B): we lack an inner arc for Franny, and we lack the relationship-in-transition - clearly the other in this relationship is supposed to be Noam, but that never materializes; he is more friend, than lover, than future love. And unless Franny becomes a fully-rounded lead, this script will fail to connect to a reader, and an audience. We all know what Franny preaches in her final speech - in some ways it's empty itself, since Leila reveals she was Franny's friend all along. We want to see a love bloom in Franny, the first real life lesson that we all remember: that love and a relationship with another human being, can bring the fulfillment that political gains and being popular, can't. Without that lesson... we know the story is disingenuous. Give the reader what s/he wants, and needs.

Next step:

Bring back the emotion to this piece - really go into Franny's emotional through-line, and tell the story of how, say, she comes to find love in Noam (the obvious choice, though it could be Rob too...); make HER defeat her enemies by the end, make her proactive rather than - increasingly in 3rd Act, as the pages wind down - a reactive, passive lead character, who is simply letting things happen to her until she the curtain falls. Too much talk here, or it feels like it - to much chatter, surface talk, mask talk. Give this some real depth... and make us care, about Franny, if no one else... so that we can really resonate, with her journey....


I’ve bolded the most important and critical note (first paragraph) which wasn’t sugar coated. I didn’t see it then. I didn’t get it. I didn’t write for months. When I read it again, I realized what was the problem with my stories: a lack of emotional connection to the characters.

A professor once gave me great guidelines for asking for notes. He said, first and foremost you have to have trusted readers, those whom you respect and vice versa. Second, you ask specific questions (such as Is this confusing? Does this make sense? Does this work/doesn’t work on page __?). And third, you take in what’s helpful, really take the note to heart if several people are telling you the same thing, and discard what isn’t helpful.

It takes a while to develop the confidence and skill needed to process notes. It takes courage to ask for a read and notes, but it also takes courage to give honest feedback. It takes someone who is serious about improving her writing to let go of needing and wanting praise.


Liz said...

It has to be someone you trust though. E pre-requirement difficult to meet, or receive.

dizzydent said...

Trust AND respect. You have to respect that person's taste.

Liz said...

Yes and come to think of it, those are exactly the same ingredient needed to make any relationship work.