“It’s tricky because you have to walk that line between staying open to feedback, to criticism, to all the things that are going to make you a better writer and make the material better, but you also have to come into everything, not with an arrogance, but with a confidence in your skillset and your craft and what you’re bringing to a project. It’s a brutal job. You’re constantly writing things to give to people, whether it’s a reader, an executive, an agent or an actor, people are constantly coming back with feedback and criticism, and a lot of the time it is negative, or it is critical and you have to toughen your exterior. Take your ego out of it. Otherwise you’re going to get eaten alive by it. Because that’s what the job is: you write stuff, you turn it in, and then people tell you what they think of it. And a lot of the time it isn’t what you think of it. You can’t let it get to you.”—
1. You have a choice of being “in the business” or of making movies. If you’d rather do business, don’t hesitate. You’ll get richer, but you won’t have as much fun! 2. If you have nothing to say, don’t feel obliged to pretend you do. 3. If you do have something to say, you’d better stick to it. (But then don’t give too many interviews.) 4. Respect your actors. Their job is 10 times more dangerous than yours. 5. Don’t look at the monitor. Watch the faces in front of your camera! Stand right next to it! You’ll see infinitely more. You can still check your monitor after the take. 6. Your continuity girl is always right about screen directions, jumping the axis and that sort of stuff. Don’t fight her. Bring her flowers. 7. Always remember: Continuity is overrated! 8. Coverage is overrated, too! 9. If you want to shoot day for night, make sure the sun is shining. 10. Before you say “cut,” wait five more seconds. 11. Rain only shows on the screen when you backlight it. 12. Don’t shoot a western if you hate horses. (But it’s okay to not be fond of cows.) 13. Think twice before you write a scene with babies or infants. 14. Never expect dogs, cats, birds or any other animals to do what you’d like them to do. Keep your shots loose. 15. Mistakes never get fixed in post!
16. Final cut is overrated. Only fools keep insisting on always having the final word. The wise swallow their pride in order to get to the best possible cut.
17. Other people have great ideas, too. 18. The more money you have the more you can do with it, sure. But the less you can say with it. 19. Never fall in love with your temp music. 20. Never fall in love with your leading lady! 21. If you love soccer, don’t shoot your film during the World Championship. (Same goes for baseball and the World Series, etc.) 22. Don’t quote other movies unless you have to. (But why would you have to?) 23. Let other people cut your trailer! 24. It’s always good to make up for a lack of (financial) means with an increase in imagination. 25. Having a tight schedule can be difficult. But having too much time is worse. 26. Alright, so you’re shooting with a storyboard. Make sure you’re willing to override it at any given moment. 27. Less make-up is better. 28. Fewer words are always better! 29. Too much sugary stuff on the craft table (or is it Kraft?) can have a disastrous effect on your crew’s morale. 30. Film can reveal the invisible, but you must be willing to let it show.
31. The more you know about moviemaking, the tougher it gets to leave that knowledge behind. As soon as you do things “because you know how to do them,” you’re fucked.
32. Don’t tell a story that you think somebody else could tell better. 33. A “beautiful image” can very well be the worst thing that can happen to a scene. 34. If you have one actor who gets better with every take, and another who loses it after a while, make sure they can meet in the middle. Or consider recasting. (And you know whose close-ups you have to shoot first!) 35. If you shoot in a dark alley at night, don’t let your DP impose a bright blue contre-jour spotlight on you, even in the far distance. It always looks corny. 36. Some actors should never see rushes. Others should be forced to watch them. 37. Be ready to get rid of your favorite shot during editing. 38. Why would you sit in your trailer while your crew is working? 39. Don’t let them lay tracks before you’ve actually looked through your viewfinder. 40. You need a good title from the beginning. Don’t shoot the film with a working title you hate! 41. In general, it’s better not to employ couples. (But of course, there are exceptions!) 42. Don’t adapt novels. 43. If your dolly grip is grumpy or your electricians hate the shot it will all show on the film. (Also, if you’re constipated…) 44. Keep your rough cut speech, your cast and crew screening speech and your Oscar speech short. 45. Some actors actually improve their dialogue in ADR. 46. Some actors should never be forced to loop a single line. (Even Orson Welles wasn’t good at that.) 47. There are 10,000 other rules like these 50. 48. If there are golden rules, there might be platinum ones, too. 49. There are no rules. 50. None of the above is necessarily correct.
Jack Kerouac wants you to turn writing into “free deviation (association) of mind into limitless blow-on-subject seas of thought, swimming in sea of English with no discipline, other than rhythms of rhetorical exhalation and expostulated statement….” Think you can do that? Find out by following Kerouac’s “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose.” He published this document in Black Mountain Review in 1957 and wrote it in response to a request from Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs that he explain his method for writing The Subterraneansin three days time.
And for a theory of Kerouac’s not quite theory, visit the site of Marissa M. Juarez, professor of Rhetoric, Composition, and the Teaching of English at the University of Arizona. Juarez raises some salient points about why Kerouac’s “Essentials” bemuse the English teacher: His method “discourages revision… chastises grammatical correctness, and encourages writerly flexibility.” Read Kerouac’s full “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose”here or below. [Note: If you see what looks like typos, they are not errors. They are part of Kerouac’s original, spontaneous text.]
SET-UP: The object is set before the mind, either in reality. as in sketching (before a landscape or teacup or old face) or is set in the memory wherein it becomes the sketching from memory of a definite image-object.
PROCEDURE: Time being of the essence in the purity of speech, sketching language is undisturbed flow from the mind of personal secret idea-words, blowing (as per jazz musician) on subject of image.
METHOD: No periods separating sentence-structures already arbitrarily riddled by false colons and timid usually needless commas-but the vigorous space dash separating rhetorical breathing (as jazz musician drawing breath between outblown phrases)– “measured pauses which are the essentials of our speech”– “divisions of the sounds we hear”- “time and how to note it down.” (William Carlos Williams)
SCOPING: Not “selectivity” of expression but following free deviation (association) of mind into limitless blow-on-subject seas of thought, swimming in sea of English with no discipline other than rhythms of rhetorical exhalation and expostulated statement, like a fist coming down on a table with each complete utterance, bang! (the space dash)- Blow as deep as you want-write as deeply, fish as far down as you want, satisfy yourself first, then reader cannot fail to receive telepathic shock and meaning-excitement by same laws operating in his own human mind.
LAG IN PROCEDURE: No pause to think of proper word but the infantile pileup of scatological buildup words till satisfaction is gained, which will turn out to be a great appending rhythm to a thought and be in accordance with Great Law of timing.
TIMING: Nothing is muddy that runs in time and to laws of time-Shakespearian stress of dramatic need to speak now in own unalterable way or forever hold tongue-no revisions (except obvious rational mistakes, such as names or calculated insertions in act of not writing but inserting).
CENTER OF INTEREST: Begin not from preconceived idea of what to say about image but from jewel center of interest in subject of image at moment of writing, and write outwards swimming in sea of language to peripheral release and exhaustion-Do not afterthink except for poetic or P. S. reasons. Never afterthink to “improve” or defray impressions, as, the best writing is always the most painful personal wrung-out tossed from cradle warm protective mind-tap from yourself the song of yourself, blow!-now!-your way is your only way- “good”-or “bad”-always honest (“ludi- crous”), spontaneous, “confessionals’ interesting, because not “crafted.” Craft is craft.
STRUCTURE OF WORK: Modern bizarre structures (science fiction, etc.) arise from language being dead, “different” themes give illusion of “new” life. Follow roughly outlines in outfanning movement over subject, as river rock, so mindflow over jewel-center need (run your mind over it, once) arriving at pivot, where what was dim-formed “beginning” becomes sharp-necessitating “ending” and language shortens in race to wire of time-race of work, following laws of Deep Form, to conclusion, last words, last trickle-Night is The End.
MENTAL STATE: If possible write “without consciousness” in semi-trance (as Yeats’ later “trance writing”) allowing subconscious to admit in own uninhibited interesting necessary and so “modern” language what conscious art would censor, and write excitedly, swiftly, with writing-or-typingcramps, in accordance (as from center to periphery) with laws of orgasm, Reich’s “beclouding of consciousness.” Come from within, out-to relaxed and said.
Oh, and for authenticity’s sake, you should try Kerouac’s “Essentials” on a typewriter. It’s all he had when he wrote The Subterraneans. No grammar robots to distract him.
National Novel Writing Month — aka the gibbered Lovecraftian utterance, “Nanowrimo.”
It fast approaches.
You may be partaking in this epic endeavor which asks that you write a novel-length work of fiction of 50,000 words (or more!) during the month of November. (I suspect I will inadvertently be partaking, actually. I’ll need to get 50,000 words down that month, too!)
If you are partaking, I’ll be here all November, and I think I’ll keep the blog posts during that time shorter and sweeter — a month’s worth of motivational boots-in-your-boothole to keep you on track and slugging away at the word count.
(Worth noting that NaNoWriMo is not for everyone. Everyone has a process unique to them, a way to get things done that is particularly and peculiarly their own. If NaNoWriMo feels like hammering a circle peg in a square hole, don’t sweat it — find another way forward.)
If you are getting ready for the wordery-nerdey coming up –
I got some quick tips for you.
RAMP UP THE WORD COUNT
If you are not yet putting words down daily, you need to flex them penmonkey muscles, so that, come November, you can pop open your word processor and say, “TWO TICKETS TO THE PEN SHOW,” which will earn you weird looks because:
a) you’re saying this to the cat and b) are pen shows even a real thing?
You need to work out. You need to exercise.
You must practice writing every day.
And build on the quantity of words you put down.
Start with 100.
And add a 100 more words every day until you’re approaching 2000 per day.
Doesn’t matter what you write, though I’d advise you keep it in the “fiction” category — fiction writing is a discipline all its own, I find.
Build that muscle. Gain momentum.
TAKE YOUR CHARACTERS FOR A TEST-DRIVE
NaNoWriMo doesn’t give you a lot of time to get to know your characters. As such, it’s time to take those bad motherfuckers out for a test drive.
Take a character and write them into fiction unrelated to the novel you plan to write. Plop them into conflicted, challenging situations. You’ll find the character’s voice, demeanor, you’ll get to see what kind of choices they make. Run them through fictional gauntlets.
It’s a good way to learn about your characters before you actually drop them into your proper novel. (And, hey, bonus points: you might find that you’ve written some dialogue or some description you might actually want to keep and use later.)
PREP YOUR STORY IN WHATEVER WAY TICKLES YOUR PINK PARTS
No one perfect planning-and-plotting method exists when it comes to your novel. Outlines, mind maps, Pinterest boards, hallucinogenic dream journeys into the world of the machine elves — hey, whatever makes your grapefruit squirt. But find a way. NaNoWriMo requires working to a schedule and hammering out word count in a relatively compressed amount of time, and you’ll find that comes a lot easier when you have some kind of map — even if that map is just a series of cryptic Post-It notes Scotch-taped to the family dog.
(One thing I would suggest, however, is that when plotting a novel, let the characters lead the way. My oft-repeated refrain is that plot is Soylent Green — it’s made of people. Characters will do things and in their actions and dialogue will create the events and complications that build the plot of your story. Don’t fit characters into a plot. Characters are the plot.)
PITCH YOUR STORY IN A SINGLE TWEET
One of the questions I ask in the Thursday interviews here at the blog is for the writers to describe their books in a single 140-character tweet.
And I actually think many have some up with some really cool loglines, this way.
You need to distill down your story to a single sniper’s bullet — this idea isn’t meant to be comprehensive or exhaustive or tell the entire story. It’s just a hook. That hook is ideal for selling the story later on — but right now, it’s also ideal for crystallizing the idea in your mind.
(You don’t need to be married to the 140-character limit, but I’d say to keep the description to 100 words or less. From a logline to a very short synopsis.)
NARRATIVE INCUBATION TIME
Take time to think about your story.
This is, for me, narrative incubation time where you let your brain off its leash to frolic in the meadow and roll around in whatever creative poop it can find.
How you accomplish this — the task it takes to unlock this Creative Mode — is on you. I like walking, running, showering, mowing the lawn. You might like chopping wood, lifting weights, and currying a horse. That guy over there might get in the right headspace during acts of vigorous masturbation, algorithmic hive-mind design, and hunting humans for sport HEY WAIT YOU’RE ONE OF THOSE FILTHY ROBOTS AGAIN OH SONOFABITCH.
(And yes, I’m suggesting that robots masturbate a lot. TRUE STORY LOOK IT UP.)
I’m a panster at heart, plotter by necessity — and I always advocate learning how to plot and plan because inevitably someone on the business side of things is going to poke you with a pointy stick and say, “I want this.” Thus you will demonstrate your talent. Even so, in choosing to plot on your own, you aren’t limited to a single path. And so it is that we take a look at the myriad plotting techniques (“plotniques?”) you might use as Storyteller Extraordinaire to get the motherfucking job done. Let us begin.
THE BASIC VANILLA TRIED-AND-TRUE OUTLINE
The basic and essential outline. Numbers, Roman numerals, letters. Items in order. Separated out by section if need be (say, Act I, Act II, Act III). Easy-peazy Lyme-diseasey.
THE REVERSE OUTLINE
Start at the end, instead. Write it down. “Sir Pimdrip Chicory of Bath slays the dragon-badger, but not before the dragon-badger bites the head off Chicory’s one true love, Lady Miss Wermathette Kildare of the Manchester Kildares.” Rewind the clock. Reverse the gears. Find out how you build to that.
A story in your head may require certain keystone events to be part of the plot. “Betty-Sue must get sucked into the time portal outside Schenectady, because that’s why her ex-boyfriend Booboo begins to build a time machine in earnest which will accidentally unravel space-and-time.” You might have five, maybe ten of these. Write them down. These are the elements that, were they not included, the plot would fall down (like a tent without its poles). The narrative space between the tentpoles is uncharted territory.
BEGINNING, MIDDLE, END
Write three paragraphs, each detailing the rough three acts found in every story: the inciting incident and outcome of the beginning (Act I), the escalation and conflict in the middle (Act II), the climactic culmination of events and the ease-down denoument of the end (Act III). You can, if you want, choose the elemental changes-in-state you might find at the end of each act, too — the pivot point on which the story shifts. This document probably isn’t more than a page’s worth of wordsmithy. Simple and elegant.
A SERIES OF SEQUENCES
The saying goes that an average screenplay usually offers up eight or nine sequences (a sequence being a series of scenes that add together to form common narrative purpose, like, say, the Attack On The Death Star sequence from Star Wars or the Kevin James Makes Love To All The Animals In Order To Make The Audience Feel Shame sequence from Paul Blart, Zoo Abortion). So, chart the sequences that will go into your screenplay. If you’re writing prose, I don’t know how many sequences a novel should have — more than a film, probably (or alternately, each sequence is granted a greater conglomeration of scenes).
For novel writers, you can chart your story by its chapters. A standard outline is more about dictating plot and story without marrying oneself to narrative structure. This, however, puts the ring on that finger and locks it down tight. A chapter-by-chapter outline is visualizing the reader’s way through the novel.
This one’s for you real granular-types, the ones who want to count each grain of sand on your story’s beach (or, for a more terribleminds-esque metaphor, “count each pube on your story’s scrotum”). Chart each beat of the story in every scene. This is you writing the entire story’s plot out, but you’re writing it without much dialogue or narrative flair. It’s you laying out all the pieces. The order-of-operations made plain.
Happy blocks and bubbles connected to winding bendy spokes connected to a central topical hub. Behold: example. You can use a mind-map to chart… well, anything your mind so desires. It is, after all, a map of said mind. Sequence of events? Character arcs? Exploration of theme? Story-world ideas? Family trees? The crazy hats worn by your villains? Catchphrases? Your inchoate rage and shame made manifest? Your call.
AKA, “The Vomit Draft.” Puke up the story. Just yarf it up — bleaaarrghsputter. A big ol’ Technicolor yawn. You aren’t aiming for structure. Aren’t aiming for art or even craft. This is justyou getting everything onto the page so that it’s out there and can now be cleaned up. You’ve puked up the story, now it’s time to form it into little idols and totems — the heretic statuaries of your story.
IN THE DOCUMENT, AS YOU GO
AKA, “The Bring Your Flashlight” technique. You outline only as you go. Write a scene or chapter. Roughly sketch the next. Then write it. Onward and upward until you’ve got a proper story.
WRITE A SCRIPT
For those of you writing scripts, this sounds absurd. “He wants me to outline my script by writing a script? Has this guy been licking colorful toads?” Sorry, screenwriters — this one ain’t for you. Novelists, however, will find use in writing a script to get them through the plotting. Scripts are lean and mean: description, dialogue, description, dialogue. It’ll get you through the story fast — then you translate into prose.
Let the characters talk, and nothing else. Put those squirrely fuckers in a room, lock the door, and let the story unfold. It won’t stay that way, of course. You’ll need to add… well, all the meat to the bones. But it’s a good way to put the characters forward and find their voice and discover their stories. Remember: dialogue reads fast and so it tends to write fast, too. Dialogue is like Astroglide: it lubricates the tale.
Characters often have arcs — they start at A, go to B, end at C (with added steps if you’re feeling particularly saucy). Commander Jim Nipplesplitter, Jr. starts at “gruff and loyal soldier boy in the war against the Ant People” (A) and heads to “is crippled and betrayed by his country, left to die in the distant hills of the Ant Planet” (B) and ends up at “falls in love with a young Ant Squaw and he must fight to protect his ant-man larvae” (C). A character arc can track plotty bits, emotional shifts, outfit changes, whatever.
You might think to write your query letter, treatment or synopsis last. Bzzt. Wrong move, donkeyface. Write it up front. It’s not etched in stone, but it’ll give you a good idea of how to stay on target with this story.
Index cards are a kick-ass organization tool. You can use them to do anything — list characters, track scenes, list chapters, identify emotional shifts, make little Origami throwing stars that will give your neighbors wicked-ass paper-cuts. Lay them on a table or pin ‘em to a corkboard. Might I recommend John August’s “10 Hints For Index Cards?” I might, rabbit. I might. See also: the Index Card app for iOS.
A whiteboard represents a great thinking space. Notes, mind-maps, character sketches, drawings of weird alien penises. Get some different color pens, chart your story in whatever way feels most appropriate.
THE CRAZY PERSON’S NOTEBOOK
Once in a while a story of mine demands a hyper-psycho notebook experience. My handwriting is messier than a garbage disposal choked with hair, but even still, sometimes I just like to put pen to paper and scribble. And I sometimes print stuff out, chop it up, and tape it into the notebook. (Example!)
You’re like, “What’s next? A shoebox diorama of the Lincoln assassination?” That’s a different blog post. Seriously, on my YA-cornpunk novel POPCORN, I took a whole corkboard and covered it in images and quotes that were relevant to the work. Then I’d just wander over there from time to time, stare at it, get my head around the story I’m telling and the feel of the world the story portrays. Surprisingly helpful.
Stare too long into the grid of a spreadsheet and you will feel your soul entangled there — a dolphin caught in a tuna net. Even still, you may find a spreadsheet very helpful. Track plots and beats to your heart’s delight. Seen JK Rowling’s spreadsheet for Harry Potter? High-res version right here.
Everything and anything goes into the story bible. Worldbuilding. Character descriptions. The “rules” of the story. Plot. Theme. Mood. An IKEA furniture manual. (Goddamn Allen wrenches.) The BIOSHOCK story bible was reputedly a 400+ page beast, which means that yes, your story bible may be bigger than your actual novel. The key is not to let this — or any planning technique — become an exercise in procrastination. You plan. Then you do. That’s the only way this works.
THE POWER OF TEMPLATES
Film and TV scripts already follow a fairly rigorous template, but you can go further afield. Look to Blake Snyder’s SAVE THE CAT beats. Or Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey. Go weirder with the Proppian morphology of fairy tales. You may think it non-imaginative but the power of art and story lives easily within such borders as it does outside of them.
STREAM OF CONSCIOUSNESS STORY BABBLE
Slap on a diving bell and jump deep into the waters of the stream of consciousness. Order, you see, is sometimes born first from chaos, wriggling free from a uterus made from fractal swirls and Kamikaze squirrels. Open yourself to All The Frequencies: get into your word processor or find a blank notebook page and just scribble wantonly without regard to sense or quality. You may find your story lives in the noise and madness and that on that snowy screen you will find structure. Like a Magic Eye painting that reveals the image of a dolphin riding a motorbike and shooting Japanese whalers with twin chattering Uzis.
Sometimes the words only come when given the bolstered boost of a visual hook. Sketch it out yourself. Get an artist friend. Find images from the Internet. Ingest some kind of dew-slick jungle mushroom and paint your story on the wall in an array of bodily fluids. Sometimes you really need to visualize the story.
THE TEST DRIVE
Take your characters, storyworld and ideas, and run them through a totally separate story. Let’s call it apocryphal, or “non-canonical.” It’s not a story you intend to keep. Not a story you want to publish. You’re just taking your story elements through their paces. Run them around a test drive. “This is where Detective Shirtless McGoggins solves the murder of the goblin seamstress.” Sure, your Detective lives in the real world, a world not populated by goblins. Fuck it, it’s just an exercise. A test run to find his voice and yours.
PANTS THE SHIT OUT OF IT
All this plotting and scheming just isn’t working for you, so go ahead and pants the hell out of it. (Me? I don’t wear pants. Pants are the first tool of your oppressors.) Sometimes trying to wrestle your story into even the biggest box is just an exercise in frustration, so do what works for you and what doesn’t. Once again, however, I’ll exhort you to at least learn the skill of outlining — because eventually, someone’s going to ask for a demonstration of your ability.
If you’re a boy writer, it’s a simple rule: you’ve gotta get used to the fact that you suck at writing women and that the worst women writer can write a better man than the best male writer can write a good woman. And it’s just the minimum. Because the thing about the sort of heteronormative masculine privilege, whether it’s in Santo Domingo, or the United States, is you grow up your entire life being told that women aren’t human beings, and that women have no independent subjectivity. And because you grow up with this, it’s this huge surprise when you go to college and realize that, “Oh, women aren’t people who does my shit and fucks me.”
And I think that this a huge challenge for boys, because they want to pretend they can write girls. Every time I’m teaching boys to write, I read their women to them, and I’m like, “Yo, you think this is good writing?” These motherfuckers attack each other over cliche lines but they won’t attack each other over these toxic representations of women that they have inherited… their sexist shorthand, they think that is observation. They think that their sexist distortions are insight. And if you’re in a writing program and you say to a guy that their characters are sexist, this guy, it’s like you said they fucking love Hitler. They will fight tooth and nail because they want to preserve this really vicious sexism in the art because that is what they have been taught.
And I think the first step is to admit that you, because of your privilege, have a very distorted sense of women’s subjectivity. And without an enormous amount of assistance, you’re not even going to get a D. I think with male writers the most that you can hope for is a D with an occasional C thrown in. Where the average women writer, when she writes men, she gets a B right off the bat, because they spent their whole life being taught that men have a subjectivity. In fact, part of the whole feminism revolution was saying, “Me too, motherfuckers.” So women come with it built in because of the society.
It’s the same way when people write about race. If you didn’t grow up being a subaltern person in the United States, you might need help writing about race. Motherfuckers are like ‘I got a black boy friend,’ and their shit sounds like Klan Fiction 101.
The most toxic formulas in our cultures are not pass down in political practice, they’re pass down in mundane narratives. It’s our fiction where the toxic virus of sexism, racism, homophobia, where it passes from one generation to the next, and the average artist will kill you before they remove those poisons. And if you want to be a good artist, it means writing, really, about the world. And when you write cliches, whether they are sexist, racist, homophobic, classist, that is a fucking cliche. And motherfuckers will kill you for their cliches about x, but they want their cliches about their race, class, queerness. They want it in there because they feel lost without it. So for me, this has always been the great challenge.
As a writer, if you’re really trying to write something new, you must figure out, with the help of a community, how can you shed these fucking received formulas. They are received. You didn’t come up with them. And why we need fellow artists is because they help us stay on track. They tell you, “You know what? You’re a bit of a fucking homophobe.” You can’t write about the world with these simplistic distortions. They are cliches. People know art, always, because they are uncomfortable. Art discomforts. The trangressiveness of art has to deal with confronting people with the real. And sexism is a way to avoid the real, avoiding the reality of women. Homophobia is to avoid the real, the reality of queerness. All these things are the way we hide from encountering the real. But art, art is just about that.
”—Junot Diaz speaking at Word Up Bookshop, 2012 (via clambistro)
Tony Gilroy, one of Hollywood’s most sought-after screenwriters, is responsible for The Devil’s Advocate, Armageddon and the Bourne films, to name just a few.
Alison Feeney-Hart met the man whose 2007 film Michael Clayton saw him receive Bafta and Oscar nominations for best original screenplay to find out his Top 10 tips for writing a Hollywood blockbuster.
1. Go to the movies
I don’t think there is anything you can learn from courses or books. You have been watching movies since you were born. You have filled your life with narrative… and food. It’s already way down deep inside you.
Going to the movies, having something to say, having an imagination and the ambition to do it is really all that is required. You can learn how to do anything.
2. Make stuff up but keep it real
This is imaginative work - screenwriters make things up. Everything I have in my life is a result of making things up. There is one thing that you have to know that is a deal-breaker - human behaviour.
The quality of your writing will be directly related to your understanding of human behaviour. You need to become a journalist for the movie that is in your head. You need to report on it; every scene has to be real.
3. Start small
Big ideas don’t work. Start with a very small idea that you can build on.
With Bourne I never read any of the books; we started again. The very smallest thing with [Jason] Bourne was, “If I don’t know who I am and I don’t know where I’m from, perhaps I can identify who I am by what I know how to do.” We built a whole new world around that small idea.
You just start small, you build out and you move one step after the next and that’s how you write a Hollywood movie.
Gilroy directed as well as wrote The Bourne Legacy, the fourth Bourne film
4. Learn to live by your wits
My father was a screenwriter but it’s not some pixie dust creative family thing. I learned from watching how hard he worked and learned about the tempo of a writer’s life - you have to live by your wits.
If you are living with someone who lives by their wits, it seems normal to you, it doesn’t scare you as much and you understand the rhythms of it.
5. Write for TV
It’s getting harder and harder to make good movies. TV is where the ambiguity and shades of reality live, it’s where stories can be interesting.
A lot of writers are very excited about TV right now and it’s a writer-controlled business. When writers are in control, good things happen. They are more rational, they are hardworking, they are more benevolent.
Every time writers have been put in charge of entertainment, things have worked out, so with TV maybe we will see a writer-driven utopia.
House of Cards is seen as part of a new era in quality television
6. Learn to write anywhere, anytime
I have an office at home, I’ve written in a million hotel rooms, I can write anywhere now. My whole goal is to want to be at my desk.
If the writing is going well, I don’t want to quit. I’m older and wise enough now that if something is going well, I don’t stop. I call and say I’m not coming home for dinner and just keep going.
More than anything else, I want to want to go to my desk and to not be afraid of going to work.
7. Get a job
I spent six years tending bar while I figured out how to write screenplays.
If you want to write, if you are a young writer and nobody knows you, find a job that pays you the most amount of money for the least amount of hours, so that you have the most amount of time left over to write.
You want to live some place where you have some sort of cultural connection and can see as many films and be around as many people as possible. You want to be some place where you can just write and write and write.
8. Get a life
If you don’t have anything to say and if you haven’t done anything except see a bunch of movies, then what’s the point? You can only write what you know about and that will either limit you or open the possibilities to everything.
Be interested in lots of things and stay interested. My knowledge is very wide and incredibly thin. It’s much more interesting when journalists and cops and doctors and bankers become screenwriters than 20-year-old film students.
There are some exceptions, of course, but if you don’t have anything to say, then why are you here?
9. Don’t live in Los Angeles
I don’t think there is any reason to live there, I think LA is probably very bad for you. It’s a bad place to feed your head.
In LA you are driving around all the time, surrounded by people who are making you depressed. I don’t think Hollywood really helps a young writer feel any sense of romance about their life.
Even if it’s a delusion, you want to feel special when you go to work in the morning.
10. Develop a thick skin and just keep going
I have assumed both positions of the Hollywood Kama Sutra - top and bottom.
It’s very important to be able to handle rejection. I think one of the reasons writers are shy is because we are all very suspicious of our own process because it fails so often.
It’s no different from being a novelist or a composer or a painter. When you get rejection from the outside world, you either move on or you don’t.
But I think the hardest times are all the days when nothing happens and everybody who has ever written anything knows what I’m talking about. A great day of writing tops everything.
“Writing is finally about one thing: going into a room alone and doing it. Putting words on paper that have never been there in quite that way before. And although you are physically by yourself, the haunting Demon never leaves you—the knowledge of your own terrible limitations, your hopeless inadequacy, the impossibility of ever getting it right. No matter how diamond-bright your ideas are dancing in your brain, on paper they are earthbound.”—Screenwriter William Goldman on the Terrifying Act of Writing
“We tell ourselves stories in order to make sense of life. Narrative is reassuring. There are days when life is so absurd, it’s crippling–nothing makes sense, but stories bring order to the absurdity. Relief is provided by the narrative’s beginning, middle, and end. Without an end, you have an obsession, a constant circling around a fact or situation that cannot be put in place.”—
“To me, a mystery is like a magnet. Whenever there is something that’s unknown, it has a pull to it. If you were in a room and there was an open doorway, and stairs going down and the light just fell away, you’d be very tempted to go down there. When you only see a part, it’s even stronger than seeing the whole. The whole might have a logic, but out of its context, the fragment takes on a tremendous value of abstraction. It can become an obsession.”—DAVID LYNCH
Si no te sale ardiendo de dentro,
a pesar de todo,
no lo hagas.
A no ser que salga espontáneamente de tu corazón
y de tu mente y de tu boca
y de tus tripas,
no lo hagas.
Si tienes que sentarte durante horas
con la mirada fija en la pantalla del ordenador
ó clavado en tu máquina de escribir
buscando las palabras,
no lo hagas.
Si lo haces por dinero o fama,
no lo hagas.
Si lo haces porque quieres mujeres en tu cama,
no lo hagas.
Si tienes que sentarte
y reescribirlo una y otra vez,
no lo hagas.
Si te cansa sólo pensar en hacerlo,
no lo hagas.
Si estás intentando escribir
como cualquier otro, olvídalo.
Si tienes que esperar a que salga rugiendo de ti,
Si nunca sale rugiendo de ti, haz otra cosa.
Si primero tienes que leerlo a tu esposa
ó a tu novia ó a tu novio
ó a tus padres ó a cualquiera,
no estás preparado.
No seas como tantos escritores,
no seas como tantos miles de
personas que se llaman a sí mismos escritores,
no seas soso y aburrido y pretencioso,
no te consumas en tu amor propio.
Las bibliotecas del mundo
bostezan hasta dormirse
con esa gente.
No seas uno de ellos.
No lo hagas.
A no ser que salga de tu alma
como un cohete,
a no ser que quedarte quieto
pudiera llevarte a la locura,
al suicidio o al asesinato,
no lo hagas.
A no ser que el sol dentro de ti
esté quemando tus tripas, no lo hagas.
Cuando sea verdaderamente el momento,
y si has sido elegido,
sucederá por sí solo y
seguirá sucediendo hasta que mueras
ó hasta que muera en ti.
No hay otro camino.
Y nunca lo hubo.
“I tend to give the same advice to writers over and over, because they ask the same questions over and over: I want to be a writer, what should I DO? And the only reply I can ever give them is, you have to write. You have to finish what you write. You have to keep going.”—Neil Gaiman (via souvenirsandlostluggage)
Alejandro Jodorowsky ha vuelto poniendo fin a 23 años de silencio cinematográfico (que no creativo) y lo ha hecho a lo grande. Con “La Danza de la Realidad” ha expandido como nunca las barreras del metalenguaje, transmutando el cine en algo que va más allá del entretenimiento, metiéndose de lleno en la tierra de la experimentación, la espiritualidad y la magia. Su estreno en Cannes, como era de esperar, dividió a la crítica, y para regocijo de los que lo aman, pudieron tener Jodorowsky por partida doble gracias al documental “The Dune of Jodorowsky”.
El mago y camaleón chileno, al cual posiblemente ningún arte se le resista, se ha desnudado ante el equipo de Filmmaker y les ha contado sus 10 claves, o lecciones de vida, para rodar una película. No hay que rodar pensando en el dinero que vas a ganar, si no en cuánto vas a perder, porque el arte no es un negocio, y un consejo muy similar a este fue el que le tuvo que hacer Jodorowksy a Winding Refn cuando le pidió consejo tras el éxito masivo de “Drive”. “No dejes que tu visión sea destruida, debes mantenerte fiel”. No es extrañar pues que "Only God Forgives" vaya enteramente dedicada a su figura.
1. Dirigir puede ser terapéutico
Trabajo con mi familia porque es una terapia. He inventado una terapia llamada psicomagia y la aplico a mis películas. Rodar una película debería ser como abrirte a los límites de tu mente. Primero, es bueno trabajar con tu familia porque colaboras con ellos y ellos contigo. Hay muchos Jodorowksys en la película. Mi hijo interpreta a mi padre, y hacia el final como su abuelo. Este es el séptimo trabajo que hago con mi hijo. He hecho películas y teatro con él. Hemos trabajado juntos desde que era pequeño en“El Topo”. Ahora tiene 50 años. Con su actuación ha cambiado el personaje de mi padre, que era muy cruel. Ahora, a través de mi hijo, es una persona graciosa. Se ha vuelto humano. Esta terapia trae un gran cambio. Esta película es como un vínculo psicológico para toda la familia. Realmente lloré mucho, si sabes a lo que me refiero cuando digo esto. Y espero que este trabajo psicológico os ayude a vosotros también, porque ir al cine no es solo por placer o evasión. También es un experimento.
2. Dirigir es una experiencia espiritual. Sigue intentando llegar a ese lugar espiritual.
Tenemos límites. Nuestra familia, nuestra sociedad, nuestra cultura nos limita. Y el trabajo espiritual sirve para abrirnos a los límites cada vez más, para entender cada vez más, sentir más, desear, hacer más y más. Hoy en día el cine es una industria y uno tiene que preguntarse qué es lo que le queda al director. El director realmente es el corazón del rodaje. Es el poeta, el artista, creando su trabajo. Cuando rodaba este trabajo, debo decir que es algo estaba por encima de mi. No lo cree. Lo recibí, porque creo que eso es lo que pasa. Lo que se recibe es, realmente, sagrado, y ese es el motivo por el cual hice esta película, y también por el cual los actores fueron mucho más allá que cualquier actor iría, porque intentaban descubrirse a si mismos también.
3. El rodaje es sagrado
Rodar no es una religión. Puede ser una actividad mística, incluso sagrada. ¿Qué significa sagrado para mi? Bueno, para mi, sagrado significa vivir siendo “tú” completamente, ser quien eres. Si somos quién realmente somos, es sagrado.
4. Tienes que estar presente, siempre
No hay mucho diferencia entre la preparación y estar en el set. Cuando ruedo, estoy completamente ahí. En cada momento estás haciendo una película, todos los días, a todas horas. Siempre estoy al 100%.
5. El talento no se puede forzar. Se puede nutrir.
Quiero talento innato. El talento es algo natural que tienes o no tienes. Yo mismo, soy un monstruo de mi imaginación. No puedo invitar la imaginación a mi trabajo. Cuando estaba en la universidad, tuve dos caminos delante mío: inteligencia o imaginación. Escogí la últilma. No quería ser un intelectual. Soy muy inteligente, ¿sabes? Pero tuve que reprimirlo porque quería desarrollar mi imaginación. Trabajo duro para conseguir abrir mi imaginación.
6. Identifica lo que se te da bien muy temprano
En otro tiempo de mi vida, quise hacer actuaciones como mimo en Chile. Iba a trabajar con Marcel Marceau, y quería ser mejor que él. Me comparaba con él y me di cuenta que no podía ser mejor, porque Marceu era realmente un genio en la mímica. Era imposible; él había nacido así. Y entonces pensé, “¿qué estoy haciendo con él? No acabaré siendo un viejo pintado de blanco. Y si no puedo ser igual de bueno que él como mimo, seré mejor que él en inteligencia”. Porque él hacía pantomimas, aún como Charlie Chaplin. Así que decidí que le daría mis ideas, pantomimas metafísicas, y así sería cómo colaboraría con él.Y entonces me convertí en el escritor de Marceau. Hice “The Maks Maker”, “The Cage”. Hice muchas con él. Durante cinco años trabajé como su escritor de pantomimas. Y lo que aprendí con Marceu, lo usé en “Santa Sangre”
7. Levántate cuando te caigas
De la experiencia de “Dune”, aprendí a cómo fallar. Me dije que el fallo no existe, necesitas cambiar tu camino. Y eso es lo que hice, lo cambié. Cualquier cosa que no pude hacer en “Dune”, las haría en otras cosas. Aprendí cómo empezar una nueva vida. Si caes y te quedas en el suelo, es malo. Pero si caes y entonces te levantas, es bueno. Aprendes.
8. Trabaja con gente que piense similar a ti.
He hecho todas mis películas con ladrones, gángsters y gente loca. Esta es la primera vez que hago una película con gente normal que ama el cine. Es la primera vez que lo hago, porque no puedo trabajar con hombres de negocios. Me pervierten. En lo único que piensas es en el dinero, en vender objetos. No quiero tener que pensar como el capitalista que vende relojes, cafés o whisky. No, no quiero hacer eso. Hago películas para perder dinero. Cuando el productor está haciendo mi película le digo, “Quiero perder dinero”, porque no quiero hacer una película que surja del deseo de querer el dinero. Pero si ganamos algo, lo utilizaré para hacer otra película.
9. No es sobre el proceso, es sobre las ideas.
Un artista, un verdadero artista, no tiene un proceso creativo. Debería ser como un sueño. ¿Qué es esto, un proceso para hacer sueños? No hago sueños, sueño. No hago ideas, tengo ideas. Recibo en mi mente las ideas. Me vienen y hago lo que siento, pero no preparo el proceso. Eso es una ciencia, y yo no soy un científico.
10. Pero eso no significa que no puedass tener una rutina
Mi rutina de escritura es diaria, me pongo algo de música, la misma desde hace veinte años. Entonces quemo una rama de incienso, me perfumo las plantas de mis pies, me pinto el testículo izquiero de rojo y escribo.
Director, screenwriter, sometimes actor, and all-around major geek Kevin Smith has deep roots in independent moviemaking, filming his first feature, Clerks, in the convenience store he worked at for just over $25,000.
The small indie film soon traveled to Cannes where it won the Filmmaker’s Trophy and was quickly snapped up by Miramax. Needless to say, Smith’s career blew up. He has since written and directed a diverse variety of work, such as Mallrats,Chasing Amy, Dogma, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back and Zack and Miri. Smith has been a major proponent of independent cinema both advocating for it and participating in the process. The outspoken director shocked the industry in 2011 when he auctioned off his film, Red State, to himself, choosing to self-distribute rather than sell it to a studio.
Smith is also is undoubtedly one of the heirs to the throne of mainstream geekdom, involving himself with comics from every possible angle. He produces the unscripted series, Comic Book Men, and owns his own comic book and novelty store (Jay and Silent Bob’s Secret Stash). Most recently, Smith made his annual appearance at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con, premiering the trailer to the Slamdance Grand Jury Prize-winning film, The Dirties. Through Phase 4 and the Kevin Smith Movie Club, The Dirties will be released in theaters and On Demand October 4, 2013. Until then, you can catch Smith’s “anti-movie review” show, Spoilers, on Hulu while patiently awaiting the arrival of Clerks III.
1. Edit while you’re still shooting. On every flick since Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, I’ve been editing while still in the midst of production. I’m not talking about some hired editor piecing together an assembly while I’m on set, either. I mean that whenever I’m not shooting, I’m in the editing room with my footage. While the crew is taking 15 minutes to an hour to set up the next shot, I’m behind the Avid, putting the flick together.
2. Chop while rolling. It’s all upside when you’re editing while you’re shooting, as you’ll know right away if there are any shots missing. More than twice over the course of Clerks II, I was able to grab cutaways or re-shoot coverage a mere 48 hours after wrapping on a particular scene, thanks to chopping while rolling. Two days after wrap, I had a fine cut of the flick because I’d spent the entire shoot editing whenever I wasn’t on set (during production I average three hours of sleep a night).
3. Show your edited footage as often as possible. Another benefit to cutting while you’re still in production is that it affords you the opportunity to share the scenes with the cast. Until they see cut scenes, the film is solely theoretical to them. Give the actors actual scenes to watch and suddenly they can see the film taking shape, too. If you’re lucky, the cast will get pumped seeing how well all their stuff is turning out and you’ll enjoy the trickle-down benefits: A freshly-inspired troop of performers who’ll come in every day and give you even better performances.
4. Include the cast (and crew) in on the editing process, too. I’m not saying they should all ride shotgun at the Avid, but once you’ve got scenes cut, roll ‘em for the cast and crew. In some cases, they might provide insight you hadn’t thought of yourself. At the very least, it will convey how collaborative you can be and foster good will amongst the people who are already eager to help you realize your vision.
5. If you’re shooting a talky picture, spare no expense on the sound recorder. Without special effects or stars, your dialogue is the selling point of your flick. Therefore, it behooves you to hire the best sound recordist/mixer you can afford. Same goes for your boom guy/girl: Don’t cheap out.
6. Never fish off the director’s pier. Don’t shag the help. Better to tug one out in your trailer than create an environment of weirdness by dipping your pen, or having your pen dipped, in company ink. After the flick has wrapped, hold a circle jerk/daisy-chain/gang-bang with the entire crew if you like. But while you’re in production, keep it all business.
1. “Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.”
2. “Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. It’s about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy.”
3. “Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.”
4. “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”
5. “In many cases when a reader puts a story aside because it ‘got boring,’ the boredom arose because the writer grew enchanted with his powers of description and lost sight of his priority, which is to keep the ball rolling.”
6. “Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”
7. “So okay – there you are in your room with the shade down and the door shut and the plug pulled out of the base of the telephone. You’ve blown up your TV and committed yourself to a thousand words a day, come hell or high water. Now comes the big question: What are you going to write about? And the equally big answer: Anything you damn well want. ”
8. “When asked, “How do you write?” I invariably answer, “One word at a time,” and the answer is invariably dismissed. But that is all it is. It sounds too simple to be true, but consider the Great Wall of China, if you will: one stone at a time, man. That’s all. One stone at a time. But I’ve read you can see that motherfucker from space without a telescope.”
9. “Running a close second [as a writing lesson] was the realization that stopping a piece of work just because it’s hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.”
10. “You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you.”
11. “if you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second-to-least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.”
12. “Good description is a learned skill, one of the prime reasons why you cannot succeed unless you read a lot and write a lot. It’s not just a question of how-to, you see; it’s also a question of how much to. Reading will help you answer how much, and only reams of writing will help you with the how. You can learn only by doing.”
13. “Let’s get one thing clear right now, shall we? There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.”
14. “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”
15. “I’m a slow reader, but I usually get through seventy or eighty books a year, most fiction. I don’t read in order to study the craft; I read because I like to read”
16. “if you’re just starting out as a writer, you could do worse than strip your television’s electric plug-wire, wrap a spike around it, and then stick it back into the wall. See what blows, and how far. Just an idea.”
17. “kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings”
18. “I have spent a good many years since–too many, I think–being ashamed about what I write. I think I was forty before I realized that almost every writer of fiction or poetry who has ever published a line has been accused by someone of wasting his or her God-given talent. If you write (or paint or dance or sculpt or sing, I suppose), someone will try to make you feel lousy about it, that’s all.”
19. “I am always chilled and astonished by the would-be writers who ask me for advice and admit, quite blithely, that they “don’t have time to read.” This is like a guy starting up Mount Everest saying that he didn’t have time to buy any rope or pitons.”
20. “The most important things to remember about back story are that (a) everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn’t very interesting.”
Storytelling isn’t a game, except when it is. Part of what keeps us coming back to play a game is part of what keeps us coming back to read a story. In a game, we want to beat the odds, duck the punches, cut the balls off our enemies, and play the royal flush to win the pot of gold coins from that shitty little leprechaun — and in that game, we are frustrated by conflict and lost battles and that can push us to play again with greater verve and viciousness. A story isn’t quite so straightforward, but the analogs are there: we see the protagonists and we want them to beat odds, duck punches, cut balls, and steal from shitty little leprechauns. We are further frustrated by the conflicts and the lost battles and so we read on with faster flips of the page.
2. WIN, LOSE, OR DRAW
As in a game, it is crucial we know what is to be gained or lost in the battle or during the journey. Literally, what is at stake? Life? Love? Money? A precious plot of land? The loyalty of an old friend? A wish? A curse? The whole world? Galaxy? Universe? All of time itself trapped in a magic snowglobe held in in the paws of a jaunty hedgehog? Further, what are the conditions of victory? What will mean loss? These don’t need to be perfectly clear (nor must they be correct), but both reader and character should be able to guess at them, even if the guess is wrong.
3. THE STAKES DAMN WELL BETTER MATTER TO THE CHARACTERS
The characters are the engine that drives any story, and if the stakes don’t mean shit to the characters, the story becomes artificial — a cardboard story blown over in the most inconsequential of breezes. Why do they care? If they don’t give a damn, why will we?
4. WANTS, NEEDS, FEARS
If we envision the stakes as that which pins the characters to the story, we can further conjure more metaphorical story-whimsy and assume that the cord that tethers them to the stakes are their wants, needs, and fears. Every character has these: Victor fears the loss of his child. Henrietta wants nothing more than to get home and watch the new SyFy original movie,EELVALANCHE. Bob needs bath salts. For Victor, the stakes stop there: as the detective battles his nemesis, the space-rending godborn serial killer known as John Henry Zeus, his son is kidnapped and so his fear — and the stakes surrounding that fear — are made manifest. Henrietta’s stakes go deeper than her professed want: by not seeing Eelvalanche, she won’t have anything to talk about at work tomorrow, and the jerk she likes, Dave, won’t respect her, and she’ll continue on feeling alone and loveless with her house of cats. Henrietta’s stakes are a complicated, tangled skein of yarn. Bob, on the other hand, wants bath salts, and if he doesn’t get them, he’ll eat your face. In that story, there’s your stakes: BOB GONNA EAT YOUR FACE. Then again, once he gets his bath salts, he’s probably gonna eat your face anyway, so.
5. CHART THE STAKES FOR INDIVIDUAL CHARACTERS
Every character won’t necessarily gain and lose the same things in a story. What’s fascinating is when you pit the stakes of one character against the stakes of another (and one might argue this is exactly what creates the relationship between a protagonist and an antagonist). A gain for one is a loss for the other. The expert thief Billy Bold wants to steal Picasso’s lost painting, The Monkeys of Pamplona, as his last score so he can leave the money to his daughter before he dies of face cancer. But Detective Jane Jermagernsern knows she’ll lose her job and her pension if she can’t catch Billy before he pulls off the heist. Their stakes oppose one another.
6. PERSONAL AND INTERNAL VERSUS IMPERSONAL AND EXTERNAL
Stakes can be internal/personal — meaning, they relate directly to the character herself and her emotional investment in the story’s stakes is what’s on the line. Stakes can also be impersonal/external — meaning, they relate to a larger conflict involving but also well-beyond the character’s nature and demeanor. A smaller (and/or more literary) story likely has at its core stakes that are personal and internal (“If I don’t quit drinking, I’m going to die”). Genre work may focuses more on impersonal and external (“The fate of the Royal Galactic Star Imperium is in my hands!”). If you want my opinion (and if you don’t, why are you here?!): a mix is best.
7. THE SMALL STORY IS LARGER THAN THE BIG STORY
It’s all well and good to have some manner of super-mega-uh-oh world-ending stakes on the line — “THE ALPACAPOCALYPSE IS UPON US, AND IF WE DON’T ACT LIKE HEROES WE’LL ALL BE DEAD AND BURIED UNDER THE ALPACA’S BLEATING REIGN” — but stakes mean more to usas the audience when the stakes mean more to the character. It’s not just about offering a mix of personal and impersonal stakes — it’s about braiding the personal stakes into the impersonal ones. The Alpacapocalypse matters because the protagonist’s own daughter is at the heart of the Alpaca Invasion Staging Ground and he must descend into the Deadly Alpaca Urban Zone to rescue her. He’s dealing with the larger conflict in order to address his own personal stakes.
8. STAKES TIED TO, BUT DIFFERENT FROM, GOALS AND CONFLICTS
Let’s say I’m having a dinner party. My goal is to cook dinner and have a successful party. It’s a pretty straightforward goal. The stakes are all the consequences of me meeting, exceeding, or falling short of my goal. It’s all the stuff attached to but outside the goal. If I fuck up the dinner party, your happiness during those two hours is on the line. So too is my social standing. And my own happiness and success. And maybe your physical health just in case I forget that I’m not supposed to jizz in the bean dip. The conflicts are all the things that block me from my goals and put the stakes at risk. The oven breaks. I burn the potatoes. The blender gains sentience and tries to eat my hands. The Devil shows up as an unexpected party guest. You know: the usual.
9. WHAT THIS MEANS FOR PLOT
We like to talk about plot as if it’s this thing that the storyteller installs into a story — but that’s like trying to install a person’s skeleton after they’re already born. The plot is an integral, organic part of the story; it grows as the story grows. Plot is people. Or, more specifically, plot is the result of characters making choices and acting on those choices. Or, even more specifically, plot is the expression of characters aware of the stakes and who form goals in response to those stakes (correctly or incorrectly) and who attempt to overcome conflicts in service to those goals. It gets more complex than this, of course — but we’ll talk more about that in a sec.
10. STAKES FORCE CHOICE
Put a different way, it’s important to see how the story’s stakes — meaning, what’s on the line for the characters or even the world — force choices from the story’s characters. Consequences are in play. Things are in flux. Risk is mounting. Goals must be formed. Choices must be made.
11. DIAL UP THE STAKES, TIGHTEN THE TENSION
The larger the payout, the greater the threat, the higher the stakes. And the higher the stakes, the greater the tension for the characters — and, by proxy, the audience.
12. POSITIVE STAKES: THE WIN
A story with positive stakes suggests that a successful outcome will be a gain: victory over the bad guys, a magic sword, a big score, romantic love, a fire-breathing ice-farting hell-pony.
13. NEGATIVE STAKES: THE LOSS
A story with negative stakes suggests that a successful outcome will merely be avoiding further loss or exploring/exploiting the losses that have already happened: forestalling the apocalypse, solving a murder, killing a mad king to end his reign, revenge over a bag of stolen Funions.
14. A COMPLICATED TAPESTRY
Many stories are a combination of positive and negative stakes — a mix of win and lose conditions. Game of Thrones is an excellent example of this: we have a mix of “I want to be the king!” versus “The kingdom is in danger by outside forces!” Some characters are trying very hard to gain, whether they’re gaining the throne or a bride or just big bags of sweet Westerosi gold. Others are trying to stave off White Walkers or frankly just fucking survive (because man, life in Westeros is just one iron-gloved nut-punch after the other). Game of Thrones offers a wild mix of stakes on the line — positive and negative, internal and external.
15. ESCALATING THE STAKES
In a poker game, you may be called to pony up more cash to stay in the game, and that’s true of storytelling, too. As the story goes along, you put more on the line. More to win. More to lose. Bigger reward. Higher risk. Sometimes we escalate the stakes so much that by the end it appears that the protagonist must succeed with an unwinnable hand — which challenges both storyteller and audience with a sucker-punch made of pure tension. “You thought you were just fighting to save your life? Now it’s the life of your daughter. Oh! Now it’s all of Los Angeles. NOW IT’S THE ALPACAPOCALYPSE.” *bleat bleat bleat*
16. COMPLICATING THE STAKES
We can escalate stakes by complicating them and we have at our disposal many ways to cruelly complicate those stakes. A character can complicate the stakes by making bad choices or by making choices with unexpected outcomes (“Yes, you killed the Evil Lord Thrang, but now there’s a power vacuum in the Court of Supervillains that threatens to destroy the Eastern Seaboard you foolish jackanape.”) Or you can complicate the stakes by forcing stakes to oppose one another — if Captain Shinypants saves his true love, he’ll be sacrificing New York City. But if he saves the millions of New York City, he’ll lose the love of his life, Jacinda Shimmyfeather. Competing complicated stakes for characters to make competing complicated choices.
17. CHANGING THE STAKES
You can change the stakes as you go. The character may resolve a conflict and thus “cash out” one set of stakes (something lost and/or something gained). A show like Breaking Bad puts this into play quite nicely (uh, spoiler warning, 3… 2… 1…): at the fore of the series, the stakes are Walt’s life and his family’s finances thanks to his costly and debilitating lung cancer. But fate and his burgeoning meth empire (“methpire?” or is that a meth-addled vampire?) answers the problem and grants Walt a clear win — the cancer is gone, his bills are paid. But new stakes always fill the vacuum of the old: now the stakes are his family, his freedom, his “business,” and most troubling of all, his wildly spinning moral compass.
18. NEVER, EVER REMOVE THE STAKES
If you remove the stakes from the story, it’s like stealing food from a toddler. It’s like smothering a pretty little kitten with a pillow. Removing the stakes robs a story of tension — it guts it of its urgency, it thieves the narrative impulsion from the characters and the audience. It’s a flabby floppy body with no bone, no muscle. Don’t suck the oxygen out of the room. Don’t make Story Hulk angry. You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry. Because then he’ll tell you a really boring story, then beat you to death with a copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses.
19. SUB-PLOTTY STAKES
A series of lesser stakes involving the protagonist or the supporting characters can be used as the basis for sub-plots inside your story. And sub-plots are, of course, plot threads that have to do with submarines. *is handed a note* I mean, sub-plots have to do with the obtaining of submarine sandwiches *is handed another note* JESUS FINE, I mean, sub-plots are smaller storylines that weave in and out of the main plot. *is handed a final note* Aww, I love you too.
20. THINK ABOUT WHAT’S AT STAKE IN EACH SCENE
Stakes smaller than those able to prop up subplots — let’s call ‘em “micro-stakes” — can instead be used to support a scene. When entering a scene, you should ask: “What are the stakes here?” The characters in any given scene are here in the scene consciously or unconsciously trying to create a particular outcome for themselves or for the world around them. Something is on the table to be won or lost: a dinner date, a sexual encounter, a piece of critical information, a phial of enchanted tears from a constipated elf. The stakes needn’t be resolved by the end of the scene, and may carry forward to other scenes, but do enough of this and you might start seeing one of those sub-plots I was talking about…
21. HELL, LET’S THROW DIALOGUE IN THERE, TOO
Dialogue can also have stakes. In real life we communicate for all kinds of reasons — to fill the air with sound, to shoot the proverbial shit, the relay a few quick details about shopping lists or bowel movements — but fiction isn’t meant to necessarily encapsulate that kind of dialogue. Dialogue in a story is purposeful: it’s conversation held captive and put on display for a reason. Dialogue in this way is frequently like a game, a kind of verbal sparring match between two or more participants. Again: things to lose, things to gain. Someone wants information. Or to psyche someone out. Or to convey a threat. Purpose. Intent. Conflict. Goals. Steaks on the table. *is handed another note* FINE I MEAN STAKES GOD YOU’RE SO ANNOYING
22. MORE ON THE LINE THAN THE CHARACTERS REALIZE
Dramatic irony is when the audience knows something one or several characters do not. The stakes can be a part of this equation and this can significantly increase tension – we know that if the character doesn’t Unscramble the Widget and Decipher the Cipher, then All Hope Will Be Motherfucking Lost, but the character doesn’t yet realize that. Consider too a kind of “reversed stakes,” where what the character hopes to gain is something the audience knows would be bad fucking news — drugs, a gun, revenge, an angry coked-up screech owl.
23. STAKES MUST BE BELIEVABLE AND INTERESTING
Do I need to explain that? I don’t really think so.
24. THE STAKES CAN BE ON THE TABLE LONG BEFORE THE STORY BEGINS
We don’t need the stakes to bloom with the story. They can have been in play for a very long time. This is the power of beginning a story as late as you can, in medias res — we jump in with the slow realization that this struggle has been in play for a while, and we’re about to witness how it all shakes out. We’re not watching a slow poker game from the start. We’re jumping in just as it’s getting real interesting — just as conflict mounts.
25. WE HAVE TO KNOW THE STAKES
The audience has to know the stakes, and they have to know them sooner rather than later. The longer we go without being made to understand the stakes, the more lost we feel in terms of understanding the story and the characters’ motivations for interfacing with that story. Why do they struggle? Why take the journey? The stakes are key. Look at it this way: buried deep in every story’s program is an if/then statement. If X, then Y. If our hero defeats the demon, her soul is safe. If our antihero can’t recover the drugs, the crime lord will take his nuts as a prize. If this, then that. Cause, effect. Quest, treasure. Truth, consequence. What are the stakes? What’s on the table? What can be won, what may be lost ?
“Plot, or evolution, is life responding to environment; and not only is this response always in terms of conflict, but the really great struggle, the epic struggle of creation, is the inner fight of the individual whereby the soul builds up character.”
Guillermo del Toro abides by zero perceived distinctions between high and low culture. Whether working with Hollywood popcorn properties like Blade II or Hellboy, or creating imaginative, dark arthouse fare like The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro has demonstrated a singular creative vision that stands out against an unimaginative Hollywood.
That’s why this weekend’s Pacific Rim, despite being marketed as Transformers 4, promises to be a gloriously geeky respite in a summer of largely unsatisfactory blockbusters. Coupled with the recent news that del Toro might be directing a Charlie Kaufman-scripted adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, there are many reasons to celebrate the fact that the restlessly imaginative man who introduced himself with Cronos bounced from the streamlined Hobbit adaptations. Equal parts Jim Henson, Brothers Quay, and Terry Gilliam, del Toro is a visionary who also happens to be a bankable name. That’s a pretty rare commodity these days.
So here’s some free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from the guy who we’ve forgiven for making Mimic.
Lucid Dream and Share the Dark Side of Life
In this 2010 BBC interview, del Toro talks about his propensity for lucid dreaming since childhood. Though I’m not sure how accurate del Toro’s definition of lucid dreaming is here, the filmmaker makes explicit how concretely he’s held onto a childhood imagination unencumbered by waking life. His efforts to maintain this lively imagination well into adulthood no doubt accounts for his seemingly boundless creativity and vision, and likely contributes to his interest in the subject of childhood and dreaming on display inPan’s Labyrinth. Couple this boundless imagination with a decidedly unromantic view of youth, and you have the recipe for a style of filmmaking that possesses a unique ability to address complex, dark themes with astounding vision.
As del Toro told Time in 2011, “As a kid, I dreamed of having a house with secret passages and a room where it rained 24 hours a day. The point of being over 40 is to fulfill the desires you’ve been harboring since you were 7.”
Cast the Right Person for the Right Part, No Matter Their Seeming Limitations
Del Toro, like many directors, has surrounded himself with a reliable set of creative collaborators, like Federico Luppi and the human chameleon Doug Jones. But del Toro is probably best known for his collaborations with actor Ron Perlman. When the director sought to cast Perlman for his first feature, the largely Spanish-language vampire film Cronos, Perlman labored in a futile attempt to master his dialogue in Spanish.
When Perlman finally met with del Toro to try his lines in Spanish, the director casually said that Perlman’s Spanish was terrible, alluding that he had written the part in English with Perlman in mind despite the fact that there was little apparent justification for an English-fluent, Spanish-clunky character named Angel de la Guardia in the film. But no matter; Perlman is so fittingly cast the finished film that the question of language doesn’t beg being asked. And thus began his most important years-long creative partnership.
Know the Roots of Your Myths
From vampires to mecha anime to Grimm-style fairy tales to an alt comic book superhero, del Toro’s films deal with characters, properties, and narratives that carry legacies well outside the boundaries of his own films. In his 2011 contribution to the web-based Big Think video series, Del Toro discusses the literary origins and legacy of vampire narratives, describing with precision the character of the vampire and why its original form remains a fascinating and productive narrative tool.
His words exhibit a palpable respect for and knowledge of source material. It’s perhaps the best-reasoned critique of where Twilight-era vampire culture may have gone wrong; but more importantly, it illustrates that proper knowledge of, and respect for, a trope’s origins can enliven creativity, not stifle it.
Make One Movie You Love, Over and Over Again
It’s a mandate of auteurist logic, but beloved directors are perceived to have a common thread in their work because they labor over the same themes, ideas, and aesthetics in film after film. Del Toro will be the first to admit he does this as well. Sure, his movies possess greater differences than what he’s illustrating here, but in a more general sense, if the formula makes for one good movie, why change?
“I cannot pontificate about it, but by the time I’m done, I will have done one movie, and it’s all the movies I want. People say, you know, ‘I like your Spanish movies more than I like your English-language movies because they are not as personal,’ and I go ‘Fuck, you’re wrong!’ Hellboy is as personal to me as Pan’s Labyrinth. They’re tonally different, and yes, of course you can like one more than the other – the other one may seem banal or whatever it is that you don’t like. But it really is part of the same movie. You make one movie. Hitchcock did one movie, all his life.”
Your Own Politics Belong in Movies, and May Even Show Up Despite You
Del Toro’s films aren’t often thought of as overtly political, but the filmmaker views the genre of horror (and rightly so) as inherently political in its structure, themes, and mythology. In the aforementioned “Time” interview, del Toro states of the horror genre:
“Much like fairy tales, there are two facets of horror. One is pro-institution, which is the most reprehensible type of fairy tale: Don’t wander into the woods, and always obey your parents. The other type of fairy tale is completely anarchic and anti-establishment.”
Where does Del Toro’s filmmaking lie in this institutional spectrum? With his portrayal of revoltingly oppressive characters like Sergi Lopez’s Francoist patriarch in Pan’s Labyrinth, or the cutthroat industrialists of Cronos, coupled with his Catholic upbringing that he has described as “morbid,” del Toro has a dedicated anti-establishment sensibility that breathes through the conventions of the genres he works in.
Del Toro explained, “I hate structure. I’m completely anti-structural in terms of believing in institutions. I hate them. I hate any institutionalized social, religious, or economic holding.”
Pay It Forward
Del Toro’s production company, Miranda Studios, has spearheaded quite a few notable genre films of the past few years, including J.A. Bayon’s Spanish import The Orphanage, Vicenso Natali’s Splice, and Andy Muscietti’s Mama, released last year. The company has also backed (in collaboration with Alfonso Cuaron) Spanish-language fare like Sebastian Cordero’s Cronicas and Carlos Cuaron’s Rudo y Cursi.
When the company’s official incorporation launched in 2010, they announced that their focus would be on the practice of storytelling, and they’ve worked largely with first-time filmmakers or filmmakers who might be rejected by the studio system. Del Toro is using his success, and his interest in – if not eye for – storytelling (he’s not always a storyteller; Hellboy II is feather light on plot but one of my favorites of his), to make sure other visionary genre filmmakers have a chance to get their imaginations realized as well. Here’s the head of Miranda Studios discussing the process of adapting Mama as a three-minute short into a feature length film:
What We’ve Learned
If one thing is for certain about Guillermo del Toro, it’s the fact that he has a solid sense of his own long-developed taste in cinema – a taste that he can justify and discuss through knowledge of the legacy of certain storytelling and generic tropes, a frank admission about his pattern of revisiting similar material, and his eye for perceiving similar talent and taste in others through his production company.
Del Toro’s films are fascinating and rich for many reasons, but one of these is the fact that he’s merged a vulnerable childhood imagination with adult intellect and a seemingly instinctual sense of narrative in a way that compromises none of these components alone. Also, the filmmaker has cast Ron Perlman five times so far. That’s the first step to doing something right.
Why You Should Never Write Action Scenes For Your Blockbuster Movie
Recently, Josh Friedman penned another one of his mini-masterpieces on writing sex scenes. Specifically, how he find writing sex scenes interesting, but he’s not all that sussed on writing action scenes. I cite the relevant passage mined from the good stuff about Angeline Jolie and Mickey Rourke’s toilet:
The people who are fucking lazy are the writers. Honestly, what does an action scene do to move a story ahead? Nothing. What does it do for a characters’ journey? Nothing. What does it do for the movie itself? Take up a chunk of time that now doesn’t need to be filled with character and story.
And you know why? Because character and story are hard things to write. And it’s easy to write an action scene. I know. I’ve written hundreds of them. They bore the crap out of me. But at least I know they’re gonna take up some pages in my screenplay without me having to figure out the hard stuff. Action sequences are the junk food in any writer’s kitchen. That’s not to say there aren’t good action sequences—ones that literally take your breath away—but those are few and far between. For me, when the tripod in WOTW comes out of the ground and starts blowing shit up with no mercy—my jaw dropped open and my heart actually raced. And I bring that up exactly BECAUSE I was involved in the movie. I knew it was coming and yet it still got me excited.
And shouldn’t the point of action sequences be excitement? No one wants to admit that—but violence in film is supposed to be EXCITING. It rarely is. But that doesn’t stop people from jamming a movie full of it for no reason other than lazy writing.
And thus boring the shit out of us.
Now, what’s interesting here is that in looking back on my entire career, I realized that I have never written a sex scene, while I find writing spiffy action sequences just buckets of goddam fun. We are two sides of the same coin, Josh and I — soon we will meet in mortal combat, pitting our avataric powers against each other in the skies above Alamagordo, settling once and for all the eternal struggle between light and dark …
Ahem. No, this is probably because, personally, I find the situation of two people who want to sleep together but don’t or can’t far more interesting a story dynamic than consumation. This is an odd admission, but for me almost all film sex scenes are boring as dirt. The conflict is (at least for this scene) closed, so we’re going to muck around in soft-focus denoument for five minutes? If the the entire thrust of storytelling is conflict, and both characters want the same thing (to have ze sex) … you get my point. The only interest in a film sex scene is when chemistry trumps structure.
Also, I don’t really get my jollies unless the woman is dressed like a pirate. But I don’t think that invalidates my point. Not completely, anyway.
Josh points out a great weakness in action scenes as written in American film — they’re pauses in the job of developing story and character. Where this came from, well, I’m not going to lay everything on the feet of directors, but … suck it, camera boys. This is a distinctly American issue — action sequence as end-point. Writers have fallen into this habit because that’s just how action sequences have come to be defined in American films. I run smack-dab into this all the time:
Executive: But I don’t get it. When did we find out about that subplot? Me: It was the reveal at the center of the action sequence. Executive: Oh, as soon as I see the action start, I just skip over that writing. Nothing ever happens in an action sequence, and I hate them anyway. Me: Huh. Executive: … pardon me, but you seem to have driven your pen into my left temple. Me: Sorry.
Don’t do it, Spec-Monkeys. Don’t treat your action sequences like dirty little obligations.
You don’t do an action sequence for the sake of doing a damn action sequence — you do an action sequence because it’s a new or more effective way to advance your character or story.
Would you ever intentionally write a scene in which your protagonist was completely reactive, and the outcome of the scene was a foregone conclusion? Of course not. Screenwriting 101, and your drum-circle of a writing group would pillory you for it. But that is precisely how 99.999999999 % of action sequences are currently written.
If you are not a fan of action sequences — and I am a fan, a junkie, I can parse them out in ninety different flavors — then you may approach the basic dynamic of an action scene thusly:
Objective: Character wants to escape bad guys. Dramatic Question: Will character escape bad guys?
The problem, here, of course is that the character objective is — as stated — completely reactive, and the dramatic question is answered “Well, duh, we’re only halfway through the movie.” All the sturm and drang and “hey that’s the exact same car-bounces-just-over-our-head shot as in your previous movie and you know who you are, Sparky” business is just noise. Big, good-for-the-reel but shit-for-the-audience noise. You have to really notch up the visual tricks to overcome this, and to some degree I think we may have topped out. I hold, for example, that the car chase is now dead as a filmic device. Dead.
Tossing aside all the bigger philosophy, here’s my attack: make sure every action sequence has a separate goal within the sequence which might legitimately suceed or fail with derailing the movie. Slap a little suspense beat down as your seed, then let your action sequence arrive from the a.) circumstances surrounding the goal or b.) choices of the character.
You can stop reading now, if you just take this away: Don’t write action sequences. Write suspense sequences that require action to resolve.
Moving on, and this was beaten into me by the nice Hong Kong humans I’ve worked with: every action sequence has its own internal three act structure. Objective, complication, resolution. And not only that, but the complication needs to be something which forces a choice on the character, not just a complication in physical circumstances.
It is valid for the complication to be “the odds suddenly become impossible” if a.) the odds are indeed im-goddam-possible in the context of the movie so far and b.) the way the protagonist overcomes these odds is illustrative of the character.
If I may have the arrogance to discuss movies by some very amazing film-makers — for me, this is one of the reasons The Matrix still holds up, and the sequels are two of the most boring movies I have ever, ever, ever seen.
In The Matrix, the Wachowskis spend the entire movie setting the stakes: do not fight an Agent. When you see an Agent, run. The movie opens with Trinity doing one of the most AMAZINGLY BADASS things we’ve seen on film, and then she spends five minutes running in a blind panic from the Agents.
So, in the first big action sequence*: the Agents are coming. Oh shit. We need to outwit them, outrun them, but in no way, shape, or form do we stand a chance against them. When Morpheus has to stay and fight, there is no guarantee he’s going to get out of this (suspense) and we’re hooked because they’ve spent a lot of time making sure Morpheus is a sympathetic and emotionally involved character.
The second big action sequence: rescuing Morpheus. The choices Neo makes and abilites he shows actually evolve the story and his character. He’s learning about the nature of the world. Learning to sacrifice. Going from a watcher to a participant. The action is simply the lens through which we see this growth — the visually arresting, badass lens. This sequence is particularly noteworthy, as you can actually track its internal three-act progression of Neo quite clearly.
"I may not be the One, but I’m going to help my guy." "You moved like they do." "Holy shit, he is the One."
This leads into the third sequence: Neo fights Agent Smith. Now, we’re pretty close to the end of the movie here, so we may well assume that “duh, of course Neo’s going to win.” But the Wachowski’s have done something masterful. First, even in the previous sequence, the heroes only beat an Agent when they cheat. Two on one, and they still need Neo to pull a trick he’s never exhibited before, changing the rules in mid-fight. This Smith fight is the first mano-a-mano fight. The threat and obstacle are escalated way, WAY over what they’ve been before. Second, it’s a payoff — Smith is one of the best screen antagonists of the last ten years. We wannnnnt to see the throwdown we’ve been waiting for, the one the film’s been quite consciously avoiding all the way up to this point. Third — the exterior complication of the squids arriving. Fourth — this fight is a character moment. This fight is Neo saying: “No. I’m not going to run anymore. I stand and fight and die here.” This is the moment in the film where Neo-we leave our cubicles and beat up our bosses, or stand up and fight all the bastards in suits who shove us around and make us feel unimportant. This is “Take this job and shove it” with gun-fu, and that’s a powerful gut-check moment. All those factors combined are necessary to overcome the “well, of course he’ll survive” instinct.
If you’ve seen the sequels, all I have to say is “Burly Brawl”, and you get my point.
Leaving aside the flame wars that analysis will spark in the Comments, I’ll pull something possibly illustrative out of something I worked on: Lee Childs’ Killing Floor. The rights are tied up in a rights kerfuffle over at Paramount now, so I feel free to discuss it.
There’s a moment in the book where the protagonist, ex-military cop Jack Reacher, goes up against two Bad Men sent to kill him. Jack doesn’t go mano-a-mano with them. He uses a particularly nice bit of strategy and makes a particularly brutal choice, which illustrate both his training and his personal morality. We learn Jack Reacher is someone With Whom You Do Not Fuck, and look forward to seeing him unleash unpleasantness on the main bad guys.
But still … it’s in the Second Act, and in our heart of hearts we know Jack’s going to get out of it. It’s a nice action sequence, and it serves to illustrate Jack in a way that the pleasant conversations he’s had with people up to this point do not — cannot — but still it can only break two ways: Jack lives or Jack dies. And we kind of know Jack’s going to live.
So I tried to find a story beat that could break either way. In the book, a Young Woman arrives who is a source of Information. She’s killed before our people can talk to her. She’s also intimately, emotionally tied to Jack.
So I blended the two together. The Young Woman arrives, she brings the Information, but is snatched by the Bad Men. Jack now has to go up against the Bad Men. But now, on top of the nice bit of action choreography and the character moment, we get suspense stakes. The bit can break multiple ways: Jack can survive, but fail to rescue the Young Woman and the Information. Jack can save the Young Woman and the Information. The Young Woman dies, but Jack gets the Information. Jack survives but the Young Woman and/or the Information are somehow removed from his grasp. None of these results will break the movie, so we as viewers can’t dismiss them as possible scene endings.
Which leads us to our last trick: Pipe. So boring. So horrible. But if you make pipe the objective of an action sequence, or a by-product, it all goes down much more smoothly.
All this to reinforce what I mentioned earlier (Christ I am chatty):
Don’t write action scenes. Write suspense scenes that require action to resolve.
Danny Boyle’s 15 Golden Rules ofDanny Boyle’s 15 Golden Rules of Moviemaking Moviemaking
Danny Boyle has directed hit films in a wide array of genres—from the cautionary drug saga Trainspotting to the inspirational, Oscar-winning drama Slumdog Millionaire. In 2010, Danny Boyle enumerated his 15 Golden Rules of filmmaking exclusively forMovieMaker Magazine, just as 127 Hours hit theaters. His latest film, Trance, is still trolling around in theaters.
1. A DIRECTOR MUST BE A PEOPLE PERSON • Ninety-five percent of your job is handling personnel. People who’ve never done it imagine that it’s some act, like painting a Picasso from a blank canvas, but it’s not like that. Directing is mostly about handling people’s egos, vulnerabilities and moods. It’s all about trying to bring everybody to a boil at the right moment. You’ve got to make sure everyone is in the same film. It sounds stupidly simple, like ‘Of course they’re in the same film!’ But you see films all the time where people are clearly not in the same film together.
2. HIRE TALENTED PEOPLE • Your main job as a director is to hire talented people and get the space right for them to work in. I have a lot of respect for actors when they’re performing, and I expect people to behave. I don’t want to see people reading newspapers behind the camera or whispering or anything like that.
3. LEARN TO TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS • Ideally, you make a film up as you go along. I don’t mean that you’re irresponsible and you’ve literally got no idea, but the ideal is that you’ve covered everything—every angle—so that you’re free to do it any of those ways. Even on low-budget films, you have financial responsibilities. Should you fuck it up, you can still fall back on one of those ways of doing it. You’ve got Plan A to go back to, even though you should always make it with Plan B if you can. That way keeps it fresh for the actors, and for you.
4. FILM HAPPENS IN THE MOMENT • What’s extraordinary about film is that you make it on the day, and then it’s like that forever more. On that day, the actor may have broken up with his wife the night before, so he’s inevitably going to read a scene differently. He’s going to be a different person. I come from theater, which is live and changes every night. I thought film was going to be the opposite of that, but it’s not. It changes every time you watch it: Different audiences, different places, different moods that you’re in. The thing is logically fixed, but it still changes all the time. You have to get your head around that.
5. IF YOUR LAST FILM WAS A SMASH HIT, DON’T PANIC • I had an obsession with the story of 127 Hours, which pre-dated Slumdog Millionaire. But I know—because I’m not an idiot—that the only reason [the studio] allowed us to make it was because Slumdog made buckets of money for them and they felt an obligation of sorts. Not an obligation to let me do whatever I want, but you kind of get a free go on the merry-go-round.
6. DON’T BE AFRAID TO TELL STORIES ABOUT OTHER CULTURES • You can’t just hijack a culture for your story, but you can benefit from it. If you go into it with the right attitude, you can learn a lot about yourself, as well as about the potential of film in other cultures, which is something we tried to do with Slumdog Millionaire… Most films are still made in America, about Americans, and that’s fine. But things are changing and I think Slumdog was evidence of that. There will be more evidence as we go on.
7. USE YOUR POWER FOR GOOD • You have so much power as director that if you’re any good at all, you should be able to use that to the benefit of everyone. You have so much power to shape the movie the way you want it that, if you’re on form and you’ve done your prep right and you’re ready, you should be able to make a decent job of it with the other people.
8. DON’T HAVE AN EGO • Your working process—the way you treat people, your belief in people—will ultimately be reflected in the product itself. The means of production are just as important as what you produce. Not everyone believes that, but I do. I won’t stand for anyone being treated badly by anyone. I don’t like anyone shouting or abusing people or anything like that. You see people sometimes who are waiting for you to be like that, because they’ve had an experience like that in the past, but I’m not a believer in that. The texture of a film is affected very much by the honor with which you make it.
9. MAKE THE TEST SCREENING PROCESS WORK FOR YOU • Test screenings are tough. It makes you nervous, exposing the film, but they’re very important and I’ve learned a great deal from using them. Not so much from the whole process of cards and the discussions afterwards, but the live experience of sitting in an auditorium with an audience that doesn’t know much about the story you’re going to tell them—I find that so valuable. I’ve learned not so much to like it, but to value how important it is. I think you have to, really.
10. COME TO THE SET WITH A LOOK BOOK • I always have a bible of photographs, images by which I illustrate a film. I don’t mean strict storyboards, I just mean for inspiration for scenes, for images, for ideas, for characters, for costumes, even for props. These images can come from anywhere. They can come from obvious places like great photographers, or they can come from magazine advertisements—anywhere, really. I compile them into a book and I always have it with me and I show it to the actors, the crew, everybody!
11. EVEN PERFECT FORMULAS DON’T ALWAYS WORK • As a director your job is to find the pulse of the film through the actors, which is partly linked to their talent and partly to their charisma. Charisma is a bit indefinable, thank God, or else it would be prescribed in the way that you chemically make a new painkiller. In the movies—and this leads to a lot of tragedy and heartache—you can sometimes have the most perfect formula and it still doesn’t work. That’s a reality that we are all victims of sometimes and benefit from at other times. But if you follow your own instincts and make a leap of faith, then you can at least be proud of the way you did it.
12. TAKE INSPIRATION WHERE YOU FIND IT • When we were promoting Slumdog Millionaire, we were kind of side-by-side with Darren Aronofsky, who was also with Fox Searchlight and was promoting The Wrestler. I watched it and it was really interesting; Darren just decided that he was going to follow this actor around, and it was wonderful. I thought, ‘I want to make a film like that. I want to see if I can make a film like that.’ It’s a film about one actor. It’s about the monolithic nature of film sometimes, you know? It’s about a dominant performance.
13. PUSH THE PRAM • I think you should always try to push things as far as you can, really. I call it “pushing the pram.” You know, like a stroller that you push a baby around in? I think you should always push the pram to the edge of the cliff—that’s what people go to the cinema for. This could apply to a romantic comedy; you push anything as far as it will stretch. I think that’s one of your duties as a director… You’ll only ever regret not doing that, not having pushed it. If you do your job well, you’ll be amazed at how far the audience will go with you. They’ll go a long, long way—they’ve already come a long way just to see your movie!
14. ALWAYS GIVE 100 PERCENT • You should be working at your absolute maximum, all the time. Whether you’re credited with stuff in the end doesn’t really matter. Focus on pushing yourself as much as you can. I tend not to write, but I love bouncing off of writing; I love having the writers write and then me bouncing off of it. I bounce off writers the same way I bounce off actors.
15. FIND YOUR OWN “ESQUE” • A lesson I learned from A Life Less Ordinary was about changing a tone—I’m not sure you can do that. We changed the tone to a kind of Capra-esque tone, and whenever you do anything more “esque,” you’re in trouble. That would be one of my rules: No “esques.” Don’t try to Coen-esque anything or Capra-esque anything or Tarkovsky-esque anything, because you’ll just get yourself in a lot of trouble. You have to find your own “esque” and then stick to it.
The story goes that most writers are either pantsers (which regrettably has nothing to do with writing sans pants) or plotters (which has nothing to do with plotting the fictional in-narrative demises of those who have offended you). We either jump into the story by the so-called seat of our pants, or we rigorously plot and scheme every detail of the story before we ever pen the first sentence. It’s a bit of a false dichotomy, as many writers fall somewhere in the middle. Even a “pantser” can make use of an outline without still feeling pantsless and fancy-free.
2. NO ONE OUTLINE STYLE EXISTS
Remember that classic outline you did in junior high? Roman numerals? Lowercase alphabet? Lists of raw, unrefined tedium? Scrap that shit, robot. Nobody’s telling you to do that outline—unless that outline is what you do. For every writer, an outline style exists. It’s up to you to find which method suits you. (And if you’re looking for options, you can find a host of them right here in 25 Ways To Plot, Plan And Prep Your Story.)
3. PREPARATION H
Writing a novel, a script, a comic series, a TV show, a video game, a magnum transmedia pornographic opus told over Instagram — well, it’s all rather difficult. Writing a story can feel like a box of overturned ferrets running this way and that, and there you are, trying to wrangle them up while also simultaneously juggling bitey piranha. It’s easy to find the writing of a story quite simply overwhelming. An outline is meant to help you prepare against that inevitability by having the story broken out into its constituent pieces before you begin. It’s no different than, before cooking, laying out all your tools and ingredients (called the mise en place, or simply, “the meez”). Think of an outline as your “meez.”
4. THE CONFIDENCE GAME
Sometimes what kills us is a lack of confidence in our storytelling. We get hip-deep and everything seems to unravel like a ruptured testicle (yes, testicles really do unravel, you’re totally welcome). You suddenly feel like you don’t know where this is going. Plot doesn’t make sense. Characters are running around like sticky-fingered toddlers. The whole narrative is like a 10-car-pileup on the highway. Your story hasn’t proven itself, but an outline serves as the proving grounds. You take the story and break it apart before you even begin — so, by the time you do put the first sentence down, you have confidence in the tale you’re about to tell. Confidence is the writer’s keystone; an outline can lend you that confidence.
5. STOP BUILDING THE PARACHUTE ON THE WAY DOWN
A lack of an outline means you’re burdening yourself with more work than is perhaps necessary. You’re jumping out of the plane and trying to stitch the parachute in mid-air, working furiously so you don’t explode like a blood sausage when you smack into the hard and unforgiving earth. Further, what happens is, you finish the first draft (tens of thousands of words) and what you suddenly find is that this is basically one big outline anyway, because you’re going to have to edit and rewrite the damn thing. An outline tends to save you from the head-exploding bowel-evacuating frustration of having to do that because you’ve already gone through the effort to arrange the story. A little work up front may save you a metric fuckity-ton later on.
6. THE TIRED (BUT TRUE!) MAP METAPHOR
Let’s say you’re taking a trip. You’re driving cross-country to a specific location—a relative’s house, a famous restaurant, Big Dan Don’s Baboon Bondage Barn, whatever. You don’t just wake up, jump in the car, and go. You pack your bags. You get your shit together: food, first-aid, road flares, baboon mask. Then you plan the trip. You get a map. Or you plug the address into the GPS. Finally, you take the trip. Writing a story is like taking a trip. Why not prepare for it?
7. SOMETIMES, YOUR GPS WILL STEER YOU INTO A BRIDGE ABUTMENT
Okay, to be fair, sometimes a GPS will have you turn sharply left and crash into an orphanage. The lesson here is that your GPS is not sacred. And neither, as it turns out, is your outline.
8. THE OUTLINE CAN BE A PAIR OF HANDCUFFS
So, you’re taking this trip. You’re driving across the country. You know you’re supposed to stay on the highway, but holy fuck, the highway is boring. Endless macadam. Hypnotizing guardrails. Blah. Bleagh. Snooze. So, you see an exit ahead for a back road that takes you to Brother Esau’s Amish Muskrat Circus. Ah, but that’s not on your map. Do you drive on past? Stick to the plan? No! You stop! Because Motherfucking Muskrat Circus! Your outline is the same way. No plan survives contact with the enemy, and while you’re writing you’re going to see new things and have new ideas and make crazy connections that are simply not in the outline. Make them. Take the exit! Try new things! Don’t let the outline be a pair of shackles. Unless you’re into that. You’re the one going to the Bondage Barn, not me. Nice baboon mask, by the way.
9. A GOOD OUTLINE DEMANDS FLEXIBILITY
It’s okay to leave room in your outline for things to change. It’s even okay to leave sections of your outline with big blinky question marks and hastily scrawled notes like NO I DON’T KNOW WHAT HAPPENS HERE BUT IT INVOLVES VAMPIRE SEX AND KARATE. An outline must bend with the winds of change, but it must not break.
10. AWOOGA AWOOGA ALERT ALERT
Plot is a twisty motherfucker. It loops around on itself and before you know it, the thing’s crass contortions have left you with plot holes so big you could lose a horse in one. An outline is an excellent tool for hunting down those pesky voids and vacancies early so you can cinch the plot tighter in order for those holes to close up — or, at least, can remain hidden from view. An outline fixes your plot problems before you have 80,000 words of them staring you down.
11. AN ARCHITECT SHOULD KNOW HOW TO SWING A FUCKING HAMMER
Having some understanding of how a story fits together can be helpful when outlining your story. It’s not critical, but grokking the way a story rises and falls and reaches its apex can give you beats and goals to aim toward when outlining. Might I recommend “25 Things You Should Know About Story Structure?” No? TOO BAD DOING IT ANYWAY HA HA HA JERKWEED.
12. MACRO TO MICRO
You can go as big and broad or as tiny and micromanagey as you want when it comes to outlining. Some folks outline just the tentpoles of their fiction—“These five things need to happen for the story to make sense” Others detail every beat of the story—“And then Martha makes a broccoli frittata, summoning the Doom Angels.” Do as you and the story demands.
13. CONSIDER AT LEAST MARKING THE MAJOR ACTS
In film, a story is said to have three acts (though some folks wisely break that second act up into two “sub-acts” bisected by the midpoint of the tale). Generally, most stories conform in some fashion to the three-act-structure, even if only in the loosest way — as such, it’s worth looking at the major acts of your story and giving them each a paragraph just so you have some sense where the larger narrative is going. You’d be amazed at what clarity you bring to a story when you write it out in three paragraphs (Beginning, Middle, and End).
14. OUTLINE AS YOU GO
Not comfortable with doing one big hunka-hunka-burning-outline right at the outset? Ta-da,outline as you go. Boom! Solved it. YOU OWE ME MONEY NOW. Ahem. What I’m trying to say is, every week, outline for the week ahead but no further. This keeps you flexible and still makes it feel that you’ve still got some mystery and majesty ahead of you around the corner of every cliff’s edge. Hell, you could even outline only the next day — stop writing today, outline tomorrow’s writing before you begin. Just to get a base.
15. SOMETIMES YOU’RE AN OUTLINER AND YOU DON’T KNOW IT
I tried writing one novel, Blackbirds, over the course of several years. And the story just kept wandering around like an old person lost at K-Mart. It felt aimless, formless, like I couldn’t quite get it to make sense, couldn’t get the damn thing to add up and become a proper story. Eventually, while in a mentorship with a screenwriter, he told me to outline it. I said, “HA HA SILLY MAN I AM A NOVELIST WE DO NOT OUTLINE FOR IT WILL THIEVE THE BREATH FROM GOD AND OTHER SUCH POMPOSITIES.” And he said, “No, really, outline.” And I groused and grumbled and kicked the can and punched my locker and finally I sat down and took my medicine. I finished the novel a few short months later and that novel later became my first original novel debut. I am a pantser by heart, but a plotter by necessity.
16. THE POWER OF THE RE-OUTLINE (AND THE RE-RE-OUTLINE)
I outline before I write. Then, when it comes time to edit, I re-outline before committing any major rewrites. I do this because things have changed — both in terms of what I wrote and what I’m going to write. I outline the novel I just wrote (the re-outline), then I outline the planned changes (the re-re-outline). It sounds like a lot of work. It takes me less than a day to do it. And it feels like hell to do, but I’m always happy for having done it.
17. SEE ALSO: THE RETROACTIVE OUTLINE
Some folks never do an outline up front — they let their first draft (or the “zero draft,” as it is sometimes known) be the pukey, sloppy technicolor supergeyser of nonsense and then they take that giant pile of quantum hullaballoo and from it pull a proper outline before attempting to rewrite. This may take you a bit longer but if the result is a story you’re happy with, then holy shit, go forth and do it. Every process you choose should be in service to getting the best story in the way that feels most… well, I was going to say comfortable, but really, comfort is fucking forgettable in the face of great fiction, so let’s go with effective, instead.
18. MOST PROGRAMS HAVE SOME KIND OF OUTLINE FUNCTION
Most writing programs come built with some manner of outlining function — Word’s is pretty barebones but a program like Scrivener has a very robust outline engine built into it, allowing the outline to eventually become the table of contents. You can also look for programs (OmniOutliner, for instance) that handle outlining as its sole (often robust) function. Consider me a big fan of outlining on my iPad with the Index Card app — an app that also syncs up nicely with Scrivener, if that interests you.
19. SOME OUTLINES ARE MORE EXPRESSLY VISUAL
Hey, nobody said an outline had to be all text-on-screen. Maybe you draw mind-maps on a whiteboard. Maybe you string together photos you found on Flickr. Maybe you mark your up-beats and down-beats in the narrative with little smiley faces or frowny faces, respectively. Get crazy. Break out the fingerpaints. The sidewalk chalk. OUTLINE YOUR NOVEL IN THE SCAREDY URINE OF YOUR FOES. Whoa. I mean. What? I didn’t say anything.
20. HELP YOU UNSTICK A STUCK STORY
You’re toodling along on your pantsed story, and everything going fine until one day it isn’t. You’re stuck. Boots in the narrative pigshit. You have some choices. One choice is to sit there in the poopy mire, crying into the fetid muck. The other choice is to backtrack and outline the story you’ve written so far and the story ahead. The value of this approach is that you don’t need to outline at the fore of the draft and maybe you never need to outline — ah, but if you get stuck, the outline makes a mighty tidy lever to get you free.
21. NO, OUTLINING DOES NOT STEAL YOUR MAGIC
Writers are beholden to many fancy myths. “The Muse! My characters talk to me! I’d just die if I couldn’t write!” The myth of how an outline robs you of your creative juju is one of them. I don’t want to defeat your magic. I don’t want to suggest that writing and storytelling isn’t magic — because hot damn, it really is, sometimes. The myth isn’t about the magic; the myth is that the magic is so fickle that something so instrumental as an outline will somehow diminish it. If after outlining a story you think the thunder has been stolen and you don’t want to write it anymore, that’s a problem with you or your story, not with the loss of its presumed magic. An outline can never detail everything. It’ll never excise the magic of all the things that go into theactual day-to-day writing. If that magic is gone, either your story didn’t have it in the first place, or you’re looking for excuses not to write the fucking thing.
22. CALM DOWN, NOBODY’S GOT A GUN TO YOUR HEAD
Nobody’s making you outline. Relax.
23. OOPS, EXCEPT MAYBE THIS GUN RIGHT HERE, CLICK, BOOM
Okay, somebody might actually make you outline. I had one publisher who demanded a chapter-by-chapter outline before committing to the project. I’ve also had to hand in outlines for various film or transmedia projects. Someone might actually ask you to outline at some point, and when they do, you probably shouldn’t freak out as if someone just set your cat on fire.
24. IT’S ONE MORE TOOL FOR THE TOOLBOX
Look at it this way: even if you don’t like outlining and don’t really plan on using it, it’s a skill that’s useful to learn just the same. Not every tool in the toolbox will see constant or even regular use, but it’s still nice to have in store for when the shit hits the fan and you need to ratchetblast the rimjob or maladjust the whangdoodle.
25. EVERYBODY HAS A PROCESS, SO FIND YOURS
No one process for planning your story is going to work. What works for me won’t work for you. Hell, what works for one of your stories may not even work for the next. Try things. Explore. Experiment. This isn’t math. It isn’t beholden to an easy equation with a guaranteed output. Find the outline style that suits you. Look at it this way: it’s like eating your vegetables. You might try kale and think it tastes like ursine toilet paper. Or you might try it and think it’s the best thing since bacon underwear. Try the outline. Maybe it helps, maybe it doesn’t.
25 TURNS, PIVOTS, AND TWISTS TO COMPLICATE YOUR STORY
1. THE HEINOUS FUCKERY IS REVEALED
This is the “first turn” of the story: something happens that disrupts the status quo and this event pushes the protagonist (and perhaps the world around him) into the tale. The king dies! Terrorists attack! My beloved pony has been pony-napped! A vampire just joined your Little League team! This turn, unlike all the others in this list, isn’t optional: storytelling is an act of taking the straight line that is the status quo and kinking it like a garden hose. This first turn — known sometimes as the inciting incident — is why the story exists in the first place.
2. THE ACTUAL HEINOUS FUCKERY IS ACTUALLY REALLY REVEALED
In some stories we chug along thinking we know what the problem is (“My boyfriend broke up with me!”) but at some point during the tale, perhaps around the midpoint of the narrative, we learn of the real problem lurks behind the scenes (“My boyfriend broke up with me because he’s actually a robot hell-bent on invading our high school and turning us all to robots and now I have to save us all!”) The initial problem, the one presented by the inciting incident, is something of a stalking horse — it’s a bit of magical misdirection that the protagonist and the readers fall for while the real problem waits in the shadows to be exposed.
3. THE TRULY VILLAINOUS FUCKER IS REVEALED
Similar, but different: the problem is connected to a particular antagonist, and we think we know who the true antagonist is, but oops, there’s a meaner scarier malevolenter (not a word) motherfucker in the wings: Darth Vader steps aside and it’s The Emperor! We think it’s George Bush but it’s really Dick Cheney! Agent Smith is the bad guy but really it’s a bunch of, uhh, squidbots and spider-borgs and whatever it doesn’t matter because it turns again and actually it’s really Agent Smith anyway haw haw haw you just got played, audience!
4. OH, SHIT
This turn is also fairly essential: “Oh, Shit,” means, “We just escalated the problem.” One tiger got loose? Now it’s ten. The protagonist’s love interest is getting married? His fiancee is also pregnant. The hero is being hunted by terrorists? Now the terrorists can psychically control bees. This turn is a very simple one to understand: you have a pot of water on the stove, now it’s time to turn the knob click by click until it gets hotter and hotter and eventually boils over.
5. HOLY TITS, IT LOOKS LIKE WE’RE GONNA LOSE
In many stories you’ll have that moment where it looks like everything is basically fucked. In the original Star Wars trilogy, this is perhaps best embodied by the end of Empire Strikes Back. You reach the end of that film you’re like, “Oh, okay, so, that’s it. Obi-Wan’s long dead, Luke lost his hand, the Rebellion is against the ropes, Vader’s way too powerful and also Luke’s… uncle or whatever, Han Solo got turned into a coffee table for a slimy turd-skinned space gangster. Okay, everybody. Time to pack it up and go home.” This is the dark pit, the bleak moment, the part in the aerial acrobatics show where the plane dives right toward the ground and you think it’s impossible to pull up in time but then vvvooooooom there it goes.
6. SWEET JEEBUS, WE TOTALLY FUCKING LOST
We’re conditioned to believe that the heroes are going to win. Even when we reach that all is lost moment, we still have a tiny ember glowing bright in the ash-pile of our expectations: we still suspect that things are going to turn out okay, we just don’t know how. Ah, but, again, storytelling is an act that refutes the status quo and in this case audience expectations are that status quo. Which means we must defy the audience. Which means in this case actually letting the characters lose. Not a fake defeat. Not a temporary one. But that thing they were hoping to achieve (save the victim, rescue the hostages, defeat the Satanic Unicorn Lord in his lair of bedazzled bones and elf-flesh), mmmnope, too bad, sorry, too late. The victim cannot be saved. The hostages are fucking dead. The Unicorn Lord is triumphant. Take them past the point of utter loss and there may lie the end of the story or a new story may exist in the dread and unexpected space after. The goals shift. The emotional frequency changes. The plot turns.
7. THE FAKE-ASS VICTORY
This is a real fuck-you-flavored move for the storyteller to make, but hey, sorry, that’s life in the Big Story, pal. In this one, you lend the protagonists a victory: “Oh, ha ha ha, I did something good! We’re gonna win!” and then you kick the chair out from under them and watch them hang for it. John McClane calls the cops and goes through hell to keep them there, but his only ally turns out to be a donut-chugging desk jockey and the entire police force not only doesn’t help him but instead accuses him of being one of the terrorists.
8. A GODDAMN KNIFE IN THE BACK
Betrayal is powerful story-fu. A character close to the protagonist suddenly turns and sticks a dagger in the hero’s back either out of new opportunity for the traitorous character or because he was planning on doing some cold-as-ice backstabbing all along. The girlfriend is really a demon! The boyfriend is actually a doom-bot! The jealous best friend has been planning the downfall of his buddy for the whole book! This works only when we believe the original relationship to be rock-solid but at the same time engineer into the narrative reasons that the betrayal makes sense. (That’s the weird trick of storytelling: on the one hand, you have to tell the story with all the elements in place to uphold logic, but at the same time you’re trying to direct attention away from many of those elements so that the audience isn’t stunned into disbelief.)
9. HA HA HA THIS IS ALL PART OF MY SECRET PLAN, DICKHEAD
Here the oil-slick story squirms away from the all is lost or the false victory moment and tears off its mask and says, “HAR HAR HAR, I ENGINEERED IT THIS WAY FROM THE VERY BEGINNING.” The hero appears defeated but then she pulls a machete out of her ass-crack and starts cutting fools to pieces. Or the antagonist is thrown in jail but suddenly we realize that was his intention all along and now he’s closer to the Queen’s Jewels he wants to steal or the orphanage he wants to blow up or the Whole Foods where he buys his sinister quinoa.
10. VARIATION: THE VILLAIN KNOWS EVERYTHING, DUMBASS
This is a variation on the above — except here, it’s not so much that the villain has engineered the whole thing from the beginning but rather that the hero hasn’t been as sneaky or clever as he thought. The hero performs some elaborate scheme and sneaks into the monster’s lair only to have the monster slow-clap while emerging out of the darkness while wearing a smoking jacket. The monster says, “I knew you were coming because you butt-dialed me two days ago and haven’t hung up since.” Or maybe this ties into the earlier Knife in the Back and the villain’s surprising knowledge comes from a betrayal within. (Mix and match for maximum fun!)
11. THAT ONE ASSHOLE IS REALLY SOME OTHER ASSHOLE
Darth Vader is really Luke’s father! Verbal Kint is really the serial killer in Se7en! The kid from The Sixth Sense is actually Casper the Friendly Ghost! The Gilmore Girls are actually The Fabulous Baker Boys! All along we expect that Character A is, as told, Character A. But then he rips his face off (probably metaphorically) and reveals the true face beneath: he’s really Character Z. And also, a woman. And a werewolf. And the Prime Minister of Canada.
12. VARIATION: THAT POOR ASSHOLE HAD NO IDEA WHO HE WAS
This variant assumes the same as before (one character is actually another character), except in this case that information is kept from the actual character in question — imagine, if you will, Darth Vader not realizing he’s Luke’s father or that he ever had kids at all (“That damn princess ran off and had a litter of Jedi piglets on some dirt planet. I tell you, Tarkin, it’s a cold, cold Galaxy out there.”). Here you have the power of dramatic irony at your command: the audience may end up knowing something well before the characters themselves realize it.
13. THAT POOR ASSHOLE ALSO HAD NO IDEA WHAT HE HAD
Picture it: King Arthur thinks he needs the magical sword given to him by Lady of the Lake in order to fight off a… I dunno, a phalanx of randy leprechauns or a buncha grizzly bears or some shit (what am I, an Arthurian scholar?) And then at the end the sword is destroyed in battle (oh, shit!) but then the Lady of the Lake appears like a Force ghost and is all, “Excalibur was within you all along, Artie-boy,” then light shines out of his mouth and butt and King Arthur becomes Excalibur. (Somebody throw some money at my face so I can write this up, proper.) Point is, a character goes through the tale not realizing he had what he needed all along: the secret weapon, the launch codes, the love of his life, a delicious Snickers bar, whatever.
14. MOTHERFUCKING PERIPETEIA, BRO
Peripeteia is a fancy Greek word for “Is it worth it, let me work it, I put my thing down, flip it and reverse it,” as made famous by Missy “Artemisdemeanor” Elliot. Or, put differently, it suggests a reversal of circumstances. The Shakespearean tragedy known as Trading Places(starring Dame Daniel Akroyd and Knave Edwardth Murray) is a good example of this. Someone rich becomes poor. Someone with no power gains all the power. Man becomes God, God becomes man, dogs and cats switch places, you know the drill.
15. THAT SUBPLOT IS A REAL SONOFABITCH
Subplots help interrupt the standard narrative storyline — the main story is about a cosmic battle between good and evil while there’s this subplot about an emperor’s daughter and how she’s trying to find her lost moon-horse. Thing is, a subplot has to eventually collide with a main plot, and sometimes when that happens, it causes a kind of pivot. The subplot may become the main plot (imagine that the emperor’s daughter and her moon-horse, Mister Buckets, suddenly become the catalyst for the conflict at hand), or it may simply flip the main plot and change the circumstances by introducing new conflicts, characters, or settings.
16. BESIEGED BY BASTARDS ON ALL SIDES
John McClane’s got it bad in Die Hard. Not only is he dealing with international bank thieves, he’s also gotta contend with an incompetent police force, a psychopathically aggressive pair of FBI agents, and whoever it was that decided Nakatomi Plaza needed so much goddamn glass. In your story, just as your protagonist (and the protag’s proxy, the audience) thinks she’s seen the face of her enemies, give her new enemies to fight on top of her existing enemies.
17. TURNS OUT YOU CAN’T TRUST THAT JERKOFF, THE NARRATOR
The unreliable narrator is a classic move (Verbal Kint! Tyler Durden! Huck Finn!) — but it’s not one that needs to be telegraphed so early on in the story. We begin every story, I think, assuming that what’s on the page is as honest as Abe Lincoln’s yearning need to behead vampires. That’s good. You can use that. Let the audience settle into that sense of comfort, then start seedings hints throughout that the narrator might not be on the up-and-up.
18. WHAT THE SHIT, I’M PRETTY SURE THAT MAJOR CHARACTER JUST DIED
(AKA, The George R.R. Martin Honorary Authorial Serial Killer Hugo Award.) Take one of your main characters and kill them. Do so as a part of the narrative, of course — I mean, spoiler alert, I guess, but it’s not like Ned Stark gets hit by a VW Bug crossing a dirt road in Westeros. His death is an explicit part of the story — it’s just a death nobody ever expects. Think of this as a character-specific version of the aforementioned Sweet Jeebus We Totally Fucking Lost — the audience really doesn’t expect you to drop the axe on a beloved major character. Which is exactly why you sometimes need to do just that.
19. PISS ON THE GRAVE
In both religion and comic books, death is not so much a permanent condition as it is a troublesome speedbump — Jesus was, of course, one of the earliest superheroes, and that guy was pretty much unkillable. Point is, once again it’s time to mess with audience expectations. Outside religion and comic books, generally speaking when a character dies, we assume it’s a permanent pipe-sucking daisy-pushing state of affairs. So, to resurrect a character — whether literally bringing them back to life or simply making it clear they never really died — you turn the tale and surprise the audience. And that is part of what we do, isn’t it?
20. ACCELERATE THE NARRATIVE ON GODDAMN GO-GO-PILLS
A show like Homeland, you think it’s going to be this one thing, right? They’re going to drag out this War on Terror vibe and because it’s television the entire “Who is Brody?” and “Get Abu Nazir!” plotlines are going to streeeeeetch out like what Bruce Banner does to his man-panties when he becomes The Incredible Hulk, but that’s not what happens. Without spoiling anything, the show is on some kind of trucker meth — there is no “laggy middle.” It’s all rocket-boosters and caffeine enemas — and so you can give your story the same kind of energy by just pushing, pushing, pushing. Shove the narrative forward. Accelerate the timetable. Let the audience think your tale is about one man’s struggle to dethrone a king but then, fuck it, he dethrones the king in the first 100 pages. The audience is like, blink blink, “WHUUUUT.”
21. AH, CRAP, IT’S THE PYRRHIC VICTORY
A Pyrrhic Victory is a victory that only comes with great cost and sacrifice — something lost, something given, a hard choice made. Victory in one hand is a pile of steaming monkey shit in the other. It’s a good turn because our expectation is that victory is absolute — you can’t win while losing, right? DOES NOT COMPUTE BEEP BOOP BEEP. Except, fuck that. It works.
22. JERKOFF’S GUN
Chekov’s Gun is pretty straightforward: reveal a gun in the first act, that gun better get fired by the third act. Put differently, something that shows up earlier may seem important or it may seem insignificant, but if you’re mentioning it, it probably matters. The trick is that the audience doesn’t know how or why and so this makes for a powerful turn: any detail you reveal in an earlier portion of the story can come back in a big way. A stray footprint, an odd comment made by passersby, a funny-looking pubic hair stuck to someone’s creme brulee.
23. THE SHIT JUST GOT FIXED — NOW WHAT?!
The opposite of everything is lost is yay everything just got solved, except the trick here is that the end of the conflict doesn’t come at the end of the story like everyone figures but rather, far earlier. (Beware: spoiler incoming.) Look no further than Breaking Bad, where Walter White effectively solves the problem put forth in the pilot: cancer’s gone and the treatments are paid for, so what’s the problem? It would seem as if a vacuum is created by the loss of conflict but instead it demands a deeper, more meaningful conflict as a troubling truth is revealed as he continues on his path: Walter White wanted to be the drug lord Heisenberg all along.
24. STORY WITHIN A STORY WITHIN A MY HEAD JUST FUCKING MELTED
For a good portion of the story, the audience thinks the story is one thing but then we realize that the main story is nested in a larger (or smaller) story: one minute it’s a girl on a space station who wants to explore the stars but then later we realize that the space station story is the delusion of a girl abused by her mother and who just wants to escape her house. Or, maybe a more abstract version of this: we think the story is one about redemption but it ends up being about one of vengeance. We think it’s porn but it turns into something about love. We think it’s love but it turns into something about hate. We think it’s a Western but it’s really Elfpunk BDSM. Once in a rare while a story deserves big changes: dramatic thematic shifts and setting flips. (The Princess Bride and The Matrix are examples of this.)
25. THE NATURE OF BOREDOM IS A STRAIGHT LINE
These techniques all add up to one thing: the audience grows bored when the story marches forward in too-straight a line. Even the standard “escalation toward climax” is a straight line that needs to be kinked up and broken apart from time to time. Which means all of these techniques boil down to: change shit up. Envision what the audience will be thinking as they read it. What do they expect? What is the predictive course they have in their head? Then tweak that. Maybe a subtle shift. Maybe a really violent one. But don’t be afraid to change things up. Go risky. Get crazy. In life, we adore comfort. In fiction, comfort is our greatest enemy.
I’m in the planning stages of my next project, which is honestly my favorite part of the writing process. There’s no emotional cost to killing unwritten scenes, no niggling logic flaws, no exhaustion at page 72.
Plotting a movie is mostly figuring out who the characters are, and what obstacles they’ll face. In film school, we were taught to look at character motivation as the combination of two questions:1
What does the character want?
What does the character need?
The implication is that your characters should be able to articulate what they want (true love, the championship, revenge) at or near the start of the movie, but remain clueless to what they truly need (self-respect, forgiveness, literacy) until quite late in the story.
The screenwriter-creator leaves explicit prayers unanswered, but performs subtle psychological revelation so that the characters exit profoundly changed.
Like most screenwriting hackery, this want-vs-need concept works just often enough to seem useful. You can trot out the familiar examples. Every character in The Wizard of Oz can be addressed this way (the Scarecrow wants a brain, but needs to realize just how smart he is). Ditto for The Sound of Music, though it gets a bit vague amid the younger Von Trapps.
Of my films, Big Fish and Charlie and Chocolate Factory come closest to fitting this template, though it requires a bit of hammering to get there. In Big Fish, Will Bloom begins the movie wanting to find the truth in his father’s tales, but he ultimately needsto accept that his father is contained within these tales. In Charlie, Willy Wonka wantsan heir, but needs a family.2
Bolstered by these two examples, I spent a few hours this week looking at the characters in my project through the want-vs-need lens, before finally concluding it is complete and utter bullshit. Trying to distinguish between characters’ wants and needs is generally frustrating and almost universally pointless. The fact that I can answer the question for Big Fish and Charlie after the fact doesn’t make it a meaningful planning tool.
I’ve written about character motivation a fewtimes, but hadn’t thought it necessary to define my objectives. But I think it can be simplified down to a single question:
Why is the character doing what he’s doing?
Here’s what I like about this definition:
It scales well. You can ask this question about a character in a specific scene (“Why is he trying to get in the bank vault?”) or the entire movie (“Why is he racing in the Iditarod?”)
It implies visible action. Characters in movies need to do something. That sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how many scripts slather motivation on like spackle to fill the holes. ( “He has OCD because his father abandoned him.” Umm, okay, so why is he robbing a bank?)
It can be both concrete and psychological. In Go, why is Ronna trying to make the drug deal with Todd Gaines? (A) Because she’s about to be evicted. (B) To prove to her friends (and herself) that she can. Both are true.
When I started asking this question, many of my concerns with the project I’m writing slipped away. The problem wasn’t character motivation, but how I was looking for it.
That said, you need to be careful not to stop at the first easy answer: Why is he racing in the Iditarod? “To win the prize money.” The better answer will likely lead to a better story. Why is he racing in the Iditarod? “To beat his ex-wife, the five-time champion.” “To catch the man who killed his brother.” “Because the ghost of his childhood dog is haunting him.”
For the record, I’m not writing Snow Dogs 4.
My recollection is that these ideas are featured in Syd Field, but I’m not inclined to look it up, for fear of sparking of an enraged tangent about how damaging I think most screenwriting books are. ↩
Charlie Bucket *wants* a Golden Ticket, but *needs*…well, Charlie doesn’t really need anything, which is another argument for why Wonka is the protagonist, and Charlie the antagonist. ↩
Man, that title is a gratuitous grab for eyeballs, isn’t it?
I HAVE NO SHAME.
Further, I have very little understanding of Tantric Sex — I mean, I understand that something-something “enlightenment-through orgasm,” and something-something “erotic-ecstatic-consciousness,” and I’m pretty sure the penis becomes a magic wand and the vagina becomes a wizard’s hat and then Harry Potter yells “ejaculus patronus!” and a baby appears.
What am I, some kind of Kundalini Master? Whatever.
What I do know about Tantric Sex is the same thing probably the rest of you know, which is that one of the touted erotic techniques is the withholding of orgasm to intensify the power of the sex and its climax. Through this technique an average sexual encounter goes from the right old rumpy-pumpy to the coupling of two divine beings on a bed of writhing ghosts, and the standard orgasm goes from the popping of a tube of cookie dough to a mystical shower of embers from an iron-struck blade on the sexual force of that godly hornball, Hephaestus. Or something.
I’m probably losing the thread.
Point is, orgasm must be withheld.
And this is the lesson I want you to take away as a storyteller.
The power of withholding is key to telling a good story.
When describing something, withholding description allows for the audience to do work, to fill in the gaps, to bring something to the table and be a collaborator (at least in spirit) to the work. Further, by withholding description, you do not overwhelm with needless illustrative information. (Do we need to know what every lamp and sidetable and fingernail and skin tag look like? No we do not.) Pull back. Leave room. Do not overwhelm.
When creating characters, withholding aspects of that character (but teasing the existence of those aspects) gives us a sense of wanting to know more, more, more. A character with unrevealed secrets or stories interests us: we’re the kids at Christmas morning tearing through a pile of presents hoping to get to the big reveal at the end (a new bike! a BB gun! a Barbie dream home! a Turkish scimitar with which to behead thine enemies!).
When orchestrating plot, withholding information is the act of creating mystery, of removing points of data and replacing them with throbbing, pulsing question marks. Every question mark is a door that the reader wants desperately to walk through — and will do so almost to the point of compulsion, and compulsion is what we want, the compulsion to pick up the book again and again, the audience hungering to get back to the pages of the tale or to read the next issue or see the next episode. Litter your tale with unexplained mysteries big and small. The question will drive them: what does that strange tattoo on the woman’s back mean? Why did the wife kill the husband? Who is the one-eyed man? Who put the bomp in the bop-she-bop?
When instituting a relationship, withholding the culmination of that relationship has value. The will-they-won’t-they of romances. The denial of vengeance between one character and another. The mending of a broken friendship. The audience will continue to tear through pages, hoping to see the hero and the villain have their climactic showdown, hoping to see if the two star-crossed lovers will ever uncross the stars and come together, hoping to see if the sea-king and the mer-girl finally realize that they are father-and-daughter.
When complicating the goals of the protagonist, withholding victory and denying her success or an escape or an answering to her own questions is key — the audience is bound up with the protagonist and they want to see her safe and happy and vanquish darkness and find love and learn the truth. But by continuing to dangle the carrot, we see the protagonist urge forward through the story and we see the audience trailing along with her.
When determining the relationship between the protagonist and the audience, consider also withholding knowledge from one half but not the other. Things the characters know but the audience does not goes a long way toward establishing that gravitational mystery noted earlier. Withholding information from the characters but then revealing that information to the audience is dramatic irony, and makes the audience feel like they’re “in on the secret,” and further, become eager to know when the damning information they possess will finally catch up to the characters on the page.
At the end, this is about withholding what the audience wants. It’s about not showing the money shot right up front. It is about denying them narrative orgasm. It’s about build-up. And tension. And hesitation. And uncertainty. And fear. And lust. It’s about a trail of moist little morsels pulling them deeper and deeper into the tangled wood. It’s equal parts baited trap andStockholm Syndrome. It’s about not giving up what the audience desires most and at the same time making them thank you for the privilege of being denied.
Further, it is the act of withholding that helps ensure that your climax is not a soft, limp rag plopping down on a cold linoleum floor. Save things to reveal until the end. Reserve those key sought-after moments until the final act.
Release them upon reaching the final thrust of your story and few will leave unsatisfied.
Do this poorly and withhold too much and you’ll have them leave the story frustrated. Or confused. Or feeling needlessly punished and left out in the cold. But do it right — dangle the carrot, drop the crumbs, give them a taste of what they can have if they keep on reading and watching and consuming the tale — and you’ll have them scurrying after you on their hands and knees, eyes bugging, tongues wagging. Hungry for their narrative fix.
“One of the loudest voices in my head, the real dick of all the voices, likes to tell me that what I’m making won’t be perfect. It’s an impossible standard to live up to, perfection, and is therefore an effective weapon against my own creativity. I’m often tempted to give up before I begin. But I’ve tried to stop doing that. After 41 years, I’ve finally begun to realize that you have to start. You have to begin to make something before you can worry about how
it’s going to end up. If you don’t start, you have nothing.
I want to be like the people who keep pushing forward, in spite of the critics, self doubt, and uncomfortable odds. They try new things. They take risks. They eat
shit sometimes. They get back up and try other new things. Their successes are widely embraced. Their misfires are lonely. Most of all, their art is inspiring.
If I’ve learned anything in my shaky life as an artist, it’s that you must stop talking and spinning and whining and start making your thing today. Pick up a
camera. Pick up an easel. Open your laptop and turn off your Internet connection while you write. Find a starting point.
Ignore the voices. Ignore the critics. Reward yourself for having ideas by valuing them enough to believe in them.
Failure does not exist.”—Shane Nickerson
One of the first questions you have to ask is, who the fuck is telling this story? Is intrepid space reporter Annie McMeteor telling it in her own voice? Is a narrator telling Annie’s story for her? Is the story told from a panoply of characters — or from a narrator attempting to tell the story by stitching together a quilt of multiple minds and voices? Is the story told by a gruff and emotionless objective character who sits fat like a fly on the wall? You can try writing your story without knowing who the narrator is, but you’d better figure it out by the end of the first paragraph or you’re going to be writing one big, barfy, confusing mess. Your uncertainty in this regard will punish the reader, so it’s time, in Glengarry Glen Ross parlance, “to fuck or walk.”
2. WHO’S ON FIRST, I DON’T KNOW’S ON THIRD
You already know this but it bears repeating: first-person POV is when the story is told with the pronoun “I” (I went to the store, I like cheese, I killed a man in Reno not so much to watch him die but more because I wanted his calculator wristwatch). Third-person POV is when the story is told with the pronouns “she,” “he,” “it,” “they” (She opened the window, he peed out the window, they all got peed on by the guy peeing out the window).
3. HA HA HA, SECOND-PERSON, THAT’S A GOOD ONE
The second-person mode uses the pronoun “you.” As in, it’s telling the story from the perspective of you the reader. In theory, this is awesome. In practice it often comes off totally fucking goofy. Sure, a gifted storyteller can pull it off — and hey, sometimes fiction is about risks. It probably works better in short fiction than long (as sustaining that narrative mode will be tricky and tiresome). To be honest, whenever I read a second-person narrative, I keep thinking in my head, “You are eaten by a grue.” Then I quit reading it because, y’know, grue.
4. WITNESSING VERSUS EXPERIENCING: WHERE TO PLACE THE CAMERA?
A novel has no camera because a novel is just a big brick of words, but for the sake of delicious metaphor, let’s assume that “camera” is representative of the reader’s perspective. We often think of point-of-view as being the character’s perspective (and it is), but it’s also about the reader’s perspective. A third-person narrative has the camera outside the action — maybe hovering over one character, maybe pulling back all the way to the corner. A first-person narrative gives one character the camera — or even goes so far as to cram the camera up their nether-cavern and into their brain and against their eyeball. The question then becomes: is the reader here to witness what’s going on? Or experience it? Third-person asks we witness, first-person allows us to experience (and second-person really utilizes the experiential mode but, again, probably don’t do that).
5. THE INTIMACY OF THE READER
Put different, it becomes a question of intimacy. How intimate is the reader with the story, the setting, the characters? Once we begin to explode out the multiple modes of POV (objective, subjective, omniscient, etc.) it relates to how intimate the reader gets to be — is she kept close but privy to the confidence of only one character? Is the reader allowed to be all up in the satiny guts of every character in the room? Is the reader locked out? How much access does the reader have to the intellectual and emotional realm? Is she granted psychic narrative powers?
6. OBJECTIVE: THE READER AT THE WINDOW, PEERING IN
The objective mode of storytelling says, “Hey, reader, go stand outside and watch the story from the window, you funky little perv-weasel.” The reader isn’t privy to any of the psychic realm: it’s like watching a closed-circuit television feed. This happened, that happened, blah blah blah. It’s almost informationally pornographic: close-ups and thrusting but no emotional tangle.
7. SUBJECTIVE: THE READER AS A PSYCHIC MONKEY RIDING A SPECIFIC CHARACTER
The subjective narrative mode filters the story through the lens of a single character. The reader is allowed inside (as long as he pulls up his pants and wipes his hands) and gets to play the role of a psychic Yoda-monkey clinging to one character’s back. The intimacy increases: the reader is now allowed access to one character’s internal realm. That character filters everything through an intellectual, emotional, and experiential lens for the reader.
8. OMNISCIENT: READER DROPS ACID GETS TO LIVE IN EVERYBODY’S HEADS
YOU ARE NOW A GOLDEN GOD. Or, you just quaffed a cup of ayahuasca and now you’re hallucinating. Either way, omniscient POV allows us to become not a dude at the window or a telepathic lemur but rather, a hyper-aware psychic cloud floating above and withinall the character action. We are granted a backstage pass to every character’s internal world.
9. THE LIMITED LENS OF THIRD PERSON SUBJECTIVE
Third-person subjective is often called “third-person limited” because you are, duh, limited to the lens of just one character. This allows us some of the intimacy of first-person while still remaining a witness to the action rather than the closest thing to a participant. It’s like having your cake and being able to eat it too, which is a phrase I’ve always considered a bit silly: of course I want to eat the cake I have because then what the fuck is the point of cake? If you’re trying to make some comment on the corporeality of cake (“once you’ve eaten it you no longer have it”), it still falls apart because relocating it to my belly still counts as me having it. Further, I might have eaten a single slice of cake and retain the other seven slices for later cake consumption. (And by “later” I mean, “in two-and-a-half minutes.”) So, whatever. What was I talking about? Who are you people and how’d you get in my Secret Cake Room?
10. EPISODIC THIRD: THE MONKEY HOPS FROM SHOULDER TO SHOULDER
This has lots of names — Third-Term Episodic, Third-Term Multiple, Third-Person Limited Shifting, Menage-A-Character, Third-Person Monkey-Head-Hopper, and so on. The point is that in a given narrative unit (most commonly, a chapter) the storyteller limits the filtering of the narrative through a single character — in the next chapter, the storyteller switches that filter to a whole different character. (I tend to like this approach in my own work. If third-person limited is ‘having your cake and eating it too,’ this is like ‘having cake with ice cream on top and then also pie and maybe cookies and eating it all but still having more.’)
11. THE DEEPER PLUNGE OF FIRST PERSON SUBJECTIVE
First-person subjective is the most common version of the first-person POV, and it allows for a deep dive into one character’s psyche. It is the most intimate in a 1:1 sense — the strength is that we get to know one character very, very well. We are more than just the monkey on the shoulder; we are a thought-eating brain parasite. We are given a vicarious thrill as both storyteller and reader in this mode. Sometimes, this mode can be overpowering; further, there exists the danger that the storyteller’s “voice” and the protagonist’s “voice” are a little too close. In a sense, first-person subjective is a bit like acting: the writer embodies the role of a character, attempting to wear the costume completely while on the page.
12. THE NEWS REPORT HAD SEX WITH A SCREENPLAY AND BIRTHED THE OBJECTIVE POV
Journalism is all about details. Screenplays are blueprints for action and dialogue. The objective point-of-view — in both first- and third-person — offers us that sense of utter detachment. It is an exercise in, as noted, detail and action and dialogue. The internal world is closed off completely; any intellectual or emotional details are left to reader interpretation only. Much of this is actually about how much interpretation we want the reader to do — how much burden do we grant to the audience? The more objective the narrative becomes, the more must sit on the reader’s shoulder. The more subjective we become, the less interpretation the reader must do.
13. FIRST PERSON OMNISCIENT IS LIKE HANGING IN THE HEADSPACE OF A GOD
Here’s how this works: the narrative is first-person (“I pooped…”) and yet offers total awareness and exploration of the internal world of every other character (“I pooped and Tom wonders why I did it on the salad bar, but Betty doesn’t care because she’s thinking about how she thinks salad is for assholes, anyway”). This is not a narrative mode you can get away with easily — it has to have a hook. A reason for existing. Like, in the Lovely Bones, the character is a ghost so that pretty much makes sense. But a character shouldn’t be able to offer an omniscient viewpoint without being psychic, or a ghost, or a god, or… well, a warbling moony-loon. Could be cool. Could also be a garish gimmick. Tread wisely.
14. MULTIPLE FIRST PERSON NARRATORS
You can, if you want, tell the story from alternating first-person narrators. One chapter tells it from Tom, the second from Betty, the third from Bim-Bim the Saturnian Baboon Lord, whatever. Like I said: you do what you want. You can take a shit on the grocery store salad bar as long as you don’t mind Tom giving you the stink-eye afterward. (Oh, one note about alternating first-person narrators: the voice of each needs to be strong and distinct so that readers aren’t left scratching their poor little reader noggins over who the fuck is talking to them.)
15. THE COOL KIDS OF POV HIGH
The two most popular points-of-view are, I believe, first-person subjective and third-person limited (often third-person episodic limited — aka the monkey-hopper POV). First-person is particularly common in young adult fiction the reasons for which are either that “it’s the trend so shut up” or “because younger readers want that level of emotional intimacy with younger characters.” Not to say you must cleave to trends, but it’s good to be aware of them.
16. FIRST AND THIRD LIVING TOGETHER AND MAKING SWEET LOVE
You can, if you’re really bad-ass, alternate from first to third. It’s tricky and can become just a stunt if you’re not careful. “BECAUSE I WANT TO SO SHUT YOUR GODDAMN MOUTH” is not always the best reason to try something inside your fiction: it helps to have some logic behind it. Is there some reason to perform the switch? Is there an epistolary component sandwiched like taco meat inside the narrative? Seek reason for the choices within your writing.
17. BE CONSISTENT, BE CLEAR
Seek consistency and clarity in point-of-view, lest you confound and bewilder, lest you seem like the king of amateur-hour karaoke. Hell, seek consistency and clarity in all of your writing. Also, in your take-out orders. Because you think you ordered a “ham and cheese sandwich” but then you open the bag and suddenly your face is on fire from a thousand stingers and you’re like OMG THEY MUST’VE THOUGHT I SAID HAM AND BEES.
18. THE READER IS YOUR PUPPET AND POV IS ONE OF THE STRINGS
The storyteller’s job isn’t to be the reader’s buddy. The storyteller is an untrustworthy fucker, a manipulator on par with the love child of Verbal Kint and Hannibal Lecter. Point-of-view is one of the most critical weapons in the storyteller’s arsenal: you can use to reveal information or to restrict it. You can use it to regulate the distance between reader and character, or between one character and another. You can use it to display false testimony or misleading detail. You can use it to open stuck jars or drown noisome chipmunks. Okay, maybe not that last part.
19. PERSPECTIVE CREATES TENSION
Perspective — both its revelation and restriction — creates tension. The third-person POV allows different characters to notice individual details and experience separate events and we as the reader are privy to all their conflicting plots and schemes. Third-person omniscient is a blown-open diaper of perspective: the characters on the page don’t know what one another are thinking but we often do, and so we know that Tom is planning on killing Betty and that Bim-Bim the Space Baboon is really Tom and Betty’s long lost son. First-person pulls all that back and restricts the experiences to a single character, so instead the sense of external mystery is heightened even as internal mystery is reduced — the reverse can be true when you go back to third-person, where internal mystery is increased at the expense of external intrigue.
20. WUZZA WOOZA WHO NOW?
Beware confusion with any exercise of point-of-view. Omniscience can overwhelm and bewilder. Subjectivity can leave out critical external details. Mystery is not useful when it seeds utter befuddlement. Or, put differently, “mystery” is not a synonym for “I don’t know what the hell is going on anymore in this goddamn story I’m so lost I think I need a nap.”
21. THE DANGER OF ILLUMINATING ASSHOLES
That sounds like someone’s shining a flashlight on an anus, but that’s not what I mean — what I mean is, the first-person perspective lends intimacy and sometimes that intimacy is exactly what fiction needs. However, characters who are in some sense “unlikable” often gain extra unwanted dimension with the first-person perspective. One danger is that the character’s moral complexities are watered-down because now we’re forced to march through the justifications for the character’s rampant assholery. The follow-up danger is that the deep psychic dive only magnifies the assholery to the point where the character is now a prolapsed anus the size of a Christmas stocking heavy with driveway gravel. An unlikable-but-interesting character can fast become a hated motherfucker when we live too long inside their heads. I want to watch Don Draper and Tony Soprano. I don’t want to lurk inside their heads.
22. WHAT OBJECTIVITY MISSES
Objective narrative view can offer a strong, clinical approach to storytelling. Though, one could also suggest that the power of the novel above other storytelling forms is how it allows us to plunge — however deep or shallow — into the internal world of the characters rather than just exploring the physical realm. The novel is a complicated beast and as much happens inside the action as around it, within it, and through it. If I wanted to watch Bim-Bim the Space Baboon run around and shoot laser pistols, I’d write a cartoon script. If I’m writing a novel, it’s because I want to behold the pathos of Bim-Bim. Which is also the name of my next novel: “THE PATHOS OF BIM-BIM,” with the follow-up, “DESOLATION OF THE MOON GIBBON.”
23. IS THE NARRATOR A POO-POO-FACED LYING LIAR WHO LIES?
The more intimate the readers are allowed to be with the narrator, the more able the storyteller is to create conditions for an unreliable narrator, which is to say, a narrator whose experience and/or telling of the story is questionable. An unreliable narrator creates a sub rosa layer of the story where we the readers are left to wonder what is true and what is false. The more layers a story has, the more we have to discuss over all that cake and pie when we’re done reading it, and the more we have to discuss, the more cake and pie we eat, so, y’know, FUCK YEAH CAKEPIE.
24. THIS IS ALL WRAPPED UP WITH NARRATIVE TENSE
It’s common for narrative tense to be wrapped up with narrative point-of-view, lumped together in something called “narrative mode.” (Which is also the mode that Teddy Ruxpin exists in at all times, I believe. Since Teddy Ruxpin is a bear, does he tell you a story as he’s eating you?) It’s too much to talk about here, just realize that adding tense to point-of-view adds further variable to your storytelling offerings — first-person present tense feels very internal and in-the-moment, whereas third-person present carries the urgent-yet-distant action of a screenplay. Third-person past tense feels very traditional, whereas second-person omniscient future tense feels like you’re just fucking with everybody, you crazy avant garde sonofabitch.
25. WHEN IN DOUBT, REWRITE TO A NEW POV
If you’re hip-deep in the book and you’re just not feeling it, try switching to a new point-of-view before giving up. You may find that a different way into the story — a different lens, camera, and filter — will enliven your investment and reveal the story you really want to tell. Think of it like an Instagram filter: you’re like, “Man, this foodie photo of foie gras Buffalo wings just doesn’t do anything for me,” but then you start clicking Instagram retro filters and suddenly you’re all HOLY FUCKSHOES NOW IT’S ART. Try new things until the story clicks. Which is a good tip, I think, for all aspects of writing and storytelling, so tattoo it somewhere on your body. Maybe your forehead, backwards, so you can read it in a mirror!
“The point is getting it all down, even if it’s crap or incomprehensible to anyone but you, so you can see it outside your own head. And then you can start adding to it. Expanding it, putting new layers on it, winding a new plotline around it, moving bits of it around. Just get it down.”—
“In creative writing classes in college, the professors will say, ‘Write what you know.’ And that’s often misinterpreted to mean you should write a thinly veiled autobiography. [Like] a graduate student in English Literature at University, writing a story in which the hero is a graduate student in English Literature at University. It would seem to, on the surface, disallow science fiction and fantasy and so forth, since none of us are actually barbarians or knights or lords or even peasants. But I think you have to interpret ‘Write what you know’ much more broadly than that. We’re talking about emotional truth here. We’re talking about reaching inside here to make your characters real. If you’re going to write about a character witnessing a loved one die, you have to dig into yourself, and say, “Did you ever remember losing a loved one?” Even if it’s only a dog that you loved as a child or something. Tap that vein of emotional energy. In some ways, it’s not terribly different from what method actors do…. We observe other people from the outside. The only person we ever really know inside and out is ourselves, and we have to reach into ourselves to find the power that makes great fiction real.”—
Fiction is weird. The people in fiction are, well, fictional. Made up. They have no lives, and nothing they do, and nothing that happens to them has any consequences in the real world. By definition: made up people don’t affect reality.
And yet, our bodies don’t seem to know this. Yesterday, I actually made a loud, horrified noise as I read an advance copy of Daniel Kraus’s forthcoming – and wonderfully horrifying – novel, Scowler . People on the bus stared at me. My heart raced. I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. My brain knows that none of the events depicted in Kraus’s novel are real, and yet my autonomic nervous system goes into full-on sympathetic reaction mode as I read the – once again, totally made up – accounts of the characters in the novel.
What’s more, this reaction isn’t limited to readers. As a writer, I know that there’s a point in the writing when the engine of the story really seems to roar to life, and at that moment, the characters start feeling like real people. When you start working on a story, the characters are like finger-puppets, and putting words into their mouths is a bit embarrassing, like you’re sitting at your desk waggling your hands at one another and making them speak in funny, squeaky voices. But once those characters ‘‘catch,’’ they become people, and writing them feels more like you’re recounting something that happened than something you’re making up. This reality also extends to your autonomic nervous system, which will set your heart racing when your characters face danger, make you weepy at their tragedies, has you grinning foolishly at their victories.
In some ways, this is even weirder. For a writer to trick himself into feeling emotional rapport for the imaginary people he himself invented seems dangerous, akin to a dealer who starts dipping into the product. Where does this sense of reality – this physical, limbic reaction to inconsequential non-events –spring from?
I don’t know, but I have a theory.
I think we all have a little built-in simulator in which we run miniature copies of all the people in our lives. These are the brain equivalents to computer games like The Sims. When you get to know someone, you put a copy of them in the simulator. This allows you to model their behavior, and thus to attempt to predict it. The simulator lets us guess which of our fellow humans is likely to be
trustworthy, which ones might mate with us, which ones might beat us to a pulp if they get the chance.
The simulator is good at extrapolating from incomplete information. When you’re told that Ted in Accounting is a secret drunk who can’t be trusted with any serious deadline work, your simulator instantiates a crude stick figure with a bottle in one hand and a dopey expression on his face. As you learn more about Ted – what he looks like, what he does in your presence – the figure becomes more fleshed-out, better realized. Operating from incomplete information is part of the simulator’s function – you don’t want to have to learn that Ted can’t be trusted the hard way, if there’s an alternative. (Incidentally, I think that this operation from incomplete information is the root of much prejudice – it’s practically the definition of prejudice).
The simulator can tell you about the likely actions of people who aren’t physically present. You can use the simulator to try out arguments for convincing your spouse to choose the destination you want for Christmas break; you can audition apologies against the avatars in your simulator, trying to find a successful resolution to an upcoming confrontation; you can imagine your kids’ delight when you tell them a truly gross knock-knock joke you’ve just heard.
The simulator also contains dead people. When you imagine your departed grandfather’s pride at your graduation; your long-gone dad’s disappointment at your messy apartment; a dear, lost chum’s potential delight at a great meal, you’re interrogating the simulator about the reactions of people who no longer exist.
If the simulator can tell you about the reactions of people who no longer exist, it’s not all that surprising that it can also tell you about the motivations of people who never existed. The simulator picks up on any fragments it can find, pieces them together to build a model of a human. It extrapolates, guesses, and pattern- matches to fill in the details that it hasn’t directly experienced.
This, I think, is what happens when you write. You and your simulator collaborate to create your imaginary people. You start by telling your simulator that there’s a guy named Bob who’s on the run from the law, and the simulator dutifully creates a stick figure with a sign called ‘‘Bob’’ over his head and worried look on his face. You fill in the details as you write, dropping hints to your simulator about Bob, and so Bob gets more and more fleshed out. But the simulator isn’t just adding in the details you tell it about: it’s guessing about the details you haven’t yet supplied, so that when you go back to your imagination and ask it about Bob’s particulars, some of those answers come from the simulator – it’s a kind of prejudice that affects imaginary people, a magic trick where your conscious and subconscious minds vie to fool each other with compounded lies about fake people, each building on the last in a feedback loop that runs faster and faster as you go.
That’s why your characters eventually ‘‘come to life.’’ Eventually, your characters’ details contain so much data gleaned from things the simulator “knows’’ – because it has supplied them, after guessing about them – that they come to seem real to you, and to it (which is the same thing). Write about imaginary people long enough, and they will feel real, even to you, who should really know better. And even though their lives and decisions have no consequences, even though their death has less real-world tragedy than the untimely demise of the yogurt culture you digested this morning at breakfast, you feel for them, because the simulator is where our empathy lives.
And that’s how it works for readers, too. Readers meet your characters and sketch them out as you supply details, filling in the bits that you miss out, refining their sims with each scene. At a certain point, those people tip into sufficient resolution that we can feel empathy for them, and the next thing you know, you’re making horrified noises on the bus and getting weird looks from real people.
Here’s an interesting thought: if dead people can live on in our simulators, is it any wonder that imaginary people live on after the stories they come from are done? Why should closing the cover on a book cause your simulator to jettison one of its hard-won models – especially if attending a funeral for a real person won’t do the trick?
I think that explains part of the drive to write fanfic, and some of the response to it from writers. If a writer has done his job, the reader should finish the book with ‘‘living’’ characters running in her simulator – if they’re not there, then the book will have had no emotional impact on the reader. It’s only natural that some readers would want to write the adventures that the people in their heads continue to have in their minds. It’s also only natural that writers would feel affronted when they read accounts of the people running as simulations in their heads doing things that their own sims would never do.
But writers need to get over this. If fanfic is a sign that your characters were successfully transplanted from your head to someone else’s, you’d be nuts to want to undo that. It’s like getting upset with someone for feeling full after eating a delicious meal you spent hours getting just right and laying out for them. If you don’t want your people to live in other peoples’ heads, you shouldn’t set out to put them there.
1. When considering whether to collaborate with someone, ask yourself this question: Do they have talent? . If the answer is no, you have no business being on that project.
2. Work with problem solvers. People who are eager to cross the finishing line . If someone is always stressed and drowning in trouble, you have no business working with them.
3. Set a start date. Set a finish date. Stick to it . This applies to everything from the big things, like production dates and festival
entries, to the little things, like updating your Résumé, and emailing potential employers.
4. Engage in social media. Don’t be afraid of it. Be sure to actually communicate with people . If you like their statuses, reply to their tweets and comment on their YouTube videos, they’ll do the same for you when you’re releasing your project.
5. But also, find time to get away from the computers and phones. It’s hard to have genuine insight and originality when you are constantly taking in tidbits of information. Step away.
6. The problem isn’t that you can’t find a job, it’s that you haven’t honed your talent enough. Get better at what you do.
7. Practice every day (apart from allocated days off).
9. Remember that it’s creativity! Not everything will be perfect. Some of it will absolutely suck. It’s a learning curve , and one you can’t avoid, not if you want to succeed.
The best fantasy is written in the language of dreams. It is alive as dreams are alive, more real than real … for a moment at least … that long magic moment before we wake.
Fantasy is silver and scarlet, indigo and azure, obsidian veined with gold and lapis lazuli. Reality is plywood and plastic, done up in mud brown and olive drab. Fantasy tastes of habaneros and honey, cinnamon and cloves, rare red meat and wines as sweet as summer. Reality is beans and tofu, and ashes at the end. Reality is the strip malls of Burbank, the smokestacks of Cleveland, a parking garage in Newark. Fantasy is the towers of Minas Tirith, the ancient stones of Gormenghast, the halls of Camelot. Fantasy flies on the wings of Icarus, reality on Southwest Airlines. Why do our dreams become so much smaller when they finally come true?
We read fantasy to find the colors again, I think. To taste strong spices and hear the songs the sirens sang. There is something old and true in fantasy that speaks to something deep within us, to the child who dreamt that one day he would hunt the forests of the night, and feast beneath the hollow hills, and find a love to last forever somewhere south of Oz and north of Shangri-La.
They can keep their heaven. When I die, I’d sooner go to middle Earth.
How did you come to Batman Begins, and what appealed to you about rebooting a series that had already been interpreted by Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher?
It’s a sign of how quickly things change in the movie business, but there was no such thing conceptually as a “reboot.” That idea didn’t exist when I came to look at Batman. That’s new terminology. Warner Bros. owned this wonderful character, and didn’t know what to do with it. It had sort of reached a dead end with its previous iteration. I got excited about the idea of filling in this interesting gap—no one had ever told the origin story of Batman. And so even though Tim Burton’s film had done a definitive version of the character, it was a very idiosyncratic Tim Burton vision.
I had in mind a sort of treatment of Batman that Richard Donner might have done in the late Seventies the way he did Superman. To me what that represented was firstly a detailed telling of the origin story, which wasn’t even really definitively addressed in the comics over the years, funnily enough. And secondly, tonally I was looking for an interpretation of that character that presented an extraordinary figure in an ordinary world. So I wanted the inhabitants of Gotham to view Batman as being outlandish and extraordinary as we do.
The overall tone of the film is realistic compared to most comic-book- derived movies.The world around Batman is plausible and not particularly stylized or exaggerated.
The term “realism” is often confusing and used sort of arbitrarily. I suppose “relatable” is the word I would use. I wanted a world that was realistically portrayed, in that even though outlandish events may be taking place, and this extraordinary figure may be walking around these streets, the streets would have the same weight and validity of the streets in any other action movie. So they’d be relatable in that way. And so the more texturing and layering that we could get into this film, the more tactile it was, the more you would feel and be excited by the action. So just on a technical level, I really wanted to take on this idea of what I call the tactile quality. You want to really understand what things would smell like in this world, what things would taste like, when bones start being crunched or cars start pancaking. You feel these things in a way because the world isn’t intensely artificial and created by computer graphics, which result in an anodyne, sterile quality that’s not as exciting. For me that was about making the character more special. If I can believe in that world because I recognize it and can imagine myself walking down that street, then when this extraordinary figure of Batman comes swooping down in this theatrical costume and presenting this very theatrical aspect, that’s going to be more exciting to me.
In fact, we spend much of the first half of Batman Begins not in Gotham at all but rather following the young Bruce Wayne on his odyssey through Asia and his training with Ra’s Al Ghul and the League of Shadows.
We wanted to get out of the notion of Gotham as a village, as a claustrophobic sort of otherworldly environment which is what it had always been before. We wanted to show it as New York, in a wider world. So taking Bruce Wayne around the world, showing how he builds himself using skills acquired from all these different places around the world, we felt that would position Gotham as the leading international city of our world of Batman.
Following on that idea of how Bruce Wayne builds himself into Batman, there’s a great emphasis in the Dark Knight films, and, actually, in all of your films, on how things work, how things are constructed. Nothing is taken for granted or presented as a fait accompli. If Batman needs a batsuit, we see how he orders it, and where all of his toys come from. They have a practical explanation: they’re Wayne Industries military prototypes. We literally see him building himself in a way a lot of origin stories try to gloss over. It’s like how in The Prestige we see the ways in which the magicians accomplish their illusions.
Very much. I’m interested in process, the process of becoming. I’m fascinated by the idea of Bruce Wayne being an ordinary man without superpowers, turning himself into this larger-than-life figure who appears to have extraordinary abilities. And once you start down the road, it’s like cleaning the dirt off something. Once you’ve cleaned one spot, once you’ve peeled back the logic or reality of what it seems to be, you have to go all the way. I’ve never liked films that go part of the way there and then take an improbable leap. So in terms of where he was sourcing something from, how he would go about it, we really tried to come up with the best solution possible and present it in the film. What we found was that, very much like in The Prestige, that process becomes a really interesting part of the entertainment of the film.
Ra’s Al Ghul is a fascinating character, because he’s not a boilerplate nefarious villain who wants to dominate the world, he’s an ideological villain. He seems to have been ripped from today’s headlines, especially with his rhetoric about the decadence of the capitalist West.
With my co-writers David Goyer and my brother [Jonathan Nolan], we decided early on that the greatest villains in movies, the people who most get under our skin, are the people who speak the truth. So with Ra’s Al Ghul, we wanted everything he said to be true in some way. So, he’s looking at the world from a very honest perspective that he truly believes. And we applied the same thing to The Joker and Bane in the third one. Everything they say is sincere. And in terms of their ideology, it’s really about ends justifying means. It was important in Batman Begins to have Bruce go very far down this road with Ducard, to the point where they want him to chop somebody’s head off because he has stolen something. And at that point there’s this almost comic moment where Bruce turns to Ducard and says, “You can’t be serious.” At that point, you’re surprised by how seductive the training and indoctrination can be. And the scales fall from his eyes. But even later when Ra’s Al Ghul returns and is about to destroy all of Gotham, there is a logic to everything he says. I think truly threatening villains are the ones who have a coherent ideology behind what they’re saying. The challenge in applying that to The Joker was to have part of the ideology be anarchic and a lack of ideology in a sense. But it’s a very specific, laid-out lack of ideology, so it becomes, paradoxically, an ideology in itself.
In a way, the films feel like a tour of different schools of creating social revolution. You have Ra’s Al Ghul with his very clear-cut extremist ideology—
Almost religious, I would say.
And then you have the anarchy of The Joker, and in The Dark Knight Rises you come back with the followers of Ra’s Al Ghul who are trying to enact his plans by masking it as class warfare.
Class warfare but also in a militaristic, dictatorial approach. If you look at the three of them, Ra’s Al Ghul is almost a religious figure, The Joker is the anti-religious figure, the anti-structure anarchist. And then Bane comes in as a military dictator. And military dictators can be ideologically based, they can be religiously based, or a combination thereof.
Something you seized on is the fragmented identity of Bruce Wayne/Batman, which is certainly a central part of the character, but it’s much more present in these films. At the end of The Dark Knighton some level he senses that maybe he’s become the villain of the story, that maybe he has too much blood on his hands, and that Batman should go away and leave Gotham alone. Those are dark areas that no Batman movie really ventured into before, and they seem related to an interest you have in the dual or sometimes more than dual nature of identity.
It’s paradoxical, but in order to get at the duality of Bruce Wayne, we had to make him into three people. I sat down with Christian early on and we decided there’s the private Bruce Wayne, who only Alfred and Rachel really get to see; the public Bruce Wayne, which is this mask he puts on of this decadent playboy; and then the creature of Batman that he’s created to strike back at the world. By making him into these three aspects, you really start to see the idea that you have a private person who is wrestling with all kinds of demons and trying to make something productive out of that. I think the most interesting moment to me that Christian pulls off in Batman Begins is the scene at the party when he pretends to be drunken Bruce Wayne being rude to his guests to get them out of the place, to save them from Ra’s Al Ghul’s men. But there’s some truth to it which comes through, and you can see that in his performance. It’s an act, but Bruce Wayne as an actor is drawing on something that he really feels. It’s quite bitter, and I like the layers that Christian was able to put in there.
Was there some key moment during the casting where you knew that Christian Bale was right for the role?
Christian was actually the first actor I met for the role. But given the stakes, the studio was always going to need me to put together a group of actors to be screen-tested. And we got the old costume out and shot the tests and Christian just owned it in a way that was very close to the conception that we were putting together in the script. In terms of the potential for rage that this character has, the axe that this character is carrying with him, he was able to project that very well in his test and have that underlie not only Batman but also Bruce Wayne the playboy. There’s a darkness that the character has been infused with by tragedy at an early age, and it’s the engine that drives everything that he does.
You seem to really love actors, and that comes through in these films in a very strong way, even if we tend not to think about large-scale action movies as showcases for great acting. But you cast great actors and then you give them interesting things to do. They’re not just there for their name value.
I do love actors and I feel great actors can find the depth of a characterization that adds to the richness of the film. I felt a lot of the scale of Batman Begins should come through the casting, and once again I looked back to Richard Donner’s Superman for that because he cast Marlon Brando and Glenn Ford and Ned Beatty, all the characters were played by these terrific stars. So we went after that kind of depth of casting. And then as you come to explore the world of Gotham, and revisit it, and revisit it again inThe Dark Knight Rises, because you’ve got this set of massively talented stars there, you’re able to deal with the truth of some of these extraordinary situations that the mythology of the character and your spin on it has put together. That’s something that you rarely see in films of this nature. Christian said it very well when he said The Dark Knight Rises is about consequences. What I was doing was saying, “Okay, I know I’ve got Christian Bale and Michael Caine playing this scene together, and they are able to take on the truth of what if the things that happened in The Dark Knight actually happened? What if they actually did tell the lies they told in order to get at a greater truth or get at the expediency of saving a city? What’s that going to do to them over time? What is the reality of the relationship between Bruce and this servant of the Wayne family who’s been tasked with raising their only child, their most precious thing in the world because they have been gunned down in front of him? And what must this kid have gone through?” I am looking at these actors and saying, “I’ll write you a scene where these things are coming to bear, these consequences are coming to the surface.” And I know that they’re going to find the truth in that, and that is going to be devastating at times and invigorating at times, and it’s going to take the drama to operatic heights, and extremes of emotion where you really feel something because they found the truth of a situation. You’re experiencing emotions in a very intense operatic way.
It’s fitting because in Batman Begins it’s after a visit to the opera that the young Bruce Wayne witnesses the death of his parents.
Yeah, absolutely. And the theatricality of opera and the larger-than-life quality of the presentation of it, but also the emotions it generates, has always sat underneath my understanding of how to make these heightened realities work. Why am I working in this genre for the audience? What does it allow me to do as a filmmaker that I couldn’t do in a more everyday universe? The answer is this operatic quality. It’s this ability to blow things up into very large emotions that are accessible to a universal audience. And it’s a very privileged position that you’re in as a filmmaker with your audience. I felt that I wasn’t getting to experience that in mainstream commercial movies at the time, so I really wanted to enjoy that as a filmmaker. I’ve had a great time with these three films, really enjoying that relationship with the audience.
What were the technical and physical challenges of doing these films? They’re much bigger than anything you had done up to that point in your career. Was that intimidating?
Well, it was intimidating in theory, but a lot of the challenge with taking on a big film is not allowing yourself to get caught up in the way that other people do big films. Because you can put a team around you of very experienced people, and that gives you a great safety net, but that also has a lot of pitfalls. However, it is possible to make large-scale films very much in the way that you make your smaller films, and it’s possible to maintain some of the spontaneity and creativity you have on set. Not all of it. You have to adjust your methods, but you don’t want to get completely railroaded into the big movie thing out of fear and inexperience. I would have conversations with my line producer and he’d say, “Oh, there’ll be some days where you’ll only get one setup in the morning,” and I just said, “I’ll never work that way, because frankly it’s too boring, and it’s creatively stultifying.” With the team I had, we were able to keep things much lighter on their feet, despite the enormous scale.
And the thing I learned is that no matter how big the film became, people would always complain it was too small. For the studio, it was never enough. So you learn to relax with it a little bit, and trust your instincts about scale, how this is going to feel big enough when it’s in the can. So when we came to doThe Dark Knight, we were comfortable setting much more of the film just in Gotham, in more claustrophobic situations, because having been all over the world for Batman Begins and having a very big scale, with an exploding monastery and sliding down the cliff and all that, by the time we get to The Dark Knight we had the confidence to say, “If we’re putting huge characters and huge conflict on screen, and making this kind of urban crime drama, the scale will naturally be there, in just the way we shoot The Joker walking down the street with a machine gun. That will be a huge image.” That was a big part of investing in that sort of tableau style of photography which I hadn’t really done before.
There’s a strong analog quality to your films in general and the Dark Knight films in particular. You talked about wanting to have a very tactile world, and seeing The Dark Knight Rises in IMAX 70mm you can’t escape the feeling that you’re seeing a film made on film, albeit with hundreds of CGI shots, but integrated in a way that you don’t feel that digital quality in the way you do with most movies that make heavy use of digital technology.
I recently saw a 70mm print of The Master and I realized that, other than my own films, it’s the first photochemically finished film I’ve seen in many years, and it looks the way a movie should look. To me, it’s just a superior form. In The Dark Knight Rises, we have about 430 effects shots out of 3,000, so the idea that the tail wags the dog and then you finish the film in the digital realm is illogical. We make the 430 shots fit in with the remaining 2,500 that we timed photochemically. For that reason, I’ve never done a film with more than 500 effects shots. These films have about a third or a quarter the number of CG shots of any other film on that scale. That allows me to keep working photochemically and to make the digital effects guys print out their negatives so we actually cut the effect with its background plate on film, and we can see whether it matches.
For me, it’s simply the best way to make a film, and why more people haven’t done it I could not tell you. The novelty of digital is part of it. For some filmmakers, there’s a fear of being left behind, which to me is irrational because as a director you’re not responsible for loading a camera. You can hire whoever you need to and shoot how you want to shoot, but I think, very simply, industrial economics favor change, and there’s more money in change, whether or not it’s better. But I talk to a lot of young filmmakers who want to shoot on film and see the value in it. I’ve gone out of my way to screen film prints of The Dark KnightRises for other filmmakers, because no one prints dailies anymore—they’re not seeing the potential of film—whereas I’ve been seeing it every day I’ve been working for the past 10 years.
At what point did you start to think that there was more than one story to tell here, that this could be a trilogy without repeating or cannibalizing itself?
I think it was in the months after the first film was released. At the end of Batman Begins, when he turns the Joker card over, I found myself wondering, “Okay, who would that antagonist be?” seen through the prism of Batman Begins. I wanted to see how we could translate The Joker into that world. That was the jumping-off point. And the nature of The Joker’s antagonism was so utterly different to what happened in Batman Begins and was so different to Batman’s relationship with Gotham in particular. SoThe Dark Knight is very much a story about a city, a sort of crime drama, whereas Batman Begins is more of an adventure story. So it actually felt like a different genre, and then you know that you’re not retreading what you’ve done, you’re expanding it.
When you were starting to write The Dark Knight Rises, were you thinking about what was going on with the economy and movements like Occupy Wall Street, in terms of the depiction of society on the brink of a kind of second American Revolution?
We were writing years before Occupy Wall Street, and we were actually shooting at the time that it arose, but I think the similarities come from Occupy being a response to the banking crisis in 2008. We were sitting there in a world where, on the news, we were constantly being presented with what-if scenarios. Like: “What if all the banks go bust?” “What if the stock market is worth nothing?” These questions are terrifying, and we were taking the view that we should be writing about what’s most frightening. We came to the idea of how in America we take for granted a stability to our class and social structure that has never been sustained elsewhere in the world. In other words, this sort of thing has happened in countries all over the world, why not here? And why not now? So a lot of the ideas underlying the film come from a situation in which the economy was in crisis and therefore even on the news questions are being asked—unthinkable questions about what might happen in society.
It was interesting to see the spectrum of reactions to TheDark Knight Rises, with some arguing that it was a sort of a neoconservative or very right-wing film and others seeing it as being a radical leftist film. And one of the things the film seems to be talking about is how easily the political rhetoric of one extreme can be co-opted by the complete opposite extreme.
Absolutely, and then you get into the philosophical question: if an energy or a movement can be co-opted for evil, then is that a critique of the movement itself? All of these different interpretations are possible. What was surprising to me is how many pundits would write about their political interpretation of the film and not understand that any one political interpretation necessarily involved ignoring huge chunks of the film. And it made me feel good about where we had positioned the film, because it’s not intended to be politically specific. It would be absurd to try to make a politically specific film about this subject matter, where you’re actually trying to pull the shackles off everyday life and go to a more frightening place where anything is possible. You’re off the conventional political spectrum, so it’s very subject to interpretation and misinterpretation.
The last hour of The Dark Knight Rises, from the singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” in the football stadium through to the end, is an hour of film that takes us through a lot of different locations and action, but it feels like one long sustained set piece. It has this gradual build in intensity and careful linking of everything that happens, and it’s quite exhilarating to watch.
We tried with all three films, but in the most extreme way with The Dark Knight Rises, what I call this sort of snowballing approach to action and events. We experimented with this in The Dark Knight,where the action is not based on clean and clear set pieces the way Batman Begins was, but we pushed it much further in this film. The scope and scale of the action is built from smaller pieces that snowball together so you’re cross-cutting, which I love doing, and trying to find a rhythm in conjunction with the music and the sound effects, so you’re building and building tension continuously over a long sustained part of the film, and not releasing that until the very last frame. It’s a risky strategy because you risk exhausting your audience, but to me it’s the most invigorating way of approaching the action film. It’s an approach I applied with Inception as well, to have parallel strands of tension rising and rising and then coming together. In The Dark Knight Rises, from the moment the music and sound drop and the little boy starts singing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” it’s kind of like the gloves are coming off. I’ve been amazed and delighted how people have accepted the extremity of where things go.
One could say that of Inception. On paper it sounds like a movie Hollywood wouldn’t dream of making—and it speaks to the fact that you have a lot of faith in the intelligence of the audience and their ability to embrace things in movies that might not fit into cookie-cutter molds.
Well, I think it’s interesting. I’ve often characterized it as faith in the audience, but it is also faith in the movies, faith in pure cinema. If you can avail yourself of the appropriate cinematic device to make the audience feel something, then cinema is an incredibly powerful communicator. I have faith in that process, that if I get it right and put the pieces together, then people will understand what they need to understand and will feel the intensity of the experience that I’m trying to give them.
The Dark Knight Rises leaves the door open at the end for a possible continuation of the Gotham saga, without Batman perhaps, but with these new characters like Catwoman and the young cop played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Do you envision revisiting Gotham?
For me, The Dark Knight Rises is specifically and definitely the end of the Batman story as I wanted to tell it, and the open-ended nature of the film is simply a very important thematic idea that we wanted to get into the movie, which is that Batman is a symbol. He can be anybody, and that was very important to us. Not every Batman fan will necessarily agree with that interpretation of the philosophy of the character, but for me it all comes back to the scene between Bruce Wayne and Alfred in the private jet in Batman Begins, where the only way that I could find to make a credible characterization of a guy transforming himself into Batman is if it was as a necessary symbol, and he saw himself as a catalyst for change and therefore it was a temporary process, maybe a five-year plan that would be enforced for symbolically encouraging the good of Gotham to take back their city. To me, for that mission to succeed, it has to end, so this is the ending for me, and as I say, the open-ended elements are all to do with the thematic idea that Batman was not important as a man, he’s more than that. He’s a symbol, and the symbol lives on.
“It’s harder to imagine the past that went away than it is to imagine the future. What we were prior to our latest batch of technology is, in a way, unknowable. It would be harder to accurately imagine what New York City was like the day before the advent of broadcast television than to imagine what it will be like after life-size broadcast holography comes online. But actually the New York without the television is more mysterious, because we’ve already been there and nobody paid any attention. That world is gone.”—William Gibson in The Paris Review (via wordstudio)
“I had the worst schedule on Spy Kids, and I didn’t figure it out until the rewrite. I kick myself for not having figured this out years ago. I’d be so much more prolific. I have a writing system now that works fantastic. What threw me is that I’m a night guy. I can’t get up early in the morning. I love waking up in the afternoon. I would always write at night, and ideas get worse and worse because you’re falling asleep. When you go to sleep, you say that’s great! When you wake up you say, that sucks! I thought I was a bad writer. But I would read different interviews in “Creative Screenwriting” and it seemed like the most successful writers were morning writers.
You’ll clean your toilet before you write. I’m a total procrastinator. You get so distracted. I came up with a method that works great and kills all these birds with one stone. I get to be a morning writer now, and get to avoid something I hate more than writing—which is hard to find. Worse than writing? I hate getting out of bed. It’s so warm and cozy.
That first eye-opener is when I pull the computer onto my lap. You can’t even spell your name. But man, talk about focus, all this stuff comes your way. I get great ideas. And your Negative Guy is still asleep. The trick is not getting up to get coffee or other distractions. Hours will fly by. I would put my computer away and the rest of the day would be great. For writing, it’s a better subconscious stage to be waking than falling asleep.
I was shocked at how much stuff I got done. Stories, dialogue, characters, all this was coming out. If I had been doing this since Desperado I could have had five novels…. One hour in the morning would turn into three, and I would get more ideas all day long.
“Don’t be afraid. That simple; don’t let them scare you. There’s nothing they can do to you…a writer always writes. That’s what he’s for. And if they won’t let you write one kind of thing, if they chop you off at the pockets in the market place, then go to another market place. And if they close off all the bazaars then by God go and work with your hands till you can write, because the talent is always there. But the first time you say, “Oh, Christ, they’ll kill me!” then you’re done. Because the chief commodity a writer has to sell is his courage. And if he has none, he is more than a coward. He is a sellout and a fink and a heretic, because writing is a holy chore.”—
Harlan Ellison, from his anthology “Dangerous Visions”
“Tips to change your usual mental thinking patterns.
1. Take a walk and look for something interesting.
2. Make metaphorical-analogical connections between that something interesting and your problem.
3. Open a dictionary and find a new word. Use it in a sentence.
4. Make a connection between the word and your problem.
5. How is an iceberg like an idea that might help you solve your problem?
6. Create the dumbest idea you can.
7. Ask a child.
8. Create a prayer asking for help with your problem.
9. What does the sky taste like?
10. Create an idea that will get you fired.
11. Read a different newspaper. If you read the Wall Street Journal, read the Washington Post.
12. What else is like the problem? What other ideas does it suggest?
13. What or who can you copy?
14. What is your most bizarre idea?
15. List all the things that bug you.
16. Take a different route to work.
17. Make up and sing a song about the problem while taking a shower.
18. Listen to a different radio station each day.
19. Ask the most creative person you know.
20. Ask the least creative person you know.
21. Make up new words that describe the problem. E.g., “Warm hugs” to describe a motivation problem and “Painted rain” to describe changing customer perceptions.
23. What is the essence of the problem? Can you find parallel examples of the essence in other worlds?
24. Go for a drive with the windows open. Listen and smell as you drive.
25. Combine your ideas?
26. How can a bee help you solve the problem?
27. Write your ideas on index cards. One idea per card.
28. Give yourself an idea quota of 40 ideas.
29. What can you combine?
30. Can you substitute something?
31. Which of two objects, a salt shaker or a bottle of ketchup best represents your problem? Why?
32. What can you add?
33. What one word represents the problem?
34. Draw an abstract symbol that best represents the problem.
35. Think of a two-word book title that best represents the problem. E.g., if the problem concerns receptivity to change a suggested book title could be Involuntary Willingness.
36. Write a table of contents for a book about the problem.
37. Ask the person you like least for ideas.
38. What is the opposite of your idea?
39. Imagine your idea and its opposite existing simultaneously.
41. Draw abstract symbols to describe the problem.
42. Think out loud. Verbalize your thinking out loud about the problem.
43. List 20 ideas or thoughts into two columns of 10. Randomly connect ideas from column 1 to column 2. Combine the ideas to see what you get.
44. How would Abraham Lincoln approach the problem?
45. Write the alphabet backwards.
46. How would a college professor perceive it?
47. How would an artist perceive it? A risk-taking entrepreneur? A priest?
48. Imagine you are at a nudist beach in Tahiti. How could talking with nudists help you with the problem?
49. Can you find the ideas you need in the clouds?
50. Eat spaghetti with chopsticks.
51. Make the strange familiar.
52. Make the familiar strange.
53. What if you were the richest person on earth? How will the money help you solve the problem?
54. If you could have three wishes to help you solve the problem, what would they be?
55. Wear purple underwear for inspiration
56. Write a letter to your subconscious mind about the problem.
57. How would George Clooney solve the problem?
58. Forget the problem. Come back to it in three days.
59. Look at the problem from, at least, three different perspectives.
60. Imagine the problem is solved. Work backwards from the solution to where you are now.
61. How would the problem be solved 100 years from now.
62. Think about it before you go to sleep.
63. When you wake write down everything you can remember about your dreams. Next, try to make metaphorical-analogical connections between your dreams and the problem.
64. Imagine you are on national television. Explain your ideas on how to solve the problem.
65. What one object or thing best symbolizes the problem? Keep the object on your desk to constantly remind you about the problem.
66. List all the words that come to mind while thinking about the problem. Are there any themes? Interesting words? Surprises?
67. What if ants could help you solve the problem? What are the parallels between ants and humans that can help?
68. Create a walk that physically represents your problem.
69. Talk to a stranger.
70. Keep a written record of all your ideas. Review them weekly. Can you cross-fertilize your ideas?
71. How would an Olympic gold medal winner approach the problem?
72. Read a poem and relate it to the problem. What new thoughts does the poem inspire?
73. What associations can you make between your problem and an oil spill?
74. If your problem were a garden, what would be the weeds.
75. Change your daily routines. If you drink coffee, change to tea.
76. List your assumptions and then reverse them. Can you make the reversals into new ideas?
77. Make something that symbolizes the problem and bury it.
78. Draw the problem with your eyes closed.
79. Create a dance that represents your problem.
80. Mind map your problem.
81. Become a dreamer and create fantasies that will solve the problem.
82. Become a realist and imaginer your fantasies into workable ideas.
83. Complete “How can I _____?” Then change the words five different ways.
84. Suspend logic and think freely and fluidly.
85. Learn to tolerate ambiguity.
86. What have you learned from your failures? What have you discovered that you didn’t set out to discover?
87. Make connections between subjects in different domains. Banking + cars = drive in banking.
88. Immerse yourself in the problem. Imagine you are the problem. What would you feel?
89. What are the parallels between your problem and the Viet Nam war.
90. Hang out with people from diverse backgrounds.
91. Create a funny story out of the problem.
92. Make analogies between your problem and nature.
93. Imagine you are the opposite sex. Now how do you perceive the problem?
94. Force yourself to smile all day.
95. Use mashed potatoes to make a sculpture of the problem.
96. Sit outside and count the stars.
97. Walk through a grocery store and metaphorically connect what you see with the problem.
98. How would you explain the problem to a six year old child?
99. Cut out interesting magazine and newspaper pictures. Then arrange and paste them on a board making a collage that represents the problem.
100. Write a six word book that describes your progress on the problem. E.,g, “At present all thoughts are gray,” “I am still not seeing everything.”
101. Still can’t find the answer? Buy a copy of Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques.”—101 Tips on How to Become More Creative | The Creativity Post