Daily Dialogue — September 2, 2015

September 2nd, 2015 by

“For the last couple of months, Senator Rumson has suggested that being president of this country was, to a certain extent, about character, and although I have not been willing to engage in his attacks on me, I’ve been here three years and three days, and I can tell you without hesitation: Being President of this country is entirely about character. For the record: yes, I am a card-carrying member of the ACLU. But the more important question is why aren’t you, Bob? Now, this is an organization whose sole purpose is to defend the Bill of Rights, so it naturally begs the question: Why would a senator, his party’s most powerful spokesman and a candidate for President, choose to reject upholding the Constitution? If you can answer that question, folks, then you’re smarter than I am, because I didn’t understand it until a few hours ago. America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, ’cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say “You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours. You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country can’t just be a flag; the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then, you can stand up and sing about the “land of the free”. I’ve known Bob Rumson for years, and I’ve been operating under the assumption that the reason Bob devotes so much time and energy to shouting at the rain was that he simply didn’t get it. Well, I was wrong. Bob’s problem isn’t that he doesn’t get it. Bob’s problem is that he can’t sell it! We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them. And whatever your particular problem is, I promise you, Bob Rumson is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things and two things only: making you afraid of it and telling you who’s to blame for it. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections. You gather a group of middle-aged, middle-class, middle-income voters who remember with longing an easier time, and you talk to them about family and American values and character. And wave an old photo of the President’s girlfriend and you scream about patriotism and you tell them, she’s to blame for their lot in life, and you go on television and you call her a whore. Sydney Ellen Wade has done nothing to you, Bob. She has done nothing but put herself through school, represent the interests of public school teachers, and lobby for the safety of our natural resources. You want a character debate, Bob? You better stick with me, ’cause Sydney Ellen Wade is way out of your league. [pauses] I’ve loved two women in my life. I lost one to cancer, and I lost the other ’cause I was so busy keeping my job I forgot to do my job. Well, that ends right now. Tomorrow morning, the White House is sending a bill to Congress for its consideration. It’s White House Resolution 455, an energy bill requiring a 20 percent reduction of the emission of fossil fuels over the next ten years. It is by far the most aggressive stride ever taken in the fight to reverse the effects of global warming. The other piece of legislation is the crime bill. As of today, it no longer exists. I’m throwing it out. I’m throwing it out writing a law that makes sense. You cannot address crime prevention without getting rid of assault weapons and handguns. I consider them a threat to national security, and I will go door to door if I have to, but I’m gonna convince Americans that I’m right, and I’m gonna get the guns. We’ve got serious problems, and we need serious people, and if you want to talk about character, Bob, you’d better come at me with more than a burning flag and a membership card. If you want to talk about character and American values, fine. Just tell me where and when, and I’ll show up. This is a time for serious people, Bob, and your fifteen minutes are up. My name is Andrew Shepherd, and I am the President.

The American President (1995), written by Aaron Sorkin

The Daily Dialogue theme for the week: Monologue. Today’s suggestion by James Schramm.

Trivia: One of the few rare PG-13 movies allowed to keep its PG-13 rating despite the use of the word “fuck” three times (all within 15 minutes of each other), but none used in sexual context.

Dialogue On Dialogue: Commentary by James: “If only ‘real’ Presidential press conferences were like this…Best smackdown by an elected official in film history.”

Black List Writers on the Craft

September 1st, 2015 by

In August, I featured many of the Black List writers I have interviewed, zeroing in on their approaches and insights into several key areas of the writing craft.

Black List logo

Here are links to each of those series:

How do you come up with story concepts?

Black List writers on the craft: Story Concepts (Part 1) – Waiting for inspiration to strike

Black List writers on the craft: Story Concepts (Part 2) – Reading to surface story concepts

Black List writers on the craft: Story Concepts (Part 3) – Sourcing story ideas from the real world

Black List writers on the craft: Story Concepts (Part 4) – Finding inspiration for story concepts from feelings

Black List writers on the craft: Story Concepts (Part 5) – Using questions as a starting point for generating story ideas

Black List writers on the craft: Story Concepts (Part 6) – Assessing and developing story ideas

Black List writers on the craft: Story Concepts (Part 7) – Honing one’s skill at generating and developing story ideas

What aspects of story prep do you devote the most time and focus to?

Black List writers on the craft: Story Prep (Part 1) – Research

Black List writers on the craft: Story Prep (Part 2) – Characters as the focal point of prep

Black List writers on the craft: Story Prep (Part 3) – Not using an outline as part of prep process

Black List writers on the craft: Story Prep (Part 4) – “Preliminary” outlines

Black List writers on the craft: Story Prep (Part 5) – Working with an extensive outline

Black List writers on the craft: Story Prep (Part 6) – Comprehensive approach to story prep

How do you develop your characters?

Black List writers on the craft: Characters (Part 1) – Real people

Black List writers on the craft: Characters (Part 2) – Brainstorming and asking questions

Black List writers on the craft: Characters (Part 3) – Biography

Black List writers on the craft: Characters (Part 4) – Finding a character’s voice

Black List writers on the craft: Characters (Part 5) – Insider Tips

How do you understand and work with the concept of ‘theme’?

Black List writers on the craft: Theme (Part 1) – What is theme?

Black List writers on the craft: Theme (Part 2) – Begin the story-crafting process with theme

Black List writers on the craft: Theme (Part 3) – Discover theme during the writing process

Black List writers on the craft: Theme (Part 4) – Not come off as “preachy”

Black List writers on the craft: Theme (Part 5) – Being personal

In a few months, I’ll continue the series with more observations from Black List writers. Until then, I encourage you to read what these writers have to say about some key aspects of the craft. Wisdom in their words.

Andrew Stanton, Part 2: “The Clues to a Great Story” (TED Talk)

September 1st, 2015 by

Last week, I brought up the Andrew Stanton TED Talk from 2012 in the context of a discussion about storytelling. It reminded of how great his presentation was. So great, when I went into the archives to check the series I ran at the time, I had actually taken the time to transcribe the entire 19-minute talk. So for the next two weeks, I will reprise that series from one of the principal figures in the phenomenon which is Pixar Animation Studios.

Last Sunday, our featured video interview was a TED Talk given by Andrew Stanton, one of the key members of Pixar’s ‘brain trust’ whose screenwriting credits include Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, Wall-E and the current live action movie John Carter which he also directed [along with A Bug’s Life, Finding Nemo and Wall-E].

The subject of the TED Talk: “The Clues to a Great Story.” Given the success of Pixar and Stanton’s participation in it, I decided to produce a transcription of the entire 19-minute presentation. I will be posting it segment by segment for the next week or so because Stanton packed a lot of big ideas into his short talk.

Today: Part 2.

The most current lesson in story I’ve had was completing this most recent movie in 2012. It’s called John Carter, it’s based on a book called “The Princess of Mars” by Edgar Rice Burroughs. And Edgar Rice Burroughs actually put himself as a character inside the movie, and he’s the narrator. He’s summoned by his rich uncle John to his mansion with a telegram saying, “See me at once.” But once he gets there, he finds out his uncle has mysteriously passed away and been entombed in a mausoleum on the property.

[Scene of character introduced to the mausoleum]

What this scene is doing is fundamentally making a promise. It’s making a promise that this story will lead somewhere that’s worth your time. And that’s what all good stories should do, they should give you a promise. You can do it in an infinite amount of ways. Sometimes it’s as simple as “once upon a time.”

These Carter books always had Edgar Rice Burroughs as a narrator in it, and I always thought it was such a fantastic device. It was like a guy inviting you around a campfire. Or somebody in a bar saying, “Let me tell you a story. It didn’t happen to me, it happened to somebody else, but it’s worth your time.”

A well-told promise is like a pebble being pulled back in a slingshot and propels you forward through the story to the end.

A few things:

* “It’s making a promise that this story will lead somewhere that’s worth your time”: There are two parts to this promise. The first is that do enough to convey the promise in the first place, excite the reader’s imagination and in so doing awaken their expectations. Then you have to deliver the goods!

* “A well-told promise is like a pebble being pulled back in a slingshot and propels you forward through the story to the end”: What a great image to accompany your writing. I call it Narrative Drive, the energy the story generates and sustains to keep the reader always wanting to turn the page, to move forward, to see what happens next.

For Part 1 of Stanton’s TED Talk, go here.

Tomorrow: Part 3.

[Originally posted March 13, 2012]

Movie Analysis: “Straight Outta Compton” – Plot

September 1st, 2015 by

Another in our bi-weekly series in which we analyze movies currently in release. Why? To quote the writing mantra I coined over 5 years ago: Watch movies. Read scripts. Write pages. You will note which one comes first. Here are my reflections from that post about the importance of watching movies:

To be a good screenwriter, you need to have a broad exposure to the world of film. Every movie you see is a potential reference point for your writing, everything from story concepts you generate to characters you develop to scenes you construct. Moreover people who work in the movie business constantly reference existing movies when discussing stories you write; it’s a shorthand way of getting across what they mean or envision.

But most importantly, you need to watch movies in order to ‘get’ how movie stories work. If you immerse yourself in the world of film, it’s like a Gestalt experience where you begin to grasp intuitively scene composition, story structure, character functions, dialogue and subtext, transitions and pacing, and so on.

Let me add this: It’s important to see movies as they get released so that you stay on top of the business. Decisions get made in Hollywood in large part depending upon how movies perform, so watching movies as they come out puts you in the same head space as reps, producers, execs, and buyers.

This week’s movie: Straight Outta Compton, screenplay by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff, story by S. Leigh Savidge & Alan Wenkus and Andrea Berloff.

Our schedule for discussion this week:

Monday: General Comments
Tuesday: Plot
Wednesday: Characters
Thursday: Themes
Friday: Takeaways

For those of you who have not seen the movie, do not click MORE as we will be trafficking in major spoilers. If you have seen Straight Outta Compton, I invite you to join me in breaking down and analyzing the movie.

(more…)

Classic 40s Movie: “Double Indemnity”

September 1st, 2015 by

September is Classic 40s Movie month. Today’s guest post comes from Susan Winchell.

Movie Title: Double Indemnity

Year: 1944

Writers: Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, based on a novella by James M. Cain

Lead Actors: Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson

Director: Billy Wilder

IMDb Plot Summary: An insurance representative lets himself be talked into a murder/insurance fraud scheme that arouses an insurance investigator’s suspicions.

Why I Think This Is A Classic 40s Movie

Woody Allen has said that Double Indemnity is “the greatest movie ever made.” Movie love is, of course, in the eye of the beholder. But in my view he is not far off – this is as masterful a story of murder, love, and suspense as you are ever going to see.

Double Indemnity is not just a classic of the 40’s, it is a classic for all times. It heralded a new kind of American movie – giving moviegoers a first taste of a new style of story and filmmaking. Double Indemnity came to be regarded by many as the first, and possibly the greatest, example of Film Noir.

Wilder chose to make the film in black and white, using a newsreel style of shooting. Some have suggested that the film borrows from the look of German expressionism, but Wilder said no, he was going specifically for newsreel’s realism. His DP, John Seitz, stretched the boundaries of darkness, shadow, and light to make the look of the film reflect the grimness of the story.

The grim nature of the story is also new in film at this time, arising from the hard-boiled detective fiction of the 30s, and reflecting a new hunger among American moviegoers for more realistic film stories in the wake of World War II and a changing world.

As the story goes, Barbara Stanwyck was eager to play the femme fatale, but Wilder had great difficulty casting the male lead — apparently everyone turned it down because of how playing a murderer might affect his career. Fred MacMurray was a contract player at Paramount and he agreed, reluctantly, to take the role. This is Edward G. Robinson’s first great character role.

My Favorite Moment In The Movie

It’s a bit of a cliché, but true, that it is hard to pick just one. My personal favorite moment in the film is when Keyes (Robinson) dresses down his boss for concluding that Mr. Dietrichson’s death was a suicide.

But a close second, and perhaps the most important psychological turning point in the story, is when Neff (MacMurray), after accomplishing what seems like the perfect murder, walks down an empty street in the dead of night and begins to experience an overwhelming sense of dread, observing “I couldn’t hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man.” Chilling.

My Favorite Dialogue In the Movie

I absolutely love the sexually charged dialogue between Neff and Mrs. Dietrichson (Stanwyck). It is filled with double entendre and subtext. Here is one of my favorite examples:

Phyllis: Mr. Neff, why don’t you drop by tomorrow evening around 8:30? He’ll be in then.
Walter: Who?
Phyllis: My husband. You were anxious to talk to him, weren’t you?
Walter: Yeah, I was. But I’m sort of getting over the idea, if you know what I mean.
Phyllis: There’s a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour.
Walter: How fast was I going, officer?
Phyllis: I’d say around ninety.
Walter: Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket.
Phyllis: Suppose I let you off with a warning this time.
Walter: Suppose it doesn’t take.
Phyllis: Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles.
Walter: Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder.
Phyllis: Suppose you try putting it on my husband’s shoulder.
Walter: That tears it. 8:30 tomorrow evening, then.
Phyllis: That’s what I suggested.
Walter: You’ll be here too?
Phyllis: I guess so. I usually am.
Walter: Same chair, same perfume, same anklet?
Phyllis: I wonder if I know what you mean.
Walter: I wonder if you wonder.

Key Things You Should Look For When Watching This Movie

The rat-a-tat-tat of the dialogue made me realize that Mamet and Sorkin did not invent this spare, quick fire, smart, and funny, style of writing and delivering dialogue. Apparently this was one of Raymond Chandler’s most important contributions to the film.

The structure is sublime. The whole story is told in flashback, with a masterful use of voice over to tell the tale from Neff’s point of view. Note that the audience knows “who-done-it” from the beginning. The suspense is in the switchbacks, turns, and juxtaposition of the characters. Examples include when Mrs. Dietrichson is behind Neff’s apartment door, hidden from Keyes as Keyes explains to Neff how she committed the murder with an as yet unknown accomplice; when Keyes brings in the only witness that might be able to identify Neff as the imposter and invites Neff to the meeting; when the car won’t start after the deed is done. Also, Mrs. Dietrichson’s backstory, suggesting murderous calculation, slowly unfolds, adding to the sense that Neff is being backed into a corner.

The characters are full blooded and complex. While Neff and Mrs. Dietrichson are cold-blooded murderers, they are also it turns out, capable of love. Mrs. Dietrichson realizes this late, right before Neff kills her. And in the end, when all is lost for Neff, and he is literally wounded, he steers Zachetti back to Lola, both saving Zachetti and attempting to put things right between young lovers. The audience roots for the murderer. Finally, pay particular attention to the relationship between Neff and Keyes, who have a close and touching friendship – the intimate pay off in the last scene is set up beautifully throughout the film.

Thanks, Susan! To show our gratitude for your guest post, here’s a dash of creative juju for you. Whoosh!

We already have a set of classic 5os movies, 60s Movies, 70s movies, 80s Movies and 90s Movies. This month, we’re working on 40s movies. And thanks to the GITS community, we’ve got 27 movies in the works!

Those who I put in bold have already sent me their posts. If you haven’t sent yours to me, please do so as soon as you can!!!

Act of Violence – Eric Rodriguez
Arsenic and Old Lace – Katha
Bicycle Thieves – Megaen Kelly
Brief Encounter – Emily Bonkoski
Casablanca – Paul Graunke
Double Indemnity – Susan Winchell
Five Graves to Cairo – Jeff Gibson
Foreign Correspondent – Doc Kane
His Girl Friday – John Henderson
It’s a Wonderful Life – David Laudenslager
Key Largo – Will King
Laura – Melinda Mahaffey Icden
Les enfants du paradis – Brendan Howley
Mrs. Miniver – Traci Nell Peterson
Notorious – Christine Henton
Now Voyager – Melissa Privette
Out of the Past – Brantley Aufill
Rope – Lance Morgan
The Bank Dick – Bob Saenz
The Best Years of Their Lives – Shaun Parker
The Big Sleep – Ipsita Barik
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir – Annie Wood
The Long Voyage Home – Vincent Martini
The Lost Weekend – Liz Warner
The Maltese Falcon – Roy Gordon
The Ox-Bow Incident – Clay Mitchell
The Philadelphia Story – Kristen Demaline
The Third Man – Harry Cooke

Thanks to everyone who steps up for this ongoing project! Still need 2 more volunteers. If you’re interested, please email me with the classic 40s movie of your choice.

For the original post explaining the series, go here.

For all of the 40s movies featured in the series, go here.

Click REPLY and see you in comments about today’s classic 40s movie!

Screenwriting 101: Alvin Sargent

September 1st, 2015 by

screenplay“Rigidity is the mother of rigidity. It’s very exciting to be ridiculous. I wish I could be even more so than I am. Jump! Jumping is a lifeline. It brings you to life. Take the character and put him where he least wants to be. If it’s honest, it’ll be worth exploring.”

— Alvin Sargent

Daily Dialogue — September 1, 2015

September 1st, 2015 by

“Good evening, London. Allow me first to apologize for this interruption. I do, like many of you, appreciate the comforts of every day routine—the security of the familiar, the tranquility of repetition. I enjoy them as much as any bloke. But in the spirit of commemoration, whereby those important events of the past, usually associated with someone’s death or the end of some awful bloody struggle, a celebration of a nice holiday, I thought we could mark this November the 5th, a day that is sadly no longer remembered, by taking some time out of our daily lives to sit down and have a little chat. There are of course those who do not want us to speak. I suspect even now, orders are being shouted into telephones, and men with guns will soon be on their way. Why? Because while the truncheon may be used in lieu of conversation, words will always retain their power. Words offer the means to meaning, and for those who will listen, the enunciation of a truth. And the truth is, there is something terribly wrong with this country, isn’t there? Cruelty and injustice, intolerance and oppression. And where once you had the freedom to object, to think and speak as you saw fit, you now have censors and systems of surveillance coercing your conformity and soliciting your submission. How did this happen? Who’s to blame? Well certainly there are those more responsible than others, and they will be held accountable, but again truth be told, if you’re looking for the guilty, you need only look into a mirror. I know why you did it. I know you were afraid. Who wouldn’t be? War, terror, disease. There were a myriad of problems which conspired to corrupt your reason and rob you of your common sense. Fear got the best of you, and in your panic you turned to the now high chancellor, Adam Sutler. He promised you order, he promised you peace, and all he demanded in return was your silent, obedient consent. Last night I sought to end that silence. Last night I destroyed the Old Bailey, to remind this country of what it has forgotten. More than four hundred years ago a great citizen wished to embed the fifth of November forever in our memory. His hope was to remind the world that fairness, justice, and freedom are more than words, they are perspectives. So if you’ve seen nothing, if the crimes of this government remain unknown to you, then I would suggest that you allow the fifth of November to pass unmarked. But if you see what I see, if you feel as I feel, and if you would seek as I seek, then I ask you to stand beside me one year from tonight, outside the gates of Parliament, and together we shall give them a fifth of November that shall never, ever be forgot.”

V for Vendetta (2005), screenplay by Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, graphic novel art by David Lloyd

The Daily Dialogue theme for the week: Monologue. Today’s suggestion by Will King.

Trivia: The domino scene, where V tips over black and red dominoes to form a giant letter V, involved 22,000 dominoes. It took 4 professional domino assemblers 200 hours to set it up.

Dialogue On Dialogue: Commentary by Will: “This is one of the major beats of the film in which V comes out of the shadows, makes his public appearance, and throws down the gauntlet before the High Chancellor and his deputies. After this speech, all of the characters’ lives are changed forever. It also establishes the timeframe for the story (‘…stand beside me one year from tonight…’) which clues the audience into when the climax will happen.”

Why haven’t you finished that script?

August 31st, 2015 by

You know, that story you’ve been kicking around for months. Maybe it’s pretty well worked out, but you just can’t summon up the energy to type FADE IN. Or you have a partial draft and you’re stuck, not sure which way to go. Or a story concept you think has strong potential, but you’re battling your own Voices Of Negativity…

The simple fact is an unfinished script is nothing but potential. And nothing but potential is… nothing.

Maybe what you could use is this.

* A structured environment with actual due dates to inspire you to knock out pages.

* A workshop where you receive constructive feedback from a group of writing peers.

* A mentor who is a professional screenwriter and educator to accompany you on your writing journey.

That’s what we offer at Screenwriting Master Class with our Pages I: The First Draft workshop. 10 lectures [written by me] to spur your creativity, 10 teleconferences to review your pages, 10 due dates to motivate you to get from FADE IN to FADE OUT.

If you are comfortable with the sequence approach to screenwriting, you will feel right at home in this course.

If your grasp of story structure is a weak point, this workshop will help you ground your understanding.

If you have trouble finding the discipline to deposit your ‘derriere on chair’ and write, Pages I takes that problem on in a direct, practical and supportive manner.

Some thoughts by writers on the singular importance of the first draft:

“Then comes the great leap which is the first draft, I call it ‘the muscle draft,’ where you just muscle it out. You don’t worry about what you’re missing, you just get through it, get to the end.” — Darren Aronofsky

“Even if you write it wrong, write and finish your first draft. Only then, when you have a flawed whole, do you know what you have to fix.” — Dominick Dunne

“The first draft is nothing more than a starting point, so be wrong as fast as you can.” — Andrew Stanton

“Sometimes you’re swinging your way through a first draft like a blind miner with a pick-axe. That’s OK. Get it done, nothing else matters.” — Justin Marks

“First drafts are for learning what your story is about.” — Bernard Malamud

Winding Road Final

If you’re looking to go on that unique journey of discovery which is a first draft and could use the structure of an online workshop to help guide you through the process, go here to learn more about Pages I.

Our last session for 2015 begins Monday, September 14, so this is a great chance to make this year count in terms of your creative work.

I look forward to the opportunity to work with you!

Andrew Stanton, Part 1: “The Clues to a Great Story” (TED Talk)

August 31st, 2015 by

Last week, I brought up the Andrew Stanton TED Talk from 2012 in the context of a discussion about storytelling. It reminded of how great his presentation was. So great, when I went into the archives to check the series I ran at the time, I had actually taken the time to transcribe the entire 19-minute talk. So for the next two weeks, I will reprise that series from one of the principal figures in the phenomenon which is Pixar Animation Studios.

This last Sunday, our featured video interview was a TED Talk given by Andrew Stanton, one of the key members of Pixar’s ‘brain trust’ whose screenwriting credits include Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, Wall-E and the current live action movie John Carter which he also directed [along with A Bug’s Life, Finding Nemo and Wall-E].

The subject of the TED Talk: “The Clues to a Great Story.” Given the success of Pixar and Stanton’s participation in it, I decided to produce a transcription of the entire 19-minute presentation. I will be posting it segment by segment for the next week or so because Stanton packed a lot of big ideas into his short talk.

Today: Part 1.

A tourist is backpacking through the highlands of Scotland and he stops at a pub to get a drink. The only people in there is a bartender and an old man nursing a beer. And he orders a pint. They sit in silence for awhile, then suddenly the old man turns to him and says, “You see this bar? I built this bar with my bare hands. Found the finest wood in the county. Gave it more love and care than my own child, but do they call me McGregor the Bar Builder? No.”

Points out the window. “You see that stone wall out there? I built that stone wall with my bare hands. Found every stone, placed them just so through the rain and the cold, but do they call me McGregor the Stone Wall Builder? No.”

Points out the other window. “You see that pier on the lake out there. I built pier with my bare hands. Drove the pilings against the tide and the sand, plank by plank by plank, but do they call me McGregor the Pier Builder? No.”

“But you fuck one goat…”

[Crowd laughter]

Storytelling is joke-telling. It’s knowing your punch line. Your ending. Knowing everything you’re saying from the first sentence to the last is leading to a singular goal. And ideally confirming some truth that deepens the understanding of who we are as human beings.

We all love stories. We’re born from them. Stories are who we are. We all want affirmations that our lives have meaning. And nothing has a greater affirmation than when we connect through stories. It can cross the barriers of time – past, present and future – and allows us to experiences the similarities between ourselves and through others, real and imagined.

The children’s television host Mr. Rogers always carried in his wallet a quote from a social worker that said, “Frankly there isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love once you know their story.” And the way I like to interpret that is probably the greatest story commandment, “Make me care.”

Please, emotionally, intellectually, aesthetically… make me care.

We all know what it’s not like to not care. You’ve gone through hundreds of TV channels, just switching, channel after channel. And suddenly you actually stop on one, it’s already halfway over, but something’s caught you and you’re drawn in. That’s not by chance, that’s by design.

So it got me thinking, what if I told you my history with story. How I was born for it. How I learned along the way this subject matter. And to make it more interesting, we’ll start from the ending and we’ll go to the beginning. So if I were to give you the ending of the story, it would go something like this.

“And that’s what ultimately led me to speaking you here at TED about story.”

A few things:

* “A tourist is backpacking through the highlands of Scotland”: Note how Stanton starts. He didn’t define story. He didn’t frame the subject of story. He didn’t talk about story. Rather he started off by telling a story. What better way to cement the idea of storytelling than telling one?

* “But if you fuck one goat”: Of all the stories in the world Stanton could choose, he tells this one. Why? Well, first it’s a great story told in the classic form of a joke. But beyond that, I think Stanton chose an off-color joke for this reason: To surprise us. Here is Pixar dude dropping an F-bomb on us, straight out of the chute. If you study Pixar movies, you know how much they cherish the idea of surprise: twists, turns, complications, roadblocks, reversals. With the joke, Stanton conveys the point without even having to talk about it.

* “Knowing your punch line”: I feel like I’ve made this point a hundred times over the years on this blog if I’ve made it once: Professional screenwriters never start writing a story unless they know its ending. The ending reflects back on everything that comes before it, so you better damn well know it before you type FADE IN.

* “Stories are who we are”: This may sound like a wall poster slogan, but it is a profound statement that speaks to the core essence of existence, as community, as individual. Stories arise from, speak to, and create windows into our life experience.

* “Make me care”: As much as I love the social worker’s quote that Mr. Rogers carried around with him, this line — these three words — are perhaps the most important takeaway for anyone writing stories. Make the reader care. In Hollywood, that means the script reader, the manager, the agent, the producer, the studio executive, the actor, the director, any person who opens your script, at the most basic level your job as a writer is to make them care.

There’s more here to discuss. Let’s take it to comments and carry on.

Tomorrow: Part 2 of the transcript of Stanton’s TED Talk.

[Originally posted March 12, 2012]

Movie Analysis: “Straight Outta Compton”

August 31st, 2015 by

Another in our bi-weekly series in which we analyze movies currently in release. Why? To quote the writing mantra I coined over 5 years ago: Watch movies. Read scripts. Write pages. You will note which one comes first. Here are my reflections from that post about the importance of watching movies:

To be a good screenwriter, you need to have a broad exposure to the world of film. Every movie you see is a potential reference point for your writing, everything from story concepts you generate to characters you develop to scenes you construct. Moreover people who work in the movie business constantly reference existing movies when discussing stories you write; it’s a shorthand way of getting across what they mean or envision.

But most importantly, you need to watch movies in order to ‘get’ how movie stories work. If you immerse yourself in the world of film, it’s like a Gestalt experience where you begin to grasp intuitively scene composition, story structure, character functions, dialogue and subtext, transitions and pacing, and so on.

Let me add this: It’s important to see movies as they get released so that you stay on top of the business. Decisions get made in Hollywood in large part depending upon how movies perform, so watching movies as they come out puts you in the same head space as reps, producers, execs, and buyers.

This week’s movie: Straight Outta Compton, screenplay by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff, story by S. Leigh Savidge & Alan Wenkus and Andrea Berloff.

Our schedule for discussion this week:

Monday: General Comments
Tuesday: Plot
Wednesday: Characters
Thursday: Themes
Friday: Takeaways

For those of you who have not seen the movie, do not click MORE as we will be trafficking in major spoilers. If you have seen Straight Outta Compton, I invite you to join me in breaking down and analyzing the movie.

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