lessons from LOST

Let me frame this post first, before I talk about it. It originated from a forum thread at Talentville (http://www.talentville.com/forum/index.php?topic=966.msg6132:topicseen#msg6132). The discussion started when an excerpt from the first few pages of the LOST series was used to validate a point, “It’s critical to draw the reader in on the first page.”

I commented on how the excerpt was a great example. But, warned that spec scriptwriters (a.k.a. amateurs) should not copy every single aspect as some elements are not acceptable for amateurs to use. Besides, I added, the writer probably didn’t sell this script based on its writing. Instead, they sold it through pitch sessions.

When you sell a script through a pitch session, certain “taboo” elements are never seen. They are even ignored during development because the producer was hooked on the concept and the style rather than the words on the page.

I didn’t do any research to validate my point; it was my instincts talking.

A later post talked about the “camera angles” in the script and whether a spec writer should write that way. I answered, “No.” Again, I didn’t research to support my opinion.

I theorized the Director might have added these elements long after the sale was final. Some clues that this may be true is the voicing of the phrases. “Angle on…” “Tight to…” “Hold on…” This is how the Director sees the world.

Like I said, I did no research to support my theories; I only relied on instincts. But, the discussion intrigued me enough to test whether my instincts were correct. And, this is what I found —

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lost_(TV_series)

Conception

The series was conceived by Lloyd Braun, head of ABC at the time, while he was on vacation in Hawaii during 2003 while listening to Autistico. Braun ordered an initial script from Spelling Television based on his concept of a cross between the novel Lord of the Flies, the movie Cast Away, the television series Gilligan’s Island, and the popular reality show Survivor, which began script development for Lost.

Jeffrey Lieber was hired and wrote Nowhere, based on his pitch to write the pilot. Unhappy with the result and a subsequent rewrite, Braun contacted J. J. Abrams in January 2004, who had a deal with Touchstone Television (now ABC Studios), and was also the creator of the TV series Alias, to write a new pilot script.

Although initially hesitant, Abrams warmed to the idea on the condition that the series would have a supernatural angle to it, and collaborated with Damon Lindelof to create the series’ style and characters. Together, Abrams and Lindelof also created a series “bible,” and conceived and detailed the major mythological ideas and plot points for an ideal four to five season run for the show.

Lost‘s two-part pilot episode was the most expensive in the network’s history, reportedly costing between US$10 and $14 million, compared to the average cost of an hour-long pilot in 2005 of $4 million. The series debuted on September 22, 2004, becoming one of the biggest critical and commercial successes of the 2004 television season. The world premiere of the pilot episode was on July 24, 2004 at Comic-Con International in San Diego.

[end of research]

I added the last phrase, about premiering at Comic-Con, because of its relevance to the objectives of Amazon Studios. They favor visually-inclined “taste tests,” and use Comic-Con as their proving grounds.

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writing vs. music

Certain songs make me think about how creating music is so much like making a movie or publishing a novel. There are four points that have direct comparisons:

  1. concise phrasing
  2. synergistic expression
  3. it’s a collaborative effort
  4. there will always be critics

Listen to the words of a song. Do you notice how much visual information is passed along in so few words? Songwriters use concise phrasing to match lyrics to the rhythm of a song. Writers should be using concise phrasing to efficiently convey visual information. It’s what we call visual writing. Unlike singer/songwriters, writers use their words to set the pace and rhythm of the story; whereas, singers are usually tied to a preestablished tempo.

Think about all of the parts of a song. There’s vocals. There’s harmonies. There’s a beat. There’s a bass groove. A guitar adds some rhythm. Composers make numerous decisions about how each instrument affects the overall song. How musicians play their parts, the dynamics, are also important to the overall expression of the music.

Now, think about a movie you watched. If you’ve studied story construction, you know there are numerous elements that fed that final product. Viewpoint. Tone. Character. “Beats” is the movie industry’s word for the basic building block of stories. Inside those Beats, a writer decides what s/he intends to reveal to the audience. And, how it will be presented. S/he makes decisions about who will deliver the Beat. And, where it will be delivered. (Who, what, when, where, why, and how… sound familiar?)

This all leads into the final bullet point: it’s a collaborative effort. Ever attended or heard a table read of a movie script? It’s pretty dull stuff. Movies are made to be watched. Part of the interest of watching a movie depends on the Director of Photography’s choice of camera angles. Part of the emotion of the movie-watching experience is the music that sets the overall mood of a scene.

With music, the collaboration  starts long before the recording session begins. A musician plays or sings a melodic riff to others. Other musicians add pieces and parts to build an entire song. If you’re lucky enough to be playing in the big leagues, your song is handed to a professional who can tighten and tone and turn a tiny riff into a nationwide hit.

Not everyone will like the hit you’ve created. The general public has their favorite genres and other types of music will sound dissonant and/or unappealing. There’s no getting around this. People like what they like. But, the good news is: there’s a variety of genres and styles and audiences pay millions (maybe even billions) for the stuff they like.

For each person who says they don’t like a creative effort or that “type” of creative expression, there’s a hit that’s sold millions of copies. And, that, my friend, is why we keep creating. Someday, we hope to have that hit that sells a million copies.

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finished draft

There I go. I’ve done it. I’ve put my soul out for all to see. It’s on exhibition at the international stage called Amazon Studios (http://studios.amazon.com/projects/5899). My first truly original concept added to the contest with a chance to win a $10,000 prize.

It’s my passion project. And, it’s out there for all to rip apart. Please honest. Tell me it needs lots of work. Tell me it’s beyond repair. But, above all else, tell me honestly. Please…

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lessons from Project Greenlight

Last night, I watched season two of Project Greenlight, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s moviemaking reality show. Several moments resonated:

1. Directors have an uncanny ability to interpret pathetic, as well as well-written, scripts.
In this case, the audition process required the director to make a story from a nonsensical script. This affected me as I thought about how producers evaluate our stories based solely on the words we put on the page. Who knows what story they’re seeing in their heads; totally out of my control.

2. even A-list actors don’t respond to A-list material.
A preface to this bullet point is an observation of the number of rewrites the winning script needed to reach A-list status. I thought the winning script would be “perfect” story-wise, ready to be shot. Instead, it needed six rounds of production notes.

As writers, we often learn by reading and reviewing other amateur’s scripts. Reviewing scripts when we’re out-of-sync with the writer’s choices results in an overall low rating. These honest reviews hurt the writer’s ego; sometimes, it triggers a retaliation of low ratings of our material. We should all learn that stories don’t resonate with everyone. But, even an honest review with a low rating helps us — by defining the audience’s demographic.

3. don’t shut out the professionals, the ones with the experience; they are trying to help you. Conversely, what was Chris Moore trying to accomplish by coaxing the directors to speak their minds? A later episode, I think, answered this question: he saw right through them as “manipulative [persons]” and intended to resolve ensuing conflicts before production began and/or while on-set.

4. Jimmy Fallon would be perfect in the lead role of Kneel in Anti Virus Annihilators, the movie we’re producing this year (http://studios.amazon.com/projects/3836)

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might be a redneck

With Jeff Foxworthy coming to town on Saturday night, I got to thinking about some of his sayings and the person I think of when I hear them. For example:

“You might be a redneck if you’re too drunk to fish” = Duane
“You might be a redneck if you mow your lawn and find a car” = me
“You might be a redneck if your house is on wheels, but your car’s up on blocks” = could also be me

in the process of finding the right Redneck saying for some people, I think we’ve come up with a few originals:
You might be a redneck if cat fur is your couch’s fabric.
You might be a redneck if your dining room table doubles as a shop bench.
You might be a redneck if you’ve ever baked car parts in your kitchen stove.

Next, we’ll try to come up with some original “Here’s your sign” examples.
so far, there’s only one:

“The pilot light on my furnace went out last night.”
“Really. Do you have gas or electric?”
“Here’s your sign.”

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reminiscing

this week, I started an online class with Writers University in Los Angeles, California. The instructor asked for volunteers to provide their assignments for critique. This sparked a memory from High School.

It was Junior year. I don’t remember the exact class. Just that it was a writing assignment. The teacher handed, anonymously, my story to the entire class. We spent the period picking me apart.

I could have been defensive. Instead, I listened to every piece of advice. Basically, this was my first critique session. Because of the session, I rewrote the story. Handed it in for a grade. And, received an A.

I think that may be why, today, I appreciate how helpful critique sessions are.

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Extreme Makeover: Home Run

My destination for today’s run was the Extreme Makeover Home in Moorhead. At arrival, I saw that 8th Street had been closed to traffic from 12th Avenue to 20th Avenue while they filmed the reveal and family’s return.

I took advantage of the opportunity by running on 8th Street without fear of being hit by cars. I was not alone – others were also running, biking, and walking on the street. In a way, the afternoon became a mock “Streets Alive!” – an event where main streets are closed for 5 hours so walkers/runners/bicyclists can roam freely without dodging traffic.

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ScriptFrenzy ’09: A Lesson Learned

The first draft of a screenplay is all about the "How." Back in middle-school English Composition class, you may recall that writing is all about Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How. As I sat down over the weekend to write my 100-page ScriptFrenzy screenplay submission, I faced a blank page and at least a dozen questions that inevitably plague writers: Where do I begin? Should I start at the beginning and write straight through? Or, write the sequences that are clear in my mind and fill in the rest later?

Each method has positive and negative impacts on the story-writing process.

Starting at the beginning and writing straight through uncovers unexplained details that do not get properly set up. You have to go back to the beginning and insert these set-ups later.

Random writing – write scenes that are fresh and fill in the rest later – requires additional time to later arrange the scenes in the proper order. It can also leave scenes that no longer fit into the story – wasting some writing time. The biggest drawback to this method, I feel, is forgetting how the scenes go together in the first place.

After writing 100 pages, it’s hard to recall why a particular scene was written in the first place. Unless, you assembled an outline while you were writing.

This year, I preferred the method of random writing. Mainly, it helped me get past the dreaded lack of momentum, self-doubt in ability, and loss of focus and freshness that comes around page 45. That’s the point of story-crafting when the fun wears off. All of the characters have been introduced, the conflict has been established, and your main character is locked-in deep. Now, the downward slope to resolution starts. Which means the screenplay will be complete in another 45 to 60 pages.

Completing the first draft generates it’s own form of anxiety. Eventually, you have to put your work out there for other to see. It also means you have to start crafting another story. After all, if the draft you just completed doesn’t sell, what else have you got if you don’t have a draft to follow it.

This year, I decided to start writing around page 45. To work out the downward slope to resolution and write while the idea was still fresh. But, I got caught up in the "When does this happen" and "If this happens, What happens then and Where does it fit into the flow of the story." This method of story planning can debilitate a writer into the dreaded writer’s block.

I broke through this particular anxiety by reasoning, Does it really matter at this point in development WHEN the events happen? After all, post-production is likely to rearrange the scenes anyway, right? If I can just work out the Who (the characters in the scene), What (the strategic decisions), Where (the setting of the scene), and How (the details of action and dialogue), the When (the order that events happen) can be worked out later.

For ScriptFrenzy (or any first draft for that matter), the goal is simply to write 100 pages of a screenplay. The validator doesn’t care how well the story is told. It just makes an official declaration that 100 pages were written.

For my next submission, I’ll try to go into my revelations about the "Why" of a story.

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NaNoWriMo ’08 – 50k reached

Another month of frenzied novel writing called National Novel Writing Month is over. For my second year in a row, I completed the 50,000-word challenge. Give me a few days for the cramp in my writing hand to diminished, and I’ll blog about this year’s experience.

My official word count is 50,117. For my efforts, I received some fabulous web badges. I can’t show them to you because I don’t have a web site to host them on. You’ll just have to take my word to it that they are fabulous.

The site owners hope to smash last year’s collective word count. Currently, we are approaching 1.5 billion words written by all the NaNoWri’s participating in 2008. About six hours remain in the international National Novel Writing Month challenge. At the last update, the word count was close to 1,430,000,000.

I did my part to meet the 1.5 billion word goal. It’s up to the rest of the world to fill the gap.

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November = dual challenge month

This month, I am competing in two distinctly contradictory writing challenges. One is a short screenplay. The other is a long novel.

MoviePoet.com = this month’s challenge is to tell a complete story (with a beginning, middle, and end) in one page. The focus is on economy of words, transferring images in a few words, terse dialogue. Let the reader/viewer use their imagination to fill in the details.

NaNoWriMo.org = write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. The focus is on writing extra words. Use unnecessary words such as "that," "there", "then." Capture every detail; describe it in as many words as possible. Write passive sentences; "is" and "are" should be used often. It’s not about quality; it’s about quantity.

Switching gears hasn’t been as difficult as I thought it would be. It has been fun experiencing the dilemma.

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