Creating a sense of place in screenplays, fiction and comics

Any story needs a sense of place. This is what keeps a narrative from happening inside of a void. A sense of place is different from setting. Setting is merely a point on the globe. A backdrop. A sense of place has sights, sounds, smell, dirt that feels a certain way when crumbled in your hand, a specific color to the sunset.

One exercise to develop your sense of place is to sit on a rotting log in the woods for four hours. The Oregon coastal rainforest is a perfect location.

Creating a sense of place is different in all three forms of writing that I do. In film, you’re leaving hints. In a script, you can’t overdo it on the description…a screenplay needs to be spare and have enough room for the director and producers to fill in the details for how they want this film to feel and look. You need to just hint at the sense of place. And you need to do it in one and two word bursts throughout the script. It’s hard to do. I’ve been working with a patient director who has helped me hack away everything extraneous from the screenplay. But through our conversations, I can tell that he is seeing much more than what I’ve put on the page…he’s filling out the vision for the film. That’s his job, not entirely mine, and as a screenwriter I need to remember that fact.

In fiction, the task of creating a sense of place falls entirely to the writer. There won’t be a production designer, a sound designer and a director of photography to help you color in the details. You need to taste the air that your characters breathe. You need to know the names of the flowers and hear the calls of the local birds. You need to know what it smells like after it rains or understand the way a dust storm leaves a dry rattle in the back of your throat (even if you fabricate these details via imagination). The way I try to create a sense of place in prose is through details. Sometimes I’m lucky enough to know the setting well enough and the details are conveniently on hand. I always order a field guide to the local flora and fauna for every place that I write about in ficiton. I’ll read the geological history. You need to know how the crust of the Earth was formed beneath the place that carries your story. All of this is challenging for opposite reasons from screenwriting. In both mediums, it’s difficult.

Now that I’m working on comics, I’m finding a new way to create a sense of place. While fiction is created by an individual and film by a team collaboration, comics seem to be a partnership. And the artist creates the tone and emotion from the sense of place that happens in a story, but it has to also resonate with the narrative. And it keys on the panel descriptions you give to the artist…these are words that will never be read by the audience…they will be interpreted by the artist and presented via his visual style. It’s tricky, and I’m not exactly sure how the process works yet, though I’m pleased with the results we have so far.

A sense of place is a foundation for any narrative. I don’t know how other writers develop their skills for creating a place for a story. For me, I think I cultivate this sensitivity through spending as much time in the natural world as I can. Like Thoreau, you’d do well to sit on an old stump in the woods for four hours and feel how the forest changes around you. Unfortunately, I haven’t been doing this nearly as much as I should lately. Life has a tendency to get in the way. But the sun is finally out in Oregon, and I know I’ll soon be packing a tarp into the woods to spend a night or two curled up next to a rotting log or on the edge of an alpine lake.

Story within a story

My daughter was watching a show on PBS about a dog who travels through time. It worked on multiple timelines with several threads weaving the overall narrative.  A pretty complex structure for a kid’s show, or so I thought. I paused by the television on my way to the kitchen for an espresso and she looked up at me and explained, “this story is happening inside another story.”

It was then that I realized how natural is the narrative concept of story within a story. My daughter, barely five, is hardly thrown by a complex narrative.

Story within a story, as a device, is as old as storytelling itself. Take The Arabian Nights and Sheherazade’s desperate bid to prolong her life serving as a framework for a string of tales. Take Guillermo Arriaga’s multi-threaded storytelling in Amores Perros and Babel. Take the picaresque collection of tales in Big Fish, each exaggerated story serving the greater narrative about a complex father-son dynamic. Or consider the simple story within a story told by Tom Hanks in Charlie Wilson’s War that amounted to the finest moment in that film: he tells the story of how he became involved in politics as a young boy, ending the tale with, “And that’s the day I fell in love with America.”

The technique is used so often in film and fiction that it’s hardly original or distinctive. It can be done well, as in Joseph Conrad’s Youth, which is a story within a story delivered around pints of beer by a sailor in a pub. Or it can be as clumsy and hamfisted as the oft-maligned flashback. But a flashback is just another form of story within a story, an if you do it well, nobody will complain.

Way back in grad school, I was taught that story within a story was a useful technique that could help you advance a narrative. The instructors in Columbia College Chicago’s fiction program used an exercise called the “steeple chase.” Basically, you’d take a short story or novel excerpt and put it through the ringer, telling parts in first person, parts in second, switching narrators and tense, or telling part of it as a letter or newspaper article. We were also required to tell part of the narrative as a story within a story. Often it served the purpose of unsticking a stuck narrative. So if you’ve got a novel or script that you can’t seem to bear to finish, try having a character tell a story within a story, or launch into some tangent, and see what effect it has on the narrative…it might just set things into motion again.

Whatever the case, it’s a natural device in storytelling…so inherent to the art that it’s simple for even a five year old to grasp.

Telling stories for free or profit

How do you make money telling stories? Thousands of MFA students ask themselves that question, usually starting a few weeks after graduation when reality sets in and you find out the world isn’t really that much different than it was when you were sitting in a circle reading from a fistful of laser paper. You’ve got a degree, now what? Who’s going to read your stuff  without the classroom structure providing you with an audience?

You’ve got two options. Give it away for free, or follow the traditional market models. The power of the Web allows the former to happen rather easily. But the latter is still the best way to turn your efforts into cash money.

I’ve now earned a modest amount of remuneration for making stuff up. Certainly not enough to keep the mortgage paid. And as a Web professional, I’m all for the concept barrier-free communication. Everything I do at my day job is designed to make it easier to access information. And this is at odds with the whole notion of publishing. It’s hard to access novels…you have to walk to the store and fork over twenty bucks, or sit at home and wait for the box from Amazon. So the notion of paying for text is ridiculous. Every word I’ve ever written, which is by now numbering in the millions, would fit on a thumb drive and could be sent around the world in seconds from my iPhone.

But as a writer, I also want to get paid for the years I’ve invested in creating that text.

A part of me believes it’s inevitable that writers, novelists in particular, will be giving the goods away for free online, using sites like Scribd. Even publishers are starting to offer free content on Scribd and elsewhere, trying to figure out what the business model will be.

But my friend Mort Castle, with his razor wit and boundless optimism, doesn’t seem to think that is such a good idea.  He’ll proceed as before on his 40-year quest to be an overnight success. Few writers work at it harder than Mort does.

But is the role of the publisher changing in a world of open communication? As these fireworks at SXSW demonstrate, publishers are being forced to face this question directly. I think the guy from Penguin makes a solid point when he proclaims the importance of the filter. That’s always been the role of the publisher and agent: find the gem in the slush, make it easily accessible to the masses. In essence, readers pay publishers to find the best stuff. Won’t a publisher’s role become even more vital in a world where choice is expanding?

Still, the sticky question is how to capture a profit when shelf space and distribution is now free. Some projects would never have existed if it weren’t for the Web, these the sorts of blog-to-book scenarios that writers dream about manufacturing.

Do you wait for a business model, or do you make one? Or do you just experiment? Or do you just stick to the traditional models like Mort? For now, I’m still sending manuscripts to New York in manila envelopes. Though I’ve noticed that agents in the traditional book biz are even changing, with requests for PDFs or Word versions to load onto Kindles increasing. As for LA, I’ve never printed and sent an actual screenplay manuscript…it’s all been PDF (and a scanned release form) since I’ve gotten involved.

But I’m also giving it away. Next week I’m launching a Web comic, an online graphic novel called ‘Los Refugiados,’ with artist Santiago Uceda. We’ve kicked around adding a donate button. We hope someone will recognize our brilliance in monetary form. But we have no real business model.

In the end, telling stories is something that humans do. If the market didn’t exist, it would still happen. If the Web weren’t around, we’d sit around the fire and spin yarns or scratch it into the walls of our caves.

But it sure would be nice to get paid for it.

Using Reversal?

I’m still thinking about last week’s excellent New Yorker article on screenwriter/directory Tony Gilroy. What sticks in my mind is the notion of “the reversal.”  According to the article, this is a well-used film convention. I’ve never heard the term, but then I didn’t go to film school and I’ve never read any books on the story side of screenwriting. Maybe it’s not news to most other folks.

The core of “Duplicity” is the screenwriting trope known as the reversal. Gilroy told me, “A reversal is just anything that’s a surprise. It’s a way of keeping the audience interested.”

An example:

In “Good Will Hunting,” when Matt Damon, mopping the floor at a university, comes upon a complicated math problem on a blackboard and solves it, the audience suddenly realizes that he is not an ordinary janitor—that’s a reversal, too.

I think it’s a useful concept. I’ve been struggling through the opening page of a script. The rest is finished, almost ready to send out for casting, but something is still needed in the opening scene.  I’ve been through at least twenty drafts.

The latest draft, also the strongest, has a pair of reversals in the first two pages. I don’t know if that’s what makes it better than previous versions. It certainly has to help. Reversals seem to function in the same way as contrast in graphic design, creating a tension that keeps viewers engaged.

Astrakan’s new film, An American Affair, opens this week in select cities

For more information:

New York City
Landmark Sunshine
143 East Houston St.
New York, NY
(212) 330-8182

Washington, DC
Landmark E Street
555 11th Street NW
Washington, DC 20004
(202) 452-7672

Los Angeles
Laemmle Sunset 5
8000 Sunset Blvd.
West Hollywood, 90046

Landmark Kendall Square
One Kendall Square
Cambridge, MA 02139
(617) 499-1996

Blasphemy, hubris and naïveté

I’m mulling over a pair of films I watched this weekend, Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, which I saw all the way through for the first time, and Sean Penn’s version of the Krakauer book Into the Wild.

Both were brilliant films for different reasons, and too much has been written about La Dolce Vita for me to bother with adding much more. I will say, though, that, given fifty million dollars to burn, I would love to take a stab of remaking this film with a coherent plot. Is that sacrilege? Is that blasphemy? I’m not saying the original is flawed by any stretch, just that I tend to tell stories differently. I can’t watch anything without thinking what I would do different. I sat through the whole film thinking impure thoughts like: what if each scene had a stronger transition that threaded one to the next; what if there were just a pair of overarching narrative elements, a touch more obvious, layered on top of everything else; what if we gave the audience just a hint more to grasp onto? Would that be pandering? Dumbing it down? Destroying the whole point of the film and its chaotic, jubilant, circus-like anti-narrative? I’m just saying.

Into the Wild resonated with me for another reason. About five minutes into the film, my wife looked at me and said, “My God, this is about you.” There were some strong critical reactions against this film (and also much praise), but there is also a specific subset of individuals who have lived this story, albeit likely with less tragic outcomes. It’s the American road story, it’s Thoreau, it’s the pursuit of ideals, the hubris and naivete that is the basic pulse of our culture. That’s what led that scraggly  piece of parchment under glass in Philadelphia. It’s what led, dare I say, to the audacity and idealism that brought our current White House occupant to the capital steps on Inauguration Day.

In the case of Alexander Supertramp in Penn’s film (and Krakauer’s book), his personal demons and hubris carry him too far. But plenty of us have read Thoreau or Nick Adams and taken it to heart, striking out for some purity of purpose. Wildness, Ralph Waldo said, is the salvation of humankind. That wildness could be nature. Or it could be the audacity and recklessness that leads us to pursue whatever it is that we’re after.

It takes a certain amount of hubris and naivete to sit through a film like La Dolce Vita, or The Godfather, or Double Indemnity, or There Will Be Blood and to think to yourself, “I could do that.”

Without naive idealism, you’d never sit down and start scribbling a script, dropping it in the mail on a lark with the notion that someone might want to read it and then plan on investing a lot of money in making a film out of it, as happened to me. Without naivete and a touch of ego, you might not spend years working on a novel, piling up a hundred rejections, finally sitting down and reading through it again and thinking, “hey, this is pretty friggin’ good,” and then settling in and bracing for your next hundred rejections. Which has also happened to me.

Penn nails this particularly American blend of blindness and idealism. This is a tragic story, but also very American. And in many cases, it turns out differently.

When to start

So I’m reading a book on economics and the fall of the Soviet Union last week and one line suddenly jumps out at me. In moments I’m recalling Boris Yeltsin standing on the tank talking about democracy. I still remember the feeling vividly. I’d been thinking of my childhood years in West Berlin and what it felt like after the Wall came down and how there was this limitless possibility and hope, and also a little sadness over the fact that I couldn’t be there. It was similar to the feelings surrounding tomorrow’s inauguration.

And then of course it all went to hell shortly thereafter. I hope Mr. Obama’s quiet revolution fares better than Yeltsin’s.

In any case, within minutes I saw an entire script unfolding before me. Ideas are cheap. Any writer probably gets a dozen every day. But a few really have that spark, that sense that they could become a real story. But once you get an idea with the appropriate fire, the question becomes, “when do I start?”

There are no formulas, rules or truths, and any self-proclaimed guru who tries to sell you one is full of shit. Only the formatting guidelines of a script are set in stone, and beyond 12-point Courier and the appropriate margins, anything goes. Sure the three act structure can work, though it doesn’t have to. If there is a gun in the first act, you’d better use it by the third…unless you can make it work otherwise.

And then there’s the question of research. A lot of writers immerse themselves in the world they’re about to be writing in for a long period of time before they get started. It’s probably a good practice, but I can’t work that way. For me, too much research tends to shape the story and take it off course into the weeds of detail, especially in a period piece. So when I get an idea for a script and I don’t have an ongoing project, I’ll wait as long as I can, which usually means a week or two. And then it will either fade or I just have to jump in and race through the first draft in a few weeks.

I don’t slow down for research on that first draft. What I can’t find out in short magazine articles and Wikipedia will have to wait. I’ll save the heavy research, that involving travel or books over 500 pages, for somewhere between the first and second drafts. Often I’ll find that some of the assumptions I made in the first draft hold true. Other instances will have me rewriting to correct some factual errors.

I’m not a big fan of advance research, but that’s just me. Maybe you’re the sort who needs an idea to gestate for a period of time before getting to work. I know some writers who wait years. There are no rules, though. Beware of people who try to tell you that there are.

Thoreau, iPhones and moving pictures

“We are the tools of our tools,” or so Henry David Thoreau famously said. It’s true. As a species, our single greatest flaw is our obsession with inanimate objects. How many folks died for the shiny yellow metal stuff? What about blood diamonds? How many newspapers did we deliver so we could buy that Red Ryder BB gun, only to play with it for a day and then throw it in a box under the bed for the next 20 years? How many extra hours do us workin’ folks put in for an extra bedroom on the house, power locks on the car or just to have the latest gizmo or doodad, or to have real hardwood in our floors instead of that laminated stuff that looks exactly the same.

I have to admit that I’ve fallen victim to that material cycle that Thoreau warned about, even after reading Walden twice. My latest gadget of obsession is the iPhone. I know I’m about two years late on this little fad. But the old bag phone had to go. I’ll miss it. With the shoulder strap it was handy in dark alleys for self-defense.

So I’ve been obsessed with this little thing and how you can use your fingers to make stuff glide around. I downloaded games (ostensibly for my daughter) and even watched videos. The size of the screen, unlike my old phone, actually allows you to watch video rather than just preview it. I could even see myself sitting in an airport lobby and watching a feature film on this device.

So here’s where we get to the crossover with the film industry. Whenever I experience a new gadget, like those mini LCD projectors that can turn any blank wall into a movie screen with the help of an iPod or laptop, I wonder what that means for the future of feature films. Is some new technology going to suck theatres dry and eliminate the revenue stream in an industry in which I’m just beginning to play a part. I wonder if I should feel like a saddlemaker in 1902 or a punch card operator or the publisher of a major urban newspaper. Is our medium going to experience obliteration due to technology, home theaters or even the economic crunch?

The answer is no. I’d  be naive to expect that the business model and process behind what makes people sit down in a stadium seat and chew popped corn drenched in fake butter-syrup will not change. The process of how people will find their way to the cinema might work totally different. But people will still go.

I have faith in this for several reasons. First, the original Great Depression saw a rise in filmgoing. Today it’s a twenty-dollar escape from your woes. We’re social animals, and even if we are going bankrupt and it would be cheaper to sit in front of our big LCD screen before it’s repossessed, we would rather experience something in the company of other humans. That’s why people go to the bar and spend five bucks per stout rather than sit at home with their own keg and suck it back for fifty cents a glass. It’s why people go to nightclubs instead of stay at home with a strobe light. Even those in search of solitude will sign up for a ten-day Sierra Club hike rather than strike out alone across the wilderness. Most of us are social creatures at least part of the time.

Second…nothing happening now in technology even compares to the previous advances that issued in countless predictions for the industry’s demise. If film and theatres were going to die, then television would have killed it. Or VHS. Or DVD. Or home theatres. Or Netflix. The iPhone won’t kill cinema either. Actually, one of the first apps I downloaded for my iPhone was Flixster. That program finds your GPS location and then connects you with all the films playing in your area. You can watch the trailers, read reviews and then get directions to the cinema. Just like television advertising or film websites, this is a technological advance that can actually drive people to the theater.

Finally, I’m convinced that cinema has a bright future because when I went home for the holidays and returned to the theaters I used to haunt as a kid, I found that they have expanded the building to add another half dozen shows on any given night. They’ve also build a five storey parking garage. They’re doing well. Every show we wanted to see was sold out, so we bought tickets for the next showing. We waited patiently. And we enjoyed the hell out of the picture.


_So with the closing of several mini-majors this year, are indy films dying? Not according to Salon.

_Another slate of comics-based films is announced. I’ve never been into comics, but I suppose I should be judging from the percentage of financing that goes into these projects. It’s a natural fit…they’re storyboards waiting to happen, and with digital production techniques making so much more visually possible. I met with a small indy production company a few weeks ago, their tastes leaning greatly toward art house features. Still, one of the projects on their slate was an adaptation of a graphic novel. Comics are no longer the ugly and maligned stepchildren of the literary world; if anything, literature is.

_As a Web designer I’m noticing not without interest how pointless official movie sites are becoming. In a scan of The Wrestler’s official Web site, which is just a subsite of Searchlight’s main Web presence, I don’t see any interesting custom content about the film…just a link to the trailer and a generic aggregation of press releases, interviews, etc. There is a link to a Fox Searchlight “widget,” plus a plain “Share” section, which is a lackluster attempt at social media marketing. But I don’t see anything interesting, focused or innovative. One would think that focused, inexpensive Web and social media marekting would be perfect for this type of film. Any film, for that matter. Why is it always left out of the marketing plan?

Making the switch

I’ve been doing this screenplay thing for a few years, and I’ve always sworn off the whole notion of screenwriting software. I thought it would needlessly complicate things. After all, a script is just letters…black toner on white paper.  Nothing too fancy about it.

I’ve written all of my scripts so far in Word.  I threw together an industry standard template, including the 5 necessary shortcut keys (Scene heading, action, character, dialog, parenthetical) and called it good. I was able to win a few contests and operate fine in the development process.

I’ve always been a fan of simplicity. But this is the time of year when you want to try something new, so I’m going to start working with some of that fancy script software to see how it goes. I’ve opted to go with Celtx over Final Draft, namely because it’s free and I’m not done buying Christmas presents.

I’ve played around with both and don’t see too many different features, though FD does have templates for TV. I took one of my Word scripts and just pasted it into Celtx and it formatted it almost perfectly. I did a little cleanup, but it took less time than when I prep one of my Word files before sending it to someone by adding those little (MORE)/(CONT’D) thingys at the end of pages where dialog breaks. And Celtx does that for you automatically! I love the fact that it’s free. As a full-time Web guy, I’m a fan of standards and the open source development mindset, so Celtx is a natural fit. My main complaint is the name, which sounds like one of those old man wiener drugs they’re always pushing on TV when I’m trying to watch football with my daughter. Not to be prudish, but the last thing I want to hear at 10 am on a Sunday while we’re eating pancakes and watching Brian Urlacher is the phrase “erectile dysfunction.” But I digress.

I like the scene browser in Celtx and the index cards. Overall, there are a host of gizmos that make my Word template look like a sad little creature indeed. I think it will make organizing and rewriting even easier. I’m pretty excited to give it a try.

Ultimately, what software you use to create the script doesn’t really matter. I don’t think there’s a relationship between the writer and the tool she uses to write in the same way that B.B. King is attached to his Lucille. But sometimes you need to shake things up. So for 2009, I’ll be scribbling in Celtx.


As of a few hours ago I received my first remuneration as a screenwriter. It consisted of a plane ticket, a motel room and a very nice meal (and a few beers) at a seafood restaurant in Santa Monica. Of course tomorrow we’ve got a full day of combing through one of my scripts line-by-line in an effort to turn it into something that this particular production company will want to option and hopefully produce. Then Monday morning I’ll head back to the real world with a dozen pages of notes and yet another draft to write while waking obscenely early in the morning before I go to work.

But in the process, I’ve learned something about folks in the film industry. First, they are business people who deal with a bottom line and the uncertainty of a market just like any of us who work professional jobs. Next, they have very clear creative aspirations which they struggle to exercise by risking their livelihoods on a very fickle and challenging industry. Finally, and probably most important, they value collaboration.

As a writer-type, I’ve heard all manner of horror stories about Los Angeles. The most common comment I get from people when they learn that I’ve won some contests and had meetings in LA about scripts I’ve written is: “Aren’t you afraid someone is going to steal your ideas?” Sometimes I hear, “You mean you just send your script to strangers?” People tend to get defensive right away. The truth is, screenwriters don’t get paid for ideas. Nobody gets paid for ideas. If that were the case, we’d all be rich. Writers get paid to write, and write well…and often they don’t get paid that much to do it. If they get paid anything.  And writing well is hard to do. If you and another writer arrive at the same idea, and you write a bad script and she writes a good one…then she deserves the payday, not you.  If you have a brilliant idea but write a bad script…sorry.  Nobody’s ever going to pay you anything for it.

But idea theft isn’t the only thing I’ve been warned about. Other knowing writers have referred to Hollywood as a “meatgrinder” or a “bloodbath.” I suppose bad things can happen to sensitive creatives in the glare of Tinsletown lights. But what I’ve learned about people in the film industry in my experience here is that they’re no more or less ruthless or conniving than your garden variety corporate lackey or your average middle manager in higher education. They’re ordinary working stiffs trading their time in hopes of making something useful for society while also paying the mortgage. The only difference is that when they’re successful, what they make can inspire or enthrall millions of people in darkened theaters all over the world.

And most importantly for writers, if you want to fit in here, you have to be willing to collaborate. Nobody can make a film on his own, least of all a writer. Sure there are the Auteurs, but then most of them have a trust fund or a boatload of luck. You need smart business people, a visionary director, talented actors (and a casting director to match) a matchless DP, etc, etc, etc. It’s all about collaboration. If you’re not willing to collaborate, you don’t belong here. If you’re an artiste (with a long ‘e’), this is probably not for you. If you’re so terrified that some producer is going to insist you insert a wolfman and a car chase into your artfully written script that you’ll bristle at any and all suggestions for changes or revisions, then this is probably not for you. If you’re desperate to quit your day job, screenwriting is not going to allow you to make that happen. You probably won’t get rich. You probably won’t become famous. You probably won’t even get a WGA card. But, if you can write, and if you’re willing to be the consummate collaborator, then maybe, just maybe, you’ll have a shot at getting a plane ticket and a motel room and a decent seafood dinner. And with a little luck, maybe you’ll have a rare chance to see something you wrote (and rewrote and rewrote based on round after round of worthy and legitimate feedback) have a shot of making it onto the screen.

Writing in public

As I sit here in a coffee shop, ostensibly finishing my next script, I find myself pondering the dynamic of writing in public. I recall being in a cafe a few years ago. It was connected to the local brew-and-view, and it was a place where movie-types hang out. A kid was hacking away right there at the counter on an old Remington typewriter. It was obvious from his formatting that he was working on a script. You couldn’t avoid looking at him–clackety, clackety, clackety…zing. I was reminded of Jim Harrison’s aphorism: “You can’t create great art if you’re always yelling ‘Look at me!’ like a three-year-old who has just shit in the sandbox.”

So that gets me to wondering my own motivation for writing in public places, coffee shops in particular. I can come up with a host of practical reasons, but I also can’t avoid the notion that there is a certain amount of exhibitionism in the practice. I want to be seen writing scripts, even if people don’t know what I’m working on. “I’m special, dammit! I’m an artist. Look at me!”

This is no different from why Hemingway wrote in cafes in 1920s Paris. He was building a public image, and, perhaps, more importantly, an internal image of himself as a writer. We all know what a solitary, isolating pursuit this can be.

That being said, there are also many good reasons for writing in a cafe. First, there is the precedent set by Mr. Hemingway and his cohorts. It’s just what one does if one is a writer. You are part of the tradition. Writers haunt cafes. In my own case, there’s also the fact that a four-year-old girl inhabits my domicile. It’s hard to write with an little person around. There’s a certain kind of peace one can find in the chatter and bustle of a cafe that one can’t find in a quiet office at home. Especially if a kid keeps opening the door and poking her head in to ask for help dressing a Barbie.

There is also a certain amount of pressure you put on yourself when writing in public. Since you’re posing in public as a writer, you have to be seen actually writing. Working those keys is part of the package.

Next, there’s the issue to easy access to strong, quality coffee. That’s essential. Most of my bad habits are dying a slow death as I age. I’ve even given up my nightly glass (or three) of my beloved red wine, limiting libations pretty much to the weekend. One of my sole remaining vices is great quantities of caffeine. Writing in cafes puts me in close proximity to the supply.

I find the best cafes have both outdoor seating and lack of wireless access. Getting away from the distraction of the Web for a few hours increases my productivity. And as for the outdoor seating, this may be less universal, but I thrive on being out of doors. I’m sitting in a cafe in northern Oregon right now looking at a view of the Coast Range. It’s a crisp 45 degrees, and the sun is shining. Perfect writing weather…just enough chill in a vest and sweatshirt to keep me from being too comfortable.

Writers write in cafes. And part of the equation is certainly posing. When I was recently in LA, I spent a lot of time in cafes in Santa Monica and Hollywood. I had time to kill, and few locations are more oppressive than hotel rooms. So I sought out the famous cafes and actually accomplished some productive work. Some of the more notable cafes of choice for LA screenwriter-types include the Bourgieos Pig in Hollywood and the Novel Cafe in Santa Monica. Both are excellent locations, and I recommend them highly. You’re bound to see scripts open on laptops as you walk through with your double Americano looking for a table. These establishments have eclectic atmospheres and are filled with other writers taking advantage of the poseur practicality of writing in public.

Writer in chief

I have to admit that I’m still giddy after last Tuesday when everything changed and it felt good to be American and not have to continuously say to anyone we meet from overseas, “We’re really not all like that. Really.”

So being a sappy Midwesterner who reads a lot of other sappy Midwesterners, I was very much struck by the elation in Garrison Keillor’s latest Salon piece. Because we actually have real, verifiable writer as president (elect). We have someone who can actually shape sentences, sculpt language. How rare is that? How many capable people get advanced degrees, MBAs and the like, and can’t even write a phrase that’s kind to the ear? How many of these politicians have to hire ghostwriters and speechwriters to make themselves sound coherent? And here we have an actual wordsmith on his way to Washington:

“And the coolest thing about him is the fact that back in the early ’90s, given a book contract after the hoo-ha about his becoming the First Black Editor of the Harvard Law Review (FBEHLR), instead of writing the basic exploitation book he could’ve written, he put his head down and worked hard for a few years and wrote a good book, an honest one, which, since his rise in politics, has earned the Obamas enough to buy a very nice house and put money in the bank. A successful American entrepreneur.”

The last American president to write a book all by his lonesome self, I believe, was Theodore Roosevelt, who, on graduation from Harvard, wrote “The Naval War of 1812,” and in my humble opinion, Obama’s is the better book for the general reader, but you be the judge.

So we will soon have someone who can write running the country. Imagine that. Only a few years ago we were noting how the Bush Administration was placing classic books under his arm as props trying to convince the public that he’s not as baseless as he seems, Laura’s earnest bookishness aside. There were all those reports of the famous Bush-Rove reading contest, though none of us believed it any more than we believe in Kim Jong Il’s library of literary achievements. Then Katrina hit and things started to slide for the radical right and they stopped attempting to make their commander look booksmart. And they’ll be gone along with their entire charade. They were always great at fiction (Mission Accomplished) even if they were lousy writers.

And now here we are feeling good as a country despite some really heavy shit happening on the markets and around the world. Someday W. will have his autobiography ghostwritten by someone who actually read all of those book he carried around, and it will sell quite a few copies before being ultimately remaindered.

But in the mean time we’ve got a guy who can write now in charge. Language does matter. Words are important. Writers can change the world. And the next chapter is starting to look pretty good.

Local film scene

I’m new to the Northwest, but there seems to be a vibrant local film scene.

The Northwest Film and Video festival is currently ongoing at the NW Film Center. I attended a couple events this weekend in Portland, and there’s that definite upstart energy you’d hope to find in that sort of venue. I’ll definitely be checking out more events and workshops up there. Gus Van Sant is perhaps their most noted alum.

At the NW I met the guys who made Cthulhu. Haven’t seen the film, but the trailer has a big film look. Tying into the Lovecraft mythos was a smart move and may make this film have a long-tail resonance like Bladerunner. Having heard their story, I’m sure these guys will be putting together new projects in the future. This film recently landed distribution, a major accomplishment for an indy film. It was shot in Oregon.

Reel Film Snobs is a local film program out of Salem. It’s a fun and refreshing alternative to the standard film review model.

Tension, context and subtext in dialog

A friend once told me that every conversation that takes place in a screenplay should be an argument. It’s advice he heard from a writing teacher, and I think it’s basically sound. I’d replace the concept of an argument with the more general notion of tension. It doesn’t have to be direct confrontation, but there should be something at stake beyond the exchange of words.

The key to tension is subtext. In my limited experience rewriting for a director interested in on of my scripts, that is one thing he has emphasized: strip all your dialog of all explanation and description. After all, that’s what the director and actors will add visually and through the sound and the way that they deliver the lines. What should be left is only the subtext. And that subtext should be laid on a foundation of tension.

Here’s a scene from my latest script where I feel like I get it right:



Coyle and Lilly sit at a picnic table with a view of the ocean. They share a sack lunch. It would be a lovely spot in season, but now there is gray skies and drizzle. They are hunched under their rain slickers. Lilly looks dejected.

Your girlfriend going to pick you up?

How do you know about that?

Everybody knows.

It’s not serious.

I know what it is.

Can we talk about something else?

What else is there?

Coyle can’t answer. They eat.

You want me to walk you home?

Better not. Sally doesn’t like you.

I won’t say what I think of her.

She’s a good person.

So you want to stay with her then?

Coyle stares at her, chewing. Lilly looks at the water.

Because if that’s what you want, I’d like to know. I’m working hard trying to make things right.


She’s a good person. She’s not Mom. She’s not you.

Coyle looks at her long and hard. She risks a quick glance into his eyes. He nods.

I better get going.

She crumples up her paper lunch bag. She picks up her board and wetsuit. She nods at her father and then begins walking along the highway toward town. The wind kicks up.

I love you, Lilly.

The wind is strong and she either doesn’t hear or she doesn’t care to respond.


I feel that is a scene where the tension is palpable. Here is the context: Coyle is the father, Lilly is the daughter in foster care. Sally is her foster mom. Coyle’s trying to get her back. But he’s also sleeping around (the girlfriend mentioned at the beginning), carousing, drinking, getting dragged into an unsolved murder case and generally doing a lot of things that will make it harder to get Lilly back. Lilly knows this. Knowing the context of the scene makes a lot of the dialog more clear, but I also think that context shows up as tension and subtext in the actual exchange. You don’t need that context. As a beginning writer, I found that I was continuously adding too much context in the form of description and explanation. Now I struggle to strip things down to the bone. I think this particular script is loaded with good tension and subtext. We’ll see when I send it to contests if it does as well as my other scripts.

One other note about adding tension to dialog. You have to be careful. While it’s always a good idea to ratchet up the tension on the page, you also have to learn when to turn this sensor off. When you wake up obscenely early in the morning like I do, the world you’re building inside your head is blurred with the one in which you actually live. It’s never a good idea to add tension and subtext to your daily conversations. Sometimes I’ll be sitting with my wife or daughter and chatting and that little voice in my head will remind me that I should be adding tension to the conversation. And I’ll say something that pisses them off. Not a good idea.




Mr. SMITH walks into the room and lays his briefcase on the desk. He sighs.

Okay class. Today we’re going to talk about the Reagan Revolution.

The students yawn. He writes the words on the board.

Have any of you ever heard of this?

The students look around. They’re bored.

It was a very dark time in our country when a small-minded ideology and a room full of conservative blowholes (in both parties) basically controlled our government for  thirty years. It was a period characterized by greed, xenophobia, corporate handouts and generally screwing minorities, the working class and the occasional intern. Anyway, we’ll breeze through this lesson quickly so that we can move on to a brighter period in our nation’s history.


Here’s to hOpe. Go out and vote.

Writing for the budget

When you first start writing scripts, one of the great liberating experiences is the ability to start a scene with something like this:



Smith steps to the curb and hails a cab…


And then, you can follow up with the next scene, with a quantum leap:



Pilar sits across from Valencia…


It gives you a sense of freedom as a writer to be able to jump from one location to another. After all, you just need to type the name of the place in your scene heading and you’re there. A leap from Anchorage to Albequerque is only a matter of characters on the keyboard. This is profound, because most of us spend a huge portion of our lives hunched over a keyboard in some dingy office or in the corner of a coffee shop. Maybe we hang out on the fifth floor of the library next to a stack of books nobody reads. To be able to leap around the globe via our narratives is one of the attractions of this pursuit.

But what I’m learning now is that such freedom can be a dangerous thing. Producers read scripts differently than we do as writers. When they see a location change, numbers start to click in their heads. A change in the setting, and the addition of numerous locations, can inflate the budget in less time than it takes you to complete a scene heading.

I’m rewriting a script now with budget and locations in mind. I’m eliminating action sequences and removing an entire series of scenes that take place two thousand miles away form the main center of action. I’m also collapsing characters, combining several similar roles into a single character to reduce the casting costs. A producer said that I could take the script in two directions: a big budget action film, or a character-driven drama. Their company specializes in the latter. I was presented with a challenge: rewrite the script to reduce the cost of making this film, and they’ll consider an option.

The pragmatic requirements of filmmaking are quite different from, say, novels where you’re only limited by your own imagination. When you set a scene in Cairo, that won’t require you to send the second unit to Africa to get b-roll of the pyramids. Or you don’t have to worry about the fact that a scene set in Havana becomes problematic if much of the cast and crew is made up Americans, who are forbidden to travel there by the knuckleheaded blowholes in Washington.

I’m also finding that it’s not always a matter of collapsing and contracting your script. Sometimes you’ll be called upon to increase a role, attracting a different caliber (and more expensive) level of talent. On this same project, I’m removing minor characters and increasing the visibility and prominence the four lead roles so that they can try to attract four major actors for these key parts instead of just one or two.

Writing for a budget is nothing I’ve ever had to consider doing before, writing as I have mostly fiction. My first two scripts featured international locations. My third script was set entirely within forty miles of where I live, my thinking being that this script might make a nice independent project someday, or at least attract interest from different types of production companies looking for smaller budget films.

Valley Film Festival

One of my scripts took “best screenplay” honors at the SF Valley International Film Festival last night. It was a nice cap to my first trip to LA. Writing isn’t exactly lonely work, as much as it is isolating. Even when you’re working in the coffee shops with other presumptuous writers (where I am right now) you are still required to climb into your own head. I can look around and see all of the same glazed looks. I understand where they are, of in their own lonely little spheres of existence in the second most populous city in the country.

Here I am making some kind of speech.
I don't recall exactly what I said, but I think it came out okay for a socially challenged writer-type.

So it’s very nice to receive validation in the form of nominations, and in this case, an actual prize. I received a trophy and a handshake. Swapped a few business cards. Ate a few cheese cubes and sat in the company of a room full of people who are pretty much in the same situation I am: devoting a portion of their lives to a creative pursuit for which they receive little remuneration.

It’s been a good trip. Without dropping names I had meetings with a small production company of which you’ve probably never heard (though I expect you will by the time their run is through) and a company you will certainly know if you’ve watched any of the best films produced during my lifetime.

And now its time to head back to the real world.