The Point of Plot

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My first script-reading job in New York, a producer taught me the term “story point.”

“What’s the story point of the scene?” he’d ask about a particularly cool action set piece or four pages of rom-com banter. It was a rude awakening that dialogue and character can only camouflage so much. It sometimes seems ruthless but at the end of every scene you should ask: How does this drive my story forward? What is the essential information conveyed that the audience needs to retain in order to appreciate the story as it unfolds? How can I deliver that in a succinct, uncluttered way?

Plot is the mechanism by which you engage an audience in what happens to your character by creating a situation where stakes gradually rise to put your character in an unbearable decision, forcing him or her to make a decision that ultimately reveals who he or she is. A lot of times as writers we get caught up in character, and that’s good. You want a rich, fully dimensional character but sometimes your very intimate knowledge of a character can slow you down, can make you bring every single detail about this character you’ve built into a scene, and that’s a mistake…because not every single detail about your character is important unless it affects the storyline.

And here’s a dirty truth…if you’re a really talented writer and the character you set up is exceptional, specific, hasn’t been seen before and we fall in love, the mechanics of plot aren’t that important. But you’re stacking the deck against yourself and you’re counting on being lucky, on snagging the right cast, the right performance, or on tapping into the zeitgeist at the right time.

Take “Lost in Translation” for example, Sofia Coppola’s 2003 breakout hit.

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Here’s a review from About.com.

Bob Harris (Bill Murray) is a fading, middle-aged movie star who comes to Tokyo to make whiskey commercials for a ridiculously high fee. Temporarily running away from his life and the constant demands of his wife (who remains a nagging voice on the telephone), Harris is a lonely man. He is disconcerted by the absolute foreignness of Japan. Lost in a strange country, he is unable to sleep. His disappointment in himself is palpable. Coppola wrote the role especially for Bill Murray and courted him, knowing that she would not make the film without him. Given Murray’s warm and nuanced performance, it is impossible to imagine any other actor who could have pulled off such an unaffected combination of humor and tenderness. Bob Harris is reminiscent of Murray’s Herman Blume in “Rushmore”–funny and wry and wanting.

“Lost In Translation” works because there’s such an interesting specific character that we’ve never seen before caught up in a modern situation (fading actors making money from their fame in remote places) and because the filmmaker is able to so accurately translate the mood of sleepwalking through Tokyo as a metaphor for how we sleepwalk through life. There’s a character and a “want” and two terrific performances and it works.

But it’s not easy…even if it looks like it is.  As a result, Lost in Translation makes a whole lot of lesser writers write a whole lot of talky scenes that go nowhere, in the same way Pulp Fiction did before it.

What is it about us as writers that makes us look at a four legged chair and say, no, I’m bored with that…I’m going to make mine with three?

My theory is that we shy away from plot because it can feel mechanical. I also think it’s harder to make a movie that’s all plot resonate compared to a movie that’s all character. But plot matters in so much as it’s a way to shed light on character. Without it a story wanders, lacks tension and that character we were so interested in at the outset, struggles to keep us engaged.

It’s Not About Selling: Pitching Like a Human Being

Last week I went to a pitch party.  I hate pitching. Pitching runs counter to every part of my being– I’m from a former British colony where you don’t “blow your own horn”– but I made the exception and trekked to this pitch event since it was organized by an old teacher I hadn’t seen in forever and  I hoped to run into a few old writing class colleagues. It also didn’t hurt that the event was in a cool-looking bar on the Lower East Side.

What pitching feels like to me.

What pitching feels like to me.

Linking up with the class colleagues part was a bust. The one who wrote these great zombie movies moved to San Francisco, another one who was writing this hilarious and ingenious period comedy wasn’t there, presumably giving the shill-a-thon a miss, and and I saw only a few vaguely remembered faces. Still it was a fun night out, a sort of cocktail party pitch session, very different from the last sweaty-palmed thing I attended where three writers were set loose dry-mouthed in a room with five minutes to spend at each weary executive’s chair-desk.

The executives last week might have been just as weary but at least they had the benefit of alcohol to get them through the night. And the event underlined the importance of reaching not for the “bag of gold spec sale” but a genuine relationship with a human being that could be built on going forward. You’re talking to a person, Teach said…take a moment and acknowledge that.

And Teach laid out one other pearl that will help me rethink how I look at pitching. Many writers feel self-conscious being their own hype machines, rattling off achievements and pithy zingers of the “It’s Aliens meets Wedding Crashers” variety we hope will make the production company or executive or agent see dollar signs but if there’s one thing about writers,  we love to help. We’re comfortable helping. What if instead of looking at pitching as selling, we looked at it as helping?

What pitching could be (with the exec as cuddly teddy bear)

What pitching could be (with the exec as cuddly teddy bear)

Go on. Try it. Look at the whole pitch game from the point of view of the executive…Do you have something that can help them fill a gap in their slate? Do you have a skillset that might be helpful to them on a project they already have? If you don’t write the genre or the type of script they’re looking for, don’t try to change their mind or foist your project on them regardless, help them out by leading them to a fellow writer who does.

And the final way to help? Write a good script. Readers and execs are always complaining about how many bad scripts there are out there. (One producer I met estimated in the last six months he’d read 80 bad scripts.) The people who need content to do their jobs are hungry to read something good. That’s where we come in because it begins with us. It starts on on the page.

Finding Your Tribe

Being a successful screenwriter requires such a delicate combination of “in-your-headedness” and social skills it’s a wonder anyone succeeds. It’s a balance I struggle with constantly, especially as a mom which in itself puts limits on the time you get to sit down and write. (When you finally get some time to work, you guard it jealously and can be loathe to do anything else.)

But back in 2007 I  made one of the best New Year Resolutions ever when I decided I had to find a writers group post the MFA workshop experience. I didn’t know what to expect, only knew that after six years of going it alone I couldn’t continue to write in a vacuum. The group I chose was affiliated with a NY women’s film organization so I figured it would also be a good chance to network and get out of the house. As a work at home mom, the things that you used to take for granted, like a commute on the train, take on a quaint, exciting anthropological bent.

I can’t believe it’s seven years since I sat down at that table next to women I’d never met before. The group has changed wildly since then, the original women’s org has disappeared and re-emerged as something else, but a few core members have withstood everything, month-in, month-out and have been an invaluable first ear in hearing so much of what I’ve written in that period. When I think about finding a tribe, a support group that can help fortify you from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, I think of them. And many of the things that I thought were weaknesses at the time…the fact that we were so tiny in number, s0 informal and unfussy, are the things that I think have made us last.

Many of the following tips from Huffington Post about creating/finding your tribe I’ve discovered on this seven year journey. In what can be a rough, unpredictable business that doesn’t value friendship, I’m finding the tribe indispensable.

10 WAYS TO CREATE YOUR OWN TRIBE

1. Start small and stay small. Add too many people and you won’t feel obliged to show up because you’ll feel you won’t be missed if you’re not there. Though it feels strange to keep it tight, if you open it too big, it won’t be sustainable.

2. When forming your group, find a couple of folks you love and ask them each to find one more person. This creates an immediate circle of women who will probably get along and who most likely will start off with a shared mindset.

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Even hotshot Hollywood scribes Dana Fox, Diablo Cody, Liz Meriwether and Lorene Scafaria need the tribe. They called theirs “The Fempire.”

3. Find a common thread and work from there. Maybe you’re all mamas or artists or marathon runners or inventors or some such. A common ground is a great starting point.

 4. Start with a clear intention and a shared desire — a writing workshop,an entrepreneurial guide, a retreat, etc. And start off with something that you pay for which will make you more likely to commit fully to it. Somehow when we pay, we feel more committed to show up. Like it has more value somehow.

5. Keep it purposeful. The social aspect is fun and of course crucial to it continuing year after year, but the commitment to a book or writing exercises or something definitively productive makes it more likely that you will show up fully and regularly.

6. Make a regular meeting time. Rather than having to discuss it each week or each month, make it the same — Tuesday nights or First Thursday or something to give it it’s rightful place.

7. Find a sustainable time slot — something that won’t be easily pre-empted by some other meeting or commitment or family need. For us it was Tuesday nights at 9:15 p.m.. Since we all had littles at the time and full plates otherwise, we knew this time slot was one we could make available week after week after week.

8. Once you’ve formed and your group has been going a while, hire someone every now and again to bring you to the next level — when the group needs a bump up, hire out to reignite the commitment.

9. Name it. By naming it, you can call it by its name and by calling it you are acknowledging it’s powerful existence. And giving your family something to call it too that feels more powerful than just, “Mom’s group of women.” We call ours Goodness. Because that’s what it is to us: pure, unadulterated goodness.

10. Ask your family for support and encouragement in making it work.Even your kids. Ask them to joyfully give you the space and ask them too to help you get yourself out the door so that you can meet up regularly. If they moan or beg you to stay, remind them of all you get from it, which in turn will mean they, too, will get something from it.

New Year, New Gifts

About two weeks ago, a couple days before Christmas, I came out of my neighborhood grocery store and saw the following taped to a munimeter.

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I ripped off  COURAGE.

On the back was this quote…

“Whatever goes wrong can be used to your advantage, providing it goes wrong enough.”
-Tom Robbins

Thank you kind soul who put this up/ the universe for this gift. 2014 will give me a chance to prove Mr. Robbins right.

What did you ask for this holiday season?

Hope you got it and I hope this new year, so full of promise and possibility, is filled with lots and lots of laughter.