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.

Someone Please Invent Emergency Writing Retreats for Mamas

jodi-comic-3-29-11Here in New York, summer has sprung. Coats are shed. Sandals stepped into. Sprinklers turn on in playgrounds. Winter is a distant memory.

The promise of weeks and weeks of uninterrupted awesome, commonly called the summer vacation, stretches in front of you, as well as the challenge to reinvent yourself…to be different somehow when fall rolls around with its Back to School specials and freshly sharpened pencils. I suppose that’s why in addition to the calendar of fun that the Chicklet (now a seven year old!) is forcing me to make, I am hankering to carve aside some time for reflection and work.

When I became a mom, my mom-writer mentor said your time will never be the same. Interruption will be your only constant. Kids interrupt you. They rely on you. They need your help. They’re stuck. They fall. They spill. They need to get something down from a high shelf. As a work-at-home mom, my work has changed immensely from the dusk to dawn at the writing desk, sipping hot tea as I type away on the laptop, a shag rug at my feet. Now work comes in spurts and rarely has the level of focus I like, except when they go to sleep which after you unpack the day gives you two hours max…not counting the time spent surfing the web and catching up on TV.

Small wonder that along with dreaming of a world where I cash in on the sleep my kids owe me, my writing mom soul is becoming obsessed with a summer retreat. I get this urge every summer, but by then of course deadlines are gone, residencies are only available the following year and I am really bad at planning that far in advance. And then many of the residencies are two weeks, four weeks, a month. It’s hard for a mom-writer to go away for that time. Heck, it’s hard enough for a mom-writer to go out when it’s bedtime.  And then the expense and the solitude…I don’t know how I’d deal with a month of quiet reflection, and I know my bank account couldn’t handle it either. A girl like me needs the emergency retreat: immediate gratification, four days max, a writing retreat boot camp if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor.

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The idea of this emergency retreat has taken hold, especially now I’m reading more about self-directed retreats. Now these sound like my speed. I don’t have to wait on anyone or apply or submit a work sample. I can just book a room somewhere for a couple days and go. And then there’s a moment’s pause: is being a solo female traveler on a self-directed retreat such a terrific idea? I don’t know…but it’s exciting, intoxicating: the thought of the uninterrupted hours, the planning of future scripts, the thoughtful scenes I’ll write, the satisfaction of plowing ahead with projects I’ve been writing piece-meal and looking up a couple hours later to find you’ve added fifteen pages to the count.

And I guess, as things start to come together on the old idea  (crazy Bollywood musical), the inevitable question is what next? A period of quiet reflection seems like exactly what this mama needs to figure it out..though I’m still not sure if, or where, I’ll find it.

Lessons from the Multiplex: Silver Linings Playbook

Part of writing is watching movies and learning from them. From time to time, I will force myself to step away from the computer and the endless grind of churning out work and  get a real education watching stuff. And I’ll post about it here briefly, and what I learned.

First up, Silver Linings Playbook which is my favorite movie of 2012 and which until two weeks ago was still playing at my local movie theater.

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Still playing at a movie theater near me

Still playing at a movie theater near me

Here’s an example of a film that wakes up when a character enters. SLP is just burbling along as a familiar trope of the returned, mentally-ill, younger prodigal son (Pat) who comes home to some suburban Philadelphia neighborhood. It’s cute and funny and the character has a plan about getting his life back (alluding to finding a silver lining in everything, which I gotta say as dialogue is the one thing that felt a little contrived) so we’re rooting for him. Turns out he had a colossal breakdown sending him to a mental facility when his English teacher wife was cheating with the history teacher who had tenure (nice little detail). He has an Asian therapist that he checks in with so we can seamlessly learn this backstory. And his dad, Robert de Niro, who thank goodness, is more than just coloring by numbers here in a role with some meat on it, is a superstitious bookie forced into it by losing his job. He’s Eagles obsessed which is a neat way to tie the theme of mental illness to football in an unexpected juxtaposition that works really well.

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Nothing to do with the writing, but check out the great comic framing.

So the scene’s set…a sympathetic character, a fun, quirky family (but not in an overly, indie-indulgent way) and some stakes…win my wife back. And in walks the Jennifer Lawrence character, Tiffany, who is like the archetypal bombshell romantic comedy heroine turned up to eleven. She’s a tornado: an ex-slut widow, who will always be a little “sloppy and dirty”, who is prepared to rip the scab off of Pat’s suffering. Here’s the moment I fell in love with her. A bewildered Pat, taken aback by her sexual aggressiveness on the first night they meet says “How old are you?” Tiffany replies “Old enough to have a marriage end and not wind up in a mental hospital.” (!)
But Tiffany dangles the opportunity for Pat to get a letter to his estranged wife as a bargaining chip for being her partner in a dancing contest and Pat, desperate to get back to his wife, but also afraid of messing it up by falling for Tiffany (a realistic dilemma), agrees. And the contest injects a nice bit of tension into the second act, especially when it’s coupled with the double or nothing bet on the Eagles game. (the parlay! a nice bit of random knowledge I picked up from this movie.)
Lots of things work in SLP: the minor characters who come to the fore in unexpected ways (the Asian therapist, the hen-pecked husband, the perfect brother), the harsh on the outside-fragile on the inside Tiffany, the ridiculous dance contest where our leads are hilariously moderate in an unremarkable way. And it was nice even seeing Julia Stiles as an all grown up ball-buster.
I think, against all odds, this is my favorite movie of the year.

WHAT I LEARNED: Tiffany reminded me a little of one of my own rom-com heroine characters, and by contrast, showed me how much farther I need to push that character. Extremes are where the real drama lies. Of course it helps when your extreme is courtesy mental illness because that, in a way, makes all behavior plausible, but there’s probably a way you can push your character further that makes sense.

The Bravest Person in The Room

Nora Ephron (1941-2012), Thanks and Goodbye

Nora Ephron (1941-2012), Thanks and Goodbye (Photo credit: k-ideas)

Nora Ephron died last June and it hit me in a way that I didn’t imagine it would. It is true that I love rom-coms and write them and hate that they have morphed into treacly formulaic tropes about career women and rough at the edges men, unendingly played in my nightmares by Katherine Heigel and Gerald Butler. But there are plenty of talented writers who write iconic films in my wheelhouse who if they died I’d say, well that’s a shame and move on.

Perhaps how I felt about Nora had to do with briefly meeting her at a New York Women In Film and TV event where she was the consummate storyteller and made everyone in the room feel like she was personally connecting with them. (I believe Tom Hanks when he says that he only took on “Lucky Guy” on Broadway to get a chance to hang out with her. She was that cool in her quintessential New York black turtleneck.)

Nora offered up lots of advice that night, replete with her trademark wit and pithiness but the advice that resonates the most with me had nothing to do with writing characters or dialogue. What resonates with me was the advice she gave to those who want to direct  that as a director you always have to be “the bravest person in the room”. She urged us to armor up and over-prepare (storyboards! shotlists! lookbooks!), advice which I’m taking to heart as a producer on the Bollywood-set project.

As it stands, the entertainment business operates out of a position of fear: fear of greenlighting the wrong pic, fear of choosing the wrong script, fear of pissing off the wrong powerful exec. It is so much easier and safer to do nothing and risk nothing and never be wrong. That, however, is not how movies get made. And while Nora was specifically addressing directing, she could just have easily have been talking about writing or producing.

To write, you have to be the bravest person in the room: to not be afraid of writing something awful after you’ve written something good…to not be afraid of writing something controversial if it’s what you want to tackle…to not be afraid of being misunderstood. To produce, you’ve got to be the bravest person in the room: to commit to a project that could be a flop, to take money from investors that they may lose, to run headlong in pursuit of talent and distributors even when you could be cruising for a bruising. In short, making art is an act of courage. Art is bigger than fear.

I have no trouble imagining that Nora Ephron, who the studios didn’t want to direct “This is My Life” and who refused to be pigeonholed, was often the bravest in the room. Even that night at that little New York Women in Film forum where she was ostensibly promoting “Julie and Julia.” Nora, who kept her leukemia a secret to all but her closest friends, saving us the long goodbye and going out on her own terms in the end.