Monthly Archives: May 2014

How NOT to introduce a character

“In closing, […] screenwriters — you need to chiggity check yo’selves before you wreck yourselves.” “#betheFUCKINGChange”
―@mysteryexec (Twitter)

**Oh ye of sensitive dispositions: I apologize in advance for the all swearing in this post. It is necessary.**

A while back (almost a year ago) the sage @mysteryexec of Twitter fame went on a bit of a rant:

“pretty without pretense or solicitation” “pretty without trying” — If you have this as character description you are a BAD, LAZY WRITER.

STOP WRITING FEMALE CHARACTERS AS FUCK PUPPETS. YOU ARE ALL BAD WRITERS. ALL OF YOU.

TALK TO ACTUAL WOMEN. MALE WRITERS, YOU ARE ALL DOING IT WRONG.

HAVE A WOMAN READ YOUR FUCKING SCRIPT AND CALL YOU OUT ON YOUR AWFUL FUCKING DIALOGUE.

“She’s quirky”. NO SHIT!!! WE BETTER GET ZOOEY GODDAMN DESCHANEL ON THE LINE RIGHT FUCKING NOW!!! LAZY LAZY LAZYYYYY.

“It’s stylized,” you argue. NO. IT IS SHIT. NO WOMEN TALK LIKE THIS YOU FUCKING HACK.

THE FACT THAT REPS BRING THIS SHIT TO ME IS EQUALLY EMBARRASSING.

So sayeth the Lord of the Mystery Twitter Accounts.  Amen.

However, again almost a year later, I am still seeing this crap in the scripts I read.  “The only thing prettier than her face is her ass.” “Her eyes were clear blue gems in a porcelain face.” (also – present tense people, please.)  “Girl-next-door looks with a not so sweet mind.”  Yes these are real.  But you see the problem.  Besides being pretty awful, they also tell me NOTHING about the character.

Now I admit, I was guilty of this until the amazing ladies at Script Chix (http://scriptchix.com/ shout out to Miranda Sajdak) hit me over the head and pointed out that I wasn’t any better.  I take solace in the fact I was doing it to both male and female characters, though that doesn’t make me a better writer, only a less misogynistic one.  But it is totally and completely lazy.  Here’s a piece of advice from the Script Chix: Hollywood does not hire actors who are not good-looking.  Therefore it is entirely redundant to specify in the script that they are good looking.  It’s a given.  It doesn’t tell us WHO the character is.  And on a smaller soapbox, it limits casting.  Is it important that your heroine is blonde?  Is it important that your hero has green eyes?  Of course not.  I tried to argue once that it was, actually, important to my character that she was pretty and that it influenced who she was as a person.  But the way to go about that was not to talk about how beautiful she was.  It was to show how she acted in the scene.  I’m sure “show don’t tell” has been beaten into your brain enough by now, but it’s as true for character descriptions as it is for anything else.

Look at some screenplays from writers you admire (I’m not going to compile a list for you, that’s what research is for) and pay attention to the descriptions.  As John August says, “Look for details that have an iceberg quality: only a little bit sticks above the surface, but it represents a huge mass of character information the reader can fill in.”  Think simple, think memorable, think beyond hair color and ass shape.

First impressions are forever, make sure yours don’t suck.

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Friends on TV

“In a very real way, television is the new mythos. It defines the world, reinterprets it. The seasons do not change because Persephone goes underground. They change because new episodes air, because sweeps week demands conflagrations and ritual deaths. The television series rises slowly, arcs, descends into hiatus, and rises again with the bright, burning autumn.”
―Catherynne Valente

 

The Social Surrogacy Hypothesis sounds like an episode of The Big Bang Theory (actually it IS the name of my BBT spec, so don’t steal it), but in reality this is a very real phenomenon of psychology which says that people can form social attachments to their favorite television characters.  This research is supposedly proves why Friends really feel like your friends.  Or why someone (don’t know who, just someone, no one in particular, stop looking at me) would vow to never watch Lost again week after week as their favorite characters are methodically killed off, only to return like a moth to a bright screen.  And then repeat that with Grey’s Anatomy and then again with Game of Thrones even though I had already read the books and totally knew those people were about to die horribly.  But this isn’t about me.  I think.

This parasocial element of television has helped “Who shot JR?” and “Joanie loves Chachi” and “Yadda yadda yadda” become an ingrained part of our culture.  Studies have shown that people feel less lonely, less sad, less afraid, when their television is on.  And this is a GOOD thing.  Of course shunning the outside world to watch reruns of Gillian’s Island is probably going too far.  But, though it seems crazy, it is perfectly normal to get caught up in the imaginary lives of the Gallaghers of South Side Chicago or the Starks of Winterfell.

However, the sense of belonging, which can buffer a negative mood and even increase self-esteem, is part of the reason we love television so much.  It’s why we keep returning even though they killed off Charlie, why we cheer for Alicia even when she does something a little scummy, why we may or may not have cried just a little bit when Cam and Mitchell got married, and why if Daryl dies we riot.

So what does this mean for us as writers? (after all this is a writing blog)  It means television is all about the characters.  We start watching because of the hook, but we return because of the characters.  So when you’re working on that new pilot and thinking about your story engine and all the little plot points that will allow the series to get to episode 100, remember, it all starts and ends with the characters.  I’ll be posting a little more on television in the weeks to come, so tune in (har har.) to get some tips and trick on starting that pilot or spec.

Because admit it, you totally squealed like an eighth-grade girl when Sheldon kissed Amy.

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The yeah buts

“The world is round people!”
―Cate Blanchett

People are saying 2013 is the year of women in the box office.  As recent as 2008, major studio head were still making ridiculous statements about never funding another film with a female protagonist. (Click here for a great article from 2008 about this, courtesy of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at SDSU, who by the way, puts out the Celluloid Ceiling Report every year.)  But after Bridesmaids grossed $170 million and everyone picked their jaws up off the floor, perhaps a few people actually paid attention to the fact that the film starred an ensemble of women and yet both men and women bought tickets to see it.

You see, the idea before was that men and women would both see films with male protagonists, but only women would go to the theater for a female protagonist.  Also, it was common knowledge that if women were on screen talking, men would just tune out.  This was the justification when it was pointed out again and again that though women make up over 50% of the box office, they make up less than 30% of SPEAKING characters. WTF.

Enter Frozen and Catching Fire.

In December 2013, Catching Fire had beat out Man of Steel as the third highest grossing film of the year.  Gravity beat out both World War Z and Star Trek Into DarknessFrozen is the 5th highest grossing film OF ALL TIME at $1.2 billion worldwide. If anyone knows the power of Frozen, it’s the mother of a four-year-old girl. Everything in our house is Elsa.

And then came the “Yeah, but…”s

Catching Fire was already a major bestseller with a multi-million fan base…”

The Heat stared Melissa McCarthy and Sandy Bullock. They’re both very hot right now…”

Frozen is Disney at it’s best…”

Anything to downplay the important fact that all of these films were amazing vehicles for complex female protagonists.  And they made money.  Lots and lots of money.  It’s time for the “yeah, buts” to end. It’s time to start spending more money on women, both on screen and behind it.  It’s time to stop pretending that this discrimination is for profit.  The world is round people.

Every women in Hollywood and probably the publishing world has encountered some form of misogyny, whether purposeful or not.  In my own experience, I applied to a well known film school in LA for my MFA.  They asked me to pick a secondary field besides Screenwriting and I choose Cinematography, because that is what interests me.  When I was accepted I was surprised to find that my secondary field had been changed to… Production Design.  Now, I don’t mean to demean production design, because in reality it is a fascinating, difficult and highly creative field, but at the time it felt like they were shunting me away from the camera towards more “feminine” pursuits.  I was and still am probably reading way too much into it, but when I discovered the change I was pretty upset, especially when you consider that huge dearth of women DPs in Hollywood at present.  In fact, when watching the Oscars this year, one couldn’t help but notice that the only categories which consistently recognized women are Production Design and Costume Design.  I didn’t end up going to that school.

Later, as a screenwriter I was contacted several times to polish or rewrite or punch up dialogue, because I “write women so well.”  That’s not a bad thing, but for crying out loud, can’t a girl write a good car chase or epic war battle every now and then?

To better illustrate my point, here’s a great infographic from the New York Film Academy:

 

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