Thursday, July 31, 2008

What's a Beat?

I apologize for jumping around a bit with my blogging. One week I'm dwelling on my own fairly esoteric musings, then switching over to very basic stuff the next. I'm sure I'm boring the working screenwriters and confusing the beginners. So, apologies to all.

Today's a day for the beginners with maybe a warm fuzzy moment of recognition for the more advanced readers as well.

What's a beat? Virtually anyone new to dramatic writing asks this question. And there are many answers. A beat is first and foremost a unit of drama. It's a pearl in the necklace. It's a step forward.

It's scalable. When talking about structure, screenwriters are talking about 'big' beats -- your act breaks and midpoint and low point and so on. When you're deep in scene work, a beat means the same thing it does to an actor. It's a shift in action, objective, or circumstance. It's the moment to moment shifts, the step by step modulations that make a scene work or fall flat.

A beat is universal. Everyone involved in drama talks about beats. It's a way of connecting your work to other people's efforts. You learn to find the beats very quickly. You know a beat when you see one.

It's a beat, as in music. Beats have to line up correctly. Beats define pacing. Beats create tension or excitement. Beats invite the audience into the song of your story.

A beat might be a line of dialogue. A beat can be a new shot. A beat can be action, or a simple, intuitive shift in a character's objective. A beat is what makes the story make sense moment to moment.

It's the hard stuff. Beats will always call bulls*** on what seemed like a good idea when you were working out your synopsis. Beats are what sell or sink your scene. If the reader just doesn't believe what's going on (or even if she isn't particularly engaged), there's usually a problem with the beats.

What's that problem? Usually the writer is forgetting (or ignoring) something that's perfectly obvious a beat or two before. A character is on the verge of starvation one moment, then chatting amicably about Augustine's use of Aristotle the next. Or a character's bent on wooing a beautiful girl one moment, then when given the perfect opportunity a few beats later, steals a car instead. We've all done it. It's inevitable. Reality is slippery. Stories are slippery. It's always more complex than we know starting out.

For me, screenwriting is about working out the big beats first -- in a careful synopsis I write and rewrite until I'm happy. Then I move down into smaller beats: getting each 'big' beat to work. And after I'm happy at that level, I'll get into the really tiny beats that make a script sing. It takes a lot of work. But it keeps you focused on where the audience is. It keeps you locked into a couple absolutely central issues that are too easily forgotten.

CHARACTER. Who is the character? How does he or she react? What's his misbehavior? Her overall goal?

RELATIONSHIP. What's the power dynamic between the characters? What's really going on beneath the words on the page? How well do they know each other? How do I communicate this to an audience?

OBJECTIVE. In almost every good scene, the characters' objectives are in conflict. Frequently one character doesn't understand the other character's objective. But you do. Write to make it clear.

WHERE. Where are they? Do you REALLY know where they are? What's going on? Work hard to make that space less cloudy. Make some good choices. You'll find the beats you're looking for in the comforts and obstacles inherent in the location. And you'll be grounding the audience in the space too. They'll feel it. They'll buy it. And that'll do more to sell your script than you expect.

You've no doubt heard a million times that a winning script reads quickly. Readers will read the entire thing in a couple houra. They'll eat it up, take it in, absorb it, and remember everything. Yeah, you need a brilliant idea to start. But you also need to get everything working beat to beat.

You can lose a reader in a moment. There's always a distraction. The moment something doesn't ring true they'll be up checking their email or putting on the stereo. The moment the action feels guided by the writer's objectives rather than the characters', the reader's thinking about their aching back, or the fact that they haven't been to the gym all week. One beat out of tune can do that.

And the moment they're thinking about that stuff, you're sunk.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Shameless Plugs

I'm consulting on a couple projects, and both are highlighted in the latest edition of SF 360. I'm on board as a script/creative consultant for Lise Swensons's Saltwater, which goes into production next February. And I've been helping out unofficially on Laura Lukitsch's Beard Club also.

Check out the article here.

Monday, July 21, 2008


It's hard to go to a movie these days without Morgan Freeman dropping in on the experience to tell you all about what the characters are thinking. While he's at it, he might be framing the audience question oh-so-neatly for us. Or priming the pump for the next big plot point. It's a drag.

Many, if not most, screenwriting classes harp away on how our art is visual storytelling, and that narration is really a crutch for weak and half-baked stories. It's having Morgan Freeman do the audience's job of exploring the characters. If screenwriting teachers are to be believed, Morgan Freeman would be better off reading his lines back to the screenwriter, rather than the audience. They're notes on what's not clear, and therefore what the screenwriter hasn't accomplished yet.

So why the heck is Morgan Freeman so busy these days?

There are many reasons. Many of the reasons have not so much to do with the screenwriter's choices. Producers risking bazillions of dollars on these mere words like to see the careful framing of the plot on the page they're betting on. They want to dumb it down. It's safer.

But that's not what this post is about.

What are the positives and negatives of narration in your script?

I've laid out the basic argument against. Narrators ARE a crutch for lazy writers (and early drafts). It's simply easier to tell the audience whats going on than to work up a really compelling set up and conflict that would affect them more deeply. I've critiqued hundreds of scripts with this problem.

To look at the same problem another way, a narrator just adds another level of mediation between the audience and the story. If Morgan's been busy through the first act, we won't quite buy into the action on the screen until he's added his two cents. Morgan always points to the right way to view the action on screen. And so there's less to explore.

So why would any self-respecting screenwriter include a narrator?

Narration is an extremely economical device. You can accomplish very cumbersome narrative tasks in a quarter page. You can set up hundreds of years of galactic history. You can make sure that the audience is all on board, even if any number might have missed a very clever act of deceit on your protagonist's part. You can recap and add something while doing it. You can, yes, frame the all important audience question of What Happens Next.

Good narration works hard to not merely shape, but to be a real contribution to the story. When the narrator comes into play in Magnolia, it deepens our understanding of the philosophical underpinnings of the story while keeping us on track with the multiple storylines. The audience has been moving along with a whirlwind of developments. Anything less clever would insult and bore them.

Some great narrators are characters in the movie. They offer a point of view on the material. They aren't necessarily credible. But you do have a clearer view on what's going on in at least one character's head -- and therefore a better betting angle on what might happen in the future. In other words, the narration becomes more a way to explore assumptions and objectives than it is to accomplish the ostensible task of keeping us up to date. The writer is doing a sleight of hand here. Nothing fancy here. Move along. But human beings pick up on this stuff. Evolution and entertainment rely on it. We're walking social calculators.

Sometimes a narrator is just dead wrong about events. This can be entertaining for an audience. No less a figure than Lev Tolstoy introduced this little trick when he had a little girl describe a ballet for us.

What happens if a little girl narrates the story of her parents' divorce? What happens if a little boy narrates the tale of his teacher's work travails? Or a gullible young man tells the story of his first coke deal? When narrators understand less about the plot than the audience, there's great potential for building emotional depth into the story. This requires that narrators do their narrating in the moment, of course.

In all these strategies, the writer chooses to add something to the story with a narrator, rather than simply relying on him to do the dirty work. Writing a good narrator isn't easy. It doesn't save work, but it can take you deep into a story if you're lucky enough to find one. And if you've got a crummy narrator in your script right now, listen to him or her too. There are probably some great notes in there on what your script is missing.

Saturday, July 19, 2008


Just watched Lantana again. It's a tremendous Australian film starring Anthony Lapaglia. The plot revolves around the disappearance of a woman and how it reverberates through the lives of everyone from the detectives to her husband to her clients. It's one of those smart films we're always complaining don't get made anymore.

I like to watch movies a couple times. Even if I don't enjoy a film the second time, I get to learn something from it. It struck me halfway through that Lantana almost had to be based on a play. The characters all seem to be hanging out in the wings, ready to walk on stage in combinations you hadn't considered. There's an economy to it that allows you to believe that the cop's wife's shrink might run across his mistress's awkward fascination one night. And there's an awful lot of what I call 'pearly' dialogue: dialogue that's been worked and reworked until it shines with its own light. You see it in plays more than movies. Both the unlikely combinations and the unnatural pearliness of the dialogue can turn a viewer off in a movie. But the writer Andrew Bovell (who did in fact base the script on a play of his own) turns both to his advantage.

Not a lot of scripts really survive the transition from stage to screen. The two arts are much more different than they appear. One big difference, among many, is the audience. We too often assume movie audiences aren't that smart. We play down to them. We give them too much of a hand in understanding exactly how we want them to see the action. Genius can work there too, of course -- I've certainly marveled at it in this blog. But there's something incredibly refreshing about a playwright who intelligently and respectfully retunes his devices to work for film.

One thing to always watch for in ensemble pieces is transitions. Andrew Bovell does them remarkably well. You'll watch a scene coming to a head, a character coming to an unavoidable decision. And then you cut out and over to a new scene, and you see the *results* of that decision. The writer is employing dramatic lift -- and the audience lifts with him. The writer employs metonymy. One character walks alone at the end of a scene, her high heels clicking against the concrete. The next scene begins with a woman in heels walking down a road. Nothing said -- and everything explained. The audience naturally and unconsciously compares and contrasts the two characters. What affinity is there? Now the action is taking place in the viewer's head as much as anywhere.

We talk so much about drawing viewers in. Pages and pages are written about it. I've lectured about it. But when you get right down to it, it's really the simple, practical choices that come out of our *own* absorption in our work. Writers right now, all over the world, are overwriting scenes to express an affinity between two characters in opposite scenes. Don't be one of them. Stop, listen, remember why you're writing. And never assume the audience is dumber than you are.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Growing and Knowing Characters

I'm taking an acting class this summer. I did some acting once many years ago, but I'll always be an amateur. It's more or less a chance to challenge myself. I've been a little too complacent about writing and creation and drama. Too much teacher, not enough student.

Actors and writers come to know characters in very similar ways. You listen. You create. Actors, especially stage actors, spend a great deal of time working up back story. It helps them to find something analogous in themselves -- a hook to attach their own psyches to the character's. It's important to figure out if a character is, say, telling a joke to lob something over another character's head, or to entertain him, or to entertain himself, or...whatever. It's not always a simple answer. It's like life. There's usually several answers at the same time. Back story lets an actor engage that complexity in a visceral way.

Writers create back story too, of course. I've known writers who go through very organized processes to find it: writing out lists of the contents of pockets and carefully constructed childhood memories, and comprehensive psychologies and all that. I've never gotten that far with those methods. Yes, they can help. But I usually find my characters' back stories in my own journal. When I'm coming up with a new story, the journal shifts back and forth between me and my characters. It's messy. It takes more time. But it feels more organic to me. I can rely on what I've learned rather than consulting my notes.

If you've read my blog before, there's a good chance you've heard me go on and on about the value of a structured process to capture and streamline the chaos of creation.

And as I'd worked up this new story, I'd been following my own structured process very carefully. Each day I work up a new synopsis and logline from scratch. Each day I take what's in me, add a good night's sleep, and try to refine the conceit into something more compelling. Some days you make a lot of progress. Some days you make none.

After three or four weeks, I'll usually start building a kind of miniscript. I won't write dialogue. I won't write what I don't know. I'll concentrate on getting good, strong set ups down on the page. I'll make the conflict clear. I'll make the characters' objectives clear. I'll make my own goal clear. I'll work through an entire script that way.

But this time it didn't quite work that way. I kept writing and rewriting the synopsis. I kept wriggling around through back story in my journal. The characters, who *should* be leaping off the page (if I say so myself), just weren't.

I took the leap, and just decided to write. And while the characters did follow the basic shape of the synopsis, they inevitably had better ways of getting themselves in trouble than I'd found on my own. They spoke more sharply. They acted from their own problems.

And there were more problems than I counted on. I found myself writing quickly. But then I've been going back, more like an actor than a writer, and finding more back story. More ways of looking at them. Finding what's true.

And here I am, more student than teacher, humbled by what these characters have to offer me and the story. So much more than I imagined. I'm humble again. And I'm happier writing than I have been in a long time.

And yeah, I'll probably end up chucking out months of work. So what? It's a first draft. And I'm happy.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Ira Glass on Storytelling #3

Ira Glass of This American Life talks about starting out in radio storytelling. It's good advice for anybody still maturing as a writer. By the way, this is one of several youtube posts he made about storytelling. Check him out..

Tuesday, July 8, 2008


It's summertime, and that means I've been slacking off on the blog lately. Summer means a couple things in San Francisco: barbecues, swimming pools, oh wait. Summer means a couple things in San Francisco: fog, the smoke of distant forest fires, and the painful, self-loathing early stages of a new script. We're still looking at an ugly duckling this morning, but no doubt it'll turn into a beautiful swan later this afternoon. Summertime means crappy movies -- big, obvious Hollywood fare that makes you feel used as the multiplex spits you back out onto the street. And my partner has devoted all three Netflix films to the execrable work of French director Catherine Breillat. Sadistic, poorly written, egotistical stuff, if you ask me.

So naturally I was looking for a mindless little kids' movie, preferably in primary colors, to cheer myself up. Wall-E fit the bill. Right? Something simple. Rehashed. Safe. I mean we've all seen this plot a million times: a trash compacting robot still functioning 700 years after humans have abandoned a decimated Earth falls in love with a probe, finds a living plant, and pulls humanity's head out of its collectively obese ass. Not again! Ah, Pixar!

I want you to put your screenwriting cap on for a second and think about that. How easy would it be to make this script a complete and utter disaster? Forget about Wall-E for a moment, and ask yourself how YOU would approach the idea. And remember, it's for kids. Now try it with a main character that can't speak. On a barren landscape that looks like Wall-Mart exploded, with no one to communicate with except a cockroach for the first half of the movie. For the second half of the movie, we'll move the action to a giant space ship that looks like a multiplex, and attack consumerist culture for destroying the earth. And remember your prime directive -- entertain those kids!

Now take your hat off, and bow to the writer-director, Andrew Stanton. He's had his hand in most Pixar successes, from Finding Nemo to Monster's Inc. to Toy Story and Toy Story 2. He's a pretty smart guy.

How does he do it? How does this story not fall apart, drift into unbearable longing for the end of time, leave the kids wailing uncontrollably five minutes into the film?

Very, very careful application of some very clear rules of screenwriting. That's how. There are very few things that are 'proven' about writing. And half of them are in screenwriting. Take advantage of them. And don't tell the novelists!

You can map out the beats of the three-act structure with a remarkable degree of accuracy with this film. Wall-E meets the unachievable girl of his dreams right on time. She's a 42nd generation iPod, and she fires a death ray at him. Take that, Pretty Woman. Wanna lock your characters into the second act: she shuts down and awaits transport when he gives her the living plant. Want a big frying-pan-into-the-fire midpoint? Holding onto the OUTSIDE of a shuttle in outer space, he finds himself on the space cruiser that houses what's left of humanity. Want to see how all is lost at the end of the second act? Want to learn how to speed up the action as you approach the climax? Yep. It's all there.

Think about character. Wall-E can't really say much beyond an approximation fo his own name and his girlfriend's. But his misbehavior is incredibly clear. He's a roving trash collector. He collects. His problem? He's lonely. How does Stanton communicate that? Well, he's alone on a toxic earth. Sounds like a problem to me.

I could go on, but I won't. I usually grimace my way through a couple blockbusters a year, trying to allow myself to be somewhat surprised by the almost mathematically predictable story. Wall-E gave me hope. It fits the algorithm. But it *exploits* the algorithm, rather than playing safe slave to it. And guess what:

The movie actually has deep meaning.

And guess what:

There wasn't one unruly kid in that audience. No questions for mom. Total, rapt attention. The kids knew what was going on. And they listened.