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Craft & Career

Issue 11                                                                                                       May 28, 2010

Dear Writer,
On Tuesday, I start full time preproduction on a low-budget film but I wanted to get our eleventh issue out to you while I can still see straight.  I won't be insulted if you read it after Memorial Day. 
But do read it!  I adapted one of my favorite screenwriting lessons into print for this issue.  Even if the story or storyteller doesn't resonate with you, stick with it. This may be as concise a discussion as I ever give on the nature of story, dilemma and the relationship between character and structure.
ScriptShadow is helping me out with a hybrid Career Corner/Attitude Adjustment guest column: a reprint of his blog: Why do Bad Scripts Sell?  And I am taking some of my Facebook postings and turning them into a mini-column - Things I learned about Screenwriting While Directing - for a few months.   
Remember, the Champion screenwriting Competition has a Grand Prize of $10,000.  That's about $100 per page, but the Champion Corner tells you how to triple or quadruple that amount with our $500 Short Short Prize.
Catch us on the A-List and Champion blogs. Plus, follow us on Twitter or become a Facebook fan to keep up to date with our announcements.  
Jim Mercurio
Jim Mercurio 
"Love and duty called you some place higher..."
Bruce Springsteen
Into The Fire
In the last issue I said that my WWTBD? (What would the Boss Do?) column would be on hiatus for the next few months while I geared up for production. 
I lied.
I decided to kill two birds with one stone... and one cliché.  I am going to use a song by Bruce Springsteen for today's craft lesson.  STOP!  Take your finger off of the "Delete" button.  The usual WWTBD? column may take a few creative liberties in its relevance to screenwriting, but I promise that this will be very much on point.  
Within one short song, Bruce can set up the character's need and dilemma and then echo and mirror it concisely in a subplot and subplot character (foil).  From there he can create a theme out of the resolution of the dilemma.  In No Surrender, Bruce said, "We learned more from a three minute record than we ever learned in school."  Well, today, we are going to learn from a five-minute record.  Or, more likely, a CD or YouTube... audio.
The song The Line is from Bruce Springsteen's sparse acoustic album The Ghost of Tom Joad, which has several story- or narrative-songs.  In the song, a guy on hard times (specifically-defined as we will see) takes a job on the Mexico/US "line" with the Border Patrol.  He falls in love with a woman and risks his job and the trust of his partner to help her and her brother cross the border.  Here are the lyrics to the song - consider pulling them up so that they can accompany the article as you read.

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 20 Seats to Champion Lab in Los Angeles
with Jim Mercurio


I've been receiving this question a lot lately so I thought I'd write an article about it. The question is, "Really? This script sold?? This is what passes for worth half a million dollars these days?? Are you f'ing kidding me??" Loose translation: "Why do bad scripts sell?" I think it's a fair question to ask. But I don't think it's the right way to ask it.

Almost every single spec sale script I've read shows a basic understanding of how to tell a story. What I mean by that is they have a beginning, a middle, and an end. And they understand that the beginning is their setup, the middle is their conflict, and the end is their resolution. 90% of amateur screenplays I read do not possess this understanding. The story usually stumbles, rambles or wanders because the basic notion of what's supposed to happen in each of these sections hasn't been learned yet. This accounts for a percentage of the confusion of why people don't understand why "bad" scripts sell.

But the remaining portion may be perfectly valid. The script is simply, technical skill or no technical skill, not very good. So how does this happen? Don't I (and everyone else) always preach that in order to sell a script you have to write something GREAT? How can that be true when all these mediocre scripts are getting snatched up for hundreds of thousands of dollars each year?

To answer this question, let's look at a few examples for why a bad script might sell.

Example 1: A company is looking for a specific kind of script for their slate. Maybe it's a teen sex comedy. Maybe it's a Halloween'ish horror flick. Maybe it's an erotic thriller. So they put out some feelers to agents they have relationships with, who in turn speak with the writers they represent, who in turn find old scripts that sound close enough to what the company is looking for, which they then clean up and send to the company. The company reads all the submissions and ends up buying the one that best fits their needs. Is the script always great? No. But it's close enough so that, with a little development, they're confident they can get it into good shape.

Example 2: Company D is looking around and realizing that the whole graphic novel craze, the one they thought would be over in two minutes? Well, it's obviously here to stay. And while they were asleep at the wheel, their competition snatched up all the best properties. Feeling the pressure from inside and outside their company, they need a cool graphic novel to compete. So there's a savvy intern who has a writer friend who just adapted a cool but obscure graphic novel. Does the boss want to read it? Of course! He needs a graphic novel property yesterday. Because the pressure's on, he bypasses his reader and reads the script himself. Through the filter of desperation, even though he knows the script needs a lot of work, it takes care of a very important need, so he buys it.

Example 3: A writer coming off a recent sale delves back into his library of scripts, does a quick rewrite on one of them, hands it to his agent who packages it with a hot actor and producer, and sells it a week later. Is the script good? Maybe. Maybe not. So why did it sell? Because the writer had heat. Because being able to flaunt a script from the "hot new writer in town" brings attention to a company. Because in the business world, people aren't very good at measuring the value of art. So they go by track records. If the script is from the guys who wrote The Hangover, starring Jim Carrey with Wes Anderson attached to direct...that's a package they can trust. From a business perspective, if you include the script as one of the four elements being sold (script, writers, actor, director), which of those elements do you think carries the least weight? Obviously the script. This kind of thing happens quite often.

Example 4: A production company is developing a movie about an overweight Casanova. They hear that a new script is hitting the market about an overweight seductress. Uh-oh, if that movie's made, their movie's dead. So what do they do? They buy the script to bury it! Yes, this really happens. They will buy the script, whether it's great, okay, or terrible, just to eliminate the competition.

So now you know Hollywood's dirty little secret. Bad scripts do sell! But here's the thing about all of the above examples: THEY DON'T APPLY TO YOU. Go back and read that capped sentence a dozen times. None of those examples apply to your situation. You don't have agents or managers or the luxury of pitching movies over lunch to people who can actually make them. The ONLY thing you have...is your screenplay. And that's why YOUR screenplay DOES have to be great.

And this goes back to what I was saying earlier. It takes time to even understand what "great" is. It takes writing half a dozen screenplays, studying all the major screenwriting books, reading at least 500 spec scripts, getting 100 people to give you feedback. It's a humbling reality but learning how to write something awesome TAKES TIME.

I think the problem is that we hear these once every decade stories about Quentin Tarantino and Diablo Cody and we think that's the only way to break in. "Nobody" to "Household Name" in less than 24 hours. Sure, if you're singing on American Idol. But that's not the way most screenwriters succeed in this business. Diablo Cody and Quentin Tarantino are the lotto winners. The rest of us have to earn our millions the old-fashioned way - through hard work and perseverance.

That means writing your first spec, making a million mistakes, writing another one, making half a million more, writing your third one, then entering it in contests, then sending query letters to managers who never get back to you, and even though you really don't want to because you know it's going to be awkward, calling that friend of a friend of a gaffer because he's the only person you know in LA and begging him to read your script, and doing all that shit for two years until a manager finally calls you back and wants to hip-pocket you. It includes taking any meeting (in person or on the phone) and selling the shit out of yourself and finally getting a lousy $1500 re-rewrite on an awful independent horror film even after your manager disappears with the money and you're forced to do it for free. Then taking more meetings and landing a few more small gigs and through the connections you've made, finding an agent. Then getting some even bigger jobs, and maybe becoming a junior writer on a TV show that ends up becoming a cult hit, and using that buzz to rewrite some direct-to-DVD sequel for a movie you actually watched in the theater, and then, through this vast network of connections you've created during all this time, going to your top five contacts when you're finally convinced that your action-adventure masterpiece in the vein of Indiana Jones is ready, and pitching it to them. And having them all say no to you, and then seriously considering giving up this crazy business because all it is is a bunch of heartache and then getting a call from someone you don't remember and having them explain that you sent them a script seven years ago when they were a gaffer, and now they're a producer at Warner Brothers and they just read your script and thought it was amazing, but it's not quite what they're looking for, but oh by the way, do you happen to have anything in the action adventure genre? Maybe something like Indiana Jones?............And somehow, one week later, you did it. You sold a fucking screenplay.

And if that sounds like the most miserable experience ever to you, then I'm going to be honest here. You probably aren't cut out for screenwriting. Because this is how people usually find success in this business. And for those who stick around, it's wonderful, because you realize at some point that it was never about the spec sale in the first place. It was about your love of writing.

So I'll say it again. The one thing that you have 100% control over in this crazy industry, is writing the best script you're capable of writing. That's it. Don't get caught up in whether some shitty script sells and what that means for your writing. That doesn't have any bearing on you whatsoever. You just need to write the BEST SCRIPT you're capable of writing. That's it. And if you keep doing that, over and over again, at a certain point, you just may write something amazing...that sells...to a gaffer. 
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We Learned More from a Three-minute Record Than We Ever Learned in School
Jim Mercurio
Notice this line near the end of the first verse:
"I was still tryin' to find my way back whole."
Bruce is practically giving us a tutorial in how story works in relationship to character.  No character begins "whole."  The events in the story should be orchestrated in such a way that he or she will have the opportunity to become, or return to being, a whole person.  In Killer Endings, I discuss how character arc, theme, and dilemma are all linked.  The movie or story is going to give your character a choice -- the hardest choice imaginable given the character and context -- and if he makes the right choice, he will be transformed. Or the choice itself will be evidence of his transformation.  The theme comes out of the story showing us what happens as a result of this transformation.
Back to the song.  Look at the specificity of these two lines from the first verse:
"I got my discharge from Fort Irwin"
"My wife had died a year ago"
He left the service and he lost his wife.  We quickly realize that there are two big competing ideas in this story and in this character. He is missing love and he is missing a sense of duty.  A student in one of my classes asked if the discharge was a "dishonorable" one. I don't know, but if so, I might even change the idea of duty to the idea of honor.  Both ideas fit and honor is actually a narrow sort of duty.  The protagonist finds a job that should at least, for now, fulfill his need for duty.
In a five-minute story, you can't waste an idea, character or subplot, so notice the crisp orchestration of the characters.  His partner Bobby is a Mexican American who has to drink alongside "the same people (he) sent back the day before."  Bruce immediately sums up the dilemma for him:
"His family was from Guanajuato
so the job it was different for him" 
Yeah, it's different.  But notice how it's also the same.  A subplot character and his dilemma will echo, mirror or contradict the protagonist's dilemma.  Bobby's efficient ten-second intro sets him up as a guy torn between love and duty - the love of his people, and his duty to guard the line. (What a great title, btw!)  It's a wonderful and wonderfully succinct dilemma.
Back to the main character: 
"Well I was good at doin' what I was told
kept my uniform pressed and clean"
Carl is holding on tightly to the duty and rigid sense of order that his new job brings.  Is it going to be enough?  I sure hope not.  If it is, the movie is over now, right?  And we can change the title from The Line to the The ZoneThe Comfort Zone.  Stories are supposed to push characters out of their comfort zone.  So something big needs to come along and shake things up. 
But what?  How do we choose the right something?  Is there a place to look to help us choose the right one?  Yes and yes.  First, we must think about the age-old rhetorical chicken-egg question about structure and character.  Which comes first?  Which is more important? 
When addressing this question in my classes, I often refer to the Joseph Campbell interview with Bill Moyers in The Power of Myth series.  Moyers asked him whether a story might bring a challenge that is too big for the hero, and Campbell gave a great answer.  He talked about how the world and events of a story will rise up to challenge the character in the exact way he is ready to be challenged.  In short, Campbell is saying phooey (and wouldn't it be awesome to see him say that for real?) to our rhetorical question.  Character and structure are the same.
Our protagonist is a guy who has been set up as missing love and a sense of duty.  He is on track with the duty, so if something is going to throw him off that track, is it going to be money?  No.  That has nothing to do with this story. That would be a nonsequitur.  The thing that will rise up from the story will be what he is ready for, what he is vulnerable to, what can get him in the most trouble.  The thing that matters.
He has his duty.  The movie must now bring him love.
He meets a Mexican woman (another thematic permutation of crossing lines) who is in the holding pen.  Their meeting feels very much like the beginning of a cinematic romance:
"Our eyes met and she looked away
then she looked back again"
Just to be clear about what this means and how it ties into the deeper need and backstory of the protagonist, Bruce spells it out for us in the next line:

"Her hair was black as coal
her eyes reminded me of what I'd lost"
He later meets the woman, Louisa, in a Tijuana bar "where me and Bobby drink alongside the same people we'd sent back the day before."  He dances with her.  In a short story like this, even if we don't believe that this is love at first sight, it can still work as hope for the real thing.  Louisa tells him that she has a brother who needs to get across the line.  Notice how she is an apparent foil for Bobby.  She puts love of family (literally for her, figuratively for him) before law and a sense of duty.  This gives  Carl his first dilemma, and it's exactly on point: he has to choose between his duty and his love for her.
He makes the choice to help her and picks them up in his truck.  Their kiss is immediately followed by "as we drove, her brother's shirt slipped open and I saw the tape across his chest."  (I assume the tape is a package of drugs but others have suggested that it's an old-school tape recorder.  The possible feature adaptation - a sting operation by Bobby because Carl fell in love with his wife?)  One way or another, she has betrayed him.  Remember that idea of linking duty and honor?  This is a form of anti-duty: dishonor.
Look at the dilemma that this creates.  Bobby catches Carl.  Louisa and her brother run off into the night.  It's now a standoff between Bobby and Carl.  (Bruce loves movies and writes cinematically:  "I pulled over and let my engine run and stepped out into his lights...")  This is the crisis moment for Bobby.  Do you feel it?  He is at the precipice of his biggest choice in the story.  Notice his dilemma is again between a love (friendship) and duty (the law).
There isn't one word of explanation.  This is how it should work in this climax and in the climax of this or any other story.  By the time you get here, you just want the uninflected action.  Bruce cuts right to it: "Bobby Ramirez, he never said nothing."  He chooses friendship over his duty as a Border Patrol officer.
Now the song leaves the main character with a huge decision to make - his ultimate dilemma - the climax of the story.  What is he going to do?  Once again, not a word of explanation, just the choice in the same breath as Bobby's decision to let him off the hook: "Six months later I left the line."
The meaning of this choice is ambiguous so let's hold off until the end to discuss it.  All that's left now is the resolution, which is the last step in honing the theme.  You allow your character to make the final choice and you avoid having a gabfest to explain it.  Then, you use the resolution to tie things up and clarify your intention.  (For 90 minutes more on this, check out my DVD, The T-Word: Theme.)
Notice that the efficient resolution ties up two and only two loose ends - the only two issues relevant to this story and character - duty and love:
Duty:  "Drifted the central valley, took what work I could find"
Love:  "Searched the local bars and migrant towns looking for my Louisa"
I have taken a dozen polls from students in classes regarding this ending.  I ask the following questions.  Does the character have duty but not love, love but not duty, both or neither?  Usually, I will get at least one yes to each of these questions.  It's a five-minute story so I don't mind if it's open-ended and slightly ambiguous, but you can see the ideas it circles: "Love is more important than duty," or "Duty is not enough," or "You can't have one without the other."
Because the character's work seems to be less important than the search for her, I tend to see the ending as leaning toward the romantic/love side, a sort of a negation of the negation - it looks like he abandoned his friendship with Bobby, but in a way he honored it by not letting him cover up for him any longer.  He chose an internalized sense of duty that made him responsible for his own actions.  Instead of seeing the drifting as an unfocused abandoning of responsibility of duty, I see it as a bigger sense of duty to himself: he discovered the more important thing he needed in life.
Even if your interpretation is different, the important thing to remember is that you have to look for the meaning in the main character's dilemma and how it is expanded upon and clarified by the rhyming dilemmas of the other characters, as well as by what happens in the resolution.  If you want to write a masterpiece whose power is in its ambiguity, note that your "ambiguity" still has to sit in the web that is created by the very specific ideas that are floating around in the script.  You want your audience to be able to see the 3, 4 or 5 possible meanings.  There has to be a context.  Without a context and a limitation of possible meanings, the audience will just scratch its head and say, "huh?"
These ideas are integrated into the DNA of the story in this song, into the setup of the characters, their orchestration, the rhyming dilemmas, foil characters, echoing subplots, as well as every imaginable permutation of love versus duty.  The craft is what allows this short story to be so powerful and to provide a cohesive emotional journey.  I have seen 120-page scripts that never get to the core of the characters, their dilemmas and their interrelationships.  In five minutes, Bruce explored about a dozen different permutations of love versus duty.  Talk about thematic unity:
A guy has lost job in service and his wife, and thereby lost his love and his duty.
He takes a job on the line - duty.
He meets a Mexican American guy who guards border.  The character is torn between love of his own people and duty of his job.  They become friends - love.
He meets girl and falls in love - more love until she asks him to break his duty, supposedly for the love of her brother. 
He chooses to help her and gets caught.  Bobby has to decide between love (friendship) and duty.  He chooses love.
Although Bobby lets him off the hook by choosing love (friendship), Carl either chooses an internal sense of duty and leaves on his own volition (or possibly abandons the friendship (love) out of shame), becoming a drifter looking for love.  Or maybe he lost both love and duty.
I can think of only one recent American film which had such thematic unity: Frozen River.  It is master class in cohesion without one word that gilds the lily and explains itself to the audience.  It builds its meaning by the repetition and culmination of a few simple yet powerful ideas. 
The Line is simple, to the point, and heart-wrenchingly effective, all in five minutes.  There are plenty of 100-page spec scripts that don't do half of what this one-page story does.  I hope by illuminating the story craft elements like dilemma, theme, character arc, resolution, foil characters and character orchestration in this medium, it will make it easier for you to incorporate them in to your own screenplay.
And if you need any help...
Jim is accepting one or two new coaching or mentoring clients this year to begin after August.  All of them will be invited to a free weeklong or three-day class in December in Los Angeles. 
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 Short Message From Jim
This will be a short message but not a Short Short one about the Short Short Category.  The Champion Screenwriting Competition is giving away $500 to the best short that is three pages or less.  That's right, we might be the only contest to give away $500 per page to a winning script.
And you know what?  There are only a few in contention.  Dust off that college script or writing exercise.  Adapt one of your spec commercials.  Make each member of your writing group knock a two-pager off this week.
For $25, you could be competing with less than five quarterfinalists for this prize!
Got two hours?  What are you waiting for? 
 Champion Screenwriting Competition's more than $40,000 in prizes is made possible because of the generous support of its sponsors: Virtual Pitch Fest, Julie Marsh, Truby's Writers Studio, The Writers Store, Rhona Berens, Ph.D., iScript and Its on the Grid.  Stay tuned for more information about the contest or our sponsors.
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Parentheticals - I'm not a "follow-rules-for-the-sake-of-following-rules" sort of guy but you know the rule about NOT putting in parentheticals as line readings?  I saw five actors in a row mess up their auditions by winding their way through a parenthetical. Hmm? A-list actors ignore 'em and up-and -coming actors struggle with 'em?  So we use them, why?
From 600 auditions with actors last month, here is the note for 80% of them: "One-note intensity, no opposites, nice adjustment, not enough vulnerability/depth, going for clichéd choice."  An adjustment is when you ask actor to incorporate a change...sort of like...a rewrite of their approach to scene.  Hmm?  Anything writers could learn from this to apply to their scene writing?
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In This Issue
We Learned More From a Three-Minute Record
ScriptShadow: Why do Bad Scripts Sell?
The Champion Corner: Who's Got Short Shorts?
Things I Learned about Screenwriting
Quick Links
Story Analysis

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A-List filmmakers with billions of dollars in box office have relied on Jim and his DVDs. 
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