Wednesday, January 30, 2008

S*C*O*O*B*I*E*S

A segment in which Buffy the Vampire Slayer is turned into a sit-com.

Scene. The Bronze Mug. Giles, Willow, Tara, Anya, Xander, and Spike are sitting on the couch and chairs surrounding the coffee table.

Giles: My weirdest place was… top of a police car.
Spike: You’re just a little hooligan, aren’t you, Rupert?
Giles: [glares] Twice.
Xander: Chalk one – err, two – off for the librarian. Now what about the witches? I’m guessing sacred groves are going to come up.
Willow: The back of a van.
Tara: The back of a van?
Willow: Well, not “a” as in a random, strange van, but “the” as in... Oz’s.
Tara: Oh.
Anya: Xander and I did it in an ice-cream truck.
Xander: Ahn-
Anya: I’m not surprised vehicles are very popular. I think it’s the suggestion of velocity and danger which is so attractive.
Spike: [to himself] No wonder considering who you shag...
Xander: I don’t even want to know your weird place, Spike.
Spike: It’s not a story for children.
Anya: What about witch #2?

Everyone looks at Tara.

Tara: Uh. Milwaukee.

Buffy walks in and orders coffee at the counter. Spike spots her, gets up grumbling.

Buffy: Hey.
Willow: Hey, Buffy.
Xander: Join us, Buff.

Buffy stops Spike as he walks by.

Buffy: Spike, what are you doing here? In five words or less.
Spike: [counting on his fingers] Having. A. Cuppa. Tea… Bitch.

They exchange hostile looks before Spike exits in a huff. She grabs her mug from the bar and takes Spike’s former seat.

Buffy: What are we talking about?
Anya: Strange locations where we’ve had sex.
Buffy: [amused] Oh? [thinks] Oh. [laughs nervously]
Willow: Angel.
Buffy: [misunderstanding] No no.
Willow: Buffy, it’s Angel.
Buffy: What?
Willow: Over there.

Buffy turns and sees Angel standing in the doorway. She walks over to him. They don’t hug or kiss or anything. They just stand there.

Angel: Hey.
Buffy: Hey.
Angel: You look good.
Buffy: Thanks. You too.
Xander: Could you speak up? We can’t hear you if you lower your voices.
Anya: Yes, that’s true.

Buffy and Angel step outside. Cut to: outside.

Buffy: So. How’s work?
Angel: Same old.
Buffy: Let me guess. You’re here because I’m in mortal danger?
Angel: Actually, uh... [sees something behind Buffy] Yes!

Angel yanks Buffy aside and is knocked over by a vampire. Buffy hauls him up and punches him in the face.

Vamp: Oww!
Buffy: Oh you’re complaining? What the hell was that?
Vamp: A surprise attack.
Angel: [sitting on the ground] You’re kidding, right?
Vamp: I surprised you, didn’t I?
Angel: For like a second and then you just ran me over like a cab on Broadway. That was sloppy.
Buffy: [to Angel] You see what I have to work with?
Vamp: Hold on, hold on. You guys are criticizing my technique?
Buffy: Technique? You just crashed into him.
Vamp: So?
Buffy: That’s not a technique. That’s a move.
Vamp: What?
Angel: She’s right, it’s just a move, buddy. [stands up]
Vamp: No no no. It’s not one move, okay? It’s several moves in a sequence, otherwise known as technique.
Buffy: Glad I’m not your girlfriend...
Vamp: Okay, blondie! Let’s go!

Angel stands between them. Cut to: inside. The scoobies can see the argument through the window.

Anya: They’re gesturing wildly now.
Willow: Buffy must be having that technique argument again.
Anya: She’s very high maintenance.
Giles: She’s very dedicated to her work.
Anya: Potata, potato.
Xander: Uh, Ahn, it’s potato, potata.
Anya: Whatever, it’s a stupid expression anyway. I realize that it’s meant to be a comical illustration of trivial differences, but I find it idiotic nonetheless.
Tara: Actually, I think Anya’s right, Xander.
Xander: What?
Giles: Yes, I think so too, if I remember the song correctly. [starts humming to himself]
Anya: That’s three against one, Xander. Even if Willow takes your side, you’re still outnumbered, which means I’ll still be right. [beaming] I love democracy.
Willow: That’s not democracy.
Anya: Potata, potato.
Xander: Ahn-

Cut to: outside.

Vamp: Let’s get this straight. I see you, I stalk you, I wait until your back is turned, and I charge. That is a standard, respected, hunt and kill technique.
Angel: Did you take a course or something? How to Be Stupid 101?
Vamp: Come on, let’s go. I’m sick of the talking. It’s killing my adrenaline rush, okay? I just want a little cooperation.
Buffy: You got anything other than a cab impersonation?
Vamp: Okay, okay, I’ll show you technique. [walks into the street] Come on. Technique demonstration right here right now!

He’s hit by a truck, thrown across the street, impaled on some broken wooden furniture, and explodes into ash.

Angel: Now that’s technique.
Buffy: I didn’t even have to pull out my stake.

Fade out.

Monday, January 28, 2008

His Dark Materials: The Subtle Knife

a war against God?
now there's a bright idea
too bad it's insane

Saturday, January 26, 2008

You can say that again.

“I hate this scene.”
“What’s the matter?”
“Two of my characters are having an argument, and the wrong one is winning it.”

A dozen tips for writing dialogue:

Under construction. Two methods for developing dialogue: one, act like you’re remembering a real conversation rather than inventing one from scratch. I know that sounds like a silly semantic trick, but it’s actually a different way of thinking. Pretend you’re a character trying to record the conversation in a diary – how did you feel? What were you trying to say? And so on. Two, mouth dialogue as you type it; say it out loud if you can. (Just make sure you’re alone or you may attract the notice of others.)

The all-purpose tool. Dialogue can do many things: convey information about the characters or story; establish/develop a relationship between characters; establish/develop a plot point, joke, symbol, theme or whatever; be entertaining or thought-provoking in its own right; set a certain tone. Just remember, it does not have to do all of these things simultaneously.

Write the way people talk. But not quite. People are repetitive, and rarely as eloquent on a daily basis as when they prepare a speech. A conversation doesn’t always “go somewhere.” You need to balance the underlying function of the conversation with plausible development. What’s more, you aren’t obligated to give a full conversation, as in from the moment the characters greet each other until the moment they say goodbye – feel free to edit.

“I am disinclined to acquiesce to your request.” Or if you’re not going to write the way people talk, have a good reason. For example, in Pirates of the Caribbean, they throw in a lot of polysyllabic words for obvious comic effect. The sentence I quoted is a ludicrous mouthful. The dialogue gives you the sense you’re listening to a more archaic version of English even though it’s not authentic 18th century. In All About Eve, the dialogue is very theatrical and too well-constructed to be real, but you buy it for two reasons: first, most of the characters are poised enough to sustain that level of eloquence, not to mention are in professions where wit is almost prerequisite. Second, since they all speak that way consistently, it’s easier to accept. In the latest Pride and Prejudice, they couldn’t seem to decide whether they were doing the cliff notes version or a faithful adaptation of the dialogue, producing an incoherent mix of 20th and 18th century speech. If you’re going with real, stick with real, and if you’re going with imaginative, stick with imaginative – don’t keep jumping around.

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Don’t overdo catchphrases or mannerisms. It’s usually enough to feature something as little as three or four times for people to get the point.

Banter. Like a gunfight – bang bang bang – and you’re done. Consider how much can be said in a period of thirty seconds, twenty seconds, ten seconds. Time segments of dialogue in a favorite TV show or movie to see exactly how much can be said – you’d be surprised. Take this into consideration if you have long witty exchanges – consider how easily they go from entertaining to irritating to exhausting. Besides, it’s not realistic. Usually, these sessions end quickly after someone scores a hit, so to speak – whether friendly or malicious. (This should not be confused with a discussion or an argument or usual conversation.)

Waste not, want not. Don’t throw away lines or references. In All About Eve for example, Addison, with his usual irony, introduces the starlet Claudia as a graduate of the Copa Cabana school of dramatic arts. Much later, when Margot asks Lloyd how Claudia’s audition went, he smiles and says, “Back to the Copa Cabana.” He could’ve said, “Lousy. What did you expect, with her background?” but returning to the previous reference is funnier, subtler, and makes a tighter screenplay.

An argument has at least two sides. It becomes interesting when both make valid points. Don’t be afraid to let your protagonist lose a round or two.

Dialect. It’s not necessary to give an exact phonetic transcription to capture a dialect’s flavor. Strategically placed words and phrases will do the trick.

Jargon. Special words from people’s work, hobbies, etc., tend to carry over into other topics they discuss. If it’s not obvious what these words mean, you should find some way to clue in the audience – whether by having one character explain to another character, or by some other device. As with dialect, this is not always necessary. For example, on medical shows, they often explain different procedures, but they don’t stop to explain what “post-op” and “pre-op” are, since you can figure it out by yourself.

Mind your metaphors. There’s nothing like an ill-timed or inappropriate metaphor for killing a scene.

The fewer interruptions the better. You don’t have to keep saying “X said” and “Y said” after every statement, especially if only two people are talking. It’s obvious who is speaking by the order of the lines, so you have an opportunity to step back and let the dialogue run on its own. Give descriptions of what they’re doing, but it’s not necessary to keep saying things like, “... she said as she brushed the hair out of her eyes.” Interrupt when it’s significant.

Reading between the lines. Leave room for people to interpret on their own. Admittedly, this is one of my biggest weaknesses. I’ve often given extensive psychological motivation when it was perfectly comprehensible to begin with.


“So what are you going to do about the argument?”
“I’m going to interrupt it with a phone call.”
“Isn’t that cheating?”
“Well it’s not like the characters know.”


Next time on Technical Saturday... plot.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Elvis Presley

flash that sweet smile
sing three lines of Treat Me Nice
I don't stand a chance

Monday, January 21, 2008

Endurance Test

triple cream fudge cake...
I can't hear its siren call
la la can't hear you

Friday, January 18, 2008

Botticelli Woman

luminous beauty
with eyes sad as well as wise
does she see the end?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Mauntee Paithun presents… Lunching with the Gods

With… Jean Cheese as Zeus, Grayum Chappmun as Hera, Mykle Palynn as Apollo, Ehrik Eydol as Hermes, Terree Jonez as Aphrodite, and Terree Gillyum as the Lute-Playing Llama

Scene. The gods and goddesses sit around a table laden with delicious foods, while attractive slave-girls stand about looking attractive. Zeus is reading the newspaper. Apollo is gobbling down his food inelegantly. Hera is cutting her meat primly. Aphrodite is combing her golden hair and examining her reflection in a mirror. The llama sits in the background playing his lute.

Hera: [to Zeus] Dear?
Zeus: [still reading] Yes?
Hera: Shouldn’t we be lying on couches instead of sitting up at a table?
Zeus: What on earth are you talking about?
Hera: Well, I was just thinking, dear, please don’t get upset, but it’s not very authentic to have Classical gods sitting at a modern table.
Zeus: [puts down his paper; glares at her] Really?
Hera: [quite terrified] Yes.
Zeus: Hmm. Anything else?
Apollo: [with his mouth full] That llama should be playing a lyre, not a lute.
Zeus: Ah. Well. I suppose I shouldn’t be reading this paper either. [folds it pointedly]
Apollo: You got that right, guvner. Anybody’d think we were some middle-class English family.
Aphrodite: Does anyone else think I should go a bit more platinum? All the goddesses are honey-blonde this year and I do hate so much looking like everyone else.

Zeus is about to let them have it when Hermes dashes in, flings aside his messenger bag (hitting one of the slave-girls), and plunks down at the table.

Hermes: I’m here, I’m here. Bring on the food!
Zeus: One moment, if you please. Have you completed all your errands?
Hermes: Yes, sir, I did, sir! Hades was quite happy with the new collar for Cerberus and Queen Persephone sends her love. Thetis wants to have a talk with you-
Zeus: Achilles again?
Hermes: Of course, sir. And Agamemnon’s begging for assistance with the Trojans – fifth time this week, and he’s getting quite pathetic. I had a look at Chiron’s ferry boat, and it’s quite a mess after transporting some of Dionysus’s worshippers. I’ve spoken to Hephaestus about it, but he says he won’t get to it until the next full moon at least on account of forging a new helmet for Athena.
Zeus: Good god, it’s only a helmet!
Hermes: Yeah, but you know how he is, damned obsessive-compulsive. Anyway, the eastern side of the Styx is getting quite crowded what with all the Greeks and Trojans pouring in, and it’s getting quite nasty. I’ve sent some giants to sort it out.
Zeus: And have you spoken with Poseidon about our upcoming tennis match?
Hermes: I didn’t make it on account of the traffic. I’ll go after lunch.
Zeus: Like hell you will!
Hermes: Oh you’re not going to send me out again, are you? It’s my bloody lunch break!
Zeus: I’m king of the gods, you do what I tell you.
Hermes: I’ll report you to the union!
Zeus: I’ll hurl a thunderbolt at them and turn them into crisps!
Apollo: There goes my appetite.
Hera: Must you always fight at the table and spoil the meal?
Zeus: Woman, you’re turning into a right proper nag!
Hera: [bursts into tears] Why must you make me cry, Zoozoo darling? I only want the meal to be nice and all you can do is call me a nag! It’s bad enough I have to sit at the table with all your bastards!
Apollo: Hey!
Hera: And your mistresses!
Aphrodite: Well I never!
Hera: I’m leaving! I can’t stand it anymore! I’m going to go where I’m appreciated!
Zeus: [hugging her while she sobs] There, there, Herry precious, you know Zoozoo didn’t mean it. Zoozoo just lost his temper. Zoozoo loves Herry!
Aphrodite: [winks suggestively at Zeus]
Zeus: [through his teeth] Not now.
Aphrodite: You’re no fun anymore.
Apollo: I think I’d like to go platinum.
Hermes: Really, whatever for?
Apollo: You don’t think it’d suit me?
Hermes: I think it’d suit you, but your natural color’s just fine.
Apollo: I’m longing for a change, is all.
Hermes: Well maybe you should get it cut or something.
Aphrodite: Oh yes, and I’ll make you those sweet little curls, you’ll be just adorable.
Hermes: [nodding] Curls are very big this year.
Apollo: Big? But she wants to give me little ones.
Hermes: Right, little curls are very big this year.
Apollo: Look, I can’t understand you at all. How can curls be big and little?
Aphrodite: Oooh! Is that a riddle?
Apollo: Shut it, you half-wit!
Aphrodite: Well I never!
Hermes: I still can’t see what’s so difficult about this.
Apollo: You’re bloody telling me that little curls are big this year and that’s not bloody possible!

Homer (yes, Homer!) cuts in.

Homer: Now, stop that. It’s silly. I never wrote such utter rubbish. This sketch is officially over. Let’s stick to the text next time, shall we? On the word ‘cut’, cut. Wait for it... cut!

Fade out.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Hamlet

unbelievable
words words words and whine whine whine
get over yourself

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Synthetic Creatures

Whether you think of characters in terms of story function (hero, villain, love interest, foil, comic relief, and so on) or a stock description (Honorable Thief, Damsel in Distress, Prince Charming, Girl Friday, Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing, Village Idiot, Evil Twin, Femme Fatale, Rake, Prophet, Boy/Girl Next Door, Mad Scientist, Rebel, etc.) – one thing is certain: they need to be more than that.

Characters work best when conceived as real human beings, which means that you need to develop them outside of the story’s parameters as well as within them. They have habits, memories, flaws, and relationships – entire biographies – at your disposal. That doesn’t mean you have to use all of this in the story itself, but it gives you more to work with when you write. Actors often create biographies for their characters so they have enough background from which to draw their motivation. Characters are not just objects which mouth dialogue or act as plot devices, they’re supposed to make sense in their own way.

Some other points to keep in mind when developing a character:

Two sides to every quality. Any positive or negative quality possessed by a character can be reversed, given the right situation, which you can take advantage of.

Making an entrance. The way you introduce a character has a lot of potential power. I’m not saying they need to enter galloping on a horse or firing a gun, but especially consider the reader/viewer’s first glimpse. Think of how you feel when you meet someone for the first time.

The voice of truth. Just because a character is unsympathetic or even downright despicable doesn’t mean they can’t make a valid point or an insightful comment.

Getting upstaged. What happens when a supporting character is more interesting or likeable than the main character? First of all, it may mean that your lead is simply underwritten. Second, your secondary character may be that good because they don’t have to “carry” the book/movie the way the lead does. Secondary characters often get to have more fun than the main character, which accounts for why they themselves are more fun. Besides, you can always kill them off if they get out of hand…

Name-calling. Any name you pick for a character has ethnic and etymological connotations, so you should always look up name origin before naming a character. More than that, I know seven different types of names you can give a character:
1. Conspicuously Simple – Joe Smith
2. Alliterative – Joe Jones
3. Referential – Joe Skywalker
4. Allegorical – Joe Strong
5. Anagram – Joe I. Fallcrust (= Justice for All)
6. Other-Worldly – Jowe Firemaster
7. Regular: Joe Larson.
Since picking a name for a character is serious and sometimes you can’t think of the right one right away, rather than get stuck on it, pick a theme (flowers, places, gemstones, whatever) and systematically name the characters. When you’ve found the right name, you can simply replace the temporary one.

Next time on Technical Saturday… dialogue.

Friday, January 11, 2008

The Magnificent Seven

their theme in my head
playing over and over
doesn't suit my life

Monday, January 7, 2008

Resolution #2

repeat after me:
chocolate is not nutritious
consume it far less

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Try seeing things from my lens.

Almost all the things I mentioned in the previous post apply to screenwriting: multiple voices or one; partial or impartial; limited or limitless knowledge – with some differences. While there is no such thing as a book without a narrator, a film can function without one since the images replace the narrator’s descriptions.

So first of all, if you choose to use voice over anyway, what the narrator says should always add in some way to the images being shown. Since I’m paraphrasing Billy Wilder, I’ll use Sunset Boulevard as an example: Joe Gillis does a good deal of narrating throughout the film – he introduces the people, the place, sets the tone, and explains some movie industry jargon. This isn’t simply exposition or explanatory material like you’d find in a pamphlet, but a kind of running monologue which draws you in, allowing you to see the world from Joe’s point of view. When he first arrives at Norma Desmond’s house, he doesn’t say, “So I get to this creepy house. And then I run into this creepy dame. And the whole thing gave me the creeps.” Of course we get that it’s creepy, but Joe gives the setting its context, as a relic of Hollywood’s Silent Era. Later he compares Norma to Miss Havisham from Great Expectations, each comment adding to what we’re seeing.

Singin’ in the Rain is another good example. At the beginning of the film, Don Lockwood recounts his rise to fame to gossip columnist Dora Bailey. Being of a privileged background, he describes attending Juliard, being raised on Shaw and Moliere, playing sophisticated parts, but what we see is the exact opposite: a poor boy dancing in a pool hall, sneaking into a trashy B-movie, and being clobbered in various stunt roles. Not only is this for comic effect, but it shows that Don has to act on and off screen in order to succeed.

As with any technique, too much narration can be monotonous. No matter how much voice over can add, it’s still a good idea to shut up – let the characters interact and the events unfold. A particular form of narration which runs a high risk of becoming monotonous is the Narrator Who Speaks Directly into the Camera. Essentially, this takes first-person POV to the extreme, Breaking the Fourth Wall. It’s not really very different from a narrator you don’t see at all or a narrator who doesn’t look directly into the camera, but in this case we’re simply watching the narrator talk to us. The same rule applies – narration should add to the image. In Annie Hall, Alvy breaks that fourth wall, as though starting a stand-up comedy routine, which is fitting given that Alvy is a stand-up comic, audience-conscious to begin with. This is not used ad nauseum, as though in a therapy session – a reference, a knowing look – and he’s done. So other than using it sparingly, I’d also suggest this technique be used only when appropriate. If it doesn’t suit the premise of the film, then don’t use it.

Now what if there’s no narrator at all? As I said before, you don’t need a narrator or voice over of any kind to tell a story, but when you think about it, you already have a silent narrator: the camera. It can act as a) the eyes of a specific character, showing us the world from their perspective; b) the eyes of an independent observer; c) a combination of both. When you write a script, you literally tell people what they’re supposed to be seeing and hearing. (Whether the director follows your script is another issue.)

Of course, as usual, you should be wary not to overdo/misuse any device which emphasizes a certain POV. Handheld, for example, can be great for a riot or a battle scene, but annoying when people are talking. Another example is trying to make it look like we’re seeing the scene from a character’s exact position – lying down, walking around, whatever. An extreme example of this can be seen in Dark Passage. Vincent Parry is an unjustly convicted felon on the run, who, to avoid being recognized, gets plastic surgery to alter his face. In order that we not see his former face, the characters speak directly into the camera as though we were Parry. After he’s bandaged from the surgery, we go back to “regular” shooting. This constitutes the first 45 minutes of the film, and though it’s an interesting method, it’s also exhausting.

But even overdoing standard close-ups or sweeping vistas can have negative effect. If you show a character from too close too often, it is very easy to get sick of seeing them. Same with sweeping vistas – they can bore after a while, as in – “Okay, very impressive. So what?” The point is to use a device for a reason, and if the initial reason for it is, “because it’ll look cool,” which is legitimate, you should still have something that goes beyond that.

Next week’s Technical Saturday will be devoted to characterization.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Resolution #1

procrastination
a valid option no more
I mean it this time

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Imaginative Adaptations from Unlikely Sources

A Segment in Which I Make Poetry Unrecognizable

Or, what happens when I’m left too long with the Internet Anagram Server. As an exercise in creative writing, I took the title of a famous poem, let the anagram server work its magic, and then picked the best results out of the couple hundred or so. The idea was to scramble the source material as much as its name, while still preserving a few traces of it, as if I were going to adapt it into a screenplay.

Ideas are everywhere. Whether they're good or bad is another story.

The Poem: My Last Duchess
The Poet Whose Disdain I Deserve: Robert Browning
Summary of Original: A duke reveals to a servant what happened to his last trophy wife. After displaying utter indifference to his aristocratic background, he had her beheaded. The duke certainly gets his revenge, not only since he is about to acquire a new trophy wife (the servant works for the father of the bride-to-be), but since he has a portrait of the former duchess behind a curtain which only he is permitted to draw aside. (How’s that for possessive and controlling?)

Title: My Tussled Cash
Genre: Heist
Plot Summary: Two professional thieves – husband and wife – are having a marriage crisis while trying to plan and execute the robbery of an art museum. One of the most memorable scenes will be of the husband picking the moment when his wife is suspended over the gallery’s laser field to find out whether she really did have an affair with a former accomplice. She then takes revenge by leaving him locked in an air duct until he begs forgiveness. Will they reconcile their differences? Will he, in a burst of renewed love, propose marriage for the second time? Will she, longing yet doubting, throw his proposal back in his face?

Title: Clumsy Ed Stash
Genre: Comedy
Plot Summary: A postman, the na├»ve Ed Stash, accidentally mixes up the letters he’s supposed to deliver, upsetting the plans of a local gangster, known as The Duke. To make matters worse, The Duke’s favorite girlfriend (naturally, he has more than one), takes a shine to him, and worse still – Ed falls for her right back. Will they escape the jealous clutches of The Duke? (This is a comedy, so yes.)

Title: Cad Melts Hussy
Genre: Screwball Comedy
Plot Summary: The setting: New York, 1934. Harley “Duke” Holloway, a high society playboy meets his match in Connie “The Champagne Duchess” Caldwell, a nouveau riche heiress who puts having fun before everything else. Things really get crazy when Duke’s ex-wife returns from Europe seeking reconciliation (and Duke’s fortune) just as he and Connie are getting to the love part of their love-hate relationship.

Stuck in Development: (because I couldn’t figure out how to tie in the poem)

Scad Met Slushy – A cartoon for children as well as adults, chronicling the adventures of two cats, Scad and Slushy, who travel from the dark alleys of New York City to the sunny beaches of Miami in search of… something.

Scale Suds Myth – A western about the town of Scale Suds, Arizona, and the legend it created. *tumbleweed rolls by*