Want to become a better writer?

masters class

Hey folks!  I just found out about this website called Mastersclass.com.  You pay $90 for lifetime access to instructional videos from the best artist in the business.  This is definitely worth looking into. I highly recommend it!

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How to Tell a Story Through Emotions

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What is the one thing that connects all people who have ever lived? Emotions. No matter where you are from, you deal with the same emotions as every other human being that has ever lived.

It doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor, black or white, religious or agnostic, a king or a country peasant you still go through the same emotional journey over the course of your lifetime.  We all know what it is like to hope for something and your dreams come true.  And just as importantly, we all know what it is like to hope for something that never comes.  If you are over the age of 21, your probably know what it is like to have been cheated on by someone that you loved and trusted.  If you are over the age of 31, you probably know what it is like to be on the opposite end of the relationship, being the one that cheated.  If not physically, you at least fantasized about it which made you feel some sort of guilt.  Who hasn’t been jealous at some point?  And who among us hasn’t left someone that we loved (friend, family, or group) hoping that by leaving, the loved one would some how be emotionally hurt.  So hurt, that they would beg us to come back.   Have you ever met someone that made you so happy, all the bad parts of life became irrelevant?   These things make us human.  And as writers, we can use these experiences to write stories that attach themselves to each person in the audience soul for the rest of their life.

Unless you live under a rock, you recognize the cover photo above from the movie, Dreamgirls.  It is my favorite musical.  The story is about a trio of singers, trying to make it big the music business.

Not very many people can say that they have had the experience being in a famous singing group.  However, the show was a huge hit in the 1980’s and an even bigger hit when it was released as a film over 20 years later.  What makes this script so important to people isn’t the synopsis.  There have been lots of scripts about someone trying to make it in the music business.  And even though most people of a certain age would tell that the story is secretly about Diana Ross and the Supremes,  that isn’t the reason why people still flock to the theater whenever the show is being produced.  What audience can’t get enough of is the level of mature emotions that the characters go through.  Each scene is loaded with emotions that everyone can empathize with. Here is the first few scenes of Dreamgirls, told just through the emotions:

  • A group of friends lose a talent contest.  Since this is one of many loses for them, they are ready to stop kidding themselves and go get regular jobs that actually pay them. (Emotion:  Feeling Defeated)
  • They are given a chance of a lifetime to sing backup to a famous singer that travels all over the country. (Emotion:  Hope, Joy, Dreams are coming true.)
  • A young, inexperienced girl falls for an older man that says all the right things to get in her pants and steal her heart. (Emotion: Hope. Joy. Lust. Meeting the person of your dreams.)
  • A singer has his song stolen because it wasn’t copy written. (Emotion: Anger. Hurt. Taken advantage of. Feels like a sucker.)

I can go on, but hopefully, you get the point.  If you begin your next scene with question, “What emotion will I show in this scene?” you will have a story that has some meat on its bones.  A story that can stick to an audience’s ribs.  So today, when you write a scene, what emotion will you connect us with?  Can you do it within 4 to 12 lines?  Can you do it through a song?  Whatever you do, be sure to show us an emotion.  The further the story goes along, the more complex the emotion can get.  For example, by the end of Dreamgirls, the emotions that the characters go through are so complex, you can no longer describe them with one or two words.  Case in point, by the end of the story, the Deana Jones character deals with the emotions of having the man of her dreams, being lied to by him, being used by him to hurt someone else, finally being free of a controlling man, being able to be someone that she has now grown into being, and being happy to have an old friend back in her life after a decade of not talking.  And these are the emotions that one character feels in one scene!  That takes some building up.  I don’t think you can begin a story with that much emotion, but as the story goes on, that should be our goal:  Give our audience an emotional climax so great that they burst into tears of joy.  They should recognize the emotional journey the characters have gone through and grown from.  Good luck with your scene today!

*The photo from the Dreamgirls Film above belongs to Paramount Pictures, DreamGirls Pictures, and Lawrence Marks Production Company.

Writing Challenge for Today

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Today I am going to give you one of the exercises that I use when I need to get the juices flowing on a page.  It can actually lead to a script before you know it.  After reading a lot of TV Pilots during a screen writing class, I learned that most scenes for TV only involve between 4 and 12 lines of dialogue.

The next time you watch a TV show, count how many lines the characters speak before they cut to the next scene.  They almost never use more than 8 lines.  As playwrights, we write 50 to 90 pages of straight dialogue so to think that TV writers can show something about the character in only 4 to 12 lines may seem impossible.  I have found that using some of the techniques from screen writing and TV writing helps tremendously when writing for the stage.  My opening scene is still going to be 10 pages long, however every emotion, revelation, or sexy-lust-filled moment is always conveyed within 4 to 12 lines.  It makes the script faster.  It cuts out the boring and gets straight to the juicy.

This technique keeps the audience focused. Just when they think they know what is about to happen next, BOOMB! They are hit with some shocking revelation or a new secret  that makes them have to ask, “What’s going to happen to her?”.  Or, “Oh God, I knew they were screwing!  That trifling heffa!” Whatever it is, an aspect of the character’s personality or motivation is revealed.

So here is your challenge.

  • Write a scene that has at most 8 lines.
  • Your characters should fall in love, break up, reveal something important such as someone is pregnant, been cheated on, just died, is going to jail, just killed someone, just committed a serious crime, or something else really juicy.  That’s it!  That’s the challenge.
  • You’ve got 20 minutes!

I’m going to be honest with you.  Once you finish those first 8 lines, you will probably know more about the characters than you did when you first started writing today.  If that inspires you to write another 8 to 16 lines, great!  That’s the whole purpose of the exercise.  But within every 8 lines, you should have a preview, climax, and possibly a resolution. If you don’t get to the resolution right away, don’t worry about it.  But if nothing else, within each of those 8 lines, there should be a preview, climax, and “revelation.”  You can hold off for the resolution until later.

If you want to share it with someone, find a friend.  Don’t have any friends?  Send it to me and I’ll let you know what I think.  Feel free to post it into the comment section.  After I comment, you may want to delete it though.  After all, this is the internet.  Have fun!

Let’s be honest. You need professional help.

Truth be told, unless you have someone to share your rough draft with, your work will never be as good as it could be.  Kind of like most Woody Allen movies.  Yeah, they are okay.  Lot’s of people like them and he has a huge body of work. But I always feel like they could have been better.  Maybe it’s just me.

I have a group of actors that I typically call on once I am done with a first draft.  If you didn’t already know, NO ONE WANTS TO READ YOUR STUFF!  So just walking around with a copy, handing it to your friends will eventually turn your social life into a game of TAG and you’re it.  It sucks to be “it”. People run at the sight of you.  So how do you get people to read it?  I usually offer the reader lunch at a really great sushi restaurant or at a steak house.  I give them about a week to read it, we pick a day, and we just talk.  You’d be surprised at how much you can get by offering someone a great lunch/dinner date.  So that’s secret number one: make friends with some actors and feed them when you want something done.

Finally, here is the second secret that I want to share:  I am constantly taking writing classes.  I am constantly going to workshops.  I am constantly connecting with other writers who have done amazing things.  My favorite places to take a writing class are in L.A. and NYC.  Oh, you can’t get there for a weekly class?  Don’t worry about it.  You can take the same courses online.  My favorite writers community is the website at http://www.wrigtingpad.com.  It’s based in L.A and you can register for writing classes that are taught by professional writers that work for major network TV shows.  For example I am currently taking a class lead by one of the writers from MADD MEN and GAME OF THRONES.  Yeah, that GAME OF THRONES.  Most of the teaching artist have MFA’s from Yale, Columbia, USC, and other amazing schools.  So basically, you can get an Ivy League education for less than $500 a course.  I have also heard great stuff about the courses and workshops offered by UPRIGHT CITIZENS BRIGADE out of NYC.  I haven’t taken one yet but I intend to.   I hope this helps.  Now go write something.

Why the World will Always Need Writers

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I’ve been watching Improv shows all weekend trying to find a secret to writing great punchlines into a script.  I have to say that, for the most part, Improv sucks. It’s boring. And it can put even the most optomistic fan to sleep most nights.  This is what the world without writers looks like. A big mess.  Also, it’s sooooo freaking white that I felt like I needed to be from Montana to understand why anyone would ever want to see this sort of theater. I am convinced that the world would be a horrible place without us writers. If all I could watch was improv for entertainment, I would jump off the Brooklyn Bridge.  However, they do know a lot about comedy and for that reason alone, they are worth studying.  After watching about five hours worth of improv, I have found that there are three surefire punchlines that can almost always get a laugh out of an audience.

Here they are: (1) Sex jokes  (2) Observations about religion and (3) Jokes about drugs.

So, think of a great one line set up and bring in the laughs every time with a great observation about sex, drugs, or religion.  It doesn’t even have to be an observation. Sometimes just a reference is all it takes.  I would like to also add that jokes about race, rare diseases,  or mental handicaps tend to get laughs but you run the risk of getting into a lot of trouble.  A whole lot of trouble.  Like never-having-another-friend-in-the-world type of trouble.  I would stay away from these kinds of jokes unless you really know what you’re doing.

Now, go back to something that you wrote recently and see if you can add three laughs per page using either sex, drugs, or religion.  That means in 30 pages, you should have at least 60 to 90 laughs.  If you can do that, then you need to start your own show/comedy crew. Good luck!

You are what you do

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As a writer, we often find it easy to create when the spirit hits us but if we aren’t careful, we will ONLY write during those moments. Sure, you have heard people say, “I write everyday” and you wished you were that disciplined. If this is something that you want to do for a living, you have to act like it. If you haven’t written anything today then quit facebooking, posting tweets, or watching tv, and write something.

This past year, I tried everything to establish a routine writing schedule. I tried getting up before 5am. I tried writing when I got off work. I tried writing during my lunch break. I even tried writing in my car. After all those attempts, I found the most important thing I needed to get me writing was a plan.Nothing too drawn out. Just a plan that said, “Tomorrow I am going to write three scenes, each scene can only have eight lines, and each one has to reveal something important about the characters.” And that’s how I end my day. So all day, I am listening to the characters in my head speak, act out, get angry, cry, laugh, etc. Once I sit down to write, I have a plan. And that plan tells me when I am done. So I don’t have to think, “Oh God, I am going to be here for hours!” I could be done in 10 minutes if I want. And then I make a plan for the next day. The plan may be, “write an eight line scene that has at least two laugh lines.” Having a plan helps you know when you are done. Otherwise, you may subconsciously avoid sitting down to write that amazing story that world can’t wait to read. Have fun writing today!

Using emotions to create characters

 

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So I was watching one of my favorite movies of all time last night, ROCKY III.  If you are too young to have ever seen this movie, let me first say that you have been deprived and you should get a Netflix account while it’s still available.  But I digress.   While watching the movie, I connected with Rocky’s major story arc about half way into the film. His story arc dealt with overcoming FEAR.

After getting his butt handed to him by Mr. T in the fight of the century, he began to feel afraid.  He lived in this fear throughout the entire movie until he learned to conquer his fears.  He went through every level of being afraid: fear of failure,  fear of pain, fear of losing his health, fear of losing his family and his fortune, and the anxiety of never being good enough.   So today when you write a scene, see if you can use an emotion to tell a deeper story. No matter what race or social status you have, emotions will always connect us all.  Check out this list of recognized emotions from the University of Sonoma psychological department and use it in the scene, story, or chapter that you write today. The link is  http://www.sonoma.edu/users/s/swijtink/teaching/philosophy_101/paper1/listemotions.htm

Have fun. And if you dug this, subscribe!