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How (Not) to Critique Another Writer’s (Fiction) Work As a Writer

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I have a writer’s group. It’s not my group per se, but when a fellow blogger started a meetup group I couldn’t resist. It’s not strictly a critique group, though. It’s more a safe and fun place to talk about all things writing.

I’ve been to two meetings and have made some good friends and potential future collaborators.

At our previous meeting, they decided I might as well share the first couple of pages of a feature screenplay. I was psyched because there were a few points I’d like different opinions on. So I gave my elevator pitch and talked about my first 2 scenes, but I couldn’t get any further than that.

A fellow screenwriter didn’t like (or more like didn’t approve of) the transition between two scenes. He was adamant it had to be more obvious than what I had presented. I was adamant the transition was obvious enough.

We didn’t argue, mind you. It was a friendly, polite yet stubborn discussion. It looked like I wasn’t receptive to the feedback. And I wasn’t. Here’ why:

He kept saying “You have to….”.

I didn’t have to do anything. I’d thought about his suggestion before, and I had decided against it. I still was partially considering a similar approach, but I kept saying no.

I really couldn’t see the value of his advice objectively, because when you start any of your feedback sentences with “you have to”, chances are you won’t persuade anyone, unless you’re a studio executive holding my contract, and what you’re suggesting is highly radical and unacceptable.

So in the spirit of giving and receiving feedback more effectively, here are a few sincere pointers from this writer:

  • Keep in mind it’s *all subjective. (More details are below.)
  • Don’t start your suggestions with “you have to”, no matter.

* There are few things in writing that’s set in stone. For instance, whether it’s a novel or a screenplay, there’s certain formatting rules you need to abide by. So if your writer friend or mentee has the formatting wrong, by all means, tell him what he has to do. But any artistic choice that has nothing to do with formatting or expected length (don’t turn over a screenplay that is 300 pages) is just that: a choice.

  • Keep it friendly and polite, and even if you hate it.

“That sucks” is not constructive, and not the slightest bit creative. Where’s the writer in you?

*

I’m not saying you have to lie or sugarcoat. But if you’re giving feedback, I’m guessing you care. So why not try to make it work?

So try these instead:

“These parts don’t work for me because….”

“I don’t like these because ………….”

You can even say you hate it, but many scripts have their redeemable/positive points, so pair the hate with the positive.

I’m not saying you can’t ever be brutal, but honestly, unless you’re given permission to be so (and possibly even then), it won’t really have the effect you’re aiming for.

This advice isn’t about being nice or cute. It’s about making sure you don’t waste your time, breath and effort.

What do you think? Is it just me, or do you also not welcome advice with open arms that start with “you have to….”?

Fiction Twists and Cliches You Need to Stop Using in Your Scripts

Image via Flickr user Tom Newby.

Image via Flickr user Tom Newby.

(Warning: There’ll be spoilers about Fight Club, Identity, The Sixth Sense, The Others, Passengers and Dawson’s Creek.)

Bang2Write’s Lucy V Hay posts a lot of helpful tips on what will kill your screenplay dead so I thought I’d share my pet peeves when it comes to twists and clichés that either kill or at least severely damage your screenplay.

While I’m not a professional script reader, I’m a screenwriter who watches a lot of movies and reads many scripts. And I’m tired of seeing these in what feels like every 4-5 movies in that genre. Also, TV writers can’t seem to get enough of these twists and clichés either so I’ll include examples from series as well.

Mind you, these weren’t necessarily bad when we first saw them or saw them for the second or even third time. But when we kept seeing them for season after season (in the same show), or TV show after TV show, or movie after movie…Well, it got old.

But hey, new angles are appreciated, so if you have found a way to differentiate, go ahead. Just don’t do the same old, same old – especially if you’re not already a huge writer who can get away with this.

So enjoy, and beware!

– Bipolars and other mental condition sufferers going off meds/never wanting meds.

I’m speaking as someone who has tried and benefited from therapy. Not only claiming all meds are harmful and/or useless is irrational, showing all characters with this attitude is just boring and unimaginative.

Who do I remember from film that goes off meds and off the rails?

– Mad Love starring Drew Barrymore and Chris O’Donnell.

This is a bit of a guilty pleasure of mine, but it could have been less cheesy, had Barrymore’s character not decided to go on a road trip without her meds or access to therapy.

– Mr. Jones starring Richard Gere and Lena Olin

Love saves Jones one way or the other, but he ends up in therapy too.
Because love can’t conquer all if you don’t put in the effort to feel better.

I love Richard Gere and Lena Olin. I ‘m also invested in watching stories with mentally disturbed characters. But mental disorders don’t and shouldn’t equal constant irrationality.

When it’s bipolar you’re talking about, yes, the manias can be enjoyable, especially if you don’t go overboard (like breaking the law to savor the moment to the fullest). But a 40+ something dude who’s been suffering from the disorder half of his life KNOWS how dangerous and life-threatening (his own) the depression part of the equation is. So….

Yes, it has its romantic moments, but really? A 17-year-old bipolar having doubts about meds and therapists, I can get around. A 47-year-old? Not so much.

– Intelligent people skeptical of psychiatrists, even though they are psychiatrists themselves : Perception, Daniel Pierce

What are the words I’m looking for? Oh yes: ironic and hypocritical. Now, Perception is actually one of my favorite shows. I like almost everything about it, except how Daniel Pierce handles his own condition, schizophrenia.

I’m not an expert when it comes to schizophrenia, but I do have personal experience with bipolar, depression and OCD. These are all serious conditions with a lot of medicinal alternatives. And since these are chemical imbalances in the brain and life in general are never fully under your control, routine alone won’t guarantee a healthy, happy life. And the writer knows this because the character is a freaking, world-renowned psychiatrist who doesn’t like medicating himself.

What the actual hell?

– OCD sufferers that have cleaning/counting/ordering compulsions and hardly any obsessions

Let me in on a little secret about OCD. Not all sufferers have compulsions (that can be detected by the outsider). Some even have pure obsessions, meaning it’s all their heads. They’re not necessarily organized and/or obsessively clean. Some couldn’t care less about counting stuff or stepping on the sides.

As Good As It Gets is a good movie. Matchstick Men looks fun. Monk was popular enough. But now that we have had our fun, can we move on to different sides of these disorders?

– MPD (Multiple Personality Disorder) or DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder) as the big reveal.

Kudos to Fight Club (yes, I know it was a book first) for the twist. But Identity’s ending just pissed me off.

– He was/she was/they were dead all along!

I’m not the biggest fan of The Sixth Sense because I’m more into stories about people who are alive. But I enjoyed the twist so much, anything I didn’t necessarily love about the movie was forgotten.

It was still an okay twist for The Others, because I found it more engaging on many levels. It also has to do with the fact that I watched it in a eerier atmosphere, so the experience felt more chilly and genuine.

But when the mostly enjoyable Passengers, whose plot appealed a lot more to me than the movies above just broke my heart with that ending.

Either make it known they are dead or alive from the beginning, or I’m disappointed from now on.

– My best friend has been the love of my life, and I haven’t seen it until he/she met somebody else, somebody told me, I hooked up with others and realized….

Friends: Rachel and Joey were okay. Monica and Chandler’s hiding was so funny we were fine with them. Rachel and Joey? Just no. What two more seaons, and Phoebe would divorce Mike to marry Joey?

The worst offender: Dawson’s Creek. Boy, did I love that first season. And Andy and Pacey were fun too. But Joey and Pacey? Joey’s constant dilemma between Pacey and Dawson? Pacey’s hooking up with Jennifer? Dawson’s re-hooking with Jennifer? Oh. My. God.

Others:

What About Brian (TV series), Win a Date with Ted Hamilton, Valentine’s Day, The Switch (fun movie apart from the late realization).

There are many others, and you can read my fun take here.

* Coupling gets a pass because there was never a strong male-female friendship in the first place. Sure, Sally and Patrick did eventually become best friends, but they did consider sex/dating beforehand, so they don’t count.

Did I never write about friends hooking up? Sure, I did. But they either didn’t make friends first or they were aware about the cliché of their situation. Also, they weren’t the main story.

Too much Exposition vs. Not Enough: Biggest Screenwriting Challenges

Exposition reactions: The right vs. not enough or too much. And you don't want to piss off readers...

Exposition reactions: The right vs. not enough or too much. And you don’t want to piss off readers…

 

So you have a written a decent script. You know you have some solid parts, because you’ve been told so by several professional readers, including competition judges. But your script has issues, and some, if not most, of those issues stem from exposition:

  1. You either have too much.

OR

  1. You don’t have enough.

Problem 1: Too much Exposition

You simply reveal too much. You don’t give your reader enough room to interpret and come to their own conclusions. You spoon-feed. You go overboard with description, dialogue, flashbacks… They get bored. They pass on your project or they simply aren’t crazy about it.

This was the problem I was initially facing.

You want to avoid this. But sometimes you work so diligently to avoid unneeded, unwanted exposition that you end up with not enough…

Problem 2: Not Enough Exposition

After many reads by different readers, I thought I had edited my script to perfection, at least exposition-wise. But then some of the notes made me realize: I might have cut too much as these were questioned:

  • Why my characters went to the lengths that they did,
  • Why some characters reacted the way they did.

So you’re not really allowed to let your characters talk directly about their feelings and motivations (also known as on-the-nose dialogue), so you have to include a lot of subtext and show these through action and scenes.

But of course it’s frowned upon to go over 120, even 100 pages unless you are a well-known writer or your script is plain awesome, which you know it, is subjective:

Problem 3: Subjectivity

So how do you know?

1) You compare professional notes. I wrote a guest post on how to evaluate your script evaluations for Lucy V Hay’s Bang2Write.

2) You follow your gut.

*

Finding the right amount of exposition, as well as the right ways to expose, is one though challenge.

If you want to study more about exposition, you might want to start with these articles on Script Magazine or Bang2Write.

You can however find what works by working diligently on your work, as well as studying your favorite screenplays.

How do you feel about exposition? Do let me know in the comments.

 

Complicated Conflicts, (Un)Acceptable Character Reactions and What This Means For Your Screenplay

The Hunt, Mads Mikkelsen

Mads Mikkelsen’s character in The Hunt. His so-called friendly countrymen did that to him. Image via cynic critics.com.

I love interesting conflicts and dilemmas. So much so, I often pick my favorite movie conflicts and analyze them on this blog:

Look at these conflicts!

You either have to commit suicide, or someone will murder the person you love.

You will either live with the guilt of your friend’s death, or you’ll “live” 6 years in prison. Right. And that is if you trust the authorities who gave such an option in the first place.

You either suppress every single emotion and live, or fight for the right to feel and die trying. Ouch…

The Hunt, though, is probably the most heart-breaking one of them all. Either your young daughter was molested by your best friend or she’s lying and you’re screwing up his life for…nothing. Holy Crap!

It is a great, albeit expectedly depressing movie. This 2012 Danish film is still on the top 250 list on IMDB, and I’m shocked it didn’t get the Oscar for best foreign film. (Mads Mikkelsen’s luck, always the nominee movie, never the bride winner).

LET THERE BE SPOILERS FOR THE HUNT and RETURN TO PARADISE

So what would you do if you were the father? What would you do if you are the friend? Because guess what? She’s lying, and he is innocent.

The whole town turns on him for nothing. They don’t even bring in an actual child psychologist. And this almost drives our protagonist insane. I don’t get that when it’s revealed that he’s innocent, he stays in that small town where some people still don’t believe him.

What the f…?

Seriously. Look, I get that he grew up there. His teenage son is there. But are your friends still your friends after they believed the worst about you? And it’s not like he lives in a third world country. There are many more towns and countries he can go to, find work and make money, while minimizing the homesickness. Yes, he has a son, who could in a few years join his dad wherever.

But that is me. I grew up in a big city. I don’t feel homesick much. I don’t mind living abroad. I tried hard to put myself in his shoes. I still don’t agree with what he decided. I wouldn’t look twice at those people.

And the ending doesn’t quite indicate he made the right choice if you are honest about last scene.

But while the ending might not be the most believable (to me), but it creates the biggest impact. The director Thomas Vinterberg is also the co-writer, so that presents an advantage. He could shoot the movie the way he wanted.

What does this mean about your screenplay’s conflicts and characters’ reactions?

In my drama feature, I have a story conflict that’s hard to sell. In other words, one of the main character’s actions is extreme, though in line with what he’s going through, and what he has experienced.

And not only are some readers having trouble with the conflict (despite enjoying the premise), they are not particularly fond of how a certain character handles the conflict, which puzzles me.

Because if I were that character, I’d do exactly that.

When I ask people around me what they would in that situation, they choose my character’s way.

So how come some readers aren’t into it?

Well, for one, our personalities and outlooks on life determine a certain percentage of how we react to movies (and screenplays). Remember, a couple of years after seeing The Hunt, I’m still singing the “I would so get out of there!” tune.

Whenever a character takes a cheating spouse back, I’m disappointed until that movie/story ends. Cheaters don’t deserve a second chance in my book, unless the situation is extreme, like the person being cheated on is a complete psychopath or something. You can enjoy my fun cheating-condoning posts on my movie blog.

Some found Death Sentence unrealistic. I tend to love revenge flicks. I cheer for parents who go down the extreme route. Even well-educated, seemingly mild-mannered ones. Because:

  1.  Don’t be afraid, I approve of regular folk taking justice into their own hands only in revenge movies
  2.  I can relate to the pain that will result in losing a loved one. Of course they will go crazy and do drastic things. So while the level of Bacon’s character’s success might not necessarily be the realistic aspect of his movie, his losing it over the not-so-certain outcome of the trial makes sense to me. Yes, Braveheart and The Crow are among my favorite movies. How did you know? :)

Anyway…

The point is, we react, judge and interpret differently. I find my character’s action, and the other’s reaction completely in line with their personalities, life experiences.

Would I react the same way if I were in the same situation? Yes. But would I be in the same situation? Not likely. For one, I’m not a musician, and my crow-like voice wouldn’t earn me any fans. So I have my characters, my obsession with the rock music world and my imagination to guide me.

So, we again come back to listening to your gut.

But am I to blame a little? Of course I am. Chances are, I couldn’t reflect the extremity & uniqueness of the situation, as well as I should have.

It feels like mission impossible to balance exposition, good dialog, enough (but not too much) backstory while capturing and holding everyone’s attention in a freaking drama. No matter how engaging I try to make it, it’s still a drama, albeit a glamorous and larger-than-life one at that.

So what do you do?

You work on your craft and draft until the story, the story you know is the right one to tell, shines and eliminates (or minimizes) doubts and let everyone enjoy the ride.

I immensely enjoy the stakes in Return to Paradise. I can honestly say I wouldn’t trust the authorities and go back to save my friend, love or no love. But then again, I wouldn’t do drugs so I wouldn’t be in that situation. That doesn’t stop me from rooting for these characters.

You hear stories about screenwriters who can only sell their 11th script. Then you hear the ones about the first/second or third script they wrote being sold. Who wants to bet there were like 30 drafts of that sold script before it got the greenlight?

Happy rewriting!

How to Evaluate Your Script Evaluations: My Post on Bang2Write

In an ideal (and lucky world), your script evaluations would all be positive, and you could start worrying about your pitch after you got your consider or even better, recommend.

But more often than not, you’ll either get a pass or consider with reservations despite your best editing efforts. And different script readers will disagree on pretty much anything.

So you won’t be able to jumpstart editing before deciphering what everyone means, and whether you should consider every tip.

I’m happy to announce that my tips on the subject was published on Lucy V Hay’s Bang2write, a blog I religiously follow.:)

You can click to title to read the article there: 5 Ways To Evaluate Your Feedback by Pinar Tahan aka @zoeyclark

 

Happy Evaluating!

 

 

 

 

This Writer Is Getting Smarter About Money: And How You Can Too

From my Oslo winter trip this year.

The truth is I’ve always been somewhat smart, or at least sensible, with my money.

Despite a brief fascination with Levi’s products in the 90s as I was growing up, I never really had a fascination for brands. As my friends shed their family’s money on Lacoste, Burberry and many other brands I can’t remember, I spent on movies, music and books.

Sure, I bought clothes and shoes and accessories too. Look, I love shopping. I’m just not (that) addicted. Compared to Rebecca Bloomwood, I’m a financial wizard.

I’ve always tried to save some money in case of emergencies, luxuries, trips, future moving plans, even though it’s not always easy doing that.

I’m a freelancer who’s adamant she’ll only take on projects she’s enthusiastic about. Linda Formichelli is right in a way: it’s very difficult if you only try to write about what you love. That’s why I also teach ESL. I’d rather teach English (I love the language, and I love teaching it) than write about something that bores me. I also can’t learn to love something according to the paycheck it provides. I tried.

While I don’t really spend on things I don’t need or don’t care for, there are “luxuries” I refuse to cut back on, such as:

-Nero coffee (Starbucks too, but I like Nero more, to be honest.) And by coffee, I mean mocha. And other stuff I eat and drink while I do my writing at their numerous branches.

Screenplay coverage: I’ll argue this is more a professional necessity than a luxury, but it costs money. Add to it if you also want it proofread. Add some more for the coverage of your resubmissions, as first submissions are rarely a consider or recommend.

Add even more for other screenplays. You have to have more than one. If not, please stop reading. Bookmark this post, and come back to it after you’ve done some screenwriting. This post isn’t going anywhere. If it does, I’ll let you know.

– Cabs. I love cabs. Granted, I don’t often take them as much as Carrie Bradshaw does. But I certainly appreciate the option.

– Vacation abroad. I need one at least once a year. I can’t always afford it, and it’s not pretty when I go cold turkey.

-Vacation at 5-star hotels/holiday villages. I’ve never been the backpacking or camping type. I like the outdoors as long as it comes controlled, so I won’t have to deal with poisonous or otherwise dangerous animals. I’ve never appreciated tents. And call me crazy, but I do love indoor plumbing and hot water. And food cooked for me. And big, clean pools. You get the idea.

Luxuries I want to have:

– Traveling first class. For the leg space more than anything else, to be honest.

– Rush jobs on my script coverage. Waiting for feedback on your writing sucks. Because let’s face it, we do more waiting as writers than most other folk. We wait for editors, agents, studios, etc. to answer to our original email. We wait for the answer to our follow-up email. We wait a reasonable time to count it as a rejection, we wait for our piece to be published.

We wait.

The problem is writing is personal, even when we do it professionally. We care if people care about our ideas. We get excited if they like the finished product. And chances are, if you are writing fiction, you get even more attached to your ideas. They’re kind of like your babies, admit it. They shouldn’t be, but they usually are.

So if you can get your script coverage faster, why not do it if you can easily afford it? I haven’t really been able to up to now.

– Eating healthier all the time at restaurants that are Monica-clean. Typically, fast food is cheaper and easier to obtain. Unhealthy snacks are usually more available than healthy ones. And by healthy, I mean the natural stuff. And I hate cooking. Damn it!

– A beach house in California.

– More trips aboard, more stays at 5-star places.

– Investing more on my blogs.

– Investing more on courses.

Going to pitch conferences in person.

-Pitching one-to-one more.

– Working with a story consultant like Marilyn Horowitz

– Work on my pitches with Stephanie Palmer

….

There’s probably more, but those are my top ones at the moment.

How Am I Getting Smarter?

How do I plan on keeping the luxuries I have, making them more frequent and reaching the others?

By making more.

I don’t believe in saving to the point that you stop living and enjoying your life. But I do believe at this point in my life, I can live without 500-dollar-a-pair shoes.

It doesn’t mean some shoes aren’t worth it. It just means it’s a luxury I don’t care for at the moment.

So you can (and should) save according to your own needs and preferences. For more guidance, I recommend I’ll Teach You To Be Rich by Ramit Sethi. I love that book. It’s fun, understandable and practical. It’s slightly more helpful if you live in the USA, but with some research, you can benefit from it no matter from where you are from.

More unbelievably helpful resources on how to make more:

 The Freelance Writer’s Guide to Making $1000 Extra This Month by Mridu Khullar Relph

– Ramit Sethi offers a lot of free materials to help you make at least 1K more on the side. It’s also a premium course, but I haven’t tried it yet.

How to Give Yourself an Instant Pay Rise as a Freelance Writer Online by Kirsty Stuart

– How I Got to Write a Regular Column — After My Article Was Rejected on Make a Living Writing.

*None of the links in this post are affiliate links.

This is hopefully only the beginning to a smarter, more profitable life.

*

How do you handle your luxuries? What are your luxuries and money management techniques?

Grammarly: My Favorite Grammar Checker for Articles, Posts, Stories and Pitches

Grammarly is an online site that checks your grammar, vocabulary and style. It has free and paid versions.

The free version grades your writing out of 100 points and gives you a list of areas where you’ve made mistakes and how many. It doesn’t, however, tell you what exactly what those mistakes are so you’ve to keep guessing.

When you’re using the paid version, it points out your mistakes and why, as well as offering its correct suggestions. Of course, not all mistakes are necessarily mistakes but stylistic choices you’ve made. You still get graded over a 100, and you point gets higher when you correct the mistake or ignore it. (It gives you the option to ignore.)

Now, Grammarly is not perfect. It’s also not human. It’s allergic to passive, for instance. It’s also fond of more formal writing, so it sends out warnings when you end sentences with a preposition or use numbers instead of spelling them. And it doesn’t catch every mistake though it catches a good percentage. Sometimes it suggests you use articles when you shouldn’t or don’t have to.

I don’t recommend using Grammarly without looking at your text once or twice with “editor eyes” yourself. Combine it with the read- out-loud option of your computer or a free software like Natural Reader, and you’re golden.

It has saved me a lot of time and increased my productivity. I’ve also recently discovered that you can adjust your settings as creative (novel, script and other options), so it evaluates accordingly.

Yes, these are affiliate links, but since I’ve been happily using it myself, I think it’s appropriate.

Happy Editing!

The Biggest Dialogue-Related Challenge in Screenwriting

 “Good dialogue clearly conveys emotions, attitudes, strengths, vulnerabilities, and so on, while revealing the details of your plot and advancing your narrative.”

Susan Kouguell, from her article Tips on Writing Dialogue That’s Truthful. 

 

Dialogue is one of the hardest parts of screenwriting. Just look at its functions perfectly stated by Susan Kouguell. Good dialogue needs to do all that.

And what does good dialogue mean?

 

Complained your dialogue.

Complained your dialogue.

 

  1. Good dialogue flows.

One way to assure that is by not writing on-the-nose dialogue.

But if it’s never on-the-nose, then you’ll also bore your audience to tears or annoy the hell out of them.

Think about five characters who never ever say what they mean and never mean what they say for 90+ pages. Frankly, I’d end up wanting to strangle them. There have been many movies where I hated the characters for this reason.

However if it’s always on the nose, then you’re destroying your chances for conflict. Also a no-no. It’s a hard balance to strike.

Thanks to some great feedback, I (mostly) dealt with my tendencies to write on-the-nose dialogue. In my defense, I don’t want to eliminate it completely because it’s not realistic then either.

Because people who do mean what they say and say what they mean, at least more than half their lives exist. Exhibit A: Me. I might have to get a little diplomatic or more polite depending on the situation, but if something is wrong, I never, ever say “nothing.” And if I’m upset or not happy about something, I never say “whatever.” Yeah, I’m weird like that.

  1. It needs to be fresh. Witty is great too, if you can pull it off (and it fits the mood).

You can’t write a page-turner by putting the same old clichés everywhere. But then again, it should also sound natural.

All the freshness and wittiness in the world can’t save your script if your character doesn’t sound like an actual person. (If it’s not an actual person, say a robot, an alien from another galaxy or some other special circumstance, never mind.)

  1. And perhaps most importantly, your characters should sound distinctive.

Now, it makes sense. Because in reality, we all have unique speech patterns, our preferred catch phrases, speed, ….. The list goes on.

That said, I’ve always found it easier to “separate” the voices for people who are from different backgrounds. Because the more different they are, the easier it’s to write lines that sound unique to that person.

Think about Pirates of the Caribbean, for starters.

Jack Sparrow: pirate, eccentric, (a little) nutty, morally ambiguous, witty, male.

Elizabeth: a young lady with a free spirit. She’s also well-educated and brave.

Norrington: soldier, by the book, with a distaste for outlaws, not usually able or willing to think outside the box.

How hard can it be to write their lines (and how they speak those lines) so that they are distinct? Making the lines funny and/or smart enough can be the challenge here. But differentiating characters’ way of speaking? Not so much.

The Biggest Dialogue-Writing Challenge in Screenwriting 

So what is, at least for me, more difficult than writing dialogue that’s not on-the-nose, fresh and that hopefully flows?

Making my characters sound distinctive, when their backgrounds and life expectations aren’t so different.

What if your story has to have characters of the same background, identifying with the same culture, who are from the same part of the city, who are of the same sex and age?

When writing dialogue for such characters, I rely on their actions and how they respond to situations. I take advantage of their favorite words/catch , how often they swear (or not) and their personalities.

But what I often find, just not within my own dialogue but within others’ as well, is that I can identify characters according to what they say and their actions, rather than how they say their lines.

As I work on my skills to create more distinguishable dialogue, I asked some of my fiction writer friends how they handle this. Their responses are below:

Glenn Hefley:

Physical actions are good. I like those more than catch phrases — not sure the preference of my readers, but I like them more. Having one start, then stop and think, then finish in a different direction is my favorite separator – equal to the guy who doesn’t reply for longer than is comfortable.”

Gretchen Mure Rodriguez:

“People tend to use certain words (slang or otherwise) more than others or have quirky habits- how they stand, twirl their hair etc.”

Anna Marie Spackman:

“I always think of motivation. My best friend and I may sound similar or say similar things, but we are motivated by different things, so the way we respond to a given situation will be different.”

 

***

We started with a quote from Susan Kouguell, so let’s end with one from her.

“Readers should be able to identify who is speaking without needing to read each character heading. Characters’ voices must be distinctive and not interchangeable with other characters.”

Susan Kouguell, from her article Tips on Writing Dialogue That’s Truthful.        

*

Yep, no one said being a screenwriter is easy. How do you handle your dialogue? How do you ensure your characters’ voices are distinctive?

 

Must-Read Helpful Articles on Dialogue

Column D: Writing Dialogue -The Nose Knows by Drew Yanno

6 Reasons Dialogue Is Your Enemy by Lucy V Hay

Tips on Writing Dialogue That’s Truthful by Susan Kouguell

Dialogue Is The Least Of My Problems by Lucy V Hay

Wendy’s LA4HIRE: Best Screenwriting Tips for Great Dialogue by Wendy Kram

More Than Words: Screenplay Dialogue by Lucy V Hay

Script Mistake # 4: Fatty Dialogue by Lucy V Hay

Best and Cheapest Gift You Can Give to a Writer (Plus Alternatives)

 

gifts for writers

Yep, I made this comic. When you can’t draw…you can find sites to help you.:)

 

Not all writers are created equal. There’re probably some writers out there who don’t like to share their work with the world, even with their closest friends and family. And some writers are okay with strangers reading their material, but not their friends.

But most writers I know, myself included, DO WANT TO BE READ.Tweet this

That’s right: we want to be read by as many people as possible. Of course there’s a sales part of it. However I believe the bigger part is curiosity: how others will feel about the words we put together, characters and worlds we have created. We spend so much time and effort on our writing, especially our fiction.

Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate anyone who’s taken interest in reading whatever piece I created. But reading longer pieces takes more time, and it’s a bit harder to get more people to read your longer work – before it’s published and has gained a reputation.

I love it when my friends read me. My family is optional, because well, I don’t exactly write family-friendly stuff. But being read by people we love…well, that’s just a priceless feeling. (Don’t think you have to like what you read. Constructive criticism is cool, just don’t express your feelings like Internet trolls do, and we’ll be fine.)

I’m very fortunate to have great friends who love to read, and they’re enthusiastic about my work. I love it when they push me to write more stuff and send them my drafts sooner. (Sending big hugs to Nastya and Pinar.)

Then I have some dear friends who do care a lot about me, just not so much about my work. Sometimes it’s a genre issue. Frankly, if a friend is all about horror, I’m not going to be even the slightest bit of hurt, disappointed or surprised they chose to stay away. They should.

And then I have friends who don’t really like to read that much, especially when it’s novels we’re talking about. If they haven’t even tried addictive mainstream (but extremely cool and thrilling) authors like Brown, Grisham or Child, I won’t feel entitled to their reading time. If those guys don’t get a shot, I’m okay not making the list.

But some friends do read. They read and watch stuff in the genres I write. Now, they all have jobs and lives and other tons of stuff they have to do and like to do. I get that. Writing though, is not just my job or passion. It’s a part of who I am. That’s why it means so much when they want to know more.

We feel happy when people ask us about our day, careers, families, pets and love lives (well, generally), right? Please add writing to the top of that list.

So here’s the thing: the best gift you can give most writers is that you read or listen to their work.

You don’t have to spend any money. Spare the time it takes to go into a store and choose something. Instead, shoot your writing friend an e-mail and ask for something they wrote. Then tell them what you thought. That’s it. You have no idea how happy that will make them.

Now, if you’ve asked and asked and they refused to send stories your way, it’s on them. But many writers will send it once they feel the work is ready.

Also spreading the word about their writing work online and offline is also a great gesture. 

You absolutely want to spend money? Then here are some alternative suggestions (though recommended you read their work and then provide something else if you want):

– Writing equipment.

– Coverage and/or editing services. Those can be expensive, so if you’ve the budget, it will be appreciated. That said, you need to make sure of what your friend exactly needs and where they want it from. Some might have a wish list on Amazon or their blog, so that’ll be a good place to start.

– Writing-themed stuff. The funnier, the better.

– Books on writing. But make sure it’s relevant, they need it and don’t already have it.

– Writing courses

– Novels.

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What do you think? What have you “bought” your writer friends? Writers, how often do your friends/family read you? Let us know in the comments. And if you like this article, please share on.

 

 

 

Screenwriting Problems Tackled: When No One Likes Your Main Character

nightcrawler-poster

Did someone say an unlikable protagonist? Image via ropeofsilicon.com.

I’ve previously posted The 7 Challenges of Writing a Screenplay, and I’m proud to say I’ve tackled a lot of them successfully in my rewrites. Length is no longer a problem, and having gotten rid of a lot of exposition, my screenplay is a lot leaner.

Right now, I’m facing another problem: I have two protagonists, and one of them is deemed unlikable by half the people (professionals and friends) who read my screenplay. The good news is, some of the “dislikers” are happy with how interesting the events and pacing are, and have told me they don’t have to like a character to enjoy a story or movie.

Why can one main character be unlikable?

My character comes off as too selfish, and that makes it hard for the audience to root for him. He also doesn’t lose everything despite everything he does.

Except, he is not the only main character. His problems and behavior are central to the story, yes, but it’s a script with two protagonists: these two characters start the story as best friends, but extreme circumstances force them to be each other’s antagonist.

And the second protagonist couldn’t be more likeable. He’s strong, passionate, flawed, loyal to a fault… Yet no one seems to notice.

Yes, there are changes I can make to make the unlikeable guy more likable, but most positive changes would change the heart of the story, and I can’t allow that. Because you see, this is the story I want to tell.

When you understand that character, and he is not unlikable to you

And it’s hard for me to see the character as completely selfish, because history (meaning his back story) has proven him to be pretty selfless, or close to it, in the past. He is just having a major crisis, with a pretty debilitating problem, and is acting irrationally. This in turn suggests another problem: plausibility. Like most screenplays, mine requires a decent amount of suspension of disbelief. Not because the events couldn’t/wouldn’t happen, but they are a bit on the extreme side. But if they weren’t, the story I wanted to tell wouldn’t exist.

That’s not to say I don’t respect my readers’ feedback. I do. My last coverage evoked some great questions, and I’d love to discuss it with the reader. I just need to adjust my budget first for further consultation.

On the other hand,  one professional reader not only liked this “unlikable” dude, but named him his favorite.

And I’ve just finished watching two webinars from Writer’s Store where industry experts (including  Script Mag’s Jeanne Veillette Bowerman) emphasized that you can root for a character if he’s interesting enough, even if he’s evil. One given example was Hannibal Lecter. (In her webinar Creating Dynamic Characters.)

Now, I’m in no way claiming my character is that interesting (completely different genres for one. For two, my character won’t be portrayed by Anthony Hopkins:D) But in a way, my “selfish protagonist”, is the antagonist of the story in several ways.

If audiences can root for Hannibal or the killer in Se7en, they can tolerate my selfish character. Next to them, he comes off like a newborn kitten for crying out loud!

Good news: There Are Many Successful Movies with Unlikeable Protagonists

Let’s mention some recent successful movies with borderline horrible, obnoxious main characters. Please note I might spoil the movies a little.

Gone Girl: I seriously can’t decide whose character I detest more. Ben Affleck’s or Rosamund Pike’s? And it’s not like supporting characters are sweet either. Engaging movie (for the most part), great second act but come on! I’ve never spent so much time during a movie wanting to punch all the characters. I wouldn’t want them as my neighbors, friends, distant acquaintances…The cops in the film included.

Side Effects: Sure, Jude Law’s character becomes more and more likable as the story progresses, but what about Rooney Mara’s? And I definitely lost a little respect for Law’s character when he got back with his wife, no questions asked. After the way she treated him? Come on! I don’t need a long fight scene, but just give me a sign of difficulty for crying out loud!

Nightcrawler: Different and compelling movie, sure. But Louis Bloom has to be one of the most obnoxious protagonists ever written. Louis Litt from the TV series Suits is a selfless angel compared to Bloom. Seriously!

And we are never given a back story on why he is such a sociopathic prick. Actually Nightcrawler steps on and chews out so much renowned screenwriting advice, it will get its own post. (or at least another post.) The point is, the only thing I liked about that character was that it was played by Jake Gyllenhaal. I didn’t root for him. I didn’t respect his cunning. I think the fact that he’s so unlikable, and still gets what he wants (despite not being as slick and smart as he believes) is what makes the movie fun to watch.

What does this mean for you and your story?

I haven’t sold this story (with the selfish protagonist) yet. I may never be able to sell it. Maybe it’ll be optioned and/or bought and never made. Maybe I will have to wait until I have the resources to make it myself. Like all the screenplays out there, the possibilities are just too many to count.

The point is, I’m not giving up on it. It has its strengths, and it has its weaknesses, and I’m doing my best to eliminate the weak parts. I’ll do my best to sell it afterwards. But I believe in it, and I’m not giving up on it. I’m also determined to improve it without changing the core.

You might need to adapt too, but you also need to keep believing in yourself. I watched this wonderfully helpful webinar by Marilyn Horowitz (How to Sell Your Screenplay in 30 Days Using New Media through Writer’s Store) where she reminds you that you need to be your biggest fan. You need to be professional, yes, but you also need to believe. It has to be the kind of story you would pay to see. If you wouldn’t, why write it?

Write the kind of movie you’ll want to see. Be as objective as you can. Improve it as much as you can. Then start pitching and querying.

And good luck!

 

 

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