Introducing Off-Topic

off topicThis website is billed as “a ton of useful information about screenwriting,” but I have many interests that don’t fall within that framework, no matter how broadly I try to stretch it.

So as a way to service these off-topic interests, I’m happy to introduce Off-Topic.

Off-Topic is not about screenwriting. At least, not primarily. It’s structured as an ever-expanding list of sites and real-world things that I find interesting, useful or disturbing. The accompanying blurbs are a lot shorter than traditional johnaugust.com posts, just long enough to help you decide whether it’s worth it for you to click-through. Every headline on Off-Topic points somewhere off-site.

Daring Fireball’s linked list was my most obvious inspiration, but kottke and others have implemented their own strategies for micro-posting. From a site owner’s perspective, the advantages are mostly about time. The average post on johnaugust.com takes me between 15 minutes and an hour to write, which is one reason I don’t post daily. These linked-list postings, however, take less than a minute, so I suspect you’ll see a lot more of them.

In the right-hand column, you’ll see the link for Off-Topic, which is a page that shows the fifteen most recent entries. For now, you can bookmark this page, or just click-through from the front page. At some point, I’ll implement a graphic to indicate that there are new links in Off-Topic.

Why the separate page? Well, there are different techniques for implementing micro-posting, each with its own pros and cons. One option is to mix the links in with “regular” blog content (a la kottke), which ensures maximum visibility. Another method is to keep the links separate from “real” editorial (such as Daring Fireball). I chose door number two, for a couple of reasons:

  1. It was much easier to implement.
  2. It keeps the non-screenwriting stuff separate.
  3. It let me set up new RSS feeds just for the Off-Topic stuff.
  4. I could leverage del.icio.us to do the heavy lifting.

That last one was key, because del.icio.us is ideally suited for the task. The system uses tags to sort and classify the links. A very cool side benefit is that any user can subscribe to an RSS feed of just the topics she finds interesting. For instance,

http://del.icio.us/rss/johnaugust

will pull up all the links I’ve posted. But if you only want links that pertain to screenwriting, you can subscribe to:

http://del.icio.us/rss/johnaugust/screenwriting

You can have your feeds, your way. Since the postings are so short, they’re ideally suited for RSS.

What do I expect to put on Off-Topic? The tags tell the story.

  • Books. I read a lot. A lot. Mostly, it’s non-fiction, sometimes tangentially related to what I’m writing.
  • Reviews. Particularly if I strongly agree/disagree with the reviewer.
  • Funny. Random things.
  • Screenwriting. Okay, it’s not officially “off-topic,” but if I find good stuff on other sites, I’m more likely to link it here than on the front page.
  • Geek. Lotsa geek.
  • TV. Lord knows I love me some idiot box.
  • Gay. I don’t write a lot about gay issues, but other people do.
  • Parent. I’m having my first kid in August, so I’m sure stuff will come up.
  • Projects. When I encounter interesting links to past or current projects, you’ll see them here.
  • Mac. The best darn computers in the world.
  • NSFW. That’s “Not Safe For Work.” Or for minors. Or my Mom. Or the easily offended. I won’t be posting a lot in this arena, but better to take me at my word. (The individual links will also say NSFW, just to be extra-clear about it.)

The best part about the del.icio.us tagging system is that I can expand/modify tags as needed, so that if there isn’t a good category for something, I can just make a new one. It’s a lot more flexible than traditional blogging taxonomies.

The biggest drawback to implementing Off-Topic this way is that there’s no easy method for feedback. Unlike normal johnaugust.com entries, there’s no comment section for Off-Topic. For the time being, the best bet is to email offtopic@johnaugust.com for anything related to the list. I’m sure a better system will come along shortly.

For now, explore.


Theory #1

Why does it seem that there are maybe 6 templates for Hollywood movies? As a writer you pick one of those, fill in the check boxes, and poof the next movie of the week. Is it because of the money to be made, or a lack of talented writers getting their scripts to the right people, or is it due to producers and directors not getting the ‘picture’, or is it because those mentioned above don’t really give a rats butt about the people going out to see a movie?

–Niall

While I can’t offer an apologia for everything that is wrong with the state of film, I can suggest a few theories for this nagging sense of sameness you feel about movies. As I started writing this column, it got so long that I needed to break it into two pieces.

Before I start, I should stress that this isn’t a Hollywood-specific problem; if you look at the combined film output of France or Germany or India you’re going to find the same percentage of mindless retreads. Nor is this a recent problem. To me, the only thing more torturous than the slow pace of most movies in the 1940’s and 50’s is their utter predictability.

Theory 1: There really are only a few basic plots.

While I don’t support the kind of reductionism you see in a lot of film books, which boil down the entire canon of Western literature into three or seven or thirteen plots (Revenge, Fatal Love, etc.), the truth is that for any scenario you create, there’s only a few ways it’s going to resolve. While there might be many detours and diversions along the way, the course of your story is going to end up at one of several possible outcomes.

For instance, let’s say you’re writing a movie about a young woman who is looking for her father. All the details of the story – why she’s looking for him, how long he’s been gone, the nature of their relationship, the setting, the obstacles, the other characters involved – these details make the story unique, and hopefully interesting. But from the minute the movie begins, we know there’s only two possible outcomes: either she finds him, or she doesn’t. "Aha!" you say. The only reason we know the two possible outcomes is because we’ve been told she’s looking for her father. If we didn’t say that at the start of the movie, it wouldn’t be so predictable. And you’re absolutely right. But the movie would also be incredibly, annoyingly frustrating. The next time you’re in a movie theater squirming around and checking your watch, ask yourself, "Do I know what the main character is trying to do?" More likely than not, you’ll answer no. That’s why the movie seems to be wandering around aimlessly, because it hasn’t given you any sense of where you’re going, or how to know when you get there.

Are there exceptions? Sort of. Last year’s BEING JOHN MALKOVICH and AMERICAN BEAUTY both seemed to get by without the usual goal-driven plotting. But AMERICAN BEAUTY actually went through a lot of changes in the editing room to give it more set-up than it originally had: the opening was scrapped completely and a voice-over was added from Kevin Spacey talking about his death, letting the audience know from the start the movie was going to be about Lester’s transformation and murder.

As far as BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, the movie was incredibly inventive, with good characters and interesting themes. But I know I wasn’t the only one getting restless by hour two, simply because I had no idea where it was going. I didn’t need to know how the story would end, just that it would end. It became so arbitrary, it felt like you could cut it off at any point. Of course, all this is only talking about the rough structure of movies, not the details that make them unique and vibrant or hackneyed and cliché. In the next column, I’ll talk about Theory 2: Audiences want hamburger.

(Originally posted in 2003.)


Fixing double-spaces after periods

Before I was a screenwriter, I worked in graphic design, with a font collection that was the envy of my dorm floor. So it’s life’s cruel joke that I now make my living in 12-pt. Courier.

Modern typefaces are designed to look best with a single space after the period which ends a sentence. (Or the full stop, for the British in the room.) Courier, however, is not such a typeface. As a monospace font, it looks best with two spaces after the period.

When writing a script, it’s pretty easy to type two spaces sometimes, one space other times. Before printing the “final” draft, you could scroll through the whole document, looking for periods with only one space. But it’s much easier to use Find and Replace.

This trick works in pretty much any word processor, including both Final Draft and Movie Magic Screenwriter.

Converting to two spaces

  1. Choose “Find…”
  2. In the Find field, type . followed by two spaces.
  3. In the Replace field, type . followed one space.
  4. Click Replace All. You should get a dialog box that shows a large number of changes. Yes, you’ve just made every sentence wrong. What’s important is that they’re all wrong in exactly the same way.
  5. Back in the Find field, type . followed one space.
  6. In the Replace field, type . followed by two spaces.
  7. Click Replace All.
  8. Look through the script. You should have two spaces after every period. However, you may find that you also have two spaces in case where you shouldn’t (like after “Mr.” or “Dr.”).
  9. If so, Find “Mr.” followed by two spaces, and Replace with “Mr.” followed by one space.
  10. Repeat as needed with “Dr.” or “Mrs.”

In my opinion, Courier looks best with two spaces after the colon as well. The same technique works.

In programs that allow it, a technically-savvy wordsmith could use regular expressions to do all of this in one step, matching the period only in cases where it is followed by exactly one space. But considering this whole process generally takes less than 20 seconds, I’m not sure it’s worth it.

If you find yourself writing a letter or some other document in a non-Courier font, you may want to do just the opposite, converting two spaces to one. That’s a lot easier.

Converting to one space

  1. Choose “Find…”
  2. In the Find field, type . followed by two spaces.
  3. In the Replace field, type . followed by one space.
  4. Click Replace All.
  5. Keep clicking Replace All until there are no more replacements. (It may take a few times through.)
  6. Look through the script. You should have one space after every period.

Writing when the movie could get ruined

questionmarkWhen you conceive a great screenplay idea do you ever worry about how that idea might be destroyed if and when it gets produced as a film? How do you overcome the anxiety that a great idea will be poorly executed and go on writing?

– Ralph
Los Angeles, CA

Whether it’s an original script or an adaptation, screenwriters have every reason to worry that their great script will get butchered, mangled and ruined. At least in terms of plot and character, my hunch is that most movies were significantly better before they were filmed — generally, at the draft when the director signed on. Because it’s after that point that the compromises begin: we can’t afford that location; the actor doesn’t like that moment; we need to cut 10 pages for budget.

This is what sucks about screenwriting. Unlike a novel, a screenplay is not a “final” art form. However beautifully written, it’s essentially a plan for making a movie. And plans change.

Even if a screenwriter directs her own movie, it’s never going to be as perfect as it was on the page. Between the camera, the actors, the lights and the locations, nothing will be exactly as she planned it. Directors like George Lucas and Robert Rodriguez may use technology to nudge their films closer and closer to their original vision, but it’s never going to be quite what they imagined. For instance, I bet JarJar Binks was great on the page.

So, knowing that things will get changed, and quite possibly ruined, how does the screenwriter avoid creative paralysis?

You have to embrace the chaos on some level. Moviemaking is like white-water rafting. You know you’re going to get from point A to point B, but it’s going to be scary along the way. You’ll have to paddle your ass off. You might get thrown from the boat. But if you make it down in one piece, that’s success.

If you’re not comfortable with those risks, screenwriting isn’t for you. There are many safer and less terrifying literary forms out there.


Handling dialogue-like situations

questionmarkI’m writing a screenplay where a magical typewriter communicates to people by typing them messages. Nothing verbal. Since this will be a selling script is ok to put in a note saying this, then proceed as…

TYPEWRITER

Hi John, how are you today?

Or is there another way to do this? This type of communication will exist through the entire story.

– Harry
Detroit

Since the typewriting is “speaking” dialogue, your way is fine. If it only happened once or twice in the script, I would be tempted to put the typing in boldface, centered on the page. But that would get really annoying, really quick. For what you’re attempting, faux-dialogue is best.


Screenwriting wastes a lot of paper

Do you print out your script pages as you go along, or do you wait until you have a completed draft before printing out the whole thing (assuming you’re using a word processor and not a typewriter.) There’s nothing more motivating to me than to see pages of script piling up, but then if I want to make a change to what I’ve written already there’s a potential for waste and I feel bad enough that we’re still using trees for paper instead of something more plentiful and efficient like cotton or hemp.

–Rob Workman
Saint Paul, MN

In the early days of ink-jet printers, there was a lot more incentive to economize: printing an entire script could take half an hour, and cost a few bucks’ worth of ink. Now, with fast-and-cheap laser printers, the temptation is to print a lot more. Fight it. The business of making movies already wastes a lot of paper — everything from call sheets, to budgets, to rainbow-colored script revisions. As a single screenwriter, you can at least make sure you’re not adding to the problem.

I tend to write first drafts longhand, scene by scene, and print out pages as they get typed up. Call it paranoid, but I like to have at least one hard copy in case my hard drive commits hara-kiri. So, for a normal first draft, that means about 240 pages — 120 hand-written, and 120 typed.

The real waste comes during countless drafts of the rewriting process. Here are some suggestions to keep it somewhat reasonable:

  1. Only print what you need.
    Before you hit Print, ask yourself if you really need the whole script, or whether you simply need a few pages. Often, your corrections are contained to just a few pages, and it’s easy to print only the range you need.

  2. Double-up.
    If you’re using Mac OS X, use the pull-down menu in the Print dialog box to select ‘Layout’. Set it for two pages, with a hairline border. (Confused? Here’s a screenshot.) You’ll end up with two pages side-by-side, and it’s perfectly readable. Your 120-page script is now sixty pages, and can be held together with a binder clip. (Never hand in a script printed this way; keep it for your own use.)

  3. Use recycled paper.
    HP makes a good paper that’s 30% post-consumer. Unfortunately, recycled paper rarely comes three-holed, but if you’re printing the two-page layout, that doesn’t matter.

  4. Reuse the back sides.
    I avoid printing scripts on the back sides of scripts — I get confused which pages are new. But script pages are perfectly good scratch paper for everything else you need to print.

  5. Use .pdfs.
    If you’re giving somebody your script to read, consider emailing them a .pdf rather than printing it out. These days, almost anyone can handle a .pdf file.

Even if you only implement a few of these suggestions, you can cut your paper use by 75%. Until they start making hemp copier paper, you’re doing your part to keep the trees in the forest where they belong.

(Originally posted January 20, 2005.)