Air vents are for air

air ventOn a recent episode of “Lost,” a character climbed through air ducts to get past heavy blast doors, which had trapped him and another character. By narrative standards, this sequence would seem unremarkable. Except for one thing:

“Lost” takes place on a freaking magical island.

You’ve got polar bears, black smoke monsters, and a cabal of mysterious Others. There’s no shortage of dramatic opportunities, which is why it’s so disheartening to see the show reach for that lowest-hanging fruit: a guy in an air duct.

I’ve lived a fairly adventurous life. I’ve travelled to five continents. But the only time I’ve seen the inside of an air duct is television and movies, when a character — generally the hero — has to be clever enough (and small enough) to climb through a conveniently-accessible air duct.

Be it action-adventure, comedy or horror, the air duct has become the hack screenwriter’s go-to passageway. In fact, it’s rumored the season finale of “Yes, Dear” will take place entirely in air ducts.

Ladies and gentlemen, screenwriters, it’s time to stop.

Let’s back away from the keyboard and look at the situation with fresh eyes.

  1. Most air ducts are not nearly large enough to hold a grown man.
  2. Even if large enough, they’re not built to support a grown man’s weight.
  3. “Secure” facilities — where characters are most likely to climb through air vents — are exactly the places that wouldn’t have hero-sized air vents.

Thanks to continuous bombardment in television and movies, the idea of characters shimmying through air ducts has become not just a cliché, but almost a given. The moment a hero finds himself stuck someplace, we expect his eyes to drift north to that spot just below the ceiling, where an oversized grate is beckoning: “Just yank twice! I’m not screwed in or anything!”

Here’s what I’m proposing: The Screenwriter’s Vow of Air Vent Chastity.

I, John August, hereby swear that I shall never place a character inside an air duct, ventilation shaft, or any other euphemism for a building system designed to move air around.

One day, I’d love to win an Oscar. An Emmy. A Tony Award. But if all I accomplished in my screenwriting life were reducing the number of times characters climbed through air vents, I’d consider my work successful.

So if you’re on board, please sign in the comments section and tell all your screenwriting friends. Remember, only you can prevent clichés.

What if the movie I wrote turns out god-awful?

questionmarkI am a young screenwriter in Canada who has recently had the privilege of having a film made of my first screenplay.

Surprisingly, the script was financed for production and went to the boards rather quickly — 6 months to be exact. For whatever reason, I got this one right, with the type of feedback a person could only dream of, from everybody involved, including producers, distributors, the crew and cast, the financiers. I felt validated and motivated and eager to continue on, with offers and interest and such.

Here’s the problem: the film has just locked picture and one of the producers gave me a copy to screen. It’s terrible. Astonishingly bad. This isn’t an issue of opposing visions or creative difference. Despite the fact that the script has been heavily cut and rearranged, it just seems to lack life or vision.

The entire treatment is superficial. The performances are terrible, the images lack nuance, there is no sensitivity to the material, never mind entertainment. And I’m not the only one that feels this way. The producers, the distributors — all are very disappointed. My question is, will this hurt me and my reputation? Will I be given another chance? And how do you deal with a loss of this kind? It’s pretty devastating.


First off, my sympathies.

This is one of the worst things about being a screenwriter: you ultimately have very little control over the movie that gets made. The director might shoot your scenes; the actors might speak your lines; the editor might assemble them in a logical manner. And yet, when it’s all done, the film may in no way resemble what you set out to accomplish when you wrote your script.

When I saw the first cut of Go, I nearly threw up. I’m talking physical nausea, with shortness of breath and heaviness in the arms. It was terrible. I remember thinking, “Maybe they can just never release it.”

But after a few hours, my optimism gradually returned. Because I’d been on set for every second of filming, I knew we had much better versions of everything. So I sat down and wrote eight pages of notes. (You can read them here.)

After the next cut, I wrote another seven pages, then three pages, and a final three pages.

Ultimately, we went through five or six major cuts of the film, including three days of reshoots. My notes certainly didn’t save the movie. But by writing things down, I was able to get the team (the director, the editor and the producers) to focus on one set of issues, and help steer discussion on what to do next.

I’ve given notes on every film I’ve written since, sometimes with good results (c.f. Charlie’s Angels), sometimes not (c.f. Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle).

So my first advice, Jeremy, is ask those producers and financiers how locked the picture really is. Given a choice between a bad movie and a pissed-off director, most producers will gladly unlock the picture if they think it can really help.

Have you seen dailies? Are they significantly better than the movie? The cliché is that no movie is as good as the dailies, or as bad as the first cut. But if you were watching all the dailies and didn’t sense a train wreck, maybe your movie went off the tracks in the editing. The good movie you wrote may still be in there, hidden under bad choices.

But there’s the very real possibility your movie is just awful. If that’s the case, there’s little you can do except remember that most filmmakers have some credits that make them cringe. Hell, James Cameron directed Piranha Part Two: The Spawning. I’d argue that even a bad credit is better than no produced credit.

So if it ends badly, take the emotional hit. Feel it. Then move on. Your career’s not over; it just didn’t start on quite the note you wanted.

Writing what can’t be shot

questionmarkI was wondering what your thoughts are about occasionally adding exposition into action lines, when it can’t be explicitly shown on screen.

For example:

The room bursts out in laughter, which quickly turns into applause. A few EXECS standing at the back of the room smile to each other, and nod their heads in amusement. The publishing wunderkind, #29 on Forbes’ Top 30 under 30, has done it again! The pleased crowd begins to disperse.

Since this information isn’t actually going to be shown to the audience in the scene, is it bad form to add it in? Or is it helpful in giving the reader a quick sense of the character and making the action lines a little less dry?

– Isaac Aptaker

Your specific example probably wouldn’t be to my taste. Once you have the people in the room smile, laugh, applaud and nod, it’s hard to justify another line to underscore the point again.

But in general, yes. Used judiciously, these for-the-reader-only snippets are fine. I often find myself using them when introducing an important character for the first time.

From Charlie and the Chocolate Factory:

Mother Bucket is an ever-exhausted woman in her late 30’s, run ragged from taking care of Charlie and the four invalid grandparents. Many nights, she’s too tired to worry, and too worried to sleep.

From Barbarella:

FINNEA (29) comes up to Barbarella at the podium, and hugs her in a sisterly but somewhat obvious manner, as if trying to share her spotlight.

While Barbarella could be compared to the wildflowers she paints -- joyful, open and a bit scattered -- Finnea is like a cultivated rose. She’s very beautiful but very focused. And one suspects there are thorns to protect her.

Nothing in these descriptions is directly cinematic, but it gives the reader (and the director, and the actor) a much better idea of the intention. Just make sure that you’re never confusing these blips of exposition with real character work. Movies are about what characters do and say, not who they were before the story started.


I’ve had a MySpace profile for a long time, but never really did anything with it.

At the time I registered, I remember thinking that MySpace felt like a lame Friendster knock-off. But as we all know, MySpace is now the Google of social networking, a billion dollar eye-magnet. The difference is, I like Google, and I kind of despise MySpace. Yet the reasons why I dislike it are largely why it’s been so successful.

Visit any random profile on MySpace, and you’re instantly beamed back to the Bad Old Days of web design, with flashing graphics, unreadable text and — worse — random songs that start playing unbidden. It’s not that the underlying template is ugly. It’s blah but inoffensive. The ugliness comes from how easily an individual user can modify it, cramming it with non-scrolling backgrounds and multiple video streams.

(The fact that MySpace can handle the load is testament to some serious hardware and deep pockets.)

Because most people have terrible design sense, most profiles look pretty terrible — but they look exactly how the user wants them to look. This element of self-expression is a large part of why teens and tweens and twentysomethings love their MySpace.

And that’s probably the crux of why I don’t like MySpace: I’m too damn old.

It pains me to admit that, because I’ve always prided myself on being able to understand the social culture of younger generations. I was never part of the rave/club scene, but I could appreciate it in a non-judgmental way. Hell, I wrote a movie about it. Similarly, I never felt the burning need to pierce anything or text message all my friends, but it was always clear to me why someone would think it was essential.

If I revert to the 15-year old version of myself, it’s easy to imagine why I’d love MySpace. In high school, I remember talking to friends on three-way calling for hours every night. Add typing and graphics, and these phone calls would become a sort of social video game: Popularity Pac-Man.

Or perhaps the better analogy is my other high school mainstay, Dungeons & Dragons. Just like you could equip your character with the perfect mace for smiting kobolds, on MySpace you can fine-tune the virtual you with better photos, better favorites, and better friends. You can try on new identities, and focus on different attributes.

Basically, you can keep rolling for 18’s.

Back in high school, my friend Jason’s dad would often wander in during a marathon D&D session and ask, “Who’s winning?” We’d roll our eyes and groan. He just didn’t get it: You play D&D, but you don’t win it.

While I understand MySpace on a technical, social and cultural level, part of me wonders — worries — if I haven’t already become Jason’s dad. I can appreciate MySpace, but I don’t love it.

Which means I really don’t get it at all.

And maybe that’s okay. There are a great many things in life which I don’t fundamentally “get,” yet wholeheartedly accept as valid: electromagnetism, quantum theory, the GDP, Adam Sandler comedies.

That’s why I still have my little beachfront. You’re welcome to visit. Just be careful not to trip over my ambivalence on the way in.

Update 2011: I killed nixed MySpace page several years ago.

Things that get caught in the spam filter

The new version of WordPress has Akismet spam filtering, which does a remarkably good job weeding out spam comments. Occasionally, it flags something that is so tantalizing that it really should be shared with the world:

Dear sirs.
It is my pleasure to inform you that I have written a sexual screenwriting ,(It is about a widow that she desirs to have a sex with her neighbour’s son and finally she successes..).
If you deal this kind of screenwriting please contact to me or introduce sites & agencies that deal sexual screenwriting or how I can sell my screenwriting. I am waiting for your kind anwer.

I don’t know where to begin.

La escritura profesional y el auge de los amateurs

Daniel Castro has the first part of my essay, “Professional Writing and the Age of the Amateur,” translated into Spanish at his site. He volunteered, and I wasn’t going to say no.

Decidí que mi conferencia de esta noche no fuera estrictamente sobre la escritura de guiones sino sobre escritura en general. Todos los que estáis en esta sala sois escritores. Podéis escribir guiones o trabajos de documentación. Desde luego, todos escribís correos electrónicos. Todos sois escritores profesionales en algún campo.

It’s strange reading one’s words in another language. My Spanish is good enough that I have no trouble understanding it, but if I were to attempt to do the translation myself, it would be embarrassing for all concerned. So, many thanks to Daniel.

Creative Commons LicenseBy the way, this essay and most of the material on this site (other than the scripts) are covered by a Creative Commons license, which allows you to use this information for non-commercial purposes as long as (a) you give me credit, and (b) you agree to share your derivative works in the same manner. So if you feel like translating anything you see here in Polish or Mongolian (ahem), by all means feel free. I’d just appreciate a link back to the original version.