Hey look! err..Listen! John’s on NPR. Briefly.

podcastAfter meeting a friend-of-a-friend at a birthday party over the weekend, I ended up getting pressed into service for a story on NPR’s Day to Day.

Reporter Mike Pesca wanted to talk about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s challenges converting his action-movie persona into a consensus-building governor, and wanted to talk to a screenwriter about it. So I happily made with the quotes.

Here’s what I learned. Somehow, the experience of talking into a microphone makes constructing a coherent thought 300% more difficult. I sat down ready to talk about things like California’s abysmal Proposition 13, and found myself speaking non-words like “governenceship.” Bah. Fortunately, the snippets that made it in to the report are at least English.

You can hear the results here.

(For the record, I’m pretty neutral on Schwarzenegger. He’s honestly been a lot better than I was expecting, but that’s sort of damning with faint praise.)


Formatting the one-sided phone conversation

questionmarkI’m curious about your format for writing a one-sided phone conversation.

I’ve seen it done in so many different ways now, that I have no idea if there is a more uniform way of doing it, or a preferred way.

I’ve seen…

KEVIN

(on phone)

I know it’s your birthday…I can’t make it…Look, that’s not my problem.

or…

KEVIN

(on phone)

I know it’s your birthday…

(listens)

I can’t make it.

(listens)

Look, that’s not my problem.

Then, I’ve seen some similar to above, but filled with (beat) instead.

Is there one correct way to do it?

– Kris
New York City

There’s no one “right” way, but I tend to choose the first option, since space is always at a premium. The only time to break out the parentheticals is if something really is changing on Kevin’s side of the conversation: the tone, the intent or the direction of the conversation.

You’ll also need a parenthetical (or a separate action line) if Kevin is speaking to someone on-screen and on the phone at the same time.

For instance, here’s an exchange from Go:

GAINES

(on phone)

It’s called Mary Xmas. Mary like a chick…Like her name is Mary, not like you marry her. You fucking moron…I dunno, some warehouse shit.

(to Claire)

Is this gonna be cool?

CLAIRE

Yeah, I guess.

GAINES

(on phone)

My friend Claire here says it’s going to be a kick-ass-fucking-time…What, you know her?

(to Claire)

It’s your buddy Simon. He’s in Vegas.

CLAIRE

I know.

GAINES

She knows…Hell, I dunno…

(looks at Claire)

Maybe…Yeah, well save a load for me big boy…Whatever.


Read lots of bad scripts

Screenwriter/blogger Bryan ‘Locke’ Naegele speaks the truth: it’s just as important to read bad writing as good.

The first reason to read bad scripts is to constantly expose yourself to what doesn’t work. Don’t learn from your own mistakes, learn from others. That’s my motto. That way yours are much more manageable because they’re fewer. You become hyper-aware of flat characters, shotty dialogue, predictability, clich├ęs, etc.

I assume “shotty” is a cross between “shoddy” and “shitty.” I like it.

I worked as an intern-slash-reader at a little Paramount production company during my first semester of graduate school, and the contrast between the crappy scripts I read there and the great scripts I read for class was really illuminating. And encouraging on some level. I knew I could never write as well as Lawrence Kasdan, but I could easily write better than the schmucks I had to write coverage on.

So, take Bryan at his word.


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.