To Kill a Mockingbird

Harper Lee, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird, died today at 89.

Everyone reads To Kill a Mockingbird in high school or college, right? For years, I recalled it being on a summer AP English reading list. I no doubt rushed through it to get to Heller or Dostoyevsky.

But last year, as the controversy over Go Set a Watchman started bubbling up, I began to wonder: did I actually ever read Mockingbird? Like a lot of great books, it had permeated American culture so thoroughly that I could fake my way through a conversation about Atticus Finch without first-hand knowledge the book he appears in.

Sadly, discussing things you haven’t read is an important skill in Hollywood.

I bought and read Mockingbird this year over the Christmas holiday. Spoiler: it’s terrific. Through cultural osmosis, I already had some sense of Atticus, Scout and Boo Radley, and the trial at the center of the book.

What I hadn’t anticipated was how smart and funny Lee’s writing would be. She manages the difficult feat of telling the story from the perspective of a willful six-year-old tomboy while vividly painting in the details of Maycomb, Alabama. As the reader, you understand the complicated lives of the adults even while the young protagonist is annoyed and baffled by them.

Lee’s scene work is terrific — a nighttime walk back from school is harrowing — but her transitions are remarkable. She can thoroughly document a moment down to each scowl and scrape, then zip through months in a sentence. This ability to stretch and compress time is so much harder than Lee makes it look.

To Kill a Mockingbird is usually studied for its themes and cultural issues, but I’d urge you to read it — or re-read it — just for the writing.


Sexy But Doesn’t Know It

Scriptnotes: Ep. 237
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John and Craig look at how to introduce characters in a screenplay — and how to avoid being mocked by a Twitter feed for it. We go back through previous Three Page Challenges and several of the screenplays nominated for awards this year to examine trends and techniques.

We also discuss writing two projects at once, and offer follow-up on previous topics including screenwriting software, top-100 lists and our favorite Australians we’ve never met.

Links:

You can download the episode here: AAC | mp3.

UPDATE 2-19-16: The transcript of this episode can be found here.


Tuesday Reviewsday, vol. 4

Reviews let makers know how much you love their products, and encourage potential customers to give new things a shot. Every Tuesday I leave a few reviews on the applicable store, and encourage you to do the same.

Today’s picks are:

  • Bang! (4th Edition) (Amazon) The original Spaghetti Western shoot-em up card game. While you can play it with four players, I find it’s best with five or more so the Deputy gets involved.
  • Bang! The Walking Dead (Amazon) A very clever re-skin of Bang! using the characters from The Walking Dead series. In many ways, it’s easier to understand, both because the Italian is removed and some of the nomenclature is more straightforward (e.g. axes have a range of one, first aid kits heal one life, etc.). It’s not gruesome. I won’t let my 10-year-old watch the series, but I’d be fine with her playing this game.
  • Food52 Genius Recipes: 100 Recipes That Will Change the Way You Cook (Amazon) A friend recommended this book — in particular, two unusual recipes for scrambled eggs. I found the whole thing great, with lively instructions and terrific photography. It’s the kind of cookbook you flip through on the couch, marking things you want to try.

If you’re looking for something to review, many readers are probably familiar with some of the things we make, including Highland, Weekend Read and Writer Emergency Pack.

Podcasts are especially review-dependent, because they signal to the powers at iTunes to feature certain shows. A review for Scriptnotes would be much-appreciated.


Franchises and Final Draft

Scriptnotes: Ep. 236
Play

John and Craig examine why almost all of the top-grossing movies are part of a franchise — and the chicken-or-egg question at the heart of it. You don’t get Minions without Despicable Me.

We also look at the sale of Final Draft to an accounting software company and speculate wildly about the fate of the company and the state of screenwriting apps.

Plus: follow-up on Zola, sleep paralysis and dead scripts.

In the premium feed at Scriptnotes.net, you’ll find audio from John’s live panel with the WGA nominees, including Matt Charman, Drew Goddard, Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff, John McNamara, Phyllis Nagy, Charles Randolph and Adam McKay, Josh Singer & Tom McCarthy, and Aaron Sorkin.

Links:

You can download the episode here: AAC | mp3.

UPDATE 2-14-16: The transcript of this episode can be found here.


The premise, or what’s the point?

Michael Tabb takes a deep look at defining the premise of your story:

A premise is the core belief system of the script and lifeblood of the story. […] There can only be one premise per script from which all the ideas it contains serve, otherwise the script loses focus and its sense of purpose. Premise is hypothesis. It is the story’s purpose for existing at all.

For Tabb, premise is never explicitly stated. Rather, it’s the subtext for the piece as a whole.

It is not a word, theme, feeling, story, question, plot, or tone. It’s not about a person; it’s about the world in which we really live (even if your story is not set here). It is a strong statement with a point to make; it’s the theory the writer is trying to prove or disprove. This defines the author’s perspective.

Basically, it’s your personal answer to the central dramatic question you’ve raised in the story:

  • Do souls live on after us? / Souls are eternal and reincarnated.
  • Can you ever escape your fate? / No, and it’s foolish to try.
  • Is trust granted or earned? / Trust is only earned.

I agree it’s worthwhile to distinguish between “what I’m trying to say” and “how I’m saying it.” But I think premise isn’t the best word here.

Tabb is using premise the way a philosopher would, where it means something like “the proposition that forms the basis for a theory.”

In Hollywood, premise commonly means “what the movie is about.” It’s a very short pitch, basically interchangeable with logline. The premise of Die Hard is that a cop has to stop a band of robbers by himself in an office tower. The premise of Armageddon is that an asteroid is headed towards Earth, and a team of misfits has to stop it.

One could argue that we’ve been using “premise” wrong. But we’re not going to suddenly start using it to mean something else. You’re likely to just confuse people by using “premise” a different way.

A better choice would be to pick a different term for what Tabb’s describing. Maybe “the point.” Or “thesis.” Or “assertion.”

Whatever you call it, I agree with Tabb that it’s best kept to yourself. Characters generally shouldn’t speak it in dialogue, nor should you discuss it with executives. Rather, let it be a touchstone that focuses your writing for this particular story. Work to expose it through scenes with characters in conflict.

Lastly, do you always know the answer to this question when you start writing? Not necessarily. Writing can be a process of discovery. It’s a Socratic dialogue with yourself. What matters is not knowing the point, but finding it.


Tuesday Reviewsday, vol. 3

One of my aims for 2016 is to leave more reviews for the products I love. Every Tuesday I’ll be writing reviews on the applicable store.

Today’s picks are:

If you’re looking for something to review, many readers are probably familiar with some of the things we make, including Highland, Weekend Read and Writer Emergency Pack.

Podcasts are especially review-dependent, because they signal to the powers at iTunes to feature certain shows. A review for Scriptnotes would be much-appreciated.