The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hey, this is John. Today’s episode has one bit of swearing so just a warning if you’re in the car with your kids.
Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 486 of Scriptnotes. It’s a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the show it’s a new round of the Three Page Challenge where we take a look at listener’s pages and offer our honest feedback. We’ll also discuss some of the most common mistakes we find in these samples and how you can avoid them.
Plus, we’ll look at irony, which is not ironic. It’s just a topic.
Craig: It’s a topic.
John: And in our bonus segment for Premium members we will discuss money and happiness.
Craig: Can’t wait to see what happens.
John: And what is the relationship between money and happiness. So, for these bonus topics you and I just sort of come up with them last minute, realistically I come up with them last minute.
John: And so I emailed out to all of our Premium subscribers saying like, hey, what do you want us to discuss in bonus topics. And at last count Megana had gotten 165 suggestions for bonus segment topics.
Craig: Oh boy. So, we’re locked into this show for at least another three years is what you’re saying.
John: Yeah. That’s basically what we’ve come down to.
John: But, Craig, there’s big breaking news because this last week Craig Mazin announced that he is no longer going to be on Twitter. Tell me about this.
Craig: It had been something I was thinking about for a long time. I mean, I didn’t do the big huffy cancel your account thing. I’ve just made my account private. I’ve stopped tweeting. And I turned my notification filter down to the most narrow band, so I don’t really get any. So, if for instance – the thing that’s different, like I quite Facebook many, many years ago. If you quit Facebook you can’t really see much on Facebook. With Twitter you can. So, sometimes if I’m reading an article it will link to a tweet, so I’ll be there, but my days of tweeting and responding, that’s over.
And it’s because I just kind of felt a growing list of issues that were part of the Twitter experience. Some of which I think people generally are familiar with, like the addictive nature of it. Also, I felt like Twitter was starting to change the way I was thinking about things as I learned them. So, information hits you, like news hits you, and without even trying or thinking about doing it I start to have a reaction. An opinion begins to form immediately. Twitter demands your opinions now. Now! You must have it. And that’s probably not good.
There are a lot of things that I just don’t need to have an opinion on. There are a lot of things that I don’t need people to hear from me on. And I think that there was something that happened, you know Bean Dad, right? Remember the whole Bean Dad fiasco?
John: Oh yeah.
Craig: So when I was reading the Bean Dad thing and I saw how that was all going down I thought to myself I think Bean Dad probably thought he was going to get love for this. I think that’s what was happening. I think Bean Dad was like people are going to applaud my story. They did not. And it does seem to me that underlying a lot of the interaction that people do on Twitter at least, maybe it’s just me, I don’t know, there’s a sense of like I think people are going to like this. And I don’t want that. I actually don’t want likeability or approvability or agreeability to be behind opinions I have or things I say.
And lastly, and perhaps most importantly, every day without fail a number of people would have some advice for me on The Last of Us. Who we should cast. Who we shouldn’t cast. What it should be about. What it shouldn’t be about. Who I should be working with. And I don’t do well with that. It’s not that I don’t care. I do care what people think. It’s just that there’s no way to actually do something that way. For every person that feels very strongly that it should be blue, there is somebody else who feels incredibly strongly that it should be yellow. And so you can’t make everybody happy and people are very emotional about it. And they’re very insistent. And it just starts to mess with your head. And I want to just be somewhere quiet. And make the show without feeling like I’m surfing people’s feelings, because my own feelings are so hard to surf at times.
So, all of that kind of added up to “it’s time.” But there were some good things about Twitter, I think, for me in particular. I thought Twitter made me a more empathetic person. I do.
John: Talk more about that. So empathetic in terms of you’re seeing different people’s experiences, you’re seeing their opinions and understanding sort of what it might feel like from their perspective?
Craig: Yes. But the way to get – Twitter is really good at getting under the hood of those things. Because there’s a lot of culture where people say through essay or interview this is how I feel, this is my experience, this is what’s hard. There’s a lot of fictionalized narrative and drama that does all of that. But it all feels a little bit crafted.
And on Twitter what happens is you see people in a very under-the-hood specific way talking about not only how something good makes them feel, but specifically how something bad makes them feel. Like I don’t like this and here’s why. And I think it’s normal for people who are – look, nobody wants to feel bad about themselves. Let’s just start with that. We avoid that shameful feeling if we can. So here’s something, an aspect, that you can feel shame about. If you are wealthy you can feel shame about the money that you have compared to somebody who doesn’t. If you’re white you can feel shame about the way that racial superiority has kind of shaped the world and you continues to do so. If you’re straight you can feel shame about the fact that people who are not are being limited in their freedoms or are being mocked or made miserable.
And for a lot of people I think when somebody confronts them with a possible mistake, their first instinct is to say, “No, what I just did is actually, no, you should not be upset about that because I don’t want you to be because I don’t want to feel like I made you upset.” That’s really underneath all of it. I don’t want to feel the shame of knowing that I made you feel upset.
So instead I’m going to tell you why you should be upset. And Twitter is really good at allowing the upset person to explain it. And to get out of like the cycle of people going, “I’m offended,” and other people going, “Oh, god, you people are offended by everything.” And that whole like people yelling in each other’s face it kind of still happens on Twitter, but there are times where people explain it and then you suddenly go, “I think I understand not only why you’re upset but why you’re upset that other people aren’t upset.” I’m starting to understand.
John: For sure. And I think the rise of threading made that more possible where you can provide additional supporting evidence behind those claims. So some things I’m hearing from you is that it was not just the consumption cycle of Twitter, and the doom-scrolling which we’re all familiar with, that was part of it. But really the need to have a reaction to things and then to feel the need to process any new piece of information in terms of like what is my take on this, what is my response to this, just become exhausting. Particularly when it’s something that you’re in the middle of creation, like The Last of Us, I can totally see why it makes sense to jump off that.
I’ve at times taken the Twitter app off my phone which sort of breaks the cycle of it. And I found that to be helpful. This feels like a nice natural step for you, too.
But I do have a question for you because one of the things I’ve appreciated about Twitter is the sense of being caught up on the popular culture and sometimes it’s stupid culture that you don’t need to be caught up on, and sometimes it’s fun.
John: So three things in the Trending Topics of today, and I’m curious whether you even know what they are. Jewish space laser.
Craig: I know what that is, because I built it. [laughs]
John: Harsh advice for writers.
Craig: Not familiar with that, but I can imagine what it would be.
John: So this was somebody had harsh advice for writers. Your writer friends are also your competition. And so people sort of jumped off of that, in reaction to that, but also made funny responses to it which is just delightful to read.
Mount Rushmore 2.
Craig: No. No clue.
John: I just made that up. But it feels like something that could be on Twitter, right?
Craig: I do love Jewish space laser. We are blamed for so much. I wish that we had the ability to make a space laser. She said that it caused the forest fires, where Marjorie Taylor Greene said forest fires in California were caused by a large laser in space that was possibly built by the Israelis? Is that about right? Something like that?
John: That’s about right.
Craig: That’s all I need to know.
John: Or there was Jewish money behind it.
Craig: There’s Jewish money behind it. Yeah, because the one thing I can tell you as the most Jewish person you know is that we love forest fires. Oh, boy, do Jews love forest fires. Yeah, it’s our favorite thing. What a lunatic. Good lord.
John: Yeah, she is.
Craig: She’s nuts.
John: Good lord. All right, some follow up from previous episodes. Back in 483 we had the episode Philosophy for Screenwriters and I had pointed out that I didn’t see a lot of examples of female characters in stories having to make ethical or moral choices. Andrew wrote in to say, “Isn’t Sophie’s Choice a classic example of a female protagonist with a moral debate?” Yes, Andrew, you are right. It’s like literally called a Sophie’s Choice. And it’s a thing we use all the time. So it’s a very good counter example in terms of just like a character having to grapple with an impossible decision. So, Sophie’s Choice.
Craig: Yeah. It’s a very specific decision that rarely will people have to make, but yes it is. No question.
John: And Airy wrote in. She said, “Regarding the female character philosophical question, in Godzilla: King of the monsters,” which I’ve seen, “Vera Farmiga’s character Emma has a bit of a villain philosophical speech where she explains why it’s a good thing to let the titans roam free and take back control of the earth.”
And I will say that it’s a really odd moment in this movie that I guess I was surprised to see a female character having that sort of villainous turn. So, yeah, that’s another counter example. There aren’t a lot of them, but I do like that people are finding some of them and I think it is still a very fertile ground for people to create female characters who are grappling with these decisions.
Craig: Yeah. Women can root for the destruction of all humanity, too.
Craig: They can be just as good as men at rooting for the destruction of humanity. I love those speeches. Those are my favorite. Isn’t there like a factory that makes that speech and they just update it?
John: There is. Well it’s always the eco-terrorist who really wants to turn his back to the Stone Age.
Craig: Look what we’ve done to this planet. Why should we be here? We’re a virus. We’re a parasite. Yup, factory just churned out another model.
John: Oh, it’s good stuff. J. Harris wrote in to say, “Could you discuss the use of irony within your screenplays, including situational irony, verbal irony, dramatic irony, cosmic irony, and tragic irony?” And it occurred to me that we have not really talked irony as a literary concept very often in the podcast. I think it’s because I don’t like the term. I find irony to be one of the most pedantic sort of – just the fact that you’re trying to split this into five categories of irony kind of drives me crazy.
And yet I think the use of irony is so fundamental to narrative and to dialogue and just to so many different things. I thought we might spend a few moments talking about irony as it is used in screenplays.
Craig: Sure. I do talk a little bit about it in the How to Write a Movie podcast, mostly I think in terms of what we’re breaking down here as possibly situational irony. That’s probably the one I think about the most when I think about writing.
John: Yeah. And so we’re not going to reference the Alanis Morissette song because I think that’s partly what turned me off of ever using the word irony.
Craig: It’s a song about non-ironic things.
John: Yeah. And the pedantry of sort of like well it’s a bummer but it’s not ironic. Well, ironic is maybe just not a great word for it. But it’s a phenomenon and it’s a feeling that permeates so much of what we write. So let’s talk about this umbrella feeling of irony, even if we’re not sort of going to zero in on the subcategories of it.
Irony in a very general sense is the contrast between expectation and reality. What you thought you were going to get and what you actually get. And in many ways to me it feels like the punchline to a joke, even if it’s not a funny joke. It’s the idea of you thought you were going this place, but I took you this place.
Craig: Yeah. And I think contrast between expectation and reality is an excellent way of thinking about it. And I would just add one little Philip to that and that is that the reality that you weren’t expecting is related to what you were expecting.
Craig: So, if a banker is walking down the street and a piano falls on him and kills him, that was not expected. It’s also not ironic. But if a safe falls on him and kills him, he’s a banker, got killed by a safe which is a thing he uses at the bank. There is a connection between the thing that wasn’t expected and reality vaguely. And that’s where you kind of start to feel the usefulness when we’re writing because it is a fun and interesting game to figure out how to connect the surprises in some sideways interesting contrasting way with what you thought you would get.
John: Yup. And so I want to avoid talking about a character being ironic, because I think when we say that we really mean that a character is sarcastic and is sort of using words in a specific way. I want to talk about irony more in the sense of what it’s doing for story. So let’s look at how irony is often helping to create the conflict, the tension, the plot itself. A classic example is the audience knows something that the characters don’t.
So, the audience knows that, oh, that’s actually the characters mother rather than his sister. Or that there’s a bomb underneath the table and they keep lingering around this conversation. There’s a tension being created there because that is suspense, that is comedic. At the end of Romeo and Juliet all the trouble of the poison. We know that the poison was real, or not real, and the characters in that scene don’t. So, we feel the tension because we have information the characters don’t.
Craig: And typically this will be referred to as tension. I mean, while technically it is a form of irony, it’s pretty rare that people would call it ironic. It’s that feeling that you get when Clarice Starling shows up at a house and it’s supposed to be a billion miles away from where Jame Gumb is and whoops, actually he’s right there. That is the house. And she’s there and she doesn’t know he’s the guy and we do.
So, that’s tension. But technically irony, yes. Typically we don’t use it that way.
John: Yeah. More classically sort of ironic is in Aladdin he wants to become rich so he can impress Jasmine, but she’s repulsed by his riches. And sort of the fancier he gets the less she likes him.
John: That’s irony.
Craig: Good old backfiring. Yup.
John: In The Incredibles Mr. Incredible gets sued for saving a person from suicide. There’s an irony underlying that situation. So because the suicide and saving the life are related and they’re not related in the ways you would expect them to be related. It’s helping to ignite the plot of the story as well.
Craig: Yeah. And it’s pretty common that you create these odd details that make you think, oh, how strange. Irony tries to make sense of the chaos of reality. So, it’s not just that some random thing happens to somebody to help them or hurt them. But it’s almost as if somebody, like God, or a writer, did it in such a way as to make a comment about that person and their life. Like, oh, you wanted – have you ever seen, I’m not a huge fan of the movie itself, but there’s a movie called Wish Master. Have you ever seen Wish Master?
John: I have not, but I have a sense of what may happen there. Is there a Monkey’s Paw kind of quality there?
Craig: There sure is. So the Wish Master is a gin, you know, that’s the root of genie. But he’s evil. And he’s released from his captivity and he grants wishes. And whatever you wish for you get. But only in the most literal sense, which ends up killing you every time. And so it’s just one situational commentary/irony moment after another. Backfiring supreme.
John: On the thread of like what you’re wishing for, the whole category of situational irony, like because of who you are this is ironic that it’s happening. In The Wizard of Oz everyone wishes for, everyone wants the thing that they actually already have. Scarecrow actually is quite smart, but he’s looking for a brain. That’s natural.
Darth Vader is Luke’s father. Harry Potter has to kill Voldemort, wants to kill Voldemort, but the only way he can do that is to let Voldemort kill him. So there’s a reversal of expectation there.
Classically The Twilight Zone episode, which are all sort of Monkey Paw situations. The main character wants to be left alone so he can read, but then his reading glasses break so he’s stuck there alone but can no longer read the books he wants to read.
Oedipus is searching for a murderer who is actually himself. Those are examples of sort of situational irony where a fundamental reveal in the plot, in the story itself, is character’s misassumptions about themselves or their situation.
Craig: And I think we like it as an audience because it does organize stuff. Irony implies intention. If someone has to die in a story you could just shake a big old bingo roller full of little balls with possible deaths on it, pull one out, and kill her. But that doesn’t feel as interesting to us as something that is intentional. Well if it’s intentional then it’s probably going to have that ironic vibe.
John: Yeah. We like there to feel like there’s some order and some sense to the universe. And so when we see a twist ending that works really well it’s probably because like the punchline to a joke all that setup was there, you just weren’t anticipating the setup taking you to that place. And that’s the pop. That’s the little bit of surprise you get.
John: But even when it’s not the whole movie, or the whole story, we use irony in smaller places to provide some texture and some detail. So, you have a married couple in counseling and they find out that their therapist has been divorced three times. There’s an irony to a divorced marriage therapist. You have a fire station burning down. You have a police car that the tires have been stolen from it. There’s an irony to that that feels – it makes the world feel just a little bit more, I don’t know, detailed, textured. It makes it feel like there’s some intention behind it.
Craig: Interesting. Yeah. It’s just more interesting. I mean, because you could, I mean, look the marriage counselor when they say, “Well what about you? What’s your secret?” And she says, “Oh yeah, no, I got married when I was 22 and we have the occasional fight, but mostly it’s been wonderful and we don’t really have challenges and we’re still married. It’s been 40 years. And the secret is just, you know, like all these things that I showed you on this worksheet, yeah, just do the worksheet. That’s great.” That’s super boring. It’s super boring.
And we like the idea of a failure somehow having some wisdom from their failure that they can impart that helps other people, but they’re struggling to help themselves. This is interesting. Our minds are wired to contrast. You know that vision and hearing are entirely based on contrast. So, hearing in particular, if someone plays a pure tone at a frequency and just keeps playing it you’ll stop hearing it after, I don’t know, 20 seconds. Because it’s not changing. So the little fibers that are twitching against the nerves in your ear, they activate because it’s a new. And then after a while they’re like, OK, we get it, we’ll stop. This hasn’t changed. The way that they encode videos, you know, with MPEG and all that stuff is basically by just encoding the things that change. Why encode the things that don’t?
So, this is kind of how it works for us when we’re watching stuff. We want those weird changes of things we would expect because that’s the information that makes it through our filter. Otherwise, boring.
John: Yeah. But we want things ideally to change in a way that matches to some degree our expectations. And so as you said earlier, if it’s just random then eventually you’re going to give up on it because you cannot follow what’s actually happening.
Craig: It’s just noise.
John: So it has to feel like, OK, there’s an intention that’s taking you to a place. And so often dialogue, irony and dialogue, is giving you that texture and giving you that bit of surprise. That little pop that keeps you coming back to it. And so sitcom writing is so full of joke after joke after joke, and it’s these little bursts of ironic surprise that sort of keep you going through it.
Generally in verbal irony it’s the difference between the literal meaning of something you’re saying versus the figurative meaning of what someone is saying. And so that’s how you get into your double entendres, your shade, your sarcasm, your passive-aggressive, “the good news is we’re all going to die.” It’s all those things that sort of have a little bit of a spark that sort of keep you engaged in a thing, keep the ball up in the air.
John: Irony is a useful way to do that.
Craig: Yeah. Use it.
John: Use it. Use it, and use it smartly. And so be thinking about it not just on a big story-wide scale, but on a smaller scale. And I would urge people to not be thinking about these little subcategories of stuff, because that’s literary criticism and papers you write when you’re a sophomore, but it’s not the kind of work that you’re doing writing a new scene in a script.
John: Your use of irony and use of these techniques is setting a tone for what your script is doing and the way the characters talk, the way the world works. And as long as you’re consistent with it it’s going to be great. But if you try to dial that in for the first time on page 60 it’s going to bump.
I remember a script I wrote at Paramount years, and years, and years ago I had this one great line of dialogue and I was so excited about it. And my executive called it out. “That’s a great line for a completely different script. It just does not make sense here.” And I’m like, yeah, you’re right. Just it’s a great line.
Craig: Yeah. Irony is a fundamental ingredient. You can’t bake cookies without sugar and then sprinkle some sugar on these little flour dough balls and call it a cookie. It’s got to be in there. You just have to plan it.
John: All right, well let’s move to some actual writing on the page that we can look at and see if there’s any irony on display there. This is our Three Page Challenge. So for folks who are new to the podcast here every couple weeks we open up the mailbag and look through and see these submissions that our listeners have sent in, generally the first three pages of their script. It could be a TV script. It could be a feature script. And we look at what we see and give you our honest opinions on what we’re seeing that works and what could be a little bit better.
So we get in a zillion of these. And Megana Rao is responsible for looking through all of these. I want to invite her on because before we get started on these three specific ones she and I were looking through some of the examples and had some general guidelines and suggestions for everybody else sending stuff through. So, Megana, why don’t you come on board here?
Craig: Take it away, Megana.
Megana Rao: Hey guys.
John: Hey. So, how many of these samples do we get in on a given week in preparation for a given episode?
Megana: I usually look through about 100.
John: That’s a lot. And when you’re looking through them are you mostly focused on this is an interesting story idea, these are interesting problems I’m seeing, this is really good, this is really bad? What are the kind of things that bring it up to this next level for you?
Megana: Yeah, I think I’m looking for people who are taking risks, doing something interesting, or within three pages are quickly establishing the world and giving us some character development. And I think recently as I’ve been getting better at this, filtering through what’s just not going to work, too, issues of formatting or if I can read in the first couple of lines the writer is just trying to do too much within the description, I think it’s much easier for me to filter those out.
John: Yeah. We don’t want writers to ever be embarrassed. We don’t want people to feel like, you know, these people are doing this voluntarily which is great and awesome and so thank you for sending this in, but we don’t want to embarrass somebody and it does nobody any good for us to slam on somebody.
We want this to be helpful and educational for the person who sent it in, but really for everybody. And so we’re trying to find that balance of like examples that have enough things to talk about that can be improved but also have some good things to talk about as well.
Some of the pages you’ve sent through recently in this last batch, some things that I noticed, I’ve put them into kind of two buckets. One is sort of sloppiness where I just sense that this writer did not proofread carefully. And there were mistakes where like the wrong word was used. There’s extra spaces in places. It’s not even that it’s formatted wrong, they’re literally just typos. And second is unfamiliarity with the screenplay format. And it’s great that some people are sending in some of the first stuff that they’ve written, but I also feel like they have not read enough screenplays. And I think the great thing about 2021 is you can find the scripts for any movie that’s ever been produced online.
I just feel like you need to read like 30 scripts and really get a sense of what that format feels like. Because sometimes I get stuff in that’s like, oh, that’s just really don’t know what a screenplay is or does. And they just need to take in that format a little bit better.
Craig: I agree with all of that.
John: Some other sort of ongoing things I’ve noticed in a lot of these pages is confusion about punctuation. Confusion about where do commas go. You can make different choices about where to put some commas, but some of these commas are just really in the wrong place. I see semicolons sometimes. Almost never have I seen a semicolon used properly. If you’re thinking about using a semicolon you really need to stop, take a few steps back, maybe look up what the usage of semicolons is, and see if that’s really the right choice.
Craig: It’s not. [laughs] It’s not the right choice ever in a screenplay ever.
John: I mean, I can think of, having written 120 or more scripts, I’ve probably used a semicolon in a screenplay three or four times. It’s just not a common thing you’re going to use in a screenplay.
Craig: I literally don’t think I’ve ever done it.
John: Yeah. You probably want a colon. You may want two dashes. More likely you want a comma or a period. Simplicity is generally your friend there.
A thing I noticed in this last batch is people tend to not put a space before parenthesis, and so they’ll have a character’s name and then there won’t be a space for the parenthesis, the character’s age, or what the description is of that person.
John: Put a space there. That’s great. Same with brackets. You’re doing like day or night or after something, just give us that space before then.
Lastly I would say on the title page, Written by, Screenplay by, Story by, those are all credits you’ll see. Something you’ll never see on a real screenplay is Story Edited by.
Craig: Story Edited by?
John: Or Story Editor. That’s not a thing.
John: No. That’s not a natural credit.
Craig: Don’t do it.
John: Written by, Screenplay by, Story by, nothing else is really appropriate for the stuff that you’re sending in to us.
Craig: The semicolon of credits.
John: It is.
Megana: And I guess the only other thing I’d add is verb tenses. I see a lot of people, just even within the three pages, flipping through a bunch of different verb tenses and that’s just something I think to be mindful of.
John: Yeah. Let’s talk about that. Because screenplays are written in the present tense. And they’re never written in the past. They’re always in the present tense. And you can use the present continuous, like “Joe is putting on his shoes when he hears a noise.” “Is putting on his shoes” is great and fine. But you’re not going to use that for everything. Use that in cases where action could be interrupted. Most of the time you’re going to be using the simple present. “Joe puts on his shoes. Joe opens the door to find something.”
If you’re using present tense continuous there’s got to be a reason why you’re using that other than just the normal present tense.
Craig: Yeah. I think there’s just a lot of overcomplicated – all right, so John and I have a slightly different view about whether you should be going back over your stuff, but I’m such a go-backer over my stuff. And at least in this point I think even if you don’t want to creatively go back over your stuff just take a moment to go back over your stuff just for compression and concision. And just look for the bunch of words and things that maybe you just don’t need. And just concise it up a little bit if you can. It does help, right, because there’s a buildup of stuff over time.
We start to think of the things that have survived a month, or two, or three of rewrites as worthy of lasting all the way to the screen, but maybe they’re not. Maybe it’s just that you haven’t roughed them up when you could have. And these little dinky things, sometimes if you don’t do it right away you’re never going to get around to it and it’s just suddenly – there is a cumulative effect of too many words. “Too many notes,” as the emperor said.
John: And what Craig is saying about going back over your stuff, I think just so that everyone is clear, I try not to go over my last week’s work before I start on today’s work. I try to stay within the scenes that I’m working on. But in that scene that I’m working on I will go through that hundreds of times to keep tightening it up and to keep working on it.
And so he and I are both believers in, yeah, there’s probably your first approach to how you got through that scene, but there’s going to be a tighter version of that. There’s going to be just better choices of words and really making sure everything fits lockstep. Because screenwriting is very concise. You’re trying to use the fewest words to create the best effect possible.
So, sometimes we don’t see that in the pages that we’re getting and we’d love to see more of that.
John: And as a reminder we’re going to be talking through with some descriptions of these things, but if you’d like to actually read the pages we have PDFs. They’re attached to the show notes of this show. Or you can go to johnaugust.com. So you can read along with us as we go through these.
Craig: Let’s get onto it.
John: Cool. All right. Let’s talk about specifically the three pages that were sent through this week. Megana, can you give us a summary of this first one which is Echopraxia by J. Vernon Reha.
Craig: Or An Interdimensional Coming of Age Ghost Story.
John: Which we’ll talk about as well.
Megana: OK, great. 19-year-old Bianca fiddles with the radio as she drives through a quiet neighborhood in Memphis, Tennessee. She approaches a stop sign, but instead of slowing down she accelerates through the intersection and crashes. Time slows as we watch the fall out of the crash and ghostly images of dead squirrels in buildings flicker on screen. Bianca speaks to us in voiceover as we watch the scene of the accident from a bird’s eye view.
Police and paramedics ID Bianca’s body, but find that the car she crashed into is mysteriously empty.
John: Great. Craig, so you set up the first question here. So Echopraxia Or An Interdimensional Coming of Age Story. This is by J. Vernon Reha. I bumped on that subtitle.
Craig: Well these are more common now. I have to say. This is sort of – it’s a trend. Nobody wants to just write a thing that’s called Rebound or whatever you might want to call something like this. So, it has become common to do these funky, twisty titles like for instance Echopraxia. There’s also a trend to do funky, twisty titles where you say something like Rebound, colon, and then some sort of Charlie Kaufman-ish overly worded musey kind of Synecdoche, New Yorker-y kind of thing.
And in this case J. Vernon did both. Echopraxia or An Interdimensional Coming of Age Ghost Story. This is essentially a promotional choice. I don’t think that J. Vernon is expecting that there’s going to be a movie with this on the marquee, or in whatever the tiles are on HBO Max or Netflix. This is really about getting people to go, “Oh, I think I’ll read that one from the pile.” That’s my guess.
John: Yeah. I think that’s a fair guess. And a couple of the other samples we got through had something kind of like that. It kind of annoys me and yet I can see why somebody does it. So, I’m not going to come out strongly against it. I can’t imagine some buyer is going to go, “Ugh.” It doesn’t feel kind of fair on the title page and yet I can see why people do it.
Craig: Yeah. It’s promotional. But, you know.
John: Well let’s get into the pages itself. So, the first page of this is essentially the car crash and going up into the car crash. And that first line was an example of sort of the not putting a space before the parenthesis. It’s not a big deal, and yet at the same time it’s like the first word I see a problem. And that doesn’t give me a lot of faith in what’s going on.
Mostly what I wanted to see in this opening section, because I think some of the writing of the actual crash is really nice, is stuff was in the wrong order. Stuff was in the wrong place. So it says, “I/E. CAR – MORNING,” well right now the writer is starting on Bianca. But then later on it’s talking that it’s early, the sun is still rising. We keep hopping around in terms of are we talking about the day or are we talking about Bianca. Give us one thing, then give us the next thing, then give us the next thing.
So I feel like if you’re going to set up what time of day this is, or what this feels like, what the neighborhood is like, do that first. And then get us to Bianca. And then get us into the crash.
Craig, what are you thinking?
Craig: There are a lot of really interesting things going on here. There are some things that are also poking out where I just think I’m not sure how this works practically. So, for instance, “She turns on the corner of Fourth and Lake.” And then you point out, “It is early – the sun is just rising.” OK, couple of things. There is practically no difference between the sun rising and the sun setting, unless we literally see a west or east sign with an arrow, like in a cartoon. We don’t know which one it is. So we’re going to need some other indication that this is morning. Any other little indication would do if that’s what you want.
Similarly, turning on the corner of Fourth and Lake, is that important? Do I need to know it’s Fourth and Lake? Do I need to know it right now? If I do, I need to be outside of the car. I don’t want to see her turning on the corner of Fourth and Lake. I want to see a car turning onto Fourth and Lake. If it’s just her, I just need to see that she’s turning. That’s all. She turns to head down a different street. It’s early. The sun is rising. Did the sun just get into her eyes? Has it shifted? You know, give me some stuff there.
This is where it gets a little trickier.
Craig: Go on.
John: Let’s just talk through sort of how you might do that on the page. So I could envision, if the first slug line of this was “A quiet residential road in Liberty, Tennessee, a suburb of Memphis, one of those neighborhoods where all of the homes are eerily similar. It’s early.” And then some other description about dew on the laws. You know, newspapers on sidewalks. Whatever you want to do there. And then a car turns onto Fourth and Lake. And then we are interior the car afterwards. That’s a much more natural way to sort of – it helps us see what are the shots. It lets us visualize the movie a little bit more easily.
Craig: Yeah. Or stay inside the car the whole time. And then we don’t get out until the crash happens. So you have choices to make. “Bianca is pretty, but nondescript, with a face you could forget.” Well, why don’t we just start by saying, “This script is fine, but nondescript, with a story you could forget?” Why would you want to advertise? This feels like a reaction to a “hot but doesn’t know it.” But it’s not actually giving me anything. I don’t know what she looks like at all. And I definitely don’t want to be told that I need to cast an actor whose face is so generic I’ll forget them.
I want to know what her hair is like. I want to know what she’s wearing. I want to know if she has makeup on.
John: Are her nails painted?
Craig: Are they dirty?
John: A 19-year-old young woman could be a zillion different things, so give us some choices here.
Craig: “She Flicks through radio stations,” so J. Vernon capitalizes flicks, which I think is OK. At first I was like, oh, is that a mistake, but I see there’s a flick, flick, flick, flick thing going on. Flicking through radio stations is something that was far more common when you and I were learning how to drive. Because now you tap, tap, tap I think to get through radio stations at this point. But I get the point. What I was a little bit more concerned about was that this is being intercut with the following: “A child runs into the street for a ball. Flick. Squirrels chase each other up a tree. Flick. A man and his wife shout indistinctly behind an open window. Flick Flick Flick…”
How are we supposed to get to any of that? Are we just dead-cutting to a squirrel? Are we dead-cutting to a window and people maybe behind it and you can’t hear them. Are we dead-cutting to a kid in the street which you know you’re going to think is going to get run over? How do we do that? And why?
John: Yeah. And how does it relate to Bianca? Is she noticing this? I assume that we are in POV because of how this scene started, but this didn’t feel like POV, so–
Craig: Right. It doesn’t feel like POV. And the reason that I’m kind of picking on this is because I really like what happens next.
John: Very much.
Craig: And that’s what sort of matters. And so I’m wondering maybe we don’t need all this junk because really what’s important is that she does something surprising which is she intentionally crashes into another car. And I would love to know, since it’s day, I don’t know why we’re being blinded by approaching headlights? It’s morning.
John: I noticed that, too.
Craig: I’d like to see what kind of car that is. That’s actually going to be very helpful for what comes next. Is it a Prius? Is it a pickup truck? What is it? Then she crashes. The description of the crash was fascinating. I mean, obviously we’re getting into science fiction here but it was really cool.
John: Yeah. So this is the moment that gave me some hope because I felt like the writer was picking very specific visuals to dramatize what was actually happening here. So I love a good car crash in slow motion. And I love how it’s going to feel. I love the description of glitching. It let me know that something unusual was about to happen. And that was great. And so I loved that we got there.
So, if earlier it was just more normal and got to that moment, great. If earlier, you gave us a sense that something was odd and then we got to that, great. But I wasn’t led into this moment with any confidence. And so if I had been a little more confident going into it it would have felt even better.
Craig: Yeah. Then the first line comes from Bianca, who has just theoretically killed herself. And it is in voiceover, “Sometimes I wonder if I have a personality.” That’s not kind of – you want that line, whatever that line is, it needs to grab you by the face and go here we go. This is fascinating. She’s making a statement. And it doesn’t quite do that. It’s a little bit more of a thinky line than a grabby, shocking line.
John: Yeah. I think it’s close. And I would have loved to have – there’s going to be a first line, and whatever that first line is I would have pulled it up earlier towards the crash so that we have something to anchor us to before we get to this sort of wide open street scene, or people we’ve not established before looking at the results of the car crash. I would love to hear that line somewhere in that car crash scene.
But I like the voiceover over all as a feeling. And so I was, you know, excited to see it. I don’t think the line is quite right, but I like where it was headed.
Craig: Yeah. Tonally it seems like it’s dancing around the right thing.
John: So, Craig, the answer to your question, they are both gray 2004 Ford Fiestas.
Craig: Now I see.
John: Which feels like well that’s got to be important. I feel like that is an intentional choice. And yet I don’t know what’s important and what’s not important because there hasn’t been any signaling to me as a reader. So if that feels like the kind of thing which is so important that I might underline it or bold face it or somehow call it out or stick it on its own line. Because that’s weird.
Craig: I’d go further.
John: Why would two identical cars crash into each other?
Craig: That to me requires actual direction on the page. First of all, gets its own paragraph for sure. And then her car we now see is crumpled. Her 2004 gray Ford Fiesta is crumpled and smashed. We come around to see the other car on its back. Also gray. And then as we move around the back we see an upside down the word “Fiesta.” Then we go it’s the same exact model and make. Two of the same cars just smashed into each other. Because you want the audience to go Whoa, not like, Huh, those are similar.
John: Yeah. There must have been a sale on 2004 Ford Fiestas.
John: So then we get into two detectives, one with glasses and one with a beard, talking. I want to cut most of their dialogue because it was just yada-yada. They’re basically saying that she’s alive and stable, but there’s no other body in the other car. I felt there were ways we could visually see that and get to that point and have it be the moment of discovery rather than two people talking about something that has already happened.
It would be great to see people looking in the car and there’s no body in the other car. There’s no person in the other car.
John: Rather than reported moments, seeing the moment feels better to me.
Craig: Well, yeah. I mean, you can do a thing where a detective shows up and he walks over to the other guy and he says, “OK,” and the guy is like, “Yeah, she’s…” And they’re wheeling her into – that’s Bianca Armitage, 19, no criminal history, family has been alerted. We’re running a tox screen. Looks like she’s going to make it.
OK, what about the other guy? Or what about the other car? And the cop says, “There was no one in the other car.” And that’s it. And just like, what?
Craig: It’s weird.
John: What? What?
Craig: We don’t need this back and forth. “It’s the strangest thing.” No one ever says that. Ever.
John: A real head-scratcher.
Craig: It’s the strangest thing. Real head-scratcher. These guys are actually diminishing the drama of the situation that you’ve created by kind of being weirdly bland about it.
John: Yeah. So I can envision a scenario in which the crash has basically just happened, or we’re coming in like 30 seconds later and there are neighbors who are like looking at Bianca and like, OK, she’s alive in there, and they’re looking. And then we dolly around to the other car and there’s nobody in the car. And that’s surprising. That is shocking. That’s a cool moment. And then we reveal that the license plate is blank. Like that is really creepy and interesting and goose-bumpy.
But having these detectives who aren’t going to be important characters have this dialogue isn’t doing it for us.
John: And then going to the reporter.
Craig: No. No, no.
John: That just has to go.
Craig: No, no, no.
John: I never believe the reporter covering this thing. You don’t cover car crashes like this.
Craig: No. I mean, Memphis is – maybe in some tiny, tiny Podunk town in a county where nothing ever happens. But this is Memphis, Tennessee. It’s not necessarily New York, but it’s a real city. And, no, car crashes happen all the time. They stay on somebody going, “A car crash happened.” It’s just, no. No.
John: So, I don’t know if I’ve ever talked about this on the show, but at the end of my street there are car crashes all the time, or at least there used to be car crashes all the time until we finally convinced the city to change how traffic flows and put in some one-way turns and things like that. But I would just be watching TV and I’d hear the squeal of tires, crash. And like, OK, it’s a crash. And so I’d put on my shoes, I’d get my phone, and I’d go down. And so I’ve had to deal with so many flipped over cars over the last couple of years.
Craig: Oh god. Jesus.
John: And it’s terrible. And so I know what these crashes are like and never does a news crew show up. I mean, this is Los Angeles. But even in Memphis, Tennessee a news crew is not going to show up. This is just not realistic or believable.
Craig: It’s not news.
John: Not news.
Craig: It’s not news.
John: It’s not news. Then we get to the hospital room and I’m curious what happens next. And so I will say that the good writing of the car crash and of the mystery of like, wait, where is the other person in the other car, who is Bianca, is Bianca possessed by some other spirit, I’m fascinated by all of those. So that’s what makes me curious about what’s going to happen next.
Craig: And that is exactly how I would think about rewriting this. What would the person watching this be most curious about? And I can assure you it is not a reporter talking about a crash. It is not two detectives yapping back and forth in a bland way. I want to know, wait, was there somebody in that car? Can you convince me there was nobody in that car? What does it mean that these two cars are exactly the same? What does that mean? And where is that car now? That’s what I want to know.
So, think about what people would want. Give it to them. But in an interesting way. This is the big secret. Now you know.
John: Now we know. All right. Let’s move onto our next Three Page Challenge. Megana, tell us about The Little Death by Autumn Palen.
Megana: All right, so Brandy, a young woman in her 20s, stares blankly at the ceiling of her bedroom. Tony, male 20s, emerges from beneath the covers and asks if she “got there.” Brandy admits that she did not and that she has never “been there.” Brandy reveals that she’s been too scared to masturbate on her own. Tony asks why not and we see a series of quick cutaways of Brandy’s fears, i.e. that someone will walk in on her or that she’ll electrocute herself with a vibrator.
They banter about what Tony can try next.
Craig: You really can’t electrocute yourself with a vibrator. I mean, if it was plugged into a wall?
John: These are battery controlled. So back in the days of plug-in vibrators, which I’m sure was a thing at some point.
Craig: Was it?
John: Then you could have, but you can’t.
Craig: Not in my lifetime. I think there have been batteries for a long time.
John: It’s probably more like hair dryers in bathtubs was maybe a thing. I bet some people actually did die of that. Exposed wire.
Craig: Oh yeah. Early on, I think like in the 20s, a man would get on some sort of bicycle contraption and then an egg beater type electric vibrator would be attached to a woman. And this was all done under the heading of curing her hysteria. But, no, not since I would imagine the ‘40s has this been.
By the way, that actually counts. I have to say, people may think we’re just being picky, but it counts. Because people need to know that the characters are living in our world and thinking somewhat logically.
John: Yeah. Craig, it does make me think though I’ve seen so many examples of like shows from the ‘70s where a woman was murdered because someone threw a hair dryer into the bathtub. But how was it ever a believable death? What person is using a blow dryer while in a bathtub?
Craig: Well, you know, people are incredibly stupid.
John: Yeah, I guess they smoke in bed.
Craig: They do. The good news is that somewhere along the line the ground fault interrupter circuit was invented so in your bathroom all those things you would plug a hair dryer into now has its own little circuit breaker. So, you probably won’t die.
John: All right, Craig, so The Little Death, what is your take on The Little Death?
Craig: Well, there’s nothing wrong with it. OK. There’s nothing wrong with it. There’s just not a lot right with it. Because it is somewhat familiar. We have seen conversations a little bit like this in all sorts of sitcoms and things like that, and other movies. My biggest thing about it was it read, it flowed, the dialogue sounded perfectly fine, I just didn’t believe much of it.
So, Tony seems to have feelings. Tony is just totally cool with everything. And Brandy is in a very strange place because she’s never had an orgasm before, which is not horribly uncommon for women in their 20s. It’s a thing. OK, so I’m with it. But she neither seems to be open or closed about it. She just sort of tells it in between like let me just tell you a big secret of mine. And his reaction is like, oh, OK, let me just try a different thing. And, does that work?
It all feels a bit sort of shruggish. Like a shrug. Like I’m watching a fairly mild discussion between two perfectly nice people.
John: So, I enjoyed that it was overall sex positive. I enjoyed Tony’s sex positivity and that Tony was trying hard. And I really like that. I like the specific details of like “wipes his lips with a thumb and forefinger.” Great. Love that. I see the image. It’s terrific.
And while I like him being sex positive, I don’t have a sense of where are they at in their relationship. Like how long – who are they specifically individually and how long have they been kind of a couple. And I think we can get that information into this scene. Or we can get some sense of what their connection is in this scene.
John: Some of the problems are like, Brandy, 20s. 20s is anything from 20 to 29. That’s a huge range.
Craig: It’s a big spread. Yeah.
John: So I think you got to give us a very specific age on Brandy. Like is she still in college? Or is she killing it as a consultant at a top law firm? It’s just too general here. And that’s I think my biggest problem with all of this is that it didn’t feel like it was rooted in very specific characters encountering a specific situation.
Craig: I mean, look, Brandy has a problem. Right? It’s not like Brandy loves this situation. She doesn’t love this situation. She’s sort of trapped by a fear. I’d love to know a little bit more. I think this fear part is the part that I believe the least, not only for the aforementioned batteries can’t kill you reason, but also because that doesn’t actually seem like why women are too scared to masturbate. It’s not a fear of physical death as much as there’s shame, culture, family issues, religion, whatever it is. It seems like it’s probably a little more complicated than that. So it seems so readily and immediately psychologically accessible to her.
Also, she seems to not – at least in these pages – she doesn’t come off as aware that this is a problem. So it’s only a problem suddenly and then it’s a problem always. Meaning, she’s letting him do this. Now, if she has a problem and she’s allowing him to do this, either she’s saying, “Here’s the deal. It’s not going to work, but you try and let’s see if you can be the one.” Which I don’t get from this. Or, she’ll fake it.
But what she’s not going to do is think, oh, for some reason this time it will be different than all the other times and I’ll just sort of mention that it actually turned out to not be different from all the other times. It just feels like there’s not backstory built in. There’s not experience built in. We’re dealing with sex, so there’s shame around it and it’s tricky and it’s psychological. And both of them just seem too simple. They just seem like incredibly simple people.
John: I think my biggest issue with how the pages were flowing is I didn’t get a good sense of – I think the tension of the pages is that she’s telling the guy sort of what these different encounters were, because he’s reacting to them. And I think all those cutaways back to “I just told you that story, I just told you that story,” get rid of those. I think you have a stronger story.
I think it’s more interesting if we’re, as the audience, are being led into these things and she’s not telling him those things. Because then it becomes a source of tension between the two of them. Because someone who can be too nice and too supportive and it can drive you crazy, I think that could be the source of real good comedic tension within the scene. Where she’s like I don’t want you to even try. I don’t want to deal with this right now. I don’t want to try to fix this. And then we don’t need to sort of have the escalation and the rule of three in terms of like all the things that have gone wrong.
Just the one occurrence could be great. Right now on page two, “The sound of the door slamming open snaps her from her daze. Brandy jolts up, focus fixed on the door in a panic.” And right now she says, “I didn’t know you were home.” That’s kind of generic. If she says, “Grandpa!”
John: That’s funnier.
John: And then we don’t even need to see grandpa. We just know like, oh god, I can’t even imagine how terrifying that would be.
Craig: Or we just see grandpa. We see him staring there dropping his little bag from Trader Joe’s on the floor in shock. No one says a full, complete sentence when they’ve been caught masturbating, I have been told.
Craig: It just seems way too, yeah, sort of rigged. By the way, I didn’t quite understand thumb and forefinger. Do you understand her to mean like wipes his lips, like wipes his mouth with the back of his hand?
John: No, so sort of pinching – using thumb and forefinger on each side to sort of clean off his mouth.
Craig: I dispute that that would be effective. [laughs] I dispute that.
Craig: Yeah. That seems odd.
John: I would also, getting back to sort of the basics here, it’s such a clichéd moment of like the guy comes up from the covers and asks like “how was that/did it?”
John: And I just feel like I’ve seen that so often. I could cut those first couple lines and – or even if he just says, “No?” And you could just get rid of the question, I guess.
Craig: I have a question for you. Why did Tony stop? What clue did he have that it had ended? Right off the bat I was so confused. Did he set an egg timer? What happened?
John: We won’t know.
Craig: And he was like, “How was that?” And she’s like, no. And he’s like, “No? Really? You mean that you didn’t have an orgasm right when I arbitrarily stopped going down on you?”
That’s what I mean. They just seem a bit dim as people. So, make them smarter.
John: Yeah. We like that. Let’s get to our final Three Page Challenge. This is Chula Vista by Kristen Delgado. Megana, talk us through it.
Megana: Enrique, 17, and his father, Ignacio, 34, are selling a wealthy homeowner, Mr. Lawson, 45, on their landscaping services. Mr. Lawson’s daughter, Stevie, 17, pokes out and tries to talk to Enrique who barely acknowledges her. Enrique secures the sale and as Enrique and his father are leaving Ignacio asks his son who the girl was. And Enrique pretends he doesn’t know her. As they leave the Chula Vista neighborhood Enrique tells his father that one day when he’s a doctor he’ll buy him a home there.
Then we see a tired-looking Enrique getting ready for school in the morning. He almost forgets to pack the burrito his mom packed and the dad makes a joke that Enrique is too good for it because he’s going to be a doctor.
John: Great. We’ll start on the title page. This includes an image. It looks like an image that’s maybe custom made for this script. You and I have talked about images in screenplays before. I felt like this set a nice tone and a picture of it. What did you feel about this image?
Craig: I liked it. I liked it. I thought that because the image was a bit soft and watercolor-y and defocused that it immediately said this is romance. And not just because a boy and a girl are sitting there on the ground by some lit candles at night and all the rest. Just the Chula Vista itself, the valley, the world, the sunset, the lights. Everything felt romantic.
So, even if this turns out to not be a romance, which I suspect it will turn out to be a romance, it put me in a nice place. I was happy. It felt sophisticated. You know? It was an interesting image.
John: Yeah. I liked it, too. One challenge with images in screenplays is that images want to be centered across the width of the page, but of course text in screenplays shift slightly to the right because historically we’ve had bindings, we’ve had three holes on the left hand side. So it bugs me a little bit that the image is off-center compared to the text. So it’s a thing you could figure out how to manipulate in whatever program you’re using. You could figure out how to do it in Highland. Being off-center bugged me more than the fact that there’s an image there. That’s me.
Craig: It looks on-center to the title and her name.
John: To me it’s on-center to the page but off-center compared to the title.
Craig: I printed it out, so there may be some funky printer stuff going on.
John: Ah, so it may look different to you.
Craig: But it’s a nice image. You know what? Actually, Kristen, this is by Kristen Delgado, the only thing I would think about is if you have a little Photoshop-y thing or Gimp is a free one that you can get that’s like Photoshop, to somehow just do something with the edges of this thing so it doesn’t seem like such a hard edged Internet grab. You know what I mean? Like something that’s a little softer and kind of blended somehow. Fading on the edges. That sort of.
John: Let’s get to the script itself. The writing of the script itself. And so I believe after these three pages that this is a story about Enrique and his probably coming of age story in 1979 Phoenix, Arizona. I’ve never seen that before. It does feel like probably about a rich girl from Chula Vista and his dad is going to be the gardener for this family. I got that off of these first three pages and I would be curious what the complications are in that relationship that go ahead. And obviously the image was helping send me to that place.
Craig, what was your overall take, your overall feeling of these three pages?
Craig: Nervousness. Because I think you’re right. And that is what they’re promising. And I feel like I’ve seen this. A lot. I mean, there have been a billion Romeos and Juliets, but more importantly it seems like we’re getting a little bit of a kind of already done quite a bit take on being the child of immigrants and the mixing of immigrants with people who aren’t immigrants and different races and different classes and looking down at people.
It feels like this is well trod upon territory. And I didn’t get anything different from these than I normally would. It feels like I’m getting set up for Enrique to start to turning his back on his parents and his family because he’s a little bit embarrassed about them because he kind of aspires to be more with the rich kids. And so there’s going to be conflict there. And the first page I was a little nervous because Mr. Lawson does not seem like, again, this doesn’t seem like the way people are. Someone says, “We’re doing landscaping. We noticed your grass is kind of high.” “Uh, yeah, I haven’t had a chance to get to it.”
But more importantly he goes, “How much?” “$30.” “Great. Go ahead. Do it.” That’s it? Did he not think of this before? It just seems so kind of like mild. And the other thing that was kind of odd is Ignacio in Spanish says, “What a fucking asshole.” And I’m all for the good old classic fucking asshole rich white guy, but I don’t see what Mr. Lawson did. He answered the door.
John: He didn’t shake his hand, but he did say yes. He got a job. So I was also thrown by that.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, I guess the part that he closes the door in his face. Also, that’s – that’s not even how racists work. Like they do shake your hand. Then they close the door and then they bad mouth you. It feels like there’s a slight kind of – there’s a bit of a corniness going on to something that I think as a culture we’re getting and more honest about. I mean, there’s just more honesty.
I’m nervous that this is not going to give me something new. That said, it might. I can’t tell from three pages.
John: Yeah. So, Mr. Lawson, 45, dressed for racquetball at the country club.” So, I don’t really quite know what dressed for racquetball at the country club means. Unless he’s carrying his racquetball racket, I just see a guy in shorts and a headband maybe. But I immediately stop and think like you don’t actually go to the club dressed that way. You change into that kind of stuff at the club.
John: It was a weird first image for me. I love, obviously, hair and makeup and clothing details to help us tell about the character, I just – it felt like we were trying to get to like you’re interrupting some other moment. And so figure out what that moment was.
I like the idea of Enrique, and we’re starting this story with Enrique trying to get the job to mow the lawn there. And I thought his first dialogue does make sense. But what Craig is saying is like Mr. Lawson is going to hear that and then immediately sort of know what’s going on. He’s going to check the Blakey’s home, OK, this really is a person. You know you’re not making this up. And he’s going to push a little bit more. And I just didn’t see that pushing.
And if this scene were a few lines longer there could be a little bit more back and forth in looks in terms of Stevie, the girl who is coming out, and sort of what that whole dynamic is. I just felt like it got a little rushed to get through this and I didn’t believe that he got this job.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, if this is a rich guy, if that’s the point, then nice house in nice neighborhood, he either has somebody mowing his lawn, or he’s like a little kooky and doesn’t give a shit. But he’s not going to be this kind of stuffy classic country club kind of white guy and be neither of those things, just be negligent about his lawn. It just seems odd.
Craig: There must be a reason why he’s been mowing his own lawn if he has been. Also, where did Stevie come from? She just like suddenly steps out from behind her father. That’s weird. Does she just follow him around and hang out behind him and then just slide into? You know what I mean? You have to think about, OK, on the day where is she? Can she just be coming around the other side of the house? Or coming down the stairs? Or something.
John: Yeah. You could mention her coming around the other side of the house and she’s using the hose to spray off her feet or something that are dirty. There’s got to be a more interesting way to sort of see her than just like behind her father.
John: Another opportunity here is while I do like the idea of getting the job for the first time, that is a lot of work to set up. If it works for the story, he could have been cutting the grass here for a time and he’s basically saying, “Oh hey, I need a check,” or “I need to get paid.” And that’s that moment. And then there’s actually money exchanging hands which could feel good and actually help set some stuff up a little bit better.
So, I think there’s just opportunities here.
Craig: Yeah. Like Mr. So-and-so who has been doing your lawn, he’s retired, he just retired last week. We’re doing your neighbor, Mr. Blakely’s, lawn. If you like we can just pick up yours now. There’s some kind of – it just makes sense, you know.
But Stevie, yeah, like if that’s the thing, if this is the Enrique and Stevie story, this is not – this is weird. It’s like a weird dud of a moment.
John: Yeah. So then we get to Ignacio and Enrique in the pickup truck and this could be a really good moment. It’s not working for us right now because I don’t get what the real vibe is between father and son here. I felt like the “when I’m doctor I’ll move here,” I didn’t buy – that just felt like an author talking. It didn’t feel like an actual kid talking.
Craig: Corny. It just feels corny. And similarly like a dad, generally speaking, if you think that maybe like your son likes this girl and you’re like, “Oh, who’s that?” “Oh, she’s this girl from school.” You’re like, “OK, cool.” You don’t say, “That’s what I said about your mother.” Eww.
Craig: Eww. That’s an eww. You just don’t do that with your boy.
John: Yeah. So, but I wonder what their vibe is. Is he ribbing him? What’s going on? I like the dad is drinking a beer, so there’s stuff you could do there. Also crucially, it’s in this pickup truck sequence that we’re establishing Chula Vista as a place and we’re seeing this sign. So think about, again, this is the inside/outside of the car. There’s a good argument to be made for being outside of the car, see the sign, the truck drives past, and then we’re inside the car with them.
Because if we’re inside the car with them it’s very hard to then pop out to see the sign and then be back in the car. If the sign is important, which I think it is, because I wouldn’t know that Chula Vista is necessarily a neighborhood, then tell us that.
Craig: Yeah. I think this little spot here is one, Kristen, that I want you to think about really carefully. Because you have a point of view, you have a perspective, and you have a feeling about this place. I can tell. And I am not from there. So your job is to make me feel what you want me to feel. And in this moment you want me to feel some sort of connection and kinship to this place. But what you’ve done is you just have a guy that I just met just announcing something that frankly he wouldn’t normally announce. Because they’ve been living there a long time. So, how common is it for you to drive around the place where you’ve been living with somebody else who has been living there and then they suddenly announce, “Man, this view never gets old.” And then a fact. “You can see the whole valley.” No shit, dad. We drive here every day. I live here.
John: I can see, too. I have eyes.
Craig: So you need to figure out another way to make me feel this thing that maybe dad is upset that Enrique takes these things for granted or maybe that he doesn’t look closely enough and that he’s teaching him a lesson. But then the lesson has to be inspired by something that’s lacking that he sees in Enrique. So these are the things you’ve got to kind of figure out so that I feel what you want me to feel. Because I can tell you feel stuff. I just want it for me.
John: Absolutely. But if you’re trying to tell us that as the author, as the writer, then give us the wide shot and describe what it feels like and give us a sense of like this is the panorama and we get a sense of what the music is like. Oh, that’s really pretty. Rather than having the character comment on how pretty it is. Just show us how pretty it is. And that’s a thing you can do as the writer.
I felt the transition between this truck scene and then Enrique’s house, getting ready the next morning for school, was just a weird jump. And it didn’t feel like a natural handoff between this truck thing and then the next thing we’re getting ready for school. There needed to be some other moment between those two things.
John: Or maybe this wasn’t the next – night feels natural. Because as time progresses we’re used to – you know, a couple episodes back we talked about that we are time lords. And as an audience the next thing we want to see is night. We don’t want to see like the next morning getting ready for school. So, you could do the same kinds of things in the scene, but have it be a dinner thing. Like maybe he has to get all his homework off the table to set the table for dinner? Great.
Craig: Or maybe he’s just alone in his room thinking. You know, or he’s walking around thinking. We learn something about him or we learn something about Stevie. But if you go from day to morning you’ll just be so confused. Like, wait, why are they going to school suddenly in the afternoon. It won’t feel like morning.
John: It feels like a scene got dropped out in the edit and it’s just weird. Let me save you some grief in pages. The first time you have characters who are speaking in Spanish, do that “in Spanish” and then you never need to do it again. So if you’re going to use italics from that point forward you don’t ever need to do that again.
This is something I should have mentioned. The setup overall. If you have a parenthetical, that first letter inside a parenthetical is not uppercased unless it has to be uppercased. But that “in Spanish,” that should be a lowercase “in” for that parenthetical.
Craig: Correct. It’s just a strange convention, but that’s how it is.
John: Yeah. I want to thank these three writers here for sending in their pages, but also all the writers who sent in pages because it’s a tremendous amount of work for Megana to go through them but we get such a broad sampling of what our listeners are writing in with. So thank you very much for trusting us with these and for sharing your work with other people so others can learn.
John: If you have three pages you want us to take a look at, don’t send them to the “ask” account. Instead, you need to go to johnaugust.com/threepage which is all spelled out, threepage. And there’s a little form there. You say who you are, that it’s OK for us to talk about on the air, and then you attach a PDF. So if you want to send in your pages that is where you send in those pages.
But thank you to everyone who submitted, especially these writers for these pages.
Craig: Thanks folks.
John: All right, it has come time for our One Cool Things. Craig, do you have a One Cool Thing this week?
Craig: Nope. [laughs]
John: All this time you’ve completely forgotten about the conceit of the show.
Craig: I whiffed.
John: Which is absolutely fine. So I will give two One Cool Things.
Craig: Oh great.
John: One of which I think you would especially enjoy. So the thing you would enjoy is GeoGuessr, which could have been a One Cool Thing many–
Craig: I’ve played that. Yeah.
John: It’s a great, great game.
Craig: I think it’s been one before. Yeah, it’s fun.
John: So, tell us about GeoGuessr. That can be your One Cool Thing.
Craig: Yeah, sure. I’ll steal it. So in GeoGuessr you’re basically using the Google Earth function where you’re looking at a street view and what it does is it just generates a random street view somewhere in the world. And your job, and you can click around on the image like you an on regular Google Street View. You can move this way and that way and up and down. And your job is to figure out where it is, down to as close to the exact point as you can.
So what you’re doing is you’re looking for clues. Obviously any text on the side of a building or a truck or even license plates. You start to think, OK, am I on the left side of the road driving forward or the right side of the road? What are those trees? And then if you’re lucky enough to get a crazy phone number, you can really get close.
So, you know sometimes you do really well. Sometimes you’re like I honestly don’t know where this is. And sometimes you can get within – the best ones are when you’re within three meters of it or something, which is just a joy.
John: Oh yeah.
Craig: But you get points and it’s for nothing other than just your amusement. It’s just fun. It’s a fun game.
John: Yeah. So my family has been playing that to pass random time. And it really is a good detective sort of game and you can work really hard to get yourself within three meters and then other times it will come up with one that you’re like I think I’m in Australia but I could also be somewhere in South America. You just have no idea because it plops you down in the middle of no place. But it’s always fun to find new places.
So, GeoGuessr. We’ll put a link in the show notes to that.
My One Cool Thing is a newsletter that comes out every week by Noah Kalina. I know him through a podcast I also listen to with Adam Lisagor, but his newsletter is terrific. I don’t think it has a name, it’s just his newsletter. He is a photographer in Upstate New York and he just goes on these sort of weird missions that he’s inspired by things and finds all the poppy seed bagels in his neighborhood in New York and figures out the poppy seed distribution on these bagels and photographs them beautifully. And it’s fun. Every week it’s sort of a weird little adventure.
It reminds me of, folks who are fans of Reply All, it feels like Reply All, or those episodes where they go off on these weird missions to figure out stuff. It feels like that. So, there will be a link in the show notes, but check out the back episodes and maybe subscribe to Noah Kalina’s newsletter.
Craig: I’m just looking at it right now and he actually did like a little MythBuster’s thing to see if it’s true that if you eat a bunch of poppy seeds that you will test positive for opiates. Because obviously that’s where heroin and morphine and all those things ultimately derive from the poppy plant. Not that poppy seeds get you high.
And he ate six poppy seed bagels in a week and then he did a drug test and he came back positive for narcotics, opiates specifically.
John: Yeah, opiates.
Craig: It worked.
John: So, lesson learned.
Craig: Lesson learned.
John: And so the podcast I was referring to is All Consuming. And so that’s where he and Adam, they look at all the products that show up on Instagram and they buy those products and see what they actually are like in real life. And they are delightful people and I also listen to their podcast.
John: That is our show for this week. I want to thank Megana Rao for reading all those submissions. Thank you very much our producer.
Craig: Thank you, Megana.
John: It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week is by Nora Beyer. If you have an outro you can send us a link to email@example.com. That’s also the place where you can send questions. You’ll find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you’ll find the transcripts and sign up for our weekly-ish newsletter called Inneresting which has lots of links to things about writing.
You can sign up to become a Premium member where you get all the back episodes and bonus segments like the one we’re about to record on money and happiness.
Craig, thank you for a fun show.
Craig: Thank you, John.
John: All right, Craig, the first of our Premium subscriber questions, or suggestions comes from Lianne in Burbank. And she writes, “In your own personal experiences has becoming wealthy actually made you happier? Has there been a certain threshold of your income where you noticed diminishing happiness returns? Is being truly wealthy all it’s cracked up to be, or are there difficulties beyond the glamour that you find often aren’t discussed?”
Craig: That’s an interesting question.
John: Craig, what’s it like being rich?
Craig: Well, let me tell you. [laughs] There are levels of wealthiness, but safe to say that John and I do pretty well. So, here’s my experience, Lianne. Being wealthy has not made me happier. Being wealthy has made me less unhappy, because when problems arise, as they often do in life, sometimes they’re mundane, something is leaking. Sometimes they’re very involved. Someone is sick. Money can solve problems. Money can’t make you happier, but money can definitely make some unhappy things go away faster or more efficiently. And I don’t kind of undersell that. That actually is a big deal.
The ability for money to diminish misery is impressive. That’s not everything. But it is impressive.
What it can’t do is keep you off the psychologist’s couch. The problems that you carry with you, your shames, your fears, all that stuff that was kind of in you and fomented within you by childhood, that’s still there. And sometimes being paid a lot exacerbates those things. It makes you feel guilty, undeserving. It makes you feel like you’re an imposter. You’re a liar. You’re somehow ripping people off.
There’s all sorts of crazy things that can bang around in your head if you are somebody that deals with some core shame issues…and some of us do not. But, you know what, making bad stuff go away, hooray money.
John: Yeah. And I think what Craig is describing is there really is a threshold beyond which it’s like, oh, some of the things which are not annoyances or aggravations or really anxiety I guess is probably the best way to put it diminish because I’m not going to be so worried about that thing. And so I do remember going from, after having been hired to do my first project, I’ve talked about on the show how I used to have just a spreadsheet and I knew what my monthly expenses were. And I knew I can afford to live for three months, or six months. I could just sort of count down and I could watch the money run out. And that was really stressful.
And once I started making enough money that I didn’t need to worry about that so much I was happier just because I didn’t have that source of constant dread and anxiety. Not really unlike having a president I couldn’t count on. A president I was convinced was actively trying to destroy the world. When you free yourself of that you’re like, oh, you have more space to be a little bit more happy.
But it plateaus and I think you’re sense, Lianne, is that there’s a plateau, there’s a zenith at which more money doesn’t make you any happier and I think that’s very, very true. And I don’t know the specific dollar figure, but when you – I think it’s when you don’t have to worry about every expense. When you can be just like, oh, I’ll just put that on a card and I know I’ll be able to pay for it. That is a nice feeling, knowing that I don’t have to worry about certain kinds of choices that just don’t really matter.
But I think Craig and I have both described how one of the ways you can stop that anxiety from coming back in is to just not live beyond your means. And we both know people who have made a lot of money and then have lived beyond their means and are on this terrible treadmill where they have to sort of keep making money or else everything falls apart.
Craig: Right. So those people never get the benefit of what we’re talking about, which is a sense of security, financial security. And it is, when you don’t have it, and I’ve certainly – I was definitely, you know, on the month-to-month living plan when I first came to Los Angeles, it is exhausting. You’re expending a lot of energy in fear and concern about how that functions. And if one thing goes wrong, there’s not a lot between you and real trouble.
So living beneath your means is incredibly important. It’s also, generally speaking, it’s a value. I don’t know how else to put it. It’s a value. I think that there’s a grace to it. And also one really nice thing about making a lot of money is that you can be charitable. And some people aren’t. And OK, fine. I’m not going to yell at them. But it is rare that I feel as effective and impactful on the world as I do when I’m making some kind of significant charitable donation. More so than writing television and movies and things, which I know people see and they may or may not care about. But actually making charitable contributions to either political causes or medical help or developing nations, whatever it is that you pursue, you know, curing diseases, it feels good. It does.
And I know that John you and Mike are pretty charitable folks as well.
John: For sure. A thing that I think people can intuitively sense and yet they can get tripped up on is buying the next thing will not make you happier. And buying that fancy car, you may enjoy driving it for a time, but that will fade. And buying a bigger house, you know, beyond a certain point just becomes an extra source of anxiety and stress and tension.
We have friends who have multiple houses and that fills me with dread. I would constantly be thinking about that house that I’m not at and sort of something going wrong with that property.
John: And that’s just a choice I made to not invite that into my life. And people, obviously there’s many ways to do things, but I think not getting caught up in the expectation to really be happy, if I had this thing I would be happy, that’s not true. Happiness comes from having enough. Having plenty and not needing to have more.
Craig: Sharing is generally when I feel the best about spending. Sharing. That’s a great feeling. It’s a great feeling to have friends over and cook them dinner and know that you’ve bought lots of good food and you don’t have to freak out about it and you could put a good bottle of wine out. That, to me, the kind of quiet – here’s what I’m not, for instance, I’m not a collector. And I now a lot of people who are collectors. And most people are collecting things that don’t cost a lot of money, but there are people who make a lot of money and then they just begin collecting incredibly expensive things.
I’m sure Jay Leno is a great guy. This isn’t even a criticism of him. It’s really more just a difference of opinion. I don’t understand why he has 800 cars. I just don’t understand it. I don’t. Just drive one, and then, you know, rent it or something. I just don’t understand the idea of having them all. Or I think Seinfeld has like 80 Porsches or something. That gets weird for me. It just feels like a dragon sitting on its hoard.
So I think just sharing and that sort of thing is fun. But, you know, again, look, here’s the truth. The guys like Jay Leno and Jerry Seinfeld have so much more money than I do that they can hoard things like cars and such and then in their charity however they perform it donate vastly more money than I do. So I can’t really criticize them. It’s just a difference is how I would put it.
John: It’s a whole different conversation to have about that level of super wealth and sort of like what that does. When a person has the wealth of a nation, that is such an odd difference from the lives that you and I are leading. I’m still scrubbing the bathroom. We’re still doing our own laundry at our house. So it’s a different kind of life than some other people have. And that’s fine, too.
Craig, have you ever heard this explanation for why altruism exists? That sense of an evolutionary adaptation to recognize that the best place to store food is in your friends’ bellies. After a hunt there’s more meat than you can possibly eat and so you cannot store it. So, the best thing you can do with that meat is to give it to everybody else so that they will share their wealth the next time.
Craig: I wrote a paper about this in college. And I think the center of it was there’s a story. In the ‘80s there was a terrible plane crash. Plane went down in the Potomac. I don’t know if you remember this. Right there in DC. It was a frigid wintery day. A plane goes down. There are people alive but they’re in this icy water. And a man driving by stops and basically jumps into the water and saves some people. And the question was why. He doesn’t know them. And it’s quite clear that there is great danger connected to jumping in that frigid water. He himself might also die. So why/how evolutionarily does this make any sense at all?
And the answer, or at least an answer is this. That evolutionarily we are better off as members of a society, strength in numbers, right? So, we are selected for pro-social instincts. People who generally feel a connection to a group beyond just their own immediate family members will tend to do better overall because they stay inside of a group. But that tendency, that pro-social tendency is stupid. Meaning it can’t make choices in a moment about what would be advantageously pro-social. It just is pro-social.
And so that’s why you find people who just that instinct kicks in. And it’s the instinct of holding a society together which in its own way is a beautiful thought.
John: Yeah. We’ve talked about empathy on the show as well. In leaving Twitter you said it taught you empathy. And for me pulling over to the side of the road and jumping into the frigid water is like it’s because I could imagine myself as the person in the water and needing somebody to help save me. And so it’s easy to see that other side. And the folks who don’t have that are sometimes our elected president and that’s a bad thing.
Craig: Or run movie studios. [laughs]
John: True. Thanks Craig.
Craig: Thank you, John.
- Irony and cosmic irony
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