Thursday, October 4, 2012


I sometimes tell a story involving Paddy Chayefsky to my students and clients. I don’t remember where I heard it and have not one shred of evidence that the incident ever took place. Why do I continue to tell it? Because even if it never happened, it’s still true.

It goes something like this…

Chayefsky was in a meeting with a young development exec who was giving him notes on his script. He raised a concern with something near the end, on, say, page 83 and Chayefsky, as the yarn unwinds, listened, nodded and agreed. Chayefsky assured him that he knew how to fix it. 

For me, what follows is a curious ellipsis. Maybe Chayefsky was being helpful in explaining himself. Maybe the exec had to flex his power and pushed for the solution. Maybe Chayefsky was actively getting under the “kid’s” skin. I am not sure what motivates the next action but somehow or another…

The legendary playwright/screenwriter proceeds to describe his plan for fixing the ending: he will rewrite page 23. The “suit” interrupts and reminds him that the issue was page 83. Chayefsky nods and confirms that he will take care of it… by tweaking page 23. The “Who’s on first?” sort of confusion continues and then you can assume your own “shaggy dog” ending.

The moral of the story could be a vague lesson about the absurdity of the development process. It could be the irony of a young kid telling an old school master how to do his job. To me, it illustrates that the identification and description of a problem often have nothing to do with how to solve it. And the two skills – to identify a story or craft problem and to be able to lead writer to a solution -- may be unrelated. This might seem like a trivial observation but the stakes are huge.

A client recently shared notes he received from a coverage service. The reader had some sense of the script problems and pointed them out. That’s their job, right?  I probably agreed with 80% or so of the 200ish comments. However, this set of notes may have been the worst I have ever seen.

If the reader wasn’t an idiot or wrong, what made the notes so bad?

First of all, the tone of the criticism pushed it over the edge for me. Mistaken for tough love, comments similar to “Pretty much all of the dialogue is unusable or unacceptable,” are merely insulting and discouraging. Beyond the nastiness, I also hated the way the reader, ironically, gave the writer his money’s worth by achieving some predetermined and bloated page count.

A valid comment like “Your dialogue is on the nose” would be supported with dozens of examples from the script. How exactly does a writer use this information to improve their script? If ten out of ten lines in a scene are “on the nose,” usually the solution isn’t beating your head against a wall and asking yourself this series of finely-tuned questions:

How do I take this line off the nose?
How do I take this line off the nose?
And this one?
And this one?

If this were a magical formula to better dialogue, my scene writing book would be done now and I would have trademarked this killer paradigm.

Let’s consider a typical list of problems with an amateur’s script:

- Dialogue is on-the-nose
- Scenes have too little conflict
- Turning points are wishy-washy
- Too much exposition
- Character goals are confusing
- Scenes go on too long
- Too much talk and small talk
- Theme is unclear
- Too many extraneous characters
- Characters sound similar

This ubiquitous summary in coverage is acceptable as long as each “topic” isn’t used to create a litany of redundant examples. The “laundry list” approach overwhelms writers and can kill their creative process and enthusiasm. These stakes can be brutal. I know writers who have abandoned a script for years or forever based on one person's opinion. The effectiveness of notes shouldn’t be measured by page count but rather by how well they lead a writer to workable solutions.

There is an old adage -- Don’t look where you fell, look where you slipped -- that can give us a fresh perspective. Almost every single instance of these 10 flaws in the script is a symptom of the exact same thing. Instead of having a 200-point checklist sitting next to your script, you simply have to ask a question or two and commit to an answer. A writer could throw away the 15 pages of notes and then jump into a rewrite that adheres to a principle or two and all but maybe a few of the 200 comments would be taken care of.

For the sake of surprise and audience retention, I will name the principle, expand it and extract a few user-friendly corollaries in the next issue of Craft & Career. However, we will continue to explore a simple and effective approach to the rewrite/development process which follows this mystery principle.


Let’s look at a way to approach the rewrite.

We would look at the protagonist’s introduction and simply ask, “What is their essence?” What is the one dilemma that sums them up? We can’t do anything else in the rewrite until we nail this. Often, characters in early drafts have vague set ups. No big deal. It goes with the territory. But our goal is to find the perfect scene: one that NAILS the character. Basically, if there is anything in the character’s first scene that isn’t special, that isn’t unique to him or her, it gets cut.  

What does this perfect scene, moment or line look like? The opening “fake suicide” sequence in Harold and Maude which is capped off when Harold’s mother asks him to be more “vivacious.” In an early scene in Dead Poets Society, Neal appeases his strict father (my buddy Kurtwood Smith from Hard Scrambled) who is forcing him to cut down on extra-curricular activities with a throwaway line that works on the surface and at the deepest level: “You know me, always taking on too much.” (Remember, he is the one who ultimately kills himself.) And do you remember what the mother in the opening of Superbad teases Seth about? If you consider the character, there is only one possible answer.

A hands-on technique to find the perfect line or action for your opening scene is to mine later scenes. Three pages in to your first draft, you don’t have a complete understanding of the character but by page 40, you might. Search scenes 3, 4 and 5 for a great action or line and “ask your character” if he or she is ready to say it earlier, like in scene 1.

In Coaching, my client and I will wrestle with the introduction to the protagonist and make sure we nail the character with ridiculous specificity. The goal is to figure out the essence of the character theoretically and to find a situation and visuals that express it in concrete terms. Besides raising the writer’s expectations for character introductions, the craft exercise makes it easier to find the core of the other characters.  

I can’t go into a fifteen-page discussion of character orchestration and cast design here (I will in New Orleans) but the succinct dilemma of the protagonist clarifies the essence of the supporting characters. They will be variations/foils/permutations/shadows of the protagonist. The different facets of the protagonist define the characteristics of the cast and vice versa.

Once you know your protagonist and other characters better, every scene has better and escalating conflict. You have better insight into what the characters are meant to clash about. The characters come in with stronger perspectives on that ONE THING. No small talk, no getting warmed up.

And like in a well-done time-travel movie, a ripple effect happens…

If you improve a scene, then what follows pales in comparison. You have created the new challenge of escalating the conflict and character in the next scene. The good news is that the energy you channel into earlier scenes gives you a better understanding of the characters, their relationships and perspectives. So half of your work is already done. Making one scene better makes the next scene better and so on and so on. That's why this process lends itself to rewriting chronologically.
If you think about how dialogue and conflict work, essentially, your challenge is to have one character get under the other character’s skin. The only way to create personal conflict is to know which buttons to push on a character. That's why this work has to be done before you can improve your dialogue
In this old blog, I showed how Heath Ledger as The Joker sniffed out the essence of a minor character and was able to antagonize him effectively. In a way, he may have reverse-engineered his speech to discover the cop's dilemma. But this can mimic your writing. Sometimes one line of good dialogue can lead to a better understanding of character. I never approach notes or writing in the exact same way, but I want to emphasize the importance of understanding how character set up clarifies dialogue and vice versa.


You probably have figured out what the overriding principle is from my discussion but I will go into more depth with it in an upcoming Craft & Career and in my classes. If you are a beginner, here is a concrete tip for your rewrite that you can use now: 

Clarify and strengthen your characters’ goals and their points-of-view in each scene.  

If you are an intermediate or advanced writer and want to go through a process that will improve your script(s) and show you many subtle and advanced craft principles, check out my services.

I joke with some clients that I make them pay upfront because I don’t want to scare them away. I sometimes have my Paddy Chayefsky teaching moment. A writer knows their dialogue needs work and they want to “attack” it. I tell them that most likely the dialogue suffers because of the structure. They take a leap of faith, nod and say, “Okay, let’s work on structure.”  And then I saw, we will… by working on character.

Who's on first?

I don't know.

Third base.

I don’t think I can build a marketing campaign for my story analysis services around this tagline: “We will fix your dialogue by focusing on seemingly unrelated issues.” But I promise to not overwhelm you with a laundry list of criticisms and leave you without a plan to address them.

An awful set of notes can be really discouraging. I hope you haven't received any but if you have, try to extract a couple of overriding ideas and then throw the notes away. If you can’t figure out how to attack the few valid issues, ask others for feedback that focuses solely on those few areas. You can always use me as your story analyst services and we can even dissect the icky feedback. 

No matter what don’t let bad notes get you down. It's easy to make a great script look bad with a few pages of nit-picky notes. And a great set of notes can help you solve a hundred things at once. Don't give up looking for insight into your work but be willing to say"no" to feedback that doesn't work for you.

What’s cool about my coaching and mentoring services is that the process can follow an organic pace. I don’t have to give you 200 notes on lines of dialogue that won’t even be in the next draft. We can discuss areas in which you want to improve and we can look at the big-picture for your rewrite and then get closer to the nitty-gritty in later drafts.

Sign up for coaching and you can attend my next 3-4 day class or have a 75% discount on the New Orleans Retreat that starts on Monday. Sign up for Mentoring this week and you can join us next week for free.

"My brain grew three sizes in the Champion Lab. Jim is a film savant who analyzes a script from multiple vantage points (writer, director, coach) which results in an avalanche of insight. I'm now coaching with him and his other-worldly abilities are making a huge difference in my work."
--L.H. 2012 PAGE Semi-finalist, 2011 Winner, Just Effin Entertain Me---Sci-Fi