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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Ding Dong!

By PJ McIlvaine

Recently a very good pal of mine asked me which of his scripts I thought he should enter in Nicholls. It took me all of two seconds to decide (it’s the one with a cute twist on par with LIAR LIAR). Anyway, I gave him my thoughts, dove back into my own writing…until something happened while blow drying my hair (I wasn’t electrocuted, but close).

The universe imploded, time stopped, chills ran up and down my spine. I had that slap myself upside the head illumination (like Harvey Fierstein in INDEPENDENCE DAY when he’s stuck in his car blabbing on his cell, he glances in the rear view mirror, sees that fireball bearing down on him and he blurts “oh merde!”). I wasn’t in a car, I was in my bedroom, and all sorts of bells, fireworks, car alarms, fire sirens, trumpets, tubas and fat ladies were honking all over the place.

All this commotion wasn’t about my script. It was about my pal’s! The most perfect, unexpected, straight out belly laugh out loud plot point and mouth dropping twist that for the life of me, I couldn’t recall ever seeing done before. I felt like Isaac Newton when the apple fell. This twist was so dead on perfect I’m still wondering where the hell it came from. God Almighty, why hadn’t I thought it up before? Duh!

It’s that magical, mystical alignment of stars and moons under which you think of something so out of the box, maybe even something so completely improbable, impossible and totally illogical, but which fits like a glove. You may think of other ways to do it or proceed, you might bat it around in your head the way my cats do with their catnip toys, you might even discard it, but you go back to it because it can be no other way. It’s written in stone, like when Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton first laid eyes on each other. That forbidden love spawned a scandal that broke up two marriages and it even led the Vatican to condemn Taylor for her “erotic vagrancy”. (Yeah, in today’s world of illegitimate designer baby bumps, doesn’t that sound quaint?).

You know what I’m talking about: The Ding Dong Moment. It might not make sense to anyone else, but it makes perfect sense to you. You take the plunge, close your eyes, jump off the plane without a parachute and pray for a soft landing. When it works, it’s a beautiful thang.

Many times I’ll be mulling over a plot point or get to a point in my script where I’m stymied. Instead of beating my head against the wall, I walk away and do something else, like bake something yummy or walk around the neighborhood. Physically I may not be actually sitting my butt down with my laptop, yet in actuality, my subconscious is going a mile a minute doing the writing for me. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, something will pop into my head, something out of the random deep blue sea---and it works, it fits, it’s that high-five, pie in the sky moment. Keep me in a steady supply of ding dongs and I’m a happy woman.

Unfortunately, the hard part is when you’re so totally besotted with your ding dong moment (or even your ding dong script, I have those too) but nobody else is. They hate it, can’t see it for beans. You get royally dinged, slammed with a two by four, stomped on like a garbage can. It’s agony. It sucks a thousand deaths. How come they don’t get your ding dong? It’s so doggone dead on!

Well, with age, time and distance, I freely admit that sometimes my ding dong moments were more of the “ding a ling” variety: what the hell was I thinking of when I dreamed up that frothing pile of crapola?

I once wrote a script called LADY BLUE, a drama (or so I mistakenly believed) about a down to earth woman who just wanted the basics out of life, you know, love, stability, and kids. She fell in love with a singer/musician with big talent and bigger dreams. She pined faithfully at home with their kid while he was out on the road getting high and whoring it up. They’d break up only to make up, finally she had enough and kicked him out for good. He became a super star, she followed her dreams but they never stopped loving each other. She’s his muse (the aforementioned Lady Blue), he’s in her blood, many sad scenes of sobbing in hotel rooms.

Honestly, I had no idea how to end it until I had my ding dong moment: he winds up in the hospital in need of a heart transplant, she conveniently gets shot in the head during an attempted kidnapping, and she winds up comatose and brain dead. Her present husband, a genuinely nice guy, after days of soul searching and torment, pulls the plug and consents to …ahem.

At the time, I thought it was a brilliant ding dong. Today, I can’t even tell you where the damn thing is. For all I know, it could be with Saddam’s WMD’s. Stop laughing. It sounded like a winner. What do you want from me? Some dongs fit better than others.

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Benjamin Ray said...

Hello PJ McIlvaine,

This article you wrote rings with real wisdom.

Yes I agree, it's an art and we should think outside the box.

I have applied some of your ideas you talked about on my second script and then sometimes I go into relapse and become too "bookish". It's a difficult art to master.

Thanks for hitting a home run with this article.

Looking forward to using ScriptDepartment shortly.

Benjamin Ray

PJ McIlvaine said...

Thank you kindly, sir! How about this ode: when it's a ding, it truly sings, but when it's a dong, it's totally wrong!


You can't have the ding without the dong.

Man, I better stock up on my meds.

Anonymous said...

I can totally relate to that 'stop what you are doing and write it down quick before the girls in the basement go back to macrame- moment.
Now. Question. Why does it usually happen to me while I am SUPPOSED to be revising a script I know I have to complete? AND it is a stonking NEW idea not even remotely linked to what I should be doing? The kind of idea which makes me want to drop the hideous WIP and start on this new idea while my hair is still wet?

Diane Stredicke said...

You write:

"Well, with age, time and distance, I freely admit that sometimes my ding dong moments were more of the “ding a ling” variety: what the hell was I thinking of when I dreamed up that frothing pile of crapola?"

I don't know how many times this has happened to me. It usually happens when I'm driving, or sitting on the subway, or mowing my lawn, or taking a shower. Then when I sit down to write, it's like a fury. Nothing can stop me now!


A couple a days later... I read it. What the heck was I thinking? Who wrote this crap? Was I on drugs? No, well I should be.

Thanks PJ.

Benjamin Ray said...


Your approach to screenwriting is so real and entertaining and unlike anything I read on the internet...

This is a breath of fresh air!!!

There's unexplored potential here -- too many books out there take screenwriting like a science project...

I think the article you wrote will one day expand into a unique screenwriting book that will rock the foundation of this business....

I could be wrong, but I know I'm right on this one...

Looking forward to these zesty and really shinny articles from you...

Finally -- PJ MCILVAINE -- a screenwriter who walks the walk and talks the talk on the processs of "styling and developing cinematic visualization..."

Benjamin Ray

PJ McIlvaine said...

Ah, so I'm not alone in the ding dong nation. Unite brothers and sisters! Stay strong and proud!

Look, sometimes we have to write the dross to get it out of the way or out of our system so we can get to the gold.