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Friday, November 21, 2008

Diagnosing Your Script: The Charmin Effect

So I have read - oh gosh - a thousand scripts? Fifteen hundred? I have no idea anymore, I've stopped counting. These days I take it easy; I don't read all that much, maybe 3 to 4 scripts a week. And more than ever, I realize the value of having another pair of eyes on a script. What to me is obvious - a weak complication, two-dimensional character or front-loaded script - to you is a nagging mystery until I point it out. Because after spending so much time with one script, you can't see the forest for the trees. And I don't blame you.

The only thing I have that you don't have is perspective and a thousand scripts under my belt. I have not stared at your script day in and day out for six months. I have not lived with your characters. I am like a doctor. I sit your script down on the exam table and I look at what's there in the here and now. And it might hurt juuuust a little. Close your eyes if you don't like needles or a whack on the knee. But I always send my patients back home with a lollypop and a smile.

It takes a lot of courage to go to the doctor. We all want to get a clean bill of health. But people come to The Script Department because they have a weird itch, limp or rash and they don't know why. We all want to hear we're going to be fine and that there's nothing we have to change or worry about. We all want to hear that if we take the doctor's advice, we WILL win the marathon or gold medal. But the doctor can make no guarantees. Only diagnose and send you home with a prescription.

If I had to name the most common script problems I see, the problems I point out over and over and over each week, I would have to say The Charmin Effect.

Soft character arcs, soft premise and soft structure.

What does "soft" mean, exactly? It means that there's too much subtlety in whichever element. As we are all aware, in real life, things are often complex and multi-layered and things almost never resolve neatly. Complications and reversals can land on us like a ton of bricks or they can accrete over time. In real life we muddle through our problems and we are quite good at not allowing anything to force us to change. Some of us literally never change.

In the movies, however, audiences crave resolution, for one thing, and they need to see things writ large. Now, of course there is a difference between character arc in a movie like THE SAVAGES and in a movie like THE MUMMY; you have to service your genre appropriately.

Soft premise, soft character and soft structure - these things are all related. It's all the same problem. Not going BIG enough. Put it another way: not enough going on in the premise to warrant a whole feature script, passive main character and complications and act breaks which don't move the story forward in a significant way. This all combines to create a boring script, or the BOSH script - bunch of stuff happens. Kiss of death, my friends. Flat line on the monitor.

A soft premise is the result of fear of conflict not really thinking the premise all the way through. Writers get stuck in their heads sometimes and tell a story which has mild emotional and usually autobiographical interest to them but not to anyone else. A woman inherits a house from her grandmother and learns that like her grandmother, she loves photography. Wha-? Movies are about conflict. Major conflict. Movies are uncomfortable and filled with tension. In real life most of us avoid conflict like the plague. But the movies are centered on it. Writing a script is a time to scrap being polite, proper or careful. Movies are conflict.

Newer writers are too easy on their characters because they model them too closely after themselves or people they know. But your character is not you or a friend - a character is a symbol that represents Jealousy, Power, Innocence, Betrayal, Justice or Heartbreak. Writers are often loathe to be too hard on their characters. They like them too much to give them a meaningful, active flaw. They start them out pretty nice and they wind up nicer. Characters must have an arc of change and they can't wind up changed if they started out pretty okay in the first place. Something has to be majorly amiss in your character on page one. Not a little amiss like they are shy and want a date. That's boring. We all want a date. Go. Bigger.

Soft structure is bound, hand and foot to soft premise and soft character arcs. You cannot separate these three elements. If you're too soft on your characters, the turning points and complications will be soft too. Your pages will just blur in to one another with nothing significant moving the story forward. And you wind up with a script with the consistency, color and flavor of oatmeal instead of a script with the consistency, color and flavor of paella.

Don't avoid conflict - seek it out. Take the gloves off. Don't be so polite and so careful. Writing is a down and dirty occupation and don't let anybody tell you any different.

Write down your premise line. Do you have an antagonist? A crux of CONFLICT, major turning points and a big sacrifice or choice the main character will have to make? Stare at your premise line. Is it going to get anyone outside your immediate family excited? Does it have a hook and a unique concept?

It takes courage to Go Big in your script. Writers are afraid to really think bigger and sometimes they are too lazy to do the work. That's right, I said it. Too lazy. Where is the backstory for your character? Where is the outline for your script? Where is the killer logline that you should have worked out before you started writing the script? Laziness, timidity and a loathing to really put your characters through the wringer is the reason that the word "soft" would apply to so many scripts.

I know most writers don't have the access to read a thousand scripts in order to gain the perspective that lends a person. But you have the Rouge Wave and a million other resources. Ask yourself if you're really writing about conflict, change and catharsis. Not kind of - but truly.

Watch movies that are in any way similar to your script idea. Push the pause button when you think you spot a major complication. Look at the timer on your dvd player - notice that it's right about 10, 25 and 50 minutes into the movie that these things happen? Gain some cajones, Wavers - are you writing about conflict or are you writing about CONFLICT? Are you being too easy on your main character? Is your premise SERIOUSLY worth several million dollars to make? Who would the audience be for this movie? You and your family? Or millions of people all around the world?

Writers who are unafraid to really go there - whether in the premise and in the execution or whether that means going to the doctor to find out how they did - are writers who have a million times more chance of actually having a writing career than a writer who is stuck in his or her head, too timid and too vacuum-sealed to get outside perspective and to push their characters harder and further than they thought possible - or nice - or convenient.

It's up to you whether you take the cure. We are not all getting in shape for a sprint here, that's the good news. This is a marathon. So you've made some mistakes. So what. It's never too late to get it together so you can really compete with the thousands of scripts that flood into Hollywood every single day.

Bigger, better, faster, more. It's the way of the movies.

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Racicot said...


I suggest you pin this post under Rules & Regulations (for being a writer).

millar prescott said...

So basically, what you're sayin' is, don't write your script on toilet paper.

Seth Fortin said...

You know, what's funny about this is that I want to say that it's not the same for high art films (which, after all, hew much closer to real life and eschew fantasy). But the truth is -- I realized this maybe a month or two ago -- you can write a really compelling logline for most of your classic art movies, too.

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie -- The owner of a failing nightclub gets into debt to the mob and has to carry out a hopelessly dangerous hit to erase his debt. But when he survives the mission, he becomes a liability.

Ran -- An aging warlord divides his kingdom among his heirs, but in a moment of pride he exiles the one son who's truly loyal. They are eventually re-united, but not before war between the other sons destroys everything the warlord had built.

Eyes Wide Shut -- During an argument, a woman admits to her husband that she once considered leaving him for a man she had never even met. Infuriated, he leaves the house and spends the night encountering various opportunities to cheat on her.

You may not like the way an "art film" executes these concepts (although I do), but undergirding each of these films is a really intense, sharply defined conflict.

Stephanie said...

This is a loaded question (probably one you could dedicate an entire blog to), but I'm just curious...

In your opinion, is this what happens between the time television scripts make the industry people say "WOW!" and say ... the middle of the season when the show is now six or seven episodes in the can and suffering from The Charmin Effect? Because I feel like that's the most logical explanation for the drop-off in quality shows on network TV.

Perhaps (more importantly) - how many pairs of eyes are looking at a script at the very beginning and how many are still looking at these scripts when a show is halfway through a season?

Basically what I'm saying is -- you take a show like Grey's Anatomy and it was obviously a great concept at the beginning. But now that the show is established they seem to have a very large pool of writers who are churning out scripts at a breakneck pace. The characters are soft. The structure is soft. The arcs are “structurally unsound” (to borrow a phrase from Burn Notice). And obviously the problem isn't limited to just Grey's Anatomy, but I'd just like to know how/why the writing falls apart so quickly.
Do you think it's one writer failing to catch his/her mistakes, or are there too many eyes dissecting the scripts and thus losing perspective?

This is a fascinating subject for me because I have a friend that moved to LA specifically because she wanted to write for television. She's now stuck in a desk job at MGM and feels like the industry is in such a downward spiral, with shows getting cancelled two or three episodes into a season and unique ideas being passed over. (She actually said to me this morning, “maybe I’ll rip up everything I’ve done and start writing crime shows and police procedurals. They seem to be the only shows people are still watching.”)


Belzecue said...

Bang on: GO LARGE.

You touch upon it here in your article, Julie, but I'd like to spotlight it for a moment... character arc.

Looks at your Protag at the beginning of your story (A).

Now look at your Protag at the end of your story (B).

Measure the 'distance' between A and B. Ask yourself: WHAT HAS CHANGED FOR THE PROTAGONIST? Where has the character traveled geographically and emotionally?

If you can see your Protag covered little territory (internally and/or externally) then your story is not yet a story. As Julie points out, it's 'soft.' You've coddled your Protag and failed to push them to their limits and beyond.

Luke Skywalker: That dude cover much territory emotionally and geographically? Parochial farmboy to galactic savior.

At the other end of the spectrum, how about an almost entirely internal journey like Lars (Lars and the Real Girl). Lars is psychologically reborn at the end of the story. The emotional distance he travels is enormous.

Those two examples show a seismic shift between where the Protag begins and where they end up. THAT is what gut-punches us as an audience.

Dark Knight... Batman (and Dent) begins
as Gotham's hero and ends as Gotham's number one (perceived) Villain. Seismic shift.

Anonymous said...

Hi Julie,

For example, romance heavy movie like Twilight, is it a soft story?

My script does not have the Charmin Effect.

Read the Twilight script , it does not have the Charmin Effect.

How come no one is writing aggressive love stories?

Why do people hate intense love stories?

And why people hate intense love stories with a man and a woman?

Why do Readers hate these kinds of love stories?

A Who said...

I loved this post -- I feel charged up and ready to dig into my story and stir up some Trouble and strife.

Thank you!


Jeff Bach said...

x2 A Who's comment above - imo this is a great post, inspiring lots of new ways to look at my characters and story. Lots of food for thought.
Good writing Good thinking JG!