You ever get to that point in your writing where you feel like everything you've done so far sucks? Yeah, me too. That's where I am now. Typically I can surf the web or read a book or watch a movie to find some inspiration, but currently all of these things just depress me. I start to question my own ability (I always do... but now it's magnified) as well as my goals and where I am with them and why I haven't achieved them yet. It is an ugly downward spiral. I know that this a normal stage of writing (much like the 5 stages of grieving) and that I just have to muscle through this first draft but, I gotta say it is no fun.
I had to make the decision of doing a rough draft first. I wanted to go straight to first draft but my deadline is very tight. I can't blame it all on the deadline, though. I've had this story in my head for so long I thought I could just sit down and it would pour out of me. No such luck. The moment I wrote FADE IN all of my ideas FADED OUT.
My rough draft will be just cranking out the story. Sort of a more detailed step in between treatment and script. Some people call it a scriptment. There may be no jokes and there may not even be any dialogue in some scenes. For example if there is an action sequence that I have not figured out then I will just write the basic beats of the sequence out and move on. The goal is to get eveything out as quick as I can. Besides, no one will be reading this draft but me and my story editor. Sometimes this stream of consciousness writing can be good. If you don't stop to fuss over the details you don't have time to second guess your instincts and you might just come up with a couple of gems. Then, with my remaining time, I can go back through and (re)write the first draft. I can more easily bide my time this way. And believe me, I can lament over a single line of dialogue for days so doing it this way is probably for the best. It's always easier to rework words on a page than sitting there staring at a blank one.
I hope to have this "draft" done by Christmas. That'll give me roughly 5 weeks left to turn in the first draft.
Okay, so you've got your story and you think it's pretty darn good. (I'm speaking in third person about myself) Now is the time to develop your characters in such a way that will render your story obsolete. (still speaking about myself) Okay, it's not that drastic, but it can be.
Creating characters, or should I say comic characters is both fun and difficult at the same time. We all want our characters to be multi-faceted and have depth, but I think that you cannot know your character that well until you start writing or boarding for him/her and start putting them into situations. Dexter from Dexter's Lab was a pretty well figured out character right from the start, but all of the nuances that we know and love about Dexter only came after many season's of fine tuning and experimenting. It's a good place to get to with your character but you need a solid foundation to start from. How? Well I found a great way to create comic characters that is not only fun, but easy enough to generate many comic characters and see which one fits best with your story without expelling to much time and energy.
There are many books on creating characters and I am sure there are one or two that are the most popular. I, on the other hand, use a book called THE COMIC TOOLBOX by John Vorhaus. It's a book on "how to be funny even if you're not." There are a lot of useful tips in there on writing jokes and comedy in general. There are even a few chapters on the basic steps of story telling in a screen play. The chapter I really love is the one on creating comic characters and it is the one I will be quoting and referencing here.
There are four basic elements that make up your comic character. They are:
1. Comic Perspective
COMIC PERSPECTIVE is simply the unique and quirky way your character looks at the world. Every thought, every idea and every reaction you character has needs to "filter" through their perspective. I like to call it looking at the world through your characters glasses. For example, Gracie Allen (of Burns and Allen fame) was INNOCENT. Everything she said and did was INNOCENT. One of the best examples of this is Jack Benny. His comic perspective (among others) is cheap. There is a skit where Jack is being held up at gunpoint by a robber. When the robber says "Your money or your life" Jack Benny answers "I'm thinking." It's Jack's cheap comic perspective that tells us that he might just value his money over his life and what makes it funny.
EXAGGERATION is taking your characters comic perspective and stretching it and pushing it so far out there that it far enough from our own perspectives in life that it starts to be funny. Recalling Gracie Allen, she was not only innocent she was the ultimate innocent. Dudley Moore as Arthur was not only a drunk he was the drunkest drunk. Jerry Lewis (used to be) the biggest bumbler the world ever knew. He not only acted bumblng he thought it. Don't be afraid to push your character to the extremes of their comic perspective.
FLAWS are a failing or negative quality in your comic character that opens up an emotional distance between them and the audience so that the audience can comfortably laugh at them with out feeling as though their pain is too close to home and therefore not funny. Sam Malone's flaw is egomania. Diane Chamber's flaw is snobbishness.Scrooge's flaw is greed. Dean Martin's flaw is drunkeness. Murphy Brown's flaw is stubborness. Flaws don't have to always be bad traits but taken to the exaggerated level can make them abnormal and thus distance them from the audience. Vorhaus' example of this is Charlie Brown's flaw is his trusting nature. Huh? How is that a flaw? The flaw is that he trusts TOO MUCH (more than you or I might) and thus let's us laugh every time Lucy pulls that football away.
HUMANITY, unlike flaws which separates the audience from the charcter, builds a bridge between us and the character so that we can care about them. The sure fire way to engage your audience and make them want to go on your hero's adventure is to get them to care about your character. You must arouse symapthy and empathy in your audience toward your hero. You are supposed to like the hero and the hero is supposed to be like you. If that happen, you engage emotionally and will gladly undertake his/her journey with them. If you want your character to have the legs to be consistantly funny through the life of your story, your audience must feel a part of the experience.
Building your chracter off of these basic elements will give you a great starting place. In some instances this might be enough. But don't be afraid to continue molding and fine tuning your character. I only touched the surface of the basic ideas brought forth in The Comic Toolbox. If you are interested in reading about this technique (or tool) further, I really recommend going out and buying this book.
Oopsy...in my excitement of the Andrew Stanton presentation I realized that my next post was supposed to be about putting all of this together into an outline. My bad.
As you can see to the right I have completed the outline. It came out to around twelve pages. Not bad. It's a quick read with enough information to get across story, plot, character etc. I have read a bunch of outlines and for the most part they can be boring. Lots of information. I try to make mine a fun read. Give a sense of the tone of the movie but not so much detail and frills that it takes away from the purpose of the outline: Executive Approval.
After I was satisfied with where the cards were on the big board I sat down in front of it with my laptop and started to write. I don't want to say transcribe, because that would mean that everything on the board was perfect. Far from it. While I write I try not to look at the board. Instead, I just write from memory. This serves me two purposes. One, it allows me to write in a more story telling fashion and not so "card to card" feeling. And two, if I am writing and forget a card but the story still works it tells me that maybe that story point or idea wasn't necessary to the movie. So out it goes. Kind of a natural editing process. Granted, it could be my terrible memory and I forgot to write an important plot point or character arc, in which case, I review all the cards once I am done and double check cards against outline.
The outline, like a script, will go through many rewrites. My first pass is just to get all of the information out. Then, I can go back through paragraph by paragraph and line by line. I might look at a paragraph and see if there is a more entertaining way to get the point across or perhaps tell the same information in less words.
I like to give my outline act breaks as well as a mid-point header and also number each scene or sequence. I also try to break up paragraphs into short chunks so there is more white space on the page much like one might only have two or three lines of description in a screenplay. Makes it open and airy and less daunting and less dense of a read.
I had been having trouble with my main character and his involvement in the plot of the story I sweated so much in creating. Every trait I gave him seemed to negate my story. It was like trying to cram a square peg into a round hole. He was also less interesting and less funny than the secondary characters. I was banging my head against the wall trying to figure this out and then I had the serendipidous opportunity to attend a presentation by the amazing ANDREW STANTON of PIXAR fame!
Andrew said a lot of amazing things (if you ever get a chance to go to his presentation or even get a DVD of the event I highly recommend it!), but the one thing that stood out to me since it was foremost on my mind was regarding character and story. He spoke of the story and plot giving you information on who your main character should be. I was feeling pretty good because that's exactly how I was working mine. Then he said some interesting things about developing character. Most of which I was doing as well. I was two for two with this guy. Then he said something that floored me. He said that developing and getting to know your character will ultimately change your story and you have to be willing to throw away all those amazing scenes that you created if your character doesn't fit in them. LIGHTBULB!!! I realised that I was so married to my story that I didn't allow my character to inform me on how the story should change.
Needless to say I went home and reworked my main character without considering the story. I am happy with how he is coming out and even more happy as to how he is changing the story. I am sad to see certain scenes go away because they don't fit anymore but conversely i am extremely happy that the scenes that stayed as well as the new scenes are character driven and not driven solely by the plot. And isn't that what we are all after?
So, the catch 22 is that developing your story will inform you of who your main character is and developing your main character will tell you that your story is wrong.
As I stated in the previous post this index card process makes it easy to take a step back and look at your entire movie. It also makes it easier to rework it. It is much easier to take a sequence (a few cards) and shuffle it around on the board to a place where it works better. You can even remove a few cards and see if a sequence or scene is even working within your movie. If you don't miss the cards then it probably doesn't belong in your story. A helpful tool is to use different colored cards. You can use one color for emotional beats, another for plot and another for scene headings, etc. I used different colors like a revision mode on Final Draft. One color for every time I sat down and made changes. I started with blue, moved to white, then pink, green and purple. As you can see from the picture in my previous post, there was a lot of of different colors and not much blue left, but that's okay because it is so much easier to write a few words on a card than a few paragraphs of an outline/treatment or worse yet, many pages of a script. Better to get it right now than wrong later. I really do recommend trying this out.
I certainly didn't invent this technique and I am sure a lot of people use it. Before I go into this process I want to back up and describe how I got to this point. As I said in the previous post there are loads of books out there on the craft of screenwriting. Believe me when I say I have probably read most of them. I think a lot of it was out of procrastination but some of it was to gleen little bits of information. I recommend having at least the basic overall story in your mind when reading these books because as you read something in the book it might spark an idea or direction you hadn't thought of. There are two books (not really books since I got them off the internet) that helped me the most.
The first of the two was THE EIGHT SEQUENCE STRUCTURE. I found that this book really helped in the overall structure of my story. It helped me keep the plot focused and it also put a 90 minute screenplay into 8 bite-sized chunks or as Chris Soth puts it: "mini-movies." Having worked in television animation for many years I got used to working/writing 11 minutes at a time, so his book was perfect for me. 8 eleven minute cartoons equals an 88 minute movie! This is not to say that each "mini-movie" is exactly 11 minutes long. A trick I realised was that if you make your first sequence the longest (it is the most important one since this is where you set up the plot of your movie and all of the main characters) and gradually make the subsequent sequences shorter you get a built-in pacing that becomes more frantic by the end of your movie. Chris' book is well written and easy to read. Again, with my story in mind, I took notes as I read, writing down any ideas that his chapters may have sparked.
The other "book" that I found the most helpful was THE HERO'S JOURNEY. We are all aware of Joseph Campbell's amazing work, but I found Kal Bashir's version very helpful and almost magical. Again, with story in mind (with help from Chris Soth), I was able to follow his "journey" of the hero and apply it to mine. Anywhere I was having trouble I found that this work almost always answered the call. I felt like I was cheating sometimes, like I was looking in the back of my math book for answers. But if you go through any great story you will find the same steps. And even though the steps are exactly the same, it is up to the writer (as well as the rest of the visionary team) to make them different, fresh and exciting.
Okay, now back to those index cards. Once I had my story figured out I set about putting them up on my big board. To help things I divided the board into eight equal parts (mini-movie sequences). On an index card I wrote down either a story point or scene heading or character action (usually to do with their introduction or arc) and placed them in order on the board until the board was full. I didn't put down any real detail, but if I came up with an interesting bit I just wrote it down in my notebook to save for the outline. I find that doing this technique allows me to look at the entire "movie" at once and also kind of see the pacing as well as the overall arcs of the characters. On the above picture (click it for a larger version) you will see that that is my entire movie. There are also holes where cards used to be. This is a picture of the board after I started refining the story. I will talk more about that in the next post. I hope this post was helpful in some way.
Whoever says writing is easy is either lying or a hack. Writing, for me, is THE hardest (and loneliest) part of creating a cartoon. I've been drawing since I could pick up a pencil so I am relatively, and I stress relatively, comfortable with that, but I have only been writing in a real "script" format for a few years now. Granted, working on shows llke Dexter's Laboratory or The Powerpuff Girls I was techically writing but, to me, that process of writing/boarding is a different and more appropriate way of "writing" a cartoon. I think that my years as a storyboard artist has helped me in thinking visually while writing a script which is comprised solely of words and no pictures to help sell an idea. Much like storyboarding, I try to put timing in my writing so that the reader will get a sense of how the scenes and sequences play out. I've read a ton of books on writing and a ton of scripts to "learn" the craft of writing, some of which I will share with you, but nothing teaches you more than just DOING. Over the next couple of months I want to document this process of "doing." There won't be much in the way of art to look at, but I hope that these posts are, nonetheless, an entertaining look at the process.
Next up: The process of using index cards to help plot your story.
Since posting here is oh-so-slow, I thought I might share with you all some of my other work. All my life I wanted to have a comic strip in the newspaper. It's where I learned to draw. A few years ago I started putting together a strip for submissions to the syndicates. I abandoned it before I sent it out for various reasons. Anyway, It's called "Hi, Hun! I'm Home" and it's about the henpecked homelife of Attila The Hun. Click on the title of this post to check 'em out!
Well, another year has come and gone. I wanted to post a real quick thank you to those who continue to check back. My apologies for the disapointment of checking back and not getting any new posts. I want to assure anyone who still cares that things ARE still happening with ADVENTURES IN MILK and clever folks might guess. I do hope to be able to post again soon. I won't make any promises this time but as the old adage goes: A watched pot never boils. I wish everyone a happy and healthy new year!