Tuesday, October 25, 2011

@ManMadeMoon says: “Write Smart”

And so the first Line by Line season drew to a close. Four months of meeting, of listening to inspiring individuals and - above all - of writing and sharing writing. Improving writing. Collaborating on writing. 4 (almost 5) feature films were written, as well as a number of shorts, a doco treatment and much more (many people liked to keep their cards close to their chest). Interesting to look back to where we started and to see where we got to: http://linebyline-melbourne.blogspot.com/2011/05/call-to-pens-and-keyboards.html

So we had to go out on a bang. And who better to keep us inspired by filmmaking than Duncan Jones, director of Moon and Source Code?

Duncan very kindly agreed to stay up to 2am LA time to Skype through to Line by Line at 7pm Melbourne time. In addition, on that very day Melbourne decided to have a tropical electrical storm! Thus it took everyone over an hour to get to our beloved Long Play Bar (http://www.longplay.net.au/) and keep Duncan up even later. Despite the hour, Duncan was extremely chatty and very generous with his knowledge and experience.

Duncan spoke very freely and candidly about all aspects of filmmaking, video games and the studio "development" system in the States ("They find a spec script which they all get very excited about and they think is worth turning into a movie. They develop it, and it's kind of like kneading bread dough for too long. They work on it and they work on it and they work on it and all of a sudden it's something completely different").

However, as always the case with Line by Line, this blog is focusing on assisting aspiring screenwriters, directors and producers get their stories off the ground and so I will focus on how Duncan's experiences can fulfill on that.

No right way to write

It was wonderfully reassuring to hear Duncan's seemingly unique writing method - especially how it differed from most books and gurus "how to" approach.

Apart from lists and notes with ideas, his only short document prior to embarking on a full draft is a 20 - 25 page treatment. He works very hard on this treatment - making sure that it determines pacing, structure, plot and tone of the film - and uses it to get feedback from a trusted few before embarking on Draft Zero. For a scifi story, this treatment document also contains a detailed explanation of the available technology and how this technology influences the world the characters inhabit.

From this treatment, it is Draft Zero time. He calls it Draft Zero because, when writing it, he keeps to the treatment even when he identifies problems or things he would like to change. Takes note of them but keeps on writing. Sticking to the treatment. Pinch you nose tightly and type one-handed. Only on the next draft can changes be made. It is that next draft that becomes Draft 1, one that fully expresses his initial concept in a way he is (at the time) satisfied with. It is only at this point that he puts it out for feedback and notes from a trusted few.

In addition, while talking about the shooting of Moon and Source Code, his strengths as a director and their influences on his storytelling became very apparent. His rehearsals with Sam Rockwell for Moon resulted in significant additions to the script and many moments in Source Code were found on set with interactions with Jake Gyllenhaal and the other actors. While many screenwriters may quake in their boots to hear about their babies being in the hands of directors, I found Duncan's flexibility and willingness to be instinctive very refreshing.

Feedback and mulling time

Duncan also had some valuable insights into feedback. He only takes notes at the treatment and then past the Draft 1 stage. But during the Draft Zero writing process, he still sends out pages to his trusted producer. Not for feedback but for support. I have often wanted this from a producer: a cheerleader not a critic. There is a time for constructive criticism but at some stages of writing it could stifle the process. So don't be scared to demand a cheerleader!

Also, there are times in the creative development process where you hit a stumbling block. Where you need to come up with the solution to a writing problem or need to find the best scene or plot device to express you action and characters. At these points, Duncan takes some "mulling time". His producer knows that he may be playing video games all week but this time is necessary "mulling time" that has to be taken to find the right way forward. So, I can now rest easy in the knowledge that Arkham City will be a script development tool!

The quotable: "Write Smart"

But here is the main lesson that Duncan wanted to leave us aspiring filmmakers with: turn your limitations into strengths. He confessed to a Germanic addiction to lists. His list for Moon was a series of limitations that became strengths:

  • Film has to star Sam Rockwell;
  • Small cast (which ended up being just Sam Rockwell and Kevin Spacey's voice);
  • Film has to be shot in a studio (to avoid British weather, and became just the one incredible location);
  • Film has to be science fiction (as most films coming out of UK were period dramas or cockney gangster);
  • Film has to look like it is not a low budget, independent UK film; etc.

It was these limitations that lead to the incredible story of Sam Bell alone on the Moon. As Duncan said, the multiple Sam storyline not only provided Sam Rockwell with an amazing role as an actor but also provided high production values with a series of "cheap" or "free" special effects. Shoot over a stand-in's shoulder. Shoot a fixed camera split screen. These are in-camera, free effects that made the film feel so much bigger in scope than comparable films for a similar budget.

Duncan pointed out to us that he wasn't alone in this and we should follow in the footsteps of Peter Jackson's Bad Taste or Gareth Edward's Monsters and use our low budget limitations to our advantage. These films are getting made and providing filmmakers with their tickets to bigger and better things. Cameras and filmmaking technology are getting cheaper. For Aussie filmmakers (with our often restrictive industry) there are so few barriers to just getting out there and making our first film... if we write smart!

Set benchmarks

Another lesson I found invaluable is Duncan's decision to set benchmarks or goals for himself in his work. For his short film Whistle (which is included in the Moon DVD), he wrote a list of elements that the film had to contain in order to demonstrate his ability to direct features. His short had to be shot on location, in a studio, feature an actor of a certain calibre, etc.

This highlighted to me that I am currently making shorts to tell the story and hope they get me noticed. I am not considering what it would take to get a short noticed first. I have now decided to not make at short until I have the resources and elements in place so that film can then be evidence of my ability to make features. Thus my next project can truly be a stepping stone in my career. Anything less and is it really worth me making? I am not advocating that people should not make films unless they can make their dream projects. Our craft has to be practised. But I can see very clearly how my filmmaking projects have been made to satisfy my storytelling desire, not to further my career.

An unexpected question - "Who's got one of these?"

Duncan and I had been chatting for a few months about presenting at Line by Line, so - trying to avoid displaying my geeky nerves - I asked if he wanted to launch into it. He replied "Nah. I don't have any spiel prepared. I'm just here for a chat mate." Awkward pause. Silently praise the Lord that I had actually prepared some questions. But it was Duncan who filled the awkward pause by asking us how Line by Line worked.

So I told him. He responded by waving the first draft of his third feature film in the air (sadly our cameras were not good enough to pick up a title!) and said that it had taken him 4 months too. That we had all been working in tandem. And then he asked an unexpected question: "So [brandishing his first draft] do you all have your screenplays to waggle about?" And four of us put up our hands.

I had to fight my initial disappoint that out of 30 participants we only had 4 scripts to draft form. Khrob, Marie, Fiona and I had set up this group with a view to being the difference between writers procrastinating and finding their potential. I felt that we had not achieved this. So, while writing this blog, I emailed the group asking them what they got from participating in Line by Line. Every participant who responded stated that they had written more during Line by Line than before, that they had been constantly inspired to write and that what they were writing was far better than would have been written in isolation. To quote some of our participants:

"That [different writers] often contradicted each other was illuminating and oddly reassuring."

"I started setting tasks for myself, thinking of what my strengths and weaknesses were and what I needed to do in order to get there. Since LXL I have now started on two feature ideas, writing vignettes to better my dialogue writing and constantly."

"For me I gained greater understanding generally of story, why and how the audience engage with plot, character and story elements and above all a continuing passion to push onward and upward in the industry."

"It was also nice to be around other writers, seeing that other people were writing during their day jobs, that writing's no sacred activity performed by Buddhist monks in the mountains but by people who have to wake up at five each morning and pretend they don't want to slap their boss in the face every time they see them."

"Best thing about LBL is that it encourages people to write. Regardless of what they write, it's a good thing."

So, all in all, Line by Line inspired its participants to write more, harder and better. This prompts a question: Why not collaborate? It was in fact a Duncan Jones quote that instigated this whole idea in the first place:

Gather a group of like-minded people around you, find people who want to be producers, cinematographers, actors and composers, because you're always going to have far more ability to get things made if you have the momentum of a group of people working together. It's hard work trying to do it on your own, and you'll be taken more seriously if there's a group of you.


And good luck!

Chas Fisher

The Line by Line Team
Khrob Edmonds
Chas Fisher
Fiona Leally
Marie Maroun

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A Good Story On The Boil

If you thought temperatures soared when Kelly Lefever presented, they hit boiling point on August 31.

Okay, I admit it. I can’t help myself. I love a pun.

Gareth Calverley, writer-producer of Boilermaker, made his first ever guest presentation to an industry group and we are honoured he chose the Line by Line meeting as the place to do it.

Since my blog about Kelly Lefever’s presentation turned into more of a practical advice piece (and thank goodness she was so generous with the information she shared), this time I’m stepping back from trying to relay words of wisdom exactly as they were imparted. Kelly’s advice stirred things inside – how to fit writing into producing? So it’s Gareth’s comments about collaboration that I want to focus on in this blog as he has me got me thinking quite a lot.

Gareth began his presentation with a description of his role as showrunner of Small Time Gangster – that it’s fifty percent about being a writer and fifty percent about being a producer. He’s the ideas man. If boilermaker is the production team that makes it, then Gareth is the guy who invented fire. He is where the raw thought begins. A concept. A character. A story. An audience. A network’s tastes. An original and very cool idea.

Of course Gareth doesn’t lay claim to such brilliance. He says that all happens when Joss King takes the idea - in that jotted-down, very raw form - and crafts it into something tangible. Gareth doesn’t believe in being too prescriptive and lets the writer take it to the first stage. Even so, collaboration for them starts at that early stage.

At the first Line by Line session, participants shared their raw thoughts, presented as ‘1 premise, 5 themes and 5 loglines’. We saw first-hand how valuable it is to collaborate at that point, to know what things might trip us up and which themes are strong, contain what we want to say about the world and should be explored.

Let me take you back to April, when Chas and I met for a drink to chat about the germ of an idea that became Line by Line. We were inspired in part by a ScreenHub article published earlier this year which saw Stephen Cleary questioning the methods of development used in this country and proposed the idea that if creative people - writers, directors, producers, cinematographers, actors etc – could get together to work on ideas, the pace of development would accelerate and the formation of the idea would be more thoroughly critiqued and explored before the first draft even began. (Apologies to Stephen if my explanation has butchered his real intentions for being a part of ScreenLab in South Australia). This is what we wanted for Line by Line. A place where people could collaborate and set goals so that good work could happen.

Lately, Chas and I have wondered whether our eight sessions spread over four months has achieved all this. Chas has a first draft feature script under his belt so he has met his goal early, of course a monumental achievement. He also laments not collaborating sooner than the first draft stage to iron out the problems that now present themselves.

My feeling has been that we need to be collaborating more aggressively on more content and this feeling was supported by some of Gareth’s comments the other night, particularly his thoughts about quantity of ideas.

Not forsaking quality, Gareth urged us to develop lots of ideas. It took him about eight fully-fleshed out TV concepts - six of which he had the opportunity to present year-after-year to broadcaster decision makers and year-after-year see rejected - until finally, success.

This tells me that you can’t give up. There are not many one-hit wonders out there. Good on you if you happen to be one. But for the rest of us, it’s going to take some time.

Even if your concept is a fit for the network, what you have may not be what they want right at that moment, exasperating but reality. In Gareth’s case, one of his ideas nearly made it only to be cut off at the pass when the network instead spent the money on something else that came their way.

So it seems one must be passionate but not precious to achieve in this arty business. And not just at the point of presentation and rejection but maybe way back when that idea first came to you and you chose to share it.

But it also tells me that you need to always be writing, and - the part of writing that is of interest to the Line by Line experiment – collaborating.

Gareth points out that you must know your strengths and weaknesses. For him, ideas come easily. But the challenge is getting it made. So that’s a quick test he can apply to an idea – if he can’t get it made he won’t do it. He knows what can be made (he talks to the networks about what they want before pitching a show) - that is a strength of his. Gareth admits that although he enjoys being a writer, Joss has more experience and therefore is the stronger writer, so the pair use that strength to their advantage. Therefore, collaboration takes many forms and isn’t just about being able to share your work with one another.

Gareth and Joss choose to draft and redraft. They resist the urge to hand in the first attempt. Only when the work is the very best that both can possibly do - when they cannot possibly write another word - do they show their draft to a trusted group of people.

Gareth’s tendency to redraft scripts comes from his experience with Jonathan M. Schiff who readily discards outlines and expects your best writing.

Gareth is the first to admit that being a writer is hard. Relationships will see you through so stick together. Like others who have spoken to our group, Gareth says we’re fortunate to have each other to bounce ideas off and turn to for support.

With just a few weeks left til the end of Line by Line – which really just means a few weeks left to finish my treatment – I am left thinking about how to progress. Which parts of my concept need tending, which parts need to be shown to this group and which should be discarded and re-worked? I was wondering that maybe I have too much on the boil, but now maybe it’s just enough for me to handle.

So Liners, what have you got on the boil?


Fiona Leally

Buy Me a Pony

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Television Fever

Kelly Lefever was in the Line by Line hotseat on August 17 and provided both a reality check and optimism about working as a writer in TV land.

Kelly has worked in television since she was 17. On Prisoner of all things - a show I am old enough to remember playing it's first run. You could be excused for thinking she is still 17, so large is her enthusiasm for her work. When she speaks, her experience betrays her youthful exuberance. And boy what experience! She's done Neighbours, Home and Away, Blue Heelers, Always Greener, Something in the Air, All Saints, The Circuit, City Homicide...This is not a woman tainted by the bitterness of time spent working an industry that doesn't pay. She earns good money working very hard on the work she loves. We could all be so lucky. Of course luck has nothing to do with any of it.

Kelly has also written and script-edited feature films (some in development and production as she speaks). She has edited The Black Balloon and is currently producing a Rom-Com with writer Edwina Exton and funny man Tim Ferguson (yes, I am also old enough to remember him at his prime in D.A.A.S) and producer Tristram Miall (Strictly Ballroom, Looking for Alibrandi). However, writing for TV is her first love and a romance she returns to for all kinds of reasons.


Kelly challenges us to think about what we love about TV. Like a good box of chocolates, you can't stop at just one episode, such is the power of episodic storytelling. It’s highly structured for long-term satisfaction with characters you love. Whether it's via the boob tube or the box set, you keep coming back for more.



While money definitely does NOT top the list of Kelly's reasons, the idea of earning around $20,000 for 8 weeks hard work on a one hour drama script not only appealed but dropped jaws in the Line by Line audience. Television writing can be a career!

Now that I have your attention, what else is there to like?


Kelly prefers the storytelling method that TV imposes. You can structure story and deconstruct it again to make it work over a period of time. You can explore a seemingly endless array of character traits, politics and interactions with new story lines both complicating things and breathing life into the format.


In TV the writer gets to play with characters for longer periods of time. They become the writer's friends and a very big part of their life. In film, you see one portion of a character's life, such as falling in love. In TV, you can have all your characters meet and then explore falling in love, getting married, having a child, being tempted by others, making mistakes, breaking up, making up etc. If film is the first date, then TV is the relationship. The writer and the audience can return to these well known friends time after time and grow, smile and mourn with them. This is and always will the primary reason Kelly loves TV most of all. That's why I've listed this special way of working with characters as different from story or the structure of TV shows themselves.


If your idea is taken up, the fruits of labour are on air quite quickly. Turnaround for an episode from idea to edit might be just 12 weeks. Your work really can be current in TV.


TV allows you to cut your teeth on storytelling - write to a brief, a deadline, with no such a thing as an I-don't-feel-like-it-today moment. TV gives you a broad canvas with which to test your ideas.


TV Audience is potentially millions, and it's instant. Feature films require a paying audience so reach is usually lower over a longer period of time (not just cinema but the long tail DVD and video on demand options). The TV audience is prepared to stay home and watch subject matter they wouldn’t necessarily commit to leaving the house to pay to see, so you can get people to think about things they wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to.


In Australia, the person with control is the script or story producer. In a room of writers, the script producer is the top person with the vision and creative ideas, keeping a handle on where the story is heading and if necessary leading people there. In this collaborative environment, ideas about structuring episodes are thrown around by freelance writers under his or her guidance.

When the writer leaves the room he or she works alone to explore the stories discussed for the delegated episode. If you're good enough to write well for a show, you could be put on "turnaround" which is where you write a script every 4 - 10 weeks throughout the year. That’s a cracking pace!

The “turnaround” schedule for the writer begins usually with a week for the scene breakdown, 3 weeks to draft a 1 hour episode and 2 weeks for the second draft, with notes and meetings in between each stage.

The script editor, who works for the story producer, is the contact point for the writers and works to get the best out of them and make sure the in-house vision is being serviced. The script editor takes the writer’s work at each stage, and holds script meetings with the writer and other writers connected to story through their episodes. Notes from the story producer and broadcaster are presented and guide changes, new stories, new characters etc. At the end of the drafting process the writer passes on the work to the script editor who takes it from there.

Many shows, including Underbelly, are beginning to use a slightly different model with about 6 permanently employed writers who work together to plot and edit each other's work, which is becoming a trend in Australia.

Other roles include script co-ordinator or researcher - from these backgrounds, script editors are often born.

The pay for the freelance writer for the approximately 8 weeks work (ie per episode) is $20,900. A script editor earns about $2,600 to $3,750 per week and the story producer around $4,000 to $5,000, both permanently employed for the duration of the production.

Kelly’s experience writing for TV has taught her a thing or two, so she was able to answer lots of questions from our eager audience.

She suggests fixing problems at scene breakdown stage or the same problem will still be there at draft stages.

Writers block. For television, you just have to get over it. One way to get over the block is to know your story and characters well. You cannot make a character get to a story point that he or she would not naturally get to. When the plot point is crucial, think about what character is needed to get you there. Otherwise, go back to the character - what is he or she telling you they want you to do? Well drawn characters will dictate story to you, not the other way around.

Kelly is a big fan of short docs. Story beats in short form, the start and finish and plot points, and understanding how the story is structured will all help form the piece of work.

When you get stuck, think about where you story starts, the end objective, what are the obstacles, what are the pillars, the big scenes? Think about the 6 or 7 in your head. Go back to the pillars, the big moments and see if they work for the narrative. If you're lost in trying to work out a road map for your film, sometimes getting down those big "pillars" can help.

TV is all about character, it's why people tune in. As a writer you need to have something to say and ensure that those characters you are working with will get you to where you need to be, because if not you need to rethink them.

In Kelly's experience, 98 percent of films she reads have the same problems. The writer doesn't know the story they're trying to tell, what they're trying to say or why. And/or the writer doesn't know the characters (which includes knowing their wants and needs, where they came from and what has happened to them before we even meet them that makes them who they are, in other words, what makes them tick). Both require going back to the beginning and really thinking about the answers to those questions. So while looking at the big pillars, the big moments helps with structure, this is very different to knowing what you film is about and the characters who will take you on the journey.

Two types of film (Kelly elaborating on a Cleary theory question raised by a LbL member):

-When a character begins with wants and needs that are well balanced, the drama must come from external sources. External conflict. Therefore it’s a plot driven scenario, it's not an internal character journey that drives it. So these are the action and genre films where the plot or external events drive the characters.

- But when the character begins with the balance of wants and needs completely out of whack, the character needs to learn that what he wants isn't what he needs – therefore the character is taken on a big inner journey to learn. So these are the more character based films.

On the differences between writing for TV and Film:

‘Show, don't tell’ applies more to film.

Don't make concept too big or complicated for film, there just isn’t the time to fully explore. TV manages multiple narratives and multiple characters more efficiently.

Dialogue is king in TV. This is because of domestic distractions for the audience and the size of the screen, so more information is conveyed, even repeated, through dialogue.

And for film you have to think differently about market.

Otherwise, managing the story is very similar, structurally.

The biggest pieces of advice from Kelly came for those wanting to break into TV writing as a career.


Advice 1. Join Australian Writers Guild (AWG) to meet writers who are generous with their time, learn about the industry. Kelly has been involved in the guild for 17 years (currently sitting in a Vice President role) and in the AWGIES judging.

Advice 2. Target shows and producers you are interested in and are of the quality you admire (they want to work with passionate people who love TV).

Advice 3. Crucially, watch and know the show you are applying for.

Advice 4. Ask to sit and observe how the process works by attending a meeting - don't need to provide input because most of what you say probably won't work for a variety of reasons. But if you have an idea, and it seems like a pertinent time to bring it up and you're not breaking the flow, then do it! Yet another skill for the writer to develop is knowing when to talk and when to listen.

Advice 5. Read lots of TV scripts, guild has some and its library is getting bigger. You learn from reading bad writing as well as good, which applies to scripts across the board.

Advice 6. Meet people and behave professionally, don't wait til you get drunk to be noticed. Sometimes intimacy of industry makes it seem personal when it really is professional so reputation is everything. This includes being careful who you add as a Facebook friend if your status updates are, shall we say, unsavoury.

Advice 7. Ask a show if you can do a submission, which is writing a script on spec. Most shows don't accept spec scripts but will ask writers to have a go. But it must be better than the professional writers you are competing against. Also, short films and webisodes are coming in as calling cards.

Advice 8. Networking is not a pitch opportunity for a project. Networking allows you to meet like-minded people - some you might even like to work with in future and others will exchange nuggets of wisdom with you. If you meet someone you connect with, and they're interested in what you are writing, offer to send a one page synopsis and follow through. When networking or writing to industry people, don’t rubbish other TV shows or films. Let your documents speak for themselves.

Advice 9. Improve the quality of your writing. That means WRITE WRITE WRITE. The more you write the better you'll become. Writing courses are creating a better craftsperson but the writer must have that x factor too. Entry level jobs don't always allow you to show that x factor but the hard work will pay off if you are good at what you do.

By the end of the feverish session, Kelly had most of considering how television might be included in our plans. She got us thinking about what format really suits the story we are trying to tell. And best of all, she gave us hope that one day it might be our work up on the big or small screen.

We thank you Kelly for generously spending your time with us – and even more time with me applying your wonderful editing skills to ensure this blog is accurate.

If you haven’t got the writing fever yet, get into it, there are only 3 more weeks until the last session of Line by Line!


Fiona Leally

Buy Me a Pony

Monday, August 29, 2011

Collaboration moving story

This is an example of feedback and collaboration moving a story along. Here is what we got and how it generated change in the idea:

On 22 August 2011 12:37, Chas Fisher wrote:

Hey pirateers!

I have a challenge for you. Khrob and I are perilously close to starting a beat outline and then, shortly afterwards, a 1st draft. Exciting times. However, there is one sequence in the film that is troubling me.

Would you all mind reading the last three blog posts in the following order and then sending us your thoughts?

[I have removed the blog links because they are private.]
Many thanks and much love


From: Stu Willis
Date: Mon, 22 Aug 2011 14:04:10 +1000

While discussed by many authors and script gurus, it was Stephen Cleary in his VCA lectures that really clearly put across the principle that character creates plot (in that the character motivations and decisions lead the character from obstacle to the next) and that plot creates character (without sources of antagonism, the character would never change).

I haven't finished reading through the documents, but this stood out to me.

For my money, Cleary's "formulation" is this: Plot is character expressed over time.

In your particular instance, if you have a firm idea of who you want the character to be - but you don't feel it is being expressed - then the only way to fix it is to change the plot.

Sounds like to me that you're not happy with either Scenario 1 or 2.

So start with what you *need* the audience to understand about your character by this point and work backwards to find ways to show it.

Yeah, it might mean rethinking things like "the device" or "the papers" but so be it. That's the stuff at rewriting. But it shows that the process is working. Normally this kind of mismatches wait until first drafts or whatever to rear their ugly head.

On 22 August 2011 14:09, Chas Fisher wrote:

What do I need the audience to understand about Sam?

Simply that for her to be fulfilled in life, she needs to live for others - as her father before her did, as Aloysius regretted not doing, as Shah does. This does not mean she should never do anything for herself, but that leading her life only thinking about herself and what she needs only brings her short-term pleasure (if any) and leaves a lot of wreckage on the way.

So over the time of the film, she needs to:
a) Recognise the damage she does to others;
b) Recognise the value in living for others; and
c) Choose to live that life.

From: Stu Willis
Date: Mon, 22 Aug 2011 14:13:36 +1000

And how do you show the audience these*:

a) Recognise the damage she does to others;
b) Recognise the value in living for others; and
c) Choose to live that life.

*And, as far as I'm concerned, action isn't the only acceptable answer.

(And, how does showing these relate to the sequence we're talking about?)

From: Chas Fisher
Date: Mon, 22 Aug 2011 14:51:51 +1030

Man, I want your job Stu. Let's torture the writer with questions he obviously doesn't know the answer to. Possible answers in red below.

And how do you show the audience these*:

a) Recognise the damage she does to others; Aloysius is whipped and then killed. She kills Jock. Shah is sentenced to death because he had faith in her. Her recognition of this happens in the scene with Shah (like any great antagonist at the end of the 2nd Act, they can in dialogue describe the character's problem and choice.
b) Recognise the value in living for others; and
This one is tougher and possibly what is currently missing. Again, Shah could simply point out that if she had at any point truly committed to finding the murderer instead of looking out for her own hide, she would have prevented her current situation. While I am happy with question a) in how it is shown then told, I am less happy with this one. Not much showing and telling feels like my only option.
c) Choose to live that life.

Finding the killer. Confronting him. Risking her own life in the process.

*And, as far as I'm concerned, action isn't the only acceptable answer.

(And, how does showing these relate to the sequence we're talking about?)

The sources of antagonism become stronger in the 2nd half of the film (these sequences run from the end of Act II to halfway through Act III, just short of the climax). They are no longer satisfied with her doing the least possible. She must now commit, in this sequence, to doing more than what is necessary to survive or secure her best interests.

Just in case I sounded ungrateful: I do appreciate the questions and, yes, the process is clearly working. I would much rather be banging my head against the table now rather than between 1st and 2nd draft when it is so much harder to unravel.

Anyone have any out of leftfield plot points that could convey the same character traits?

From: Steve Goldsworthy
Date: Mon, 22 Aug 2011 15:01:16 +1000

As an extra rock-and-hard-place to throw at you:

Recognise the value in living for others:
Again, Shah could simply point out that if she had at any point truly committed to finding the murderer instead of looking out for her own hide, she would have prevented her current situation.

But is this living for others - or just pointing that if she'd made a different set of decisions, her own hide would be better off?

If the lesson is to recognise the value in living for others, then she needs to make sacrifices, not just realise that looking after other people is often better for her in the long run, too.

But this creates a bigger problem: berating your most vulnerable character (the hostage girl on the pirate ship in fear of being raped and killed) for not being willing to take more risks and make more sacrifices...

There has to a turning point where the audience go from simply wanting her to survive, whatever it takes, to wanting her to survive, with honour and altruism. Where is the turning point?

On Mon, Aug 22, 2011 at 5:13 PM, Stu Willis wrote:

I realise this is a question for Chas, but its far more exciting than approving timesheets.

For me, these kind of turning points are tough. To make them work I think you need to take a character turning point and frame it within a shift of point of view (ie to use cleary speak, to go from curious sympathy to concerned sympathy).

Mad Men does it in its first season by revealing the backstory of Don Draper. Don's reminiscing about his past is the character moment, but its revelation to us is a shift of point of view. We've gone from being curiously sympathetic to Don to being empathetic with him (or at least having as much knowledge as he does). Its a powerful moment because its the alignment of those things.

In the case of Creed, I think for it be the most emotionally effectively, we would need to be with Sam when she decides to act with honour and altruism.

just my US$1

From: Chas Fisher
Date: Mon, 22 Aug 2011 15:46:47 +1030

I hear ya Steve, but that said her alternative choices would have seemed to her to be sacrificial. Also, her decision to blow a hole in the bottom of the ship in order to save the crew and root out a murderer... very sacrificial.

In terms of berating the vulnerable character, I feel that by that stage of the film (once she has climbed the rigging to confront a banshee, used a dead body to find a secret compartment, etc) the audience will feel that it is ok to confront her decisions. Certainly would not be appropriate early on! But her power in becoming the investigator can shown in how the crew treat her in the interviews. Begrudging respect means that she has the space to make decisions, rather than simply reacting to external forces in the only way possible. And the making of decisions reveal her character: her need to preserve her own interests at the expense of all others.

From: Steve Goldsworthy
Date: Mon, 22 Aug 2011 18:37:46 +1000

Actually, I've changed my mind on this - because of the opening scene where Sam callously abandons her fellow actor to the pirates. So right from the start, the audience is thinking 'I hope she survives, but I wish she wasn't such a bitch.' No need for a turning point.

So then it's a question of balance - Sam has to be sympathetic enough for us to want her to survive, but not so sympathetic we don't want her to change.

On 22/08/2011, at 20:10, Chas Fisher wrote:

I think we can hit that balance.

There are other scenes where she becomes less "bitch-like" (i.e. less self-centred):

  • Where she tends to Aloysius' wounds
  • The interviews where she is embarrassed and slowly exposed to the callous evil of the society she herself has been expelled from
  • Where she seduces Shah but they genuinely connect
  • Her reaction to Aloysius' death
  • Her climbing of the rigging to possible death
  • Her discovery of the compartment
  • And then the final push - confronting Nathaniel, being blinded, stopping a massacre and delivery unto Nathaniel his just rewards.

The "turning point" as such is the issue. Where to put it and, as Stu asks, HOW to put it.

On Mon, Aug 22, 2011 at 3:54 PM, Stu Willis wrote:

Man, I want your job Stu. Let's torture the writer with questions he obviously doesn't know the answer to. Possible answers in red below.


a) Recognise the damage she does to others; Aloysius is whipped and then killed. She kills Jock. Shah is sentenced to death because he had faith in her. Her recognition of this happens in the scene with Shah (like any great antagonist at the end of the 2nd Act, they can in dialogue describe the character's problem and choice.

In dialogue... Hmm.

How could you do it without dialogue?

b) Recognise the value in living for others; and

This one is tougher and possibly what is currently missing. Again, Shah could simply point out that if she had at any point truly committed to finding the murderer instead of looking out for her own hide, she would have prevented her current situation. While I am happy with question a) in how it is shown then told, I am less happy with this one. Not much showing and telling feels like my only option.

Again, how could you do it without dialogue?

c) Choose to live that life.

Finding the killer. Confronting him. Risking her own life in the process.

How is this a consequence of (not just subsequent) to (a) and (b)?

(And, how does showing these relate to the sequence we're talking about?)

The sources of antagonism become stronger in the 2nd half of the film (these sequences run from the end of Act II to halfway through Act III, just short of the climax). They are no longer satisfied with her doing the least possible. She must now commit, in this sequence, to doing more than what is necessary to survive or secure her best interests.


So how does either of your scenarios show her doing more than what is necessary to survive / secure her best interests? (Emphasis added because they're three discreet bits of info)

From: Chas Fisher
Date: Tue, 23 Aug 2011 10:38:06 +1030

Answers, such as they are, in blue.

How could you do it without dialogue?

I am already attached to this scene without even having written it. It is romantic, charged, full of antagonism and desire. Every film I have watched recently has this scene, where the protagonist's weaknesses and choice are enunciated clearly for him. I watched the Bourne Supremacy last night (total dialogue for Matt Damon is about 5 lines) and still the scene with Brian Cox in the hotel room is dialogue where an antagonist states the protagonist's conflict: "You'll always be a killer Jason. Do it! - She wouldn't want me to". A wonderful scene.

Nevertheless, considering you took 8 seconds to type "how could I do it without dialogue?" and "what can you do to show her doing more than what is necessary to survive", I will try to do the exercise:
- She finds the papers. She now has (in Jack Sparrow parlance) leverage. She can have her cake and eat it too. Jock is dead. She can hold the papers ransom to protect Shah and herself. That way she doesn't feel guilty and she is safe.
- She makes her way to see Shah. Only Mister is guarding the door. No matter what she says, he won't let her in. This complete lack of faith in her, his complete certainty that anything that comes out of her mouth will come to no good, breaks her down. She sees that it is true. She breaks down and sees her choice...
- All the audience see here is her discovery, her ingenuity and determination in getting to see Shah only that she is stopped. Completely. For the first time in the whole film, we see her sad, distraught, broken. She rails against Mister, slapping, hitting, crying as loudly as she dares that it is not her fault. He is not moved. Finally, one the cleansing tears have passed, she can simply say: "All around me people suffer for doing the 'right' thing. But no one else is going to die because I do the wrong thing."
- This leads me to the realisation that, as a little girl, she subconsciously blamed herself for her father's death. Maybe her father actually asked her (an 8-year-old girl) what she should do and she told him he should do the right thing. She feels, secretly, that it is her fault her father died. And then with Aloysius, and now with Shah...

I feel like I am getting somewhere...

b) Recognise the value in living for others; and

Again, how could you do it without dialogue?

So: to do it without dialogue we need to present examples of the value in living for others positively (Shah, Mister, Aloysius), examples of living for yourself negatively (Sam, Jock, Nathaniel) and then again present Sam with two courses of action, and show her choosing something that, at the beginning of the story, she would not have chosen. Agreed?

Into all this comes Nathaniel's offer. I really like it as a choice because it highlights her plight well. Do I let the crew and Shah rot with a murderer on board or do I try to find out who it really is? So the timing of this proposal in the plot and her decision is pivotal. I have always been in favour of her accepting (because I think she must be a real bitch before being redeemed) but maybe, maybe, it is the litmus test of her change. That she leaves Nathaniel hanging. That at the beginning of the film we see a sailor propose to her and she says yes if you have money and security and means. Then, when offered another proposal with money security and means, she says no.

What do you think? Maybe the order has been bugging me because I was always set on Sam saying "yes", when in fact she could just say no.

c) Choose to live that life.

After having watched Bourne Supremacy (and the same applies in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang or in LA Confidential) it is expected of a thriller that the protagonist simply commit to a course of action, risking life and limb, without doubt. If Sam were to do the same, it would be in stark contrast to her plotting, scheming and calculating actions previously. This could be deliciously highlighted by her taking Nathaniel into her confidence (much like the detective sidekick to explain what the detective thinking, a "Watson" if you will), explaining to him (and the audience) her machinations.

This is a very round-a-bout way of saying that once the leaps into action, tumbling towards the climax, uncaring of her own safety, she is choosing to live for others in a very real way. Plus the audience tends to stop caring and just wants the baddies' uppance to come at the hands of the protagonist.

How is this a consequence of (not just subsequent) to (a) and (b)?

It can only be a consequence if it is presented as a choice. She could chose to continue notwithstanding knowing that she is responsible for what has happened and now values living for others. Which is why this sequence is a series of choices. She could knock Nathaniel back. Admit to Mister (and to herself) her role in the events and commit to a new course of action.

From: Stu Willis
Date: Tue, 23 Aug 2011 13:39:28 +1000

I watched the Bourne Supremacy last night (total dialogue for Matt Damon is about 5 lines) and still the scene with Brian Cox in the hotel room is dialogue where an antagonist states the protagonist's conflict: "You'll always be a killer Jason. Do it! - She wouldn't want me to". A wonderful scene.

The scene works not because of its dialogue. It works because (a) its the midpoint of entire trilogy; and (b) the dialogue merely summarises what we have already seen. Brian Cox's character CLEARLY is convinced that Jason Bourne is nothing but a killer; meanwhile Jason's whole journey is about not being a killer. The film is very careful to show him NOT kill people.

When they beated out this scene it wouldn't have been written; "Jason talks to Brian Cox", It would have been "Jason pulls out a gun, sticks it to Brian Cox's head, who begs for him to kill him, but Jason walks away". The scene could've played without dialogue and it still would have been clear.

I know thats what you're going for here. I'm just tying to push you in a place where you go beyond mere dialogue, and the dialogue becomes an expression of what we've already been feeling.

NB: I realise I'm a hypocrite here. The deal scene of Payload is pure dialogue, and I knew I'd get away with it because of the story's structure.

NBx2: I actually agree with David Mamet and think dialogue can be action.

Nevertheless, considering you took 8 seconds to type "how could I do it without dialogue?" and "what can you do to show her doing more than what is necessary to survive", I will try to do the exercise:

8 seconds? Seems I spent more time thinking about it than you did ;) (Two can play at facetious)

I feel like I am getting somewhere...

Still sounds

So: to do it without dialogue we need to present examples of the value in living for others positively (Shah, Mister, Aloysius), examples of living for yourself negatively (Sam, Jock, Nathaniel) and then again present Sam with two courses of action, and show her choosing something that, at the beginning of the story, she would not have chosen. Agreed?


What do you think? Maybe the order has been bugging me because I was always set on Sam saying "yes", when in fact she could just say no.

That seems better to me.

It can only be a consequence if it is presented as a choice.

And boom.

[I, Chas, added the bold on the boom because I found it so satisfying.]

Saturday, August 6, 2011

To adverb or not to adverb - Line by Line participant response

Adverbs - On Writing

So yeah, last Line by Line found a few of us in a sporty exploration of the use of adverbs in our writing. I walked away genuinely puzzled as to what the hell I thought about them. If they are evil. If it's a witch hunt believing they're evil? Why do I have this idea in my head that it is? I know a few writing teachers have taken me to task before but is this legit or not?

What i'm talking about is (typically) words that end in ly. "She glanced at him resignedly." "He shrugged wryly"

- He flashes his finger towards her aggressively, "Don't tell me what I'm thinking!"

I googled around a couple of scripts. I went for Lost In Translation and The Kings Speech (which won the last best screenplay). In these I found rules being broken all over the shop.


If they are good rules or not I started to wonder…

I think it's one thing to write unplayable subtext, it's a bit different I think to use a few adverbs. I think there's reasons to try to avoid them both but think there's a couple decent counter arguments.
Firstly, on unplayable directions I found a host of fantastic examples in Lost In Translation. I should say first that I love the film. I thought it was fantastic. It seemed a film where so much is not being said that I wondered how Copolla had gone about writing these scenes.

A few examples were:

We see Bob's POV of tables of people talking. JAPANESE WOMEN
SMOKING, AMERICAN BUSINESSMEN tying one on, talking about
software sales. A WAITER carefully setting down a coaster,
and pouring a beer very, very slowly. It's all very foreign.


Charlotte lies on the floor with big headphones on, listening
to a book on tape. After a corny music intro, a very serious
scholar man's voice speaks clearly :

(text removed)

Charlotte tries to get into it, but can't get past feeling
like a loser listening to a self-help tape.
I reckon these, particularly the second one, is a real good example of writing that is unplayable. I remember watching the scene where she is listening to the tape and she is gazing off.

I gleaned that maybe she doesn't care for what she is hearing or her mind is elsewhere or that she is unhappy/lonely. I didn't get that she couldn't get into it cause self help tapes seem lame to her. Maybe some might in that moment but I think it's so ambiguous and unplayable that without a real caricature you wouldn't be able to make it clear. Even then you might misread the caricature.

Again with Bob's scene I remember him sitting there looking around glumly but I didn't particularly get at that MOMENT that everything felt foreign. At this point in the movie I didn't yet know where he was in his head.

So is it just bad to right stuff like this? I reckon yes and no. I think it could be useful because it informs the director and actors (and producers) of the subtext that the author at least has in mind. That can be useful in helping them build a picture of the character and how they might approach the scene or subsequent scenes.

Ultimately I think it's dangerous, particularly for those who don't have Hollywood opening up to them you cause of your last name. I feel it's writing moments that very likely wont land as you see them. We get so used to our work and what it all means.

Perhaps it doesn't matter so much whether the full meaning comes across to most viewers all the time. It wont stop Sophia's film from working if we just get that Charlotte is distant and sad at this point.

The habit is threatening I think cause we might not see really key things, elements might be starting to blur and not land and it really is important that they do. I feel I want to be trying to script stuff that is going to read for an audience through the actions, images and words alone.

The other benefit though, apart from suggesting subtext is that it is shorthand for producers and anyone in a funding body or pretty well anyone who could be trying to get through your script fast and make assessments on it and what you're trying to do. People who read 100s of scripts every month are going to hammer through ours also and clarifying subtext like this can help them get the point quickly.

Again though it is maybe troubling if they can't get that point without you signposting it? :( If it isn't in the actions and diaologue it's maybe not the best?

Again though, Kings Speech had a handful of unplayable subtextual notes and adverbs in the snatch of scenes I read and this won best screen play. So yeah; grains of salt.
In regards to adverbs, I think i've been swayed by a few influential figures who have published reams on why not to use them. I notice in my own scripts that I continue to use them and a lot of writers do. This is all your sadly, shyly, softly etc.

I was really influenced by Stephen King's book "On Writing" and wish i'd made more notes on what he had to say… He hates adverbs with such passion that he scans everything he every writes and tries to remove every single one. He's big on the idea that you don't even describe how a line is delivered but if you have to then try not to use more than "he said". The reason as far as I can recall - and this is on novel writing though the man has written a lot of screenplays as well (most of them pretty weak though he did write The Shining and whether you like him or not he has sold a TRUCKLOAD of novels - Sorry… point is, he's of the opinion that in what a character is doing and saying you should know what is going on. You should know how the line is being delivered by virtue of the context, what has gone before and the logic established by the writing craft and through their actions and words.

Maybe there is something to this. I did count a few adverbs on Lost In Translation & Kings Speech though...

I put my finger on the other source that had me trying to avoid adverbs lately and that's a director by the name of Judith Weston. I've been reading a text of hers on performance that i've found ridiculously good. Honestly i kinda feel like i've learned more from a few chapters of this book than I did from 3 years of Actor Director at VCA.

While I feel the passage below isn't gobsmacking stuff I think it is fairly solid. If you really can't be bothered reading it then i'll try to sum up as imperfectly as I can.

Using adverbs is a means of making a clear, defined line reading (or meaning) to all your lines. It's saying: "when he says this he is just joking and when she responds she is a bit nervous" It's how we control the logic of our scenes and make the drama clear.

There are two reasons why it might not be the best idea to do this. One, is that in using adverbs it's easy to make a scene seem to convey something that perhaps is not there so clearly in the actual material (discussed later). Two, and this might seem contentious at first, but it discourages interpretation. It pushes the writer's instincts of structure and control onto every moment of the film. What we see while we are writing is "This is the moment where he goes from not caring to caring. He starts off cavalier as hell and is offending her but the way she responds and charms him makes something change. This is what is important. This is what i'm going to make work every line and fibre of this discourse. That is it. Here is how it happens. Done."

The subconscious currents in the act of writing however can be deeper at any point than we realise. We might see two main things as happening in a scene but we might be missing some really fascinating dynamics that could also be at play. In fact I think it's almost probable that we will. A way of seeing is a way of not seeing.

Since we are so concerned with the arc of the scene or this portion of the film we might be missing something fantastic that could be happening at the same time and it could be as simple as the attitude applied to a line.

So can't this be found on the day? Isn't that the "director's" job? To work the material and find whatever can make it better? Yes. Damn straight. The only problem is that spattering everything with adverbs can really start to straightjacket the writing. If the director or the actor is struggling just to get a shot in the can then time and time again they might play with the most SURFACE read of each line. You're handing it to them in a lunch box. If there is no time in pre for script analysis then again everything might be played straight as arrows.

So what? Maybe we know what it is we're trying to say and what our character's are feeling and if it's directed the way we write it then relax, it's gonna be great. In fact, with luck it'll be me directing it and I like it meaning what I want it to mean.

I think this is a danger again. Same reason as why it can be bad to edit our own films. We get so locked into seeing something one way that we don't look as hard for other clues. I know that personally if i'm directing someone elses writing I look over the whole thing and every moment and examine how I think it can be turned into flesh and blood and work as action. It's surprising how often the best way to play something turns out to be skewed from what you first thought when you wrote it. Chemistry in performance, magic in filmmaking tends not to come from closing down possibilities from the beginning.

This is moving a little sideways from the discussion of clarity. Where we started the discussion the other night was around whether adverbs are clouding a scene and making it less playable. Now we've been looking at freeing up a work on one hand but what about clarity?

Well trying to avoid adverbs isn't to say you shouldn't try to right a clear, defined narrative where you know what is happening and what your character is feeling (to you) and you want to communicate that. I think adverbs though are the writer constantly tapping the director (and actors) on the shoulder and saying REALLY. PLAY THIS RESULT TO THE LINE/SCENE. YOU ARE ANGRY. It's another layer to push beyond to find the best film buried in there. In fact Weston's approach is to cross out every adverb in a script before you start directing it. Paradoxically they can sometimes act as a barrier to finding the truth and playability of a line because it's suggesting a result. Play this line sexy. Play this line angry. Play this line sad. Adverbs put that barb in before each line or gesture. They're performance notes, line reads, and get in the way of finding the overall objective and through line of a scene
. It's really the stuff of directing.


However. And this is a really big but. Honestly. Weston herself admits it can make a lot of sense to use adverbs in the writing just to be sure that when that script is being read at 100 miles an hour by some funding body, producer, etc, that what they need to see happening is clear. This is a reason why maybe scripts tend to have these but maybe directors then go and cross them out.

I tend to feel (even with the real valid point that this script could be read FAST) that again Stephen King is watching me and saying that "it should make sense and play right without the adverbs explaining what is right there already. If you have to explain what it means then it quite possibly isn't transmitting on its own.
Having said all this I do find myself using them myself because it is just EASY sometimes and seems so damn natural. I don't think they're the devil with horns.

My feeling is just that I think it's worth being cautious with them as we all approach feature writing cause it is such a taxing business writing a script AT ALL that we could find ourselves slipping in to them when the actions and dialogue really are NOT saying what our descriptions are suggesting. They can sometimes start blurring scenes towards something playable on a very basic level (play it angry/sexy) or straightjacketing a director and actor one day from doing something greater because we want to make sure we're making story point A perfectly in each and every line of the scebe. It could be a contributor to the writing not working as well one day as it might.
This is just the journey i've gone on in my head and poking around these last couple of days. Feel free to disagree. At the end of the day two amazingly strong scripts were written that were littered with adverbs and unplayable directions. Though I am talking out of my arse there a little since I have only read a snippet of those scripts.

Below is a passage from Weston's book that describes her approach as a director to adverbs. She is a lot more clever than me so if you are still reading I reckon check it out. I know i'll keep writing flourishes that I think are worth writing, to suggest MY TAKE on subtext and performance and i'll be a hypocrite in this way : D but oh well!


Richard Williamson
Line by Line paritcipant