February 2, 2012 / 4 Comments

That Championship Season

            Well, it’s the start of the year, and that means a lot of the big guns of screenplay contests have opened their doors again.

            How’s that for a mixed metaphor?
            If you’ve been here for a bit, you know I’ve read for several contests and have also placed in and won a few, as well.  I’ve also got a few friends who have read for contests at one point or another to pay the bills.  And as it happens, we’ve all talked (and ranted, and drank, and pulled hair out…) at length about the things aspiring screenwriters do wrong with their entries.
            That’s a key point a lot of folks don’t get.  Just as there’s a difference between a spec script and a shooting script, there’s a difference between trying to win a contest and trying to get a writing career in Hollywood.  What works in one will not necessarily work in the other.
            So—without further ado because it’s a long list—here are fifteen things that will make a contest reader groan while reading my script, set out more or less in the order the reader will probably notice them.
            It’s Filled With Typos–Yeah, spelling.  Again.
             During my time at Creative Screenwritingmagazine I wrote two different contest columns.  I interviewed dozens of contest directors and asked about advice for aspiring entrants.  The first thing most of them said was spelling and grammar.
            Now, readers know we all make mistakes.  If they go through and find a there on page 23 when it should be they’re, they’re going to cluck their tongues but keep reading.  There’ve been more than a few screenplays I read, though, where I would’ve guessed the writer came from an ESL background. 
            For the record, messing up an apostrophe S is something everyone notices.  As I said above, we all make mistakes now and then, but it’s painfully obvious when I’m just throwing down random apostrophes and getting a few right by sheer chance.  Knowing the difference between a plural, a possessive, and a contraction is a fundamental part of the English language.
            When I hand off my manuscript I’m trying to convince those readers that I’m a real writer. The absolute, bare-bones basic tools of writing – any writing– are vocabulary, spelling, and grammar.  If I establish early on that I can’t handle the basics, why would a reader look any farther? Nothing shoots my chances down faster than a bunch of misspelled or misused words on the first page.  Or the second page.  Really, if a reader’s finding a typo per page, on average, my script has to be spectacular in every other respect or its pretty much done.
            It’s Totally Inappropriate – This isn’t me being old and stuffy, it’s actually a tie-in to the 50% Rule.  A lot of contests have very strict guidelines about what they want and what they’ll accept.  The Nicholl Fellowship doesn’t accept adaptations—even of public domain work—unless you’re adapting your own work.  Kairos only wants material with strong Christian themes and morals.  Shriekfest is only looking for horror scripts.  If I send my adventure horror story to Kairos under the premise that several people pray to God during it… well, it’s not their fault I didn’t make the first cut.  Likewise, I wasted money by sending a romantic comedy to Shriekfest.  If I’m going to submit to a contest, I want to make sure I’m submitting to the right contest for my screenplay. 
           It’s Squashed—  Sometimes a writer refuses to make any more cuts (for conscious reasons or sheer denial) and ends up with a 170+ page script.  So they change the font size or margins or line spacing and crush the script down into an acceptable number of pages.  After all, going from 12 to 9 point Courier can shrink my 170 page script down to 130 pages.  That’s a fine length for a script, right?
            This is annoying on two levels.  First and foremost, if I’m manipulating my script like this, it means I know my script is unacceptably long and I’m making no real effort to fix the problem.  Second, it means I’m assuming the readers are too stupid to realize what I’ve done and why.  Which is kind of arrogant on my part when you think about it. 
            Believe me, readers love it when an arrogant writer assumes they’re stupid.  It makes the job much easier.
            It’s In Fortune Cookie Talk — Also sometimes called Confucius-speak  (according to one friend) or Boris-and-Natasha-speak (so sayeth another friend).  This is when I try to cut down my page count by cutting all the articles, “small” words, and transitional bits from my script.  There’s also a misguided belief among some folks that this will give my writing more “punch.”
            Neo walks streets.  Man pulls gun.  Neo dodges.  Kicks man in chest.  Man out cold.  Neo is One. Goes after Moose and Squirrel.
           Trust me, there are only two things this leads to. One is annoyance as the story slowly edges into an unreadable mess.  Two is laughter.  Not the good kind of laughter.
            It’s All Crowd Scenes
            I read one script that introduced twelve characters in the first ten pages, plus a handful of minor ones.  The record was seventeen in the first five pages.  As I explained once to a friend of mine, that’s like pouring out a truckload of gravel and asking someone to take note of what color stones they see.
            I can pace the introduction of characters.  If I tell the reader ten people walk into a room, I don’t need to give out all their names, genders, physical descriptions, and character quirks at once.  We can get to know them as the situation arises.
            It’s Got Confusing names –This may sound a little foolish, but if my script has characters named Steve, Stephen, Steph, Stella, Stan, and Stacey, it’s going to be very difficult for a reader to keep track of who’s who.  I mention it because I saw a double-handful of scripts that suffered from this problem and it was one of the factors that kept most of them from making it to the next level of the competition.  If you look at most scripts, it’s rare to get multiple characters whose names start with the same letter or sound—it just makes for an easy mnemonic.   Raiders of the Lost Ark has Indy, Marion, Belloq, Sallah, Toht, and Katanga.  Bridesmaids has Annie, Nathan, Lillian, Megan, and Helen.  Casablanca has Rick, Elsa, Victor, Louis, and Sam.  Even with the huge squad of Colonial Marines in Aliens, the only double-up is Hicks and Hudson (and as my friend Rakie’s pointed out, Lt. Gorman confuses them on screen because of it).
            On a related note, if I have a grease-covered auto mechanic named Charlie who’s a woman, it needs to be absolutely clear in the script that she’s a woman.  Likewise, if my wedding planner is named Leslie, I have to make sure it’s obvious he’s a man. Nothing frustrates readers more than to get ten  pages in and discover they’ve mentally assigned the wrong gender to a character, because it means they have to go back over everything they just read.  So I have to be careful with names like Pat, Chris, Sam, and so on.
            It’s an “Actor Script” –A popular thing in the indie field is the character script, also known in Hollywood (somewhat demeaningly) as “the actor script.”  At its heart, it’s a tissue-thin plot with a handful of character sketches thrown into it.  Some men talk about how their lives have gone in unexpected directions.  A group of women talk about relationships.   People in line for tickets strike up random conversations.  And nothing ever really happens.
            In a way, it’s hard to argue against scripts like this.  These really are the type of people you’d meet waiting in line, and they really are the type of conversations and brief relationships that would spring up.  And, let’s be honest, not much happens in most of our lives on a daily basis.  However, is there anything challenging–or interesting— about something that’s indistinguishable from the boring, everyday life we all lead?
            This leads nicely into…
            It’s Based on True Events— This is kind of a broad problem, but all of the nuances really fall under the same umbrella.  More often than not, the title page or closing cards reassure the reader my screenplay is, in fact, based on the actual accounts of me/ my parents/ my best friend/ someone I read about in a magazine.  These are tales of cancer survival (or not), homeless teens,  military struggles, Wall Street apathy, and various other unsung heroes and villains of this world we live in.  Often, the fact that this is a true story is stressed to give a certain validity to what the reader is about to take in.
            Alas, nobody cares if the story’s true or not.  Nobody.  They just care if it’s a good story and it’s well-told.  And in that respect, my tale of an AIDS-infected orphan in Somalia needs to stand up against the story of a ninja trying to save the world from prehistoric lizard men from the lost continent of Atlantis.  Whether or not one’s a true story is irrelevant.  If one’s difficult to read and the other one isn’t, if one has flat characters and the other one doesn’t, if one’s boring and the other one isn’t– these are what decide if a script is any good or not.  In the end, I’m telling a story, and it’s either going to have its own validity or it isn’t.  Reality just doesn’t enter into the equation for the reader, so it can’t for the writer.
            Now, a certain subset of “True” scripts could be called Current Events Scripts.  This is when I decide to write a script about a topical subject that’s in the public eye.  Which would be really interesting if five hundred other people weren’t following through on the same idea.  In 2009 there was a wave of contest screenplays inspired by the brief 2008 Gaza Strip war.  In 2010 there were countless scripts that used the Wall Street crisis as their backdrop.  I’m betting this year is going to be split between “soldiers coming home from Iraq” scripts and “Occupy (Your City Here)” scripts.
            I’ll even go one step further and say there are certain events and people who are always in the public eye—no matter how obscure or rare I might think they are.  Anne Bonney.  Tesla.  Elvis.  Some historical figures just attract scripts for some reason, and every screenwriter thinks they’ve written something original… just like me.
            It’s A Formula Rom-Com  –The beautiful-but-totally-business-oriented female executive who finds love with a middle-class Joe Everyman.  The guy engaged to bridezilla who meets the reallove of his life.  The awkward, nerdy girl who needs to realize she’s the most beautiful girl around.  The man chasing his dream girl only to realize his friend has been his real dream girl all along.
            Any of these sound familiar?  They do after you’ve read nine or ten of them, believe me.  Yeah, flipping the genders doesn’t make them any more original, sorry.
            Does the script also have a scene where someone finally ignores their constantly-ringing cell phone in favor of quality time with that special someone?  Maybe a prolonged, awkward scene where someone has to change clothes for some reason and ends up in their underwear/ robe/ a towel with that soon-to-be-special someone? 
            If my script has any of these plotlines or elements, it’s already been left at the altar.  A rom-com has to be really spectacular and original to impress a reader.  In all the years I worked for different contests, I read one rom-com that stood out.  Just one. 
            It’s about a writer –I repeat this one every year.  Do not write scripts about writers.  Ever.  Out of 150 scripts I read for one contest, nineteen of them had writers as a main character.  That’s almost one out of every seven—almost 15% of them!  They were all awful and not one of them advanced.  Jennifer Berg, the administrative director of the PAGE Screenwriting Contest, once joked with me that if her contest banned scripts about writers they’d probably lose a quarter of their entries. 
            It sounds harsh, but no one cares about the day-to-day struggles I go through as a writer.  Absolutely no one.  They also don’t care about the day-to-day struggles of a thinly-fictionalized version of myself.  And they also don’t care about the sheer joy of the creative process, the wild and quirky nature every writer has, or the way impossibly beautiful women and handsome men are drawn to creative types (that last bit is true, though).  It’s almost impossible to do a film about writing because it’s such a quiet, introspective activity.  That’s why most films about writers don’t focus on writing—they’re about attempted murder (Throw Momma From the Train), romance (Shakespeare In Love), or escaping from nightmarish nurses (Misery).
            Also, it’s the most hackneyed ending possible when the writer-character finally sells their book or screenplay, everything is now perfect in the world, and they win the Pulitzer/ Oscar/ whatever.  The real reason most contests don’t want contact information on scripts is so the readers will not hunt down the screenwriters who do this and beat them to death.
            It’s a Crappy Job Script –Kind of like I mentioned above with writers, no one cares about my trouble at work because we all have troubles at work.  A job issue should never, ever be the key conflict in my story.  If my script is all about getting that promotion or landing that account, it’ll be filing for unemployment pretty soon.
            Keep in mind these can be elements in a script, just not the driving force.  Lots of famous stories have people dealing with work issues, but they’re usually indicative of larger issues in the character’s life.  Those kind of issues are what a script should be about.  Consider Wesley in Wanted, Peter in Office Space, or Bob in He Was A Quiet Man.  All of these people have awful jobs they struggle with, but none of these films are about that job. 
            It’s a Holiday Script–If you add in movies of the week on cable and straight-to-DVD, there’s a good case to be made that holiday films are one of the best selling script genres out there.  We’re not talking sales, though, we’re talking about contests—a lot of which don’t care if your script is commercially viable or not.  The trick is to come up with something the reader hasn’t already seen again and again.  And again.  And again.  They’ve seen Santa quit, get his performance reviewed, get fired, solve conflicts, cause conflicts, struggle with the times, and adapt to modern technology.  Dark spirits have tried to put the scare back in Halloween, Cupid has taught someone about true love, and the first Arbor Day story has been told—many, many times and many, many ways.
            Just in case you missed it– they’ve all been told many times in many ways.  If I’m going to do a holiday script, it has to be really amazing and original.
            It’s a Director’s Draft — Every now and then a script shows up littered with stage direction, camera angles, parentheticals, editing notes, and so on.  I saw one guy rant and rave on a message board because his feedback told him to eliminate such things, and it had been counted against his screenplay.  He was planning to shoot this film himself with his friends, though, so not only were these notes acceptable– they were necessary!
            They weren’t, really. 
            As a screenwriter I have no business putting them there unless they are absolutely relevant to telling the story.  When my script goes to a contest, it’s just a script.  It isn’t the screenplay I’m going to make with my friends and it certainly isn’t the screenplay I’m going to direct.  It’s just a screenplay, one standing up all on its own against all the others in the contest.  And if mine is filled with a lot of camera angles and parentheticals that shouldn’t be there, well… that’s probably why it’s going into the large pile on the left.
            It’s a Musical –Musical screenplays are almost impossible to pull off as specs and they always make contest readers groan.  Always.  Lyrics on the page are great, but I can’t assume the reader is going to be someone with a flawless sense of rhythm and pacing.  Without the actual music setting the mood and the tone, lyrics are just poetry–often very awkward, clumsy poetry.  Which means they’re awkward, clumsy lines of dialogue.  And awkward, clumsy dialogue is the kind of thing that gets my script tossed into that left-hand pile.
            I’ve also seen a few comedy scripts which tried to parody existing songs.  However, unless I can absolute guarantee every reader would knows the song, doing this faces all the same issues as the original songs up above.  I shouldn’t gamble on a contest reader knowing an obscure tune from Peter Gabriel, Florence and the Machine, or the White Stripes… or even a popular one.
            The Last Words in the Script are “To Be Continued…” – I get one script to impress a reader with.  One.  Nobody wins anything with the first of an epic trilogy.  That one manuscript has to stand on its own. Ending a screenplay – especially a contest entry screenplay- with “to be continued” hammers home the fact that this is an incomplete tale.  It tells the reader I had no idea how to end this story in 120 pages.
            Remember, The Matrix, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Highlanderwere not written as trilogies.  Despite everything you may have heard, neither was Star Wars.  Every one of these films was conceived of, written, and shot as a lone entity.  They had to stand alone and succeed alone.  If they had to do it that way, I can’t think for a minute that my story won’t have to.
            There you have it.  Fifteen things that make screenplay readers cringe and start them turning toward that big pile on the left with your script.  Make sure they don’t put it down there.
            Next time, for the holidays, I think I might babble on about love or sex or something like that.
            Until then, go write.

            Have you noticed the somewhat blatant examples of product placement on television shows lately?  Our heroes are on a stakeout, driving to a crime scene, or fleeing for their lives… and they suddenly stop talk about how cool their car is.  Heroesjumped that shark early on with their constant references to the Nissan Rogue, but as of late it seems like almost every show is doing it.  There was a truly awful example on Housea few weeks back.

            For the record, I give CHUCK a pass on blatant product placement because the show completely embraces the idea of blatant product placement and, as such, blends it in a lot better than the others.  It pretty much made Subway cool by pointing out how ridiculously un-cool Subway is.
            One thing we’ve all seen is when a story veers off into unrelated, irrelevant material for a little while.  It’s as if the writer lost track of where their story was going and it just meandered away.  We’ve all heard people say “I let the characters guide me,” but if the characters are guiding the story off the page and into a different book, it’s probably time for the writer to pause for a moment and reassess things.
Violet, moments before her gruesome end.
            For example, remember in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (the book, not the movie) there’s the whole recurring bit about how the bad kids keep messing things up and putting their various parts where they’re not supposed to be.  Eventually little Violet Beauregarde chews some gum she shouldn’t and swells up into a giant blueberry.  The other guests are horrified, Wonka sighs in regret, and the Oompa-Loompas roll poor Violet away to a soundproofed room where the other guests can’t hear her screams or terror and agony as the little people gut the swollen girl and harvest her organs for the international black market ring that the candy factory is just a front for.
            You don’t remember that bit?
            It is a bit off from the rest of Dahl’s book, isn’t it?  Tonally speaking.  Probably why he didn’t include a scene like that.  If you do remember that scene… well, you should probably talk to someone.  Preferably someone who can prescribe medication
            The problem I’m talking about is telling a story that isn’t your story.  Sometimes, in the middle of a perfectly good tale, writers will steer off into… well, something else entirely.  Another few examples…
            If I’m doing a touching character piece, I shouldn’t have a ninja attack.
            A post-apocalyptic thriller probably should not have a song and dance number in the middle of it.
            If I’m writing a romantic comedy, no one should get kidnapped and harvested for their organs (a common theme to veer off into, apparently).
            In a pulse-pounding action story, no one should pause for a ten minute monologue about how horrible it was watching their mom get worn away by cancer.
            If you’ve been reading the ranty blog for a while, you probably remember a while back when I talked about the rules of love.  The fourth rule relates directly to this idea.  Sometimes a romantic element just doesn’t fit in a story.  Maybe the people are too different.  Perhaps there’s too many other things going on.  Maybe the current situation just doesn’t allow for those kind of thoughts.
            A lot of time when we see stuff like this, it’s a poor attempt to copy something else.  The writer’s seen an element work in another existing story and tried to transplant it into this story, regardless of whether or not it works.
            Speaking of black market organs, that’s a great analogy—transplants.  If any of your family or friends has ever needed blood, bone marrow, or maybe a kidney, you know it’s a big deal (and hopefully you’re all tagged as donors).  Even with blood, which is pretty easy these days, there’s a half-dozen or so tests that need to be run.  If it’s an actual organ transplant there’s a ton of factors that need to match up for it to be successful, and these factors need to be determined by a professional.  Even between close relatives there can be huge differences.  I can’t just toss kidneys from one person to another and assume they’re going to work, because if even one of those factors doesn’t match up, I’ll have two dead people on my hands.
            The same is true of stories, too.  Something that’s creepy in your book might not be creepy in my book.  Just because this joke worked when she said it doesn’t mean it’ll work when he says it.  This story may have ended with the young couple together, but it doesn’t mean mine can do it.  If I just pull elements from one story and stick them in another, there’s a better chance I’ll kill the story than save it.  I need to do cross-checking and make sure all the factors line up before I do a transplant.
            What are the important factors?  Well, a big one is whether or not the patient actually needs a transplant or not.  Is there a reason to bring in this odd element?  Does it contribute to my story in one way or another?
            Past that, it depends on what’s being transplanted, and also from what into what.  Each one’s going to be different.  A joke or a clever description might not need much alteration, but pulling over a major subplot or character could take lots of work to both the element and the story it’s going into.  That’s part of the job of being a writer—knowing what works, what doesn’t, and what I need to do to bridge the gap.
            More to the point, it’s my job to tell the story I’m telling.  I shouldn’t be trying to tell my sci-fi story with a bit of Stephanie Meyer tween romance twisted in.  I shouldn’t be writing my dramatic screenplay but with that fun scene from Captain America wedged into it.  And it’s a bit silly to stick a cute dog in my horror short story just because all the Tintin books have one. 
            Know your story and write your story.  Don’t worry about that other story.
            Next time, I’d like to babble on about a great lesson you can learn from the parents in Calvin & Hobbes.
            Until then, go write.
February 10, 2011 / 1 Comment

The Rules of Love

When was the last time you read something that was going along great and then, out of nowhere, two of the characters started professing their mad love for each other? We jump to the last few pages and suddenly Wakko and Phoebe are getting married. It makes people roll their eyes while reading books and it makes movie audiences laugh. Nothing sinks a story faster than a fake, pasted-on love interest, because nobody likes to see love being toyed with.

On the flipside, everyone loves a good romance. Yeah, even the tough guys. Because we all love the idea that there’s someone out there who’s an absolute, 100% perfect match for us. Even more so, we love the idea that we could meet this person while escaping government agents who’ve mistaken us for a team of ruthless assassins or fighting zombie pirates cursed by Aztec gold. Because, hey… think of the stories you could tell your friends about how the two of you met.

And that’s what we all want, right? To have a better story to tell.

So, here are some simple rules to help you avoid bad relationships. On paper, of course. I’m not offering anyone dating advice with my past track record…

The First Rule of Love You can’t have real emotions without real people. And real people, oddly enough, act in realistic ways. I’m not saying rational ways, because love is one of the most irrational things most of us will ever encounter in our lives. If your characters are real, though, they’re going to have needs, desires, plans, and tastes. And it’ll stand out if they’re making choices that go against all those traits. Is that backstabbing, career-minded office bitch really going to see something she likes in the guy who details her car? Will a European billionaire really find himself fascinated with an inner-city waitress? What the heck are a Peace Corps volunteer and a professional mercenary going to talk about?

Yeah, opposites attract. They even have a lot of fun together. But if we’re talking about real emotions, they’re going to have a lot in common. The mean-girl cheerleader isn’t going to make a move on the scrawny honor student kid unless she needs a book report done or maybe some help with her science fair project.

Then again, maybe she’s a closet sci-fi/ action fan who desperately wants to talk to someone about last night’s episode of Chuck. Dirty secrets can make a character real, too. Could be that she’s a lot smarter than she lets on, but she’s scared of not being popular. Or perhaps she was the ugly duckling until her second year of puberty and used to be friends with a lot of the AV club kids.

Even then, how far and how fast they take things should be consistent. Some folks live for the moment. Others like to wait and plan. People can be confident or nervous, experienced or awkward. Some people are tearing clothes off half an hour after they meet, for others the huge moment might be holding hands on the third date. If your characters are real, their reactions should be, too.

The Second Rule of Love — People get together because they want to get together, not because other people think they should be together. If you’ve ever been in a situation where friends are offering advice and pushing you to say something, you know the real result is it makes you want to get away from the object of your potential affection. Nobody likes feeling forced into something, and we don’t like to see other people forced into things. That’s just human nature.

Now, for the record, “other people” includes the writer. Characters need their own motivations. They can’t just do things for the convenience of the story. If you’ve based your whole story around the computer geek and the cheerleader hooking up at a frat party, then you need a real reason for them to get together (see above).

And no, the reason can’t be “because they need to battle the ninja overlord as a couple in chapter eleven.” Nor should it be “we want the actress topless in act three.” If you’ve ever started a relationship for reasons like that… well, you’re probably single right now, aren’t you?

The Third Rule of Love — As silly as it sounds, don’t confuse sex with love. There are lots of times where it might be completely acceptable for two characters to have sex. It’s fun. It’s a stress-reliever. It lets you not think about other things. Heck, it can even keep you warm. Again, we’re all mature adults here (well except for you) and I’m willing to bet most of us have had sex with someone we weren’t madly in love with at the time or at any point later.

Sex doesn’t always translate to a relationship in stories any more than in the real world, though. If two characters fall into bed (or onto a couch, or against a wall, or into the back seat of a car…), make sure you’re clear what it means for both of them. Forcing something casual into something serious will just read as forced.

The Fourth Rule of Love— This is the tough one, because Hollywood development has tried to teach us otherwise. How often have you watched a movie where you can immediately spot “the love interest” as soon as he/ she is introduced? Doesn’t matter what kind of film it is, it’s easy to pick out him or her from the first time we see them.

Y’see, Timmy, love doesn’t always fit in a story. There are times romance just isn’t going to happen. Someone could be starving, terrified, or in a blind fury fighting for their life. At moments like these, it’s not terribly realistic they’d be noticing what pretty eyes their companion has. When Archer does it, he gets shot in the foot. If you’re writing an action/ horror/ sci-fi/ heist story, is there really time for an extensive relationship?

Or maybe it’s just not appropriate for the characters. There’s a show on television right now about a man on the run who’s hanging out with a group of criminals while he tries to clear his name. One of said criminals is a wide-eyed blonde who happens to be a gymnast/contortionist. No, seriously. So he’s spending a good chunk of his time lamenting the fact that he’s separated from his loving wife and son… and a fair amount of time having awkward, physical moments with the blonde gymnast. One of these plot threads really doesn’t need to be there, and all it’s doing is eating up pages that could be used on good threads.

So there are the rules. Now go forth and spread the love.

Where it’s appropriate, of course.

Next week, I wanted to talk about structure. Which is kind of a big topic, so it may take a few weeks.

Until then, go write.

April 1, 2010 / 2 Comments

Baby Steps

So, as some of you may have picked up along the way, I used to work full-time as a crewperson on various films and television shows. On one level, this sounds very exciting and cool. People like hearing stories about blowing stuff up, getting to film in cool locations, and that Reiko Aylesworth is about fifty times more stunning in person than will ever, ever come across on film. I mean, she is just gorgeous. And funny. And a pool shark. Yes, to some extent, working in the film industry really is that cool.

On one out of twenty days. Maybe one out of fifteen, depending on the project.

The rest of the time, it’s dull as hell. Honest. No one’s that interested in the long days, the idiots in charge, or the screw up from another department that delayed everything for an hour. In this respect, the film industry isn’t that different from most other jobs, which is why a lot of people’s eyes glaze over when you try to tell them about it.

Which isn’t that surprising, if you think about it. It’s a job. It’s real life. And real life, for the most part, is pretty boring. Even in the movie industry.

Real life meanders. Sometimes it wanders aimlessly. It involves people learning the same lessons everyone else had to learn–or sometimes not learning them and screwing up more. The dialogue in real life sucks. Have you ever read an actual transcription? I do it all the time. Most people sound like idiots, trust me, and I include myself in there. We stutter, we second guess and repeat ourselves.

As such, it’s always baffling when people think they’ve done something amazing by writing a story about real life. With real characters. And real dialogue. In a sense, it’s like bragging about the peanut butter and jelly sandwich you made for lunch. The only thing more embarrassing is when you try to convince people the PB&J is something bold, daring, and new. Check it out. Bread on both sides. You’ll see I spread the peanut butter across the entire surface of the bread rather than leave it as a large glob in the middle. Also notice, please, that the jelly is between the slices of bread– I came up with that bit myself.

(If it helps, picture Chef Gordon Ramsey staring at me with that stunned look he seems to do so often… and then his next five or six words getting bleeped out.)

Let’s stop and consider for a moment. This is an accomplishment? It’s like congratulating someone for getting pregnant at the prom–so many people do it that it’s almost not worth talking about.

Now, one of the earmarks of this type of writing is when a character has an epiphany. A supposedly real world-altering revelation about their life. I say supposedly because most of them are the sort of simple life lessons most people have figured out by age twenty or so. You know, that it’s better to be loved than to be cool. That drugs are bad. That their destructive behavior is hurting the people around them. Those sort of things. While it’d be tough to prove, I can’t help but think a lot of these moments get put in because it’s something the writer experienced and they don’t grasp that everybody has these moments.

My friend Ace has a neat term for this, developed after years and years of reading for different screenplay contests. To quote: “It’s the moment when a baby discovers their own feet. It may be the coolest thing ever in the life of the baby, but for the rest of us it’s pretty dull and mundane.”

When a real character figures out it’s better to enjoy life than spend time at work, they’re discovering their own feet. When someone realizes they should cherish and spend time with the people that matter to them, it’s their own toes they’re staring at. If someone comes to the jaw-dropping conclusion that they’ve messed up a life that was clearly messed up on page one–OH MY GOD! The toes wiggle when I think about wiggling them!!!!

Part of why this rubs people the wrong way is that it’s plain condescending. As I mentioned before, a lot of these lessons are things we figured out in high school, even if maybe we didn’t take them to heart at the time.

Y’see, Timmy, when people talk about something great and say “It’s so real,” they’re making an implied statement. And that statement is (in full) “It’s so real, but I know it actually isn’t. But, wow, if it was real I bet it would be just like this.”

No one likes real life. If they did, there wouldn’t be any market for even the thinnest veneer of escapism. No one would read books or go to the movies. Reality rarely makes good stories, and the few times it does it’s often too outlandish to be believable. Anyone remember me talking about Vesna?

We want quasi-life. We want life +1. We want the good guy to win. We want the villain to get his or her comeuppance. We want the cute couple to overcome obstacles both physical and emotional so they can be together. We want cyborg ninjas from the future programmed by elder gods from the past and million to one odds that pay off and nymphomaniac heiresses who look just like Reiko Aylesworth.

Okay, maybe that last part’s just me…

Of course, that’s also key. We want all that, but we want it to be believable, too. I mean, if the hero beats the cyborg ninjas and beats the odds three times in a row and finds nympho-Reiko… well, that’s just silly.

So, we want life +1–maybe as much as life+3– but it has to be realistic. At least enough that we can believe in it.

Sound tough? It is, believe me. That’s why most people can’t cut it as writers. They don’t have the ability to pull it off or the patience to figure out how to do it.

A lot of them, instead, write these real stories. Gritty, depressing stories. Stories with broken, unlikable character who fail at everything and lead miserable, pathetic lives. That’s art, my friends. The sure sign it’s art–no one wants to pay to see it because they don’t understand it. No, seriously. That’s the definition of art. Just ask any failed artist and odd are they’ll tell you the problem is everyone else, not them.

At the end of the day, if you’ve decided to tell a real story, you’ve just made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. You’ve done something that’s common, available everywhere, and didn’t take much effort. It may be the greatest PB&J ever, but it’s still nothing compared to a fairly nice filet mignon. Or even a just-adequate slice of cheesecake. Heck a McDonalds 79-cent hamburger beats a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Next week, I’ve got something I’d like you to read.

Until then, go write.