Accepting Imperfections

The day is Thursday and it’s time to move forward once again. I’ll get to planning my next shoot later today and rework 2 short scenes for a new location. I will be including my first chase scene which is always fun.

I have continued to post shorts on the youtube channel and feel that these may be one of the easiest ways to expand my audience and grow a following for mountain cult. My friend Brad came by yesterday and I was able to give him a Mountain Cult T-shirt with his face on the graphic. He had some ideas on how to improve the graphics but was appreciative nonetheless. During the 10 minutes kelly and her friend ran to the store, Brad and I filmed a short and uploaded it to youtube.

One core philosophy that I try to live by when it comes by all things creative is the acceptance of imperfection. It is wonderful for us hold our art to the highest of standards. We push hard through the process, from beginning to end, and refuse to take short cuts. At the end of the day, however, no project will see the light of day until you allow it to.

If you set out to write the greatest book ever written before you’ve published anything, you have a high likelihood on molding and rewriting and altering that same book for the rest of your life. Much like humans, no piece of art is ever going to be perfect. Just like those that we love, imperfection is part of the appeal.

I believe in a branding strategy that trust more in consistent production then spending all my time and energy into making one quality production and anticipating the audience will arrive at that time. People are apprehensive to accept something that is unfamiliar. Think about all the advertisements you see each day – we don’t run out and buy something the first time we hear about it. But as time passes and you’ve seen that same face 50 some odd times, you might actually give some to the product they are trying to sell you.

Anyways, in the spirit of generalized production, I figured I’d make this little post. It’s not much but it’s better than waiting until I feel I have perfect post to write.

Writing Intriguing Characters

Edward, played by Sebastian Sage, is one of my favorite characters from Mountain Cult.

Let’s discuss dramatic action a little more and how it can develop a 3 dimensional character.

Let’s make one up – we’ll call him “Bob.” Bob loves to feed his golden retriever every day. He takes him on walks where he tosses a frisbee and laughs when others greet him. He’s always got a diet coke in his hand and yes – you guessed it – he’s even got a goatee. He’s not ashamed of his baldness – in fact he jokes about it frequently – but he does wear a “Bass pro shop” cap every day of his life.

We all know someone like Bob.

I hope by now you have a strong inkling of who Bob is and what he is about. Probably a simple man, loving grandfather, and woodworking enthusiasts. Now what would be a dramatic element that could make this character more intriguing? Here’s a few suggestions:

  1. Bob is actually training his dog for dogfights
  2. Bob goes on long walks to find the next victim for his serial killing addiction
  3. Bob maintains a tumblr blog
  4. Bob mails death threats to celebrities he doesn’t like
  5. Bob starts taking steroids
  6. Bob catfishes college girls on tinder

A few of the above qualities are enough to craft an interesting premise from – meaning the bizarre behavior itself could be a plot. The smaller ones – like Bob taking steroids or catfishing on tinder – merely make Bob a more compelling and intriguing character. The actions don’t compute with our stereotypical understanding of Bob, therefore we feel he is a character worthy of a deeper assessment. In other words, he rises from being a side character to a main character. In some cases we even want to follow Bob around and can see him acting as a protagonist.

Let’s take a look at the main character Ryan from my film series Mountain Cult –

He is impatient, obsessive, and a loner. He does not trust others and refuses to let others help even when he should. He is abrasive, controlling, and has tunnel vision for his missing wife. He is also fearless in his pursuit of her. He is stubborn to a fault. He believes that he alone can confront a secretive cult and outsmart members who are much smarter than himself. Ryan’s the type of dude to chug 10 beers then decide to mow the lawn.

Alright, so he’s interesting, not extremely likable, but features bravery, persistence, and loyalty – characteristics that align with a protagonist. Now let me do some out loud brainstorming to figure out what type of actions could result in him being a 3 dimensional character.

  1. Ryan repeatedly dreams about the same clown kicking his ass while he struggles to punch back
  2. Ryan writes poems about the sounds leaves make
  3. Ryan is afraid of flies
  4. Ryan never learned how to read
  5. Ryan’s favorite food is veganese
  6. Ryan only listens to classical music
  7. Ryan gets jealous of small and scrawny dudes because he’s insecure about being built like a trash can

Even though many of the qualities are comedic to us, they can still serve the story. An important consideration whenever you introduce comedic elements to a story is whether they subtract from the tension in the story (if you are NOT writing comedy). A true comedy is about funny situations, not merely funny character traits. The Marvel movies are a great example of what I’m referring to here – even though they are riddled with funny one-liners, the jokes themselves never reduce the tension in the moment.

Here’s a quick example: Joe enters the store to rob the place. He aims a gun at the man behind the counter and demands money. The man behind the counter squints and says “Joe? I haven’t seen you in forever!”

That line reduces the tension immediately. In changes the story into a comedy. Now imagine the man with the gun slips on a toy upon entering, then carries on with the robbery. We may laugh at the mishap, but the tension is still there – meaning it could be a heist story or thriller. His character made us laugh, but the situation didn’t.

Ok lets mold one more character for the sake of 3. Let’s invent Julie – she’s thirty years old, stocks shelves at the local grocery story, and shrugs at the idea of marriage. She binge watches documentaries about serial killers, eats cereal at any time she chooses, and smokes something every 30 minutes. Her ambition in life is to find the perfect temperature for the air conditioner setting, and she loves her dog named Bucky – who is a German Shepherd (which she bought illegally on the black market through a “friend”).

Julie is a familiar character to me, and someone I could definitely root for. Her lack of ambition is surely a fault, however, her contentment with mediocrity is something that’s both relatable and oddly enticing. Let’s see what dramatic actions she may take that would cause us to reconsider our assessment of her:

  1. Julie trades stocks at night and has amassed over 3 million in earnings.
  2. Julie has an uncontrollable attraction to Benjie, the doofus manager who wears glasses, tucks in his shirt, and gets flipped off by her daily.
  3. Julie once single-handedly cleared and saved a burning bus filled with children
  4. Julie lends horror DVDs to the kid next door with the overbearing parents
  5. Julie organizes a funeral after the town drunk dies and gets the entire town to attend

Again, a few of these are story worthy. Some of the ideas (like the last one) require a major character change (arc) for them to occur and be believable. Ideas like her having a crush on Benjie merely make her a more intriguing character.

Anyways, that’s all I got for today. I hope you found some use or chuckles out of these ideas. I also hope that I’ll be able to find a proper dramatic action for my own character in order to make him more appealing. Most of the items that I’ve listed are forms of irony – the proposed characteristics contradict what we anticipate the character would do or care about. That’s what makes them interesting – it adds color to their otherwise black and white demeanor.

I’ve spent my downtime while at work viewing other low budget short films searching for one worth of analysis. Oh boy do I feel better about my own abilities. If you ever want a night of cringe inducing laughter start checking out homemade movies that cost less than $100 to produce.

I’ve contacted one creator so far. Hopefully he will get back to me promptly so I can work on the video this weekend. Aside from that I have continued to reading through the 2 scripts I have from other writers in order to return coverage notes. I am not looking forward to the reception my feedback receives.

Hope you have a great day today and please don’t apply any of these ideas to your own life in hopes to make yourself more interesting. You may get you arrested.

Dramatic Action

Old picture. Funny I never realized how out of focus it was until now.

I’ve decided my next youtube video will shine a spotlight on another low budget short film. It will not be as much of a review as a study. I will have to a.) find a film b.) contact its creator and c.) dive in deep. I would like to critique the story in an honest but complimentary way. I feel that bringing attention to another creator who has similar ambitions can help build a community and propel my own viewership. I will either do this or make a video about my girlfriend’s cat and his plot to kill me.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time combing through the scripts I received. I forgot how good a practice critiquing another writers work can be – it’s much easier to recognize faults and areas for improvement. Consequently I’ve been able to return to my own script with a fresh, critical mind. As I read my own pages I realize the dramatic action is lacking.

Drama is the major reason we turn to cinema. Regardless of the genre we love to see characters wrestling over moral grey areas. We find ourselves intrigued by characters who behave against our expectations. And when we find protagonists who overcome their own faults we find hope for overcoming our own short comings.

I’ve condensed my script down to 16 pages. The driving force of the plot revolves around a “who-dunnit” type clue. My character follows this clue to the first suspect, who points him in the right direction. After meeting with a group of potential perpetrators, he narrows down his choice to 1 man – whom he attacks.

This simple plot has me wondering what type of character change best fits the story. To find that I must begin with figuring out what his final dramatic action it is – it may be the attack, the accusation, the assertive decision, or the decision to trust his missing wife over the conclusion he has formed from the notes contents (Ah yes I think I like that one).

So we first figure out what the climatic action will be. It should involve a choice between two options – one option finalizes a change, and the other option is what the protagonists would have chosen as his former self. He must go against his former nature in order to complete his arc. Story is, after all, a study in moral development.

Every scene in a story should involve some form of dramatic action. It is not enough for events to simply occur as characters observe their happenings. Your characters should effect the world in which they live, and the world should effect them. The inciting incident – or occurrence that ignites the plot – should be the event that sparks this change. Each experience that follows should add pressure for the character to change further. The final judgement on who the protagonists becomes can be summarized with the theme of the story.

In short, Kelly is snoring on the couch and this post has helped me clarify my thoughts on how I will approach my edit today. I’m still waiting for feedback on the current draft that is out to a few separate readers. Once I sense that my story has impressed, appealed to, or entertained a reader I will move forward with casting the actors and reserving a location. Moving to this stage has taken me months longer than expected. Though I regret the passage of time, I do feel compelled to enter production with a story that is solid. If you can start with that, you have a chance to make something special. Film a story that is shit on paper and all your effort will produce is shit on a screen.

Have a great day and remember to feed the birds. They die if we do not feed them.

Empathy for Skeptics

This is my brother James, who plays Art in Mountain Cult.

Today I am going through episode 5 page by page. My goal is to establish a purpose of each individual line and delete anything and everything that does not add to the story.

My emphasis today will be on building empathy with my primary character. Common writing advice suggests to have your main character pet a dog or perform a kind gesture early on. If your audience consists of brain dead zombies who need to be told how they should feel then this is the route for you. My goal, however, is to write a story that appeals to individuals who search beneath the surface for an unsaid truth. For that reason I will use a moment of skepticism, frustration, or anti-social behavior for an emotional connection.

I return to work tomorrow for 5 days straight, so I’m going to give as much time as possible today to the script. I want to take it from 21 pages down to 15. I’m going to print it out and write in the changes I’d like to make than retype it later. This is my favorite way to edit because it makes organization much easier.

I did publish a second YouTube video yesterday that was a non short film. It took a few days of work but it has already received more views than the previous upload. My goal is to have a new video out by Sunday, and every Sunday after that. Today I get to write.

Check out the last upload below if you’d like:

Writing and Erasing then Rewriting and Burning

I had an eventful day yesterday. I worked out some major issues with Episode 5 as well as filmed material for a new YouTube video. I can’t understate how enjoyable it is to be working with a camera again and having something to edit. I’ve found a balance between doing video editing and editing the screenplay. It’s not hard to guess which one I like more.

I’ve taken my 27 page short and condensed it down to 21. I’ve had to significantly limit the amount of lines a few of the minor characters have. I’ve come to believe giving them too much on-screen time adds a whole lot more to their personalities than it does to the question that drives the story. I also think Quentin Tarantino writes this way (and does just fine).

It is so easy to see the ingredients that make up a good plot, yet a challenge to implement them. You must constantly barrage your protagonist with obstacles then look within yourself to figure out how they might overcome them. The lessons they learn become the theme. The training the protagonist does in act 2 should pay off in act 3.

Two new tools I am determined to use in this episode are:

  1. Hermeneutics
  2. Moral uncertainty

Hermeneutics deals with the interpretation of information. The term came to exist in order to explain how different religious sects came to understand the same biblical text. I featured a post on this subject a while ago that highlighted a video discussion about how Christopher Nolan uses it in his features. When done right, Hermeneutics has a profound effect on viewers. The information does not change, but the protagonist’s understanding of it does. I believe the typical description of a solid mid-point for a story fits this definition. Here’s an example of Hermeneutics in action:

  1. You receive $20 from your grandma as a Birthday gift.
  2. You learn your Grandma is broke and doesn’t have enough money to cover her own electricity bill.

The action, amount, and gesture has not changed. New information, however, has changed your response to the money from excitement to grief.

The second tool on my list is moral uncertainty. I’ve been trying to place my protagonist in situations where he must choose between 2 not so great options. A couple examples of this would be:

  1. Confessing to a widow you had could have saved her spouses life.
  2. Confronting an enemy whose daughter is in a nearby room.

I feel that using these emotional triggers will help to draw the viewer in. I am eager to move away from the basic methods of conflict, time constraints, and variable successes from effort. I am also trying to push the theme and character arc more into my subconscious. The protagonist’s reaction to the story as it occurs should change him over time. As long as I can end with a different set of values then I begin with, I anticipate a character arc will be there.

That’s all I’ve got for now. I’m hoping to complete my next YouTube upload today or tomorrow. I’ll keep you posted.

Editing & Premise

This angry Chicken has nothing to do with the rest of this post.

Now that I’ve got a working draft for the episode, it’s time to edit. Editing is, by far, my favorite part of the creative process.

Think about any competition show you’ve ever watched. American Idol, Forged in Fire, Hell’s Kitchen – doesn’t matter. Chances are you’ve been entertained by a competition involving a skill that you know nothing about. I’ll bet that lack of trade knowledge didn’t stop you from judging the competitors!

Editing is the same way. Often it’s easy to know when something doesn’t read write or seem interesting. Fundamental understanding of story-telling elements will enable you to make corrections that fix the problems you find. If you try and make corrections sorely based on feel, there is a chance that you continue creating the same problem in a different way.

Writing is no different than any other skill-based task that we perform in our lives. Your story is an engine. The knowledge you attain pertaining to writing is your tool set. The more engines you build, the more likely they are to work better and more efficiently.

Each scene, no matter how mundane, will always incorporate and be judged by the following categories: Premise, tone, conflict, character arc, plot points, formatting/grammar, and dialogue. There are probably more, but these elements come to mind.

Your premise is the heart of your story. It’s the little description you read about a movie on Netflix before you decide to watch it. There are premises that are universally appealing, and there are premises that fall flat and die before they even get out of the gate. When you pitch a publisher or an agent, they want to hear about your premise before you submit the body of your work. If the soul of the story doesn’t appeal to their interests/market, they will not ask you to submit your story.

A lot of writers make the mistake of thinking that you can write a great story first and then find a way to summarize the plot into an intriguing premise later. This generally doesn’t work.

The most powerful tool I’ve found to grade the strength of your premise is to verbalize it to people close to you. The first time I tried to write a book and tell someone what it was about verbal diarrhea spilled from my lips. You will be able to tell instantly by the expression on another person’s face whether your idea has some legs or whether it was born with a debilitating genetic defect.

The premise is the question. It’s the driving force behind the story and should contain the major story-telling elements within a single sentence. The conflict should be inherent and natural, the tone should be felt, and the genre should be evident.

My premise for episode 5 is this:

Ryan discovers an anonymous love note hidden by his missing wife and learns some secrets are better left unknown.

It raises questions: Who wrote the note? Was his wife unfaithful? Why did she hide it? Was the writer responsible for her disappearance?

The conflict is inherent and the plot can be assumed: Ryan must confront the writer of the note.

The genre is all obvious: Mystery. A sense of danger is implied by the act of the note being hidden.

Anyways, this was sort of a rambling post. But today I get to edit and play with colors that are already on the palette. I enjoy that much more than staring at a blank canvas.

Have a wonderful day creating and pursuing the premise that consumes your own life.

Conflict: Lesson 1 – Damien vs. Ronnie

CONFLICT: LESSON 1 – DAMIEN VS. RONNIE

Conflict is the most important element of storytelling. Failure to incorporate it guarantees that your works will flop. It is a subject worth going over again and again. There are more than a few types of conflict, but the common link of all forms is that they create adversity. Conflict worsens the predicament your protagonist is in, and she must grow stronger if she is to overcome it. Let’s start with an easy scene with no conflict, and watch how the scene improves as we amp up the adversity.

* * *

Level 1

Damien left the office building at five o’clock, because that’s when he got off work. Once outside, he kissed his wife on the cheek, just as he had a thousand times before.

Level 2 – Let’s add a ticking clock.

Somebody had left a time-bomb on the bottom floor. Nobody knew where it was, but word spread like wildfire – 5 O’clock it was gonna blow. Damien hurried out of the building, where his wife was already waiting for him.

“Damien, what’s-”

“I love you babe,” said Damien. He gave her a fat kiss on the cheek, and was thankful to be alive.

Level 3  – add a human antagonist (the antagonist can be a force of any kind, it doesn’t always have to be a bad guy with a mustache)

The elevator doors split open, and Damien found himself face-to-face with his greatest fear – Ronny McDee.

“Good to see you again, Damien. I noticed your wife was waiting for you outside. It’s too bad, she seemed so sweet.”

He didn’t have time for this – the bomb was set to go off at five. That gave him about three minutes to get past this lunatic clown.

“Shouldn’t you be flipping patties somewhere,” Damien said back to him. It wasn’t until then that the words sunk in – Ronny McDee had seen his wife outside. Had he done something to her?

“Hahaha!” Began Ronnie. “I moved on from that long ago.”

“To killing innocent civilians?”

“No, fries mostly.”

“Cut the shit,” said Damien. “What happened to my wife? If you did something to her I swear I’ll-”

“Relax!” said Ronnie. “I would never harm your wife. Gentleman’s agreement.”

“Oh. Well… I appreciate that.”

“It’s nothing. Now we should really get going and work out our differences elsewhere. I’d hate to still be here when my bomb goes off.”

“Good point,” said Damien. He jogged out the office building alongside Ronny, then found his wife waiting for him there.

“Hey, how are you?”

“I’m good. The chicken’s in the oven already so we should really get going.”

“Oh, alright,” said Damien, before turning to Ronny. “How bout I come by your place tomorrow and we settle this?”

“Sure, that’d be fine. Just look for the palace with the golden arches.”

“Ok.”

* * *

I know that the last scene got a bit wacky, but that was partly because I wanted to illustrate a point. Do you notice how the moment Ronny and Damien began speaking on friendly terms it took dedication to keep on reading? When you diffuse conflict in the middle of a scene, you require your readers to continue on out of kindness, rather than desire. We all want to see conflict resolved – but once it is, the story, or an individual scene within the story, is over. That is what happens after the climax – the conflict is resolved. But up until then, you must maintain conflict at all times, and the best writers are able to effectively increase conflict heading into the climax, something known as ‘rising tension’.

Notice also how corny this scene is? You feel like you’ve seen/read it a hundred times, don’t you?

But you still felt compelled to keep reading it.

Don’t be so hard on authors who are commercially successful. If you want to be a best selling author, you’re going to have to accept the fact that constant arguments, time-bombs, evil villains, and dames in distress are all useful ingredients worth including in any story, no matter how much of a literary ‘genius’ you’ve already discovered yourself to be. Don’t ever become formulaic, that’s not what I’m saying – just pay more attention to best selling works, and figure out why they’re best sellers. Don’t fall in line with those who praise works of literature that will never appeal to a mass-market audience, unless you’ve decided that artistic expression is more important to you than big-time sales. Neither approach is wrong, but you should seriously think about the path you’d like to take, and write accordingly. Don’t complain about the failure of the masses to recognize true brilliance. It has more to do with them not caring, anyway – the masses flock to stories that entertain them, and that’s never going to change.

Let’s return to this scene later. If you have any suggestions to increase the conflict, feel free to include them in the comment section below. It’s always good practice to find new and exciting ways to amp up the tension in any given scene. If you want to steal this scene and make it your own, feel free to do so. I don’t care.

Hope this helps!

– Thomas M. Watt

– Script Analyst for SpecScout.com

– Author of A New Kingdom

Inciting Incident

Story Telling Essentials: Inciting Incident

The inciting incident – This is the event that propels your story forward. It is the reason your protagonist changes, the reason they take up their quest.

So what is it?

The inciting incident is an event that fundamentally changes your protagonist’s wants and needs. It can be a sudden, unexpected kiss. It can be the loss of a parent. Maybe your protagonist was robbed, maybe your protagonist got dumped. Whatever the inciting incident is, it will always leave your protagonist different than she was before. It provides the motivation for her first plot point decision, which will be the decision to take up her quest.

While the first plot point of a story is the protagonist’s decision to take up their quest, the inciting incident is typically an event that occurs to the protagonist. In “A New Kingdom”, my latest novel, James watches his father get brutally murdered at the hands of giant red aliens. This provides his motivation to overthrow the alien race, the first plot point decision that he makes later on.

You want your inciting incident to occur as early as possible. Some argue that it is imperative to show your real world beforehand, so that the reader can better notice the change. Others prefer the inciting incident to occur right away, claiming that readers prefer action over back story. Where you place the inciting incident is up to you – whether you include it is non-debatable.

– Thomas M. Watt

– Script Analyst for SpecScout.com

– Author of A New Kingdom

My Dear Ago

My Dear Ago

by guest blogger 

 

Time has stripped those most precious years away from me, each one a blatant act of petty theft

Faded memories and worn out stories are sadly, but wholly, much of what I have left.

One tale in particular, it strikes me right quick. A riddled love story I still aim to solve –

A marriage to a man. Shall we call him Ago? Ago the enigma, I’d say. My epiphanies evolve

This affair, it caused me great woe and torment, yet I had a special love for Ago. I suppose I still do

We danced through life together, a stunning dance. I wish now to share that dance with you

 

We met at an early age – too young to care really. I wouldn’t dare say love at first sight

I didn’t think much of him at the time, what ignorance! This ignorance would end up our plight

Innocent though it was we grew aware – a deepening feeling. How deep? Well that’s murky

We noticed each other, splashing moments. But where ripples met remained a mystery that irked me

Oh Ago, I must disclaim it was strange at times. I’d catch him in my thoughts unbeknownst his aim…

Were my best interests in his mind? We danced. I presume this muse is why some call love a game

 

Our younger years together; ‘twas a passionate but tumultuous tango that entailed us

You see, rarely did we see eye to eye. But I was brazen and he, timid. Hence I’d frequently prevail

Many nights I cherished with Ago, we’d lie in bed and take comfort in the company

Venting our daily trepidations; and they’d melt away and we’d drift away into a nightly harmony

My dear Ago, Oh how it was so! At times together we’d be the life of the party! We could do no wrong

But other moments soiled. Shots of anger fired between us, where blame ran high and scorn ran long

 

Ago and I grew older. But steadier. The conclusion we were meant together became clear

When the foggy veil draped over our love dissolved, a heavy comprehension began to appear

Mind you, I forewarned you of this riddled love. How exactly this flowering took place is hard to tell

Change is viewed best in the Past, Ago and I didn’t notice. We were cast under Present’s spell

My life, my friends would come and go. Affairs, oh I had plenty! Ago would scold me so, I’d cry

I digress, ignorance drove a wedge between us. My ignorance. Yet Ago, he took my mistakes in stride

 

It is here I leave you, withered and worn. These memories of my strongest love haunt me most

Alas! Regrets flood me. We could have been more! I took for granted Ago, now I pay with morose

An old friend now he remains, seldom we converse. Mostly recollecting golden memories shared

Old friends and flames have long since been doused, a sliver of me vanquished with each flare

Still Ago, my dear sweet Ago, he silently flickers. My friend! My enemy! My Love! Can you now see?

I recite to you my dance with Ago, Ago the enigma. I shall tell you his true name, why, it’s Me.