David Perlis: WRITE CONFLICT THAT COUNTS

by David Perlis

The night is cold. In the moonlight, the leafless branches appear like arthritic fingers, poised to drag aimless wanderers into the underworld. The four hobbits hide in the dirt, careful not to even breathe as the Ring Wraiths creep by. If they’re seen it’s all over—what are our heroes to do?

They remember the nearby Bucklebury Ferry, and if they can make it, they just might live to tell their tale. They race for the dock, but the Wraiths have noticed them, and they’re galloping towards our powerless heroes. Frodo, with the ring, has begun to lag. Ahead, his friends have already set the ferry adrift. They scream for him to hurry—a Wraith is hot on his tail. Frodo’s heart pounds as he tears down the dock with all his might. His legs ache. His chest burns. It’s too far. He’s too tired! There’s no way he’ll make it.

Then he leaps from the dock, lands safely, and they’re on to the next leg of their journey.

And you’re basically left to wonder: what was the point of any of that? The way our characters conveniently escape this ostensibly inescapable danger—doesn’t it almost seem like a neatly disguised *gasp*—deus ex machina?! Well, it may not quite fit that definition, but the tidy resolution of a conflict like this is only a half-step above that sin of all dramatic sins. And yet we see this all the time—even in cinematic classics! How is this possible? And how can we avoid it?

Writing drama often gets reduced to “add conflict.” Where’s the conflict?  Start with the conflict! Put conflict in every scene! We get it: conflict is important—paramount! But not all conflict was created equal, and without direction, this generalized rule can lead our plots towards shallow obstacles. So I’ve stopped asking, “How can I add conflict?” and started asking, “How can I give characters choices? And how can I give those choices consequences?”

This is the result:

Frodo races for the ferry—there’s no way he’ll make it! But his legs have found a momentary strength he never knew they had, and they catapult him safely onto the ferry.

He can relax.

But a funny feeling overtakes him—a lightness he didn’t have a moment ago. He checks his neck. The ring is gone…fallen off during his jump, and as he looks back towards the dock, he sees it sitting at the Wraith’s feet. He could almost puke as he watches the hooded figure pluck it up and disappear with it into the night.

Their escape comes at a price. The stakes have been raised. And now our heroes are forced to take action. But wait—there’s more!

Frodo is so distraught, he hardly notices the gasping, sputtering Sam beside him. Looking over, he notices Sam has been badly wounded in the escape—a sword straight through the belly. If they don’t get him to a doctor immediately, he’s surely dead.

We’ve exited  the scene, but we’re neck-deep in plot. Does Frodo go after the ring, or does he save his best friend? He can choose either (and his choice will reveal who he is as a character), but here’s the really important part: whichever path he takes, more consequences should follow.

You don’t have to focus so exclusively on choice and consequence, but it’s a method I’m comfortable relying on to turn gratuitous action into purposeful plot points—because conflict that doesn’t forward your plot or test your characters really isn’t drama at all. Compare the following scenes—both from Spielberg flicks:

1. Dashing archaeologist is afraid of snakes, so—naturally—he falls into a pit of snakes. He hesitates. Then he navigates past the snakes and on to the next lurking danger.

2. A man’s children have been captured by his pirate nemesis. To save them, he need only climb one-hundred feet of ratlines—but he has an immobilizing fear of heights. Try as he might, he chickens out. His children are subsequently brainwashed by his sworn enemy.

Which one involves choice? Which one has consequences? Which one compels you to dive headfirst into the story? Only the second. To which you scoff. “Raiders of the Lost Ark is beloved! Iconic! And far more successful than Hook ever was.” Well, yes. But was it more dramatic? It’s here that I think you’ve got to concede that movies are a collaborative art—from the set design to the stunt department. A desperate escape from a giant boulder is just as visually stunning and fun to watch as a Ring Wraith chasing a hobbit through a forest—particularly with a fantastic score and state-of-the-art VFX. But do you want to be the writer that relies on other departments to compensate for your sloppy beats? Or do you want to write the most tightly woven, compelling script you can? If it’s the latter, drama is your number one concern. Well, it’s my number one concern, anyway. And I’m of the belief that a conflict that can be safely removed without affecting the story is really just a waste of time, and a missed opportunity to test your characters. Yes—that includes giant boulders.

And I think you’ll agree. In today’s market, in which the writing is the best it’s ever been, does Raiders’ stunt-filled opening still compete? Are you more compelled to watch Indy narrowly outrun a boulder, only to narrowly escape a closing tomb, only to narrowly flee a jungle ambush…or to watch Walter White choose to let Jane die? For me, the choice is clear—though I fear Lawrence Kasdan will take vengeance upon me for saying so.

Then again, he may just write me a narrow escape out the window.


David Perlis is a screenwriter and former People’s Pilot Finalist doing his best to break into the even Bigger Time. This post first appeared on his very helpful blog.

Peggy Bechko Ponders ‘High Concept’

  by Peggy Bechko

This is a whole ‘nuther kind of high concept, yeah, Rihanna?

If you write for the screen you’ve no doubt pondered the High Concept, what the heck it is, and how you can spur your latest creative endeavor into being that High Concept.

Why?

Because high concept by definition appeals to a wide audience and we all want that, right? If not all of the time, then at least some of the time because after all, in appealing to that wide audience the concept must be unique and fascinating. I’d venture to say that means you’re being creative and original. It also means great box-office potential. That’s a key ingredient to spurring a successful screenwriting career. All that’s good!

So, what does that mean for the writer? Simply put, the High Concept script needs a universal theme. You know, the great escape, or a family flick, or love, greed or vengeance. You get the drift. But the writer also needs to throw in that much sought after twist that turns a character or an action on its head or some other body part, thrusting the observer into the unexpected. Surprise! We all love to be surprised.

One way to push your basic idea into the High Concept arena is that old fall-back question, “what if”.

Here are a couple of examples:

What if the bank vault being robbed turned out to be a portal to another dimension from which the wealth in that bank came and into which????

What if the guy who gets stabbed and dies didn’t know it but turns out to be immortal? (remember that one?).

What if a hurricane was just the beginning of a chain reaction that circled the globe with monumental disasters…and it was triggered by one man? What if that man was not human? What if that man wasn’t human?

And on and on…

Additionally, think about working with a concept that fascinates you. It’s only natural to be more excited, more involved with ideas that you just can’t learn enough about or use that ‘what if’ question enough on.

All this applies to TV as well. Want to sell that series idea? Then go for the High Concept. How about the new show Midnight Texas? Think about it. Midnight Texas: The welcome mat’s out for supernaturals. If you’re a vampire, a werebeast or see ghosts, this town’s for you.

That’s just my take on it off the top of my head.

Okay, so now you, as the stunning writer you are, have to come up with a great title. One or two words are really best. I mean, think about it. Jaws, Alien, Die Hard, Twister, Sharknado (LOL) and my TV example Midnight Texas …all very short titles. Very punchy and very clearly tell what the story is about.

Oh, and after all that, remember the High Concept idea needs to be pitched in one sentence. If fact, if you’ve come up with a true High Concept, that will allow the idea to be couched in one sentence. Notice the one I came up with above for Midnight Texas the TV show.

How about The Martian: Help is only 140 million miles away. Or The Martian: He was left behind…on Mars.

Or Passengers (again off the top of my head): He fixes things and she’s a writer in stasis on a ship to the stars. There is a reason they woke up.

If you’re going to take a run at writing High Concept you have to have it clear in your mind what it is. It must be strong, original, captivating and if it is that means money for producers and studios and, best case scenario, you.

This has been just a teaser, a hint at what you’re looking at. Want more? Check out other posts here on TV Writer – and do some more research until you’re confident in your High Concept ideas and the loglines you create for them.


Peggy Bechko is a TVWriter™ Contributing Editor. Learn more about her sensational career HERE. Peggy’s new comic series, Planet of the Eggs, written and illustrated with Charlene Brash-Sorensen is available on Kindle. And, while you’re at it, visit the Planet of the Eggs Facebook page and her terrific blog.

John Ostrander: The Family of Sociopaths

This gallery contains 4 photos.

by John Ostrander Commercials are the point of commercial TV. I realize that, for those of you who do only streaming services, this concept may seem a bit foreign, but your monthly fees take the place of paid commercials, assuming the streaming service isn’t double-dipping. Advertisers buy time to pitch products and/or services and/or whatever […]

David Perlis: FIND YOUR STORY

Found on the Interwebs

by David Perlis

And stick to it.

That’s the moral, and it’s what I’m trying to remind myself as I move forward on my new project. These things always sound easy, but without a Post-It on every surface of your abode, reminding you what your story’s heart is, you may find yourself with great plot and great characters, but they’re bound to fizzle out at some point. That’s what I think, anyway.

I like examining Breaking Bad. (By the way, my exhibits are almost always Breaking Bad. It just works, man.)

Breaking Bad sets you up with some pretty brilliant stakes: terminal cancer on one end, and the threat of prison on the other. Not a lot of wiggle room for good things to happen here. But how Vince Gilligan and his writers deal with the cancer part is what I find really interesting. Do they give Walt life scare after life scare with his diagnosis? Do they bring in his ex girlfriend whom he left at the altar to be his head doc? Accidentally give him an infected blood transfusion, or mix his chart up with someone else’s? Does Walt have an allergic reaction to the meds, which leaves him in a wheelchair? I admit, all of these things sound a bit “jump-the-sharky,” but they would definitely ratchet up the drama.

Nope. Instead, they hardly address the cancer at all. Sure, a few scenes in the early episodes, ’cause you can’t not talk about it, but the writers (being pros) knew what this show was—and more importantly, wasn’t—about.

It’s about reaching the breaking point. It’s about our ability to justify the unjustifiable. It’s about doing the wrong things for the right reasons. It’s about our need to be important. To be respected. To be good. It’s about every man being capable of absolute evil. It’s about “turning Mr. Chips into Scarface.” (Which was how Mr. G. always pitched it.) It’s not about overcoming cancer. Walt’s diagnosis in ep. 1 was a great catalyst for morphing him into Heisenberg, but that’s all it ever needed to be.

Now, if you were in Breaking Bad’s writer’s room, would you have intuitively left the cancer thread by the side of the road way back when? I know I wouldn’t have. Long story short: That, Mom, is is why I’ve got “Ignore the cancer” Post-Its papering my toilet tank.


David Perlis is a screenwriter and former People’s Pilot Finalist doing his best to break into the even Bigger Time. This post first appeared on his very helpful blog.

John Ostrander: Riding With The King

 by John Ostrander

Two Mondays ago was the 100th birthday of the King o’ Comics, Jack Kirby. The young’uns among you might not know the name (or maybe they do; I try not to be a fuddy-duddy most days) but Kirby was a force unparalleled in the comics medium. If you need a primer, Mike Gold wrote an excellent column about him.

Even if you know Marvel only from the movies, you owe him. Captain America? Jack. The X-Men? Jack. The Black Panther? Jack. The Avengers? Jack. And so on and so forth. And not just at Marvel; King Kirby seemed to be everywhere. And not just superheroes; he did Westerns, monsters, romance. And so on and so forth.

I met him in person exactly once.

The first thing I need to explain is that, before I became a professional writer in comics, I was a bonafide geek. Yeah, I still am.

One of the big thrills when I first started was that at conventions I could meet my heroes as a fellow professional. In theory. Not as a peer; that suggested I was an equal and that was not how I felt.

So – it’s early in my career and I’m working the First Comics booth at the Chicago Comicon along with my wife, Kim Yale. We were the only ones working the booth at that moment. It wasn’t in the main room and we weren’t getting much traffic.

Then this small group of people walk by, talking among themselves, and in the middle of it is Jack Kirby.

OMG! OMG! OMG! OMG! OMG!

(Point of historical accuracy: Back some 30 or so years ago when this story takes place, we never said “OMG!,” at least not in the Midwest. I just wanted to convey the impact of the moment in modern terms.)

Kim later said she watched me turn into a 14-year old fanboy complete with zits. I can’t imagine that was pleasant.

In the group, I spotted Julie Schwartz, himself a legend and an icon. There’d be no Silver Age DC without Julie. Possibly no modern comics industry.

I knew Julie a little through Mike Gold so I hiss at him, “Julie! Hey, Julie! Hey!”

Julie spots me and ambles over. “Hey, kid, how ya doin’?”

“Julie! Introduce me to the King!” I plead.

Julie looks at me like I’m demented and maybe, at the moment, I am. “It’s Jack,” he tells me. “Just go over and say hi.”

“No no no no no! I can’t I can’t I can’t! Don’t you see?! He’s the King!” “Hey, Julie! Help a guy out!”

Julie gives me a pitying look and says, “C’mon, kid.”

I walk over to the group with Julie and he does a nice intro of me. The King shakes my hand, says “HiHowareya.” I babble something about what an honor gee you’re my hero blah blah blah. And it’s over. The King and his group move on.

I wish I could say that I never washed that hand again but Kim would have insisted.

I doubt very much that the moment would have stayed with Jack Kirby but it has stayed with me in vivid detail for a couple of decades. Over the past few years, I’ve met some fans who treat me sort of like I treated Jack. (Trust me, gang; I’m not that impressive and I can give you references.) There was only one Jack Kirby and there will ever be only one Jack Kirby and he just turned 100.

Happy 100th, Jack. Long live the King.


John Ostrander is one of LB’s favorite writers in any medium. Don’t forget to read his most excellent blog at ComicMix, where this piece first appeared. You can learn more about John and his masterworks HERE

Gerry Conway Remembers Len Wein

Len Wein and some actor Len’s brainchild, Wolverine, helped make famous

NOTE FROM LB: Len Wein passed away Sunday. You may not know the name, but Len was an integral part of the Marvel Universe as well as humanity at large. On Twitter, Joss Whedon  set out the facts: “Co-created Wolverine & the new X-men. Co-kickstarted the modern comic book era with its most powerful metaphor. And more. RIP Len Wein.” But as far as I’m concerned, it’s the human side that counts. Here’s how Gerry Conway puts it:

by Gerry Conway

Mr. Wein & Mr. Conway

My friend Len Wein is gone.

I’m trying to process this. I’ve known Len since I was fourteen years old. More than half a century. He was as much a part of my life as my own family. He felt like a brother to me, and I loved him like a brother – with all the complicated emotions of brotherhood. We were friends, rivals, collaborators, roommates, cohorts in a generational changing of the guard, fanboys, old farts. At times we were very close, at other times we were almost enemies. We hurt each other, helped each other. We had ups and downs and we stood together and apart. But he was always there, someone I looked up to, someone I tried to emulate, a man I loved, admired, envied, and respected.

Now he’s gone. There’s a hole in my life. I knew it was coming – anyone who spent time with Len these last few years knew it was coming – but it’s still a shock. The world feels like an open wound. I’ve been fighting tears for the last hour. I understand what the word bereft means. I’m bereft.

My heart goes out to Christine. No man could have had a more loving and stronger partner than Len had in Christine. I marvel at her strength, her will, her love. She was a fierce fighter on his behalf. Len was lucky to have her with him for so many years, and especially these last few years.

My friend is gone.

I’m heartbroken.


Gerry Conway is one of the Kings of TV and film and comic book writing and also one of our Beloved Leader Larry Brody’s longest-lasting and closest friends. Everybody who comes to TVWriter™ should be reading his insightful blog, where this article first appeared. Learn more about Gerry HERE.

David Perlis: COVER LETTER TIME – Yikes!!!

 

Who needs a button when we have ourselves?

by David Perlis

Last week I applied for a position at BOOM! Studios. Here is my cover letter:

Dear F K,

Five months ago I moved to Los Angeles to pursue writing for comics/cartoons. It must be my Sagittarius good fortune, then, that not one hour after leaving my job selling T-Mobile plans (a profession with all the creativity and warmth of a North Korean glue factory), I stumbled upon your ad for the open assistant position.

Not only has my six-year-old love for comics continued well into my adult life, I have several years experience with database management, document design, and working with teams in project management. However, seeing that your ad was posted nearly three weeks ago, I know that I am behind in getting my application to you. To save time, the following has been pasted from my OkCupid profile, and adjusted as necessary:

Hello, ladiiiiiiiies esteemed managers and directors of BOOM! Studios,

I am looking for someone who is both down-to-earth and passionate fast-paced work in a creative environment. I studied creative writing in school, and now spend my days drinking coffee and thinking about plot structure calculating how to best use my expertise in proofreading and organization to further grow BOOM! I don’t eat meat office supplies, but if you do, that’s no problem. To each their own, I always say.

I believe the best book I ever read was Kafka on the Shore, and now I want to go to Japan.  bring the same flair for creativity and ingenuity to BOOM! that Murakami incorporates in his writing. I also loved Ed Catmull’s Creativity Inc. If you’ve not read it, I will bring my copy to my interview.

I’ve never lived in a quiet mountain town, but boy do I like the idea. been late to work.

For the past few years I’ve worked in administration at charter schools, while writing my own cartoons on the side. I also read math and economics textbooks. Yes—I’m serious, and yes—I’m that guy.

But I know what you’re thinking: Why should you date hire me? For starters, I always tuck my shirts in, and trim my nose hairs refill the paper when the copy machine runs out. This is just one example of my proactive attitude. Furthermore, I make great pies use of the Google drive system, which I believe strengthens communications, collaborations, and overall team workflow.

I begin my days with Renee Montagne, Steve Inskeep, and David Greene by asking not what BOOM! can do for me, but what I can do for BOOM!. I end them with bebop and new age Pandora stations a review of my day’s performance, and a plan for my next day. If you contact my references, I am certain they will support these claims. And if I had a million dollars, I’d spend my days driving across the country and blogging about every cafe or used book store I could find. I would also buy one of those things that lets you play your phone through your car speaker, so I could finally appreciate my This American Life app to its full extent. And I believe that sometimes there’s nothing better than eating a piece of pie in the middle of the night at Mels Diner, and contemplating the life and the universe, and wondering what the next cool Lego set will be.

I love peaches updating spreadsheets.

I loathe Donald Trump.

I look forward to speaking more with you soon, and learning how I can best contribute to the growth and success of your company.

Most sincerely,

David Perlis

BOOM! Studios has yet to contact me.

NOTE FROM MUNCHMAN: Keep up the great work, David. You’re an inspiration to TVWriter™ minions everywhere!


David Perlis is a screenwriter and former People’s Pilot Finalist doing his best to break into the even Bigger Time. This post first appeared on his very helpful blog.