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It's never been a secret that writers use their characters and stories to sometimes take a deep dive into their own underlying problems, touchy issues and ugly neuroses.
I've certainly done it for years.
Using personal experiences might be for something as small as a basic character trait, an inspiration for a particular scene, or something larger -- a concept for an entire script.
But therapy is sometimes just the name of the game when you're a writer. And why shouldn't it be? If you're a writer worth your salt, you'll pull from your own personal experiences, in some cases from the most outlandish ones. It's a great tool to have in your belt, and in some cases, there's simply no way around it. We are who we are, so why hide it, even in your writing?
I realized, upon completion of my latest feature spec, BOYS, that my last three solo specs, each took the aforementioned "deep dive" into very personal territory, drudging up terrible memories to accommodate these new ideas and these very damaged characters.
A script I completed last year, MOM DIED, marks the first in the trilogy. As the title might suggest, this truly tackled the strained relationships of a mother and her children. I unloaded a great deal of emotional baggage while writing this piece. Upon completion, I sent the script to my older brother for his thoughts. Indeed, he recognized many of the situations and moments described within -- with a combination of nostalgia and no doubt, mutual pain. I think some of the best scripts are those which focus so deeply on the characters. MOM DIED is a zombie film. But those grotesque and frightening moments are wholly incidental to the main focus of the script: dysfunctional family relationships.
Second in the trilogy, TRIP, a Lovecraftian, uber-gay road trip movie. I completed that one in April of this year. It was inspired by the frequent road trips my husband and I take (well, we did before quarantine and the ongoing madness of this year). And I realized that a very unfortunate and deeply upsetting public encounter late last year (I won't impart details here), was the reason for this very blatantly "gay" story. I described TRIP early on as "unapologetically gay", via the characters, their situation and the very graphic sexual scenes within. While there's been no closure on this event from last year (it was very hurtful and devastating, and continues to linger about in my mind), I feel that TRIP was somewhat helpful in processing the ordeal, and letting go of some of the damaging negativity which came along with it. TRIP really is an example of "I'm as gay as the day is long, and I'm proud to shout it from the rooftops" type story. No doubt, this stance is in direct retaliation to last year's "event".
And this year, I tackled BOYS. This ended up pulling heavily from my (non) relationship with my late biological father. He died late last year, and my interactions with him over the past 30 years could best be described as "less than minimal". My folks divorced when I was about 6 years old, and I believe the last time I actually saw my father in person, was when I was probably 8 or 9 years old. And the last time I spoke to him on the phone, was probably -- just a guess -- 15 years ago? BOYS really tackled the notion of father/son relationships, and how difficult and delicate they can be. In addition, this 13-year old main character, Mickey (a flimsily-hidden take on my own childhood moniker, "Mikey") is dealing with his homosexuality in the summer of 1982. It's a deeply masculine environment portrayed in the script (thus one of the reasons for the title "BOYS"). Even with all of the character development and eventual outside forces penetrating this small circle's "easy" lives, it all comes back to reconciliation and understanding between a father and his two young sons... something I sadly never got to experience. While the characters have some semblance of closure, I do not. Thus, the therapy -- albeit through fiction.
Writing's a powerful tool, for so many reasons...
In the case of all three of these scripts, there were uncountable moments during the crafting of each piece, where I had emotional breakdowns (and breakthroughs?) Many times, they would come up suddenly, and the tears would freely flow. If I needed confirmation that something was being triggered (and hopefully released to some extent), those tears while writing, were it.
Now, certainly all of my scripts, even those I've been hired out for -- require deep dives of some kind. Life experiences are what make writing rich, organic and unique. These personal memories are the things which help to create and cement your own, distinct "voice". But these last three scripts in particular, have truly provided an emotional release for me, thus "The Therapy Trilogy".
However, as I begin work on my latest solo piece, currently titled SAY UNCLE!, I'm realizing that this so-called "trilogy" will shortly become a "quadrilogy", as I investigate my relationships between myself and two of my late uncles, both of whom I was very close to.
I guess as long as there are internal issues and heavy baggage to draw upon, I may as well take advantage of the pain, right? After all, these unique experiences are indeed mine. No one else will necessarily have these particularly awkward, painful or unbelievable memories to pull from. Similar perhaps, but not exact matches.
I've often quoted Ray Bradbury with his brilliantly insightful comment, "You must stay drunk on writing, so reality cannot destroy you". And with this realization and acceptance of "The Therapy Trilogy" and its insights/releases, Bradbury's phrase is right on the money.
Certainly easier (maybe not better) to face pain through the filter of a character or a piece of fiction.
Bottom line? The therapy continues.
Do you all find that you're able to offload painful thoughts and experiences, simply by committing them to the page? Sound off in the comments.
Thanks for your time and for this additional bit of therapy.
I've just completed my 13th feature spec, BOYS. And with that news, I'm offering (for a limited time only) 13% off of ALL SERVICES on the site! Want some feedback/editing/story assistance on your feature or short screenplays? I'm your guy. Deals end September 24th, 2020! Let's get to work! :)
We're just 1 week away from our 1-year anniversary! And because we want you to celebrate with us, you're invited to take advantage of this freebie offer!
Consider it a "test run", as we take a look at the first TEN PAGES of one of your FEATURE screenplays.
So for the next SEVEN days, SEVEN screenwriters can join in the fun!
And on Saturday, June 13th, 2020, the offer ends!
Please note: If you've taken advantage of a previous "10-page freebie" offer, you'll be unable to take part in this particular deal.
This offer applies to feature screenplays ONLY.
Notes will be provided within 10 days of receipt of your pages.
It's an old saying, and perhaps a cliche one... "Follow your gut", or "trust your gut".
I find it interesting that the more you write, the more you can do just that.
I can recall early on in my screenwriting, when I'd hem and haw about this or that - taking considerable time (and energy) to make sure that a character name was just right, right off the bat. To get a line of dialogue perfect the first time. Obviously, subsequent drafts (beyond that original vomit draft) will fix a lot of the problems and hopefully confirm (or deny) choices already put to paper.
But as I continue in this writing journey, I find myself - multiple times a day - making a swift judgment call and simply moving on. It can be in a piece of description, a decision on whether a line of dialogue should begin with "Well...". So many little things (not inconsequential, mind you) that, once upon a time, I'd have lingered on and frankly, wasted valuable time.
I hate to sound like an ass, but some of these things now feel like second nature to me. An instinct. And that's a good thing.
Sure, I have plenty of moments where I'll pause and hash something out - perhaps because it requires such intense thought. Does this character die? If so, how does it have an effect on the lead character? Things like that do need some time to simmer...
It's also interesting to note that during face-to-face feedback with my own beloved script editor/story consultant, we'll whip around ideas on an already 3-drafts in script. And when certain suggestions come up, it takes but a look up to the muse in the sky and a moment of thought before arriving at an almost immediate "yes" or "no". That's a moment of trusting your gut, thoroughly knowing your story and your characters, and realizing immediately that it will or won't work. And it wastes no time.
Things that require further discussion, by all means, get in there and dig for a conclusion.
I'd love to see the statistics on my own writing, about how many times these now-so-common "split-second" writing decisions, ended up staying exactly the same when eventually clicking "save" on that final draft.
The point I'm making, is that if something comes to you quickly and it feels right - do it. Get it down on paper. Follow your gut.
I mean, it can always be changed later, right?
(not that you'll need to if you follow your gut).
Are you looking to take Klugula Screenplay Consulting for a little test run? Perhaps a bit of a taste test?
Well, for the next TEN days, I'm opening up TEN slots for TEN interested screenwriters. Send me the first TEN pages of your latest FEATURE screenplay and I'll offer FREE feedback/notes/editing and have said feedback to you within TEN days from the date of your submission.
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In TEN days (end of the day on 04.27.20), even if all of the slots don't get filled, this offer will end.
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I knew a girl in high school by the name of Shannon. We weren't necessarily friends, but knew of one another's existence (at least I knew who she was, can't speak for her). And I had a boss for several years while working in Beverly Hills, also named Shannon. But this tradition (to be discussed below) all started up long before I met Beverly Hills Shannon.
Beginning with my very first screenplay, a zombie spec called, Sid's Apple, I've tried to have a character in each of my pieces, with the name "Shannon". It didn't start out as a "thing", it just naturally progressed.
You see -- in Sid's Apple, Shannon was a nosy neighbor of my lead character, Sid. Thing is, she was also a zombie. So, an undead nosy neighbor.
And my second script (another zombie tale), Me & Simon Baker -- well, I needed a neighbor of my main character to turn into a zombie, and I thought, "Wouldn't that be a hoot? To have this character be basically the same person? Aren't I clever?"
Those original instances were at least organic, and now it's sorta stuck with me and become a tradition.
Shannon -- never again the same character as those original zombie neighbors -- but she (haven't had a dude yet) still shows up, in name only. I just thought it'd be a fun exercise to call out her many memorable appearances.
Sid's Apple: An undead and annoying neighbor.
Me & Simon Baker: A soon to be undead and annoying neighbor.
A. Family Portrait: A precocious 8-year old girl.
Silver Spoon: The nerdy and heroic girlfriend of almost-hero and super-fan Roach.
Furnish: An assistant manager in an upscale, Beverly Hills furniture store.
Spider Eaters: An Australian cattle dog.
The Costume People: A no-nonsense theatre stage manager.
Mom Died: A funeral home director.
Trip: A waitress at a down-home burger place.
Also, in one of my first novels (currently in the works), a secondary character was christened "Shannon".
Thought I'd share. Do you all have any habits or traditions you follow in your writing?
And I'll just close with this: LONG LIVE SHANNON!
Murray Hamilton portrayed Mayor Vaughn in two films of the Jaws franchise. And when Quint (Robert Shaw) shows up to a town hall meeting, to offer his unique fishing abilities to the desperate townsfolk of Amity, Vaughn replies with a tepid, "We'll take it under advisement."
As mentioned in a previous post, I've been reading/studying The Hollywood Standard.
And, as mentioned before, there are some formatting and content rules mentioned in the book, with which I don't wholeheartedly agree. Certainly, there are absolute must-follow tricks, but some -- well, I believe they can be fudged, just a little bit, to suit my personal preferences.
But as I work on a rewrite of one of my scripts (being co-penned with my friend Motown Maurice), I have discovered what might end up being a never-before-used, but now will be in constant rotation, trick from The Hollywood Standard.
In the parenthetical piece of the screenplay document, I've always reserved that space for when a character is addressing a specific other character, and that needs to be clear.
For instance: BOB (to Shirley). Bob is addressing a line to Shirley, rather than Doris, who is also in the scene.
And if a character is yelling, or pauses or if a line MUST be read with a particular inflection.
For instance: BOB (sarcastically). Meaning, Bob's line of dialogue could be delivered "regularly", but in this case, it's gotta be sarcastic. Many times, such bits of information are unnecessary, as the tone may be present in the context of the scene. But if it's not...
But based on one of the lessons learned in "The Hollywood Standard", I now know how to use the parenthetical for another purpose, and it is something which will cut back on total line/page count. (I'm always a big fan of cutting back on page count!)
Per the book, you CAN put the tiniest bit of action/description in the parenthetical.
So instead of writing a separate action/description line of "Bob turns to Shirley, before speaking", you can put something like this:
I don't know for certain.
(turns to Shirley)
But I think I love you.
If it's the speaking character's movement (not someone or something else), this is acceptable. And while yes, the parenthetical takes up another line, it's not THREE lines (the action/description and two spaces -- above and below).
Every day, I try to better myself in the craft, and little things like this, which I was either against (because of prior knowledge or coaching), or was completely unaware of -- keep me learning and only serve to improve my work.
So while I am not taking EVERYTHING from The Hollywood Standard as the end-all, be-all law of the land, there are certainly some lessons offered up in the book, which will be "taken under advisement" and perhaps adopted for all future scripts.
There's an episode of American Dad, where Roger the alien sells off his dive bar (the one he operates out of the Smith home's attic). And he eventually becomes part of the business franchise, as its pitch-man, repeating the catch-phrase "Dive on in!", in a heavy Australian accent.
I was reminded of this when I was working on one of my latest feature specs.
I had the initial inspiration - an idea, some characters, but not really any deep understanding of what the story or the plot might be.
But that didn't stop me. Certainly, each writer has their own way of working, and over the years, it's become clear to me that I won't generally wait for a fully-realized concept before getting in there and digging for some goodies. It could be an image, a line of dialogue or a skeletal character idea, and I'll take it and run with it.
Such is the case on my script "Trip". I'm already 39 pages into a first draft, and I don't quite know where it's headed. But I'm sure having fun figuring that out. Writing scenes, I'm beginning to understand the characters, their histories and trajectories. And eventually, these discoveries will lead me in the direction necessary, to formulate a plot and an all-encompassing story. Structure.
I've said this in pitch meetings and to friends. "I let the characters tell me where they're gonna go and what they're gonna do."
And yes, that sounds very "writerly" and a somewhat douchy thing to say, but I've found it to be accurate. Once you "get" your characters, things will naturally begin to materialize in your story.
So to go back to this entry's title and inspiration (thanks American Dad), I've always found it more fun to simply "dive on in" with any tiny nugget of an idea or exciting image which your imagination throws at you. I mean, if it doesn't pan out into a fully realized story or script, you were still writing, right? Chalk it up to "writing exercises". And perhaps these scratchings can be used in later projects.
And if you are more a planner, I salute you. Goodness knows my way of writing (train of thought process) makes for additional structural work down the road, since it was never mapped out properly in the beginning. But that's how I get my writing ya-yas and indeed, it's my process.
[Side note: I've done treatments for several projects, so I know that a process of "planning" is still in my wheelhouse, but those were "for hire" gigs. When working for myself, letting the fates decide is always preferable.]
I also will point out that some of my most brilliant (in my mind, of course) discoveries were found by just getting into a scene and doing it - with no idea of where it was going.
I implore you to try this type of writing if you don't already. I find it freeing to "dive on in" and see where the day, the characters and your unstructured, uninhibited imagination might take you.
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