Getting Back to Work!02.26.12

As some of you know, I gave birth to my beautiful baby girl in October. It was an amazing, life-changing experience and I’m continuing to grow and learn every single day with her. I cannot even describe what it is like to be a parent, but those of you that are know what I mean, and if you are ever planning on embarking on this journey, my best advice would be that everything everyone warns you about is true. From now on everything you do will be more difficult and take longer than you planned, but it will all be worth it because you will experience a depth of love that is truly amazing.

Okay enough of the mushy new mom stuff, back to screenwriting! I am so thrilled to be back to work with some excellent writers. While trying to maintain my new work-life balance, I’ve added something to my critique method that I wanted to share here. I have been reading scripts aloud to my daughter, at first it was just to keep her occupied while I worked, but I have realized that this is an invaluable method of analyzing a story and something I encourage all of you to try. In graduate school we frequently read scenes aloud, even assigning different people to read different parts. Reading the dialogue, as well as the action description, out loud made it immediately clear what sounded good, what was off, what was funny or scary or suspenseful, and what was just stupid. Writing can be a lonely endeavor, and you most likely will spend a majority of your time in solitude clacking away on a computer. But scripts, like poetry, are meant to be read aloud, and it is vital that your script sounds good and flows smoothly as spoken word. If the dialogue sounds funny (or doesn’t, as the case may be) when it’s read aloud, then it’s not good dialogue.

So, I encourage all of you to read your script out loud. If you can gather enough friends for a true table read, awesome, if not, read it to yourself, to your child (assuming they’re either young enough, like my four month old, not to understand, or that your story is G-rated), your significant other, your cat, your houseplant. Just speak it out loud and really listen to what your characters are trying to tell you.

Oh, and happy Oscar Sunday!


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Brilliantly Wrecked12.11.11

I was pleasantly surprised by this little movie, as I had never heard of it and had no idea what to expect. It has received low reviews on Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb, but I believe that is due to the few people who have actually seen it. It is not mainstream, it does not sound fun, and it is at times grueling and difficult to watch because you as the viewer become so emotionally engaged and drawn into the world of the story that you will suffer along with the hero as he goes through his harrowing experience.

I highly recommend everyone watch it. This film is an amazing example of visual storytelling, and how you can accomplish intense moments and emotional engagement with very little dialogue, few characters and a simple plot. The hero has a clear, visible goal, one that on the surface sounds easy to accomplish, but because of his circumstances and the enormous obstacles he faces, becomes an incredibly difficult experience that takes him through an intense emotional arc. All of this is done with brilliant visuals and superb acting, with hardly any dialogue. Screenwriters of all genres can learn a lot from how this film utilizes obstacles and Adrien Brody’s acting talent to convey emotion and tell a compelling story without dialogue, without expensive sets or special effects, with only the simplest and most effective filmmaking tools.


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Modern Princesses-Ariel11.04.11

Unlike their classic counterparts, the Disney princesses of the late 80s and beyond displayed significantly more strength and spirit than the sweet empty-headed girls of the past. Ariel, Belle and Rapunzel all had big dreams and visible goals that they themselves worked hard to achieve. Love was still a part of their story, but unlike Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora, these modern women did not depend upon men to make their dreams come true, nor were their goals entirely wrapped around snagging a husband.

Ariel is a spirited, rebellious teenager, even before she lays eyes on Aric, she knows what she wants and won’t let anyone dissuade her from pursuing her big unrealistic goal. Ariel has glimpsed the world out of the sea and wants desperately to join in, to be human, to experience exotic things like sun, sand, and walking on two feet. She defies her father’s orders and makes frequent trips to the surface to marvel at the human world and collect treasures that remind her of her goal. What she wants is impossible, but she is not discouraged and she doesn’t let obstacles prevent her from getting what she wants. Her prince becomes a part of her goal, but he is not her primary focus, and her desire to become human began long before she fell in love with him. Ariel does not simply float around in the ocean waiting for Aric to figure out a way to save her and make her human, she takes concrete steps towards achieving her goal by visiting Ursula and making a deal to become human. Once she is on land, she is faced with the enormous obstacle of having to woo her prince without her voice. But it is up to her, not her man, and she is the one actively working to pursue and ultimately achieve this goal. This difference is what makes Ariel a modern hero, one that can be studied as a good example of how to create active, admirable heroes who drive the action of your story.


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Passive Princesses-the good thing about nice girls10.24.11

In the prior two posts, I discussed how the classic Disney princesses were poor examples of active heroes. But there is something you can learn from these sweet, nice girls. While they may not work as examples of active heroes, they can teach us much about creating sympathetic characters that the audience will like.

The Disney princesses of the past exemplified many of the qualities needed to create sympathy with an audience. They were nice people, well loved by others, incredibly kind and unselfish. Snow White and Cinderella were cheerful and giving, kindly doing the harsh manual labor they were forced into without complaint, singing cheerfully and whistling while they worked. This cheerful attitude makes them seem like someone you might enjoy spending time with, and this makes you care about them and want to see them succeed.  Sleeping Beauty was beautiful and good at everything she did, she was kind to her fairy foster mothers and came across as a sweet, charming person, someone you would want to spend time with.

These girls also had undeserved misfortune befall them. Through no fault of their own, they were subjected to cruel living conditions, torn from the ones they loved and treated poorly. Cinderella’s father died, leaving her with a jealous, overbearing stepmother who tried to conceal her beauty by forcing her to work like a servant. Snow White invoked the jealousy of a queen who could not stand the idea of a woman more beautiful than herself even existing, and was thus forced into hiding and nearly killed just because she happened to have a fair complexion. Aurora suffered due to her parents’ slighting of a powerful fairy, though she had no say in the guest list of her own baptism, the little princess was cursed and forced to live in exile to be protected from the fairy’s wrath.

These unfortunate events also caused another empathy technique to come into play, they caused the audience to worry about the princesses. When a character is in danger, especially a character we already like and care about, the audience will care about their safety and become invested in finding out if the character is going to survive and come out of their ordeal. We want to make sure they’re okay, this causes emotional engagement, and makes the viewer want to keep watching, which is exactly what you want to happen. We know Snow White is living on borrowed time with the dwarves, and worry about what will happen to her when the Queen arrives with the poisoned apple. When she falls into her slumber, we worry that the Prince will not arrive in time to save her, and this worry creates empathy and suspense. When Cinderella leaves the ball and the Prince nearly misses his chance to find her, we worry that she will never be reunited with her true love, and miss her chance to escape her dreary life. When Aurora pricks her finger and falls into that deep sleep, we worry that the Prince will not get to her in time, and she will be stuck in that state forever.



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Making Time for Baby!10.15.11

I am pleased to announce that I will be taking some time off from consulting for a very good reason. My husband and I are expecting our first child to be born any day now and I am giving myself some maternity leave. Here’s a preview of our little girl, due on October 16:

I will still be posting blogs, so check back for new articles. I will not be taking on new consultation clients until January of 2012. Until then, I am pleased to be able to refer you to another associate of Michael Hauge’s-Marissa Jo Cerar. For more information on her services, please visit 

Looking forward to working with you in the new year!



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Passive Princesses-Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty08.15.11

As their counterpart Snow White, both Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty acted as passive victims in their own stories. They were helpless pawns caught up in the adventures of others who ultimately had to wait around for someone else-the true hero in our terms-to save them.

Like Snow White, Cinderella, envied for her beauty, is forced into the menial housework of a servant when she is in fact a nobly born gentlewoman. Without her father to protect her, the wrath of a jealous stepmother has put her in a role of servitude that she is helpless to escape. Cinderella shows a bit of initiative and drive in that she wants to go to the ball, but, like Snow White wishing for her prince to come save her, she takes little action aside from singing and daydreaming about her rescuer. Her chance comes when her fairy godmother steps in to give her what she wants. She does nothing to earn it, other than, like Snow White’s famed complexion, possessing small beautiful feet that the prince with a foot fetish finds irresistible.  Looking at the story in screenwriting terms, we see that it is the prince more than Cinderella who acts as the hero. He desires a wife, so he throws a ball, he meets his tiny-footed soul mate but quickly loses track of her, spurring him onto the pursuit of his next goal, to find her, which he does, while she passively, helplessly waits for him, unable to act on her own.  Her stepmother, too, acts to fulfill her goals and makes things happen. She wants to see her daughters married off, but realizing their drop dead gorgeous stepsister will ruin any chances they have with a man who doesn’t love big wart-ridden feet, tries to hide Cindy’s beauty in an attempt to help her daughters secure husbands.

Aurora, like Cinderella and Snow White, is punished by a jealous older female, in this case not for her beauty, but because the fairy was not invited to her Baptism. She is cursed to fall dead on her sixteenth birthday. She is whisked away to the woods to live safe from the wicked fairy’s curse, unaware of her noble origins or destiny. But, as is often the case in these stories, destiny truly does control her fate and despite the good fairies’ efforts to protect her she finds herself drawn not only to the prince she was betrothed to at said Baptism, but the cursed spinning wheel that will seal her fate. Because her fate controls what happens to you, Aurora lives at the will of others, unable to make decisions on her own about where she lives or who she’ll marry. She tries to overcome what is being done to her, but inevitably falls into an enchanted sleep, just like Snow White, which renders her completely passive, in both the literal and screenwriting sense of the word. It is Prince Phillip who comes to her rescue, fighting the wicked fairy and awakening her with a kiss.

In writing your own stories, be they fairytales or not, keep in mind these passive princesses as examples  of how not to write a hero. Other characters can behave like the princesses, but your hero, the primary focus of the story and the one who is leading the action and moving the story forward, needs to behave more like the princes, or the evil stepmother/queen/fairy-the characters with strong desires and concrete visible goals who work towards making them happen.

In my next post, we’ll talk about what you can learn from even these passive princesses, and what traits do carry over well in to modern heroes in a screenplay.


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Passive Princesses07.28.11

Disney Princesses of the past have been widely criticized as being poor examples of heroines for little girls, being empty-headed beauties who do nothing for themselves but wait around for their prince to come and improve their situation. Both Cinderella and Snow White spent all their time between their chores waiting and hoping and dreaming for a man to rescue them from their drudgery, never once imagining they could pull themselves up out of their unfortunate circumstances. The more modern princess tales responded to this criticism by tweaking the classic storylines to put the women in the more active role so that landing a man is not their sole objective and only solution to their problems, just a fun happily ever bonus on top of their more acceptable-to-modern-women career and life goals. As screenwriters and storytellers, examining the differences of the past and present princesses can teach us about the difference between an active hero and a passive one.

For this exploration I’m going to limit the films I discuss to animated Disney princess films-those in which the main character is a princess by birth (Sleeping Beauty, Ariel, Rapunzel) and/or marriage (Snow White, Belle, Cinderella) so Alice in Wonderland and Wendy are out, and those in which the featured storyline and hero is the female/princess-sorry Aladdin and Pinocchio. And it needs to be a movie I’ve seen (sorry Princess and the Frog, you’re out for now).

First we’ll look at the three major Disney princesses of the past-Snow White, Cinderella and Aurora from Sleeping Beauty. Next I’ll compare them to three modern Disney princesses-Ariel from The Little Mermaid, Belle from Beauty and the Beast and Rapunzel from Tangled.

Current storytelling wisdom teaches that the hero of the story is the active character who pursues a goal. If asked who the hero of Snow White is, one would obviously feel that Snow White herself served as the hero, however if we apply the modern definition of a screenplay hero to this story, we find Snow White is the passive victim in every scene, never once doing anything to function as an active hero. It is the wicked queen who has a visible goal-to kill all competition and remain the “fairest” in the land. She is the one who actively pursues this goal with determination. She devises a plan-have a huntsman kill Snow White. When this plan fails, she continues on, undeterred by this obstacle, and disguises herself to present Snow White with a poisoned apple. This objective ultimately fails as well, but not because of the actions of the princess, because of the clever dwarves, and the handsome prince. Without them Snow White would remain, passively slumbering, forever. Told from her perspective, the Queen is the clear hero of the story and the active character. Though her goals are ignoble, she has them and actively pursues them.

Snow White has a goal, or a “dream” as they are called in Disney-speak: to marry a prince who will save her and improve her life. But unlike the Queen, Snow White does nothing active in pursuit of this goal. She passively accepts her fate, cheerfully does her chores, even maintaining that famed fair complexion while working out in the sun all day, and does not act until something happens to her that forces her to get up and go. When the huntsman warns her of danger, she runs away to another group of me who will rescue her and take her in and tell her what to do. And unlike the Queen, who is already plotting an active way to overcome the current obstacle, Snow White is content to stay with the dwarves and take care of them, regardless of how this will make accomplishing her goal unlikely.


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When Establishing Shots go bad06.27.11

Establishing shots are a great way to orient the reader or viewer and visually draw them into the story. A quick skyline shot can instantly tell the viewer in which city the story is taking place. An establishing shot of a building or home can help ease a transition and give visual clues about the characters, such as where and how they live.

But sometimes establishing shots get out of control. Frequently, I see new writers getting grandiose with their establishing shots, not simply showing us the city or street where the action will be taking place, but starting ridiculously far out-in space. This is not new, creative, or deep. Thousands of new writers before you have tried to inject profundity into their stories by starting in space and zooming in, to make a subtle commentary on how small we are, how vast the universe. Please, spare me. Unless you have a significantly compelling reason to start with an outer space establishing shot-as in your story is primarily about space travel or aliens journeying from space to Earth-please do not start out high in the blackness of space, travelling into the galaxy, the planet, through the atmosphere to the continent, the city, etc. It’s too much, it’s silly, it’s hackneyed and it’s not necessary. No one is going to be impressed with this technique. They’re going to roll their eyes at you and go into the story with the impression that you take it, and yourself, far too seriously.


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Being in 2 places at once-INT./EXT.06.20.11

As briefly touched on in my post on Formatting Basics-INT./EXT. there is rarely, if ever a reason to use the combination INT./EXT. in a slug line. I won’t say never, because I’m sure someone will come up with some bizarre circumstance where it works, or cite some famous screenplay that won 17 awards for its superb writing where the screenwriter used INT./EXT. all the time, but it’s definitely not necessary in 99% of cases.

The reason I see most writers relying on this combination is that they are not precisely directing action, which is ironic given that in other instances writers try too hard to direct and go above and beyond what they need to do as a writer, stepping on the future director’s toes. But in this case, you can and should be precise in how you envision a scene, and include new scene headings to indicate exactly where action is taking place, which will always be either inside or outside, never both.

If, for example, a scene begins inside a car and then the characters get out of the car, a lot of writers simplify with the slug INT./EXT. CAR. While this is logical, practical and easy, it is lazy writing that does not precisely direct the action the way you should in your script. When the characters are in the car, it is an interior scene. As soon as they get out of the car, we are in a new exterior scene which needs its own new slug line. Any change in time or location is a new scene which necessitates a new slug line.

The other times I frequently see INT./EXT. used is when characters are standing in a doorway talking. One character is in the house or building, the other is outside, so it seems logical that this would be both an interior and exterior shot. However, if you take a moment and think about what you’re asking of the director, you’re setting up an impossible situation. How would one shoot a scene that is both inside and outside? Go inside the walls and put half the frame inside and half outside? Probably not. As in the car example, the scene would most likely go from an interior to an exterior and back, each transition equaling a new scene requiring a new slug line. In your script, you could indicate that, for example, when the character outside was speaking we would have an interior shot with the inside person looking out at the person on their porch, and when the interior person was responding, the shot could move to an exterior shot looking in at the inside person. Or we could shoot the entire scene from the outside looking at the doorway, or the inside looking out. There are many different ways these scenes could be shot, and that is up to you and your style and vision for the scenes, but  each change in location, even moving between a doorway and a porch, is a new scene requiring new slug line.


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Busy is not active05.13.11

One of the things I am constantly telling writers to do is to make their characters more active. If you’ve ever taken a screenwriting course or read a book on the subject, you’ve most likely heard the advice that your hero should not be passive. A simple and often used solution to the problem of passivity is to make the character busy, to give them something to do in every moment, even if it is small, meaningless gestures or actions. This is not the solution to the problem of passivity, and it is not what is meant by having an active hero.

It helped me understand the concept of passivity when I started to think of it as reactivity. A passive hero reacts to things that happen to him, rather than proactively making things happen. An active hero is not just a literally active character-someone who is constantly in motion or moving. An active hero is a hero who is constantly working towards a goal by doing things that they believe will help them achieve their goal. A passive hero can still be extremely active, they may be a racecar driver who does triathalons on the weekend and can’t sit still, but that alone does not make them an active, non-passive hero, it just makes them busy.  If said hero’s goal was to publish a novel, then all of that activity would be useless busy work that would not at all help contribute to the completion of that goal. In this case, more mundane, quiet non-active pursuits, such as sitting at a computer and writing, would be the truly active things the hero needed to do. The triathalons are physically and literally more active than sitting at a computer and typing, but do not push the hero closer to completing and publishing his novel.

When you are told your hero is passive and needs to be more active, don’t simply inject busy work and imagine that this is going to magically transform them from passive to active. Think about the goal. What does your hero want? What are they doing to make that goal happen? Any activity that is not in some way related to the pursuit of the goal is not helping to make them less passive and more active, it is just making them busy.


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