“Breathes there a man with a body part so dead that he’s never wished he was called ‘sexiest man alive?'”
Etymologist Arika Okrent may or may not have given our question above any thought, but there’s no doubt that she’s thought long and well about the phrase itself. And, as usual, her knowledge and research expertise are our gain:
While we writers often feel like the unsung heroes of Hollywood, we do keep the Hollywood planet rotating on its crazy axis. As storytellers, we’re the Master Chefs in the Creativity Kitchen. Without a rippin’ good yarn and characters bursting with vitality, they’ve got nothin’!
For our Pilot to be green-lit, for the first season to have a ‘brother’ and then a sister, there must be dynamic ‘character interaction’ lighting up every page, within every episode and across seasons.
While the individual actor will be a vital ingredient by adding their own unique flavor to the magical brew you’re concocting, there’s only so much an actor can do with on-the-nose dialogue, ‘pedestrian’ action, and lack of ‘character chemistry’.
A-listers are picky about their next project and with good reason, it’s their butt on the line because they’re ‘in frame’, which means they’re also picky about who they’re going to ‘play with’.
While we don’t have much input into the casting process, which is largely the Producer’s job, if there’s palpable chemistry between the actors AND the characters they’re portraying via the dialogue and action, the room will light up.
But what if you’ve pitched your project successfully, it’s been green-lit, and the auditioning process is underway and OMG, the room doesn’t light up, what if the gleam in the suits’ eyes begin to pale… someone’s gotta go.
So how can we ensure our creation provides better-than-great material for actors to work with?
Know before we pitch, rather than vaguely hope, that our material is awesome and from page one and every page thereafter. Conduct a Table read of your work before pitching and use real actors you’ve auditioned beforehand… if you’ve got the chemistry right, you’ll see sparks fly.
An actor eager for a chance to play is one thing, but how do we know our material will stack up under rigorous, if not vicious scrutiny?
For starters, ‘pixie dust’ in the form of great writing is a given and as the humble writer in the room, that’s about all we can deliver.
Our two-cents-worth in the casting process will be just that – minimal, so we must rely on our writing. If we’re a staff writer, there’ll be plenty of other writers in the room only too willing to outshine us and impress the showrunner with their brilliant, pithy dialogue and hip action… no end to pressure – we’re only as good as our last performance.
But what if we’re spec writers without that vicious sounding board?
The writer’s group who meet every third Tuesday may not be a good choice.
There’s sure to be more than one of us out there who’ve received feedback, which calls into question what planet or drugs was the reader on when they ‘read’ it?
Because it’s clear they didn’t; they merely perused it; if that. Most of us are honest, but some struggle with the demons of insecurity, jealousy and downright laziness.
Once you written the entire narrative, run multiple passes on each component of the script: the dialogue – one character at a time and for every scene they’re in; their action; character ‘voice’; mannerisms and style.
Is there consistency across the narrative arc? Does the dialogue ‘flow’? Critique without mercy!
Think about how an actor might play a specific character and deal with the scene, how the characters interact on the page and what’s in it for them.
The actor that’s cast will get under the character’s skin and take on that persona, which means there’s a duality going on in their heads, and you’d be wise to take that into account.
Once you’ve done the aforementioned passes, work through the script scene-by-scene, and do a scene analysis for both characters.
Examine one character at a time. Determine the following: Scene objective, Beats and for each of those, the Beat objective, action, the emotional state of the character/actor coming into that beat and the accompanying Subtext.
This may sound like gobbledygook to you, but actors that are properly trained, go through this process, scene-by-scene in preparation; it’s not a matter of just ‘winging it’ with raw talent and memorized lines.
Let’s gaze into our crystal ball… the project has been green-lit and auditions are underway… if the professional actor has prepared properly, they’ll be able to take direction and make adjustment.
One way to do this is by having three (3) different ways to present the scene. For the Casting Director, this demonstrates flexibility and a willingness to work with the Director.
Have you, as the writer, provided them with the scope to do that? For your work to be true ‘actor bait’, it’s not just the rippin’ good yarn you’ve told and the compelling character/s you’ve created, but also, and especially for A-lists, how well the script is written.
Professional actors are reading scripts or excerpts from them, every day – they know a good script when they see one. If knowing the attached Director, they’ll already have some idea of the latter’s ‘signature style’ and the likely choices he/she will make to realize their vision.
Just quietly, you as the writer, need to set these people up. Make it an enticing, sugar-coated trap, that’s mutually beneficial for all concerned.
Back to the present… once you’re sure that you’ve got each scene as dynamic and polished to the nth degree, seek reputable, industry-standard coverage and/or take a class with LB… he’ll tell you straight.
A study of what’s currently out there – on screen and on the page via the script, will help you better understand the concept of character chemistry. Determine whether it’s happening in other TV shows, and ideally, how you can ‘deliver’ on that.
Select a program and do multiple viewings of the same episode, focusing on one actor at a time.
Does he/she (the actor) look comfortable? Does the banter between the actors match their body-language? It always cracks me up watching Actor A (in character) say, “I love you, sweetheart” to Actor B (also in character), while shaking their head in denial.
Look at their eyes – you’ll generally be able to tell if the actor is ‘in character, boots an all’ (or not). For the dialogue, listen to the banter (don’t watch) and get a sense the ease of interaction (or lack thereof).
If the program is now into subsequent seasons, they must be doing something right; at least in the eyes on the viewing audience, and that’s what matters most (to the suits).
Take for instance, Arrow (The CW, 2012 -) … Oliver (Stephen Arnell) & Felicity (Emily Bett Rickards), are a classic example of opposites working together brilliantly.
Look at Lucifer (Fox, 2015 -) … the character Lucifer (Tom Ellis) & Chloe (Lauren German) are a couple flawlessly adept at weaving magic through their delightful witty banter and sexual tension; well done writers – namely, Tom Kapinos (and of course the actors).
If you can’t read the actual screenplay, study the dialogue across the seasons – for specific characters and think about how the actors (under direction), are maintaining energy, consistency and dynamism in the scene….
Remember, as “mere” writers, we don’t have much say as to which actor is cast, so we’re totally reliant on the script via the dialogue and action.
Get busy and be awesome!
Diana Black is an optioned screenwriter who has placed in competitions with features and teleplays. She’s also a professional actor with a Bachelor of Creative Arts – Drama, Film & TV. She’s a ScreenwritingU Alumni and a regular contributor to TVWriter.com.
The language of TV and screenwriting is constantly changing, just like everything else in the universe – well, our little corner of it anyway – and this TVWriter™ minion has to admit that sometimes even I don’t know what people way smarter than I do are talking about.
Case in point: The phrase “Inciting Incident.” This term has had me scratching my head for years. Does it replace “The Call to Action?” or does it supplement it? I never was able to figure it out till I saw this article on the interwebs last week.
WHAT IS AN INCITING INCIDENT IN A SCREENPLAY?
by Script Reader Pro
…It’s no wonder many aspiring writers are left confused about the nature of the term “inciting incident” when it’s routinely used to describe three different major plot points during Act 1 in the first thirty-minutes of a movie.
Let’s first take a quick look at these three different inciting incident definitions. Then we’ll explain what we think is the best approach when it comes to writing an inciting incident in a screenplay.
Inciting Incident Definition #1 (min 1 – 3)
Some refer to the inciting incident as the moment in the first few minutes of a movie that ignites the story, whether the protagonist is involved or not.
Catherine murdering a man during sex in the opening scene of Basic Instinctwould be an example. Or Cady moving from Africa back to America in the opening of Mean Girls.
(Note: sometimes this definition occurs off-screen, such as Chris and Rose arranging to visit her parents in Get Out.)
Inciting Incident Definition #2 (min 10 – 15)
This popular inciting incident definition is that it introduces the protagonist to the conflict they’ll need to resolve in the rest of the movie around twelve minutes into the film.
An example would be Greenberg meeting Florence in Greenberg. Or Rachel learning about the existence of the tape in The Ring.
Inciting Incident Definition #3 (min 20 – 30)
Others stipulate that the inciting incident occurs around minute 25 when the protagonist is hit by another major crisis and leaves Act 1 to enter the “new world” of Act 2.
An example would be when Carl fires blanks from the apartment window in Detroit and the cops mistake it for a sniper attack. Or in La La Land when Mia and Sebastian walk back to their cars together after she teases him at his gig and they perform a dance together.
You will see all inciting incident definitions in books, blogs and magazines and hear all three used by screenwriters, managers, producers and script readers. It can all get pretty confusing and so let’s see if we can answer the question “What is an inciting incident?…”
Sometimes it seems as though the phrase “being employed” automatically means, “Help! I’m being harassed.” Or are we all just snowflakes, melting when we should be standing firm?
Look Out For Horrible Hollywood Bosses
by David Silverman, MA, LMFT
With the whole writing staff watching, waiting to work, our boss would be trying on pants. A tailor was taking his measurements. When he was satisfied, he told the tailor he’d like thirty pair of these pants sent to his home in LA, and thirty pair sent to his summer home.
Thirty pair? Sixty total? That’s a lot of pants. What was going on?
This took place in the writer’s room of the show he’d created. His official title was Executive producer. He was our boss, our leader, the showrunner. He made all the high level creative decisions. Without him, the rewrites couldn’t begin. The writers were ready to work.
There was always plenty of work to do. However, it felt like he was always stalling. Procrastinating. He had a hard time getting started on all the rewrites. There was no urgency.
We’d leave at 2 AM, or sometimes stay up all night. What was going on with him? Didn’t he miss his family? Did he just like hanging out with us?
After working with him for a while it became clear that he wasn’t an intentionally mean boss (like so many others),but was basically a big kid.
He liked to race golf carts around the studio like they were go-karts. One time he had a staff writer riding on the back of the cart. The showrunner decided to “pop a wheelie,” causing the writer to fall backwards off the golf cart and break his leg. He spent the next few months wearing a cast.
It kind of seemed like he wanted to show off in front of us.
One time, while the writing staff was supposed to be working, he picked up the phone and ranted at the network suits for twenty minutes and banned them from the set. Then he hung up. And laughed.
These rewrite sessions took place generally in the late afternoon, after rehearsals. The entire writing staff would gather in his office as he got ready to rewrite that week’s script. At this point he’d look for things to do instead of writing. Anything….
Calling in favors is the true currency of indie filmmaking, and often the form of these favors is enlisting friends to be a part of your cast or crew. Perhaps you’re all equals, having gone into the project together to make something you’re all proud of. Perhaps one person created something cool and everyone else swarmed to support. In any case, though, mixing business with friendship and not having any money is bound to get complicated. Here are 6 tips I’ve learned or gleaned from fellow filmmakers on how to work with friends and actually stay friends with them.
As early as humanly possible, you need to decide who’s in charge; if the command structure is weak or fragmented, you will fight more because everyone is vying for control. Even if the same person isn’t in charge on and off set, make sure everyone is aware of the food chain no matter where they are. For example, in my projects so far I’ve been a writer/actor/producer and am in charge of most things off set, but as soon as I put my costume on, my director is the point person. If I disagree with the director on set, the solution is either for me to back down or for them to try both because the director is in charge and I have to respect that.
This is even more important when you’re among friends, and it’s going to be uncomfortable at first, but you’re going to have to get over that. You have to take your work seriously, otherwise no one else will. Keep the lines clear and you should be able to skirt the muddier parts of collaborating with friends. For more advice on the leader/friend balance, check out Kyla Dowling’s article all about it!
2. Get it in writing
See here and here for some guidance, but all that considered, it doesn’t have to be a crazy 18-pager in full legal jargon. A contract in this case is largely to indicate, in writing, that all parties take this work seriously and that they have agreed upon terms and responsibilities for said work….
Bri Castellini is an indie filmmaker and Community Director at Stareable, our favorite web series hub. Watch the remarkable Ms. Castellini’s award-winning web series, Brains, HERE. See Sam And Pat Are Depressed HERE. This post first appeared on Stareable’s Blog.