Peggy Bechko: Cornering Your Character

choices-sign

by Peggy Behcko

We’re writers. We tend to fall in love with our character. They become our buddies and we’re loath to hurt them or cause them extreme difficulty.

And yet that’s exactly what we have to do in order to produce a fantastic script or novel. You have to be downright mean, forcing your favored character into a corner with no obvious way out and very little wiggle room.

Those who read your novels or watch the movie resulting from your script have to see a character with a spine, convictions, and unique personality to cheer for. That’s what they’re there for. That’s why they read and watch movies.

Characters who don’t have a hook, who aren’t intriguing and able to face tough challenges and make forceful decisions are going to be like limp noodles – they’ll just lie there. And your readers and watchers will walk away.

So, what to do.

Make sure something that matters is at stake, then make sure there’s no easy way out so your character has to make a real choice and he has to act on that choice without any dilly-dallying. Here’s where you’re creating tension and that carries your story forward on a wave of anticipation.

Especially if you’ve made those choices difficult and not simply the choosing one lesser evil over another. Find every way you can to make it hard.

What if that character can either save a planet or save the one he loves?

What if an attorney is defending an accused serial killer he finds is truly guilty and what if that killer is his best friend from high school?

What if she has always wanted to explore the stars and gets the opportunity but has a family? Can she go? At what cost? What if she finds out the experiments in flight are the ones that will save the life of her daughter on earth – and that it is a one way trip?

Think about the questions that many must face in life – WHEN does the end justify the means? When is killing the innocent justified? Was ‘Spock’ right and the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one? Can you kill a friend to save a city? Can you NOT kill a friend when a city will die if you don’t?

Hard choices. Slippery slopes. That’s what it’s all about. Put a ramrod in your character’s spine and get him or her out there. Make your readers and watchers ask, “how’s he/she going to get out of this one?” and then dig deep for the answers to those questions and find a way.

Pat your character on the shoulder, tell him or her you’re sorry, then throw them into the maelstrom. Emotional, physical, mental or all three – even better all three. Throw the worst possible at them and see what comes out the other side.

The Untold Legal Drama Of Coyote v. Acme

Cuz we all need something to love:

coyote v acmeby Geoff Manaugh

Back in 1990, in an awesome piece for The New Yorker, author Ian Frazier told the—shall we say—little-known story of Wile E. Coyote’s endless legal battles with the Acme Company. Now, the tale of Coyote’s legal tribulations, suing Acme for grievous personal injury and catastrophic product malfunction, has been designed and republished by Michael Bierut of Pentagram, featuring original diagrams by Daniel Weil.

Frazier’s premise is that Coyote has finally had enough of the injury, trauma, and humiliation inflicted upon him by Acme products—products that never seem to work as intended and that always, in the end, turn against the person (or, his case, animal) using them. So he has lawyered up and taken his case to court.

“My client,” we read on the opening page of the ensuing fictional legal argument, “Mr. Wile E. Coyote, a resident of Arizona and contiguous states, does hereby bring suit for damages against the Acme Company, manufacturer and retail distributor of assorted merchandise, incorporated in Delaware and doing business in every state, district, and territory. Mr. Coyote seeks compensation for personal injuries, loss of business income, and mental suffering caused as a direct result of the actions and/or gross negligence of said company, under Title 15 of the United States Code, Chapter 47, section 2072, subsection (a), relating to product liability.”

The dry legalese of Frazier’s text sets a perfect tone for this—and it is maintained consistently, going through “improper cautionary labeling,” for example, to a case of “sudden and extreme malfunction” in the case of Coyote’s spring-powered shoes.

However, if imaginary legal arguments aren’t quite your bag, Weil’s helpful diagrams of the offending products add an awesome level of investigative detail to the new publication.

Read it all (including terrific diagrams/pics)

VERONICA MARS digital series winging its way to the interwebs

by Team TVWriter™ Press Service

veronica-mars-movie-posterThe CW announced today that a spinoff of the long-running show that’s about to hit the big screen will air online. It’s from Rob Thomas, the creator of the series and the upcoming movie.

The show will post on CW Seed, the network’s home for original digital series.

Sadly, the CW had very few details to share with the press today at the annual Television Critics Tour in Pasadena because the deal was justdone. CW Entertainment President Mark Pedowitz said Thomas is “thrilled” with what CW Seed is doing and already has some ideas about what characters could be featured in the spinoff.

They aren’t telling us about them, though, cuz…spoilers! (Or maybe cuz they don’t really have a clue since this all came together in a whirlwind just a few days ago?)

Swapping Jokes

Ken Levine AKA Our Pal Who Doesn’t Know We Exist, scores again!

tv-jokesby Ken Levine

Recently in a post I wrote a joke that some felt was too insensitive. Was it? You could argue either way. But I decided it was easier to just swap it out for another joke. I could have stayed with it, but in this case figured it wasn’t worth offending some people. I say “in this case” because in other instances I have kept original jokes that was controversial.

But I kept those because I thought they worked and were appropriate and those who were offended were overly sensitive. You can’t do humor without offending someone. I have never however, kept a joke because I thought it would be too hard to replace.

Professional comedy writers learn early that swapping out jokes is just a part of the game. Many young writers are very defensive. They like the joke they wrote, it took forever to come up with that joke, or both. But jokes often need to be changed. And not just because they don’t work. Actors have a problem, the network has a problem, standards & practices have a problem, legal has a problem, the scene changes and it doesn’t fit as well anymore, it’s funny but too jarring, it’s funny but makes the character seem too stupid, it’s too hard to shoot, it’s too similar to another joke, or of course – it’s too Jewish. You get the idea.

Comedy writers need to get in the habit of swapping out jokes. When my writing partner, David and I can’t agree on a line, rather than argue for forty minutes and one team member ultimately unhappy, we just throw it out and come up with something else. It’s easier, faster, and reduces a lot of unnecessary tension.

Read it all

LB Answers Your Questions about Animation Writing

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Well, maybe not your questions, but those from a certain DP for sure. Here’s what he wrote:

I’m working on a half-hour animated show for the People’s Pilot. How should I gauge my Act lengths, or even my script as a whole? I’ve got a few THE SIMPSONS production scripts that I use as a guideline, each one about 50 pages, though that is longer than what most websites say, and longer than past winners I have looked at for the People’s Pilot (they tend to cap at about 30). Is there a general standard on how many pages each act should be/the script as a whole? It feels incredibly hard to tell. And I don’t understand why single-cam vs multi-cam shows should have different script lengths.

3) I’ve read that animated shows/sitcoms are only 2 acts, with a teaser and maybe a tag. That to me would suggest that there is only one commercial break within the meat of the episode (between Acts 1 and 2), and that doesn’t seem right to me. Don’t sitcoms usually have 2 commercial breaks apart from the teaser and tag? Am I crazy, or am I misunderstanding the terms/act breaks.

Thanks for all of your help, I follow TVWriter every day.

DP

And here’s what I’ve got to say in reply:

First of all, thanks for following TVWriter™ every day. Second of all, thanks for planning on entering the PEOPLE’S PILOT. But if you could get, oh, maybe a couple thousand of your friends to do the same, we might be able to sell some advertising and actually cover some of the expenses of producing this site. And then, man, I’d definitely be thanking you bigtime.

(Wait, just kidding. You won’t see any advertising for outside products here no matter how much anyone offers. I mean, can you imagine munchman being able to write and edit this place while feeling beholden to anyone? Right. Neither can I.)

Where were we? Oh, of course. You need some answers. When it comes to the length and formatting of animated teleplays, guess what. It makes no difference. Every production company has its own way of doing things. What they have in common is simply that all their formats are based in some degree on the standard movie-TV script format and the standard live TV format.

If you were writing an episode of an existing show like, say, THE SIMPSONS, since you mentioned it in your question, I’d say to just do what they do, whatever it is. (I used to know, but I haven’t looked lately.) Single cam, multi-cam, single space, doublespace…whatever you’re comfortable with because you’re the creator. You’re the pioneer out there blazing the trail for your idea and you can do it in any way you want. If, sometime in the future, you get a studio or network interested in your show or – glory hallelujah – a network buys it, don’t worry, they’ll tell you exactly how they want it to look. (In every possible creative way as well as in the format, btw, so be prepared.)

That said, I’d suggest that if you use single cam/movie-TV format you should assume that 30 pages is your limit. If you’re using multi-cam/live TV format I’d say you can go up to 45 or 50 pages but you’d better have a lot of stage directions in there eating up the space. Especially since these days the average half-hour animated show runs for only about 15 minutes and a minute per page is still a good although no longer Biblical guide.

(I’m guessing about the running time, based on the fact that THE SILVER SURFER episodes ran 18 minutes and that was 15 years ago when interruptions were fewer and shorter.)

Speaking of interruptions, SURFER had a Teaser, two acts, and a Tag, with commercials between all of those, which means 3 breaks plus, of course, the commercials that came between the opening titles and the Teaser and those that came after the end. These days the number of breaks is pretty much the same, although it may vary depending, again, on the studio and network.

As for how long each act should be, I can only say that on SURFER we tried to keep everything proportionate with each act approximately the same number of pages and the Teaser, by storytelling necessity, probably twice as long as the Tag. I tried to never go longer than 4 or 5 pages for the Teaser and 2 or 2 1/2 for the Tag.

Actually, as I think about this a little more, I’d recommend that you use single-spaced filmed movie-TV format if you can. It’s the easiest for everyone – judges, producers, even agents – to read. The exception I’d make is that if you’re writing an animated sitcom I’d go with whatever THE SIMPSONS is doing now.

Hope I’ve been helpful. Now get to work because, you know our motto when it comes to the PEOPLE’S PILOT (and the SPEC SCRIPTACULAR but that’s not going to be open for several months): Enter early and enter often! (The enter early part is important. Our Early Bird discount price of $35 per entry ends March 1st.

LYMI

LB  

That’s it, gang. I love addressing these issues, but I can’t answer if you don’t ask. So send your questions and make everyone’s day!