It’s my pleasure today to be able to interview JS Mayank, who is not only a screenwriter, but also a director and producer of films in the wild and crazy world of Hollywood. Originally from England, Mayank has been in the screenwriting world for more than a decade and seems to thrive in the world of film making. He currently has four films to his credit, and his short film SOMEDAY just premiered in New York last month. Please help me welcome him as he shares some of his thoughts and screenwriting and film making experiences with us today.
Kaye: When did you know you wanted to be a screenwriter?
JS: I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was two and a half. I would draw pictures and then get my parents, grandparents, or any other grown up to write it down– dictating corresponding stories to go along with the drawings. So I’ve always been a storyteller. But for screenwriting specifically, I remember I was in highschool (in India), when I came across the screenplay for THE SIXTH SENSE. It was the first script I had ever seen, and I read it before seeing the movie. When I finally watched the film, I was astounded by how closely it mimicked what I had read on the page. That was a moment of epiphany for me, and I fell in love with the medium.
Kaye: Would you briefly share the story of your own screenwriting journey? How did you go from writing your first screenplay to becoming not only a screenwriter, but a director and producer as well?
JS: Wow. That’s quite the sprawling canvas. I suppose the short version is – I always loved movies and TV. I was obsessed with Hollywood filmmaking in particular. After my undergraduate degree in Economics, I decided to take a year to work with a not-for-profit organization in India, where my boss was making documentaries for the UN, WHO, UNESCO etc. That’s where I fell in love with the form. From there, I came to the US, did a Masters in Communication at Wake Forest University (NC) – finishing the two year course in one year, and taking the second year to just watch movies. I saw over 1500 films in one year. It was the most intense education ever. After that, I got into the MFA program for Directing and production at Loyola Marymount University (CA), and moved to LA. That’s where I trained in the actual craft of directing and producing.
Kaye: What is the working title of your next movie?
JS: The Dead Wives Club – it’s a British dramedy.
Kaye: Which screenwriter, dead or alive, would you love to have lunch with?
JS: A few years ago, I would have said Damon Lindelof (the creator of LOST/THE LEFTOVERS), but he’s now my mentor, and I can already do that. I think I’d like to go with someone who’s not alive. Probably my favorite female screenwriter – Nora Ephron!
Kaye: What is the biggest challenge of being a screenwriter?
JS: I suppose it’s the same as the challenges of trying to make a living as any other kind of writer. Self doubt. Procrastination. Crippling self doubt. Lack of certainty. No job security. Did I mention debilitating self doubt?
Kaye: What’s the most fun part of writing a screenplay? What’s the least fun part?
JS: To me, breaking the story – creating the world, characters, scenarios – that initial spark of the idea is the biggest rush ever! Pure creativity. I suppose, rewriting is the least fun – though absolutely one of the most important parts of the process.
Kaye: What is the most important quality in a screenplay for you?
JS: Voice. A writer’s unique expression. The way they see the world. Quentin Tarantino is totally different from Nancy Meyers, who’s completely separate from Diablo Cody, who’s miles apart from Donald Glover.
Kaye: As a screenwriter, what kind of research do you find yourself doing for your stories?
JS: When I’m writing a script, I immerse myself into every aspect of that world. There’s a TV project I’m developing that I’ve been researching for almost 10 years. Others, I’ll talk to experts, read books, watch documentaries… whatever it takes. I love learning, so research is actually one of my favorite aspects of the job. Sometimes I feel like I enjoy research more than writing… But that’s probably just because I’m procrastinating.
Kaye: Your movie SOMEDAY had its US premiere at the Dominican Film Festival in NY (DFFNY) on July 29th, and won best short there. Would you like to tell us a little about that movie?
JS: SOMEDAY started as a collaboration between an actress friend of mine (Katherine Castro), who said something interesting happened to her, and that it’d make a great movie. Usually when someone says that, it’s really not all that fascinating, but I’ve been a huge fan of hers, and so gave her the benefit of the doubt. When I heard the story, I absolutely knew it was a film. She had an encounter on a plane with someone who was very famous, and she had no idea. They simply conversed the entire way, and had an immense connection. I knew there was a story in there I wanted to tell. So I wrote it, sent her the script, and wished her the best with the project. A day later, she called me saying she loved it, and wanted me to direct it as well. It was a dream collaboration from start to finish.
SOMEDAY: Written & Directed by J S Mayank
Two strangers meet on a 14 hour non-stop flight from Sydney to Los Angeles. Adam is a world-famous composer, but Melody doesn’t recognize her flight companion. Along the way, they laugh, flirt and pour their hearts out… a connection made more beautiful precisely because of its fleeting nature.
Here’s a trailer for it: https://vimeo.com/268517195
Kaye: You are both a screenwriter and the director for Someday. Is there a secret to balancing the dual roles?
JS: Realizing that the script is just a blueprint. A template. A roadmap. Once I’m the director, I have to have a singular overarching vision for the movie, but also realize that I have a great team around me – cinematographer, production designer, costumer, VFX supervisor, editor, composer… and of course, my actors. Each of these collaborators bring their own expertise, ideas and opinions, and sometimes that demands alterations to the screenplay. My job as the director is to ensure each change is for the better.
Kaye: What’s it like to sit in a theater and watch the premier for a movie that you have created?
JS: Nerve-wracking, panic inducing, and absolutely one of the greatest feelings in the world. Seeing an audience reacting to your work is beyond words.
Kaye: What’s the best piece of advice you were ever given?
JS: Two pieces. First, from Bruce Cohen (producer of American Beauty, Big Fish):
“Always lead with your best foot forward. It’s good to be humble in your personal life. But for work, have a healthy sense of ego in what you do (as long as you have the goods to back it up).”
Second, from my mentor, Damon Lindelof (LOST, The Leftovers):
“Keep doing the work. It will save you every time.”
Kaye: What advice do you have for aspiring screenwriters?
JS: Write every day. Write what you’re passionate about. And don’t take no for an answer. Also, be kind (but that’s just general life advice).
Kaye: What is the one thing in your screenwriting career that is the most unusual or unique thing you’ve done so far?
JS: It’s a new project, and something that will probably take my career to the next level, but unfortunately, I can’t talk about it. I’m under an NDA. Keep a look-out for something in September, though.
Thank you JS. You’ve definitely piqued our interest. I know I can’t wait. I want to thank you for joining us here today on Writing to be Read. It’s been a pleasure to chat with you. You certainly offered some insight into the world of film making.
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Every event we take part in touches us in some way, helping to shape us into who we are. Our experiences change us, sometimes in small ways, and sometimes in more drastic ways. We live, we learn, we transform, and always there is movement and growth. Certainly, the 2018 Writing the Rockies Conference was one such inspirational event, although there were so many offerings, it would be impossible for me to touch on them all. The offerings which I did get to attend were very informative and inspirational.
During the welcome reception, the program director, Dr. David Rothman, talked about what it is that makes the Writing the Rockies Conference stand out among other writing conferences. Certainly, the fact that it leans heavily toward the academic aspects of writing should be counted toward the top of the list. Not that the writings explored are all academic in nature, but the intention is to educate us in how to tap our inner creativity and allow it to flow out onto the page. And every year that I have attended the conference, like everything else in life, it changes and grows.
The Writing the Rockies Conference has expanded considerably since I first attended in 2012, and has even grown some since I last attended in 2016.In addition to the great panels and single day workshops, and their outstanding poetry symposium, which are offered every year, the 2018 line-up included an opera performance and workshop, three-day intensive workshops and seminars in all five concentrations, (creative nonfiction, genre fiction, poetry, screenwriting and publishing), which are available for an additional fee. And as usual, there were opportunities to sign up for pitch sessions and manuscript critiques, and social events such as Coffee with the Pros, where you have the chance to chat with professionals from the industry, both student and professional readings, as well as open mic events and a full day’s schedule of nature hikes in the Gunnison Valley, (one more thing which makes this Conference unique). While attending, there were also opportunities to attend a special presentation of Comedy is Hard by Mike Reiss and a one man play, Multitudes: An Evening with Walt Whitman by Kim Nuzzo, both public performances which coincided with Conference dates.
In his Keynote, author, poet and educator, Mark Todd discussed Writing From the Edge of Nowhere, and why so many writers sprout from Colorado or are drawn to Colorado as a backdrop. Certainly, the breath taking scenery attracts the attention of writers and many have tried to capture the beauty of the Colorado landscape with their words. There are some who haven’t done a bad job of it. As a native Colorado author who made historic Colorado my setting in Delilah, I can tell you that the love for the landscape draws you and for westerns, the landscape plays a big part.
The publishing panel, moderated by Kevin J. Anderson, who has been traditionally published for many years and has founded his own WordFire Press with his wife Rebecca, was enlightening for me. As I’d been wondering if my own publisher was being fair with me. I learned what you should be able to expect from a small press publisher, and found that although perhaps my communication with my own publisher could be better, they are probably giving me a pretty fair deal in today’s market. Their panel also made me reconsider my own plans for publishing The Great Primordial Battle, which is book 1 of my Playground for the Gods science fantasy series. It’s been sitting on the virtual shelf after many rejections, and I was planning to self-publish it when it comes back from my beta reader, but now I’m thinking perhaps I should give traditional publishing one more shot before I go that route.
I had the honor of sitting on the alumni panel for Western’s Graduate Program for Creative Writing, which offered the chance for panel members to toot their own horns about their individual successes and tout praises for the M.F.A. in Creative Writing program. On the panel with me were my fellow alumni, Chris Barili, Susan Spear and moderator, Steve Visel.
Although I did not purchase a meal card, I heard high praise for the conference cuisine, well worth the additional charge. The welcome dinner and ceremonies, featured delectable appetizers, a main course of stuffed peppers or mushroom chicken and all the accompaniments, and mouth-watering fruit pies for desert. All was well prepared and attractively presented by Western State Colorado College.
The one thing I was disappointed with was that I didn’t get to do the book signing I had anticipated due to scheduling conflicts. But at Writing the Rockies they are always looking for ways to improve their program, so I can always hope that next year things will be scheduled better. Over all it was a great conference and I look forward to watching it grow and develop in the future.
As I mentioned in last week’s post, An Adventure in Book Marketing, I will be sitting as a panelist at Western’s Alumni Roundtable at the Writing the Rockies Conference in July. There I said that was my next experiment in marketing, but to be honest, although copies of Delilah will be available at the book fair, run by Crested Butte’s Townie Books, I’m not expecting my sales to suddenly shoot up off the charts. Writing conferences, as a general rule, are not places where you sell a lot of books, but I’m exciting to be going and representing Westerns M.F.A. in Creative Writing program, (I’m actually representing both of my concentrations, screenwriting and genre fiction), for other reasons. What writing conferences are generally good for is making connections within the writing community, and Writing the Rockies is no exception. It seems Western, or maybe even the Gunnison Valley is especially prolific in this area, because you begin to feel yourself being pulled in to fantastic world of writing and publishing as soon as you step onto the Western campus. And the connections I’ve made at Western and at the conference have been very useful to me in some unexpected and surprising ways. Never have I attended this conference without coming away with some valuable new connections, some of which have turned into long lasting friendships, as well.
This year, it looks like they’ve got a great line-up, including fantastic opera workshop performance of Lottie Silks, with music by Jay Parrotta and libretto by Western Poetry and Genre Fiction student Enid Holden, directed by Ben Makino and Andrew Sellon, to go along with their infamous and very intense poetry symposium. They also have some not to miss Keynote speakers lined –up: Mark Todd, author and founder of Western State’s M.F.A. in Creative Writing Program, for the conference Keynote; award winning poets Ned Balbo and Jane Satterfield for the poetry Keynote; Kevin J. Anderson, author of over 140 novels, publisher at WordFire Press and a member of Western’s M.F.A. program staff for the publishing Keynote; Patrick Pexton, former ombudsman for the Washington Post for the creative nonfiction Keynote; and Emmy Award winning screenwriter, John Bowman for the screenwriting Keynote; and Michaella Roessner, published author and M.F.A. program faculty for the genre fiction Keynote. Other presenters in the publishing track include Darrin Pratt, Editor of the University of Colorado Press and immediate past president of the Association of American University Presses, D.H. Tracy, Editor of Antilever Press, and others.
In addition to their always informative workshops, sessions and panels, pitch sessions and manuscript critiques are available, their annual hike above Crested Butte will take place, three day intensive workshops, and full day seminars. Special presentations of Comedy is Hard, by Mike Reiss, directed by William Spicer; and Multitudes: An Evening with Walt Whitman by Kim Nuzzo and Valerie Haugen Nuzzo. Film screenings including How Murray Saved Christmas, by Mike Reiss and the highlights from the Crested Butte Film Festival with festival co-director, Michael Brody will also be available.
As you can see, Writing the Rockies is a conference promises something for everyone. I’m excited to be a part of it and I hope you will join us. This is the 19th year running for this wonderful conference and it grows with each passing year. This year the conference will run from Wednesday, July 18th through Sunday, July 22nd. The cost is $300 for the entire five day event if you register before July 1, and $350 after that date. The good news is, although the conference is fully open to the public, every student of Western’s M.F.A. Program in Creative Writing goes as a part of the curriculum, and there are scholarships available for alumni, K12 educators, and Gunnison Valley residents, as well as anyone else who wishes to apply. You can sign up for the 2018 Writing the Rockies Conference or apply for scholarship here:
For more information contact:
David J. Rothman, Conference Director / 970-943-2058 / email@example.com
Mark Todd, Conference Coordinator / 970-943-2016 / firstname.lastname@example.org
Michelle Wilk, Office Support Coordinator / 970-943-2163 / email@example.com
On a similar note, Western State Colorado University still has a few spots open for their low-residency M.F.A. in Creative Writing Program, which begins in July. If you have an undergraduate degree and you’re interested in persuing a career in writing genre fiction, poetry or screenplays or a career in publishing, their program may be just what you’re looking for. Low-residency means you must attend physical class on campus for two weeks each summer and the rest of the courses are online. (Remember, if you’re in the program, you get to attend the Writing the Rockies Conference as a part of the curriculum.) Their faculty consists of successful published authors, successful screenwriters, and distinguished poets. Looking at the successes of myself and my fellow alumni, I have to say they offer useful skills and knowledge that can be applied in the writing industry.
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In last month’s memo I talked about ways you can use flashbacks in stories and it led to a discussion about flash forwards and a request from Kaye that I do a post about them, so I decided to focus on the difference between flashbacks and flash forwards. I’m going to primarily use films and TV shows for examples as the film/TV examples are easy to visually show what I mean.
(Disclaimer: I don’t own the rights to any of these video clips or shows. I apologize in advance for some of the quality of the clips but they were the only ones I could find at times. Many of these shows mentioned are on Netflix, so I recommend watching there if possible.)
A flashback is almost any moment when a story jumps from the present time of the story to show you something that happened in the past. It’s not just talking about the past, but actually showing the events that happened. The flashback can be just a quick glimpse, or it can be a very long section of the story.
Flashback Example 1 – The Usual Suspects:
This film opens with the explosion on the ship and then moves forward to Kevin Spacey in the police station being interviewed. When he starts telling the story of how all the “usual suspects” were rounded up the film flashes back to show this happening, and the story continues in the flashback time period until the end of the film when we return to Kevin Spacey in the police station again.
Flashback Example 2 – Forest Gump:
This one is pretty straightforward that it’s cutting to a flashback. Forest is in the present moment talking about things that happened in his past from his childhood to adulthood, and we constantly hear his voice over and see him in present day on the bench talking about his past.
Flashback Example 1 – Breaking Bad Season 1 Episode 1:
Again, we start in the present time where Walt is crashing the RV and already cooking meth, then we very clearly jump back after the opening credits several weeks in time to when he was a normal school teacher. The main story of this first episode is all flashback with the opening and ending being the present moments.
Flash forwards are tiny glimpses of the possible future within a story. Basically you get a glimpse of the future and then return to the present afterward. This future glimpse doesn’t have to be true, and it doesn’t HAVE to happen, it’s just a glimpse of what COULD happen and the audience has to keep watching to see if it does.
This technique is often used in stories involving anything with psychics. The key is the events haven’t happened yet, and may never happen depending on how the present continues to unfold. It’s a glimpse of the potential future, but the story is still taking place in the present day and will return to present day once the future glimpse is over.
Flash Forward Example 1 – The Dead Zone (film)
When Christopher Walken shakes Martin Sheen’s hand he gets a vision of the potential future. We see clips of what Martin Sheen may do, but we don’t know if it will happen or not because it hasn’t happened yet, all we know is that it’s possible to happen. Once the flash forward is over we return to the present moment where Christopher Walken is.
Flash Forward Example 2 – Scrooged:
When Bill Murray leaves the elevator he gets several glimpses of the possible future he will encounter if he doesn’t change his ways. Again, these are all brief flash forwards showing potential future moments. It’s a little different because it seems like Bill Murray is in the flash forwards, but he has no ability to change them while he’s there so it’s still a flash forward to a potential future if he doesn’t change his ways in the present.
Flash Forward Example 3 – Terminator 2
When she lays her head down, Sarah Connor has a dream vision of the future if machines are allowed to get out of control. This vision is a potential future and is the motivation for her to try to stop this outcome with her actions in the present.
Flash Forward Example 4 – FlashForward TV Show Season 1 Episode 1:
This episode actually has a flash forward AND a flashback in it. I’ve started this clip right before the flash forward moment where the protagonist gets a glimpse of his future and then wakes up after the accident, but if you scroll back to the very opening of the episode you’ll see that the story starts with the accident, then there is a flashback to 4 hours earlier leading up to the accident again to show what caused it (which was actually the flash forward). Are you confused? I know, it’s a lot.
The flash forward is the glimpse of the potential future that the main character may experience at some point later on, and then you return to the present moment. The opening sequence at the start that shows the accident is NOT technically a flash forward because it’s not a glimpse of the future, it’s where the story is NOW. Then we flashback to 4 hour earlier to see how we got there and how the accident happened.
Flash Forward Example 5 – Sherlock Holmes (film)
This fight scene is a type of micro flash forward because it tells us what will happen moments before it does, even though it’s in verbal form. It’s more of an abbreviated flash forward because it’s verbal and it’s similar to how flash forwards are often used in fiction. The narrator gives the reader a glimpse of what will be to come, but we’re still in the present moment of the story where it hasn’t actually happened yet.
Distinguishing Between the Two:
Most of the time it’s pretty easy to tell whether something is a flashback or a flash forward because it’s in the middle of the story and the story either jumps forward or back for a short time before returning to the present. However, the one area that seems to cause the most confusion is when the flashback or flash forward is used immediately at the opening of a story. Is the story starting in a flash forward? Is the main story all in flashback? What is happening? To figure out whether you’re seeing a flashback or a flash forward, think about where the scene is currently taking place and where the protagonist is in the present.
If you look at the openings of Forest Gump and Breaking Bad, both are happening as we watch and we’re not seeing a future possible event, we’re seeing the events as they happen to the protagonist, then we (the audience) jump back to see how the protagonist got to that present moment, but all of it has already happened and the protagonist is still in the present at that opening scene waiting for us to catch up to him.
Flash forward scenes are events that have NOT happened yet, and may not happen, and when they end we are returned to the present moment where the story is taking place and the protagonist is currently. Everything between that present moment and the future event we saw has not happened yet, and may not happen, but that is why we’re watching to find out. The present moment may eventually lead to that flash forward moment, but there’s no guarantee.
One of the few times a show can open with a flash forward is if it opens with a psychic event such as a dream or prophecy where we get a glimpse of what may or may not happen before a character pops awake or something and reveals it all was a vision or dream. Then the rest of the show builds to reveal whether it is something that is going to happen or not.
Neither Flashbacks nor Flash forwards:
There are a few other story methods that some people confuse with flash forwards and flashbacks but one of the main ones I want to mention is time travel such as in the Back to the Future Series. This and other time travel stories are tricky areas because it is easy to say we’re flashing back because we’re going back in time, but that’s not true in most stories I can think of.
A flashback involves looking back at past events that have already happened exactly as the person remembers them happening, while most time travel stories involve a character physically going back to these past events such as Marty does, and having influence on those events. This makes it not a flashback because Marty has the ability to change things if he does something wrong. That means the events aren’t set and aren’t just a memory of what happened, they’re fluid and changing. Flashbacks are memories of what happened prior to the present so they can’t be changed unless someone is misremembering something or lying. Marty is physically there and it’s his present time even if he’s physically living in the past, and he can make mistakes (and does) that change the future, so it’s not a flashback.
The other thing I wanted to point out is that just because a story goes forward in time doesn’t mean it’s a flash forward. A flash forward is a glimpse into the future but it doesn’t move the story TO the future. When your story jumps forward in time to a future point, if the story continues from that point on and isn’t just a glimpse of that future time, then what you have is a forward time jump and not a flash forward.
Every now and then you’ll see someone define those opening scene moments where we start the story at a major event as a flash forward because it shows a “future” event and then immediately goes back in time after to where a huge chunk of the story takes place. But these stories that start with a major event and then go back in time almost always say something like “x time earlier” which establishes that the first scene is the present time period and everything afterward is in the past, making everything after that opening scene a flashback.
Ultimately, if you’re asking “what happened to get us here?” then you’re probably about to see a flashback to find out. However, if you’re asking “what WILL happen to get us here?” then you’re watching a flash forward and you will return to the present to find out as events unfold.
This past week my thesis for my screenwriting emphasis arrived in the mail. I opened the box and there, carefully wrapped inside was my thesis project bound in a hardback cover. I opened it up, and inside I found my analysis of screenwriting and my walk through the process, as well as my screenplay for Bonnie in script form. I can’t tell you what a sense of accomplishment that made me feel.
If you’re interested in my analysis or the screenwriting process, you can see the blog adapted version of those portions of my thesis in my four part series, The Making of a Screenplay: The Creative Process: Part 1 covers story origins and the tools used to shape an idea into a movie plot, Part 2 discusses the tools used to sell a screenplay, Part 3 covers the research that goes into writing a screenplay, and Part 4 talks about rewriting.
I turned in my thesis back in August, and there was a sense of accomplishment in doing that, but to see my script in print just about made me burst with pride. Glancing through it reminded me of what a really good script Bonnie is. Now I just have to figure out a way to get it in front of someone who will read it and fall in love with it as much as I am, and want to make it into a movie.
That’s the hard part. There’s some tough competition out there and it’s hard to get a foot in the door. Bonnie has commercial value and I need to get someone in the business to recognize it,There are those who claim it can’t be done unless you move to L.A. (“Hollywood Game Plan” Prepares Upcoming Screenwriters to Hit the Ground Running) Although I really want to sell Bonnie, and many other screenplays, I don’t see such a drastic move happening in the near future.
Most of the screenplay competitions are a bit more expensive to enter than my pocketbook can afford, so I have to be careful to pick the contest that are the best for my screenplay. In the literary community, you face the same challenge. You must determine which publisher is best to submit to, matching your work to a publisher, agent or writing contest.
The only way I know to solve the puzzle and match story or script to contest, or find a publisher or a producer who might be interested in your work, is good old fashioned research. These days it’s easier. Because of the Internet, we have the information at our fingertips now, where we didn’t thirty years ago. To find the right contest, or publisher, or producer today, we can sit down at the computer or pick up our phones and find out what kinds of work they are interested in to see if ours is a good fit, or check out their track record to gauge how successful they are. All it takes is a little time.
I’ve entered a short screenplay in a screenplay contest, and submitted a couple of my scripts to production companies, and I’ve collected a few rejection slips from them. I was almost ready to give up on the screenwriting and concentrate exclusively on my fiction. Even though I know rejection is expected in this business, and a lot of it, it doesn’t make the sting any less when it happens. On Jeff’s God Complex Wednesday, he offers some really good ideas that make sticking with it in the face of adversity much easier. I took it and felt refreshed when I sat back down in front of my laptop again.
Receiving that bound copy and seeing my thesis script reminded me of why I went for the second emphasis in my degree. I am just as passionate about my screenwriting as I am about my fiction. I know my work is good and it’s only a matter of time before I sell a script or a book. I’m currently negotiating a contract for my western novel, Delilah, so I’m not just being optimistic here. It’s is easier to move forward in my career when I have a real sense of accomplishment, and my bound thesis reminded me of that.
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One of the most important elements of a story for it to work is for everything to be set up properly. Your plot, your characters, and your resolution all need to be set up in such a way that your audience can believe them. If the audience doesn’t believe it, or “buy in” as it’s often called, then they won’t enjoy your story and may not even continue it. So how do you properly set up everything in your story so it works?
What does your audience need to know?
Think about your plot, your characters, and your world before you start writing. What does your audience need to know about each of these in order for them to understand your story? If needed, make a list. Add to it anything that needs to happen in order for your plot to unfold, and decide in what order those things need to happen.
The things on this list are the things you need to set up in order for your audience to get into your story. Does your character have a mental problem? Then even if you don’t reveal it right away you need to show signs of it, foreshadowing what is to be revealed so when the reveal happens the audience believes it. Does your world involve superhuman mutants? Then again, this is something that needs to be set up in your story so your audience understands the world. Even if you don’t want to reveal the mutants, you need to reveal that there is the possibility of something supernatural going on. Think of all these sorts of elements that will be in your story before you get writing so you have a clear image in mind of what you need to do. You don’t have to make the elements obvious or spell it out blatantly, but do find ways to at least hint at these details so they don’t throw off your audience when they come into play later.
When do they need to know it?
The second part of setting up a story is know WHEN to reveal things. How much do you need to set up right away, and how much can you hold onto and reveal later? You don’t want all these details to come out in a list when you’re writing. They should come out in small doses as necessary. For example, your audience needs to know right away that your character has an enormous scar if it plays into how people react to him/her throughout the story. However, your audience doesn’t need to know right away how your character got the scar. In fact, the audience may never need to know how the character got the scar unless it plays an important part in the story for some reason.
The common mistake I see when people are setting up a story is mainly not mentioning something until it is needed to move the plot forward. For example, if your character needs to know complex mathematics, but your entire story she never once uses math, it’ll seem awfully convenient if the moment she needs it she busts out some calculus. Anything such as this that is key to moving the plot forward, or key to solving a problem, should be established in advance of when the character needs it. If it is something that is constant, then it should be established right from the beginning. If it’s something minor, then it just needs to be established a few scenes or so before it becomes relevant.
How can I show it?
So how do you show these minor things in your story without them coming off as listing or uninteresting? Something like the mathematics example would be boring if the character just said “I’m good at math.” Instead, you could simply have a short moment where your character does some impressive mental math for some reason, or even have something subtle like a math diploma on the wall someplace. These kinds of small details, or small moments, can be a way to establish important elements without taking too much story time.
For anything minor, the quicker you can establish it and move on, usually the better. Anything that is a key element of the story can be established by doing continual small touches throughout the story as it unfolds. For example, if you want to establish someone has anxiety about something, you can have them behave in increasingly anxious ways until their full anxiety is revealed.
Ultimately, there will be three stages of setting up your story. The first is the things you’ll know right off that you need to establish before you even begin writing. The second will be the things you discover as you are writing. When you come across these things in the second stage, it’s important to remember to not just throw them in when they come up. Take a moment to sit back and think about where that detail could naturally fit into the story. If you just put it in where you think of it, will it seem like something that conveniently pops up to solve the story conflict?
The final stage of setting up your story will come after you get feedback. Whoever you use as your beta reader should be able to tell you what doesn’t make sense, and you can use that as a sounding board for what in your story needs more setting up, and what you can do less on. No matter how obvious you think something is, people will always have different viewpoints so if you can find a subtle way to set it up a tad more, it’s probably a good idea to do so.
Robin Conley offers great writing advice most Wednesdays on Writing to be Read. If you just can’t wait until next week to find out more, you can pop into her blog, Author the World, for more tips, or a weekly writing prompt.
I asked Robin to do a post on theme for last week’s Writing Memo, as a compliment to my post here. She did a great job of explaining what theme is and how to bring it out in your story. She talked about how to identify your theme, how to bring your theme out in your writing and how multiple themes can be, and often are, woven into a single story. After reading her post, it sounded so easy.
One of the most difficult parts of writing, for me, is determining what my story’s theme is. The theme is what your story or screenplay is really about, and it isn’t always obvious. Often you really have to think about the story as a whole and look for the underlying theme. Or at least, I do.
Die Hard is a story about a man, John McClane, (Bruce Willis), trying to save his marriage, but when her office party is taken hostage, it becomes a story about survival – survival of the good guys, as well as survival of the marraige. (Yes, I see the irony in the fact that Robin and I both chose to use Die Hard in our examples.) Survival is what the story is really about.
Lethal Weapon may be a buddy cop movie about the two cops getting the bad guys, but Roger Murtaugh, (Danny Glover), is struggling with aging and his approaching retirement, and his partner, Martin Riggs, (Mel Gibson), is struggling with the loss of his wife and certain suicidal urges. Dealing with aging and the end of life is what the movie is really about. But the underlying theme is not always easy to pick up on under all the shoot ’em up, good guy – bad guy stuff.
While pursuing my screenwriting emphasis for my M.F.A., one of the things that I was taught was how to breakdown the structure of a movie into different parts, or beats. My professor and screenwriting advisor, J.S. Mayank, had us use the structure model presented in the Save the Cat books by Blake Snyder. Professor Mayank had us watch a lot of movies and read a whole lot of screenplays and break their structures down, and one of the things I learned from this, is that in almost every movie, one of the characters states the theme in their dialog, usually by page five. As a general rule, it’s true. And if you can figure out what the movie is really about, you can put your finger on which line of dialog that is, however, that’s not always an easy thing to do.
For one thing, the line of dialog that states the theme usually doesn’t do it outright. To do so would make the dialog feel forced, untrue to what the character would say. For instance, the line that states the theme in Lethal Weapon is, “Your beard is getting gray. It makes you look old.” Coming from Roger Murtaugh’s daughter, as his family serves his 50th Birthday Cake while he takes a bath works well, but it doesn’t come out and say, “You’re getting ready to retire and your life is coming to an end. How are you going to deal with it?” It’s said and gone, and most viewers probably didn’t even catch that it was the theme stated unless they were looking for it.
These exercises in screenwriting were very helpful to me, but they required that I view movies in a whole new way. (We did a similar thing in my genre fiction classes, dissecting different novels to see what methods the authors used to portray their stories and how effective they are. And when you critique as you read, it’s a lot different than just reading to enjoy the story.) Most people watch movies for entertainment, right? I always had. But when you are doing structure analysis, you have to concentrate more on how it’s put together than you do on what happens in the story. And to figure out what the theme is, you have to watch, or read in the case of screenplays, with a philosophical eye to discover what the story is really about.
That’s where I had problems, especially when I was watching the actual movie, rather than reading the screenplay. I always sat down to watch a movie and immediately immersed myself in the story. Before I knew it, I would look up and realize the first five pages of script must be long past and I had failed to identify the line of dialog in which the theme was stated. It was the thing with reading screenplays. I found myself reading and re-reading those first five pages, searching desperately for the line that would tell me what the whole movie was about. I didn’t understand how I could be expected to pick out a line of dialog that stated what the movie was really about before I’d read the entire screenplay. And the sad thing is, I was no better at picking out theme in my own writing and writing a line of dialog to state it.
Here’s where I digress from Robin. You cannot decide what you want your theme to be and then write a story to fit. At least, I can’t. It won’t work. For me, theme must evolve from the story naturally, not the other way around.
When I decided to write, Bonnie, my screenplay for my thesis, I thought I was writing a story about two young kids who chose to live on the wrong side of the law in order to cope with the circumstances of living in the depression. But Bonnie is different than other renditions of the Bonnie and Clyde story, because it is told from Bonnie’s perspective, and before I had finished it, I found that what it is really about is Bonnie’s love for Clyde. Their love is my underlying theme. Just as love is the underlying theme in a story about a huge ocean liner that hit an iceberg and sank into the ocean, sending most of the passengers to their deaths. And just as it worked for James Cameron, when he wrote Titanic, I think it works for Bonnie. Love is what it is really about, the underlying theme.
The point here is, I didn’t set out to write a story about a young girl’s amazing love. That is what evolved from my story about a young couple’s choice to embark on a life of crime. Love was Bonnie’s motivation. Undying love was my theme and I didn’t even know it until I was more than halfway through writing the screenplay. This is why I say theme is the most difficult part of writing for me, whether I’m writing a novel or a screenplay.
But, I still say writing to the theme is more difficult. The theme must emerge naturally from the story, whether you’re writing for the page or the screen. If I just write the story, being true to my characters, the theme will come to the surface of its own accord. But, that’s me. Obviously, it’s different for Robin, who likes to identify her theme before she begins the story and finds ways to bring the theme out. Which comes first for you?
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