ARRIVAL hits you like a giant space rock right in the feels

So we rushed to this giant building where popped corn with a fake butter costs $9 a bag, trying to see DOCTOR STRANGE, except we were crazy late. Instead, we watched ARRIVAL.

Didn’t expect much. Wasn’t hankering to see it.

Had to be convinced to see the thing at all.

Except, except, except … this movie rocked.

Warning: this post doesn’t contain spoilers, except for fake spoilers I’ll throw in, just for fun.  Continue reading “ARRIVAL hits you like a giant space rock right in the feels”

FROZEN: THE PHANTOM EDIT

After spending a week hanging out with our two-year-old niece, I’ve memorized the words to “Let It Go” and “Do You Wanna Build a Snowman?”

Those two songs–especially “Let It Go”–are what made this movie insanely popular among pookies.

The movie itself isn’t up to snuff. Compare it to anything from Pixar, also owned by Disney now, or to any Marvel movie (owned by Disney, which owns STAR WARS, too, and possibly America–somebody needs to check), and the story in FROZEN is meh.

That’s easy to say. What’s hard? Fixing the movie.

So let’s try that, in the tradition of THE PHANTOM EDIT, which radically improved the hot mess known as STAR WARS: THE PHANTOM MENACE.

How did filmmaker Mike Nichols fix this travesty?

Nichols shortened or deleted a bunch of scenes with Jar-Jar Binks.

He killed the lamest possible explanation of the Force, which George Lucas suddenly decided, four films into this series, comes from microscopic bugs in your blood called “midi-chlorians.” Yeah, no joke. I believe this was one of the terms I had to memorize when studying plant cell biology.

He trimmed a lot of political nonsense and added deleted scenes that should never have been deleted.

Basically, he recut the entire film. And it was Good.

How can we recut FROZEN?

Here goes:

First edit: We kill off Olaf the Snowman, who is the equivalent of Jar-Jar Binks in this movie. The silly snowman is supposed to be comic relief, but he’s just goofy and not funny at all. There’s already comic relief in the form of Kristoff and his reindeer.

Second edit: Let’s give Kristoff more to do. If he’s going to be a bigger hero, he needs to try to prevent the villain from doing bad things in Act 1 and get banished to the snowy wastelands in Act 2, when Anna travels by herself out there and meets him while searching for her sister.

Third and biggest edit: Who’s the villain? In the original cut, the villain isn’t clear. Elsa is sort of a villain for leaving the castle and causing winter. Hans the prince is the villain in the end, but he’s sort of a surprise to the audience. He’s not in the beginning of the film and doesn’t drive events. He shows up late and there’s nothing really suspicious about his courtship with Anna, then bam, oh, he’s actually evil and after the throne. There’s no setup to this payoff. It’s a cheat.

The Duke of Weselton is sort of a villain, but he’s not driving the Ship of Evil, either.

Elsa and Anna’s parents (the king and queen), but that’s because of a storm, not nefarious deeds, done dirt cheap.

So: let’s make a real villain who’s there in the beginning, middle and end. Combine the roles of Hans and the Duke and get him there from the start.

Our combined villain, Duke Hans:

(a) sabotages the royal ship to cause the deaths of the king and queen, an act of sabotage that a common worker (Kristoff) notices and tries to stop, leading to his banishment to Snowy Reindeerville.

(b) Meanwhile, Duke Hans has spent years grooming and courting the much-younger Anna so he can marry into the throne.

(c) The final piece of the puzzle is planting the idea in Elsa’s head that she can only prevent harming her sister again by living the rest of her life in the icy wilderness, which would also mean giving up her right to the throne, but hey, those are pesky details.

(d) Kristoff is now critical to the climax, since he knows the big secret that Duke Hans is who murdered the king and queen, a secret Duke Hans would kill to protect.

Better, right? I’d be happy just whacking Olaf the Snowman, though giving the story a true villain who drives events and making Kristoff more than a Random Nice Guy does a ton to help the story.

How would you fix FROZEN? And how do you get a two-year-old girl to stop playing “Let It Go” seven times an hour? Hit me in the comments.

Updated: Fixed the cases of mistaken identity, like calling the reindeer and his master by the wrong names and saying Anna when I meant Elsa. Thanks to folks for seeing that. My niece would never forgive me. 🙂

Put your writing to the Screen Time Test

writing meme spiderman dear diary

While we are all busy BLOGGING, instead of writing what we’re supposed to, I want to steal a concept from Hollywood (thanks, sis!) that all writers can use: Screen Time.

This works for any bit of writing, whether it’s an oped in a paper of news, a 30-minute keynote speech about saving the three-toed sloths of Costa Rica or an epic doorstop of a novel clocking in at 984 pages entitled ELVES WITH LIGHTSABERS RIDING DRAGONS AND THE VAMPIRE WITCHES WHO LOVE THEM. (Note: Don’t speak of this, because it tempts me, and I may write the first chapter of that book, then email it around until we actually hold in our evil little hands 984 pages that eviscerates Game of Thrones, Twilight, the Star Wars prequels and Lord of the Rings.)

So, back to the point: Screen Time is an essential test for any piece of writing.

I could put a gun to your head and ask, “What’s this novel / screenplay / letter to the editor really about?” and you might answer, “a time-traveling World War II nurse and the men in kilts who love her / waiting for some dude who never shows up / why the federal government is building secret tunnels underneath Wal-Marts in Texas to stage an invasion in cahoots with ISIS cells hiding in Mexico.”

And you might INTEND that to be the point of what you wrote.

The Screen Time Test will say if you’re a lying liar or not.

Movies are the easiest, so let’s go with AVENGERS: JAMES SPADER IS A SHINY ROBOT WHO HATES HUMANS. You take the heroes, sidekicks, villains, minions and nameless civilians in the film and add up the the number of minutes (or seconds) they actually show up on film. If you’re feeling insanely generous, add up minutes where other characters talk about them, too, though we may call you Cheaty McCheatypants. Continue reading “Put your writing to the Screen Time Test”

Do not look upon your #NaNoWriMo word count and despair, for there is hope

writing meme spiderman dear diary

Say it’s your first time writing a novel, and you’re a smidge behind. On the 15th of November, you should’ve hit 25,000 words.

Do not despair.

Also: For those who’ve burned vacation time, dumped their significant others and sent the kids to boarding school, because you’re going to hit 50k if it kills you, I say this: dance not the dance of victory, because 50k isn’t actually a novel. It’s a novella. You want to hit 80k or 90k to be safe.

However: None of this really matters. At all.

Related post: Six easy ways to improve #NaNoWriMo

For your first draft, word counts mean nothing

I don’t care if you’ve gotten stuck at 12,000 words or you’re already finished with your 194,000 epic involving the king of the orcs and the vampire mermaid who loves him.

Anybody new to writing a novel, of whatever genre, should ignore the word count demons in this first draft.

Say it with me: It’s a first draft and the word count meants nothing.

The word count means nothing.

One more time: I’ve got 99 problems and a word count ain’t one.

Continue reading “Do not look upon your #NaNoWriMo word count and despair, for there is hope”

Writing secret: Light as air, strong as whiskey, cheap as dirt

barbed wire

Those nine words are magic.

And those words help sell 5.842 gazillion miles of barbed wire back in the late 1800s, when the West was still wild and there weren’t handy trees or stones to make fences.

Light as air, strong as whiskey, cheap as dirt – I’ll remember that for days. Forever, maybe.

It’s honed down to perfection. Nine words, and not a one is wasted.

barbed wire
A little strand of steel with a twist and BOOM, you are golden. Photo by Guy Bergstrom.

In the five seconds it takes to hear those words, or read them, you’re sold.

Writers struggle with those first five seconds.

  • What’s the best way for a reporter to convince the city editor put a story on A1 instead of buried next to the obituaries on B15?
  • How can you sum up a 100,000 novel in a single page – or a single sentence?
  • When a magazine editor is buried with pitches, how does yours stand out from the slush pile?
  • What should a screenwriter say about his script while riding in an elevator for 30 seconds with Steven Spielberg?

Science shows us secrets

Here comes the science: people make up their mind about you – or your writing – in the first five seconds.

Viscerally. Unconsciously.

Their little reptile brains see your face or your words and make a split decision.

Later on, our oversized frontal lobes justify that snap judgment.

It’s not a rational thing. I’ve seen the science. Go read BLINK by Malcolm Gladwell. (Go on, read it. I’ll be over here, drinking Belgian ale.)

Different researchers testing for different things found the same result.

  • The first five seconds of a job interview determines whether you get it
  • The first five ticks of the clock during a professor’s first lecture of the semester, with the sound turned off, can be used to predict exactly how students will rate that professor.
  • A quick glance – less than – at two candidate mug shots will predict who will win the race. This works with adults or five-year-olds. Mug shots. No names. No parties. The shape of the face.

This last result fascinated me. Researchers had people glance at those mugs, then rate the candidates on attractiveness, intelligence, competence and whatnot.

They thought attractiveness would matter.Nope. They thought race and sex and age would matter. Nope.

Competence was the only thing related to the eventual winner.

This makes sense. If somebody’s attacking your village, you don’t pick Nerdy McNerdy as the leader of the defense. Brains without brawn won’t work.

You don’t pick Miss America to lead the troops into battle, either, because she’ll simply be nice to look at while you all get slaughterd.

And you don’t pick Mr. Neanderthal, tough but stupid.

Who do you want? Somebody who looks competent – tough but smart. A Clint Eastwood, somebody who looked like he knew what the hell he was doing.

Hold it out and squint

Alright, you’re already thinking of the Greatest Squinty Eyed Tough Guy in Movies, so remember this rule: Hold it out and squint.

Hold out your first page of your text and squint.

Is it a sea of gray?

Is there a photo or graphic? Are all the paragraphs the same length? Do you have any subheads or anything to break up the text?

Now, this doesn’t work for certain things. You can’t have photos and whatnot in screenplays or manuscripts.

Later on, though, it will make or break you.

When you go to rent a movie (yes, I know Blockbuster is dead to you and it’s all Netflix now, so pretend you’re clicking away with Mr. Mouse), you make decisions in far less than five seconds. You glance at the front cover and move on.

Same thing with books. Glance and move. Glance and move.

Maybe you pick a book up and read the text. What makes you pick it up? Images first. Maybe a good title. Glance and move.

That’s why the Squint Test is so important.

Think about movie posters with too much going on. When you squint, you don’t know what’s what.They’ve got the star and the co-star and seven different sidekicks in there, plus the villain and two random thugs. It’s a mess.

Less is more. Simple works best.

The poster for JAWS is perfect: a pretty young woman swimming along and a giant invincible shark roaring out of the depths of the ocean. It doesn’t get any more primal than that. We need the shark and a pretty girl. That’s it.

jaws movie poster
The JAWS movie poster is classic, and will always be classic, because it is simple and brutal and seven separate types of awesome. Steven the Spielberg, stick with this movie thing — you have talent.

Putting this knowledge to evil use

Our conscious brains aren’t really running the show. We’re like a mouse riding on top of an elephant, sometimes biting the elephants ear to go left or right.

How can we writers use that knowledge?

Tap into the reptile part of our brains. Go for the gut.

Blake Snyder hit this idea with his Hammer of Truth in SAVE THE CAT when he demolished the conventional wisdom of genres.

JAWS isn’t a horror movie. ALIEN isn’t a sci-fi movie. FATAL ATTRACTION isn’t a domestic drama. All three are the same story, the same primal threat: there’s a monster in the house. You can’t get away. Either you fight it and kill it, or it eats you.

Hollywood screenwriters are masters of the first five seconds. Fire up the google and check out “loglines” to see how they sum up a movie in a sentence. They make writers of novels look like silly chatterboxes. Think you’re being hip with a one-page synopsis instead of five pages? Hollywood laughs at a full page of text. One sentence, buddy.

Can you do it in a sentence?

How about nine words?

Copywriters are also world-class at those first five seconds. Visit copyblogger and soak up their wisdom. DO IT NOW.

The best five-second pitches — whether it’s a headline for a newspaper story, a poster for a movie or a pitch for a novel — tap into those primal needs and instincts that Blake Snyder talks about.

Survival vs. death. Love vs. loss.

You know what the stakes are. Instantly. Not 30 seconds into it. Not 15 seconds after learning about the when and where and who. You see what’s at stake, right away.

Here are four words: COMET WILL DESTROY EARTH.

That’s a newspaper story everybody will read. Everybody. It’s a movie people saw twice (ARMAGEDDON and DEEP IMPACT).

Part of the secret seems to what’s missing: the hero. You don’t hear a damn thing about the hero after you’ve boiled it all down, do you? Screw the hero. Heroes are plain vanilla and boring. The best ones, the ones that hook us, talk about the bad guy: the alien, the shark, the comet. Hmm. Maybe there’s a reason for that. But that’s a post for another day.