I’m often inspired by what I see around me. This photograph was taken at the 34th street subway stop on the C train.
The saying, “A picture is worth more than 1000 words,” is so true. It’s the reverse engineering of that homily that’s the work of us writers: How do you create a visual image in as few words as possible, and with originality and wit?
Our job as writers is to paint pictures with our words and it’s often difficult to create an effective image purely from our imaginations.
As with everything else, practice is the secret. But how best to “practice” writing if you don’t want to use the story you’re working on? My solution is to use a writing exercise or prompt and then write for a specific length of time. That ‘s why I’ve embarked on this month long journey to write about an occasion from my life each day. I wanted to write about occasions as events that occur in the present as well as the past. When I took this photo, I was coming from a Landmark Forum seminar. I’ll use this new photo as my writing prompt in my next session.
I want to share this technique that I use with myself and my students.
Here’s the exercise:
1. Take or find a photo, or remember an event.
2. Set a timer for 15 minutes.
3. Describe the photo or event. For example, this photo is of a man waiting for a train.
4. Branch out and describe where you were when you took the photograph or a description about its history.
5. Describe what the photo to means to you. For example, “It’s the sign in this photograph that matters to me. ‘Moving toward center,’ is a visual reminder to me to remain calm, to be balanced when I dance, and to focus when I write.”
Every moment of your life can be an occasion. The “occasion” exercise becomes more potent when you connect it with a specific visual image before writing.
I’ll be on vacation for three weeks, so next newsletter will appear on Friday, July 19.
This past week was spent exploring a new story. The hardest part for me isn’t plot, it’s finding the emotional challenge for the character. It’s not usually this hard, but this new story is loosely based on things I’ve experienced in my own life. After taking workshops at The Landmark Forum, I realize that I’ve avoided looking at what I’ve had to sacrifice in my own life to succeed, so it’s hard for me to connect to my character. Being a writer always requires a level of emotional honesty, and I struggle with this more than I’ve ever cared to admit before. I hit a real crossroads about writing, and saw that if I wanted to continue writing my own stuff, I would have to face the music, and dance.
So, why does understanding yourself even matter if you’re writing about someone else? Why do we writers have to answer one big question about our main characters to make our stories soar? And that question is: What does he/she have to sacrifice to win? What does that even mean? And what’s the big deal?
The big deal is that we love stories that help us understand something about ourselves. That’s why certain stories become “classics,” and become part of our communal experience, and others are instantly forgotten. To write a memorable story requires that we first look at our own experience, to see what we have actually been through and then extrapolate it out into a story about someone else.
The great writer and coach, Ellen Sandler’s suggestion that you identify which of the Seven Deadly Sins is the one you have personally committed and use that as a basis for storytelling is brilliant, and yet so simple. By limiting your choices, the answer allows you to create a theme that allows you to frame the sacrifice the main character must make in terms of lust, greed, gluttony etc.
Then, if you allow those “sins” to become specific, your stories take on a central core that’s easy to expand on. So, if the “sin” is lust, you might find yourself working with a character like Nola Darling in the 1986 Spike Lee film, She’s Gotta Have it, which was also made into a 30-minute series for Netflix.
Nola is a woman who has relationships with several people at the same time, and avoids making a choice of which one she wants to commit to. This is a problem that many people have, and so whatever the specific details are, the emotional challenge of whether or not to commit becomes the center of both the film, and each episode of the series.
The Landmark Forum encourages you to be brutally honest with yourself, and to put the past into the past so as not have it be the basis for an unhappy future. You do this by revisiting it in a non-judgmental way and accepting whatever happened without trying to change it. It sounds as hard as it is! This is good advice for real life, and also for any writer who wants to transform their work.
To accomplish this goal of acceptance for myself, I’m writing a series of short pieces under the topic heading of “Occasions.” I keep a running list of memories and ideas. When I get up, I write for 15 minutes, and try to find a beginning, middle and end for one of the items on my list. I’ve committed to doing this for a month, and will share my results.
If you decide to try a project like this, please share with me!
I’m always being asked how to find a good comic story for a TV pilot or episode? I always say that you need to find a good story, then make it funny. There are many ways to find a good story, but the best ones are inspired by things that have happened in your own life.
Paradoxically, the best ideas come from your own personal worst moments. My friend, Ellen Sandler suggests that you decide which of the Seven Deadly Sins you are most often guilty of committing, and then brainstorm your worst experiences of whatever that sin was. She will admit that hers is gluttony, and by using her own experience, came up with the story about the turkey dinner in the sitcom, Everyone Loves Raymond.
In her book, The TV Writer’s Workbook she describes using a “clustering” technique to beat the harsh inner critic. I learned a similar version in which you connect all of the ideas by putting a circle around the idea and connecting it to the main circle.
There’s something exciting about being able to collect your thoughts and memories in a nonlinear way. When I worked with my writing partner this week, we clustered before we wrote, and both of us were inspired to look at the material we were working on with fresh eyes. I saw that if I wanted to find a story, I would have to find a way to process the events I wanted to write about using a different point of view: writing with a narration to link some of the episodes to get the story down on paper. I don’t love narration in dramatic literature, but as a way of organizing a first draft, it can be a terrific tool.
To recap, Shakespeare’s comedies are models because the underlying story is good, and effective comedies need to be based on strong, original stories. One way to find stories this good is to “cluster” about the “sin” committed most in your own life, and use these memories to spark new ideas.
One good thing about all of the rain this week is that kept me inside writing!
I’ve been writing for television for the last couple of years, and wanted to return to writing a screenplay or fiction. In order to discover what was on my mind, I began to write three pages a day when I first got up. This lasted for about a week, and then I kept finding reasons why I was “too busy” get around to it. I am a writer, so a certain amount of procrastination is expected, but I saw that part of the reason was that I had nothing to write about that interested me!
What to do? I’d recently made a new friend in an acting class, who was also a writer. We decided meet for two hours to write. We are both comedy writers, and she has won 6 Emmy awards, so I was fortunate to have her as a partner.
The night before we met, I had a dream in which I was a teenager raiding the fridge late at night. Hanging on the crisper drawer, was a handwritten sign with the word “occasion” written in large black letters in my own handwriting. When I woke up, I interpreted the dream as being a sign that I should work on writing about the occasions in my own life.
My writing partner arrived, and once settled at my office work table, asked, “What should we write about?”
” An occasion,” I said, “I had this dream last night about the word.” We discussed what an occasion meant, and determined that for our purposes, the word meant a memorable event.
I set that timer for 15 minutes and off we went, both of us writing so fast and hard the table literally shook. When the alarm went off we were so concentrated that it startled us. I reset the timer for five minutes and we finished up.
The next step was to read our work aloud. Giggling, we each read our story. Then we sat for a moment quietly, and my friend said, “let’s do it again!” We completed another exercise and decided to meet once a week to pursue writing in this fun way.
After five sessions, doing my morning pages has become something I look forward to because the writing sessions reminded me of how much I love to write. I haven’t found my new story yet, but can feel that it’s on the way!
The point of this newsletter is to suggest that it’s important to write for its’ own sake, and to just have fun–not be always be focused on publication or production.
Whether you work alone or with a partner, the keys to success are to use a timer set up for a short interval such as 15 minutes and to have prepared several writing prompts before the session begins. Writing prompts can include such topics as a first kiss, what you ate for breakfast, or how you feel about politics or God. I personally like to use a one-word prompt such as “occasion.”
Every Memorial Day, I think about my late step father, Al Johnson, who began his Military career by running away at fourteen to enlist. He successfully lied about his age and served in Iwo Jima. He served seven tours of duty in Viet Nam. He was a great man, and I think of him every day. I wanted to honor Veterans and also examine films about Memorial Day.
What I found was a wonderful war movie from 1951, Decision Before Dawn. The film was nominated for an Oscar, and is wonderful. The reason I mention it is because of what I found in the comments below. The film used soldiers in small roles and the first commentor’s father was in the film.
He was very proud, and the responses were amazing-other men talking about their fathers. I was very moved by it, and wanted to share. It was comforting to hear such love for their fathers being shared. I felt connected to a larger community! For more info about the film: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Decision_Before_Dawn
I also love war movies, so here’s my list of 10 favorites for Memorial Day watching:
This was an amazing week, and I hope everyone enjoyed the little hints of spring!
I held the last meeting with my NYU class, one of the best groups I’ve ever had! . Thanks Sandra, Sabrina, Hannah, Lori and all of the other students who weren’t able to make the party, for all of your incredibly hard work!
My writing partner and I also completed a comedy punch up for one of my TV writer clients, and as Jack Benny said, “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.“ That being said, it’s a lot easier when you have the right partner! Kudos to my partner, Dave, an incredibly witty man who’s fun to work with.
Last but not least, I had the great pleasure of seeing my friend, Hannah Howzdy, perfectly cast as Squeaky Fromme, the Charles Manson groupie who took a shot at former President Gerald Ford, in the musical comedy, Assassins.
The big take away from the week for me is, like the old commercial for the New York State lottery said, “You got to be in it to win it!”
Please get those screenplays done, and out into the world!
This week I took two amazing acting classes at the Actors Connection.Although these are acting classes, the principles apply to us writers as well. I wanted to share what I learned.
The first class,The Original VO Gym, was with Maggie Phillips and was on building characters. One technique was to draw a sketch of the character, then to give it a voice, a laugh and a nickname. This is harder than it sounds, since most of us writers are in our heads, but it’s highly effective.
And in Cathy Hasse’s class, Acting for Film: Using Your Intuition, we spent an hour doing warm-ups that included physical and voice relaxation as well as imagining ourselves in another place. The point she made is that we use a physical form to create whether it’s writing or acting. Connecting mind and body before working makes perfect sense, though I never really thought of it that way before.
Please try them and let me know what you think.
Please consider submitting your work to the Schenectady Film Festival. I am one of the judges, and it’s a great opportunity to get your work out there.
This week, in my NYU class, we worked on using the four Magic Questions of Screenwriting to complete an outline for the feature film each of them is writing. The way this process works is that you look at what you have written for Act I, analyze the Three Levels of Conflict that you have created, and then to decide what the outcome for each will be. That’s how you can design Act III with ease.
A discussion of The Three Levels of Conflict can be found in my book, How to Write a Screenplay in 10 Weeks. Briefly, The Inner Level of Conflict is about the emotional reasons why your character has not been able to achieve the goal. The Outer Level of Conflict is your plot. The Societal Level of Conflict is the context in which your story is told. For example, in the film, The Godfather, the Inner Level of Conflict is how Michael wants to please his father, and to live independently that drives the story. The plot, wherein Michael must save his father’s life by killing other people creates the basis for this inner conflict to be expressed. The Societal Level of Conflict is about how his father is a criminal and the conflict here is whether or not Michael should become a criminal to save the family.
In Act 1 of The Godfather, Michael abandons his current life to defend his father and kills two men. In Act 3, Michael takes over his father’s role, and massacres his father’s enemies.
He has resolved his Inner Level of Conflict and the Societal Level of Conflict by choosing his father’s life, and the plot supports this.
To recap, using the 4MQS and The Three Levels of Conflict can help you easily design your third act with ease.
I want to congratulate my student, Chery Manning for completing her screenplay. She deserves a medal for this Herculean task. Not only did she adapt it from her book, she raised kids, had two jobs and took care of her parents.
I have gotten so many requests to have some kind of a class to help people write their pilots, that I am going to offer the class below. If you’re interested, please let me know. You’ll receive a 10% discount because you read this newsletter.
Episode Boot Camp: Write or Rewrite Your Half-Hour TV Pilot in Six Weeks
Tuesdays, 6:30-9:15 pm, May 7, 14, 21, 28, June 4 and 6
Limited to 10 students.
In this accelerated class, you’ll execute or revise a half-hour show using Marilyn’s fool proof method for structuring a story. A great pilot begins with a memorable main character, an unusual setting, a great story, and a strong supporting cast. I will review your story ideas before class begins. Copies of Marilyn’s NYU textbook, The Four Magic Questions of Screenwriting, will be included.