Protecting The Protagonist

A while back, I wrote 40-odd pages of an action screenplay.  Then I stopped.  I couldn’t write any more because frankly, the script sucked.

I took some time to dissect what went wrong, and after re-reading those 40 pages, I realized that the biggest problem with the script was that the main character wasn’t interesting.  

The script had a unique premise, fun set pieces, and colorful supporting characters — but the main character (a dude named Roman) felt flat.  I thought the problem was that he was too generic, but even after layering him with quirks and personal baggage, something still felt off.  I decided that I’d come back to the script once I figured out why the character of Roman just wasn’t working…

Recently, I’ve been watching the show Smash with my girlfriend.  It’s campy and silly and enjoyable, but throughout the first season the show’s ratings have been declining steadily, and if you’ve watched, the reason why is fairly obvious.

The main plotline of the show follows the battle between two actresses who are vying to play Marilyn Monroe in a Broadway musical — Ivy, the seasoned professional, and Karen, the rookie.  Karen is played by American Idol alum Katharine McPhee, who has top billing on the TV show, and presumably will eventually play Marilyn when (and if) the main plot line resolves itself.

The Karen character is the weakest part of the show.

Originally my girlfriend blamed Katharine McPhee herself for the character’s weakness, and this criticism isn’t unwarranted.  McPhee is, after all, the only non-actor on Smash.

But after a particularly ridiculous line reading (“I love church!”) I realized that the problem really isn’t McPhee.  The problem is that the writers are protecting the protagonist.  

Every character on the show (other than Karen) is going through real struggles, and is dealing with background issues that put them into constant conflict with each other.  Karen, on the other hand, is treated like a fragile baby lamb.  She’s from a stable, loving family.  She has a boyfriend who has put her aspirations ahead of his career.  When the musical executives bring in a veteran movie star to compete against Karen, the diva becomes her instant best friend.  

Karen even has the backing of the musical’s director, even though all of the other characters recognize that she doesn’t have the necessary experience to carry a Broadway show.   

In short, Karen has no real struggles, and as a consequence she is the least interesting character on the show.  By a huge margin.  The meager character motivation Karen has (to make it big on Broadway) is the same motivation of her nemesis Ivy, and Ivy clearly wants it more than Karen does.  In fact, almost all of the other characters want to make it on Broadway more than Karen.  Life is easy for her.  And she’s getting progressively less interesting to watch.

The movie Black Swan has basically the same setup (if you swap ballet for theater), but Natalie Portman’s character wants to be the lead so badly that she is literally driving herself insane.  That’s a good struggle.

Smash should take Kurt Vonnegut’s advice about protagonists:

Be a Sadist.  No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them – in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

The Smash writers are being too nice to Karen.  She doesn’t do anything interesting because everyone in her world wants the best for her.  She hasn’t surmounted enough obstacles to show the audience that she cares about her own goals.

I think writers may fall into this trap because they worry their protagonists will lose their innocence by struggling, or the writers view protagonists as a versions of themselves — and who really wants to suffer?  But without making Karen suffer, Smash has no spine, and the audience will continue to dwindle away.

As for my action script, the reason it wasn’t working was that the protagonist, Roman, wasn’t personally suffering through the setbacks of the story .  He was around while other people were suffering — hell, he was even taking a stand for the most downtrodden of the supporting characters.  But if he just packed up and went home, it really wouldn’t make a difference.  He would just go back to his old life.  My mistake was thinking that Roman’s problem was that his background wasn’t interesting.  The real problem was that Roman wasn’t suffering enough to show the audience his passion and commitment to his goals.   

In short, the protagonist has to suffer more than any other character.

Don’t protect your protagonist.

Ten Solutions

In Four Alternatives to Outlines, I wrote about how I use a “Question and Answer” document to figure out plot points and clarify background details in my scripts.  For the script I’m currently working on, the “Q and A” list has become my most important resource.

Sometimes coming up with the answer to a story question is obvious and straightforward — Like “What is the location for this scene?”

But other times, the questions haunt me.  The really difficult questions have many possible solutions that will affect plot points and character relationships throughout the script.

During the initial stages of plotting out a story, I often have a strong aversion to answering these types of questions, and the result is writer’s block.

Specifically, I have observed this type of procrastination seriously harming a script in two significant ways:

  1. I avoid choosing a specific answer to a story question, and plunge ahead on the script, figuring the answer will appear later — but because future plot points in the script depend on that earlier piece of information, the script begins to lose narrative clarity and focus  -or-
  2. Fear of committing to the “wrong” answer keeps me fixated on the question — I lose all forward momentum and continue only worrying about that one question.

For my current script, I needed to have a really clear idea about the backstory between two main characters.  The question was,  “How does Milosh know about Hannah’s backstory, but she doesn’t know about him?”

This detail may never reveal itself in the script, but it is an important part of the relationship between these two characters, who will be interacting often.

I agonized about the problem, but the answer stayed vague and nebulous because I hadn’t committed to picking one solution.  So I forced myself write out ten different solutions.

It sounds like a pain in the ass.  It is.

But forcing yourself to write out ten solutions means that you will prevent the writer’s block that accompanies looking for the “perfect” solution.  Creating ten different solutions also forces you to blast through the crappy, easy, and predictable solutions (for me, these are usually solutions 1-3), then hit on some intriguing and creative solutions (4-6), and then finally squeeze your brain for some off the wall and bizarre solutions (7-10).

Solution # 5 tends to be my sweet spot, but sometimes I come up with a great solution on answer #2.  No matter what, I try to come up with at least ten solutions, no matter how weird or crappy they seem.

Ten solutions forces you to explore a full range of possibilities —  and the “Milosh and Hannah” question is a good example — my 10th solution was to combine Milosh with another character, and suddenly the background story made perfect sense.

Don’t worry about the “right” answer.  Don’t lose your momentum.  Create ten solutions.

Four Alternatives to Outlines


The best movies feature great characters, exciting visuals, and emotionally compelling storytelling.  These are the ingredients that will combine together to form  the “world” of a film.

But none of these elements will be conveyed by an outline.

If you make an outline before creating the world of your film, you run the risk of using the outline as a tool to generate ideas.  But an outline isn’t well suited for this task.  The outline is a roadmap for your story, and if you use it as your blank canvas for generating story ideas, you can fall into the trap of creating vague plot points and subplots that aren’t motivated by the main narrative.

It would be like drawing a map of a place you have never been.

I’m a big advocate of using alternative techniques to build the world of your film first, and then using these elements to help plot your way through an outline.

Take the journey first, then draw the map.

In that spirit, here are some methods I use to generate ideas for a script before I commit to an outline:


The Short Story Version
My biggest problem with outlines is that they tell you nothing about the tone and feeling of the movie.  Writing the movie as a short story solves this problem.  A short story also gives you the opportunity to flesh out unique characters, and try out different stylistic choices that can’t be conveyed by an outline.  Additionally, writing the movie as a short story will give you an early warning about plot elements that seem to work in your head, but don’t function well on paper.


Visualizing the Trailer
Have you ever seen a trailer that looks amazing, and then the movie itself sucks?  You leave the theater thinking, “Why didn’t they just make the movie from the ad?”  Visualizing the trailer for your film (hopefully) keeps that from happening.

By visualizing the trailer for your movie, you are forced to identify the most interesting and emotionally effective points of your story.  Then you can focus on building your screenplay around these elements.  Considering the trailer will also ensure that your tale is visual and compelling.

A cynic might say that visualizing the advertising will cause you to write overly-commercial screenplays, but the reality is that interesting movies usually have interesting trailers.   Knowing how the marketing for your movie will “feel” is an important part of selling your idea to investors, distributors, and ultimately an audience.


Questions and Answers
At some point while you’re writing a script, someone will ask you, “What’s it about?”

I found that during the process of answering this question, I’d often make my story sound more emotional and interesting that what I actually had written down.  So I’d go back to my script and start tweaking.

Later I realized that I could use this technique to work through the script from the beginning, and figure out the best ways to make my stories as exciting and interesting as possible.  Forcing myself to figure out big questions like theme and character motivations would give me an early jump on identifying what elements of the story were important to me — and it’s also a useful way to work through problematic plot points.

The other huge benefit of using this ‘question and answer’ method is that it helps to keep your story logically consistent.  I try to write down any questions that I have while I’m writing (such as why one character is acting a certain way towards another character).  Then I can make sure that if an audience had the same question, it would be resolved in a satisfying way.


Outlining in Reverse
Okay, this one sort of goes against my anti-outlining policies, but hear me out.  Sometimes you have a very clear idea about the climax and ending of your story, but no idea how to begin.

Cheat.  Start at the end, and then unravel the story backwards.  This method is especially effective for writing mystery-type stories, because you can start with the solution and then knot up the various threads and subplots.  Outlining in reverse carries many of the same faults as outlining in a standard fashion — you don’t really get a sense of the tone or characters within a story — but it’s a good method for moving forward with your script when you feel that the story has lost momentum, or the various plotlines are straying too far from the main idea of your movie.


Those are a just a few of the methods I use, but there must hundreds of other ways to generate ideas and storylines for a movie.  What are some of yours?

The Ritual (Part II)

Today I’m going to dig into the methods I’m using to achieve a consistent output of work.  I’m currently utilizing eight different tactics to encourage more writing.  They are:

  • Beginning at the same time every day
  • Using a kitchen timer to work in writing “sprints”
  • Tracking how much total time I write each day
  • Using a Pavlovian trigger
  • Writing an initial ”daily goal” statement at the start of each writing session
  • Writing to a daily page goal, regardless of quality
  • Setting a plot-point goal
  • Tracking my Churn Rate

Here’s how they break down:


  • Beginning at the same time every day

When I made the resolution to go to the gym every day, I found this tactic extremely effective.  However, I find that starting writing at the same time every day is fairly difficult.  I’m not sure where the disconnect is happening, but I suspect that the temptation to putter around the internet is the roadblock that keeps me from being able to start at a consistent time each day.  In the past, I would go to a specific place to write (usually the Beverly Hills library) and that seemed to keep me on task…  I’ll keep testing this one.


  • Using a kitchen timer to work in writing “sprints”

I got this idea from a book of coping strategies for adults with ADD.  It’s probably the most effective strategy I use for getting blocks of work done.  I set the timer for a block of 20 or 40 minutes, and during that time I work in a solid sprint.  No distractions allowed.  On the flip side, the timer also limits distraction time (I’ll set a 10 minute window to wander the internet, then back to work).  As an added bonus, the timed chunks also make it easy to figure out how much total time I’ve actually spent working on any given day, which leads me to:


  • Tracking how much total time I write each day

Years ago, I would track the total number of pages I wrote per day, and I tried to use this information to figure out what got me writing the most.  It worked really well — for first drafts.  The problem with tracking pages comes during the rewriting phase, when you can make huge changes to a script and not affect the page count.  So now I track the time spent working instead.  This is also an effective way to track your work during the outlining and research phase of a project.


  • Using a Pavlovian trigger

As an experiment, I started listening to the sound of rain while I write.  When I was done, or any time I got distracted, I turned off the sound.  Sure enough, after a couple of weeks, when I turned on the rain noise, I would feel compelled to work.  Magic.


  • Writing an initial “daily goal” statement at the start of each writing session

This is something I just started experimenting with.  Originally, my daily goals were simple and straightforward (like “write 5 pages today”).  But I’ve found that setting a daily goal turned out to be an excellent way to identify plot points that aren’t working.  Before settling in to write, I ask myself some question about the story so far (How do these characters know each other?  Why does this one guy know this information, but the other guy doesn’t?) then I can focus on creating the answer in a satisfying way.  My hope is that this practice will eliminate the narrative “blind-spots” that sometimes creep into first drafts.


  • Writing to a daily page goal, regardless of quality

Fairly self-explanatory — As I mentioned above, a page goal is the most helpful during the writing of the first draft.  It keeps you from getting bogged down on any single section, which can be a huge productivity killer on the rough draft of the script.  Write the damn script.  Then worry about fixing it.  (Side Note: over the weekend I had a conversation with a successful author of Young Adult Fiction who said she NEVER reads anything she has written in a first draft until she reaches the end of the story.  That boggled my mind)


  • Setting a plot point goal

Similar to the daily page count goal.  Writing a script from plot-point to plot-point is just another way to push through the first draft, and make sure you are actually moving forward, instead of just adding scenes that aren’t moving the story.


  • Tracking my Churn Rate

The “Churn Rate” is the ratio of work created to time elapsed during any given project.  I was inspired to track my churn rate by a post at Study Hacks.  In my case, I track the total number of 20 minute units I spend against the number of days I’ve been working.  Then I can use that number to figure out how efficiently I have been working.


Do you have any techniques you use to keep yourself motivated and writing?  What are they?

The Ritual

The hardest part of writing is pushing through.  

At the very beginning of any project, you get a great idea, start sketching things out in your mind, and everything is great.  It seems so full and rich!

Then you sit down to write and realize you only have a few lines of dialogue, some vague notions of character, and the logic of the story makes no sense.

Congratulations.  This is where the real work starts.

Anyone can write when they’re excited and inspired.  But pros have to be able to write on a consistent basis.  This is the type of work I’m interested in:  The tough, exhausting, difficult, creative work that involves pushing outside of your comfort zone and writing well.

More specifically, I’m interested in the processes that make this kind of everyday writing possible.  I’ve been testing out quite a few different methods, but at their core, the defining characteristic of each of these systems is that they involve creating rituals.

Why are rituals so important?

Psychologists Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz asked that question during their research into why certain exceptional athletes achieve victory in their sports while many of their adversaries who possess similar levels of talent fail.

They found that the top athletes were the individuals who were able to most efficiently preserve their mental and emotional energy — and these athletes were able to do that by creating and utilizing rituals that both relaxed them and focused their attention on their immediate goals.

In their book The Power of Full Engagement, Loehr and Schwartz build off a growing body of scientific evidence which indicates that the capacity we have for creative, mental, and emotional energy is both finite and far more limited than most people would like to believe.  Thus, the adage, “work harder” is largely useless… to achieve greater results, you must focus on utilizing your energy more efficiently.

The authors assert that rituals work because they allow our brain to effectively short-cut the exhausting mental processes involved in figuring out what we should be doing at any given moment, and keep us focused on what to do next.

In my post Behavioral Science, I wrote about the methods and tricks I’m using to push through the natural resistance that accompanies the work behind writing.  Here they are again:

  • Beginning writing at the same time every day
  • Writing an initial ”daily-goal” statement at the start of each writing session
  • Writing to a daily page-goal, regardless of quality
  • Setting a plot point goal
  • Tracking my Churn Rate

I’m also going to add three more methods that I use to that list:

  • Using a kitchen timer to work in writing “sprints”
  • Tracking how much total time I write each day
  • Using a Pavlovian trigger

You may notice that these methods have nothing to do with the creative content of my writing.  Instead, they’re about establishing rituals that make the writing process easier.  Additionally, several of these methods include a “tracking” component — a system of accountability regarding these processes.

That’s 8 total methods I’m testing.  Over the next few days, I’ll be digging into the hows and whys behind these methods.  I’ll include a discussion about what is working, what the challenges are, and any tweaks that I add along the way.

Finding Direction

My big audacious goal is to write and direct a movie, so you might be curious why I’ve only spoken about screenwriting and not directing on this blog.

Good question.

There are a few esoteric reasons — and one big, fat, practical reason…

The practical reason is money.  Directing requires a lot of it.

I know you’re saying, “Well that was true in the past, but you can shoot a movie on an iPhone now”.

That’s technically true.  But what’s the last movie you watched that was shot on a phone?


Besides, just because cameras have gotten cheaper and more accessible doesn’t mean that what you put in front of them has decreased in cost at all.  Sets, costumes, lights, and props don’t get cheaper just because you’re shooting a movie on a camera you bought at Costco.

Screenwriting, on the other hand, is essentially free.  More importantly, the content of what you write is totally unlimited by financial concerns.

Another reason I’m focusing on writing over directing is simply a matter of personal preference: directing is physically and emotionally exhausting…  And I’m saying that as a person who loves directing.  When you couple those burdens with the time-consuming nature and financial expenses of directing, you end up realizing that directing projects you aren’t passionate about is a huge waste of energy.

Time and effort are finite resources — screenwriting is simply a more efficient use of these resources.

Am I specifically avoiding directing?

Not at all.

In fact, I already have a director’s reel.  But screenwriting is more versatile. I can directly sell any script that I write.  Or if the script is really something I want to direct (like my current one), the script functions as a business plan for attracting investors and talent.

The danger in pursuing screenwriting over directing is that investors will look at me and say, “sure it’s a great script, but what makes you think you can direct it?”

The answer is that I will have already directed it once in my head, during the writing process.

On a more practical level, as the script nears completion, l will develop a “look book” that includes storyboards, design ideas, and ideally, a short pre-vis sequence to give investors an idea of the tone and character I want the movie to have.

But before any of that can happen, I have to write a killer script.

Tone Deaf

A couple days ago, I wrote about why creating an outline before writing a script is overrated.  Since then, I realized a more concrete observation about the limits of outlining:

Outlining fails to reveal anything about the tone, emotion, or feeling of the story you are telling.

Don’t believe me?  Here’s the observation that led me to that conclusion:

The Iron Giant and Terminator 2: Judgement Day would have the same outline.

One is an animated children’s story of friendship set against the paranoia of the Cold War.  The other is an R-rated sci-fi action movie.  I love both films.  At their most basic level, both stories are about a boy who befriends a robot, teaches that robot about humanity, and then is ultimately saved when the robot sacrifices itself on the boy’s behalf.

The difference between the two?  Tone.

The tone and feeling of a movie is generally considered to be the domain of the director, and while this may be true in certain contexts, the fact is that the screenwriter is usually the person who gets to decide what the film is about —

— And the “what is it?”, isn’t something that will be revealed by the outline.

My big, audacious vision for this project is to both write and direct my story, so I’ll be responsible for the tone and mood of the movie in the end.   But right now, I’m focusing on finding the tone for the film first, and then backing my way into an outline.

Focus on the tones, moods and the feelings of your stories — they will make your work unique.

Behavioral Science

I’m a procrastinator.  I get easily sidetracked.  And when it comes to writing, I have a terrible record when it comes to finishing draft after draft of a script.

But that’s not unusual for screenwriters.

The usual advice for procrastinators is, “break your challenge down into smaller tasks”.  Which of course makes little sense for a screenwriter…  A spec (uncommissioned) screenplay is 105-120 pages.  That’s a long, tough slog.

So let’s work on some hacks to get through the 120-odd pages of a first draft, by using some tricks of behavioral science.

Behavioral studies show that people are generally good at figuring what they should be doing in the future (“next week, I’ll work out 5 days”), and really bad at figuring out what they should be doing in the moment (“oooo – chocolate!”).  This is why almost no-one sticks to a budget or a diet.  We’re just not wired to think that way.

To counter these natural mental deficiencies, financial blogger Ramit Sethi promotes the idea of automatic savings — in his system, you set up your bank accounts to automatically deduct a portion of each paycheck into an account that pays all your bills and distributes your savings.  Then you’re free to spend whatever remains — no hassle, no budget.

We’re going to try to apply that level of automation to screenwriting.  Here are the initial systems I’m going to utilize to keep me on task:

  • Beginning writing at the same time every day
  • Writing an initial “daily-goal” statement at the start of each writing session
  • Writing to a daily page-goal, regardless of quality
  • Setting a plot point goal
  • Tracking my Churn Rate

I’ll explain these strategies in more depth and discuss their effectiveness over the next few days.  Let’s see how it goes…

Staying On The Horse

I went to film school at USC, and even though almost all of my classes dealt with movie making, we only took two screenwriting classes.

On a technical level, these classes covered Aristotle’s Three-Act-Structure and not much else.  The professors would just tell us to write a certain number of pages before the next class and then send us on our way.

As a result, most of our scripts sucked… and not because of a lack of talent… a girl in one of my screenwriting classes is now a senior writer for Mad Men.

One of my screenwriting professors was a television writer named Paul Wolff, and his entire philosophy of screenwriting was simply the phrase “Stay On The Horse”, which struck me as dubious in its simplicity.

I was craving structure, rules, theory… anything really, that would allow me to become a better writer.

But I got, “Stay On The Horse.”

I rationalized that Paul’s morsel of philosophy might work for sitcoms (maybe), but it couldn’t possibly work for feature film scripts.

A few years out of school, I decided to try writing movie screenplays.  I picked up Blake Snyder’s “Save The Cat” books, and instantly fell in love with them.  The Save The Cat books detailed the exact scientific formula for crafting perfect screenplays — 15 beats, 40 scenes, 110 pages, and you’re done.

The core of the Save The Cat method is the “Beat Sheet” — the 15 specific story developments that add up to a properly plotted movie.  Essentially, the Beat Sheet was a glorified outline.

Using what I had learned, I crafted an amazing outline that hit the Save The Cat beats perfectly.  By following this outline, I busted out a script in no time…

… and it wasn’t very good.

No worries.  This is all part of the process.

For my next project, I adapted a novel.  130 pages later, script was done…

… and it had the same problems as the first.

These scripts weren’t bad, but something was off in both of them.  The characters were hollow, their motivations didn’t seem authentic.  Scenes raced by, but didn’t feel connected.

And then I realized what the problem was.  I didn’t stay on the horse.

What Paul meant by that phrase was that you had to let a story develop naturally, without forcing it.  Staying on the horse also meant that you had to make sure your characters were dynamic people who had authentic motivations that kept them acting in ways that were worth watching.

Both of the scripts I had written using the Save The Cat Beat Sheet suffered from the same failings:  I was so concerned with hitting the proper beats that I didn’t develop the kind of characters who would strive to reach those points in organic or satisfying ways.

The bigger problem was that I would create cool moments inside the scripts that were connected by implausible plot developments.  Everyone would end up in the right place for the Big Moment, but how they got there wouldn’t make sense, or worse, would be boring.

The solution:  Stay On The Horse — Keep your characters moving in truthful and organic ways.  If your story runs out of momentum, it’s because the problems your protagonists are facing aren’t challenging enough.  Go back earlier and ramp up the difficulty, then make your characters struggle to overcome these problems.

Want an example?  I’ll give you my favorite:  At the beginning of the Matrix, Morpheus has already located Neo, and the Agents have already established a Mole.  Instant momentum.  More importantly, the Matrix hits a point when the momentum of the plot becomes self-sustaining — When Neo goes to meet the Oracle the Agents’ ambush has already been set.  For the rest of the movie, every scene that follows is the logical and organic result of the characters we already know behaving truthfully.  Even though the Matrix clocks in at a hefty 136 minutes, it never feels slow because it Stays On The Horse.

Want an example of when a movie has Fallen Off The Horse?  There are too many to count.  Basically, if you have ever been watching a movie and thought to yourself, “What’s going on here?” or, “What’s this leading towards?” — You’re watching a movie that has fallen off the horse.

This recently happened for me when I was watching Hugo.  The movie looked great, and the characters were interesting, but about 45 minutes in, all I could think was, “What’s going on?”,  “What do these people even want?”  and, “What’s the point?”.  Hugo has a neat ending that ties up the story nicely, but by that point, I didn’t care.

Stay On The Horse.

As for the “Save The Cat”  books, they are delightful to read, and quite insightful for many reasons.  To be honest, “Why didn’t we learn this in film school?” was a thought I had over and over again while reading them.  More importantly, the “Save The Cat” method gives you an excellent way to figure out what is missing from or isn’t working in a completed draft.

But now that I’ve written a couple scripts, my advice about the “Save The Cat” method, and writing Outlines in general is this:

Outlines are an important roadmap for a script.  But an Outline isn’t a story.  Craft your story first — then go back and use an Outline to figure out where it’s weak.

Right now I’m working on the “short story” version of my next screenplay.  It starts with “Once upon a time”…  And it already feels richer and more compelling than anything I’ve ever laid out as part of a sterile outline.