Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The two pillars of a good story

The true test of a viable story--one that ultimately will lift off the page and really deliver the goods--is the strength of your plot points at the end of your structural Act I and Act II.  These are the I-beams of any well constructed story, whether it be a play, screenplay, teleplay, or any narrative fiction.  They each dictate what has to have already happened and what will happen as the story unfolds.


The plot point at  the end of Act I always spins the story in a surprising new direction and demands a set up in Act I that leads to this act ending.  And the plot point at the end of Act II has to accomplish the same--spinning the story in an unexpected way into Act III and the climactic scene and ultimate resolution of your tale, and this plot point again will dictate the developing struggle of Act II that leads to this act ending.

Of course there are a lot of other plot elements that also have to be in place like the Act I inciting incident and the the Act II mid-point, etc. etc.  But the initial development of any good story has to start with these two plot points.  Everything else can then be built on top of these essential structural pillars.

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I'm the Program Director of the low-residency MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen being offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art.  Our last residency ran from June 22 to July 1 and we're current considering applications for starting the program next January at our residency scheduled for January 5-14, 2018.  If you're interested in finding out more about our program, email me at buzzmclaughlin@gmail.com and we can start a dialogue.

I'm also a playwright and screenwriter, producing partner in my production company Either/Or Films (The Sensation of Sight and Only Daughter) a professional script consultant, and the author of The Playwright's Process.  You can follow me on Twitter @eitherorfilms or @mfastagescreen.  I’m also on Facebook at buzzmclaughlinscriptconsulting.     

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

How to guarantee progress on your first draft...

There's a simple little practice many writers I know use (including myself) to keep them moving forward when grinding out their first draft. It's painless and almost always effective at keeping you eager to return to the work tomorrow to pick up where you left off today.


The secret is to as much as possible always stop work for the day when you're feeling good about what you've accomplished and when you knowing exactly where you'll be resuming at your next session. In other words, don't ever walk away when you're lost or frustrated with your daily progress  --that's a sure bet that you won't be thrilled to return to the work and you'll have a hard time sitting back down and having that problem staring you in the face. 

I like what playwright David Ives told me about this regarding a couple of master writers:  "John O'Hara used to stop writing every day in the middle of a sentence so that the next day he could continue that sentence and have a springboard, a way in.  Hemingway said you should always stop when you know where you're going--and never stop when you don't know what's next because you'll be lost."

A simple practice, but don't we need all the help we can muster?

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I'm the Program Director of the low-residency MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen being offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art.  Our last residency ran from June 22 to July 1 and we're current considering applications for starting the program next January at our residency scheduled for January 5-14, 2018.  If you're interested in finding out more about our program, email me at buzzmclaughlin@gmail.com and we can start a dialogue.

I'm also a playwright and screenwriter, producing partner in my production company Either/Or Films (The Sensation of Sight and Only Daughter) a professional script consultant, and the author of The Playwright's Process.  You can follow me on Twitter @eitherorfilms or @mfastagescreen.  I’m also on Facebook at buzzmclaughlinscriptconsulting.     

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Script prep: Laying out the cards...

I'm currently in the middle of developing a script up in my second story home office and I thought it might be informative to share a bit of the plot outlining phase of my pre-draft process.


What you see here is my day bed taken over by my project.  What's obviously apparent is that I still like to use the old index card method of laying out the scenes--playing with how to structure the telling of my tale. 

I've laid out the three acts, with the white cards the A plot and the blue cards the B plot.  I find working with actual cards like this allows me to get a tactile feel for the developing story and I can add, remove, and shuffle scenes with ease.  When I'm working on Act 3 for example, I have acts 1 and 2 instantly available at a glance and I can actually see and feel the emerging structure of the whole script right there in front of me and make adjustments as needed.  There are digital software versions for doing this of course, but this simple visual method still works best for me.

The only drawback is that for the duration of my plot outlining, I have to find somewhere else to take my short afternoon naps.

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I'm the Program Director of the low-residency MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen being offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art.  Our last residency ran from June 22 to July 1 and we're current considering applications for starting the program next January at our residency scheduled for January 5-14, 2018.  If you're interested in finding out more about our program, email me at buzzmclaughlin@gmail.com and we can start a dialogue.

I'm also a playwright and screenwriter, producing partner in my production company Either/Or Films (The Sensation of Sight and Only Daughter) a professional script consultant, and the author of The Playwright's Process.  You can follow me on Twitter @eitherorfilms or @mfastagescreen.  I’m also on Facebook at buzzmclaughlinscriptconsulting.  

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

How to make your script come truly to life...or the cliche that keeps on giving...

I've just been working on a script with a client of mine and an old truism once again became abundantly clear--the devil is in the details.  Or to put it in more proper dramaturgical terms, the ultimate success of your script--to bring it fully to life--depends on how well you're able to have your audience/reader fall in love with your characters and the only way to really accomplish that is to weave into your telling of your tale an accumulation of the small yet powerful bits of information about your characters and how they behave within their world.
I like to call this the writer's paradox and it goes something like this:  The more detailed, specific, and personal you become in your writing, the more universal it's appeal.  A paradox for sure, because on first glance you'd assume the opposite.  But audiences need many handholds to climb into a story and the best handholds by far are always the little things that make your people unique.  We want to fall in love with your characters, we want to embrace them.  It's the details--the little seemingly insignificant things unique to each personality--that give us access.

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I'm the Program Director of the low-residency MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen being offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art.  Our last residency ran from June 22 to July 1 and we're current considering applications for starting the program next January at our residency scheduled for January 5-14, 2018.  If you're interested, email me at buzzmclaughlin@gmail.com and we can start a dialogue.

I'm also a playwright and screenwriter, producing partner in my production company Either/Or Films (The Sensation of Sight and Only Daughter) a professional script consultant, and the author of The Playwright's Process.  You can follow me on Twitter @eitherorfilms or @mfastagescreen.  I’m also on Facebook at buzzmclaughlinscriptconsulting.  

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Your first draft: resisting the urge to share...

I realize that many of my new posts are to some degree a repeat of older posts.  But there are some topics that are worth repeating.  One of these is how important it is to resist the urge to share pages with other folks while you are in the midst of writing your first draft.

My contention is that finding the strength to resist the often powerful urge to get feedback on your draft-in-the-making pays significant dividends.  There's a private bond that you, the writer, develop with your characters and your developing script that produces a special creative energy--and energy that can be tapped in no other way.  And you want to protect this personal and private artistic vision that's at the source of this energy.  But this special condition can only come into play if you can manage to keep yourself from seeking outside reassurance, encouragement, and/or opinions as your draft materializes.

As soon as you let someone else in on your work in progress, this special bond is forever broken and it's impossible to recreate it.  Even if the feedback you get is wildly positive, the writing process from that point forward will not be the same.  To some degree you will proceed with that feedback in your head and your special relationship with your material will be forever contaminated.  Lost will be your special connection between you and your developing draft--a relationship that needs to be protected and honored until you have a full working draft of your script in your hands.  And it's only when you reach that stage in the process that you should give yourself the green light to share your work with carefully chosen readers.  But not before.

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I'm the Program Director of the low-residency MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen being offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art.  Our last residency ran from June 22 to July 1 and we're current considering applications for starting the program next January at our residency scheduled for January 5-14, 2018.  If you're interested, email me at buzzmclaughlin@gmail.com and we can start a dialogue.

I'm also a playwright and screenwriter, producing partner in my production company Either/Or Films (The Sensation of Sight and Only Daughter) a professional script consultant, and the author of The Playwright's Process.  You can follow me on Twitter @eitherorfilms or @mfastagescreen.  I’m also on Facebook at buzzmclaughlinscriptconsulting. 

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The dangers of writing out of order...

There are writers I work with who have shared with me that they often write their first drafts out of order--initially writing scenes that take place at various places in their unfolding story.  They say that this gets them warmed up and connects them with the material they're working with, discovering the tone of the piece as well as getting a better bead on the principle characters and their voices.


My contention is that there are lurking dangers when you take this approach to your first draft.  Here are a few of them:

--There's a tendency to fall in love with key scenes you've written early that take place deep into the unfolding story.  And it's often very difficult to toss these pages out when you finally get to where those scenes belong in your plot even though they no longer really fit.  Many new discoveries have been made as your draft has taken shape and mostly likely scenes are now obsolete to one degree or another.

--There's a ripple effect operating as you write your first draft, meaning that one thing builds on another and many slight and not so slight adjustments in voice and behavior naturally occur as you work your way through your script.  But this can only be to your advantage if you write your draft from beginning to end.  Otherwise it's short circuited and you never allow this organic growth to happen as you work your way through, especially as you try to squeeze in that scene that you wrote too soon--a scene that most likely is void of many of the discoveries you've made along the way.

--Another aspect of the ripple effect is the subtle and not so subtle changes that occur in the actual plot of your story as you work through its telling from start to finish, incorporating the cumulative discoveries you've made along the way.  And that beautiful scene you wrote out of order will no longer quite fit.  And if you've fallen in love with the scene, there's the strong temptation to still try to force it in there--like trying to put a square peg into a round hole.  And this can be the death-knell to your script. 

--In a sense, writing a draft out of order is the lazy approach to tackling your draft.  By this I mean it tends to indicate that you've been in too big a hurry to get into the actual writing of the script and haven't had the patience to do the essential extensive pre-draft character work--digging into backstories and exploring the nine-tenths of your tale that's going to forever remain under the surface in the subtext. These critical discoveries don't happen by initially writing a scene that takes place deep into your script because you don't know who your people are or have a sense of the subtleties of personalities and relationships that will have evolved by that point in your story.

So the message here?  When you're ready to go to draft, start on page one.

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I'm the Program Director of the low-residency MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen being offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art.  Our last residency ran from June 22 to July 1 and we're current considering applications for starting the program next January at our residency scheduled for January 5-14, 2018.  If you're interested, email me at buzzmclaughlin@gmail.com and we can start a dialogue.

I'm also a playwright and screenwriter, producing partner in my production company Either/Or Films (The Sensation of Sight and Only Daughter) a professional script consultant, and the author of The Playwright's Process.  You can follow me on Twitter @eitherorfilms or @mfastagescreen.  I’m also on Facebook at buzzmclaughlinscriptconsulting.   

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Why most scripts are toss-aways

It may sound harsh, but most new scripts that are out there making the rounds will end up before long in the proverbial circular file.  As much as 90 percent or more is my estimate.


The reason?  Because most writers are are in much too big of a hurry to get into draft and let their accumulating pages dictate where their story goes.  And doing so makes them feel like they're making lovely progress when in fact in most cases they are blindly heading into the weeds.

What so often happens is that 30, 50, or 70 pages in it begins to be clear that something isn't right--the story needs another character to bolster a major element in the story, or a character who has taken up a lot of space in the story no longer has a structural reason for being in such a prominent position, or a new major exciting plot element suddenly surfaces that hasn't been even whispered about in the preceding pages.... It's inevitable that new discoveries like this will always be made as more and more pages materialize.

The problem--and I have run into this countless times as a script consultant and teacher--is that when gut instincts tell writers that major adjustments should be made usually involving reworking significant portions of a script-in-the making, they have so fallen in love with all those pages already in the stack that it becomes almost impossible to consider throwing them out.  They remember vividly the pain and struggle it took to produce them and in their judgement it's all very well written. So there's an attempt to "fix" around and in between those already written precious pages, with the rationalization that these patch ups are doing the trick.

Sadly, these fixes rarely work because what's really required is a major rewrite and finding the guts to throw out sometimes large portions of what's been already written and sometimes starting over from page one.  So the "finished" draft ends up a crippled patchwork of what could have been.  Those "darlings" are all still intact, but the story unfolds in fits and starts at best.

So what do I suggest?  Don't start your draft until you're ready.  Not until after you've done extensive character exploratory backstory work and worked out a detailed plot outline that has steady forward momentum and that has your central character landing where you want that character to land.  Many past posts on this blog deal with various aspects of this pre-draft work and a good portion of my book deals with this as well.

The message here is not to rush into draft before you're ready.  And always remember that you already are writing your script as you work through your pre-draft explorations.

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I'm the Program Director of the low-residency MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen being offered by the New Hampshire Institute of Art.  Our last residency ran from June 22 to July 1 and we're current considering applications for starting the program next January at our residency scheduled for January 5-14, 2018.  If you're interested, email me at buzzmclaughlin@gmail.com and we can start a dialogue.

I'm also a playwright and screenwriter, producing partner in my production company Either/Or Films (The Sensation of Sight and Only Daughter) a professional script consultant, and the author of The Playwright's Process.  You can follow me on Twitter @eitherorfilms or @mfastagescreen.  I’m also on Facebook at buzzmclaughlinscriptconsulting.