I didn't really get along with my writing teacher in college. I thought most of his ideas were stupid and his schedule of writing, every single day at an increasing rate, was ridiculous, especially when we had so much else going on in our lives. Who actually writes every day, anyway?
Of course it turns out 99% of what Peter Christopher (RIP) said was correct. Well, maybe not that much, but a lot of it, particularly his point about not being lazy and putting in work every day, was on the nose. If you're curious, I made a C in the class - Peter said my portfolio was one of the most disappointing and biggest wastes of talent he'd ever seen.
There are several lessons of his I could talk about, but one I definitely can see has had a big influence on my stories. His mantra was "Go for the jugular!" He hated stories that took forever to get going, tales that wandered around aimlessly until the good parts arrived to get them going. He wanted us to skip past any needless junk and get right to where the "action" is. In other words, the reader is there for a reason, so get to the point.
For example, let's say your story is about wooden furniture coming to life and attacking a ship full of scurvy-stricken pirates. Your first draft has a lengthy back story detailing how the pirates all arrived on the ship which all comes back around later as they fight off the killer chairs and tables. However, this takes up several pages in your story meaning the action doesn't really get going until page 7 of a 20 page short. Wouldn't it be better to reconfigure the story so you get to the point and reveal the rest during the action? Just jump right into it.
Of course this blog is about films - and honestly I think it applies even more than anywhere else. You have a finite time to tell your story in a movie. A feature is the "novel" version of a movie which is, if you think about it, still fairly short. Why waste any time beating around the bush?
This is especially pertinent when you consider that your first 10 pages of a film are arguably your most important. When a producer or the intern at Big Fancy Agency LLC first looks at your script they'll check out the first 10 pages. If you spend five of those pages yawning about pirates walking onto a ship rather than setting sail and having adventures, they're not going to give the rest of the script a second thought.
The "go for the jugular" mantra also does wonders for individual scenes. Go back and look at your last script - how many scenes start too early and end too late? For instance does your main character "walk into the room" to confront the evil sorcerer controlling the killer furniture? Why not jump right to the confrontation and skip the pointless walking? If you're looking for ways to make your stories as tight as possible this is a great place to start.
Ultimately I believe Peter knew the writers who take the job seriously would take what we wanted and leave the rest behind. And while it took me some time I look back and realize while he was bullheaded it was for a reason. Hopefully he knew before he died that some of us eventually admitted to ourselves he actually had solid points and wasn't interested in coddling us.
So in that spirit: stop beating around the bush and go for the jugular in your story. Stop being a disappointment to your story and your characters.
Of course I don't mean physically hand out chew toys for all the crew members of your film...unless that's just how you roll and everybody's cool with it, no judgement. But we hear so much advice about giving every one of your future actors something interesting to do, a meaty part they can sink their teeth into, etc. What about the other 200 people on set, though?
Make no mistake: you absolutely want to make every part in your script amazing. Even someone delivering a pizza or arresting your main character can have something that makes them stand out in some small way.
***WARNING: NAME DROPPING AHEAD***
Stephen Tobolowsky, who my writing partners and I contacted about our latest film Detriment, gave the script a great review. He said "there are a lot of colorful parts for me to play" in the film which was very nice of him to say. That exemplifies what I mean about making every role a good one, too; not only did he like the story, each individual parts were good enough for him to possibly be interested in coming on.
Yes, that's right. I was in the bathroom and this giant eight-legged monster decides to say hello. First instinct for me was that it was gonna get a broom to the face. I feel bad. I like animals. I just don't like when the crawly ones decide to sneak up on you late at night, when you're at your most vulnerable.
My blog today, I'm planning on sharing one of my favourite short stories that I've written. Hopefully it makes sense to you when you read it. I'd love to know what you think. I'm not a writer by trade, I just love doing it.
The Business Man (A Short Story):
The weight of the world is visible on the lines of his forehead. His life is a rush. Deadlines, schedules and peak-hour traffic. His shined leather shoes carry him quickly across town; his eyes focused on the watch on his wrist, rather than where he is going. He trips on the sidewalk and quickly tries to recover his speedy composure. The ruffles of paper and clicking of keys flood his head whilst in the office, with no time to think about the family he's left at home. Wife and daughter frequently wait for Daddy to come home for dinner, however he just has to finish his work for the night. Overtime; hours overtime...