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Fun Joel's Screenwriting Blog


-- On Screenwriting and Related Topics

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Location: Los Angeles, CA

I moved from NYC to LA in October, 2003. And though I still think NYC is the greatest city in the world, I'm truly loving life here in the City of Angels. I'm a writer, reader, and occasional picture-taker.

Thursday, June 30, 2005

The Actors' Contributions

Interesting. I was getting ready to start tweaking my blogroll, adding a few links and removing one or two. Andy Coughlan's Blog was one that I was set to remove, not because I didn't like it at all, but rather just that he'd been dwelling on his process as a filmmaker, engaged in producing a short film, not his work as a screenwriter. I figured when he got back to talking about screenwriting, I might put it back on.

Then this morning I read this post, in which he discussed an interesting new insight he received while editing a scene from his short film:

I tried several edits, not hard when I only had four takes and a couple of cutaways to play with, but even so, it just wasn't making sense in my head. Midnight rolled past and I was getting more and more agitated and unhappy.

Then it struck me. The way I had Dr Crabtree in my mind was a little selfish and perhaps a little bit of a coward. The way Ben plays it he becomes much more selfless. He obviously already knows that Jess has been sent the book and perhaps already been torn off a strip by Mr Widdershins, both of which actually make more sense in the flow of the story.

Now his words and actions start to become more selfless. Despite knowing he's in the sh*t, he still tries to protect her the best he can, making his character, in my mind anyway, richer and deeper.

What Andy discovered, to his pleasant surprise, was that the actors "are going to come to the script with the same lack of preconception that the audience will have when they see the final film. They will often see the real truth in what you write, even if your confused and befuddled brain has twisted it into something else."

A less confident storyteller might be worried by this prospect. Novice screenwriters often put too much direction in their screenplays, both via the ultimate no-no of indicating camera angles, and also by overusing parentheticals to practically direct the line readings of the actors. Usually they do this because they think, "How else can I ensure that the movie that is produced will be the movie in my head?"

Well, I got news for ya: It won't be! So let it go. Learn to trust the directors and actors. More importantly, you might be surprised. You can actually learn from them.

Which brings me to my final point. Andy opened his posting by saying, "I've heard people say that all screenwriters should at least attempt to make a short movie." And while certainly good advice, it's not always going to be feasible. But what should be possible for nearly every screenwriter is to organize a reading of your screenplay. Get together with some actors, and at the very least, have a table reading. Don't give them any direction; let them develop their own take on things. Even better, find a location and have the actors read it in front of a small audience. This will not only give you the actors' fresh take on your material, but will also allow you to gauge the audience's reaction as well. Ideally, you'll discover new insights into what is and is not working in your script, what still needs clarification, and perhaps some new directions in which you can take your characters.

Best of luck on the short, Andy! Looking forward to hearing of your progress as both a filmmaker and a screenwriter.

(P.S. I think this is my first 3-post day!)

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Changing Schedules

I've mentioned before that I really buckled down and got a lot more serious about my screenwriting a bit more than a year ago. One of the big impetuses (is that the plural? impeti?) for the shift was when I joined up with my writing group. But it wasn't just the group, but rather what that driving force got me to do that had the greatest effect.

Recognizing that I was not being nearly as productive as I wanted to be, I decided to set a serious writing schedule for myself. I began waking up at 5 AM each day, and would write from around 5 or 5:30 to about 7 or 7:30. I won't say that I never missed a day, but for quite a while I was successful at sticking to this schedule, more or less.

I should note that this was the culmination of a fundamental attack on my nature. In general, I'm a night person, not a morning person. But over the years of doing coverage, with morning deadlines, I found that I was much better off going to sleep when I was tired and getting up earlier to complete my work, rather than forcing myself to stay up later at night to do it. An old personality test computer program that I ran on myself a long time ago said one thing that stuck in my mind as pretty true:

"You hate to go to bed at night, but you hate to get up in the morning."

That's a pretty true statement about my nature. I've always felt like sleeping was pretty much a waste of time, and wished I had to sleep less so I could have more time to be productive. Therefore, once I do finally drag myself out of bed in the morning (I mean really out of bed, not just to hit the snooze button), I usually am awake and active almost immediately. I'm at the point now where I can pretty much be working within about 5 minutes of getting out of bed.

So anyway, that was what led me to decide that I should get up at 5 AM to write, or at least what convinced me that I would be able to do it. Sometimes I wasn't writing, but was working on a coverage deadline or something instead. But at least I was being productive. One of the things I particularly liked about writing that early is that it is completely silent, both outside and in my apartment. It's just a solitudinous time between me, my thoughts, and my computer. Also, later in the day there are always things in my head. All the stuff that has been going on throughout the day: bills to pay, phone calls or emails to return, shopping to do, whatever. But at 5 AM, my mind is free to focus on the writing alone, without all the other garbage cluttering my thinking, and vying for attention and time. And I always knew that if I got tired, I could take a nap in the middle of the day, since I was a freelancer and made my own schedule!

Unfortunately, however, the 5 AM schedule has no longer been working for a little while now. First, I neglected my writing for a few months when my finances were a bit low, and I was focused on my monetary concerns, and ways to rectify that situation. But then I started getting that back under control, and slowly began pushing myself back into that schedule. Then, about a month ago, I began a part time job to bolster my finances with a certain amount of steady income each month. It's only 20 hours a week, but it still meant a major lifestyle adjustment for me. It had been years since I had any kind of enforced schedule at all, and this was a lot for me to deal with. Even though neither the work nor the schedule was that difficult, I still found that I was drained when I got home from work. I still don't fully understand it, but 8 hours in an office doing mindless stuff shouldn't tire me out as much as it does, but what can I say? It is what it is.

I kept pushing, trying to make the schedule work. But as evidenced by this morning's issue (and this was not a particularly isolated event) it simply isn't working. Finally, this afternoon as I was walking to get a coffee, I came to a realization. I need to change my schedule again if I'm going to be productive, and get Hell on Wheels really moving, along with the revisions of my other two scripts.

I haven't sat down to really examine my schedule yet, but I'm thinking I'll have to try for more hours on fewer days or something. We'll see. But what's the bottom line of this post?

You have to find what works for you as a writer. And when something that worked previously stops working, learn to recognize it and then find something else that does!

I say this now, as much to myself as to you: Keep Writing!

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Wednesday, June 29, 2005

A Word of Advice...

...for the novice screenwriter:


Now, then. I hate when I get out of bed, every nine minutes (who came up with that one, btw?), walk across the room (because I put my alarm clock there so I wouldn't climb back into bed), hit the snooze button, climb back into bed, and repeat this for an hour and a half! As I did this very morning. That's ten hits on the ol' snoozer. Ugh! Luckily I have most of today to write, still, so hopefully the day won't be a complete wash.

Oh, and while I'm asking odd questions: What is the origin of the phrase "now, then" as well?

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Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Screenplay Services

I've received a few inquiries about my screenplay consulting services, so I wanted to do a quick post to list them here. I will eventually set up a separate website for this, but until then, this should do the trick! I've done a thorough survey of the other options out there, and have aimed for highly competitive rates, on the low end of the scale. I hope you'll agree, and rest assured you'll receive top-notch, professional attention and service. I'm happy to discuss any of these options with anyone who is interested. Just get in touch, and we'll go from there.

So here are the options I offer, along with my rates:

"Studio Style" coverage ($150)
2-3 pages. Comments and evaluation of story concept and structure, technical skills, and commercial potential. Includes 1/2 hour phone follow-up. (Price is for 125 pages or fewer. Add $1/page above 125.)

"Development Notes" report ($300)
5-10 pages. "Studio Style" coverage, plus in depth comments and suggestions on areas for improvement. Specific comments on characters, character relationships, plot structure, tone, and/or budgetary concerns. Includes 1/2 hour phone follow-up. (Up to 125 pages. Add $1/page above 125.)

"Book-to-Film" analysis ($2/MS page, double-spaced)
4-8 pages. Analysis of film potential for an adaptation of your book. Evaluation of commercial potential, ease of translation to cinematic form, and budgetary issues.

Phone consultation ($60/half hour)
Discussion of comments from my reports and/or analysis of potential story ideas. Suggestions for improvement.

Proper formatting/retyping ($1.75/page of completed screenplay)

Note: All prices are for scripts in proper format, 12 pt. Courier font. Turnaround time is 7 days. Add $25 for 4-5 day or $50 for 48-hour turnaround.

My Qualifications:
  • 14+ years of film industry experience
  • My screenplay analysis has been trusted by such companies as New Line Cinema, William Morris Agency, Tribeca Productions (DeNiro), Walden Media, Summit Entertainment, Cinetic Media, The Shooting Gallery, Bristol Bay Productions, Maple Shade Films, Mandeville Films, Constantin Film, among others
  • Served as a judge at multiple film and screenplay competitions, including the Nantucket Film Festival screenplay competition, HDFest, and NYC Midnight Screenwriter's Challenge
  • Presented well-received seminars at Screenwriting Expos 4-6 (named Star Speaker each year to date)
  • Published articles in scr(i)pt magazine aiding screenwriters in developing their skills
  • Master of Arts in Media Studies, New School University, New York, NY

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Monday, June 27, 2005

Coming Attractions

Busy working today, and I am behind on work for Hell on Wheels, following a packed-with-other-things weekend. But I do want to post briefly to update y'all and tell ya what you can (I hope) look forward to.

First of all, welcome to any new readers clicking through from Man Bytes Hollywood, The Artful Writer, My Urban Kvetch, and any other blogs. By the way, before I forget, if anyone has advice on how to become more visible in Google searches, please let me know. I'd love to at least come up in the first page or two for a search like "screenwriting blog" or "enneagram screenplay" or something. And who knows, maybe just writing that there will help a bit. But I'd love to hear any suggestions, if you've got 'em!

Anyway, here's what's coming up on Fun Joel. First of all, I'd like to try to, at least some of the time, have shorter posts, just to keep things interesting, and so that reading my blog won't be too much work! I'm also going to post some details about the script consulting I offer, since a few people have contacted me about that. I came across another layer of complexity within the Enneagram system, as I've been studying more about it, and I'll touch on that. And I'll probably talk a bit about some new links I will be adding to the side bar. I was planning to post a bit about the AFI list of top 100 movie quotes, but wanted to watch the whole TV program that they had before I do so (I taped it). So that may be less than timely, but hopefully still worthwhile. And maybe a few other things too.

So thanks for checking in, and I hope any new visitors to the site will become regular repeat readers. Welcome!

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Friday, June 24, 2005

The Enneagram (Part 4 - How to Use It, cont'd)

In my previous Enneagram post, I discussed using the system to add more dimension to a character you have already created. Next, I'd like to explore how the Enneagram can be used to build a character from scratch.

I certainly recognize this will not be as widespread or as beneficial as using the Enneagram to flesh out a pre-existing character. But at the same time, it is a possibility.

Suppose you begin from a bare bones idea for a film's plot, and you are in the process of building it from a mere kernel concept into a full story. You may begin by developing characters with the Enneagram, and then let them dictate how your story develops.

In my most recent scr(i)pt magazine article, on this subject, I mentioned the following example:

Imagine you are starting from a story idea about a downtrodden office worker who finally snaps and takes his coworkers hostage. That may be all you have to start with; but, by looking at the nine Enneagram types, you can "try on" each of them and see which motivation best fits your office worker. At first glance this character looks most like an Eight (The Challenger) or a Three (The Achiever). The Eight most wants to protect himself and fears being controlled. When growing less psychologically healthy, he may become violent and radical in his attempts to achieve his goal. Threes, on the other hand, are motivated by the desire to feel useful and can grow manipulative, malicious, and even murderous to avoid feeling worthless. Other potential choices include a One (The Reformer), Two (The Helper), or Six (The Loyalist). Clearly, each of these choices would take our film in a different direction, and each could move us into a distinct genre (drama, thriller, or satire). But, once you've chosen an Enneagram type for your office worker, you can go about investigating that type and thinking about some of the different traits that may present themselves through his actions.

In addition to figuring out a character's motivations, you can also use the Enneagram to uncover the arc of the character's storyline, and/or potential sources of dramatic conflict with other characters.

As we explored in Part 2 of this "series," there are a number of thing that add complexity to the "simple" pure character types. You'll remember that each of the nine types is connected to two other types, one that is its "stress point" and the other to which it is connected when in security. This offers some very logical story arcs. Usually when in a dramatic conflict, a character will be somewhat "in stress," but once post-climax resolution is achieved, the character will most likely revert to his "pure" state, or perhaps even as far as towards his security point.

Similarly, we saw that each Enneagram type also may express it's core traits in various ways, depending on the level of the person's psychological health. This too can offer a potential story arc, though most likely one for a film that is spread over a longer span of time. In the typical Hero's Journey story, the protagonist leaves his home base, confronts death in an outside world, and returns to the ordinary world with some kind of elixir to change it. Ideally, he has also changed for the better as a person. This mimics the ideal change of a person from a state of lesser psychological health ever nearer to self actualization.

Alternatively, in a more tragic storyline, we may see a character begin on the less healthy end of average in his Enneagram type. But from this position, he spirals down in a repetitive cycle of defensive behavior. Eventually, he may find himself at the truly lowest end of his type's health scale, perhaps ending in insanity or suicide.

The last option I'd like to look at entails using the Enneagram as a means of finding dramatic conflict between different characters. Here, we have numerous options to examine. For example, two characters of differing types, and potentially even from alternate triads (Heart, Head, or Gut) might find themselves in a similar attitude if one is in stress and the other in security. For example, if a Seven is in stress, she may act more like a One, which simultaneously is the security point for a Four. You'll notice that the Seven is part of the "Head" triad, and the Four operates from the "Heart." But at the moment they meet at One, they will both act out of "Gut" instinct. For the time, they may work well together, though as their situation changes, either one may have a harder time relating, particularly if he or she is on the less healthy end of the type's scale.

Wings also offer good potential for character interplay. Often, for example, a good love story may grow out of two people of the same primary type, but with opposite wings. Thus, their worldview is basically similar, though they may express it in completely opposite fashions. A romantic "happy ending" may come about through a compromise in which each learns to find greater balance between the two wings of the primary type.

Whew! I think that wraps up my primary discussion of the Enneagram as a tool for character development, though I may return to it again at some future point to explore more. I hope that I've been able to give you a decent surface explanation of the system, as well as a basic understanding of the many ways it can be used to create more realistic and three-dimensional characters. If you begin to study the system, and read more about it, I trust that you'll find it to be a most versatile tool, and one that can be as enlightening and fun as it is useful.

Thanks for reading, and please post any comments or questions you might have!

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Thursday, June 23, 2005

"Rolling" On

Just a brief entry to note that I began writing Hell on Wheels today. Wrote the opening sequence, and hope to do more tonight, if I have the energy.

I figure if I can get down on myself when I'm not writing as I should be, I can also make a happy announcement when I am! :-)

I'll periodically check in to let you know my progress, though I don't think I'll jump on the Anaxagoras bandwagon and add the "progress bar" code that is becoming semi-ubiquitous in the blogosphere these days. I really dig it, actually. I'm just not so sure how people know exactly how many pages they're expecting their screenplays to be!

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

The Enneagram (Part 3 - How to Use It)

Enneagram Disintegration
Okay, so now I'm able to get back to my Enneagram post. Sorry for the delay!

So, after the previous two Enneagram posts, we have a good basic understanding of how the Enneagram system works, and some of its deeper complexities. In this post, as promised, I'd like to explore some of the ways that using the system can help you build more realistic and well-rounded characters.

First off, I think one of the best uses for the Enneagram is to help add more depth to a preexisting character. Often, as we begin to create a script, our characters lack rounding, primarily acting in one main way, or out of one main aspect of their characters. If, however, we can identify the Enneagram type of a character, we should find a host of other potential traits that we can mix in at the appropriate times. We might have a better handle on our characters' motivations, if we hadn't thought as clearly about that in advance. Essentially, we can "get to know" our characters, the same way in which we might explore our own personalities therapeutically.

Michael Lee and I did this for Hell on Wheels. We had begun by developing a detailed outline, and also coming up with some character sketches. And while I felt I had a good basic understanding the characters, I didn't feel quite like I knew them. This was particularly true regarding Zane, the main character. So I took four of my central characters (main character, protagonist (which are not necessarily the same, as Dramatica fans will tell you), antagonist, and love interest/sidekick), and thought about what their Enneagram types would be. When we first began sketching our characters, we had discussed their roles, back stories, and both inner and outer motivations. But still, Zane remained a little vague for me.

Zane is a young gambler, formerly a big fish in the small pond that was his hometown, now a small fish way out of his league in a much bigger town. Due to a troubled past, he considers himself unlovable, and therefore uses his gambling to essentially "buy" friendships. He also suppresses a violent streak, fearing he can lose control of himself. But he is drawn into the fight against the vampires by the protagonist/mentor, Stagg.

At a quick glance, Zane seemed to me to be either a Two (The Helper/Lover) or a Six (The Loyalist/Pessimist). I liked the Six for some of its stress qualities (acting more Three-like), which would really be Zane through much of the film, though Two seemed to work best in terms of his underlying motivations. While Sixes seek security and support, Twos are primarily motivated by a desire to be loved (hence one of the nicknames), and fear they are unlovable. Seemed pretty dead on for Zane. MLee, however, told me he thought Zane seemed more like an Eight (The Challenger/Trail-Blazer) to him, though he agreed with my assessment of Stagg as a total Eight as well. Eights are domineering and assertive out of a protective desire for self-control.

Another glance at the Enneagram chart, however, should reveal the reason for our initial disagreement about Zane's type. The above chart (as opposed to the one at the top of Part 2, which showed the cycle of security) shows the arrows pointing from each type to its stress point. When a Two is in stress, he will act more like an Eight! Thus it is true that Zane might seem like an Eight through some of his actions over the course of the film. But his core Enneagram type is the Two, motivated by his primal desire to be loved, and fear of being unlovable.

Then I was able to explore the Two more in depth to think a bit more about Zane's potential character traits. I realized quickly that he would clearly not be a "healthy" example of his type, but also would not be particularly "unhealthy." Rather, he fits somewhere in the "average" level of health -- a character who has some internal flaws and is in need of improving, but who remains sympathetic. (While not impossible to write a sympathetic "unhealthy" character, I find such types often work better as villains or antagonists.)

An average Two, can grow emotionally needy, or at times manipulative in order to gain "love." He may flatter others. He may also have a strong sexual drive. On the healthier end of the scale, they may be giving and helpful. At his stress point of Eight (as he should be while fighting vampires, and/or struggling to make his way in his new surroundings), he becomes individualistic, bossy or boastful, aggressive, confrontational, and courageous. These (and other common characteristics) may not all be traits we'll add in to our portrayal of Zane, but at the right times we might, should we need a little color. And since they are common to his Enneagram type, they will seem more realistic, and in place.

Thus, you see how through an understanding of the Enneagram we can help flesh out a more simplistic character. This post is a bit longer than I had expected, so I'll break it up and create a Part 4 for the other ways to use the Enneagram in character development. I'll discuss using it to build a character from scratch, as well as ways to figure out character arcs and potentially dramatic character pairings.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Sticking to Schedules

Setting schedules is important. I've found that my writing dramatically improved in quality, and quantity, once I set a writing schedule for myself. This was a tough thing for me to take on, since I love the flexibility and variety of freelancing so much. At the same time, I recognized the need and appreciate the benefits. When I stick to the schedule, of course.

Which I'm not right now. Sometimes it comes through procrastination, and other times from having too much bill-paying type work to do. Currently, it is more of the latter, so I'm not as mad at myself as I might normally be. Regardless, though, I can't say I've wasted no time over the past few days.

Part of the reason for blogging, I guess, is to be mildly therapeutic, so I guess that's why I'm posting this. And also it makes me more culpable, as I can feel as if I owe something to all of you 25 or so average hits I get per day (even if I am deceiving myself, somewhat). So anyway, I must get back to my own writing ASAP, and that includes both posting the 3rd part of the Enneagram posting here, and sitting down to begin Hell on Wheels. As soon as I finish my paying work. ;-) Wish me luck!

P.S. I only wasted about 5 minutes just now, so I don't feel too procrastinatory!

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Slight Change of Plans

Regarding Hell on Wheels, the vampire western I'm collaborating on with my friend Michael Lee Barlin, we've had a slight change of plans.

So, we started by working out a pretty detailed and solid outline. I think this was particularly essential for a collaboration, since our plan is to pass it back and forth, not write "together" in the same room or something. So this way, we make sure that we're on the same page with how we want the film to progress, etc, and it should also make the whole project move more quickly (the quickest script I ever wrote was also my most pre-planned). Neither MLee nor I have ever been big outliners or planners, so this was another step forward for each of us (in addition to the collaboration itself, which neither of us had ever done either). And I think we're both really pleased with the results of our outline, and the way we worked on developing it. It was sort of the same pattern as we'd planned to write the script, but in microcosm with the outline moving back and forth. We didn't plan to do it that way, that's just how it turned out, and I think a big part of that was just a function of how our schedules worked out. But I think it was also a sign that this is a logical way for us to work together, as we just fell into that pattern.

Next we developed our characters a bit more. In particular, I felt I didn't have a good handle on Zane, our main character. I don't know what this is a sign of, nor whether this is a common problem that any of you have as well, but I find I often have more colorful and delineated secondary characters than either my main character or even my antagonist. Maybe its a sign of a shortcoming in my skills, and since secondary characters don't require the depth that we seek from our main characters I find it easier to sketch them? Regardless, MLee and I had some long discussions regarding the characters, and Zane in particular. I even broke out the old Enneagram and determined which types I thought each of our central characters fit. MLee was less familiar with the system, but has also learned a bit more about it, and has found it pretty interesting and enlightening. So we discussed the types, and I feel I have a bit better of a handle on Zane.

The next step was going to be my beginning to write the actual script on Monday. As you may recall, my plan was to work on it for about 2 weeks, or around 28 pages, whichever came first, then pass it off to MLee. He would revise my stuff, then write the next piece for the same period of time, and pass it back to me. Then on Friday afternoon I got a call from Michael Lee. He just got a paid writing gig, his first, and he's supposed to get it done in about 2 months. So he wanted to know if I could hold off on starting for about 1 1/2 months, so I could be passing it to him just as he's finishing the other script. I of course was overjoyed for his good fortune, and congratulated him. Still, I'm in a bit of a groove on this right now. So my plan instead is to begin writing as scheduled, and still try to get him my pages at the same time I originally planned, somewhere around July 4th weekend, but then I'll let him hold off on his portion until he finishes the other project (unless he feels he needs a brief respite from it, and chooses to move ahead on HoW). Plus, if he gets a chance, he may read it and give me his feedback so I can revise briefly, even before he takes his stab at it.

So basically, this means that my "down time" period of writing on HoW may be longer than I expected. Which is fine with me. I still have other projects that need revision, so hopefully I'll be getting more into those during my off period of the collaboration. And as planned earlier, hopefully this will allow me to have three completed scripts (one of which is this collaboration) within a few months' time. Then it is time to start looking for an agent and try to sell the scripts. Exciting stuff!

Saturday, June 18, 2005


I just wanted to say, I know these last two posts seem a bit more like a lecture, of sorts. And the next one will most likely feel similarly so. That's because I am a teacher by nature (and practice), and I feel that this is a topic with which many of you may not yet be familiar. So I moved into "teaching mode." Rest assured, however, that my more "conversational" tone should return shortly after the final Enneagram post.

In the meantime, I hope you're finding the topic interesting, because I do truly believe in it as a great tool for character development. I also find it fascinating as a tool for self exploration and discovery. Feel free to post or email any questions you might have, as well! :-)

The Enneagram (Part 2 - Complexities)


So now that we have the basic concepts of the Enneagram down, I'd like to explore some of the details of the system. As we'll see, there is much more to the Enneagram than reducing people to 9 simple types.

Firstly, let's explore the diagram itself. You'll notice that the nine types can be split into three triads: 5-6-7 on the left, 2-3-4 on the right, and 8-9-1 on top. Of course, this is by design. The three types on the left side are "Head" types, primarily following their intellects. The right side types form the "Heart" triad, where emotion rules. And the top three are the "Gut" or instinctual types. Furthermore, as I saw pointed out in Searle's book, each of the three triads contains one type for each of Freudian psychoanalyst Karen Horney's three "neurotic solutions" -- moving against people (aggressive), away from people (withdrawn), or toward people (compliant or dependent).

The next most important thing to realize about Enneagram types is the ways that different people of the same basic type might differ from each other. The area that offers the greatest ability for diversity is in a person's level of personal growth or development. Anyone can be psychologically healthy or unhealthy, and different people will fall anywhere along the continuum between these extremes. For our purposes, the more a person leans towards the unhealthy side of his personality, the more he will be ruled by his ego, become more defensive, and repeat negative cycles. The converse is true on the healthy side of the scale.

For example, a One (The Reformer) most wants to be good and perfect, conversely fearing corruption. When most healthy, she will be wise and trusting that the Truth will out. Moving down the scale towards the less psychologically healthy, she might:

  • display an intense sense of personal morality
  • complain about the status quo
  • grow more pedantic and preachy
  • relentlessly criticize others, and/or self
  • become highly opinionated
  • doubt others' abilities to see what is "right"
  • obsess over other people's flaws while hypocritically doing the same thing herself
  • become severely depressed or obsessive-compulsive

Thus, as you see, we might encounter two seemingly different people who in fact are both Ones. Of course, the same is true for any of the other eight types as well.

Another area in which two people of the same basic type may differ is in what is known as a "Wing." Since the nine types are plotted on a circle, each is adjacent to two other types. These two other types are known as the "Wings" of the type. Most people will favor one of their two Wings, but some people are so heavily ruled by one of their wings that they are seen as embodying a sort of cross between the two types. Thus, since the One is adjacent to the Nine and the Two, a One might actually be a One with a Nine-Wing (sometimes written 1w9), or a One with a Two-Wing (1w2). It should be noted that there is some debate as to whether or not the Four and Five can act as Wings to each other, since they may be spaced too far apart to actually affect each other.

The last kind of distinction I'm going to discuss here is a type's stress and security points. You'll notice on the diagram above that the nine types are not only joined by lines. In fact, this diagram shows directional arrows connecting the different points. The idea here is that every type is connected to two of the other types, and when a person is in stress, they move towards one of these two types. Conversely, when a person is secure, they will take on some of the characteristics of the other type. Since the arrow cycle can go in either direction (whether in the direction of stress or security), the typical diagram simply connects the types with straight lines, not arrows. In the diagram above, the arrows move in the direction of security. Thus, if a One feels secure, he will act more like a Seven (while still maintaining his basic One characteristics). As he grows more stressed, however, he will begin to act more and more like a Four.

Clearly, the stress and security points offer many possibilities for screenwriters, as you may use them to delineate a character's story arc. The same may be said of the levels of health. They may affect a character's development through a film, or might simply offer distinctive starting points based on the role the character is to serve in the story.

Regardless, as this intro indicates, there is a lot more depth to the Enneagram system than a mere 9 personality types that everyone must match up to. In the next (and perhaps final) part of this series I'll explore ways to use the Enneagram to develop well-rounded and realistically believable characters.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

The Enneagram (Part 1 - Intro)


In a previous post or two, I mentioned the Enneagram. It is a tool that I've begun to use for character development, after coming across it about a year ago. I've read a lot about it, and continue to read more. And I wrote about using it as a tool for character development in an article in the current issue of scr(i)pt magazine (May/June 2005 issue, with Batman Begins on the cover).

The more I read about it, the more I become convinced that the Enneagram is a truly powerful tool for building realistic and well-rounded characters, and so I thought I'd tell you all a bit about the system. I foresee this being an ongoing piece (as I'm considering eventually building much of this into a book on the subject), and so this will just be "Part 1" -- some basics.

There are many different personality typing systems out there. Astrology is probably the best known system, and works based on the alignment of stars and planets when a person is born. I like to point out that for a writer, it doesn't matter if you believe in the science of astrology -- you can still use it to build well-defined characters. Whether the various character traits actually stem from the position of heavenly bodies when a person is born, clearly somewhere along the line, people recognized that certain character traits frequently manifested together in certain people. Thus, whether a character is actually born under a specific sign or not, we can still think of a character we're writing as a Taurus, Cancer, Scorpio, or whatever. This will give us a host of character traits to consider, traits that frequently coincide in the same person's personality.

A more psychologically-based system is Myers-Briggs, based largely on the work of Carl Jung, building on his system of archetypes. In Myers-Briggs, people are evaluated in terms of four different dichotomies: how they relate to other people, how they learn, how they decide things, and how they interact with the world. For each of these four fields, a person is seen as embodying one of the two polarities. Respective to the four categories, everyone is seen as either Extraverted (E) or Introverted (I), Sensing (S) or iNtuitive (N), Thinking (T) or Feeling (F), and Judging (J) or Perceiving (P). Thus, there are 16 basic personality types in this system, marking every possible permutation embodying one each of the four dichotomies (for example, ENTP, ISFJ, or ESFP).

But where Myers-Briggs offers a wide range of possibilities based on our psychological make-ups, the Enneagram explores the underlying motivations that cause us to act the way we do. Supposedly built on a combination of psychology and mythology, the Enneagram nonetheless offers a more easily understood and more useful (for writers) system of classifying personality types. It classifies all people as primarily being one of nine basic character types (etymologically, Enneagram comes from the Greek for 9 types). These types are universally referred to by their numbers, though different people use different names to describe the types. Thus, while the Enneagram Institute calls a One "The Reformer," Judith Searle, author of The Literary Enneagram, refers to a One as "The Critic." They both agree, however, on the One's traits and underlying motivations.

Each of the nine Enneagram types has a basic fear, and basic desire (essentially the flip sides of each other). These will manifest in numerous traits, and will vary when the person is psychologically healthy, average, or unhealthy. It is specifically these underlying motivations that makes the Enneagram such a potent tool for dramatists -- we often say action is character, and this ties directly in with that.

There are also many layers of complexity beyond the simple nine types, and I will explore those more in my next posting on the Enneagram. Plus, people are people (at least, so said Depeche Mode), and being such will often display "outlier" traits that may not fit neatly into the description. Clearly saying there are only nine types of people would be a gross misrepresentation. But with the many areas of potential diversity and the possibility of outlier traits within the basic types, we find that the Enneagram is a versatile and realistic system of classification.

That seems a good basic intro. Next Enneagram post will explore the various modes in which the Enneagram works, and the areas of potential complexity. Then I'll discuss specific techniques for using the Enneagram to help build characters. If any of you have experience with using the Enneagram for this purpose, I'd love to hear from you as well!

Monday, June 13, 2005

How Important is Originality?

Over the last few days I read two scripts (for different companies) that both suffered from the same problem. They were written in popular subgenres, and while they each offered a mildly original aspect within their premises, nearly everything else about these scripts was entirely standard fare.

The first was a road comedy, where a few friends take a dying friend on a cross-country quest for a specific adventure, as a "last hurrah." (Please understand that for confidentiality reasons, I can only speak about these scripts in broad terms.) It featured nearly every standard plot point for such a film. There was the scene in which the van breaks down due to a flat tire, leading to other mishaps. There was, of course, the requisite run-in with the law. A group of villains battled our gang at a few points throughout the film. Towards the end, the dying friend takes a turn for the worse, and the doctor tells the gang that he can't continue, but of course the character insists on finishing what they started. Any of this sound familiar? Think of such films as Detroit Rock City, Harold and Kumar go to White Castle, or if you've seen it, an excellent indie film called Ocean Tribe, as just a few examples.

The second script was a "switched body" film, in the tradition of Freaky Friday, Vice Versa, or Soul Man. Again, this film offered one tiny element that was very slightly unique, and again nearly every other element of the film was completely standard and predictable. In this case, it was a switch between a jock bully and a nerd who was his former best friend when they were kids. The nerd (who facilitated the switch for revenge) of course turns into an a$$h*le when he inhabits the jock's body. Similarly predictably, the jock-in-nerd's-body learns that the nerds aren't that bad, and he was wrong to judge them. We also have the predictable elements when the jock (as nerd) tries (and fails) to convince others of his identity by revealing secrets only he could know, and the nerd's best friend who figures out the truth because the jock-as-nerd doesn't know things that he should know, if he were really the nerd. Again, completely typical stuff for this genre, right?

But here's the thing. While I did rate both a PASS (meaning thumbs down) for obvious reasons, the truth is that either one of these scripts, with some tweaking probably could be turned into a commercially viable film. The road film, while generally unoriginal, did have the one original element of setting it in a world that has a large target market (much larger than the KISS fans who might have been interested in Detroit Rock City). Thus, with just a bit more tweaking, the film could be strong enough to get a large portion of those fans into the theaters, and even more importantly could get them to buy a copy on DVD, a true primary market nowadays. Similarly, though less so, the switched body film might be able to prove successful, because so many such films turn a profit, even without a lot of originality in them. 13 Going on 30 was really nothing more than Big from a girl's perspective. This bit of originality, and the strength of Jennifer Garner in the lead role, was enough to make this film a success.

In fact, I've often noted how, within certain genres, a little originality goes a long way. In particular, I think of children's films and sports films (and especially children's sports films). With films aimed at children, your target audience doesn't have the collective memory of all those films that have come before. So an old idea with a contemporary feel to it makes for a completely fresh-feeling movie. Why do you think Disney keeps remaking movies, like Freaky Friday or the Herbie movies? Because it knows it can! Similarly with sports films, there just simply isn't a lot of room for originality in the genre. There are probably about 5 main sports stories ever shown on film (and maybe I'll enumerate them at a later date), with a few notable exceptions. Was Major League much different from Slap Shot? Weren't both The Mighty Ducks and Little Giants just The Bad News Bears in different sports? And yet, most of those films have been commercial successes.

For an upcoming article I was writing in scr(i)pt magazine about writing for the Family market, I posed this exact question to David N. Weiss, who along with his writing partner J. David Stem, worked on Shrek 2 and Are We There Yet? as well as many other wildly popular family and children's films. His response (which I'm paraphrasing here) was that any writer should be striving to put out the best script he can possibly write, and therefore of course originality is important, even in films of these genres. He did, however, point out a key aspect of the business. The industry does need to put out a certain number of films every year, and yes, many of those films are aimed to reach specific niches and markets. So of course there will be some degree of repeated concepts that remain commercially successful.

So where does that leave us? Well, you may have noticed that despite the potential that the two scripts I read had to be successes, they still ended up as PASSes. I did mention in my comments that these two scripts might have the potential to be made into commercially viable films, but I also said they were probably not worth the effort. If you are a developing writer, trying to sell your first spec, you've simply got to make it the best darned script you can possibly come up with. Sure there's a slim chance that you might be able to sell a script that only has a few original elements, if those elements and the writing quality is really promising. But its an even bigger long shot than selling any spec script is. Save it until you have a more established career, and then maybe you can make a quick buck off one of these niche-fillers. But until then, find something new to say, and preferably a new way to say it a well.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Welcome Artful Writers!

I've noticed a big spike in my traffic today, largely arriving from The Artful Writer. Obviously this is due to my comments over there, and I thank you for clicking through. Welcome! I hope you all become repeat visitors!

Welcome also to any of you clicking through from other sites, such as Complications Ensue, WFME, or any others!

I truly appreciate it. :-)

Friday, June 10, 2005

On Format

So there have been a few posts and comments floating around the screenwriting 'hood of the blogosphere in the last day, discussing formatting rules. Since most of us are particularly concerned with "format rules" because of how they will affect a reader's perception of our scripts, and because I've read a lot of scripts over the years as a professional reader, I figured I'd throw my hat in the discussion ring (yes, I know that's something of a cliché).

First off, I must say that I can't guarantee that I am the typical example of a Hollywood script reader, but I also have no reason to believe that I'm not. I've read for many major companies, and have always been told that I "write good coverage." Thus, I'm going to assume that my reactions here are not that different from many other script readers.

You often hear horror stories of a script reader tossing a script away after 10 pages or something, but in my experience this is impossible at most major companies. At a small company, with an independent producer or something, this is certainly possible since the reader has limited time and is merely looking for that one solid script to pass up the food chain to his boss. But at a larger (or even medium-sized) company, with paid freelance readers (as opposed to in-house slaves), the reader must write coverage on every script he or she receives from the development department. Thus, the script might be the worst piece of garbage I've ever read, but I still must complete it. And how will they know that I've completed it? Every coverage I write has a synopsis of the entire screenplay, in addition to my comments. Sure, if it is terrible I can skim a bit more, but I pretty much have to read the whole thing.

That being said, there are still things which may predispose me to think about a script in a certain way. Of course, I still try to read the script with an open mind, and there have been a few rare occasions when my initial impression was wrong, but being a human being (I am, trust me) I can't help but be somewhat influenced by my first impression of the screenplay. Still, many of the so-called rules of script formatting do not affect my perception in the least. For example, I don't care too much whether a writer uses transitions or Cont'd for split dialogue (see my comments on each of the aforementioned blog posts). I've read plenty of professional and technically solid screenplays that go either way on those issues, so seeing the "wrong" thing done does not make me expect a bad script. On the flip side, certain things do negatively cloud my judgment. When I see a script in Arial instead of Courier, I know that it usually sucks. When I see a script that is 140 pages long, I'm predisposed against it (and may ask my boss for more money to cover it).

I think the main point, however, is not that I judge these scripts because they've broken rules. Rather, I've read so many bad scripts that have broken the rules in these ways before, that I tend to associate those specific broken rules with bad writing. Whereas the others don't bother me because I've read plenty of good scripts that have broken those "rules." I'm basically predicting future outcome from past experience. I don't mind a flashback in the first 10 pages, if it is done well, because I've seen it done well previously. So I'll give it a chance to convince me.

Two more quick things on this point. Firstly, as I mentioned, I become apprehensive when I see a very long script. This is because I know my job has just become more difficult. Thus, when I write scripts, I do whatever possible to make the reading experience more pleasurable and easy for the reader. It is for this reason that I use (Cont'd) when I break dialogue -- I think it makes for a smoother read, and I frankly trust that a good quality reader will not care if I'm out of step with contemporary screenwriting customs, looking instead at my sparkling writing quality.

Second, a tip for the beginning writers out there. If I ever get a script to read that was submitted by the author, I know there's a pretty good chance it will be terrible. Again, this is merely based on my past experience. What I mean is this. Generally, you can't get a script into a production company without it being submitted by an agent or manager or somebody like that. Occasionally, however, a writer "knows someone" at the company and is able to get their script read this way. In my experience, 99 times out of 100 there was a reason these people didn't have agents. This does not mean that there are no good writers without agents. Rather it means they likely just haven't gotten an agent yet. So my tip is this: if you do use a personal connection to get your script read by a ProdCo, politely ask if there's any way they can say it was submitted anonymously, or via a pseudonym, rather than "by Author." Again, we can hope your script would be read with an open mind anyway, but why not at least try to avoid predisposing a reader against your script, if possible?

Thursday, June 09, 2005

On Titles

I'm part of a great writing group here in LA. It is small in size, and everyone who is in the group was known personally by at least one of the other members of the group before, increasing the level of trust and comfort. It was started by my friend L. Brooks Elms, on whose film Snapshots From a .500 Season I worked as a PA (and extra), back when I was starting out in indie production. We'd been in touch on and off over the years, and reconnected a little over a year ago when to my surprise I learned he too was living in LA (last I'd heard he was in North Carolina). He told me about the group and invited me to join, and it has played a large role in me getting more serious about my writing.

In addition to our in-person meetings, an even more major part of the writing group is an email discussion list, that includes people outside of LA as well. And a discussion popped up over the last few days on the board that I thought might be worth exploring further on here. Brooks has been working through his next indie feature, patiently revising and tweaking for some time now, to solid result, in my opinion. It is an intimate drama about alternative schooling, and the conflict a burnt-out, traditional teacher faces when exposed to such a system. Ultimately it is about coercion and how much we choose to treat children as we do adults. Originally, he had titled the film Play. But then, to his chagrin, he learned of a recent Chilean film by the same title, and since it had been doing well at the festivals, he felt it would likely get domestic distribution, and felt it would be better if he changed the name of his film.

Soon we were tossing around a number of different titles, all attempts at capturing the spirit of his film -- both the nature of learning in an alternative school as well as the struggle the put-upon adult traditional teacher had been going through. Finally, he settled on Recess. Personally, I thought this was a pretty solid title, and perhaps even better than play, since it has more specific meanings and resonances to it. But then Brooks asked the group what we thought of a different title: A Loud to Play. The response in the group was nearly unanimous against it, though Brooks still felt he liked it a lot. He felt it made people think a bit, trying to figure out its dual meanings. I, for one, felt only one of the meanings was clear, and that it was too "cutesy" and "punny" a title to be effective.

All this, however, is by way of introduction. Because it got me thinking about film titles. Why do we use them, how do we use them, what is their purpose, and what makes for a good or bad one?

To my mind, a good title should pique the audience's interest. It should be something that helps draw them in to see the film. But at the same time, it serves another purpose. As with all words, it is a signifier, that facilitates communication. It helps people discuss the film more easily. Thus, an unwieldy title works at counterpurposes to the whole purpose of a title to begin with. If a film's title were an unpronounceable glyph (as with Prince's erstwhile moniker) it would be difficult for people to talk about. "Hey, did you see... that movie with the weird symbol as its name?" Of course, there was Π and the recent What the #$*! Do We (K)now!? (sorry, even that isn't written accurately , but I didn't have the patience to find all those symbols). Both of those films' titles had unpronounceable symbols, but they were replaced by words ("Pi" and "Bleep" respectively).

This need to facilitate communication about the film is also a reason many sequels or popular remakes shorten their titles to abbreviations. We've seen T2, X2, and M:I-2, as a few recent examples. And I distinctly remember advertising for the Broadway revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying being advertised on billboards simply as H2S.

So unwieldy titles would seem to work against the primary purpose of a film's title. What, however, makes for a good title. I believe the best titles do have some kind of clever dual meanings to them, or at least make people think a bit more about the film, while simultaneously encapsulating the essence of the film. A good recent example of this might be The Pacifier. Right away, it evokes images of childhood in our minds, but it also has the double meaning of referring to the main character himself, some one who must actively pacify his unruly charges. Another similarly effective title would be Chapelle's classic weed comedy Half Baked. Clearly the name refers both to the stoners' plan and the ganja-addled state they were attempting it in. The script I'm currently collaborating on (I'll discuss its details more in the future, once we've written more of it) is a vampire western set against the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. Its title? Hell on Wheels. Personally, I think that's a pretty good title (and after I discuss it more, you'll see why it is even more so).

And in relation to this point, what makes for bad titles? Vagueness. Though somewhat unwieldy, the original working title for the boringly named It Could Happen to You was the (in my book) preferable Cop Gives Waitress $2 Million Tip! Then there are the slew of "adjective noun" titles: Blue Steel, Chained Heat, Double Impact, Fatal Beauty, or any number of third-rate late-night cable sexploitation thrillers. (Honestly -- how many of those movies did you need to look up before you knew which they were?)

So with Brooks' A Loud to Play, I told him I thought he might have been trying a bit too hard. His potential audience might be more confused by that proposed title than intrigued by it. I felt that it would be better for him to get people in to see his movie, and let the film itself spark thoughtful discussion, rather than trying to accomplish that goal with the title itself and run the risk of alienating that potential audience. Of course, if he wasn't super pleased with Recess, I also suggested an amended version that might play into the theme of coercion and punishment a bit more: No Recess.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

The Power of Google

One of my favorite parts of the screenwriting process is the research phase. I've always been someone who loves to learn, and find interesting elements in nearly any subject matter. This may be partially responsible for the way in which I read nearly anything (for my reading jobs) equally well (I think) -- scripts of any genre, novels, books on historical events, biographies, plays, magazine articles, treatments, partial manuscripts, whatever. You name it, I've probably been paid to read it. (Okay, no one's paid me to read a ketchup bottle label... yet. But I have gotten paid to read comic books!) Again, this is in keeping with my Enneagram or Myers-Briggs types (and my horoscope sign, Aries, if you believe in all that).

So when I research a new screenplay, I dive into the task voraciously, reading as much as possible on any topic even remotely related, gleaning details that may somehow find their way into my script. And of course, one of my favorite tools for research (though certainly not my sole source), is Google. I know I'm not really saying anything new here, and that most of you probably Google (don't you love the way it became a verb?) frequently. But even still, sometimes people overlook the simple things when it comes to their screenwriting, and need a reminder. So here it is!

I think of this now because of something that happened to me just yesterday, which shows that even I, who makes widespread and frequent use of Google, still overlook it at times. You may have noticed that I've been a bit quiet the last few days on here. That's because on Friday morning last week, my computer died. Or, as it turned out, was thankfully merely comatose. Yep, it crashed. Big surprise, eh? Yes, I use Windows, and yes I despise Microsoft. So anyway, I only had sporadic computer access via OPC's (Other People's Computers). Then I called a computer geek (and I say that with the utmost respect and love) friend last night. He was unfamiliar with the specific error I was encountering, but made a novel suggestion:
Google it!
Duh! So I typed the specific error message into Google and was presented with a slew of message board postings on just this topic! I followed some instructions, and am not quite sure what I did (I'm no technophobe, but I'm also no geek -- quite comfortable on the computer, but not super familiar with all of its inner workings), and in fact, the guy who posted the solution I used wasn't sure why it worked either. But regardless, I'm back on my own, cozy computer, and happy to be writing away.

So use that Google! It's a damn fine research tool! I had already been using it (just before my comp crashed) to get lots of great background info for the script I'm co-writing. And I found tons of good stuff, just sitting there begging to be read. So I recommend you do the same!

And just so this isn't a complete fluff piece, here's a small tip I like to give people. It is simple but very frequently overlooked by even those who sit in front of a computer all day long. Whenever I'm surfing the web, and particularly when I've Googled something, I use the following technique to help remain focused on the initial topic, not lose my train of thought, and even save a bit of time. I open all links in new windows. Then, when I'm done reading what I had opened, I just close the window, and I'm right back where I was. No need to keep hitting back on the browser. Especially in a Google search this is great, because you can simply check each returned web page, and only keep open (or minimize) those ones that are relevant.

For those who don't know how to do this, by the way, in Windows you simply right click on the link instead of left clicking it. You'll see a number of options, including "Open Link in New Window" (or in "new tab" if you're using a new enough browser). I'm certain you can do this in Mac too, but don't ask me what you do, because I'm simply not cool enough to be a Mac user!

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Collaborating in a collaborative medium

It's well known that film is the most collaborative of arts, and thus it is not a new observation to state that writing for the screen is a rather unique endeavor within the writing world. At the same time, screenwriters (as do many other writers) tend towards the solitary side in terms of work habits.

I, however, am atypical in many ways. For example, while many people write because it is their lives, and greatest passion, I write because it's something for which I have a facility. On more than one occasion I've mentioned that if I could never write again, I'd still be able to be happy. Also, I've read articles reminding screenwriters they must get out of the house and interact and/or network, but I am an extremely social person, and love meeting, talking to, and hanging with people.

All of this is by way of introducing a new project I've begun. As I mentioned in my introductory post, I've recently begun collaborating on a screenplay for the first time. We're writing from an idea that I had come up with, and both of us were interested in the collaborative process. Neither of us had done it before. So we're both rather excited about seeing where the process leads us, and whether together we write a better script than either of us would do on our own (presumably the main point of a collaboration).

I figured it might be interesting to talk a little about the collaboration method we'll be using, and perhaps hear a bit from others who have co-written screenplays as well. So first off, the genesis. I first described the idea during a meeting of my writing group. At some later point, I'll talk about the group, but for now, suffice it to say that we have a small group that is made up completely of people who knew someone else in the group from before, as opposed to a general amalgam of random people.

Michael Lee Barlin is someone I've actually known for a number of years, though we only got to really know each other from the group. He was involved with the second film I ever worked on, Snapshots From a .500 Season (directed by L. Brooks Elms, the founder of the group). I'm not going to discuss the film in too much detail yet, until we make more headway on it, but I will mention that it is somewhat in the action, quasi-horror vein.

The first thing we did was sign a contract. Everything I ever read about collaborating, and everyone with whom I spoke, said this is essential. Not only does it help protect both parties in a legal context, it also protects the friendship and working relationship. I basically copied verbatim a standard collaboration agreement from Mark latex's excellent Contracts for the Film & Television Industry. Then I made a few minor changes to reflect our specific situation, largely due to the fact that we both agreed this was my initial idea, and thus was more my baby than his.

Next, we met a few times to thrash out our characters and a rough outline. Since then, we've been emailing back and forth to work out a more developed outline, and we're nearing completion on that. Then we will move into the bulk of our collaboration process. I will begin to write the script from the start, for a certain amount of time and/or pages (still to be determined). Then I will pass it on to Michael Lee. He will then revise what I've just written, and write the next bit, also for the designated time and/or amount of pages. He will then pass it back to me for revisions, and the next piece, etc.

With this method, we hope to accomplish a few things. Firstly, we will be building a more cohesive collaboration, in that we will be revising each other's work as we write our own. Similarly, the draft we first complete will hopefully be stronger than a typical first draft, in that we will have written and revised it during our first pass. Finally, this method should allow us each some down-time during the writing process, allowing us each to take our minds away from the script, and to work on other projects during our down-time.

Though we haven't begun the actual writing yet, we've moved along a lot, and I'm pretty happy with where we stand currently. I'll keep you posted as the process progresses!