Friday, April 26, 2013

How to write a fight scene


Fight scenes. People ask all the time, how does one write them? My advice to them is usually, "Read The Matrix." The Matrix does a phenomenal job of it. Lookit:

[scrippet] INT. SUBWAY STATION Neo whip-draws his gun with the flashpoint speed of lightning as!-- Smith OPENS FIRE. GUN REPORT THUNDERS through the underground, both men BLASTING, moving at impossible speed. For a blinking moment we enter BULLET-TIME. Gun flash tongues curl from Neo's gun, bullets float forward like a plane moving across the sky, cartridges cartwheel into space. An instant later they are nearly on top of each other, rolling up out of a move that is almost a mirrored reflection of the other -- Each jamming their gun tight to the other's head. They freeze in a kind of embrace; Neo sweating, panting, Agent Smith machine-calm. Agent Smith smiles. AGENT SMITH You're empty. Neo pulls the TRIGGER. CLICK. NEO So are you. The smile falls. Agent Smith yanks his TRIGGER. CLICK. Agent Smith's face warps with rage and he attacks, fists flying at furious speed, blows and counters, Neo retreating as -- A knife-hand opens his forearm, and a kick sends him slamming back against a steel column. Stunned, he ducks just under a punch that CRUNCHES into the BEAM, STEEL CHUNKS EXPLODING like shrapnel. Behind him, Neo leaps into the air, delivering a necksnapping reverse round-house. Agent Smith's glasses fly off and he glares at Neo; his eyes ice blue. AGENT SMITH I'm going to enjoy watching you die, Mr. Anderson. Agent Smith attacks with unrelenting fury, fists pounding Neo like jackhammers. [/scrippet]

 So what can we learn? Before we begin, let's get something straight: never ever - never never never ever ever, like ever - write "They fight." Ever.


Each fight scene has to have its own identity.
Look at the scene above. This is the first time Neo and Agent Smith will face off against each other without interference. This is the first time we've seen two dudes go at each other, so it's different from every other fight we've seen. The rest of the film was an agent chasing down a free man who was just trying to survive the battle. So already we have something new. That's important. Every fight scene has to offer something new, something we haven't seen already seen even in this very screenplay. A different location, a different goal, a different style of fighting. But if you find yourself writing the same fight in the same spot over and over, your script sucks.

Each fight scene must have its own plot.
Just like every other scene in your script, the fight has to have a beginning, middle and end. Your fighters have to have their own goals. What do they want out of this fight? What are they doing to get it? If one wants something the other one has, he needs to be pushing to get it while the other is pulling away. If one wants to destroy the other for revenge, the other one needs to be defending himself. And as these characters fight for what they want, a story emerges. Look at the above example. Agent Smith starts off calm and cool, thinking this will be just like every fight he's ever had: quick, easy, ending in certain death for his opponent. Neo starts a little nervous, panting, struggling to keep up, but then something happens. He gets one up on Agent Smith. Smith is PISSED. Neo is confident. There's a switch that happens. Agent Smith turns on the rage because he's never had to work so hard, and suddenly he brings the pain.

Which leads me to....

Fight scenes need reversals.
Your hero is winning, then losing, then winning. He gets backed into a corner. How's he going to get out. Oh yay! He's winning! Oh wait, not he's not. Oh no! He's going to lose! Oh yay! He did it! He won! - That's how a great fight scene should feel. Look at the above example. Neo starts out at a disadvantage. Then he gets the upper hand, but his victory is short lived because Agent Smith comes back with a vengeance. But just as you think Neo is toast, he flips the script. A fight scene where the good guy is always winning is a really boring fight scene. We need to worry in order to get any real joy out of it. So a fight should be equal parts badass moves and worrisome moments. There should always be a moment where we're cheering the victory and a moment where we're genuinely wondering if we're about to watch our hero die.

And one more thing....

Learn the terminology.
Fights have a language. You don't necessarily have to know what a triangle choke looks like, but if you want to write fight scenes you should at least know the difference between Jujitsu and Judo and Muay Thai and Krav Mga. Know which style you want to see, because that's what sets the tone for your fight. Different styles create different types of fights, and you can use them to create variety in your script. A Muay Thai fight is prettier. A Jujitsu fight is going to involve a lot of wrestling on the ground. Krav Mga is great when you have multiple opponents. Sometimes you may just want a really ugly brawl. Say so in your prose. Know what you want this to look like depending on the plot of the fight.

You don't have to detail every single punch, but you do need to know what the point of the fight is. You should know the plot and the tone, just like any other scene in your script. Now go kick some vicarious ass!

Friday, April 19, 2013

Get to work

What are you writing right now?

I hope you have an answer. If you don't - if you hem and haw and make excuses, or if you mumble some words knowing you haven't touched your screenplay in months, stop it. Quit what you're doing and get to work.

I think the biggest threat to most screenwriters is our own self-doubt. We all have it. You get on this high when things are good. The pages flow, the ideas seem perfect, we're already planning the Oscar speech. But then one person reads our latest work and hates it, and we are riddled with fatalism.

Or maybe you never get that far. Maybe you're so convinced that your writing sucks that you can't finish anything.

It's normal. It's also some shit you have to get over if you want to write a great script.

EVERYBODY sucks. They know they suck. Even the best writers, the people you admire and respect and want to be like some day, the people you think are natural geniuses - they are absolutely certain that they suck. But they do the work anyway.

I suck. But I figure I'll keep writing anyway because I don't know what else to do. When I get notes that tell me I have to start over from scratch because nothing works, I have a routine that keeps me working. I pitch a fit for ten minutes. I rant and rave and shout and slam shit around and kick and pout. And after I get that out of my system, I get back to work.

For me, it comes down to faith. No matter how daunting the work feels in the beginning, or after you get a particularly prickly set of notes, the solution is almost never as difficult as it sounds like it will be in that moment. So I tell myself this sucks and I'm mad and I don't wanna and boohoo, and then I remind myself that I can do this. I know I can do this. I don't know how yet, but I know I'll figure it out.

Once I've decided I'm done feeling sorry for myself, I work on figuring out the solution to my problem. Solving puzzles is way more fun than moping around feeling like suckitude. When you have a big story problem, the best solution is to go after the stuff you thought was absolute. Those scenes I just KNEW had to be in the script? What if I scrap them completely? What else could I put there? Often, the answer appears as soon as I let go of certainty.

But the main thing is, believe that the answer will present itself. Believe that you can do this. And if your script isn't working - if somehow you just feel wrong - go back to start. What's not working, and how can you make it work? Because you can. You have to know you can. If you doubt that, you'll never finish the script.

So I'll ask again, what are you writing right now? Give me an answer.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Behind the scenes of this Logan Echolls tribute video I made

After I finished watching all the Veronica Mars episodes, I was right back in that deep obsession I remember so well from years ago. The Beefcake was all "I didn't even know you liked this show," so I pointed out my copy of season 1 on the DVD tower and explained that if he had known me in that summer between seasons 1 and 2, he would have had to beg me to shut up about who was at Veronica's goddamn door.

So when I finished watching everything, I still needed my Veronica fix. You can only spend so much time watching the Kickstarter ticker go up.

When I get obsessed with a show, I make a video. I love alpha males and I adore Logan Echolls, so I decided to make a Logan video. I like to make my videos match the music. The song choice is very important.

I decided to go with "Sabotage" from the Beastie Boys for one reason. In the middle of the song, there's this lone bass note that lingers, then kicks back up with a gradually increasing energy until you hear "WHOOOOOOAAAAAAH!" and then a lot of record scratches. You know what I'm talking about.

So my plan was: show Logan spinning depressed in bed over the bass note. Show him walking through the cafeteria in the building energy part, then start the part where he beats the shit out of Piz on the Whoa. And that's what I did. It was perfect, and I was so proud.

I finished the video and was totally in love with it, and then I uploaded it to Youtube. And even though it looked perfect on my computer, two shots came out pixellated.

I uploaded again. Same thing. I changed the shots. Same thing in the same place, which makes no sense whatsoever. I tried different aspect ratios. No change. I used a different uploading method. Same thing.

And if you've every uploaded a three-minute video to Youtube, you know that shit takes forever.

So after TWO DAYS of trying to get this thing to work, I noticed a note. Youtube has what's called a "Creative Commons" license, which means the artists who create the music - or rather, the studios that own that music - give permission for the songs to be used as long as they are properly attributed. EMI does not go along with this license, which means they do not give permission to little old me to use the song "Sabotage."

My video was blocked. I suspect that's the reason for the pixellation. I had been so fixated on fixing the problem that I never read the note at the bottom of the screen.

I tried another site, same deal. EMI was not having that shit. If you look, you can find videos that use "Sabotage," but they must be savvy in a way that I am not. I couldn't get my video seen.

So finally I sadly returned to my video and found a different version of the song. It's a good match, a kind of odd cover by The Penelopes, but it's not the same. The first half of the video I didn't have to recut at all. But that hanging bass note, that rising energy, that WHOA that I based the video on - gone. I recut the video to fit what I had.

I still like this video a lot, but it is a shadow of its former self. I can't share the original even as a download because the file is too big for Sendspace. I will ask Beefcake to watch it so that someone can pat me on the back for the editing genius the world will never see.

So that's how this video came to be. I still think it's kind of fun. But now I know not to fuck with EMI because they are some stingy motherfuckers.

I wouldn't say I put blood and sweat in this video, but there were tears. And lots of shouting.

If you are a Veronica Mars fan, especially if you are a Logan fan, you should enjoy it. I present: Logan Echolls, Lovable Jerkface:

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Torn: a book people should read

This is not a post about screenwriting. I'm gonna go off topic today and talk about my friend Justin and his book.

Back in middle and high school, I had this friend named Justin Lee. Justin was super smart - Math Counts and all that - at a school filled with smart people. Our high school was the main destination for kids whose parents worked at Research Triangle Park: Raleigh, NC's technology research center, so like half the kids I knew were 1) Asian and 2) Offspring of geniuses. Not having a natural scientific inclination, I latched onto my wonderful French friend and we watched her dad make our science project for us. We got third place. I still have no idea how it worked, but I gladly accepted my A.

Anyway, the point is, smart sciency people abounded at my high school, and Justin was one of them. But Justin also stood out a bit in that he was incredibly religious. Despite being smack in the Bible belt, the fact that our school was so filled with kids raised in the science community meant that religion wasn't a huge factor in most of our lives. But not Justin. He was seriously into Jesus.

I knew other people into Jesus. I lived down the street from The Flanders. They had five kids who went to a private Christian school and they constantly tried to convert me. My parents were DIVORCED! How horrible! And not only did I go to public school, but we didn't even go to church every Sunday. Mrs. Flanders literally forced 8-year-old me to "take Jesus into my heart" one day and sent me home with a psalm book and a cross. Later, she asked for her psalm book back. She also cast me as Mary Magdalene in the annual Easter pageant because none of her kids should play a whore.

So this is how I came to understand Christianity.

Freshman year I ate lunch with Justin and a few others in the cafeteria. We used to get into long debates about Christianity and I was constantly trying to prove something. I didn't know anything about the Bible, but I knew lots of shit didn't sound right to me. Justin never wavered. He had an answer for everything. He once told me "You don't know God like I know God." At the time, I thought that was incredibly pompous, and he'd probably agree that it was, but he also had a point. I didn't know what the fuck I was talking about, and he did.

So I blame Justin for all those religion classes I took in college. I often thought of those discussions he and I had, and I didn't like coming from a place of ignorance. I decided to get educated.

I had a wonderful professor named Calvin Mercer who blew my mind with his vast biblical knowledge and his way of making everyone in the room comfortable with both facts and theology. No matter your beliefs, his classroom was a safe place to talk about Christianity. It launched a lifetime fascination with religion.

I set out to prove that the Bible was full of bullshit. Instead I gained an appreciation for its power and intent. And whenever Christianity came up in my classroom, I modeled my teaching methods on Mercer's. The kids never could guess at my religious beliefs, though they often tried.

Our class president is basically Legally Blonde's Elle Woods, so we had a five year reunion. That's where I learned that Justin was gay.

My thoughts, that I admit with a bit of shame, were as follows:

"Whoa, really? HAHA where did all that religious shit get you now, buddy? See! I WAS RIGHT!"

Because I was still kind of an asshole back then. Not that I'm not still kind of an asshole now, but, you know, I like to think I'm a little classier.

But after the initial reaction wore off, we had a good time talking and I enjoyed the nostalgia - I'm big on nostalgia - and it was clear that Justin was still the smart, kind person he had always been. A lot of Christians are hypocrites. Not Justin. He's the real deal. He's also clearly a better person than I am, because I'm pretty sure he wasn't going through a bunch of ITOLDYOUSOs in his head.

So flash forward a few years, and in one of those cursory Facebook searches I found present day Justin. He's still a Christian, still gay, a spokesman for the Gay Christian Network, and he just published a book called Torn, about his experiences reconciling his faith with his sexuality.

Naturally, I was curious. I was in the middle of researching a screenplay so I was deeply into this boring million-page snoozefest about Blackwater, so I couldn't read his book yet, but I went ahead and got it on my Nook for later.

Then I told my mom. My mom was everybody's favorite middle school teacher, and Justin was once in her class, so I knew she'd want to read his book. She ran out and got it right away, and then she flipped for it. She showed it to everybody. And for the past few months, every single time we talked on the phone she asked me if I'd read it yet.

So the other night, as I was falling asleep AGAIN trying to push my way through this terrible Blackwater book, I gave it up and pulled up Torn. I ended up staying up like three more hours reading until I finally had to force myself to put it down so I could sleep.

It turns out that despite being a math nerd, Justin can really write. And his story is engaging as hell. He starts out talking about high school, which was all giggly for me, because again - nostalgia lover here - but it made me think about how weird high school was.

I was going through shit then. I had major father figure problems. I had a mom who cast a long shadow over me. And at the same time, Justin was trying to fight the growing realization that he was gay. And both of us were trying to pretend we were completely normal. Imagine that, and entire high school of Emilys and Justins, all pretending to be completely normal despite the crazy secret shit we were all dealing with.

If we'd all just confessed our drama, do you think high school would have been an easier place?

After that first year, Justin went off to eat lunch with a much smarter crowd while I ran off to hang out with the hacky-sack/ultimate frisbee types. We didn't chat much anymore, but I always thought of him fondly. I wish I could remember what girl he took to prom.

Anyhow, my point here is, this is a good book. It's largely about Justin's journey, but the bigger story is an analysis of the way our society has split Christians and gays into two camps, constantly at war. You can either be gay or Christian, not both. So what happens if you're a devoutly Christian man who is attracted to other men?

No matter what your philosophy on the issue, this book is well worth a read. I expect to see Justin on The Daily Show any day now after Jon Stewart pours through this thing, and then I'll be able to poke people and go "I remember that guy when he still had hair."

The book: Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays vs Christians Debate

Thursday, April 04, 2013

This thing I'm doing to stay focused

On my last script, I added a new thing to keep me on track. I always print out my outline and set it next to my desk on one of those paper holder thingees, but this time I tried something else and I liked it, so I thought I'd share it.

I typed up brief character bios with every character's motivation clearly stated. I printed the bios out, then taped them to the shelf above my computer, so as I wrote I could look up at every moment and remember why each person was there. It seems so simple, but it helped me out a lot. I'd been having trouble in the development stage of this script in figuring out exactly what my arcs were, but being able to see it clearly articulated exactly what everybody wanted - that helped me stay on target during the writing phase.

My story was about soldiers in combat situations, so I was reading this book about Blackwater as part of my research, and I came upon a story about a battle on a rooftop in Iraq. One of the soldiers said that after the battle they felt "Terrified but victorious," which is just a fantastic way to describe all the emotions a soldier must be feeling after a tense combat situation. I wrote that in big permanent marker at the bottom of my bio sheet: TERRIFIED BUT VICTORIOUS. So every time I had a fight scene, I remembered: terrified but victorious. It was right there on the sheet above my head.

As I wrote, I found myself not going back to my outline so much since I remembered my plot well, but instead, going back to that bio page over and over. I kept looking at it to remind me about what's going on in everybody's head.

So as I began to embark on my new script this morning, I printed out my outline and put it on my little paper holder thingee, and then I typed up my character bios and taped them to the shelf above my head. It's my new thing. I highly recommend it.