Writing: Obstacles and Stakes

The other day, I was asked to give notes on a short script that had an interesting premise and main character and cool settings, but felt lacking in dramatic dramatic tension. In my notes I talked about obstacles and stakes, which are elements that come up commonly enough with clients or students, that I thought I might do a mini-lesson here.

Here’s a simple four-step structure you might use for a short film:

  1. A character has a goal.
  2. The character makes a plan to achieve that goal.
  3. The character attempts to execute the plan.
  4. The character succeeds or fails in the plan = outcome / aftermath.

Here’s an example that matches that goal. (EXAMPLE 1)

  1. A cat wants the kitty-treats on top of the fridge.
  2. The cat plans to jump on the counter, and then to the top of the fridge.
  3. The cat jumps to the counter, and then to the top of the fridge.
  4. The cat eats the treats.

What would happen if we added some obstacles and stakes to this story?

OBSTACLES in writing are pretty much the same as obstacles in life — they are whatever gets in the way of our progress toward a goal. These can internal, like self-doubt or external as in this case: Let’s say that there’s a pile of dishes on the counter, waiting for their turn in the sink. There’s only a TINY area of counter where the cat can land without dislodging a dish…

STAKES are what a character stands to gain if she succeeds or lose if she fails. We already know what our kitty-cat gets if she reaches the top of the fridge — delicious cat treats, but we can make those treats a little more important. Let’s say the cat didn’t get any dinner, so she is legit HUNGRY. Maybe her owner was making an important romantic dinner for someone, got distracted and forgot to feed the cat. (Then she brought the dishes into the kitchen, and forgot again!)

So what happens if the cat FAILS? If the cat jumps and lands badly, she will dislodge a pile of dishes — they will come CRASHING to the floor, breaking the good china and ruining the romantic vibes happening in the next room. The cat’s owner will be pissed, and will throw the cat outside — still with no dinner! Oh — and it’s RAINING outside!

What does our story look like now? (EXAMPLE 2)

  1. The cat, locked in the kitchen, looks mournfully at her empty bowl. Her stomach growls. She looks at the treats on top of the fridge and licks her lips.
  2. The cat evaluates her route to the top of the fridge. There’s a pile of fragile dishes on the counter, but there’s also just enough space for a pair of kitty feet. The cat decides to go for it.
  3. The cat jumps to the counter and lands perfectly on the counter — but what she didn’t see was — it’s WET. As she makes her leap to the fridge, her paws SLIP! She madly claws for the top of the fridge but doesn’t make it and falls backwards. Now she’s in danger of smashing the dishes AND seriously injured! [We’re RAISING the stakes.] BUT at the last moment, she TWISTS and sinks her claws into the CURTAIN on the window. She climbs the curtain, and drops down to the top of the fridge!
  4. The cat happily digs her nose into the bag of treats.

THE END

Bad Art by B: Star-crossed Lovers Series

Our Those People: A Love Story crowdfunding campaign was a success! I’m not supposed to be surprised, but, between you and me, I am a little bit. There were two solid weeks where it wasn’t looking promising…

But friends, family and fans came  through with cash in spectacular fashion, and now it’s time for me to pony up with my humble “incentive” offering: made-to-order depictions of movie scenes about lovers (preferably star-crossed, but I’m not going to quibble if they happened to live happily ever after).

Once my client chooses their movie (and scene, though some leave that up to me) my “artistic” process begins with a cannibalized element from another process: Each piece is drawn the flip side of a “repurposed” 3×5 index card  used to outline a movie script:

Back of Atonement

I pencil,  ink with a Sharpie and then erase the pencil. I use black and occasionally one contrast color. For digital delivery,  my husband takes a picture with an app that is supposed to keep art looking flat and not wonky.

My original plan was to work totally with stick figures, because it seemed easy and the idea of it made me laugh. This was my first attempt:

Romeo and Juliet

And this was the second: BrokebackWhile both pieces they look similarly rudimentary, you might notice that by my second attempt I had already drifted from stick figure to boxy outline, because it somehow felt easier.

My first real order was for our kind-hearted supporter, Nate, who requested Atonement. I realized I couldn’t bring myself to render the iconic image of the character in his black tuxedo only in outline, so I reached for the thicker sharpie: Atonement Framed

And somehow the thick Sharpie carried over into  Orly’s request for Annie Hall.

Annie Hall framed

A practiced artist knows how to control style and tone. I am not a practiced artist, so who knows how the next 18 drawings will turn out?  Not me!  But I assume that anyone who chose something called “Bad Art” will have appropriately low expectations, so, unlike almost everything else in my life at the moment, I am not stressed about this.  I look forward to finding out what my clients will choose, and giving it my best, “bad” shot!

Changing the World, a Little at a Time

Hands

For more than three years, I’ve been working as a co-writer (and reluctant (but proud!) producer) on a script about a black woman and an Iranian man who fall in love, how this affects their relationships with their families, communities, their feelings about religion and themselves.  THOSE PEOPLE: A Love Story is a light drama–a love story. It’s fun. But it also represents is something we take seriously — not just a movie cast with diverse actors (though we applaud that) and not just a “celebration” of diversity (although movies that do that are good too) but an actual exploration of diversity and its challenges today.

Today marks the last week of our campaign to raise development funds to lift this project off the ground. The amount we’re trying to raise is small by Hollywood standards, but it’s a lot for us – and we can do a lot with it!  We’re already working with a passionate producer who’s been working for free – we’d like pay her! And before reaching out to investors we’ll hire an experienced casting director to help find the perfect actors, and a lawyer to put together the legal end of things… You can see the details (and me, in a video!) at  https://www.seedandspark.com/fund/those-ppl-movie.

A couple things:

1)    Any amount you contribute is just a pledge—until we meet 80% of our $20,000 goal. If we don’t get $16,000 in pledges, we don’t take any money and your card will never be charged. If we do reach our goal, you’ll know that we have enough to push forward to the next step, and that your money won’t just float away. (As of this writing, we are $9000 away from that require 80%)

2)    We also really need people to FOLLOW our project on Seed and Spark. FOLLOWING IS FREE, but it helps us! Investors will look at our followers number to know that there are people who are interested in seeing our film, and, if we get to 500, Seed and Spark will guarantee us distribution! (As of this writing, we need about 350 people to meet this goal.)

A few more words about this project. Black and Persian. Strange combo, right? Sometimes love is strange! But we are happy with both sides of our interracial equation:

Even though they are loyal film-goers, black women are one of the most neglected  groups — both on screen and as an audience.

And time and again we hear our Iranian friends wishing to see their real lives reflected on screen — without a terrorist plot!

When I imagine this film made, I think of someone browsing through her Netflix options, and having the options of seeing a story about someone who looks like her… and I think of other people having the option of choosing to watch a movie that helps them understand the lives of people who might look different from them. That’s how the world changes, little by little. A march, a story, a song… a film,

We want to make a piece of art that moves the needle on the dial just a little. If you’d like support of that, a little or a lot, here’s how:

You can CHECK OUT our Seed & Spark site, watch our VIDEO,  and read about our TEAM.

If you like what you see, you can SHARE this post with anyone you know who might be interested.

You can FOLLOW us for FREE simply by clicking the BLUE FOLLOW BUTTON on the right. (They’ll make you log in, either with Facebook or an email. Sorry for the pain. We recommend using those 60 seconds to meditate on the positive intention you’re putting into the world!

You can CONTRIBUTE by clicking the GREEN CONTRIBUTE BUTTON.  Don’t feel bad if you’re not a big spender — no amount is too small!  (Actually, there’s a $1 minimum, but $1 is not too small — it brings us $1 closer to our goal!)

The countdown is on. I’ll check back in on April 21 —  6 days and 8 hours from now — with the final results.