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.


Short Story “Tribe” in Turning Points Anthology

Mere hours after publishing my last post where I listed my difficulties receiving copies of the anthology in which I have a short story,  I received four copies in the mail, along with a lovely handwritten note from the editor explaining that since I’d paid full price, they were sending two copies instead of one — as well as my contributor’s copies.

Patience is a virtue.

Turning Points Front Cover

Here’s the back cover. My story, called “Tribe” is in good company. They came up with the description line, and in my case, did a better job than I think I would have.



So, here’s a little news on the professional front.  I’ve got representation now! A little more than a year ago, I received an email from a college classmate, introducing me to his manager and suggesting that we might enjoy working together. I had some work ready to go, so I sent the manager some samples which he liked and thought maybe he could do something with. He suggested that we spend time working together to see 1) How we worked together creatively and personally/professionally, 2) If I could continue producing work, 3) If he could get my material read (and what the response was), and 4) If we could get me more representation in the form of an agent.

Early on, I think most aspiring writers have a vision of being “discovered,” by someone who “falls in love,” with their writing. Clearly, this scenario was a bit less romantic. After taking a moment to calibrate, I was grateful for this. There’s a certain rush that comes when people LOVE you immediately, and say you are brilliant, and “you’re going places, kid.” But I’ve now had some Hollywood relationships that began with enthusiasm and fanfare end with no fanfare at all. As the saying goes “If you let yourself  get swept off your feet, you’ll probably land on your ass*.” So, this probationary arrangement was not unappealing to me.  I figured it would keep me from getting complacent and keep us both working to impress the other.

For about the next six months we tested the waters.  I was very happy with both his notes and his work ethic. Creatively he was insightful but not too pushy, and I liked how he was responsive, detail-oriented, and didn’t over-promise. We discussed formalizing our relationship based on that, but there was an issue that we were having a hard time getting readers to respond to the work we sent out. And by respond, I don’t mean emotionally respond–I mean even glance at the material and take the time to say no. This is not surprising, because feature scripts, especially from new writers are a hard sell**. But, it was a point of concern.

Then, I tried my hand at writing a television pilot.  This time, when my manager sent it to three people, amazingly, all three people responded. They didn’t all respond with “yes, tell me more about the series,” but they all read it and responded (and one of them said, “yes, tell me more about the series.”) This seemed like some movement in the right direction, and gave my manager the confidence to show the pilot to agents and a couple of agencies. One of them was interested, and I went in and met with them. Before our second meeting with the agency, the manager and I signed a contract.

So, for this moment, I have a “team,” consisting of both and agent and manager. They cannot work miracles, and they will not be champions of everything I write. But for certain projects that they feel have marketplace potential, they can amplify my visibility…to convince more people to read a script, and arrange some meetings with people at companies who have a track record of getting things made. That, for me, is a huge step forward.

So, YAY, representation!!


*Actually, this is not “a saying,” I think I just made it up. It’s pretty good, though, right?

**Some depressing but informative articles about selling spec feature scripts.

The Odds of Selling a Spec Screenplay (2011)

What are your real chances of success? (2012)

What Screenwriters Can Learn from Hollywood’s Dismal Spec Market (April, 2016)

2016 Spec Script Sales to date (October, 2016)

Three Weekends, and Doing What You Can

Two weekends ago was  a “writing cave” weekend—basically an 11-hour day and a 13-hour day of polishing a draft and application materials of Lovers in Their Right Mind to submit to the the Film Independent Screenwriters Lab.  Wish us luck!

Last weekend was more fun because my next deadline–for Pole Cats–is not until May 1st, which  meant I still needed to be writing, but could afford to do so less efficiently for a few days. So on Saturday  I had writing date with a friend at a coffee shop. We sat outside and I saw the sun and stuff.  We also talked. That was awesome.

On the way home, I thought, “I’d like to read the script for Bridesmaids,” so I stopped at the WGA Library , which, if you don’t know it, is a library housed at the Writers Guild. It’s open to the public and they have tons of bound scripts.

A hundred-and twenty pages into the script I found  this bold-type note:

“from this point on, draft is very rough. We didn’t get to this point until this morning. wanted to see if we’re going in the right direction with annie uniting the bridesmaid’s and saving the day.”

Reading this I had a picture  in my head of the writers (Amy Mumulo and Kristen Wiig)  burning the midnight oil before having to show this script to someone, and realizing there wasn’t enough time – or maybe enough energy – to polish it clear to the end, so deciding to write this note, and hitting send.

This made me happy for reasons I’m not sure I can accurately articulate, but of course am going to try…(right after I note that in no way are the writers  copping out here. The 120 pages up to their note are really good, and that the pages  after their note are STILL pretty darn good– quite close to what ended up in the final production. So close that this is the draft they gave to the WGA library. Whatever I’m about to say does not refer to  turning in something of sub-par quality)

Why I like this note:

First, because it is not an unfamiliar circumstance to be up against a deadline and know that there are still things undone, so I feel some sense of camaraderie  And it’s fun to feel like you share something (anything) with more successful writers.  When I first ran into this situation I thought it was because I was still in school and not good enough or fast enough.  And then, when I was getting paid for my first rewrite, I figured I wasn’t as good or as fast as other writers my producer and execs were used to working with. But now I think it’s just the nature of the process.

As a writer, you are given (or set for yourself) some particular task, and then you are given (or give yourself) a deadline. These are both arbitrary.  Unless the pass (a “pass” is what we writers call moving through the script making either large or small changes) is very mechanical, no one really knows if the time frame is right for the amount of work. Although I’m sure experience is helpful in guessing more accurately, everyone is still pretty much guessing, . Sometimes you can aim low in terms of your ambitions to insure you meet a deadline, and sometimes you aim high, and then you might fall a little bit short. Hopefully it’s not yet the last draft,  so you know you’ll go back and get it in the next revision.

Writing happens in layers, like painting a wall where the old color shows through, but you can’t cover it up right away- you have to wait for the first coat to dry and then go back over it. And that’s only after you’ve spackled and sanded–and sometimes you’ve misjudged what the paint can cover so you have to go back and spackle and sand down a rough patch and then paint it again. Everyone has a vague sense of what it is to paint a wall, but only people who have painted walls look at walls and think about how many coats it took, or the thought that went in to the color selection.  And if you’ve painted walls, if you see a  room that’s not quite finished, you have a sense of what the room has been, and where it’s going so it’s like seeing the past and the future at the same time. This script draft was like that–and nowhere more tangible than in this note.

The second reason this made me happy was that it seem like these writers are in a place where they have the freedom to say “the draft is a little rough.”  It’s always my instinct to acknowledge flaws in the work. To me, this is saying, “Hey, I know what I’m doing, I know the standard we’re aiming for–and we’re going to  get there, but we’re not there yet.” But what I’ve been told is that acknowledging weakness is rarely understood as confidence. Instead it comes across as insecure, and might sway people to see flaws they wouldn’t have otherwise noticed. As a woman in particular, it’s dangerous to come off as apologizing, or self-deprecating, because people are quick to lose confidence in you. And, of course, I’ve been told, a man would never point out weaknesses in his own work, he’d leave that for others to do.  Because mostly, even though you are put on a “team” to create a work, and it seems like that team is there to support each other, the underpinnings of the structure are innately adversarial. Everyone has to protect themselves from the perception that they might lack either competence or good judgement.  The second you lose authority, or people’s faith, whomever brought you on board is in danger too.  So almost everyone is  in danger of having either creative control or their job taken away…and no one is more vulnerable than the writer.

So writing a note like this is also a gesture of trust. They must trust that whomever they’re sending this script to is not someone who will use it as a reason to question their abilities and start thinking about who can replace them, but is someone they feel is actually on their team. It might be they are working with someone (Judd Apatow?) whom they don’t have to sequester, and who might actually give input toward what they’re working on and help make it better.

Clearly I’m postulating a lot, but while some people dream of the perfect romance, I think I’ve always dreamed of the perfect artistic collaboration.  I know the ideal can only be illusory, but still–it makes me happy.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled activities…In my case, as May 1st approaches, it’s another “writing cave weekend.”

Apex Triangles in Composition: Pictures and Words

Another interesting concept from my directing class is the idea that when you compose a shot, you can usually find within it a triangle.  And the point of the triangle that draws your focus is the APEX of the triangle.

When the idea was introduced in class, I was intrigued–but wondered, beyond aesthetic benefits, what is the point of recognizing triangles in my shots?  How should the presence of triangles affect the choices I make?

My internet sleuthing on the subject revealed this little article called, “How to use Triangles to Improve Your Composition.”  It had many examples of principles that I had never thought about but that totally make sense:

An image containing a fairly symmetrical triangle where the apex is at the top and the base at the bottom will feel stable –think of a an architectural photo.

But playing with the angles and/or inverting the triangle will make things seem less stable. Think of a low angle picture of a street where skyscrapers rise up on either side–you kind of feel the buildings might fall on top of you. A triangle on its point seems off-balance, destined to move or change its position, so it also seems less static-feeling.

Now I’m going to jump tracks for a minute and turn to writing.

In literature,  the way an author describes the setting helps set up expectations, both narratively and emotionally. I took a class with the inimitable Janet Fitch and can thank her for this example–the first line from Scott F. Fitzgerald’s “Bernice Bobs Her Hair.”

“After dark on Saturday, one could stand on the first tee of a golf course and see the country club windows as a yellow expanse over a very black and wavy ocean.”

In class we talked about the kind of expectations this line might set up:

  • First, the idea of a country club has connotations of wealth and membership.
  • Then positioning “one” on the first golf tee, separated from the windows by a ” very black and wavy ocean” implies an outsider status.
  • However, not a complete outsider–because the speaker knows she is standing at the first tee. This is someone familiar with the golf course,  aware of her position relative to the club.
  •  Is there a yearning quality to the view of the “yellow expanse?”

So this could be a story about a person trying to get to a place that’s light and bright; and a place of belonging–and needs to make the difficult journey across a wavy black ocean in order to do it.

All this from the very first sentence. Pretty cool right?

Now I’m jumping back to the first track–which was triangles.

Do you have an image in your head when you read Fitzgerald’s sentence? I do.   The  widest part of the triangle is the  line of windows in the distance, while the point of the triangle is person in the foreground–at the bottom of the frame.

According to “triangle theory,*” this is an unstable image.  In a two-dimensional environment–which, despite three-dimensional cues, is what pictures and films are–the black ocean and bank of lights are precariously positioned over the head of the person. If she tries to move, is there safety to be reached, or will it all just collapse on top of  her? Either way there is the expectation of imminent change.

So the opening line of this story works to set up expectation and mood. The right opening image could do very similar (though not exactly the same) work.

The two tracks converge!

railroad-tracks-23521292901749uK0 See the triangle in this picture?

BONUS RANDOM THOUGHT: Thinking of an “opening” image reminds me that John August recently posted “The First and Last Thing You See,”  a montage that explores relationships between first and last images.   If  you watch it, try thinking in the back of your mind–can you find triangles? And how would you describe the images  in words?

*”triangle theory” in this context is a made up term. I think.