Menu

The joy of breaking a story

I’m not a mathematician but I like to think that breaking a story is like is like solving a mathematical proof, one that hasn’t been solved before.

Same concept, but not as difficult. Math is harder than writing.

When I start, I have an idea of where I want to go with it. It might be one scene that I’ve been playing in my head, something that hasn’t found a home in a larger story yet. I have about a half dozen of these at any given time. I know them so well that I have names for them like “the trunk scene” or “the park bench scene” or the “suicidal check-in scene.” They’re orphan scenes, waiting to find a home in the right script.

Or it starts with some characters or a concept or just something I want to play with (con artists, jewel thieves, a quixotic adventure across Chicago in a day, etc.).

Eventually, a couple pieces fit together and I can see that there’s a story there. Then the hard part is building it out so it’s a full movie. Sometimes the middle shows up first and it’s about breaking the beginning and the end. A much harder version is when I have the beginning and end and the middle is the part I can’t grasp yet.

Then for weeks I sit and write ways in and out of it, trying to pull together threads, going down dead-end alleys, writing notes on possibilities. Sometimes I bang my head against the wall for a month and have to put it down — it doesn’t break until I pick it up again a year later and find the missing connection, the way through.

But it’s a wonderful feeling to sit down every morning and work around the problem until one day it clicks and the floodgates open and the story just pours out. For me, the two hard parts of writing a feature are this part (breaking the story) and then rewriting it to actually make it good. The middle part, the first draft and the core action/dialogue usually comes out pretty easily. It’s easy to tell a good story poorly. Rewriting is about telling a good story well.

But breaking it is always the most rewarding part. With each little piece that falls into place, there’s a click, a feeling of pure joy. Sometimes it’s days and days of “no, no, no, no, no” and then one day there’s a “yes” and things click and I know I have something real.

I think it’s like what solving a mathematical proof would be like because there’s a suspense to it (like in a good story). There’s always the chance that it will never click. That I’ll spend months on it and it will never break. There’s real fear there (to steal a line from the amazing Toni Erdmann, which I saw last night) and I think that’s what makes this exciting work.

I find that it helps to have a few scripts in the pipeline and to write every day. When I write every day, writer’s block isn’t an excuse to stop. It just means it’s time to put one script away for now and work on another.

 

In your head, on the page

Most people think they’re pretty good singers. This has something to do with the way your voice resonates inside your skull. It’s a lie born in our bone structure. And that’s why when you hear your voice played back from a recording it’s pretty shocking. The truth is most people aren’t good singers. Most people are bad singers. And the same principle applies to our ideas. Things usually sound great inside our heads. So it can be a huge disappointment to see them on the page, out there in the real world. Suddenly they don’t sound so clever or as interesting or as intelligent. Suddenly, they sound dumb. This is a good thing. People become better singers by forcing themselves to sing. And facing your bad ideas is how you make them good ideas. But you have to get them out there first. You have to write them down.

Why Filmmakers Should Write Often. Maybe Every Day (Musicbed)

Every day in my opinion. but that’s just me.

An app for tracking your daily writing streak

Inspired by Jerry Seinfeld’s approach to developing a daily writing habit, I made a little web app that tracks your daily writing streak. Just a fun side project as I learn more about how to build websites, but it actually works. Check it out if you try to write every day and find that it’s hard to keep up.

Burglars

There’s something in the kitchen, you wake up in the middle of the night, you hear something stirring, in your kitchen you see five burglars, uninvited guests, how they got in you don’t know, through the window, through the door, through the basement you don’t know. One of them comes swinging wildly at you, so you better deal with that one first.

— Herzog on writing, from his Masterclass

The cardinal sin is dullness

There are no rules in filmmaking. Only sins. And the cardinal sin is dullness.

Frank Capra

The identity gap

There’s a famous quote by Ira Glass that’s had a healthy life on the inspiration-for-creative-people circuit on the internet:

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work.

I cut it off at the end but you get the gist. It’s a good observation and resonated with me enough that I printed it out and put it on my wall next to my desk a few years ago.

Then I had a thought the other day. I’ve found a weird sense of “happiness” this summer. Quotes because I don’t really trust it, as it’s foreign to me to feel genuinely happy for no reason for what feels like weeks now.

Naturally, I asked “what the fuck is going on?”

For Glass, the gap is primarily between how good your work (1) is now and how good the work of your heroes is. The gap between your work and the work that meets your standards of taste. Let’s call it the taste gap.

But I think there’s another level to this that Glass doesn’t touch on, an existential gap if you will. It’s not just that you are disappointed that you haven’t gotten good enough to make something you’re proud of — it’s that you’re not yet the person that you want to be.

You set out as a writer. You write a screenplay or a novel. The first one sucks. But you are writing and so you are a writer (identity here as defined by your actions, not by telling everyone that you are a writer or whatever).

But while you are a writer, we can add a qualifier: you’re a mediocre writer. Or a bad writer. A novice writer. A shitty writer. Whatever. I’m not saying this to be mean; it’s important to be honest with ourselves so we can get better.

And so the gap is more than a gap between the current quality of your work and the desired quality. It’s a gap in your identity, a gap between who you are today and how you want to see yourself (and how you want other people to see you). The gap creates a tension in you, or maybe a dissonance.

The feeling is experienced as an oft-present internal pressure or anxiety. You might have to walk around through life for years carrying this tension in you. That’s quite the mental burden and hence you seek out quotes like Glass’s to soothe the pain or you risk paralysis or getting torn up inside until you can’t go on. It’s probably what makes a lot of people give up, even in the face of countless inspirational “don’t give up!!” narratives.(2)

The existential terror of this is heightened because there’s no assurance that you will actually cross the gap and become a good writer or artist or actor or whatever. Odds are that you won’t.(3)

So what happened to me? I wrote and directed a film that I’m proud of. I think it’s good. People whose opinions I respect think it’s good. 99% of people might think it’s not good, but I’m proud of it and my friends like it. For me, that’s enough to cross the gap — it feels like a win and so it is a win. Not that it will find commercial success or even critical success, but it’s a win in that it’s helped me become whole by crossing the gap. I made good on my identity.

I called myself a filmmaker and now that I’ve made something that I’m proud of, the dissonance between what I call myself and how I feel about myself is resolved. Thus, happiness.

Why focus on the identity aspect?

I was thinking about another pursuit in my life where I am woefully worse than I would like to be: tennis.

I’m not comparing myself to Roger Federer, I’m comparing myself to the people I play with that are really good but nowhere close to being professionals. The gap is achievable in my lifetime and maybe in 3-5 years with regular lessons and practice. But I experience zero anxiety about this gap because it’s not something I claim as part of my identity. I think of myself as someone who happens to play tennis, not as a tennis player. I don’t care how the world views my tennis playing so I don’t feel a gap.

What’s the difference?

I mean, if we define identity by what we do, then tennis should define me as much as filmmaking. For me, it’s about a deeper pull I feel towards filmmaking or artistic expression. I don’t really understand the difference except that maybe I chose artistic expression and not tennis to be a part of my identity.

There’s some logical inconsistency there and I’m not really sure how to think about it yet.


  1. Work here as shorthand for art, craft, tennis, whatever you’re trying to get better at 

  2. Those narratives suffer from survivor bias. Nobody ever tells you about how they never gave up their dream of being an actor and then found themselves at 50, bitter and broke. Not because it doesn’t happen, but because those people don’t get invited to write books and speak, unless of course they turned that failure into some kind of other success and the failure serves the never-give-up narrative. 

  3. I’ve failed at a few things this way and the psychic aftermath is pretty unpleasant. But don’t listen to people that say if you never give up, you’ll succeed eventually. They’re lying because they don’t know for certain anymore than you can know for certain. That’s kind of the point thought–that it’s something brave and risky because it can fail. Learning when to quit and try something else is an important skill and helps you get back up for another fight when your project fails. 

Writing again

It’s good to be writing again. I took about 6 weeks off from my morning routine while I was doing development and pre-production for The Deadline.

It was just too much to wake up at 6am, write for an hour before work, do a full day at the office and then come home and work for 2-4 hours on production prep. There was a massive amount of work that had to be done with meetings, planning the shots, breaking the script down, scheduling, finding a location, hiring crew, paperwork, project management and so many emails. You only get one shot at production so better to prioritize that over writing.

Right now I have three feature screenplays in various stages of rewrites, ranging from 2nd or 3rd drafts to “done.”1 And then I have about ten other projects that have been waiting on the backburner: a short that I’d like to shoot when I’m in Europe this summer, a short doc about my friend’s dating life that may or may not have legs, a one-act play that I can knock out in a week, a book adaptation that I’m not ready to write, two bigger-budget features that I’m not ready to make, and four narrative features that are actually feasible to write and shoot on a low budget.

I’m going to take a few weeks to outline one of those features (I have about 30 pages of notes and ideas already) and then try to write a script really fast, just to see what happens when I write 90 pages in two weeks. In the meantime, I’m talking to some producers about getting one of the written scripts into development.

If I stick to writing every day, I should have 2-3 features that are more or less ready to shoot in the spring.


  1. They’re never really done until the film is shot 

Listen to everything, but say no to almost everything

The trick is to listen to everything, but also say no to almost everything.

The Unholy Monster that turns Uncertainty into Certainty

The task of the craftsman

As Dreyfus and Kelly explain, such sacredness is common to craftsmanship. The task of the craftsman, they conclude, “is not to generate meaning, but rather to cultivate in himself the skill of discerning the meanings that are already there. This frees the craftsman of the nihilism of autonomous individualism, providing an ordered world of meaning.

— Cal Newport in his excellent book Deep Work

Everything is a remix

File under “Steal like an Artist.”

Older Entries //