Unique and Relatable

A strong premise has elements that are both unique and relatable. One way of looking at the unique/relatable balance is the relationship between the protagonist and the world of the story.

For example, consider stories with a relatable protagonist, but a unique world:

  • Jurassic Park, where Alan Grant (a man who likes getting his hands dirty, doesn’t trust technology, and isn’t horribly fond of kids) travels to an island full of cloned dinosaurs.
  • Harry Potter, where a lonely, bullied boy finds out that he belongs in a hidden world of magic.
  • Back to the Future, where an 80s teenager who has a difficult relationship with his parents finds himself displaced to the past, where he encounters not only a vastly different world than the one he’s used to, but the teenage version of his parents, who are different people than he expects.

Now let’s look at the other side of the coin, where it’s a unique character in a relatable world:

  • A History of Violence, where a seemingly average family in a sleepy little town is turned upside down with the revelation of the father’s violent past and the further violence he deems necessary to keep his family safe.
  • The 40-Year-Old Virgin, where the title character attempts to navigate the dating world and its relatable series of pitfalls, but seen from his specific perspective.
  • Grosse Pointe Blank, a professional hitman going through an existential crisis attends his high school reunion while on assignment.

The clash between the relatable and unique elements of the premise gives a story narrative friction. That friction between protagonist and world gives us conflict to propel the story.

If a character and their world are both relatable, we’re not only missing out on a unique element to hook the audience into the story, but we’re losing the potential for conflict. If a protagonist has nothing unexpected to come up against, what are they going to spend their time doing?

Or, if a unique character exists in a unique world, what gives the audience a foothold to understand what’s happening? If all elements are attempting to be different from the world and the people we know, what gives the story the connective tissue it needs to grab the audience and bring them in?

This doesn’t mean that every story needs to be an easily explained high concept piece. Even in smaller, character-driven and intimate narratives you can see the friction between the unique and relatable. For example, The Squid and The Whale and Kramer vs. Kramer both take place in the relatable world of a family going through divorce, but their unique characters create two very different stories.

Look at your premise. Ask yourself what elements make your story unique and relatable. Do you see the friction? Do you see potential to make that friction more clear?

The Vernon Hardapple Exercise

My favorite scene from the adaptation of Wonder Boys comes when Grady, Crabtree, and James concoct the life story of a man on the other side of the bar, naming him Vernon Hardapple. While they’re wildly off the mark on who this man actually is, they still manage to create a compelling idea of who he could be.

Which brings us to the exercise:

Step 1: Go somewhere public and crowded. Focus on a single person. Do not, under any circumstances, behave in a way resembling a creepy stalker.

Step 2: Note everything you observe about this person, but don’t editorialize. Be literal, clear, and capture as many details as you can.

Step 3: Use your observations to make them a character. Give them a name. What were they doing when you saw them? Where did they come from? Where were they going next? Go as far into their backstory as you can with the information you’ve gathered from watching them.

Remember, you’re not trying to figure out who they actually are. This is an exercise in being a writer, not a detective. Find ways to take what you see in this stranger and bring out the potential for conflict in their life. What stories could you write about someone like this person?

Using an actual person as a base is a way of grounding the character. You can mash up any number of characteristics when you start from scratch, but a flesh and blood model will remind you that while a character may have contradictions, they are still a single, unified identity.

Actionable Steps

I don’t try to disguise my appreciation for things relating to Getting Things Done. The idea of breaking a large task down into smaller steps that you can tackle in a single period of work is a helpful motivational tool.

But what should a writer consider an actionable step to be? What units should you use to measure your work?

Word Based

Cases Where This Method May Be Beneficial: First Drafts

I don’t feel that how many words you get on the page is a good way to gauge screenwriting. There’s an emphasis on using as few words as possible to get the story across, and you’ll find yourself cutting back a lot as you edit. Measuring in this way may lead to prose-styled passages that will only be deleted during revision.

However, it can be a good way to get words onto the page. You may pad some sections with additional verbage, but you’re also giving yourself a clear, measurable way of saying that you did what you deem to be an appropriate amount of writing.

If you’re not planning to show this draft without first editing, this might be the way to structure your work.

Page Based

Cases Where This Method May Be Beneficial: Workshop Settings, Early Drafts

This goes along with my thoughts on measuring by word count, as you can get into other bad habits when measuring this way.

It’s very easy to pad your page count.

Incredibly easy.

Get the picture?

However, it can be helpful to measure your work by page count when thinking about pacing. Going off the generally applied measurement that one page equals one minute of screentime, keeping an eye to how many pages you’re using will make you mindful of how long scenes are pacing out, and the general timing of the finished script.

Additionally, when you have smaller, regular deadlines, such as in a workshop group, it can be helpful to measure your efforts by pages written. Depending on the structure of the group, only so much time can be spent on each person’s work. Keeping yourself on task, as well as within the limits of your class or group, can be a good way to measure your work.

Time Based

Cases Where This Method May Be Beneficial: Working Under Self-Imposed Deadline, Building The Writing Habit

You say to yourself, “I will write for X amount of time every day, regardless of how many finished pages this creates.”There will be times when an hour leads to half a page. Other times, five or more pages. It depends on how you outline, or how mentally prepared you are for your writing session. If nobody is impatiently waiting to read your pages, this method may work for you.

Additionally, choosing to block off a set amount of time for writing is a strong way to encourage the development of the writing habit. The mental muscles involved in writing will get a regular workout, making it easier to focus should you have a strict deadline in the future.

Scene Based

Cases Where This Method May Be Beneficial: Polished Drafts

Measuring your work in dramatic beats may be helpful for later revisions. You’ve been over the story before. You’ve outlined and re-outlined. You know the road map, and now you need to take the time with each scene to improve it. Not every scene is of equal page length, but every beat should be given its due consideration with a rewrite.

This is also a good way of splitting up the work into smaller sections when you have a hard deadline. You know how long you have to complete the script, you have your outline, and you can easily do the math to subdivide the work.

Above All, Don’t Go Nuts

Do you think you can write 20 pages a day, every day?

Don’t be surprised if you find out you can’t.

Be a patient and honest observer of your own habits, as well as the committments in your life that aren’t related to writing. Adjust your scheduling accordingly. A plan that doesn’t reflect reality isn’t a good plan.

A Close Shave

I have a beard. Like all beards, if you don’t properly maintain it for a week1, you go from Writer With A Beard to Guy Writing Manifesto On A Typewriter In A Cabin. I could have gone through and trimmed the stray hairs that had grown too long, taking time to reshape the beard and get it back to its more ideal state, but I didn’t. I trimmed it short. Much shorter than normal.

I promise you, there’s a metaphor in this.

I know that my beard doesn’t look the way I want it to right now. I also know that I saved myself some time by not trying to be meticulous and precise. My beard will grow back to where I want it, and will be easier to maintain, for a time, because of this.

Sometimes, in the middle of a script, too much time can be spent trying to make all the pieces fit together at once. Meticulousness and details take over writing time when pushing forward and focusing on the basics would be of greater benefit. Sometimes it’s necessary to hack off all the excess and focus on the base; the essential elements. Let the rest grow out of that.

Is it a little forced of a metaphor? Maybe.2 But it did get me thinking about specific areas where it’s important to keep focus on the basics, and where cutting things down to the core elements can be helpful. The next few posts will be on these topics.

Also, a general programming note: If you have a topic that I haven’t covered that you’d like to see discussed, please make your suggestion in the comments. I’d love to get a better picture of what people would like to get from this site, and I will do the best that I can to follow up on suggested topics.

  1. Or, let’s be honest, maybe a little over a week.
  2. Definitely, but roll with it.

Don’t Be A Bad Boss (When You’re Your Own Boss)

Unless you’re getting a check for turning in what you’re writing, you’re your own boss. But, in this situation, don’t forget that you’re also your own employee.

It can be easier to manage others than to manage yourself. When dealing with another person, you have feedback in their responses to your management. When you delegate work to them, you measure their performance, then focus your attention on other tasks while they do their share of the work. When you set a deadline or goal, they need to work according to your standards. It’s on them.

This isn’t how it works when you’re the whole chain of command. You delegate work to yourself. You need to keep clear on both the big picture and the day to day details. If something is going to get done, it needs to be done by you.

So, how do you avoid becoming your own nightmare boss? It goes beyond being gentle with yourself.1

Think About Your Previous Bosses

No matter what the business, there are general qualities that separate an effective boss from an ineffective one. Look back on the previous employers, teachers, mentors, etc. you’ve had in your life.

What were some of the most succesful ways they motivated you? How did they communicate goals and expectations? Did they work with you to set realistic deadlines and measure your performance accordingly? How did they keep things organized?

Find An Assistant Manager

Think about this person as the XO on a naval ship. Part of their duties involve making sure the captain doesn’t make decisions that will jeopardize the crew or their mission.2 There’s a similar need for that when managing yourself.

Find someone who has an interest in your goals and is willing to keep tabs on you. A significant other, a parent, another writer. Anybody that you have regular contact with and who you trust.

Let this person in on your goals, plans for accomplishing them, and the deadlines you’re planning to work with. The better they know you, the better they’ll be at helping you evaluate if you’re creating unrealistic expectations for yourself (or if you could do more).

At the end of the day, you need to call the shots, but having an outside voice will help you to put things in perspective.

Hard Deadlines vs. Soft Deadlines

A hard deadline is when somebody else needs to see something by a set date. Any deadline you set for yourself with no external force involved is a soft deadline. Period.

A soft deadline can be moved, as needed. Yes, it’s important to set a goal and make the mad dash for it, but if it looks like you won’t make it without multiple sleepless nights, ask yourself if it might be worth it to push things back a bit. This is one of those situations where it’s good to check in with your Assistant Manager, both to remind you when a delay is a good idea, and to help keep you honest if you move the goalposts too often.

Keep Everything Outside Of Your Head

Use a calendar. Find a task list method that works for you. Make countdown signs on a whiteboard when a big deadline is coming up.

The more you try to just remember, the harder it is to remember it all. Save your brain power for the things that really matter and keep hard (and/or digital) copies of all your planning and administrative information.

Give Yourself A Day Off If You Need It

You can’t fake calling in sick when you’re your own boss. You are completely aware of any reasons you decide not to work on a given day. You aren’t just Ferris Bueller. You’re also Mr. Rooney.3

But you can’t let yourself take the attitude of a Mr. Rooney. If you feel you have a completely valid reason to have a Me Party,4 or take care of something else that’s come up, do it. Unless it becomes a nine-day bender of Netflix Watch Instantly and cookie dough straight from the tube, it’s not the worst thing in the world.

  1. See previous post on being gentle with yourself
  2. For examples of this, see every naval movie, ever. Also, most space movies where there are more than five crew members on a ship. 
  3. If you’ve checked this footnote, it may mean you haven’t seen this movie. If that’s the case, please fix that as quickly as possible. It is so choice. 
  4. A party for one.