A Post For Those Who Have Seen Cast Away

I went on the Warner Bros. studio tour today, and something happened that I wanted to share with you. The tour guide was talking about product placement on the set of Chuck when he asked if any of us had seen the movie Cast Away. Then came a series of questions.

No peeking at imdb.

1. What company does Tom Hanks’s character work for?

2. What’s the name of the volleyball?

3. What’s the name of Tom Hanks’s character?

How’d you do?

If you’re anything like the tour group I was with, the first two questions were a piece of cake, but the third one was a complete mystery.

Let that sink in.

I’m not bringing this up to make a point about “selling out” or “the corruption of the medium by advertisers.” I think there’s something positive to be learned from this.

Naming the volleyball after its brand name did a number of things. On the level of product placement, it enhanced audience recall of the brand name, but from a story standpoint, it made the decision to have Tom Hanks talk to a volleyball for an hour seem less crazy. He’s calling it by its brand name. His character is acknowledging to himself, and the audience, that this is a somewhat silly attempt to give himself a sense of companionship so he doesn’t go stir crazy. By using the easiest choice of a name (that which was already printed on the ball), it seems more grounded. He’s not spending time coming up with the perfect name for an imaginary companion, and giving this companion all kinds of imaginary qualities. He’s taking what’s there and nudging it.

A quick note of thanks to those who have linked to and upvoted this blog on reddit! I’m glad you’ve enjoyed the content so far, and I hope you (and the other readers of this site) will get something out of what I’m working on for the future.

Be A Protagonist

It’s sometimes usually hard to take your own advice, or, as the case may be, to apply advice from one aspect of your life to another.

Think about your day. What did you do today that moved you toward your larger goals?

Step that back. Can you clearly articulate what your goals are?

If either of these questions stymied you, ask yourself if you would accept that from a protagonist in something you’re writing.

No. You wouldn’t. And you shouldn’t accept that from yourself.

This is not a call for constant productivity; for making demands of yourself that are greater than you could accomplish; for turning life into a series of to-dos. It’s a call to examine the way you think about yourself and what you do.

A protagonist should be attempting to achieve something large, but they have to do it in small increments. One scene at a time. One dramatic beat at a time. But there should always be momentum.

Remember, your characters aren’t constantly doing only things that work towards their major goals. The parts that aren’t worth focusing on get cut out.

Do the same for yourself. Don’t get caught up in the deleted scenes. Find your direction. Build your momentum. Be the scrappy underdog that makes good. Or the bold hero triumphing over adversity. Or the giant robot beating the crap out of other giant robots.

Whatever you have to see yourself as to get the point across, see yourself as a character worthy of attention, sympathy, and success.

See yourself as a protagonist.

The Page of Dialogue

There are plenty of fantastic movies that have extended scenes of dialogue. There are incredibly tense and engaging moments that can be created using little more than conversation.

However, a conversation isn’t just about what’s said. There are pauses, gestures, and actions that also play a part. This is why, when a screenplay page is full of dialogue and has no action or description lines on it, it raises a red flag.

Film is a visual medium, and if a writer is only focusing on what the characters are saying, they’re leaving out a key component. What are these characters doing while they’re talking? What are we seeing during the conversation? What can their actions do to build upon the dialogue and deepen our understanding of what’s taking place in the scene?

When looking at a page like this in your own writing, consider how something visual can stand in for some of the dialogue. Look for places where an action, gesture, or glance can convey what’s being said. By making part of the conversation visual; by making it something that needs to be interpreted by the viewer, the conversation becomes more engaging to the audience. Instead of being an eavesdropper, they’re now an active participant, working to unearth the full meaning behind the words the characters are speaking.

GTD & Screenwriting: Using Contexts

Part of the principle of Contexts in Getting Things Done can be summed up as: Is there anything else I can do here before I go somewhere else?

How does this relate to screenwriting? Take any scene you’re working on and ask yourself what the function of that scene is. In a best case scenario, a scene is going to accomplish more than one thing by the time it’s over. This isn’t a call for over-padding scenes and extending them for seven pages to make sure you cram five distinct functions into each scene. It’s a call to look at the elements you have in a scene and see if there’s anything else you can do with what’s there.

Let’s take a basic scene and see what happens when we play with the concept. A standard scene in a lot of police films and TV shows involves the Chief telling a Detective about the case that’s going to be the focus for the film/episode. What’s the scene’s function? Let the audience know what case we’ll be focusing on.

And if we left it at that, it would be a big, expository infodump. Yes, we’d get the information we needed, but not in a way that would be as engaging as it could be. What elements do we have to work with? We’ve got a Detective, the Police Chief, the Chief’s Office, and a Case.

Starting with character, look at all the angles. How do the Detective and the Chief feel about each other? How do each of them feel about this particular case? About this type of crime? Is there any history with this case, or a similar one, that we could draw on?

Now look to the greater context. What happened before this scene that can inform what goes on in this scene? Was there something that happened moments before that can bleed into the current scene? Are there any things that will happen to either of these characters later in the script that we might be able to start setting up now?

Look at the location. Location is something that can help us set the mood. What time of year is it? What’s the state of the precinct? Is it badly in need of repair, or sleek and modern? What can the Chief’s Office tell us about the world of our story, as a whole?

Every piece of the puzzle; every element should be used to its fullest potential. By making scenes do double, or triple duty, you’re trimming how long you need to tell your story, as well as making every moment count that much more.

They Didn’t Read It Wrong

No matter if you’re a beginning writer or have several years and numerous scripts under your belt, you have the potential in you to be That Guy.

Say somebody makes a critical comment about your script that you don’t agree with. It could be a teacher, someone in a workshopping group, or (if the fates favor you) a creative executive.

If you have the urge to say any of the following, don’t.

  • You read it wrong.
  • That’s not what I meant.
  • But I’m not trying to do (X)
  • That’s not how I see it.

There are plenty of reasons to not respond to criticism with antagonistic and defensive posturing, but it all boils down to one thing: If you don’t respond well to criticism, people will believe you are difficult to work with.

But what happens if you can’t help yourself? If you’re absolutely certain, in that moment, that what they’ve said is completely off base and they have no idea how good your script actually is? That this person claiming to want to help you is actually trying to do damage to your masterpiece?

1. Appreciate that somebody read your writing


It is more likely that someone who is willing to take the time to read what you’ve written and provide you with constructive feedback is genuinely interested in helping you make it the best it can be than that they are trying to sabotage or dishearten you. They could be doing other things, but they believe that it’s worth their time to work with you.

They’ve given time to consider your work, and you should be willing to respond in kind by taking time to genuinely consider their comments.

2. Believe that you are not your script

Even in situations where you think that criticism is personal, you can not respond to it as such. An imperfect script does not mean you are a bad writer. It simply means that you have yet to find the best way to get across the story you’re trying to tell. Any critical comment that is made is being made about a single, changeable document that exists outside of yourself.

Also, much like how you are not your script, your idea is not your script. If you believe something is in the pages that other people aren’t seeing, you must be willing to accept that something may have not made the transition from your mind to the page. Things can get lost in transit, and the only way to ensure that everything reaches its destination properly is to pay attention when people say something is missing.

3. Remember that you aren’t going to have all the good ideas.

This isn’t to try and dismantle your confidence or to suggest that you don’t have a dozen brilliant notions before breakfast every day, but you need to accept that someone other than you might have a perfectly logical suggestion for something you’re working on.

Unless you are directly plagiarizing, there is nothing wrong with finding a way to incorporate ideas that didn’t originate inside your brain into your work. Consider, in fact, that none of the ideas you have are completely original to your mind, because they all come as a response to the stimuli you process from the world around you. Every idea has an origin outside yourself, so it’s not too much of a stretch to then accept that another person might be able to have an applicable and helpful idea to contribute to your script.

4. Look for the note behind the note

Sometimes it’s not easy to articulate what’s not working. Sometimes smaller symptoms get the attention when a larger problem is lurking beneath the surface. That’s when you need to see what’s underlying the criticism.

It’s a two-way street: If you make a knee-jerk defensive response to a comment that doesn’t quite get to the root of the problem, neither you nor the person who read your script are getting any closer to finding a way to make it better. Absorb the comments. Digest them. Ask questions. Come back later and look over what’s been said and try to determine what the underlying points actually are.

In summary: Be grateful. Be humble. Be open to ideas. If you already think your script is perfect, you will miss countless ways you can make it better.