Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Screenwriting 101: A Character Exercise

Coming up with scenes for a movie isn’t hard. What’s much more difficult is understanding the Big Picture: What is the major conflict of the movie and how does it get resolved? I think that’s my own major weakness. I’ve been thinking about this problem for 30 years, and only now am I beginning to see the solution, which has to do with this “existential story conflict” I’ve been talking about. How do we study this further?

I am not a believer in formal education, but the theory of education has some merit, even if we are educating ourselves. Education isn’t just absorbing facts but engaging in practical low-cost exercises. When you go to school, the teachers give you project assignments, which are theoretically modeled after problems you will encounter in real life. With such academic exercises, you have an opportunity to experiment with solving problems without suffering all the costs and consequences. The end product of these assignments is usually forgotten; what’s important is the skills it gives you along the way.

If we were to design our own screenwriting course, what would it consist of? Well, we would probably focus on the areas where we are weakest (character and story development) then design some exercises to help us explore and strengthen those skills.

So this is the simple exercise I propose: If you are given any human role—fireman, doctor, teacher, street bum, etc.—you should be able to come up with a little conflict for this person to be engaged in that results in an entertaining 10-minute screenplay written in a day. If you did a lot of these exercises, you would have much better knowledge of character development and story conflict and could start thinking about bigger projects.

The exercise doesn’t necessarily mean you actually have to write the 10-minute screenplay, although I think that should happen at least a few times. You just have to think things through to the point where you could write the 10 minute screenplay if you wanted to.

I contend that there’s no point in attempting a 90-minute screenplay if you can’t distill the conflicts of the main character into a 10-minute one. If you can’t pull off the 10-minute show, you won’t be able to do the 90-minute one. 10-minute shows also allow you to experiment with a LOT of story ideas in a relatively short period of time.

If I throw out a role—say, “fireman”—you should be able to come up with a character-based conflict for that person, and resolve it within 10 minutes. Sounds challenging, but I think it can be done—for ANY character you can name.

You see, every character has his flaws that arise naturally from his social role, and with a little brainstorming you can see what they might be. For example, for a fireman, I can think of two potential flaws: (1) He’s more obsessed with keeping his fire engine clean than fighting fires, and (2) He may deliberately set fires himself to give his life more meaning. Each avenue leads to an interesting story.

The resolution comes when either (a) the character finally recognizes his own weakness and uses this knowledge to overcome his problem, or (b) at least we, the audience, finally understand what is going on.

The simplest case is (b): We see a fireman racing around putting out fires, but at the end of the film we realize that he’s the one setting the fires. In this case, we are the ones having the character transformation; the fireman isn’t. This avenue often works, but it’s kind of bland and one-dimentional.

The more satisfying scenario, however, is (a): Fireman obsessively sets fires but eventually has a revelation that prompts him to change his behavior, at least temporarily.

I said that every great film consists of the same conflict: Plainly motivated character encounters a mysterious force; eventually understands this force and, if possible, uses this knowledge to conquer his enemy. In (b) above, we the audience are the plainly motivated character and the fireman is the mysterious force who we eventually come to understand. In (a) above, the fireman is the plainly motivated character, who we understand from the beginning is a pyromaniac. The mysterious force is his own obsession, which he eventually comes to understand.

Think of the original Star Wars movie. What is the essential conflict there? It’s a naïve boy encountering the bigger world for the first time. He lacks confidence and takes himself a bit too seriously. In the end, however, he learns to “Trust the Force.” At a critical point in the conflict, he pushes his instruments aside and puts his faith in something different. All of the spaceship battles of the movie basically serve (or should serve) this one central conflict. The whole “Death Star,” in fact, was designed to serve this central conflict.

In Star Wars, it was a hokey conflict, not terribly deep, but it is one of the things we most remember about the movie: “Trust the Force.” The later movies eventually fell flat because they didn’t have this central unifying concept. Without this core exercise in character change, a movie becomes just a series of scene strung together without any overall meaning.

So are you ready to try this character exercise? Whenever you encounter someone playing a role, you should be able to say: (1) What the defects of this character may be, (2) what natural conflicts and quests arise because of these defects (propelling the movie along), (3) how to express these conflicts in concrete, filmable actions, and (4) what character change takes place to resolve these conflicts. You should then be able to write a satisfying 10 minute screenplay, or at least describe it.

Only when we can complete this exercise for ANYONE in ANY role are we ready to attempt a larger project.

Merging vs. Engulfment

In response to a blog posting today by Miss Model Behavior ("Why Are You So Sensitive?"), I posted the following response:
Kilroy here, from Las Vegas. By defining this as a male/female problem, I think MMB is missing the point. This isn't a matter of Mars vs. Venus but more of a fundamental human conflict: merging vs. engulfment. This is something that applies to all sexes equally: male/female, gay/straight, eunuch, celibate, etc. Males and females may have different ways of expressing it, but merging/engulfment is a basic conflict in all of us and is the main reason early romances don't usually work.

Let me give you the Cliff's Notes version. We are all the product of two warring forces: the "urge to merge" -- that is, the desire to join with someone else -- and the desire to be an independent and self-sufficient being. When you're alone and lonely, merging becomes your primary concern, and you tend to hopelessly idealize the other party. But once you start merging with someone real, idealism is quashed by reality, and the opposite inclination kicks in: "Oh my God, I'm drowning!" Hence, the desire to pull away.

It takes a great deal of maturity and self-knowledge to balance the two. It also takes time, in any relationship, to negotiate a balance, no matter how mature the parties may be.

Your opponent in this case may be a dick, but he's a gender-free dick expressing the same cycle we all go through: "Oh my God, I'm alone!" alternating with, "Oh my God, I'm drowning!" It's no mystery that most people haven't yet found a balance.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Screen Story #4: "Over There!"

My writing project today is a 9-minute screenplay...

"Over There!" (pdf file)

A tragedy in 1917 leads to a revelation in 1990.

The George M. Cohen song "Over There" is a key element in the film. For the lyrics of the song, see its Wikipedia entry. For an audio file of the song as I had it in my head, go to America's Story.

This is my 4th screenplay. For others, see index.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Coyote vs. Roadrunner: Lessons for Screenwriting

Everything I know about character development I learned by watching Roadrunner cartoons.

Each character -- Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner – have their own motivations and obey their own distinct rules of behavior. Chuck Jones defined some of these rules when the cartoon was created.
  • The Roadrunner just wants to run down the highway. He won’t do anything aggressive to the coyote except by saying “Beep, Beep!”
  • The Coyote just wants to catch the Roadrunner. Unable to do it by speed alone, he calls on his wits and the products of the Acme Corporation to try to achieve his goal. He is ultimately defeated by his own intentions, thwarted by forces he doesn’t understand (physics, the Roadrunner).
When these characters interact, it is the purest form of what I call "existential story conflict" or "existential filmmaking."

Existential story conflict works like this: A protagonist with obvious goals (the Coyote) does his clever best to achieve these goals (through the use of Acme products) but he is thwarted by mysterious forces he doesn't understand (the Roadrunner and the laws of physics). Eventually, however, he does understand them (by experiencing the painful effects of his scheme).

In the cartoons, there is no character change. The Coyote "learns his lesson" by receiving the bad effects of his scheme, but he doesn't learn anything in the long term. In more complex films, the protagonist does change, by learning about both himself and his opponent.

An existential story is a voyage of discovery, driven by the protagonist's simple goal. The mysterious force is explored, and eventually the roots of its behavior are uncovered.

The whole story is based on a simple principle: the motivations of a character, while plain to them, may not be obvious to someone else. The other person has to discover these motivations by a series of experiments, which is what makes up the bulk of the story.

  • In 2001, the astronaut Dave is the obviously motivated protagonist. He just wants to complete his mission. Hal 9000 is the mysterious force: He seems to want to kill Dave and his colleagues. When Hal sings "Daisy", we learn something about Hal's motivations: That he isn't just a killer computer but something of a grown-up child like the rest of us.
  • In Barton Fink, the title-named protagonist just wants to write a screenplay. His salesman neighbor seems to just want to help, but he turns out to be a mysterious force with more sinister motivations. The resolution comes when those sinister motivations are revealed.
  • In the Truman Show, Truman is the innocent protagonist, just trying to make sense of life. The mysterious force he is trying to understand is the TV show that has been created all around him. Eventually, he comes to understand that it is a TV show, and this allows his escape.
All of the great existential films are like this: A simple protagonist we can identify with is trying to make sense of mysterious forces. Those mysterious forces are eventually understood and turn out to be just as simple as the protagonist.

All these stories are essentially the same as Coyote vs. Roadrunner (or more precisely, Coyote vs. the World). The protagonist has simple motivations that power the course of the whole story. (Most of the running time of cartoons consist of the Coyote assembling his Acme devices.) The substance of the film is how the Coyote sets out to get the Roadrunner, but the surprise is how the opposing forces have different plans. The resolution comes when the Coyote eventually grasps the opposing forces -- usually by being whacked on the head by them!

Glenn's Best Relationship Photos

My best relationship photos are found on Facebook: temporary album, permanent album

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Renaissance Faire Photos: Escondido 2007

I am stunned by the quality of some of my own Renaissance Faire photos from about a year ago. Here are some photos from just one of the three I have attended, the Escondido Renaissance Faire in California in April 2007.

A selected album is available on Facebook: Escondido Renaissance Faire, April 2007

The complete albums of 100s of photos from this event are available on RoamingPhotos: Day 2, Day 4

Many more Renaissance Faire photos are found at

Baby's First Screenplays

Inspired by a filmmaker friend, I have written three short screenplays, just as an exercise. They're my first screenplays ever! (So there are bound to be some rough spots.)
  1. Gunderson Road. A vulture in the Mojave Desert encounters a curious sight. (My friend points out that I have given far too much camera direction.) There is a bit of an Area 51 connection to this one. The protagonist of the film is shown above. (6/25/08)
  2. Soul Ascension. Two missionaries prowl a suburban neighborhood for converts, only to become prey themselves. My favorite of the three! (6/29/08)
  3. Natasha. This is the first few minutes of a hypothetical full-length movie about a Soviet superheroine. (7/5/08)
Not bad for a beginner! I read a book on screenwriting once but never actually wrote a screenplay before. For the format, I just copied my friend's screenplays.

NOTE: For later screenplays, see here.

Best Song of All Time: "Houdini's Box" by Jill Sobule

My favorite song of all time is "Houdini's Box" by Jill Sobule. It is rather obscure, and I have never heard it played on the radio. You can listen to it for free on Rhapsody on their Jill Sobule page.

To me it's the perfect mix: simple voice, simple & compelling imagery, just enough accompaniment. What is the song about? I have no idea, but that's exactly the point: It's little mystery that you get something more out of every time you listen to it -- like all great songs.

The important elements of the lyrics --
  • Powerful
  • Ambiguous
  • Symbolic
  • Dangerous
The "danger" comes in the idea of being locked in a box underwater. It is a metaphor for drowning in a relationship. I think ALL great songs have this element of existential danger to them.

It resembles another favorite song of mine, "Hotel California" by the Eagles. What is the song about? Who the hell knows, but the imagery is so compelling that we try to figure it out every time. The song work and lasts forever because the mystery is both compelling and unsolvable. (The last thing we would want is for the songwriter to tell us what he was thinking when he wrote it; that would totally spoil the illusion.)

Sobule's song, I imagine, started with the words "Houdini's Box" and was built from there. It doesn't really have to "say" anything; it just has to leave you with haunting questions.

The ending is perfect, the way it leaves you hanging.

I've tried listening to Jill Sobule's other songs, but none can compare to this. The others, I think, get too wordy and specific; they don't remain lyrical and symbolic like this one. She's got a fantastically subtle voice, but she's just not putting it to good use.

What she needs is a good concept editor.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Gay Divorce

Relevant to yesterday's "Ban Gay Marriage" posting, here is an article in today's LA Times on Gay Divorce...

'They've given us no choice but to be married forever,' says a Rhode Island woman. Her state doesn't recognize gay marriage, and the state where she was wed limits divorces to residents.
(Los Angeles Times, 7/25/08. By Sue Horton. Keywords: same-sex marriage)

Sound Experiments

I haven't done much with sound editing, but I'd like to. As proof of the concept, here are two "sound experiments" I did for Family Court about two years ago. They demonstrate the capabilities of the Sony Sound Studio software I was using. Each is a little "song" of sorts lasting about a minute.

The first clip plays in the background of this page...

It demonstrates the cutting and pasting of sound clips. Be sure to click on the "backwards" link for the alternate version.

The second clip is a little story playing in the background of this page...

This was concocted entirely in the "studio" using background noises provided with the software.

One of my favorite jobs in the movie biz is "Foley artist" -- the person who provides the various environmental sounds of a movie.

BAN GAY MARRIAGE (Heterosexual marriage, too!)

MOVED! This entry was reformatted as a new blog entry on March 3, 2010

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Christopher Lasch Quotes

Found some pithy quotes on consumerism from Christopher Lasch, the guy who wrote about narcissism in American society. Here's the link:

Here are the best quotes:
"A child's appetite for new toys appeal to the desire for ownership and appropriation: the appeal of toys comes to lie not in their use but in their status as possessions."

"It is advertising and the logic of consumerism that governs the depiction of reality in the mass media."

Nothing succeeds like the appearance of success."

"The effect of the mass media is not to elicit belief but to maintain the apparatus of addiction."

The model of ownership, in a society organized round mass consumption, is addiction."

"Drugs are merely the most obvious form of addiction in our society."

In our society, daily experience teaches the individual to want and need a never-ending supply of new toys and drugs."

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Glenn's Newsletter Career

Before I started this blog, I was the insanely productive author of an endless series of newsletters. The quality was fantastic (if I do say), but I never made any money from them. Here are the major ones:

  1. Kilroy Cafe -- My current essay space, combining the best aspects of the Family Court newsletter and Philosophy Notes. This is the only newsletter that's still active (apart from this blog). (Currently 17 issues.)
  2. The Family Court Chronicles Newsletter -- My report on issues at Family Court in Las Vegas (2005-2008), now suspended. Never really took off. Great quality, no readers. (46 issues)
  3. Philosophy Notes -- My series of philosophy essays, each written in a day or less. I regarded it mainly as a practice area. There are some gems here that I'm still proud of. No readers to speak of. (110 issues)
  4. The Groom Lake Desert Rat -- written at the dawn of the internet era (1993-1997). Once had a huge following via email. It was a uniting factor in the Area 51 movement. (38 issues)
  5. Ufomind Mailing List -- One of the Area 51-related mailing lists I moderated in the 1990s (1997-1999), including some newsletter-like postings. This filled in the gap after the Desert Rat stopped.

Along the way, there were all sorts of mailing lists and short-lived newsletters, many of them now lost to history. The printed satirical newsletter is the sort of thing I've been doing since I was a teen, back when I was working with a typewriter.

Books I've Never Finished

Here's an impressive inventory of Books I've Never Finished:
  1. I Was Abducted by Aliens at Area 51
  2. The Case Against Marriage
  3. The Superhero Handbook
I also once started a "Skeptic's Guide to Las Vegas." I had a real literary agent, and the project was considered by some major publishers. They liked the writing but came to this conclusion: Who would want to buy a book that disses the place you plan to visit?

I also wrote several chapters in a practical guide to divorce, in partnership with a Family Court insider, but the project died when my co-author lost interest.

Let Me Drive Your Car (Do You Dare?)

The date of my airline furlough is fast approaching (Sept. 6). I get to fly free for the next three years, but I'll be out of a job.

I've been trying to think of ways to make money with my flight benefits without breaking any rules. (I need just a small income to survive.) Here's one idea that I just created a website for:

For $500, I'll drive your car, pickup, van or RV anywhere in the country. I can undercut anyone else because my return trip is free. The site is already listed on Google, but not ranked high. I've had some nibbles but no firm sales yet.

Any other ideas (short of drug running)? Email me.

Photos of Nephews

Check out the nephews. Ain't they cute? Better than all the photos of London, I think.

More photos on Facebook: Nephews in Pool (54 photos)

Photos from Bleary London

Outside Victoria Station.
A local I got to know in Victoria Station. (Sunflower seeds helped!)
Dr. Who's conveyance.
The Thames at dawn.

I can report from a recent visit to London that it's pretty much the same in July as it is in January: bleak, drizzly, with only a bit more light and warmth. And--boy!--they sure make you pay for the privilege of being misterable: the equivalent of $5 for a bottle of water, $2 for the cheapest thing on McDonald's menu, $20 for a one-way ticket on the slow train from the airport. (The only bargain was $7 for an all-day bus pass.)

More photos from London: Facebook or RoamingPhotos.

The Root of Kilroy?

Not that I'm confirming or denying that it has any meaning, but I came across the above establishment a few months ago in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Is it the "Rosebud" that somehow explains "Kilroy Cafe"? We report, you decide.

Here's some more photos from the St. John: January 08 (, May 08 (Facebook)

New Blog for Family Court

I got a little blog-crazy and created a whole new blog for Family Court in Las Vegas. I've been out of the game for a few months now (having mothballed and was suffering withdrawal symptoms. The new blog is here:

Just creating the blog and the introduction was exhausting enough. Only time will tell whether I have the energy to keep it up.

UPDATE 7/24/08: I decided to kill the blog before making any significant postings. I would be spreading myself too thin. Family Court will have to get along without me.

Monday, July 21, 2008

So You're Having an Existential Crisis (Kilroy #17)

The latest Kilroy Cafe newsletter has just been released:

So You're Having an Existential Crisis (Welcome to the Club!)

The printable newsletter is found at the link above (PDF and GIF) but the full text is also below.

You are free to post this newsletter to your own website or blog as a GIF file (See restrictions.) and you can use the comment button below to comment on it.

So you're having an
(Welcome to the Club)


So you're having an existential crisis. You've been looking in the mirror and asking yourself "Who am I?" Due, no doubt, to an unfortunate series of events, you now find yourself at a personal crossroads and don't know which way to go.

It's nothing to be ashamed of. Millions are suffering from the same disorder. Unfortunately, society doesn't offer much sympathy or support. "Don't you know who you are?" people seem to say. "Are you some kind of dummy?"

But you're no dummy. Just recognizing the existence of a crisis is evidence of your intelligence. Most people coast through life playing simple-minded roles: fireman, fashion model, soldier, mommy. You at least have the presence of mind to know you have a choice and that none of the available roles quite fit.

An existential crisis is sometimes known as a "mid-life crisis." You recognize in a panic that your life is half over and that most of the things you intended to accomplish aren't happening. That's when middle aged men dump their wives for younger girlfriends and invest in the proverbial red sports car. Alas, it rarely solves the problem.

Turns out, a mid-life crisis can happen at any stage of life, and the earlier you start having them the better. There's nothing wrong, in fact, with being in continuous existential crisis from the age of 14 until you die. All of us are facing a deadline, and none of us can afford to waste much time.

Not knowing what to do with ourselves is an inherent condition of life. Things are easier when we have no choice-when our career, relationships and goals have all been arranged for us by others. Once we recognize our ability to choose, we start to fret about it and wonder if we are accomplishing all we are capable of.

The pain is numbed when we fall into a role and it is reasonably successful. Someone playing the role of "doctor" or "corporate executive" doesn't usually think much about where his life is going because the role itself takes up so much time. It is mainly when we are unsuccessful in our chosen pursuits that a crisis emerges.

And thank God for that! Our most important and potentially rewarding decisions are prompted by failure. Had you been successful in your original plan, you would have continued along a fairly bland straight-line track. Failure forces you to make a bold departure. It is riskier than the straight-line route, but the potential is also greater.

So what should that departure be? In the midst of a crisis, everything is on the table. Should you chuck it all and join the Peace Corps? Should you change your sexual orientation or even your whole gender? (Chop, chop, snip, snip!) Or should you just quit the game altogether, opting for a clean or messy suicide? (A plea from the living: Please don't be messy.)

While it is useful to think about all the theoretical options, your practical choices are much more limited. You're not going to get a sex change, and it would be silly to check out. It would also be unwise to completely change your career. If you are already a doctor, it doesn't make much sense to try to become a lawyer. It is just too costly to start over from scratch.

Listen up because this is the important part: You've got to stick with what you know and what you're already good it.

Okay, your life up to present may have been an abject failure, but you've still built up certain skills and assets, and you shouldn't abandon them lightly. In a crisis, there is often a temptation to completely discard the past and start over in an entirely new field. Unfortunately, you're probably a babe in this field and are competing against those who grew up there and are much better at it than you are.

The first step to resolving your existential crisis is making a cool, objective inventory of your assets. For example, there are things you have been doing since your earliest consciousness--singing, writing, drawing, etc. These skills are part of your nervous system, so it is senseless to try to purge them. You need to be working with your native skills, not against them.

The solution to your crisis lies not in radical change but in rediscovering to your roots. What do you do well? What are you already set up for? What product comes out of you effortlessly? It is easy to devalue your native skills because they come so easily to you, but in the context of society, they are still remarkable and shouldn't be dismissed.

Once you complete an honest inventory, an existential crisis usually resolves itself. There are things you can do with your current resources and opportunities and things you can't. Obviously, you are going to focus on what is doable right now.

You don't need to know where your whole life is going to make adequate decisions for the moment. You just look at the real opportunities in front of you and choose the one that's most consistent with your past and your core abilities.

Just work with what you have.

-G .C.

NOTE: We later republished this entry in Nov. 2011.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Mindless Entertainment Wasting our Planet (Kilroy #16)

The latest Kilroy Cafe newsletter has just been released:

Mindless Entertainment Wasting our Planet

There is an evil upon this land. It is a parasitic force draining our society of life. It seduces our young people into slavery. It clouds the mind and prevents the individual from accomplishing anything near what he is capable of. It takes whatever it can get from us and gives back nothing.

Entertainment. It's the scourge of humanity.
See entire text in a later blog entry.

Bush Tours Devastation of his Presidency

Another disturbing news video from The Onion. (3 minutes)

Bush Tours America To Survey Damage Caused By His Disastrous Presidency

Miley Cyrus Will Be Depleted by 2013!

This disturbing 2-minute video was referred to us by Miss Model Behavior. We didn't realize the situation was so dire!

This video provided some of the inspiration for our latest Kilroy newsletter (to be released in a couple of hours).

Note the featured expert, Dr. Justin Canty of the Institute for Sustainable Cyrus Use. He's a dead ringer for our late Interceptor friend, the Ayatollah.

Entertainment Scientists Warn Miley Cyrus Will Be Depleted by 2013

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Gypsy Camping

As an airline employee (and soon to be furloughed airline employee—even better!), I get to fly throughout Europe and North America for free (or nearly free). The only trouble, as an airline employee, is that I have almost no money once I get there. Public transportation and youth hostels play a big part in my travel plan. But what do I do when there is no hostel or other cheap lodging nearby? Gypsy camping!
Above is my lodging on the outskirts of Huesca, Spain (May 2008). Total rent for this space: €0 ($0). I just walked along the railroad tracks from the Huesca train station 'til I hit a reasonably discrete location (only about a km from the station). The temperature was perfect! There were a few mosquitoes, but nothing serious and a small price to pay for the free lodging. The only noteable downside: I was attacked!
That's right: slimed by snails! It was a bag I bought for $2 at a garage sale, so the damage was bearable. (Thank GOD I didn't bring my Gucci bag!)
On the same vacation (my allocated two weeks off at the airline), I found myself in the tropical paradise of St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands. (See photo at the top of this post.) I slept on the beach!
Efficient Gypsies have to adapt to the landscape they are traveling in. In Spain, I traveled with a sleeping bag but no tent, knowing that keeping warm would be the main issue. In the Caribbean, I travel with a tent but no sleeping bag. There, the issue is rain and insects, while all you need to fight the "chill" is a thin blanket stolen from the airplane. On the beach (an isolated one you have to hike to), the sand provides the only mattress you need. In the evening, under the moonlight, I bathed in the ocean (perfect bathwater temperature) using camping soap that works in salt water. This was the tragic scene out my window when I woke up....
It's quite illegal, of course. Most of St. John is a U.S. National Park, and you are supposed to camp in designated campgrounds. In the morning, I failed to break camp at dawn, and a park ranger caught me! She took down my name and admonished me not to do it again. Next time I'm nabbed, I imagine I'll get a ticket, so I've scoped out this new camping spot in the woods just above the beach...
There's little chance of discovery here, but I'd probably want an air mattress.
More photos on Facebook (log-in rqd): St. John, Huesca Spain.
More Spain photos coming soon on