The Craft of Screenwriting

PODCAST - Second Challenge Check-In

The Final Challenge Check-In!

By Jacob Krueger

The 2017 Screenwriting Challenge!

This article was taken from our vault.  If you want to know the latest classes that are offered at the studio you can see them here.

For this final 2017 Screenwriting Challenge check-in, and before we get back to our regular program of breaking down movies, I want to talk about what to do with the many pages you’ve now generated, and how to keep your rhythm going once the screenwriting challenge is over.

Last week, we talked about the Aum Humaniversity meditation I experienced during my retreat here in Thailand. As promised, this podcast will end with a new 12 step writing exercise, based on that meditation.

As we discussed last week, great writing begins with getting your vulnerabilities out on the page– the parts of you that you don’t normally express, the truths that you don’t normally look at, the characters that exist inside you: both the beautiful ones that you want to share with the world, and also the ones that scare or disgust you, who often represent parts of you that you don’t want to believe are possible, or that you’d never express in the outside world.

That doesn’t mean that you are your characters. It means that you contain them. Some, in a form that is already integrated into your personality, and others in a form that is not integrated, or not expressed.

Meditation experts talk about breath as a waveform, a symbol of the polarity of life– the inhale and the exhale, the positive and the negative, the good and the bad, the yin and the yang, the dark and the light.

And I’d like to suggest to you to think of writing as a waveform as well.

In our Western society, we are taught to push out the negative, to judge it, to blame it, to feel guilty about it. But Eastern thought views it in a different way: as a natural part of that waveform, existing as a balance.

To put it in a simple way: whatever you (or your characters) are expressing in the world, the opposite also exists in you (and them), in equal proportion, whether it is expressed or not.

It is actually the existence of this polarity that makes structure possible. Because it is the existence of this polarity that makes change possible.

Neither you nor your characters are fixed entities. You’re not just one way. We are constantly changing. Breathing in and breathing out.  

Think about who you were in high school. Then think of who you are now. Think about the vast difference between those two characters.

Yet we don’t think about ourselves as constantly changing. We think about ourselves as fixed entities. I am this. Or I am that. And we often think of our characters in the same way.

In classic television– if you think back to shows like Seinfeld or The Golden Girls, that was necessary.

Back then, shows were distributed in a serialized form, where characters never changed. The distribution model meant that the real money was made in reruns which often came out of order. An audience needed to be able to see Episode 3 of Seinfeld and then episode 125 of Seinfeld and still feel like Jerry Seinfeld was Jerry Seinfeld. So structure had to grow from a different place– from the situation in which you put these static characters. (That’s where the word sit-com comes from situation comedy).

But if you think about most of the greatest feature films, you’ll see that the characters are not static. That they change in tremendous ways.

Today, even in TV and Web Series, we’ve seen a shift to this kind of structure emerge, and with it a renaissance in television and web series writing.

This shift was fueled not only by the bold choices of showrunners on great shows like The Wire, or Breaking Bad or Arrested Development but also by a change in the business model of television, as studios and networks switched from a serialized distribution model, where reruns were watched in random order, to a Video on Demand model, where shows were binge watched from start to finish.

Because of the episodic quality of TV series and the different structural demands that come with it, the way that a character changes structurally in TV and Web Series will likely always be different from feature films. But nevertheless, the concept is the same. The most powerful form of the structure comes from a character, who just like us, believes themselves to be a static, very specific kind of person, who then through a huge change in which an unexpressed part of their own polarity comes to light and is integrated into their being.

This could be a beautiful expression of a repressed capacity for love like we see in Jack Nicholson’s character in As Good As It Gets.  Or it could be an expression of repressed darkness, like a good man’s capacity for selfishness and violence that we see in Walter White’s character in Breaking Bad.

It doesn’t matter whether the change is positive, or negative. It is the capacity for change (or even refusal to change in the light of that capacity) that draws us into these characters’ journeys. Because it is that capacity that sheds light on our own capacity to change.

This is the one thing we all have in common. We all want to change.

And that desire is a natural expression of the polarity in all of us. The desire to be fully ourselves. To integrate both the inhale and the exhale. The dark and the light sides of our nature.

Or, as Jung might put it, to tap into the Collective Unconscious in order to become more fully ourselves. To tap into the entirety of the universe that exists somewhere within us, in order to experience the parts of us that we didn’t know, or didn’t want to know existed.

When we see Walter White on our TV screens, there’s a part of us that identifies with him: that says “that’s me up there.”

That doesn’t mean that we agree with Walter White’s actions or would ever purposely emulate him. It means that by stripping off his mask, and allowing the unexpressed parts of Walter White to show themselves (or maybe better said, through the bravery of the writer, Vince Gilligan, to expose those parts of himself through Walter White), we also allow the audience to experience and make sense of that repressed part of themselves.

The Greeks called this Catharsis. The feeling of relief that we experience when identifying with another’s tragedy (or comedy) and going through it with them. When we stop seeing others as so different from us and start realizing that we are all the same. To acknowledge, as Walt Whitman wrote “I am large. I contain multitudes.”

The goal of meditation, in many traditions, is to transcend that polarity. To open the 7th chakra. To connect to the spiritual plane.

But that transcendence doesn’t come through repressing the polarity, it comes from integrating it.

From focusing on both sides of the breath. By allowing all the different kinds of thoughts in our minds to pass by us, without judgment or repression, and also without identifying with them. Without saying “that’s me.”

By keeping focused on the breath and the breath alone, both the inhale and the exhale, until those warring thoughts within us become integrated, and we find a transcendent place of peace.

And the goal of writing in many ways is the same. To enter a Meditative State, in which we can strip off our masks, and connect to both sides of our own polarity– the many different and conflicting and downright contradictory characters and emotions that exist inside of us.

To blow life into them and put them onto the page, without judgment or repression. But also without identifying with them. Allowing them to make the choices that they would make, not the ones that we would make. Allowing them to change, and suffer, and change, and flourish, in ways that we dare not to do ourselves.

To keep digging and digging until the unexpressed parts of those characters also come into view on the page. To keep putting them in situations where they have to make big choices, until they have no choice but integrate those repressed parts of themselves. Until they have no choice but change.

In meditation, the point of focus that carries us through the swirl of painful and contradictory thoughts is the breath. The inhale and the exhale.

In writing, the point of focus is the want: the one thing the character wants more than anything in the world.

It is the choices the character makes in pursuit of that want that will become, organically, the structure of our movie. And it is the focus on that want that will help us navigate through the maelstrom of our own thoughts, and the well-meaning advice of so many other people, that threaten to disrupt us as we navigate our character’s journeys.

At the studio, we teach this concept by breaking down writing into three different approaches.

Most of our students begin in my Write Your Screenplay class, where we learn to find our structure organically, by connecting to the character’s wants, and using them to guide our structure. Building a dance between the conscious and subconscious parts of the writing process.

Once those core skills of voice and structure are developed, in our Write Your Screenplay – Level 2 classes, we focus on building the technical, craft skills necessary to shape that raw material into a form as powerful for the audience and producer as it is for the writer.

And finally, in our Screenwriting and Meditative Master Classes and our ProTrack mentorship program, we focus on integrating all three approaches: the art, craft, and structure of writing.

But it’s vital to understand that until you’re able to get that raw material truthfully onto the page, to tap into your characters, and your instincts, your character’s want, your “breath” as a writer, none of these other ideas that you read about are going to help you. They’re just going to be more thoughts– blowing you in all different directions. Building a thicker and thicker mask around your writing, when really what you’re trying to do is to take that mask off.

That is the goal of the challenge. To build some of that raw material, that you can then begin shaping. So start by looking at your pages, and don’t look for what’s good, look for what feels true. Look for the moments that create an emotional reaction in you (even if that reaction is disgust or shame). And trust that this is your most powerful stuff.

Then start digging. If you’ve gotten to know your character’s “inhale” ask yourself “what is the exhale?” What’s the part of their polarity that they are not expressing. What would it take for them to make a different kind of choice?

Look for the things that don’t make sense. The parts of them that feel true, but don’t fit with the rest of what you wrote. To an untrained eye, these might look like problems that need to be fixed. But great writers know that this is actually the point of entry– the doorway to the other side of your character’s polarity. The other side of the mask. The other side of the wave.

Finally, focus on your character’s want. You can do this consciously, by noticing the pragmatic things they are pursuing in the world. Or you can do it meditatively, by focusing on the primal emotional needs– the feelings that drive those characters.

So what do you do when you’re writing– but you still don’t feel like you’re getting that true part of you or your characters onto the page?

What do you do when the writing feels dissociated or disconnected or cliche or too writerly?

First, recognize that this is normal. Nobody is connected all the time, in writing or in anything else. No one’s mask is off all the time. So look for the moments where the mask comes down, and see if you can build from there. Usually, the answers you need to connect are already on the page. And if you’re not seeing them yourself yet, a good teacher can help you find them.

Second, one of the ways you can connect to your characters is by working on taking down your own mask. Finding new ways to look inside and discover the parts of you where your characters reside. Recognize that strong, often extreme, emotions may arise when you do this– emotions you don’t normally express in the real world. And that these emotions may manifest as a judgment of your writing.

Resist that trap. Great writing doesn’t come from judgment, it comes from openness to all the different parts of yourself.

Which brings us to the AUM Humaniversity meditation which I talked about last week.

As I mentioned, the goal of this 12 step meditation is to strip off the acceptable masks that we wear, and embrace the emotions that we normally fear or judge– the emotions that make us vulnerable or might lead others to make negative judgments about us. The goal is to strip off our masks as a group and express those emotions together, in a safe environment where everyone else is doing the same thing.

I found it so helpful personally that I wanted to share it with you. So I adapted this meditation into a special 12 step writing exercise. If you have 3-4 hours, and want the most powerful effect, you can do this all in one day. Or you can spread it over 12 writing days.

Each step corresponds to another repressed emotion. I’ll briefly describe the idea as used in the meditation, and then describe how you can use the concept in a writing exercise.

You can do this exercise either in the voice of a character or in your own voice if you want to work on these emotions in yourself. Either way will be hugely beneficial. But don’t mix and match characters.  Stay with one character for the entire duration of the exercise.

What you will need:

  • A timer
  • A pen and paper or a laptop
  • A voice recorder or voice recording app for your cell phone
  • 12 minutes of music that inspires you (have your playlist cued up and ready to go). And if you’ve got a great playlist you can also go to our Facebook page and share it there, so others can experience your 12 great minutes of inspiring writing music!
  • If you wish, you can also prepare a playlist for each step, if you feel that music will help you. Each playlist should be 12 minutes long, except for step 3 which will be 36 minutes. Read through the steps first so you can find the right kind of music for each step.

Please note that this is quite an intense meditative exercise, so please do it in a safe place, and at a time when you don’t have to rush out and do something else immediately after– when it’s okay to sit with the emotion.


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