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Dispatch from The Quest: Scott Reynolds

Last week as we did here on GITS, the Quest writers focused on the subject of style. As the screenwriting principle we started with is Style = Voice, the Questers spent a lot of time thinking about the importance of determining what their voice is in relation to the stories they write. Today: Scott Reynolds does some thinking about the characters in his story and the improv work he’s doing:

I know this week the Quest was focused on style and narrative voice, but I found myself stuck in the land of my characters. They’re starting to take form and become more complete people, and that’s an exciting time for me.

I’ve always considered myself very character-centric in my writing, but in the last few weeks I’ve come to see that the truth is I don’t spend enough time on character, and I rely heavily on my ability to deliver situationally funny scenes that give the illusion of complete characters.

This is an area where I’m finding myself crossing the improv and screenwriting streams.

One of the things I’ve been focusing on more in my improv work is making character choices. Usually I go out there and rely on my ability to make a situation funny. Sound familiar? It should. That’s the thing I said like five lines up.

A lot of times in improv you’ll want to come into a scene with a character choice. Maybe it’s a whole character. Maybe it’s a point of view. Or an accent. Or an action. Or even a social status relative to your scene partner. The purpose of making a character choice, no mater how fully formed, is to give you a jumping off point from which to make decisions. If you step off the back line in some sort of character, then you start thinking in terms of “what would my character do next?” rather than “what funny thing can I say?”.

It works amazingly. In fact, if you have a pretty complete character coming into a scene, it almost feels like cheating. Like you don’t even have to try. The next move just comes easily. The reactions just come naturally. You barely have to think.

The same is true in…pretty much every form of fiction. The more complete your characters are as people, the easier it is to write their words and actions. You are less hung up on “can I say this?” and “should I write that?” and it just becomes “what would this character do and say in this situation?”

With fully-formed characters, the world seems natural. With less-well-formed characters, dialogue and action seem forced. It holds true for every genre. Even blockbuster action movies.

Think of Die Hard. Every single thing John McClane does and says comes off as exactly what it seems like he should say and do. And things that ONLY he would say and do. Never a question.

Contrast that to, say, the Expendables. Every line of dialogue, every action taken by any character in that movie, could have come from any other cookie-cutter action hero in any other cookie-cutter action flick. Doesn’t mean the movie isn’t fun to watch when you’re in the mood to see some shit blow up, but nobody would ever accuse the Expendables of having memorable characters. Well, nobody I hang out with, anyway.

So back to improv. Here’s what I’ve decided to start doing. It’s just an experiment to help me play with my characters and learn who they are. I’m going to start making an effort to put myself into one of my screenplay’s characters every time I step off the back line to do a scene. I’m going to play the scenes from their points of view. How would they react in this situation? What would they say?

This could be a really fun and interesting way to really get to know my characters AND step up my improv game at the same time.

Or it could totally suck and backfire.

I’ll keep you posted.

This is a great idea and in fact akin to writing exercises I put together as part of Prep: From Concept to Outline workshop: character monologues, interviews, spontaneous typing. In fact recently I encouraged one of my private Quest clients to go on a ‘date’ with one of her characters. Know what? It worked! Scott’s instinct to improv taking on the persona of his story’s characters is a terrific one. But if you can’t join an improv group, there’s no reason you can’t get ‘improvisational’ with your characters through writing exercises.

About Scott: Brooklyn based writer and comedian who bailed on software to focus on writing words that humans could read. Twitter: @scottadhoc.

Dispatch from The Quest: Scott Reynolds

Last week as we did here on GITS, the Quest writers focused on the subject of character. That seemed to have put them in an especially reflective mood as most of them used their journal entries to ponder where they were in the process of learning the craft of screenwriting. We continue this week’s series of dispatches with some musings from Scott Reynolds about a writer’s inevitable nemesis — time:

The Rolling Stones are a bunch of liars.

Let’s examine the facts: Wild Horses could almost certainly drag Mick Jagger away from anything. He’s not that big. Mother was more into the drink than little yellow pills. And Time is most definitely NOT on my side. No it’s not.

If we take it on face value that we’re the protagonists of our life’s story, then Time is the nemesis, the trickster, and if you’re smart, also the mentor.

You’ve heard the advice “dress for the job you want, not the job you have”. I propose a corollary: “make time for the job you want, not the job you have”.

These first couple of weeks of the Quest have been, in a word, brutal. Not because of the Quest itself, but just everything else I had on my plate. I already had things scheduled that I couldn’t get out of: stand up shows, storytelling, improv shows, other writing assignments…the list goes on. On top of that I picked up a new client and had more work than I’d planned for. By the middle of this week I was frazzled and realized I hadn’t kept up with my Quest responsibilities and I was way behind the curve on my screenwriting goals for the week. I had to punish myself to catch up.

If I don’t get some shelter, oh yeah, I’m gonna fade away.

I’m willing to bet that the vast majority of you out there are like me: you do something else for money, but you want to do screenwriting. You want it bad. You want it more than anything.

Make time for the job you want.

After I came to the realization that my schedule was unsustainable, I started looking for places to trim. I am a huge fan of having many irons in the fire, and exploring every avenue of the thing you want to pursue, but there’s also a practical limit. So I sat down with a bag of molasses cookies and wrote down all the projects I’m involved in and figured out how much time I could allocate to each, and ranked them in order of priority. I ranked the script (and the Quest) at the top. Paid work second. It went on from there. Then I just cut the bottom three altogether. I can pick them back up when the script is done.

I also finished the whole bag of molasses cookies. Oh, brown sugar, why do you taste so good?

Time. It’s not on my side. It’s a great nemesis though. A nemesis should be unbeatable — no mere antagonist, but an unstoppable force and an immovable object wrapped in a riddle and sautéed with garlic and bacon. The protagonist should be an underdog. That is what makes the fight hard and the victory sweet. No strife, no story.

Okay. You can’t beat Time outright (unless you’re Keith Richards, maybe), but you can outsmart it. Usually I find that when I want more time, what I really need is more focus. And in this respect, the Stones got it right.

Can’t always get what you want. But if you try, you might find you’ll get what you need.

You may think you don’t have enough time to write, but as Scott suggests, if you take a good, hard look at your schedule and your priorities, well… let’s have Mick and the boys lay a lil’ truth on us:

What about you? How do you handle time management when it comes to your writing? Any tips you’d like to share with your fellow writers? If you do or you have some comments for Scott, I’ll see you in comments to carry on the conversation.

Tomorrow: Another dispatch from The Quest.

About Scott: Brooklyn based writer and comedian who bailed on software to focus on writing words that humans could read. Twitter: @scottadhoc

Dispatch from “The Quest”: Concepts (Part 1)

Last week, our focus in “The Quest” was concept. The Questers had some great reflections on the subject in their script journals which I will share with you over the next three days. Today: Emma Millions and Scott Reynolds.

Emma Millions

Today I will be doing some thinking. Just thinking. Sitting round thinking. Lying down thinking. Walking round thinking. Having a bit of a dance and thinking. I’m full on in the thinking phase which is, probably, my favourite phase. I’m good at it. I can disappear fully into a good think that lasts for weeks. Sometimes I find that I have gone to the shops, bought my weekly food supply and come back home with no memory of doing it. I’ve been on auto pilot for the real world stuff while I hung out inside my head thinking. I used to panic that I was doing too much thinking and not enough writing when I started a project, especially if deadlines loomed and everything was still just a big lump of thoughts in my head and nothing on paper. But then I learnt to ‘trust the process’ and that doing a bit of thinking is not procrastination or just being a bit lazy. It’s essential to writing a good script. And being on The Quest has given me lots of great things to think about. Not just things specific to my idea but things about writing scripts in general. Interesting things that other Questers have thought. Links to good stuff online to add into the mix of thoughts. During this phase I like to fill my head with as much material as possible – real-life news stories, overheard conversations, writing theories, inspirational movies and scripts, TV shows, weird stuff that you find intriguing and have no idea why or if its even relevant – anything that might help me create the world of my idea and form it into a cohesive story. Then you just let all that stuff mill about in there, jumbling around, stewing and, lo and behold, at some point you find yourself ready to get it out of your head and on to the page. Like a great big creative vomit.

A clip from The Big Bang Theory about thinking which I think is spot on…

Scott Reynolds

This week is all about concept and ideas so I thought I’d talk a little about how I generate ideas.

You always need tons of ideas whether you’re writing a script or a sketch or a stand-up routine or a business plan. You need ideas for plots, scenes, characters, jokes, one-liners, dialogue, beats, runners, everything.

Not only do you need a lot of ideas, but you need the best ones. Not the obvious ones or the easiest ones, but the smartest most clever most funny ones. Piece of cake, right?

So you sit and think. And surf the web. And tap your pen on the pad. And you lay down on the floor tossing a soccer ball up in the air. And tap your pen on your forehead. And pace around talking to yourself. And jab your pen into your eye just a little, just so you know you’re still in there. Oh, that’s just me?

Point is, if you focus on finding those few great ideas, you almost never will. That’s because there’s a little sadistic asshole living inside your brain that wants to make sure you know that none of your ideas are good enough, and if you start from a standpoint of ideas as scarce resources, he wins.

I don’t know about you, but I have no control over this guy, so the only thing I can do to get him to shut up is drown him in ideas so he can’t possibly keep up.

I’ll run “idea sprints”. They take a couple of different forms depending on what I’m trying to generate ideas for (script/stand up routine/etc) but the basic gist is this. I give myself X minutes to generate Y ideas.

For instance: just a few minutes ago I completed an idea sprint for a sketch show I’m writing. I needed 5 sketch ideas for a full half-hour show. The little jerk in my brain was like “you know they have to be amazing sketches, right? It can’t just be whatever you come up with first. It has to be really good, or your show will never get a run. So, you know, good luck with that. I’ll be waiting. To shoot down your ideas. Because they’re awful. And you’re stupid. And gaining weight.”

In the olden days, I’d have listened to him, and given up, and played a video game or live-tweeted the Olympics or something. Instead, I drowned him in a flood of ideas.

I needed 5 ideas. So I gave myself 10 minutes to come up with 50. Ready….GO!

What this exercise does is it forces you to just generate ideas like a machine, without evaluating them. The first couple out on the page, the little guys is like “yeah I got this, come at me bro!” but once you get into the flow he can’t keep up and you’re free to just generate ideas. You know that in 10 minutes there’s no way you could come up with 50 pieces of solid gold, so you don’t bother worrying about it. All you need to do is hit that number with as many half-formed, poorly worded proto-ideas as possible in the allotted time.

When you’re done, the little critic gets to take over and look at the list. He’s probably surprised how many of the ideas are good. Or have a tiny nugget of good in them. Like Darth Vader.

Another fun game for silencing the inner critic is to just fill a page of a notebook with whatever you can free-associate off a topic in 5 minutes. Just single words or short phrases, whatever comes to mind, write it down. You’re not even looking for full sentences. The goal is filling the page.

I have a page in front of me from doing this exercise a few months ago off the topic “Apocalypse”. In 5 minutes I probably wrote 150 words and phrases associated with apocalypse. It’s just one big comma-separated list of words taking up about 3/4 of a college ruled page.

They ranged from expected: “zombie, mayans, 2012″ to a little esoteric: “pony express, roving cannibal tribes, Godzilla” to, well: “when do you masturbate in a post-apocalyptic world, would i find time to live-tweet the apocalypse, how would I find food in a world without yelp”.

I guarantee I wouldn’t have come up with any of those last three if I had just said “I need to find 3 funny topics about the apocalypse to write jokes about”.

So that’s how I do idea generation for whatever I’m writing. I blast the inner critic with volume, then I let him play in the result, tasking him with finding something funny in the mess. It works for us, and we’ve managed to reach somewhat of a balanced working relationship with my writing. He’s still a complete dick about everything else.

When dealing with stories, everything from generating concepts to working out scenes, sometimes we have to be acutely intentional about the process, focusing on a specific goal, “put our minds to it” as they say. Other times, we need simply to give ourselves over to our thoughts and follow them wherever they go. It’s all part of the creative process.

How about you? Have you learned anything recently in thinking about concepts? If so, please share your insights in comments.

Tomorrow: Another Dispatch from “The Quest” about working with story and story concepts.

About Emma: British based writer of ‘the funny’. Lover of cats and bad TV. Often found in pyjamas a bit drunk or a bit hungover. Occasionally does burlesque. Twitter @emmamillions

About Scott: Brooklyn based writer and comedian who bailed on software to focus on writing words that humans could read. Twitter: @scottadhoc

Dispatch From The Quest: Meet Scott Reynolds

Over the course of the 24 weeks I will be working with the writers in “The Quest,” I will be posting ‘dispatches’ from them to the GITS community. There are several reasons for this, the main one being educational: Hopefully you will learn something of value for your own understanding of the craft from the experiences of the Questers.

I should also add they are a great group of people, so I expect you will enjoy getting to know them.

Today I would like to introduce Scott Reynolds:

Scott C. Reynolds is a writer and comedian living in Brooklyn, NY. After writing a regular column on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency about the dangers of pursuing one’s dream job, he put his money where his mattress is and left behind a 15 year software career to pursue a life in comedy. When he isn’t working feverishly on a screenplay, he can be found writing and performing sketch comedy and improv at the Upright Citizens Brigade theatre, and telling jokes to strangers elsewhere in New York. Follow him on Twitter: @scottadhoc

Photo Reynolds

Here is Scott’s first dispatch from his Quest experience:

The concept of the Quest is compelling to a big nerd such as myself. It is itself the Hero’s Journey, which, when you think of it, is super meta. But nonetheless, I’m armed with my MacBook, (which, for the record, is less mighty than the pen, but still holds a slight edge over the sword. Especially a MacBook Air, which doubles as a sword. Well. Dagger, really.) and ready to slay the 100 page dragon. Metaphors!

Like any good Hero’s Journey, this one started with our protagonist in a state of disunity. I was in my ordinary world, foot perched on a rock, looking at the twin suns of my planet, and thinking wistfully of rushing off to join the ranks of real live screenwriters. But that goal seemed impossibly far away, and I realized in May that, despite my big plans at the beginning of the year, I hadn’t made the tiniest bit of progress in that regard.

A couple of things happened that set me on this current adventure. The first was thinking I was going to die in a falling elevator as I went down to get ice cream to soothe the pain of the Bruins losing to the Capitals in a close Game 7. I know. I buried the lead. The hockey thing was the bigger shock.

The elevator thing turned out fine (unless I’m screenwriting from beyond the grave, White Noise style), but it left me thinking that if I could die for any stupid reason at any stupid time, I’d rather it be after I’d spent a day pursuing my dreams rather than my employer’s. So I quit my job.

That was all fine and good, but the next part was more elusive. I was doing sketch and improv at the UCB, and dabbling in stand-up, all of which is great, but the screenwriting path didn’t seem to be materializing. That’s when Scott’s (Myers) call to action came across our hero Scott’s (this guy right here) desk. The Quest seemed exactly what I was looking for. I quickly came to realize that a screenwriter (this guy, at least) needs structure just like his screenplay. I was excited for the adventure.

Our story doesn’t end there, though, because like all reluctant heroes, I almost refused the call. I was so in my head during the logline process, unsure of every idea I generated, that I almost didn’t submit at all. Indeed, I think I sent my submission in on the very last day, finally having wrestled myself to the ground and convinced myself that I probably wouldn’t die by sending an email. Though you never know. Some of these Japanese horror movies have me questioning how close my computer is to my bed.

At any rate, I’m off on the journey now, along with five other people who are smart, funny, and creative. I’m excited to be on this Quest with them, under the watchful eye of Scott (the other one), and can’t wait to present everyone with the dragon’s head. And maybe some gold. Or just the gold, I guess, if I can steal it without killing a dragon. They’re pretty majestic creatures, and I’m sure PETA would be all over me.

If you have any questions or comments for Scott, feel free to post them in comments.

Tomorrow: Another Dispatch From The Quest.

For background on “Go Into The Story: The Quest,” go here and here.