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FilmHelp: Screenwriting

Building characters

The great comics writer Gail Simone emailed me and a number of other writers yesterday asking if we had one pointer about building characters for a workshop she was about run in Norway. Here’s what I sent her:

I try hard, particularly when introducing a character for the first time, to find that one, small, telling action that defines the character for me. Sometimes it’s big and showy, like the Hulk tearing open his own starship in rage at the beginning of “Planet Hulk.” Sometimes it’s small, like Bruce Wayne just sitting there, quietly watching and waiting while Clark Kent yells at some kids who are bullying another kid in a playground at the beginning of “Batman/Superman.” But in some way that initial action encapsulates the big emotional journey the character’s going to be going on during the course of the story. From that very first moment, the character does something that defines him or her and indicates the conflicts and struggles that he or she will face as a result. Once I figure out this moment, I usually have a pretty good grasp on what I’m doing with a character. If I don’t really nail this moment, then I might be in trouble — I might not have done all the work I need to do to really figure out who this character is, what he or she is trying to do, and what he or she is willing to do to get there.

When I reread that this morning, I found myself nodding and committing to work harder to follow my own advice.

This is why your questions about the process of writing are so interesting and helpful to me — they force me to think about what I do and get better at it.

So thanks, Gail — and thanks, everyone who asks these kinds of questions!

The Five Minute Graphic Novel Writing Primer

By Greg Pak

The fine folks at Script Frenzy were kind enough to invite me to submit some thoughts about comic book writing to their website, which they posted last month. Here’s a repost, in case you missed it. Enjoy!

I came up through independent film as a writer and director, but over the last eight years, I’ve written somewhere around two hundred comic book scripts for big superhero stories like “Planet Hulk,” historical fiction like “Magneto Testament” and “Red Skull Incarnate,” supernatural action like “Dead Man’s Run” for Aspen and Gale Ann Hurd’s Valhalla, and creator owned sci-fi like “Vision Machine.” Every day I’m working on becoming a better writer. Here are a few thoughts and principles that have worked for me along the way.

All those good dramatic writing principles apply

They call them graphic novels, and yes, the medium allows for extended prose, should you choose to use it. But I’d argue that the driving engine of comics is dramatic storytelling. So all of that great advice and training you’ve gotten by reading Lajos Egri’s “The Art of Dramatic Writing” and Syd Field’s “Four Screenplays” and Robert McKee’s “Story” apply. Work those conflicts, tell your story visually, put your characters in motion, know your premise.

Know your ending

I do most of my work in serial comics, meaning I’m writing a 20 page comics script right now that’s one chapter in a longer story. I might not write the end of that longer story for six months or even a year. One of the glories of this kind of comics is that there’s huge space for things to grow and develop organically — entire subplots and characters I never dreamed of when I started might develop down the line. I love this kind of writing. But in order to work this way, I always have to know my ending. If I know how the story ends, I know what my character’s big arc is and I know what the point of the story is — in Egri’s terms, I know my premise. Knowing the ending thus allows me to take advantage of fun twists and turns along the way — I can incorporate new ideas and run down intriguing rabbit holes because I can see how they contribute to the big character arc and premise I’m working with.

More than a screenplay, less than a novel

My comic book scripts tend to be more dense than my screenplays. When I’m writing a screenplay, I’m writing for a billion people, including busy agents, executives, and studio readers. So I’m shooting for lean, efficient, effortless writing that lets people fall into the story and characters and rocket through the read without consciously thinking about camera angles or the specific challenges of the actual filmmaking. A comic book script, on the other hand, is usually read by just a few people, all of whom are directly involved in making the comic book. So my comic book scripts are packed with the kinds of practical notes I’d share with a production designer, actor, and cinematographer. Often I’ll even address letterers, editors and artist by name while making suggestions or asking questions. It’s the most practical way to get things done, particularly since I seldom meet my comic book collaborators face-to-face — 90 percent of our communication happens via email, so it makes sense to front-load script notes into the script.

However (and this is a BIG however), it’s important not to get carried away. A few years back, I realized I was developing a bad habit of describing every darn thing in every panel in way too much detail. That’s one way to make sure you get what you want. But it can be suffocating to artists who want to have the chance to interpret and extrapolate a bit on their own. And as a writer, it’s smart for me to give my artists the room to dream and stretch — they’ll often come up with brilliant images or storytelling solutions that I would never have come up with just by myself.

This is an ongoing challenge for all of us comics writers and exactly how I approach it varies from project to project and artist to artist — different collaborators work better with slightly different approaches. But in general, I’m trying to keep things simpler, to reduce my verbiage, to cut back, to use just a few words if… hey, you know what? I’ll stop right there.

Think about page turns and chapter endings

When writing screenplays, I think about time — the two minute mark, the five minute mark, the fifteen minute mark, the half hour mark, the midpoint. At each of those points, I try to have a hook of some kind, a turning point that resolves some issue and raises a question about what happens next. A similar concept applies to comics, but those marks are determined by the physical form of the book itself. When a reader reaches the end of a page, he or she has to decide whether to turn that page and keep on reading. It’s similar to a person watching a movie and hitting the end of a scene or sequence — keep watching or change the channel?

So at the end of each page in a comics script, I try to create a little bit of drama or suspense. In an action sequence, a punch might be thrown on one page, but the impact isn’t shown until the next. With dialogue, a page might end with an unanswered question, a voice calling from off-panel, or a line begun but not finished until after the page turn.

Similarly, if you’re writing in chapters, you have a great opportunity to build up to nice cliffhangers. In serial comics, cliffhangers are pretty essential. It’s incredibly easy for monthly readers to drop out — it requires enterprise and commitment to go buy the next issue four weeks later. So a memorable, suspenseful cliffhanger that promises not just the next big plot element but some real impact or development for characters we love can be key in keeping a book alive.

Write in chapters

One of the great advantages of making comics is that it’s pretty standard for artists to begin drawing before writers have completed the scripts for the entire series. That’s a great gift for us as writers — we have the chance to see characters come to life before we’ve finished writing the story, which means we can take inspiration and make improvements along the way.
A done-in-one graphic novel is a different creature from a monthly series or miniseries. But by breaking the book into chapters, you can create discrete chunks of story to feed your artist. This not only can make writing more manageable and keep the book on schedule, it also can give you that amazing experience of seeing how you’re writing’s working while you’re still writing.

Listen to your editors

If you’re lucky enough to be working with editors, listen to them. Just about every editor I’ve ever worked with is smart, funny, insightful, and cares deeply about making the book work on every level. When you get stuck on some tiny bit or some massive thematic or character-based question, your editor is the perfect person with whom to bounce ideas around. You may not always agree on everything. You may get frustrated sometimes about things your editor asks you consider or tweak. And particularly when multiple editors are involved, you may have to make a special effort to remember what your story is really about and why you’re writing it as you juggle disparate suggestions. But if you open yourself up a bit, a good, ongoing back-and-forth with your editor will save you hours and make the book so much better. Editor Mark Paniccia was a phenomenal partner in crime on “Planet Hulk.” Editors Warren Simons and Alejandro Arbona were absolutely critical for “Magneto Testament” and “Red Skull Incarnate,” respectively. And my current editors, Jeanine Schaefer on “X-Treme X-Men” and Ellie Pyle on “Doctor Strange Season One,” are making those books so much better every day with their advice and ideas.

Know and love your artists and tailor your writing to help them do their best work

Your artist is your actor, production designer, and cinematographer. He or she is going to bring that script to life, so if you’re lucky enough to know who’s drawing your book, keep his or her style and preferences in mind as you write. It’s also smart to keep track of things your artist might struggle with and tailor your script accordingly. If you artist has trouble with multiple things going on in a single frame, try to break things down into multiple panels. If your artist may not be the best at certain kinds of emotions or expressions, think about ways of staging that convey that emotion without requiring big close-ups. And if your artist speaks English as a second language or you know the script will be translated, make a special effort to keep your prose simple and clear.

I constantly see good artists produce breathtakingly great work when they’re matched with stories that challenge and inspire them and writers they love. With a little thought about your artist’s needs and preferences, you can write that story and be that writer.

© 2012 Greg Pak

Greg Pak is an award-winning writer and filmmaker best known for his feature film “Robot Stories” and comic book storylines such as “Planet Hulk,” “Incredible Hercules” (with Fred Van Lente), “Magneto Testament,” and “Red Skull Incarnate.” Pak was named one of 25 Filmmakers to Watch by Filmmaker Magazine, described as “a talent with a future” by the New York Times, and named “Breakout Talent” of the year by Wizard Magazine. Pak is currently writing “X-Treme X-Men” and “Doctor Strange Year One” for Marvel and “Dead Man’s Run” for Gale Anne Hurd’s Valhalla and Aspen Comics. His sci fi graphic novel “Vision Machine” can be downloaded for free at www.visionmachine.net and will debut as an iPad app later this year. For more about Pak, visit www.gregpak.com and twitter.com/gregpak .

Massive Greg Pak interview at Newsarama’s “Writer’s Workshop”

David Pepose has conducted what may be the longest interview ever of filmmaker and comics writer Greg Pak for his “Writer’s Workshop” column at Newsarama. Here’s an excerpt:

I should say this too, all this stuff I’m saying is stuff that I know, but that I have to struggle everyday to actually implement it, you know what I mean? [Laughs.] It’s an ongoing struggle to have the discipline to make these stories work the way they really should. To cut out the stuff that doesn’t belong, and to invest the stuff that should be there with real emotional truth rather than manufactured shortcuts, and to find the most dramatically compelling fashion to tell the story rather than just the easiest way to tell the story. These are ongoing challenges that I wrestle with every single day, trying to do the best I can and trying to figure out better ways to do it.

Click here to read the whole thing.

Inspiration, motivation, and making a fool of yourself

Another transcribed tweet session by Greg Pak
On Saturday I had the great pleasure of receiving the Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival’s Emerging Artist Award and participating in a “Conversation with Greg Pak” event moderated by Loraine Morrill. The conversation and Q&A session were a blast — but afterwards I realized I hadn’t fully answered one of the attendee’s questions, so last night I tried to finish the thoughts on the Twitter.
Read on for the transcript:

Had a fantastic time at the @PAAFF “Conversation with Greg Pak” event last night – thanks to Michael & Joe & Loraine!
But I realized I didn’t completely finish answering one person’s question. She was asking about inspiration/motivation.
I talked about the constant deadlines as a comic book writer being great for discipline. Can’t have the luxury of waiting for inspiration. [Comic book writers] have to learn how to make it happen, no matter what, in order to make those deadlines. Which is actually a great thing. Without deadlines, it’s far too easy to moon around with a creative project indefinitely.
So what I forgot to mention yesterday was that it’s possible to create deadlines for yourself to motivate yourself to finish creative projects. Just a few ways…

  1. Form a group with friends to critique each others’ work. Good kick in the pants to at least complete first drafts of projects.

  2. Find contests to enter. Those contests will have deadlines that you can’t miss. (But always carefully read competition rules/regs. Don’t want to sign away rights without realizing it!)
  3. Take a shot at stuff like Ntn’l Graphic Novel Writing Month or http://24hourcomicsday.com/

I haven’t done those myself, but I’ve done the film world equivalent with a 48 hour film at @HamptonsFilm a few years ago.
Finishing projects is absolutely key. And here’s another crazy thought: embrace creative failure and humiliation.
When I was doing improv comedy, I had a friend who said the number one rule was to be completely willing to make a total fool of yourself.
Finishing those early projects is key because they’re going to be flawed and bad and we need to learn by seeing how people react to them.
It’s a cliche, but it’s true – we often learn more from our creative failures than our creative successes.
We might not intellectually know why a creative project succeeds – we just managed to hit the right notes without thinking it all through.
But when I screw something up, boy, do I take the time to think it through and learn from it.
It’s also critical to develop the ability to keep going in the face of creative failure. Most people quit. Sometimes the most talented quit.
The ones who make it have one thing in common – they didn’t quit.
And finally, it’s critical to embrace making a fool of yourself because every awesome creative project initially sounded totally moronic.
Particularly now, it’s breathtakingly/heartbreakingly easy to make anyone’s story sound stupid – in 140 characters or less! 😉
The relevant song for all of this: “They All Laughed.” Here’s part of the Louis Armstrong version.
Which brings me to my recently rediscovered 1980 centaur novella. 😉
Okay, y’all, thanks for putting up with all this yapping. And thanks again to everyone who came to the @PAAFF and @BNWCOMICS events!

“What advice would you give to a writer just starting out?”

By Greg Pak
A couple of nights ago, Twitter user @JohnEton asked me “what advice would you give to a writer just starting out?” Since that’s a question that comes up pretty often, I’m re-posting my tweets below for easy reference. Enjoy!

Huge question! Let’s see… first, read read and read.
Read everything, not just comics, not just fiction. History, biography, natural science. Everything can feed your storytelling.
Train yourself to listen to the rhythms of language around you, the nuances of dialogue. The way people don’t say what they mean.
Make it a habit to write every day. Could be note-taking, recording ideas or scraps of dialogue. Eventually should be stories.
Write and write and rewrite. Get feedback, rewrite some more. It’s a long haul – for years, most of us are terrible.
Study the specific genre/format you’re interested in. For screenwriting and comics, read books about the art of dramatic writing.
Yes, write about what you know. But also, write about what you care about. Passion for your story will keep you going.
Finally, listen to the little voice inside. If it’s telling you something needs work, it needs work. Never stop making it better.
And once you have collaborators/editors, listen to them. No matter how successful you are, you still have huge amounts to learn.
I’m learning/striving to be a better writer every single day, and my editors are incredibly valuable guides.

The eMate Hinge Fix: Yeah, I actually did it, and here’s what I learned

Another hypertechnical FilmHelp article by Greg Pak
In an article last month singing the praises of the 1997 Apple eMate as an outstanding low-tech writing machine, I noted that one of the big flaws of the eMate is its infamous hinge problem, which can result in a spring popping loose and puncturing the monitor cable.
I’m happy to report that I finally broke out my Torx screwdrivers and soldering iron and followed the excellent instructions at pda-soft.de, inventors-emporium.co.uk, and unna.org (warning: pdf) to fix my machine’s hinges.
It’s a pretty involved operation, and I highly recommend reading through the instructions and assembling all necessary tools and supplies before starting it. A few pointers:

  • The hinges are much smaller than the closeup photos in the guides might lead you to believe. I didn’t measure them, but if you’re planning to do the washer fix, you should have a few very small washers on hand to experiment with. The washer I ended up using was just 7/16 of an inch wide.

  • Have all the necessary supplies on hand, assuming you’ll go all the way through with the hinge fix. I opened up the machine thinking I’d just check the hinges. But when I saw that one of the springs on the hinge near the monitor cable had begun to shorten, I realized I needed to go through with the whole operation. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the recommended grease on hand, so I ended up just using a few drops of 3-In-One oil. I’m guessing that’s an acceptable substitute at least for the short term, but if the lid seems to stiffen over the next few years, I may have to open the machine up again and grease the hinges properly with the right stuff.
  • When reassembling the machine, make sure the volume and dimmer tabs from the front case are lined up with the sliders on the motherboard. I forgot about this step and had to reopen the machine (which required another round of soldering).
  • I freaked myself out a bit when the machine wouldn’t start up after the whole operation. But when I pressed the reset button on the back of the unit, it came back to life. I think the blank screen’s a reaction to all power being cut off from the machine during the repair process.
  • It’s a good idea to have some strong epoxy ready before undertaking the repair. When I opened up my eMate, one of the small plastic posts on the inside of the machine that serves as the base of one of the battery cover screws cracked. The top of the post fell off and I had to glue it back on during the reassembly. That makes me think it’s also a good idea not to over-tighten the screws to the battery compartment to avoid stressing those posts too much.
  • Make sure you have enough time to complete the project before starting. It’ll probably take at least two hours — and probably longer, if you’re taking proper care and it’s your first time opening the machine.

Pak Talks Comics: Reader Q&A on filmmaking!

Welcome to Pak Talks Comics, wherein comics writer and filmmaker Greg Pak answers your questions. Click here to submit your own questions — and read on for the latest answers!
Jeffrey Thompson: What attracts you to filmmaking?
Greg Pak:
Filmmaking lets me flex every muscle in my body and brain. I grew up drawing, writing stories, doing black and white photography, and performing with school drama groups. All of those interests come together in making movies.
Also, I just plain love movies.
Finally, I love the process of filmmaking — particularly working with actors, the cinematographer, and the sound designer and composer to find the emotional core of a scene. There’s something absolutely beautiful about figuring out what a scene’s really about and being able to support that from every angle.
JT: Does a background with comics help with film making?
GP:
It actually worked the other way around for me — I started off in film and then became a professional comics writer. Then again, when I was a kid, I was drawing cartoons long before I ever had the chance to make a movie, so I guess it works that way, too.
So the answer is yes — going in both directions. Working in film definitely helped me get my sea legs in comics. I’d written dozens of shorts and a few feature films before I ever wrote a comics script. And since the basic principles of dramatic storytelling are the same, I suppose I had a pretty good foundation. Of course, there were a ton of comics-specific quirks and techniques I had to learn (and continue to learn to this day). But all that practice in thinking about how to tell stories visually was incredibly helpful.
And now, moving back into filmmaking with my latest short film, “Mister Green,” I’m finding that there are some things I’ve learned from comics that are helping me with filmmaking. I had a great time working with my cinematographer Sam Chase on the “Mister Green” set largely because the two of us found a really great vibe and in the face of some insane scheduling pressures, we were willing to take some big chances regarding the look of the picture that paid off in a big way. (That’s Sam and yours truly to the right there, thinking big thoughts on the set of “Mister Green.”)
I think working in comics, where there’s always an insane deadline that forces a constant series of nearly instantaneous creative decisions, has helped me become a little more fearless about taking the big creative leaps necessary to find beautiful solutions to seemingly unsolvable problems.
Thanks for reading and click here to submit your own questions for the next column!

The eMate vs Dana vs Neo showdown!

In search of the perfect retro writing machine
A FilmHelp article by Greg Pak
Back in 2001 when my main laptop was a 6.1 pound G3 “Pismo” Powerbook with 90 minutes of battery life, I found out about the Alphasmart Dana, a two pound writing machine with a full-sized keyboard that ran on the Palm operating system, could sync with my main computer, and would operate for 25 hours on a single charge. After getting a Dana as a gift, I used it to keep a journal of the “Robot Stories” distribution process and to write some of my early comic book scripts for Marvel while on the road. I loved being able to carry it around in a backpack or satchel without feeling the weight at all. I liked being able to use it on the subway without the same level of anxiety I’d have pulling out a $3000 laptop. I loved the instant on/off nature of the machine. And I dug the way a simple interface combined with incredibly long battery life and supreme portability encouraged me to write whenever I had the chance or inspiration.
I put my Dana on the shelf and forgot about it for a while after I got my first iBook. The lightness of the iBook (and its fresh, long lasting battery) addressed some of the Pismo drawbacks that had pushed me towards the Dana. But while clearing my office of old electronics last month, I pulled the Dana down from the shelf and began using it again.
I had so much fun typing on the Dana that I found myself thinking about how it could be improved. A better screen, a stronger backlight. A different form factor that would make it easier to write while lounging on a couch or in bed. And lo and behold, while poking around various Macintosh websites, I stumbled across the Apple eMate, a four pound portable computer sold to educational markets in 1997 and 1998 that bore some surprising similarities to the Dana.
Both the Dana and the eMate were designed with the educational market in mind. Both are solid state computers with no moving parts and incredibly sturdy plastic bodies. Both run on software originally designed for pocket organizers and feature a stylus rather than a mouse. Both have black and white screens with green backlights. Both use their own barebones but functional word processors that can export and import rtf files. Both turn on instantly and automatically save everything that you type. And both run for days on a full charge.
The main difference is form. The Dana is the more stripped down machine — with a full sized keyboard and a wide but short, non-adjustable screen. The eMate has a laptop-style screen that shows about twice the number of lines that a Dana does. The eMate’s only four pounds, but the Dana’s just two.
After staring hungrily at eBay listings for a couple of weeks, I finally pulled the trigger on a used eMate — paying ten bucks for the machine and another twenty for shipping. And then I picked up a used Alphasmart Neo, an even more stripped down writing machine with a similar form factor to the Dana but without the Palm operating system and the non-writing oriented software.
So here, at long last, is a point-by-point showdown between the eMate, the Dana and the Neo to determine which computer is indeed the perfect writing machine.

read more »

Library research in New York City

By Greg Pak
A few practical pointers for library research in New York City, developed after spending many hours trying to track down an obscure book I needed as background research for a screenplay I’m writing:

  1. To buy an obscure, out of print book, try AbeBooks.com.

  2. To find the book at the New York Public Library, first search the catalog online.
  3. If you can’t buy the book or find it at the New York Public Library, check the Online Computer Library Center to figure out if it’s in a university library near you. To get access to their search engine (which apparently can only be reached through partner websites), do a search at AbeBooks.com for something that doesn’t exist — i.e., type “give me the OCLC” in the Author field. The “Matches found: 0” search results page will include a link which reads “Find it at a local library” which will take you to the OCLC page. A search there may reveal your book’s residence at a number of local colleges.
  4. Read your book at a local college.
    This can be tricky. I found that my book lived at Pace University, NYU, CUNY, and Columbia. When I called these various libraries, only Pace would let me, a non-student, walk in as a visitor to read the book. Alas, the Pace library only had volume 2 of the publication I needed… So I called NYU and discovered that I would need to get a “Metro Referral Card” from the New York Public Library (which would vouch that the book was not in the NYPL system) in order to gain entrance to the NYU library.
    Metro Referral Cards are only given at the Midtown Branch of the NYPL. As I discovered, the Midtown Library at the southeast corner of 40th and 5th is NOT the right branch — instead, you have to go to room 315 of the big research library (the one with the lions in front of it) on the northwest corner of 40th and 5th.
    When I said I needed a Metro Referral Card, the librarian nodded, asked me for the name of the author, the first word in the book’s title, and the library which had it. He filled in a yellow card, which I took down to the NYU Bobst Library, where I was given a day pass.
    Triumph! With one last irony — it turns out the book I needed was in the Tamiment Library (a specialized collection of labor history) on the 10th floor of the Bobst Library at NYU — and since the Tamiment Library is open to the general public, I didn’t need the Metro Referral Card after all.

Three books on screenwriting

By Greg Pak
Three books I’ve found enormously helpful over the years:
“Four Screenplays,” by Syd Field
Field is best known for his ubiquitous book “Screenplay,” but I found “Four Screenplays” more helpful. The book provides in-depth structural analysis of the screenplays of four successful movies: “Thelma and Louise,” “Terminator 2,” “The Silence of the Lambs,” and “Dances with Wolves.” Practical and extremely helpful.
“The Art of Dramatic Writing,” by Lajos Egri
One of the classics. Egri’s writing about all dramatic writing – meaning many of his examples are drawn from theater. But it’s all applicable to screenwriting. Most helpful is his exploration of “premise.”
“Story,” by Robert McKee
McKee can come off as a bit of a blowhard in print (and apparently in person, if the depiction of him in “Adaptation” is to be trusted), but I thought just about everything in his book was right on the money.

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