Thursday, April 28, 2011

Sell the Story

This article which I picked up from DIY Musician, written by Scott James, originally appeared on Echoes.

In 2009, Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn tried out a little experiment. They spent $128.74 on a bunch of yard sale junk and hired professional writers to draw up interesting stories about each item. Then they put everything up on eBay with the stories that they created to see what happened.

They spent $128.74 on junk and turned that into…$3,612.51!

How does that work?

Sounds like a good question that’s worth exploring, doesn’t it?  You might find some insight from the story of a flannel ball that they sold.  A pretty worthless object, right?  Not much practical value there.  Accordingly, they originally paid $1.50 for it.  You might be surprised to know that they ended up selling the ball of flannel for $51!

How? Well it all started by imagining it as something with a story.  Something beyond just the utility value.  Check out the first paragraph of the story that was written for it by Luc Sante:

After my friend Claude had his accident I went to visit him in the hospital. When I saw him I had to cough to divert a laugh. He looked like a guy in a cartoon, his entire body wrapped in bandages. He had broken everything that could be broken, from his skull to his toes. Somehow he was conscious and could speak, although to hear him I had to put my ear right up to his mouth-hole. I thought he said “door,” so I shut it, but he was still agitated. Eventually I got it: “drawer.” The one in his bedside stand contained a single object, a ball of wrapped flannel that looked like his head, only more colorful. I went to pick it up with my fingertips, but then had to readjust. Astonishingly, the thing weighed at least five pounds. I gaped at it, but Claude was making noises. I finally understood: “Don’t unwrap it.”

Suddenly we’re not thinking about the intrinsic value of a ball of flannel, but instead we’re drawn into a story… and ultimately projecting the intrigue and emotions of the story onto the object.  What we have to realize is that people aren’t paying for objects, they’re paying for the meaning that they assign to the objects.

So when you’re pitching your CD, are you communicating that you’re just selling your CD or are you communicating the story of the blood, sweat, tears, fun, hope, dreams, inspiration, excitement, talent, heartache, challenge, and triumph that went into it? What are you saying about it on stage? What are you writing about it to your mailing list? How are you presenting it on your website? Are you telling a story or just selling an object?

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Men in Black 1 & 2: Knowing and Pretending

 This post contains comments from both MIB (1997) and MIB II (2002). After MIB III comes out, I'll add to the post again.

MEN IN BLACK (1997) 98min PG-13
Budget $90M Est
Domestic BO: $250M
Worldwide: $326M

Writers: ED SOLOMON, based on a LOWELL CUNNINGHAM comic.

WILL SMITH: Agent Jay (James Edwards)
RIP TORN: Chief Agent Zed


Men in Black's antecedent is a 1990 comic. (The Men In Black at Wikipedia.)  Not as deep or celebrated as other well-known superheros (Superman, 1939).  In many classic super hero comics, the "super" refers generally to the good guys who

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Entertain, Educate, Elevate - Mel Gibson

If an actor is any good, they are vulnerable, on stage and off. Transparency is necessary. Friends who have been with Mel in meetings say he's always anxious, and rarely looks you in the eye. That comes off on-screen, and because of it we are able to see inside the character... and man. It helps us identify with the story, because we all feel that anxious and unsure from time to time.  It allows us to see humanity for what it really is—unsure, but trying hard to be better.

I just read a great interview with Mel conducted by DEADLINE’S ALLISON HOPE WEINER. The interview is mostly about Mel's personal life, which only concerns me as it affects his craft... the writing, directing and acting. You will note that the best artists in any discipline have raw edges. It's what allows them to get in touch with their inner being and do art. It allows us to see honestly real humanity, exposed and struggling with mortality.

Here's something Mel said in the interview that applies to this blog and the art of crafting motion picture stories. What we do is not not just about entertainment, although that is where you need to start.
"And the end of the day, it’s what did they think of that? Did they get something from it? Were they entertained? Were they educated? Were they elevated? Were they all three? You know, which is really good? Entertain, educate, elevate. I think that’s what Jodie did [in The Beaver]. If you can get all three of those, you’ve got the Trifecta going." (Mel Gibson)

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Questions Answered about RomComs

Janet asked some questions in the previous post's com box. I'll answer them here.
Janet Asks: Do all the other main characters struggle with the same MP, but in regard to their own issues?

Answer: Yes. that is how the movie can have multiple story lines but still be about one thing. the principles are the same for a novel or a screenplay.
Janet Asks: I've just bought and read The Moral Premise and learned a huge amount from it. But I'm writing a short romance novel rather than a screenplay...The type of romance novel I'm writing needs two main characters (hero and heroine) but there's no room for an additional significant secondary characters or antagonist. (Each acts as the others' antagonist along with the characters' psychological flaws.) Both hero and heroine have different lessons to learn, so I'm struggling to form the vice and virtue sides of the moral premise.

Answer: Good romantic comedies have two protagonists, the man and woman, who are the antagonists for the other. But there are other characters. Each will have a "reflection" character, and each with have a "nemesis" character. These are like the good and bad angels on their shoulders creating scenes that push the characters one way or the other. Each of these minor characters will have arcs that deal with the same moral premise as the main characters do, but obviously just not in as much depth.

When you say the hero and heroine have different lessons to learn, if those lessons are different sets of virtue and vices, then you have two different stories. Your story will connect better with audiences if the virtue and vice set are along the same continuum for both. See the posts on this blog under the topic of "values" (below and to the right under the Movies & Topics list.)

It is not always possible to squeeze a moral premise into an existing story that violates some of the natural laws of storytelling. I frequently guide students to change their story so it's about one thing, and not dilute the core psychological and moral principle which the story is REALLY about.
Janet Asks: Both characters' lives are out of balance. The heroine focuses on work and has no social life, whereas the hero has made play his priority and isn't into serous relationships. (He's successful in his work so he has no lesson to learn about needing to work harder.) She needs to learn how to have fun while he needs to learn that fun flings won't make him happy. If the story was just the heroine's, then the moral premise would be easier, e.g.: A life totally focused on work brings yearning and and sadness but balancing work with fun brings fulfillment and happiness.' But this doesn't include the hero's issues.
Answer: For this to work, you need to change elements of your story. See the posts on Nicomachean Ethics — "Mean Virtue.  If your heroine is into work and not play, then the hero would be into play and not work. Don't make them too extreme in those areas, but the bias has thrown their lives (with everything in their lives) out of balance. The purpose of the antagonist in a story is to change the protagonist by obstructing the protagonist's goal. Thus your characters are like iron-sharping-iron.  

Janet Asks: Does the the moral premise in story with two main characters (who are both heading towards a happy ending) need to incorporate both arcs?--something along the lines of: 'Both an excessively serious approach to life and an excessively playful attitude lead to unhappiness, but a healthy balance between the two leads to fulfillment and happiness.' Often in romance novels the hero and heroine have similarly opposite flaws as the ones above such as Risk/caution/ or using others/helping others, so I'd love to be able to get the moral premise right for 2 protagonists dealing with opposite issues.
Answer: Yes, you got it. This is the Nicomachean Ethic post, precisely.

Friday, April 8, 2011

The Moral Premise Book Mark & Check List

UPDATE: See the updated list of criteria published August 19, 2013, HERE.

The new, 14-pt. coated Moral Premise Bookmark with rounded corners and improved check list is now available. The bookmark will help you write stories and screenplays better.
If you'd like a "physical" Moral Premise Book Mark Check List (2.75" x 8.50", with 14pt UV coating on both sides), send me a No. 10 SASE to Moral Premise Book Mark, P.O. Box 29, Novi, MI  48376, and I'll send one to you, FREE.
When I travel to Hollywood to work on a film as a story consultant I don't always take as proactive an approach as I think would be welcome. Part of my holding back is the natural intimidation I experienced because: (a) I am not as familiar with the story as the producer and writers are, who have been discussing the project for months before I arrive. And (b) I'm just a bit star struck being in the same room with people I've only read about in the trades. 

Yet, when I analyze a successful film I'm amazed at the depth to which so much about the film consistently applies a true moral premise. For example, in THE BLIND SIDE each of the main characters (Michael, Leigh Anne, Michael's teachers, and Alton the drug boss) are involved in a multilayer retelling of Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poem THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE. Each of the movie's characters test the moral premise, which is about courage and honor. That premise is made fairly explicit in the poem and in Michael's essay about the poem featured at the film's end. Such "discoveries" remind me that I need to be more proactive and bring more to the table, so that future films have the potential to entertain and enlighten audiences... and help producer's succeed at the box office... like THE BLIND SIDE has.

The book mark will thus help them and me do a better job at telling stories. Here's the check list on the back, revised April 5, 2011.

The Moral Premise Story Check List
  1. What is the conflict of values around which everything in your story revolves?
  2. What is the Protag’s main physical goal?
  3. What are the P’s secondary physical goals (e.g. personal, professional, family, and career)?
  4. How is your P morally imperfect related to each of those goals?
  5. What is P’s psychological problem (vice) that obstructs the physical goals?
  6. Toward what greater virtue or vice does the P progress?
  7. How does P show desire to change?
  8. What physical obstacles, metaphored by the psychological problem, do the characters encounter, especially the P?
  9. What story altering moral decisions does the P make at the story’s key turning points? (see other side)
  10. Do the characters’ major decisions come from the psychological motivations generated by the story’s virtue and vice?
  11. What is your story’s SINGLE Moral-Physical Premise Statement (MPPS)? Will a general audience think it’s true?
  12. Does the P’s psychological and physical arc follow the MPPS in every scene?
  13. Do all the other main characters struggle with the same MP, but in regard to their own issues?
  14. Is there a Moment of Grace (MOG) for each of the main characters?
  15. Does the P’s motivation, either side of the MOG, parallel the  the MPPS’s vice-virtue structure?
  16. How is the MP consistently applied to all other aspects of the story & movie-craft: e.g. art direction, music, songs, lens selection and position, lighting, wardrobe, blocking, marketing?
  17. Is the MP creatively but clearly stated somewhere in dialogue? Need it be?
  18. Is the truth of the MPPS tested by the characters through the story like an emotional roller coaster scene-to-scene-to-scene from beginning to end?

    Sunday, April 3, 2011

    Drama vs. Real Life

    Insight to why stories are popular; from a famous entrepreneur listening to a famous novelist.

    Dereck Sivers (founder of CD Baby) relfects on a workshop with novelist Kurt Vonnegut.