The Dao that can be spoken is not the eternal Dao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name.

This sentence, the first in the Dao De Jing, is just so…I just like it so much. Lol. So here are five different translations of that one sentence:


The Dao that can be spoken is not the eternal Dao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name.

The Dao that can be understood cannot be the primal, or cosmic, Dao, just as an idea that can be expressed in words cannot be the infinite idea.

There are ways but the Way is uncharted. There are names but not nature in words.

The way that becomes a way is not the Immortal Way; the name that becomes a name is not the Immortal Name

The divine law may be spoken of, but it is not the common law. Things may be named, but names are not the things.


Five different translations, five different flavors.

And here’s the original Mandarin:


Too much general writing advice – collected notes from William Zinsser, Brandon Sanderson, Sol Stein, and lots more

The below is a collection of all the writing notes and quotes that I’ve gathered over the years. Peruse at your leisure!

No one wants to read about Odysseus leaving the sack of Troy, sailing home in moderate weather and settling down to focus on that urban renewal project he’s been putting off. – Jim Butcher

Brandon Sanderson, writing lectures notes
* “Protagonists gonna protag.”
* in Jane Austen’s work, the underlying rule of the world is “The romantic interests end up together.”
* Tragedy — a character longs for something he should not have, and acquires it at a devastating cost
* Be especially interested in setting them at odds with whatever is going to happen to them: Bilbo is interesting because he simultaneously wants and does not want to go on an adventure.
* When folks pick up your book, they are going to notice your prose first. They judge whether they keep reading based almost entirely on that.
* Sanderson writes a book guide before starting any new book. The main concerns are:
* What promises am I making (about the style of story and what will happen at the end)?
* What kind of story is this?
* How will I give a sense of progress?
* How will my resolution fulfill all the promises that need to be fulfilled in this story?
* Many of the characters we love are preternaturally good at one or two particular things. Hermione is Preternaturally Intelligent; Samwise Gamgee is Preternaturally Loyal; Katniss Everdeen is Preternaturally Gritty.
* Your goal is to keep your character from being defined by a single thing, particularly their role. Characters defined by their roles quickly become stereotypes.
* Be sure to let your cool ideas play together. Let the Topography influence the Religion. Let the Government influence the Magic. When they influence and play off each other, they’ll generate greater depth for your story.

From Jim Butcher’s (Dresden Files) blog:
1. Make the introduction for each character count. This is something you can’t afford to screw up.
2. Make promises as early as you can

“Write in a trance, act in a trance” – Mike Birbiglia

PG’s writing advice; my favorites:
* write a bad version 1 as fast as you can
* expect 80% of the ideas in an essay to happen after you start writing it, and 50% of those you start with to be wrong be confident enough to cut
* …just say the most important sentence first
* read your essays out loud to see…which bits are boring (the paragraphs you dread reading)
* write for a reader who won’t read the essay as carefully as you do

PG on essays
* When I give a draft of an essay to friends, there are two things I want to know: which parts bore them, and which seem unconvincing.
* Essayer is the French verb meaning “to try” and an essai is an attempt. An essay is something you write to try to figure something out.
* An essay you publish ought to tell the reader something he didn’t already know.
* The river’s algorithm is simple. At each step, flow down. For the essayist this translates to: flow interesting. Of all the places to go next, choose the most interesting.
* Surprises are things that you not only didn’t know, but that contradict things you thought you knew. And so they’re the most valuable sort of fact you can get.

Ian McEwan’s writing habits from YouTube
* start work at 9, 9:30am, work until lunch
* if going well, continue into afternoon and evening
* generally leave afternoons for reading, serious reading
* good bit of work, good day is 500-800 words
* huge desk that he built himself, in a large study/library, filled with books
* “good day is to work all day in the knowledge that you’ll see an interesting friend in the evening”
* like the sense that there’ll be food and wine from about 7:30pm on

Ian McEwan: “literature thrives on conflict” from YouTube
* “it’s very difficult to do happiness in novels in a sustained way, we really leave that to poetry, lyric poetry, which can see our moments. its the nature of the human condition that we’re only truly happy in bursts, we can’t be constantly happy”
* very hard to make happiness work in novels, leave that to lyric poetry, because nature of happiness is momentary, poetry captures the moments
* Anna Karenina one of loveliest, most prolonged episodes of what it is to be profoundly in love, visitor arrives, and the moment vanishes
* danger that you’ll seem sentimental, smug, unreal
* “literature loves difficulty, thrives on conflict”
* “we’re right to leave best expressions of love to poets”
* “we like tangles and complications, especially in short stories”
* writers don’t have to retire early, they accumulate more life, more love, more disappointments, more of everything
* what they lose is the fabulous energy of the late 20s, early 30s
* doesn’t believe Milan Kundera: “writers have to plunder their life up to age of 35″
* “its the fleetingness that gives love its precious quality”
* “the slow collapse of your body becomes a subject in itself”
* “i think of myself as a toddler in the business of being old”
* in 70s, believed you shouldn’t describe a person’s thoughts, allude to it, clues, physical descriptions, environment, what they said or did <— realized this was wrong
* re: novels, “we have not yet invented another art form that allows us such access to the minds of others”

I’m in no hurry to send something off just after I write it, and I sometimes keep it around the house for months doing this or that to it, taking this out and putting that in. It doesn’t take that long to do the first draft of the story, that usually happens in one sitting, but it does take a while to do the various versions of the story. I’ve done as many as twenty or thirty drafts of a story. Never less than ten or twelve drafts. It’s instructive, and heartening both, to look at the early drafts of great writers. I’m thinking of the photographs of galleys belonging to Tolstoy, to name one writer who loved to revise. I mean, I don’t know if he loved it or not, but he did a great deal of it. He was always revising, right down to the time of page proofs. He went through and rewrote War and Peace eight times and was still making corrections in the galleys. – Raymond Carver

Kurt Vonnegut: 8 rules on writing a great story from Brain Pickings
1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college. – Vonnegut

On Writing Well by William Zinsser (also in a previous blog post)
* Nobody told all the new computer writers that the essence of writing is rewriting. Just because they’re writing fluently doesn’t mean they’re writing well.
* Consider all the prepositions that are draped onto verbs that don’t need any help. We no longer head committees. We head them up. We don’t face problems anymore. We face up to them when we can free up a few minutes.
* Often a difficult problem in a sentence can be solved by simply getting rid of it.
* “Experiencing” is one of the worst clutterers. Even your dentist will ask if you are experiencing any pain. If he had his own kid in the chair he would say, “Does it hurt?”
* Beware, then, of the long word that’s no better than the short word: “assistance” (help), “numerous” (many), “facilitate” (ease), “individual” (man or woman), “remainder” (rest), “initial” (first), “implement” (do), “sufficient” (enough), “attempt” (try), “referred to as” (called)
* Most first drafts can be cut by 50 percent without losing any information or losing the author’s voice.
* It’s amazing how often an editor can throw away the first three or four paragraphs of an article, or even the first few pages, and start with the paragraph where the writer begins to sound like himself or herself.
* Sell yourself, and your subject will exert its own appeal. Believe in your own identity and your own opinions. Writing is an act of ego, and you might as well admit it.
* You are writing primarily to please yourself, and if you go about it with enjoyment you will also entertain the readers who are worth writing for.
* Trust your material if it’s taking you into terrain you didn’t intend to enter but where the vibrations are good.
* But take special care with the last sentence of each paragraph—it’s the crucial springboard to the next paragraph.
* The perfect ending should take your readers slightly by surprise and yet seem exactly right.
* Surprise is the most refreshing element in nonfiction writing.
* Don’t say you were a bit confused and sort of tired and a little depressed and somewhat annoyed. Be confused. Be tired. Be depressed. Be annoyed.
* Humor is best achieved by understatement, and there’s nothing subtle about an exclamation point.
* Many of us were taught that no sentence should begin with “but.” If that’s what you learned, unlearn it—there’s no stronger word at the start.
* …it is still widely believed—a residue from school and college—that “which” is more correct, more acceptable, more literary. It’s not. In most situations, “that” is what you would naturally say and therefore what you should write.
* Most of the nudgers urged me to adopt the plural: to use “readers” and “writers,” followed thereafter by “they.” I don’t like plurals; they weaken writing because they are less specific than the singular, less easy to visualize.
* The longer I work at the craft of writing, the more I realize that there’s nothing more interesting than the truth.
* When you use a quotation, start the sentence with it. Don’t lead up to it with a vapid phrase saying what the man said.
* Memoir isn’t the summary of a life; it’s a window into a life, very much like a photograph in its selective composition.
* The answer is that if you’re trying to write humor, almost everything you do is serious. Few Americans understand this.
* Joseph Heller and Stanley Kubrick heightened the truth about war just enough to catch its lunacy, and we recognize it as lunacy.
* There is a kind of writing that sounds so relaxed that you think you hear the author talking to you. E. B. White was probably its best practitioner
* Here’s how a typical piece by E. B. White begins: I spent several days and nights in mid-September with an ailing pig and I feel driven to account for this stretch of time, more particularly since the pig died at last, and I lived, and things might easily have gone the other way round and none left to do the accounting.
* Writing that will endure tends to consist of words that are short and strong; words that sedate are words of three, four and five syllables, mostly of Latin origin, many of them ending in “ion” and embodying a vague concept.
* “What does it take to be a comic writer?” He said, “It takes audacity and exuberance and gaiety, and the most important one is audacity.” Then he said: “The reader has to feel that the writer is feeling good.”
* My only consolation is that I’ll get another shot at those dismal sentences tomorrow and the next day and the day after. With each rewrite I try to force my personality onto the material.
* Writers who write interestingly tend to be men and women who keep themselves interested. That’s almost the whole point of becoming a writer.
* The moral for nonfiction writers is: think broadly about your assignment. Don’t assume that an article for Audubon has to be strictly about nature, or an article for Car & Driver strictly about cars.
* As an editor and a teacher I’ve found that the most untaught and underestimated skill in nonfiction writing is how to organize a long article: how to put the jigsaw puzzle together.
* Two final words occur to me. One is quest, the other is intention.
* narrative—good old-fashioned storytelling—is what should pull your readers along without their noticing the tug. The only thing they should notice is that you have made a sensible plan for your journey. Every step should seem inevitable.
* When you get such a message from your material—when your story tells you it’s over, regardless of what subsequently happened—look for the door.
* Writing is a powerful search mechanism, and one of its satisfactions is to come to terms with your life narrative. Another is to work through some of life’s hardest knocks—loss, grief, illness, addiction, disappointment, failure—and to find understanding and solace.
* The small stories that still stick in your memory have a resonance of their own. Trust them.
* You must find some way to elevate your act of writing into an entertainment. Usually this means giving the reader an enjoyable surprise. Any number of devices will do the job: humor, anecdote, paradox, an unexpected quotation, a powerful fact, an outlandish detail, a circuitous approach, an elegant arrangement of words.

From David Ogilvy’s 10 tips on writing
2. Write the way you talk. Naturally.
3. Use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs.
7. Never send a letter or a memo on the day you write it. Read it aloud the next morning — and then edit it

Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.
-John Steinbeck

Highlights from Joseph Romm’s Language Intelligence book
* Lincoln continued his passion for poetry and Shakespeare throughout his entire life. He spent hours reading passages from Shakespeare to his personal secretary, John Hay, and the artist F. B. Carpenter.
* The second most retweeted tweet of 2010 was from the rapper Drake: “We always ignore the ones who adore us, and adore the ones who ignore us.” That’s a classic chiasmus
* The power of repetition: Michael Deaver, the Karl Rove of the Reagan presidency, said in 2003 of the Bush White House: “This business of saying the same thing over and over and over again—which to a lot of Washington insiders and pundits is boring—works. That was sort of what we figured out in the Reagan White House. And I think these people do it very, very well.”
* Ultimately, the reason foreshadowing works, and the reason we can expect more of it in popular culture and political coverage is that we like to believe that people’s individual lives have a circularity, a consistency—a pattern.
* “To be a master of metaphor,” Aristotle writes in Poetics, is “a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars.”
* Rumsfeld is particularly good at asking questions that he then answers: “Is it [post-war Iraq] going to be as efficient as a dictatorship? No. Is it going to be vastly more desirable? You bet.”
* DON’T DENY, STATE AND ASSERT A DIFFERENT THING: The authors found that rather than deny a false claim, it is better to make a completely new assertion that makes no reference to the original myth. It takes a lot of message discipline to do this, but if you want to debunk a myth, you need to focus on stating the truth, not repeating the myth. […] Richard Nixon said, “I am not a crook,” and only his final word still rings in our ears.

Ernest Hemingway’s Basic Principles of Writing [link]
2) Master your subject through experience and reading.
3) Work in disciplined isolation.
4) Begin early in the morning and concentrate for several hours each day.
7) Stop writing when things are going well and you know what will happen next so that you have sufficient momentum to continue the next day.
10) Work continuously on a project once you start it.
11) Keep a record of your daily progress.

From various George Orwell essays

Orwell says every scrupulous writer should ask these questions
1. What am I trying to say?
2. What words will express it?
3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
5. Could I put it more shortly?
6. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. – Orwell

I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books – Orwell

George R.R. Martin interview w/ Walt and Kara from YouTube
* spent 10 years in TV and film
* constantly got feedback that scripts had too many characters, action, complexity
* for GoT, “let it all hang out”, didn’t have limits of Hollywood
* stopped predicting when his books will come out, he’s always wrong and it upsets people
* George quizzed his showrunners at an early meeting, “who is Jon Snow’s mother?”
* me: theory is Jon Snow is Ned Stark’s sister Lyanna’s son with Rhaeger Targaryen
* “characters are what it’s all about for me”
* doesn’t believe fantasy and sci-fi are different, it’s like different furniture, it’s all about the characters
* reads and studies a lot of history, borrows liberally
* “if you steal from one person it’s plagiarism, if you steal from many it’s research”
* George still writes on a DOS computer with Wordstar 4.0
* huge advantages to working with HBO: doesn’t censor adult content, larger budget, doesn’t worship ratings, commits to entire seasons and not just 2-3 episodes
* thinks The Wire is one of the greatest shows on TV

Sol Stein’s book Stein on Writing
* Use real people as your models for characters — instant recognition, visual imagery, emotional bonding
* Great fiction paints pictures
* Great fiction uses lots of immediate scene (“the man looks up and sees the grey clouds slowly forming”), less narrative summary and description
* Your lead is KEY. The first sentence, paragraph, and page must GRAB the reader
* Fiction evokes EMOTION. Nonfiction conveys INFORMATION
* Normal conversations has filler and echoes but dialogue should only include them if it serves a purpose (e.g., no “Oh”, “Um”, “How are you?” in reply to “How are you?”
* Try reading dialogue in monotone to force the WORDS to do all the work
* Twain: “If you catch an adjective, kill it”
* Great titles use METAPHOR
* “a farewell to arms”
* “grapes of wrath”
* “red badge of courage”
* me: all of GoT uses metaphor (A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows, A Dance with Dragons)
* EVOKE rather than EMOTE
* Good writing has PARTICULARITY – not just detail, but detail unique to a person, scene, object
* Tension is Latin for “to stretch” – caused by moments of uncertainty

John McPhee on how to write
* all about the lead, it should shine “like a flashlight down the rest of the piece”, once you have it the whole thing is easier
* read it aloud to yourself or someone else
* always try to make things simpler, use shorter words
* requires all his students to create a structure/outline of their piece first

How Steven Johnson writes from YouTube
* 2-3 hours at time
* has a study in basement
* 1st cup coffee ok, one glass of wine in evenings after kid sleeps, anything more is counter-productive
* when writing book, likes to write 500 words a day

Daily Habits Checklist #95 (October 1 to October 28)

Bad month, with the exception of last week. The main factor was adjusting back to the US. A few small links in the chain broke, and everything suffered. Probably the most important link is waking up early – for me, the cutoff / “win” time seems to be before 8am – and I simply couldn’t get myself to wake up at an early hour for weeks.

Let’s hope this month is better! So far it’s off to a good start.

I’m also thinking of adding a habit: Positive Visualization. 5-10 minutes a day, “imagining an incredible future” in Scott Adams’s wise words.

How about you? Tracking any habits you’d like to share? Reach out!

The 10 practices of patience, according to the Shandilya Upanishad

The Upanishads are a set of Indian religious texts written almost 3,000 years ago. They were written so long ago that Hinduism wasn’t even really a thing. Just a bunch of idealistic truth seekers writing stuff down on parchment paper.

The Shandilya Upanishad is considered a minor text, and its focus is yoga. In this context, “yoga” doesn’t mean shavasana while wearing Lululemon, but rather the yoga philosophy of action, of doing, of engaging with the world

Within the Shandilya Upanishad is a list of 10 forebearances. You can think of them as 10 practices to build patience, or 10 sources of self control when mastered.

Religions love lists, and there are many similarities among these 10 forebearances with other great lists in religious history, from the Commandments to the Precepts. We’ll compare them in future posts. But for some reason, this list has stuck with me. So here they are.

1. Ahimsa – to not be violent to any living being, whether a human or a fire ant

2. Satya – to always express and act truthfully

3. Asteya – to not covet another’s possessions, whether a Tesla Model 3, or a happy family

4. Brahmacharya – to remain celibate while unmarried, and faithful while married

5. Daya – to act kindly toward all living beings

6. Arjava – to refuse to deceive or wrong others through any of your words, thoughts, or deeds

7. Kshama – to accept suffering while forgiving those who incur suffering upon you (“But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn the other also” – Jesus)

8. Dhriti – to remain calm and composed during periods of great gain or loss, whether of money or friends

9. Mitahara – to consume all things in moderation (“everything in moderation, including moderation” – attributed to Oscar Wilde, Ben Franklin, etc)

10. Saucha – to cleanse the body and the mind

It’s interesting that three of the 10 focus on truth – numbers 1, 2, and 6. Kind of like pledging in court to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”. I suppose deception is a core human struggle?

It’s also interesting that number 8 encourages you to stay calm not only when you’re doing poorly, but when you’re doing well.

Which items resonate with you the most?

Too much screenwriting advice ft John Truby, Robert McKee, Viki King, Blake Snyder, and more

Over the years, I’ve consumed a lot of material on how to write a screenplay. Below is a curated collection of the notes I’ve taken, including screenwriting books, podcasts (a quick plug for Scriptnotes, my favorite of them all), and of course the stalwart Robert McKee.

If you want an entertaining and practical dive into the how-to’s of screenwriting, your best bet is Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat [Amazon]. It’s a fast read, and the information is immediately useful.

My favorite book of the bunch is John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story [Amazon]. His blend of theory, psychology, and practical advice lit the most proverbial lightbulbs for me. And I’m only halfway through.

And if you’re more visual, watch Michael Tucker’s Lessons from the Screenplay [YouTube]. They’re plain fun to watch and help you appreciate the tremendous depth and insight and execution that goes into great films.


The Anatomy of Story, John Truby

  • Audiences love both the feeling part (reliving the life) and the thinking part (figuring out the puzzle) of a story. Every good story has both.
  • A story tracks what a person wants, what he’ll do to get it, and what costs he’ll have to pay along the way.
  • So the ultimate goal of the dramatic code, and of the storyteller, is to present a change in a character or to illustrate why that change did not occur.
  • Classic short stories usually track a few events that lead the character to gain a single important insight.
  • Nine out of ten writers fail at the premise
  • Example premise for Huck Finn: “believably showing a simple and not entirely admirable boy gaining great moral insight.”
  • Step 1: Write Something That May Change Your Life
  • That’s the difference between a premise, which all stories have, and a designing principle—which only good stories have. The premise is concrete; it’s what actually happens. The designing principle is abstract; it is the deeper process going on in the story, told in an original way. Stated in one line: Designing principle = story process + original execution
  • Tootsie:
  • Premise: When an actor can’t get work, he disguises himself as a woman and gets a role in a TV series, only to fall in love with one of the female members of the cast.
  • Designing Principle: Force a male chauvinist to live as a woman.
  • One way of coming up with a designing principle is to use a journey or similar traveling metaphor. Huck Finn’s raft trip down the Mississippi River with Jim, Marlow’s boat trip up the river into the “heart of darkness,” Leopold Bloom’s travels through Dublin in Ulysses,
  • Sometimes a single symbol can serve as the designing principle, as with the red letter A in The Scarlet Letter, the island in The Tempest, the whale in Moby-Dick, or the mountain in The Magic Mountain.
  • KEY POINT: Always tell a story about your best character. “Best” doesn’t mean “nicest.” It means “the most fascinating, challenging, and complex,” even if that character isn’t particularly likable.
  • If you can’t find a character you love implied in the story idea, move on to another idea. If you find him but he is not currently the main character, change the premise right now so that he is.
  • To figure out the central conflict, ask yourself “Who fights whom over what?” and answer the question in one succinct line.
  • Is this single story line unique enough to interest a lot of people besides me? This is the question of popularity, of commercial appeal. You must be ruthless in answering it.
  • From the very beginning of the story, your hero has one or more great weaknesses that are holding him back. Something is missing within him that is so profound, it is ruining his life
  • KEY POINT: Your hero should not be aware of his need at the beginning of the story.
  • A true opponent not only wants to prevent the hero from achieving his desire but is competing with the hero for the same goal.
  • This technique of starting at the end and going back to the beginning is one we will use again and again as we figure out character, plot, and theme. It’s one of the best techniques in fiction writing because it guarantees that your hero and your story are always heading toward the true endpoint of the structural journey, which is the self-revelation.
  • You want to give your opponent a special ability to attack your hero’s greatest weakness, and to do so incessantly while he tries to win the goal.
  • The relationship between the hero and the opponent is the single most important relationship in the story. In working out the struggle between these two characters, the larger issues and themes of the story unfold.
  • The subplot character, like the ally and the opponent, provides another opportunity to define the hero through comparison and advance the plot. The ally helps the hero reach the main goal. The subplot character tracks a line parallel to the hero, with a different result.
  • The central concept of love stories is quite profound. Love stories say that a person does not become a true individual by being alone. A person becomes a unique and authentic individual only by entering into a community of two.
  • The buddy strategy allows you essentially to cut the hero into two parts, showing two different approaches to life and two sets of talents. These two characters are “married” into a team in such a way that the audience can see their differences but also see how these differences actually help them work well together
  • One of the most important elements of the buddy web has to do with the fundamental conflict between the friends. There is a snag in the relationship that keeps interfering. This allows an ongoing opposition between the two leads in a traveling story where most of the other opponents are strangers who quickly come and go.

Save the Cat by Black Snyder

  • And yet, so the rules tell us and human nature dictates, we don’t want to see anyone, even the most underdog character, succeed for too long. And eventually, the hero must learn that magic isn’t everything, it’s better to be just like us —us members of the audience —because in the end we know this will never happen to us. Thus a lesson must be in the offing; a good moral must be included at the end.
  • Look at Point Break starring Patrick Swayze, then look at Fast and Furious. Yes, it’s the same movie almost beat for beat. But one is about surfing, the other is about hot cars.
  • There’s the “good girl tempted” archetype – pure of heart, cute as a bug: Betty Grable, Doris Day, Meg Ryan (in her day), Reese Witherspoon. This is the female counterpart of the young man on the rise.
  • The rule of thumb in all these cases is to stick to the basics no matter what. Tell me a story about a guy who…
    • I can identify with.
    • I can learn from.
    • I have compelling reason to follow.
    • I believe deserves to win and…
    • Has stakes that are primal and ring true for me.
  • Not to get too self-protective, but a strong structure guarantees your writing credit. More than any other element, the bones of a screenplay, as constructed in the story beats of your script, will be proof to those who decide who gets credit at the Writers Guild of America (WGA) that the work is primarily yours.
  • The hero cannot be lured, tricked, or drift into Act Two. The hero must make the decision himself. That’s what makes him a hero anyway —being proactive.
  • When you, the development exec, ask for “more set pieces,” this is where I put them. In the fun and games.
  • a movie’s midpoint is either an “up” where the hero seemingly peaks (though it is a false peak) or a “down” when the world collapses all around the hero (though it is a false collapse), and it can only get better from here on out
  • At the All Is Lost moment, stick in something, anything that involves a death. It works every time. Whether it’s integral to the story or just something symbolic, hint at something dead here. It could be anything. A flower in a flower pot. A goldfish. News that a beloved aunt has passed away.
  • And its logline —an ugly duckling FBI agent goes undercover as a contestant to catch a killer at the American Miss pageant —certainly satisfies the four elements from Chapter One: irony, compelling picture, audience and cost, and a killer title.
  • Thus, she has reached a classic All Is Lost moment: She is worse off than when this movie started!
  • You must take time to frame the hero’s situation in a way that makes us root for him, no matter who he is or what he does.
  • The Covenant of the Arc is the screenwriting law that says: Every single character in your movie must change in the course of your story. The only characters who don’t change are the bad guys. But the hero and his friends change a lot.
  • In many a well-told movie, the hero and the bad guy are very often two halves of the same person struggling for supremacy, and for that reason are almost equal in power and ability. How many movies can you name that have a hero and a bad guy who are two halves of the same persona? Think about Batman (Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson), Die Hard (Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman), and even Pretty Woman (Richard Gere and Jason Alexander).
  • Make sure every character has “A Limp and an Eyepatch.” Every character has to have a unique way of speaking, but also something memorable that will stick him in the reader’s mind.
  • Four Quadrant – Men Over 25, Men Under 25, Women Over 25, Women Under 25
  • Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis – aka, Acts One, Two, and Three

Robert McKee on screenwriting and life

  • Novels are the best format for inner conflict
  • Theater are the best format for p2p conflict, dialogue
  • Film is at its best in showing man’s conflict with the world, the external
  • Can tell right away what skill a writer has by how they handle exposition
  • Spielberg: brilliant craftsmanship, nothing to say
  • TV is the most creative medium today
  • Generally the screenplay gets better and better and better through filming and acting and production but that’s not talked about, only when it gets worse
  • Sometimes novels or memoirs usually get published by a 23 yo but they’re just there to annoy the good writers who take 10 years to master their craft and write something of quality
  • Many years ago the worst thing that could happen was you’d die. So stories were about how to survive. There are far worse things today. People in living hells. People could at least understand the plague. Who can understand banking? Parenting?
  • Need a MINIMUM of 3 major reversals in any story. eg, Raiders of Lost Ark

How to write a movie in 21 days, Viki King

  • Can you find a line of dialogue on page 3 that introduces a central question? Every scene after this builds on that central question
  • One thing that happens in storytelling is that we tend to start telling the story from far away. For instance, we tell it in hearsay scenes (the funeral) rather than by depicting the action (car crash). We tell it in minor characters (the girlfriend) rather than through the character it really happened to (the drunk driver).
  • By page 10, you’ll need to tell us what the story is. Keep setting up more and more information so that we know what the hero wants
  • We should enter a scene at the last best moment; that is, if you want character A to slap character B, don’t have A pull up in the car, enter the building, ride up in the elevator, and so forth. Just CUT TO the slap.
  • The event that happens on page 30 throws your character a curve. He is forced to respond or react. He might make a plan. He decides on a goal to pursue because of what’s happened.
  • See if you can identify the page 45 scene. This is usually a small scene with symbolic overtones. (If it’s a young girl growing up, we see the teddy bear abandoned face down on the window seat next to the cosmetics.) This scene gives us a clue to the resolution.
  • By page 75 it looks like all is lost; there’s even a scene where your hero is just about to give up. But then something happens that changes everything: an event that gives him a chance at a goal he didn’t even know he had.
  • On page 90, an event occurs that “educates” the hero. He’s going to be getting something more than or something different from what he set out to get.
  • Page 45 is the symbolic growth scene. It is a taste of where your hero will get to. Page 60 is where he commits wholeheartedly to his dream. In Gone With the Wind Scarlett holds the carrots up to the sky and says, “As God is my witness, I’ll never go hungry again.” And she spends the second half of the movie holding to that commitment.
  • Have your character complete this statement now: “As God is my witness, I will _____ _____ _____.”
  • For the first half of Act II, (pages 30 to 60), your hero is saying, “I want it. I want it.” And the stakes against him are obstacles that seem to say, “you can’t have it.”
  • Inner Movie Axiom: In order to have a dream become a reality, it must be given up as a dream.
  • From pages 75 to 90 you’ll move very fast. Your hero got up the mountain, and now he’s shooting the rapids on the other side.
  • Answer these questions:
  • Does your hero get what he wanted?
  • What last thing does he have to give up to get it?
  • How is he different in the end than he was in the beginning?
  • Remember your first scene of the movie—see if the last scene can be an answer to that scene. We call this bookends.
  • Remember the good feeling you get when you watch a movie and it starts to pay off at the end? It’s exciting; when the Raiders finally found the lost ark and looked inside; when Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman are finally at the airport in Casablanca. Be dramatic here. Give us some beautiful closing moments.

From Brandon Sanderson’s lecture notes, The Hero’s Journey

1. Object-at-rest: the Hero is at home, doing nothing much.
2. Call #1: the Hero is summoned. He usually refuses.
3. Call #2: the Hero is summoned. He can no longer refuse.
4. Journey Begins: what it says on the tin.
5. Loss of Mentor: crap is now real.
6. Descent into Underworld: crap is now realer.
7. Confront the Evil Within Themselves: crap is now THE REALEST.
8. Apotheosis/Everything Comes Together: often using skills learned between steps 4 and 5, the Hero succeeds in his goal.
9. Return Home (Upgraded): in the falling action, the Hero comes home having defeated the Bad Guy—but, more notably, having defeated the Bad Guy in himself.

Random notes:

  • Craig Mazin: In character descriptions, describe their wardrobe, hair, and makeup
  • What is each character terrified of? That’s their inner struggle and how they need to transform
  • to paraphrase Alex Macquarrie’s tweet, it’s all about FEAR – who creates it, who avoids it, who confronts and overcomes it
  • Great scenes often include dialogue where characters ask a lot of questions. Questions propel action, demand a reply. It also alerts the audience because they think they’re being asked the question
  • Great scenes often rotate around one word or one phrase. For example, from Remains of the Day, the scene where Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson keep talking about a “book”, batting the word back and forth to each other