What makes a good story

I had a call with a director on her short story today for the rewrite.  She wanted to make sure all the elements were there, all the ambiguity was explained at the beginning.

I then said, “Look, I understand where you were coming from. But doesn’t your version sound like a beige flight safety promo video? How do you want me to feel in the end?”

So what is a (good) story? What isn’t?

The bottom line is, we want our hero to go through hell, to hurt, to lose, to experience a near death before he grows, and learns, before he gets his want, or not. No matter what the reward, he has to earn it first otherwise the audience would feel cheated. Besides, we want the surprises to keep our minds engaged. By giving us details like how we deal cards, our hearts are satisfied through working and solving the puzzles by ourselves. And when we feel what the hero feels at the very end, we finally realize that we have been manipulated by the storyteller. But like the hero, we let it happen. Because the journey is the reward. 

By pinpointing her mistake, I also realize it’s the pitfall that I also tend to fall into. 

As a storyteller, my job is to stir emotions. If I can’t feel it when I write it, how can I expect anything else from the audience?

 

Yours truly,
YZ

Haste makes waste

I had a call with my screenwriting sensei on a challenging project that I had been tackling with. Sensei started with chitchat. I saw what’s awaiting me… After some thirty minutes in, sensei stopped by saying, “Okay, now it’s time to draw some blood.” 

For some 2.5 hours. I felt every bit grateful for the notes he gave me. They were ruthless and spot-on, and exactly what I needed for the next over-haul.

For the amount of projects I have been taking on lately, I convinced myself that I would build the structure first and fill in the soul and flesh later. That way it wouldn’t kill the momentum of the dread of having to give birth to a first draft out of thin air. 

“By not feeling his desire, there is no weight to his denial. Always, always get the emotional beats out before you fill in the details. And I can see those fillers knowing that you are just trying too damn hard to avoid the difficult scenes that put your character alive.” 

Ouch. I felt like Po in Kung Fu Panda… So the question is, when will I stop writing with the head and start writing with the heart? I can use this project as a transformation point to my next phase. Or start with my next blog.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

Under the moonlight

The more people entrust in me with their stories about love, about rock bottom, about vulnerability, the more I realize that there is no such thing as a perfect life. If someone says he begs to differ, then I’d say he’s missing out on life in general.

Everyone at some point gets her heart broken if she trifles with love. Sometimes what they’ve experienced should only happen in a movie. And yet, the truth is stranger than fiction. 

As a writer, you get to see life in various shapes and colors. If you don’t have an open mind, you only capture a limited few layers of life and people. But if you are willing, willing to set aside your own judgement, your own opinion, maybe you will find that people are more alike than they’re willing to let on. 

And yet, we tend to preach the popular, go with the flow through sunlight. We only let go of our subconsciousness and desire under the moonlight.

As a writer, my job is to bring what’s under the moon back to the sun. When it’s done right, it provokes people, it makes them uneasy, angry, upset… But in the end, people see their true selves through the story. 

They won’t admit it, but they feel it. To a writer, that’s a job well done.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

The big rock

Overwhelmed by my to-do list this week, I wasn’t at all productive for the last two days. Nor was my sleep. 

I called my friend and mentor and spilled out my concerns.

“I feel like everything is so important that I can’t drop any ball I’m juggling right now.”

“Tell me what you have on your plate.”

“A new short film project. My weekly podcast. The dissertation outline that I’m collaborating with a Chinese screenwriting professor. The beat sheet of the animation project. And notes preparation for the three-hour lecture next Tuesday.”

“Here is a big jar and laying in front of you are the big rocks, the small pebbles and a pile of sand. How do you fill them all in without neglecting any?” 

He knew that I got the answer but kept going for my own benefit, “The big rock is your most important, most urgent task. Right now it is the short film that you need to turn in by end of tomorrow. How about you focus on that for the rest of the day and get it done, so you can have time to finish editing your podcast tomorrow?”

I couldn’t help thinking, “Why does it sound so much less messy when it comes out of my friend’s mouth?”

“You just can’t do everything at the same time.” 

True. ”But what if I am too tired too frazzled that I just watch YouTube?” I tried to hide behind the what-if, which is actually the reality I’m wrestling whenever the pressure gets the better of me.

“Well, then you just have some grow up to do. There are things you don’t like, but you are obligated to do it. Pace yourself and complete the task before those all-nighters compromise your health yet again.”

After the pneumonia-bad cold double whammy, I should know better. 

Several hours after our conversation, I now have a rough first draft of the short film. But I need to take a couple of more revisions first thing tomorrow morning before sending it back to the director. 

But hey, at the end of the day, I did tackle the big rock before romancing the other stones.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

Get it done

I turned in my first major feature project a couple of hours ago.

In the midst of all kinds of interruptions from pneumonia, bad cold, friend’s visit, to other side projects, I got it done.

That “You can’t do it” voice in my head, so loud at times, finally quiets down a little.

I’m grateful for the people I’m working with. They were patient, and understanding.

That’s empowering.

And there is an obvious lesson re-learned:

How to get things done?

Drip by drip. Word by word.

I will catch some sleep. Because I have a new project to take on tomorrow, from scratch.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

Those commercial stuff

I just watched The Spy Who Dumped Me. I chose NOT to see it when it premiered. I remembered passing by the billboard when a friend drove us somewhere for dinner.

“The Spy Who Dumped Me.”

“What?”

“A new movie. Looks stupid.”

And that was the end of the conversation. When I smell something too commercial to my taste, I shoot it down, fast. I frown upon cheap spy movies, car chase movies, action movies. Because it’s almost always all adrenaline, no brain, no real emotion or substance. When I was still in film school,  I detested and resisted from writing commerical stuff. I even drew a hard line between artists and those sellouts.

I even take my coffee pure black, no milk, no sweetener or other weird stuff. I like to taste it real, with no disguise. And yet, a friend reacted, “Com’on, life is hard enough. Let’s make it sweeter.”

Interesting. Then I keep on drinking my esspresso, black.

Now here comes the plot twist. I took on a commercial feature project recently. Watching The Skp Who Dumped Me tonight gave me so much inspiration. I was with Kate and Mila all the way through on their wacky journey. I was laughing so hard that my chest still sores when I try to take a deeper breath.

So when I accused those feminist nazis, I became one myself. Can’t commercial do good too? Why does everything have to have a ‘point?’ Doesn’t make people laugh a lofty goal already?

Thanks to this commercial “stuff,” I just got an extra doze of motivation and drive to strive to make my own project sizzling fun.

 

Yours truly,
YZ

First Amendment

The script that I wrote for a student director got some attention after their chair praised it. Two more students got in touch with me today to work on their stories. It was good news, because I need as many credits as I can get for my artist visa application.

Then, I was on the phone with them, separately, for a total of three hours… Okay, I know if I were a lawyer, I’d a) never made partner; b) got out of business before I had one.  But, seeing it through the twisted lens of a screenwriter, it was actually not unrewarding.

First off, I see myself in them as a fresh film student taking on a mission impossible.

Then, I realized that these two new ‘potential clients,’ especially the latter, hadn’t thought out her story yet. I told her to speak with as many people as possible to get as many ideas as she could to understand her story better. And most important, what kind of ending she wants, what type of feeling she wants to provoke.

With the other slightly more advanced soon-to-be-client, I told her to transfer more stuff into words instead of sending me ‘mood shots’ because I’m not her cinematographer.

With my current client, she shared with me something revealing. Our story’s ending goes against the #MeToo movement. It seems that all men dig it, and all women hate it so much that they almost started a riot. The instructor pitched my client a sanitized version where the heroine rode the high way in the end.

I saw it coming. Hashtag Feminist Saves the Day.

Here is the thing, what do you call a writer who writes off her characters’ own intentions just because her own political viewpoints are just too fucking important?

What about… tyrant writer?

When you have all the setups towards the ending that shall run its course, but you choose get something else totally out of character because “it feels politically correct.”

  • As the audience, you won’t yell: holy shit, I didn’t see it coming.
  • You’ll be more like: this is total BS. Then throw your TV/laptop/iPad etc. off the window like Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook.  Because that’s how mad you are.  I get it.

If I have one thing to be grateful of my UCLA Film School experience, it is that no instructor tells the students what’s more right to write about according to the current political climate, or what character you should be writing because according the instructor’s monologue, she is lonely and she wants you to create more imaginary friends so they can have tea with her and her 15 cats.

But I’m a pro, so I promised my client to write the ending that would please her instructor. Plus, she would show both to the chair…

I thought in America, there is a thing called First Amendment. And it’s quite a big deal.

Okay, these students are from China. But they paid their tuition in full, not on some sketchy loans.  So treat them accordingly, okay?

 

Yours truly,
YZ