The Lone Ranger needs to be rescued from itself!

…Well, as fond as I am of Johnny Depp and as fond as I am of the original Lone Ranger stories, the new Jerry Bruckheimer film has a few issues.

Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start, when you read you begin with A – B – C, when you WRITE you begin with an opening that is going to hook the audience.  However, that did not happen.

I don’t know… maybe it’s me, but I wasn’t keen on seeing an aged (decaying) Tonto (Johnny Depp) on display at a Wild West Historical Museum as the opening image to this epic tale.  It was just weird.  For the first 10 minutes of the film, I sat there thinking, “Oh great.  This entire film is going to be a flashback!”  Its predictability nearly lulled me to sleep.  Even though the mummified Depp comes to life and “trades” a dead mouse for peanuts (which he proceeds to eat, shell and all) with a young boy dressed like the Lone Ranger, the opening image did not deliver.

I understand that action/adventure films are clearly their own genre, but when you take famous characters like the Lone Ranger and his side-kick Tonto, there needs to be something other than trains blowing up and disproportionate stunts to keep the plot moving forward. This re-invention of The Lone Ranger lacked depth for so many reasons.  Even the acting genius of Depp couldn’t pull this story out of its dull state.  Perhaps this is the reason for so many things blowing up. How many explosions does an audience need to see in a 2-hour period?  Were the explosions making up for what was lacking in the story? Then there is the issue of the “perpetual” run-away train, which crashes and burns and then resurrects before the next scene!

Poor Tonto, he’s been rejected by his tribe for accidentally showing the “white man” where all the silver was when he was a little boy, in exchange for a pocket watch from Sears and Roebuck.  I realize that reference was intended to be comedic, but it was just odd.  Especially since Sears and Roebuck began as a mail order catalog in 1893, and didn’t actually become a physical store until 1925.  The flashback takes us into 1833 (someone didn’t do their research).  Since therapists and Paxil didn’t exist back in that day, Tonto just roams around with a dead raven on top of his head.  He’s a “man departed,” and a “Wendigo Hunter,” which is code for a “nut job.”

The storyline was hard to follow – jumping from one thing after another, exhausting the audience along the way.  I heard comments after the film ended like, “Wow, longest damn film I’ve been to in forever,” or “Finally.  I didn’t think it would ever end.”  That’s a probably not good sign when walking out of a theater.  When the plot is not well written, and things jump around too much, it becomes hard to connect to the characters.  For those of us who grew up watching the original television series, this was frustrating.


Originally, The Lone Ranger began as a weekly radio broadcast that spanned 21 years.  The television series came later, and was on for 8 years.  While we did not have extraordinary stunts and pyrotechnic oomph back in the day, we were drawn into the characters.  This was not the case with Bruckheimer’s version. The characters were not properly developed – perhaps even confused from the start.  They forgot that Tonto was not the lead character, but the Lone Ranger’s sidekick.  In the new version, Tonto definitely gets top billing, and leaves the handsome masked ranger (Armie Hammer) riding on Silver through the tumbleweed of Texas (or rather Utah).


The plot is convoluted and the tone disastrous, which obviously led to the writers trying to connect the dots with forced humor and action over-kill.  

The ending is equally as bad as the beginning.  Suddenly, we’re back in the Museum. Tonto finished eating the peanuts, and continues to tell his story to the little boy dressed up as the masked ranger.  No longer dressed like an Indian, Tonto is in a suit (perhaps an Armani).  He puts on a bowler hat over his dead raven, and Tonto disappears from the museum window.  In a flash the “dead” raven is resurrected, and flies out of the exhibit window toward the screen.  As the credits roll, the styling lizard-skinned Tonto walks out into the Utah wilderness and he’s carrying a suitcase.  I don’t remember ever being so confused by an ending in my life.


Good writers are the ultimate eavesdroppers

In his book, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell says, “Modern literature is devoted, in great measure, to a courageous, open-eyed observation of the sickeningly broken figuration’s that abound before us, around us, and within.”  In other words, story telling is really about observing humanity.

Let me be perfectly candid: Screenwriters are not exempt from these important observations.

I truly believe that the best writers are not afraid to ask questions.  Maybe my work as a journalist is seeping through, but in order for us to create convincing characters, we need to have a real grasp on psychology.  We should be open-minded, and never write with an agenda, but write as an expression of what is within and about what is external.

I have never understood the writer who hides away from humanity.  Naturally, writing is solitary by nature, but when I am not writing, I am out and about—watching and listening to people.  Perhaps good writers are the ultimate eavesdroppers.

If you’ve never seen Norah Baumbach’s film, The Squid and the Whale, I’d like to recommend it. The story is about a family in crisis, and Baumbach successfully utilizes the themes of divorce, infidelity and relational dysfunction (sounds like Psychology 101), and we are drawn into the drama of a family as they all try to make sense of life.  You know, something that happens around us everyday.

Baumbach hits the audience with a scene-by-scene depiction of a family that is jaded by denial.  One of the greatest universal appeals in this screenplay is the author’s ability to write a brutally honest story about a family being forced to change in the midst of serious crisis.


Whether the story is dramatic or comedic is not even the issue, because, according to Joseph Campbell, comedy and tragedy work parallel.  He says, “The happy ending of the fairy tale, the myth, and the divine comedy of the soul, is to be read, not as a contradiction, but as a transcendence of the universal tragedy of man.” Regardless of our station in life, we are all evolving.  Campbell’s hero never sits idle, but moves through time and space—changing from the inside out.  This is a reflection of life. Life, as we know it—a “call to adventure,” as Campbell puts it.

Good stories and well-drawn characters remind us of life.  In them we see reflections of history and unforgettable moments.  Moments comprised of birth and death, heartache and rapture, conflict in relationships, pain and suffering, love and war, happiness and sorrow, and justice and injustice.

Fellow writers…good writing is not something that just happens.  It’s not like picking up a journal, writing your thoughts down with utter abandonment while sipping a latte, and then suddenly getting published or produced.  There’s no magical formula, and no genie to wiggle her nose with the promise of a next best seller.  Like anything in life, if a writer wants to excel, he or she must surrender to the process, and it’s rigorous.  It means letting preconceived ideas go, and not holding onto writing that’s redundant just because you like a scene or a character.  It means to scrutinize your work and hold it against other works that have stood the test of time.  It means to be thoroughly honest while being captivatingly creative and transcendent.  “Story is about eternal, universal forms, not formulas…story is about mastering the art, not second-guessing the marketplace,” says Robert McKee.  The truth is…there are no shortcuts.

Having an open mind means to step outside of the box.  Writing is a journey that all of us creative minds must embrace, and like the characters we create, there is a moment in time where we “must” choose to drop all predetermined plans and welcome with open arms the challenge set before us.

Writing is a sacred place of both discovery and methodology.  It’s an amalgam of both worlds, and that process for me has been to find a balance between creative artistry and theory.  Part of that discovery is observing the way we humans respond to life. To not be afraid to let go of writing that doesn’t work (a couple of screenplays ago, I deleted 30 pages of script and laughed hysterically).  Letting go is a part of embracing the art of storytelling.  It’s not just about myth.  It’s about life.

So, are you (as a writer) ready to embrace the journey of storytelling?  Are you ready to be honest and transcendent?  Are you willing to learn what “really” makes a character tick?

“The big question is whether you are going to be able to say a hearty yes to your adventure.” – Joseph Campbell

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What do you mean I don’t have a good story?

It’s amazing.  Wherever I go, when it’s found out that I’m a screenwriter, I will get approached by someone who says, “Oh my God!  You write screenplays?  I have the BEST idea for a screenplay…” In fact, this happened to me about a month ago at a coffee shop that I frequent.  I was working on a screenplay, and the woman at the table behind me started talking with me, wanting to know what I was writing.  After she learned that I write screenplays, she said, “I have the best story ever for a comedy.” Without hesitation she began to share.  Of course, she was not too pleased with my response. I said, “You know, that’s a really funny scene, but I’m not sure it’s an actual story.  You will need to develop a story-line in order for it to work as a screenplay.”

The nub of it…you cannot build a story on a scene.  I’ve tried it, and it doesn’t work.


Another factor to consider when writing your screenplay:  You cannot just cram together various scenes, that have no connection with each other.  That is like trying to squash a square peg in a round hole; it will never work. They must be cohesive.  Like building blocks–they need each other to stand.  So, a good story needs to promise something from the beginning.  There must be a hook, and everything that you write from the first word to “The End” must lead to a final goal. Every sentence, every stitch of dialogue, the scenes, the descriptions all connect, and an audience or reader is magically drawn in.

So, the elements that you provide for the audience or reader actually draws them in, and keeps them engaged with the story and the characters.  Good stories are made up of various elements.  There are guidelines, not hard-fast rules, but structure and strategy is paramount.

Aristotle claimed, “the ability to plot, or to create a powerful structure, is the most important aspect of writing.  Good writers serve their stories; bad writers serve their own agendas.”

A story is evolving, not static.  It is LIVING–alive with anticipation, and that anticipation holds an audience/reader to the premise like glue.

There are reasons that films like: A Beautiful Mind (2001), Dances With Wolves (1990), How Green Was My Valley (1941), Zorba The Greek (1964), Norma Rae (1979), Crazy Heart (2009), The Silence of the Lambs (1995), The Sound of Music (1965), Lord of the Rings (2000-2010), Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000), Whale Rider (2003), Gangs of New York (2002), La Vie En Rose ( 2007), Finding Nemo (2003), Inception (2010), Toy Story 3 (2010), Fahrenheit  911 (2004), Atonement (2007), Little Miss Sunshine (2006), to name a few, have won Oscars.

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To Subplot or Not to Subplot: That is the Question

What is the purpose of a subplot? Well-written subplots should enhance the story in a different way, emphasize the theme and resolve by the end of the story. In addition, at some point, your subplot(s) must intersect with the main story and push the story forward to the end. Much like rivers and streams dumping into the same ocean.

The beauty about well-crafted subplots are that they can help weave dimension and complexity into the central plot, but they must be cautiously integrated and they must stay relevant to the theme. A good subplot should hike-up the drama by making it harder for the protagonist to achieve his or her goal. In other words, subplots effectiveness are dependent on the conflict that they bring to the protagonist.

The writer MUST maintain control over the main plot while bringing in a subplot. Robert McKee says, “The balance of emphasis between the central plot and subplot has to be carefully controlled, or the writer risks losing focus on the primary story.”

Here are a list of things that subplots do:
They introduce new characters
– They enhance your main story/plot.
– They can be the mirror opposite of your main story.
– They can introduce new characters.
– They can reveal the back-story of the main plot, and they always enhance the theme.
– They reveal exposition.
– They show simultaneous action that happens along side your main plot.
– They supply tension and conflict.

Subplots are also often referred to as the “B” story, which is a secondary story. Often times, it’s a love story that’s introduced into the storyline, and while it MUST support the main theme, it gives us a little breather from the central story. It’s like a temporary diversion.