“Tammy,” a country western song gone bad

Comedy shouldn’t be code for compromised or bad writing. It’s as if some writers slough-off the need for structure perhaps hoping that the “laughs” will constitute popularity, and that no one will notice structural issues, but that’s simply not so. Such was my discovery last night when I went to see the movie, Tammy.

What’s not to love about Melissa McCarthy? She is quick-witted, garden-fresh (always ready to serve-up some juicy ad-libbing), and she’s absolutely hilarious, donning such box-office hits like: Bridesmaids, Identity Thief, The Back-up Plan, and The Heat (to name a few). McCarthy produced and co-wrote Tammy with her husband Ben Falcone.

McCarthy gives the audience more of the same – the arrogant tough girl, who humorously has no respect for humanity, but underneath her hard, calloused shell, she is a lost, vulnerable, victimized gal that needs some serious TLC.

I’m not surprised that Rotten Tomatoes gave it a rating of 23%. In my estimation, that’s fairly accurate. The comedy is unexciting and unoriginal, and consequently, the character and the plot move aimlessly with no real direction, and while this might seem minor, no one laughed. A comedy that doesn’t drive the audience to laughter is nothing short of a flop.

Tammy reminds me of a bad country western song. You know the type… Sick, sorry and busted, broke, disgusted and depressed; I’ve been cheated on, ripped-off, abused and I’m a proficient loser with nowhere to run. It’s a never-ending victims saga. What else can go wrong, right?

Tammy is having far more than a bad hair day; she has totaled her car after running into a deer—a deer that is seemingly dead until it suddenly resurrects after Tammy lies down on the road and blows on it (mouth-to-mouth is out of the question). The saga continues with one blow after another, starting with her getting fired from Topper Jack’s fast food restaurant. Broke, disgusted and depressed, Tammy hits the road with her drunken, over-sexed, unappreciated, younger-than-life grandmother (Susan Sarandon, who still looks amazing with gray hair).

It’s a seeming perfect combination plate…Grandma has the loot and Tammy feels the need to get out of dodge. However, these two renegades are not Thelma & Louise (sorry Susan…you were better as Louise). In truth, I’m not sure what purpose this road trip serves, and this is a huge problem since 90 percent of the film takes place on the road. The first 15-20 minutes of the film feels like a stand-up comedy act where the comedian overshoots to get a laugh from the audience. It becomes difficult to get engaged with the lead character and laugh.

The characters and the plot are underdeveloped, and what happened to the promise of the premise? There is no promise and there is no premise. It is a film loaded with implausibility from the story line to the casting. While McCarthy can entertain the best of an audience, if obnoxious and brash behavior happens to be your thing, there is no variance or engaging presence on screen, and that’s an issue. This isn’t about her size either, but it is about the fact that Tammy gives us nothing new or tangible that makes us care. While action moves a story forward, this film is entirely dependent on circumstances moving everything to a rather predictable end.

Certainly every good comedy uses chaos as a means to drive the plot forward and establish the sense of need for transformation in the character. The protagonist in a well-written comedy should go on the journey of a lifetime. But, even though Tammy is on a road trip, her trip is anticipated and rather dull.

Writers of comedy should study Jerry Lewis. Lewis was a comedic master, as an actor and a writer. Lewis was able to create multifaceted characters that exemplified flawed humanity at it’s greatest. His ability to put a comedic spin on human tragedy was incredible.

Comedy is the most difficult genre to write, and requires just as much structure and writing genius as every other genre.

 

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This blog and the “screenwriting” process

One of the earmarks of being a screenwriter is that most of us are unabashedly eager to talk about the process of screenwriting. Bottom line…it’s in our blood.  However, that process is not something that begins with the letter “A” and ends when the outline is over. It encompasses every facet of the development from conception, to production. It includes being open-minded, dedicated and ridiculously tenacious. It involves being able to take rejection and criticism while maintaining your self-esteem.

A good screenwriter should not just be able to knockout a well-crafted script; you should also be able to critically analyze other screenplays and films. I have always maintained that part of the steps of understanding the way story must function in film is to be able to review a film from a writer’s perspective.

Screenwriter on Location is a blog that encompasses “the process.” Whether blogging about the elements of craft, or discussing the latest box office hit, this blog tells “all” without hesitation.

What about subplots?

Creating a good plot is essential to screenplay writing, or any other type of fiction.  The plot is what drives the story forward. While subplots are a common element used in screenwriting, they can be risky if they are not used properly.  Aristotle maintained that a perfect plot has a single issue, and that subplots are the sign of bad writing technique (Tierno).  So, if this is true then how have subplots become so predominant in screenwriting today?  It is imperative that a writer choose one external conflict and a subplot must be a part of that conflict.  For a subplot to work, it must carry the theme of the main action.

In order to establish whether a subplot will work or not, the writer needs to have an understanding of what a subplot really is.  Some writers actually call subplots the “A” and “B” story, but either way; a subplot is an extension of the main theme.  In other words—subplots are always somehow connected to the main plot.  These secondary storylines must enrich, or bring life to the main plot, and they will always help the protagonist in his or her journey toward resolve.  For example, in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the central theme is developed around Hamlet’s crazed revenge of his father’s death, and his actions are a result of his need for revenge.  There are two subplots in Hamlet: The war with Norway and Ophelia’s relationship to Hamlet.  Shakespeare reveals Hamlet’s want in the first act, but complications occur in act two when Hamlet shows up in Ophelia’s chamber in complete disarray after Ophelia has just learned that he is loosing his love interest in her.  Ophelia is not overly surprised, because she is aware of his confused mental state.  The plot thickens when Ophelia shares about Hamlet’s sudden visit with Polonius:

OPHELIA

O, my lord, my lord, I have been so affrighted!

LORD POLONIUS

With what, in the name of God?

OPHELIA

My lord, as I was sewing in my closet,

Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbraced;

Ungarter’d, and down-gyved to his ancle;

Pale in his shirt; his knees knocking each other;

And with a look so piteous in purport

As if he had been loosed out of hell

To speak of horrors, — he comes before me.

LORD POLONIUS

Mad for thy love?

OPHELIA

My lord, I do not know;

But truly, I do fear it.

(Shakespeare, 2:1)

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In the above scene, Shakespeare uses Ophelia’s character to create conflict and further establish the question of Hamlet’s sanity.  It is important to note the Ophelia and Hamlet have been life-long friends, so for her to “fear” his love, and have this kind of intense concern, it is somewhat disquieting.

In an article written by Amanda Mabillard, which is posted on Shakespeare Online, she says, “There are three plots in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: the main revenge plot and two subplots involving the romance between Hamlet and Ophelia, and the looming war with Norway.”  Shakespeare uses the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia to highlight a different aspect of the one external conflict—Hamlet’s settling of scores.

Everyone loves a good romance story, but the supposed romance between Hamlet and Ophelia turns sour.  By the third Act, Hamlet verbally assaults her, wounding the poor young maiden’s heart and rendering her hopelessly insane; she drowns in Act four. Laetres blames Hamlet and vows revenge.  Shakespeare uses the actions of these characters to continue create tension in the story and to enhance Hamlet’s disposition and emphasize his off-kilter state-of-mind.

For a subplot to work effectively, additional characters must remain central to the primary plot. In Sylvester Stallone’s famous screenplay Rocky, the main plot is the fight.  Where Hamlet’s motive for action was the revenge of his father’s death, Rocky Balboa’s motive for action is the big fight.  Rocky’s relationship with his manager and his wife are a way for the author to introduce different points of view, while supporting the plot and driving it forward.  The relationships that Rocky has with these two characters help to create secondary plots.  They do not take away from Rocky and his goal, but add a sense of depth to his character and bring humanness to Rocky.  For example, Rocky’s trainer Mickey sees potential in the young 25-year-old fighter, but throughout most of the screenplay, there is a lot of friction between Rocky and Mickey. Stallone wittingly uses this resistance between the two characters to produce the wanted results in the end…Rocky will fight.  Note the following excerpt from a scene between Rocky and Mickey:

MICKEY

Ya want the truth – Ya got heart, but ya fight like an ape –

The only thing special about you is ya never got ya

nose broke – – keep ya nose pretty – -what’s left of ya

brain an’ retire.

ROCKY [ignoring his comment]

Listen, I’m gonna take a steam – –

Did good last night – – Shoulda seen it.

MICKEY [ignoring Rocky’s comment]

Hey, ever think about retirin’

ROCK

…No.

MICKEY

…Think about it.

Mickey

The above scene is good psychology.  Mickey knows that if he can get Rocky mad enough he will step up to the plate and give his all, and then he will have a good chance fighting in the fight that will land him the title.  Stallone uses Mickey like the sound of a nail against a chalkboard.  This trainer wants to get under Rocky’s skin and push him on the journey toward his goal—the fight.  In the final scene, Rocky makes it to the fight, and Stallone pulls the stops out as he keeps the audience/reader suspended in thin air and he is going for the heavyweight title against the undefeated Apollo Creed.  When everyone expects Rocky to ultimately win, Stallone pulls a fast one –it’s a “split decision!”

ANNOUNCER

Ladies and gentlemen – We have a split decision!

ANOTHER ANGLE Apollo did not expect this and tenses.  His corner nervously tries to reassure him.  It does no good.  ANOTHER ANGLE Rocky did not expect this either and looks in confusion at Mickey, but Mickey is frozen with anticipation.

ANNOUNCER

Judge Walker scores it eight- seven Creed…

Judge Roseman scores it eight-seven Balboa(…)

winner and still Heavyweight Champion of the

world, Apollo Creed!

Keep in mind that the goal is the fight, and even though Rocky technically loses, his loss

makes the audience/reader love him all the more.  Mickey’s response to Rocky after the

winner is announced is not only touching, it also adds a sense of humanness to their

relationship.  In almost father-like fashion Mickey affirms to Rocky his admiration as he

says, “I don’t care what they say, you’re a winner.”

Remember…
Subplots are not additional obstacles randomly thrown into a screenplay;

they reflect the central conflict of the main plot.

For screenplay coaching and/or editing:  carlaiacovetti.com

Other references: WriterDuet.com – Screenwriting online…it’s easy, SSL secure and free!

 

 

TOL (thinking out loud)

What about the story?

While I have always loved movies, my fixation with writing had more to do with the manipulation of words, and the development of a story than anything else.  Of course, for a story to arc, there are a number of things that need to take place.

For starters…

You need to ask yourself a very important question:  “What is my story about?”  That question will open up Pandora’s box, for everything that can be explored will be explored; everything that can be revealed will be revealed.  It is not just about a “story” per say.  This is where the combination of creative energy and critical thinking merge.  You can’t just focus on a story idea without critically examining every possible scenario.  I’ve quoted Michael Tierno, author of Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters time and time again.  He says, “Good writers serve their stories; bad writers serve their own agenda.”

We need to approach our story with a commitment to stay true to the story.  What do I mean by that?  I mean that storytelling (no matter what genre) requires us to lay aside preconceived ideas.  It involves always thinking outside of the box, and being open to new ideas.  It also involves having an understanding of the human condition, which is what will ultimately give it depth and universal appeal.  For a story to move to catharsis (a purification or purgation of the emotions like pity and fear released primarily through art or the purification or purgation that brings about spiritual renewal or release from tension), this display of human circumstance must be present. Catharsis is a type of communication that builds upon pieces of our life.  When this happens in a story, the reader or audience finds relationship with the situation, and experiences an emotional release.  This generally happens in the 3rd act, and it should cause the greatest emotional response to the situation the hero finds him or herself in.  It’s that suddenly moment in a romantic comedy where the two leading characters “realize” they’re in love! As the story unfolds, our emotions rise and when we experience that emotional release, resolution and harmony comes.  Suddenly, we feel good. In fact, most of us develop an attachment to a film based on our emotional response to the film.  Screenwriters, please, please, please do not write unresolved endings (cliffhangers) that are only going to leave an audience frustrated or mad!  Author Andrew Roberts says, “It’s sheer directorial moral cowardice to cut the screen to black and deny the audience the catharsis they’ve paid their $13 to experience.”  While I do agree, it may not just be a directorial issue; it might simply be the way the writer wrote it.

Here’s another tidbit: The story cannot arc properly if the protagonist doesn’t arc.  You really cannot separate one from the other, because a good story reveals a main character that is on the journey of a lifetime.  A journey must confront his or her personality quirks, human flaws, moral choices, and personal life struggles.

Remember the movie Sideways (2004)?  From the get go, we (the audience) is made aware that the protagonist Miles has hit rock bottom.  Miles is an English teacher, and failed novelist who cannot get his book published.  He longs for his ex-wife, who has clearly moved on (she’s remarried).  Miles is a real piece of work. He has no problem stealing money from his own mother! He has enough quirks and fetishes to fill a book, or at lease a wine bottle. He epitomizes being stuck in a rut.  However, for Miles to successfully arc, he’s going to have to become unstuck.  Just like the wine that he so loves, Miles is going to have to ripen and mature.  The wine trip is a journey that confronts many of Miles’ personality quirks, flaws and personal life struggles.

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The journey then becomes a vehicle for conflict, opposing forces, surprises and various twists and turns in the storyline that appear to impede the hero from successfully completing his or her journey.

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Plotting along

According to Aristotle, the ability to plot is the most important aspect of writing–even more important than the characters themselves. Michael Tierno, author of Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters (one of my favorite books) says, “Good writers serve their stories; bad writers serve their own agendas.” When writing, I think this quote should be planted in front of our eyes at all times. Within the structure of plot, we should seek to convey truth through the human condition. So, your plot must have a single issue, or as Tierno puts it, “one unified action.”  He uses The Godfather as a perfect example of this.  It’s easy to think that there are numerous plots weaving this story together, but that is not the case.  The single issue in The Godfather is the war against the Corleones.  Everything else evolves because of that single action event.

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Greek scholars translated Aristotle’s “Mythos” as plot.  We get the word “mythology” from mythos, and it’s defined as a story, legend, tale, folklore, fable, etc.  Without the plot, we only have characters, scenarios and language, but no story.  Aristotle understood plot, and so did other great writers throughout history.  Writers like: Homer, Shakespeare, Dante, and Geoffrey Chaucer, and Ovid, to name a few.  There is a reason their works have stood the test of time. Writers who understand the importance of creating stories that cause the reader or viewer to respond in an emotional way will create a winning story. Carl Jung said, “They touch the common experiences of life and death that humans undergo.” Sigmund Freud said, “They mirror our neuroses and help to resolve them.”  A screenwriter, who understands the power of myth and can recreate these stories in a fresh and present way, will scribe a successful story.

Plot is the framework where the story unfolds, but it is not the story itself. Story is what happens; plot is how those events unfold.

It is much like a seamstress who begins making a piece of clothing with a pattern.  The pattern is raw. Without it, the dressmaker cannot sew a single stitch; it is the framework for the dress. So the plot evolves one point at a time. Good plots move chronologically.  This is part of the reason that using flashbacks can be tricky.  Normally, a film that is written in chronological order works better, but (of course) there’s always the exception to that rule. Citizen Kane and Pulp Fiction are great examples of the exception. The only reason for writing a non-chronological plot is to reveal something about the character that will be better disclosed if not told in a chronological order. That being said, Aristotle, Horace and many other ancient writers advised to begin in medias res, “in the middle of things.” This is an ancient literary technique for manipulating the plot. It’s like hitting the reader or viewer between the eyes with a big club! In other words, begin the story near the heart of the problem. This device was used in films like: Sunset Boulevard, Fight Club and Hangover, and while this technique certainly served these plots well, BE CAREFUL. If you decide to use medias res, you need to understand its function and limitations, and for a novice screenwriter, I would avoid opening that door.

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Never forget that plot is connected to action. Michael Tierno calls it the “Action-Idea,” or “mission statement.” So, when we are developing our plot, we must ask ourselves “if” it is an “Action-Idea.”  For example, say I want to write a screenplay about a love. That is not an “Action-Idea.” We have to look a little deeper.  Since plot and action are connected, how can we change this idea, to reveal a sequence of actions that have a beginning, middle and end? If I create a plot that involves the protagonist overcoming the obstacles to love that keeps him or her from engaging in “true” love, that is a great “Action-Idea.” I can then build central conflict; develop the character and other underlying themes in the story.

What about a quest-driven plot?  Raiders of the Lost Ark is a perfect example of this. A plot that is built around a quest always involves the protagonist’s search for a person, place or thing, and that can be tangible or intangible. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Professor Indiana Jones ventures into the jungles of South America searching for a golden statue. From the moment his search begins, conflict arises with every deadly trap that comes his way. The plot thickens when museum curator, Marcus Brody, who tells Jones about a biblical artifact called, “The Ark of the Covenant,” contacts Jones. This artifact holds the key to human existence, and finding it comes with a price.  Jones is on the journey of a lifetime as he finds himself in remote places like: Nepal and Egypt, while fighting against Nazi enemies and antagonist, Renee Bellog.

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Different plots will result in different paths, but if a plot is properly created, there will always be a chain of events that follows (cause and effect). In the end, a well-crafted plot will drive the story forward with action, and define and enhance the protagonist’s journey.  After all, at the end of the day, all good stories reveal a journey.

Connecting the dots between every action

I read a great book a few months ago–a technical (don’t freak-out at that word) manual for reading plays, actually.  The book is called, Backwards & Forwards by David Ball.  Even though this is technically guide to play-reading, it is a great source for analyzing and reading scripts.  After all, whether you are a playwright or a screenwriter, we all at some level embrace similar elements of structure and look at the interpretation of such…

Ball takes you from point A to B, connecting the dots in-between… and a play (or screenplay) is ACTION–action that is both connected and progressive.

Let’s think about connected action.  What do I mean by that? 

Let me use an example:  John came home from work tired and hungry, but instead of immediately going to the kitchen to make something to eat, he walked over to the couch, plopped down and turned on the TV.  Not 3 minutes into a Bud-lite commercial John began to snore and shortly thereafter, he was drooling like a Saint Bernard.  While snoozing, John wasn’t thinking about his hunger.  HOWEVER, when John woke up nearly 3 hours later, it was approaching 9 p.m.  He was past the point of being hungry, he was ravenous!  So…

John went into the kitchen, opened up his refrigerator, which had 3-day old pizza (uncovered), a 6-pack of Bud Lite, minus one beer, a jar of pickles, an essentially empty bottle of ketchup, expired slices of American cheese, Cesar salad dressing (no lettuce), and old orange, and a bag of soft apples.  Flustered, John shut the refrigerator door, and walked over to the pantry.  The pantry didn’t have much going on there either.  An empty box of microwave popcorn, 2 more 6-packs of Bud Lite, a can of corn, a can of green beans, an opened box of instant mashed potato’s, a huge bag of Kibble, and a half-opened stale bag of Frito’s.

Now what?  John’s hunger will push him into action.  He’s going to In-N-Out Burger and grab a Double Double, an extra large Coke, and a large fries.

In a play or screenplay, one action deserves another, and good writing connects those dots.  Ball says, “An event without an outcome is not an action.”  Unconnected events in life and on the screen are irrelevant!

So, part of a writer’s writing responsibility is to WEED-OUT unrealistic scenes.

Ball suggests that we look to the thing that happened preceding the action.  In other words, what transpired before John got in his car and drove to In-N-Out Burger?  He calls these TRIGGERS.

When writing a screenplay, it is imperative that ACTIONS evolve out of what happened prior.  These REACTIONS take the story forward.  You need to connect the dots between every ACTION.

For Script Analysis & Coaching: carlaiacovetti.com

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.

Whaaaaaa?

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.

For screenplay coaching and/or editing:  carlaiacovetti.com

Other references: ReadThrough.com – where screenwriters and actors collaborate online to help bring scripts to life!