Friday, May 11, 2012

Stop Me If You've Heard This One

I blew through last year's "Broadwalk Empire" on DVD last week, watching three or four episodes a day, and if made me think about the kind of writing we do at Hamline, the kind in scripts that's handled by a word like Exterior or a few words like Int: A Wealthy Lawyer's Office. No wonder every parking lot attendant has a script in his trunk. No description! Just people talking!

Beyond that, though, I particularly liked the tags at the beginning of every episode: "Jimmy decides to move up in the world." Or, "Margaret ponders her future." As fond as I am of seeing where my story goes and as much as I like to be surprised, there comes a point where I've wandered off the road too many times and found myself in a pasture facing a cranky bull. That's when I ask myself what the tag lines are. In "Stoner & Spaz" they were things like this: Ben decides to defy his grandmother. Or, Colleen disappoints Ben yet again.

I like these more than I like the big beats in screenwriting: Theme Stated, Set-Up, Catalyst, B-Story, etc.

I once had a student in the VT program and I asked her to just write out all the tag lines. She was befuddled, anyway, and could only do maybe ten. But even the holes she had to leave were useful. Then she knew what had to happen to get from "X decides decides to enter the race after all" to "X finds Y is more important than any trophy."

All of us have our methods to finish our stories. Some start fast and hope for the best. Some outline. Some write the ending first. The variations are endless. If you're in trouble with a story, though, try some tag lines.

BTW: if you want to hear me talk 2 1/2 minutes about the new fairy tale book (LIES, KNIVES AND GIRLS IN RED DRESSES) go to my website ( And then I pronounce my last name! I'm telling you, kids: the thrills never stop.

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