Writing

Who is a storyteller?

Stefan Sagmeister takes a very extreme stance in this video, but sometimes extreme stances help spur the conversation.

We all tell stories in our lives. We tell stories to our kids, to our friends and our work colleagues. Every startup entrepreneur who pitches her company (hundreds of times), learns how to tell a compelling story in a pithy way. Should we all call ourselves storytellers?

We all make food to feed ourselves. Whether it’s toast, oatmeal, scrambled eggs, pasta or a more gourmet meal. Should we all call ourselves chefs?

We all doodle and make presentations. Should we all call ourselves creators or artists?

We all hum. Should we all call ourselves musicians?

We all tinker on our computers, fix annoyances and set up our preferences on programs we use. Should we all call ourselves technologists?

Maybe you laughed at the last one, but it’s a valid comparison. Just like it would be silly for people who uses technology as part of their jobs to call themselves technologists, it is silly for people who uses storytelling as part of their jobs to call themselves storytellers.

They are both tools you use to do your job. They are both tools in life, at this point. Everyone tells stories, everyone uses technology.

One of the points in Sagmeister’s video I do agree with is that most novelists or filmmakers don’t actually call themselves storytellers. They call themselves writers/novelists and filmmakers.

The word storyteller has been consumed by pop-culture, by tech culture. While I definitely do not feel as strongly about this as Sagmeister seems to (to each his own, who really cares, etc.), I do think words have value and when they are misused, they lose value. As he says “…it sort of took on the mantle of bullshit.” Yep.

Chennai Screenwriting Workshop-Part 2

Slightly delayed, but let me jump into coverage of Day 3 and Day 4.

May 31st, Sunday, 2009. Day 3.

The morning of Day 3 belonged to Atul Tiwari and dialog. Atul was a great mix of prepared notes and extempore. He started off with a history of cinema in Chennai1 and then waded into the key elements of writing good dialog. He talked about how characters give birth to dialog and dialog gives birth to characters; that to write good dialog, you really need to know a lot about the character, who she is, the physiology, sociology and psychology. He stressed the importance of subtext and of the unspoken word.

He also talked about common pitfalls to avoid – like falling in love with dialog and ensuring some character in the script (or in your next script) says those lines. I can honestly say I’ve had those moments where there’s a great line and I spend time wondering how to get a character to say that.

We then watched several scenes of dialog from movies and he deconstructed what worked in each of those scenes. He ended with stressing that dialog should not be used for exposition in your script. After all, cinema is a visual medium – show don’t tell, as the oft-repeated phrase goes. Atul is an engaging speaker – expressive, witty, and very aware of the pulse of the audience. All in all, a very good session.

While Atul owned the morning of Day 3, the afternoon session was run by Mr. Hariharan. The topic was Deconstructing a Screenplay. The session started well – he screened a movie called The Lunch Date written and directed by Adam Davidson. This is a famous short and used in film schools all over the world as an example of a great short. Davidson made it as a student at Columbia and it won the Student Academy Awards as well as at Cannes and at the Oscars. So far, so good.

Mr. Hariharan then dived into a very detailed deconstruction of the short from the perspective of film making. Not the screenplay, film making. So we were treated to details about how to figure out the location size and block your characters accordingly, how to stage the scene, how many seconds it took the character to do something, how many shots it took to communicate a certain event etc. All very good stuff but really, it was not deconstructing the screenplay at all. It was deconstructing the film. Mr. Hariharan is clearly a very visual filmmaker (a good thing) and he communicated the intense focus on detail one needs to make a good shot, scene and short film, but I think it left a lot of the audience confused as to what it had to do with the script. And, it also left several newbies wondering what to put in a script (location details, shot details, etc.)

A more effective method for this session might have been to read a script (as the writer wrote it), examine how it worked with regard to building momentum and tension, character detailing, dialog construction etc. and then watch the director’s vision of the same piece as a film. The session as it was held, definitely had some positives, but I’d mark it as the one with opportunity for improvement.

The day’s screening was Cyrano de Bergerac with the exquisite Gérard Depardieu, directed by Jean-Paul Rappeneau and written by Jean-Claude Carrière. Monsieur Carrière was on the schedule for Day 5 of the Workshop, in the Seminar portion.

June 1st, Monday, 2009. Day 4.

Day 4 was a sizzler – packed and useful. When I was considering whether to apply to the workshop, I chatted with a friend, Somen M. When he saw that Anjum was leading many of the sessions, he insisted I apply because Anjum “was an exceptional teacher”. Let’s just say that Somen’s respect for Anjum lived up to the hype.

The morning and early afternoon were dedicated to sessions on The Hero’s Journey, led by Anjum Rajabali. This is a hard session to write about since so much of the detail was in Anjum’s delivery. So instead of transcribing my notes, I’m going to provide an overview. Using Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces as the basis, Anjum spoke at length about the various parts of the hero’s journey. This is fascinating stuff and is an exceptional way to understand why mythology all over the world has stood the test of time. In terms of screenwriting, it is a very useful way to think of both plot construction and character construction and growth. Campbell’s book is now on my must-read list and it should be on yours if you love screenwriting. Before Anjum started speaking, Atul introduced the session and said many of Anjum’s former students seek out his talks on the hero’s journey. After the session, I certainly understand why. If I’m ever in a position to attend another of these sessions, I certainly will.

This long and utterly fascinating session was followed by two quick and practical ones on the writing process and terminology (Anjum) and a review of a free screenwriting software called Celtx (Mr. Hariharan). Screenwriting software greatly enhances the speed of writing because you don’t have to worry about indenting things the right way and Celtx certainly seems pretty bulletproof in most regards. And who can beat free?

The final session was about the Industry Aspects of writing. Anjum and Atul, both of whom have been instrumental in crafting a standard contract for writers in the Bombay film industry led this session. They talked through the writer’s rights – fees, credit, termination and rolayties and the writer’s duties – schedule of submission and presence at meetings. I was stunned to learn that they had a really hard time of getting people to agree to a minimum fee of Rs. 6 lakhs (USD 12,000) per script. I mean, months, perhaps years of work and the payoff is 6 lakhs? How on earth is a writer to survive? Someone at the seminar pointed out that promo cutters (the folks that cut the trailers for films) get paid 6 lakhs for a month or two of work. Sure you need to know how to edit, but are we kidding here? There’s really no comparison in the amount of work involved.

This session was an eye opener. And to think that the writers union worked really hard to even get to this point! A lot of credit to them. I really hope this is just a starting point and over time, the amount paid even to first time writers – for a good script – goes up dramatically. On that note, it was interesting to see Mr. Kamal Haasan’s reaction to this session; he wears several hats – one as a writer himself, two as the host of the workshop and three as a producer who hopes that this body of students will produce some great work for him, at a reasonable price. He was clearly torn on which hat to don 🙂

The session was an excellent jolt of reality. Everyone should go into this profession with their eyes open. Knowing the reality will better prepare folks for the crazy world that awaits them. The session also wrapped up the day and yes, as of Day 4, Mr. Kamal Haasan had still attended every single session. Impressive.

The next post will cover the final part of the workshop, the seminar. Coverage will be light since I was sick as a dog for a majority of it. My being sick also made me miss the screening on Day 4 РIndig̬nes, directed by Rachid Bouchareb and written by Olivier Lorelle (who was scheduled to speak on Day 5).

Also read: Part 1 – Days 1 and 2


  1. To placate the crowd, to some extent, which frequently asked for examples from Tamil movies which many of the presenters had not watched. 

Chennai Int’l Screenwriting Workshop

A few weeks ago, I learned (web, twitter) about the Chennai International Screenwriting Workshop and decided to apply. The application process is probably one of the most tech-savvy I’ve seen. Everything was run through their website (a modified blog, really). Regular updates kept the masses fed in a very efficient manner. And just a day later than their originally promised schedule, I found out that I got in.

And here we are…

May 29th, Friday, 2009. Day 1.

The day kicked off with an introduction by Mr. Kamal Haasan. He put the entire workshop together to make screenwriting more accessible to aspiring writers. This is the first time I’ve seen the man in person and I have to say that he’s articulate and intelligent. He also seems very self-effacing. Most importantly, he seems really committed to the workshop. I’m writing this at the end of day 2 and he’s been in every session – hasn’t skipped a single one. He also introduced the rest of the presenters for the workshop – Hariharan, Director of the L.V. Prasad Film and TV Academy, Anjum Rajabali, Head of departments of screenwriting at FTII and Whistling Woods, and Atul Tiwari, a professional screenwriter and an excellent dialog writer.

Anjum Rajabali took charge of the next couple of sessions. He’s a very impressive man – funny, engaging, articulate, compelling. An excellent presenter who captures and holds your attention. He clearly loves what he does and he communicates that joy when he talks about his craft. In his first session, he walked through each of the elements of a screenplay – idea, premise, theme, plot, character, structure, scene, dialogue. It was a solid primer and a good grounding on the basics of what’s involved with writing a screenplay. He then spent an entire session on Premise. The key take away for me:  figure out the Premise early in the writing process in order to ensure you have enough to power an entire feature film.

Mr. Hariharan (feel compelled to say Mister here… Anjum seems like a guy who’d be cool with it if you called him by his name though, so I’m going with it) then led a very detailed session on Characters, Characterizations and Characteristics. And when I say detailed, I mean extraordinarily detailed – pages and pages of detailed PowerPoint, each one filled with great stuff. The best parts of the session were when he took the time to illustrate with examples – he came up with hilarious examples that will stay with me for a long time. An example of one of his examples – “What if you named one of your characters Abithakuchalambal? It immediately embodies the character with certain attributes. Then what if you name the other character Tania? You have an image of an Abithakuchalambal and you have an image of a Tania. Now what if Abithakuchalambal was 20 and Tania was 60?” It’s enough to convince you that you have to have a weed-smoking, goth-styled Abithakuchalambal in your next script, yes?

The day wrapped up with a screening of On The Waterfront. I’ve watched it before and I can honestly say the second viewing of Kazan’s masterpiece was better than the first.

May 30th, Saturday, 2009. Day 2.

Anjum led the session on Structure. This is one of those parts of a workshop that has to be taught (I mean, can you actually say you don’t teach anything about structure in a screenwriting workshop?) but, one that really shouldn’t be applied by screenwriters *as* they write their screenplays. And fortunately, Anjum himself stressed that point – do not think about structure, do not work to a formula. Having learned the basics of screenwriting from the inimitable Mick Casale (head of the writing program at NYU’s Tisch), I was jumping up and down in agreement with that statement.

The next session was on Scene design and Anjum screened and dissected a handful of beautifully constructed scenes including the opening scene from The Godfather, the scene in the car from The Sixth Sense where Cole reveals his secret to his mom, the scene from Satya where Bhiku Matre comes home and exchanges slaps with his wife, and finally the opening scene of Charulata which Mr. Hariharan talked us through.

Despite the fact that we spent a session and a half on Scene Design, I really feel this needs even more time. Creating a great scene is hard and I would love to learn more about the variables in the writer’s toolkit to build a great scene. I’m hoping they can spend a bit more time on this on Day 3.

The last session of the day was led by Mr. Kamal Haasan. He chose to focus on Hey Ram, in which he was the writer, director and actor, and spent most of the session answering questions. A very open and honest exchange despite the occasional, cringe-inducing “question” that was really a verbal love-letter from an ardent fan.

The day’s screening was Ghatak’s extraordinarily depressing Mehge Dhaka Tara, widely regarded as his best film. Even though I like Ajantrik better, one can’t really complain at having to watch any Ghatak film again, especially on a large screen.

Finally, I have to say this is a really well-organized conference. It’s located in IIT, unarguably the best campus in the city, the presenters stick to their times, the food is decent and handed out in a very organized manner and the volunteers are genuinely helpful. When was the last time that happened? Kudos to everyone involved!

Also read: Part 2 – Days 3 and 4

Doubt

The acting was exceptional. Across the board, every actor excelled. These are the roles that Meryl Streep was born to do. And Philip Seymour Hoffman – wow. He was so cleanly-creepy that I cringed every time his long nails were displayed.

And there were a few moments where I felt like I was a lucky fly on the wall, listening in on conversations, watching the drama in the Catholic school unfold. But overall, the movie fell below expectations, mostly due to decisions made by the director.

In a movie where the acting is exceptional and emotions run high, I feel it is best to let the camera be as unobtrusive as possible, but director John Patrick Shanley in his first real directorial effort, does the opposite. There are scenes where the camera suddenly drops down and frames the character from below, immediately snapping the viewers attention away from the conversation and onto where the camera is instead. Ugh. The one-on-one scenes between Meryl Streep and Amy Adams and between Hoffman and Adams are scenes where there is a lot being said between the lines and the actors carry the scenes – instead of cocooning the audience and making them feel unobtrusive, they are suddenly thrust into the conversation – breaking the spell the actors have cast. Unfortunate.

The strange and forced camera angles to emphasize mood and tone is repeated at various points in the movie – in a shot where Streep walks in out of a storm and through a corridor in the school, Shanley chooses an off kilter camera angle to emphasize the emotional state of the characters. Why, why, why?? Please don’t beat us over the head with it.

I had similar issues with the screenplay too (written by Shanley) – when there is a tense scene, the setting is a storm. High winds are constantly blowing branches to the ground. It’s all a bit much. A lighter touch would have given the solid story and intense acting the space they needed to make the movie truly top-notch.

Here’s my initial reaction to the movie on twitter:

Just saw Doubt. Great acting. Don’t love some of the directing, cinematography choices. *Movies 7.5*.

Six weeks later, the only change I would make is downgrade the 7.5 rating to a 6.5.

Ira Glass on Storytelling

These videos are excellent. He’s talking specifically about the broadcast world, but it applies to any creative storyteller (writer, photographer, filmmaker, artist). The first three are particularly relevant, the third video is my favorite. Brilliant stuff.

First draft

For me, writing the first draft is the hardest thing.

I think of an idea and just twirl it in my head for a few days. I think about it any time I am free… images running through my head. I’ll hit an issue. Some issues are deal breakers – if it destroys the premise or makes the whole story seem silly, poof, the idea is banished. I’ll start the same process with another idea. I usually try to work around deal breakers if I can. It might need a dramatic shift in some of the original hypotheses/characters, but I’m not attached to them yet.

Then, I write it all down in a treatment. Usually somewhere between 3 and 7 pages of prose. At this stage, I find it useful to share. I remember for one of my treatments that I shared with my workshop, the group felt that the ending seemed odd – the character was too strong to pick the option I had picked for her. I felt part of it was not understanding the cultural mileu of India, but I could also see their point. That ending… well, I am still torn on which direction to go on that.

Once I feel I have an idea that can work and outline that seems interesting, I write. Since I’ve spent so much time thinking, the writing usually goes pretty quickly. For the first section of the screenplay anyway…

The middle section is icky. Conflict arises, conflict gets worse, all the character motivations need to be ironed out. This is where I stall. Procrastination, pontification, loathing of the script, scoffing at the idea. Every tool is used to delay addressing the prickly issues.

The resolution has probably been in my head for a while. I may have a couple of alternate endings. I try to pick the less obvious/convenient one. Once I get done, I can’t look at it any more. I need time away before I can come back to it.

How does this compare to how you write? Any suggestions?

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Writing workshop – an overview

For most of 2006, I attended a writing workshop in Manhattan.

To be clear, it is a workshop, not a class. A class is one where all the students sit down and listen to a teacher share his wisdom, the dos and don’ts of writing a good script, character motivations, story arcs etc. There are tons of screenwriting classes like these and the most famous are those run by the likes of Syd Field and Robert McKee. While I have nothing against these classes, I was never drawn to them mainly because, despite their protestations, they propose one formula for all scripts. These methods work for thousands of people (many of them very successful), but it is not for me, since this is not how I learn best.

A workshop is where almost every participant is working on a script. So, to start with, you can’t be a passive participant (if you are, you lose a lot). At the beginning of the semester, you pick a date when you will bring your work in. Each week a student brings in their work (for film or theater). Usually it is a set of scenes and not the whole play/screenplay. The author assigns roles and we read the script. Then all of us provide input. There are also a handful of classes set aside where we do hand-on exercises to help improve our writing. Very different from a class. Every workshop has a slightly different structure, but this is the one that I’ve been exposed to.

It was a god send when I found a workshop run by Mick Casale, the head of the writing program at NYU’s film school. It has been one of the best experiences I’ve had despite the fact that I haven’t made the most of it. Mick doesn’t believe that every script needs to follow the same structure, unlike some who believe the first turning point has to happen at the 27th minute(?!) Every script needs to be compelling. Every script needs to hold the audience’s attention. And every script is different. If you are interested in independent cinema and scripts that don’t follow a set path, Mick is your man.

I started attending early in 2006, when I was still commuting from California. That meant that for the first semester, while I had an idea of what I wanted to work on, I was not actually working on a something. This was a bad idea. As I attended week after week of the workshop, I saw the incredible value that Mick was providing to those working on stuff, but I could never apply it to my work and so it didn’t stick with me.

So, by the next semester, I forced myself to sign up to a slot. The week before my work was due, I started to panic. Mad scrambling and several late nights later, I had a six page treatment for my work. I got fabulous input into the story, what they thought of the ending and suggestions to where I could tweak things.

Realizing that these forced deadlines make me write, I continued my practice of signing up to share stuff that I hadn’t written yet. The first thirty pages of my script got written only because of this approach.

Besides the fact that the workshop forced me to be productive, I love it because Mick is one of the most insightful teachers I have ever had. He listens to the script and his comments are just amazing. He will pick out the key issue with a scene and when you hear him articulate it, you want to smack yourself on your head and say “damn, why didn’t I think of that??”. He’ll suggest that you move something around and when you do, the scene is a thousand times more powerful. He makes the most simple statements in such an understated manner that you could just ignore them, but when you analyze them, there are so many layers of wisdom.

That is why I love this workshop. I am going to try and document the key learnings from the sessions. This is going to be hard precisely because it is not a class. There is no set of bullet points that you should write down. When he provides input into someone else’s work, his statements need to be taken, analyzed and applied to your own work, as appropriate. This leaves a lot of room for interpretation and as hard as I try, I know I am not going to do him justice, so apologies in advance.

First I will try to catch up on some of the key takeaways to date and once the workshop starts up again (in late Jan), I will try to post them as the sessions happen.

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How I get myself to write

I’ve started writing again. I love to write, but find it almost impossible to get started. Once I get started, I actually write pretty quickly – at least the first draft stage.

I’ve resorted to little tricks to help myself be productive – faking deadlines, giving myself pep talks, and most importantly feeling like I am part of a group that is in this together.

  • Faking deadlines. I am part of a cool screenwriting workshop that meets once a week. I think it is cool because it is a group of highly non-competitive and very helpful people who spend the 3 hours dedicated to the person who’s work is being read. There are no distractions and everyone provides really great input. Each semester, we sign up for a date on which to bring in our work. I find when the deadline nears, I write like crazy (usually in the two days before) and manage to write 12 to 20 new pages for my script. But the rest of the semester, I do nothing. That’s terrible!!! God, really terrible! I forgave myself while I was till working full-time, but now I have no excuse.
    So, I figured, why not fake the deadlines for myself. I tell myself that I have to email out a draft to someone on X date and I stick to it. I often do end up emailing out the draft to a close confidant to make it more real.
  • Pep Talks. The pep talks take two themes. I either try positive motivation like “Think about the long corporate hours you put in. This is nothing. Just a couple of hours, come on” and if that doesn’t work, then I shame myself with stuff like “This is pathetic. You quit your job for this? You’re going nowhere fast”. The risk with the latter is that I believe it and then I get depressed which kills the ability to write completely!
  • Working with others. The other day, a screenwriter I sometimes read, David Anaxagoras, posted a thread about using the time change to start writing. Basically using that extra hour to write. That was a great idea. I also chatted with a journalist friend in India who’s been procrastinating on her book for a while. And we decided to write for an hour each morning and we fill each other in on whether we did it and how it went. This method works great for me. I remember a few years ago, I wanted to take a 6am spinning class in San Francisco. A colleague of mine from work signed up with me. He lived a little further away and so he drove to my place, picked me up and then we headed to an hour of sheer torture. There were so many mornings that I wanted to just snuggle in and go back to sleep, but the fact that he’d be in his car downstairs forced me out of bed. So, the fact that I committed to my friend that I would write, makes me hold up my end of the bargain.

These are the little tricks I use to get myself to write. What do the other writers out there do?

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