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  • Goals vs. Needs – What Defines Characters…And Writers

    April 15th, 2017

    By Danny Manus

    What’s your goal?

    It’s one of the most important questions a writer can ask. Not just of their protagonist, antagonist and every single one of their supporting characters…but of themselves.

    A character without a defined goal has nothing to fight for, no aim and no meaning in the plot, no connection to the hook. They are stagnant and passive in a story happening around them. A writer who doesn’t know what they want to achieve, what their next steps are to reaching that goal, and what they want their script to accomplish for them, is no different.

    But the question of goals is often informed, motivated, compromised, or superseded by an equally vital question –

    What is your deeper need?

    What this second question asks is, what is the deeper emotional want that is driving your character…and you? The difference between goals and needs is the difference between one’s brain and one’s heart.

    Goals are created by situations and circumstances, and a character can have multiple goals throughout a story. They are usually achieved by recognizing or analyzing a situation, making plans and executing them. They’re created by the brain. They’re the external.

    If your character is sent on a mission to colonize Mars, then their goal is to complete their mission; If your character is a cop trailing a serial killer, then their goal is to find the killer and solve the crime; If your protagonist is in love with their best friend who is about to get married, then their goal is to stop the wedding and tell them the truth. And as each of those characters journeys through each of their stories, smaller more acute goals will present themselves as obstacles arise.

    Your personal goal may be to become a working paid screenwriter. But your deeper emotional need could be to live a life doing something creative that you’re passionate about. And perhaps your motivation, which can sometimes be a bridge between them, is to prove everyone who made fun of you in high school wrong. Ya know…just as a random example.

    The deeper needs and wants of your character, however, are about examining the character’s fatal flaw or backstory or wishes or dreams or insecurities, etc. It’s about recognizing or analyzing WHY their goal is so important to that character. They’re created by the heart. The internal. And you need both to make your characters compelling, three-dimensional and castable.

    It’s not enough that your character wants to save the world. It’s also about why. What saving the world represents to them or how that could lead to them achieving their deeper need or want. And one’s deeper need can be achieved because of, or in spite of, their goals.

    Liam Neeson’s character in the first two Taken films has a very specific goal – to rescue his family from bad guys. But his deeper need and emotional want is to prove he can be a good father after all these years and put his family back together. In Wild, Reese Witherspoon’s goal is to survive hiking that trail. But her deeper need and want is to overcome the loss of her mother, forgive herself for cheating on her husband, and reinvigorate and reinvent herself after being an addict who was lost in life. In Whiplash, the goal of Miles Teller’s character is to prove he is the best and win the approval of his teacher. But his deeper need and want is to prove to the world that he is special and has something different to offer at all costs.

    Sometimes, a deeper need can present itself as obsession. In fact, obsession may be the one running theme in every single Oscar nominated film this year. Every lead character had this deeper need or want that they become obsessed by (or obsessed with) which drives them even after their immediate goals are accomplished. Theory of Everything, Nightcrawler, Foxcatcher, Imitation Game, Whiplash, Birdman, American Sniper, Selma. Even Patricia Arquette’s character in Boyhood, though to a lesser degree, is obsessed with providing the best life for her children that she can.

    In Foxcatcher, John Du Pont has a goal of creating an Olympic winning wrestling team and getting closer to Mark, his star wrestler. But his twisted, hidden, deeper need is to win the respect of his peers and his disapproving mother and feel needed and important at all costs. And it is when that deeper need is threatened – not his goal – that John’s character changes and tragedy strikes. In fact, John is willing to sacrifice the goals set up to ensure his deeper need is met.

    Sometimes a character may not even recognize the deeper need, and they almost never state it. This is where subtext, context and backstory can pay off for the audience and reader, as sometimes the deeper emotional need is something WE recognize in a character before they do.

    The goal and the deeper emotional need can often work together, but they can also be at odds. And when that happens, a strong dilemma is often created for the character. Do they service their brain – or their heart? Foxcatcher is one such example. I don’t want to ruin the film for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but Gone Girl (especially the third act) is another great example of this.

    An even better example, however, may come from looking in the mirror. As a writer, you’re going to have constant goals. From finishing a first draft, to winning contests, to getting representation, to getting sold, to doing it all over again. But you need to recognize if your deeper need and want is strong enough to keep you dedicated even when rejection makes you feel like your goals may never be achieved.

    Very honestly, if you’re new to screenwriting and your deeper need and want is to make enough money to provide a great life for your kids and put them through college and buy a house, then your goal of becoming a working screenwriter – which can take many years to make happen, if ever – may not be the best goal to strive for to achieve that deeper need. I’m not trying to dissuade you from trying. Not at all. Every character (and writer) should attempt to accomplish their overarching goal. But goals can seem hollow and empty if they don’t connect to something deeper and more emotional. Same goes for characters. And same goes for screenwriters.

  • Confessons of a Contest Judge: The Differences Between Semifinalists & Winners

    September 9th, 2014

    By Danny Manus

    The last couple weeks I have been judging the semifinal round of the prestigious PAGE Awards in the Horror/Thriller category. It’s my fourth year as one of their judges and I have had a pretty darn good track record in choosing the top scripts, picking the winners 2 out of the last 3 years (this year’s still being decided).

    I know contests can sometimes feel like this vague guessing game to writers. They’re subjective, often inconsistent, some have anonymous readers and judges, and there are SO many out there, each with their own lofty promises and prizes, that it’s hard to know which are worthwhile and which are a waste of $40. And with every year, there are more submissions and increased competition to overcome.

    When I started reading for PAGE just 4 years ago, there were just 4,500 submissions. Now, there are over 6,000. Six thousand writers vying for 31 prizes, including the grand prize of $25,000 and of course all the access and accolades that go along with that. But those are some daunting odds – 31 out of over 6,000. THAT’S how good your script needs to be. And those are better chances than most other contests which only have a couple prize winners and don’t break it down by genre. This is also why submitting to nationally (or worldwide) recognized, prestigious contests have become a launching pad for new talent – because you have to be better than SO many other writers that Hollywood is almost forced to take notice.

    Yes, some good scripts don’t get through that should. And that goes for EVERY contest. I have a couple clients that won or were finalists in one prestigious contest that didn’t get to the quarters of another with the same exact script. It happens. Sometimes it just comes down to the reader and there’s nothing you can do but brush it off and try again next year.

    Contests aren’t a shortcut to getting discovered, but they are one major avenue that didn’t really exist 10 or 15 years ago that writers can use to break in. The prestige and results that winners of the PAGE Awards find, and the level of writing in the semis, is the reason I continue to judge for them (I’ve judged for other smaller contests as well over the years).

    However, the reason I wanted to write this article is to share with you some lessons and trends that I have noticed, especially this year, as well as give you some insight into what judges are looking for when they read and why, perhaps, your script has been a consummate quarterfinalist or semifinalist, instead of a winner.

    A script wins when the right story, writing, character, commerciality, voice, timing, and luck all come together. And you only have control over a few of those, which I know is frustrating. You could write an amazing script, but if it’s exactly like the film that just came out 2 weeks ago, you’re probably not going to win.

    Semifinalists are scripts with really strong writing and story and resonance for a reader. Winning scripts just have that something extra. They don’t read like a contest script – they read like a professionally written Hollywood film that just hasn’t been made yet. There are a LOT of really GOOD scripts out there. Winning scripts feel like films.

    I can’t speak for other categories, but every year in the horror/thriller section, there are clear trends that stand out. This DOES NOT mean that judges or readers are looking for any specific type of story – especially since there are so many different readers involved before the 25 semifinalist scripts make their way to my desk. Some of it may relate to what is commercial in the marketplace, but it really just comes down to the writing and hook on the concept.

    My first year, the trend was clear – zombies, vampires and werewolves. Those 3 types of stories made up for at least 10 of the 25 semifinalists (the winner that year, by the way, was MAGGIE which comes out this November and stars Arnold Schwarzenegger and Abigail Breslin).

    The following year, there was an increase in creature features of the non-vampire/werewolf variety and that seemed to be the trend. Last year there were more supernatural projects and found footage stories, as well as a higher number of thrillers than horror.

    This year, the trends were glaring and possibly clearer than ever before…

    By FAR the biggest trend this year…was children. 13 out of the 25 scripts were based around kids being kidnapped, murdered, brutalized, and/or needing to be saved from something. Add three MORE to that list if including the unborn, older teens, or adult children of the protagonist.

    That is a HUGE number. And I think the reason is pretty clear. It’s not because the judges are sadistic or are enjoy reading about murdered children – believe me, that’s NOT the case as some were very hard to read no matter how well-written. The reason is because what could create higher stakes or more fear or emotional resonance than a missing, abused or murdered child? What could make for a stronger and more relatable motivation for a protagonist than trying to rescue their child or seeking vengeance for their death?

    There have always been “evil child” movies and they’ve always done well. But after the success of films like Taken (and its sequels), Prisoners, Gone Baby Gone, Lovely Bones, Insidious, etc., films about children as victims instead of being the evil entity themselves, are also succeeding. And this year, they have clearly succeeded in this category.

    Along the same lines, the second biggest trend this year was REVENGE. It was the guiding motivation, theme or driving force behind 12 of this year’s semifinalists. In thrillers and horror, revenge is always popular, and it was exploited in different ways in this year’s offerings. Revenge by the hero, revenge by the antagonist, revenge by society. It’s an emotion everyone can grasp and get behind. What makes it stand out is HOW it’s used – not why.

    Trend number 3 was a massive increase in the brutality of the action and gore contained in this year’s scripts. In a year where 15 scripts involved children or teen victims, the amount of sheer brutality and detail involved was sometimes a bit shocking.

    Brutality is different than “torture porn”, however, which hasn’t been selling for a few years. The difference between brutality and torture porn is purpose, context and literary quality, which can often bring out one’s voice. Torture porn is about finding new disgusting, extreme ways of torturing or killing people or ripping off their body parts for gruesome shock effect. It’s about resonance on a visual scale.

    Brutality is often about resonance on an emotional scale. It often makes you uncomfortable or makes you cringe – but not scream. It could be the same repeated simple action – a punch to the face – but when done 15 times, the description of the consequences of that punch become increasingly brutal and visceral. That being said, I feel like many writers were trying to get their Tarantino on this year – and for some it paid off, and for others it really didn’t.

    The final two story trends aren’t new, but combined made up for about 6 of the 25 scripts. These are – Military experiments gone wrong; and haunted locations. What’s odd is that the haunted locations were all the same type of location, and the “creatures” were all somewhat similar, which for me, made the scripts harder to stand out despite some very nice writing.

    When it comes to similar concepts, what makes them stand out is the originality in hook and voice. Sometimes the hook is related to the location or time period, sometimes it’s what the characters must accomplish or how or why they must accomplish it, sometimes it’s the characters themselves, and sometimes it’s the combination of two hooks that really elevate a project and make it different than the others. That was definitely the case with some of the stronger scripts this year.

    Another very interesting trend this year wasn’t so much story related, but structure. It felt like some writers hoped that judges would only read the first 20 pages and the last 10, and that is NOT the case. We read every word. There were a large number of scripts that had an AMAZING first 15-20 pages – but just couldn’t keep up that level of skill or consistency in tone, voice or plot throughout the rest of the script. You need to make sure that you’re not just starting strong with a great set-up, but that you have an EQUALLY strong execution and pay-off throughout the script. Keep in mind, writers – EVERY sequence needs to be as strong as your opening and closing sequences.

    At the end of the day, it comes down to the X-Factor. The voice. That THING writers have where you know it when you read it, and it just jumps out at you and grabs you (often) immediately. It’s a gut reaction and connection I get to scripts and the writing, and after doing this for over a decade and reading and evaluating many thousands of scripts, my instincts on voice and story are pretty darn strong.

    Sure, I look for strong complex characters with strong goals, motivations, and deeper needs and flaws. Sure, I look at the originality of the concept and hook on that concept and how that is brought out in the story. Sure, I look at the dialogue and if it flows and feels natural and genuine and tight and powerful and if it’s full of personality and DISTINCT character voices. Sure, I look at transitions and themes and structure and if the script moves well and is an easy, enjoyable read. And sure, I take into consideration if it’s something that could sell or garner attention in the marketplace or by a manager or agent. But then there’s the X-Factor. The question I ask myself is – if you had to stake your name and reputation on a handful of these scripts, which ones would they be? Those are my top choices.

    The past two years have been MUCH harder to judge and pick a winner than the first two years where it was pretty darn obvious (to me) who the winners were. Why? Well, with the increased number of submissions, it really is the cream of the crop rising to the semifinals. My first two years, I was scoring scripts in the 50s and 60s. This year, 73 was the lowest score I gave.

    For the first time, I could probably count on two hands the number of typos I found between ALL 25 scripts! That was NOT the case 3 years ago, believe me! It’s certainly not the MOST important thing, but if you’re not meticulously proofreading your scripts and making sure your formatting is professional, it may be the thing that keeps you from advancing to the later rounds. I’ve got 2600 pages to read – your job as a writer is to make reading them easier and fun.

    This year, it was a hard choice as all of the top scripts were executed well, but I am very content with my picks. I was so pleased with the quality of the writing this year and I look forward to seeing what takes home the big prize.

    In the meantime, good luck and keep writing!

    ***If you are a perennial quarter or semi-finalist, I encourage you to check out my services page and sign up for my 4-Week online course “Create More Compelling, Castable Characters” – guaranteed to help you create stronger, more elevated characters and stories to help get your scripts to the next level. Begins Sept 26th! Click here for more details – www.compellingcharacters.eventbrite.com

  • What Happens in Vegas Ends Up On the Page

    March 17th, 2014

    By Danny Manus

    One of the greatest themes explored in film is SIN. One of the tenets of a cinematic story is making it VISUAL and keeping the ACTION going. And one of the greatest things a writer can do to further their career, is continue to LEARN.

    What better place in the world to bring these three things together than Las Vegas?

    That’s why I will be returning to the Las Vegas Writer’s Conference for my third time on April 24-27th.  The conference, given by the Henderson Writers Group, is perfect for book or film writers and allows participants to take seminars, workshops, network, take pitch meetings with literary pros, and of course – enjoy all that Vegas has to offer.

    And if there is a town that can inspire excitement, originality, adventure, and interesting characters…it’s Vegas!

    I’m delighted to have been asked back and will be teaching two all-new courses; Writing Your Natural Story and Creating Compelling, Castable Characters.

    The first course will go through the nature vs. nurture of a script, explore story pitfalls, how to recognize when your story has gone awry, and how to make sure your story goes in the right direction. We’ll go through exercises that will ensure you’re always writing your natural story. And most importantly for book writers, we’ll discuss how the correct way to “write what you know” and the principles of adapting a book or true story to film.

    In the characters course, we’ll go through 10 great specific exercises to creating compelling, castable protagonists and antagonists and we’ll examine the 12 elements of strong, three-dimensional characters. We’ll also discuss how to create interesting antagonists and supporting characters.

    And perhaps my favorite thing about this conference is the first pages panel, where participants submit the first couple pages of their book (or script) and a panel of executives and agents listen as they are read and raise their hand when they would have passed. And then we critique the pages we’ve heard. It is a great way to get a guttural first reaction from professionals to know if your first pages are going to get past the reader. And it’s usually a good amount of fun too.

    I hope to see you all there April 24-27th. For more info and to register, go to http://lasvegaswritersconference.com/.

    And in case you haven’t been convinced yet, the last time I went to this conference, at least one best-selling author wound up in the trunk of a car. What happens in Vegas…

     

  • 100 Day Challenge – Fave Video of the Week

    November 4th, 2011

    By Danny Manus

    This blog is especially for my 100 Day Challenge Program participants, but also applies to everyone else as well.

    My favorite video of the week and one of my favorites from the whole series thus far, is not just about YOU but also your CHARACTER. And it’s the video about Comebacks, Second Acts and Redemption.

    This is what your character arcs are all about. Characters that fall from grace in some way that must fight their way back. The themes that cause our real-life comebacks, obstacles and redemptions, are the same universal themes that can (and should) be worked into your story to make your character more relatable and your story more universal – meaning sellable overseas.

    The 7 steps laid out in the video to stage a comeback are incredibly relevant to what your characters should be doing. And quite frankly, what YOU should be doing personally as you try to break in and work in this business.

    1. Refuse to Die – this is the attitude your characters must have, that inner motivation that no matter what happens – they will not die. It’s what makes them a hero. They accept disaster and then go from there. You need to have this attitude in your own life as well!
    2. Decide to fight – it’s the acceptance of the adventure we talked about and managing their (and your) fears through the adventure. Regroup and plot and plot again. This is what your character should be doing – and also what you need to do every time you get a rejection letter.
    3. Get Mad – this is one of the parts of the 5 stages of grief your character experiences that we talked about a few weeks ago. Use the emotion as fuel for your story and character.
    4. Get Creative. Duh! Hello! This means don’t JUST have your character do what’s expected – get creative with it. Stay natural to your story, but find creative and visual ways for your character to do what they need to. And, get creative in how you’re breaking in and forging new relationships and promoting yourself and your work.
    5. Focus on Results – know the character’s motivation and what the ultimate physical and emotional result for your character is. But also for you writers yourselves – know what YOUR end goal is. Is it to sell your script, is it to break in, is it to get hired for other work, is it just to finish a script and say you did it? Is it to make this a career or just to have a creative outlet?   Know your goal and focus on your results. Because if you focus on your process, it’s probably going to be very hard to see the end goal and succeed.
    6. Take a chance. Take a risk. This goes for your characters too. Your characters are taking a path they may not know.
    7. Enjoy the ride. Not only should your character enjoy the journey, or at least how they get out of it, but the audience must enjoy the ride. And while the journey of breaking into Hollywood is not always fun or enjoyable, if you don’t find the business an enjoyable ride – then you won’t be in it for very long.

    And as the video says, look at every obstacle, setback, rejection, and constraint as an opportunity to show your character’s true colors, make a connection between them and the audience, show emotion, flesh out their arc, and really make a compelling character and story.

    And for you as real live people, the same should apply. Look at all the setbacks and rejections you get and wear them as badges of honor, because you can’t get rejected unless you’re in the game. So as long as you’re getting rejections, you’re still IN it. Maybe not in the way or to the degree that you’d like yet – but much like your characters and their goals, you’re working towards it.  Good luck and keep writing!!

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