Monthly Archives: June 2014

Stakes vs Motivation in Screenwriting

takes, it turns out, are everything.

When I think about what’s at stake in my life. What I could lose that would just devastate me. It’s the simplest things: Health, love and home. None of the other details really, truly matter.

No accident that those are always the stakes in any big movie.

Previously I posted about Writing For Americans. Thoughts on trying to overcome my passive Canadian upbringing to write more active protagonists. Seems despite my best efforts, I’m still struggling to escape my old ways.

My best efforts included constantly asking myself – scene for scene – what’s my character’s motivation? Is it strong enough? If you’ve set a hero on a journey, what’s keeping him on that journey beat for beat?

Motivation. That’s what I told myself it had to be about.

So whenever I’d discuss scripts with Manager I’d pay close attention to notes about the stakes. That’s the word he kept using. Stakes. What are the stakes? Increase the stakes. And I’d echo back: Got it, I’ll work on the protagonist’s motivation.


Concept unclear.

I was not listening.

Motivation and stakes are not the same thing.

However without much consideration, I’d decided they were exactly the same thing.

A while back I told you about an emotional debacle concerning Script #2. It was dead in the water. This week I dusted it off for another look. Manager’s problem with it had always seemed to be the lack of stakes.

Lack of motivation is of course all I heard at the time.

On review I really thought about that critical difference between those two factors. Motivation is something that propels us forward. Forward equals active protagonist, I’d decided. But here’s the thing I’ve realized:

Motivation is relative. Stakes are absolute.

As a writer I can argue that a character is gonna run into a burning building to look for survivors because he’s a good Samaritan. He’s just that good a guy. But his motivation relative to the person reading the script may be completely unrealistic.

However, the actions of a hero that rushes into a burning building because his wife is on the top floor screaming for her life do not need explaining. He absolutely has something tremendous at stake.

That little difference means everything.

And once you know to look for it you can’t watch a Hollywood movie without seeing it in every scene. Every moment that passes the hero is not fighting to gain something, they’re fighting not to lose it. And that something is always one of those big name stakes: Health. Love. Home.

Kind of embarrassing I’m only now trying to stress this in my writing. I might have had an option on the table years ago.

Not to say great stories can’t be written about motivation over life and death stakes. But you may be hard pressed to get them made into blockbuster Hollywood films these days.

Perhaps I’d have realized this distinction sooner if I had more at stake in own life. I’ve got plenty of motivation. No question about that. Things at stake, however, not so much. Which is a good thing. Something I’m fortunate to have. Health, love and home.

My life would make a super boring Hollywood movie, though.


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Filed under Misadventures

Conversation With Literary Manager

hen I started this blog my situation was pretty clear cut. I liked that. It was easy to post about. I was a flyover writer who’d just found an LA manager. My action thriller script was about to be optioned and things were becoming very exciting.

Nearly a year later all that is still ongoing. But there’s so much more in the mix now too. It’s gotten tougher to blog about without getting bogged down in uninteresting details.

Boggy blog. Not good reading.

So I’m trying to untangle the what’s-interesting-to-me from the what’s-interesting-to-yous of it.

This week I had a conversation with Manager. The kind of conversation I was hoping this relationship would be all about from the beginning. Instead – over the weeks and months – I got a lot of dead air. Unanswered emails. The feeling that I didn’t exactly have a Manager at all.

I’m hoping that’s in the past now.

Manager had a lot going on. A lot of it tied to my script and the producer optioning it. The creation of a new production company. A whole lot of stuff that’s only going to knock me off track if I try to fit it into this post.

So we had a conversation. And it was good. It wasn’t about Script #1. Not at all. No one cracking a whip over my head about an unpaid rewrite. No news from the Lawyers. Nothing about Script #1 except to say that everything is still on track.

The conversation was about a new script Manager’s finally had a chance to read. Script #3. And we talked about it in depth. About where to take it in the second draft. It was great.

What’s more is prior to speaking, I emailed Manager a few new ideas for what will eventually become Script #5. Asked for his favourite one. Then we talked in depth about that too.

Good talk. More than just story and characters. I got a chance to ask him about the marketability of the idea. Industry stuff. The kind of questions I’ve wanted to ask a Manager about for years.

It was a good. Helpful. Encouraging.

How soon will it happen again? Who knows. But you take the wins when you can. Even the very small and polite ones.

Script #5 is still only the kernel of an idea. Scripts 2 and 3 still need massive overhauls. And who knows if Script #4 will ever see the light of day. But for a moment here I get to feel like they’re all relevant. That they’ll all get their due consideration. They’ll all get a chance. Which is nice.

It’s a lot more than I could have expected at this time last year.

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Filed under The Journey

The May That Was

othing’s worse than following a blog that suddenly goes dark for no apparent reason. Am I right?

Sorry about that.

May was a particularly busy month. Which you’d think would be good fodder for this blog thing. Except being very busy also means far less time to collect one’s thoughts. Much less put them into coherent bite-sized paragraphs for public consumption. Much much less make those bite-sized paragraphs quasi-entertaining.

Today I can’t offer the latter. But I have managed to steal a minute to check in.

What I’ve been particularly busy with is my freelance work. Which is indirectly related to the theme of this blog. But not really totally relevant yet. Though, interesting things seem to be happening there. Perhaps I’ll share more on that down the road.

Meantime, not a whole shitload has changed on road to Hollywood!

Got a note from Lawyer this week. Actually took me a long moment to place his name when I saw it in my inbox. If you can believe it, my option agreement on Script #1 has been six and a half months in the making.

Novice that I am, I originally expected this thing signed, sealed, delivered by Christmas.

Lawyer said they’re literally down to the final point of revision in the paperwork.

It didn’t take Manager long after hearing that to call and ask how things were coming on Script #1’s (unpaid) rewrite. I told him what I told him a month ago: Until the check clears, I’m not writing another word.

This whole conflict of interest thing is really not a comfortable situation. I find myself resenting it more every day.

But fuck it! May was a busy month on the freelance side of things. And as long as that kind of real work continues to flow, unpaid work will always take a backseat; he said arrogantly flouting the literary career he’s worked so hard toward.

So that’s where we’re at.

Oh, and my garden’s coming in nice. Still gotta make sure that if all else fails, I can at least count on growing my own food. Self reliance runs deep out here.

Gonna try real hard to get back into regular posts. I just need the film industry to try real hard in return and give me some news worth posting.

But at least I’m back. Just in time for the summer slump.

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Filed under The Journey