How is a screenplay like a ten-year-old girl’s birthday party?

Not long after my divorce, my youngest daughter, Christine, was about to turn 10. It just so happened that her birthday fell on “my week.” You see, her mother and I had agreed to share custody of our three children on a week-about basis, and up until then, in true ‘man’ fashion, I’d avoided these events the way pre-teen boys avoid the shower. Sure, I’d barbecue and set up tables and chairs, keep the cooler full of wine and beer for the parents, but only as directed by my ex. This time, I was on my own. But really, how difficult could it possibly be?

As you moms control your laughter, please keep in mind that I’m a man of Greek descent – first generation Canadian. As such, I went directly from the care of my dear mother, to the care of my dear new bride. Don’t get me wrong, I did my part. Worked my butt off outside the house – sometimes up to 80 hours per week at my fledgling manufacturing company. But I was certainly not an event planner. Nor did it even occur to me that I needed to prepare before any party could take place.

At 9:30 the morning of the party, which was set to begin at 2:00 pm, I ventured off into the concrete jungle of the mall, list in hand. Everything in one place – perfect. I’d be in and out in 20 minutes and back in time to decorate the house, get the hamburgers on the grill, and the juice boxes on ice. Heck, I didn’t even need a list.

Now I don’t know about you, but up until that point in my life, I had never even been to the  mall dollar store on a Saturday morning. And the only time I’d seen a lineup there was when there was only one cashier the day before the Super Bowl. Needless to say, I quickly became intimate with birthday party miscalculation (BPM) number 1, along with about 200 of my fellow shoppers. As I scanned the lineup, I took note of the extraordinarily calm faces of some – mostly women – and the sheer terror in the eyes of some of the men. Apparently, I was not the only one in trouble, but I found no comfort in the fact that I was not the only mis-calculator. 

Eventually, I passed through security, immigration & customs, and arrived at the counter. Ya, it was just like the airport the day before Thanksgiving.

Off to the grocery store I went, thoughts of a strawberry shortcake fluttering in my mind like the streamers I’d forgotten to buy at the dollar store.

Now it takes, what, 30 seconds to write “Happy Birthday Christine” on a cake? Ya, that’s about what it would have taken if they had such a cake available. But, as luck would have it, only Chad was to get a strawberry shortcake that day. I still dislike Chad. Spoiled rotten, obviously.

It won’t take much to describe how the party went. While I was hanging the decorations that I didn’t forget to buy, the doorbell began to chime like the bells of St. Mary’s. Of course, my kids were nowhere to be found and I paraded between the ladder and the door at least a thousand times (actually, seven), before I found myself the main attraction of the frenzied circus that was now my living room. The day continued in the same vein.

I must admit that the party was extremely memorable, but for all the wrong reasons. Kinda like a few of my very first screenplays.

To my great surprise, when it was over and the little girls started filing out with their parents in hand, something magical happened. One of the mothers, Amanda, a sweet,intelligent woman who remains one of my dearest friends and sole advisor on the mystical art of little girl stuff, took me aside and asked if she could stay for a bit. As a man, I knew instantly that she wanted me, and was trying to think of a way to politely let her down. Meanwhile, back in reality, Amanda sympathized and empathized, before she criticized and to some extent, chastised. As an old pro, she felt obligated to make me aware of the intricacies and delicacies of a little girl’s birthday party.

The lesson I learned from this wonderful woman is one I will never forget, and something I have applied to many other aspects of my life, screenwriting included.

But what the heck does my story of failure have to do with screenwriting, you wonder? Let me explain.

So you’ve started writing your screenplay. That’s great! You can’t wait to use that clever line of dialogue you’ve been saving for so long. Your movie is playing in your head and you’ve already booked the Academy Awards weekend off from work. 

But wait. Now that you’ve plunked your butt into your writing chair and have the lights just right, the words are not pouring onto the screen like you thought they would! Wtf? This was so easy in your head. Until RIGHT NOW.

Well, don’t panic, and do rest assured that you are not the only one. I would venture to guess that millions have sat in the exact same place, with the exact same problem. And I’d bet about a dozen or two were (unbeknownst to them at the time) future Oscar winners. In fact, I bet if you asked those writers at that moment in time how their screenplay was coming along, they’d probably tell you, in no uncertain terms, to ‘go to hell.’ 

I was there, just as you were. Or are. And here is what my friend Amanda unknowingly taught me that day and how I was able to apply it to my screenwriting in a surprisingly useful way.

  • You only get one chance at a first impression.

Now I’m going to plead the 5th (actually I’m pleading ignorance) on this one. After all, I was never a 10-year-old girl. And as such, I have very little information on which to go when it comes to expectations for a princess party. Yes, I’ve seen the princess movies with my daughters (all of them, hundreds of times). And I’ve attended at least a million princess parties as a parent. But I was not in note-taking mode. I was more in “check out this dad’s awesome tool collection,” headspace or “holy crap, is that really an original 1978 Harley flathead.“

But if I’d stopped for just a moment, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine what my baby girl would appreciate and fall in love with. Streamers and decorations are nice, but what about a punch bowl and a theme? Like a Glass Slipper theme or an Under-the-Sea theme? With a little creative thinking and some elbow grease, I could have changed my living room into a magical and mysterious wonderland. And when Christine walked in, her first impression would be one of wonder, amazement and daddy worship. And more importantly, she and her fellow princesses would be miles from bored. Rather, they would be engaged, super excited, and anxious to see what was next.

Now, let’s get our collective heads out of the magical clouds and think about our screenplay for a minute. A reader, much like a 10-year-old, is easily bored. Think about it. They trudge through multiple mediocre (or worse) scripts every single day. And when your opening scene is just “streamers and decorations,” even though it may seem fine to you and your mom, or your friend Joe who was once in a tv commercial and knows all about good screenplays, to the trained eye of a professional script reader, unless it’s sparkling with glass slippers or haunted by Cruella Deville, it will be just another opening scene they are obligated to read. Or to skim. Or completely ignore and toss into the PASS pile. You get my point.

So now, as with birthday parties, before I even sit down to write, I plan my opening scene. I spend considerable time and energy on it and work out what I want to accomplish with it. When I outline, I draw lines from that scene to other sections of my screenplay so I’m aware of the perfect moments to insert my setups and payoffs.

  • You need something to kick off the party and it can start with a good theme.

When I began heeding Amanda’s advice, I started spending a whole lot more time planning my kids’ birthday parties. I actually sketch out my plan and include all the important stuff, like “get the cake,” or “decorate the living room,” and this helps me to visualize the day. 

One of the great byproducts of my birthday party drawing board is that I’m able to insert things that make a huge difference to the quality of the party, but take very little effort and time on my part. As a single parent, time is a rare luxury. The theme of the party is crucial, whether it be Princesses or Spider Man or whatever the next fad. I use it to help me decide the activities, the snack menu,  and of course, how the cake should be decorated.

I’m also able to organize the order of events so they make sense and work in harmony, and not against each other. For example, if one of the activities is blowing bubbles (one of my favorites now, although it used to terrify me), I make sure to have the bubble solution waiting outside on a table in the backyard with plenty of towels handy. Otherwise, I could spend precious time mopping up spilled soapy water and risk an emergency room visit because one of the kids went down on the slippery tiles and cut her head open. (Yes, this happened. And it kinda takes away from the party. Trust me.)

So what does this have to do with screenwriting or my screenplay you might ask? Well, if you think about it, there are many parallels.

In order for a screenplay to be considered excellent (let’s face it, ‘good enough’ doesn’t do the job), it must flow from the opening scene, all the way through the Acts, right up until you type “FADE OUT.” And that is not an easy thing to achieve. When I first started writing screenplays, I didn’t have a clue how to achieve this. Some will say I still don’t. But I’ve learned how to give myself a better chance. Rather than sitting down and just starting to type with my story bouncing around in my head, I now sketch out my plan, much like I do for a Spider Man party. I work out where I want or need to be by a specific point in the story and the mere act of doing that helps me anticipate some of the problems I might come up against. It even opens my eyes to some clever devices I could use to sustain the flow. 

I’m able to plan out, visually, how one scene might feed off the previous one and how it may leave a door open for the next one.

And most importantly, it allows me to incorporate elements that support my theme into many of the places where it would be almost impossible to do without the “aerial view” that an outline gives me.

Has outlining turned me from an amateur hack into a professional screenwriter with a huge stack of Oscar-worthy scripts? Of course not. Not yet. But it makes my life much easier and it allows me to concentrate on crafting the story, rather than tearing my hair out while pondering what should come next when I actually sit my butt down to write.

Make sure the audience leaves with a good taste in their mouths

I’ve already made clear the importance I place on a good first impression, but what about a last impression? The little princesses left my house that day with nothing but memories of the most unorganized and chaotic princess party ever. I did plan to hand out loot bags, and I’d purchased all the contents, but I just didn’t have time to assemble and give them out. So rather than a bunch of happy girls with a treasure trove of parting gifts, it was more like a gang of hockey fans leaving the rink after their team was eliminated from the playoffs on the night the arena ran out of beer. Not a pretty sight.

When I look back and think about it, I realize that even if I did have time to make up their loot bags –although I admit, that would have been an improvement– in the end, it’s just a bag of candy. There’s no emotional reaction to trinkets. Usually. But what if I’d planned  for someone to snap candid pictures of the little darlings throughout the party? Maybe a shot of each of them getting their faces painted by the “hired gun” Princess. And maybe a group picture. And some shots of them making bubble magic? Or even better, a USB stick with lots of pictures and a link to a free Dairy Queen ice cream cone. All things that, if planned correctly, would have taken very little effort and time, but would change the entire complexion (at least looking back) of a wonderful birthday party. They would leave with happy thoughts as well as a bag of candy. All of a sudden, it transforms from “Christine’s party” to the coolest, most magical princess party ever.

Because of my experiences as a rookie single dad, I’m able to look a little more closely at things that matter. I’m able to see past the trinkets and streamers and see what really counts: the feelings behind them.

With my first few screenplays, I gave less thought to the ending scene than I did to a secondary character’s name. After all, it was over right? Absolutely not. If it were over, that scene would be unnecessary, wouldn’t it? And since I neglected to plan these closing scenes, my first attempts were obviously sub-par, full of clichés and silhouetted riders into sunsets.

So, I started to put more thought into my endings. After all, this is the last thing the reader will see. And like those cute little girls, I wanted to make sure the readers would be excited about it. That they’d be left with a feeling of at least content and not disappointment, or –worse– with no feeling at all. It takes so little effort to create a clever and interesting final scene, that now, I often draw up an outline specifically for my closing scenes. . And I do this for my opening scene and others that are important to my story like the midpoint and climax. And… Well, that’s a whole other post.

It really is amazing to me that the kind but firm advice from Amanda, who was a stranger at the time, about a completely different topic, led me to find so many ways to incrementally improve my screenplays. 

Am I a professional screenwriter now because of a failed birthday party? Not at all. But I can confidently say that my scripts are lightyears better than they were and I never have difficulty finding someone to read them. In fact, I now have a short list of industry-connected folks who have asked for first crack at anything new. And that’s enough for me right now.

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