The Good Dinosaur Rewrite

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Spoiler Courtesy

If you haven’t watched Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur, and plan to, you may not want to read this.

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I have given this a lot of thought since I took my son to see The Good Dinosaur on Black Friday, and since it keeps swirling back to me the way a boomerang is supposed to I decided to share it.

First you must understand: I am a believer in the movie making magic that Pixar Entertainment wields. I pretty much go in to their movies with the expectation to be floored, wowed, torn into tiny pieces of human emotion. Over the years, I think I’ve developed an addiction to their specific brand of story. I gear up for the feels and I have rarely been let down.

I am also a writer that has endured — will always have to endure — high-level critique of my work. I know how hard it is to take that in, and even more, I understand how easy it is to get lost on the story’s journey, veering, spiraling, floundering until you no longer even recognize the work you’ve ended up with. I know how hard it is to fix it once you get to that soul-crushing crossroad.

That said, I have a pretty huge note at the story level of The Good Dinosaur, and rather than only tell you what I think isn’t working, I am going to offer what I would do to fix it.

Here is the movie description:

Luckily for young Arlo, his parents (Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand) and his two siblings, the mighty dinosaurs were not wiped out 65 million years ago. When a rainstorm washes poor Arlo (Raymond Ochoa) downriver, he ends up bruised, battered and miles away from home. Good fortune shines on the frightened dino when he meets Spot (Jack Bright), a Neanderthal boy who offers his help and friendship. Together, the unlikely duo embark on an epic adventure to reunite Arlo with his beloved family.

It would take too long to give you a play-by-play of the entire plot, so what I am going to do instead is focus on the key points I feel like needed to be revised.

Shall we?

Concept and Set-up:

What if dinosaurs didn’t die out but lived on? The movie offers a society (similar to the world in CARS) run by dinosaurs. They have evolved to the point of creating their own jobs for themselves, finding ways to sustain their food supply, forming family units. They are essentially humans in dinosaur clothes.

I do think this concept works for an animated feature. Children can get into it, like they did CARS, and adults can pick out the finer nuances of the idea. (An example: The T-Rex cattle wranglers, meat eaters, that look like they are riding horses because of their tiny little arms. Pretty fabulous!)

But that is not the only BIG IDEA at play in this story. We also have parallels drawn between the world of Good Dinosaur and the Range, like Home, Home on the, as well as the classic protagonist spirit journey arc.

THEN we have the protagonist’s inability to fit in with his family because he’s timid and fearful.

Thanks to the protagonist’s fear, his father ends up dead.

But it’s not until the little Caveboy comes back a second time, that the inciting incident happens. Arlo (the protagonist) finally shows some story gumption when he confronts the Caveboy and blames him for his father’s death, chasing the boy away from the safety of his home and getting swept off by the river.

It is, to me, a case of too much, too fast. It gets muddled on delivery.

My Revision:

The description of the movie leaves out a huge chunk of this information and instead focuses — as it should — on Arlo’s journey. The issue with the setup is figuring out a way to make Arlo’s stakes high enough so that he needs to take this spirit journey, and endearing enough that we need to follow him on it.

I am suggesting two major changes:

  • Eliminate his brother
  • Leave his father alive.

Begin with the world set up: Dinosaurs don’t die.

Go to the small picture: a single dinosaur family surviving.

Introduce Arlo — scrawny, fearful, not really built for field labor, and is subtly seen as a disappointment by his father. On farms, boys usually take over once their father’s can’t run it anymore, but that isn’t Arlo’s strong suit. To give it a feminist edge, hint that his sister is better suited for this work and also wants it more than he does. Build the relationship with his sister up, show that Arlo needs to face his fear of letting his father down, and show how that manifests in him being fearful in other situations.

Introduce the Critters eating their food supply, and Arlo’s inability to kill the Caveboy. Have a scene here where Arlo says something awful to his father about farm life. Have his father call him a coward. And then, to drive it home, have his father go searching for the Caveboy to finish Arlo’s job and get injured. Arlo blames himself, and when he sees the Caveboy again, he CHOOSES to catch him to prove he’s not a coward. This is of course the wrong motive, which is important to show his growth through the story.

He falls into the river, goes unconscious and finds himself far from home with no survival skills and no idea how to get home.

This gives Arlo’s character real tension and tightens the plot, we don’t waste all that time on the father’s death, and we don’t meander with the brother that adds nothing to the plot. Arlo needs to be active, and he needs to be searching for something more. He’s a kid, of course he wants to get back home, he’s worried he’ll be in trouble because they’ll think he ran away, and probably secretly worried they will be fine without him, but Arlo is on this journey because of fear, and I think, because he needs to find out who he is. This is a coming of age tale, after all.

Things this changes:

  1. Needing to get home to help with the harvest. In the movie as it is now, Arlo arrives home at the end when they have already finished bringing in the harvest, negating this motive. They are exhausted and for all they know he abandoned them. By eliminating the father’s death, and making the sister more active, this would no longer need to be a driving force for Arlo, leaving him to have deeper goals and motives.
  2. The conflict he has over his father’s death. This is not The Lion King, guys, and for me, the father’s death had little emotional resonance. He spends the whole time either watching his son fail, or telling him to face his fear. Telling is the key word. With all that telling, I lost interest. I also feel like this is something I have seen too many times, and in this case it didn’t add to the movie.
  3. The connection between Spot (Caveboy) and Arlo over the loss of a parent. I think this could still be established. Arlo is a lost child, and so is Spot. All they have now is each other.

Smaller Points:

Shaman Character-

There is a weird Styracosaurus introduced early in the second act that could have served as a Shaman or Spirit Guide. Later, the father is used as a sort of Spirit Guide. Streamline this, pick one Shaman character and have that character recur at least three times in the story. Again, this is about utilizing the concept and worldbuilding. When you are trying to create an imaginary world, some things need to be told and retold to make the world feel fully fleshed out.

More characters on the Range-

Another way to utilize your world building is by using common and recognizable archetypal characters to fill out the world and drive theme home. Arlo needed to experience more for this to be a true spirit journey. His experiences are not varied enough, and his encounters to not provide enough of an argument.

Final Thoughts

The script would have to be revised throughout based on these changes, with an emphasis on the spirit journey concept and worldbuilding. By cutting unnecessary plot points, and getting the tension off a death and onto the struggle of the main character, the story will already feel less passive and more focused.

Critique is a compliment, it means I cared about this story. It is easier to stand on the outside of something and see the problems and even the solutions, than it is to be inside trying to solve them in real time. This is one opinion of a way to improve a story, and I don’t claim to be an expert on any of this.

Also, Pixar, if you are interested in hiring me, my contact info is in my bio. I have a screenplay sample, and I’m available immediately.

Finding Why: in Life and in Fiction

There is nothing wrong with being an ambitious woman. No matter what sexism and misogyny tells you. No matter what other women might say to your face or behind your back. Your place is wherever you feel right — it may not be in the home, the kitchen, the office, the schools.

But I have to admit, even though I know this is true — I live and breathe this mindset – lately, I’m struggling to find the why of my ambition. And I need to explore that, because as a writer, knowing why is where you start. In story, WHY is better known as MOTIVE or GOAL. It is the driving force behind the protagonists struggle forward. It is what keeps the main character fighting when all the odds are stacked against them, when everything seems lost, when finally they have their big chance.

It’s no surprise to me that I am also struggling to find the why for my main character at the moment. That sounds about right, since life imitates art, art imitates life, and both myself and this shiny new character need to get to the true motive for our actions.

Earlier this year I started a YouTube channel(Books, Booze and Bitches, for anyone interested). At first it was very loose, free — just a thing my sister and I were doing to chronicle our adventure to Comic-Con. It was a release and escape from the pressing matter of what the hell am I doing in my life and career. And it was FUN. It was MINE. Anyone could watch and like or dislike, but they weren’t in control of it. And for someone trying to make it in both publishing and film, two highly-competitive, highly-controlled fields, having my own thing was like growing wings.

But then I got ambitious. I wanted it to grow wings, too. It was fine, I said, to want more from this thing than just an outlet. I could do well on YouTube. It could explode. But then it stopped being quite so fun. I started getting pissed if everyone didn’t watch, and then I started getting sick of it a little.

Ambition has tried to rob me of the fun of creative pursuit. YouTube is not the first near victim. Earlier this year I wrote about my anger toward the publishing industry, how it was killing my desire to write, ruining my stories, and giving me wrinkles. I wrote about how I was going to take a step back so I could rediscover the reason I loved writing books.

Hint: it’s not about a book deal. That is insignificant to the love of writing. The magic is in creation. If you ever think you do a thing for money or acclaim, that thing will end up souring before you can ever savor it.

Last night, after I posted my video to YouTube and Facebook, I didn’t feel happy to have it out in the world. I felt irritated. I felt like I was screaming in a room full of people and somehow no one could hear me. Because even though it always gets views, I can’t figure out how to WIN. I want to conquer the Internet. I want to crack the code to success.

But WHY? What am I hoping to achieve from YouTube? Or writing, really? What am I doing it for? I sat on my couch last night and I couldn’t even answer that question. What, existentially, the hell do I want?

On the surface, of course I want publication, or my screenplay made into a film, I want to entertain people through YouTube, and somewhere not too far below the surface, I want validation and acceptance of my creativity.

What do I have to prove? As competitive as I am (do not play me in a board game, I will crush you), I don’t care about being the best. I like to win, but my definition of winning has nothing to do with other people. I care about being the best version of me. I don’t compare myself to others often. I compare myself to the woman I think I should be by now. I look at how successful I believe myself capable, and I shoot for more. I’m not happy if I’m not winning against me.

But I will never begrudge another person’s success. I will never be jealous. I will always support someone I believe in. I’m a Gryffindor, Loyalty and Chivalry are kind of our thing.

When you’re writing a story, you always start on the surface. Getting to know a character is like getting to know another human being. You ask them questions, and they give you true but shallow answers. The reason your character MUST survive the Hunger Games cannot be just because she doesn’t want to die. That is primal, and truthful, but it is not deep. Now, winning so she can give her sister a better life, that sells. That is something we as feeling people empathize with.

You don’t reach your goal because of external wants. You reach your goal because inside you have something worth fighting for.

So…what is my WHY?

I am compelled to be more than I was yesterday. I am fighting for success, but I am also striving for excellence. I need to show my son he can WIN if he never gives up. I need to prove to my nieces that bravery is just as important as beauty. I need to prove to the little girl that had the dream to become something when she grew up that she is something already.

In the story of your life, you must be the hero. You must define for yourself what your goal is, and you must make a promise to fight through all the obstacles until you get there.

Find WHY and your character, yourself, can win it all.

Book-to-Film Adaptations

book to film

Book-to-film adaptations are all the rage right now in Hollywood. Thanks in large part to the shaky economy, purchasing an already established brand and turning it into a film has become the go to. A few years ago, when I had a new baby and a new screenplay completed, I received some very valuable advice from a producer.

“You can’t sell this,” she said. “It’s wonderful, but impossible to sell on spec in this market. And it will only get worse.” She went on to suggest I produce the film myself, or adapt it into a novel and try to break into publishing. “It’s easier to secure financing that way.”

The amount of books to be adapted to films, or miniseries, or television shows, has sky rocketed. And so has the amount of horribly done adaptations. For every good film version of a beloved novel, there are three bad ones.

So, what is it that makes a book adaptation worthy? Many producers would say a massive audience and a high-concept. Let’s examine some great adaptations and see what made them so flippin’ fabulous beyond a huge readership and potential for merchandising and attempt to riddle out the answer.

 The Lord of the Rings – Author J.R.R. Tolkien, Director/Writer Peter Jackson

It is my personal opinion that high fantasy epics work well as big budget films. The world building in fantasy novels is a veritable playground for special effects masters, the clothing a joy for costume designers, and the sweeping plots and complex characters a banquet for actors. Lord of the Rings worked because the filmmaker made a movie based on the books, but didn’t try to transcribe what can only be achieved in prose onto the screen. Where some movie adaptations struggle is trying to stick too closely to the source material.

Unpopular opinion time — I like my adaptations to be an interpretation. No one can create the world from your imagination perfectly on screen, no actor can satisfy everyone’s image of an adored character. Great adaptations are one filmmaker’s impression of a work, not everyone’s.

To Kill a Mockingbird – Author Harper Lee, Director Robert Mulligan

What makes To Kill a Mockingbird a wonderful adaptation is the way they streamlined the plot lines. The film is condensed, as it must be, but manages to hold onto the big plot points without feeling awkward because they shifted the perspective.

News flash about the difference between a film and a novel: books can have a first-person POV, films cannot. The problem with many adaptations of YA novels, and main reason I believe a film can feel jarring when you’ve experienced the story through the protagonist’s internal monologue, is the shift from first to third person. To Kill a Mockingbird did a beautiful job giving the film a “voice” like Scout, by using music and perspective shifts — namely bringing Jem, her brother, more into the forefront — to tell the story in a broader way.

Pride and Prejudice — Author Jane Austen, Director Many British Guys

Pride and Prejudice has been reimagined not only in film, but as retellings in literary form as well. The reason this book is so popular to adapt is threefold:

First, the story is simple. On the page there are no big fight scenes or need for CGI — yes, I haven’t forgotten what I said about those things earlier — so the budget for these films can be small or huge depending on the production value desired.

Second, the story is so famous that no matter how many times they remake it we will still go see it. Seriously, remake it again, only this time with cyborgs. Money in the bag, friends.

Third, and most importantly, the narrative tone is easy to capture through dialog and expression; therefore, you don’t lose the quality of the novels prose when you translate the story to film.

Enjoy your favorite adaptation today, and please, share in comments what you think makes a book-to-film worth viewing.

What’s Up Wednesday

whats up wednesdayWhat’s Up Wednesday is a weekly meme geared toward readers and writers, allowing us to touch base with blog friends and let them know what’s up. Should you wish to join us, you will find the link widget at the bottom of Jaime’s.

I want to preface this by saying, it’s been a hell of a week.

What I’m Reading

I finished Throne of Glass. I would like a moment of silence to relive some of the spine-tingling feels this book delivers. (Closes eyes and thinks about Chaol, Celeana, and Dorian. Wanders into daydreaming where I am an assassin with killer hair and cat-like reflexes who captures the interest of two beautiful men.)

OK, I’m back. I then decided to read Austenland by Shannon Hale. I love Jane Austen, and Mr.Darcy is still possibly one of the most swoony literary men ever, so this book naturally appeals to me. In much the same way I adored and devoured Bridget Jones’s Diary, I fell headlong in love with Austenland. It’s a quick read at 208 pages. It’s laugh-out-loud funny at times, and it delivers the romantic goods. I haven’t read an “adult” book since The Rules of Civility last year, but this book was exactly what I needed in the midst of my crazy week. It was an escape, just as Pembrook Park is for the heroine Jane, and one I was grateful for. 

The film adaptation was recently released, and it looks like a blast!

What I’m Writing

Hmm, what am I not writing? Last week we wrapped the first installments on our web series, now officially titled SUPER TV SHOW. Riding the high of this, the crew and I decided to take a chance on producing our own short film. This film project is one I have had in the works, in varying and evolving forms, for almost seven years. It’s a project I very much believe in. Next week we will launch a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds. I will share all that information as soon as I have the link for it. I am ridiculously excited. Along those lines I’ve been writing proposals, rewriting the script for filming, and sending emails to contacts in the locations we need permission to film in. For instance, we want to use a historical cemetery as one location. There is a Cemetery Board that must approve. It’s morbidly fabulous.

I also made some progress on my WiP, bringing in another 1500 words. I love this story, and now I am doing more in-depth research to flesh out the world-building. I also have some alpha readers who want to know where the hell my next pages are. Sorry!

What Inspires Me

We went to a small town to scout locations and shoot our Kickstarter video on Sunday. We ended up drinking wine in an eclectic antique store with the shop owner, a film buff who studied molecular science, and talking about Fellini. We also caught most of it on film.

The support of the writer community here and on Twitter. When I shared my experience with rejection last week, the response was overwhelmingly encouraging  and edifying. I am always impressed by you.

What Else I’m Up To

My son has been sick with swimmer’s ear and some kind of stomach bug. He also seems to be going through some sort of terrifyingly early pre-adolescent hormone surge. He screams, cries, and pits his will against mine at regular intervals throughout the day. His birthday was today — but his party is Saturday — and for the most part it was a lovely day. I made him a special breakfast, took him to a playground, and spent the afternoon watching Power Rangers Jungle Fury (only available through random vendors on Amazon, so it was a birthday present) with him at my mom’s house. I also had to threaten him repeatedly with time outs and loss of privileges if he didn’t put on his listening ears and get in the damn car. (I did not cuss at him, but in my head there was a string of expletives.) Children are a blessing. And so is alcohol.

I entered the “Agent Inbox” contest through author Krista Van Dolzer’s website. You should all visit the contest, which should be up some time today, and tell them how amazing Post #9 is. Plus, if you are at all curious to find out what my book is about, this is a good opportunity. I have never shared this much information about it on the internet. It’s feels scary.

Last night I went to the midnight release of The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones. First of all, wow, I am a major fangirl and really too old to be out so late. (Though, when I lived in NYC I spent quite a few wild nights out until 3am. But I was an idiot.) Second, the movie was a little disappointing, but Jace Lightwood in the flesh wasn’t.

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The most fabulous part of our late, late night was during the previews when this happened:

kitharringtonpompeii

I honestly can’t tell you anything about the teaser trailer that followed this shot. Pompeii comes out February 28, 2014, and I’ll be there. I have already exstensively searched the internet for the teaser trailer from last night with no luck. If you happen to stumble upon it before I do (and I promise, you will know when I do) please Tweet me or post in comments.

Happy Wednesday! Now, if only I could take a nap.

Couples Therapy

Marriage is like trying to write a novel. This could be said about life, raising children, etc.— but for the purposes of this post, I am only talking about marriage. I have been married for six years, so, yes, I got married very young. We have a solid partnership. We like each other a lot. Of course, we love each other a lot too, but liking him is often more valuable than loving him because it means we laugh together and we connect. We were watching a movie yesterday. We usually try to do that on the weekend when Sam is napping because by the time he falls asleep, we too, are pretty beat.

It was one of those indie-comedies where you always feel like, at any minute, someone is going to die. The plot centers around two brothers, one whose marriage is falling apart, the other whose world has fallen apart and he needs it to be redeemed. Overall, the movie was only a B, but there was a moment where the wife of the first brother says, “We’ve just gotten so off track, what’s any of this even for?” My overwrought writer brain grabbed a hold of that.

Many people get married because of passion, or the chemical thing called love. They get married because of a baby, or the fear of loneliness. Some marry merely because others around them are, and it seems the natural progression to their life. I’ve seen those marriages, they’re rocky. I’m not saying they won’t eventually level out, but they are always in a tenuous state. Marriages that start out like mine can end up destroyed, too, lost to the roaming world. Because marriage is like writing a novel.

Many writers start out really strong, with a clear reason for what they’re doing, an idea defined. The writer then sets off on the winding road to the end, and they lose their way. They forget what they started writing this for, what the goal and motivation of the protagonist is, and they end up very far away from where they wanted to be. They digress then — this can last for weeks, years, or forever. When it is the latter, a sort of divorce happens. They give up the project, not quite able to pinpoint where the love was lost, but losing it nonetheless.

I do this sometimes even when I’m blogging. I begin a post because I have a spark of an idea, and then in the writing, or because I’m distracted by other life factors, I forget the thesis statement of my post. And I’m then staring at the computer scratching my head and wondering, What the hell was I trying to do there? Like that character said, I’ve gotten off track somewhere.

Most marriages, even the train wrecks, are worth saving. Not every novel is. Or not every novel is in the state that it begins. It will need a new life, a slice with a red pen, and a diligence to finish. In this way, marriage and writing a novel are the same. The challenge is always in finding your way back to the heart, to the reason you began this journey in the first place. All of us are susceptible to getting off track, that is human nature — following rabbits down holes thinking it will lead to a better road — and all of us are capable of finding our way again.