Killer Instinct, Part Two
I have a friend who runs a literary agency in Hollywood. She represents screenwriters. I was having lunch with her a few weeks ago and I asked her, “Is there any one mistake you find your writers making over and over?”
My friend didn’t hesitate.
“They chicken out when they come to the Big Scene.”
I could feel my blood freezing when she said this. I was thinking, “OMG, I do that too.”
“It’s an issue that comes up on script after script. I’m not kidding. Writers seem to be so intent on not overplaying a scene or not writing it ‘on the nose’ that they wind up pulling their punches. The scene comes out underwritten and weak. I’ve had to literally sit side-by-side with some of my writers at their keyboards and make them attack the scene over and over until they finally face it and write it Big.”
I asked my friend for examples.
“Think about the final bloodbath in The Wild Bunch or the moment in The Godfather when Michael Corleone says, ‘If Clemenza can figure out a way to plant a weapon for me … then I’ll kill them both.’” Those are big moments. Big scenes. And the writers play them full-tilt. Even the Godfather scene, though it’s quiet, no action, just an actor saying a line … it’s killer.”
I asked my friend why writers pull back at these big moments.
“Fear of failure? Fear of going over the top and falling on their faces? I don’t know. But it’s definitely fear of SOMETHING.”
“Every book or movie comes down to one Big Moment. Luke Skywalker faces Darth Vader. The young Chasidic wife in Unorthodox confronts her husband. Charlotte Rampling stands up to Tom Courtenay in 45 Years. It’s a moment when all the cards are slapped onto the table. The writer has to have the guts to go big. The moment in 45 Years was so subtle, if you sneezed you missed it. But it was BIG. The writer and the filmmakers did their job. They crafted a moment that said everything, and they played it flat out.”
I admit it, I’m guilty of this too. It’s Resistance. We KNOW the Big Scene is coming, we recognize the Big Moment as we’re writing it. But we lack the killer instinct to take out the Big Hammer and hit it with all we’ve got.
Killer Instinct, Part Two. It’s not just finishing a project (as we talked about in last week’s post), it’s nailing the Big Moment and holding nothing back.
This is another post of pure gold! (I hope you paid for lunch that day!) As always, thanks.
I think that fear can claw at one even AFTER a project is completed. “Maybe I won’t talk it up so much… if I bring attention to it, maybe someone will see an error, flabby text, a glaring omission that any EXPERT would realize should be included.” Hiding, in effect. This big R is implacable.
Yes, there indeed are so many points along the way, where R will tug at the sleeve, embedding the what-ifs in the time is takes to inhale once!
What do I love? Getting the reminder that R will always be there – when we are thinking of beginning, and then we somehow do; when we are sailing along, and then it gets rocky; when we are needing to push through to the finish, and then…( I am a master at this) throw in the towel.
Every example helps, and thank you once again.
Back to the hill climbing of the day – an intention for ONWARD for everyone who comes here!
I appreciate you –
Fantastic post! I’m there right now and finding all manner of things to do other than sit down and write. Thanks for the shot of clarity.
This hit me right before I’m about to work on today’s comic page.
Time to go BIG.
I’ve told my clients this for YEARS. YEARS!! I wept with joy at reading this – then promptly forwarded it to all the nay-sayers and cowards in my contact list. I’ve had Fortune 500 executives, and military special forces clients — people (both men and women) get angry and combative when I told them they were shying away from the most powerful story in their book.
I truly think it is FEAR based. Fear of not being accepted, approved of, or of losing their perceived power. They will willingly get up and cheer at a movie, or rave about “that moment” when the story gets big and powerful in someone else’s book, story or speech, but they shrink when looking at their own power. Odd, but so true. Thank you!
Yes, guilty of this too. Thank you for elaborating a bit on this issue; great examples. Onward without fear! TY
I find this to be so true. And I’ll add that I also find that art imitates and reflects life. So if you shy away from the powerful moment in your craft, you’re almost certainly doing it in your personal life as well, choosing to de-escalate or downplay rather than confront and/or relish. That’s the bad news. The good news is that if you open your eyes to it in life and start changing it there, you’ll find it also helps your craft. And vice versa, of course. At least that’s how it’s been for me.
Steven, do you have some “big moment” examples that, in your opinion, were epic fails?
Colin, I can cite one epic SUCCESS. The scene in “Moonstruck” where Nicolas Cage tells Cher, “Stars are perfect, snowflakes are perfect. Not us. We are meant to love the wrong people and break our hears … and DIE. [Something something, I forget] … compared to “I want you in my bed!”
John Patrick Shanley, the writer, went for it there. God bless him.
This is about being “all in.” And it reveals who’s all in, and who’s not. Kind of like Warren Buffet saying, “Only When the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.”
When we’re “all in” we do everything we can, every moment of every day, to move things forward. When we’re “all in” going big is straight-forward/natural. I say that as someone who fights moment to moment to stay true to that. The fight to the death with the big R!
Note to self: Go big or go home.
I’m approaching resistance differently. It may not be an evil, it might be from something great in me, my virtues, my high standards. It’s not helping because of my distorted ways of thinking. If I can fix those thoughts, then what was resistance might become my assistant. I’ll let you know if it works.
Yes. When I wrote something, I generally have a keynote in mind.
Yet, I don’t know why – in many cases, I go round about that keynote but don’t actually ‘drill’ into it.
Finally, the paper is done, but that keynote is still in my mind.
“giving birth” to your big idea is not quite pleasant 🤭… the fear of “pain” can be Mentaly crippling.🤕
Mentally… capital M, double l 🙃.
by Doug Li.
I think everyone on the planet can recite Word for Word the big scene in Casablanca. Without it we would’ve forgotten the whole movie.
As a painter I am trying to see where the “big scene” would be in my work…and I would say it is where I set aside the comfortably known brush strokes and usual palette and dare to ruin a painting by adding something that correlates to “attaching the canvas” with something heartfelt and just nailing it without reservation. It doesn’t happen without trusting the process.
Thank you Steven for the reminder that “Resistance” is always lurking to defeat us….I will ride that scaly monster yet again!
I think that maybe the Big Scene is where the writer expresses what is deeply meaningful about Life and why the story was written. That’s where Resistance really does come in to stop the whole thing. Meaning? Exposing one’s beliefs? That’s like coming out.
” the Big Scene is where the writer expresses what is deeply meaningful about Life and why the story was written”
This is the beautiful truth.
As always, perfect, fantastic, and timely! I’m so grateful for these posts, Steven–thank you!
Thanks Steve. And for last week’s post as well. It was just what I needed and I sat my butt down and finished my first draft. First book I’ve ever written and one that I’ve worked on for a long time. It feels amazing!
Resistance did not want me to write a comment. I was probably thinking it was not BIG enough, but the I remember last week’s post and the need to finish what we start. My reading of today’s post included a writing of a comment and here I am despite the fears around.
Ha. My writing is only a mall part of the big RESISTANCE. Facing success. Big success. The final coming together of all aspects of my life. OUR life since my husband is frozen in the exact same place in HIS story. All we need to do is walk forward – blindfolded, even. But we are each frozen. Some spectacular successes by going around to the back door – but the core success…. I feel like Tantalus.
welcome to poetry.
making the world uncomfortable for eons.
Fear is important. Allow fear to be the guide to let lose and write it out. Slam those keys home!
My ‘challenge’ (I am told Americans – I am English – prefer ‘challenge’ to ‘problem’ although in my book it’s still a problem) is, yes Resistance, but not of failure – if you never try you can’t fail – it’s Resisting laziness – I am downright bone idle. ‘Busy Doing Nothing’ was written for me. I take the easy way out. I have a PhD in displacment activities. I wrote Stuff The Pension (Philip Larkin) an ace travel memoir thirty years ago and tried agents/publishers (vicious circle) to no avail. However. Today I roused briefly from my torpor and tried another agent.
It used to take me a long time to find my balance, but recently I discovered that a website sincerely guides this layout when you can find joy after a stressful day here.