What’s In a Name?

What’s in a name? A lot, it turns out when you’re a writer. You have a character in mind, but you need a name. And it’s not like naming a baby where you get to pick a name you like. Writers need to find names that (hopefully) tell  the reader something about the character. The problem is when you begin to write a new project you don’t really know your characters yet.

Laura and I started on a new screenplay this week. Another Christmas movie.

Christmas elf

We had a general idea of what the movie would be about. Our thought was that we would begin by figuring out what each character wanted. It quickly became obvious that it was confusing to talk about characters without naming them. We had started ten steps down the path, so we went back to the beginning. Main female character. Main male character. A secondary love interest. A father. How hard could this be?

What do we want these names to tell us about the character – a character we don’t really know yet? These people aren’t fully developed in our minds yet, so a name we pick now might not fit a couple of weeks into the project. Place holders would have to do for now. Out came the What to Name Your Baby book. We think (still early days) that the main female character is mid-thirties. Google told us the most popular girls’ names in 1979, but none of them seemed right. After an hour an a half we had three names. I’d forgotten how difficult naming characters could be.

We were also struggling with the overall arc of the story. The main female character didn’t have a change moment. She was the same at the beginning as she was at the end. That doesn’t work. Laura remembered reading in Stephen King’s book On Writing that if something about your story wasn’t working, try flipping the characters. So we flipped the male protagonist with the female protagonist and suddenly the story worked. But now the names didn’t work anymore. Back to the baby book and Google.

By this point we were an hour past lunch time and getting a little goofy. On Google we found a link for how to generate a Christmas elf name for yourself. This was just the diversion we needed.

My Christmas elf name is Pompom Frosttree. The website tells me Pompom is a bit of a show-off who likes to climb the Christmas tree and be the center of attention! She wears a handsome tunic embroidered with frost patterns, and she makes magical scooters and bikes for all the good little children. Fits me to a T.

Laura’s elf name is Treacletart Silverbubbles. Treacletart is a bit of an airhead who forgets how to do things, but is loved by all the other elves for being so happy! She wears a sequined jacket with shiny silver buttons, and she makes delicious puddings and cakes for all the good little children. Note to reader: Laura has a jacket just like that and she is a really good cook.

I’m not going to tell you the names we chose for our characters, but here are their Christmas elf profiles. Maybe you can figure it out.

Our main female character: Marshmallow Jinglebaubles. She is very creative, has a sharp eye for art, and loves to decorate the grotto! She wears pointy green shoes with bells on the end, and she makes tasty marshmallows and chocolate covered candy for all the good little children.

Our main male character: Partridge Fairybells. He is a fun-loving prankster who loves to play silly tricks on the other elves! He wears a pale green tunic of fine silk embroidered with gold stitches, and he makes magical marbles and lucky dice for all the good little children.

This silliness didn’t accomplish anything for our script, but it cleared out heads to work again tomorrow. The names we chose today may not be the names we end up with. Sometimes characters tell you what their names are and, when they do writers need to listen.

Christmas Movies as Research

At Christmas We Believe

Laura and I believe that 2014 is the year The Santa Diaries will be made into a Christmas movie.

At Christmas I Believe

Twenty-one Christmas Movies

In the last month I watched twenty-one Christmas movies in the name of research. Ten of the movies were new in 2013, four were from 2012 and seven were from years 2003 – 2009. There are still three movies recorded that I haven’t watched, but I just don’t know if I’m up for it.

Hallmark Channel and LifeTime channel show Christmas movies all December.  I know there were more that I didn’t get recorded and Laura watched a bunch at her house, too. We watched many of them together. She’d bring lunch and assume the position on the love seat in my family room. I loved having them recorded because I could fast forward through the commercials.

Laura watching Christmas movies 2

Movie Watching as Research

This research has a purpose.  We are finally getting back to our screenplay of The Santa Diaries, using the stage script as the story arc. We wanted to know was there anything out there like our story (not really) and we needed to know what was getting made. Three quarters of the way through the line-up I had to watch Bad Santa as a Christmas movie mind-cleanser. (Bad Santa 2 is scheduled for production in 2014.)

We didn’t watch all those movies for life lessons, but from a writing standpoint entertainment blogger Melissa Locker has summarized many of the themes, conflicts, and turning points in many of these movies.

20 Valuable Holiday Lessons Learned from Watching Lifetime Christmas Movies

1. Never EVER fire Santa Claus.

2. If you accept a bottle of champagne from a stranger, be aware that it just might send you back in time to help your younger self make better choices.

3. The Grinch isn’t necessarily a green monster.

4. Sometimes a head injury can lead you to your heart’s true desire.

5. Christmas is the perfect time to re-evaluate all your life.

6. If you ever wanted to rekindle an old flame, Christmas is definitely the time to do it.

7. It never hurts to have straight talking friends/guardian angels/in-laws.

8. If you’ve got an incredible voice and want to work on your acting chops, Lifetime holiday movies are the place to do it.

9. Never plan a Christmas wedding. It’s bound to be a disaster.

10. Love after death is possible if you believe in worm holes

11. Be suspicious of old white men with beards named Nick who play Santa Claus at community functions.

12. It’s never too late to look up an old flame.

13. When in doubt, sing Christmas carols.

14. If you don’t believe in Santa Claus, he will track you down.

15. Always, always go home for Christmas.

16. Love is everywhere.

17. You can’t chase happiness, you have to find it where you are.

18. Christmas dreams can come true.

19. If someone gives you a pep talk, be sure to really listen

20. Finally, there’s always a happy ending at Christmas.

What We Watched

In case you have an inquiring mind and really want to know…here are the movies I watched along with the log lines.

2013 Movies: There were twelve new movies for 2013. Somehow I missed two of them.

Christmas in the City – A woman tries to bring the Christmas spirit back to a department store. (I couldn’t resist using this photo from the movie. There can never be too many gratuitous almost naked Santas. That’s Ashanti in the middle.)

naked santas

Hats Off to Christmas – Mia does not like Nick’s unreliable ways until he helps her disabled son.

Christmas on the Bayou – A man tries to rekindle a romance with an executive who’s spending the holidays with her mother.

Let It Snow – An executive with plans to update a rustic lodge has a change of heart when she falls in love.

The Christmas Spirit – Charlotte’s spirit tries to change a developer’s mind and stop development in her hometown.

Dear Secret Santa  – A woman in mourning receives a surprising Christmas card from a secret admirer.

Finding Christmas – Sean and Owen swap homes and open their hearts to two women.

Window Wonderland – Two store employees compete for the window dressing job and find they have a lot in common.

A Country Christmas Story – A country singer reunites with her father while appearing in a competition hosted by Dolly Parton.

Christmas Belle – The sudden arrival of a longtime suitor complicates a woman’s budding relationship with a client.

2012 Movies

Christmas Song – Romance blossoms between two music teachers who compete for the same job.

A Bride for Christmas  – A man bets his friends that he can convince a woman to marry him by Christmas.

Christmas with Holly – The owner of a toy store falls in love with a man who cared for his orphaned niece.

It’s Christmas, Carol – The ghost of her former boss shows a ruthless CEO her past, present and future.

Previous Years

Fallen Angel – Reluctantly returning to his ohometown, a man reconnects with a young woman he knew as a child.

Bad Santa – A con man/thief masquerades as a department store Santa.

When Angels Come to Town – A mistake places a holiday angel’s job in jeopardy.

A Boyfriend for Christmas –A woman waits 20 years for a holiday wish to come true.

Crazy for Christmas – A limo driver tries to help a wealthy man find his long-lost daughter on Christmas Eve.

A Christmas Wedding – A real estate developer embarks on a wild cross country odyssey to get home in time for her wedding.

12 Men of Christmas – A public relations executive uses her media savy to stir excitement in a small Montana town.

What’s Next for Us?

We pull out The Santa Diaries screenplay and read it again. (We’ve been away from it for a couple of months.) Perhaps that marination time will prove useful. It’s already been through three major rewrites. Script doctor Dara Marks had us remove the magical elements from the script. We’re now thinking we might want to put some of that back. We’ll look again at the arc of the story and the arc of each of the main characters. Sometimes a few tweaks in the dialogue can enhance a backstory.

We’ve discovered that we are never quite satisfied with our scripts, but at some point you have to say it’s the best we can do for now and move forward. When we get there we’ll send it off to be read by some industry colleagues. There is an implicit timeline for buying scripts and getting them into production.

One of the things we noticed about the movies we watched was that some of them seemed to be filmed in spring and summer in California. I could tell from the vegetation. The most egregious production error was the film that was supposed to be set in fall and winter Connecticut and had people driving through California brush. Come on, people! Did you think no one would notice? Set the damn movie in California.

Laura and I will keep working to make our dream come true – 2014 will be the year The Santa Diaries screenplay will be turned into a movie.

Hiring a Script Consultant

When we finished our movie script for The Santa Diaries, we knew we wanted to hire Dara Marks to help us polish it. Laura had used her in the past on a couple of screen plays. We consulted our checkbooks, took a deep breath and called Dara. We booked an appointment and sent her a copy of the script.

Laura and I have used writing consultants in the past. We hired two different editors to look at Big Skye Ranch.

Big Skye Ranch cover

It was a much better book because of the money we spent and the book went on to be a quarter finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. It won international awards at the London and Paris Book Festivals and an IPPY award.

A week ago we had our four hour telephone conference call with Dara. We were nervous. What would her reaction to the script be?  It was a somewhat fitful start because the email outline she sent us got hijacked by some virus scrubber on her computer which decided to scrub at precisely the moment she was emailing us. And her dogs went bananas when the UPS man came calling, but after a few minutes of sorting things out, we got to work.

By the end we were exhausted, but exhilarated. Dara told us our script was “highly marketable, it’s got everything, a really good piece, the writing is terrific, there is a strong structure in the script.”  She really said all those things. I took notes! …and then she told us the plot needed strengthening and we could be clearer about the theme. She said the first 25 pages needed to be totally rewritten. Well, that’s what we were paying her for – brutal honesty.

The theme thing is tricky. It’s the most universal denominator and the theme drives the characters, the dialog, the setting. Theme should underscore everything in the script. It’s a little hard to wrap your head around because in the past our writing has been more character or plot driven. That’s not to say there wasn’t an underlying theme, but we didn’t spend time really trying to get that down to the bones.

In this telephone consultation we spent at least half an hour sorting out the theme. Turns out the theme is more elemental than Christmas, finding your inner Santa, nostalgia for small town life, or reconnecting with a lost love. The theme of The Santa Diaries script is “we’re all in this together.” We had not known that! Of course, the flip side of that theme is “we are alone” and that is Will’s fatal flaw. If he doesn’t change, he will be alone.

Will is isolated because he has sold out to Hollywood. He has lots of people around him, but they all want a piece of him. His business manager, Josh, whom Will calls his best friend, is a suck-up. Even his girlfriend has her own career agenda. If Will doesn’t find his authentic self (as opposed to his inner Santa) he will never be happy or fulfilled.

There were a couple of times when Dara pointed out that we were still thinking play, not movie. She was right. In the play we couldn’t have Sandy in the hospital with a broken leg. Heck, we couldn’t even get him staged in a bed in traction which is the way we wrote the original script. Sandy in a wheel chair with his leg propped up on a stool had to do. In the movie he gets to be in a hospital.

Dara suggested that we start with a clean slate for the rewrite and we did. We are now 22 pages into the first 25 (Act 1 up to the First Turning Point). After that it will be more tweaking than a total rewrite as we make sure any changes in the beginning are reflected in rest of the script. All the characters are slightly different than they were in the original play and the script we sent Dara. We hope that gives them more depth.

Will is a little softer, more redeemable. His father, Sandy, is no longer the paragon of virtue. We’ve roughed up his edges a bit. Brandeee is smarter and shrewder. We haven’t decided if Brandeee and Will are engaged anymore. It always bothered me some that Will broke up with Brandeee and moved on to Jessica so quickly.

The point is, do these changes drive the theme to its logical conclusion? We hope to have that figured out in the next month. Then the script will go back to Dara for notes. After that it should be ready to pitch. We think/hope the investment in using a script consultant will be well worth the cost.