Monday, February 8, 2010

Give the Baby Cocaine!*

You may or may not know this, but a few years ago I actually got an MFA in Film and Television. My focus was in screenwriting and I wrote 3 really weird screenplays, 'acted' (we can use this term loosely) in a lot of student films, and watched more Italian Neo-realism than you can imagine. I'm still paying off the tuition right now and for a while I looked back on that period and asked 'What the heck was I thinking?' The truth is, it took 2 years of graduate work, a lot of money, and a few years of working in television production to determine that I did not want to be a part of the Film or TV industry. :-(

Now that I'm a little older and wiser, I realize that the time was invaluable. Not only did it lead to writing scripts for toys and games (which led to a new found love for writing for children), but it also made me a better writer.

One of the most valuable lessons I learned while writing scripts is to always, always, always up the stakes. The conflict in every single scene NEEDS to be taken to the next level. Even if you think you've gone as far as you can go, take it one step further.

I'll tell you how I learned this lesson.

I wrote a script that involved my protagonist leaving his child with a babysitter. My protagonist was in quite a state, having just lost his wife and being badgered by extended family members to take a break from work and life to sort through his feelings and concentrate on raising a child on his own. Perhaps to prove to his family, and to himself, that he could handle things, he decided to show 'em up and say: I can do this! I can hire babysitters and go to work and be fine! Fine, fine, fine! So he dumped the baby off at a babysitter's house and went to work.

When he returned to pick the child up, he found quite a state of affairs. Totally coked out babysitter and his little babushka licking white stuff from the kitchen floor. Obviously, he thought his child was eating cocaine and he freaked out, as any parent would, went crazy, and went straight to the hospital. Me being me, I wrapped things up all nice and neat and the doctor laughed and said: 'Your baby just had some sugar!' And all was right with the world. Well, I mean, the guy still had some major issues, but lesson learned, right? Wrong.

My professor did not like this. He did not like this one bit.

Professor: Up the stakes, Melissa! Sugar? Really? Sugar? Is that all you've got?

Me: I can't give the baby cocaine!

Professor: Give the baby cocaine, Melissa.

Me: I can't give the baby cocaine!

Professor: Exactly! You can't give the baby cocaine. So GIVE THE BABY COCAINE!

He had a point. So I tried it. I gave that little baby cocaine. And I've got to admit, the stakes were a lot higher. A LOT. The tension and the conflict were much stronger. The action in script took an unexpected turn and it left things in a much more intense place.

So, the next time you write a high stakes scene, step back and ask yourself this figurative question: 'Did I give the baby cocaine?' And if you didn't, well, you know what to do...

*Please note. This blog does not advocate giving real babies Cocaine. Only fictional babies.


  1. I've had similar discussions with other writers in workshops - I also started writing seriously with screenplays - and you're absolutely right. And, thanks for sharing. As I'm wrapping up my first draft, I can feel the temptation to just slip to the finish line and call it a day. "Raise the stakes!" Words that bear repeating for any writer anywhere.

  2. Good luck as you wrap up. I think there are still some stakes to raise in my book now. grrr.

  3. I so would have given that fictional baby sugar. Wow, you are right about raising the stakes.

  4. Lori, I was so distraught over giving the baby cocaine, I actually asked a doctor if consuming a little bit of cocaine was ok for a baby. I was told that a small trace is not harmful.

  5. So I should or should not give my unborn baby cocaine? Please clarify.

  6. Jen, is your unborn baby real or fictional? Don't you have a sonogram? That's real. No cocaine. Unless you want to make things interesting. But I can't condone it.