Archive for the ‘Character Development’ Category

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I recently taught a webinar for The Writers Store on Story Development. In it we talked about the importance of testing your story concept before you end up like Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation lost in a sea of notes and pages with no idea how to move forward.

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What you want to do is find a process for evaluating your story concept before you get to page 60 and have written yourself into a corner only to discover it doesn’t work. This causes you to waste precious time, get frustrated and even worse… give up!

The heart and soul of a screenplay is its premise. Whether this is  something high concept or more independently minded a successful script starts with a really great idea. But a great idea isn’t a story – a story is the chain of events set in motion by the central disturbance. A well written screenplay has a great idea that naturally leads to a compelling story.

It’s important to learn how to assess the strength of your idea as the first step in your story development process. Asking yourself some key questions about your concept before you go to draft can help you determine if your story idea is solid enough to warrant developing it. If you’d like to hear the full webinar where I share tools you can use to find ideas, test your concept, find the spine and shape of the narrative and begin to outline you can find it on demand at The Writers Store here.

Character

The protagonist’s actions drive the story forward so it’s important to look at spine of the piece from your main character’s perspective.

  • Who is your protagonist?
  • Do they have a flaw or subconscious problem they need to heal?
  • Do they have an external goal / problem they need to solve that drives the story forward and will sustain 90+ minutes?
  • Is this a goal the audience can get emotionally invested in them achieving?
  • Does this goal naturally lead to action ie: plot?
  • Does this goal/action naturally lead to an all is lost crisis moment?
  • Does the action that drives the plot result in your protagonist growing in a meaningful way over the course of the story?

Plot

The crux of any story is the chain of events (plot) that stem from the main disturbance. Looking at the plot is an important part of determining the strength of the premise.

  • Does your story have a clear inciting incident / disturbance that kick starts the story and creates a problem for your protagonist to solve?
  • Does the problem your protagonist faces create the opportunity for compelling, high stakes obstacles that escalate (chain of events)?
  • Are there at least three major obstacles (ideally more)?
  • Does this problem naturally lead the audience to ask “and then what?” after each obstacle is overcome?
  • Does the problem your protagonist has to solve create tension and suspense around the outcome?
  • Can you clearly plot the inciting incident, first act turning point, mid-point, second act turning point and climax?
  • Does the action naturally propel the protagonist to a compelling climax?
  • Does the action of the story lead to meaningful resolution?
  • Does the story have a clear theme?

Commerciality

While generally we don’t want to write specifically to the marketplace we do want to write a script that will eventually sell and attract the attention of agents, managers and producers so it’s important to evaluate your idea from a commercial perspective as well.

  • Does your story have a clear genre?
  • Is your protagonist, their goal, obstacles and resolution unique and something we haven’t seen before?
  • Does it have an original hook?
  • Does your idea naturally attract cast and a director?
  • Is the world of the story unique and visually compelling?
  • Does your concept have a built in audience?
  • Can you envision the marketing campaign?
  • Is this concept in line with current trends in the marketplace?
  • Is the concept in line with the budget needed to make it?
  • Does the concept feel like a movie?

Personal

A personal investment in the story you’re writing is key and it’s vital to assess this as well.

  • Are you passionate enough about your idea that you will be able to spend the next year (probably longer) developing it?
  • Why is this particular idea important to you?
  • What are your goals with this screenplay?
  • Does this particular concept move your career forward?

Testing Your Concept

The process of answering these questions will help you to assess the strength of your overall premise and the resulting story. No one wants to spend six months to a year on a project that isn’t going anywhere so evaluating your ideas before you go to draft is an important first step to see if what you have is worth investing your time and energy into. At the end of the day it just might help you tell a stronger story too!

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Imagine Bridesmaids without Megan (Melissa McCarthy), Her without Samantha, The King’s Speech without Logue, or The Dark Knight without The Joker. These movies simply wouldn’t be the same without these well-crafted secondary characters. While it’s easy to see what role the protagonist plays in the story secondary characters are often given a backseat and left underdeveloped. This is a missed opportunity to take your screenplay to the next level. Knowing how to create unforgettable secondary characters starts with understanding that their main role in the story is to shed light on the protagonist in some way. They do this by interacting with the protagonist in one of five archetypal ways – as the antagonist, the best friend, the love interest, the mentor, or the fool.

These archetypal secondary characters create conflict, move the plot forward and are the catalyst for the protagonist’s transformation. The relationship the protagonist forms with these secondary characters informs their overall arc and how these relationships are resolved is a key element of the story. This is some pretty heavy lifting for characters that are often relegated to the sidelines. Crafting the kind of unforgettable secondary characters that are unique and three dimensional will help elevate your story and ensure they feel anything but minor.

Definition of a Secondary Character

While the general definition of a secondary character is anyone who isn’t the protagonist this can be broken down further. For example in The King’s Speech the main character is Albert, secondary characters are Logue, King Edward, The Archbishop, Albert’s Wife and King George while there are also minor or tertiary characters such as the Chauffer and BBC Announcer.

Shed Light on the Protagonist

Ultimately we are social animals defined by our relationships. If we were to look through a stranger’s cell phone contacts or search through their Facebook friends we’d be able to tell a lot about them. This is true of our protagonists as well. Secondary characters serve the story by shedding light on the various facets of our main character. Much like a diamond these characters show us different parts of who they are and help them to feel three dimensional through their relationship with them. When thinking about your secondary characters think about what aspect of the protagonist you want to bring out and shed light on.

Approaching your secondary characters with these five archetypes in mind can help you determine how best to do this.

Five Archetypes

Secondary characters interact with the protagonist in five archetypal ways: Antagonist, Best Friend, Love Interest, Mentor and Fool. While this varies depending on the genre of your story (for example a love interest will play a greater role in a romance) and sometimes these roles are combined (for example a best friend might also be a fool) it can be helpful to define what function the secondary character serves in this archetypal way.

Antagonist

The antagonist creates conflict for the protagonist. They impede the action, stand in the protagonist’s way, interfere with their external and/or internal goals and help to move the plot forward. They create an opportunity to see our protagonist under pressure as they handle conflict. Think Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, Edwin Epps in 12 Years A Slave and The Joker in Batman Returns.

Best Friend

The best friend character brings out the protagonist’s inner world and gives them an opportunity to share their thoughts. They are also a way to show our main character in an intimate, non-sexual relationship. For example Amy in Her, Kowalski in Gravity, Patsey in 12 Years A Slave.

Love Interest

The love interest helps the protagonist to grow romantically and moves the plot forward. They can also create conflict much like an antagonist and provide opportunities for humor. They show how our main character handles love, intimacy, sexuality and conflict. Think Tiffany in Silver Linings Playbook, Latika in Slumdog Millionaire, Officer Rhodes in Bridesmaids and Jane Hawking in The Theory of Everything.

Mentor

The mentor instructs and guides the protagonist, offers words of wisdom, encouragement and support. They help to move the plot forward and are often a catalyst for change. They create an opportunity for the protagonist to grow internally often via conflict initially. For example Lionel Logue in The King’s Speech, Mark Hanna in Wolf of Wall Street, Bobbi in Wild and Mr. Miyagi in Karate Kid.

Fool

The fool shows or contrasts the protagonist’s lighter side. They add levity and humor and create an opportunity to illuminate how our protagonist handles funny situations. For example Megan in Bridesmaids, Dug in Up, Steve Carrell in Little Miss Sunshine and Alan in The Hangover.

What role your supporting character plays depends on what you need to bring out in your protagonist. In making choices around your secondary characters ask yourself what information do we need to learn about the protagonist in order to understand their journey? What relationship will bring out this quality, trait or transformation? Answering these questions will help you to determine what secondary characters you can use to do this.

Special Circumstances

Secondary characters play a slightly different role in dual protagonist films such as The Heat, Toy Story, Lethal Weapon and Sideways, ensembles like Little Miss Sunshine and Guardians of the Galaxy and multiple storylines like Crash or Pulp Fiction.

In these situations the secondary characters often play multiple roles for example Mullins in The Heat is antagonist, best friend, mentor and fool but her main function is still to shed light on the protagonist. Even in an ensemble and multiple storylines one character generally emerges as the protagonist and the secondary characters revolve around them. We see this in Sheryl (the mother) in Little Miss Sunshine and in Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction.

Transformational Arc

Ultimately movies are about transformation and we invest 90 plus minutes of our time to see how the protagonist will change and heal. The way we do this is through relationship to one another. One of the ways to ensure emotional impact is to use your secondary characters to show this change particularly at the end of your story.

Producer Lindsay Doran (Sense and Sensibility, The Firm, Nanny McPhee) has done considerable research on the psychology of storytelling and found that movies end on the highest peak of emotional satisfaction when the protagonist’s “positive accomplishment is shared with someone they love.” (You can find Lindsay’s excellent TEDx talk called Saving the World vs. Kissing the Girl on YouTube)

We see this with Albert and Logue in The King’s Speech, Carl and Russell in Up, Jamal and Latika in Slumdog Millionaire, Mullins and Ashburn in The Heat, Solomon and his Family in 12 Years A Slave among others.

As you can see secondary characters are anything but minor. Using the five archetypes as a starting point we can shed light on the protagonist and bring dimension to the story. Fully realized secondary characters elevate your screenplay so that it will grab the reader, create roles actors want to play and attract financing and distribution all while telling a meaningful, entertaining story.

Want more? You can check out my Writers Store Webinar here.

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Everybody has their own way of breaking a story or finding the shape of a narrative.

One of the ways I use when I’m working with writers or working on my own stories is a variation of something Steven Pressfield (The War of Art) calls The Clothesline Method. You can find it here. 

The basic method involves drawing a straight line “a clothesline,” marking off the main act breaks/turning points and then “hanging” the “clothes” on it. The clothes are the scenes you know or are thinking about. So perhaps you have the final scene or know what the first turning point is going to be “hang” these scenes on the line and continue to develop the other beats from there “hanging” them on the line as you go. Gradually this will give you the general shape of the narrative.

 

The line looks something like this:

____l_______________l____________l____________l________________l____________l_

Inciting Incident     End Act One    Midpoint           End Act Two          Climax          Resolution

 

Which loosely corresponds to the following page numbers:

Inciting incident (10-15)

End of act one (20-30)

Midpoint (60)

End of act two (90)

Climax (95)

Resolution (100)

 

With the “clothesline” laid out you can rough in the beats you already have in mind. As you do this look for the three main plot lines which should dovetail over the course of the story:

Internal Character Arc – the main shifts in character that lead to the protagonist’s transformation.

External Plot Line – the main action.

Relationship Line – the primary relationship that helps move the story forward and brings the character to a point of transformation.

 

As you rough in the main beats you can see the natural progression of the story and determine what’s working and what isn’t. You can brainstorm ideas and solutions and when you’re ready take your clothesline and turn it into an outline and eventually a draft.

Obviously everyone has their own way of cracking a story and this is just one way to go about it. The Clothesline Method is relatively loose and free form and fits the way I think about story.  You, of course, will have your own process which I’d love to hear about in the comments below. Hearing how other writers develop stories can be very helpful and it’s good to share our processes.

If you want to know how David Seidler (The King’s Speech), John August (Big Fish), Ava DuVernay (Selma) and others break a story check out The Academy’s excellent Creative Spark series on YouTube. You can find the link here. 

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I recently watched a wonderful short film that hit home the importance of a strong dramatic question that hooks the audience.

Mission directed by Mark Buchanan and written by Gregor Barclay opens with a young boy trying out for the soccer team. This is intercut with his father undergoing a rigorous series of tests in hope of being an astronaut on the next mission to Mars. Both are denied. Back at home dad’s unable to deal with the rejection and with the mission just a few short hours from blasting off builds his own space capsule in the living room. Leaving his son to fend for himself he holes up for the duration of the 200 day mission.

And with this we’re hooked into the story because we want to know what’s going to happen to both father and son. But even before this we want to know what’s wrong with dad, what he’s building and what he plans on doing once he’s inside the capsule. It’s not until the very final moments of the film that we come to understand what’s transpired to bring dad to this breaking point and the final voice over is particularly poignant. The piece is ultimately very moving and beautifully shot. But what makes it work as well as is does is the dramatic questions it raises that keep us fully engaged and invested in the outcome.

You can watch Mission on Vimeo here.

Dramatic questions are a vital part of a successful screenplay – whether short or feature length. So what is a dramatic question? Simply put – it’s the central question the story raises that we want to have answered. Dramatic questions hook us into the story and keep us emotionally engaged through to the end. For example in The King’s Speech we’re drawn through the story to find out how Albert is going to overcome his stammer. In Saving Mr. Banks we want to know how P. L. Travers comes to sell the rights to Mary Poppins. In Her we’re invested in the story to find out how Theodore and Samantha’s relationship is going to work out. In Argo we want to know if the hostages will make it out of Iran. In The Hangover it’s will they find the groom and in The Heat we want to know if Ashburn and Mullins will put aside their differences long enough to bust the drug ring.

Sometimes a story will raise multiple questions – external that drive the plot and internal which are part of the protagonist’s overall arc. For example in Silver Linings Playbook we want to know if Pat and Tiffany will get together but also if Pat is going to be able to stay the course and learn to manage his mental illness. In Midnight in Paris we’re invested in the story to see if Gil will leave his wife, stay in the past, find romance with Adriana and write his novel. In Up we want to know if Carl will make it to Paradise Falls, connect with Russell and reconcile the loss of his wife. We even see this in ensembles like Little Miss Sunshine where we want to know if Olive will make it to the pageant but also how our family will heal their disconnect. Mission does this as well raising several questions that escalate over the course of the story.

Establishing dramatic questions that drive the story forward is key to a successful script. They serve to hook the reader and keep them invested in the outcome ensuring their desire to know the answer will have them reading to the very last page.

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Some of the decisions I’ve made were the result of some seriously flawed thinking. (Combining cognac and champagne being only one of them) The benefit of time passing is that I’m able to look back and understand the roots of those choices and see the flaws in my thinking in a whole new way. And I’ve grown because of it.

Our protagonists should go on the same kind of journey. They start off hopelessly unaware of the flaws in their thinking and how this affects their actions. Over the course of the story they come face to face with these flaws and through recognizing them are able to change (or sometimes not). This overall arc is the spine of a well-constructed story.

So how can we do this?

Establish your protagonist’s belief system.
Everyone has a personal belief system honed from their individual life experiences. For example in The King’s Speech Albert’s belief system is that he’s not good or worthy enough to be king. In Don Jon Jon doesn’t think real sex can ever be as good as the porn he watches daily.

Show how these beliefs dictate your protagonist’s actions.
What we believe about ourselves, other people and the world around us then shapes our actions and choices. In Saving Mr. Banks P. L. Travers doesn’t trust Walt Disney to do her books about Mary Poppins justice. In fact she has a hard time trusting anyone even her own agent. As a result she refuses to give Disney the rights to her books and insists on script approval. During the script sessions she is outrageously demanding and belittles her songwriters making the development sessions difficult. She refuses to warm to anyone including Walt and remains aloof throughout much of the story. Historical inaccuracies aside (an ongoing discussion best left to another time) P. L. Travers’ belief that people can’t be relied on or trusted shapes her actions. If she didn’t feel this way she would have immediately released the rights and we wouldn’t have the movie Saving Mr. Banks.

Use this flawed thinking to create conflict.
Throughout the story conflict is generated from the protagonist’s faulty thinking. Albert is unable to accept his role as king creating conflict with his instructor Logue and his family. Don Jon can’t maintain a relationship. P. L. Travers can’t connect or relinquish control creating strife for everyone. Ashburn in The Heat is so uptight and shut down she can’t let Mullins help her on the case or accept her friendship complicating their attempt to bust the drug ring.

Give your protagonist a moment of self-reflection where they see their flawed thinking.
In order to give the story an emotionally satisfying arc the protagonist needs to change. What we’re invested in from the get go is seeing how our protagonist is going to overcome their flaws and become their best self. One of the strongest ways to do this is to give your protagonist a moment of self-reflection where they see the flaws in their thinking and therefore their actions. In The King’s Speech this is during Albert and Logue’s preparation for the coronation when Logue helps him to see how he’s the one holding himself back. In Don Jon the more mature Ester helps him to appreciate a sexual relationship that’s rooted in real life not fantasy. During a particularly poignant conversation in Saving Mr. Banks Walt Disney helps P. L. Travers to connect the dots on her past and see how this has led to her inability to trust. And in The Heat Ashburn has a moment of reflection while looking at her high school yearbook finding a message from Mullins that helps her to see the flaws in the way she’s been conducting herself.

Show how the protagonist uses this epiphany to change.
Once the protagonist has this new insight they have an opportunity to change. Albert accepts his role as king, Jon embarks on a real relationship, P. L. Travers turns over the rights to her books, and Ashburn reconnects with Mullins and they solve the case. Sometimes you may choose not to have the protagonist change even though they come to an understanding of why they are the way they are. This worked particularly well in There Will Be Blood. Regardless your protagonist has to have some kind of shift that shows their new awareness whether they embrace it or not.

As for me, well, why I ended up drinking those cognac and champagne Wild Mustangs is a long story but suffice to say I eventually figured out the flaws in my thinking that led me to them and I’ll never, ever drink them again!

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It’s summer and people across the country are making travel plans. The first thing they do is figure out where they want to go. You can’t plan your trip until you know your final destination, right?

Lately when I’ve been working with writers to develop their scripts I’ve been using the same approach – beginning at the end. If you know where you want to end up it’s far easier to know where to begin. Looking at your script in reverse can be a really helpful tool when writing your piece.

Where your protagonist ends up tells us where they need to begin.

Screenplays are all about transformation – we want to see a character grow and change over the course of the story – this is the spine of their inner journey. In order to give the protagonist a meaningful transformation the first thing we need to do is determine where they are at the end of the story. How have they changed and grown? By looking at what they have learned we know what kind of shift needs to take place and can make sure we properly set this up at the beginning.

For example in Silver Linings Playbook Pat learns to move on from his marriage, embrace a relationship with Tiffany and manage his illness. Since we know this is where the story has to end we can backtrack to the first act and make sure we set up the fact that he’s fixated on getting his wife back, uninterested in any other romantic relationship and is not in control of his illness. In Little Miss Sunshine our family ends the story united this means they need to begin the story separated by their dysfunction. In The Descendants Matt ends the story having forgiven his wife for being unfaithful. This means he needs to begin the story being deeply upset about her infidelity.

When we know where our protagonist is at the end of the script it’s much easier to determine what information we need to give the audience about who they are and what state they are in when the story begins.  This helps us give the protagonist a clear arc. Yet in order for a shift such as this to feel emotionally satisfying and not arbitrary and forced it has to be properly plotted. Once again starting at the end can help us here.

Plotting the protagonist’s transformation – All is lost and their epiphany.

For example in Up Carl comes to terms with the loss of his wife, gains a surrogate son in Russell and becomes a happier person overall. In order for this to work we need to open the story with Carl being unable to move on after the death of his wife, avoiding relationships and being unhappy and curmudgeonly. The key beats that help make this shift feel believable are the protagonist’s “all is lost” moment at the end of the second act and their corresponding epiphany.

All is lost. 

In Up Carl’s “all is lost” moment is when he’s forced to choose between losing his house and saving Kevin and Russell who have been captured by Muntz. Carl chooses to stay with his house. This is his lowest point and suggests that while he may achieve his goal of getting to Paradise Falls he’s not going to reconcile the loss of his wife or form a lasting friendship with Russell which is what we know he really needs to do.

Epiphany.

Carl ultimately decides to go after Russell but in order to do this he has to be able to let go of his commitment to fulfilling his and Ellie’s dream. This is beautifully done when Carl looks at their scrapbook and finds a note from her thanking him for the adventure of their life together. This is Carl’s epiphany. It allows him to reconcile the loss and fuels his decision to rescue Kevin and ultimately to let go of the house and go after Russell.

In this way the protagonist’s “all is lost” moment and their epiphany are the two main beats that work together to create their transformation. So once again if we know where the protagonist needs to be at the end of the story we can determine what “all is lost” moment and epiphany will help them to get there.

Second act linking beats.

So we know where we need to be at the beginning and at the end. We have a good understanding of what “all is lost” moment and epiphany will naturally lead them to change but we still need to link these beats so the transformation feels earned and emotionally satisfying. To do this we need to plot the protagonist’s shift over the course of the second act. This means seeding in small changes along the way.

In Up there are multiple interactions between Carl and Russell and we see Carl slowly open up to the point where we believe he would make the decision to rescue Russell and let go of his house. In The King’s Speech Albert meets with Logue giving the story a natural way to show Albert healing both his stammer and the childhood wounds that weakened his self-confidence. This helps us buy him standing up to the Archbishop and successfully giving his wartime speech. In Silver Linings Playbook Pat and Tiffany’s dance rehearsals bring them closer and help us to believe that Pat would fall for Tiffany and reconcile the fact that his wife has moved on.

Begin at the end.

The protagonist’s transformation is the destination and knowing this helps us to plot the stops along the way. Deciding where you want your story to go and how you want the protagonist to change is a vital part of your screenplay and can be a very useful tool to use when developing your piece.

 

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In my last post I took a look at the unique aspects of writing short film characters. In this post I want to touch on short screenplay structure. Obviously the big difference between a short and a feature is length. While shorts can vary in length (generally no longer than 50 minutes) they still follow the traditional three act structure with some special considerations.

• Time Frame
One of the key things that separates a feature from a short is time frame. Shorts simply don’t have time for the story to unfold over several days or long passages of time. This means short screenplays are generally one moment in time or happen over the course of several hours though occasionally they can take place one or two days (ie: overnight).

• Structure – 3 Acts
Even though a short screenplay is, well, shorter it still needs to have a beginning, middle and end – essentially three acts.

• Set up – Act One
The first act sets up your main character. The challenge in a short film is that this needs to be done in one or two quick beats (hence no elaborate backstory or exposition). This means we need to rely on a visual shorthand to convey information about them. While we don’t want to revert to stereotypes or cliché think of ways to communicate who your protagonist is visually and through one or two specific actions or character traits. These first few beats also set up the main character’s current situation and the world of the story.

While we want to tell the story visually opening with a montage or a slow build of images before we meet our characters works in a feature not in a short. Come into the story as if it’s already in progress rather than having to do a lot of explaining as to why we’re here.

• Inciting Incident
Given the shorter length of a short film screenplay you have less time to get to your inciting incident – the one main beat that kick starts the story. The inciting incident sends the story in a new direction, it’s the problem your protagonist needs to deal with and propels them into action in response. A good inciting incident raises questions about what’s going to happen next.

• Plot – Act Two
Key in all films and particularly in a short is having clear focused action that drives the story forward with energy and tension. The way to do this is through the protagonist’s goal. This goal is the protagonist’s response to the inciting incident. It’s vital that this goal, even if it’s something internal, sparks our protagonist to do something active. The protagonist’s actions drive the plot so whatever they want needs to translate into some kind of action that moves the story forward. In other words – something needs to happen! In a feature the second act is the longest (generally 60 pages) and involves multiple beats including a mid-point twist. In a short we don’t have time to see this kind of progression or escalation so we need to focus on the key moments we need to move our protagonist forward. In a five-seven minute short this may only be 3-4 beats.

In general try to avoid moving the story forward through a lot of talking and dialogue exchanges. Shorts collapse under the weight of this kind of thing because there isn’t enough time to offset them with action. It’s very easy to end up with five minutes of talking and no action. So find ways of having your protagonist pursue their goal actively and visually.

• Conflict
As the protagonist tries to achieve their goal they need to run into conflict. Our investment in their struggle to achieve what they want creates tension and suspense and keeps us hooked. Conflict comes in many forms. For example it can be a specific antagonist, the environment or something more personal and internal. Conflict creates a problem for our protagonist to overcome. It drives the plot and is a key element in ensuring the piece feels active and engaging.

• Resolution – Act Three
In order for your short screenplay to have impact it’s important that your piece end in a satisfying way. What this means will vary depending on the kind of piece you’re writing. For some this beat will lead to humor for others this will be an emotional or heart wrenching conclusion. Regardless what’s important here is that we feel there’s been some kind of shift or change. Keep in mind that in a short film it’s very difficult to have a character make a huge shift ie: from suburban mom to serial killer so look for smaller, meaningful changes that can be articulated in a short period of time. This is also where you can use your protagonist’s arc to tell the audience what your story is about. Generally what your main character learns tells us what the theme is. This is your point of view as a writer. It’s why you’re telling this story and why we care about watching it. (You can find more on theme here.)

Some thoughts on PRODUCTION

While you’re writing it’s helpful to keep production in mind and ensure you’re writing a piece that is actually shootable within the time and budget you have available. This means avoid huge set pieces and action sequences, special FX, scenes involving a lot of extras or unobtainable/expensive locations. Consider using props, locations and settings that are already available to you and keep locations to a minimum to avoid having a lot of company moves.

When writing your short screenplay strive to entertain, engage and move people. Hitchcock said, “drama is life with the dull bits cut out” keep this in mind when writing.

Short screenplays present some unique storytelling challenges but a successful short script can be very effective and deliver the kind of punch features can’t. Be brave. Be bold. And tell your story in fifty minutes or less!

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Many of my clients write short screenplays and last year I helped develop nine short scripts for Film Independent’s Project:Involve seven of which were greenlit and showcased at the Los Angeles Film Festival. One of these, To the Bone written by Erin Li and Silka Luisa, has been accepted to Slamdance.  We’re gearing up for this year’s program so short films are on my mind.

Shorts are a great way to develop your writing skills and can be an excellent calling card if produced. Short film screenplays are a unique form of storytelling that are not simply pared down features but have their own specific rules and structure. Because they are short they have the ability to deliver a quick, powerful emotional punch. In many ways this gives them greater impact than a feature which has to tease out the same affect over 90+ minutes. In order to write an effective short film it helps to be aware of the aspects of screenwriting that are unique to short films. Here are some character guidelines to keep in mind (my next post will take a look at structure).

• Protagonist’s Goal
Even in a short the plot of the story is driven by what the protagonist wants. This is their goal. As in a feature their goal needs to be compelling, urgent and something we can get behind. We want to emotionally engage the audience so they are invested in the story and want to see the outcome. This doesn’t mean their goal has to be big like saving the world. Sometimes smaller, more internal goals have greater emotional impact partly because they are more relatable.

• Backstory
The challenge in creating a compelling character in a short is you don’t have the luxury of 30 pages to set up your protagonist for the audience. Depending on the length of your short you have only a handful of pages and sometimes even less. This means you don’t have time for elaborate backstory or exposition (which is like a dead weight in a short). So how do you convey important information about your character? Economically, visually and through action and relationships. If there is something we must know about your character’s past or current situation then find ways to convey this with a visual reference. This could be something in the setting, a unique visual attribute (clothes, hair) or gesture. We learn the most about a character through their actions. So what they are actually doing and who they are doing it with tells us a lot. This is your toolbox. Use it to tell us about your character economically without having to involve a whole lot of backstory and exposition which you don’t have time for.

• Protagonist’s Arc
Even in a short screenplay the main character needs to grow and change over the course of the story. Unlike a feature you don’t have 90 pages to develop and arc a character so the shift they make needs to be smaller and not feel like a huge leap. Big changes are just too much to incorporate in such a short time. So what you’re looking for here are protagonists who have shifts in perspective, see things in a new light, and undertake a new or different action. They may have a shift based on the consequences of their actions or we might see a change in their relationships as a result what’s occurred in the story.

Of course this comes with its own challenge which is that these smaller shifts tend to be more internal than external so the trick here is to find visual ways of externalizing the internal change.

• Secondary Characters
While a feature length narrative may have myriad characters a short film needs to focus on the protagonist and a limited number of secondary characters. These are your antagonists, love interests, best friends, parents, boss, co-workers etc. There just isn’t enough time to service more than three-four secondary characters (generally less) and it’s important to decide what characters you absolutely need in order to tell your story. Key here is incorporating secondary characters whose relationship with the protagonist  helps us to understand who they are, their goal and their transformation.  For example the main character’s relationship with their sibling/parent/friend  can tell us whether they are kind, helpful, disconnected, emotionally aloof, self involved etc. traits that would be hard to establish without seeming them in relationship with another character.

• Theme
Knowing what your story is about and what you are trying to say as a writer is vital even in a short screenplay. One of the ways to think about this is what your protagonist learns over the course of the story tells us what the piece is really about. Once again this doesn’t need to be a huge, earth shaking idea or shift but it needs to be clear and we need to understand your point of view and why you’re telling this particular story. Using the protagonist to convey the theme is an effective way to do this. Shorts that are “about” something are more likely to connect with the audience and resonate more deeply.

If you’ve written a short I’d love to hear your comments, ideas and suggestions.

 

May 23rd, 2012  Posted at   Character Development, screenwriting, script consulting
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Ok, I think pretty much everyone would agree that pitching is about as fun as sticking needles in your eyes! Alright there might be a handful of people who love it or have come to terms with it as a necessary evil but those who are new to pitching generally feel something akin to fear and loathing. Why? It’s hard! It’s very challenging to condense your 110 page script into a 1-2 minute pitch that is conversational, entertaining and contains just enough information to hook an executive.

But pitching is a fact of life for working screenwriters so it behooves you to get comfortable with an admittedly uncomfortable process that is only one step removed from speed dating. And we all know how fun that is! One way to get more comfortable is to practice. Obviously you should do this with your own script (over and over and over) but you can also practice using produced movies. For example how would you pitch The Descendants?

Using the 7 steps to a perfect pitch here’s one way the pitch could unfold…

• My script The Descendants is a drama set in Hawaii about Matt who’s emotionally awol and calls himself a backup parent to his two daughters. His life’s thrown into turmoil when his semi-estranged wife, Elizabeth, falls into a coma after a boating accident. The doctors tell him she’s not going to recover and he has to take her off life support. Matt tells his eldest daughter Alexandra this upsetting news and she reveals his wife was having an affair and planning on leaving him.

Now you’re into the most difficult part of your pitch what is essentially the second act of your story. What you’re trying to do here is hit the main turning points that show how your protagonist handles the problem they’re faced with. Think 2-3 beats that form the central spine of your story. For The Descendants it might be something like…

• Matt had no idea she was cheating on him. Sure they had their problems but this was not what he expected to hear. Once he recovers from the shock Matt decides he has to find her lover, Brian, and tell him she’s dying so that he can say goodbye. Brian is vacationing on Kauai with his family so Matt takes his girls, and Alexandra’s slacker friend Sid, and tracks him down. It takes some time for him to orchestrate a moment alone with Brian but he finally does. Turns out Brian wasn’t even in love with his wife and is in fact devoted to his family. This knocks the wind out of Matt’s sails, but job done, they return home.

From here you want to quickly wrap it up and get to how the story is resolved and what your protagonist learns.

• Back at the hospital they take Elizabeth off life support and everyone gathers to say goodbye. They’re interrupted by Brian’s wife, Julie, who drops by the hospital with flowers and tells Matt she forgives Elizabeth even though she destroyed their family. This helps Matt to forgive his wife as well and he says goodbye with a tender speech and a gentle kiss. Our story ends with Matt and his girls cuddled on the couch with a big bowl of popcorn and a movie and we see that they’ve been brought together by this tragedy.

Subplots

You’ll notice I didn’t touch on the subplot of the land rights issue at all. Pitches can get bogged down in subplots which are often confusing when telling just the bare bones of a story. For the purpose of your pitch, unless they are absolutely essential, you can leave your subplots out. If an executive asks for more you can touch on your subplot. If your subplot is truly integral to the main story then you’d want to set up the protagonist, goal and main problem before launching into the subplot. For The Descendants it might go something like this…

• Matt’s an emotional absent husband and father whose life is thrown into turmoil when his semi-estranged wife falls into a coma after a boating accident. Matt learns she will never wake up and her doctor tells him she needs to be taken off life support. He tells his eldest daughter, Alexandra, of her terminal prognosis and she reveals her mother was having an affair and planning on leaving him. Once Matt recovers from the shock he decides to find Elizabeth’s lover and give him a chance to say goodbye before he pulls the plug.

Now here’s the addition of the subplot:

• While this is going on Matt, who’s a lawyer, and the sole trustee of his family’s extensive land holdings, is trying to help his family find a buyer for their land which they are being forced to sell. As they settle on a buyer Matt learns that Brian, who’s a realtor, is the brother in-law of the man they are considering for the sale. If all goes forward Brian will stand to make a lot of money.

Once you’ve set up the main crux of the subplot you’re back to the main story beats and would return to the B-story once the main story has been resolved.

• Following Elizabeth’s funeral Matt’s extended family gathers to sign the papers for the sale of the land. Matt has a sudden change of heart and decides not to sell angering his relatives but bringing himself some much needed peace of mind.

Coming back to the subplot in this way shows that Matt has been transformed by the story events.

Spin your Story

Keep in mind that your pitch should “spin” the story not tell it beat by beat. While you want your pitch to accurately reflect your script (for example if your piece is a musical you’d want to state that up front and if it’s really a drama don’t feel you have to play up the comedy if it isn’t there) you can compress, delete, rearrange as needed. The idea here is to entice the executive into wanting to hear more and if this kind of story is in your executive’s wheelhouse (to quote George Clooney) they’ll hopefully ask for your script. So keep things light, fast paced and conversational.

In time pitching will get easier and you might even find you like it. Yes, really. And if you need some extra practice trying writing pitches for exisiting movies. It can help you to fine tune the skills you need to give a winning pitch.

May 23rd, 2012  Posted at   Character Development, screenwriting, script consulting
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In my two previous posts I talked about theme and how you can use your protagonist’s arc to clarify what your story is about. You can also use this arc as the spine for pitching your story.

Knowing how to pitch your script can be a challenge particularly deciding what’s essential information and what you can leave out. Everyone is different and it takes time to find your pitching “voice” but one way to approach it is by looking at the protagonist’s arc over the course of the story and using this as the spine of your pitch.

In general your pitch should include:

1. Title – Um, well, this obvious, right?

2. Genre – It’s ok to mix genres a little bit here but try to stay within generally accepted genres ie: comedy, comedy-drama, thriller, action-thriller. Not sure? Check out imdb.com to get an idea of the most common genres.

3. Hook – This is the one idea that makes your story unique. In The Artist this would be the fact that it’s a silent movie. If you don’t have one don’t worry – not all stories do.

4. Protagonist – One or two sentences that briefly summarize your main character. For example if you were pitching The Descendants you might say, “Matt is an emotionally awol, self described back-up parent.” Or if your story was Up you could describe Carl as a curmudgeonly recluse unable to connect with anyone since his wife died.

5. Goal – Clarify the protagonist’s main external goal. In The King’s Speech this is for Albert to overcome his stammer. Or for The Descendents it would be for Matt to find and confront his dying wife’s lover.

6. Problem/Obstacles – In many ways this is the crux of your pitch and also the most difficult. The challenge here is to know just how much detail to go into and how to succinctly describe the series of escalating problems your protagonist encounters. This is where it can be really helpful to know what your story is really about and how your protagonist grows over the course of the script.

What you’re looking for here are the main turning points of the second act. The beats that move your character forward externally and internally. The first of these is the main problem which generally falls around the end of the first act.

In The Descendants this is the fact that Elizabeth, who has to be taken off life support, was having an affair. With The Artist this is when George is proven wrong and talkies start to become popular. In Drive this is when Driver (Ryan Gosling) offers to help Standard (Oscar Isaac) and the robbery goes awry.

From here your pitch should include how your protagonist handles this problem(s). Think 3-4 beats that form the central spine of your story be sure to include the end of the second act turning point and the climax.

7.  Resolution – This is how the story ends. It shows how your protagonist solved their central problem and whether or not they achieved their goal. It also reveals what your protagonist has learned over the course of the script and is where the theme is mostly clearly articulated. In The Descendants this is  Matt’s tender speech to Elizabeth which shows us he’s finally able to reconcile her transgression and tell us that The Descendants is ultimately a story about forgiveness.

Spin Your Pitch

When giving your pitch you want to “spin” your story not tell it plot point by plot point. If this means you put the main events in a slightly different order, leave out a character or compress a subplot it’s all good. Succinct is always better so just stick to the key events that tell us what happens and what your story is about. The goal here is to link the main story beats together in such a way that it feels conversational and entertaining. Imagine you’re having a few drinks with your friends and telling them about this great movie you just saw. The pitch should entice the executive you’re pitching to to ask for more information and hopefully to see the script.

Pitching well takes practice, lots and lots of practice, and is an art form all of its own, but having a good sense of your character’s arc, epiphany and transformation can give you the framework you need to hit it out of the park. (Hey, at least I waited until the end to use such an obvious pun!)

May 22nd, 2012  Posted at   Character Development, screenwriting, script consulting
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Movies are about transformation. We want to see someone change. It’s the reason we are drawn to sit in a dark room and eat popcorn with a bunch of strangers. But this transformation has to have a larger meaning. This is where knowing what your story is about comes in. Without a clear theme your story doesn’t have the context it needs to truly affect the audience. But how do you establish the notoriously hard to pin down theme?

In my last post I talked about how the theme of a story can be articulated by what the protagonist learns. This means that we come to understand what the story is really about by seeing the protagonist experience a meaningful epiphany. In order to ensure your main character has a specific moment of realization we need to give them an emotionally compelling transformation which is a two step process.

First you need to give your protagonist a subconscious longing, need or desire that they are initially unaware of (reconcile loss, gain confidence, forgive). This becomes their internal goal. It’s why they want what they want. It tells us what is really motivating them to achieve their external goal and articulates what they really need (even though they don’t know it yet!).

The second part of developing the protagonist’s transformation is giving the protagonist an epiphany that makes the subconscious conscious. This is where they realize the flaw they must heal in order to be transformed. It’s this moment that tells us what the story is really about.

The King’s Speech does this beautifully:

• The opening scene at Wembley Stadium establishes Albert’s stammer and his considerable fear of public speaking. His subsequent visit to the doctor tells us his external goal is to overcome his speech impediment.

• Albert’s father, King George V (Michael Gambon), gives his annual Christmas broadcast and afterwards bullies Albert into trying the microphone reminding him he has to overcome his stammer sooner than later. This beat sets up Albert’s lack of confidence and roots his weak self esteem in his antagonistic relationship with his father.

We know that Albert’s subconscious inner goal is to feel worthy of being King and to do this he’s going to have to let go of his unattainable need for his father’s love and approval – the flaw that stands in the way of his self confidence.

• With his father’s words ringing in his ears Albert begins seeing Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) to address his stammer. During their sessions Albert resists discussing his past but as the story progresses and their friendship solidifies he reveals some of the more difficult moments of his childhood. These conversations nicely set up Albert’s growing awareness of the real cause of his stammer and ultimately his lack of confidence.

• King George V dies and Albert’s brother (Guy Pearce) inherits the throne becoming King Edward VIII. During a session with Logue Albert reveals his worry that Edward will abdicate and he’ll be forced to take over. Lionel assures him he has what it takes to be King which forces Albert to confront his lack of self worth head on. But Albert’s not yet willing to look at his insecurity and instead lashes out at Logue ridiculing his failed acting career.

• Their altercation causes a rift in their friendship that isn’t repaired until King Edward VIII does in fact abdicate and Albert is made King. Now, unable to avoid a future filled with public speaking obligations, Albert seeks out Logue and apologizes. Their reconciliation underscores an internal shift in Albert’s character and his acceptance of his fate shows the first glimmer of his willingness to confront his flaw and believe in himself.

• Albert and Logue prepare for Albert’s coronation at Westminster Abbey. While they do this the Archbishop of Canterbury (Derek Jacobi) investigates Logue’s credentials and in a climatic scene interrupts their preparations to tell Albert that Logue isn’t even a real doctor. The Archbishop’s shocking revelation proves Albert’s worst fear – he lacks judgment and has trusted someone he shouldn’t have. He is in fact not fit to be King.

• Albert again lashes out at Logue. But instead of backing down Logue helps him to see that he doesn’t need the Archbishop, his father or anyone else’s approval, including Logue’s, to be worthy of the crown – he just needs his own. This is Albert’s epiphany. He is now conscious of how his lack of self worth, instilled in him by his father and reinforced by his debilitating stammer, has held him back from embracing his role as King. This new awareness gives him the confidence he needs to accept the position with dignity. This moment tells us what the story is really about and articulates the theme of accepting yourself flaws and all.

• Albert’s newfound confidence and acceptance of his role as King is beautifully established in the final sequence when he confidently gives his wartime address. This sequence works as well as it does because we know how much Albert has grown over the course of the story. We have witnessed his transformation from being unable to speak to the crowd at Wembley to giving an inspiring radio broadcast that unites the people of Britain and earns their undying trust and respect.

If The King’s Speech was just about how King George VI overcame his stammer it wouldn’t engage us the way that it has. It’s his internal journey as he gains self confidence that keeps us hooked and ultimately moves us. Giving your protagonist a compelling emotional transformation is one of the best ways to not only fully engage your audience but ensure you tell a meaningful story with a clearly articulated theme.

May 20th, 2012  Posted at   Character Development, screenwriting, script consulting
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When I work with writers or evaluate pieces for the Sundance Lab, FIND and Screen Queensland one of the questions I often ask myself is, “What does it all mean?” A lot of the time once I’ve finished a script I can’t answer this question and am left searching for the point of the story. This is not what you want to happen. A story without a clear theme causes a reader to pass and leaves the audience wondering why they wasted their time. Once again so not what you want to happen.

But theme is notoriously difficult to nail down and often doesn’t reveal itself to the writer until they’ve written a draft or two. This is par for the course and it can take awhile to figure out what you want to say and why you’re writing this particular story. But at some point you need to make a decision about what your story is really about and make sure the theme is clear.

One way to tackle this is by careful plotting of the protagonist’s arc. How so? Well, what the protagonist learns by the end of the piece tells you what your story is really about.

• For example in The Descendants we’re drawn into the story to see if Matt (George Clooney) will track down and confront his dying wife’s lover Brian (Matthew Lillard) but we’re more connected to whether or not he will be able to reconcile her betrayal. His final speech to her shows us he’s been able to do this and tells us the story is about forgiveness.

• In The Artist we’re invested in the film to see if George (Jean Dujardin) will be able to revive his career but what we really want is for him to put aside his ego and embrace change. His decision to shoot a “talkie” with Peppy (Berenice Bejo) tells us he’s been able to do this and establishes the theme as the danger of hubris.

• For Win Win the conflict centers around Mike’s (Paul Giamatti) decision to have himself illegally appointed as his aging client’s (Burt Young) guardian moving him to a senior’s facility against his wishes. This creates a string of problems that invest us in our desire to see Mike come clean and right the situation. The fact that he does tells us the story is about the importance of honesty.

• During Midnight in Paris we’re drawn through the story to see Gil’s (Owen Wilson) magical travels in time but what we really want is for him to come to terms with his life in the present. When he turns down Adriana’s (Marion Cotillard) request to stay permanently in the 1890’s we know that he’s done this and that the theme of the story is that despite the allure of the past it’s better to accept the present.

• While watching The King’s Speech we want Albert (Colin Firth) to be able to speak in public without embarrassment but what we really want is for him to become more confident, come out from behind his father’s shadow and embrace his role as King. The fact that he eventually does this tells us the theme is learning to accept and believe in yourself.

• In Up were invested in the movie to see if Carl (Ed Asner) will make it to Paradise Falls but what we really want is for him to reconcile the death of his wife and befriend Russell (Jordan Nagai). When he finds Ellie’s note in his scrapbook and goes on to rescue Russell from Muntz (Christopher Plummer) we know that while the piece has been a fun adventure it’s really about overcoming loss, reaching out, and embracing life.

These examples show how you can use the protagonist’s arc, specifically their epiphany, to articulate what the story is really about. So in thinking about theme you can look to where you want your protagonist to go and how you want them to change over the course of the story. This will point you in the direction of your theme and make sure your story has a reason to be told.