Archive for the ‘script consulting’ Category

January 18th, 2015  Posted at   screenwriting, script consulting
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While there’s no sure way to success as a screenwriter in Hollywood there are specific things you can do to put you on the right path.

The first is to have a clear understanding of how the industry works and the path of a screenwriter from budding writer to working professional. Pitching guru and consultant Stephanie Palmer of Good in a Room recently wrote a blog post about exactly this. In the post she outlines the 7 phases a screenwriter needs to go through. It’s bang on and is a must read if you want to understand the process. You can read the full post here. 

A perfect addition to this is screenwriting career consultant Lee Jessup’s recent post about the best practices her clients have used to garner success. Her advice includes being resilient, readily exposing your work, and treating screenwriting as a job – even if you already have one. You can read the full post here.

While many aspects of success are out of your hands understanding the path you need to follow and knowing how to conduct yourself while building your career are things that are completely within your grasp. These two articles outline what every screenwriter needs to know in order to become a working writer and are an excellent place to start taking control of your career.

 

 

 

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Each year Film Independent, under the banner of Project Involve, brings together filmmakers from communities traditionally underrepresented in the industry. The program accepts Fellows from all disciplines and runs from October to June. Fellows participate in master workshops, classes on the business and craft of filmmaking and one-on-one mentorships. The cornerstone of the program is the creation of short films and for the past three years I have had the honor of being the story editor helping the writers/directors bring their stories to life.

The process begins with the amazing leaders of Project Involve, Francisco Velasquez and Jane Hwang, giving the Fellows a theme from which to develop a treatment for a 10 page short film. Francisco and Jane review the treatments and choose 8-10 projects to develop. Once the first drafts are turned in I join in. Over a series of weekly development meetings the writers, Francisco, Jane and I get together to discuss each script in depth.

This process echoes traditional story development meetings found at studios and production companies and requires the writer to  look at their script from every angle. We explore the theme, characters, structure and dialogue while ensuring the final piece will be producable given the budget and time constraints. Writers dig deep to find the heart of their story and explore solutions that ensure they will tell it succinctly and visually. Notes are given, implemented and rewrites turned in. Once the final drafts are submitted directors are invited to pitch and Francisco and Jane greenlight six scripts to go into production. Teams are assembled and after roughly a month of prep and one final story development meeting the projects start shooting.

The short films go through full post and the final versions are showcased at the Los Angeles Film Festival in June.

In six short months the Project Involve Fellows see their projects go from script to screen. As the story editor shepherding this process there’s no way to fully describe the pride and joy I feel when I see the results of all their hard work on the big screen in a packed theater. Many of these shorts have gone on to play at festivals across the country where they have won both awards and critical acclaim.

This year’s Fellows have just wrapped production and I’m looking forward to seeing their films at the Festival. They are an incredibly talented group of filmmakers and I know you’ll be seeing their work in the years to come.

 

 

 

 

 

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Last month I was in beautiful St. John’s, Newfoundland for the St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival’s “Scene and Heard.

St. John’s, on the most Eastern part of Canada,  affectionately known as “the rock,” and a three hour flight from Toronto is home to an amazing group of incredibly talented filmmakers. I was fortunate to meet many of them during a workshop on writing short films and in a dozen one-on-one script consultations. I also moderated a panel on adaptations with award winning filmmakers Barbara Doran and Deanne Foley and novelist Kevin Major which led to conversations about what it takes to find the right project to adapt and the importance of emotionally connecting to your material.

I was also fortunate to be able to see a screening of selected short films by local filmmakers, pick up some truffles from the Newfoundland Chocolate Company and get a fabulous Scene and Heard t-shirt but skipped the cod cheeks (don’t ask!). St. John’s is a very special city with a wonderful, close knit community of writers, directors, and producers and I was truly honored to be part of this year’s “Scene and Heard.”

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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!

July 8th, 2013  Posted at   podcasts, screenwriting, script consulting, story editing, theme
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Back in the day when I had a desk job in development I routinely took home 20-25 scripts to read on the weekend. This was in addition to my weekly read. Part of the reason I did this was because we had a ton of submissions to get through and also because I’d just moved to LA and didn’t have much of  a life yet so didn’t mind spending my entire weekend reading. But the main reason for this was because I knew I’d probably only read one, maybe two all the way through.

Many of the scripts I read were well written, had engaging ideas, great characters, good dialogue and were well structured but by the end of the first act (often earlier) I could tell the script wasn’t “about” anything – there was no theme. Theme is one of the most important story elements and one I’m deeply passionate about. Without a clear theme it doesn’t matter how well written your script is as it’s unlikely that it will resonate with the reader or ultimately audiences. Theme is what we emotionally engage with and is a vital part of a successful screenplay.

So what is theme, exactly? Theme is the underlying meaning behind the story events. In The King’s Speech this is Albert’s need to gain self-confidence. In Up the theme is about Carl’s need to reconcile the loss of his wife. In The Descendants Matt’s need to forgive his wife’s transgression establishes the theme. In The Piano the story is about Ada’s need to learn to be vulnerable and love someone as much as her music. In Wedding Crashers the theme is maturity as we watch John grow up and be a man. In The Kids are Alright Jules learns to value her family which establishes the theme.

In a nutshell plot is the story events – the action that moves the story forward – while theme is what gives these events meaning.

On a recent podcast with Pilar Alessandra’s On the Page we talked about how to plot theme without being too heavy handed or eschewing theme all together.  As part of this we discussed the all-important protagonist’s epiphany. This is the moment towards the end of the second act and sometimes in the third act where the protagonist learns what they need to learn or heals what they need to heal. This beat establishes the theme.

In order to make sure this key moment works successfully the protagonist’s flaw, unconscious need or longing has to be established in the first act. This is where we see what they need to learn or heal (think Carl’s bitterness in Up or Albert’s lack of confidence in The King’s Speech). From here the protagonist needs to have a slow gradual awakening to this flaw as the protagonist moves from a lack of awareness to awareness and the unconscious becomes conscious. The midpoint is a good place to really highlight this progression. This is nicely done in The King’s Speech through Albert’s sessions with Logue during the second act.

All of this comes together in the protagonist’s epiphany. In The King’s Speech this is where Albert stands up to the Archbishop prior to his coronation. This beat tells us Albert’s learned what he needed to learn and establishes the theme of the piece as the importance of self-confidence and believing in yourself.

These three key turning points (flaw, midpoint & epiphany) can be a very effective way to plot theme. A screenplay with a clear theme will ensure your script stands out and makes it through the weekend read from start to finish.

Want to hear more? You can listen to the podcast here.

June 24th, 2013  Posted at   podcasts, screenwriting, script consulting, theme
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True confession time. I’ve been a bit of a late adopter to podcasts partly because I don’t have an iPhone (an entirely different late adopter story) which makes them easier to listen to on the go but mostly because they are missing a key aspect of print…

The ability to skim!

Yup, there I said it. I’m constantly reading about screenwriting, filmmaking and distribution but have stayed away from podcasts and video interviews because it’s difficult to fast forward lest you miss something important. Print’s not like that. It’s far easier to quickly scan a page and make sure you’ve absorbed everything you need to.

But then I was invited to be a guest on Pilar Alessandra’s highly acclaimed screenwriting podcast On the Page and I figured I better get up to speed. So I listened to some of podcasts I often see mentioned on twitter (screenwriter Amanda Pendolino put together a top five list here.) and of course I was immediately hooked.

I love the personalities and the conversational tone. It’s like sitting at Starbucks and eavesdropping on the conversation at the next table. This totally trumps the whole skimming thing. Doing a podcast was even more fun. I’ve been interviewed on the radio and often give screenwriting presentations but this was even better. Pilar’s a great host and Aadip Desai a fabulous co-host. It was great to talk theme (one of my favorite subjects) and within a few minutes I forgot about the microphones and whether or not I was within the required six inch range (from mic to mouth).

So I may be late to the table but I’m finally here. Grab a coffee and click here if you’d like to join in. 

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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!

October 8th, 2012  Posted at   script consulting
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One of the most hotly debated screenwriting mandates is that you have only ten pages to grab your reader. As a script consultant who works with writers on both high concept pieces and low budget indies I’ve found this one directive causes much frustration. So, is there truth in it?

In short, yes.

You’ve heard it before beleaguered development executives, producers, managers, agents with a huge stack of material in front of them that needs to be read. With so many scripts to get through it’s all too easy to stop reading if a piece doesn’t grab you immediately. Some will hang in there to see if the script ultimately works but most won’t.

Before you judge them too harshly it’s important to realize that it’s not just an overload of material and limited time that causes them to stop reading. In my experience having read several thousand screenplays ten pages is often a very good indication of whether or not the piece has potential.

In addition all executives read with a very specific intention in mind and they know exactly what they are looking for in genre, budget range, castability and level of marketability. In general, especially if the submission is from a new writer, they don’t need to read the entire script to know if it’s not for them. This is a bitter truth. But better to accept it and learn to work with it than fight the system.

Here’s what the first 10 pages tell a reader:

1. Format. Right away it’s easy to see if a writer is familiar with standard screenplay format. Proper font size, spacing, slug lines, scene and character headings. Even how a script is bound can signal how well versed the writer may be. Binders, cerlox, bull clips or anything other than brads to bind a script are a clue that the writer may not be up to speed on standard procedures for submitting a script. While this isn’t always an indication that the script isn’t going to work it’s a sign that the writer may be unfamiliar with the other elements a script needs to succeed.

If you’re unsure about proper format pick up David Trottier’s excellent book The Screenwriter’s Bible.

2. Who the protagonist is. The first ten pages have to establish who our story is going to be about and there should be no doubt as to who this is. For example even though True Grit is about three people (Rooster Cogburn, Laboeuf and Mattie Ross) it’s clear that this is Mattie’s (Hailee Steinfeld) story.

3. What the protagonist’s flaw is. The protagonist’s Achilles’ heel also needs to be established here. We become emotionally invested in what our protagonist needs to heal or overcome over the course of the story. If we don’t know what it is within the first ten pages we run the risk of not grabbing the reader’s interest in the emotional through line of the story. In The King’s Speech we know Albert, Duke of York (Colin Firth), is dealing with a debilitating speech impediment and are immediately invested in him resolving this and being able to speak in public. Burying the protagonist’s problem or flaw somewhere in the middle of the second act will significantly undermine your ability to emotionally engage your reader.

4. Hook or premise. It’s essential that by page 10 we know generally what the story is about and where it’s heading. This is established by setting up the main complication or problem our hero is going to be facing (usually referred to as the inciting incident). While we don’t want to know exactly how this is all going unfold we’ll have a good sense of main idea that’s driving the piece. In The Fighter it’s clear that this is going to be a story about Micky Ward’s (Mark Wahlberg) struggle to come out from behind his brother Dickie Eklund’s (Christian Bale) shadow and get a chance at a boxing title.

5. Genre. The first ten pages need to establish the main genre of the piece. While Black Swan is a hybrid of genres it’s still primarily a psychological thriller. True Grit may have comedic elements but there’s no doubt it’s a western. Newer writers in particular need to be very clear about what genre their story falls into so that the reader knows what kind of piece they are reading within the first few pages.

6. Craft. Ten pages is more than enough to establish whether or not the writer has a good sense of the craft of writing and has an original, distinct voice.

You can see here that ten pages packs a lot of punch. Now maybe the premise isn’t quite clear by page ten but the writing is brilliant or perhaps the conflict is a little unfocused but the protagonist is fully engaging and unique. This might be enough to keep the reader hooked and get you another 10 pages but the line in the sand is the first act (pages 25-30). At this point the reader needs to know who the protagonist is, what major flaw they are dealing with, what obstacle is standing in the way of them achieving their goal and what kind of a movie this is.

If you can do all this in the first ten pages you’ve just increased the likelihood of your piece being read through to the final page. The executive reading your script may ultimately decide that it’s not for them, that’s an occupational hazard, but it shows them you have a solid understanding of screenwriting and opens the door for your next submission. So hook your reader in the first ten pages and you’ll have a much better chance of building the relationships you need to maintain a long-term career in Hollywood.

September 19th, 2012  Posted at   script consulting
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I’ve been on twitter now for almost two years and can attest to the fact that it’s more than just another way to procrastinate (though it’s good for that too!).

Yup, I was one of many who railed against it. Said, “Why would I want to read tweets about what people had for lunch? ” A TV producer I queried dismissed it with a wave of his wine glass saying, “It’s just another way to sell stuff.”

Well, it’s true. People tweet about their lunch, late nights of partying and even the aftermath of a car crash (I quickly unfollowed them) but many, many more people tweet about things that are actually very compelling, engaging and ultimately meaningful. I’ve “met” a lot of really wonderful people around the world, have gotten clients, written guest blogs and learned a ton from people who love writing and movies as much as I do.

If you’re a writer twitter is a great way to hone your skills (think of 140 characters as a micro story) and build a following. If you’re not in LA it’s a great way to expand your world and mitigate the isolation that goes hand-in-hand with a writer’s life. It’s also a great way to  connect with people you wouldn’t otherwise be able to like Judd Apatow @JuddApatow or Mindy Kaling @Mindykaling and to stay up to date and current on the industry via Nikki Finke’s Deadline Hollywood @NikkiFinke or Indiewire @indiewire.

Twitter is fun, it’s free and it just might launch or expand your career! And if you don’t believe me check out what my fellow twitter peeps have to say as they share the twitter love (and follow them too!).

Twitter Pimp Angel / Script Magazine Editor – Jeanne V. Bowerman @jeannevb

http://www.scriptmag.com/unscripted/unscripted-how-twitter-can-help-your-career

Jamie Livingston @Jamie_LD

http://www.jamieleescott.com/

And if you’re wondering how to decode twitter lingo check out:

Stacey Myers @Staceylmyers

http://staceymyers.com/twitter-jargon-demystified-part1 & http://staceymyers.com/twitter-jargon-demystified-part-2

And of course you can always follow me @ruth_atkinson

Happy Tweeting!!

 

 

 

 

 

August 20th, 2012  Posted at   screenwriting, script consulting
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Jodie Foster recently spoke out about Kristen Stewart’s very public break-up with Robert Pattinson on the website The Daily Beast. Her thoughtful piece (you can find the link here) blasted the paparazzi’s intense scrutiny for not only destroying Kristen’s innocence but quite possibly making it virtually impossible for her to ever be vulnerable enough to  become fully engaged in a role.  Her post went viral and I was moved by how, as a child star herself, Jodie connected with Kristen’s struggle.

My good friend Deb Hiett, who is also a talented actress (you can find her imdb link here) didn’t connect to Jodie’s piece the way I did and had this to say on Facebook, ” I get her point, but she’s a bit melodramatic for me. “Public horrors?” Really? If she really thinks the (admittedly ridiculous) media’s treatment of two canoodling millionaire adults qualifies as a “public horror,” Jodie might want to read some real news for a little perspective.”

I asked Deb whether she agreed with Jodie’s take on how the media can interfere with an actor’s ability to take on a role. “No, I think a lack of acting skill and training makes it harder. Media scrutiny can affect how people perceive you within the framework of a role, but ultimately it’s up to you to surrender yourself to the portrayal of a character, and then release expectation of how it’s received. And when you can practically have your pick of roles (or at least afford to get anything produced that you want), you get to be as serious an actress as you want to be. Look, I think it would suck to be hounded all the time and know that photographers follow your every move. But that’s the way of it for a privileged few, and so their image can suffer consequences when they make reckless personal choices. One’s talent and training (or lack thereof) is still intact. Elizabeth Taylor was a reviled “homewrecker” before she soared in “BUtterfield 8″ and “Virginia Woolf.” (God help me, I’ve just put Taylor in the same thread as Kristen Ferking Stewart. My cue to log off and get back to work.) :)

I think Deb makes a really good point here hence my desire to share it! Is it the media or skill that makes or breaks an actor? Something to ponder.

August 19th, 2012  Posted at   script consulting
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Having trouble finding the sweet spot? Where you’re not jumping the gun or hanging on for dear life. Then my upcoming Writer’s Store Webinar is for you!

We’ve all heard the Hollywood adage that you only get one shot at having your script read. Is this true? Unfortunately, yes. Unlike your friend who’ll read multiple drafts in exchange for tequila most executives aren’t so easily plied. They have an ever growing stack of material to read and an inverse amount of time to get to it. If a piece doesn’t grab them immediately they’re not even going to finish it, let alone read another draft. You might decry this reality but if you were in their shoes you’d do the same thing. It’s best to embrace the truth and write the best piece you can.

But how do you know you’ve written the best piece you can? How do you know when your screenplay is ready to go out into the world? This, of course, is the million dollar question. Some writers send their material out before it’s really finished; while on the other end of the spectrum, some writers never feel ready and get caught in an endless loop of rewriting. Neither scenario works. You don’t want to jump the gun or hold on for dear life. The trick is to find the sweet spot for when you’re piece is truly ready.

Knowing when your script is ready requires having a good sense of your overall intentions and the story you want to tell so you can assess when you’ve reached your goals. You need to be able to dig deep and see through any excuses you might be making to avoid doing the real work inherent in rewriting. You also need to honestly assess any fears around going out to the world so you don’t get caught rewriting endlessly. Once you’ve done this, you need a solid plan for how to take your script out. This includes managing your expectations and getting a clear idea of where your script fits into the marketplace.

This live webinar will discuss these points (and more!) and will give you valuable tools you can use to assess when you’ve reached the “sweet spot.” Learning how to make this important judgment call will ensure you go out at the right time giving you the best possible chance at success!

Here’s the link to register. Hope to see you there!

August 19th, 2012  Posted at   script consulting
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Just found out that a film I consulted on, My Awkward  Sexual Adventure, is getting its world premiere at the prestigious Toronto International Film Festival! I couldn’t be happier for screenwriter Jonas Chernik and director Sean Garrity! Check it out if you’re going to be in Toronto on September 11th.

“A hyper-repressed and schlubby accountant (Jonas Chernick) strikes a deal with a worldly but disorganized stripper (Emily Hampshire): he’ll help her with her crushing debt if she helps him become a better lover. Sharp direction by the versatile Sean Garrity and a very funny script by Chernick ensure for an uproarious — and surprisingly educational — sex comedy.”

 

 

July 9th, 2012  Posted at   screenwriting, script consulting
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And another guest blog post this time on  Jamie Lee Scott’s website Strange Musings from an Author, Screenwriter and Artist.

Opposing Opinion on By the Book

Guest Post by Ruth Atkinson

I first met Jamie in Twitterverse (if you’re not already following her you should!). Her funny, entertaining and informative tweets got me hooked. I then had the good fortune of meeting her this June at The Great American Pitchfest where I was teaching a class. It was wonderful to finally have a face to put to the tweets. While our meeting was all too brief I could see that Jamie’s on-line personality was a true reflection of the live version. She’s witty, smart and an all round good peep. I’m honored to have an opportunity to contribute to her blog.

Recently Jamie posted a challenge to writers to choose their favorite screenwriting book and follow it to the letter, exercise by exercise, from first page to last. I couldn’t yell, “Don’t do it!!” loud enough. I’m a script consultant and story editor and I have a shelf full of “go to” books on screenwriting but I would never recommend someone undertake this task. “Why?” you ask. “Doesn’t Robert McKee sing the gospel? Isn’t following Blake Snyder the fastest way to write a Hollywood blockbuster?” In short, NO.

Don’t get me wrong I have enormous respect for many of the screenwriting gurus out there (Field, McKee, Seger, Synder, Vogler, Aronson, Bonnet, Truby among them) and what they say will give you the building blocks you need to write a screenplay. There are absolutely required reading. But they differ widely in their theories and approaches, many of books flat out contradict each other and everyone claims to have “the secret” to writing a screenplay that is not only amazing but will sell! At the end of the day they might be chock full of useful information that will help you write your script but none of them have all the answers. There simply isn’t a magic bullet. Success in screenwriting is based on many intangibles including productivity, talent and connections. You have to write (and rewrite a lot), you have to be good at it and you have to get your material to the right person at the right time. These are things that can’t be found by following a book to the letter.

So should you bother reading them at all? Well, YES. Because you still need a broad understanding of screenwriting theory in order to have a successful career as a screenwriter. Reading books on screenwriting will:

– Give you the building blocks you need to craft a screenplay – most importantly the three act structure.

– Offer valuable tools and tips for developing characters, conflict, dialogue and theme (among others).

– Introduce you to the format, language and jargon of screenwriting.

– Guide you in the way to properly develop a script from log line and outline through to rewriting.

– Give you ideas to improve your productivity and get to know your individual process of writing.

-Introduce you to the varied approaches to screenplay development from Christopher Vogler’s take on The Hero’s Journey to Blake Snyder’s beat sheet for writing a high concept commercial blockbuster.

– Explain the business of screenwriting from getting an agent to how deals are structured.

There’s a lot to be gained from immersing yourself in screenplay theory. Reading the “experts” is an absolute must for any new screenwriter. As you read you’ll also get a sense of what approach makes sense to you on an intuitive level. As you write you’ll see what ideas float back into your consciousness and what tools seem to be useful along the way. But don’t worry too much if things don’t add up exactly as you’ve been instructed. Trust your instincts and keep writing. If you’re stuck go back and reread that chapter that resonated for you. Find guidance and inspiration but don’t get too focused on any one idea or believe that any one of these theories have the secret solution. Ultimately you have to trust yourself more than any particular theory or book. This is why I wouldn’t recommend following any one book from first page to last because at the end of the day the only sure fire way to write a script that will sell is to sit down and write it!

July 9th, 2012  Posted at   screenwriting, script consulting
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Check out my guest blog post on Julie Gray’s fab site Just Effing Entertain Me!

Guest Blog by Ruth Atkinson!

***

Ok. I’m all fired up. I recently read a discussion thread on an entertainment blog that made me want to scream. I posted a comment instead. But here I am still fuming. What got me so riled? A writer’s query about how long it takes to write a screenplay who went on to confess they didn’t spend more than two months because, wait for it, once it was optioned, “It was going to be rewritten anyway.”

Say, what?

I can’t tell you how many times new writers have said this to me. And I emphasize NEW writers. Any experienced writer will tell you it takes years to learn the craft of screenwriting to the point where you are able to write a marketable script that will sell in Hollywood. As a new writer not only are the odds stacked against you but the bar is set much higher than for a produced writer. Why? Because you’re untested, have no track record and are competing against 1000 other screenplays that are out there vying for an execs attention. So why would you dare go out there with anything other than your absolute best?

As a new writer your piece not only has to have an incredibly fresh, exciting, original concept it has to be executed flawlessly meaning it has to follow conventional structure (without being formulaic), have distinct characters and a well paced plot that escalates to a meaningful climax and resolution. It also has to be “about” something and have a reason to be told. On top of this if you are a new writer you need to have an original voice (worked for Diablo Cody) in order to get noticed.

I don’t know how you can hit this mark in just a few short months. To forgo rewrites because it will be rewritten anyway is a good way to make sure you will remain unproduced. You only get a handful of chances to get your work read by someone who can move it forward. You want to make sure your screenplay is damn good and ready when it lands on their desk. You may write quickly but a truly well written, marketable screenplay that will stand out from the pack takes time. Get good at your craft, and then get your script out there. Not a moment sooner.

Whew. I feel calmer already. Thanks for listening.

 

June 23rd, 2012  Posted at   screenwriting, script consulting
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Three weeks ago I taught a class on Theme at the Great American Pitchfest. Three weeks ago? Why am I just posting about it now? The short answer is I’ve been busy with follow up! I met so many cool peeps – writers, fellow consultants, producers and directors and I’ve been connecting with them all post-fest.

And I’m not alone in this. Judging by the twitter conversations I follow many of  us who attended have been touching base and checking in. Several people who attended my class or who I met briefly in the halls of the Burbank Marriott have reached out as well. I also had a handful of clients attend and across the board the one thing they all commented on as being the most important aspect of the event was the other writers they met while waiting to pitch, grabbing coffee or attending a class.

Of course attendees would love to interest an executive in their work but for many the networking was invaluable. So often writers work in isolation so an event like this creates a wonderful opportunity to connect. Even for me!

The Great American Pitchfest is held annually (they’re in their 9th year) and offers writers an opportunity to  pitch their screenplays to executives. The day before the pitch event is an impressive roster of free, yes free!, classes on all aspects of screenwriting for TV and film. Consider attending next year!

 

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.