Archive for the ‘theme’ 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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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.

 

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.

July 1st, 2013  Posted at   screenwriting, story editing, synopsis, theme
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I’d have to say that for many writers their worst nightmare is having to write a synopsis of their own script. (Did I hear a “hell ya?”) Most writers are way too close to their material to be able to step back and see the key beats they need to include. The issue here isn’t what to put in it’s what to leave OUT which is for the most part huge chunks of the story. For a writer who’s spent months or years working out every small detail of the plot this can be very, very hard to do.

Over the years I’ve written well over 600 synopses both for coverage and for projects I’ve helped develop. But I still remember the first synopsis I ever wrote. Back in the day I was working as a writer’s assistant for a Showtime series called Fast Track and writer/story editor Ashley Gable gave me a crack at writing the synopsis for an episode the writers were working on. I took a stab at it. Ashley gave it a read and returned it to me a short time later completely covered in red lines. Basically it was a total mess. A lengthy conversation ensued and multiple drafts later we had something workable. While back then I was embarrassed by my inability to pull off what seemed like a simple task I now know how difficult it can be to write a succinct synopsis. I’m extremely thankful that Ashley was willing to take the time to show me how to do something that is far harder than it looks. She taught me a lot.

Suffice to say many synopses later I’ve come up with a few tools that make writing a synopsis a little easier. In the spirit of Ashley’s ever so patient instruction (remember we were in the middle of shooting a series and juggling multiple episodes) want to pass them on here.

1. Spin the story

Never do a beat by beat synopsis. You don’t need to include every single plot point to tell the story. Instead “spin the story” reorder events, leave things out, embellish, paraphrase etc. While you want to make sure you stay true to the main beats of the story you’re trying to capture the essence of the piece not tell every single thing that happens. You’re also trying to “sell” your script on the page so the synopsis should be simple and clear but also fully engage the reader. If you write a linear retelling of the story beat by beat your synopsis will likely be too long and confuse and bore the reader.

2. Think in three acts

The basic format for the synopsis should be comprised of the three main acts and run three to four paragraphs. For example the first paragraph is the first act and sets up the protagonist, their goal and the main obstacle. The second and third paragraphs will cover the second act and the final paragraph will be the third act including the climax and resolution.

3. Use active, present tense

Just like in a screenplay a synopsis should be written in active, present tense.

4. Set up the protagonist

The synopsis needs to clearly establish who the protagonist is. While a script may use most of the first act to set up the main character you want to distill this into one or two sentences that tell the reader who the protagonist is. For example if we’re writing a synopsis of The Descendants we could open with “Matt, a successful lawyer, estranged from his wife and an emotionally absent father to his two girls learns his wife has had a boating accident and is in a coma.” If we were doing Silver Linings Playbook it might be something like “Pat, recently released from a mental hospital, is struggling to manage his illness and stay on an even keel. His erratic behavior troubles his parents, who he’s moved back in with, and turns him into a powder keg just waiting to go off.” Once again you’re looking to spin their main traits and flaws into one or two sentences.

5. Tell the story from the perspective of the protagonist using the three acts

Once you’ve established the protagonist you want to get right to their goal and what the main problem is. The synopsis needs to stay focused on the protagonist through the entire piece. So for The Descendants we’d establish that with his wife in a coma Matt now has to care for his daughters, Alexandra and Scottie, which is something that doesn’t come easily. We’d then get right to the reveal that his wife, Elizabeth, had an affair. In Silver Linings Playbook we’d establish that Pat wants to reunite with his wife but she’s moved on. This would then lead to him meeting Tiffany which complicates Pat’s goal of getting back together with his wife.

The second paragraph (and third if needed) encapsulates the second act. We want to stay focused on the protagonist’s main goal and what obstacles this runs into as they try to achieve it. For The Descendants this is Matt tracking down his wife’s lover, Brian, and discovering he’s on vacation with his family. Matt decides time is of the essence and takes both girls and Alex’s tag along friend, Sid, to Kauai. There Matt confronts Brian and learns the affair was just a fling and he was never in love with Elizabeth. Shaken by this the group returns to Honolulu where they are told Elizabeth will never recover and should be taken off life support. This is essentially the end of the second act.

The final paragraph is the third act and summarizes the climax and resolution. In The Descendants the family gathers to say their goodbyes and take Elizabeth off life support. Brian’s wife Julie arrives to pay her respects and tells Matt that she knows about the affair and while she wants to hate Elizabeth she doesn’t and instead forgives her. This triggers Matt’s forgiveness and having come to terms with her infidelity he gives Elizabeth a tender kiss before she passes.

6. Consider leaving out subplots

Subplots are where most writers go off the rails. Clearly subplots are in the story for a reason and play an important role but they are not always needed in the synopsis. Part of this depends on how long a synopsis you’re writing. If you’re sending a synopsis to an agent or manager they are likely looking for something no longer than a page often shorter. For a crowdfunding campaign you may want something that’s no longer than a paragraph. Occasionally there may be the need for a synopsis that’s two pages long. Much longer than this and you’re heading in the direction of a treatment or beat sheet.

In The Descendants the primary subplot involves Matt handling the sale of his family’s ancestral land. Turns out that Brian is related to the developer they plan to sell it to and he’s in a position to make a lot of money from the commissions on the sale. This further complicates Matt’s feelings around his wife’s infidelity and his decision to approve the sale. Ultimately despite incurring the wrath of his extended family Matt chooses not to sell the land and to look for another solution. This subplot helps us to understand Matt’s relationship with his family, sets up an underlying theme around the importance of nature and the environment, and adds texture to Matt’s interaction with Brian but it’s not necessarily a vital part of the synopsis. If you’re writing a very brief synopsis the story can be told without it. Matt’s relationship with Sid is another subplot. Matt is somewhat put off by Sid and suspicious of his relationship with his daughter Alexandra. Towards the end of the story Matt and Sid have a wonderful moment together where Matt learns Sid’s father was killed in a drunk driving accident. This humanizes Sid and helps Matt to see beyond his slacker nature. While this is a poignant moment their relationship is not essential and can be left out of the synopsis entirely.

7. End on theme

If you can it’s great to end your synopsis by elegantly and economically touching on the theme. With The Descendants this is the final scene that shows Matt snuggled on the couch watching TV with Alexandra and Scottie. This beat tells us that Matt has forgiven his wife and is not going to be the “backup parent” anymore. This shows Matt has grown and changed and tells us the story is ultimately about the healing power of forgiveness.

8. Flashbacks, flash-forwards, parallel narrative and non-linear structure

Stories with an alternative structure such as Crash, Pulp Fiction, Slumdog Millionaire or alternate worlds like Looper, Twilight or even Midnight in Paris can be the most difficult to write in synopsis form. It can be helpful to remember to structure the synopsis along the three acts and to “spin the story” not tell it beat by beat. So for example while the script might intercut several different storylines the synopsis can tell them sequentially. The main beats of a flashback sequence might be summed up in one or two sentences and the placement in the synopsis might be different than in the script. If a key piece of information is revealed in a flashback then succinctly include it in but don’t worry about revealing the entire sequence. Something like “in flashback we learn Jack came from an abusive family” is just fine. Action can be significantly truncated touching on what kind of sequence it is (ie: car chase, gun battle, fist fight), who’s involved and what the outcome is. Alternate worlds can be set up in a couple of sentences in the first paragraph. Phrases like “time passes…” can be helpful in summing up events that don’t necessarily play a key role. Different time periods or locations can be indicated by: Ohio, 1945 and then the main beats of what happens. Though these kinds of synopses probably warrant their own blog post!

9. Format

In general just like in a script the first time characters are introduced their name is written in capital letters with their age in parentheses. You can include a description if pertinent. I.e.: MATT (49) “African American overweight and disheveled.” Occasionally it can be helpful to include direct quotes or pieces of dialogue but do this sparingly and only if it helps convey something specific such as the writer’s unique voice.

10. Tone

Ideally the synopsis will capture the overall tone of the script. So if the piece is a comedy the synopsis will incorporate some of the comedic beats, a horror some of the scares, a thriller will convey the tension. If it’s a big budget action piece the synopsis should make sure to touch on the elements that suggest this such as car chases or action based set pieces. We also want to get a sense of the world of the story so if it’s small town America then include a couple of details that tell us this. Ultimately whether a synopsis is being written for coverage, being pitched to a studio, or part of a crowdfunding campaign it’s essentially a selling tool designed to succinctly capture the story in a compelling way. So keep this in mind and make sure your synopsis is well written and engaging modelling the tone of the script is one way to do this.

 

Writing an effective synopsis is an important skill to have. Wikipedia is a great place to read synopses for completed films and can give you a sense of how to summarize 120 pages into one. Thinking about how you’d pitch the script to a friend can also help you focus on what beats are essential and what can be left out. Writing a synopsis might be a writer’s worst nightmare but with practice it gets easier and hopefully these tools will help you along the way. Happy Writing!

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.