arrow   |   No Commentsarrow

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.

adapt2

 

 

 

 

 

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!

arrow   |   No Commentsarrow

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

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

Definition of a Secondary Character

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

Shed Light on the Protagonist

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

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

Five Archetypes

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

Antagonist

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

Best Friend

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

Love Interest

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

Mentor

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

Fool

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

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

Special Circumstances

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

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

Transformational Arc

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

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

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

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

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

arrow   |   No Commentsarrow

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

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

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

 

The line looks something like this:

____l_______________l____________l____________l________________l____________l_

Inciting Incident     End Act One    Midpoint           End Act Two          Climax          Resolution

 

Which loosely corresponds to the following page numbers:

Inciting incident (10-15)

End of act one (20-30)

Midpoint (60)

End of act two (90)

Climax (95)

Resolution (100)

 

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

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

External Plot Line – the main action.

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

 

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

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

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

January 18th, 2015  Posted at   screenwriting, script consulting
arrow   |   No Commentsarrow

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.

 

 

 

September 25th, 2014  Posted at   screenwriting, script consultant, story editing
arrow   |   No Commentsarrow

Here’s a screenwriting truth.

A script is for READERS. A film is for AUDIENCES.

Seems obvious, right? Clearly you can’t have a film without a script but, here’s the deal, our engagement with a script is entirely different than our engagement with a film.

Why?

Because a screenplay is a written document that tells the story in words. This is done in such a way that the reader will visualize the movie in their mind’s eye. Though a script is a blueprint for a story that will be told visually it’s ultimately a piece of writing. Because of this a reader’s engagement with a script is akin to reading a novel.

A film on the other hand is visceral and immersive. A film has the benefit of actors, a visual world, music and special effects. These elements help tell the story in ways that words alone cannot. Given this an audience’s engagement is a lot more focused and full on.

What does this mean for screenwriters?

It means that we have to choose our words very carefully thinking about how the reader will respond. Yes, it’s also essential to keep the audience in mind, but first we need to fully engage the reader and tell a story that will keep them hooked to the very last page.

How can writers keep the reader engaged?

-Immediately grab the reader by getting to the heart of the story quickly. Audiences are engaged with a film from the moment it begins through music, the opening credit sequence and the unique visual world of the story. They have likely seen the trailer and the one sheet and are willing to settle in and let the story unfold. The first pages of a screenplay don’t have this luxury. You have to get to the heart of the story quickly and economically with urgency and tension.

-Hook the reader emotionally. On screen emotional engagement happens almost immediately when we first see the actors (especially if this is an A-list star) and there is an automatic buy-in that doesn’t happen on the page. The way to hook the reader emotionally is to clearly establish the protagonist’s goals and the deep underlying need that drives them. This helps the reader engage with the main character’s journey and become invested in the outcome of the story.

-Clearly establish the world of your story. In a film the unique world of the story is conveyed in every frame. It’s communicated through costumes, set design and music. On the page it’s easy to lose the sense of where the story is set unless we’re reminded of it throughout the piece. With this in mind attention has to be given to the specific detail that communicates the world your story is set in. If your story is set in a rundown urban center this has to be evident throughout the script not just on the first page and then forgotten. You may need more establishing shots or beats that hone in on the kind of details that tell us where the story takes place. On screen the setting is woven into every scene and doesn’t require the same kind of specific focus.

-Use explicit dialogue such as exposition judiciously. On screen a character’s backstory, inner world, conflict and relationships can be communicated in many different ways especially through performance. Clearly a script doesn’t have the ability to fully convey how an actor will play a role so this sub textual information has to be clearly established on the page lest it get missed. While this may lead to the occasional piece of dialogue feeling somewhat “on the nose” specific, judicious use of exposition (without going overboard!!) will ensure the subtler elements of your story are clearly communicated. This more overt dialogue can be removed in the production draft.

-Establish the visual relationship between characters through their actions. For example if your piece is an interracial romance or involves physical opposites like Laurel and Hardy this relationship will be front and center on the screen. Yet this kind of visual information will soon be forgotten on the page unless it’s apparent in what the characters say and do.

-Succinctly convey action sequences. Action sequences on the page rarely measure up to their on screen version. It’s nearly impossible to convey the excitement and spectacle of adrenaline fueled action sequences without the benefit of stunts, special and visual effects, sound effects, music and performance. Because of this readers generally skim action sequences to find out the outcome – who lives, who dies etc. While action sequences on the page still need to be tension filled and engaging write them with your reader in mind and leave the full blown description to the director and production team.

There’s something else to think about here. Readers/executives are reading screenplays for work. Not only do they have a stack of scripts to read, e-mails to answer and calls to make but they are evaluating the piece with their specific agenda in mind. Be it coverage, financing, repping the writer, seeing if it’s right for their acting client etc. Audiences, on the other hand, are watching a film for enjoyment – it’s entertainment. This means readers and audiences are coming at the material from completely different perspectives and engage with it in very different ways.

Ultimately (fingers crossed) a screenplay will eventually be a movie. This means the writer needs to tell the story in a way that communicates what we’ll see and hear on the screen and enables the reader to see the movie in their mind’s eye. Film, clichéd as it might be, is a visual medium and at the end of the day visuals come first. That said in order for a script to eventually become a movie it has to fully engage the reader. Knowing how to keep your reader hooked through to the very last page is the first step in getting your story on the screen.

originally published in Scriptmag

arrow   |   No Commentsarrow

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Pr

arrow   |   No Commentsarrow

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.”

arrow   |   No Commentsarrow

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.

arrow   |   No Commentsarrow

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 27th, 2013  Posted at   screenwriting, script consultant, story editing
arrow   |   No Commentsarrow

Before I read a script I don’t want to know anything about it. I like to come at the piece with an open mind and no preconceived ideas about the premise or intentions that might ultimately influence the read. Now, is this truly possible?

Nope.

Because all reading is inherently subjective.

All writers, whether new or established, have to deal with a certain level of subjectivity when their work is being evaluated. This of course can be both good and bad.

For example when a script goes out for coverage the reader doesn’t generally know about attachments such as cast or a director. But knowing who is set to star or what kind of director will be involved can make a huge difference when reading the script. Put yourself in their shoes. If you know Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, The Heat) is going to direct you’ll instantly filter the writing through his unique perspective. If Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook, The Hangover) is the lead you’ll have him in mind as you read the script. Clearly knowing the attachments will have a big effect on whether or not you respond to the piece and ultimately how you evaluate it.

Another factor that can come into play is if the executive knows the writer personally either as a friend or professionally. If the writer is a friend the reader may bring qualities to the writing that aren’t there just because they know them. Some of the story events may have a familiar ring to them or they might sense the writer’s “voice” more easily than someone who doesn’t know the writer. If the executive has worked with the writer in the past and has read other material they will bring that context to the current script seeing patterns and themes that other readers wouldn’t.

In addition we all have our own personal taste and interests. Maybe you love sci-fi and hate romantic comedies, perhaps you’d choose an epic drama over a horror script. You might be into period pieces because you really like history and detest teen comedies. Effects heavy action scripts might bore you while a low budget indie keeps you hooked. As a reader you can work to put these natural interests aside but they still can’t help but influence how you look at a piece of material. Another aspect of this is the reader’s mood that day. For example if a writer submits a romantic comedy to an executive that’s just broken up with their girlfriend chances are it might not go over as well as it would if they were still in the first few days of their romance. Ultimately we’re all human and respond to writing from our own individual, highly specific place.

Context also matters. If a reader or executive is looking at a script for a production company, agency, manager, contest or lab this too will play a role in how they evaluate a piece of work. All of these venues have very specific agendas and are looking for scripts that fall into their particular niche. While everyone is looking for quality work with a fresh perspective a big studio isn’t looking for the same thing as Sundance. An actor’s production company is looking at star vehicles and may not want something action or effects laden or too indie. HBO and Lionsgate don’t have the same agenda. Agents and managers are looking at the overall career of a writer and are looking at material from a sales perspective. Who the script is being evaluated for plays a big role in how it’s interpreted.

Where the writer is in their career can affect the read. For example brand new writers are at an advantage on one hand because their work can be looked at with a certain neutrality. But on the other there’s no track record or frame of reference which can often lead readers to be harsher and expect more. A more established writer can get away with more in both execution and concept as they have previous work to look to. I’ve read scripts by new writers that couldn’t get traction in the marketplace only to see an established writer successfully pitch and produce a very similar idea. So while concept is king so is how well known the writer is and this too will affect how a piece is read.

The experience level of the reader is something that comes into play as well.  An executive who has read 1000’s of screenplays will be able to spot formula from miles away, see twists coming and be underwhelmed by overused conventions. They may have higher expectations overall but be able to see good writing immediately.  Whereas a new reader might judge a script too harshly or focus on the minutia because they are still learning the language of feedback. They may see the piece as highly original when it’s premise is overly familiar. Either way how many scripts the executive has read will play a role in their interpretation of the material.

So what can a writer do to mitigate all of this and ensure your piece is being read in the most favorable way? Well, truthfully, there is no way to have a completely unbiased read. That said the only defense is to make sure the script reflects your intentions and is telling the story you want to tell. Getting feedback from trusted peers, friends, writers groups, story editors or consultants before you take your piece out is a good way to check to see if your script is in line with your intentions. Executives and readers will always have their own unique take on the work and hopefully it’s in sync with yours but if not at least you can be confident knowing you’ve written a piece that accurately conveys the movie you see in your head.

thanks to Lucy @bang2write for some last minute inspiration!

arrow   |   No Commentsarrow

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
arrow   |   2 Commentsarrow

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
arrow   |   No Commentsarrow

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   film festivals, screenwriting, short films, story editing
arrow   |   No Commentsarrow

I was just at the Los Angeles Film Festival to screen this year’s Film Independent Project Involve shorts which we started developing in January. It’s a whirlwind process for the filmmakers who go from treatment to the big screen in just under 6 months. The theme this year was cultural celebrations and the writers explored an amazing array of ideas including Day of the Dead, sitting Shiva, a same sex wedding, Diwali, a Korean funeral, a family reunion and the 4th of July. As the finished films, all under 10 minutes, played on the big screen I was reminded of the power of short films to pack an intense emotional punch.

I love shorts and they’re finally being given their due. They’re screened at every major festival from Cannes to Slamdance, can be entered in several on-line competitions and are being distributed internationally theatrically. One of the reasons for this sudden explosion of short films is that digital technology and access to the web are creating a perfect storm that dovetails beautifully with shorts. Clearly audience’s viewing habits are changing and more and more people are going to youTube, Vimeo, and iTunes for content which they watch on their smartphones, tablet or computer – there’s even an App that streams short films from top festivals. Smaller scale narratives are perfectly suited to these devices as they offer a brief burst of entertainment without the time investment of a feature film.

With this kind of exposure short films can launch a feature film career, help filmmakers gain recognition in the industry, hone writing and directing skills, provide a platform for a feature script, and give filmmakers an opportunity to experiment with new ideas, stories or cinematic techniques. This is a great time for short films and I was honored to be part of helping these very gifted Film Independent Project Involve filmmakers bring their stories to the big screen.

June 24th, 2013  Posted at   podcasts, screenwriting, script consulting, theme
arrow   |   No Commentsarrow

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. 

arrow   |   2 Commentsarrow

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!

arrow   |   3 Commentsarrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

October 8th, 2012  Posted at   script consulting
arrow   |   1 Commentarrow

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
arrow   |   No Commentsarrow

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
arrow   |   1 Commentarrow

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.