Posts Tagged ‘Story’

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 30th, 2010  Posted at   screenwriting, script consultant, script consulting

Writing a script is hard work. Writing a great script even harder. No one sets out to write a bad script so what does it take to write a good one? In my many years as a script consultant reading and developing material I can sum it up with:

A good script is a great idea well told.

So what’s a great idea?

A great idea is a compelling premise, an original hook, a central idea that we’ve never seen before.

Hurt Locker about a bomb squad in Iraq is a highly original idea. The Hangover about three guys who lose the groom on the eve of his wedding is another example. Lars and the Real Girl about a man who falls in love with a blow-up doll is a very unique concept. Even Little Miss Sunshine, which uses a pretty conventional road trip conceit, has an original idea at its core.

All of these are examples of scripts that are based on great ideas.

But it’s not enough to have a great idea. You have to tell your story well.

So what does this entail? Well many things but there are some building blocks that need to be in place.

Characters.

The story has to have a compelling protagonist with a clear goal that we care about them achieving.

Relationships.

The main character has to be in relationship with other characters who help or oppose their goal. They need to shed light on the protagonist and be engaged with them in a meaningful way.

Great dialogue.

Not expositional, on the nose or irrelevant. It has to define character not overshadow it.

Plot.

The plot has to be tension filled and move forward with urgency and suspense around the outcome. The climax has to be satisfying and relate to the protagonist’s overall goal. We should feel the main character has been transformed by the story events and that the overall piece has a satisfying, emotionally compelling arc.

Theme.

The script has to have a clear point of view and be about something specific. When the reader turns the last page or the audience leaves the theater they should know what you were trying to say even if your intention was simply to entertain.

While a lot of elements go into telling a story, if these building blocks are not in place chances are your story is not working as well as it can. And it’s probably not going to work successfully.

So what makes a good script?

A great idea well told.

June 9th, 2010  Posted at   screenwriting, script consultant, script consulting

It’s the weekend. You’ve just spent 20 bucks on a movie and popcorn. As you leave the theater what’s the first thing you do?

If you’re like me you’ll turn to your girlfriend, buddy, husband or mother and ask them: what’d you think?

We’re all critics and usually have an opinion on the movies we see. Sometimes you may not know why you liked or didn’t like the film, you’ll just have a gut reaction. As writers it’s important to fine-tune our critical skills so we can better assess whether our material works or not. While movies are inherently subjective, in general, a well-told story that follows proper structure will connect to an audience.

So what does a successful movie, and therefore screenplay, need to have?

A Strong Protagonist with a Compelling Goal.

In Up Carl was so driven to pursue his and his wife’s lifelong goal of exploring the wilds of South America that he tied balloons to his house in order to get there.

Hurt Locker’s Sergeant William James disposes of life threatening explosives in war-torn Iraq.

In Little Miss Sunshine The Hoover’s are determined to get Olive to the pageant no matter what.

These are all incredibly powerful goals that we can easily get behind and become invested in for the duration of the movie.

Meaningful Conflict

Obstacles that stand in the way of our protagonist’s goal keep us hooked into the story to find out the outcome. We’re driven to find out if our hero will achieve their goal.

Russell complicates Carl’s goal at every turn as does Kevin, Muntz, the balloon-tethered house and of course Carl’s inner demons.

James faces one bomb after another, each one more difficult than the next, including a body bomb left inside a young boy and a human time bomb he’s unable to diffuse in time.

The Hoover’ face all sorts of complications on their quest, from a broken van to an untimely death.

An Emotional Transformation

We go to see movies because we want the experience of transformation. Even the most straightforward action films have the emotionally satisfying experience of good triumphing over bad. Without this element it’s unlikely we’ll connect to the film or find it satisfying.

In Up Carl fulfils his and his wife’s dream and is able to reconcile the loss, enabling him to return to his community a changed man.

James returns home and discovers that the only life he’s cut out for is military life and leaves his wife and infant son for another tour of duty.

And while we want Olive to get to the pageant what we really want is for her family to reconcile their differences. Which they do after Olive’s stunningly inappropriate performance.

These transformations all make for very satisfying movies and, while a film like Up has a happier ending than say Hurt Locker, both films resolve the central character’s goals and make for meaningful films.

Without a clear goal, meaningful obstacles and an emotionally satisfying resolution it’s unlikely you’ll connect to a movie. So the next time you leave the theater and you’re not sure why you did or didn’t like the movie you can ask yourself if it had these three essential elements: strong protagonist with a compelling goal, meaningful conflict and an emotional transformation. Chances are if you liked it these elements were there working in concert to tell a compelling, entertaining story.

June 2nd, 2010  Posted at   screenwriting, script consultant, script consulting

Sometimes it’s not until we look back that we can see how the events of our lives have led us to where we are and those seemingly inconsequential moments suddenly take on a whole new light.

As a script consultant that’s what I do when I work on your script. I look at each beat and connect the dots to see what the overall significance and meaning is. Like this:

True Story. At 8 years old I’d memorize the entire TV guide every week. If someone in the family wanted to know what was on they didn’t flip through the guide – they asked me. I always knew.

True Story. The movie Diva (1981) changed my life. My older sister, just back from college, dragged me to the subtitled French-language film. I asked so many questions in the first 10 minutes that she hissed at me to shut up and refused to clarify my confusion. So for the very first time I was forced to sit back and actually watch a movie. Breathtaking. Spellbinding. The music from Diva haunts me still.

True Story. While waitressing in Victoria, BC one of the regulars, a local TV/movie producer, asked me if I’d associate produce a telethon with him. I reminded him that while I was a struggling writer and artist I was really just a waitress. He didn’t care. I figured he wanted a date. But he didn’t. He really did want someone to work with him because his regular associate producer / talent coordinator was out of town. Timmy’s Telethon was 21 hours of live television broadcast throughout Vancouver Island every spring. OK, it was pretty hokey but we raised a bunch of money for kids and it kick started my career in film and television. If it wasn’t for Arthur Rabin I’d probably still be serving Margaritas and chicken wings to unruly college boys.

True Story. Sold everything I had to move to LA for a development job working with writer/director John Kent Harrison. That was just about 15 years ago. Dropped the desk job when I had my two kids but kept working in the part of movie making I like best. Screenwriting. Working with writers, directors and producers to develop material. Telling stories.

This is mine. I can help you tell yours.