Archive for March, 2009

The Hierarchy of Storytelling Ideals

Posted on March 31st, 2009 in storytelling | 1 Comment »

The first draft of this was written some years ago, in response to a perfectly idiotic book about storytelling, which I shan’t name, in which a lot of badly-researched synopses of famous stories were marshalled in support of a predetermined idea of what stories ought to be – a regrettable example of opinion presented as fact. What struck me most about this nameless book and its anonymous author is that he (yes, it was a he) seemed to be examining stories and trying to expose their workings like a Martian who had never seen a story before and didn’t quite “get” it. Humans do get stories, we communicate all the time by telling each other stories, so I thought it would be interesting to go all the way back to first principles and looking at what makes a story a story (as opposed to not-a-story) and to keep adding qualities until we reached the very best that a story can be. Think of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and you’ll get the idea. I ended up with seven qualities, and here they are…

1.    Coherent

  • The story should be clear. We should understand its setting, its characters and its events. There should (almost) never be confusion in the mind of the reader, only curiosity.
  • The timing and construction should be such that we learn new information as we need to.
  • The choice of characters, settings and events should be purposeful.
  • Without coherence, a “story” barely even qualifies as such (although humans tend to use justification to provide coherence where it has been omitted).

2.    Consistent

  • The story should make sense. Later events should not contradict earlier events.
  • The theme of the story should be apparent throughout. This is a more stringent requirement than mere coherence.
  • Cause-and-effect drives the narrative. The characters, especially the central characters take action to achieve their goals.
  • Reincorporation should be used to strengthen and make consistent plot, character and theme (e.g. second appearance of witches in Macbeth).
  • Lack of consistency makes for episodic or confusing narratives.

3.    Convincing

  • The story should be believable on its own terms. This is a more stringent requirement than mere consistency.
  • The story should never provoke a reaction of disbelief from the audience which causes them to reject the story.
  • The story must not rely on coincidence.
  • The story must evince sufficient detail to paint a vivid picture.
  • Unconvincing stories do not engage the emotions since the failing cuts off empathy. It is possible to tell very simple stories which lack convincing detail (e.g. fairy stories) if the human drama is sufficiently accessible.

4.    Transforming

  • The characters or setting of the story must be transformed over the course of the story. Ideally the hero is transformed in a life-changing manner (and in a way which is also coherent, consistent and convincing) but even a restoration of the status quo for both heroes and setting– as in a James Bond film – may be sufficient if…
  • The hero is made to suffer.
  • Moment-to-moment transformations are as important, if not more important, than story-long “arcs”.
  • A story may even sacrifice consistency for transformation very occasionally (e.g. The Big Sleep).
  • Failure to transform, especially characters, may make a story seem inconsistent (because there is no cause-and-effect as measured by reactions to events), unconvincing (because transformation is likely given the events and setting of the story) or dull (because without transformation the story seems ‘pointless’ – and therefore incoherent).

5.    Surprising

  • To the extent allowed by being coherent, consistent, convincing and transforming, the story should be surprising.
  • This can mean that the story’s structure, theme, setting or style are novel at the time (Pulp Fiction, Citizen Kane, Look Back in Anger) or that…
  • The events of the story are not easily predicted.
  • A story may be surprising but lack transformations and thus seem “flat” (The Village).
  • It may be more important to surprise the characters than the audience. (“I am your father, Luke”).
  • Without surprise, a story is dull through being overly predictable (although audiences will take a lot more ‘obviousness’ than some writers believe).

6.    Ironic

  • An additional layer of interest and meaning can be provided by dramatic irony, wherein the audience has information that the characters do not. This can be at the cost of surprise so the choice as to whether to surprise audience and characters simultaneously (“I am your father Luke” or to withhold information from the characters only for the purpose of irony (any number of mistaken-identity plots) is a matter of style.
  • Ironic resolutions or situations may seem richer than their simpler counter-parts, (the B52’s desperation to reach its target in Doctor Strangelove, compared to many similar race-against-time situations).
  • Without irony, a story is dull through being too simplistic. An ironic layer (or more than one) creates a sense of complexity more readily than multiplying elements in a story does.

7.    Subtle

  • Audiences appreciate being allowed to come to their own conclusions. Finding room for subtlety among the earlier constraints is the mark of a great writer.
  • Subtlety allows for the possibility of personal interpretation on the part of the audience, giving a story richness and enduring power.
  • Subtlety may allow a writer to create irony, surprise and transformations, without sacrificing coherence, consistency and verisimilitude.
  • Subtlety may even allow for ambiguity if there is enough of the foregoing to occupy the reader.
  • Without subtlety, a story may be entertaining, even enduring, but also crude and simplistic.
  • Unsubtle writing may also seem expositional or “clunky”.
  • Some very crude and simple stories nonetheless contain subtle imagery which elevates them – often transformational (The Ugly Duckling, Jekyll and Hyde, Cinderella’s coach and horses)

These are all things that stories need to be. Stories can of course be any number of other things as well – funny, true, political and so on, but they still need to have the qualities on this list. Sometimes, other forces conspire to promote or demote one or more of these qualities.

The ACTION story or the MUSICAL are often coherent, consistent and convincing but rarely surprising or more than moderately transforming. ACTION SEQUENCES or MUSICAL NUMBERS distract the audience from the paucity of story. (Marx Brothers films for example often function as MUSICALS, whether or not there is much music in them).

The THRILLER, compared to the ACTION story, contains more surprise, but sometimes at the cost of being convincing. PLOT TWISTS keep the audience guessing, and distract from the paucity of transformation.

The ROMANCE, compared to the THRILLER story, contains more transformation (unless it is constructed as a thriller, like Romeo and Juliet) but often less surprise.

More thoughts on some of the details herein to follow in future posts…

If you want me or one of the other Script Surgeons to read your script and send you a detailed report on what works and what doesn’t then we are currently offering this service for just £50 with a guaranteed seven-day turnaround. Send your script in today.

How to write a movie according to Frank Cottrell Boyce

Posted on March 27th, 2009 in screenwriting | No Comments »

I’m working on a much longer, very theoretical blog post about the very fundamentals of storytelling, which won’t be ready for a few days, so here’s someone else’s words of wisdom instead to keep you going. This was in The Guardian in June of last year, and I found it quite by accident while looking for something else.

Boyce rejects a lot of conventional wisdom, but I think it’s useful to have a suite of tools available, rather than a one-size-fits-all, guaranteed-never-to-fail template. Flatly contradictory pieces of advice can each be appropriate in different situations.

Take it away, Frank.

If you want me or one of the other Script Surgeons to read your script and send you a detailed report on what works and what doesn’t then we are currently offering this service for just £50 with a guaranteed seven-day turnaround. Send your script in today.

How to Write a Screenplay I: Get an idea

Posted on March 25th, 2009 in screenwriting | No Comments »

“All you need for a screenplay is an original idea.

It doesn’t have to be your original idea.”

So you wanna write a screenplay? As discussed in the last blog post, an original idea is key. If you can’t sum up the key idea at the heart of screenplay in a sentence or two, then you likely don’t have a commercial screenplay idea on your hands. Of course, some screenplays which don’t meet this requirement get made for other reasons: because they have stars and/or spectacle, because the writer or director is in the Green Awning stage of their career and can get anything made, or – just occasionally – because the story really does have something going for it that can’t be summed up in a handful of pithy words. The Shawshank Redemption is a good example, but notice that it didn’t do great box office on its first release – it found its audience through word-of-mouth and on video and DVD.

But you aren’t Frank Darabont (unless you are, in which case – hi!) who had ten years and a dozen screen credits to his name when he got his Shawshank made. You want to give yourself every opportunity to stand out from the crowd, and that means you don’t start writing, you don’t even start outlining until you have a killer idea which paints pictures of wonderful scenes in the minds of all who hear it.

Just how do you come by these things? Here are a couple of approaches.

Start with something which interests you. Could be a relationship, could be a profession, could be an emotion. Now explore that terrain, looking for the drama. Try making some arbitrary choices and see how those associations affect the story.

Let’s say you’re interested in grief. Who grieves most when someone dies? A lover? A parent for their child? The two ideas go in very different directions. The parent grieving for their child is about loss of potential. So, increase the strength of that choice by making the lost child a baby or a toddler, and the parent much older. Make it a mother and take away the father to isolate her even more (the marriage failed after the death of the child). Now break the routine. What happens today, years later, which confronts her with this loss?

She discovers that the doctor screwed up and that her child could have lived? She meets a young man who resembles her child and fantasizes that he *is* her child? She is haunted by her child’s ghost? She steals a baby?

Once you have a strong idea like that, the other arbitrary choices you make colour the story. Is she a rich lawyer, or on benefits? Either would work, but it’s a different story. Is this a present day story, or a historical drama? Either would work, but it’s a different story.

Maybe you hate all of these as story ideas, but hopefully you can see the process at work here.

Other writers take a totally different approach. When John Cleese began writing A Fish Called Wanda, he and Charlie Crichton each volunteered ideas for comic set pieces which they wanted to see. Cleese wanted to see a scene in which a man with a stammer tried to communicate important information to someone else, whose agitation only made the stammer worse. Crichton wanted to see a scene in which a man was squashed flat by a steamroller. Essentially the rest of the film was built to lead up to and provide a context for those scenes, as well as to find parts for Cleese, Palin, Kline and Curtis.

Cleese notes that many people imagine that Michael Palin killing the dogs must have been one of the scenes they started with, but actually it was one of the last things they added, and it was needed to solve a problem. At the beginning of the film, Curtis and Kline commit the robbery, in the middle of the film they double-cross each other, and at the end of the film, Curtis escapes with Cleese. At the beginning of the film, Cleese discovers the plot, in the middle of the film, he is seduced by Curtis and attacked by Kline, at the end of the film, he escapes with Curtis. So far so good. Now comes Michael Palin. At the beginning of the film, Palin commits the robbery with Curtis and Kline. At the end of the film, Palin teams up with Cleese. What does Palin do in the middle of the film? The rest of the structure doesn’t provide a role for him. Cleese’s logic was that if a robbery has been committed, one potential complication is that there was a witness. The obvious solution is to bump her off. It’s funnier if she’s a a querulous old lady, and funnier still if with each attempt to kill her, vegetarian Ken knocks off one of her dogs instead. Eventually, as the third and final dog is eliminated, the old lady keels over due to a heart attack.

This brings us on to my final suggestion. Begin with a star – but not a top rank star. Julia Roberts and Tom Cruise still get sent pretty much every script out there. But writer/director Rod Lurie got his first movie made by writing a part for Joan Allen. Lurie was (and no doubt is) a smart cookie. A film journalist for Empire magazine, he managed to persuade his editor to let him write a screenplay on company time, on the basis that his failure to get it made would make for an entertainingly bathetic series of articles (imagine that – your boss paying for you to write your screenplay!). Happily for Lurie, his Joan Allen gambit worked. Allen, who’d had great roles in movies like Tucker and Peggy Sue Got Married in the 80s was entering the mom phase of her career, but Lurie hoped that a star part would attract her, and with her attached he could get the screenplay made. He did, and he got to direct it. It’s called The Contender.

Finally, almost too obvious to be worth mentioning, but keep a notebook, or iPhone or something handy to record story ideas as they occur to you. I read recently about a sysadmin who refused to give his boss the passwords to the company computers and was eventually jailed by a judge who held him in contempt of court. That’s an awfully long way away from a 110 page screenplay, but it’s a little nugget of an idea that might continue to grow. I’m attracted by the undermining of the power relationship, and the totally different world views at work. Essentially, the sysadmin doesn’t want his boss or anyone else going anywhere near the system he’s set up, which is now running so sweetly.

If you want me or one of the other Script Surgeons to read your script and send you a detailed report on what works and what doesn’t then we are currently offering this service for just £50 with a guaranteed seven-day turnaround. Send your script in today.

The real value in a “High Concept”

Posted on March 22nd, 2009 in screenwriting | No Comments »

What makes people go to the movies? Briefly: stars, spectacle and story. If your movie stars Jim Carrey or Tom Hanks or Julia Roberts, a certain number of people will turn out to see it come what may. There are also (a few) star directors like Steven Spielberg or James Cameron, and star “properties” like Batman or Harry Potter. Put that name or that face or that logo on the poster and you’ve already sold your first million tickets.

Next comes spectacle. If you can promise a rollercoaster ride, if you can promise jawdropping images, if you can dazzle your audience, you’ll pack ‘em in. Spectacle has meant different things in different eras: from Fred Astaire’s flashing feet, to the stunts and carchases of the 60s and 70s, to the CGI wonders of the 90s, and now it means Bourne-style “realism” more often than not. Advertising these things is not quite so easy, but you can certainly depict them on posters and they make good clips for TV shows and wonderful trailers.

Lastly comes story. A movie lacking stars and low on spectacle may nevertheless find an audience if the story is compelling – but how do you sell the story? You can’t give all the details away, so you have to just give a piece of it and hope that will be enough. The bigger a piece you have to give, the harder it is to communicate that simply and easily in the marketing. And that’s why High Concept is such a winner. High Concept means that your basic story idea can be a) summed up in a single short sentence, b) sounds exciting and c) has never been done before. High concept means a movie with no stars and no spectacle can still be sold on its story, and a movie with stars and/or spectacle has a third marketing route to help ensure that all that money spent on stars and spectacle won’t be wasted.

So, it’s easy to see why high concept is the darling of the money guys, and a millstone around the neck of a struggling screenwriter. I want to tell this intricate, complicated, heartfelt, truthful moving story. I don’t want it reduced to half-a-dozen snappy words. Well, maybe you should.

Conventional screenwriting wisdom breaks screen stories into three acts, and my feeling is that this is nothing more than reflecting an innate quality of stories, which in turn reflects an innate way in which human beings process information. A story needs a beginning, a middle and an end. It needs a set-up, a crisis and a resolution. The most prescriptive screenwriting manuals will give you page count targets for these things, and again they generally make sense for typical stories. If your screenplay is 120 pages and it takes you a lot more than 30 pages to set your story up, your story is all set-up and no action. If your major climax comes more than about 15 pages before the end, your story will feel like it fizzles out.

So, if you have an idea for a story, very often you know how to start it, so those first 20-30 pages can almost write themselves. And either you know how the story will end, or you know you won’t know how it ends until you get there, so in either case there’s no point worrying about those last 10-20 pages. Act one – no problem. Act three – no problems. It’s the 90 odd pages of act two that come in between, that’s your problem.

And that’s the real value of high concept.

A high concept idea gives you act two.

Let’s briefly compare two well-known supposedly high concept films: Tootsie and Indecent Proposal. Both films made money, because both were sold on their starpower and their high concept, but Tootsie made quite a lot more (adjusted for inflation) and was a critical success, whereas Indecent Proposal was critically derided and is now largely forgotten.

Let’s look at their high concept pitches. Tootsie: An actor with a reputation for being difficult to work with dresses up as a woman to land a role. Indecent Proposal: A billionaire offers a married couple a million dollars for one night spent with the wife. Do each of these fulfil the criteria outlined above? Both can be summed up in a single sentence. Both sound exciting, variously bringing with them secrecy, ambition, sex, money and power. And both are reasonably unique; if anything, Indecent Proposal is fresher, since cross-dressing comedies have long existed.

What then is the difference? The difference is that the Tootsie high concept gives you act two. But the high concept in Indecent Proposal isn’t really a high concept at all. It’s a high set up. When you put the face or name of big stars on the poster, you’re promising exciting performances. When you advertise the spectacle of your movie, you’re promising exciting visuals. When you use your high concept to sell your movie, you’re promising exciting situations. What exciting situations are you promised by the logline of Indecent Proposal? None. It’s a single moral dilemma, which can only really be resolved in one way or the movie really would die.

So, it plods through an interminably long act one, finally getting Demi Moore on board Robert Redford’s yacht after an awful lot of talking, and then finally getting them into bed together (although we don’t actually see this). And then the consequences of this are… not much. Demi Moore wavers rather pathetically between Harrelson and Redford, there’s some dull talk about foreclosures, finally Harrelson gives away the million bucks and Moore comes back to him. The story lacks structure and feels arbitrary.

Now, look at Tootsie. This too spends a while getting Hoffman to the point where shaving his legs and putting on a dress is a viable option, and is working towards the moment when his true identity will be revealed (at which point the film will be over) but once she/he lands the part, the set-up itself gives you the following situations…

·         Sustaining the charade in the dressing rooms

·         Trying to pursue a romance with another actress who doesn’t know he’s really a man

·         Dealing with the advances of sexist men

·         Dealing with the sincere advances of genuinely nice men

·         Seeing the world from a female perspective and questioning his own behaviour towards women

The high concept gives you the whole of act two, which is what a high concept should do for a screenwriter. If it helps someone else later down the line to sell your screenplay, or even – glory be! – gets audiences to come and see your movie, great. But as a screenwriter, value those ideas which give you act two. Because act two is a bitch.

Ask yourself of each sequence: could this sequence exist in any other movie? When you have an idea for a movie, ask yourself: what unique sequences does this idea give me? If the answers are “no” and “lots”, you may be on to a winner.

If you want me or one of the other Script Surgeons to read your script and send you a detailed report on what works and what doesn’t then we are currently offering this service for just £50 with a guaranteed seven-day turnaround. Send your script in today.

Two pieces of advice to improve any script

Posted on March 16th, 2009 in screenwriting | No Comments »

So, we’re now about half-a-dozen scripts in to the Script Surgeon project and the response so far from authors whose work we’ve dissected has been very positive. Good. It’s a hard thing to hear your work taken to pieces, and while we try to be practical, positive and constructive, the fact remains that if we aren’t identifying problems, we aren’t doing these writers any good.

What’s striking is that out of the two sit-coms, one radio play, three feature screenplays and one short film screenplay, the same two pieces of advice would have been appropriate, to a greater or lesser degree in almost every case. So, to save you some cash, before you submit a script to the script surgeons, why not check your work against these two questions?

  • Does your story depict characters who suffer in pursuit of their goals?
  • Have you researched the subject matter?

The second one is easier than the first one. “Write what you know” doesn’t mean that if you happen to be a British middle-class white man, all you can write about is the lives of British middle-class white men. It means that you have to know what you’re writing about, and that can be accomplished either by having lived it, or through researching it. Research is the enemy of cliché and can in itself be inspiring and stimulating.

Want to write a story about a psychiatrist? Ring up the local NHS hospital, or do a Google search, and find one who will let you buy them lunch in exchange for asking them questions. Not only will you get the details of psychiatry right, but you will glean ideas for stories from the process. Want to write a story about rivalry between bishops? Go to the library, get on Wikipedia and find out the details of the hierarchies of the church of England.

Having absorbed all this detail, do you have to respect it all word-for-word? Of course not. If you can make your world convincing, then it doesn’t necessarily have to be accurate. You will sometimes want to pick a more dramatic, funny, provocative, or resonant version of reality to make your story work, but by absorbing yourself in the details, you stand a chance of making those choices smartly and not flagging up to the reader “I don’t know what I’m talking about”. As a non-Doctor, I find every medical line in House to be completely convincing, but I’m well aware that large swathes of it are totally inaccurate.

The other piece of advice is a little trickier, partly because it sounds like a rule and my feeling is that rules are treacherous because there will always be writers who slavishly follow any rule presented to them, regardless of whether it actually applies to their story or not; and writers who instantly break any rule presented to them, because “there are no rules, man, it’s art.” Okay, true, there are no rules, but there are certainly stories and non-stories and stories have certain identifiable features. One, as early posts have discussed, is cause-and-effect.

So… if your story is about a person (or animal or robot) then to preserve cause-and-effect, that person needs to do things. But that means that they need to do those things for a reason which the audience can understand, and then they need to be affected – those actions need consequences. And since stories are about suffering, we have our rule: characters need to suffer in pursuit of their goals.

Some screenplays feature leading characters who do nothing, but just stand and watch the story march past them. Some screenplays feature leading characters who take all sorts of actions, but have no clear motives for these actions. Some screenplays feature leading characters who take actions for clearly understandable reasons, but don’t seem to care whether they succeed in their goals or not. And so on. And none of these is likely to make for a good piece of storytelling.

Maybe you can think of counter-examples – in fact, let me know in the comments if you can, as I’d love to know what these screenplays put in place of this – but locking these three elements together: goal, action, consequences, is likely to bring your central plot much more sharply in to focus.

If you want me or one of the other Script Surgeons to read your script and send you a detailed report on what works and what doesn’t then we are currently offering this service for just £50 with a guaranteed seven-day turnaround. Send your script in today.

False Reincorporation

Posted on March 9th, 2009 in screenwriting, storytelling | 2 Comments »

When a storyteller of any kind begins a story for an audience, it is understood between them that the story will make sense and have a point. Some stories lack cause and effect and so don’t make sense: “Today I bought a vase to put flowers in. I actually put a rhino in it. And then fell off the balcony.” This is suprising but not coherent.

Some make sense but have no point: “Today I bought a vase to put flowers in, but it was the wrong colour so I took it back”. This is coherent but unsuprising – the effect is not interesting.

In each case, some element of cause and effect is missing.

When elements from earlier in the story are reincorporated, there may or may not be cause and effect.

Star Wars. The Force is SHELVED (disregarded) while Luke makes his attack on the Death Star, but then MEMORIES of Ben CAUSE Luke to turn off his aiming computer and fire the winning shot using just the Force – which proves to be successful. Cause and effect all present and correct.

However, Han Solo is also SHELVED – he has opted out of the mission – only to be REINCORPORATED when he suddenly show up in time to blast Darth Vader’s ship and allow Luke to make his final run unmolested. What caused Solo to return and at that exact moment? Well, it’s far from clear, but because it’s a reincorporation, you get a pass. The CAUSE is the storyteller. A random pilot showing up out of nowhere just isn’t satisfying.

So, the understanding between storyteller and audience contains another detail, which is an extension of the first. “I include elements in this story for a reason.” Trouble is, audience members get wise to this. When the director includes a bloody big close up of a spike during a fight scene, and for no obvious reason, the audience *knows* that the bad guy is going to get that same spike in the face pretty shortly. When James Bond gets a certain gadget from Q, you’re waiting and waiting for him to use it in the field. If he never used it, you’d be disappointed. Once he does. you relax.

There’s nothing wrong with this, but what do you do if you want to suprise an audience? Bringing in something arbitrary, especially at the end is what audiences generally call a “cop out”. If at the end of the Wizard of Oz, Glinda says “just hold a cat above your head and say ‘fiddlesticks’ three times and you’ll be home in a jiffy”, that would be nonsense. It’s the ruby slippers (silver in the book, but this is the movie) on Dorothy’s feet the whole time which have the power to get her home, BUT WE DIDN’T SEE THAT COMING.

So, how do you hide your suprises in plain sight? Plenty of ways. John Cleese has said that in writing Fawlty Towers, he and Connie Booth would bend over backwards to make the set ups as funny as possible. That way the audience would remember but not analyse.

More subtly, the Ruby Slippers have already played a role throughout the Wizard of Oz. It’s the presence of the slippers on Dorothy’s feet which antagonises the Wicked Witch in the first place, and her desire to posess them causes her to try to kill Dorothy. Because they’ve already played a part, they aren’t hanging around like an as-yet-unused Bond gadget.

Now consider the last film I happened to see: 16 Blocks. Not a masterpiece of screenwriting by any means, but solidly constructed nonetheless. The movie begins with Bruce Willis trapped on board a bus, apparently believing that the end is near, dictating his last will and testament into a dictaphone. The movie then flashes back to earlier that day and over the next hour or so, we see the events which brought him to the bus. When one of the passengers drops a dictaphone and Willis scoops it up we think “well, I know what that’s for” and we feel very pleased with ourselves. But there’s still a good 40 minutes or so to go before the end.

30 minutes later, Willis has a verbal showdown with antoganist David Morse, during which they both articulate their moral positions. Willis then turns himself in as a witness against his fellow cops and in the courthouse, an attempt is made on his life and he falls to the floor. The dictaphone falls out of his pocket and begins to play… David Morse incriminating himself.

The POINT of the dictaphone is NOT to be reincorporated on the bus, it’s to be reincorporated in the court room. But unless Willis has a reason to pick it up on the bus, it sticks out like a sore thumb. Willis has NO REASON to pick it up on the bus, he doesn’t even get to finish his last will and testament, but the structuring reassures the audience that that loose end has been tidied away and we don’t need to look out for it anymore. We’ll sure as hell remember it when it comes up again though. This is a FALSE REINCORPORATION.

Another example, from The Incredibles. In a flashback early in the film, we see Mr Incredible pestered by his biggest fan, Buddy. Later in the flashback, Buddy is reincorporated during Mr Incredible’s attempt to defeat bad-guy Bomb Voyage and his further pestering is seen as being responsible for the anti-superhero law suits which have condemned Mr Incredible to a life of tedious office-work. The audience knows why Buddy was introduced, and has seen him reincorporated. The tick him off their list of things to worry about. The other shoe has dropped.

When, later in the movie the villain Syndrome is revealed to be Buddy all grown-up and hell-bent on revenge it’s hard therefore to see it coming. The first, false, reincorporation hides the second.

Maybe you’re smarter than me and you saw both those twists coming. Fair enough, some of the audience will often be ahead of the storyteller, and that’s just a fact of life. But I believe FALSE REINCORPORATION is an excellent substitute for both Obvious Set-ups and Cheap Suprise if you want to catch at least some of the audience unawares without them feeling cheated.

If you want me or one of the other Script Surgeons to read your script and send you a detailed report on what works and what doesn’t then we are currently offering this service for just £50 with a guaranteed seven-day turnaround. Send your script in today.

What is a story anyway?

Posted on March 4th, 2009 in screenwriting, storytelling | 1 Comment »

There are a lot of different answers to this question, and I plan to explore some other ways of tackling this issue in later blog posts.

Here’s a couple of initial forays into this dense thicket.

1. A story is a linked series of questions and their answers. When all questions are answered, the story is over.

2. A story is a device for establishing a hero and then making them suffer.

The first answer tells you the structure of a story. The second answer tells you about the content of a story. Between them, they give you the point of the story. If either of these two elements is missing or underdeveloped, then the story will feel pointles.

Most screenwriting manuals (and many screenwriters) talk in terms of “acts”. These are fairly arbitrary divisions, a bit like chapters in a book. They describe separate portions of the story but are rarely flagged up to the audience. So one person’s six acts might be another person’s long middle act. But you can see in, for example Star Wars, that there’s an introductory bit with the droids escaping, a bit on Tatooine, a bit on the Milennium Falcon, a bit where they rescue Princess Leia and a bit where they attack the Death Star. Each of these could be called an act.

At the beginning of a story, questions are raised. What is Leia’s message? Who is Old Ben? Will Han Solo help Luke and Ben? Can Luke become a Jedi? As some questions are answered, others are raised through the middle of the story. Who will win the lightsaber duel – Vader or Ben? Answer: Vader – but what did Ben’s last words mean? At the end of the story, all questions are answered, and that’s how we know it’s the end. Acts often end when a lot of pressing questions have all been answered. If a lot of questions are answered, and then a lot of new independent questions are raised and then these are answered in turn, and this pattern repeats, then we feel a movie is episodic.

But this is all very dry and brittle. Stories don’t feel dry and brittle, they feel emotional and engaging. Most importantly, we have to have a hero of some kind that we engage with on some level. Heroes don’t have to be likeable – although you do make your life a helluva lot easier if they are – but we have to have some kind of empathy with them or why should we care if they live or die, succeed or fail? And once we know who they are, you have to get them into trouble, you have to make them suffer.

I’m generally rather wary of  statements about stories which include the word “all” or “never”. I often find myself searching for exceptions to the rule. But I’ll stick my neck out and claim the following: all stories involve somebody suffering in some way. Try this. Think of something you wouldn’t want to have happen to you. Whatever you’re thinking of, somebody would pay to see.

Different genres of story mean different kinds of suffering. Suffering in Die Hard means being trapped at the top of an exploding skyscraper. Suffering in the books of Jane Austen means being female, unmarried and over thirty, but it is still suffering.

So, artful screenwriters use the process of raising and answering questions as a framework, within which to establish an interesting hero and make them suffer in exotic ways. When these two elements mesh, we have the exquisite anguish of Jack Lemmon realising that he has facilitated his boss’s affair with the girl that he loves in The Apartment, or the horrible spectacle of Robert de Niro’s explosion of violence at the end of Taxi Driver, or the pure excitement of Indiana Jones’s pursuit of the Ark of the Covenant by horse and by truck in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Some of these are also set pieces which will be the subject of a future blog entry.

If you want me or one of the other Script Surgeons to read your script and send you a detailed report on what works and what doesn’t then we are currently offering this service for just £50 with a guaranteed seven-day turnaround. Send your script in today.

Storytelling II: Character flaws are also cause-and-effect

Posted on March 2nd, 2009 in storytelling | No Comments »

Comparing different gurus who tackle the same subject-matter is always fascinating. Robert McKee, for example, appears to know almost nothing about reincorporation. He briefly mentions foreshadowing, but completely fails to spot that good structure is not just about timing sub-plots and breaking down long stories into smaller acts, it is also about “planting” what you need early to reincorporate it later.

Keith Johnstone, on the other hand, who sees reincorporation as the primary technique for structuring stories, is very weak when it comes to creating characters. The best he can offer is a super-objective persued by different means and to remind us that characters need to be affected by what happens to them. Unhappily, we are given no guidance as to how to combine the two. His work on status, which doesn’t appear to be about character, is much more useful.

McKee is much stronger on creating characters and on how to assemble a cast of characters which will work well together. Rambo, he tells us (or I paraphrase him, at any rate) is a less successful and less interesting character than James Bond because Rambo is entirely consistent. Rambo looks like a killer and behaves like a killer. Bond looks like a playboy and behaves like a killer. With contradiction comes fascination. 

Having designed a central character with lots of contradictory elements, you can then round out your cast by having characters likely to bring out their different qualities. When Bond is with M, he behaves like a loyal footsoldier. When Bond is with the villain, he behaves like an assassin. When Bond is with the girl, he behaves like a lothario.

So, it’s not surprising that a great many heroes who have been given exciting skills, or even superpowers, such that they can legitimately achieve what the plot demands of them are also given fatal flaws. This not only allows the possibility of failure, but also makes them more interesting.

But it’s not as simple as creating a character who – let’s say – can run very fast and then giving them a lisp. You can’t just give with one hand and take with another. Even if the lisp turns out to be a vital plot point, preserving narrative cause-and-effect (he can’t make a voice-activated gadget work at a crucial moment!?) we still don’t feel like we buy in. There is no way in which we perceive a lisp as being the cost at which his amazing running was bought. There is no cause-and-effect.

Consider on the other hand, one of literature’s first and most successful superheroes: Sherlock Holmes. Is Holmes’ lonely existence, lack of empathy and opium addiction just colour? Are these arbitrary choices to lend dimension and enticing contradiction to a bland character? No, they also *justify* his amazing powers of deduction. Only because he has devoted his life to learning botany, chemistry, mythology and heaven knows what else, can he solve the crimes he does – but this has come at a price: he has cut himself off from human contact, and now seeks solace in the chilly beauty of classic music and the impersonal intoxication of opium.

The original Superman – Kal El / Clark Kent – is an even more interesting case study. His allergy to Kryptonite is simply a plot point, like Achilles Heel. It tells us nothing whatsoever about his character. The price he pays for his awesome powers is that he can’t connect with Lois Lane. His social failures as Clark Kent does far more to make us accept his astonishing powers than any scientifully vacuous blather about yellow suns.

If you want me or one of the other Script Surgeons to read your script and send you a detailed report on what works and what doesn’t then we are currently offering this service for just £50 with a guaranteed seven-day turnaround. Send your script in today.

Storytelling I: Cause and effect

Posted on March 1st, 2009 in storytelling | No Comments »

The fundamental quality of stories is cause and effect. A happens and so B happens. The famous quote comparing “The king died and then the queen died” to “The king died and then the queen died of a broken heart” exemplifies this perfectly.

Consider what we do NOT like about stories. We reject a story when…
– it is too episodic
– it contains too many elements
– it is confusing
– it relies on coincidence
– it “cheats” by introducing new concepts late in the day (deux ex machina)
– (more subtly) the resolution is “too easy”

These are all failures of causality.

The last one is deserving of special attention. Let’s start by looking at the beginning of the story.

Little Red Riding Hood begins with the following (trivial) cause-and-effect.

LRH’s mother asks her to take a basket of cookies to grandma -> LRH sets out on her journey.

Without this causality, the story doesn’t begin.

But there is a deeper causality too. LRH’s mother tells her “don’t stray from the path” (or “don’t stop to pick flowers on the way” or “don’t talk to strangers” or some combination, depending on which version you read). When LRH does stray/stop/talk she brings about her own brush with death, further strengthening the bonds of cause-and-effect. Without this instruction and disobeyment, the wolf feels arbitrary. With them, we understand what CAUSES the interaction with the wolf.

Hence, when a story is resolved too easily – we sometimes feel that cause-and-effect is missing. If at the end of Star Trek II, the engines are fixed in time to escape the Genesis Wave, then the audience feels they are fixed in time BECAUSE that gets the Enterprise out of danger and for no other reason. If (as actually happens) the engines are fixed at the cost of Spock’s life, then the audience knows that the Enterprise was saved BECAUSE Spock was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice.

The following film, despite some bright moments, effectively unpicks the previous films causality.

If you want me or one of the other Script Surgeons to read your script and send you a detailed report on what works and what doesn’t then we are currently offering this service for just £50 with a guaranteed seven-day turnaround. Send your script in today.