Archive for the ‘screenwriting’ Category

Individualised dialogue – an example from 30 Rock

Posted on May 26th, 2009 in screenwriting, storytelling | No Comments »

Tina Fey’s breakout American sit-com 30 Rock is an exemplar of the genre in many ways. Its sketch sensibility means that it has an astonishingly high gag-rate, but the characters are well-drawn and create the comedy rather than simply being mouthpieces for it.

A well-known test of dialogue is to cover up the character names in your script and see if you can still tell who is speaking which line – does each character have their own individual voice? Here are some quick pen portraits of some of the main 30 Rock characters, which I’ll use in a minute to show you how Fey and the other writers extend this principle.

Liz Lemon – the lead, played by Tina Fey. Head writer on NBC sketch show “TGS”. Fundamentally decent girl nerd, good at her job, bad at most other things. Sample dialogue: (on being asked her religion) “I pretty much just do whatever Oprah tells me to.”

Jack Donaghy – Liz’s boss, played by Alex Baldwin. Ruthlessly ambitious corporate suit who becomes a mentor to Liz despite their differences. Sample dialogue: (on being asked why he’s wearing a Tuxedo) “It’s after six. What am I, a farmer?”

Kenneth Parcell – a page at NBC, played by Jack McBrayer. Endlessly optimistic and naive country boy, drawn to the big city by his love of television. Sample dialogue: “I don’t vote Republican or Democrat. Choosing is a sin, so I always just write in the Lord’s name.”

Tracy Jordan – star of TGS, played by Tracy Morgan. TV and movie superstar with a tenuous grasp on reality. Sample dialogue: “That’s not me. That’s a Tracy Jordan Japanese Sex Doll. You can tell us apart because it’s not suffering from a vitamin deficiency.”

Jenna Maroney – female star of TGS, now usurped by Tracy, but still consumed with self-obsession. Played by Jane Krakowski. Has been friends with Liz for years. Sample dialogue: “I got a residual check for that Japanese commercial I did! Three hundred dollars! I’m going to use the money to buy us all new boots for myself.”

Hopefully you agree that these are all good jokes, and all reflect their different personalities. But 30 Rock also scores because it avoids having Liz Lemon as the bland focal point around which a bunch of entertaining crazies orbits. Liz’s foibles, insecurities, strengths and opinions are a big part of the show, and so are her relationships to all the foregoing (and the other characters). How well do the writers know these relationships? Let’s look at how each of the other characters listed above typically refers to the lead character…

  • Jack, the corporate suit, calls her “Lemon”
  • Kenneth, the page, calls her “Miss Lemon”
  • Tracy, the lunatic, calls her “Liz Lemon” (every time)
  • Jenna, her friend since childhood, calls her “Liz”

If you can nail the relationships of your characters as clearly as this, you really know the world of your story.

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 from just £50 with a guaranteed seven-day turnaround. Send your script in today.

Why “Jaws” is not a Slasher film

Posted on April 29th, 2009 in At the cinema, screenwriting | No Comments »

When Reservoir Dogs was first shown on British television, it was accompanied by a very thorough and thoughtful documentary made for Channel 4. Among the interviewees was the redoubtable Robert McKee who opined that Tarantino had written and directed the perfect first film to the template that he often recommends to first-time directors. Take six actors, put ’em in a house, and chop ’em up. Cheap, exciting, quick and easy to shoot.

Many others have followed this template since. A few examples which spring immediately to mind are Cube, Severance, Cabin Fever and Evil Dead. But the template is no guarantee of success. It’s also not surprising that Dogs is rarely thought of in this category – although it certainly belongs – because there is so much else going on which elevates and enhances it. Any number of direct-to-DVD schlock quickies fit the template perfectly and next-to-none are actually worth watching.

One film which is often thought of as being a superior entry in this canon, I don’t think belongs, and that’s Jaws. Yes, Jaws is a wildlife slasher movie, yes Jaws heralded a new way for Hollywood to make money, being one of the first megablockbusters and one of the first movies to make a feature of hacking up pretty young actors in order to make the audience jump, but Jaws is richer, deeper and better constructed than all the others in the chop-em-up mould, and that’s because it’s following a different template entirely.

Consider the basic pattern of the chop-em-up movie. Assemble a small cast of characters. Trap them in a single location. Reveal enough about their personal lives to interest us. When the movie needs a lift, have one of them savagely killed. Repeat until only the most noble remain and escape, or if your worldview is bleaker, until none remain. And it’s true that Jaws does all of those things – but only after it’s done the opposite.

Small cast. Jaws has a very big cast. Apart from the central trio of Brody, Hooper and Quint – about whom more shortly – Brody has a wife and young son and a deputy. Brody is initially pitted against the town mayor who wants to keep the beaches open. Then we have Mrs Kintner who opens the bounty on the shark. Then there’s the mayor’s deputy. Then there’s Quint’s assistant Salvatore, the anglers who catch the tiger shark briefly thought to be responsible, and any number of townsfolk. You know what these supporting characters all have in common? None of them ends up as sharkfood. There’s a good reason why in the traditional chop-em-up movie, we have to learn about these characters and spend some time with them. It’s so we have a reason to care. We’ll happily watch any number of anonymous ninjas or security guards get gunned down in any James Bond film you care to mention, but when Diana Rigg gets a bullet in the forehead, most of the men in the room suddenly have something in their eye.

In Jaws, it’s totally different. None of the shark’s victims are proper characters in their own right. They are introduced only minutes before they end up as fishfood, are lucky to be given first names, and never have more than the most perfunctory dialogue – with the sole exception, of course, of Quint. So what the hell are writers Peter Benchley and Carl Gottleib playing at here? The answer is that the various shark attacks are not about raising the stakes for the remaining survivors or keeping the audience on edge because suddenly anybody is vulnerable. It’s simply establishing that this shark is a motherfucker. And that it’s still here. 

Part of the reason for this is that a shark is lousy antagonist, compared to a boobytrapped prison, a demonic force or a mad axe-murderer. Don’t want to get eaten by a shark? No problem! Just don’t go for a swim. As long as you are on dry land it can’t get you. We like our heroes to smart and good at their jobs, so there’s no way they are going to voluntarily wade out into the shark-infested ocean, except as a last resort (and we don’t want to get them stuck out there by mistake, since that makes them doofuses). That’s why it takes so long for the movie to zero down to one location – which it eventually does, Quint’s boat.

So what is going on in the early stages of Jaws? Let’s work backwards. Jaws ends up where most movies of this kind begin – with three characters stuck in a boat with a fish to kill. A slasher movie would have seven characters and kill them off one by one. In fact, if you prefer to see that movie, you can – it’s called Deep Blue Sea. So the job of the first three quarters of that movie is to get them in the boat. But because that needs to take the first eighty or so minutes of the movie, it also can’t be easy. So each of them has a reason for not being in that boat. And now the structure of the film starts to reveal itself.

PROLOGUE: Shark. This is simply the initial shark attack on the skinny-dippers.

ACT ONE: Brody, Hooper, Quint. Each of these three star parts is given a wonderful entrance, strong contrasting attitudes to play, and each has their own interest in the shark. Brody, the police chief who’s afraid of the water (a hokey idea, delivered with subtlety and grace) is ultra-cautious. Hooper, the icthyologist, has been tracking the shark for months. Quint, the bounty hunter, will kill it if the price is right. Brody has the will, Hooper has the intellect and Quint has the brawn. Between them they could kill this motherfucker.

ACT TWO: Keep them off the boat. Brody won’t go, he’s afraid of the water and a useless sailor. Hooper has no standing in the town. Quint’s asking price is too high and by now the water is teeming with other fishermen.

ACT THREE: Get them on the boat. Brody has to step into the breach when Quint’s assistant refuses to go. Hooper wants to go, and when Brody is proven right and the mayor proven wrong, Brody has enough power to bring him along.

Now pretty much all anyone remembers is ACT FOUR – “On the boat”. They remember the USS Indianapolis, they remember “we’re gonna need a bigger boat”, they remember Quint’s gory death and they remember “Smile, you sonofabitch” – all of which is a really terrific thirty minute chop-em-up movie. But by reducing the number of characters from seven to three, and giving them goals to persue that we care about, attitudes we relate to, quotable dialogue (Dreyfuss is just brilliant as he performs his autopsy on the first victim, hammering out without pausing for breath “The torso has been severed in mid-thorax. There are no major organs remaining. May I have a glass of water, please?”) once we get to the three-men-in-a-boat-with-a-fish-to-kill stage, we really care about the outcome. Because for much of it’s length, Jaws is not a slasher film, it’s a character piece.

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.

Liveblogging a script analysis

Posted on April 19th, 2009 in screenwriting | No Comments »

Many scriptreaders, including the BBC’s Writers Room, have a policy, either acknowledged or covert, of judging a script on its first ten pages. Is this accurate or is it simply a high-percentage early cut policy? Can a script be boring or incomprehensible in the first ten pages and then improve massively? Or is writing any ten pages of nonsense reason enough to reject a script?

Today, I have a script to review, and to put this to the test, I am going to record my thoughts page-by-page. Then you, and I, will be able to see if the die is cast by page ten or whether subsequent pages change my mind. I will not discuss any of the details of the script – they remain between me and the author.

First impressions – script is properly presented, and shows every sign of not having been scrawled by an outpatient (not always the case). There are a couple of minor infelicities, both the product of over-pedantry rather than lack of care. Scripts which are not properly formatted will go in the bins of some readers, unread. The script is too long at 125 pages however, especially for a comedy. Writers should aim for 90, and no more than 105. You may not think these rules are meaningful, but since they are subscribed to by others, you should at least be aware of them. PREDICTION: Script will be a little bloated.

Page 1 – opening action line is all camera instructions and no atmosphere. It’s weird that action lines are so important, since directors may very well ignore them and no audience for your movie will ever read them, but a spec screenplay is for reading not watching, and so any opportunity to say to the reader “This is who I am, this is my voice,” should be grabbed with both hands. Pedantically choreographing the camera is not telling the story. Flat, sparse action lines written in telegraphease don’t create a world. These action lines suggest that the writer has not read any other modern screenplays, which is a small black mark against them. This page also contains a number of typographical errors and some overwritten dialogue. The introduction of the characters is not clear and nor is the setting. PREDICTION: This screenplay will include a number of familiar romantic comedy tropes, but no recognisably human characters, nor any really memorable moments. The characters will not come to life in the dialogue and the writer will not create a consistent and truthful world for their story, nor will their intentions always come across with clarity and style.

Page 2 – Our leading character is being introduced to us via voice-over and flashback which is very inelegant. This smacks of first-draft – which is fine, but each reader only gets to read your material for the first time once. Never send anything out in to the world which you aren’t happy with, except in emergencies or to very trusted readers. This whole page is “tell don’t show”. The characters tell us about their relationship by talking about their relationship, and then the leading man tells us again by putting this flashback in context through voice-over. The overall effect is like hearing a story third-hand rather than being immersed in it. Openings are tough. You want to enter the story late in order to get to the good stuff sooner rather than later, but you also want to take sufficient time to provide a context for the excitement which is to come. Tellingly, I don’t at the moment know how to begin my synopsis for the report, since it’s not at all clear to me what the real situation is here. PREDICTION: The story will continue to be marred by inelegant construction.

Page 3 – brings us another persistent formatting error, and a cliche situation. Almost all the screenplays I’ve reviewed so far make the mistake of hewing too closely to an established template, or giving the reader nothing familiar at all to hang on to. Most stories – and this is also the easiest route as well as the most common – portray a single unexpected event happening in a familar world. This is true across all genres. An ordinary day in the ordinary life of a divorced New York cop becomes extraordinary when criminals take over his ex-wife’s place of work. An ordinary day in the ordinary life of photographer recovering from an injury becomes extraordinary when he thinks he has witnessed a murder. An ordinary career of an ordinary actor becomes extraordinary when he takes the risky step of dressing in women’s clothing to get a part. And so on. But that doesn’t mean you get to use Die Hard, Rear Window or Tootsie as a template. We need to see something of you on the page. Here, my first prediction is already being fulfilled – this is another version of an already successful movie, rather than an original piece of work with a unique voice.

On this page we also have a sudden cut to a new location and set of characters which is another sign of this being a first-draft. “I need to introduce the reader to Alex and Barry and Caroline and Daisy,” thinks the writer and bashes out those four scenes. But each scene needs to be a situation in its own right, and ideally, the Alex scene should make us curious about Barry, or herald his arrival, so that a feeling of momentum is maintained. PREDICTION – a slightly eccentric one – this choppy quality won’t be maintained, and the script will develop the necessary momentum, but that doesn’t make the opening any better.

Pages 4-6 – still choppy. We’ve lurched into the future, and still not shaken off the voice-over. These three pages cover enough events to fill a typical romantic comedy. Boy meets girl, boy gets to know girl, boy overcomes his fears, they move in together, they agree to marry. At this stage I have no idea where this story is going. I do know it’s his story – she has only had one line of dialogue so far. His ex and his parents have had more!! It’s a persistent weakness of romantic comedies that leading men are complex, conflicted and amusing characters and leading women are sparkly prizes to be won, but of no more interest or depth than that. PREDICTION: He will do all the changing and get all the laughs, she will be a cipher.

Page 7 – another collection of new characters, in another new situation, but no reason for me to care about any of them, or even be interested in who they are.

Pages 8-10 – aha! I think the plot has shown up at last, but this twist is more confusing than anything else. More new characters keep showing up and our leading lady has taken a course of action which is totally unmotivated by anything which has gone before. PREDICTION – story will never find a strong, clear hook. Events will be confusing and disjointed. Dialogue will not improve.

That’s where I’m leaving this for now. Join me back here for page 125 and I’ll let you know how many of my predictions come true.

Well, that was quite a long read. Unfortunately, pretty much all my worst fears were confirmed. As well as the problems mentioned above, the screenplay lurches from event to event with no structure and no clarity, is much too long,  features many supporting characters who contribute nothing to the plot, and a resolution which leaves many questions unanswered. I could easily have stopped reading after 10 pages and I would have diagnosed all the major problems with this script. But that’s not what I’m paid for – now to write the full report and look for ways to be encouraging and constructive.

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.

Rules of physics, not surefire templates

Posted on April 10th, 2009 in screenwriting, storytelling | No Comments »

Ever wonder why rockets like the ones that put humans on the moon have several stages? Why even the space shuttle, which was designed to be reusable is blasted off by those huge non-reusable boosters which then drop away and burn up in the atmosphere? Why not just build ’em like a plane? Put plenty of fuel in, blast ’em off, bring ’em back empty.

It’s not that easy.

It takes a lot of fuel to get a capsule big enough to hold people into orbit – that’s at least 100 miles up. And if you want to carry a lot of fuel, you have to have a box big enough to hold it all. That box is big and heavy, and the more mass you’re trying to lift, the more fuel you need. Crunch the numbers, with reasonable estimates for the weight of fuel and the weight of the tank and you discover that it’s impossible to build a rocket which could carry a reasonable payload and which can be reused. What you have to do is build an enormous tank, use the quantity of fuel in there to get you part-way up, then ditch that tank so you can use a smaller amount of fuel to keep pushing the now smaller mass higher and higher. Two stages is the minimum and diminishing returns sets in after three, so most rockets which don’t need to be reused come in three stages.

If you want one stage, you can have one stage, but you can’t deliver a capsule big enough to take a human high enough to make it into a stable orbit, let alone go to the moon. This isn’t because of some tradition of rocket-building – it’s simple physics.

So in a world where everyone has their own pet screenwriting structure, whether it’s Chris Soth’s eight reels, Blake Snyder’s fifteen beats, Syd Field’s two plot points or any of the countless others, it’s worth bearing in mind that these structures all come from the same place – they are all different ways of describing the laws of storytelling physics. Each emphasises one aspect or the other, and some allow for a little more give than others, but everybody who writes stories obeys the laws of storytelling physics, whether consciously or unconsciously. 

“Rules” like make your hero active, not passive, don’t emerge in a vacuum. They aren’t a cultural tradition, peculiar to a particular form of western, Hollywood, 21st century narrative, waiting for some brave young iconclast to bring the whole edifice tumbling down with their revolutionary new take on the narrative form. They all come back to the basic elements which make stories stories, as opposed to not stories. And our ability to tell story from non-story is an innate part of what makes us human, which is why the fundamentals of stories have remained unchanged since history began.

A story must have cause-and-effect, which means somebody has to make things happen. And an audience expects the storyteller’s choices also to be purposeful, so if you spend the first thirty pages of your screenplay getting us to know and like some guy, you better be having that guy making things happen for the remaining ninety pages. You can no more ignore these forces in your audience than a rocket-builder can ignore how much the fuel tank weighs.

Can you think of successful movies that buck this trend? Sure you can, and so can I, but they are almost always violating these rules because something else is more important or because they want to achieve a very particular narrative effect. Alfred Hitchcock spends ages setting up a heist plot with Janet Leigh at its centre, only to bump her off spectacularly around the half-way mark. The cost to the narrative is that the audience is confused, shocked and frustrated, which is exactly what Hitchcock wanted. The benefit is that the remaining half of the movie is totally unpredictable. If Janet Leigh can get hacked up in the shower, then nobody is safe.

But you know what? It’s harder. It’s an awful lot harder to write an entertaining screenplay which ignores these rules than one which follows them. If the detail of your world is compelling and original enough, and you hide your plot points with grace and elegance, then nobody will ever know whether the superstructure you had in mind was McKee’s or Snyder’s or Soth’s or whether you just felt it. But the reader – and if you’re really lucky, the viewer – will be drawn in to the story and want to know what happens next. And your rocket won’t come crashing back down to earth, 12 miles short of orbital altitude.

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.