Surviving the screenwriting food chain, one revision at a time

Archive for the ‘Story Development’ Category

Make it Yours

Be the only one that can make your movie!

"A lot of people wanted to hear my story and they said that it would make for a good movie. I insisted on writing it." -Antwone Fisher

Survival of the fittest is a law that governs all life forms on this planet. While the human race may have evolved beyond the primitive tendencies of hunting, gathering, and procreating, the nature of the film industry can be boiled down to animalistic instincts; the weak suffer while the strong survive in the brutal fight to the fresh meat. And with hords of aspiring writers, directors, cinematographers, you name it, all trying to fight their way into the business, education alone is not enough to stand out on this battle field. To make a name for yourself you need to find what it is that you have to offer that will set you apart.

This idea is daunting when considered on a broad scale. I have asked myself in desperation “what do I have that makes me special?” I struggled with this uncertainty for quite some time before finding an answer, and it is one that everyone can benefit from.

Make every movie your own. Before starting on any project, lay out all of the variables and analyze them on a personal level. What is the world? Who are the characters? What is the tone? The themes? What are the complications?… How can I infuse all of these aspects with my own personality? What experience do I have that I can draw from in bringing this to life? What about this is my own?

"One of the things I do, which I think always surprises the studios, is I demand to go back and redo the primary research... I went out to Pahrump, Nevada, where there's a six-hundred-acre course, and I crawled around in the dirt for a few days and I shot and shot and shot and shot." -Jonathan Lemkin

Now I’m not saying that every script you write should be a memoir, or that every film you make should border on documentary. But what I am suggesting is that you find a way to relate as deeply to the material as possible, so that you know the story as if it was yours. If you cant relate to the emotional struggles of your widowed female lead, recall your first heartbreak, and the devastation of being alone and the struggle of moving on. Remember how amazing that perfect sunset was back on your family vacation to the Caribbean when you were thirteen. Feel the astonishment that flooded your senses as you took in the surreallness of the moment, and harness it while you find a way to get the perfect shot of whatever beauty the script calls for.

But most importantly, find that moment in your life that defined you. That experience that changed your out look and let you see life through a new lens. This is your most powerful tool in this industry; your own personal lens. It is more important than any camera filter, writing technique, or film making style you may have picked up along the way because it gives you the ability to let your work stand apart. When told through this lens, all of your stories will be distinctly your own. You can confidently write and sell a script knowing that it is unique from anything else out there. You can approach any film project knowing that you are the one for the job.

Every moment in your life, every accomplishment no matter how significant, every struggle no matter how big or small, every relationship you’ve had, has defined you. Now you must let it also define your work.

Playing With Plot Points

Experimenting with the effectiveness of your script’s beats.

When writing in the three act structure, two plot points transition your script from act one to act two, and similarly from act two to act three. These events in your script are crucial to the progression of your plot, but also to the depth of your protagonist’s character and their relation to their surroundings. Each plot point can be anything from a single line of dialogue to lengthy sequence of actions, but not matter the form a plot point generates a major shift in the plot’s progression. In this way, the plot point can be a handy tool in developing your character, as it provides a specific and relevant look at how they react to situations. Any protagonist must have active instincts on some level or another, but this shift in pace is an excellent resource for demonstrating just how they go about actively pursuing their goals.

Because of the flexibility of writing, even in the apparently rigid structure of today’s scripts, a plot point can vary greatly in its effectiveness. A plot point which spans several scenes, for instance, sets a pace for the action that follows throughout act two. It would be difficult to follow this with a series of strong, quick progressions with a generally decisive and aggressive protagonist. A concise plot point, however, may illustrate a protagonist’s decisive nature and the urgency of action, propelling the hero into a series of demanding circumstances that move along at a fast clip.

Take for instance The Bourne Identity, in which Jason Bourne disarms several police at the embassy, and in doing so initiates a high-speed chase of a second act, in which he is constantly pursued by highly trained assassins and government agencies. This crucial turning point coincides with the pacing of the film, while also illustrating Bourne’s capabilities and decisive manner.

A drastically different approach is utilized in The Color of Money, in which Vincent is approached with the opportunity to travel and play pool with Fast Eddy Felson. His reaction is not abrupt, as with Jason Bourne, but instead spans a series of complications in which much of his decision hinges on the characters around him. This sets the tone for not only a less thrilling and more contemplative second act, but also introduces Vincent’s inability to act according to his own values, a thematic issue throughout the film.

So, when organizing your ideas and developing your script, I urge you to consider the effectiveness of your plot points. The first plot point will establish a great deal for the action to follow, while the second plot point will illustrate the progression of your protagonist’s character arch and the development of the plot. Try and experiment and see what feels right for your story, and explore the flexibility hidden within the three act structure!

 

The Beauty of Baumbach

Why I admire the screenwriting of Noah Baumbach.

Writer/Director Noah Baumbach

Writer/Director Noah Baumbach

Today’s films are saturated with over-the-top action sequences and flashy sexuality. The typical conventions of screenwriting have been sacrificed for commercial marketability that promises box-office success in the form of sexy casts and Deceptacons. While intimate, character driven scripts tell beautiful stories, rooted in human emotion and struggle, they don’t rake in the dollars at opening night the way a fast paced action thriller or star-studded Rom Com never fails to. Such well-crafted stories are so out of place that they are almost always produced outside of the studio system as “indie” projects, or by the smaller artsy studios such as Magnolia Pictures and Focus Features.

Throughout his years of filmmaking, writer/director Noah Baumbach has remained loyal to this exact kind of story telling. His screenwriting ignores the cheap tricks so overly utilized in today’s market, and instead focuses on crafting unique, rich characters and captivating stories rooted in simplicity and realism. While his most common criticism is that his films are too boring, I instead find them to be deeply fascinating for their ability to explore the most relatable of human emotions in a very original way.

His latest film, Greenberg, is no exception. This film follows a psychologically troubled man through his re-immersion back into society, and his efforts to do…nothing. The character of Greenberg is one riddled with insecurities and idiosyncrasies, but posses no spectacular traits of any kind. He is just a common man who suffered from intense anxiety issues that led to a nervous breakdown, and he is now learning to cope with these troubles on a daily basis. It is his struggles that allow the audience to sympathize with his character, as we can all recognize a piece of our own vulnerability amongst his complexity. It is this connection between the audience and the characters that provides a captivating element in a story that lacks fast paced action and suspense.

These conventions of storytelling are not new to film making. Instead, Baumbach is revitalizing the techniques of classic filmmaking of the 60’s and 70’s. Consider, for a moment, one of your favorite films from this time period. Does it showcase the intense action sequences of today’s popular movies? At a time when Hollywood didn’t have these cheap gimmicks at their disposal, they relied on the human realism in a fashion similar to Baumbach. They took their time developing their characters, their world, and their journey, in order to make the most fully developed and intriguing story possible. The resulting products gave us such masterpieces as The Godfather, Deerhunter, The Graduate, Taxi Driver, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Bonnie and Clyde, just to name a few. All tremendous examples of screenwriting excellence, and all the product of minimal flash and pizzazz.

This is the sign of great screenwriting. If you haven’t already discovered Baumbach’s work I suggest you give it a glance. His Greenberg script is a very fun read which taught me a lot about character development and emotional insight. Among his other notable scripts are; The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Fantastic Mr. Fox, and Margot at the Wedding. All are written in Baumbach’s intimate style and are very helpful in terms if story development.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Preparing to Write

Personal techniques that prepare me before writing FADE IN:

Distractions come in all forms...

We all have different formulas and strategies for turning out vague ideas into well structured plot lines before we start pecking away at the keys. Some are pretty common; the outline, the treatment, the character bios, the list goes on.

After two years of continuous screenwriting, Ive developed some techniques of my own for organizing my ideas that I think may be worth sharing. No matter your style, however, I think it’s important to try new systems and finding the ones that work for you.

OUTLINING:

I personally loath writing outlines as a means of preparation. I find them to be too rigid and limiting. To solve this problem, I adapted the typical outline format into a more fluid system that I’ve found works pretty well. What I do is think of all the plot points for my main story line. I then write them all on individual notecards and pin them to a giant cork board on my wall. As the story takes shape, I move the notecards around, messing up the order as needed to fit certain plot points into the story the best way possible. When the subplots are developed I color code each of them and write them on smaller note cards. I pin them where I think they belong in relation to the main plot, but as before I usually shuffle them around according to how the story flows in my mind. I highly recognize this technique. Its a great way to visualize the progression of your story, and if you ever get stuck anywhere in your writing you can just go stare at your wall and feel like your being productive…

EXTERNALIZATION:

In my last script, one that dealt with a lot of internal struggle, I was having a hard time expressing my character’s emotions on the page. In an effort to solve this problem I devised a pretty useful method for externalizing internal emotions and conflict. I made a four column chart. The Columns are; “Scene” “character” “emotion” “externalization.” Basically what I do is pin point what my characters are feeling in each scene and come up with a physical representation of that emotion. This cuts down significantly on on-the-nose dialogue and does a lot in terms of bringing your characters to life on the page. It’s not necessary for all scripts, but if you’re having trouble with expression of internal conflict I would recommend giving this a shot.

BREAKDOWN:

My most recent technique came at the recommendation of my professor. While trying to sustain conflict through your second act, it is common for your writing to plateau with a lack of progression. To solve this issue, my professor suggested looking at a script in 15 page increments and recognizing what changes in each segment. I took this idea and developed another chart. It consists of a column for each plot line. Within each 15-page segment I wrote what changes in the status of each plot line, and what actions demonstrate that change. This technique proved very beneficial in maintaining conflict, as well as making sure that none of the subplots died out, or lost relevancy to the main plot line.

So these are just a few of the ways I work out the story that is floating through my chaotic brain, before I try and develop it within the script. Again, everyone works differently, but I have definitely benefitted from experimentation with other writer’s methods, and I strongly suggest that everyone do the same.

I would love to hear some of your own techniques for preparing yourself for the writing phase.

 

Why do we love Top Gun?

The little things that saved the movie in a big way.

A dynamic hard at work...

As screenwriters, we are trained to create a quality script through rich subtext, minimal exposition, relatable characters, and a well-structured plot line. So why is it that I can sit and watch a movie like Top Gun, which is filled with on the nose dialogue, heavy expositional lines, and an unlikable protagonist, yet still find it incredibly entertaining?

Well the easy answer is that years of film studies classes haven’t yet paid off when it comes to good old popcorn movies. While this may very well be true, I’d like to think that there’s a little more to it. Within movies such as Top Gun, where so many simple rules of screenwriting and film making are broken, it is the simplest things that keep us coming back. One liners, gripping action, and interesting characters, serve as a lifeboat for this sinking script. While not all scripts with such problems can attract talent such as Tom Cruise and Meg Ryan, it is important to recognize the little things that can save, and better yet, improve your script.

Characters have always been a staple in a good script, but what I find to be equally as important is character dynamics. The way that relationships between characters are depicted will dictate how much your audience feels connected to them. It is this great dynamic that made a simple TV concept about six friends living in New York the monster franchise Friends, by making the audience feel like it’s a part of the gang. Such is arguably true with Goose and Maverick. We may not like Maverick, but we like Goose and Maverick as a team, and therefore we root for Maverick in the end.

Another major tool used to make this movie a success is its use of one-liners. Simple little lines like Maverick’s “flippin’ the bird” quote, or Carol’s “take me home or loose me forever,” are excellent examples of how trivial dialogue can enhance any script’s marketability. With one little line a movie can be remembered for decades. Think of lines like “we’ll always have Paris” from Casablanca, or “you can’t handle the truth” from A Few Good Men. Most people will recognize these quotes, even if they haven’t seen the movie. While all dialogue should be true to your character and story, it is lines like these that can set it apart. Unfortunately, it is lines like these that are also incredibly difficult to come up with.

These are only two examples of interesting techniques that may not enhance your actual story, but can bring your script to the next level. Story is always the most important aspect of a script in my mind, but once it’s laid out it could be very advantageous to pull out as many cheap tricks as possible.

 

Ahh, the simple pleasures!


Write what ya know!

Writing, in many ways, is an artistic form of BS. You bust out the old keyboard and start spewing out words about a land that doesnt exist, and characters that you may not be able to relate to on most levels. Whether you’re writing dialogue for your lovable protagonist, or evil villain, you have to dig deep and get a sense for what it’s like to be in that person’s head for that moment. This is creativity, this is inventive, this is (at times) total bullshit.

The same is true for many conflicts and actions. I myself imagine really cool scenarios that I would love to be a part of, but I am completely boring in real life. This is where writing comes in. In writing, you can envision yourself in your character and make them do all the really awesome stuff that you’re just too average to get away with. Once again, this is a perfect example of writing as a form of manipulation.

But no matter how far-fetched and at times dishonest your writing may be, it will always be obvious how well you know the subject at hand. So I give you this ultimatum: Either write what you know, or know what you write.

Many of us, if prompted, could go on for days about our favorite sport, our first love, the place we call home, or any number of fond topics. When properly tweaked and toned, the incorporation of these into our story can work wonders. By writing what you know, you automatically bring a sense of reality to your writing that is very authentic and accessible.

On the other hand, many scripts you write will be rooted in topics that you have no experience with. Maybe you always wanted to be a rock star, but have never played the guitar. Writing about a rock star is way more interesting than writing about your average college student, but if your going to explore the unfamiliar, you’d better brush up on your chords. Just like writing about something you’re passionate about, understanding every possible aspect of your subject matter will enable you to effortlessly write a story that reeks of realism. Your audience will become more immersed in your world with every little detail that you tie in, and will feel like they really exist in this crazy reality you’ve crafted for them.

So before you write “FADE IN:” you need to dust off the encyclopedia, get over your distaste for google, and finally talk to that weird aunt who went there once upon a time, because good research is the easiest way to making it through 100 pages. No BS.

Killing your character

I have this morbid obsession when it comes to screenwriting. In life I believe that you should always defend the ones you love, no matter the cost. In writing, I say fuck ’em. This obsession of mine started in a sophmore creative writing class, when I couldn’t stand my classmates sappy love story, and when asked for suggestions on her very weak ending I bluntly replied that she should have both of them die brutal deaths. While I would never actually hope this on anyone, it eventually turned her bland love story into a decent tragedy. And so my motto was born.

Since this random grumpy workshop way back when, I have noticed the concept applying to more and more aspects of story telling. I was recently found guilty of murder by keyboard when I transformed a cheesy Garden State-y script into a movie about suicide, redemption, and eventuall heroic but tragic demise, and to tell the truth Im much happier with it.

The term works both ways however. One of my fellow screenwriters, whose scripts I’ve always enjoyed, is determined to have his character commit an abortion in the end of his very humorous self discovery script. The decision sparked much debate in class, and proved another aspect of this little theory of mine.

“Killing your character” extends far beyond the literal interpretation. When it comes to screenwriting and film making, it is often the best ideas that don’t last. I’ve had entire script concepts stem from one little scene, but when it came to the revision process the scene just didn’t fit. The same has been true for my short films and other projects. Beautiful shots of setting suns, with the gorgeous couple holding hands as they walk towards the horizon is really great, but if it doesn’t work with the story it needs to get the chop.

I believe at heart all writers are over-emotional romantics, but please folks, when it comes time to turn your great concept into a great script, don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty. Just make sure that you can argue probable cause when you need to plead your case….

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