Surviving the screenwriting food chain, one revision at a time

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!

 

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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

Seeing The Big Picture

Enriching your script through filmmaking awareness.

Michael Mann, master of mixed media

Film is a fantastic form of visual art. Like all visual mediums, film offers the viewer imagery to perceive and interpret thoughtfully. What distinguishes film from these other forms of artistic expression is its ability to utilize so many complimenting works of art in order to tell its story. While the screenwriter employs the creative fiction trade, the cinematographer utilizes techniques of photography, just as the sound design team practices the musical art and the talent practices the art of acting. In creating a film, the filmmaker must capitalize on these contributions abilities to best serve the final product.

Because of this collaboration of mediums, it is important that all contributors keep in mind every piece that fits in to the film making puzzle. This applies most appropriately to the writing stages. Since writing is the first step in telling this visual story, having an acute awareness, as a screenwriter, of how a scene will be choreographed, sound tracked, shot and edited is essential to a film’s success. Even the most beautiful story can fall flat if it does not translate from the page to the screen effectively. This is the very reason that so many fantastic books have turned in to such lousy movies.

It is this awareness to which I attribute many great filmmakers success. In many cases, when a film is written, directed, and produced or edited by one man, the film tends to have a genuine feel to it that may be drastically lacking in other movies. Take for instance Michael Mann. Say what you will about his movies, which have received mixed reviews, but one thing you can never say is that they don’t feel real. Mann rewrites scripts based on the ideas he brings to the table as a director/producer, and goes about making his films in the most authentic ways possible. He usually shoots on digital cameras, making his shots seem that much more life like, and he crafts characters and settings so distinct that they come to life before your eyes. To top it all off, Mann has a masterful way of sound tracking films that sends chills down my spine every time I watch them. Take for instance the scene from Collateral, which man discusses below. This scene captures the emotion of the entire film through its use of cinematography, acting, and sound tracking. As we learn from Mann’s comments, this scene was incredibly premeditated from the writing stage onward.

So, when writing a screenplay, one should constantly be considering everything that will go in to bringing the story to life. We all sit down to write with this incredible idea. We can feel the magical aura of the scenery and the tension between two characters, but it is finding a way to externalize these senses that is what screenwriting is all about. All of the minute visual details, the dramatic music that comes in after that heavy line of dialogue, and the way the light hits the actor’s face when he saves the heroine from her demise play an important role in this process. I myself have a tendency to visualize each shot down to the most technical details. I have recently used this technique to improve my cinematic writing by recognizing how each action is shot and breaking my scene direction down accordingly.

While many of the things that I consider would never find their way on to the page, it has proven incredibly beneficial in setting the tone for my writing. Let’s face it, the director doesn’t want your input on what kind of underwear the character has on, but it might make all the difference if you realize that your protagonist is irritated by an uncomfortable wedgie, or is happy as can be with his choice to go commando on a breezy summer afternoon.

"You can tell a lot about a person by the kind of drawers they wear." - Van Wilder

So, the next time you get stuck trying to depict that magical sensation of your scene, take into consideration all of the complimenting art forms that the film will employ to bring that scene to life. You will start to watch as the scene takes shape in your head, and with any luck the words will start flowing with perfect details to set the tone.

 

Buddies Know Best

How the buddy relationship can serve your script.

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We’re on a mission from God…

Different types of characters have served many different purposes in screenwriting. As a general rule of thumb, any character must serve the protagonist in some purpose or another. Whether it is the antagonist exposing the hero’s weaknesses, or the outsider serving as a source of expositional information, these characters have little significance beyond their duty to the scripts main character.

This makes the buddy dynamic a very fun and interesting strategy in screenwriting. The two buddy characters usually share a common goal, making their independence as characters a bit excessive, but it is the way that they serve each other as independent protagonists that makes this technique worth while. In a buddy film, the audience tends to learn the most about each character from the perspective of the other buddy. We also watch a relationship that is appealing and generally comedic.

This function can spill into genres other than the typical buddy film, when close friends, siblings, or partners in action have such a close relationship that their interactions reveal the most minute character details. This of course makes each character that much more realistic for the audience, and their goals that much more relatable.

In the effort to avoid sounding redundant, Ill avoid the obvious example of Butch and Sundance. So, consider, for example, this scene from The Shawshank Redemption, in which Red’s response to Andy’s opinions act as a means of further exploring these feelings. Without Red, Andy’s explanation of his reliance on “hope” would read as on the nose dialogue, and would seem awkward. It is Red’s insight into this emotional explanation that makes this scene feel so natural.

Such excellent examples of what I’ll call “the buddy insight” work their way into films of all genres. Think of your favorite film and imagine it without the protagonist’s best friend or sidekick. The character would be noticeably flatter and therefor less appealing.

So I encourage you to explore the possibility of a buddy in your own script. Whether it is a true brotherly bond story, or a sappy rom-com, Im confident that a close relationship could bring your character to life if utilized properly.

Working with your setting to bring the story to life.

In Syd Feild’s Screenwriter’s Corner, he discusses the potential of using the properties of an action sequence to craft the arch of the scene. I was thinking about this insight while working on my own script’s revision last night, and found that visualizing the setting brought a lot not only to my action sequences, but my story as a whole. Now it may seem obvious that the writer’s job is to know everything in their scene’s location, but thinking about it the way Mr. Feild suggested seems almost backwards and definitely brought a new dimension to my understanding of each scenes dramatic action.

Taking his advice I started thinking about the spacial movement that had to take place amongst scenes, and started placing my character’s motions and dialogue along that timeline. I started paying attention to where the characters would be when they reacted to certain lines, what prop could best compliment their emotional expression, and how the scenery could enhance the mood of the scene, rather than how the scene could work in a specific location.

When it came to my action scene, I could totally visualize how the scene would fit into the movements that had to be made based on the physical space.

I thought about how this technique may have come in handy in one of my all time favorites; Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. This scene is a great example of how an entire scene is dictated almost entirely by the character’s surroundings, after that its just up to the screenwriter to craft the dialogue in a witty manner and “make the plunge” if you will…

Screenwriting is a trade of building a world within your writing, so I had a bit of fun working backwards and shaping my writing around my world. Give it a shot some time and see how you like it.

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!


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