Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Film Is Entertainment… Revisited

One of the many inspirational reminders I have pinned on the wall in my work space, is a simple little sentence: Film Is Entertainment. I originally put it there because I wanted to prevent myself from taking my material too seriously. I might also have pinned up a picture of a bucket of popcorn (in fact I might still do that). However, the sad truth is, that even an index card on the wall becomes invisible after a while.

Fortunately, I was recently prompted to become mindful of this seemingly trivial little aphorism again, by Erik Bork over at Flying Wrestler. Erik has compiled his own set of screenwriting principles, one of which is that a screenplay has to be entertaining. In his words:

… that which makes us feel more alive in some way – fascinated, amused, scared, passionate, moved, inspired, etc.

Duh-uh… you may say. To which I would retort: Easier said than done. Witness the hundreds of thousands of screenplays that end up on the slush pile every year all around the world. And if I’m honest, until Mr. Bork invited me to think again about what “entertaining” really means, I kind of automatically associated it with lo-brow, superficial and essentially not worth the effort. Or, more specifically, not worth the effort of an über-intellectual like me.

Whaddya mean, snobbery?!

But here’s the rub: A movie can be entertaining and meaningful. Or perhaps… should be? If I reflect for a moment on what entertains me, it almost always has to with suspense and tension. Regardless of genre. Anything from Laurel and Hardy to Woody Allen, what draws me into a film is being emotionally invested in what’s going to happen next.

It’s not the philosophical or moral theme running through the story that keeps me watching. That’s what sets me thinking, after I’ve seen the film.

What distracts me most while watching a movie, is boredom. Which is perhaps the opposite of entertainment. I get bored when I’ve seen it all before, or when there’s no real mystery or surprise in what I’m watching, when it’s too predictable. In other words, when my mind is not actively engaged by what’s going on onscreen.

The same goes for screenplays. Perhaps entertaining screenwriting requires a delicate balance between spelling it out and leaving enough up to the audience to fill in by themselves. Because as long as your mind is actively trying to figure out what’s going to happen next, you’re entertained, right?

In fact, until further notice, that’s going to be my working definition of entertaining screenwriting: Writing that creates an emotional investment in what’s going to happen next by suggesting enough but also leaving enough to the audience’s imagination.

Not much operational value there, I admit. But it’s a start.

Anyway, I’m off with the kids to see Alvin and the Chipmunks 2. Followed tomorrow evening by Avatar, 3D Imax. See if I can’t glean some important lessons on entertainment while munching some popcorn…

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Why The Audience Likes To Know Stuff Characters Don’t

I often dip into a book while my PC boots up. It’s one of those rituals writers have. To this end I always have three or four tomes lying around on my desk. The other day I was browsing through Directing The Story, by Francis Glebas, when I happened on his chapter on Dramatic Irony.

Glebas starts the chapter by reminding the reader that it makes a big difference whether the audience or the character receives information first, and that it’s up to the filmmaker to determine this. A classic example is the intercut between people in an elevator and a fraying elevator cable. They’re oblivious, but you, the audience are not. It doesn’t much matter what’s going on inside the elevator, the suspense is there because of what these people don’t know.

All of which triggered an instant rewrite in my head of a sequence in a spec script I’m working on.

The situation, in brief: It’s the summer of 1945, we’re in Holland, the second world war has just ended, and a young Jewish boy who has been in hiding on an isolated farm, is about to be reunited with his mother, who has returned from the hell of the concentration camps.

Initially I had the foster parents, the couple who had been hiding the boy, preparing him for the reunion with his mother, to whom we cut away as she makes her way towards the farm. Then, after having my brain jolted by the above-mentioned read, I wondered: Wouldn’t it be more dramatic if the boy doesn’t know his mother is on her way to pick him up, but we, the audience, do?

So I rewrote the sequence in order to explore this possibility, and lo and behold, it now has much more tension and suspense. And the reason is simple, as Glebas puts it:

The audience can be ahead of what the characters know, creating tension from watching characters do something that may not be the right choice for them.

In this case the foster parents, convinced that the boy’s biological parents have both been killed, are about to go ahead with their plan to have him baptized and then formally adopt him. The fact that this isn’t the right choice for the boy is made all the more dramatic by the fact that we intercut with scenes of the mother trying to locate her son’s whereabouts and then physically approaching the farm.

It’s because the human brain is constantly working out what to expect on the basis of previous experience, that dramatic irony works so well. You, the audience, can’t help but feel for the character who is working on the wrong hypothesis, as it were. If only they knew what you know, then they would do the right thing!

If I’d left the sequence as it was, it would have been much flatter and less suspenseful. And if I hadn’t browsed Glebas’s book I wouldn’t have thought to make this change. And if I didn’t have this ritual of dipping into books while my PC boots up, I wouldn’t have browsed Glebas. Which is all rather Zen, actually, when you come to think of it…

So what information can you take away from one of your characters to make a sequence more exciting to watch?

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Don’t Look Up, Don’t Look Down… WTF?!

Had my nose firmly planted in Your Screenplay Sucks which by now one is of my favourite books to dip into during attacks of FDSD (Final Draft Stress Disorder, as described in DSM-IV).

In tip 67 the Akers guy, as he likes to call himself, warns against rewriting while writing. Sure, he says, start your writing session by going over what you wrote the previous day, but whatever you do, don’t go back any further and start tinkering with earlier scenes or, God forbid, the beginning.

Going back will reveal hitherto unseen problems. Going back will jack up your angst. Because your script will be revealed to be inadequate, imperfect, and not Zaillian-esque, going back tends to be monumentally depressing. So depressing that you may just decide it’s better to — give up and start another script. Do not play into this sucker’s game.

Holy pitchforks… when I read this I felt myself blushing and trying to slide unobtrusively under my desk. I confess: I’ve done this. I have abandoned screenplays after twenty pages and started on new ones precisely because I went back and began to doubt the entire premise of the script. I know what this man is talking about. It’s horrible but true!

Then I realized it’s a bit like mountain climbing. (Hey, I’m a screenwriter, I have imagination, remember?) Like, there you are, halfway up Everest, and even though you know in the back of your head that you’ve come a long way and there’s still a long way to go, these are not helpful thoughts right there on the rock face. You look down, you’re going to feel dizzy. You look up… you might let go. So what you need to do is concentrate on what you’re doing right now. The next step, or in the case of a screenplay: the next beat, the next scene.

It’s a thing you hear big-shot screenwriter’s say a lot: Get the first draft finished without thinking too much. (Check out Andrew Stanton’s quote there in the left margin…) And yet, it often feels counter-intuitive, or risky perhaps. What if something I’m writing here isn’t consistent with something that happened ten pages back? What if this scene throws up an unforeseen new twist? And so on. But the simple fact is, that these are often issues you can only deal with once the first draft is there on your desk, in all its ragged and unproducable glory.

Perhaps this should be my New Year’s resolution for 2010: Don’t look up and don’t look down, just get the fuck on with the writing.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

I Wonder What Would Have Happened If I’d…

In a recent interview on Big Think, writer Paul Auster tells of the inspiration for his novel City of Glass. He was called on the phone by someone who asked, “Is this the Pinkerton Detective Agency?” He answered, “No, wrong number,” and hung up. The same thing happened the next day too, but after he hung up the second time, he immediately regretted it. He began to imagine what might have happened if he had kept that person on the line and pretended to be the Pinkerton Detective Agency. This became the starting point for his novel.

Seems to me we all regularly experience these kinds of moments. Something as simple as thinking in retrospect of a biting retort you could have given an uncooperative salesperson. Or perhaps you only realized when the train pulled out of the station that the person who was sitting next to you was inviting you to flirt.

Here’s an incident I experienced a while ago:

I live in a sleepy suburb and I have a dog (these facts in themselves are a long story, but some other time). I often take the dog out after lunch, you know an old-fashioned constitutional. At that time of day, most normal people are at work. Of course, I’m working too, you just can’t tell by looking at me; I’m a writer.

On this particular day, it was during the summer holidays, I saw someone I didn’t know sitting behind the wheel of my neighbour’s expensive SUV. My neighbour and his family were on holiday in Tunisia.

From a distance it looked like the guy was trying to hot-wire the car, as he was fiddling around below the steering wheel. The man was large, had cropped hair and a scrunched up face that seemed to bear witness to numerous fist fights (that I imagined he had won). So there I stand, a timid, bourgeois man with a little dog and a terrible dilemma. Should I approach the man and ask him straight what he’s doing in my neighbour’s car? Should I pretend I haven’t noticed?

I can’t decide, so I walk around the parking lot, pretending to attend to my dog, while keeping an eye on the suspect in the car. I think things like: Should I call the police? Should I go away? The man starts the car. Shit. Now I really have to decide. Then he spies me watching him. Fuck. He’s going to kill me. Now my heart is pounding. He drives the car slowly across the parking lot. Why slowly? This doesn’t make sense, and worse, he’s coming towards me. I act like one of those animals that feigns death when faced with a predator.

The man stops the car and climbs out (really, like he’s a gorilla). That’s when he smiles at me, and I feel a wave of relief. This is also when I begin pretending to myself that I’m courageous. I ask him who he is, and he tells me he’s my neighbour’s brother-in-law. I suddenly see the resemblance. He says he couldn’t work out how to get the mirrors out… fucking fancy-shmancy cars… He says he saw me watching him, and I tell him something about us neighbours looking out for each other and so on. Turns out he’s going to the airport to pick them up, they’re coming home from Tunisia today.

Now then… in retrospect I feel I should have been braver. I should have gone up to the car right away and asked who he was. But who knows what would have happened then? What if this had been a car thief? Or what if this was some goon sabotaging my neighbour’s car for the local mob? He might have pulled out a gun and shot my dog… or asked me for help with the mirrors, or tried to escape… who knows.

See? A simple, uneventful incident for which your imagination can supply any number of alternative continuations if you let it wander.

One thing’s for sure, next time I think in retrospect of something I could have said or done, I’m going to play it out in my mind and see where it takes me. I’ll keep you posted.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Follow Your Gut, But Train It First

I’m a great fan of Jeff Goldsmith’s blog and podcast, which features Q+A sessions with screenwriters of movies currently in theatres. Sometimes it’s just reassuring to hear people describe familiar writing dilemma’s and creative issues; it helps to know it’s not just me. Other times it’s useful to hear how other writers find inspiration or deal with specific dramatic writing issues; a great tip can save much unnecessary sweat.

However, what I’ve always found most intriguing are the interviews with writers who don’t exhaustively prepare and outline their screenplays before they start writing a first draft. They write intuitively. Just a few of these writers I can think of off-hand: Guillermo Arriaga (Babel), Ronald Harwood (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), Martin McDonagh (In Bruges), David Benioff (The Kite Runner).

What strikes me about these people, is that they all have a background in writing novels or stage plays, or both. They come from a world in which the writer is a far more highly respected and autonomous player. They appear to write from a very different starting point than screenwriters whose thinking is steeped Hollywood jargon that seems to serve more to reassure studio executives than to advance the creative process. You know, plot points, character arcs and all that stuff.

But there’s more to it than that, I fear.

I recently started work on a screenplay without doing the usual text book preparation, and it made me extremely nervous. Being the introspective type, I wanted to know what was going on, so I looked inside and realized: I feel like I’m losing my religion. Shame, guilt, accusatory voices in my head (don’t worry, only I can hear them), and all because I’m violating the edicts of all the how-to books and screenwriting tutors.

Or am I?

In fact, my conclusion is different. Learning to write good screenplays is like learning to paint or play a musical instrument, or any other creative endeavour. You first have to spend a long, long time imitating the people who’ve done it all before you. Learning their tricks, distilling principles, practising an array of techniques, and so on. Only once you’ve mastered the technique can you transcend it. That’s how you develop intuition, or gut feeling, and that’s when you discover if you have anything interesting and original to add.

Which is why learning to outline, knowing what an act break is, understanding what’s meant by a character arc, familiarizing yourself with genre conventions and so on, is essential. Only then can you go beyond the generic and create something truly original.

Like my current favourite Keith Johnstone says in his book Impro:

It’s easy to play the role of “artist,” but to actually create something means going against one’s education.

Which I don’t take to mean mindlessly rebelling against what you’ve learned. The point is to internalize what you’ve learned, so that it becomes a repertoire you have at your disposal, and then follow your instincts.

There’s a famous psychological experiment in which two groups of subjects are given a free poster to take home for keeps. They get to choose between two reproductions of impressionist paintings and some huge photos of cute little kittens. Group A simply chooses a poster and leaves, Group B is asked to first write down the reasons for their choice.

When the subjects are called a few weeks later and asked if they’re still happy with the choice they made, the vast majority of Group A, who mostly chose the impressionist painting, are still very happy with their posters. However, Group B, who mostly chose the kitten, absolutely hate their posters. The explanation, according to psychologists who study decision making, is that this type of aesthetic decision is best made instinctively rather than by means of conscious deliberation.

People in Group B had to write down the motivation for their choice. This conscious thinking removed them from their initial, unconscious preference, and instead prompted them to follow a more “rational” and in this case less authentic approach.

Something similar goes on in a screenwriter’s mind when there’s too much thinking and conscious reasoning, and not enough intuition involved.

Right now my intuition says it’s time for some tea.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Why You Need To Play With Your Characters’ Status

I’m currently having great fun reading Keith Johnstone’s book Impro: Improvisation And The Theatre. It’s a book of improvisation techniques and exercises for theatre actors, and it’s full of enlightening insights for screenwriters. In his chapter on status, for example, Johnstone sets out how he gets actors to understand, through practicing different roles, the importance of the various characters’ status in a scene. He gives some hilarious examples of students playing high and low status to each other, to the space around them, to objects and so on. But always with the intention of making students aware…

… that we are pecking-order animals and that this affects the tiniest details of our behaviour.

It’s essential for actors to understand what status characters have in the scene, and to what extent this conflicts with what they and the other characters believe about themselves. Is it a master-servant relationship, a subtle difference of rank, do the characters have superiors as well as minions, etc.

The issue of status is also important for screenwriters, though. Even a scene with no dialogue can show the characters’ attitudes to themselves and each other in terms of status. A character who feels in charge, who is on their own territory, will move and occupy the space differently from someone who feels intimidated and powerless. Equally, in terms of dialogue, characters constantly reinforce or challenge each other’s status with the subtleties of their language.

Above all, status is expressed in behaviour. It’s not just some abstract notion of social standing or military rank. One character may formally have a lower status than another, but they can still play high-status, in order to bluff or to reassure themselves, or for some other reason.

Here’s a brief example from The Departed by William Monahan. In this scene Billy (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) is trying to infiltrate into the mob run by Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson). He’s been called in to meet with Costello at his home. He’s wearing a wire and he’s very scared of being discovered. Also present is Costello’s right-hand man Mr. French (Ray Winstone), a ruthless killer.

Costello sits down in the breakfast area in his bathrobe. He has a bowl of cornflakes.


.....Have a seat Billy.

.....Thank you.

.........(he looks up)
.....You know John Lennon?

Billy sits. Mister French is nearby.

.....Yeah, he was president before

.....Lennon said “I’m an artist. You
.....give me a fuckin’ tuba and I’ll get something out of it.”

.....I’d like to squeeze some fuckin’ out of it.

Costello and Mr. French look at each other.

.....Smart mouth. Too bad.

Costello lifts a piece of plastic on the table revealing a severed human hand. Billy tries to conceal his shock.

See how that’s done? Costello receives Billy in his pyjamas while eating his breakfast. He is so much higher in status that he is completely unthreatened and totally at ease. He also has his lieutenant at his side. He gets to determine when Billy sits and Billy confirms the relationship by politely thanking him. Then Billy shows he’s more than just another hoodlum for hire by being flippant, and it’s clear that Costello registers this and appreciates it. He does this first of all by smiling, and when Billy is flippant again, by looking at his lieutenant before speaking, as if to say: Do you see how much guts this guy has got?

Costello’s judgement, passed as perfunctorily as Caesar at the games, “Smart mouth. Too bad,” expresses amusement and concern. These both reflect his higher status. He’s saying: I like this guy and I might consider hiring him, but he also might just be too clever for his own good so I might just have to put him in his place. So to finish off, just to show Billy who’s really boss, Costello uncovers the human hand on his desk.

This scene would have played very differently if Billy didn’t try and up his status by being clever. He takes a huge risk, because his flippancy can be construed as a sign of strength (I’m not scared of anyone), or of nervousness (I’ve got something to hide). We the audience feel his anxiety. We feel hope as he impresses Costello and then despair when Costello cuts him back down to size.

Great insights from Keith Johnstone, great writing from William Monahan. Don’t you just love this profession?

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Screenwriting Technique #429D: Reverse Engineering

Often screenwriting isn’t a neat linear process. You don’t necessarily sit down and think up A followed by B and therefore C, etc. Perhaps you wake up one morning and you know what C is, but you still haven’t a clue why.

Sometimes the best way to write a beat or a scene, is to start at the end and work backwards in small steps from there. Reverse engineering, as it were. For example, as I’ve found in recent weeks, if you’re working towards a cliffhanger, it can help to know in advance what the cliffhanger is going to be.

For whatever reasons, it makes a difference when your focus changes from, “What happens next?” to “What happened before?” It’s perhaps a more logical, conscious approach, because you’re looking at the result of an action and trying to decipher what the cause could have been. Like a detective reconstructing possible scenarios from clues at a crime scene.

The principle is the same whether you’re writing for animation or live action. You have a specific image or turning point which you feel just has to be in the script. Perhaps the genre demands a particular set piece. A car chase, a first kiss, a murder. Maybe you have an important reveal that needs to be cleverly hidden. A hidden identity, a family secret, a betrayal.

At a less detailed level, perhaps when you’re outlining, reverse engineering is sometimes also the best way to plan out a sequence or even an entire screenplay. Maybe you just have a few big scenes in your mind, tent poles on which you want to hang the rest of the story. In that case too, looking back at how the action in the scene came about, can be enlightening.

Whatever the reason that you know your narrative destination, what happens when you work backwards is that your options are pleasantly narrowed. I say pleasantly, because sometimes an endless number of options can be daunting. Knowing the result before the action that led to it, focuses your creative faculties on possible causes, which by definition is a more limited set of choices than possible outcomes. Especially given the nature of your story world, the point in the character’s development, and other limiting aspects of your story.

On the other hand, the danger of this approach comes from precisely the same place as the benefit: its rationality. If the outcome is predetermined, and therefore your options limited, there’s a risk that you might not come up with the kind of unexpected twists that you otherwise would. But hey, sometimes an element of predictability is precisely what you want in order to be able to play with the audience’s expectations.

Of course, this being a screenwriting technique, it’s not a rule and it’s not always the appropriate method to choose. It’s just one of many ways to approach the task at hand. The bottom line, as always, is: whatever works for you.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Difference Between Fun To Read And Fun To Watch

If there’s one thing you learn from writing animation, it’s to stick with what you can see and hear on the screen. In the buzz of writing a wacky animation sequence, it’s easy to get carried away with descriptions that are fun to read, but don’t actually tell anyone enough about what they’re going to see. Not that the flavour and pace of a scene can’t benefit from a few snappy similes or the occasional well-placed adverb, but in moderation.

In live action, description sometimes needs to leave a certain ambivalence for the actors and director to play with on set. In animation there is no room for that kind of ambivalence, but equally, it’s impossible express the kind of detail that is subsequently created in the storyboarding and animation phases.

So the trick is to find a balance between describing as much of the action as possible without going into superfluous detail and without the writing becoming boring and technical.

Here’s a brilliant little quote from the screenplay of Ratatouille, by Brad Bird. It’s from the scene on page 40 where Remy the rat accidentally discovers he can control Linguini’s movements by tugging his hair:

Remy is yanking tufts of Linguini’s hair like a kid with a new toy. Linguini jerks around like a helpless puppet.

In this one little paragraph there are two concrete actions, “yanking hair” and “jerking around” plus two accompanying similes: “like a kid with a new toy” and “like a helpless puppet.” This combination of specific description and general flavour expresses quite precisely what the beat will look like, without trying to depict every little movement.

Entertaining though it may be to read, superfluous flowery verbiage (= wordiness) in a screenplay risks diverting attention from the action to the author. Ideally your screenplay has to be fun to read and fun to watch, but given the choice, it’s more important to focus on the “fun to watch” aspect. Everyone else involved in the production needs to be able to understand as clearly as possible what’s going to be seen and heard.

Of course, if it’s fun to watch, it’s probably going to be fun to read too…

Sunday, September 6, 2009

My Two Cents On Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art

In a recent a post on her The New York Screenwriting Life blog, Janet describes getting a well-needed “kick in the tush” from Steven Pressfield’s book The War of Art. Having just read the book myself, and having had a decidedly different response to it, I just have to get this off my chest.

I ordered the book after reading how warmly Robert McKee recommended it to screenwriters. Not that I take McKee’s word as gospel by any means, but he knows a thing or two about writing. So I was hoping to find some new and practical insights into dealing with procrastination, lack of focus and all the other annoying obstacles that a screenwriter has to deal with on a daily basis.

Instead, what I was treated to was a collection of wild and inaccurate generalizations, formulated in bombastic, pretentious language, peppered with the kind of absolutist Christian theology that would even make the Pope blush.

I intensely dislike Pressfield’s use of a moral frame, in which writing is good and not-writing is evil. He has this unified theory of everything which blames anything unpleasant on Resistance (his caps). He constantly refers to Resistance as a pernicious, insidious and conniving force, with petty and narrow-minded Ego as its accomplice in sin. His use of overblown terms like "destiny," "fate," "forces in the universe," etc., is so pretentious it drives me nuts. He never once even attempts to give anything remotely resembling evidence for any of his claims and theories. It’s just what he thinks, take it or leave it.

And he uses that awful third person style. We always this, we never that … insinuating that he knows with absolute certainty that “we” are all the same. Speak for yourself, please.

Pressfield’s essential mistake, in my opinion, is the same one all proponents of this Rhonda Byrne type pseudo science make: He takes metaphors literally. He elevates concepts such as the Muse, or the Ego or Angels (yes) to the status of actual living entities, which I find ludicrous.

Don’t get me wrong, I can understand his evangelical enthusiasm. After all, once he managed to get a handle on what was holding him back as a writer and he was able to let rip and write freely, he wanted to give everyone else the same experience. Unfortunately, in his fervour he fails to distinguish between a metaphorical concept which helped him work more productively, and a silly, literal belief in (religious) symbols.

Not to mention the totally outrageous suggestion that Hitler wouldn’t have started World War Two if he had only known what Mr. Pressfield knows, and continued painting. That is so absurd and ill-informed it just defies any reasonable response. Or what about Pressfield’s claim that cancer can be caused by not following your creative urges. Even more revolting: the suggestion that terminal cancer can be cured by finally picking up that paintbrush or pencil during the course of your chemotherapy!

I find this entire way of thinking distasteful and counterproductive. Not only because of its preachy idiom and cadence, reminiscent of a minister admonishing his congregants and scaring them into submission with threats of fire and brimstone. Not just because of Pressfield’s arrogant way of stating absurdities as facts, for example , that “humans” have been around for fifty million years. But more than anything else because this type of thinking is the ultimate form of blaming the victim: If you’re not successful as a writer, it must be your own fault. That, in the end, as with all self-help methods based on positive thinking, is the source of much more sorrow than solace. Because most aspiring writers don’t possess the magical powers necessary to simply will themselves to success. As a result they will end up feeling more wretched for trying. The tough truth is, not everyone can be a Hemingway or even a Steven Pressfield.

Feh! I came away from reading this mercifully brief book, pleased to have been reminded of how wrong-headed this approach to the creative process is. At least for me. I don’t find it helpful to look at life in terms of judgemental absolutes and neat linguistic dichotomies. Life, certainly the life of a writer, is far more complex and fluid than that. Sometimes you gets your pages written, sometimes you doesn’t. Which doesn’t mean your Ego is in cahoots with the devil, it just means it’s not your day. You’ve got to be able to accept the rough with the smooth, because that’s what life as a writer is like. You can’t exorcise the rough, no matter how many capital letters and sweeping analogies you deploy.

If there’s anything positive I took away from the book, it’s a confirmation that the only constructive attitude for a screenwriter is to focus on the work. Which means different things for different people. Just listen to a few of the Q+A’s in Jeff Goldsmith’s invaluable series of podcasts to get an impression of how varied professional screenwriters’ writing habits and processes can be.

The key is to find the regime that suits you best. You might be a ten hours a day person, you might be someone who writes in fits and starts. You might be a meticulous outliner, you might be the more spontaneous type. Whatever works. However, the worst thing you can do, in my opinion, is add a moral dimension to the search for the method that fits you best.

Screenwriting has nothing to do with battling against demonic resistance to the good which is creativity. It’s a profession. It’s about writing. As much as you can. It’s about reading. As many screenplays as you can. It’s about learning. From whatever source suits you best (workshops, DVD lectures, how-to books , university courses, etc.).

Oh, and by the way, I understand why Robert McKee so warmly recommends the book. Apart from the fact that it fits perfectly with his paradigm which says that all stories are essentially mythical tales about the individual overcoming the worst possible obstacles and thereby discovering their “true self,” he’s also mentioned in the book and he has his name on the back cover. Of course that may be irrelevant …

P.S. Just for clarity’s sake, Janet at The New York Screenwriting Life, this diatribe is not directed in the least bit personally against you! You just happened to be the trigger that prompted me to respond.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

How Showing Work In Progress To The Right People Helps

In a recent interview in Variety, Disney-Pixar’s John Lasseter talks about allowing people to fail as part of the creative culture which originated at Pixar and is now being implemented at Disney too.

At all levels and stages of the creative process, everyone is encouraged to propose new ideas and solutions to problems. As the article puts it:

[Lasseter] ... is adamant that teams not be allowed to sequester themselves or work too long without sharing their progress with others. No matter what state a project is in, every three months, directors are required to put their film up on reels and test how it screens. That way, Lasseter and his fellow leaders can identify problems early.

I don’t know about you, but there’s nothing I try and avoid more than having someone read anything of mine that I don’t consider polished and presentable. If I know the writing isn’t ready yet, I keep it well hidden. Because almost no one understands that the process of screenwriting consists of writing draft upon draft of a variety of documents which often only make sense to the screenwriter. That you just have to produce and discard a lot of crap before anything worthwhile emerges. That it takes time and lots and lots of effort to come up with a presentable screenplay.

Which is why having a writing partner can be a boon. That is, if you’re in a writing partnership that can contain and cope with the inevitable emotions involved. The sulking, the accusations, the manipulations, the abuse, the violence and, yes, the affection.

As I mentioned a while ago, I’ve set myself a series of deadlines for an outline (already finished!), a treatment (nearly done!) and a first draft of an animation feature I’m writing together with my writing partner. And this is what happened a couple of days before I read Lasseter’s interview:

My writing partner comes over, for something unrelated to the screenplay in question. (For the sake of clarity, the way we’re working on this stage of the screenplay is that I’m writing and he’s critiquing.) I mention in passing the progress I’m making on the treatment. So he says, why don’t I give him what I’ve written so far, so that he can catch any problems before they become more complicated to solve.

I feel myself freeze. I hear myself offering lame excuse after lame excuse for not giving him the pages. "I’m still working on some set-ups and pay-offs," I lie. "There are scenes at the end which might still prompt changes in earlier scenes," I hypothesize. And so on.

Then it dawns on me that I’ve gone defensive. Big time. Whereas if there’s anyone who’s going to add to the quality of the writing by looking at the work in progress, it’s my writing partner! So I give him the pages, he takes them home and reads them, and gets back to me that same evening with some really insightful notes.

So now you see why the interview with Lasseter struck such a chord with me. He’s basically saying that his people have to show each other their work in progress on a regular basis. Because openly encouraging them to not be afraid of failing, increases the likelihood of identifying and fixing problems earlier rather than later in the creative process. Which confirms the experience I had just a couple of days earlier.

Sure, it can be pleasant to lock yourself in your writer’s ivory tower, but the advantages of identifying problems while you can still correct them relatively easily, are huge. Not only does it save time during rewriting, it also allows for more depth of rewriting.

However, as I’ve written in an earlier post you have to choose the right moment to show your work in progress, and it’s essential that the person reading your work has no ulterior motive for pointing out problems in your writing. As long as you’re both equally invested in and committed to producing the best work possible, then it’s well worth the potential embarrassment of exposing your writing at an early stage.

And now I’m off to finish the treatment before Tuesday’s self-imposed deadline …

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Get Distance From Your Work Now Without Leaving The Room

I’m busy expanding my animated feature outline into a treatment. Adding detail, discovering plot holes and filling them, inventing twists, scrapping and merging scenes, squashing and stretching characters, etc. Always a fascinating ride and always one on which unexpected obstacles crop up. Things that seem obvious in the larger perspective of the outline, don’t work in the detail of the treatment. And ideas emerge from details of a scene at the treatment level which wouldn’t have occurred to me in the outline stage.

But of course, there are those moments when I just stare out the window and wonder what the hell to write next … These are ideal opportunities for what I like to call a cognitive break (read: displacement activity). During one such interval I came across an article in the July 2009 issue of Scientific American, called An Easy Way To Increase Creativity, which seems like it could be helpful in the screenwriting process.

The article refers to a psychological theory called construal level theory. The theory postulates that creativity can be enhanced by establishing a sense of distance between the creator and the task at hand. The distance can be literally geographical, but also temporal or a distance in terms of probability (i.e., how likely something is to occur) or familiarity. Or as the article sums it up:

“ … scientists have demonstrated that increasing psychological distance so that a problem feels farther away can actually increase creativity.”

The greater the perceived distance, the more you focus on the central, abstract, general features of the task at hand and the more likely you are to come up with creative solutions. So goes the theory.

Of course, the best way to create the feeling of distance from your screenplay is to put it in a drawer for a year, or travel to some solitary or novel location to write in peace. We all know that, right? But let’s say, for argument’s sake, that you can’t afford that luxury. Would it help to imagine yourself writing the script a year from now? Or perhaps envisage yourself writing in a log cabin in the Andes or on the space shuttle? According to the logic of construal level theory it should.

It’s just a theory … but I’m going try it out and let you know what happens.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Why You Need To Know Who You’re Writing For

Well, I got to my first milestone on schedule … The outline is finished, and at about 2,000 words it’s a very decent length. Apart from feeling very pleased with myself, I’ve also learned something interesting while getting the work done: It pays to distinguish between a selling document and a working document.

A selling document is intended as a pitch, to interest someone in your script. As such, whether it’s a one-page synopsis, a blow-by-blow outline or a twenty-page treatment, it must be a good read. Not just in terms of story structure, character and imagery, but also in terms of language. Rhythmic sentences, well-executed humour, intriguing and teasing choice of words, and so on.

A working document, on the other hand, is solely intended to help you, the writer, move ahead with your process. It too can be an outline, a treatment or whatever, but it only needs to be comprehensible to you. The only thing that matters is that when you look at it you know what to do next.

So the thing I caught myself doing this weekend (no, not that thing …), was struggling to write a selling document, when what I need is a working document. Once I dropped that self-imposed stylistic demand, things suddenly became a lot easier. And it’s clear why.

If all I need is a reminder that, say, at a certain point in the narrative one character tries and fails to teach another character to use a sword, then “X tries in vain to teach Y how to fence,” is sufficient. When I read that back, it automatically evokes a scene I already have in my head, which I can then flesh out.

Not so if the document is intended as a pitch. Then I have to articulate the atmosphere and dynamics of the scene more succinctly. I need to spend a lot more time ensuring that the description is comprehensive enough for someone who doesn’t have the scene in their head to be able to picture it.

So, job well done. Now it’s time for my reward! Which for this modest achievement is an appropriately small item, a CD: Cloud of Unknowing by guitarist James Blackshaw. Wonderfully evocative music. Brilliant for spacing out to and getting your creative juices flowing!

Next step: Finish a treatment based on the outline. Deadline: 1 September.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

:59 Seconds Of Inspiration

In a departure from my usual reflective and observational format, I’m going out on a limb today by announcing a plan I’ve set myself. It’s based on a chapter in psychologist Richard Wiseman’s new book :59 Seconds. Think a Little, Change a Lot. This is a wonderful book which debunks many of the more insidious and widespread fallacies that drive the so-called self-help industry. Professor Wiseman simply and clearly sets out alternatives for the many popular, positive thinking methods, which he shows can be hugely counter-productive and even downright demoralizing.

I’ve recently found myself in need of an effective way of keeping focus amidst the numerous projects and people (including my children) vying for my attention. So I’ve decided to give the professor a run for his money and see what transpires.

In his chapter on motivation, Wiseman describes five principles that emerge from extensive scientific studies into how people successfully motivate themselves, keep focus and reach their goals. These are the five principles he sums up:

1. Successful people have a clear plan, a specific goal. And they break their plan down into a series of steps, or sub-goals.

2. Successful people tend to make their plans known to family, friends and colleagues. This makes it a lot harder to quietly abandon their plan without anyone noticing.

3. Successful people focus on the benefits of achieving their goals, rather than on the risks involved in not achieving them.

4. Successful people deliberately reward themselves for achieving steps along the way, and of course for achieving the goal itself.

5. Successful people often articulate their plans in writing, in very specific terms including detailed actions to be taken and deadlines to be met.

In my case, my concrete goal is to write a screenplay for a feature-length animated family movie, based on an idea my creative partner and I dreamed up about a year and a half ago. This idea already exists in the form of a first draft script for a thirty minute short, but I’m taking it right back to the drawing board and redesigning it as a feature.

I’ve already started work, using the old cork board and index cards method, and my first concrete goal is to finish an outline by next Monday (27 July). The following four steps in my plan are: writing a treatment, writing a first draft, getting feedback on the first draft and then doing a rewrite.

In a concerted, albeit virtual attempt to publicly embarrass myself into getting the work done (i.e., principle number two), I’ll be posting about my progress here on the blog, as well as on Twitter.

And now I really need to get cracking on that outline ...

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Why Screenwriting Is Neither Science Nor Religion

At the moment I’m reading Your Screenplay Sucks, by William M. Akers. I highly recommend it. It’s a very entertaining and educational compilation of the most common screenwriting conventions, presented as advice on how to get your screenplay read by the people that matter. However, apart from being a useful checklist with which to critically assess your writing, it’s also a reminder to me of the dangers of taking screenwriting conventions too literally.

The film industry in Hollywood is constantly inundated by spec scripts, most of which are not good enough to become produced movies. As a result, there is an extensive system of “filters,” such as agents and script readers, who sift through the mountain of screenplays in search of viable material. These people, by necessity, employ rules of thumb to make their work easier. So, for example, if you don’t format your script according to the accepted conventions, it most likely won’t be read. That’s one very good reason to adhere to formatting conventions.

But what about conventions that govern the content of your story? Here’s where it gets a whole lot trickier in my opinion … Screenwriting isn’t a science. There’s no way to replicate empirical findings. What makes one script tick may not work in another. And screenwriting isn’t a religion either. There are no divine laws that you must accept with blind faith.

So I’m a little uncomfortable with Akers’ numerous must-mantras such as “you must have an active protagonist, or “your protagonist must change by the end of the story,” and “your antagonist must be stronger than your protagonist,” and so on. These are all basic Hollywood story conventions as presented by popular teachers such as Robert McKee, John Truby, Syd Field and which are always disingenuously qualified as not being rules at all but merely guidelines distilled from successful movies.

In fact, these are rules, and they sound very Thou Shalt Not-ish to me.

I get the notion that these rules are formulated to help you avoid giving anyone a reason to stop reading your screenplay. The trouble is, follow these rules too closely and you end up with generic, boilerplate writing. Plus, presenting these rules as if they’ve been unequivocally proven by numerous experiments and studies, can lead to some pretty strange mental gymnastics.

For example, Akers criticizes blockbuster box-office successes such as Pirates of the Caribbean and Alien for not following the rules. On page 40 he literally writes, about an inconsistency he perceives in the actions of an evil pirate,

"It should have been infuriating, at least, to somebody."

To me this just confirms how impossible it is to dictate in detail how (not) to write a screenplay. I mean, it’s not really a convincing argument to claim that a hugely successful blockbuster movie was not actually as good as everyone thought, because the bad guy wasn’t written according to the rules.

In fact it’s evidence of precisely the contrary: Even if you don’t follow all the rules, your script can still be a killer.

To my mind, screenwriting is like any art or craft or skill: You first need to learn the techniques before you can subvert them and find your own voice. The same way an artist needs to study the effects of light and learn basic drawing techniques before he can experiment with new forms. Or like a musician needs to master her instrument by endlessly practicing scales and arpeggios in order to be free to improvise.

In other words, books like Your Screenplay Sucks are hugely useful for learning basic screenwriting techniques and conventions. But the real art of writing only kicks in once you stop thinking in terms of articles of faith or proven laws. The magic really starts when you open your mind and let your characters lead you wherever they choose.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Why Revealing Character Is Like Boiling A Frog

Characters require contrast. Sounds like a bit of a no-brainer, right? But as with every basic concept in screenwriting, it’s easier said than done. My writing partner and I were reminded of this recently while working on our current, comprehensive rewrite.

There’s this one character, see … and he’s, well … he’s a bad guy. But by introducing him immediately in all his ugliness (which is what we did in the first draft), we made an important mistake: We left ourselves no room to surprise the audience with his nastiness. In other words, the character was too predictable, and therefore his dramatic usefulness was seriously compromised.

It’s easy to make this mistake, because you want the audience to “get” why someone’s going to be such a bastard to some other character. You want to make a point. But that’s precisely where the craft aspect of screenwriting comes in. A screenplay has to be written deliberately rather than impulsively. Dosing character information creates tension and surprise, and it’s a delicate business. It sometimes requires you to write backwards. To start from the effect, the reveal, and carefully cover up the path leading to it with misleading, contrasting actions.

In relation to this particular issue, a metaphor is called for. Popular mythology has it that if you drop a frog in a pan of boiling water, it will jump right out, whereas if you put it in a pan of cold water and turn the heat on, the frog will realize too late what’s going on, and boil to death.

Same with a character: If you introduce a character in one way (sympathetic or otherwise) and subsequently add tiny increments of behaviour that reveal a contrasting trait, it will happen almost imperceptibly, until suddenly you realize the character is someone other than you thought.

So back to our bad guy. We decided to introduce him as a relatively nice guy. As follows:

He’s travelling, alone. We see him arrive at the airport. In trivial interactions we see he’s a charming, friendly guy. Then we see him in a hotel room. He calls home, speaks tenderly to his young kid on the phone. In his hand he holds a couple of children’s drawings and assures the child he’s going to take them to grandpa tomorrow. He wishes the child goodnight, exchanges a few pleasantries with his wife and hangs up. That’s the surface: a loving father and husband.

Now for the contrast: While he’s on the phone, the man unpacks food he’s taken with him for the trip. The careful way he unpacks and neatly arranges the items, suggests a degree of obsessive behaviour. So, almost imperceptibly, here’s a hint that this is also a man who plans ahead meticulously and needs to be in control.

The idea is that the discrepancy between the man’s spontaneous, loving attitude to his child and his calculating, premeditated behaviour in the hotel room, is a contrast that will gather more and more meaning as the story progresses.

It’s impossible to know whether this scene will survive, as is, into the next draft. However, just consciously deciding to introduce this character differently, has made him more contrasted and intriguing than he was in the previous draft, which only presented his bad side. And that’s a step towards a more interesting and intriguing screenplay overall, because the contrast creates scope for tension and surprise.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Why Screenwriters Need To Train Their Dopamine Neurons

At the moment I’m busy reading Jonah Lehrer’s recent book The Decisive Moment (also published as How We Decide), a fascinating summary of current scientific thinking on how humans make decisions. Which turns out to be based on emotions, rather than abstract rational considerations, and more or less unconscious. Very different from the way we think we make decisions.

Rather than get into the details of Lehrer’s book, I want to highlight one aspect of decision-making which seems particularly relevant for screenwriters: Learning from your mistakes.

As Lehrer explains, your brain is constantly predicting outcomes based on previous experiences. When your predictions are correct you feel good, but, more importantly, you feel bad when they’re not.

The dopamine neurons in your brain constantly learn from experience and provide this emotional sense that something is correct or wrong. That gut feeling which you find so hard to explain but which you can’t ignore. Your intuition, in other words. One of the best ways to hone this intuition is to examine bad decisions. The neuroscientific reason for this is, as Lehrer puts it on page 57 of his book:

Unless you experience the unpleasant symptoms of being wrong, your brain will never revise its models. Before your neurons can succeed, they must repeatedly fail. There are no shortcuts for this painstaking process.

In other words, the negative emotions you feel when, say, weaknesses in your writing are pointed out, are a vital part of learning how improve your writing. Especially when you put them in the appropriate context: These negative emotions are not a sign of your stupidity or incompetence, they are flags, held up by your dopamine neurons, showing you where your predictions were wrong.

The more you examine your mistakes, the more you train your intuition to recognize what works and what doesn’t, and the quicker your “gut feeling” will flag up bad writing.

So take solace in the efficacy, time-consuming though it may be, of the learning process. Search out, acknowledge and examine your mistakes. Have your work critiqued, get feedback and take it seriously. Allow your brain to integrate each new insight. Hone your intuition and learn to trust it.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Film Is Entertainment

My writing partner and I recently gave the first draft of our multi-strand feature to a number of readers for feedback. After receiving more or less unanimously scathing notes from all of them, I realized this: The reason the script isn’t working is not a faulty premise or uninteresting characters, it’s not even bad writing. The screenplay simply doesn’t promise an entertaining enough movie.

So what makes a screenplay (and the resulting film) entertaining enough? Depending on the genre, and therefore the expectations of the audience, it could be humour, suspense, mystery, disgust, despair … in other words, emotions. People watch movies because they want to access and release emotion. They want to laugh, cry, get angry, feel terror, and so on.

By far the most fundamental way a movie achieves this effect is by creating uncertainty as to what will happen next. Even in genres where the outcome is more or less a given (e.g., romantic comedies, or historical drama based on a true story), the audience wants to engage in that conscious and unconscious struggle to second guess events.

The last thing movie-goers want to pay for, is to listen to the screenwriter pontificate through the mouths of his characters. Yup, that’s what readers have said about this screenplay. Too much message, too little movie. Ouch.

Reminds me of the famous quote, usually attributed to Sam Goldwyn, but also to others such as Jack Warner, Harry Cohn and even George Bernard Shaw: If you want to send a message, call Western Union.

Which doesn’t mean the opinions of the screenwriter don’t drive the writing to some extent. You can’t put in months, sometimes years of work on a screenplay, if you’re not writing about something close to your heart. But if your opinion isn’t adequately wrapped in story, made consciously imperceptible, as it were, by means of plot … then you won’t be able to get in under the audience’s radar.

This experience has once again reminded me of the importance of having your screenplay critiqued. After a certain amount of time immersed in a screenplay, it’s often difficult to judge objectively whether what you’ve written is, realistically, a solid blueprint for a movie.

Above all, it’s easy to lose sight of the most important criterion of all: Is this going to be an entertaining movie? A movie I myself would pay to go and see?

So I’ve pinned up a new screenwriter’s axiom next to my desk. Besides the various quotes I’ve gathered along the way, such as: In life one thing happens after another, but in drama one thing happens because of another, and Don’t describe things, describe things happening, my wall of inspiration now prominently features an additional card, saying in large print:


Time will tell if I’ve really learned my lesson …

Monday, June 1, 2009

How Much Do You Leave Up To The Audience?

I recently heard Dutch director Jean van de Velde explaining from Cannes why he had to make a completely new cut of his recent film Silent Army for the international marketplace. Although the film was marketed as a mainstream, multiplex movie in Holland (partly because its star is a local celebrity), a subtitled Dutch movie released internationally is almost certainly only going to be shown on the art house and festival circuit, whatever its subject matter.

Van De Velde says his first priority was to get rid of the subtitles. Reading is too cerebral an experience for this kind of film, it detracts from the visual impact. So the dialogue was adapted. In addition, the soundtrack had to be rewritten in order to make the film more emotionally obvious.

Now here’s the interesting distinction Van De Velde makes in passing (and I paraphrase):

Art house films like to leave as much as possible up to the audience to fill in, whereas mainstream movies work by spelling out the emotional journey of the main characters in big bold letters.

I think it’s essential to understand this distinction when it comes to screenwriting. If you’re not consistent in this regard, the tone of script can be confusing.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s room for emotional ambivalence in any script, in fact it can be a powerful tool. It can create suspense and tension (i.e., the right kind of confusion). The choice is more about whether to resolve this ambivalence for the audience or leave them to make up their own minds.

It may seem obvious to you which approach is preferable, but the truth is that both options have advantages and drawbacks.

Spelling out the character’s emotions too explicitly can feel stereotypical, clichéd, but it’s also a tried and proven way of sweeping the audience along emotionally. It’s just a fact of human nature that we tend to feel what we see characters on the screen feeling, whether that‘s fear, lust, anger, grief, etc. The more intense and unequivocal their emotions, the more we feel too.

At the same time, leaving emotional ambivalence unresolved can feel like a cop-out, a way of avoiding taking a clear stand. However, this kind of openness makes for an extremely personal viewing experience, with different members of the audience interpreting events on the screen in different ways. It creates a strong sense of the film speaking to you as an individual, rather than as a generic human being.

Neither choice is intrinsically better, but you do have to choose. You have to be candid about what kind of creature your script is, what your plans are with it. This choice depends on your own taste, on the realities of marketing and distribution, but also on the degree to which your own position on the subject matter of the film is unequivocal or not. Above all it depends on the simple fact that mainstream movie-going audiences generally want to experience big emotions, and art house audiences generally want a more aesthetic, even intellectual experience.

So how much does your script leave up to the audience?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

How Does Your Character Decide?

More and more neuroscientific research is pointing to the fallacy of believing that morality is based in rationality. Jonah Lehrer looks at this subject in detail in his new book How We Decide.

In previous centuries the common assumption has been that we reach moral decisions by thinking as logically as possible about our options and choosing what we consider to be right according to set of abstract ethical rules. Scientific, empirical evidence is making it increasingly clear this is not how it works.

Instead, we decide on a course of action within milliseconds of perceiving the options. The rest is rationalization of a choice we’ve essentially taken unconsciously, on the basis of what we desire most. Which is not to say there’s no merit in overriding one’s impulses, it’s just that often we follow our impulses and pretend (to ourselves as well as to others) that we chose rationally and morally.

Think about your main character for a moment. Are you crediting him or her with too much rational executive power over their decisions? Does your character even really know why they have taken a particular course of action? And more interestingly perhaps, how does your character rationalize and justify their actions? What moral story do they tell, which might not have anything at all to do with the real reasons for their action?

To understand how difficult it is to know how your character decides, try understanding how you yourself decide.

Think about a major(ish) decision you’ve taken recently that involved some kind of moral ambiguity. A secret you kept to yourself or divulged, something of value you found and kept or returned, a malicious rumour you spread or dispelled, and so on. Be honest about how instantaneous your decision was in comparison to the amount of time you spent rationalizing and justifying your actions in retrospect.

It’s quite shocking, if you’re honest about it.

Generally speaking, we don’t really have much conscious insight at all into our moral decisions. The only thing we’re conscious of, is the narrative we construct after the fact, in order to make our actions seem logical and acceptable.

To my mind this distinction between a more or less instinctive, emotion-driven decision and the retroactive illusion of rationality, can be a valuable addition to the screenwriter’s toolkit. It’s a powerful way of thinking about conflict in scenes, but also internal conflict.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Why Your Screenplay’s Future Is More Important Than Its Past

It’s sometimes difficult to accept that no one besides you (and your accountant) cares whether you spent two years writing a screenplay or two weeks. The only relevant considerations are whether the writing is any good and whether the script is right for the current market.

It would be nice if your history with the screenplay mattered, but it doesn’t.

Seth Godin posts on his blog today about ignoring what he calls sunk costs. His take is useful in the context of screenwriting:

When making a choice between two options, only consider what's going to happen in the future, not which investments you've made in the past. The past investments are over, lost, gone forever. They are irrelevant to the future.

So let’s say you have two screenplays, one you’ve spent two years perfecting and one you’ve hammered together in two weeks. Which one should you run with? Emotionally, you probably have vastly more invested in the one you’ve worked on for longer. Not to mention the fact that you’ve invested so much time (i.e., your own money) in it.

However, if your aim is to earn a living writing movies, then the more relevant consideration is: Which of the two scripts stands a better chance of being optioned or produced? To decide this, you need to determine which producers you can realistically pitch to, what the potential budgets might be, what the target audiences are, and so on.

Several years ago I wrote a very detailed scriptment based on a biblical story. I did a huge amount of research, and toiled diligently until one day I saw an announcement that the very same story was being produced by a big production company, with some a-list actors attached. I very reluctantly put that scriptment away and turned my attention to other work. The fact that I had worked on it for ages, didn’t stop it’s market value from dropping to zero. Of course the scriptment is still there in my drawer. Who knows, maybe one day the market will be right for it again.

It’s just an unfortunate but understandable fact of the screenwriter’s life, that the value of a screenplay is not determined by the screenwriter’s “sunk costs” (i.e., it’s past), but rather by it’s quality and potential (i.e., it’s future).

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

What’s “Primal” About Your Screenplay?

In a recent post entitled High Concept Rules, screenwriter and screenwriting teacher Blake Snyder discusses some aspects of what makes a film “high concept.” The term that struck me most was “primal.”

Primal — Bruce Snyder, Distribution President at Fox, used this very word in a recent interview to help explain why Taken was a hit: Someone took my daughter. I have to get her back.

That makes absolute sense, doesn’t it? It’s not completely abstract, but it’s also not very specific and yet it conveys a visceral sense of what the film is about. To my mind this works precisely because there’s no mention of characters or location or any other concrete clue as to the specific content of the story. It’s just the raw emotion at the heart of the story, expressed from the point of view of the main character.

Of course we’re talking high-concept here. These are scripts you need to be able to pitch in a few sentences at the drop of a hat. Once produced, these are movies that are marketed to a mass audience using exactly this kind of pithy, gut-level copywriting. But isn’t this also an excellent way of examining for yourself what’s at the emotional heart of a screenplay you’re still working on, even if you’re never going to say as much to another human being?

Sometimes explicitly identifying a central emotional motive in a story can help to focus the action, create unity and direction. If the main subject is, say, revenge (as in Taken), then everything about the characters, the narrative, the locations and so on becomes focused on one or other aspect of this drive. Everyone who is anyone in the movie has an opinion and a feeling about revenge and acts accordingly.

It’s a similar mechanism to articulating the theme, or the premise, or the designing principle, or the central moral question, depending on whose screenwriting jargon you prefer. And it’s similar also in that not all writers like to know what they’re writing about while they’re writing. In other words it's entirely up to you to determine when, if at all, in the writing process you want to clarify what is “primal” about your story.

Just as visualizing your trailer is a great way of exploring the essence of your story, it seems to me that formulating what is “primal” about your story is yet another useful implement to put in your writer’s toolbox, to be taken out and used at your own discretion.

Thanks to Blake Snyder for pointing that out!

Monday, April 20, 2009

Screenwriting's Only Rule: Find Your Voice

I often see advice to screenwriters couched in very normative language. Screenwriters are admonished by authors of how-to books, by professional script-readers, know-it-all bulletin posters anyone else with an opinion on the matter, NEVER to break certain cast-iron rules that will absolutely, definitely ensure that your material is never read.

Um … maybe. Maybe not. Let’s take a look at some of these so-called sacred interdictions and their rationalizations.

  • Never use “We see …” It’s old-fashioned, today’s film execs don’t like it and it shows you’re not up to speed about current screenwriting conventions.

  • Never use the phrase “he realizes.” You can’t see what someone is thinking, it has to be a description of something they do, which demonstrates what they’ve realized.

  • Never use camera angles, it takes the reader out of the story and displays arrogance, as if you’re trying to do the director’s work.

  • If anything can be shown rather than said, always go with the non-verbal alternative. Dialogue is for theatre plays, whereas film is all about telling a story by juxtaposing images.

  • Never describe what someone is thinking, or anything else you can’t see or hear. Similar to the previous rule, but with the patronizing qualification: Save that for your novel.

  • Never use flowery, literary language. Be concise, businesslike and to-the-point. Any other style will be perceived as you showing off your literacy, rather than your storytelling skills.

There are others, I’m sure you’ve heard and read them too. But what strikes me every time I study any great screenplay (i.e., a screenplay that became the foundation for a beautiful movie), is that really good screenwriters don’t care about these rules.

It’s a bit like saying that Arthur Rubenstein wasn’t really a good pianist because he played with flat fingers, which is not how you’re “supposed” to do it.

I recently finished writing an article for on Knocked Up by Judd Apatow. Now there’s a script that could easily be a stage play. It’s almost all dialogue! But it’s a fabulous film script, too. Witty, moving, and visual (yes). Do you think any producer in his right mind would have rejected the script on the basis of some abstract rule concerning how much dialogue is allowed in a film script?

Or what about The Departed, by William Monahan? Now there’s a nail-biting screenplay, full of double-crossing twists and reveals, action-packed and thrilling to the last page. That script contains plenty of no-nos, such as “we see,” “he realizes,” as well as specific descriptions of what someone is thinking. Somehow I think Martin Scorsese was OK with that.

How about No Country For Old Men, by the Coen brothers? A wild and gripping read, whisking the reader along from one unlikely encounter to the next. But it almost reads like a director’s shot list in places, it’s so full of explicit camera instructions.

I could go on. But the point I’m making is that sticking to a set of arbitrary style guidelines is not going to make a screenplay more likely to be picked up and produced. The thing that jumps off the page in the scripts I mentioned above is precisely the vividness and originality of the writing. Above all, what these screenplays have in common is a unity and consistency of style.

They each have a distinct voice.

The inner cogitations of The Departed would seem out of place in Knocked Up. The deeply ironic and self-ridiculing dialogue in Knocked Up wouldn’t fit in No Country For Old Men. The camera-centred style of No Country For Old Men would feel clumsy in The Departed. And so on.

In other words, the only thing that really counts, is making the script a really entertaining and intriguing read by finding your own voice.

Monday, April 6, 2009

How Much Do You Leave Up To The Director?

One way of making a distinction between the screenwriter’s job and the director’s job is this: The writer’s job is to determine what to film, the director’s job is to determine how to shoot it. So when it comes to deciding what to include and what to cut from the script, it’s often a matter of choosing the level of detail.

Finding the right balance between too little and too much detail, is a large part of the art of screenwriting. Use too little detail, and you run the risk of not adequately getting your intention across. Too much detail, on the other hand, can feel restrictive and rigid. So the trick is to use just the appropriate amount of detail for the given beat, making clear what the beat is about while leaving enough room for the director to visualize the beat in his or her own way.

Take for example the famous scene from American Beauty, where Ricky (played by Wes Bentley) shows Jane (Thora Birch) his video recording of a plastic bag being blown about by the wind. Here’s how screenwriter Alan Ball describes Jane’s initial reaction to the video:

Jane sits on the bed. She watches Ricky’s WIDE-SCREEN TV, her brow furrowed, trying to figure out why this is beautiful.

Which is a lot of information for two short sentences. You know Jane is sitting on the bed, you know she’s watching the TV screen and it’s clear she’s feeling confused because she likes Ricky and is trying hard to understand him, so she can decide whether she really wants to get any closer to him.

This little description does a great job of pointing everyone on the set in the same direction. However, none of the information tries to force a particular way of shooting the beat. Which means that as the screenwriter, you hand the director (and the actors) all the necessary ingredients, but you leave it up to them to do the cooking.

A little further along in the same scene, while Ricky expresses the wonderment he felt when he first witnessed the flying bag, all Alan Ball says about Jane’s reaction is:

Now Jane is watching him.

Which is about as brief a description as you can imagine. It doesn’t give any concrete (visual) information other than: Jane has switched her attention from the video to Ricky. However concise though, this little snippet does have a clear function: it shows that Jane is more fascinated by Ricky than by the video. She’s not so much sharing his experience of the video, as feeling something similar while watching him. But again, it leaves the director and the actors free to portray this information in whatever way they find most appropriate.

Some directors will storyboard extensively before venturing onto the set, others like to “let it happen” and then compose the scene during editing. That’s all about execution—the how— rather than inventing the scene in the first place—the what— which is the screenwriter’s job.

As far as I’m concerned, the answer to my initial question is: Leave as much as possible up to the director, while making absolutely sure not to lose the essence of the beat.

Friday, March 20, 2009

On The Evolution Of Reversals By Natural Selection

In a recent interview with The New Yorker, writer-director Tony Gilroy, of Michael Clayton fame, amongst other things, comments on the problem that audiences have become accustomed to “… an aesthetic of disorientation.”

Lots of mainstream movies now routinely play around with chronology and use sophisticated cutting in order to maintain suspense. Audiences catch on quickly though, forcing filmmakers to push the creative envelope again and again.

Take for example the wonderful tv drama Damages. I’m well hooked on the second series, although I have to admit, my attention is waning. And here’s why:

The series is all about deception, mistrust, and backstabbing, so it constantly has to reveal new, surprising information to remain suspenseful. Otherwise it would just be another trite (albeit stunningly acted) linear, legal drama. Although the series meets this challenge pretty impressively, I’m beginning to become immune to the following scene:

We see someone in a parked car, in profile, looking troubled. This is a character we’ve been following and have built up some sympathy for, as they’ve been portrayed as something of an underdog or a victim. Then we pull out and discover … shock-horror … one of the bad guys is sitting next to them in the car, and they’re in cahoots.

Sure, this increases our understanding of the character, perhaps we suddenly understand their moral dilemma, or their corruptness. The device certainly moves the story along, and it worked really well for me the first few times I saw it. However, now whenever I see anyone in a parked car looking troubled, I’m out of the narrative. I’m playing: “Guess the treachery” with myself, because the scene has been overplayed, it’s become predictable.

The essence of a good reversal, is its unpredictability. The more a reversal subverts the audience’s expectations (based on what’s preceded the reversal onscreen), the more effective it is. But surprise isn’t sufficient in itself. The surprise has to change the stakes in some way, in order to really hold the audience’s interest. Even better than merely changing the audience’s expectation of what is to come, is doing so while undermining their assumptions about what they’ve already seen.

One great way to achieve this, is what Tony Gilroy does a few times in the movie Michael Clayton. He deploys a ballsy combination of non-chronological editing and repetition. We see the same short scene twice at very different moments in the film. The first time might be a flash forward, or the second time a flashback. Either way, because of what we’ve witnessed in between, our interpretation of the film so far changes drastically when we see the scene for the second time.

It’s precisely this realization that we were fooled the first time we saw the scene, which is such a great “reversal” sensation. It’s strange that it’s so pleasurable to realize you’ve been hoodwinked, but that’s what it boils down to. The audience craves this sensation of been fooled.

Unfortunately, every time they are fooled they become a little harder to fool.

And so reversals evolve …

(Thanks to Andy Conway at Shooting People for pointing out the article!)

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Quantum Mechanics of Screenwriting

A slightly mind-boggling but fascinating article in the latest edition of Scientific American, discusses the intensely counter-intuitive, quantum mechanical concept of nonlocality. Elementary particles can influence each other instantaneously, even across galaxies, without there being any physical connection between them, either direct or indirect.

This notion has been an anomaly for physicists ever since Einstein formulated his theory of general relativity. In fact, Einstein called this nonlocality “spooky,” and presumed it was something that would eventually be explained within the realms of conventional physics. Instead, nonlocality hasn’t gone away, on the contrary, it has made a comeback and is challenging some of our most basic intuitions about how reality works.

What’s all this got to do with screenwriting, you may ask? Ah, well, I’m not sure, you see. But it’s something like this quote from aforementioned article puts it:

“… combining quantum mechanics and special relativity requires that we give up another of our primordial convictions. We believe that everything there is to say about the world can in principle be put into the form of a narrative, or story. Or, in more precise and technical terms: everything there is to say can be packed into an infinite set of propositions of the form "at t1 this is the exact physical condition of the world" and "at t2 that is the exact physical condition of the world," and so on. But the phenomenon of quantum-mechanical entanglement and the spacetime geometry of special relativity—taken together—imply that the physical history of the world is infinitely too rich for that.”

No matter how well-versed you are in screenwriting “techniques,” regardless of how clear your understanding is of concepts such as story structure, character arc, theme, subtext, visual writing and so on, at some point you have to allow for the fact that … shit happens.

Whereas, what the audience wants (or is it the investors?) is a good yarn, with all the loose ends neatly tied up and the emotional drama satisfactorily resolved. Because we want our “primordial conviction” that reality is fundamentally logical, physical, comprehensible and so on, reinforced.

So are we, as screenwriters, simply helping to maintain this illusion? And what would a screenplay look like in which the story deals with the illusion that life is a neat, linear narrative, with cause followed by effect, and effect becoming the new cause, etc.?

There’s a great idea for a film somewhere in that question, I’m sure of it … But for now, I need a drink to numb my baffled mind.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Screenwriter, How Image-Centred Are You?

Here’s a lovely quote from On Filmmaking, a collection of legendary director and teacher Alexander Mackendrick’s writings:

It is the job of screenwriter, not the director, to decide whether his film story will be built with images or merely decorated with them.

Touché. Well, he has a good point, right? It’s all very well having strong characters, an intriguing theme and a gripping narrative, but what does it look like?

The other day, while my writing partner and I were struggling to find the right image for a scene we were rewriting, he suddenly remembered something he’d seen fifteen years ago. It was absolutely perfect for our scene, and it had just been sitting in his memory waiting for the right time to pop up and say, “Remember me?” Needless to say, both of us were thrilled and relieved. Suddenly we could write the scene visually, writing it around a powerful image, rather than sticking an image on like a band-aid.

Someone who incorporates this notion of writing from images integrally into his approach is Phil Gladwin, of Screenwriting Goldmine fame. I love the way he encourages screenwriters to make sure the main scenes in a story are firmly based on emotionally-charged pictures rather than conversations, and to visualize every beat in a scene.

But to be this image-centred takes practice. It requires you to deliberately keep your eyes wide open wherever you go, and to consciously take note of detail. It’s what painters are trained to do. Screenwriters also need to be able to “depict” situations and dilemmas, only in words rather than paint.

The same standards apply to images as apply to all other elements of the screenplay: Unless it’s clear to the viewer that you’re deliberately using a cliché to make a point (as in satire, comedy, etc.), go beyond the cliché, subvert it. An image we’ve seen countless times before, whether it’s a location, a piece of action, a situation, or whatever, can be terribly distracting. Whereas a variation of a familiar image, or a completely original image, can be hugely intriguing.

So a useful question to ask yourself over and over while you’re writing, until you no longer have to, because it becomes second nature, is “What does it look like?” Or: “What’s the image here?” Or some other formulation that suits you personally.

As for me, it's half-term and I have an image in my head of my kids sitting downstairs watching a dvd of Cats & Dogs and wondering when their old man is finally going to bring the drinks and snacks he promised about an hour ago …

Friday, February 20, 2009

Why You Need To Entertain In Order To Enlighten

As a screenwriter, the bottom line is you are part of the entertainment industry. However high-brow your subject matter may be, people watch movies in order to have some kind of visceral rather than intellectual experience. They want to be entertained.

Regardless of whether you’re talking about a Hollywood blockbuster or a lo-budget art house film, or even a feature-length documentary, audiences pay to be frightened, amused, romantically stimulated, outraged, and so on, not to get an academic education. They want to be entertained.

A movie can express a moral point of view, pose hypothetical questions, explore historical events, personal relationships, social conventions, and so on. Whether it does so through drama or comedy, the audience only agrees to watch the film in the first place because they expect an engaging, emotional cinematic experience. They want to be entertained.

The word entertainment has had a lot of bad press. It’s mostly equated with superficial distraction. Look at what the dictionaries have to say: “To cause the time to pass pleasantly … to amuse … to divert …” (Webster's). “To amuse, to occupy agreeably,” (Oxford). “To provide amusement for …” (Collins).

But wait, put your judgemental, artistic indignation on hold for a moment and acknowledge a simple fact: The function of entertainment is to direct someone’s attention to something enjoyable. Again, “enjoyable” here refers to the full gamut of emotional cinematic experience, ranging from hilarity to terror. That, on the face of it, is the screenwriter’s job. Write stuff that people want to watch, for whatever reasons they may have.

Of course, the trick is to give the audience something enjoyable to watch, and while they’re not looking, slip in under their radar.

Or if you prefer a more classical metaphor: The job of the screenwriter is to write Trojan horses.

In other words, a film has to be entertaining (in the broadest sense of the term) to earn and maintain the audience’s attention so that you can tell them something that is anything but entertaining.

How you achieve this? The same way painters, musicians, composers and all other creative artists do, by mastering existing techniques in order to be able to subvert them. For the screenwriter that means getting a good understanding of what makes films entertaining: Genre conventions, pacing, structure and all the other “technical” aspects of screenwriting.

I could be wrong, but it seems to me that mastering the “entertaining” part of screenwriting is just as important as getting the “enlightening” aspect right.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Why You Should Take The Time To Get Your Facts Right

My writing partner and I recently locked horns over a scene involving a character who is visited by a police detective in the aftermath of a fire-bomb attack on his house.

The dramatic function of the scene is to show the character in denial about the extent to which his own actions have provoked the attack. The scene turns when we show him rejecting the veiled advice of the detective to change his behaviour. Straightforward enough, right?


Our difference of opinion arose when we began filling in the background of the scene and the dialogue. My writing partner felt uncomfortable because neither of us knows precisely what the police protocols are for this kind of incident. How many police officers would be present? Do detectives arrive on the scene? Forensic experts? Do they seal off the road? Are reporters allowed access to the victims?

In other words, there was a lot we didn’t know.

Now we’ve already done extensive research for many other scenes in this script, so I’m absolutely not opposed to it in principle. But somehow when it came to this scene I felt it wasn’t necessary. I felt that what we did know about the scene was enough. The essence of the scene is the exchange between the two characters, and I felt we could write the scene without referring to any specific police procedures.

I have great respect for my writing partner’s eye for detail, so I deferred to his intuition. He called someone who is familiar with police procedures. We got our facts straight, and in retrospect I’m glad we did, even though it took a couple of days. Because although the essence of the scene is the same—the same emotional beats, the same references to theme, the same narrative information—it’s a better scene because we wrote it confidently, without having to avoid or hide anything.

Perhaps just as importantly, I realized that I was simply being impatient. I just wanted to get on with the writing rather than wait for more information.

Will the audience or the reader notice the difference? I think so. The difference, in the end, is in details such as passing references to police protocol, which give the scene authenticity. Also, knowing the boundaries of the detective character’s brief as a police officer made it easier to write him as a real person. Otherwise we would have ended up with a 2-D, stereotypical police detective. A clone of all the American detectives in raincoats we’ve all seen a few times too many.

So even if it takes longer, getting your facts right can make for far more convincing and confident writing. It’s worth the effort.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Why Screenwriters Need To Pay Attention To Attention

Veteran Disney storyboard artist Francis Glebas, packs a huge amount of information about visual storytelling in his wonderful new book Directing The Story. He goes into great detail about all the key principles that contribute to clear and dramatic storytelling, all of which he illustrates with copious storyboard examples from a variety of films.

One principle particularly struck me, and this is the principle of deliberately and methodically directing the viewer’s attention in order to affect their emotions. This is perhaps par for the course for directors, but for screenwriters, who often focus more on the “what” of the story rather than the “how” of its realization, it can be enormously helpful too.

Whether you’re writing a first draft or a final one, it’s important to have a clear image in your mind of the beat or scene you’re writing. Once you see the scene in your mind’s eye, you’re able to choose how to describe it on the page. With the aim of creating a specific emotional effect.

If you imagine (or draw) the scene you’re writing in storyboard form, what does the viewer see first? What doesn't the viewer see? How many different ways can you think of showing exactly the same beat? What is the difference between these different executions in terms of affecting one emotion or another? It’s the same principle regardless of genre.

Of course, you don’t want to start filling the script with explicit camera angles. It makes the script hard to read, and apart from that it’s the director’s job. However, even just thinking about which visual element of the scene best compliments the character’s action or contrasts the dialogue in an interesting way, or creates suspense or humour … the mere act of imagining seeing the same action from different perspectives, can greatly clarify your understanding of what the scene is about and what it needs.

And it all comes down to directing or diverting the viewer’s attention in order to create a specific emotional effect and to avoid boredom or confusion.

In contrast to directors, screenwriters don’t have to be specific about the technicalities of camera angles, composition, lenses, lighting and so on. However, suggesting these elements when they serve to heighten the emotion of the story, is definitely an option.

As Glebas puts it:

A story is like a giant knot that we have to unravel and show the audience how all the pieces connect in a linear way and then tie it all back up for them at the end. It’s not about creating the drawings as much as deciding which images should be shown and when.

Happy visualizing!