Thursday, May 31, 2007

Writing the logline – Part two

Once you’ve established who the main character is and what their main trait or weakness is, the next thing to make clear in the logline is what’s driving this character, what they want or need to achieve.

The type of goal depends on the kind of film. In an action-driven film, the goal will often be concrete and easily described, e.g., the main character must defuse a ticking bomb, retrieve a magic ring, prove his client’s innocence, escape the psychopathic killer, and so on. In a more internal, character-driven story, the main character will often be trying to avoid some aspect of themselves due to fear. They may be not even be aware of what they really want until very late in the film. Of course in an action film, the main character also tries to avoid some aspect of themselves, and in a character-driven story the main character must also undertake something concrete. So it’s not a black and white distinction, rather a matter of emphasis.

Generally speaking, the main character has to do something difficult, unpleasant or frightening in order to achieve the ultimate goal.

The logline must reflect the main narrative drive of the film in a simple, easily comprehensible way. One of the most effective ways to describe succinctly what the film is about is to sketch the chief dilemma or danger into which the main character is thrown.

Describe what the main character has to do in the simplest possible terms, but using words which show the character has no choice but to follow this path, even though they would actually rather not. The main character must ... or is forced to ... or struggles to ... undertake some kind of activity, in order to achieve what it is they (think) they want.

Some examples:

An affable, bourgeois psychotherapist struggles to come to terms with the accidental death of his teenage son ... (The Son’s Room). The conflict and contrast is there in a nutshell: he’s a nice, well-educated, family man who wouldn’t hurt a fly, and his son is killed. Bam. His life is turned upside down and his seemingly unattainable goal is to make sense of what has happened.

An absent-minded but well-meaning ant ruins the colony’s harvest and must redeem himself by finding help in the hostile outside world ... (A Bug’s Life). The poor ant is sent on a mission impossible because of a mistake he made. He has no choice (although he thinks it’s his decision) and will obviously face great dangers for which he is totally ill-prepared. His aim is to make up for his mistake.

When his wife is brutally murdered, an exemplary young British diplomat in Africa, becomes obsessed with identifying the killers and their motive ... (The Constant Gardener). Here is a man whose life is expected to follow a very predictable and probably hypocritical path, but suddenly his focus changes completely. The only thing he cares about now is uncovering the truth, even to the detriment of his carefully prepared career.

Of course, if the main character were able to achieve the goal fairly straightforwardly, the film would be over pretty quickly. So the writer puts all sorts of obstacles in the main character’s way. But more about that next time.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Writing the logline - Part one

A logline for a film is an extremely brief description of what the film is about. Loglines are mostly written by professionals for professionals in the film industry, but they also appear in your TV or film guide. Writing a logline is an excellent way for screenwriters to test whether their story is easy to describe or not. And a basic rule about writing and selling screenplays is that the basic story concept has to be easy to describe.

The tiny logline is one of the most difficult things for screenwriters to write. That’s because, apart from the title, it’s the most compact summary of the film there is. Like the film poster, it must accurately and intriguingly convey who the story is about, what genre the film is, and what sort of conflict it portrays. If the concept hasn’t been thought through properly, it just won’t squeeze into a logline.

There are various formulae for writing loglines, but all boil down to the same thing: In one sentence, preferably under 25 words, describe the main character, what they desperately want and the huge obstacle or dilemma standing in their way.

Here’s something about the first element: The Main Character.

The most common way to describe the main character* is a noun (often a profession or a station in life) embellished with an adjective or a very concise descriptive phrase. This combination serves to communicate a huge amount of information in just a few words. The reader can already picture what kind of world the main character inhabits because of their job or position in life. The adjective or descriptive phrase indicates why they’re in such a predicament. It hints at the main character’s conflict.

Some examples, just for fun:

An horrendously deformed down-and-outer. (The Elephant Man). Obviously someone who is limited socially and economically, and quite likely extremely unhappy and without many prospects in life. Someone who has hit rock bottom.

A vengeful but aging master swordsman (The Mask of Zorro). Someone who has revenge on his mind, which suggests an injustice committed against him (perhaps long ago), which he still hasn’t forgiven or forgotten. But also someone with formidable knowledge of fighting techniques, a force to be reckoned with.

A newly-wed architect with an incorrigible bachelor buddy (You, Me, and Dupree). A bit lengthy that, I admit, but it’s a tough one. Here’s a serious professional who has settled down, but whose main problem is, apparently, his best friend. This immediately suggests a conflict in the new marriage, someone who perhaps hasn’t quite made the transition to being part of a couple and whose friend is going to be the source of his problems.

Next time, something about the second element: What the main character desperately wants.

*The main character can also be a group of people, Like a group of army surgeons (MASH).

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Screenwriting: Ideas

I’m a screenwriter. Now there are two parts to the writing work screenwriters do, there’s coming up with the idea and there’s writing it down in a screenplay. The idea is the inspiration and the writing is the perspiration. There are hundreds of books and seminars out there which all teach the craft aspect of the profession, and without these skills, a great idea remains as silent as the proverbial tree falling in the woods. But the longer I’m in this business, the more I realize that the skills are useless without a good concept to build on. No amount of clever structuring, witty dialogue, or catchy description will hide the fact that a story is boring. Which is why it always pays to listen to what producers have to say. Most producers don’t write screenplays. They just don’t have the time or the patience. But they do often have great ideas. A good producer knows the market, be it mainstream or arthouse. They know what they can sell, and they’re not ashamed to think about a film as a product. Most screenwriters try to hide their ambition behind talk of artistic integrity and so on, but producers have no such qualms. This is perhaps an important rule of thumb for the screenwriter: Don’t judge the value of an idea by the person who thought it up.