Sunday, February 24, 2008

Clarity in screenwriting

I’m one of those screenwriters whose work space is littered with motivational and methodological axioms scribbled on index cards. One of my favourites is:


In my opinion this is always an excellent rule of thumb, but perhaps even more so when you’ve yet to establish your reputation. Because when you bring a screenplay to market, you’re going to have to deal with feedback. Heaps of it.

Sometimes it’s constructive and can raise your screenplay to a higher level. However, the vast majority of the comments you receive will be negative, completely unfounded and only uttered in an attempt to make the utterer appear more knowledgeable than you, the novice.

Which is also one of the oldest negotiating tactics in the book: “I don’t know … it needs a whole lotta work.” (Spoken by a producer who is secretly so excited about your script he has a hard-on.)

So it’s of the utmost importance to make sure every word in the screenplay clarifies something, either in terms of what’s physically going on in the scene, or in terms of what’s going on inside the characters.

Naturally, this requires you read your own work critically and to be acutely aware of any nagging doubts about the clarity of what you’ve written. Are your descriptions specific or evocative enough? Is your dialogue constantly adding to the reader’s emotional involvement in the story? Are you being obfuscatory rather than profound? And so on.

Once you’re convinced that everything you’ve written is clear and intentional, then it becomes a much simpler task to deal with feedback. Because you know immediately when someone has read and understood the script but has legitimate questions or even great new suggestions. You also know right away when someone is bullshitting.

But consider this for a moment too: The finished screenplay is merely a starting point for a whole new process, including storyboarding, casting, set designs, composition of the score, not to mention budgeting all this.

In other words, the people who have the resources to turn your script into a film have every right to demand clarity.

So make it easy for them and never assume they’ll know what you mean.

P.S. For some examples and analysis of top-notch, professional screenwriting, take a look at an additional blog I’ve started, called Great Screenwriting. Enjoy!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Does your spec script stand out?

In a recent post entitled Story Vault: Spec Notes, Danny Stack sums up some story characteristics which can turn an otherwise generic “genre” script into a purple cow*.

Danny’s summary is helpful if you have a story but you feel it’s missing something which will set it apart. Changing one key element in an otherwise inconspicuous story can often be sufficient to seriously jazz it up. Change the location, the era, the gender of a main character, etc.

Of course, studying the list and letting your thoughts wander is also an excellent way of generating story ideas from scratch. Be sure to have a notepad handy though.

Here are Danny’s main suggestions:

Biopics. Recount the life, or significant period, of a famous figure (that preferably hasn’t been done before) or tell the story of a historic character that shows what impact and significance his/her life had for his time, or for us in the present.

Political Backdrop stories. Look at an interesting period in any nation’s history, and create a story within that context, using the backdrop to provide subtext, drama and theme.

Period Drama. See biopics/political backdrop stories, or simply create a new romance/comedy/whatever set around a defining or visual period.

Modern Adaptations. A modern and clever take on well known stories, such as Shakespeare etc, can be effective, and you don’t need to pay for the privilege too because many of the stories are out of copyright.

Unfamiliar Locations. A lot of specs are set in anonymous modern cities. Setting can play a large part in a story, especially with regard to the above areas, so think about a story set in Ontario, or Cape Town, or Cairns, or Wellington, or Berlin, or Moscow, or whatever, and bring it to life on screen.

Specific Area of Research. Get to know an unfamiliar topic or subject better than anyone else on this Earth. And then write a script about it. Not it per se, but a story around that world.

Quirky Premise/Offbeat Story. A quirky premise will always be fun, but the offbeat story that follows should be carefully crafted in terms of character and story. Don’t try to be funny for the sake of it; tell a story that’s funny. A lot of comedy specs in America are sold because of their offbeat and quirky charms, and consequently attract interest from actors and directors.

I would add that a combination of more than one of these topics significantly raises the chances of your spec script being read. A biopic which is a period drama. A modern adaptation set in an unfamiliar location. You get the idea.

Of course, nothing will help you if you don’t manage to make the first five to ten pages of your script riveting reading. But more on that some other time.

*For the uninitiated: “Purple cow” is a phrase coined by Seth Godin some years ago to describe a product which is presented in a way that makes it stand out from all other similar products. A purple cow in a mass of black and white cows.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Do you outline?

Probably the cheesiest chat-up line a screenwriter could throw out over a post-workshop drink. But also a central aspect of the professional screenwriter’s methodology.

Whether the outline is a detailed list of sluglines or a bulleted list of key scenes to work around, or even just a mental picture of what the film is going to look like, the general consensus seems to be that outlining is a useful way of keeping track of the story while you write the first draft.

The only serious objection I’ve ever heard to outlining is that it can stifle the creative process. When you’ve neatly worked out the plot, diligently hitting all the required beats and conflicts, you might not feel very inclined to consider new ideas, even if they’re actually improvements, because of the hassle of going “back” and rewriting the outline.

The logic being that you’re likely to settle for second best rather than go through the whole outlining process again.

Extremely unlikely, I’d say. Because as any dedicated, professional screenwriter will tell you, it’s all about how good the script is, not about how many times you had to rewrite the outline.

There’s also a popular misconception that talented writers don’t need to outline, and that those who do are less gifted. I think the distinction is determined by something else altogether.

In my experience the people who least like to outline are those who work most intuitively, or holistically. To them something “looks” or “feels” right. On the other hand, people who like to outline most are more analytical, more conscious of their writing decisions. For them it’s the logic clicking into place that creates the buzz.

Of course most screenwriters operate somewhere in between these two poles. Here’s an interesting example:

I recently heard Diablo Cody talking about the way she wrote her award-winning screenplay Juno. (Check it out while it’s still available for free download at Fox Searchlight.) Here’s someone who very deliberately projects a public image of being the intuitive, artistic type. But when pressed, she revealed that about halfway through her first draft, she decided to compile a bulleted list of scenes in order to avoid getting lost. She found this extremely helpful.

The same old adage applies time and time again: Whatever works for you.

And according to my colour-coded, expandable beat sheet, this is the end of the post.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

CRASH the TV series

Here’s a fascinating news item for anyone (like me) writing a multi-protagonist script: The characters from Crash the movie are to feature in a new TV series. This makes total sense because of the sheer number of characters involved and their interconnectedness in terms of plot.

But it also jolts the sensibilities. Wasn’t Crash so impressive precisely because it was so compact and cinematic?

For me personally, the news highlights one of those semi-conscious doubts I keep having whenever I work on my multi-protagonist script: Is it really OK to write a screenplay that feels like a TV episode?

So how does a multi-protagonist film differ from a blown-up version of a TV episode? Here are some of the differences:

  • Visual storytelling - TV generally relies far more heavily on dialogue (the screen’s just that much smaller …). In a multi-protagonist film, precisely because of the number of different storylines, the audience needs to see very quickly what’s going on (even if the connections with other storylines may only become clear in retrospect).
  • Character arcs - In a TV series you have much more screen time to show a character changing. In a film everything has to be squashed into a very limited number of scenes. Dilemma’s and choices need to be that much starker.
  • Climax/resolution - A film is a one-off, stand-alone story. It immediately creates (unconscious) expectations of some kind of resolution. You can’t cheat the audience, there has to be some kind of “conclusion.” A TV episode often works towards a cliff-hanger (to be continued …); the resolution can be postponed far longer.

All of these elements (and more) are part of what makes Crash stand out as a film.

On the other hand, the fact that it appears to make economic sense to use this film as the basis for a TV series, shows that the boundaries between TV and cinema are fading.

More and more people watch movies at home, and TV screens are growing bigger and better all the time. Plus nowadays a lot of visual and narrative innovation happens first on TV.

Perhaps we’re witnessing an interesting new form of crossover?

My personal lesson from this intriguing little news item: Stay focused on the characters. In the end they are the ones who determine what’s the most appropriate arena and narrative structure for their story.