Thursday, August 28, 2008

Transitions – The Devil Is In The Details

I heard an interview last week with Michael Brandt, co-writer of Wanted , in which he divulged numerous interesting writing tips. One comment in particular stayed with me, and I paraphrase …

One way to tell the difference between a script written by a seasoned professional and one written by a novice, is how the transitions from one scene to another are written. How and when the screenwriter cuts into and out of a scene.

The dramatic principle of “get in as late as possible and get out as early as possible,” is a familiar one to most screenwriters, but Michael Brandt gives an example which speaks volumes: Cut into the scene when the cup of coffee is put down on the table. Not while it’s being prepared, poured, or put on a tray, etc.

In other words, unless the preparation for the action is essential in itself (in which case it is part of the action), and visually engaging, then don’t include it.

In a similar vein, Tom Lazarus (whom I mentioned in my previous post) advises the following exercise when (re)writing transitions:

Read only the beginnings and ends of scenes and visualize how they will look as they transition from one to the next.

Because transitions are such an important aspect of visual writing! The contrast between the shot at the end of one scene and the shot at the beginning of the next one tells a story too.

The funny thing was (is this what they call synchronicity?), I listened to the Michael Brandt interview right after finishing a sequence which includes one character serving another character a cup of coffee. And guess what? Yeah … I went back and cut that bit.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Screenwriting: The Incremental Method

I’ve been busy reading an inspiring and wonderfully written book by Tom Lazarus called Rewriting Secrets For Screenwriters. The book is chock-full of very practical tips and humorous, familiar-sounding anecdotes.

Among the techniques Lazarus describes, is the way he sets about developing an idea for a story, using what he calls the incremental method.

This basically involves writing down, off the top of your head, a shorthand list of all the scenes, events, characters etc., that are involved in your story idea. It doesn’t have to make any sense to anyone other than yourself, and it doesn’t have to meet any kind of standards at all. It’s just a rough list of thoughts about an idea you have for a story.

This way of working isn’t revolutionary, it’s completely intuitive and logical, but what’s so good about getting the idea for your story down on paper this way, is that you avoid the trap of thinking too much, too early on in the process.

There’s nothing that can nip a potentially good story idea in the bud more effectively than a bit of premature rational, critical brain work. Especially if (mis)guided by official structure manuals that tell you on what page to put plot points and act breaks.

Not that screenwriting manuals aren’t extremely valuable, but focusing on structure too early on can be devastating for the creative process.

Once you have the list, it becomes the starting point for elaboration. A place from which to ask yourself questions about what might have happened to cause a particular event, what the consequences could be, what the characters want, what their emotions and conflicts are, what locations might look like and why, and so on.

As you add more details, scenes and characters begin to emerge, and it will become clear whether the story is viable or not. If it is, perhaps a more structured outline is called for. If it’s not, better to know now than half way through the first draft.

The reason the incremental method works so well, as does the rewriting method Lazarus sets out, is this: By going back over the same list again and again, you gradually notice and adjust more and more detail every time. It’s a great way to avoid writing clich├ęs and stereotypes, because when you come back to the same beat for the tenth time and it still feels fresh and surprising, you know it’s good writing. If you come back to a scene and it feels tired and too familiar, you know you need to move it up a gear or two.

Another great (re)writing tip from Tom Lazarus is to check what new information the scene is delivering. But more about that next time.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Origins Of Subtext

From a very early age human beings learn to understand other human beings primarily non-verbally, i.e. by interpreting gestures, intonations, facial expressions, body language, etc. As soon as children begin to master that most human of all phenomena, language with syntax, they realize that a person’s non-verbal behaviour is generally a more reliable indicator of their motives and intentions than their words.

Especially when it comes to their parents.

Being a parent myself, I can quite easily see why this is: You want the best for your children, you see them imitating your worst habits and you tell them it’s not a good idea. They understand your words, but they see a contradictory message in your actions.

Now the child begins to learn a different set of rules, which govern the concept of calling a spade a spoon in order to avoid trouble. Once the child has mastered this principle, the next step is to pretend this whole as-if situation doesn’t exist. Pretend you don’t see or hear people’s speech and behaviour contradicting each other. Pretend for long enough and the trick becomes second nature. Like learning to ride a bike. No need for conscious effort any longer.

Lo and behold, the child has graduated from Subtext 101! It’s now ready to start writing screenplays. Because great screenplays are full of scenes which are “… not about what they’re really about …” to paraphrase David Mamet.

All screenwriters were children once, so presumably they’ve all been through this same learning curve. But they have to be able to consciously and deliberately switch between these different levels of communication. Between the literal content of speech and the accompanying, incongruous non-verbal communication, or subtext, as this is also known.

In other words, the trick is not to think too much about what subtext really is, but rather to understand that as a human being you’re already an expert at it.

Here’s a little exercise: Next time you’re interacting with another human being, imagine you’re a subtextually challenged child watching an adult desperately trying not to say what they really mean.

Have fun … and take a notebook with.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

How Research Can Inspire

In a recent post entitled Give Up The Research Excuse!, inspirational writing coach Jurgen Wolff warns against the danger of using research as an excuse not to write. Just because you haven’t done all the research on your to-do list, doesn’t mean you can’t start writing.

I couldn’t agree more. Certainly when it comes to writing fiction, research can often provide huge amounts of new ideas and fresh twists. In fact, my writing partner and I very recently experienced exactly this phenomenon.

We have been working on a particular screenplay on and off for a long while now, and we decided we needed to interview some experts in a particular field to make absolutely sure the climactic scene of our movie had sufficient grounding in reality.

It didn’t.


We spent a couple of weeks desperately trying to bend the plot in order to keep the wonderful scene we’d had in mind for so long. We even considered adding a new character in order to set up the ending to fit credibly with the facts we’d learned from our research.

However, in the end, our conclusion was that it was just too contrived. It wouldn’t work. We had no choice but to kill our darling.

Out of this disappointment though, has risen a completely new version of this climactic scene, which we both agree is much better than what we had before! It’s more visual, it expresses the theme more precisely and it neatly pays off a number of things set up earlier in the script.

Without the research, not only would we have written a climax which might have knocked a few people’s suspension of disbelief, we would also have missed the opportunity to improve the quality of the screenplay as a whole.

The idea to interview these experts only came after we’d finished an outline, were a good way into a treatment, and began to wonder if that particular scene was making proper sense. If we had waited to start writing before “finishing” our research, we would never have thought to interview these particular people in the first place.

Research and writing can go hand in hand, each suggesting ways for the other to proceed, each feeding the other until all the pieces of the puzzle fall into place in the final draft.

And then it’s time for the director and his team to start doing their own research …

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Why You Shouldn’t Always Try To Be Clever

Sometimes screenwriters try too hard and end up making their own work more difficult. It’s a bit like when there’s a word on the tip of your tongue: Making more effort to remember it often renders the word more elusive.

Here’s a small anecdote on a similar topic from Oscar-winning screenwriter Ronald Harwood, who has been a writer for almost fifty years, and has worked with some of the most talented actors and directors both in theatre and cinema. A man who knows how to write, in other words.

When he agreed to write the screenplay for The Pianist (directed by Roman Polanski), he found he didn’t know how to start. Polanski called a number of times to ask how the work was progressing, and Harwood bluffed. He told the famous director that he was making headway, when in truth he hadn’t written a word because he couldn’t find a way of getting started.

He considered giving up, and when Polanski called again to ask how the screenplay was coming along, Harwood confessed he hadn’t written a word because he didn’t know how to start. Polanski barked down the phone: “The film’s called The Pianist, right? Show him playing the piano!!!”

This astonishingly straightforward and simple suggestion was all Harwood needed to get going, and the resulting film won masses of awards, including Oscar for best adapted screenplay.

As Sigmund Freud once said: Sometimes a cigar is a cigar. In screenwriting terms, it’s tempting to search too zealously for overt symbolism and meaning in every single detail of a script, whereas sometimes the obvious and purely visual is precisely what you need.

There’s a time for cleverness and there’s a time for straightforwardness. And sometimes, the obvious and purely visual can even turn out to be the cleverest, most meaningful image of the entire film.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Screenwriting and Happiness

No, I’m not referring to that mythical, seven-figure sale after an intense and bloody bidding war between five rival studios. I’m referring to what Positive Psychology’s Big Kahuna, Dr. Martin Seligman calls the three aspects of a happy life. In his TED lecture What positive psychology can help you become, Seligman distinguishes three levels of happiness:

The Pleasant Life – Full of pleasure, positive emotions, smiles and cheeriness.

The Good Life – Full of positive engagement, a flow in which time stops and one doesn’t feel anything, when a person’s unique strengths are most at the fore.

The Meaningful Life – Full of activities in which one’s talents serve something bigger than oneself.

I recommend you watch his lecture to get a proper picture of what he’s referring to, but let me just add my own adaptation to the life of a screenwriter:

The Pleasant Life – The excitement of the profession as a social arena, being part of the glamorous or at least public world of cinema, dreaming of Oscars, Hollywood and hobnobbing with the stars. The fun and emotional thrill of being involved in filmmaking.

The Good Life – The work. The flow. The part of being a screenwriter when everything else disappears and you are just in the writing, with no sense of time passing and with no feelings as such. The total, positive engagement with the task at hand.

The Meaningful Life – The part you hopefully get to when your films are produced and screened, when your films enrich other people’s lives with valuable insights, using humour, romance, action, science fiction or whatever your forte is.

When you reach that stage, screenwriting becomes a source of personal fulfilment as well as something that improves the quality of other people’s lives. Not bad for a mere storyteller, right? Certainly a powerful image of what to strive for every time you sit down to write.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Why You Should Know Your Fictional Reality Inside-Out

The other day I got stuck in the minutiae of a scene, asking myself over and over whether the action was realistic enough. Realistic in the sense of “how things actually happen in non-fictional reality.” I got annoyed and reprimanded myself: “It’s fiction, stupid!” Fortunately I wasn’t satisfied with that answer, and after a little thought I realized two significant things:

1. You need to get your facts right … within the fictional reality of your story world.

2. The emotional truth of a scene requires just as much attention as factual accuracy.

Allow me to illustrate with an example.

How many viewers of No Country For Old Men by the Coen brothers were so distracted by practical questions about Javier Bardem’s unusual murder weapon, that they couldn’t enjoy the film? Certainly far fewer than the number who felt shivers down their spine every time the bizarre piece of equipment appeared on screen, right?

That’s because the oddness of the weapon fits seamlessly into the context of the story world: It’s a fictional reality in which the boundaries of what is considered decent and expected (even amongst criminals) are blown wide open. The weapon astonishes and shocks everyone precisely because it is so outlandish. No need to dwell on how it works technically, and whether this is “realistic.”

In addition, it also makes perfect emotional sense in terms of the detached, psychopathic nature of the character. Each time the killer brandishes his weapon, it baffles his victim and causes them to drop their guard.

The emotional charge is right on target: This hit man is so methodical and indifferent, that even cynics such as the hard-nosed chief of police and a ruthless fellow assassin can’t get their heads around him. This is the emotional truth that accompanies the killer and his weapon wherever he goes: He overwhelms people by trashing all the accepted boundaries and norms.

Now, imagine the same implement in, say, a social realist film by Ken Loach. Or a romantic comedy by Nancy Meyers. Or a Star Wars movie. See what I mean? In a different context, the same thing isn’t necessarily realistic. That is, consistent with the fictional reality of that story world.

In order to establish your fictional reality effectively, you have to be clear about genre conventions (“laser gun” might be enough description for a sci-fi movie, but “pistol” might seem lazy in a crime thriller), plus you have to be consistent. It makes for confusing reading if the script changes tone arbitrarily, whether the tone is ultra-realistic or completely fantastical.

Once you’re clear on what characterizes the fictional reality of your story, you will be able to determine what level of detail you need to describe where, what issues you need to research further, and of course, what you’ve already nailed perfectly!

As for me, I have to get back to my in-depth analysis of the impact of the credit crisis on the average thickness of business cards.

P.S. For more insights into effective and successful screenwriting techniques, check out my Great Screenwriting blog, where there’s also a more in-depth article on No Country For Old Men.