Monday, November 30, 2009

TODAY'S NUGGET: Sports Biopics

Today I dug through the script pile and chose a sports biopic because someone I know is writing one & I wanted to compare his script (you know who you are) with the competition.

Sports films are a big challenge because general audiences may not have an interest in that sport. It's no secret that is the reason you must create an interesting, relatable human/universal story outside the sports story.

But how is that done?

Today's script gave me a little clue. The story is about a guy who had a personal tragedy in his life, but keeps on truckin' in the sport through high school and college. However, the tragedy resurfaces right before an important match, and he falters, but ultimately triumphs.

The main character is very sympathetic and well written to showcase how extraordinary this guy was. He carries the hope of many on his shoulders. He had an unbelievable grit and training regimen.

The problem with the script is that the main character is so darn near perfect from the start. After a tragedy, his life becomes his sport, and he becomes a one track workaholic. This is understandable, even realistic.

However, sports films are partly truth, partly myth, and sometimes the truth gets in the way of the myth/good story. The character arc flatlines a bit when he's no longer is torn between a rock and a hard place. His unbelievable dedication could be even more true with a dash of fiction. ex. He befriends a made up character who is about to commit the same tragedy that haunts him. The minor character causes him to relive his own personal tragedy. This personifies what is going on in his head so the public can see it. . . and is probably not too far off from what he went through.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Especially in sports biopics, the stakes need to grow and stay high. At the same time, the writer's task is to show the heart & soul of a champion and make him/her accessible to the audience. To bring these two together, sometimes that takes a bit of fiction to make the point.

P.S. I'm one of those writers who hates to stray too far from the truth in true story pics. However, I think you'd be ok too to not include the boring parts, because, honestly, you only want to sit for 2 hrs. in a theater, not all year.

Friday, November 27, 2009

TODAY'S NUGGET: Not Another "Handsome Man"

This week I got a spec script that had great promise. However, I saw a very common description problem that riled me: "He was a handsome man."

My eyes glaze over such commonplace descriptions as "handsome man" or "beautiful woman."

So the woman is beautiful. Every freakin' woman in spec scripts are described as beautiful. Big deal.

Does "beautiful" give me a hint about her character traits? No.
Does this create action? No.
Does this even tell me what's going on underneath the surface? No.

The problem is that:
1) These are static physical descriptions that don't tell me anything about the person.
2) In a script, economy of words is so important. You've got a minimum amount of space & need to give the most bang for the buck.

We've all heard, "Use active verbs!" because they tell the reader what the character is doing (the present) and the direction they're going (the future).

The same goes for character descriptions. They should be doing double duty: describing the surface (present), but also hinting at something else that makes the reader curious (future).

For example: "He was Clark Gable handsome, which embarrassed him to no end." Ah-ha! Suddenly I have an inkling what this guy is like. He's insecure and could be easily set up in the next scene to be very embarrassed. I want to know what makes him tick.

"She was as pretty as a marizpan figure, and twice as likely to give you a stomach ache." This woman might be pretty, but is someone to be wary about.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: Descriptions need to do double duty.

TODAY'S NUGGET: Vertical Reading

I have been a skimmer all my life.

In other words, my "eye sweep" collects sentences in one big swoop, i.e., gathers large phrases from left to right. Essentially I read down the page in a vertical fashion.

You should know this because this is how a reader reads. He/she is reading vertically to get through a script quickly. Anything you can do to help him/her is a plus in your favor.

Here are the things that delay my vertical reading:
- long narratives
- paragraph-y dialogue (more than 2 lines)
- looooong sentences
- choppy sentences that require me to stop-start-stop-start
- TOO MUCH BLACK INK ON A PAGE (not enough white space)
- too many parentheses
- pages and pages of dialogue without a break (this indicates that dialogue is trying to carry your story)

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: When you're evaluating your script for ease of reading, time someone else reading it to see how fast it takes.

If you can do it without them noticing, watch their eyes. Do they have to go back a lot & re-read certain passages? That's probably b/c you weren't clear enough the first time.

Scripts that physically have lots of white space immediately put me in a good mood. "A-ha!" I think, "the writer gets that economy of words is important!"

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Today's Nugget: Well-written vs. Marketable

[h/t to JPenny for today's topic!]

Before I moved to LA, I really thought I knew what a marketable script was. It's a well-written script, right?

I've seen lots of scripts since then & "well-written" does not necessarily mean "marketable."

Sometimes a well-written script will not get made b/c the budget is too small, or it doesn't fit the company's slate of pictures, or simply b/c it's a great read but no one will come see it. ex. I covered an amazing children's fantasy spec script by an up-and-coming director for $15M. But the budget was waaaaay too small, especially with all the talking CGI animals. That is the reality of screenwriting.

To me, a marketable script is a script that is:
a) well written;
b) at the right budget; &
c) will draw in a crowd. (NOTE: I didn't say it had to be a large crowd, but a crowd.)

Why? I've heard the head of a production co. put it this way: If he loves a script, but knows it's not going to make a lot of money, it has to at least break even....or he won't be able to stay in business to make more films.

So how do you know what's marketable?

Step 1 - You should educate yourself to the hilt.
- You must know the market, what's selling, what's not, and WHY.
- You should be reading the trades every day (Variety, Hollywood Reporter,
- You should be aware of sale trends. (ex. The Scoggins Report, an unofficial tally of monthly spec sales, is very enlightening.
- You should streamline your script & avoid excesses (ex. Is the 6th car explosion really necessary?)

Step 2 - When you sit down to write, you should throw it away.

Yep, set it aside while you write, & don't limit yourself. I can't emphasize this strongly enough: WRITE THE BEST SCRIPT YOU CAN. Focus mainly on the character flaws, escalating conflicts, structure. You should be writing to entertain. You should be focused on quality. Always, always quality.

If it's a truly great script, a funny thing happens: You automatically streamline. You talk about universal themes that speak to people. Your unique voice begins to shine through & that's what sells.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: You need to know the market, but not be ruled by it. Don't go chasing the latest trend, b/c once you do, you've lost your voice & no longer stand out.

Today's 2nd Nugget: The Writing Timeline

In my free time, I read scripts for fellow writers, many who have gotten their 1st request for their spec script in response to a query. I've noticed that new writers often short change themselves on time when writing under a deadline.

They think the process is easy:
1. Write the script
2. Wait until the last minute to get coverage
3. Tweak & send it in

More often than not, the coverage/notes (well, at least my coverage/notes) will likely blow their script wide open & create a bunch more work. (After all, coverage isn't just about the objective edits, but the things only experience can spot - trends, cliches, failure to push the story, stakes, pacing, etc.)

That's why the professional level writer knows to:
1. Write the script
2. Rewrite
3. Rewrite
4. Get notes or paid coverage
5. Pull oneself up off the ground
6. Rewrite the messy draft
7. Rewrite the sloppy draft
8. Rewrite the semi-coherent draft
9. Rewrite the least embarrassing draft
10. Deliver a draft and collapse

WHAT I LEARNED: Help me help you. Get help sooner than later.

Today's Nugget: Twist the Expectation

I read an action spec script today that really impressed me. The narrative moves at a fast clip and the action is quite innovative.

But the great thing was: 1) how the writer set up the twist DURING the action; and 2) didn't telegraph the twist.

First, the protagonist is jerked around, stomped on, bullied in a fairly realistic way. He's doomed and painted into a corner, but continues to struggle. I couldn't see how he was going to get out of it.

The antagonist closes in hard and fast for the kill...then the writer slips in an unexpected twist: i.e., the protagonist grabs an ordinary object, which was in plain sight the whole time, and beats the crap out of the antagonist.

The writer sucked me into concentrating on the fascinating antagonist the whole time. I wasn't paying attention to the protagonist. The beauty of this set up is that you only realize later that the protagonist was luring the antagonist into a false sense of security to time it just right.

Second, the narrative read as if the hero was going to lose: Hero is weak and collapses. Bad guy raises the knife... Then BOOM! The hero flies out and hammers the bad guy. This was fun to read!

WHAT I LEARNED: The writer drove the scene so that you expect to go left, but then it quietly takes a right turn. You don't realize you've taken a right turn until a sentence or two in. This was much more effective than neon signs blaring that a twist is about to happen