Wednesday, April 14, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: I Fought Your Script & Missed the Boat

Recently, I fought through the first 10 pages of a spec script.

Bloody, bruised, and confused,  I didn't want to read any more after p. 4.

I missed that you had painted arrows on the ground for me to follow. I missed the clever handkerchiefs you tied to trees to guide my way.  I even missed the sack of gold with the "Buried Here" neon sign.

Why?  Because there were so many gnats I could barely see.

This script followed a trend I've seen of late: A lack of patience for building a mood, and laying out the landscape.  There's a series of fast unrelated intercuts and hurkey-jerky switcheroos. 

Even worse, I see writers trying to be super-clever by hiding the ball.  More often than not, the writer thinks that fast and furious action (like a swarm of humming gnats) will divert my attention from the fact that the story is not well set up. 

ex. The script includes a long shot of a boat. Then a wide shot. Then a close up... uh, hello?

Where's the story?

Frankly, I can tell you're trying waaaaay too hard to fake me out.  I just want to know where the pier is so I can get on the boat.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: I'm smart. I normally don't miss the boat...unless you WANT me to miss the boat.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

QUESTION FOR THE READER: Political satires

A blog reader sent me this email: "How easy is it to sell a political satire that sheds a not-so-favorable light on a particular [Republican] party?"

Here's  are my two three cents:

First, "easy" is not an industry term I recognize.  What is this thing called "easy"?

Second, story is king.  Sure, producers want to work in certain genres, but the key is an intriguing story.  What does your script skewer? What is the point?  Is it clever?  Will it cause controversy?  WILL IT PUT BUTTS IN SEATS?

Third, it's no big secret Hollywood leans to the left.  Are they looking for films whose whole purpose is to bash the right? Rarely, because pure ideological films aren't big box office sellers, and thus will not make the investors happy.

(Remember: Shooting a film is relatively straightforward, compared to the enormous burden of paying for distributors, theaters, advertising & print costs, etc.  Only someone like Michael Moore who is willing to forego big profits can consistently do such films.)

More realistically, the script had a great story first  - - if it happens to be about global warming or social causes that they tend to care about, then that's a plus.

So what have we learned? That the deciding factor is money because they need it to stay alive in order to make the next picture. 

BTW, Hollywood really does want to make smart films.  A clever political satire that makes money would be the first choice over a poorly conceived comedy with a D list star ...but the audiences line up for comedies, not so much for dramas.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

QUESTION FOR THE READER: What Do You Need for Description, Dialogue?

[h/t to John R. for these questions.]

Question 1: Everyone talks about "white space." Should scenes just then mostly describe the character?

Here are my rules:

1) Read my previous post on vertical reading:

2) ANYTHING that stops my eye from moving down the page makes me cranky.  This includes big blocks of print, really long dialogue, typos, etc.

3) I HATE it when the writer just describes a character page after page (technical only). 

Technical alone is so flat. 

Pffft pwfft phfft. I spit three times on flat.

The narrative has to do multiple things that are both TECHNICAL AND CREATIVE, including:
- direct my eye to what she's doing
- direct me where she's going
- give me a feel for the mood in the room
- hint what's coming
- set me up for a reveal
- dash my hopes
- persuade me not to give up just yet

4) The narrative has to have energy & momentum.  THUS THE USE OF SHORTER SENTENCES & MORE WHITE SPACE.

So the short answer is this: You should use narrative as a tool of anticipation, not just description.

Question 2: Doesn't the dialogue make the character?

Dialogue is frosting & is the easiest thing to fix.  Thus I consider it the least important part of building character.

Why?  Because there's no frosting in the world that can mask a rotten cake (structure & conflict). 

When I started out, I made dialogue carry the structure & conflict.   This is known as on-the-nose dialogue.


(But don't go all the way to the other extreme either.  Sometimes I see scripts where the writer was so scared of being on-the-nose that he/she made the characters speak in tongues or in code that only he/she knew.  This is also VERY VERY BAD.)

Two dialogue hints:

- Your dialogue should drive a point home that you've already set up and made visually.

ex. Your lead sees his father kill his mother. Under great strain, the son testifies in court, which results in the father getting the electric chair. The father escapes and the son helps police track him down.  As the father is handcuffed, their eyes meet.  The father says: "How could you?"

On the nose: "I had to do what was right."
Better dialogue: "How could YOU?" 

The better dialogue is more effective because we have seen the son go through hell. His dialogue implies subtextual levels of betrayal - to him, to his mother, his honor.  

However, the dialogue would not be as effective if we had not SEEN the son's trials.

- Your dialogue should drive the scene forward to the next scene.  Nothing makes me throw my computer at the wall than dialogue that jogs in place.

Ex. of dialogue that runs/sprints/moves forward:
- It hints at a secret about to be revealed
- It explodes at the wrong time and we wonder how in the hell we're going to get out of this
- It is opposite of everything the character is doing
- It reveals the character is lying

TODAY'S 2nd NUGGET: Gut Speed

A writer asked a question on #scriptchat (Twitter discussion group) that I've been pondering: How do you know if your script is any good?

You know what all the bigwigs say about "good" scripts. Yada yada yada. 

For me, "good" also means there's a fast speed of absorption into the gut of the reader.

Two big indicators are:

1) How fast I can read your script?  The better storyteller you are, the better the transitions, the seamless flow, the conflict escalations, etc.

2) From the moment I finish your script, how fast can I tell someone what it's about?  Seconds or hours?

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: The faster your gut gets what my gut felt, the better script it is. (Ok, that's a disturbing image, but you get what I mean.)

TODAY'S NUGGET: 1/2 cup Action, 1 tsp Character, Please

I read a few spec scripts this week.  If I was in the room pitching them to an exec, I could easily hear what he'd say:

"Not enough action in the script."  OR  "Not enough character in the script."

Don't you wish he'd be more specific? Even something like: "Add a 1/2 cup of action at the end of Act 2" or "1 tsp of Character sprinkled over pages 45-50"?

("Yeah, why not?" you pout.
 Answer: Because even though the customer can tell you it's too salty or there are too many bones,YOU are the cook.)

There's a delicate balance between character vs. action.  Certain genres tend to emphasize one or the other.

A) In character heavy stories (drama, rom-com), the action takes a back seat.
B) In action heavy stories (thriller, horror, action), the character is often lacking.

So how to fix it?  Duh. It's simple!

A) If you need more action: Show action through character.
B) If you need more character: Show character through action.

Got it?

*crickets chirping*

OK, maybe it's not that easy.

Let's clarify:

A) If you need more action: Create situations that push the character to face his/her weakest trait.  If he/she acts to address the weakness, he/she advances toward the goal. If he/she refuses, he/she moves away from the goal.

ex. Lucy wants an invitation to Schroeder's annual Beethoven birthday party (her goal).
Her weakness is that will never admit she is wrong.

Option 1 - Lucy steals Sally's invitation. When Charlie Brown confronts her, she thumbs her nose at him. She arrives for the party, but Charlie Brown is the bouncer. She cannot talk her way inside.

Option 2 - Lucy annoys Schroeder by talking non-stop while he is practicing the Moonlight Sonata.  He un-invites her to the party until she apologizes.  When everyone at school asks her if she is going, she shows them an obviously fake invite.  Soon her face is up on Wanted posters for falsifying a party invite in bad faith.

B) If you need more character: Show character through strong actions that have consequences.

ex. Snow White arrives uninvited at the house of the Seven Dwarfs.
Her traits are curious, happy, kind.
Let's show she's curious through her actions:

Option 1 - She pokes through their trash and is caught by the neighborhood dwarf patrol.

Option 2 - She hears an unusual squawking and lets out their prized emu out of the shed.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: There's no such thing as a foolproof script recipe, no matter what anyone tells you.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

QUOTE OF THE DAY: Blueprints

"Writing screenplays,  I think, is probably the heardest form of writing there is because it's so technical as well as creative. You're writing a blueprint for a movie. It's very different." 

- Director Matthew Vaughn

Saturday, April 3, 2010

TODAY'S NUGGET: Don't Put Me on Hold

I covered a script recently that immediately A) set my hackles up, and B) told me this was an amateur writer.

What did the writer do?  He put me on hold.

Here's the story: I was reading merrily along & following the protagonist.  I was amassing story pebbles in my bag. The sun was shining, there was a good twist, the lead character was facing some juicy conflict...then it happened.

Without any notice or warning, the writer jerked me around & took me to go see the antagonist.  WHAT the hell?!?!

Yep, it was like the writer put up a stop sign & said, "I need you to keep holding these previous thoughts for me while we go on this bumpy detour."

But I'm a polite reader.  I only give what's in front of me my full attention.  I'm not a half-assed audience.

The only polite thing to do is to put down the protagonist's half full bag & give the antagonist my full attention.

So I forget all about the protagonist & wonder why the antagonist isn't the main character.  This is a bad bad thing.  Never leave your protagonist behind for long. Otherwise, your audience will get confused.  (Yes, I was lost & ended up not liking the script much.)

What's the morale of the story?
1) A pro writer leads me down the path & warns me there's a switch coming as the scene ends.
2) If there's going to be a switch, the writer sets it up fairly early that I NEED to go see the antagonist, i.e., that I need some information from the antagonist. 
3) TRANSITION TRANSITION TRANSITION well.  Transitions aren't just at the very end of every scene.  A good transition is how you set me up in Scene A that drives me into Scene B & C.  The throughline of the story is clear that A leads to B, that leads to C.

Ex. of a bad transition:
Scene A - The protagonist leaves to go to work & accidentally runs over his dog
Scene B - The antagonist plots to blow up everyone at work
Scene C - The protagonist grieves over his dog

The problem is that Scene A doesn't drive to Scene B.  The info in B is unnecessary at this point & doesn't build the story.

Ex. of a better transition:

Scene A - The protagonist leaves to go to work & accidentally runs over his dog
Scene B - The protagonist rushes his dog to the vet, who refuses to help b/c the antagonist has put a ban on anyone helping the protagonist
Scene C - The protagonist confronts the antagonist in grief & anger

See how the conflict in A flows into B, then what happens in B drives us naturally to the conflict in C?  This is good storytelling.

WHAT I'VE LEARNED: If you put me on hold, you may get a dead tone.
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