Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Comedy Behaving Badly

 (Related article: Laughing at Pain - A Serious Guide to Comedy)

About a month ago, I was in the middle of a script conference with a writer over a spec script she had written. The script was a rather dull and conflict-free light comedy about a married couple who take a vacation on a cruise ship. I suggested to her that the script would have far better movement and dramatic focus if she would center the action of the script on the couple's failing marriage and the temptation each felt to cheat on each other while on this ship filled with beautiful young people. She liked this idea, but responded with a good question: how could she write a script about something as serious as marital infidelity, and still make it a comedy?

Charlie Chaplin often said something along the lines of "Life is a tragedy when shot in the close-up, a comedy in the wide." What he meant was that everything in life can be seen as comedy or tragedy, it just matters on how it is presented. Chaplin made some of the most beloved comedies of all time, and nearly every one centered around the abject poverty and misery of the Great Depression. In these films we see sickness, starvation, suicide, discrimination, an unjust legal system, a cruel and cold world. Yet despite all this, no one would ever label Chaplin's films as “serious.”

In most comedies, if not all, we see characters facing situations that would, in real life, be very serious and hold major consequences. Either their lives are in danger, or they face circumstances that could bring ruin their lives or the lives of those they love, or they must at least be confronted with constant embarrassment and humiliation. In short, we are always led to laugh at other people's troubles.

There is a specific psychological reason why audiences have been so drawn to comedic drama over the millennia. Every member of an audience bring with them to the theater secret fears and anxieties about life. Everyone continuously has worries nagging at them, and fears of life and death lurking just below the surface. However, when an audience watches a fictional character carrying out their own fears and anxieties in a ridiculous and exaggerated way, the audience feels an emotional release. Their fears have been made trivial and silly. They are relieved of their own fears and anxieties through laughter.


One way to convert the serious problems of real life into comedy is to take a situation and exaggerate it to a degree that it becomes almost absurd. Let's take a look at the spec script I was discussing with my writer client. There is nothing funny about a marriage in trouble. But how she chooses show her character's marriage is in trouble could be be very funny. The script opens with a rather benign and uneventful sequence in which we see the wife Tonya, and and the husband Joe, preparing to leave on the trip. This would be the perfect place to establish the disrepair of the couple's relationship and at the same time establish the light, comedic tone. Let's say that instead of making Joe as an average, boring guy, he instead has a major personality flaw. Maybe he is a person who is so overbearing about sticking to schedule that he follows Tonya around with a stopwatch, timing how long it takes to brush their teeth, to eat breakfast, and complaining whenever they are a minute or two late. We see that Tonya is annoyed by this. Her agitation grows and grows to such a degree that she eventually solves the problem by taking Joe's stopwatch and flushing it down the toilet (which creates another comedic complication by making the toilet overflow). Tonya's reaction towards Joe is one of anger and disgust, but it is so exaggerated that it becomes funny. Tonya, on the other hand, could treat Joe as if he can never do anything right. The audience could learn this when they see Tonya wait until Joe leaves the room, and then dump out the suitcase Joe packed so that she can re-pack it the "correct" way. There are limitless ways that one could create flaws and problems between the two in an exaggerated, over the top fashion.

The important thing is to establish a light, funny tone from the very beginning. Then, keep up with that tone throughout the story. The audience will forgive your characters for the things they do as long as they know that nothing is ever to be taken too seriously.


Keeping your characters likable even when they do bad things

It is so important to keep your protagonist likable. This is especially true in comedy. A writer should never have the protagonist do anything IN A WAY that the audience would outright condemn. Now, that is not to say that they should never do anything “bad.” This means that they should never commit an act in a way that the audience would label as “bad.”

A good way to do this is to first show in a number of situations that your character is in fact a good person. Deep down they are decent and likable and worthy of the audience's affection. Secondly, when that character does feel obligated to do something that could be labeled as "bad," they make a FOOL out of themselves while doing it. They're not good at being bad. They are good people who get carried away by temptation and now must suffer the embarrassment of the mistake.

Think of a movie about a man who decides to rob a bank. If he does it sharply and efficiently like he's robbed plenty of banks before, waves his gun around, threatens to hurt people, you would have a hard time making him into a sympathetic character. To the audience, he is "bad." But if this robber is instead a well-meaning guy who concocts a hair-brained scheme to raise money for a selfless cause by robbing this bank with a plastic gun, and bungles the job so badly that he actually ends up apologizing to everyone in the bank for his ineptitude, he remains funny and endearing.

Why is this? It goes back to what I previously mentioned about comedy's psychological effect on the audience. Everyone in the world fantasizes about doing something bad from time to time. But most people are stopped from doing so by either the guilt of being seen as a "bad person," or by the fear of all that could go wrong. A character who is "bad at being bad" remains endearing to the audience because the audience can identify themselves with this misguided fool. Here is a decent likable person like themselves who carries out that temptation. Through the character, the audience can live out their fantasies of doing something bad. But at the same time, the character makes a fool out of him/herself. The audience laughs both because they feel sympathetic embarrassment FOR the character they identify with, and at the same time they feel relieved that it is someone else, not them, who must suffer the humiliation and failure that they fear.

Think of all the ways that people routinely humiliate themselves whenever they are suddenly sexually attracted to a new person. They babble, say stupid things, suddenly become clumsy, become distracted and walk into walls, come on too strong and embarrass themselves. Flirting and can go awry in so many ways. If we see Tonya and Joe going about their possible illicit romantic pursuits in such innocently misguided ways, they would remain endearing to the audience and the story would still be funny.

The important thing is to pull your characters back and have them realize their mistakes before they go too far. "Comedy", since the days of the Ancient Greek playwrights, has always implied a story that praises the positive, uplifting qualities of humanity. This is commonly done by first presenting a negative, destructive quality, and then have it defeated by its opposite, positive quality. In our spec script, it would be best, and most dramatic, to get Tonya as close as she can to the edge, as close as she can get to actually cheating on her husband, and then pull her back in a big, dramatic, funny way. Here's an example: Tonya has had a fight with Joe. She goes to the cabin of her new Romeo, who, in the time they have spent together up until now, has seemed so new and exciting. But now in his cabin for the first time, right on the brink of cheating, she discovers what a pathetic LOSER this other guy is. Maybe he is not a Romeo, but a big dork with a hairy back that still lives in his mother's house, or anything like that. She is suddenly overwhelmed with the embarrassment of what a fool she has been. She drops the other man like a hot potato, and through the experience learns to appreciate better what she has with her husband.

It is also worth mentioning that this “being bad at being bad” applies not only to the protagonist, but also to comedic villains. Rarely will you find in a broad comedy an antagonist that is truly intimidating, intelligent, or sometimes even competent. Rather than being scary and nefarious, they are usually portrayed as buffoons. Even the most capable opponent is usually struggling to hide the fact that deep down he/she is either a clown or a small, petty jerk.

There are two simple reasons for this. The first goes back again to the psychological release created by comedy. The buffoon villain once again leads the audience to laugh at what they should fear the most. The second reason is for the mere plausibility of the story's resolution and thematic message at the end. If our simple, bumbling everyman protagonist were pitted against an opponent who was truly worthy of the audience's fear and respect, the protagonist wouldn't seem to stand a chance. The antagonist may be more skilled in a certain area than the protagonist at the beginning of the film, but it is a skill that can be gained by the protagonist with the help of others in order to overcome the antagonist at the end. The protagonist may gain skill through the story, but usually the protagonist's true root of success comes not because he or she is so much more smart, brave, or skilled than the antagonist, but because the protagonist possesses, or has gained throughout the story, humanistic character traits that the antagonist lacks, such as compassion, humility, perseverance, or integrity. Once again we see the pattern of a negative quality of humanity conquered by one which is positive.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Getting the Most Value out of your Dialogue (or, What Dialogue DOES)

If we could break down each one of the elements of storytelling in a screenplay, action, visuals, character... and assign a metaphorical dollar value to the worth of each when it comes to telling a story for the screen, dialogue would definitely be the least valuable. The old phrase “talk is cheap” is never more apt than when applied to the screen. It should be painfully clear to any writer worth his or her salt by now that dialogue is the least effective and least dramatic way to communicate information, develop character, advance story when compared to the alternatives, such as action, visuals, character behavior, and sound effects. Over-reliance on dialogue creates a story that is dull, slow moving, long-winded and stagnant.

Yet still a good majority of developing writers do just that. They overload their attempts at screenwriting with the craft's cheapest and least effective element. They fill their scenes with pages of useless dialogue. Characters talk on and on about every little thing. This problem is made even worse due to the fact that most of their dialogue never actually ACCOMPLISHES anything. Characters often seem to talk just for the sake of talking. Many young writers seem to think that as long as their characters keep chattering away the scene will continue to be interesting. This is not so.

Now, I easily admit that despite dialogue's low place of value in the craft of cinematic storytelling, it is still an essential tool. Even films from the silent era had to frequently rely on dialogue through the title card to get across information when other options were not possible. However, whenever a writer sets about writing a scene, the idea is to use dialogue in a way that squeezes the most possible value FROM it.

Every line of dialogue should have a specific story reason to be said. The dialogue should have a reason to exist, simply because it DOES something. Dialogue functions in a scene in three specific ways that work to serve the story as a whole. In a great screenplay, every piece of dialogue will work to do one of three things:

1. Gives information that advances the scene towards its goal.

This is the most important thing dialogue should do. Every scene in a script must have its own individual GOAL, the point of the scene, the reason why it is in the story. Every scene should accomplish something that moves the story forward into the next scene, and then forward from that scene to the next, and to the next, and ultimately to the story's ultimate GOAL, the climax of the story. (This is what people mean when they say a script has "story momentum", each scene continuously does something that moves the story forward towards its ultimate ending.) When you write a scene, you must first figure out the reason why this scene is in the story (the goal the scene needs to reach), and then use the actions and dialogue of your characters to move the scene steadily towards that goal. (If you have a scene that doesn't seem to have a goal, then it probably does not belong in the story. It adds nothing to the story and will only slow things down and kill your momentum. You need to find a way to give that scene a reason to exist or cut it from the script.)

Here is a sample scene from the screenplay The Shawshank Redemption, (written by Frank Darabont, based on a story by Stephen King). Though most scenes should be given a goal that advances the plot, once in a while you can get away with a scene that focuses on advancing the theme, as this following scene does. The theme of Shawshank is "Never give up hope."

(Exposition: Andy, an educated banker, is sentenced to Shawshank Prison for the (supposed) murder of this wife. There, Andy is befriended by Red, a wise and pragmatic con who knows more about how things are done in Shawshank than anyone. In the previous sequence, Andy locked himself in the Warden's office and broadcasted a Mozart record over the loudspeakers for the whole prison to hear. Andy was given two weeks in "the hole" for this. Here, he returns to his friends for the first time since.)

150    INT -- MESS HALL -- DAY (1955) 1 50

                HEYWOOD
        Hey. It's the mystero. Couldn't play somethin'
        good, huh? Hank Williams?

                ANDY
        They broke the door down before I
        could take requests.

                FLOYD
        Was it worth two weeks in the hole?

                ANDY
        Easiest time I ever did.

                HEYWOOD
        Shit. No such thing as easy time in
        the hole. A week seems like a year.

                ANDY
        I had Mr. Mozart to keep me company.
        Hardly felt the time at all.

                RED
        Oh, they let you tote that record
        player down there, huh? I could'a
        swore they confiscated that stuff.

                ANDY
            (taps his heart, his head)
        The music was here...and here.
        That's the one thing they can't
        confiscate, not ever. That's the
        beauty of it. Haven't you ever felt
        that way about music, Red?

                RED
        Played a mean harmonica as a younger
        man. Lost my taste for it. Didn't
        make much sense on the inside.

                ANDY
        Here's where it makes most sense.
        We need it so we don't forget.

                RED
        Forget?

                ANDY
        That there are things in this world
        not carved out of gray stone. That
        there's a small place inside of us
        they can never lock away, and that
        place is called hope.

                RED
        Hope is a dangerous thing. Drive a
        man insane. It's got no place here.
        Better get used to the idea.

                ANDY
            (softly)
        Like Brooks did?

(Brooks, an old man who spent decades in the prison, committed suicide after being paroled.)

Notice that every line of Andy's dialogue works to move us closer and closer to the scene's goal: to establish the theme that one should never give up hope. Andy only has seven lines. His dialogue doesn't sway from this path, but works to move the scene closer and closer to its goal. Also notice how quickly the scene ends. Once the scene's goal has been accomplished, that's all that needs to be said.

You probably noticed that there was a good deal of dialogue that seemed to be there for a different reason. Dialogue spoken by characters other than Andy that added a lot of color and personality to the scene. That brings us to dialogue's second function:

#2. Develops characterization.


We can learn a lot about the characters by listening to how they respond to Andy's goal-oriented dialogue. We can tell that Heywood is a Good Ol' Boy who doesn't have what it takes to appreciate Mozart. He is also a straight shooter, immediately trying to shoot down Andy's claim that his time in the hole was easy. We learn that Red is a down to earth and practical type of guy. He doesn't really get what Andy means about Mozart. His idea of good music is his old harmonica. While Andy speaks with metaphor and the poetic mind of an educated man, Red speaks in short, choppy thoughts. He thinks he knows the way things are and that's just the way it is.

While most of Andy's dialogue in this scene is oriented towards reaching the goal, almost all of the dialogue spoken by the other characters is motivated AGAINST Andy's goal. Their dialogue pushes against Andy's dialogue, making it more difficult for him to prove his point and reach the scene's goal. This is dialogue's third and final function:

#3. Creates conflict within the scene

Like you have heard a thousand times before, conflict is the lifeblood of drama. Drama cannot exist without it. It is what makes things interesting. Now while your plot must have a MAIN STORY CONFLICT -that one problem that the story revolves around, that thing that drives the action of the story forward- it is also important to have some sort of conflict in every scene you write.

It is important to not confuse the two. Though your plotline should have only one major conflict, the conflict in your individual scenes can come from anywhere. From characters, from the environment, from a coffee machine that won't work. As I already stated, every scene should involve a character pursuing a scene goal. If that character achieved the goal easily with no problem, then that would be a rather dull and nondramatic scene. Nothing can ever be easy in a screenplay. To achieve any scene goal, it is best to have some conflict in the way to make things more interesting.

In our example from Shawshank, the scene conflict comes from the differences between Andy and his friends. There is conflict between two different personalities: Andy the cultured, educated man vs. Haywood the uneducated Good Ol' Boy. There is conflict between Andy and Red due to the fact that they see the world in two opposite ways. With Andy, hope springs eternal while Red feels certain that hope should be given up. There is even conflict between two different levels of understanding: Andy says he had Mozart with him in the hole. Red misunderstands, thinking they let him keep the record player.

As you see, good conflict in dialogue usually comes from different personalities, outlooks on life, and backgrounds butting heads over some idea or situation. And this all comes from putting thought and effort into building your characters. So many people seem to think that plot, character, and dialogue should be treated as separate screenplay elements, but the truth is that everything is connected. The more you strive to make your characters different and unique, the more life and individuality their dialogue will add to the scene and the story as a whole. When Frank Darabont wrote Shawshank he created three extremely different people in Andy, Red, and Haywood. If they had been too similar and always seen things in the same way, their scenes probably would not have been so compelling. But because they are so different, the dialogue of every scene is alive with chances for conflict.


Don't waste your dialogue. Make it valuable. Make it DO what it is supposed to DO.

Keep scribbling.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Second Acts Made Easy

(Related articles: The Spine Expansion Pack Part 2; The Sequence Method - Quick & Dirty

Of all the difficulties in writing screenplays, writing the 2nd Act is always the hardest. It is for me, anyway. 1st Acts are simple. You set up your location, characters, situations. Create a inciting incident that gets the story going and drives the protagonist to take action. Then, move that action to a first act turning point where the protagonist has to cross a point of no return. 3rd Acts are even easier. Events drive the protagonist to a final encounter with the source of the conflict. There is a climactic event that resolves the story problem and answers the major dramatic question. Then there is a quick resolution.

But 2nd Acts are a mystery. You know where the story starts. You know where you want the story to end up. But how do you get there? How do you navigate all this dead space while trying to connect Point A to Point B? This 50-60 page No Man's Land between setup and resolution is, of course, where most attempts at screen structure fail. Action begins to sag, the story loses focus, momentum slows down, events become convoluted or confusing. If you would look at all the various screenwriting books out there, written by so-called script “gurus” you will find that they are all pretty much delightfully unhelpful. They talk of keeping the action going with “obstacles” and “complications” and “reversals.” Yes, but WHERE? And WHEN? Ultimately, these books usually skirt the whole issue by falling back on that old excuse, “There is no set formula to it.”

Bullocks. I don't think they were looking hard enough. There is a structure to the Second Act. And it's easy.

Two months ago, I hit a sticking point while outlining the plot for my latest script attempt. There I sat in front of my corkboard, my scene ideas on index cards in front of me, and I was once again bewildered by the big gap of blank space between the end of my First Act and the start of my Third. Sure, I had plenty of scene ideas on the index cards in my hands, but HOW to arrange them in some sort of order that could make this narrative work? The script I wanted to write could by no means be called a traditional plot-driven piece. How do I put things in order so the storyline continually develops with momentum and moves forward in a clear, linear

So, I decided to find out how other writers had done it before me. I would pick four study films from my movie collection, films similar in tone and content to the one I wished to write, and I would map out their 2nd Acts scene-by-scene. Hopefully I could succeed in finding some sort of pattern. The films I chose were Rushmore, About Schmidt, Trainspotting, and Office Space.

After watching the first two study films, I noticed something astounding. After the third, I couldn't believe it. The fourth film confirmed everything. All four of these films, regardless of their genre or the content of their stories, had 2nd Acts that were EXACTLY THE SAME!

All four films had 2nd Acts that consisted solely of five to six separate SCENE SEQUENCES, each followed by a turning point scene that brought the action of the previous sequence to an end and pushed the character into the action that would make up the next. The 2nd Act is not one long continuous line of action, but in fact a series of mini-acts!

To illustrate, here is how the 2nd Act of Rushmore breaks down into sequences.

First Act Turning Point: Max is expelled from Rushmore Academy after an attempt to impress his love interest, the teacher Ms. Cross.
Sequence 1: Max struggles with his new life and public school while attempting to patch things up with Ms. Cross.
Turning Point: Max gets Ms. Cross to agree to be his tutor.

Sequence 2: Max gets back into form with the help of Mr. Blum and Ms. Cross.
Turning Point: Blum shows up at Ms. Cross's home to make a romantic advance towards her. Max's best friend Dirk sees it.

Sequence 3: Dirk and Blum over the secret.
Turning Point: Dirk tells Max the secret in an exaggerated letter out of spite.

Sequence 4: Max and Blum at war.
Turning Point: After being bailed out of jail, Max decides to shift his attention to ruining Ms. Cross.

Sequence 5: Max's plans backfire and he gets what he deserves.
Turning Point: Max gives up hope and tells Blum that he can have her.
END OF SECOND ACT

These sequences on their own are completely autonomous. They are in fact mini-narratives, revolving around their own, separate, individual character goals. Each sequence has its own separate Major Dramatic Question. Each has its own 3-Act structure with a beginning, middle, and end. Although they have the traits of a single story, they also simultaneously work to develop the main plot as a whole. Each sequence goal works to move the protagonist closer to the character's ultimate goal, and each sequence MDQ works to move the story closer and closer to answering the MDQ of the “super-narrative”. Every achievement or setback suffered by Max while trying to achieve his sequence goal works to either get Max closer to or further away from his ultimate goal, to have the love of Ms. Cross for himself and no one else.
You will notice that each second act sequence can be given a simple title that accurately paraphrases all the action within. This is because these sequence are truly autonomous. There are NO lines of action inside these sequences that come from outside its boundaries. The second act is not a mishmash of intersecting plotlines, but rather a series of interconnected ones. (Please keep in mind that I am speaking about the action line of the MAIN PLOT only. Any separate subplots that deal with action outside of the main plot, or separate subplots revolving around characters other than the protagonist should be analyzed as completely separate plotlines.)
Take a look at how this singularity of focus works in a film that is driven more by character than plot, About Schmidt. Schmidt is a film about a man trying to find some meaning in the life he has lived now that he is retired and his wife is dead.

1st Act Turning Point: Schmidt's wife passes away, leaving him all alone to take care of himself in his big empty house.
Sequence 1: Schmidt rotting away in misery without his wife.
Turning Point: Schmidt finds love letters written to his wife from an old friend.
Sequence 2: Schmidt rejecting his wife. (Schmidt throws out all her things, confronts the old lover, urinates all over the bathroom.)
Turning Point: Schmidt awakes in the middle of the night, suddenly motivated to leave it all behind.
Sequence 3: Schmidt on the road, wanting to live with his daughter.
Turning Point: His daughter tells Schmidt over the phone to stay away until her wedding.
Sequence 4: Schmidt re-finding himself on the road.
Turning Point: A too-friendly fellow Winnebago owner interrupts Schmidt's solitude to insist he join them for dinner.
Sequence 5: Schmidt making a fool of himself with the man's wife/making amends with his wife.
Turning Point: Schmidt awakens the next day as a new man, motivated to stop his daughter's wedding.
END OF SECOND ACT

Here is how the sequence breakdown works in a harder-edged drama like Trainspotting.
First Act Turning Point: Renton and his mates decide to go back on heroin.
Sequence 1: Life on heroin.
Turning Point: Renton and Spud are arrested. Renton is ordered into a methadone program.
Sequence 2: Renton needs one last hit, overdoses.
Turning Point: Renton's parents lock him in his room to detox.
Sequence 3: Renton is forced clean and onto the straight and narrow.
Turning Point: Renton's young girlfriend Diana tells him he needs to do something new with his life.
Sequence 4: Renton making a new life for himself in London.
(This sequence is very short, really nothing more than an extended montage. It could be argued that sequence 4 and 5 are in fact a single sequence.)
Turning Point: Renton's old mate Begby abruptly shows up and forces himself back into Renton's life.
Sequence 5: Renton's old mates continue to ruin his new life, Renton grows to hate them.
Turning Point: They are all called back to Scotland with the news of Tommy's funeral.
Sequence 6: Tommy' funeral.
Turning Point: After the funeral, Renton's mates ask him to join in on a heroin deal they have planned.
END OF SECOND ACT

The formula again repeats itself in the traditional broad comedy, Office Space.
First Act Turning Point: Peter, an office drone completely unhappy with his job, accidentally receives permanent hypnosis to not have a care in the world.
Sequence 1: Peter does what he feels like.
Turning Point: Peter's attitude earns the approval of “The Bobs”, the efficiency experts in charge of finding which employees to lay off.
Sequence 2: Peter is untouchable. He does what he wants, when he wants thanks to the support of the Bobs.
Turning Point: Peter learns that his closest friends Michael and Samir will be laid off.
Sequence 3: Peter, Michael, and Samir plan revenge on the system.
Turning Point: They upload the virus into the office computer.
Sequence 4: Celebrate victory over the system.
Turning Point: Peter hears that his girlfriend Joana once had sex with his despicable boss Lundberg.
Sequence 5: Peter's meltdown over the Joana/Lundberg news.
Turning Point: Peter learns that the computer virus has gone horribly awry.
END OF SECOND ACT

Notice that these sequences include both the setup to the action, the action itself, and all immediate aftermath of that action. Events that are not directly related to that action, but are similar in topic are grouped within the same sequence, continuing under the same topic until they are interrupted by a turning point. For example, the “Forced Clean” sequence in Trainspotting includes Renton being locked in his room, the detoxification, Renton receiving a blood test for AIDS, montage of the boredom and depression of the clean life with his parents, a visit to Tommy who does have AIDS, and Renton proclaiming that he's clean to Diana.
One interesting point to take note of is that the first sequence of the 2nd Act is always far less goal-oriented and active than the sequences that follow. This is no accident. Just as the very beginning of any screenplay requires time to be spent on creating the SETUP, in which the storyteller introduces the characters, his/her world, the premise and the problem, so does the beginning of the second act. With most scripts following the traditional 3-Act Structure, the 1st Act Turning point creates an event that forces the protagonist into a new environment/world/state of mind. Max in Rushmore finds himself in a new school very much unlike Rushmore Academy. Schmidt finds himself in a lonely world with no one to take care of him. Renton has leapt from the world of sobriety back into the world of heroin. Peter in Office Space, though not in a different world, sees the world around him anew thanks to the hypnosis. Therefore, the first sequence of the second act has been dedicated to a second setup, a setup to the second act, in which we explore the character in his/her new environment.
Now you might look at look at these four study films and find it as no wonder that they all have the same structure. After all, they were chosen as study films due to their similarities in style and tone. Does this formula apply to far different films, films from other genres?
Let's look at Die Hard, a fast-paced, plot-driven action film that is frequently recognized for its excellent structure. Despite all the action that goes on in Die Hard's 2nd Act, the plot still breaks down into five, easy to analyze scene sequences.

First Act Turning Point: John McClane witnesses the terrorist leader Hans execute the boss of the Nakatomi corporation. McClane now knows that these guys are serious and he is the only one who can do anything to stop them.
Sequence 1: Setup. (The bad guys start carrying out their plans. McClane tries to figure out what to do.)
Turning Point: McClane sees the sprinkler heads on the ceiling and has an idea.
Sequence 2: McClane tries to get help by pulling the fire alarm. (McClane pulls it. The bad guys thwart the attempt by calling it in as a false alarm. A henchman is sent to find McClane. They fight. McClane wins.)
Turning Point: McClane taunts Hans that he is still alive and going to stop them.
Sequence 3: McClane attempts to contact the police on the roof with the dead man's radio. (McClane's call is not taken seriously. Hans hears the McClane on the radio and more henchmen attempt to kill McClane. Officer Powell comes to investigate, but finds nothing. McClane gets Powell's attention by throwing a dead henchman out the window.)
Turning Point: Police finally respond to Nakatomi Tower
Here, after the midpoint, the pace picks up and the plot complicates itself greatly with the addition of the members of the LAPD, the FBI, and a news reporter. However, the remainder of the act can still be easily divided into two focused, distinct scene sequences.
Sequence 4: Dealing with the police. (McClane struggles to get the police to listen to him and handle the situation in the correct way. Hans responds to the police presence. The police made a foolhardy invasion attempt. McClane is forced to rescue them.)
Turning Point: The explosion makes Holly's smug coworker think enough is enough and he decides to negotiate with Hans.
Sequence 5: McClane loses all his advantages one by one. (The smug coworker sells out McClane's name and background. McClane loses his ability to influence the events outside when the FBI takes over. McClane loses his anonymity when Hans sees him face-to-face. In the ensuing battle, McClane cuts up his feet and loses the detonators the terrorists need to blow up the building. McClane loses the advantage of time when the FBI shut off the power, opening the vault prematurely for Hans and the terrorists. A news reporter broadcasts from McClane & Holly's house.)
Turning Point: Hans sees the broadcast and learns that Holly is McClane's wife. He takes Holly to use to defeat McClane.
Five sequences. The formula still holds true.
Story structure is like taking your character on a cross-country road trip.. You have a person who needs to take a trip, a goal they want to end up at as a destination, and a path they wish to travel to get there. But navigating that path 2nd act is in fact much more like a cross-country road trip. But like a real cross-country journey, this journey is really made up of several “legs”, turns in the road, changes in the situation that make things different. Think of a cross country road trip from a location such as, say, moving east out of Los Angeles. On your first leg of your journey, you are driving on the freeway. You have to deal with fast-moving heavy traffic and have to figure out quickly what freeways to get on to and off. But eventually you hit a second leg of your trip: the Mojave desert. Driving in the desert is much different than driving in the city. And it has completely new and different problems: its hot, there is a lack of gas stations and places to get food. But once that is accomplished, you hit an altogether new leg: the Rocky Mountains. The roads are steep, winding, and lets say its raining. This leg of the journey is completely different and has different challenges.
The development of the storyline in a screenplay is just like this cross country journey. The protagonist set off to achieve his/her goal with a plan in mind. But then, something happens that changes things. Thing may have become more complicated, or she may have seemed to have succeeded but something altogether new comes and blindsides her and create new problems on top of the old. This creates a TURNING POINT. Her journey is now different. Her challenges are different and she has to set off with a new strategy to get to her final goal. But before long, some new development happens and changes everything again. But remember that although the situations keep changing, but her main goal stays the same. The journey is still traveling to the same destination. Thats what makes watching a good movie feel so fulfilling, watching a character continue after their goal even as things continue to change and new things continue to be thrown at him, he keeps after her goal and earns it by succeeding “against all odds.”
I believe it is time that screenwriting books stop presenting the holy “Three-Act Structure” as the be-all end-all of screen structure. The Three Act model is outdated and far too simplistic. It does nothing to truly instruct new writers on how to actually WRITE their plot. Rather than “Three-Act,” screenplay structure is in fact more of a “Twelve-to-Fourteen Sequence Structure.” (First and Third Acts typically being made up of three sequences apiece.) This is no secret. This structure should become obvious to anyone who bothers to look close enough. So why does 2nd Act plot development continue to be such a struggling point for young screenwriters? Why do these how-to books continue to be so unhelpful on the subject? Hopefully this problem will be remedied in the near future.
Until then, keep scribbling.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Note from the Editor

Those of you who visit this page may have noticed a shift in the focus of the articles written for this blog over the last few months. The reason for this is that in late July, due to patch of bad luck and the continuing down the toilet spiral of the nation's economy, I made the decision to leave Southern California for an area of the country where life is cheaper and with a better chance for steady employment. Unfortunately, this means that I am no longer in steady contact with the type of artist that Uncelebrity was created to feature. So, the focus of this blog-o-zine, for the time being will shift from filmmaker interviews to in depth articles on the practice and theory of screenwriting and script analysis. The name "scribbler" has been added to the title of this blog to reflect this. Who knows, I may get ahold of a filmmaker worth interviewing once in a while as well. Until then, keep scribbling.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The 10 Worst Ways Your Script Can Suck

Okay. You've written a spec screenplay. And someone has told you it sucks. Well, that doesn't help you that much, does it?

While it seems that there is only one general way a script is considered “good” there can literally thousands of ways it can be “bad.” Let's face it. Writing a good screenplay is hard. To pull it off successfully, there are a lot of rules to follow, a lot of story elements to juggle, and a lot of tight ropes to cross

I have worked semi-professionally providing criticism and feedback on amateur screenplays for over a year now. One thing that immediately surprised me was the realization that there are literally hundreds, if not thousands of ways that a script can fail. “Crap” is the widest blanket term in the world. Every time I think I have seen the worst of the worst attempts at screenwriting, I receive the next one and I am greeted by yet another in the endless ways that a screenplay can fall flat on its face.

But, as far as my knowledge goes, there has never been an attempt to break bad script down into categories to help elucidate the cause of their failure. You'd think that if someone really wanted to become a professional screenwriter and happened to write a bad script, they would wish to know why. It would be incredibly helpful to know what TYPE of bad script they had on their hands and what should be done about it.

With that in mind, I have made the effort to categorize crap. What I have listed below is by far not the only ways a script can fail. This is merely a collection of the ten most common (and sometimes the most blatant) types of miswritten scripts that I have had the misfortune to critique. Within each category I have listed the most basic cause of the script's flaws and what to look out for in your script to make sure it doesn't wind up in any of them.

1. The Wandering Protagonist
Also called the “Zombie Narrative”. One of the most common of all bad scripts, the protagonist of these scripts seems to spend the entire narrative wandering aimlessly from place to place with no good cause or reason than either a whim or some weak arbitrary short-term motive. The protagonist has a lot of uneventful conversations with people, may take part in a number of small activities, but nothing will actually HAPPEN. There is no POINT to anything. The story never develops into something more than a person carrying about their life. If you are trying to synopsize your screenplay and you find yourself saying, “And then THIS happens.... and then THIS happens... and then THIS-” you have yourself a Zombie Narrative. Excruciatingly dull and pointless.

The cause of the Wandering Protagonist? Simple. The protagonist has no goal. Moreover, your script completely lacks a STORY SPINE. People, I cannot express enough the primary importance of a strong Story Spine. If you want a story to exist in your script, the main character must be confronted with a problem. The character must decide to overcome that problem by setting him/herself a goal. There is then a line of developing action as the character makes conscious, physical efforts to reach that goal. That is a story. “Stuff happening” is not.
Look at your script and ask yourself: Does your protagonist have a clear, specific goal? Does this goal require action by your protagonist to achieve it? Does every scene in your script involve your protagonist in some way or another committing actions that are intended to reach that goal?

2. The Lazy Protagonist

The is the Wandering Protagonist's slightly more intelligent cousin. With the Lazy Protagonist, the lead character has a goal set out for him/her, but the character never really commits any meaningful actions towards reaching it. Plot events, though few there are, tend to happen through no act of the protagonist. The conflict's resolution usually falls right into the protagonist's lap and the situation solves itself. Both of these first two categories suffer from passive protagonists. They make no effort to change the world around them. Instead, they resign themselves towards being victims of whatever fate should befall them. Rather than the characters moving the story, the characters allow the story to move them. This creates a plotline that is slow-moving, boring, and usually arbitrary.

The Lazy Protagonist could be caused by a having a problem confronting the protagonist that is not strong enough to warrant immediate action. The protagonist's problem (encounters at the first act's inciting incident) must be threatening enough that it demands immediate action. If the protagonist does not start moving, he/she is doomed forever and all is lost. A second cause could be that the protagonist lacks an adequate motivation to do anything about the problem. There may be a problem, but the character feels no pressing desire to act immediately because it does not effect him/her strongly enough in a personal way. People are by nature lazy. Unless they have a pressing reason to do something, they will seek the path of least resistance. People must be motivated by something. Either by an external force or an internal need. If you haven't provided your protagonist much of a good reason to get off the couch and make some changes in the world, you don't have much of a story.

In your script, are your characters constantly physically attempting to achieve things that will get them closer to their goals? Are they always moving forward? Imagine if your protagonist stopped moving forward at any point in your script. Imagine what would happen then. Would nothing change? Or would there be dire consequences?

3. Things are Happening, but we just don't care.
These are scripts with plots that seem to have all the necessary elements: a protagonist with a problem and a goal. The story advances as the protagonist takes action towards that goal. There is conflict standing in the way. But despite all this, the audience really does not seem to care. They have not been drawn into the story and despite all the action, don't really care one way or the other how the story turns out.

This could be either a story problem or a character problem. One cause could be that the stakes are too low or there are no stakes at all. For a character's actions to have any meaning for an audience, the audience needs to understand that their will be CONSEQUENCES for the character should they succeed or fail. There should be something important for the character to GAIN should they reach their goal, and something important that they will LOSE if they fail. If the audience cares and sympathizes with your characters they will become wrapped up in the hope that the characters will win and the fear that they will lose. I critiqued one script with a premise that revolved around a contest of sexual conquest between two friends. The problem was that the contest was meaningless. The two friends never decided what the winner of the contest would get. Therefore, the whole contest was pointless. Just two guys wasting time for no good reason. Why should the audience care about a contest where there is nothing to be gained?

The second possible cause could be that you have neglected to give your audience what they need to identify with your protagonist. To care about a story, the audience must care about the characters. To do this, they must be given time to get to know them, to grow to like them and to identify with them emotionally. Somewhere around 99% of all American films open by showing the protagonist in his or her everyday normal environment. We see how they live, how they relate to people, who they are, what makes them different. We see their virtues and flaws. Often we are introduced to an ongoing personal problem in the protagonist's life that usually becomes the focus of the story's subplot. What this does is gives us time for the character to become our friend. We begin to feel like we know them and start to see this world through the character's eyes. Then, when out of nowhere, the first plot point engages and we are suddenly thrown forward into the story, we are taken for the ride with the character and experience every situation along with them because we now feel like we know them and we care what happens to them in the end.

I've encountered many scripts that neglect this necessary character intoduction. The scripts try to start the plot from page one. By doing so, they keep their protagonist a perfect stranger to the audience. The audience doesn't know a thing about this person. They do not feel emotionally connected to them. The protagonist remains distant and cold. Why should the average audience member care about what happens to a person they don't even know?

4. The Splintered Spine

A Splintered Spine is caused when the writer has failed to create a clear, singular plotline along a strong story spine from beginning to end. Instead of setting up one major story problem and follow its development all the way to the end, these scripts create a problem, spend a decent amount of page time developing that storyline, and then abruptly drop it. Suddenly, the story changes to be about something else. And wouldn't you know it, some time later the story changes again. These scripts are constantly creating brand new plotlines, putting old ones on hold, and dropping others completely. The movie at the end looks nothing like what it was in the beginning. Instead of a singular, cohesive storyline that grows a develops, there is a smattering of small, ineffective, dead-end subplots, scattered across the script like shards of broken glass.

This can also happen when characters wander off the path of the story spine into pointless story tangents. Sometimes a writer tries to create a handful of unrelated “mini-episodes” for the protagonist instead of one singular plot. Sometimes a writer makes the mistake of resolving the main conflict too early, usually at the end of the Second Act, and then must find something new for the story to be about in the third.

Writing a plot like this cheats the audience. Your script asks for the audience's attention, gets them actively involved in a storyline, and then throws it away. You have wasted their time and attention on something that went nowhere. Now, you expect them to give their attention again on a new storyline. Given the fact that you just trashed what the audience thought was SUPPOSED to be the story, do you really think they will be willing to trust you with their time and energy a second time? Maybe. A third? Never. A storyteller is responsible for a lot of trust from the audience. The audience hopes that you will not waste their time and that the situation you have set up in the beginning will be one resolved in the end.

Take an overview of your plotline as a whole. Is it a single, unbroken spine that starts in the beginning and continues to develop towards a the same, single goal at the end? Or does the central situation keep changing, throwing out one premise for a completely new one? Can you look at every scene at the end of your script and clearly see them as the natural evolution of what was set up in the beginning?

5. The Scatterf**k
The worst of the worst. This type of script is usually seen only in the most rank amateur of the aspiring screenwriters. There is a complete lack of three-act structure, much less a story spine. Events tend to happen arbitrarily, if anything happens at all. Characters usually lack goals, motives, or anything to account for their behavior. Reading these can be extremely painful since it is impossible to find any sort of clarity or focus in its story.

Take a look at your script's plotline. Does it at least have a clear 3-Act structure? If your answer to this question is “What's 3-Act structure?” then, God help you, you have a scatterf**k on your hands. The only solution to this is to hit the books. You have a lot of studying ahead of you. You need to learn the rules of how a story must be pieced together for the screen. Then, you need to scrap that scatterf**k and start again.

6. The Yackfest

Watching people sitting around talking to each other for hours on end it's very exciting. A story cannot develop if its characters never SHUT UP. Why? When a character is TALKING, that means they are not DOING. And a story advances only when characters take action. In a Yackfest, the scenes are drowned in extraneous dialogue. Over 50% of the dialogue could and should be cut while creating no significant change in the story. Characters talk and talk about things that have no significance towards developing the story. People talk and talk about taking action rather than doing it. They talk about how they feel about things rather than showing it in their actions. When a Yackfest's storyline does develop, it is usually occurs when one character dully tells information to another through dialogue.

The cause for these mind-numbing, uneventful scripts is a basic misunderstanding of the function of movie dialogue. At its most basic level, dialogue exists for the same reason that every other story element exists. Every action, every visual image, every sound effect, every line of dialogue exists for one single reason: to give NEW information to the audience in order to advance the story. Dialogue should never be used just for sake of having dialogue. Every line of dialogue should exist for a reason. Every line should be on that page because it gives important new information to the audience that either furthers the story or furthers the audience's necessary understanding of the story – whether that be about plot, character, or theme. Each line should be moving the scene closer, bit by bit, to its goal.

Look at your dialogue. Does every line of dialogue have a reason to be there? Or does your characters' speech accomplish nothing but other than filling the air with words? Is there a better, more visual way to get across this necessary information other than dialogue? One symptom of the Yackfest is the writer chooses to use dialogue to communicate EVERYTHING to the audience rather than quicker, more effective, and more dramatic devices such as actions, visual images, or sound effects. Dialogue is clearly the least effective and least dramatic device for communication. You should only resort to using dialogue when information cannot be communicated otherwise.

7. Screenwriting as a Replacement for Therapy

How many scripts do I have to continue to read about satanic blood cults, sadistic serial killer protagonists, and virgin girls getting raped by the devil? Seriously. Demon-rape. I've had to read a few of those. What is it about Satan and bodily mutilation that draws the interest of so many wannabe screenwriters? Perhaps a better question would be what is it about screenwriting that draws the interest of so many sickos?

These also tend to be some of the worst written, falling into one of these other nine categories as well. Possibly the writer thinks that by being “shocking” their script will be more commercial and thus have a better chance of being produced. The opposite is true. These concepts have very little commercial potential because any good producer knows audiences. The odds are very low that the producer will ever find an audience large enough that will be able to stomach this sh**. Seriously though, I doubt that most of these writers have commerciality in mind. Most of these writers just come off as disturbed.

Then we have the aspiring screenwriters who have suffered some sort of childhood trauma in life and, instead of getting the therapy that they need, they have decided to channel it all into an unproduceable script. People, stop doing this. It is a waste of time. If you got problems in your past, find the help you need. Your self-therapy script will never see the light of day anyway.

Why?

Because it is based in selfish storytelling. You're supposed to be a storyteller. A storyteller's duty is to serve the needs of your audience. To make it clear, what you have done is written a story for YOU. You didn't write a story FOR THE AUDIENCE. If you want to be a storyteller, you must surrender yourself to the audience's needs and give them what they need to be entertained and emotionally fulfilled. Writing a script that only has meaning to you is irresponsible and contrary to the spirit of storytelling.

8. The Genre Morpher
These scripts start off clearly inhabiting one genre, but then somewhere around the midpoint suddenly change in style and tone into a completely different genre. It is not uncommon for it to morph again later in the script. Other less extreme examples will have a main plot clearly inhabiting one genre, and a subplot existing in a contradictory one. Or, a writer may create a script that is clearly a realistic drama, but then every twenty pages or so arbitrarily throw in something that is sci-fi or horror -and then quickly take it out again.

When you write a screenplay, it is your duty to establish the story's style, tone, and genre from the VERY START. This orientates your audience. It roots their mind down in what type of world they will be inhabiting for the next ninety minutes and by what rules the world is governed. Then, it is your duty to keep that style, tone, and genre consistent from beginning to end. Each genre exists by its own set of rules. If you suddenly switch genres in the middle of your story, the audience will become confused. The rules of this world you have put them in have suddenly been broken and changed. The rug has been pulled out from under them. Just like the the Splintered Spine, the audience will become upset that you, the Storyteller, have led them down the wrong path.

9. The Excitement Killer
Here is a scene from a script I did a critique for. It was an action-adventure story about a female vigilante crimefighter. The heroine is currently racing the airport in a cab in an effort to catch the bad guy before he boards his plane. The cab arrives at the airport, and what do you think happens? Does our vigilante engage in a heart-stopping footrace through the terminal after the bad guy? Does she pull the fire alarm to shut down the airport in order to catch the bad guy in a game of cat and mouse? No. She steps out of the back of the cab. She looks around. She doesn't see him, so she GOES HOME! And where was the bad guy? Was he on the tarmac overseeing a drug deal? Was he lying in wait to ambush our heroine? No. He was waiting in line at Office Depot, buying envelopes! I assure you this was NOT a comedy.

At any moment of any given screenplay, literally hundreds of things could plausibly happen. The only things standing in the way of your imagination is simply the need to stay within the bounds of story logic. This writer had hundreds of options open to her and simply chose the least interesting of all of them. She probably chose the first thing that came to mind. When you are brainstorming story ideas, often the best strategy is to immediately throw out your first idea. The idea you think of first is usually the least dramatic or most cliché. Remember that screenwriting is a form of DRAMA. The concept of drama is synonymous with CONFLICT. If you always keeping looking for choices that create the most possible conflict, then your screenplay will have the maximum amount of drama.

10. Arrested Development

This last type of script probably occurs more frequently than all the others. In fact, it is not uncommon for experienced, professional screenwriters to fall into this trap. What happens is you have a script that has a decent First Act. The protagonist, the goal, conflict, and motivation have all been set up. There is often a clear First Act turning point. And then....... nothing..... happens......... For a long..... time. There is no story development. The plot has plateaued. Nothing changes. The situation that the protagonist is in on page 20 is the same that he/she is in on page 40. And page 60. And page 80. No new plot points have occurred. The conflict has not escalated. The protagonist and antagonist are locked in a stalemate.

Here's a big problem I have with most “how-to” books on screenwriting: they spend a ton of time on creating the set up in the First Act. Then, they spend a time on the Third Act climax. But, wait. What about maneuvering that vast, featureless wasteland connecting the two known as the Second Act? Most screenwriting manuals give nothing on this! We're left on our own. They seem to suggest that there is no trick to the Second Act. The books all refer to the Second Act as “rising action.” But how exactly you are supposed to structure that rising action in a way that seamlessly and naturally connects your beginning to your ending is left a mystery. This is where most screenplays fail. It takes up 50% of your script. These books have been cheating you. There is a structure to the Second Act that will keep your action moving forward, keep your story developing, and keep your screenplay out of arrested development.

That structure will be the subject of my next article.

Friday, August 22, 2008

3 Most Common Bad Screenwriter Mistakes

Come on, ya dummies. Stop doing this.

Oh, I don't mean you. I mean the other bad screenwriters. The dummies. I'm sure your script is great. You probably don't need any advice. But just keep reading in case you have “a friend” who does.

Okay, I'm sorry for being cynical. It's just that for the past four months or so, I have been semi-employed (by a somewhat shady company which shall remain unnamed) to provide professional analysis and feedback to dozens and dozens of amateur screenwriters on their latest attempts at penning becoming a “professional screenwriter.”. I've been employed (using various meanings of that word) as a script reader for three different industry organizations in the past, but the scripts I receive from this current company are something completely different altogether. Let's just say that after reading only my fourth submission, the phrase “This is the worst thing I have ever read” lost all meaning. Some merely give me a headache. Others make me want to lower my head, take a running start, and make a hole in the drywall.

However, when I recently decided to cull all the advice I had previously given to these writers on the hundreds of different screenplay problems I had encountered into one source to make it simpler for me to write these critiques in the future, I noticed that there were three screenplay problems that I consistently ran into again and again and again. These three problems stood head and shoulders above the rest when it came to the frequency which I had to communicate these concepts to these, many first-time writers. They are not hard to understand concepts, but somehow they are continually overlooked or misunderstood.

To help you understood these three most common screenwriting mistakes, and in vain hope of lessening the amount of hopelessly miswritten screenplays circulating out there, I present them to you here. Remember, most screenwriters who make these mistakes and don't even know it.

Not you. I mean the other bad screenwriters.


1. Lack of a Story Spine
In most, if not all of the scripts I read with story problems, this is the culprit. It either has an incomplete story spine, or it is missing one entirely. Let me make this clear. A strong story spine is the most important element in a competent screenplay. I'll repeat that: A STRONG STORY SPINE IS THE MOST IMPORTANT ELEMENT IN A COMPETENT SCREENPLAY. It is not optional. If you don't have one, you do not have a screenplay worth reading. Your script will be an invertebrate. A slug. A worm. An unevolved immobile glob sitting at the bottom of the filmic food chain. Considering this, it is very surprising how many of the how-to books on screenwriting, written by so-called “script gurus” either dedicate less than a page to story spine or do not mention it at all. This is why you're never going to learn to become a great screenwriter by reading a book.

The story spine is a simple concept. Imagine two points on a map. Point A is where the protagonist is at at the beginning of the story. Not only where he/she is physically, but also mentally, emotionally, and situationally. Point B is the protagonist's goal, where the character wants to be and what they ultimately want to achieve by the end of the film. Now draw a line connecting Point A to Point B. This line is your SPINE. It is the path your protagonist takes in his/her journey from A to B. A script with a story spine only includes content that is on that spine, that is part of the forward journey to the goal. This works to unify the action of your story, making sure that everything that happens is orientated towards the character's forward journey and so the protagonist stays on the correct path.

Just as how you would imagine time as a straight line, constantly moving forward at a steady pace as you sit in a theater and watch a film, so must the protagonist be continually advancing forward on his/her line, moving further into the developing story at a constant pace as screen time advances.

Okay, I exaggerated. The story spine is not exactly THAT simple. It needs more than two points and a line. There are certain elements that make up this spine that must be present for the story spine to truly exist. First, there must be a PROBLEM for the protagonist. Because there is a problem, it is no longer safe or reasonable to the protagonist to stay in Point A. They must leave. And the only way to get past this problem and achieve comfort and happiness again is to archive the goal, to get to Point B. But the problem is usually not enough to force the protagonist to leave the comfort of Point A and make a difficult journey to Point B. There needs to be a MOTIVE. Something needs to force to protagonist to begin the journey and not stop until he/she reaches the final destination. But the journey to the goal can't be easy. There's nothing interesting about watching things that are easily done. Along the path of the spine there must be CONFLICT. Think of your path from Point A to Point B as a journey straight uphill, filled with treacherous obstacles that get in the protagonist's way. The protagonist has to struggle is they want to complete his/her journey. Since this journey is suddenly so hard, what is keeping the protagonist from giving up and just going back home, back to Point A where they started? To counteract the force of conflict, there must be STAKES. Stakes are something bad that will happen if the protagonist gives up or fails. Or possibly a great reward at the end of the journey at Point B that the protagonist cannot go back to living without. Conflict pushes them back on their journey, but the power of motive and stakes keeps pushing them forward.

A complete story spine must include all of these elements: problem, goal, motive, conflict, and stakes. If your script is missing even one of these, your spine is broken and your screenplay will lack the level of drama necessary to create a worthwhile and readable story.


2. Useless Dialogue

Unneeded dialogue is the enemy of a dramatic script. In over half the scripts I receive to critique, there are pages and pages of useless, pointless, waste dialogue. They talk about what they plan to have for lunch, meaningless stuff that happened in their day, trivial chit-chat where characters seem to be speaking just for the sake of saying things and filling up a page. Guess what? The audience DOESN'T CARE about any of this! All the audience wants to know is what is going to happen next. The audience has questions, and they want answers. And they aren't going to wait for very long to get them. If you waste too much time on material that doesn't keep the story moving, the audience is going to start asking the worst question possible, which is “Why am I watching this?” In a truly well-written screenplay, everything, every action, every image, every line of dialogue exists purely to provide NEW INFORMATION to the audience. New information that moves the story forward. Any time your story is not moving forward, that means it is standing still.

Then you have scripts where the writer seems to understand this concept, but still buries their scenes in gobs and globs of unnecessary dialogue to do this. Characters talk for two pages when what they need to say could be expressed in two lines. They discuss things that the audience has just seen happen or already knows. They talk about stuff that could much easier be shown visually. Dialogue is the least effective way to get across information. It should only be used when the information cannot be expressed through action or visuals. And when dialogue is used, the goal should be efficiency. When a character is TALKING, that is time spent where they are not DOING, and the story is slowed down. Writing a scene should be like guerrilla warfare. Attack your scene while it is already in progress, get to your objective as quickly with the most impact possible, and once the objective is achieved, get the hell out of there.


3. Writing What Can't Be Seen or Heard.

The #1 rule of screenwriting is to WRITE FROM THE AUDIENCE'S PERSPECTIVE. Know how your writing will be experienced by the people who will ultimately watch it. But some persons attempting a run at screenwriting are writing from a place that is so detached from the end ultimate user of their product that they disregard this rule to its most basic degree.

Imagine you right now are sitting in a movie theater, watching a film. In what ways is information necessary to understand and enjoy the film being communicated to you? An audience member only receives information in two ways, #1 from the images they SEE on the screen, or #2 what they HEAR on the soundtrack through dialogue or sound effects. (Unless you're in any of the theaters I've been in the last five years, then you would have to add cell phones, text messages, and that jerk sitting next to you who won't shut up.) These are the cinema's only two tools of communication: sight and sound.

Now, here's a except from a script I recently had to critique:

INT HARDY KITCHEN -DAY
FRANK HARDY is an 8th generation Hardy, and has lived in Hardytown, California his entire life. His family founded Hardytown. He served two tours in Iraq with the Marines, and carried out missions in other parts of the world. His wife SAMANTHA is in her early thirties She is from Memphis, Tennessee and teaches fourth grade. Their daughter, NICOLE, is 15 years old and is bot (sic) crazy. JOHNNY is eight. It is a Tuesday morning, and the first day of a new school year. The four are finishing breakfast at the kitchen table.

It's real super that the writer chose to create detailed backgrounds for his characters, but how the F@#& IS THE AUDIENCE GOING TO KNOW ANY OF THIS??? How will the audience know that the father served in Iraq? How will they know that the mother is a schoolteacher? How will they know it is the first day of school? All the audience can see is an average family uneventfully having breakfast. Not only is all this character information lost on the audience, it comes back to bite the writer in the ass. Later on in the story, the audience will become confused, wondering “Why is the father so good at hand-to-hand combat?” “Why is the mother always mentioning going to the school?” -all because important information was not presented in a way that the audience could receive.

This also includes what the character is thinking, what emotion the character is experiencing, what a character remembers, who is related to whom, if a character's feet are cold... If you need the audience to know something, you must either come up with a way that we can physically see the evidence on the screen, or somehow work it into the dialogue or sound effects.


Now, please. Stop doing these. I have enough holes in my drywall the way it is.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Filmmaker Interview: Michael Shu



Michael Shu is a filmmaker and editor born and raised in Cupertino, California. I originally met Michael as an actor in one of my own USC student films. Since then, Michael has returned to writing and directing with his short film
War of the Wolves: Reunion, a samurai melodrama set in the violent last days of feudal era Japan.

"I was born in Silicon Valley, the San Jose area. Born and raised there. My parents are both from Taiwan, but I consider myself All-American. While I was growing up, I was always into movies. And, actually for a while I thought they were all real, because the good ones really pull you into them. So, when I started to learn about the filmmaking process, I was like “Oh wow, they're able to do that kind of stuff? I would really like to do that. Be able to make a movie where you felt like you were in it.”

The samurai genre was an easy choice for Michael's first film in several years. Over the past years, Japanese swordsmanship has become a passion for Michael large enough to rival his love of cinema.

"When I was a [college] sophomore, I started the Japanese sword art of shinkendo. It's a relatively new sword art that is distilled from a lot of traditional Japanese swordsmanship schools. Under my sensei, Obata Toshishiro, I learned a great deal about the samurai culture. That's what I have been doing for, I think its the sixth year now. Throughout college I was really dedicated to it. I did a lot of demonstrations, a lot of seminars, and stuff like that. I became advanced really quickly because I spent so much time doing it. And now I'm an instructor at USC for the Japanese swordsmanship class."

"That's why I decided to create War of the Wolves, because it was something I was very close to- the samurai period. What influenced me to make it on this particular time period, around the 1860's, was because that was kind of when there was a real revolution going on in Japan of going from the samurai to a modernized government. There was a lot of bloodshed, a lot of conflict. The samurai weren't going to go down without a fight..."

"I was influenced a lot by samurai movies and anime. Those were the two main things. In a lot of these samurai movies -and in anime- there is always an underlying story of a great struggle of one person trying to overcome all odds. Usually it is really dramatic in anime, but then a little more subdued in these old time samurai movies. I kind of wanted to find the stylistic balance between those. I wanted to make this film as something I created of my own based upon these two genres, the anime samurai films and the live action samurai films of old and of modern."

"The story of War of the Wolves, a very vague way of saying it, you know sometimes people like to have very vague descriptions of their films, it is about loyalty. Three different kinds of loyalty that our main character is torn between. Loyalty to the people he serves as a samurai, loyalty to his family, and finally, loyalty to himself and his own morals and wanting to do what he feels is right. So, War of the Wolves is pretty much the story of a man who must throughout the film choose between the three. He is always torn between them as the events unfold. Violent events."

"The short film is really just a small snippet of that story. From budget constraints I couldn't really bring the full action and wartime feel to it, so I had to restrict myself to a conversation between the main character and his brother and a person he chose to save the life of against the wishes of the people he served...I originally developed this short to kind of promote the production of the full feature. That was my original intent, but that has changed a little but over time. I now believe that this is a little more of a stand alone showcase of all the talents involved... Originally, I just wanted to quickly shoot it, just one day or something like that at a Japanese garden, but then it just grew with Obata Sensei joining the crew, and me wanting to upgrade to HD. And with [cinematographer] John Matysiak, I was able to achieve the visual style, the very cinematic look, the film has right now. We just used an HVX200 with 35mm lenses in order to lend it that look. So I would say that this is a pretty good example of what you could achieve with just digital filmmaking."

"I hope that the digital revolution could be brought further. I'm a real proponent of digital filmmaking. I want to make all my future movies using the same format. I grew up on digital filmmaking, so I'm one of the “new young people.”


To make this film authentic to its source, Michael chose to shoot the dialog in Japanese. Only, there was one problem.

Michael was fortunate enough to have his sensei and shinkendo founder Obata Toshishiro, (Obata Sensei), join the crew as fight choreographer. His addition added a great amount of experience and authenticity to the production.

"Obata Sensei actually was an instructor-choreographer for the Wakakoma group in Japan. They were pretty much the original martial arts choreography group in Japan before others started to pop up. What they did was use real martial arts and adapt it for the screen. Nowadays in Japan you will see some real cheesy kung-fu-ish kind of swordsmanship, but Wakakoma took real sword techniques and adapted them for film. That's what happened with this film, War of the Wolves. That was what I was trying to go for. I am a practitioner of Japanese swordsmanship, so I did not want to have really cheesy stuff. This was supposed to be a realistic film."

But to much of the younger generation of filmlovers, he is also a minor celebrity.

(laughs) "Yes, Obata Tosishiro Sensei was “Master Tatsu” in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 1 & 2. He was also in Showdown in Little Tokyo, playing opposite Branden Lee. I think Dolph Lundgren killed him or something in that. He got killed a few times if you watch some of his movies. He was in Black Rain with Michael Douglas... That's what he did in his first few years in America until he gain enough money I guess to start a dojo.

I actually didn't know that he was Master Tatsu until a month into my training with him because, you know, he's aged somewhat. When I saw a picture of him it all clicked, and I was like “Oh my God, you're like one of my childhood memories.” Getting to know him as a person though, he's just my sensei now. He's not like a star or anything, he's a guy I really respect for how much knowledge and skill he has. So, I really appreciate him lending all his knowledge and experience to my film."


Most of this film was shot in the Earl Burns Miller Japanese garden at Cal State Long Beach. But for the battle sequences, the crew decided on a more dramatic location- which proved to be problematic.


"We had these flashbacks of war scenes and John Matysiak, the cinematographer, recommended that we go to Mount Baldy, which was snowing at the time, to have a real high production value-ish kind of look to it during the battle scenes.

"It was really cold there, but there was a little bit of snow melting and refreezing, so the ground was very slippery. So, all the fancy choreography my sensei helped me create was a little bit impossible to do because even for the simple movements a lot of people were slipping and falling down on their faces. That was a bit of a compromise we had to make. It was like, how many botched takes are we going to do before we move on? So we weren't able to do a whole lot there. You can see in some of the behind the scenes choreography that there was some really cool stuff there, but we were kind of left with just simple stuff. It was like “SWING”, and that's the end of the choreography.

"Another thing that bummed us out was that we got a permit for this huge snow field, and a bunch of kids were there sliding down the slopes. Even though it was a Monday, we had no idea that on Lincoln's birthday there was going to be such an amount of people having the day off. Parents and kids all making a bunch of noise and sliding down, and almost hitting out equipment with their sleds and stuff like that. It was all pretty horrible. We were limited to a 90 degree field of view to shoot in when we paid for this huge area."


Besides such setbacks, Michael avoids becoming cynical. He realizes that filmmaking is a long road of sacrifices, and if you want to succeed as a filmmaker, you have to be in it for the long haul.


"I like to look at success torture stories like Ang Lee. Seven years of trying to get into the film world. And his wife stayed with him! And he didn't die of starvation or something like that. So, I hope that if I stay persistent, failure after failure, I could get there. And I'm ready to face that. All I really want to do right now is make good films. And not make a crappy film. People say that you have three crappy films that you have to make before you make a good one. I want to get them out of the way as soon as possible!"

War of the Wolves: Reunion has recently screened at the 2008 Cinegear Expo and last July's Dances With Films Film Festival. For information on future screenings visit the film's official website at www.warofthewolves.com

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Filmmaker Interview: Jonathan Dillon

Jonathan Dillon is a film director from Kansas City, Kansas. Only two years out of USC film school, his first feature film Rigged, is already screening on the festival circuit.

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I came from a suburb in Kansas City. Grew up there watching movies my entire life. Every Friday me and my grandpa would rent a couple of movies, and that's what I did for 12-13 years of my life. And I had a huge passion for storytelling, and filmmaking. I was always inspired about the films I saw, and I would actually change my [desired] career depending on what movie I would see. I would watch Top Gun and want to be an air force pilot, and then I'd watch Backdraft and want to be a firefighter. So, I realized how much influence films can be, and how you can go to a film and it can change your whole perspective on things and just change your day. I thought that would be the most amazing job ever, to be able to touch people

Before you starting studying at USC, you were attending a community college back home, right? And you created a local film festival while you were there. Tell me about that.

I went to a community college called Johnson County Community College. The Cavalier was the mascot, so the festival is called “The Cavalier Film Festival.” I just went to the advisors and was like hey, listen up, there's no film programs here. There's a TV program, but all its like is multi-camera television, like a news broadcast or something like that. It was really lame. I go 'I really want to make narrative pieces, and I want to encourage people to come here, and I want to do that because there is a lot of people interested in filmmaking. And I go, listen, I'll put everything together, I'll set it all up, I just need your help as administrators to make sure we have the locations and make sure I can put up the fliers around school and whatever. And they got really behind it.

In the first year, I think we had like 15 or 16 entries. It was really small. And then the second year we had like 40, and the third year we had 60. So, it has been growing every year, which is really cool. It's just a way for people -especially kids, -I remember being in high school and not knowing if I can submit anything to a film festival, not even knowing there were film festivals out there. I just did it because I wanted to do it. But, it is real encouraging to find a whole lot of other filmmakers who are doing what you are doing too, and to see their work. Its real inspiring. So, I wanted to have a place where people can do that.

And it is still going on?

It's still going on. Yeah, we're in our fifth year.

Tell me about your feature film Rigged. What is the film about?


Rigged is an action/adventure movie. Basically, we call it Million Dollar Baby meets Fight Club in the sense that you have a female prizefighter who is going around these underground boxing circuit matches with her shady boxing promoter. And they're basically scheming people out of money because she can kick he shit out of anybody. She's sort of like Brad Pitt in Snatch. She can knock 'em out with a couple of punches and take care of business, so that's how they clean up because she fights men and she kicks the shit out of these guys. It's really a character story about this odd couple who's traveling across country to make a dollar to go their separate ways.


Rigged, the official movie trailer.

You shot this while you were still at USC, right?

Yeah. I took a semester off.

How did that come about, that you put together a feature film while still in film school at USC?

Well, I was interning at the time at New Regency in the script department. And I wasn't quite in film school yet. And so I was like “Whatever, I don't care, I'm just going to make a film.” Like, that's it. I'm just going to make a film. But I knew I didn't have any material that I wanted to make a film off of, so I started looking for scripts. I put postings on craigslist and any websites I could find. And Ian Shore, who is the writer of Rigged, he sent me a script. And I must have got a total of 15-16 scripts submitted to me from all different people. And most of them were really, really bad. But, that's what you get. It's like a needle in a haystack. When I found Rigged, I was just so excited about it. I was reading the pages and everything was so visual to me. Even though I didn't write it, I could still see everything play out. It was so visual and rich that I was like, we got to make this movie. I got to make this film. I don't care what it takes.

So, then I went home to Kansas and we shot a promotional trailer. I come back to USC. I go through my first semester, and I'm like, okay, I got to do this. I need to do this as soon as possible. So after the second semester that next summer I decided I was going to take a break from school. And my mom was real freaked out of course. She was like, 'you're never going to go back to school,' and I'm like ,I am too. I just got to make this film.

I left school behind, I was dating this girl I was head over heels in love with at the time and I left her behind and left everything to go make this film.

I didn't know a single thing about the business side of making films. It is SO business, and its so anti- the creative side. I really had to learn what I needed to do to form an LLC corporation. And to to start my own bank statements with all the right papers of what we're spending money on and where the money is going to so we can give investor reports every quarter. How do I pay taxes on this? What do I have to fill out? What about the contracts? All that shit.


Rigged made use of a lot of shady shooting locations. Jonathan shares a war story about the worst location scouting trip ever.

Where was this shot? Was this shot completely in Kansas City?

Most of it was in Kansas. We also shot in Lawrence and Overland Park... but we also shot two days out here in Los Angeles.

And you chose to shoot there because you had home base of support?

Support, and I knew the city. And I knew the film community because I've been doing short films and had put together a film festival and things like that. So I had all these resources that I could easily rely on and call up and figure out how I was going to get this done. In LA you can do it too, you just have to hire people and have the money. I didn't have the money. I couldn't hire anyone. So I had to just do it all myself.

What would you say the pros and cons would be to shoot in a place like Kansas City rather than just doing it all in Los Angeles?

Definitely the pros to shooting in a Midwestern city or somewhere that is not really film-centric is first off, since people in that kind of environment don't ever really get to see the flashy lights of the movie camera, they really respond well to it. They get excited about it. So, you're like 'Hey, can I shoot in your house?' and they're like 'Yeah, of course! Come. Please, make a movie in my house. That's so cool. I'll feed you dinner.' And so, it was a very, very receptive group of people. Location-wise, we didn't spend any money. Nothing cost us money, except when we had to close down the road, and it cost us like $50 because we had to blow up this car. And that was it.

We had over 52 locations. The script is huge, its this big action adventure script. We didn't have an action/adventure movie budget. It's very low, low budget. So, that was the best part. How receptive people were.

The downside to the whole thing is that people don't really know what they're doing. Also, there isn't whole lot of filmmakers there, so it's really tough, number one, to find experienced crew who know what they're doing and how to get it done. The other issue is there can also be a monopoly of people. Like, there's only two sound guys in all of Kansas City. So, they can charge whatever they want even if its outrageous. Even if you can find production sound mixers that are way better in LA, who are only going to charge you a fraction of what these guys are going to charge you, you're sort of stuck unless you're going to pay them to fly out, put 'em in a hotel room, yada yada yada. Since you don't have a lot of people doing these kind of positions, you really don't have a lot of options of the people you want to crew up. But still, you have to be very logical about it and go, okay is this guy going to get the job done, are they going to work well with this crew, and are we going to get along together because we are going to be together for X amount to weeks. That, and also casting is very difficult because the talent pool is very small.

You had to delay the end of principal photography for an entire year because of an accident, am I right?

Rebeca, our lead actress, got injured during one of the fight sequences. She tore a ligament in her neck. That happened one week before we were supposed to be completely finished. There was no way she could fight. She couldn't even turn her head at all. And actually, there's certain scenes were, like, she's dancing at this bar and instead of turning to see Dublin, she'll do like a zombie turn. And then another time she's in this bus and they're having a conversation, and she can never look at him this way, she's always looking at him [sideways] like this. And it really sucked. She's better now but at the time we were like really worried like oh, crap is Rebeca okay and how are we going to finish this movie? So we took time off and she did physical rehab while I was going to school and then we shot the final fight scene the next summer.

Any final thoughts you would like to share before we wrap this up?

I guess I got to say it's a long, hard road making films, as I think many, many, many filmmakers know. Not that this is anything that everybody hasn't already heard, but you got to just keep doing it. Just keep going at it. Keep trying to make films, keep trying to tell your story. I think you lose a lot of vision of that when you start getting concerned about rent and paying bills. I mean, I do freelance stuff to make ends meet, but you're only as good as your next project, really. And just because you make one film or write one script, it doesn't mean you are going to make it out there, especially in this city. I got to say, just through all of my hard work, and through getting rejected from USC so many times, and just keeping at it, and from not having a cent in my pocket to making a feature film thats half a million dollars, it all comes down to desire and wanting it and going after it every day focusing every day. Its just like training for a sport. You got to put in at least two hours a day focusing on it and if you don't then you're going to start losing it.


Rigged will be screening at the Dance With Films film festival in Los Angeles during the last week of July , the Action on Film International Film Festival in Long Beach, California during the same week , and the Young Cuts Film Festival in Ontario, Canada will screen th first ten minutes in mid-August.