Recently I had the privilege and honour of reading a script by one of the most hyped young writers in this country, face on covers of magazines and all that. My expectations were high and yes: it delivered! I spent an amazing two hours reading it as the characters really jumped off the page and the writing was beautiful. Then I put the script down and I knew the movie would fail.
What I had read was a great short novel. Brilliant prose, lively detail and sharp dialogue. But the story didn’t work because we would not care for the protagonist. This is a typical mistake: confusing a good script with a good story. Beware of the ‘good read’. Or as my best friend Chris always says: “Armaggedon was a good read too.” In the case of this Australian hopeful, the story was told from a protagonist without any clear objective. Ironically, a character close to the protagonist would have much better fitted that role without the need to significantly change the premise.
The joy of the ‘good read’ is truly a danger and one of many reasons why you don’t rely on friends for script feedback, even if they work in the film industry. I have heard of aspiring screenwriters asking advice from assistant directors, decorators production managers. Although like everybody in our industry, these people SHOULD have a notion, in reality they hardly ever do. (As a matter of fact, a lot of decision-makers don’t have a clue either.I could give you a recent example of a script where even the writer admitted ‘there was no story’. Still he got the money to develop it. Develop what? The novel? I won’t name the example or I would be dead. Fact is that the writer in question ironises about this reality when he says that
“to get your hands on delicious development money you don’t have to have a great script, it only has to be a little ‘better’ than the norm. And if you can do that with no story…good times.”
THE WISE AND THE NOT SO WISE
As somebody who takes the craft very seriously, I’m sometimes frustrated to see how people who should know better send out confusing messages. Now take this quote, which I found on a web site claiming to give story advice and tips to writers:
“As for the content of your screenplay; structure counts, usually. Have a clear Act I, II, and III. Try to hook the reader on the first page! Make the first five (or ten pages at most) be Act I, wherein you introduce all the main characters and show the reader the who, what, where, when and why of your story. Notice that I said SHOW. Telling is not so good. Film is a visual medium and you should actually be writing a FILM, not a script. Act II is the rest of the story, where you build on what you started, and it climaxes at the clear end of Act II. Act III should be five or ten (max) pages, where all loose ends are tied up and all conflicts are resolved.”
I must admit I had never heard of the Ten Minutes First Act. And the second act being “where you build on what you started“. How can you be more vague? You know what is REALLY frightening? The person talking is the director of an internationally renowned film festival. And as for: “structure counts, usually”… The festival director is probably hoping of getting the new KOYAANISQATSI.
Let me counterbalance the nonsense with a solid quote from Chris Vogler, the man behind The Writer’s Journey. This time not about the ‘big structure’ or the Journey Stages but about scenes:
“A scene is a business deal. It may not involve money but it will always involve some change in the contract between characters or in the balance of power. It’s a transaction, in which two or more people enter with one kind of deal between them, and negotiate or battle until a new deal has been cut, at which point the scene should end. It could be the reversal of a power structure. The underdog seizes power by blackmail. Or it could be the forging of a new alliance or enmity. Two people who hated each other make a new deal to work together in a threatening situation. A boy asks a girl out and she accepts or rejects his offer. Two gangsters make an alliance to rub out a rival. A mob forces a sheriff to turn a man over for lynching. The meat of the scene is the negotiation to arrive at the new deal, and when the deal is cut, the scene is over, period. “
THE POWER OF A PARADIGM SHIFT
Years ago a good friend returned from L.A. where he had attended a much hyped screenwriting seminar. The speaker made a point by asking the room who would visualise the scenes while writing. I agreed with my friend’s astonishment when he reported that only half of the writers raised their hands. What were the others thinking? What idiots to believe you can actually write movies without thinking visually???
I have come to fundamentally change my view on this. Did Alan Ball necessarily think visually when he wrote SIX FEET UNDER? Or AMERICAN BEAUTY? The last boasts wonderfully visual scenes but most of the script’s power lies entirely not on its visual level. We do indeed need visible elements to show character subtext, but not necessarily a visual context. Think about CRASH or more recently THE LIVES OF OTHERS. On what level do these movies make an impact?
Whether a movie works or not, is decided on an entirely different, almost abstract and non-visual level. Until a late draft, a screenwriter doesn’t always need to visualise. And you can take this right through to very visual action flicks such as DIE HARD, THE FUGITIVE or even SPIDER-MAN. Visual elements such as setting, time of day, camera angles etc. could have been easily replaced without really changing the story. They might have even worked without the eye candy but they surely wouldn’t have without the character drama underneath.
Recently I was recommended THE SEVEN HABITS OF HIGHLY SUCCESSFUL PEOPLE. Early in the book Stephen Covey speaks about the Paradigm Shift. (Beware: this Paradigm has nothing to do with Syd Field.) It’s about looking at something from a specific angle and (not) seeing what others see. I found this concept very similar to reading text vs. reading subtext. I had been reading screenplays on the surface for years before it most literally ‘clicked’ in my head; it felt as if a ‘sixth sense’ had switched on, as if I was suddenly reading with an infrared eye.
Switching on the understanding of this subtextual level is a skill writers, just like producers or directors, need to develop before they can become successful. It is just as essential as switching on your desk light at night to read.
“A logline is a one-sentence summary of your script. It’s the short blurb in TV guides that tells you what a movie is about and helps you decide if you’re interested in seeing it. It’s the grabber that excites your interest.” (-Scriptologis.Com)
The logline shouldn’t be confused with the tagline (marketing one-liner for the poster) or even slugline (“EXT. KAREL’S OFFICE – DAY”).
Once I believed you can only write your story’s logline when you have finished your script and even the one page synopsis. Until then, it may not even be clear what the story is about.
Here are a few good reasons why you should start thinking of the logline earlier. First of all: a good logline is a good indication that you have a story. If after a few drafts you still can’t find a logline that captures what your movie is about, you really need to think hard about the story again. Secondly: it will become an essential selling tool for your script. A strong logline will give you the confidence that you have a story: you’ll be able to pitch it with passion! In both senses the logline does pretty much what I promote about the synopsis in my consultancy services: it helps you improve AND sell the story. All that with the economy of one simple sentence.
I am currently working as a consultant on an amazing high concept story with some major story issues. It is always nerve-wrecking having to break the news that to unleash its potential, a story needs to be significantly reworked. But when I found out the writer had already written a logline expressing exactly what I believed the story should deliver, I sighed: we were on the same wavelength.
The moment you find a logline expressing your intentions, you have found an invaluable tool to stay on track. It could be the road map saving you from disaster. If the logline is selling and you stay true to it during the writing of the draft, chances are you will have a selling story.
THE $5 SCRIPT SOFTWARE: ASHAMPOO’S TEXTMAKER:
I recently had a computer scare when it looked my four year old laptop was about to die. That would have been a disaster in a few ways, not the least because I recently bought a – legitimate – OEM version of Office Standard. I lose my laptop, I lose that.
No wonder I was interested when recently I received an offer to an elegant software program called ‘Textmaker’, which does everything I use MS Word for. Only for $4.99 only. And legitimate. If you are looking for a good quality text processor, which is BTW faster than MS Word and whose license won’t expire if your computer dies, have a look here:
I believe the offers on these newsletters remain open for at least 1 purchase per customer.
BEATS VS. TURNING POINTS
While working on a step outline with one of my clients, it bothered me a number of scenes ended in the exact same way: the protagonist would respond to a situation by rejection or reluctance to respond.
None of these scenes really ended in a plot point, there was no hook nor change to the story’s direction. So I didn’t find the scenes’ ending strong enough and almost suggested to cut them altogether. Still, the point the writer was trying to make about the protagonist was a valid one: it gave us important information we would need later in the story.
The solution we came up with: keep the protagonist’s reaction as a scene beat but work towards a stronger scene ending by creating a new plot point for each in order to turn the scene, create anticipation and propel it into the next one. Not an easy task but ultimately better than cutting.
As part of a Google Adwords campaign I’ve created a quiz about the craft and – to a lesser extent – history of screenwriting. If one or two questions are a matter of opinion rather than fact, you will find the answers in The Story Dept. Twenty challenges, definitely not for beginners (and neither is this blog, apparently) but essential knowledge for whomever is serious about the craft. Anyway, if you consider yourself an expert, or at least intermediate level writer, you shouldn’t be intimidated. Click through until the very end of the quiz and you’ll land back on the OZZYWOOD web site after seeing all the right answers. Have fun!
Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in acquisition, development and production. He has trained students worldwide, and worked with half a dozen Academy Award nominees. Karel speaks more European languages than you have fingers on your left hand, which he is still trying to find a use for in his hometown of Sydney, Australia. The languages, not the fingers.