The Story Revolution

Nafa – Choctops Meeting: 18/2/08

(Report by John Haly,
Thank you to Tony Chu)

Karel -a Belgian producer and script consultant – founded OZZYWOOD Films and The Story Department (which is a unique Australian blog and online resource for screen story theory). Karel headed production and programming at London’s Digital Broadcasting Company and was a film buyer for CANAL+, (Europe’s largest pay TV service). He was the host for a movie show for MTV Europe. His production credits included two short dramas, a documentary and a feature film. In post-production, he has a short animation and a feature film. As a script consultant, he has clients both in Australia and overseas. Of interest to Nafa members, he also runs regular workshops on script writing. A notable fact is that the 2007 nominees and also the winner of the Australian Writer Guild Monte Miller Award were Karel’s clients. Accordingly, if you are a script writer, you will, indeed, be well advised to pay particular attention to his views on ‘What our industry needs is a Story Revolution’.

Karel began by delving back into his personal history stating that he had started in Radio as a reporter who would phone in initial reviews of films for night radio – a far cry from the online internet reviewing of films of the contemporary culture. His first venture into a screenplay dates back to 1989, although he admits to abandoning that path because of early criticism by an established script writer. His next attempt was twelve years later, and he promptly lost the first draft.

In 2001, he moved to Australia where he co-produced a documentary and then a short film, but the last didn’t go anywhere. The next film was “Aerosol” which was dispatched to, and was selected by a few film festivals, but won no significant prizes. As a consequence, he then contemplated a change of direction and began studying and reading in an effort to get new insights as to the creative writing process.

The author at the top of his reading list was Robert McKee. McKee’s book, ‘Story’ is considered by some as the “screenwriters’ bible”. When purchasing the software for screen writing called ‘Power Structure’, he was offered at a reduced price a DVD called ‘The Hero’s 2 Journeys’ which was promoted as extremely enlightening material capable of educating writers and which revealed the template upon which the vast majority of successful stories and Hollywood blockbusters are based. Michael Hauge and Christopher Vogler’s DVD opened Karel’s eyes as it offered a unique insiders’ understanding of the ways screenplay structure, character, and theme must combine to be successful.

Karel became aware of the sad fact that there seemed to be little by the way of ‘Story Education’ available in Australia. Michael Hauge’s principles were applied in advising writers of script plays. With the aid of AFC funding, it became possible to produce a following accompanied by good results. He educated writers that the structure of writing was important, particularly from the perspective of Character. His insight centred on the question: Where does drama happen? He emphasises that it is not in the visualisation of the story, but the subtext beneath the story that good scriptwriting lies.

The fault to which many writers fall prey is that of visualising the scene as they are writing, thus thinking in terms of pictures. As it is a visual media up with which we end, we must keep in mind into what it is that a visual story latches in the minds of the audience – for example, that of ‘Desire’! The question that ought to be at the centre of your script should focus on the desires and objectives of your characters because film ‘hangs together’ with the emotions of “Desire”.

A frequent criticism of Australian films is that they have weak protagonists, (i.e. those without will power). If you give your protagonist a visible goal with a desire and will to get there, then you are more likely to engage your audience. The essence of Michael Hauge’s proposition is that you need a character who has a visible goal with a clearly defined end-point.

Karel recalled the Columbia University educator, Frank Daniel, who was noted for his development of the sequence paradigm of Screenwriting. Frank’s conception of a good protagonist was ‘somebody who wants something badly and has difficulty getting it.”

Karel turned to the audience to ask, ‘As a screen writer what is your primary goal?’ After a few financial and entertaining replies, someone suggested ‘to tell a story’. Karel then asked, ‘Why are you telling that story?’ Quoting Michael Hauge, his answer was two words, ‘elicit emotion’. In order to do this, there are three things with which a screen writer can play. 1. Character, 2. Desire, 3. Conflict.

The best way Karel can find to illustrate this is simply through the examples of successful films, which is what he uses when he runs his workshops. Irrespective of whether it is a Mainline or Arthouse movie, they all follow the same structure. The film ‘Die Hard’ deals with a man seeking to stop the criminals. ‘Jaws’ relates to a man’s desire to stop the Shark. Consider an Oscar winning Arthouse movie: “The Lives of Others’ where in the first half, the protagonist desires to expose the director while in the second half, he wishes to protect him.

As a screenwriter, you need to structure the desire. (Characters need structure in their desire). Your audience needs to know in the first act what that desire is. Your character also needs to resonate with the audience, exhibiting his or her human flaws. It is the flaw that holds the need of the protagonist. In ‘Die Hard, while desiring to stop the criminals, his flaw was that he was afraid to tackle the criminals who held his wife hostage. In the “The Lives of Others”, the protagonist changes his mind mid way. Audiences expect to perceive this desire, even if it is not spelled out.

As Aristotle distinguishes: a whole is that which has a beginning, a middle, and an end. In the beginning, the audience is introduced to the setting, the characters, their situation,/conflict and the goal they desire. In short, something happens, unexpectedly, which defines the story to come. To paraphrase Aristotle, ‘A beginning is that which does not itself follow anything by causal necessity, but after which something naturally is or comes to be’.

In ‘Die Hard’ the building is stopped while John McClane goes up to the highest floor to get a bird’s eye perspective and think through his options. He says to himself, ‘Think, think, think’. [KS: The exact same words are used by Woody in Toy Story 2 after Wheezy is taken away.] The initial plot point of confusion [KS: In the Hero’s Journey the ‘Mentor’ stage, ‘Refusing the Call’] shifts to the derivation of a plan and new plot point – an event followed by a reaction. Something happens, a plan evolves and the pursuit of activity begins and continues all the way to a resolution.

Karel advised that as a Script writer you should ask yourself, ‘What is the reason this story is being told?’. As for Karel himself, he was sitting here talking to us because he was strongly motivated by the desire to see a revolution in the way Australian Script writers create stories. He proclaimed, ‘Make sure there is a connection between yourself and the story you are telling. There is a requirement to want to connect to an audience.’

It is in the tribal ethos of ancient days that the storyteller tells stories relevant to their tribes. They are told not only to get the message across, but also to create such impact that the stories are repeatedly retold to subsequent generations of that tribe. It is important whether you be scriptwriters or producers or directors, that you choose the scripts that can best tell the story.

Be aware that the contemporary tribe of humanity is being conditioned by the way a story is being told in film and theatre. Be conscious of writing structure as it is entering an arena, a tribe, a society that is accustomed to perceive in a specific manner. Don’t be dismissive of the formula for telling the story in film just because you want to be ‘different’, or because your audience has been conditionally seasoned, even if they are not consciously aware of being told a story with a definite style.

Karel moved on to seek to discredit a few commonly held myths. The first one is that writers should rush out and buy specific Screen Writing Software such as ‘Final Draft’. In the first place, there are plenty of free alternatives out there for Microsoft word templates, [KS: Celtx] etc. Primarily, it initially tempts you to write in scenes, when it is the story you first need to relate. Reading scripts to get the format right as a pre-requisite encourages the visualisation of scenes when first, you should be concentrating on the story. Try watching a movie, break it down and decode it yourself rather than reading or writing a script (story first, script last).

The next myth concerns language. Some writers love flowery prose. Question yourself as to whether your objective is to write something that only reads well, or do you wish to write a story of substance? Identify: where is the story? Do you have a character with a desire? Where is the conflict in the story? This, as your primary guideline becomes the focus of the storyline.

The next myth concerns Log Lines. (A Log Line is a brief summary of the film, often providing both a synopsis of the program’s plot, and an emotional “hook” to stimulate interest). Karel confessed for a long time that he believed that the Log Line was the last thing you wrote after the script and synopsis. He is now firmly convinced the opposite is true.

If you want to know more about the importance of Log Lines go to ‘The Unknown Screen Writer’ and ‘Mystery Man on Film‘. These will help you to use correctly the Log Lines – a procedure the importance of which cannot be overestimated. These are the selling lines of your film which you must know before you start writing. Formulate a Log Line of: who is your character? What does the character want?- and- What is the obstacle(s) in his way? Try to compose your log line by writing it down as soon as possible as this keeps you in focus. That great idea that pops into your head during the writing! Does it fit into your Log Line? If not, put it aside because it has no place in your story. Keep it for your next script.

Karel then suggested that the biggest mistake people make in the attempt to sell their scripts is to dispatch them too early. Sending and then resending draft versions is the quickest way to ensure that the people reading the dispatched articles lose interest. By resending a newer, updated version of the script, you are admitting to the producer or director that you sent them a previous script that you well knew wasn’t ready.

Following on from that theme, Karel pointed out that formatting the script is not important until you have the story written. As Art Arthur said: ‘Don’t get it right, get it written!’ Once it is written in the final draft, THEN there are formatting rules to which you need to comply. It is then that those slug lines, script punctation and the absence of typos needs to be scrupulously addressed.

Karel noted that studies of the Australian Government Feature Film Funding have shown that only about 19 out of some 419 films actually made money. He impressively expressed the point that our essential requirement was to think about the market. Again, he reiterated the need for writers to understand and act on the principles espoused in “The Hero’s Journey”.

Despite the perception that both Germans and Australians possess an inherent hero phobia, explore the successful films in our own industry, and that, in itself, will disabuse any such notion.

At this point, Jeanie opened the floor to questions. These included ones concerning the cultural differences between countries when it came to making films. This, in turn, raised the topic of our anxiety of being commercially successful. Questions about breaking the rules for film structure returned a reply of: ‘how about mastering the ‘Rules‘ first BEFORE contemplating breaking them- not the other way around.

Tony concluded the evening by thanking Karel for his contribution. Karel spoke privately to people as they approached him and eventually the evening broke up, as actors, producers and director’s networks chatted on before being kindly ejected by the Bar Staff wishing to close. Some of us spilled out onto the sidewalks to continue our conversations till the passing night drew us to the consideration that we should be homeward bound.

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