I’m a writer. How can you tell? Easy, I carry a pen in my pocket. Not a fancy pen, not an expensive heirloom or a lucky mojo magical pen. Just a ballpoint. Something to write with. When the waitress or cashier hands me one of their disease ridden, communal pens to sign my check, I’ve already whipped mine out and proudly decline, “No thanks! I’ve got my own.”
Cause I’m a writer, see?
Some people are overly romantic about the pen and paper thing like George Lucas who, I hear, writes all his scripts this way. That would drive me nuts. Because not only can I type a gazillion times faster which ensures I can actually get a complete thought down before it dissipates into the vapor it came from, but sadly it requires the gift of spiritual interpretation for me to even read and discern my own handwriting. It’s kinda like shorthand only without all that annoying clarity at the end.
Boss: “How did that meeting go, what did you all discuss?”
Me (flipping through notebook): “Well, sir, apparently the 3rd Quarter chipmunk formed a polygon tuna in what I assume is the…rectum (!?) of the uptown nazi bravo horse. And then something about a Chevelle.”
Who knows, maybe Lucas can’t read his own writing either which totally explains Star Wars Episodes 1, 2 and 3.
Anywhooooo, if we’re going to continue this relationship we’re forming, this loose association between us, you need to know this about me. I love Banana Pudding. But also, more importantly, I’m currently writing my 8th Script. I don’t say that in a super braggadocious way, mind you. That would be a sin and also probably a cool Mary Poppin’s Song. No, in fact 3 of those 7 finished scripts are toxic waste. Did they start out as toxic waste? No, they did not. At the time I was writing — and shortly thereafter — they were the most important pieces of english literature ever to grace a keyboard.
My theory is that just as food spoils and cars rust and atomic isotopes breakdown into radioactive…Stop! Spirit of Big Bang Theory come OUT!
Whew, I gotta cut back on that show.
But back to my theory, I think if you write an amazing script and tuck it away on your computer, it begins to breakdown on its own. Maybe the computer kilobytes are reacting negatively with the Courier-12 font. I don’t know. I’m not a Paleontologist. But over time, this Word Decay or “Super Fractalization” very simply turns genius verbiage into stink bombs. Sometimes the process takes years and years, sometimes, in the case of a lot of these Wired4Film articles, I write them up one day, post them online and by the next day they’ve already begun to fractalize and they’re not as funny or insightful or there’s typos suddenly in them that weren’t there before. It’s very frustrating. Could be a problem with WordPress, actually. It may clear up after a few more upgrades.
In the meanwhile, we suffer through.
Have you revisited any of your old works recently? Have you seen this to be true? Most industry professionals don’t use the word “fractalize” cause it’s so pretentious. They’ll normally abbreviate it just like the periodic table to the letter F. Hence the phrase, “That script is really F’d up!” Clearly, Super Fractalization at work.
In full disclosure, I started this article with the hyper-tantalizing title of “The 7 Deadly Sins of Screenwriting.” Yeah, I’m not going to get to that today. Possibly tomorrow. That is if my writing doesn’t get all F’d up!
Our friends Scott Myers and Tom Benedek over at ScreenwritingMasterClass.com have outlined some of their 2013 writing courses coming up. Very exciting! These guys are Pros and know their stuff. Don’t let a lack of good training prevent you from moving toward your 2013 Script Goals! Invest in a class! Form a writer’s group! Get connected! Take a look at what is selling! These are some excerpts from their December Newsletter…
Screenwriting Master Class
Happy New Year, Fellow Screenwriters!! 2012 was active in “the business” for original scripts. Great writing, strong concepts rise up.
SCREENWRITING MASTER CLASS: COURSE SPOTLIGHT
Pages I: The First Draft: This 10-week workshop provides a supportive environment in which writers use weekly due dates to pound out an entire first draft of their original screenplay. A great way to get that script done.
Dates: January 14-March 24, 2013 Instructor: Scott Myers
Prep: From Concept To Outline: This unique 6-week writing workshop takes you through a step-by-step process enabling you to break your story before you type FADE IN, giving you the best shot possible at finishing your script… and making it great.
Dates: January 21-March 3, 2013 Instructor: Tom Benedek
Craft: Pixar and the Craft of Storytelling: Having produced 13 consecutive box office hits, Pixar is arguably home to the best storytellers in contemporary filmmaking. In this popular 1-week course, we will analyze several Pixar movies revealing key narrative principles you can use to develop and craft your own stories.
Dates: January 28-February 3, 2013 Instructor: Scott Myers
Introduction to Screenwriting: New course! In this 10-week online class, participants will learn the fundamentals of screenplay structure, strengthen storytelling insight, acquire skills to build a film project step by step, and work on an original script project using clear, simple writing exercises.
Dates: January 28-April 9, 2013 Instructor: Tom Benedek
COMING IN FEBRUARY AT SCREENWRITINGMASTERCLASS.COM:
February 4: TV: How to Write a One-Hour Spec Pilot (Tom Benedek)
February 11: Craft: Handling Exposition (Scott Myers)
February 18: Pages II: Rewriting Your Script (Tom Benedek)
Not only do they offer course work, they go above and beyond with their 2012 Script analysis to talk about not only what is selling but why…
SPEC SCRIPT MARKET SALES
Title: Currency Logline: Focuses on two Secret Service agents in pursuit of a private mercenary’s powerful and sophisticated counterfeiting operation. Writer: Mark DiStefanoGenre: Drama Agency: APA Management: Anonymous Content Buyer: Participant Media Date: 10/5/12.
Title: Almanac Logline: Found-footage. No details about Almanac were given other than it is intended to be a found-footage project and that Paramount intends to move aggressively and swiftly with it. Writers: Andrew Stark, Jason Pagan Genre: N/AAgency: WME Buyer: Paramount Date: 10/5/12 Notes: Writers are first-timers.
Title: The Join Logline: Set in the wake of a terrible particle accelerator accident, story follows a first response hazmat team sent in to investigate, only to find themselves targeted for assassination as soon as they emerge. Writer: Justin Rhodes Genre: Sci-Fi Thriller Agency: ICM Management: Madhouse Entertainment Buyer: Legendary Pictures Date: 10/18/12 Notes: “The Join” was a ‘trunk script,’ the first one Rhodes wrote and had been sitting in his ‘trunk’ for some years.
Title: Patrol Logline: The pic follows US Marines patrol who while chasing drug smugglers to a remote island, their mission takes an unexpectedly deadly twist. Writer:Jayson Rothwell Genre: Action Thriller Agency: WME Buyer: Paramount Date:10/24/12.
Title: Our Name Is Adam Logline: An astronaut who travels back in time and works with his younger self. Writer: T. S. Nowlin Genre: Science Fiction Agency: WMEManagement: Caliber Media Buyer: Paramount Date:10/25/12.
Title: Somacell Logline: “Somacell” chronicles a female prison guard in the near future who discovers that the virtual reality process that rehabilitates convicts is not all it promises to be. Writer: Ashleigh Powell Genre: Thriller Agency: Gersh Management:Benderspink Buyer: Warner Bros. Date: 10/29/12 Notes: Reported mid-six figures. Writer is a first-timer.
Title: Subdivision Logline: N/A Writers: Morgan Jurgenson, Alex Ankeles Genre:
Science Fiction Comedy Agency: Jurgenson [APA], Anekeles [CAA] Management:Jurgenson [Hung Entertainment Group], Ankeles [Kaplan/Perrone] Buyer: UniversalDate: 10/30/12 Notes: 2nd spec sale for duo this year including “Hyperdrive”.
Title: Triple Time Logline: Two-hander follows a broke U.S. marshal tasked with escorting a prisoner accused of an environmental disaster to Washington, D.C. When their transport plane explodes, the unlikely pair must work together to figure out who is behind the conspiracy, which may include one of them. Writers: Peter Billingsley, Michael J. Wilson Genre: Action Thriller Agency: CAA Buyer: Scott Pictures Date:10/31/12.
Title: Cherries Logline: “Cherries” follows three naive dads who set out to stop their daughters from making good on a pact to lose their virginity on prom night. Writers:Brian Kehoe, Jim Kehoe Genre: Comedy Agency: ICM Management: DMG Entertainment Buyer: Good Universe Date: 11/9/12. Notes: Option deal.
Title: Sanctuary Logline: A young woman possessed by a powerful demonic force seeks refuge within The Sanctuary, a Vatican-run secret organization that teaches the possessed to channel their inner demon and use its power as a weapon against evil.Writer: Alan Trezza Genre: Supernatural Action Management: Magnet ManagementBuyer: Paramount Date: 11/13/12.
Title: High Value Target Logline: A lethal special-operations unit attacks a boat operated by Somali pirates. In an effort to ramp up the realism, much of the story will be told with point of view cameras attached to members of the unit. Writer: Spenser CohenGenre: Action Management: Energy Entertainment Buyer: Millennium Date: 11/19/12.Notes: Low-six figure deal.
Title: Straight Edge Logline: “Edge” is an Los Angeles-set actioner that revolves around a heist gone wrong and follows a slew of colorful characters, ranging from corrupt cops to Southland gang members. Writer: Rich Wilkes Genre: Action Agency: Verve Buyer:Silver Pictures Date: 11/27/12. Notes: Pre-emptive acquisition.
Title: 52 Percent Logline: A longtime married couple is contemplating divorce. A clash develops between their daughter, who hopes for reconciliation, and a jaded young divorce attorney unwilling to lose a client without a fight. Writer: Zina Zaflow Genre:Romantic Comedy Management: Chad Snopek Management Buyer: QED InternationalDate: 11/29/12.
Title: Leave Logline: A group of U.S. soldiers suffer from post-traumatic stress while on leave in Thailand. Writers: Andrew Barrer, Gabriel Ferrari Genre: Thriller Agency: WMEManagement: Prolific Entertainment Buyer: QED International Date: 11/29/12.
Title: Priority Run Logline: The story centers on a small group of correctional officers and inmates who must band together to fend off a mysterious attack when their prison bus is sabotaged on a remote stretch of highway. Writer: Terrence Mulloy Genre: ActionAgency: UTA Management: Benderspink Buyer: Arclight Entertainment Date:11/30/12. Notes: Writer is from Australia.
Title: Untitled Logline: N/A Writer: Robert Lynn Genre: Action Agency: UTAManagement: Kaplan/Perrone Buyer: Davis Entertainment Date: 12/6/12.
Title: Arminius Logline: Script tells the fact-based story of Arminius, a German who was trained as a Roman warrior, but who switched allegiance when the Romans tried to take over Germania. At 25, he would eventually unite disparate Germanic tribes and rally them to victory against the Roman Army in the bloody Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. The defeat had ramifications that would end with Arminius losing his life, but it halted the Roman Empire’s expansion North, and became the worst loss suffered by the Romans under the reign of Augustus Caesar. Writer: Frank Moll Genre: Historical DramaAgency: CAA Management: Rain Management Group Buyer: Twentieth Century FoxDate: 12/7/12. Notes: First script deal for writer.
Title: Empire Logline: Described as being in the style of Safe House and The Usual Suspects. Writer: Ben Ripley Genre: Thriller Agency: Gersh Management: MosaicBuyer: New Regency Date: 12/11/12.
Title: Peste Logline: A teenage girl begins a video documentary about her life for a school project just as a terrifying virus sweeps through her small town. Quarantined with her family, she thinks they are out of harm’s way, but she soon learns that the virus has invaded their house. Her video documents the family’s frantic struggle to find a cure before they are completely taken over by the Peste. Writer: Barbara Marshall Genre:Horror Thriller Agency: APA Management: Industry Entertainment Buyer: IM Global Octane Date: 12/20/12. Notes: Script made the Black List, Hit List, and Blood List.
Title: Warden Logline: Story centers on a prison warden who — when his wife and son are kidnapped — is blackmailed into helping the American head of a Mexican drug cartel escape from his own high-security facility. Writers: John Sonntag, Thomas SonntagAgency: UTA Management: Mosaic Media Buyer: New Line Date: 12/22/12 Notes:This is the second spec script deal of the year for the Sonntag brothers.
Through the end of December, 96 spec scripts have sold in 2012, compared to 110 at this point last year. The downturn can be attributed to two factors:
- In October-November of 2011, 39 spec scripts sold, 18 in October alone.
- The spec market has softened somewhat in the 4th quarter 2012 compared to the previous 8 months.
Why the latter? Some buyers’ fiscal year ends December 31 and they may simply have run low on acquisition funds. Perhaps, too, buyers have stacked their slates with projects with the acquisition spree beginning in January 2011.
Still even if the year ends where it is now, this marks a significant increase over 2010 in which only 55 specs sold.
Congratulations to Andrew Stark & Jason Pagan, Ashleigh Powell, and Frank Moll ‘first-timers’ who broke into the business by selling a spec script.
Congratulations, too, to Justin Rhodes on the sale of his spec, a big fan of Go Into The Story and Screenwriting Master Class.
Writing Quote for January 2013
“I took a class in screenwriting because I wanted to strengthen my sense of structure. To me a good novel delves deep into a character’s spiritual and emotional drives, and then compels them to act in life-changing ways. I didn’t want to be one of those meandering novelists who cover up lack of action with narrative. So I took the class and I fell in love with screenwriting. It’s like story poetry, the most disciplined form of modern writing, where the story is most cleanly exposed and there’s a beating heart left there bleeding on the page, precious, holy and frightening.”
– Shawn Lawrence Otto (House of Sand and Fog)
Visit their website here.
Follow them on Twitter @ScreenwritingMC where they track all Hollywood lit sales as well as the latest screenwriting news.
by Cheryl McKay
My organizationally-challenged, creative friends think I’m maddeningly structured. (Sorry, friends!) Perhaps I am. But I’d love to share a method that gets my creative juices flowing when organizing, plotting and planning to write a screenplay. While there is no one “right way” to plot, I’ve found that nothing stimulates my imagination in the stark blandness of script plotting like the use of color.
Start by giving each project you write a suitably colored binder. (My binder for Never the Bride is purple – my character is obsessed with it. I even wrote my scene notes with a purple pen.) Then use color-keyed divider tabs so every note can be filed under the appropriate tab. Tabs can include general brainstorms, scene ideas, character breakdowns, locations/settings, research, synopses or treatments, thematic notes and meeting notes.
Once you know enough about your story to plot out scene ideas, the real fun begins. Long ago, I used plain (as in BOR-ring) white index cards to track scene notes. I’d face 100-200 cards that looked exactly alike, overwhelmed about how to order them. I also found them inconvenient to take anywhere to organize – like on a plane or to a coffee shop. (How many times did I drop a whole set I had just ordered? Grr.)
Years ago, I switched to using colored Post-It notes. (I have about 15 color choices.) I make a list of my main plots and subplots, and assign a color to each one.
Example color chart from Never the Bride:
Jessie and God’s storyline – Yellow
Love interest #1 (Blake) – Green
Love Interest #2 (Clay) – Blue
Best Frien Subplot (Nicole) – Lavendar
Brooklyn’s subplot (Jessie’s Sister) – Orange
Proposals Business/Work Place – Pink
The Cops (humorous runner) – Purple
This is where the real fun kicks up a notch. Take the appropriate color Post-It for a scene idea and write it down – whether it be a moment of dialogue, a plot twist, an act break, a character action, reaction, a surprise reveal, a humorous gag, etc. (If there’s crossover in a particular scene, choose the color from the most dominant part of the story.) Don’t analyze scene order yet; just let your mind play.
If I know I’ll just be staying home to work on a particular project, I’ll stick these on poster boards. If I’m travelling, I stick them on blank pieces of white paper that can be filed in my binder under the scene ideas tab. (This is the only time I’ll give you permission to use white paper, so your scene colors stand out.)
Once you’ve written out as many scenes as you can dream up, structure them. First, shift them around by acts. (You’ll likely have a sense if a scene belongs in Act One, Act Two or Act Three.) Then, get more meticulous and try to order the notes within each act. (I like to do this in 15-page blocks at a time. For example; Pg. 31-45 or 46-60.)
When you think you have a rough scene order, this is where colors make what’s going on with your plotlines jump off the page. If you see a long sequence that is completely missing orange, you’ll realize you haven’t serviced that storyline in a while. You can write a new scene idea and insert it, or you can move an orange scene from somewhere else to keep that thread of your story alive and kicking. You’ll also see where your script is getting repetitive by having too many beats in a row of the same color. This is a big benefit of color-coding that hundreds of white note cards just won’t give you. (Plue, remember! White is boring.)
Once you think you have all of your scenes in place, you can “watch” your story progress by reading all your colored Post-Its in order. You can get a sense for how your story is unfolding, and how your main story and subplots interact with each other in living color. Once you’re satisfied with your outline, it’s time to type FADE IN: on the blank white screen. But in your mind’s eye, you’ll always see that color, sparking your creativity throughout the writing process.
Cheryl McKay is the screenwriter for the award-winning film The Ultimate Gift. Her screenplay for Never the Bride was adapted into a novel and published by RandomHouse Publishers (with Rene Gutteridge).
She also wrote an episode of Gigi: God’s Little Princess, based on the book by Sheila Walsh, and Taylor’s Wall, a drama about high-school violence. She’s beenwriting since the tender age of five, when she penned her first play. Cheryl is originally from Boston, Massachusetts and currently lives in Los Angeles.
Okay, okay, let me clear this up first. When I say “30 days of Screenwriting” I didn’t say…”consecutive”. So here we are on day 23 on September 12th. I hope your script is coming along swimmingly.
Mine is. In fact, last week in a writer’s group session I just had a major breakthrough with the story. There’s a huge accident that takes place in the script that I thought HAD to happen in Act I. It just HAD to! The breakthrough was when another much more seasoned writer suggested that it be the Midpoint of Act II.
It was an “Ah ha!” moment where the clouds parted and a ray of sunshine shot through the windows and landed on my laptop and I was all, “Duuuuuude!” And he was all “Whoooooaaa!” Because in our writer groups we talk like the 500 year old sea turtles from “Finding Nemo”.
All the signs were there, I just wasn’t reading them. The story was light after the accident and I was trying to cram in too much BEFORE the accident. By moving the accident to the midpoint of Act II then that allowed all that info before to breathe, and it strengthens the back half of the script cause the audience is all distracted by the fact they’ve just seen a C-130 go up in flames.
There’s two points to be taken here. One is me highly recommending having a sounding board for your script. A place to bounce your ideas off of other seasoned writers. The second is that these things take time to bubble up to the surface.
Occasionally you’ll hear urban legends about a script like “Usual Suspects” that the writers sold on Spec on the idea alone and then they locked themselves in a hotel room and pounded out the script in week’s time. And it’s a great story. But believe me, it did NOT happen in a week.
The writer’s had been mulling over the story for years. They’d been revisiting it in their mind, re-arranging characters and scenes, slowly cooking this story, adding spices, and putting it back on the back burner to simmer a while. Then they’d take it back out, do some more work and put it back to the back. And so when it was time to put pen to paper, or pixels to ‘puter, then it flowed out. In a week.
There are a lot of writers that maybe take a week or 2 weeks to pound out a draft. But, you also have to figure in the 6 months of prep work they’ve been doing to get to that point. And you have to figure in the 4 months of rewrites they do afterwards polishing and perfecting.
It is a lot like cooking. And not like Ramen noodle soup or Oatmeal in the morning kinda cooking, I’m talking some Chef Emeril Rachel Ray type stuff. You know there was a time when I shied away from any of Martha Stewart’s recipes because they all started with the same thing: ”Step 1. Go grow your own wheat in a field that you will later grind up into flour.”
Thanks, Martha. Thanks for that. I’m trying to get dinner on by 5:30 and already I’m 7 months and a harvest behind. I mean I’m assuming it takes 7 months to grow wheat but I dunno. Wheat production isn’t a huge thing in Downtown Charlotte.
“Step 2: Go to market and select a dairy cow from which you’ll make your creamers”
Martha!! Just stop it! You’re killing me. My loft apartment is now filled with a grow house that some hippies helped me retrofit for wheat growing purposes and you want me to fit a cow in here too? Lord knows, I’m 4 years behind on growing the apple trees too.
Yes, this will be the best Apple pie EVER in the history of David. But, G’AW! Is it really gonna be that much better than my frozen Marie Callender pie? I thought THAT was hard work cause I not only had to pre-heat the oven, but I had to fork the crust too. Fork, I said.
Anyway, there are so many ingredients your script will need to make it taste exactly right. And there are many layers and many steps to the process. You’re gonna have to baste, puree, braise, simmer, knead, fondue, al dente, stock, score and sweat your vegetables. You might be writing on a deadline. But your script may not fit neatly into that deadline you’ve assigned.
Back up your writing process, start it earlier, to prepare for the times of simmering. Where for all purposes it looks like you’re just watching a pot waiting for it to boil. But really, things are happening below the surface that you can not see. That you’re not aware of. Sugars are breaking down, ingredients are smelting together, flavors are being released and extra liquids are being boiled out in that simmering period.
Let it happen. And your little Sous Chefs helping you along is your writer’s group. Occasionally they’re gonna try and throw something weird in there and you’re all, nooooo we don’t need garlic…this is a chocolate fondue. But, trust the seasoned writers. If they say to add some brown sugar to your spaghetti sauce…DO IT!!!
It tastes delicious. And you know what? So does your script now. At the very least, you got to harvest the wheat field in your living room in time to see the TV for football season. If you’re in to such things.
Let’s write a script!
Comes from the greek roots, “Dia-” which means “Two” and “logus” which means “locusts”. Two Locusts. Sitting there. Talking.
Let’s face the facts. The dialogue in your script has to do some heavy lifting. It’s got to communicate story, it’s got to inform on Character, it’s got to make us laugh, or cry, it’s got to draw us into the rhythm of a scene.
But there’s a negative side. Because it is all too easy to let the dialogue do ALL of the work in the scene. ALL of the heavy lifting, as it were. When that happens, what we have is called “Christian movies”:
Bob: “You’ve not been the same, Sarah, ever since you found out about my pornography problem and went to live with your mother who always hated me from early on and never understood that because I was an orphan growing up I just longed for intimacy but never knew how to fully achieve it with another person. Especially someone I met on a youth trip to Tijuana and married 2 years later when we found out we were accidentally pregnant. Sarah? I still love you.”
It may in fact be necessary for your audience to know every single piece of verbal plot pointage that was just vomited up on you in this long, but enlightening monologue. But those are things you’re going to have to sprinkle throughout your script. And most of it will never come out in dialogue.
Film, let’s not forget, is first and foremost a Show-don’t-tell medium. Show it. Don’t tell it. Lead us along visually. Just like that ancient dude whose name eludes me said about evangelism: ”Witness, and if necessary, use words.” Same point applies to your script. Your characters are saying VOLUMES through their actions. Let those actions talk….and if necesssary, use dialogue.
To be a scriptwriter you’ve got to be a life-long student of dialogue. The way in which two locusts talk to each other. Or people.
Your dialogue is linked directly to how well you know your characters. Have you studied them? Have you interviewed them? Do you know if they’re from the North or South or Guatemala? Do you know if they’re uber-Rich or ghetto? Do you know if they’re introverts or extroverts?
Take the simple question and answer dialogue between two people…
Man: How are you feeling?
Woman: Fine, I think. Actually, I’m afraid I might be pregnant.
…There are people that would talk exactly like that. If that suits your characters, then so be it. That’s perfect. But maybe not. Maybe they talk like this….
Man: Whaddup, B?
Woman: Fo shizzle, d-money! You about to be a baby daddy! What WHAAAAT?!?
Same exact conversation. Filtered through the mouths of two very different people.
Man: ‘Allo, Miss. ’Zere a problem, oy?
Woman nods and hands him a pregnancy test with a POSITIVE on it!
Same conversation again. Only you get a hint of an accent from the fellow. And the work of the woman’s dialogue was worked into an action instead. Sometimes words are not enough.
Man: What in bloody blue blazes in going on in that demented ugly skull of yours?
Woman: Would you shut the eff up and stop yelling! It’s bad for the BAY-BEEE!
Can you sense some emotional undertones in that one? Anger? The discourteous nature of their smack talk. Maybe they hate each others guts, maybe they love each other. Hard to say from just this interchange, but their dialogue speaks VOLUMES as to the type of character they are as well as their emotional status.
Your dialogue must be true to your character’s nature. We should be able to read on the page and get a different sense from one characters’ words to the other character’s words and speech patterns.
Your characters must COME ALIVE on the page! Fo shizzle!
1. Have you ever been in love? Have you ever met someone that makes your heart pitter patter, your breathing shallow and your palms sweaty? Have you ever wanted to tell someone that you loved them, but couldn’t. It wasn’t the right time. It wasn’t the right place. But you were with them. But you couldn’t tell them. What was that conversation like? What did you talk about? You were oooooozing love, and trying to make sure the other person knew you really really liked them, but you couldn’t just come out and say it.
2. Have you ever been mad? Insanely, blood boiling mad at someone. But your kids were in the room so you couldn’t let it all hang out. Or you were in public and it wasn’t appropriate to explode all over them in Wal-Mart. What did you talk about? How was your manner of speech with them?
3. Have you ever been to church and everyone’s all praise and worshipp-y but you encountered something last night that rocked your world. A first kiss. A bad divorce. A hit and run. And then all the sudden you turn around and there’s that other person in front of you. They were there, too. What do you say? What do you talk about? How is your crazy internal world of conflict and drama leaking its way into your conversation?
This all has to do with the Art of Subtext. Subtext just means that there is something more going on beneath the surface than meets the eye. And when the audience is in on that bit of info, it can ignite a whole scene between two characters.
You want romantic subtext? Think of “The Princess Bride” when Buttercup was in a room and the Farmboy would come in and she would find some chore for him to do. She would ask and he would say, “As you wish.” And after a while of this, she began to realize as did we, that when he said, “As you wish,” he was really saying “I love you!”. The subtext was the unrealized passion and love they had for each other the surface level was about a boy fetching a pitcher for a young maiden.
Subtext. Layers of meaning beneath the surface.
Intrigue subtext? What about “Inglorious Basterds?” Quentin Tarantino can talk a script to DEATH. The man loves the sound of his own writing. And his characters talk and talk and talk and talk and then BAM some huge piece of action happens, and then talk talk talk some more. But he does an interesting thing, as with the open of that film.
You’ve got a dairy farmer who is being surprise inspected by a Nazi jew hunter. The Nazi comes in to his home, sits in his kitchen and talks to him about dairy farms and milk and his job and local families and all that type of stuff. At some point, the camera pans down beneath the floorboards to reveal a family of jews quietly laying hidden. This adds an electric spark to the otherwise monotony of the scene as the Nazi officer prattles on and on about rats. Only he’s not talking about rats, really, he’s talking about Jews. And we nervously perch on the edge of our seats as we watch the drama unfold and wonder if they will discover the secret beneath the floorboards…inches from their polished German boot steps.
Are you married? Would you recognize a scene where a furious woman goes into the kitchen to clean and scrub and clean and scrub. ”What’s wrong?” the husband asks. ”Nothing,” she replies, scrubbing the teflon right off the saucepan. She can even begin a conversation about him not helping around the house, about him not doing dishes, like, EVER! But truth be known, it’s not about the dishes. It’s something else. Something deeper. Something Subtextual. Hidden beneath the surface. Did he forget their anniversary? Did she find lipstick on his collar? Did she get a foreclosure notice on the house today? Did the doctor find a lump?
Subtext. The action and the dialogue is made richer through the addition of layers. A father that is completely incapable of telling his son that he loves him or that he’s proud of him has developed other ways of communicating that. What are they? Perhaps it’s the way he checks the air in the tires before the trip. What if the son is going off to war and the dad may never see him again? Do NOT let your father break character. Dig deep. Find the “I love you” somewhere else. The watch he gives him. The sudden interest in mending the fence. The need to be elsewhere.
Human beings are extraordinarily complicated, have you noticed? Most people are driven by a single goal or interest within a conversation. That goal is rarely stated straight out. But they methodically go through the conversation trying to achieve their goal. To make themselves look good? To keep a co-worker from asking an embarassing question? To just be accepted by the cool kids?
Each of your characters going into a scene needs a goal. A purpose. What are they after. How do they go about getting it? This drives the action of the scene. The dialogue flows naturally out of this action. And there’s always, ALWAYS more to the scene than meets the eye.
Okay, so you’ve seen Captain America? You haven’t seen Captain America? Where we at? Doesn’t matter. Here’s the idea. Before Captain America is Captain America he’s scrawny Steve Rogers. He looks anemic and sickly. Pasty white and pale. That is your script before you infuse it with Drama.
Then he gets pumped with the magical German potion of scientific advancement and SPROING! He turns into a beefy super-soldier. That is your script AFTER you infuse it with Drama.
Remember those stories your dad used to tell you about walking to school in the snow uphill both ways in bare feet carrying his sick Uncle on a backpack he whittled out of thorn bushes? Me too! Our dads must have talked. But they knew something innately about building a good story. You know for a while I thought I would have to tell Dad’s stories cause mine seemed boring by comparison.
“You know kids, when my DAD was YOUR age…”
But then life happened and I got plenty of my own stories of tale and tragedy and woe. And more importantly, I learned how to infuse my stories with DRAMA.
There are many many ways to infuse your story with drama and we are going to be exploring some of those over the next few days. Because you’ve got to ramp up the conflict to raise the dramatic stakes so your audience will continue to be invested in your story.
The first way to increase the drama in your scene is to determine the goal of that scene. Watch how we ramp up the stakes in this scene:
Henry learns that his friend Jane is coming over.
Henry learns that his beloved Jane is back in town.
Henry learns that his former fiance is back…from the dead.
Henry learns that his hated ex-wife Jane is back in town to collect her half of the lottery ticket he’s just won.
Keep cranking down those stakes. There are some cliched ways to do that, but even though they are cliches they can still be used succesfully to increase drama. For example, add a “ticking timb bomb.” This does not have to be an actual bomb, but is a symbol for some sort of time decay in your story.
In “Run Lola Run” not only does Lola have to get across town to bring $100K to her boyfriend…she’s only got Tventy Minutens (or 20 minutes) to do so. This incessant tick tock will continually drive the pace of your story. In “Speed” they can’t let the bus go below 50 miles per hour or it blows up.
A variation of this theme is the “Race”. You have a competition between two individuals or groups trying to get the same thing. In “Star Wars” the Death Star was trying to blow up Yavin-4 while at the same time the Rebels were trying to blow up the death star. In “Indiana Jones” everyone was going for the Ark of the Covenant. It was a race against the Nazis.
This is actually an editing technique called cross-cutting. Within an action sequence you’re going back and forth between alternate action sequences building each one to its exciting conclusion. In “Return of the Jedi” you’ve got the battle on Endor between the Ewoks and the Imperial troops. You’ve got the Death Star battle inside going on between Luke and Darth Daddy. Then you’ve got a space battle going on with Lando and Fish face trying to nuke the Death Star.
Very exciting stuff.
But maybe you’re not building a Space Epic. How do you bring excitement and drama to a home scene with a wife at home. Well, it starts with her goal. What is her goal? To get out the door to get to work on time? Well, once you know the character’s goal…their path….then you know where to start throwing all your obstructions in their way. The Babysitter is late, the 4 year old hides the car keys. The phone rings and it’s the Sick Aunt that Mom never has time for and she’s at wit’s end and needs to talk. Now you’ve got a frazzled woman on the phone, juggling kids, now the babysitter is lost, so she’s going back and forth between two conversations and bribing the 4-year-old with chocolate for keys….and the dramatic tension is HIGH!
And maybe in the midst of all of that, the husband is supposed to tell her he forgot to book their family vacay in time and so they’ve lost their weekend cabin getaway next week.
It’s one complication after the next. This is your chance to play God with your people. Don’t make things too easy for them. Easy = boring. Boring = changing the channel. Even for something as simple as “Driving Miss Daisy” you’ve got stakes being raised. First of all, she’s an old old OLD woman. That makes ANY travel more difficult. Then she’s got to go into the deep south with an African American driver. Conflict. Conflict. Conflict.
So get out there and infuse those stories with drama! Stop telling your dad’s hard luck stories and start telling your own!
THE TRUTH ABOUT MAKE-BELIEVE
by André van Heerden
JESSEP You want answers?! KAFFEE I want the truth. JESSEP You can't handle the truth!
(dialogue excerpt from A Few Good Men)
In films, where just about everything is made up, how important is truth? How important is the difference between right and wrong? And if everything else in a film can be created and altered – then can our values be mutated too?
People watch movies to be entertained. Integral to a movie being entertaining is that it also share a deeper truth. For example, a joke without a point, or a meaning, falls flat because no one knows why it’s being told. Screenwriting guru, Robert McKee, notes in his book, Story, that “all fine films, novels and plays, through all shades of the comic and tragic, entertain when they give the audience a fresh model of life empowered with an affective meaning.”
But what is truth? And since every decade’s films reflect the culture in which they’re made, then surely too, values have changed as society has as well? The influential philosopher, Friedrich Nietzche, wrote in his book, The Genealogy that values are relative to every time and culture; that values are “created” by the “masters” in control of society; that Christian morality is nothing more than the weak seeking to make the strong feel guilty and requiring the “sublimation” of natural passions; and that we need to move beyond the notion of good and evil.
Such thoughts are based on moral relativism and on the premise that there are no such things as absolutes. One of my favorite political cartoons shows a lawyer defending his Viking clients to a jury in a courtroom. He eloquently argues, “Raping, pillaging, looting… Yes… but may I remind the court of my client’s UNIQUE cultural value system.”
Clearly, we all have an idea of what is right and wrong, even if we disagree where that knowledge may come from. Also, as author George Forell notes in Ethics of Decision, there is an obvious self-contradiction in the idea that there is no such thing as absolute truth. “On behalf of open-mindedness we are confronted by people with utterly closed minds who dogmatically assert the absolute truth that there is no absolute truth.”
Ironically, in today’s society it seems that the only thing you can actually label as “bad” is the so-called prejudiced belief that there is such a thing as “good and bad.” This makes a story-teller’s task extremely challenging. The role of all artists is to share meaning and insights into of all life. But how can a story share a great truth when the audience is offended by such a thing? Or is too jaded to care? Billy Mernit asked in Writing the Romantic Comedy, “Where’s the tension when sex doesn’t have to mean marriage, and happily ever after lasts until the lawyers get called?”
Truth is certainly under assault – and with it, great story-telling. After the US Supreme Court upheld the right for a woman to kill her unborn child in the Planned Parenthood vs Casey case, the Justices asserted that “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of the meaning of the universe and the mystery of life.”
With such “define your own reality” statements coming from the highest court in the land should we be surprised that traditional family values are now seen as backward; that sexual deviance is on the rise; and that school shootings have become common place? How can we expect order when there’s nothing to base it on? And should we be surprised by the current popularity of gruesome, sadistic horror films which glorify human torture and degradation? How can we expect truth or value from popular culture when society seems to disdain it?
Robert McKee writes: “The final cause for the decline of story runs very deep. Values, the positive/negative charges of life, are at the soul of our art. The writer shapes story around a perception of what’s worth living for, what’s worth dying for, what’s foolish to pursue, the meaning of justice, truth – the essential values. In decades past, writer and society more or less agreed on these questions, but more and more ours has become an age of moral and ethical cynicism, relativism, and subjectivism – a great confusion of values.”
The truth is: we need stories of value more than ever. Despite all the noise, pride and contempt that try to shout it down, truth is not a fad and it is not determined by public opinion. From the earliest Greek plays to Shakespeare to the classics of Hollywood, themes of great truths still hold sway. And if honored, truth still has the ability to entertain and the power to transform. As John 8:32 says, “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
André van Heerden is the President of Film and TV production at Cloud Ten Pictures. He has worked in almost every aspect of film and video production for nearly 20 years. His very first documentary, done as a video thesis at Carleton University’s prestigious Journalism school, was sold to the National Film Board of Canada.
Most notably André directed the feature films, REVELATION, TRIBULATION, JUDGMENT and DECEIVED; wrote the features JUDGMENT and LEFT BEHIND: WORLD AT WAR; and produced the extremely popular LEFT BEHIND series of films as well as SAVING GOD with Ving Rhames. Most recently he wrote and directed the documentaries: Shadow Government, Dragons or Dinosaurs? and The 12 Biggest Lies with Kevin Sorbo. He lives in Ontario, Canada with his wife and three children.
For more information about Cloud Ten Pictures, call 1-888-684-5561 or visit www.cloudtenpictures.com
WHAT’S YOUR NUMBER?
By Calix Lewis Reneau
In 2009, Richard Kelly released The Box, a film adaptation of Richard Matheson’s short story called “Button, Button.” The premise is simple: you are given a box with a single button on it. If you press the button in the next 24 hours, two things will happen:
1) You’ll get a million dollars.
2) Someone you don’t know will die.
Great premise, tricky to adapt (which is why it took Kelly to get around to it after all these years – alas, to questionable success, although I liked the flick.)
So here’s a variant game we’re gonna play:
I give you a box with a button, you push the button, you get a dollar (and no one dies, even!)
Do you push it?
Would you push it a hundred thousand times to make a hundred thousand dollars?
If you wouldn’t, maybe you’re not cut out for screenwriting.
An average screenplay is around 20,000 words – if we assume you average five letters a word, and never do a revision, and never make a mistake, and sell the script for top WGA minimum, you’ve just pressed buttons 100,000 times to make 100,000. More or less. (It’s a metaphor – shh, don’t scare it away!)
Obviously, screenwriting is not quite that clear-cut in real life.
In real life, on a script that sells, you’re likely to make ten or more passes – so it’s not unreasonable to call it a million button pushes to make a sale. (I’m over a thousand button-pushes into writing this, not counting backspacing!)
And in real life, you’re not likely to sell that first script – maybe you’ll make it on your tenth. So we’re looking at 10,000,000 button-pushes to get to that sale. If you’re lucky.
Are you willing to push buttons ten million times to get to your dreams?
Another set of numbers:
It took me (personally, really) 18 years from the time I moved to Los Angeles to the time I heard my director call “action!” on the first feature I ever had produced. Okay, that’s a looooong time, to be sure. (I’m slow in other ways, too.) But that’s my number; that’s what it took me.
What’s your number? If you moved to LA in 1991 the same as me, and you were one of those “I’ll give it five years – or three – or ten” – guess what?
Okay, here’s another set of numbers:
Best I can find out:
There were 25,000 to 35,000 feature-length projects shot in the USA in 2010.
There were another 50,000 projects registered with the WGAw in 2010.
There are 30-some hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute – nearly 16,000,000 hours of content uploaded in 2010.
Remember, there are only 8,760 “real” hours in a year – total.
So you could watch maybe 1,500 of those 35,000 feature-length movies in a year if it was your only full-time job. Or one week’s worth of YouTube uploads – if watching that single week of uploads was your full-time job for the rest of your life.
So how about reading those 50,000 scripts – how long will that take you?
…keeping in mind the 50,000 scripts from 2009 are still out there… and the 50,000 scripts from 2008… Yes, some of those are “off the market” now, so to speak, but can you really comprehend those numbers?
So, what are your numbers?
How many buttons will you push? How many scripts will you write? How many queries will you send out? How many times are you willing to fail? How long will you give screenwriting? Is it a lottery ticket – a passing urge – or a passion you’ll do even if you never get produced?
Because – honestly – most of us never will get produced. Cold hard fact.
And one other cold hard fact: when you send your script to that agent, that manager, that prodco – you’re competing against the best of the best. You’re stepping onto the court in the NBA against people who have done all of the work – who have counted the cost and pressed on.
Ultimately, the only way you can succeed in this biz is if every morning you can look in the mirror and say:
“If I never sell a script, if I never have a movie produced, if I never make a single dime – I am a writer, and I can still be satisfied on my death bed that I pursued screenwriting all my life, and I typed.
“I pushed the buttons. No matter the number.”
(PS: Matheson also wrote I Am Legend, another short story that seems to keep proving unadaptable - but that’s a different kind of button being pushed…)
Day 11. Somebody out there on the interwebs needs this one today.
And even though I don’t need it today, as in right this second, I’m bookmarking this link because every one of us comes to this crossroad. You know the one — where we have to decide if we’re continuing on with the dream or if we’re just going to lay it down cause stuff got too hard. Too overwhelming.
To start, here’s a clip from “League of Their Own” where Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks) is about to lose his star player, Dotty (Geena Davis):
“If it was easy, everyone would do it. It’s the hard that makes it great!”
That’s the Word of God for someone here today.
There’s a scene in “The African Queen” after their long, long journey down the river where they’ve had to resort to pulling the boat through the tall reeds to reach the mouth of the river. They’re battling leeches, they’re battling enemy soldiers, they’re battling the heat and exhaustion and with no end in sight to their circumstance, they can’t go an inch further and pass out on the boat’s deck. At that point the camera cranes up and we discover how close they were to their goal. Literally a few more feet of tall grass and they would have made it.
I think of that a lot. How many times do we give up because we lack the vision, we have no clue where the end is and sadly, we’re right upon on it. Right there! In the film, the rain begins to pour down which not only revives our two heroes, but lifts their boat in the swelling river and carries it the last few feet to their destination…Lake Victoria. If you haven’t seen the film, watch it, it’s a classic, or wait a couple years, I’m sure it’ll be remade with Ashton Kutcher and Anne Hathaway.
You’ve probably also seen this powerful scene from “Facing the Giants” because it’s been played in every church in North America so often, it’s almost earned canonization in the New Testament. But it still gets me because we all need a coach that is driving us harder, pushing us farther than we think is possible. Hopefully, you have that person in your life.
If we’re going to attain impossible things, we’ve got to develop a certain set of emotional musculature that simply will not allow us to quit. Have you got what it takes to be a scriptwriter? A filmmaker? A producer? It requires a certain amount of bravado. I’m talking Marines type of bravado. What’s that t-shirt they wear?
“Pain is just weakness leaving the body.”
It’s time for someone to get up and get moving again today! I’m serious…don’t make me cross the interwebs and kick your heiney. Just take a step. Then another step. And another.
How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. With duck sauce.
Let’s write a movie!