Saturday, May 29, 2010

THEME = The Heart of Your Script

ONE KEY MISTAKE that screenwriters often make is to forget to include a Theme for the main character. Yes, well-drawn characters are vital. However, there needs to be a reason for your audience to keep reading.

What is the most important single moment in your story? The Climax. What is revealed to the Main Character in the Climax? The Theme. Theme is the key to the entire structure of your story. Without it, you are merely rendering events. With it, events take on meaning.

Theme is also tied to the emotional journey of your Main Character. This emotion is the “universal” that the audience hooks into. When audiences relate to characters who are from history, the future or another planet; even though they may fight in a war, track down a killer or win the girl who is impossible to get, it is because of the emotions felt by your characters.

I will never be William Munny, from the movie “Unforgiven,” striding into the Big Whiskey Saloon to face Little Bill Daggett who just killed my best friend Ned. But I understand the emotion of this character who has tried to change his life, undergone hardship, been pulled back into his past and now intends to exact revenge for a wrong done to a loved one.

Without this emotion - it’s nothing more than a gunfight.

Characters = What. Theme = Why?

Why does your audience care? If your work isn’t getting optioned or sold, look at your theme again. Do you know what it is? If you don’t - then, the reader doesn’t.

Brainstorming Tip:

Here is an exercise you can do when you’re just starting your idea. First, choose a theme. Maybe it is something like: “absolute power corrupts even the truest heart.”

Next, ask yourself what kind of character might learn this. Perhaps it is someone who has nothing but kindness in his heart. Then decide what situation might take such a good person and thrust him into a position of absolute power. And finally, imagine what situation might occur that would force him into deciding between grasping that ultimate power and doing the right thing.

You now have the bones to build a structure and have created a dramatic climax.

This example is from “The Lord of the Rings,” where a simple hobbit was chosen to destroy the ring. But in the moment of truth - he couldn’t …and almost lost his soul.

But this exercise will work with any theme. Do this next time and see your writing become more compelling. And you will also find the structure of your work grow to the next level.

Have a great writing day!

Monday, May 24, 2010

CHARACTER - The 3 Needs

All dramatic writing boils down to what does your main character want? Why does s/he want it? What’s keeping her/him from getting it?

Yes, I’m sure many of you reading this know it. At the same time, reread that script that you wrote that didn’t get sold or optioned. Are you sure you conveyed answers to these three questions?

If you’ve been told that your script feels meandering or takes awhile “to get going,” chances are you need to identify your character’s want. If your main character has nothing that s/he wants, then your story will have no direction and feel adrift. The executive or creative element that is reading your work will not give your characters the “benefit of the doubt.” If they don’t know what’s at stake, they won’t read another ten pages to find out. They’ll just set it down.

If readers have said that they didn’t “invest” in the outcome, it likely means that your character “need” isn’t strong or clear enough. If your main character has one reason for wanting her/his goal, it is not nearly as strong as if s/he has TEN reasons. As you add more reasons, your character's "want" becomes a "need." And when you show that your character has a genuine need, your audience pays attention.

Think about your own life. If you only sort of want something, how committed are you to getting it? If you HAVE to have something, what would you be willing to do? The same is true for your characters.

There also needs to be a consequence for your character if s/he fails.

If readers have told you that your ending needs to be stronger, odds are good that there needs to be more obstacles and conflict. Torture your main character. When in doubt, create an obstacle - internal or external. The more obstacles your character must confront - or the more compelling the obstacle - the more the reader will root for your character and be involved with your script.

Readers who are involved, are more likely to option or buy. They are also more likely to remember you and your writing.

Have a great writing day!

Monday, May 17, 2010

REWRITING - Are We Having Fun, Yet?

David E. Kelley wrote or created TV shows from LA Law to Ally McBeal to Boston Legal. He has written 100’s of episodes. And he writes in longhand. On legal pads. Every day. Time consuming? Maybe. However, he does not rush his writing. And neither should you.

Many times, screenwriters think they can “fly” through their rewrite. But this attitude suggests that rewriting is tedious but necessary. Like a chore to be dispensed with quickly.

What if screenwriters thought of rewrites as enjoyable? What if they realized that rewrites are, actually, “the fun part”? The hardest work is done, already. The structure is in place. The characters have traits and goals. You know what the conflicts and theme are.

Now is the time to let your characters breathe …and come to life.

Here’s a way of approaching your next rewrite that you might not have thought of:

When rewriting, avoid using the copy & paste commands.

Yes, I’m serious.

With screenplays, less is more. However, you must still convey so much. That means that you must choose exactly the right word. Every time.

Keep a copy of your prior draft at your side and refer to it as you actually rewrite each word. By using this technique, you will be forced to re-choose every word of your script and ask yourself: “Is this the best way to convey this character, this action, this situation?”

You will see yourself choosing better verbs, saying in one word what you’d said in three. You might even find yourself removing large sections of a scene. Or even an entire scene. It can be heartbreaking. But writing is not for the squeamish.

You must be brutally honest with yourself. Your characters - and your readers - will thank you for it.

Have a great writing day!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

STRUCTURE - Part 2 - I Can Already Hear You Say It

"WHAT about 'formula'?" I hear you ask. "Aren't those 9 scenes just another Hollywood formula?"

Yes and no. Here's a reality check: unless you know a key talent element (director, producer, actor), your script will be read by a story analyst. Unless your agent is also your best friend, your script will first be sent to the agency's Story Department, where it will be read by - you guessed it - a story analyst.

If your story analyst is your ex-roommate from college, then, no worries. If not ...well, good luck. Story analysts, also known as "readers," are mostly freelancers and get paid for each script read. Since they need to pay their rent, it means that they read at least two dozen scripts each week. 24 scripts x 52 weeks = 1,248 scripts each year. That's a lot of reading. Or not.

In most cases, admit it or not, they read the first ten pages, the last ten pages and the dialog in between. Yes, it's a cruel reality. All those words you bled over that may never get read (There are ways to force the reader to read it all, but I'll cover that when I write about formatting in a later blog.)

Another thing your reader is looking for are the 9 scenes mentioned in my earlier blog. It's a subconscious checklist. They will notice if they're not on the page. And if not, they will move your script from the pile that says "Consider" to the one that says "Pass."

Is that "formula"? I'm afraid so. But the news isn't all bad. This method of storytelling has a history that goes back to the beginning of ...storytelling. It's imprinted into us. It works.

And once you have determined what these scenes are in your screenplay, you are free to experiment with how they unfold - and in what order.

"Pulp Fiction" is a perfect example of tweaking this 9 scene formula. This script was a bold departure from standard structure, wasn't it? "Pulp Fiction" is a great movie, with amazing dialog and truly original characters. But the structure is simply a shell-game version of the basic 9 scenes. It is as though Tarantino wrote a linear story, cut it into sections and then rearranged the sections. It was innovative. But it was a linear story told out of sequence.

Tarantino is a gifted writer and a serious movie buff. He knew the "rules" - and then he broke, bent and twisted them. His innovations were choices, not accidents.

What about ensemble stories, like "Crash"? A brilliant script. Tremendously difficult to write. If you check closely, you'll see that each character has a three-act arc. Are all nine scenes there? In some subplots, yes; in others, no. But, again, the writer/director Paul Haggis was aware of convention. His departures from it were made from that awareness.

Write the 9 scenes for your script. Know the skeleton of your story. Then, if you want to experiment - go for it!

Have a great writing day!

STRUCTURE - The 9 Essential Scenes

YES, outlining can be a headache. Yes, it can seem daunting, at first. "Why do I need an outline? I know my story. Who has time to waste? Let me start writing."

Admirable ambition. But misguided. If your story isn't structured, you are likely to write yourself into a corner and have to start over. And the time you spend writing those 44 pages will be wasted. Ouch.

Doesn't outlining take the spontaneity out of your work? No. What it does is create a framework in which your characters come to life. Your characters are spontaneous. Not your structure.

The simple truth is this:

Screenwriters who do not outline, leave the bleached bones of their main characters lying in the desert of Act Two.

And this world is filled with millions of unfinished screenplays.

Here is a tool to use while outlining your script. These are the scenes that every reader is looking for. Believe me, if they're missing, they will notice.

You need to be clear on 9 scenes. These scenes are the signposts along your screenwriting journey.

1st: What is your opening? How does it set up your main character & conflicts? What is your setting, action and tone?

2nd: What is happening on p.10? Does the audience have a general sense of what this movie will be about? Does the audience have a sense of the emotional terrain in your story?

3rd: Your main character needs to “cross the threshold” into Act II somewhere between p. 15 and p. 25 (depending on genre). “Crossing the threshold” means leaving his/her “ordinary world” behind. Once passed, nothing will ever be the same. In Act II: The old world is left behind & your character enters an unfamiliar space, where s/he will meet allies & enemies.

The 5th scene you need for your outline (Yes, I know I skipped one. Be patient): The Midpoint of Act II. It is strongest if this scene occurs between pages 50 & 60. The Midpoint is where the stakes are raised in a way that changes the trajectory of the main character’s journey.

NOW, the 4th scene you need - yes, we’re backtracking - is half-way between the beginning of Act II and Midpoint. It’s called Pinch Point One. Pinch Point One raises the conflict for your main character, forcing him/her to step further into the emotional wilderness.

6th: Pinch Point Two. You guessed it - halfway between Midpoint and the end of Act II. And yes, like PP1, it forces your character to go deeper.

7th: The End of Act II. This is usually a crisis, dramatic or comedic, which makes the Climax inevitable. The End of Act II might be your character’s lowest point or the place where the final challenge has been set and there is no turning back.

8th: The Climax. You’d be surprised how many scripts don’t have one …or have too many. The Climax is where your main character must either make a choice between what s/he THOUGHT s/he wanted & what s/he REALLY wants. This is frequently a choice between an external goal and an internal, emotional goal. Or the Climax may be the point where your main character has his/her “blinders” removed to see the world with new understanding.

In either case, the Climax is the point where your theme is revealed to your main character.

And what is #9? It is the Final Scene. What is the feeling that you want to leave with the audience? The emotion of the final scene can make the difference between a sale and no sale, between a hit …and a miss.

Emotion is everything. It’s what the audience comes to the movie theater for: to feel. And by sharing it in a crowd, they feel connected.

These 9 scenes are essential. Hitting them right is your craft. Your outline is your map. You need one before you start your next journey.

Have a great writing day!