IT'S THE STORY, STUPID!
MY FAVORITE "TRUTH" ABOUT SCREENPLAYS: If the story doesn't work, then the script won't work. If at any given time, your reader is not wondering, "What's going to happen next?"-you're in trouble. My experience as a script doctor/script consultant is that 90% of all problems are story based.
Let me put it this way - you can have great characters, it can be funny as hell or dripping with heartfelt pathos, you can create terrific scenes, you can have all the juicy bells and whistles, but, if the story doesn't make sense, if it's off, if it's hard to follow, then the script is not going to work and you're D.O.A.
One thing that is very prevalent in the majority of professional scripts is that, at minimum they make sense. The reason? Perhaps these writers have been beaten up enough by producers and agents to fear the infamous and sorry words, "I don't get it." Perhaps after many bruises, they've made it their business to employ a little birdie who sits on their shoulder constantly whispering, ''are they going to understand this?" "How can I say this using fewer words?" "Is there a stage direction that will give it more clarity?" The ultimate test, "Would Uncle Charlie understand this after three Buds?"
These writers know the consequences of ambiguity. A producer spending his or her time desperately trying to figure what's happening is not going to be a friend in court.
WHAT'S A GOOD STORY? There are many definitions. Mine would be, "something that rings true, that's important and is worth telling."
"Of course," you may say.
Well, I've read plenty of scripts lacking theme and the experience is often equivalent to having had a big meal and still feeling hungry. Experience has told me that SOUL is missing.
STORIES ARE COMPOSED OF SCENES, perhaps a hundred in a given screenplay. They serve two purposes: to further the plot and also to provide intrinsic entertainment value.
Good writers slave over the creation of scenes, big and small. It's not enough that the sensational climax is intact, or that the heavy-duty love scene or the ultimate confrontation hit the mark. All scenes need to be layered, well crafted, deeply thought out, and should emanate from a place of both inspiration and sound strategy.
WHAT'S A BAD STORY? I heard this definition somewhere-- a bad story is a "long lie that after a while, even you don't believe."
How does that happen? How do well-intentioned writers end up writing long lies? It usually happens when we don't spend the time doing the spade work, when we haven't thought things through. AND WHEN INSTANT GRATIFICATION TO GET THE SCRIPT FINISHED DOMINATES THE PROCESS.
Here's my theory on this,
*We think that we should.
*It depresses us.
Besides jumping the gun on the actual writing, how else do writers get off track?
Some personal favorites: (not necessarily in order of importance)
*Wanting to be hip, they write their script in "lingo." Mumbles, half sentences, parsed words. They think they're being cool. Be cool. But we owe it to our audience to be understandable.
*There are those who have the gift of humor. They write funny. But the joke is not enough. They have not taken the time to figure out the tale. Humor will only enhance a script. Whether consciously or unconsciously, the ball that the audience is following is the "STORY BALL" not the "joke ball."
*Writers can be too truthful. Yes, that's right. Some writers feel that they must tell the whole truth and nothing but. They fail to realize that movies are not real life. Real life is filled with boring passages, repetition and ambiguity. A good story should seem like real life, and it may embrace the footprints of real experience, but it's shaped by theatricality. "Simple reality is not enough, you need a touch more."
*Writers run short on patience and begin to contrive, often throwing in something sensational or salacious. The temptation is very keen to "fill in" when you run short on solid ideas. But as someone once said, "the moment you throw something in that doesn't belong in the story solely for the sake of appealing to some imagined reader, who you think wants a bit more sex or sentimentality, at that moment your story dies a little and becomes more of a lie."
*Another unhappy staple of disaster is the protagonist who goes through Hell but never seems to break an honest sweat. This happens a lot. Intense pressure on your hero in an atmosphere of conflict will help keep your story mobile and entertaining. Keep checking to make sure that this in fact is happening.
*"Petty" misunderstoods, sloppy "little" mistakes and misdemeanors which will soon add up to felonies and rejection.
There are additional pitfalls. Many writers just haven't developed the skills to properly execute a script (yet).
*Lack of economy. There are many writers who think that they have to tell you everything about everything. Great ideas get buried in massive verbiage. Notice how economically written most pro scripts are. Less is usually better.
*Writing "on the nose." (ie: stating the obvious)
WHERE DO GREAT STORIES COME FROM?
Certainly not from willfulness and marketing schemes.
It comes from the best part of you.
Author/teacher Julia Cameron puts it this way, "Art is an act of tuning in and dropping down the well. It is as though all the stories, painting, music performances in the world live just under the surface of our normal consciousness. Like an underground river, they flow through us as a stream of ideas that we can tap down into ...when I teach screenwriting I remind my students that their movie already exists in its entirety. Their job is to listen for it, watch it with their mind's eye and write it down."
Ghost and The Sixth Sense obviously came from a ferocious spiritual consciousness.
Thelma and Louise emanated from a passionate feminism reflecting both rage and reality.
The Godfather was born in a hot place from a writer who knew the terrain. It obviously both fascinated and repelled him.
What are your inspirations? What do you know about?
Now the real work begins. Where do you start? Where do you end? What happens in the middle? Who are the characters? Ask yourself, how can I tell this story really well? How can I create scenes that are as memorable as the overall story I'm writing? How willing am I to resist actually writing the script until I'm ready?
More next issue.
(The above article will be published in the one-year anniversary
A NOTE FROM THE LAB (by JUDY KELLEM, daughter and associate)
I've spent my twenties asking this question. It keeps me in check before
Writing is alchemy. It is taking the base, raw resources of one's
ROLES LIST FROM COLIN
At http://www.moviescribe.com I have put together roles lists of the primary characters of a number of prime time TV shows.
Why should you care? A roles list is a resource for you if you want to
Roles Lists Currently Online Include: Law and Order; Law and Order: Special Victims Unit; Norm; It's Like, You Know...; Third Watch; Oh, Grow Up; Two Guys and a Girl; and more to come!
HOLLYWOODSCRIPT.COM is proud to announce that there are two movies in production right now on which we originally consulted.
"The Amati Girls"
I RECEIVE LETTERS!!
1. A year ago, I got the idea of writing a screenplay about a young boy who discovers he can communicate with spirits. I had
The good news is that your project resembles a huge hit. If it's different enough (or if you can adjust it) you can capitalize on
2. I am currently working on a script and need money to produce an indy film. I am considering submitting a "pitch" for
Sorry, you'll rarely get a pitch if you don't have real credits and if there's not already a demand for your services. New writers break in via completed spec scripts not pitches (ie verbal submissions of a new ideas).
3. In the last several months I've read that screenwriters over forty, even established ones, have a tough time getting anyone to
WHAT'S THE NUMBER 1 SECRET FOR SELLING A SCRIPT
MATERIAL THAT"S READY!!
If you surveyed the vast population of up and coming writers out there and asked them what they really, really needed, you'd find many share a common belief that if they were just able to find the right agent and/or producer then life would be wonderful and they'd be within inches of their quixotic goals.
Are you ready for reality?
The truth is that agents and producers are important only AFTER the material is ready.
BUT MINE IS READY-HONEST!!!
More truth--most writers with a new project are pumped. They're convinced that their script is absolutely ready to be grabbed up. It rarely is--scripts usually need CRITICAL work. It's hard (for many writers) to see this themselves.
Now there are those who think that if their material is almost "there," then surely smart professionals in the biz will recognize the golden potential.
It doesn't happen. You're lucky to get recognition for good work even when it's fully developed.
Material must be hot and and ready or you're wasting your time.
This is not bad news because it puts the control right back into your hands. Instead of spending your time wishing, hoping and lamenting, you can put that energy into making sure that your script is absolutely ready.
Good material eventually finds an audience. I really believe this! It may not happen on your exact timetable, but it does happen. The entire entertainment industry is predicated on this premise. Otherwise there would be no entertainment. Writers are not born with an automatic entree. Everyone has had to go through the drama of breaking in. Good material finds its place--count on it.
MORE FROM COLIN
Let me begin by saying a couple of things. First, we are NOT selling software in this newsletter and are not being compensated for plugging the software we are reviewing here.
Second, you should already have a program that formats your scripts for you but if not, I'll be doing a buyers guide on script formaters at a later date.
This buyers guide is a review of two "Story Development Tools": Writers Blocks and Story Craft.
What is a "Story Development Tool"? These tools help you prepare to write a script. They are great for helping you organize your story. They are great
But keep in mind that these are only tools, not computerized screenwriters.
I have run the demos of both programs. In an ideal world, I would like to
Story Craft ($79 http://www.writerspage.com/)
This program uses the "Jarvis Method" of the five elements of fiction writing
Here is how it works. Story Craft takes steps you thru the five steps of
Story Craft helps provide a real structure for organizing characters and
Story Craft does the best job of helping jump start ideas in terms of story
Writers Blocks ($99 http://www.writersblocks.com/)
Writers Blocks is the winner if you are looking for a program to help organize your thoughts.
They also have some great celebrity endorsements from some top of the line story tellers (Wes Craven, Sharkey's Machine Author William Diehl).
Think of this program as a virtual index card system. The advantage is
In Writers Blocks you simply write out each element of your story in a "block." You can then easily rearrange the blocks to come out with a solid outline for your script.
During my demo, I used this program to break down the story arc of individual characters, with each block being a beat in the individual story.
Then, with beats of my major characters down solid, I was then able to have an outline of my entire story.
The Bottom Line: Both of these software packages are helpful. If you can
DON'T THROW AWAY YOUR SCREENWRITING BOOKS BUT...
The rules and the shoulds of screenwriting can be harmful to your artistic health if misused. Allow me to explain. I often deal with writers who are so intimidated and programmed by the "books" that they can hardly get a word out of their mouths without refering to things like Intra Personal versus Inter Personal or "cinematic expression." It's hard to get into a good old conversation about something as basic as their story without hearing about their "inciting incident" or something equally inanimate. One can become a slave to the intellectual rap of whatever book they last read. My opinion is that while you should certainly learn the basics, once you get it all down, it needs to be put it in its proper place; beside the printer and the whiteout. The shoulds are merely tools. The name of the game is the, gulp...art. Ultimately, it's all about inspiration, storytelling, passion, expression-- and, there's that word again, art. It's not about form.
A BENCHMARK FOR WRITING AN EFFECTIVE QUERY LETTER
Describe the movie the way you would if it were playing in a theater down the street and you were trying to get an apathetic friend to come see it with you. What would you say about the movie that would make her change her mind?
OTHER THINGS TO CONSIDER RE YOUR QUERY; What actually happens in your story? What are a couple of the more tantalizing twists and turns. Any juicy surprises? What's the spark that makes it so special? What's the heart of it? What it about the project that excites you?
FYI, I just added a "fan letter" section to my site. Check it out--there are a lot of (brief but potent) testimonials from satisfied folks.
A COLORFUL EXAMPLE
Forgive the expletives; it's my fifth or sixth Bud.
FYI-I found a great website where you can obtain famous (and infamous) pro scripts. It's called Scriptshop.com. Some of these scripts are early drafts. You can read them and then see the finished movie and track the changes. Very empowering!
TIP. Common error --introducing a character in the narrative, ie: "Joe Blow is a 30 year old bricklayer who went to Harvard" and then a beat later the same character is introduced in dialogue--ie: "I'd like you to meet Joe Blow, the only bricklayer I know who went to Harvard." It may be correct "form" but it's redundant and not reader friendly. Introduce Joe in either the narrative OR in the dialogue. Not in both.
RULE OF THUMB--If, in the course of a screenplay Tom Dick and Harry need to be provided with the same info, tell Tom and when we get to Dick and Harry, let's assume that they've been told off camera.
TIP--Have you seen a program on Bravo called INSIDE THE ACTORS STUDIO? If you haven't, rush and turn it on. They have in depth, craft-oriented interviews with the likes of people like Steven Spielberg, Sidney Pollack and many other notables. This is the real thing. Their creative insights are priceless.
LEARNING SOMETHING FROM FRANK
I saw something interesting that I want to pass along. I was watching an obscure cable channel when I came across an old Frank Sinatra TV special. Now, like nearly everyone else, I've seen Sinatra a million times but this time I noticed that something was different. He was singing a song and ACTING OUT (in a very pronounced manner) EVERY single nuance of the song. It was like "method psychodrama." Every phase of the song had its own individual interpretation.
Each component was very pronounced and exaggerated.
Had he been drinking? I wondered. What was this all about?
Then something else struck me.
So this is how he does it, I thought!
It was obvious to me that he had done his homework on every inch of the song. He had found a way of interpreting everything, on both a physical and vocal level. Every inch was squeezed. Nothing was left to chance. He broke it all down to the bone, worked all avenues and then made it look so easy. God was I ever fascinated.
I flashed on screenwriting and what I try to communicate to my clients and students. In a good screenplay each beat has a purpose or it shouldn't exist. There are no throwaway moments or transitional scenes. Every component serves a profound purpose. Good screenwriters (like at least one good singer) know how to make every stroke of the pen count.
If you want to find out more about Hollywoodscript.com and the work we do with screenwriters and their scripts, please visit my site at http://www.hollywoodscript.com
Copyright 1999 Craig Kellem