Thursday, April 23, 2015

Action vs. Decision

(Spoilers: The Matrix)

Last week I read short treatments for feature film projects from my screenwriting students at Art Center College of Design. I discovered that I was giving a lot of feedback relating to the issue of action vs. decision, so I decided to address the topic in this week’s blog post.

The easiest way to illustrate the difference – and the potential pitfall it creates – between decision and action is in loglines. (I won’t use actual student loglines as that would violate their privacy). So, let’s say you have a logline like:

A lonely cop starts dating a criminal and must choose between his girlfriend and his job.


When an ambitious man from an impoverished family discovers his boss is embezzling from the investment company where they work, he must decide between alerting the SEC or blackmailing his boss.

Both of these might sound like viable movie premises – and they could in fact be turned into viable movies. But as they stand they are problematic because they both focus on decisions instead of actions. The trouble is, a decision is transitory – it takes only a moment. What will occupy the rest of the movie? Words like “choose” or “decide” should raise red flags in your log line.

It would be slightly better to say the character “wrestles with” their choice or decision. That could take time. But what will we see on screen? Will they be looking out the window in contemplation for an hour? Maybe they’ll make a pro and con list. Neither is visual or filmic.

In a logline, you need to indicate some kind of action that could plausibly fill at least an hour of the movie (the set-up will usually account for 20-30 minutes of screen time, and your ending – not typically part of the logline – will fill some additional time.) What would the above loglines look like if they focused on action? Let’s try the cop romance first:

A lonely cop falls in love with a criminal and must protect his girlfriend from his partner’s investigation.

Now we have a sense of what the main character will be doing through the movie – trying to secretly foil an investigation. It implies scenes and plot points and, most importantly, ongoing conflict. It’s an idea that can be developed. Now let’s try the embezzlement story:

When an ambitious man from an impoverished family discovers his boss is embezzling from the investment company where they work, he uses the information to gain power, but is threatened when the SEC investigates.

Now we understand what the action of the story will be. Our main character will be blackmailing his boss while avoiding the SEC investigators. To illustrate why this is important, let me show another way you could develop this idea:

An ambitious man from an impoverished family fights discrimination to work his way up to an executive job at an investment firm – only to discover his mentor is embezzling from the company.

The action in this version is focused on the main character fighting discrimination and working up through the company. The embezzlement is phrased to suggest it’s a twist that comes near the end. The action element in a logline usually tells us what act two will be about. In the first active version of this idea, act two will be about blackmailing, while in the second version it will be about rising through the ranks of the company. (You may think one sounds more dramatic than the other – all action is not created equal. That’s part of the point. Make sure the action of your logline suggests the most dramatic version of your idea.)

It’s not that decisions can’t be part of the logline, it’s that they should set up ongoing action. So you could rephrase the cop logline as:

When a lonely cop falls in love with a criminal, he chooses to hide her identity from his partner. But as the investigation continues, he must make greater and greater moral compromises to protect his girlfriend.

In this version we've added back in the internal struggle the cop is engaged in – his decision(s) – but we’ve used it to set up ongoing actions – protecting his girlfriend, making moral compromises.

Let’s move on from loglines now and consider the role of action and decisions in developing the full story. Decisions are great tools for writers because they reveal character. Often, we illustrate the character arc by showing the character making different decisions in similar situations. On a most basic level, consider all the romantic comedies that involve love triangles. In the beginning, the heroine may choose one guy (the wrong guy), while in the end she chooses another (the right guy), thus showing that she has learned something about love.

In a way, most stories could be said to consist of characters making decisions that lead them to taking action, which puts them in a situation to make a new decision, which will lead to more action. Your story needs both. Decision points change the direction of the story (often they correspond to act breaks). Action provides the material for the scenes that follow.

We can see this clearly in The Matrix (written by Andy & Lana Wachowski):
  • Neo makes a decision not to listen to Morpheus’ instructions over the phone. As a result he is arrested and interrogated by the agents (action).
  • Later he chooses to take the red pill – a different decision than he made earlier. This leads to the action of his awakening in the real world, his training, and his visit to the Oracle.
  • After Morpheus is captured and the team narrowly escapes Cypher’s betrayal, Neo makes the decision to try to rescue Morpheus rather than pull the plug on him. This leads to the action of the rescue attempt.
  • And then Neo makes the decision to turn and face Smith despite all the advice he’s received to the contrary. This leads to the action of the final confrontation and Neo becoming “the One.”
Neo makes other decisions in the movie, of course, but you can see how these big choices lead to action that is the actual content of the movie.

You usually don’t want a decision or choice to end the conflict. Rather, it should introduce new conflict. So in a romantic comedy, just because the heroine chooses a different guy at the end of the movie, that choice shouldn’t immediately give her happily-ever-after. Typically she then has to win that guy over. She has to take action based on her decision. And that task should not be easy.

So decisions and action work together to create story. The most common problem in early story development is the writer identifies the decisions but not the action. Decisions can sound dramatic in a logline or short treatment, but if you don’t identify the action that follows, then you may discover nothing is really happening when you try to develop your concept into a screenplay.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Paul Guay on Writing Partners

Over the last two posts I've interviewed Matthew Federman and the writing team of Gregg Rossen and Brian Sawyer on writing partnerships. Today, I'm continuing that topic with an email interview with Paul Guay (Liar Liar, Heartbreakers, The Little Rascals).

Before I get to Paul, I noticed doing these interviews that the writers often brought up working with partners on pitches and in meetings. This points to one of the truths of being a professional screenwriter - it's about more than just writing screenplays. Something to think about if you're considering a partnership. And now with a few more things to think about, here's my interview with Paul Guay:

Q. You’ve worked with different writing partners...

A. Guilty.

Q. ...and also done some writing on your own. How did you find your writing partners, and how do you decide who you want to work with?

A. I’ve had about four and a half writing partners.

One and a half were friends from high school, one was an upperclassman whom I probably didn’t meet in high school but whose name I knew, one was a friend of two of my college friends, and one I met on the WGA picket line.

I knew all of them socially before we began writing together, except my fellow picketer.

The high-school friends were improvising comedy sketches into a tape recorder and had written a couple of comedy sketches when I joined them. I loved their writing, loved their performing, and joined because I wanted to write and perform with them. Later the three of us wrote a comedy-sketch screenplay together, and I partnered with one of them on three non-sketch screenplays and a teleplay.

The friend of two college friends approached me with the idea for a screenplay and suggested we write it together. I liked the idea and was interested in getting serious about screenwriting, so I agreed. The partnership eventually led to The Little Rascals, Liar, Liar and Heartbreakers.

The upperclassman mentioned an idea for a screenplay. I loved the idea, and one of us (I forget which) suggested we write the screenplay together.

While we were picketing, my fellow picketer mentioned a movie idea he had. I was so drawn to the idea that I began pitching bits and characters and scenes to him. I eventually proposed that we write the story together and, if that went well, the screenplay. He agreed.

Q. What process do you prefer? Do you sit in the same room or do you send material back and forth?

A. Most of the collaborative work has been done in the same room, which has its costs and benefits.

Q. What happens when you disagree with your writing partner? How do you make decisions?

A. I learned through experience that the answer(s) to this question, and to all other questions regarding a writing partnership, should be spelled out in advance in a written contract.

Subsequently, I have collaborated only when there is a contract in place.

Here’s a pertinent clause from a recent collaboration agreement:

“During the writing and any rewriting thereof, whether on spec or under contract, when there is a creative disagreement between Writer A and Writer B, they will explore good-faith ways of resolving the disagreement. Such methods may include:

(i) Reasoned argument;

(ii) Each party’s making a good-faith estimate of the importance he places on the issue, with the party giving the issue less weight conceding to the other;

(iii) Alternating concessions; and

(iv) Flipping a coin.

If these methods, or any others the parties attempt, do not satisfactorily resolve the issue, or if in Writer A’s opinion the issue is too important to subject to one of these methods, then Writer A’s decision will control, but only after giving due consideration to Writer B’s position.”

Q. What are the advantages of working with a partner?

A. You cut your taxes in half.

If you have the right working arrangement with the right partner (and keep in mind, that’s two big ifs):

Having a partner provides discipline; you will show up and put in the hours.

Having a partner makes brainstorming easier; two minds can spark each other better than one mind can spark itself.

Having a partner provides a sounding board to choose between and organize various ideas.

Having a partner with complementary strengths can make the screenplay better.

Having a partner puts someone in your corner, which can be helpful in meetings.

And having a partner means someone is sharing the responsibility, which can be helpful during moments of self-doubt and the dark night of the soul.

Q. What are the disadvantages?

A. You cut your taxes in half.

If you want to protect your solo voice (at least in the spec or first-draft phase), writing with a partner is probably not the best choice.

If you find you and your partner are not compatible, because of personality (you’re too different, or too similar) or any other reason, things can go south in spectacular ways.

Q. Any advice for a writer contemplating entering into a writing partnership?

A. Don’t... unless the benefits outweigh the costs.

In that case, do.

Discuss the nature and conditions of the partnership in advance, and put the conclusions of those discussions in a contract written or vetted by an attorney or two.

Then: write!

Answers (c) 2015 Paul Guay. All rights reserved.

* * *

Paul Guay’s movies have grossed over half a billion dollars. He conceived and co-wrote Liar, Liar, at the time of its release the sixth-highest-grossing comedy in history. The screenplay received an Honorable Mention (along with Fargo, Million Dollar Baby, The Full Monty and Catch Me If You Can) in Scr(i)pt magazine’s list of the Best Scripts of the Past 10 Years.

Paul co-wrote The Little Rascals, Universal's second-highest-grossing film of its year, and co-wrote Heartbreakers, starring Sigourney Weaver, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Gene Hackman and Jason Lee, which opened #1 at the box office, and the rights to which he co-licensed to MGM for production as a stage musical.

Paul teaches screenwriting at Art Center College of Design and through The Film Connection and is a sought-after Script Consultant.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Matthew Federman on Writing Partnerships

Last week I interviewed Gregg Rossen and Brian Sawyer about how they work together as writing partners. But not every partnership works in the same way. Today, I’m interviewing Matthew Federman about his writing partnership with Stephen Scaia. They have written together on many television shows, including Human Target, Jericho, Warehouse 13, and Judging Amy. Recently they’ve been working in the feature film world. And, they have been writing the comic book Dead Squad, published by Darby Pop. Watch for the trade paperback coming soon.

Q: How did you meet? How long have you been working together?

A: We met as Script PAs on season 4 of The West Wing. (That’s right, before everyone had email and a printer, young whippersnappers were paid less than minimum wage and 33 cents a mile to deliver scripts and script pages all over LA at all times of the day and night.) Working closely together in a double-wide trailer for hours on end while we waited for those pages to come out, we got to know each other and found we had similar sensibilities. We decided to write a West Wing spec together. That spec went on to win the Austin Film Festival Drama spec category and launched our writing career. It’s been about 12 years, give or take—we’re not good at math.

Q: What’s your process? Do you sit in the same room or do you send material back and forth?

A: We break new ideas by walking around a lot and talking, which has greatly helped us reach our 10,000 steps a day. Once we have the general shape of a story and the characters, we go to a white board and break it down more specifically into scenes. For the rest of the process we don’t need to be in the same place—though we carpool to meetings and work out story problems in the car, so the brutal L.A. traffic is now a part of our process as well. After the whiteboard we start an outline that we pass back and forth and fill out and eventually that turns into a script. For the script, each of us takes different scenes, then pass them back and forth. In the early going things are slow as we work out character voices, etc. Usually there is a slowdown period around the midway point of the script as well, as we realize it’s running way too long or something isn’t working and we reassess.

Q: How do you make decisions – both creative and business? What happens when you disagree?

A: Our agreement from the start was that both our names are on the script so it needs to represent both of us, which means we can’t steamroll each other or just go rogue and do what we want with a scene. As our communication has gotten better (partially a function of us maturing) we don’t tend to fight about a lot of stuff. We can hear each other’s points of view and trust the process. So if one of us isn’t seeing something at the moment we might say, “Okay, you seem really passionate about it and I’m not seeing it so we’ll do it your way for now.” That always comes with a caveat that the point can be readdressed later. So we rarely get bogged down now in arguments and trying to be right but instead realize that when we both are happy with it, that means it’s the best version.

As for business, we tend to want the same things big picture so it hasn’t been a big issue, but if we do get stuck making a decision we have a team (agents, manager and lawyers) to help clarify our options and give arguments for or against a course of action.

Q: What are the advantages of working with a partner?

A: External motivation, greater skillsets and knowledge base to work from, and of course you can write much faster (and it tends to be a stronger first draft because everything has already gone through two filters).

Q: What are the disadvantages?

A: Obligatory first answer: half the money. Though arguably we work more than either of us might individually. Also, you don’t always get to do 100% what you would want to do because compromise is so much a part of the process. But since compromise will happen anyway as TV and Film are so collaborative, you’ll need to be prepared to compromise anyway.

Q: Any advice you have for people entering into a writing partnership?

A: A writing partnership is one of the most important relationships in your life as it is a creative relationship and a business one. So it shouldn’t be entered into lightly. Just as they say 90% of directing is casting, making the right choice of partner at the start is the single biggest decision. As with any relationship you need to have complementary personalities and values. You don’t go in hoping to change the other person but with the goal to be improved by them. Additionally, communication is of prime importance so everyone feels like they are being heard and resentments don’t build up over time.

Thanks Matt!

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Writing Teams: Interview with Gregg Rossen and Brian Sawyer

Many writers in Hollywood work with writing partners. I’ve done a couple projects with partners, but for the most part I write alone. However, since writing teams are so common, I wanted to deal with the topic on this blog. So over the next few weeks I’ll interview some writers who work with partners about the finer points of the process.

The one big piece of advice I’ll give myself, though, is to have a writers’ collaboration agreement between the partners. You may think, “My partner is my friend and we’re just going to split everything 50-50 so we don’t really need an agreement.”

Wrong. What happens if one of you gets divorced – will the ex-spouse get 25% ownership of all your projects? If one of you dies unexpectedly, will the heirs get 50%? And does that mean they could veto any possible sales? What if after five years Partner A decides to quit the business and become a lawyer? Can Partner B still shop the material they wrote together? If they sell a script but the buyer wants a rewrite, does Partner A have to help? If they don’t, does Partner A get 50% of the rewrite fee?

There are many ways to resolve these questions, but you want them to be decided by the partners before the issues arise, and not by lawyers and judges later. Fortunately, the WGAw offers a standard collaboration agreement on their website.

Now to the first interview. Gregg Rossen and Brian Sawyer have written such TV movies as Undercover Bridesmaid, Pete’s Christmas, Santa Switch and Northpole. I emailed them the following questions. In true writer team fashion, they collaborated on their answers.

Q: How did you meet? How long have you been working together?

A: We met at USC Film School, back in an era after grunge but before selfies. We collaborated on our student films, then after graduation began writing together-- first a Simpsons spec, then a bunch of film scripts. We also shot a lot of short films during this time, mostly to use as pitch trailers for our various projects. It was a long time-- 5 years-- before we sold anything, but we've tried to always be generating new material.

Q: What’s your process? Do you sit in the same room or do you send material back and forth?

A: We usually meet for brainstorming in person, then bounce an outline back and forth over email, refining it. Then we'll divide up the scenes and write first drafts of them individually, and assemble it all into a first draft, which of course needs a ton of work but is a start. Often we'll then modify the script to the point that most of the original draft is replaced, but that is a good way to get started. Some writing teams we know will be in the same room in front of the computer writing dialog, but this has not been our process.

If we're working on a pitch rather than a script, we'll meet in person a lot, to get our patter down. We'll practice the pitch many times a day in the weeks leading up to the pitch, to the point where it's easy and we don't have to struggle to remember things. Then we'll completely let go of whatever verbiage we're trying to remember and just talk in the actual pitch in a spontaneous way, but this is far easier having prepared ourselves.

Q: How do you make decisions – both creative and business? What happens when you disagree?

A: We'll discuss decisions at length and give ourselves as much time as we can to think about them. And we try to learn from our mistakes. In the cases where we disagree on a course of action, we'll argue, and whoever feels strongest about the decision usually wins out. It's a sort of Darwinian process but one we find works.

Q: What are the advantages of working with a partner?

A: For comedy especially it's great to have a collaborator to judge if jokes are funny, if ideas are good, and just to motivate to move forward with our work. Also for some reason there are a lot of comedy teams-- though we're not wisecrackers in the room, we like pitching and are able to divide things up in a pitch to play to our strengths.

Q: What are the disadvantages?

A: I supposed lone writers might be able to work faster sometimes, ironically, because there's no time spent arguing the merits of a choice. But for us this is far outweighed by the benefits of having two brains.

Q: Any advice you have for people entering into a writing partnership?

A: Try a small project first, and one you're not hugely invested in, to see what the dynamic is. Liking the same stuff doesn't necessarily mean a good collaboration. You'll want to find a writing partner who delivers on 50% of the work-- we've taught a lot of screenwriting classes and seen a lot of cases where one of the duo ends up doing more of the work, and this does not lead to a good dynamic. Also look for someone who is both strong in their opinions (this is needed so you get the full benefit of the added perspective a collaborator can offer) but not so stubborn or inflexible that they're not open to new ideas.

Thanks Gregg and Brian!

Friday, March 27, 2015

Three Techniques for Building Great Set Pieces

(Spoilers: Whiplash, There’s Something About Mary, Gravity, The Devil Wears Prada, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Meet the Parents)

The big, spectacular scenes in movies are called “set pieces.” Set pieces ratchet up the intensity to give your story memorable peaks that will stick with the audience. We often say good movies are like good roller coasters – they have peaks and valleys, periods of anticipation and moments of adrenaline rush release. Set pieces are the loops and big drops of the roller coaster.

Typically, the term refers to action scenes or broadly comedic scenes, but I like to take a broader definition:

Set Piece: The big, audience pleasing scenes that deliver on the genre elements of the movie.

That means the action scenes in an action movie and the funny scenes in a comedy, of course, but also the romantic scenes in a romance, the emotional scenes in a drama, the scary scenes in a horror movie, and the tense scenes in a thriller.

Here are three techniques for getting the most out of your set pieces:

1. Build anticipation. You can use advertising and scenes of preparation to build up to your set pieces. This is like the slow climb of the rollercoaster to the big drop. The anticipation is part of the thrill. Certain kinds of set pieces lend themselves particularly well to these techniques: the big game in a sports movie, the big date or a wedding in a romantic comedy, breaking into a heavily guarded location in a caper or spy movie. We’re told repeatedly in advance how important this upcoming scene will be.

For example, recent best picture and best screenplay Oscar nominee Whiplash (written by Damien Chazelle) contains several critical performances. Before the final concert, sadistic conductor Fletcher informs the players that there will be people in the audience who can make their career – or destroy it. This is not just any concert; it will be the biggest performance of our hero’s life.

Scenes of preparation are an even more emphatic way to build anticipation for an upcoming set piece. In sports movies the team or athlete trains for the big game. In heist movies the burglars scout their location and gather their equipment. In romances the bride tries on her wedding dress.

There are more subtle scenes of preparation. Remember how in There’s Something About Mary (story by Ed Decter and John J. Strauss, screenplay by Decter & Strauss and Peter & Bobby Farrelly) Ted’s unusual preparation for an upcoming date with Mary leads into the greatest set piece in the movie, the infamous “hair gel” scene?

2. Exploit the unique world of your story. The world of your story is a major potential source of fresh set piece ideas. The suspense scenes in Gravity (written by Alfonso & Jonas Cuaron) were unique because they used elements of their unusual setting. And the writers explored all the possible dangers in that setting, from space suits running out of air to a fire on a space station to space debris moving at the speed of a bullet.

The world is more than just the location. At its core, The Devil Wears Prada (screenplay by Aline Brosh McKenna) is a story about a woman dealing with a mean boss, but it’s made unique by setting that story in the arena of high fashion. We get the obligatory bits about coffee and phone messages. But one of the best scenes involves Miranda Priestly going over wardrobe for a photo shoot. There are several humorous bits about how demanding Miranda is. Then when Andy laughs at a debate over two nearly identical belts, Miranda delivers a hilariously withering monologue breaking down how Andy ended up with the bargain bin sweater she’s wearing. That scene draws its humor completely from the world of the movie, which is why it’s so memorable.

3. Out of the frying pan, into the fire. This is one of my favorite set piece techniques. The great opening sequence in Raiders of the Lost Ark (story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman, screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan) illustrates this beautifully. Just as Indy escapes one trap, he finds himself in even greater peril. He leaps the pit and rolls under the descending door. Just as he recovers the idol and breathes a sigh of relief, the huge boulder begins rolling toward him. He makes a mad dash and leaps outside just in the nick of time – only to find himself facing the drawn bows of a hundred angry tribesmen.

The frying pan and fire don’t have to be physical danger. In the classic dinner table scene from Meet the Parents (story by Greg Glienna & Mary Ruth Clarke, screenplay by Jim Herzfeld and John Hamburg), the more Greg tries to fit in with his girlfriend’s family, the worse he makes it for himself. Forced to elaborate on a lie he’s told, he makes up a story about milking a cat. When future father-in-law Jack starts to deconstruct the lie, Greg quickly changes the subject by producing champagne. But when popping the cork he knocks over the urn with Jack’s mother’s ashes, making things hilariously worse. Remember, this technique is most effective when it’s the specific action of the character to escape one problem that lands them in the next one.

The hard reality of this business is that there are probably a thousand well structured but unsold scripts out there for every movie that gets made. If you want to sell your script, you need to make people passionate about it. Creating set pieces that are funny, scary, exciting, or moving is a great way to inspire that kind of passion.

Friday, March 20, 2015

My Writing Day

During Q&A’s, writers are often asked about their writing habits – How long do they write each day? Morning or Night? In a coffee shop or in an office or by the pool? I have found that the answers vary tremendously. If you ask a lot of successful writers this question, you will probably discover that there is no common element in their answers. This is either depressing – “There’s no secret to lead me to success!” – or encouraging – “The way I’m doing it is okay.”

Despite this, over the years I’ve discovered a few tips that I find are helpful to writers struggling to be productive. One of the best is: write every day. It doesn’t have to be every day – maybe you take Sundays and holidays off. But the most important factor in writing success is the application of butt to chair, and making this a daily habit makes it easier.

It also helps keep the ideas flowing. If you write every day, your screenplay will never be far from your mind. When you sit down, you will be able to get back into the writing groove quickly. Take a week off and it will take time to get back into the flow of your story, to remember what you were doing and thinking in the last writing session.

When I first graduated from college, I had to get a day job – just like most film school grads who are not independently wealthy. This meant finding daily writing time was difficult. (But this was an especially important time for me to establish the daily writing habit as I no longer had class deadlines to keep me on schedule.)

One piece of advice served me well at this point: set a specific amount of writing time and shut out everything else. I did an hour a day, first thing when I got home from work. An hour may not seem like much, but it keeps you mentally in your screenplay and you’d be surprised at how productive you can be – how those individual hours add up over a month. I wrote three spec screenplays in that first year. Some writers set page goals, but that can be intimidating. As long as I put in my hour I didn’t criticize how much I produced. That took the pressure off and I believe it actually allowed me to produce more.

When I sold the Sweet Home Alabama spec script, I was able to quit my day job. That meant, in theory, I had all day to write. I have tried writing eight hours a day. I find that I’m only really productive in the first few hours, and that after a few days I burn out creatively. I think I trained myself to write in short, intense bursts in my hour-a-day period.

So I got in the habit of writing a couple of hours in the morning and a couple more hours in the late afternoon. There was plenty of other things to do anyway – reading the trades, research, meetings with producers, phone calls with my agent, reading scripts of successful films, etc.

Occasionally I would have to put in more time writing, usually when I was on an assignment with a tight deadline. And I can do that for short periods of time.

What inspired me to address this topic today is that I am revamping my daily writing process. I’ve realized that lately I haven’t been giving my writing work the priority level I want it to be. I’ll save it until after other tasks are done – grading student work for the classes I teach at Art Center, writing this blog, etc. I once heard a theory that people tend to prioritize by urgency when they really should prioritize by importance. I’ve definitely been guilty of that lately.

So I’m trying a new technique (it’s not original with me, though I’m not sure who came up with it). I wake up about 7 am every day. I’m going to devote 7-10 am to writing. No answering emails, the phone turned off, no surfing of the internet – though I will make coffee and have a bite to eat.

I think this will work well for me as I find that I write best when I’m most rested. I’ll have three hours with no mental distractions just to write. It will also allow me to turn to other tasks after 10 am without that weight of “I need to get my writing in” hanging over my head. I expect I’ll usually also do an afternoon writing session as well, but I know from experience that I can accomplish a lot in three focused hours a day.

I’m not suggesting this approach would work for you. As I said at the outset, I think the right process depends on the writer. Whatever process you find makes you productive is the one for you. However, if you are having trouble being productive, I would suggest at least trying the one-hour-a-day approach.

And don’t expect to reach me from 7-10am!

Friday, March 13, 2015

Increase Tension in Your Screenplay with a Ticking Clock

(Spoilers: High Noon, Silence of the Lambs, Gravity, Alien, Aliens, Almost Famous, Speed, Inception, The Abyss)

“Ticking Clock” is a screenwriting term that refers to some kind of time limit on a story arc. It can be used for a scene, a sequence or the whole movie. The most obvious (and fairly cliché) example is a bomb with a countdown timer on it. The hero has to defuse the bomb before that timer gets to zero!

We can see plenty of similar examples in a wide variety of movies:

In High Noon (screenplay by Carl Foreman) the ticking clock is in the title. The bad guys are coming to town at noon. As the sheriff tries to gather allies to help him face down the villains, we constantly cut to shots of the clock getting closer and closer to noon.

In The Silence of the Lambs (screenplay by Ted Tally) we know that the serial killer keeps his victims alive for several days – thus when a new victim is kidnapped, Clarice suddenly has a time limit to solve the case.

In Gravity (written by Alfonso & Jonas Cuaron) there is the ticking clock of the debris, which comes back around every 90 minutes. Ryan sets her watch to track its approach. There’s also the diminishing oxygen in her suit that provides the tension in the first half of Act Two.

Throughout the third act in both Alien (story by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, screenplay by Dan O’Bannon) and Aliens (story by James Cameron and David Giler & Walter Hill, screenplay by James Cameron) we hear a computerized voice reading a countdown to imminent destruction – in the first movie the self-destruct sequence of the ship, and in the second movie that nuclear detonation of the facility’s failing power plant.

Ticking clocks can provide momentum in stories that are in danger of becoming episodic. Almost Famous (written by Cameron Crowe) is a coming of age story about young William going on tour with a rock band to write an article for Rolling Stone. But as the deadline for delivering the article approaches and William repeatedly fails to convince the lead guitarist to give him a crucial interview, the tension ratchets up. William can’t just go along enjoying the adventure – he has to get his article done!

A ticking clock needn’t be a literal clock, of course. The deadline doesn’t even have to be at a specific time. We just need to know that at some point the opportunity for the hero to succeed will come to an end, and we need some way to measure how close we are to that point. For example in Speed (written by Graham Yost) the ticking clock is the gas gauge on the bus running down toward empty. There’s a scene in The Abyss written by James Cameron, where our heroes, Bud and Lindsey, are trapped in a disabled submarine with a leak. The rising water provides a ticking clock, a way to measure how long they have to survive.

You can use intercutting to show approaching danger to illustrate a ticking clock, like the old silent movies with the girl tied to the train track. They cut from the girl, to the hero on horseback, to the train, back to the girl, etc.… will the hero arrive before the train (the ticking clock)?

Inception (written by Christopher Nolan) creates an overall ticking clock for the primary mission with the “kick” that wakes them all simultaneously. The team gets spread out across three dream levels and have to complete their various tasks before the kick pulls them out. The tension is increased when the time gets truncated – Yusuf can’t wait as long as he should to activate the kick, and Saito has been shot, providing another ticking clock: they must finish the mission before he dies.

The team uses a song as a countdown to the kick, allowing them (and us) to track its approach. Any time limit serves as a ticking clock, but you have to find a way to show the audience how much time is left. In the case of Saito, we track his deteriorating health.

Once you’ve established the ticking clock, you can ratchet up tension by throwing increasing obstacles in the characters path. For example, in Inception Yusuf is being pursued by gunmen. The team needs to improvise in the second dream level with the Mr. Charles gambit. And after the others head to the third dream level, Arthur has to keep some security guys from getting to a hotel room. And the biggest obstacle comes when Mal shows up at the medical complex and Cobb can’t bring himself to shoot her.

Does your story suffer from a lack of urgency? Try adding a ticking clock. Got a scene that lacks intensity? Ticking clock. It’s a powerful screenwriting tool.