Friday, February 15, 2013

Mailbag # 1

From time to time people ask question via email or in the comments section of this blog. Sometimes those questions warrant a full post, sometimes the answers are shorter. I’ve decided to do a “mailbag” post from time to time to answer some of the shorter questions. I’m going to kick it off with a question I received from Joel Meyers:

Q: Was just wondering if you were interested in commenting on the trick of how often and how to repeat key information, mainly object plants and key names (Kaiser Soze! Kaiser Soze! etc.) in scripts.

Repetition can help something stick in the audience’s mind – like the Kaiser Soze example from The Usual Suspects (written by Christopher McQuarrie), or like how people keep talking about and asking about Rick in the opening of Casablanca (screenplay by Julius J. Epstein & Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch). How often you need to do this is difficult to answer out of context. How long does the audience need to remember the piece of information? If it’s going to come back at the end of the scene, one repetition is probably enough. But if you are going to plant the object in Act One and not pay it off until Act Two, you may need to hit it harder. Also, how distinctive is it? Kaiser Soze is a pretty memorable name. John Anderson won't stick as well.

More than repetition, I think the key factor is the way the name/object/information is presented. If you want something to stick in the reader’s mind, you need to draw their attention to it. This means not burying it in a long descriptive paragraph or list of names. Create a little scenario that highlights the name/object/information.

For example, in Jaws (screenplay by Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb) it’s critical for the ending that the audience know there are SCUBA tanks tied on the boat and that if a SCUBA tank is punctured it could explode. So there’s a little beat in an early scene where Brody pulls a rope that causes the tanks to roll on the deck. The other guys then yell at him about how dangerous they are. We are reminded about the tanks later when Hooper goes for a dive, but it’s not the repetition that sticks with us as much as the earlier attention drawn to them.

In my screenwriting class I recently showed the scene from Aliens (story by James Cameron and David Giler & Walter Hill, screenplay by James Cameraon) where Ripley gets into the loader to prove to the soldiers she knows how to use it. This establishes the presence of the loaders for when she climbs in one to fight the queen alien at the end.

I think the key to making this work is to create a reason for attention being drawn to the planted object so it doesn’t seem forced. In Aliens Ripley is trying to impress the soldiers. In Jaws we’re seeing how uncomfortable and inexperienced Brody is on a boat. Attention is drawn to the objects, but in a way that has importance within the current scene. Thus the audience isn’t alerted to the fact these objects will come into play later.

For more on establishing character names, see this post.

My second question comes out of the pitching class I teach:

Should you tell the ending to your pitch?

My co-teacher, producer Ken Aguado, commented on how often he’s heard the advice not to give away the ending of your story in a pitch – he’s even heard it from professional teachers. He said it amazes him because of how wrong the advice is.

So the short answer is yes, you must tell the ending. But there’s an exception that I’ll get to in a moment.

In most pitches you are trying to convince someone to pay you to write a screenplay. You are asking them to part with a fairly large amount of money based on the tale you’re spinning. They are not going to do that if you don’t tell them how it will end. It doesn’t matter how intriguing your set up. If you want them to pay, tell them the WHOLE story.

But there is an exception: when you are trying to convince someone to read a script you’ve already written. Traditionally, though, when you were in this type of situation your pitch would have been pretty short and casual. You’re in a meeting with a producer who already likes your writing and is curious what other scripts you have. You’re just giving them the basic concept to see if it’s something they’re interested in.

But over the last decade we’ve also seen the rise of "pitch fest" events where completely unknown writers get five minutes to pitch to lower level development people. In these cases you are competing against dozens of other writers and you have to give a long enough pitch to stand out and establish your storytelling ability… but you may want to leave off the ending so there’s something more to be discovered in the script.

I think this is the source of the advice not to reveal your ending, but that can screw up writers who don’t understand that this is not the way you pitch in a meeting.

Have a question you want me to answer? Post it in the comments section or send me an email.

1 comment: said...

I decided to try my hand at screenwriting by attempting to adapt my own novel. This is much harder than I had initially anticipated because I wrote my protagonist to express a great deal of interior monologue.

So I guess my question is, how does a writer express a character's inner thoughts without bogging down the story in excess exposition or resorting to some hokey "narrator" device?

Thanks for your time,

H.E. Ellis