Thursday, August 22, 2013

Help! My Screenplay is Too Short

(Spoilers: Ocean’s Eleven, There’s Something About Mary, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial)

As I mentioned last post, spec feature screenplays should be a minimum of 90 pages, though you might get away with as few as 85 for a low budget indie. Fewer than that and your script will feel slight. It won’t feel like a movie. Assuming your structure is working, you are going to have to find a way to bulk it up. And you don’t want to pad or add filler – that will just make your script feel bloated and slow.

There are two basic reasons I’ve seen for screenplays to come in under length: either the scenes are underdeveloped or there isn’t enough story.

The easiest way to diagnose the first problem is to look at the length of your scenes. If most are under two pages, you probably haven’t adequately milked your scenes for maximum impact. You are being perfunctory and not dramatizing the action. Not every scene has to be long, but you should have at least eight juicy scenes (and usually many more) spread throughout your script. What do I mean by juicy? They have multiple obstacles, mounting tension, and twists. They are like miniature movies unto themselves.

If your problem is underdeveloped scenes, identify the key moments in your film. Be sure to pick out at least eight scenes. Re-examine those scenes, treating them like short films. You know what has to happen in the scene, what’s the most interesting, dramatic way to get there?

Make sure there is adequate conflict in the scene. Can you add obstacles blocking the hero from achieving their goal? Can you throw in an unexpected obstacle somewhere in the middle? Good scenes, like good scripts, go up and down, with the character alternately getting close to their goal and then pulled farther away. You can also try the out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire approach: a character overcomes one obstacle only to find himself in deeper trouble.

You should also ask yourself if the outcome of the scene is obvious from the opening of the scene. If so, can you revise the beginning so it appears things will head in a different direction, giving you a twist?

Sometimes underdeveloped scenes come from inadequate outlining. The writer is using the first draft to figure out their story and fails to pay enough attention to the scene work. Other times a writer will have a solid outline, but will do little more than convert the outline to screenplay format in the first draft, checking off plot points and not fully developing scenes. It’s important in your first draft to take the time to think about what will make your big scenes great.

If you have good scenes but you just don’t have enough of them, you probably don’t have enough story. The first thing to do is look at how your acts are balanced. Usually Act One takes up one fourth of your script, Act Two one half, and Act Three one fourth. Is your problem that your story overall is too short, or is one of the acts too short?

If you are short across the board, make sure you are properly tracking your character arc. Are the beats of the character’s change dramatized so the audience can see them? Also make sure that you’re not missing important preparation and aftermath scenes to allow us to touch base with the character’s emotion.

Another problem could be that you don’t have enough subplots. We look for about three subplots in addition to the main plot. If you need to add a subplot, consider if there’s another angle on your subject/theme that you could explore, maybe with a supporting character. For example, if you’re writing a love story, is there another relationship that illuminates an alternative experience to the main relationship?

If your problem is mostly in Act One it probably means you haven’t properly set up the character’s status quo before the Catalyst, or your character hasn’t eliminated alternate solutions before taking on the problem. Make sure that the stakes of the story are clear and that you’ve locked the character into the story.

A short Act One really isn’t bad unless it doesn’t adequately set up the rest of the film. Usually you’ll realize what you’re missing when you try to write Act Three. If you don’t have a list of things to add into Act One, look at Act Three and see if you’ve really established everything you need for your ending to hit with maximum impact.

If Act Two is short, first make sure that there are multiple stages to your hero achieving their goal. I’ve seen many bad mystery stories where the hero finds one clue that reveals everything. In a good mystery the clues need to be a path – one leading to the next and that one to the next until the truth is assembled like a jigsaw puzzle from all the multiple clues.

Similarly, if your movie is about a robbery then there better be several steps the character has to take to prepare. Consider the Ocean’s Eleven remake (screenplay by Ted Griffin). Before the big heist Danny has to get financing and recruit his team, which involves several mini-capers such as getting Basher out of jail. They also have to build a replica of the vault to work out the plan, and commit other tricks to get inside info on the casinos. All of this provides the meat for Act Two before we get to the heist in Act Three.

You also need to make sure you have multiple obstacles for the hero to overcome. In There’s Something About Mary (story by Ed Decter & John J. Strauss, screenplay by Ed Decter & John J. Strauss and Peter Farrelly & Bobby Farrelly), Ted wants to win Mary’s heart. That would be pretty easy to accomplish if it weren’t for Healy and Tucker trying to sabotage the relationship.

Escalation is key, as are reversals. If your character is simply checking off unrelated obstacles or to-do items on his plan, then your story will feel episodic and lack forward momentum. What you want is a feeling of “but… so…” instead of “and then.” The character does A but it causes B, so the character does C, but it causes D and so on.

Finally, take a good look at your midpoint. It’s a good idea to throw a new element into the story here and raise the stakes. Bringing in something new will generate more material to fill out the story.

It isn’t uncommon for Act Three to be a bit shorter than a quarter of your script. You’ve gotten all the exposition out, so everything in Act Three is go, go, go. But if your Act Three is significantly short, there are several things to look at:

Have you given an appropriate period of aftermath after the Act Two Turning Point so we see the impact of the character’s failure or success?

Is your Act Two Turning Point severe enough? At the end of Act Two we should think there is no way the ultimate resolution could possibly happen. A big Act Two Turning Point should provide lots of material for Act Three

Is the ending too easy? Perhaps you haven’t provided a big enough final conflict after the Epiphany. The Epiphany should give the character the key to overcoming their problem (assuming a successful ending) but there should still be big challenges to overcome. In E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (written by Melissa Mathison), when Elliot learns E.T. is alive, he still has to get the alien out of the house and past the cops. Think of what obstacles the character might face in executing the solution from the Epiphany.

The key to your next draft is to add heft to your story in the right way. You don’t want length for length’s sake; you want to add material that makes your story cooler and more powerful. That starts with properly diagnosing your problem.


MsKeingati said...

Awesome and spot on. I was worried that there wasnt enough story but I was in a hurry to hit end. Will savour the scenes as if it were my life playing out..feeling every beat.

Burner II said...

Great help. Thanks so much!

sanandreasfault said...

wow - do you do script consulting? this is a great post

Doug Eboch said...

I do. See my website;