Monday, October 26, 2009

What Have I Got to Lose?

(Spoilers: Almost Famous)

We often talk about “raising the stakes” in a movie. By which we mean increasing what’s at stake for the character in the story. There can and should be both positive and negative stakes. I phrase this as “hope and fear.” What is the audience hoping will happen? What do they fear might happen?

Sometimes I’ll see a story where there’s only positive stakes. The character wants to win the race or get the pretty girl to go out with him. The reasons are fairly obvious. But what happens if they fail? If failure simply means they move on to the next race or the next girl then there really isn’t that much at stake is there?

It’s important to create a significant penalty for failure in your story. Paint the picture for the audience – if this doesn’t work out for the character what will their life be like? It should be a pretty bleak future.

Sometimes that’s easy. In Die Hard (screenplay by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza) if John McClane fails to stop the terrorists people die (and the stakes are raised because one of those people is his wife). No problem there. But not every premise has such clear-cut dangers built in.

One of my favorite movies is Almost Famous (written by Cameron Crowe). The hero, William, wants to be a rock and roll journalist. As a high school student he gets a fantastic opportunity to write a piece for Rolling Stone – the biggest rock magazine there is. And those stakes are raised when he’s told they’re considering the story for the cover.

Great, those are high positive stakes: if William can get the story he will achieve his dream.

But what if he doesn’t get the story? If he simply feels bad for a few hours and then starts right in on the next big magazine assignment then the movie wouldn’t feel urgent or important.

So in Almost Famous we’re led to believe that failure to get the story means William will never become a rock journalist. The world of rock journalism is pretty small, after all, and this is portrayed as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. One way or another this story will give him a reputation. Moreover, his mother does not really support his dream. She’s giving him this chance but when it’s over she expects him to go off to college and pursue a normal career.

In short, this is a test. Does William have what it takes to be a real journalist? The answer will determine the direction of his life. A negative answer may mean abandoning his dreams forever.

That’s quite a lot to lose!

Usually the place to look to create negative stakes is in your character conception. If William were a grizzled, long time rock journalist pursuing his fifteenth Rolling Stone cover story then the movie wouldn’t be that interesting. It’s crucial that he’s a young high school kid desperate for a break. That what makes the story a life changing opportunity instead of just another gig.

(There’s a saying in the film business: your story should be about the most interesting thing that’s ever happened to the character. Because you’re probably only going to get to tell one story about this character so why would you tell the second most interesting story? And since Almost Famous is loosely auto-biographical, I would bet it was based on the most interesting thing that had happened to Cameron Crowe up to that point.)

Related to negative stakes is the need to trap your character in the story. If the character can just walk away when things get tough then the story doesn’t seem all that important.

In Almost Famous William is going on tour with a band and is expected to deliver a feature article to Rolling Stone by a certain deadline. If he walks away you can bet there won’t be any more offers to write for Rolling Stone. When he accepts the assignment he’s locked into the journey. Success or failure will come one way or another.

Sometimes people refer to the end of Act I as the “point of no return.” That act break is when the character commits fully to the story. And often this also means accepting negative consequences to failure.

In Almost Famous William gets a small assignment to write a concert review for Cream in the middle of Act I. But it’s an entry-level gig. The kind of opportunity that will come around again. When he accepts the assignment for Rolling Stone at the end of Act I he’s putting himself in a make-it or break-it situation for his career.

And we fear what will happen if William can’t deliver.

Hope and fear are what make the audience engage with the story. So yes, raise the stakes. Just make sure the consequences of failure are as significant as those of success.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Scenes of Preparation and Aftermath

(SPOILERS: Silence of the Lambs, Aliens, The Godfather)

The big set piece* scenes in a movie are the ones we remember. But those scenes don’t always stand up on their own. Two critical types of less noticed scenes are scenes of preparation and aftermath. These are the scenes that surround those set pieces and give them context.

One of the most important purposes of scenes of preparation and aftermath is to allow us to check in with the characters’ emotional states. During the big scenes we’re often caught up in the major plot developments. It’s before and after those scenes that we see how those developments affect our characters.

Consider the movie Aliens (story by James Cameron and David Giler & Walter Hill, screenplay by James Cameron).

We get a scene of preparation on the space ship before Ripley and the marines land on the planet. Ripley is briefing the marines on what she knows about the alien life forms. Ripley is clearly anxious and scared of the aliens. The marines are unconcerned, however. One of them says she only needs to know one thing: “where they are” and them makes a shooting motion with her finger. At that point Ripley tries without success to convince the marines of the impending danger.

About halfway through the movie we get a scene of aftermath following the marines’ first, mostly unsuccessful encounter with the aliens. The characters’ attitudes are reversed. The surviving marines are freaked out, not sure what to do next. But Ripley’s been in this situation before. She begins to take charge.

These scenes set up the characters’ expectations leading into the action and then show us the impact the action had on their lives. That in turn helps the audience stay emotionally involved in the story.

Another example of this can be found in Silence of the Lambs (screenplay by Ted Tally) after Clarice first visits Hannibal Lechter in jail. During the visit she’s careful to keep her emotions hidden. But when she comes out she weeps as she heads to her car. In this aftermath scene we see that despite her careful control, Lechter has indeed gotten to her.

Another important use of scenes of preparation is to provide the audience with the information we need to appreciate the bigger set piece. Scenes of preparation allow us to plant things that can be paid off in the later scene. They show us the characters’ plans so we understand when those plans go awry. (This last is particularly important for capers such as robberies, escapes, spy infiltrations, etc.)

Often scenes of aftermath become scenes of preparation for the next event. This happens in the scene from Aliens after the marines are decimated. Once they come to terms with their failure they start to make new plans: to take off and bomb the site from orbit. Of course if you’ve seen the movie you know those plans don’t work out so well either.

Let’s look at another example from The Godfather (screenplay by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola). There are a couple scenes of preparation before the big set piece where Michael kills the rival Mafioso in retaliation for the attempt on his father’s life. First, we see one of the Corleone hit men giving Michael a gun and explaining how the hit will go down. He makes a particular point of describing how to drop the gun after the killing.

That’s followed by a second scene of preparation where the family waits for a call that will give them the location of the meeting between Michael and the rival Mafioso. After they get it, they decide where the gun will be planted for Michael – behind a toilet. Again, Michael is given careful instructions on how to behave to avoid suspicion until he can retrieve the gun.

These two scenes serve several purposes. First, they tell us that Michael is not an expert hit man. This is going to be a dangerous mission and he is inexperienced. Second, they tell us the plan so we can judge how well Michael’s doing as it unfolds. The point about dropping the gun is paid off when Michael forgets to do it until he’s halfway out of the restaurant. Finally, the scenes of preparation give us basic information we need to understand the set piece such as the fact the gun will be hidden behind the toilet. Then when we get to the tense set piece there is no need to try to wedge in exposition on the fly.

It isn’t always obvious in a script when you need scenes of preparation and aftermath. As I’m outlining I identify the major set pieces in my story and ask myself if I’m going to need to set up any information and if I’m giving the audience an opportunity to adequately track the character’s emotions. That helps me find the places I need scenes of preparation or aftermath.

*A “set piece” is a big scene that pays of the genre of the movie – the scary scenes in a horror movie, the big action scenes in an action movie, the funniest comedic pieces in a comedy.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Staying Abreast of the Business

Wouldn’t it be nice if being a professional screenwriter was just about writing the best scripts you possibly can? Unfortunately, being a professional means you have a job within an industry. To be successful it’s important to understand the business elements of screenwriting. It’s also somewhat important to be aware of what’s going on in the industry at large. That’s the topic of today’s post.

How much do you need to be aware of the industry? It would be easy to spend several hours a day reading the trades and various blogs and websites devoted to the business. That’s obviously overkill. But being a screenwriter in this day and age means operating an entrepreneurial company that provides writing services to various conglomerates. As the person in charge of your company you should have a general idea of what’s going on in your industry.

The trade papers – Daily Variety and The Hollywood Reporter – are the news services the industry looks to. Like many daily papers, they are struggling. As I write this, The Hollywood Reporter is considering becoming a weekly in print. Both papers are also available on the web. Variety, rumor has it, will soon be charging for their previously free web content.

If you're serious about being a pro it’s probably worth getting one of the trades. Online or in print doesn’t really matter, though it sounds like the age of print is coming to an end so soon we may not have the choice. (I’ll miss it – I like to read the trades while using the cross-trainer). A word of warning - subscribing in print is pretty expensive.

You don’t need to read both, but regularly skimming one of the trades will keep you apprised of all the trends in the business. You only need to actually read the articles that have some relevance to you – such as those about script sales or lit agency mergers or which TV shows’ ratings are hot and which are not (if you want to write for TV).

Be aware, though, that the trades are largely supported by ad dollars from the studios. They’re notoriously biased in that regard. They tend not to say anything overtly negative about the hands that feed them. So sometimes you have to read between the lines.

There are a couple other good sources of Hollywood information. Nikki Fink’s blog ( has become probably the top industry blog since the writer’s strike and focuses on what’s happening in the business. I also like Patrick Goldstein’s blog/column “The Big Picture” in the L.A. Times (

There are two useful pay websites for writers. The first is the Hollywood Creative Directory Online (, which is a little expensive. It lists contact information and staff for every Hollywood production company, studio and agency. It’s also available in print, but with the speed at which people change jobs in this business, the info gets out of date fast.

The second is Done Deal (, which is not very expensive. It lists all script sales and writer deals. That’s probably the most important info for a writer to track. You don’t want to embark on a spec with the same story as one that just sold.

It’s also pretty useful to subscribe to imdb pro. The free site provides a lot of info, but when you need to know what an executive’s credits are or who to contact at a certain company you’ll want the paid pro version.

How many of these sources you want to follow, along with blogs like this one on the more creative aspects of the industry, are somewhat dependent on your interests and where you are in your career. But it’s important that you are at least aware of major events and trends in the business. Just make sure you don’t spend so much time reading that you forget to write!

Friday, October 9, 2009

Interview with Paul Guay - Part 2

Here is part 2 of my interview with Paul Guay

Doug: How do you develop your characters?

Paul: Just add adjectives till something sticks.

If I’m writing a high-concept film, the concept implies the protagonist’s character arc (and vice versa). For example, Liar, Liar is about a birthday wish which requires the protagonist to tell the truth for 24 hours. Therefore, the protagonist must be someone who is incapable of, or hates, telling the truth. What might that kind of person do for a living? What kind of problems might arise personally and professionally if he’s suddenly unable to lie?

Plot is the revelation (and the changing) of character through action. So if I do my job right, my plot requires certain things from my characters and my characters require certain things from my plot. The characters and the plot grow together.

That said, I don’t have anything more than a theoretical fix on my characters until I start typing their dialogue and hear what they sound like. I’ll edit and make choices and adjustments and changes, but it’s not until I hear them talking that I really know who they are. When I hear them singing, I’m home free.

Doug: What’s the biggest mistake you see neophyte writers make?

Paul: Not hiring me as their Script Consultant.

The two biggest mistakes are choosing subject matter that’s not marketable and beginning to write too soon.

I have a lot of ideas for scripts, but when I finish a script it always takes me awhile to choose my next spec because it has to be something a) that I love enough that I want to spend the next six to 12 months of my life writing it (yes, I do assignments much faster, but we’re talking about specs here) and b) that I think enough people will want to see that a studio will choose it from the 180,000 or so scripts that are written every year and will be overjoyed to spend $71 million to make it and $36 million to market it, which were the average costs for a studio film in 2007.

Many neophyte writers ignore a), so they spend irreplaceable months of their lives on something they don’t love, or they ignore b), so they spend irreplaceable months of their lives on something they can’t sell. Of course, even with a passionate writer and a commercial subject no script is guaranteed to sell... but it sure beats the alternative.

The other major mistake I see is that writers go to draft too soon. I see remarkably-good ideas go to waste when writers didn’t spend the time to brainstorm, to ask “What if?”, to explore alternatives, to ask themselves, “Given this premise, given these characters, what’s everything that could happen?”, then didn’t sift through all those jokes and scenes and bits and arcs and setpieces to choose the best and forge them together into the strongest-possible whole.

Doug: You frequently write with a partner. How does that work?

Paul: I get the pit. He gets the pendulum.

Doug: Do you sit in a room together and toss around jokes, or do you divide up the scenes and write separately?

Paul: I’ve written different ways with different partners. Usually we do the brainstorming and outlining together. Then either I’ll type while my partner looks at the monitor and throws out hilarious lines, especially if it’s a comedy, while keeping tabs on the plot and tone and character choices and advising me when I’m typing seven different approaches to a scene that we really can stop at five... or we’ll take the first two scenes, divide them, write separately, move on to the next two scenes, etc.

Doug: How many drafts does it usually take before you feel like a script is ready?

Paul: The last spec I co-wrote, an action comedy called Blue Flu, went through 15 drafts. I don’t edit while I’m writing; I put down whatever comes into my head and know that I can choose and reshape and cut later. If I’m writing jokes, I might write five or 10 or 50 jokes for a particular line, and then as I do subsequent drafts, I’ll have a better and better idea which joke best reveals character, advances plot, pushes theme, and is funny.

This means, by the way, that my first drafts are long. But I find it much easier to make choices and reshape and cut once everything is written on the page and I can read the script as a whole.

I never send out a script until I think it’s ready. “Good enough” isn’t good enough; it has to be the most artistic and most commercial writing I’m capable of. It’s an extremely-competitive business; no one’s best guarantees a sale... but again, it sure beats the alternative. And I have pride in what I do. If I’m remembered for anything, it’ll be my writing. Or my height. But I have more control over my writing, and I’d like it to be remembered well.

Before my scripts go out, I give them to 10 friends who are working screenwriters. I want the benefit of their objectivity and their criticism so that what producers and directors and talent and studios see is as good as I can make it.

Doug: Liar, Liar was an enormous hit. What impact did that experience have on your career and on your creative process, positive or negative?

Paul: The career impact has been extremely positive; I now get the best table at my house. The only caveat is that sometimes when I pitch I’m told “That’s too similar to Liar, Liar” or “That’s too different from Liar, Liar.” I also get “That’s too visual,” but that’s another story.

In terms of my creative process, I probably put more pressure on myself to hit it out of the ballpark with each script than I did before. But that may also be a function of experience -- I know better than ever how challenging it can be to get a film made, so I put even more effort into making sure each script is as strong artistically and commercially as I can make it.

Doug: You sold Liar, Liar as a pitch. What do you think are the most important elements for a good pitch?

Paul: Choosing a story so compelling that moviegoers have to see it on opening night -- and telling it so well that your listeners “get” it in the telling. Don’t make them hunt for the gold; do the panning, do the sifting, then hand them the nuggets yourself.

Doug: Do you have any advice you wish someone had given you when you were just starting out?

Paul: Yes. Don’t bet on pro wrestling.

(c) 2009 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 the 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 is a sought-after Script Consultant (

Monday, October 5, 2009

Interview with Paul Guay - Part 1

This week I'm posting an interview with my friend and fellow screenwriter Paul Guay whose credits include Liar, Liar, Heartbreakers, and The Little Rascals. This is part one. I'll post part two later in the week.

Doug: How did you get your start in screenwriting?

Paul: Mob connections.

I’ve always wanted to be a writer (and an actor, and one of the Three Stooges). I wrote my first short story at seven, my first poem at eight, my first play at nine, my first lyric at 16, my first comedy sketch at 18, my first radio play at 21.

I went to Menlo School, where Robert W.F. Jones started a creative-writing class for me. I was the only student in the class, and over the course of three semesters I turned in something like a thousand poems, lyrics and short stories. Mr. Jones is still in intensive care.

Then I went to Pomona College, where I majored in creative writing and philosophy. I figured if the career in writing didn't work out, I always had philosophy to fall back on.

I got a job at Producers Sales Organization (PSO), a film distribution and production company, doing marketing, advertising and publicity. I worked there five years, learned about the film industry, made contacts, and read scripts. Hundreds of scripts. I analyzed some of them, gave notes. I started learning what works, what doesn’t work, and why. I wrote taglines for posters, retitled films, wrote trailers and press releases. I learned how to sell movies to a buyer and an audience.

PSO acquired the rights to The NeverEnding Story, the best-selling fantasy novel by Michael Ende. We were executive-producing, putting together the financing and handling the foreign distribution, and we wanted to set the project up with a U.S. distributor. The problem was, the (excellent) screenplay by Wolfgang Petersen & Herman Weigel read as if it had been translated that morning from the German; it wasn’t in idiomatic English.

Mark Damon, the head of PSO, asked if I would be interested in polishing the script. I figured, great, this will be the best two weeks of my life. Mark told me he needed the polished script in 36 hours.

I did a few sample pages and was called into a meeting with the PSO brass. They asked me to read what I'd written. “Aloud?” I wondered. “Yes,” they observed. I did. They applauded. (I now put an applause clause into all my contracts.)

I went back to my desk and finished the polish in 36 hours. The project was subsequently picked up by Warner Bros., grossed $125 million worldwide, back when that was real money, and spawned two sequels.

I was approached by Simona Benzakein, who had produced a Cesar Award nominee for Best Picture in France. She and Christopher Lambert (Highlander, Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes) were putting together a drama called Central Park. A major screenwriter had been paid to write a treatment that they didn’t care for, and they wondered if I would start over and write a new screenplay for free.

Who could resist an offer like that?

When I turned in the screenplay, Simona read it and said, “This makes the years of waiting worthwhile." I took that as a compliment.

When I left PSO I hooked up with a writing partner. Our first spec screenplay together, a romantic comedy called Take Two, got us our first agent and some good meetings. Our second screenplay, a coming-of-age comedy-drama called The C-Note, got us our second agent and some great meetings. Our third screenplay, a horror comedy called Abra-Cadaver, got us our third agent and sold to Universal. (Anyone want to make it?)

Eventually we were called in to pitch for The Little Rascals. Another team was hired, months passed, and we learned the studio didn’t care for that team’s script. We were called in for a second pitch, we were hired, and because the rights to the characters were going to expire, we had 12 days to write the first draft. Butch hit us up for more lines, but the film was very successful.

So somewhere in there is how I got my start in screenwriting.

Doug: Do you break your stories down into three-act structure before writing?

Paul: Yes. I find the three-act structure an extremely-helpful way to organize material, and as an audience member I enjoy movies with beginnings, middles and ends.

Doug: How detailed an outline do you do before embarking on a script (if you do one)?

Paul: What’s an outline?

Oh, yes, those things. As it happens, I do do one. And it’s extremely detailed, because it’s more than just an outline; it’s every potentially-useful idea I have about the film, all in one place.

I begin by writing down everything that the concept or the protagonist or the secondary characters suggest to me, in no order whatsoever. On a spec, I spend weeks brainstorming bits and scenes and dialogue and character notes and character arcs and jokes.

After awhile it becomes clear what stuff goes at the beginning of the film, so I move all that to Act One, and what goes at the end of the film, so I move all that to Act Three. The rest, of course, is either Act Two or “Notes and Discards”... stuff I move to the end in case I find a use for it later.

Then I start to organize within each Act. Where does my movie begin? What’s the turning point or plot point, either halfway through Act One (roughly page 12 or 13 in a 100-page script) or by page 10 (if I follow the “rule” that readers need to be grabbed within the first 10 pages)? What’s my end of Act One, the moment at which I get my hero up a tree? What’s the logical progression of events between the beginning and the turning point? Between the turning point and the tree?

I do the same for Act Two, aiming to throw the biggest rocks at my hero around page 75.

I do the same for Act Three, aiming to get him down from the tree and done with his denouement and tag (with perhaps a hint of a sequel) around page 100.

I can’t imagine beginning a screenplay without an outline. I don’t want to be 50 pages into a script and have no idea where I’m going.

Nor can I imagine not writing down all the ideas I have about the film as they come to me, and then putting them in the outline. Doesn’t mean I have to use them, but I want to know they’re there.

(c) 2009 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 the 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 is a sought-after Script Consultant (