Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Pitching Part 3 – Plot is the Enemy

I’ve talked about the kinds of pitches writers are called upon to do, and how I set up the type of movie I’m pitching. After the setup, it comes time to tell the story of the movie. Here’s where most writers get in trouble. At this stage of our personal development process, we are most likely focused on getting the plot to work. We’re figuring out the cause and effect that ties the major plot points together. So when we pitch we start going through the plot, beat by beat. But plot doesn’t sell your movie.

In fact, to some extent, plot is the enemy of a good pitch.

The first thing to remember is that a pitch is not the movie. For one thing, it’s a lot shorter. And you’re delivering the information verbally, so you don’t have all the tools of a visual medium. If you try to describe the entire plot, point by point, you will be doing nothing but stringing together events. You will have no time to convey the emotional impact of the character arc or the excitement of the set pieces. And those are things that WILL sell your movie.

So you’re going to have to let go of some of the plot details and focus on the major arcs of the story. My approach is to spend considerable time on Act I, summarize the key storylines of Act II, and then wrap up with a dramatic telling of the resolution.

Act I takes more time because you have to establish the character, their world, their want and need and the catalyst that launches the story. You can’t skip through this stuff too fast or you risk the listener becoming confused. Probably the most important thing – and most commonly overlooked – is setting up the main character (and possibly some of the supporting characters). If you don’t interest the listener in the main character, there is no reason for them to care about the outcome of the story – just like in the movie. So it’s worth spending some time here.

After you describe the Act I Turning Point, you can talk more generally about the tensions and arcs that drive the story through Act II. For example, you might say the main character has to fight against his rival for the hand of the love interest, while also dealing with an overbearing boss and a crazy landlady who has a crush on him. You will want to mention any major twists in the plot, but you want to be careful not to fall into the monotony of: this happens, then this happens, then this happens…

You also want to make sure that you are not just focusing on the action. Often times I’ll hear pitches where the writer sets up the character very well, but then fails to continue developing the character as the story progresses. You need to track the character arc and the changing relationships between the characters with as much attention as you track the external plot.

Generally you will build these Act II external and character arcs until the Act II Turning Point – the moment of greatest failure for the character. If your story is properly structured, this will spin it off in a new direction and Act III. I go into a little more detail at the resolution, trying to make it as dramatic as possible. But again, don’t forget the character. You want to be clear about how the character has been changed by the story and what impact their arc has on their life.

Finally, you want to end on a conclusive note. Sometimes I’ll see writers get to the end of the pitch and just kind of trail off before saying, “yeah…that’s it.” You want the pitch to have an ending equally dramatic and profound as the movie will.

Now let me back up for just a moment. I said that you go through Act II quickly, only tracing the major arcs. But that’s not entirely true. You do want to describe some of the big set pieces in the movie. Those will likely include the opening, the Act II Turning Point and the conclusion. But you also may want to highlight two or three set pieces in Act II.

In the earlier pitches to producers, you want to avoid pitching scenes. Instead, describe in general what makes the set piece interesting. Perhaps the hero has to break into a maximum security prison so he dresses up as a guard. But along the way someone spots him and he has to flee through a yard filled with prisoners – who think he’s a guard. The chase causes a fight to break out and our hero has to navigate the brawl, the pursuing guards, and still get to his goal. Those three sentences imply an interesting exciting scene that the listener can visualize – and a big goal of pitching is getting the listener to see the movie in their mind.

So as I plan my pitches, I identify the big arcs and storylines. I make sure to establish the character at the beginning, track their emotional changes, and describe how this impacts their life in the end. And I pick a few big set pieces to describe in detail along the way.

That covers the outline of a prototypical pitch. As I said in the beginning of this series, every movie has its own demands. Sci-fi and fantasy stories will require more emphasis on developing the world. Stories that use magic will require careful explanation of the “rules” of the magic. Ensemble pieces will likely require more time spent on character description. And of course the genre influences emphasis. An action movie will emphasize set pieces more while a romantic comedy will focus on the character’s emotional growth.

In my next pitching post I’ll cover some of my rules for building a good pitch. But before I get to that I’ll probably do my annual “10 Best Written Movies of the Year.” So stay tuned!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Pitching Part 2: How Much Story?

Last time I discussed how I set up my pitches by defining what the movie is and what my connection to it is. After that, I launch into the story. But here I need to take a minute to discuss the different kind of pitches you might be called upon to do. There’s a progression to the pitching process that affects how much story detail you will be including. (For the moment, I’m going to assume we’re talking about an original story idea rather than an assignment or adaptation. I’ll cover those in a bit.)

Your first pitch might come during a general meeting – a meeting where you’re talking with a producer or development exec who liked a sample of your writing. At some point, they will ask what you’re working on. These pitches can be pretty low on detail. You might just describe the concept, some of the major arcs – plot and character – and probably the events at the Act Two Turning Point and the Resolution. The length is probably three to six minutes, ten at the outside.

If the producer likes the idea enough to develop it with you, you’ll talk it over, bouncing ideas back and forth. Once you have some sense of the direction the producer is interested in going, you’ll go back and flesh out the pitch, providing more detail. You may bring the pitch back to the producer several times until you’re both happy with it.

Then you and the producer will most likely take the pitch to a studio. With a few exceptions, the producer will want the studio to sign on and actually put up the money for you to write the script, under the producer’s creative supervision. At this point, the pitch is likely fairly detailed with all the major beats spelled out – lasting anywhere from fifteen to forty-five minutes depending on the producer’s style.

Another pitching scenario is when your agent has specifically arranged for you to come in and pitch something to a producer you already know with the idea that they might want to buy the pitch. If you’re pitching a single idea, it ought to be fairly well fleshed out so you don’t seem like you’re wasting their time with something half baked. But it will still be more of a summary that’s open to input from the producer. These pitches might be five to fifteen minutes in length – though I tend to lean toward the shorter end. If the producer likes it, you will probably still have to go through the development and studio pitch stages before getting your contract.

Pitching for adaptations and assignments throws another wrinkle into the mix. If you’ve acquired rights to the material and are bringing it in yourself, you’ll pitch just like it was an original idea, except for referencing the source material at the beginning of the pitch. Assume the people you’re pitching to do not know anything about the material.

More often, though, you’ve been given either a script that needs a rewrite or some source material the producer’s interested in having adapted. In this case, the person you’re pitching to will have at least a passing familiarity with the material. Except when they don’t – by the time you pitch to the studio, you may be pitching to someone who hasn’t read the underlying material. Hopefully the producer is preparing you properly in these cases.

When I’m pitching to someone who knows the source material, I still generally go through the story chronologically, but my emphasis changes. I focus more on what I’m going to change and why. I assume I don’t have to recap every plot point.

With a book I may be describing which elements I’m keeping and which I’m discarding (books tend to be too long to adapt in their entirety). With a play it may be how I’m going to open it up and make it more filmic. With a newspaper or magazine article it may be that I have to impose a plot on something that’s really more of an arena than a story. If I’m angling for a rewrite gig on an existing screenplay, I’ll be talking about the problems I see and how I’ll solve them. The more I’m actually developing an original plot from the material, the more I just pitch the idea as if it were my own.

Note that all of these assume I’m trying to get hired to write a script. You also occasionally will get a chance to pitch someone a script you’ve already written to try to convince them to read it - say you're in a meeting and they mention they're looking for a low budget sci-fi movie and you happen to have written one. In those cases, the pitch should be short and focus on the hook of the story and what’s cool about the idea. Very likely you won’t want to give the ending so the script maintains some surprise.

So hopefully that gives you some perspective on the various types and lengths of pitches you will do. In almost all of these cases the set-up portion I talked about last post remains the same. What changes is how much detail I include in telling the story. One important thing to keep in mind: the pitch is not the script, nor is it the movie.

All of these pitches will be shorter than the final script. Therefore, you will not be able to put every cool idea you have into the pitch. Don’t worry about it… if you’re successful you’ll get to write the script and show them all that stuff. When developing your pitch, it’s important to focus on making the best pitch version of the story.

Next post I’ll talk about how I focus and condense the story into a manageable pitch length.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Pitching Part 1 - The Set-Up

Like it or not, pitching is essential to making a living as a screenwriter (and most screenwriters don't like it one bit.) If you plan to be a professional, you are going to have to pitch all the time – to get assignments, to sell ideas, to convince actors to be in your film, and probably most commonly in “general” meetings.

After you send out a spec script you’ll end up getting meetings with people who didn’t want to buy it but think you might have some potential as a writer. They want to get to know you, see what kind of person you are, see if you’re someone they might want to hire one day. These are called general meetings. And in those meetings you will be asked what you’re working on. And then you’ll pitch.

I’m going to devote my next several posts to the topic of pitching. I’ll start with how I go about building a pitch. Every story requires a slightly different approach, but I have a basic outline I start with. And the first part of that outline is setting up the movie.

Personal Connection

When you pitch, you are not just selling an idea, you are selling yourself as a writer. It is very beneficial to connect your personal experiences to the story. You want the buyer to see you as the only writer who could possibly execute this idea. This is even more important when you are pitching an adaptation or assignment. You have to show the unique insight you bring to the underlying material.

If it’s a story based on something that happened in your own life, great. Briefly describe the story that inspired you. If you have specialized expertise in the arena – you were a fireman and you’re pitching a story about firemen, for example – then use that.

Most of the time, though, you’ll have to dig a little deeper to show your connection. If it’s an original story, you might say what inspired you to write it. If not, describe why it appeals to you. This will often be thematic – tell them something about yourself that makes the story’s theme personally relevant. (It helps, by the way, if what you're saying is true.)

So let’s say you were pitching to get the job to write Captain America. You’re not a superhero and you probably didn’t fight in World War II. But you might start talking about how you were always small for your age and were always picked last for sports, even though you loved sports. You could talk about how you really relate to that aspect of Steve Rogers’ character – how his desire to serve his country is confounded by his physical limitations.

I usually start with the personal connection as a lead in to pitching the story. It contextualizes the pitch. If I was doing the Captain America pitch above, I would make certain to reference back to that outsider theme regularly.

What Kind of Movie Is It?

At the most basic level, the pitch is a verbal summary of your story. But it is actually more than that – you are trying to convey the movie you want to write. So before launching into the plot, I describe what kind of movie I’m planning. This usually includes:

The Title. If you’re pitching an assignment or adaptation you’ll already have a title, but if you’re pitching an original idea, have a title for it. It helps make the movie seem real.

The Logline. Give a one or two sentence description of the story. It is hard to follow things delivered verbally. If you give a solid logline that encapsulates the idea, then it is easier for the listener to place the plot points in context. (See last post for my thoughts on crafting a good logline.)

Tone, Genre, Rating. Don’t make us guess if it’s a comedy or not, or if it will be R or PG. It’s okay to say, “This is a light romantic comedy,” or “This is a hard-R horror movie.” Again, it helps us contextualize the plot as you describe it.

Other Movies. The “X meets Y” pitch is a Hollywood cliché. But comparing your project to similar movies can help establish the tone quickly and easily. If you do the “meets” approach, be sure it makes sense. “Alien meets Hunt for Red October” helps me imagine a movie. “Saw meets Sophie’s Choice” does not. Personally, I prefer saying the film is, “in the vein of…” and then listing three similar movies. It establishes tone without risking confusion.

A few rules here: Use mostly contemporary movies – if all your references are to 1940’s movies your idea will sound old fashioned. Use successful movies – comparing your movie to monumental flops is not a good way to sell something. Use well-known movies – if they haven’t seen the obscure Hungarian film you reference it does you no good at all. And refer to more than one movie – otherwise it may look like you’re just ripping off that movie.

Once you’ve established what kind of movie your pitching, it is time to launch into the story. And that will be the topic of my next post!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The All Powerful Logline

Since pitching is such an important part of being a working screenwriting, I’m going to devote the next several posts to the art of the pitch. I’ll cover crafting the actual pitch, pointers on style and technique, and information on pitching in the business. (If you want to read what I’ve written about pitching previously, you can see all the posts here.) Before I start, though, I want to do a post about loglines because a good logline is an important part of a good pitch (more on that next post).

Simply defined, a logline is a one or two sentence description of a movie concept. But actually crafting one is never simple.

First, let me discuss why a good logline is so important to the professional writer. There’s a creative reason – if you can’t craft a logline you probably haven’t yet fully grasped your concept in your own mind. I always put my logline at the top of my outlines. It helps me stay focused on what the movie’s really about.

But loglines are even more important from a business perspective. When my agent is about to send out a spec script, he’ll asked me to send him half a dozen loglines. From those we’ll whittle it down to one really good one. Then when my agent calls producers and development execs to alert them the script is coming, he’ll give them that logline.

What happens next is that the producer or exec’s assistant will enter the logline on a tracking board. Tracking boards are private Internet forums shared by development people. They are informal and there are several, loosely grouped by genre and budget interest. The goal is for buyers to track everything coming onto the market.

If the logline my agent and I crafted is good, he’ll start getting calls from other development people saying, “We heard Doug has a new spec coming out… can we get on the list?” If the logline isn’t good we won’t get those calls. Already the script’s in trouble and nobody’s even read it!

Another use for loglines is in the independent world. If you submit a film to a festival they will ask for a logline. That gets printed in a program – and if the festival is big enough, they’ll be printed in the trades. People, including potentially acquisition execs, will make decisions on what film to see based on the loglines. When I look at a festival program I can always tell which filmmakers understood the importance of that logline spot on the application and which just whipped something off at the last minute.

Similarly, if you enter a major screenplay contest and make the finals, they will likely send out a press release listing the loglines the writers put on the application. People in the industry will peruse those to see if any sound promising. Hopefully your logline is as good as your script!

So loglines are important. But how do you write a good one?

It’s really hard. And every film is a little different. Your goal is to capture the movie’s hook – what’s unique and interesting about it. Also you want to convey the genre and tone. A good logline makes you want to see that movie.

Some of the best loglines are unique and pithy. These are usually high concept movies. “Die Hard on a boat” (Under Siege). “During a bachelor party in Vegas, the groomsmen lose the groom” (The Hangover). “Two guys pick up women by crashing weddings” (Wedding Crashers).

What’s great about those loglines is they are short, simple and memorable. Many loglines need to be a little more detailed and focus more on the main character. However you should still keep “short and sweet” as a goal. Ideally people should be able to repeat the logline verbatim after only hearing it once.

It’s important that the logline be specific and clear, not vague. Vague does not help you. Bad: “A family wrestles with success and failure and comes together at the end.” Good: “A dysfunctional family goes on a road trip so the youngest daughter can compete in a beauty pageant.” (Little Miss Sunshine)

One trick I use is the adjective-noun approach to the main character. Saying the story is about a “guy” or a “girl” simply tells you their gender. Is that really the most interesting thing about them? Think of a noun and an adjective to crystallize the character. James Bond isn’t a guy, he’s a “suave spy.” Indiana Jones is a “swashbuckling archeologist.” Clarice in Silence of the Lambs is “an ambitious FBI trainee.”

For buddy films or ensembles, you will often want to turn the pair or group into a “main character” for the purposes of the logline. So Some Like It Hot is about “two womanizing musicians.”

Next you need to convey the story. It should feel external and active. This is supposed to be a movie after all. You want to avoid a “naval gazing” logline like “A man contemplates the significance of his life.” It sounds like we’re going to watch this guy staring out the window deep in thought. Boring.

However, “An angel shows a suicidal man what the world would have been like if he’d never been born” – that’s a movie I’d want to see. (It’s a Wonderful Life)

Often stating the character’s goal can be the way to convey the story concept. Indiana Jones is “searching for the Ark of the Covenant.” Clarice Starling is trying to “stop a serial killer.” In The King’s Speech, “King George has to deliver a speech to rally Britain.”

But you also need to show what major obstacles stand in the way. What’s so interesting about a king making a speech? Well, it’s interesting if he has a debilitating stutter to overcome. And an archeologist searching for an artifact… are we going to watch him dig in the dirt for two hours? Raiders of the Lost Ark is a good story because of the Nazis.

Similarly, make sure the stakes are clear. We understand why an archeologist would want to find the greatest artifact ever. But what’s at stake if King George fails in his speech? Better mention that in the logline.

So, here are some workable loglines:

Some Like It Hot: During prohibition two womanizing musicians dress in drag and join an all girl band to escape the mob after they witness a hit.

Raiders of the Lost Ark: On the eve of World War II, a swashbuckling archeologist races against the Nazis to find the Ark of the Covenant.

Silence of the Lambs: An ambitious female FBI trainee matches wits with an imprisoned genius to learn the identity of a serial killer before he can strike again.

The King’s Speech: King George VI undergoes radical therapy for a stutter so he can deliver a speech to rally Britain during World War II.

Some notes – you’ll notice I mentioned the FBI trainee in Silence of the Lambs is a woman. It may seem unfair I have to make that point, but let’s be realistic. If I didn’t, most people would assume the main character is a man. You can’t undo societal prejudice in a logline. Better to be clear.

You’ll also see that the period pieces mention when they take place. If you don’t, people will naturally assume your story is contemporary and may be put off when they discover they’re wrong. You’ll also need to provide some context for sci-fi and fantasy pieces. The best approach is to identify the most telling and important aspect of the world you’re describing. So the logline for Children of Men might be:

"In a future where society is collapsing because all of humanity has become sterile, a depressed loner must get the first pregnant woman in a generation to safety."

With loglines you’ll constantly be fighting between length and clarity. My best advice is to keep in mind that your logline is not your movie. It’s a hook to get someone interested in your movie. Don’t worry if it doesn’t convey everything about your story. Just make sure it sounds cool!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Scene Transitions

When you’re writing a spec script to sell, you’re primarily worried about conveying a story and characters and scenes that will wow a reader. When you’re writing a script to be produced, however, you have some different concerns. It’s no longer just how the story will play out on the page, it’s how it will play out on screen.

I think it’s best, of course, if you concern yourself with those things even in the “selling script.” Studio execs and even producers might not notice, but directors and some actors sure will. Ultimately writing for production is a good defense against getting replaced if the script goes into development (though your odds of getting replaced are still unfortunately high).

So what does writing for production mean? A big part of it is considering how stuff will come across visually. This is obvious in some ways but there are some subtleties we as writers who work with words on a page might not think about. One of those is scene transitions – the way one scene joins to another.

You most likely have considered the use of dissolves or fades. I would caution against overusing these the same way you don’t want to overuse camera direction. But to show passage of time or a flashback, a dissolve can be a nice device. And of course you need the FADE IN and FADE OUT to start and close your script!

There’s also the use of an audio pre-lap. In essence, you’re writing an editing trick to help keep the scenes flowing. Here’s an example from Silence of the Lambs (screenplay by Ted Tally):

    Be very careful with Hannibal Lecter.
    Dr. Chilton at the asylum will go
    over the physical procedures used
    with him. Do not deviate from them,
    for any reason. You tell him nothing
    personal, Starling. Believe me, you
    don't want Hannibal Lecter inside
    your head... Just do your job, but
    never forget what he is.

         (a bit unnerved)
    And what is that, sir?
             CHILTON (V.O.)
    Oh, he's a monster. A pure

                                         CUT TO:


CLOSE ON an ID card held in a male hand. Clarice's photo, official-looking graphics. It calls her a "Federal Investigator."

     It's so rare to capture one alive.
     From a research point of view, Dr.
     Lecter is our most prized asset...

As I said, these are essentially editing tricks that you might indicate in a screenplay occasionally to ease the flow from scene to scene. But there’s something more to consider as a writer: The juxtaposition of image across the cut.

Unless you’re going for some kind of effect such as claustrophobia, it’s usually a good idea to vary up your interior and exterior and night and day scenes. Cutting from exterior daytime to interior nighttime helps the audience process the transition quickly. If you cut from a daylight scene at a park, for example, to a daylight scene at a reservoir, visually it may look like cutting from trees and grass to trees and grass. The audience may not realize at first that it’s a new scene, necessitating time consuming establishing shots. Plus, visual variety is usually desirable in film.

An easy way to check for this is to look at your slug lines as a list. Most screenwriting software makes that easy. If you see too many interior scenes together, or too many night scenes together, ask yourself if that’s for effect or just coincidence? Could you reorder scenes? Maybe set a dialogue scene outside? Believe me, directors think of these kinds of things.

You also may want to consider the beginning and ending images of each scene. You can gain added impact by juxtaposing two images without really having to justify them logically since they are in two different scenes. For example, you could cut from a close-up of a mobster who has just ratted on the mob to a dead bird that some children are poking with a stick in order to create a visual metaphor.

This can feel really heavy handed if you go for such meaningful cuts every scene, so again, be judicious. But it’s worth considering what the ending image is in one scene and the beginning image of the next. At the very least you want to avoid unintentional visual metaphors!

It should be fairly obvious that scene transitions are most important to worry about in the latter stages of the rewriting process. In the first few drafts you’re likely going to add, delete and reorder scenes anyway. The exception might be specific visual metaphors. Whenever you do it, writing good scene transitions demonstrates to savvy filmmakers that you are a writer of movies, not just scripts.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Contagion Analysis

(SPOILERS: Contagion)

I don’t normally do film reviews here because I figure who needs yet another person on the internet telling you whether they liked a film or not. But occasionally I’ll talk about a film I saw that did something interesting – either good or bad – in the writing.

I finally saw Contagion (written by Scott Z. Burns) last night and thought it tried to do some very unusual things with its narrative. To get the review part out of the way, I kinda liked the movie, but found it frustrating.

What’s interesting about the approach is that rather than telling a character focused story, the movie tries to tell the story of what would happen to the world if a new, fast spreading, high mortality virus appeared in the human population. It looks at the event from many angles – the CDC, World Health Organization, journalists, government, and a handful of normal citizens. This is the story of humanity vs. a virus.

There is an emotional, single-character story line that provides a loose skeleton for the structure. This is the story of Mitch, played by Matt Damon, a normal person dealing with the death of his wife, the first American victim, and then trying to survive with his daughter as the disease slowly destroys the fabric of society.

This story is done well, and we are moved by Mitch’s loss and experiences. It’s a good choice, because he’s an ordinary guy, presumably similar to a lot of the audience. But the movie doesn’t survive on his story – though we check in with Mitch regularly, he’s in less than a quarter of the scenes. Rather, it’s humanity’s response to the disease that gives the story its structure from our first encounter with the virus to the teetering of civilization to the eventual discovery of a cure.

It seems we’re not meant to engage the movie emotionally so much, but intellectually. Which works fine, actually, as long as the intellectual questions raised are compelling enough. And the ideas about power and science and the value of the individual, not to mention human vulnerability and the tenuous hold we all have on life, are pretty compelling.

In addition to Mitch’s storyline, there is one other way the film tries to engage our emotions. We are given several significant characters cast with stars. The filmmakers cleverly kill the first one introduced – Beth, played by Gwyneth Paltrow – right off the bat. This is a signal that nobody is safe. We can’t assume that all the movie stars are going to get out of this alive. This creates some tension for the audience.

But as an audience we’ve seen this trick before, and since it happens so early, we might quickly become immune to its effect. “Oh, they stunt-cast Gwyneth Paltrow for shock value,” we think, “how clever.” Then we feel safe that nobody else played by a famous person will die. So in the middle of the movie they do it again – Kate Winslet’s Dr. Erin Mears from the CDC dies. Now we really don’t know what might happen. And since we like these stars (presumably) and most of their characters are pretty heroic, we have tension over the outcome.

So Mitch’s storyline and the fate of our heroic movie star characters gets us to invest emotionally in the film just enough for us to care about the plot. But the structure is more about the progress of humanity facing this horrific disease. It’s a script structured around a concept. Does it work?

Partly. The broad scope is interesting, but it feels crammed into a two-hour movie. As a miniseries it might have been much more successful. Given the limited amount of time available for each aspect of the story, most of the storylines feel undercooked.

For example, the story about a World Health Organization worker kidnapped in Hong Kong vanishes for the middle of the movie. When she reappears, it’s almost jarring – we’d forgotten about her. That story could have been interesting if fully developed, but it would have required a lot more screen time. Better, I think, would have been to cut it out entirely and devote more time to the political issues, another area that seemed underdeveloped.

But now I’m more just angling for the parts of the story I find most interesting. The real issue here is that the narrative is spread so thin, none of the stories ends up fully realized. A movie just based on the CDC’s response to the disease, for example, might not have been as ambitious but could have been more successful.

Would it be possible to do a broad, conceptual structure more successfully? I think so. Contagion doesn’t wander or feel boring. Interestingly, it doesn’t feel episodic because all the stories relate to the overall structural tension of whether humanity can overcome this virus. But perhaps this particular issue just has too big of a scope for a two-hour movie.

In any case, I’ll still give them a big cheer for ambition.

Friday, November 11, 2011


I was once hired to consult on a screenplay that was over 200 pages long. The writer was desperate to reduce the length, but said he couldn’t figure out where to cut. When I got the screenplay, the scenes looked something like this:


A desk sits at the west end of a small office. The floor is carpeted in blue shag that’s seen some wear and tear. Two floor lamps provide illumination. There are paintings of ocean landscapes on the wall and two guest chairs in front of the desk.

JOE sits in a leather chair behind the desk. He’s about thirty, tall, lean with brown hair carefully parted. He wears a blue suit with a red and blue striped tie, brown shoes and an expensive gold watch. He looks at a piece of paper, signs it with an expensive fountain pen, then places the paper in the out-box. He takes a sip from an enormous coffee cup. He picks up another piece of paper. Studies it, his brow wrinkling.

There is a KNOCK at the door. Joe puts the paper back in the in-box and slips the pen into his shirt pocket. He stands up and smoothes his clothes. He walks across the room and takes the door handle. He pulls the door open.

SALLY, a pretty young woman in a red dress, her hair pulled back in a ponytail, is standing behind the door. She smiles broadly at Joe. He frowns. Sally looks down. Joe sighs and stands aside. Sally enters. Joe walks back to the chair behind the desk. He gestures at the guest chair, then sits down. Sally walks to the guest chair and sits down while Joe finishes off his coffee.

I’m really not exaggerating. The solution was easy – the story was the right length, the writer had simply described everything in too much minute detail. This is called “overwriting.”

I know why it happens. When you’re writing a scene, you’re probably picturing it in your mind. And you write down what you’re picturing. But we don’t need every single detail. The reader will fill in the blanks. Plus, when you actually get into production, chances are a lot of these details will change anyway.

Though it might seem harmless, there are several good reasons to avoid overwriting. The most obvious is that you slow down the pace of the script. If you’re trying to sell it as a spec, get an agent, convince a studio to greenlight the movie, or lure a star to play the lead, you don’t want to bore the reader.

Industry readers have a habit of skimming or skipping the description and only reading the dialogue. If your description seems generally long and pointless, you’re encouraging that practice. If you put important stuff in your description, which you probably will if you’re a good writer, this is bad. If you want people to read carefully, demonstrate that everything you write is relevant and important.

There’s also the matter of timing the final film. The industry rule of thumb is that one script page equals one minute of screen time. This is only approximate – action will take longer on screen than it does on the page and dialogue will move faster – but over the course of a movie it’s a pretty reliable measure. Unless you overwrite.

Perhaps a more important problem for the writer is burying important information. Without looking back at the scene description above, do you remember where the fountain pen is? Probably not. If the reader needs to remember that for something to make sense later in the scene, they will likely be confused.

The trick to writing description is to give just enough carefully chosen, specific detail to make the scene come alive. And if there’s something you want to emphasize, make sure you hit it hard. Let’s revisit the previous scene and see how we might do it better, emphasizing the final location of the fountain pen.


JOE, thirty, tall and lean and dressed in an expensive suit, sits at a desk going over some papers. He signs one with an expensive fountain pen. There is a KNOCK at the door.

Joe puts the fountain pen down on the desk, but then reconsiders and slips it in his shirt pocket.

He answers the door. SALLY, a pretty young woman, smiles broadly at him. Joe frowns, and Sally’s smile fades. He leads her over to the desk.

I dropped it from 246 to 82 words without losing significant content. Not exactly scintillating, perhaps, but it is simple and clear and you’ll probably remember that Joe stuck that pen in his shirt pocket.

Overwriting is not bad on a first draft. In fact, it may be best to allow yourself to get down everything in your head at that stage of the game. But when you rewrite, you need to tighten up your description and make sure the important facts are highlighted.

Saturday, November 5, 2011


(SPOILERS: Some Like It Hot, Little Miss Sunshine, The Godfather, Fargo)

One of the concerns you’ll often hear from studio execs is whether the main character is likeable enough. This begs the question: do we have to like the main character to enjoy the movie? Many would say yes. Why do we want to spend two hours with someone we don’t like? Why would we root for someone who we despise?

Good arguments. Luke Skywalker is likeable in Star Wars (written by George Lucas). Elliot is likeable in E.T. (written by Melissa Mathison). Harry is likeable in When Harry Met Sally… (Written by Nora Ephron). And as a result we care about what happens to them and root for them to succeed. These characters are good-hearted underdogs fighting for what’s right. Not hard to get behind that kind of character.

But what about Joe in Some Like It Hot (story by R. Thoeren and M. Logan, screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond)?   He’s introduced as a cad who gambles, lies, sleeps around, and generally doesn’t think about anyone but himself. And how about Richard, the main character in Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt)?  He’s introduced as a pathetic aspiring motivational speaker who is selfish with regard to his family.

Likeability sometimes runs up against the desire to create a character arc. If a character is going to change for the better, they obviously have to start as less than perfect.  So how do you get the audience to root for a flawed hero?

First of all, Richard and Joe’s flaws are not really evil. They do cause people pain, but their intention is not to hurt others. Also, neither is particularly powerful. They are struggling in an inhospitable world, which mitigates their more selfish behavior. It’s easier to root for a character with these kinds of flaws than a serial killer or rapist or corrupt politician or dictator.

We can also show that the characters have hope for improvement. We all have flaws. But if the character’s weaknesses are balanced by strengths, we’ll root for them to overcome their flaws. Richard is a hard worker with a vision he’s passionate about. Joe is charming and carefree.

Another techniques used in both Some Like It Hot and Little Miss Sunshine is to give the hero likeable companions. Jerry is obviously a good guy, and since he likes Joe, we’re hoping that Joe becomes a better person. Similarly, Olive is adorable. We’re rooting for her, and since Richard is key to her success, we root for him as well.

The way you introduce the character is important here. If we see the good in someone first, we’ll be more accepting of the bad. You can also use a “save the cat” scene. These are scenes where an otherwise unlikeable main character does something heroic (such as save a cat) that tells us deep down there’s some good in them.

Joe and Richard are complex, flawed characters we can root for. But Michael in The Godfather (screenplay by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola) poses a bigger challenge. Are we really rooting for him to become a mafia kingpin, a coldhearted killer, and a man who lies easily to his sweet, innocent wife?

No, we’re actually rooting against this. But what’s important is that we are rooting for something! Just because the outcome is not what we were hoping for does not lessen our investment in the story. Michael is still likeable because we understand and empathize with his motivation.

It’s no accident Michael is introduced as a war hero. Though it happened before the start of the movie, this is a typical “save the cat” beat. It’s also important that Michael is not planning to become a criminal. When his girlfriend realizes that Michael is from a mafia family, he tells her, “That’s my family, Kate. It’s not me.”

So what is the motivation that changes Michael? Greed? Anger? Meanness? No. Michael decides to commit murder because someone has shot his father. He wants to avenge the attack and prevent another assassination attempt. Love for his father – that’s a motivation we can empathize with. And though we may be heartbroken that Michael turns to evil at the end of the movie, we care precisely because we saw the potential for good in him and yet understand why he’s chosen the path he did. That’s what makes the ending tragic.

On rare occasions the main character of a movie may be completely unlikeable and the movie still works. Fargo (written by Ethan & Joel Coen) is one such movie. Though you probably remember Marge Gunderson best, structurally she’s the antagonist, not the main character. The main character is Jerry, and he’s pretty unlikeable. But here we have a movie where we’re actively rooting against the main character. And we have an antagonist who is likeable who we can root for. Remember, the main character is a structural concept – usually they’re also who we root for, but they don’t have to be.

(For more discussion of Fargo, check out this series of posts.)

The likeability question is one that filmmakers will always wrestle with. It’s certainly a lot easier to sell a movie with a hero who is “heroic.” And it’s easier to get the audience to root for such a hero. But if we limited ourselves to that kind of main character, we’d never get such great movies as The Godfather and Fargo. Or Pulp Fiction or Citizen Kane or Bonny and Clyde or Liar, Liar or Up in the Air

You get the idea.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Horror Scenes – Night of the Living Dead

(Spoilers: Night of the Living Dead)

I’m going to conclude my horror scene series by looking at a scene from the classic 1968 Night of the Living Dead (screenplay by John A. Russo and George A. Romero). This is the movie that started the zombie movie craze – though they actually call the undead “ghouls” in the film.  It established a lot of what we think of when we think of classic zombies.

There are several great scary scenes – particularly the opening where Barbra and her brother are first attacked and she flees to the house, and the ending when the zombies overrun the house. These use many of the techniques I’ve discussed over the last few posts. But the scene I want to look at is the one where the group in the house attempts to fuel the truck.

In the scene, Ben and Tom plan to take the truck to the pump to refuel it. Harry throws Molotov cocktails from the upper floor to clear an initial path. But Tom’s girlfriend Judy decides she wants to go with him at the last second. The three hop in the truck and drive to the pump only to find the key doesn’t work. They shoot the lock off. With zombies closing in Tom pulls the pump handle too quickly and splashes gas on the truck, which is ignited by the torch Ben set down to shoot the lock.

Tom drives the truck away from the pump, but it’s engulfed in flames. He tries to jump out, but Judy’s stuck. He turns back to help her and BOOM! The truck blows up, killing them both. Ben has to fight his way on foot through the zombies to get back to the house. He reaches a blocked door, but Harry is too frightened to let him in. Ben finally manages to kick the door down, and once Harry and he get it sealed again, he punches Harry out.

This is one of the biggest set pieces in the film, and the thing I think is noteworthy is how much effort is given to setting it up. Throughout the movie we’ve had plants for this scene – that the zombies are afraid of fire, where the truck came from and that it is low on gas, that the pump is locked, and, perhaps most important, the character conflicts within the band of survivors.

Most of these plants were slipped into other scenes where we didn’t realize how they were setting us up. For example, Ben’s story about getting away in the truck early on where he’s explaining how he got to the house. But all of this was done by the filmmakers to build to this big set piece.

There’s a great scene of preparation where the band of survivors in the house make their plan. This scene lays out everything that is supposed to happen for the audience so once the set piece is underway, we know when things go right and wrong – for example when the key doesn’t work on the fuel pump lock. There’s no need to bog down the action with a lot of explanation.

The preparation also allows Tom and Judy to have an emotional heart-to-heart where we see their relationship and particularly their love for each other. There are some nice specifics, such as how he loves that she always has a smile for him. Specifics make the characters seem real, which makes us care about them. Because of this scene, their deaths have a powerful emotional impact. Scenes of preparation are a good way to establish the audience’s sympathy for the characters.

Once the scene is under way, it’s full of twists – the key not working, the truck catching fire, Tom and Judy’s death, Harry’s betrayal. One of the flaws I often see in poor scripts are set pieces with only one major twist (or none!) If you want to keep the audience on the edge of their seats, you have to constantly shift the ground under the characters.

The scene also uses many of the other horror techniques I’ve been discussing -- suspense, a ticking clock in the approaching zombies, and very disturbing gore when the zombies feast on the roasted bodies of Tom and Judy. All of this is great, but it’s the preparation that allows this scene to be truly harrowing.

Happy Halloween!

(And if you want to play some scary interactive stories, try Nightmare Cove, the free Facebook horror game I've been writing on.)

Friday, October 28, 2011

Horror Scenes - The Thing

(SPOILERS: The Thing)

I’ll continue my series analyzing scary scenes with one of the best scenes from the 1982 version of The Thing (screenplay by Bill Lancaster) – the blood test scene. Someone’s posted a clip of it on You Tube. Note that The Thing is a remake of a 1951 movie. And you probably know that a prequel, written by my friend Eric Heisserer, is now in theaters!

In this scene, MacReady and another man have tied up most of the surviving members of the Antarctic base crew. MacReady has a theory about a way to determine who’s the alien by testing the reaction of blood to a hot wire.

The situation is naturally tense. We feel for the people tied up. Those that are human are helpless to defend themselves. And even though MacReady and another man are free, they will not have any help once the creature is revealed. The monster in The Thing plays into a common horror movie theme: not knowing who is trustworthy. If you can’t trust anyone, you are alone.

Like the previous scenes I’ve looked at, we once again have a slow build up of tension. The test itself is brilliantly slow. Someone has to get close to each person to collect a blood sample. Then the wire has to be slowly heated. They test each person in order, needing to reheat the wire each time, building suspense over who might be the monster. By the time it reveals itself, we’re wound so tight we jump.

There’s also a moral subtext here – two members of the crew have been killed. MacReady tests their blood, and we discover they were human. MacReady has unintentionally killed an innocent man. Again, trust is called into question. Can MacReady even trust his own decisions?

Then the Thing is revealed. There’s a great, subtle moment here – MacReady is in the process of accusing Garry when he tests the blood that first reacts. The accusation distracts us from the test, pointing us forward (MacReady has just told Garry, “We’ll do you last.”). So when Palmer’s blood jumps out of the Petri dish, we’re caught off guard, even though we’ve been expecting it. The writer is masterfully directing our attention for maximum impact.

Then we get some gore. It’s a bit cheesy by today’s standards, but it also demonstrates another horror technique: it’s always unsettling to see the human body move or distort in ways we know it shouldn’t.

Now we have the chaos after the build of tension. Our poor, defenseless human men are now tied to a monster. MacReady’s flamethrower malfunctions – a convenient coincidence, but we accept coincidences that work against our hero. His one ally is so frozen in fear, the Thing gets him before he can burn it.

What makes this scene so memorable is the tension of the slow testing of the bound men one by one to see who is really an alien. It’s almost an obligatory scene based on the concept of a monster that looks human. Some of the most enduring monsters – vampires, werewolves, zombies and the Thing – are monsters that were once human. It tells us we could all become a monster.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Horror Scenes from The Sixth Sense

(SPOILERS: The Sixth Sense)

Continuing my Halloween inspired analysis of scary scenes, today I’m going to look at a pair of scenes in Sixth Sense (written by M. Night Shyamalan). We sometimes forget that this movie is actually a horror movie. And there are some terrifying moments in it.

The first scene I’m going to talk about is the scene with the ghost in the kitchen. It opens with Cole needing to go to the bathroom. This is a great premise for a scary scene – we can probably all remember when we were kids and needing to urinate, but being afraid to leave the safety of our beds. It’s a universal fear and we immediately identify with Cole.

We first know something’s up when we see the temperature on the thermostat drop. Then a figure passes behind Cole as he’s peeing, crossing like a blur in front of the camera. It’s a great moment of surprise – or maybe more accurately a startle. But it gets us not just because of the sudden movement and music sting, but because we’ve seen the thermostat drop and are anticipating something scary.

Cole realizes it, too. He walks slowly out of the bathroom, his breath misting in the supernatural cold. Someone is making noise in the kitchen. His mother? There is a long tracking shot as he approaches – building tension. He sees a female figure in a bathrobe. “Mama?” But when she turns it’s a ghost woman with bruises on her face who has slit her wrists. The woman is angry, yells at Cole (who she thinks is her husband). He flees to his little makeshift tent where he has religious figures and a flashlight.

A couple of particularly good things here: first, his hope that maybe it’s just his mother, which makes the revelation even more impactful. Then the brutality of the woman’s injuries has a strong visceral impact. Plus, her anger gets directed at Cole, making us fear what she might do to him.

A bit later in the movie Cole has another nighttime encounter with a ghost. He’s sleeping in his tent when he hears his mom call out for him. He runs to her, but it turns out she’s just having a nightmare. After comforting her, he returns to his tent… but something is wrong. Some of the clothespins holding it together have come off. And his breath mists from cold.

Notice this use of cold in both these scenes as a signal to indicate to the audience something scary is coming. The movie trains us as to the meaning of this. It’s a common horror movie technique. Jaws (screenplay by Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb) does it with the duh-dum music. In Paranormal Activity (written by Oren Peli), I noticed how, by the middle off the movie, the audience got jittery every time the film cut to the shot of the camera that was recording the couple sleeping. The film had actually conditioned them like Pavlov’s dog to expect scary stuff when they saw that camera angle.

The Sixth Sense makes this explicit – at some point between these scenes Cole tells Malcolm that it gets cold when the ghosts are angry. (The movie also happens to use a more subtle directorial technique to condition us – the color red is only used on things touched by the supernatural. But that is probably not in the script.) If you’re writing a horror movie, you might consider what signals you can teach the audience to prime them for scares.

Back to the scene. Fearfully Cole reassembles the tent and crawls inside. But then the clips start popping off on their own and he realizes the ghost of a young girl is in the tent with him. The scary stuff has violated his secure space now. Putting danger in a place you normally feel safe is another way to really unsettle an audience. The girl throws up – as elegant as The Sixth Sense is, it does resort to gore and gross in strategic ways to frighten us.

Cole runs out of the tent, pulling it down after him. But since the kitchen scene, Malcolm has suggested Cole try talking to the ghosts. Malcolm believes they want Cole’s help. But when Cole asks, “How do you know for sure,” Malcolm’s response is, “I don’t.” It’s a plan fraught with danger.

But Cole works up the courage. He can see the cloth of his makeshift tent draped over the ghost’s head. He approaches slowly – again building tension – reaches out, and removes the cloth (requiring him to get very close). We’re on the edge of our seat – what will happen? The girl vomits again, but then says, “I’m feeling much better now.” Cole asks if she wants to tell him something, and the solution to Cole’s problem is found.

The Sixth Sense uses a masterful mix of slow tension building, startling surprises, and carefully chosen gore to freak out the audience in a very sophisticated manner. But probably even more important, it has great character work. We care about Cole and that gets us invested in the outcome of these scenes.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Horror Scenes - Alien

(SPOILERS: Alien, Resident Evil: Apocalypse)

In honor of Halloween I thought I’d do a few posts analyzing scary scenes. First I’m going to take a look at a scene in one of my all time favorite scary movies, Alien (story by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, screenplay by Dan O’Bannon). The scene in question is when Dallas goes into the airlock to flush out the alien. Someone’s posted it on You Tube here.

I hate in horror movies when characters do stupid things that they would never do in real life. For example, I thought the first Resident Evil (written by Paul W.S. Anderson) was pretty good because the characters try to avoid situations where they are in unnecessary danger, yet they still get in trouble. One of the things they do is try to stay together so they can watch each other’s backs.

On the other hand, the sequel, Resident Evil / Resident Evil: Apocalypse (also written by Paul W.S. Anderson), is awful. In one scene, the characters go to a school they know is infested with zombies. What do they do? They split up. Incredibly dangerous and there’s no good reason for it.

In this scene from Alien, the characters are also trying to avoid unnecessary danger. They know a deadly alien life form is in their airshafts. Someone has to go in and goad it to the airlock so they can blow it into space. Dallas, the captain, volunteers. But he goes in armed with a flamethrower. Moreover, the rest of the crew monitors his progress and the alien’s progress on a motion detector, relaying information and making sure the creature doesn’t escape the shafts. It’s dangerous, but it’s a smart plan.

One of the great things in this scene is the use of the setting. The tunnels are narrow and dark. Some go vertically as well as horizontally. Dallas has to crouch – his movement is restricted. And between the flashlight and the flamethrower and a radio headset that won’t stay in place, his hands are full. It makes sense that Dallas is in there alone given how cramped the tunnels are. And at one point Dallas orders all the hatches behind him closed – a smart idea so the alien can’t get behind him, but also a move that isolates him.

The writer has placed the character into an environment that is scary on its own. If you’re writing a scary movie, you should consider what areas of your setting will be the most creepy then come up with logical, intelligent reasons why your character(s) has to go there.

The scene makes great use of suspense. In order to create suspense, you need to take your time. The alien isn’t even detected on the motion sensor until almost halfway through the scene. And notice how much time is taken up with reaction shots of the other characters anxiously monitoring the situation. This slowing down of time, the opposite of what we usually try to do in film, gives time for the tension, dread and anxiety to build up.

You can create this effect on the page. Here is a piece of this scene from the shooting script. It doesn’t match the final scene shot for shot, but you can see how the reactions are put in to draw out the action.



Ripley waiting.


Dallas still crawling on hands and knees.
Ahead the shaft takes an abrupt downward turn.
He moves toward the corner.
Fires another blast from the flamethrower.
Then starts crawling down, head first.


Lambert sees something on the tracker.

     Beginning to get a reading on you.


The shaft makes yet another turn.
Puts Dallas into an almost immobilized position.


Ash staring at the ventilator opening.


Intercutting is a great way to extend time and build tension.

Another brilliant touch is the motion detector. It allows us to see the alien approaching, advertising impending danger. Then it stops working. We know the alien is near, but no longer know where. That’s scary!

Dallas does what most of us would do at this point – he decides he wants to get out. And that’s when suddenly things speed up. The alien reappears – Lambert panics – chaos. And then Dallas turns to discover he’s climbed right into the alien’s grasp. This shock is magnified because of the time the scene took building up tension and anticipation. I also like how the actual attack happens off screen. We’re put in the perspective of the surviving crew – we don’t know what happened.

And the unknown, of course, is frightening!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Writing What You Know

(SPOILERS: Lord of the Rings, Shaun of the Dead, Sucker Punch)

Write what you know. It’s a cliché, but one that persists because writing from experience tends to produce the most powerful, original stories. I don’t think that means everything you do has to be semi-autobiographical. Whole genres would vanish if that were true – westerns, historical drama, sci-fi, fantasy, horror, etc. The key, I believe, is finding the emotional reality of the story.

Last Post I talked about the difficulty inherent in making true stories dramatic. The challenge with fantastic stories is making them relatable. It turns out the key is writing what you know. Not the reality of your world, but the reality of your emotional experience.

Think about it – why do we care about Frodo in the The Lord of the Rings trilogy (screenplays by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Stephen Sinclair & Peter Jackson)? We’re not hobbits, we don’t live in Middle Earth, and we don’t have to deal with orcs or rings of power. And presumably the filmmakers don’t either.

The reason we care can be found in the Prancing Pony scene. Frodo and his buddies have just left home and travelled to a strange town. The person they’re supposed to meet isn’t there. The people in the tavern are all bigger than them – rough, scary men. Frodo is anxious.

And we can relate to that anxiousness. We’ve all been in a place we didn’t know well among people we weren’t sure we can trust. We’ve all had plans go awry and not know what we should do about it. In fact, Frodo’s experience is not so different from a child getting separated from his or her parents in a mall. Just about everyone knows what that feels like.

We relate to Frodo on an emotional level.

I also relate to Shaun in Shaun of the Dead (Written by Simon Pegg & Edgar Wright). Not to his battles with zombies, but to his struggle to balance the demands of his girlfriend, his best buddy and his mother. Those relationships feel real. Let’s face it, I watch Shaun of the Dead because of the zombie action and humor. But without that emotional core of a character I can relate to, I wouldn’t care nearly as much about the outcome.

For example, I loved all the visual stuff in Sucker Punch (story by Zach Snyder, screenplay by Zach Snyder & Steve Shibuya). But I was bored after about twenty minutes. Most of the movie is made up of Baby Doll’s fantasies as she dances – essentially short films. But those fantasies play out like video games. It’s all visually stunning women in visually stunning environments blowing stuff up. Within the fantasy sequence, we don’t know who these women are or why they want the object or why the monsters don’t want them to have it. The impact of Baby Doll's dreams on the “real world” is never made clear.

As a result I don’t really care about the characters or their adventures. The eye candy is interesting for a while but the impact quickly wears off. You can’t sustain a feature film with eye candy. The framing story fares better because there are recognizable human emotions going on, but it’s just the framing story. Again, it can’t sustain the movie.

We are involved in the fantasy world of Lord of the Rings and not in the fantasy worlds of Sucker Punch because the hobbits are more recognizably human than the nubile dolls of the latter movie. In a way, the more fantastic the world, the more important it is that the characters are complex and relatable.

I would even venture to say one of the more important reasons that the first Star Wars trilogy (episodes IV – VI, written by George Lucas, Leigh Bracket and Lawrence Kasdan) is so superior to the second (Episodes I – III, written by George Lucas and Jonathan Hales) is that Luke Skywalker feels more like a real person than Anakin. Luke embodies that universal feeling of wanting to leave a boring home life and do something great. We can relate to his quest, to the loss of his mentor, to his growing maturity. Anakin is a brooding brat who often behaves inexplicably. (This is far from the only flaw in the newer movies – I could probably fill a year’s worth of blog posts on why the first trilogy is superior to the second.)

When you’re writing something that is not based on your personal experience, you have to find the emotional reality in the characters. How are they like you? How would you react in that situation? If you find that, your story can be just as powerful and original as if you were writing about your own experiences.

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Trouble with True Stories

(SPOILERS: Changeling)

Writing a movie based on a true story sounds easier than making something up from scratch. After all, you have the actual drama, characters, conflicts and events to draw from. But in practice true stories can be a stubborn challenge. One of the most difficult scripts I’ve ever written was a historical biopic.  And I've often seen students struggle to find structure in a story inspired by their own experiences.

First of all, reality doesn’t always organize itself nicely. Sometimes things don’t happen in the most dramatic order, or a significant event happens to a minor character instead of the key player. I thought Changling (written by J. Michael Straczynski) had that problem with the ending. The most dramatic climax was the trial, but after that there were two other endings – the meeting between the main character and the killer on the eve of the execution, and the other victim showing up alive. That may be how it happened in real life, but it made the ending of the movie muddy.

The key, of course, is to be able to change reality to fit drama. But this can be difficult for several reasons. In an important historical or newsworthy event, you may open yourself up to charges of bias or misrepresentation. You have to walk a fine line between good drama and accuracy. And if the people involved are still alive, you have the added concern of lawsuits.

You also may have a hard time letting go of the facts you know. This is particularly true if your story is based on your personal experiences. If you’re fictionalizing something that happened to you as a child or a story about your grandparents’ romance, you probably don’t have to worry about accusations of dishonesty. But you may become slave to the idea of, “that’s the way it really happened.” Letting facts dictate your story choices can doom your script.

Things may also not occur in the most naturally dramatic fashion. In the historical piece I was working on, some of the biggest conflicts were resolved via letters. But who wants to watch people writing and reading on screen? The solution was easy – I put the characters in rooms together and had them make their arguments with dialogue. But I had to be willing to ignore the facts.

The other problem with reality is there’s just so dang much of it. Often, with historical pieces in particular, you can research and research and find so much interesting stuff that it would take a ten hour movie to show it all. You’re going to have to figure out what the most important elements are and discard the rest – no matter how cool. Have you heard the phrase “you need to kill your babies”? This is what it means – your favorite stuff may need to go to serve the bigger story.

Then there’s the challenge of finding the truth in the facts. In my historical drama, I struggled with why a significant character behaved the way he did. It defied logic. It wasn’t until I stumbled across an article about an obscure psychological condition that I found my answer. This can happen even in real life – do you always understand why your parents or significant other do things? Of course not.

A few years ago I read an excellent screenplay about a true event. The writer’s father was a crucial player in the event. Ironically that character, the one she presumably knew best, was the most ill defined and cryptic. Sometimes being too close to someone prevents you from really seeing them clearly. And there’s nobody you’re closer to than yourself.

So how do you tease out the underlying story in true events? You have to go big picture and simplify. Start by really delving into what interests you about the story. Why does this incident mean so much to you? Try to summarize it in one sentence. Then summarize the most important parts of the story in one paragraph. Then one page. (It may be easiest to start with the one page version and reduce.)

Now look at what you have. That’s the core of the story you want to tell. Build your outline around that core. Use your one sentence to determine the dramatic question. Figure out your catalyst, resolution and act breaks from the one paragraph. Fit the true events into this structure in a way that supports it – even if it means reordering the chronology or combining characters and events. And leave out the stuff that doesn’t support that core.

Next, look at your characters. If you’re writing about real people, you will have lots of surface detail at your fingertips. Now dig into their psychology. What do they want? What do they unknowingly need? Once you can answer those questions you’ll be a good way toward writing a dramatic version of the real events.  It’s almost the opposite approach to developing a fictional character.  Keep in mind, you don't actually have to guess their motivation correctly - it just has to plausibly explain their behavior for the purpose of the fictionalized story you're telling.

Sometimes when writing about a personal experience, you have a single incident that had a huge impact on you. But one event does not make a story. I see this problem in student writing a lot. You have to place the event in a larger context. Again, go to your main character. What do they want? What do they need? What’s the internal and external journey that demonstrates how they were changed? If the journey was mostly internal, can you create an external story that reveals it? (See my last post)

As you can see, having a true story doesn’t simplify your job. But if you figure out what moved you about the true events in the first place and then get brutal about cutting what doesn’t support that, you’ll be well on your way to creating a good fictional version of the story.


Not much time left to sign up for my seminar on writing killer screenplay openings at the Writers Store on October 15th.  If you're interested, find out all the details here.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Structuring with the Internal Journey

(SPOILERS: Amelie, American Beauty)

The majority of films are structured around an external journey for the character. This makes sense – film is a visual medium. We observe the external actions of the characters. For the most part we have to infer their internal feelings from these actions. Sure, you can use voiceover, but if the movie is built on the running internal monologue of the main character, it’s probably not going to be very visually interesting. And if characters constantly reveal their feelings in dialogue, the dialogue will seem clunky and unrealistic.

So does that mean you can’t tell the story of a character’s internal journey on film? Of course not! Most films do tell an internal story. But they pair that story with an external journey that allows them to reveal the character’s thought process through behavior. I use the concepts of want and need to define the character’s external and internal story, and to tie them together so that both are organic to the movie.

For example, Amelie (scenario by Guillaume Laurant and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, dialogue by Guillaume Laurant) is a story about a woman who has closed herself off from the world and needs to open her heart to another before it’s too late. The film builds an external story where Amelie tries to locate a quirky man whose scrapbook book she’s found. Once she’s found the man, she must learn if he’s truly worthy of her affections. Then she must attract his interest. And finally she must gather the courage to reveal herself to him. This goal of finding and investigating the stranger provides an external story that has action and momentum, which in turn allows revelation of her internal journey of trust and connection.

As you can see, the internal and external stories interact. Something happens in the external story that causes a change in the character’s way of thinking. That leads her to take action in the external story that has a result that leads to another character change.  This leads to another action, and so on. But as related as the two stories are, one is usually structurally dominant.

If you’re interested in telling a story that is primarily about someone’s internal journey – say coming to terms with grief, or coming-of-age, or overcoming prejudice – I suggest devising an external story that will allow you to reveal that internal journey. If this bothers you, think of it this way: If you’re telling an external story, you need to come up with an internal arc for your main character so that the external story has meaning. And if you want to tell an internal story, you need to come up with an external arc to reveal the meaning of the character journey.

Structure is always hard, but structuring a movie around an internal journey is often a lot harder than structuring it around the external story. The first step is to remember that the internal journey actually has to be structured!

Ask yourself these questions: What does the character learn? How do they change? What are the stages of this internal journey? How do you externalize those to show the internal change?

American Beauty (written by Alan Ball) is a story about a character’s internal journey. Lester goes from an ineffectual, unhappy, unassertive man to a man who has the courage and determination to live his life on his own terms – but with moral responsibility.

What are the stages of this internal journey? First, Lester realizes how unhappy he is. So he stands up for himself, and discovers he likes the results. As he continues to assert himself, he goes too far, becoming selfish. He starts catering to his own desires without concern for others. Then he realizes how his actions can hurt others. So he finally decides to be both true to himself and responsible. And then he discovers he is happy.

This internal journey is revealed through an external journey of Lester falling for his daughter’s friend, Angela. Seeing Angela triggers his first revelation of his unhappiness. He starts to get in shape and smokes pot, and he discovers that doing things for himself makes him happier. This culminates in Lester quitting his job, which is incredibly freeing. But then he becomes selfish, doing whatever he feels like regardless of the consequences. And he actively pursues the underage object of his affection – something very selfish.

His transition doesn’t always go smoothly – the results aren’t always what he expects. But at each point he learns more about himself. Then finally, on the brink of sex with Angela, he realizes his selfishness could destroy this girl. He backs off, realizes he has to temper his desires with responsibility, and his journey is complete. And it works because the journey has been revealed in stages through external actions.

I commonly see students struggling to structure a story that is an internal journey. The two most common problems are: 1. They are only describing a particular state of being, or a start and end point, rather than moving coherently through each stage of a full journey; and/or 2. They have failed to create an external journey that will reveal that internal journey.

The other side of this is the student who has created an external story, usually a genre piece, with a one-dimensional character that has no internal journey. The solution to both situations is often the same: figure out how the character changes, and structure the stages of that change.


If you're in the L.A. area, I'm going to be co-teaching a one-day seminar on the first ten pages of your screenplay at The Writers Store on October 15.  My fellow teachers are Paul Guay (Liar, Liar) and Jeffrey Berman (Magic Beyond Words: The JK Rowling Story).  There are only a couple more days to get the $149 rate.  Here's the link:  The First Ten Pages.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Art of Dramatic Writing – Review

I mentioned a few months back that I had been re-reading The Art Of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri. This is considered somewhat of a foundational work in the “how to write” arena. It was written in the forties and is actually about playwriting, but pre-Syd Field it was something of a must-read for screenwriters and is still assigned in most university screenwriting programs. For that reason alone, it’s interesting to check out.

The first thing you have to deal with in this book is the archaic language, particularly the annoying use of the royal we – as in “For our own use we choose the word ‘premise’” and “As we see it, the basic emotion of Romeo and Juliet is still love.”

The second issue is Egri uses plays as his examples – as you might expect, since it’s a playwriting book. Fortunately they are mostly widely known classics so there’s a good chance you’ve read or seen them. It really helps to at least be familiar with Tartuffe by Moliere and Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen. Egri does provide analyses of these and several other plays in an appendix, so if you’re unfamiliar with them you can still muddle your way through.

It’s also worth noting that Egri was a theater critic, not a playwright. As a result, he’s coming at the writing process by looking at the results and working backwards. If he sees a common problem in plays, he tries to figure out how a writer might avoid that problem. This is certainly a valid perspective, but I wouldn’t take everything he says on faith. A food critic might be able to tell what spice would improve a dish but it doesn’t mean they can teach someone to cook.

Egri begins by emphasizing the importance of what he calls the premise of the play. This is a statement that is to be proved by the story – such as “Jealousy destroys its object.” Functionally, this roughly equates to my idea of the dramatic question – the issue at the heart of the story. I prefer the question approach because it implies two possible outcomes. I fear Egri’s technique is risky because it can encourage on-the-nose and predictable writing. On the other hand, if you do it well there’s nothing really wrong with the premise concept.

Next Egri takes on character. This is the section that really interested me. Egri takes an approach that I oppose – developing character through backstory. But Egri is more in synch with me than he might initially appear. He believes the backstory must be tailored in such a way that the character will ultimately prove the premise. In other words, if your story is about jealousy, then you must create a character that will necessarily become jealous. If the character can avoid this fate, then you’ve failed and must start over.

So Egri is actually doing what I do, which is first figuring out who your character is now, then figuring out how they got there. He’s simply emphasizing the “getting there” more, while I only develop backstory as needed.

Writers and producers talk a lot about making characters “three dimensional.” Usually that’s just a synonym for “complex.” Egri actually defines the three dimensions specifically: physiology, sociology and psychology. He again ties this into creating a character who must behave as needed to prove the premise. I like Egri’s three-dimensional approach a lot. If nothing else, it forces you to think about various aspects of the character’s life you might be ignoring.

The third section of the book is called “Conflict.” Here Egri deals with what we call structure these days. But rather than define specific plot stages, he’s focused more on how the action rises and the character changes. He emphasizes the importance of a steady, step-by-step growth of both story and character. Conflict that goes static or jumps is a failure to him.

Those are certainly valid and useful ideas. But here’s where I feel like we’re in danger with the premise. The conflict may rise consistently and logically, but if it’s so logical the audience can predict everything that’s going to happen from the first scene, how enjoyable is the result? There’s some good food for thought here, but I don’t know if it quite equips the new writer to successfully outline a story. However when used in conjunction with a more modern three act approach, this is some great stuff.

The final section is a catch all for essays on various topics. Many are either dated or playwriting specific. It’s probably the least useful aspect of the book to the modern screenwriter.

As a summary review, I would say there’s a lot of thought provoking stuff on character in The Art of Dramatic Writing, and a few other useful ideas about sustaining momentum. If you’re only going to read one book on screenwriting, this probably isn’t it. But it would make a top ten list for sure.

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In other news, if you're in the L.A. area, I'm going to be co-teaching a one-day seminar on the first ten pages of your screenplay at The Writers Store on October 15.  My fellow teachers are Paul Guay (Liar, Liar) and Jeffrey Berman (Magic Beyond Words: The JK Rowling Story).  If you sign up by September 30, it's only $149.  Here's the link:  The First Ten Pages.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Fighting Your Concept

One of the biggest flops of this summer was Cowboys and Aliens (screen story by Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby and Steve Oderkerk, screenplay by Robert Orci & Alex Kurtzman & Damon Lindelof and Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby). Lots of reasons have been suggested for its failure (such as the large number of writers), and many have merit. Personally, I think the biggest problem was the title.

When I hear Cowboys and Aliens, I think, “That’s a movie I’d like to see!” But what I’m picturing is a fun, campy romp – something along the lines of Ghost Busters (written by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis). The actual movie is a serious, surprisingly violent action/horror movie. Once you accept this, if you can, there’s a lot that’s good about it. But it doesn’t deliver the promise of its title.

I think most people realized that the moment they saw the trailer, and that’s a big reason they didn’t show up. There are some flaws in the film itself, but I can certainly imagine a successful straight action movie about an alien attack in the Wild West. However, I wouldn’t give that movie a “pun” title like Cowboys and Aliens.

Maybe more important, the filmmakers had a concept that could make a great campy adventure, but they didn’t make that movie. They fought their concept. I’ve had students do that as well.

A while back one of my students was pitching an idea that was along the lines of My Mother is a Werewolf.* Everybody in the class laughed when he said the title. But he didn’t want to make a comedy. He wanted to make a serious horror/thriller. My first note was to change the title.

This isn’t just a title issue. Dude, Where's My Car? (written by Philip Stark) was also a notable failure. I believe the biggest problem was that the original script was a stoner comedy. But as they were about to enter production, some study came out that said, at that time, PG-13 comedies were making more money than R comedies.** So they took all the drugs out to make it PG-13. Without the drugs, the storyline becomes odd and nonsensical. In this case, the rating fought the concept.

I’ve seen that in student work as well – a raunchy idea done without raunch. Can you imagine the PG-13 version of The Hangover or Bridesmaids? Not nearly as good. If you’re doing a movie about the wildest bachelor party ever, you have to be free to show wildness. (On the other hand, There's Something About Mary could be done nicely as a PG-13 movie, though you’d lose some of the funniest sequences. But as a concept, it works either way – you’d just have to come up with equally funny, cleaner replacement scenes.)

Some Like It Hot (story by R. Thoeren and M. Logan, screenplay by Bily Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond) was not only a success, but is a classic and personal favorite. Still, there’s something that always strikes me as a little odd. The movie, a romantic comedy about two guys who dress up as women and join an all-girl band, opens with a car chase-shootout. There are gangsters in the film, obviously, but the action of the opening scene definitely feels like a different tone from the rest of the movie.

Obviously Some Like It Hot makes it work. The audience knows they’re going to see a Billy Wilder comedy with Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, so they roll with it. But, if you were a development exec reading this as a spec, imagine how you would react. You don’t know anything about the story. You read that opening – oh, this is a gangster movie. And then it suddenly gets funny? Could be a little tough to switch gears.

With a spec, you’re making implied promises to the reader with your title and your opening (and your logline if they’ve seen that). If you don’t deliver on those implied promises, then they will see it as you’ve failed, regardless of how well you might have delivered on different promises. In other words, make sure you’re promising what you plan to deliver!

You have to make decisions about the tone of your movie in the early development stages. Is it going to be funny, campy, serious, dark? Is it going to be G, PG, PG-13, or R? It pays to think about what the best choices are for your premise. If you’re going to go against the natural suggestion of your premise – if you want to do the serious, dark version of cowboys fighting aliens – then you have to work harder to “sell” that tone to the audience. This means avoiding things like a misleading title or an opening scene that could confuse the reader – after all, you’re probably not Billy Wilder.

*Actual idea kept confidential, but this is very much in the spirit.

**This pendulum swings back and forth and studies keep coming out that shift development. For a while PG-13 comedies are making more money, so studios try to turn all their comedies PG-13. Then the audience grows tired of them and suddenly R rated comedies start making more money. So the pendulum swings raunchier. The truth is, a balanced mix would probably be the most successful, but studio execs like to chase the heat of the moment.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

A few More Lessons from a Pitch Fest

The last couple posts I’ve done have been lessons from a pitch fest I observed last month. Here are a few final “dos” and “don’ts” I took away.


All right, I’m about to share one of my secret weapons for pitching, one that I saw validated during the pitch fest. I always start my pitch by explaining why the story is personal to me. Of course most stories are not autobiographical, but you want to find something in your own life that connects you to the story.

When you’re pitching, you’re not just selling a story, you’re selling yourself. If you can explain how the idea is in some way based on your own experiences, you’re explaining why you’re really the only writer who could write this story.

One of the writers at the pitch fest had a big sci-fi monster movie idea. But she started the pitch describing a bit of her life and how it metaphorically influenced the world of her story. And it did (it’s important that the personal connection is genuine).

The panelists really responded – probably because her pitch had a hook and a good character (see my first pitch fest post). But I did notice they sat forward eagerly when she opened her pitch with the personal connection. They were intrigued. She pitched what was essentially a B-movie premise in a way that emphasized the heart and soul of the movie, and painted herself as uniquely qualified to write it.


After the event, one of the panelists commented to me about some of the writers’ use of screenwriting terminology. He said sometimes he could identify which book they read by how they told their story. He said he wished more had written stories that came from their heart.

Now possibly these writers did have deep personal investment in their stories. But if so, it wasn’t coming through. Overdoing the structural terminology during the pitch can have the opposite effect of creating that personal connection – it can make your story sound lifeless and formulaic.

I’ve always counseled writers that it is okay to use terms like “first act” and “midpoint” and “climax” in their pitches. The buyers know the three act structure terms and will understand the signposts you’re using. It can help give them a sense of where they are in the running time of the story. But these things should only be signposts, not the focus of your pitch.

Don’t forget, you’re telling a story not building a bridge.


Last post I counseled you to listen carefully and make sure you absorb the feedback you get from the people you pitch to. That’s true not just in the post-pitch section of your meeting, but after you leave the room as well. Usually you’re going to pitch the same idea many times. Producers and executives in this industry, despite their reputation, are mostly smart and savvy people when it comes to story. So if someone makes a suggestion for your story, it’s worth considering whether to incorporate it before the next session.

One of the writers at the pitch fest took that to heart. He had a comedic idea that centered on a shocking and controversial act by the main character. The first panel responded dramatically to that moment in the pitch, laughing loudly – and it’s hard to get industry people to laugh, believe me. The discussion afterward was spirited. But the feedback was that the audience may have a difficult time with the event. The panelists suggested the main character should fake the act, rather than actually perform it (I’m keeping the specifics vague out of respect to the writer’s confidentiality).

The writer in question listened and absorbed that feedback. For the next panel, he changed his pitch so that the main character faked the act. And the new panel didn’t respond nearly as well. I felt for the poor guy – the original panel steered him in the wrong direction.

So what could he have done differently? Should he just ignore feedback? No. But perhaps he would have been better off listening to the panelists’ visceral response – the laughter and engagement with the idea – rather than their specific suggestions for change.

Wow. This pitching stuff is hard.

Welcome to Hollywood.