Thursday, August 25, 2011

Lessons on Pitching – Hook and Character

A few weeks ago I was involved with helping to organize a pitchfest. It was a unique experience for me – I got to sit in a room and watch writers pitch to panels of producers, executives, agents and directors. Without the pressure of pitching myself, I could really observe what worked and what didn’t and give objective consideration to the panelists’ comments. I also had the opportunity to talk to some of the panelists afterwards and hear their thoughts on the sessions overall.  For the next two or three posts I’ll share some of what I learned from the experience.

I’ve long thought plot mechanics are the enemy of the writer when it comes to pitching. When we pitch we’re usually at that stage of our own development of the story that we’re concerned with making sure every beat of the plot progresses logically.  And we use plot as our map when we write the script.  So we instinctively pitch plot to show the buyer that we’ve got it all worked out.

But plot isn’t really what sells your story. Simply pitching, “X happens then Y happens then Z happens” isn’t very compelling. This was reinforced at the pitchfest.

The most common comments – applied to roughly 90% of the pitches – were related to lack of character development or weak character arc. The second most common comment was that the writer still hadn’t found the “hook” of the story.  Comments about plot were rare - except to question why a character did something, which if you think about it is really a character comment.

So hook and character.  Let’s deal with the “hook” question first. The term encompasses several things. First, it means a high concept idea that can be easily conveyed in a sentence or two. Also, that the high concept is compelling. And, perhaps most important, that the concept is fresh.

It’s impossible to come up with a completely original story idea for a movie. No matter what your idea is, there are undoubtedly several movies with similar concepts out there. That’s okay – if you actually had an idea that no movie is similar to, it’s probably because the idea isn’t compelling. What you have to do, though, is be clear about what’s different in your take on the idea – what your fresh angle is.

My fellow Art Center teacher Ron Osborn is fond of stopping students mid-pitch with the words, “I’m not hearing the news.” In other words, he wants to know what’s new and exciting about their story.

The reason the hook is so critical is because the buyers are looking for why they should pick your idea instead of one of the other hundred or so pitches, scripts, novels, comic books and video games that come through their office any given week. And they're also wondering why the audience would want to see your movie instead of any number of other entertainment options.  You can’t just tell a coherent story, you have to get their attention and get them excited about your movie.

The character question is more interesting. Somehow during a pitch screenwriters often seem to lose their characters in all the plot machinations. I don’t mean that the character isn’t involved in the plot, but rather that they become a mechanical piece, a person taking action without any notice of the emotional impact.

One of the questions I heard several times at the pitchfest was one I’ve heard for years: why this character for this story? I’ve dealt with the question in this blog before. Most stories should teach the character something they need to know, or change them in a way that they need to be changed. If the story doesn’t teach the character or change them in a positive way, then it should be because you are intentionally making some kind of thematic point about the character or the nature of life.

Beware of the story that happens to someone just because they’re at the wrong place at the wrong time. Random things happen to people in real life, but in fiction there should be thematic purpose to why this character is in this story. Even if the character does encounter a random event, on a deeper level it should have personal relevance.

One producer at the pitchfest used a phrase I jotted down because I liked it so much. He said the writer did not do a good job, "tracking the changing relationships of the characters.” Just like the main character himself should change, his relationships with the other characters should also change. And you need to make those changes clear in your pitch.

The panelists’ emphasis on character showed that clearly they were looking for stories with great characters. But I think it reflects something more profound. Character is our way into story. We care about the outcome of the plot because we care what happens to this character. Thus to pitch successfully you have to make the buyer care about your character and show how the plot twists are affecting them. Just like character is our way into the movie, character is our way into the pitch.

A coherent plot is of course important, but the truth is nobody is going to buy your pitch without reading sample scripts that prove you know how to work out plot. What buyers are looking for in a pitch are a great hook, a complex, relatable character, and a clear character journey.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Fireworks Endings

(SPOILERS: The Matrix, Little Miss Sunshine, Casablanca, The Sixth Sense, Amelie)

The Fireworks Ending is a screenwriting term that I’ve been hearing a lot lately. I don’t know if it’s new, but I first heard it only a couple months ago. I don’t know where it came from, but I do think it’s a great concept.

You know how in a typical fireworks display there will be some rockets that burst into colorful circles, others that will send a sparkly streak skyward, and others that will make a loud BANG? And then at the end of the show there will be a big finale where every kind of firework is thrown into the sky all at once?

That’s the idea behind the Fireworks Ending in film. It means you throw all the elements of your movie on screen at the big climax. You’re hitting the peak of the action, emotion, and visuals all at once. The result is an incredibly satisfying, moving ending that sends the audience out of the theater buzzing.

Not every successful movie has such an ending, but there are some pretty memorable ones. Here’s a few I’ve noticed:

The Matrix (written by Andy & Lana Wachowski): In the final sequence the two parallel action storylines reach a climax with Neo running from the agents in the matrix and the sentinels attacking the Nebuchadnezzar in the real world. We have the climax of the character arc with Neo finally becoming The One. We have the climax of the emotional story with Trinity finally confessing her love and kissing Neo, which in essence awakens his “oneness.” And then we see the ultimate Matrix-y powers as Neo stops bullets, easily bests Smith in kung fu, and then destroys him by infiltrating him. All of this comes together at the same time to create an epic, emotional, action packed climax.

Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt): The failed end of Olive’s quest to become Little Miss Sunshine and the successful arc of the family coming together dovetail in the final dance number, which also happens to be the biggest visual set piece. And isn’t Olive’s dirty dance also one of the funniest parts of the film? Character, plot, visuals and humor all hit their peak in this single scene. Is it any wonder this ending is the most memorable scene in the movie?

Casablanca (screenplay by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch): Oh that ending! Perhaps the most talked about of all time, and a classic Fireworks Ending. We get the tragic climax of Rick and Ilsa’s romance and the inspiring climax of Rick’s character arc in one of the tensest scenes in the movie – will the plane take off before the Nazis get there to stop it? Finally, add in some of the most classic lines in film history for good measure (“If that plane leaves the ground and you're not with him, you'll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life,” “We’ll always have Paris,” “The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world,” “Round up the usual suspects,” “Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”)

Are there equally great movies with equally great endings that are not Fireworks Endings? Sure. How about The Sixth Sense (written by M. Night Shyamalan). First, it wraps up the horror elements in the scene when Cole helps the ghost who’s been poisoned. The next scene we get the conclusion of Cole and Malcolm’s relationship.   Then Cole finally confides in his Mom (concluding his and her arcs). And last but certainly not least, we get a scene that wraps up Malcolm’s arc – and gives us the legendary twist that redefines everything else. Spectacular, yes, but not a Fireworks Ending. Each element gets its own climactic scene, not one big finale.

Or how about Amelie (scenario by Guillaume Laurant and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, dialogue by Guillaume Laurant), where the final scene strips away all the wild visuals, the quirky games, and most of the magical realism and becomes simply about whether Amelie will open her door to love. In fact, it’s only when the other stuff is stripped away that Amelie is forced to make this important climactic decision.

So you don’t need a Fireworks Ending. But when you think of all the great movies that have them, it may be worth considering how you can bring all the elements of your story together for one epic, climactic explosion of goodness.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Hangover Analysis Part 6 – Wrap Up

(SPOILERS: The Hangover)

So here’s what I’ve learned by my in-depth analysis of The Hangover (written by Jon Lucas & Scott Moore):

First and most surprisingly, the movie uses far more character based humor than broad raunchy comedy. It’s definitely a hard-R comedy, with graphic nudity, drugs and “adult situations.” And it delivers on the outrageousness of the premise. This is no small thing. You are promising the audience something with your hook, so you better deliver. I’ve seen many disappointing movies and even more disappointing scripts that don’t live up to the promise of their premise.

The central concept of The Hangover – three groomsmen lose the groom after a wild bachelor party in Vegas – promises that the events of the bachelor party will be wild. If it was just a normal drunken bachelor party we would be disappointed. But the movie delivers: marriage to a stripper, stealing a tiger and a police car, throwing a gangster naked into the trunk of a car, date rape drugs, Mike Tyson, a baby in the closet, a missing tooth… definitely not your average bachelor party.

Yet most of the laughs come from the characters’ reactions to these events. The core of the humor is three very different guys reacting to the wild situations in very different ways.

Stu’s uptight dentist character is a great source of comedy. Craziness happening to a crazy guy is expected; when it happens to a mild mannered guy it’s hilarious. Add to that Alan’s man-child with his bizarre but emotionally vulnerable view of each situation and you get more humor. (Phil is less funny. His role is to provide an element of “cool” so the group doesn’t come off as a bunch of losers… he’s the straight man that makes them relatable.)

My second big observation is that the movie spends a lot of time making us care about these guys. I think this is a key reason why The Hangover rose above so many raunchy comedies – even ones that had more outrageous humor – and found love from a broad, mainstream audience. And it probably also explains why a completely uninspired sequel also succeeded.

The way The Hangover gets us to care about the guys is no mystery: strong dimensional characters, clever character introductions, and ample scenes of preparation and aftermath to let us check in with the guys’ emotions.

The movie’s structure was more interesting, particularly creating an early catalyst to keep the audience hooked during a long status quo section. This allowed for unusually deep character development.

Also, the use of a mystery structure (and advertising, planting and payoff) to move us through an episodic concept was an inspired technique. The movie would not have been nearly as enjoyable if we followed the guys through their wild night in a more traditional way. The amnesia effect of the drug allows us to see the characters’ reactions as they find out what’s happened to them. And in a way, not seeing the events allows us to imagine something even more crazy than anything actually shown. It’s a bit like Jaws – the shark is scarier when we don’t see it.

So that wraps up my analysis of The Hangover. I’d like to also let you know that my sister, young adult novelist Chris Eboch, has published a book on plotting. It includes a tool she uses for identifying and fixing plotting problems in the rewrite or outline stages, as well as essays and articles on plotting from a variety of other writers – including one on three act structure from yours truly! It’s designed for novelists, but if you replace the word “chapter” with the word “scene” it’s also useful for screenwriters.

It’s called Advanced Plotting. It costs $9.99 in paperback but until September 1st is available for a mere 99 cents as an eBook.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Hangover Part Five – Preparation and Aftermath

(SPOILERS: The Hangover)

Last time I talked about the set pieces in The Hangover (written by Jon Lucas & Scott Moore). Today I want to look at some of the scenes of preparation and aftermath that surround them. Scenes of preparation and aftermath are important in a movie because they allow us to touch base emotionally with the characters and “lay the pipe” for the bigger scenes.

The most obvious aftermath scene actually rises to a set piece in its own right: the scene where the guys wake up with their hangovers. They discover all kinds of strange things – Stu’s missing a tooth, there’s a tiger in the bathroom and a baby in the closet. It’s all hilarious, but we also see Stu’s panic and Phil’s amusement, letting us connect with their characters’ emotions.

One of the things I think made The Hangover so successful is we really care about these three guys. That emotional attachment comes in the down time between the big comedic moments where we can see the characters react to what just happened and express their expectations of what’s to come.

One of the best examples of that is the scene where the guys are waiting for their car in the impound lot. Stu is pissed off at the way the cops have just treated them. But Alan is worried. He confides to Phil that he fears something really bad may have happened to Doug. Phil comforts him, and then Stu tries to reassure him with a new plan – to search the car for clues.

It’s neither a particularly funny nor particularly memorable scene, but it is important because it reminds us that there’s a person they care about who might be in danger. This gives the story emotional stakes. We care about the outcome because we care about these guys.

I mentioned the interlude in the Tyson/tiger set piece last post, when Stu plays piano and sings. It’s a goofy moment, but it does remind us of those emotional stakes, particularly with the last line: “But if he’s (Doug) been murdered by crystal-meth tweakers, well, then we’re shit out of luck.” The moment plays for emotion, not laughs.

Each time we pause for these reactions, the guys’ fear has escalated. In the breakfast scene Stu’s a little worried, Phil and Alan less so. But they assume it’ll be pretty easy to find Doug. In the aftermath of the wedding chapel scene, and the attack of the bat wielding thugs, they’ve started to realize things got more out of control the previous night than they thought. In the impound lot Alan worries that Doug might be dead, which spreads to the other guys in the musical interlude of the tiger scene. Finally, after they discover Mr. Chow’s hostage is not their Doug, they’ve given up all hope.

Aftermath scenes are also useful to give us the closure of the happy ending. We end the movie with the guys at the wedding looking at the pictures on the camera together and reveling in their adventure and friendship. It’s not a plot scene, it’s a scene that gives us a resolution to the emotional journey.

Preparation and aftermath scenes can serve another function – setting up the bigger set pieces. They give you an opportunity to plant things you will need and perhaps deal with some exposition. For example, the waking up scene plants many of the clues that the guys will need to piece together their lost night.

The waking up scene is followed by the breakfast scene where the guys start making their plan to find Doug – a scene of preparation. They lay out their plan to follow the various clues, starting with the hospital. These scenes are the mortar between the bricks that are building the story.

Different kinds of movies need different things from their preparation and aftermath scenes. Because it’s a broad comedy, The Hangover uses its preparation and aftermath scenes primarily to connect us with the characters as human beings so we care about the outcome of the slapstick comedy.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Hangover Part Four – Set Pieces

(SPOILERS: The Hangover)

The term Set Piece is generally used in the film business to mean elaborate action scenes or elaborate comedic scenes. I believe you can extend the idea to all genres. I define set pieces as the scenes that pay off whatever genre you’re in – the scary scenes in horror movies, the emotional scenes in dramas, the romantic scenes in romances.

The Hangover (written by Jon Lucas & Scott Moore) is a fairly broad, raunchy comedy. Often these types of movies rely on five to eight wild set pieces. Much of the rest of the movie is devoted to building up to these scenes – and to the character’s emotional storyline, of course. The big, hilarious set pieces are what really give the movies their impact.

For example, Bridesmaids (written by Kristen Wiig & Annie Mumolo) has the wedding shop set piece and the bridal shower set piece among others. There’s Something About Mary (story by Ed Decter & John J. Strauss, screenplay by Ed Decter & John J. Strauss and Peter & Bobby Farrelly) has the hair gel set piece and the pork and beans set piece among others. These are what we talk about with our friends after the movie.

Thus I was surprised to find that The Hangover doesn’t have the same kind of elaborate, contained set pieces. It tends to operate more like a softer romantic comedy or buddy comedy, mining most of its humor from the character interactions. Considering the rather outlandish premise and how funny the movie is, I wasn’t expecting that.

The Hangover does have set pieces. But rather than build into escalating physical comedy like I anticipated, they tend to move quickly from concept to concept, getting a few gags from the characters in each situation.

Here are the scenes I identify as comedic set pieces, in order: Waking up in the morning, the wedding chapel, the police station, Mr. Chow in the trunk (short but hilarious), taking the tiger to Tyson, Mr. Chow arriving with the hostage, and the race back to L.A. That’s seven set pieces, in line with my general feeling that movies need from five to eight.

So let’s examine one of the bigger ones in more detail: the police station. This consists of several connected scenes. First, we get the guys handcuffed in the lobby. Phil makes a call to the bride and lies to her so they can stay another day. Meanwhile a group of kids are being given a tour and warned not to end up like our heroes. Humiliation and lying – comedy staples.

Next we go into the interrogation room with a couple of nutty cops, and Phil tries to talk their way out by pointing out how embarrassing it will be for the cops that they lost their patrol car. This leads to a twist where they are freed in return for being part of a Taser demonstration. These kinds of twists are critical to effective set pieces.

The whole sequence builds nicely to a physical comedy climax. The final scene itself escalates from Stu getting shocked (the surprise reveal of what the demonstration is), then Phil getting shocked in the groin, then finally Alan getting shocked in the face and then needing a second shock before he goes down.

We also get a nice call back (a type of plant-and-payoff) – the kid who shocks Alan is the one who took a picture of him in the lobby, and whose camera phone Alan kicked out of his hand. That moment shows the value of suspense in comedy. We’ve seen the effect of the Taser on the other guys so we’re afraid of what will happen to Alan. As the kid walks slowly forward, steely eyed, and the cop narrates the intensity, the delay helps build anticipation that leads to a big laugh when the Taser finally hits.

See what I mean about the set piece moving quickly from situation to situation? Rather than develop the interrogation, for example, into a long scene, the writers glide quickly from the waiting room to the interrogation room to the classroom, landing a handful of gags at each stop and moving on.

Other set pieces demonstrate some different comedic techniques. For example at the end of the wedding chapel scene, Stu takes a call from his girlfriend who he’s lied to, saying the guys are in wine country. As he tries to maintain this lie, a couple of thugs come out of nowhere and begin beating the car with bats. The creative lie is a comedy staple and the key is to throw increasing obstacles and increasing elaboration.  Layering the phone call over the bat attack increases the hilarity of both.  The Hangover comes back to Stu's lie repeatedly for comedic payoff.

As I mentioned, The Hangover gets a lot of its comedy from the differing character reactions. So in the scene where they’re drugging the tiger, we get Stu’s anxiety because he lost the rock-paper-scissors contest and Alan’s funny bit about how tigers like pepper but hate cinnamon.

That sequence also demonstrates a couple of good examples of preparation in opposition. They’ve drugged the tiger so of course it must wake up (a twist). We probably anticipate that, but to make it work they have Alan ask a stupid question about Haley’s comet. We’re chuckling at Phil and Stu’s reaction when the tiger sits up behind them – and that contrast gives us the big laugh.

We see that again when they’re watching the security footage at Tyson’s. Phil is trying to smooth things over by talking about how majestic the tiger is, and right then on the security tape we see him simulate sex with the animal. That visual is amusing on its own, hilarious when set up by his pretentious speech.

It’s a little dangerous to over analyze humor. People try to create a formula for funny all the time, and it never seems to work. You have to go with your gut and hope your gut is funny. However, understanding things like preparation-in-opposition and plant-and-payoff as general writing techniques can help you strengthen your innate sense of humor by integrating the jokes more artfully into your story line.

The Tyson/tiger set piece also has a nice scene of preparation/aftermath in the middle. You need these kinds of scenes to build up the set pieces. I’ll take a look at how The Hangover uses preparation and aftermath in my next post.