Friday, December 28, 2012

Elf Analysis: Buddy’s Internal Journey


 Last post I discussed the external journey of Buddy the elf in Elf (written by David Berenbaum). Today I want to discuss Buddy’s internal journey, often referred to as the character arc. It is a little difficult to identify Buddy’s arc in Elf because his personality at the end of the movie is much the same as it was in the beginning. In fact, it took me a little thought to identify the internal journey.

I’ve made the point in the past that good stories should change the character internally – if not, they aren’t really very significant in the character’s life, and if that’s the case why are watching the movie? So is Elf not a good movie? Or does it work in some other non-traditional way?

The internal journey grows out of the character’s need, and last post I said Buddy’s need is to believe in himself. That’s set up in the beginning when he can’t meet the work demands of the other elves and judges himself “a cotton-headed ninny-muggins.” And it pays off in the end when Buddy is the only one who can fix Santa’s sleigh. But perhaps “believe in himself” was not the best way to phrase what Buddy needs. More useful is to say that Buddy needs to accept himself. In essence, Buddy needs to not change.

This is a bit unusual, but if you think about it, it’s really just an example of one of the three forms I’ve identified of the interplay between want and need: Buddy’s need is to realize he has the wrong want. He wants to fit in. He needs to accept that it’s okay that he’s different.

So though it may not be immediately obvious, Buddy is changed by the story. He goes from wanting to be like everyone else to accepting that he can fit in by being who he is. And that is, in fact, dramatized in the story.

The not-fitting-in part is obvious during the status quo section – Buddy is too big for the elf world, he can’t work as fast as the real elves, etc. In the first half of Act Two, Buddy finds he doesn’t fit in well in New York. In the second half he has trouble fitting in with his family. He even tries to change to make Walter happy – donning a suit, for example. All without success, leading to Walter kicking him out at the Act Two Turning Point.

In the aftermath of the Act Two Turning Point, Buddy says, “I don’t belong here. I don’t belong anywhere.” But then at the Epiphany Santa tells Buddy he’s the only one who can save Christmas (by fixing the sleigh) and Walter finally tells Buddy he loves him. Buddy realizes he is valuable just as he is. And then in the denouement we see Buddy happily married to Jovie and with a baby, interacting warmly both with his adoptive father at the North Pole and his biological family in New York.

So Buddy does have an internal journey. But I would also say the movie gets more of its emotional depth out of how Buddy changes others with his unique spirit.

This is particularly true of Walter. He goes from a workaholic who ignores his family and doesn’t care about anyone to a loving father who sacrifices his job to keep his family together. Walter has the biggest arc of the movie.

Jovie, Buddy’s love interest, also has an arc. At the beginning of the film she tells Buddy she’s just trying to get through the holiday season. Later we learn she’s showering at the store because her water has been shut off. We also see her spending Christmas Eve by herself watching TV.

We don’t actually know that much about Jovie, but we can infer from these clues that she is beaten down and having a rough time in life. And we see how Buddy’s unfettered joy and wonder cheers her up. At the end of the movie, she’s the one who takes it upon herself to revive the Christmas spirit in the crowd of New Yorkers – something we couldn’t imagine her doing when we first meet her.

This story matters to Buddy because he starts out unhappy and ends happy. But perhaps in this case the real reason the story is worth our time is not so much how the main character changes but how he changes the other characters.

In the next post in this analysis I’ll dig a little deeper into how the internal states of the characters and their arcs are dramatized, one of the biggest challenges for a writer of film.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Structure of Elf

(Spoilers: Elf)

Last post I looked at the conceptual decisions writer David Berenbaum made when scripting the movie Elf. Now I want to explore the structure of the movie, but from the point of view of how it grows out of these conceptual decisions.

The main character of Elf is Buddy. This may seem obvious in hindsight, but there was actually another potential choice: Buddy’s biological father, Walter. Walter goes through the biggest arc of the movie and makes several critical decisions. And Elf is similar to a type of movie where a seemingly crazy outsider comes in and disrupts the main character’s life, ultimately causing them to be a better person. (Examples would include Anger Management, written by David Dorfman, and What About Bob, Story by Alvin Sargent & Laura Ziskin, screenplay by Tom Schulman.)

So actually making Buddy the main character is a bit unusual. But it’s a smart choice because Buddy is the one who’s a fish-out-of-water in this premise. I’ll take a more full look at Buddy’s character in the next post. For structural purposes, though, the important thing is that we identify Buddy’s want and need within this story. These will determine the external and internal storylines respectively and keep Buddy as the main character.

We should first look to the premise: this is the story of Buddy the elf looking for his father in New York. Ah ha – he wants to find his father. Not bad, but Mr. Berenbaum decided this is a story about family, not a search. So it’s not about finding his father, but rather winning his father’s love. (His need is to believe in himself, but I’ll deal with that more in my next post when I discuss the internal journey.)

For a story to be dramatic the character needs big obstacles. If Buddy finds his father and his father is happy to see him, then it’s all a little too easy, isn’t it? So Mr. Berenbaum decided that Walter should be an unloving guy, a bad father even to the son he does know – in the language of Christmas, he’s on the naughty list. That’s the primary obstacle.

(The major secondary obstacle also grows naturally from the premise: Buddy is a fish-out-of-water. He will have difficulty navigating New York. But this is secondary and we want our structure to come from the main character facing the primary obstacle.)

So given this conceptual foundation we should be able to determine organic structural beats. Buddy is a Christmas elf so his status quo is living in Santa’s workshop in the North Pole. We know Buddy wants to fit in so his dilemma must be that he doesn’t fit in. The Catalyst is when this dilemma is crystallized for the audience.

Q: What would best crystallize this dilemma for the audience?

A: Buddy learning that he’s actually human. And that happens about twelve minutes into the movie.

The Act One Turning Point may be a little trickier. It should be when our character is locked into the story, the point of no return. They must resolve their dilemma or suffer the consequences. In Elf, Buddy sets out to find his biological father, expecting to find a home where he will be accepted for who he is. The Act One Turning Point could have been when he sets out on his journey, but remember, this isn’t the story of a search, it’s the story of winning his father’s love.

Q: What would lock Buddy into the story of winning his father’s love?

A: His father refusing to accept that Buddy is his son. And sure enough, when Buddy shows up at Walter’s office around twenty-five minutes in, Walter thinks he’s crazy and kicks him out. Buddy now has to win over Walter or be doomed to unhappiness.

Next comes the fun and games section of the script. This is where the premise of an elf in New York is explored, with all the action at Gimbles. The next big structural beat we need is the Midpoint, a high point that should mirror the ending. Since, based on the conceptual decisions, we know the ending ought to be happy, we should ask:

Q: What victory could Buddy achieve that brings him part way toward his goal?

A: Walter could accept the fact that Buddy is his biological son. And this is what happens about halfway into the movie.

Mr. Berenbaum also wisely raises the stakes here by having Walter’s wife invite Buddy to stay with them, and by having Walter get in trouble at work. This gives him new material to develop as we approach the Act Two turning point. And we determine that beat by asking…

Q: What’s the worst thing that could happen to Buddy in the context of this story?

A: He’s kicked out of his human family. And sure enough, after Buddy ruins Walter’s meeting, Walter tells him to get out, that he wants nothing more to do with him.

Now we’re in Act Three. We see the aftermath of this event – Buddy loses hope. Now we need the epiphany, the thing that will show Buddy how to ultimately succeed.

Q: What does Buddy need to succeed?

A: He needs to believe in himself. And this happens when Santa tells Buddy that he trusts him to fix the sleigh. And shortly thereafter Walter finds Buddy and apologizes and tells him he loves him.

But we still need the big climactic resolution. We’ve already determined we want a happy ending. And since this is a Christmas movie, someone really ought to save Christmas, and that someone should be our main character. But we also need this resolution to relate to our main storyline. The way we find the resolution is to ask:

Q: How is Buddy’s dilemma resolved?

A: Walter accepts him.

But what represents acceptance? Walter’s already said he loves Buddy. But actions speak louder than words. Mr. Berenbaum wisely uses the Christmas spirit to test Walter’s acceptance and dramatize that it is real.

Buddy is full of Christmas spirit; Walter consistently rejects it. So the way we know Walter really accepts Buddy is when he sings along with the crowd at the end. And Mr. Berenbaum then found a way to have this action save Christmas by establishing that Santa’s sleigh is powered by Christmas spirit. Walter’s transformation gets Santa flying again. This is a good example of how it’s not just a matter of figuring out the correct structural beat, but figuring out how you’re going to dramatize that beat.

There you go, the structure of Elf. Not terribly complex, but it does have a nice cohesiveness that comes from the fact Mr. Berenbaum grew his structure organically from his underlying conceptual decisions.

Here’s an interesting thought experiment: what would Elf's structural beats be if Walter was the main character? Do you think that movie would work as well as the one they made?

By the way, I’m curious what people think of this approach to analyzing structure. Was it helpful? Informative? Confusing? Please let me know in the comments section.


Saturday, December 15, 2012

Conceptual Decisions in Elf

(Spoilers: Elf)

In the spirit of the season, I’ve decided to spend a few posts analyzing Elf (written by David Berenbaum).

Normally when I – or most other screenwriter guru types – analyze a movie, we start by diving right into the structure. However, lately several of my students have been struggling with structuring their screenplays because they haven’t really figured out the bigger conceptual ideas.

It’s really hard to know what the story structure should be until you know what the story is really about. How do you make the decisions as to what the Act One Turning Point or Midpoint are? Too often we begin the discussion of how-to-write assuming that the writer has a fully fleshed out story concept. But seldom do stories just spring to mind fully formed.

So I want to start by looking at some of the big conceptual decisions Mr. Berenbaum made. Of course I have no idea how he went about his idea development process. But even if we can’t say exactly how he made his conceptual choices, identifying those choices will demonstrate the kind of things you need to figure out in your story before you can properly break the structure.

Let’s start with the logline: Elf is the story of a human raised as an elf in Santa’s workshop who goes to New York to seek his biological father. That’s the high concept idea, the thing that sells the movie. And it suggests a lot – it gives us a good sense of the character’s external journey and a hint at where the internal journey may lie.

Again, I don’t know how Mr. Berenbaum developed the story. Perhaps he first had the idea of an elf in the city. Or a human raised by elves. Or maybe the whole premise came to him all at once. Regardless, it’s important to note that there are actually two big ideas here: 1) a human raised by elves, and 2) that character searching for his father. I find that most really good concepts are actually two big ideas put together.

Here’s an interesting thought experiment: What if the story was simply about a human raised by elves – if it left out the part about going to New York. Imagine what that movie might be. Can you imagine a good version? Did you have to add a different second idea?

Let’s consider what underlying concepts Elf’s logline suggests. First, it’s a fish-out-of-water-story times two. We have a human who is out of place in the elf world, and then an elf who is out of place in the human world.

Second, it’s about family. Buddy (the human/elf in question) is looking for his father. This dovetails nicely with the fish-out-of-water idea. Buddy doesn’t feel like he belongs at the North Pole, so he’s seeking out his human family. And, given our fish-out-of-water angle, he shouldn’t fit in well there, either.

Third, this is a Christmas story, so it ought to take advantage of the mythology of Christmas.

Now may be a good time to bring up genre, tone and rating. There are several ways one could take this concept. It could have been done as a raunchy, R-rated, anti-Christmas comedy (like Bad Santa). Or it could have been done as a G-rated, sentimental children’s adventure (like the Rudolph TV special). It might have even worked as a straight-up romantic comedy, but that would be fighting the concept. The filmmakers of Elf chose to do a PG-13 all-audience broad comedy.

So that decision influenced how they addressed the underlying conceptual elements. The fish-out-of-water element obviously has great potential for humor, and based on the tone/genre/rating choice, that humor ought to be broad, goofy and largely inoffensive. In terms of the family element, the tone would suggest a happy ending where Buddy finds a family. And in terms of the Christmas element, we would expect a positive angle celebrating Christmas as a time of love, joy, optimism and hope.

And sure enough the movie delivers exactly those things, achieving a tonal and thematic consistency. Now the structure should start to grow organically out of these conceptual decisions. I’ll look at how that happens in my next post.

Note that these conceptual decisions are the ones I encouraged writers to make in my post titled, “What Kind of Movie Is It?


Have a Kindle Fire? Nightmare Cove is free this weekend - December 15th and 16th.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Not According to Plan

SPOILERS: (Aliens, Little Miss Sunshine)

What are your plans for the weekend? What are your plans for the holidays? What are your plans for the script you’re currently writing?

Chances are you have an answer to those questions. We make plans all the time. It’s the only way we get anything done! Your characters should be making plans as well.

Over the last month I’ve read several scripts that suffered from lethargy and/or a feeling they were too episodic. The underlying cause was that the main characters were failing to make plans. They were reactive to events rather than driving the story. Giving the character plans keeps them active and gives the story forward momentum.

But remember, things should never go according to plan.

That’s one of the key ways to create drama and twists. The character makes a plan but then something goes wrong. In fact, often it can help to work backwards. If you have an idea of something befalling the character to make their situation worse, have them plan on a completely different future. Often this means creating a scene of preparation.

For example, in the middle of Aliens (story by James Cameron and David Giler & Walter Hill, screenplay by James Cameron) Ripley and the soldiers discover all the colonists have been killed by the aliens. After they fight their way out of the alien hive, they stop for a scene of aftermath that becomes a scene of preparation. In this scene, Ripley suggests they just nuke the entire installation from orbit – “It’s the only way to be sure.” After some debate, the soldiers decide to do just that and summon their shuttle to return to the ship.

However an alien has climbed abord that shuttle and it immediately crashes, derailing the characters’ plans before they even begin. Time to make a new plan. They head to safety in the housing complex.

So why devote screen time to a debate over a plan that doesn’t even make it to the first step? Why not just have them move to the housing complex? Besides revealing things about the various characters through debate, the nuke-them-from-orbit plan sets the audience up for the twist of the shuttle crash. We’re pointed in one direction and then blindsided by the turn of events. This is an example of the preparation-in-opposition technique of heightening drama.

If things do go according to plan then it will seem too easy. We want to see our beloved characters struggle to achieve their goals. That’s what makes good drama. Consider Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt) – how interesting would the movie be if the family just hopped in the car and drove to California as they planned? What makes that movie dramatic is the car breaking down and grandpa dying and the cop pulling them over with time running out. In fact, it’s when things don’t go according to plan that the character is forced to grow.

If I might humbly suggest an exercise: Consider your current script. What are your character’s plans at the beginning? When do those plans go awry? What are their new plans? When do those go awry? If you find a spot where you can’t identify your character’s plan, maybe you should have them make one. If you find things going according to the character’s plan for more than ten pages, maybe you need to have something go awry to heighten the drama and force character change.

If you’re having trouble figuring out what the character’s plans should be, consider what they want. What’s their goal in this story? If you have trouble identifying that, stop what you’re doing and figure that out immediately!


Sweet Home Alabama 10th Anniversary Blu-Ray makes a great holiday gift!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

How to Write Love Stories

(Minor spoilers: Along Came Polly, Sleepless in Seattle, Notorious, The Fighter, Sweet Home Alabama, 50 First Dates, Wedding Crashers)

Love stories are common in film. They are the A plot in romantic comedies, romantic dramas, and often in melodrama. They are the B story in many films in other genres. And they are surprisingly difficult to do well. But there are some principles that you can use to make sure your love stories are strong and dramatic.

They’re Meant to be Together

The first thing you need to do is get the audience rooting for the two characters to be together. We need to understand why this particular person is right for our hero and vice versa or it won’t feel like there’s much at stake in the romance. Too often movies rely on the fact there will be two attractive movie stars in the roles. Or in an action movie with a romantic subplot, the love interest may be the only female in the film so of course the hero will fall for her. But that’s hardly compelling.

The trick here is that each character should fulfill something the other character needs on a psychological level. One common version of this in romantic comedies is the uptight guy who needs to loosen up and the free spirited woman who needs someone to ground her (Along Came Polly (written by John Hamburg) would be a good example).

The deeper these psychological needs, the better in my opinion. Though it’s very popular, I’m not a big fan of Sleepless in Seattle (story by Jeff Arch, screenplay by Nora Ephron and David S. Ward and Jeff Arch) largely because the reasons given for the characters to be together are pretty superficial. We’re to believe Annie is meant for Sam mainly because she peels an apple the same way his deceased wife did? The devices used to indicate the romantic rivals are wrong for our movie stars are similarly shallow: one has allergies and the other has an annoying laugh.

On the other hand in the classic Notorious (written by Ben Hecht), Alicia needs someone to believe she’s good at heart while Devlin needs someone to awaken his dormant emotional side. Devlin sees Alicia for who she really is – someone with a strong moral core despite her reputation, and Alicia’s passion brings out Devlin’s emotions. The result is one of the most romantic movies ever.

But Something Stands in the Way

In real life when two people are attracted to each other they generally start dating and are very happy. But for drama we need obstacles. This can take two forms: internal and external.

External obstacles are things like a rival suitor (see below), social convention and competing interests. Social convention is a tried and true obstacle but is getting harder as society becomes more progressive. These days mixed race and mixed class romances are more accepted - good for humanity, bad for screenwriters. Arthur (written by Steve Gordon) is an example of a movie that uses class differences as an obstacle to the romance. Going the Distance (written by Geoff LaTulippe) uses competing interests as an obstacle – in this case career goals that force a long distance relationship.

The Fighter (story by Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson & Keith Dorrington, screenplay by Scott Silver and Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson) demonstrates a more unique external obstacle. In this case, Micky’s mother fears losing influence over him. She opposes his romance with Charlene because Charlene encourages Micky to do what’s right for him even if it means disappointing his family (his need). So the family fights back.

Internal obstacles come from the character needing to overcome a psychological flaw to have a successful relationship. Maybe it’s the womanizing hero who needs to give up his bad boy ways, or the workaholic who has to get his priorities straight. In Notorious it’s Devlin’s stubbornness and loyalty to his job.

You can have multiple obstacles to the romance, but it’s usually smart to have one primary obstacle so the movie stays focused. If you’re working in a romantic genre, often the external obstacle is the A story and an internal obstacle will be the B story or vice versa. This adds complexity without diluting the focus. For example, in 50 First Dates (written by George Wing) the A obstacle is Lucy’s unusual form of amnesia, while the B story is Henry’s fear of commitment.

The Love Triangle Problem

One of the most common obstacles is the alternate suitor – often known as a love triangle. But there’s a pitfall here. You want to have the audience rooting for one suitor over another so many writers make one good and the other bad. But if the choice is obvious and our hero or heroine doesn’t see that, we start to lose respect for them. In Wedding Crashers (written by Steve Faber and Bob Fisher) for example, Claire is with Sack who is such a jerk we start to wonder about Claire. Do we really want John to end up with a woman who would date a guy like that?

One solution that has become cliché is the rival cheating on the love interest. In this case the hero and audience learns of this but the love interest is oblivious. This can work, but if the rival isn’t really good at hiding his philandering we’ll again wonder about the love interest’s intelligence.

This is where using the character’s need can solve your problem. This is what we did in Sweet Home Alabama: Melanie needs to reconcile with her past to be truly happy. Andrew represents a fantasy life that ignores her roots. Jake represents her roots but also her aspiration to something more. Jake is the right person for her, but first she will have to overcome the guilt and fear she has about her past. She will have to be honest with herself. Neither guy is “bad,” but one is right for her and the other is not.


By the way, Sweet Home Alabama is now available on Blu-Ray! It's a special 10th Anniversary Edition.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Find the Drama

One of the most important things you need to do when developing your story is to locate where the drama of the idea is. This can sometimes be harder than it seems.

First, I should probably define what I mean by drama. There’s an old saying: “Drama is conflict.” This is true – people getting along and being successful isn’t very dramatic.

Therefore, movies with villains have an obvious source of drama. Much of the conflict is going to come from the battle between the hero and the villain. But if that’s all you do the movie will be superficial and uninvolving. It could even get boring – despite intense action scenes!

So drama has to be more than just conflict. It has to affect character. This is part of what I’m getting at when I discuss the need to tie the internal and external character journeys together. Conflict only becomes dramatic when it affects a character we care about on an emotional/psychological level. Therefore I think it’s better to define drama as the emotional compelling conflict in your story.

Look at this summer’s biggest hit: The Avengers (story by Zak Penn and Joss Whedon, screenplay by Joss Whedon). The obvious conflict is between the Avengers and Loki. Structurally, the dramatic question is, “Can the Avengers defeat Loki?” That’s important, but it’s not why this was one of the most well-liked superhero movies.

The filmmakers realized that the real drama of the movie was between the superheroes themselves. The richest emotional conflict came from the clashes between the self-involved, arrogant Iron Man and the selfless, self-righteous Captain America. Then they added the paternalistic, stubborn Thor and Bruce Banner’s reluctance and suspicion. The more compelling question for the audience was whether these characters could overcome their differences to defeat a common enemy.

Writers most often fail to identify drama when they get seduced by an arena, a character or a theme. An arena is a story world that may be inherently interesting, at least to the writer – a post-apocalyptic future, the fire department, illegal immigration. These are good arenas to find a dramatic story, but they are actually not in themselves dramatic. The same is true when you come up with an interesting character – it’s a good starting point, but you need to place that character in a dramatic story. Theme usually becomes a problem when the writer feels passionate about a specific idea – faith, the environment, the nature of power – but hasn’t found the proper story to explore that theme.

True stories can provide particular pitfalls. Real life is messy and disorganized. When you hear a true story that interests you, it’s important to be able to locate the drama so you can organize the story in a way that’s narratively compelling. This will make it easier to cut out those details that don’t support the drama.

Take the semi-autobiographical movie Almost Famous (written by Cameron Crowe) about a high school kid who gets the opportunity to go on the road with a rock band. It has a great arena – rock and roll. It has an interesting character (William) – a sheltered, exceptionally intelligent kid with a passion for music. And it has a tried and true theme – coming-of-age. But none of that guarantees drama. It would be possible to write a very boring version of this movie where William just follows the band from town to town observing their shenanigans.

Fortunately Cameron Crowe is a talented writer and located the drama in his own experience. First of all, William has a job to do – write a story for Rolling Stone – and the most important member of the band is not cooperative. Ah, conflict! Plus, in order to write a good story, William has to be “truthful and merciless,” but he worships these rock stars. Internal conflict! The drama of the story is whether William will overcome his hero worship, crack his unwilling subject, and deliver a successful article.

Identifying the drama is particularly important to the pitching process. I often hammer home the idea that “plot is the enemy of pitching.” One of the problems writers often have in a pitch is that they treat every plot beat as equal. As a result, they end up burying the drama under piles of minor detail. Or, they spend an inordinate amount of time describing their arena or their theme without locating the dramatic elements that make any of it matter.

Once you’ve identified the drama inherent in your story, you next have to figure out how to show it to the audience. In other words, you have to dramatize the drama. This requires creating scenes of conflict between characters where the outcome determines the direction of the story. It’s not enough to have the characters simply talk about the conflict. We have to see it. (Read my post on Show, Don’t Tell for more thoughts on how to do that.)

So whether you’re developing a pitch or a screenplay, spend some time locating the drama of your story. Where does the conflict come from? How does it affect your character? Most importantly, what are the scenes that are going to show this to the audience? Make sure you keep these things front and center.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Twists and Turns

(SPOILERS –The Crying Game, Psycho, The Empire Strikes Back, Little Miss Sunshine, E.T., Alien, National Lampoon’s Vacation, Up in the Air)

I once got feedback on a spec that, “Acts two and three don’t deliver on the promise of act one.” This is a common issue for writers at all levels. A producer I know frequently says that the biggest problem in the specs he sees is the lack of real twists after act one.

The reason is that often we have a great idea for a story. In act one we set up and reveal our cool idea. It gets the reader excited. And then we simply play out that idea to its expected conclusion. Sure, we may have solid structure, complex character and great scene writing techniques. It all works… but there’s a sense of diminishing returns. There’s nothing new added to the mix that’s really cool and surprising. Nothing that reignites the thrill of our initial premise.

There are plenty of obvious examples of big mid-movie twists: the big gender reveal in The Crying Game (written by Neil Jordan), the shower murder in Psycho (screenplay by Joseph Stefano) and the “I am your father,” moment in The Empire Strikes Back (story by George Lucas, screenplay by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan). (Many of you will probably be thinking of the finale of The Sixth Sense (written by M. Night Shyamalan). That’s a great twist but it comes so late it doesn’t really have the effect of reenergizing the story the way I’m talking about.)

Twists like these that turn the whole story on its head can be great, obviously, but not every movie can or should deliver that effect. So let’s look at a few examples that don’t have quite the shock value but do reenergize the story by delivering a truly unexpected new element.

Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt) is about a dysfunctional family coming together to get their youngest daughter to a beauty pageant. The primary drama is whether they will get there in time. But when they do, there’s a great twist: the pageant turns out to be creepy. It’s something we weren’t expecting based on the story up to that point and it gives a whole new narrative arena to explore in the last quarter of the movie.

Little Miss Sunshine is a road movie and in most good road movies when the characters arrive at their destination things are not what they (or the audience) expected. In National Lampoon’s Vacation (screenplay by John Hughes), for example, Wally World is closed.

E.T.: The Extra-terrestrial (written by Melissa Mathison) has a good midpoint twist – E.T. starts to get sick from Earth’s atmosphere. It’s a completely plausible event but something that we weren’t expecting. And it reenergizes the story by injecting urgency and higher stakes. Prior to this moment the story was about Elliot hiding E.T. After this point it’s about saving E.T.’s life.

Alien (story by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, screenplay by Dan O’Bannon) is full of great twists. Many of them relate to the alien itself. We are all very familiar now with the biology of the aliens, but when that movie came out the audience didn’t know how the aliens worked and the screenplay played with that.

So when the face-hugger drops off Kane we don’t know that there’s an embryo inside him waiting to burst out. And when we see the baby alien we don’t know it’ll grow to be bigger than a human. There’s a great bit where the crew is trying to catch the baby with nets. Brett walks into a room looking down toward the floor. Then he sees something and his head slowly cranes upwards as terror fills his expression.

Those revelations were all fantastic but perhaps not exactly unexpected in a horror movie about an alien. The two really important story twists in Alien are the discovery that they were sent to the planet on purpose and that Ash is a robot. These revelations expand the story world for the audience.

So how do you find these kinds of twists? When you’re developing your story, play this game: Given your premise, what will the audience expect to happen in acts two and three? What could you do to surprise them? Look particularly at your midpoint and act two turning point. You’ve probably figured out something that works… now ask yourself what else could happen there? You might find something that works and will also blow the audience’s mind. Look for places where you just plugged in a standard movie trope and brainstorm how you might turn that on its head.

Up In the Air (screenplay by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner) provides a great example of using the audience’s expectations against them. Structurally it looks like a romantic comedy about a playboy, Ryan, who will come to find true love. A love interest is introduced in the form of Alex, his casual sex partner on the road. As Ryan starts to rethink his values, he makes a beeline for Alex’s home to profess his feelings… we think we know where this is going… then Ryan discovers Alex is happily married. Wow, did not see that coming!

Once you know what your twist is going to be, you need to set the audience up to expect something else, while planting enough disguised clues that the surprise doesn’t seem unbelievable. This is a delicate balance.

In Alien there’s lots of discussion early on about the company, salvage policies, etc. And Ash is the one who violates quarantine by letting Kane back into the ship. Plus, he’s fascinated by the alien’s anatomy. All of this seems to be simply background to the main storyline – it’s never overemphasized – but it serves to make the mid-movie twists plausible.

I never embark on a first draft now without figuring out at least one big twist that will energize and expand the story in the second half. Knowing what I’m building towards allows me to guide audience expectations in the opposite direction to emphasize the surprise while laying the groundwork to keep it believable.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Pitching – Less Complicated Than You Think?

There was a point in the pitch event I hosted a couple weeks ago that I had a kind of epiphany watching a panel of producers trying to understand a fumbling writer’s pitch. I thought, “Maybe pitching isn’t as complicated as we writers make it.”

Pitching is very hard and few writers do it well… but I think that’s mainly because we lose sight of what the purpose of a pitch really is (and I definitely include myself in this). Most often it seems writers are using a pitch to test or prove their plot construction. But that’s not really what a pitch is for.

A pitch is, quite simply, a writer describing the movie they want to write to someone who is considering whether they want to get involved in that project.

And because of that, your first goal should be simplicity and clarity. Yes, at some point you will most likely have to do a fairly long pitch that includes detailed plotting. But whenever you’re pitching the listener should have a good idea of what your concept is and what kind of movie you want to do right off the bat.

Remember the job of the person you’re pitching to. Put yourself in their shoes. First of all, they’re hearing a lot of pitches during the course of a month. Their goal is to find the one or two that will be right for their company. They also have to convince their boss and maybe a studio exec that this pitch is a winner. They are going to have to pitch your idea without you there. And their job depends on a fair level of success when they do this. Also, if they do buy the pitch they are probably going to spend years of their life working on the project so they better like it an awful lot. And ultimately if this movie gets made they will have to convince an audience to come see it.

So while you’re rambling on about the details of this or that scene, in their head they are revising the pitch in a way they can re-pitch it – assuming of course that they haven’t already rejected it and are just pretending to listen to be polite.

So do them a favor and present your idea clearly and simply, emphasizing the elements that are cool and emotionally involving. As my friend Paul Guay is wont to say, “Don’t make them mine for the gold, serve it up to them on a platter.”

I have distilled this down to my first one-word rule of pitching: Clarity.

When you think about your job in a pitch as conveying your idea for a movie in a clear and compelling manner, it doesn’t seem quite so complicated, does it?

One other thing I’ve seen writers do that confuses clarity is include a bunch of razzle dazzle. A pitch is a sales tool, but it’s not a con job. Remember, if you’re in this for the long haul, the goal is to find the right home for your story, not trick someone who ultimately won’t want to make the movie into writing you a check. So let your story be what it is and if this is the right buyer for it then they’ll see that.

But there is more to the pitch than just conveying the idea clearly. You also have to sell yourself as the person who can deliver this idea.

Which brings me to my second one-word rule of pitching: Confidence.

Again, put yourself in their shoes. You are asking them to risk their company’s money – and therefore their job – on you and your idea. And if you don’t seem confident in your abilities and your project then they will not want to take that risk. Think of it this way: let’s say you are interviewing two contractors to remodel your kitchen.

The first has an easygoing manner as he clearly lays out his ideas for the remodel, casually dropping the occasional technical term into his presentation. When you ask him questions, he’s able to answer them and explain why he thinks his approach is the best. You get the impression he’s done this a thousand times before.

The second seems nervous and is constantly referring to notes as he lays out his ideas. At one point he gets confused and when you ask him about a suggestion he’s made he can’t really explain the reasons behind it. He apologizes for his anxiety saying this is only the third kitchen remodel he’s bid on.

Which do you hire?

It’s hard to just “be confident” but two things can help. First, don’t think about the pitch as a job interview, think about it as an opportunity to present your movie idea to see if this person would like to get involved. You should have the attitude that someone will buy this pitch – maybe it will be this person, but if not it’ll probably be the next. Consider it to be as much their opportunity as yours. (But remember, arrogance and confidence are NOT the same thing.)

Second, don’t pitch an idea you’re not confident about. Seriously, you must have an idea that you think would make a great movie, right? If not why do you want to be a screenwriter? If you pitch an idea you genuinely think is great then you have a much better chance of pitching it with confidence. Similarly, work out all the beats of the idea. If it’s half-baked it will show.

Two words: Clarity and Confidence. Not so complicated, is it?


P.S. - This is obviously geared toward pitching your original ideas or ideas based on material you've found. Pitching for assignments is a topic for another post!

P.S.S. - You might want to check out my interview on the You've Got Red On You website.

P.S.S.S. - If you own a Kindle Fire, you might want to check out Nightmare Cove, an interactive horror story game I wrote.

Happy Halloween!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Fifteen Observations from a Pitch Fest

Last week my guest blogger Phillip Mottaz wrote about his experiences attending a pitch fest. Coincidentally last week I hosted a much smaller pitch event for the Singapore Media Academy (This is my second year doing it – my lessons from last year are posted here, here and here) Like last year, it was a great opportunity for me to watch other writers pitch and hear the feedback of industry professionals, without my being caught up in my own pitch anxiety. Here’s are some things I observed or heard:
  • Don’t look for approval, just tell your story. One of the development execs complimented a writer on his presentation and noted that it’s disconcerting to listen to a pitch when the writer’s watching you with an expression of, “do you like it?” I would say this goes to one of the key elements of successful pitching: confidence. 
  • Don’t lock in your casting too much unnecessarily. Particularly with ages, allow a range. If you say the character is 37, you may eliminate, in the mind of the producer, an actor who is 30 who they want to work with. Sometimes a character must be a specific age for the story to work, but otherwise say things like “mid-20’s” or “in her 30’s” or “around 40.” 
  • Tell the ending or be prepared to. These pitching events are usually designed to convince someone to read your script, so some writers pitch the set-up but don’t tell the conclusion. In a pitch fest context that’s fine (however if you’re trying to sell a story in a meeting you must tell the ending). Last week one of the writers tried the “no ending” pitch and was immediately asked how it ends by a group of execs that were clearly into the story. She seemed surprised by the question, though she handled it well. You need to be prepared to answer that question. Again, this goes to a bigger issue: anticipate likely questions based on your pitch and be prepared with answers. 
  • And when it comes to answering questions, answer but don’t defend. When asked about their story, some of the writers’ responses had an undercurrent that suggested it was the panel’s fault they didn’t understand something. During a break in the pitching, writer Matt Federman did a Q&A where he pointed out that if a producer doesn’t respond to something, replying, “But you should respond to this” won’t change their mind. 
  • Write a book. I found it interesting that one particular writer pitching a good story that was a tough sell commercially was told by more than one panel to consider writing a book first then selling the movie rights. This was assumed to be a way to make difficult material more marketable. 
  • Tell it through the characters eyes. The character will pull us through the story. Tell the story from the characters perspective. I don’t mean act out the character, but frame the story from their point of view and how they feel. This is particularly important when pitching the kind of things that we sometimes don’t think of as character based. If you’re pitching sci-fi, fantasy, historic, or other stories that take place in an unfamiliar world, the character is our entry point. Don’t just describe the world, take us through it with the character. Also, the shorter the pitch the more important character becomes. 
  • Know how you will end your pitch. This avoids the trailing off ending, or the last minute adding of extraneous information. Like a gymnast, you need to stick your landing. Then shut up and let the buyer talk. 
  • Dramatize the important beats. The story should work emotionally, not intellectually. Don’t just tell us what happens, tell us how it happens and how the character feels about it. 
  • Get to the point. One writer got interrupted after going into elaborate detail for several minutes on the “status quo” opening of the script. Finally the panelists stopped her because five minutes in they still had no idea what the movie was about. Other times there was a long elaborate set up about the world and themes of the story without a clear conveyance of what the core idea was. If they don’t know what the logline of your story is and the primary source of conflict within two minutes, they’ll tune out. Front load your pitch. 
  • Related, one of the producers said that although they are looking to be emotionally moved by a story, in the back of their mind they’re asking, “How can I sell this?” How will they sell it to their boss? How will they sell it to the audience? That’s why it’s important to lead with the concept. The plot detail is less important. 
  • Also, they’re not dumb. They hear hundreds of pitches and read hundreds of scripts a year so they know story. If you are explaining things clearly, they’ll get it. In fact, they’ll probably be ahead of you. Don’t belabor simple stuff. And if you have to give multiple examples to illustrate a character trait, you’re using the wrong examples. 
  • Much of this leads to one of my big overall observations: Pitching is largely about managing detail. Too much and they lose the big idea of the story. Too little and it feels mechanical and un-dramatic. How do you achieve balance? Talent and practice. 
  • Pitching without notes is great – it allows eye contact and engagement – but it’s risky. Losing your place and getting flustered is not a plus. So you should probably have some notes, but try to be prepared enough that you don’t really need to refer to them. 
  • Get everyone in the room comfortable. This is another place where confidence comes in. If you’re anxious and desperate it will make the buyer uncomfortable. It’s also why telling how you got the inspiration for the story is a great way to open. It feels more natural and less like you’re “selling.” 
  • Don’t apologize or make excuses. (Unless you spill something on them or something!) What this means is, don’t tell them that you’re a bad pitcher or that you didn’t get enough sleep last night. Again, project confidence in yourself and your story. 
Those were the notes I jotted down while listening to the pitches and responses. Overall I would say my big takeaway is that good pitching consists of two things: clarity and confidence.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Going to a Pitch Summit with Phillip Mottaz

I'm bringing in a guest blogger today. My friend Phillip Mottaz recently attended a pitch summit and wrote about his experiences on his blog. I thought it was very informative and quite on-topic to what I cover here, so with his permission I'm reprinting it. In addition to checking out Phillip's blog, I recommend you follow him on Twitter.

Going to a Pitch Summit
by Phillip Mottaz

I recently participated in the Fall 2012 InkTip Pitch Summit, wherein I met with over 50 industry insiders to pitch my screenplay. It was a long day, and I don’t know many people who have gone through such a thing, so I’m sharing my thoughts, as is the point of a blog.

I arrived at 7:45AM, as I had paid for the “executive” level of attendance, meaning I paid a little more for the privilege of eating breakfast and lunch onsite, allowing for more one-on-one schmoozing time. So I arrived at the Burbank Marriot convention center, checked in and wandered around the gigantic room.

It was filled with numbered tables and model-type girls in short black dresses. No food yet. And nobody really explaining what was going on. When the food arrived, I helped myself, but realized there wasn’t a clear plan laid out of where to eat. I gathered that I was supposed to sit anywhere and engage whoever I wanted or could. Except for the model-type girls, who were as uninterested in everything as you could possibly imagine.

I sat at Table 36 and talked with one of the few people in the entire room sitting on the producer side — so a quick word about that. Each of these numbered tables would represent where a respective producer/agent/talent/script-seeker would sit. You, the writer/pitcher, would sit on the opposite side of the table. The tables were organized by genre, which would make more sense later when the writers assembled outside the convention room, but inside it kind of didn’t matter.

ANYWAY, I sat and had a nice schmoozy chat with a producer who was looking for comedies as well as a guy to do punch-ups. We also talked about web videos, which it seemed like everyone wanted to talk about. The line was basically “The old way is gone. Computers are the future, man!” I didn’t argue.

9:00AM and the InkTip stage managers call all the writers out of the convention room and into the hallway. There, we found a series of numbers and names hanging from a clothesline. These were related to the tables inside. Organized by genre, each table could have as many as four different companies sitting at it at any time (I stress “at any time,” because these producers were real people existing in the real world, so some were late, some left early, some never showed, and many had to get up to pee a few times, so it was entirely possible that when you entered the room to pitch, the table wasn’t filled). Writers picked the line they wanted and stood under that number.

The stage manager would call “Writers on deck,” and all the writers at the head of their respective lines would step into the pre-boarding area, waiting to hear “Open doors.” When the doors opened, those writers entered the room and their time began. Five minutes. Five minutes to make your introduction, pitch your movie, get some sort of “Yes” and get their contact information. Sounds like speed dating, and I’m sure it is very much like it.

Personally, I had a lot of fun doing this. I was rehearsed, but nervous. I’ve pitched at formal meetings, but never done this sort of thing, which sometimes went like a personal one-on-one and other times verged into “American Idol” territory. I met a ton of people and — most importantly — I did my reps at pitching. I thought on my feet constantly, not to feed them what they wanted, but to adapt to the particular situation at that moment. If a decade of improv experience has taught me anything, it’s that recognizing the weird things everyone sees is a good thing. Ignoring it makes you seem out of touch. So I did that. I made jokes about how well these guys memorized each face, and told the last guys before lunch that “We’re half way there!” I figured it’s better to behave like a reasonable human being than try to wow people with a lot of flashy crap…

Which leads me to the advice portion of this entry. There were probably 200+ writers there, ranging from one end of the professional spectrum to the next. Many people flew in for this event; I met people from West Virginia, Iowa and even Alaska and Scottland. So my first piece of advice to anyone considering doing one of these pitch fests is: Don’t hang your career on it. Professional buzzkill Craig Mazin has made it a point in the Script Notes podcast of saying that these types of events are not after making movies, they are after your money. Make no mistake: there were no A-list super-power agents or producers at this thing. Nobody with tremendous clout was going to sit for 8 hours listening to mini-pitches on a Saturday in Burbank. They do that during their work week, with established writers who don’t pay hundreds of dollars for the slim chance of getting a nod from a production assistant. I’m not calling out InkTip in any way — I think it’s awesome that they do this and I like their site. I’m just saying that if you live in Rhode Island and you’ve saved up all year to pay for this trip and come to this pitch summit, you are wasting your money. Overnight success rarely happens, and it’s even more rare that it happens over night. If you truly believe in your project and you live outside of the Southern California area, then you’d be better served to make the movie yourself.

This leads me to my other bit of advice: Flashy is not professional. As I said, there were a lot of people at this summit, but I felt I could pick out the pros (or semi-pros) without thinking twice. They were the guys who dressed comfortably. They were probably not wearing really nice suits. They were probably not the ones carrying art work for their as-yet unproduced screenplay. They were probably not the ones with a trailer for their as-yet unproduced screenplay on their laptop*. Guys, I get it. I’ve been there, too. You think, “I’ll impress them with how passionate I am.” But it looks ridiculous.

When you think about it, if you went to the trouble of creating a poster or character concept art or a trailer for your UNPRODUCED screenplay, why don’t you just make the movie? Why are you at this summit? You think you’re giving off a message of professionalism, but I’d argue you’re coming off as lazy. You obviously have a vision and you have some time on your hands. You may even have some money. Why are you asking these guys for more?

Like I said, I’ve been there. My sketch group sent out “hilarious” press packets and we made “ingenious” posters for pitch meetings we had. But even at this level, you’re dealing with pros. And even if they’re not pros, they’ve seen a poster before. They’ve seen a trailer before. They’ve seen a suit before. All you end up doing is making things complicated and distracting from your actual script. You end up being memorable for the wrong reasons.

BACK TO THE SUMMIT: My main focus was the Comedy Genre tables (29-39). Some fit my logline, some did not. There were some tables looking for “spiritual elements,” others asking for “Horror comedies.” I initially skipped those. But by 11:30 or so, I was done. I had pitched my feature to every one of those tables. I moved on to the “All Genre” tables and started cruising through them, too. I watched the clock thinking, “It would be a waste of money to finish by lunch. I paid for the whole day.” So I expanded my push in two ways: I justified my story to fit more genres (“It’s about a community coming together, spiritual table. What could be more uplifting than that?”) and I actually pitched another movie all together to tables I’d already visited.

See, my plan was to focus on ACTING COACH, the script I’d just finished and was most proud of. But I had other stuff — particularly VAMPIRE SURF BAND, a horror comedy. The problem (and I use that term loosely) was that I had only printed out one sheets for ACTING COACH. But when I stared at the Horror Comedy table, and saw their line was unfilled, I improvised. I took out some business cards, wrote “Vampire Surf Band” on the back, and quickly ran through an impromptu pitch in my head.

And it worked (in as much as they liked what they heard). One table actually started writing down the names of directors they knew who might be interested in such a project. All that off of an opportunity seized, and without a full-sized poster!

In hindsight, my advice would be: roll with it, adapt and bring more ideas than you need. Had I a great action script, I would have been really busy.

Like I said, the main thing I took from this was getting in my real-world** reps of pitching. I had my speech all rehearsed, timed and prepped, but I would always have to adapt to their questions. “Who do you see as the lead?” “How’s it end?” “What type of budget are you looking at” “Will this make a lot of money?” (that was an easy one to answer) “Not interested. Got anything else?” etc. Writing them out now, they seem like obvious questions anyone in a pitch meeting would field. But in the live setting, it’s easy to get flustered.

No lie, I stumbled a couple times. Especially when I added the second pitch to my repertoire, I would sometimes forget which one I was leading with by the end of the night. But the point is, I did it. Next time I have a pitch meeting, it’ll probably feel more comfortable. I got through it, I know my line, I know my story, and I can handle myself without looking like a crazy person.

I think.

*Getting really snarky, the pros were probably also not the people who had to ask me “What’s a ‘dark comedy?’” As in “Give me some examples.” Look… if you don’t know your own genre, and you don’t know what the other genres are — and you’ve been paying attention for the last 20 years — and you can’t think of at least ONE dark comedy, y’might be a redneck.

**Y’know, for me.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Set Pieces that Sell Screenplays – Part 2

(SPOILERS: The Devil Wears Prada, Moulin Rouge!, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Meet the Parents)

Last post I discussed the importance of creating memorable set pieces in your screenplay and gave you some techniques for building anticipation for the set pieces. Today I’m going to discuss some techniques you can use to develop unique and satisfying set pieces.

The world of your story is a major potential source of fresh set piece ideas. At its core, The Devil Wears Prada (screenplay by Aline Brosh McKenna) is a story about a woman dealing with a mean boss, but it’s made unique by setting that story in the world of high fashion. We get the obligatory bits about coffee and phone messages, but look at the scene where Miranda Priestly is going over wardrobe for a photo shoot. There are several jokes about how demanding Miranda is and then when Andy laughs at a debate over two nearly identical belts, Miranda delivers a withering monologue breaking down how Andy ended up with the bargain bin sweater she’s wearing. That scene draws its humor completely from the world of the movie, which is why it’s so memorable.

Also, be sure to exploit your setting. The same basic set piece from a movie located in New York can be very different than one set in San Antonio, Texas or Venice, Italy. Think about how you might use those three locations to give a unique spin to a big emotional scene about a couple breaking up. (The world of the Deep South was a particularly rich setting for C. Jay Cox and I to mine in the development of Sweet Home Alabama!)

Set pieces can be thought of as little movies unto themselves. They should have the same roller coaster ups and downs as the overall story. We can accomplish this in two ways: reversals of fortune for the main character and reversals of tone and pace.

It’s important that your character not progress toward their goal in too linear a fashion or your scenes will feel dull and predictable. In a set piece your character should face multiple obstacles, overcoming some, failing to overcome others and then finding new ways to pursue their goal. The character should get closer to their goal one minute, farther away the next. These reversals of fortune create suspense for the audience and that leads to emotional reactions.

Reversing tone and pace is trickier. To see how this works, let’s look at a musical. Musicals have very obvious set pieces – they’re accompanied by song! Studying music can teach a screenwriter a lot about pace and rhythm. The set up to the elephant scene in Moulin Rouge! (written by Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce) is that the singer Satine has mistaken penniless writer Christian for a wealthy Duke. Christian hopes to convince Satine to star in his play while Satine hopes to seduce the Duke so he’ll finance a play for her.

The scene starts with comically awkward misunderstanding as Satine tries to bed Christian while he tries to read her his poetry. Dialogue overlaps, Satine throws herself around on the bed. Things grow steadily more chaotic until suddenly, completely flustered, Christian belts out the first line of his poem in song. Satine freezes, thunderstruck by his passion.

This reversal of pace from chaos to stillness and humor to seriousness heightens the emotional power of the moment. Christian sings slowly and intimately and then gradually the music builds, rising to a crescendo as the couple dances ecstatically. The topper is when Satine sincerely professes that she’s fallen in love with Christian only to learn he is not the Duke she thought he was.

Now lets see how this can work without music. The set piece in Marion’s bar in Raiders of the Lost Ark (story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman, screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan) begins with the Nazis coming to get the medallion from Marion. At first she talks tough, trying to cut a deal. But then things turn serious as Toht grabs the hot poker from the fire. Suddenly Marion’s bluster is gone. Toht approaches slowly until – CRACK – Indy whips the poker out of Toht’s hand. This moment is a great change of pace from slow, deliberate suspense to the rousing gunfight that follows.

Why is changing pace and tone so effective? It’s a matter of juxtaposition. The moment in Moulin Rouge! when Satine freezes at Christian’s song has much more emotional power coming after frenetic comedy than it would if he delivered it in the midst of a bunch of romantic sweet talk. Likewise, the action in the gunfight in Marion’s bar seems even more exciting after the tension of the hot poker beat. Note that to achieve these variations of pace and tone on the page you will need to use such stylistic tools as changing your vocabulary and the length of your sentences.

One of my favorite set piece techniques is out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire. The great opening sequence in Raiders of the Lost Ark illustrates this beautifully. Just as Indy escapes one trap, he finds himself in even greater peril. He leaps the pit and rolls under the descending door. Just as he recovers the idol and breathes a sigh of relief, the huge boulder begins rolling toward him. He makes a mad dash and leaps outside just in the nick of time – only to find himself facing the drawn bows of a hundred angry tribesmen.

The frying pan and fire don’t have to be physical danger. In the classic dinner table scene from Meet the Parents (story by Greg Glienna & Mary Ruth Clarke, screenplay by Jim Herzfeld and John Hamburg), the more Greg tries to fit in with his girlfriend’s family, the worse he makes it for himself. Forced to elaborate on a lie he’s told, he makes up a story about milking a cat. When future father-in-law Jack starts to deconstruct the lie, Greg quickly changes the subject by producing champagne. But when popping the cork he knocks over the urn with Jack’s mother’s ashes, making things hilariously worse. Remember, this technique is most effective when it’s the specific action of the character to escape one problem that lands them in the next one.

The hard reality of this business is that there are probably a thousand well structured but unsold scripts out there for every movie that gets made. If you want to sell your script, you need to make people passionate about it. Creating set pieces that are funny, scary, exciting, or moving is a great way to inspire that kind of passion.


In other news, a video game I wrote was just released for the Kindle Tablet. It's called Nightmare Cove, and it's an interactive horror story game. If you have a Kindle Tablet, you can buy it here, or if you want to see some screenshots and read about the characters and stories, check out the Nightmare Cove website (whether you have a Kindle or not).

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Set Pieces That Sell Screenplays – Part 1

(SPOILERS: When Harry Met Sally…, The Matrix, Cinderella Man, There’s Something About Mary, Mr. and Mrs. Smith)

Think about the last time you went to a movie you really loved with your friends. When you came out were you talking about how the second act break fell at just the right moment and how neatly the inner and outer conflicts of the main character tied together? Or were you talking about your favorite scenes and quoting the best dialogue? My guess is the latter.

It’s the same for producers and executives. Put yourself in the shoes of a development exec going home with a dozen spec scripts for the weekend. She reads one that is perfectly structured, in a marketable genre, and with a good character arc. She’ll probably jot down some very nice notes about that writer. Next she reads one that has several original, fantastic scenes – scenes she’s still thinking about on her drive into work. Scenes she can’t wait to tell her coworker about as they get their coffee. Which script do you think she’s going to fight passionately for in the Monday morning development meeting?

I’m not suggesting your script doesn’t need solid structure. But competence with structure is just the buy-in to the poker game of screenwriting. Once you’re at the table, success depends a great deal on your ability to deliver things like memorable and compelling set pieces.

There are several ways to define the term “set piece.” For me the most useful is, “the big, audience pleasing scenes that deliver on the genre elements of the movie.” In a successful comedy they’re the scenes that have you clutching your sides with laughter. In a good action movie they’re the scenes that put you on the edge of your seat holding your breath. In a horror movie they’re the scenes that make you cover your eyes in terror. In a romance they’re the scenes that have you reaching for your loved one’s hand.

Of course, a good comedy will never go too long without a joke and a good horror movie will probably be pretty creepy throughout. But set pieces ratchet up the intensity to give your story memorable peaks that will stick with the audience. It’s a cliché that good movies are like good roller coasters – they have peaks and valleys, periods of anticipation and moments of adrenaline rush release. Set pieces are the loops and big drops of the roller coaster.

I don’t know of any rule for how many set pieces a movie should have, but I always try for five to eight. Fewer and the script will seem slow and uneventful. More and either the script will be too long, the set pieces will be underdeveloped or the pace will be too unrelenting. I always put one set piece near the beginning and one at the climax. If the script goes more than twenty pages without one, that could be trouble. Often set pieces will correspond to major turning points in the film such as act breaks or the inciting incident, but they don’t have to.

You should try for a sense of spectacle with your set pieces. This often means big, showy visuals, but spectacle can also be of the emotional kind. The fake orgasm scene in When Harry Met Sally… (written by Nora Ephron) was certainly spectacular, although visually it was just two people sitting at a table in a café. What gave it a sense of spectacle was the heights of audacity and comedy it reached. When conceiving set pieces think about what would be considered spectacular for your genre.

Hopefully, you’ve spent some time thinking about what’s unique and original about your script’s premise. Set pieces are the time to pay this off. Mr. and Mrs. Smith (written by Simon Kinberg) is an action comedy and as such the set pieces contain plenty of action and jokes -- but not just generic action and jokes. The idea that makes the movie fresh is the juxtaposition of spy movie cliché with domestic satire.

Like many spy movies, it has a car chase scene. The structure of the movie would have been served just fine with a typical scene of twisted metal and flying bullets. But that wouldn’t have been nearly as interesting as the chase Kinberg wrote where the husband and wife spies discuss the merits of the mini-van they’re driving and argue about marital lies while they exchange gunfire with their pursuers. This chase could not just be dropped into any other action comedy – it’s completely unique to this concept.

You'll want to use advertising and scenes of preparation to build up to your set pieces. This is like the slow climb of the rollercoaster to the big drop. The anticipation is part of the thrill. Certain kinds of set pieces lend themselves particularly well to these technique: the big game in a sports movie, the big date or a wedding in a romantic comedy, breaking into a heavily guarded location in a caper or spy movie. We’re told repeatedly in advance how important this upcoming scene will be.

For example, in The Matrix (written by Andy and Lana Wachowski) we’re repeatedly told how dangerous the agents are. After demonstrating how kick-ass she is in the first sequence, Trinity is reduced to trembling fear when she learns agents are coming. Later, Cypher warns Neo to do what the rest of them do when encountering an agent: run. All of this is advertising for when Neo has to face off against Agent Smith. We know he’s outmatched.

Scenes of preparation are an even more emphatic way to build anticipation for an upcoming set piece. In sports movies the team or athlete trains for the big game. In heist movies the burglars scout their location and gather their equipment. In romances the bride tries on her wedding dress. There are more subtle scenes of preparation. Remember how in There’s Something About Mary (story by Ed Decter and John J. Strauss, screenplay by Decter & Strauss and Peter & Bobby Farrelly) Ted’s unusual preparation for an upcoming date with Mary leads into the greatest set piece in the movie, the infamous “hair gel” scene?

So now that you’ve built to the set piece, how do you make it memorable? I’ll discuss that next week! (To be certain you don't miss it, make sure you're subscribed to the blog or follow me on Twitter.)


Only a couple days left to support Microbe. One of the rewards is a heavily discounted script analysis by yours truly. Check it out!

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Real World Networking

Six people have contacted me so far this week either asking for business help or proposing a business venture. The requests have ranged from giving advice to a friend’s kid to asking for help finding investors for an independent feature to a proposal to collaborate on a spec script.

Most of these requests came from people I consider friends and I certainly don’t mind them asking. But you can probably imagine that I have to turn the majority of them down. If I said yes to every proposal it would be like taking on two new full time jobs every week, and I have my own projects to do! (The thing that does annoy me is when someone tries to make me responsible for their happiness or career – “If you don’t help me I’ll have to give up my dream project!” It doesn’t work. I want to run from those situations.)

I also had two interesting lunches recently that got me thinking about networking. I’m going to leave out the names and change a few identifying details so I don’t upset anyone.

First, I went to lunch with a friend I met seven or eight years ago when we both joined the same writers group. The writers group didn’t last long, but we stayed friends and both of our careers have progressed considerably since then. My friend has an office on a studio lot, which is where I met him for lunch.

While we were eating, I told him about a project I was working on that I would be taking to producers soon. It just so happened that a producer he’s worked with was looking for that kind of material – and had an office on the same lot. So we walked over and he introduced me. Just a quick introduction, but a first point of contact. Then, on the way back to the parking lot, I ran into a successful director I’d become acquainted with socially a while back but haven’t spoken to in at least two years. We spent a few minutes catching up. That’s some pretty good networking considering my only agenda was to have lunch with my friend!

The second lunch was with three former students. One had gotten a job at a small production company after school and then brought the other two into the company. Their careers are off and running.

All of this demonstrates how networking happens in the real world. And here are three lessons I would take away from it:

1. Your best networking is sideways. In other words, your opportunities will mostly come from people at your level. When I first met my writer friend with the office on the lot we were both still early in our careers. And my former students got their breaks from each other, not by schmoozing Hollywood bigwigs. Don’t think of networking as cultivating power players who can do you favors, think of it as building a community of people who can help and support each other. And plan on giving at least as much as you’ll get.

2. Location, location, location. You’re probably not going to run into producers and directors if you go to lunch with a friend in Cleveland. All of the significant agencies are based in L.A. All studio feature development happens in L.A. All network TV development and most cable development happens in L.A. So it helps to live in L.A. New York is okay too – there’s a big indie film community, some cable development, and some of the bigger agencies have branches there. A few other places have small indie film communities – if you want to make ultra-low-budget, personal films then Austin, Texas isn’t a bad place to be. But the bottom line: you’ve got to go where the action is.

By the way – it’s not enough to move to L.A. if all you’re going to do is sit in your room writing. You also have to do things like join screenwriting groups and organizations and take classes and attend seminars. You’ve got to hang out where your fellow filmmakers hang out.

3. Genuine networking often takes time to pay off. People are always talking about what you should do if you happen to get in an elevator with Steven Spielberg. My advice: don’t pitch him your film. I’ve never heard of anybody selling anything this way. If I’ve gotten six requests for help this week I can only imagine how many Mr. Spielberg’s gotten. His defenses will be way, way up. Genuine networking is about building real relationships with people in the business that you actually like. If you do that, then when they see an opportunity to help you, they will. But it might be years from now. That’s okay, you’re in it for the long haul, right? You better be, because overnight success is a myth.


Only one week left to become a backer of my short film on Kickstarter!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Agents and Managers – What’s the Difference?

Most aspiring screenwriters are heavily focused on getting an agent. Most, in fact, focus too much on this when they really should be concentrating on becoming better writers and getting to know people in the business, but that’s another post. Traditionally, getting an agent has been considered the first step in becoming a professional screenwriter.

But over the last fifteen years or so, a somewhat new type of representation has become commonplace: the manager. Many pros these days have both. (Currently I only have an agent but I’ve had a manager in the past.) And many new writers wonder what the difference is.

Legally, the difference is that agents are licensed by the State of California and allowed to solicit work on your behalf. Managers are not licensed and therefore barred from soliciting work. However most do anyway and few writers report a manager that finds them a job!

Another major difference is that agents, if they are legitimate*, are franchised by the Writers Guild of America. This provides protections for the writer, such as limiting agent commissions to a maximum of 10% and allowing the writer to get out of the agency contract if the agent fails to find them work for 90 days (though that rule is seldom needed… few agents would try to force an unhappy writer to stay at the agency.)

So in practice one of the big differences is that agents have specific rules they have to play by and managers do not. That makes signing with a manager a more risky proposition. (And FYI: common practice is that managers take 10% to represent screenwriters. 15% is standard for actors.)

Another big difference that has practical implications is that agents are prevented from producing their clients’ work, hiring their clients, or being active owners in a business that hires their clients. This prevents a lot of conflict of interest. Many managers are managers so that they can also produce. Many management companies are also production companies.

This has advantages and disadvantages for the writer. On the one hand, if the managers are good at producing and the production company gets a lot of movies made, it gives you preferred access to them as buyers. And, if a manager is attached to a script as producer, they shouldn’t take a commission on any sale, saving you your 10%.

On the other hand there’s that pesky conflict of interest. Some of the big management companies are known for only pushing clients’ material if they want to produce it. If they’re not interested in producing, the client is ignored. Also, having a manager attached to a script as a producer could be a negative when others may be considering buying that script. At the very least, they’re going to have to pay your manager and share credit with them. Any attachments (including director or movie star) can help or hurt – it all depends on how the buyer feels about working with that person. And if your script does sell, your manager will likely be more interested in their producing deal than your writing deal.

So when you are meeting with a potential manager you should discuss under what conditions they will come onto your projects as producer, what they bring to the table in those situations, and what happens when they aren’t going to produce. Writers’ feelings vary about what answers they hope to get to these questions, but at least you’ll be informed.

The difference you’ll hear most is that managers provide career counseling that agents don’t. These days, this is usually true. In fact, I believe managers arose partly because agents were taking on more clients and doing less career counseling. Most just don’t have time anymore to give you extensive feedback on your spec scripts, for example. They want to be out selling your material.

That’s where (good) managers come in. They will generally be a lot more available to read and give feedback on material, coach you in preparation for pitches, and discuss possible long-term career plans. Of course good agents are involved in these things as well, but the manager should give you more time.

Another crucial difference is that it’s usually easier to get a manager than an agent, especially for a new writer. And, managers often help their new writers find an agent. If you get both, whichever order you get them in, you do want to make sure they can work together. Because they’ll need to. The ideal manager-agent pair has several clients in common so they have an established relationship.

So do you need a manager? As the saying goes, “A good manager is worth more than their commission, a bad manager is worth nothing.” It is certainly possible to be a working writer without a manager – or even an agent. On the other hand, if you could double your income wouldn’t you be willing to give up 10% of the results in return?

If you are considering signing with a manager, you will want to meet with them and discuss the things I’ve mentioned as well as how they think they can help you get to where you want to go in your career. You’ll also want to research their company and what they’ve produced (if they produce). In the end, whether to sign will be a judgment call. Just remember: in the long run it’ll be your talent, work ethic, interpersonal skills and luck that will determine how your career goes, not your representation.


*If you are considering signing with a small agent at an unknown agency, you should definitely be sure they are franchised by the WGA – you can find out on the Guild website. If they are not, it is a huge warning sign.


In other news, I have re-launched my Kickstarter campaign for my short film, Microbe, with some revisions. Please check it out and consider becoming a backer. There are several rewards that might be of interest to an aspiring writer or filmmaker!

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Anthology Movies

(MINOR SPOILERS: Pulp Fiction, The Dead Girl)

“But how does Pulp Fiction fit into three-act structure?”

I get this question a lot when I’m discussing structure. Usually I dodge it. Because Pulp Fiction (story by Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary, written by Quentin Tarantino) falls into a category of films known as anthology films, but it disguises that fact. And I don’t like to talk about anthology films because they are difficult to pull off and nearly impossible to sell. But today, I’m gonna break tradition and talk about them!

An anthology film is made up of several short films bound together by theme or location or gimmick. Each short film follows the normal rules of narrative (on which three-act structure theory is based). If you think of the standard feature as a novel, then anthology films are short story collections.

And they have the same pitfalls as short story collections – primarily that the stories usually are not equally good. And presenting them together invites comparison. Audiences tend to walk out of these movies saying, “I liked the second story but not the third story.” They also risk feeling lighter weight since they spend less time on each character and story. And they can lack forward momentum without a single, overarching dramatic question. It’s easier to put a short story collection down than a novel.

One anthology movie that I thought overcame these challenges was Nine Lives (written by Rodrigo Garcia). The movie consists of nine short films, each shot in a single long take. There are a few repeat characters, but basically each film stands alone. And they are all pretty high quality so it works.

Another is The Dead Girl (written by Karen Moncrieff) – a movie that contains five short films all centered around the discovery of a body. It works because the body connects all of the stories and because the final story tells us how the girl in question died. There is a bit of mystery built up in the first four stories that is answered in the fifth. This provides a sense of cohesion to the film.

Anthology films that I think work less well include Four Rooms (written by Allison Anders, Alexandre Rockwell, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino) and Aria (written by a whole bunch of people).

And something you may notice about all of these films: All were low budget independent movies. So if you want to do something like this, you better be prepared to raise the money yourself.

Let’s go back to Pulp Fiction, obviously a successful example of the form. Pulp Fiction contains three stories told for the most part one after another. There are crossover characters, but each of the stories has a different main character and the plots only overlap in the most minor of ways.

But Pulp Fiction does two things to disguise the fact that these are three separate stories: First, it pulls the opening scene(s) out of each of the three stories and puts them at the beginning of the movie. So we start by cutting between the beginnings of all three stories. Then we see the rest of the stories play out in their entirety one after the other. But we’ve been given three catalysts – three dramatic questions have been introduced. We want to find out how each plays out. We know the movie’s not over until all three are answered. Because of this, people tend to remember Pulp Fiction being more intercut than it actually was.

The second thing Pulp Fiction does is pull out a bit of the Jules story to use as a framing story for the movie. You could argue Pumpkin and Honey Bunny are a fourth story, but I’d say they are simply minor characters in Jules’ story. Jules’ story is the final one told and it ends with the robbery in the café. So Tarantino pulled out the opening of that scene and put it at the beginning of the movie to create a frame.

The first trick leads us to a way anthology movies can be morphed into more traditionally structured movies and become moderately commercial: by intercutting the short stories and pulling one out to be the main story. You then structure the film around the main storyline and the others become loose subplots.

Want examples? Love Actually (written by Richard Curtis), Crash (story by Paul Haggis, screenplay by Paul Haggis & Robert Moresco), Babel (written by Guillermo Arriaga), and Valentine’s Day (story by Katherine Fugate and Abby Kohn & Marc Silverstein, screenplay by Katherine Fugate) all fit this model.

Obviously this approach is a little more marketable. But only a little. Of these, only Valentine’s Day is truly an American studio film. So if you want to do an anthology film, there are examples of success. But be prepared for an even steeper uphill battle than a normal movie.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Picking an Idea

I’m currently in the process of deciding what ideas I want to develop as pitches for any meetings I get after my latest spec script goes out. At the same time, one of these ideas will likely be my next spec should I fail to get an assignment or sell a pitch. I have notebooks full of ideas for movies. So how do I pick one?

I had lunch a few days ago with a producer friend who was talking about how critical it is to pick the right idea. He said he sometimes spends a year working with a writer to settle on the right idea to develop. Of course, neither he nor the writer are working only on that one project… nobody could make a living if they did nothing else for a full year but select an idea! But the point is selecting the right idea is pretty important.

Recently, someone told me something John August said on a panel at the L.A. Film Festival. I’ve been trying to find the exact quote without success, but here is my second hand paraphrasing of his quote: Rather than write what you know or write what’s commercial, you should write what you would pay $15 to go see.

That’s a really smart way to look at it. Last post I discussed the difficult environment the theatrical film business is in. Going to the movies is expensive now, and people have many other entertainment options. You have to give them a good reason to leave the comfort of their couch and home entertainment system and go to the theater. What would make you do that?

It’s surprising how many times I hear students pitch me ideas that seem far removed from the type of movies they say are their favorites. I often wonder if they would really pay to see the movie they propose to write. And when I evaluate honestly, I have to admit I have occasionally pitched movies that I probably wouldn’t go see because I thought the idea was solid and it was the kind of thing the buyer was looking for. But I never got those jobs…

And remember one of my lessons from Comic-Con was the importance of a good hook. We always need to remember that our script will not be read in a vacuum, nor will the movie be released in a vacuum. The script will be competing with hundreds of others, and the movie will be competing with hundreds of other activities a potential viewer could do that evening.

So before I decide to put time and energy into an idea, I will try to come up with a logline and imagine what the poster and trailer might look like. Then I’ll ask myself how excited I would be if that movie were coming out tomorrow (made by someone else). If I would be buying advance tickets online, then it’s an idea to consider. If there's a chance I would be willing to wait for the movie to come out on DVD, maybe it’s not one to pursue. You have to assume if you would be excited to see the movie, so would other people.

By the way, it's wise to do some research on what movies are coming up soon in your genre. This is why it’s so important to follow the trade press (, Hollywood Reporter, or whatever your favorite source is). I recently had a student pitch me an idea about a guy who forms a neighborhood watch. I asked him if he knew about the movie The Watch (written by Jared Stern and Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg). He did not. I suggested he look at the trailer online. As soon as he saw it, he discarded his idea. It happens to every writer sooner or later that a movie comes out right as you’re finishing up a script on the same topic, but a little research can keep the experience as rare as possible.

Another thing to keep in mind is, if you decide to write something, you’re going to have to live with it for months or even years. What may sound cool and clever in the moment might bore you long before you finish the script. Also, you may come up with a catchy logline, but when you flesh out the character and plot, you could find there isn’t any depth there, or you could get stuck on a story point.

So at this stage I’m doing initial development on many ideas. In a few weeks I’ll see which ones I’ve managed to really flesh out and still seem cool. Hopefully I’ll have at least one that I want to proceed with!

Thursday, August 30, 2012

What Summer 2012 Boxoffice Means for Screenwriters

As we head into Labor Day it’s time to take a look back at this summer’s boxoffice and try to figure out what it might mean for screenwriters. Analyzing the movie business is always a dicey task… one of the reasons it’s so fun to do! So here are some of my observations and theories... make of them what you will:

Franchise Films are Risky

Only two big summer franchise films were unqualified hits: The Avengers ($618 million) and The Dark Knight Rises ($422 million). Both also did well internationally. Some observers have pointed to The Dark Knight Rises trailing The Dark Knight slightly, but the movie is still enormously successful. The Amazing Spider-Man (see below), Men in Black III ($178 million) and Prometheus ($126 million) did okay – as in break-even, probably-get-a-sequel okay. But John Carter, Battleship, Total Recall and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter were all bombs. And The Bourne Legacy (see below), Madagascar 3, The Expendables 2 and Ice Age: Continental Drift underwhelmed to the point the future of the franchises are questionable.

That’s not a very good track record for extremely expensive films. Perhaps the studios’ recent strategy of spending more money on fewer, bigger films is not so wise after all.

Every summer there are also a few films that are surprising hits. This season those films are Ted ($214 million), Magic Mike ($113 million), and Snow White and the Huntsman ($155 million). Those three have helped ease the losses of some of the big failures, but though all may get sequels, only one – Snow White – could really be considered a new franchise. And the future of that franchise is in danger because of the scandal around the director and star’s affair.

Reboots and Remakes are Even Riskier

The Amazing Spider-Man reboot has done okay with $258 million (plus a nice $422 million internationally), but it’s still likely to gross less than any of the previous three. The Bourne Legacy (without Jason Bourne) will be the lowest grossing in that series. Total Recall is a disaster ($55 million). And, as mentioned, Prometheus – loosely tied to the Alien franchise – did only so-so. Maybe originality isn’t overrated.

3D is Over

At least in the U.S. Back in 2009 Avatar got 83% of its domestic gross from 3D screens. In 2010, Alice in Wonderland got 71% from 3D and Shrek Forever After got 62%. 3D looked like the future. But this summer, 3D accounted for only 45% of The Avengers’ gross, 51% of Prometheus’ gross, 32% of Brave’s gross, 38% of Madagascar 3’s gross, and 44% of The Amazing Spider-Man’s gross.* And this is with higher ticket prices tilting the scales toward 3D! 3D is still going strong internationally, but I’d bet those audiences will grow tired of it the same way American audiences have. We may be seeing the end of what has turned out to be a fad.

The Independent Film Market Shows Signs of Health

Summer is never a big season for indie films, but two did quite well this year: Moonrise Kingdom ($43 million) and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel ($45 million). And several other small films did decent business, among them Beasts of the Southern Wild (almost $9 million), The Intouchables ($7 million) and To Rome with Love ($15 million). You could even argue Magic Mike was an independent film based on the way it was financed, though ultimately it was a studio release.

How to Get the Audience to the Movies?

The industry has a big problem. It’s harder and harder to get people to go to the movies these days. So many people now have huge TVs and great sound systems at home. And TV has gotten really good with the explosion of cable programming. Not to mention the Internet, videogames… basically all the stuff you’ve been hearing about threatening the moviegoing habit. Add to that the high cost of tickets and you’ve really got to give the audience a reason to come out. That’s why studios have been focusing on the big event films and trying to push 3D.

I don’t have a good answer to the industry’s problem, except that the health of independent films shows that people will come out if the story draws their interest. The writer in me wants to conclude that the key to a healthy film business is good storytelling and therefore writers should be given more power, but I know it’s not that simple.

But maybe this summer will cause the studios to start making more, and more varied, movies. Perhaps they’ll stop going all-in on big franchise properties and spread the risk across a diverse slate at a range of budgets. That would be good for screenwriters. But I’m not holding my breath!


Note: All boxoffice is to-date and domestic unless otherwise noted. Some films are still in release. Source:

*Source: Hollywood Reporter