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.