Friday, March 29, 2013

Using Advertising in Your Script

(Spoilers: Casablanca, Silence of the Lambs, The Matrix, Cinderella Man, Little Miss Sunshine)

In screenwriting advertising is a term for a technique where you build anticipation in the audience for an upcoming event. I didn’t invent the term, though I haven’t heard it used often. But it’s a technique I find very helpful for a variety of reasons.

First, advertising can help build up something you want to be important. One common example is the advertisement of a character before they are introduced. For instance, in Casablanca (screenplay by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch) we see people refer to Rick several times before his appearance.

When Strasser arrives in Casablanca, Renault tells him they’ll arrest the man who robbed the couriers at Rick’s that evening because, “Everybody comes to Rick’s.” Strasser then replies that he’s already heard about this Café and Rick. Then, at the bar, a customer asks if Rick will have a drink with them and is told Rick never drinks with the customers. These bits of advertising tell us that Rick is an important person that we should pay attention to – all before he appears on screen. Victor Laszlo is advertised in a similar way, discussed frequently before his actual appearance.

Another great example of advertising is the introduction of Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs (screenplay by Ted Tally). The ten minutes or so leading up to his entrance is all about people telling Clarice how dangerous Lecter is and the safety procedures that must be used in dealing with him. She’s even shown a photo of what he did to a nurse who didn’t follow those procedures. This is matched by the visuals as we see Clarice led ever deeper in the psychiatric prison, passing numerous checkpoints and a room filled with guns, until she’s brought to a dungeon like hallway. When Lecter is finally revealed, standing primly in a neat cell, and greets her politely, we’re already terrified of him. Imagine the movie without that build up. Would Lecter, a middle aged, intellectual, slightly pudgy man in a cell, seem remotely threatening?

This technique also works for building up events. In The Matrix (written by Andy & Lana Wachowski), the power and abilities of the agents are advertised well before Neo’s big climactic fight against Agent Smith. Trinity is terrified of them in the opening, and Cypher tells Neo that if he encounters an agent he should do what the rest of them do – run. It’s made clear that a person can’t possibly beat an agent. And because of this, when the fight between Neo and Smith actually occurs we’re prepared for it to be an epic challenge.

Similarly in Casablanca the regular flight out of the country is advertised from almost the very opening of the movie when refugees look longingly up at the plane and say perhaps someday they’ll be on it. Throughout the movie this flight is held up as an elusive and desirable thing. By the time Rick, Ilsa, Laszlo and Louie are at the airport for the big climax, the question of who gets on the plane has taken on enormous significance.

This is a particularly important technique for sports movies. If there’s going to be a climactic game or race or match, we have to understand how it differs from the other games or races or matches we’ve seen up to that point. Cinderella Man (story by Cliff Hollingsworth, screenplay by Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman) offers a good example in the form of a scene where Braddock is forced to watch films of Max Baer’s fights where Baer’s opponent died. This is the culmination of considerable advertisement of what a powerful and dangerous fighter Baer is, making the final fight a battle of life and death rather than just another boxing match.

Advertising helps your story maintain forward momentum. By reminding the audience of upcoming events, you build anticipation. This can be particularly helpful if your story threatens to become episodic. Road movies often have this problem. It’s a good idea to remind the audience of the final destination every so often so they don’t lose focus on why the characters are on the journey in the first place. Throughout Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt) there are scenes of Olive practicing for the pageant and discussions of whether beauty queens eat ice cream. Though the journey has little to do with the actual pageant - it's mostly about the family's dynamics - we are reminded that a pageant is coming and look forward to seeing what will happen.

You should certainly plan your advertising as you outline, but often advertising is something you’ll need to add in the rewriting phase to fix problems of focus and momentum. In any case, figure out what you want the audience to be anticipating and paying attention to, and make sure you let them know how important those things are.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Learning to Write Better Dialogue

One of the more common questions I’m asked by students and aspiring writers is how they can write better dialogue. This is one of the things that really seems to split new writers. Some have a natural facility with dialogue, though they can often improve how they use it. Others struggle to write a single line that doesn’t seem wooden and forced.

Writing good dialogue encompasses many things. Good dialogue should be natural, reflect the character, advance the scene, be lean, and depending on the situation may need to be witty, provocative, funny or moving. Of these skills, the inability to write naturalistic dialogue seems to be the most challenging weakness to overcome.

I’m probably not the best person to advise on this because I’ve always been able to write naturalistic dialogue without much effort. I never remember “learning” how to do it and I don’t have any particular tricks for capturing realistic speech while I write. A former agent once said I wrote “smooth” dialogue, meaning it flows nicely and is easy to read (this was actually the set up to some criticism: he said that my ability to write smooth dialogue let me get away with some lazy writing).

But if you don’t have an instinctive ear for naturalistic dialogue, there are a couple techniques that seem to help develop that skill. The first is a variation on the character diary exercise I use to develop character voice. On the first day of my Screenwriting One class, I assign the students to write a diary entry in the voice of someone they know who talks in an unusual way. This turns the exercise into one of listening, rather than creating.

If you want to develop your dialogue writing skills, I would suggest picking someone who speaks very differently than you and writing a fictional diary entry in their voice every morning for a week. Listen to the vocabulary and slang they use. Listen to the rhythms of their speech – do they babble on and on, never finishing a sentence, or speak in short, staccato bursts? Then the next week pick someone else and repeat.

The second exercise is one I was given in my first screenwriting class. We were required to keep a notebook where we jotted down ideas, characters, incidents, and bits of dialogue that we encountered throughout the day. Every week we had to show it to the professor. He didn’t care what was in it, just that we were doing it.

Again, this is an exercise in listening. The cashier at my dorm commissary had a habit of saying, “no joke,” after every other statement. For example, “The stew is really popular today, no joke.” The first week of school I jotted that down in my notebook, and years later I used it for a character in a screenplay. Would I have remembered that if I hadn’t had the notebook assignment? Who knows, but listening and observing is a skill that takes practice.

Of course movie dialogue isn’t actually a realistic representation of normal speech. We cut out all of the “ums” and digressions, false starts, clichés and repetition in the average conversation. But we do want the pared down, heightened form of speech that is movie dialogue to have the rhythms of actual conversation. I believe that if you practice actively listening to the way people use language, you will find it much easier to achieve that.

When it’s time to write a scene, your preparation comes into play. You should have already thought about your characters’ voices – maybe using the character diaries to develop them, as I do. Now, identify what each character in the scene wants. If the characters have conflicting goals that will be best, but not every scene works this way. In any case, you should identify the obstacles the character faces getting what they want.

If you’ve properly thought through these elements the dialogue should be a lot easier to write. Good dialogue is action – it’s the character saying something to achieve their goals. They are doing something when they speak not just talking about something. They may be seducing, lying, threatening, or manipulating but they are active. Your job is to figure out what this particular character would say to achieve their goal, and how they would say it.

Ultimately you shouldn’t be thinking too hard about your dialogue as you write the scene. If you’ve prepared yourself, your characters and your scenes properly, the dialogue will flow without a lot of conscious effort. And then you make it even better when you rewrite!

(For improving dialogue during rewriting, see my post on character passes.)

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Mailbag #2

Welcome to another edition of the Let’s Schmooze mailbag where I answer reader questions on screenwriting.

From Marc Wobschall: Are dates on computer files sufficient for copyright purposes? I read that mailing yourself a hard copy may not be enough.

First, the disclaimer. I am not a lawyer. Do not rely on me for legal advice!

I don’t recommend mailing yourself a hard copy of a script or relying on computer files for copyright protection. In theory, both can serve to establish a date that something was created and so might be useful if you were sued or wanted to sue someone else, but how much value that would be in a trial is debatable. (It would be some.) I do recommend keeping dated records of everybody you send material to. I also keep a writing journal where I note what I worked on each day, which has been incredibly valuable to me in some legal and pseudo-legal situations.

Note that technically your work is copyrighted the moment you put it down in “fixed form” such as in writing or in a Final Draft file, however proving when that happened can be an issue. Also note that not everything is copyrightable. Titles, for example (although other laws such as trademark can apply). Basic ideas. Anything delivered verbally. Facts – you can’t copyright a recipe, for example, only the way in which you write it. Also, you cannot copyright something based on intellectual property you don’t own.

The best protection is to register your work with the U.S. copyright office. The current cost is $35. In addition to an iron clad dating of when the work was created, this step offers additional benefits such as being able to recover legal fees and extra damages in a lawsuit.

The WGA offers a registry service that also basically serves as a date stamp. It’s cheaper ($20, $10 if you’re a member), but only lasts five years and doesn’t convey the same legal protection as registering the copyright with the government. However it can be useful because you can register things you couldn’t copyright. For example, if you pitch your take on adapting a novel, you can write up your pitch and register that, even though you couldn’t copyright it since you don’t own the novel. This would establish what your unique ideas were (it is illegal for producers to steal your original, unique ideas as long as you’ve written them down.)

In general it is a bad idea to sue someone for copyright infringement in Hollywood unless it is egregious and you have absolutely iron clad evidence – and even then it’s not a great idea. Copyright infringement suits are incredibly, incredibly hard to win. And if people suspect you’re litigious they will be very reluctant to read your work. Hollywood is a small town - people talk. An ill-conceived lawsuit can end your career.

From H.E. Ellis: I decided to try my hand at screenwriting by attempting to adapt my own novel. This is much harder than I had initially anticipated because I wrote my protagonist to express a great deal of interior monologue. 

So I guess my question is, how does a writer express a character's inner thoughts without bogging down the story in excess exposition or resorting to some hokey "narrator" device?

Why don’t you give me a hard one! (That's sarcasm.)

This is one of the fundamental challenges of screenwriting, and one of the reasons adaptations aren’t necessarily easier than writing original stories. Mostly in screenwriting we don’t express the characters' inner thoughts directly. Instead, we find ways to dramatize what’s going on in their head. We set up situations that require them to act in ways that show what they’re thinking. Forcing them to make choices is often a good way to reveal their thought process. This is why we often say movie characters need to be active. We reveal character primarily through behavior.

There are a couple of techniques to reveal inner thoughts more directly. One, as you mention, is voiceover. It can be effective (see Goodfellas – screenplay by Nicholas Pileggi & Martin Scorsese) but it is also often used badly. (See this post and this post for more on voiceover.) Another is to give the character a confidante, one person they trust and with whom they can share their feelings (see the cop John McClane talks to via walkie-talkie in Die Hard - screenplay by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza - or any best friend in any romantic comedy). Again, this can be risky – you don’t want to fill up your script with scenes of a character talking about how they feel.

It’s hard to advise you on your specific situation without knowing the novel, but often when doing adaptations the screenwriter has to make significant changes to force the character into more active situations. Sometimes, unfortunately, this necessitates major plot reconstruction.

Got a question on screenwriting? Let me know and I'll try to address it in the next Mailbag.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

More Mistakes I've Made

Last post I talked about some of the mistakes I made early in my career. Here are a few more:

I over-relied on my agents for work

When I was trying to break in to the business, I hustled to get my scripts to producers, development execs, anyone who would read them. I had to. Then I got an agent. The agent got my scripts out to a whole bunch of new people, which resulted in meetings with a bunch of potential new employers. Everything was heading up.

And then things went quiet. What happened? Well, I stopped doing the hustling I’d been doing and relied on my agent to promote me. And he did to an extent, but not as enthusiastically as I had. Nobody will be as dedicated to your career as you. Getting an agent doesn’t relieve you from the job of developing your network in whatever additional ways you can.

Besides, my agent did his job. Here’s the big thing new writers usually don’t realize: Agents do not get you work. They get your spec writing to people and get you in rooms with people who like it. They open doors for you. It’s up to you to walk through them, and what happens on the other side is on you. My agent had introduced me to a bunch of new people, and he was expecting me to take those contacts and run with them. I didn’t, or at least not as aggressively as I could have. (See last post: Didn’t keep in touch with people I met.)

Note that agents do other important things for you. They negotiate contracts, harass employers when your pay is late, and help you choose material, among other stuff. They are very valuable. But it’s on you to nurture your contacts, continually produce new material, and convince people to hire you.

I didn’t ask questions about the business

Learning to write is hard. It takes time, energy and a thick skin. I went to school for several years to learn how to do it well. But school didn’t prepare me for how the business works. When I went into meetings, I didn’t really know what was expected of me. I went into some “general” meetings without preparing a pitch – I was told they were get-to-know-me meetings. When the producer asked what I was working on, I fumbled through some lame description of a current spec.

In one meeting, I had the foresight to prepare three pitches (something I wouldn’t do now, but not really a “mistake” per se). The producer shot all three down after a few sentences by saying, “Not for us, what else you got?” I didn’t want to say “nothing” so I started pitching any story idea I could think of – most remembered from my idea notebook, a couple off the top of my head! I pitched well over a dozen. Obviously none of them sold – they were half-baked. I should have said, “I’m kicking around a few other things but let me develop them and come back.”

There were many other things like this that boil down to: I didn’t know what was expected of me. I can easily make the excuse that someone should have prepared me better – my film school professors, my agent. But really I should reserve the most blame for myself. If I didn’t know, I should have asked.

I tried to negotiate for myself

I don’t want to get into specifics on this one, but let’s just say there were a couple contracts early in my career where I tried to negotiate the terms on my own. Often that was because the producer made me an offer or asked what I wanted to get paid. Tip: the producer would much rather negotiate with the writer than with an agent or lawyer. A few times I negotiated for myself because I was trying to save legal costs on a “free option,” a deal where I would take no money up front in return for a potential payoff down the line.

Negotiating for yourself is always a bad idea. When you agree to something, even just a ballpark figure, it is nearly impossible for your representatives to go back and raise that number. And your reps know the value of your work in the marketplace much better than you. Trust them (this includes when you think you deserve more than they say). I left money on the table a few times by not insisting that the buyer talk to my reps. Fortunately I never made the mistake several of my friends did of getting into onerous, long term contracts for no money. That’s even worse.

I’ve had a few questions come in, so next post will be a mailbag post. If you have questions, send them my way via email, the comments section here or Twitter.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Avoid My Mistakes

Everyone makes mistakes and I’ve made my share when it comes to the screenwriting business. One of the useful things about a blog is I can share them with you so, if you listen to me, you can avoid making the same ones. At least that’s useful to you. Unfortunately I can’t change my past!

I’ve made so many mistakes it’ll probably take a few posts to cover them all, but let me get started with a couple biggies.

Mistake #1: I didn’t stick to one genre.

The problem with this is that when you are successful at something, people will want you to do it again. In Hollywood this is partly tied to genre. If you write a successful romantic comedy (as I did) they will want you to write more romantic comedies. If you want to write horror films instead, you can… but you will be seen as a beginner again. You won’t be able to capitalize on your previous success. It’s hard to get established in Hollywood, if you get a break you don’t want to throw it away!

I have a good excuse for my failure. I didn’t set out to write romantic comedies, I set out to write adventure and sci-fi movies. And in fact it was a big action-adventure script that got me my first agent. And it was that same script that got me into Original Films. But Original Films wasn’t able to set up that script, so they asked what else I had. All I had was a sci-fi script and Sweet Home Alabama – the script I’d written for my Master’s thesis.

They liked Sweet Home Alabama and started developing it. Meanwhile I continued to write adventure and sci-fi. Then Sweet Home Alabama got made and was a big hit. And all I had to show people were adventure and sci-fi scripts. I was unable to piggyback off of the success of the movie as much as I should have.

Not that I’m complaining – that movie really launched my career. It was, however, a bit of random chance that it was that script that got produced first. I don’t know that I would have done things differently if I could do them again – other than writing at least ONE other romantic comedy!

But the lesson is, try to figure out what genre you most want to do and focus on doing that. You can work in multiple genres in Hollywood, but wait until you’re well established in one before branching out.

Mistake #2: I didn’t keep in touch with people I met.

When my agent first sent my script around (the aforementioned action-adventure script), a lot of people didn’t buy it but liked it enough they wanted to meet with me. This was true of the next two or three as well. I met with a lot of good, high-level producers and executives. And many of them I only met with one time.

It’s not that the meetings went badly, it’s that I didn’t follow up. You need to nurture relationships in this business. You want to build a base of fans who will be excited to see new material or to hear a pitch. (You’ll rarely sell a pitch to someone the first time you meet them.) You want to stay on their radar for when they have open assignments. You also may want them to refer you to an agent one day.

Email makes it pretty easy to stay in touch with people. You don’t want to harass them, but I like to touch base with my contacts every three or four months. Don’t just drop them a “hi, what’s happening?” note. They’re busy and don’t have time for that. But perhaps offer up a few loglines you’re kicking around and ask if they’d be interested in hearing a pitch on any of them. Even if they aren’t, you’ve kept yourself on their radar.

You can also send them bits of news, but try to keep it relevant. Think about the junk email you get cluttering up your inbox. If you made a short film, go ahead and send them a link. If you wrote a play that’s premiering locally, invite them. But don’t send them newsletters about your life.

And of course if you write a new spec, send it to them. All of this assumes that you are constantly creating new material. You should be. That’s one mistake I didn’t make – I wrote three spec scripts per year the first few years after I graduated college.

There were so many more mistakes I made, though. Mistakes I’ll discuss in future posts.