Thursday, April 25, 2013


(SPOILERS: The Others, Rear Window, The Usual Suspects)

For novelists, one of the earliest critical decisions they have to make is what point-of-view the novel will be told from. (I’m using “point-of-view” in the literary sense here, rather than as the technical term for a camera angle shot from a character’s eyes. Hopefully you remember this from English class - first person: "I did it," second person: "You did it," third person: "He did it.")

For most screenwriters, point-of-view is not something we consider much. With a few experimental exceptions, all movies are technically third person point-of-view. The camera acts as an omniscient narrator observing the action. However in practice you can create limited points of view that can have a powerful effect on the film.

The most common form of limited point-of-view attempts to create a first person effect. To achieve this you have one character that is in every scene. The audience doesn’t get to see anything the character doesn’t see. This is usually the main character, but wouldn’t have to be – you could have a viewpoint character observing the story in the same way that Watson narrates the original Sherlock Holmes stories.

There are a few reasons you might do this. First, it creates a strong identification with the character in question. The audience experiences the story as the character does. That’s why thrillers and the more psychological type of horror movies often use this first person approach. It is almost always used in mysteries so that the audience knows exactly what the investigator knows. This allows them to try to solve the mystery before the character.

The classic Rear Window (screenplay by John Michael Hayes) uses this approach. We only see what Jeff sees through his window. We have to piece together the mystery along with him. When Lisa has broken into Thorwald’s apartment and Jeff sees Thorwald return, tremendous tension and suspense are created by locking us in Jeff’s place. We also begin to feel the claustrophobia he is feeling, as we are stuck in the apartment just like him.

For Rear Window the limited point-of-view is part of the thematic and conceptual nature of the story. Occasionally even the logic of the story depends on limiting the point-of-view in this way. For example, The Others (written by Alejandro Amenabar) limits the point-of-view to the character of Grace. Since this is a spooky movie, limiting the point-of-view creates a strong emotional identification with Grace and increases the unease we feel. But it is also critical for the big twist ending. If we saw another character’s point-of-view, we would know what was really going on.

(If you see Oblivion (screenplay by Joseph Kosinki and Karl Gajdusek and Michael Arndt), out in theaters now, you might consider what point-of-view they use and what affect it has on the story.)

You can also choose to limit point-of-view to a small number of characters. Maybe you’re doing a story about a team of criminals performing a heist and want to limit point-of-view to only the team members. Or maybe you’re writing a romance and want to limit point-of-view to the two lovers to heighten audience identification and focus.

Point-of-View can also be related to other narrative devices such as voiceover and framing stories. Take Goodfellas (screenplay by Nicholas Pileggi & Martin Scorsese). The story is told from the point-of-view of both Henry and Karen Hill, who each have voiceover. This causes us to interpret the action from their perspective. Everything about the movie, from the editing to the cinematography, reinforces this dual point-of-view.

The Usual Suspects (written by Christopher McQuarrie) is a very interesting example. On the surface it does not have a very limited point-of-view, but if you look carefully you’ll realize the movie is mostly from Agent Kujan’s perspective – despite the fact he isn’t in many scenes! But the main storyline is told while Kujan questions Verbal Kint. We’re seeing the story Verbal tells Kujan play out on screen (almost all of the scenes outside of this storyline are Kujan gathering additional information to use in questioning Verbal).

But of course since Verbal is telling the main story, it’s really more from his point-of-view. Look carefully at Verbal’s story, though. He’s not in every scene. He couldn’t really know some of what happens – he would be repeating what other people have told him. Or he’s lying. By telling the main story from Verbal’s point-of-view, the film creates an unreliable narrator (another reason you might choose the first person approach). We, the audience, are hearing the tale along with Kujan and have to decide if we believe it.

To make things more head-spinning, neither Kujan or Verbal are the main character from a structural standpoint. That would be Dean Keaton.

Of course you can always just have a wide, omniscient point-of-view. It’s a lot easier, and some stories won’t benefit by limiting point-of-view. In fact, the majority of movies probably use a third person approach. But it’s good to make this a conscious decision.

In Other News…

Those of you who follow me on Twitter (@dougeboch) will probably already be aware that I’ve been working on a book about pitching. Well, here’s the official announcement.

The Hollywood Pitching Bible: A Practical Guide to Pitching Movies and Television by Douglas J. Eboch and Ken Aguado will be available in late August.

Ken is a long-time studio executive and producer. In addition to being the former president of both Miller/Boyett Entertainment and Kings Road Entertainment, he has produced several films including The Salton Sea (Warner Bros.) and Sexual Life (Showtime). And of course you all know me! Between us, Ken and I have done hundreds of pitches and Ken has heard thousands, so we think we have something to offer on the matter!

I’ll keep you updated as the release date approaches.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Try It from the Villain’s Point of View

One of the cardinal rules of writing good characters is that everybody should think they’re the star of the movie. And one of the cardinal rules of writing good villains is that the villain should think they’re the good guy – they need to be able to justify their actions on some personal ethical grounds, even if their ethics are twisted.

But in practice we develop our stories from the perspective that our main character is, well, the main character. This is mostly good. We want our hero to be active. We want them to solve their own problems. We don’t want them overshadowed by minor characters. Sometimes, though, we need to take a look at the story from another point of view.

Recently one of my students was struggling with a mystery story. There wasn’t enough threat or conflict as the hero followed the clues to solve the mystery. I pointed out that the villain wasn’t doing anything. He was simply waiting until the hero figured out that the villain was the guilty party, and then there was a big climactic showdown.

But that isn’t realistic. In real life, murderers take action. They cover their tracks or go on the run. They might actively try to mislead the people investigating them. A particularly villainous villain – the kind that makes for a good movie character – might sabotage or physically attack the investigator.

I suggested my student write a short treatment of her story as if the villain was the main character. What would he be doing? How would he respond to the hero’s actions?

I did the exact same thing for a mystery story I developed a couple years ago. Writing a two-page treatment of the same story but with the villain as the main character was enormously helpful. Suddenly, the villain was sticking his nose into the investigation, screwing it up and covering his tracks. I went back and revised my original outline to incorporate the villain’s actions. Things got a lot more challenging for my hero.

I find this exercise particularly useful for mysteries because often the mystery is the villain’s identity. That means the villain can’t be in direct conflict with the hero without giving everything away. The villain’s actions happen mostly off screen, and thus we tend to forget about them. But by figuring out their story, you can discover how their actions might affect the main character.

The technique can be useful in other genres, too. In an action movie, for example, writing a treatment of your story from the bad guy’s perspective can help you maintain the logic of the his actions. If you were the villain, would you really attack the hero at this point? Or would you wait for a better opportunity? The more clever the villain, the more heroic the hero is.

Consider one of the greatest action movie villains, Hans Gruber from Die Hard (screenplay by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza). Hans is extremely clever. He is engaged in a complex, challenging heist, one that has nothing to do with John McClane. And he sees himself as an “exceptional thief,” someone supremely talented and deserving of the rewards of his efforts. You could easily write a treatment of Die Hard where Hans is the main character and McClane is the villain threatening to disrupt his elaborate plans.

This same technique could be applied to other, non-villainous minor characters, too. You might try writing the story from the perspective of the love interest in a romantic comedy, for example. This will force you to make your supporting characters active rather than reactive. The love interest isn’t going to wait around forever for the hero to make his or her move!

It would be a waste of time to do this exercise for every minor character in a screenplay, but for significant characters who strongly impact your main character’s story, it can not only bring those characters to life but improve the plot.

Friday, April 12, 2013

How to Get Buyers Emotionally Involved in Your Pitch

Getting someone to buy a pitch is hard. You’re essentially asking them to invest tens of thousands (or even hundreds of thousands) of dollars on the hot air coming out of your mouth. The buyer will be a lot more likely to take that leap if they get emotionally involved in the story.

So how do you do that? Just like in a script (or movie), character is our way into the pitch. You have to pitch the story from the character’s point of view. Most writers, though, tend to pitch plot. The characters come off as just mechanical components of the story and therefore the listener engages with the pitch intellectually instead of emotionally.

This is probably best demonstrated with an example. Here is a plot-oriented pitch of the opening sequence of Sweet Home Alabama (though in actuality I sold that as a spec script, not a pitch):

Melanie Carmichael is a fashion designer in New York preparing for her first big fashion show. She is also dating Andrew, the handsome son of the mayor – basically the perfect guy. Her life is good.

After the fashion show, Melanie is picked up by Andrew’s driver. Melanie is taken to a strange building where Andrew is waiting. He leads her into a dark room, and suddenly the lights come on, revealing they are at the Tiffany’s jewelry store. Andrew gets down on one knee and proposes to Melanie. She hesitates, but eventually says yes. Andrew gestures around the store and says, “Pick one.”

They drive to a big social event, and Melanie asks Andrew if they can keep the engagement secret for a while. She wants to tell her parents about it in person. It comes out that Andrew has never met her parents. Andrew agrees, but when they get to the event, Andrew’s mother notices the ring on Melanie’s hand and reveals the engagement to the press.

The next day Melanie flies down to Alabama. She drives to Jake’s house. And it is here that we learn Melanie is already married. Jake is her high school boyfriend and husband. He’s a charming good-ol’-boy. But he has been refusing to sign the divorce papers that Melanie keeps sending him. They argue and Jake calls the sheriff. 

The sheriff turns out to be a childhood friend of Melanie's, but when Jake reveals that Melanie was the one behind a youthful indiscretion involving the sheriff's mother's tractor, he arrests her. It seems she was a bit wild in her teens.

That’s an accurate representation of what happens in the beginning of the movie, but it’s dry and cold. The listener could probably imagine what the film will be but they wouldn’t be caught up in the tale. But look what happens when we refocus this from Melanie’s point of view:

We open on Melanie Carmichael, a young New York fashion designer, preparing for her first show. She’s anxious – this is her big debut. But her boyfriend, Andrew, calls to give her encouragement and calm her down. The show is a big success and Melanie is practically floating when Andrew’s driver arrives to take her to a big fundraiser with his mother – who also happens to be the Mayor.

The limo drops Melanie at a strange building where Andrew is waiting for her. She’s so delighted to see him, it doesn’t occur to her to wonder about the location until he leads her into a dark room. “Where are we?” she asks. And with that the lights come on to reveal they are in Tiffany’s jewelry store.

Melanie’s shock grows when Andrew gets down on one knee and proposes to her. She is flabbergasted and asks him if he’s sure. He insists he is. She breaks out in a huge smile – of course she’ll marry him! He gestures at the collection of rings and says, “Pick one.” It’s every girl’s dream.

But as they continue to the fundraiser, Melanie starts to have some doubts. She asks Andrew if they can keep the engagement secret until she can tell her parents. He wants to call them right away, but Melanie thinks it would be better if she told them herself. “I have to meet them sometime,” Andrew protests. Melanie assures him he will.

When they get to the event, though, Andrew’s mother takes Melanie’s hand and feels the ring she’s turned backward to hide. In front of the gathered press, Andrew’s mother blurts out, “You’re engaged!?” Melanie sighs. So much for keeping it secret.

The next morning Melanie is driving through rural Alabama. She pulls up in front of a house. Jake, a handsome, charming, good-ol’-boy, comes out on the porch. But Melanie is not swayed by his Southern charm. She shoves divorce papers in his face. For Jake is her high school boyfriend and husband.

Melanie has been trying to get Jake to give her a divorce for years, but he keeps sending the papers back. Melanie insists Jake sign the papers immediately, but Jake is put off by her haughty attitude and calls the sheriff. Melanie is worried about that – until she discovers the sheriff is an old high school chum. But when Jake informs the sheriff that Melanie was the one who dumped his mother’s tractor in the pond, Melanie ends up in jail. It seems she was a little wild in her teens.

It’s a subtle difference; more in the way things are phrased than what is said. But by describing the action in terms of Melanie’s goals, feelings and reactions, we begin to care about her and what will happen to her.

Buying a pitch is a business decision, of course, but this is a business of people. To get someone to take a risk on your story, you need to get them to be passionate about it. It’s not only important that your story be good, it’s important that you tell it in an emotionally engaging fashion - by telling it through character.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Book Reviews: The Perfect Pitch and Writing Movies for Fun and Profit

Today I’m going to review a couple of books I’ve read recently on the business of screenwriting. Screenwriting is a business, after all, and if you’re serious about doing it you have to learn that aspect of it.

The Perfect Pitch – by Ken Rotcop

The first book is The Perfect Pitch by Ken Rotcop. Rotcop had some success as an executive and producer of B-movies and TV movies, mostly back in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s. He also created PitchMart, one of the earliest pitch fests. These things would seem to make him qualified to write a book on pitching, however they also are the source of the biggest flaws I found in the book.

The first flaw is that most of the information seems dated. It is not unexpected that some of the anecdotes would reference companies that no longer exist (The UPN network figures in one story). The business is constantly changing, but that doesn’t mean old anecdotes aren’t relevant.

What is more problematic is that the methods of doing business are not up to date. For example, the book refers to messengering scripts when now most are sent via email as pdf attachments. This may not seem like a very important error, but it could lead a writer to behave in ways that appear amateurish.

This gets even worse when The Perfect Pitch discusses the marketplace and what people are looking for. For example, at one point Rotcop says studios don’t buy many books, but that networks buy books for movies-of-the-week. Um, eight of the top twenty-five movies last year were based on books (not even counting comic books) and when was the last time you saw a movie-of-the-week on network TV? And the focus of The Perfect Pitch often seems to be on the kind of B action films and thrillers that Rotcop used to make but are no longer really part of the marketplace.

The second problem is that Rotcop’s approach to pitching is all about crafting a pitch to get someone to read an existing screenplay. These types of pitches are perfect if you’re doing Rotcop’s Pitchmart, but they don’t reflect the kind of pitching most professional writers are called upon to do. The kind of pitches Rotcop describes tend to be shorter and leave out the ending. That works if you have a spec screenplay to hand over, but if you’re pitching an unwritten, original idea or pitching to get an assignment, this is absolutely the wrong way to do it.

Rotcop argues against pitching unwritten ideas for reasons of copyright protection, but that premise is false. If you’re worried about theft you can always write up a treatment and register that. And the reality is that few writers can make a living only writing on spec. Maybe that was possible back in the ‘80’s, but as I’ve said, times are different now.

So is the book worthless? No. There is plenty of very good general information about communicating and selling ideas. The problem is how to distinguish that from the misleading and out-of-date information. A beginner will have a lot of difficulty separating the good advice from the bad. Most experienced writers probably already know the good stuff.

Unfortunately there are not a lot of books out there on pitching, so it may be worthwhile to pick this one up. Just take any specific advice with a huge grain of salt.

Writing Movies for Fun and Profit – by Robert Ben Garant & Thomas Lennon

When I started reading this book, I became very sad. Not because it wasn’t good (it’s great) and not because it reveals the depressing parts of the industry (I’m already well versed in those) but because if I had this when I was starting out my career would probably have gone a lot more smoothly.

Garant and Lennon are working screenwriters (and actors – they created and starred in Reno 911). They have worked on many produced movies and know what they’re talking about. And since they’re comedians, the book is often hilarious.

The book is divided into two parts. The first is about selling your movie and is excellent. It contains tons of accurate and up-to-date info on how the business really works and how screenwriters can succeed in it, or at least survive. Garant and Lennon are absolutely clear from the title through the glossary that this book is for people wishing to work on studio movies. They don’t waffle on acknowledging that development frequently kills good scripts and writers have little power over the final film.

I think this is good – you won’t have any illusions about the life of a Hollywood screenwriter after reading this. The book is very clear about the emotional slings and arrows you will face. More importantly, it gives you lots of practical strategies for success in the studio world. There are chapters like, “The Art of Nodding or How to Take Notes.” And by delivering the truth with humor, Garant and Lennon make it a lot easier to accept.

The second section is supposed to be on how to write a screenplay, but it doesn’t really succeed at that. There is some writing advice, but it’s pretty superficial and Garant and Lennon quickly veer back into business stuff, like acquiring book rights and how credit is determined. Also, like most of these books, it’s better at addressing the types of movies its authors have done – in this case broad comedy. Sometimes Garant and Lennon almost seem to forget there are other types of movies. So don’t buy this book expecting to learn anything about how to actually create a screenplay.

Writing Movies for Fun and Profit is a quick read. In fact, the authors use “funny” type setting to make it seem longer than it is (such as putting a single sentence on a page for emphasis). But there is still more useful information packed into this book than all other book I’ve read on the business of screenwriting combined.

If you want to be a working, professional screenwriter in Hollywood, I would put this book on your must-read list.