Saturday, June 29, 2013

Hang a Lantern On It

There are lots of little tricks professional screenwriters have to overcome small problems in their scripts. Many of them have clever nicknames. One of those tricks is called Hang a Lantern on It.

The idea here is if you have something a little unbelievable, you can have the characters point to how unbelievable it is. If a character says, "Wow, did you see what just happened? That's crazy!" then the audience will understand that the unlikely thing has been done on purpose. If you ignore it, the audience could think it's just bad writing.

This works best with small things that are plausible but might seem like an accident. For example, in the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark (story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman, screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan) when Indy is talking to the FBI, the FBI guys seem surprisingly ignorant of Biblical history. So at one point Indy asks, "Didn't you guys ever go to Sunday school?"

Now of course it's completely possible someone wouldn't know much about the Ark of the Covenant, but it could also seem like the scene is more about explaining things to the audience (which of course it really is) and the dialogue could start to feel forced. So by having Indy make this little joke, it brings the forced dialogue into the world of the story and makes the agents' lack of knowledge part of the scene.

Sometimes the technique can be used to sell even big logic issues. In The Terminator (written by James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd), after Reese has rescued Sarah Conner and is explaining to her what's going on, she asks, "So you're from the future, too?"

Reese's response: "One possible future, from your point of view. I don't know tech stuff."

And as simply as that they don't have to explain the time travel paradox. The characters acknowledge that it doesn't quite make sense, but Reese establishes that there is an explanation; it's just that none of them know it. The audience goes along with it - because they want to buy into the story - and the movie can continue on with the important stuff.

There are limits to this technique though. You can't use it to paper over real logic holes in your story. It's simply a way to address those small moments that might make the audience go, "Really?"

It's even better if, when you hang a lantern on a problem, you also provide an explanation. For example in Star Wars (written by George Lucas) it might be a little implausible that a farm boy could pilot a fighter ship. So, when Luke is given an X-wing for the final battle, a commander questions his abilities. And Luke's friend from back home reassures the commander that Luke was an exceptional pilot back in the day. Problem acknowledged and dealt with.

Here we start to bleed into another technique: Eliminating Alternative Possibilities. This is necessary when there is a simpler solution to a problem than the one you need the character to choose. You have to eliminate that solution as a possibility.

This commonly comes up in thrillers or mysteries where someone who is not a professional detective investigates a murder. When most people encounter a murder they don't investigate it, they call the cops. So why does your character choose to investigate themselves? You have to give them a reason. Maybe the cops don't believe them. Or the character thinks the cops have the wrong guy. Or the character is wanted by the police.

A smaller example is in Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt). The story is about the family going on a road trip so the daughter can compete in a beauty pageant. But if everyone just piled in the car and took off for California, the audience might think, "Wait... why does the whole family have to go? Why would the teenage brother and the suicidal uncle want to go on this trip?"

So in the dinner scene the characters discuss who's going - hanging a lantern on the logic issue - then they go through all of the various possibilities and eliminate any alternatives. Grandpa is the little girl's coach. Mom can't drive a stick shift. They're not supposed to leave the uncle alone. And so on.

When you give trusted friends your script to read, one thing you should ask them to do is mark any place where they thought something was unlikely (sometimes people not involved in filmmaking are better at this, by the way). If it's really a logic hole, you may have to fix it. But if it's minor, you might be able to solve the problem by hanging a lantern on it.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Do You Need This Scene?

With few exceptions feature films are between 90 and 140 minutes in length. And marketable screenplays must be in an even narrower range – between 90 and 110 pages. This may seem like a lot when you're staring at FADE IN followed by a blank page, but it's really not much time to tell a compelling, deep story with a complex character. So you have to be efficient.

That means you can't afford any scenes that don't pull their weight. You should know – specifically – what purpose each scene is playing in the story. Today I want to look at some valid purposes for a scene. Every scene in a screenplay should do at least one of the following things:

Advance Plot – Any scene where the story moves forward is a plot scene. As you might expect, this is the most common purpose for scenes in movies. But a scene is only considered to be advancing the plot if the situation in the story has actually changed from the beginning of the scene to the end of the scene. Don't confuse activity with advancement. Scenes that advance subplots are a subset of this category. 

Reveal/Advance Character – This includes character introduction scenes, scenes where we learn something new about a key character, and any scene where the character changes. The way we reveal character is through behavior (dialog can count as behavior as long as the character is trying to accomplish something with what they say). Often character scenes also have another purpose. For example, a scene may both introduce a character and advance the plot. You should avoid too many pure character scenes, though a handful are acceptable.

Preparation – Often we need scenes to prepare for the big plot advancement scenes. Usually these are scenes where the characters are preparing themselves for the upcoming event. Preparation scenes allow us to plant things that will pay off in later scenes and to get out critical exposition. In fact, there's a subset of preparation called the expository scene – the scenes where James Bond is getting briefed on his mission, or where Indiana Jones describes what is needed to locate the Ark of the Covenant. (Expository scenes are usually boring, so limit yourself to one if at all possible.) Preparation scenes also give us a chance to show how the character feels about the upcoming event – and are thus often also character scenes.

Aftermath – Often we want to have a scene of aftermath showing the impact of a plot scene. The impact is frequently an emotional one on the character, so these are usually also character scenes, though sometimes the aftermath is more expositional, showing how the situation has changed as a result of the last plot action. It is not uncommon for scenes of aftermath to morph into scenes of preparation. And any denouement scenes at the end of the film would be considered aftermath scenes, showing how the story has affected the character and the world.

Pay Off the Genre – If you are doing a comedy, you better have several really funny scenes in your script. If you're doing a horror film, you better have some really scary scenes. Usually and ideally these scenes also advance plot. But every once in a while you need to include a standalone scene just to deliver on the expectations of the genre. A good example would be the fake orgasm scene in When Harry Met Sally... (written by Nora Ephron). It doesn't really have anything to do with the story, but it's the most hilarious scene in the movie. This is the key – if you're doing a purely genre payoff scene, it better be great!

There are two times I use this list in my writing process. First, when I have what I believe is my finished outline, I'll go through and identify the purpose of each scene - specifically to that story. So the purpose of a scene might be: "Character advancement – Kelsey decides to trust Dominic."

The second time is when I'm preparing to do my second draft. I'll go through every scene in the first draft and reevaluate what its purpose is – and whether it is fulfilling that purpose effectively. It's important to be honest with yourself here. The purpose of the scene should be apparent. If you're reaching to come up with the reason the scene needs to be in the script, it probably doesn't have a real purpose.

And if it doesn't have a purpose, it should be cut.


In other news: Sweet Home Alabama is going to be on Lifetime Sunday at 7 pm PST. I'll be live-tweeting along with it. If you'd like to hear some of my trivia and experiences, follow me on Twitter at @dougeboch. Or you can see my twitter feed on my website:

Friday, June 14, 2013

Establishing the World of the Story

In the first ten or fifteen minutes of a movie, the audience is trying to determine the world of your story and the rules of that world. They are open to just about anything as long as it’s logically consistent. Are there giant monsters in this world? Okay. Do people break into song and dance in the middle of the street? Sure. Have mutations given people superpowers? Yep, I’m with you.

Then at some point the audience begins to feel they know what world they’re in. After this they will reject any new fantastical element you try to introduce. So it’s important early in your story to at least hint at any unusual things you want the audience to buy into.

For example, we suspend our disbelief about zombies in Zombieland (written by Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick) because we are told right up front that they exist - in fact it's in the title. But if zombies appeared in the middle of a movie like Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt) it would seem ridiculous. It would even seem ridiculous in The Sixth Sense (written by M. Night Shyamalan) - we're told ghosts are real in that movie, not zombies.

Sometimes, however, we want to hold back a piece of information to create a surprise or twist, or just to avoid overloading the movie with exposition up front. In The Sixth Sense, Cole doesn’t actually deliver his famous line, “I see dead people,” until the middle of the movie. Ghosts aren’t explicitly discussed until that point. But we have to be prepared to accept them. So we get the creepy scene where all the drawers and cabinets in Cole’s kitchen mysteriously open. We’re being prepared that something supernatural is going on so that it’s believable when it’s finally revealed that ghosts are behind the strange happenings. You can get away with this as long as the additional element falls within the bounds of the kind of world you’ve set up.

In science fiction or fantasy stories, the world may be a believable representation of our world with one or two fantastical elements added such as in Back to the Future (written by Robert Zemeckis & Bob Gale) or Harry Potter (screenplay by Steve Kloves); or it could be a near future projection of our world such as in Children of Men (screenplay by Alfonso Cuaron & Timothy J. Sexton and David Arata and Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby); or it could be a vision of our world projected far into the future that is both familiar and very different such as in Alien (story by Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett, screenplay by O'Bannon); or it could be a complete alternate world such as in Star Wars (written by George Lucas) or The Lord of the Rings (screenplay by Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Peter Jackson).

That decision will affect how much work you have to do to bring us into the world. In a world we’re familiar with you don’t need much set up. In The Terminator (written by James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd) the writers don’t have to explain Sarah Connors’ lifestyle because it’s one we’re familiar with. We know about waitresses and single women getting stood up by their dates and nightclubs. What the writers have to do is hint to us that time travel and killer robots are going to be a part of this story. They do that by showing a naked Arnold Schwarzenegger appearing in a glowing ball of energy in the opening.

The world of The Lord of the Rings, however, is completely unfamiliar. The filmmakers have to explain how magic works in this world and the politics of hobbits, elves, dwarves and men. That’s a big reason why the films open with a long expository prologue. They need to teach us the unfamiliar history of this world.

You also have to show us the rules of the fantastical elements you introduce. The most important thing is that your story has an internal consistency and logic. You get to create the rules but then you must abide by them. You can't add to them or change them later unless you carefully plant the changes. Otherwise it will feel like “cheating” and the audience will reject your story.

The technology of Star Trek and of Alien are very specific – and not the same. Teleportation exists in Star Trek but not in Alien. And the conditions required for successful teleportation in Star Trek are clearly laid out. You need a teleportation room on one end and the range is limited. Also, the faster someone is moving the more difficult teleportation is. So the writer couldn't decide in the middle of the story that someone has a handheld teleportation device unless they set that up.

Musicals have a similar issue. There are two basic types of musicals. First we have those that are set in the real world where the music in the film comes from performance. This would include films like Ray (story by Taylor Hackford and James L. White, screenplay by White) and Almost Famous (written by Cameron Crowe).

Then there are musicals that exist in a world where people break into song on the street and bystanders instantly know and join in with choreographed dance numbers. These are movies like Singin' in the Rain (written by Adolph Green and Betty Comden) and Les Miserable (screenplay by William Nicholson & Alain Boubil and Claude-Michel Schonberg & Herbert Kretzmer). In this second type of musical we are operating in a fantasy world, which means we need to introduce the audience to the fantastical element early. If the first time someone breaks into song in public is an hour into the film (and it’s not a dream or a psychotic break), we won’t accept it.

So think carefully about the fantastical elements in your story and how you're going to introduce them. Make sure to get the word out to the audience before their suspension of disbelief hardens.


In other news, the book I wrote with producer Ken Aguado - "The Hollywood Pitching Bible" - is getting close to release. We just received the proof copy this week (and found an error on the cover that is being fixed). We also have a website: Check it out!

Thursday, June 6, 2013

How to Take Notes

(Part Two of Two on Notes Sessions)

Last post I discussed the politics behind a professional notes session. This week I’ll discuss how you, the writer, should behave when receiving notes and some strategies for dealing with bad notes. Be aware, notes sessions can be in person in a meeting or over the phone. Notes may be delivered verbally or in writing.

Write Everything Down

The first rule of taking notes is don’t react immediately to the note. This is true whether the note is coming from a producer or from a member of your writers' group. The best thing to do is simply write the comment down. In fact, in a studio notes meeting, not writing the note down could be seen as unprofessional or even insulting.

There are a couple good reasons not to react immediately. First of all, you are likely to have an emotional response, and if this response is that the note is stupid, then you might say something unwise. Second, it can take a while to wrap your head around a bigger change. Your initial reaction might be that the suggestion can’t possibly work, whereas if you think about it for a while it may actually dramatically improve the script. Third, the stress of a notes session may not be the best place to evaluate the quality of a note.

Finally, if the notes are delivered verbally, sometimes people start coming up with things off the top of their heads. And when they’re doing this, sometimes they’ll blurt out something dumb. They may know it’s dumb the moment it leaves their mouth and are hoping everyone will just kind of forget they said it. But if you point out the dumbness, you force them to defend it, particularly if their boss is in the room. Now they will insist that you must do the dumb idea.

So write everything down. If you don’t fully understand a comment, feel free to ask for clarification. But turn off your judgment for the moment and just record the notes. Later you can ponder them at your leisure and decide how to address them.

Sometimes you’ll get a suggestion that is so right on and so clear and that will so obviously make the script better, you smack your head because you didn’t think of it yourself. But that, unfortunately, is the exception. It can take a little work to evaluate notes. Sometimes the note-giver will have identified a problem but offer the wrong solution. Other times it may be difficult to even figure out what problem they stumbled over. When I get a note that doesn’t seem to make sense, the first thing I do is try to figure out what prompted it.

This is key because most of the time the producer or executive isn’t so concerned that you do exactly what they say, but rather that you address the issue they brought up in some form. If you come up with a better solution than what they suggested, they will usually be delighted. Sometimes, however, they will insist that you make the change exactly as they said. In those cases, you have to decide how important it is to make them happy – which may amount to how important it is that you keep the job.

Pick Your Battles

Obviously if a suggestion will improve the script, you should do it. You should also do the suggestions that are neutral – those that don’t make the script better, but they don’t make it particularly worse. Why fight over something that doesn’t really matter? If the note makes the script only slightly worse, you probably want to do that, too. Save your resistance for the notes that really hurt the script. The more suggestions you take, the easier it will be to fight the ones you hate.

And what do you do with the bad notes? As I mentioned earlier, sometimes you can just ignore them, especially if they were delivered verbally and there is no real record of them other than what you wrote down. If, however, you ignore a note and then it comes up again in the next meeting, you’re probably going to have to do it.

A for Effort

Usually you have a certain latitude to say, “I tried it and it didn’t work.” You might be able to use this on up to 20% of the smaller notes, the ones that only impact a scene or two.

Now, I recommend that you really do try these notes. Maybe the producer or executive is actually right and you’re wrong. Shocking, I know, but it does happen. Sometimes when you try a note you think is off base, you’ll find it actually does make the scene better. Or perhaps it will give you a different idea that improves the scene. And if it turns out it doesn’t work, then you can honestly justify why you didn’t do it.

If you’re collaborative, if you make a serious attempt to execute most of the notes, then usually the executives will accept that the handful of notes you rejected really didn’t work. But it’s important to make it clear that you listened and took them seriously. I find this to be the best way to deal with conflicting notes. You can say you tried both approaches and you picked the one that worked best.

When I am faced with the prospect of executing a note that I disagree with, the first thing I will do is try to come up with an even better change. I will give credit to the note-giver for inspiring this new idea. Hopefully they will agree it’s better than what they suggested.

Lipstick for a Pig

There will be times, though, when you are instructed in no uncertain terms to make a change that you disagree with. You’re only choice here is to do it or quit. Quitting is hard, both on your spirit and on your career, but occasionally it’s really the best choice for your long-term success and happiness. Most of the time you’ll want to hold your nose and make the change.

And when that happens, I recommend doing your very best to make the change work. As I said last time, it’s your name on the script. You don’t get to assign blame to the person who made the awful suggestion. So try like hell to make the note work.

I know some writer believe “if they are paying you, you should do whatever they say.” I disagree. Sometimes your job is to save them from themselves. If the script improves, everyone benefits. The trick is to build a good relationship with the people you’re working for, and to be willing to make changes – if not always every change or the exact change they suggested.

And remember, there are a lot worse jobs than screenwriting!