Thursday, February 27, 2014

It Was All a Dream

(Spoilers: Inception, Sucker Punch, The Matrix, Pan’s Labyrinth)

Back in the 80’s, the TV show Dallas decided to undo a weak season by revealing it was all one character’s dream. The audience was furious. Why? Because they had invested hours and hours over the course of eight months in storylines that didn’t matter.

Dream worlds and alternate realities contain a significant trap for writers, one I see my students fall into from time to time. The problem is one of stakes. If the events in the “other world” have no effect on the real world of the character, then why should we care about them? There’s nothing to gain or lose by success or failure in the dream.

Comparing Inception (written by Christopher Nolan) and Sucker Punch (story by Zack Snyder, screenplay by Zack Snyder and Steve Shibuya) illustrates this well. Sucker Punch contains several layers of dream/fantasy. When the team of young women go on the various missions that make up their escape plan, Babydoll dances to distract their overseers and the film shifts into fantasies that metaphorically mirror the real-world* missions.

Except it’s unclear what impact these fantasies have on the outcome of the actual mission. Will the results of the fantasy impact the success or failure of the real-world caper? If not, it’s just eye candy. Nothing wrong with eye candy, but if that’s all you have, then there’s no tension or audience involvement and things get tedious real quick.

Inception is similar to Sucker Punch in that most of the action takes place in dreams. Except in Inception the adventures in these dreams have a clear purpose in the real world. Success or failure in the dreams matters. And, it’s made clear that if someone dies in these dreams, they’ll die in the real world. In Sucker Punch, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Thus the dream action in Inception has stakes for the characters, whereas in Sucker Punch it’s just a bunch of pretty images.

A key here is establishing the rules of the world. Inception does a good job of laying out the rules – how you get into and out of the dreams, how time works in the dream world, what happens if you die there, etc. Sucker Punch never clearly defines these sorts of things.

Any time you introduce a world or an element into your story that isn’t a normal part of our real world, you must establish the rules. This goes for supernatural, science fiction, fantasy and superhero movies as well. The audience is fine with fantasies as long as they understand how they work. If anything can happen at any time, it feels like the filmmakers are cheating.

Computer generated virtual realities are similar to dream worlds, and pose the same challenges. In The Matrix (written by Andy & Lana Wachowski) the characters enter into a computer generated world. But the rules are made clear: here again, if you die in the Matrix you die in real life. And actions in the Matrix affect the real world – the biggest danger in the movie turns out to be that the Agents might be able to find the location of the real-world Zion once they capture Morpheus in the Matrix. This gives us stakes.

In other kinds of alternate reality worlds, such as The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (screenplay by Ann Peacock and Andrew Adamson and Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely) the characters physically travel from our world to another universe. This creates natural stakes in that the characters can be killed in the alternate reality, since they are physically present there. But the whole endeavor can still feel rather pointless if there isn’t some impact when the characters return to their regular lives.

The best way to do that is through the characters’ internal journey. Their experiences in the alternate reality teach them something that allows them to conquer a problem in the real world.

In Pan’s Labyrinth (written by Guillermo del Toro) the fantasy elements that Ofelia sees do appear to have some impact in the real world, such as the mandrake root healing her mother, but they mostly serve to give her the strength to stand up to Vidal and save her brother in Act Three. The various fairy tale tasks, while having no apparent real-world purpose, prepare her to take critical action in reality. That gives them significance.

If you are writing a story with a dream world, virtual reality or parallel universe, be sure to clearly establish why we care. This means making the rules and the stakes for the main character clear.

*Of course in Sucker Punch even what appears to be the real world is undermined, making the whole thing feel like a waste of time.


In other news, we got a lovely review for The Hollywood Pitching Bible.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Draft Cycle

Today I’m going to respond to a reader question about rewriting, feedback and drafts. Joel Myers asks:

I was wondering what your revision process was once you got to where you had a presentable script but no one else has read it. Do you usually present it to a few friend readers for feedback before sending it in to producers/more "official" send-outs? How many rounds do you do of that back and forth? Etc. I think a sort of general overview of the whole draft cycle from start to finish might be interesting.

Good question – or rather several questions. Let me start with how many drafts I might do overall on a spec. The answer depends a lot on the project. I’ve done as few as three and as many as forty-seven before showing a script to potential buyers. As I’ve gained experience, the average number of drafts I need has come down. These days eight to ten drafts is pretty common. Also, I’ve learned not to start draft one without a fairly extensive outline. That probably cuts the total drafts in half.

The corollary question here could be: what counts as a draft? I’m a little obsessive about saving all my work. I also tend to keep moving forward on a draft rather than going back and rewriting scenes. If I realize on page 60 that I want to make a change in Act One, I’ll make a note for myself to do that next draft rather than going backwards. Some drafts are obviously bigger changes than others, but most contain some changes throughout the script.

Doing it this way makes it easier to keep track of what I’ve done – and I maintain a document listing the drafts, the major changes or purpose of the draft (“character dialogue pass” for example, or “moved third act setting to the winery”), and anyone who read it and gave notes.

I definitely show scripts to trusted friends for feedback before presenting it to buyers or even my representation. I want to hear of any problems from my friends, rather than from the potential buyers when my career is on the line.

Agents also don't usually have time to give a client extensive notes – though that depends on the agent’s personality. Most split into two camps: Those that don’t want to give notes (this is known as the “sell it don’t smell it” approach) and those that will give a single set of notes. A very few enjoy developing material with their clients and might go through two or three drafts with you, especially when you’re starting out.

Managers tend to be more into helping develop material (my current manager is an exception in this regard, though). Still, you don’t want to waste your manager’s time giving you notes you could have gotten from your friends. And I don’t even ask my friends to give me their time until I feel like the script is in pretty good shape.

Picking who gives you feedback is important. Here are my guidelines:

1. They have to be intelligent and have good taste. Well, duh.

2. They have to like the genre. If you give a horror script to someone who hates scary movies, chances are they will give you notes to turn it into something less scary. But the people who might buy the script will be looking for the horror, so that’s not good. On the other hand, someone who knows the genre will be better equipped to flag clichés and offer useful suggestions. Personal taste does matter in this business.

3. They have to be willing to be honest and brutal. The point is not to get pats on the back, though those are nice. I want the readers to tell me honestly what sucks so I can fix it before sending it out. Most people don’t like to do this. This is one reason showing it to other writers can be helpful. They understand what you need, and that being brutal is actually doing you a favor. Be sure to thank them for their brutality, and never get upset about it!

4. At least some of the readers should understand story and writing. It can also be helpful to get feedback from “civilians” – they can give you the audience perspective, a more gut reaction, that sometimes writers and producers don’t see as clearly. But you will get much better notes from fellow writers. They will be better able to understand why something isn’t working and make useful suggestions. Producers and directors are sometimes also good at getting at the “why” but usually less able to give good suggestions to fix it.

I will solicit reads from friends as many times as I feel I need to. If I make major structural or character changes, I will probably want another set of feedback. On a typical spec this means two or three waves of feedback (maybe 3-4 people per wave, mostly different people each time so they have a fresh perspective).

I also really like to have a live reading in my living room at some point. I’ll invite people to read each part. Just hearing the dialogue out loud will tell you a lot. You’ll also quickly sense where the pace lags, or when people get confused. If you’re doing comedy, you’ll see which jokes land and which don’t (I make a check or an X next to the line accordingly).

I try to mix up the readers – some writers, some actors, maybe a director or two – in order to get a variety of perspectives. (The actors are invariably shocked at how harsh the writer criticism is, which amuses me.) Pizza and beer are a big part of this process.

As I mentioned above, your last set of notes may come from your agent and/or manager. But this should probably be the last set, and will depend on their style and your relationship with them.

How you process all this feedback is another issue. Sometimes people prefer to give feedback by email; others I will take to lunch and get it in person (and of course in the live reading it’s all in person). I write down everything they say and I’m careful not to defend or explain. You won’t be able to go around to the screenings of the movie and explain what you meant afterwards. But I do ask questions if I don’t understand a note, or if there’s something specific I want feedback on.

You should not necessarily do every note or suggestion you get, of course. You know the story better than anyone, and people have personal taste things that not everyone shares. However, you need to be open to change. If more than one person trips on something, you better figure out a way to fix it.

Finally, all of the above assumed we were talking about a spec script. A screenplay written or revised under contract is a different animal. I will still solicit responses from friends if it is first draft of an adaptation or an original idea before turning it in, but probably only one round and seldom will I ask my representatives to read it.

The friend feedback process for a paid gig is mostly to catch any egregious problems or tiny logic/grammar/dialogue flaws. The people whose creative notes you most need to be concerned with are the producer(s) and executive(s) who hired you. How to take notes from these people is a whole other blog post!

Thanks for the question, Joel. For all my readers, if there’s something you would like me to write about, please feel free to ask. I don’t promise to do every request, but I’m always looking for ideas for posts.


In other news: Hollywood Journal has published the first in a series of articles about The Hollywood Pitching Bible. Check it out!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Decoding the DNA of Your Story

Producer Ken Aguado, my co-author on The Hollywood Pitching Bible, likes to say that loglines are the DNA of the movie. Usually he’s talking about the pitching process – how the logline has to capture the essence of the story so that it intrigues the listener. And then of course the story has to deliver on the promise of that logline. That’s why it’s the DNA – it contains the seed of the whole thing.

But this concept is also important for writing your screenplay. If you don’t have a clear understanding of the core essence of your story, then it is all too easy to wander around and get lost on narrative side streets. It seems obvious that you would understand your own concept, but I’ve seen many screenplays that have failed to follow through on the promise of the initial idea.

Let’s pause to define terms. A logline is a one or two sentence statement of your concept that is about 25 - 30 words long. A good logline is one that captures the thrust of the story and what makes that story compelling – in other words, what’s cool about the idea.

Usually a logline is not the starting point of a story idea in a writer’s mind. I haven’t heard too many screenwriters say a logline popped fully-formed into their head from which they then built a story. No, usually we are inspired by an idea for a situation or a character or a setting or a cool scene. One of these ideas leads to another, and we slowly gather mental material until a story starts to take shape.

But before you start writing that first draft, you should boil the story down to a core concept, a logline. Understanding the DNA of your story will help you decide which of the other ideas fit and which should be tossed or saved for a later story.

Easy to say, harder to do.

To figure out the essence of your story, there are a few things to consider. What is the most interesting and cool aspect of your premise? What made you want to write this story? What is the major dilemma and the biggest obstacle the character will face? What will the bulk of the action on screen be about?

Lets take an example. Imagine you were writing a logline for Liar Liar (written by Paul Guay & Stephen Mazur). Here are three possibilities:

1. Liar Liar is the story of a boy who uses a birthday wish to get his workaholic father’s attention.

2. Liar Liar is the story of a sleazy lawyer who is forced by his son’s birthday wish to tell the truth for 24 hours.

3. Liar Liar is the story of a sleazy lawyer who has to win a divorce case despite a curse.

All are accurate. All are functional loglines for a movie. Only the second captures the DNA of Liar Liar. What’s interesting about the story of Liar Liar is the idea of a sleazy lawyer being forced to tell the truth. That’s what most of the action is about. Of course you could write a script based on one of the other loglines, but it would come out a very different movie.

I once heard Doug Liman talking about directing Mr. & Mrs. Smith (written by Simon Kinberg). He said he realized the core thematic concept of the movie was, “Being a spy is easy, being married is hard.” This mantra affected every choice he made. For example, in the minivan car chase, he kept the camera inside the minivan where the two characters were arguing about their marriage. The action part of the scene was mainly viewed through the windows behind them. This is the opposite of how most car chases are filmed, but it fit with the core DNA of this particular movie.

Another question to ask is: what will the main action of act two be? That’s the bulk of your movie. Your logline should reflect that (and your act two should reflect your logline). For example, is Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt) the story of a girl competing in a beauty pageant or a family on a road trip?

If you chose the former, then act two should be about the pageant. Your logline might be something like, “A little girl dreams of being a beauty queen, but doesn’t fit in with the creepy, polished contestants at a child pageant.” And if you gave that logline, people would expect a script mainly set in the world of child pageants, not in a yellow van.

Michael Arndt chose to write a movie about a family road trip. So an appropriate logline for the actual Little Miss Sunshine would be something like, “A dysfunctional family takes a road trip so their youngest daughter can compete in a pageant. As one disaster follows another, they learn how to support each other.”

When you start boiling stories down to a handful of words, one problem is they start to sound a lot alike. To combat this, make the details as specific as possible. Also, it’s hard to come up with originality in plot. Usually what makes a premise original is the character. For example, imagine you were creating a logline for Pacific Rim (story by Travis Beacham, screenplay by Travis Beacham & Guillermo del Toro). You might say:

Pacific Rim is the story of giant robots defending Earth from giant monsters from another dimension.”

The problem isn’t that that logline is inaccurate or that it fails to capture the main thrust of the movie, it’s that robots fighting monsters sounds like something we’ve seen before. It sounds like an old B movie, or about a thousand different Anime films. It also feels mechanical and uninvolving, something only hardcore geeks would like. But what if instead you made the logline:

Pacific Rim is about a soldier, grieving over the death of his brother, who must face his fears so he can pilot a giant robot when huge monsters invade Earth.”

Now you’re starting to get to a story that sounds original and emotional. (In my opinion, the movie did a poor job delivering on this concept, but the problem was in the execution, not the premise.)

Creating a good logline is not easy. It can take a lot of thought and revision. You really have to dig into your story and figure out which version of the idea you want to tell. But once you have a good logline, you can move forward confident you know the DNA of your screenplay.


Speaking of The Hollywood Pitching Bible, check out the trailer we made.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

A Plan for Your Screenwriting Career – Part 4: Putting It All Together

Today is the final post in my “Planning Your Screenwriting Career” series. I’ve talked about generating material, crafting a brand, and building your network. Today I’ll discuss how to pull this all together into a specific plan for the next year or so.

As I mentioned previously, one of the challenges is that we can’t always determine the outcomes of the things we try. If we plan to get a script produced or to win an Academy Award, our success or failure will be dependent on things we don’t control. However, we all have those kinds of goals, and we should acknowledge them because we won't reach them without taking purposeful actions.

For the purpose of this post, I’m going to define “goals” as the dreams we have that have caused us to pursue a screenwriting career, and “objectives” as the achievable things we can put in a plan that don’t depend on anybody else.

Before formalizing your plan, spend a few minutes thinking about your goals. Be specific, but not limiting. So, rather than just saying, “My goal is to be a professional screenwriter,” say something like, “My goal is to write studio action/adventure films,” or, “My goal is to write independent character-driven comedy films,” or “My goal is to create and run dark cable television dramas.”

Once you’re clear on what your goals are, break down the steps and milestones that will be required to get there. What is the next step you have to achieve, and the step after that? Do you need to build up strong sample material? Get your material to buyers? Change your brand? Widen your network?

It will probably also be helpful to inventory your assets and resources. What do you have going for you already? What are the strong scripts you’ve written that support your brand? What contacts have you already built? Do you have representation? Can you leverage your assets to help you achieve your goals?

Writing Objectives

The first part of your plan will involve writing. Plan the things you will write over the next year (or maybe two… but going beyond two is probably pointless as your situation will likely change in unexpected ways. More about that in a minute.)

Set realistic deadlines for when you plan to finish each draft of your work. You should also probably incorporate a couple of pitches into your plan so that you are ready if you get a meeting or if a spec script does well. While you work on one script, you might develop the pitch for your next one. When choosing the material you will write, keep an eye on the brand you want to create. You are building a portfolio with purpose.

If you don’t have enough ideas to plan out what you’re going to write, the first part of your plan should be to develop half a dozen ideas to the treatment level, then pick the ones you think are best. For the time being you can use “Spec 1” and “Spec 2” as placeholders in your plan, then fill them in once you know what you want to do.

You might set objectives based on process as well, such as writing a specific amount of time each day, or working on a certain writing skill. If you are fortunate enough to have writing jobs currently, incorporate them into your plan.

Business Objectives

The second part of your plan is getting your writing sold and produced. Of course, those are goals. You need to create objectives. Your objectives will depend on your resources. If you are just starting out, maybe you will select several contests to enter. If you have representation, maybe you will write a spec and target half a dozen new buyers for them to get it to.

Other objectives could relate to networking. You could join an organization or an Internet forum where film industry people are active. Or you could target a few good networking events to attend throughout the year – writers’ conferences or film festivals or pitch fests. Don’t put quantity over quality. Plan time beforehand to do your research and get prepared, and time afterwards to follow up with the people you meet.

If you have an agent or manager, be sure to include them in your planning. Tell them what ideas you are planning to work on and what brand you’d like to create. Elicit their input – it’s part of what they’re there for. And if your reps aren’t on board your plan, they will not do as good a job helping you fulfill it.

(Be aware – agents these days have limited time for this type of career planning. Don’t bug them with it more than once a year, and make sure they know you want fifteen minutes of their time and schedule the call/meeting when it’s convenient for them. Managers typically work more closely helping you develop the plan.)

Finally, your plan should be flexible and subject to change as things succeed or fail. You might even build some alternative pathways into the plan based on the outcome of certain events.

But having a plan will help you react to things that pop up. Let’s say a producer offers you a gig writing an adaptation. You’ll know the right questions to ask: does it fit my brand? Will it move me forward toward my goals? How much does it pay? (Sometimes you do need to just put some money in the bank to finance your career progress.) It can be hard to say no to a job, but sometimes it’s the right choice for the long term.

So, with that in mind, here’s a hypothetical plan a writer might create for the rest of 2014:

Goal: Write mid-budget studio thrillers
Feb – Apr: Write first draft of spec, “The Murder of Molly”
Feb: Develop two thriller pitches, including “The Death of Dan”
May: Write second draft of “The Murder of Molly”
June – Aug: Write first draft of “The Death of Dan”
June: Pitch completed spec “The Killing of Kevin” at the Great American PitchFest
Follow up with new contacts from PitchFest
September: Write third draft of “The Murder of Molly”
September – December: Take Character Development Class
October: Send out “The Murder of Molly” to industry contacts.
October – November: Write Second Draft of “The Death of Dan”
November: Develop two new thriller pitches
December - January: Write first Draft of Spec 3
All year: Follow Done Deal and the Trades and identify potential thriller producers
All year: Write two hours every day Monday through Friday

A plan like this can keep you focused and moving forward. But only if you follow it. If you make it and forget it, it does you no good. So put a reminder in your calendar at the end of every month to check your plan, evaluate your progress and revise.

Good luck!