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.



Hate to point this out, but your trailer spells identifying as indentifying - sorry!

[If I was in the X-Men, my mutant ability would be spotting spelling mistakes and grammar flubs. My codename would probably be Glitch.]


Love your blog, by the way - essential reading!

Doug Eboch said...

Thanks for the catch! I will get the graphics guy to fix it.

Doug Eboch said...
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