Friday, May 30, 2014

Three Signs Your Idea Isn't Fully Baked

(SPOILERS: Some Like It Hot, The King’s Speech, Her, Gravity)

I find young writers are often far too eager to rush on to the first draft without a fully developed story. Truth is, I find that in more experienced writers as well. In fact, when I get to the end of my first draft, I often wish I’d spent a little more time on my outline!

Generally the longer one has been writing, the more time one will spend making sure the idea is fully baked. Why? Because whenever you move too fast into the first draft, you will end up having to do huge changes in the second draft. Sometimes you even have to throw away large sections of the script – sections you may have spent weeks or months writing. It is even possible to discover the idea was fatally flawed to begin with and you have to throw out the entire project! Do this a few times and you will become devoted to proper idea development and outlining.

Here are three signs that your idea needs a little more time in the oven:

1. Is your idea exhausted by the end of act one? It is common to see scripts where everything interesting appears in the first 30 pages or the first 60 pages, and then the rest of the story just plays out as expected with diminishing entertainment returns. Your initial concept will probably give you plenty of material for your first act, since the first act will be the set up of this concept. If the concept is good, it should give you another 15-30 pages of scenes that exploit the ideas it encompasses. But without another element or twist beyond the premise, stories tend to lose steam by the middle of the script.

In Some Like It Hot (story by R. Thoeren & M. Logan, screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond) the first half of the movie is about Joe and Jerry disguising themselves as women to escape the mob. This generates lots of fun, character development and scene ideas. But when this concept exhausts itself in the middle of the film, Joe dons a new disguise – a millionaire oil heir – in an attempt to seduce Sugar, and Jerry starts his relationship with the older millionaire, providing many new interesting conflicts and scenes.

Good movies expand on the initial concept with new ideas. In The King’s Speech (screenplay by David Seidler), the hero’s brother abdicates, leaving the hero as heir, and then later his therapist’s credentials are revealed to be fake. In Her (written by Spike Jones) Theodore learns Samantha has relationships with other operating systems, turning his conception of their relationship on its head. In Gravity (written by Alfonso & Jonas Cuaron) Matt is killed, leaving Ryan to find a way back on her own. Each of these examples spins the respective story in a new direction.

If you don’t have such a twist or new element or spin, you need to keep developing your premise.

2. Do you know both the external story – the plot – and the internal story – the character arc? Good stories operate on two levels. In Some Like It Hot the external story is about Joe and Jerry trying to pass themselves off as women, with Joe’s seduction of Sugar constituting a subplot. But Joe also has an internal journey – he goes from womanizer to genuinely loving Sugar, from selfishness to sacrificing his own interests for hers.

In The King’s Speech the external journey is about the eventual King George overcoming a speech impediment while the internal journey is about him gaining the self-confidence to rule. In Her the external story is Theodore’s romance with an operating system while the internal journey is about him overcoming his depression at the failure of his marriage. In Gravity the external story is Ryan’s quest for survival while the internal journey is about her letting go of her grief and embracing a will to live.

Notice in all these cases the internal and external are related thematically. If you find you are missing one of these journeys (usually it’s the internal) then consider how the themes you are already dealing with could also be explored either internally or externally, as needed. (This post might help.)

3. Another warning sign I often see in inexperienced writers’ outlines is a third act that is really a denouement rather than an act. This occurs when the main conflict is essentially resolved at the end of act two and act three is simply showing us how everything ended up. There ought to be a radical change from the end of act two to the end of the story – either from failure to success or success to failure. (This is why the end of act two is sometimes called the “lowest moment” – because most stories have happy endings.)

If your act three is simply playing out the outcome of the end of act two, you most likely have improperly structured your story. It could be as simple as you’ve misidentified where the act break is. Though acts are theoretical, improperly analyzing your act breaks can still cause you problems even if the order of plot points is correct. Proper analysis helps you spread your story beats most dramatically across the length of your script. Remember, the third act should be the most exciting part of your story! If it’s not, you probably need to restructure.

Alternatively, you might have simply not given your characters a real lowest (or highest) moment at the end of act two. In this case your story will be predictable. This happens because writers fall in love with their main characters and it can be difficult to really make things hard on them. But if success is easy it isn’t dramatic. Whatever your resolution is, success or failure, at the end of act two that outcome should appear nearly impossible.

When checking your ideas to see if they are really ready, you have to keep an objective eye. But if you do it will make your first draft – and your second draft – much easier to write.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Finding Viable Movie Ideas

Where do you get your ideas? It’s a question asked frequently of writers. Personally, I don’t find it hard to come up with ideas. I see movie ideas everywhere because I’m looking for them. If my job were to design airplanes, I would probably get ideas for airplanes all the time. But I don’t because I’m not thinking about that.

Once you’re an established screenwriter you will probably spend most of your time working on ideas that you didn’t originate. You’ll be adapting material or rewriting other people's scripts. That’s what most of the paid work in Hollywood is. But when you’re starting out, you’ll have to write original scripts to get people’s attention. And many working writers like to continue writing original scripts on spec whenever they have the time. So the bottom line is you will need to have some good ideas for movie stories.

If you’re having trouble coming up with story ideas, my first recommendation is to carry around a notebook. You probably have more ideas than you realize, you just don’t remember them. Whenever you read or hear something interesting, meet an interesting person, or hear an unusual bit of dialogue, jot it down in the notebook. Soon you will train yourself to be on the lookout for great ideas for stories, characters, scenes and dialogue.

There’s an old saying – write what you know. Your own life and experiences can be a good source of stories. But you don’t have to develop stories that way. I believe “write what you know” actually means you should write characters with identifiable human emotions, emotions that you yourself have felt. That’s true regardless of whether your character lives a life much like yours, whether they live in the distant past in a far away country, or whether they live in a fantastical, imaginary world.

What you should really be asking yourself is what you’re interested in. For example, I’m interested in SCUBA diving and Antarctica. I combined those two interests to write one of my best scripts – an action adventure about cold-water divers in Antarctica.

Now I’ve never actually done cold-water diving in Antarctica, and I’ve certainly never had to fight terrorists as my characters did. So it was then up to me to find the aspects of the characters’ experience I could relate to. That became the emotional heart of the story. For all the rest, there’s research.

After I have an initial idea, next comes creative development. I’ll add other ideas to the core idea, possibly doing some brainstorming or research. This can take weeks or years. I collect all the little bits of information in a file. Sometimes I’ll end up combining two ideas that I didn’t immediately put together. Eventually, a story will start to coalesce in my mind. I’ll know the main character, their dilemma, and how it will resolve. I’ll also have some good ideas for cool scenes and events.

However not every idea is going to be worthy of turning into a screenplay. There are three major criteria I use to judge whether an idea is worth that level of effort.

The first is whether I really, truly love the idea. And I won’t know the answer to that right away. Just like in romance, some ideas you fall in love with and some are just infatuations. You need to pick the ones you love, because you will be working on them for several months, and often several years. I don’t commit to any idea until I’ve "dated" it for at least several weeks to make sure the initial interest doesn’t wear off. By the same token, if I find myself continually thinking about an idea I had a year ago, it probably merits attention.

The second criterion is does the idea fit with the brand I’m trying to build as a screenwriter. You want to have an identity in the business, and a voice as an artist. Every once in a while I’ll get an idea for, say, a courtroom drama. It might be a very good idea for a courtroom drama, but that’s not the kind of movie I really want to make. So it probably isn’t in my long-term interest to pursue it. I have plenty of ideas; I can find one that better fits my brand.

Finally, the idea has to be commercially viable. Why would I spend half a year on something I know won’t sell? This means it has to be the kind of movie somebody out there is actually making. I might have a fantastic idea for a western, and I might want to make that part of my brand, but the only westerns that have been produced in the last decade came from A-list filmmakers. This business is hard… why make it harder?

At any given time I will probably have a few ideas that match all three criteria slowly simmering in my mind. I’ll gradually develop them as treatments or outlines. But before I move on to writing the first draft, I need to make sure the idea is fully baked. This can be harder than it sounds. Next week I’ll discuss what makes an idea ready for the first draft.


In other news, Ken Aguado and I will be doing a lecture on the art of the two-minute pitch at The Great American Pitchfest on June 21st. If you’re interested in attending, I will be tweeting a discount code on Saturday, May 24th, between 4 and 5 pm that's good for 10% off. You can follow me on Twitter at @dougeboch (if you don’t already), or if you don’t use Twitter, you can check the feed on the home page of my website.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Why This Character for This Story?

(SPOILERS: Star Wars, Gravity, Liar Liar, The Godfather, Die Hard, Young Adult, Dallas Buyers Club)

When I was just starting out, one of the common questions I was asked by development executives and producers was, “Why this character for this story?” At first I didn’t understand the question and so probably didn’t answer it very well. Why is Luke Skywalker the hero of Star Wars (written by George Lucas)? Because he bought the droids that everyone was looking for, of course. Why is Ryan Stone the main character in Gravity (written by Alfonso Cuaron & Jonas Cuaron)? Because she survived the shuttle that was destroyed – who else would we follow?

But the question isn’t really about plot logic. It’s about theme. We just don’t use the word “theme” in the movie business very often!

The question would perhaps be better phrased, “Why is this the most interesting character for this story to happen to?” And the answer should relate to how the story affects the character. Most stories should change the character in some important way – otherwise, why do I care what happens?

Usually good stories teach the character something they need to know, or change them in a way that they need to be changed. For example, in Liar Liar (written by Paul Guay & Stephen Mazur), Fletcher being forced to tell the truth helps him build a better relationship to his son.

In some darker stories the character is changed for the worse – or in a way that is ambiguous as to whether it is positive or not. This is tricky to pull off, but can be done effectively if the story calls for it. In The Godfather (written by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola), Michael starts as the war hero who is going to be the first in the family to gain power through legitimate means. But the events of the story turn him instead into a ruthless Mafia kingpin. It’s a change for the worse, and it relates to the story’s themes of the inescapable world of the Mafia family and the consequences of vengeance.

Even more rare is a character that does not change at all. Every once in a while you can get away with that in a survival type of story by giving us a character we like and putting them in a life or death situation. We will care whether they survive, even if they don’t learn anything along the way. However, the story will be surface and shallow – entertaining, perhaps, but with little to say about the human condition.

Usually, though, even stories ostensibly about survival change the character. Die Hard (screenplay by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza) is about a cop trying to save his wife (and other hostages) from a brilliant, murderous criminal and his henchmen. But in the process the main character also saves his marriage, because the experience teaches him to value his wife more.

Another exception is a story where the character doesn't change because the writer is trying to make a statement on the nature of the character or the nature of life. But in these cases there needs to be the threat of change, which the character then rejects.

Young Adult (written by Diablo Cody) works this way – the main character goes through a story where she starts to question her motives and lifestyle, only to decide there’s nothing wrong with her after all, finally returning to her miserable life unchanged. This makes a statement about this character’s nature, though it also makes the character pretty unlikeable – and the movie was not very successful, perhaps partly for that reason.

In most stories, however, the character is changed in some way for the better. If the story doesn’t teach the character or change them in a positive way, then it should be because you are intentionally making some kind of point about the character or the nature of life.

Let’s return to Star Wars and Gravity. How do those stories change their respective main characters? In Star Wars, Luke wants to go join the rebellion and have adventures. But he needs to learn maturity and self-discipline (dramatized by his mastering of the force). In Gravity, Ryan wants to get back to Earth, but to do so she has to overcome her fear and self-doubt and decide that she truly wants to live.

Notice I’m using the terms “want” and “need.” This is how I like to define characters in relation to their Notice I’m using the terms “want” and “need.” This is how I like to define characters in relation to their internal and external journeys. They want something external that drives the plot, while they need something internal that drives the character arc.

Really, picking the right character for your story is also about stakes. There are obvious external stakes in Star Wars – the freedom of the galaxy – and in Gravity – Ryan’s life – but there are also internal stakes for the character. How the story comes out will impact who they are as people. This heightens the importance of the story.

In Dallas Buyers Club (written by Craig Borten & Melisa Wallack) the obvious stakes for Ron Woodruff is his life. AIDS threatens it, and pursuing untested drugs might prolong it. But Ron also goes on an internal journey from a selfish, self-destructive, hate-filled individual to someone who achieves meaning in his life by helping others.

Imagine how the movie would be different if Ron was a good, honorable, kind person at the beginning of the story. His ultimate death would be tragic. We might learn something about the AIDS crisis and how the medical establishment responded to it, but Ron’s death itself might seem kind of meaningless. However, because the story caused him to become a better person, it ultimately seems like an uplifting movie, even though the main character ultimately dies. Perhaps counter-intuitively, starting with a hugely flawed character makes the story more satisfying and happy! That's why Ron is the right character for that story.

Beware of the story that happens to someone just because they’re at the wrong place at the wrong time. Random things happen to people in real life, but in fiction there should be thematic purpose to why this character is in this story. Even if the character does encounter a random event, on a thematic level it should have personal relevance to them.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

How to Write a Treatment

Today I want to discuss treatments. To do this, I first need to define what a treatment is, which is difficult because they are so varied. On the most basic level, a treatment is a prose description of a screenplay you intend to write. It may contain a few lines of important dialogue, but mostly it summarizes the story.

Many screenwriters do treatments as part of their personal story development process. I also like to write a treatment between my first draft and second draft, to refocus on the big picture and better evaluate what I need to change. Since these treatments are for personal use, they can be done in any format and length you like.

However other treatments are done for business/selling purposes. These are the kinds of treatments I’m going to focus on today.

Please understand, it is rare to sell a treatment in the way that you might sell a screenplay. However, you might use a treatment to support a pitch (a “leave behind”) or as part of a package presented to investors for an independent film. It is also not unusual to have a “treatment step” in your contract if you sell an original idea. This means you will turn a treatment in to the buyers before moving to first draft so they can make sure you’re heading in the right direction and give you notes. At least that's the idea.

The first question you'll probably have is length. Typically these types of treatments run between four and ten pages, though some go longer. James Cameron’s treatment for The Terminator runs 48 pages and is almost literally the screenplay without dialogue. If I have a treatment step in a contract, the first thing I will do is discuss with the producers and executives what they are expecting. For pitch leave-behinds, I recommend doing no more than a single page – more of a summary than a treatment, really.

Often a treatment will start with a short overview of the basic concept of the film. Here is the overview that begins Simon Kinberg’s five-page treatment for Mr. and Mrs. Smith:

"MR AND MRS. SMITH" is a sexy, stylized action-comedy that’s a duel-to-the-death between the world’s top two assassins... who happen to be husband and wife, hired to kill each other. In hunting each other, their dying marriage turns into a passionate love affair, as they go toe-to-toe, playing cat and mouse... and slowly falling back in love in the process -- seeing, understanding, appreciating each other for the very first time—in the midst of battle.

Their process is really like the process of marriage therapy, which is intended to help a couple: initiate, interact, communicate, compromise, adapt, and ultimately fall in love. Through their hunt, they have to do these same things—because these are also the primary skills an assassin uses with a mark: initiating, interacting, compromising, and adapting to the target.

Tonally, the film should be a collision of different genres—action, romance, comedy, even social (suburban) satire. The world of the Smiths is slightly hyperreal, mischievous, and always dangerous.

As you can see, Kinberg is laying out the concept for the film with an emphasis on tone and style. There is also a sense of the thematic underpinnings of the story, and the writer’s approach to the concept.

This may or may not be followed by short descriptions of the major characters. Then, you would launch into a summary of the story, which makes up the bulk of the treatment. Many treatments just launch right into the story with no overview or character descriptions.

If you intend to show the treatment to a producer, executive, or really anyone, I would highly recommend that you consider this a selling document, more akin to a pitch than an outline – even if you've already gotten the job of writing the script. If you simply recite dry plot points, your treatment will not capture the drama, humor, excitement and wit of the final screenplay. If you are using the treatment as a sales tool, this will definitely not help you make the sale. If you are submitting the treatment as part of a step deal, it could scare the buyers into thinking you are going wildly off course. They may respond with panicked notes that actually do take the project off course. The blame will lie with you for not properly conveying and promoting your vision for the film.

So you have to use good, evocative prose – like a novel. Here is a good example from Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio’s eleven page treatment for The Mask of Zorro:

Montero's homecoming is a huge, pomp-and-circumstance event. Torches light the beach as Montero steps off the boat, welcomed by important, influential men who nonetheless defer to Montero: he is a monarch returning home.

In the crowd, Diego focuses on Montero. He moves toward him as Montero greets his welcoming party. A knife appears in Diego's hand. Murder in his eye. He closes in --

A voice calls "Father!" Diego and Montero turn. Elena steps through the crowd. Diego instantly recognizes her. She moves past him, into Montero's arms. Calls him 'Father' again. Diego's resolve disappears. He is devastated. The knife slips from his fingers. He realizes Elena loves Montero. He cannot just kill him in front of her. Diego turns, vanishes.

Being longer, The Mask of Zorro treatment naturally goes into some detail. Let’s look at another excerpt from the shorter Mr. & Mrs. Smith treatment that condenses the story more:

What follows through the second act is basically a heightened, charged game of “cat and mouse,” with John and Jane hunting each other through the maze of Manhattan. In terms of marriage therapy, they’ve initiated. And now they’re interacting and communicating. As they hunt, they have to pay attention to each other for the first time—and in doing so, they slowly come to understand and appreciate each other, rediscovering the passion they once had. They’re like two master artists excited by each other’s work, pushing each other to be better, faster, stronger—and learning each other’s moves in the process—really learning about each other.

See how both these treatments bring the arcs and conflicts of the story to vivid life? You may also notice how they focus on the characters and their journey. This is important. Just like a movie (or a screenplay or a pitch) we enter the story through character. It is why we care about what happens. You have to get us invested in the character and tell the story from their point of view.

Look at how this excerpt from Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski’s three-page treatment for The People vs. Larry Flynt keeps the emphasis on the main character even as it moves through a large chunk of the story very quickly:

1978. While entering the Atlanta courthouse, [Larry] is shot. Eight months in the hospital. Larry’s in incredible pain. His intestine gets removed. Nobody is ever arrested in the shooting. Larry babbles endless conspiracy theories behind who gunned him down: JFK, FBI, KKK, Charles Keating, the Mob.... Finally he can’t handle his day-to-day existence, and he puts Althea in charge of the corporation. Then Larry starts taking massive drugs for the pain, disappearing into a dark miserable haze....

1983. Larry emerges from the darkness.., and five years have invisibly passed. It’s now a different era—Reagan’s in office. Larry has surgery to sever the nerves to his legs. He’ll never walk again, but the pain will be gone. He kicks the drugs and is now revitalized, but with a horribly changed vision of the country: America turned its back on him. He doesn’t believe in the dream anymore.

Summarizing your story in this exciting, character focused way is not only good salesmanship; it will help you with your writing. It will force you to step back from all the details of your plot and really examine what is exciting, interesting and emotionally engaging in your story. Even if you only write a treatment for yourself, I recommend writing the most compelling version you can.

There are other terms for documents that are similar to treatments. A one-page treatment is often called a “summary.” A “step outline” is a treatment that breaks down every scene with a slug line. They tend to be longer and more fully developed. A “scriptment” is a hybrid – a treatment with some sections of the story fully delineated in screenplay form (I’ve even seen one that included some storyboards). I’m actually not quite sure why anybody would do a scriptment – at that point I’d just write the whole screenplay – but they seem to be more popular these days.

Whatever form and format your treatment takes, the goal is still the same: tell your story in the most compelling way possible.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Five Common Reasons for Dull Scenes

Sometimes I’ll be reading a script and the story seems like it should be working… yet I’m bored. The scenes lie on the page without energy. The situation is dramatic, but the scenes aren’t. Today I want to discuss five common reasons for dull scenes and some possible solutions. Often we apply these solutions in the rewrite process, but many of the problems can be avoided with proper outlining and a little thought before you begin to write the first draft of the scene.

1. The scene doesn’t serve any purpose. This is probably the easiest to fix but the hardest to identify. Ask yourself what has changed in your story from the beginning to the end of the scene. If the answer is nothing (or very little), the scene should go. Another test is whether the story will still function when you cut the scene. If the answer is yes, cut it.

Sometimes there will be one thing in the scene necessary to the story – a bit of exposition, say – but it’s not enough to justify a whole scene. Try to find a different scene where you can move that important beat. Other times there will be something in the scene that you dearly love. You will be working very hard to justify keeping it. Don’t. Perhaps you can use that beloved element in another, more vital scene. Or perhaps this is a time to remember the old saying, “Kill your darlings.” It may be great, but it still may not fit in this screenplay.

2. Everyone wants the same thing – there’s no conflict. Drama is conflict. Scenes without conflict are boring. Every scene should be about a character who wants something having difficulty getting it. This means, first of all, there needs to be a character in the scene who actually wants something. And second, there needs to be some kind of obstacle to their getting that thing.

Obstacles can come from the environment (something physically impedes the character, such as a robber trying to infiltrate a highly secured building) or from within the character themselves (some fear or conflicting need stands in the way of the goal, such as someone with a fear of heights needing to retrieve an object from their roof). But most commonly the primary source of obstacles is other characters.

Often dull scenes result because none of the characters are really opposed to the other character(s)’ goals. Even in a scene of people talking calmly, each character must have an agenda, and at least two of those agendas should be in conflict.

The characters don’t have to be angry and yelling. Let’s say you have a scene of a man and a woman on a date. You want them to get along. Perfectly reasonable, but the scene is boring. Try giving them different agendas. Perhaps the woman’s goal is to seduce the man, while the man’s goal is to prove he’s a gentleman. That will lead to a much more fun scene than if both of them are “trying to get to know each other.” This is sometimes known as “mutually exclusive goals.”

3. Everything is too easy. You have a character with a goal and there are obstacles to that goal… but the character overcomes the obstacles easily. The bigger the obstacle, the bigger the drama. The solution may be as simple as putting more obstacles in the way of the character’s goal. Or possibly it’s adding a different kind of obstacle. In our date scene, you could try adding a physical obstacle to the scene in addition to the character obstacle. Perhaps the man has forgotten his wallet, for example.

Another approach is to increase the stakes for the opposing characters. The more important it is for the other character to achieve their (mutually exclusive) goal, the harder they will fight for it and the better opponent they will be for the main character. And make sure the opposing characters are well equipped to achieve their goal. If the man on the date is our main character and he’s trying to resist the woman’s seductions, she better be sexy as hell!

4. The premise of the scene isn’t fully exploited. Sometimes the concept of the scene is fine, but it isn’t fully exploited. You’re not having as much fun with the scene as you could be. This is particularly important for your set piece scenes – those scenes that pay off the genre of your story (action scenes in an action movie, scary scenes in a horror movie, emotional scenes in a drama). If the character faces and overcomes a single obstacle in the scene, you are probably not doing as much as you could with the situation.

Ask yourself what else could happen given the scenario you’ve concocted. What elements have you placed in the scene? What more could you do with them? Try sketching out the most outrageous version of the scene. Unless you are doing an outrageous comedy it may not fit your tone, but it might give you ideas. Another technique is “out of the frying pan, into the fire.” Look for a way that, by overcoming one obstacle, the character creates an even bigger obstacle for themselves.

5. The scene is predictable – there are no twists or turns. This is a very easy mistake to make. The scene could have a lot of drama – the character has a strong want, there are significant obstacles, you’re really exploiting your premise – but everything plays out the way we expect from the set up. The burglar avoids the guards, breaks into the safe, escapes with the jewels. It was exciting but it was also exactly what we thought was going to happen.

Good scenes surprise us. Often you need the scene to end up at a certain place (the burglar gets the jewels). Okay, you know the ending… don’t broadcast it to the audience. Give the character an obstacle they weren’t expecting. Maybe the burglar is a careful planner, but tonight the security guard got delayed by a call from his girlfriend and didn’t follow his regular routine. The guard checks the safe room late, catching the burglar in the act and forcing a change of plans. If this pushes your character to find a more clever way to achieve their goal, all the better!

Another tool is “preparation in opposition.” This is when you set the audience up to expect a different outcome than what actually occurs. Is the main character going to get fired in the scene? Set it up so that we think they are going to get promoted. It will make the outcome much more powerful.

My late teacher Frank Daniel was fond of saying, “There is only one rule in screenwriting: Don’t be boring.” Make sure your scenes are full of purpose, conflict and surprises and your writing will be anything but boring!