Thursday, August 28, 2014

Thirty Minutes for the Last Line

Recently I was in a notes meeting for a screenplay I had been hired to rewrite. In addition to myself, the producer and a development exec were in the meeting (I’m going to avoid using names because I’m not sure if I’m really allowed to talk about the project). The script in question is a romantic comedy.

At one point the development exec pointed out that the last line in the script was delivered by the love interest instead of the main character, and wondered if that was a problem. What followed was a half hour discussion about the last line of the movie. Half an hour – about a single line of dialog.

The first question was, does the last line actually need to go to the main character? The general consensus was “not necessarily.” Giving the last line in a romantic comedy to the love interest didn’t seem inappropriate. But, we kicked around ideas for what the main character could say as a last line, just to see what we could come up with.

Or rather the producer and development exec kicked around ideas. I mostly sat and listened and thought. Finally I threw out a suggestion – a call back and twist to an earlier line that served as a thematic tag on the story and the character’s arc. It went over so well the other two people actually applauded. It was the first time I’ve gotten applause in a notes meeting!

I’m not telling you this to brag (well, maybe a little), but because I think most aspiring writers would be surprised to find that we would spend this much time in a meeting discussing a single line of dialog. I think there are a few things this anecdote reveals about the real world of professional screenwriting.

First, they care a lot. True, I’ve had many more meetings where someone gave me notes who only read the coverage and a couple pages of the actual script. Which is frustrating. But this screenplay is about to go out to movie stars, and everyone knows they only get one shot at any given star, so they want the script to be perfect. And this producer and exec are experienced filmmakers who know the importance of the final moments of a movie. So if they are unsure about the last line of dialog, they will work on it until they are sure.

Second, details matter. Students often grumble when I criticize them for formatting, grammar or spelling errors, but those little mistakes send a signal that you are sloppy about the details. And the people who hire writers care about the details.

Third, screenwriting is a collaborative business even though 98% of the time you are in a room by yourself staring at your computer. You never get to just hand in the final script and walk away – unless they’re going to replace you with another writer. You have to work with your fellow collaborators on the movie. And that’s good, because often those people are smart and experienced.

A corollary to this is that a great screenplay does more than just follow the structural outlines described in “how to write a screenplay” books. You need to have a sense for how movies work. That means understanding what final emotion you want to leave the audience with and how to achieve that emotion. It means understanding that the ending should be about the main character because that’s satisfying, not because someone gave you a “rule” that the main character should get the last line.

Fourth, a big part of your job is finding the best solutions to these kinds of problems. I’m really glad I came up with the perfect last line – because that’s why they hired me! You have to know your craft better than the other people in the room. This doesn’t mean I (or you) will always be the one to come up with that great line. I have been given terrific bits of dialog during notes sessions, ones where I was kicking myself for not having thought of it. But if they’re giving me all the best stuff, pretty soon they’re going to wonder if they really need me at all.

It’s extremely hard to write a good screenplay. But the job of screenwriter actually requires more than just that ability. Hopefully this little anecdote makes clear why that is.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Five Tips for Writing Good Dialog

I was having trouble thinking about what to write about this week, so I asked for suggestions on Twitter. I got a bunch of good suggestions that I will address in the coming weeks (and feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments). But producer Ken Aguado, my co-author of The Hollywood Pitching Bible, suggested I discuss writing good dialog. It’s a great topic – and one that could fill several posts. Today I will offer five of my best dialog tips.

I’m going to break the tips up into two groups. The first are things you should think about before writing a scene. The second are things that you would apply in the rewrite phase. Why the distinction? In the first draft you need to turn off your inner critic and let your imagination run free. In the rewrite phase, you apply more critical skills to hone your dialogue.

Just because you are letting your imagination loose in the first draft, however, doesn’t mean there is nothing you can do to encourage good dialog. This first group of tips are things you should think about before starting in on the first draft of the scene:

1. Characters should have distinctive voices. There’s a saying that in a good script you should be able to black out the character names and still be able to identify who’s speaking. A character’s background and personality should affect how they use language. I write diary entries in my major characters’ voices until I can hear them in my head. Then I know I’m ready to write for them.

2. Strong goals mean strong dialog. Dialog should be action. To achieve this, characters should speak in order to achieve a goal, whether it’s to hide something, convince someone else to do something, hurt someone or comfort someone. Of course, there needs to be some obstacle to that goal or else the dialog will quickly become passive. In dialog-driven scenes this obstacle is often another character with an opposing goal, or a goal that is mutually exclusive from the main character’s goal.

If you have characters with distinctive voices and strong opposing goals when you start to write, two thirds of your dialog job is done.

3. Reveal exposition in conflict. Expository dialogue (dialogue that reveals crucial information for the audience) is the most difficult kind to write. In real life, the most dramatic reason people speak information is to support an argument. So if you need your characters to give crucial information, create a disagreement that will prompt them to bring that information out.

4. Good dialog has subtext. This means that underneath what is being said, there is an unspoken scene going on. In real life people seldom say exactly or entirely what’s on their mind. Dialog without subtext is called “on the nose” – and that’s almost always a bad thing. If the dialog in your scene seems too direct, give your character a reason not to reveal their goal. For example, maybe it would embarrass them, or maybe if the opposing character knew what the main character is trying to achieve they would be less cooperative. Maybe the main character just doesn’t want to make themselves vulnerable.

I learned from Matt Weiner, the brilliant creator of Mad Men, that subtext is all about preparation. In order for the audience to grasp the subtext of the scene, they must know the context in which the scene is taking place.

Tip number four is both a first draft and a rewriting tip. You should try to have subtext in your first draft, but very often you will still find yourself writing on-the-nose dialogue. In your revision, try to find a reason for the character to be less direct. Here’s another dialog rewriting tip:

5. Cut the boring parts. Movie dialog should have verisimilitude, meaning it should seem like real speech but not actual mimic real speech. In real life people ramble, digress, repeat themselves and eat up a lot of time with pleasantries. If we mimicked this on screen, a simple conversation might take up half your movie. So you want to cut all the boring parts.

Particularly watch out for pleasantries like greetings and farewells. Try to cut into the scene as late as possible and out as early as possible. And only include the part that’s relevant to the story – if a scene takes place in a restaurant, don’t show the characters ordering (unless that’s critical to the drama). If you have a scene of a character shopping we almost never need to see them at the cash register paying.

Let’s look at a brief bit of dialog from Shaun of the Dead. In this scene, Shaun has learned that a strange man has bitten his stepfather, Philip. Shaun knows this man was a zombie and that Philip will now become a zombie. He races to his mother’s house to save her. The only trouble is, Shaun arrives before Philip has turned. So in this scene, he’s struggling to tell his mother, Barbara, that he has to kill her husband. (Remember what Matt Weiner said about subtext needing context? Shaun and the audience know something the other characters don’t, and Shaun has a reason not to speak directly – he doesn’t want to cause his mother emotional pain.) We pick up where Shaun has gone into the kitchen to help his mother prepare tea.

Shaun: Mum?

Barbara: Mmmm?

Shaun: how much do you love Philip?

Barbara: Two sugars, is it?

Shaun: I haven't had sugar in my tea since 1982.

Barbara: Oh, yes. Will you cut me some bread, love?

Shaun: Mum, how much do you love Philip? 

Barbara: Oh for goodness sake Shaun, must we go through all this again? 

Shaun: I’m sorry but… what would you think if I told you that he has, over the years, been quite unkind to me?

Barbara: You weren't always the easiest person to live with.

Shaun: Mum, he chased me with a piece of wood!

Barbara: Well, you did call him a “you know what.”

Shaun: Did he tell you that?

Barbara: Yes he did.

Shaun: Motherfucker.

Barbara: Shaun!

Shaun: Sorry, Mother... Mum! Did you know that, on several occasions, he touched me?

(Barbara flashes Shaun a look.)

Shaun: That wasn't true. Made it up, shouldn't have done, sorry. You don't understand...

Barbara: No, you don't understand. Philip is my husband and has been for seventeen years. I know you haven’t always seen eye to eye but I would at least expect you to respect my feelings. You must be more adult about these things.

(Philip appears in the doorway.)

Philip: (Growling) Yeah. Come on, Shaun. There comes a time when... you just... gotta be a man.

(Shaun looks at the knife in his hand)

Notice how each character has a distinctive voice – Shaun’s is impatient and a bit pouty, almost childish. Barbara starts out sunny and only snaps when pushed. Also, notice how Barbara says “you-know-what” instead of swearing, while Shaun has no problem swearing. Plus, you get a sense of their relationship in the way they interact.

Shaun has a clear goal – to convince his mother they need to kill Philip, and a clear obstacle – his mother loves Philip. This also gives him good reason not to state his case directly. Moreover, Shaun knows that his mother is not likely to believe in zombies, meaning he has to broach the subject cautiously.

Barbara gives a lot of exposition about the family relationship in this snippet of dialog. Shaun would already know all this information. But it doesn’t seem false because Barbara is using it to justify and defend her position.

You may wonder about the inclusion of the dialog about tea and bread. Isn’t this the boring stuff I said to cut? In many scenes it would be, but here it reflects Barbara’s goal. She wants the family to sit down to a nice snack together. This actually provides an obstacle to Shaun – he has to get her to change the focus of her attention. (This business also justifies why Shaun has a knife at the end.) Every line in this section of the scene advances the plot. Everything else has been cut out.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

How Eric Heisserer Pitches

Today I am featuring a guest blogger: Eric Heisserer. Eric wrote and directed The Hours, starring Paul Walker. He also wrote the 2011 The Thing, Final Destination 5, and the 2010 version of The Nightmare on Elm Street, plus the upcoming Story of Your Life. I asked Eric to describe his pitching process to get quotes for the second edition of The Hollywood Pitching Bible. His approach was so interesting I asked if I could use it as a blog post. He kindly gave permission. So here is how Eric pitches:

I despise pitching. I used to say I preferred writing on spec to pitching because I felt the proof is always in the writing, but that was just a clever excuse draped over my anxiety in the room with executives staring at me intently. Like everything, repetition and practice has made it bearable. You improve by doing something over and over. And if you're looking to make screenwriting a career, you have to accept that you'll work up a hundred pitches (or more) in your tenure.

Here is what I do for a pitch now: I use visual aids. Note cards. I find a dozen or so images that really speak to the look and feel or the tone of the project I'm pitching, and sometimes I'll even "dream" cast the movie or TV project, selecting photos of actors that most closely fit their characters. I avoid using much text on the cards, because as I've learned you don't want your audience reading what's on the card instead of paying attention to your story. The one vital element I include on the cards? Character names. Execs hear an absurd number of pitches per week, plus they have a ton of projects going, and so it's difficult for them to remember who your hero is versus the villain or the love interest. Having a quick reference (with a photo of an actor beside it) is helpful for them.

The cards are helpful for me, too. If I veer off-topic or forget my place, I can look down at the next photo or concept art in my stack and pick up where I left off. Occasionally I will break out a story pitch by sequence, laying down a couple of visual cards for every sequence in the movie (typically 7-10), but if I'm not working with sequences, I make sure to announce at regular intervals what page we're on in the story. This puts the audience at ease, because they've been stuck in pitch meetings before that drone on for twenty minutes until the writer mentions "all of that is backstory, here is where the movie starts." Execs want signposts so they know where they are within the narrative.

Finally, I've come to realize I can't pitch on something unless I have a personal, emotional connection to it somehow. A story from my own youth. A main character drawn from my father or in-law. An event that changed my life or the life of a loved one. It's critical your audience understands where your heart is with the story, they don't want it to be merely business. Or to put it this way: If two writers come in and pitch, and both takes are competent, the one who demonstrates why it matters to them or how it's based on a personal story will get the job, because it suggests the material will be written with passion and emotional drive otherwise missing from the other take. Whether this is true or not, it's how many execs operate, and it's how I've come to realize I write best.

Of course, sometimes your greatest tool in a pitch can be rendered useless, so try to find out the circumstances of the pitch meeting beforehand. Since I use note cards with visuals, I make sure not to pitch over the phone, but one time, for a project at Dimension Films, I was brought into a conference room where three execs were ready to hear my pitch... along with the head of the company via Skype on a TV screen at the end of the room. He was the one I had to impress, and he had no way of seeing the cards. Furthermore, the connection wasn't the greatest, and when he talked to me the transmission would clip parts of his words, which meant that's likely how he heard my entire pitch.

Needless to say, I didn't get that job.

Thanks Eric! You may wish to follow Eric on twitter - his handle is @HIGHzurrer

And now about the aforementioned 2nd edition of The Hollywood Pitching Bible - it is now available on Amazon! (eBook editions should become available in the next few weeks). The new, expanded 2nd edition includes:

-More information on pitching for producers and directors
-Expanded section on pitching for television
-More sample pitches
-Expanded section on pitching for assignments
-Anecdotes of successful movie and television pitches from the creators who sold them
And much more!

Friday, August 8, 2014

Twist Endings

(Spoilers: Sixth Sense, Fight Club, The Usual Suspects, The Empire Strikes Back, The Crying Game, Citizen Kane - in other words, the biggest spoilers of all time!)

A great twist ending, the kind at the end of Fight Club (screenplay by Jim Uhls) or The Sixth Sense (written by M. Night Shyamalan) that completely redefines everything that’s come before, is a powerful thing. When done well, as in these examples, it can take a film from good to legendary. But these kinds of endings are few and far between. Let’s look at how great twist endings work.

The first rule is that the story must be good without the twist. You cannot expect an audience to watch 90 or 100 minutes of film before they get to the good stuff. This means that the twist can’t actually be crucial to the concept. The twist may be the most memorable thing in the film, but the story concept must stand on its own.

For example, Fight Club is about a miserably unhappy man, a self-described slave to consumerism, who falls under the sway of a charismatic new friend. The two form a fight club to get in touch with their primitive side, but things spiral out of control when the club members resort to vandalism and terrorism to bring down consumer society.

The fact that the unhappy man and his friend turn out to be the same person is a critical revelation about the main character, but not critical to get us interested and involved in the story. The drama and conflict come from the unhappy man's transformation due to physical brutality, and then from the fight club spinning out of control – not the twist, though that does add additional conflict and drama for act three. You could use the above log line to craft a very interesting story that didn’t have a twist ending at all.

Similarly, the story of The Sixth Sense is about Malcolm attempting to help Cole overcome his problem. The conflict in the story comes from Cole’s unique ability to see ghosts and how that terrorizes him; the stakes relate to Cole’s happiness and sanity. For Malcolm, the stakes are redemption for his failure to help a previous, similarly afflicted patient. The twist, that Malcolm is actually a ghost that needs Cole’s help, relates to the subplot of Malcolm and his strained relationship with his wife Anna. It actually has little impact on the main plot line!

A perfectly good movie might have been made about a living psychologist trying to help a child who sees ghosts. In fact, Shyamalan has said that Malcolm was alive in the first several drafts of his script. It wasn’t until fairly late in the process that he hit upon the idea that Malcolm was actually a ghost as well.

Which suggests two important elements of twist endings:

First, they must grow organically out of the story concept. When you try to force a twist (as Shyamalan has a few times since), the story will feel labored or convoluted or unsatisfying. In the worst cases, the screenplay is boring until the twist is revealed. Only once we know what was really going on do the previous events become interesting. But this doesn’t work – it’s too late. The audience has already checked out. Industry readers will have stopped reading long before discovering the twist.

The second factor is that the twists usually have more to do with the character's arc than with the plot. Consider the big reveal at the end of The Empire Strikes Back (story by George Lucas, screenplay by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan). Learning that Darth Vader is Luke's father doesn't affect the outcome of the plot, but it is devastating to Luke and his beliefs.

Similarly, Fergus learning that Dil is actually a man in The Crying Game (written by Neil Jordan) – which happened more in the middle of the movie than the end, but still redefined everything we thought we knew – has a huge impact on Fergus emotionally, but doesn't materially change any of the events in the plot. If Dil had actually been a woman, everything would have come out exactly the same way. Yet that twist catapulted the small film into movie legend.

Another movie with a legendary reveal at the end is The Usual Suspects (written by Christopher McQuarrie), but this is actually a different animal than the twists in the movies I’ve discussed so far. In Fight Club, The Sixth Sense, etc. the twists are shocking at least partly because they are unexpected. But The Usual Suspects is a mystery – a question is raised (Who is Kaiser Sose?) and we know there must be an answer. It’s just that the answer is particularly shocking.

This is also true of Citizen Kane (screenplay by Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles). The reporter is trying to find out the meaning of "Rosebud." The revelation of what Rosebud was at the end is surprising, but not truly a twist.

Whether using the mystery format or attempting an unexpected twist, the need to use planting and red herrings is equally critical. When the twist appears it must be plausible and understandable, which means it must be set up. But of course the audience must not anticipate it or you lose the surprise.

You have to think like a magician – distract the audience from the clue. Look at the scene where Malcolm goes to have dinner with Anna in The Sixth Sense. In retrospect, she never actually spoke to him or acknowledged his presence. Yet we don’t notice in the scene because the scene is given another reason for existing – Malcolm is late, thinks Anna is angry with him and apologizes. The scene is about their relationship. That’s what we pay attention to and why we don’t notice or question that she doesn’t talk directly to him.

This is perhaps why it’s so important the story works without the twist. In a way, the entire plots of The Sixth Sense and Fight Club and The Crying Game function as red herrings, distracting us from the coming revelation.

Remember, most great movies do not have the kind of twists that redefine all of the previous events. It is absolutely not necessary for a successful film. And if you are going to attempt a big twist, first make sure your story is good without it.

Friday, August 1, 2014

A Screenwriter at Comic-Con

Once again this year I attended Comic-Con in San Diego. Even if you’ve never been and don’t care about comic books, you probably know about this event. It’s widely covered for its movie and television studio presentations where stars and directors reveal new footage of upcoming genre movies, as well as for all the people who like to dress up in costume.

In reality Comic-Con is much more than that. What many people don’t know is that there are a ton of panels on creative topics related to writing for movies, television, internet video and comic books. This year, a lot of the panels seemed to be pretty similar to last year – same topics, many of the same panelists. But I did hear some interesting and thought provoking things relevant to screenwriting. Here are some of my take-aways:

“They come for the concept, they stay for the characters.” This quote was from Jeff Krelitz of Heavy Metal at a panel on the convergence of television and the Internet. It was in response to a question about what they look for in material. His point was that you need a big catchy concept to stand out in the vast sea of content on the Internet, but to get people to come back you need strong, compelling characters.

I think the same theory applies to any kind of storytelling medium. In fact, this is a pretty good summary of my approach to pitching (as elaborated on in The Hollywood Pitching Bible, of course – second edition coming very soon!) What you sell in a pitch is a concept and a character or characters. Writers tend to focus on plot detail in pitches, but this is not what will get people to buy your idea.

I also went to another panel on pitching movies and television where one of the speakers (can’t remember who) commented on how you have to explain why your project is different than the next one, and why you are different than the next writer. I think this is an important thing to remember when picking material, whether it's to pitch or spec – you are not working in a vacuum. The people who might buy your pitch are hearing several pitches a day. The people who might buy your spec are reading dozens a week. It’s not enough to just competently execute a story. Your story has to be original and interesting enough to stand out.

Notice that the speaker also mentioned the need to distinguish yourself from the next writer. This is less important with a spec since the writing will speak for itself. But with a pitch you are selling yourself as a writer as much as you are selling the story. Give them a reason to think you will do a good job.

One of my favorite panels every year is the TV Writers Room panel. I wrote down a quote, but again forgot to note who said it (sorry to that person). It was in reference to the television writer’s job when coming up with an episode story idea. The writer needs to ask, “Ten years from now when someone is looking at the DVD box set or Netflix, what in this episode is going to make them say, ‘I have to watch this one because it’s the one where that happened’?”

I thought that was a great way of phrasing the importance of having a cool idea at the heart of the episode story. And actually that was kind of the theme of convention for me: the need to have not just a workable idea, but an idea that is fresh and original enough to stand out from the crowd.

Of course I also saw lots of cool video, movie stars, and people in amazing costumes. It was Comic Con after all.


In other news, I will be moderating a panel on pitching at the Screenwriters World Conference on August 16th. Also on the panel are Rob Edwards, a writer on Treasure Planet, The Princess and the Frog, In Living Color, The Fresh Prince, and Studio 60; Daniel Manus, CEO of No BullScript Consulting; and screenwriter Patty Meyer who has sold eight pitches to studios. Come check it out!