Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Announcing My Upcoming Screenwriting Book

Big announcement, Lets Schmooze readers. I am near publication of a book on screenwriting: Mastering the Three Stages of Screenwriting. It should be available in a few weeks – I will certainly keep you posted. I thought I’d include an excerpt from the Introduction which explains why I wrote the book and what my approach is. Hope you enjoy!


Why another book on screenwriting?

Fair question. There are a lot of them out there. Let me tell you why I went to the trouble of writing this and maybe that will help explain why I think the world needs another screenwriting book.

I became a screenwriter because of Star Wars and Time magazine. After I saw Star Wars as a kid, I became obsessed with it, reading everything I could about the movie. At that time, there wasn’t much information available about how movies were made. No DVD commentaries, movie magazines, or movie websites for a kid to seek out. But my dad’s Time magazine had an article about Star Wars, so I read it. And that’s where I learned about a guy named George Lucas who was a director. “Sounds like a fun job,” I thought. “That’s what I’m going to be when I grow up.”

Not such an easy thing when you go to high school in Juneau, Alaska and don’t know anybody in the film business. I went to the University of Southern California film school because I learned that’s where George Lucas went… and my guidance counselor didn’t even know you could major in film.

I started out focusing mostly on cinematography, and when I graduated I worked small jobs as a production assistant, gaffer, or grip. On the side, I was working on screenplays. I discovered I had more of a passion for the writing part of making movies than anything else. So I went back to grad school, majoring in screenwriting. And over time I discovered writing was the thing people were most willing to pay me to do.

I learned story structure (of the three-act variety) in grad school back at USC. I’ve also read dozens of books on the subject, most of which added to or altered my approach in some ways. More importantly, I’ve written over twenty-five screenplays, some of which were bad, some of which were good, some of which got me an agent or writing work, and in one case (so far) got made into a big hit movie – Sweet Home Alabama. I’ve also written a children’s play that’s been performed thousands of times (Sleepover at the Stable), a video game (Nightmare Cove), and an animated television pilot (The MOFF Shoppe). Each experience helped me hone my approach to screenwriting.

Then, I got hired to teach a screenwriting class at Art Center College of Design. I naturally built my syllabus around what I was initially taught. But I quickly realized some of that stuff I never actually used. Plus, I wanted to include the many other things that I had learned since. So I adjusted the class to reflect my “real world” experience. I also asked other professional screenwriters what they thought about various techniques and adjusted my teaching process further.

Since then I have had the experience of helping hundreds of students hone their own screenplays. I’ve seen the mistakes they commonly make and I continued adjusting my teaching approach to head off those mistakes. I’ve also become a better writer myself in the process.

I was looking for a book to use as a textbook for my class. I found some very good screenwriting books, but nothing that was both comprehensive and deep on all the subjects I covered. Many gave a useful account of structure; far fewer dealt with crafting a powerful scene. Almost none covered techniques for rewriting. And there was a lot of misinformation about character development out there.

So I wrote this book to provide a complete guide to the craft of writing a screenplay the way the professionals do it. I will cover each part of the process in-depth; giving you the theories, techniques, and tools I have found to be the most practical in my own writing career. And I will endeavor to always keep the focus on creating a screenplay that can actually be turned into a movie. Because that’s the goal, isn’t it.

How to Use This Book

The screenwriting process consists of three distinct stages that require different mindsets. As you’ve undoubtedly figured out from my title, I’ve divided the book by those three stages.

The first stage is story development. This is where you figure out what your story is, who the characters are, and what happens. It requires both creativity and an understanding of narrative structure.

The second stage is writing the first draft. This is where you take the solid skeleton you built in the first stage and flesh it out with action, dialogue, spectacle and all the things we love in movies.

The third stage is rewriting. This takes the longest. Your first draft will not be perfect. Likely it will be a raging disaster. That’s okay – that’s what first drafts are for. It is in the rewriting stage that you take that raw material and shape it into something brilliant.

I will discuss the techniques used in each of the stages, including the theory behind them. I think it’s important that you don’t just memorize rules or a list of plot points, but that you understand why we’ve come to codify these techniques the way we have. Every story is different, and if you really understand technique, you will know how to apply it to your unique story in a way that brings out your vision and voice, rather than conforming your ideas to someone else’s form.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Using a Prologue

(Spoilers: Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Matrix, Romancing the Stone)

I define a prologue in a screenplay as an opening sequence that is not critical to the plot. You could cut off the prologue and the story would still make sense. The audience would never know something was missing. The majority of movies don’t have a prologue, but it’s not uncommon either. For example, most James Bond movies open with a prologue.

Just because a prologue can be removed without damaging the audience’s understanding of the story doesn’t mean they serve no purpose. Prologues are useful to:
  • Grab the audience and draw them into the story
  • Establish the tone of the story
  • Introduce fantastical elements
You should consider using a prologue if the opening of your story would fail to do one of these important things. Most movies open by showing the main character in their normal life – the status quo that will be interrupted by the events of the story. The character’s status quo may be interesting enough to draw the audience in, and it may serve to properly establish the tone and world of the story. If so, you don’t need a prologue. In Gravity (written by Alfonso & Jonas Cuaron), for example, the main character of Ryan is an astronaut working on a satellite in space. Her status quo is plenty dramatic and entertaining, so there’s no need to add a sequence before it! However sometimes showing the character in their regular life isn’t going to do the job.

Let’s look at some examples of successful prologues.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman, screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan) opens with a prologue about Indiana Jones recovering an idol from a trapped jungle cave. This has nothing to do with the plot of recovering the Ark of the Covenant. But if we didn’t have the prologue, we’d open with Indy at his college teacher job. It would be a while before we got to the good, swashbuckling action. The prologue here grabs the audience and establishes the adventurous tone.

Similarly, The Matrix (written by Andy & Lana Wachowski) opens with a cool action prologue of Trinity running from the agents. This not only grabs us with kung fu, sci-fi action to help carry us through the next relatively action-free half hour of the movie, but it lets the audience know that there is something strange about this world. We are open to almost anything in the first minutes of the movie, but as we start to grasp the rules of the story world, anything that breaks those rules feels implausible.

In the prologue in The Matrix, Trinity and the agents have superhuman abilities and somehow Trinity magically escapes the phone booth at the end of the sequence. If we didn’t have this, the first hint that the world is not the one we’re familiar with would come when the agents erase Neo’s mouth. This would probably be too late in the movie, and the audience would find it laughable or confusing. But with the prologue we accept it.

Romancing the Stone (written by Diane Thomas) has a particularly interesting prologue. The setting is the Wild West. A bad guy threatens a woman. A dashing hero swoops in to save her. It’s all very overheated and romantic. And then it is revealed that this is actually a scene from the main character’s novel, taking place in her imagination.

This prologue again serves to draw the audience into the story and establish an adventurous tone. This is important because Joan’s regular life as a hermitic writer living in Manhattan doesn’t suggest the romantic adventure that the movie will ultimately deliver. The prologue does other important things, too, though. It establishes what kind of man Joan likes and how she thinks romance ought to play out. This sets up a nice contrast when Colton appears and proves to be a very different kind of man.

In Raiders of the Lost Ark and Romancing the Stone some people might consider the prologues part of the status quo. After all, Indiana Jones is a swashbuckling archaeologist from the beginning of the movie, and Joan Wilder is already a writer of overheated romantic adventures. I would still consider them prologues because they are like little mini-stories unto themselves. Both movies could start after these prologues and would still make perfect sense – although they wouldn’t be quite as enjoyable.

Prologues exist outside of the typical three-act structure. If you use a prologue, it would not be surprising to find your Catalyst coming a little later in the film. This is okay as long as the prologue is suitably exciting to engage the audience – and if it’s not, then it’s not doing its job as a prologue!


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Sunday, December 6, 2015

4 Ways to Use Subplots

(Spoilers: Whiplash, Guardians of the Galaxy, Almost Famous, 40 Year-Old Virgin, Star Wars, Bridge of Spies, Inception)

Most discussion of screenwriting technique focuses on how to create a great A-plot for your story, but great subplots can enhance both the A-plot and the overall movie experience. The important thing is that the subplot serve some purpose to the overall story. Here are four ways to use subplots effectively.

1. A subplot can reveal character.

You can create a subplot that will demonstrate an aspect of the main character that is difficult to bring out in the main plot. For example, in Guardians of the Galaxy, (written by James Gunn and Nicole Perlman) the subplot involving Peter Quill’s mother humanizes him and makes him sympathetic. This helps us root for a character who is a self-absorbed thief when we first meet him.

And in Whiplash (written by Damien Chazelle), Andrew’s romance with Nicole illustrates aspects of his character. For example, we see the destructive nature of his commitment to his musical goals when he breaks up with Nicole simply because he anticipates she may not be supportive sometime in the future. Later, when he calls to try to reconnect, we can see that he has realized he may have had misplaced priorities.

2. A subplot can trigger character arc.

In some stories, the character needs to change in order to achieve their goal. A subplot can provide the impetus for that change. Often that comes in the form of a mentor. In Star Wars (written by George Lucas), Luke’s relationship with Obi Wan Kenobi is the trigger that starts him learning about the Force. It is this growth that ultimately allows him to destroy the Death Star in the end.

Love interests often serve this purpose as well. In Almost Famous (written by Cameron Crowe), William needs to lose his awe of the rock stars in order to become a serious journalist. His relationship with Penny Lane causes him to recognize the negative aspect of the band he worships when he sees how they treat her. This is the impetus for him to write a great article about the band.

3. A subplot can reveal different approaches to the theme.

If your main character is taking one approach to the issue of the film, you can use subplots to demonstrate other approaches. This can deepen the thematic complexity of the story and reveal the pros and cons of the main character’s approach. In Whiplash, Andrew’s father provides an example of a loving, supportive mentor relationship in comparison to the abusive relationship Andrew has with Fletcher. But Andrew’s father also shows what happens when an artist compromises and settles for mediocrity.

The subject matter of The 40 Year-Old Virgin (written by Judd Apatow & Steve Carell) is sex. Andy’s three friends have different approaches to the subject of sex. David is still obsessed with an ex-girlfriend, Cal is only interested in one-night-stands, and Jay is in an apparently happy relationship, but insists on cheating on his girlfriend. Each offers a different perspective on sex and its place in relationships, and each has a character arc that adds complexity to the subject matter of the movie.

4. A subplot can provide stakes for the main character.

If the main character in your story needs personal stakes, then a subplot can provide them. In Bridge of Spies (written by Matt Charman and Ethan & Joel Coen), the main character of James Donovan cares about the outcome of the legal case he’s defending and the subsequent prisoner exchange negotiation because he’s an ethical lawyer. This provides some stakes, but no personal downside to James’ success or failure. However, the subplot with his family gives James something to lose. By following his ethical course, he puts his family in peril, as witnessed by the shots fired through the living room window while his daughter is on the couch.

In Inception (written by Christopher Nolan), the subplot with Cobb’s family performs a similar function, and then twists it. On the surface, Cobb is determined to succeed at the mission of the film because if he does, he is promised the opportunity to reunite with his children. However, we then learn through this subplot that Cobb may actually be trapped in a dream. This provides added stakes – if it is a dream, then Cobb can only be reunited with his children by rejecting it.

Most of these are examples of dramatization, or “show, don’t tell.” Rather than have the character talk about how they feel, their backstory, or the thematic concepts of the story, you can demonstrate those ideas with a subplot. It’s more dramatic, powerful, and realistic.


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"I used to always recommend that new writers read Story as their first and most important introduction to the craft of screenwriting, but from now on, I’m going to recommend The Three Stages of Screenwriting."
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