Monday, February 29, 2016

Using Scenes of Preparation and Aftermath to Reveal Character

(Spoilers: The Godfather, Silence of the Lambs, The Hangover)

One of the fundamental challenges of writing for film is figuring out ways to show what’s going on in a character’s head. Character is the audience’s way into the story. If we don’t know what the character is thinking and feeling, we won’t have strong emotional reactions to the events on screen. The problem is especially difficult in “set piece” scenes – scenes of spectacular action or humor or horror, where the spectacle of the scene may not allow for much dialogue on the character’s part.

This is where scenes of preparation and aftermath can be helpful. As you might guess, scenes of preparation are where we see the character preparing for an upcoming event. They give us an opportunity to see what the character expects will happen. Are they confident? Nervous? Preparing for trouble?

In The Godfather (screenplay by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola), there is a scene of preparation for Michael’s assassination attempt on Sollozzo. The Corleone family and their key men are having dinner, waiting for a call that will reveal the locale of the planned meeting. Tom, the consigliore, worries that there’s too much of a risk and suggest they call the whole thing off. The call comes, and the Corleone’s make a plan to plant a gun for Michael at the location. Sonny makes a big deal about how important it is that the gun is there.

All of this sets up how dangerous the coming event is, and how worried everybody is for Michael’s safety. Because of this, when the scene happens, we feel Michael’s anxiety and fear, even though there is no overt dialogue about it. How could there be? It would give away the plot to Sollozzo.

There are two plants (besides the gun information) in the scene of preparation that also help illustrate how Michael feels. First, the Corleones learn the meeting is in Brooklyn. But when Michael is picked up by Sollozzo, they head over the bridge toward New Jersey. Michael says, “We’re going to Jersey?” raising Sollozzo’s suspicions. We know that Michael is worried the information he got was wrong. When the car pulls a U-turn, we can read the relief on Michael’s face. But we wouldn’t understand this without the set-up in the scene of preparation.

The second plant is the detailed instructions of what Michael is to do after retrieving the gun. He’s to come out of the bathroom and immediately shoot Sollozzo and his police captain accompaniment, then drop the gun. But when Michael comes out of the bathroom, he sits back down at the table. And when he finally does shoot Sollozzo and the cop, he forgets to drop the gun right away. We understand his fear and tension because he doesn’t follow the plan. But we only see this because we know the plan.

Scenes of aftermath allow us to check in on the character after an event to see the impact on the character. When Clarice first visits Hannibal Lechter in prison in Silence of the Lambs (screenplay by Ted Tally), she’s careful to keep her emotions hidden. But when she comes out of the prison, she weeps as she heads to her car and has a flashback about her father. In this aftermath scene we see that, despite her careful control, Lechter has indeed gotten to her.

One of the things that I think made The Hangover (written by Jon Lucas & Scott Moore) so successful is that we really care about the three major characters. That emotional attachment comes in the downtime between the big comedic moments. It’s that downtime where we see the characters react to what just happened.

One of the best examples is the scene where the guys are waiting for their car in the impound lot. Stu is pissed off at the way the cops have just treated them. But Alan is worried. He confides to Phil that he fears something really bad may have happened to Doug (the lost groom). It’s neither a particularly funny nor particularly memorable scene, but it is important because it reminds us that there’s a person they care about in this story who might be in danger. This gives the plot emotional stakes. We care about the outcome because we care about these guys.

Scenes of aftermath often turn into scenes of preparation as the characters digest previous events and make new plans. In the impound lot scene, Phil comforts Alan and then Stu tries to reassure Alan with a new plan: searching the car for clues.

You can use scenes of preparation and aftermath to track character emotion throughout the script. In The Hangover, each time we pause for aftermath scenes, the guys’ fear has escalated. In the breakfast scene, Stu’s a little worried, Phil and Alan less so. But they all assume it’ll be pretty easy to find Doug. In the aftermath of the wedding chapel scene, they’ve started to realize things got more out of control the previous night than they thought. In the impound lot, Alan worries that Doug might be dead. We see that Stu is similarly worried when he ends his improvised piano song with the line, “But if he’s [Doug] been murdered by crystal-meth tweakers, well, then we’re shit out of luck.” Finally, after the guys discover Mr. Chow’s hostage is not their Doug, they give up all hope.

Aftermath scenes are also useful to give us the closure of the happy ending. The Hangover ends with the guys at the wedding, looking at the pictures on the camera together, and reveling in their adventure and friendship. It’s not a plot scene, it’s a scene that gives us a resolution to the emotional journey.

When outlining your script, think about where you will want to touch base with the characters’ emotional progress and put in scenes of aftermath and preparation. When rewriting, if you find that you are losing connection with the characters’ feelings, consider adding a scene of aftermath. Though preparation and aftermath may be the “mortar” more than the “bricks” of your story, without these scenes you will have difficulty achieving emotional impact.


In other news, if you're in Los Angeles, I will be teaching a pitching workshop at The Writers Store on April 9th.


 Learn screenwriting craft with my book, The Three Stages of Screenwriting

Monday, February 22, 2016

Meaningful Objects

(Spoilers: The Apartment, Notorious)

Film is a visual medium. As screenwriters, once we’ve built the story structure, much of our attention often goes to dialogue. But we should be looking for more visual ways to tell our stories so that we can take full advantage of the filmic medium. One of those ways is to create meaningful objects – props that are imbued with meaning that helps tell the story.

Besides making your script more visual, there is another benefits of creating meaningful objects: they can provide opportunities for layering subtext into scenes. This often comes when one character knows information about the object that another does not. Today I want to look at two examples of masterful use of meaningful objects for telling stories.

The first is in The Apartment (written by Billy Wilder & I.A.L. Diamond). In the story, C.C. Baxter owns an apartment that he loans out to executives at his company, including Mr. Sheldrake, as a place to carry on affairs. Baxter has a crush on elevator operator Fran Kubelik, who, unknown to Baxter, is Sheldrake’s mistress.

The object in question is a make-up compact. It is introduced when Sheldrake comes to visit Baxter in his new office – the result of a promotion that was Baxter’s reward for sharing the apartment with executives. Baxter returns the compact to Sheldrake, saying it was left at the apartment the night before. Baxter points out that the mirror is broken and says he didn’t do it. Sheldrake replies that it broke when his mistress threw it at him.

This set-up of the compact is elegantly done. First, there’s a reason to bring the compact up – Baxter returning it to Sheldrake. In bad screenplays, characters might produce the object and explain it for no apparent reason. When you are setting up a meaningful object, create a good reason for it to be brought into the story, even if that reason is unrelated to the object's purpose in the plot. Second, the crack in the mirror is a way to identify this particular compact in the future – and again there is a reason for this detail to be pointed out to the audience: Baxter fearing he’ll be blamed for breaking it.

Once the compact is introduced, it is then ignored for a few minutes of screen time. Soon we have a scene set at an office Christmas party where Baxter brings Kubelik to see his new office. While Baxter is getting them drinks, Kubelik learns from Sheldrake’s secretary that Kubelik is only the latest of Sheldrake’s conquests. This provides a layer of subtext to the scene once Baxter returns. He’s flirting with Kubelik, showing off a bowler hat he’s bought. She’s trying to be nice, but we know she’s heartbroken at the recent revelation.

Then the compact makes a reappearance. Kubelik brings it out to show Baxter what he looks like in his hat. When Baxter sees the crack, the audience knows that Baxter now knows Kubelik is Sheldrake’s mistress. Baxter doesn’t say anything, but the revelation adds a new layer of subtext to the scene. The dialogue in this scene is about Baxter’s promotion and new hat, but the subtext is about Kubelik and Baxter’s heartbreaks, the latter revealed entirely through the visual use of the compact.

Don’t miss the exceptional subtlety of this. Kubelik doesn’t know Baxter knows her secret. By using the meaningful object, the writers have allowed the audience to follow this revelation without the need for a separate scene to explain it in dialogue.

Imagine how the writers’ thought process may have gone: They knew they needed Baxter to learn about Kubelik and Sheldrake, but didn’t want it to be through dialogue. So they came up with the idea for the compact, which had the advantage of allowing the revelation to happen in a scene that includes Kubelik’s character, creating subtext. The writers then had to figure out how to plant the compact and had the idea to have Baxter return it to Sheldrake. Finally they had to figure out a way for the audience to recognize the compact and came up with the cracked mirror.

The second example I’d like to discuss is in Notorious (written by Ben Hecht), and the meaningful object is the key to a wine cellar. The story is about Alicia, the daughter of a Nazi turned U.S. government spy, who has married a Nazi living in Brazil named Sebastian in order to uncover a secret plan. Alicia’s U.S. handler is Devlin, and they’ve fallen in love. Alicia has learned that something is being kept in Sebastian’s wine cellar, but it’s locked and she doesn’t have the key. Alicia and Devlin plot to sneak into the wine cellar during a party at the house.

The key is introduced when Alicia slips it off Sebastian’s key ring while they get ready for the party. She’s almost caught – Sebastian comes in just as she gets the key off of the ring and takes both her hands, the key clutched in her right fist. Sebastian kisses her left palm and moves to kiss her right one. To avoid him discovering the key, Alicia throws her arms around him and drops the key behind his back, then kicks it safely under a table.

The reason for the key is inherent in our heroes’ plot to get into the wine cellar, but this introduction with a moment of suspense cements the key’s importance in our mind. The suspense continues during the party as Alicia and Devlin try to get to the wine cellar before the butler runs out of wine and has to go down for more. The complication is that Sebastian is jealous of Alicia and doesn’t like seeing her with Devlin.

Alicia and Devlin finally manage to slip down to the wine cellar and find the clue they’re looking for, but the wine runs out upstairs and Sebastian and the butler head down. As Devlin and Alicia leave the wine cellar and head out a back door, Devlin notices that Sebastian has seen them. Devlin grabs Alicia and kisses her. When Sebastian comes outside to confront them, Alicia claims Devlin tricked her outside and forced her to kiss him. Devlin is kicked out of the party and it seems our heroes have gotten away with their plot.

Here is where the key makes its reappearance – or rather doesn’t make its reappearance. Sebastian and the butler go to the wine cellar. Sebastian pulls out his key ring… and discovers the key is gone. We see on his face that he’s put two and two together and figured out our heroes’ trick. He turns to the butler and says they should just give the guests liquor and champagne. The information has been delivered visually, adding subtext to the mundane dialogue with the butler at the end of the scene, all because of the use of the key as a meaningful object.

If you have a scene with on-the-nose dialogue or you need to give a character information, consider creating a meaningful object. You’ll need to figure out how to introduce the object and imbue it with the necessary meaning. But once you do that, you can use the object to create powerful scenes layered with subtext.

Have your own favorite example of a meaningful object? Share it in the comments!


Check out my book: The Three Stages of Screenwriting 

“In the crowded field of scriptwriting how-to books, Doug Eboch’s The Three Stages of Screenwriting is a standout and a must-read. Why? Three solid reasons: He really, truly knows what he’s talking about. It will help everyone, from novice to pro, become a better writer. And, most impressive of all, it is entertaining as hell - as engaging and fun to read as one of Doug’s scripts.”
-Ross LaManna (Rush Hour)

Monday, February 15, 2016

The Disturbing Truth Behind Hollywood’s Record Year

You may have heard that Hollywood set a record for total domestic box office in 2015. And that the year included the two biggest openings of all time (Jurassic World and Star Wars: The Force Awakens). The industry is going gangbusters… or so it would seem.

As I read the various year-end box office analyses, I wondered how much of the record box office for 2015 is the result of Star Wars and Jurassic World? And how would the box office stack up to previous years if it weren’t for those two gigantic movies?

Of course, it’s not fair to remove the top two movies from one year and then compare it to the full box office of another year. But with a little quick research on, I was able to calculate the box office for each of the last five years without the top two movies of that year, and then without the top five movies of that year. You can see the results in this table:

What I discovered is that when we look at everything below the top two movies, this year’s box office ranks fourth out of the last five years. When we look at everything below the top five movies, it is the worst year of the last five years.

But what does this really mean? After all, those top movies did come out each of those years. Well, consider that there are six major Hollywood studios. Not every studio can have one of the top five films. And nobody would operate a studio to score just one big hit. The hundreds of studio movies below the top five matter for the health of the industry. And the box office for those films was not so great last year.

Another little detail about 2015: a lot of big studio movies bombed. Victor Frankenstein had the worst opening for a studio release in 2,500 or more theaters. Jem and the Holograms had the worst start of all time for a major-studio release. We Are Your Friends had the worst opening for a Warner Brothers film released in more than 2,000 theaters. Sandra Bullock had the worst opening of her career (Our Brand is Crisis) and Johnny Depp had his worst opening in a wide release movie (Mordecai). The studios lost a lot of money on those five movies, which adds a little perspective to the five big hits.

It’s been widely discussed that the movie business is becoming bifurcated into gigantic franchise hits and small independent films. The mid-budget movie is vanishing as a studio product. It looks like the studios are engaged in an increasingly high risk/high reward game.

Why China May Not Be the Savior We’ve been Waiting For

Despite the trumpeting of 2015’s record box office, most people in Hollywood are aware that the domestic business has been pretty flat for years. And many of those Hollywood people are looking to China as the market that will keep the business growing. It is certainly true that U.S. studios are making a bigger and bigger share of their revenue internationally, and China is going to be the biggest international market very soon. There are some astonishing numbers – last year Chinese box office grew 48.7%. In 2015, Chinese box office was $6.79 billion, and is predicted to surpass the North American box office ($11 billion, as discussed above) in 2017. (source: The Hollywood Reporter)

But there are two reasons to temper excitement over these numbers.

First is U.S. market share of Chinese box office. In most foreign territories, U.S. films far outpace the domestic products. There are exceptions, such as India where Bollywood films are much more popular than Hollywood films. Unfortunately, when it comes to market share, China looks more like India than, say, Europe. Chinese films took 61% of Chinese box office in 2015. Only three U.S. films landed on China’s top 10 chart for the year. And while Chinese box office increased 49% in 2015, U.S. share of that box office fell 16%. This trend is likely to continue as the Chinese government aggressively bulks up their film production industry.

Second, people often confuse box office with studio revenue, forgetting that the exhibitors take a cut. In North America, studios usually get 50%-60% of the box office. In China, they only get about 25%.

So, as we see Chinese total box office grow, it’s important to remember that Chinese films are taking most of that money, and of the box office that is attributed to U.S. films, the value is about half what it would be in North America.

All of which means, there may be some bumpy roads ahead for Hollywood.


Master screenwriting with The Three Stages of Screenwriting

Monday, February 8, 2016

Conceptual Synchronicity

(Spoilers: The Martian, Gravity, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Sicario, Spy)

Today I want to coin a term: Conceptual Synchronicity. I'm using this to describe when two parts of a story heighten each other.

I often discuss this in relation to the character/plot dynamic. The question we often ask is, “Why this character for this story?” There should be a core aspect of your main character that synchs up with your plot. You should ask yourself, who is the best character to be in this situation? Best could mean many things – it may be the character best qualified for the challenge, or the character worst qualified for the challenge, or the character whose core belief would be challenged by some aspect of the story.

Let’s look at some examples.

In The Martian (screenplay by Drew Goddard), Matt Watney is an accomplished scientist and an optimist. He is the only type of person who could survive being stranded on Mars with limited resources. The conceptual symmetry in this story is taking someone who is extremely competent, and then putting them in a situation that poses a challenge even to their competence.

This is somewhat the opposite approach to the one taken in Gravity (written by Alfonso & Jonas Cuaron). Though the situation is similar, in this story Ryan Stone is a neophyte astronaut who has lost purpose in her life. She is the least qualified astronaut (admittedly, still a highly qualified category of people) to survive a disaster in space. And the situation she finds herself in will challenge her to decide how badly she wants to live.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman, screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan) combines both approaches. Who is the most qualified person to race against Nazis on a hunt for the Ark of the Covenant? An archeologist who is skilled with a gun and bullwhip. But Indiana Jones also doesn’t believe in the religious/supernatural aspects of the object of the quest, making him in some ways the worst person for the job. Ultimately he will come to question his non-belief in the climax of the story.

Sicario (written by Taylor Sheridan) is about the moral grey areas in the war on drugs along the Mexican border. Who is the best character to put into that situation? Sheridan chose an ethical, by-the-book police officer. When this character is thrown into this morally ambiguous world, she will find it difficult to figure out the right thing to do.

In a completely different genre, Spy (written by Paul Feig) places a frumpy, unglamorous desk jockey into the world of espionage, getting humor from the fish-out-of-water situation. Feig has built a character completely unsuited to the James Bond-like environment (while still giving her enough skills to succeed).

Note that synchronicity doesn’t mean symmetry. Often the thing that gives you conceptual synchronicity is opposition. This can create dramatic irony (such as in Sicario) or comedic irony (such as in Spy).

The idea of conceptual synchronicity doesn’t just apply to the basic concept of your story. You should ask yourself what is the best/worst choice for every major story element. And the possibilities should be evaluated in relation to your other story elements. In Spy, they make the villain a beautiful, glamorous, sophisticated international arms dealer – the conceptual opposite of the heroine.

In The Martian, Watney’s improvisational problem solving and faith in his ability is contrasted with the bureaucrats back on Earth with their cautious risk analysis and PR concerns. The two approaches to the situation provide a conceptual synchronicity that adds thematic depth to the story.

You can apply this theory on a scene level as well. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, when Indiana Jones finds the Ark, it is in a room filled with snakes – his personal phobia. And in Sicario, when the lonely Kate finally pushes herself to try making a connection with a man, he betrays her, playing on her biggest insecurity.

In a way, the concept I’m calling conceptual synchronicity is simply asking yourself what is the most interesting choice in any situation, given the premise you’ve concocted. Making choices that resonate with other aspects of your story will increase the dramatic power of the entire script.


Check out my book: The Three Stages of Screenwriting
“In the crowded field of scriptwriting how-to books, Doug Eboch’s The Three Stages of Screenwriting is a standout and a must-read. Why? Three solid reasons: He really, truly knows what he’s talking about. It will help everyone, from novice to pro, become a better writer. And, most impressive of all, it is entertaining as hell - as engaging and fun to read as one of Doug’s scripts.”

Monday, February 1, 2016

How I Broke In

Today I thought I would share the story of how I got my start as a professional screenwriter, along with some of the lessons I learned along the way.

When I was a kid I saw Star Wars. I was so blown away by this movie that I read everything I could get my hands on about it – which wasn’t easy back then. This was before DVD commentary tracks and shows like Extra. As my young mind was devouring articles in Time magazine and the like, I kept reading about this guy named George Lucas who had a job called director. Sounds like a fun job, I thought. Maybe that’s what I’ll do when I grow up.

When I was growing up I didn’t know anybody in the movie business. In fact, I was so far removed from Hollywood that when I told friends, family, and guidance counselors that I wanted to be a movie director, they all thought that sounded pretty great. Nobody knew how insanely competitive the field was or how many very talented people utterly failed in the business. I pursued directing the same way a high school student in Juneau, Alaska (where I lived) would pursue engineering. I researched what colleges were the best in the field and sent off my applications. I ended up at George Lucas’s alma mater: The University of Southern California.

As an undergrad I was in the production program. That is essentially a program to teach directing, though most people unofficially emphasized one technical area or another. I emphasized cinematography. When I graduated I worked back-breaking, low paying jobs doing such high tech tasks as coiling cable and hauling gear on music video shoots, or holding the boom on public service announcement shoots.

“At least you’re working on film sets,” people would say. It didn’t make me feel better. Turns out, having any job in film wasn’t enough for me. I had been working on screenplays on those days when I wasn’t working on set (there were a lot of those days), and I’d completed three of them. None were very good, but I enjoyed writing and at least one of my ideas felt like it could maybe be a movie if it was better.

So I decided to go back to USC to study screenwriting in their graduate program. Fortunately, they let me. The program taught me an enormous amount about the craft of screenwriting, and once I’d learned those skills, I discovered I was actually a pretty good writer. For my thesis, I wrote a romantic comedy script called “Melanie’s Getting Married” about a sophisticated woman from New York who must return to her small hometown to convince her estranged white trash husband to give her a divorce so she can marry someone else. It was very loosely based on one of the scripts I’d written before going to school.

Lesson 1:
Learn your craft.

When I graduated, USC sent out a list of all the graduating students’ thesis script log lines to producers and studios around town. From that I got a few dozen calls requesting to read the script. I guess that was a little unusual – the power of a good log line. From there, I met with half a dozen producers who liked the script. Half of those were actually real producers with offices and everything.

Lesson 2: Create a good log line.

One of the companies I met with was MBST. The intern, a woman named Emily, had read my script – because interns are the people who read film student scripts – and recommended it to her boss. The boss liked it and they brought me in for a very nice meeting. “Send us your next script,” they said. Which is pretty much what everyone said.

So I started temping. And at night, I worked on another script, one I’d started in school, an action adventure called “Undertow.” I didn’t know at the time you were supposed to stick with one genre early in your career. (Note: “Undertow” has not been produced yet, though another movie with a similar title has since been released.)

I sent “Undertow” to the people who liked “Melanie.” When I called MBST, I discovered Emily was now head of development. She really liked “Undertow,” but the company didn’t do action movies (thus the advantage of sticking to one genre). However she thought I should have an agent and offered to make some recommendations for me.

Her assistant, Aghi, had a friend who had just been made an agent at a large boutique literary agency. She asked if she could send the script to him. “Of course,” I said. That turned out to be the agent I signed with. (And Aghi became head of development at MBST a short time later.)

Lesson 3: Be nice to the interns and assistants. They control your fate.

The agent sent out “Undertow” and Neal Moritz at Original Films liked it. We let him take it to three studios, all of whom also liked it. But all of them decided it was just too expensive. The project died, but Neal was pleased with the reaction and asked me to come in for a meeting. They asked what else I had and I gave them “Melanie’s Getting Married.” Neal didn’t go for it - not his genre - but a protégé producer named Stokely Chaffin really liked it.

Stokely gave me some feedback on the script and I did a rewrite, but she was not able to get Original to buy it at the time. I went on to other spec scripts and got a permanent job at Disney Feature Animation to pay the bills. I won a screenwriting contest with a science fiction thriller script called “Overload” (also still unproduced) but otherwise wasn’t having much success. Eventually I parted ways with my agent.

Then one day my phone rang. It was Stokely. I hadn’t spoken to her in nearly two years but it turns out she’d been pushing my “Melanie’s Getting Married” script the whole time and finally convinced Original to option it. We did the deal and I took the small option payment and bought a brand new china hutch to replace the cheap shelving that held my liquor supply (hey, I’m a writer). And then I went back to the day job.

A couple years passed. Other writers were hired to rewrite my script. Actors and directors came and went on the project. I would get phone calls from Stokely telling me the good or bad news and learned not to invest too much emotion into any of it. But they kept renewing the option and I kept cashing the checks and buying myself little presents. I also kept writing and got a new agent based on another script, this one a broad comedy (I still hadn’t learned to stick with one genre).

Lesson 4: Always keep writing.

Then one day Disney and Original actually made the movie. Nobody was as surprised as me. It had been re-titled Sweet Home Alabama and starred Reese Witherspoon. It resembled my original script more than I might have guessed after all that time, and I was awarded “Story by” credit after a brutal Writers Guild arbitration process. The movie set a record for biggest September opening ($38 million) and went on to earn over $100 million domestically. I made enough to pay off my student loans and quit my day job.

People called me an overnight success.


Want to learn your craft? Check out my book: The Three Stages of Screenwriting.