The UCLA's Richard Walter is one of the most respected screenwriting teachers, so I thought I'd kick off a series of screenwriting tips with this eleven-minute video from Film Courage:
The UCLA's Richard Walter is one of the most respected screenwriting teachers, so I thought I'd kick off a series of screenwriting tips with this eleven-minute video from Film Courage:
My next session of the Script Coach Workshop at Raindance in central London takes place on Monday evening, October 5, and covers "guerrilla warfare for the writer"--ways for you to market yourself and your work. You can find out more and sign up here: http://www.raindance.org/london/course/the-script-coach-series/
Would you like to learn more about filmmaking or digital storytelling? Check out the free courses at Future Learn.
A course underway at the moment is "Explore Filmmaking: from Script to Screen" from the NFTS and BFI Film Academy. Here's part of the description:
"Over six weeks, our team of award-winning filmmakers will take you through their approach to telling stories, as well as demystifying their own filmmaking specialisms - from writing and directing to cinematography, editing and composing."
Hmm, is "specialisms" a word?
Starting on Sept. 28 and running for four weeks is one for which I've signed up: "Digital Storytelling: Filmmaking for the Web," from the University of Birmingham.
"We will cover all aspects of production - from how to research your story to adding the finishing touches in the edit. The course will address many issues along the way, including critical thinking; story structure; style; genre; ethics; legalities; practical techniques for camera, sound and lighting; and more."
They suggest you set aside three hours per week. These are just two of the courses in the Creative Arts and Media category; they also offer courses in business, literature, health & psychology and more.
It's a great resource--please share this information it with others who might be interested.
The other day I got an email from a writer who had an appointment to pitch her movie idea to a producer and she was in a panic. She asked what tips I could offer. The biggest one:
When I was in a position to hear pitches the most common problem was that the person telling the story knew it so well that he or she went into far too much detail.
Since I'd never heard the story before I couldn't tell which of the many details related to the core story and which were parts of the subplot or just digressions.
THEY SNORE, YOU LOSE!
When you confuse people hearing your pitch you've lost them and it's very hard to get them back.
Of course how detailed you get will depend partly on whether you're giving the "elevator pitch," the two or three-minute version, or the complete story. But even for the latter it's a good idea to stick to the spine of the story.
If your story moves back and forth in time, often it's better to indicate that but tell the story in a more linear way.
For instance, you might say, "As Maria's relationship with Andre disintegrates, we see episodes from her childhood that reveal the abuse she sufferend at the hands of her father. When she is five (describe what happened), and on her tenth birthday (describe what happened). Finally, on the day she graduated from junior high school, she found the courage to resist and (describe what happened)."
Even though those episodes may be spread out in your screenplay or novel, grouping them in the pitch can make the story easier to follow.
THE KEY POINTS TO REVEAL
You might be surprised to hear how often people pitching a story leave out one or more of these essential bits:
What is the genre?
Who is the protagonist?
What's happening at the start of the story? This may or may not be the first thing that happens chronologically in your character's life. For example, you may want to bookend the story with someone remembering a major incident that had led them to a dramatic moment in the present.
What are the key problems the protagonist encounters and how does he or she respond?
Who or what represents the obstacles--sometimes the obstacles are internal but especially if you are writing a screenplay you have to find something external to represent them.
How does the conflict escalate and what is the highest point of conflict?
How does it turn out?
Ideally the story itself will reveal the underlying theme but sometimes it doesn't hurt to allude to it as well. The danger is that themes can sound quite banal when stated straightforwardly, as in "crime does not pay," or "once lost, trust is hard to regain."
However, you might say something like, "(Title) is a thriller about two brothers and the price of lost trust," and then go into your story.
A QUERY LETTER IS A PITCH, TOO
These essentials also work in a query letter. However, that format is closer to the elevator pitch and you would not go into as much detail about the escalating conflicts and you may just set up the final conflict but not reveal how it turns out.
As I know from experience, writing a synopsis that covers the key points and also sounds interesting rather than like a list of plot points is challenging, especially if you've already written the whole novel or script. In fact, it may be the hardest thing you write!
(For a supportive guide from idea right through to publication, get a copy of my book,Your Writing Coach, published by Nicholas Brealey and available from your favorite bookseller.)
In the recent BAFTA awards there was a category called "Constructed Reality." It's good to see an acknowledgment that reality show reality isn't reality. In order to capture viewers, the producers of such shows fall back on traditional storytelling.
A case in point: the MTV show called Catfish.
Here's another short (under a minute) animation promoting my next screenwriting workshops for Raindance. They start on Monday, March 3 and run for 5 Monday evenings. Here we meet an aspiring scriptwriter who thinks he has Act II all figured out, but there's a flaw in his thinking...
You can get more information about the courses and sign up here: http://www.raindance.org/course/the-script-coach-series/
Here's a little animation (under one minute) to promote the next series of screenwriting workshops I'm offering via Raindance in London, for five Monday evenings starting on March 3, 2014.
An attack of the expositions has hit one of the TV series I like, "Person of Interest." I don't know why, but the last couple of episodes they have started explaining (more than once) what is obvious. You know the sort of thing: "Need I remind you that your life is in danger?" No, you needn't remind him and you needn't remind me, either, somebody just took some shots at him two minutes ago.
This also drives me crazy on a lot of the reality/semi-documentary shows. They take a commercial break and when they come back they spend a couple of minutes recapping everything we've all just seen. Either they think our last vestiges of attention span have already departed, or it's a cheap way to fill a few minutes, or maybe it's a combination of the two.
I think a lot of it comes down to not trusting the viewer or the reader. When I worked in television, several times I had network executives tell me, "I understand what you're doing in this script, but the audience won't."
Really? Frankly I didn't see much evidence of the intellectual superiority of the people in these positions at the networks.
Author Lauren Beukes ("Zoo City," "The Shining Girls") told SciFiNow magazine, "You can give them [readers] clues without having one character sit the other down and explain it to them. Give people information in the details, make it implicit, not explicit. Trust your reader to be smart enough to figure it out."
(A great present for writers--even yourself! "Your Writing Coach," published by Nicholas Brealey and available from Amazon or your other favorite book seller.)
When I wrote for TV we always had what was called the series bible. It contained every bit of information that had ever been revealed one way or another about all the characters, the setting, and anything else anybody could think of. If you wanted to write an episode in which Uncle Ned visits, you could see what had ever been said about him. He's bald, he's hard of hearing, he did time in prison.
Sure enough, if anything ever slipped through you'd soon hear about it from some eagle-eyed viewer who felt compelled to tell you that 98 episodes ago somebody mentioned that Uncle Ned never learned any languages, yet in the most recent story you had him exchange pleasantries with a neighbor in Spanish. This would always be revealed with great glee on the part of your faithful correspondent.
The same thing happens to novelists, especially those who write series. Maria Snyder, author of The Scene of Magic and many others, suggested this a while back in SciFiNow magazine:
"Keep a story bible! There are tons of details, characters, places and names in a multi-series and if you keep track of it right from the beginning you won't waste time flipping through manuscript pages looking for information. I use a notebook for each of my novels. In there I write all the characters' names, they get a page of details about their physical descriptions, background, etc. Alos, when writing a series, plantng in little clues for conflicts in future books helps."
You don't need to know all this information in advance. Probably you will start with some basics and then you can add each bit of information as you go along.
(for friendly guidance in writing your book from idea through to publication get my book, "Your Writing Coach," published by Nicholas Brealey and available from Amazon or your other favorite bookseller.)
There's a bit of contradiction there, in that his experience with the old lady's flat was not something he found particularly interesting, it wasn't something he was passionate about; however, it seems that perhaps writing about it is what made it interesting.
It's an approach reflected in his most successful show to date, The Office, which mined the day to day pretensions and conflicts in a very ordinary setting.
"Foley had never seen a prison where you could walk rightup to the fence without getting shot. He mentioned it to the guard they called Pup, making conversation: convict and guard standing in a strip of shade between the chapel and a gun tower, red-brick structures in a red-brick prison, both men looking toward the athletic field. Several hundred inmates along the fence out there were watching the game of football played without pads, both sides wearing the same correctional blue, on every play trying to pound each other into the ground.
You know what they're doing," Foley said, "don't you? I mean besides working off their aggressions."
Pup said, "The hell you talking about?"
This was about the dumbest hack Foley had ever met in his three falls, two state time, one federal, plus a half-dozen stays in county lockups."
That's the opening of the novel Out of Sight, by Elmore Leonard. Right away we know where we are, who's talking, and there's something happening. That's typical of the openings (and the middles and endings) of all of Leonard's novels.
He died yesterday, age 87. Until his stroke a few days ago, he was still writing, and writing well.
THE 60-YEAR-OLD OVERNIGHT SUCCESS
Leonard started in the days of pulp fiction, which taught him to be prolific and to write things that people wanted to read. His day job was writing ads. He sold his first Western story in 1951, but didn't start writing full-time until 1967, when he was paid $10,000 for the film rights to Hombre.
He wrote more than forty novels. He picked up prizes along the way, but they were a long time coming. It wasn't until he was 60 that his novels started appearing on best-seller lists.
His first crime novel was rejected 84 times before it found a publisher.
Several movies were made based on his novels and stories, not always with great results. Among the best: Hombre, Valdez is Coming, Get Shorty, and the 1957 version of 3:10 to Yuma. Recenty he was involved with, and happy with, Justified, a TV series based on his characters.
I can't think of any contemporary writer better at capturing low-life characters and the way they talk. Or maybe his writing was just so convincing that I believe that's how they talk.
HIS ADVICE TO WRITERS
Leonard offered a list of tips to writers, as terse and powerful as his novels. You can read them here, along with a few comments I added:
I'm sad there won't be any new Elmore Leonard books, but he remains an inspiration. His little list of tips and the many books in which he applied them are, for my money, a better writing education than a Master's Degree.
HIS (ALMOST) LAST WORDS
Last year he told an interviewer, "I probably won't quit until I just quit everything--quit my life--because it's all I know how to do. And it's fun. I do have fun writing, and a long time ago I told myself, 'You got to have fun at this, or it'll drive you nuts."
"The people who need the courage are the real innovative thinkers. The more innovative you are, the more you shake people up."
--Art Director George Lois, 81 and still creating.
(To find out how to get into the creative mindset, generate endless ideas, and translate them into action, get my book, "Creativity Now," published by Pearson and available from Amazon or your other favorite bookseller.)
There's a motto that can give you the key to coming up with a stronger plot for your novel or screenplay. John Lennon put it into his song, "Beautiful Boy," but the first person to have said it seems to have been a cartoonist named Allen Saunders, back in 1957. The saying is:
"Life is what happens to you while you're making other plans."
How does that help the writer struggling with a plot?
Well, often the problem with a plot is that the protagonist doesn't have any other plans. He or she is there, apparently waiting for the story to start, and then it does. It continues, and it concludes. Lots of things happen but we feel somehow it wasn't real. It's like eating cotton candy for dinner.
THE MOTTO IN ACTION
I'll give you an example. Here is a very brief description of a plot:
A woman tries to find the son she gave up when he was an infant, 35 years ago.
OK, interesting situation, plenty of scope for drama and even some comedy. Now try this one:
A woman trying to find the son she gave up when he was an infant, 35 years ago, is diagnosed with inoperable cancer and given only one month to live.
Of course it's much darker, but I think it's also a lot more interesting. Now there is a ticking clock. She has to find him very soon or it will be too late. There's also a dilemma--assuming that he would be happy to reunite with her, would it be fair to do that knowing that she will once again abandom him so soon?
The thing that doesn't fit in with our plans doesn't have to be terrible. A light romantic comedy version might be:
A woman trying to find the son she gave up when he was an infant, 35 years ago, falls in love with a man who is only a few years older than her son.
Now her concern is how both the new lover and the son would react to each other. And does she want to bring a complicated emotional situation into her life just as she's finally found love again? Would having her son around constantly remind her new lover of their age gap? Maybe she's lied about her age in her dating profile and her new beau thinks she's 45, not 55.
IF IT'S TOO BIG...
In some cases you may feel these kinds of complications would overshadow your core story or turn it into a melodrama. There's definitely danger of that in the cancer version of the story. That element is so big that it could detract if you want to explore the more subtle feelings that come with her search for the son she gave up.
Option One: Flip it. In the version above, her plan is finding her son and the unexpected life event is the terminal cancer. You could flip it around so that when the story opens, she is planning to continue to lead her normal quiet life for the little time she has left. Then something happens--either she learns the son is trying to find her, or in the process of getting her papers in order she comes across a picture of the boy just after he was born and that triggers her need to see him before she dies.
Option two: Think smaller. In this case, forget about the cancer as a story element. Instead, maybe the woman's closest friend passionately believes she's being foolish to dig up the past and it begins to disrupt her relationship with the person she assumed would be her best friend for life and who is her main source of emotional support.
Or maybe the search interferes with her work and she's in danger of losing the job she loves and planned to keep doing until she retired.
Or perhaps in the process of looking for her son she meets another person from her past who she'd planned never to see again.
Match the nature and scope of the unplanned event to the genre and style of the story you want to tell.
HOW TO USE THIS METHOD
A good way to use this method is to start with the core story you want to tell and then brainstorm the answers to these questions:
* What development would make it much harder for the protagonist to reach the goal?
* What development would test the protagonist? That could be on the physical level, the emotional level, the moral level, the spiritual level.
* If the core story is very dark, what unerexpected development might give you some opportunities for comic relief? If it's a comedy, what might help you expose the deeper side of your protagonist?
* Which of your ideas best fits the core story the way you want to tell it--complicating it but not overwhelming it? Do you need to make it bigger or smaller?
THE COINCIDENCE RULE
Some writers worrry that this leads to events that seem too coincidental, but I think the old rule works: you can use coincidence to get your characters into trouble but not to get them out of trouble. All of my examples are about getting the characters into trouble.
LOOK FOR THIS AS YOU WATCH AND READ
Try watching a few movies or TV episodes or reading a few novels with this in mind.
Do the more involving ones use this kind of structure?
Do the ones that feel less real or satisfying ignore it?
Of course the most important question is how you can use it to make your plot stronger. If you're just starting on a project, build this in from the very beginning.If you've written a first draft that's missing this element, it could be the key to a second draft that gains power and really works.
I hope this is helpful, let me know how you get on!
(For friendlly writing guidance from the greatest authors in the Western world, people like Twain, Dickens, Austen, Chekhov, get my book, Your Creative Writing Masterclass. It's published by Nicholas Brealey and available from Amazon or your other favorite bookseller.)
In reality shows as in drama shows and novels and plays, it's conflict that's at the heart of the story. Reality shows use editing tricks to create conflict even when it's not there. I think you'll find this Videojug.com amusing look at reality show editing interesting (there are some good tips in here for any kind of fiction writer):
You may also be interested in the previous post about the business of Reality TV (what networks look for, how such series are bought, etc.) and the one about storytelling in supposedly unscripted shows.
(For friendly guidance in writing your own book, screenplay, or even semi-scripted Reality series, see my book, "Your Writing Coach," published by Nicholas Brealey and available from Amazon or your other favorite bookseller.)