Thursday, April 28, 2011

Words of Inspiration

As my friend, Leo Maselli, commented in a previous post, every aspiring screenwriter should check out the documentary "Tales from the Script," (available on Netflix) which includes many illuminating interviews with actual working screenwriters. I wanted to share my favorite quote from that movie by screenwriter Billy Ray, author of "Color of Night," "Volcano," "Hart's War," and many other fine scripts:

"If you can survive while people are kicking you in the head, eventually their leg will get tired."

If that doesn't sum up what it's like to be a professional screenwriter, then nothing does. :-)

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Screenwriting Mistake #47: Protagonist’s job irrelevant to the story

Along with demonstrating your mad writing skillz, the first ten pages of your script should clearly establish who the protagonist is and what environment he has chosen for himself. One of the key elements of the protagonist’s environment is his job and there are two important goals that you can accomplish by giving your protagonist the right job: 1) Demonstrating his skillset (or “skillzset,” if you prefer my previous spelling); 2) Showing how he avoids confronting his internal flaw.

Let’s start with the flaw. Every protagonist should have an internal flaw that makes his life significantly less enjoyable than it otherwise could be, and which also makes his external goal particularly difficult for him to accomplish. That internal flaw should be so painful for the protagonist to deal with, that he has had to find an environment (including a job) that allows him to avoid encountering it. For example, someone with a fear of heights would probably not work as a window washer or suspension bridge construction worker. He would find a job that allows him to remain as close to the ground as possible at all times. Your protagonist should do the same thing.

In addition to letting your protagonist avoid confronting his internal flaw, a well-chosen job will also demonstrate a particular ability that the protagonist can use to overcome his antagonist. In Hitchcock’s movie “Rear Window,” Jimmy Stewart’s character is a photographer, so he uses one of his bright strobes to blind Raymond Burr in their final confrontation. In “Slumdog Millionaire,” Jamal’s profession as a tea server for telemarketers allows him to avoid both the life of crime that his brother has chosen, but also his own inability to rise above his social caste by placing him at the absolute bottom of the corporate ladder. However, this job also demonstrates Jamal's clever resourcefulness by showing how he takes full advantage of those rare moments when he is asked to cover for a telemarketer who needs to go on break. Jamal not only uses these opportunities to contact Latika, but also to get a spot on the “Millionaire” show.

I should throw in the big ol’ caveat here that most protagonists, even in highly successful movies, don’t have a job that both demonstrates their unique abilities and allows them to avoid confronting their internal flaws. But most good screenplays do give the protagonist a job that has a direct influence on the story, so at a bare minimum, you should make sure that yours does too. However, it's so efficient way to manage those two character traits this way that you could set yourself apart by giving your protagonist a job like this. Give it a shot and see if it improves your story.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Screenwriting Mistake #46: No structure

I should start this post by saying that I am a big believer in screenwriting structure. I don’t think that excellent structure alone can make a script good, but it is extremely difficult to write a good script that doesn’t have at least some semblance of structure. I’ve analyzed enough good and bad scripts to say definitively that the good ones adhere more closely to standard screenplay structure than the bad ones.

But no matter how many books come out that extol the value of structure, the argument that I hear the most from new screenwriters is that they don’t want to be “constrained” by structure. They just want to write freely and let their artistic ability dictate the flow of the script. But just like structure alone isn’t enough to generate a good script, creativity is also not enough without structure to accompany it. Like so many professions, screenwriting is a mixture of art and science, so you need a healthy dollop of both in order to be successful.

So why does screenwriting structure exist? Simply speaking, this is just the way that most people prefer to consume their movie-going experiences. Structure doesn’t exist because some studio executive said that’s how movies should be written. The studio’s only goal is to give the people what they want, so they produce movies that they believe the greatest number of people will want to see. That kind of movie almost invariably contains at least some measure of structure, and the really successful ones have almost perfect structure. That’s the reason why I always check for structure when evaluating screenplays.

So what kind of structure should you have in your script? Of course, I think you should check out my structure guide and adhere to that as closely as possible. At the very least, you should have the following: A first act (comprising about 25% of the script) that shows who the protagonist is, what his internal flaw is and how it’s causing problems in his life, accompanied by a couple of major events that propel him to begin pursuing a clear and tangible external goal. This should be followed by a second act (comprising about 50% of the script) that shows the protagonist trying to accomplish his external goal against increasingly difficult obstacles, then reaching a point of no return in the middle, only to fail at his goal at the end of this act. The main things that you need to do in your third act (comprising the final 25% of your script) are to show whether or not your protagonist overcomes his internal flaw and whether or not he accomplishes his external goal. The protagonist should ideally have some kind of big showdown with his antagonist toward the end. There’s a lot more to structure than that brief description, but if your script contains all of those elements, it will be several steps ahead of the majority of the screenplays being written today.