Sunday, June 7, 2009

How far do you need to go to be good?

Writing a screenplay is damn complicated. No revelation there. But just how complicated does it have to get to be good? I don't mean the obvious things, the 3 acts, the inciting incident, the turning point, blah blah. That's the skeleton. I'm talking about the subtleties, the layers of juicy meat. The stuff that makes a story go from good to can’t-put-it-down-except-to-grab-a-tissue great.

I find the more I learn about screen writing, the more impossible it seems to be able to pull it off. There's so much to orchestrate. At times I feel like a tone deaf composer of a symphony orchestra hoping my music won’t make ears bleed. Each time I think I’ve got something that works, I realize I haven’t done as much as I could or should.

So what do I always do when I'm overwhelmed? I make a list.

Here's my new list of 10 things a screenplay must do if it’s to have a chance at being great. It's a compilation of tips I’ve gotten from various books, blogs, sites and feedback over the past six months, when I actually started to try to sell a script. I realize that this is when I started to learn the finer points of screenwriting, and just how far you need to go to be good.

1) Write a good logline, preferably before you write your script. If the logline isn’t clear and compelling, chances are the script won't be either. Irony and opposing forces are key to a good logline, and a good story.

2) Make sure the story tells the hero's story. The hero must ultimately resolve the conflict. The hero must have a flaw(s) that prevents him from getting what he wants. The hero should be far from perfect, but incredibly engaging/endearing.

3) Do a Beat Sheet. It will show a multitude of sins. There are a lot of templates out there. Any one will do. It’s a tedious task, but well worth the pain.

4) Make sure the supporting characters have interesting, full stories with conflicts of their own. Intertwine these with the hero's story as much as possible.

5)Each character must have a unique voice. If the character’s names can be swapped for another with the same dialogue, it’s not unique.

6) No cookie cutter bad guys. Make them interesting (even likeable, or sympathetic?). Make them evoke emotions. (Side note: I recently saw a movie where the antagonist was more likeable than the protagonist! He was in the wrong, but he was very endearing!)

7) The subplots (gotta have em!) should have the same story structure as the main plot. Beginning, middle and end with all the bells and whistles in between.

8) Build the conflict over the course of the story. Chart a graph of the conflict level of each scene (I discovered colour coded scene tags in Final Draft 8!). It should be a steady rise with several big peeks. Make the audience care enough to hold their breath. Every scene must have conflict or at least move the story forward with something not seen before. If not, get rid of it. There's no story without drama, and no drama without conflict.*

9) Write one line of dialogue for the hero that shows who they are; sums them up.* (Famous one liners from movies are often this line of dialogue! Eg. “I’ll be back.”; “Make my day.”; “Yippie Kayay Mother-F***er”.)

10) Cut, cut and then cut some more. It’s amazing how much useless, self-indulgent drivel can creep into a good story. This means reading your script many, many times.

And if that’s not enough… just when you think "Right, I’ve got it. I’m good." check out this “reader’s checklist” written by Terry Rossio. Brace yourself. It's long.

I might always feel that I could do more fine-tuning, but at some point, I’ll have to feel I’ve gone far enough to be able to move onto the next one, taking all my hard earned experience with me. Hopefully I’ll do a lot less learning from my mistakes. One thing’s for sure, the first draft is allowed to be total crap. In fact, it’s supposed to be. It’s in the re-writes that a story truly comes together. That’s when the double trouble fun really begins.

Obviously, none of these concepts are actually mine, so I felt the need to note the more recent references for my list. Some things I've adopted for my list almost verbatim from "rewrite", indicated with a *.

“rewrite” by Paul Chitlik (it's a bit campy, but man, it's worth the read, and doing the exercises.)
“Breakfast with Sharks” by Michael Lent (about selling a script, but it's so much more.)
“Save the Cat” by Blake Snyder (my current enjoyable bedtime reading. Got the irony note about loglines from this book.) (just for his general awesomeness! Nothing here was actually from his site, but his site is an inspiration and a wealth of insights.) (because it’s so damn funny!)

And all the ever so appreciated feedback I’ve gotten from writers, producers and directors. They shall remain nameless to protect the innocent (me!).

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

should you write what you're passionate about, or what will sell?

I guess first off, it's good to know if you care if what you write will sell. If not, then off you go, write about the migratory patterns of butterflies all you like. Why their wings are spotted. How far they have to go. Someone might be interested. I won't be. But you'll be happy. And that's big.

But if you do want to sell something, then I don't see what's wrong with checking what the movie-buying people are interested in spending their money on. Less and less movies are being made right now. The recession is in full force in Hollywood. Big budget summer tentpole movies are not getting green-lit like they have been in the past. Studios are more cautious, going for the sequels, and the romantic comedies. Sure things or low budget. Feel good flicks in times when people need their spirits lifted.

I'm not saying that if you have desire to write about a man who losses his job, finds his wife in bed with his best friend, and he can't find a reaosn to live, then gets cancer, only to discover he doesn't want to die, and then dies... that you shouldn't write it. But I'm not sure it'll be very popular. Even if it's brilliant. Not in today's climate.

But I do think it's possible to take something that you're passionate about, and weave a tale around that, which will give people hope, and perhaps get you a lovely sale.

Take that damn migratory pattern. Make the main character a cute little monarch who can't make it the whole way in time, gets lost, has adventures to show him the value of tradition and the independance courage brings, and finally finds his way with the help of a dolphin and a crusty old seagul to the big ass once a year migration party in the amazon (or wherever the hell it is)... you've writen about your passion, given people what they want, and disney just might be interested.

I think the joy in telling a well crafted story can take many forms. Why not stear it in the direction of what people want to hear?

Are we running away or towards? And does it really matter?

I've become facinated with the WoW phenomenon. In case you have been stuck under a rock in the gaming world, that's "World of Warcraft", and it's apparently more addictive than cocaine. It's a MMORPG which is a 'massively multiplayer online role-playing game'. No joke. It's huger than huge. I've heard tales of it ruining people's lives, causing divorce, careers sufferning, and health problems all because of this addiction. It's certainly changing people's lives, and our society. For better or for worse. Here's how it works: You subscribe to the game, you don't buy it. You can choose which kind of gameplay you want, which society you belong to, and what class you will be. Right there, it's better than life. In life, you're born into these things, and changing your lot in life takes a huge effort. In WoW, you just pay a fee if you want to try something new. There is a whole world in there. Your character can gain knowledge, skills, talents, and become more developed. You go on quests. You can trade things. You can make money. And to get the more complicated gameplay, you can team up with a group, and everyone's class works together to achieve a goal. It's brilliant. It's progressive and it's rewarding. Unlike life a lot of the time. I can see why this has become such an international craze. China seems to be the most addicted, as a nation. I'm sure that says something about the quality of life in WoW, vs the quality of life in China. And people are making money for real, in the real world, by being good in the game, or at least playing it so much, that they can't help but get things that other people want. Desperately. Or so I've heard.

Then I read a quote from a comment on John August's site, who btw, has a post that had me in stitches, but was quite illuminating, as he's known to do. "Seven things I learned from World of Warcraft. The quote was from Sean William Menzies and he said "We live in a society so rich that grown men can afford to stay boys much longer than they should."

Now I don't know about you, but all this kind of saddens me in a way. Should grown men not be allowed to stay boys if they can? I supposed if they have responsibilities that they're shirking, like children or dogs, then sure. But I was all for Peter Pan never growing up. He had a lovely life, flying around and fighting with pirates. Is society as we know it, stifling our playful side? The mundane must do's, the people pleasing and the struggle to carve out a niche for yourself, one that most people aren't satisfied with, can get a bit tedious after a while. Is this why so many people have become addicted to a world where you can actually be someone you want to be, and get someplace you want to go while having fun doing it? Are we that unsatisfied with our real lives? And if we are, then why do so few people do anything about changing it? Why can we put massive efforts into our avatar's lives, but not our own? It is because we don't have to actually get our asses off a chair in WoW? Is it because we don't actually have to really learn how to do things? It's certainly a quicker route to success. Have we really become the instant-satisfaction-pill-poppers that don't need the satisfaction of true knowledge, or true discovery, or real experiences? Are the rewards no longer sufficient for the effort required? Are we burned out on trying so damn hard and not getting anywhere? Have our expectations for what we think we should be getting out of life, exceeded what's realistic and available, and so we seek it in a place where there's an unlimited supply of potential success, even if it's just a game? Have our real lives become that unsatisfying?

BUT the need for escapism hasn't changed. People have always loved books, movies, and soap operas. We all escape from our lives in different ways. Perhaps writing is a way as well. I escape into worlds I've created, with people that I love, but aren't real. Is that so different? I don't think so.

So, what's changed? Technology. And this is just the beginning of what will become available. With the wild success of WoW, and technology racing into the future faster than we can keep up, what is around the corner to take us away from it all? Will our world become fragmented into two places? The real world, and the virtual world. Escapism will be taken to new highs. Which do you think will be a better place to live?