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Layers of Meaning: September 11th

September 11th, 2011 3 comments

Every day has a special significance to someone.

There are birthdays, wedding days, anniversary commemorations… But few days are as filled with significance and remembrance as September 11th. Since 2001, 9/11 has become a national day of remembrance.

Can I borrow your date?

The scars left by the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks will always be evident – in lost family as well as challenges to how America balances its senses of security and tolerance. In so many ways, it has changed the way we live, from how we travel to the way our government is structured. Apart from such significant changes, however, are the subtle shifts that take place in the shadow of such a profound tragedy. Those whose special dates of remembrance for their anniversaries, birthdays and other commemorations were on September 11th now have a solemn task: to reconcile their personal celebrations with the nation’s grief. 

Reasons to Smile

On September 11, 1948, more than a decade before Osama Bin Laden was even born, my parents married. Today they celebrate their 63rd wedding anniversary. On September 11, 2001, their 53rd anniversary was co-opted by national tragedy. Fortunately for them – and all their family – their sense of love and commitment is strong enough to endure all that life has thrown their way. They continue to love one another and cherish the time they have together, a lesson they have passed down to all of their 6 kids and 14 grandkids – and now they eagerly anticipate two great-grandkids on the way.

It’s the weekend after Labor Day; in my family, that can only mean one thing: it’s time for the Day-Hicks Family Reunion (or Hicks-Day, depending on your fidelity to history). Regardless of what you call it, the Family Reunion is a long-standing tradition I have written about before in For Bards Blog. Held by my mother’s family, the event has slimmed down from its peak years, but the reunion has always drawn relatives living in the central Massachusetts area, as well as a healthy dose of those living hundreds of miles away. An old-fashioned, pot-luck affair, I always looked forward to the reunion to run around with my many, many cousins as the adults reminisced about days gone by and changes to the family. I miss the family reunion, and wish I could be there today.

It’s not every day that a guy praises his brother-in-law, but that’s what I find myself doing today, 9/11, because it is my brother-in-law’s birthday. Born a scant 40-something years ago, he is an accomplished chef, although, somehow, he is also a chartered accountant, a pilot and a magician. (For all I know, the guy’s a Jedi master as well. Let’s face it: he’s clearly an overachiever.) But he’s had to share his date with America ever since he was in his 30s.

Every day is special

Those who previously counted September 11th as ‘their day,’ now share it with America – and the world. What was personal is shared – and perhaps that is the way it should be. My parents anniversary, my family’s reunion and my brother-in-law’s birthday – all today, along with the nation’s remembrance of a historical tragedy – will be in my thoughts. I will continue to celebrate 9/11 for its significance to my folks and my family. I will also be grateful for the fact that my best friend from high school, who worked in one of the World Trade Center towers, had opted to take time off from work to visit his sister in California when the planes hit. Similarly, I will remember with sadness the young man who grew up next door to me in upstate New York, who,  on 9/11/2001, was a bond trader on the 105th floor of tower #1.

Stories and more stories

With the sunrise on September 12, 2011, America will resume life as usual. Cautious, vigilant, wary… but usual. Our lives were changed by 9/11, but they shouldn’t be diminished. For me, September 11th will always be my parents anniversary, my brother-in-law’s birthday. And, it will be time of remembrance. But no matter how I commemorate the big events in life, I’m comforted by the fact that there will be a sunrise the next morning. And it will be beautiful.

Endings: Grace note?

September 1st, 2011 No comments

The ‘Holy Trinity’ of Story

Every screenplay has a beginning, middle and ending – and, as has been noted more than once before in For Bards Blog, the ending is usually the hardest part to get right. For those reading a novel or otherwise immersing themselves in some form of entertainment, reaching the ending is usually a bittersweet experience. On one hand, you have a feeling of accomplishment, but it is inevitably tinged with a sense of loss: this vicarious experience has drawn to a close. For a screenwriter, creating a solid ending that resolves their story to the audience’s satisfaction is a tricky balancing act, but hopefully it gives birth to the urge to create anew. Often it leads to re-examination, second guessing and unlimited fussing in the name of ‘getting it right,’ even though it’s possible the first choice may have been the right one. In other words, it’s hard to let a project go, but it’s necessary. Your script must be complete before it can be produced – and the desired throngs can enjoy it on the big screen, from beginning to end – at which point it will be their turn to yearn for more …

Lasting Impressions

Whether your script is a comedy, a drama or anything else, it will first be judged on its ending. Just the way making a good ‘first impression’ is important when meeting someone, the ‘final impression’ a reader or studio executive takes away from your script’s last page is likely to make the difference between a ‘consider’ or a ‘pass.’ (If you’re lucky enough to garner a rare ‘recommend,’ you probably nailed it way before the last page.) So the ending of your screen story is vital to the success of your project – and you should ensure that it hits the correct notes to offer your audience an entertaining, insightful and emotionally satisfying experience.

The End… or is it?

One of Hollywood’s latest ‘innovations’ in terms of story endings harkens back to the earliest days of film, when all movies were shorts, and many were serials. Now movies have ‘bulked up’ into $200 million behemoths, so studios must hedge their bets by implanting a cryptic plot point at the end of their tentpole films so that they have pre-positioned a sequel in their (presumed) franchise. All superhero films have them, every ghost story, all genre-mashups… If you are lucky enough to get your script made these days, it had better have franchise potential – if you decide to work for a big studio, that is.

Still a place for dignity

Fortunately, there still is a market for original films with challenging themes and endings. That’s the good news. Here’s the bad news: if you’ve written a screenplay with a ‘downer’ ending, or something that is open-ended, be prepared for requests to change it to something ‘more commercial.’ Because even if you’re fortunate enough to sell your screenplay, the people who bought it still would like to make money off of it, and if that means changing the ending, they will. It’s called show business, not show art. The best way to avoid having your script’s ending changed is to write the strongest one possible in the first place. And that’s where an experienced story analyst can help make a difference.

Omega and Alpha

Endings are part of the nature of things. Everything that has a beginning has an ending. In screenwriting, the one trick to an ending that is emotionally resonant and satisfying is this: there is no trick. There is only hard work, trial and error, and solid writing. So go out there and write – and re-write, if necessary – your screenplay’s ending. But finish it, with a real ending you can justify; if you can argue successfully for a downer, open-ended absurdist nihilstic finale, then that’s probably the right ending for your work. Get it right, and get it done. That way you can start your next  script with a clear conscience…

Subject Matter? Yes!!

August 11th, 2011 No comments

 

You Can’t Make This Stuff Up…

It’s every writer’s eternal quest: finding something ‘interesting’ to write about. I’ve addressed the subject of subject matter before in For Bards blog, most recently last December: “What Should I Write About?” In that post, I described a holiday dinner I attended with a group of friends: a Hollywood set dresser, a Tony-nominated playwright, a TV costumer, a Hollywood studio executive assistant and a last-minute addition: a screenwriter, the son of a famous British knight. And me, of course – after all, every historic party requires its amanuensis.

And that’s where it started to get interesting…

As I wrote last December, the dinner was wonderful – and the company was delightful. All of us had known one another for years, with the exception of the last-minute guest. He arrived after the party had started, a bottle of wine in hand, and proceeded to work his charm – and obvious self-promotion – over the rest of the group. His reputation had preceded him: our host’s dear friends from out of state explained that the man was working on a hush-hush screenplay, and was staying at an acquaintance’s home in ritzy Pacific Palisades as he worked out the final details of a sale to a major studio. Tall and charming, he was the son of a famous British knight connected with the music industry, and possessed a melifluous voice that was alternately soothing and authoritative. In short, he was a real character.

A real character

As I wrote last December, this dinner could serve as subject matter for any number of stories: a “Big Chill” reunion tale, “Home For the Holidays” comedy or – as I’ve subsequently discovered – a flim flam caper. Because that screenwriter son of a famous British knight? He left one item off his resume: con man. In the months since, I’ve come to learn that this man, who really is the son of a knight, has taken advantage of friends, acquaintances and strangers for years. Apparently he has a screenplay, since he later shared some of it with one of the dinner guests (although it’s not clear it’s really his),  but no ‘multi-million dollar deal’ as he’d repeatedly mentioned at dinner. It turns out the out-of-state pals who vouched for him with our dinner host were also taken, for loans and hospitality, and his Pacific Palisades landlord was similarly stiffed. We’ve since surmised that even the bottle of wine brought to that holiday dinner was probably pilfered from his host’s wine cellar.

Prodigal Son or Problem Child?

So the amount of story material yielded from this holiday dinner of late 2010 has increased exponentially. Now it could be a comedy about a huckster, a straight-up drama dealing with identity, or a character study of an antisocial persona. In short, discovering a wolf in our flock of sheep upped the creative ante considerably. Because drama is conflict, the opportunities for fashioning a story out of this experience are manifold. Since learning of this con man’s modus operandi, I’ve also discovered he has been doing this for years; he has been disowned by his illustrious father and left a trail of broken relationships in his wake. Were it not for the force of the man’s personality, I’m certain he would’ve been unmasked as a fraud years ago. His ceaseless self-promotion at dinner was strange, and perhaps should have been take as a red flag, although let’s face it: in Hollywood, people love to brag about their successes. Ironically, in my experience, the most successful people brag the least.

Interesting story – but it needs an ending…

For someone looking for story material, I’ve proven there are at least a few takes on something as simple as a dinner party. The revelation that one guest was a con man adds depth to the story, perhaps propelling it into its second act. Was the con man there to steal something? To find another victim? Taking a day off? There are so many options open to this story, and very few dead ends. The one thing the story presently lacks is a solid ending. Is it a happy ending? A righteous one? What if the ending is simply a new beginning? There are so many choices open to a creative writer – so now all you need to do is create.

The morality of the story…

There may be no moral to this story, but there certainly is morality involved. The con man guest isn’t necessarily the most important character to the story, but he’s a valuable one. His conflicted morality offers multiple plot lines and story points – all necessary to a successful screenplay. So, what have we learned? A dinner party can provide story material, but its story potential multiplies when someone (or perhaps more than one) at that party has a secret. As a writer, your job is to reveal any secrets in a way that makes your work relevant, compelling and entertaining. It’s a tough job – but, hey – you’re a writer, aren’t you?

 Are you up to the task?

The 15-day First Draft

July 18th, 2011 No comments

Speed writing?

At Forbard Story Services, I provide truthful and constructive criticism of my clients’ work – and always observe absolute confidentiality involving every writer’s story, plot and subject matter. But I did have a unique experience working with a writer recently that I will share. Like a screenwriting version of speed-dating, we worked together and fashioned a first draft screenplay based on his orginal (prose) material in 15 days. My client and his resulting script fall under that ‘confidentiality’ thing, but the experience itself was invigorating and rewarding.

Compelled to write

For a number of reasons, including the writer’s age, I was motivated to help him achieve his vision, even if that meant I had to do more than I customarily would in terms of story analysis services. The writer was clearly compelled to write, and I could sense his urgency, so I simply used his stories as a blueprint to develop a complete script with a beginning, middle and end, containing solid characters and story themes which would resonate with an audience. After a false start or two, we hit on a productive working relationship: as the client offered more primary material, I generated script pages, which we would both revise. Soon, we fell into a comfortable rhythm.

No time for distractions

To create a full first draft script in 15 days, it was necessary to hunker down and work. It meant a minimum of 10 solid script pages a day before revisions, and left very little time for much else. I consulted with my client by phone nearly every day, sometimes multiple times, and set myself the task of adapting and adjusting the writer’s stories into something a producer or director would recognize as a thought-out script, in a familiar format, lacking any serious flaws like plot holes, stilted dialogue or a formulaic feel. It helped that I was home alone while my wife was away, since it allowed me to work any time the whim struck me.

Even God rested…

The 15-day first draft involved 15 days of writing, but not 15 consecutive days… Let’s face it: writing is hard (at least good writing is), and even God took a day off while creating the world. So I took a few days off during this process, and the entire affair unfolded over 18 days. But, as any writer knows, a ‘day off’ isn’t always an accurate description, since most writers keep working in their heads when they aren’t tapping the keyboard or scribbling on paper. In any case, both my client and I took a few days off, but they were needed to recharge – and refine.

First Draft at last!

The final day of writing was spent bridging various scenes, revising some of the previous story lines and characters, and generally just getting all the script’s figurative ducks in a row. After an intense period of living and breathing the stories’ characters and creating and re-hashing plot elements and story lines, the first draft was complete. My client was enthusiastic about the end result: although he didn’t realize it when he started, he was trying to write a screenplay, but lacked a general familiarity with the format and mechanics of screenwriting to come up with a finished script on his own. For my part, I was very pleased: although as a story analyst I usually confine my input to constructive criticism, this project was special, particularly because of the client’s obvious desire to tell his story.

Stay in shape!

What I took away from the whole experience is that it’s good to keep those screenwriting muscles in shape – a 15-day first draft is like running a marathon: you start out with highest hopes and great intentions, occasionally sag in the middle, and are elated to see it end – albeit with a tremendous feeling of accomplishment. At least that’s what my runner friends tell me. After all, what would I know about running marathons? I’m a writer.

Nature vs. Nurture: Creativity or Experience?

May 26th, 2011 No comments

Unformed or Informed…?

In the last For Bards Blog post, I mentioned a friend had asked the question “Why is it that so many writers or filmmakers do their best work at a young age?” My glib answer was instantaneous: “It’s called the “Citizen Kane” effect.” I did  put in my defense of experience and wisdom by citing filmmmakers like Woody Allen, Clint Eastwood, or Alain Renais, all of whom  in the last year or two delivered the most mature works of their careers. But my friend’s answer was equally quick – and equally glib: “Yes, but no one  goes to see those.” So why is it that so many creative artists do their most audacious work at the beginning of their career, and what filmmakers have managed to have avoid this pitfall? (Or is it a gift…?)

Enfant Terrible?  –  Seasoned Vet?

Orson Welles‘ “Citizen Kane” serves as both an inspiration and a cautionary tale to filmmakers, because it signifies the limitless creativity of genius and the relentless demands of commerce at odds with one another. Arguably Welles’ best film (if not anyone’s), “Citizen Kane” showcased Orson Welles’ ample talent and vision and has thrilled audiences ever since its release; but it was not a commercial success, mainly due to the efforts of William Randolph Hearst, who, probably accurately, perceived Herman J. Mankiewicz and Welles’ story of publishing magnate Charles Foster Kane as a personal attack. The resulting film is a cinema classic, but its arthouse creative ingenuity cost Welles industry work for years. Despite 9 Academy Award nominations, “Citizen Kane” won only for Best Original Screenplay for Mankiewicz and Welles (a credit that its director and co-writer contested for years). Orson Welles’ next directorial effort, “The Magnificent Ambersons,” was taken over in editing by RKO, which savagely re-cut Welles’ original version. Resorting to hire himself out as an actor or wine spokesperson, Welles as a director failed to recreate the cinematic brio of “Citizen Kane,” although he came closest in his 1958 film noir “Touch of Evil.”

Woody Allen is 75 years old. And he still makes movies – almost one a year. Some would argue that his best films are behind him: his “early funny” movies (to quote a sycophant from Allen’s “Stardust Memories”) are a distant memory, and his storylines have tended toward similarity over time. Yet Woody Allen is currently garnering his best critical reaction in years for his latest film, “Midnight in Paris,” which premiered at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival recently. Compared by some to his comic fantasy “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” “Midnight in Paris” stars Owen Wilson as an Allen-esque writer whose present-day Parisian vacation changes when he is transported back to the romanticized Jazz Age Paris of the 1920s, allowing him to rub shoulders and exchange bon mots with the likes of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Salvador Dali and Ernest Hemingway. In a way, it’s  a melding of the ‘old’ and ‘new’ Woody Allen: the protagonist is Allen’s Everyman nebbish stand-in, but the film’s setting and sensibility is the ‘new’ Woody, who left his native New York City to shoot all his films since 2005 in England or Europe. His next film, starring Penelope Cruz, will be shot in Rome. 

 

The Argument Continues…

So why is it that some folks do their most evocative  work when they are clearly ‘making it all up?’ Is that naivete? Or pure creativity? And what about a lifetime of experience? John Huston’s two greatest films were probably the first and last he directed (1941’s “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Dead” in 1987) – 46 years apart! Alfred Hitchcock was limited by film technology when he started directing, embraced it by mid-career and was bored by it at the end – but he delivered films that fall into both the best-work and worst-work categories during each of these phases (among the bests: “The Lodger,” “Notorious,” “Psycho;” among the worsts: “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” “I Confess,” “Topaz”). But in all these cases – and those of countless other writers and directors, their first project – or even ‘sophmore effort’ – displays a yearning to ‘dream big’ and make a mark. One of the bon-vivants of Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” F. Scott Fitzgerald, famously said “There are no second acts in American lives,” alluding to the enormous success he experienced with the publication of “The Great Gatsby” in 1924, when Fitzgerald was only 28. Although he struggled to recreate that phenomenal early success, Fitzgerald was forever held to the impossible standard of ‘Gatsby.’ How ironic, then, that yet another adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” is in the works for the big screen starring Leo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan and directed by Baz Luhrmann – the 5th version of Fitzgerald’s classic since 1926. Although alcoholism and a hard life brought about his demise at age 44, Fitzgerald’s masterwork lives on. The moral of the story? Create. Then, create some more. Who knows? – you could be the next John Huston… Or, God forbid, F. Scott Fitzgerald, although I suppose worse things have happened…

 Hopefully I’ll see you at the 2012 opening of “The Great Gatsby.” No second acts, indeed…!

Style? …or Substance?

May 10th, 2011 No comments

It’s been a little while, but the victory of “The King’s Speech” over “The Social Network” at the Academy Awards in February for Best Picture and Best Director has gotten us thinking: is there such a thing as a ‘style over substance’ bias at the Oscars?

The Academy Award Best Picture victory of “The King’s Speech” (along with Best Director, Tom Hooper, as well as best original screenplay by David Seidler) over its notable competitor “The Social Network,” directed by David Fincher (although “The Social Network”‘s screenplay, adapted by Aaron Sorkin from Ben Mezrich’s book, also won), says a lot about Academy voters. They like an underdog, it seems, even when the Directors’ Guild or the Writers’ Guild feel otherwise. Stylish films (or films which emphasize direction over story) from first-time directors have scuttled Oscar hopes for master director Martin Scorsesetwice. And other great directors (ever heard of Steven Spielberg? Stanley Kubrick?) have had their hopes dashed by ‘flashy’ entrants in the Oscar race.

 

This Year’s Model

It’s not hard to see why “The King’s Speech” won the Best Picture Oscar over “The Social Network,” since Toby Hooper’s ‘Speech’ is playful, studied and gimmicky. Audiences love that in a movie, and the Academy, despite their above-average member age, usually loves audience favorites. Besides, the story behind David Seidler’s truth-based script is practically a movie on its own: a stutterer himself, Seideler got the Queen Mother’s permission to write her husband’s story, on the condition that he wait until after her death to sell it – and she then proceeded to live to the ripe old age of 101! (In the process, Seidler became the oldest winning screenwriter in Academy Award history.)  Sorkin’s adaptation of Ben Mezrich’s book “The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal” served as the basis of Sorkin’s adaptation, “The Social Network,” under David Fincher’s direction. Although both pictures were nominated for Best Picture, screenplay and director, Fincher’s coolly calculated, challenging evocation of the Silicon Valley start-up explosion and birth of Facebook lost out to Hooper’s frenetic and occasionally slapstick historical tale. Although both pictures did well at the box office, it’s a good bet that 20 years from now more people will be citing the influence of Fincher’s work in “The Social Network” (or his previous film “Zodiac,” which similarly evoked a recent period setting with astonishing effect) than will be pointing to “The King’s Speech” and its effect on film. 

Freshman curse?

It sure seems like veteran film director Martin Scorsese has been the victim of this Academy ‘Style vs. Substance’  bias. Multiple times. He finally got his Best Director Oscar in 2007 for “The Departed,” but was nominated (and, of course, lost) 6 times previously. I was at the Academy Awards in 1981 when Scorsese lost to the first of three first-time directors, Robert Redford, who won for “Ordinary People” over Scorsese’s “Raging Bull” (argued by many cinephiles to be the best film of the 80s). Scorsese would go on to lose (with “Goodfellas”) to Kevin Costner and “Dances with Wolves” in 1990, and again to first-time feature director Rob Marshall, whose “Chicago” beat “The Aviator” in 2005. It was only after his 7th nomination, for “The Departed,” that Scorsese defeated this ‘freshman curse.’ Even still, his ‘loser’ films like “The Last Temptation of Christ,” “Raging Bull” and “Gangs of New York” are considered ‘winners’ in the pages of film history.

Always the Bridesmaid…

 Martin Scorsese isn’t alone in terms of being a powerhouse director with an empty shelf full of near-misses at the Oscar ceremony. Steven Spielberg has been nominated 9 times, and won three of those Oscars (he won for Best Picture and Best Director in 1994 for “Schindler’s List,” but in 1998 had to settle for Best Director only for “Saving Private Ryan”). The Oscar for Best Picture of 1998 went to John Madden’s “Shakespeare in Love,” which many in Hollywood attributed to a savvy “For Your Consideration” Academy Award trade publication advertising campaign. Again, regardless of “Shakespeare in Love”‘s wit and frothiness, its importance to film history is bound to be overshadowed by its losing Best Picture competitor “Saving Private Ryan.”

How about Light versus Dark?

Although 2010’s Best Picture battle underscored the ‘style versus substance’ debate in Hollywood, it’s really nothing new. The Academy has been choosing between light entertainment and heavy drama since its inception. In 1951, Elia Kazan’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” lost to “An American in Paris” at the box office. Vincente Minnelli’s popular musical film beat Kazan’s gritty drama that year (although Kazan – and ‘Streetcar’ star Marlon Brando – would win golden statuettes a few years later for their work together on “On the Waterfront” ). A similar situation would arise 14 years later when “My Fair Lady” faced down “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb” as Best Picture at the Academy Awards in 1965. Despite its vaunted place in film history (and multiple Oscar nominations), Stanley Kubrick’s apocalyptic black comedy lost to George Cukor’s refined adaptation of the Lerner and Loewe classic, which practically swept the 1965 Oscar ceremony. Even still, I don’t know of many people whose ‘desert island movie collection’ would leave out ‘Dr. Strangelove.’ Can’t say I know a lot of people who would include ‘My Fair Lady,’ either, but that’s just me…

Doesn’t visionary count? 

Finally, one of the more obvious ‘style over substance’ choices for Best Picture has to come from 1976, in which heavyweight Hollywood dramas “All the President’s Men,” “Bound for Glory,” “Taxi Driver” (there’s that hapless Scorsese again!) and the late Sidney Lumet’s classic “Network” (from Paddy Chayefsky’s original Oscar-winning screenplay) all lost to John Avildsen’s “Rocky,” which clealy struck a chord with underdog-lovers everywhere. A tremendously-successful independent film, “Rocky” spawned five sequels.  “Network,” on the other hand, predicted the rise of reality TV, ratings wars and global media, not to mention airwave-hogging ideologues. So there is that

Who says it’s just style or substance?

While discussing the subject of style versus substance, a friend asked an intriguing question: “Why is it that so many writers or filmmakers do their best work at a young age?”

So – coming up next: ‘Nature versus Nurture: Creativy or Experience?’ 

The Writes of Spring?

April 6th, 2011 2 comments

Hey, congratulations! You made it through one of the coldest, snowiest, nastiest winters on record (so far), and spring – such as it is – is here. It’s time for ‘spring cleaning,’ and hopefully that includes any ideas you’ve been holding onto over the harsh winter. Washing the windows and beating the rugs – well, that’s your business. But when it comes to following your creative urge and putting those long-gestating ideas down on paper – what I call the ‘writes of spring,’ you should remember the importance of story basics. After all, spring is a time of renewal and rebirth; if you look at the movies coming to a theater near you this summer, renewed and rebirthed is a pretty accurate description of the sequel-heavy fare… It’s why you need to contribute to the ‘writes of spring.’ After all, your idea is better, isn’t it?

The importance of story

More often than not, audiences do not leave a movie theater criticizing the art direction. They find fault with the story – or the way the story is told. The first part means the writer didn’t do their job properly; the latter suggests the director is complicit with the writer. In either case, it’s probably because the story had flaws. Flaws which could have been fixed before the story left audiences wanting something better. That’s where the process of story development comes in: story development analysis reinforces scripts so their seams are not evident.

End with the beginning? Begin with the ending?

No matter what your creative process entails, the important part is getting words down on paper (or bits and bytes on your hard drive) to give your work life. Basics like story structure, pacing, tone, characters, etc. are all important, but without actual substance, all writing is hypothetical. So get those words written – however you want. If you want to begin with your story’s ending (usually the most difficult element of any story or script to get right), go for it! Just remember, while the ending is important, it’s no more so than the beginning or middle. But you’ve got to start somewhere…

Everybody’s a critic

Once you’ve accomplished your goal and put your script down on paper, what next? The subsequent step may actually be the hardest: letting others read and offer criticism of your work. It’s necessary for people to read your efforts – that’s the very definition of being a writer. But you want people to read your work with an eye toward making it better, not simply pointing out misspellings or typos or pronouncing it ‘good.’ Because of their formats, feature film scripts, as well as teleplays and stage plays, can offer a reading challenge to the uninitiated, so it’s a very good idea to have someone familiar with script format read your work for quality and clarity.

Written any good movies lately?

Spring has sprung, the sap is running… So start writing! Or do you WANT another summer of sequels, remakes and reboots? Frankly, it’s your move…

Who ARE you People?!

February 25th, 2011 No comments

For Bards blog has reached a milestone of sorts – it’s turned the page on its first year, and is moving full-speed ahead into its second.

Some Numbers

During the last year, I have written 79 blog posts which have been read by thousands of readers from 65 countries. Not surprisingly, English language-speaking countries account for a substantial share of this traffic, especially since I have relatives (and many close friends) in the United States and the United Kingdom. But that can’t explain why For Bards blog is popular in Australia or New Zealand, where I am delighted to have discovered a loyal readership.

 

It has been fun as well as educational to write For Bards blog during the last year. Many of the posts dealt with the business end of show business, discussing weekend box office numbers or the changing of the guard at one studio or another. Other posts discuss the creative process, or writing in general. But some of my favorite posts have been more personal, like the series of posts I wrote about “My Favorite Week,” when I was lucky enough to hang out with horror movie icon Vincent Price, or relating the ongoing drama of MGM in “Dyin’ Lion?,” which gave me a chance to reminisce about the studio in earlier troubled times. But when the public speaks, its voice must be heard: the #1 most-read post on For Bards blog the last year? It was a relatively innocuous post about big budget releases – but its title must’ve been irresistable to search engines: “Is that a Tentpole in your pocket? (Or are you just shoring up your slate?)” It certainly proves one thing – Madison Ave. is right: (implied) sex sells! From here on in, I’ll try to work something smarmy into every title…

I Hear You

Many readers have been kind enough to leave comments on For Bards blog – and I am always happy to hear from fellow writers and/or film fans. I’ve also learned a great deal about spam: it’s a tool used by some to direct ‘hits’ to their own websites (or sites they advertise on). I’ve learned how to deal with industrial spam while continuing to offer readers a chance to comment. So don’t hesitate to share your opinion (or movie suggestions) – just don’t be surprised if a spam-laden ‘posting’ never appears… I have my ways!

Shameless Plug

My contributions to For Bards blog are linked to my website Forbard Story Services, and both sites have received a good deal of cross-traffic over the past year. As a result, Forbard Story Services has been fortunate enough to help a number of writers with their screenplays, stage plays, teleplays, treatments and other writing projects.  It is always exciting to offer perspective and constructive analysis to writers, and the coming year holds a great deal of promise for more of the same. I encourage writers to keep up the hard work, since Forbard Story Services is ready, willing and able to help.

So, who ARE you people?

Who are For Bards blog readers? They’re writers, they’re movie fans, they’re my voluminous family… They’re also residents of the Maldives, Ivory Coast, Denmark, Slovenia, South Africa, Argentina, Burma, China, Brazil, Russia, and 55 other countries… In other words, they’re lovers of film and writing from around the world. And I look forward to continuing to write about those subjects as For Bards blog moves from its infancy into toddlerdom. In the meantime, thanks to ALL of you for reading For Bards blog!

What should I write about?

December 10th, 2010 No comments

The question frequently arises among writers: “What should I write about?” It’s not coincidental that the most frequent answer is “Write what you know,” especially since it’s easier to draw on personal experience than create a new world from whole cloth. But both approaches have their merits, and their adherents. It’s really about which you do best, since writing well is the goal…

Recently I attended a holiday dinner party which came together almost spontaneously. At the dinner I was joined by a high-level film studio executive-assistant, a Tony-nominated playwright, a British screenwriter (son of a Knight!), a set dresser and a costumer. As the lone blogger, I was both intimidated and fascinated. Talk ranged from gossip to philosophy, from food to metaphysics, and I did my best to take it all in (meal included, truth be told). By evening’s end, I had enough ‘material’ to write several screenplays, from the “Big Chill” aspect of this rag-tag group of celebrants to the farcical “Home for the Holidays” spirit of the day; if I wished, I could tap darker undercurrents which would lead the tale an entirely different direction.  Regardless of what direction I wished to go, from comic to heavily dramatic, I gained enough inspiration (and story material) from our dinner together to keep me busy for a while.

Knowing what to write about is half the battle. What remains is a difficult – albeit frequently fun – task of defining your story, identifying its beginning, middle and end, and applying a plot structure to it which moves the story forward while satisfying audiences’ desires to be entertained. It’s a careful balance of  plot, character, dialogue, pacing and tone – and any one of these elements can ‘tip’ the overall project off-kilter – and into a studio’s ‘reject’ pile. So it’s obvious that knowing your story is paramount to your screenplay’s success, but getting it right is just as important, and that takes an artist’s touch.

Personal experience is a tricky thing: we often lack the perspective to ‘open-up’ our own stories and instead get bogged-down in minutiae, so it’s important to step back to see the bigger picture (the one the audience deserves) to ensure your story is being told completely. It’s no accident that many of the best novels are adapted into screenplays not by the books’ authors, but by experienced screenwriters who understand the structure and demands of a screen story. Many book authors get the opportunity to adapt their work for Hollywood, but few see their efforts get to the screen unchanged; conversely, those writers who eschew Hollywood work in favor of writing more books often score a higher success rate in getting their titles to theater marquees. A prime example of the latter is Elmore Leonard, who gave up adapting his works in the 80s, although he continues writing novels to this day – and movies continue to be produced (“3:10 to Yuma”) based on his enormous volume of work.

So what should you write about? The answer to that question is as varied as life itself. Material should present itself, whether it comes from a dinner party, a walk to the store or a phone call with a loved one. It’s up to you as a writer to recognize this opportunity and write it down.

Once you’ve finished writing, don’t forget to make sure your work is immune to critical nit-picking. Every successful story, play, screenplay, teleplay and novel became a success because the author took the time to get it right. Story analysis from an experienced professional is the best way to gain perspective on this very personal work. Constructive criticism is the key to refining your project into the ‘bulletproof’ property that will increase your odds of success!

Watch Out!! Something May Happen…!

October 4th, 2010 No comments

There’s a lot of press being generated these days about a vague terrorist threat dealing with Europe. The U.S. State Department issued a travel alert today involving Europe, especially Germany, England and France, and, without offering any greater details, suggested U.S. citizens abroad check in with their local embassies, avoid large public gatherings and avoid discussing their plans in public. Wow. I don’t know about you, but I feel safer already… (Not.) Late in the afternoon I heard a tiny bit of  ‘detail’ provided by the State Department, which hinted that Americans in Europe should “avoid public transportation.” Great – there goes the budget!!

Frankly, what the press and media in general are doing is the same thing a good screenwriter does: setting a strong tone to their story. In the case of the current warnings, the tone is clear: foreboding. It’s a potent tone, and TV, the internet and radio have run with it – whether or not it really means anything. Foreboding is a great for a story, but it presents a problem: once you’ve scared the audience, where do you go from there? “Keep being scared,” you instruct the crowd sitting in the dark watching your story – by increasing the risks its characters face – until its ‘payoff.’ In a dramatic story, if there is no dramatic payoff, the audience will be disappointed. In a ‘real’ story, if there is no dramatic ‘payoff,’ we are relieved.

So life is mirroring art these days – replete with ‘terrorist chatter,’ drone attacks and intelligence warnings. And in an election year, no less. It’s the stuff of great drama – but manipulative real life.

Let’s hope that the current atmosphere of dread passes soon – but it should offer a solid example of how important tone and mood are to a story. True, dread, foreboding and wariness aren’t the most fun of moods to set – but they force folks to pay attention, don’t they? And for that reason, they are valuable (and manipulative) weapons in your arsenal as a writer…