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Posts Tagged ‘screenplay’

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…

Homework during summer? BUMMER!

July 27th, 2011 No comments

 

 

Dude, hope you’re havin’ a bitchin summer!

OK… you’re a screenwriter. So where’s your homework?

HOMEWORK?! Nobody said anything about homework…!

WHAT Unwritten Rules?

Aha! Homework is another of the unwritten rules of screenwriting. (As the saying goes, “There are no rules to sure success in the movie business – but you break them at your own peril.”) And everyone has to do homework – even if they’re the teacher.

Homework, but no Phys Ed, right?

No Physical Education, but you should get off the couch, your movie theater seat or desk chair every once in a while. In the case of screenwriting, homework really consists of knowing your business. Literally. The more movies you have seen, the more scripts you have read, the better your chances of writing a strong, original screenplay. Although it may seem illogical, being original is really a matter of knowing what’s gone before – so you can avoid the same territory. As a story analyst, I can usually tell a writer’s formative film and scripting influences as soon as I read their work. It’s human nature to emulate writing which we think is ‘quality,’ even if it involves unconscious borrowing or, in the worst cases, plagiarizing. It’s helpful to know if you’re unwittingly channeling a story that’s already been told (and which you saw and didn’t remember) before you submit your script – afterwards is too late, particularly for that script opportunity or your reputation.

Homework was never this fun

Cheer up. Screenwriting homework, like the ‘work’ of writing, isn’t too tough. In fact, screenwriting homework  is easier than writing. Basically, it involves two things: your mind and subject matter. The instructions go something like this: combine the two, ponder, and repeat. That’s about all there is to it. In other words, stimulate your mind with a film or film script, absorb the story elements, note the tone and pacing, appreciate the characters and plot. Above all, remember. Remember the general story and structure, recall the overall theme. This can all be done from the comfort of your couch – or a movie theater seat – at your leisure. But it needs to be done. Otherwise you may end up writing “Casablanca” due to the fact that you had a great idea for a ‘retro love-triangle story’ because you failed to remember that ‘arthouse movie’ an old girlfriend dragged you to years before…

Look at the blueprints, visit the building

As a story analyst, I have read thousands of screenplays, plays and teleplays (along with treatments, manuscripts, you name it…). And I have seen more than several people’s shares of films and television. While I may lack the zeitgeist sophistication of my youthful nephews and nieces, I could beat the tar out of any one of them when it came to ‘movie trivia,’ (or, as I prefer to call it, ‘knowledge’) or story precedents. And, while I intend to learn the entire Lady Gaga canon some day, knowing whether someone’s script is perilously close to “Blade Runner” comes in a lot handier right now, for me and my clients.

In terms of actual homework, a great exercise is to read the film script, then see the movie. There are a lot of film script sites allowing you to read scripts for free, among them The Internet Movie Script Database (IMSDb). Once you’ve read the script, it’s time to see the film. Apart from heading to theaters for current releases, multitudes of films are available on Blu-ray and DVD, along with streaming titles and on-demand titles, so there shouldn’t be much of a barrier to find the film you are looking for. Ideally, you’ll hang on to the script and make notes if you notice anything that is meaningful to you – but in any case you will have developed a greater understanding of how screenplays are ‘stitched together,’ and what Hollywood looks for in a finished script.

Cheer up – there’s extra credit

Doing your ‘screenwriting homework’ during the summer isn’t so bad. It gets you inside from the blazing heat that seems to be everywhere, and hopefully it’s entertaining. But if it isn’t, that’s where the real work starts: why was it slow? Which character was weak? Did you spot the plot hole? It’s sometimes easier to find the seams in a bad movie than a good one, usually because they’re so obvious – and it’s the same with the script that went before. While reading a script, be aware of the flow and pace, its overall story and characters. Does the dialogue sound right? If any aspect of the script seems questionable, pay extra attention to that when you watch the film – sometimes it really was ‘fixed in editing,’ but often the same deficiencies persist from script to finished product.

The Lone Exception

Of course there’s one screenplay that is simply perfect just the way it is: yours. Or so you hope. Unless you’ve done your homework, you may only find out you’re not ‘completely correct’ when your script gets sent back to you. So do your homework – or benefit from the services of someone who’s helped writers like you by offering constructive criticism. But whatever you do, always put your best effort forward.

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.

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!

Are Movies Getting BIGGER?

February 3rd, 2011 1 comment

In the 1950 classic “Sunset Blvd.,” when down-on-his-luck screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) meets faded silent star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), he says “You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in pictures. You used to be big.” Norma’s response: “I am big. It was the pictures that got small.”

“Sunset Blvd.”‘s script won Academy Awards for screenplay and story for writers Billy Wilder (who was also nominated for Best Director), writing partner Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman, Jr.. It’s one of many memorable lines in a classic Hollywood film about Hollywood that garnered 11 nominations, including Best Picture, winning the coveted statuettes for Screenplay/Story, Art/Set direction and Best Score (by Franz Waxman). Seen at the time by movie stars and studio heads as an indictment of Hollywood, “Sunset Blvd.” has gone on to become a beloved drama often quoted by cinephiles. “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille” is another classic line, having worked its way into the popular lexicon as an alternative way of saying “I’m prepared.”

But Norma Desmond’s biting response about Hollywood raises an interesting point. Fewer studio films are being made (110 in 2010 versus 121 in 2009), and the cost of most of those fewer films have risen. Since box office figures represent a drop in attendance in 2010 of 8%, and the total domestic box office return dropped 4%, it’s clear that fewer people are going to the movies – and they are paying more. Premium 3-D ticket prices are the reason the box office take hasn’t shrunk as much as attendance, but the fact remains that the movie business is undergoing a paradigm shift. Are pictures getting smaller? Quite the opposite: they’re getting BIGGER.  

A quick look at the upcoming slate of pictures for 2011 makes one thing very obvious: for better or worse, consider 2011 ‘the year of the numeral.’ Sequels, prequels and remakes rule the roost in the coming year, with titles like “The Hangover 2,” “Transformers 3,” “Pirates of the Caribbean 4,” “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2,” “Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1,” “Kung Fu Panda 2,” “Cars 2,” “Scream 4,” “X-Men: First Class,” “Planet of the Apes” prequel “Rise of the Apes,” “Shrek” spin-off “Puss in Boots,” a remake of “Arthur,” another Tyler Perry ‘Madea’ film – “Madea’s Big Happy Family,” along with a new Muppet movie, as well as “Mission Impossible 4,” “Sherlock Holmes II,” another remake of “The Lone Ranger,” (due in 2012) and an American version of Sweden’s “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo,” directed by “The Social Network”‘s David Fincher. And that doesn’t even count the veritable flood of superhero movies coming our way: “Captain America,” “Thor,” and “The Green Lantern,” to name a few.

So – are the pictures getting small? No way. Studios and moviemakers depend on recognizeable ‘properties’ to stoke their B.O. furnaces, and just about every film listed above will have a budget equal to (or more than) the previous film in its series. After all, ‘bigger is better,’ right? At least that’s what Hollywood is counting on. The studios are also readying ‘familiar’ projects (many of them in 3-D to optimize profits) like “Dark Shadows,” an adult-themed “Red Riding Hood,” “The Smurfs,” “The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn,” a 3-D motion capture film by Steven Spielberg (and ostensibly the first of a series), in addition to “Mr. Popper’s Penguins,” based on the beloved 1938 kids book.

So – pictures are getting bigger. TV and movie maven J.J. Abrams has his super-secret “Super 8” project coming out in early June – it’s a nod to the early sci-fi films of Steven Spielberg. And things are really going to get loud and in-your-face when Michael Bay opens his next “Transformers” film on July 1st. In addition, “Iron Man” director Jon Favreau has his hybrid western/action/sci-fi graphic novel adaptation “Cowboys & Aliens” opening at the end of July. Even Zack Snyder (“300,” “Watchmen”) has another action film opening with “Sucker Punch,” opening on March 25th. If you didn’t get enough titan clashing in 2010, Mickey Rourke and the next Superman, Henry Cavill, will become “Immortals” in a Grecian epic opening in November.

So – unless you are a denizen of indie arthouse fare, depend on one thing: movies are getting bigger. Running times often underscore this, making some action/adventure films feel like an extended assault on your senses. It’s all part of the ‘magic of the movies,’ although the coming glut of pre-packaged entertainment might leave one wondering whether it’s dark magic – or merely time-worn tricks being utilized to, as Harry Cohn famously said, ‘put fannies in seats.’

Next: Hold On – aren’t movies getting smaller?

Pitch, Treatment or Script?

August 13th, 2010 No comments

 

At first the question sounds like a philosophical enigma. And, in a way, it is.

If you have a GREAT MOVIE IDEA, and want to share it with the world, how should you present it? As a ‘pitch,’ which usually involves a verbal presentation to a studio ‘creative executive,’ (meaning someone who got to the job fair a half-hour ahead of you… Although, to be sincere, some creative executives know what they are talking about – I met one. Once. To his credit, he’d actually seen some of the same movies I had.) In any case, your ‘pitch’ involves describing your GREAT IDEA using theatrics, rhetorical devices and basic drama. At the end, you’ll usually hear “We’ll get back to you,” but anything short of “Get out of my office!” should be taken as a good sign. Rumor has it that the most successful, shortest pitch ever was Tom Mankiewiecz’s “Dum de Dum Dum” reciting to get the 1987 “Dragnet” greenlit. Too bad… a little longer and the creative exec might’ve decided more wisely…

A treatment for a film usually covers 10 or so double-spaced typed pages. It is ordinarily a combination of characters, plot description and key dialogue, and imparts the general idea of the film’s structure and plot points with the pacing and tone included. I’ve read 10-page treatments that essentially spelled out the entire film (Think “John Carpenter’s ‘Ghosts of Mars,'”) or treatments which merely touched on the subject at hand. One of the more memorable treatments I read dealt with a novel-in-progress about organized crime involved during the rebuilding and reunification of Germany (along the lines of “Eastern Promises”). By the time the script actually appeared (a couple of years after the novel’s publication), the story was dated and diluted. It was disappointing, because the novel-in-progress (and its associated treatment) had a ‘Sopranos’-like appeal – which only faded as time intruded.

And the last choice is the ‘gold standard’: a script. They’re the hardest to complete (well), but they are what studio executives will ask for most (and usually first – “Do you have a finished script? – Or a writing sample?”) A finished – and bulletproof! – script is really the best way to go with anyone who is serious about producing (or investing in) your project. Your writing needs to be ready-for-production in a manner that won’t allow anyone to question its practicalities, characters, plot loopholes or other logic gaps so that you can lead with your very best. If your ideas can be called into question by a single query, does it make any difference what form it’s in?

Pitch, Treatment or Script? Do it the way you want to – but do it! And – this is important – if you’re submitting it for consideration, your work had bettter be the best it can. Otherwise the decision of ‘Pitch, Treatment or Script?’ won’t be important. At that point, the only important answer you’ll need is “Which way’s the door?”

Adversity

June 24th, 2010 No comments

You hear it all the time: ‘adversity builds character.’ And it’s true: place someone in a situation of ‘misfortune’ or ‘continued difficulty,’ as the dictionary defines adversity, and you’ll see some real character emerge. Perhaps not always the kind of character you were expecting… but that’s the nature of man – and the formative power of adversity. Diamonds are formed under pressure, as the old saying goes… but, then again, so are earthquakes.

But adversity can be inspirational. It can motivate someone to react, refine and adapt to deal with tough circumstances. For some, it brings writing inspiration, turning a negative into a positive – literally.

In my life and in my work, I have encountered adversity and I have dealt with others who have done the same. None of us are exempt from misfortune, but it shows a certain resolve to ‘turn that frown upside down’ or ‘make lemonade from life’s lemons.’ In terms of writing, the adversity characters experience in a story or screenplay is called conflict; it is the job of the writer to frame this conflict in a way that allows the reader to empathize with the character’s adversity – and hopefully resolve it in a way that satisfies the reader while ringing true for the character. As simple as that sounds, it really is difficult to construct (and conclude) a screenplay without running into some ‘writer’s adversity’ along the way…

As a story analyst and reader, I have dealt with a number of screenplays and manuscripts that were inspired by their authors’ own struggles with adversity, from substance abuse to physical disability, chronic illness or psychological problems. Each author wrote from the heart, and their sincerity was always evident. The quality of these works varied wildly, from novice screenwriters making simple mistakes with plot, story, or pacing to experienced, established authors whose tales evoked a level of poignancy rarely felt. And occasionally there were surprises, like the first-time writer who chronicled his often harrowing, always painful treatment for deadly Hepatitis-C; his manuscript made his ordeal come alive for the reader, turning a conventional medical tale into an affecting, scary and honest memoir.

We experience adversity in our lives in the same way that characters in a screenplay deal with conflict. It is how we respond to our adversity that is most important: if you see every challenge as an opportunity to learn, create and grow, then maybe some adversity isn’t all that bad!