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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.

Why Analysis?

October 12th, 2010 No comments

Story analysis? (At this point, we touch our fingertips together, lean forward in our chair and observe, while asking “How do you feel about that?”)

Lots of jokes have been made at the expense of touchy-feely psychoanalysis, which is typically represented by a patient unburdening themselves from a psychiatrist’s couch while a thoughtful, goateed doctor listens and occasionally inserts a probing question into the mix. Jokes aside, analysis is a powerful tool to correct deep-rooted problems, and it is why patients visit psychiatrists, doctors specially trained in treating disorders which may very well go unrecognized by others. In doing so, hopefully the analyst gives the patient a new control over their life, leading to success and fulfillment.

Story and script analysis, while mercifully short on comic stereotypes like couches or goatees, are just as powerful tools to offer a screenwriter perspective, focus and context involving their own work. A good story analyst has years of experience and (on the job) training, with a knowledge of film history and current film, as well as a feel for the ebb and flow of the movie industry in general. And at least 1,000 scripts under their belt – read and analyzed; 2,000 is better. Every script read and synopsized, every story analyzed, every set of reader’s comments informs the analyst’s next set of notes; in short, story analysis is cumulative. Over the course of many years, I have analyzed more than 3,500 scripts, manuscripts, plays, teleplays and treatments; as a result, my ability to identify writing missteps, story mistakes, plotting errors and the like has allowed me to assist writers of all kinds, from total neophytes to jaded Hollywood A-Listers.

Regardless of whether you choose a professional story analyst, it’s important to have someone other than yourself read and provide an independent assessment of your work. No one sets out to write a ‘bad’ script – but stuff happens… If you are so immersed in your work you do not recognize logic gaps, uneven characters, plot holes, strained dialogue, formulaic structure or one of the many other traps screewriters fall into, it’s time to bring in a fresh eye – hopefully someone with the skill set to offer constructive criticism that will make the writing process easier and less mysterious for you. I have friends and colleagues who pooh-pooh  the idea of paying a story analyst to read their work (hey – I didn’t say they were good friends…), but they are often the ones who come to me privately and ask me to look at their work. I’ve also offered to read pals’ work gratis and given them advice, but the majority of screenplays I have analyzed have come through the studio system to the production companies or film finance clients I work with, in addition to those personal clients who discovered Forbard Story Services’ website on their own.

So. Analysis. Hmmm… I know how I feel about that – but how about you? It may make all the difference in your pursuit of screenwriting success!

What a character!

May 7th, 2010 No comments

 

Quick: name your favorite movie character!

Most people will choose a hero, or protagonist, as their favorite character, like Atticus Finch or Indiana Jones (the number one and two heroes, respectively, in the American Film Institute’s 2003 “AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Heroes and Villians” TV special), while others opt for the villain, or antagonist, like those who made Hannibal Lecter and Darth Vader their gold and silver choices in the same poll. Most actors will confess they enjoy playing villains more than heroes – ‘bad’ is always more fun than ‘good,’ at least movie-wise; it’s just a pity you’ve got to die at the end, though… (Or be incarcerated, or lose the girl, get a bloody nose… whatever). You know the drill: The hero wins, the villain loses. Those are their functions in the story. (In a conventional sense, although there are anti-heroes and likeable villains – just watch any classic Hitchcock film for this paradigm shift…)

What makes them memorable is character. But what is character?

The dictionary defines character as “the aggregate of features and traits that form the individual nature of some person or thing.” A bit lower down comes this alternate definition: “an account of the qualities or peculiarities of a person or thing.” In other words, ‘character’ may mean identity, or it could mean how someone is ‘unique.’ Different writers treat the issue of character according to their own concepts of it. Tough guy director Walter Hill, making “The Long Riders”, told American Film magazine back in 1980: “In my films, when someone has a gun pointed in his face, character is how many times he blinks.”

I’ve read thousands of scripts and I’ve ‘collected’ my own favorite characters in memory, like the transplanted marine biologist banished to ‘do time’ in Iowa because of university politics, or the creepy Gollum-like creature (years before the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy was filmed) who helped his pal get rid of dead bodies. A particularly memorable character was a whore in ancient Egypt  who threw her lot in with tomb plunderers – despite knowing the penalty was horrible death. None of these scripts ever made it to the movie screen, but it wasn’t because their characters weren’t memorable; if anything, their authors magnified the deficiencies of their stories by writing such contrastingly strong characters.

But character can successfully drive a story. And it it very important. As has been written here before, each story has a beginning, a middle and an ending, and usually the ending is the hardest part to get right. In a character-driven story, the plot is secondary to character development (think “American Beauty” or “Citizen Kane”), and the story is propelled forward by the protagonist. It’s a riskier venture, business-wise, so there aren’t as many character-driven films as there are plot-driven films, but occasionally you’ll see one ‘break out.’ “Napoleon Dynamite” is a perfect example of a character-driven movie that simply ‘hit,’ earning a respectable purchase price after a boisterous reception at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004; it went on, with the aid of shrewd marketing, to make millions for Paramount.

Character is a deciding factor in speculative (spec) scripts, meaning scripts that have not been ordered or paid for – in other words, most peoples’ scripts – because character is usually a solid indicator of whether the screenwriting is strong or simply frames a good idea. As a story analyst, I have recommended writers on the basis of their character writing – while rejecting their scripts outright for other reasons. Of course the ideal solution is to craft a solid script containing a cohesive story and plot, snappy dialogue and effective pacing and tone… But whatever you do, don’t forget good characters! They can be the best friends you’ll ever have – or the greatest villians you can imagine…