Balancing Form and Function in the Screenplay

April 23, 2010

I recently added a Rod Serling quote to my Writer Quotations collection—a quote passed on to me by my writer friend Jeff Schnaufer—that I find both inspiring and cautionary:

“Whenever you write, whatever you write, never make the mistake of assuming the audience is any less intelligent than you are.”  (Rod Serling)

I purposely sandwiched this new addition in between the two following quotes on my On Narrative and Storytelling page because of their connected theme:

Good screenwriting plays against the grain, plays against the obvious, plays against the way you would expect things to happen.”  (Syd Field, from his book Four Screenplays)

In art, the obvious is a sin.”  (Edward Dmytryk)

Here’s the thing though…

How do you balance these harmonious, complementary words with this seemingly antithetical advice from an equally esteemed individual:

Don’t write so that you can be understood — write so that you can’t be misunderstood.”  (William Howard Taft, U.S. President)

Sure: since President Taft isn’t known for his creative writing, you could write it off (pardon the pun) as being less relevent advice.   But here is why I do not disregard it;  what writer has not experienced the frustration of finding that their carefully crafted message—which seemed sufficiently clear when they wrote it—confused the reader, or generated an unexpected and undesired response?  

Whether you’re writing a story or just a simple e-mail message, you know what I’m talking about here, right?

And you KNOW that misunderstanding can happen easily with creative writing in particular.  Words have different meanings.  Phrases have different meanings … potential subtext, for instance … that a writer must continually consider.   That’s part of the appeal of creative writing—that words have so much potential to carry meaning and symbolism and emotion, and it’s a ton of fun to play with it, to mold it.   But those very possibilities also invite misinterpretation. 

So, while “the obvious” in a screenplay may be a sin … 

The inobvious or misconstrued is a cardinal sin

… because a screenplay is only sorta’ kinda’ art, Mr. Dmytryk.  It is also a blueprint.  An instruction manual.  So, I try to write the screenplay to entertain, as you advise, Mr. Goldman (“Executives read a guh-zillion scripts on the weekend.  It would be idiotic for me not to have him try and enjoy the ride.”), but a screenplay can never sell if it is just artful.  Writing the screenplay artfully is a great goal, but it must also be written so that it cannot be misunderstood.  It must also communicate, initially to production company execs and then, if sold, to production technicians and artisans. 

To write a screenplay effectively, I try to step outside myself and consider my audience’s frame of reference.  Then, with that perspective firmly in mind, I hope to write in a way that I will not be misunderstood, even as I work to make the reading of it a fun ride.

We’ll see.

Anyone else struggle with this balancing act between form and function in creative writing?  Let’s talk about it.


Silence…

April 18, 2010

You maybe noticed:  there’s been a cacaphony of silence around here.  Deafening silence.  For weeks!

Yeah, what’s up with that?

Right.  Couple reasons:

  • My creative writing has been on vacation since my last post, due to a storm surge of incoming new clientele at WriteWorks—my business writing and editing company.   The demands of the client deadlines superseded my screenwriting goals.
  • The same week I delivered the screenplay’s step outline to the producer, as mentioned in this post, the producer left the country to begin producing another project that was already fully funded. 

If you know much about film producing, you understand that a producer has little time to work on project development while in the midst  of production on another project.  And without producer feedback on my step sheet, any further screenplay development I do could easily be a waste of time.  

A waste of time? How so?

Let me give you an example.  The original screenplay I wrote for Contract Killers (originally titled Branded) was about a man who, set up for a murder rap, escapes the U.S. authorities, and disappears into the Caribbean to chase down clues that will exonerate him and ensnare the true killer.  But if you have seen Contract Killers the movie, you know that it was a woman, not a man, who is on the run, trying to prove her innocence and catch the true killer.

So, how did that change happen?

For marketing reasons, the producer felt that he needed the lead to be female, not male.  That’s a fine choice—machs nichts to me—except that, if I had known that preference before I wrote the script…

Oy.

This change of the lead role from male to female had huge implications for the story.  And since this change request came after I had completed the first draft of the screenplay, several scenes and many of the characters I created had to be eliminated; the dynamics of making the story about a female on the run instead of a man required many, many changes throughout the story.   I estimate that some 40 to 80 hours of story development were flushed down the toilet from that one little change request. 

But don’t changes always happen to a screenplay before and during production?

Yes.  The “completed” script that someone or some company liked enough to buy, is often changed after the screenwriter sells it.  Filmmaking is such a collaborative art that many voices—some valid—ultimately have a say in what goes into the story and onto the screen.   That is normal enough, albeit frustrating to the writer—for a completed script to be re-completed a dozen or more times. 

But what is not as normal, and is to be avoided, are root structure changes—those kinds of changes that completely alter the path that the story is on.   Changing a location? Not usually a big deal.  Changing the order of certain events?  Killing a certain character by merging it into another?  Probably not a big deal. 

But changing the motives of the lead character?  or changing the story from a drama to a comedy? or changing the lead from a him to a her?  These are root structure changes that effectively make it a whole new story.

And that, you see, is what I’m hoping to avoid

If I hold off on screenplay development until the producer reads the step outline and agreees with the basic structure, elements, and character, then I will likely save myself from dozens or even hundreds of hours of story development that ultimately gets tossed because I didn’t first get this buy-off from the producer.

The good news is that the producer has wrapped his last project and is now turning his attention back to this one.  So I hope to get that prized story feedback from him in the next few days.


Red Letter Day – Step Outline Done & Delivered

February 1, 2010

As of 7 pm today, my baby—the 30-page step outline—is in the hands of producer G. Anthony Joseph.

And I’m a little nervous. It’s been a labor. Of love, yes. But many, many countless hours of labor.

Of course, one hopes that it’s received with giddy delight—with unequivocal approval of every single word.

Just as one hopes that their stock portfolio will triple in value this year and next.

And just about as likely.

But leave me alone tonight while I hope for that.

Basking in it,

Ric


Step Outline Basically Complete

January 27, 2010

Pardon my recent silence—my work on the screenplay has been dogged by a number of competing priorities from some of my WriteWorks Agency clients with time sensitive marketing copy and Web site copy needs.

But the good news—the step outline for the screenplay is essentially done.

Whew.

It’s coming in at 27 pages—a substantial foundation for the screenplay.

One last thing though…

Before passing it on to the producer, I’m going to spend a day or two, going through it with a more objective eye, cleaning it up, spell checking, and filling any overlooked holes or gaps. Otherwise, it is ready for delivery.

Took you long enough

Yes, yes, it was a long time in coming: longer than the step outline for most other stories I’ve worked on.

In fact, many stories, simpler ones, can be written without creating a step outline.

Not this one though. Too complex. This has been structurally one of the most challenging stories I have ever worked on.

The biggest challenge so far?

So far, it has been the continual effort required to keep this inherently complex story from being unnecessarily complex—continually trimming away anything that isn’t essential so as to keep it from becoming an epic.

And how much smarter it is to trim the fat before writing out the full screenplay! I’ve done that before, and it’s just way too painful. By making the story structurally sound from beginning to end and getting agreement from the producer before I invest so much emotion in time into writing out the complete 110 pages or so of a screenplay—while it is still in outline form—will save me from many gray hairs.

Sure, rewriting and rewriting and rewriting is a seemingly inevitable part of any screenplay development. But starting from a structurally sound foundation will at least reduce the number or severity of rewrites.

I hope.

Optimistically yours,


Writers Write

January 7, 2010

One quotation I just added to the Writer Motivation and Inspiration quotations page on my blog is this one by Aristotle: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act, but a habit.”

In reading the introduction to the book The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters, written by Karl Iglesias, I find one of those stupidly simple truths; you know—the kind of simple truth that smacks you upside the head and calls you “stupid!” for not already consciously knowing that truth and taking it to heart.

And that stupidly simple truth is…?

Simply this: that writers write.

Well, duh! … but … yeah!

Iglesias doesn’t use those exact words in the intro, but it’s a central theme of the passage.

The simple truth of this point—that writers write (and write and write and write)—is that most people who want to be great writers don’t do it nearly enough to ever hone their craft or prove their prowess.

The value of this simple (but not simplistic, mind you) truth is borne out in the background of several of the highly successful writers that Iglesias interviewed for this book. Many of them, such as Ron Bass, Steven DeSouza, Scott Rosenberg, and Michael Schiffer, talk about the volume of writing they did before they finally sold a piece or hit the big time.

Schiffer, for example, wrote 14 spec scripts (i.e., on speculation of ever selling it, as opposed to writing a script on assignment) before he was hired to write Colors. And Bass wrote four scripts during an 18-month period while he was doing daddy duty and practicing law, no less!

So much for any of the rest of us complaining that we don’t have time to write, ‘eh?

Write early and write often…

Here’s one more quote from the book’s intro that drove this “writers write” point home.

One hasn’t become a writer until one has distilled writing into a habit, and that habit has been forced into an obsession. Writing has to be an obsession. It has to be something as organic, physiological, and psychological as speaking or sleeping or eating. (Niyi Osundare)

I’m not as successful a screenwriter as I would like to be. However, having sold one original screenplay and several co-written ones, I am propelled to write more, seeing these smaller successes as solid indicators of my potential to get to where I want to be as a screenwriter (i.e., making a reliable living from it). And having now completed reading the introduction of Iglesias’ book The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters, I know (duh) that I can boost my screenwriting success quotient by making it more of a habit and thus having a butt load of spec scripts ready to show.

Good book. So far.


Stepping On to Act III

January 5, 2010

Just completed the step outline for Act II. And the story still feels solid, which means that stepping out the third act will be a piece of cake, at least by comparison. From way back to the initial six-page story synopsis, the vision for how the third act should play out was already solid. The tough stuff was figuring out how to get us there (i.e., stepping out Act I and Act II).

I expect then to complete the step outline by the the end of the week, not only because it’s the shortest act, but because it’s fully formed in my mind already.

Few steps to the finish line

One strong advantage of a solid step outline is that it saves a ton of missteps by giving you a solid and objective understanding of the drama, front to back. This means that, when you get to the heavy lifting of the screenplay’s first draft, it isn’t that heavy at all, because you know what to write; the step outline informs you.

I hear the some writers (Stephen King being one of them) throw themselves into a first draft of their story without first planning out what the story is that they want to tell, and then end up throwing out half of what they wrote in future drafts.  I contend this is because they didn’t map out their route in advance, which may yield some unexpected delights on the side roads, but will put a ton of wear and tear on their schedule. 

I don’t know about you, but I barely have time to write out the story from beginning to end when I know exactly where I’m going. I would find the process too painful and frustratingly inefficient if I was regularly throwing out half of what I wrote, which is likely to happen without a step outline or some other pre-screenplay mapping process.

Also, the way I create the step outline (you can read about the process here and here), it’s very much a substantial iteration toward a finished screenplay—all the scenes either suggested or already designed, minus dialogue. The outline will probably end up at 30 pages in length. And with the finished screenplay likely coming in around 105 pages, I’m virtually a third of the way to a first draft of the screenplay when I’ve wrapped up the step outline. image

So, though no laurels to rest upon yet, I’m nonetheless tickled to have hit this progress marker.

Or, to quote my son: "Woot!"

The final moment of Act II…

This moment, just written, is where Joe awakens to his true calling and accepts his destiny as a leader of the people, not just a leader of the police. It marks the end of Joe’s police role and his resurrection as a statesman—as the one potential candidate most qualified on a moral basis to run for the top office and make a solid effort to reform the country’s government … that’s *if* he can win the election, when he is coming up against a dangerous, determined, and powerful incumbency.  Which is the core plotline of the third act.


Limited Respite for Our Hero

December 31, 2009

The audience will need a break from the ever-mounting tension of the sequences that lead up to antagonist Cain’s apparent destruction of Joe Cameron. They will get that break in the house-arrest confinement moments that follow the disastrous botched drug bust, during which his mother and others close console and support as Joe wallows in pre-trial self-condemnation. However, such a reprieve must not impede the story’s forward momentum.

The devastating botched bust scene that marked the Midpoint Moment of the second act naturally changes the course of the story. Instead of being on the attack, as Joe has been throughout the second act up to this point, the Midpoint event forces Joe into a defensive position for the rest of Act 2.  And that, I figure, is my opportunity to reignite the dramatic tension, even during this necessary lull of introspection (necessary to Joe’s character arc as well as to the viewer’s attention span). How? By seeding the introspective passage with…

Plot-thickening cutaways

Joe’s brother Cain is an underlying source of antagonism throughout the first act, which become increasingly overt in the second act. Now, it’s time to bring Cain’s battle against Joe fully to the surface. By doing so during the relatively pacific passage of Joe’s confinement and consolation from friends and family, rather than waiting until the softer moment is over, I can reignite the forward propulsion of the story.

To do so subtly, I’m interjecting brief cutaway snippets into this introspective passage, revealing that Cain is busy hammering nails into the coffin of Joe’s fate by tampering with evidence, coercing witnesses, and influencing the prosecutor as the impending case against Joe takes shape.

Building the tension

My goal though is to create a rising sense of anxiety throughout this sequence, such that the viewer will initially only sense the developing threat on some subconscious level while focusing on what Joe is going through. Then, by increasing the pace and intensity of these intercutting scenes, the viewer will be slowly drawn deeper in to the rising tension of the inquisition against Joe. If I craft this right, the viewers should feel increasingly disturbed in this sequence—a feeling brought on by the unfolding plot—even as they receive an emotionally satisfying sense of resolution from that most important thing—the restoration of Joe’s goodness and morality.

By weaving this into the introspective scenes of Joe’s post-tragedy remorse, I hope to keep viewers concerned about Joe’s fate at the same time that they find peace in the restoration of Joe’s moral compass. While the latter is not as inherently visual as the playing out of Cain’s inquisition against Joe, Joe’s ethical restoration is more central to the overriding moral premise of the story and, therefore, critical to its thematic resolution.

This restoration is also essential to the culmination of the story, since Joe’s abandonment of principle (to bring about the admirable results of overcoming the crime bosses’ stranglehold over the country) is what brought about our growing discomfort throughout the first half of the second act because we see Joe becoming the very thing he’s trying to destroy, and since his restored principle is the very thing that empowers him to battle his brother’s Act 3 plot to prevent Joe’s success in the election.

Oh, and one more thing…

Happy New Year.  🙂


Midpoint Moment in the Bag

December 27, 2009

Exciting day at the keyboard: Today, I hammered out the rapid series of events that culminate in (and include) the critical Midpoint moment of Act II.

Probably half of all that has happened in the second act so far is effectively the necessary lead-up events (character and story development activities) to bring about this explosive moment, in which all Joe’s efforts to crush the criminal element’s stranglehold and disrupt the activities of the corrupt politico suddenly come crashing down, destroyed by his brother’s plot. And the way it happens turns this moment into an international event. 

If I achieve the right effect, this event will appear to the audience as the complete annihilation of Joe’s efforts.  Time will tell if I’ve succeeded…