New Year’s Eve Brings Direction to the Story

January 8, 2011

For the last three months, Producer G. and I have been thoroughly distracted by other projects, other work, and by financing efforts, which has put MOG3 story development on a back burner for a while. 

But good news: We had extensive meetings over the New Year holiday, and the story is moving forward again.

Moving forward AGAIN?—But why had it stopped?

I delivered a 30-page step outline of the story way back in early Spring.  But G. was moving into production on another feature film project, putting this one firmly on hold.  I stopped writing after delivering the outline because, as I explained in this April ‘09 post, without producer feedback, further screenplay development could easily be a waste of time.  

Then, in early October at the close of G.’s conflicting production, I had a brief phone conversation with him.  He had just read the outline. 

And how did that talk go?

G. was generally pleased with the direction the story was taking, but he was concerned with the scope of the story—not in terms of its costs for moviemaking, but in terms of the story itself: with how much we were trying to say or show. 

From that call, it was clear that, before I went any further, we needed a legitimate story meeting to go over his concerns and agree on how I would fix the story to resolve those concerns.  Since we both had conflicting projects, the story was shelved until we could meet.

Which we just did in late December.

So then, what was the rub?

G.’s concern was primarily with the story transition from Joe Cameron the police officer to Joe Cameron the statesman—that we planned to have Joe start off as the former and, at the Act 2/Act 3 point in the story, to take on the latter.   After reading the step outline, he felt that it may be too much story to tell.

Mind you, that’s no small concern. 

One of the underlying themes of the story was the idea that, in a country where the government is dysfunctional, a cop’s best efforts to be an effective law enforcement officer are virtually impotent—that you need to repair or create a healthy legislative and judicial process to have a stable and functioning society.  Thus, since our story conceptualization meetings almost exactly two years ago, the basic storyline assumption was that high ranking police officer Joe Cameron would take radical steps to save his beloved Caribbean homeland, first by unorthodox (and ethically questionable) law enforcement tactics and then, when that fails, by taking on the government, presumably by not only outing the corrupt politicians but by attempting to become a statesman to fill the leadership void.

It all sounded good when we brainstormed the idea. 

It even looked good when I wrote an 8-page synopsis of the story. 

But when I broke it down into a detailed 30-page step treatment, we realized the problem we had on our hands; the story could make a great novel, but it was too freakin’ big to be a movie.  To keep the length of the movie reasonable (under, say, two hours) we would have to rush through the story phases to squeeze it all in.  But doing so would strain the credibility of character arc; if we could not fully develop the major character realizations and transitions, these story transitions would likely feel phony—unrealistic.

How we decided to fix this:

The short story on how the story will change looks something like this:

  1. Kill off the original third act
  2. Build up the legal proceedings phase, originally the end of the second act, to become the new third act

I know—this sounds huge.  That’s only because it is.  More on this later….


Transforming caterpillars

August 24, 2010

I’ve added a couple new quotes to my writer quotations collection—one quotation for the story structure section, and one for the writer motivation section—and both from screenwriter Blake Snyder.  I hope you find them as motivating or thought provoking as I did.  The first:

“All stories are about transformation.  In every story a caterpillar becomes a butterfly.”

It’s hard to think of a major film in which the lead character or characters did not go through a major transformation.  And as Robert, a writer-director friend of mine, pointed out yesterday, this is probably one of the least realistic aspects of movies because, in real life, people rarely change.  Not real, root-structure changes. 

Which, I figure, is why character transformation makes for such good storytelling:

  • We all have this vision of what we want to be, even as we wallow in the quagmire of who we are.
  • We all know those whose persons who never change and we desperately wish they would.

So when a story can take us to a world where people really change, it inspires us—gives us hope. 

That’s my theory.  And Blake Snyder’s, apparently.  His words are a good reminder that writers must let their characters not only affect their world but be effected by it.

And, in other news…

Blake Snyder gave this advice to yet-unknown screenwriters, which he wrote on his blog the day before he died in July of 2009:

“Have fun! The most important thing to do is to love what you’re doing. That way, getting better at it isn’t a struggle, it’s a pleasure.” 

I love that.  What a wonderful reminder when one is getting bogged down in the business of trying to create a screenwriting career that you got into the business because, hopefully, you enjoyed the art of creating with words and language.  Yeah, sure, it’s hard work.  But so is mountain climbing or playing soccer.  If writing isn’t just as fun, why not flip burgers instead?  Much less stressful.


Playing with “Judas”

August 7, 2009

I’ve been looking forward to planning out this thread. I’ve known since one of the earliest story summaries that I wanted to turn up the heat on our hero Joe by creating a “Judas” — a trusted member of his team who eventually proves to be untrustworthy. Up until this morning, it was merely a sticky note reminder to test out the idea.

The goal is to create a character who, like Jesus’ disciple Judas, starts out as a follower or supporter, but ultimately reveals that he cannot be trusted. My dramaturgical motive is to increase the story tension by establishing that Joe doesn’t know who to trust anymore.

With each story thread I plan out, I look for opportunities to give them their own 3-act structure of sorts: to set up, nurture, and pay off the thread. This structural exercise helps me to weed out weaker story threads. If an idea for the story does not fit well into a rise-and-fall dramatic arc, it usually turns out that the element wasn’t worth developing: that it doesn’t do enough to thicken the plot, to move it forward, or to develop the main characters.

Happily, this thread is not only following a nice story arc, but it’s also proving useful in several unexpected places, answering questions I had about how to cause certain things to happen that, as yet, didn’t have the right setup or motive to justify them. 

The solutions presented themselves to me when I considered how a person would react when ousted from the group because his treachery has been revealed. How would he feel? Would he want revenge or to slink away in disgrace? Playing on the possibilities that would add the most tension to the story, I added an element that Joe, when he sees that he nearly lost an officer as a result of this character’s traitorous actions, goes ballistic, severely hurting the man.  Since we’ve already established that Joe is a passionate man who values loyalty, it’s a believable action. Now, I can use Joe’s harsh reaction; it comes back to bite him later in the story when the spurned traitor’s anger turns to revenge. In fact, this reaction allows the traitor to heighten the jeopardy for Joe in three critical plot points later in the story.

Exciting stuff.  Can’t wait to layer this in to the actual script.