Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Is that a pulse?

Hello everyone. Anyone? Someone? Probably not. I am not so self absorbed to believe there are any stalkers out there watching this dusty old blog for updates after all this time. Indeed, I have written of late more as a personal diary than with any expectation of sharing my writing.

Anyway, just basically seeing if this site and publishing tool even works still. For anyone that followed my blogs and doesn't know why they suddenly stopped, I had a severe heart attack and life as I knew it hasn't been the same since. That said, at long last I have the time, energy, and desire to publicly write again, and am at a point where I am trying to decide where to spend these energies.

I am trying to actually consolidate a few things to achieve several objectives in the same project. Therefore I am thinking about blogging as I work on converting a screenplay into a novel, or novelette perhaps (is that even a word?). Should I decide to do that, I will select topics for this blog that perhaps illustrate differences between writing in novel form and screenwriting. Now, truth be told, I have not written a novel before, but have written a number of short stories, and now 13 screenplays. I am likely naive, but I feel like it should be a blast to take a fully developed SP and work it backwards to a story fully fleshed out in word. I guess I'll find out.

So, if there's anyone still out there, stay tuned!

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

What a character he was

Navigating the 'rules' you encounter in learning the craft of writing screenplays can be a little frustrating, to say the least.. Some people love rules, some hate them. Researching the 'rules' can often lead to any conclusion you seek, if you want to build support for your actions. Contradictions seem to abound in terms of specifics, but demonstrate more cohesion to a particular theme when taken as a whole.

What's the point you may well ask. Oblique at best. I'm rambling. But it is but worth remembering if only to express the importance of understanding the interaction and purpose of the 'rules'. It is by a greater understanding of how the rules work together, the concepts, and what purpose they serve, that will allow you to effectively write within the spirit of the rules, while not always being fully compliant to the detail of a specific rule.

In simpler terms, remember that rules are not made to restrict you, but to sharpen you. At least in regard to writing a screenplay :)

One such rule in screenwriting is to be succinct. Don't use 3 words when 2 will do. Don't be novelistic. Don't describe what can't be seen. Show, don't tell. Ok, I've mixed a couple rules in here, I know. But I have a method to my madness. We are going to apply some of these to Character introduction.

I'm not talking about character development or an arc, which, when appropriate, occurs throughout the course of the script. But I'm also not talking strictly about the line or two that describes the character the first time he/she appears. I'm talking about the introduction of the character. The description, action, and dialogue within the first scene he/she is in. That's where we get our first impression of who he/she is. In many scripts I've read, these rules tend to be a bit stretched.

Why? Because in writing a screenplay we address different targets. We want people to read the script. We have to have a great script for it to go anywhere. Many rules are tailored as they are in order to make reading the script more efficient. Precision, simplicity, paucity of words. Fragmented sentences. These all result in a clean 'vertical' read that is fast and easy. They impact the tension and pace. In adhering to these rules we, as writers, can strengthen our craft by learning how to paint the picture we want with minimum effort for the reader..

So why are these rules sometimes set aside when introducing a character? Because we want to attract talent. Assuming our work gets past the initial phase, actors are going to read it. We want them to fall in love with a part, and that starts with the character's introduction. It is this target audience pressure that influences the writer to the point of sometimes coloring outside the lines. Let's take a short example:

In this opening scene we will introduce our protagonist, Carl. He is waiting for a ride outside a bar, late at night, after closing. Once his ride comes and the scene ends with it driving off, we will start a scene inside the car and introduce his partner. But we aren't going that far. This scene is simply to introduce Carl.

Quiet. Closed. Only a beer light still lit in the window. A single streetlamp at the corner illuminates the wet and littered sidewalk. Rainwater puddles beside a sewer drain at the corner. A mailbox has a giant penis spray painted amongst other graffiti.

CARL MAKKY, 32, a black man, six feet, four and half inches tall, 220 pounds with bulging muscles, black leather coat, handlebar mustache, bald head with a dragon tattoo on the crown. 

He has a scar across his crooked broken nose and looks like his face is made from tough rawhide. 

He wears a red flannel shirt under the coat, the kind lumberjacks wear, six buttons, the last one loose. A cigarette droops from his hard lips, badly in need of some lip balm. 

He wears size eleven black combat boots, dull, with loosely tied laces. 

He is a badass. Not the kind that says they are badass, and almost always aren't, but the quiet sort who rarely has anything to say, but will beat the hell out of you easily if you piss them off. 

You  don't want this guy pissed at you for any reason. 

He knows martial arts of every type and is fast as shit. 

He's also an expert with all types of weapons.  

He is naturally kind, patient, and accepting of what he can't change, but has a short fuse when angered or treated disrespectfully. Then his eye starts twitching and he blows up violently, heedless of potential consequences.  

His mom's name is Mary. She's nothing like Carl.

A car pulls to the curb. Carl gets in. It drives off down the dark street.

Can you see this guy? Do you know him? Yes, we can see him, and we certainly know a little about what kind of man he is and what we can expect from him. How he will act.. As the point of this scene was simply to introduce Carl, mission accomplished? This is alright for an introduction?

Hell no. It doesn't bend rules, it shatters them. But that in itself isn't the problem.  
The real problem is that it breaks rules without serving a higher purpose, and that's a problem.

On top of that, it needlessly imposes restrictions on other people involved in the production.

The first 4 sentences give us great detail on what we see. But what do they tell us? Basically, that Carl is big, and looks like a tough guy. He smokes, and has a tattooed bald head. Everything else about him in these sentences is restrictive because it limits casting and wardrobe. What if we find the perfect actor, but damn it, he's only six one and weighs 210 pounds. Sorry buddy. Next! Not likely right?

We want to introduce our character type, not detail him to the point of excluding candidates. Let's replace those first four sentences with what is needful for the character to fill the role, and further assume that scars and tattoos are important. If not, they too could be removed.

CARL MAKKY, early 30s, black, tall, powerful. A cigarette hangs from a scarred and weathered face. Tattoos adorn a shaved head. Boots. Leather coat.

That tells us plenty about the physical type actor we need. Leave it to others to enhance this vision.

The rest of the description tells us a lot about what kind of person Carl is. That's all well and good for a read, and might attract an actor, but... how does the viewer know any of this? They don't. Now assuming the characters actions and dialogue eventually fill all that in, the description here will either be redundant, or make the later dialogue and action seem redundant. While we probably want to deepen and build upon this character throughout the work, our task here is to give enough about the character to wet the appetite of a potential actor.

This portion, to the extent possible, must be shown here in the introductory scene. The description given above might well be useful in our notes and character sheets, but what we want in the script is to establish visually as much as possible during the introduction.We want to convey as much of this information as possible within established rules.

While doing this, we take advantage of a few other things that are lacking in this scene, and important to every scene. Tension, action, and conflict. This scene has none of that, so we use those ingredients to make both the scene and the character introduction stronger.

We know Carl, despite his appearance, is basically patient and kind, so:

Carl works a plastic puzzle, engrossed, using gravity to move the small metal ball through the maze. 
(Presto! Carl is now active, and doing something that requires patience)

A tattered OLD MAN pushes a wobbling three wheeled shopping cart across the street, struggles to get over the curb close to Carl.

Carl makes a correction. The ball drops into the hole. He smiles, sticks the puzzle in his pocket. 

He notices the old man, steps forward, pulls the cart up on the sidewalk. 

The old man nods appreciatively, continues down the sidewalk.
(Presto!  We know Carl is basically a kind man, helpful to others.)

We know Carl is a badass that doesn't take shit, knows weapons, has a short fuse when disrespected, and is heavy in martial arts, so:

Carl takes out the puzzle, flips it, starts over.

An SUV, rap music thundering, pulls to the curb near Carl. Three DRUG SLINGERS, early 20s. Two in front, one in the back, behind tinted windows. 

A Slinger leans from the passenger window, packets of white powder in hand, gestures to Carl.

"End of shift discount, brotha."

Carl ignores him, concentrates on his puzzle. The Slinger bangs the car door with his hand.
"Yo, I'm talkin to you, muthafucker."

Carl's eye twitches.
Slinger turns to the others in the SUV, speaks. Doors open.
All three get out, move toward Carl.

Slinger gets up close and personal on Carl. The other two stand behind him.
"You gots a problem with your hearing?"

Carl seems to see them at last. He calmly eyeballs each of them in turn.

Slinger glances back at his friends, trades laughter.
"You ain't interested in buying, maybe you'd like to just make a donation."


Slinger glances back at his boys before smiling at Carl and easing his hand into his jacket. He pulls out a pistol.

"Ain't gots to be voluntary."

Carl drops the puzzle. In a blur, he grabs Slinger's gun wrist, pushes it into the air, spins left.

He crashes his right elbow into Slinger's head at the same time his right foot crashes into the driver's chest. Slinger drops the gun as he falls. 

The Driver flies into the side of the SUV, crashes to his ass, out cold. 

The Passenger, rattled, steps back, struggles to free his gun from under his jacket.

Carl grabs the pistol from the sidewalk, aims at the Passenger.

"Might want to think about that."

The Passenger drops his gun to the sidewalk. Carl nods at the Driver. 
The Passenger walks to the Driver, removes his gun, tosses it on the sidewalk.

Slinger gets groggily to his feet, stumbles toward the SUV. 
Slinger and Passenger manage to get Driver in the back seat. 

The Passenger moves to the driver side, gets in behind the wheel. Slinger opens the passenger door.

Carl pulls back the hammer. CLICK.
Slinger looks at him, frightened. 
Carl nods at the puzzle on the sidewalk.
Slinger picks it up, holds it out to Carl with a shaking hand. Carl takes it.

Slinger gets in the car and it drives off. 
Carl picks up the other guns, throws them all down the sewage drain. 

He wipes the puzzle dry on his pants leg as a car pulls to a stop beside him. He gets in.

Is this perfect? No, far from it. It's just first draft puke. The kind you write just to hammer out your story before the real work begins. But compare the first scene, in which we 'saw' a very well described individual that simply stood on a corner and then left in a car, with the re-written scene, that demonstrates visually much of what we wanted to express about the character.

What's the point? Rules serve the story, not the other way around. 

The ageless man provides full script analysis services at the garage.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Mixing Story Types

I have talked before about the idea of a 'contract of expectations'. This is not a brilliant new idea of my own, but simply a phrase I latched on to, that may reasonably be called something else, and no doubt is. My epiphany of understanding this concept came from a book by Orson Scott Card, one of my favorite writers. The book itself was about writing fiction stories, not screenplays in particular, but the concept really opened my eyes in terms of helping me understand how to construct a satisfying story in the form of a screenplay.

A major aspect of that contract of expectations is determining the type of story it is going to be, and in thus doing, making certain promises to the audience. This is part of setting expectation. I have also written elsewhere about types, but this blog is more about how to set up the type, and consequently the expectation, and moreover, to show that various types can exist within a single story (and often do, making it stronger), but that the basic type is that which forms the promise you make with the audience.

Let's start with a brand new story.


A MAN, heavyset, thinning hair, worn work clothes, slumps over the bar. His fat ass perches on the stool, prevents him from collapsing to the floor. His hand clutches his drink, but it is spilled. The drink makes a pool on the bar, mixes with the Man's saliva.

The BARTENDER, a tall thin man in his early thirties, stares in disbelief, eyes wide as saucers.

A half dozen CUSTOMERS crowd around, curious, surprised, and alarmed.

"Jesus Christ"

One of the Customers, a shaky construction worker, glances from the Man to the Bartender.

"Is he dead?"

"As the fucking glass he's holding."

What the hell type of story is this? Yes, you in back... What? Event type? How do you figure that? The guy is dead at the bar, yes, but is that an event that throws off the balance of the world, or in some way is an injustice that we must somehow deal with?... You, the girl in red, what do you think? Idea type? Hmm. Possibly... You, the guy with glasses and a crew cut. What do you think?... Character?... Interesting...

What is it that we know so far? That we are in a bar, seems to be a working class clientele. There is a dead man at the bar, still holding his spilled drink... Anything else? No, not really, and because of that, it's still too early to determine what type of story is it. Has there been any promise made to us in terms of where we are going? No. Do we have any reason to think this story is going to be about the bar itself, or the environment? No. So we might surmise this is not a milieu type story, since there is nothing out of the ordinary in terms of the setting, but that still leaves us not yet knowing what type of story it is. And, without knowing the type of story, we do not yet have any expectations of what the story promises. But we are close to having to make such a promise, and the next sequence will likely set that path. Let's take a look at how, by throwing out a few potential follow ups. The first will take us in the most unlikely of directions, setting this up as a possible milieu type.

A blue light fills the bar. The Customers and Bartender exchange fearful glances. Some squeal with trepidation. A black hole forms in the center of the room, the blue mist spinning around it. Objects in the room vibrate, begin to move. Glasses on the bar, pocketbooks, napkins, all are violently sucked toward the forming vortex. The people resist, hold the bar. Their feet are sucked out from under them, their hands lose grip. One by one they are sucked across the room and disappear into the hole.

Now then, this might lead us to another dimension, and the story may well focus on this strange new land or environment, becoming a milieu, as our focus is centered on the examination of this new land. Were it to do so, it would be a pretty weak way to start, because the dead man plays no purpose, and is therefore not needed in our story. We all know we should trim out things that aren't needed because they simply distract from our story. But the fact remains, we made no promise regarding the dead man, and have thus not cheated our audience. Let's disregard that last 'back to scene', and try another...


One of the Customers chokes, grabs his throat, eyes wide. He falls to the floor as the other customers first watch fearfully, then one by one suffer the same effects.

The Bartender, looking over the sudden sea of dead customers, races to the door, runs into the street.
Horror! Dead people line the streets. Cars are wrecked into signs, buildings, other cars. Steam pours from the hood of the nearest car, a lamppost bent over it . A COUPLE falls to their knees, gasping for breath before falling prone. The Bartender frantically takes in the nightmarish scene.

Tada! Event type! Now we have made a promise. To discover what has thrown the world into such imbalance, and probably to try and restore the natural order. But scratch that. Let's try this instead.


The Bartender pulls the empty glass from the man's hand, rubs his finger inside. He sniffs his finger, touches it with his tongue, spits.


Idea type! In this case, a mystery. At this point, we are effectively promised that someone killed this Man, and by extension, that the story will answer the question(s) posed. Who did it, and why. But screw that. Let's try another approach.

MARGARET BAXTER, mid thirties, tired looking, frail, with prematurely greying hair hanging loosely to her shoulders, sits at a table in front of a stack of bills. She holds one shakily in her hands. It reads:
"Eviction" at the top.
"God damn you and your heart attack, Gary. You always took the easy way out."

Where are we now? What type of story will this be and what promises have been made? Character. The death of the Man obviously impacts his wife, who is now left alone to face the problems they shared. We don't yet know the extent of those problems, or if they will be solved or not, but we have been given an inherent promise. That the death of the Man in the bar is going to cause Change in this character, and that change will likely be the focus of the story.

Now then. Where can we go from here? Does the 'type' of story preclude our use of elements more central to other types? No, not at all. The type simply sets the expectations of the audience by making a promise. That promise is based on the Predominant type of the story.

The Bartender, in the event driven style we layed out, can change in the course of the story unfolding, adding another dimension to the story and giving it more depth and interest, but he doesn't have to change in order to fulfill the stories promise, and moreover, his change should never change the type or promise that we made part of the contract. If the Bartender goes on to become a changed man, and the focus of the story is on his change, never satisfyingly addressing the event and imbalance of the world by the sudden death of all these people, the audience will rightfully be pissed off. If, on the other hand, the character 'arcs' and changes because of, or in direct relation to overcoming the imbalance in the world and trying to restore order, this strengthens the story.

Moral of the story... Be sure you know what predominant type story you are telling, and use other types to strengthen and bolster the telling of the tale. Never forget the expectations you set for the audience. It is invariably true that the audiences dissatisfaction will be assured if you fail to fulfill the promises you make setting up the type of story.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Type "O" Character. Is that an Arc I see?

Characters have to arc, right? The Protagonist has to be a good guy? Trying to stay within these two simple sounding boundaries can really stifle your creativity can't it? What if your character isn't even that damn important to you, and you don't feel like having him change? You can't tell a story then?

How often do you hear about the 'degree' of arc needed being related to the genre?
"Oh, he doesn't need to arc because it's a comedy"...

Hmmm. Could be that relates alright, but not so directly as it might seem. More importantly, in terms of realizing what degree of character development is required, desired, or possible, is the 'type' of story you are telling. Oh shit. I hear you groaning out there. Down in front! Did I ever steer you wrong? Never mind that. I know just where I'm going.

The Genre often impacts the degree of character development only because particular genres tend to fall into specific types of stories. Thus, the seeming link between character development and genre.

I'm sure you have heard the expression, "Character Driven", to express the basis for a script. Replace 'Driven' with 'Type' and you might avoid confusion. You see how type is different from genre? You might tend to automatically think drama, because it is the genre most often used for 'character type' scripts, but does it have to be? I think not. And that's why type and genre are not the same thing. Certainly genre tends to adapt itself more readily to specific types, but as a storyteller, it is within your power to effectively tell the type of story you wish in whatever genre you find suitable. Not to say it's easy, just possible.

My recent script, "ZomBody to Love", is quite distinctly in the horror genre, and yet it would be considered a 'Character' type film, because the focus of the story is specifically on the development and change of a character. And it is that 'Focus' that determines what 'Type' of story it is. Character development, arc, is absolutely critical, because that's the focus of the story. It's the promise made to the audience. It has action. It has zombies. It has humor. But the focal point is the change in a specific character. I'm not at the point of calling it successful mind you, but that's what re-writes are all about.

As I touched upon in other blogs, a good writer makes a contract of sorts with the audience. That contract is made in the first act, when the writer 'sets expectations'. Among those expectations, the type of story should be clear, as should the tone, genre, theme, and goal. If the story doesn't ultimately meet those expectations, then the audience rightly feels disappointed. It is why people often say a bad third act is the result of a weak first act.

So, to get more directly to the point, what the hell 'types' of movies are there? It may be helpful to think in terms of 'focus' in understanding 'types'. The type of movie is determined by what the story focuses on.

I have found that all stories fit within one of 4 basic types:
Character. Idea. Event. Milieu.

To re-establish our link to the point of this blog, the type of story you are telling, will dictate the amount of character development required, desired, or possible.

Character Type: Obviously, character development is the central focus here, and consequently, the character MUST arc, change, become someone other than who they were.

The action, scenery, ideas, and events serve only as tools of change to the character. It is the characters  development that is the focal point of the story. It is that promise to change the character in a significant way that is part of the contract you offer the audience when you set expectations.

The Theme of the story must be expressed by the character's change. The Tone must be consistent with the character. The Genre is simply the style, mood, or circumstances in which your character will develop. They can, and should, be interesting and relevant, but they must nurture and support the point of the story, not distract from it. It is easy to see why drama is often the genre for character type stories, but it doesn't have to be.

Look at the Jim Carry film, Liar, Liar. Genre. Comedy, obviously. But what type of story is it? What is the lynchpin without which the story will not work? Character. It is a Character Type movie. Does it have events? Of course it does, but all of them serve to help develop the character. What's the goal? Jim wants to keep his son in his life. Interesting to note that the goal of Jim isn't to change, but that a change is the POINT. Without this change in his character, he is unable to achieve his goal. Yes, we want him to succeed, but we all KNOW he HAS to change for that to happen. All of the events, all of the comedy, all of the circumstances that play a part, and could form the basis of a different 'type' movie, are secondary to this basic promise, which ISN'T that Jim will end up with his kid, or reach his goal, but that he will CHANGE.

Bottom line: Character MUST arc, and it should be profound.

Idea Type: In this simple structure, a problem, puzzle, or mystery is presented in the first act, and the inherent contract with the audience, is to solve the riddle. That's the focus. It's the point of the story. The solution to the question posed is what fulfills the contract of expectation.

Murder mysteries are a prime example of this type. The story opens with a murder, and a set of characters that can all be considered suspect. The promise to the audience is to solve the riddle of who committed the murder, and the journey (second act) is all about how cleverly that is done.

Is character development required? No. Character definition, flavor, and personality can all be included of course, but it is not critical to the story. No arc is required in terms of any of the characters. A character CAN have an arc of course, but doesn't have to in order to fulfill our promise to the audience. If you transform a character through the story, but never solve the riddle, you have broken your contract.

Interestingly, an arc, or change in the primary character can in fact hurt. In an Idea type story, many of the most famous detectives for example, rely upon our solid understanding of who they are, in order to reuse them in subsequent stories. This seems odd at first glance doesn't it? You would think for instance that Perry Mason stories were about Perry Mason, and thus be Character driven, but look closer. Perry never arcs. In fact, if Perry changed, he would likely lose popularity, because we know him and love him as he is. His stories are never about him. They are Idea stories, and Perry is our reliable viewpoint for unraveling the truth. Any dramatic change to Perry risks shattering the bond created with the audience.

Note that this does not mean that characterization isn't established. Often times, especially in American styled detective mysteries, the detective is very rich in terms of being a fully fleshed out 'real' person with well established quirks, strengths, and weaknesses. They simply don't change over the course of the story.

Bottom line: Character MAY arc, but it is not required, and the change in the character should not overshadow the focus of the story.

Event Type: Every story has events, so what makes a story an Event Type? You should have already figured this out. When the event itself is the point, or focus of the story, it is an event story. Yeah, I know. This may be tough to get a grasp on.

Event type stories may well have been the very first type of story. They are based primarily on our need for order in the world. Balance, rightness, normalcy. When this is not the case, we feel the inherent need to correct it, to restore order. Or perhaps prevent disorder.

It is responding to an event, or trying to prevent or prepare for an event. In either case, the critical key of the story is the event itself, the thing that is wrong, be it an injustice, a threat, or a condition that upsets the rule of order. Such event can be big or small. It can be centered on all of mankind, or relate solely to a few individuals, but in any case, it is the event that the story deals with.

A meteor racing toward earth with the threat of destroying mankind, is an event type story. So is a man seeking revenge for the murder of his wife. In both cases, it is the event which drives the story, and without which, the story falls apart. The prevention of, or restoration to order and justice, rightness and normalcy.

How important is characterization, and does the protagonist have to have an arc? This is wide open for the author. An event story can be quite effectively told with base and unchanging characters, and yet can be enriched by more developed characters that are changed in the process. The Event Type story is the most flexible type for the writer to determine the complexity, depth, and arc of the characters.

Bottom Line: Characters MAY arc, and in so doing, can potentially strengthen the story.

Milieu Type: Every story takes place somewhere. When somewhere, the place, the buildings, the landscape, the culture, the tools, the setting itself, is the focus of the story, it is a Milieu Type story. Sounds a bit boring doesn't it? Well, that's why there aren't many of them, at least not pure ones. They are relegated to the confines of natural science, utopian fiction, satires, and travelogues. In these pure milieus we are generally introduced to the area by a character from our own time and place, and led through the new world, examining the details of it. In such an environment, we certainly do not want a character arc. We want the character to be interesting maybe, but not changing. Even the indigenous people themselves serve as types or models to reveal custom and culture, not evolving characters. The character that carries us through such an adventure is 'everyman' or 'blandman', because we want to experience the place, the culture, the feel of this strange new land, not get carried away in the personality of the character. The promise of the story is fulfilled when we return home, and what is fascinating about this type, in regard to character arcs, is there is none. It is not only not needed, but unwanted, as it distracts from the promise of the story..

Bottom Line, PURE Milieu: NO Arc.

While there are few 'pure' milieu type stories told these days, it does nevertheless play a large part in stories that are of another basic type (idea, character, or event). Stories that take us to far away or exotic places, or into space, or under the ocean, or into the future or past. Much attention is paid to milieu in these stories, as the environment plays such an important part, and generally we must understand it at some level in order to serve our story. But it is not what the story is about.

Look at Lord of the Rings as an example. Milieu plays a significant part, even more so in the book than the movie. Elves and goblins. Men and Hobbits. All sorts of strange and wonderful creatures, places, cultures, laws and physics. Magic and mayhem. It is a huge part of the story, and yet it is not the story 'type'. If we enjoy the milieu, we give license easily to the songs of the elves, and the loving and detailed descriptions of places and things. The Hobbit, 'There and Back Again', more adequately fits the milieu, because it's all about the journey and discovery of these strange lands and people and culture, but LOTR is .... what type? I'll give you a minute....

Character? Surely there are many characters in the story that have significant arcs and press on through many challenges and dangers as they grow and change... but no. There is no promise made for these. They are 'extra' and add great depth and appeal to the story, but it's not the basis of the contract the writer promises.

Idea? There are many smaller pieces of the overall story that are based on ideas, each a sub plot in the main storyline. Puzzles to be solved, mysteries to unravel... but no.

What is the one critical component without which the entire story cannot succeed? The promise made to us early on?

Event! Why? Because that's the promise made. Something is not right with the world. A great threat to the very existence of everything we hold near and dear looms in Mordor. The evil lord Sauron rises and threatens to upset the balance of everything. The destruction of the ring is the only way to put the world right. That is the promise made, and everything else serves to move us closer to fulfillment of that promise.  

Bottom line:  MAY require arc, dependant on the primary story type.

So then. It should have become fairly obvious that characters don't always have to change. It should also have become a bit more clear how the 'type' of movie is not the same as the genre. You may well notice that you can take any movie and with analysis, effectively define them into one of these categories. You will likely find a way to define them into more than one category, but you can discover the true type by simply asking yourself what the contract was. What did the writer promise you at the start?

It should be clear by now that the same story can be told different ways, by deciding on the type of story you want to tell, and ensuring that you make that promise clear at the start, and then uphold your end of the contract as the writer.

Failing to set expectations will cause the audience to lose interest. Failing to meet those expectations will leave the audience feeling cheated or let down.

In the final analysis, a character arc is rarely a bad thing, unless it distracts or weakens the promises you made or draws attention away from the focal point of the story, but it is not always required, which frankly, is the whole point of this blog. In any story where a character develops and changes, you have elements of a character type story, but that does not make it a character type story, unless that is the promise made and is the all important element without which the story doesn't work.

The type of story you tell is determined by the expectations you set and the promises you make. If you promise to make a character change, they better change. If you don't make such a promise, then use character arcs only to strengthen, support, and add depth and interest to your story, not just for the sake of making a character change. That will, more often than not, simply muddy your story.

Just as Liar, Liar cannot be told without a change in Jim Carry's character, so too would Independence Day be totally unsatisfying if we never dealt with the invaders, no matter how many characters had a satisfying arc. A puzzle story that never solves the puzzle can't be saved by having interesting character arcs.

Bottom line: Give a character an arc when it serves your story, not when you are simply serving some ill conceived rule or advice you found on some stupid blog :)

Friday, October 19, 2012

3 Acts. Does it make sense?

As usual, take what sticks, feels right, and helps you become a better writer, and leave the rest... pretend I didn't even say it.

I have seen articles about 4 act stories, 5 acts, hell, 7 acts! What's the poor viewer to do when talking about the movie with his friends?
Todd: "Remember that 6th murder? That was so cool."
Evan: "The one in the third act?"
Todd: "After that, before the end... Act 6 I think."

The only true part of that exchange is Todd, when he says "...before the end."
Now granted, most typical movie viewers don't look at it in terms of acts at all. That's for the story tellers. Instead, they will relate to the beginning, the end, or something in between. Here's a clue to that something in between. It's the middle. Second act.

It's where all hell breaks loose. We walked up the steep stairs, looked out over the roller coaster, and buckled ourselves into the seat. Now, it's the ride, and it doesn't stop until we get to the end. The journey is on and there's no turning back. You talked us into taking this trip, and you promised a few basic things before we get to the end.

You can put twists and turns in the track, ups and downs, even total loop dee loos. Hell, we hope for it. You can make it slow or fast, run it through thick or thin, light or dark, funny or sad.

But... you do promise not to take the car off the track, and, in the end, to deliver us to the promised destination..

The 3 act structure wasn't designed by man. It was observed by him.
Stories were the first real form of communication, and always have a beginning, a middle, and an end. This simple fact is recognized in screenwriting as the 3 Act Structure, and not only does the entire story fit within it, but in a good screenplay, every element will obey this common sense truth. Every scene starts, has something happen (the beat), and ends, pointing us forward to the next 3 act construct. Every act is built upon a number of smaller 3 act pieces.

Where is the confusion? Twists and turns. Plans and failures. Too many hard and fast untrue rules. Each act has its own 3 acts, and those are constructed from even smaller 3 acts. Every subplot, every character, every action paragraph can easily be thought of and constructed using the same structure. Setup, Act, End. Open, Tell, Close. Describe, Act, Complete. Beginning, Middle, and End. It's natural.

A caveman and his woman that he found are in the entrance to a cave. There are beautiful flowers beside the entrance, side by side with aged and dying flowers. The caveman looks curiously at the flowers, picking a living one, and a dead one, compares them. He is enraptured by the beauty of the living rose, and devastated by the death of the other one. He wrestles with this newfound knowledge. He notices his cavewoman wife wiping something on her leg. It leaves a bright stain, the color of the flower.  He looks at the stain, the flower, the smooth stone of the cave entrance. He gets an idea, sees a possibility, evaluates his options. He sets a goal, makes a decision.

That's act one within the context of this simple example.

But look at the action so far. It's already done its own 3 acts. How so? First, the beginning. We set up what is. A cave. Flowers. Cave couple. Obviously he's a thinking and compassionate man, contemplating life and death with the simple vision of flowers. Ok, what happens?

This changes his life, rocks his world. It can't be that life is so brief, beauty so short lived, death so final. He is crushed and defeated by this realization, wrestles with it, denies it, but ultimately must deal with it. He can simply ignore it, or he can work and toil to somehow change it, or at the least improve upon the condition, overcoming obstacles along the way. He imagines a way to overcome this loss of beauty and make it last forever.

And how does it end? He makes a decision and sets a goal.Yeah, I know. I hear you. Isn't that a basic component of the first act? Why yes, yes it is. So then how can it be the third act of this miniature 3 act sequence? Because this mini story was about an event (the epiphany of the flowers we'll call it) that changes the caveman in a very deep way, and the payoff at the end, the part we are all waiting for, is what decision he will make. Making that decision, whatever it is, is the end of that story, but only a small thing in service to the larger story, in which this entire 3 act story is just one of many within the first act in the main story.

In Act 2 of the larger story--

He goes to his cavewoman wife, wipes the stain from her leg, puts his stained fingers in her face, and grunts, with a nod of the head, looking between his fingers and her eyes.

Maybe she doesn't get it, looks at him stupidly, or more likely, as if he was stupid. What does he do? Maybe pulls her hair, slaps her around some, and tries the same approach. It will continue to fail no matter how many tries he makes, because nothing changed. She doesn't get now what she didn't get when previously given the same treatment. So, new plan, same goal.

He drags her to the wall, uses his fingers to wipe some of the stain onto the rock, draws an outline of her dull witted head and puts a question mark over it... 

No matter. He keeps on trying. Why? Not because it's his goal. He's a freakin caveman we made up. He keeps trying because we know what the goal is, and it's now OUR goal. We want that damn flower drawn on the rock, where it won't die. In the end, the caveman has to succeed.

Not only that, he has to finally succeed by his own change, brought about in his struggle. It is by overcoming his own weaknesses (in this case, communicating with his ditzy wife in order to find where the paint comes from) that WE feel satisfied.

* Yes, I know. He doesn't have to succceed. He could be eaten by a freakin mammoth or something as his homemade brush takes its first dip into his hard won paint. But I like happy endings, ok?

So then, if everything works from this same basic 3 act structure, where do all these other 'acts' come from I keep hearing about? Mislabeling, or misunderstanding the full purpose and scope of each act.

For example, people will point to a movie that starts with a seemingly bizzarre or shocking scene before going to the traditional first act introduction, and consequently feel this must be somehow unrelated to the first act. Its not. The first act is 'In the beginning'. If that's how you begin, then by golly it's in the first act. It is in this sense that I think certain 'untrue rules' cloud the issue. People think of the first act as setting up and showing us the 'normal' world, before anything happens to cause change. Introduce characters, circumstances, situations. And if this opening scene doesn't 'fit' that rule, they mistakenly believe it can't be a part of the first act. It is, because it's how you chose to start, which is always in the first act by simple logic. Moreover, people often forget a major component of the first act, which is quite simply "Setting up expectations". A huge burden of the fist act, introduction, if you prefer, is setting up the expectations of the audience, and frankly, unless that's why you put the scene in the beginning, you screwed up.

Meeting the expectations set up at the start is critical for your script, and encompasses enough variants to demand its own blog. So let me just say briefly, that IMHO, if you fail to set expectations, establish your underlying theme, the genre, the tone, and the type of story you are telling, then you aren't going to tell the story as effectively as you could.

What about twisted endings where we think the movie is over, but then goes on? Let's assume you are not speaking of the typical denouement, which basically re-establishes the new world and is part and parcel of the third act, but rather a seeming answer to the question posed or goal set previously. In other words, you thought your expectations were reached, but damn, it keeps going. Isn't this another act?

No, not if you think about it in terms of beginning, middle, and end. If it's not at the end, it's not in the third act, or is simply a false end that sets you up again. Or, the piece you thought at first was the ending, is just another sequence in the second act, and there remained something to be learned before the final victory. Regardless, the end is always at the end, and the end is act 3.

How many false endings, or miniature 3 act sequences or plans can there be? There is no set number, but more than a few 'twists and turns' that lead to false conclusions will invariably alienate your audience, who will feel trifled with and unsatisfied.

Think of the guy in American Werewolf in London. He wakes from a scary dream, in his hospital room. Holy shit. Suddenly the nurse is a monster and he wakes again! A dream within a dream. Pretty cool. It demonstrated a false ending to the 3 act structure of that specific scene, and it worked. But how many levels deep could it have gone? No more. If he had wakened from yet another dream, everything good about it would have been trashed. The first time, you got me. Do it again, and you're just making fun of me.
That is not to limit the obstacles, raising the stakes, or building suspense and tension I'm talking about. Read it carefully. A failed attempt or a new obstacle does not give a sense of ending.

Indeed, each of these plans or attempts are inherently 3 act structures themselves, usually the end of one melding into the first act of another (much the same way a denouement does). .Each begins with a situation (perhaps the utter failure of the last attempt), demands a decision, takes action, and then is resolved, maybe successfully and finally, or in failure, maybe leading to another plan, serving to set the basis for the first act of the next attempt.

Carl enters a house, his eyes frantically scan. He spots a table, hurries to it, rifles through the drawers. He frowns, looks around the room, spots a knick knack shelf. He walks to it, takes a small piece of paper from beneath a bauble, reads it. He hurries to the door.

A 3 act structure? We establish Carl is looking for something, makes a decision, sets a goal. Act 1 over. Carl executes his plan. Act 2 done. Carl finds what he wanted. Success. The end.

Still not convinced? I see two 3 act structures there. In splitting this in two, act 3 is when Carl executes his plan and fails. He frowns, defeated. The end. Now Act 1 of the second 3 act structure. Starts the same. Carl's situation, goal, and plan are made obvious. He executes the plan, finds success. The end. Situation, action, resolution. Bang bang bang. 3 acts.

What's the point of all this? Simply this.
The 3 act structure wasn't designed by man. It was observed by him.
Use the basic 3 act structure as your 'atom', regardless of what you are building or how incredibly complex you view your story overall.

As I often told students when teaching computer programming, "At its core, a computer only knows two states and is not to be feared. It is man that has shown the ability to resolve the most complex problems imaginable through a series of yes or no questions that make computers seem so smart."

P.S. Yes, the caveman finally painted a flower on the cave wall. In the sequel, he discovered the rain washed it away. Stay tuned.

Yes, I beat your baby...

In the course of normal conversation, the kind you have with the clerk you know at the local convenience store, I was recently asked; "What are you up to?". I replied that I was working on an action script for a small production company.

"I could do that. I'm really good at telling stories.", he responded.

I said, "Hey, you should go for it.", payed my bill, and left with a smile.

That's encouragement, and I give it for free, every chance I get.

I know a shitload of good story tellers, and telling stories is a big part of screenwriting. Unfortunately, telling a good story isn't the only part of writing a screenplay. For one thing, writer's write. For another thing, screenplays are quite different from a novel or a short story. There are all these pesky rules about format and such. And of course, structure, dialogue, pacing, tension, and a host of other considerations. If you want to be a fireman, you have to learn to put out fires. If you want to write screenplays, you have to learn how to do more than just tell a story.

For a screenplay to come to reality on the screen, a whole lot of other people are going to get involved, and someone is going to have to pay for all this. It's a huge investment in time and money, and a great risk. With thousands of 'stories' and scripts to choose from, yours had better be the cream of the crop.

Today I want to talk a little bit about foreshadowing.
What the hell is it? It's a means by which you give the audience 'clues' as to where the story is going, and possible future events. It's a dot in a connect the dots picture, maybe seeming unimportant alone, but a part of the bigger picture. The importance of that dot is likely not known until it's connected to others. In Star wars, Luke practices using a light saber against a small orb. Later in the film, Luke must face the death star, a much bigger version of this same small orb. This is an object, or symbol that is used to foreshadow a future event.

Foreshadowing can be accomplished in any number of ways; dialogue, events, prophecy, objects, actions, dreams or visions. It can be quite simple, such as a sign at the entrance of a cave that reads "Stay Out" over a crudely drawn skull and crossbones.  

In Seven, Morgan Freedman tells Brad Pitt early on that 'these kinds of cases never have a happy ending'. No shit. This is foreshadowing via dialogue, and makes the big reveal later more palatable. The audience, either consciously or not, is more prepared for the shock.

Foreshadowing is, at its core, exposition, and as with all exposition, should be subtle and mostly hidden, even while being apparent and a natural part of the scene. It is when the payoff occurs later that the importance clicks in on some level of understanding.

But I digress. This blog isn't about teaching you how to foreshadow. It's about me complaining about writers that think they are foreshadowing, but these 'seeds' are planted so deeply, and are so obtuse, that the connection is made only in the writer's mind.

I can't tell you how many times a writer has come back to me and said, "well that's what this event was for. You see how it foreshadowed this?". If after reviewing a thousand scripts, I don't see the connection, there is  likely a large segment of your audience that won't either.

If you have an Easter egg hunt for 5 year olds, you don't bury an egg in an old well, cover it with branches and tires, and then .take great delight in the fact that none of those stupid little kids found the egg you hid. That kind of misses the point doesn't it?

The same is true when you foreshadow in a script. You plant the idea that allows the audience to connect the dots later and feel good about 'figuring things out'. Planting it deeper than the audience can dig doesn't make you Sherlock Holmes. You live with your story and the characters and the plot for months. Your audience lives in this world you create for a couple hours. You don't gain anything by making your audience feel stupid.

Remember always that a failure of the audience to 'get it', is the writer's failure, not the audiences.

This doesn't mean make it obvious. Nobody wants to be hit over the head repeatedly to drive your point home.

Consider a husband and wife in a very difficult relationship that both want out of. He is at the sink, washing dishes, as she clears the table and harasses him for his crude behavior at dinner.

"He rinses the knife, glances at it, runs his thumb along the sharp edge before placing it in the strainer."

If the wife ends up with her throat slit later, we have an idea of who did it, and when the plan was first germinated. This may or may not be the case, but the seed is planted and can be pruned to our needs as the story unfolds.

If the husband simply does the dishes and the writer believes this alone will be enough to foreshadow the later murder simply because a knife was part of the dishes, the audience is likely never going to make any such connection. The seed is too deep to be related. The connection exists only in the mind of the writer.

On the other hand...
"He takes the knife firmly in hand, turns to his wife, his veins bulging, his eyes a fire of hate and disgust. His hand trembles as he watches her bend over the table, wiping away the crumbs. His breath labored, he takes a step toward her before regaining control of his emotions and turning back to the sink."...
is a bit of overkill. We get it, but so would the 5 year old hunting for Easter eggs.

Know your audience. Tease them with possibilities that make sense, without spelling everything out, but don't bury a clue so deeply that nobody finds it. And if you do, don't blame them.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Hunt of the Wildman - My first epic

It was in the very early 70s that I wrote and produced this 8mm masterpiece. I had been given a camera by my father-in-law, and had done a number of little fun projects while learning to use it. One 22 second film took the better part of a day. It involved having two friends 'race' along the parking lot in imaginary cars and ended with a crash. Frame the shot, get position, snap a few frames. Everyone moves a few inches. It was awesome. As dumb as it sounds, I learned a great deal.

The camera used a 50 foot roll of film. You had to thread it in, and after shooting 25 feet, pull it out and turn it over to shoot the other half. There was a crank on the side to wind it up, and a big button in front to shoot.

Then you would drop it off at one of the little photo booths that could be found in every strip mall parking lot. They would send it off, split the film down the center, splice it together, and develop it. Presto.

Finally, I wrote something. A movie! My long haired friend Tony would play the star role, a wild man, hunted through the barren lands of a nearby gravel dig site. The story? That WAS the story. He was a wild man, and damn it, he needed to be hunted. There was no sound, because, well, because I had no sound equipment.

I quickly discovered that my friends didn't have the same passion. I got them to show up the first day, but they never came back... and so, the movie of course was never completed. The wild man apparently got away and was never heard from again. But the bug had bitten me, and though it would be some years before I succumbed to it's allure, it was more persistent than my friends.

I was fresh out of the Marine Corp, newly married, and with the first of our 5 children and a go nowhere job, I took advantage of the GI bill and went to school for electronics. In Florida. Our thinking was that being broke meant we could be wherever the hell we wanted, so why not Florida. We were Disney freaks, so that weighed on the scale too. I read a matchbook that said I could go to school with no money because I was a veteran, so I called. I took a test, had an interview, and bada bing. I was in.

Electronics led me to computers, and I loved it. I would go many years, serving in virtually every area of the computer revolution, but never losing the urge to be involved with making movies. Though this early adventures were far removed from the time I finally got serious, it was when I was bitten.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Welcome to the Garage


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