When writing a screenplay, a screenwriter must remember that she has two audiences. First, she has the reader of the screenplay. This reader may be her friend, writing coach, producer, actor, director, distributor, development exec, someone working in product placement, contest judge, or anyone else in the chain of people that read a screenplay before it magically gets transformed into a movie. For this audience, the writing must be good. What I mean by that is: there must be both style and substance. Substance is a good story with well-developed characters, great pacing, interesting plot twists, excellent dialog and a tightly woven theme. Style is the way all of that good stuff is presented on the page and includes visually interesting descriptions, proper formatting, correct spelling, and a unique voice that supports the content and engages the reader. [Read more…]
The tricky thing with a movie — because you can have a great script and a great director, and everyone’s heart can be in the right place – you still need to get massively lucky to pull it all off.
I love how matter of fact and humble Brian Helgeland is (not to mention his eerie resemblance to one of my favorite actors of all time, Mr. Michael Keaton). Even with sixty-plus screenplays under his belt, eighteen of which have made it to the screen, he doesn’t label himself a writer: He’s a filmmaker, goddammit. As far as he’s concerned, writers are novelist, playwrights are dialogist. He stands along side the many technicians and craftsmen who come together and make a movie. Just another cog in the machine. There’s something very genuine about that sentiment, especially considering it comes from the guy who is Mr. Adapation ’round town, with films like L.A. Confidential, Mystic River, Man on Fire, and The Bourne Supremacy under his belt. [Read more…]
At the very beginning of the movie, we see Scottie vaulting across rooftops, struggling to keep up with the policeman ahead of him as he realizes that he is afraid of heights. He is, of course, suffering from castration anxiety. The ability to chase down criminals is important to his work, which is tied directly to his role as a male, providing for himself. If he is unable to perform adequately, it will signify that he is impotent. When he fails to save the life of the policeman who is trying to save him, he is effectively castrated.1
Inception is a complex film, but not from the point of view of the protagonist’s goals. Externally, there is one goal that resonates through each act: Cobb wants to reunite with his children. Internally, he must forgive himself for his wife’s suicide or the external goal will be compromised. One of my complaints with the film, only from the story’s point-of-view, is that the plot is so complex Nolan must constantly remind the audience what is happening and what the dangers are. Even the characters are confused. Hey, he’s not just a storyteller, he’s a filmmaker. In that respect, he exceeds our expectations. I’ve never seen a film like Inception before. I doubt I will again. [Read more…]
I ran across this today on Open Culture. Slaughterhouse Five is one of my favorite books (I hope Guillermo del Toro’s adaptation finds its way to the screen as soon as possible). I also dug up another list from Vonnegut on style. A lot of these popped right off the page as fundamental rules of screenwriting (if such things exist). I guess good writing is good writing. From Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction:
Vonnegut: How To Write a Good Short Story
- Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
- Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
- Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
- Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
- Start as close to the end as possible.
- Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
- Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
- Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
Vonnegut: How To Write With Style
- Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.
- Do not ramble, though
- Keep it simple. As for your use of language: Remember that two great masters of language, William Shakespeare and James Joyce, wrote sentences which were almost childlike when their subjects were most profound.
- Have guts to cut. It may be that you, too, are capable of making necklaces for Cleopatra, so to speak. But your eloquence should be the servant of the ideas in your head.
- Sound like yourself. I myself find that I trust my own writing most, and others seem to trust it most, too, when I sound most like a person from Indianapolis, which is what I am.
- Say what you mean. Readers want our pages to look very much like pages they have seen before. Why? This is because they themselves have a tough job to do, and they need all the help they can get from us.
- Pity the readers. They have to identify thousands of little marks on paper, and make sense of them immediately. They have to read, an art so difficult that most people don’t really master it even after having studied it all through grade school and high school — twelve long years.
I don’t know how many of you folks remember Back to School, but I’d follow these at your own risk:
I have a new story I’m working on. I actually thought it was pretty good until I read this stupid fucking list. It comes from writer/director Emma Coats. When Ms. Coats isn’t writing and directing, she’s a storyboard artist at Pixar — a storyboard artist kind enough to post a list of “story basics” she’s learned from her time there. I have to admit, after I read this damn thing, I fantasized about putting my fist through my laptop’s screen. I opted instead to run headfirst into the brick wall of my office. Fortunately, my concussion left me with a dizzying sense of optimism. I’m positive this list will prove helpful if there’s no brain damage.
22 Story Basics From Pixar
- You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
- You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.
- Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.
- Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
- Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
- What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
- Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
- Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.
- When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.
- Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.
- Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.
- Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
- Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
- Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.
- If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
- What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
- No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.
- You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
- Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
- Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?
- You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?
- What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.
Frank Darabont has often compared The Shawshank Redemption to a Rorschach test. Written and executed with exceptional skill, it possesses a power that allows viewers to effortlessly empathize with its characters. It is, perhaps, the metaphor of imprisonment that resonates within us the hardest. We all have things that hold us captive, whether physical, psychological, social, or economical. Shawshank is about hope. If Andy can escape and come out the other side free, so can we. Get busy living or get busy dying. That’s goddamn right.
Listen to our Shawshank Podcast
Screenplay by David Franzoni and John Logan and William Nicholson
Story by David Franzoni
Directed by Ridley Scott
Running time: 149 minutes