Weaving A Different Magic, Part 2

The obsession with the “rules of screenwriting” that I described in two previous blog posts (this one and this one), can be expected, of course, in books about screenwriting by screenwriters. This reflects a natural and understandable tendency on the part of screenwriters to think of their work as the primary basis of film. But this is a little myopic on the part of the writers, as if the final movie is simply a translation of their work into a different medium.

The screenplay is only one element that goes into a movie, and is no more determinative of the power of the final movie than other elements, like the acting, the cinematography, or the director’s style and choices. Filmmaking as an art is not about accurately translating the story of the screenplay to the screen. It’s about using the screenplay as one element among others to create a separate and new work of art that can certainly have different and greater artistic goals than the screenplay’s narrative.

The non-narrative aspects of the film experience are as important to the art of film as the story. We must always think about the experience of the audience, what emotional or mental states the audience goes through, the journey they go on, which as Werner Herzog pointed out, is different from the journey the characters go on. This is created as much by the style of the film, which involves the director’s, cinematographer’s and actors’ choices, as by the script.

Screenwriters often forget this, and too often when screenwriters get a chance to direct, their movies are stylistically unimaginative, workmanlike, competent, with the focus on a straightforward, classical re-imagining of their script to the screen.

We also see this almost-exclusive focus on story in a lot of film criticism, as Matt Zoller Seitz talked about in a recent blog post. Seitz observes how most current film criticism avoids talk of style or form and focuses instead mostly on issues of narrative, plot and characters (with occasional nods to good acting or beautiful cinematography).

But, as Seitz insists, the art of movies is as much about how a story is told as the story itself. The style, the filmmaking, is what makes it a movie, and not a novel, or a play, an opera, or a dance, all equally viable forms in which to tell a story.

Is the editing fragmented or languorous? The camera in motion or static? The lighting naturalistic or stylized? The color palette vivid or subdued? Why is this shot held so long? Why is that scene shot from that particular angle? And how do all these choices affect the mood or contribute to the communication of a point of view?

I don’t want to denigrate the need for a great script as part of any great movie, but don’t be misled into thinking that relating a narrative is the only and ultimate objective of filmmaking. It is conjuring an experience for the audience that is the ultimate objective, and in creating that experience, narrative is only one element, no more important than all the others.

Weaving A Different Magic

I saw Richard Linklater’s new film Boyhood over the weekend. In case you don’t know about this film, it tells the story of a fictional boy’s life from the time he is six years old to eighteen. The unusual thing about the film is that it was shot with the same actors over 12 years, so in the course of the 2 hour and 45 minute film, we watch the actor playing Mason age from a young child to a young adult. We also watch all the other actors age around him.

It’s a remarkable work of art, for so many reasons, but I want to talk about it in relationship to the so-called “rules” of good screenwriting.

In a previous post, I talked about how good drama involves working toward a goal against obstacles, but also how, other than that, the standard rules of a good screenplay are artistically limiting. (By the ”standard rules,” I mean, put simply, that in a good screenplay, the protagonist must have both an overarching goal and some growth that needs to be achieved. The obstacles the protagonist faces are such that the he or she must achieve that growth in order to successfully reach the goal).

Most every how-to-write- a-screenplay book buys into this notion, and even people like John August and Craig Mazin, who in their Scriptnotes podcast are usually pretty insightful about screenwriting, subscribe to it.

But, as I stressed in that previous post, this is only one type of story among many that you can tell in film, and I encourage every one to use their imagination, honesty, and life experience to free themselves to the possibilities of other stories.

This is what Linklater does in Boyhood. There is no over-arching goal providing the main thrust of this movie. In individual sequences and scenes through the course of young Mason’s life, there are goals to be achieved, but what provides the forward thrust of the film isn’t any overarching goal, but the cinematic magic of seeing Mason grow up before our eyes. That provides a sense of wonder and melancholy and even spiritual wisdom that is far removed from the usual goals of traditional, mainstream screenplays.

If that same script had been filmed with different actors playing Mason at different ages, that magic would have been lost, and the script would seem mediocre, but this doesn’t mean the script is lacking anything that would have made it better. As with Russian Ark (a 90 minute film shot in one continuous take), the means of creation becomes as vital to the power of the film as anything. And creating some kind of overarching goal for Mason would have diminished the impact and truthfulness of the film, which remains honest to the rhythms of a young boy’s life.

That is real magic, and it reminds us that film can accomplish many different things and tell many type of stories. Don’t let you imagination be limited by the rules others set for us!

Screenwriting 101: 14 Tips For Writing a Great Screenplay

In a previous post, I explained how striving toward a goal against obstacles is the heart of drama. Here’s more tips for writing a great screenplay.

1. Trust Your Inspiration.

Something got you excited about your story. Was it a single image? A character that grew in your imagination and fascination? A scene you can’t stop thinking about? A theme that you want to explore?

Trust that inspiration. If it got you excited – and you do the hard turn it into a great screenplay – it will get others excited to.

2. Don’t Rush.

Give your ideas time to gel, to grow into living, vivid stories. Let your unconscious do it’s work. Let the ideas mull inside you, turn them around in your mind. You’ll know when it’s time to write.

This doesn’t mean procrastinating. If you find you’re never finishing anything, you have different problems than rushing.

3. Make Your Film About Something.

Why is this story important to you? Why would it be important to anyone else? What are you trying to explore about life?

A great film is more than just a good plot, interesting characters, and witty dialogue. What do you have to say that is unique? I’m not talking about a message film. Art should explore questions rather than give definitive answers. But a good film is about something important, something meaningful.

Even comedies can be about something. Look at Groundhog’s Day. It’s not just about someone stuck in an absurd situation. It’s asking “What does it mean (and what does it take) for a selfish, jaded man to become a better person?” And it doesn’t go for an easy, pat answer. The film shows that it’s hard work.

But don’t settle on your on your approach too quickly. Discover it in the writing process. Write with compassion and empathy for other people.

4. Don’t Settle For Easy Solutions

Writing a great script is the most difficult part of the filmmaking process. Any writer who says otherwise is not doing the hard work and is settling for the clichéd and the obvious instead of new and surprising.

A few years ago a meme was going around the internet called Pixar’s 22 Rules of Good Storytelling. This was the most important of them: “Discount the first thing that comes to mind, and the second, third, fourth, fifth. Get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.”

5. Be Truthful.

Be truthful about the way you see the world. If, for example, you think violence is never a good solution to problems, are you going to present a world in which heroes commit violent actions without consequences?

Be truthful about human behavior. Rigorously. Far too often in bad scripts characters don’t behave like real people, but only act for the convenience of the plot. Ask, would someone really do that? Then, would your character really do that?

This needs to be a constant effort. It’s so easy to fall into clichés and formulaic ideas about situations and people without even realizing it. It’s so easy just to push a character where you want the plot to go. If something doesn’t feel right, recognize it, identify why, and fix it.

6. Think About How Scenes Will Be Shot.

You’re not just writing a story, you’re making the blueprint for a film that will need to be shot. Is what you’re writing shootable? Will it be as clear onscreen as it is on the page? Are the things you are putting down in words able to be shown visually?

Learn a little about film production, so you will know what it takes to shoot a scene. Learn a little about editing, so you’ll know what it takes to tell a clear story.

7. Don’t Overwrite Dialogue.

A look, a line inflection, can convey what you may be tempted to go on for paragraphs about on the page. Think about how a line will be performed. One parenthetical can sometimes replace many lines of dialogue.

A simple action description like “He pauses for a moment, then gives her one last, aching look” can replace too on-the-spot dialogue like “I don’t really want to do this, but it’s important to you, so, yes, I’ll do it. because I love you.”

People don’t always say what they really mean. People aren’t always able to express themselves articulately. Honor that in your script.

8. Read Your Dialogue Out Loud.

Make sure your dialogue is actable. Sometimes things sound good in your head, but not on your tongue

9. Give Supporting Characters Their Own Needs And Desires.

One of the most common mistakes I’ve seen in poorly written screenplays is having every single word, thought, and action of every supporting character revolve around the protagonist’s story.

In real life, every person is the star of his or her own movie, and you need to have some sense of this in your script or the supporting characters become ciphers, plot devices that have no agency, and ultimately are boring to watch. What are your supporting characters doing when they’re not in the film? What’s going on in their lives right now? What are their goals and obstacles?

10. Develop Subplots.

Subplots are a crucial tool in writing a great screenplay. They expand the world and make it seem more real. They make the film seem less self-indulgent. They allow you to explore themes more deeply and can serve as a counter-point to the arc of the main protagonist. They make the world seem rich, nuanced and alive.

11. Think In Terms Of Sequences, Not Scenes.

In my previous post on screenwriting, I talked about the importance of having goals and obstacles for your protagonists. But as I pointed out then, you shouldn’t just think about overarching, movie-long goals. You can also think about smaller goals that cross over scenes to create little sequences inside your movie. This helps give your screenplay structure. It also helps punctuate your film with focal points that create rhythm, dynamics and tension.

12. Don’t Over-Rationalize Everything

Life is messy. Art is messy. There’s a fine line between a great work of art where every aspect is necessary and important, and an overly-determined story where everything fits together like a jigsaw puzzle.

People act irrationally. They mess up and don’t always do what’s best for themselves. Life isn’t always fair and a random accident can change someone’s life forever. Respect life’s chaos.

13. Re-write!

Good writing is re-writing. I’m not the first one to say this, but it’s absolutely true. Don’t settle for just okay. Anything that isn’t great, that you don’t love, revise it or get rid of it.

14. Know the History of Film.

What’s in vogue now is just what’s in vogue now, and it will be passé next year. The more you know, the more tools you’ll have when you need them.

Screenwriting 101: Goals and Obstacles

Goals and Obstacles

Most screenwriters have at some point come across the standard formula for writing screenplays. It goes something like this:

Good scripts involve a protagonist striving for a goal against obstacles. The obstacles get bigger and bigger as the movie goes on.

Additionally, the protagonist has some kind of personal growth that needs to be achieved, which has left the protagonist in a kind of emotional stasis at the beginning of the film. In the end, the protagonist must achieve this personal growth in order to overcome the final, greatest obstacle and accomplish the goal, or fail to change and lose.

Furthermore, a good screenplay is divided into three acts and there are specific milestones you should reach at specific points in each act. For example, in the first act, there is an Inciting Incident that disrupts the protagonist’s normal life. About halfway through the second act, there should be some kind of twist: things are not what they seem, or a friend betrays the protagonist, or a major new obstacle is thrown into the mix, etc. In the third act, right before the protagonist achieves his goal, there should be a moment when it appears all is lost. Conversely, if the protagonist eventually fails, there should be a moment when he appears to succeed.

I could go on, but you get the point. Some of this just boils down to common sense. The three-act structure is just a way to say that a film has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The Inciting Incident another way to say every story has to start somewhere.

But I hope you can see how limiting this formula is, as if there is only one type of story that can ever be told. A dogged adherence to this formula is one of the reasons for the bland sameness of so many mainstream movies; they all follow the same rhythms, the same plot beats, the same character arcs.

There is one essential truth to be taken out of all of this: a good story involves a character striving against obstacles towards a specific goal.

This is the heart of drama. It keeps the audience involved and drives the narrative arc forward.

But how this plays out doesn’t need to follow any standard formula. There are so many more possibilities. Let’s take a look at three classic films and see what lessons they have for us.

Citizen Kane

In Citizen Kane, the specific goal that pushes the story into motion is the journalist trying to find the meaning of Kane’s last word “Rosebud.” It’s through his interviews with the people who knew Kane that we see the mosaic of Kane’s life story. But the journalist is not the protagonist of the story; he has no personal arc that allows him to achieve or fail at his goal; his search does not provide the emotional momentum of the story; and the eventual answer does not provide the audience with the ultimate solution to the puzzle of the film, but is simply a small piece in it.

The search for the meaning of Rosebud is the framing device that gets the audience into the story. Important, yes, memorable, yes, but not the spine of the movie.

2001: A Space Odyssey

What is the main goal this movie? Answering the mystery of the monolith? This is more a goal of the audience than the characters. The prehistoric ape-men of the first section aren’t interested in answering the question. Dr. Floyd in the second section is, but the astronauts aboard the Discovery during the third and main section of the film, don’t even know about the monolith. Their main goal is to stay alive when their life support is entirely in the hands of a malfunctioning super-computer that wants them dead.

This struggle for survival makes up the largest section of the movie, but in a 140 minute movie, this narrative arc isn’t even introduced until 50 minutes in, and the problem is resolved with 25 minutes left in the film, so only about half of the film involves this story and the entire last act does not. Again, it’s an interesting and memorable element that keeps the audience involved, but it’s not what the movie is about. No single character goal provides the spine of the picture.

The Godfather

Even a movie like The Godfather, the most traditional of these three movies in terms of narrative, only tangentially follows this formula. I had a writing teacher who suggested that the specific goal of this movie is the Corleone family trying to stay out of the heroin business. This sets the main action of the film in motion, but it’s not what the heart of the film is about. The film is about many other things: capitalism and crime, the cost of loyalty to a corrupt family. Coppola himself says that when he was making it, he identified the main theme of the film as “succession” and referred back to that theme whenever questions arose in the production. The film is far more than can be summed up by a single specific goal.

In each of these films, you can see how giving characters specific goals to achieve and throwing obstacles in their way drives the story and keeps the audience engaged. Whether in overarching goals for an entire film or smaller goals for individual scenes, this is the heart of drama.

But beyond that, formula is just formula. The arcs stories can take are as endless as all the variations of the human condition.

Always make your films breath with life and imagination and daring.

Movies vs. TV

There’s a lot of talk these days about whether contemporary television is better than film, meaning that mainstream TV nowadays is generally more interesting and innovative than mainstream films. Most of the talk has to do with how the economics of each medium has forced filmmakers to play it safe and take less risks than their television counterparts.

I’d like to take a step back and talk more about more fundamental differences in the art forms.

One of my writing teaches, Ela Thier (theindependentfilmschool.com/) once said in class that the difference between TV and movies is that TV presents episodes in a person’s life, whereas a film presents the most important event in a person’s life.

A bit of a generalization, but I think there is a lot of truth to this.

(And when I talk about “film” in this post, I’m talking about narrative feature films. Short films, documentaries, and experimental films are different animals, with different aims, different pleasures and different rules.)

This distinction illuminates a lot, for example why movie sequels so often fail. How many “most important events” can a person have in his or her life? You might be able to find material enough for a second film (Tim Burton’s Batman: Batman finds the person who murdered his parents, Burton’s Batman Returns: Batman falls in love), but there are only so many times you can return to the well before it runs dry and becomes just another episode in the protagonist’s life, especially when facing the pressure to give audiences “more of the same.”

Thus in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (as in the comic), Spider-Man’s defining moment comes when he discovers that the two-bit criminal he didn’t bother to stop went on to kill his beloved Uncle Ben. But by the time of Raimi’s third movie in the franchise, when it’s revealed that Uncle Ben’s killer was really another criminal, it all just seems both too much and too the same.

When I wrote for Marvel Comics, we were told that a good story involves the hero facing a moral choice that defines him or changes him. But can you really write this same story issue after issue, month after month?

Many episodic series solve this problem by sometimes having stories where the hero is not the true protagonist, but just plays a part in someone else’s story. Will Eisner’s weekly Spirit comic used this device often, where The Spirit would only be a tangential figure in the story of a small time hood or some other Everyman.

Another way that episodic stories can deal with this challenge is to have an ensemble cast. Not every Buffy The Vampire Slayer story is about Buffy. Individual stories could focus on Willow, or Xander or Giles, or any one of the large and rotating supporting cast.

Of course, sometimes films and TV can skirt these fluid boundaries, like the movie trilogies that plan from the start to tell one story, or the TV miniseries that do the same thing. And in pure, escapist action movies, like Raiders of the Lost Ark, you can have an exciting story that doesn’t necessarily tell anyone’s most important event.

My point isn’t to say that one form is superior to the other, but to point out how, even beyond the economics of production and distribution, there are inherent rules to any art forms (of course, rules are made to be stretched, broken, twisted and re-formulated), and whether you choose to write episodic TV or full-length films depends on which type of story you want to make.

Functions of a Scene

When working on a script – or more specifically when in the re-write phase – I find it really useful to think about the functions of a scene.

Any scene can:

  • Reveal Exposition or Back Story
  • Reveal Character or Relationships
  • Develop Character or Relationships
  • Advance the Plot
  • Create a Mood
  • Develop the Theme of the Movie
  • Entertain or Amuse

This list isn’t meant to be exclusive; it just represents one way I like to look at things.

I find it crucial to make sure any scene in my script accomplishes more than one of these functions, preferably at least three. For example, if I need to include a scene that provides back-story to the audience, I make sure it serves another function too. At the very least it should be amusing or entertaining, but even better the scene should accomplish something else: show something new about a character or relationships, create a mood (tension, eeriness, romance, levity, etc), advance the plot.

Or if I just had a sequence with a lot of tension, I might want to follow it with a humorous or romantic scene to lighten the mood, but I still want to make sure that scene serves other functions too.

The more functions any scene has the better, without overloading, of course. This leads to a nuanced, layered script, rich in detail and emotion. It helps keep the audience engaged by creating a world full of depth and breadth and helps create a film that rewards return visits because the film is always working on many levels at once.

Have I left out any scene functions that you find useful?

Plot vs. Story

As I was working on the rough draft of my new screenplay, I found myself thinking about the difference between plot and story. We’re always told that we should eliminate anything that doesn’t advance the story, especially in a screenplay, which should be simple and direct. I recently took a 6-week intensive on film editing at The Edit Center (an excellent program), and they also stressed, if it doesn’t further the story, cut it out.

This is great advice, but you’ll get yourself in trouble if you confuse plot with story. Yes, everything should advance the story, but everything doesn’t need to advance the plot.

I can explain with an analogy and with a concrete example.

First the analogy. If you think of making a movie as bulding a house, you can think of the plot as the frame of the house. The frame, like the plot, needs to be well made and well-designed. The material needs to be durable. The rooms need to flow nicely into each other. You need to have good natural light from the windows. You shouldn’t put the kitchen on the third floor or the boiler room right inside the front door.

But all of that by itself doesn’t make a house you want to live in or visit over and over again. That takes the right color of paint, comfortable and aesthetically pleasing furniture, maybe some ornamental fixtures, or some stained glass on the windows, tasteful artwork on the walls, a nice carpet, a modern, clean and efficient kitchen, a luxurious bed, etc., etc. Those are the things that make a house a home. Those things are the story.

A concrete example:

We all know the film The Godfather (if not – and do I even need to say this? – spoiler alert). Think about the scene after Sonny has been killed and Don Corleone takes his bullet-ridden body to the undertaker and tells the undertaker. “Remember you owe me a favor? I want you to fix up Sonny’s body so his mother doesn’t see him like this.”

You don’t need that scene for the plot. You could perfectly follow the story if you just cut that scene out.

But it is such a wonderful scene for so many reason: it ties things back to the very opening of the movie, and it does it with irony, since that’s not the kind of favor we expected Don Corleone to ask; the opening scene seemed to portend something much more ominous. The scene also shows us how much Don Corleone loves his family and how he tries to protect the women in the family from the consequences of the business and so is echoed at the end when Michael lies to Kay for entirely different reasons.

It’s an amazing, rich scene that resonates throughout the movie. It’s one of the scenes that everyone remembers and talks about. But it’s not plot. It’s story.