Monthly Archives: October 2013

Small Action, Big Drama

DoLs and tape measure

A Matter of Scale:

In my younger and more chauvinistic years, I used to think that “Drama” referred to the slow and laborious true-to-life stories that the women folk in my life loved to watch on TV while knitting jerseys. This is a particularly embarrassing admission for a Greek man to make, since the word derives from the Greek, meaning “to do” or “to act”. Luckily I have moved on since these days, though I still have the jerseys, and yes, they still fit.

As a writer of screenplays and novels, I have to focus constantly on the meaning of this word. In his book, Screenwriting, Professor Richard Walter of UCLA, writes: “(1) any action is better than no action, and (2) appropriate imaginative, integrated action, action complementing a scene’s other elements and overall purpose, is best of all.”

Action need not only be of the sort that involves Godzilla leveling cities, or King Kong swatting planes and helicopters from the top of a tall building. Action can arise in even the most ordinary or non-threatening of scenes. Richard Walter talks about one specific example, both funny and painful, that clearly illustrates this point.

In the Czechoslovakian film, Loves of a Blonde, two groups of labourers, one male and the other female, working on a project in a remote area of the Carpathian foothills end up dining in a dinning hall. Both the men and women are equally nervous about meeting each other. The scene isolates one man in particular who fidgets absentmindedly with his wedding ring. Suddenly, the ring slips from his finger and clutters loudly to the floor and begins rolling away.

Is the fidgeting subconsciously intended to conceal his marital status from the women? We suspect so. The man drops to his hands and knees and scrambles after the ring, past row after row of knees. So engrossed is he in his pursuit of the tale-tale object that he fails to notice that the knees he is shuffling past are no longer those of men but those of women! By the time he finally captures the elusive object and pops up from under the table like a jack-in-a-box, triumphantly holding the ring up in his hand, he finds himself amongst the very group of women he was he was trying to avoid seeing the ring!

The action itself is small in scale, but its emotional impact is huge, making for a scene that is fresh and inventive. It satisfies Professor Walter’s second observation of integrated action, quoted above, and exploits that age old maxim of “show don’t tell”. This is writing at its simplest and best.

Summary

Drama is action. Static scenes make for boring stories. While there is nothing wrong with largeness of scale, it should not be at the expense of smaller, well-observed actions.

Invitation

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Writing Short Films

Story book

Shorts

Short films featuring stories that roughly run five to thirty minutes in length are one way for new writers to introduce themselves to the film industry. This post, based on Raymond G Frensham’s book, Screenwriting, discusses the shorter film format and offers some guidelines.

Writing for short films requires different skills from the writer to those demanded by normal length versions. Like the short story, the short film is one of the most difficult formats to master, demanding precision, economy and compactness on the part of the writer.

1. One of the most important things to understand about short scripts is that the idea should fit its space. A short is not a longer story squashed to fit the allocated time. It’s not a sketch forcibly stretched to fit its format, nor is it a promo for some longer version of a future project.

2. The cardinal rules of screenwriting, such as making every sentence count and showing, not telling, are even more crucial in the shorter format. The writer has only a few pages to tell the story. Economy of form and execution are paramount. Swoop straight into the world and life of your protagonist. Explore a some crucial incident in your Hero’s life, which explains, informs and defines the wider story.

3. A twist in the tail tends to be more difficult to pull off in the short story format, since misleads and red herrings are less in evidence. Also, readers and audiences have grown wise and cynical in equal measure and are likely to predict all but the best crafted endings. So, look out for that.

4. Humour tends to work well in the shorter formats too, as long as it is not used as a sketch substitute.

The opportunities for producing short films are far more plentiful than they are with the longer formats. National and international TV stations often have slots for such shorter formats, not to mention the ubiquitous opportunities for showcasing work through the internet on sites such as YouTube. Despite denials, industry executives still see the short film as an opportunity to showcase their ability to make their first feature films. So should you.

Summary

The shorter film format requires a different approach to that of the feature script. This post briefly looks at some of these differences.

Story Checklist

Building

Story Checklist:

In Writing Screenplays that Sell, Michael Hauge offers us advise from a structural perspective that echoes that of other screenwriting gurus such as Field, Volgner, McKee, to name but three. Much of this advise can be of benefit to novelists such as myself, seeking to tighten and make supple, the overall shape of their stories. This post provides a checklist, taken from Hauge’s book, which should prove useful to screenwriters and novelists alike.

Story Structure

Structure is nothing other than a series of events that form a relationship to one another relative to their position in the story. Correct structure emerges when the right thing occurs at the right time to solicit maximum emotion and a sense of verisimilitude from the reader or audience.

A well structured story has three acts, or sections, or to state this more simply, it has a beginning, middle and end. The beginning establishes the setting, situation, the characters and their motivation, and the chief goal of the protagonist.

The middle part of the story, also known as the complication, provides, expands and complicates the obstacles to achieving that goal.

The end section resolves the question as to whether or not the goal can be achieved, most typically, through mounting tension and pace manifested through crisis, climax and resolution.

Having established that your story needs to have a properly structured beginning, middle and end, ask and answer the following questions:

Do your scenes do one or more of the following?

1. Contribute to or impede the protagonist’s pursuit of the goal?
2. Accelerate the pace of the story?
3. Build conflict?
4. Contribute to the overall rhythm of the story—fast scenes ought to be followed or preceded by slower ones and tense ones with lighter/humorous ones?
5. Create reader/audience anticipation?
6. Surprise the reader/audience?
7. Foreshadow important events?
8. Create curiosity?
9. Contribute to character development?
10. Put or prepare to put the protagonist in jeopardy?

If the answer to these questions is mostly “yes”, then the chances are that you’re on your way to writing a successful story—at least, from a structural perspective.

Summary

Structure defines the relationship of one scene or event to another. Proper structure allows for such a relationship to heighten the story’s suspense, verisimilitude, and impact.

Invitation

If you enjoyed this post, or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.

Story Plots

Post-it stickers on a board

Story Plots:

Much has been written about the total number of plots out there—ranging from three to twenty, or more. Although I think that this sort of discussion is moot, if not outright silly, the actual plots that it throws up, isn’t:

1. The Pursuit: In this type of plot the chase defines the story’s structure and character relationships. The chaser(s) must have a reasonable chance of catching the chased, for this to work properly, and for tension to be maintained. (The Fugitive).

2. The Rescue: The protagonist has to rescue the victim from the antagonist by pursuing her to the ends of the earth if needs be. (Taken).

3. The Adventure: The Hero travels to strange and exotic places and experiences equally strange and exotic events. The Hero typically goes off in search of treasure, but ends up gaining true love instead/as well. (Raiders of the Lost Arc).

4. The Quest: The protagonist undertakes a journey to acquire or protect something of exceeding value. The story usually charts the character’s vicissitudes and growth during this journey. (Lord of the Rings).

5. The Temptation: This type of plot explores the concept of morality and exposes the effect of giving in to temptation. It typically involves the Hero resisting temptation, giving in to temptation, suffering the consequences of temptation, and finally achieving some sort of insight, growth, and, possibly, redemption through a sacrificial act. (Dangerous Liaisons).

6. The Revenge: The protagonist assumes the moral high ground by invoking an-eye-for-an-eye vengeance for a great wrong perpetrated by the antagonist.(The Count of Monte Christo).

7. The Rival: The Hero and antagonist are locked together in a struggle to achieve dominance over a situation or person. (Face Off).

8. The Escape: The protagonist, usually innocent of the crime or accusation, is imprisoned against his will. The plot charts the protagonist’s journey from capture, thwarted attempts to escape, and the final get-away. (The Shawshank Redemption).

9. The Underdog: Here the protagonist is seriously under gunned in his life-and-death struggle with the antagonist. The antagonist need not be a person, but a force of nature which threatens the existence of the protagonist. (Volcano, Rocky).

10. The Heist: This involves the identification and setting-up of a target to rob, the execution, the unravelling, and the resolution. (Ocean’s Eleven).

11. The Riddle: This story type sets up a difficult question, mystery, or puzzle as the driving force behind the story and invites the reader or audience to find the solution before the Hero does. Solving the puzzle requires that the protagonist use his wits and ingenuity to overcome physical as well as mental obstacles, involving self-sacrifice and the threat of death. (Sherlock Holmes).

What plot type do you think your story falls under? Is it, perhaps, a mix of two, or more? Answering these questions will help guide the development of your characters and action.

Summary

Plot types help to fashion the structure of your story by setting up certain generic expectations. This post suggests eleven such types.

Invitation

If you enjoyed this post, or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.