Monthly Archives: December 2017

Screenwriting Mentors

Screenwriting advice

Christopher Vogler’s book provides an extremely useful guide on the screenwriting craft

WE ARE LIVING in an time in which there is an over-abundance of information, and this includes information on screenwriting. Finding the right stuff, therefore, is one of our biggest headaches.

In an attempt to make this task a little easier I mention five important writing mentors worth mining for gold.

Although each mentor emphasises different aspects of the screenwriting craft, they all adhere to a similar structural approach that agrees with the film critic John Egan’s definition of a conventional screenplay telling ‘a story that involves a single plot that revolves around a single protagonist who is supported, opposed and offset by a cast of secondary characters.’

Of the five mentors mentioned here, perhaps only Christopher Vogler offers a somewhat different inflection at first glance—-although even he employs a template in his use of the quest as a generic structure. But more of that later.

The screenwriting mentors:

Syd Field

For the sake of brevity, one may view Syd Field’s work as focusing primarily on the structure of the main plot centered on a protagonist who struggles to achieve his chosen goal against mounting obstacles.

Field, who claims to be one of the first mentors to package Hollywood codes and conventions into a single paradigm, asserts in The Screenwriter’s Workshop, that ‘before you can express your story dramatically, you must know four things: 1) the ending, 2) the beginning, 3) Plot Point I, and 4) Plot Point II. These four elements are the structural foundation of your screenplay.’ He later adds a fifth element, the midpoint, which he defines as ‘a link in the chain of dramatic action.’

Additionally, the midpoint ‘expands the character’s depth and dimension’. Field sees the typical film as comprising three acts, balanced by the midpoint, which breaks up the middle act into two units roughly of equal length. Each act is about 30 pages, or 30 screen minutes, in length and focuses on the vicissitudes of the protagonist’s fortunes.

Linda Seger

Linda Seger follows a similar line, but offers more detail about subplots. In Making a Good Script Great, she writes that ‘subplots give the protagonist an opportunity to smell the flowers, to fall in love, to enjoy a hobby, to learn a new skill.’ Emphasising that the function of subplots is to support and add density to the main plot, Seger stresses that subplots have their own beginning, middle, and end and are most effective when they intersect and connect with the plot line. Importantly, subplots carry the theme of the story. But no conventional story is possible without a central lead.

Michael Hauge

Michael Hauge lays down five essential requirements for crafting a successful protagonist or Hero, the inclusion of which he sees as the first essential element of a well-crafted conventional story. In Writing Screenplays That Sell, Hauge asserts that the Hero, as the vehicle that drives the story forward, must allow for audience identification, pursue a clear and visible goal, face seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and show some sign of courage.

Interestingly, Hauge does not place character growth, which he defines as the ‘character’s search for courage [which] results in greater self-knowledge, maturation, or actualization’, within the first five essential elements of his story-concept checklist, although he does include it at number thirteen, after high concept, originality and familiarity, subplots, genre, medium, and cost, and before theme.

Lastly, Hauge defines theme as ‘a universal statement about the human condition that goes beyond the plot. It is the screenwriter’s prescription for how one should live one’s life.’ Theme, then, is generated from the premise or argument of the story within a wider context of received moral and ethical values.

Robert McKee

Robert McKee’s Story, in addition to concepts already explored above, includes a survey of major non-canonical forms which he labels ‘anti-plot’ and ‘miniplot’, as well as a detailed examination of genres.

McKee’s definition of the following terms is also useful: The Premise is that which shapes the dramatic context of the story by asking an open-ended question – ‘What would happen if…?’; a beat is ‘an exchange of behaviour in action/reaction’; a scene is ‘a story event, usually in continuous time and space’; an act is ‘a series of sequences that peaks in a climactic scene which causes a major reversal of values’; the inciting incident, as ‘the first major event of the telling, is the primary cause for all that follows’; and the ‘obligatory scene’ or crisis, is ‘an event the audience knows it must see before the story can end’, which most often takes the form of a final confrontation between the protagonist and antagonistic forces.

Christopher Vogler

Christopher Vogler, by contrast, employs a mythological approach, inspired by the work of the American mythologist Joseph Campbell, defining the screenplay in terms of a quest. In The Writer’s Journey, Vogler describes each stage of the narrative as a journey undertaken by the Hero as he struggles to achieve his goal.

Thus the Hero starts in the Ordinary World, receives a Call to Adventure, which initially results in The Refusal. He typically meets with The Mentor, Crosses the First Threshold, is Tested by Enemies and assisted by Allies, approaches the Innermost Cave, suffers an Ordeal, is Rewarded, begins his Journey Back, is Resurrected, and finally Returns with The Elixir. In doing so, he is aided and impeded by a host of archetypal characters (or combination thereof); namely, the Mentor, the Threshold Guardian, the Herald, the Shapeshifter, the Shadow, the Ally, and the Trickster.

This approach to storytelling has much in common with Vladimir Propp’s description of the fairy tale, in terms of character function, put forward in his Morphology of the Folk Tale. Although some of Vogler’s offerings seem ostensibly different from other mentors, his definition of character and character action, in adhering to a predetermined template based on structuring narrative elements according to function, remains much the same as Field’s, Hauge’s, Seger’s, and McKee’s.

Summary

Syd Field, Michael Hauge, Linda Seger, Christopher Vogler, and Robert McKee are five important screenwriting and story mentors who have packaged much of Hollywood’s conventional wisdom into screenwriting systems. Collectively, they offer new and established writers an opportunity to deepen their knowledge of the writing craft.

Story Twists and Dramatic Beats

Dramatic Beats in Inglorious Basterds

Dramatic Beats in Inglorious Basterds

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IN THESE ARTICLES I often talk about the large pivotal elements that shape a story—the turning points, the pinches, the mid-point, and so on.

But these structures, important as they are, form only the macroscopic aspect of your story. The fuel that turns the engine over lies in the details, in the dramatic beats that make up your individual scenes.

Dramatic beats, we are reminded, are small but significant actions or events that form the sinew of a scene.

In a scene in which a murder occurs, for example, a character pacing around the room does not constitute a dramatic beat; spotting the dagger behind the curtain, which is to be used in the murder, does.

But what sorts of dramatic beats keep our readers and audiences glued to their seats, and how can we best write them?

For one, we can craft them in a way that creates suspense. For another, we can introduce the element of surprise.

Or, we can do both.

Twisting your Dramatic Beats

A twist inevitably contains an element of surprise. It is an event or action that the reader does not see coming. Include at least some beats in your scenes where one or more of the following occurs:

1. A lie is exposed.
2. A loss of resources occurs.
3. A trust is betrayed.
4. A new problem arises.
5. A plan goes wrong.
6. A new character is introduced.
7. A character swaps sides.
8. Unforeseen consequences of past actions arise.
9. A new motive is revealed.

In Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, Colonel Hans Landa’s reputation of ruthlessness drives one of the longest and most suspenseful scenes in the entire movie.

At the start of the film, Landa arrives at a dairy farm in the French countryside in search of the Dreyfuses, a missing Jewish family, who he suspects is being sheltered in the area. Landa insists on being introduced to each of the dairy farmer’s daughters individually, heightening the suspense.

Although LaPadite at first resists admitting that the Dreyfuses are  hiding beneath the floorboards of his house, Landa eventually ferrets the truth from him through a series of compliments, threats, and innuendoes.

The scene utilises some of the techniques mentioned above:

A new motive is revealed—Landa did not come to LaPadite’s farm house to close the book on the case as he at first claims, but to catch him out.

A lie is exposed—Landa is able to ferret the truth out of LaPadite.

A new problem arises—LaPadite knows that if he continues hiding the Dreyfuses his own family will be executed.

A trust is betrayed and a character swaps sides—LaPadite is forced to betray the Dreyfuses.

A plan goes wrong—LaPadite’s plan to hide the Dreyfuses under his floorboard is exposed.

Summary

Well-crafted dramatic beats contain enough twists to keep your readers and audiences interested in your story.

How the Inciting Incident Works in Stories

inciting incident in Shutter Island

Can you guess the inciting incident in Shutter Island?

I have mentioned in previous articles that the inciting incident is an initial narrative event that gets the story going.

In this post, I want to highlight two of its main functions—-to create momentum by moving us away from the ordinary world of the protagonist, and to keep us interested in the story by setting up the first turning point as a surprise.

The first turning point, as Syd Field reminds us, is the moment the plot truly begins to unfold — the real start of the story. Stated in another way, it is the moment the protagonist is issued a new challenge, accepts a new opportunity, formulates a new plan, and embarks on a new journey to achieve it.

The function of the inciting incident, then, is to introduce an event which disturbs the status quo and initiates a course of action with unexpected consequences. In this sense, it is an early mislead that helps the writer set up events as a series of surprises.

In Shutter Island, police marshal Teddy Daniels and his partner, Chuck Auel, arrive at the hospital for the criminally insane, which operates under Boston’s jurisdiction, ostensibly to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a patient from the facility.

When his request for access to the hospital’s personnel files is refused, Daniels begins to suspect a sinister plot by the doctors to cover up his investigation into unethical and illegal medical procedures. Soon, however, Daniels begins to doubt everything around him, including his own sanity.

The inciting incident in Shutter Island

The inciting incident occurs when Daniels arrives at the island to investigate the patient’s disappearance. The main thrust of the story, however, is to determine what is real and what is the psychotic delusion of a sick mind.

The plot starts in earnest at the first turning point — the doctors’ refusal to grant Daniels access to the hospital’s personnel files. This sets up the dramatic question which drives the entire story—what are the doctors hiding from Daniels?

Summary

The inciting incident kick-starts the story by pushing the protagonist past the ordinary world towards the surprise of the 1st turning point.

Foreshadowing in Stories

Foreshadowing in Jericho

Foreshadowing in Jericho


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What is meant by foreshadowing?

It is the surreptitious hint in a story that will act as foundation to a pay-off or ‘ah-ha’ moment later on in the tale.

In writing, every narrative event ought to have clear consequences. This is especially true in writing a screenplay, which uses fewer pages to tell the story, than in writing a novel.

If the writer intends to plant a knife in a scene in order to foreshadow an important event later on, it has to be used in the scene, or at some later point in the story to justify its inclusion.

Foreshadowing the Pay-Off

In the television series, Jericho, for example, we notice that a gun in a frame on the wall is part of a display in a home where a couple of bogus cops are lurking. Later, we see that the gun has been removed, indicating that the potential victim is now armed and can retaliate. This is crucial in establishing the credibility of the character’s fight-back.

In the movie, Mask, Stanley’s dog shows us his prowess by catching a flying frisbee. This action sets up the pay-off later on in the plot, when the canine crucially jumps to retrieve the magical mask in mid-flight.

But how best to handle foreshadowing and its pay-off?

Firstly, foreshadowing should never draw attention to itself, but form part of the story’s natural development. Secondly, a pay-off ought to be held back for as long as possible, and revealed only when it can deliver the most dramatic impact.

Summary

Foreshadowing and pay-offs are specific events in the plot that make story surprises more believable. Foreshadowing forms the justification for a later crucial event, without drawing attention to itself, while a pay-off is delivered at the moment of highest dramatic impact.

What makes a good story – revisited

Kramer vs Kramer is a prime example of a good story that engages through emotion

Kramer vs Kramer is a prime example of a good story that engages through emotion

What goes into writing a good story?

Many things—-maturity, insight, observational skills, a good ear for dialogue, an understanding of story structure, and so on.

But is there one element in particular whose absence would make a story significantly weaker?

Yes.

A  story that fails to solicit emotion on the part of the reader or audience is headed for oblivion.

A story filled with characters who leave us cold is probably not worth writing. It may be overflowing with wonderful ideas and insights about life, science, religion, philosophy, but who cares? If your focus is more on such insights than the emotions in a story, go publish a paper in an academic journal, write an editorial in a magazine, or give a talk at your local philosophical society. Your efforts might go down better there.

A story is, of course, capable of conveying deep, world-changing ideas, but only if the emotion in it causes us to care enough about the events and characters in the tale to delve deeper into the text in order to ferret out such ideas.

So, how do we create characters that audiences and readers care about? This is a skill that we must nurture throughout our writing careers. It does not come overnight.

Emotion makes for a good story

If I could give one bit of advice to kick-start the process it would be to make your lead characters worthy, interesting and caring people who find themselves in worsening situations of undeserved misfortune. This is the first step in creating empathy for your characters, and therefore, in wanting to get to know and care for them.

Summary

One of the most important requirements of a good story is that it solicits an emotional response from its readers and audiences. Only if we are emotionally involved in a tale will we care enough about it to spend time trying to understand its deeper layers – the themes and ideas it espouses.