One of the most common errors inexperienced writers make is to write scenes that start early and end late. There’s just too much fat at both ends, especially in a screenplay, where every unnecessary line costs hundreds if not thousands of dollars to shoot.
One way to eliminate unnecessary material is to concentrate on the gist of your scene. What is it that you want to convey through your character actions and dialogue? Do so and move on!
In Your Screenplay Sucks, William M Akers provides this example of how to cut a scene to the bone. An earlier draft looked like this:
INT. GRAHAM’S SEVEN PAINTINGS.
Huge, nearly abstract canvases of bloody, dead, eviscerated animals. Road kill under a layer of sloppy handwriting. Graham poses with Magda, more photos.
Magda departs. Camilla approaches.
I’m Camilla Warren. Nice night.
They shake hands, slowly. She is very appealing.
Buying, or watching?
She inspects him.
When you do, find me.
And she’s gone.
Here’s how the scene ended up:
INT. GRAHAM’S SEVEN~ PAINTINGS
Huge, nearly abstract canvases of bloody, dead, eviscerated animals. Road kill under a layer of sloppy handwriting. Graham poses with Magda, more photos.
Magda departs. Camilla approaches.
When you do, find me.
And she’s gone.
So, there you have it. To start late and end early means to get to the point. This entails getting rid of unnecessary diversions, greetings and niceties since they slow the pace and muddy the story.
Scenes should start late and end early. Your story will be more compelling and energetic for it.
Here is a masterful example, taken from William M. Akers’, Your Screenplay Sucks, of how to set up a scene in order to create genuine and powerful emotion—in this case, tear-jerking compassion!
In Throw Mama from the Train Larry Donner, played by Billy Crystal, is roped into attending dinner at Owen’s house. Owen (played by Danny DeVito) lives with his mother. He is Larry’s worst writing student at the community college where he teaches. Owen is a rather simple-minded, talentless, irritating imp of a man who lives with his mother, a cantankerous old woman with a painful voice and an even worse personality. We learn that Danny’s father is dead.
The dinner is terrible, Owen is as irritating as ever and his mother is just plain horrible. ‘Owen, you don’t have any friends,’ she rasps, stating the obvious. Larry desperately wants to leave, heck, we want him to leave, but he seems stuck there out of an abundance of politeness.
Up to now, the scene has made us uncomfortable, generated feelings of confinement, of being trapped in a hostile and hopeless environment. We shift in our seats and pray for it to end.
Finally the mother goes off to bed. Here is Larry’s chance to escape! But no. Owen asks Billy if wants to see his coin collection, and Billy is forced to say yes, again out of politeness.
“Knowing how to evoke emotion is the single most important skill to master in story-telling.”
Up to now, we have come to dislike Owen, well, for being Owen, and for putting Larry through such an excruciating evening. Not much to like here.
Then Owen dumps several coins on the floor—a few worn out quarters, some old dimes and nickels. So that’s it? This is his magnificent coin collection?
Then this happens: I’ll quote Akers who quotes Owen’s exact words from the scene: ‘ “This one here, I got in change, when my dad took me to see Peter, Paul, and Mary. And this one, I got in change when I bought a hot dog at the circus. My daddy let me keep the change. He always let me keep the change.” ‘
Wow! What a shift in our emotions—not a dry eye in the house! We’ve gone from loathing Owen to loving him through this sudden injection of feeling rooted in his nostalgia for his past life with his father. It explains why, in a certain sense, the child-like Owen stoped growing beyond the days spent with his father. He is still irritating, but now we understand him a little more, and we adore him for it; perhaps we even feel a little guilty for having loathed him in the first place.
This is masterful writing. Well done to the screenwriter, Mr Stu Silver!
Knowing how to evoke emotion in writing is the single most effective thing you can do to improve your stories.
In his book, Your Screenplay Sucks, William M Akers admonishes us to introduce characters in our screenplays in a concise but telling way. He provides the following counter example:
“MURIEL REED, a grounds Keeper, captivates Gary. She fills the sprayer with soda and mists brown over the grass.” This is perhaps a little too scanty. Akers suggests that you tell us about a character’s personality, their flaws or tics, but hold back on the smaller physical details until they are of importance. He suggests that specifying race and height, unless truly relevant, is best left out.
“When you introduce characters for the first time in the action block of a screenplay avoid superfluous physical details. Hone in only on details that provide a snapshot of personality.”
It is better to include physical detail that characterises—does double duty. Here’s an extract from Good Will Hunting:
“The guy holding court is CHUKIE SULLIVAN, 20, and the largest of the bunch. He is loud, boisterous, a born entertainer. Next to him is WILL HUNTING, 20, handsome and confident, a soft-spoken leader…”
“Venkman is an associate professor but his rumpled suit and manic gleam in his eyes indicate an underlying instability in his nature.”
This example, from The Big Lebowski, is Akers’ favourite:
“It is late, the supermarket all but deserted. We are tracking in on a fortyish man in Bermuda shirts and sunglasses at the dairy case. He is the Dude. His rumpled look and relaxed manner suggest a man in whom casualness runs deep.”
There you have it. A no nonsense approach of how to introduce the characters in your screenplays from one of the best.
Introduce characters by highlighting some quintessential aspect of their identity. Avoid superfluous details.
Do you follow a writing mentor? Do you need to? Well, we are living in an time in which there is an over-abundance of information. This includes information on creative writing and screenwriting. Sifting through it all to find the right stuff can be a challenge.
In an attempt to make this task a little easier I mention five writing mentors whose books are studying.
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.
“I view writing mentor Syd Field’s work as focusing on the structure of a plot which is centered on a protagonist who struggles to achieve the story goal against mounting obstacles.”
Syd Field, who claimed 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 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 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.
“Who is your favourite writing mentor?”
Robert McKee’s Story, in addition to concepts already explored above, the book 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 – writing mentor extraordinaire
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.
Here 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.
Syd Field, Michael Hauge, Linda Seger, Christopher Vogler, and Robert McKee are five important writing mentors who have packaged much of Hollywood’s conventional wisdom into various screenwriting systems. Collectively, they offer new and established writers an opportunity to deepen their knowledge of the writing craft.
Why persevere? Well, if it’s lonely at the top it’s even lonelier at the bottom.
Unfortunately, the bottom is where many writers spend their most formative years.
Getting published or having a script made into a movie has always been hard for a writer.
Steven Spielberg brandished the script of E.T. for several years before he convinced financiers to let him make it. Writer Stephen King’s rejection slips could fill an entire wall before he became one of the world’s most popular writers.
These sorts of accounts are legion.
But then, in 2007, something changed, for novelists anyway. Amazon’s kindle came along and the sun broke through the clouds.
The idea of reading stories on tablets proved contagious. Other companies followed suit with their own brand of e-readers. New writers flooded the market. Some were really good, launching sustainable careers. Others, not so much.
“The truth is that writing screenplays and novels, and attempting to get them read, is as difficult as winning a medal in a long-distance marathon. You have to persevere.”
Still, writers could publish their work on these platforms and get feedback from their readers in the form of reviews. Sales, some sky high, some more down to earth, followed.
Then, something changed again. Amazon began to tighten the screws. Algorithms were altered, making it harder to get noticed. Reviews became subject to all sorts of restrictions – some justified, some not. Sales plummeted.
Some writers lost steam. Others gave up on their dream of becoming writers altogether. It was too hard, too lonely, at the bottom.
There are many moments during a race where it seems easier to give up than to press on. These moments become even more tempting as the race drags on and you find yourself alone on the road and gasping for breath. You need something special to keep you going.
But perhaps the solution is all around you.
Do you fear not finishing? Simply giving up? Then use that fear to drive you on.
Concerned that you are not good enough to produce high quality work? Then read the blogs and articles on how to improve your craft and put the advice into practice.
But even more importantly, try to remember that magical moment that first got you writing. There is something timeless and powerful in that moment — an antidote to doubt.
Become familiar with it. Learn to conjure it up at will. Use it to inspire you when you need it most.
That moment, together with a sense of what life might be without your dream, might just help keep you in the race.
To persevere means to keep writing, reading books and watching movies – to keep learning. And to never give up.
I have written many articles on the craft of storytelling over the years. Certainly, the web is full of free advice on the craft in the form of articles, videos, and the like.
Given the availability of this material and the willingness of new writers to study it, we should all be masters of the craft.
So, why aren’t we?
The truth is that much of the material is not presented in a way that allows us to fully integrate it.
True, we learn that stories comprise of a three, four, or five act structure. And yes, we are told about the various beat-sheets , about the inciting incident, the turning points, character traits, the theme, and the like.
But do we truly understand all this at a deep level so that our theoretical knowledge flows into practical knowledge which manifests in screenplays or novels?
“Without an intimate understanding of how to integrate narrative components, how one flows into another to produce something that is more than the sum of its parts, we will always fall short of mastery.”
Having covered the most important narrative elements, often more than once, we will turn our focus more sharply than ever before on the relations that exist between them.
Integrate your Storytelling Elements
For example, can you describe in detail the connections that constitute the relationship between theme and character? Or character and backstory? Or how the inciting incident is related to the first turning point in a story?
The answers to these and other questions are important if we are to achieve an integrated understanding of our craft.
If you’ve answered no to some of these questions, be sure to watch this space.
Integrate your skills by developing a deep level understanding of the relations that exist between the narrative elements of a story.
One of the most difficult things to do well in writing is to integrate exposition (essential information without which the reader/audience is lost), in a way that maintains the forward thrust of your story.
Halting the narrative to provide background about a character or event is sure to lose you momentum. Yet, supplying detailed information is often unavoidable. The usual way to establish back-story, reveal plot, and explain character motivation, is by way of dialogue, whether directly through declaration, or indirectly through hint, implication, and subtext. Sometimes, however, these techniques are either too delicate, or not delicate enough, to carry the full burden of information. Dramatizing exposition by tying it to a structurally important event such as an inciting incident, turning point, or a character reveal, is one way of ensuring that forward momentum is maintained.
“Always try to hide exposition.”
In Inglorious Basterds, a film written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, Colonel Hans Landa’s (Christoph Waltz) reputation of ruthlessness and Machiavellian intelligence is essential in building him up as a fearsome Nazi antagonist. The inciting incident occurs when Colonel 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 quizzes the dairy farmer, monsieur LaPadite (Denis Menochet) about the possible whereabouts of the Dreyfuses, claiming this to be the last step before he closes the book on their case. While the interrogation provides an ideal opportunity for exposition, Tarantino’s handling of it is nothing short of masterful. In having Colonel Landa ask that LaPadite sketch-in the Colonel’s own background, Tarantino infuses the scene with additional tension, irony, and ramps up the stakes — all without interrupting the forward thrust of the story:
Landa: Now, are you aware of the job I’ve been ordered to carry out? LaPadite: Yes. Landa: Please tell me what you’ve heard. LaPadite: I’ve heard that the Fuhrer has put you in charge of rounding up Jews left in France who are either hiding, or passing as Gentile. Landa: I couldn’t have put it better myself. Are you aware of the nickname the people of France have given me? LaPadite: I have no interest in such things. Landa: But you are aware of what they call me? LaPadite: I am aware. Landa: What are you aware of? LaPadite: That they call you, “The Jew Hunter”. Landa: Precisely. I understand your trepidation in repeating it (…). Now I on the other hand, love my unofficial title, precisely because I’ve earned it.
Landa’s dialogue reveals that he is a cunning interrogator, entrusted by the Fuhrer to ferret out Jewish families hiding in France. His pride in his job is obvious. This is a man who enjoys manipulating, hunting, and killing — an antagonist whose back-story makes him a worthy opponent for any protagonist. In designing the exposition in this manner, Tarantino accomplishes several things:
1. He transforms the mere flow of background information into dramatic irony by forcing LaPadite, who is afraid for his family, to talk about the feared and hated Landa in neutral terms. 2. It provides important information about Landa’s job in France, and the reason for his being in LaPadite’s house. 3. He establishes Landa’s reputation as the Fuhrer’s feared henchman. 4. Finally, it allows him to illustrate Landa’s vanity in his own reputation, deepening and colouring the Colonel’s character.
Hide exposition through the veil of emotion. Crafted well, exposition deepens character, contextualises plot, and moves the story forward.
Swain suggests that one of the markers of good dialogue is continuity. That is, each speech, be it short or long, acknowledges the one preceding it in some direct or indirect way.
There are several ways to achieve this. Below are two of the most common – repetition of a word or phrase, and a question / answer structure:
In Independence Day the President of the United States questions an alien who is speaking through a surrogate:
President: Can there be a peace between us? Alien: Peace? No peace. President: What is it you want us to do? Alien: Die. Die.
Here, the clipped berevity embedded in the question and answer format, and the repetition of the word ”peace” and ”die” ties each line to the one preceding it with no possibility of drift.
“The techniques of question & answer, and repetition, are effective ways to create dialogue continuity in your novels and screenplays.”
In Unforgiven, William Munny, a hired killer, is told that his old friend, Ned Logan, whom he talked into joining him for a contract job to take revenge on some cowboys for the beating and scarring of a prostitute, has been killed by the Sheriff, Little Bill, and his men. This, despite the fact that Ned had withdrawn from the contract earlier without having harmed anyone. The news is a major turning point in the story:
Prostitute: Ned? He’s dead. Munny: What do you mean he’s dead? He went south yesterday, he ain’t dead. Prostitute: They killed him. I thought you knew that. Munny: Nobody killed Ned. He didn’t kill anyone. He went south yesterday. Why would anybody kill Ned? Who killed him?
There are other ways to turbo-charge dialogue – pregnant pauses, misdirection, change of subject, subtext, but in all cases the important thing to remember is that each piece of effective dialogue should, at the very least, hook tightly into the next. Question / answer and repetition of specific words are two of the most common ways to achieve this.
The techniques of question/answer and repetition are effective ways to create dialogue continuity in your novels and screenplays.
If we don’t feel emotion for our characters then we won’t care about their stories. And if we don’t care about their stories we won’t care about the ideas they espouse.
This is simple to understand but difficult to achieve.
Simple, because if we come to feel for the characters in a story we will come to care about their fate, and the overarching meaning of the tale. Difficult, because it takes great skill to find the right words to pull this off.
“Emotion shines a light on ignorance and prejudice. It helps uncover the truth hiding behind character action.”
Primarily interested in communicating lofty, existential, philosophical concepts about the nature of reality and the human condition? Then write an article for a philosophy or psychology journal. Don’t focus solely on turning your characters into vehicles for conveying ideas. If you do, you will lessen their impact on readers and audiences.
Emotion that supports profound insight, however, makes a story unforgettable. Consider the following passages:
“Leaning against my father, the sadness finally broke open inside me, hollowing out my heart and leaving me bleeding. My feet felt rooted in the dirt. There were more than two bodies buried here. Pieces of me that I didn’t even know were under the ground. Pieces of dad, too.” ― Laurie Halse Anderson, The Impossible Knife of Memory.
”For a moment the world seems balanced on the edge of love and hate—but only for a moment, for how can I ever forget the timeless chats under the stars sitting on my father’s knee, the rocket ships rendered out of wood and paint punching through the golden light of endless afternoons, the stories read to me with such care and patience by my mother whose warm breath I’d feel against my cheek?” —Stavros Halvatzis, The Nostalgia of Time Travel.
“Have you ever wondered what a human life is worth? That morning, my brother’s was worth a pocket watch.” ― Ruta Sepetys, Between Shades of Gray.
“Sometimes pain is so unmanageable that the idea of spending another day with it seems impossible. Other times pain acts as a compass to help you through the messier tunnels of growing up. But pain can only help you find happiness if you remember it.” ― Adam Silvera, More Happy Than Not.
Moving, insightful, stuff and a reminder to writers that insight and emotion go hand in hand.
If your readers and audiences feel emotion in the stories you write, they will care about the characters and ideas you espouse.
How do you make improbable action appear believable?
In his book, Film Scriptwriting: A Practical Manual, Dwight V. Swain offers us two principles that underpin verisimilitude in stories – justification for everything that happens in the tale and a proportional response from the character to the events that confront him.
Justification boils down to the readers and audiences believing that given a specific personality type, a character would react to a challenge, to any sort of stimulus really, precisely in the way that he does. In short, if your readers understand why your character acts in a specific way, they will experience his or her actions as believable and appropriate.
But it is also important to render a character’s actions in proportion to the stimulus that initiates them.
“Improbable action can be made probable by having it spring from the twin launchpads of justifiability and proportional response.”
Exaggerated, unmotivated behaviour, under normal circumstances, can spoil a scene. If a girl turns down a casual request for a date from a man she hardly knows and he then proceeds to burst into tears, his behavior would be considered an overreaction.
If, on the other hand, a child were to run into a room, screaming and bleeding, and her mother were to ignore her in order to finish her bridge game, we would consider her behaviour as an underreaction.
Over and under reactions are major flaws that undermine believability in stories.
In interstellar, the earth is dying. Humanity needs to find another home. Cooper, a conscientious, widowed engineer and former NASA pilot turned farmer, lives on a farm with his father-in-law, his 15-year-old son, and his 10-year-old daughter, Murphy.
After a dust storm, strange patterns appear in the dust in Murphy’s bedroom. Cooper realises the patterns were caused by gravity fluctuations that represent geographic coordinates in binary code.
Cooper follows the coordinates to a secret NASA facility headed by Professor John Brand, where he learns of the existence of a wormhole. When he is re-recruited by NASA to fly a mission through the wormhole to confirm the planet most suitable for mankind’s survival, he promises his distraught daughter that he will come back at any cost. This promise creates the motivational spine of the story. It helps Cooper’s actions to appear both justifiable and proportionate, despite the improbable nature of events in the story. It does this by balancing his duty to humanity with his unbreakable promise to his child.
Improbable character action can be rendered believable by making it justifiable and proportional to the events that initiate it.