Tag Archives: movies

How to Use Coincidence in Stories

Two butterflies

Coincidence?

Can a story contain a convenient coincidence without being deemed lazy and weak? After all, Charles Dickens’s work abounds with such narrative devices. I believe the answer is yes, but only if it is limited to one per story and is carefully woven into the tale.

Although life is riddled with what appears to be magnificent coincidences—the meeting of one’s future spouse by chance, the winning of a grand prize, the procurement of a lucrative job based on an impromptu internet search, stories are a different kettle of fish. Here, the reader or audience expects the material to be adroitly planned and crafted. A series of coincidences is viewed for what it is: laziness on the part of the writer.

In Screenwriting, Professor Richard Walter, too, is of the opinion that coincidence can work if the writer makes it important enough, and has it launch or end the story as part of a main structural event, such as the inciting incident or turning point.

In Preston Sturges’s Christmas in July, for example, well-intentioned pals fool a friend into believing that he has won a contest. In the end, it turns out that he actually has won the contest. Why does such a coincidence work? Partly because it is the only one in the film, and partly because it spins on a deliciously crafted irony.

In The China Syndrome, Jane Fonda and cameraman Michael Douglas, happen to be filming a story at a nuclear station. Something malfunctions at the plant and they record the incident. Here the coincidence is not offensive.

Imagine, however, if, in seeking to add twists and turns to the tale, the writer had introduced a scene in which the footage was lost or destroyed. The crew then returned to shoot more material, when, lo and behold, another nuclear mishap occurred! Audiences would be outraged. What worked the first time around would not work again because such a coincidence would be unimaginative and repetitive.

Summary

A single coincidence works best early or late in a story, spins on irony or surprise, and forms part of a major structural event such as the inciting incident or the first or second turning point.

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The Basics of Scene Description

Building blocks

Description Basics:

In a screenplay, dialogue is one of the few things that survives “as is”, albeit in a different format. Of course, actors and directors often change dialogue to suit, but, on the whole, dialogue is meant to transfer to the screen.

Scene descriptions, on the other hand, have a different function. A scene description tells the director, art director, cinematographer, actor, and so on, how to render a performance, select or construct an environment, light and move through the set. The words on the page, do not, in themselves, appear in the final product. Rather, they are used as instructions for constructing a movie.

Yet, a screenplay has to be read and enjoyed first if it is to have a chance of being made into a movie. Exceptional descriptions certainly help your story and may prevent it from ending up in the slash pile.

Three Levels of Description

For the sake of brevity we may condense the sorts of description that occur in a screenplay into three main categories:

A. Describing of what is seen and heard on the screen: the environment, characters, action, and events.

B. Descriptions that convey the emotion, tone, attitude, and subtext of the scenes.

C. Descriptions that grant insight into the characters, their relationships, and the overall story.

The Basics of Scene Description

Listed below are some of the specific guidelines that operate within the above categories.

1. Describe your scenes in the present tense.

2. Limit your descriptions to four lines or less. No one enjoys unpacking dense paragraphs.

3. Be economical—describe only what is essential to your story.

4. Convey the essence of what’s occurring on the screen. Lengthy descriptions about the leading lady’s golden locks will fall by the wayside if the director decides on a brunette.

5. Make every word count. Brevity and efficiency is more impactful. In one of my screenplays, I describe my male lead as “a panther in jeans and teeshirt.” Those six words evoke more about the character than I could say in one rambling paragraph.

Summary

Descriptions in a screenplay function as instructions for making scenes; they also help to draw in the reader through their vividness, brevity, and appropriateness.

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How to Write a Log-Line

Logs arranged in a square

Log-lines

In his book, Screenwriting, Raymond G Frensham defines a log-line as a “short, pithy slogan you see on a film poster that captures, at an emotional level, what it’s about, or the kind of short description billings used in weekly TV guides.” The purpose of a log-line is to attract an audience by creating the right expectation in agents, producers, and the audience. Although usually written last, as part of the marketing strategy, your coming up with a log-line prior to starting your story will help you to focus on the main through-line of your tale. Although log-lines, also known as strap-lines, primarily refer to film projects, their functionality can be applied to stories of any format, such as the paperback or kindle novel.

Two Key Elements

Log-lines consist of two key elements: a repeating formal sentence structure and an element of contrast. The following examples, taken from successful movies, demonstrate the effective use of these elements:

‘Honour made him a man.
Courage made him a hero.
History made him a legend.’ Rob Roy

‘Imagine if you had three wishes, three hopes,
three dreams,,,and they all came true.’ Aladdin

‘Someone said “Get a life” – so they did.’ Thelma And Louise

‘This is Benjamin…He’s a little worried about his future.’ The Graduate

‘A story of Love Laughter and the Pursuit of Matrimony.’ Muriel’s Wedding

‘Don’t breathe. Don’t look back. The Dark Side of Nature.’ Twister

‘Everything is Suspect. Everyone for Sale. Nothing is what it seems.’ L.A. Confidential

Summary

Log-lines contain two key features—formal repetition and contrast. Log-lines are used for marketing purposes but they are also useful, if conceived early, as indicators of your story’s through-line.

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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.