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Short Films and Stories — how to write them


Short films
2 + 2 = 5 is one of the best short films I’ve seen in terms of a social and ideological message.

Short films featuring stories that roughly run five to thirty-five 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 short stories, short films are one of the most difficult formats to master, demanding precision, economy and compactness on the part of the writer. 2 + 2 = 5 is a prime example of this.

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 lime 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 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 ably managed.

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 for new writers and directors to showcase their ability. So should you.

Summary

Short films and stories require a different approach to that of feature scripts and novels. This post briefly looks at some of these differences.

The Page Turner—how to write it.

Page turner
Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a great page turner.

The page turner. It’s every writer’s dream to write a novel or script that the reader simply can’t put down until the last page. But how do we go about achieving this result? Below are some suggestions.

Include hooks whenever possible: A hook is an action or event that draws us into the story in an compelling way. Use hooks to kick-off your story, as well as to bolster interest at the beginning or end of your scenes. 

Write with attitude: Use punchy, or concrete language, depending on the subject matter, that bristles with attitude. Middle-of-the road, or non-comital language is boring. What is the writer’s attitude towards the events being described? What is the character’s? Make sure attitudes are strongly revealed.

Write in a way that creates suspense: The famous film director, Alfred Hitchcock, was renowned for creating suspense in his movies. He said that surprise lasts for a few seconds, but suspense may carry the whole scene, or even the entire movie.

Create Anticipation: Anticipation causes us to want to know what the next action, event, or outcome of a situation is likely to be. It differs from suspense in that it does not necessarily involve a threat, or danger.

Anticipation may be introduced in dialogue, through a character talking about a forthcoming event, in a conversation with another, or through a major story goal being set—such as the hero winning or failing to win the prize at the end of the tale.

Create Uncertainty: Introduce uncertainty about the outcome of specific events, your Hero’s ability to achieve her goal, or the way the story will end. The reader will keep turning the pages in order to find out.

Write with emotion: Writing with emotion means that your characters makes us feel their joy, pain, and sensitivity as if they were our own. My mentor, the South African film director, Elmo De Witt used to say that a story without emotion is a story that doesn’t get read. He couldn’t have been more right. Inject emotion into your writing and watch those pages turn.

Although there are others, these six simple techniques, deftly handled, will help to turn your story into a page turner that readers will find hard to put down. 

Summary

Hooks, attitude, suspense, anticipation, uncertainty, and emotion are six ways to help you create a page turner. Use one or more of these techniques whenever possible.

Scene Description — the basics

A scene description sets the mood, action and character of a scene

What is meant by scene description? 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 and actor 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 say more about the character than could be said in one rambling paragraph.

Summary

Scene description in a screenplay acts as instructions for creating viable scenes; it draws in the reader through its vividness and appropriateness.

Structure Checklist for Stories

A story structure checklist helps us focus on important aspects of story construction. Here is one such list on story structure from Michael Hauge’s book, Writing Screenplays that Sell.

Story structure in The Karate Kid
Story structure checklist in The Karate Kid

1. Does each scene, event and character contribute to the protagonist’s outer motivation. The beginning of the story poses an overall question in the viewer’s/reader’s mind that will be answered by the end of the story. In The Matrix, for example, the overall story question is; Is Neo The One?

2. Is each hurdle and obstacle in the protagonist’s path to his goal, greater than the last one?

In The Matrix, the structure checklist receives a tick — Neo’s journey is strewn with obstacles, from not knowing how to fight, from a lack of self-belief, to finally being shot in the chest by agent Smith.

3. Does the pace of your story accelerate to the climax? In the third act of the The Karate Kid, the scenes are spaced closer and closer together—reconciling with Ali, being admitted to the tournament, participating in the initial matches, suffering a broken knee, and taking part in the final match.

4. Is the emotional through line made up of peaks and valleys? In The Karate Kid, the tournament scenes are interspersed with quieter scenes of plotting by the Cobras, coaching, and fixing Daniel’s leg.

5. Is your story chock-full of anticipation? The karate tournament, which we know about from the start, the fights with Johnny, the anticipated attacks after the party, all add to the overall sense of anticipation in The Karate Kid.

6. Are there surprises and reversals to our anticipation? In The Matrix, our expectation that Neo is indeed, The One, undergoes several reversals when he fails to jump across buildings, or when his meeting with the Oracle seems to indicate the contrary.

7. Does the story create curiosity? In The Karate Kid, we wonder how on earth Mr. Miyagi will manage to teach Daniel the requisite skills to stand up to his brutal opponent.

8. Are your characters, timing, and situation credible? The three month period provides enough time for Daniel to acquire fighting skills under the expert tutelage of Mr. Miyagi, but the time is adroitly condensed by the screenwriter so that the audience can stay involved. 

9. Are the events in the story sufficiently foreshadowed? Q. How can we possibly believe that a boy with a broken knee and three months training can win a tough tournament? A. By introducing a secret weapon in the form of the Crane Stance and Mr. Miyagi’s healing abilities.

10. Does your story have an effective opening and ending? The Karate Kid uses a new arrival opening from New Jersey to Van Nuys to introduce Daniel, which is appropriate to the slow build up of the story. The final match, a do-or-die confrontation between the protagonist and antagonist, is an appropriate climax which settles the overall question established early in the story: Can Daniel win against all odds? 

Summary

The story structure checklist focuses the writer’s attention on important aspects of story construction. Familiarity with such a list makes the task of troubleshooting one’s tale that much easier.

How to Keep Your Story on Track

Lajos Egri on how to keep your story in track.
Lajos Egri on how to keep your story in track.

TO ENSURE that your story remains on track, complete the first draft of your novel or screenplay, then answer the following questions drawn from Lajos Egri’s work on dramatic writing.

Fill in your answers next to the appropriate question then adjust your story accordingly.



Keep your story on track:

1. What is your story’s premise? For example: “Unswerving integrity delivers from disgrace.” Define the moral premise/theme of your story.

2. What is your protagonist’s goal? What does your protagonist want, more than anything?

3. What is your protagonist’s compulsive, 100% trait? What is your character insecure about? All characters want self-preservation and security.

4. What is your character insecure about? All characters want self-preservation and security.

5. Why is the character insecure about this condition? How did he or she develop that insecurity about the condition?

6. How did the character develop the condition about which he is insecure? What is this injury for which the character has a compulsive drive to escape? Backstory here. Provide a specific event or series of events that explain how he developed the condition. Those events caused a chain of reaction/action/reaction. Tell the tale.

7. What is the crisis that upsets the status quo? How does it affect the protagonist?
Why is the protagonist dissatisfied?

8. What is the dire necessity that spurs the protagonist to action and keeps him relentlessly trying to reach his goal? This is something that threatens his special insecurity.

9. How does hesitation to take action threaten to worsen the protagonist’s situation?

10. What decision will he make or action will he take to change things? This is his point of attack, the decision or action that starts the conflict.

11. Is the protagonist fighting for or against the status quo? Does he want to keep things the way they are, or change them because they’ve become intolerable?

12. Who is your antagonist? He must be diametrically and militantly opposed to the protagonist.

13. Why does the antagonist oppose the protagonist and his goal? What is the antagonist’s motivation?

14. What is the point of 1) contradiction and 2) conflict between them?

15. What is the unbreakable bond between the protagonist and antagonist? What is so much at stake that they can’t leave each other? Multiple reasons are good.

16. What is the wrong step the protagonist makes that starts the crisis?

17. How does this decision create another problem?

18. What does the protagonist do to rectify this new problem?

19. How does this response create another, worse, problem?

20. How does the final crisis, conflict, and resolution prove your premise?

Summary

Answering the set of twenty questions listed above will help to keep your characters and story on track.

Action, description, dialogue

Action, dialogue and description in The Nostalgia of Time Travel
Action, dialogue and description in The Nostalgia of Time Travel

Blending action, description and dialogue together is a good way of sprinkling interest and variety in your scenes, providing it’s done well.

Dialogue, at its best, not only reveals character and conveys information efficiently, it injects pace and rhythm into your story too. 

But too much dialogue can disconnect the reader from the physical environment of the scene. Too often we break up dialogue by injecting trivial or inconsequential action and description.

Characters casually engaging in trivial action—leaning, smiling, clearing their throats, drawing on cigarettes, without a deeper motive, lowers the quality of our writing.

Done well, however, significant action and description can spruce up any scene. In The Thomas Crown Affair a chess game between Faye Dunaway, the insurance investigator, and the criminal, Steve McQueen, bristles with sexual tension and innuendo.

The phallic shape of the chess pieces and the sensual way they are being touched, supported by the array of fertile glances, underpins the laconic dialogue admirably.

Integrating action, dialogue and description:

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, the climactic scene of the story had to be handled sensitively since it brought together so many elements, including a startling revelation from the backstory which helps to explain much of the protagonist’s behaviour.

References to the eye of the storm winking shut, the stars disappearing, and the parents being still like old photographs in an album, add to the undercurrent of meaning of the story. Here’s an example from the text: 

The storm is picking up now and I struggle to hear the words spilling from his mouth. I look up at the sky. The eye is moving away, winking shut. The stars are a thin dotted line. Soon, they too will be gone.
“Time to leave, Ben,” Miranda pleads, pointing in the direction of the house through the throng of trees.
“Will you come with me?” I ask.
“Not this time.”
“Not ever,” Fanos says. “But you can start again. Find a happier time and place. Isn’t that what your theories talk about? The existence of the paths you wished you’d taken? All you’ve got to do is want it hard enough.”
I glance at my mother and my father. They stand holding hands silently, as if suddenly struck mute. Their eyes are upon me, searching for a clue to my true feelings. Their bodies are perfectly still, like the figures in black and white photographs in an old album are still. 

Summary

Integrating your dialogue with telling action and description that reveals character and deepens the meaning of your scenes is an essential skill in any writer’s toolkit.

The flawed Protagonist

There is an interesting tendency in new television series in the past few years to present a flawed protagonist that is not only dark, but often, downright pathological.

The chief difference between the flawed protagonist and antagonist seems to lie in degrees of mental instability, criminality, corruption. Dr. Chance, Walter White, and Hannibal are not only the central characters in their own stories, they are clearly darker and more dangerous than their opponents.

Dr. Chance as the flawed protagonist

Why, then, do we still identify with such characters? Why do we like the flawed protagonist in some shameful and not-so-secret sense? In his book, Writing Screenplays that Sell Michael Hauge makes the point that a writer must create a likable protagonist to avoid failure at the box office. But how does the writer pull this off?

Part of the answer lies in the notion that the protagonist already has the deck stacked in his favour by virtue of his role in the story. It is his tale, after all. We read it because we find something redeeming in it. That, at least, is the tacit implication.

Furthermore, the protagonist is the character we spend most time with. We experience things through his eyes. He is the person we know most about. Familiarity may breed contempt, but it also builds empathy and understanding for his dilemmas and motivation.

Flawed protagonists are gifted individuals. They are cleverer than their enemies, more persistent, resilient. 

Dr. Chance keeps outsmarting his opponents, with his side-kick’s (D’s) help, while Breaking Bad‘s Walter White is the best meth cook in the business. 

Hannibal may be a terrifying villain, but he is rich and smart, and a great chef and nifty dresser to boot. The array of wannabe protagonists who oppose Hannibal pale in comparison. Not only is he the main character in his own story, there is something darkly attractive about him. He succeeds in staying ahead of his opponents and surprising them with his ingenuity. 

But ultimately, even a flawed protagonist needs to have positive, likable traits that entice us to emapathise with him. Dr. Chance loves his daughter deeply, and the people he kills, are, after all cruel abuser’s and killers themselves. Walter, too, loves his family until the end where his obsession to succeed rides roughshod over any values he may originally have had. 

Making the flawed protagonist likable

Michael Hauge stresses that a writer must introduce the protagonist’s positive traits early in the story, before showing us his flaws. This is even more important in a dark protagonist, where the negative traits outnumber the positive. We have to grow to like the protagonist first before we see him drag himself through the mud.

Of course, you wouldn’t like to meet any of these characters in the real world — have a Hannibal over for dinner, or ask a Dexter to baby-sit your child while you spend a night out.

But within the safe world of the story? Flirting with danger may even be cathartic, as Aristotle noted in his Poetics centuries ago.

Summary

To foster empathy, introduce your flawed protagonist’s best traits first, before showing us his worst.

Winning Habits for Writers

Winning habits are those habits that make the tasks we have to perform easier by automating them, to a certain degree. Certainly, they give us the momentum we need to embark on our tasks by virtue of repitition. The harder the task, the more the benefit acquired through habit.

Steven King is a writer whose winning habits have catapulted him to deserved fame.
Steven King is a writer whose winning habits have catapulted him to deserved fame.

Going to gym at a certain time of day is one such habit that I find helpful. Sitting down to write each day is another. Here are some suggestions that make for successful writing:

1. Read voraciously. Stephen King reminds us that if we don’t have time to read, we don’t have time to write. Watch plenty of good movies too. If novels and short stories teach us about the inner journey, as well as character complexity and depth, movies teach us about pace, the outer journey and economy.

2. Enjoy and celebrate your creative journey—the mistakes too. Goethe once said: “By seeking and blundering we learn.” Sound advice indeed.

3. Join a writer’s group for networking, information, feedback and moral support.

4. Know your industry. Read dedicated magazines, subscribe to relevant blogs and websites. Try to learn something new about your craft each day.

5. Dispel negativity from your writing life, despite the growing number of rejection slips. Dean Koontz garnered 75 such slips before his first sale. Each book or screenplay represents enormous effort, dedication and faith. Negativity eats away at your resolve, self-belief and energy. It has no place in your process.

One important winning habit to acquire is to write regularly—every day if you can. Not each session has to produce inspired or superlative work. The point is to establish a routine.

6. Don’t second-guess, or edit your work while writing. Let the material pour out of you. Correcting and polishing are for the editing stage. 

7. Be persistent and committed. The great concert pianist Vladimir Horowitz once said: “Never give up, never give up, never give up.” You shouldn’t either.

9. Believe in yourself and in your abilities. If you don’t, why should anyone else?

10. Learn to take criticism. Feedback, fair or foul, is requisite and inevitable. Paz Octavio, the Mexican poet and writer said: “What distinguishes modern art from the art of other ages is criticism.” 

Summary

Fostering winning habits that develop and sustain stamina ought to make your goals as a writer easier to achieve.

Great Scenes: How to Write Them

Great scenes in Outrageous Fortune

Great scenes abound in Outrageous Fortune

As one of the larger units of story construction, great scenes make for great stories.

In his book, Writing Screenplays that Sell, Michael Hauge, provides us with a concise list of what makes for great scenes.

Checklist for writing great scenes:

1. How does your scene contribute to your protagonist’s outer and inner journey? Remember the outer goal is extremely important in a story. Rumination (inner journey) is not sufficient to drive your story forward. We need to see the protagonist engaged in outer struggles, if we are to understand his inner conflicts, too.

2. Does your scene, like your story, have a beginning, middle and end? Your scene ought to establish, build and resolve a situation. There are, of course, exceptions to this. Some scenes are short and are transitional in nature, intended solely to bridge other more important scenes, but as a general rule, this piece of advice holds true.

3. Does your scene propel the reader into the next? Causally linking one scene to the next at the level of the inner or outer journeys makes for compelling tales. In Outrageous Fortune, the scene of two women in the morgue is resolved only when they realise that the body is not that of their lover. But the end of the scene results in their decision to find him, which, in turn, drives the scenes that follow.

4. What is each character’s objective in the scene? Without an objective the scene is rudderless. In Before the Light each scene is causally linked to the next, making for compelling reading.

Great scenes tick several of this checklist’s boxes.

5. What is each character’s attitude in the scene? Each character wants something, overtly or covertly. (How does this want tally with that character’s need? ‘Big’ scenes ought to explore and reiterate the tension between want and need.) This want, together with that character’s personality traits, creates an attitude, a motivation.

Additionally, characters bleed feelings: they are sad, nostalgic, angry, bored, scared, or turned on, etc. These feelings are revealed directly through dialogue or more subtly, through subtext and action. In Moulin Rouge Satin’s declaration that she does not love Christian, a lie she utters in order to save his life by having him leave, is shot through with irony, sadness and a sense of tragedy.

6. Do many of your scenes contain action, not just dialogue? Talking heads are best left to television soapies and past masters such as Ingmar Bergman. Of course, dialogue is perfectly acceptable in scenes, but stories benefit from the injection of telling action, from small acts such as the lifting of an eyebrow, to the landing of a punch. Imagine your screenplay with the sound off. Is the meaning of a scene still apparent through the action of your characters? If the answer is ‘yes’ then you’d be better off culling as much dialogue as possible. Unless you are Woody Allen, or Quentin Tarantino, your screenplay should not be talk-heavy.

7. Does your scene serve multiple purposes? Does your scene keep your audience or readers emotionally involved with your protagonist and her journey to her goal? Does it reveal character background, motivation, conflict, anticipation, curiosity, credibility and identification or empathy? Does it contain foreshadowing, premonitions and the like? Again, not every scene can be cramp-packed with the above, but pivotal scenes clustered around and including your turning points, pinches, and midpoint, certainly can.

Summary

A scene checklist focuses on a series of important elements needed to make your story’s scenes great.

Turning Points in Stories

Turning Points in Die Hard

Turning Points in Die Hard

I’ve talked, more than once, about turning points in stories. This post takes another look at this all important topic, adding what, I hope, is fresh insight.

A turning point occurs when something big happens in a story to spin it around in an unexpected direction. This takes the form of new information granted to the protagonist and audience.

I’ve indicated that an action-orientated turning point should be supported by a strong inner motivation. I’ve suggested that such motivation is nested in the inner journey. So, if we draw a zig-zagging line to represent the outer journey as the physical series of actions and events, the inner journey is the line that rides below it, tracking it in parallel. The turning points are the horizontal lines intersecting the two.

Examples of Turning Points in film

But what form should this new information take? Specifically, should it come from the outer journey—such as news that a solar flare seems set to destroy the earth in the film, Knowing? Or should it spring from the inner journey of the hero, as in Oblivion, when Tom Cruise’s character realises that the flashes of memory that have been plaguing him are actual memories of his wife (albeit, as we’ll later find out, through the medium of resonance, which unites his clones).

Does it really matter, which comes first, you may well ask, since the outer and inner journeys meet at the turning points anyway? My personal view is that it does.

Turning Points that come from the inner journey to intersect with the outer journey, contain more of an “Aha” moment.

Such turning Points draw our attention to the character’s background and motivation and makes us care more about his predicament. It makes the action more meaningfully, right off the bat. It bestows empathy and verisimilitude.

This is not to say that pure action can’t give rise to a turning point. Action films such as Die Hard and the crop of superhero films such as Batman and Superman often take that route. Still, letting the turning point spring from the inner journey heightens the authenticity of the protagonist’s actions. It may therefore be the more appropriate place to mine for turning points in drama-ordinated genres.

Summary

Turning points that spring from the inner journey increase character authenticity and verisimilitude in stories.