Tag Archives: screenwriter

Improving your logline and synopsis

Synopsis and The Matrix
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You’ve finally written that logline for your story and generated a synopsis from it as a first step to writing your novel or screenplay.

But how do you go about improving both the logline and synopsis, prior to commencing the writing of the actual work itself? How do you write something as good as The Matrix?

 

The quality of a story is reflected in the quality of its logline and synopsis.

Ask yourself: Does your logline contain an effective set-up and pay-off? If not, seek to improve it.

Next, run through the basic structure of your story. Consider whether you can improve on any of the events, actions, and motivations that occur, especially at the major pivotal points:

How captivating is your introduction to the ordinary world or the inciting incident? Do we know what the story is about by the first third of Act I? How surprising is the first turning point at the end of Act I? Does your protagonist weigh the pros and cons of continuing his struggle at the mid-point? Does his struggle take a turn for the worse at the second turning point towards the end of Act II? How strong is the crisis leading to the final climax? How rewarding is the resolution?

Search for scenes that seem weak, flat, or uninteresting, then strengthen them. Specifically, consider if your setup and payoff are sharp and unique enough? Are there enough twists and surprises to hold our attention? Is the mislead and reveal as surprising and fitting as it can be?

Focusing on the pivotal scenes allows you to target your improvements where they count the most.

Summary

Improve your logline by making it more unique. Strengthen your synopsis by ensuring that the actions, motivations, and events that occur at the pivotal points are the best they can be.

Three Act Structure

Three act structure

Syd Field was a big proponent of the three act structure


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IN his book The Screen Writer’s Workbook, Syd Field points out that each act in a three act structure story performs a specific function and answers a dramatic question.

The three act structure

The first act establishes the world of the protagonist and foreshadows his conflicts, as well as determining his purpose in the story world. The dramatic question of the first act is: What is the protagonist’s initial challenge that compels him to embark on a struggle to achieve the story goal?

The second act is characterised by mounting conflict. This act pits the protagonist against the antagonist by placing both in a situation of mounting attrition, forcing the protagonist to adapt his skills and face his inner weaknesses.

The second act is typically double the length of the first, and is propped up by a midpoint—the moment in which the protagonist decides on whether to give up on his goal, or press on against mounting obstacles. To go forward he has to dig deep to find his inner strength.

Ironically, the protagonist’s dogged determination to attain the goal in the second act increases the deadly opposition against him. The dramatic question of this act is: How does the protagonist keep his head above water in a rising tide of obstacles?

The third act is characterised by the story climax and resolution. It contains the must-have scene: The final clash between the protagonist and antagonist. The outcome of this clash yields the theme of the story.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, Benjamin’s encounter with the ghosts of his past who represent the secret knowledge rooted in his subconscious gives rise to the perfect inner storm. His realisation about who he truly is changes his life forever. The dramatic question of the third act is: Will Benjamin discover the truth about his past. The theme is: Seek, persist, and you shall find.

Summary

A story typically comprises of a three act structure. Each act answers a specific dramatic question.

Defining the theme in stories

Theme in 30 Days of Night

Theme in 30 Days of Night

Dictionary.com defines theme as a subject of discourse, discussion, meditation, or composition; a unifying or dominant idea or motif found in a work of art.

What I find most useful about theme stems from combining two ideas drawn from the work of Lagos Egri and Stanley D. Williams: that a theme emerges only the end of the story and contains a moral premise.

The theme is proven at the end of a story because that’s when the conflict between the protagonist and antagonist is decided. It contains a moral premise because the conflict itself is, at its core, a conflict between good and evil.

In simple terms, if the antagonist wins we have a down ending — evil triumphs. If the protagonist wins we have an up ending — good triumphs over evil.

Establishing the theme in 30 Days of Night

In the film 30 Days of Night the isolated northern Alaskan town of Barrow is beset by a band of vampires intent on using a month of darkness to gorge on the unsuspecting and helpless community.

The sheriff, Eben Oleson, the story’s protagonist, confronts Marlow, the leader of the vampires, in order to protect his town, but clearly lacks the strength to defeat him. All seems lost until Eben hatches a plan to bolster his own strength by infecting himself with tainted blood, turning himself into a vampire. Eben defeats Marlow then purposely exposes himself to sunlight and dies, ensuring that he himself never becomes a threat to the humans.

The theme that emerges at the end of the story is that death, through self-sacrifice, leads to a greater, more transcendent victory by granting life to others.

Isolating themes in this way allows us to see the essence of stories at a glance. It helps us to keep narrative events on track.

Summary

The theme embodies the moral premise of the story and is established at the end of the tale.

Metaphors in Stories

Visual Metaphors in The  Piano

Visual Metaphors in The Piano

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IN his book, On Writing, Sol Stein, suggests that writers can enrich their stories through resonance — the sense that something has significance beyond its physical boundary.

‘My name is Ishmael and I hail from Bethlehem’, for example, evokes a religious tone, through biblical resonance.

Visual metaphors involving objects, places and actions connote something over and above their denotative aspect – they carry ideas that resonate with readers and audiences. They typically form part of an image system that supports the story’s hidden meaning while simultaneously being part of the mise-en-scène.

Visual metaphors take many forms: the breaking of a chain may represent the onset of freedom; a broken mirror might represent the theme of illusion and deception, or a shattered persona.

Examples of visual metaphors

Shakespeare often uses visual metaphors to suggest the story’s deeper meaning – a tormented soul surrounded by rain, thunder, and lightning as in King Lear; the murder of a king causing imbalance in nature – as in Macbeth, where horses are reported to have eaten each other.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, the category five cyclone that threatens the protagonist’s life is not only a physical phenomenon. It is also a metaphor for the inner storm that forces him to choose between life and death.

One of the most famous visual metaphors in film is the eating scene in Tom Jones. Seemingly about eating, the scene is really about sex – the spontaneity, rebelliousness, naughtiness of the carnal act inherent in the excitement of going after the wrong woman. It is a metaphor for sexually devouring a lover’s body.

When Baines (Harvey Keitel) painstakingly dusts the instrument, in The Piano, he is not just cleaning an object. His actions represent the caresses he wishes to bestow on his lover.

To work well visual metaphors need to be carefully constructed. Consuming a salad would not work as well as chewing on flesh and bone. Dusting the piano with a rag would not be as effective as a naked Baines cleaning the instrument with his shirt. The setting and detail of metaphors are crucial to their nuance and meaning.

Summary

A visual metaphor creates resonance by pointing to layers of meaning beneath the surface of a story.

Deflection in Dialogue

Deflection in Dialogue

Deflection is one of the many techniques discussed in Sol Stein’s marvelous book


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IN his book, On Writing, master editor and storyteller, Sol Stein stresses that good dialogue is never on-the-nose. It does not solely focus on the plot. It is certainly never trivial, unlike much of the dialogue we hear in casual conversations at parties or in supermarkets.

Good dialogue is oblique and unexpected. Yet, in deflecting, it hints at the very secrets the characters are trying to hide. It heightens our sense of intrigue, curiosity, and suspense.

Deflection takes several forms. Here are some examples:

Types of deflection

1. Abruptly changing the subject:

“Got that hundred bucks I lent you?”
“Went to the bank to draw it. Saw your girlfriend in the queue. Don’t think she spotted me. Too busy falling all over some guy with male model looks.”

2. Answering a question with a question:

“Have you ever stolen anything of value from a friend?“
“Are you serious?”

3. Silence:

“Are you having an affair, Peter?”
Peter looks at his wife but says nothing. At last he gets up and pours himself a stiff drink.

4. Action that is at odds with the dialogue:

She slaps him hard across the face so that his hair flies to the side.
He responds: “If you ever stop doing that I’ll leave you.”

5. Counter attacking:

“You look bad.”
“So do you.”

6. Threatening :

He says: “Don’t wait up for me tonight, honey. Working really late at the office again.”
She says: “Mind if I drop by after gym to say hi?”

7. A counter revelation:

“I’m sorry Sam. I never meant to sleep with your girlfriend. It kinda just happened. And it was only that once.”
“That’s ok, Ben. It’s not like I haven’t slept with yours!”

In each case deflection acts to parry the original question or statement.

Summary

Deflection, in its various colours, is indispensable to the writing of good dialogue. Done well it helps to sustain curiosity and suspense. Use it often.

Story Structure

Story structure and Scarab

The Scarab series of novels strongly adhere to story structure

ONE of the most effective things novice screenwriters and novelists can do to improve their craft quickly is to learn as much as they can about story structure.

Happily the information is freely available in sites such as mine and in many others. Books and courses on the subject, too, number in the thousands.

So what is story structure?

Story structure refers to the overall shape of a story comprising of events arranged into scenes.

A fitting structure emerges when the right scenes occur in the right place, at the right time, to solicit maximum audience or reader engagement.

Laying out Story Structure

Typically, a well structured story comprises of three acts—a beginning, middle and end.

The beginning establishes the setting, situation, characters and their motivations, and, chiefly, the protagonist’s goal.

The middle expands and complicates the obstacles placed in the path of achieving that goal.

The end resolves the question of whether or not the goal can be achieved, most typically, against a background of mounting tension and pace, resulting in a crisis, its climax and resolution.

Having grouped your scenes into the three sections that form a beginning, middle and end, answer the following questions:

Do your scenes:

Add to or detract from the protagonist’s pursuit of the goal?
Accelerate the pace of the story?
Create conflict?
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?
Create anticipation/tension?
Surprise the reader/audience?
Foreshadow important events?
Sustain curiosity?
Contribute to character development?
Place the protagonist in jeopardy?

If the answer to these questions is mostly “yes”, then you are probably on your way to writing a successful story.

Summary

Story structure refers to a finite number of scenes arranged into three acts so that they facilitate the creation of suspense, verisimilitude, and impact in a story.

Attitude and Character

Attitude

Attitude

Crafting distinctive characters is not easy. The danger is that we create robots who merely drive the plot forward. One remedy for this is to think about your character’s attitude to life.

Just what is attitude in character?

Attitude is the underlying manner which motivates and shapes the way a character speaks, moves, makes decisions. It contains traces of a character’s backstory, value system, and intention.

An attitude can be optimistic, pessimistic, challenging, proud, sardonic, supercilious, courageous, cowardly, and so on.

Checking for Attitude

How do you check for this distinctive quality in your characters? In a scene where two or more characters interact, ask yourself whether you could swap dialogue and action between them without your readers noticing. If you can, then the chances are that your characters are mere generic engines whose sole aim is to push the plot forward.

Who but the Terminator would say: I’ll be back. Or, Bruce Banner warn: Don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like it when I’m angry, or Dorothy: Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore. And, is there anyone who can’t name the movie franchise with a lead character whose favourite drink has to be prepared in a very specific way: A martini. Shaken, not stirred.

In terms of small, defining actions, can you imagine anyone chewing on a cigar, or parting his poncho to reveal his gun and holster, in quite the same way as Clint Eastwood does in his portrayal of the laconic anti-hero in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns? Or The Nostalgia of Time Travel’s Benjamin Vlahos being preoccupied with solving a mathematical equation for thirty years in order to undo a dreadful mistake?

Granting your characters different attitudes will help you create memorable individuals for your stories.

Summary

Grant your characters specific attitudes towards life to give them individuality.

How to Save your Story Ending

Your story and GladiatorIN his influential book, Save the Cat, Blake Snyder
offers an approach to writing your story that comprises of a beat sheet of fifteen dramatic units.

They are:

1. Opening Image
2. Theme Stated
3. Set-Up
4. Catalyst
5. Debate
6. Break into Two
7. B Story
8. Fun and Games
9. Midpoint
10. Bad Guys Close In
11. All Is Lost
12. Dark Night of the Soul
13. Break into Three
14. Finale
15. Final Image

 

Blake Snyder’s story structure is solid, but there is a possible weakness in the gap between the Break into Three and Finale. The danger is that the sudden reversal of fortunes may appear too abrupt to be credible.

The Break into Three shows the hero at his lowest ebb. But the Finale typically shows the hero in a last ditch attempt to try again. It is the most vulnerable point of the Hollywood ending – the moment when your story, which cannot allow the protagonist to fail, turns the tables on the antagonist.

How can we prevent this last twist from appearing forced?

Making your story ending more credible

In Gladiator, the lowest moment occurs when Maximus finds himself on his knees in the arena, nursing an earlier wound, swordless, and pierced by the Emperor’s blade. His efforts to avenge his murdered family and save Rome from the clutches of the madman seem to have failed.

How does he go from defeat to victory in the space of a beat?

The answer lies in Maximus’ physical strength, his love for his family, and his loyalty to Rome. This grants him the strength to pull the Emperor’s sword out of his own body and turn it against the Emperor himself, ending the tyrant’s life.

The twist seems believable because it marries the theme of the story (that integrity and moral fortitude will trump lascivious greed) to Maximums’ character arc. We find it fitting that the strong and noble Maximus, who has given his life to the service of Rome, should find the strength to rid his country of its incestuous ruler by sacrificing his own life.

Summary

Tie your hero’s lowest moment to his character arc and to the theme of your story to allow the audience to experience the ending as fitting rather than forced and formulaic.

How to Write Memorable Antagonists

Memorable Antagonists

Ed Harris, as General Francis X. Hummel, is one in a long line of memorable antagonists in stories.

ANTAGONISTS fulfill an indispensable function in stories. They act as spurs to protagonists forcing them to achieve their true potential.

In The Rock, Stanley Goodspeed, a chemical warfare expert working for the F.B.I. is sent on a mission with a former British spy, John Patrick Mason, to prevent General Francis Hummel from launching chemical weapons into San Francisco from Alcatraz Island.

The General demands one hundred million dollars in war reparations to be paid to the forgotten families of slain servicemen who died on covert operations. His actions, therefore, stem from his sense of duty to his men and their families, whom he believes have been abandoned by the country they served.

A well-crafted antagonist is more than a mere technical device. He is also a flesh-and-blood character with a personality, a belief-system, and a goal of his own.

How many times have we seen the villain doing villainous things, but can’t understand why?

This is because he is merely a cog in the writer’s plot. Since the antagonist and protagonist form the essential narrative unit that drives the story forward, a poorly written villain will stall the engine.

Nailing your Antagonists

Generally speaking, many of the aspects that apply to writing a credible character apply to the antagonist, but one in particular aspect warrants special mention: The villain believes he is the hero of his own story. He believes he is justified in doing what he does because of some past injustice, injury, or misconstrued sense of duty.

In The Matrix, agent Smith despises human beings. He hates their smell, their sweaty bodies, which he sees as prisons of meat. His job is to rid his perfect world of anyone who threatens it. He is intelligent, determined, skilled — in his own mind, a hero with a cause. It is partly this self-belief that makes him such a memorable villain.

Summary

Give your antagonist a powerful cause, operating within a self-consistent value system, in order to lend him credibility and depth.

A Good Plot Entails Cause and Effect

The Good Plot in Stories

The Good Plot in Stories

EVERY good story needs a good plot.

The English novelist E. M. Foster defined plot as a series of causally linked events. One of the surest ways to strengthen your plot, therefore, is to ensure that your scenes are tied together through cause and effect.

Aristotle referred to this important aspect of a story as unity. He believed that if a scene makes no difference to the characters of a story then it has no place being in it. Unity, or causality, is fundamental to the well-written tale.

What is Good Plot, Anyway?

‘The father died and then his wife died’ is not a plot because although the two events follow upon each other they are not causally linked. ‘The father died and then his wife died of sorrow’, however, is a plot because the first event causes the second.

Plot is at its strongest when it stems from a character’s goals, needs, wishes and desires pitted against those of an opposing character or force.

In my award winning novel, The Land Below, for example, the hero’s desire to explore the world beyond the confines of his underground existence drives the plot. It explains his actions and reactions to events around him.

Fledgling writers sometimes believe that a series of action-packed scenes makes for gripping viewing or reading – that pace and action is what people want from a story.

Although this may be partly true, it is not all that people want from a tale. If characters have no higher purpose other than to beat each other up, if scenes provide no new information, if scenes fail to deepen or explain character, or if characters survive only to repeat the same action in a different setting, they will fail to generate plot because of a lack of consequence.

Linking scenes through cause and effect in order to show that actions have repercussions, therefore, is indispensable in generating a good plot.

Summary

A good plot is generated through linked scenes that are driven by characters with conflicting goals, wants, needs and desires.