Tag Archives: Script

How to Contrast Scenes in Scripts and Novels

ScriptsHow many scenes are necessary in writing good scripts? In Making a Good Script Great, Linda Seger notes that this number varies. Some have less than seventy five scenes, some more than a hundred.

In novels this number varies even more, with some of the greatest stories ever written running into many hundreds of scenes.

Contrasting Scenes in Scripts and Novels

Some scenes are extremely short. Those include establishing scenes such as a street exterior or the inside of a vehicle. These are meant to place the viewer or reader in a specific time and place. Others, engaged with plot and character development occur over several pages.

Film scripts that comprise of only a handful of scenes underutilise the potential of the film medium and are more suited to being rendered as a stage play. On the other hand, a ninety minute film that runs into hundreds of short scenes will feel frenetic, hurried, underdeveloped.

The secret to a well-paced story is to balance scenes through contrast. As a general rule dark scenes should be balanced by lighter ones, somber scenes with ones that are more joyful, and slower scenes with faster paced ones.

In Fatal Attraction, for example, Alex and Dan are languidly lying in bed together. Cut to the next scene which catapults us into lively dancing inside a loud jazz club. This prevents the sense of sameness that leads to boredom.

Contrast can also be created through intercutting. In Schindler’s List a wedding scene in the concentration camp is intercut with Schindler kissing a girl in a club, which, in turn, is intercut with the commandant beating Hellen.

In my own novella, The Nostalgia of Time Travel, scenes that enact the slow pace of a man in physical and moral stasis are contrasted with the immense force of a category five cyclone that threatens to destroy the protagonist’s world.

Summary

Contrasting the number and texture of scenes creates rhythm and movement. Failing to do so creates a flat line that leads to stasis and boredom.

Why Do We Love Characters In Conflict?

Fish eating its own tailWe’ve all heard about the importance of conflict in storytelling; that it is the fuel that drives the drama; that without it our stories lack interest.

But where do we find conflict? In her book, Creating Unforgettable Characters, Linda Seger stresses that conflict springs up between characters because of their differing motivations, backgrounds, wants and goals, values and attitudes.

Often, these conflicts are psychological. The traits that characters often find the most infuriating about each other come from their repressed sides; ironically, it is these very qualities that both attracts and repels them.

Conflict sometimes occurs because characters hide things from each other, either purposefully, or because of an inability to communicate, which, in turn, leads to misunderstandings. In Cheers Sam and Diane’s first kiss is fraught with conflict, albeit humorously rendered:

SAM: What is it you want, Diane?
DIANE: I want you to tell me what you want.
SAM: I’ll tell you what I want… I want to know what you want.
DIANE: Don’t you see, this is the problem we’ve had all along. Neither of us is able to come out and state the obvious.
SAM: You’re right. So, let’s state the obvious.
DIANE: O.K. You go first.
SAM: Why should I go first?
DIANE: We’re doing it again.
SAM: Diane, just explain one thing to me…Why aren’t you with Derek?
DIANE: Because I like you better.
SAM: Really? Well, I like you better than Derek, too.
DIANE: Sam…
SAM: All the jealousy I ever felt for my brother is nothing to what I’ve felt In the last five minutes.
DIANE: Oh, Sam. I think we’re about to start something that might be kind of great, huh?
SAM: Yeah. Yeah, You’re right. I guess we oughta like…kiss, huh?

But because nothing is ever straight forward between Diane and Sam, it takes many pages of discussion and arguing before they finally do kiss.

The point is that conflict does not have to be graphic to generate interest in the characters and drama; often, it is the more subtle, hidden conflicts that most hold the reader’s and audience’s attention.

Summary

Character conflict often occurs when characters try to hide something from each other, or are defined by differing values.

Big Story Ideas

Tree with lights and man picking

Big Ideas:

Ideas. The fuel that powers civilizations and progress—social, political, economic, scientific, technological. Great ideas are innovative, lead to success, generate excitement.

And so it is with stories too. Hollywood calls such ideas High Concept. Pitch a truly big idea in Hollywood and producers and executives sit up and take notice. Suddenly, you are doing lunch with all sorts of people who want to hitch a ride on your wagon.

So, how do you get that big story idea? And just what is it, actually?

The truth is that ideas, or seeds of ideas, can come at you anywhere, anytime— from smells, sights, sounds, touch, distant memories. But is there a way to force-generate a truly big idea, cold, so to speak?

Here again, there are many prompts, many paths to the land of big ideas. News and documentary programs, magazines, websites, books.

As a science fiction writer, I tend to sniff around in places were great scientific ideas are already in the boiling pot. I recently purchased a magazine published by Media24, aptly titled: 20 Big Ideas. The magazine identifies 20 huge scientific topics that are currently in vogue:

The ongoing search for a Theory of Everything, Dark Energy, the Gaia Theory, Quantum Entanglement, Catastrophism, Chaos Theory, Consciousness, Artificial Intelligence—to name but a few.

These are the topics currently causing a stir in the scientific and related communities, through journals, magazines, television programs, radio stations, Internet forums, and the like.

Find a topic that fascinates you, explore the unanswered question surrounding it, and create your premise or log-line around that. If you are interested in the search for a Theory of Everything, for example, you should probably know that it has to do with trying to explain the entire spectrum of physical existence, from the very small-the quantum world, to the very large—cosmology. You should know that trying to incorporate gravity into the former is the crux of the problem.

The question is: what would the Theory of Everything be like? From there, you might think along the following lines:

What if a young theoretician working under the guidance of a supervising professor makes a startling mathematical discovery that will change the face of theoretical physics forever? What obstacles could you place in his way, and what would be the motives of the antagonist in trying to prevent him from achieving his goal?

The same initial process can be applied to the topics of Consciousness, Artificial Intelligence, and the other big ideas doing the rounds.

The next step is to develop the log-line, the structural skeleton of the story, and the one page synopsis along the lines suggested in numerous articles on this website, or others like it, before starting the actual writing of your story itself.

Summary

Big ideas make for big stories. Begin by tracking down big ideas through studying relevant journals, newspapers, conference papers, television programs, and the like, and create your log-line or premise based on one of them.

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Image: Andrés Nieto Porras
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Sell Your Story Through Character Conflict

Tearing money

Conflict Sells

The noted teacher and dramatist, Lagos Egri, provides some sage advice on the subject of character conflict and how to sell your story premise and drive your story forward.

Remembering that the premise is a microscopic form of the story itself, Egri suggests we formulate our premise and start our story at a crisis point, which will be the turning point in our main character’s life.

In Ghosts, by Ibsen, for example, the basic idea is heredity. The play grew out of a Biblical quotation, which is the premise: “The sins of the fathers are visited on the children.” Every action, every bit of dialogue, every conflict in the play, arises out of this premise.

Egri states that the correct way to start a story is to involve your main character in conflict. Conflict not only drives the story forward, but it is the quickest way of revealing character in the shortest time.

Forcing opposing characters together is the best way of establishing conflict. Opposing characters should be militant, passionate, and active about their positions. Egri calls this process orchestration.

For example:

Optimist vs. pessimist

Miser vs. spendthrift

Honest vs. dishonest

Loyal vs. disloyal

Believer vs. non-believer

Agapi vs. Erotas

Militantly opposing characters make conflict inevitable. Two perfectly orchestrated characters will oppose, or, perhaps, even destroy each, other depending on circumstances, turning your story into a page turner.

Although opposing characters form the foundation of any good story, you should, before you start, determine why one simply cannot walk out on the other, while the conflict rages. Determine the precise nature of the unbreakable bond that keeps them together until the climax: is it revenge, hate, jealousy, pain?

Lastly, remembering that the premise is a microscopic form of the story itself, you should formulate your premise at a crisis point, which will be the turning point in your main character’s life.

Summary

Pit two actively opposing types of characters against one another—characters that are forced together in an unbreakable union, and as they struggle to break their bonds, they will spontaneously generate rising conflict and create the story in the process.

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Image: Tax Credits
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How Conflict Leads to Character Growth

In order for the characters in your story to grow, Lagos Egri informs us, you must lead them into situations of increasing conflict.

Conflict emanates from contradiction. Contradiction results from the clash of two powerful wills, pitted against each other. Animosity, fear, jealousy, covetousness, hate, and overbearing ambition pitted against their opposites are some of the the ingredients that make for a powerful conflict.

Conflict will not thrive without heaping trouble and misery upon our characters. To rectify a wrong decision, they make another, then another, and a third to fix the second, and so on. This provides the causality that drives the story forward like a stack of falling dominos.

Some characters will eventually concede defeat. Others who are stubborn will never give up.

As a writer, your interest lies in characters who, by their physical and psychological make-up, are predestined to defy the odds and never give up. They are reckless. They try to achieve their goal, no matter what.

Such driven people, however, become desperate only after dire necessity forces them to a decision, and any delay in acting might cost them their lives, loves, wealth, health, or honour. Desperate necessity propels these characters toward their ultimate goal, which is clearly stated in the story’s premise.

The greater the conflict in the characters’ lives, therefore, the greater their growth. End-to-end growth, such as from jealousy to trust, or from hatred to love, and how it happens, makes for the most exciting and successful stories.

Summary

Conflict promotes growth by causing contradictory traits to collide and resolve themselves into an outcome, where one trait gains prominence over the other.

How to Merge Story Strands

Traffic sign

Merging Journeys

In seeking to find an effective way to highlight the unity that exists between the outer and inner journey in a story, both in my own writing, as well as in my teaching, it struck me that the structural pivots in a tale (the inciting incident, the turning points, the midpoint) precisely provide for such an opportunity. They are the knots that tie the outer and inner strands of the tale together.

The outer journey, we are reminded, recounts the beat-by-beat occurrence of external events as the Hero struggles against mounting obstacles to achieve the visible goal of the story—preventing the bomb from going off, winning the girl, or the boxing championship, rescuing the kidnapped victim, and so on.

The inner journey, by contrast, is the internal path the Hero takes to enlightenment or obfuscation, depending on the genre of the story, as he initiates or reacts to the outer journey’s challenges, surprises, achievements and setbacks.

The structural pivots combine an outer and inner event into a single motivated action. Lagos Egri, one of the most lucid teachers on the craft of dramatic writing explains that the inner journey is the “why” to the outer journey’s “what”. In short, ensure that your turning points, including your midpoint, describe external events of sufficient magnitude that cause the Hero to react in a way that is in keeping with his current/evolving inner state.

Is it preferable, then, to let the inner state, or, journey, trigger the outer event, or should it be the other way around? I don’t think there is a definitive answer to that question—either will do, just as long as both through-lines end up being tightly interwoven.

In Rob Roy, Liam Neeson’s character accepts his wife’s unborn child—a result of her being raped by an Englishman, because of who he is: a man of immense conviction and inner strength, just as he fights and wins a sword fight against the fop, the expert English swordsman, despite being outplayed at the end, again, because of this inner strength and conviction.

In Braveheart, William Wallace accepts knighthood at the midpoint of the story. This motivates him to move from being an isolationist who merely wants to be left alone to farm with his family, to a national leader who takes the fight to the English. The knighthood ceremony is a perfect fusion of an outer and inner event—as a knight he now has a moral obligation to fight for those who fall under his protection.

Summary

The major pivot points are the perfect place for the writer to ensure that the “why” merges with the “what” in her story. Such pivot points offer the perfect place for the inner and outer journeys to merge and support each other.

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3 Rules of Character

Three fingers

Constructing Character

In his book, Screenwriting, Professor Richard Walter of UCLA reminds us that there are three fundamental rules for creating great characters:

1. Avoid stereotypes.
2. Inject some sympathetic aspect into even the most evil and despicable of your characters.
3. Force your characters, especially your protagonist, to change and grow throughout the tale.

Stereotypes

Stereotypes are boring. Avoid them like the plague. The kind-hearted priest? Seen it. The hard drinking Irish cop? Seen that too. The pissed off police captain? Ditto.

A useful way to avoid stereotyping a character is to think of a type then present its opposite. Imagine a sheriff from the deep south who is not a bigot and a dimwit, but is bristling with intelligence and dignity, passionate about revealing the truth and delivering an even-handed justice. Or a nun who is a baseball fanatic and is a genius at game statistics.

Character Growth

Truly memorable characters start off in one place and end up in another. In Kramer vs. Kramer, Dustin Hoffman begins as an insensitive, selfish narcissist but ends up as a kind and wise father who puts the happiness of his child first. At the start of The Godfather, Michael Corleone is innocent, principled, moral. By the end he is heartless, bereaved and soulless—a power hungry murderer of many, including his own brother.

Not every character needs to change, of course. Patton stays the same throughout the movie of the same name, although his character is challenged and is explained in a way that reveals to us why he is the way he is—an inflexible but powerful warrior to the last.

Sympathy

Well rounded, complex and conflicted characters are more absorbing than facile, boring ones. But with the interest that comes from lying, scheming and conniving comes the danger of characters becoming unlikable. It is, therefore, important to ensure that some aspect remains sympathetic to the reader or audience. If we don’t like our characters, especially the protagonist, we won’t like her story.

Oedipus murders his father then performs incest with his mother: horrific actions for a protagonist to indulge in. The writer, Sophocles, ensures that Oedipus remains sympathetic to his audience firstly by showing that Oedipus is unaware of the true facts of his coupling, and, secondly, by having him show deep and genuine remorse upon learning the truth.

In a Bridge on the River Kwai the Japanese commander of the prison camp is a cruel tyrant whose humanity still manages to peep through, if even once. He violates international laws, holds his prisoners in hot boxes, tortures and humiliates them, yet the writer portrays him as an unfortunate wretch who is tapped in a harsh command structure by permitting us to see him weep.

Summary

Well drawn characters are an indispensable part of successful story telling. Avoiding stereotypes, injecting character growth and creating sympathy are some of the ways of creating engaging characters.

Writing Short Films

Story book

Shorts

Short films featuring stories that roughly run five to thirty 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 the short story, the short film is one of the most difficult formats to master, demanding precision, economy and compactness on the part of the writer.

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 sentence 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 a 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 not used as a sketch substitute.

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 to showcase their ability to make their first feature films. So should you.

Summary

The shorter film format requires a different approach to that of the feature script. This post briefly looks at some of these differences.

Writing is Rewriting II

Fountain pen and corrections

Rewriting II

In last week’s post, I talked about Frensham’s six areas of focus involved in arriving at the final version of your screenplay—the first stage being to increase comprehensibility. Today, we look at the second: Structure; because this website is filled with discussions of the story spine—the inciting incident, turning points, pinches, the mid point, and so on, it is not my intention to repeat this material here. Instead, I want to focus on an important aspect of structure: the structure of climaxes within the overall story context.

Climaxes

The climax of an Act is contained within its turning point. Because your screenplay is a composite of several stories, or subplots, supporting the main through-line, each turning point is part of the broader story sweep. One of your tasks in writing your second draft, therefore, is to ensure that each climax pitches higher than the one before it.

The climax at the end of Act II is often the most challenging. The hero needs to be (seemingly) as far away from achieving her goal as possible—having (seemingly) been, or about to be, defeated. She abandons her quest, and/or denies responsibility for her actions, and/or faces her moment of truth. If she does none of the above, then consider remedying the situation by introducing another character/subplot, an action which reveals her state of mind, a further confrontation either directly or through a flashback, or new information through an unexpected revelation.

In crafting each climax, ensure that you have seeded the possibility for it earlier in your story and allowed the audience to chew on it before unleashing it, remembering that the essential skill in constructing an effective climax is knowing what information to reveal, and when to reveal it. Examine each climax in your screenplay with this in mind and ensure the ‘what’ and ‘when’ are effectively utilised.

Lastly, ask yourself whether each climax is followed by a pause that is encapsulated within a scene or sequence which is in harmony with the pacing and rhythm of your overall script? Does each climax build from the least significant to the most significant moment by the end of the story?

Summary

Because climaxes occur towards the end of acts as part of a turning point as well as at the midpoint, they are natural attractors for the action that leads up to them, helping to shape and direct the material before them. Effective climaxes, therefore, are an indispensable part of writing successful stories.

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How to Write Story Through Character

Chicken and eggs

The Chicken or the Egg?

What comes first, character or story? Does story lay the character, or character lay the story? This perennial chicken-or-the-egg question has many supporters on either side of the fence, or, road, if you prefer. Despite the levity implicit in the metaphor, however, the topic has serious implications for the way we approach writing a novel or screenplay.

A Character’s Story

One of the dangers facing an inexperienced writer writing what he considers to be a thrilling action-packed story is that he may loose sight of character motivation. One big event slams into another, and before he knows it, he’s written a story which uses characters like puppets in the hands of a novice puppeteer – their movement is trite, abrupt, and artificial.

So how do we avoid this without sacrificing pace and excitement in the stories we tell, or, without weighing down our thinking with reams of character traits and back-story? The simplest and most unobtrusive way to do so, I’ve found, is to take the central thought/philosophy/emotion of a character and keep it foremost in mind when writing her scenes.

Scarab II

In my forthcoming science-fiction novel, Scarab II, the protagonist, Jack Wheeler is drawn into a rerun of the cataclysmic events that unfolded in the North West Province of South Africa some five years previously. In Scarab I, Jack is swept along by events, forced to react to rather than to initiate action. But in the follow-up novel, Jack has a better understanding of what lies in store. He is also haunted by what occurred in the past and driven by one overpowering question: can he do anything to prevent the suffering and mayhem that is standard fare in the world today?

This question, born out of a troubled conscience and the knowledge that he may indeed have the power to intervene, motivates most of his underlying thoughts and actions. Understanding this essential aspect of Jack’s character has allowed me to write scenes that are powerfully motivated – an important part of fleshing out an inner journey that explains and fuels the outer one.

In Summary

Identifying the essential preoccupation of each character, and keeping this foremost in mind as you chart the outer journey, allows you to write scenes that are inwardly motivated and stay on track.

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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.