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.
In his book, Your Screenplay Sucks, William M. Akers stresses that understanding the right genre tropes and conventions and their current popularity is essential if your story is to have a chance in the market place. He stresses that if you don’t have a clearly defined, simple to understand genre, you’re probably off to a poor start.
Is the genre of your story a sci-if, a western, a coming of age story? Still not sure by page ten of your screenplay or novel? Then ‘you’re toast.’ If you’re not sure, the readers certainly aren’t either.
Additionally Akers advises that writers work in a genre that they like and are good at. If you only watch cop movies but have decided to write a love story, that might be an attempt to spread your wings, but you probably lack the experience in the genre to pull it off right away.
“Picking the right genre that is going to be all the rage by the time you’re done writing your masterpiece is at best a hit-and-miss affair. The point is to write in the genre you like and to never stop spinning that wheel of fortune.”
Have you decided to write in a specific genre because it’s currently all the rage? Probably a dumb idea. Here’s why: It will take you several months to write that script or novel, perhaps even longer. Now consider how long it takes to bring a story to the screen or press. The genre could well have lost steam by the time you’re done.
Akers provides the example of Bob Rodat who decided to write a gangster movie but send it to his agent on the same week three gangster movies opened and bombed on the circuit. The agent shrugged his script off.
But the story has a happy ending: Bob never gave up and went on to write Saving Private Ryan!
The point is that you never know when the timing’s going to be right for a particular genre. Akers’ advice is therefore to write in a genre you like or are competent in. Be aware, though, that someone else might be thinking the very same thing too. Just never, ever give up on writing and you might get lucky, just like Bob Rodat did!
Write in a genre that you like and are competent in, knowing that its popularity depends on some timing and a lot of luck.
If you had to undertake the almost impossible task of condensing the existing wisdom for writing a good story into a single sentence, what would that sentence be?
Today’s writers have an advantage over those who have gone before them—access to a body of knowledge that has been extracted from the great exemplars of the past—Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Proust, Dickens, William Golding and John Steinbeck, to name some of the few great writers I admire.
Then of course, in more recent times, we have the impressive list of screenwriters and filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock, Aaron Sorkin, David Mamet, and many more.
The single sentence: What does your protagonist want and why can’t she or he have it?
An argument can be made that familiarity with great works has a trickle down effect; that we grow through osmosis, as it were. But is there one bit of wisdom, gleaned from the ‘encyopedia of writing’, one single instruction to keep on top of mind?
I would venture yes: What does your protagonist want, and why can’t he have it? This one sentence not only demands an answer for the protagonist’s pursuit of the goal; it also hints at the obstacle(s) that stand in his or her way.
Here are two examples of this at work.
A Roman general seeks to revenge his family’s slaughter but is imprisoned by Rome’s brutal emperor, Commodus, and forced to become a gladiator: Gladiator.
A group of friends reassemble in the small town where they first encountered and defeated an unspeakable evil to fight it off once again, but are weakened by the suicide of their friend and rising doubts of their mission: It Chapter Two.
You get the idea.
As a first step to writing a new story, try to conceive of the tale as a single sentence that states the goal and obstacles facing your protagonist. This will give you the spine of your tale.
In his book, Story, Robert McKee explains that the controlling idea of a story delivers to readers and audiences the true theme or ethical judgment of the tale—what the story is really about.
For writers, the controlling idea can help us keep the story on track by shining a spotlight on what actions and events to include or exclude from the story—actions and events that stay or stray from the intended path.
We‘ve talked about this controlling idea before, but under the nomenclature of The Moral Premise. What I like about McKee’s use of the phrase is the reminder that the story has to be constantly steered towards its destination.
McKee defines the controlling idea as having two components: Value and cause. Value identifies the positive or negative charge that arises as a result of the 3rd act’s climax. Cause gives the reason for this outcome. Value and cause, therefore, provide the central meaning of the tale.
“The controlling idea serves to keep your story on track.”
Because value can have a positive or negative charge, the outcome of the controlling idea, the value judgment, can only be delivered to the reader or audience at the end of the story. Importantly, though, the result has been prepared for by a series of actions undertaken by the protagonist in pursuit of his goal. The result of the climactic battle between the antagonist and protagonist towards the end of the third act delivers the writer’s final judgment on the moral or ethical status of the story. In the words of McKee, ‘value means the primary value in its positive or negative charge that comes into the world or life of your character as a result of the final action of the story.”
The final value, therefore, whether positive or negative, is the hard fought-for point of the entire tale.
In an up-ending crime story such as In the Heat of the Night, the writer’s judgment on the final value, might be: That even in a corrupt world (negative charge), it is possible to have justice restored (positive charge) through righteous and persistent action.
In a negatively charged love story-ending such as Dangerous Liaisons the controlling idea leads to a negative outcome: That passion, naively directed, leads to self-loathing and death.
All this sounds remarkably like the moral premise.
Summary The controlling idea is the ethical or moral point of the story. Scenes containing actions and events that stray from the path should be eliminated.
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.
While prepping for one of my classes I had occasion to watch several televised debates between proponents of theism and atheism as examples of the sort of logic used in hotly contested debates of this nature.
One such debate in particular struck me as informative. Both men were scientists, one, a mathematician from Oxford and a believer in the existence of God – a Christian. The other was a physicist from Arizona State University and an unflinching atheist.
“The logic of the heart and the art of persuasion.”
Both men, in my opinion, put forward narratives that were strong on logic and consistent within their world views. In terms of their delivery, the Oxford man was affable, warm, tolerant and kind. The physicist came across as cold, rude, arrogant, and condescending. When I asked my honours students who they thought won the debate, a surprising number of them thought that the Christian did, even though that might have been at odds with their own beliefs.
The point is that the logic of a narrative, be it scientific, historical, or fictional, is only part of the story. The heart behind it plays a role in the art of communication too. It is not enough for a scientist to say that we have it by the numbers and that pleasantries, therefore, do not matter. Certainly, it will make no difference to the hard mathematical proofs whether you come across as arrogant or kind, but it will make a difference to how effective you are in advertising your field.
The mathematician and string theorist Brian Greene is proof of how hard science can be delivered in a warm, persuasive, and cogent way that makes it accessible to lay people. His documentary The Illusion of Time, is a good example of his affable, passionate style. Special and general relativity are explained in a way that makes one want to know more.
So it should be with any narrative. Behind the facts and logic we should sense the presence of a human mind seeking to communicate the wonder of being alive, not only through logic, but through the ineffable understanding of the heart.
Use logic as well as heart to persuade others of the merits of your point of view.
We’ve all heard about the importance of a powerful antagonist in stories.
An antagonist works against the protagonist to stop her from achieving the story goal. Together they form a dynamic pair whose ongoing battle forms the spine of the story.
We know that a well-written villain is clever and resourceful. He believes he is the hero of his own tale. He is often articulate, even eloquent, with a well-defined philosophy about life which motivates his actions and explains his loathing for the hero and her goal.
These characteristics emerge through his actions, but also through at least one great speech in which he explains to the hero, or another character, the depths of his villainous vision.
But it seemed to me that truly memorable antagonists needed something more – an extra ingredient that guaranteed their place in the annals of villainy. It was during one of my classes on writing that it struck me – great villains exhibit what may be described as a double, or triple dip. This is the moment when the character surprises the hero by diving even deeper into the pit of darkness.
“A deeply villainous antagonist should be the mainstay of any gripping story.”
In the TV series, Outlander, an English officer, Black Jack Randall, has already proven to be a ruthless and cruel man capable of rape and murder. But in a crucial scene in a later episode he reveals to us the depths of his wickedness.
He explains to his prisoner, Claire Fraser, the hero of the story, that the two hundred lashes, administered to a young Scot accused of stealing, were something beautiful, a work of art. We see the whipping as a flashback and flinch at the relentless violence of leather cutting into the torn, bleeding flesh of the young man – first dip.
Randall then seems to relent. He admits to Claire that he is filled with self-loathing for the man he has become, giving her hope that he will free her, and also, bolstering her cherished belief that any man is capable of redemption. But, suddenly, he turns and punches her in the gut, driving their air from her lungs. She falls to the ground gasping – second dip.
As if that’s not enough, he orders his reluctant soldier to kick her while she lies gasping on the floor, describing the kicking of a woman as something liberating – third dip.
These actions don’t only represent plunges into physical cruelty. They are an attempt to crush the spirit of the person they are directed against – Claire believes that Black Jack Randall can be saved. He proves to her he can’t. This isn’t only a physical blow, but also is a blow against her Christian belief in the ultimate Salvation of Man.
It is this triple-dip, combined with a relentless desire to destroy his enemy’s spirit that makes Black Jack Randall a truly memorable villain.
Villainous antagonists are driven by a relentless desire not only to crush the hero’s body but his or her spirit, too.
In this article on age-related categories drawn from Linda Seger’s book, Advanced Screenwriting, I examine themes related to old age and end-of-life.
As we enter old age we feel a pressing need to reconcile our past deeds with our conscience. We seek to resolve past hurts, overcome alienation, heal relationships, deal with regret. On Golden Pond, tells the story of three generations of characters who meet in order to reconcile with one another. In Magnolia, the dying father recognises that in order to affirm his own integrity he has to reconcile with his son.
In my own novel, The Land Below, the aging Troubadour, wracked by guilt for having kept a painful secret from his grandson, Paulie, chooses a climactic moment to reveal the truth about his lineage.
“Old age and end-of-life themes necessarily entail protagonists who pursue different goals to those of their younger counterparts.”
But as the prospect of death creeps ever closer, another issue gains prominence. Linda Seger relates her observations in a nursing home for the aged where she noticed two basic types of reactions from people close to death – anger and mellow acceptance.
There were those who felt that they had somehow been cheated out of living a better life, or that life had somehow passed them by. These were issues that they had not resolved earlier in life and that were now coming home to roost.
Then there were people who seemed to accept the end of their lives with a mellow acquiescence and a deep gratitude for having participated in life’s adventure at all.
Although some stories, such as Paul Harding’s Pulitzer winning novel, Tinkers, deal with the subject of death and reconciliation in an insightful way, there is generally a dearth of stories featuring this last stage of one’s life – certainly in film. This could be a rich source to explore in the future, especially for a population that increasingly is achieving longer lifespans.
The point to stress, as Erik Erikson indicates, is that if we fail to deal with life’s themes at the time they occur they will continue to fester, under the surface, until we do.
In Dead Poet’s Society, Todd is forced to resolve issues of self-esteem, identity, integrity, and belonging because he never resolved these issues as a teenager. In Rain Man, Charlie, who carries with him the pain of a childhood in which he felt he didn’t belong, has to reconcile issues of achievement and success juxtaposed against the need for intimacy and integrity before he can resolve his inner conflict.
A character who is dying, then, may be forced to face unresolved issues at the time he is least equipped to do so.
Confronting past, unresolved conflicts in our old age is the last great task to be performed in life and in stories.