| || |
Too much description and too much detail will kill the chances of your script! Simple as.
People who read a lot of scripts can tell by looking at the first few pages if it’s professional or not — without reading a word. It’s about the right ratio of description and dialog, and consistency of slugs.
In these two examples you can see without reading a word, which one is text-heavy and dense, and which one snappy and quick. I know which one I already don't want to read! Yes, I'm very impatient...
A rambling and self-important covering letter will give you away, but if it doesn’t, and if the premise to your script does sound amazing, you’ve got that chance to have it read. Don’t spoil it with an overwritten first draft. I have, and I’m still mad, years later. I got a first draft script in front of a really big Hollywood director that I admired more than anyone (and still do), on the back of a great premise, pitch, and synopsis, but the actual script sucked big time. It needed a few re-writes but I thought it was basically a masterpiece. This is what I know now:
1 Characters — pimp your introductions!
| || |
Throw your characters into the bottomless deep end on page 1. We want to get to know them by seeing how they deal with really bad shit. It doesn’t get much better than the opening of Trainspotting. We understand the characters and their story world straight away. It’s funny, painful and very dramatic. Or think of most Bond films, they tend to kick off screaming, with The Quantum of Solace a particularly good example; Reservoir Dogs with its hilarious discussion about Like A Virgin; the Aaron Sorkin-penned The Social Network with its minimalist 2-shot opening, or the utterly heart-wrenching opening of Up!, where not a single word is spoken but I defy you not to be really moved. All these characters kick off on page 1.
2 Vocabulary — triple your meanings!
Even if you think you’ve been economical with your prose — have you, really? Are your paras longer than four lines? Too long. Do you use inactive and generic verbs? Don’t. Every word needs to work as hard as possible. Every sentence has the potential to communicate more than just content. You can triple up on meaning, implied meaning and underlying theme. Broaden your vocab. Make the thesaurus your best friend. Instead of verbs like walk or sit, use more specific words like charge, amble, sneak or slouch. Make them character-specific. Each character has a personality and with it comes the way they move and talk.
3 Imagery — go for bold!
Before you start writing pages and pages of dialog, get punchy on your visual descriptions. With a few words, get to the essence. A dark, oppressive room with a single bulb dangling. A sweeping hotel suite with views over Hong Kong. No need to go into detail. Use the collective memory and imagination of your audience. Chances are, if you can imagine a room in three words, so can they.
4 Locations — make it uncomfortable!
| || |
What space is important for your story? A sweeping hotel suite for a heated argument between two lovers? A dark, oppressive room with a low-hanging naked bulb for a scary interrogation scene? We’ve seen it, it’s a cliché. How about a dead-quiet library for the heated argument? Or a church service? A busy shopping mall elevator for the scary interrogation? Or an elegant ballroom dance scene? Or this utterly heart-breaking scene in The Sixth Sense, confined in a car stuck in a traffic jam because of an accident — off-screen but crucial to the scene.
5 Story world — make us suspend disbelief!
Whatever you’re writing — scifi epic, kitchen sink drama or a new take on the slackers comedy — you need to define and set out that world for the reader. It needs to be 100% bullet-proof and define the narrative logic within it. If it’s ‘our’ present day world this still applies: does it play out in Delhi’s underworld, and if so, what’s going on there, what are the rules? Is it set in the closed-off world of the Vatican? Or completely set in NYC’s metro? Each of these worlds has their laws, their structures and their look and feel. Be consistent, know them inside out.
6 Tone — let us hear it, not see it!
Depending on what you’re writing, you can skew your tone accordingly. Go into the story, feel it in your heart, and put that feeling into your prose. A comedy can be snappy and fun (obvs!), a thriller fast and tense, an epic love story melancholic and pared back. You get the point. Don’t go overboard though, the reader does not ever want to feel they can see the writer at work — very bad idea! It’s a way of expressing the story’s soul through prose, and with it the protag’s emotional world.
Whatever you’re writing, try to be original. You can’t reinvent the wheel, but you can put a new tyre on it. In your character description, don’t tread out stale terminology like ‘sexy’, ‘curvy’ or ‘attractive’, it just perpetuates character and gender stereotypes and shows you up as a lazy writer. Don’t go into detail on room furniture, or even worse, clothes style — unless it’s strictly important for the story.
Happy writing! Actually, scratch that -- Happy re-writing!
The first challenge for a storyteller is to determine the best way to tell their story. Do you start at the beginning and work forward, or in the middle and work your way back? Do you tell it from one or from multiple POVs? Do you use opposing POVs? There is almost always a multitude of perfectly reasonable ways to tell a story. But how do you arrive at a point where you know you’ve hit it dead on?
A script I’ve been working on for the last few years used to have four different timelines, each with a 5-act structure, with act breaks and turning points all roughly coinciding to give it more punch. I tried my hardest to shoehorn the true story into a structure I’d planned on a big wall chart before I’d even started on the treatment. Those were the times when I still had enough patience to actually plan my script in advance. Now I tend to shoot first and ask questions later.
In its seventh draft, this script now has only two timelines left. En plus, they’re disguised as one linear structure when in fact they weave into each other sequence over sequence like a larger main cog turning a smaller subplot cog — hierarchically interdependent. I know, don’t say it... My shoulder is indeed sore from all the pats I’ve given myself since coming up with this stroke of pure genius.
The script evolved very slowly, rewrite after rewrite. I started with a 3-act narrative, using extensive flashbacks and multiple plotlines as tag-ons to play with the acts, and relay the true story that plays over many decades. But with every new draft I realized that I was too stuck on this preconceived structure.
Each story can be told in many different ways, from many different viewpoints. When you come up with a new story idea, try to forget for a moment everything you’ve learned about storytelling, and just observe and breathe it. Look at its momentum, its meaning, its themes, its sharp edges, and its complications and obstacles. Let it sit with you for a while, wait until you can see it with your third eye. (I know, right?) Maybe scribble down on a large sheet of paper all the elements and characters that are involved, leaving their hierarchy and narrative importance to one side for a moment. Look at it and start building a narrative structure with those ingredients. Is it still linear? Is it still on a single track? Or maybe on two or three parallel tracks?
Not two weeks ago at the beginning of Mt Everest climbing season, an avalanche swept away a huge number of sherpas and climbers working on prepping the mountain’s route through the kumbhu icefall. At least 13 died. It was the single-biggest tragedy since 1996. It’s been a massive story — it nearly ended the 2014 Everest season before it had begun.
Imagine you want to write a film about this. Conventionally you’d probably take a single protagonist and follow them through a linear three-act journey. This could be a powerful and effective way to tell the story. But there are other, more complex ways to tell the same story that could enable you to communicate several different POVs, maybe even with opposing messages and deeper themes. This you could do by telling the story with a parallel structure, telling the viewpoints of say, a Sherpa and his family, an international climber and his team, and maybe another character down at base camp. Immediately you’d create a lot of dramatic conflict and tension, potentially opposing viewpoints all caught up in the same catastrophe.
The storylines will follow their protagonists through the same horrific event, with different versions on the same theme, thus making it deeper and giving it some dissonant notes for complexity. In so doing, you can make a powerful comment about the ethics of climbing Everest, and what that means to local Nepali communities as well as the political and economic impact that the influx of western money has brought about. Examples of films that work like that are Paul Haggis’s Oscar-winner Crash, PT Anderson’s Boogie Nights or Steven Soderbergh/Stephen Gaghan’s Traffic. All make powerful statements with multiple and often opposing viewpoints, thus broadening and strengthening their themes.
In my current script I use a form of sequential narrative, interlinking two storylines that shed light on the same story and theme at different times in the main character’s story. Pulp Fiction, Amores Perros or Babel do something similar, but in more obvious ways. Because my real-life main character is a very unreliable person and therefore more of a wildcard character, I also created a foil main character to uncover the story through the eyes of the audience. A good example for foil main character and wildcard main character would be The Scent of a Woman, with Al Pacino the unreliable wildcard and Chris O’Donnell the foil.
Going back to the Everest story, you could also quite easily use a flashback structure to tell the story. Imagine the 3 main characters all in hospital on the same ward, and now you go into individual flashbacks to tell their respective stories. This could be very powerful indeed. Good examples for this kind of structure would be Reservoir Dogs, The Social Network, 21 Grams or The Usual Suspects, although the latter has an added gimmick in the form of an unreliable narrator to complicate things further.
So my point is, after you feel you have in some way mastered conventional linear narrative structures, try and look at your story and see what treatment might best work for it. I know, this is always much easier said than done. I learned the hard way via many rewrites what works best for my current true story script, and even now one could argue there could be several more ways to tell it.
But as you start on a new story, just remember that old dictum content dictates form.
Oh, and before you start writing that Everest epic, there's actually a film coming out next year, starring non other than Jake Gyllenhaal, Josh Brolin and Keira Kneightly, about the tragic events that occured in 1996. As you can see, Jake pulls off that early hipster look just fine. And the title? Why, Everest, of course.
I'm halfway through the 5th draft of a true story screenplay. It's not a story that occurs over a few consecutive sequences that are fairly close to each other in time, this is a story that has crucial and inciting events happening all over the temporal map. I always knew I needed flashbacks but found there's a real knack to employing them most effectively.
The problem with flashbacks is that they take away from the immediacy of the story's present by offering what is essentially old information, so you need to work twice as hard at making them count visually and viscerally.
Everybody seems to have different theories about flashbacks, including the one about never to use them, but I think they are just as valid as any other narrative technique. But the one thing I have finally understood, and yes, slap me for not coming to that particular table earlier, is to use them only at the very height of an emotional peak. These I have fondly dubbed flashback jump-off points.
In earlier drafts of the same screenplay I'm slaving over currently, I often committed that cardinal sin of using only a brief introductory scene to lead straight into a flashback. There's nothing to be learned here, and it's predictable and boring.
Consider this:EXT - ARENA - DAY
Fou watches rider and horse circle the arena. Transfixed by the movement, he thinks of another time, another place.
EXT - MONGOLIA - FLASHBACK
Fou rides a horse across the steppe, the wind in his hair. He smiles. Cue music.
That's boring, cheesy and very telefilm. The first scene doesn't do anything other than give a visual trigger. I've done it loads myself, and cringe about it now.
How about this though (emotional can also mean physically emotional, i.e. effing
painful)EXT - ARENA - DAY
Fou gingerly slides his left foot into the stirrup – – swings his right leg over – – the flighty horse sidesteps – – he loses his balance, which sends the horse into a bucking frenzy. Fou flies through the air – – smashes into the wooden fence.
EXT - MONGOLIA - FLASHBACK
CRUNCH! Fou smashes facedown into gravel – – edge of a lake – – lifts his shredded face – – his horse disappears over the nearest hill, galloping like it's being ridden by the devil himself. Fou stumbles to his feet.
Etc etc. That sort of works for me. At least a lot better I think. Tony Gilroy is very good at this stuff. The Bourne Identity is full of mini-flashbacks, almost like lightnings in Bourne's brain to show how he is trying to regain his memory.EXT. HOTEL BRECKER -- NIGHT
BOURNE across the street. Staring at the hotel. Haunted.
As a POLICE SIREN edges closer through the empty streets --
We are a POV -- a stake-out -- watching the HOTEL across
the way -- The POV checks its watch -- checks the perimeter, the street deserted, foreboding --
Etc etc. I even love the way Gilroy uses exclamation-marks!
Flashbacks are really a device to reveal character, and motivation, much less story. It is almost a present-time moment in the head of your protag. If you can feel what they are thinking and find that heightened moment, you can then quite organically allow the reader a glimpse into the past, or even the future, as it were. So here are my 7 tips for effective flashbacks
- Always jump off at the highest emotional point possible
- Wait until you really really MUST reveal info. Hold off until at least a quarter into the script, or later still
- Show as little as possible, and quickly get out again
- No-one wants to see a movie because of the flashbacks. Keep them in check. Unless that actually IS your story, in which case, maybe rethink your approach.
- The longer you hold off, the more rewarding it'll be. The audience wants to know your secret, and once you've given them that, you're out of bargaining tools.
- Link a present problem with a past problem or solution, make it imperative, connect past and present.
- Do not simply plug a plot hole with a flashback, you need to move the story forward.
Most people I know swear a lot. Hell, I swear a lot. So why not use this to your advantage? Instead of dry terms like first, second or third act, you could try and use expletives.
Every story needs structure. When you watch a film or TV, a play or read a book, you want to be entertained, moved, shaken and stirred. For this to happen, the story needs momentum. It needs an engine to propel it forward. What's more, the best stories won't ever reveal that to you, they keep the structure hidden underneath a layer of physical and emotional action.
First this happened, then the other happened, and then, fucking hell, THAT happened. Can you believe this shit?
This, in simple terms is what you want to experience, and it's what you want to put into your story. The first time you attempt to tell a story you might not yet understand where its heart is, and where its head might go. So your structure might not ring true. It might feel off, like it has two heads and no guts. You'll think "I can't get my head around this story." And your story will invariably respond, "No fucking shit Sherlock, you've given me two heads and no guts." You'll have to re-look at it and figure out what the strongest lead-in moment could be, and how to concentrate on one head, and maybe save the other one for a different story. And the more stories you tell, the better your instincts will get for how to structure them.
In terms of structure, let me just say, I'm not hung up on the number of acts I use in a feature film — although it's slightly more prescriptive in TV writing. I often use around 5 acts. The pedant would argue that that's me using 3 acts and subdividing the 2nd act into 3 shorter ones. And yes, Pedant, you might be on to something there, but frankly, who the fuck are you anyway?
The above figure would loosely be a 3 act structure with an initial kick up the ass to get you going. And that's how I like to work, always always start with a bang.
Serve your story, not your structure
Don't start with structure. This is always tempting, and I've done that many times myself. But do that and you'll lose character, and story. Your structure serves your story, like it would serve the construction of a building. But you need to know what story you're trying to tell, and draw up the structure accordingly. A concert hall has the structure of the large area where the audience goes, high walls and ceilings for acoustics and a stage for the performers. In a thriller something bad has to happen, or the threat of it has to be present. Otherwise it's not a thriller. And to emphasize that in structure, you might play around with the beginning to really find the strongest and scariest lead-in possible.
Shut up, it's started!
This is what I call the James Bond moment. You hit the ground running fast, and let the reader find their feet until they catch up. Don't worry about losing them, they can go back and re-read if necessary. Better that than they are bored. The cleverest of these kick-up-the-ass openers are those that seem flashy and attention-seeking, only to be revealed later on as the head and heart of the story, or even the end for a circular structure. Ideally they're also the trigger that kicks off the story in the first place.
Here's the credit sequence of the original Italian Job. It eases you in leisurely and then grabs you by the throat. Visual storytelling at its best, and not one word is spoken.
This is the first inciting incident, the moment when you feel you're getting to know the characters and suddenly it all goes wrong.
Michael Mann is a master not only at writing and directing his own stuff, but also producing and editing it — thus keeping creative control throughout. And HEAT will probably always be his masterpiece (IMHO anyway). The inciting incident here comes in the shape of a sequence, with a clear opening and closing bracket. This sequence follows on from the opening credit sequence, and all the action builds organically until the closing bracket of the inciting incident (the end of the clip below).
The opening bracket happens when Wayngro joins the team. He jumps on the truck and the words "tight crew" are mentioned, of which he clearly isn't a part. Moments later, they go to work below:
The closing bracket of the inciting incident is the moment that Wayngro loses the plot and starts shooting people. This incident informs the whole rest of the film, and ties up Vincent's (Al Pacino) and Neil's (Robert De Niro) stories beautifully. Yep, Michael is the Mann.
In David O Russell's SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK the Fuck! moment comes at the end of act 2 with the 'juju' scene. Pat is slowly getting himself together, has started to dance with Tiffany, and in an effort to bond with his dad has gone to watch the Eagles game with his brother, when everything goes wrong. The Eagles lose, and Pat Sr. loses a lot of money. The ensuing big family argument throws all the balls up in the air, allegiances shift and suddenly it's all to play for again, with stakes doubled. A masterfully emotional character scene.
Jesus Fucking Christ!
In Tom Hooper's THE KINGS SPEECH that cathartic Jesus Fucking Christ! moment comes as the climax of act 3. The King has to finally deliver that speech he's been working up to all movie. He's left alone in the room with his speech therapist Logue. The scene is a mini version of the complete film, structured as it is with a clear — stuttering — beginning, then starting to loosen up until the King manages to speak fairly freely, guided by Logue throughout. A very rewarding climax.
Danny Boyle's 127 HOURS works up to the gruesome climax scene all the way from the start, as any good story should. A lot of films end on the climax or a few seconds after. HEAT does that.
In 127 Hours though, the climax is too gruesome and dicey to really be fully rewarding in and by itself, so is followed by a classic Phew! sequence that eases us out of the ordeal and Aoron Ralston back to safety. It's cinematic as well as incredibly personal, and only a few words are spoken. We've been through the ordeal with him, so words are the last thing we need now.