Screenwriting II — Week 11-12

May 5, 2014

 Greetings everyone,

In class we talked about your step outline, my comments, and your Final Exam  — a  REWRITE of your step outline based on the feedback from me you received via email and the comments from your groupmates on Blackboard.  You don’t have to follow our comments blindly, but read them carefully, see if you agree with them, and try to find dramatic and visual ways to address them. 

Some of you still struggle to understand the difference between SCENES that are BEATS and transitional/passing scenes.  This is important to remember: every BEAT / STEP is a scene, NOT every scene is a BEAT.John Truby’s (The Anatomy of Story http://books.google.com/books/about/The_Anatomy_of_Story.html?id=7Wy8G-8h_O0C)  has an interesting and useful advice regarding beats (his term for Step Outline / Beat Sheet is Scene Weave):

“The point of the scene weave is to get one last look at the overall architecture of the story before writing it. Therefore, don’t go into too much detail, because this will hide the structure. Try to describe each scene in one line. For example, a description of four scenes in The Godfather might look like this:

 -Michael saves the Don from assassination at the hospital.

-Michael accuses police captain McCluskey of working for Sollozzo. The Captain slugs him.

-Michael suggests that he kill the Captain and Sollozzo.

-Clemenza shows Michael how to execute Sollozzo and the Captain.”

Put a Structure Step next to a pivotal scene. For example:

Bombs falling. An airplane whooshes overhead, spraying fire. Jack gets off the ground starts to walk away, paying no attention to the mayhem around him. (CHARACTER REVELATION #2  or SECOND PLOT POINT or whatever it is).

Note that the Final /Extra Credit link is now active on Blackboard (left sidebar).  You’ll need to do a COVERAGE of a screenplay for your final take-home exam.  If you want to do an extra credit assignment,  choose a second screenplay (there are four uploaded, unproduced screenplays) on the page and cover it. We’ll talk more about the art of screenplay analysis / coverage in class.

Okay, now on to Shame.

 A colleague provided a link to a streaming video of the film, which you can see for FREE online:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HlyUC_pnL3c.  Regrettably, there are no subtitles in this video.  But since you’ve already seen the film, you will pick up many more interesting details on second viewing. And the quality of the beautiful  b&w cinematography by Sven Nykvist is much better than what we saw on the projector in class.

You guys are very discerning viewers and excellent critics. You’ve caught and understood a lot of nuances in the story and the relationship between Jan and Eve.  Even though this is not your typical love story, it is a love story nevertheless.  The lovers are together in the end, but they are miserable together, ashamed to be in the world, ashamed for what they have and have not done. Let’s look at Jan’s and Eva’s character arcs.

We introduce them on a peaceful farm,  hiding from the conflict that’s present in the cities. He’s an indecisive complainer. A rather weak man whose retreat form the city represents a sort of selfish retreat. “It’s better to know nothing,” says Jan. “We can only hope for the best.” Eve, on the other hand wants to know the “news” and is upset by Jan’s escapism, but is quickly distracted by the promise of having fish for dinner and good wine. In a way she too is complicit in the shame that she feels at the end of the film.

Both of them are sensitive people, classical musicians, artists who are supposed to help the world deal with pain. But as the war interferes in their lives, it not only changes the world around them but their emotional world and the relationship between them.

Here are few  important structural moments:

1. Jan and Eva visit their friend, the antique dealer, who’s about to go off to war. He’s wearing an ill-fitting uniform and represents the world that is no more, the world of yesterday, with its porcelain figurines and things of the past.  He disturbs the tranquility of the peace that Jan and Eva think they live in.  This scene starts the story and is the clearest inciting incident.

2. Jan and Eva see the dead parachutist in their backyard and are pounced upon by the rebels who tell them to leave at once. This is the first revelation (Plot Point 1 and the end of Act 1 — it happens about 30 minutes into the film).

3. The midpoint is clearly when both Jan and Eva are interrogated by the current, probably fascistic government. This is where the former mayor Colonel Jacobi saves from the concentration camp and send them home. The relationship between Eva and Jan are more strained now. She’s sick of his cowardice and feels that she has to protect the family, because he seems unable to protect them.  (Note that you may see other reason for the continuing strain in their relationship. This is a complex film and allows for multiple interpretations and requires multiple viewings).

4.  Plot Point II, which marks the end of Act II and comes right after Jan’s lowest point (apparent defeat / ordeal) when he finds Colonel’s money and realizes that Jan essentially “sold” herself to the Colonel. Why? To protect them?  Or maybe because she wants to assert herself with a “real” man, with someone who gets things done, with someone who has power and influence? Like in all Bergman movies, nothing is obvious.  Something not being obvious is different from something that’s confusing or not clear.  Bergman refuses to spoon-feed his audience and prefers that they work with his movies instead.  That’s what distinguishes art from mere entertainment.

5. The final battle is between Eva and Jan after Jan kills the young soldier and takes his boots. When crying she asks him “What did you do with him?” He pushes her away and is willing to go to the boat without her. She despises him now, but drags along because it’s the only way for her to survive.

6. Resolution. The scene in the boat, with dead bodies floating in the water. Bergman’s grim statement about the state of the world and our collective mental health.

The film has been accused by some critics for failing to represent a “real war”. But as Paisley Livingston in her book Ingmar Bergman and the Rituals of Art correctly states: “Bergman’s film is one of the few films…  which does not obscure the fundamental reciprocity of violence and the senseless identities of oppositional  parties. The film directly confronts the impossibility of distinguishing between good and bad forms of barbarism when barbarism implies the destruction of all.”

Watching the movie for the third time, I realized that in this film about musicians there’s no music on the soundtrack. It’s another important point that Bergman wanted to make without hitting us over the head with it.  If you want to add anything to the discussion about the film, please bring it up on Monday.

Your assignment for Monday:

A REWRITE of your entire step outline, based on my and your classmates’ comments.
DUE MONDAY, May 5th no later than 9:30am, in your respective folders on Blackboard.

READ the BREAKING BAD Pilot (Screenplays page). 

Start reading the screenplays and making notes now, so you don’t have to do it all at once later.

ak

 


Screenwriting II — Week 14

December 13, 2013

Hello everyone,

Well… This is my final post. Our last class was on Monday, Dec. 9th.  But it’s not over yet. Your Final Exam is due on Dec. 16th.

Fourteen weeks together.  I hope you’ve learned something. I know I did.  

On Monday we saw Unforgiven, written by David Webb Peoples.  I’m attaching an excellent essay — Unforgiven:  Anatomy of a Murderer —  written by William Beard. which discusses the complex themes and narrative structure of Unforgiven. I strongly recommend that you read it.

image

Unforgiven is an upside-down morality tale and a take on the theory of justice  in a form of a revisionist Western.  Before we talk about the dramatic structure of the film, here are a few elements to consider when you ponder the overall theme of the film (not an easy thing to do, which is what makes this film so great.)

1. Money and revenge. How are they connected?

2. The myth of the old west. Truth or fiction?

3. The importance of the subplot with English Bob and W.W. Beauchamp (the writer)

4. The “leaky” house Little Bill is building. A metaphor for our society?

The film doesn’t offer any easy answers. More important, it tries to conceal, disrupt and subvert any traditional approach to our understanding of that the theme of the film might be.

Let’s look at the dramatic architecture of the film using the Hero’s Journey model (see the image at the bottom of the page):

1. Ordinary World. 2. Call to Adventure. 3. Refusal of the call.
All three stages are introduced within the first 12 minutes of the film.  We see the saloon in Big Whiskey, WY where the prostitute gets cut up and where the final battle will take place. We meet Little Bill, the main antagonist. And then we introduce William Munny, our main character and his world.  Schofield Kid is the Herald.  But Munny refuses the call because he is no longer the man he used to be.

4. Crossing the First Threshold. The end of Act 1. William Munny decides to take the opportunity to make money, so he can take care of his children and his farm. Even if it requires going back to his old ways.  He decides to catch up with the Schofield Kid. But first, he needs an ally, someone he can talk to. Enter Ned Logan, who also serves as Munny’s mentor.  When Ned decides to join Munny on his journey, that’s Crossing the Threshold (End of Act 1).  Would William Munny go alone? Probably not.

Our main character is now leaving his ordinary world behind and entering the special, “magical world”.

5. Tests, Allies, Enemies.

The elements (storm, rain) and the Schofield Kid provide some of the opposition for Ned Logan and William Munny on the way to Big Whiskey.  Munny gets sick.

6. Subplot.  English Bob.  He’s brutally beaten by the Sheriff, Little Bill, and expelled from Big Whiskey. We now know what kind of person Little Bill is and what’s waiting for William Munny.

7. Approach to the Inmost Cave.
Vogler says that at this stage the hero often experiences setbacks while approaching the cave. He or she is torn apart by challenges.  She needs to get into the minds of those who stand in the way. She discovers s that if she can understand or empathize with them, the job of getting past them will be easier.

As a train carriage with the beaten and  humiliated  English Bob is leaving the town of Big Whiskey,  our hero and his allies — Ned Logan and the Schofield Kid — are entering the town.  Thunder and rain. We’re approaching the next step — the Ordeal.

8. The Ordeal (Midpoint).
“The hero stands in the deepest chamber of the inmost cave and faces a direct confrontation with his greatest fear,” says Vogler. No matter what the hero came for, it’s Death that now stares back at her. She is brought to the brink of death in a battle with a hostile force. The hero of every story is an initiate being introduced to the mysteries of life and death.  She must appear to die so she can be reborn, transformed.”

First, Munny Little Bill beats Munny so hard that he nearly kills him.  As he’s recovering, Munny confesses to Ned that he’s scared of dying.  But recovery has also brought a new wisdom with which Munny is ready to confront his enemies and get his reward.

9. Reward.
Munny is even more determined now to collect the bounty. He and his allies kill one of the cowboys.  But when Ned goes back home after the first killing, Munny and the Kid continue on their journey.  After the second cowboy is killed, one of the prostitutes brings them the reward money. She tells him that Little Bill killed Ned.  And we see Munny slowly going back to his old self — a murderous, whiskey-drinking outlaw.  How else could he face Little Bill?  Munny is now hellbent on revenge.  The end of of Act II.

10. The Road Back.
The hero wants to go back home with the elixir despite the trials that remain. But he realizes that the old ways are not effective anymore. “He gathers up what he has learned, stolen, or been granted and sets a new goal.”  Which leads to to…

11. Resurrection (The Final Showdown).
The shootout with Little Bill in the saloon, during which Munny executes Little Bill in cold blood.

12. Return with the Elixir.
The elixir is almost always metaphorical.  William Munny had to embrace his dark self in order to live a normal life? Perhaps. It is whatever you think it is.  But note that Munny doesn’t simply return to the life he had before his journey. His new life has to encompass all of the things he learned about himself on his journey.

how-and-why-vogler-journey

ak


Screenwriting II — Week 13

December 5, 2013

Greetings everyone,

On Monday we saw The Apartment, written by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond.  It is certainly one of the greatest screenplays ever written. Even if you think that it’s soft, outdated, or simply not “powerful” enough to entertain or move you, you can surely agree that it is a powerhouse craft-wise (and otherwise-wise :)). You can find the screenplay on the SCREENPLAYS page.

The-Apartment

As I was putting together a brief structural outline of the screenplay for you, I came across an excellent and thorough Hero’s Journey Analysis by Allen Palmer, an Australian Screenwriter and screenwriting teacher whose blog Cracking Yarns (http://www.crackingyarns.com.au/) I have been following for a couple of years now and  recommend that you do too.

With Allen’s permission I’m attaching the entire analysis, in PDF. Heros_Journey_Apartment
Let’s go over the major structural points we’ve been talking about throughout the semester.

ACT I

ORDINARY WORLD

Introducing C.C. Baxter in his boring world. Single and spineless.

The apartment. The Key. Why is he doing it? To move up the ladder at his firm.
What is the significance of a “key”?

Dr. Dreyfuss next door.  Is he Baxter’s mentor? Think about it. We’ll discuss it in class.

Meet Fran Kubelik, the elevator operator. Mr. Kirkeby says “No one has made any progress with Miss Kubelik. The INCITING INCIDENT / CALL TO ADVENTURE.

More confident now that Mr. Sheldrake (Ally / Shapeshifter) is on his side, Baxter asks Fran out.  That happens around 32 minutes into the film.  It’s a decision Baxter probably wouldn’t have made if Sheldrake hadn’t told Baxter that he was “executive material”.  TURNING POINT / ACT 1 BREAK / CROSSING THE THRESHOLD.

ACT II

Since The Apartment is a love story, the writers had to develop two central characters – Baxter and Fran.

Fran and Sheldrake. He lies to her, says he’s leaving his wife.
She still loves him.
Sheldrake’s secretary sees them leave.
Fran too CROSSES THE THRESHOLD by deciding to stay with Sheldrake.

Baxter gets stood up.

Tests, Allies, Enemies

Baxter has sold his soul to the Devil. He’s moving up in the company. He has his own office now.

Approaching the Inmost Cave

In ancient legend, a typical ‘innermost cave’ is the land of the dead or a labyrinth. It is the lair of the dread enemy where no help may be found and only deep courage will win through.

Baxter sees his reflection in Fran’s mirror.  It’s broken. “Makes me look the way I feel.”
Baxter is crushed.  This happens 55 minutes into the film. MIDPOINT.

The Ordeal / Hero’s lowest point

Baxter at a bar dancing with a flusie, drunk and miserable.
Fran is with Sheldrake at Baxter’s apartment. She’s crying.
She gives him a Christmas present. He gives her a hundred-dollar bill, like she was a prostitute.
Fran takes sleeping pills.

Note that both of them are involved in every major turning point – Act 1 Break,  Midpoint, Lowest Point,  etc.

On p.85 the theme is stated. “Why don’t you grow up, Baxter? Be a mensch. You what that means?  A human being.”  The doctor is a mentor, remember? Baxter needs to change.

Fran almost dies. Death and rebirth.

Kisses Baxter on the forehead. His reward for getting punched.

Baxter is happy. He will tell Sheldrake he’s taking Miss Kubelik off his hands.

ACT III

The Road Home.

Sheldrake has a surprise for Baxter. His wife kicked him out, so HE will take Fran off Baxter’s hands.

THE RESURRECTION / FINAL SHOWDOWN / CLIMAX

Baxter and Sheldrake.

Sorry. You’re not bringing anyone to the apartment

Especially not Miss Kubelik.

Baxter quits. He’s being a Mensch.

Fran and Sheldrake celebrating New Year’s Eve.

Sheldrake tells Fran that Baxter quit. “Said I couldn’t bring anyone to the apartment. Especially

not Miss Kubelik.

Fan runs. Baxter’s resurrection gave her the strength to be heroic herself.

RESOLUTION

I love you

Did you hear me, Miss Kubelik. I adore you.

Shut up and deal.

Your Assignment:

Start working on your Final Exam (a rewrite of the Step Outline).
Those of you interested in doing the extra-credit assignment, find it on Blackboard / Left Sidebar / Extra Credit.
Both the Final Exam and the Extra Credit assignment are due on Dec. 16th, no later than 9:30 am. NO EXCEPTIONS.

Monday, Dec. 9th is our last class.

See you then.

ak


Screenwriting II — Week 12

November 25, 2013

Greetings everyone,

Another great class. We talked about your step outline, my comments, and your Final Exam  — a  REWRITE of your step outline based on the feedback from me you received via email and the comments from your groupmates on Blackboard.  You don’t have to follow our comments blindly, but read them carefully, see if you agree with them, and try to find dramatic and visual ways to address them.

Some of you still struggle to understand the difference between SCENES that are BEATS and transitional/passing scenes.  This is important to remember: every BEAT / STEP is a scene, NOT every scene is a BEAT.John Truby (The Anatomy of Story http://books.google.com/books/about/The_Anatomy_of_Story.html?id=7Wy8G-8h_O0C)  has an interesting and useful advice regarding beats (his term for Step Outline / Beat Sheet is Scene Weave):

“The point of the scene weave is to get one last look at the overall architecture of the story before writing it. Therefore, don’t go into too much detail, because this will hide the structure. Try to describe each scene in one line. For example, a description of four scenes in The Godfather might look like this:

 -Michael saves the Don from assassination at the hospital.

-Michael accuses police captain McCluskey of working for Sollozzo. The Captain slugs him.

-Michael suggests that he kill the Captain and Sollozzo.

-Clemenza shows Michael how to execute Sollozzo and the Captain.”

Put a Structure Step next to a pivotal scene. For example:

Bombs falling. An airplane whooshes overhead, spraying fire. Jack gets off the ground starts to walk away, paying no attention to the mayhem around him. (CHARACTER REVELATION #2  or SECOND PLOT POINT or whatever it is).

Okay, now on to Shame.

shame

A colleague provided a link to a streaming video of the film, which you can see for FREE online:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HlyUC_pnL3c. You will pick up many more interesting details on second viewing.

You guys are very discerning viewers and excellent critics. You’ve caught and understood a lot of nuances in the story and the relationship between Jan and Eve.  Even though this is not your typical love story, it is a love story nevertheless.  The lovers are together in the end, but they are miserable together, ashamed to be in the world, ashamed for what they have and have not done. Let’s look at Jan’s and Eva’s character arcs.

We introduce them on a peaceful farm,  hiding from the conflict that’s present in the cities. He’s an indecisive complainer. A rather weak man whose retreat form the city represents a sort of selfish retreat. “It’s better to know nothing,” says Jan. “We can only hope for the best.” Eve, on the other hand wants to know the “news” and is upset by Jan’s escapism, but is quickly distracted by the promise of having fish for dinner and good wine. In a way she too is complicit in the shame that she feels at the end of the film.

Both of them are sensitive people, classical musicians, artists who are supposed to help the world deal with pain. But as the war interferes in their lives, it not only changes the world around them but their emotional world and the relationship between them.

Here are few  important structural moments:

1. Jan and Eva visit their friend, the antique dealer, who’s about to go off to war. He’s wearing an ill-fitting uniform and represents the world that is no more, the world of yesterday, with its porcelain figurines and things of the past.  He disturbs the tranquility of the peace that Jan and Eva think they live in.  This scene starts the story and is the clearest inciting incident.

2. Jan and Eva see the dead parachutist in their backyard and are pounced upon by the rebels who tell them to leave at once. This is the first revelation (Plot Point 1 and the end of Act 1 — it happens about 30 minutes into the film).

3. The midpoint is clearly when both Jan and Eva are interrogated by the current, probably fascistic government. This is where the former mayor Colonel Jacobi saves from the concentration camp and send them home. The relationship between Eva and Jan are more strained now. She’s sick of his cowardice and feels that she has to protect the family, because he seems unable to protect them.  (Note that you may see other reason for the continuing strain in their relationship. This is a complex film and allows for multiple interpretations and requires multiple viewings).

4.  Plot Point II, which marks the end of Act II and comes right after Jan’s lowest point (apparent defeat / ordeal) when he finds Colonel’s money and realizes that Jan essentially “sold” herself to the Colonel. Why? To protect them?  Or maybe because she wants to assert herself with a “real” man, with someone who gets things done, with someone who has power and influence? Like in all Bergman movies, nothing is obvious.  Something not being obvious is different from something that’s confusing or not clear.  Bergman refuses to spoon-feed his audience and prefers that they work with his movies instead.  That’s what distinguishes art from mere entertainment.

5. The final battle is between Eva and Jan after Jan kills the young soldier and takes his boots. When crying she asks him “What did you do with him?” He pushes her away and is willing to go to the boat without her. She despises him now, but drags along because it’s the only way for her to survive.

6. Resolution. The scene in the boat, with dead bodies floating in the water. Bergman’s grim statement about the state of the world and our collective mental health.

The film has been accused by some critics for failing to represent a “real war”. But as Paisley Livingston in her book Ingmar Bergman and the Rituals of Art correctly states: “Bergman’s film is one of the few films…  which does not obscure the fundamental reciprocity of violence and the senseless identities of oppositional  parties. The film directly confronts the impossibility of distinguishing between good and bad forms of barbarism when barbarism implies the destruction of all.”

Watching the movie for the third time, I realized that in this film about musicians there’s no music on the soundtrack. It’s another important point that Bergman wanted to make without hitting us over the head with it.  If you want to add anything to the discussion about the film, please bring it up on Monday.

No homework this week.  Relax and enjoy Thanksgiving.

ak


Screenwriting II — Week 11

November 21, 2013

Greetings,

A short post this week.

In class we analyzed the first act of Body Heat and Eve’s Bayou.  Did the writers use different techniques to introduce the main characters? What are the techniques?

I recommend that you see both films and read the screenplays (Body Heat is available on Blackboard).

Your Assignment:

Step Outline – Act III, Due Monday, November 25.

Be sure to comment on your groupmates’ work on Blackboard.

See you Monday.

ak


Screenwriting II — Week 6

October 18, 2013

Posted on: Friday, October 18, 2013

Hello everyone,

We had an interesting, albeit disturbing, phenomenon visiting our class on Tuesday. I’m curious to hear your impressions of Max Landis. Those of you who have not uploaded their synopses, do it now to get a grade. If you wait until Monday, I won’t be able to accept them.Your next assignment is The EIGHT SEQUENCES. We talked about it on Tuesday in class.  Below you will find some information on the
8  Sequence approach and how to write the sequences.

Here’s what you should be doing for Monday:

1. Continue to read Vogler (pp. 49-81). And be caught up on McKee. *Don’t forget about the quiz*
2. Work on your 8 Sequences (Due Oct. 28th)

Note that when you show up late, it is destructing for me and for the students. BE ON TIME.

Okay, now on to the 8 Sequence approach.  It was developed by a USC screenwriting professor Frank Daniel. Here’s what the screenwriter Neil Romanek says:

“Writer/director Frank Daniel was one of the world’s great screenwriting teachers. Director David Lynch said of him, “ I have to tell you he was my only teacher…He was a nobleminded and nonegoistic man, and no one understood the art of film making as he did.”
Frank Daniel believed that the key to good film story structure was the effective use of the sequence, a progression of scenes with its own dramatic tension and climax. He taught that every feature film is made up of 8 sequences and that each sequence serves a unique function in moving the story forward. Students of Daniel and his 8 sequence method have gone on to dominate the film industry, yet the understanding of the film sequence is still a prized specialty.”

The Eight Sequences

ACT I

SEQUENCE ONE -Status Quo &Point of Attack

Establishes the central character, his/her life, and the status quo and the world of the story. It usually ends with the POINT OF ATTACK or INCITING INCIDENT, but this plot point can sometimes appear

earlier in the first few minutes of the film.

SEQUENCE TWO – Predicament &Lock In

Sets up the predicament that will be central to the story, with first intimations of possible obstacles.The maintensionwill be established at the end of the act. The sequence ends when the main character is LOCKED IN the predicament, propelling him/her into a new direction to obtain his/her goal.

ACT II

SEQUENCE THREE – First Obstacle & Raising the Stakes

The first OBSTACLE to the central character is faced, and the beginning of the elimination of the alternatives begins, often a time where EXPOSITION left over from ACT I is brought out. Since our character is locked into the situation and can’t simply walk away, the stakes are higher – there is a lot more to lose.

SEQUENCE FOUR – First Culmination/Midpoint

A higher OBSTACLE, the principle of RISING ACTION is brought in and builds to the FIRST CULMINATION, which usually parallels the RESOLUTION of the film. If the story is a tragedy and our hero dies, then the first culmination (or midpoint) should be a low point for our character. If,however, our hero wins in the end of the film, then sequence four should end with him winning in some way.

SEQUENCE FIVE -Subplot & Rising Action

The SECOND ACT SAG can set in at this point if we don’t have a strong SUBPLOT to take the ball for a while. We still want RISING ACTION, but we’re not ready for the MAIN CULMINATION yet.

SEQUENCE SIX – Main Culmination/End of Act Two

The build-up to the MAIN CULMINATION – back to the main story line with a vengeance. The highest obstacle, the last alternative, the highest or lowest moment and the end of our main tension come at this point. But we get the first inklings of the new tension that will carry us through the third act.

Note: Since the midpoint and ending are paralleled, the PLOT POINT at the end of act two must be at a polar opposite of those points. So if our hero wins at the midpoint and at the end of the film, then she must have her lowest point here.

ACT III

SEQUENCE SEVEN – New Tension &Twist

The full yet simple, brief establishment of the third act tension with its requisite exposition. Simpler,faster in nearly all ways, with rapid, short scenes and no real elaborate set-ups. The TWIST can end this sequence or come at the start of the eighth sequence.

SEQUENCE EIGHT

Hell-bent for the RESOLUTION. Clarity is important. If they turn left, all is well, if they go right, the world as we know it ends. Not that we don’t have complex emotions or ideas about what it all amounts to, but at this point we crave clarity. Will he get the girl, defuse the bomb, turn in his murderous brother and escape from the sinking boat surrounded by sharks?

This Sequence Outline is NOT an absolute formula or perfect recipe to building a feature script, but it is something to work from. Because each script is a prototype: new, unique, custom-made just for its own story.

Introduction To Sequence Structure

April 12th, 2010

(this article originally appeared at the screenwriting

website Twelvepoint.com, March 2010)

I always pat myself on the back for having written a great scene, but writing a great scene doesn’t help you tell a great story any more than getting a great shot helps you make a great film. What makes a shot “great” is what’s on either side of it, its relationship to the larger assemblage of shots. What makes a scene great is how it plays against the scenes before and after it. A scene, no matter how I feel about it, is only useful insofar as it contributes to a larger whole, and that whole is its big brother, the ‘sequence’. If you’ve never heard of sequences and are now feeling a bit disoriented in the story anatomy hierarchy, just remember: shots make up scenes; scenes make up sequences; sequences make up acts and acts, as we all know, make up movies.

Of all those building blocks, I would argue that it’s the sequence, not the scene or the revered act, which is the most important one in the screenwriter’s toolkit, and the one he or she must come to understand completely and intuitively. Yet sequences are not well understood by most writers, beyond a vague sense that a sequence is a few scenes stitched together for some kind of common purpose. What’s a good definition of a sequence? Here’s mine: A sequence is a unit of story structure composed of a series of scenes with a coherent dramatic spine. It begins when a character is placed in a state of uncertainty or imbalance – i.e., when the hero has a big problem. It ends when that problem is resolved and – and here’s the key – the solution to that problem creates another, further problem that then begins a new sequence. So a sequence begins when a character is confronted with a crisis – and a crisis is any situation in which you can’t say, ‘Let’s just forget the whole thing’ – and it concludes when that crisis is resolved in favour of a new crisis. When a sequence completely resolves or eliminates the central problem that began the whole story, then the movie is over. A master storyteller is one who leads us to believe that each sequence will be the one that will finally resolve or defuse the main conflict of the story, that will solve all the character’s problems, and then surprises us, frustrates us, thrills us, by delivering the complete opposite: an even greater complication that draws us into a new sequence. Each sequence has a beginning, a middle and an end. Or to frame it in writer’s language, an inciting incident, a rising action and a climax. You can even think of each sequence as having its own mini-story arc. LA-based screenwriting teacher, Chris Soth, calls his seminars on sequence structure, the ‘ mini-movie method’ and encourages students to treat each sequence as if it were a short movie unto itself – not a bad suggestion if you don’t take it too literally.

Some screenwriters will construct a ‘beat sheet’, a kind of outline, for their scripts and often what they’re doing, though most amateur writers wouldn’t think of it in this way, is flailing around in the dark trying to find what the sequences are. When there are troubles with a screenplay’s act structure, the real fault can often be found in its sequence structure. In my own writing, when the story feels adrift and vague – or when Act II just isn’t working – the cause is almost always a lack of clarity in the sequences that make up the film. I run into the trap of overconcentrating on individual scenes, stringing them together like a child’s bead project, without noting how they contribute to making up a larger sequence, and time and time again I have to look at the bigger picture. Many screenwriters who are aware of and consciously manage sequence structure in their work have been influenced by the teachings of Frantisek ‘Frank’ Daniel who was Dean of the School Of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California in the late 1980s. This is where I learned about sequence structure, alongside many other media creatives whose names are more familiar to you than mine. Frank Daniel delighted packed lecture halls with his analyses of a wide range of films in terms of their sequence structures and many of us undergraduates would sneak into the back of his graduate level courses in order to learn something we knew was invaluable for our craft. Frank insisted that every complete film story has exactly eight sequences, usually two sequences in the first act, four in the second, and two in the third act. Some say the origin of this eight-sequence template is the division of early feature length movies into reels, physical reels of film, usually around ten minutes long. Reels, typically with two projectors operating side by side, would have to be switched during a showing, and writing films in ten-minute, cohesive sequences then helped keep each dramatic beat of the story contained within its own reel. I have my doubts about this. I tend to think it worked the other way around. I think the reason a ten-minute reel was used in the first place was because that was – due to some mysterious quirk of the human emotional makeup – a satisfying length for a single dramatic beat to be introduced and progress to a climax. I believe the storytelling element came first and the technology followed. I do not have the courage to say that every feature film always has eight sequences, although Frank Daniel used to amaze us by somehow making every film fit the structure. Sticking to a strict eight-sequence feature film model though can be very helpful in trouble-shooting. It encourages us to look more deeply when a story appears to have too few sequences, or to compress or cut when confronted by a plethora of sequences. The world is not literally divided into lines of latitude and longitude but it helps to pretend that it is. Generally speaking, the better written a movie is, the clearer its sequence structure will be, and vice versa, the clearer your sequence structure is, the better your story will probably be. Films dominated by strong physical action, adventure movies and musicals, tend to have a more transparent sequence structure and lend themselves to easier analysis. Both action movies and musicals will often have set pieces at the climax of each sequence. Solid sequences and the writer’s facility with them are what make some three-hour movies seem to fly by and some 80-minute movies last eons. Dances with Wolves (1990) is the second longest movie to win the Best Picture Oscar yet it flies by largely because of its rock-solid sequences, each with a clearly-defined tension that leads into the next sequence. On the other side of the coin, loose or vague sequence structure is usually to blame in that bizarre, yet frequent, phenomenon of a movie that is packed with action but is utterly boring and exhausting. Ask a friend to list their favorite movies and you’ll get a diverse set of responses but it’s a good bet that most of the choices will have in common clear, strong sequence structure, and the very best will have sequences that keep surprising us and keep us guessing, and play in contrast or in sympathy with each other like find symphonic music. I am an on again/off again David Lynch fan. I can never make up my mind whether I love his work or not. One thing that keeps me coming back though is his solid sequence structure. I may not like what he’s doing on the screen all the time but it’s always presented in a structurally rock-solid, coherent way if you look at the skeleton under the strange and fearsome flesh he puts on top of it. Imagine my surprise – lack of surprise, it should be – to learn when researching this article that David Lynch was a devoted student of Frank Daniel.  How a story is dissected into sequences may depend very much on the analyst’p s point of view. Like an isolated, non-technical civilisation that doesn’1 t distinguish yellow from orange, for example, one analyst might see one large sequence where another sees two shorter sequences. I’ve included below a simplified outline of the sequence structure of Star Wars: Episode IV (1977), indicating the problem that begins each sequence, and the resolution that ends it and launches us into the next sequence. You might disagree with my breakdown, which is good. Do your own analyses of as many films as you can and don’t worry too much about trying to force a movie into eight sequences. The key is to locate exactly where each new dramatic tension begins, note how the character tries to solve that tension, and then to find exactly where that tension is replaced by a new one.

STAR WARS 8 SEQUENCE BREAKDOWN

SEQUENCE 1

• Problem: The Empire is about to retrieve the Death Star plans,

capture the Princess and send R2D2 and C3PO to the spice

mines of Kessel – in short, the movie is about to be over.

• Complicated by: the droids are captured by Jawas.

• Resolution: The droids find safety with Owen Lars and his

nephew Luke.

SEQUENCE 2

• Problem: Luke find a mysterious message from an important

person begging for help from someone he might know.

• Complicated by: R2D2 runs away.

• Resolution: Luke decides to go with Ben Kenobi to Alderaan.

SEQUENCE 3

• Problem: Luke and Ben have to find a way to get to Alderaan at

Mos Eisley Spaceport.

• Complicated by: Imperial forces are searching the city for them.

• Resolution: The Millennium Falcon escapes Mos Eisley and

heads for Alderaan.

SEQUENCE 4

• Problem: Fly the droids and the plans safely to Alderaan.

• Complicated by: Alderaan is destroyed.

• Resolution: Our heroes are captured by the Death Star.

SEQUENCE 5

• Problem: They discover the Princess is aboard the Death Star.

• Complicated by: The Princess is scheduled to be terminated.

• Resolution: The Princess is rescued.

SEQUENCE 6

• Problem: They must take the most important person in the

galaxy to safety, starting from the bottom of a garbage masher.

• Complicated by: Legions of single-minded fanatics are trying to

kill them.

• Resolution: They escape the Death Star and the Death Star’s

sentry ships.

SEQUENCE 7

• Problem: The Death star is following the heroes to the Rebel

Base.

• Complicated by: Han is abandoning them.

• Resolution: Luke and the rebels fly out to destroy the Death

Star.

SEQUENCE 8

• Problem: The Death Star is going to destroy the Rebel Base

and end the rebellion forever.

• Complicated by: Darth Vader engages the rebel pilots in his

own ship.

• Resolution: Luke destroys the Death Star and becomes the

hero of the galaxy.

Let me know if you have questions.

ak


Screenwriting II — Week 3

September 25, 2013

Posted on: Wednesday, September 25, 2013

 Hello everyone,Those of you who pitched on Monday — good job. Those who will pitch next Monday —  concentrate on the main story and your main character. The more focused your pitch is, the better feedback we can offer you.

You don’t have to know your story form the beginning to the end. But I do want you to at least have an idea how you want to end it and where you want your character to end up. The details may change; they often do. But the idea — what you want to say — should stay the same, unless you want to write a new story. As for a “new story”, if you want to CHANGE the story you thought you’d be working on, do it now. By the end of next week you’re locked into your story.

Some of you asked me if he/she could pitch several stories. It’s a good idea, in general, but there’s not enough time to that in class. So if you have several ideas, you are welcome to email them to me or post them on Blackboard in your group’s page.

Write the biography of your main character. This is not an official assignment and you don’t need to upload it to Blackboard.
But I urge you to do this exercise. It will be of great help later on. Here are some questions you may want to consider:

Character Biography.pdf

Also, we talked abut story paradigms  or models.

Here’s the paradigms for McKee (Story)

1
And here’s one for Vogler (Writer’s Journey) based on Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey”.

2

We will talk more about the elements in Hero’s Journey later in the semester.


YOUR ASSIGNMENT FOR MONDAY

Comment on your groupmates’ pitches on Blackboard.
Here’s the list of those student who pitched on Monday:

Philip, Alba, Jamual, Daniel, John-Carlo, Patrick. Hopefully the rest of the class will pitch their stories next week.

Read VOGLER-Writer’s Journey (pp.23-49)

Read AVATAR SCREENPLAY (on Blackboard). The story follows the myth structure very closely.
I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying until you’re sick of it (because it’s the truth): If you want to learn how to write,
read and analyze as many screenplay as you can get your hands on. You will learn to identify what works, what doesn’t, and why.

Pitching:  be prepared to pitch your stories. Try to avoid subplots and backstories. Concentrate only on the heart of your main story. Who is your main character? What is her desire? Who is her opponent? What does she do to overcome obstacles? What happens to her in the end? Does she grow as a person and how?

Questions? Email me:
akustanovich@brooklyn.cuny.edu

See you Monday.