Screenwriting 3/4 — Hero’s Lowest Point — Act II

March 31, 2013

Greetings all,

I”ve used the term Apparent Defeat in this course. Most of you know what it means (especially the students who took Screenwriting II with me, since one of the required texts for that course was John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story. The term “apparent defeat” was coined by Truby.)

There’s also an APPARENT VICTORY if your story is a tragedy. But we won’t get into this now.

As you all know by now, “apparent defeat” your hero’s lowest point. It’s the ORDEAL in the myth structure. It’s one of the important stops in the roller coaster ride of your hero.

It happens toward the end of Act II, about two thirds of the way into the film. Your hero believes she’s lost and the opponent has won. Why do we need an apparent defeat? Because we love to see our hero come back with a vengeance and win. The victory may be small, but it’s an important one for hero, without which she cannot continue living her life.

John Truby, in The Anatomy of Story, reminds us that “… the apparent defeat is not a small or temporary setback.  It should be an explosive, devastating moment for the hero. The audience must really feel the hero is finished.  Although your hero should have many setbacks throughout her journey, she should have only one moment that clearly seems to be the end. Otherwise, the story will lack shape and dramatic power. ”

See if you can work in an apparent defeat into your story.
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And here’s a treat. David Mamet interviewed by the film critic Elvis Mitchell. Mamet mentions many story points we’ve been discussing in class. Audio only. About 28 minutes long.

http://www.kcrw.com/etc/programs/tt/tt130327david_mamet_phil_spe?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+kcrw%2Ftt+%28The+Treatment%29
See you in a week.

ak

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Screenwriting 3/4 — Dialogue Writing Tips for a Fiction Writing Teacher

March 31, 2013

Although fiction writing is fundamentally different from screenwriting, some of these points apply.

Notice how similar the fiction writer’s approach is to a screenwriter’s.

TIP 1 – Show, Don’t Tell
Remember that dialogue is part of the action of fiction. Dialogue doesn’t tell the readers about the characters, it shows who characters are. Four key qualities of good dialogue are that it: 1) keeps the story or novel going; 2) reveals the characters; 3) is believable; 4) interests the readers.

2 – Listen To Yourself
The first and best source of the dialogue you write is your own speech. You’ve been practicing dialogue all your life. You speak in a range of emotions – anger, fear, love, loathing, joy and revulsion. You speak in a variety of speech levels – formal and informal, standard and slang, curses and expletives you haven’t deleted. Your speech also includes a mix of jargons reflecting your work and interests – baking, banking, bowling, gardening, garage bands, plumbing and physics.

3 – Listen To Others
Use the dialogue of other people. Become more aware of how other people speak, how they emphasize certain words and swallow others. Listen to the sound of their voices. Are they deep or high and piping? Are they rough or syrupy? Are they questioning even when they’re not asking a question? or do they chuckle though they’re not saying anything funny? Listen!

4 – Read
Use the dialogue written by others. No, this doesn’t mean you copy out their dialogue. It means take a close look to find out what it is that you particularly love about the dialogue in favorite books. Try to achieve that with the speech of your own characters. The same goes for dialogue in plays, films and TV that catches your ear.

5 – Read Out Loud
After writing a scene of dialogue, put it away for a while. Then go back and don’t just re-read it, read it out loud! That’s right: read it out at the speed and with the emotional tone you would as if you were the character speaking it. Reading your dialogue out loud helps you to hear if it works.

6 – Supportive Narrative
How much supporting narrative should you write for your dialogue? Enough. In other words, you can’t decide before you actually write it. Supporting narrative is used for identifying the speaker, indicating speech tone, describing the speaker or listener’s facial or bodily expression or action, stating unspoken thoughts or expressing the narrator’s reflections or observations. Some dialogue may have no supporting narrative, some may have more narrative than there is dialogue.

7 – Vary Forms
Dialogue can be used in other forms than in scenes and narration to enliven fiction. It can be used in monologues, that is, a character’s very long speech (not first-person narration), in which part of it can be shorter bits of dialogue. Dialogue can also occur in thoughts, as when a character remembers or imagines conversation. And dialogue can be presented in letter, in diaries, as telephone conversations, voice messages, even as emails or texts (she sd u r a fool bt u dnt fool me).

8 – Indirect Speech
Use indirect speech, for example – She said that I was a fool – as a good way to shift smoothly from narrative to dialogue or from dialogue back into narrative.

9 – Foreign Dialogue
When you present a foreigner speaking English, remember that a little bit of accent, or odd grammar, or lack of idiomatic speech goes a long way. As for presenting foreign dialogue, either be direct: She said in Estonian, ‘You are a fool,’ or write it in Estonian and have a character translate it. You can also use character reaction and comment to give your reader a good idea of its general meaning.

10 – Beware Of Slang
Remember that nothing dates as fast as slang. So if you’re writing a scene in which two fourteen year olds are talking to each other and there’s nobody around of that age, do a little research. The slang you used when you were fourteen in the 1980’s or 90’s is pretty much a dead language!


Posts from Blackboard / Screenwriting 3/4, Spring 2013

March 14, 2013

In class we’ll discuss scene construction and dialogue.

Here’s some useful info about scene construction from John Truby’s book The Anatomy of Story.  construction-scene.pdf

And here’ s a really terrific video of John August reworking a scene to make the dialogue and description better. Check it out:

http://johnaugust.com/2010/writing-better-dialogue

And a Writing Great Dialogue article by Rob Tobin posted on the Writers Store blog:

http://www.writersstore.com/writing-great-dialogue/

See you in class.

ak

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A few tips from Billy Wilder:

Billy Wilder, the Austrian born American writer / director was probably one of the greatest visual storytellers in the history of cinema.

This is taken from a post written by Scott Beggs from http://www.filmschoolrejects.com.

Do Something In Your Story

“I have ten commandments. The first nine are, thou shalt not bore. The tenth is, thou shalt have right of final cut.”

How are you going to grab someone by the throat again? Do something. Anything.

When I was reading scripts, the most common problem I saw among aspiring writers was a crushing inability to have anything happen in their screenplays. They would be filled with scenery and characters doing things that people do, but there was no plot. No forward momentum. No goals or obstacles. They were boring. Of course, the price to avoid boredom is to do away with safety. Fortunately, it’s just fictional characters that have to be put in danger.

To dig into Wilder’s scripts or his finished films, it’s easy to see his aversion to boredom. Something is always happening, whether it’s physical or emotional. As a result, his movies feel full and vibrant. They were vacations where the world seemed energetic and alive. Men have to dress in women’s clothing to avoid being murdered by the mob, or a woman wants her husband dead but needs it to look like an accident, or a man gets life-alteringly drunk one weekend. Does any of that sound safe? No. Does it sound boring?

Get Lucky

In receiving his Irving G. Thalberg Award, he thanked the necessary Academy affiliates and his fans, and then proceeded to thank an American consulate representative in Mexicali, Mexico. During the rise of Hitler in Germany, Wilder “got lucky” and sold a story which brought him on a visitor’s visa to the United States. After six months, he was to leave the country, but he didn’t want to, so he had to get an immigration visa. Which means temporarily leaving the country. Which means a road trip to Mexico.

The rest is a stirring story set up perfectly by a master. He wants to thank the one person who made it possible for him to be there that night, but he can’t remember that person’s name? That’s the kind of set up that demands an explanation. Wilder is pretty damned good at this.

But luck is definitely a factor. Wilder once echoed the sentiment that hindsight is 20/20, but it’s in looking at the past that we can see all the forks in the road that could have gone the other way. In a darker universe, Wilder might have become a statistic of the Holocaust; he might have been denied re-entry into the country; he might have never sold that first story to begin with.

He had a towering talent, but it’s nice to know he gave credit to a little bit of luck along the way as well.

What Have We Learned

There’s a fearlessness to Wilder’s output. He seemed comfortable taking on humor and dire straights alike, often in the same movie. More than anything though, he created stories born from a twisting of situations.

It’s easy to think of “high concept” as a dirty phrase, and it’s often used in the pejorative sense to describe a movie that’s narratively too easy, but Wilder excelled at high concept movies that had deeper emotions embedded within. He was no wandering navel-gazer, but he crafted commercially viable, often complex work that asked and raised questions of humanity. And he did it all without pretense.

Plus, he rocked giant, square glasses. Which is probably the true source of his power.

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David Mamet’s Memo to the Writer’s of The Unit

Posted on: Sunday, March 3, 2013

A friend forwarded this memo to me not too long ago. We talk about the same points every time wee meet. Read them, memorize them, apply them in your writing.

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CBS’s drama The Unit, about the lives of the highly trained members of a top-secret military division, was canceled last year, but a memo to its writing staff from its executive producer David Mamet has just surfaced online. (The source appears to be the online writing collective Ink Canada.) If you think you know where this is heading, you might be wrong:

Besides the fact that it’s written in all-caps, there’s nothing particularly ranty, pejorative or potty-mouthed about it. Rather, Mamet lays down an extremely sensible case for what makes good television, imploring them to avoid expository writing for what he characterizes as authentic “drama.” Along the way, he refers repeatedly to the “blue-suited penguins” (probably the copious-note-givers at the network), while passing along some very useful advice (“any time two characters are talking about a third, the scene is a crock of shit”) and helpful writing exercises (“pretend the characters can’t speak and write a silent movie”). Screenwriters, take note: You may think you knew this already, but there’s nothing like Mamet for a good kick-in-the-ass reminder.

“TO THE WRITERS OF THE UNIT

GREETINGS.

AS WE LEARN HOW TO WRITE THIS SHOW, A RECURRING PROBLEM BECOMES CLEAR.

THE PROBLEM IS THIS: TO DIFFERENTIATE BETWEEN DRAMA AND NON-DRAMA. LET ME BREAK-IT-DOWN-NOW.

EVERYONE IN CREATION IS SCREAMING AT US TO MAKE THE SHOW CLEAR. WE ARE TASKED WITH, IT SEEMS, CRAMMING A SHITLOAD OF INFORMATION INTO A LITTLE BIT OF TIME.

OUR FRIENDS. THE PENGUINS, THINK THAT WE, THEREFORE, ARE EMPLOYED TO COMMUNICATE INFORMATION — AND, SO, AT TIMES, IT SEEMS TO US.

BUT NOTE:THE AUDIENCE WILL NOT TUNE IN TO WATCH INFORMATION. YOU WOULDN’T, I WOULDN’T. NO ONE WOULD OR WILL. THE AUDIENCE WILL ONLY TUNE IN AND STAY TUNED TO WATCH DRAMA.

QUESTION:WHAT IS DRAMA? DRAMA, AGAIN, IS THE QUEST OF THE HERO TO OVERCOME THOSE THINGS WHICH PREVENT HIM FROM ACHIEVING A SPECIFIC, ACUTE GOAL.

SO: WE, THE WRITERS, MUST ASK OURSELVES OF EVERY SCENE THESE THREE QUESTIONS.

1) WHO WANTS WHAT?

2) WHAT HAPPENS IF HER DON’T GET IT?

3) WHY NOW?

THE ANSWERS TO THESE QUESTIONS ARE LITMUS PAPER. APPLY THEM, AND THEIR ANSWER WILL TELL YOU IF THE SCENE IS DRAMATIC OR NOT.

IF THE SCENE IS NOT DRAMATICALLY WRITTEN, IT WILL NOT BE DRAMATICALLY ACTED.

THERE IS NO MAGIC FAIRY DUST WHICH WILL MAKE A BORING, USELESS, REDUNDANT, OR MERELY INFORMATIVE SCENE AFTER IT LEAVES YOUR TYPEWRITER. YOU THE WRITERS, ARE IN CHARGE OF MAKING SURE EVERY SCENE IS DRAMATIC.

THIS MEANS ALL THE “LITTLE” EXPOSITIONAL SCENES OF TWO PEOPLE TALKING ABOUT A THIRD. THIS BUSHWAH (AND WE ALL TEND TO WRITE IT ON THE FIRST DRAFT) IS LESS THAN USELESS, SHOULD IT FINALLY, GOD FORBID, GET FILMED.

IF THE SCENE BORES YOU WHEN YOU READ IT, REST ASSURED IT WILL BORE THE ACTORS, AND WILL, THEN, BORE THE AUDIENCE, AND WE’RE ALL GOING TO BE BACK IN THE BREADLINE.

SOMEONE HAS TO MAKE THE SCENE DRAMATIC. IT IS NOT THE ACTORS JOB (THE ACTORS JOB IS TO BE TRUTHFUL). IT IS NOT THE DIRECTORS JOB. HIS OR HER JOB IS TO FILM IT STRAIGHTFORWARDLY AND REMIND THE ACTORS TO TALK FAST. IT IS YOUR JOB.

EVERY SCENE MUST BE DRAMATIC. THAT MEANS: THE MAIN CHARACTER MUST HAVE A SIMPLE, STRAIGHTFORWARD, PRESSING NEED WHICH IMPELS HIM OR HER TO SHOW UP IN THE SCENE.

THIS NEED IS WHY THEY CAME. IT IS WHAT THE SCENE IS ABOUT. THEIR ATTEMPT TO GET THIS NEED MET WILL LEAD, AT THE END OF THE SCENE,TO FAILURE – THIS IS HOW THE SCENE IS OVER. IT, THIS FAILURE, WILL, THEN, OF NECESSITY, PROPEL US INTO THENEXT SCENE.

ALL THESE ATTEMPTS, TAKEN TOGETHER, WILL, OVER THE COURSE OF THE EPISODE, CONSTITUTE THE PLOT.

ANY SCENE, THUS, WHICH DOES NOT BOTH ADVANCE THE PLOT, AND STANDALONE (THAT IS, DRAMATICALLY, BY ITSELF, ON ITS OWN MERITS) IS EITHER SUPERFLUOUS, OR INCORRECTLY WRITTEN.

YES BUT YES BUT YES BUT, YOU SAY: WHAT ABOUT THE NECESSITY OF WRITING IN ALL THAT “INFORMATION?”

AND I RESPOND “FIGURE IT OUT” ANY DICKHEAD WITH A BLUESUIT CAN BE (AND IS) TAUGHT TO SAY “MAKE IT CLEARER”, AND “I WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT HIM”.

WHEN YOU’VE MADE IT SO CLEAR THAT EVEN THIS BLUESUITED PENGUIN IS HAPPY, BOTH YOU AND HE OR SHE WILL BE OUT OF A JOB.

THE JOB OF THE DRAMATIST IS TO MAKE THE AUDIENCE WONDER WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.NOT TO EXPLAIN TO THEM WHAT JUST HAPPENED, OR TO*SUGGEST* TO THEM WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.

ANY DICKHEAD, AS ABOVE, CAN WRITE, “BUT, JIM, IF WE DON’T ASSASSINATE THE PRIME MINISTER IN THE NEXT SCENE, ALL EUROPE WILL BE ENGULFED IN FLAME”

WE ARE NOT GETTING PAID TO REALIZE THAT THE AUDIENCE NEEDS THIS INFORMATION TO UNDERSTAND THE NEXT SCENE, BUT TO FIGURE OUT HOW TO WRITE THE SCENE BEFORE US SUCH THAT THE AUDIENCE WILL BE INTERESTED IN WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.

YES BUT, YES BUT YES BUT YOU REITERATE.

AND I RESPOND FIGURE IT OUT.

HOW DOES ONE STRIKE THE BALANCE BETWEEN WITHHOLDING AND VOUCHSAFING INFORMATION? THAT IS THE ESSENTIAL TASK OF THE DRAMATIST. AND THE ABILITY TODO THAT IS WHAT SEPARATES YOU FROM THE LESSER SPECIES IN THEIR BLUE SUITS.

FIGURE IT OUT.

START, EVERY TIME, WITH THIS INVIOLABLE RULE: THE SCENE MUST BE DRAMATIC. it must start because the hero HAS A PROBLEM, AND IT MUST CULMINATE WITH THE HERO FINDING HIM OR HERSELF EITHER THWARTED OR EDUCATED THAT ANOTHER WAY EXISTS.

LOOK AT YOUR LOG LINES. ANY LOGLINE READING “BOB AND SUE DISCUSS…” IS NOT DESCRIBING A DRAMATIC SCENE.

PLEASE NOTE THAT OUR OUTLINES ARE, GENERALLY, SPECTACULAR. THE DRAMA FLOWS OUT BETWEEN THE OUTLINE AND THE FIRST DRAFT.

THINK LIKE A FILMMAKER RATHER THAN A FUNCTIONARY, BECAUSE, IN TRUTH, YOU ARE MAKING THE FILM. WHAT YOU WRITE, THEY WILL SHOOT.

HERE ARE THE DANGER SIGNALS. ANY TIME TWO CHARACTERS ARE TALKING ABOUT A THIRD, THE SCENE IS A CROCK OF SHIT.

ANY TIME ANY CHARACTER IS SAYING TO ANOTHER “AS YOU KNOW”, THAT IS, TELLING ANOTHER CHARACTER WHAT YOU, THE WRITER, NEED THE AUDIENCE TO KNOW, THE SCENE IS A CROCK OF SHIT.

DO NOT WRITE A CROCK OF SHIT. WRITE A RIPPING THREE, FOUR, SEVEN MINUTE SCENE WHICH MOVES THE STORY ALONG, AND YOU CAN, VERY SOON, BUY A HOUSE IN BEL AIRAND HIRE SOMEONE TO LIVE THERE FOR YOU.

REMEMBER YOU ARE WRITING FOR A VISUAL MEDIUM. MOST TELEVISION WRITING, OURS INCLUDED, SOUNDS LIKE RADIO. THE CAMERA CAN DO THE EXPLAINING FOR YOU.LET IT. WHAT ARE THE CHARACTERS DOING -*LITERALLY*. WHAT ARE THEY HANDLING, WHAT ARE THEY READING. WHAT ARE THEY WATCHING ON TELEVISION, WHAT ARE THEY ARE SEEING.

IF YOU PRETEND THE CHARACTERS CANT SPEAK, AND WRITE A SILENT MOVIE, YOU WILL BE WRITING GREAT DRAMA.

IF YOU DEPRIVE YOURSELF OF THE CRUTCH OF NARRATION, EXPOSITION,INDEED, OFSPEECH. YOU WILL BE FORGED TO WORK IN A NEW MEDIUM – TELLING THE STORY IN PICTURES (ALSO KNOWN AS SCREENWRITING)

THIS IS A NEW SKILL. NO ONE DOES IT NATURALLY. YOU CAN TRAIN YOURSELVES TO DO IT, BUT YOU NEED TO START.

I CLOSE WITH THE ONE THOUGHT: LOOK AT THE SCENE AND ASK YOURSELF “IS IT DRAMATIC? IS IT ESSENTIAL? DOES IT ADVANCE THE PLOT?

ANSWER TRUTHFULLY.

IF THE ANSWER IS “NO” WRITE IT AGAIN OR THROW IT OUT. IF YOU’VE GOT ANY QUESTIONS, CALL ME UP.

LOVE, DAVE MAMET

SANTA MONICA 19 OCTO 05

(IT IS NOT YOUR RESPONSIBILITY TO KNOW THE ANSWERS, BUT IT IS YOUR, AND MY, RESPONSIBILITY TO KNOW AND TO ASK THE RIGHT Questions OVER AND OVER. UNTIL IT BECOMES SECOND NATURE. I BELIEVE THEY ARE LISTED ABOVE.)”

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How to Write Act II

Here’s entertaining article by Jengo Robinson about writing ACT 2.

Act II is the longest and most difficult part of any screenplay. It is the 60-page heart of the script. But it’s a broken heart, split into two very distinct halves, and the dividing page contains the most critical part of the story. This must happen at the mid-point around page 50-60.

How To Create a Mid-Point Shock

The show-stopper of a Hollywood screenplay should burst like a thunderbolt halfway through the second Act, exactly one-hour into the drama. Figure this out, because Act II cannot generally fall into place until this moment is established.

Anyone can read books on this subject, even more can become totally perplexed by all the diverse and confusing points, moments of enlightenment, crises, percentages and general lack of clarity. However, my disciplined method is a simple way of structuring Act II, in line with Hollywood standards.

How to Structure the Act II Mid-Point

Imagine a tale about a sexually nervous college graduate who is seduced by an older woman. At the end of Act I, she makes it very clear she is available, and given half a chance would jump straight in the sack with him! But the movie must end with the hero’s love for the older woman’s forbidden daughter. To win her hand, he must destroy an arranged marriage, barricade the church and run away with her.

I give you the ‘The Graduate’ with its perfect set-up and brilliant conclusion. Act I and Act III. But, the trick is the pace of the 60-page Act II and its correct structure. Ben has to progress from sleeping with Mrs. Robinson on page-30, to the low-point on page 90, where he has apparently lost all hope of marrying Elaine.

You must divide Act II in half. Watch ‘The Graduate’ again. And again. It is perfect. Look again at the significant events in Act II.

They are as follows:- Night one in the hotel with Mrs. Robinson and the montage that follows. His father berates Ben about his future. “And would you mind telling me what those four years of hard work were for?” Ben’s unforgettable response, “You got me.”

Then we get the first argument between Ben and Mrs. Robinson in the hotel room, and the incendiary topic of Elaine. We move to the first date with Elaine. Ben tries to tell her he has slept with her mother, and then that devastating moment when Mrs. Robinson appears, hears and coldly calls the police. Elaine is sent back to Berkeley. What now for the pitiful Ben?

Devastated, he drives to Berkeley hoping to find Elaine, but discovers she has a new boyfriend and a virtually arranged marriage. Ben is helpless. His life shattered, his love lost, beaten by his lust and his true self. This is the low-point. This is how Act II plays out in order. The significant event is the turning-point when Mrs. Robinson becomes enraged at Ben’s interest in Elaine. Not until then do we suddenly think, “Uh, oh. This lady is dangerous.”

This is the classic page-60 event, dividing, changing and heightening. The fling with the mother in Act II A, the fling with daughter in Act II B. It’s that simple. Don’t get caught up with theory. Just neatly divide Act II in this fashion – sharp as the slash of a dagger.

How To Figure A Mid-Point

And, as ever, there’s a knack. Look for the moment where the drama is heightened. At the beginning of Act II A, your hero is pursuing his goal, dealing with conflicts, until suddenly, something changes his course.

In ‘The Graduate,’ Ben discovers Elaine is very beautiful, and that he’s falling in love with her. As her mother’s lover, this is a potentially disastrous moment, loaded with unimaginable consequences. Therefore, ‘The Graduate’s’ mid-point must be the arrival of Elaine, and the first glimpses of Mrs. Robinson’s fury. They filmed this scene so skillfully, so movingly, Ben could be seen before our eyes to begin losing his attraction to Mrs. Robinson, and Elaine now represents the conflict that will carry the rest of the drama. Mrs. Robinson becomes the nemesis.

Watch films with a stop-watch to hand. Concentrate on this moment. With practice, you will never miss that flip-the-script moment when the course of the movie is suddenly set in marble. Every Hollywood producer looks for it and expects it bang before his eyes.

Next Step – The Low Point

The Low-Point is where your hero has just about run out of options. All hope is lost. His goal no longer seems attainable. Notice the words ‘just about’ and ‘seems.’ This is the key. Nothing is finished, but it must appear that way. Your hero, on page 90, must be beat-up, battered, and emotionally cooked. This is the first time he’s been this distraught, this helpless. Ben Braddock is in the boarding house. Mr. Robinson is threatening to sue. Elaine is getting married. Mrs. Robinson has orchestrated his worst nightmare. He’s disgraced at home. It couldn’t be worse. This is page 90. The audience is suicidal. This is the low-point.

And of course, there’s a trick to creating a devastating page 90 which will keep the drama alive. And it’s everything to do with time.

Ben cannot spend the afternoon hanging around the University of California Berkeley, remembering better times, because Elaine is getting married right now. He must race north, find the church, break down the door, and save her from a fate which only he appreciates represents cold horror.

What follows is one of the greatest Act III’s ever filmed. The hero must act now or never. If he doesn’t get dressed and get moving, he will lose the only girl he would ever love. The race is against time.

Another example of a brilliant low-point comes in the gangster movie ‘Scarface,’ when Tony Montana kills his best friend after he discovers him with his sister. Tony guns Manny down, and without emotion, steps back into his Rolls Royce, and drives home. But he inhales a mountain of cocaine, and suddenly realizes he’s murdered the only man he ever trusted. “Oh, fuck, Manny. How the fuck I do that?… How the fuck I do that Manny?” The brash, cocky, kiss-my-ass Tony, in tears of remorse.

This leads directly to the final battle of Act III. But like Ben in ‘The Graduate,’ Tony Montana has no time to wallow in his sorrow. Sosa’s army has arrived to finish him.

You need a low-point thunderstorm where the hero is weak, maybe even broken, and the nemesis comes forward like Attila the Hun. The time element will usually solve itself.

Once you have established the mid-point and the low-point, it should be plain sailing to the movie’s end. That’s if you’ve planned it meticulously. With the Act II A cliff-hanger halfway, and the Act II B roller-coaster to impending catastrophe properly set out, your run-in to an interesting end is nothing like so difficult as the minefield of Act II. Page 30 to page 90. That’s when you face death. Tread carefully and plan properly.

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How to Write a Scene

From John August’s blog (I recommend you subscribe to it: http://www.johnaugust.com)

1. Ask: What needs to happen in this scene?

Many screenwriting books will tell you to focus on what the characters want. This is wrong. The characters are not responsible for the story. You are. If characters were allowed to control their scenes, most characters would chose to avoid conflict, and movies would be crushingly boring.

The question is not, “What could happen?” or “What should happen?” It is only, “What needs to happen?” If you wrote an outline, this is the time to look at it.1 If you didn’t, just come up one or two sentences that explain what absolutely must happen in the scene.

2. Ask: What’s the worst that would happen if this scene were omitted?

Imagine the projectionist screwed up and accidentally lopped off this scene. Would the movie still make sense? If the answer is “yes,” then you don’t really need the scene, and shouldn’t bother writing it.

But it’s so dramatic! you say. But it’s so funny!

Tough. Put that drama or that comedy into scenes that are crucial to the movie.2 One thing you learn after a few produced movies is that anything that can be cut will be cut, so put your best material into moments that will absolutely be there when it’s done.

3. Ask: Who needs to be in the scene?

Scripts are often clogged with characters who have no business being there. But because words are small, it’s easy to overlook that “Haversmith” hasn’t said or done anything for five pages. And sadly, sometimes that’s not realized until after filming.3

4. Ask: Where could the scene take place?

The most obvious setting for a scene is generally the least interesting, so don’t be too quick to set your scene in the police bullpen, a living room, or a parking garage. Always consider what the characters could be doing, even if it’s not directly related to the focus of the scene. A father-and-son bonding moment at a slaughter house will play differently than the same dialogue at a lawn bowling tournament.

5. Ask: What’s the most surprising thing that could happen in the scene?

Give yourself permission to step away from your outline and consider some wild possibilities. What if a car smashed through the wall? What if your hero choked and died? What if a young boy vomited up a finger?

Most of your scenes won’t have one of these out-of-nowhere aspects. But your movie needs to have a few moments that are completely unexpected, so always ask yourself, could this be one of them?

6. Ask: Is this a long scene or a short scene?

There’s nothing so dispiriting as writing a great three-page mega-scene and realizing that you could have accomplished just as much in two-eighths of a page.4 So ask yourself up front: How much screen time am I willing to give to this scene?

7. Brainstorm three different ways it could begin.

The classic advice is to come into a scene as late as you possibly can. Of course, to do that, you really need to know how the previous scene ended. There’s often a natural momentum that suggests what first image or line of dialogue would be perfect to open the scene. But don’t stop at the first option. Find a couple, then…

8. Play it on the screen in your head.

At least 50% of screenwriting is simply sitting there with your eyes closed, watching the unwritten scene loop in your head. The first couple of times through, it’s really rough: a blocking rehearsal. But eventually, you start to hear the characters talk to each other, and the vague motions become distinct actions. Don’t worry if you can’t always get the scene to play through to the end — you’re more likely to find the exit in the writing than in the imagining.

Don’t rush this step. Let the scene percolate. Mumble the dialogue. Immerse yourself as fully into the moment as you can.

9. Write a scribble version.

A “scribble version” is essentially a cheat sheet so you’ll remember the great scene you just saw in your head. Don’t write sentences; don’t write full dialogue. It shouldn’t take more than five minutes. Just get the bare minimum down so that you won’t forget the scene in the next hour as you’re writing it.

I generally hand-write a scribble version in tiny print — sometimes literally on the back of an envelope — but you can also type. This is what a scribble version consists of for me:

  • DUNCAN waiting edge of seat
  • ITO
  • I was one of the doctors who worked on your wife
  • accident
  • injuries severe, trauma team, sorry, couldn’t save her
  • (sits, reflex)
  • nature of injuries, concern fetus wouldn’t survive in utero. paramedic able deliver caesarian boy healthy
  • (nodding not hearing)
  • nurse can take you to see him, know a lot to handle
  • what
  • a lot to handle
  • take me to see him?
  • yes
  • see who?
  • your son. paramedic was able to
  • (grabs clipboard)
  • I know this may seem
  • My wife wasn’t pregnant
  • Your wife didn’t tell you…
  • My wife has never been pregnant. been trying three years. fertility clinic last week
  • I examined the baby myself. nearly at term.
  • I don’t know whose baby, not hers.

It’s kind of a mess, and really wouldn’t make sense to anyone but me — and only shortly after I wrote it. But that doesn’t matter. The scribble version is only there so you don’t get lost or confused while writing the full version of the scene. Yes, it’s finally time to…

10. Write the full scene.

If you typed up the scribble version, don’t just try to fatten it out. Start clean. The scribble version is deliberately crappy, and rewritten crap is still crap.

The scribble version is your outline for the scene. Yes, allow yourself the chance to detour from your scribble version if a truly better idea comes along. But if you’ve really spent the time to play it through in your head (#8), it’s probably on the right track already.

Depending on the nature of the scene, getting the dialogue right may be most of the work. Regardless, focus on choosing the best words to describe the characters, the action and tone, so your readers will see the same scene in their heads.

11. Repeat 200 times.

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Here’s an interesting bit on description writing from the writer Paul Chitlik, published in SriptMag.com

Paul Chitlik, professional screenwriter and author on the subject, fields a question about writing effective description in your screenplay.

Question: How can a screenwriter write descriptions we can “see” without overwriting them?

Answer: Here’s one of the basic contradictions a writer has to face. You know that a reader, probably not the producer, is going to be the first person at the production company or studio to read your script, so you have to impress this person. We know that motion pictures are all about what you see on screen, so you’d think that the descriptive passages of a script would be important. And they are. But readers often skip through them to get to the dialogue because they think, sometimes correctly, that the character is shaped by the dialogue. And dialogue is easier to read. But harder to write.

So, does that mean you shouldn’t pay attention to description? No. Does it mean that you shouldn’t write visually? No, on the contrary. You should still make the reader see the movie as best you can, and that’s where your writing style for descriptive paragraphs will pay off. But you may lose the reader’s interest if he or she has to plow through dense and long paragraphs. So, you want to make your paragraphs as short and succinct as possible.

No one has ever been accused of having too little description. Screenplays should be terse, filled with short phrases emphasizing verbs always – always – in the present tense. Connor drags himself to the bed. Falls. Checks his arm. Blood spurts out of his wrist. He slams his other palm on it. Nearly faints.

Short declarative sentences. Fragments. Lots of verbs. But the scene is clear as a bell, isn’t it? You can see it, can’t you? You don’t need to know what kind of bed it is, or even what Connor looks like. You see the action, and that’s what counts. Let the make-up artist, the set designer, the production designer, the wardrobe designer, the director of photography, and the director fill in the rest. Let them do their jobs. Your job is to make them see the film, see the action, and move on.

Now, take a five-line paragraph of description (and you know you have one) and turn it into two and a half lines. Take out thoughts, feelings, extra adjectives, adverbs, and even nouns if need be. Leave action words. Now compare it to the original. Isn’t it better?

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Paul is correct. Especially if you’re writing action, thriller, horror genres. But even for comedy and drama, you still need to be clear and concise.
Read The Kings’s Speech(in the screenplay’s folder) and you’ll know what I mean.

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Greetings,

Good class today. All of the stories are interesting and have a potential to become exciting screenplays. Some need more work, some less, but that’s the nature of any creative endeavor.

Don’t worry about making a great screenplay or thinking about how much money you’ll get when you sell. Those thoughts are distracting during a creative process. Try to apply the knowledge you’ve gained from previous screenwriting classes, from the books you’ve read and the films you’ve seen in order to make your story the best it can be.

Please respond to those students whose stories we didn’t get a chance to discuss today in class. To make it easier, let’s do it this way: if you’re assigned to Group 1, respond to the stories of your groupmates; the students from Group 2 will respond to the stories in their group, and those from Group 3 will comment on the stories within their group.  I encourage you to go “beyond” your groups and comment the stories that will benefit from your suggestions. Be generous. Understand that by helping others you’re helping yourself. No, not in a pop-psychology, quasi-spiritual way, but in a very concrete, practical way. When you think and discuss other people’s stories you’re honing your own abilities as a storyteller.

DUE DATE FOR ACT I (ALL THREE GROUPS) is Thursday, Feb. 7th, by 11:59pm.  Please use a screenwriting software (Celtx is free) and don’t forget to convert your screenplay to PDF.  When you’re ready to upload your work, go to the Assignment page, click on the folder for the group you were assigned to and upload your file.  If you already forgot how to do it, watch the video or email me.

Happy writing.

ak

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Greetings everyone,

It’s was great to see the students from last semester and meet those of you I didn’t have the pleasure of working with yet. Welcome.

Please familiarize yourself with the left sidebar of the Blackboard page. You will be uploading your work to the folders on the ASSIGNMENTS page. View the instructional video/screencast on the TUTORIAL page. The tutorial was created last year, so don’t pay attention to the dates. The process is the same.
If you have problems uploading your file, email it to me ASAP and I will do it for you.

Your ASSIGNMENT 1 is due this Thursday, no later than 11:59 pm (one minute before midnight). All work submitted after that will be considered LATE.

Before you start working on your short treatment, identify the turning points in each act. What starts the story, how the act ends, what the midpoint is, where the climax comes in, etc. If you’re in this class you must have taken Screenwriting 1 and 2 at BC or the equivalent elsewhere, and must therefore be familiar with the three act structure.

The “act” approach is not necessarily the best way to write screenplays, but it’s the easiest way to understand dramatic architecture. If you’re not familiar with the three act structure, I suggest you buyScreenplay and Screenwriter’s Workbook (a helpful book for everyone in this class), both books written by Syd Field. Or go to this page for a quick review: http://www.cod.edu/people/faculty/pruter/film/threeact.htm

Once you identified the plot points / turning points in each act, write a brief description of what happens in ACT 1. Something like this:

Lionel Dobie is an acclaimed abstract artist who finds himself unable to paint during the days before the scheduled beginning of a major gallery exhibition of his new work. When he picks up his live-in assistant and lover at the airport, she tells Lionel that she wants to break up with him… etc.

Being clear about what each act is about, who the characters are, what they want and who prevents them from getting what they want is more important than writing carefully constructed sentences (although they’re always appreciated).

Do not go over TWO PAGES SINGLE-SPACED. One to one and a half pages is a perfect length. You can’t be too brief and general – we need details that reveal your story so we can discuss it in class. But not too many details – save them for the actual scene writing. Tricky, I know. Do the best you can.

Everyone is REQUIRED to read every treatment submitted.

As you work on your treatments, start jotting down thoughts and ideas for your first act (Assignment 2) due the following Thursday.

Before you submit your assignment make sure you rewrote it at least once and checked for spelling errors. Write every day. Don’t wait for inspiration. Respect perspiration and inspiration will come.

Good luck with first assignment.

Let me know if you have any questions.

ak

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Happy New Year and welcome to Screenwriting 3 / 4. (I have to use a slash between three and four to indicate that it’s not three AND four, which would mean all the students are doing both three and four. We have some students who have signed up for Screenwriting 3 and who have never written a feature screenplay before; and we also have students who have taken Screenwriting 3 in the past and are now planning to either write a new screenplay or rewrite what they’d already written.)

There are no required textbooks, only recommended ones. The list is available at  https://dramaticarc.wordpress.com/bookshelf/.  These posts are also available on Blackboard(http://cunyportal.cuny.edu).
Please print out or memorize the syllabus, which contains all the things that are REQUIRED for the class. This is an advanced class and more will be asked of you.  You will read every screenplay, prepare notes  and offer your thoughts opinions and suggestions.  If you don’t think you can actively participate in class discussions, this class is not for you.  Most, if not all, of the 3 hours and 40 minutes (minus 30 for the break) will be spent discussing your screenplays.
One last thing. BC’s attendance policy is strict. Make sure you can attend every class (and our first class on the 28th is no exception) at 9:30 am, Monday,  and be on time.
That’s all for now.  Enjoy the rest of your break. Looking forward to seeing you at the end of January.
ak

Final Post -December 12, 2012 / SCREENWRITING II, FALL 2012

December 12, 2012

Greetings everyone,

Don’t forget to submit the 2nd Draft of your Beat Sheet on Dec. 17 (no later than 11:59 am; I won’t accept any late submissions).

Some of you emailed me saying  they don’t have anything to add or subtract. That means they don’t want to “go into the story”. There’s always room for improvement. Remember that screenplays (and beat sheets) are not written, they’re rewritten. Perhaps a scene needs a different “heart” (center), or maybe that scene doesn’t belong there, and so on.

Also, when I told you that your beats should be only two or three sentences long, at the most, there’s  a reason for it. When you put too much information into your beat at such an early stage, you “talk out” the story, you release what Hemingway called “poison”. You want to save that “poison” (creative juices) for the actual writing of the screenplay. Guess what happens when you put too much information into your outline? You get bored with the story. And that’s the worst that could happen. Your brain thinks “I’ve already wrote so much, I’ve thought about it so much, I’ve included all the details in my  beat sheet… what’s the point of writing it?”

Ideally, your beat sheet should have one or two sentence per beat. Just the essence of the scene, without which your story or character cannot go on. Think of the step outline as the foundation for a building. The design of the building (description writing and dialogue) is what you work on when you write every day for several hours.

In the previous post I provided a few links to some useful info, such as how to find an agent, how to write a query letter, where to apply for a screenwriting contest, etc.

Thank you all for a great semester.

AK
Screenwriting II