Thursday, October 25, 2007

[Process] - Breaking the Story (a list of insights)

This post is about how to create a story at a very broad level.

It's a collection of direct quotes culled from the last 3 years of my script-writing diary. At the moment, I've simply arranged it into sections and left it. My intention is work up
and refine these notes on as 'as-I-need-them' basis. To start with, I'll be redrafting the notes on
the overview of how I want to write scripts.

Ultimately, what I want to create is a list of general principles, common problems and their solutions, and examples of how I write. The act and process of writing is personalised - varying greatly between writers. Ideally, this is all stuff that'll give me a leg up on the next script I write.

The sections in this post are:

-- My script-writing aims
-- Tensions & Questions
-- Brainstorming 20 ideas (B20)
-- Creating a Structure
-- Essential elements of a story
-- The Pitch
-- An overview of my script-writing process (2007)



MY SCRIPT-WRITING AIMS

My major concerns for a script are ‘plausible character motivations’ and making sure I understand the cumulative ‘emotional effect’ each scene is having on the audience.



Basically, I look at each page and ask whether it’s worth 14 cents –the price of a movie ticket divided by the number of pages.



Can you articulate the bundle of images and associations that have you jazzed about working on your project?

Try writing a paragraph or a list or a manifesto or whatever of why you really want to write this thing – and then try and stay true to it over the next 3 years.




zzz




TENSIONS & QUESTIONS

What is the main unresolved Tension in this show? What exactly are we watching to see what happens? The Tension that drives an entire show has to be big (in terms of its ramifications). If the show has a main character - and that's another section to add in - then the Tension is intimately tied to them.



There will be a fundamental question your story will (or seeks to) answer. The question for The Limit is "Will Peter find out who killed his son?" Knowing the question seems to help focus on telling the story.



In "Writing screenplays that sell", Robert Hauge describes the script-writer's primary job as "eliciting emotion from the person reading the screenplay."

My take on the script-writer's primary job: to construct a question that's interesting enough that the audience will keep watching to find out the answer.

How to apply that structurally is to introduce the question as early as possible, and answer it as late as possible.




BRAINSTORM 20 IDEAS (B20)

I wanted to brainstorm 20 ideas for what could set this plot in motion.



My normal approach to writing has been to fly through it and fix the stuff later. Now I realise that I’m always going to fixing stuff later, so why not try and get things as right as possible at first draft. Having a higher quality of stuff to fix will hopefully mean less work later.



"Whether you make a kick ass story or not is not the point. The point is, for it to work, you and your fellow players are playfully playing as if this just gonna be great by the time its done: making choices, sifting through options, recalling patterns and motifs, creating new high and low points, forcing the characters into choices (that spark creative actions on the part of the players) and so on.

Draft, in short, is not a 'warm up.' "




If it's a tie between which option will create the most interesting situation, go for the one that causes the most pain/problems.

Case in point: Veronica Mars, the election result.





CREATING A STRUCTURE

I like my Act 1 turning points to represent an utter failure for the heroes.



The last line of a scene is the most important line. The last line can clearly prime the audience for what they should expect to see next. In other words, the last line can set the Stakes for the next scene.

A Stake is a question that we are emotionally invested in learning the answer to. For instance, "Will Peter survive?" While there are stakes for the overall movie, they are most immediately applicable on a scene and sequence level.* The answer to the Stake is provided by the Conflict.

Scenes that I like tend to have a Conflict in them. You can represent this with the formula, "[something] versus [something]". Typically there will be at least two people in a scene, with each of them representing one side of the versus. At some point during the scene, you that the writer will make a choice for one side or the other. This is similar to what Robert McKee calls the Turning Point in his book Story. This choice will set up the stakes for the next scene.

EXAMPLE:
Incoming Stake - Will Peter kill the suspect?
Conflict - Peter's respect for the Law versus Peter's certainty of the suspect needs to be punished.
Resolution - Peter lets the suspect live.
New Stake - What will Peter do with the suspect?

Importantly, I believe that both sides of the Conflict should represent aspects of your story's Premise. For example, all Conflicts in The Limit deal with The Law versus Vigilantism.**

So, each scene has a Stake and a Conflict.
The "versus" of the Conflict provides a choice that needs to be made.
The results of that choice also answer the question of the Stakes (and set up a new Stake).

* Have to expand on the relationship between these macro- and micro-Stakes at some stage.
** The Premise is your story's underlying theme or message. Really, it's a moral. It says if you do [something], it will lead to [something]. For instance, 'Greed leads to loneliness'. The idea of the Premise is expanded on much more clearly in The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri.



To write drama, ask yourself what's the worst that can happen? Right now? (Same with comedy, actually.)



Map out the general emotional arc.

Tim [Minear] used the term emotional arc in contrast to plot moves, as in, he was interested in the characters' emotional beats more than fancy plots and mysteries. He was not so much interested in the details of the plot, and when someone brought up an intricate plot idea, Tim would say, "That could be interesting, but it doesn't matter. What's the emotion underlying the moves?" Following the characters' emotions was more important than "Well, what happens next? How does Angel manage to beat the baddie?"
***


Big lesson from this bout of gaming is ‘never be afraid to increase the adversity’. Adversity forces people to be creative, it makes them stand up for what they really want, to say what they value and what’s worth fighting for … and adversity makes you feel like you’ve earned survival or success.

Plus, adversity creates a situation. Stories need conflict; focusing on the right conflict at the right time creates a throughline for your story.






ESSENTIAL ELEMENTS OF A SCRIPT

What’s the (line?) of this novel, its (essence?) that all the scenes in an adaptation would have to reflect or expand on in order for the movie to be true to itself? I’m talking about its (subtextual (truth? identity?)), ... at any rate it’s another form of subtext … that (core?) which makes something the thing that it is.



A film has a distinct identity. You could say “a film has [this] sort of character.”

This expresses itself in at least three ways: its Genre, its Premise [as defined by Egri] and its Style (what is unique about the feel and vibe of your movie).

Once you’ve figured out these 3 elements, you need to make sure you put ‘moments’ into your story that establish and re-inforce that. What will that do? It’ll: a) reward the audience, b) create consistency, c) keep the film on track, and d) remind people what they’re watching …

It's pretty basic stuff really: a horror movie needs horror moments in it (Genre) but they need to be what you define as horrific for the movie you're writing (Style) and they need to be specific to the themes of your movie (Premise). The idea of 'moments' is to make your story unique.

So: identify what your ‘moments’ are, then create them … and then make sure they’re spaced just frequently enough.



At the heart of your show are three things:
The Emotion you want to produce.
Your Central Character.
The Main Relationship.

Know these three things. It’ll focus the series design. And be aware - the answers will change.



I asked David about the four things I need to understand in order to 'get' a show. Those are: Situation, Main Character, Main Relationship and Emotion.

Emotion = "How do you want to the audience to come away from an episode feeling?" Related to this are issues of genre and themes. The Emotion is what I reckon you should produce once an act.

Main Character = "Is there a central character? Someone whose issues reflect the themes of the show?"

The Main Character and Main Relationship are who you would expect to see often in an episode.



I think that most of the ideas I write start off as pulp, genre stories where I'm jazzed about the set-pieces I can come up with and the cool twists I can write in.

It's only through revision and digging deeper that I start to care about the characters and stay engaged the whole way through the story when I read it.

The point: is to maybe get through the pulp phase into the real as fast as possible.




THE PITCH

All I really want is for the pitch to do the job:

1) Clearly communicate the emotions of each sequence;
2) Be succinct (10 minutes max); and
3) As much as possible, be visual.



I described the basic emotional beats of each sequence through to the end of Act 2. That sort of work is tough for me - it involves abstracting out from the details that my head's been previously stuck in.


I'll be
rehearsing my pitch for The Limit aloud. It'll start very quiet and cautious. For a lot of the time, I won't even be able to finish sentences because I'll be too self-conscious about getting them 'right'. Then things should start to click together an hour, 2 hours in.



When it comes to doing the pitch, 'Imagining the action' seems to be key.

A couple of times today, while practicing the pitch, I had insights into the structure.

Pitching is acting: trying to find The Limit's character and convey its emotions.

***

The pitch led to me massively re-editing the ending. This simplification may end up in the film; replacing a fight with a single word.


9.40
: 1st Reading: 12 m 55 s … so, that's good. Whispered the whole thing, focused on the words, not the emotions or performance. And I can see lots of places where it could be tightened.
I know from my speech at the premiere of hopeless that I can hold 9 minutes of speech in my head (especially if I've got the pitchboard to prompt me).


Going through these scenes fast, not fine-tuning or timing them. There’ll be a bit of fat to trim off them tomorrow if the pitch duration is too long.

3.05: Nine minutes and fifty seconds! It is accomplished! I even got some bursts of emotion from this reading, especially around the end of Act 2.

***

Now it’s time to become obsessed by whether I’m getting the emotions of this pitch across.

Insight: I have to figure out the emotion that I want each sequence to convey. Then, change the pitch’s language so it’s not so much about what’s happening but how I feel about what’s happening.


Again, this pitching process reveals more about how to present the story in the final film.



This read-through of the pitch was great. Long stretches where the emotion’s sustained.
I’m simplifying this re-write, focusing on character motivations.

***

Pitching to someone else is fun. You learn lots about your movie quickly.

This pitch will be my guide when I write the first draft. The emotional story in these 8 pages is clearer than the 60 page treatment that I sent to Andrew and Ainsley.

***


***

If I were designing a pitch from scratch today, here’s what I’d do:
1) Define the Title, Genre, and overall Effect.
2) Be succinct.
3) ‘Emotion’ and ‘character motivation’ are more important than duration or plot.
4) Be visual.
5) Start pitching to other people ASAP.

What is a pitch?
In Hollywood terms, it’s whatever sells a movie – so a pitch could be as short as ‘Jaws meets The Sixth Sense’.

But in scriptwriting terms, it’s telling someone your storyline. It’s a quick way to get feedback – to see what’s entertaining and what’s weak. But the important thing is to create an accurate (and short) impression of your story.

So, to expand on the above list:
1) ….. Define the Title, Genre, and Emotion or Effect you’re going for.* If it’s a comedy, what sort of stuff are we laughing at? What is the basic comic tension?
2) ….. Be succinct. A five minute pitch (or even two minutes) is preferable. The maximum duration you should be thinking for a presentation is 10 minutes; and entertaining someone for 10 minutes is hard work.

I’d start the pitch as short as possible and from there build up the moments that you think are weak and unconvincing.

You’re not really telling a ‘this happened and then this happened’ type of story in a pitch. It’s more about describing the broad sequences of your movie. See this Wordplay column for advice on how to accomplish that.

3) ….. ‘Emotion’ and ‘character motivation’ are more important than duration or plot. Of course, if you’re pitching a comedy it’s important to make the listener laugh.
But here’s some stuff I learned:.....
a) To connect two sequences smoothly, link the emotion at the end of one to the start of the next......
b) Clearly communicate the emotions of each sequence. Figure out the emotion you want each sequence to convey. Then, change the pitch’s language so it’s not so much about what’s happening but how I feel about what’s happening......
c) Pitching is acting: trying to find your film’s ‘character’ and convey its emotions......
d) Rely on your performance (rather than emotive words) to convey the feeling......
e) If there’s a choice between describing plot details and a simple emotion, choose the emotion (at least, I found that when pitching a thriller).

4) ..... As much as possible, be visual.
Have a board with the sequences and photos of the key characters on it for the person you’re pitching to to follow along.
'Imagining the action' seems to be key for me. I like to act out the events, to dramatise them.

5) ..... Start pitching to other people ASAP.Pitching to someone else is fun. You learn lots about your movie quickly.I’d recommend pitching to one new person a day – and if you can find people who are willing to listen to it multiple times, come back to them after a week of pitching to everyone else.

The Goal:Engage and entertain the person you’re pitching to.Create an accurate impression of your story so they can give you feedback.Pitch to several people.Are you getting the same feedback from all of them?Fix or address these issues (if necessary).Start pitching again.

* (from the Bo Zenga article in Creative Screenwriting)








OVERVIEW OF HOW I WANT TO WRITE STORIES (2007)

[Talking about analysing a finished outline] - My method is go through the previous outline scene by scene, brainstorming, critiquing - basically overhauling whatever needs it without committing to anything. Then I transcribe those notes (in a very loose order) into the PC. The draft after that is the keeper. Going through, I lock things down, get the language right ... making sure the emotional flow of the script feels 'right'.

Trust me, it's a lot easier than launching into a script waaaay too soon then rewriting dialogue 20 or 30 times without addressing fundamental problems in the story.*

* my current approach does have its own risk: never being willing to say 'Right, it's done. Let's start writing.'



What’s an A-Plot?
It's what you say when someone asks you what 'last night's episode' was about. It's the main story.

How do you write an A-plot?
First, have an overall idea. Are you reporting to a producer? Then pitch that idea, make sure they’re on-board with it.

Second, break down the Acts. Specifically, know how the A-Plot has advanced by the time you go to each commercial break. Call them cliff-hangers, plot-points, reversals, big developments, whatever … … These Act Breaks are your signposts for writing a clear and understandable story. Someday I’ll write about how I got fired for not doing this.

Third, make sure the Act Breaks are of high-quality. They’re true to your characters. Original - within the genre you’re working in and within the show you’re writing. They develop character, plot and/or the series arc. They shouldn’t repeat what has gone before. Note that well: don’t have 2 Act Breaks that are basically the same thing. Always develop. Always raise the stakes. There’s probably more, but that’ll do for an initial brain dump.

Fourth, clearly introduce the situation. At the start of each episode, we want answers to these questions ... * What's the status of the relationships that will apply to this A-plot? * What do these characters want out of life? * What do they think will happen if they fail? * Why do they need to act? Call these the emotional stakes. Make sure we know and care about them.

Fifth, fill in the space between the Act Breaks. You’ve probably generated a lot of ideas for scenes while breaking down the Acts. Now’s the time to provisionally put them where you think they should go. NB: Prepare to drop scenes, combine them or realise they’re repetitive at any time. NB: Acknowledge if a scene doesn’t fit, leads the A-plot astray or says something untrue about your characters.

So, filling the space between the Act Breaks. Reprise the situation soon after coming back from commercials. Have at least one scene about the A-plot to link this reprise to the next Act Break. If your show has no sub-plots, every scene between commercials will be about the A-plot. And if your show does have sub-plots? It depends on whether your characters regularly interact (like an ensemble) or have very seperate lives. It's the difference between Buffy and 24. In 24, you'll have B, C and even D-plots that have no interaction with the A. Simple. Just write the damn thing, follow the rules above. (But even then, you'll want something connecting the plots, whether it's theme or situation.) When your characters are an ensemble and have a lot to do with each other's lives ... You'll probably have separate A, B, and C-plot scenes. You'll also need scenes that interweave the A-plot with other sub-plots. This isn’t so hard ... ... just keep track of the motivations and emotions of character involved in the A-plot as they meet other people and deal with 'unrelated' problems.*

Sixth, wrap up the A-plot.
Did people succeed or fail?
How do they feel?
Are the emotions you’ve created from the A-plot consistent with how you want people to feel after watching an episode of your show?



If I were to start a new script today, I’d adopt these principles :

1) Characters are true to themselves. They make internally consistent decisions.
2) Establish their emotional starting point in great detail. What do they do? What are their lives like? Is anything in their lives going to change on its own?……If no, then a Plot Event occurs. How do your characters react?
3) Follow the characters for a while, see what happens. If they become pro-active, fine. If they stay reactive, introduce another Plot Event.
4) Know your genre (if you’re writing in one) and make sure you have genre beats often enough to keep it in that genre.
5) As soon as you’ve figured out the story from start to finish, tell it to another person. Or five.

(1) is all about having characters NOT make decisions just because it’d be a cool direction for the plot to go in. It’s about respecting the plot that comes out of character decisions.

(2) is about starting with a Hook or a ‘What if’ idea for the movie then coming up with the characters who could be involved. Draw a relationship map of how these characters interact with each other AT THE START. Get opinions on what people think the most interesting relationships are.

(3) de-emphasises the textbook Act 1, Act 2, Act 3 structure. I’ve been thinking up Turning Points first. But the story and the climax should 'look like' they flow naturally out of the characters anyway, so why not make them the starting point of your process?

(4) ... man, it's just a kick-in-the-pants to keep the vibe of your movie focused and on-track.This all started after watching Storytelling by Todd Solondz. But it’s been influenced by Crafty Screenwriting by Alex Epstein, watching lots of Everwood and writing for Shortland Street.

Summary:What makes characters understandable and entertaining is consistent dialogue and attitude within a scene and consistent motivations across scenes.



So what did I learn from Draft 1 of this script?

To outline thoroughly, then write. Maybe not four years of outlining (like with this project), but analysing the script pays off.

Don't settle. Try and make each sequence as good as I can without pressuring myself to get it right first time out. In fact, each pass can be crappy and unformed - but the idea is to build the sequence into something I'm happy to sign off on.

How do I do that?

First, ask myself what is the question I want the scene to raise in the audience's mind. Hopefully that question follows logically from what they just seen (I've just written). This question is what I interpret others mean when they ask "What are the stakes?"

The conflict: I suspect that works best when the conflict centres around two different answers to the question. That way, the answer to the question is uncertain and keeps you in suspense.

"What is the emotion I want to produce?" I kind of forgot about this as I got further into the script.

Brainstorming conflicts, beats and lines of dialogue until I'm happy. Come up with at least 20 ideas, and then add 10 more until I'm satisfied.

Make sure that at least every 10 pages there are moments reflect your genre and unique moments that could only appear in your movie.

***


It made me believe that a well-worked out outline really would create speedy fun writing for me. That’s the goal for next time. I feel I got distracted by the pitch … put it at the wrong stage of the process. Oral should be 1st or 2nd – and then last.




I’m trying to train myself to write dramatic scenes by keeping track of the Stakes (the question we want the scene to answer) and Conflict (the people who represent the opposing answers) in a scene.

What I’ve realised is that I need to have a living stakes & conflict document right from Draft 1. It travels along and develops with the script as it goes through each new draft, constantly getting adjusted and updated – and eventually handed off to the director (hopefully me).

The reason is so that I can tell exactly what each scene is about and whether it’s contributing to what the movie is about.

With Possessions (hopefully my next script, based on Sean’s story), when I start work on a rough outline I should be keeping track of the characters’ wants, making sure they are consistent from scene to scene (which’ll be vital). As the story solidifies, I can make sure I’m driving towards conflict all the time, and build up the stakes.


What's your story about? I need to know this so that when I'm reading the script I can tell whether each scene is adding to the story that I want to see unfold.

'What's your story about?' is not what it's about at a premise level - where, for example The Limit is about Vigilantism vs. The Law, which is more effective & how using each method changes you.

It's what your story is about at an emotional level, about what's grabbing the audience and making them want to watch more. The Limit, in this case, is about 2 dads vying for the love of their son.

***

Here's the stripped down, mechanical version of the writing process I want to try.

Intro characters. Present them with a Kicker, a situation that cannot be ignored
Brainstorm 20 (B20) ideas for each character’s reaction.
Choose the most interesting.
Write down on a separate page for each character, what I’ve discovered about them in making that choice.
Create the new situation based on that choice.
Write a synopsis of it on a Word doc.


Characters have to react to the new situation. Intro any new characters that that situation demands. Repeat the B20, writing process.
Soon I’ll have ‘character sheets’ filled with traits that allow me to make decisions that are consistent with their characterisation.

If I come up with awesome new ideas, write them down on a page that says Act 1,2,3. But keep going with my current story – to see what I learn. Why? Well, the idea is that I won’t know if these new ideas are the 'right' ones – all I’ll know is that they’re better – but I could come up with more if I keep going. So rather than keep getting distracted by - let's face it - an inexhaustible supply of new possibilities, I'll work through the entire story and then be able to make a decision based on overviewing the whole thing.

Read aloud. Record.
Take notes.

Go back to the start and start with the most interesting situation I've now devised. Rebuild.
Repeat till I’m confident.

Pitch.


This whole process is more character based, with a structure that (I assume) will naturally get imposed on it over time. The question of what it's 'about' also needs to be answered - but I have another post on that coming up, based on my recent consulting work on this TV show.


CURRENTLY UNASSIGNED QUOTES

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Script-writing is an open ended situation. Use lateral thinking. Examine all the angles.


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I’m coming to believe Subtext is vital to writing a good script. (a good script = a script I’m happy with)

***

David Mamet, on what he's learned from writing for Hollywood: "Tell the story as straightforward as possible and play fair with the audience."


***

Another way of looking at storytelling in the movies* is that each phase of the film has a different 'energy' about it.

Taking War of the Worlds (2005) as an example (because that's where I first noticed this), you have four different types of energy in the story. The move from the normal domestic set up to the full on terror of the invasion is almost unnoticeable. The transition between the two happens in a bravura 15 minutes set piece involving lightning strikes and a stolen car. That full on terror of being pursued is sustained for what seems like a full hour. But then there is a noticeable gear change when Tim Robbins arrives in the film. All of the action becomes confined to a single location and the emotions darken towards paranoia and despair.


The trick, I think, is to be aware of the emotions and mood you're generating & how the audience feel about that.


*I think this applies much more to films than television because the film is designed to be watched in one uninterrupted burst, so you are more attuned to variations in tone and intensity.

***

From a talk by Dylan Horrocks:

1) You should reveal yourself, or truths about you, in a world you create.

2) Worlds implicitly convey that self revelation. What that means is that even when you remove the characters and what they do from a story, the world that you're left with (its geography, population and history, for example) still convey themes and conflict.Worlds have meaning.

***

Titles I've come up with that I think work: I think what they do is give a clue about what I think the hook is, and they use a pop-cultural phrase.
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