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“In Dramatic Irony the audience knows more than the characters….What in Suspense would be anxiety about outcome and fear for the protagonist’s well being, in Dramatic Irony becomes dread of the moment the character discovers what we already know and compassion for someone we see heading for disaster.”
Robert McKee
Story
Page 351

“It occurs to me that the device of dramatic irony is so standard a formula of dramatic construction that, in truth, it is quite rare to find any really well-structured story that does not make use of it. Think of the stories you have encountered where we, the audience,  are aware of circumstances of which of the onstage characters are ignorant and are thus kept in a state of ‘anticipation mingled with uncertainty’ as we wait for some turn of events (peripeteia*) in which the suspenseful situation is resolved. Can you think of any dramatic work that does not make use of this structure, however indirectly? It seems to me that as students’ projects are offered to me, it is the absence of clearly structured dramatic irony (especially in visual terms) that is their weakness. There is a sense in which the most basic elements of film grammar have potential for dramatic irony…As you explore some of the great classics of stage and screen, you will see that most have a ‘bomb under the table.'”
Alexander Mackendrick (Former director—Sweet Smell of Success—and one time dean of California Institute of the Arts)
On Film-making: An Introduction to the Craft of the Director
Pages 93-94

P.S. “The bomb under the table” is a famous Hitchcock illustration found in the above video, and in the Francis Truffaut book Hitchcock.

*Peripeteia: a sudden or unexpected reversal of circumstances or situation especially in a literary work (Merriam-Webster)

Related post:
Irony in Movies (Tip #79)
Irony Playground
Dramatic Irony (Ibsen & Shakespeare)
Dramatic Irony (Paul Lucey)

Scott W. Smith

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The origins of the classic hand game “Rock, Paper, Scissors” are unknown. But what is known is its popularity is undisputed and universal. There are even RPS contests and leagues around the world.  In fact, the World RPS Society has cash prizes and a world champion every year. Online you can find all kinds of websites, t-shirts, and tips on improving your game.

And, yes, there is a documentary on the subject called Rock Paper Scissors; a geek tragedy.

Though there are variations of the game, the basic rules are the same;
—Paper covers rock
—Rock smashes Scissors
—Scissors cut paper

You gotta love the simplicity. For the sake of this post on screenwriting, let’s explore three popular ways that accomplished writers say they have used as starting points for writing screenplays;

—Story
—Characters
—Theme

But we’re not really pitting them against each other, just showing three examples of writers who use one as their starting point.

STORY

“I always start with story rather than characters. When I write I try to write from the point of view of defining a character through action. That way having the narrative shifts define what we think of the characters. That’s why I love film noir crime fiction because double-crosses, twists and turns… you’re constantly readdressing your opinion of the characters and you’re reassessing who you think those people are. I find that a really interesting and very strong form of characterization, but it means putting story first and then just seeing where that leads the characters.”
Oscar-nominated screenwriter Christopher Nolan
Memento
(And writer/director of the #3 all-time (domestic) box office film The Dark Knight)

CHARACTER

“I DETEST the word plot. I never, never think of plot. I think only and solely of character. Give me the characters; I’ll tell you a story–maybe a thousand stories. The interaction between and among human beings is the only story worth telling.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Stirling Silliphant
In the Heat of the Night

THEME

“The best thing that can happen is for the theme to be nice and clear from the beginning. Doesn’t always happen. You think you have a theme and you then start telling the story. Pretty soon the characters take over and the story takes over and you realize your theme isn’t being executed by the story, so you start changing the theme.”
Three time Oscar-winning screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky
Network, The Hospital, Marty

Three different writers with three different starting points, but each with successful results. The important thing isn’t to argue or worry over your starting point, but pick which works best for you and start (and, yes, there are other starting points). But just as important, finish what you start. And if you really want to have a hand up on most screenplays write one with a solid story, solid characters, and a solid theme.

Scott W. Smith

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“Theme is the primary statement, the purpose of the story, the overall message, the truth behind the story.”
Writing the Picture
Robin U. Rissin & William Missouri Downs

I first became aware of Diane Frolov‘s writing back in the 90s when I saw her name come up on the credits for Northern Exposure. She and her writing partner and husband Andrew Schneider wrote and produced many episodes of the quirky show set in Cicely, Alaska. They won a Primetime Emmy for their episode “Seoul Mates.” (They also wrote the great “More Light” scene that I have mentioned before.)

But Frolov’s writing credits go back to Magnum P.I. and the TV program The Incredible Hulk. And in the days since Northern Exposure Frolov’s most memorable work has been as a writer and producer on The Sopranos. She was on the Sopranos team that won an Emmy in 2006 for Outstanding Drama Series.

Though I don’t watch much TV, I’ve always been a Northern Exposure fan and put it up there with The Twilight Zone as television at its best. And I’ve always thought part of the reason I ended up in Cedar Falls, Iowa was due in part for the fondness of quirky Cicely, Alaska. (And I’m fond of pointing out that John Falsey, co-creator of Northern Exposure, has an MFA in creative writing from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.)

Twenty years ago Frolov was interviewed by William Froug, who she studied with at UCLA (MFA Playwriting), and was asked what was the most important thing to know before writing a screenplay;

“I would say theme. You really need to know what the piece is ‘about’ and you have to make sure that all plot turns and character arc elucidate and project that theme.”
Diane Frolov

Recently, Brian McDonald who wrote the book Invisible Ink and has a blog of the same name, sent me a link to The Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling who wrote in a letter  basically the same thing as Frolov.

“In my case, first I think of a theme and then chose a story line or a plot to go with it. Once this is chosen, the characters fall into place.”
Rod Serling letter to Dave Pitt

Maybe that explains the connection to Northern Exposure and The Twilight Zone.

Now writers are not in agreement with the idea of starting from theme. Some goes as far as saying that the writer should never even be aware of the story’s theme. Many, like  Robert McKee, say that starting with theme before story puts the cart before the horse.

“The Story tells you its meaning, you do not dictate meaning to the story.”
Robert McKee
Story

The fear of starting with theme (or a controlling idea or moral premise as some call it) is that you fall into didacticism or a sermon. And there are plenty of examples where heavy handed themes weigh down stories. But perhaps that’s a matter of the talent and skill of the writer.

Just because a baseball pitcher has an ineffective fast ball or curve ball doesn’t mean fast balls or curve balls are bad. No those are the staple of every baseball pitcher. He will be judged (and his ERA will reflect) the skill in which he uses his fastball and curveball.

And in the case of Frolov and Serling their work has shown that starting from theme can be very effective. (And you can put Charles Dickens in the camp of starting with theme.)

Lastly, Froug ended his interview with Frolov by asking here is she had any thoughts that she’d like to express. (And keep in mind that her answer is before all her Emmy nominations and wins.)

“To have courage and really love what you do. But not to lose sight of the life around you. You’ll find, as you go through the (writing) process, there will be so many people who will tell you that it is impossible and that you can’t do it. You’ll have your heart-broken so many times, and you just have to sustain yourself with your vision. And, as I said, your love of what you do.”
Diane Frolov
The New Screenwriter Looks at the New Screenwriter
Page 273

P.S. Even though the last new episode of Northern Exposure aired in 1995, there is still a group of people who gather yearly for Moosefeast, a Northern Exposure Fan Festival that takes place in Roslyn, Washington where the series was filmed. I also like to point out, that the final song of the final episode was written and performed by Iris DeMent who now lives in Iowa. Actually, in the same town where Northern Exposure co-creator, John Falsey, went to college. (Maybe there is more of a connection to Northern Exposure and The Twilight Zone than I thought.)

Related post: Writing from Theme (Tip #20)

Scott W. Smith

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The other day I was driving to a shoot and listening to an old Robert McKee CD on screenwriting based on his book Story and I stumbled upon this little passage that made me stop and repeat it three times:

“Success in the Art Film genre usually results in instant, though often temporary, recognition as an artist. On the other hand, the durable Alfred Hitchcock worked soley within the Archplot and genre convention, aimed for a mass audience, and habitually found it. Yet today he stands atop the pantheon of filmmakers, worshipped worldwide as one of the century’s major artists, a film poet whose work resonate with sublime images of sexuality, religiosity, and subtleties of point of view. Hitchcock knew there is no necessary contradiction between art and popular success, nor a necessary connection between art and Art Film.”
Robert McKee
Story

Scott W. Smith

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“Somebody gave me a copy of Robert Mckee’s Story. I said, ‘This is like trying to understand a human being by looking at DNA.’ Maybe we could put the book on the shelf, and right next to it could be the Leslie Dixon book, which would be a flyer saying, ‘Do they want to turn the page?’ That would be my screenwriting manual, and we could put his four-hundred-page tome next to it.”
                                      Leslie Dixon
                                      Screenwriter, Pay It Forward, Mrs. Doubtfire, Hairspray
                                      Quoted in Screen Plays by David S. Cohen Page 123

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“Everybody lives by selling something.”      Robert Louis Stevenson

“Tell stories! Great Speechifying = Great Storytelling. Period.”    Tom Peters

Stephanie Palmer’s Q&A on her book “Good in a Room” generated the second highest views to this site. (Right behind “The Juno-Iowa Connection” after Diablo Cody won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.) So I thought it would be worth exploring a little more in detail.

According to Stephanie (a former MGM executive):  “Good in a room” is a Hollywood term referring to creative people who excel pitching at high-stakes meeting. 

 

Outside of Hollywood being “good in a room” may be pitching an investor in your project. In advertising circles around the world it may be trying to get a client excited about your creative ideas.

Let’s not kid ourselves, public speaking is part of being good in a room. The thing that many people list as their #1 fear. If you’re a writer who pumps out great thoughts and people send you a check without you having to get out of your bathrobe then you can probably afford to skip learning to be a public speaker.

For everyone else it’s a great skill to learn. But can one to learn to be a good speaker? Some of the answers found in the post “Can Writing Be Taught?” apply here.

First speaking is like writing, the more you do it the better you will become. A friend who is a fitness instructor told me years ago that the key to staying is shape is, “It has to be a lifestyle.” The results aren’t pretty when we try to jog a mile after a year or two layoff. But how can you practice public speaking?

One of the best places to go to learn and practice public speaking is joining Toastmasters International. I moved to L.A. when I was 21 and the first thing I did was follow everyone’s advice and buy a Thomas Bros Road guide for LA and Orange counties. (I used to drive 30,000 miles a year in those days and those spiral bound detailed map books were gold. I imagine these days in an GPS/Mapquest age those books are less in demand.)

But the first thing I wish someone would have told me to do was to join Toastmasters. It took years of prompting in Tom Peters books before I finally visited a club Toastmasters meeting and then (after a couple of years on the sideline) to join. I now have been a member of a Toastmaster group for two years and it has been a wonderful experience and I recently received my Competent Communicator certificate for completing ten 5-10 minute talks.

Here’s what Peters’ writes in his book Brand you 50 (50 Ways to Transform Yourself):
Join Toastmasters. You are your own P.R. “Agency.” 

Building a local reputation is part and parcel of building Brand You. That means using any opportunity to…Tell Your Story.

 

Tame your (v-e-r-y natural!) fear of public speaking. There are doubtless lots of strategies for this. I am an unabashed Toastmaster fan. Toastmasters is a bit too structured for me, but that’s the smallest annoyance. It is the premier self-help organization  that has led hundreds of thousands to master Self-Presentation.

Toastmasters is a safe place to begin improving your speaking skills and with dues under $30. a year it’s one great investment. I am amazed to watch how people improve in just a couple of weeks. There are Toastmaster groups around the world…even in Iowa. There are probably several groups in your area that meet at all different times to fit into your schedule.

(Just learned from writer Lisa Klink’s blog that there is a Toastmaster flyer on display up at the WGA offices in Los Angeles. Could be an excellent networking opportunity for those in L.A.)

But Stephanie points out that being good in a room is more than just being a good speaker and pitching your ideas. It’s about building rapport. She says that in her experience as a studio executive the buyers are asking themselves if they want to spend a couple of years of their life working with you on a project.

“The Ultimate goal of ANY pitch is to establish an ongoing relationship with the person you are pitching…when I hear a two-minute pitch, I’m also checking out if this is the kind of person I’d like to do business with.”
Shelia Hanahan Taylor, Practical Pictures

Obviously your story must be solid but it helps if you’re likable as well. Stephanie lists three secrets for building rapport:

Secret 1: Allow yourself to really care about the other person and to be curious about who he or she is. Empathic interest creates trust.

Secret 2: Common ground cannot be faked or fudged. Rapport requires honesty.

Secret 3: The warmth that signifies true rapport is not something you can force. 

She unpacks these more in detail in her book so make sure you pick up a copy “Good in Room” and join Toastmasters as well. And embrace the fact that you are a salesperson. If you want to see a novice screenwriter be brilliant in a room find a DVD of the first season of Project Greenlight and watch how first time director Pete Jones does a master sales job on Ben Afflack, Matt Damon and Chris Moore as he pitched his story Stolen Summer which they did produce.

Where did Pete learn to be a salesman? He sold insurance in Chicago. (Always pushing for that Midwest angle, aren’t I?)

Speaking of Midwest angles —  in the latest Script Magazine (Vol. 14/Number 2) there is a photo of Kevin Costner from Field of Dreams.

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“IS THIS HEAVEN?”

 

 

(That movie was filmed about an hour away from where I’m typing this blog and you can tour the Field of Dreams Movie Site from April through December.) Anyway, the photo of Costner in a baseball pitcher’s windup is in an article by Lee Zahavi-Jessup titled Perfect Pitch. It’s a solid article and a good read.

Zahavi-Jessup writes, “With a strong pitch, the writer is allowed an opportunity to display the brilliance, efficiency and creative prevalent in his 120-page screenplay in a focused and concise fashion.”  That takes practice.

I’ve also noticed online pitches starting to pop up and I don’t think that’s a trend that will fade away. I believe it will open the door for more writers outside LA to be able to pitch their stories. If all this seems too much to grasp remember the Milton Glazer quote, “Art is work.”

 

“A lot of the time it’s essential that you have some P.T. Barnum in your personality. That is, you have to know how to sell.

                                                        Andrew Marlow (screenwriter, Air Force One)

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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