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Posts Tagged ‘Christopher Lockhart’

“A successful focus sentence is the most basic, bare-bones version of your narrative arc.”
Jessica Abel
Out on the Wire, Episode 4

A focus sentence is what screenwriters call a logline. The essential elements of your story. In the podcast Out on the Wire, Jessica Abel explains how some narrative & non-fiction radio/podcast producers use the technique “that allows you to slot in elements of the story in order to identify the essential question of the story.”

And she points out that the focus sentence idea came to her from The Transom Story Workshop teacher Rob Rosenthal, who found the concept in the book From Idea to Air: Getting Paid for Your Writing on Public Radio by Tod Maffin.

Jessica explains the focus sentence:

It goes like this:

Someone
does something,
because…
but…

Let’s go over that again.

Someone.
A main character. A protagonist.

Does something.
The protagonist is in motion, in the middle of living his or her life.

Because…
The protagonist has a motivation–inner, or outer–for doing whatever it is that he or she is doing.

But.
There is something that stands in his or her way. Something that makes this action difficult or problematic, and means that the outcome is unknown.

So here’s an example:

Good boy Luke Skywalker is frustrated, living a boring life on a farm on Tatooine. He buys some boring new farm androids, who turn out to have some kind of holo image hidden inside.
Because he’s a sucker for a pretty girl begging for help, he sets out to find “Old Ben Kenobi.”

But the Empire is looking for those same androids, and when Storm Troopers kill his family, it sets him on a path that will determine the fate of the galaxy.

Now on the the  CreativeLive class Power Your Podcast with Storytelling, Alex Blumberg reveals what he calls The Story Formula (another version of a focus sentence:

The formula is:

I’m doing a story about X
And it’s interesting because of Y

It’s hard for for me, it’s hard work for everybody, to try to figure out what is the most compelling way of framing the thing I’m trying to discuss. What is the thing that takes it out of being sort of a stock, tacky way of thinking about something, and turns it around into something that’s fresh and exciting? It’s hard. And it takes a lot of time. And it takes a lot of practice. But I’m living proof that you can cross the chasm.”  
Alex Blumberg
CEO & co-founder of Gimlet Media and producer/host of the podcast StartUp

And just to throw in a third version of a focus sentence Jessica found one more producer, who came up with a more dynamic demand on the story you are trying to tell.

I want to have some reason for that story to exist. I want to be like, It needs to say something back to the entire universe, or say something back to me in my life in some kind of way.

Yeah, so maybe my sentence would be,

This happened ____, then this _____, then this____, and then you wouldn’t [BEEP] believe it but _______ . And the reason that is interesting to every single person walking on the face of the earth is _________.
Soren Wheeler
Senior Producer of Radiolab

So there have three different options to test your story ideas. Find what works for you.

P.S. And I guess this would be a good time to toss in one of the 22 #storybasics I’ve picked up in my time at Pixar by Emma Coats:
#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

From the post A Really Simple Writing Rule (via Trey Parker) the South Park gang does this:
 What should happen between every beat that you’ve written down, is either the word ‘therefore’ or ‘but’. So you come up with an idea and write ‘and this happens…and then this happens…’ no, no, no. It should be ‘this happens and therefore, this happens’. ‘But, this happens, therefore, this happens….’”

Related posts:
The Perfect Logline
Screenwriting the Pixar Way (part 2) 
‘The Inside Pitch’ “A logline is a super tiny pitch. A TV guide presentation of your story. Two or three sentences….It’s important to know what the thoughline of your story is…if I don’t hear a throughline, I don’t think you have a dramatic story.”—Christopher Lockhart

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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“The MDQ (Major Dramatic Question) is the linchpin of the dramatic narrative – the purpose for which the story is being told.”
Christopher Lockhart

“Hunger for the answer to the Major Dramatic Question grips the audience’s interest, holding it to the last act’s climax.”
Robert McKee

This whole concept of a Major Dramatic Question should have been screenwriting tip #1 (instead of #101) on this blog— but here it is unpacked a little and I hope you find it useful in your writing.

“At the center of every good movie there is a single driving force around which all other elements gather. It has the rage of a hurricane, the focus of a cougar, the horsepower of a Lamborghini. It’s not the movie’s star. It’s not a special effect. It’s not the awe-inspiring action sequence or the most tearjerking dialogue. It is deceptively simple, so sly and stealthy, you don’t even know it’s there.

It’s a question.

Sure, a good story raises lots of intriguing questions, but there is one question at the white hot center of all others. This is the ‘major dramatic question,’ or MDQ for short. Every good story has its unique MDQ. Think of it as the story’s nucleus. It’s a centrifugal force that propels the story along its path of action, accelerating it steadily and breathlessly toward a climatic conclusion. And once the MDQ is answered, the story is over.

…The MDQ is the thing that keeps us watching, wondering how things will turn out. By the end of the movie, there will be—there must be—an answer to the MDQ. A ‘yes’ or a ‘no.'”
Daniel Noah
Writing Movies: The Practical Guide to Creating Stellar Screenplays 
Gotham Writers’ Workshop edited by Alexander Steele

According to the writers at Gotham Writers’ Workshop the way to find your MDQ is through your protagonist who has a tangible goal with obstacles that presents conflict in achieving their goal. Here are some MDQ examples they give:

Will Scarlet win Ashley? (Gone with the wind)
Will Indy obtain the legendary Ark of the Covenant? (Raiders of the Lost Ark)
Will Clarice catch Buffalo Bill? (Silence of the Lambs)
Will McClane free the hostages? (Die Hard)
Subtle films have a MDQ—but they tend to be more internal than external.
Will Miles pull himself out of a rut? (Sideways)

What some call the Major Dramatic Question, others call The Central Dramatic Question, and Joe Bunting at The Write Practice simply calls it The Dramatic Question and here are some examples from his website:

Is Odysseus going to make it home from Troy? (The Odyssey)
Will Romeo and Juliet ever be together? (Romeo and Juliet)

Here are examples from Act Four Screenplays:
“Who/what is Rosebud?” (Citizen Kane)
“Will Chuck Noland survive this ordeal? (Cast Away)

And a couple more recent examples from Daniel McInerny:
“Will Walter find missing negative #25? (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty)
“Will P.L. Travers sign over to Walt Disney the rights to the Mary Poppins books? (Saving Mr. Banks)

While a single MDQ isn’t always clear (and sometimes it even shifts) here are a broad range of films that come to mind when I think of a MDQ:
Will Rea (Jennifer Lawrence) find her father? (Winter’s Bone)
Will Marlin find his son? (Finding Nemo)
Will Kramer be able to keep custody of his son? (Kramer vs. Kramer)
Will a freed slave find his wife? (Django Unchained)
Will the troops find Ryan? (Saving Private Ryan)
Will Pee Wee find his bike (Pee Wee’s Big Adventure)
Will Phil (Bill Murray) find a way to stop reliving the same day over and over? (Groundhog Day)
Will E.T. get home? (E.T.)
Will Scotland find freedom from tyranny? (Braveheart)
Will Neal (Steve Martin) make it home for Thanksgiving? (Planes, Trains & Automobiles)
Will three buddies find their friend—before his wedding? (The Hangover)
Will a man buried alive survive? (Buried)
Will a stranger protect a small western town against outlaws (High Plains Drifter)
Will a sheriff protect a small western town against outlaws (High Noon)
Will Erin bring justice to a small town? (Erin Brockovich)
Will Matt Damon’s character reach his potential? (Good Will Hunting)
Will Ida ever return to the convent and become a nun? (Ida)
Will Butch, Sundance and Etta make it to Bolivia? (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid)
Will Jerry land a large contract for his client and save his business? (Jerry Maguire)

Will C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) get a promotion? (The Apartment)
Who killed the under-employed screenwriter? (Sunset Blvd.)
Who is Keyser Söze? (The Usual Suspect)

WME Story Editor Christopher Lockhart on his post Screenwriting 101 gives these examples:

Will Dorothy get back to Kansas? (The Wizard of Oz)
Will Sheriff Brody kill the shark? (Jaws)
Will Galvin win the case? (The Verdict)

Lockhart adds that while the MDQ tends to be external (physical), a connected internal dilemma (psychological) can be proposed in the form of minor dramatic question.

Will Galvin win beck self-respect? (The Verdict)
Will Dorothy find her place in the world? (The Wizard of Oz)

(Playing off of Lockhart’s physical/psychological idea let me drop in two of my favorite films and ponder if you can ask a single layered, mash-up question. Will Rocky beat Apollo Creed (physical/external) or at least go the distance with him—and prove to himself that he’s not a bum (internal/psychological)? Is it possible for the MDQ to have a one-two punch? In the indie film Pieces of April, “Will April find a way to cook a turkey for Thanksgiving AND make amends to her family?” Now we’re tying in theme and climax into the MDQ—powerful stuff.)

But it’s the MDQ that drives the story and is tied to the major goal of your hero/protagonist. And I’ll let Lockhart drive home the importance of The Major Dramatic Question:

“The MDQ is the THROUGHLINE. It carries us from the END OF THE FIRST ACT through to the CLIMAX. The dramatic narrative builds to the climax – which is the dramatic and emotional pinnacle of the story. It is the moment of cathartic release.”

P.S. There are always exceptions, and biopics and ensemble movies seem to be the trickiest in dealing with a Major Dramatic Question. For instance in both Apollo 13 and Schindler’s List, the MDQ is not “Will the astronauts survive? and “Will Schindler save lives in Nazi concentration camps” but a question of how they were accomplished. And even in cases where a MDQ is not 100% clear, the questions you always want audiences asking is, “What happens next?” and “How is this going to end?”

Related post:
Writing from Theme (Tip #20)
One Clear Dilemma
Magnetic Endings (Tip #100)
Insanely Great Endings
‘What Happens Next?’—Mamet

Scott W. Smith

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“A logline conveys the dramatic story of a screenplay in the most abbreviated manner possible.”
Christopher Lockhart
The Construction of a Logline (Get this free PDF.)

Today is a mash-up with screenwriter Jim Uhls (nicknamed Professor Peculiar) of comments he made about pitching years ago on The Dialogue interview with Mike De Luca and a CreativeLive class he gave earlier this year called The Screenwriters Toolkit.

“Usually an original idea nowadays in feature films is not pitched—’Oh, we love that idea’—and they pay you to write it. It’s rarer than rare. But anytime you’re hired to write a feature screenplay, which in this case is usually an adaptation, or some kind of source material. Could just be an idea a producer has, a magazine article or whatever—but whatever it is you have to pitch your take of how you would write this into a screenplay. Pitches of originals come in too. You may need to pitch—not a formal pitch— the [screenplay] you already wrote, to get someone to read it. So the idea of pitching is always there.

“This is a performance of passion. It’s not, ‘I memorized it.’ That’s not the best way to go. It’s also not somebody speaking in a timid voice begging the listener, ‘Please like me and like my idea.’ It is, “I’m going to write this thing and it’s going to be absolutely fantastic—and I’m writing it anyway. Whether you hire me or not—I’M DOING IT.’ Passion. 

“Pitching is really classic salesmanship— I hate it actually. It’s just not something that comes naturally to me. But I have worked out my own system for what I think a pitch should probably be and I’ve used it before. And this does come from newspaper journalism where you start with the head line. I think it helps to start off with a title—like a newspaper article has a headline—and give them the log line. And then go into it.  It’s conversational. ‘Let me tell you a story.’ Just tell it like you were in a bar. 

“Then the first paragraph of a classic news article—I don’t know if they’re written this way anymore—was a paragraph that told you the entire story. And the second paragraph told the entire story again but with a lot more detail. Or details about one aspect of it. And the third a lot more detail about another aspect of it. And by the fourth paragraph you should be getting close to the end of your pitch. And that covers some of the bigger themes of what it is, and then some kind of capper to get out of it. Between 15 and 30 minutes is probably smart.”
Screenwriter Jim Uhls (Fight Club, Jumper, Semper Fi)

P.S. A good exercise in a writing workshop or a high school/college class would be pitching a favorite film of yours. If the pitch doesn’t work you at least know that it’s not the story’s fault.

Related posts:
Breaking Bad Y’all (Vince Gilligan on pitching Breaking Bad)
Screenwriter/Salesman Pete Jones (“I’m getting a little emotional and I shouldn’t be, but it’s about making the best film.”)
‘The Best Log Line’—Tom Lazarus (“Log lines are vital in my process of film writing because they force me to distill my idea for the screenplay down to its essence.”)
The Perfect Logline
‘Juno’—The Logline
‘Die Hard’—The Logline
‘Star Wars’—The Logline

Scott W. Smith

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“I know this may sound silly but if you write something great it just gets seen. I can’t explain it but it does. If that’s not enough for you, then put yourself out there to anyone who will read it. Target your brand, who you are as a writer, and follow other writers and directors and producers’ work that’s similar to yours. Find ways to reach out to them: in this digital age people are far more accessible than, say, when I had to sneak into premieres to merely be around anyone I could. But, most importantly—I can’t stress this enough—figure out your brand, what you have to say and why, why someone would hire you over other writers, what it is you do that’s unique. In business you have a USP [unique selling point]. Well, this isn’t show fun, it’s show business, and our USP as artists is our voice, our own, unique voice.”
Screenwriter Cliff Dorfman (Warrior)
Filmmaker Magazine interview by Chris Knittel

Related post:
Screenwriter/Salesman Pete Jones
Screenwriting Quote #172 (Christopher Lockhart)
Christopher Lockhart Q&A (Part 1) “I suggest writers write the ‘right’ script.”
Stories That Will Always Sell (Tip #89)

Scott W. Smith

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“If I take the money I’m lost.”
Lawyer Frank Galvin (Paul Newman) in The Verdict

One of my all-time favorite screenplays and movies is The VerdictI happened to see it when when it first came out in theaters back in 1982 when I was in film school. And as I revisit it from time to time I just appreciate the multi-layers of the film.

The David Mamet screenplay is listed at 91 on WGA’s list of 101 Greatest screenplays  just after Sidways and before Psycho. It was nominated for five Oscars including Best Picture, Sidney Lumet’s direction, and Paul Newman lead role.

I think the film follows the Simple Stories/Complex Characters model, but what the film does is shows us a textured glimpse into the legal world. I haven’t read the Barry Reed book which the screenplay is based on, but my guess is Reed did the heavily lifting.

Reed (1927-2002) served in the Army during World War II before getting his law degree at Boston College. He was in private practice in Boston specializing in, according to Wikipedia, medical malpractice, personal injury, and civil litigation cases.

He’d actually been practicing law for 25 years before The Verdict novel was published so he had plenty life experiences to draw on. But there is a simplicity how the screenplay handles all the complexities of law and medical which make the script a wonderful study even for the new screenwriter.

The core the story is about a fading, alcoholic lawyer whose mentor throws him a case that appears to be an easy cash settlement case. One that will help him get back on his feet. That is until Galvin’s conscience kicks in and he decides to try the case for justice to prevail. And at the same time be a personal redemption for himself.

On page 38 of the screenplay Galvin actually verbalizes to a female friend in a bar what I believe is the theme of the story:

“The weak, the weak have got to have somebody to fight for them. Isn’t that the truth? You want another drink?” 

At the end of a Christopher Lockharts’ post Screenwriting 101 he has an excellent detailed outline of The Verdict which is well worth your time to read. Here’s some of his highlights:

LOG LINE: A drunken, washed-up attorney struggles against a goliath law firm to win a medical malpractice suit.

ACT ONE

PROTAGONIST INTRO

Galvin is introduced as an attorney lower than an ambulance chaser – he chases Hearses. He is a washed-up attorney- glory days long behind him. He is a drunk – who only seems to show signs of life when he is in a bar.

INCITING INCIDENT

For physical/external storyline: MICKEY jolts GALVIN into consciousness, reminding him that he has five-days to prepare for the ONLY case on his docket. This is a definite money-maker that will ensure GALVIN some much needed income (page 6-7).

For psychological/internal storyline: GALVIN visits his comatose client in the nursing home. He comes to understand the severity and enormity of the case before him (page 8).

PLOT POINT: END OF ACT ONE

GALVIN decides to try the case, “I have to try this case. I have to do it, Mick. I’ve got to stand up for that girl” (page 31). NOTE: This is the point in the story where the goal is establinshed. GALVIN’s goal is to win the case. A MAJOR DRAMATIC QUESTION is proposed: WILL GALVIN WIN THE CASE? The MDQ is the linchpin of the dramatic narrative – the purpose for which the story is being told. 

P.S. To find a link to most of the 101 WGA top scripts visit Simply Scripts.

Related links:
The End of the Rope Club (Oscars ’14) Galvin belongs in the end of the rope club Oscars ’83.
Writing ‘Flight’ Another alcoholic/redemption story with some echoes of The Verdict. And one Lockhart actually had a role in getting produced.
Emotional Evolution/Devolution (Part 2)
Sidney Lumet (1924-2011)
Show Don’t Tell (Tip #46) Great example from The Verdict

Scott W. Smith

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Tom Lazarus (Stigmata) is not only a produced screenwriter, but a longtime instructor at the UCLA Extension program.  Earlier this week I thumbed through a book of his I bought over a decade ago and found this little gem:

The best log line I’ve ever read was for an episode of the old TV show Father Knows Best. It was: Billy loses his house key. That’s what the episode was about. That, and nothing more.

The log line is the simple, one- or two-sentence, description of a movie that appears in TV Guide.

…Log lines are vital in my process of film writing because they force me to distill my idea for the screenplay down to its essence. The log line is what I judge what I’m writing against. The log line forces me to be absolutely clear about what I’m writing.
Tom Lazarus
Secrets of Film Writing 

We could go back and forth over the difference between a logline for a movie and one for a TV program–or if the logline for a Father Knows Best episode is better than, say, the logline for JAWS. But it’s a good to think about as you develop your own stories. And while “Billy loses his house key” may seem a little simplistic, check out the insight in the post (David Wain) What’s at Stake?:

“Any screenplay can be about any stakes. It can be tiny like trying to get a piece of gum off your shoe or saving the world–it’s irrelevant. The point is the stakes are important to the character and that you care as the audience about what the character cares about.”
Screenwriter David Wain

That usually means there is the potential for something meaningful to be lost. Wally on Leave it to Beaver losing his baseball glove and fears his father’s anger, Tony Soprano fears losing his mind, Bruce Willis in Die Hard fears losing his wife, Marlin fears losing his only son in Finding Nemo. 

Here’s another thought I read this week that seems fitting to toss into the mix:

“I received an exorbitant amount of query letters this week. After all these years, I’m still amazed at how many bad ideas inspire screenwriters. Many new writers make a fatal era at the start: Choosing an idea that is neither cinematic nor dramatic. Or an idea that is limited in its appeal. Is the concept best suited for a screenplay? Is it an externalized story best told with moving pictures and through conflict? Is it a story that will attract enough of an audience to warrant its budget in the millions? Many writers will defend themselves with: ‘I’m an artist and must write what’s personal and important to me. I can’t think about those other things.’ That’s fine — but don’t query me. Make your own movie. Not all stories make for good screenplays, by the way. And that’s okay. The story might be a better novel or poem or play. It’s the writer’s job to make that determination. And it’s better to do it at the beginning – before writing the script.”
WME Story Editor Christopher Lockhart on The Inside Pitch/Facebook group
And he linked to his 2006 blog post Think “Hallewood” on how to improve the stories you set out to write

P.S. I’ve actually never seen an episode of Father Knows Best, and couldn’t find the “lost key” episode online, but I did find one from the first season written by Phil Davis that has the logline, “Jim has only two tickets to a football game and must decide whom to take with him.” Jim (the father played by Robert Young) decides to have a contest with his three children to see which one will be chosen to go with him to— “the most important football game of the year.”

And while that concept of that 60-year-old program seems dated, the dramatic material between sibling rivalries is deep. Not only to mention the timeless question kids ask their parents, “Which child is your favorite?” And how many billions of dollars have been spent on counseling people with mother/father—son/daughter issues?

“I was very angry with him. It cost me ten thousand dollars in therapy to say that sentence: ‘I was very angry him.’ I do it very well, don’t I? I’ll say it again: I was very angry with him. ‘Hello, my name is Mr. Lewis, I am very angry with my father.'”
Edward (Richard Gere) in Pretty Women

Related links.

The Perfect Logline
Star Wars—The Logline
Juno—The Logline

Links to others who have written about longlines.

The Construction of a Logline (Get this free PDF.)
ScriptShadow Special – How To Craft A Damn Good Logline

Scott W. Smith

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“Most writers fail at all entry points because their loglines don’t work. And the loglines don’t work because the screenplays don’t work. You’d be amazed at how much easier it gets when the writer has material that actually piques the town’s interest. But to gain full access, the screenplay has to deliver too. And that’s rarely the case.”
WME Story Editor Christopher Lockhart
(From The Inside Pitch screenwriting forum on Facebook)

Related link/PDF by Lockhart:
I WROTE A 120 PAGE SCRIPT BUT CAN’T WRITE A LOGLINE

Related post:
Screenwriting Quote #172 (Christopher Lockhart)
The Perfect Logline
Writers Breaking In

Scott W. Smith

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