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“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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“Only emotion endures.”
Ezra Pound
A Retrospect

Terms of Endearment and Broadcast News are two James L. Brooks films that I can just watch over and over again…I strive to make movies like those where you’re laughing and you’re crying. That’s what all of it is for; It’s to experience the range of emotions within and hour and a half or two hours.”
Writer/Director Mike Birbiglia (Don’t Think Twice)
Interview on The Tim Ferriss Show

Check out the Don’t Think Twice website to see when the movie will be playing in your area. Select theaters with include Q&A with cast and/or crew including Mike Birbiglia tonight and tomorrow in Los Angeles. I’ll look forward to seeing it in Central Florida at the Enzian in August.

Related posts:
“It’s all about emotions”—Jamusz Kaminsky
Pity, Fear, Catharsis
Del Close & Emotional Discovery
James L. Brooks on Chayefsky
40 Days of Emotions (The longest single sting of posts on this blog.)

P.S. The posts Finding Authentic Emotions (Part 1) and Part 2 touch on how Alex Blumberg found the emotional core of an interview he did with artist Ann Rea on the CreativeLive class Power Your Podcast with Storytelling.I just watched that class again online and I think Alex’s pre-interview and interview with Rea (and the finished edited results) are the best example discovering and capturing the creative process/emotions in real time that I’ve ever seen. (And a gamble that could have gone wrong in several places since it was recorded live.)

Alex learned a lot about storytelling from Ira Glass when the two worked together producing This American Life. Ira is also one of the producers of Don’t Think Twice.  (Read the post Ira Glass on Storytelling.) 

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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“There’s an old cliché: ‘work smarter, not harder.’ As it turns out, the process of skill acquisition is not really about the raw hours you put in…it’s what you put into those hours.”
Josh Kaufman
The First 20 Hours, How to Learn Anything…Fast

“Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.”
Painter Salvador Dalí

Is it possible to write a screenplay in one day? A feature film screenplay? Even if you’ve never written one before? Yes, to all of the above. What’s the catch? You’re not going to write that original screenplay in your head, but one that’s already been produced.

You’re going to transcribe a film. As in you are writing the script based on an existing movie you’re watching on your TV, computer, tablet or phone. (If you happen to be a court reporter that skill could come in handy here.)

I heard this “Transcribe a Film” piece of advice over the weekend from screenwriter Jim Uhls (Fight Club) on a CreativeLive seminar he gave called The Screenwriters Toolkit.

“Here’s an assignment for you, transcribe a film. Everybody has a way of pausing and rewinding films as they’re watching them—this is a big assignment. It’s a big job. But it’s a very, very valuable thing to do. When we’re writing we’re seeing a movie while we’re writing our movie. We’re imagining it. So that’s similar to watching a film, and transcribing what’s happening. Don’t read the screenplay first and cheat that way. Transcribe it the way you’re experiencing it. Put in the slug lines, put in the action description lines, transcribe that dialogue, put in the parentheticals where you think that makes sense. It’s a very, very good exercise. And what it will eventually do is create a facility to handle transcribing your own imagination as you’re thinking of your film story…You should transcribe the whole film without questions.”
Screenwriter Jim Uhls (Fight Club)
CreativeLive seminar/ Vocabulary & Basic Style Rules

That’s the freshest screenwriting tip I’ve heard in the last decade. It should instantly go into the screenwriting advice hall of fame.

Why do I think it’s such great advice? Because there are many people who for years have been in love with the idea of being a screenwriter—but they’ve never finished writing even one screenplay. This fixes that in one day. Granted it’s not a screenplay that totally came out of your imagination—but it’s a start. (And it might take you all day—as in 24 hours. To help yourself here pick a movie that has a sub-100 minute running time like Pieces of April—80 min., verses The Godfather—175 min.)

But at the end of the day (or the end of the week if you chunk it out) you’ll have a feature script you wrote. Then you can track down the screenplay of the movie you transcribed and compare how the screenwriter(s) who got paid to write the screenplay did it.

Then you can begin to analyze how that script is different from yours. But for now we’re just going to get it written. (No pressure here. You don’t have to show this to anyone.)

If you’ve never read a screenplay, read a book on screenwriting, or taken a screenwriting class there are just three things I want you to do as you dive into writing your first screenplay; Slug line, scene description, and dialogue.

1) Slug line/ scene headings

This is what’s written at the beginning of every scene. Examples:

INT. O’ROURKE’S BAR – DAY
INT. O’ROURKE’S BAR – NIGHT

Does that seem simplistic? Those are slug lines from the Oscar-nominated screenplay The Verdict by David Mamet. There are other slight variations (DUSK, DAWN, AFTERNOON, etc.) but INT or EXT (for interior or exterior) and DAY or NIGHT are the most commonly used.

2) Scene description / action

Example (again from The Verdict screenplay);

Gavin and Laura are in a booth. The remains of a dinner and drinks around them. They are both smoking cigarettes, intent on each other. Both a little drunk.

Four sentences that give you a clear idea of the setting.

(For the sake of economy try to limit those descriptions to three sentences or less. If you have to write more use another paragraph. In writing action movies you may have a burst of short sentences and paragraphs flowing down the page.)

3) Dialogue

Here you’re going to just write down the dialogue the characters say. Put the character’s name in ALL CAPS with the dialogue under it in the center of the page. (Screenwriting software makes the formatting a breeze.)

Example from Oscar-winning Juno screenplay by Diablo Cody. (Major spoiler alert.)

Screen Shot 2015-07-27 at 1.37.38 PM

You can do that, right? Now, there are other aspects of basic screenwriting like  parentheticals, transitions, character introductions, capping SOUNDS, camera directions, MORE, CON’T, etc., but unless you already know how to use those just stick with slug lines, scene description, and dialogue.

Here’s what those three look like when put together from the start of one scene by Damien Chazelle from the Oscar-nominated Whiplash script.

WhiplashExample

There are many other nuances involved in screenwriting (structure, subtext, subplots, theme, etc.) but I’m trying to demystify just the core process as much as possible for this assignment. If you have screenwriting software like Movie Magic Screenwriter ($179.95), Final Draft (on sale today for $169.), Highlander ($29.95 and from screenwriter John August and his team) or Celex (free) it simplifies the formatting process, but if you don’t just do it in Word or Pages using 12-pont Courier font. Some working screenwriters handwrite their scripts so you can even do that. (It’ll just take you a little longer and you won’t be able to have the satisfaction of having your screenplay look like a real screenplay.)

While doing this you’ll be developing muscle memory. Building confidence. Not getting caught up in analytical aspects—and sometimes esoteric concepts—of screenwriting.

One of the hardest aspects of learning how to surf is actually learning how to catch a wave. And if the waves are 3 feet or bigger it can seem like an impossible task. But go out with a surfer/surf instructor on a calm 1-2 foot day and have him or her give you a little push at the right time and all you have to do is watch your balance and stand up. You won’t be Kelly Slater, but you’ll be surfing in an hour or two.

Transcribing a film is like that. Just giving you a little nudge before you head out into the big waves by yourself.

And for the doubters out there, this method is in the ballpark of how Oscar-winning screenwriter Quentin Tarantino started his writing career. While taking acting classes he used to write scenes from memory of movies he’d seen. Along the way an acting coach realized that the writing was not only deviating some from the actual movies, but was actually better written in some cases and encouraged Tarantino to begin writing his own scripts.

P.S. The day after I wrote this post I decided to try this out for one scene to see how long it would take. I went to Netflix and landed on indie film Swingers (1996). Using a yellow pad and pen it look me 20 minutes to write out the opening dialogue driven scene. What I wrote lined up within one sentence of the Jon Favreau script. It was a good exercise. If I was typing it could have been done in 10 minutes so I’m guessing it would take anywhere from 6-12 hours to do a whole script. 

Related Post: Dumb Little Writing Tricks That Work:Transcribe Screenplays (Scott Myers)

Scott W. Smith

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“The first rule of Fight Club is you do not talk about Fight Club. The second rule of Fight Club is you do not talk about Fight Club.”
Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt)

I’m breaking the first two rules of Fight Club today by talking about Fight Club. But it’s okay because it’s really Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk talking about where he got the original idea for his novel Fight Club. (I had never read or heard this account until a few days ago when I watched the movie version and listened to the commentary by Palahniuk and Fight Club screenwriter Jim Uhls.)

“I had gone on a vacation hiking and camping. I’d gotten into a really big fight with some people over noise at night in the woods. Some people who just had to camp right next to our camp—just had to bring some huge radio some 3,000 feet up the Pacific Crest Trail and have some big blow out party in the middle of the night. And I came back to work at the end of my vacation with my face just bashed—like Jack in the urinal next to his boss. My face was so awful, so trashed that nobody would acknowledge it, because to acknowledge it somehow they would have to find out something about my private life they just didn’t want to know. So for three months as my face slowly changed color and started coming back to white people would look at my chest, and they would talk to my Adam’s apple, and they would say, ‘So, how was your weekend? Did you do anything interesting?’ And I’d be looking at them with two huge black eyes and say, ‘No. How about you/’It just seemed so ludicrous that I thought if you looked bad enough no one would ever dare ask you what you did with your free time, and that was the genesis of Fight Club.”
Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk

The irony, of course, is people often go hiking and camping to disconnect from their everyday worlds and reconnect with nature and have a peaceful experience—unplugged from the everyday noise. Yet if Palahniuk has a peaceful hiking and camping experience he doesn’t end up getting in a fight and perhaps Fight Club never gets written.

P.S. A few days ago Jeff Goldsmith  (@yogoldsmith) tweeted this; “So @chuckpalahniuk told me he’s working with David Fincher & @trent_reznor to do a rock opera – an enhanced version of the film!”

P.P.S. Fight Club screenwriter Jim Uhls taught a class on CreativeLive called The Screenwriters Toolkit that is currently on sale for $41. I haven’t watched the class, but in general I love what the CreativeLive team produces. And since people often complain about the lack of teaching material by working screenwriters of well done produced films this would seem a good opportunity to fill that void.

Scott W. Smith

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“Just because it’s a worthy cause doesn’t make it interesting.”
Audio journalist Alex Blumberg

Alex Blumberg is a rock star. At least a rock star in finding authentic emotions.

Between Thursday and Sunday night I caught chunks of Blumberg’s live (and then rebroadcast) CreativeLive seminar Power Your Podcast with Storytelling and was enthralled with what he pulled off with the help of his class.

Don’t get caught up in the podcast part of his title if that’s not your thing, but focus on the storytelling aspect. While Blumberg’s background includes producing for NPR’s This American Life and most recently the podcast StartUp, his ability to talk storytelling was not only informative but moving.

In my last post, I covered some of the nuts and blots I took away from the sections of the talks I heard. Today I’ll fill in a little bit why I think it was one of the top creative seminars I’ve ever seen. (It was no surprise when I later found out that it is the same material that Blumberg presents when he teaches at Columbia University.)

While my last post mentioned the pre-interview process Blumberg did (with San Francisco-based artist Ann Rea), over the weekend I caught the full interview 90 minute he did with Rea and it was 100% engaging.

If you can, buy the $99 class just to salute Blumberg’s and Rea’s gamble and boldness. (A heck of a lot cheaper than taking it at Columbia.) I’ll try here to synopsize what made it special. Though this was meant to be a NPR-like radio program, I swear you could at least write a Lifetime movie script as you listen to Rea’s life story unfold.

What made it such a powerful tag team effort was the framework of questions that Blumberg asked and Rea’s honest answers. You could say the structure broke down into four acts. (I’m flying from my notes so some of the actual details may be a little off.)

1) The desire for Rea to paint at a young age, and the early support she got from her artistic talent. She won a scholarship to art school where she was an Industrial Design major. After graduating she moved to Dayton, Ohio and expectations for an artistic career fell away with the reality that student loans needed paid. (Downbeat)

2) But while in Dayton she met a man who would change her life. She met him the day she moved into her apartment and thought, “He’s my neighbor? Nice.” They got married and eventually dreamed about a life beyond the Midwest and agreed on trying the California dream. He landed a job in San Francisco and they took their goldfish and drove west. Life was full of positive expectations. (Upbeat)

3) The San Fran dream faded when his job was actually in Sacramento and they eventually settled in the suburb of Elk Grove where she spent years working various cubicle jobs with no satisfaction or artistic expression. Financial and marital problems followed until she decided for her own physical safety it was time to leave her marriage. She’d be starting over as their savings were depleted. (Double Downbeat)

4)  She started to paint again and as she talked about that process it reminded me of that line in Jerry Maguire where he’s writing his mission statement and says, “Suddenly, I was my father’s son again.” Rea wrote a business plan because she didn’t want to just paint—she wanted to make a living painting. In her first year as a full time painter she made more than she’d ever made before, and continues to grow her business. And now she helps others turn their artistic efforts into profit. (Double Upbeat)

What you don’t get from my overview is the authentic emotions that were tapped into—in real time over the course of the interview. The laughter and joy of their trip west, the pain of finding out her husband was a closet alcoholic, and the tears of rediscovering her artistic talents—of finding new life.

As a bonus at the end of the second day of the workshop, Blumberg played some edited clips from the interview thereby completing the whole creative process of showing pre-production, production, and post-production.

There were many valuable takeaways for any storyteller. Perhaps none more valuable than asking a question and shutting up. Just letting the person you’re interviewing give raw and honest answers as they tell their story. That’s how you capture the magic—how you find authentic emotions.

You can listen to the edited interview here.

And you can follow Blumberg on Twitter @alexblumberg.

P.S. I promise you I don’t make a penny from talking about CreativeLive (or Lynda.com or KelbyOne training) but it turns out Ann Rea has a class on CreativeLive called Make Money Making Art. I have not seen that, but based on her interview with Blumberg it’s worth at least checking out.

Scott W. Smith

 

 

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“I like simple stories and complex characters.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Billy Bob Thornton (Sling Blade)
Filmmaker Fills Simple Stories with Complex Folks/Roger Ebert

“I’m a big fan of simple stories, complex characters. I love when stories get from here to here. I know then I’ll have room for great character stuff to go on.”
Screenwriter Stuart Beattie (Collateral)

In Stuart Beattie’s screenplay for Collateral (2014) the story is simple, a hit man catches a cab at night with the goal to kill five people before he catches a morning flight out of LAX. That simplicity allowed Beattie to add some complexity to the characters played by Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx. (Cruise’s character is a hit man with an appreciation and knowledge of jazz music.)

“[The jazz scene] is modeled after two favorite scenes of mine, True Romance with Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper…and the Luc Besson movie La Femme Nikita when he takes her to the restaurant and you think, oh great—he’s finally taking her out. And here’s the gun, here are the people. And the whole thing changes on a dime. I love those kind of scenes and I wanted that kind of scene in Collateral.
Stuart Beattie
The Dialogue: Learning from the Masters (Part 1) interview with Mike De Luca

It’s worth noting that there are echoes of the jazz scene in the 1993 movie Schindler’s List when Amon Goeth (known as the “Butcher of Plaszow” and played by Ralph Fiennes) who appreciated classical music yet had no problem standing on his balcony and casually shooting a couple of Jewish workers in the forced labor camp. It may not be historically accurate, but it’s great cinema in conveying that one can be educated and sophisticated musically —and still be a savage killer.

Screenwriter Steve Zillian, who won an Oscar for writing Schindler’s List, is admired by Beattie. Chances are good that Schindler’s List is in what Beattie calls his “personal reference library.”

“I have a library of probably 100 scripts that are my favorite scripts and I’m going going back and referring to them again and again. How do they do that? How’s that set-up? How’s that written?”
Stuart Beattie

When you watch the below clips in light of the above scene from Collateral keep in mind these five quotes:

“Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.”—Painter Salvador Dalí

”Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination.”—Filmmaker Jim Jarmusch

“How does an artist look at the world? Well, first she asks herself, ‘What’s worth stealing?’ And second, she moves on to the next thing.”—Author Austin Kleon

“I think it’s fine for young (filmmakers) to out and out rip off people who come before them because you always make it your own.”
Writer/director Francis Ford Coppola

“Lesser artists borrow, great artists steal.”
Composer/ pianist Igor Stravinsky

P.S. Sometimes writers don’t sample or crib other writers, but their own work. Beattie points out that Lawrence Kasdan used two similar love scenes in both of his scripts for Raiders of the Lost Ark and Continental Divide.

Related Posts:

Inspiration Flying Under the Radar
“Steal Like An Artist”
“Impact. Energy. Emotion.” Nice quote from Mike Corrado (from a CreativeLive Rock and Roll Photography class) that describes the jazz scene in Collateral quite well.
Simplicity in Screenwriting (Tip #27) “Let this be our first lesson: Movie stories are usually simple…..Write simple stories and complex characters.”—Paul Lucey
Writing Good Bad Guys (Tip #85)

Scott W. Smith

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