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Posts Tagged ‘John Truby’

“This may shock you, but most beginners fail at the concept. It’s the single most common problem I’ve found with scripts. Concept is the core of the script.”
Karl Iglesias
Writing for Emotional Impact

“The other overwhelming weakness with these ninety-out-of-a-hundred rejected screenplays is with initial concept.”
Michael Hauge
Writing Screenplays that Sell
(Formatting being the other weakness according to Hauge)

How do you test your story concept? What filter system do you have in place that tells you, “This concept is worth investing my time and talent to write into a feature screenplay.” Despite knowing the best time to test your concept is before you write your screenplay—many writers ignore any warning signs and the concept flaw is not fully revealed until after their script is completed.

But what if your concept sucks?

If the concept is weak all that’s left is, as the saying goes, “polishing brass on a sinking ship.”

“One lesson I’ve learned in Hollywood is that right out of the gate a screenplay will be judged solely on its concept or premise.”
Chandus King
Now Write! Screenwriting

Last week I did a one-hour concept consultation with Adam Levenberg and time will tell what fruit that conversation will bear, but I will say that I’m more jazzed about my latest concept and coming at the story with a clearer focus than I’ve had in the past.  I walked away with seven specific ways to turn the concept into a solid (and castable) screenplay. Adam also sent me two scripts that were similar but different to my concept. But perhaps most importantly is our one-hour conversation convinced me that this is the script I should be writing. I was prepared to move down the concept list if Adam didn’t think my #1 concept had legs.

I’m a fan of Adam’s work because of his development background, his Official Screenwriting podcast, and the fact that last year I spent three hours on the phone going over my last script Shadows in the Dark.  I wrote in the post Script Consultant Adam Levenberg that it was the most detailed feedback I’d ever gotten on a script I’d written. We went over characters, plot, structure, the ending—pretty much everything. I walked away with many pages of notes—on top of the notes he sent me— on how to make it better.  And the only way he could have that three-hour conversation about my script is that he spent at least a day–maybe two–dissecting my script before we had our conversation.

But Adam was also honest in saying he didn’t think the basic concept could get traction in Hollywood. And he told me why. And that began my conversion from structure, structure, structure to concept, concept, concept. Both are important, but I think concept trumps structure. Which is why you’ll hear stories of scripts being sold solely on concept.

I know there are plenty of naysayers about paying anything to anybody in regards to furthering your career. Ironically, one of the biggest voices against paying a consultant has what today amounts to $400,000 in college education. I’m certainly not against going to college (have a film school degree myself) but I also think Adam’s $99 concept consulting fee can be a better investment in your screenwriting career than 20 hours of a free screenwriting podcasts and blogs—even the best ones.  (Came up with 20 hours because that’s about what it would take to pay $99 making minimum wage minus taxes and such. )

“What you choose to write is far more important than any decision you make about how to write it.”
John Truby
The Anatomy of Story

A few years ago, before online training took off, I was looking at attending an all day Final Cut Pro seminar in Chicago. The class promised an 8-hour day with a Final Cut guru. I lived about five hours from Chicago at the time and figured by the time I added in costs of  the hotel, food, gas and the seminar itself the hard cost to me were going to be over $600.

Being self-employed I had to look at other  variables. Five hours driving each way and the seminar itself would cost me two days of down time. Two days where nothing was billed meaning the real cost where much more than $600. Sure I’d learn a few cost saving tips from the guru, might even make some interesting connections, but in the end I found a solution that worked better for me—I found DVD tutorials that included 47 hours of training for $300.

If you aren’t doing it already, start thinking of yourself as a small business owner. Sure you’re a creative person who writers screenplays, but don’t forget the business side. One of the key principles of any business is to make every purchase an investment. When I had a corporate video producing gig I looked forward to attending seminars in Seattle, Washington and Rockport, Maine. Learned a lot, too. But these days I take advantage of lynda.com for $25 a month and the free seminars produced by creativeLIVE. (Less fresh king crab and lobster, but you have to make sacrifices in life.)

Keep in mind that all those free screenwriting blogs and podcasts cost you something—time. The books and seminars cost you time and money. Undergraduate and graduate degrees can take a lot of time and a lot of money. None of use will make great decisions 100% of the time.  But crunch the numbers, asks questions, and move forward.

“Repeatedly, after reading a screenplay, I asked myself in amazement how the author could possibly think that the story idea would be of interest to anyone besides him and maybe his mom. Had the writer even chosen a concept that had the slightest degree of interest, uniqueness, or artistic and commercial potential, he would have already elevated his screenplay into the top 10 percent.”
Michael Hauge
Writing Screenplays That Sell
(Chapter 2 on Story Concept)

If you’re like many writers you have a computer list or shoebox full of story ideas and concepts. One option is to jealously guard that concept until you send the script out, another is talking to the one or two friends whose opinions you cherish (if one of your friends is Steven Spielberg that’s a bonus) , and another option now is using Adam Levenberg’s concept consultation.

P.S. Years ago I shopped a coming of age story—my Stand By Me-type script—and one production company fellow was kind enough to tell me I had made a big mistake. I didn’t have a single castable adult character of any weight. He went on to explain how a strong adult lead was needed to get funding and hope to attract  people to the movie. I went back and watched Stand By Me and sure enough there was the Richard Dreyfuss and Kiefer Sutherland roles.  I went back and watched The Sandlot and sure enough there was the James Earl Jones character. That’s the kind of stuff that you gotta know at the concept stage.

Related Post:
Screenwriting Books (Touches on Adam’s book The Starter Screenplay.)
Investing in Screenwriting
Screenwriting is Expensive

Related Links: Think Hallewood  “Why do most concepts suck?—Christopher Lockhart

Scott W. Smith

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“You’ve got to find a way of saying it without saying it.”
Duke Ellington

My message is simple—put down the megaphone! Megaphones have a useful purpose. I used to use one when I took photos of large groups of people. It was the only way to be heard. But when writing screenplays there are more subtle ways to be heard. Often times it’s just a simple action or a single sentence. And the real danger when you pull out the megaphone in a movie theater is it tends keep people out of the theater.

In the post Writing from Theme (Tip #20) I covered the importance of theme and in a later post (More Thoughts on Theme)  found this little nugget :

“Themes in screenwriting can be tricky because in real-life we love to talk about our themes—share our philosophies of life, tell people our beliefs about life’s meaning. But themes we talk about are not our life’s real themes. Out true themes are lived out by our actions. “
Linda Seger
Making a Good Writer Great
page 71-72

And I know this is an area that is a little subjective, but I’m going to tread on that delicate topic of  theme and message. The line for me is really blurred between the differences. (And some say it’s fair to use them interchangeably.)  So let me just say that every film addresses some point of view (yes, even Porkey’s) that the audience receives in one degree or another. (And The Matrix proves that not everyone will agree what that message is.)

Joe Eszterhas has written about how he’s received many letters and heard first hand accounts of people who told them they were motivated to follow their dreams after watching the film Flashdance that he wrote (co-written with Thomas Hedley Jr.) after hearing the simple line ,”When you let go of your dream, you die,” and watching Jennifer Beals follow her dream.

Frank Darabont has heard similar stories about his film The Shawshank Redemption. Who doesn’t get motivated by the message/theme, “Get busy living, or get busy dying.” Anyone know if that line is even in the Stephen King short story that Shawshank was based on?

Here are a couple more quotes to throw into the mix as you walk that fine line in your own scripts between subtle theme and overt propaganda.

“If a writer has a genuine story to tell, as opposed to a message to smuggle in, and is faithful to his storytelling and skillful in technique, the audience may get a message. In fact, they may get more and deeper messages than the audience ever intended. But for that to happen, the work must be a  compelling story, not a homily, and the characters must come to life in some real sense. It can’t be a puppet show in which the author simply stands behind his characters with a bullhorn.”
K.L. Billingsley
The Seductive Image

“In life, we lead by example. In storytelling, we make our points by showing the world what’s wrong with it through characters who say and do things that are so very wrong.  Avoid speeches.  Show things going wrong in your protag’s world to make your points and create meaning.  Everything that goes right for your protag goes wrong for the story.”
Mystery Man on Film
Who is John Galt? article at The Story Department

“Didactic screenplays sacrifice character and story to prove the theme correct. This results in propaganda, a story in which the characters are only mouthpieces for the author’s message.”
Robin U. Russin and William Missouri Downs
Screenplay, Writing the Picture

“Don’t have your hero come right out and say what he’s learned. This is obvious and preachy and will turn off you audience. Instead you want to suggest your hero’s insight by the actions he takes leading up to self-revelation.”
John Truby
The Anatomy of Story

If you want to say something important, God bless you, but the world already has enough preachers. What the world needs now (besides love, sweet love) is more storytellers who thrill and entertain; and after you’ve been enthralled by the wonderous tale of the master yarn-spinner, you might find that the good storytelling also includes subtle messages which are covertly hung on the clothesline of compelling story.”
Richard Krevolin
Screenwriting for the Soul
page 75

Scott W. Smith


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“The premise is the motivating power behind everything we do.”
Lajos Egri
The Art of Dramatic Writing

Lajos Egri interchanges the words premise with purpose. As in what’s the purpose of your story. This is not to be confused with plot. Egri writes, “A good premise is a thumbnail synopsis of your play,” and gives some examples;

Foolish generosity leads to poverty.
Honesty defeats duplicity.
Bragging leads to humiliation.
Craftiness digs its own grave.
Egotism leads to loss of friends.
Extravagance leads to destitution.
Ruthless ambition leads to its own destruction.

That last one could be Macbeth… or more recently Bernie Madoff.

Egri writes that the premise must not be ambiguous (Love defines all) and it must be something you believe. It comes out of your convictions. And it may come later in your writing.

Egri explains, “You don’t have to start your play with a premise. You can start with a character or an incident, or even a simple thought. This thought or incident grows, and the story slowly unfolds itself. You have time to find your premise in the mass of your material later. The important this is to find it.”

Robert McKee calls this the “controlling idea.” John Truby calls it the “moral argument.” Others call it “the moral of the story.” It doesn’t matter what you call it as long as you have one – and just one.

Egri explains, “No one can build a play on two premises, or a house on two foundations.”

Now, with all that said…I do think there are plenty of produced screenwriters that not only don’t only start with a premise, but are generally unaware that they even have one. Stanley D. Williams addresses this in his book The Moral Premise:

Successful writers do not need to understand the rules of every story to be successful, anymore than a young child needs to understand the dynamic stability laws of physics when they learn to walk. Although I think a writer is better off knowing what the rules are, whereas dynamic stability only matters to engineers who want to make robots walk on two legs…But in reality, for many creative tasks, the right brain is able to do just fine all by itself.”

Scott W. Smith

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I’d hate to admit to how many books on screenwriting I’ve read. I tend to agree you need just one to get you on track and then start writing. (And this blog, of course. Just for a little inspiration.) But with that said, I just starting reading John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story. 

Truby has been around a long time and has a lot of people who swear by his seminars. (Check out his website Truby’s Writers Studio.) I’m just a little slow coming to the table. But then again his book just came out in 2007. 

I think I’ll spend a few days pulling a few gems from his book. Here’s the first one.

“In the vast majority of stories, the hero’s overall change moves from slavery to freedom.”
                                                          John Truby 
                                                          The Anatomy of Story 
                                                          page 177 
Truby uses the word slavery to mean a way that life is out of balance. (Koyaaisqatsi, right?) Could be slavery to money, a career, an illness, an another person, a significant loss, a worldview, a prison, etc. The number 4 definition of The Free Dictionary reads, “The condition of being subject or addicted to a specified influence.” That’s a wide path.

That’s a simple thought but as I thought of several favorite films across many genres and I realized he’s right on track. Just off the top of my head I think these films would qualify the “slavery to freedom” concept:

Rocky
Good Will Hunting
Erin Brockovich
On the Waterfront
Big
Juno
Seabiscuit 
A Christmas Carol
Home Alone
Rain Man
Shawshank Redemption

Think about the script you’re writing now and ask how your main character is in slavery. That may help you if you’re having trouble finding an ending.

 

Scott W. Smith

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