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Posts Tagged ‘Robert McKee’

“I write dialogue fairly easily. Plot is a big pain in the ass.”
David Mamet

If you like discussing screenplay structure, and praising or blasting three act structure, then this post is for you. I’ll start out with an exchange between writer/director Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver) and writer/director Sean Baker (The Florida Project) taken from The Director’s Cut podcast that the DGA produced.

Paul Schrader: This film The Florida Project, which is really amazing, is part of a larger trend that I first noticed four or five years ago. And I called it at that time the exhaustion of narrative, because we see so much plot—so much narrative—in our lives, hour upon hour upon hour, that we’re growing tired of it, so we’re much more open now to things that amble and are anecdotal because they feel more real. We’re so tired of seeing those rusty gears of the three act structure crank, and you start to say; Okay, rising action, falling action, boom, boom, boom. Robert McKee has done none of us favor. So you saw it with Dunkirk, which is a big historical action piece but it’s done anecdotally. And you saw it with Detroit which meanders. And you see it here [with The Florida Project]. And I think that audiences find this more interesting than that heavy plotted stuff that we used to have 25 years ago. I don’t know if you agree with that.

Sean Baker: Well, read Twitter. I don’t know if that’s exactly true. First I just want to say Paul, thank you so much for doing this. You’ve been an inspiration and an influence on my entire career so thank you. Regarding [structure] my co-screenwriter Chris Bergosh actually comes from—our sensibilities are slightly different. He’s really is actually very structured in his writing, he likes the three act structure. I come from the other side of the spectrum where I can have a 10-minute Tarkovsky tracking shot that I’m intrigued by. We sort of meet somewhere in the middle. With this film in particular we kept saying—we’ve written three films together Starlet, Tangerine and [The Florida Project]—and I kept saying on this one, if there is a plot I want it to be disguised, I want it to be buried. I want the lines of our three act structure to be blurred, so it would be hard to figure out where the second and third act begin. And make this film more about character. We wanted the audience to spend a summer with this children. And if you think about your summers of your youth, it wasn’t exactly plot driven. There wasn’t a three act structure to your summer. So that’s how we approached it. 

Now we did take some precautions by writing scenes that didn’t make it into the final film, but we did it just out of safety sake. We actually had scenes that had more exposition, that actually did focus on just the adults, especially the ending it was much more procedural in the script. Hoping that it could come out, but shooting it for safety sake. And end the end we did remove a lot of that stuff and put back in what you might call extraneous scenes back in. For example, the kids dancing on the bed,  that’s not exactly something that pushes the plot forward or the story forward. …Almost like vignettes to a degree. Some people do have an issue with that, but for me ultimately I thinks it’s about connecting with these characters and having spent real time with them and not having every scene about exposition. 

There’s a lot to unpack there, but let me just defend traditional three act structure (and by association McKee since Schrader brought him into the discussion). Three act structure is simply a time proven tradition that’s been around for arguably decades of film, and hundreds (or even thousands of years) of theater. And it will be around forever. Even if it means some work being in four or five acts. (McKee, Syd Field, and others just pointed out what was common in many great films. It’s like blaming the hero’s journey on Joseph Campbell.)

No one is calling Pixar films or Spotlight and dozens of other recent solid traditionally structured films rusty.  Good story telling is good storytelling. Period. Paul Schrader has a brilliant mind and has had a long love affair with movies. But with that said he, like the critics who love The Florida Project, want to see something new. Baker and Bergosh delivered.  You only get that experience in cinema a few times a year. The Florida Project is the poster child for new and different this year.

The Florida Project deserves the praise it’s getting. But it was a risk to make because it is a character driven film that is mini-plot at best. It does build to a climax. But there is no major dramatic question in this movie. No stated goal. Just survival tactics. But there is plenty of what I’ve said are three of the most important things for a script/movie to have; conflict, and emotion. And they toss in several interesting characters who are a part of the end of the rope club.

They ride that train from the opening to the closing scene. And they can downplay the narrative because they made the film for “well under $2 million.” They weren’t going after a Titanic box office. They were going after a small audience. To date the film has made $3 million so they’re doing quite well.

It will do well at the award season and open new opportunities for Baker and Bergosh. But the death of three act structure is greatly exaggerated.  We need structure in our films, because so much of life is not structure. To get the broadest audience you have to wrap in a why that is accepted by the widest group of people. The three act structure (or any structure that works) is not going anywhere.

I think McKee once said something like 80% of all films fall under traditional structure, because it helps give the film a chance to making back its money. The Florida Project falls into that other 20% of films that are made. Heck, it’s hard for any film to find an audience—but even harder for those other 20%. The Florida Project is getting a welcomed standing ovation. (But with that said, I understand why someone would wonder five, ten, 20 minutes into the film, “What is this film about?” They may leave the theater before the movie is over.) But not all films need to be neatly explainable. When The Florida Project was over I felt like I got punched in the face. And it was a great feeling. And it’s way that movie is getting the hype it’s getting and will be remember for decades.

There’s not too many movies you can say that about.

One of my all time favorite films is Tender Mercies which could be considered mini-plot. But 30 years later that film still haunts me. Tender Mercies was directed by Australian Bruce Beresford and I’ve called it an American foreign film. My guess is that though Baker and Bergosh are Americans that one or both of them have had a steady diet of foreign films in their lifetime.

Let me close this with a graph from McKee’s book Story that touches on archplot, miniplot, and antiplot. There is no one way to make a great movie. And in the book he goes even deeper covering non-plot.

Mckee.jpg

P.S. Movies that are well structured but lack meaningful conflict and emotion tend to be boring and lifeless. No one is going to call The Florida Project boring and lifeless.

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
Story, page 198

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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“For your first screenplay, what I’m going to ask all of you is to think about your favorite films and what genre they are. Whatever that genre is, I want you to write that kind of script. If you don’t like murder mysteries, don’t write murder mysteries.”
Robert McKee
(Words that inspired filmmaker Edward Burns before he launched his career)

“I thought about what films I loved the most, I instantly knew the answer: Woody Allen movies. So I said to myself, ‘All right, I’m going to write whatever that genre is; whatever Woody’s genre is, that’s what I’m going to write.'”
Edward Burns

Back in 1995 filmmaker Edward Burns won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival with his debut film The Brothers McMullen. In his new book Independent Ed he recounts what led to that success giving assists to various college classes, Syd Fields’ book Screenplay, The Foundations of Screenwriting, Robert McKee’s story structure seminar, and working as a production assistant on Entertainment Tonight (ET) where he also found time to crank out “four or five screenplays” that didn’t get sold or produced.  After all that, he finally had an epiphany.

Then one day it hit me. What was it about The Last Picture Show and Marty and The 400 Blows that made me want to be a filmmaker in the first place? They were honest. They felt like they were written by people who had lived those stories. Then I thought about the story I had lived.

The Irish Americans were a big part of New York culture. They were an important in my New York City. And having grown up in a tight-knit Irish American family, surrounded by similar families, my world revolved around this community and culture.

I said to myself, “That’s what I’m going to write. These guys are going to be Irish. And they’re not going to be just passively Irish. I’m going to make them aggressively, nostalgically Irish.”

The sudden clarity I had was stunning. Woody Allen wrote and directed about the Jewish American New York experience; Martin Scorsese wrote and directed films about Italian American New York experience; and Spike Lee was writing and directing films about the African American New York experience. All these guys had carved their own niche. I had been asking what mine would be. Now I knew.
Director/Actor/Writer Edward Burns
Independent Ed: Inside My Career of Big Dreams, Little Movies, and the Twelve Best Days of My Life
Page 17

Related Posts:

Shrimp, Giants & Tyler Perry
‘Super Serving Your Niche’
Finding Your Voice
Syd Fields (1935-2013)
Can Your Identify?
Telling Our Own Shadow Stories )”I see shadows all of the time in my work—things from my life.” Robin Swicord)
Emotional Autobiography (“My work is emotionally autobiographical.” Tennessee Williams)

Scott W. Smith

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Epiphany: A moment in which you suddenly see or understand something in a new or very clear way.
Merriam-Webster definition 

“Inside each and every one of us is our one, true authentic swing. Something we was born with. Something that’s ours and ours alone. Something that can’t be learned… something that’s got to be remembered.”
Bagger Vance (Will Smith)
The Legend of Bagger Vance
Screenplay by Indiana-born Jeremy Leven, from a novel by Trinidad-born Steve Pressfield

There’s a mystical side to golf where, along with various sand traps and water hazards, there are inner demons to battle. Since it’s Good Friday, I thought a scene from The Legend of Bagger Vance would be fitting*. (I think it was screenwriter Gary Ross who said Seabiscuit is not a sports film about victory but about life’s struggle. (Same could be said about Rocky and many other fine films)

In this Robert Redford directed scene, Will Smith helps golfer Matt Damon work through his inner and outer struggles.

P.S. Steve Pressfield who wrote the novel The Legend of Bagger Vance: A Novel of Golf and the Game of Life is an avid golfer and counts screenwriting guru Robert McKee (Story) as his golfing buddy. He’s quoted as saying, “I’ve stolen concepts from Bob over and over and they’ve always worked. And he’s a pretty good golfer too.” He covers some of this ground in his book The War on Art. 

P.P.S. Bagger Vance screenwriter Jeremy Leven earned a graduate degree in Child Psychology from Harvard and was a fellow at Yale medical schools.

* In the book Gita on the Green: The Mystical Tradition Behind Bagger Vance by Steve Rosen (and a forward by Steve Pressfield) writes that Bagger Vance  was loosely based not  after the Christian tradition of light, but the ancient Hindu spiritual poem Bhagavad-Gita. But Pressfield is also Jewish so maybe we can say Bagger Vance, like The Shawshank Redemption and Groundhog Day, is more ecumenical than dogmatic.

Related posts:

Writing Quote #38 (Steve Pressfield)
“More Light”
‘Groundhog Day’ And Cheap Therapy
Screenwriting Quote #171 (Garry Marshall) Audiences like to watch characters whose lives change for the better.”
Screenwriting and Slavery to Freedom

Scott W. Smith

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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)
Ticking Clock (Tip #103)

Scott W. Smith

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“I wasn’t a character in the play, but that was my childhood.”
Alfred Uhry 
Speaking at a Master Workshop on his play Driving Miss Daisy 

Robert McKee vs. Richard Walter is not the latest MMA match-up. Just my way of showing how two well-respected screenwriting teachers can disagree on a fundamental point.

In light of several posts on emotional autobiography I think it’s a good time to address two different schools of thought. What Tennessee Williams called ’emotional autobiography’, I believe Richard Walter, chairman of the UCLA screenwriting program,  calls “identity” and “self-revelation.”

Walter believes strongly that writers “should tell their own personal story.” On the other hand, screenwriting instructor Robert McKee in his book STORY says that’s exactly what writers shouldn’t do. Screenwriting wars!

Mckee writes, “The ‘personal story’ is unstructured, slice-of-life portraiture that mistakes verisimilitude for truth. This writer believes that the more precise his observation of day-to-day facts, the more accurate his reportage of what actually happens, the more truth he tells. But fact, no matter how minutely observed, is truth with a small ‘t.”

This is how Walter, in his book Essentials of Screenwriting, explains his view:

“Decades spent writing and teaching have taught me that writers’ own personal stories are the only story they should write.

Even if a writer attempts vigorously to do otherwise, even if he works on an assignment writing a script for hire based on someone else’s idea, even an idea totally alien to his own experience, he will nonetheless end up telling nothing other that his own personal tale. Whatever the original concept, however specific, however narrow, in all instances is filtered through the peculiar sensibilities of the specific writer. In the end, despite himself, the writer will create a tale that is personal.
Why fight it?
My advice: Surrender.
It is one battle in which defeat actually amounts to victory.
Self-revelation lies, after all, at the center of not screenwriting alone but all creative expression.”

Interesting. Two well-respected teachers, and two totally different views. One calling the personal story where every writer should start and the other saying it’s the first typical mistake of the failed screenplay.

So who’s right? If you got the two instructors together, you could probably have a three-day conference discussing the topic. Is there any way, they could both be right?

I have seen many films (usually shorts) and read quite a few scripts that I would call small personal stories. Little or nothing happens in these stories and to use the words of  director/film teacher Alexander Mackendrick they tend to fall under the description, “Long, too long, much too long.” They’re personal, but they’re boring.

I think McKee is talking about literal personal stories. We cook, we iron, we type and so on. Personal everyday stuff. Perhaps all McKee means by “personal story” is what Hitchcock meant when he said,  “What is drama, after all, but life with the dull bits cut out.”

Walter in using “personal story” to address the big picture. We are writing about ourselves in terms of our deepest fears and desires. We are tapping into the core of our existence. It has nothing to do with ironing and typing,  but of a hunger for significance.

Rocky is a personal film, not because Stallone was once a club boxer whose day job was collecting money for loan sharks. But Rocky is a personal story because Stallone was once a struggling actor/writer who knew if he got a shot he could do something special.

If you read the backstories of screenwriters and directors time after time you will find that in the movies they’ve made they were telling an aspect of their own personal story. Hitchcock, Spielberg, and Scorsese are all personal storytellers.

The script I just finished is about a young, inexperienced cop in a small town in Iowa who is faced with solving the first murder in the town’s history. I’ve never been a cop in a small town in Iowa, but I am aware that the theme of the story deals with my own personal story. The power of theme in movies is what’s on screen interacts with the personal stories of those in the audiences.

McKee understands universal themes, so maybe at the end of the day maybe he and Walter can shake hands just say it’s a matter of semantics over what is meant by “personal story.”

Perhaps that’s why I  like about the phrase ’emotional autobiography.’ It’s less ambiguous. The King’s Speech and Toy Story 3 are recent examples that I’d consider emotional autobiography. In fact, I think the definition of Pixar is emotional autobiography.

The great thing about this film (Up) and any film we work on is that it contains truths taken from our lives. Pixar lets the directors create an ‘autobiography.’ In other words, things that are important to us make it into the film.
Director Bob Peterson (Up)

I’ve learned a lot from both McKee and Walter over the years. And, in screenwriting, like most creative disciplines you will find many different ways to approach your writing.  Find what works for you. And the best way to do that is keep cranking out the pages.

At the end of last year I was fortunate to interview Walter and over the next several days I will be posting several of his comments from that interview as well as pulling quotes from his various books. If you are unfamiliar with his work check out his website RichardWalter.com.

This is what one of his former students had to say about him;

“Richard Walter is the best screenwriting teacher in the business.”
Screenwriter  David Koepp
Jurassic Park, Carlito’s Way, Spider-Man

Scott W. Smith

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“The aesthetics of film are 80 percent visual, 20 percent auditory…The best advice for writing film dialogue is don’t.  Never write a line of dialogue when you can create a visual expression.”
Robert McKee
Story


“The silent pictures were the purest form of cinema; the only thing they lacked was the sound of people talking and the noises. But this slight imperfection did not warrant the major changes that sound brought in. In many of the films now being made, there is very little cinema. They are mostly what I call ‘photographs of people talking.’ When we tell a story in cinema, we should resort to dialogue only when it’s impossible to do otherwise. I always try first to tell a story in the cinematic way, through a succession of shots and bits of film in between… To me, one of the cardinal sins for a scriptwriter, when he runs into some difficulty, is to say ‘We can cover that by a line of dialogue.’ Dialogue should simply be a sound among sounds, just something that comes out of the mouths of people whose eyes tell the story in visual terms.”
Alfred Hitchcock

Hitchcock did a pretty good job himself of telling visual stories. Watch the great filmmakers and see how they do a masterful job of showing, not telling. And great examples are not  just found in the old classics films of Chaplin, Hitchcock and John Ford— but right up to modern times with the good folks at Pixar.

Scott W. Smith



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“God help you if you use voice-over in your work my friends. God help you! That’s flaccid, sloppy writing. Any idiot can write voice-over narration to explain the thoughts of the character.”
Robert McKee (played by Brian Cox) in Adaptation

“You see, the body of a young man was found floating in the pool of her mansion – with two shots in his back and one in his stomach. Nobody important, really. Just a movie writer with a couple of ‘B’ pictures to his credit.”
William Holden VO in Sunset Blvd.

Last night I watched The Holiday listening to the director’s commentary by writer/director Nancy Meyers and she mentioned that while writing The Holiday that she watched Billy Wilder’s The Apartment three times. I haven’t quoted Wilder in a while so now is as good a time as any unearth another one from the great six-time Oscar winner.

In some circles having voice-over narration is taboo, but Wilder didn’t shy away from it. Heck, Wilder (and additional writers  Charles Brackett & D.M. Marshman, Jr.) in Sunset Blvd. even had a dead guy give VO. And the writers won an Oscar for the story. Granted that was 60 years ago, but is voice-over narration really sloppy writing?

What about these films?

The Shawshank Redemption
Forrest Gump
Days of Heaven
Taxi Driver
To Kill A Mockingbird
The Big Lebowski
Election
A Christmas Story
Goodfellas
Stand by Me
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
Fight Club
The Usual Suspects
American Beauty
The Princess Bride
Double Indemnity

 

Unless someone changed the definition of sloppy writing there isn’t a whole lot of fat in those films. And just for good measure, Nancy Meyers is fond of using voice-over narration and she’s the most successful female box office money-making director. And she takes her lead in the voice-over department from Wilder.

“In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they’re seeing.”
Billy Wilder
Billy Wilder’s sreenwriting tips as told to Cameron Crowe

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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