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Posts Tagged ‘Ron Bass’

“Find what gave you emotion: what the action was that gave you excitement. Then write it down making it clear the reader can see it too.”
Ernest Hemingway (The Old Man and the Sea)

“For me, it’s about setup and payoff. I try to set things up so that they pay off in a way I hope evokes a strong reaction,”
Eric Roth (Forrest Gump)

“What you are doing is feeling the emotions that your characters are feeling, and finding the best way to express those emotions in the most powerfully felt, truthful, effective, moving way to yourself.”
Ron Bass (Rain Man)

The title 40 Days of Emotions sounds epic and Biblical, so I brought out the big guns (Hemingway, Roth, Bass) to lead off this post that marks the end of 40 consecutive days writing about emotions in regard to screenwriting and filmmaking.

I didn’t start out with this 40-day goal in mind. I was inspired by the book Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias (all the above quotes above were pulled from that book or his other book, The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters) and I got on the emotion train and it just kept going.

What make emotions so powerful in screenwriting and movie making is they are closely connected to conflict and theme—two areas that are crucial in connecting with an audience. If you wonder how a film can have a good plot, solid structure, and interesting characters, and be totally unremarkable I’d blame it on the writers and filmmakers failing to make an emotional connection with the audience.

Over the years I’ve written about writers who start with plot, character, theme, or a situation.  But I had never heard about a writer starting from emotion until I read that’s how Tennessee Williams started his plays.

“Some screenwriters, and many playwrights, begin with the emotional story, or inner story…They layer key dramatic moments between the protagonist and antagonist in conflict with each other, creating heightened emotional moments that serve as climaxes and story beats. By intuiting  the depth of character conflict, without emphasizing plot and structure, they work through the unconscious movement of the story by way of external character, revealing ‘story’ as a by-product. Tennessee Williams worked this way.”
Kate Wright
Storytelling is Screenwriting

Recently I listened to an old CD (circa 1951) recording of The Glass Menagerie written by Tennessee and featuring Montgomery Clift as Tom. The emotional symbolism Tennessee uses is powerful stuff. Four actors, one apartment, one mediocre recording, and it still has plenty of emotional impact.

It’s fitting that I close this post with what I consider the most emotional scene I personally have ever scene on film. It’s from the film Glory that I saw in the theaters when it opened in 1989. While it’s the film where Denzel Washington won his first Oscar, it’s the first time I recalled ever seeing him on screen. Part of what gave the scene below its impact on me was I wasn’t watching a movie star or even an actor. It was like I was in that moment. That’s an emotional connection.

(This You Tube clip doesn’t compare to the experience of seeing it on the big screen. You don’t really see the scars, the twitch, the tear or know the backstory that leads to this powerful moment—but here it is just the same.)

When we use terms like head and heart to separate intellect and emotions it’s really a metaphor. Because emotion really does flow from the brain as well. Perhaps a different part than the logic part, but emotion is not anti-intellectual. Part of what gives that scene from Glory its emotion impact is knowing the history of slavery in the United States and the resulting racism that overflowed into our culture.

“I was called a nigger almost every day in Texas.”
Oscar-winning actor Jamie Foxx (Ray) born in 1967
O, The Oprah Magazine

In ’65 tension was running high at my high school
There was a lot of fights between the black and white

There was nothing you could do…
Bruce Springsteen (Graduated in 1967 from Freehold High School in New Jersey.)
My Hometown 

Personally it’s growing up in Florida in the 60s & 70s and being well aware of racial tensions. I was aware of the Ku Klux Klan. I remember what a cultural event it was in the pre-internet, pre-cable Tv days of 1977 when Alex Haley’s Roots first aired. It was said that 85% of the homes in the United States saw some of the eight part series and the final episode was watched 100 million viewers. (The Roots finale is still the number #3 watched Tv program in U.S. history.)  It won eight Emmy Awards including Best Writing in a Drama Series—Ernest Kinoy and William Blinn (for part II).

I doubt that if Roots aired today that it would be anywhere near the cultural phenomenon it was back in 1977.  We live a world a way from there. (Not perfect, but a long way from 1977.) I remember back in the late 70s when the debate around Tampa Bay QB Doug Williams was whether blacks could really be successful playing quarterback. Seriously. Williams went on to be the MVP of Super Bowl XXII with Washington. And also since 1977 we’ve seen the rise of successful and visable African-American leaders like Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan and President Obama.

All that to say that emotion is not void of thinking—it’s not disconnected from cognitive knowledge. The opening scene of Saving Private Ryan was emotional for me even though I was never in the military. But I imagine if you were in the military during World War II, or Korea, or Viet Nam, the Gulf War, Afghanistan or Iraq—or really any war in any country—that that scene would have even a deeper emotional impact because of your personal life experiences and the memories and knowledge you have of watching those around you die in battle.

Lastly, the screenplay for Glory was written by Detroit-born Kevin Jarre (who passed away earlier this year) and the movie was directed by Edward Zwick.  The script was nominated for a WGA award, but lost to Alfred Uhry/Driving Miss Daisy. Jarre told the L.A. Times of Glory, “I never thought I could interest anybody in it. A Civil War epic, about black people. But I’d got really attached to the story….I’d end up in tears when I got through writing.”

Notice in the scene above how many words it takes for Denzel to communicate a wide range of emotions—zero. There have been enough people over the years pounding “structure-structure-structure” that I think it’s time to balance that with “write visual stories full of emotional meaning.”

So there you have it—from Hitchcock to Hemingway and beyond—40 days on the importance of emotion. For good measure let’s memorize one sentence written by Karl Iglesias; “Emotion is your screenplay’s lifeblood.” 

P.S. From the odd connection department—Screenwriter Craig Mazin (The Hangover II) also graduated from Freehold High School where Springteen attended.

Scott W. Smith

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“What interested me about the story (of the Dalai Lama) was how a young man who lived in a society based on the spirit, found himself in conflict with a strongly anti-religious society, the Maoist government of the Chinese communists. How does a man of non-violence deal with these people?”
Martin Scorsese

“A dog is not considered a good dog because he is a good barker. A man is not considered a good man because he is a good talker.”
Siddhartha

As unlikely as it sounds, the Dalai Lama will be speaking today in Cedar Falls, Iowa.  Since I moved here in 2003 I’ve come to almost expect these kind of things. After all, just in the last few years Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman have performed here, and Rudy Giuliani and Barack Obama stumped here.

So I wouldn’t say this is a typical small town of 35,000 people. The Dalai Lama will speak a of couple times on education at the University of Northern Iowa.

There are many kinds of Buddhist (sort of like denominations among Protestants), but the one I am most familiar with is the Hollywood Buddhist. Richard Gere being the leader of the pack and who recently did the narration for The Buddha which recently aired on PBS. Harrison Ford did the narration for the documentary Dalai Lama Renaissance. Martin Scorsese directed Kundun, based on the life and writings of the Dalai Lama. And Brad Pitt starred in Seven Years in Tibet. (Not that they all claim to be Buddhist, but there is a connection, and much of what the average person in America knows about Buddhism flows from those sources.)

Others linked with Buddhism in Hollywood are Sharon Stone,  Orlando Bloom, and Oliver Stone. (Scorsese and others are interviewed in the John Halpern documentary Refuge, which is a look at why Buddhism is so popular in the West.)

Melissia Mathison, who wrote the screenplay for The Black Stallion as well as E.T., wrote the script for Kundan. The Scorsese directed film is based on the life of the Dalai Lama and the political struggles between Tibet and China. In an interview Mathison did with Erin Free she had this to say about writing the script for Kundun:

“I buried myself in research, and I loved it. I had to learn about the people, the religion, the history and it was all quite fantastic and tantalising. I read everything I could find on Tibet and this went on for a couple of years. So that was the basis. I also did interviews with lots of people, including His Holiness, the Dalai Lama… It was wonderful. I would send him questions and his secretary would fax me back the answers. I took a couple of different drafts at different times to India and read through them with him. You could imagine what a pleasure it was.”

The script for Seven Years in Tibet was written by Becky Johnston. (Johnston was nominated for an Oscar for her script Prince of Tides.) She also did a great deal of research on the religion and met for a short time with the Dalai Lama. Both Seven Years in Tibet and Kundun came out in 1997. (For whatever reason both of those films were the last film credits for both Johnston and Mathison.)

That’s as close as I could find of American screenwriters with any ties to any kind of Buddhism. William Froug did write two volumes of Zen and the Art of Screenwriting, though the title really is just a play on Robert Pirsig’s book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. But Froug does include a quote in the second volume by screenwriter Ron Bass that I think is a pretty wise quote about life and the stories we tell; “It’s all one story really, the story of who we are and how we relate and how we get it wrong.”

Scott W. Smith

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Finding time to write is one of the biggest struggles for those writers with jobs and a family. But there are many stories of writers like John Grisham (The Firm) and Ron Bass (Rain Man) waking up at 5 A.M. to write before their day jobs. Now I’ve discovered another that is in that club:

“I began training for the writing life in 1951, getting up at 5:00 A.M. and writing for two hours before going to work at an ad agency. My one rule; I had to start writing, get into a scene, before I could put on coffee. Two pages a day in the early hours allowed me to turn out five books, all westerns, and over 30 short stories in the next ten years.”
                                  Elmore Leonard
                                  (Three-Ten to Yuma, Get Shorty
                                  AARP The Magazine
                                  page 29

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“I was just a guy with a pen and paper and an idea for a book.”
Sebastian Junger
Author of The Perfect Storm

“Writing is sweat and drudgery most of the time. And you have to love it in order to endure the solitude and the discipline.”
Peter Benchley
Author of Jaws

Yesterday I had a video shoot in Cedar Rapids and ate lunch the Irish Democrat Pub & Grille which is the kind of local, non-chain restaurant many people hope to find when they stop in a new town. I’m not sure if their cheese wontons are Irish but they were good.  The place has been around for more than 20 years and taps into that whole John F. Kennedy thing for their theme.

Somehow Kennedy, a Harvard grad, got me thinking about screenwriters from Massachusetts. A lot of talent has flowed through that state because of the colleges.  In fact, look at this list of writers who’ve attended Harvard alone and have had their books and screenplays made into movies:

Frank Pierson  (Dog Day Afternoon) 1976 Oscar winner
James Agee (The African Queen) 1952 Oscar nomination
James Torback (Bugsy), 1991 Oscar nomination
Whit Stillman (Metropolitan) 1991 Oscar nomination
Ron Bass (Rain Man) 1988 Oscar winner (shared with Barry Morrow)
Philip Kaufman (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) 1989 Oscar Nomination
Erich Segal (Love Story) 1971 Oscar Nomination
Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line) 1999 Oscar Nomination
Douglas Kenney (co-writer Animal House, Caddyshack) Co-founder of National Lampoon magazine
Norman Mailer (The Executioner’s Song) 1983 Primetime Emmy Nomination
Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream)
Sooni Taraporevala (Salaam Bombay!)
William S. Burroughs (Naked Lunch)
John Updike (Rabbit, Run)
George Plimpton (Paper Lion)
Ben Mezrich (21)
Ethan Canin (The Emperor’s Club)
Scott Turow (Presumed Innocent)
Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park)
Peter Benchley (Jaws) Novel and co-wrote script that became the first film to make over $100 million
Matt Damon (Good Will Hunting) 1998 Oscar winner
Robert Rodat (Saving Private Ryan) Oscar-nomination

Eugene O’Neill (Long Day’s Journey Into Night) winner of four Pulitzer Prizes for drama studied playwriting at Harvard and honed his craft writing one-act melodramas for the Provincetown Players on the northern tip of Cape Cod.  From there he became one of a handful of giants in American theater.

While he was born in New York and found his greatest success on Broadway, O’Neil is one more example of someone developing their talent in smaller towns.

But not all writers from Massachusetts have had the benefit of a Harvard connection. In fact, there is one writer from Belmont, Massachusetts who is a nice role model for this entire blog. Sebastian Junger was armed with a degree in cultural anthropology (from Wesleyan College in Connecticut) when he kicked around as a freelance writer until he had an accident while working as a tree cutter in 1991.

In just so happened that at the same time a six fishermen who had left Gloucester on the Andrea Gale died at sea. Junger became fascinated by what happened and used his down time recovering from his injury to write an article, that became a book, that inspired the movie The Perfect Storm.

Junger writes in the introduction of The Perfect Storm:

“My own experience in the storm was limited to standing on Gloucester’s Back Shore watching thirty-foot swells advance on Cape Ann, but that was all it took. The next day I read in the paper that a Gloucester boat was feared lost at sea, and I clipped the article and stuck it in a drawer. Without even knowing it, I had begun to write The Perfect Storm.”

But what really separates him from everyone else who heard about that story is he followed his curiosity and eventually did the research, wrote the article, then the book that became a #1 New York Times Bestseller and a George Clooney movie. He ended up on Oprah, with a career as a writer, and even part owner of The Half King bar and restaurant in New York.

Of course, Massachusetts has a long literary tradition going way back to the Puritans founding the Massachusetts Bay in Colony in 1630, and then with Thoreau, Hawthorne and Emerson that I won’t touch on here. I’m not as interested in an exhaustive history lesson as much as encouraging you to write.

But the well does appear deep in Massachusetts. And here’s one more example for you to focus on your writing not where you live:

“New York’s playwright find of the year (Eugene O’Neill) lives obscurely in a clean little cottage, miles from nowhere on Cape Cod.”
Olin Downs
Boston Sunday Post (August 1920)

Update November 2008: Screenwriters from Boston may be interested in the Screenwriting Certificate Program at Emerson College and the group that calls itself New England’s oldest screenwriters network is the Harvard Square Scriptwriters. If you are interested is shooting in Massachusetts contact the Massachusetts Film Office. Paul Sherman has a book out called Big Screen Boston that goes into detail about some of the many movies that have been made in the Boston area.

Update June 2010: Just learned that two-time Oscar winner Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo) is from Rockport, Massachusetts.

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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Years ago, philosophers Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren wrote a serious book called How to Read a Book. In it, they mentioned that unless you’d read a book three times, you really handn’t read the book. That is, you hadn’t digested the book. I wonder how many of the estimated 1.7 billion DVDs sold last year were viewed more than once (not counting Finding Nemo).

The best way to watch a movie in order to grow as a screenwriter and filmmaker is to watch it over an over again. Writer/director Frank Darabont admits that, on his days off while making The Shawshank Redemption, “I would just watch Goodfellows again and again…just for inspiration.”

Director Mike Nichols (The Graduate) once commented that anyone wanting to be a film director should watch George Stevens’ classic, A Place in the Sun 50 times. In fact, the single best class I had in film school was taught by a professor who showed us A Place in the Sun and afterwards asked us questions like “what sounds and visuals do you associate with the Shelly Winters’ character?” and “What music is playing whenever Elizabeth Taylors’ character appears?” It was the first time I really saw the intentionality of a filmmaker.

Film school was also the first time I was challenged to watch a film with the sound turned off and then just listening to the audio. Just out of school as VHS machines finally became affordable is when I began to break down movies scene for scene and to time the length of scenes as well.

Repeated viewing take you to a deeper understanding and appreciation of film. And now with DVDs and the like you can easily locate a single memorable scene, allowing you insights on how lighting, editing, pacing, economy of writing, direction, music sound effects and performance all come together for maximum impact.

While many DVDs come with extras, the real gold is in the commentaries. I’m not talking about the ones with film professors and critics, but the real nuggets that come from the writers and directors who made the film.

One DVD that I recommend you invest your time studying is the 15th Anniversary edition of Rain Man. The film, winner of “Best Picture” Oscar in 1988, has been out long enough to stand the test of time and be considered a modern-day classic. One aspect that separates it from the DVD pack is its three commentaries.

The director, Barry Levinson, the original writer Barry Marrow, and the rewrite writer, Ron Bass, offer more than six hours of insights that warrant repeated listening as well as the film itself.

The commentaries on Rain Man expose the collaborative process at its best. At one point, Steven Spielberg was set to direct, and had spent many months working with Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise on their characters and mulling over script ideas with Bass. You learn how difficult it was to get the film made even with top talent attached.

Levinson explains how he sought to shoot in a way that would give the audience glimpses of how Hoffman’s autistic savant character saw patterns in the world. And he notes that his direction was designed to show that Cruise was as handicapped (relationaly) as his brother, making the film a journey of two broken people connecting.

Rain Man works on so many levels (psychologically, visually, emotionally, and performance-wise) that you can begin to appreciate its depth only by repeated viewings.

So don’t concern yourself with watching films just to check them off your AFI Greatest Films list. Invest in couple DVDs of your favorite movies that you’ve heard good things about the commentary and watch those–study those–repeatedly. And like Van Gogh studying a Rembrandt painting, you will be partaking in a timeless creative tradition.

Here is a short list of my favorite DVD commentaries:

The Godfather; Francis Ford Coppola commentary

Stand by Me; Directing inexperienced actors and using improvisation

Seabiscuit; On adapting a film from a best-selling book

The Shawshank Redemption (15th Anniversary Edition); Frank Darabont and “Happy Accidents”

Pieces of April: On funding falling through and finally making the low-budget movie in 16 days.

Big: Commentary with writers Gary Ross and Annie Spielberg which has original excerpts of when they were writing the original script before they had ever had a script produced. Great stuff.

Copyright ©2008 Scott W. Smith

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Thanks in part to the plethora of new books and seminars on screenwriting, a new phenomenon is taking over Hollywood: Major scripts are skillfully, seductively shaped, yet they are soulless. They tend to be shiny but superficial.”

                            Richard Walter
UCLA Screenwriting Professor

 “Where do we go to solves life’s problems? We go to the movies… Stories are the language of the heart.”

John Eldredge

In my post “Screenwriting by Numbers” I pointed out some basic numbers common to the majority of produced screenplays. But now we’re going to go beyond mere numbers and talk about what make movies work beyond the level of entertainment.

The only time I watch cable TV is when I’m on the road. And it seems like every trip I take The Shawshank Redemption is on some channel. Maybe they should just dedicate a channel to that movie.  The Shawshank Channel. The simple reason that film is on so much is people love that film. It trades places with The Godfather on IMDB.com as fans’ favorite film.

It’s the highest rated film by Yahoo! Movies and by the 2006 the readers of Empire magazine.

The Shawshank Redepmtion is a movie people identify with. Not because they were once in a prison in Ohio back in the day, but because through all of life’s danger, toils and snares — we need hope. We can sympathize with Andy Dufresne and his predicament. An early Jimmy Buffett song comes to mind, “There’s nothing soft about hard times.”

For any writer looking for excuses don’t look to Stephen King. Long before he wrote the novella that would become The Shawshank Redemption he was an unpublished writer with a stack of rejections, teaching high school English in Hampden, Maine and living in a trailer with his wife and kid and having trouble making ends meet. He wrote his first novel (Carrie) in a laundry room balancing a typewriter on his knees. (Please read the February 12 post Screenwriters Head Back-to-Work (Tip #2) if you want to get rid of the “artist” monkey on your back.)

Once King had success then he had to deal with a drug and alcohol addiction as well as getting hit by a van while the driver was reaching for “one of those Mars bars.” A collapsed lung, a broken leg in nine places, a shattered hip and after who knows how much physical therapy and pain, he is still writing away.

Stephen King understands hard times.

We understand hard times. That’s a universal theme that doesn’t need explaining.

“Sometimes there just aren’t enough rocks.”
                 Forrest Gump, (While Jenny throws rocks at the house she grew up in.)

“Are you going to be something else I have to survive?”
                                                                                          Erin Brockovich
“I coulda been somebody.”
                                                                                          On the Waterfront 

“You don’t throw a whole life away just cause it’s banged up a little.”
 Seabiscuit 

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”
William Butler Yeats
poem, The Second Coming 

“You’re breaking up with me?! I thought you were proposing.”
                                                                                          Legally Blonde

“I wish I could tell you that Andy fought the good fight, and the Sisters let him be. I wish I could tell you that, but prison is no fairy-tale world.”
                                                                             The Shawshank Redemption 


I think Shawshank’s ongoing popularity is because the story simply transcends film. Director Frank Darabont talks about getting many letters from people thanking him for making that film because it helped them through a difficult time in their life.

It’s doubtful that when King wrote the Shawshank story or when Darabont wrote the script that either were thinking that this male dominated prison story would bring comfort to a woman going through a divorce. But good stories have a way of creeping into our lives in unexpected ways.

In seminars I’ve given it’s amazing to see how the same films pop up when I ask what films people watch over and over again:

The Wizard of Oz
Forrest Gump
Apollo 13
Star Wars
Casablanca
When Harry Met Sally
Princess Bride
Good Will Hunting
Rain Man
Raiders of the Lost Ark
The Sound of Music
Braveheart

Something resonates in those films with large groups of people. I heard director Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, Back to the Future) recently say on a DVD commentary that his films were a mixture of spectacle and humanity. I think that would be true of most of the above films.

When we write we are writing about ourselves. A good part of writing is self-discovery. The odds are good that in the films you see over and over again you are identifying with a character or a situation.

This is where we tap into writing beyond the numbers. It’s the reason that films that don’t fit the typical Hollywood mold find an audience.

Have you ever walked into a show home and been impressed at first only to feel that it’s well decorated but impersonal? The house I grew up in had a place in our kitchen where we had a growth chart on a wall. It was fun to look back over the years and see how you had grown. I’ve never seen a growth chart in a show home. No worn out carpet, no stacks of paper, no drawings by the kids on the refrigerator. Nothing authentic. No sign of life.

Just as your home should be full of stories and memories- and life- so should your screenplays.

“There should be something in the writing that indicates that it was written by a person.”

William Zinsser
On Writing Well

What sets your writing apart? The same thing that sets you apart from the crowd.

Your vision, your life experiences, and your worldview. It is why first time writers (like Diablo Cody) sometimes break in with an original story. (By the way, speaking of Cody, the Juno DVD is out this week.) This is also where Screenwriting from Iowa…or wherever you live outside LA comes into play big time. Here is why I think writers from outside LA, or writers in LA that keep their hometown non-LA roots, have a better chance of showing audiences something new.

“If you try to write honestly about yourself, you’re writing about every single individual in the world.”
                                                                 Walter Brown Newman
Oscar & Emmy nominated Screenwriter

I heard a speaker once say that basically we all grew up in the same neighborhood. I took that to mean we all long for the same basic things; Food, shelter, love, dignity, purpose.

Primal needs as Blake Snyder would say.

You don’t have to be a salesman to identify with Willy Loman’s need for significance in Death of a Salesman.

Sometimes as writers we jump through all kinds of strange hoops trying to guess what will sell. We err on one side by trying to write the sensational story that everyone will love and on the other side by writing the small personal story where nothing really happens.

“It’s all one story, really, the story of who we are and how we relate and how we get it wrong.”
                                                                                                Ron Bass
Rain Man

“We spend much of our lives trying to reconcile these two halves of our spirit and soul — call it identity –as we struggle to figure out just what and who we genuinely are…The reason we go to movies is precisely to explore these perpetually unanswerable questions regarding our identity.”

                                                                                                   Richard Walter

Think how these films deal with the theme of identity (who am I?):

Babe
Big
Toy Story
Shriek
Stand By Me
Fight Club
Elf
Lion King
Finding Nemo
Seabiscuit
An Officer and a Gentleman
Sense and Sensibility
Office Space
The Incredibles

They’re all about identity. Yes, we can identify with not only people, but pigs, orges, fish, and horses.

“Each film tells a story in which the central character seeks only to discover his own true identity.”

     Richard Walter

We never know how high we are, until we are called to rise and then if we are true to form, our statues touch the skies.”

Emily Dickinson

“I finally became the man I always wanted to be.”

Jerry Maguire, mission statement
written by Cameron Crowe


“Good writing is about telling the truth. We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are.”

                 Anne Lamont 

“Stories are equipment for living”

Kenneth Burke

One of the female writers at a seminar I once gave said movies were cheap therapy. Perhaps you’ve seen the book Cinematherapy which develops with that concept. And cinematherapy is not just a chick thing. Once when I was at Blockbuster I saw a guy pick up Braveheart to rent and his girlfriend said, “You’ve watched that 100 times,” to which he said, “And I’ll watch it 100 more times.”

We want to be the hero of our story and we are inspired by heroes of stories we read and watch. We identify with them. We identify with William Wallace, Hans Solo, Erin Brockovich and Cinderella.

Not all films have identity themes but those that do tend to not only have a long following, but they tend to do well at award time as Linda Seger points out in her book Advanced Screenwriting, “If we look at some Academy Award winners of the 1980s and 1990s, we can see an identity theme shimmering though the philosophical, theological, and/or psychological ideas.”

That trend hasn’t stopped in the 2000s, nor is it likely to as longs as human beings roam the earth.

 “Get busy living, or get busy dying.”

                                                                                 The Shawshank Redemption

Get busy writing, too.

Related posts:
Broken Wings & Silver Linings
Writing from Theme (Tip #20)
Diablo Cody on Theme
Theme=What Yor Movie is Really About

 

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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“My psychological state when I start a screenplay is always the same. It’s a mix of fear, anxiety and insecurity.”
Akiva Goldsman, Oscar winner (A Beautiful Mind)

“Who is your hero, what does he want, and what stands in his way?”
Paddy Chayefsky (Network)
Three-time Oscar winner


How do you start your story? Something must happen to set your story in motion. Some call this an inciting incident, a hook, or a catalyst.  When this event or situation happens it disrupts the life of your protagonist. It sets them on a quest.

It must be a dynamic event. An event that rocks their world and one in which they must fight to correct. And most of the times the inciting incidents are easy to spot.

Juno finds out she’s pregnant (Juno)

E.T. misses his ride (E.T.)

The Italian Stallion is chosen to fight for the championship (Rocky)

A shark eats a girl on a late night swim in the ocean (Jaws)

A sports agent writes a controversial mission statement  (Jerry Maguire)

Zack Mayo signs up for officer training (An Officer and a Gentleman)

Dr. Richard Kimble’s wife is killed (The Fugitive)

Miss Daisy wrecks her car (Driving Miss Daisy)

Charlie Kane dies just after saying “Rosebud”  (Citizen Kane)

Jack wins a ticket on the Titanic boat (Titanic)

Thinking she’s getting engaged her boyfriend break-ups with her (Legally Blond)

Charlie Babbit’s gets news that his dad is dead (Rain Man)

Nemo is captured by fishermen (Finding Nemo)

The war happens (The Pianist)

A Helicopter is shot down (Black Hawk Down)

Ferris takes the day off (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off)

Will solves a difficult mathematical equation (Good Will Hunting)

The oven breaks on Thanksgiving day (Pieces of April)

A large family goes on vacation leaving a child behind (Home Alone)

A law grad takes an offer for what looks like the perfect job (The Firm)

The movie opens with a man face down in water (Sunset Blvd.)

The movie opens with a man face down in water (Bourne Identity)

Boy wishes that he was bigger and wakes up a grown-up (Big)

A farmer hears a voice telling him “If you build it he will come” (Field of Dreams)

“As long as the protagonist wants something, the audience will want something.”

David Mamet (The Verdict)

Two Oscar nominations

Often inciting incidents boil down to the worst things that can happen in your life:

Divorce (Kramer vs. Kramer)

Murder (Witness)

Illness (The Doctor)

Shooting victim (Regarding Henry)

Plane crash (Castaway)

Financial Crisis (The Perfect Storm)

Quitting a job (Lost in America)

Taking the perfect job (The Firm)

Aging (City Slickers)

Dying (The Bucket List)

Kidnapping (Ransom)

Natural Disaster (Wizard of Oz)

Recession (Indecent Proposal)

Things that make newspaper headlines on a regular basis. They are headlines because they get our attention. What’s the old newspaper expression, “if it bleeds, it leads.”

These all set the story in motion. Like a boxer’s one-two punch they often have a set-up & payoff:

Jerry Maguire writes mission statement—gets fired.

Dr. Richard Kimble’s wife is killed—he’s charged with murder—he decides to flee bus wreck and track down killer.

Miss Daisy wrecks car—Hoke is hired to be her driver.

The shark attacks the girl—the sheriff finds her body, well, an arm.

Charlie Babbit’s dad dies in Rain Man—he learns he’s out of the will, well, he gets the car and the award winning rose bushes, but not the millions he hoped for.

Ferris takes the day off—Principle wants to catch him skipping school

Someone has to hear Charlie Kane say “Rosebud” or there can’t be the quest to find out what it means. (Never mind that nobody is around to hear the words actually being said.)

You could argue that if the girl dies in the ocean without being discovered then the case is written off as a drunk girl drowning, so which is the inciting incident? But let’s not get hung up on technical things or we’ll say the beer is the inciting incident…or the moment the beer was bought. Chalk it up to a cause and effect. Find your inciting incident and get on with writing your story.

If the inciting incidents doesn’t happen then the movies doesn’t happen. Writer Skip Press asks, “Will this event put my main character on a path to his ultimate goal from which there is no turning back?”

Sometimes this event happens in the first scene, but usually within the first ten pages, and always within the first act. Syd Field notes that in studying Joe Eszterhas scripts he noticed, “In most cases…the inciting incident was a cinematic tool he used to set up the story from page one, word one.”

If you’ve ever found yourself watching a movie and wondering when it’s going to start the cause is usually too much time was spent setting up the inciting incident. The moment needs to come when it will have the most impact, but in our ADD culture it’s hard for viewers (and studio readers) to wait too long for the inciting incident. Over and over again that’s why you will hear about the importance of the first 10 pages of your script. It sets the tone of your story, and gives us an indication of who the characters are and what they want.

The inciting incident must happen on screen and it must be dynamic. It gets our attention and the attention of our protagonist. If our protagonist doesn’t react to this then you have no movie.

The climax of the film will be tied into this inciting incident. Think of them like bookends that hold your story in place. Rocky is picked to fight Apollo Creed and the climax is occurs after the fight is over and he’s still on his feet.

An inciting incident arouses a desire in the protagonist that he or she is willing to go to the end of the line to get. Rocky can’t say, “I don’t even have a locker. I’m a bum. Maybe if I can get into shape.” Well, he could but it’s a different movie.

Your audience wants to know what your story is about. They have paid money to be entertained. And they want to watch your characters wrestle with life issues. Because that’s really why we go to movies. To watch human drama be lived out in a way that helps us with our own human dramas.

So your inciting incident is what sets your protagonist in motion.

“The overwhelming majority of stories are based on a need, a problem, or an unusual situation.”

Edward Dmytryk (The Caine Mutiny)

Oscar & DGA nominations

“Find a character who’s obsessed and you have a real driving line.”
Ron Bass (Rain Man)
Oscar winner

P.S. If indeed Rocky’s inciting incident is Apollo Creed picking it fight him, it is one of the latest inciting incidents ever—it comes around the 33 minute mark.

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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