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Posts Tagged ‘screenwriting tips’

“Storytelling is joke telling. It’s knowing your punchline, your ending, knowing that everything you’re saying, from the first sentence to the last, is leading to a singular goal, and ideally confirming some truth that deepens our understandings of who we are as human beings. We all love stories. We’re born for them. Stories affirm who we are. We all want affirmations that our lives have meaning. And nothing does a greater affirmation than when we connect through stories. It can cross the barriers of time, past, present and future,and allow us to experience the similarities between ourselves and through others, real and imagined.

The children’s television host Mr. Rogers always carried in his wallet a quote from a social worker that said, ‘Frankly, there isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love once you’ve heard their story.’ And the way I like to interpret that is probably the greatest story commandment, which is ‘Make me care’ – please, emotionally, intellectually, aesthetically, just make me care.  We all know what it’s like to not care. You’ve gone through hundreds of TV channels, just switching channel after channel, and then suddenly you actually stop on one. It’s already halfway over, but something’s caught you and you’re drawn in and you care. That’s not by chance, that’s by design.”
Two time Oscar-winning writer/director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, WALL-E)
TED talk The Clues to a Great Story

P.S. I just realized if you took Stanton’s Make me care” and added UCLA professor Richard Walter’s one unbreakable rule “Don’t be boring” you’d have a total of just six words that may all you really need to focus on. If you need more toss in Limitless screenwriter Leslie Dixon’s one-sentence screenwriting manual, “Do they want to turn the page?” and David Mamet’s “INVIOLABLE RULE:THE SCENE MUST BE DRAMATIC.”  All the screenwriting books, blogs, magazines, podcasts, seminars, workshops, and college classes piggyback on these four simple concepts:

1) Don’t be boring
2) Make me care
3) Do they want to turn the page?
4) THE SCENE MUST BE DRAMATIC

Still want one more helpful tip to make it a handful? on the road to being a better writer? Okay, here it is;

“Writing and reading. That’s all that there is. There’s nothing else.”
David Mamet (The Verdict, Glengarry Glen Ross)

Related Posts:
Writing “Finding Nemo”
Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Part 1)
Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Part 2)
Everything I Learn in Film School (Tip #1)
 The single best way to address numbers 1-4.

Scott W. Smith

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“You’ll have a huge advantage if your concept contains irony.”
Carson Reeves
Scriptshadow

“The number one thing a good logline must have , the single most important element is: irony….Irony gets my attention. It’s what we who struggle with loglines like to call the hook, because that’s what it does. It hooks your interest.”
Blake Snyder
Save the Cat

“We teach best what we most need to learn.
And I sure hope this won’t come back to bite me on the ass.
Dramatic irony. What is it?
I got no clue — says the professional screenwriter.”
Terry Rossio
Wordplayer/Dramatic Irony

It’s hard to believe that I’ve written this blog on screenwriting for five and a half years and have never done a post specifically on irony. Probably out of fear of adding confusion to the subject of technically what is and isn’t irony. I think part of the confusion is words that have been used for centuries often have not only different meanings depending on the era, but sometimes even have contrary meanings.

For instances I’m told the word scan used to mean to examine throughly but when we say today that we “scanned the book” we tend to mean that we flipped through it quickly. So with that said I will dive into the territory of irony with the help of others in hopes that it will help you and your writing.

The word that I associate irony with the most is contrary—meaning the opposite. The example that jumps to my mind is in four-time Oscar-winner Rain Man when Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise)  has this exchange with his father’s lawyer, John Mooney, about being left out of the money portion of his father’s will:

Charlie: Disappointed? Why should I be disappointed? I got rose bushes didn’t I? I got a used car, didn’t I? This other guy, what’d you call him?

John Mooney: The beneficiary.

Charlie: Yeah him, he got $3,000,000 but he didn’t get the rose bushes. I got the rose bushes. I definitely got the rose bushes. Those are rose bushes!

That’s irony. Verbal irony. Charlie Babbitt is extremely disappointed that he got the rose bushes and a used car instead of $3 million. Now Babbitt is being sarcastic at the same time. But not all sarcasm is ironic, and not all irony is sarcastic.

“Irony is ‘a state of affairs that is the reverse of what was to be expected; a result opposite to and in mockery of the appropriate result.’ For instance, if a diabetic, on his way to buy insulin, is killed by a runaway truck, he is the victim of an accident. If the truck was delivering sugar, he is the victim of an oddly poetic coincidence. But if the truck was delivering insulin, ah! Then he is the victim of an irony.”
George Carlin
Brain Droppings

We don’t have George Carlin around anymore to split that difference between irony and coincidence, but it seems to be a perfect example of dramatic irony is in Back to the Future when the teenager Marty (Michael J. Fox) goes back to 1955 and tries to make sure his future mom and dad (then teenagers themselves) fall in love with each other and instead Marty’s mom starts to have a crush on him. That’s a little confusing if you’ve never seen the film—and you really should—but it’s a humorous result of  “the reverse of what was to be expected.” A good example of situational irony.  And at the same time that situation is full of conflict where the stakes are very high. (If Marty’s parents don’t fall in love and eventually get married and have kids, then Marty won’t exist.)

“Dialogue is a playground for dramatic irony… In PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL, the British Commodore, Norrington, thinks that Jack Sparrow is the worst pirate he’s ever seen. Later, when Jack manages to steal Norrington’s fastest ship, his First Mate comments, ‘That’s got to be the best pirate I’ve ever seen.’ Not only is the First Mate complimenting Jack, but he’s using phrasing that nearly mimics Norrington’s insult… a fact not lost on Norrington, or the audience.
Screenwriter Terry Rossio (Co-writer of Pirate of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl)
Wordplayer/Dramatic Irony

“For a clown fish, he’s not that funny. “
Bruce the shark in Finding Nemo

Charlie Chaplin understood irony when he wrote The Great Dictator and told the solution of having 3,000 workers planning to strike: “Have them all shot. I don’t want any of my workers dissatisfied.” Alfred Hitchcock understood the use of irony in Vertigo, Rear Window,  and Rope. But one of his most memorable uses of irony was from his Tv program Alfred Hitchcock Presents. In Lamb to the Slaughter (written by Roald Dahl) a police detective investigating a murder (and looking for the murder weapon) eats a lamb dinner prepared by the woman who used the lamb when it was frozen to kill her cheating husband.

“Irony is a fancy word for saying ‘the opposite of which is perceived.’ A priest who murders. A pianist who’s deaf. A clown who’s depressed. Audiences LOVE irony. Therefore you should try and incorporate it into your concept, characters and plot as much as possible! The most powerful king in the world is tasked with giving the most important speech in history…yet he can’t speak (The King’s Speech). Irony is your best friend. Use it whenever you can!”
Carson Reeves
Script Shadow Secrets

Now perhaps I’m confusing irony and coincidence (or perhaps just contrasting situations), but some other films that come to mind that use irony in the way that Blake Synder used the word irony—to mean “unexpected”:
Seabiscuit (A lazy horse becomes a champion)
Rocky
(A club boxer who loses his locker at the gym gets a shot at the title)
Jaws
(A sheriff from the city who is afraid of water must go into the ocean to battle a killer shark)
Erin Brockovich (An unemployed and uneducated woman jump-starts a lawsuit against a corporate giant)
Liar, Liar (A lawyer prone to lying must tell the truth for 24 hours)
Rudy (A small guy who never played high school football wants to play football at Notre Dame)
Miss Congeniality (A tomboy FBI agent must join a beauty pageant to catch the bad guys)
City Slicker (A guy from New York City joins a cattle drive in the west to find himself)
48 Hours (A cop needs the help of a criminal to catch the bad guys)
Babette’s Feast (
A servant of sorts wins the lottery and spends her winnings on a grand feast for a religious group dedicated to a austere lifestyle)
Pieces of April (
A young woman in an attempt to make ammends with her family decides to cook dinner only to have her stove not working on Thanksgiving day)

“At the beginning of [The Incredibles], Mr. Incredible gets sued for saving a person attempting suicide. He later goes through a mid-life crisis, when superheroes are often considered ageless. Also, superheroes are done in by their iconic capes (and after Edna’s escapade in cape-related deaths, Syndrome is killed after his cape is caught in an airplane turbine).”
Irony: The Secret to Pixar Plotting

It would seem that Pixar long ago figured out how to use irony. In fact, the ending of Toy Story 3 was one great unexpected ending.  There are few things as powerful (and rare) as a satisfying ironic ending.

P.S. The title Screenwriting from Iowa was always meant to be ironic. As in that’s the last place you’d expect to find people writing screenplays. And it’s also meant as a metaphor to connect with screenwriters from remote areas around the world. Ironically (am I using that word correctly?) I’ve been surprised that working screenwriters in Hollywood read these posts from time to time.

Related Posts:
Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Part 2)
Screenwriting & Contrasts (Tip #18)
The Perfect Logline
Insanely Great Endings

Scott W. Smith

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WiteOut

Once upon a time most screenwriters used typewriters to write scripts. Though some still do, I would venture to guess that most screenplays are written on a computer these days. So a word of warning—the wite out test isn’t advisable on computers except in a metaphorical sense. Wite out being the white liquid that was once a daily used commodity in offices everywhere, where if you made an error on the page you would apply wite out over the words you wanted to omit. Once that dried quickly you could type over it. Sure it wasn’t pretty, but it was effective and saved you from having to retype the whole page.

“You know, the idea of individual voices, that’s a toughest thing for a screenwriter. It’s always been the toughest thing for me. The first draft of a lot of scripts that I put down and say, ‘Okay, I’m not going to make that into a film’ is that everybody sounds like a version of me. And a great test that somebody told me to do early on was, ‘Take your screenplay and wite out or cover-up the names of the characters and then read the scenes. And can you tell who’s speaking based on the tone of their voice?’ Is their dialogue distinct enough that you can identify them from the other characters?”
Filmmaker Edward Burns (The Fitzgerald Christmas)
The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith

P.S. Jeff Goldsmith, formerly of Creative Screenwriting magazine now as a digital magazine called Backstory; The Art and Business of Storytelling.

Related Posts:
The Four Functions of Dialogue
Emotionally Silent Dialogue

Scott W. Smith

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“One director I worked with was a particular influence, although I unfortunately can’t name him, as the re-write job I did for him was a non-public thing. He had a really interesting policy about minor characters – he believed that whatever function they are serving, you can usually do away with them entirely and find other ways of making the same thing happen without them, and it’s a lot cleaner. I thought that was very interesting advice and have found on numerous occasions since that he’s absolutely right.”
Screenwriter Jane Goldman (X-Men:First Class, Stardust, The Woman in Black)
Scriptshadow interview January 26, 2012

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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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