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Poor plot construction is the bane of many a beginner. When a story lacks continuity, that is, breaks into parts that have no close relation, the plot needs additional building up. While I have known those who built up complications and plot tangles so knotted that neither they nor anyone else could unravel them reasonably, a more usual defect is a too weak conflict which, of course, results in a weak climax. The struggles recounted are not important enough, the difficulties are not impressive, and to overcome them requires no interesting activity on the part of the plot actors. It seems almost as if some writers are afraid to hurt their characters, are afraid to make them suffer, or to get them into distressing situations from which they must fight their way out. Yet one of the very first things any fiction writer must learn is that where there is no struggle there is no drama.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Frances Marion (The Champ)
How to Write and Sell Film Stories (1937)

P.S. If you want a mental image of a character in a distressing situation…

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Conflict-Conflict-Conflict 

Scott W. Smith

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When you have a clear idea of a plot, write out the entire story as interestingly as you can. Keep in mind that the audience is not interested in seeing actions which people do generally, but in seeing what specific actions specific persons do in specific circumstances.”
Screenwriter Frances Marion 
How to Write and See Film Stories (1937)

Moneyball is a movie I adore and return to often. Here are two scenes from that movie that show something specific about the game of professional baseball. But they are also  scenes that are universal. Since people throughout time have had to do some kind of work to survive and be productive in this world —getting fired or firing people is a part of life.

And Office Space is another work related movie that comes to mind as unpacking specifically what Peter (Ron Livingston) does in a given day to avoid being fired. It’s a great scene because of the twist at the end.

And another scene that comes to mind dealing with specificity is from Breaking Bad.

You don’t have to be a fan of baseball, work in a cubical, or have an interest in chemistry/meth to enjoy the stories of Moneyball, Office Space, and Breaking Bad because the writers drilled deep into the specific aspects of the characters.

P.S. Speaking of work . . . over the weekend I made significant progress on lining up details for the release of my book this month.

Scott W. Smith

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Certain plot patterns long since have won public favor and with fresh treatment doubtless will continue to do so. Among these is the rise to success plot centering on man’s search for the satisfaction of accomplishment. It is found in one version in the story of Jack and the Beanstalk and probably appeared long before that. In modern times, the giant may be a rival business man, a falling market, a soulless corporation, or it may be poverty; but in any version of this plot an appealing underdog comes out on top. Its feminine version is the Cinderella plot centered on the poor girl who, after many heart-breaking situations, wins her prince; but whereas the success plot requires the male protagonist to fight strenuously to achieve his success, Cinderella usually rouses the desire of her prince through her beauty and goodness. This plot has brought more motion pictures actresses to fame than any other. The audience knows it so well that its sympathy is with Cinderella  from beginning to end. Her success, in spite of lowly origin, or pitiful circumstances, or other handicap, always suggests gratifying possibilities to almost every woman who watches her. If done with an appealing heroine, fresh and modern treatment, and a fair degree of reality, it never fails. It can be done with great dignity and charm.”
Screenwriter Frances Marion (The Champ)
How to Write and Sell Film Stories (1937)
page 54-55

If you’re hunting for a story to write, kick some evergreen ideas centered on the rise to success of such and such a character. What are some of you favorite “success” stories? Here are some successful success stories over the decades:

P.S. One thing I noticed about contemporary rise to success stories is there is a tinge of defeat in many of them. True of A Star is Born, Moneyball, Wolf of Wall St., The Social Network, The Founder. So storytelling has evolved, yet remains rooted in timeless traditions. Roots that go back to Dickens’ Great Expectations (1861), Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), and the Biblical story of Joseph.

Scott W. Smith

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Note: I’ve spent the past two weeks visiting my mother in the hospital. The first ten days she was in ICU, but she was moved to a regular room over the weekend.  She’s in the later stages of COPD and, at the moment, kind of in that gray zone of not getting better and not getting worse. My sister and I are meeting with hospice today.

It has been a while since I’ve seen The Hospital (1971), but I’m looking forward to revisiting the satire that  Paddy Chayefsky won an Oscar for writing. After 13 days of dealing with a non-communicative hospital staff and a rotating door of case workers it is amazing how little information (and conflicting information) I’ve been given about my mother’s condition. No need to get into details, but I’ve talked to enough people about their hospital experiences in the past week to know my experience is not unique.

Of course, that didn’t help me hit my deadline of getting my book released in March as I had hoped. But sitting in a hospital ICU room for hours at a time actually did prove some fruitful time to keep working on fine-tuning book details. It was a healthy distraction. And I hope to release the book in April.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to post excerpts from screenwriter Frances Marion’s 1937 book How to Write and Sell Film Stories. Following chapters I’ve already hit on from her book (characterization, theme, and emotions), this week we’ll start with her thoughts on  plot.

Plot is the design, pattern or outline of the story action; it is a statement of the problem or obstacles that confront certain specific characters, their reaction to those problems or obstacles, and the result. It is a series of events or situations affected by the characters involved and affecting them, with the situations building up to a climax. It is a string of relevant and dramatic situations, preferably rising out of character and affecting it, and woven together in such sequence and ascending strength as to make an interesting story. 

A plot must have a definite beginning and ending. Plot structure, says Walter Pater, ‘is that architectural conception of work, which foresees the end in the beginning and never loses sight of it, and in every part is conscious of all the rest, till the last sentence does, but, with undiminished vigor, unfold and justify the first.’”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Frances Marion 
How to Write and Sell Film Stories 
Page 51

P.S. I love that line “which foresees the end in the beginning.” Perhaps it’s my current state of mind, but if you haven’t seen Kurosawa’s  Ikiru (1952) seek it out as a great example of where the end is perfectly matched to the beginning. It’s the story of a man caught up in the bureaucracy of a post-World War II Japan. As the endless paperwork piles up at his job he finds out that he has cancer and seeks meaning in his life. It’s a beautiful films and one of my favorites.

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Scott W. Smith

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“Who is it that can tell me who I am?”
King Lear by William Shakespeare

“I’ve never known a better seaman, but as a man, he’s a snake. He doesn’t punish for discipline. He likes to see men crawl. Sometimes, I’d like to push his poison down his own throat.”
Lt. Fletcher Christian regarding Captain Bligh
Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)

One of the things that made Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty an unforgettable character was the way in which his chief qualities—cruelty and hardness—were stressed even to the point of having him order the continued flogging of a man who died under the lash.

The character who has no dominating trait or traits offers nothing of dramatic value. ‘One virtue, vice or passion ought to be shown in every man as predominating over all the rest.’ It is quite possible in real life that we do not always recognize people by their dominant characteristics, but it seems to be essential for the film writer to make his characters recognizable in this way. A novelist who has won great popular success is said, when writing the first draft of a novel, to give each character the name of an emotion he is expected to depict, such as Greed, Love, Jealousy, Peace. I think that the drama of many a film story would be strengthened if its author would keep in mind, while building it, the dominant emotion that is responsible for each plot actor’s reaction to events. Of course, you never tell your audience what emotion clutches your character. Let it see him in the throes of that emotion. It will not do to say that John Brown is obstinate. He must do something obstinately. If some explanation of a character must be given, let some other character do it.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Frances Marion (The Champ)
How to Write and Sell Film Stories (1937)

Writing default madman would not be a bad way to write characters—especially if you can get Anthony Hopkins to bring your writing to life.

P.S. And just to show there are always exceptions to the concept of not actually calling out a character’s emotions, here’s a scene from Inside Out. (Any day you can mix Pixar and Shakespeare is a good day for me.)

Scott W. Smith

 

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Even when characters are based upon living persons, it is best to consider such persons as the artist does the model: as a basis, a suggestion to carry an idea, rather than something to be copied exactly. In the finished picture, the character must appear with the selected traits and idiosyncrasies more sharply outlined, more highly colored, than those of ordinary living person; and because of this it is essential to select as a character model not an ‘average’ person, but one with special traits strongly exhibited. He may be very simple, but he must be definite. Will Rogers was very successful in portraying what, to the casual observer, were very simple, ordinary, ‘true-to-life’ characters, yet, as a matter of truth, not one was commonplace or usual. The more extraordinary the character, the more interesting he is, provided that he is humanly recognizable and understandable. He must not be so remote from ordinary human experience that the members of the audience cannot see themselves in his place. If he is too unusual, they lose all sympathy for him.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Frances Marion (The Champ)
How to Write and Sell Film Stories (1937)
page 39

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Very frequently someone tells me, ‘I have a wonderful plot for a movie!’ I always am impelled to respond, ‘But have you interesting characters?’

Characterization is the most important factor in the film story, and no ingenuity or originality of the plot will save a photoplay which has inadequate characterization; which does not convey the illusion that the events are happening to real and living persons. I do not believe that it is possible to make a touching or impressive story with a set of shallow uninteresting characters; an audience will not care what happens to such persons. But it will be emotionally concerned over an appealing character and it will remember him long after it has forgotten the plot in which he moved. . . . [but] character portrayal alone has no dramatic quality. On the other hand, the purely action story with no character portrayal has so little significance that it fails to hold the interest of any except those of the lowest intelligence, and it has little claim to reality; character is needed to male the action logical. It is character in action that the film story must have.”
Screenwriter Frances Marion
How to Write and Sell Film Stories (1937) 
Page 31

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