A while back a friend of mine had asked me for some advice on beginning a story.
I’ll say this right now: I’m not one for treatments and outlines. I tend to utilize them in the middle of a project, but even then only briefly (just to remind myself what it is I’m writing about). Outside of writing the actual story, I only jot down important ideas for later that I don’t want to forget.
In terms of beginning a new story, this is what I told my friend:
“I figure out what story I want to tell and who I want it to be about. Then I go on the adventure with that person, discovering everything as they do.”
I tend to be spontaneous when I write. It’s always been certain of making it interesting for me; not knowing what to expect next. Granted, I do like to know the ending, and I especially know specific events that I want to detail, so my stories do bend to some sort of code, but in the end I prefer freedom with the page.
I’m still a young writer, and I may yet come to discover the perks of writing up treatments, but the way I see it, if you think too much about something, you end up getting bored of it, or maybe begin to doubt it. Like life, you won’t make a whole lot of progress sitting around thinking about what you’re going to do with yourself rather than actually doing it.
So if you’re someone who has trouble starting a story, understand these basics: What you want to tell, and who you want it to be about.
Going from there, I’m sure you might find yourself being just about as surprised as the reader.
To anyone who celebrates this marvellous feast of good will toward men, may God bless you all with a very, merry Christmas. Remember that taking time away from your craft to spend time with your family, and friends is perfectly fine during the holidays!
As my Christmas gift to you, I present to you some inspiration via TED.com by one of Pixar’s leading men, Andrew Stanton.
If you’re interested in pursuing a career in screenwriting, I’ve compiled a short list of the most common mistakes I’ve observed in my years of editing people’s screenplays:
5) BAD SLUG LINES
You’d be surprised to know how many people make this mistake.
Slug-Lines are supposed to be read as a short transition into your action. You don’t have to describe the location in the slug-line. You should be as concise as possible, eliminating anything that isn’t necessary. Some screenwriters might tell you it’s alright to get creative with times of of the day, but I say: NOOOO!
Unless you’re writing a scene where Luke Skywalker looks off to a binary sunset, or Jordi LaForge is gazing upon a sunrise with his real eyes for the first time, very seldom are DUSK and DAWN acceptable. Use INT and EXT, instead of INTERIOR, EXTERIOR, INSIDE, or OUTSIDE. Stick to DAY or NIGHT shots. AFTERNOONS, MORNINGS, EVENINGS, and LATE EVENINGS are all unnecessary. Your transition of time should be evident in the way you tell your story. There is no physical way of showing how ‘night time’ can be ‘midnight’ on screen. The sky is dark. The shot requires that you shoot at night time. Therefore, you should just use “NIGHT”.
INTERIOR - DOWN THE UPSTAIRS HALLWAY NEAR THE BATHROOM - MIDNIGHT
INT. UPSTAIRS HALLWAY - NIGHT
4) LENGTHY SETTING/SCENE/CHARACTER DESCRIPTION
This one isn’t as easy. A lot of the time, I find myself cutting out entire pages of action. If your description does nothing to reveal something about the character, or advance the plot, it isn’t necessary.
Think about it.
You only have 120 pages (on average) to work with. Why would you put in anything that isn’t important? Ever notice when books are made into movies, sometimes fans get upset that things are cut from the book? Well obviously! Otherwise a movie would be way too long, and as much as I loved Harry Potter, I don’t feel like sitting through a 22 hour movie.
(However I have a “19 hour+ Harry Potter Movie Marathon” coming up that I am GREATLY looking forward too…).
Here is an example of how you can clean up a scene of description:
DALE, a man aged 33, sits on a plush leather couch in the middle of a fancily decorated living room, wearing dark khaki pants, a dress shirt, and a tie. He fidgets on the leather couch. Across the room, an ornately carved red door, made of mahogany opens. GEEVES the butler, dressed in a full tuxedo with a tailed suit jacket, walks toward Dale across the red and black pattered carpet. Dale looks up at Geeves and bits his lip. Geeves motions with his gloved hand toward the door. Dale gulps, stands up, and walks toward the open mahogany door.
DALE, a man in his early 30s, sits on a leather couch in a fancy living room. He adjusts his necktie. Across the room, a large mahogany door opens. GEEVES the old butler, enters the room and approaches Dale.
Dale bites his lip.
Geeves stands up straight and motions his hand toward the open door.
Dale gulps and stands.
The two of them exit the room.
Notice how I edited the piece so that Dale’s nervous actions are on their own lines? I did this to give the scene a bit more tension. I also broke up the paragraph to make it easier to read. I also eliminated almost every piece of description. Your job isn’t to furnish rooms, dress actors, or decide what brand of eyeliner Norma Desmond wears.
In novel writing, it might be argued that can you use description until the cows come home, (Just ask J.R.R. Tolkien) but in the cutthroat business of screenwriting, you are to give just enough description to give the reader a visual. Use your best judgement. I usually like to give a bit of detail to help set the scene, but anything else is just fluff around the edges.
It should be noted that integral props, or complicated settings can use a bit more description. If it is going to play a crucial role in your story, you want your reader to be able to visualize it immediately.
3) DON’T DO THE WORK OF THE FILM CREW
If your screenplay is littered with PAN UPS, TILT DOWNS, dramatic musical cues, or excessive descriptions, you should pursue a considerable rewrite. If you believe what you’ve written will be dictating the work of the cameraman, the actor, or the film crew in anyway, you need to eliminate it. As I said before, your job isn’t to dress your actors, act for them, or decide what kind of lighting is appropriate for a scene. Film is a COLLABORATIVE MEDIUM.
Here are some common mistakes:
No! YOU stop it!
Using (whispering) is acceptable if required, as is (out of breath) or (laughing), but they really aren’t necessary. The actors job is to interpret the dialogue as it is needed for the scene. Don’t do their job for them.
No! You stop it!
See how much simpler and to the point this is? If the actors don’t know there is anger, or maybe some shouting in this scene, then they are stupid and shouldn’t be acting anyway.
Here is another mistake:
INTERIOR - INSIDE UPSTAIRS HALLWAY NEAR THE BATHROOM - MIDNIGHT
TILT UP to Sarah standing at the end of the hallway. PAN OVER to Brent holding a knife. Dramatic music is playing, as Brent rushes over to Sarah.
INT. UPSTAIRS HALLWAY -- NIGHT
Sarah stands at the end of the hallway. Brent is across from her, clutching a KNIFE. Brent lunges toward her.
See how much cleaner this action is without the camera angels and shot descriptions? The way a film is shot is for the director and the cinematographer to decide in their production script. If you’re an independent filmmaker who will be writing AND directing, for the benefit of your actors and crew, just write a regular screenplay. When you litter your story with PAN-UPs, CLOSE-UPs, and what-have-yous, it takes the reader out of the story. You want your reader to get sucked into the world of your script, and never put it down until it’s finished.
2) WRITING IN THE PRESENT TENSE
Very few realize the importance of screenwriting in the present tense. It should be how every screenplay it written. Writing in past tense is wonderful for fiction, or other literary forms, but if you want your reader to follow through your script as if it is happening precisely in that moment, you gotta write in present tense. Here are some examples:
EXTERIOR - PUBLIC HIGH SCHOOL - AFTERNOON
Billy was standing on a large rock in the middle of the courtyard at the back of the school. Students walked towards him. Billy looked at them, and grinned. He grabbed the toilet paper from his side, and began wrapping himself with it.
The students laughed at this.
EXT. - PUBLIC HIGHSCHOOL - DAY
Billy stands on a large rock in the middle of the courtyard at the back of the school. Students strut toward him. Billy looks at them and grins. He grabs the toilet paper from his side, and wraps himself with it.
The students giggle.
I contest that there are no right or wrong answers at times, and one can argue that it’s not a big deal if you submit a screenplay written in the past tense. However, it is the general consensus of Hollywood producers and working screenwriters, that the present tense is not only important, but a requirement.
1) DISREGARDING YOUR AUDIENCE’S NEEDS
I can’t express the utmost importance in writing for your audience. If you aren’t writing to tell a good story, then why the hell are you writing? Let me remind you, that I’ve read many screenplays where the author feels the need to use the craft as a means of personal flattery or self therapy. This is not to be confused with self-expression.
Self-expression is important in ANY art form. You need to draw on things in your life so that you can create an original story. As far as I know, no one else is me. Therefore, I have something original to tell. However, if you feel the need to symbolize your life and use sub-par metaphors for your first world problems, you should reconsider your intentions. Why are you telling this story?
The difference, is that you should not be writing so your friends and family can see how you struggled with a relationship, but to write a story that anyone can relate to.
Do you think audiences pack into theatres so they can see how you broke up with your partner in a coffee shop?
Audiences pack into theatres, because they want to be entertained! They want to laugh and cry! They want to be scared! They want to live vicariously through characters that perservereer, or witness the horrible downfalls of a tragic lifestyle!
Your first thought should be: “How is my story going to affect my audience?” If your first thought is how you can ‘cleverly symbolize’ how you deal with things, you’re not thinking about your audience. Unless you want to pay for your own movie tickets, and see your problems on the big screen, get over yourself. Stop being so egotistical, and start TRYING TO TELL A GOOD STORY.
Finally, it should be noted that you cannot as a screenwriter show anything that you cannot see on screen. Internal thoughts or feelings should be left for the novel. You cannot say “Jake is happy when he see’s Betty.” You can however, say “Jake smiles at Betty” or “Jake spots Betty and smiles.” Just be mindful of what you’re writing. As always, writing is rewriting, so if you make mistakes, don’t worry. Keep plugging away at your craft and soon these rules will seem like nothing.
Take 15-30 minutes today to write yourself a letter. Ask yourself these 5 questions:
1) Do I need to work on my screenplay format?
2) Can I eliminate unnecessary elements that aren't important to my characters or story?
3) Am I writing for myself, or for my audience?
4) What do I want to say with this story?
5) How do I want my audience to feel at the end of my story?
It’s a sad truth that many of us have yet to experience ‘financial’ success when it comes to our craft. If you have, then pat yourself on the back for a job well done, but this post may not be for you.
There’s a trend going around the writer’s circle. This trend is the mindset that all is lost, and there is no hope for any one of us to succeed in our craft.
So what! Many times we attribute ‘success’ as a big beefy paycheck for a job well done. If we don’t receive this immediate gratification, suddenly we are met with despair. It’s a fact of life that nothing good comes easy. That may be a big cliché, but it is truth incarnate. We should be searching for personal successes, and achieving small personal goals.
No one person was an overnight success. Perhaps one in a billion, but everyone had to start as a novice. Everyone had to learn how to do whatever it is that made them successful.
Just as many of the protagonists we enjoy writing about, WE have to face the challenges that meet us.
Take a look at the character Peter Banning, in Spielberg’s 1991 classic Hook. When we are challenged, we cannot simply whimper in the corner. As writers, we need to be the change we want to see. You may wish to sit around and complain that you haven’t ‘made it’ yet, and there are no jobs for writers around. But how can you know that if you don’t go job hunting? If you don’t consider the reality of having to move to another city or across the country? How will you know if you “can’t make it” if you never submit to any writing competitions?
We are called to act.
We must write.
We must at all costs.
Peter Banning had to work his ass off for 3 days in order to be the Pan he once was. Despite the seemingly impossible odds stacked against him, Peter manages to pull through. He had to! His children were in danger! Consider your craft your child. What would you do save your kid? The answer is: anything.
Find a crappy “McJob” if you have to. Flip burgers. Pay your bills. Do whatever it is you need to do, to sustain yourself, and assist your craft.
We need to be the Pan. We need to take flight, and leave our worries on the ground. Blow caution to the wind, and soar wherever it takes us. As writers, we must face the challenges that stand in front of us.
So many of us can help our own situations, if we take the moment to step into action. I’m not talking jumping off a high building. You have to take one step at a time, keeping our ultimate goal or destination in our hearts. There will be people who deter you, and you might use the excuse that you cannot write because you don’t have the time, or energy, or blah blah blah. Whatever it is that’s bothering you about your craft, you have take a step. You can’t sit on your butt, throw caution to the wind, and expect opportunity to soar through your window in need of a shadow.
We have to fly.
We have to fight.
We have to crow.
As writers, we are called to action.
Be the change you want to see in your life.
Think happy thoughts.
Set your goals to the second star to the right, until you find your “Neverland”.
I’ve been told by several writers that prologues are completely unnecessary in any piece of storytelling. I however, believe they are a very effective way of illuminating integral aspects of backstory.
Prologues can be used to give the story you are telling, some very valuable context.
Prologues are very popularly used in Fantasy or Science Fiction genres, but can also be used in horror, thrillers, or any story which requires a set up of a previous crime or event. Screenwriters use them often, as complicated worlds or scenarios are difficult to squeeze into your story when you have a 120 page limit.
The Lord of the Rings, Lady in the Water, The Dark Crystal, and Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, are all examples of prologues that utilize narration to explain backstory, leading into your central tale. Although you may not need narration, it can be an effective and interesting tool to use. Another famous example is the yellow scrolling ‘text’ from Star Wars which sets up the story of a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away.
Dictionary.com describes the word ‘prologue’ as a separate introductory section of a literary or musical work, and an event or action that leads to another event or situation. Your prologue should be a self contained story that presents an unanswered question near the end. This question will lead into your central plot, and keeps your audience/readers hooked.
Disney’s Beauty and the Beast does this by introducing us to the world of the prince, his primary flaw, and the unanswered question “who could ever learn to love a beast?”. This transitions immediately into Belle’s introduction -> “hint hint, wink wink.”. What makes this prologue effective, is that it is poignant, elegant, and simple. Complex prologues may leave your audience/readers feeling alienated, and wondering “what the heck is going on?”.
However, don’t be quick to explain everything either, as you can run into danger telling your entire story. When I first wrote a prologue for one of my scripts, my then ignorant self thought I had written a masterpiece. Pfffft. What I didn’t know, was that I was so ‘on the nose’ about the questions leading into my story, my readers immediately were able to predict everything that happened.
You don’t want people to get everything out of the prologue. If you do, then just write a short story or film. Your prologue should have the ability to feel like a separate entity, but an incomplete one. Here’s another example of a good prologue from Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal:
This prologue is effective as it introduces us to the world of the crystal, sets up the audience’s expectations, and outlines the grim situation the characters are living in. It doesn’t give the plot away, and you’re left guessing what will happen next.
I know what I’m speaking about may be a tad ‘obvious’ for some, but speaking from experience it’s actually quite a difficult thing to write. Every writer’s first priority should be to drum up an effective backstory. By all means, if you do this without requiring a prologue, then give yourself a big pat on the back. However, if your story is about wizards, rings of power, worlds of fairies, a boy who lived, or a magic rose, you may just need to give your audience/readers a little more with a good prologue.
Forgive me if this is a lengthy post, but I believe it’s a lesson every inexperienced screenwriter misses. If you’re thinking of picking up a book on screenwriting, one lesson that should be highlighted entirely in bold is that in writing CHOICE. It’s our choices that define us as human beings. Do we choose to face that all-important pile of laundry, or forego that task in favour of watching the latest episode of Jersey Whores?
In nearly every screenplay that I read, screenwriters more often fail to present their characters with CHOICES. Call these plot devices, plot points, action, or whatever. You can have a well written character outline, but it will crumble if you never give your character anything to do. You need to place your characters in situations where your character MUST make a choice.
Does your character choose to succumb to adultery, because he can’t keep it in his pants? Does your character choose to run into a burning building, despite the immense dangers placed in front of them? Does your character choose to enter the dark cave, when all the other characters are too afraid to? Coke or Pepsi? Turn back, or keep going? Keep going, or turn back?
How will your character problem solve? Is your character absolutely perfect and never makes mistakes? Hopefully not. I’ve read too many idealistic plots, where everything goes as planned, and nothing really interesting ever happens. Moreover, if your character never makes a choice, the movie is HORRENDOUSLY boring. Who wants to watch a movie where the characters never do anything? zzzzz.
I know I’ve written on this similarly before, and I hate to sound like a broken record, but judging by a few of the writing pieces I’ve read recently, I somehow doubt this has sunk in yet.
The following is an extensive list of examples of characters presented with choices. These choices define the characters, and move the plot foreward.
Star Trek (2009)
Young Kirk is a rebel ‘without a cause’. Can you imagine how boring the movie would have been if Captain Pike never came to Kirk, and presented him with a choice?
“Now, your father was captain of a Starship for 12 minutes. He saved 800 lives, including your mother’s and yours. I dare you to do better.” – Captain Pike
Now we’re getting somewhere. Kirk has a choice to make. The audience WANTS him to choose starfleet, because that means cool spaceships, lazers, and aliens.
YES! Now I’ll keep watching.
The Hunger Games (2012)
“Primrose Everdeen” says Effie Trinket.
“I VOLUNTEER!” screams Katness.
Can you imagine what this movie would be like if Katness chose not to volunteer? Well, that would be an entirely different story, and also make her a huge bitch. It’s the choice that defines her as being the hero. In that single choice, she showed the audience she is noble, and stout of heart. Write a sitation in which all your characters worst nightmares come true. What does your character choose to do?
“When will my life begin?” sings Repunzel. Well, if she stayed in her tower, that would be pretty boring wouldn’t it?
I know what I’m preaching may sound obvious, but you’d be surprised how many writers miss this all important step. Characters can be TORN when faced with a choice. It may seem so simple, for Repunzel to leave her tower, but it isn’t. Will she risk betraying Mother? Will she risk the dangers her mother has warned about? She is safe in her tower, but will she pursue her dreams? If she chooses to do nothing, what does that say about her character?
When Neytiri meets Jake Sully for the first time, she has no quarrels with sending an arrow through his heart. But something stops her: a choice.
The seed of the sacred tree seemingly pops out of nowhere. Should Neytiri kill Jake? Or stand up for what she believes in?
The Matrix (1999)
Alright Neo, you want the blue pill or the red pill?
We ALL want Neo to take the red pill. If he didn’t then there wouldn’t be a story!!! … but maybe you’re the kind of writer who thinks he can be clever or ironic forcing your character to take the blue pill instead. If you make it work then, sure, whatever. However, if you do the opposite of what the audience expects all the time, then you’re either a film school art snob, or kind of an idiot. But that’s ok. If you think it’s working for you, then by all means ignore this post.
The Dark Knight (2008)
Now here is a movie about choice.Writer and director Chris Nolan really know’s what he’s doing. Using the fantastic characters in batman canon, Nolan gives us with a story all about choice. This, I believe, is what makes it so good.
You’re presented with 3 characters that offer a trio of conflict. Batman, who chooses to do the right thing at all costs, will never favour his own feelings if it means dismissing his vows of morality. This is why Batman goes after Harvey Dent instead of his love Rachel. For Gotham City cannot lose it’s ‘white knight’.
In doing so, Harvey Dent is presented with his own choices. After losing his love, and the very thing he was fighting for, he chooses to let ‘chance’ define his choices with his quarter.
This is an interesting dynamic, because Harvey’s choices can vary from anything. He isn’t nessesarily a villain, but a character torn by emotion.
Then there is the Joker. Heath Ledger’s oscar winning performance aside, this is a character who is truly wicked. With a torn past never fully explained, the Joker isn’t driven by money, or power. He simply delights in forcing good people into making choices. He tests the limits of morality.
He sets up various schemes like forcing Batman to choose between Rachel and Harvey. Forcing the citizens of Gotham to kill someone or he’ll blow up a hospital, then blows up the hospital anyway. Forcing the citizens of Gotham to choose whether or not to kill a boat full of prisoners, or let the prisoners blow them up.
The audience delights in watching the Joker at work, because we chew our nails trying to figure out what the characters will choose.
Overall, choice is behind any plot. It’s choice that can keep the audience guessing. It’s choice that restores the audience’s faith in humanity. Show your characters actively choose the right thing at all costs. They’re called heros. In contrast to this, if we watch a tragedy, we delight in knowing we can be better than the characters we watch, or feel not so alone in sharing a characters pain. We like to believe there is good left in the world, and is the reason why we keep buying movie tickets.
Don’t be afraid of asking the bigger questions in life, and having your character’s answer them.
All in all, give your characters a reason to live. Give your characters reasons to do what they do. If you don’t, your script will be one fry short of a happy meal.
“Dark and difficult times lie ahead. Soon we must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy.” – Albus Dumbledore
Exercise: Watch ANY movie on your shelf, and write down all the things that force your character to make a choice. What does the character choose? What is the other option they could have taken? How will that have defined the story? Is there a choice in this movie that your character could make? how would your character react?
Show – Don’t Tell. This should be every writer’s rule. To showcase this, I’ve made a visual breakdown of the scene from “The Shining” where Danny Torrence meets those scary dead twins.
No talking head syndrome.
No over the top action.
Simple, visual cues.
Every writer should be telling a story with pictures. Not telling a story with special effects, dialogue, crappy voice-over narration, etc.
Exercise: Try storyboarding a short film or short story where there is no dialogue, and simple action. You’d be surprised how this can improve your writing.