An Introduction to Writing Action
Writing action sequences is a tricky thing to do. Every writer has their own approach and style of course and different kinds of movies require different levels of detail. Read as many good action oriented screenplays as you can to get some examples.
Remember that narrative economy should always be in the back of your mind as you are writing any sequence. Say as much as you can in as few words as possible. Given that, as a general rule, the more special effects and complex set pieces you have the more detail we need.
Here are a few thoughts to get you started:
Clarity: Whatever your genre and level of technical complexity, you have to find a way of hitting a balance between clarity and When Details Attack. That is a nice judgment of course. One cannot really generalize other than to say: you are writing a story so, if in doubt, make sure story pwns detail. Insert your own Michael Bay jokes here, it’s really too depressing.
Flow: That means you have to keep the narrative flowing throughout. Don’t let the pace of the read drop away through over writing or you will lose the very excitement an action sequence should be all about. We need to be focused on why we are watching action at least as much, if not more than what we are watching. I’m all for cool explosions, but they don’t fill my heart with movie love on their own. Insert your own Michael Bay jokes here, it’s really too depressing.
Character: The way to make sure narrative flows through action is to play that action to character. Action happens because our characters initiate it or are the victims or objects of it. That means we should care about what happens to them. Don’t hide them behind props and special effects. Insert your own Michael Bay jokes here, it’s really too depressing.
Justification: The way to make sure you are being honest with your audience and focusing your action through character is by making sure your action sequences have weight. In other words you need to justify them through story, not just have them ambush the plot. Insert your own Michael Bay jokes here, it’s really too depressing.
Remember the scene with Cobb and Ariadne in the café in Inception (scr. Christopher Nolan) 2010? You know the one, the great set piece with the dream world curling around and sandwiching back above us which ends with the café exploding? Here’s the action description from Nolan’s screenplay:
“The restaurant VIOLENTLY FRAGMENTS, EXPLODING AND IMPLODING PARTICLES OF FURNITURE, WALLS, PEOPLE FLYING AROUND – Ariadne WONDERS at the MAYHEM WHIRLING around them – Cobb SHIELDS his head against the debris.”
One sentence of description which gives us a context and – important this – plays the event straight back to character reaction. Action is of no interest unless it affects our characters, so write it to character. Nolan doesn’t focus on the minute details, he gives us the information we need to get the plot function of the event and moves on. The micro management and visual development of a sequence like this in a big budget movie is for discussions with the visual effects team. The script version just gets us all up and running with the intent of the spectacle: concision and clarity are the keys.
Of course there is a great deal more to say about how to structure action sequences as spectacle. All I am trying to do here is to give you a framework for your thinking to keep you honest to your overall story goals while you write.
[Note: this is a short extract from my book, 'Write What You Don't Know: An Accessible Manual for Screenwriters' forthcoming in August from Continuum Books]
Everything in your world should be part of your overall mechanism of storytelling. Every location, design choice, rule (magical or mundane) and principle of your story world needs to be serving some aspect of your story. Specifically they should manifest part of the central problem or challenge of your story and its hero/ine.
Here is Terry Gilliam discussing his creative process in writing The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus 2009 (my italics):
“These kinds of worlds are me just allowing my imagination to run. I pretend I’m whoever the character is in there and I just go with it. Or I have an idea that already I’m trying to force onto the film and I make sure the character becomes something that serves the ideas that I’ve already wanted to get out of my system and get up on the screen.”
Take that wonderful adventure The Princess Bride (scr. William Goldman) 1987 with its Cliffs of Insanity, Rodents of Unusual Size and Fire Swamp all of which signify their challenge in their names. Or Labyrinth (scr. Jim Henson, Terry Jones et al) 1986 with its, well labyrinth – oh and who could forget the Bog of Eternal Stench and David Bowie in Tights, both offering a fate worse than death for its teenage heroine.
Remember, Labyrinth is about a girl who resents having to babysit for her brother in the real world and has to get her priorities straight and learn responsibility when the King of Goblins steals him away. The labyrinth of the story presents her with a series of tests of character and judgment – a process of maturation if you will – that earns her the right and gives her the inner strength and the skills to save her brother in the end. It is the world that does the work here. It is the lesson plan for Jennifer Connelly’s heroine, prepared most carefully and to character. In other words, the world is designed by the writers to test out and expose her personal flaws and weaknesses. It is not a random collection of ‘cool stuff’ crammed into a script. The former creates satisfying drama, the latter is just stuff that happens that we get to watch (see: Resident Evil 2002).
This is why we talk about story worlds rather than plot worlds.
Story worlds not plot worlds
One of the most difficult parts of the screenwriting process is to change your mindset from valorizing events (plot driven) to prioritizing motivations (story driven). This is the most important step on our film student road from generalized idea back to a workable movie concept.
By now it should be pretty clear what has to happen. Our discussion of story worlds has focused on how the world needs to work to and for character. Now we need to express that work in terms of a story concept rather than a plot concept.
Put another way we need to stop thinking about what a character does, but why she does it.
Every movie has both a story and a plot. Stories are about the internal challenges our characters face, the changes they go through and the lessons they learn or fail to learn. Stories drive the events of the plot and without a story a plot has no real meaning or emotional significance for the audience.
In filmmaking terms, therefore, plots are simply the external mechanisms we use to tell stories.
So how does this work in practice? Well, we just talked about Labyrinth which is about a girl, Sarah who needs to grow up, take responsibility and put the welfare of others first. The story of the film is about her learning to do that. It is an internal struggle for her as a person. We can’t see internal struggles (remember show don’t tell?) so we need a plot to show us the process by which she gets from where she started, selfish and immature, to where she is at the end, a good sister and a more mature individual all round. We are given final evidence of this transformation when Sarah passes on her beloved teddy bear, Lancelot, to her newly rescued baby brother. In symbolic terms, of course, the teddy bear represents the parts of her childhood she is now ready to leave behind.
In the plot Sarah meets other characters and has all kinds of labyrinthy adventures which help her get to the final plot event when she faces the naughty Goblin King and his worrying haircut.
In the story, those characters and adventures form parts of Sarah’s learning curve. They transform her from a spoilt brat to a clear thinking young woman (she finally remembers her spell) who is capable of actually defeating the lad Bowie and his worrying package.
So plot and story in Labyrinth are two parallel journeys, one traveled by the feet and the other travelled in the mind and personality of the character.
Plots get us into our seats; stories keep us watching.
Every film, even the most obviously plot driven films like 2012 (scr. Roland Emmerich & Harald Kloser) 2009, has a story. As a screenwriter, however important your plot and spectacle are to the final success of your concept, if you try and pitch without a story you will get nowhere. We will cover this in detail in the next chapter, but as a taster this is how Roland Emmerich describes his approach to 2012 in a video interview posted at Movieweb.com:
“I realized that, you know, in disaster movie format you have two things. You have very big images and you have very small, intimate stories and that’s a great combination. The heroes are normal people like you and me. They don’t have to have special talents or anything. They only have to have the will to survive.”
So in 2012 there are parallel, macro and micro plot tracks, the global Noah’s Ark plan to save (the richest members of) the human race and the personal struggle of John Cusack’s character, Jackson Curtis and his family who understandably want to be among the saved rather than the drowned. Both of these tracks are run by stories which suggest you have to earn your own redemption. In the global plot, the story has Chiwetel Obamiofor – sorry Ejiofor – teaching Americans to basically suck less: “The moment we stop fighting for each other, that’s the moment we lose our humanity.” In the family plot, Jackson Curtis earns his redemption as a father and as a husband by proving he can be more than the obsessional flake who drove his wife and kids away before the start of the movie.
Both of these stories come from and play to character. Jackson Curtis is ‘flawed’ and needs ‘correcting’ just as the human race – or at least the American part of it, personified by Oliver Platt – needs a metaphorical smack on the nose with a rolled up newspaper: “Bad America, no biscuit!”
How seriously are we expected to take these stories? The answer is: not very. My old friend, the brilliant film academic Martin Stollery, put it like this as we were leaving the cinema (I paraphrase slightly): “Don’t you feel that at the heart of all his films Roland Emmerich is just taking the piss?”
Nevertheless, the stories are there so that plot can be hung upon them in a functional sort of way.
Cue California sliding into the sea…
…so that John Cusack can prove he’s a good husband and father.
1. Your movie idea is now your pitch statement.
What, you thought your idea was a precious little jewel and the pitch was the horrible mucky commercial thing you had to cheapen it into to get it made? But why would your idea be different from your pitch? Remember, your pitch statement is also a check for yourself that your idea actually works and that you know how to develop it into a screenplay.
2. Your movie’s story is about somebody with a clear and consistent problem or challenge.
Remember, your wardrobe* is designed to hold your clothes rail, not to accommodate multiple branches. If your theme changes – if your hero/ine’s problem changes – your story just changed and this tends to make what came before narratively redundant and thus, in movie terms, a colossal waste of time and money.
3. Your pitch will show or at least imply that this challenge manifests both internally and externally.
This is because the story world you create will be designed to force the internal challenge into the open so the audience can understand it and follow as your hero/ine deals with it. In my book we will talk about this in terms of: scared of bunnies / world in which ‘oh look bunnies’. Oh the thrills that await you!
4. You will pitch through the story – through the trials of your hero/ine – not through all the cool stuff you have planned for the design of the spaceships’ laser turrets.
I’m looking at you: Half The Class…
Yes, if you are writing a science fiction epic we will want to know at some point what sells your particular vision of the future. This will be important for some aspects of your storytelling and certainly for production design, marketing and publicity. But think of Mimic, the premise is the six foot roaches, but the story involves Mira solving the problem she unknowingly created… which led to the six foot roaches. In your pitch you need to play this out, even though your premise was doing just fine pointing at six foot roaches and saying “cool, huh?”
Joss Whedon could have pitched the wonderful and much lamented series Firefly 2002 to Fox executives with a firm nod towards the words “cowboys in space” (although all evidence suggests they weren’t listening properly), but try summing up the science fiction concept of a new adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune as efficiently in three words: “Giant wormy jihad.” Meh. “Feudal space bondage.” Hmm. “Guild spice… pranks.” Grr. Aha – here’s the easiest gag: “No Sting. Result!” Now I feel cheap.
5. Tell us who your hero is in a well chosen phrase and link that description into the meat of the story or plot.
Here’s a more story heavy example: “After he is dumped by his girlfriend, Summer, Tom Hansen, a young unemployed architect who is paying the rent as a greeting card writer has to examine the five hundred days of their relationship to figure out where he went wrong.” (We know this is a story heavy pitch because it focuses on introspection leading action rather than action forcing introspection. This speaks directly to story rather than plot.)
Now this one is a tough pitch. There are still a bunch of unanswered questions begging but at least we have a hero with a double problem implied here: he needs to understand why he couldn’t make his relationship work (internal) and he needs to find a way of getting on with his career (external). In solving the former, he will also see his way clear to solving the latter. If he doesn’t, he’s stuck as Mopey Loser Stasis Boy, presumably forever, so let’s hope his emotional exploration of those (500) Days of Summer works it all out for him.
This might be the subject of your second pitch statement.
The pitch also implies the non-linear structure of the film. Of course our hero needs to think his way backwards and forwards through the 500 days. How else is he going to make sense of it all?
This might be the subject of your third pitch statement.
Here’s a plot heavy example: “In the 1930s Indiana Jones, a globetrotting archeologist has to outwit the Nazis in order to prevent an all powerful mystical artifact from being used for evil.” Yup, you guessed it, that one was for Annie Hall 1977.
As you can see from the examples above – ok I lied, the second one was Raiders of the Lost Ark 1981 just in case, for some unfathomable reason, anyone is reading this in the year 2467 and no copies of the film still exist – you can pitch to plot. Ideally you still need to do it as much as possible through your characters and their human problems. What does my hero have to do to be able to survive and thrive?
What this particular pitch doesn’t do is discuss Indy’s little personal problems up front because there’s a great big whopper of a problem that is already apparent. Be ready to talk about his internal problems, fear of snakes and being kind of unprepared for the reality of the supernatural, in a subsequent statement. For this pitch, pesky Nazis tells us all we need to be told.
You see how the worlds work variously to story, plot and character in these very different examples? Raiders is set in a world where ‘ooh look, Nazis’ and (500) Days is set in a world where ‘ooh look, other people don’t always feel the same way you do’. That’s Tom’s problem, he is crazy in love with Summer but she is never really in love with him. What’s more, she is honest about it from the start but he doesn’t want to hear it. That’s why their relationship is doomed and that’s what he has to come to terms with in his critical self examination. That’s the problem in the world; the trap written into the fabric of the story.
6. Give the name of your hero/ine in your pitch.
You should name them because then everybody has a shorthand for discussion and we aren’t working our dry, nervous lips around terms like “protagonist” and “main character” in a pitch meeting or class. Also names have power and can boost the punch of your idea. He’s an archeologist – hmm, could be really dull – but fortunately he isn’t doddery old Professor. McSchwardflovskinheimowitzberg, he’s Indiana Jones. Yup he’s a cool professor and we are going to have fun following his cool exploits. Did I mention the whip?
Also in the other pitch it is very important that we know right up front that Tom’s ex-girlfriend’s name is Summer. Otherwise nobody will understand the title.
7. It is a very good idea to specify the period and general location in which your story is set, if it is not obviously “Somewhere Cheap” and “In the Present”.
In other words, your pitch should give some indication of your film’s projected budget, especially if the budget will be high. A setting in the past, even the fairly recent past, will ramp up the budget and exotic locations will also cost a lot of money, to say nothing of complex action and special effects. Raiders of the Lost Ark is a period piece, with countless locations and loads of good old Nazi spanking action – expensive stuff. (500) Days of Summer needs some offices, a karaoke bar, assorted houses and apartments, a bench with a modest urban view, a train and an IKEA if I remember correctly – pretty modest.
Don’t hide this stuff from your audience. They are certainly not expecting you to quote a dollar amount, but they will expect you to be an honest broker. Let them know the kind of project they are potentially signing on for. If you sell a quaint little character piece featuring a touching romance between a retired landscape gardener and the owner of a cake shop and only when you submit the first draft does it become clear that you have written a Victorian steam punk romance with half the film taking place in the great sunken seaweed gardens of Atlantis and the other half on the Bakery Planet of Brioche 9 you will not be a popular person to say the least.
8. Don’t pitch the B story up front.
But make sure you know what it is and how it works for the inevitable follow up. We’ll talk more about B stories later but it probably involves your hero in a significant amount of snogging and being kicked up the arse. Not necessarily in that order.
9. Make it sound fun.
It’s so obvious, but remember you are trying to interest people in your idea, so be interesting. This leads us to the tenth and most frequently ignored tip for good pitching:
10. Practice, practice, practice.
Seriously, do this. Talk to yourself in a mirror. Bore the family dog. Record yourself and play back more than once (so you get over the cringe factor of hearing your own voice). Not only will it give you confidence when you actually have to make a pitch, but it will also make it much easier to hear and correct problems or just awkwardness or long windedness in your pitch statements.
All of these rules lead to this simple conclusion: at the end of your opening pitch statement nobody should be offering variations on Tom Hanks’ famous comment when presented with a rubbish transforming skyscraper toy in Big 1988: “I don’t get it.” Doubtless they will have many valid questions pertaining to the substance, detail and practicality of your movie idea, but they should already understand how we get from A to B and what both A and B represent in human and story terms.
If they don’t, your pitch sucked.
*see my book in August!
Or: Captain Jack Sparrow vs. morality… and subplots
Well I’m all for a few jolly hours spent watching pirates being pirates. Unfortunately in recent years the Pirates franchise has offered us a law of rapidly diminishing returns. Yes fun stuff did happen and we did indeed get to watch, but empty kinetics increasingly drowned out the last vestiges of story and the enjoyably pantomime characters ended up all at sea.
In fairness, Ted Elliott, Terry Rossio et al have gone some way towards making amends for the disappointment of the previous two films with Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. Their plot is stronger, at least in the first half. The best of the film’s action set pieces in London is really well thought through. Jack and the gang get some well-chosen cheesy lines and their screenplay allows Geoffrey Rush to have such fun in the first act, as Barbossa plays the role of a newly powdered and bewigged privateer, that he steals every scene he’s in.
Sadly the movie ends up hitting the rocks because they can’t navigate around the central, fundamental truth of the Pirates series: you just can’t give Jack Sparrow depth. Don’t get me wrong, we love Jack and we love Johnny Depp’s intentionally flighty and flyweight incarnation. But it’s a performance designed beautifully around the pleasures of the surface. For all his hilariously fey physicality and semi-addled diction, Jack is the unchanging rock that anchors the vessel of the plot to the seabed and keeps it honest. And by honest I mean light as air. He’s a light rock, you see? Work with me…
On Stranger Tides tries simultaneously to give Jack moral and romantic depth by partnering him with an old flame to whom he ‘done wrong’ and yet apparently never actually slept with (we can hear the Disney corporate typewriter clattering away behind the scenes most strongly here). Simultaneously, however, it acknowledges the impossibility of the task by inventing a tedious subplot involving a captured priest who falls for a mermaid and whose pure love causes her to shed the tear the pirates need to perform a ritual at the Fountain of Youth.
Jack could never be capable of pure love or selfless feeling, so why force the story down these blind alleys? It’s not like he is going to change – and nor do we want him to – so why waste time, narrative energy and plot coherence pretending that he might? What’s more, crime of crimes the presence of Angelica on Blackbeard’s ship completely undercuts the great Ian McShane’s attempts to imbue that iconic character with any real menace. Furthermore another subplot involving Barbossa’s quest for revenge against Blackbeard combines with the mermaid story to rob Captain Jack of much importance at the film’s climax.
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, like its predecessors, is still caught between the structures of a straightforward heroic adventure and an ensemble narrative. This time it might have got away with it if some of those ensemble subplots hadn’t been doomed to inadequacy from the get go.
Here’s a bit of fun for budding movie bloggers. I am going to ask for the occasional contribution from out there in actual people land. No prize other than micro fame for getting published on the blog, but hey students you can still put it on your CV, right? In the future it would be nice to be able to offer prizes and so forth but right now we are young (“heartache to heartache we stand…” sorry) and innocent and uncorrupted by money and goods and chattels.
The idea is that when movies come out that I can’t get around to or really don’t want to see it would be nice to get a review up on the site for the education and general enlightenment of us all. This week, I am soliciting reviews for: The Beaver, Fast Five and Water for Elephants. If you have seen any of those and have a tale to tell write in and I’ll post the best of each if they are half way decent.
1. Maximum 500 words please.
2. No illustrations – I’ll find images if needed.
3. Avoid all the cursing and the naughty words please.
4. Deadline is next Friday (May 27th) midnight.
5. Use your review to make a clear argument about the movie. Don’t give us a plot synopsis, make your case clearly why we should or shouldn’t go see it and try and focus on why things work or don’t in screenwriting terms. Character development, story and plot structure, dialogue and so forth are more important than how cool the explosions are.
6. By submitting an entry you agree for your work to be published on this blog under your name, but without payment of any kind. You also agree to allow me to edit the material as necessary.
7. Send your submissions to: email@example.com
Thanks and good luck!
OK so we went to see Hesher the other day full of indie hope and indie cheer. On a personal note I was hoping that it would be my Summer bolster against the worst effects of this year’s blockbusterdom: “Breathe, Jules, breathe… remember Hesher.”
Sadly and although the film has its moments of interest, although there are some solid performances to be found (at least in flashes), it falls into the trap of reifying quirk at the expense of story coherence. It does this by recasting the old indie fallback trope of the magic pixie (Natalie Portman in Garden State etc.) in the new guise of Joseph Gordon Levitt’s very random metalhead sociopathic angel.
Hesher is the story of a broken, grieving family ‘cured’ by their interactions with an eccentric, implausible and basically unknowable outsider and frankly the been there, done that police were knocking at the door well before the midpoint.
There is so much in the way of indie eating-the-cake-and-assuming-you-will-still-have-it-afterwards-ness in this overly familiar idea that it pulls the whole movie off track and condemns it to being an exercise in waiting for the next Hesher intervention rather than for the other characters to take charge of their destinies.
The figure of Hesher is little more than a device to allow the script to do whatever random stuff the writers want rather than what their characters need. He’s simply a plot convenience and it gets old fast. At the end, when Hesher takes grandma for a walk in her coffin in ‘significant’ slow motion I kept imagining I was in a rough cut screening with students: “Tell me you got a take of that at normal speed…”
This is Garden State for closet pyromaniacs. This is what happens when your stick figure tattoos metaphorically match the wallpaper.
This is, I’m sad to say, a mess.
This is where you find out whether your story is going to work or not.
The treatment expands the premise and fills in the gaps so you can see the story clearly from beginning to end. Not all writers do treatments – certainly the writers of Hollywood’s classical period rarely did. It is a great safety net, however, especially for inexperienced writers. If you have written ten good scripts, well maybe you can do without one, but if you pitch an idea, if you go into development nowadays, you are almost certainly going to have to work with them.
There are a number of variations on a theme here, but what they all have in common is that a treatment is a prose telling of your story. It is not in screenplay format. It is not separated into formal scenes in the way a screenplay is. A treatment is basically a work through of all the important stages in your story, told as dramatically and evocatively and yet economically as possible.
In other words a good treatment should be a pleasure to read. It should flow and have the pace and tension your story does; only it is not a short story in the traditional literary sense. You are still writing for a visual medium and your treatment should reflect that. Rather a treatment is a set of narrative encapsulations which gets you from beginning to end efficiently but with class.
Where the feast is at its most moveable is in terms of length. This is because different people involved in the development process may want different versions, from a page on upwards. When playing with others one just has to ask what length they want. When playing with… When working on your own, you probably want to write as full a treatment as you can. This may be up to 20 pages or so. Some writers go even longer, but I think there is a law of diminishing returns after about 20 pages where the document becomes unwieldy and less fit for purpose. Certainly in 20 pages you should be able to include every important story moment and plot incident.
What I usually do is work up to it. I start by telling my story in four pages, one per act but two for act two. We will talk about acts when we come to the ‘W’ structure in the next chapter. I then step back and look at how the story flows and how it is balanced and start working up each act as I go. Unless somebody is telling me to produce x pages, I don’t really worry about how long it will be at the end. When it’s done it’s done.
The great thing about treatments is that you, or a reader, can get a handle on the story fast and can contribute to development discussions without plowing through endless screenplay pages. It is much easier to swap around, insert and remove short prose paragraphs than it is whole scenes with all their dialogue. Also it saves you wasting your time with all that dialogue writing if the story is going to go another way.
Having said that, it is acceptable to include some indicative dialogue in a treatment, indeed it can be very helpful in terms of getting a handle on character. Don’t write whole scenes of it, just examples of a character’s ‘voice’ and a few key speeches or exchanges.
The top ten ground rules for a good movie treatment
1. Make it dramatic.
It may not look like a screenplay yet, but this is still the story you love, have committed your time and effort to developing and want others to become enthusiastic about. So tell it with some verve. Seriously you wouldn’t believe how many treatments I have read which plod along, mired in the most banal language as if the writer was resenting every minute of it. Of course that’s because the writer was resenting every minute of it. Yes it’s a chore, but it’s important because it will make the final process easier. Now go write it properly.
2. Hook us in early.
This is a good check on your storytelling skills. Give the reader a reason to want to read on, something that speaks the uniqueness of your story, right up near the start. This is good screenwriting practice anyway. A hook doesn’t have to be a moment of dramatic hyperbole or excess. It can be a subtle character moment that speaks volumes and makes the reader want to read on.
Here’s an example of a very undemonstrative, yet telling character hook that I greatly admire from The Verdict 1982 (scr. David Mamet, from the novel by Barry Reed).
3. It should be no longer than it needs to be.
Whatever length that is, either by instruction or your own development. Remember that the primary purpose of the treatment is to be easy to use and to refer to. Fifty pages are not your friends here.
4. Always use the present tense.
Your screenplay will be written in the present tense so you might as well get familiar with the style. Movies are written as if everything is just happening for the first time right now, in front of our eyes. This is convenient, because when we watch them that’s what it will feel like. Even a flashback unfolds in real time so write it in the present tense.
5. Show don’t tell.
Here we are again. Remember, you are writing for a visual medium, so use your words to make us see it.
6. Highlight and encapsulate.
When you are writing each event, pick out the most important aspect/s in terms of story structure and character development and tell us those. Try and sum up the story meaning of the scene this way.
7. Don’t drown us in detail.
We don’t need every detail. We certainly don’t need every part of your location descriptions. Work out what we need to know to fit this moment to what just happened and what is happening next. This is narrative economy again, but in treatment terms. Make sure we get it. Move on.
8. Hit your key beats hard.
This instruction is about making clear the moments when major changes or developments occur in your story. Think back to our discussion of the theme. Remember the theme doesn’t change, but your hero/ine’s attitude to the theme will. When that happens, make it abundantly clear because that moment is a major hinge in your mechanism and you want your reader to get it. The same applies to major moments where your hero/ine is either knocked back or drives forward on their path to the ultimate goal. These kinds of hinge moments will come up a number of times (how many hangers on the rail?) so be ready to speak them loud and clear when they do.
9. Don’t hide your cards.
The treatment is where you need to show us what’s in your hand. No nasty budget or story surprises held until the screenplay please. Play fair and let us know it all right here and now.
10. Make it dramatic.
[Note: This is a cut down version of a section of my book Write What You Don't Know: an accessible manual for screenwriters forthcoming from Continuum Books]
Why clarity always spanks dialect
[Note: This is a cut down version of a section of my book Write What You Don't Know: an accessible manual for screenwriters forthcoming from Continuum Books]
Now there will be times when you are writing a character whose background will suggest that they have a strong accent or a specific dialect. The beginning screenwriter – hey I’ve done it myself – will tend to try and encapsulate that specificity in the way they write the character’s lines. So far so good. Unfortunately that encapsulation is mos’ lik’ly ta en’ up makin’ ‘em artikylate the’selves sump’n liken ta this… y’all.
The FRIENDLY ME KID spits a wet gob of chawin’ tobaccy into the dang spittoon.
Hmm… still not sure how to format for screenplay in WordPress… Anyway, imagine page after page of that stuff and you should immediately understand why it is not your friend. More importantly it is not the friend of the script reader who has to plow through all of it and try and work out what (th’ hootin’ heck) your character is saying. Anything that gets in the way of clarity, anything that slows up the read and makes us struggle is not authenticity; it’s just a pain in the ass.
I lived in the lovely city of Norwich in the even lovelier county of Norfolk in England for a number of years.
What you do when faced with a dialect question is indicate and enable. When the character is introduced, mention their accent or dialect in your character description. If you want to indicate it in their dialogue, focus on how they inhabit their region or class as an individual. In other words don’t go adding a bunch of y’alls for the sake of it, but play with speech patterns and vocabulary as you might for any character.
It is appropriate to give someone awkward or idiosyncratic syntax if they need it, just don’t go re-spelling everything and choppin’ th’ ends off’n ever’ word.
When you have a whole group of characters speaking the same dialect, one of the ways you can save yourself from the hell of overdialectifying is to embody most of the dialectness in one of the characters and let the others get away with the occasional turn of phrase. Within every group there will be variation, work that to your advantage, just don’t let anyone drive too far down the apostrophe highway.
The control of story information
Whatever the politics of the filmmakers, narration is about the control of story information. Whenever you are watching a film, if you want to know what job the narration is doing ask yourself the following simple questions:
Who knows what and when?
How much are we being told?
How reliable is our information?
Then ask yourself: how much fun am I having because of the answers to those three questions?
Take the beginning of Yojimbo (scr. Akira Kurosawa) 1961, a movie about a ronin (a lordless samurai) who plays the two bandit gangs running a small town off against one another, destroying them both. The film opens with the wandering ronin, played by the great Toshiro Mifune, coming to a fork in the road. We haven’t seen his face yet. We follow him from behind, a lonely figure in a landscape. At the fork Toshiro pauses, with no reason to go either one way or the other. He picks up a stick and throws it into the air. The stick lands, pointing down one of the paths and Toshiro follows its lead towards – who knows what?
Here’s an opposite kind of example, this time from television. Hopefully you all still remember the classic detective show Columbo, with Peter Falk as the bumblingly brilliant schlub who solves murders in high society. It was one of my favorite programs as a kid and it told its stories in a very particular way. In each episode of the show (barring a couple of specials) we would see a murder committed at the start and we would also see who committed it. The murderer would inevitably be rich and arrogant and they would underestimate the deductive powers of the unassuming and distinctly lower class detective who turned up to investigate the crime.
For the audience, the principle pleasure of watching Columbo lay in knowing whodunit and watching the detective start from nowhere and catch up. Because the villain was inevitably a patronizing, smarmy bastard, we really wanted him caught and we hated him for putting down our hero.
In these two examples therefore, the writer puts the audience in opposite positions in terms of knowledge, but in each example we are where we want to be to get the most enjoyment from the story.
In Yojimbo we know nothing and the ronin knows nothing.
In Columbo we know everything and Columbo knows nothing.
In (500) Days of Summer we know nothing and Tom knows everything – he’s been through the 500 days after all – and yet he doesn’t know what it really means. The film has us join him on his search for that meaning from different ends of the knowledge spectrum.
In Rashomon 1950, another Kurosawa film, we see the same events told from the perspectives of different participants. Here the audience quickly learns that it cannot necessarily trust the information we are being given and we become invested in seeking the truth through the fog of motivations.
In all of these cases the story maneuvers us into position in such a way that we are quickly engaged with the central problem of the story and its world. Many films change the starting contract over time. Typically the audience starts with little information and gradually increases its range and depth of knowledge as it increases its commitment to the hero/ine’s story. John Truby would talk about narration in terms of planning your ‘reveals’, for example. The control of revelations, both to characters in the narrative and to the audience – and these may be different and come at different times for each – is another way to conceptualize the work of narration in screenwriting.
All genres, but especially mysteries, detective stories and horror films will often include their audience in a complex game with knowledge and ignorance. The narration shifts us back and forth from positions of superiority to inferiority in relation to the characters and events on screen.
Most of M. Night Shyamalan’s career has been built on this. Typically he takes the narration ‘knowledge game’ and makes it into the central thesis of his movie. In The Sixth Sense 1999, we spend the movie alongside the lad Bruce Willis, trying to work out why Haley Joel Osment sees dead people, only to find out that Bruce is a ghost. In The Village 2004, we spend the whole movie trying to work out whether there are really monsters in the woods, only to find out the movie is set in the present day and the village elders are scaring people away from finding this out. In Signs 2002, we spend most of the movie hiding in Mel Gibson’s basement and really don’t care a damn what is going on because surely anything is better than that.
[Note: This is a cut down version of a section of my book Write What You Don't Know: an accessible manual for screenwriters forthcoming from Continuum Books]