flying wrestler https://www.flyingwrestler.com Thoughts on screenwriting from writer-producer Erik Bork Sat, 18 Aug 2018 17:29:24 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.8 Emotional Investment https://www.flyingwrestler.com/2018/07/emotional-investment/ https://www.flyingwrestler.com/2018/07/emotional-investment/#comments Thu, 12 Jul 2018 00:46:51 +0000 https://www.flyingwrestler.com/?p=49588

When I read a script (or watch a movie or TV episode), there is one question running through my mind, which forms the foundation of my reaction to it: “Do I care?” And if I’m evaluating someone’s work, I’m asking, “Do I think audience members in general will care?” This is really what they pay […]

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When I read a script (or watch a movie or TV episode), there is one question running through my mind, which forms the foundation of my reaction to it:

“Do I care?”

And if I’m evaluating someone’s work, I’m asking, “Do I think audience members in general will care?”

This is really what they pay us writers to do, when you get down to it, beyond everything else. We are supposed to grab people, to make them emotionally invest in the character(s) and situation(s), so they’ll want to keep watching/reading.

If we don’t, it doesn’t matter how well we execute on the page. Not really. We have to convince them to want to be there, to want to stay. And that’s about how it feels for them to be a part of the story.

Most of my notes on most scripts point to this central need. Writers sometimes lose sight of this as the goal, and don’t realize just how challenging it is to make millions of strangers engage and feel something about a story and characters. It’s hard! But it’s maybe the most valuable thing we do as writers — give the audience something to care about, to connect with, to lose themselves in. They want to experience the events of the story as if they were happening to them — to feel a part of it, and so connected that it really MATTERS how everything turns out. Almost like it’s their favorite sports team playing for the championship. And it’s our job to make that happen.

There are two aspects to emotional engagement. Both are important.

The first is about making them care about the predicament(s) of the main character(s) — to feel for the people and what they’re going through and trying to achieve. So many of my blog posts are about different ways to try to ensure this happens: by seducing them into some connection in the opening pages, by making sure the main character has one big problem they will actively focus on throughout, and that it has high enough stakes, and that the story is told subjectively through their point-of-view. Achieving a kind of emotional oneness with the main character(s) is something we take for granted, as viewers. But as writers, we have to strategize and work hard to make this happen.

The other way to engage audience emotions is through entertaining them. That is, we lead them into experiencing pleasurable emotions, that they chose to watch the movie/show because they’re hoping to feel. Different genres do this differently — depending on whether their audience showed up to laugh, to be scared, to experience romantic love, etc.

It’s not easy to achieve high entertainment value if you’re not also making them care about the characters and strongly bond with them. But occasionally it happens. If a comedy is funny enough, or a horror film scary enough, or an action-adventure has big enough spectacle, bonding with the characters can sometimes be slightly less crucial. With some movies, the audience just wants to laugh really hard, see awesome eye candy, etc., and they may or may not be quite as connected with the people. These kinds of movies are like amusement park attractions, to me. Sometimes they can be big successes. And a writer who can entertain this hugely can definitely find work. They just might not stick with you as much.

Most writers I work with aren’t focused in that direction. If anything, “entertainment” seems to be a lower priority. They’re not actively going for a particular genre, other than perhaps “drama,” which can be the hardest to make “entertaining” (and can sometimes become bleak, or boring). With this kind of script, it’s that much more important that the audience have strong emotional investment in the characters and their problems, and what they’re doing in the face of conflicts and complications they encounter to try to reach their goals.

In my view, most writers could stand to focus on both of these ways to engage audience emotion more, as the one-two punch of what makes a script really “work” — assuming it also has a strong enough original premise. And when you come right down to it, virtually every other screenwriting trick of the trade ultimately works in service to one or both of these goals. 

SET IT UP works to earn the audience's emotional investment

Glen Powell and Zoey Deutch in Netflix’s SET IT UP

The new Netflix romantic comedy Set it Up is as good example as any, of a movie that makes both ways of engaging emotion a priority. I’m a fan of the genre, and it’s one the major studios don’t tend to make as much anymore — this gentler, pleasing kind of story of how two people come together (as opposed to more raucous comedies that might also have a romantic subplot). This movie presses a lot of the traditional buttons that you would see twenty years ago in studio rom-coms, and though I thought it took a while to really kick into gear, once it did, I found myself caring more and more about the two leads, enjoying the chemistry between them, and wanting to see each of them grow into their best selves, and end up together. And like the best versions of this genre (what Save the Cat would classify under “Buddy Love”), these two ultimately seem like they could be each other’s “perfect counterpart” — the person best suited to help them to find that best self.

If you watch it, notice all the things they do to make the two leads lovable, and growingly so. The more we watch them both be abused at work (and later in relationships), the more we can’t help but feel for both of them, and want them to find some escape (which they seek to achieve by secretly setting their terrible bosses up with each other). But once we get past that initial premise, it starts to be about something more — we want them to find personal fulfillment, and even love. 

In terms of entertainment value, there is plenty of comedy throughout, as well as a chance for the audience to vicariously enjoy the experience of love blossoming, between two people they come to care about — one of the most time-tested kinds of “entertainment emotions” that audiences will pay to experience.  

Whether you enjoy the movie or not, it’s trying to do what movies do best, when they are as successful: which is to entertain people, while making them care.

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The Elements of a Scene https://www.flyingwrestler.com/2018/07/the-elements-of-a-scene/ https://www.flyingwrestler.com/2018/07/the-elements-of-a-scene/#comments Thu, 05 Jul 2018 22:04:03 +0000 https://www.flyingwrestler.com/?p=49559

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When I first started writing, I wish someone had explained to me what the necessary elements of a scene were. (As well as the key criteria for a good story.) In many scripts I read (and some I’ve written!), the writer seems a little hazy about what a scene should contain, and as a result, the flow of the story isn’t as engaging as it could be.

So let’s clear up any confusion on what a scene is, what it should look like, and what is to be avoided.
 

A scene is a story in miniature

 
Just as a story has a beginning, middle and end, and is focused on a problem or conflict of some kind, so do most good scenes.

And just as “point of view” is crucial to a good story, so is it key to a good scene.

What that means is this: in any given scene, we are typically focused on one character’s subjective experience of the situation. We have a clear sense of what they’re feeling, what their problem is, what they want, and what’s in the way.

And the scene is about that situation developing, through conflict, as they attempt to solve their problem or reach their goal for the scene.

Those attempts typically don’t easily work, and result in complications or unexpected results that force them to improvise, with some kind of rising tension and emotion, leading to a climax of some sorts, and, finally a resolution to the scene, in which its key issue is ended in some way, but also, something has happened that turns the story in a new direction, leading to new scenes.

Whatever the main character’s overall problem/goal in the story is, things have now changed, in some way. That’s what makes the scene necessary.

Scenes that don’t engage audiences tend to lack these elements. They aren’t focused on a particular character’s understandable emotions and wants, and/or there isn’t a conflict at the center of the scene that builds and resolves in this way.

This is what we want to avoid: scenes that are just about characters exchanging information or opinions with each other, without much conflict or emotion. Scenes where characters get along — or goals are achieved easily — are not dramatic (or comedic) scenes. They just kind of lay there.

The audience is engaged by the problems, and attempts to solve them. And they need to have some “skin in the game” or a “dog in the fight,” in a scene. They need to be seeing it though someone’s eyes, who they are relating to in some way as they deal with a problem or pursue a goal. Otherwise they are just watching from an objective distance, without caring that much about what happens.

This doesn’t mean there’s not some room for good things to happen, or for characters to talk to each other about things without major conflict, but ideally, such moments are brief, and feature other elements that keep things moving along engagingly. For instance, in those scenes in Sex and the City where the four friends would commiserate over cosmopolitans about their latest man troubles, the advice they would give each other would (a) be entertaining, (b) focus on strong emotion, (c) focus on a particular character with a particular relatable problem, and (d) usually advance their story in some way. And even then, there would often be some conflict as the woman in question wouldn’t like how her friends are reacting to her issue, or what they think she should do.

I’ve heard it said that a good scene should either advance story (which is what I’ve mostly been talking about) or reveal/develop character. Or both. I don’t disagree. But even scenes that don’t advance story and only develop character need to do so in ways that are entertaining, emotional, and typically conflict-based, where it feels like the character’s situation is developing because of what we’re learning about them and what’s going on for them, during these “in between” moments of the story.

So there are a few key elements of a scene that we want to typically include:

  1. Point-of-view/relatability
  2. Conflict/problems
  3. Emotion
  4. Entertainment value (appropriate to the genre)
  5. Forward motion

All of these serve to emotionally connect the audience to what’s going on, and make them want to keep watching/reading. That’s ultimately the name of the game. They’re not as connected when people they don’t really care about talk about things they don’t have a strong stake in, with little difficulty, and where things aren’t moving forward, and aren’t really that fun to watch!

One other common point of confusion about scenes. There are two ways of thinking about them. On one hand, every time you change time or location, and have a new scene heading in a script, you’ve got a new “scene.” So a scene can be as brief as a single line.

That’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about a scene as a complete dramatic unit that moves the story forward.

For instance, when Save the Cat talks about a feature film script containing 40 scenes that one could outline on cards (or paragraphs, in a Word document, like I do with my coaching clients), Blake Snyder means something much bigger than a location or scene heading change. He’s talking about a scene with an average length of 2.75 pages (in a 110 page script). It might have several location changes within it, before it’s fulfilled the criteria above.

Now some “moments” in a script might not accomplish all of the above, but serve as necessary interstitial elements, between scenes that do. As such, these are usually quite short, as in under a page.

One of the things I find often when a writer outlines a project for my feedback, is that a lot of what they think are full “scenes” in terms of “one of the forty” are really short information exchanges that don’t have enough meat, conflict or development in them to really engage the audience and move things forward. So rather than counting as a full “scene,” they are just little moments that can maybe be tacked onto the beginning or ending of one.

Let me conclude with something that a key mentor told me, during the years when he was the producer and I was the writer on a big project: scenes should serve multiple purposes. A lot can be going on in a given scene. Ideally, character is being revealed/developed, information is being given to the audience (shown, rather than told), AND the story is also moving forward in a dynamic way.

Rather than one small thing at a time happening, a lot can be packed into one scene, so that it’s rich, compelling and full of life and creative content.

This will help ensure that readers care about what’s going on, invest deeply, and stay engaged throughout the story.

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Fool Triumphant https://www.flyingwrestler.com/2018/06/fool-triumphant/ https://www.flyingwrestler.com/2018/06/fool-triumphant/#comments Wed, 27 Jun 2018 23:28:13 +0000 https://www.flyingwrestler.com/?p=49500

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“Fool Triumphant” is one of Blake Snyder’s ten “genres” — which I think are the most useful and revolutionary tool in his Save the Cat books. I always work with them at the crucial story/concept development stage, on my own projects and with writers I coach.

I’ve previously posted about seven of the other ten: Golden Fleece, Whydunit, Institutionalized, Rite of Passage, Out of the Bottle, Dude with a Problem, and Buddy Love.

One key feature of the “Fool Triumphant” story is that the main character tends to have better values than all the other characters — values that might not seem like they’re important or useful, early on (when s/he is seen as a “fool” by everyone), but which end up winning the day in the end. And while these characters ultimately go through some sort of “transmutation,” they don’t fundamentally change who they are. Instead, who they are finally becomes valued and successful, and they step into a better, prouder, more fully realized version of themselves.

Some prominent examples include:

  • Forrest Gump
  • Legally Blonde
  • Elf
  • Coming to America
  • Tootsie
  • Working Girl
  • The King’s Speech
  • The 40-Year-Old Virgin

Generally speaking, this “fool” is surrounded by more worldly types who value money, power and position, and are more ruthless and/or selfish — or are just kind of idiots. The main character typically has at least one ally and/or love interest, and may or may not have a specific antagonist, but what they always do have are people who just don’t quite get them — who might look down on them, might oppose them, or might actually try to help them, but who lack the spiritual wisdom that the “Fool” tends to have naturally.

That doesn’t mean it’s a smooth and easy ride for the main character. As in every genre, the “fool” main character has one big problem that demands their attention, and can’t really be permanently solved, for most of the movie. Only at the end do they break through somehow. It’s an uphill battle in which they are the ultimate underdog, in over their head in a world that doesn’t value or understand them. And they might not even value or understand themselves, given that they typically have some sort of handicap, or inability to get what they most want, in the world. But they stick to their guns (perhaps not seeming to have any choice), and in the end, it usually works out.

As with all the genres, Save the Cat Goes to the Movies breaks “Fool Triumphant” into five subgenres each, which describe different environments or situations where the “fool” can be up against an “establishment” that seems much more powerful than they are:

  • Political Fool (Dave, The Princess Diaries)
  • Undercover Fool (Trading Places, Mrs. Doubtfire)
  • Society Fool (Temple Grandin, Wonder)
  • Fool Out of Water (Crocodile Dundee, Enchanted)
  • Sex Fool (Roxanne, Bridget Jones’s Diary)

As you can see, this genre is mostly used for lighter, feel-good fare, typically comedies with heart, or dramas with comedic elements. It’s not typically used for stories with life-and-death stakes. And for some reason, not a lot of the scripts I read tend to make use of this genre, which is why I haven’t blogged about it sooner. Maybe it’s because it doesn’t line up so clearly with a parallel traditional genre. (Whydunit = Mystery; Buddy Love = Love Story; Monster in the House = Horror; Superhero = Superhero.) Or maybe it’s because most writers think the main character of a story has to significantly change, and have a big moral arc, which I think is something of a fallacy. They grow and evolve, but they don’t always learn a lesson or become better people. In this genre, they’re already good enough. It’s the people around them who tend to learn something and change, because of them.

Let me make a little pitch for “Fool Triumphant.” By choosing it — and making concept choices that fulfill its key elements — you can give a primal, universally relatable emotional core to a story that might otherwise lack one. The question is, can you convincingly turn your main character into this significant of an underdog, around something that’s really important and impactful to them? The best main characters, after all, are really “up against it” in a story, with little chance of success. So why not build that into their very nature and place in the world, from the start?

As you can see from the examples above, a “fool” can be competent and powerful in some arenas — just not the one they find themselves thrust into, in the story. There’s a lot of flexibility here, because there are so many ways that a character can be seen as a “fool” — where they need to somehow get past that, in order to have the life that they want. And it’s something most of us can deeply connect with, as we’ve all been there, at some point.

As always, please post comments and ask questions if you have them!

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Hollywood Will Find You https://www.flyingwrestler.com/2018/06/hollywood-will-find-you/ https://www.flyingwrestler.com/2018/06/hollywood-will-find-you/#comments Fri, 22 Jun 2018 21:38:36 +0000 https://www.flyingwrestler.com/?p=49470

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“If you write a great script… Hollywood will find you.” Scott Myers began a post this way in 2016, on his great “Go Into the Story” blog.

It resonated with me, and I think it would with most professionals in jobs related to screenwriting — producers, executives, managers, etc. A top CAA literary agent once said something similar when asked what writers should do to try to get an agent. Her response was that there’s nothing for them to do, because the agents would find them.

Sounds frustrating, right? Does this mean there’s nothing a writer can do to market themselves, get themselves out there, and force their career forward through making the right contacts? How are we supposed to just passively wait around and assume someone’s going to knock on our doors?

Before I answer that, a third quote on this topic. It comes from Jerry Seinfeld, in Judd Apatow’s book Sick in the Head. He was talking about comedy, but might as well have been talking about screenwriting, when he said: “If you’ve got talent, it’s unmistakable. No one misses it and you don’t have to wait around for a break. It’s very easy to get a break. It’s very hard to be good enough.”

Now I’ve said before that I think “Talent” is overrated, so I wouldn’t use those exact words. I don’t quite believe in innate talent that one either has or doesn’t have, which can’t change. But what I do believe is that a script that seems to show great talent — a script that checks the boxes that industry professionals need checked (whether they are conscious of what those boxes are or not) — will tend to find its way forward.

I am not a believer that there are hundreds or thousands of such scripts out there, where the only problem is that they didn’t get into the right hands. Rather, I believe such scripts which can create a breakthrough for a writer are rare. And that writers do well to recognize that, and to focus all their energies on doing that rare thing, somehow — while trusting that if they succeed, the rest will take care of itself.

I’m not saying writers should never send their work out, as part of the process of doing what they do. I’m certainly not against screenwriting contests, coverage services, and even querying managers directly. (Securing a literary manager being the first hurdle writers generally need to get past these days, to get their work to people who could move it forward.) All of these can help a writer figure out where they’re at with a certain project. And if they happen to have something really special, these avenues could be how they find that out, move it forward, and get people’s attention. 

I’m also not against networking with industry professionals, and especially having a day job in the business, which is how I started out, and which made a huge difference for me, both in terms of learning about professional level writing from the inside, and in terms of meeting people who would ultimately help me.

My point, though, is that it really is about the writing, and the one and only thing a writer can really control is that. As Scott Myers points out, managers, agents and producers are hungry for the next great thing. It’s just that 99.99% of what they get sent isn’t that, and they just don’t have time explain to writers why they aren’t responding to something they sent them. This is also why they generally rely on others to weed through and send them only the most promising material. Thus, a writer first has to impress a manager to get to an agent, and needs an agent to get to a legit producer, etc. (Unless perhaps you are operating outside “mainstream Hollywood” using sites like Inktip, which I’m not discouraging — if you’re writing the kind of genres that tend to do well there.)

I often get queries from writers or producers who want to know if I could get their work to Tom Hanks or other industry connections. And that’s totally understandable, because it seems like it’s hard to get to such people, and if only one could, they’d have a shot. But I would argue that it’s not really hard to get to the people who can ultimately advance a writer’s career, starting with managers. What’s hard is (1) understanding what it takes to create a piece of writing that could do that, (2) understanding how far their project might be from that elusive ideal, and (3) actually creating something that would meet it. 

So if “Hollywood will find you,” how exactly is that going to transpire? I think what typically happens is this: by the time a writer’s work is at the place where they’re about to break in, they have usually been moving steadily toward that achievement for some time, to where it no longer seems like a big shock when it finally happens. Their work is already doing well with contests, coverage services, etc. Objective professionals are responding well to them, even if they aren’t signing them yet or buying their material. The quality of the writer’s work becomes more and more known, and their circle of contacts starts to grow.

It’s true that for some people, it happens more quickly than for others. For some, key contacts pave the way seemingly easily. But the work has to be there, for any of that to really take hold and last. So my advice is to keep going, keep learning, keep getting feedback, and make it your mission to understand what might be missing in any script you have, that is causing it to fall short (as most do) in the goal of getting signed or sold, and trust that as you keep going and keep growing, you have the ability to overcome that with your next project.

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Being Mysterious https://www.flyingwrestler.com/2018/04/being-mysterious/ https://www.flyingwrestler.com/2018/04/being-mysterious/#comments Sun, 29 Apr 2018 23:36:06 +0000 https://www.flyingwrestler.com/?p=49008

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Someone has been murdered. Or at least it looks that way. Or some other dastardly thing has happened, or will happen. The main character has to get to the bottom of it — to investigate, identify and catch the bad guys, and stop them or bring them to justice.

This is perhaps the most common type of story we see in commercial fiction and television drama (especially on the broadcast networks). In movies, the Save the Cat books call it the “Whydunit” genre. Their author Blake Snyder wrote that successful movie stories tend to fall into one of ten types, and I think this is a really useful tool for writers developing stories: to determine which genre they are trying to write, and to make sure the story meets the criteria of that type. In the past I have blogged about many of the others, including Dude with a Problem, Out of the Bottle, Golden Fleece, Institutionalized, Rite of Passage, and, to some extent, Buddy Love.

Now it’s time for Whydunit, and the question of how mystery and suspense works in stories in general. The latter is an issue that I see coming up a lot in scripts that I read — especially the use of mystery and suspense regarding the main character of a story. As I’ve blogged about before, I think it’s problematic to leave the audience in the dark about what’s going on in terms of the hero(ine)’s overall problem/goal, its stakes, and what they’re trying to do from scene to scene. That includes withholding information in order to work toward some big twist at the end. In general, if the audience doesn’t solidly identify with and understand the main character, and get invested in what they’re trying to do, I think they tend to have a hard time emotionally engaging with the story. Which I think is a writer’s primary job and goal.

So we tend to want to make that stuff crystal clear and relatable enough — what they’re trying to do and why it really matters, for all to be right with the world (in both their eyes, and the audience’s). Where mystery can be used effectively — in certain types of stories, at certain times — and at the center of every Whydunit — is when the main character doesn’t know the answer to something that’s really important, and they’re trying to find it out. (This usually requires the audience to also not know the answer, so they don’t get ahead of the main character, and become impatient with them.) As part of this, other characters can be mysterious. But when the main character is mysterious themselves, that’s when I think we tend to run into problems.

The Whydunit tends to set up a very simple and relatable puzzle to solve. And audiences love to solve puzzles. Usually the main character is playing “detective,” whether professional or not, and in the best movie examples, they have or develop a strong personal connection to solving the case. It’s not just about doing their job.

Virtually every scene is a step in them trying to find out what they need to know, in order to end the mystery. Sometimes they spend the third act climax (or part of it) chasing down the perpetrator after they’ve finally indentified and found them. Other times, the climax is simply about identifying “who done it” — and the final defeat/capture of that person is more of an afterthought. In either case, the great bulk of the story, including all of Act Two (save scenes centered on a B Story) consists of “investigative beats.” These are fun-to-watch scenes of conflict where the main character (sometimes as part of a team) follows up on leads and clues, questions people, observes (sometimes undercover), tries to find out information and generally “works the case.” 

The key to keeping things interesting and compelling is that they must make small bits of progress where certain questions get answered, but not enough to reduce the tension or fully solve the problem. It’s kind of like “one step forward, two steps back” — when they figure out something new and important, it usually leads to some bigger complication, question, conflict or challenge that makes things build further, with the status of the mystery changing in virtually every scene, but defying complete resolution.

Difficulty is the key. They usually have to struggle for every little scrap of partial victory, with nothing ever handed to them. There’s conflict at every turn. And speaking of “turns,” Save the Cat describes a “dark turn” happening at some point in a Whydunit — where the hero(ine) goes against their own or society’s rules, and perhaps becomes somewhat guilty or worthy of harsh judgment in their own way, fairly late in the story. I think this is something to be careful with, as it’s easy to lose the audience if this goes too far and isn’t redeemed. But it’s part of what might elevate a standard mystery story (of which there are so many on bookstore shelves) to something movie-worthy — along with the uniqueness and importance of the case itself, and the hero(ine)’s personal connection to and stakes in it.

In the end, there is usually a “secret” at the center of the crime, which is more about “why” the bad guys did what they did (or are doing what they are doing), and not just “who” they are. For the writer, understanding the bad guys and everything they do is pretty important, before one can even begin the intricate plotting of this kind of story, where almost everything is kept hidden from the audience and the main character, and only little pieces are revealed, one by one. 

It’s easy to confuse a “good guys vs. bad guys” story, in terms of which Save the Cat genre it fits. This often happens when a writer isn’t sure whether the hero should know who the bad guys are or not, be fighting them or not, and be on the run from them or not. I would say if they know who they are, or are fighting them or on the run from them, it’s probably not a Whydunit. It’s probably a Dude with a Problem or Golden Fleece. Or maybe a “Superhero.” Because in a Whydunit, it’s all about not knowing the answers, and being the aggressor — the one who’s on the hunt, giving chase, and most of all, trying to figure it all out. 

 

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One-Act Films https://www.flyingwrestler.com/2018/04/one-act-films/ https://www.flyingwrestler.com/2018/04/one-act-films/#comments Fri, 13 Apr 2018 00:15:58 +0000 https://www.flyingwrestler.com/?p=48938

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Robert McKee recently blogged about the “Rise of One-Act Films,” and I found so much of interest in his article that I wanted to expand on the topic, from my perspective.

He describes a one-act film as one which “accumulates pressure gradually, often exclusively within the protagonist’s psychological and emotional life, and usually ends on a quiet release.” Typically this style of narrative is reserved for shorter works like one-act plays, and short stories or films.

In a traditional feature-length story, we’re usually focused on major external jeopardies and outcomes, where there is a lot of suspense about what’s going to happen (even in comedies). There are big turning points and an “all-or-nothing climax.”

One-act films lack some of these things. McKee suggests that a way to compensate could be to focus on “surprises” instead of suspense — where the audience gets seduced into a “fascinating world” of “fresh encounters” with “utterly original, vivid details.”

I never thought of it this way, but I think McKee makes some compelling observations here.

I often find myself down on scripts which seem to only have “internal stakes.” I believe film and TV audiences tend to need something external at stake and being sought after that hugely matters to all being right with the world, which builds and complicates throughout the middle of the story — all towards an outcome that the audience can root for almost as passionately as they would a championship game their favorite sports team is playing in.

But one-act films McKee references — such as Lady Bird, The Florida Project, Columbus and A Fantastic Woman — somehow still work. Or at least they work for enough people to be considered a success, in terms of reviews, awards, film festivals, and a resulting audience that is big enough to turn a profit.

Having just come from a festival where my short film was premiering, and having seen some of the narrative features that get a lot of play in that world, I can tell you that such a film can win some acclaim for a writer and/or director, even without the usual three-act elements. It can establish an original “voice” that can really launch or advance a career.

But I would also say that scripts focusing on internal stakes where “not a lot happens” (compared to a traditional feature film) are more likely to not grab readers and audiences, and are still to be a undertaken with caution. A few key things have to fall into place for them to work:

  1. The characters and writing have an authenticity that is undeniable, and a uniqueness that make them feel like real lives being lived, which are fresh, interesting, and entertaining in some way.
  2. There are major problems that the main character has to work through — they are struggling and in pain, and although much of this could be internal, their external life still has to be no picnic.
  3. The audience forms a strong emotional bond with one or more characters, and follows them through a subjectively told experience that resonates with deep feeling.

At the end of the day, I think writers are always trying to make millions of strangers care about a character and story that they have no reason to inherently care about. So we’re kind of forcing them to become interested and to want to follow them, which means emotionally bonding, buying into the journey, and having pleasurable emotions (i.e. being entertained) in the process.

Maybe “three-act structure” isn’t absolute. But I think this need for the audience to “care” is — and writers do well to always keep that in mind. Why should they care? How can I present something that they will care about, or tell the story I want to tell in such a way that they will?

If you can get people to strongly care — and most screenwriting principles are meant to help achieve that, in the end — then you’re always on the right track.

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Write 2 Scripts a Year https://www.flyingwrestler.com/2018/04/write-2-scripts-a-year/ https://www.flyingwrestler.com/2018/04/write-2-scripts-a-year/#comments Fri, 06 Apr 2018 22:29:01 +0000 https://www.flyingwrestler.com/?p=48883

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How do you know when it’s time to put down a script, and write something else?

How do you stay motivated, and not get discouraged when a script doesn’t have the life you wanted it to have?

How long should it take to write a script, and how many projects do you work on at once? 

These are common questions that most writers grapple with. My consulting and coaching clients often ask my take on them. And I give advice based on my own personal experience:

Write two scripts a year.

Here’s why:

I have worked on screenplays for a couple years or more, in the past, only to have not much come of them. This is a common experience for screenwriters. Then I saw something Steven Pressfield wrote about finishing something every six months. Maybe it was in his great book THE WAR OF ART — which I think all writers should read, regardless, on the subject of pressing on despite the inner resistance and self-doubts we all feel. Wherever it was, it clicked. Surely I could do that!

The appeal was instant: imagine how productive and prolific I would feel! And I wouldn’t get so emotionally tied to any one project, such that my identity and self-worth seems to have merged with it — because there will always be other scripts in the hopper, or finished, or in progress, or about to be started. And the longest I get to tear my hair out about any one project is six months.

So how does this work?

Well, first we have to define “finish.” One of the banes of our existence as writers in film and TV is that it can seem like a project is never done. There are always more notes people will have, always more rewrites you could do. ALWAYS. And I’m talking right into production, and even in post-production! So I don’t mean “finish” in that sense, meaning that no changes will ever be made again. 

But I also don’t mean a first draft you wouldn’t dare show anyone. I’m talking about a version that has gone through multiple internal rewrites based on your own notes after reading it. And possibly (POSSIBLY) getting a few people’s opinion at some point in the middle, and factoring their notes into your own work toward a next draft.

The idea here is that, after six months, you’ve had some perspective on it, you’ve done some rewriting, you’ve even taken a break in the middle for a while to get perspective on it, before returning to it with fresh eyes. And now you feel it’s ready to show the world.  

That break in the middle is key.

Most of us know that one of the hardest things in this field is maintaining objective perspective on our work, and balancing others’ feedback with our own instincts, tastes and voice. The break in the middle really helps with that. And that’s maybe the best thing about this “2 scripts a year” approach. In my experience, I can get to a draft that I feel is relatively solid in maybe half that time. Then I put it down, and spend three months on another project — either a new one, or a rewrite of one in progress. Then, when I come back to the first script, it’s like, “Dear God, what was I thinking?” I have a lot of notes for myself. But hopefully, I feel there’s still something there, just with more work to be done. And that’s what the rest of the six months are for. 

I’m not saying that the product of six months is going to be the best version of the script possible. But at that point, I move on to the next one, and I start to send the “finished” one out into the world. If I get strong interest somewhere, and that interest comes with “notes” (which it always does), then i would consider putting more time into it. Or if somebody just has great ideas for it that I vibe with, that make me want to work on it some more, that’s possible, too. But those things might not happen at all. There might not be much interest. It might not really go anywhere.  And you know what?

I don’t care as much as I used to.

Because not only am I already onto my next one, I probably have another one in progress, as well as other finished ones from before. I have options. I’m not stuck on any one thing. And although they’re all my “baby” while I’m working on them, it’s easier to have a healthy relaxed attitude about the fate of any one of them, when there are so many others. 

This, to my mind, is a professional approach. And if you have a manager or agent, they will strongly support it. They like a client to have multiple “planes circling the runway,” to borrow a phrase one of my CAA agents once used.

Does six months sound awfully short? How many hours per day or week does that entail, you ask?

That’s a great and relevant question. And I would say… it depends. The pace with which a writer can recognize a worthwhile idea, get it on its feet in outline form, and then a draft — that’s highly variable. You get better at these things (hopefully) with experience. But I would maintain that with the right focus, and the ability to recognize and put out reasonably workable material, one can work an hour a day, five days a week, and achieve this. The key is really making that time sacred, and keeping at it. And knowing what the plan is each day before you start, so that you can move forward productively with minimal time wasted.

And it means battling the demons that say you’ll never amount to anything and this isn’t a good idea, and putting them down rather quickly each day. Which is maybe the most important thing of all. And on that topic, did I mention that you should read THE WAR OF ART?

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Top 10 Script Problems https://www.flyingwrestler.com/2018/03/top-10-script-problems/ https://www.flyingwrestler.com/2018/03/top-10-script-problems/#comments Fri, 30 Mar 2018 22:49:57 +0000 https://www.flyingwrestler.com/?p=48822

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There are certain fundamental qualities that stories for the screen seem to need, which all writers struggle to master. I see problems related to these qualities in virtually every idea or script — including my own!

I have blogged about all of these over the years, and when I do written analyses for clients, I will often link to particular blog articles I’ve written that go deeper into a specific issue.

 Over time, I’ve noticed that certain articles get linked to over and over again.

So I thought I’d share a “top ten list” of these issues — and the articles about them — as a kind of curated “best of my blog” post, which points out the most important common issues in scripts.

The list starts with the most important and common problems. But rather than phrase them all in the negative, I’ll describe what we want our stories to achieve.

You’ll see hyperlinks to the relevant blog article in the headline. (And sometimes some bonus articles in the description below.)

 

1. The main problem/ goal is something the audience can really care about and get behind. 

Great stories are, to an audience, just like watching great sporting events. Their team is overmatched — a serious underdog. They’re losing and the stakes are ultra high. The contest is very much in question, it means everything, and victory is only possible in the final moments.

All the other top ten issues are related to this first, all-important one — presenting different aspects to why an audience does or doesn’t emotionally engage and stay engaged. 

2. There is one main character and the story is told through their subjective perspective.

This means we are constantly focused on and clear about what the main character is thinking, feeling, wanting and trying to do — and the scenes are all about them battling against whatever they’re trying to solve in the story. It’s not told objectively from above, and it’s not moving around between characters the audience doesn’t have a strong emotional bond with.

Ideally, the audience connects so strongly to the main character that they begin to see the world as them, and even “become” them — feeling what they’re feeling as if it were happening to them. 

(Note, some rare movies and most TV episodes have multiple stories going on, each with their own separate main character — each of whom need to meet this criteria.)

3. The main character is easy to identify with — because their situation is relatable on a primal human level.

And if the main characters has an arc of significant change over the course of the story (which not every main character in every kind of story has), it’s not from an unlikable selfish person to a nicer one. Rather, it’s from someone with a limited view of themselves, who is getting in their own way, to someone who is more self-actualized. (Or, in a negative arc, the other way around.) Starting with the main character purposefully unlikable can almost guarantee that the audience won’t want to stay with the story — with extremely rare exceptions. 

4. The stakes are big enough.

There’s enough at risk if the main character fails to reach their goal. Even in comedies and on television, any given story needs to put something at risk that really hugely matters to the person who is trying to resolve it. And that’s really what a story is — someone trying to resolve something that’s important to them. A common thing I also see (in both scripts and loglines) is a main character who might have something internal at stake, but not a big enough external challenge to grab and hold an audience, and entertain them.

5. Solving the problem and reaching the goal is incredibly difficult.

Ideally, the main character is active and a bit obsessed in trying to solve their situation, in virtually every scene of a script. But somehow they can’t get what they want, until the very end. Why? Because it’s a really complicated and difficult situation!

In a feature film, they should be working on it and losing even in the first half of Act Two, the section that Save the Cat calls “Fun and Games” (a name that can seem misleading).

6. The main character is losing in the middle.

The second act or middle of a story is generally about the problem getting worse, more difficult, and yet more important, with the main character unable to get what they want. Only in the end can there be resolution. Audience enjoy watching people struggle, fail, improvise, and feeling something about all of it — not watching people succeed. Stories are usually about things falling apart, and defying being put back together.

7. The scenes continually change the game of the main story problem, and push things in intriguing new directions.

Ideally, each scene is a microcosm of the larger narrative — the main character is grappling with some aspect or segment of their overall problem/goal, and they get unexpected results that usually complicate their situation, which leads to dramatic build throughout the story. 

8. Everything that happens is believable.

Even if it’s a fantastical world of some kind — which is hopefully established very clearly in the opening pages, so the audience understands and can buy in — the characters behave like real people might do, in their situation. Otherwise the audience tends to check out, and feel that it’s all contrived and not “real” enough. Stories might be about outrageous, larger-than-life situations, but they’re also about human beings we can all connect with  experiencing them — and saying and doing things that make sense and feel like real life. 

9. The first ten pages focus on the main character and their regular world — seducing the audience into understanding and caring about them.

Contrary to popular belief, big action that grabs people’s attention is not the most important thing to open a script with. While it’s nice to have, if it fits the story, that action is less important than setting up who the main character is and what their normal life is, including its conflicts and frustrations, what they want and can’t have, and a clear sense of their place in the world. And it tends to take ten pages focused completely on this to have a chance at making millions of strangers start to connect with this person. 

10. And finally, “screenwriting’s #1 rule” — Show, don’t tell.

While this might seem basic to experienced writers, you might be shocked at how often this issue surfaces in scripts — where characters share information in low-conflict dialogue exchanges designed to get the audience up to speed on something. Instead, we want to illustrate that “something” in dramatic, entertaining scenes that will make the audience understand it, without calling attention to the fact that they’re being fed information.

And the solution is not just to disregard the need to keep the audience “in the loop.” Scripts often confuse by erring in the opposite direction, with “ultra-natural” dialogue about things the audience doesn’t understand, where it’s impossible to follow what’s going on because care isn’t being taken to include them on all the important information. 

 

Four additional common issues in TV scripts

And now… a bonus. The four more “most common issues” that I see which are unique to television scripts (i.e. original pilots): 

1. The pilot should be an example of a typical episode, not a kind of prologue that sets up the situation that all the other episodes will explore. 

This issue is so universal that I’m almost shocked when I read a pilot that doesn’t do this. And yet, successful produced pilots almost never do it. Instead, they get the situation that’s at the heart of the show up and running early in the pilot, so it can serve as a sample installment of the series, with all the key elements we can expect to see every week — rather than just being an “origin story” to a situation that really begins in Episode 2.

2. The series is focused on one big problem that affects everyone.

While individual characters have their own problems and goals, a viable series idea will have something at the heart of its premise and pitch that affects all the characters, and will lead to endless stories. It might even be in the title of the show.

3. The series is focused on an ensemble, not an individual.

Movies are usually about one person’s problem that gets resolved. Series are almost always about ongoing problems for a variety of characters, which never truly get resolved. And the typical episode of the typical show has three or more stories per episode, each focused on a different member of that ensemble who the audience can relate to, as they grapple with their problem and goal for that episode. And these characters are typically in a web of conflict that produces an endless stream of new story conflicts and problems.

4. Each episode has stories which resolve in some way.

In today’s world of serialized storytelling on TV, it’s easy to think that an episode is just one piece of a larger story, that takes a season or the whole series to play out. And it well may be that. But it also needs to have a beginning, middle and end, emotionally, for the audience and the characters, within a half hour or hour. Beginning TV writers often don’t realize this, so their episodes (including pilots) feel open-ended and don’t present a satisfying story experience when experienced individually.

 

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I Got This https://www.flyingwrestler.com/2018/03/i-got-this/ https://www.flyingwrestler.com/2018/03/i-got-this/#comments Sun, 25 Mar 2018 23:55:22 +0000 https://www.flyingwrestler.com/?p=48793

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A short comedy I wrote and directed is debuting at film festivals next month.

It’s called I Got This. It’s a 22-minute reworking of a feature film script I wrote a few years back, about a young couple who scheme to get DNA samples from three men who could be the father of the daughter he has been helping to raise, believing she was his.

You can watch the trailer below, get more info with the film’s website, or even follow my festival progress by liking its Facebook page

 

I haven’t directed since my film school days at Wright State University in Ohio (where the new motion picture production building is named for Tom Hanks!), but I decided a few years ago that I wanted to pursue the writer-director route, and of course a short is a classic way to begin doing that. I was fortunate to be able to enlist a few younger graduates from Wright State who have moved to Los Angeles in recent years, who helped me get it made affordably — including its producer, cinematographer, and composer.

The cast includes a couple of actors I worked with on Band of Brothers, two others who were recommended by friends (including female lead Rome Shadanloo). I stumbled upon the actor who would become the male lead, Jack De Sena, while surfing through IMDb profiles of actors about the right age for the role. He has a very strong sketch and improv comedy background, and recently has been seen on series like Veep and Lie to Me. A casting director I worked with on Band was willing to reach out to his agent to make the introduction, and thankfully, he liked the script enough to agree to do it.

If I had to choose a favorite genre as both a fan and a writer, it would be “smart edgy comedies with heart.” That’s not what I’m known for professionally, at this point, but the features I’ve been writing lately all fit into this category — one of which I would like to direct next, after raising the financing (probably about $1,000,000).

I definitely learned a lot in the process of making this film, including where you can save money and where you might need to spend more than you hoped. Locations were particularly challenging, as we needed a coffee shop and several other retail-type businesses, which required us begging owners to shut down their operations, or let us use them when they weren’t open. One thing we didn’t spend money on was permits, meaning that the cities we filmed in (Malibu, Agoura Hills, Thousand Oaks and Oak Park) didn’t legally sanction us shooting, so in theory the police could’ve shut us down on any of our five days of production. We took a chance with this, because permits could easily cost $1000 a day, and most of our scenes didn’t seem like they would attract a lot of attention, or interfere with the public.

I made sure all the actors had enough film and TV credits that I could feel pretty secure about what kind of performances to expect. This meant they’d all be members of SAG-Aftra, so I’d need a contract with the union. Fortunately, it offers a pretty sweet deal to short film producers. In the end, it was really gratifying to see how the cast elevated my script into something I found to be pretty delightful.

On-set sound recording is an area where you really don’t scrimp, because bad sound can kill a film’s chances even more than issues with camera and lighting. So while some crew members might work for free or very cheaply, it’s usually worth doing to pay a professional sound recordist’s closer to their asked-for rate (which we did).

I also learned that if you have any kids in your film (we had a delightful 3-year-old), you need to hire a “studio teacher” to be on set to watch out for their welfare, even if their parents are there, and they’re only working a few hours, and aren’t being “taught” anything.

Mostly I came away confirming that I love directing and have an affinity for it — and that it will be great, in the future, to have more money and more help — as the “prep” process got pretty overwhelming leading up to the shoot (though the shoot itself was a blast).

At some point the film may be available for watching online — but while it’s making its festival run, it can’t be. But if you happen to be in Orlando or Dubuque next month and feel like watching some shorts in a theatre, you’re in luck! And hopefully there will be many more festivals to come — which will be announced on the film’s website and Facebook page.

Please leave comments if you have any questions about making shorts (or web series or low budget indies in general) that you think I might have thoughts on — and I will offer some!

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Screenwriting outside L.A. https://www.flyingwrestler.com/2018/01/screenwriting-outside-l-a/ https://www.flyingwrestler.com/2018/01/screenwriting-outside-l-a/#comments Sat, 27 Jan 2018 02:03:36 +0000 https://www.flyingwrestler.com/?p=48601

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I moved to Los Angeles to become a screenwriter. But that was before the internet made the world a lot smaller. So what’s the value of living in L.A. now? Is it necessary?

Of course you can write anywhere, and you can learn about writing (and even take courses and get professional feedback) from anywhere. And you can send in your work to potential managers (usually the first step to selling or working professionally) remotely, as well.

In the best case scenario, when these managers love your stuff and want to meet you, you can fly out to L.A. And then leave. And then come back again if you have meetings with producers and such.

This can definitely work for writing features. For TV, it can be dicier. While everyone hopes to sell their original pilot and have it produced and reach an audience, the more practical reason to come up with a series idea and write a TV pilot on spec is to use it as a writing sample to try to start a TV career. And where do TV careers start? Working on someone else’s show, as part of the writing staff. Which means — if you’re one of the fortunate few who lands such a job — going to an office every day. In L.A.

Yes, I know some shows shoot outside L.A., and some of them are written in the same place where they’re shot, but those writers are virtually always L.A.-based, and they move to that location temporarily while they’re on the job. 

But say that’s not your interest. Say you’re just starting out, and maybe you’re only writing features. Or you figure that if you stumble into success in TV, you can always consider moving to L.A. when that happens. Fair enough. (Although people don’t really “stumble” into those coveted jobs.)

Do you really need to move to Los Angeles? No. 

But somehow writers who find success usually turn out to be ones who did.

Why is that? 

A couple things…

To succeed in this field tends to require an extraordinary amount of commitment and chutzpah. It’s not just a hobby. It doesn’t tend to happen for writers with just one script, even if they’ve endlessly rewritten it. It tends to happen for people who are working at this constantly, somehow, daily and passionately, and putting everything into it. That doesn’t mean you can’t have a day job and some other sort of life. But your level of passion, belief and diligence probably has to be really high. You might even have to be certain that this is the life you want, the only life you want, and you’re going to have it.

People who decide that tend to move to L.A. Because it’s “what you do.” So maybe part of the reason why most who succeed already lived in L.A. has to do with that. Their attitude and approach to this undertaking caused them to make a lot of good choices along the way. And one of those, coincidentally, was moving to L.A. 

But I think there’s more to it than that. Living in L.A. can jumpstart one’s success for three other reasons:

  • If you can surround yourself with people doing what you want to do and learn from the inside, you’ll tend to learn better and faster.
  • As you do that, it will help you make it all seem “real and possible” in your own mind.
  • In the best case scenario, you’ll also make contacts within the industry. And you’ll naturally be something of an insider already, if and when your work reaches the point where it’s ready. So you’ll have an easier path in moving it forward.

Obviously what I’m talking about here is not just living in L.A. and working at a restaurant. I’m talking about working in the industry as a day job. This usually means starting at an entry level. For writers, it traditionally means entry level office assistant jobs, as opposed to on-set production jobs. And those tend to start with “temping.” If you were to Google “Temp Agencies Los Angeles Entertainment,” you would quickly find the handful of companies that place secretarial “temps” at the major entertainment companies. All of them are looking for new people. It’s easy to apply, and to get placed in short-term assignments. Which can lead to long-term assignments. And assignments in tangentially related entertainment offices can lead to ones that are right where a writer wants to be. Like working for a production company that’s developing material. Or even better, a writer’s assistant job on a TV show.

These are all things that I did when I started out. And trust me, they helped.

When you look at writers who get their first representation and first sales, so often they were already working in the industry in an assistant job, or sometimes as an executive. But it’s not just that they were able to meet the right people in those jobs. The right people mean nothing if the writing isn’t there. Working in those environments and being part of the industry also probably helped them to get it there.

How?

If you’re an assistant, you might get to know people at your level, where you help each other, give feedback, etc. It’s also nice to be local for in-person events, classes and resources that can’t be replicated online. (Though the number of those is shrinking.) But I think the biggest is becoming familiar with the industry and how people think, and how things operate. Being around professional scripts, writers and producers helps you get a feel for things. And it helps you build in yourself that belief that this could be you, and it should be you, and you’re one of them, and you’re ready.

It gives me no pleasure to point all this out. Because I know for a lot of people who are serious about screenwriting, moving to L.A. just isn’t in the cards. Their life situation doesn’t seem to allow it. And maybe they wouldn’t be good candidates for those kinds of “day jobs,” even if they did. (It’s true that they mostly go to people in their 20’s.) But I wouldn’t be honest if I said it makes no difference at all, and it’s equally as easy to get your work to a professional level (the first and hardest part, by far), and to do these other things, from somewhere else. 

If nothing else, I would recommend to writers outside of L.A. that they take these things to heart, and try to do what’s described here to the best of their ability, anyway. So much of it is about having the right approach, and about honest and high-quality self-education. And you can do that anywhere. It might not be as easy, but hey, there are a lot of reasons why living in L.A. isn’t easy. Or ideal. It’s definitely not for everyone. But as someone from Ohio originally, I have to admit that the weather is pretty awesome.

 

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