Tuesday, December 20, 2011

What Are You Waiting for? Write it Down!

So we have our plot, theme, and characters all mapped out.  Now we have to make a story out of it!  Hopefully this isn't a scary thought to you because you're just bursting with ideas and you can't wait to get started.  If not, don't worry; I've got a plan either way:

1) Script Structure:  First of all, your movie should usually be between 90 and 120 pages... about a page a minute.  If you go longer, especially if you're a new screenwriter, people will sigh when they see the way too thick script that they know will be a longer than 2 hour movie.  It's like getting a 3 page email about Friday's plans.  Oh, boy... do I have to read all this?  Anyone got a two paragraph email I can read instead?  Even if you plan to cut it later if it's a problem, it's better you cut it down now when you start off.  There's a thousand reasons why they may not want anything to do with your script, so don't give them another.  If it's under 90 pages, you start hitting the really long short film territory.  The film festivals will be a major headache as you'll find whether your script falls under feature or short will change on a case by case basis  It will become as confusing to them as it will to you.  Pick one and stick with it.

But what about pacing? Well, I used to love writing freely, using the information I had to just figure it out with the characters.  It's fun, but these days, I like to listen to screenwriting legend Syd Field and break the story up in acts and plan the whole thing out.  Yes, the three acts... and this to me is just so, so important.  Most swear by it; some want nothing to do with it.  In my opinion, not following or at least knowing the three act format is complete screenwriting chaos.  I actually need to follow this rule or I fully admit I'm completely lost in my pacing.

Basically you have three acts: Act I introduces the characters, Act II is the character doing everything he/she can to accomplish their goal, and Act III is whether it's achieved or not.  Just because it makes the math easier, let's use a two hour movie as an example.  In the first half hour (or quarter) of the script, it's about catching up with our main character.  Who is he and what does he want?  Then at the end of the first act, something changes and propels him toward his goal (plot and theme-wise).  In Act II (the middle hour), the character then goes through all the trials, with friction coming from one or more antagonists.  By the end of Act II, another game changer happens that brings the character to their final encounter.  That final confrontation or battle happens in Act III (the last half hour or quarter of the script), where everything is resolved (or sometimes isn't).  Using Trust Us as an example, Guy is a simple, ambitious college student in the first act.  We see some of his life before our major event, usually the hook of the film.  In this case, he's suddenly visited by his older self.  Now that's a game changer for anyone, and it brings us to what happens as a result of that in Act II.  What is your real plot that makes this screenplay interesting?  Usually it happens here.  I could go on forever, but as I explained before, who wants to read a 3 page email about what we're doing Friday night...

2) Scene Structure.  All scenes should have a beginning, middle, and end, just like your whole script.  Treat each scene like it's its own screenplay.  Where does it start, where does it go, where does it end?  For example, let's say a character is trying to be persuaded by another in one particular scene.  Maybe they start off confused and stressed out.  Through dialogue and action, the character is slowly swayed by another until he's got it all figured out.  This new idea has him feel in control again.  There you go, a small little, tiny movie.  In Act I of the scene, we set up he's stressed... in Act II, he's convinced otherwise, which takes up about half the scene.  In Act III of the scene, he's been changed and now is confident.  This whole thing could be a one page scene, but it still has a clear arc.  Scenes of people walking from A to B and then we just move on, well that's just boring.  At least give it a reason.  Why show monotonous things?  It's just boring and a waste of precious time you'll probably need for something important in your screenplay, and this leads to a common tendency in writing that can ruin everything...

Stay Focused and have a plan!  Make sure everything you are writing matters.  Some people enjoy free writing and just want the characters to figure out the story for them.  This is fun, and it can work, but you can save a lot of time and still sort of do this.  It is very easy to go off on a crazy tangent when you don't have a plan, and sometimes I find myself starting over.  For me, it's just become a waste of time.  Things like foreshadowing, concise dialogue, interesting actions to reveal characters... these things seem to get lost in my first draft if I don't know somewhat where it's going.  I like to break everything down scene by scene.  This part is tricky, because some free-hand writing is great for me, as long as it's controlled.  What do I mean by that?  Take a scene, figure out where it starts, where it begins, what you want to accomplish... then let the characters drive the story.  Seriously, it works for me every time, and when you get to the rewrites you save so much time with already organized thoughts.  My favorite part of writing is this... I know what I want to do, but what will they say... how will they get there?  I don't plan those things.  When I write a screenplay, I want to surprise myself, too.  Those usually end up being some of the best moments.  For example in comedy, I don't usually plan the jokes, just the situation.  The jokes present themselves, even in a science fiction drama like Trust Us. I can't help but poke fun at time travel, and my jokes become a subtle audio commentary for my own story; it just happens.  That spontaneity may just be the most fun part of screenwriting for me.

3) Action.  When anyone is doing anything, it should always mean something.  Don't have a scene where the main character simply opens the door to his car, gets in, turns the key, then drives away.  Booooorring!  Instead, use the golden rule of revealing plot or character while doing this, or it'll end up on the cutting room floor anyway.  Maybe if this character goes to his car, he swings open the door, sits down, slams it shut, them bangs his head against the steering wheel.  Much better, right?  This dude's angry or frustrated... maybe with someone else.  Maybe with himself.  No dialogue, just action, and he still got in the car!  Don't do the opposite either.  Don't have someone run into the car, slam the door shut with such a force the ground moves, and shatter the window because they said something stupid in the previous scene... well, not unless it's a comedy or a bio pic or anger management or something.  Okay, maybe not even then, but you know what I mean: keep it subtle.  I have a scene in Trust Us where Guy and his future self are working together.  While they talk and discuss their strategy, they are building a desk.  It adds a subconscious feel of teamwork and it keeps things more interesting.  Give them something to do... it's better for the script and the actors will thank you later for giving them more than just dialogue.  They'll know what to do with themselves so they can concentrate on their performance and not where to put their hands or something.

4) Dialogue.  This is a tough one, but it's also for some reason my favorite to write.  Dialogue takes a long time to get right for me, and I think I'm actually pretty good at it, but it still takes time... but here's the very good news: don't worry about getting dialogue right in your first draft.  I touched on this in my very first blog, the idea to always replace lengthy, monotonous, non-conversational dialogue with something a bit slicker.  For example:  "Hello, I just entered a room full of people, saw him, and I could not believe you were invited after you made me upset yesterday."  Bleh!!!  I just thought this up now and boy is this sentence bad on so many levels.  Seriously, who ever says that?  You may be able to replace all that with a simple dirty look and it'll reveal the same amount of information!  If you want dialogue, at least say it in a more clever, less boring way.  First, anything that can be a contraction should almost always be one.  Second, this is the longest way to say hello and reveal emotion ever.  Third, and maybe most importantly, how many people walk into a room and explain to you they walked into a room?!  And finally, just make something cool or clever out of it to reveal what kind of person is saying it.  How about something like this: "Who invited that son-of-a-bitch?  You all saw what he did!"  Okay, we saved a few lines on the page and drove the same idea through.  This guy was wronged and he wants this person and everyone in the room to know it.  Not every character in the world would confront this, but this guy would.  He's not spineless, maybe he's a tough guy, he says how he feels.  That's something.  It's also a little more interesting to read than the long sentence we first had.  Anyway, when in doubt, re-read dialogue and make sure there's a reason for it and it's something someone would actually say.

Another common mistake is not knowing how to start or end a scene through dialogue.  This isn't my idea, I read it somewhere, but I take this lesson very seriously.  Don't ever start at the beginning or end of a conversation unless you have to.  Most people who visit each other will come in like this:  "Hey, man, what's up?"  "Not much, how are you?"  "Good."  "Good to hear.  Hey, I heard you got canned today."  Okay, let's stop here.  What was important in this whole conversation?  Just the getting canned part, right?  The what's up, how are you, nice to see you small talk is boring.  Just start here, "Heard you got canned yesterday."  That's where the interesting part starts anyway.  Same goes for the end of a scene.  "Later man, talk to you tomorrow."  "Yeah, I'll see you around."  "Okay, bye."  It's just unnecessary, and your audience will probably be falling asleep without even knowing why.  And I feel if you lose your audience or reader, that's always on you: the writer.

5) Don't Quit!  The key to finishing a screenplay is actually finishing a screenplay.  This is a very hard thing to do, and it separates people who have no chance in making it to people who have some chance.  No one reads an unfinished screenplay from a first time writer... or practically anyone else for that matter  They just don't.  Would you?  Here's my half written screenplay, you like it?  Yeah right, no one wants that!  If you're going to take a shot, give yourself a shot.  Finish it!  Don't be one of those talkers who says I have a great idea for a screenplay and I'm going to write it.  That's just not good enough.  We're better than that, because if you have a good idea and you want to write, then do it.  You want to ask people to read your full-length, finished, feature script.  And finishing is hard, especially on your first try at it.

This is what happens when you write: A voice always tells you there's something more important you need to do, that you have no time, that you're stuck with writer's block, that the script stinks so far and you have to start over... STOP!  Seriously, STOP IT!  Finish your damn screenplay... listen to the voice on your other shoulder, the one with the halo.  Finish, finish finish!   Then worry about whether it's crap later.  That's what rewrites are for, not first drafts!  I got news for you, most first drafts ARE crap!  Let the rewrite police (usually you) handle everything after you're done and there's something to actually read.  I don't get much writer's block anymore, and I think this is why.  Kick writer's block in the nuts!  Just keep writing because we don't know what it means to quit!  Heh... heh... heh... okay... sorry...

Now let's say you know you have a scene you can't make happen.  You're stuck... something like, "how does she get mad realistically based on this stupid thing he said?  It's out of character."  Who cares... write it anyway even if it doesn't work at all.  Figure it out in the second draft.... maybe it is in character and you don't know it yet.  Get through it, because you may know exactly what to do in the next scene and you're holding the whole process up.  When you used to take tests in school and didn't have the answer, you'd skip to the next one and get back to it, right?  Do that when you're writing.  Sometimes it all makes sense when you have everything down.  You'll get to it.  Don't let anything stop you from finishing your work!

You did it!  You finished your first draft!  This is a huge accomplishment.  Enjoy it, because in a few weeks, months, or even years, you'll get back to it and realize it needs a lot of work.  I know rewriting sounds terrible... you just did all this work already, but trust me, the second draft is really a lot of fun, too.  You'll start connecting dots, fixing scenes, and start your journey to making your screenplay not just good, but really good.  The second draft is an entirely different experience,and I'll tell you why in the next one...

Also, I was a guest on Rex Sikes' Movie Beat, a radio show that interviews filmmakers about their experiences in the entertainment business.  It's filled with tons of information about myself, my past projects, and my current project, Trust Us.  I think it went very well and contains a lot of good information that may have never made this blog otherwise.

Check out the link, sit back, and enjoy the show: http://www.blogtalkradio.com/rex-sikes/2011/12/13/rex-sikes-movie-beat-chats-with-director-robert-smithline

Thursday, December 8, 2011

So You Want to Write a Screenplay

Since you're all caught up on where I'm at, I thought it would be fun to talk about my absolute favorite thing to do: screenwriting.  It's what got me into filmmaking in the first place.  I believe the hardest part of writing is getting started.  Here's how I do it, and I'll use my current screenplay, Trust Us, as an example:

1) Plot: Come up with a great story.  This, of course, is easier said than done.  Sometimes it takes years for that idea to spark.  This is also one of those things that can't really be taught.  When you think about it, it's actually impossible.  The second someone gives you an idea it's already not yours anymore... it's theirs!  This one has to be up to you.  Think about your favorite movies, genres, life experiences, personal fantasies, current news... there's an idea in there somewhere.  I'm more drawn to fiction.  The idea of my current screenplay came to me a long time ago, when I was around the age of its main character, Guy.  What if I could go back in time and make sure my younger self (me at the time) does everything right... makes all the right choices and erases all the bad ones.  That would be pretty cool, right?  Well, no, not really, and that's how I got to step 2...

2) Theme: Okay, my movie is about time travel, and yours could be about anything, but what is it really about?  Why would our audience want spend two of their hours watching our movie?  I strive for three basic things to make it worth their while: first, I want to release an emotion from the viewer, whether it's happiness, sadness, fun... whatever... I think good writing makes people feel something in a big way.  Second, I want the audience to learn something about his or herself they may not have known.  I think this is the hardest thing to do... but a strong theme is essential for this.  Have your audience think about your theme then decide what they think... and best of all, if they are doing that, they probably cared about and loved what they just saw.  Audiences appreciate that, whether it's consciously or subconsciously.   And finally, I think it's important for the audience to think about the film beyond the viewing.  If they go in and go home, forgetting everything that happened, the first two goals we just set for our movie lose their effect pretty fast.

For Trust Us, I grew a bit older and realized that if I didn't make any mistakes along the way, I'd wouldn't be who I am today.  Everyone can relate to regret and that's the core conflict in my film... why people should embrace the harder parts of life.  Deep, right?  I hope so, because the theme is how we help people get emotionally involved.  Now, what's the theme of your screenplay?  Once you have discovered this, everything gets much easier because from here on out, every action, piece of dialogue, and character should pretty much always be driving this idea into the audience's minds.  The more important way to do this is through the main character.  But who will that be?

3) The Protagonist: This guy or gal better be pretty interesting or you're audience will be really, really bored.  You could have a great plot and theme, but if you do it through someone no one can relate to, it's very hard to grab an audience's attention.  In traditional stories, make the main character a likable good guy.  Yes, if the story is about a serial killer or depicts some mean spirited villain who'll get his by the end, then fine, we can hate the protagonist.  For the other 95% of screenplays, it's best to make the main character likable and interesting.  Just as importantly, three dimensional characters are critical.  If your main character doesn't change (unless that is the point of the movie), then why drag people out to see this in the first place?  If you're stuck here, maybe try to start by thinking of a fatal flaw your hero may have.  After all, if they don't have one, and your hero is too perfect, how can they make themself better?

In my script's case, what kind of character would be traveling back in time to himself?  How about making this guy one of the greatest scientists of all time... but what was he like in college?  Probably an introverted workaholic.  Maybe he could have been cool but he chose science over his social life.  Yeah, that's more interesting to me than some stereotypical straight-A student.  Now just put it all together: how does your main character change due to the theme and plot of the story?  Once you have that, you're really on a roll.  Of course, you can't make it too easy for your main character.  But who would dare get into your new creation's way?  Your even newer one... your antagonist!

4) The Antagonist: Okay, your antagonist doesn't have to be the villain, but at the very least make it someone who tries to stop your main character from going three dimensional on you.  Want a good way to come up with a great villain?  Find the bizzaro version of your protagonist.  Find someone who is simultaneously just like your hero while also being the complete opposite.  This is what I mean: In my script, Guy is obsessed with being successful and inventing a time machine and so is my villain, Dr. Hughes.  Guy learns he builds one in the future from his older self, but what if he was told he was going to fail at it instead?  Maybe he'd have ended up just like the jealous, self-loathing antagonist of the story.  In a nutshell, Dr. Hughes is Guy gone wrong.  Always keep one thing in mind, though.  The antagonist should do everything he/she can to stop the protagonist from reaching his goal and third dimension.  Something else you may want to try to keep your antagonist interesting?  Let the audience find something to like about your villain.  It could be anything, even if it's one small area that makes the villain better than the hero.  Let your villains be each others yin and yang.

5) Other Characters: Next you want to have other characters to support your protagonist.  In my case, Guy's best friend, his roommate Ted, and his love interest and future wife, Alison.  Make them not only push the protagonist to change, but also have the protagonist reciprocate for them in some way.  Otherwise these supporting characters will just disappear and be forgettable.  Ted pushes Guy to relax and be more social, while Alison makes Guy aware of the theme of the film itself, encouraging him not to regret his past mistakes.  Guy also helps them in his own way... but wow, I'm really giving too much away already!

Okay, so we have our plot, theme, and characters.  Now we have to write the darn thing, right?  So many people stop at this point.  Don't do it!  Seriously, don't you dare.  We are terrible, terrible, horrible quitters, right?!  Good!  Now I find I'm ready to write when I've been obsessing about all this until I can't take it anymore and I just start typing away, but I usually need some kind of structure and direction when I do this.  Yup, we have to make a story out of all these ideas.  Don't worry... it's not so bad... it's not as hard as it looks before you start typing away.  Get ready for structure, scenes, and getting through your first draft...