– Henry Miller, excerpted from “Advice to Writers.
"Well, it’s sort of like being led by the nose by the process as opposed to having any particular control over it. As ideas occur to me over a period of time, I’ll write down little bits and snippets for scenes and pieces of dialog — ideas for a character, interesting little anecdotes, things that amuse me, whatever — and throw them all in a shoe box."
— Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, The Long Kiss Goodnight)
Break out of the box of traditional screenwriting assumptions! In this excerpt from Writing the TV Drama Series: Second Edition, Pamela Douglas gives you some new rules for writing television that have changed significantly in just the past couple of years.
An hour show has to fit in an hour
Actually, a network hour is less than 50 minutes, with commercial breaks, though pay cable may be longer, and syndicated hours are shorter. Usually, scripts for drama series are around 60 pages, though a fast-talking show like The West Wing sometimes went to 70 pages. On networks that break shows (for example Lost) into five acts plus a teaser, writers are stuck with reduced screen time, and find themselves with eight page acts and scripts coming in around 48 pages. Each script is timed before production, and if it runs long (despite the page count), the writer needs to know what to trim in dialogue or which action to ellipse; if it runs short, where a new beat could add depth or a twist, not padding. And you need the craft to get it revised overnight, which leads to the next rule:
Series deadlines are for real
Your show is on every week, and that means there’s no waiting for your muse, no honing the fine art of writing-avoidance, no allowing angst to delay handing in your draft. If you can’t make the deadline, the show-runner has to turn over your work to another writer.
From the time your episode is assigned, you’ll probably have one week to come in with an outline, a few days to revise it, two weeks to deliver the first draft teleplay, a gap of a couple of days for notes, then one week to write your second draft – a total of around six weeks from pitch to second draft (though polishes and production revisions will add another couple of weeks or so). Maybe that sounds daunting, but once you’re on a staff you’re living the series, and the pace can be exhilarating. You’ll hear your words spoken by the actors, watch the show put together, and see it on screen quickly too.
It’s fun until the nightmare strikes. On a series, the nightmare is a script that “falls out” at the last minute. It may happen like this: the story seems to make sense when it’s pitched. The outline comes in with holes, but the staff thinks it can be made to work. Then they read the first draft and see the problems aren’t solved. It’s given to another writer to fix. Meanwhile the clock is ticking. Pre-production, including sets, locations, casting have to go ahead if the script is going to shoot next week. Tick tock. Another draft, and the flaw – maybe an action the lead character really wouldn’t do, or a plot element that contradicts the episode just before or after, or a forced resolution that’s not credible – now glares out at everyone around the table. Yet another draft, this time by the supervising producer. Tick tock. Or maybe it’s not the writer’s fault: the exact fictional crisis about a hostage has suddenly occurred in real life so the episode can not be aired. The script has to be abandoned – it “falls out.” Meanwhile, the production manager is waiting to prep, and publicity has gone out.
I once heard a panel discussion where a respected show-runner told this very nightmare. The cast and crew were literally on the set and absolutely had to start shooting that day for the episode to make the air date. But they had no script. In desperation, the show-runner, renowned as a great writer, commenced dictating as a secretary transcribed and runners dashed to the set bringing one page at a time. A hand shot up from an admirer in the panel audience, “Was it the best thing you ever wrote?” “No,” he laughed, “it didn’t make sense.”
Drama series have a 4 (or 5) Act structure
Put away your books on three-act structure. Television dramas on networks have for decades been written in four acts, though some shows now use five acts, and in 2006, ABC began mandating six acts for all hour dramas. For now, think about what happens every 13 to 15 minutes on a traditional network show. You know: a commercial break. These breaks aren’t random; they provide a grid for constructing the episode in which action rises to a cliffhanger or twist (“plot point” may be a familiar term if you’ve studied feature structure). Each of the four segments are “acts” in the same sense as plays have real acts rather than the theoretical acts described in analyzing features. At a stage play, at the end of an act the curtain comes down, theatre lights come up, and the audience heads for refreshments or the restrooms. That’s the kind of hard act break that occurs in television. Writers plan towards those breaks and use them to build tension.
Once you get the hang of it, you’ll discover act breaks don’t hamper your creativity; they free you to be inventive within a rhythmic grid. And once you work with that 15-minute block, you may want to use it off-network and in movies. In fact, next time you’re in a movie theatre, notice the audience every fifteen minutes. You may see them shifting in their seats. I don’t know whether 15-minute chunks have been carved into contemporary consciousness by the media, or if they’re aspects of human psychology which somehow evolved with us, but the 15-minute span existed before television. In the early 20th century, motion pictures were distributed on reels that projectionists had to change every 15 minutes. Then, building on that historical pattern, some screenwriting theorists began interpreting features as eight 15-minute sequences. Whatever the origin, four acts are the template for drama series on the networks, but not off-network. Syndicated series, like the various Star Trek incarnations, have to leave time for local advertising on individual stations which buy the shows, and that means more commercial breaks. So syndicated series are written in five acts, and may also have a teaser which is sometimes almost as long as an act, giving an impression of 6 acts, each around 10 pages long. On the other side of the spectrum, cable series like those on HBO have no act breaks, and may be structured more like movies.
Each series fits a franchise
Not Starbucks, though enough caffeine is downed on late rewrites to earn that franchise too. Some typical television franchises include detective, legal, medical, sci-fi, action-adventure, teen, and family. Each brings expectations from the audience that you should know, even if you challenge them. For series creators, franchises are both boundaries and opportunities. You can get a clue why franchises are useful if you ask how hundreds of stories can derive from a single premise.
The solution is to find “springboards” that propel dramatic conflicts or adventures each episode. Those catalysts occur naturally in most of the franchises: a crime sets the cop on a quest for the perp; someone in trouble beseeches lawyers who must mount a case; a patient is brought for a doctor to save. The hook for each episode is rooted in a specific world in which sympathetic main characters must take immediate action. In other franchises – family dramas especially – springboards are less obvious, relying on conflicts between characters rather than outside provocations. In these, a personal inciting incident (even if it’s internal) sets each episode in motion.
Decades ago, audiences expected the franchises to deliver predictable story-telling where any problem could be resolved within the hour. Take Westerns, for example. The template was the frontier town threatened by bad guys (black hats). The good guy marshal (white hat) wrangles with weak or corrupt townspeople, gets a few on his side (room for one exceptional guest role), defends the town against the black hats, and rides off into the sunset.
With that old franchise in mind, think about Deadwood that ran on HBO (now available on DVD). Yup, there’s the bad frontier town of rough nasties. And it has an ex-marshal, a lead character who left his badge in Montana to forge a future on the edge of the abyss. But similarities to the franchise are superficial. Everyone in Deadwood is surviving any way he can in a world without an outside redeemer, struggling to make sense of life in a moral wilderness.
Clearly, ER, House, and Grey’s Anatomy all use the medical franchise, where doctors must deal with new cases each week. But if you compare them to examples of the historic franchise such as Marcus Welby, M.D., you’ll see how far ER and the others had to stretch to reflect contemporary life. Welby, the kindly doctor, free of deep introspection, worked alone in his nice little office. But real doctors face ethical and legal issues as they treat both the victim of a gunshot and the man who shot him, and they cope with their own humanity – guilt, exhaustion, ambition, and the competing pulls of the job and the rest of life including romance on Grey’s and a doctor’s own physical limits on House. To express today’s medical whirlwind, the form itself needed to change, so ER developed “vignette” techniques in which multiple short stories flit by, some on top of each other, and Grey’s continues that layering.
From the moment ABC slotted Grey’s Anatomy to follow Desperate Housewives, the network mandated the tone: “Sex and the Surgery.” Executive Producer Shonda Rhimes responded in Los Angeles Magazine, “I don’t think of it as a medical drama. It’s a relationship show with some surgery thrown in. That’s how I’ve always seen it.”
For a different tweak on the doctor franchise, watch Nip/Tuck on FX about two plastic surgeons, where the real cutting edge is in the relationships and contemporary families.
Meanwhile, the family drama franchise is flourishing – like Big Love and Weeds. Some families. I suppose you could call Showtime’s The L Word a family drama too because episodes emanate from relationships among the continuing cast (some of whom are related or living together) rather than external events. Not exactly Leave it to Beaver. On the networks more traditional family dramas do exist, of course, such as Judging Amy and Gilmore Girls. But take a closer look and see if you can identify the elements which update the franchise.
In the detective franchise, a light show like Monk on USA plays out the traditional form: one detective gets one new crime mystery each week and, after investigating red herrings that fall mostly at the act breaks, cleverly solves it by the end of the hour. Though Monk’s obsessive-compulsive characterization is a fresh, entertaining element, structurally this is a basic “A” story series.
But if you check out high-profile detective series now on the air, you’ll see mostly ensemble casts and complex intertwining plots that are propelled by issues in the news or social concerns. Some use cutting edge forensic technology, as in CSI, where the real star is science that engages the intellect. Detectives have always solved puzzles, of course, but the show’s audience seems fascinated with futuristic tools that try the bounds of human capability.
Series that rely on stories that are solved by investigative procedures are called “procedurals” and include forensics (CSI), detective work (Law and Order), and medical diagnoses (House) that follow clues to wrap up a new case each week. Procedurals have always been attractive to syndicators because they can be aired in any order, and after saturation with deeply-serialized shows like 24, Lost and others, some networks are backing off and looking for more procedurals too.
At first, viewers were watching densely plotted novelized series with the kind of passion network executives crave. Dana Walden, president of the 20th Century Fox Television studio, told The New York Times in October, 2006, “It did sort of filter into the ether. We were all having conversations about event drama, and an event drama is a serialized drama.”
But how many hours will people devote every week to intense serialized dramas? And if you miss the first few episodes, it’s like reading a novel beginning in the middle. Would audiences become commitment-phobic?
Several solutions exist: catch-up marathons (as HBO has always run), replays available on internet sites and DVDs. In fact, sales of 24 after its first year validated the whole business of selling DVDs of entire seasons of series, which was just emerging at that time. On Showtime, Dexter, a character-driven psychological thriller, offers an interactive clues game on the network website to hold its fans. Still, networks wonder if it would be prudent to return to reliable procedural franchises.
And yet, those are volatile too. For example, the action-adventure franchise that thrived in the days of easy bad guys like The A Team and Starsky and Hutch has transformed to shows like The Closer in which a character said “I’m in America observing an empire on its deathbed, a tourist doing charitable work among the addicted and sexually diseased.” In this context, Showtime’s Sleeper Cell is an ambitious attempt to dramatize a range of characters and motives that are unfamiliar to most Americans. The action and adventure in shows like those emanate from the terrain, rather than having the franchise itself control the story.
Nor could NYPD Blue be defined solely by its franchise, though it’s obviously a detective show. And obviously a family drama built on personal relationships among the ensemble. And obviously a spiritual quest built on the “dark knight” in search of redemption. Forget about detective work in the episode when Simone lay dying and viewers dramatically experienced his awesome spiritual transition. “Breakthrough” has been over-applied to various series, and when used for NYPD Blue, the accolade has sometimes missed the show’s real strength by referring to its nerve to bare the rear end of a middle-aged man, when that’s not where real innovation lies.
I haven’t even broached the crazy notion that anyone would watch an insider series about politics, or the hybrids of “reality” shows mixed with dramatic storytelling. For instance, try mixing adventure, romance and even “family drama” with sci-fi/fantasy elements on Lost. A lot is going on!
Speaking of sci-fi elements, now there’s a genre that has boldly gone where science fiction hadn’t gone before on TV. While the Sci-Fi Channel (owned by NBC) continues a predictable roll-out of fantasy adventures like Stargate SGI and New Atlantis, which serve its niche audience without extending it, the channel also lucked into the critically-acclaimed Battlestar Galactica, which has sometimes been more a searing political allegory than even West Wing was, while venturing into contemporary relationships on the level of premium cable dramas. It deserves to be seen by audiences beyond the Sci-Fi Channel. At the same time, Heroes, using a traditional sci-fi genre, is a hit on NBC, attracting viewers who are not traditional sci-fi fans, featuring an international cast who struggle over having supernatural powers.
If I had to guess the frontier of science fiction writing on television, I would look towards the characters. In 20th century sci-fi series, the leading edge was technology as used by fantasy heroes, usually “perfect,” in action-heavy battles between good and evil, which tended to play to children and adolescents. Though contemporary sci-fi shows are as different as Lost is from Heroes or Galactica, they all follow flawed human beings, and the questions they explore involve relationships as much as philosophy; and they’re watched by wide demographics. With so much range in this franchise, if you’re interested in trying it, I suggest reaching up towards real dramatic writing based on honest characters, and leave cartoon-like thinking to the movies.
The vitality of 21st century television drama has re-interpreted traditional franchises. But that doesn’t mean they’ll disappear. When I was a beginner freelancing any show that would give me a break, I landed an assignment on Mike Hammer, a network detective series. At my first meeting, the producer handed me two pages of guidelines. The first was titled “Mike Hammer Formulaic Structure.” On the second were rules for writing Mike, for example, “Mike speaks only in declarative sentences.” To be a strong man, he could never ask questions, you see.
The formula went something like this: At the top of the show, a sympathetic character approaches Mike for help. At the end of Act One, the sympathetic character is found dead. In Act Two, Mike is on the trail of the killer, only to find him dead at the Act break, and yet someone else has been killed (proving there’s a different killer). In Act Three, the real bad guy goes after Mike, and at the Act Three break, Mike is in mortal jeopardy. Act Four is entirely resolution, one-to-one, Mike against the killer. And guess who wins. As I started, I thought such a rigid form would be stultifying, but I discovered it was fun. Relieved of certain structure choices, I felt free to be inventive with the guest cast and the kinds of situations that could lead to the turns and twists.
Years later, an executive of the Children’s Television Workshop (makers of Sesame Street) asked me to develop and write a pilot for a children’s series, later named Ghostwriter, that would be structured like primetime network dramas, complete with long character arcs, parallel stories, complex relationships among a diverse ensemble cast, and even references to controversial issues. I’d never written for kids, but I was intrigued. In forming the series with the CTW team, we began by identifying a general franchise – in this case, detectives because solving mysteries was a way to involve the whole cast and incite each episode’s quest. Beyond that, we stayed close to what human beings truly care about, how they reveal themselves, and what makes people laugh, cry, be scared and fall in love – people of any age.
Ghostwriter was originally intended for kids around eight years old to encourage them to read. But CTW was astounded when research reported that the audience went from four years old to sixteen. That’s not even a demographic. I think the show exceeded anyone’s expectations because the realistic characters rested on a franchise that was so robust it could carry not only a very young cast but also some educational content while moving the stories forward with high tension.
But when is a franchise not a franchise? In 2004, Dick Wolf, creator of Law and Order, told Entertainment Weekly, “Law and Order is a brand, not a franchise. It’s the Mercedes of television. The cars are very different, but if you buy a Mercedes, you’re still getting a good car. CSI is a franchise – like the Palm Restaurant. CSI is the same show set in different cities, while the Law and Order shows are all very different from each other.” No doubt, CSI, which competes head to head with Law and Order on several nights, would describe itself as an even bigger car.
When you’re ready to plan a script as your showpiece for a series, ask yourself what the underlying franchise is. Even if the show is innovative and evolved beyond the tradition, the franchise may give you tips for constructing your outline.
Writing primetime TV drama series is an adventure into an expanding universe. If you rise above outdated ideas about television, and have pride in your talent so you never write down, you can create for the most powerful medium in the world.
Pamela Douglas, based in Los Angeles, is a winner of the Humanitas Prize and numerous other screenwriting awards and nominations including Emmy, Writers Guild of America, and American Women in Radio and Television. Her produced credits range from network movies to such dramatic series as A Year in the Life, Frank’s Place, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Trapper John, and many others. She was the creator of the acclaimed series,Ghostwriter. And she is a professor in the USC School of Cinema-Television, where she teaches screenwriting.
This article was reprinted with the permission of The Writers Store.
How do bad rewrites happen to good screenwriters? Ah, let me count the ways! Have you ever rewritten your script on the advice of a professional reader, only to find that the report on your revision– from the same reader!– is even more discouraging than the one for your previous draft?
Or maybe, after getting conflicting advice from everyone from your best friend to your dry cleaner, you’re writing draft number 3,237 of your spec script, and are getting more mixed up than a chicken at a motorcycle rally. You just don’t know which advice makes sense anymore!
Make sure “a bad rewrite” doesn’t happen to you. Learn the four most common reasons why good writers’ revisions go bad:
IF IT AIN’T BROKE…
Often, I’ll read a good screenplay, which needs only a little tweaking to make it even better and ready for the marketplace. So I write up my report for the writer, praising his work, and make just a few, specific suggestions for how to turn his good script into a great one. I warn him that these delicate revisions need to be made with a scalpel and not a macheté. I ask him to be very careful to follow my recommendations exactly and not to do anything more.
And what happens? You guessed it. The second draft comes back to me, and I barely recognize it. The writer has made so many changes– ones that I never suggested– that he’s ruined what was good about his script. He’s added flashbacks to the main character’s traumatic childhood in Act III; the protagonist has metamorphosed from a young man into a middle-aged woman; and the setting has changed from Cleveland in 1950 to Alpha Centauri in 3050. Sadly, I have to report back to the writer that his first draft was much better, and that he should have left well enough alone.
What happened? Only the writer knows for sure. Maybe he figured that if a little change was good, a lot of change would be even better. Maybe he got a sudden impulse to seek the advice of his writer’s group or spouse, and their advice contradicted mine. Perhaps he wanted to assert his independence from so-called “experts.” Or maybe he just had a sudden, overwhelming and uncontrollable desire to sabotage himself. Who knows?
But here’s what you should know: If a professional reader’s report on your script doesn’t mention something as being a problem in your screenplay, then it is not a problem. Don’t assume that those great new plot twists or new characters or settings that suddenly occur to you while you’re working on your rewrite are things that you should try out right away. You can always experiment later, if you want. But don’t mess up your new draft while you’re in the middle of revising it according to a story analyst’s comments by suddenly veering off into unexplored territory. Don’t try to fix what ain’t broken.
TOO MANY COOKS
When working on their screenplays, many writers seek advice from their friends who also write scripts, their second cousin, plus several screenwriting gurus and story analysis services simultaneously. This can be a recipe for disaster. Do all these people have valuable ideas and comments to contribute to your script? Probably. But not all at once, please! Getting the input of too many people at once when you’re working on your first or second draft can drive you bonkers, and rarely results in a great script. Find a professional script analyst, and if what they say makes sense to you, stick with them.
DON’T POTCHKY WITH IT!
Some people are addicted to Dancing with the Stars or plastic surgery. Others are addicted to rewriting their screenplay. Unless you are under the supervision of a story analyst or film producer who is guiding you through revisions, don’t keep rewriting your script over and over again. Chances are, if you keep rewriting your script without competent professional advice, you don’t really know what the problem is, and will start screwing up what’s good about it. There’s a relevant Yiddish expression my mother often uses, that warns against the dangers of endless, excessive, and pointless tinkering in hopes of “improving” something: “Don’t potchky with it!”
“THE SCRIPT ANALYST GAVE ME ROTTEN ADVICE.”
Does this ever happen? Well, maybe once in a blue moon. But there’s a reason why I placed this possibility last on this list, even though it may be the first one you think of when your rewrite gets a “pass” from the same reader. It truly does not happen very often that a professional reader is an incompetent boob. I will leave it to others to decide what they think of me and my advice, and I can’t vouch for companies I’ve never worked for or story analysts I don’t know. But when it comes to all my colleagues at Script/Final Draft, Inc., I’m always impressed by their excellent judgment and insights, and their long list of stellar credentials as script analysts and as writers. They’re all great readers. I know some other professional script readers, as well, and have yet to meet anyone who is incompetent.
Throughout the industry, most professional readers have been carefully vetted, and have years of film industry experience, evaluating thousands of scripts for movie producers, contests, and writers. Most are also successful writers in their own right. Story analysts are remarkably consistent in their assessment of what makes a great screenplay. That’s why the same script that wins one screenwriting contest, often has won several others with different readers/judges– and most scripts are read “blind” (the readers have no idea who wrote it or what their accomplishments may be).
Still, it goes without saying that if you are going to hire a script analyst to evaluate your screenplay, check out their reputation– or that of the company that hired them first.
So, the next time you rewrite your script, if you take care to avoid the four pitfalls I’ve described here, chances are your new draft will be a major improvement over your previous one.
Keep pitching. See you next month.
Throughout my eighteen years of screenwriting I have read and analyzed thousands of scripts from writers of all levels, including screenplays from my students at Buffalo State College, Cornell University, Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, and R.I.T.’s School of Film and Animation.
During this time, I discovered 11 Laws of Great Storytelling – trends that tend to exist in many of the most memorable stories of all time. Of course, creating unforgettable heroes and villains is an integral part of all the Laws and should always be in the forefront of your mind as a writer.
So while it is impossible to have a foolproof objective formula for a great story, I have learned that if certain principles are followed, the probability of your story achieving a modicum of greatness increases dramatically.
With this disclaimer firmly in place, here goes:
1. Assume everyone has ADD
There has never been a greater truism in Hollywood. While I am guilty of playing dime store psychologist, one does not need a PhD in Clinical Psychology to conclude that audiences (that means us) tend to have short attention spans.
Now, we can argue there are certain external factors contributing to a population of diminishing attention spans (MTV, video games, text messaging, IM, and the Internet to name a few possible culprits), but it is safe to say that the attentiveness (or lack thereof) of the audience is directly related to its ability to make a successful emotional connection – and that connection must be made quickly, or you will lose your audience even more quickly.
Readers, like moviegoers, need to be entertained very quickly.
2. Spend most of your time on the first ten pages of your script
In Gladiator, we are immediately engaged as we are introduced to our hero – General Maximus – and the respect he commands from the Roman army. Add an action-packed, bloody opening battle to the mix, and we are sold.
In Pulp Fiction, the first ten pages of the script feature a restaurant robbery and the prophetic musings of two unforgettable hit men. The dialogue is fresh, imaginative, and unrelenting in its pace and originality. If you are a reader perusing the screenplay, you undoubtedly want to continue turning the page.
When you are finished with your script, give the first ten pages to a group of friends or family you trust. Then ask each of them one simple question: “Do you want to read more?” If the overwhelming response is in the affirmative, you are on the right road to writing a memorable screenplay.
3. Write roles to attract movie stars
Create a memorable hero or villain and chances are you just might attract a movie star to your script. Why? Because characters like the heroes and villains featured in my book are unique, intelligent, and intriguing people with magnetism to spare. Who wouldn’t want to play Hans Gruber, Norma Rae Webster, Hannibal Lecter, Ellen Ripley, or Gordon Gekko?
You may also want to watch films that feature Academy Award-winning roles.
Movie stars can buy anything from Porsches to Picassos; they have adoring fans throughout the world who will wait for hours to get a glimpse of them; and they are told by sycophantic agents, managers, attorneys, studio executives, PR professionals, writers, producers, and directors that they are nothing less than the great Da Vinci reincarnated.
But, they cannot buy the respect an Academy Award affords them. So, if you can write a juicy role that will attract the attention of one or more movie stars, you just might find yourself in the midst of a studio bidding war.
4. Write economically
Throughout my years of writing and reading screenplays, one of the most common mistakes I have experienced is “overwriting.” This phenomenon often falls into two categories: 1) verbose stage direction; and
2) “on the nose” dialogue.
Verbose Stage Direction
Keep your stage direction short (I recommend trying to keep each paragraph to less than five lines) and to the point. Never forget you are writing a piece of entertainment, and stage direction should entertain as much as it informs us as to the comings and goings of your characters.
“On the Nose” Dialogue
Several years ago, I sent a script to my manager and received notes including quite a few pieces of dialogue circled with the comment, “OTN.” I was perplexed and asked him to explain. He said these were several instances where my dialogue was too “on the nose.” The point is to make the audience work a bit for the information – not too much (we don’t want to frustrate them) – but enough for them to feel emotionally involved in your story.
5. Make sure every character has a unique voice
Movies work most effectively when they are populated with characters that are unique from one another. So, you should try to –
One of the problems I see over and over again with new writers is the depiction of characters who feel familiar and stereotypical. The key is to go against stereotypes, thus providing your audience with the refreshing read they crave.
Surprise us with quirks and unusual traits
Every once in a while, I’ll be sitting in a movie theater and suddenly I’ll discover something fresh and unusual about one of the main characters. It is that feeling of surprise we all desire and unfortunately, those moments are few and far between.
Create someone an actor will love to play
One can only imagine Julie Roberts’ reaction when she read the script for Erin Brockovich. It is simply not the typical role afforded to actresses in Hollywood. The hero of the film is a quintessentially strong character any actress would love to play. She is confident, bold, sympathetic, and has plenty of memorable monologues. It is a classic underdog story resulting in Roberts winning the Oscar in 2000.
Transform him/her over your story
Rick Blaine in Casablanca is a great example of a hero transforming over the course of the story. At the beginning of the film he confidently states his mantra, “I stick my neck out for nobody.” But, at the end of the film, he does just that – sticking his neck out for the woman he loves.
Make everything about his/her journey difficult
We love watching our heroes struggle. What would Raiders of the Lost Ark be if Indiana Jones immediately stumbled upon the Ark of the Covenant and brought it back to America? What if John McClane burst into the Nakatomi Christmas party and took out Hans Gruber and all of his henchmen in one momentous moment? And, what if Ellen Ripley easily discovered the Alien’s whereabouts as well as a surefire way to destroy the monster? Boring!
6. Understand your audience
When you are writing a screenplay, there are two audiences you should consider: 1) the readers, agents, managers, producers, and studio executives who will be reading your screenplay (aka, the buyers); and 2) the demographic you believe will be most interested in seeing your movie.
If your script is a comedy, it must be funny. If you are writing a horror script, it must be scary. Sounds like common sense? It isn’t. Talk to a professional reader and ask her how many comedy and horror scripts she has read of late that are actually funny and scary. “The comedy scripts are scary and the horror scripts are funny,” is the answer you just might receive.
Re: demographics: Hollywood studios like to categorize the world into four simple compartments, typically referred to as quadrants: 1) Male under 25; 2) Male over 25; 3) Female under 25; and 4) Female over 25. If you ever wondered why every Pixar film seems to make a billion dollars in worldwide gross and ancillary revenues, it is because the company excels at making Four Quadrant movies – films that appeal equally to males and females under 25 and over 25.
7. Know your three-act structure
Like it or not, Hollywood has a language all its own. Here is what buyers expect from your script:
1. By page ten, they want to be introduced to your hero, what he wants (his goal), and the genre of the story you are telling.
2. By the end of Act One (page twenty-five or so), readers want to know exactly where this story is going, including the stakes (What happens if the hero does not achieve his goal?) and the villain (The person, place, or thing preventing the hero from achieving his goal).
3. By the midpoint (the middle of Act Two, page fifty-five or so), readers like to feel that the stakes for the hero have been raised in some fashion. Maybe a new character has been introduced. Maybe a new obstacle or villain has reared its head. Maybe the hero has experienced a distinct character transformation.
4. By the end of Act Two (page ninety or so), readers presume your hero will be in a heap of trouble. Up until now, the hero may have been steadily moving toward achieving his goal. But at the end of Act Two, things have changed. He has suddenly been put in a corner and the audience is asking itself, “How in the world is he going to get out of this one?”
5. In Act Three, readers want your hero to somehow devise a new plan and escape from the mess that has presented itself at the end of Act Two. This is the big finish.
8. Be aware of theme, and keep it consistent throughout the script
Theme is a tough nut to crack. When I ask my students the theme of Die Hard, they often restate the film’s core concept (or, in Hollywood terms, the “logline”), saying something like, “It’s about a cop thwarting a group of international terrorists while saving his wife and a bunch of innocent people.” While this is true, it doesn’t quite touch on theme. I then dig deeper, suggesting Die Hard is really about a man trying to reconnect with his wife. True, this reconnection takes place amidst the backdrop of an action-packed heist, but at its core, this is a story about John McClane discovering the importance of family and the love and appreciation he has for his wife, Holly.
9. Watch and re-watch successful movies similar to your story
There is an old adage in Hollywood: They want the same, but different. Because the average studio picture costs over $100 million to produce and market, studios are in the risk aversion business every bit as much as they are in the movie business. The impact on you is that these buyers of product tend to gravitate toward the familiar – stories they think will have the best chance at attracting a global audience.
10. Know what your hero wants (the goal), what happens if he doesn’t get what he wants (the stakes), and who/what is preventing him from getting what he wants (the villain)
Think about some films you haven’t loved. I bet one of the reasons there was no love connection was because they failed to answer the questions above.
In Toy Story 2, Buzz Lightyear is the primary hero whose goal is to lead a group of toys to save Woody from being sent to a museum in Japan. The primary villain of the story is Al (of “Al’s Toy Barn” fame) and the stakes are simple: If our hero and his team do not achieve their goal, they will never see Woody again.
Jaws is another movie that quickly answers our burning questions. By the end of Act One, we know Police Chief Martin Brody (with the support of Quint and Hooper) is our hero, his goal is to kill the shark, the villain is the shark itself, and the stakes are: If Brody does not achieve his goal, more residents of Amity will die.
11. Leave them wanting more
This Law seems to be as ancient as showbiz itself. Yet it is just as relevant today as it was at the turn of the twentieth century. The Law is really about crafting a memorable, climactic ending that will forever be satisfying to your audience. An outstanding ending can often save a mediocre film while a mediocre ending can often ruin an otherwise outstanding story.
So, does your climax:
1. Feel like a big, fulfilling finish?
2. Reveal a significant character trait of your hero or villain?
3. Resolve the central problem established in Act One?
4. Contain a satisfying surprise?
5. Appear five to twenty minutes or so before the end of the film?
If your story accomplishes all of the above, you are on your way to crafting a memorable tale that will live on in the memories of your audience. Happy writing!
The above article is an abbreviated excerpt from Jeffrey Hirschberg’s recently published book: “Reflections of the Shadow: Creating Memorable Heroes and Villains for Film and TV.”
Jeffrey Hirschberg is an Assistant Professor and Director of the Television and Film Arts Program at Buffalo State College. A member of the Writers Guild of America and judge for the WGA awards, Jeffrey has been a professional screenwriter for eighteen years and has written and/or created shows for Showtime Networks, Lifetime Television, and ABC. He has worked at NBC, Viacom, and Warner Bros. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Source with permission: The Writers Store
“I’ve made it a point never to watch anyone’s student film. I usually tell people, ‘I’ll hire you–as long as I don’t have to watch your student film!’ Most student films feature two things–a not particularly attractive girl running towards the camera, and a suicide. If it’s a comedy, it features a not particularly attractive girl and a dog. I should know. I made one, and so did my son. But these kids are stealing jobs from me, so they must be doing something right.” -Chuck Workman
Chairman of the Director’s Guild of America’s Academic liaison subcommittee
(As quoted in Billy Frolick’s What I Really Want To Do Is Direct.)
How dare we?
* On the whole, student short films SUCK!
(This does not contain the usual advice you get in film school about the elements of good screenwriting. No no, rather, it is a very specific list of common mistakes and trends we’ve seen in crappy student films again and again at screening after screening.)
* Before you even think of making a student film, read this list .
* If you’re a genius, then go ahead – break these rules.
* But let’s face it, if you think you’re a genius, you’re not. So play it safe and spare your audiences the uneasy task of having to lie when you ask, “So- what did you think?”
Let the sucking begin… __________________________________
Dolly & Zoom
No question. This is the most egregious, blatantly non-creative, non-cool, total student film red flag. Sure, Hitchcock used it in Vertigo, Spielberg used it Jaws , but enough is enough. It’s cliched, overused, goofy, and overall a bad idea. By the way, what we’re talking about here is a simultaneous Dolly-in/Zoom-out or vice-versa which compresses the background while keeping the subject at a fixed size during the shot. A student film no-no. (The dolly/zoom is such a mark of a student film, it’s a joke in the opening of THE BIG PICTURE.)
The Tortured Artist Film
The story goes like this. A struggling artist (writer/painter/sculptor/musician — 90% of the time, it’s a writer) grapples with some sort of inner conflict, (a dead relative, writers deadline, religious confusion, etc). Our tormented soul encounters a muse (beautiful woman, endearing older character, magical artifact, etc) who helps the protagonist come to a sort of realization which ultimately opens the creative floodgates and allows the character to succeed (finish the novel, paint the painting, sculpt the likeness of the muse, or perform at the big recital). The Tortured Artist Film usually involves a so-called “man vs. himself” struggle which is guaranteed to put you to sleep in the first two minutes. Related to this is the “introspective shot” which usually features the main character staring into space for a good minute (usually smoking a cigarette). File this under “Pretentious as Shit.”
Dream Sequences & Flashbacks
If you don’t want your student film to look like a friggin’ episode of Kung Fu, then stay away from dream sequences and flashbacks, young grasshopper. A dream sequence generally says “I couldn’t think of a better way to reveal information about the character than this.” So-called “funny” dream sequences are usually not.
You’ve got say, 15 minutes to get your point across in a short film. Every second of screen time should be treated like gold. A time-elapse montage not only demonstrates an inability to structure your film pacing-wise, it makes the audience wait unnecessarily. Try to find a simple and efficient way to indicate the passage of time without resorting to this too easy narrative device.
You can have a great looking short film, but if the sound is bad, the film itself comes across as bad. Nothing gives away a student film like the soundtrack. Budgets are tight, sure, but many student directors simply don’t place any importance and give any thought to what their film sounds like. The result is often a beautiful picture with a badly mixed, distracting audio experience. In the same vein, if you’re making a 16mm film, be aware of how crappy the 16mm optical track is going to sound (which is REALLY bad) and try to prepare for it.
And now, free of charge, a canonical list of BAD musical soundtrack instruments:
* Synthesizer (the “porn” soundtrack)
* Your friend’s band (trust me, they suck)
* “the lone, slow piano”
* “the lone guitar” (flamenco esp.)
* The “impish” clarinet
* The cello dirge.
* The “spirited” piccolo.
* Any kind of wood blocks.
“Look at me, I’m a director!” shots
Examples include– the gratuitous “fishbowl in the foreground” shot, the “overhead for no reason ‘cept we’re shooting in a soundstage” shot, the “we think it’s cool slanted dutch angle shot” and perhaps most insidiously the “fridge POV shot”, otherwise known as the “put the camera inside the trashcan/toilet/mailbox shot”. Ok, maybe you need to get this stuff out of your system, but just be warned, it’s usually cheese.
A film professor once told me that on a film set, one second of “real” time equals three seconds of film time. Something to remember: Watch a student film and notice how often there are long pauses between lines of dialogue. Why is this? I don’t know, but if you watch the average “real” film, you’ll see that the dialogue often occurs ultra fast. Maybe it’s because we can hear faster than people normally speak. Who knows? A side note– these pauses also extenuate bad lines of dialogue. A poorly written line is going to hang in the air like a fart if not closely followed by a fresh line to cleanse the air like a gentle breeze…
* The audience can tell when you cast your significant other as the romantic object of desire.
* Don’t try to pass off someone who is shall we say, “fugly”, as a supermodel.
* In the same vein, why do so many student films cast SAG boy wonders as the “computer nerd” who can’t get a date?
* Mismatched couples. Be honest: “Do you believe that SHE would go out with HIM?” Make sure the answer is “yes.” The audience can only suspend their disbelief so much.
* Don’t have your friends play “older characters.” The baby powder grey hair trick doesn’t work. Neither do the fake beards.
* And while we’re at it, don’t cast people just because they’re hot. This mainly applies to the young male director. Whether they want to admit it or not, they will cast a very attractive actress in a role just so they can be near a hot girl. The script will usually require the actress to be in a scantily clad outfit or a nude scene or whatever. This is the power trip of the young, horny director. It preys on the good faith of young actresses looking for work. It’s not about substance or story; rather it’s an excuse to get an actress naked under the guise of “art”. It is motivated by the director’s ego. This is filmmaking, not a bikini contest – create your film with higher purpose.
It may work at the Golden Tugboat Dinner Theatre, but it doesn’t come off on film. What’s eyebrow acting? It’s an overly expressive use of facial muscles more suited to miming than screen acting. This acting technique is only acceptable in films where the characters have sex within the first four minutes.
The “Nothing Happens” short film
A very common bad student film. Usually consists of a main character who spends his or her time talking to people about nothing of consequence. Nothing happens for up to forty-five minutes. At the end, some contrived “climax” comes out of nowhere and tries to wrap everything up, but because there has been no conflict of any sort for so long, the audience is asleep and misses it. Common threads of these films include the “personal discovery/epiphanies that go inside the main character’s head” film, the “warm remembrances of my childhood that no one cares about” film, and the “Slice of Life that is more uninteresting than real life” and “funny people I know come to life on the big screen.” Nearly 50% of these films include an alcoholic single parent.
Note:Before you begin writing your screenplay, start with an outline. This allows you to see the problems and strengths in your idea before you invest countless hours of time and effort. An outline is your chance to confirm something interesting happens. If you begin by writing dialogue there is a good chance you’ll write a problematic story.
The Feature Film Masquerading as a Short Film
If you’ve ever sat through a student screening, you’ll notice that often the films best received are the shorter films. Now it could be argued that this is due to the simple fact that they suck and less sucking is better than more sucking. It could also be that the audience is sitting through many, many student films in one evening and appreciates the shorter ones because it means the whole thing will end sooner. In the short narrative film genre, every moment is precious. It’s to your advantage to make your film short but sweet– for one thing, shorter films cost less, take less time to edit, and allow you more time to focus on making your film as tight and well designed as possible. Ask yourself when writing (and editing) the film -is this scene necessary? Is this moment necessary? What does it do for the audience? We call this The “Get In And Get Out” principal. Don’t cram a full-length feature into the short film style. Do what your film needs to do and then get the hell out. Remember, longer isn’t necessarily better. Less is more.
The One Joke Film
A good short film has got to be a collection of good ideas, not one good idea stretched out for fifteen minutes. In any event, at least make an attempt to fill your time with stuff that’s actually interesting to someone other than yourself. I don’t know how many bad student films I’ve seen that are actually about the filmmaker’s uninteresting life or contain vignettes that go on and on and on. Before you shoot, make a list of all the “good ideas” in the script. You should have lots of them. How’s that for a generic tip?
The “Walk into the Camera” Transition & Other Lame Ideas
* This one is crazy. A character walks INTO THE CAMERA LENS! And then we fade to black, or more commonly, cut to the reverse– someone walking AWAY FROM THE CAMERA LENS! OOOooo! What a good idea…
* The zany “Slacker with a Gun” film
* You’re not Quentin Tarantino. Don’t bite his style. Be you.
* Overuse of bad video effects. In fact, just stay away from effects unless they help to tell your story. Just because somebody left you in front of the AVID and you figured out where the effects palette is doesn’t mean you should use it. The point is to tell a quality story. Gratuitous effects at the student level usually shout LAME STUDENT FILM! (except for cinelook or magic bullet – if you shot on DV then by all means please apply these “film looks” to your project)
* Keep dissolves to a minimum. They are not synonymous with cuts. Same goes for wipes, keys, etc. The 80’s are over. Video effects suck.
Note: As a general rule, make sure that every directorial choice you make is a motivated choice. Your choices should assist and complement your story. Don’t do anything just because it “looks cool”. Gratuitous cuts, transitions, shots, gimmicks, and effects will simply bog down your film. Attempting professional effects at the student level student level typically lacks the necessary quality. Remember to work within your means. If you have no budget, don’t attempt Lord of the Rings. Besides, quality and originality is what the audience and the industry is looking for; so go for something witty and interesting that doesn’t require elaborate effects.
The “Dramatic Cigarette”
A character is having a dramatic crisis: So what does he/she do? Whips out a smoke and puffs dramatically as if to say, “Look, this is so serious I’m smoking.” YES, people do smoke when they are nervous or excited, or under pressure. But there’s no excuse for using the long, boring “drag ‘n puff” scene as a lazy alternative to finding a more original way to express the same thing.
Ramblers: The “Quest for Truth”
There are several permutations of this theme.
#1. The Puzzled Scientist: The “story” deals with a puzzled reclusive scientist who learns to forgo cold, hard science for something warm, gushy and intangible, like love, god, morality, religion or free will. Films in this genre are usually condescending to the audience and set up bogus sounding explanations of scientific principals (look for glossed over references to Chaos Theory, Grand Unification Theory, Relativity, etc.) and far-fetched reconciliations of the two. Filmmakers, please: if you must write one of these and want to be taken seriously, at least do a little research so you don’t insult real scientists.
#2. The Venting film: Broke up with your boy/girlfriend? Please, don’t make a movie about it! It’s dangerous – These self-examinatory “why my ex dumped me” films that turn into long diatribes about the nature of love, the nature of mankind, etc. are rarely insightful and usually about as interesting as listening to a friend complaining about a relationship gone bad. In short, philosophical examinations of human existence and relationships, when discussed on an abstract level, will almost guarantee that the audience will become bored and/or confused.
Shooting into Mirrors
Now don’t get me wrong, shooting into a mirror can be used to great effect when used at the right time and for the right reasons. But like so many narrative devices abused by student filmmakers, the “reflective” shot has become a staple of the bad short film. “Cool! So she puts her hand mirror right there and then we can see her boyfriend yelling at her behind her and it’s all in one shot. Man, I’m a genius!” Or more recently, I have noticed a new crop of mirror scenes involving someone holding a razor blade, staring into the mirror, and contemplating suicide. (see: tortured artist films above)
A poor excuse for not using action to tell the story. This happens because students are too lazy to create an interesting scene that actually defines a character and the world of the movie, so they use the easy way out – voiceover. Ultimately, voiceover is cheap and boring. If you don’t want to use actions to illustrate your story then why are you in film school? Words are for books! Speeches are for theatre! Talking is for radio! Use voiceover sparingly.
Interminable Credit Sequences
We know you’re excited about your film and you have a lot of people to thank, but please consider the poor audience member who has to sit through ten films. We’ve seen credit sequences that last longer than the film itself! Here’re some things to think about: (1) Scroll fast. Real fast. (2) Small fonts are great. (3) Title cards are fast but not every crewmember needs one. (4) Must you really thank your entire family tree by name?
Excessive Gratuitous Profanity
Why? Because you saw Reservoir Dogs? Because gangsters are tough? Because you want to show them how “anti-establishment” you are? Come on.
Scene One: The protagonist wakes up.
There’s nothing INHERENTLY wrong with starting a film with the buzz of an alarm clock, a hand slapping the snooze button, eyes fluttering open, followed by a yawn or an “oh my god, I’m late!” – But why so much of this? We see it all the time. It’s as if the writer/director woke up one morning, looked around and said “Wow, This is cool!” Uh, yeah, just go back to sleep.
Nothing To Say.
Filmmaking begins in the heart. If you don’t have anything to say, why should the audience care about your film? Find your own voice, carefully define your ideas, and then work really hard to bring them to the screen. Just because every twenty-something around moved to LA and wants to be famous doesn’t mean they deserve to be recognized. Originality is highly valued – your own unique style is waiting to be honed.
Tired Plot Ideas:
Someone is gay (or is questioning their sexuality). Someone is dying, Someone is on drugs (nobody cares you were “brave enough” to show pot/coke/heroin in your film, unless they are injecting it into their eye). Someone’s mom is dying. Someone is stalking someone else. Young gangsters. Old gangsters. Sensitive guy likes girl who doesn’t like him. Someone has AIDs. The Disfigured hero (outcast boy has third arm protruding from his back eventually finds a girl who loves him and we find out she also has a third arm on her back). Somebody dies in a bathtub (how convenient for cleanup). Spoofs of old horror or kung-fu movies. Person walking around a city glumly looking at stuff. The streetwise prostitute finds man who wants to save her. Kids aren’t as innocent as they seem (yeah, we know). The bad marriage. The rape. The doppelganger film. Finally, the incredibly popular: Person contemplating suicide.
The number one reason student films suck is because the director doesn’t do the work necessary to make a high caliber film. You and your crew must take the project VERY seriously.
Art has no rules! And yet Art does have rules! So there you have it, I leave you with a strange paradox. It’s true you are free to do whatever your heart desires; but keep in mind that attempting to produce “art” without knowledge of the craft often collapses into incomprehensibility and self-indulgence. (but then again, a lot of people love David Lynch
I didn’t come to change things. I came to wake the neighbors.