Monday, October 31, 2005

There are no rules

Don't use "we." It pulls people out of the story. There's always a better way to do it. It's distracting. It's unprofessional. It's amateurish.

And then John August comes along and says, Yeah, I use "we" all the time.

*cackle* I love Hollywood.

It probably is true that the unsold spec writer should, all else being equal, stick to a fairly conservative writing style -- in other words, avoid all those things that everyone says will piss off readers. But if you're telling a great story, then your style doesn't really matter as much, does it?

On the other hand, if you're taking my advice, you have even less experience than I do, and I hate to be the one to break this to you, but your screenplay sucks. Write five more.

Friday, October 28, 2005

RT vs. MC

Rotten Tomatoes is a great idea. Take reviews from lots of sources, rate whether each review is overall positive or negative, and then give the movie a score based on what percentage of its reviews are positive. Then give it an overall rating of "fresh" or "rotten" depending on whether its percentage exceeds a certain threshold.

The problem is that two movies can have the exact same percentage -- say, 40% -- and yet the reasons they each got 40% can be radically different. Maybe Film A inspired joy and excitement in 40% of the reviewers who saw it, and the other 60% thought it was a bag of flaming dogshit. Maybe Film B elicited shrugs from every reviewer, 40% of whom just barely gave it a positive review, the other 60% of whom barely gave it a negative review. And of course there's the problem of the meta-reviewer having to decide at what point a review crosses the line from positive to negative.

Metacritic takes a slightly different approach. Each review is given a score from 0-100, depending on how positive it is. The scores are then averaged into a final percentage rating for the movie. In practical terms, this leads toward a narrower distribution of ratings; high-scoring movies on RT don't tend to score as high on MC; and low-scoring movies on RT don't tend to score as low on MT.

MT's approach is more accurate; it gives a more precise picture of the aggregate critical reaction. You still have to look at the details of each movie to see exactly why it got rated the way it did. If Metacritic thought enough people knew what a standard deviation was, they'd probably include it.

Both sites attempt to turn subjective opinion into objective fact; but they both still require their meta-reviewers to, well, review the reviews, and those reviews are of course subjective. I don't think they're useful for much more than entertainment, or maybe helping decide which flick to blow your paycheck on this weekend, but a few times I've seen people quote numbers from one site or the other as if that proves that Movie A is better than Movie B in some truly objective sense. Meh.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Sin tax heir ore

This entry is all over the damn map, but I've got a work deadline.

I said yesterday that screenwriters spend far too much of their online time discussing formatting issues, rather than the vastly more important content issues. There are, of course, issues with discussing content. But first, a lengthy digression:

I'm a mild-mannered web programmer by day, and a marginally less mild-mannered screenwriter by night. And sometimes by day. Or even in outer space, where no one can hear your forehead bleed.

Over the years I've learned a bunch of ways to solve particular types of problems. Most of this knowledge has come from simply attacking those problems, over and over, in a variety of contexts. In 1999, it would have probably been impossible for me to code the project I've been working on for the past two months. These days, it's nearly trivial. There's a lot of small logic problems that come up, questions of whether I should build a data structure this way, that way, or some other way entirely. But I have enough experience that solving most such problems is second nature.

The flip side to all this is that I spend very little time discussing programming or programming theory with other people. I only discuss those topics with cow-orkers in the context of the particular problem at hand. And in absolute terms, we don't discuss them very much, because each of us have our own little code-fiefdoms. Very, very few projects here ever involve more than one programmer.

How does this apply to screenwriting? The best way to get good at writing is to write, but I think you can catalyze the process by making good use of discussion with other people -- not just (or even at all) about your own screenwriting problems, but rather by analyzing extant stories and figuring out what does or doesn't make them tick. This is the good way to spend your time.

The bad way is to waste it talking about formatting issues. Why is so much of the screenwriting discourse online about formatting issues?
  1. Formatting is trivial to professional screenwriters. They spend very little time dealing with it, thinking about it, or discussing it.
  2. Non-professional screenwriters can be split into two groups: the lazy and the hard-working.
  3. Lazy non-pros latch onto the easy things, like formatting.
  4. Non-lazy non-pros work on the hard stuff, and become pros faster. They also aren't spending all their time on the Internet, because they're writing instead.
  5. The population of non-pros becomes disproportionately full of lazy non-pros, who spend all their time talking about formatting.
May I humbly include myself in the group of non-lazy non-pros. Here's some guidelines that were freshly hand-pulled from my ass this morning:
  1. Don't waste time discussing formatting.
  2. Write, god dammit.
  3. If you have to waste time discussing screenwriting on the Internet, for the love of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, talk about specific movies and tear them apart. That'll do you some good, builds character, puts meat on your bones, etc.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005


Two quick things: One, if you are one of the (so far few) who bother reading this tripe, I do so love comments and replies to the posts. If you have your own blog and would rather write something there on the same topic, should I be lucky enough to inspire such, all the better. Must... have... more... discourse!

Second, I'm sure I'm not the first to think of this, and in any event it's really just a variation on a time-honored saying, but it popped into my head and I thought I'd share it: "I'm well-read enough to know that I'm not well-read enough."


Okay, so it pisses me off that 90% of Internet discussions about screenwriting focus on formatting issues. Screenwriting can be roughly (and unequally) divided into content and formatting. Formatting itself can be subdivided into quantitative formatting and qualitative formatting.

What the hell does that mean?

Quantitative formatting is how wide your margins are, how far indented your dialogue and character names are, what font you use, where a (beat) or (O.S.) goes, etc. This is the trivially easy stuff, and way too much time and energy is spent discussing it.

Qualitative formatting covers things like, should I write action in the "vertical style" of having a blank line between each sentence, or should I compress my action lines more, or should I avoid having more than four lines of text in a single dialogue block, etc. This is mostly stylistic choices. They can have an effect on the interpretation of the content, but not the, er... content of the content, if you dig. We still spend too much time discussing this.

What remains is content. What happens, what the characters do and say, and how they say it.

We don't spend enough time talking about how to create good content, and that pisses me off. The reason seems obvious: content is the really, really hard part of storytelling. It's easier to fall back on discussing the simple realm of formatting. Creating an original, interesting, intelligent, insightful, exciting, logical, dramatic story... hard. To make it worse, you can only really discuss creativity in the broadest terms: the common dramatic elements of storytelling. Make sure your story has 'em, but without knowing exactly what your story is about, I can't say much more than that. And then I'm writing your story, which... is your job, not mine, and why am I spending time analyzing your story instead of writing mine?

Screenwriting is hard. It's very hard. It's the aspect of filmmaking that's hardest to do well, or even competently. It's the easiest to do poorly, since it has less overhead than any other aspect of filmmaking, which require equipment and supplies, all of which are more expensive than what a writer needs: a pencil and some paper.

Wait, there's acting, too. It doesn't really require less overhead, because you can't act until you have material, so the overhead for acting is a script, which is pencil and paper plus hundreds of hours of bleeding foreheads.

And because every chump who speaks English and can string a sentence together thinks that means they can write, we get the infinite monkeys banging at the gates, showing us just how hard it really is to do this well. (Not to mention getting in the way of the monkeys who know their ass from a typewriter.)

Monday, October 24, 2005

Screenplays are not blueprints

A screenplay is often analogized as being the blueprint for a movie. This makes the Metaphor Cannon extremely angry.

The blueprint for a building specifies, in exacting detail, every inch of the building -- its foundation, its skeleton, its electrical and maintenance systems, and so on. Blueprints must be so exacting, and followed so precisely, because deviance from the blueprint can kill people.

Screenplays are not nearly so sensitive. A screenplay with many problems can still be made into a decent movie -- and usually, no one dies in the process. A movie contains thousands of details that are not in the script: costume choices, set design, lighting choices, camera angles, actors' facial expressions, line delivery, etc.

You could write a screenplay that contains all those details, although you'd never be able to sell it, because nobody would want to read something that long, detailed, and dry. If you didn't have to worry about selling it, though, why not include all that extra detail? Assuming you're a decent writer and the details mesh with and inform the story, the way they would in a well-written novel, then you certainly could write a 300-page ultra-detailed screenplay. Once a screenplay is committed to production, you don't need to worry about selling it, and so there's no pressure to make it a terse, spare, good read. It can now function as a guide to production, not an entertaining read that has to stand on its own.

Ifa screenwriter was also expert at costume design, set design, and the myriad other decisions that film production entails, then his 300-page screenplay might have a unity of vision that would make for greatness. In reality, even the greatest screenwriters are not experts at all those fields, and cannot do this. Even if you don't have to worry about selling the screenplay, it's pointless to worry about those niggling details, because movies are made as a collaboration, not as the work of a single individual. The set designer will worry about the details of the set design, and they will do a better job than we could.

So screenplays, for good reason, do not contain many of the thousands of minor details that go into a movie. It seems that, in fact, a screenplay is a description of a story, not a description of a movie. Ultimately, a screenplay is not a blueprint for a movie; a better metaphor is to say that it is the foundation for a movie. You can build many different buildings on the same foundation. The rooms will have the same general shape and layout, though the decorations might differ, and the façade might be made of brick instead of wood, but the core of the building, the foundation, remains the same.

* The Metaphor Cannon rolls away, whistling a happy tune. *

Friday, October 21, 2005


So I just saw DOOM. **SPOILER WARNING **

I expected it to be as bad as all the reviews indicated, but you know what? Entertaining enough. Nothing really egregiously stupid. The dialogue and character development were, well... it coulda used another few weeks of polish. No real groaners, but also nothing to write home about. The action scenes were pretty good, some fairly creative bits. As many reviews have pointed out, it's tonally a retread of movies like Aliens. Thankfuly, there wasn't a single moment where I had to roll my eyes and say, "Oh, come on," and I'm the guy who stood up and shouted at the screen during Godzilla and Wing Commander.

What finally became clear is that the character development was not designed into the core structure of the story; it was added on later, laid overtop like a bedspread on a lumpy mattress. *The Metaphor Cannon skulks away quietly.* The characters had, you know, character, but how they acted during the dialogue-heavy exposition scenes had no apparent bearing on their other choices. Not that they were inconsistent; but in the action scenes, everyone's just, you know... doing standard military stuff.

The Rock was miscast. He plays Sarge dead serious, and I understand that barking out military jargon is de rigeur for movies like this, but can't we mix it up a little? When Sarge says, "We're going in hot," you hope that someone will make a witty remark, but instead everyone just nods grimly and gets on with the unpleasant business of wiping out mutants. He was almost believable later on when he decides that they have to kill everyone in the Secret Lab Facility, even though some of them are demonstrably not infected with the mutant DNA.

Karl Urban wasn't miscast, but his character, John Grimm, nicknamed "Reaper," lives up to his name; he has no sense of humor. He came this close to having a soft, chewy, moral center, but ultimately he seemed merely resigned to his destiny of being a bad-ass. Reaper should have, at the very least, had some gallows humor covering up his painful past.

Goat (yes, Goat) has two short scenes where he evinces devout religious faith -- one where he carves a cross into his arm after accidentally taking the Lord's name in vain, and one where he's reciting what I think is supposed to be Bible verses, but sounded made-up (that is, more made-up than the rest of the Bible). Then he gets "killed." Then he comes back to life as an almost-zombie, with enough sense of self to kill himself for good -- after he makes the sign of the cross.

There's no evidence of the religious angle before that first scene. The Kid, youngest member of the squad (it's his first mission--guess what happens to him) starts out timid, then has this pair of weird scenes where one of the other squaddies gives him uppers, and then Reaper gets mad at him for being high; then the drugs never figure into the plot again, then the Kid grows a backbone, and then he dies. Ad-hoc character development at its finest.

There was one very good scene, that actually had some emotional weight. The backstory on Reaper at this point is that his parents started the initial archeological dig at that site (on Mars), and there was an accident where they died when Reaper was a kid. That's all we know; no details.

Anyway, Reaper and Sarge are exploring the very dimly lit archeological dig room, looking for the surface door. As Reaper moves along, we start to very faintly hear the sounds of children laughing. The sound comes up until we are basically hearing the echoing memory of the accident occurring. We don't see it, we only hear Reaper's memory of it. He moves to a window and opens the blinds, providing some reddish sunlight as the memory finishes. The sound fades away, and Reaper looks crushed. We never learn any more about what happened to Reaper's parents, or why he chose to become a marine when his sister became a scientist. I really liked that they understated that part of his backstory, instead of trying to give us the laborious details. We can imagine.

Alas, Sarge comes into view a moment later, in the background, and sees Reaper standing at the window. At this point, Sarge is holding his rifle to his shoulder, aiming around because a mutant might leap out at any moment. And then Sarge asks, "Is this where it happened?" Which was a stupid, stupid thing for that character to say. Sarge never before or again evinces any interest whatsoever in anyone's feelings or thoughts. He's in the middle of a dark room, there could be monsters anywhere, he sees one of his soldiers aimlessly staring out the window, and he asks about the guy's past. No. He should have snapped at Reaper to quit dilly-dallyin' and get on with the mutant-huntin'.

So, yeah. It's an odd movie; it's not as bad as it should have been (especially given the pedigree), it wasn't nearly as bad as a video game movie of this type usually is. It wasn't really bad at all, per se, it was just... okay.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

On the gripping hand...

Re yesterday's post about, er, "open screenwriting."

Is there any difference between audience testing of a (nearly) finished film, and audience testing of a screenplay? You show a preview screening to an audience because you want them to tell you whether they like it as it is; you test a screenplay because you want to know whether it can be made into a good movie.

If you test a screenplay, well, it depends what you do with the feedback. If you're only using it to help you search for bugs in the program, as it were -- illogic, weak character development, clichés, etc. -- that's one thing. But I don't think Average Joe Moviegoer is really qualified to do that. You're better off showing it to one or two professional screenwriters to get their analysis.

But if you use screenplay testing to find out whether Average Joe likes the screenplay... what would happen? Assuming you then revise it so that Average Joe likes it more, then, with a sizable enough sample, you're going to end up moderating the screenplay into generally tolerable pablum...

...which may be a viable economic strategy. If your movies are entertaining and inoffensive enough to make back their production cost, then you're not likely to ever have a smash hit, and you're also not likely to completely fail. You'll never create a great work of art, but you'll also never be in the poorhouse.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

I am NOT a committee!

There's a bit on The Screenwriting Life about a Scottish director who's posted the screenplay for his latest project online, before shooting begins, so as to elicit feedback from "the audience" (presumably any random Joe who wants to contribute his opinion).

I used to be of the opinion that getting feedback on your work could only be helpful. After all, it's just a way for people to give you a new perspective on the situation. Nobody's forcing you to use their suggestions. What better way to see if your screenplay is any good than to let the audience read it before you make the movie?



Let's backpedal a bit. What does it mean for a screenplay to be "good"? On one level, on the artistic level, a given person can only meaningfully say that he likes it or doesn't like it; that it moves him or doesn't; that it seems natural or forced.

On the second level, the commercial level, he can try to gauge how other people will react to it. Movies take money to make; is it worth the investment, given that he can't really know how people are going to react to the movie made from it unless we make the movie and release it? Knowing how they react to the screenplay is useless; we're not trying to sell the screenplay to the audience, or entertain them with it.

Is Joe Audience-Member qualified to do either of these things? He can do the first thing, but he's not likely to be able to offer any constructive feedback about specific dramatic elements of the screenplay, mostly because he has no experience identifying them. He can't do the second thing any better than the screenwriter or the studio executive, so there's no point in asking.

It would be exactly like assembling a cast of actors without a script, then asking the audience if they think the cast is good. If they do, so what? The cast may not mesh well in production. They may be wrong for the parts. There's no way to tell without actually making the movie.

Pogue has a simple philosophy: We, the screenwriters, are the professionals. It is our job to know when a screenplay is good and when it is not; which elements work, and which need fixing. There is no point ever showing an unfinished work to someone in order to get their feedback, because who cares what they think? They are not the experts. We are. We are the experts not because we are Better Than Them; we are the experts because we've spent a lot of time Practicing This Shit.

I said earlier that I used to think getting feedback was a good thing. After hearing the thoughts of Pogue (and others), I revised that opinion. Now I think that getting feedback can be a good thing, but only from another professional. Laymen's opinions of a screenplay are, essentially, useless. But a professional's opinion can be useful, if only as a sanity check.

Despite Pogue's opinion, it is a good idea to have a skilled colleague look at your screenplay before you send it to the People Who Might Give You Money For It. Such sanity checks can save us a lot of trouble. Ultimately, whether the screenwriter is the Ultimate Professional who Knows What's Right is irrelevant; even the greatest writer can make a mistake and miss something.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Beans and Routines

I eat a lot of beans. Canned beans. We buy bulk supplies at Costco. Toilet paper, paper towels, baby wipes, cereal, soy milk, batteries, liquor, shampoo, soap, dates, eggs... and beans.

I'm a big fan of simple food preparation, and so I buy 8-packs of Bush's Best Original Baked Beans. Each one-pound can contains one chunk of bacon, for some inexplicable reason, and of course that's the part I eat first every time I open a can and microwave it for two minutes. Eating out for lunch every day is more expensive than preparing your own food; one of my Life GoalsTM is to be able to afford to eat lunch out at a nice restaurant every day, and never have to prepare my own lunch.

But until then, it's all about the routine. I've been eating cans of beans for a few months now, ever since I discovered them at Costco. It's not every day I have 'em; some days I don't feel like packing lunch, and every Friday me and a couple coworkers go to lunch at a nearby Tony EateryTM and spend an hour bitching about our various supervisors.

Why the hell am I blathering about beans? Because routine is an important part of creativity, especially in the highly structured format of a screenplay. Abstract painting? Who cares, throw some paint around until you feel emotionally satisfied. But a screenplay, you can't do that.

[ The Metaphor Cannon sneaks out from behind a hedge, and fires. ]

We must be disciplined monkeys; flinging around our creative poo can make for some novel wall decorations, but it gets old and smelly fast. You can paint a painting on a giant fork-shaped canvas, or an icosahedral canvas, or some kind of four-dimensional Klein bottle canvas, and some art maven somewhere will praise your daring exploration of the form, but you can't* write a 120-page screenplay that's totally blank and have it hailed as a "masterpiece of minimalist expression -- The Times."

Routine is an interesting aspect of self-discipline. Sometimes, we fall into a routine because it's the path of least resistence; sometimes, we have to train ourselves to a particular routine, lest we (for example) develop the gum disease gingivitis. In screenwriting, we need to cultivate the good parts of the routine and excise the bad. Routinely going over your story to make sure you haven't got any orphaned set-ups or payoffs, for example, is a good habit. Routinely using the same clichés over and over again and again endlessly ad infinitum? Not so good.

Screenwriting is possibly the hardest form of creative expression to do well, because the format is so restrictive, and yet we have to transcend these limitations and create something both excellent and fresh.

* Oh, you can try. Go ahead, we're all waiting.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Gods and Mobsters

Screenwriters are gods, though only in the sense that we create worlds and realities. Our godliness is, frankly, a bit dim when it comes to the power structure of Hollywood, and our creations don't really have free will, and I think this metaphor has already worn out its welcome and is spending all its time around the snack table, eating all the pineapple and cheese sticks, and the Metaphor Cannon is calling its union representative because this metaphor crashed the party instead of being fired into it by the Cannon and enough already.

There is an orgasmic moment of creation that occurs sometimes when writing a screenplay. The first time it happened to me was midway through the rewrite of Script #5, when I went back and looked at the protagonist's role in the story and realized that some major piece of info about him had to be provided at the beginning of act 3, a Big Reveal that would cause the audience to look back at everything he'd done for the first two acts and say, "Oh my."

When I figured out what the Big Reveal would be... wow. A big rush of endorphins, and because I was at work, I couldn't jump up and down and scream "Wahoo!" and run around like a chicken with its trust fund cut off, so I sat there doing the positive opposite of seething, just gloating and reveling in the fact that I'd created something that was so obviously perfect and good and right for the story, and man were people going to drop their jaws when it happened and they realized the implications for the remaining twenty-five pages of the script.

Of course, time passed and the day's fervor drained away, and I began to fear that when I reexamined the Big Reveal, I'd find that maybe it wasn't as cataclysmically awesome as I'd thought at the time, because frequently when I look back at stuff I'd written a while back, my brain tries to escape from my head in order to avoid the inevitable cringing and embarrassment of realizing, "Jesus, I wrote that crap? And I thought it was good?!"

But when I looked at the Big Reveal again, and again, it made sense. It worked within the context of the story. It gave a plausible backstory for the protagonist, and gave him a hidden motivation for every single thing he did in the first two acts, that underlay his apparent motivation. And now I practically live for those moments of creation, when things fall into place. It's the emotional complement of being the audience on the other side of the Big Reveal; now I know how it must have felt when George Lucas realized that Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker's father. (Or whoever really came up with the idea, because George? gets a knee to the groin if I run into him.)

* Mobsters have nothing to do with this post, I just like the title as a parody of Bill Condon's excellent film Gods and Monsters.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Ew. Gross.

Every year (well, except this one, so far), box office grosses get higher. You constantly see reports about some blockbuster or other breaking the record for 4-day opening Labor Day weekend, or biggest R-rated comedy opening, or Biggest Non-Holiday Opening By A Columbus Movie.

But so what? Inflation means that a $50 million opening weekend in 1995 might equal a $65 million opening weekend in 2003 (note: not based on real numbers), with the same number of tickets sold for each of those two openings. And even then, what about the fact that the available audience is different? There are more people now than there used to be, and more screens and seats, so it's not exactly surprising that grosses are higher. And what of the fact that the competition from other entertainment media has increased? These days we've got the Internet, home theater, blah blah blah. Is comparing total box office gross really a useful way to compare... uh... whatever it is that comparing grosses is supposed to compare? Is it meaningful that Titanic grossed more numerical dollars than every movie in the 1930s combined? (This may not be true. It's just hyperbole, for Christ's sake.)

From the studios' point of view: Who cares? The fact that numbers are ever-increasing makes us look good to most people, who don't care, or even know, about the economic implications of rising ticket prices, population, and competition. Wow! Titanic grossed a billion dollars! That's a shitload! It's good advertising for the studios, because they can constantly show off.

But this summer, grosses are down a skosh, and so we have no records being broken. Instead, it's the endless parade of doom-and-gloom articles, which... is still media attention being focused on Hollywood.

Damn, they win either way, don't they?

Friday, October 07, 2005


I'll admit it: Yes, I own a copy of Robert McKee's book Story. Like all screenwriting "rulebooks," it's got some interesting ideas, some useful tools for writing screenplays. It's also got a lot of bullshit, but there you have it.

One of the tools I like is the concept of character vs. characterization. (First, to clarify: character, here, is an aspect of what we would normally call a character. John McClane is a character, and he also has character and characterization.) Characterization is a character's outward appearance; how they speak, how they dress, how they act, what they like, and so forth. Character is how a character acts under pressure, when the chips are down, when the reaper comes calling, insert-tense-circumstances-cliché-here.

Two characters may have radically different characterizations, but similar characters. To cop McKee's example, imagine a rich, arrogant, sexist neurosurgeon and a poor, skittish, devoutly religious Latina housekeeper are driving down the highway in separate cars (a Mercedes and an old Honda). Ahead of them, a bus full of (let's say) nuns crashes into a concrete barrier and bursts into flame. The surgeon and housekeeper both screech to a halt, spring from their cars, and set about rescuing nuns from immolation, without a moment's thought for their own safety.

And of course two characters with similar characterizations can have vastly dissimilar characters. Imagine a group of nearly-identical punk rockers, leather jackets, metal studs, chains, spiky hair, nose rings, the works. They're heading down a street when, in an alley, they see a pair of women being mugged at knifepoint. Most of the punks just point and laugh and continue on, but one of them goes into a rage, sprints into the alley, and cracks the mugger over the head with (let's say) a crowbar.

All characters should have as good characterization as is possible given the amount of dialogue and screen time they have. All characters should have as strong a character as circumstances allow. Nurse #4, who tells the protagonist that visiting hours are over, probably doesn't need to have her character revealed at all, let alone strongly developed.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Two Outlining Cents

It's safe to say that the outlining vs. non-outlining debate is the proverbially beaten dead horse. Really, it's more like a horse that's been blasted to atoms, compressed into nutritive horse-cakes, and used as a soy substitute. Soylent Horse.

Nevertheless, here's my take on it.

To me, outlining a screenplay means creating a story. Every element of the story except the actual, final text. You describe what the characters say, but not the exact words they use. You describe what the characters do, but not in the terse, parsimonious style that descriptives should be in. You describe everything that happens, down to the smallest detail.

Outlining is thus the first ninety percent of writing a screenplay. The last ten percent is actual screenplay format. For the most part, assuming the story is thoroughly worked out, you're pretty much just translating. If the outlining was done right, then the biggest choices to make during the final stage are the dialogue and writing style.

Naturally, there are a lot of different tools to use during outlining. One of my favorites is to start writing the script in screenplay format, from the start, and go 30-40 pages. Try to establish what the characters are like, how they think, how they react to things. Then I take this knowledge, go back to the outline, and change it based on what I've learned about the characters. This is a useful tool because without giving the characters a voice, without knowing their personality, it's harder to make their choices accurately reflect their characterization.

I might even do this a few times, using different parts of the story, in order to see how the characters will react in different situations. In my current script, there's a scene where one major character gets killed. Another major character is very upset by this, but in the original outline, she just weeps and is dragged away by the protagonist. I sat down and wrote that scene, and after being dragged away, she instead became enraged and (using a handy plasma cannon) vaporized several of those who had killed her friend.

This led me to redesign her a bit, in other parts of the story. Normally she's very reserved and in control, but after the plasma cannon incident, I decided to go back and make her a bit more spontaneous and reactive -- but only sometimes. She's still reserved and in control, but she shows flashes of passion from time to time. Does it work? Only time will tell.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

The Flashback Voiceover Montage Dream Sequence

Why do overused screenplay devices get so much hate, when badly-written "ordinary" screenwriting is done just as badly, just as frequently? Probably because they're so easy to identify as a Thing Been Done Wrong. Voiceovers, montages, and flashbacks seems to get the brunt of the hate, as they're the most general screenplay devices.

There's two problems with this. One is the generalization that these devices are Always Bad and To Be Avoided, Because Readers Will Automatically Pass If Your Script Has Them. (Then come the inevitable counter-examples of huge, famous award-winning films that are chock-full of these "bad" devices. This of course is the Law of Screenwriting Rules, which is that the only true rules are the ones you can't get away with breaking.)

A subspecies of Always Bad syndrome is the They Are Harder To Do Well disease than "regular" screenwriting. This is horseshit. All screenwriting is hard to do well. Writing a scene between two people standing on a street is hard to do well. Montages, flashbacks, and voiceovers are extremely standard writing devices; they, I believe, are part of the basic lexicon of cinematic speech. Yes, there are certain things which really are harder to do well; interwoven dialogue like David Mamet wrote in Wag the Dog, that's harder to do well than ordinary dialogue. But a montage? A flashback? Voiceover? Come on. There's no significant difference in difficulty between writing a good montage and writing a good dialogue scene.

The second problem is that focusing ire on particularly misused writing devices does a disservice to the writer, because instead of identifying systemic problems with their writing, it puts all the attention on how their writing problems have been used in one particular instance, giving the impression that the real problem is that you used a montage here, not that your writing is (e.g.) generally dull and undramatic. How frequently does this happen:

Joe Writer: So what do you think of my script?
Bob Executive: It's great! We love it. Dialogue is great, characterization is great, I was on the edge of my seat the whole time, couldn't put it down. Only one thing. Your flashback sequences suck more than a hooker at a vacuum cleaner convention.

A good screenplay with a bad montage can happen, of course, but it's not because the writer used a montage. Any screenplay element can be done badly in an otherwise good screenplay: a montage, an exchange of dialogue, pacing in a given scene or sequence, whatever. You can argue that these devices are often used when they shouldn't be, when there's no reason to use them other than that the writer thought it would be nifty. But that happens with everything. A scene might be unnecessary or just the wrong focus at the wrong time. A line of dialogue might be completely extraneous, providing neither a laugh, plot propulsion, or insight into a character. The "best buddy" character might be a pointless dipshit. But none of this means we should be especially wary of, or avoid using, scenes, dialogue, or characters.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

A New Family Comedy from Stanley Kubrick

Proof that you can never trust a trailer to accurately represent the actual movie: Shining

A quick take on the whole Hollywood-box-office-is-failing-we're-all-doomed thing, just to consolidate my thoughts.

First off, John August's canonical take on the whole thing, wherein he points out that, yeah, there's no story here.

Second, even if the numbers are massaged to look as b ad as possible, so what? The studios make far more of their money off DVD sales of movies than they do off box office revenues. The theatrical release is an advertisement for the DVD release down the road. Okay, so box office is down. Are total revenues down? Are the studios going to stop making movies now? No, and no.

This is a non-issue non-story. Why do the likes of the New York Times -- the New York Friggin' Times -- feel it necessary to have yet another story every other week bemoaning the imminent end of Hollywood? Maybe it's because it's dire-sounding news, which always sells, but come on.

Not that the studios are run by super-geniuses, but it bugs the crap out of me to hear the usual "Well the movies all suck" justification. Like, yeah, the $9.4 billion in box office they grossed last year -- what morons! Like you could do better.

Monday, October 03, 2005


I saw Serenity this weekend, and it surprised me how much I was able to consciously recognize storytelling elements. And yet, none of them really seemed forced; everything flowed smoothly and followed logically from what came before.


In the scene after the nightclub fight, when Our Heroes are all back on board Serenity, Mal confronts Simon and is furious that Simon had his crazy, violent sister on his ship for eight months. Things get fairly heated, and there's a shot, what I think is a great shot, from the point of view behind Zoe's hip, looking at Wash. Wash doesn't say anything, but the shot comes right after Mal threatens Simon with some serious hurt.

Two things happen in this shot: Wash starts looking really scared, like, "I've just realized I'm sitting very close to people who might suddenly become very violent," and Zoe's hand drops to her holster for a moment -- but then things calm down, and she pulls away. It's a very subtle shot, very precise in its intentions, and conveys a huge amount of information to us about the state of mind of characters who are not even participating in the conversation.

It was at that point that I began to realize exactly what kinds of things a good storyteller can create. And not just what, but how they can create it. At some point, Joss Whedon was writing that scene, visualizing it in his mind, and it occurred to him to take a split-second to show what the other characters were thinking. That's the kind of storytelling that makes a story persist and resonate, the kind of subtle work that makes people like your movie even if they don't know why.