Wednesday, April 30, 2008
Monday, April 28, 2008
The past few weeks I recommended a number of places to find a story. And now that we all (hopefully) have an idea to work with, I plan to spend the next few weeks discussing how to approach the writing of your screenplay.
As a writing coach, part of my job is to determine whether a story would be best told as a screenplay, novel, or play. I recently worked on a student’s screenplay that begged to be a novel, because it was all about the main character’s inner thoughts and because there wasn’t enough "on-screen" action.
The basic story is excellent. But in the middle of the narrative the hero is arrested, and spends the rest of the story in a prison cell reflecting upon his actions and his life. His thoughts and insights are amazing, which is why it was successful as a novel and didn’t hold as much potential as a screenplay.
When you are creating your screenplay, always remember: SOMETHING HAS TO HAPPEN. If you have a great idea but there isn’t much action, you will have to make one of two choices. One, you can write it as a novel. Or two, you can add more action so that enough happens to keep your audience watching for two hours.
Friday, April 25, 2008
I find myself completely unmotivated to write. Everyone I talk to says I have a great idea, but just the thought of sitting down alone in front of the computer seems too daunting and I give up before I even start. What should I do?
Your situation is not unlike the one most people go through when they decide to start something new, whether it is writing, a new hobby, or even an exercise program.
A number of my friends have recently taken up running and they have told me that they could have never started (or kept it up) without the support of their local running group and/or partner. Even though they are all training at different tempos, for different distances, by working out and discussing their own running together, they all improve.
Writing, like running, can also be a lonely business and to have the support of someone is critical because working with someone else always helps you to focus on your technique, while continuing to push yourself. With that in mind, I have decided to add a new section to this site, kind of a running partners for writers, which will hopefully help people find other scribes to work with. Obviously, you don’t have to collaborate on the same project, but by meeting like-minded writers working on similar scripts, I’m sure you will all reap the benefits.
The writing partners section and its posting information can be found on the sidebar of this page.
Looking forward always,
Thursday, April 24, 2008
This post isn’t specifically about writing. It’s about worrying. But I think it’s appropriate, since a number of people have told me that they haven’t been getting their pages done (or even writing at all) because they’ve been so focused on something they’re worried about. And while it’s impossible to simply ignore something you’re concerned with, you can train yourself to focus on it at the right time.
The idea is you set a 7-minute time limit to actively worry (yes, actually set a timer) and for seven minutes you worry whatever it is to death. I mean just go crazy on it. Think about how it affects you emotionally, financially even spiritually and then keep worrying about it some more. If you’re a writer you know how long you have to write to fill seven minutes, well, just think how much worrying you’ll have to do to fill these seven minutes.
And then, when you’re finished, and the timer goes off, you want to lie down, or if you do yoga get into the child's pose, or if you’re sitting at a desk, put your head down, and you set your timer for another seven minutes. And during these seven minutes you think about something you really like: your favorite food, your favorite vacation spot, even your favorite movie. And don’t think about anything else.
Not only is it really relaxing but it also causes you to ignore your worries at other times because you know you’ll have your set ‘worry time’ later to deal with it. So, you can actually say, “Don’t worry, worries, we’ll worry later.”
Tuesday, April 22, 2008
The most common mistake I see in screenplays is that the plots just aren't good enough. There are unlimited variations on the basic plots, but rarely do we get a truly original story such as Memento, Little Miss Sunshine, The Sixth Sense or The Usual Suspects.
Screenwriters often struggle to find a good plot twist because they keep looking at the structure as if moving scenes around will magically transform the script into something better. This is often true, but just as often, the writer may be looking in the wrong place.
Often the best way to give your plot a fresh twist is to imagine your characters in a situation that may never make it into the script but will force them to act. One of my favorite exercises is to consider what would drive a main character to commit murder.
This technique allows you to see your characters in a new way.
Consider what the film, Memento (directed by Christopher Nolan), would have been like if the hero, Leonard (Guy Pearce), had been an obvious villain. There would have been no suspense and the plot, even told backwards would have been predictable. It was the choice of an unexpected character, not the structural gimmick that made this film feel fresh and original.
Even if your script is about characters who kill for a living, asking yourself why they chose this as an occupation in the first place can yield useful insights that can create depth to even the most archetypal cop, killer, soldier or hit man.
Dr. David Buss, an evolutionary psychologist conducted a set of studies that investigated the underlying motives and circumstances of 400 murders, the most extensive study of homicidal fantasy ever. Dr. Buss says: "Killing is fundamentally in our nature because over the eons of human evolution murder was so surprisingly beneficial in the intense game of reproductive competition," and that "Our minds have developed adaptations to kill, which is contrary to previous theories that murder is something outside of human nature-a pathology imposed from the distorting influences of culture, media images, poverty or child abuse.
In one of Dr. Buss' studies, in order to determine what would drive people over the edge and cause them to kill, participants were presented with more than a hundred different scenarios in which they recorded the probability they would kill. "Nearly all people express a willingness to kill in some circumstances-to prevent being killed or to defend their children from killers," Buss said.
Finding the answer to this question of what could drive your main character to murder can be the one question you need to answer to make your screenplay "pop."
The best part is that identifying the homicidal moment for your characters can work well whether you're writing a drama or a comedy. In the drama, The Godfather II, Vito Corleone, as a young man becomes capable of murder in order to save his family when the local Mafiosi takes away his job. Before that event he is shown as a gentle man. In the comedy, Little Miss Sunshine, Richard Hoover (Greg Kinnear) becomes so angry with his agent, Larry Sugarman (Gordon Thompson), that he wants to kill him, but instead does some crazy things to get his daughter to the Beauty Pageant. If he hadn't become so enraged, we would not have been able to believe that he would really steal his father's body from the hospital.
Imagining a situation where your main character would commit murder can lead you to a better, more original story.
Good Luck and Happy Writing!
This tip was previously published at movieoutline.com
I confess I am a bit of a curmudgeon when it comes to things touchy-feely, but here’s a really good use for Earth Day: It’s a great setting for a romantic comedy, horror or crime story, because unusual events are a great way to get your story to feel fresh.
A perfect example of this is A Walk On The Moon, a movie written by a great writer named Pamela Gray. The film, set at a Jewish summer community in the Catskill Mountains during the 1960s, tells the story of a young married woman who is separated from her husband and has an affair with a local salesman. But the title actually refers to July 20, 1969; the first time man walked on the moon, and the televised event during which the illicit love is consummated.
Little Miss Sunshine is another classic example of a film that used an event to its benefit. The Little Miss Sunshine Beauty pageant, while completely fictitious, added tremendously to this great story.
More recently, Run, Fat Boy, Run, which stars the hilarious Simon Pegg (of Shaun of the Dead fame), centered on a Marathon Charity race in London.
Another way of improving a screenplay is to create an event specific to your character. A good example is Sideways, when the two main characters set out on a bachelor week of golfing before one of them gets married. Or in Se7en where Det. Somerset’s (Morgan Freeman) upcoming retirement frames the entire story.
This leads me back to Earth Day. The one problem with this particular event is that there is no real “ticking clock,” no deadline, which would create suspense. Sometimes just adding an event isn’t enough, and you must add another element (in this case, perhaps an eco-terrorist will blow up Central Park if something really “green” doesn’t happen) to create the appropriate amount of suspense.
Next time you’re stuck when plotting a script, ask yourself if there is an event that can help you create a deadline, which will in turn create suspense.
Monday, April 21, 2008
Saturday, April 19, 2008
History can also be a fascinating source of material. When Trumpets Fade, which tells the story of a battle in the Black Forest during WWII, was based on a box of books the writer found in the home of a military-history buff. If you have a great story that really happened, I personally recommend that you choose it for your first effort. After all, think how many times you have seen the words 'based on a true story' before a big Hollywood movie.
Friday, April 18, 2008
One of the saddest experiences that I have as a script consultant is when one of my students finishes a screenplay, enters it in a contest and places 2nd, gets invited to attend for free, and doesn’t go.
Or when a student of mine who finished a script, which was being considered by William Morris, had an affair with his fitness teacher, ruined his marriage, and went into a terrible depression.
Why does this happen?
I have seen over and over that people are almost as afraid of success as they are of failure.
My solution is to follow the sage advice given by Rip Torn in Dodgeball, who tells Justin Long – a total schlub - to “get angry.” It is impossible to think rationally when you’re terrified and although “get angry” does not seem to be a logical idea, anger is actually a step-up from paralyzed.
My suggestion when you feel fear coming on is to do what I do, and find some stupid little thing (or person) and have a shit-fit. If you’re in New York, yelling at cab drivers probably won’t be satisfying, because they won't understand you. However, if you’re lucky enough to have a foreign assistant (Canadian!) who does speak English, you can let loose.
The tagline for Dodgeball was “Grab life by the ball” for a reason. As a famous person once said, ‘Anger gets shit done.’
Wednesday, April 16, 2008
I have already purchased my tickets for the Tribeca Film Festival screening of Lioness.
Information about the film is provided below, including how to buy tickets.
I look forward to seeing you all there.
Lioness, the provocative and powerful new documentary from Meg McLagan and Daria Sommers tells the story of five women who served together for a year in Iraq. These women made up the core of the group dubbed "Team Lioness" by their commanders. Due to the complexities of winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people during this controversial war, some of the women in the US military were used to help defuse the tensions with local civilians. The unintended consequence of this maneuver was that they often found themselves fighting some of the most horrific counterinsurgency battles of the war. Through intimate moments with the women who made up Team Lioness, we get their deeply personal stories of how this experience affected them on the battlefield and what the cost of that deployment has been as they work to rebuild their lives back home. With startling footage and firsthand reports from the streets of Iraq, we get incredible access into the anatomy of a firefight. Hailing from vastly different backgrounds around the country, the women of Lioness give us extraordinary access into each of their lives and a rare glimpse at the essential role that women are playing on the ground in Iraq.
Director: Meg McLagan and Daria Sommers
Executive Producers: Julie Parker Benello, Wendy Ettinger, Judith Helfang
Producer: Meg McLagan, Daria Sommers
Editor: Stephen T. Maing
Co Executive Producer: Diana Barrett, Sarah Johnson Redlich
Director of Photography: Kristen Johnson, Julia Dengel
Tickets are available here.
Writing a screenplay about someone's life, whether a famous person, or someone special to you can be one of the most rewarding experiences a writer can have. If you have always wanted to write a biopic, here's a fast and easy way to get started:
First, find your subject then make sure the subject's life is legally available to you. I recommend that you consult with an entertainment attorney before you begin unless you are writing about your own life.
Identify which part of the subject's life you want to write about and why. If you are writing about an athlete with a world record, you may want to write about the events that led up to the moment of winning; if it's a tormented celebrity, the events that led up to their tragic death or biggest success. Follow the steps below to get your biopic in shape.
1.Write a synopsis
Write down all the events you wish to cover in the screenplay. The synopsis should be long and messy - you must tell the story as you see it before you can turn it into a good screenplay. The goal is NOT TO CENSOR yourself yet. Simply end a paragraph when you finish describing one event and begin a new one. I tell my students that there's an old Chinese proverb that says, "If you would compress, first you must expand." Your synopsis, if done properly, will have way more than can fit into a screenplay.
2. Read it aloud.
Once you have written a synopsis that tells the whole story, my advice is to read it aloud to a sympathetic listener or to yourself. It's amazing how when you read your work aloud, it's easy to hear every mistake. Do this several times until you are satisfied with the story. Don't worry about it fitting into a screenplay form just yet.
By accepting that our natural style is often broader than the slim format of movies, we get to have it all: to tell our story just as we would like it, and then decide what we want to present to an audience.
3. Create an outline for your story as a film.
The next step is to structure the film. Here is where you must compress. Take your synopsis and try to mold the person's life into a 3-act structure being aware that it can't fit perfectly -- because life is messy! In my writing system, we use The Mythic Journey Map, a narrative technique that defines 12 clear plot steps for feature length films. The key is to get as much of the story as you can to fit into the 3-act film structure. I teach my students to look at the 3-act structure In this way: Act I sets up the main characters dream, Act II is the unfolding of the main character's nightmare and Act III is the resolution of the dream from Act I. For example, in Witness, Act I is about catching the killer, Act II is about being unable to catch the killer, and Act III is about how the villain is caught.
The key to a strong outline is that by assuming that the climactic event you have chosen will be the climax of Act III, or the resolution of the dream, you can reverse engineer Act 1, the dream, and imply Act II, the nightmare. Once you have created your outline, read it aloud several times and make sure you are satisfied. Now you are ready to write the first draft of your biopic.
Good luck and Happy Writing!
This tip was previously published at movieoutline.com
Tuesday, April 15, 2008
Monday, April 14, 2008
I will be presenting the Interactive Story Development Workshop this week for NYCScreenwriter. Details below:
From Concept to High Concept
In this informative and interactive two hour workshop Marilyn will teach you how to take a good concept and make it great. Using Marilyn's writing method The Horowitz System™ and her workbook How To Write A Screenplay in 10 Weeks, which will be on sale at the seminar for the special price of $39.95, you will be introduced to the Mythic Journey Map.
You will also learn the fundamental stories that almost all movies and classic literature are based upon, and how to work with archetypes, so that when you pitch an idea, the mere title will make your concept accessible to producers and agents, no matter how dark and/or indie it might really be.
Most important of all you will learn how to take events from your actual life and spin them into rich, cast-able and original movie ideas.
April 19th, Saturday
3:00pm to 5:30pm
244 West 54th Street, PH#2
12th floor - walk one flight up
I plan to go into more detail on this topic in a future post but for now, let me just say, before you commit to any story idea be sure that something BIG happens, something that is a life or death matter for the characters. That's why stories about war and gangsters are always popular. The stakes are very high, and we in the audience are on the edge of our seats awaiting the outcome.
Thursday, April 10, 2008
Another great source of story material is to look to your own past. Perhaps you have a memory or a story about your own family to tell. If this is the case, the technique is to write a letter to yourself, telling the story. Put it away for a day or so and then reread it. If you are still excited about it and can imagine watching it in a movie theater, it’s probably a solid idea. The old adage “Write what you know” is helpful when you’re starting out, particularly because there is so much else to learn.
But what if you are uncomfortable with revealing a family secret? Or you don’t want any real people to recognize themselves? If you are convinced that it’s what you want to write about, just change the names, genders, places, and time when the story is set. Who knows, you might just have the next My Big Fat Greek Wedding on your hands.
Wednesday, April 9, 2008
After nearly two years of touring, the Found Footage Festival is set to return to NYC:
FOUND FOOTAGE FESTIVAL
Fri., April 25th & Sat., April 26th
7 and 9pm both nights
Anthology Film Archives
32 2nd Ave. (at 2nd St.)
New York, NY 10003
It’s being billed as their biggest, sexiest, and most star-studded show to date. Among the new videotapes the Festival has rescued from obscurity:
-17 workplace sexual harassment videos, edited down to three minutes of the most entertaining reenactments
-A collection of exercise videos featuring a scantily clad Angela Lansbury and a guru who calls himself "The Laughing Yogi."
-An instructional video on how to toilet train cats
In addition, The Onion is sponsoring an official after-party both nights at Dempsey's Pub (61 2nd Ave) with free Newcastle beer.
To order tickets call 1-877-278-4824 or go here.
Tuesday, April 8, 2008
On Thursday (April 10th) I will present a seminar for the New York Women In Film & Television (NYWIFT) on the business side of writing a screenplay:
THE CREATIVE BUSINESS OF SCREENWRITING
You’re a writer working in New York and you’ve just finished that million-dollar screenplay. It’s time to take off your creative writer’s hat and focus your energy on effective marketing.
This informative seminar will show you how to accurately assess the market for your script, who the players are, and what you need to do to establish contacts and productive working relationships. You’ll learn how to write a great logline; how to make better industry contacts and pitch to them effectively on the phone, in print and in person; how to prepare your bio; and how to protect yourself legally, tax-wise and story-wise.
NYWIFT Conference room 6 East 39th Street, Suite 1200
Thursday, April 10
$25 for NYWIFT members
$35 for Nonmembers
The following script tip was originally published at movieoutline.com
Many of my students say that the hardest part of writing a screenplay is getting the characters out of Act 1 and into Act II. In my writing system, the question the writer must answer is, "Does the character cross a threshold and enter a new world?" We can define 'new world' as the next place your character has to go. In Star Wars, it's going to a new planet; in The Wizard of Oz it's getting to the dream world of Oz, and in Tootsie, Michael gets the job as an actress.
The first thing you need to do to successfully transition into Act II is a strong first act finish that forces the character into a crisis. For example, in The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy has run away with Toto to prevent his being killed. When she meets Professor Marvel, he convinces her to go home because Auntie Em will die without her. Here is her dilemma: If she goes away with Toto, Auntie Em dies. If she returns to Auntie Em, Toto dies. Try to find a way end your first act with these kinds of stakes.
Main characters are often passive at the start of the film, and we need to get them to become active and take control of their destinies. Many times we don't pick plot events that are strong enough and the character remains passive throughout Act 2. Remember that our fictional characters, like real human beings often need a strong push before they can let go of where they are and move forward.
So to push them hard enough, the next element needed to move powerfully from Act I to Act II is an event, such as a tornado, that literally forces our characters to enter a new situation and to act. The goal is not to just add some random plot twist, but rather to understand what the character's fear is, and select an event that forces him or to face their worst fear.
The right choice of events also sends them on a new adventure. Otherwise, Dorothy would have just gone home. The tornado whisks Dorothy to Oz, which takes her far away from home which is her worst fear, and also sends her on a journey that helps her understand what "home" truly means.
This event does not have to be weather. In the original Star Wars, The Empire kills Luke's family. The event was the murder of his aunt and uncle. In Tootsie, the event is the audition, which gets him the job as an actress.
By making sure your first act climax places your characters in a crisis situation where there is no compromise, and then finding a powerful event that leads your main character on a new adventure, you will dramatically improve the structure your screenplay, what ever stage it's in.
Good Luck and Happy Writing!
Monday, April 7, 2008
The best part about having your own blog is the opportunity it provides to celebrate the success of your friends and colleagues.
I encourage everyone to take a moment and investigate our friend Tonya Hurley's terrific new book ghostgirl, which is now available for pre-order.
In an earlier post, I touched on the three-act structure, but many of you have asked that I go into more detail on the subject.
The whole discussion of plotting a screenplay will be discussed in depth in an upcoming entry, but for now let’s look briefly at the way many screenplays are structured.
Aristotle, a Greek Philosopher, wrote a book called The Poetics. The book is actually a series of written fragments, but it is considered the bible for dramatists. According to Aristotle, a good story should have a beginning, middle, and an end.
Three-act structure, based on Aristotle’s principles, was adapted by playwrights and, later, by Hollywood. The three-act structure breaks a dramatic story into three sections called ‘acts.’
Act One is called the Set-Up. The basic conflict and the characters are introduced and fleshed out.
In Act Two, called the Conflict, the action escalates until it reaches a crisis.
In Act Three, the conflict reaches one more crisis, which leads to a resolution and conclusion.
The recipe for success is 1:2:1. In other words, Act Two is twice as long as Acts One and Three.
As a rule of thumb, if you use a two-hour film or a 120-page script as your model, Act One will run about 30 pages; Act Two, 50-60 pages; Act Three, 20-30 pages. And one page of a screenplay in correct format is equal to approximately one minute of screen time.
Classic examples of three-act structure:
The Wizard of Oz
Friday, April 4, 2008
Looking at myths and fairy tales is also a good place to find inspiration. There's a reason we love certain stories. It's because we find them pleasing in some way. Taking a classic old myth or fairytale and re-imagining it is another way to be original.
For example, in The Wizard of Oz, Miss Gulch takes Toto to be killed. But what if we set the story in a contemporary city, and Miss Gulch insists that Toto go to a dog psychologist? Suddenly, we have a funny idea for a comedy - Toto on the couch.
A bestselling novel re-imagined the story from the Wicked Witch of the West's perspective. It eventually went on to become a very, very successful Broadway show. Why not use the Wicked template when plotting out our screenplays too?
The technique is to take a story that you love and change the main character, or change the genre, or change where the story is set. Or change all three. Just make sure your new version retains the original conflicts.
Thursday, April 3, 2008
A number of you have sent in questions about scripts and other projects you are working on. As many people have asked similar questions, rather than repeat the same answer over and over again, I’ve decided to respond to them in this public forum.
Simply leave your questions as a comment on any of the postings on this blog or just email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
The first of what I hope will be many screenwriting discussions can be found below:
I’m working on a script about a mother dealing with the loss of a child. It’s a drama but I’d like to include elements of the coming of age genre for the mother. What’s the best way to write a coming of age story about someone who’s already “come of age”?
New York, NY
Thank you for your question.
Coming of age is an industry term. At the end of the Rob Reiner film Stand By Me, the boy played by Wil Wheaton becomes a man. This is the conventional perception of the “coming of age” story, but we are always “coming of age” or maturing in the sense that every time we make a major change in our lives we grow. The transitions in our lives are all kinds of journeys that lead us to a “new” and greater self. Many people assume incorrectly that if someone’s already “come of age,” that means there’s nowhere for them to go.
So, to answer your question, the best way to apply the coming of age genre to your script is to find out in what way your character is “immature” and how they need to grow to become the person they are meant to be.
Looking forward always,
Tuesday, April 1, 2008
It's April Fool's Day.
The one day of the year (you hope) when your coworkers are whispering in the hallways and conspiring in the corner and you are left waiting for their prank to drop.
What better time to discuss secrets.
An effective way to improve or create a scene is to add secrets that each character hides from the other. Secrets are both things that our characters don't want other people to know, and things that they hide from themselves. You may already know what those secrets are but aren't using them, or perhaps you will have to create them at some point. Remember, everyone has something they think they need to hide.
Let's use When Harry Met Sally as an example. In the beginning of the film, Harry and Sally are driving from Chicago to New York, and they stop at a diner. In the diner, Sally's secret is that she has slept with Sheldon and broke up with him over the days-of-the-week underwear. Harry's secret is that he's attracted to Sally. When Harry claims that Sally has never had great sex, it gets her to reveal her own secret and creates the conflict in the scene. It is, of course, Harry's secret attraction to Sally that drove him to raise the subject of sex in the first place.
Sometimes characters even keep secrets from themselves. When Sally breaks up with Joe, she pretends that she's fine about it. The secret that she keeps from herself is that she's actually very upset about it. She pretends everything is okay until Joe gets engaged to someone else. Then she breaks down and innocently calls Harry to come and comfort her. Her sudden vulnerability is what gets her into trouble with Harry. Meanwhile, Harry's secret from himself is that he's in love with her. When she rejects him, he has to face the fact that he wants to marry her.
You can see how tapping into the secrets your characters keep from themselves and others can improve both your scene work and plot। Secrets raise the stakes and instantly add subtext.
Good Luck and Happy Writing!
This script tip was originally published at movieoutline.com