#screenwriting #film #story
“We are raised to plan for the future. Upon our birth, our parents start squirreling away money for a college fund, fantasizing about their offspring becoming doctors, lawyers… I’m sure, rarely artists.
Regardless, they optimistically make plans for us and for our rosy future.
But what if there is no future? What if ‘future’ is something we are never guaranteed?
Because guess what? We aren’t. ‘Future’ does not exist. There is only today. Just today. ‘Future’ is merely a hope. You can’t bank on hope.
Imagine if you went to bed each night not knowing if you would wake in the morning. Really, that is what we do… we just don’t realize it. Every night we lay our heads on our pillows, drifting off to sleep, taking for granted our eyes will pop open hours later, refreshed and ready.
I’d like you to stop taking tomorrow for granted. I’d like you to think of each morning your eyes open wide as a gift of another day of life.
What will you do with it?
Will you piss it away, procrastinating, rationalizing tomorrow is another day, and you’ll just get that screenplay started then, and go back to playing video games or dinking around on Twitter?
Tomorrow may never come.
Read that again: Tomorrow… may… never… come.
Those four words have haunted my life these past five months since I lost my best friend in an instant. I always thought we had tomorrow. I always thought we had time to outline that script or take that carriage ride through Central Park. Those 26 innocent people who died in Newtown, CT thought they had a lifetime of tomorrows too, as did their families.
2012 taught me the hardest lesson of all: No one is……”
Writing Pictures- The Classic Screenwriters: Carl Mayer
by Robin Bailes
When The Artist was nominated for the Academy Award for best screenplay there were people (and I know some of them) who said it was ridiculous because the film had no dialogue, an attitude which shows a complete lack of understanding of how cinematic storytelling works. Cinema is a visual medium and the most essential ability for any screenwriter is to be able to tell a story with pictures. We all know however that large chunks of stage direction can be daunting to readers. So how do you make your visual storytelling come to life on the page? Well, you could do worse than to check out the work of one of the great screenwriters of the silent era; Carl Mayer.
Mayer is best remembered for his first film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and for his many collaborations with F. W. Murnau, and although Mayer did not write Murnau’s most famous work (Nosferatu), their films together include some of the best of the late silent era. Mayer wrote 7 of Murnau’s 21 films including Sunrise, voted by Cahier du Cinema as the single greatest masterwork in the history of cinema, and The Last Laugh, which has no dialogue titles at all so the visuals carry the entire narrative.
In Murnau, Mayer certainly found an ideal interpreter for his ideas, prior to The Last Laugh he had written other title-free films (notably Scherben and Sylvester for director Lupu Pick) but they did not work as well. The great achievement of The Last Laugh is not so much that you can follow it despite the absence of the titles, but that you barely notice the absence. Mayer’s work needed a great director to visualise it but it is taking nothing away from Murnau to say that Mayer was a huge factor in the success of their films. Indeed you can see how much Mayer influenced the director in the fact that Murnau made notes on the scripts of other writers in the distinctive Mayer style.
That style is the secret to Mayer’s success. He does not describe a scene per se, he tells you what you will see as a string of single images, which is of course what cinema is. To an extent he is in fact directing the scene. He wrote in brief staccato phrases, using punctuation descriptively rather than grammatically, making his scripts read like expressionist poetry, and yet their meaning is always clear. Take this excerpt from his script for the film Tartuffe;
But! Coming down the first stair:
like a shadow: almost indistinguishable.
Yes. There he stands.
Just a black shape.
Describing this in complete sentences would not only take more space but would lose much of the atmosphere. By using a question mark after ‘Tartuffe’, Mayer lets the reader know that the audience should not immediately recognise the character. The alternative would be to say ‘At first it’s just a shadowy figure but then we recognise Tartuffe’, an unwieldy and lengthy way of saying something Mayer coveys in one word. And it was not just visuals he painted, he used his unique style to express emotions in his characters as well, such as here in Schloss Vogelod;
She stays for a few more seconds. Then: She goes.
Silent. Calm. Heavy. Like lead. Now: The
Door: Then: the chatelaine. Alone.
The colons dictate the pace and thus the mood of the scene, while the description of the character’s movements says so much more than ‘sad’, ever could.
Though he wrote Murnau’s first two US films, Mayer did not move to the US with Murnau. After Murnau’s untimely death in 1931 Mayer made a successful transition into the sound era with a pair of films for director Paul Czinner. In 1932 the rise of the Nazi party forced him, as a Jew, to flee to England. He did mostly uncredited work on the scripts of others but seems never to have completed another script. He died of cancer in 1944 at the age of just 49, his contribution to film largely forgotten.
Mayer conveyed complex emotion and situations by use of image alone. I wouldn’t recommend emulating his style exactly, but there’s certainly a lesson in his ability to convey visual storytelling verbally. To my knowledge only two of Mayer’s scripts have been published, but they are worth tracking down for anyone with a serious interest in screenwriting.
Robin Bailes is a freelance writer with various credits on stage, page, screen and radio. He has 4 published stage shows, has written for 6 BBC radio shows, was a winner in the BBC’s Last Laugh sitcom writing competition and has a feature film in development with Andris Films. He is writer and presenter of the web-series ‘Dark Corners (of this sick world)’ and has written short stories for various publications both print and online. Robin is a passionate devotee of silent cinema has written a book on the subject called ‘Just As Good But Quieter’, for which he is currently seeking a publisher. Robin is currently available for paid writing work.
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Creating An Unforgettable Screenplay, Part 5: Dialog
by Christine Autrand Mitchell
There are two parts to a script when you boil away the meat from the bone: there’s action – the visual description of the scene - and then there’s dialog.
However, there are films that are entirely, or nearly, devoid of dialog – The Triplets of Belleville comes to mind in the latter category and I’ve seen many an award winning shorts without dialog as well. A film without action, however, would be seen as an incomplete script, for it will not give the filmmaker any guidance as to artistic vision from the screenwriter (some directors might actually appreciate this). Besides, an all-dialog film may feel more like an infomercial rather than an artistic expression (which I consider film to be).
Returning from my philosophical detour, let’s talk about dialog. So often a screenplay with a good concept, good hooks and solid overall story arc will fall flat on its face because the dialog… well, it sucks. Without good dialog, your script won’t make the grade (i.e.: no one will want to read it, buy it, or watch it). There’s limited space in a script, so make sure your words are absolutely necessary.
I’ve boiled the most common issues into eight major categories. Raise your hands if you’ve heard this applied to your writing or have read these in others’ writing. I’ll then go over them in detail and walk you through a myriad of ways to improve your dialog – and thereby, your entire script!
- Unrealistic – the dialog does not sound like real people talking (a basic and pervasive problem)
- Breaking character – as it implies, it’s dialog that is inconsistent with the character, sort of like he is occasionally possessed by a demon except it’s not a horror story
- Exposition – also known as “you know, Joe”
- Length – the dialog is too long or too short
- Style – especially in genres, it’s important to write dialog that fits what the audience expects
- Shortcuts – using them as a replacement for bad plot
- Subtext – missing it
- Underestimation – of your audience
First of all…
My first two simplest solutions to getting at better dialog is to do two things:
Get readers – and I mean impartial readers who will give you honest critiques about the good and bad aspects of your script, preferably not a relative unless they can be brutally honest, and never someone whose opinion you don’t respect. Remember that honest is better than patronizing; honesty my hurt a bit but will improve your script if you listen and are guided by it
Arrange a table read - Hearing your dialog aloud, even as a cold read, will quickly highlight most problems.
This can be something arranged in your home and you can also invite others to listen and give their feedback. Don’t forget to get the actors’ feedback as well.
How do you go about arranging a table read? If you know some actors, ask them – they love to be the first ones to create a character no one else has ever played. If you don’t, contact a local theater group or casting director for smaller markets; they can be great resources. If you can do neither, get some friends together, assign parts and invest in some fabulous alcohol and snacks. Remember to share your expectations of honest feedback from the start.
A table read will easily highlight (in a shocking way) this. For example, you’ll hear if someone’s name is used too often, because we usually don’t speak like this:
I’m so glad you came over, Jane. You know, Jane,
I was so mad, last night. God, Jane, I don’t know
what to do.
It will also point out flat or wooden dialog – if it’s bad, the best actor can’t dress it up. Also, it will uncover if your dialog goes nowhere in a scene, where it doesn’t further the story or plot in any way. Inversely, it will point out if you’ve begun something that doesn’t get wrapped up.
As a reminder, here the dialog just doesn’t sound like that character should be saying those words. This is most often because your character is not fully developed. What they’re saying doesn’t fit the character’s goals, the track of their metamorphosis, their archetype, their present emotional state or the scene itself. It attributes confusion, not only to your character, but to your reader and audience.
First, you need to clearly know where your character begins his journey and where it will end. Secondly, if you’ve left areas of your script you’re not certain about, whether plot or a dialog, or anything, meaning you’re not 100% sure of your story, this may also occur.
One way I can keep my characters consistent and true to themselves is to cast them – either with a real life person or an actor portraying that character, or, create a sketch or portrait. That way you will always know what they look like (she has blue eyes and not green), their physical quirks (he strokes his beard when he’s worried), and their speaking style (slight French accent with a lisp) and patterns (speaks only in incomplete sentences).
This is often marked by one character saying, “You know, Joe…” and then proceeds to explain some sort of event or plot twist. This is a screenplay, people, so the best way to get information across is to show it. Using dialog to pass on an important bit of information to the story should be used only if there’s no other way, sneak it in as an “oh, by the way” morsel, or use it in dialog in a clever and non-obvious way. Good luck – this ain’t easy!
Once you’ve had others read your script and have heard it, you will discover when someone is sharing too little or too much information – maybe too soon or too late; speaking too briefly which may seem curt; or when one character hogs the dialog (and not on purpose).
You may notice something called monologueing: when one character spews words while the other character listens… maybe. There’s a great scene in The Incredibles where Syndrome gets distracted by being allowed to monologue, and mentions it. And that’s what it does to the audience, it distracts them as the character becomes a talking head and we tune out, just like during a boring lecture. Another example is the perpetrator telling the victim the plan before the victim escapes.
Something a reader or listener will quickly pick up on is a character speaking in the wrong style. A period piece shouldn’t have current slang, a sci-fi story shouldn’t sound like Shakespeare wrote it (or maybe it could…), a rom-com has shorter blocks of dialog than a drama. In other words, you can’t break the rules we all expect, but you can innovate as long as you remain within the box. Then again, I’d love for you to prove me wrong.
You may have run into an issue of being unable to solve a problem in your writing and took a shortcut (that’s a bad word!).
If you introduce a new character so that a vital piece of information is passed onto the audience, don’t make it obvious and bring the character back a few times in useful and interesting ways.
Using expletives to replace ineloquence or a bad plot is not a good idea. Expletives are cultural and situation appropriate, but going overboard with them won’t be appreciated by a general audience. Be creative and find a way to say it well - you’re a writer.
Don’t rely on star power to deliver weak lines. Since you know that Brad Pitt or Helen Mirren (you can insert your own stars here) will be delivering your lines someday, you think that a not-so-solid scene will be overlooked because they will come out of mouths that can do so little wrong. This is a huge mistake. You must always do your best and deliver the best dialog you can. You may have predicted your casting incorrectly. Again, feedback will point out these areas. The script won’t easily get to your stars if it’s not well written – we all know the exceptions.
Subtext is the underlying meaning of your scene. It is grossly overlooked. What makes a good script good, is subtext. It’s not just “what you see is what you get” and the audience never has to fire off more than one neuron; subtext helps you underpin your main conflict, enforce character traits, highlight secondary or even deeper plot points, inject humor when it’s desperately needed, and the list is endless. For example, Lily may be talking about the growth rate of her friend’s tree but she’s actually discussing their stunted friendship.
Unless you’re going for the simple, one story arc, have a conversation-while-you-watch-the-movie-without-losing-any-information script, don’t underestimate your audience. They’re smart and, if it’s a good story that is told well, most audience members want to be challenged just a little, at least. Me? I like to be challenged a lot and not be able to figure out the plot-twist and ending from the preview. If you raise the bar for your audience, they will greatly appreciate it and be fulfilled by being surprised!
Some of these issues can dovetail with others, making the problem a bit more difficult to analyze and thereby solve, but it’s not impossible. I don’t think there’s anything a good rewrite (especially with good feedback or a good editor) can’t fix – no, really, I believe that.
Christine Autrand Mitchell was raised across four countries and splits her time between writing and filmmaking. She writes screenplays, fiction, non-fiction and plays, and is an editor and script analyst. She has credits as a Producer, Director and Casting Director, and heads Entandem Productions.
Thank You Note to a Reader
by Michelle Bornstein
Dear Reader who just tore the 17th draft of my script to shreds,
Thank you for sucking the life out of me. If good screenwriting is akin to slitting your wrists and spilling your blood on the page then you, kind sir, have just squeezed all that blood out, let it fully dry, and crucified me. Did you enjoy it, hmmm? Much like you enjoyed that little candy bar you neglected to count the weight watchers points for? Amateur move, my friend. Amateur.
Do you think it’s easy to write, hmm? Do you think that witty dialogue you just read wrote itself? Do you know how many forensic scientists must be interviewed in order for one to come up with an original and funny way to kill off a character? Here’s a hint: death by spanking has been done before. So we researched the science, we read all the Darwin awards, studied “Dr. G., medicine woman” for months, and finally, finally, finally came up with a funny and original way to die, and you just snickered! Do you know how hard it is to make someone like you laugh? Yet you just laughed for the first time since Bill Clinton almost got impeached.
Perhaps it’s been so long since you’ve laughed you mistook it for gas. Perhaps you are so jaded you simply toss about words like “amateur” and “hack” for sport. Perhaps you’ve read so many scripts that the words all blur together and you can’t tell what’s what anymore. Perhaps you think this is justification for the “constructive notes” you provided, all of which come together to provide the all-too-clear subtext of the situation: “You suck. You can’t write. You’ll never make it in this business. You’ve just been exposed.”
Then again, perhaps you wouldn’t know a good script if it hit you in the face. Perhaps our friends are better judges of talent than you, hmm? What say you?
Listen, just because you couldn’t hack it in the screenwriting biz doesn’t mean you have to ruin it for the rest of us. Yes, we know you placed in all those competitions way back. Yes, legend has it you wrote one screenplay a month for a whole year. Yes, we know you’ve taught several classes on the subject. Maybe even written a book or two, one of which we may or may not have read cover-to-cover seven and half times. And so what if your website is filled with testimonials citing you as some “expert”? When’s the last time you actually had a movie produced, huh? Yeah, we didn’t think so.
So you enjoy your time in the ivory tower there, flipping through Craigslist ads responding to those $10 an hour scriptreader job openings, self-medicating with junk food, and taking out your frustrations of a failed life on other aspiring writers who have more talent in their little finger than you’ve ever had. You ENJOY THAT, Mister!
Oh, wait: You liked it?
I see. Did I mention “narrow-minded nitwit” is a compliment of the highest regard where I come from? Yes, well, carry on, then.
Check out Michelle’s website at: www.bornsteinwriter.com