And for those of you who like your sci-fi and horror fiction with a visual twist, check out the book trailer below (Don’t say I never treat you!):
Okay, so this is the big one. It’s the big one because on it’s own it really doesn’t mean anything. I could give you a “golden ticket” for structure. but it would be useless without linking it to story and character. Because I believe that a screenplay needs all three of these things.
Let’s examine what we mean:
Structure – the architecture of your screenplay. At certain moments, certain things happen. The catalyst at page 12, for instance.
Story – the plot. Event that happen to the characters, or which they instigate.
Character – a nebulous concept, rarely defined. Not just personality or behaviour, but a mixture of the two. A character is defined by the action they take. Whether we would call these actions heroic, cowardly, villainous, vain etc. Even worse, character is supposed to change. Take Sarah Connor in the Terminator (put-upon waitress to kick-ass robot killer).
Whe I first began writing, I knew that certain things were supposed to happen at certain points (structure) creating the story. but what I didn’t know what that structure is really about character, and character is where the story comes from. Confused?
Let’s take an example,one of my all-time favourite comedies, “Groundhog Day”:
TV weatherman Phil Connors ( Bill Murray), manages to alienate his cameraman and beautiful producer by being cynical and self-centred.
(Notice the “setup” phase of the story is actually laying down Phil’s character by showing how he reacts to events)
On assignment to cover Groundhog Day, Phil gets stranded in Punxsutawney due to a blizzard. Phil wakes up to find that he is reliving that same day over again.
(Phil is annoyed, to say the least, at having to stay. But he is about to face an event that will force his personalilty to change. These are the “catalyst”, and “turning point” phases).
At first he is confused. Then when it happens again, he takes advantage of the situation without any fear of long-term consequences. He uses his “inside knowledge” to seduce women, steal money, and act recklessly.
(Now we get to the “fun and games” section, where the story literally plays around with the concept: “What would you do if you were foced to relive one day over and over again?”)
However, his attempts to get closer to Rita repeatedly fail.
(The “midpoint”. This is where Phil tries his tricks on Rita and fails. He knows he must change but is unwilling to do so)
Unable to end the time loop, a frustrated Phil becomes depressed, offensive, kindaps Punxsutawney Phil and even tries to end his own life. But despite all his actions, nothing breaks the time loop.
(Phil avoids change and in doing so falls into despair. This is the “low point” of the movie)
Phil finally tells Rita what is happening and proves it to her. She suggests that he should take advantage of it to improve himself.
(The second “turning point”. Notice how the romance subplot provides the inspiration for the protagonist’s final victory?)
Inspired, Phil decides to use his knowledge of what the day will bring to help as many people around town as possible, even saving lives. He learns to play piano and make ice sculptures. He becomes so popular and admired that Rita is impressed.
(Phil embraces change. His personality undergoes a radical transformation. But we believe it because it’s been set up earlier on. Phil knew he had to change; now he goes for it. And the results are impressive. He is on his way to the final victory).
After the end of this last, most momentous day, Rita stays the night with Phil, and he awakes, not to the same day, but to a new day with Rita. The time loop is broken.
(The “final victory” and”resolution”. Phil shows he has changed. He doesn’t try to seduce Rita. His love for her is genuine. As a result of accepting this change his life is transfomed, the curse is broken, and the story reaches its climax.)
So there you go. This is why I believe that character, story,and structure are all intimately interconnected. I tied myself in knots for a long while trying to shoe-horn my plots into a structural paradigm, not knowing that I was really writing about characters and change.
Hope this helps you!
Sadly, the British aren’t coming to the movies much any more. But in case you ever doubted that British cinema used to be a major player in the world of movies, here are my Top 20 favourite ones. Notice that last word: “favourite”.
Putting together this list, it became apparent that the British made three types of film really well. War films (not surprising, seeing as we’ve pretty much always been at war with somebody), comedy films (probably because we needed a laugh with all that war going on), and horror films (decide for yourself what this means!).
I’m not going to provide links here. In true British fashion, you can copy and paste these titles yourself if you want to learn more about them. I do hope you find something you may not have seen before. There are many more classic British films out there. So get scratching the surface…
Without futher ado, here is my definitely-non-definitive list.
20) 28 Days Later (2002)
Chilling zombie invasion movie transplanted to London.
19) The Lady Vanishes (1938)
Alfred Hitchcock outdoes himself in this flawless spy thriller that has been copied many times, for instance in recent hit movie Flightplan.
18) The Wicker Man (1973)
A bizarre horror musical that sees zealous policeman Edwad Woodward surrounded by some very creepy locals in the Scottish islands.
17) Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)
Albert Finney’s star-making performance as a working class hero in 1960s Nottingham.
16) Dead of Night (1945)
One of the best horror movies ever made. It starts out like a stuffy play and gradually becomes more and more frightening, like a dream that’s closing in…
15) Kes (1969)
Ken Loach’s superb documentary-style kitchen sink drama with a famous football match.
14) Get Carter (1971)
The one where a naked Michael Caine dispatches thugs with a shotgun. Brilliant hardboiled revenge story.
13) In Which We Serve (1942)
Gripping and very affecting wartime drama. The scenes of the blitz are unforgettable. Stiff upper lips are everywhere.
12) The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (1962)
Very understated, realistic story of how one boy winds up in one of Britain’s notious “borstals” — correction centres for young offenders. Biting social commentary.
11) Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)
Alec Guinness shows off his acting versatilty by playing all the members of an ill-fated aristocratic family who fall victim to a murderous plotter in this charming and sly black comedy.
10) Great Expectations (1946)
David Lean does Dickens. John Mills puts in a sympathetic performance in this highly atmospheric version that has never been surpassed.
9) Henry V (1944)
Lawrence Olivier’s definitive version of Shakespeare’s play is replete with pageantry and stirring speeches.
8) Billy Liar (1963)
Another kitchen sink drama, but this time it’s a comedy. In fact, it’s one of the best comedies ever made. Tom Courtenay plays the eponymous hero who can’t help but fantasize when faced with his grim, Northern life.
7) The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
David Lean directs and Alec Guiness stars in this fantastic prisoner of war movie. Possibly the most famous whistling ever in the movies!
6) A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
Spellbinding movie which sees RAF pilot David Niven killed before his time and forced to argue before a Heavenly court why he should be allowed to return to Earth. Sound familiar?
5) Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979)
So many Python films belong here, just because they are so very well made and… well, silly. But this is surely one of the silliest.
4) Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
The daddy of modern war films. Peter O’Toole plays the larger-than-life British military figure in this sweeping and epic production.
3) Dracula (1958)
aka The Horror of Dracula. This set the gold standard for vampire films for so many years to come, we’re still feeling its effects. Christopher Lee runs rampant as the aristocratic Count. The first of his many pairings with horror icon Peter Cushing.
2) Zulu (1964)
Fantastic action film about the actual events at Rourke’s Drift. The “300” of its day, a tiny outpost of British soldiers in Africa hold back the Zulu nation. Boys Own adventure material stuff with great stars and memorable theme music by John Barry.
1) Oliver! (1968)
This movie has it all. Unforgettable songs, amazing dance numbers, fantastic performances from the likes of Oliver Reed and Ron Moody, a story by Charles Dickens and a host of great characters. Who can forget murderer Bill Sykes being betrayed by his own dog? Or Fagin and the Artful Dodger dancing off into the sunset? Humour, social commentary, pathos, tragedy and triumph. Possibly the finest musical ever made.
Well that’s all, folks (to coin a phrase). Proof indeed that British cinema produced some of the most amazing films ever. And proof that it still has the potential to rise again like a pheonix from its own art-house ashes.
It is also noticeable that a lot of these movies come from the 1940s and 1960s, which were periods of great social change in Britain (as in most other places). Proof that great art comes from conflict of one kind or another.
As for the future? Well surely all those millionaires in the UK could follow George Harrison’s example and create a legacy for generations to come by investing in film? I can’t say that the demise of the UK film council has affected me, but maybe something will come along to replace it. Only time will tell. In today’s economy, nothing is certain. Let’s just hope we don’t face a future of middle-class romantic comedies. And there are only so many James Bond sequels you can make…
Having said in previous posts that some of the best writers do not plan, I thought I should qualify that by saying that if you are starting out as a screenwriter, you definitely need to learn not only about screenwriting, but about the business of screenwriting.
When I first started out, I wrote without reading these books and wasted many hours. Now I refer back to them on a regular basis, while developing my own style based on a synthesis of what I’ve found to work.
So without further ado, here are some of the most notable books on the market, in no particular order:
Save The Cat (Blake Snyder)
No list would be complete without Blake Snyder’s seminal work that boils down screenwriting to an easy-to-understand structure. But beware, this assumes you have mastered the basics of storytelling.
Story (Robert McKee)
McKee’s book is considered the definitive tome on screenwriting. BUT in fact much of this work is critcism. Many of the points raised are valid, but are more of an analysis of what has worked in the past in other movies. However it inspired me quite a bit, and gives you a good working knowledge of many dramatic terms and weapons to add to your screenwriting arsenal.
Screenplay (Syd Field)
This book contains a lot of good basic stuff on structure. But I found his work on character to be more confusing and distracting. Maybe that’s because Mr Field was an actor before he turned screenriting guru.
Making a Good Script Great (Linda Seger)
A more advanced book that assumes you have a working knowledge of the basics and are now having problems with your script. I have used this to varying effect when I got stuck on something. Very in-depth and practical.
Writing Screenplays that Sell (Michael Hague)
A great book for the beginner that teaches you the basics, even going so far as to show you the correct layout of a script on the page in cms and inches! Essential reading.
Raindance Writers’ Lab: Write and Sell the Hot Screenplay (Elliot Grove)
A real gem, this one. Not only does it have a nice “formula” for outlining your script and developing your idea but it has many anecdotes about selling and marketing and breaking down that all-important Hollywood door. Intermediate level.
Tales from the Script (P Hansen & PR Herman)
Why struggle blindly in the dark when you can find out for yourself how the pros made it? Full of invaluable interviews with leading and indie screenwriters. Gives you an insight into the way they work. Recommended for advanced screenwriters.
So there it is. I’ve just dipped my toe into the ocean of screenwriting books. Of course there are many more. Where is Chris Vogler’s “The Writer’s Journey” you scream? Believe me, this is only a scratch on the tip of the iceberg. But hopefully it’s a starting point that should save you a lot of that most precious of commodities, time.
Strolling through the virtual aisles of my online video rental site (the real video store in my neighborhood was torn down years ago), I happened to notice something strange.
When I first started renting movies, in my teens, there were lots of videos that would never have seen the light of day but for the limited collection of obscure treats in the back of my local dodgy grocery store.
I’m talking about such cult releases as “The Stuff” (a black comedy about killer yoghurt), “Society” (a bizarre tale where a boy discovers his rich relations are all shape-shifting monsters), and “Re-Animator” (a hysterical horror comedy very loosely based on HP Lovecrafts serial). Sure, these films were cheap and cheerful. But they were also GOOD movies. Heck, some of them are now hailed as classics.
But looking at the new horror releases, I was depressed to see that so many look like the hybrid offspring of some poorly-conceived and executed SyFy channel monster /disaster mash-up. There are , for instance, innumerable takes on “Shark Night” (“Shark Week”), the woefully bad “Sharktopus” series (“Pirhanaconda”, anyone?) The poster to “Back From Hell” looks suspiciously similar to the “Cabin in the Woods”, while there are too many “Dawn of the Dead” and “Saw” rip-offs even to list.
I understand that sometimes distributors put pressure on small studios to come up with something that they can actually sell. But does the world really need another Shark/creature combination? What’s next,”Sharkgerbil 2″, “Sharkplatypus” (and if that gets made I want my share of the royalties)?
I know at least one microstudio that continues to put out highly original films as well as satisfying the distributors. So it can be done. Come on indie producers, give us the next generation of “Evil Dead” movies, give us our Jack Deths.
You can be that filmmaker who has adoring fans thirty years or more down the line. But to get there, you have to dare to be original.
When I was sixteen years old, I wrote my first “serious” short story.
I had written a lot before then, of course, but I had never tried to structure anything or to create real, believable characters. The story I wrote was called “The Musical Box”. It was about a women with psychiatric problems and her husband who move to the coastal town of Whitby, England to rebuild their lives. But as the woman’s psychosis deepens, she becomes fixated with a porcelain dancer atop a musical box. In the end, she literally becomes the dancer, frozen forever like a beautiful image.
The story sat forgotten in my drawer for many years. A few years back I got it out and polished it. The story was published.
About ten years ago, I wrote a television pilot episode for a show I would like to see. It was about a bounty hunter in the future who pertended to do the dirty work of various intergalactic tyrants, hunting down wayward clones who’d escaped before their creators could use their bodies to achieve everlastic life. But our hero is really a force for good, playing the bad guys off against each other to achieve a fair result.
I gave up on it for years, thinking it was just an experiment that would never get made because it was too big budget. Until I dug it out and started work on it again.
That script eventually became the movie “Clonehunter”:
My point is, many British would-be screenwriters will be thinking, “How the hell can I ever get anything made into a movie?”. I believe this only because it’s what I think on a daily basis.
Oer the years I’ve come to believe that this is the main thing that the high achievers possess (not that I would put myself into that category, but from reading many interviews with screenwriters and their peers). So for what’s it’s worth, here are my top ten rules for surviving as a screenwriter:
1. Learn to love rejection. Treat each rejection as a step forward.
2. Don’t discuss your goals with anyone except the people you want to help you succeed.
3. Work on improving your craft as much as possible.
4. Be open to criticism, both positive and negative.
5. Know when to ignore said criticism.
6. Listen to your instincts.
7. Don’t be crazy. Be professional.
8. Ignore trends. Instead focus on creating something you love. Chances are, opther people will love it too.
9. Really really love rejection.
10. Don’t despair. Never despair. Desperation is unattractive. It stinks. It’s like blood in the water. And big fish can smell that blood from miles off. Desperation will force you to write stupid e-mails, it will make you say dumb things, it will make you harass people to get your script read. It will destroy any chance you have at coming across like a normal, intelligent person.
If I had to add another tip to this list, it would be a quote from Winston Churchill that goes something like: “Never never never never never give up.”
I have seen people give up. Those people do not sell screenplays. If you carry on, you just might.
What’s the difference?
New Hollywood is run by business and media graduates on the fast track. Mostly under 30, these high-achievers accomplish more by the time they’re 21 than most people do in a lifetime.
That generates an ugly problem in Hollywood. Ageism.
I recently heard an agent say that anyone trying to break into this business who’s over 40 is dead in the water. Is that true?
If so, anyone who has had another career, raised a family, or gone out and got the very life-experiences that make up most great writers (Jack London, Ernest Hemmingway, to name a few) may find themselves redundant. Unless they work in television.
Sad but true, experience is seen as being cheap.
Maybe that’s why so many “New Hollywood” movies are, well… unfulfilling. They are starting to look more and more like video games. I’m afraid one day I’ll go into a movie theatre and see a first-person shoot-em-up. Oh, wait, they already did that.
And yet a strange thing happened when I compared the two…
So here for your amusement are the top-grossing films of 1940s v the top-grossing films of the 2000s. List provided courtesy of listall.com.
See what you think.
Top Grossing Movies of 1940s
9. Golden Earrings
10. Easter Parade
9. Golden Earrings
8. Meet Me in St Louis
7. Sergeant York
6. The Bells of St Mary’s
5. Samson and Delilah
4. Song of the South
Top grossing movies of the 2000s:
10. Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
9. Passion of the Christ
8. Spider-Man 2
7. Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
6. Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith
5. Transformers 3
4. Spider-Man (2002)
3. Pirates of the Carribbean 2
So what can we take away from this?
Religion sells. Samson and Delilah? Passion of the Christ? Phew!
Secondly, there’s always one. You know the kind of movie I’m talking about. So dumb it tries to make out with the water cooler at parties. Proof that hype will sometimes sell a movie.
Thirdly, family movies can make big money. Look at how many people went to see Bambi and Shrek.
And finally, stars. In the 1940s many of the more obscure films were made famous in their day by their stars: Gary Cooper, Judy Garland, Marlene Dietrich, Bing Crosby, Victor Mature, Ingrid Bergman. Yet in today’s techno-driven age, the only “star” who really pulls an audience is Johnny Depp.
So maybe the golden age of cinema is dead. Maybe there are little or no “stars” whose faces illuminate the little people sat there in the dark. But the family movie is alive and well. And at least HALF of the top movies of the last 10 years came from properties created back in the 1960s and beyond. Also, the biggest grossing film is the very dark, dramatic and philosophical Dark Knight.
Maybe audiences aren’t as dumb as we think we are.
Food for thought, Hollywood. Food for thought.