Tag Archives: scripts

How to Write Loglines – an actually useful guide

Want to know how to write effective loglines for movies and books? Read on!

INTRODUCTION

There has been so much written on the subject of writing loglines that I thought it was about time I added my tupppence (or two cents, depending on which side of the Atlantic you are on) to the debate.

Let’s start with the basics:

1. WHAT IS A “LOGLINE”?

A logline can apply to both novels and screenplays for movies. They are generally short, punchy descriptions of the plot (i.e. the thing your story is about). Editors, agents, producers and assorted other people often ask for a logline when they are deciding whether to buy or represent your work.

Interestingly, neither Robert McKee in his lauded book “Story” nor William Goldman in his seminal essay “Adventures in the Screen Trade” mention what a logline is. Yet I would argue that is one of the most essential tools the screenwriter or novelist has at his or her disposal. In fact, it is an essential skill to master.

One thing a logline is not is that thing you see on movie posters. This is in fact a “tagline”. Tagllines are very short (usually one sentence, or sometimes less!) statements used to entice someone into watching a movie.

An example of a tagline:

“In space, no-one can hear you scream” (Alien)

While this is a great tagline, note that it tells us nothing about what is going on (other than it’s in space, and you’re likely to scream).

A logline is more sophisticated and tells us more about the story.

For example:

“A psychopath escapes from an asylum and slashes his way through a quiet suburban neighbourhood until he is defeated by a bookish young woman” (Halloween).

Okay, so it’s not poetry. But you get the picture.

 

 

2. WHY THE HELL DO I NEED A LOGLINE ANYWAY?

But Eric, you say, why should I distil my 100,000 word novel or my 120 pages screenplay, work of genius that it is, into a single sentence?

The answer: a logline is a selling tool.

Loglines allow you to “pitch” (i.e. tell) someone about your story in a very short space of time. And when you’re dealing with producers, agents and executives who can only spare you less than a minute, this becomes important.

Of course, if you’re happy just writing and never selling anything, loglines probably won’t apply to you. Good luck on your chosen career path. Some of us have to eat.

A good logline can make someone sit up in their seat and pay attention. It can entertain, move and arouse curiosity in the listener. And it can delay that moment when they start yawning or hang up.

 

3.  OKAY, SMARTYPANTS. WHAT IS A GOOD LOGLINE MADE UP OF?

Opinions abound on this.

In his excellent guide “Raindance Writers Lab: Write and Sell the Hot Script”, Elliott Grove suggests that you first come up with a “basic premise”. This, to me, is a logline: a 25 words or less summary of the plot.

A rule of thumb is, the shorter the logline, the higher the concept.

High concept is what sells in Hollywood (although other types of film also sell). What is a high concept? Basically, something that’s real easy to sell.

In “Save the Cat” by Blake Snyder (a book no screenwriter should be without)  the author says that a killer logline should include the following:

– Irony

– A compelling mental picture

– An idea of audience and cost

– A killer title

Let’s investigate:

Irony

What is Irony? In the film “Borat” , Sascha Baron Cohen in his alter ego of the Khazakstanian ambassador to the USA, interviews a real-life professor of comedy. When the Professor tries to explain a joke to him, Borat deliberately gets the wrong end of the stick repeatedly. This goes on for some time until it becomes very funny. Everyone but the Professor of comedy, who is paid to understand humour, gets the joke. That is irony.

An example of irony in a logline would be: “A lawyer is forced to tell the truth for 24 hours after his son makes a birthday wish ” (Liar Liar).

The other elements are all important. A title is essential to help your movie stand out from the crowd. A sense of scale and budget will help others to decide whether to invest (is it “The Blair Witch Project” or “Avatar”?) .

However, there are basic elements I think this definition leaves out.

The easiest way to analyse what makes a good logline is to look at one.

Here are two examples:

“A police chief with a phobia of the sea must kill a giant shark but faces opposition from the local mayor who demands that the beaches stay open” (Jaws).

“A naive farmboy on a distant planet learns that he is actually the son of a legendary warrior and sets out to rescue a princess from an evil galactic empire”. (Star Wars).

Here we can see irony at work. The police chief is afraid of the water but must fight a shark. The farmboy is naive but must somehow defeat a whole army.

But there is more than just irony in a logline. Looking at our examples, here are some common elements:

A PROTAGONIST in an IRONIC SITUATION must overcome an OBSTACLE to achieve a GOAL in an ARENA.

Tackling “Jaws” first:

“A police chief [PROTAGONIST] with a phobia of the sea [IRONY] must kill a giant shark [GOAL ] but faces opposition from the local mayor [OBSTACLE ] who demands that the beaches stay open [ARENA]”.

The ARENA is the environment the story takes place in. This could be a location (a distant planet), a particular organisation (for example, the mafia), or even within the family unit (see “Ordinary People” for an example).

Sometimes the ARENA will be implicit. Other times you will have to spell it out. But the logline should give a sense of this.

Note that the OBSTACLE may be the same as the ANTAGONIST, or it may not. In “Jaws”, you may think the antagonist is the shark. But in fact it is the local mayor who opposes Brody’s shark safety measures. Killing the shark is the GOAL.

In “Star Wars” the antagonist is Darth Vader (or Grand Moff Tarkin to be precise). But in fact the whole Empire is what poses the problem.

The point is, the OBSTACLE is a fluid concept, depending upon how you craft your logline. But I believe there is an optimum balance to be achieved for maximum effect.

Here is another example that shows the flexibility of the logline concept:

“A young man and woman from different ends of the social spectrum fall in love aboard an ill-fated ocean liner.” (Titanic)

Breaking it down:

“A young man and woman [PROTAGONIST] from different ends of the social spectrum [OBSTACLE] fall in love [GOAL] aboard an ill-fated ocean liner [ARENA and IRONY].”

Note that it is the young woman who is the protagonist. More on that in another post. But the story is always about ONE PERSON’s journey. Unless it’s an ensemble film. Which just goes to show that William Goldman was right when he said “Nobody knows anything”!

One more for the road:

“A loyal Roman general is betrayed and his family murdered by an insane Emperor and returns to Rome as a gladiator to seek revenge” (Gladiator)

Here’s the breakdown:

“A loyal Roman general [PROTAGONIST] is betrayed [IRONY] and his family murdered by an insane Emperor and returns to Rome as a gladiator [OBSTACLE and ARENA (literally!)] to seek revenge [GOAL]”.

Note also that sometimes it is the Protagonist’s FLAW which provides the irony (such as the farmboy being naive in “Star Wars” or the police chief with a phobia off the sea in “Jaws”). Other times it is the entire situation which is ironic, such as the loyal Roman general who is enslaved and betrayed by his own Emperor. Again, it’s a flexible concept.

The important thing is not to get hung up on the details but to check all the boxes.

One last thing. It may be worth your while to develop the logline BEFORE you write the script, as this way you can build a story that has the strongest foundations possible.

IN SUMMARY

So there you have it:

PROTAGONIST + IRONIC SITUATION + OBSTACLE + GOAL + ARENA

Not necessarily that order!

Have fun with loglines. You will probably take quite a few goes to build the best logline for your story. But the rewards are worth it. A logline is the PRIMARY selling tool. Once you practice it, you will surprised at the results.

 

Bonus post! How to write Hollywood action lines part 3!

Here is something that trips me up time and time again, and I’ve seen even the most seasoned screenwriters falls for it. So I thought I would include it in this bonus post about how to write Hollywood-style action lines in your screenplay.

This tip can be summed up in one word:

EDIT.

What I mean is, you should always be trying to REMOVE UNNECESSARY WORDS.

Do you have a screenwriting bible?

I do.

It contains everything I’ve ever leant about screenwriting in bullet point form. Only I can understand it, which is fine because it’s only for my use. But in it, I’ve written down the words I should try to avoid at all costs.

And now I’m sharing them with you.

So here they are:

“But”

“And”

“As”

“Is/Are/Am”

“Both”

“Then”

“Just”

“We See”

Please note: if you read a lot of produced screenplays written by professional screenwriters, you will probably see these words being used over and over again. The difference between them and you?

They got paid already.

Another point worth mentioning is: don’t go overboard. If you include one “but” in a 110 page script, chances are it won’t make any difference. Also, if you edit your action lines down too much, they may not make sense. Removing every “a” or “the” will confuse the reader. Sometimes you might even want to deliberately break the rules to make more of an impact on the reader.

So use common sense.

But before you start marketing your script, a simple search for these words will allow you to edit them out of existence and strengthen your action lines. And that might be enough to tip the scales in your favour.

Now if only I’d used this tip on my last script…

How to Write Hollywood-Style action lines Part 2!

Here is the second chapter of how to write action lines.

Now, I’m not professing to write like any of the people whose work I’m about to discuss. However, I have noticed certain things which we as writers can do to make our action lines more professional. And this isn’t just for screenwriters, either. I believe that everyone (myself included) would benefit from analysing the style of the masters.

That said, I’m going to begin with a non-screenwriter.

Stan Lee is a comic book legend. The man who invented Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, and many many more. Comic book style is even terser than screenwriting. They only have one caption to get across a lot of information.

Here is a passage I read from the Amazing Spider-Man a while ago:

“You’ll see Spidey turning to a psychiatrist for help after he becomes convinced he may be going mad! And wait’ll you learn who the mysterious shrink himself turns out to be. Next, our hero has to a battle a seemingly indestructible robot, and if that isn’t enough, the deadly mechanical marauder is actually controlled by the sneering, leering, J. Jonah Jameson himself!”

Notice anything?

If you’ve ever heard Stan the Man talk, you can probably hear his intonation ringing in your head right now. But let’s boil it down to some simple rules.

Let’s take another look:

“You’ll see Spidey turning to a psychiatrist for help after he becomes convinced he may be going mad! And wait’ll you learn who the mysterious shrink himself turns out to be. Next, our hero has to a battle a seemingly indestructible robot, and if that isn’t enough, the deadly mechanical marauder is actually controlled by the sneering, leering, J. Jonah Jameson himself!”

Lee’s style is so bold that generations of comic writers have mimicked him. Here we see several of Stan’s tell-tale traits at work. And if that isn’t a clue, nothing is!

Notice the sentence structure contains adjectives before most of the nouns (except for the proper noun ‘Spidey’, which is really a name). You have a “mysterious shrink”, a “seemingly indestructible robot”, and a “deadly mechanical marauder”.

Which brings us to our next Stan Lee trait: alliteration (words that begin with the same letter for those without an English degree). Phrases like: “Mechanical marauder”, and of course J. Jonah Jameson himself. Many more Stan Lee heroes are alliterative, too. Like Peter Parker, Bruce Banner, and Matt Murdock. Lee once said he did that on purpose so he could remember the names, but whatever the reason, it makes the phrases have even more impact.

There you go, two simple ways to make your action lines stand out: alliteration and adjectives.

However…

Just remember that screenplays are also sparse. They are images. Easy to follow. Easy to read. Mainly written in high school English. So do don’t go jumping for your Thesaurus just yet.

Consider this passage:

“The front of the Opera House is open only to foot traffic these days. A bizarre place on a Friday night, hawkers and whores, the rabble, the poor and the curious mill around the crudely built platforms and brightly lit stands. Zhora, in just a translucent raincoat, is not out of place in this flea market atmosphere. Trying not to run, she slices through the mob as quickly as she can. Deckard is not far behind, dodging and side-stepping, trying to move against the tide of people scurrying for shelter

She comes to an intersection and turns out of the mall onto a less crowded street. She glances over her shoulder as she breaks into a run and runs right into a couple of pedestrians. All three go down.

Deckard comes out of the crowd in time to spot her getting to her feet. She sees him and runs. The two pedestrians are in his line of fire. He runs past them and drops to one knee, leveling his blaster

DECKARD

Stop or you’re dead!

She doesn’t.”

 

That’s an excerpt from the screenplay “Bladerunnner” by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples, based (very loosely) on the novel by Phillip K Dick.

Let’s take a closer look:

The first paragraph sets the scene with a beautiful description that is little more than implied. But there are those adjectives again: “crudely-built”, “translucent”. However, as the action builds momentum, the prose becomes sparser and leaner. The sentences grow short. Simple. Fast. The pace builds until the climax…

Here, the screenwriters use sentence structure to create a sense of energy and pace. The action-filled nature of the scene is also emphasized by the strong verbs and tenses. Zhora “slices through the mob” Notice, she “slices”. She doesn’t just run or walk through them. This creates a feeling that she is powerful and determined. Meanwhile Deckard dodges and side-steps. He has to get out of people’s way. He is her physical inferior.

As the pace quickens, the verbs become even leaner: Zhora turns, glances, runs,  until she collides with more pedestrians.

A useful rule is to try to get rid of any “is” verbs. Is running. Is walking. Is grabbing. Is talking. These are static words that slow the reader down. Better to say he or she runs, walks, grabs, talks.

Time for a third example:

The granddaddy of all powerful prose has to be Robert E Howard, with his Conan stories. You will see similar patterns to Stan Lee in his work, which is effortless to read. Here is an excerpt from Conan’s battle with a sorcerer in “Black Colossus”:

“He cast his staff and it fell at the feet of Conan, who recoiled with an involuntary cry. For as it fell it altered horribly; its outline melted and writhed, and a hooded cobra reared up hissing before the horrified Cimmerian. With a furious oath, Conan struck, and his sword sheared the horrid shape in half.”

Notice the adjectives (marked in italics). Also notice the strong verbs: “He cast”, Conan “recoiled”, it “fell”, his sword “sheared” it in half.

I’ve found that a simple sentence structure works best:

adjective +subject + verb + adjective + object.

However, as with everything to do with writing, feel free to be as creative as you like.

In pointing out these stylistic devices, I’ve tried not to be prescriptive. However, Howard’s prose is extraordinarily powerful, as is Stan Lee’s, with its jokey, friendly, informal tone. While other screenwriters like David Peoples carve out lean, action-packed sentences to speed up the action.

By far the best way to discover what works is to read screenplays. I cannot emphasize enough how important this is. Only then do you get a sense of what a Hollywood script looks like. And then, of course, you can find your own voice as a writer.

But that is a post for another time!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

Intermission – how to calculate movie budgets

Before we carry on with our discussion of action lines, here is something I learned about movie budgets.

One of the most popular questions asked of screenwriters is “What is the budget of this movie”? Yet there are no websites I can see which offer guidance on this. So, to fill a gap I thought I would share my research with you, gentle reader…

It can be frustrating for a screenwriter trying to estimate his or her potential screenplay’s budget. How much do SFX cost? How much does it cost to shoot in a particular city or range of locations? Will those exotic wild animals bump up the cost?

The only way I’ve found any answers is to look at previous movie budgets. Now, inflation can be a vexing devil, so I’ve only gone back a few years in most cases.

Here’s a list of recent movies from a range of budgets, along with what it cost to make them (All numbers are taken from http://www.boxofficemojo.com):

BIG BUDGET
Man of Steel = $225 million
Iron Man 3 = $200 million
World War Z = $190 million
Fast & Furious 6 = $160 million
Gravity = $100 million

MEDIUM BUDGET
Crazy Stupid Love= $50 million
Zero Dark Thirty = $40 million
The Social Network = $40 million
The Rite = $37 million
Saving Mr Banks = $35 million
Looper = $30 million
Anchorman = $26 million
The Conjuring = $20 million
The Apparition = $17 million
Nebraska = $12 million

LOW BUDGET
Paranormal Activity 2 = $3 million
The Purge = $3 million
Last Exorcism = $1.8 million
Insidious = $1.5 million
The Devil Inside = $1 million

MICROBUDGET

Paranormal Activity = $15,000

What does this mean? Well, let’s break it down.

BIG BUDGET

At the top end, we have big budget tentpole studio movies crammed with SFX and bankable stars. If you can make one of these for under $100 million, good luck. This is a very small market. Studios may only make a handful of these a year. Most of them are adaptations. Competition is fierce, and writing jobs are usually assignments that are  given to writers with a proven track record for generating serious cash. Here you will find your Joss Wheedons, David S Goyers and Zack Snyders.

MEDIUM BUDGET

In the middle range we have movies that are between £10-$100 million. This is a big range, and may movies are made for this amount of money. Factors that can push your script into this bracket include SFX, a few bankable stars, or lots of animals and stunt scenes. So if you’re filming Tom Hanks, Anthony Hopkins, or Steve Carrell, or your script calls for a family of tigers, or a scene where someone jumps onto a moving semi-trailer (that’s a lorry for those of you who are English), or a wise-cracking CGI alien, this is likely to be your budget range. Again, there is tough competition here. Writers like Aaron Sorkin have made this budget range their own. But it may be possible to break into this market if you have a seriously strong concept and story that attracts star caliber talent or high-level investment. Note that many of these are dramas or dramedies. That’s because it’s tough to get a drama made unless you have a star, or an ex-star that wants to come back. Both of whom can push your low-budget piece up into this category.

LOW BUDGET

Next, we have the low budget world. This is the easiest spot to aim at. Most of these movies have either no SFX, a limited cast, are contained (i.e. they have limited locations, ideally less than 4), or are found footage. This is the world of the TV or family movie, However, it is also notably dominated by the horror genre. Horror has been the proving ground for many directors who went on to be A-listers (Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson) and tends to feature actors who can carry a movie without having the ego or bank account of so-called “stars”. A good horror movie can break box-office records, and studios know this. For instance, Insidious (2011) cost only £1.3 million to make, yet grossed over $55 million. Compare that to infamous flop “John Carter” (2012), which cost $250 million yet has recouped only $75 so far.

MAICRO-BOUDGET!!!!

Finally, we have the weird and wonderful world of the microbudget movie. This can be the kind of thing that premieres on the horror channel (if anywhere), or the kind of megahit that makes an entire career. Again, horror tends to dominate. Paranormal Activity, The Blair Witch Project, and Halloween all became the most profitable independent films ever at one time. However other genres proliferate, such as 1980s sci-fi cult hits like Charles Band’s Trancers. However, it’s pretty safe to say these are flukes.

In reality, the low budget movie seems like a more sensible place to start. However, a word of warning: limiting your ideas to deliver a tiny budget movie may be a mistake. My own movie “Clone Hunter” was written as a big-budget space opera, yet managed to translate into a much lower budget movie. However, I’ve written microbudget movies by shoe-horning my ideas into confined locations without any SFX, and these failed to ignite any interest.

In my opinion, it doesn’t hurt to put your eggs in different baskets. You can always try for a big-budget payoff while honing that indie coming-of-age drama and rattling off that limited location found footage horor movie.

Like everything with writing, it seems there’s no single surefire quick access route to success. Sometimes it’s just a matter of writing what excites you and finding someone who is as passionate about your material as you are. If nobody else shares your vision, move on.

 

 

 

How to Write Hollywood-style action lines — part 1

Today, here are some tips on how to do the above – write action lines like the ones you see in Hollywood screenplays. Style can make or break a script, or turn a great story into a terrible script.

The main aim of all stylistic devices in a screenplay is… to get the reader to read yor script.

That’s it.

So how do you do that?

Create suspense.

Use short sentences.

Make it a vertical reading experience.

See?

 Here are some examples:

The “vertical” style was perhaps most famously used in “Alien”. Here is a sample taken from the revised script by Walther Hill and David Giler, based on the original script by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett:

“SOMETIME IN THE FUTURE:

INT. ENGINE ROOM

Empty, cavernous.

INT. ENGINE CUBICLE

Circular, jammed with instruments.
All of them idle.
Console chairs for two.
Empty.

INT. OILY CORRIDOR – “C” LEVEL

Long, dark.
Empty.
Turbos throbbing.
No other movement.

INT. CORRIDOR – “A” LEVEL

Long, empty.

INT. INFIRMARY – “A” LEVEL

Distressed ivory walls.
All instrumentation at rest.”

Pretty obvious why it’s called the “vertical” style, right? The aim is to make the reader’s eye naturally flow down the page thus causing him or her to TURN OVER and start reading the next page. Do that enough times and the reader will actually finish your screenplay.

But you don’t need to be so drastic. Back in 1978 that was fresh writing. Nowadays it’s more a throwback. Also, this tends to use up a lot of pages.

Here’s a slightly more modern example, from a draft of “Scream” written by Kevin Williamson:

“FADE IN

ON A RINGING TELEPHONE.

A hand reaches for it, bringing the receiver up to the face of
CASEY BECKER, a young girl, no more than sixteen.  A friendly face
with innocent eyes.

CASEY
Hello.

MAN’S VOICE
(from phone)
Hello.

Silence.

CASEY
Yes.

MAN
Who is this?

CASEY
Who are you trying to reach?

MAN
What number is this?

CASEY
What number are you trying to reach?

MAN
I don’t know.

CASEY
I think you have the wrong number.

MAN
Do I?

CASEY
It happens. Take it easy.

CLICK! She hangs up the phone.  The CAMERA PULLS BACK to reveal
Casey in a living room, alone.  She moves from the living room to
the kitchen.  It’s a nice house.  Affluent.

The phone RINGS again.

INT.  KITCHEN

Casey grabs the portable.

CASEY
Hello.

MAN
I’m sorry. I guess I dialed the wrong number.

CASEY
So why did you dial it again?

MAN
To apologize.

CASEY
You’re forgiven. Bye now.

MAN
Wait, wait, don’t hang up.

Casey stands in front of a sliding glass door.  It’s pitch black
outside.

CASEY
What?

MAN
I want to talk to you for a second.

CASEY
They’ve got 900 numbers for that. Seeya.

CLICK!  Casey hangs up.  A grin on her face.

EXT.  CASEY’S HOUSE – NIGHT – ESTABLISHING

A big country home with a huge sprawling lawn full of big oak
trees.  It sits alone with no neighbors in sight.

The phone RINGS again.”

This is a nice, flowing style that leads your eye down the page. Notice how the sentences are short. Clipped. And, in some cases, incomplete.

There is also far less detail than you think in these lines. The writers were adept at using minimal words to convey a setting. The reader’s mind fils in the blanks. In fact “Alien” uses only two words to describe a spaceship’s engine room.

So the next time you think about adding a ten-line paragraph to explain that this is a comfortable, well-furnished craftsman-style house that nestles on the edge of town surrounded by sycamore trees with a luxury car parked on the drive outside… think again.

Which brings me to my second tip .

Don’t overdo it.

Some sentences belong together. When you try to force them into a vertical pattern, you actually break the flow and make it more difficult to read down the page. For example, here’s a passage from the script of “The Bourne Identity” by Tony Gilroy, based on the novel by Robert Ludlum:    

INT. FISHING BOAT BUNK ROOM — DAWN — TIME CUTS

Transformed into a makeshift operating room.  A light swings
overhead.  THE MAN layed out across the table.  Sounds —
groans — words — snatches of them — all in different
languages.

GIANCARLO playing doctor in a greasy kitchen apron.  Cutting
away the clothes.  Turning THE MAN on his side.  Two bullet
wounds in the back.  Probing them, judging them.

Now — GIANCARLO with a flashlight in his teeth — TINK —
TINK — TINK — bullet fragments falling into a washed-out
olive jar.

Now — something catching GIANCARLO’S EYE — A SCAR ON THE
MAN’S HIP — another fragment — exacto knife cutting in —
tweezers extracting A SMALL PLASTIC TUBE, not a bullet at
all, and as it comes free —

THE MAN’S HAND SLAMS down onto GIANCARLO’S”…

This is still a pretty vertical read. However it would have been even more vertical to separate each sentence out onto separate lines, like so: 

“Transformed into a makeshift operating room.

A light swings overhead.

THE MAN layed out across the table.

Sounds — groans — words — snatches of them — all in different languages.

GIANCARLO playing doctor in a greasy kitchen apron.

Cutting away the clothes…”

And so on. But does this make it any better? No. Sometimes it’s worse to force the reader to look at a new line. The most important thing is to preserve the flow. I’ve read lots of amateaur screenplays where the writer thought they were doing the reader a favour by splitting lines up in this way. But  it actualy makes it harder to read them.

It’s a judgment call. And the best way to decide is to look at other scripts. There are plenty of them on the Internet these days. Break them down the way you would an Enlgiash Literature exercise.

And that’s exactly what we’ll be doing in Part 2.

See you then!

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug reviewed (or “Not more barrels”).

The Hobbit Part 2: or "how many characters can we fit in a barrel?"

The Hobbit Part 2: or “how many characters can we fit in a barrel?”

This week, here’s a review that shows the perils of big-budget filmmaking from a screenwriting perspective.

WARNING: SPOLIERS AHEAD

Now, I really loved “The Hobbit Part 1”. I mean, I really loved it. Others may have thought it lacked action scenes and spent too long with the unfunny dwarves. However, I loved exactly that. Music is a much-ignored part of filmmaking. But when done correctly, it can elevate a film to something fantastic. Consider Superman the Movie (the Christopher Reeve one, not the emo-Superman of recent years), Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Close Encounters. All had great soundtracks. Coincidentally, all by John Williams. But other composers like John Barry or even Daft Punk have come up with equally good soundtracks. Anyway, I digress. The point is, the Lonely Mountain Song by Neil Finn was my favourite soundtrack piece of 2013.

I also liked the time spent setting up the dwarves. Film is not a video game. These are supposed to be STORIES about CHARACTERS. Not just an endless succession of CGI chase and fight sequences (which become outdated fast. Check out the Matrix Reloaded if you don’t believe me).

So, in short, I loved Part 1. Loved Rhadghast with his rabbit-drawn sled. Loved the goblin king. Great.

Now to “The Hobbit Part 2″…

It began well enough. Through the “magic” of 3D (it wasn’t available in anything else in my cinema), I was transported to, respectively: Bree, Beorn’s cottage (although this lasted slightly less longer than I had hoped), and the caves of Thranduil. Very nice stuff. Even liked Tauriel and Kili (although I’m not sure how a romance between an elf and a dwarf would work in practice).

Then we came to the barrels. And this is, for me, where it all went wrong.

Now, I understand that this is a adventure film. There has to be SOME action, right? So I was along for the ride. Until the laws of physics started to be routinely ignored. Not only that, but it seemed the laws of PLOT LOGIC were ignored as well.

During the barrel riding scene, elves became superhuman. Dwarves also became superhuman. The numbers of barrels magically fluctuated (maybe Gandalf put a spell on them). Dwarves leaped twenty feet out of moving barrels in a fast-flowing river to steal weapons from the hands of Orcs and throw them back with deadly pinpoint accuracy. And having done all this, they arrive at Laketown and complain they haven’t got any weapons… having just slain about two hundred Orcs!

Still, my growing sense of apprehension was only a feeling of dread akin to the knowledge that the Necromancer had returned. So I went along to Laketown, hoping things would improve.

And, for a while, things did. The Necromancer, and his link to the evil eye in LOTR, was a very nice touch. Not in the book, but it made perfect sense within the context of the movies.

Then came Laketown.

Peter Jackson’s LOTR is reknowned for its attention to detail. It is said that there is so much set detail in Rivendell that it can never be captured on camera.

So what went wrong in Laketown? All of a sudden, it felt like I was on a set. Maybe it was the heavy overuse of interiors. But everything looked a little bit fake. The politics of Laketown were also hard to grasp. Stephen Fry’s Mayor seemed to fluctuate between wanting to kill the dwarves and wanting to help them. Nor was it clear what Bard the Bowman’s  status was in Laketown. Anyway, it was here that the Hobbit and I parted company.

Cue, Smaug. Everybody loves a dragon. I am no exception; I’m a sucker for the mythical beasties, ever since seeing Disney’s rather frightening kids’ film “Dragonslayer”.  So when Smaug appeared, I wanted to like him.

Yet, while Bilbo raced for the Arkenstone (which has no magical properties, it appears, so why it was so valuable compared to a mountain of treasure the size of Wales escaped me), we were treated to the least enjoyable action sequence I have yet seen in the whole film series.

Instead of a brisk romp with a dragon, this sequence turned into a half-hour epic. Dwarves managed to survive fifty-foot drops. They leaped across thirty foot-wide gaps. Never again will I doubt dwarven architecture, as a waking dragon can cause an earthquake in Laketown but fail to bring down the roof of a chasm even when all the support beams are shattered.  The dwarves (ingenious creatures worthy of a job at Microsoft) are able to rig up a one-hundred foot molten gold statue in less than a minute.

When said statute suddenly (and inexplicably) explodes in a torrent of molten gold, it had me rolling my eyes and sinking into my seat.

Another example of plot nonsense occurs when Smaug returns to find Bilbo quivering, ready to be eaten and accepting his fate.

“I’ll show you,” says Smaug. “I’ll burn Laketown down, that’ll make you suffer!”

How about eating him? Wouldn’t that make him suffer? But no, Smaug decides to save Bilbo for later (after all, there’s another three hours to go), and burn down Laketown. Which he would do anyway.

Hmm.

Don’t even get me started on how Thorin manages to use a heat-conductive metal shield to float safely on a river of molten gold.

So in conclusion, “The Desolation of Smaug” is definitely a film of two halves. The nice character moments and humour of the first half is undone in the second half by an over-reliance on the same physics-defying and unconvincing CGI we have sene in films like “Indiana Jones 4” (Remember the fridge? That’s worthy of a trope in itself, much like “Jumping the Shark”. Maybe we should have “Riding the fridge”?)

Perhaps it’s the result of so many disciplines being involved in what used to be a proces involving only actors, a director, and a handful of crew. Maybe it’s even due in some way to the input (or lack of input) of Guillermo Del Toro, who apparently departed the production due to delays in filming. It’s anyone’s guess how having such a visionary director leave halfway through affected the outcome. But whatever the cause, it felt like the filmmakers had thrown in their towels after the barrel riding scene.

I don’t know if “The Hobbit” will take its place alongside the “Lord of the Rings” as modern classics. But it seems that in a world where anything can be conjured up using that magical CGI paintbrush, filmmakers need to exercise more restraint. Otherwise they risk suffering the fate of a certain cartoon mouse who also experimented with magic and came undone.

Monsters in the House

Today I’m going to share some secrets with you about how to write in the movie genre called “Monster in the House”.

The late, great Blake Snyder can be credited with bringing this term into popular phraseology amongst screenwriters. Basically it is the kind of movie where there is a Monster… in a House. Geddit? Many horror movies use this genre, but so do many other kinds of film. For example, Blake says in his excellent books “Save the Cat” and “Save the Cat Goes to the Movies”  that the good ol’ Monster in the House includes such films as “Jaws”, “Independence Day”, “Scream”, “Single White Female”, and even “Fatal Attraction”.

So how does this go? Well, put simply, Blake says you must have a Monster, a House, and a Sin committed by one the chartacters that invites the Monster into the House. For example, in “Jaws” it is the Mayor’s refusal to close the beaches, out of fear that it will damage tourism on the island, that invites the great white shark to keep munching on the locals.

 

Birds Film

Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds starring Tippi Hedren. Can you spot the “Monster” and the “House” in this movie? Extra marks if you can remember what the “Sin is, too!

 

Blake’s books include a whole host of other great observations about this genre and others and I encourage you to read them all. However I thought I would apply this to my own latest screenplay while I was working on it. The result was that I may have come up with a definitive “blueprint” for the Monster in the House genre.

This may or may may not make sense without reading Blake’s books. However, you can find some illuminating examples by visiting his wesbite http://www.blakesnyder.com/ and using the free dowloads there.

Anyway, here goes…

 

MONSTER IN THE HOUSE STRUCTURE BLUEPRINT

1. Setup

The House is introduced and described. The Hero’s weakness is also introduced. Don’t forget to Save the Cat!

2. Catalyst

The Sin is committed, ultimately (but not necessarily there and then) inviting the Monster into the House.

3. Debate

Resistance of whatever is the catalyst by the Hero.

4. Break into Act Two/Turning Point # 1

The main conflict with the Monster begins.

5. B Story

The Hero and another character interact.

6. Fun & Games

Hide and Seek with the Monster in the House.

7. Midpoint

Stakes are raised. The Fun is now over. A and B stories cross. Kiss at 60?

8. Bad Guys Close In

Turn, Turn, Turn as one by one the Monster kills off the Hero’s allies and generally makes things harder for them.

9. Rock Bottom

The Sin is finally exposed. The Whiff of Death occurs.

10. Dark Night of the Soul

Despair. Monster appears victorious.

11.Break Into Act Three

The solution!

12. Final Challenge

The Hero combines his weakness with what he has learned during the story to  defeat the Bad Guy (and optionally Save the Cat if not done before).

13. Resolution

Survival, basically.  Optionally you may show how the Hero has overcome his weakness.

 

So there it is. I’d be interested in knowing what anyone else thinks about this. But it seems general enough to apply to pretty much any Monster in the House script.  Next time I may even break down a popular movie into these component parts to see if it does work all the way through. Until then, keep writing!