A tentpole frame of mind

 

kids-movies
My objective. Every single time.

Here in the US, we are heading into what’s known as Memorial Day weekend, where we honor those who have given their lives in the service of our country. It’s also considered the kickoff of the summer season, even though summer doesn’t officially start for a few weeks.

Once upon a time, Memorial Day weekend was when the summer movie season kicked into high gear, with each weekend seeing the release of a potential blockbuster. It has since crashed through the barrier of time limitation, with some summer-appropriate fare being released as early as late March.

I was fortunate enough to have come of age when each summer saw its fair share of films that could be categorized as prime examples of not only filmmaking, but also of storytelling.

Definitely storytelling.

RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. GHOSTBUSTERS. BACK TO THE FUTURE. ALIENS. ROBOCOP. DIE HARD.

Each one has made its indelible mark on me, making quite the impact on my psyche and personality, and severely influencing the way I write. I make no secret about loving to write these kinds of stories.

(Author’s note – I’m no fool. Nobody’s going to take a chance on a mega-budget script from an unknown. Hopefully once I establish a foothold with my smaller scripts, I can eventually bring out the bigger ones.)

Some may see a summer release as Big Dumb Fun, which admittedly some of them are, but I make a point of treating the audience as intelligent people and want to give them a story that goes beyond simplistic expectations.

I strive to write material that entertains more than just the eyes and ears; I go for the brain, too. It takes a lot of effort to put together a story that stimulates the viewer on more than just a sensory level, but when it’s done in a smart and efficient way, the satisfaction of seeing it pay off is well worth it.

Will I ever get paid to write these kinds of stories? I like to think so. It doesn’t hurt to at least daydream about it.

Imagining that sometime in the relatively near future, a trailer will come up that features snippets of characters and dialogue, all of my creation, all culminating with those words laden with the excitement of anticipation:

“Coming this summer to a theatre near you”

A big smile and chills up my spine, believe you me.

Ask an International Multi-Hyphenate Script Consultant!

Danny Stack

The latest in a series of interviews with script readers and consultants who would be worth your while to work with if you want to get your script in shape. Today’s spotlight is on writer-director-editor-analyst-contest organizer Danny Stack of Scriptwriting in the UK.

Danny is a screenwriter whose TV writing credits include the revamped Thunderbirds Are Go! and the BBC’s flagship soap EastEnders, amongst others. He also writes and directs, and is currently in post-production on his live-action children’s feature film Who Killed Nelson Nutmeg? Danny has many years experience as a story analyst for a number of film companies, such as Working Title, Pathe Films, Miramax (Harvey Weinstein era) and the UK Film Council, to name but a few. He was development script editor for the British film The Man Inside, and he script edited the Irish-language feature film Kings.

1.What’s the last thing you read/watched that you thought was incredibly well-written?

The Knick by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler. It’s a TV period drama about The Knickerbocker hospital around the turn of the 20th century. The drama is very character-driven but extremely engaging. Steven Soderbergh’s direction is also very distinctive and interesting, adding to the immersive milieu of the show.

2. How’d you get your start reading scripts?

I was a commissioning assistant in the Channel 4 comedy department. A large part of my job was logging all the spec sitcom scripts. I farmed them out to a handful of readers but started reading and writing my own reports, too, and really enjoyed it. Once I left Channel 4, I approached film companies asking to read scripts for them. I did a few sample reports, and went from there!

3. Is recognizing good writing something you think can be taught or learned?

Learning to recognize good writing should sharpen your existing storytelling instincts. For example, I didn’t know anything about inciting incidents or three-act structure when I was green and keen, but when I read my first screenwriting book, those terms made complete sense to my natural instincts about story in the first place.

4. What are the components of a good script?

An original idea, interesting characters, good dialogue, unpredictable plot, a solid structure, humour.

5. What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

Long set-ups or unnecessary introductions of characters, or indulging in backstory. Over-written scene description. Plain or over-familiar dialogue. Similarly plain or over-familiar characterization. Female characters being treated or written poorly.

6. What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

Advanced aliens who are unaware of, or can’t comprehend, human emotion. ‘One last job’ crime set-ups. The straight-talking, overweight female friend often seen in comedies.

7. What are the 3 most important rules every writer should know?

These aren’t rules, more things writers should be aware of:

-The first ten pages of your script are vital in making a good impression.

-It’s extremely unlikely you’ll get your first script made.

-Structure is your friend, not something to be railed against.

8. Have you ever read a script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”? If so, could you give the logline?

I think I’ve only given around half a dozen RECOMMENDS (out of literally thousands of scripts!). One of those RECOMMENDS had this logline:

“An adulterous husband’s life falls apart when his job comes under threat while his wife gets involved with a pyramid money making scheme to alleviate her boredom and frustrations.” This might not sound MUST READ but the writing was sharp, funny and inventive, and deftly managed an ensemble cast. After I recommended it, the exec read it, liked it, invited the writers in, and helped them find an agent.

9. How do you feel about screenwriting contests? Worth it or not?

I actually help organize a screenwriting contest in the UK. It’s called the Red Planet Prize which is a scheme to find new TV writers. It’s about helping and mentoring writers rather than just announcing a winner and then nothing. Plus, it’s free to enter. I’m very proud of setting it all up, and it’s helped kickstart a few careers, most notably with Robert Thorogood and his BBC series Death in Paradise. So yes, screenwriting contests are worth it, but don’t be sucked in by every single one; weigh up the pros and cons (is there a entry fee? Do I get feedback? Is the prize any good? etc.), and roll the dice!

10. How can people get in touch with you to find out more about the services you provide?

On my website http://dannystack.com/reading

11. Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?

I have an annual Pie Night with my friends where we cook 5-6 varieties, and then choose a favourite. Last year’s special was a traditional steak & ale pie, delicious! I’m quite partial to a hearty fish pie, too. And lemon meringue pie for dessert. You’re not going to make me choose one, are you? NO FAIR.

Put ’em through the wringer

Work on your script AND a load of laundry at the same time!
Work on your script AND a load of laundry at the same time!

As work on the pulpy adventure spec plods forward, one of the key components of a solid script is constantly reminding me to use it to its fullest potential.

Conflict.  Without it, you won’t have much of a story.

While each scene should be advancing the plot, theme and character development, there also needs to be some kind of conflict.

You know that analogy about structure that involves your character getting stuck up a tree and having rocks hurled at them? Being stuck and the rocks would be the conflict.

(I can just imagine the studio note – “I love it! But does it have to be rocks? And how about a bush instead of a tree?” But I digress.)

Characters need to keep encountering obstacles that prevent them from achieving their goal.  Your job is to make those obstacles tough for them.

Here’s where things get interesting and how to make your script stand out from the rest – those obstacles can be in the form of just about anything.

Conflict doesn’t mean there should be a major argument or a slam-bang, knockdown punch-fest; more like the confluence of two opposing ideals with some degree of intensity.

Say you’ve got a character who absolutely needs to be somewhere at a certain time. It’s up to you to think of different ways to make their journey anything but easy. Lost keys, flat tire, car won’t start, traffic jam, and so on.

As the story progresses, so should the levels of conflict. Start off on a small scale, and then build so things just keeping getting worse. This can also be combined with raising the stakes so the reader/audience can’t help but wonder “How are they going to get out of this one?”

Something else to consider: try to make the conflict organic. Don’t have something happen because the story needs it to; make it feel like it belongs. Going back to the earlier example of the character trying to get somewhere – it makes more sense they would get pulled over for speeding, rather than, say, abducted by aliens or attacked by zombies (unless that’s part of the story).

Simply put, you have to put your characters through hell before they can get what they’ve been trying to get the whole time. If you’ve done a good job in making us want to root for them, the more we’re going to want to see them succeed.