It requires some planning ahead

planning-ahead_4
Sometimes mapping it out by hand can prove most beneficial

Lots and lots going on within the hectic hallways of Maximum Z HQ, what with all the writing, note-giving, and career-developing taking place.

Much as I would love to offer up an original composition, my current schedule is a bit tight, so instead I humbly present a trio of posts, all plucked from the archives, and all dealing with what I consider to be a most important aspect of telling a story.

Enjoy.

Set up, pay off

Strong rope & solid knots required

Tying it all together

 

Strong rope & solid knots required

rope bridge
As long as it leads somewhere

I’m a big believer in tying story elements together whenever possible. While this should already apply to key details within the story, sometimes it’s simply a matter of a setup and payoff, even if it seems like a throwaway item. Bonus points if it ties in to your primary storyline. Which it should.

Case in point: in the opening scene of CHINATOWN, Gittes is showing his client photos of the man’s wife’s infidelity. The man, heartbroken, tells Gittes “if there’s anything you ever need, let me know.” The scene ends, and we figure that’s that. This is what kind of guy Gittes is and what he does, and then we transition into the main storyline. Events play out, and Gittes finds himself cornered in a tough spot.

So how does he get out of it? He leads his pursuers to a house he claims has the answers. But when he knocks on the front door, who answers it? The guy from the opening scene. We’d totally forgotten about him, but it’s a perfect choice. It ties things together, works within the context of the story, and anybody else would have not worked.

Everything in your story should serve a function in helping move the story forward, no matter how small or insignificant it might seem.

Do you have characters or events in your script that are strictly one-time-only? What purpose do they serve? If you took them out, would it make a difference?

And if you do keep them, is there any way to change them around so that you have a solid setup and payoff that tie into the overall story? It might not be as tough as you think.

In the outline of my current project, I had some smaller scenes in the first act that were totally unconnected. Going through it a second time, I’ve been finding ways to connect them. Sometimes it’s about using a character making a return appearance, or having some key scenes take place in the same location. Again, it’s all about what works within the context of the story.

(Admittedly, I’m also working on this from the mindset of keeping the budget low. If having the same character appear twice, rather than it being two separate characters, or being able to use a location more than once means less money that needs to be spent, than so be it. It’s an influence, not a rule. But this is me. You may choose to take a different approach.)

Another benefit of tying elements together is that it shows how much thought and effort you’ve put into crafting this story together. The evidence is right there on the page. You’re proving that you’re actually thinking this through and not just randomly throwing things in and hoping something sticks. You’d be surprised how many writers do that.

Don’t be one of them.

Class is in session

All I need now is the magnifying glass
All I need now is the magnifying glass

When I start on a new project, I make a point of reading scripts and watching films that are similar to the kind of story I’m trying to tell.

This time around, it’s a rewrite of my mystery-comedy, so among the works being studied are CHINATOWN, L.A. CONFIDENTIAL and WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT (comedy, remember?). There are a lot more to consider (suggestions are always welcome), but I don’t want to overdo it. As much as I love submersing myself into these stories, I would like to eventually get around to actually working on the script.

Putting myself through this has a double benefit: I get to see solid examples of elements of the story and genre, which forces me to come up with different ways of how to tell a similar story but with my my own stamp on it. I’ll also be the first to admit that my skills at putting a mystery together aren’t exactly the best, so studying these will hopefully help me get a better sense of how to develop that part of the story.

Since this also happens to be a story I’ve worked on before, a lot of it is already in place, but there’s still a ton of work to do, with lots of ideas and changes being considered. Luckily, I have a few previous drafts to mine for material. Almost like starting anew, but with something very familiar.

My hope is that studying these scripts and films will help me get a better understanding of how all the puzzle pieces fit together in those stories, which will in turn will help me figure out how to do the same with mine.

This is the kind of homework I actually look forward to having.

Ask an In-the-Director’s-Chair Script Consultant!

Jeff Richards

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-producer-filmmaker Jeff Richards.

Jeff Richards is a story consultant, filmmaker, and writer with over twenty projects either optioned, produced, or sold. His clients range from award-winning novelists to creative writing professors to screenwriters working for major studios. His own writing includes feature films, TV series, graphic novels, and short stories, as well as writing for children’s animation and computer games. His background includes information technology, a decade as an opera singer, and he is an honorary member of the Takaya Wolf Clan of the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation.

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

The Karla trilogy by John Le Carré, and if you ever need a lesson that character is king, look to those. The books are often very low on action; they largely consist of dialogue (most of which is people recounting events, as you’d expect in a book about counter-intelligence) and the characters are so magnificent you don’t care that you’ve just spent hundreds of pages essentially listening to people talk. The protagonist for two of the books, Smiley, often isn’t even doing the talking; he’s merely listening. Yet it works.

As for watching, I’ve been re-watching Doctor Who, and “Blink” is possibly the best hour of television I’ve ever seen. Stunningly imaginative and original, incredibly atmospheric, and one of the very best examples of burying exposition I have ever seen in any medium. If I write something that good, I’ll die happy.

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

I spent several years as an independent filmmaker and although I did write most of the projects we were developing, I’d occasionally work with an outside writer and help them. That made me realize that I could apply what I’d learned as a writer to helping others with their scripts.

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

Absolutely. The love of words is probably pretty difficult to instill in an adult, but if someone is already interested in it, then it is definitely possible to learn to recognize good writing. The secret is to read widely and actively, both good and bad material; once you’ve read and analyzed enough writing, and worked out why it works or doesn’t, you start to see the patterns very clearly, particularly in screenplays. Objectivity about our own writing? That’s trickier…

4. What are the components of a good script?

What’s most important, and what I don’t see enough of, is a unity of character, plot, and theme. People talk about “character-driven scripts” or “plot-driven scripts” when, in reality, they should driven by the same engine.

As for the rest, it’s about what you’d expect; an active protagonist, strong pacing, dialogue with subtext, an original concept, rising stakes, good conflict, a surprising but inevitable ending… all that sort of thing. However, the only absolute must-have is that it is interesting. For every other must-have you’ll see on a checklist, you can usually think of a great script that didn’t have it. Passive protagonists are death… unless you are talking about The Graduate. Or Being There. But these are scripts by master writers; you need to be very sure why you are going against the grain, and how it makes your story better. (And, as you can tell by the age of the examples, rule breaking isn’t that popular anymore in Hollywood.)

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

Going back to the previous point, a disconnect between character, plot, and theme is common. This usually causes protagonists with unclear goals and flat second acts. However, the most common thing I see is on-the-nose dialogue. Characters who say exactly what they feel and think, or who sum up the central conflict in a speech. If you ever read “You know what your problem is?”, then that’s probably a bad sign.

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

I think I’m almost unique in that my answer is “none”. Every trope is ready for a great script to make it fresh. Amnesia is the most tired device in writing, yet The Bourne Identity comes along and is fantastic. There’s always room for a great script.

The thing that tires me isn’t story tropes, but clichéd dialogue. Don’t have lines from other movies in your movie. Be original.

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

-Read widely; lessons are everywhere, and most of them are outside your genre and format. So if you’re a sci-fi feature film writer, read historical fiction. Read detective comics, manga, sitcom scripts. Expand your brain.

-Writing is rewriting; every first draft is a huge bundle of problems waiting to be solved. So solve it. And not by editing, but by rewriting. Changing words in action or dialogue is just editing. Changing characters, plot points, deleting or adding scenes, that’s rewriting. Do multiple passes, focusing on a different thing each time. One pass (or several, more often) for plot, one for each major character’s dialogue, one for action lines… if you’re building a shelf, you don’t sand and paint at the same time.

-Don’t get hung up on systems. Read how-to books, sure, but pick and choose your advice. Being a slave to a particular checklist is usually indicative of poor writing. If I can tell that you’ve read Save the Cat by reading your draft, then there’s probably too much Snyder and not enough you in your script.

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

Unfortunately, I can’t share loglines due to confidentiality. But for me, “recommend” can’t focus too much on the logline. Concept is important, sure, but the writing is what matters, what makes it a “recommend”. I’ve had writers with straightforward concepts come to me and, after we hone the execution, they get jobs at major studios or get 10 on The Black List. That doesn’t come from the logline, but the execution, how they wrote (and, as per rule 2 up there, rewrote!) Chinatown’s logline doesn’t set the world afire, yet it is generally regarded as one of the great scripts. So a logline wouldn’t really illuminate why I feel a particular script is great. Loglines only show whether something is the type of script an exec should read (e.g. it’s high concept sci-fi and that’s what they’re looking for). The logline gets you the look; the writing gets you the job.

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

I personally don’t do them very often. I have in the past and placed well, but I never found the contest actually led to a job; what worked for me was my personal networking. However, every path is different and obviously you hear success stories. What is important is that you put in the time, both into the writing (mostly) and into building your career, whether that’s contests, pitchfests, networking… Whatever seems to be working for you, do that. If nothing’s working (and the writing is genuinely where it needs to be!), then change things up.

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

*Editor’s note: Jeff is no longer actively seeking clients, but is still open to receiving requests via his website.

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

Pumpkin, no question. With fresh whipped cream. A great pumpkin pie will turn me into the seven-year old kid who eats so much he feels sick. It is inevitable.

I probably need help.