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.

Unstoppable force, say hi to immovable object

There is something in this man's way
There is something in this man’s way

Pop quiz time!

Apart from advancing the story, theme and character development, what is the one key component every scene should contain?

Okay. Pencils down.

A big ol’ piece of pie to everybody who said “conflict”. Without it, your script’s on a one-way trip to Boringtown.

I recently became involved in a discussion with a starting-out writer who asked about the best way to describe how a sequence in his script could play out. After looking at the source material (based on true events), I said if he only writes what happens, there won’t be any drama to it. It needs conflict.

“Conflict how?” he asked.

That’s what it come down to, isn’t it? A lot of newer writers hear “conflict”, and they immediately think two characters are supposed to be arguing. Sometimes that might apply, but it’s not necessarily what it means.

Conflict is two opposing forces going up against each other, and those two forces could be anything (within the limits of your story, of course). Most of the time, one side will be your character and the other will be something or someone standing in their way of achieving their goal, be it immediate or overall.

Which would you rather watch? A story where everything goes just fine for the main character, or one where they’re always dealing with some kind of problem?

One of the great things about conflict is that it can come in any shape or form.

“What if a character opens a window?” was the follow-up question. “Where’s the conflict there?”

There isn’t any. If you’re reading a script and get to a scene that only involves a person opening a window, you’d think “What purpose does this serve?” and tell the writer to cut it.

The conflict would be if it won’t open. There’s a story there. Your curiosity is piqued. Questions are raised. Why won’t it open? Why do they want it open? What are they willing to do to get it open? What’ll happen after they get it open?

Conflict helps move the story forward. Part of our jobs as writers is to come up with new, original and imaginative ways to portray that conflict. The way I have the character open that window is probably totally different than how you would.

Even the central question of your story shows conflict: Will the main character achieve their goal?

While you work on your latest draft, take the time to examine each scene, even the ones only a line or two long. Is there conflict of some sort?

If there is, great. If not, you need to get some in there.

What happened to the action movie?

Often imitated, rarely equaled
Often imitated, rarely equaled

A little over a week ago, a friend posted the following question on Facebook – “Is RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK the best action movie of all time?”

As would be expected, this led to a somewhat lengthy discussion. Several other titles were bandied about (DIE HARD, ALIENS, several John Woo HK films), and was summarized quite succinctly with “The main lesson here is that the 80s were a goldmine for high-quality action films.” (mea culpa – I’m the one who said it).

All I can think of for the 90s are TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY and SPEED.

While you’re thinking about those, compare them to some more recent ones, such as:
-THE EXPENDABLES – a nostalgic remembering of the genre itself
-THE EXPENDABLES 2 – silly, over the top parody
-PACIFIC RIM – cool to look at, but that’s about it
-FAST & FURIOUS 6 – haven’t seen it, but I’ve heard nothing but good things about it
-THE LONE RANGER – couldn’t bring myself to see it, but will catch it on home video. Is it as bad as they say?

Now there’s this. Oy. Someday I’ll discuss how much I dislike reboots.

So why do action films from 20-30 years ago still hold up?

Looking at strong examples of the genre, they all have: Original stories. Smart writing. Three-dimensional characters. Action that enhances and supports the story.

If you’re writing an action spec, these should be your goals and objectives. Yes, it’s a lot of fun to blow shit up, but don’t use an explosion or shootout just for the sake of having one. It’s pointless.

Make the action part of the story, not what the story’s about. Use it to move things forward. Ratchet up the tension and create more conflict for your hero.

Need a refresher course in how it’s done? Pick one you’ve always liked, and watch it as a writer. Take notes. See how it all fits together. Then see if any of it can be applied to your story and rewrite accordingly.

If only all learning could be this enjoyable.

When all else fails, go to DIE HARD – or – Thank you, John McClane

An action film done right

Unusually busy this week, including initial prepping for a potentially huge project, so not much progress on the rewrite front.  I also feel like I’ve been ignoring LUCY, so I brought the trusty notepad to last night’s hockey practice in an effort to see what I could come up with.

I’m up to around the page 75 mark, and need to get to the end of Act Two.  The action and stakes have to be ramped up, and just about everything in that part of the initial outline wasn’t going to work.  Simply put, I’m starting over.  Sometimes that can be good and inspirational, but looking at that blank page didn’t help.

My good guys need to reconnect with the bad guys. The situation has to be progressively harder for them, with the title character driving things forward.  But how to make this happen?  Ding! The light bulb appears.  Pick ’em off, one by one, leading to the showdown in Act Three! That’s it! Wooo! And what better an example of this than DIE HARD?

*Side note – you gotta admit it’s incredibly cool that DIE HARD is now considered a Christmas classic, right up there with A CHRISTMAS STORY and IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE.  No holiday season should be without watching it.

While there have been numerous copies, some done right, some not, this is a great blueprint to follow for a solidly-constructed action story.  Hard to find any big flaws in it.

For an entertaining analysis/review, click here.

Now that I have an idea of how to move ahead, I can work out the details of how to break up each sequence into 2-3 scenes per scenario, all of which will lead into the “all is lost” moment at the end of Act Two.  I still have a few gaps to fill, but confidence is running high.

Gotta tell ya – feels pretty good to overcome a seemingly insurmountable obstacle.