Building up to what it all comes down to

What he's holding represents what's at stake. Think about it.
What he’s holding represents what’s at stake. Hint: It’s not a rock

Time now for a very, very important question every writer needs to face:

Do you know how your story ends?

You come up with an idea, then proceeded to develop, shape, and organize all the stuff that happens in the middle, which eventually has led us to the where we find ourselves now: the big payoff. What the whole thing’s been about.

Everything your characters have been doing have been leading up to this. In theory, your first two acts have been about the protagonist’s world undergoing some drastic changes, how they dealt with it and now it looks like the bad guy’s going to win.

Which brings us to the grand finale that is Act Three, where our hero must somehow find a way to overcome these seemingly insurmountable odds, defeat the antagonist and hopefully come out of the experience a different person than the one they were way back when we first met them.

That being said, there’s still more to it.

-Your protagonist has a physical goal (what they want) and an emotional one (what they need). They can achieve both, just one or neither. Which applies to yours, and have you effectively steered the action to ensure that result? Can we see the changes they’ve undergone?

-Working with a subplot or three? If they haven’t wrapped up by now, better make sure to do it soon. Do you really want the reader to wonder “Hey! What happened to the part about ____?”

-Even a supporting character needs an arc to complete. Have you given each of them enough attention throughout the story to make this happen, and does their story wrap up in a convincingly believable way?

One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned about putting a story together is that the central question (“Will the hero achieve their goal?”) is raised with the inciting incident around page 10, and each subsequent plot point raises it again, albeit with the stakes a little higher each time.

What happens in Act Three is where you show us how the central question is answered.

-And now, the much-heralded return of Movie of the Moment! This time, a way overdue look at GODZILLA (2014).

Wow. Everything PACIFIC RIM should have been. Instead of non-stop giant monster action, we get only glimpses as the focus is directed at the human aspect of the story. A much more effective approach.

While it’s not hard to suspend disbelief when it comes to a movie about giant monsters rampaging/duking it out in the downtown area of the city where I live, perhaps the most amazing piece of cinematic fiction (as observed by both K and myself) was in the background of one scene where a garage sign read “All-day parking $15”.

Now that’s make-believe.

Getting up to speed – OR – Our story so far…

An informed audience is a happy audience
An informed audience is a happy audience

As work continues with the monster spec, some of the focus has been on figuring out the backstory of how things came to be and working out the events that lead up to where the plot starts.

If this were a novel, I could just include them in the whole body of work. Not so the case for a screenplay.

In as few scenes as possible, I need to educate the reader/viewer about this world, who’s involved and what’s at stake. Once that’s done, we shift gears and dive right into the story.

A recent example – PACIFIC RIM. The opening minutes are all about what’s already happened – giant monsters showed up, we built giant robots to fight them, and we’re off.

Consider the opening crawl in STAR WARS. A few paragraphs floating in space sets everything up: here’s what’s going on, immediately followed by a space battle.

While this kind of thing is necessary for a ripping effects-laden yarn, what if your story is about normal folks in the everyday world?

Same rules apply. We still need to know what’s going on and who it’s about. Give us those parts of the story now, and pepper it with the relevant details as we move forward.

The example I keep coming back to for this is the opening of FIELD OF DREAMS: Kevin Costner narrates a thumbnail sketch about his character over a series of photographs, then we’re on the farm in Iowa.

No matter what genre you’re working in, it’s important to know what happened before page one, both regarding the story and the characters. You don’t have to go crazy with details, but at least know what needs to be known.

Unfortunately, more of the same

What? A new, original idea? That's crazy talk!
What? A new, original idea? We don’t know if our brains can take it!

“Don’t remake good movies. Remake bad movies and improve them.” – John Huston

As a writer and fan of original material, it’s quite disturbing how many remakes and reboots keep appearing or are announced, with no sign of it coming to an end.

Sadly, this is how the industry works, with most of the studios afraid to take a chance on something new and original, as opposed to something that’s already proven itself.

But apart from a few exceptions, how many of those trips back to the well have been successful?  On top of that, there’s no avoiding a comparison to the original, with the remake usually found lacking.

Putting this in perspective – I’m a huge fan of the original ROBOCOP, which will have a remake released in February. I have no desire to see it because the trailer doesn’t make it look that interesting, and I don’t see the point in remaking it in the first place.

Counter to that, the forthcoming GODZILLA remake/reboot looks great because it appears to be a smart, new approach to the story, and definitely feels like a significant improvement over the one from 1998. I really hope it doesn’t fall victim to PACIFIC RIM syndrome – big build-up, followed by big letdown.

Now they’re announcing Ed Helms as Frank Drebin in a reboot of THE NAKED GUN. Have they no shame? Apparently not.

The movie-going public wants, no, craves new stories.  Look at The Black List, or the latest batch of Nicholl finalists. This is high-quality stuff, people. Just about any one of them would make for a great film.

There’s a ton of fantastic original material out there, but all we can do as writers is keep writing and hope somebody believes in it enough to drum up the courage to do something with it.

The value of face-to-face time

Coffee makes for a good 3rd part of this equation
Coffee makes for a good 3rd part of this equation

A few weeks ago, I’d read a post on Done Deal Pro from a writer who’d gone to Los Angeles to attend a Writers Guild function, but was now back home in the Bay Area.

Since I’m always looking to expand my network of fellow writers, especially ones that could be considered local, I contacted him and asked if he’d be interested in meeting.

Fortunately, he was. Coffee at the Ferry Building.

Since most of this summer has involved V being at work with me, she and I worked our way from my office to our designated meeting place.

I handed her my phone so she could play video games while Justin Sloan and I sat down to talk.

We exchanged backgrounds and career developments. He was especially intrigued about my results using the Black List.

Unfortunately, Justin had to get back to work so we had to cut things short, but he asked if he could read my script, and I offered to give feedback on his.  He also asked if he could send me some questions for his blog Bay Area Screenwriters. You can read those here, and I’ve added a link to it over on the blogroll.

It was great not only talking about writing, but also discussing the assorted experiences we’ve each had in relation to writing. Contests, writing groups, etc.

This is one of those experiences that can’t be duplicated via an online forum or instant messaging. Having an actual conversation with someone will hopefully be fulfilling for both parties.

So send those emails, set up those coffee chats, get out there and talk to people.

-Movie of the Moment: PACIFIC RIM (2013). What happened? This was supposed to be the big hit of the summer. No such luck. Instead, we got great special effects weighed down with forgettable characters and horrible dialogue. (Can’t people come up with something better than “Let’s do this!”?)

I will give del Toro and Beacham credit for coming up with an original story, but feel bad it was so poorly executed. There was no way this could lived up to all the hype. Scott Pilgrim, anyone?

Some notable disappointments: the Russian and Chinese pilots/robots were treated as throwaway characters, and were dispatched with way too quickly.
-the Australian guy with a huge chip on his shoulder seemed straight out of a studio note. “This guy should be a real asshole, but give him a dog so he’s semi-likeable.”
-the trailers featured most of the robot-monster action, leaving little to surprise us during the actual movie.

-THE LAST STARFIGHTER (1984). Hadn’t seen this in years.  Also watched it with V because I thought she might like it – she did. There are elements similar to DREAMSHIP. Not exactly the same, but definitely there.

The story by itself still holds up, even though the rest feels a little clunky, and Robert Preston’s fast-talking Harold Hill-type character always brightens up whatever scene he’s in.

Watching this on an HD screen makes it that much more obvious you’re looking at a film set, and the special effects, cutting-edge at the time, seem quaintly dated.