Screenwriter Secrets of Effective Storytelling!
The Structure: Ruin It For Me
There are all kinds of terms for what I'm going to discuss here. Cut To The Chase. Inverted Pyramid Structure. In Media Res.
I like to think of it as Ruin It For Me.
All these terms tell us to begin our stories as late as possible in the plot. Why? Because believe it or not, it's what we prefer in our movie viewing and novel reading (not to mention newspaper reporting and other forms of narrative.)
Warning: Possible Spoilers Ahead!
The storm and brewhaha over the latest Harry Potter book is subsiding, last week's media frenzy over whether or not the outcome of the novel was leaked is over, and the madness has moved on. For awhile there it seemed that the spoilers were going to ruin it for the true and rabid Potter fans. It just shows us how much importance we place in The Ending of stories.
This importance, though, is misplaced. For every "Sixth Sense" twist ending that lights up the zeitgeist, there are a dozens of movies and novels that don't rely on The Big Surprise to make their impact. In fact, when someone says to me "I won't tell you the end and ruin it for you," I say "Go ahead, ruin it for me."
After studying film and writing screenplays, I no longer like being tricked by the narrative. And it's gotten so that I can almost guess the ending of these kinds of plots even during the opening credits. Ten minutes into The Others I thought [SPOILER ALERT!] "Everyone's dead, and the people they think are ghosts are still alive." When I first saw a preview for The Village, I thought [SPOILER ALERT!] "They're living in an enclosed sanctuary in the 21st century."
When we're telling or writing a story ourselves, our tendency is to withhold information up front, because we think that gradually revealing it will hold the audience's interest and build suspense.
Wrong. Especially today, with lightening fast communications and busy work/life schedules. Who has time to listen to a long drawn out story?
Besides, it takes a great deal of skill, knowledge and craft to fashion a narrative that holds your interest as it slowly builds to a devastating finale. Hitchcock did it brilliantly in Vertigo. M. Night knew how to dole out the bits of plot in The Sixth Sense.
Most of us aren't as accomplished. So, the best advice to follow? We've heard it so many times before: tell them what you're going to tell them, then tell them.
After all, Citizen Kane starts at the end, with Kane about to die. He whispers "Rosebud" and the movie investigates his life to find the meaning of that word. It doesn't matter that "Rosebud" turns out to be [SPOILER ALERT!] a sled. The movie's far more interesting than that. Sure, the sled is symbolic. But knowing what Rosebud is doesn't do us any damage when we watch the movie for the third, sixth, thirty-seventh, or ninety-ninth time.
Tuesday, July 24, 2007
The Best Dime You'll Ever Spend Part 1
9 Methods You Can Use To Kill Ideas
Micromanaging kills ideas. It keeps the micromanaged person too busy to think.
Overcriticizing kills ideas. No idea is born perfect. But if it isn't wrapped in a blanket and stuck under a warming light for a few minutes after hatched, its chances of survival are slim.
Collaboration kills ideas (when consensus is insisted upon). How many brainstorming sessions have you sat through that are really attempts at building consensus? Getting everyone to agree on an idea by wordsmithing, voting, and other methods of judgment and selection only dissipates an original idea until it stops resembling its original form.
Brainstorming kills ideas (except when done properly). Closely related to the previous method; the problem with brainstorming is it's seldom done correctly. There's no facilitator to quash side discussions, group members are allowed to voice dozens reasons why any idea can't be done, and the whole endeavor ends up rolling toward a desire for consensus - i.e. agreement - to keep conflict manageable.
Money kills ideas. Having too much money at the outset often lets you buy solutions instead of coming up with creative ones.
Not enough money kills ideas. Being broke is romanticized as the primary generator of ideas, when in reality it probably kills off more than are created. There's really no good thing about being broke - unless it leads to no longer being broke.
Illness kills ideas. I don't know about you, but when I'm sick, I only have two ideas: what TV shows to watch that won't bore me as I lay suffering on my couch, and what high-calorie foods I can eat because, well, I'm sick!
Too many ideas kills ideas. You've seen it happen: the brilliant idea person deluges everyone with too many ideas to process. them. And people don't want to revisit the site of the flood to find out if there's anything left worth salvaging.
Fear kills ideas. It causes people to run away.
Sure, ideas are a dime a dozen. We come up with dozens of them from sunup to sundown. Everything from "I haven't seen R--- in awhile, I think I'll email him and see when we can do lunch..." to "Maybe I could quit my job and open an [insert startup company here.]"
Believe the saying and you believe ideas are about as valuable as uncooked rice grains in the middle of the desert. In reality, we need ideas. We need to spend those dimes because we need the help!
Ideas are Communication. They're how we generate interest in other people. But how often have we brought up an idea, only to immediately hear "Let me play devil's advocate..." - and then you spend more time defending the idea instead of finding ways to make it work.
In order to cultivate ideas, we have to be knowledgeable about how they can be destroyed.
Next up: What cultivates ideas.
Monday, July 23, 2007
Don't Let Your Dreams Ruin Your Life
The New York Times has an interesting article about the film industy's recent "PitchFest" in Los Angeles. For $395.00, you, the hinterland screenwriter, have seven minutes to sell a Hollywood broker on your story. "[F]ewer than one in 10 pitches were worth following up..." cites one industry rep. Another says listening to screenwriter ideas is only "sort of invigorating." And an agent confesses "I feel like I’m on ‘American Idol,’ and I’m crushing people’s dreams..."
The article is a good companion to a letter popping up on Craigslist (I found it through the "BS Observer" blog) labeling unfair the constant practice of "paying" creative people with a "great opportunity" to show their work instead of money:
"Would you offer a neurosurgeon the “opportunity” to add your name to his resume as payment for removing that pesky tumor? (Maybe you could offer him “a few bucks” for “materials”. What a deal!)"
I link the two pieces because most of those 200 PitchFesting screenwriters have other jobs and write on their own time. All of them wrote their scripts for free - it's the industry standard, and they're called "spec scripts." Hollywood even knows your chances are miniscule - the industry constantly bemoans the sorry state of most scripts.
But there are plenty of screenwriting gurus who'll gladly take your money for a chance to sit at their feet. If you add the $395.00 PitchFest entrance fee - really $400 with today's economics - to your writing time, plus the costs of copying, computer programs like Final Draft, and contest entry fees, you start to wonder if it's worth it. Especially since the odds are you'll never see your screenplay produced.
One of my guilty TV pleasures is "America's Got Talent." I watch it for the real talents, not to laugh at the acts that bomb. The contest seems to breed many mediocre acts who claim they're pursuing their passion and doing what they love. They sink significant amounts of time and money into getting themselves just a notch above the next person; could they be using their energy to pursue other things?
Society puts enormous pressure on us to achieve great things no matter what we do - and especially when in pursuit of our dreams. There should be no fault in trying, then moving on if doesn't work out. Seth Godin's got a book which I believe is all about this. Titled The Dip, it's been the first message I've seen that says it's ok to quit when hard work isn't getting you where you want to go.
I also believe there are alternatives to full-out quitting. Pamela Slim's post titled "5 Reasons to consider downsizing your vision of an ideal life" at her blog "Escape from Cubicle Nation" contains some awesome advice that won't put your dreams on the chopping block. And wouldn't you know, Penelope Trunk addresses this same issue today in "Choose a career path that makes you scared of failure" at her blog "Brazen Careerist."
Full disclosure: I'm in the middle of "nixing" my dream to win the Best Screenplay Oscar for a number of reasons, mostly outlined in the post series "It May Not Be Your Passion If..." And I'm really delving deep into finding what other things I might be better at, that I'd really love doing.