One singular sensation

One

Well, that’s Draft Seven done. Talk about your long rows to hoe.

How long did you spend crafting and recrafting, conceiving and revising? Months? Years?

But you have it about as polished as you can make it, and in all likelihood, your brain hurts and you’re sick of the story.

Congratulations. You have achieved a wondrous thing. I mean that sincerely.

Now, take that radical writing, dazzling dialogue, cogent characterization, amazing action, and tell the exact same story in a single page.

No playing with page margins and point sizes. A single page that is easy and enjoyable to read.

It’s no easy task, under the best of conditions, but you should be able to do it. And if you can’t, it likely means that you don’t have a good handle on your story.

ScreenU one page

Not just for producers

Even if you don’t have any meetings with producers or agents planned—in fact, BECAUSE you don’t yet have any meetings with producers or agents planned—you should develop a one-page synopsis of your work just to make sure you understand your story and that your story is solid.

The one-pager forces you to cut away all of the excesses that might disguise fundamental problems with your story and bring any such issues into the glaring light of day.

The one-pager forces you to understand how well you can concisely and clearly convey your thinking, and perhaps just as importantly, highlights how universal your idea is.

 

Not even one page

If you thought rewrites were a pain, you can only imagine how difficult these things are to write; at least for us mere mortals.

And to make matters worse, you don’t even have a full page to write your synopsis because of everything else that needs to be included.

  • Who are you and how does anyone get hold of you?
  • What is the name and nature of your project (i.e., title, genre, medium)?
  • Why are you the best person to tell this story (i.e., any special skills, knowledge, background)?
  • Logline or one/two-sentence synopsis of the story

And then a short handful of paragraphs that highlight:

  • Your protagonist & the world he/she inhabits
  • The goals and more importantly, what’s at stake
  • The main antagonisms/conflicts

And somehow you must do this in a manner that is interesting, engaging and entertaining, that reflects the mood and genre of the piece, and most importantly, reflects your voice and style.

TNL poster

As an example of a one-pager, I offer The Naughty List. I’m not saying it is a good one-pager, but it is one page and conveys my story (and me).

 

TNL oneb

Good luck.

 

Award-winning screenwriter Randall C Willis is Story Analyst & Coach at So, What’s Your Story? (Facebook page). He also teaches screenwriting in Toronto at Raindance Canada and George Brown College.

Writers beating off

The dog next door has been barking non-stop for days, maybe weeks. The first couple of times, you got up to see why, but never seeing anything, you barely hear the sound any more. It is just noise.

Alternatively, you’d never know your neighbour owns a dog, the creature is so quiet. But then, it suddenly barks. Jarred by the new noise, you look out your window only to find someone climbing through one of your neighbour’s windows.

Which dog are you most likely to notice: The one that barks incessantly or the one that doesn’t but just did?

barkingdogcartoon

(Property of Jerry King: http://www.jerryking.com Used without permission but for educational purposes.)

If there is one function that I wish Final Draft and Movie Magic and all the other screenwriting software would remove, it’s the ability to insert the parenthetical (beat).

At the very least, when you type it, I would love a pop-up window to appear asking: “Are you sure it’s necessary?”

Because more often than not, it is completely UNnecessary. If anything, it is typically a nuisance.

As I understand it, (beat) is used to indicate a delay between one line of dialogue and the next.

In this example from The Imitation Game, the 2014 film screenwritten by Graham Moore, it is used to break up a phone conversation where we only hear one character speak. In this case, (beat) indicates a pause while Detective Nock listens to the party on the other end of the line.

Imitation Game phone

(Used without permission but for educational purposes.)

Unfortunately, (beat) is also often inserted by the screenwriter for dramatic reasons.

The writer believes that the brief pause makes the prior line stand out before moving onto the next spoken thought. A dramatic moment is revealed in the dialogue, and (beat) gives the line space to be heard.

Or at least, that’s the theory.

Too often, unfortunately, writers use (beat) in place of drama. Unable to devise a truly dramatic or powerful line, they instead insert (beat) in a vain attempt to imply drama.

It’s tantamount to someone Tweeting about how powerful, smart or cagey they are to compensate for none of those qualities being obvious in their person or demeanor.

In the writer’s defence—and this happens more with newer writers—the (beat) is exactly how they “hear” the dialogue in their head. The character takes a moment when speaking and so the writer types (beat).

This would be fine if it happened a couple of times in a screenplay, but what I’ve found is that:

Once a writer starts (beat)ing off, it’s hard to get them to stop.

 

The more dramatic the scene they’re trying to write, the more aggressively they (beat) off. And they don’t stop (beat)ing off until the scene or sequence achieves climax.

Although the writer may gain some satisfaction in this, few others do.

The pace of the read and therefore the pace of the story slows for the reader. The Director doesn’t want to be told how to direct, nor the performer how to act.

To a person, each simply ignores the writer’s directive to (beat). The constantly barking dog is effectively silenced.

When everything is dramatic, nothing is dramatic.

And worse, once the (beat) moves on, the reader, Director and performer are left with lines of dialogue that are not dramatic, that have no weight, that dampen the drama.

So, what’s the writer to do?

 

One: Write better, more powerful dialogue.

Writing is an art, but it is also a craft.

Write the best line that you can, and then rewrite it better and better, layering the drama into the words, the cadence, the subtext, the timing within the plot.

Two: Trust the process.

Know that you are not the only arbiter of your words and trust others down the line to find the drama you so carefully crafted.

Below, see another example from The Imitation Game, where Benedict Cumberbatch’s script is un(beat)en and yet he imbues his lines with drama and significance.

 

Imitation Game interview

(Used without permission but for educational purposes.)

If people cannot find the drama without constant insertions of (beat), they won’t find it with your direction (because it’s likely not there).

By being judicious in your use of (beat), those moments you do decide to use it will become the dog that never barks but just did.

The (beat) will stand out as something special, noteworthy; and so will your story.

 

Award-winning screenwriter Randall C Willis is Story Analyst & Coach at So, What’s Your Story (Facebook page). He also teaches screenwriting in Toronto at Raindance Canada and George Brown College.

Beyond the mirror – finding characters

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Despite being a single species—Homo sapiens—humanity is a diverse and eclectic group of individuals. And yet, so often, when writers develop characters for their stories, they tend to stick pretty close to the mirror.

Sure, few of us have likely committed murder or adultery. Perhaps a handful have fought in war or garnered celebrity status. And I am confident that none have visited another planet or lived in the time of dinosaurs.

Despite this diversity of action, however, the main characters of these stories continue to largely reflect what the writer sees when he or she looks into the mirror or scans his or her living room. And because the majority of working writers—at least in the West—are heterosexual white men, our stories are largely told from the heterosexual white male perspective.

Mirror

I am a heterosexual white man, and for the longest time, my lead characters and the perspectives of the stories I wrote came out of that mirror. I know my glass house.

In the last couple of decades, there has been a move by women, by visible minorities (I hate that phrase) and by the LGBTQ community to create more stories from those perspectives. I think that is wonderful.

But it doesn’t have to stop there, particularly as it risks promoting the same problem, if from a previously underserved voice.

What if, instead, we all took the time to look beyond the mirror when developing our characters?

You don’t have to write a woman’s story to choose a woman as a lead character.

You don’t have to write a story about the gay community to choose an LGBTQ lead character.

You don’t have to write a story about race to choose a black, East-Asian or indigenous lead character.

You can already have a story clearly established in your head that fundamentally has nothing to do with those themes, and still make those choices for your lead characters.

We’re all looking for interesting characters. We want voices and thoughts with depth and texture.

And it is entirely possible to do that looking in the mirror.

But if that is all we do, we miss out on so many interesting voices and our texture risks becoming monotonous.

diversity puzzle

So many facets inform a character.

You have to ask yourself:

How, if at all, does the story change if my lead character is a woman—protagonist or antagonist? Even without becoming a women’s issue story, how does the choice of a woman influence action, themes, dialogue or plot?

What about a character of a different race or culture, reminding ourselves that there is heterogeneity within racial communities? Without falling into stereotypes or turning your concept into a race story, what impact does social experience bring to a character’s actions and reactions, dialogue and style?

That story is universal suggests there is a common thread that holds us all together in this world, a thread that intercalates our DNA.

But as much as our characters are about the Every Man—note the phrasing—characters are about nuance and individuality.

Looking beyond the mirror will necessitate some research to avoid the prejudices and erroneous beliefs to which we are all prone (see, I just judged everyone there).

But that is what writers and storytellers do.

We seek the truth of the moment or the situation in hopes that we skim but the surface of the greater truth.

And to do that, we must explore the whole of our universe, not just what we find in the mirror.

Diversity

To learn more about developing better stories, check out:

So, What’s Your Story? (web site)

So, What’s Your Story? (Facebook)

See also:

Why screenwriters should embrace the Heroine’s journey (Ken Miyamoto, ScreenCraft)

With Genius, the play’s the thing – a review

genius-poster

Early last year, I saw a trailer for a biographical movie that recounted the love story between a novelist and his editor. For every bit that the novelist was a flamboyant, erratic larger-than-life character, his editor was a buttoned-down, controlled one. And yet, between the two of them, they produced works that sit among the sleeves of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, two of the editor’s other writers.

I was intrigued.

Last June, Genius had its theatrical release in North America, only to disappear almost as quickly. I had completely forgotten about the story, until this week, when the movie launched on Netflix.

Now, I know why it disappeared. Not because it is a bad movie, but rather because it was produced for the wrong medium.

The theatrical release Genius should have had was on a stage, not in a cinema. Although not written intentionally as such, Genius is a play.

Based on A. Scott Berg’s 1978 National Book Award-winner Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, the film recounts a tempestuous period in the 1930s when the first frenzied pages of Thomas Wolfe’s (Jude Law) autobiographical O Lost found their way onto the desk of Scribner’s editor Max Perkins (Colin Firth). It then follows the bond that forms between the two men as they fight to tame Wolfe’s creative furies, eventually honing it into the retitled Look Homeward, Angel and his sophomore novel Of Time and the River.

genius-women

The loves they left behind: Laura Linney (top) and Nicole Kidman

The process was not without its victims, however, and as minor secondary plots, the film unveils the impact of the men’s singular focus on their loved ones: Perkins’ loving wife Louise (Laura Linney) and his five daughters, as well as Wolfe’s loving but jealous benefactor Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman).

As I watched the film—directed by Michael Grandage with screenplay by John Logan –I found it structurally constrained and yet exuberantly written. With the exception of links between plot sequences, every scene played out as intimate conversations with the characters largely speaking in poetry, especially Wolfe and Perkins. It was as though Logan was trying to capture the Joyce-like prose of Wolfe’s mania and cast it from the mouths of his characters.

After pausing the movie for a few moments about 40 minutes in, not completely sure what I thought of it, I came back to the film and immediately realized what was challenging me. This was a stage play that was unaware of its identity.

Once I had that in my mind, the movie proceeded to unfold beautifully and naturally.

7X2A6142.cr2

Defining the act of falling in love

As a writer and editor myself, I was enthralled by the ongoing debates over how best to describe the emotions of falling in love and that tortuous feeling of having the words you bled to write being torn asunder with the simple stroke of a red pencil.

I understand, however, that not everyone would be as appreciative or have such a personal connection to these scenes.

The movie was eviscerated by the critics I read, and rightly so if viewed as a movie.

“Hammily acted, overstylized and lacking in subtlety.” – The Guardian

“Dressed-up box full of second- and third-hand notions.” – The New York Times

The Independent reviewer apparently saw what I saw:

“The acting, along with John Logan’s script, belong to the theatre.”

Like many stages plays, there is essentially no build up, and we are immediately dumped into central relationship of Perkins and Wolfe, two artists straining to make the other see his vision for the project at hand. Thus, when Kidman’s Aline or Linney’s Louise show up in the story, we are given almost no backstory to help us understand their perspectives or reactions to the intellectual love affair that blossoms.

And to the subtlety comment, Logan inserted F. Scott Fitzgerald (Guy Pearce) at the nadir of his career as an omen to Wolfe about what lies ahead, and Ernest Hemingway (Dominic West) as an emblem of a man who possessed his life, much as Wolfe tried to do and failed.

genius_future

The fates: Guy Pearce as F. Scott Fitzgerald & Dominic West as Ernest Hemingway

But perhaps the biggest tell for me that this was a stage play—and something that hits the subtlety debate—is the hat that Perkins wears throughout the entirety of the film. No matter where he is, no matter the time of day, no matter how he is otherwise dressed, Perkins wears his grey Fedora. It is what allows him to maintain his control on the world.

And because of its importance to Perkins—the true hero of this story—the hat is what brings power to the film’s close, in a scene that could otherwise be seen as cliché (and may yet be, by some).

The audience for Genius will be a narrow one, unfortunately. It has, however, piqued enough interest in me to look into the works of Thomas Wolfe, as well as A. Scott Berg’s biography of Max Perkins.

 

See also:

Colin Firth and Jude Law’s literary bromance needs an edit (The Guardian)

Michael Grandage should have stuck to his day job (The Independent)

‘Genius’ puts Max Perkins and Thomas Wolfe in a literary bromance (New York Times)

Startlingly meh: The Conjuring 2 (review)

conjuring 2 poster

I don’t really have the stomach for horror films. It’s not so much that I scare easily, but rather I am incredibly jumpy and therefore startle easily…and I don’t enjoy that sensation.

That being said, I have an idea for a horror film and decided I really needed to watch some before trying to write one. Thus, I finally acquiesced to my friends’ attempts to get me into a theatre, and last night, saw The Conjuring 2.

In many ways, including the opening scenes, this movie is a grandchild of the paranormal investigation classic The Amityville Horror. In the same timeline as that “based on” true event, a family in North London is being haunted by the spectre of an old man who is quite literally turning their lives upside down. The church sends American investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren to determine the merits of the case, only to discover it is linked to haunting visions in their own lives.

Lots of booming, thrashing and screaming ensue. Faces suddenly appear over shoulders. Bodies fly around rooms. More screaming. Demons, crucifixes and biting, oh my.

You can probably tell from that last part that I wasn’t very enthused about the movie. And to a large extent, I blame that on me more than the movie. I just don’t like horror and I don’t like being startled, which is really all this movie was: a two-hour effort to make me jump. Even at that, I think I jumped about six times and was never horrified or even mildly disturbed.

My friends were more effusive in their praise. One said it was the best horror film he had ever seen; he had never been more frightened. Others said it was a solid horror film that they quite enjoyed, although almost universally they said it wasn’t as disturbing as the original The Conjuring, which they insist I watch.

The story was pretty linear. Sceptics vs believers. Haunted, possessed child with glowing eyes and altered voices. Spectral specialists who speak wooden dialogue about God while dealing with their own demons. And underneath it all, an adorable love story between the real-life Warrens that went nowhere and added nothing to the story.

Twin warrens

Lorraine & Ed Warren: real and as portrayed by Vera Farmiga/Patrick Wilson

If you can get past the dialogue, the performances weren’t too bad. Patrick Wilson (Ed Warren) and Vera Farmiga (Lorraine Warren) do what they can with relatively two-dimensional Bible thumpers. Frances O’Connor, who played British mom Peggy Hodgson, did a very admirable job of portraying a woman who has taken about all she can from a world determined to crap on her at every turn. This could easily have been two hours of her screaming insanely, but she brought realism to the role.

But my biggest praise goes out to Madison Wolfe, who played Janet Hodgson, the young girl through whom the spectre works its evil. Half victim, half conduit, Janet’s struggles first to understand what is happening to her and then cope with feelings of abandonment as her friends and school become terrified of her (rather than the evil) are heart-breaking and play out across the young actress’s face. A true example of where a performance rises far above terrible material.

Janet

So many questions in those eyes

Unfortunately, even the stellar performances of O’Connor and Wolfe cannot save a bad movie that looks and feels like so many of its genre. That it is based on a true story—the Enfield poltergeist—doesn’t make it any more real for me; it may mean more to people wrapped up in poltergeist lore.

The slide show of the actual event participants during the closing credits, however, is an interesting touch. If nothing else, it tells me the set designers did a good job.

So, by the end of the evening, I wasn’t really any further ahead in my understanding of horror films and if this is an example of what is available, no more inclined to take in other films of this genre (or at least, sub-genre).

 

See also:

The Conjuring 2 fails to raise goosebumps. Bruce Demara, The Toronto Star

The demon-hunting Warrens are back in The Conjuring 2. Richard Crouse, Metro News

The Conjuring 2 is gorgeously shot and smartly conceived. Brad Wheeler, Globe & Mail

 

The Man from UNCLE – see it while you can (a review)

MfU poster

As a literal child of the 60s, I am barely old enough to remember the television series The Man from UNCLE, yet another show centred on Cold-War America’s fascination with the spy world. While Bond, Flint and Helm were doing their thing in theatres, The Men were joined by the likes of The Saint, I Spy, The Persuaders and Get Smart.

Unfortunately, whereas I can quote lines from Get Smart (don’t judge me) and have fond memories of The Saint, things are a little foggier when it comes to The Man from UNCLE. Thus, when I took in the newly released movie, my mind was open.

Essentially, an origin story for the UNCLE organization—United Network Command for Law and Enforcement—the movie introduces us to the two men on which the series hinged, American spy Napoleon Solo and Soviet spy Illya Kuryakin, and how they are forced to work as a team despite their complete distrust both of each other and of their own governments.

I won’t go into great detail about the plot as it really doesn’t matter—much as the plot of a typical Bond flick doesn’t matter. The only reason for the central plot conflict is to force these two guys together and watch them play “whose dick is bigger.” Really. I mean it.

Over a two hour span, I think there was maybe 30 minutes of actual story. The rest of the time was spent in a great variety of chase scenes, some of which were quite funny, or watching Solo (Henry Cavill) and Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) argue over fashion, spy gadgets and how badly the Soviet needs to get laid.

Now & Then: Chemistry is key for bickering twosome Napoleon Solo (dark hair) and Illya Kuryakin

Now & Then: Chemistry is key for bickering twosome Napoleon Solo (dark hair) and Illya Kuryakin

All of the friends who saw this movie with me had issues with this. The story wasn’t particularly engrossing and they felt like director Guy Ritchie had simply provided a light dessert; enjoyable in the moment, but offering little satisfaction.

To some extent, I agree with them. I am a fan of Ritchie’s earlier efforts with the Sherlock Holmes movies (Robert Downey, Jr., Jude Law). Here, the stories were quite rich and complicated, as one would hope with a Sherlock Holmes tale. Using this barometer, The Man from UNCLE definitely failed.

But to some extent, I think my friends missed the point (but then, I would). I don’t think Ritchie was going so much for a story that you might find in the most recent Bond films, filled with character complexities and inner conflicts, longer story arcs, generous back story.

Rather, I think Ritchie was going for the vibe and energy of that earlier generation of spy films, which were more a vehicle for the star than anything and featured much shallower stories. To me, this film was more about Dean Martin’s Matt Helm, James Coburn’s Derek Flint, and if only for the humoured banter, Roger Moore’s James Bond.

Ritchie is trying to capture a time and place, or perhaps more specifically, a style. And if we have learned anything about Guy Ritchie, in a battle between style and substance, he will always go with style. In some ways, I see him more as a painter than a director, as his primary goal seems to be a luxurious visual. Dialogue is simply a necessary evil for him.

Although, this is not to say that the dialogue was a burden here. The chemistry between Cavill and Hammer is palpable, much as it was between Downey Jr. and Law. And the addition of Alicia Vikander’s character Gaby simply enriches that dance.

Alicia Vikander's Gaby complicates life for the boys

Alicia Vikander’s Gaby complicates life for the boys

She is a very capable actor and this role is perhaps the complete opposite of her performance in Ex Machina (my review). Although, you may end up questioning which role was more manipulative.

Unfortunately, Ritchie may have overestimated the power of his painter’s brush in this film if my friends and the 2/3-filled Friday night opener was any indication of how this movie is being received. This film was obviously set up to be a franchise, but as we have seen in the past, that decision doesn’t rest with the studios as much as with the audience (aka box office).

I’m hoping the movie does financially better than it looked. I’d like to see more of these movies. May have to live with reruns of the original series, instead.

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Other reviews of The Man from UNCLE:

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. about more than just the cool clothes: review – Peter Howell, The Toronto Star

Movie Review: The Man from U.N.C.L.E. – Danny F Santos

Nebraska: Bumpy lives, flat land (a review)

poster

Much like the Big Sky prairies that serve as its backdrop, Alexander Payne’s 2013 film Nebraska takes a little bit to get going, but when it hits its stride, there is no stopping it.

An irascible old drunkard Woody (Bruce Dern) thinks he’s won a $1,000,000 lottery and is determined to collect his prize in person, walking if he must from his home in Billings, Montana to the prize centre in Lincoln, Nebraska. When his youngest son David (Will Forte) realizes there is no stopping the senile old coot, he takes a few days off work and offers to drive.

Along the way, they stop for a few days in his father’s home town of Hawthorne, Nebraska, where they are joined by his mother Kate (June Squibb) and older brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk). But almost as quickly as the townsfolk and extended family realize the old man has struck it rich, the hands reach out for their cut, led by Woody’s former business partner Ed (Stacy Keach).

As I said, the movie starts out slow. Woody has nothing to say to any of his family, at times appearing to have dementia. David meanwhile faces an empty life and just wants to communicate on some level with his family, never having felt like he could talk to them. Thus, when the two men with nothing in common aside from chromosomes take to the road, it feels very much like the start of an opposites-connect buddy film.

NEBRASKA

The dialogue is excruciatingly simple in the early going, rarely more than one or two syllable conversations. Despite occupying the passenger seat of the car, Dern’s Woody is never really there, only being forced into human contact by having everything repeated louder. Forte’s David, meanwhile, has a perpetual pout of a puppy begging to be patted on the head.

Eventually, though, if only out of frustration, David begins to take control of the situation and his life. Through his own explorations and by observing his father interact with the home townfolk, he begins to see that there is so much more to his father, and this is where I really started to take note of Forte as an actor, as something more than his MacGruber caricature.

I would say that Dern turns in a solid performance, but his dialogue is so short and his stare so vacant that only once in a while do we get a real glimpse of the tormented soul within the husk of a man. June Squibb’s Kate is something to behold, however (her voice and attitude remind me of Shelley Winters). Starting more as a screeching shrew, she really comes into her own in the latter half of the film with some of the funniest lines and the staunchest defense of her messed up husband. Odenkirk is solid, but isn’t really given much to do here…this is Forte’s movie.

My strongest reaction, however, is reserved for Stacy Keach, who yet again, plays the charming, smarmy bully asshole for which he is famous (think Papa Titus on the sitcom Titus). I can’t remember a role for which Keach didn’t deliver. The man eats up the screen. You can’t not watch him.

Nebraska-Dern-Forte-Keach

In terms of cinematography, Payne chose to film the entire movie in black and white, giving the whole story a sense of being trapped in another time, and adding to the sense of desolation exhibited by both the geography of the region and the simplicity of the town of Hawthorne, with its barren sidewalks and seemingly abandoned businesses. The whole thing feels like an emotional dead zone and the lack of human spark in all but a few citizens reflects that.

Bob Nelson’s screenplay is a simple one, devoid of plot twists or anxious moments. There are no great moments of revelation, but rather subtle hints at who Woody was when he was a young man. As such, the characters can come across as superficial and on-the-nose. But again, I think this was on purpose rather than a failing. I think he wanted to show us shallow people in a shallow land.

Toward the end, the movie started to take on a bit of a Hollywood ending feel, but although Nelson did start us down that road, he thankfully stopped himself before the point of schmaltzy no return.

All-in-all, I liked Nebraska, although I didn’t think it deserved the accolades it received at Cannes (Palme d’Or nomination, best actor for Dern), the Golden Globes (5 nominations) or the Oscars (6 nominations). It’s just not that deep a film, in my eyes.

 

You can find a PDF of the screenplay for Nebraska here.