Thursday, December 22, 2011

Screenwriting Across the Four Dimensions.

Screenwriting basically has several dimensions. It's convenient to isolate four. So yes: 4D Screenwriting.

Just as football has offense and defense, running and passing, screenwriting has: material, three-act structure, actions, and dialogue.

If you're competent at all of them and can keep your eye on all of them at once, you're basically doing pretty well.

If you're great at one of them, you will probably ignore your deficiencies in the other areas. Everyone's seen these scripts that have wonderful dialogue but no structure and no actions: nothing happens and you don't know where the thing is headed. This is because the writer was so fond of his own dialogue that he ignored the rest.

Most people who try to screenwrite aren't even competent at one of them. And if you don't use all of them, you can't be competent.

Material. This is the stuff of life that you know about and bring to the story world.

Woody Allen's material is being a neurotic New York Jewish intellectual. He brings that material to the future (Sleeper), the Russian Revolution (Love and Death), and even to Spain (Vicki Christina Barcelona).

Kevin Smith has his material: suburban white guys who love comic books.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Big Picture: Why Size Matters in Screenwriting

A writer has to start somewhere.

Where you start is usually called a draft. And everyone knows what the finished thing should look like--a story or poem or novel or script or whatever.

But how you get from one end to the other is not so easy.

In the interest of demystifying the writing process, let's say you're writing lots of ideas to find the interesting ones.

Look at what you've written: look specifically at their duration. Some things last milliseconds and some can last for years.

  • Mary's heart skips a beat.
  • Mary wants to be a nurse.
Or I'll do a personal one.

  • For a moment, Ed wonders if he left the gas on.
  • Ed really really intends to clean his apartmet.
Okay. Neither pair is really visible.
But each of these invisible states has a duration. The first lasts a half a second. And the second could go on for YEARS.

The screenwriter must try to get somewhere between the two.

Why? Two reasons.
First, visibility.
Ultimately, everything the screenwriter invents must be acted out by actors and visible on a screen. No one, not Meryl Streep, can act "thinking of the number five." And if an actor tells you she can act "sad," she is a very bad actor indeed.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Realism Mediates Formal Patterns: On Letter to Three Wives.

I've been thinking a lot lately about Joseph Mankiewicz Letter to Three Wives (1949)--and about what screenwriters call "form" or "structure."

It's often said that screenwriters pay too little attention to form or structure. Meaning: they blurt out a bunch of scenes with no outer shape. But words like "form" and "structure" have too many meanings. If we separate off a few, we get a clearer view of the kind of work that artists do.

On the one hand, beginning screenwriters pay too little attention to things like cross-cutting, which can do a lot of work for you as a writer. Cross-cutting builds up comparisons.
  • It makes contrasts stand out.
  • It brings similarities to light.
  • It builds up expectations: what will happen when these people being cross-cut meet--as we assume they do in movies, based on the supposition of relevance.
On the other hand, that kind of form is something like technique: how the pieces fit together which shapes their meanings.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Question.

Every coherent screenplay answers one question. Not every coherent screenplay answers the same question. (That's the mistake of the Hero's Journey and such--that every film is the same film.) But each coherent screenplay answers its own question, the question which it forms, poses, insists upon and manipulates.
  • The Question exists in the minds of the audience. It gets there by insinuation, outright statement, and the audience's past experiences.
  • Each scene poses a partial or temporary answer to The Question.
  • The Question might get modified by each scene. Each scene can ramify, modify, inflect The Question.
  • The Question gets satisfyingly (richly, complexly but clearly) answered by the end of the film.
I wrote some time ago about misleading the audience--in a productive way--by getting them to concentrate on the wrong question. But I should have started with a clearer discussion of The Question. So that's what this is.

It's easy to find clear examples of The Question. Jaws (1975) is one.

In the first scene of Jaws, we find there is a dangerous man-eating shark. From there, there is a single question in the minds of the audience.

Can the town stop the shark?

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Unbelievably Common Dramatic Elements & Devices.

A good screenplay sometimes seem very sui generis: unique unto itself.

There's a lot of work to make that seem so. But only a little examination shows that movies use very similar devices to keep the audience interested. The uniqueness of a good movie, you might say, is a nicely-achieved surface effect: what's unique is the facade, seldom the architecture beneath it.

The Closet is a clever comedy. A boring accountant is about to lose his job--and thus stop being able to pay his alimony to his ex- wife and child support for their rather distant son. So the accountant's neighbor cooks up a scheme to make everyone think the boring accountant is gay--hence un-fire-able.

That simple initial situation and offbeat stratagem then instigates a bizarre series of events: trying to get people to disrobe at work, repeatedly making spaghetti with tomato and basil sauce, wearing a condom hat, buying chocolates for a coworker.