I see what you did there, Mr. Kasdan

Marion Ravenwood
A handful of lines + a solid right hook = insight into 2 key characters

Of all the notes I’ve received about my western, the ones that really stood out the most were about developing the characters a little more – especially the titular protagonist.

I’ve also been spending some time reading, watching and analyzing the scripts and films that influenced it. Namely, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (along with its sequels) and a few others involving female leads who kick ass.

It’s a great opportunity to explore what makes a character tick. A lot’s been written about the “exposition without being blatantly expository” scene in RAIDERS with Indy and the government men, but I’ve been paying more attention to other scenes; the ones that offer up a bit more about what kind of person Dr Jones is as seen through his interactions with other characters.

-Indy discussing with Marcus the implications of finding the Ark.

-The reunion with Marion (see photo above)

-The encounter with Belloq in the cafe in Cairo.

All of these (and a few more) present an aspect of Indy’s character WHILE ALSO advancing the plot. It takes a lot of effort to do that and do it well.

I’ve also been working my way through the infamous story conference transcript, where Spielberg, Lucas, and Kasdan work out the story based on Lucas’ idea of a “swashbuckling archaeologist”. While you can easily find the memo itself, check out this phenomenal post that also analyzes some key points of what’s being discussed.

A lot of this is what I’ve been focusing on during this rewrite. More than a few of my notes highlight certain scenes and say something like “This would be a great place to show us more about her.” So that’s part of what I’ve been trying to do.

I originally thought it would be really tough to implement those kinds of changes, but using RAIDERS et al as guidelines and knowing my objectives for each scene, it actually hasn’t been as challenging. Sometimes all it requires is a few extra lines of dialogue or a modified action line. It’s not always easy, but it definitely feels a little less daunting. Also helping – working on one scene at a time.

In the meantime, progress on the rewrite/polish continues at a healthy pace and I really like how this new draft is shaping up. I suspect the end result will be a little more than just slightly different from previous ones, and hopefully the changes will really take the script to the next level.

It requires some planning ahead

planning-ahead_4
Sometimes mapping it out by hand can prove most beneficial

Lots and lots going on within the hectic hallways of Maximum Z HQ, what with all the writing, note-giving, and career-developing taking place.

Much as I would love to offer up an original composition, my current schedule is a bit tight, so instead I humbly present a trio of posts, all plucked from the archives, and all dealing with what I consider to be a most important aspect of telling a story.

Enjoy.

Set up, pay off

Strong rope & solid knots required

Tying it all together

 

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.

A few points about plot points

delorean

Time for a quick refresher course, chums.

Today’s topic: plot points. What they are and what they represent.

I’ve always seen plot points as pivotal moments in the story; events that change the situation for your protagonist, usually in a negative manner, and ask/reiterate the central question (Will your hero achieve their goal?).

Having solid plot points also helps establish your story’s structure. Without it, all you’ve got is a big convoluted mess, and who wants to read that?

Although this uses a 110-page script as an example, plot points don’t have to happen exactly at those pages. A few more or less is totally acceptable. I’ve also opted to use fairly recognizable examples to emphasize each plot point.

Pencils ready? Let’s begin.

Page 3 – statement of theme. What’s the overall message of your story? The theme should also be incorporated in some fashion into each scene throughout the course of the story. (“No McFly in the history of Hill Valley has ever amounted to anything!” “Yeah, well, history’s gonna change.”)

Page 10 – inciting incident. The event that shakes up you protagonist’s world, and asks the central question of the story. (Will Indy get the Ark before the Nazis?)

Page 17 – a twist to further complicate things for the protagonist. (“Alderaan? I can’t go with you to Alderaan!”)

End of Act One (page 25-30) – Your protagonist leaves behind their old world and enters a new one to achieve their goal. Also repeats the central question. (Marty arrives in 1955)

Page 45 – another twist to complicate things for the protagonist (Indy saves Marion, destroys her bar. “I’m your goddamned partner!”)

Midpoint/Point of No Return (page 55-60) – your protagonist becomes fully committed to achieving their goal (Brody decides to go after the shark after his son barely survives the latest attack)

Page 75 – yet another twist to really complicate things for your protagonist (Vader kills Ben as Luke & Co escape)

End of Act Two (page 90) – All is lost. Your protagonist is totally screwed with no apparent way out. Makes it seem like the answer to your central question is “no”. (The Nazis get the Ark).

Climax (page 95-100) – final showdown between your protagonist and antagonist. (Rebels attack the Death Star. Marty must hit the wire when the lightning hits. Nazis open the Ark. The shark attacks the Orca, eats Quint.)

Resolution (page 100-105) – Aftermath of the climax. Central question gets answered. (Rebels victorious. Marty returns to 1985. Brody & Hooper survive. Indy delivers the Ark.)

Denouement (page 105-110) – How your protagonist’s world is now different from what it used to be (but not necessarily better). (Marty’s family is successful. The Ark gets crated and goes into a warehouse. Luke & Han hailed as heroes. Brody doesn’t hate the water anymore.)

So there you have it. Do the plot points of your story match up with these? Just something to think about. And feel free to watch the movies represented here (or one of your own personal favorites, or one similar to yours) to see all those plot points in action.

It just might be some of the most fun homework you’ll ever have.

Ask a Chock-full-of-Moxie-and-Gumption Script Consultant!

Amanda Nelligan

The latest in a series of interviews with script readers and consultants who would be worth your while to work with if you want to get your script in shape. Today’s spotlight is on Amanda Nelligan, aka Scriptgal.

Amanda was born and raised in Western Massachusetts. She attended Brown University and received a Bachelor of Science degree in biochemistry. While at Brown, Amanda became involved with the Brown film society and its weekly comedic film magazine – The Film Bulletin – which cemented her life-long love of movies. After working briefly at a medical research lab, Amanda moved to Los Angeles and embarked on her film career. Her first job was as an assistant to a literary agent. From there, she worked at Disney, then ran development for a number of production companies. Amanda went back to grad school in psychology and worked as a therapist and as a research project manager at UCLA before launching ScriptGal. Amanda enjoys baking, hiking and scuba diving and lives with her husband in Sherman Oaks, CA.

1. What’s the last thing you read/watched that you thought was incredibly well-written?

I can’t pick just one – different movies are great for different reasons. I really enjoyed NIGHTCRAWLER – whip-smart dialogue and a character I’ve never seen before. It also had a resolution that defied convention. EDGE OF TOMORROW is a meticulously plotted, fun, time-bending action film, which is so hard to do right. And WHIPLASH didn’t miss a beat (pardon the pun.) In terms of television, TRANSPARENT was terrific. JUSTIFIED and THE AMERICANS are two incredibly well-written series I never miss.

2. How’d you get your start reading scripts?

I moved to Los Angeles shortly after college. My first industry job was for a boutique literary agent who had an A-list roster, so my introduction to Hollywood was through writers. After that, I worked as a development exec – meaning my job was to find scripts and to work with the writers to develop those projects into viable features and television shows. I worked as a creative executive at Disney, then ran development for two production companies. I didn’t like all the politics/crap in the movie business, so I left and went to grad school and worked in another field for a while. But movies are my passion and I love working with writers, so ScriptGal started as an experiment, in a way, and three plus years later. here I am.

3. Is recognizing good writing something you think can be taught or learned?

I think recognizing good writing is a matter of natural instinct, which not everyone has, plus a lot of practice – a.k.a. reading. And reading everything – not just screenplays. Novels, essays, short stories, etc. As a script reader, you need to understand what makes a good story. I think a rule of thumb is that when you forget you’re reading, you know the writing is good – good writing transports you.

4. What are the components of a good script?

A compelling protagonist or anti-hero and a worthy antagonist. We should be able to relate to the protagonist in some way. The antagonist can be a classic villain, a disease, a monster or even the weather. But no matter what the story is, it’s essential that we care what happens. Also, a good script needs to make you feel something. Joy, sadness, fear… Bottom line, the script needs to tell a good story. It can be written in crayon and have a million typos, but if the story is compelling it will shine through.

5. What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

Too much description. It’s a real skill to write just enough to give you sense of what the audience will be seeing and hearing on screen. If the color of someone’s dress isn’t essential to the story, don’t include it. Another related mistake is describing things that would be impossible for an audience to know. Stuff like a character’s face shows the pain of the loss of his wife two years earlier. That’s cheating – essential information needs to be revealed the way the audience would discover it on screen.   Another mistake is not having enough conflict – which results in the story not being as dramatic as it needs to be.

A lot of people are hung up on so-called screenwriting “rules” — don’t use “we see” or any camera directions, etc. I think a) those rules aren’t true – good produced scripts do use them and b) no one working in the industry today cares about those rules one bit. Or even thinks about them. Bottom line – people want good stories.

6. What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

I just read a script where a guy gets fired and comes home early to find his wife cheating on him. I’ve seen that a million times – so to me it signals a lack of imagination. I think a trope is fine if it is the best thing for your story – but you should always try to put some sort of fresh spin on it. Also, audiences love when a trope is turned on its ear – the best example is the fight scene in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK – when instead of getting into the expected hand-to-hand battle, Harrison Ford shoots the bad guy. So when writers find themselves contemplating a trope, they should always ask themselves whether or not they can surprise the audience instead.

7. What are the 3 most important rules every writer should know?

-Writers write. You have to be in this for the long haul. If a script doesn’t work or sell, move on to the next. No successful writer I know parachuted in with the coolest script ever and then sailed on to fame and fortune. The best of the best have a lot of failed scripts in their filing cabinets. Or, these days, in the cloud. This business is a grind.

-Writers rewrite. You need to be able to make changes to your initial drafts and ideas – you need to be able to “kill your darlings,” meaning abandoning things you may love in furtherance of the story. Also, this is a collaborative business – everyone who reads your script will have notes. That doesn’t mean every note will be a good note, but it’s your job to recognize the good ones when they come along and manage the bad ones.

-“Take Fountain.” – Bette Davis. Okay, the real rule is outline. Outline like crazy – especially right after the idea comes to you. A lot of newer writers seem to get bored with their own ideas after awhile and make changes that are destructive. You need to lock in the story that got you excited in the first place and don’t doubt that it will excite readers/viewers as well.

8. Have you ever read a script that was an absolute, without-a-doubt “recommend”? If so, could you give the logline?

No. To me “Recommend” means go shoot it, as is, tomorrow. I never say never, but I could probably write notes on every successful movie out there. The rewriting stops after the scene is shot. Actually, that’s not even true. A lot of rewriting happens in the editing room. For people who love the show THE AMERICANS, and even those who don’t, I highly recommend the Slate-produced TV Insider podcast about the show. It’s a conversation between the story editor and various writers on the show, often including the showrunners. They are rewriting until the last second.

9. How do you feel about screenwriting contests? Worth it or not?

I think a select few are meaningful to industry execs – The Nicholl FellowshipAustin Film Festival, and UCLA’s Samuel Goldwyn. I think the others may help a writer’s self-esteem, but I’m not sure how many actual doors they open in Hollywood.

10. How can people get in touch with you to find out more about the services you provide?

They can email me at Amanda@ScriptGal.com and check out my website www.scriptgal.com.

11. Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my love/appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?

I love ALL pie – much better than cake, in my book – but if I have to pick one it’s strawberry rhubarb. The contrast between sweet and sour – that’s drama.