Script Writing Event
We will be posting details of our script writing event shortly, but getting in the mood, you may like to read this article by professional script developer – Pete Daly:
TEACHING GRANNY TO SUCK EGGS
What Every Screenwriter Should Know
OK – a lot of this you will know; some of it you will know even if you don’t realise that you know it. But it really is worth rehashing. Many scripts fail because of very simplistic flaws.
Writers love to eschew the rules and avoid being formulaic. That’s fine, but you need to understand the basics first (Tarantino achieves distorted narrative paths and offbeat characters because of his in-depth knowledge of film and, especially, his understanding of genre rules). Too many writers now fail to watch and learn. It really is essential to view as many films as possible – good and bad – to see what aspects worked and what didn’t. The established classics are not top of the best-ever lists for nothing, and it is extremely difficult to be original when you don’t know what went before.
European writers in particular are also prone to showing off – trying to make their work look complex and clever. As Kevin Spacey’s Verbal says in The Usual Suspects “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist”. The major skill in screenwriting is making the complex seem simple and accessible. Look at Shrek. Just a kids’ movie, a piece of fun? Don’t make me laugh – this is a work of almost genius that plays to every level (age, background, nationality) simultaneously. There is hardly a word in the whole screenplay wasted, and that really takes talent!
So … where do we start? Well, every script has to have a beginning, middle and an end. Sounds simple, but you’d be amazed how many people overlook this simple law of storytelling. Once you remember this you can play with it. Coming back to Tarantino, Pulp Fiction started in the middle, worked through to the conventional ending and then went round to the start for the conclusion. He knew the rule, and had the talent then to use it for his own means.
Talking generally one page of screenplay will take a minute of on-screen time (as long as you have kept your stage instructions to the basics). A movie should be 90 minutes. This is the perfect length for someone to sit in a darkened theatre with a group of strangers. If your script is over 100 pages there better be a good reason for it (Ghandi was an epic deserving of three hours, many others are not). Apart from the audience attention span and the length of the drama, commercially you must remember that if you go much above 100 minutes the theatres will lose one showing a day, which makes your project less attractive to all concerned.
Usually the opening of the story should take roughly a quarter of the running time to set up character, situation and story; although opening acts are becoming shorter and shorter in the desire to immediately capture the attention of the MTV generation. The finale should also take up 25 per cent, leaving half of the film for a middle section. Stories come in all different forms and shapes, but they need an “inciting incident” to kick off the narrative and lead to act two. Basically something (preferably interesting) has to happen to someone (or somewhere). This then leads to a plan of action to try to overcome this change or restore status quo. Like it or not you auteurs, the story has to be about something, with a goal at the end, or it lacks interest.
During the middle section we have to see the narrative progress, with extra layers of complexity added to increase the stakes and maintain audience interest. A baby that stays as a baby starts to become boring (to everyone except the medical sciences). An audience want to see development and a route to a goal.
Movies have to have a protagonist – again, if they don’t the writer should have considered this and there should be a good reason why not. This can be more than one person, and for the more experimental amongst you it could even be an inanimate object. But we must know whose story this is. They do not always have to be sympathetic, but they do have to be intriguing. The protagonist should want to do something, and there should be some force of antagonism trying to prevent this. This provides the conflict that makes the drama.
A film has to have some impact on the audience – emotionally it should make us laugh, cry, feel sad, romantic, amorous … whatever, but you need to make that connection. There also has to be some form of intellectual bond (the genre basically states whether this is more important than the emotional clout). We must be prepared to go with the story and, at times, it should make us think. There has to be some suspension of disbelief for a film to work. This is easier for some stories than others but if in doubt, think Groundhog Day. This was a truly preposterous premise, but it was logical at every step so we went along with it.
Movies on the whole benefit from having at least two contributory subplots to help vary tone and pace. You should also know what you’re writing, and what effect you want to have on the audience. It is very useful to have a broad range of movie references to your fingertips, but be yourself and be original; no one likes copies.
Oh – and you also need talent: talent to write dialogue that doesn’t feel wooden when spoken, to know when to increase the pace or slow the momentum down, to enter the story at the right time and leave it at the right moment. But if you’re not aware of the basics all the talent in the world cannot save you. You can’t break rules without knowing what they are. Happy writing!