Wednesday, March 9, 2011

"The hard is what makes it great" | Go Into The Story

Phil Hopersberger, one of the writers I'm currently working with in an SMC class, posted this in an online thread:
Jimmy Dugan: Taking a little day trip?
Dottie Hinson: No, Bob and I are driving home. To Oregon.
Jimmy Dugan: [long pause] You know, I really thought you were a ballplayer.
Dottie Hinson: Well, you were wrong.
Jimmy Dugan: Was I?
Dottie Hinson: Yeah. It is only a game, Jimmy. It's only a game, and, and, I don't need this. I have Bob; I don't need this. At all.
Jimmy Dugan: I, I gave away five years at the end my career to drink. Five years. And now there isn't anything I wouldn't give to get back any one day of it.
Dottie Hinson: Well, we're different.
Jimmy Dugan: Shit, Dottie, if you want to go back to Oregon and make a hundred babies, great, I'm in no position to tell anyone how to live. But sneaking out like this, quitting, you'll regret it for the rest of your life. Baseball is what gets inside you. It's what lights you up, you can't deny that.
Dottie Hinson: It just got too hard.
Jimmy Dugan: It's supposed to be hard. If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it. The hard... is what makes it great.

Of course you recognize that from the movie A League of Their Own, written by the great writing team of Lowell Ganz & Babaloo Mandel. I'm prone to say to people who whine about the amount of competition there is for screenwriters, "If it was easy, everyone would be doing it." Now I know where I cribbed that quote. At least I steal from the best!

It's a fact: What we do is hard. Almost everything about screenwriting. From coming up with a great story idea to the months it takes to write a script to rewriting it to selling it, along with all the psychological stressors we experience every step along the way.

But it's the hard that makes it great.

You know how in most movies, a Protagonist has to go to hell and back in order to achieve their goal? That's pretty much what screenwriting is about, too. And the fact that the harder it is for a Protagonist to achieve their goal, the better the eventual payoff, the same thing is probably true about screenwriting as well.

So there you go, your writing mantra to kick off a new week:

The hard is what makes it great.

Go Into The Story: "The hard is what makes it great"

Why Films Under $2m Can't Catch a Break | Jeff Steele

One of the things big-budget producers take for granted is their access to film financing. Gap loans, presales, tax credits, equity investors - these are items on a menu to be ordered up and combined in whatever way works best.

In bars around the world, broad-stroke percentages are scribbled on the backs of napkins during conversations that go something like this:

FINANCIER: So how much do you need?

PRODUCER: (gesturing to his napkin) That's the best part! See here, if you put 10% into escrow, I've got a guy who'll match it, then just some soft-money-presales-n-gap and we're there.

FINANCIER: (handing him two bags of cash) You've got yourself a deal, my friend.

But almost all ultra-low budget producers can tell you that their financing structure fits on something much smaller than a napkin: probably a postage stamp. It's basically one number: 100. In the under $2 million range, the option is 100% of the money upfront or zero. That's pretty much it.

You might have a good script, a talented cast, an experienced crew, a director with terrific "indie-cred," a small budget and a huge upside, and yet no investor, packaging talent agent, or lender will talk to you. Why?

In my experience, lower budget films are just too combustible: 90% fall apart prior to completion.

Generally speaking, one of the main obstacles to raising funds for films under $2 million is their inability to qualify for a completion bond, which insures for the investors that a fully-financed film will be completed. Without this insurance, no one should invest in the project. Without investors, the producer is forced to raise the entire amount from friends and family - or via credit cards - a financing option I do not recommend, no matter how small the budget.

Unless the movie is a creature feature, it usually won't have a marketable star attached, which is what foreign sales agents (who license the film's rights to the international market) need so they can provide an estimate of the film's foreign value that a bank will lend against. These "bankable" sales estimates are the foundation for the type of financing structure that mainstream investors and lenders understand.

Film financing is like playing Monopoly. Buyers might not have the resources for Park Place, but that doesn't mean they're interested in Baltic Avenue - not if they can get a reasonably good deal on Marvin Gardens.

Lower budget movies usually come with less experienced personnel, from the caterer to the director.

For investors, this means they'll probably be dealing with an inexperienced lawyer during the deal. Not to cast aspersions on anyone's attorney, but the reality is, the more adept the lawyer is at film finance, the easier the deal is going to go for everyone involved. A film closing is not the best time for a steep learning curve.

Often, the paperwork on lower budget films is in disarray. (I once spent six weeks cleaning up a film's chain-of-title, just so I could proceed with the financing, which then took an additional eight weeks.) Sometimes the extra work and resources required to close the financing on certain projects might not be worth the possible "upside" on the deal.

Which brings me to the real reason low budget films have a harder time getting financed than bigger budget films: it takes just as much commitment to get a $500,000 film made as it does to get a $15 million film made. As far as investors are concerned, the potential dollar-for-dollar returns don't justify the allocation of resources required. Everyone associated with financing, sales, marketing, and distribution will be working just as hard.

Contrary to popular opinion, most low budget films are not going to perform like Paranormal Activity, The Blair Witch Project, or My Big Fat Greek Wedding. I tell filmmakers, don't ever include these films in your prospectus. It's like using the lottery as an example of how to get rich quick.

Just to be clear, this is not about bashing low budget indies - I'm just frankly addressing the question that has been posed to me several times a day since starting why are they so hard to finance? There is still a place and a market for low budget indies; it's just a different type of market with fewer set points of entry than for higher budget indies. The reality is, ultra low budget films have to overcome bigger obstacles to achieve lower cash returns.

There is some good news, budgetarily speaking: $250k is the new $2.5m. That's right. Due to the down economy, and major advances in affordable technology, you can now create for $250k what was once the purview of $2.5m films. In addition, once your film is complete you don't have to try very hard to sell $250k+ in foreign territories, so that makes for a pretty good return on a $250k film, even after you net-out the costs-of-sales.

There is light at the end of the tunnel for the ultra low budget film.

Jeff Steele: Why Films Under $2m Can't Catch a Break

Hollywood Tales - Raymond Chandler | Go Into The Story

"Working with Billy Wilder on Double Indemnity was an agonizing experience and has probably shortened my life, but I learned from it about as much about screenwriting as I am capable of learning, which is not very much.

Like every writer, or almost every writer, who goes to Hollywood, I was convinced in the beginning that there must be some discoverable method of working in pictures which would not be completely stultifying to whatever creative talent one might happen to possess.

But like many others before, I discovered that was a dream. Too many people have too much to say about a writer's work. It ceases to be his own. And after a while he ceases to care about it. He has brief enthusiasms, but they are destroyed before they can flower."

-- Raymond Chandler, "Writers in Hollywood"

Go Into The Story: Hollywood Tales

Sunday, March 6, 2011

A new character-driven Hero’s Journey | Allen Palmer

The Kings Speech Bertie Colin Firth Empire Games Humiliation Wembley Big Microphone

In my last post, I revealed my debt to Chris Vogler and where I diverge from him on Character Arc. Here I outline a new character-driven Hero's Emotional Journey that might help dispel notions that this amazing paradigm doesn't apply to female protagonists, intimate dramas or romantic comedies.

The Hero's Journey outlined in Chris Vogler's book The Writer's Journey is the single most important thing I've learned as a screenwriter. It totally transformed my understanding of story and I think every screenwriter should read it. However, there is some resistance to the Hero's Journey and I can understand why misconceptions have arisen.

Myths about the Hero's Journey

There are a couple of complaints I commonly hear about the Hero's Journey. One is that is only applies to male protagonists. The other is that it might work if you're developing a Star Wars sequel but not if you're writing an intimate drama. I've never laboured under either of these misconceptions – hell, I write romantic comedies – but it's not hard to see why people might form these opinions.

Offputting warrior metaphors

The Hero's Journey is just as applicable to female protagonists like Juno as it is to "warriors" like Luke Skywalker or Indiana Jones.

Vogler stands on the shoulders of mythological guru, Joseph Campbell, so it's not surprising that he uses terms like "Call to adventure", "Supreme Ordeal" and "Approach to the Inmost Cave" to define the 12 steps of his Hero's Journey. However, it's easy to see why these warrior metaphors might lead people to believe the paradigm would only be appropriate for testosterone-addled protagonists on a quest to find the Holy Grail (or a misplaced groom).

Plot-driven rather than character-driven

One of the reasons I've always loved the Hero's Journey is that the transformation of the protagonist is bound into the paradigm. If you understand the Hero's Journey, and apply its principles, it's impossible not to have your hero altered by their odyssey. And the emotional power of a film depends almost entirely on the size (and the credibility) of that transformation. However, if you were put off by the terminology, it's easy to understand why you might walk away thinking that the Hero's Journey valued plot over character.

Where I disagree with Vogler on character arc

This is Chris Vogler's view of the character arc in the Hero's Journey. He advocates the protagonist changes from the beginning. I think it's preferable to delay addressing the flaw until Step 8 The Ordeal.

In that last post, I detailed why I disagree with Vogler on character arc. In summary, Chris says that the character should be evolving from the beginning of the story, whereas in most of the films I love this doesn't happen. The hero doesn't address their fundamental character flaw until they're forced to at Step 8 The Ordeal – around the midpoint of Act 2. I prefer to delay this transformation because flawed characters tend to be more interesting (and funnier), and postponing the change leads to much greater conflict and emotion in that confrontation scene.

A new character-driven Hero's Emotional Journey

Over the last couple of years, whenever I teach my Introduction to Screenwriting course, I have been augmenting the 12 steps of the Hero's external journey with what I consider to be the 12 steps of the Hero's Emotional Journey.

I think this Emotional Journey helps dispel common misconceptions about the Vogler paradigm and hopefully will allow a much broader range of writers to benefit from the amazing insights of Joseph Campbell.

In fact, to emphasise the point that the Hero's Journey is equally applicable to dramas and romantic comedies, I generally only show one clip from an action-adventure film – and that's the scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark where Marion kisses Indiana.

So here they are …

The 12 Steps of the Hero's Emotional Journey

  1. Incomplete (Ordinary World)
  2. Unsettled (Call to Adventure)
  3. Resistant (Refusal of the Call)
  4. Ambivalent (Meeting with the Mentor)
  5. Committed (Crossing the first threshold)
  6. Disoriented (Tests, Allies & Enemies)
  7. Inauthentic (The Approach)
  8. Confronted (The Ordeal)
  9. Reborn (The Reward)
  10. Desperate (Road Back)
  11. Decisive (Resurrection)
  12. Complete (Return with the Elixir)

Let's explore this new character-driven Hero's Journey in more detail …

Step 1: Incomplete (Ordinary World)

The incompleteness of the Hero will generally have two dimensions: something they're aware of, and something of which they're entirely oblivious.

Bridget Jones's Diary Renee Zellweger Smoking

Bridget Jones thinks she's "incomplete" because she doesn't have a bloke but her real problem is her superficialty.

The incompleteness of which the hero might be aware will generally be a "Want". They're not happy with their lives and they're convinced that getting this thing will fix it.

Miles in Sideways wants to get his semi-autobiographical novel published. Thelma wants to spend a weekend away from her dorky husband with gal pal, Louise. And, as Bridget Jones (Renee Zellweger) sculls wine, watches Frasier and sings "All by myself", you get the strong sense that what she thinks is missing from her life is a fella.

However, while it might be important for the Hero's external journey to establish this incompleteness of which they're aware, it is at least as important to make your audience aware of an inadequacy of which they will almost certainly be unaware: their flaw.

If we don't establish the character failing of the hero – or we don't start them off at a sufficiently low point – the transformation isn't going to deliver any emotional power in the 3rd act.

The climax of Dead Poets Society has a 17-year old schoolboy (Ethan Hawke) standing on a desk and saying "Oh, captain, my captain". How can that possibly move us in the way it does? Because the writer, Tom Schulman, makes Todd's flaw abundantly clear in the Ordinary World sequence.

In Casablanca, Rick (Humphrey Bogart) says "I stick my neck out for no-one", in Moonstruck, Loretta (Cher) is going to marry a man she doesn't love, and in Tootsie, Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) is not only impossible to work with, he is insincere with woman. All of these great films build their narrative foundation by establishing in the first very first sequence of the film, that the hero is "incomplete".

Step 2: Unsettled (Call to Adventure)

Winter's Bone Ree Jennifer Lawrence

In Winter's Bone, Ree's "adventure" is to find her loser, crank-dealing father or lose her home.

I'm comfortable with the term "Call to adventure" and I use it rather than "inciting incident" but that word "adventure" might discourage writers of dramas from thinking that the Hero's Journey has something to offer them. This "adventure" doesn't have to involve guns, high-speed chases or some mystical medieval text. It can just be a problem or an opportunity.

Like in Winter's Bone, for example. Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) needs to track down her crack-merchant father for the rent money, or she, her younger siblings and incapacitated mother will lose their house.

The emotional effect of this Call on the protagonist will depend on whether they want this adventure or not. Indiana in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ned (William Hurt) in Body Heat and Olive (Abigail Breslin) in Little Miss Sunshine are all thrilled to get the call so they'll be excited.

But, more often, the Hero doesn't want the call.

Bertie (Colin Firth) in The King's Speech is resistant to the unusual techniques, not to mention the impertinent manner, of Logue (Geoffrey Rush); in Toy Story, Woodie hardly welcomes Buzz Lightyear with open arms; and Juno (Ellen Page) isn't thinking about the miracle of creation when her third pregnancy test confirms the positive reading of the previous two. If the hero doesn't want the call, they're going to be disturbed at least, and quite possibly entirely mortified.

Whether the hero wants the call or not, it's fair to say that in either case they're going to be "unsettled". Suddenly their world just isn't the same any longer.

Step 3: Resistant (Refusal of the Call)

Social Network Eduardo Saverin Andrew Garfield

It needn't be the hero who is "resistant". In The Social Network, it's Zuckerberg's buddy Eduardo who questions the wisdom of comparing Harvard women to farm animals.

No surprises here. In the Refusal of the Call sequence, the Hero – or those around them – are going to be resisting the invitation to adventure.

If the hero doesn't want the call, they might try to rationalise their refusal by saying they can't afford to go, they don't have the time, that this person is totally wrong for them, that it's impossible or crazy, but basically they're just afraid. And the audience loves that because fear is something that we all understand.

Luke Skywalker is too busy doing chores to save the Rebel Alliance, Bridget Jones is too superficial to appreciate the charms of Mark Darcy (Colin Firth) and Richard (Greg Kinnear) would rather stay at home and preach about his 9-step Refuse-to-Lose program than take his daughter to Redondo Beach for the finals of Little Miss Sunshine.

If the hero does want the call, others will express the fear for them. Eduardo in The Social Network, the hero's sister in Lars and the Real Girl and Zack's alcoholic whore-chasing father in An Officer and a Gentleman all express reservations about what the hero is about to do.

But, regardless of whether the hero wants the call or not, the emotion that needs to be conveyed to the audience at this stage of the Journey is "resistance".

Step 4: Ambivalent (Meeting with the Mentor)

The Meeting with the Mentor is one of the most misunderstood phases of the Hero's Journey. In some films, yes, the hero does meet with a Mentor figure at this point. Obi Wan in Star and Mr Keating (Robin Williams) in Dead Poets Society are classic, older and wiser mentor archetypes who help their novitiates overcome their fears to go on the journey.

Moonstruck Cher Vincent Gardenia Loretta Cosmo Kitchen Champagne

In Moonstruck, the "ambivalence" is expressed by father Cosmo, who says Loretta shouldn't marry the "idiot" Johnny Cammareri, and mother Rose who thinks she's wise to marry a man she likes rather than loves.

But the Hero isn't always getting encouragement from an avuncular sage in this sequence so I think the terminology can be misleading.

For me, a better way of thinking about this phase is to see it as a time where the audience hears the evidence for and against going on the journey. If the hero wants the call, we'll be hearing why they should ignore it. If the hero doesn't want the call, we'll be hearing why they should honour it.

In The King's Speech, Bertie doesn't want to work with this weird Antipodean speech therapist. But having been reminded by his father, King George V, of the importance of broadcasting for the modern monarch – and having been given no help or sympathy in dealing with that – Bertie is forced to reconsider Logue over there in left field.

In Tootsie, Michael Dorsey has no desire to dress up as a woman to get work as an actor. But after his agent tells him that no-one will hire him because he's too much trouble, he decides to audition for the part his girlfriend, Sandy, missed out on.

In Moonstruck, Loretta's father, Cosmo, says she would be crazy to marry Johnny Cammareri whereas her mother, Rose asks her, "Do you love him, Loretta?".
"Oh, no, Ma".
"Good. Because when you love them, they drive you crazy – because they can."

We've heard two opposing points of view from characters whose grey hair suggests they're mentors, but only one of them can be right. The story will "prove" to us that it's Cosmo, for all his failings, whose advice is closer to the mark.

Don't get hung up on this mentor thing. For credibility reasons, the hero will often be confronted with some sort of authority figure in this sequence. But, if you think about it in terms of an "ambivalence" – of presenting the reasons for going vs the reasons for staying – I think you'll find the appropriate scenes for this stage of the journey.

Step 5: Committed (Crossing the First Threshold)

In the previous sequence, the hero weighed up their options. Now, in this last phase of Act 1, they finally commit to the Journey.

In Star Wars, Luke takes up the challenge thrown down by Obi Wan after discovering his Aunt and Uncle have been murdered.

Little Miss Sunshine Frank Steve Carell Dwayne Paul Dano Dinner

In the ensemble Little Miss Sunshine, Dwayne only commits to join the trip to Redondo Beach after he gets clearance to apply for flight school.

In Little Miss Sunshine, Dwayne agrees to join the trip to Redondo Beach after his mother tells him she will let him apply to flight school.

In The King's Speech, Bertie listens to the phonograph recording he had previously viewed with derision and is amazed to hear himself speak for the first time without a stammer – making him think that perhaps this Logue character might know what he's on about after all.

Sometimes the hero wants to commit to the journey but they need to convince a Threshold Guardian to let them go on the "adventure". Michael Dorsey desperately needs this job on a daytime soap – even if it means dressing up as Dorothy Michaels – but first he's got to convince the misogynistic director, Ron.

North by Northwest Cary Grant Roger Thornhill forced to drink

Some protagonists, like Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) in North by Northwest, don't have a whole lot of choice about going on the adventure.

And sometimes, the hero doesn't really get to decide whether they go on the journey. In North by Northwest, Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) has no choice but to go on the run and try to clear his name after he's wrongly believed to have killed a delegate at the United Nations.

Similarly, in Groundhog Day, a visit to an out-of-his-depth psychiatrist in Punxsutawney convinces Phil Connors that his problem is not in his head and he must make the best of a bad situation.

Whether the hero is thrilled about it or not, after step 5 of the Hero's Journey, the hero is "committed" to tackling the goal, problem or opportunity with which they've been presented.

Step 6: Disoriented (Tests, Allies & Enemies)

The King's Speech Bertie Logue Colin Firth Geoffrey Rush Harlety St rooms

Logue disorients the Duke of York by forcing him to come to his rooms and by impertinently calling him "Bertie".

This step of the Hero's Journey is quite a mouthful, but it's one of the simpler stages to understand. Remember how scary that first day at school was for you when you were 5 or 6? In this first sequence of Act 2, your hero is similarly disoriented.

In their Ordinary World, the hero might have been "incomplete", and they might not have been entirely happy, but at least everything was familiar. Now, as soon as they begin to pursue their goal or fix their problem, their world is turned upside down.

The hero can be forced to deal with changes in terrain, as Bertie is in The King's Speech when he's forced to leave the familiarity and safety of his palace and come to Logue's unusual professional rooms.

The protagonist will often have to go through a change of appearance, as Zack does when he gets his locks shorn in An Officer and a Gentleman.

Different rules might exist in this Special World, as they do in Groundhog Day, or Yes man, where suddenly he has to say yes to any proposal, including a geriatric neighbour's excessively generous method of thanking him for helping her around the house.

Tootsie Dustin Hoffman Sydney Pollack Dorothy Michaels George Field Russian Tea Rooms

Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) "tests" his Dorothy Michaels disguise on agent, George Field (Sydney Pollack).

Their powers might be different, as they are in Bruce Almighty.

As a screenwriter, you're always looking for conflict, so you'll often want to challenge your disoriented Hero with some sort of "test".

In Tootsie, this happens when Michael goes to the Russian Tea Rooms and tests out his Dorothy disguise on his agent. This not only gives us a good laugh at George's expense, it satisfies an important credibility question: if his agent can't see that it's Michael when he's less than a metre away, Dorothy is ready to fool the American viewing public.

In Meet the Parents, Greg (Ben Stiller) is subjected to a lie detector test by his father-in-law from hell (Robert DeNiro).

In Little Miss Sunshine, the test happens when the clutch gives out on their Kombi and threatens to end their trip when it's only just begun. But, this still dysfunctional family combine to jump-start the car, solving the immediate problem, and beginning their healing process.

You need to be careful with this test that you leave yourself room to escalate the tests at the Ordeal and Resurrection (or Climax). So in Groundhog Day, when Phil Connors drives along the railway tracks, he pulls off at the last minute. Later, he's going to push the Punxsutawney envelope a little more

One flew over the Cuckoo's Nest Billy Bebbit Nurse Ratched

In One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, R.P. McMurphy takes a shine to stammering Billy Bebbit and an instant dislike to Nurse Ratched (the hair can't have helped).

But, possibly the best way to disorient the hero is by having them try to work out who they can trust and who they should be wary of in this new world – again just like you did at school.

In One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, R. P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) quickly bonds with Martini (Danny Devito) and works out that Nurse Ratched is public enemy number one. The Chief is initially impenetrable but he falls into the archetypal category of a Shapeshifter: he doesn't appear to be an ally, but ultimately he's going to be the go-to guy.

Shapeshifters are particularly useful in thrillers and film noir because they disorient the audience, forcing them to engage with exactly the same question the hero is grappling: is this character friend or foe?

Again, don't get hung up on the terminology. If you just think about your hero as being "disoriented", you'll be alive to the wonderful comedic and dramatic possibilities of this first sequence of Act 2.

Step 7: Inauthentic (The Approach)

This is a tricky sequence to nail in terms of the emotional journey of the Hero.

You could consider them to be "amiable", given that this is often where friendships are forged. For example, in The King's Speech this is where Bertie opens up to Logue after his father's death about the mistreatment he suffered at the hands of his nanny and his brother.

You could consider them to be "amorous", given that this is where many love interests are introduced. For example, in Witness, this is where John Book (Harrison Ford) and Rachel Lapp (Kelly McGillis) dance in the barn in a scene dripping with sexual subtext.

Groundhog Day Phil Connors Nancy Bill Murray Diner

Phil Connors in "inauthentic" mode with Nancy.

So, why have I characterised it as "inauthentic"? Because in the next sequence, The Ordeal, you're going to confront your hero with their flaw, so in this sequence I think it's a good idea to remind the audience of exactly what the hero's character failing is.

One of the best examples of this is Groundhog Day, where Phil beds – and proposes to – local Punxsutawney girl and Lincoln High grad, Nancy. At this stage, he's not interested in using his special powers to help anyone. Why? Because his flaw is that he's selfish. So in this sequence we see him being entirely "inauthentic".

When I say "inauthentic", I don't just mean that he's saying things that he doesn't feel. I mean that there is a gap between how the character presents to the world – their "identity" – and who they really are – their "essence".

In The King's Speech, even though Bertie is being open with Logue in this sequence where their friendship is forged, there is still a yawning gap between how Bertie presents to the world and who he really is.

His identity is that he's the bumbling, stammering younger brother of the dashing heir to the throne, David, but in truth Bertie has qualities that will serve the nation better than that flibbertigibbit. But he won't get to offer those abilities, or be comfortable with himself, unless he has the courage to find his voice.

Yes, the Approach sequence can involve rehearsal and reconnaissance and romance, but if you want to write an emotionally engaging film, I'd encourage you to consider how to reveal that the character is being "inauthentic". If you do, you'll be perfectly placed to exploit the drama of this next sequence.

Step 8: Confronted (The Ordeal)

Vogler calls this stage "The Supreme Ordeal" but I've known students to form the impression that this means it's the moment of greatest drama in the story. That's not what Chris intended so I just refer to it as "The Ordeal".

Brokeback Mountain Ennis Heath Ledger Jack Jake Gyllenhall

Ennis (Heath Ledger) is "confronted" in Brokeback Mountain when Jack (Jake Gyllenhall) refuses to accept his continued duplicity.

However, when I teach the Hero's Journey, it's the clips from this stage of the journey that produce the greatest emotion in the class. And in an earlier post on the midpoint, I've written at length on why this is such an important stage in the character arc. In summary, it's where the hero is "confronted" with their flaw.

Up until now, the hero won't have addressed their flaw because they haven't had to. Not only have they done nothing about it but they've possibly been exploiting it. But here they reach an impasse because here someone – often an antagonist or mentor/antagonist – holds a mirror up to the hero and says, "Here you go, pal, take a good long, hard look at yourself. Not pretty, is it?!?".

This is where, in the great films, the inauthentic identity the hero has been presenting to the world will crack and crumble away, revealing for the first time their true essence.

In Tootsie, it's where Julie (Jessica Lange) throws a glass of water in Michael's face – because he's using the same inauthentic patter on her that he was in the opening scenes.

In Groundhog Day, Phil is using the same inauthentic approach on Rita that worked on Nancy, but every time he's on the verge of the Promised Land, she gives him a good slap.

In Brokeback Mountain, Jack (Jake Gyllenhall) finally calls Ennis (Heath Ledger) on his inauthenticity, telling him he's no longer willing "to get by on a few high-altitude fucks a year".

In The King's Speech, this is where Logue tells Bertie that the nation needs him in its hour of need – not the distracted, Nazi-apologist David – and Bertie calls him treasonous. But that's just a rationalisation, because, as in all the great stories, the hero has just been "confronted".

Read more about the Ordeal or Midpoint

Step 9: Reborn (The Reward)

Having been confronted with their flaw at The Ordeal, the old, flawed Hero will have died, and a new, "reborn" Hero will emerge in this sequence.

Dead Poets Society Todd Mr Keating Ethan Hawke Robin Williams

After the "sweaty-tooth madman" scene, Todd's shy, retiring identity crumbles away and he is "reborn" as the hero who will literally take a stand at the moving climax of Dead Poets Society.

If they've been cowardly, they'll now display courage. If they've been selfish, they'll now demonstrate compassion. But, more importantly, their transformation will be revealed through the fresh perceptions of those around them.

In Dead Poets Society, after Todd has revealed the lyrical poet inside his diffident shell, Neil (Robert Sean Leonard) looks at him in awe and Keating says to Todd, "Don't you forget this". He doesn't.

In An Officer and a Gentleman, after Zack has finally shed his insouciant wise-guy identity in the "I've got nothin' else" scene, he makes Perryman feel like a heel because he's shined his belt buckles and boots. "Son of a bitch".

In Groundhog Day, this is where Phil finally stops trying to seduce Rita and instead talks lovingly about her – "you like boats, but not the ocean" – in a way that suggests he genuinely cares for her, rather than viewing her as just another conquest. Rita can see the change and responds to it.

Good cinematic storytelling is about squeezing and releasing your audience, and, after the drama of The Ordeal, this sequence definitely is about lifting the foot off the pedal a little.

In The King's Speech, this is where we have the delightful – if apocryphal – scene where Bertie and "Liz" visit Logue and his wife at home. It's comedic and warm and gives the audience a breather before the tension that lies up ahead.

If you've just put your hero through a confronting Ordeal, in this sequence try to lighten the mood and through the reactions of those around the Hero, reveal that this character has been "reborn".

Step 10. Desperate (Road Back)

In the last sequence, the Hero was feeling pretty good about themselves because they'd just climbed their personal Everest, but in this sequence they have a daunting realisation: now they've got to get down.

This is where some complication occurs that makes the attainment of the Hero's original goal seem much more difficult or downright impossible.

But it's not just about plot. It's not just about being in a dire situation. If you want to tell a great story, at this point it can help to present the hero with a dilemma – to put them between a rock and a hard place.

The Apartment Jack Lemmon Fred McMurray C.C. Baxter Mr Shelldrake

In Billy Wilder's The Apartment, C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is forced to choose between advancing his career and honouring his love for Miss Kubelik.

In an earlier post, I explore this crisis in great detail, but in summary it's about forcing the Hero to choose between what they want and what they need.

Very often, the choice is between a material goal and love.

In Tootsie, Michael reaches the point where he has to choose between what he wants – paid work as an actor – and what he needs – Julie. He can't have both.

In Moonstruck, Loretta's fiancée, Johnny, returns from Sicily here, which means that she's soon going to have to choose between marrying a man whom she merely likes, or taking a risk on love again with his more passionate brother, Ronny.

In Billy Wilder's sublime The Apartment, C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) has to choose between continuing to allow his boss (Fred McMurray) to use his apartment for his trysts – or becoming a "mensch" and taking a stand in honour of his love for Miss Kubelik (Shirley Maclaine).

In Strictly Ballroom the choice that Scott is presented with here is not about love but about integrity. If he dances the Federation's steps, he'll win the prize he's always coveted but feel nothing. If he dances his own steps, he'll not win but he'll gain a greater prize – the fulfilment that comes with genuine self-expression and integrity.

Not every film offers up this sort of dilemma. But, if you don't force your character to make a choice, you have to ask yourself how your hero is going to prove to us that they have been transformed. If all they do is get what they always sought, without sacrifice, without compromise, you're heading towards a hollow conclusion. I would suggest The Fugitive, after a brilliant opening, falls into this trap.

So often is the hero faced with a choice at this point that for a time I referred to this step as "conflicted". But, to make the paradigm more universal, because the combination of the dilemma and other obstacles generally make this the Hero's darkest hour, I now think that the place you want to take your character is "desperate".

Read more about how to create a dilemma at the Crisis or Act 2 Turning Point

Step 11: Decisive (Resurrection)

This is it showtime. This is where the dramatic question that was raised in Act 1 is finally answered. More importantly, it's where we discover whether the Hero will take this opportunity to prove to us that they have indeed been transformed by their journey.

When Harry Met Sally Billy Crystal Meg Ryan Ending Harry Burns Sally Allbright

In When Harry Met Sally, the pessimistic protagonist decides that maybe fancying a woman and being friends with her aren't mutually exclusive after all.

It's not about winning and it's not about saving the Hero's arse. They can't be rescued by external forces because that would deny them their ultimate character test. (Date Night makes this mistake.)

That's why I call this climactic sequence "decisive". It demands that the hero be the active agent – that they make the choice that determines whether they are going to draw on the better part of their humanity or fall back into the weaknesses of the past.

In Schindler's List, Oscar, having amassed the wealth he sought at the beginning, now chooses to use it to save the lives of his Jewish workers.

In North by Northwest, mummy's boy, Roger Thornhill, chooses to ignore his chance to escape and instead go to try and save Eve Kendall up on Mt Rushmore.

In When Harry Met Sally, Harry chooses to shed his pessimism about male-female relationships and run to Sally on New Year's Eve because "when you've decided you want to spend the rest of your life with someone, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible".

But just because the Hero is decisive, it doesn't mean the ending has to be "happy". It just has to be satisfying, which it can be if the Hero loses the external battle but wins the more important personal war with their demons.

Thelma and Louise Thunderbird driving off cliff

At the end of Thelma and Louise, the protagonists perish but the audience goes with it because spiritually the two leads have evolved.

In Brokeback Mountain, Ennis chooses to go to Jack's parents to collect his ashes (and his shirt) in an act that admits for the first time that the love of his life was a fellow cowboy.

In Dead Man Walking, Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn) chooses to confess to his crime so despite the fact that he's executed, we feel an incredible sense of catharsis.

In Thelma and Louise, they choose to drive off that cliff because, though their flesh may perish, their souls are free to soar (and this is coming from a devout atheist).

Give your protagonist a choice at the Act 2 Turning Point, and if they're "decisive" at the climax and prove to use that they've been changed by the journey, there's every chance you'll pull off a moving finale.

Step 12: Complete (Return with the Elixir)

Brokeback Mountain Ennis Heath Leader Shirt

Ennis is aching at the end of Brokeback Mountain but it's a soaring finale because his character is wiser (and it's got a cracking soundtrack).

When you watch the 100m Final at the Olympics, you don't go home after the race is run. You stay for the medal ceremony. That's what this sequence is all about. We've just witnessed some heroics at the climax; now we want to stick around to soak up those overwhelming emotions.

When we first met the hero back in their Ordinary World, they were "incomplete". Rick Blaine in Casablanca was hiding from the world. Loretta was about to marry a fool. Oscar Schindler was more concerned about the wine list than the plight of the Jews.

But the story has forced them to confront their flaws and, at the Climax, prove that they've addressed them. Their material circumstances don't really matter. And it doesn't matter if they're not free from imperfection. Just so long as we sense that, spiritually, they're complete. That's what happens here.

In Groundhog Day, Mr Keating gives Todd and the boys standing on their desks a nod that says, "My, how you've grown".

In Brokeback Mountain, even though Ennis has only a flannel shirt to remind him of Jack, we know the character has gained the wisdom that we can't choose in what form love comes to us.

Little Miss Sunshine Family watches Olive dance

In Little Miss Sunshine, they all fail to get what they want, but they get what they need: the family is "complete".

In Little Miss Sunshine, 7-year-old Olive has scandalised the contest, Richard hasn't got his book deal, colour-blind Dwayne can't fly jets, Frank is possibly only the second most important Proust scholar in the United States, and the smack-addict Grandpa has OD'd and is curled up in the trunk of the Kombi – but at least now the family is whole.

And, in The King's Speech, when Bertie thanks Logue, "My friend", and his therapist for the first time calls him, "Your majesty" you again get this sense that our Hero, after all their travails, is finally "complete".

Summary of the Hero's Emotional Journey

Hero's Inner Journey Cracking Yarns Allen Palmer

That's the Cracking Yarns take on the Hero's Emotional Journey. I'm not suggesting you jettison Chris Vogler's Hero's Journey. That's still the bible as far as I'm concerned. But hopefully this will give you a more character-oriented way of thinking about story, and maybe it will encourage more people to explore what Campbell identified and Vogler brought to the attention of film-makers all over the world.

Hero's Emotional Journey Hero's Inner Journey Character Arc Vogler

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Go Into The Story: Interesting news re film distribution

The more the exhibitors grow, the more they are likely to control / get-into distribution. Not surprising that top guys (in India) are already into the game. And as they grow, they would control the film industry a good deal since they handle the critical last mile.

What will Fun do? Sit pretty as ever? Or...maybe try going for a niche - Independent? But yeah - where are the guys who are making good Indie flicks?

Sooner or later they shall need to dabble, else keep depending on others to be fair viz-a-viz bigger chains. A good model, which would require some enterprise move like rivals AMC and Regal coming together - join hands with another chain. Even if just for distribution. matter what - if not now then later the dynamics will change. And change pretty fast.

Go Into The Story: Interesting news re film distribution

Go Into The Story: There's no right way to write: Part 5

There is no right way to write. No one way. No single approach, paradigm, theory or magic formula. No easy path. There is only the writer. Their creativity. Their stories. And lots of hard work.

This week I've been featuring the words of four screenwriters each day to demonstrate the endless ways to approach the craft of writing:
ALVIN SARGENT (Ordinary People, Nuts)

"I do a great deal of free-associating. Talk, for pages and pages, I don't know what's going on. Then I find something alive – I hope. I think too many people are too organized; they've got it all worked out, instead of hearing their characters first. Get the goop out first, then organize.

"Rigidity is the mother of rigidity. It's very exciting to be ridiculous. I wish I could be even more so than I am. Jump! Jumping is a lifeline, not the suicide or the predictable. It brings you to life. Take the character and put him where he least wants to be. If it's honest, it'll be worth exploring.

"You must write everyday. Free yourself. Free association. An hour alone a day. Blind writing. Write in the dark. Don't think about what it is you're writing. Just put a piece of paper in the typewriter, take your clothes off and go! No destination… pay it no attention… it's pure unconscious exercise. Pages of it. Keep it up until embarrassment disappears. Eliminate resistance. Look at it in the morning. Amazing sometimes. Most of it won't make any sense. But there'll always be a small kernel of truth that relates to what you're working on at the time. You won't even know you created it. It will appear, and it is yours. Pure gold, a product of that pure part of you that does not know how to resist.

"Finally, think of a screenplay in two ways. It takes the form of a joke or a dream. Dreams and well told jokes are always beautifully designed, exquisitely cut. We hear, see, only what's necessary. There is never any deadwood. Never a dull moment. Always unpredictable, always the surprise. The audience cannot sit there and write it before it comes on the screen. That is my guide. The architecture of the dream, the joke."

TIM McCANLIES (The Iron Giant, Secondhand Lions)

"That second act, for me, is the most fun because the first and third acts have such clearly defined functions. The first act you have to set up the problem or problems, introduce all your characters – there are so many things that you've got to do, there just isn't room for the fun stuff. And the third act is almost an extended scene in a way – the chase, the fight, etc. But in the second act you really get to cut loose, find out who this character is, see his or her changes.

"I try to use as many action verbs as possible. I try to make it as vivid as I can. I notice now that I write much more succinctly than I used to. To me, more than four lines of action in a row is a lot. People read very quickly in the business, and they tend to skip over large blocks of print. A lot of times, if it isn't dialogue, they don't see it! So sometimes I find myself saying more in dialogue than if I was actually shooting it.

"Another way to get around the problem is, if you have a big block of action, put things in caps, or at least underline things – all with the intention of holding the readers' interest, making them actually read the action lines."

ROBERT TOWNE (Chinatown, Shampoo)

"Generally speaking, if you don't set everything up in the beginning, you'll pay for it… in the middle or in the end. So I would rather pay for it at the beginning. It's not television and they're not going to go off into the icebox, or they're not going to change channels. An audience in a movie will forgive you for just about anything for the first 10 minutes or so. But really nothing at the end. So it's the time to prepare… the beginning.

"I don't think there are principles, other than asking yourself over and over again what's going to happen next, and seeing if you're interested in what's going to happen next. I'm upset if what I think is going to happen next or I think should happen next, there's something about it that doesn't, I guess, ring true. That's not quite real.

"Most scenes are rarely about what the subject matter is. You soon see the power of dealing obliquely or elliptically with situations because most people rarely confront things head-on.

"You've got to get a sense of the movement of a piece, so that it's lucid, it's visualized well, there's rhythm and orchestration in it so that scenes are not choppy where you should take some time, or too long-winded
where you shouldn't."

DAVID MAMET (The Untouchables, Glengarry Glen Ross)

One: Don't write screenplays to sell. And if you try and write down to the mediocre tastes of studio execs, you're only training yourself to be subservient to the demands of "second-class minds" who will soon kill off your creative spark altogether. Instead, write something you're passionate as hell about...and make a movie of it yourself (unless your spec has the budget of MASTER & COMMANDER, of course).

Two: Never write exposition. And I mean never. Let plot and dialogue push your story along.

Three: The ability to write is a gift. If you don't got it, you don't got it. If you do got it, Craft can make this gift even better.

Four: Most writers don't got it (a.k.a. they suck).

Five: Directing makes you a better writer since it teaches you to cut for pace.

Six: Write till you can't do any better, then move on to the next project.

Seven: Read Aristotle's POETICS and Joseph Campbell's THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES. These will tell you all you need to know about writing.

Eight: Write each day, even if it's just for three minutes at a time.

Nine: Writing is hard and always will be. It doesn't get easier the more you do it.

Ten: There's no such thing as character in a script. There's just a good story with good actors talking.

Eleven: Narration can be either good or bad, depending on the writer.

Twelve: Get out of school as soon as possible. Experience Life. Put that experience in your script.

Thirteen: Biography is the hardest to write since you're trapped by actual events -- and actual events aren't necessarily dramatic. Use Poetic License to remedy this situation.

Fourteen: Don't write and drink at the same time.

Fifteen: All movies are about good and evil (or should be).

Sixteen: All writing is getting over what happened to you before you were ten years old.

Seventeen: God is a mystery. And writing is a way of getting closer to that mystery.

Eighteen: A good script is a simple premise with unforeseeable twists and turns.

Nineteen: I can't explain the writing process because I work unconsciously.

Twenty: Forget every rule Syd Field, Robert McKee or any other screenwriting guru ever taught you. Except one..."Never Be Boring."
In a nifty bit of synchronicity, I received an email from Brian Simpson, a young L.A. based writer who is focusing his attention on long-form improvisation. I had the pleasure of working with Brian in a recent Screenwriting Master Class course which dealt with story structure. I thought Brian summed up quite nicely the overall point I've been attempting to make this week through this series of posts:
I've come to understand screenplay structure as something very similar to grammatical structure. With language, ideas are conveyed through grammatical components ("subject", "verb", "object) just as a screenplay conveys a story through structural components (three acts, a hero, hero's motivation, something in the hero's way, etc.). But, in both language and screenplays, the structure is not the point. When you're about to write or speak a sentence, you don't start with the structure (i.e. you don't ask yourself "Okay, what would be an awesome subject to start this sentence. Good, good, okay now I need a great verb to go with that.") You're much more interested in the content of what you're communicating. It's all about the idea you want to express, not the grammatical form you put your sentence in-- even though it is absolutely essential to get that right as well. So, back to screenplays, the screenplay is about the story, not about the structure. Yes, you have to make the structure proper and clean in order to best convey your idea/story, but you're sitting down to write a story, not a structure.

So now I believe the task at hand is to work hard (i.e. Read Scripts, Watch Movies, Write Pages) to hammer those important structural elements into my subconscious, into my instinctual thinking, so that I can consciously be focused on my story while automatically calibrating the structure to fit properly as a film. I studied French in college, so I know a little about how this process goes for language. You spend a long, long time bumbling over simple sentences, struggling to get the structure right, mostly thinking about using the right subject pronoun or conjugating the verb correctly. Then, over time and lots of repetition, the elements start falling into place naturally, you're able to speak smoothly, the structural aspect of it all just floats to the back of your mind and does the work for you. Ah, it's magic. But it takes some hard work, lots of practice, and lots of time. So I'm getting on with it. My goal: to become fluent in the complicated and multifaceted language of Screenplay-ese.
Precisely. You immerse yourself in the world of screenwriting, testing out whatever theories or approaches you run across. At some point, your hope is that it becomes such a part of who you are, an extension of your own writer's voice, that when you write, you do so on as close to an intuitive level as possible.

There is no simple formula. It does take hard work. But trust me -- you do get better and it does start to make sense on a deeper and deeper level. More from Brian:
I was able to have lunch with a screenwriter friend of my dad the other day, and to him a screenplay works like a ticking clock. He said, in his early days, he would open up the back of that clock and just see a mess of springs and gears. Pretty overwhelming. Now, he says, having built and repaired many of his own clocks, he can pretty much open up the back of any "clock" someone hands him and say, "Okay, you have to fix this, tighten up this, this goes here..." Gotta build up those skills. Read, Watch, Write...
There is no right way to write. But there is your way to write. If you commit yourself fully to finding your own distinctive writer's voice...

You will.

Go Into The Story: There's no right way to write: Part 5

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Business of Screenwriting: There's a green light... | Go Into The Story

I'm attending a fundraiser for my son's elementary school. It's an alternative private school on the Westside, an institution that prides itself on its "diversity"... which I've discovered pretty  much means they have parents who are agents and directors, entertainment lawyers and producers, studio execs and writers.

One of the parents is the President of Production for a major movie studio and the fundraiser just happens to be at his house.

It also just happens that my partner and I recently turned in a draft of a writing assignment at that same studio, our script well received there. So I am feeling rather jaunty as my wife and I enter the lavish home of our hosts.

The studio chief is at the door to greet us. His first words to me are these:

"Congratulations. We just green lit your movie."

Feeling even jauntier, I bump up the amount of money we had figured we'd give the school. Hell, I have a green lit movie. Why not splash some of that cash around?

Uh, not so fast.

Later that week our agents tell us the studio has hired a well-known screenwriter to do a rewrite on our script. Nothing serious, we're told. Just some minor character work and a polish to "bring the script home."

Several months later, the screenwriter's draft comes in. The studio's reaction? Not so good. He does another draft. The response is even more tepid. Whatever heat the project had is now dissipated.

And the supposed green lit project? Dies on the vine. A little game that gets played out in Hollywood all the time: Green light. Red light.

I had a similar thing happen two other times. One was a remake of a 50's comedy. The script we wrote got a major comic actor attached. The news was announced in the trades. Studio green light. The talent and his writing team were going to do a "polish" on the script. When the draft came in, they had completely retooled the story. The studio's reaction?

Green light. Red light.

On another project we were in active pre-production, busy doing a polish on the script with the film's director. Budget, casting, locations, schedules, the whole nine yards, all in progress. Then a movie came out with one similar narrative element to our project, much more prominent than anyone had anticipated. Basically blew us out of the water.

Green light. Red light.

Which goes to show you, there's a green light... and a GREEN light. The regular old green light turns out to be a provisional one. A blinking green light, if you will. A GREEN light means they are actually by God committed to making the movie. How do you know when you get a GREEN light? Honestly you can't really know until that first day of principal photography, the director yells "Action," and the cameras roll. Because any number of things can go wrong in pre-production that can turn a green light into a red light.

So a word of advice: When someone says to you, "Congratulations, your movie is green lit," nod your head, smile, and reply, "From your lips to God's ears." Then get your ass back to work on another story. Hopefully they'll make your movie. But you always want to have something else going on... in case that green light turns red.

Go Into The Story: The Business of Screenwriting: There's a green light...

Screenwriting 101: Michael Mann | Go Into The Story

"All right, let me try an example. A story about a guy who's been a bootlegger and a gunman who's retiring to a rural part of the Midwest. There were some political conflicts in this area; an interesting alignment of forces between the KKK and mine owners on one side, and organized labor, immigrants, and bootleggers on the toher. This guy found himself caught in the middle, became a reluctant gunfighter, and killed a man who was the leader of the Klan in his region. He himself was wounded and died in the skirmish. True history Now, go make that into a story.

Well, how? Where do I start? If you do it the way I just told you, it's like any number of bad screenplays. This is a linear biopic: this happened, that happened, this happened, that happened. That's not a story. A story is, he dies. We don't want to do a linear biopic, so let's have an investigation. In the process of investigation with multiple detectives, I can break down into its component parts the true history of Hearst -- call him "Kane" -- and I can arrange the sequence of all these encounters without regard to chronology. I don't have to move through time in a linear fashion. I can cut to either investigator investigating whatever aspect of his life I want to reveal. I can go present, I can go three weeks ago, twenty-six years ago, back to four years ago; put it in any fashion I want. I've liberated myself from the tyranny of chronology by inventing the narrative."

-- Michael Mann (Manhunter, Heat, The Insider), excerpt from "Screenwriters on Screenwriting," edited by Joel Engel

Go Into The Story: Screenwriting 101: Michael Mann

Go Into The Story: There's no right way to write: Part 4

There is no right way to write. No one way. No single approach, paradigm, theory or magic formula. No easy path. There is only the writer. Their creativity. Their stories. And lots of hard work.

This week I've decided to feature the words of four screenwriters each day to demonstrate the endless varieties of ways to approach the craft of writing:
PAUL MAZURSKY (Harry and Tonto, Down and Out in Beverly Hills)

"In almost everything I've done I've tried to see the whole, but I don't think anything I've ever done I ever really did see the whole at the beginning of writing. As the process of writing commenced, at some point… and this always is frightening… it would start to go off in places, and those places would sometimes be… well, they would make me feel elated because they were coming out nicely and real characters were taking over, or they'd made me nervous because they'd be so far away from the original idea.

"I never think what is a good theme. I never think about it, I just think about ideas that plots or people… I never say to myself, well, let's make a film about the state of marriage in America today. I guess I'm afraid of pretense. Not to say that people who think about things are pretentious, but I sort of agree with Sam Goldwyn who said, 'If you have a message, use Western Union.'"

ROY HUGGINS (I Love Trouble, creator of "The Rockford Files"

"A screenplay is a series of interesting scenes. Too often scenes are boring in order to head to an unusual ending. This defeats the purpose of what the writer is trying to do – keep the audience's attention. The writer should work the story through, scene by scene, never jumping ahead until the scene he's been working on works and is interesting."

CHARLIE KAUFMAN (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation)

"My theory about creative work is that 99 percent of it is intention. When you go in with the intention of exploring something real, then that's what you'll get no matter what's around it. It may not even be successful—people may not like it and it may make no money—but that is what you'll have. And if you go into something with the intention of showing off and just being absurd for absurdity's sake, then hey, that's what you'll get. I'm interested in trying to find a real moment between people, and hopefully that's what people get out of my work.

"I honestly don't think I ever really knew the rules enough to break them. I feel like I knew how to write a TV script because I'd watched a lot of TV as a kid, and because I had a natural affinity for understanding how comedy works—joke, set-up, punchline, that sort of thing. When I started screenwriting, I never really knew what I was doing, but I instinctively understood how to do it.

"Most screenwriting is very formulaic writing, and the reason my stuff breaks away from that is that I'm just not interested in the formula. But maybe it's in there in my head, and on some other level I do understand how I'm breaking away from it. I've never really thought about it that way... Sometimes I do things as a reaction to the conservativeness of the medium. But more often, it's just that I feel I have the freedom to do whatever I want in my writing."

ELEANOR PERRY (Diary of a Mad Housewife, The Swimmer)

"In my head, although it's not obvious in the screenplay, is a three-act structure. And the Greeks were right… that's all there is to it. The three-act structure works. So that I don't mean there's 35 pages in every act… it isn't rigid. But if you remember that in the first act you set up the problem, you set up the characters, you set up the setting. Then the second act you go into the complications and the conflicts and the confrontations and in the third act you resolve everything. That is roughly the structure of every film anyway.

"Each writer starts differently, but I think the only valid way is to start with character.  Character is plot. Character is story. The human behavior and human feelings and emotions and thought is what makes a story.

"I always start with a scene I adore. Of course later I have to adjust it 80 times to fit the beginning and the set and everything else… but it's worth it because it loosens, it opens the gates, and you have something on paper and it's good."
I can hear the subtext of your thoughts in reading this series of posts: Why is Myers bothering us with this news? Because it's the truth. And if you've run into this teacher or that who suggests they have the key to screenwriting success or there is a secret formula to writing a hit screenplay, you deserve to know there is no such thing.

Professional screenwriters know this. They understand full well how each writer has to go on their own unique journey to find their voice. Frankly it's one of the reasons some screenwriters express public skepticism about the very idea that a so-called screenwriting guru can bring any value to the table.

I disagree with that because there are writers, teachers, and mentors who do have things of value to say about the craft. But it's definitely a case of buyer beware. It's incumbent upon you to test everything you hear and read -- including anything I say -- against your own developing sense of yourself as a writer.

Go Into The Story: There's no right way to write: Part 4

There's no right way to write: Part 3 | Go Into The Story

There is no right way to write. No one way. No single approach, paradigm, theory or magic formula. No easy path. There is only the writer. Their creativity. Their stories. And lots of hard work.

This week I've decided to feature the words of four screenwriters each day to demonstrate the endless varieties of ways to approach the craft of writing:
CAROLINE THOMPSON (Edward Scissorshand, Corpse Bride)

"I had a writing partner in The Addams Family and we were stuck at one point. He sent me some notes from a story structure class and I tore them up and sent them back because I just don't think you can be taught that way. I think you can learn by watching movies and I think you can learn by doing, but I don't think somebody can tell you. You either have your intuition or you don't. I don't think you can be taught intuition. I never took classes, nor do I believe in them. I think it's a good idea to have people that you respect read your work as sometimes it's difficult to determine if you've sold that image or theme that you're tying to put across. You don't know if it works until somebody reads it. I think that screenwriting groups where people read each other's work is a terrific idea.

"Edwards Scissorhands is about the cleanest example to the extent that I knew that I wanted to have various numbers of characters who had specific and very different perspectives on the characters of Edwards Scissorhands. You have the woman that's compassionate, the woman who wanted to go to bed with him, the woman who thinks he's the devil. The roles that they were to play were so clear to me that I basically took what I needed them to do and then fashioned the character secondly. I would say that for me, character is my strength. I don't really write plots very well. For me, the course of the story is determined by what these characters would or wouldn't do in any given situation. Situations accumulate based on the situations that have come up before. I'm what they call a very character-driven writer."

LARRY GELBART (Oh, God!, Tootsie)

"First, you get the idea. It may germinate for a long time or it just pops into your head.  And then you work out a structure. And when you feel confident enough, you start to write. And you have to allow yourself the liberty of writing poorly. You have to get the bulk of it done, and then you start to refine it. You have to put down less than marvelous material just to keep going to whatever you think the end is going to be – which may be something else altogether by the time you get there."

WILLIAM GOLDMAN (All the President's Men, The Princess Bride)

"The writing is never the problem, it's knowing what the structure is and what goes where and who the people are and how this scene relates to this, and do I put in this dialogue line in the third scene so I can play it back in the 23rd scene, so I can get an echo. I mean, I have to know all that before I start.

"Screenplays are not dialogue. Screenplays are structure. That's all they are. The reason we can't quote many lines of dialogue is because the dialogue doesn't matter that much.  Obviously good dialogue is better than inept dialogue at any time, but for the most part, you have to have the scene that is in its proper place in the structure of the piece.

"It's simply making the spine, and you must protect the spine. There can be wonderful scenes, and if they're off the spine and you see them in a movie, they will simply die. So what you must do at all costs in a screenplay is to protect your spine. Keep it clear, keep it clean.

"I may not know what the final shots are going to be in my head, but I know the falling narrative at the end… or ascending narrative line at the end… yes, I know that. I know that before I begin. I'm going straight for it. That's my structure. There it is and here I am and I got to get there… as fast and as cleanly as I can."

DAVID LYNCH (The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet)

"For seven years I ate at Bob's Big Boy. I would go at 2:30, after the lunch rush. I ate a chocolate shake and four, five, six, seven cups of coffee – with lots of sugar. And there's lots of sugar in that chocolate shake. It's a thick shake. In a silver goblet. I would get a rush from all this sugar, and I would get so many ideas! I would write them on these napkins. It was like I had a desk with paper. All I had to do was remember to bring my pen, but a waitress would give me one if I remembered to return it at the end of my stay.  I got a lot of ideas at Bob's.

"If you want to make a feature film, you get ideas for 70 scenes. Put them on 3-by-5 cards. As soon as you have 70, you have a feature film."
You never know where you may learn something that becomes a critical part of your writing process. I remember reading this quote from Linus Pauling: "The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas." That is the best advice I've ever gotten about how to approach generating story concepts. Wisdom not from a screenwriter, but a Nobel Prize winning scientist.

Read books on the craft. Take courses. Follow blogs. Study theories. Analyze movies. Break down scripts.

Or not. Maybe that will confuse you. Perhaps you're better off just relying on your instinct. I doubt it, but maybe.

Beware of anyone who says they have the way to write a screenplay. It may work for this story. It may not work for that one. In fact, it may not work for you at all.

And that's the point: You are the writer. It's your talent, your voice, your creativity. If who you are as a writer aligns with a specific approach to screenwriting, great. But if it doesn't, why force yourself into the confines of somebody else's approach?

Be active in seeking out knowledge about the craft. Pay attention to the world around you. Wisdom and insight are out there.

But at the end of the day, it's your journey as a writer. And if like David Lynch, it takes drinking chocolate milk shakes and seven cups of coffee to kick-start your creative process, then that's what you need to do.

Go Into The Story: There's no right way to write: Part 3

There's no right way to write: Part 2 | Go Into The Story:

There is no right way to write. No one way. No single approach, paradigm, theory or magic formula. No easy path. There is only the writer. Their creativity. Their stories. And lots of hard work.

This week I've decided to feature the words of four screenwriters each day to demonstrate the endless varieties of ways to approach the craft of writing:
STEVE ZAILLIAN (Schindler's List, Searching for Bobby Fischer)

"There's a danger in thinking you understand exactly what you're doing because then you start seeing patterns and repeating yourself. I try not to analyze [the process] too much. It's important to me to discover writing all over again as opposed to trying to follow some sort of formula. I'm always terrified of those classes on how to write a screenplay. I've never been to one. When I'm doing my Xeroxing, I see these little brochures [advertising screenwriting seminars], and I'm terrified to even read the brochures. I haven't noticed that there's a trick to it, and I'm afraid if I do, I'm gonna rely on it.

"I purposely don't want to know because I want to approach everything as if it's the only thing I've ever done so it'll be new to me."

PAUL SHRADER (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull)

"I know exactly where I'm going beforehand. I know to the half page if I'm on or off target. I draw up charts before I do a script. I endlessly chart and rechart a movie. Before I sit down to write, I have all the scenes listed, what happens in each scene, how many pages I anticipate each scene will take. I have a running log on the film. I can look down and see what happens by page thirty, what happens by page forty, fifty, sixty and so forth.  I have the while timed out to a hundred and five, a hundred and ten pages. You may go to, here pages ahead or behind, you may add or drop dialogue or scenes; but if you're two pages ahead or behind, you have to work that into the timing. Especially if you get five pages work, or, worse, five pages behind, then something you had planned to work on page forty may not work the same way on page forty-five.

"It's completely timed out.  Like in AMERICAN GIGOLO I have the characters meet eight times in the movie, and I can see what pages they would meet on those eight times, and the different things that happen between the times they meet, so that there's always something to talk about when they meet, something to pick up, something they had discussed previously, something to develop."

"It's like running the mile. You start to recognize signposts peripherally, and you know as you're running past this house, this corner, whether you're ahead or behind your time.  And if you're pushing too hard, you back off; if you're not pushing hard enough, you speed up – because you have to reach that point at the end of the mile where you are totally spent. If you have any energy left, you have failed; and if you run out of energy before the end, you have failed.

"You have to try – in the structure of an hour-and-a-half movie – to arrange scenes that appear to follow each other in what seems to be a natural way, but is anything but natural.  Because you can choose only forty, forty-five, fifty scene to tell a story. You have to pick those fifty scenes very carefully if you're going to get a rich story."

JOHN AUGUST (Go, Big Fish)

"Ultimately, it's your characters who have to tell the story, but I think what gets me excited to sit down and actually work on one script rather than another script is generally the idea of it, the theme of it, what's unique and unusual about it. So while I love great characters, I think a lot of times you can have great characters who are trapped in the wrong story, so you always want to find that blend of the most interesting, exciting story you can find and then figure out who are the best characters to be in that story. I do a lot of work for the Sundance Institute, which has this twice yearly filmmaker lab. So for two weeks a year, you sit down with these newer screenwriters, and you help them work on their projects and help them develop the best possible versions of their scripts before they go off and shoot them. What can be really frustrating is reading very talented writers who haven't sort of gotten a firm grasp on what they're doing. They have these really compelling characters and really interesting situations, but they haven't figured out the best way to tell the story. More than anything right now, it's the story that gets me going.

"If the writer can take himself out of his own head and just be the person reading the script and be as interested and compelled and confused as that reader will be, I think you can write a script that doesn't have any classic structural qualities and still maintain their attention. To me, am I turning pages in the script because I'm fascinated about what's going to happen next? If I am, then something is working, and it may not have the classic structure, but it's working, and there's a lot to be said for that. GO doesn't have anything approaching a classic structure, yet within each story, there's a lot of tension. There's a lot of drive, and you can understand both what the characters want and what the movie is trying to do."

CARL FOREMAN (Cyrano De Bergerac, High Noon)

"I really just sit around thinking for a long time. I think about the people involved and what's happening to them, and begin to work out the events of the story in my mind.  When I'm ready I make a step outline for myself... which is in pure telegraphese. And when I can do that whole thing in one sentence, I'm ready to write the screenplay. If you can't ell the story to yourself in a paragraph, then you're in terrible trouble. And if you can't tell it to someone else in a paragraph you're in trouble. At least one should be able to get it down to its bare bones and be able to say what it is, who it's about, what it's for, what it's meant to do, in one paragraph to anyone."
What if I could tell you there is a secret formula to the craft of screenwriting? Wouldn't that make life so much easier? Or would it?

If there was a knowable surefire formula for writing a screenplay, once the studios discovered it, the first thing they would do is fire every working screenwriter and develop computer programs to spit out completed scripts like Transformers 8: This Time They're Really Pissed!

In Hollywood where as William Goldman says "Nobody knows anything," the thing about which nobody knows the least is almost always story. Studio executives and producers may like to think it's not all that hard to do what screenwriters do. There's an anecdote I heard attributed to Irving Thalberg, Hollywood's first great producer. As I recall, he was disparaging a group of MGM writers on the lot [paraphrased]:

Thalberg: What's the big deal about what you do? It's just writing words.
Writer: Yes, but it's about knowing which words to write.

Which words to write. The unending challenge we, as writers, face whenever we try to craft a story. We take all we've learned about screenwriting, immerse ourselves in a story universe, and try our damnedest to wrangle something that works onto 100 or so pages of paper.

It's one part hard work, one part inspiration, one part luck, and one part magic. Writing can be confounding, disheartening, even downright cruel. But when we embrace all that, especially the presence, even the necessity of magic in the story-crafting process, that's when our stories come alive. And there is no formula for magic.

There is no right way to write. And thank God for it. Otherwise Hollywood would replace writers with robots. And we wouldn't be prone to wandering around in our creative wilderness... and likely never find the magic in our stories.

Go Into The Story: There's no right way to write: Part 2

There's no right way to write: Part 1 | Go Into The Story

There is no right way to write. No one way. No single approach, paradigm, theory or magic formula. No easy path. There is only the writer. Their creativity. Their stories. And lots of hard work.

This week I've decided to feature the words of four screenwriters each day to demonstrate the endless varieties of ways to approach the craft of writing:
NEIL SIMON (The Odd Couple, The Goodbye Girl)

"When I started, I got out the yellow legal pads and I outlined the entire play. Then I started to write the play, and the characters started to want to drift off where they wanted to go. So I pushed them back into the outline, and they say, We don't like it in this outline, we want to get on another yellow pad. This yellow pad stinks. So I just kept trying to force them there, and I realized I couldn't do that.

"At this point, I don't make outlines at all. I make an outline only in my mind. If I can say two or three sentences about the play, then I have a play.

"That's as much of an outline as I need, because when I write something I want to be as surprised – and this goes for screenwriting too in terms of the original screenplay – I want to be as surprised as the audience is. If I know everything beforehand, it becomes a job. Just let it happen and see where it takes me."

RON BASS (Rain Man, My Best Friend's Wedding)

"Everything I write is in three acts, and I actually start with three pieces of paper.  I have some notion of where each act begins and ends before I get to this stage. I know my people and I know roughly about how many scenes each act should be. I start from the beginning and end of an act, working forwards and backwards toward the middle. I know that somewhere there's going to be a moment of this, a moment of that, and it's like a matrix. I don't work with cards, just one page per act. When I finish three acts I page budget, I want to know I can tell the story in a distance that's appropriate. And I'm rarely more than ten pages off."

GUILLERMO ARRIAGA (Amores Perres, 21 Grams)

"I never outline the story, never. I once went to a seminar of one of these gurus of the screen and this person said you must know everything about your character. I thought, F*ck, there's no way! I want to have dark parts of my characters' history so they can surprise me. Also I cannot have an ending because when I don't know the characters, they can show me the ending as I get to know them. That's why I don't like to do research of any kind. I like for the characters to grow up inside of me.

"There are two kinds of people. There are people who do not have any kind of internal way to order things inside themselves so they need structure: page 30, page 60 and so on.  I don't blame or criticize the professors or the writer who has a different kind of approach to structure.

"In 21 Grams, it goes back and forth all the time, and I had a perfect understanding of where it was going. I never got lost and thought that I needed a plot point here or for something to happen in the second act. I never think that way. That's not to say the other way is bad. It's just that myself and other writers have a different internal process. It's intuition."

CHARLES BENNETT (The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps)

"The construction is the most important goddamned thing. It's like building a house – you have to build the outside properly before you put the bits and pieces inside afterward.

"Get your story, get your architecture right, and you can always add your dialogue afterwards.

"A story starts at the beginning, it develops, it works itself out, and it works up to its finale. The great essence of construction is to know you end before you know your beginning; to know exactly what you're working up to; and then to work up to that end.  To just start off and wander on the way isn't any good whatever... because you're wallowing."
There are essential principles of screenwriting. There are practices professional writers know and use. You can learn these. You can develop your instinct. Your voice. Your connection to the craft. But that path, your writer's journey, is something you fundamentally do on your own.

You immerse yourself in the world of cinema. Read scripts. Watch movies. Write pages.

You study what others have to say. You absorb. Analyze. Stretch. Test. Fail. Regroup. And strive to get better with each script, each sequence, each scene, each page, each line.

But we must all face this truth: There's no right way to write.

There is only your way.

Go Into The Story: There's no right way to write: Part 1