A Noteworthy Discussion

Playing the waiting game while somebody else has your script isn’t easy.  In my case I haven’t even passed in on yet because I’m waiting on printer ink.  But I’m not squandering this time, either in anxious anticipation, or “vacationing” from the script.  I’m not pouring over it either, fussing over tweaks and small changes.  I am, however using this time to consider what I’ve written from a distance.

Sure, I went through when the draft was done to handle some spelling problems and minor details, but what begins to happen when you repeatedly go over something like this without a break is it all starts to become a bit boring.   Instead, I walk away from it, but I allow new thoughts to circulate.  It’s a rough draft and I have concerns about it that need to be addressed in my next revision.  As I reflect on where I think there may be issues I make a note of it in a separate notebook.  I may come up with a pretty good list on my own, but I’m going to continue to keep those notes separate until I am able to discuss the script with somebody who’s read it.

There are a couple of reasons for waiting.  One is to reduce the number of rewrites on your script and keep your mind as fresh and interested in the project as possible.  There is no question you will be rewriting the script after it is read, no matter what.  So hold off on your own notes until you have a fresh perspective from a reader or two at your disposal.  The other is so that you can address your own concerns with somebody else who knows the story, before injecting it into the story without feedback to your initial work.

I’m very happy with my draft and the notes I’ve come up with so far to make it better.  I put my best work into its creation and I know that as imperfect as it is, going back and trying to rewrite it so soon will only hamper my excitement and hinder its development.  So, instead I think about it as I think about a movie after I’ve watched it.  I think about what sticks, what needs more push, more depth, or more reinforcement.  In some cases, maybe less of something is needed, though with this draft I tended to keep it very lean.

Because I deviated from my original outline for the sake of telling the story in a more dramatic and interesting way, I was forced to bush-whack into uncharted territory while finding a way back to the ending I had envisioned.  The second act turned out to be exciting and exhausting and shorter than I planned originally due to the sensitivity of the plot once it hit the turning point.  That is to say, that once I determined that I could no longer keep the cardinal reveal a secret to the reader, the following scenes delivered and onslaught of intensity that barreled relentlessly toward their inevitable conclusion.  Because of this the question arises in my mind of whether or not I should add some length to the second act, or leave it alone.  Ultimately, the thoughts of my readers will impact that decision.  In the meantime, it is helpful to take a step back and redo my outline to reflect the new scenes and the loss of the old ones.  A new set of cards for all the scenes sectioned off into sequences is a terrific way to view your script at a glance and see what you’ve ended up with and where it may be unbalanced.  Keep it in mind as you ponder taking your screenplay to the next level and try to have as much to talk about with your readers, along the lines of improving your script, as possible.

As I said before regarding your readers, notes are good, but you don’t want someone to read with the expressed purpose of giving you notes.  It will deter from the real fixes by creating the confusion of alternative visions.  It also invites readers to think critically about what they are reading in installments as though each installment were a complete work.  As writers we raise questions to pique interest of our readers, but a reader, thinking critically about a work might respond negatively to those questions, not having the answers themselves.  This is why notes should never be the objective of the reader, but will result as a necessary afterthought.  Of course, it all depends on how much work the script needs.  If for some reason it fails to deliver on the fundamental aspects of storytelling, it’s going to be a long read and a reader might be hard pressed to be open-minded and uncritical about it.  I’ve been there, I’m afraid.  And I’ve written terrible scripts and reacted defensively before.

It’s important to understand through this process, that your script is not finished yet and may look very different when all is done.  You don’t have to agree with everything you hear, but you have to consider your audience.  You wrote something, because you were excited about it and only you could do it quite like you did, but now you want to make sure that other people can be just as excited about what you’re doing.  Your going to get a lot of ideas and suggestions to work through and that’s why it helps to be prepared with some of your own reactions to the script to share and discuss with the people who read it.  Hopefully, the result will be a more solidified concept for your revision.

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Focus Group Therapy

This time around writing my script took longer than usual.  Partly because I had less time dedicated to really sit down and write, but also, because I had to roll with some punches.  In the end, my script is better for it and I kept true to my initial vision for the arc of the story and how I thought it should end, but I did sacrifice some length, for the sake of what I felt was proper pacing.

Time and future reads will tell if more material is required to fill some gaps.  To tell the truth, My head has been wrapped up in this story so long, I’m not entirely sure what people will get or not get, based on the text, so a little breather and some outside feedback is in order, before I move on to revise.

I hadn’t even finished the first act when I ran into some problems with my planned outline and had to deviate from that for a more compelling scene, that touched on other scenes and pretty soon I had a sort of alternate reality outline that I felt was more efficient and dramatic, while maintaining the overall tone and structure I determined early on in the process.  Due to the complexity of the plot and my inherent distaste for repetition there may be some lack of clarity on aspects I’ve taken for granted that need to be reinforced.

This is the worst time for me, because there is this unsatisfactory, kind of fake sense of completion.  More needs to be done, but I can’t bear to look at the thing anymore.  The rush is gone and I’m crashing from the high.  Handing your work over to someone can be difficult.  You want them to read it.  You want validation.  You want criticism, but selective criticism.

Some people will read with note giving in mind.  They are determined to make it their story and they might have some valuable insights, but you will have to weed through the notes and know what advice to listen to and what to stick to your guns on.  Some people will read and just fluff your ego.  It’s nice to hear nice things but it isn’t very helpful if you really want to improve your script.  You want someone who can read a screenplay, not just understand it, but read it like they would read a book and get involved.  You want them to read for their entertainment, not for your edification.  After they’ve read it, you want their overall impressions and questions.  Those to things will let you know how close you are to doing what you’ve set out to do.  Not advice, or suggestions, unless you decide to ask for those things.

If you find someone who likes to read screenplays and will give you their impressions and ask the questions they have about the story.  They alone should be able to equip you for the next phase of revising your script.  The notegivers are fine, and the praise givers, too.  But there’s only one way to strengthen what you have, and it’s not by leaving it alone or changing it into something else.

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Marginal information

Screenwriting is a process in which you think for a long time and write in a short time.  The thinking portion of our journey has concluded and the writing is about to begin.  As you know a screenplay is made up of  sequences of scenes and each scene’s anatomy includes a slugline, action, character names, and dialogue.  You can use shots too, but I don’t recommend it in most cases.  For starters, the reader only sees what you describe anyway, so there are subtler ways to suggest how somebody views a scene.  Also, the director is the one who ultimately determines the shots so, personally I like to concentrate on my job without including directions like that.  That also goes for parentheticals that tell how an actor should read a line.  Unless it’s very ambiguous and can make a big difference in the scene, I don’t split hairs.

Screenplays are formatted in a specific way and if you can afford it, it is a good idea to get a screenwriting program like Final Draft, or Movie Magic Screenwriter that formats for you and remembers scenes and characters.  You can also download celtx for free.  If you want to just use your current word processor you can get the margins and other formatting info here.

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Careless Talk

What makes good dialogue is constantly under discussion.  People say they like dialogue that sounds like how people actually talk, but if you watch enough reality tv you’ll soon find out that unscripted dialogue from the mouths of “real” people is usually terrible.  It’s usually repetitive and completely lacking in subtext.  The idea is forced confrontation, but in stirring the pot, the directors fail to play out the drama in full and give depth to their players.  Thus reality tv is shallow, forced and ultimately boring.  Really entertaining dialogue is hard to write too.  You can try to hard to be witty, or not hard enough and imitate something you thought was funny when somebody else did it.  You come up with a different kind of forced dialogue.  Bad sit coms and commercials are rife with these types of performances, trying to cash in on a popular character by attempting to duplicate that style of talking.

As much as you want to get away from clichés in your storytelling, you should also avoid them in dialogue.  Right off the bat I can tell you three really bad lines: “Really?”  “I know.  Right?” and “I’m not gonna lie.”  Real life people memorize scripts to.  they repeat lines like this in everyday situations without thinking.  You may hear real people say it all the time but people should not be saying them in your movie.  Try to create the next thing people will constantly spew out without thinking.  You’re a writer, dammit.

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t listen.  You should.  A lot.  You should spend a lot of time around people and really here the words they use.  Even better, go to where the type of people in your script are and hear how they talk.  Watch what they do to.  spy on people.  take notes of distinct and even odd behaviors.  those are the things that are interesting and you may draw from that at some point.  As for dialogue, the idea is not so much to be realistic as it is to be natural.  You want to take the reality and give it a stylish flare that will have people believing, but also captivated by the gems spilling out of your characters mouths.

In reality shows, these poor people can’t say a single interesting thing.  That’s why scripted film and television exists.  Not everybody is the cast of Curb Your Enthusiasm.  and those that have improve training are in a sense, writers.  Actually, that’s exactly how I got into it.  Samuel L. Jackson has a gift for taking scripted words and making you believe they just flowed naturally from his brain to his mouth.  Tarantino writes incredibly stylized yet natural sounding dialogue.  Kevin Smith, had a hard time getting the natural to pair with his style until he found Jason Lee, who is his Samuel L. Jackson.  Suddenly, those unnatural words have a form and the breath of life where even Claire Forlani couldn’t get them to work.

The point is that you are a student of the language and you want to be informed by culture and conversational art.  You want to have as much truth to draw off of as you can, but you are also charged with making your story entertaining.  You must intrigue and delight your audience and dialogue is one of many tools to make this happen.  You can write with your own voice and leave it to the actors to give that voice substance.  You also have actors in your head portraying your purest vision of the characters.  you have a sort of baseline for their sort of speech.  As a writer, preparing a script you are under considerably less pressure than an improv artist and more is expected of you in return, so give those characters in your head direction and fish for fresher choices.  You already have the scenes mapped out so the dialogue is where it will all come together and your script will take on some life.

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Something to Talk About

One of the things you will have to look out for as your script takes shape is all of the possibilities that get lost along the way.  You may find yourself looking back at earlier stages where you made crucial decisions, some of which is necessary when you find that pieces of the plot need a little more substance, but don’t forget that the nature of refinement is filtering out ideas that might have otherwise found their way into your script.  Once you’ve got what you need, don’t look back.  Turn that exploratory eye toward a deeper and better story through the choices you have already made.  If you try to cram all of your ideas into one script it will lose its value and it’s focus.  So, stay true to your original vision and don’t let it get away from you.  Once you have your story outlined in a series of sequences and broken them down into actual scenes, it’s time to start a talking dialogue.

There are a lot of points to go over with dialogue.  You’ll often hear in film school and read in books and blogs that film is about showing not telling.  While this is true, it isn’t usually explained in the way that makes sense and it seems to downgrade the role of dialogue in a film.  What screenwriters ought to understand is the value of how visuals shoulder much of the responsibility of storytelling.  Dialogue has an important role, but that role is not to tell the story.  If you tell too much of whats happening through dialogue you are both misusing the medium and the characters.  The script will be viewed as amateur and even if it does get made– as Redbox has shown us that bad scripts often do– it will be acknowledged as a low-budget, poorly developed film.  The direction in films with overburdened dialogue will be uninspired, because they have nothing inspiring to show, and the actors will bear the worst of the criticisms for not being able to convincingly say what nobody actually would.

There are two matters to look at with dialogue.  One is what to say, and two is how to say it.  It isn’t a question of substance vs. style.  It’s a question of striking a chord with both.  The substance of the dialogue is going to be complex because you are dealing with the exchange of words and those words have hidden meanings beneath their surface meaning.  Rarely does anyone really say what they mean until the climax.  In the meantime, the characters’ true thoughts and feelings get bottled up and pressurized until they finally explode.  Dialogue is how the characters connect and relate while the story pushes them forward.  What they say is not without consequence, but it does not need to be directly tied in with the plot as long as there is a visual means to convey information the audience needs.

Every scene is about getting something and the end result, regardless of whether the goal is reached, is what pushes the story into new territory for the reader or viewer.  The motivation of the characters is the heart of the scene and is usually hidden, hence the popular question from an actor “What’s my motivation?”  You’ll use those needs to set up an obstacle course.  the motivation becomes a through line.  Each obstacle in the scene will mark a change in tactics or tone signaling a beat.  Actors need to dissect scenes like this to get to what they are playing.  A beat to a writer is like a brick laid to make a path.  If you have a character who has guests at his house, but is anxious about going out and greeting them, you may have a friend whose motivation is to convince him to go out.  What they talk about will be a tug of war, manipulating the situation for the benefit of one over the other.  The more you know about your characters the better off you will be when it comes to pulling from their experiences to create discussion.

A good rule of thumb is that in your script, the plot must feel as though it comes out of the discussion and not the other way around.  If the dialogue seems forced you may need to rework it and try another way to give exposition.  Dialogue does propel the story by promoting tension and revealing peripheral elements of the story that give baring to the circumstances and unfolding events.  Think about what your characters have between them to talk about.  Think bout what they want and where you want to take them.  Think about the characters’ reactions to the direction you have them facing.  You may end up writing a good couple of pages of dialogue before you get to the part of the scene that matters, and you will have to cut that stuff out when the time comes in order to fit it into the context of the complete script.

The substance of the dialogue will come from what the scene is about and what needs to happen, played against the personalities involved.  If the energy is not bouncing from character to character it will fall flat.  The energy is the motivation and if motivations are not engaged the scene will not be engaging.  Here is a sample of a scene I have memorized from Batman:

JACK

Brought you a snack Eckhardt.

ECKHARDT

Why don’t you broadcast it?

JACK

Shut up and listen.  Harvey Dent has been sniffing around

one of our front companies.

ECKHARDT

That’s my territory.  If there’s a problem I deal with it.

JACK

Your problems are our problems.

ECKHARDT

I answer to Grissom not to psychos.

In the scene, police lieutenant Eckhardt is taking a payoff from Jack Napier, who later becomes the Joker.  Jack is playing Boss, believing he is the true backbone of the “tired old man” Grissom’s whole outfit.  Eckhardt shows his loyalties are with the current boss Carl Grissom.  Later, Jack’s betrayal results in Grissom and Eckhardt staging a bust on the front company Axis Chemicals in which Jack and his team become targets.  While important plot information slips out during the scene, it isn’t forced out and is not the focus of discussion.  In the meantime the conflict is set up here in an alley, where the two players try to show each other who’s on top.  That’s what makes it interesting.

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Adaptation

I’m still working on transposing my notes into something more cinematic.  This is my least favorite part of screenwriting because I find the balance of progress to delay very difficult to manage.  It is exciting when you take an idea not yet applied to a visual or dramatic context and give it one.  It’s also not an easy task because you have to start over in a sense.  If you’re lucky you don’t have to change much and can simply adjust your notes to adapt to the screen.  That hasn’t happened for me yet.  Being forced to fit every story element into a scene always induces me to consider more dramatic choices and alternative areas to give focus too, which means I wind up discarding some of my cards and filling out new ones.  The energy required to follow through with this makes me reluctant to continue, and when I do get to work, I have to fight the urge to rush just to get the job done.  Currently, I am looking at two stacks of cards.  One, a set of carefully plotted sequences all made up of scenes, and the other a stringy shapeless narrative that serves as little more than a spine for the rest of the story.  When the first pile grows I will have a fully formed outline with all the DNA I need to construct an engaging and immersive story, but for now I have to muddle through and take my time to be thorough, but be careful not  to slow to a halt.

A couple of interesting things happened yesterday.  I popped in an old movie of mine fully expecting to hate it.  It was a no budget picture.  I mean, literally no budget.  I had a friend who served as DP, who bailed halfway through the production.  I think he ran off to Canada.  His phone was disconnected and I never heard from him.  His girlfriend did makeup.  She was good, but she left him before he went AWOL.  The production is very amateur.  We used all the production and editing equipment a $20 annual membership fee could afford (A unique luxury provided by the CAPS station in Ventura, Ca).  My friends worked for free.  The catch was, most of the cast was in my hometown of Fullerton and The filming equipment could only be rented for a day, unless we checked it out on Friday and returned on Monday.  Scheduling was a nightmare and the project almost didn’t get completed.  It would have been much smoother if I just had auditions at home and took a month to just hammer it out, but I have very talented friends and directing them was one of the best times in my life.

The production was riddled with off set drama and compromises that come from taking over a year to put together.  It isn’t a clean production, or a particularly reverent one.  We went with ideas just because they sounded cool or were funny/interesting at the time.  I was constantly rewriting the script.  Sometimes to get around a filming issue, sometimes to make up for laziness beforehand.  I still wound up with a couple of duds where I failed as a director to give the actors something interesting to do.  Some scenes made me cringe, but aside from all the apparent drawbacks I noticed something in the movie that I never saw or appreciated before.  It’s got a really good story.   The takes aren’t all perfect and I could go back and work on it some more and give it a more professional look, but I never would because there is magic in those moments that were created on digital video that one time.  Those moments will never be recaptured and I would rather have them than something polished.  I walked away from the viewing, not embarrassed or disappointed, but inspired.  What I now saw in the little 24 minute slice of life I never took much pride in writing was some real crisp, sharp storytelling that never once occurred to me at the time I wrote or filmed or even edited it.  It was like another person’s work, and I was critiquing it, supposing what the writer was thinking, but the writer was me and at the time, I was too close to the project to see what I had done.  How’s that for a trip?

Cut to: later on I watch Synecdoche New York for (almost) the second time.  I really enjoyed it.  Coming from anyone else it would have seemed pretentious, but I think Charlie Kaufman has a gift for turning pretense into truth.  Probably because the truth and pretension can be somewhat inseparable and to be more human is to be more pretentious in a way.  Actors playing actors on ever shrinking stages trying to get to the heart while portraying the whole has a futility to it that is as quickly recognizable as the irony of gleaning truth from theatre.  I love watching Charlie Kaufman talk.  I watched an interview afterward, talking about his films and he has great insights, particularly into how he works and what he tries to do in his writing, but even more fascinating is how inarticulate he can be when asked to talk about his films specifically.  Of course, subjectivity is a word that always pops up along Kaufman’s name for reasons as varied as the layers in his scripts, but it’s funny how I see something in his or another writer’s movie, and given the opportunity to discuss it, they seem not to see at all what I see and appreciate so much about their work.  That’s fascinating to me.

Eternal Sunshine followed by Adaptation are still my favorites, but Charlie brings so much intensity and detailed vision to Synecdoche that is truly awe-inspiring.  So, with my work half done and a little pick me up from a master storyteller and some work dug up from my past I’m now motivated to continue with my script today, if nothing else, for the curiosity of what I might find in it five years from now.

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Story to Script 3D (and…scene)

One of the most important steps in the process of going story to script is identifying connecting lines of story that have no drama.  Some of the stacks, or columns of your index cards might show only outcomes of scenes or the purpose of a scene without set-ups.  Try putting a slug line at the other side of cards that describe scenes.  Since a scene is anything that happens at the same time and place in your script, a slugline is basically an indicator of when and where your scene is happening.  A scene in the shooting script of Airplane! is marked by this slugline:

INT. DR. TURNANSKY’S OFFICE – NIGHT

INT. tells the reader that the scene is indoors, while EXT. means outdoors (interior/exterior).  The next segment of the slugline gives the location, and the final segment the time of day, usually DAY or NIGHT.  The purpose of a slugline is to efficiently convey information about when where and how a scene is to be shot.  In some cases additional information may be required on a slugline in parentheses.  If the scene is in a moving vehicle you would say: INT. BATMOBILE – NIGHT (MOVING).

Once you get sluglines on all the cards you can, think about how these scenes fit together on your protagonist’s journey.  Look for trials for your characters to face, and key moments that need to occur for the story to be told.  If you have a card that lists a discovery or outcome, go back and determine the event that leads to that outcome.  Think about the where and when and give sluglines to each of those other cards.  Write names of all the characters in the scene underneath the slugline to get a sense of where they are and who is missing.  Some scenes my not require description.  You could say “They fight,” for example without going into depth.  on the other hand, if you have someone dreaming, you can’t just say “He Dreams.” If you haven’t explored what he is dreaming, then you won’t be able to write a scene about it.

When all of the cards have a slugline and characters, you’ll have a thoroughly mapped out story ready to become a script.  Each card in front of you is going to become a 2 to 5 page scene.  A scene’s anatomy is made up of a slugline, action, character names and dialogue.  The action describes whats going on in the scene and includes set pieces, character entrances and exits, blocking, and props. Calling  shots is not necessary and neither are the parentheticals  that tell how an actor says their line.  What’s important, however, is telling as rich a story with each scene as you intend to tell with your whole script.

It is easy to start writing your script and be really thorough with your first couple of scenes only to lose interest in the specifics and focus solely on dialogue.  Don’t do that.  Every slugline in your deck of cards should fall subject to the recipe of a scene.  First, you’ll want to establish the set pieces, props, characters, blocking.  New characters are introduced in all caps.  Descriptions of a character should be short and illustrate just the primary points that your audience needs to know.  You need to also think about what the characters want and the obstacles pushing against them.  Your protagonist does not have to succeed in getting what he wants, but he does have to try for it against some opposition.

Each scene, like any good story, should have at least on turning point, or a “but then” moment.  As in Striker tells Elaine he can change, but then refuses to confront his past.  Later in the scene, his belief that he has a choice in the matter is challenged when he talks about his war record, but then Elaine suggests his record since the war is what’s hurting him.  Because it is not the whole story every scene, even the first one, should have a moment before and a moment after.  Sometimes, this is achieved by writing a scene, but actually having the scene not start until after page or two.  you should only be getting into the scene where it’s getting interesting.  Any set up should have happened in the previous scene, so don’t lose speed or waste time by setting the stage for a scene you should just jump straight into.

You will also want to play off of the concept of the moment before or after by consciously hooking your scenes together by raising questions the following scenes will answer.  A button is also necessary only this is put at the end of a scene to give it a satisfactory close.  If there is a moment after and there is, then the scene needs to effectively end early.  By giving it a button, you signal the end of the scene.  By giving it a hook, you drive the plot forward from the current scene to the next.  Be sure to always be honest.  Great material comes from how deep you are willing to journey within yourself and how open you are with your audience.  Let the humanity of the characters exude, but always try to keep things interesting, even at their expense.

When you put this amount of thought into the composition of all of your scenes, including “but then” twists, obstacles, motives, buttons, and hooks among the set pieces, blocking and characters your story will be well on its way to becoming a compelling script.  The only thing left to do is study dialogue.

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Story to Script II: The Reckoning

Going story to script you have to first have a story– at least a full-page of synopsis– to work with.  If you had to really stretch it at some points to make the length.  keep at it.  Let the ideas flow out and address those problem areas head on.  whether you came in short or spilled over onto other pages the same thing is key.  You have three acts that should break into approximately four equal parts act 1, act 2a, act 2b, and act 3.  At a glance you might be able to tell if some of the proportions are wrong.  Even if the synopsis seems balanced read through and search for inconsistencies in the level of detail.  Lots of detail is good, but if you load up on all the aspects of one scene that stands out in your mind and you gloss over some uncrystalized ideas with vague generalities, the time will come when you are under a time crunch and you will have to fill in the blanks with something.  The idea here is to know your story before you begin scripting it.  The better you understand it now, the more fluid and creative you can be when you apply your story to script form.

Hopefully you are really jazzed about your synopsis.  I know I always feel like I don’t have it in me.  Whether I’m struggling to get the right third act or figuring out how to plot the second, the mystery of it all causes me to question if I can even tell the story.  Ridiculous!  But it’s so exhilarating to dream up the puzzle pieces and put them into place.  Even if you don’t quite have a full-page, or if your synopsis takes four pages, finding the balance and pacing of your story becomes much easier with the use of index cards.  Since the cards can be shuffled around you can adjust your story much easier than you can with a normal list, or worse, paragraphs.  The idea here is to get all of those story elements out and give you some perspective on where you have holes that need to be filled.  The cards are also a great visual aid to indicate where you may be at on pacing. Continue reading

Turning point: Story to Script

Now is a really good time to start reading scripts.  If this isn’t a practice for you, I recommend it.  Watching a ton of movies is fun and can help when visualising your own movie in your mind’s eye, but the best way to understand the pacing and the anatomy of a script is to read one.  Drew’s Script-o-Rama is a good place to start looking for free readable screenplays.  You can also purchase your favorite screenplays at the cine file.

By now you have a rough idea of what you’re going for, so as you develop your story it doesn’t hurt to have some examples of successful scripts to compare to.  You’ll also get a feel of how a screenplay reads and consequently how you should write.  Screenplays are separated from other written works by more than just format.  They have their own way of illustrating events for the reader.  For starters, unlike most novels, screenplays are written in the present tense.  You are describing everything that takes place as though it is happening right now.  For some, it comes naturally and it may become difficult to write in past tense.  In some of my short stories, I have had difficulty with slipping in and out of tenses like a bad actor who can’t carry an accent.

Another, more serious obstacle to overcome is learning how to describe only what will be visible to the eye.  In books, you can write the thoughts and emotions of a character and draw from the abstract.  You probably don’t realize how often you describe what cannot be seen.  This means if something is important, it can not merely be included in the action part of the script, it must be spoken as a line, or shown visibly to the audience.  Learning how to write this way just comes from practice and learning how to recognize when you are telling something that cannot be shown.  Even if you plan on directing your own movie, it is work that must be accomplished.  If you write it poorly, you will need to come up with an alternative later on.

A terrific excercise is to write a deleted scene.  Use your main character but don’t make the scene be part of your movie.  It’s just a situation.  The scene will have no dialogue.  Just give it a slugline (INT. OFFICE–DAY) and beneath it will be a full-page of action.  Make a mini story, with a beginning middle and end, involving your character and no dialogue.  Read it carefully and ask yourself if there is anything you would have trouble filming.  if you want a fresh look, ask a friend, whom you don’t mind reading your stuff.  Keep tweaking it until you have a knack for the language.  This excercise and getting a good feel for how other scripts are written will help to get you in the mindset you need to get to work on writing your screenplay.

In the mean time, you have a very general synopsis of your story with a well planned beginning and end, and maybe a jumbled up middle with some key plot points.  You probably already have a couple of paragraphs worth written out, so start another page and fill this one with a thorough summary of your script.  Start with your first and third act summaries and flesh them out a little until they make up half a page.  Fill in the middle with whatever you’ve got for the second act and then some.  This is the really creative part.  Let your mind wander into possibilities.  create complications and find resolutions and always build toward your end result while keeping things fresh and interesting.  One quick and easy method to plotting your second act is to make your character want something other than the goal.  You can take him away from what he wants all while leading him where he needs to be.  The opposite works too.  Giving your character exactly what they want, leading them away from the goal.  If you go that route the turning point will have to swing your protagonist in the direction of the third act.  If you go the other route, you’re going to have to weigh out the characters intentions against the plot and resolve that conflict before he has to face the big bad at the end.

Think about the main through-line of the story, but also consider the relationships of your other characters.  what do they want?  How are they involved?  What possible side stories or sub-plots could better illustrate the theme.  My side stories come from the need to demonstrate a different side to a character than is needed for the main plot, but comes into play heavily as all things come to a head.  I also have a (gasp) romantic subplot.  Often complained about and misunderstood, even (especially?) by writers is the romantic subplot.  Many people believe this part of a movie is thrown in at the last-minute by a producer or someone who wants to expand the audience.  More likely, it’s written in, by the writer as a ploy for emotional investment, or to fill in gaps, or both.  People can see through a bad subplot, so make yours count.  While you are fleshing out the story, pay attention to pacing and balance.  Each sentence will probably describe a scene, or two, so try to imagine the story transitioning from line to line and see if your main character is over burdened and needs a break.  Order doesn’t matter at this point as much as just getting all of your main plot points written down.

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The Act 2 Wilderness

Act two is a complicated mess of possibilities, so it’s good to know where your coming from and where you are going.  The first act curtain should fall as your main character commits to his quest and passes a threshold from which there is no turning back.  The second act curtain should fall when he is taken to his lowest point.  He is close to the final stage and yet he is dealt one more setback or given a twist of fate or a change in direction that will lead to the third act climax.  In between those breaks is a wilderness.  and it’s important to keep up the pace, keep it interesting and make ends meet.

In a way, you can think of the beginning of the second act as a new first act.  It has parallels.  Where act one shows you the protagonist’s ordinary world, act two introduces a new world that he must discover and become accustomed to.  There is an introductory period where the rules of this world are established, whether it’s John Carter figuring out how to walk on Mars, or Ariadne learning how to be the architect of a dream in Inception.  New characters are also introduced here, such as a romantic interest, or a side kick if they have not yet been established.

A good rule of thumb, when considering the length of your script, is that one page is roughly equal to one minute on-screen.  Two hours (120 pages) is still fairly standard for a feature.  Many movies have been made needlessly longer than that and contain a good deal of filler that ought to have been cut.  Even very short films have the same problem with filler, though, while some three-hour films are the perfect length.  The key is not length, but content.  As a writer it’s best to avoid empty dialogue and unnecessary scenes and try to stay on target, but you also want to flesh out your story.  It’s better to have to trim it down than stretch it out.  It might be difficult to get a feel for the pacing, the way an editor can determine with film, but the story should always be interesting and keep moving forward.  Always try to keep your reader turning the pages.  Don’t give an excuse to put the script down.

In a 120 page script the second act will make up about 60 pages.  It will contain the bulk of the journey and the escalating action.  Based on your third act breakdown, you probably have some idea of plot points that need to be accomplished and ideas that must be explored, as well as some natural sources of conflict that will need to be included.  This is a great starting point for mapping out your act two journey.  There are also some natural steps in drama that are fulfilled here in the second act.  After the new world and rules are established there will be a turning point, that can happen anywhere in the second act.  It’s preferable to have it nearer the center of your script than the end of act two, because it tends to become more a part of the story and seem less like an afterthought.  Wherever you include it it’s that pivotal point in the script where your character’s quest is refined and the inevitable begins to come into view.  The turning point is not necessarily a transparent indicator of what’s to come, but it should coordinate with the climax, so that the ending will be satisfactory and nicely round out the story.  In Jaws the Orca is attacked during the night and the hull is breached causing the ship to begin sinking.  This turn of events heightens the drama, while simultaneously adjusting your expectations of what is going to happen.

In the hero’s journey your hero will have a moment called seizing the sword, which is often literally the acquisition of a sword that is meant to help him complete the journey.  It can also be a symbolic sword manifesting as some tool, or strategy that is likely to lead to success, although things rarely go according to plan.  It’s not a cheat for your hero, It’s rarely even an advantage, but something necessary to level the playing field.  another important point is the inmost cave.  Sometimes a trap, sometimes a retreat, but it is a time of solitude and introspection that the character must go through before moving on to act three.  In the second act alone there should be about six sequences of rising and falling action that will result in an act break and lead to the set up for the final battle.  There are twelve sequences in all which will help us as we dig deeper into our stories and work out the details.

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