Monday, 28 January 2013

Screenwriting # 4 – Finding the story and peer review sites.

Writing a story is a creative endeavor. It is not about analysis. It is not about formulaic guidelines, it is about the story.

Find a great, original story and tell it well and you’ll find support for your screenplay.

I’ve said many times before, I am not against learning everything there is to know about structure – in fact I urge everyone to do so, it will make you a great story editor, a great script editor, a great dramaturge and script doctor – it will also make you a better writer, but it will not help you think up a great story.

It will help you identify if a great story idea can be turned into a great story and it will help you identify if your story idea is fit for film, TV, theatre or a short or long form novel. It will also help you with the sub categories of each – for example, in television - have I written a mini series, a serial or a series? Should the idea be played for laughs as a comedy or better to make it a drama or a cross between the two, the now popular – dramedy, (The Descendants). And there are many more decisions that knowing as much as possible about the analysis of and the structures of story will help you decide.  

But the study of structure and formula, in an academic sense often become a barrier to original ideas.

It’s a little like HR departments in large corporations using complicated and sophisticated psychological tests to identify ‘the best’ candidates to employ – ignoring almost completely if that ‘best’ person, as judged by the company credos, ethics and work culture, is truly the best person for the specific task that needs to be performed.

The same is sometimes the case with analysis and theoretical study. Examples are given and learnt about what to do and what not to do within a well structured story. Many potential storytellers allow these ideas to become arbitrary rules and then let these ‘rules’ deny the exploration of a story from the moment the idea strays from the learnt structural path. If an idea doesn’t meet the model adopted, learnt and embraced by the practitioner, they declare it dead before it’s been properly explored.

 I call it story development myopia - an inability to see beyond the nearest hurdle.
“That’s plot.”
“The set up’s too long.”
“There’s no antagonist.”
“I don’t believe the premise.”
And on and on the problems go that stop an idea from being fully explored and each one is delivered with such finality that no further discussion is had, certainly not by a new writer in the face of someone with experience delivering the fatal problem critique.

If learning about structure and form becomes a self censorship of ideas by a storyteller it limits any idea that isn’t conceived fully formed.

This is certainly the rule of thumb being used by managers, story editors, producers, readers and many others in the industry who are asked to sift through the many submitted ideas. That’s how it should be.

When you send an idea out into the world with the hope of having it produced it needs to be sound and polished, but how, as a writer, do you wade through the often muddy waters of development without adequate feedback from knowledgeable practitioners?

Only knowledgeable practitioners can truly understand the process of development, as opposed to the brutal world of accept or reject that lies at the finished end of a script being submitted.

It is absolutely correct that someone pitching an idea to be read or produced by a professional should have that idea structured to a point where it is bulletproof – but it is creative death for people to dismiss a story because it doesn’t fit a structural model at the earliest draft stage.

For a writer with a project in a development phase it becomes extremely frustrating trying to get support, input and advice to develop an idea without the damning judgment that may be detrimental to your reputation and career as a writer.

Firstly it may literally kill or deaden your creativity as damning critiques zap you of any confidence you may have had. Secondly – at least with the person or company you sent the project to, if they were expecting a polished draft and believe this early draft is the very best you can do, they may list you as a writer never to be read again.

What you need to find is a circle of trusted friends or colleagues who understand a story may be a working idea through the first few drafts. You’ll know when you’ve found these people because they’ll ask questions and make an effort to understand what the story is you’re trying to tell and they will NEVER slam insignificant or easily fixed aspects and label them as reasons you or your idea have little future, either as a project or as a writer.

Avoid these soul killers at all cost – if they are writers they are inexperienced ones. They certainly have yet to understand, or do not share the experience and frustration of development. They are pointing out all the mistakes you have made, in formatting, in text, in font selection and style because it’s what’s most easily learnt in a parrot fashion and many also find it a boost to the ego to be able to show just how much more they know about how to write and present a screenplay.

The truth is, unless you’re a producer, a teacher or some other industry professional looking for a completed polished draft to produce or to be at a producible level, these insignificant, easily fixed issues should be noted as a courtesy, without comment or judgment. Those harsher responses to presentation or structural missteps should be confined to the industry professionals.

As peer reviewers and fellow writers we should be the first to understand that ideas don’t always translate effortlessly into a well structured first draft of a screenplay. We should be commenting on the story, the characters and the logic. Did you believe it, did it entertain you, did it achieve what you gleamed from the writer as the goal of the story? Was it the story promised in the log line and the synopsis? Is there something in the idea that is worth pursuing and may not yet be realized fully – if so, how can you help the writer separate the good from the bad and remain as positive about the work as possible as they take it forward? And how can you help them reach that next, better structured draft?

 A good editor/development colleague/script doctor will do all of this - point silly format, typo, or logic mistakes out to simply bring them to your attention in case they have slipped through. Their main focus will be on helping you take your story to that next level because they understand the development process.

They may point out that your set up is currently 35 pages long and needs to be trimmed by at least 10 to 15 pages, but they should also understand that you, as a writer, may need to have written 35 or 40 or even more setup pages to discover your characters and find out what is needed and what is important for the story to come. You may have needed to over write to discover how and what it is that CAN be cut. These readers need to dig around to understand why it’s currently too long, not label you as an amateur for missing the page 15-17 inciting incident and page 22 transition into the second act. That’s simply not helpful and only proves they’ve tied themselves to the structural paradigms so tightly that their structural understanding is now leading their storytelling and not the other way around.

Cutting is easy. Creating is hard. Once you have a great story that works on every level, it is far easier to then edit it to meet the structure than it is to create a story by following the structure. Make sure you as a writer also understand the development process – which is why I say, never ever send your work out too soon. Accept that the draft you just finished, the one you are excited about and are sure is genius on every page, will be attacked by the night demons who take brilliance and turn it into crap over night. Your genius first draft is colored by your enthusiasm of just completing your story. Let it settle. Let some trusted fellow writers read it and give you feedback and be honest with yourself about what they say. Do not immediately send it out into the world to be produced - trust me, it's not ready.

Send it to the right people first – your circle of colleagues, writing buddies who you can rely on to give the feedback you need to develop your ideas. If you haven’t found these people yet then join one of the very good peer review sites – my personal choice is Talentville
But there are many others....

Once you’re on these sites, take some time to read other people’s reviews of other people’s scripts and you will very quickly see and feel the difference between someone who is concentrating on the development process of the story and someone who is scoring points by making a big song and dance about all the formatting and structural aspects that a screenplay has missed.

Once again – it’s fine to point these things out, but there are bigger issues to look at in a story sense, especially when we are dealing with early drafts on a peer review site, and simply listing as a courtesy, typos, formatting errors or structural beats that miss the ‘generally accepted’ page numbers is all that is ever needed. How a writer then decides to cut 20 pages from an act is up to them and ultimately, this is what will determine whether or not they have managed to do their story idea justice.

So find people who help you define and focus your story. Learn the craft and always get better at it – in fact, as I’ve also said before in earlier posts, learn it so well you don’t have to think about it, but will write your story to those beats automatically. That’s the level you want to finally get to as a screenwriter – then you can concentrate all your energy and talent on the story being told and making it as entertaining s possible and not be restricted or thwarted on any level by the format and structural restraints that need to be met. You will have found a storytelling Zen at this level – where your story meets the structure organically, or so it will seem. In fact, your unconscious mind, so aware and at one with the structural requirements, will order and find a way to allow your new story to develop fairly closely to the desired structures.

But don’t put too much pressure on yourself – getting to that level takes a different amount of time for every writer. Some arrive there early, some take decades. You arrive at that point when you arrive – it’s a how long is a piece of string situation – just don’t give up before you do and remember, in the meantime, the development process, supported by fellow creative’s you have come to trust and who become fans of your work, will and should also be used. As you advance the only difference will be the quality of your first draft that you send out to those people for feedback, but, I believe every script and every writer benefits from good development feedback, no matter how good or accomplished they may be.  
When you find your ‘circle’ of development friends/colleagues – never take them for granted, return the favor, always read and return notes for them quickly or as quickly as you’d like them to reply with notes to your manuscript and then guard them with your life, they will be the difference between your success and failure.

As to the process of developing an idea, on rare occasions, that great idea arrives fully formed and simply needs to be skillfully written and tweaked, but most often a good idea grows.

It usually arrives in your mind as a coded mess of ideas. In amongst the roses will be a huge stinking pile of manure and it takes creative minds to put up with the stench and sift through the excrement to get to the idea that’s worth saving.

 That’s a little harsh – but often, to a story generating mind, this is how tabling an idea feels. No-one else wants to touch it. And yet, you are convinced there is something worthwhile in the idea, even when no-one else does.

We persist with the idea. We keep coming back to it until we find what it is that attracts us. We can feel there’s a seed of an idea deep within. And sometimes, that seed needs the fertilizer around it to grow, before it becomes strong enough to stand alone.

People’s minds often get trapped by what they’ve learnt. It becomes like a bad improvisational partner blocking every new path taken.

The problem with today’s sophisticated study of story structure is that it doesn’t encourage or help to build strong creative story minds. The structure details a thousand reasons why an idea shouldn’t be pursued. There are very few tools to help someone with an idea that is structurally flawed but interesting. There is very little study of how you help a writer work that structurally flawed idea into a form where it can be accepted as a sound story.

A great script editor, script doctor or development analyst should be like a detective at this early stage. They should hunt out your story and, if they get the chance, ask pertinent questions to make sure they understand what it is you are trying to achieve within that story – then and only then should they work towards helping you get there with their notes.

Too many times the well schooled analyst jumps in too quickly and rips your idea apart because it has failed to fit the model they work to. Then they re-imagine the project, using your best ideas in a framework that is their story and not yours.

 If you’re still trying to grab the tail of a tale as it flashes by your mind, you shouldn’t have to give it up because some arbitrary rule says that your idea, in its current form, fails to live up to the standard as defined by script guru X in their chapter about Y. And I bet those same script gurus never intended their structural models to be met by an idea in development. Their models relate to ideas that have been through development. They deal with sound stories, debugged of logic flaws and with appropriate character motivation. Only in that state should a story be required to meet the structure – not when it’s in its earliest development stages.

Your idea may not get there. Many ideas won’t. But never dismiss something that interests you without really pushing it around and trying to find a way through. Even then, when it doesn’t work, shove it back into that drawer in your mind and occasionally, when you’re waiting for a bus or walking alone, give it another run. Never say never to an interesting idea. But equally, never be put off by the many people who will hear your initial idea and dismiss it with a seemingly well informed ‘rule’ that they are certain prohibits your idea from ever being sound.

The Story Idea

Very few people can find a story from this.

If you’re one of them don’t take it for granted. To you it seems easy – you’re a story generator. If coming up with ideas hasn’t always been easy, then maybe you’re one of the other personality types who has found a way to become a story generator. There are pros and cons in each.
(See previous post on what type of story mind are you)

As long as you have regular ideas for stories then there are other things you really should come to terms with and consider. This is where you have to be realistic about the world we live in and the mass audience you are hoping to attract with any project. The bottom line is that entertainment is a business and you have to attract a crowd to stay in business.

 You have to allow yourself to stop being politically correct, religious, ethical, moral and all the other aspects that makes us, what we like to think of as, civilized. You have to be hard-nosed and realistic about the rest of the world and take into account where a majority of film and TV viewers come from; where their attitudes sit and what they will tolerate and what they will not.

In short – you have to be able to channel a right wing shock jock and the closeted conservative hockey mom.

Why spend months or years to write up an idea and put in the amount of work needed to get it to a level where a professional reader/producer/director will read it and consider your screenplay – if the story has little or no hope of success because of elements within it that are deemed too risky to offer to a mainstream audience?

I would never say don’t write or don’t shoot for the moon – you should and you must. But if you have even two story ideas, write the most likely to be produced first; the less controversial; the less risky.

For instance – is the world ready for a Gay Rom Com? No. No mass audience will go to see a tender, funny, endearingly romantic story about two guys falling for each other. A section of the filmgoers will, the gay and more liberal minded. Even many gay and liberal minded non film goers will go and see this type of subject matter. It’s a niche film – a smaller but dedicated audience. But the larger mass market is not ready to cheer on two guys getting together.

As much as I hate this aspect of the entertainment industry – think for a moment as if you were Rush Limbaugh. And that means consider every negative, homophobic, xenophobic, sexist, elitist, religious, pro life, sexually restrictive and even racist thought that still exists in the world and ask yourself – does my story need to go there. Do I need to challenge those aspects or even comment on them?

If your story needs it, and you genuinely have something to say and are not just creating controversy for the sake of being bold and getting noticed, then do it well and I wish you all the success in helping to change and heal this world of narrow-mindedness. That’s a really important and valid goal for a creative mind to aim for. BUT – if you gain nothing from the choice except the controversy, take it out. Why alienate anyone if you gain nothing from it.

A character who calls a woman a bitch for no real reason – cut it. A teenage girl who gets pregnant and has an abortion as a subplot, when that subplot if a short film within your main film without any real affect on the main storyline, cut it. This is a risk reward type situation. Why give additional reasons, other than the many already on offer, for someone to pass on your script?  

This is one of the least talked about, but most important aspects of the industry. It is least talked about because it’s shameful. The industry – and indeed all artists, of which film creators on every level are surely included, should be trying to lead society towards greater acceptance and understanding of every aspect of our world through the stories we tell.

In the large part I think we do, but nine times out of ten, without any clout or power, a new film maker or a writer, without considerable credits to their name, will have to change and revise a script in order to get it made in line with the wants and needs of network executives who are desperately trying to ensure as large an audience as possible sees any film that gets produced.

The rock and hard place a writer gets caught between is to stand firm and never have a career, or bend to those requests and be produced. Hopefully you will eventually have enough power and prestige to be able to push ideas through, but, for a long time, at the start of your career and for many – for their entire career, having a career will entail towing the line to some degree.

So although we may all cringe when we’re told that a subsidiary character need not be a down’s syndrome child, as much as we may want to portray this character in film because it’s part of our real world and as much as you may feel it adds to the sibling relationship – unless there is an imperative motivation and significant pay off that makes it necessary to have a character with those characteristics, it is likely to be removed or sores still, be the reason someone passes on your script.

So do go to these places, but be aware it will make it harder for you to make a sale. Just ask yourself right at the beginning if the choice is an imperative or a personal want. If you’re a great writer you can probably make it an imperative – well done you – but if you can’t, and you have other options, even if it means writing another story, with fewer or no controversial issues, first – you should. Why dampen a producer’s enthusiasm in your project or in you if you can avoid it.

That was actually much harder to write than I thought it would be. I really detest this aspect of the industry. It’s why actors remain closeted - because they and studios know they cannot play action heroes or leading romantic men if the general-public become aware of their sexual orientation. It’s why older women stop being sexual beings and why there are so many virginal teens on television and so few in the real world. I could go on with a thousand examples of a world audience that demands certain standards in fictional characters while allowing and overlooking the same things in the real world.

But back to story:
The things you should consider once you have an idea are:
Is it an entertaining story?
Who will it appeal to?
Who will it offend?
What sort of budget is involved?
What sort of production constraints does it have?
Is it a movie that is likely to breakthrough and be produced for a new writer?
Have there been similar movies?
Have there been similar movies recently?
Are there any similar movies in production or about to be released?
Are there any other aspects that make your idea more difficult to produce?

You need to consider all these aspects once you have your good idea. And remember I am not saying these things should stop you writing a story, but some of them should stop you writing it in certain ways, or help you to make changes at this very early stage and save yourself an extraordinary amount or work and emotional angst – and even, on some occasions these questions should dictate that you prioritize the writing of one idea over another, simply because one is easier to produce and more likely to be your breakthrough project because of that.

I cannot tell you how many writers I have come across who are writing their first screenplay and proudly declare it is part of a three or five part trilogy/franchise. There is no real resolution in the first or even the second film because it’s all explained and comes together in the final film.

Even if you are a writer/director with some credibility, have written short films or been an assistant director or other crew member for umpteen films, getting the green light for one film is an incredibly hard task. Why make your breakthrough script an epic that will change cinematic history? The idea would need to be so original and well written that it is undeniable – because the hurdle of being an unproduced writer and getting your script even read, let alone considered by a producer/director/ manager or agent is a large one.

I always ask this question of the stories I think up and work through to a script:
Would I be prepared to sell everything I had, to liquidate everything, in order to finance this idea towards being produced as a film?

That is what you are asking someone else to do; to put their money into your idea. How can you expect them to risk hard earned money if you have any doubts about doing so yourself?

All the questions above need to be considered. If your screenplay is across three continents, has helicopters, crowd scenes, if it attacks religion, focuses on contentious social issues, social issues that are in any way off putting (regardless of how politically correct this may or may not be), if it shows enough violence to get a restricted rating, is derivative of other well known films and any other negative aspect you can possibly think of, many special affects, stunts or CGI, if there are any other production issues that need to be addressed, regardless of how trivial or seemingly baseless – then, if you can adjust or write them out – you should. If you have other simpler ideas you should write the first. If the ideas you have to choose from are relatively equal in entertainment terms, why wouldn’t you prioritize the simplest ahead of the more complicated, especially if you are an unproduced first time writer?

This sounds negative – so I’ll say it again to be absolutely clear – I am not saying ditch the idea, and by all means write it if it’s the only or best idea you have. But if you have any other ideas of equal quality – go with those first?

Personally I encourage everyone to try and change the world through their art – be it writing or any other creative endeavor. But if you are trying to break through then give yourself every opportunity to establish yourself first and change the world next week.

To be cynical and a little depressing – here’s the best formula to go from being an unproduced screenwriter to being a produced screenwriter.

1/ Find a setting where 2 to four people will be confined: In a house, a cabin, a wood at night, a locked warehouse, underground tunnels, an island or desert – just nothing that requires a big build or a high rent to secure the location for production.
2/ Create a terror, the unknown is best, flashes of a thing that may or may not be supernatural or a monster/mutation of something and give it a reason to terrorize, to exact revenge, pick off slowly or try to scare away your cast.
3/ Come up with a clever reason why personal footage would be used – a hand held camera, CCTV footage, a webcam, a live web feed or other and integrate this into your footage.
4/ Create a mystery, one of two cast survived, or none and someone new is trying to uncover what happened. Make it chilling, intense, slow desperate terrorized panic with occasional uncontrolled high energy flights for survival.
5/ Ensure the basic underlying story is good, entertaining and original and have a twist that unravels all we’ve seen and explains it as something intriguing and fascinating in the final scenes.

This gives you a low budget horror film and if you can couple that with an original, entertaining story and some fascinating, thought provoking and unexpected twists, you’re almost guaranteed to get some bites from producers looking for a film to make on a shoestring.

After all, producers and directors face exactly the same problems as writers in their journey to get a produced credit to their name – so offer up something that has a chance of being noticed and is easily and affordably produced and it will be a match made in heaven for all three, producer, director and writer. 

Next: The Beat Map

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