Saturday, 31 August 2013

Screenwriting # 5 – The Beat Map.

So you’ve got your great story idea – now what?

You need to work it from start to finish and make it as logically sound and as entertaining as you can.

There is nothing worse than writing a first draft of something and having someone shoot it down with a very simple question that instantly makes your stomach drop. Their question is an obvious one and you haven’t addressed it. You haven’t even thought of it. But now it’s asked you can see it undermines or destroys your entire plot - it blows a huge hole in the logic of your story.

“Why wouldn’t she just go home and find out where he is?” – It can be that simple and it usually is. So simple you completely overlooked it as you looked ahead to your killer story unfolding. And then you start adding justifications to ‘paper over’ the hole in your logic. You’ve all seen this done, where great slabs of exposition or convoluted little scenes that attempt to explain why she didn’t do the most obvious thing are added. You almost never get away with a patch job.

This is where your beat map comes in. Think of the story as a jigsaw puzzle and the beat map as all the pieces, grouped together into categories and laid out on a table that is your mind, ready to be placed to make your story understood.

What am I talking about – I have a jigsaw of Paris. I have sky, I have the city and I have the river.
  1. Sky
  2. City
  3. River

That is my initial beat map of my visual story of Paris. So I list those elements. Then, for each element I break things down further – the sky has areas of blue, some clouds, some white, some dark, some billowing, some thin – it has the sun. Just note these and place them close to the larger beat of ‘Sky’.
  1. Sky
  2. Blue
  3. White cloud
  4. Dark cloud
  5. Billowing cloud
  6. Thin cloud
  7. Sun

Likewise, the city of Paris has the Eiffel Tower, The Arch De Triumph, Champs Elyse, Notre Dame and countless other visual landmarks; the booksellers, the cafes, the cobblestones and we can go on and on into the smallest details.

The only difference with a story is in the telling. You may have decided to tell the story in a linear or some other style, so the story will have an order – but it is essentially the same process. Just list everything you know in order to tell the story the way you want - from start to finish. Make it as simple as you can - so anyone can understand it.

Don’t worry at this point about the three act structure. Just arrange your story in very simple, very short beats. Think of them as bullet points – the shortest descriptions possible to describe the major moments of your story to take it from start to finish.

This is a beat map. And a beat map can grow. It can begin with very large sections held within very small concise beats:
1.      A girl meets a boy.
2.      They fall in love.
3.      He does something stupid
4.      She finds out and leaves him
5.      He wins her back.

You don't even have to be certain of beats at this stage - "He does something stupid" - just list what you know, even if you only know vaguely what should be there.


To begin with you need an idea for a story.

When I do standup I have what we call a running list. It’s usually obscure headings that mean something to me. Each of these is a self contained idea and there can be a good five minute set in each listed title, but I only need to see the bullet point to know exactly what the five minutes covers. For instance: ‘Jews have cool hats’ is my bullet point, and this is what it covers.

This will be the same with you and your story when you are creating the beat map. The simpler you can make it to begin the better it will be and the easier for you to evaluate what you have. You may know great slabs of detail within some beats and little within others, but go through the process of writing the beats as concisely as possible to begin.

1/ Red Riding hood wants to visit her grandmother.
2/ She’s warned not to go through the wood.
3/ She’s running late and goes through the wood.
4/ She meets the wolf who asks where she’s going.
5/ The wolf goes to Grandma’s house and eats Grandma.
6/ Red Riding Hood arrives and thinks Grandma looks odd.
7/ Red discovers the Wolf in the nick of time.
8/ A huntsman comes and rescues Red by killing the wolf.

That’s a story, from start to finish.

The first thing you want to know is, does my idea work as a story?

A lot of these things are judgment calls and your success or lack of it will depend entirely on that judgment – this is part, but not all of what we call ‘Talent’. You cannot teach something that is instinctive. You can learn it, but it takes great discipline and patience if it isn't given as a natural gift – that’s my belief anyway. 

How well you see the world, how well you see and define others and then transcribe them, how well you understand complex situations and then transcribe them into your writing and finally, how creatively you can render those moments to recreate them as a form of entertainment is all part of what we’ve come to call talent. You can certainly gain these gifts over time and by being realistic, open and empathetic as you live life and travel a journey as a writer, vowing to get better and grow as a person with a better understanding of the world you live in. If you ever feel you’ve arrived, that you have nothing left to learn or your skills are equally awesome across all genres… I have some very bad news for you.

It is a healthy and usual process to feel, at times, that you are writing crap and should give up. I know it seems counterproductive, but wanting to give up is a sign you shouldn’t – it means you’re still learning and getting better.

But it’s also one of the reasons why I advocate asking the really hard questions at the very beginning. Nothing is more soul destroying than to be in that euphoric state of a newly completed work, send it out into the world and have it shat upon by everyone. It’s crushing. Robert McKee advocates throughout his book, STORY, (in particular read chapter nineteen – The Writer’s Method), where he gives the best description you’ll ever find between an amateur writer and professional and the essence of his argument is in the planning of the story before any writing begins. This is where the hard work lies. And this is why amateurs rush into the joyous work of creating the first draft before the hard work of planning is complete.

I take months to get a story to a point where it is ready to be written. A lot of this time may actually be more in my head than hard grind at a desk, but it’s still about getting my story into order and that takes time.

I will take another 2-4 months, minimum, to actually write the first draft of a script. So that’s quite a bit of time and that’s my best scenario, I’ve had scripts, plays or novels that have taken me years to get from start of the idea to finished manuscript.

Now wouldn’t it be great if you could see a major hurdle on day one of that process and pull up? Some stories don’t work even in the most skillful of writer’s hands. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to spot these torturous journeys before you had wasted months or years heading down the wrong path?

Sometimes, like the question posed in my final query – “is it likely to sell?” I can decide this is a great story, but maybe I should put it away until I have a little more of a reputation and I can get something made that seems a little riskier. The story of Jesus, portrayed as a gay man, involving a cast of thousands and explicit sex scenes, may not be the ideal project to try and break through with. Just saying.

The point of the beat map is to help you find all these questions and answer them as you make your story stronger and to do this before you ever write line one. You are searching for the stories logical through line, story arc, from start to finish. That’s all. At this stage you shouldn’t be thinking about structure. Where is the first act turning point/inciting incident? Who cares! If there’s no significant entertainment value beyond a perfectly structured story, if there are no higher themes being explored or reasonable end points being aimed for – does it really matter at this stage if you got the timing right?

Entertain us!

For instance – Red Riding hood seems pretty boring to me – it has its moments, but there’s a lot of logic problems along the way.

Why is she running late and is this enough to make her disobey the warning she’s been given?

Is the Huntsman arriving to save her too convenient?

Does this story work to an audience, is it likely to sell, are producers and directors likely to be interested in this genre and style? 

Why is a wolf talking and acting like a human?

Why does the wolf go to such lengths in order to eat Red Riding Hood, wouldn’t he be full already by the time he’s eaten Grandma?

How and why does the huntsman just to appear and save Red?

What is the end result of all this. Can Red really enjoy being saved by the hunter given her granny’s blood and guts are smeared around her on the cabin’s walls?

Of course Red Riding hood is a fairytale that deals in metaphor and base fears and superstitions.

The wood is the sum of everyone’s fears. You have to eventually pass through to the other side – to confront your fears; the wolf an expression of that fear. Grandma’s house is safe haven. The hunter the hero standing vigilant to keep you safe – and on it goes.

But a simple beat map can explore the idea, without structuring it, in a simple and clear way so you can see if an idea is strong enough to create a story that is logical and entertaining. Then that story must be substantial enough to warrant a movie/play/novel – or maybe the beat map show it has characteristics that would better suit a miniseries or TV serial or series.

It can all be answered in a beat map – and before any structuring has even come into play, let alone a line of your manuscript written.


Here’s an idea I’ve had kicking around in my head for some time: I often feel it’s better and more helpful to illustrate things from genuine working examples that come off a blank page, rather than working backwards from a finished and produced script. 

First, a production script and a final writer’s draft script are often very different. And second, often the script is an award winning script – so of course it fits the model. How about helping me with a blank page and a convoluted set of points I can’t unravel? This is the creative process – not analysis or deconstruction of something complete – this is about how a creative person takes a blank page and turns it into something that is worth having produced.

The Beat map – a working example.

  1. -          A flood in a small town (How small?) causes havoc. The town is cut off and much of the rural country side has been flooded.
  2. -          As the town’s folk clean up and assess the damage, the local sheriff is called to a number of bodies that have been discovered.   
  3. -          The first mystery – the gore, decomposing, skeletal bodies hanging from trees and in paddocks.
  4. -          He realizes the bodies are long dead. He finds coffins, proving the bodies come from the cemetery and the flood has eroded much of the land and sent previously buried bodies floating.
  5. -          As the town recovers from the flood, the gruesome task of identifying and reburying bodies begins.
  6. -          The morgue and the sheriff cross reference with the cemetery and they have identified each body ‘exhumed’ by the flood – but they have two bodies of young women over what they should have. One can be identified as a missing backpacker who recently travelled through town.
  7. -          Rumors begin, accusations. The second body, also a young woman is identified.
  8. -          The strong silent, good looking loner who lives on the outskirts is suspected. (Why? How?)
  9. -          They discover a coffin lid washed well downstream. Assumed damage was due to being swept along in the flood, but a small fragment of an acrylic nail has been discovered in the wood and the wood deeply scratched – conclusion – one of the girls was buried alive.
  10. -          The scratched coffin turns out to be from a woman buried in the last six months. (Related to someone?)
  11. -          Something to increase suspicions that the killing of young women is not isolated.
  12. -          The sheriff, on a hunch, exhumes a few other recently re-buried bodies and discovers two coffins with two bodies in each and the telltale scratched lids indicating the second body in the coffin was alive.
  13. -          Linked to undertaker, a man who is a little slow, who has some link with strong silent good looking loner.
  14. -          Strong silent good looking guy seen with a girl, backpacker passing through.
  15. -          The backpacker goes missing. (Feels like it should be her in the coffin and a ticking clock to find her – but how, why and wouldn’t she be easily found if others new she was buried in a coffin in a cemetery?)
  16. -          Town becomes almost vigilante mentality against strong silent good looking guy. The only one who thinks he’s innocent is the sheriff – (maybe a woman – ala Fargo)
  17. -          I think earlier he needs to be questioned - he slept with many of the town’s women and many of the tourists who pass through. Sherriff a little shocked even – knew he was  man whore but not that much.
  18. -          Strong Silent Good looking guy is a bit of a man-whore who sleeps with many – except never with local plain Jane who has lost weight, had plastic surgery etc – but still can’t get him to notice her. She’s been killing off anyone getting close to him. (Has the investigation and the Sheriff’s nagging doubt he’s innocent created some sexual energy between them. When they make it more than just tension and get physical it – a/ her investigation and b/ brings in the killer now targeting the sheriff. Is the missing girl being held, in a new location – the flood making burying in cemetery unfeasible.     

Can you feel me working the story around to help me see it clearer? It’s a mess at the moment. I am sure these notes are clearer to me than anyone else, but even I get confused about some aspects as I read them, so I imagine those of you reading cold will be very lost.

But that’s okay, That’s part of the process and this is my process. You will find your own way of notating an idea and asking yourself questions or ‘filling in the gaps’ as you plan. So I'm not advocating you copy my process, I'm just putting it out there as an example because I find it useful to know how other people work. Sometimes I steal huge portions of someone's process, sometimes barely anything - but almost always I find that listening and understanding other people's processes helps me in some way.

This beat Map is not yet a story. It’s getting close. It has a lot of ‘knowns’ as ‘Rumsfold’ would say. It also has a lot of his ‘known unknowns’ – these are things that I know I don’t have yet, but know I need so I have, in most cases, been able to ask a pertinent question about the missing ‘known unknown’ – that is, a question about a piece of the beat map that I don’t have yet. I know that it’s missing and what it should be conceptually, even how it fits in, but I don’t know what it is yet.

I should also note that characters and even the focus of the whole story may clear up or change through this process. I am feeling very strongly, now, after my initial beat map, that this is the sheriff’s story – her investigation. And she wasn’t even a she when I first had the idea for this story – in fact the character of the sheriff wasn't even in my view - but it was obvious I needed an investigator of some kind very quickly as I laid out my beat map. 

You can see how laying things out and making the links that support and strengthen those elements around help to define and even make choices for you. You just have to be open for them and willing to listen to what the logic of the piece tells you. If you head in with something too firmly in your mind and you’re too precious or stubborn to move from that view – you’re never going to get anywhere.

All of the things I can think of get listed in the beat map. Along with all the things I can’t think of – the gaps. Gaps, for me, stand for the ‘unknown unknowns’ – and these are the worst aspects of an emerging story. Because any one of the unknown beats could suddenly reveal this story is going nowhere; it’s illogical and not worth pursuing.

For interest’s sake I will admit this idea has been dumped upon by at least one established producer, although he is someone who deals in complete stories that fit the structure. And this is exactly why I preach what I preach about finding people who understand the creative process of development, not simply people who are good judges about whether a piece fits the desirable structural model. 

The producer who dissed this is not a story developer who can see something emerging. His response came within seconds of me detailing what I had –
“Where’s the story?” he asked. 
“Why is someone killing the people just to bury them again?”
He went on to make it clear he thought little of the idea. The entire exchange took less than 30 seconds and killed my pitch. But it underlines the difference and frustration of trying to develop a story with people who don’t know what development is.

BTW - This was a senior producer of one of the big production companies and a good friend. Had he not been a friend I would never have run the idea past him at such an early stage – not until I’d worked it to a point where I knew it worked. That was my writer’s enthusiasm, forgetting my own golden rules. But I learnt from it – the lesson, even with a friend, be ready for the pitch!

I still don’t really know if this idea is anything or not. That’s why I am using it as an example because this is a genuine idea being worked on and one that isn’t there yet and may never get there. It has yet to be worked past a beat map, but to this point I haven’t thought of structure once.

Structure may be applied to it subconsciously by a process similar to osmosis, imbedded in my mind by the many stories I have told before and the knowledge of structure I have studied – AND – all these influences that now make me think of story along structural lines whether I intend to or not can't help influence how I think of story at this very early stage – but it is not a conscious structuring process I'm undertaking. If anything I am trying to consciously not structure and simply let the story fall where it may.

When the map is in place to my satisfaction I will then look at it for those more analytical issues, what platform should it be aimed at – TV, Film, Play, etc. Then I’ll look to structure for the very first time. I’ll look to where it fits and where it doesn’t fit and what I can do to change what I have to make it fit better. That is when I will know for the first time if this idea has legs.

But none of that is yet. Now it is all about the story. Do I have a logical story and is that story entertaining enough for me to spend 9 to 18 months of my life working it into that required form and corresponding structure?

At this stage – my beat map is trying to head from A to Z, working through the logic and trying to find a story that is A/ Entertaining, B/ Makes sense, C/ Has something to say – thematically about life or any other of a number of comments on the world we live in that would be deemed greater than the simple A to Z of the story contained.

To summarize the BEAT MAP PROCESS.
I list the beats of the story I know.
I list the beats of the story I don’t know. This may be in questions or a holding line that says something like – “The murderer’s motives go here.”
I also leave gaps where I know something is missing, even if I don’t know what it is. Or I can fill these gaps with suggestions, questions or ideas.

“Is this the place to give him some humanity?” That type of thing that may have vaguely entered your mind on this look at the beat map – and that if you don’t mark the idea down in some way you know you will lose it by the time you come back to the piece again.

Think of the beat map at this stage as a pin board. Tack everyone on it somewhere.

I will keep working through these beats, sometimes on paper, some times in my head, until I can go easily from start to finish and tell a clear, coherent and complete story that I am happy with.

This is a lot like a pitch to yourself – if you stumble, get sidetracked, tell it like your mother tells a joke – 

“Oh, yeah, the lady, the first one, you need to know she’s his sister. I should have said that at the start.”

If any of these things jump in and ruin your clear concise A to Z pitch – you’re not there yet. Keep working on it until the story is fluent in your head, then get it onto paper and work it into a final run is developed that is clear, concise and makes perfect sense as a complete story.

That’s the point when I look again at the pros and cons of this story, as I outlined earlier. I will have done this right from the beginning – I.E. – my first idea for this story was: a murderer buries people in coffins of recently buried people to avoid the bodies ever being found.

Back then I didn’t really have much of the story – but I could still say, it’s gory, a detective who-done-it type thing. Good small rural town location. Similar to Fargo in feel. Not sure of much else. But at the beginning that was enough for me to feel there was something worth pursuing with, so I did.  

Now I can list – a love interest. A protagonist – motivated by protecting an innocent man/love interest. An antagonist, a jilted non-lover with an unrequited love for her love interest. 

Not a big budget or big production tasks. The tail end of a flood is difficult – but has been confined to outlying rural areas and could be done with sprayed water marks – showing where water was at a peak.  

There is a negative in the plain Jane, who can’t get the man and going mad over it – being labeled anti feminist. A young female backpacker locked in a coffin/box may affect ratings – this could also be conceived as anti women or women as victims – may be worth exploring if murderer could do in a young male as well – maybe someone oversees a girl’s abduction? Just to take the – only violence towards women concern out of it. Or is this man whore bisexual? Does that add or detract? Does it blur the lines? If he’s bi, surely his plain Jane ‘stalker’ would have to concede it may not be all about her being rejected. 

Does the love interest get strung up by the town’s folk vigilante – does any of that make it better?

These are all thoughts at a very early story creation stage. I am trying to find if there are aspects that would make this idea harder to get produced above and beyond the usual. I am trying to add to the themes and the story with anything that jumps out at me as a worthy idea or element I have missed or something that is contentious that can be dropped with no loss to the story.

In many ways I am looking for a fatal flaw that will stop me developing this idea further. If I find one, I won't throw the idea away, I will hold it in my head and rethink things to try and overcome this flaw. And I may go back and forward through this process many times before I solve all the fatal flaws I can spot.

Many financial people talk about risk reward. If I have to invest 100,000 to gain 10,000 it may be considered too much risk for the reward, but reverse the ratio and risk 10,000 to make 100,000 and investors would be lining up. You should think the same way as a writer.

“They have to be an elderly couple – that’s the whole point of the story,” says the writer.

But if they were a young sexy couple would the story lose anything and wouldn’t this reduce the risk – either real or perceived, towards the movie being made and then well attended? What do you lose by making that change and what do you gain. If the answer is you lose little or nothing and gain a lot then the only thing standing in the way of making that change is pride.

In my story – the murder who-done-it example, even though I haven’t got the beat map completed yet – let’s, for the sake of the example, pretend I have so we can go forward and look at the issues I'd be looking at next. 

Only at this point would I first take a look at the story for genre, and format. Genre seems pretty clear – it could be a quirky comedy drama – but that would diminish the drama of the story, so it seems clear this would be best as a thriller/drama/detective mystery.

It can’t be a TV series – the location and characters make it a one off, to extend it would deliver a “Murder She Wrote’ conundrum – as in – how, in such a small community is one woman at the centre of so many murders/crimes? I could create a series like 'The Killing', but I think it would work best as a film.

Even though I knew this far earlier as I worked on my beat map – you can certainly leave this decision this late without doing any harm and sometimes the platform that best suits hides until late.

Now I would look to my structure for the first time.

What is my set up? The town and the characters – easy.
My inciting incident, the bodies discovered and then too many bodies discovered kicks us into the second act.
The first half of the second act is the pursuit by the sheriff and town of the quiet good looking loner.
A good midpoint would be whatever makes the Sheriff go from suspecting him, to thinking he’s innocent. Possibly a setup to sexual tension between them.
Then the second half of the second act is both sexual tension heading towards something physical and inappropriate for the sheriff – probably not good for her career or this investigation if she’s sexing the main suspect of an investigation. And let’s not forget he’s a man whore – what are you doing Sheriff who we like? You know you’re going to get hurt unless he can somehow change his ways.

Maybe that’s the missing piece from my story map – as the sheriff is closing in on the real murderer and our good looking loner is seeing the risk to his life and freedom increase – maybe it’s having this one woman genuinely care, believe in and fight for him that makes him realize the love of one good woman is better than sex with many?

And that has just come out at me through going over this ‘working beat map’ for this blog entry. This is how this process and all creative processes work. Sometimes an answer is in you all along – you just have to look away to find it. In this case, concentrating on my thoughts for this blog entry has allowed something to be pulled from the shadows of the ideas in this beat map. It may be the same as the method used by many creative minds who swear that concentrating on your dilemma the night before will allow you to wake with the problem solved. 

The final victim or victims.
When to reveal the murderer and her motives.
A residual of sheriff discovering he’s a player – which I may have found in my ‘the love of a good woman’ idea.

Regardless of the substantial amount I still don’t have, I can see I have enough of a story to fit into the structure, so I can be confident I could make this work.

But even if I didn’t manage to fit it roughly into the structure at this stage I wouldn’t give up on it. Where it didn’t fit would simply help me to unpick the story at those points and try and find new beats through the logic of the story that did hit the beats I wanted. And slowly, a beat at a time, I would find my inciting incident and transition to act two. I would find my escalating action (pursuit of want) of the first half of act two, my midpoint, change of momentum and my escalating (pursuit or need) action for the second half of act two.

I still don’t have my turning point to throw us towards resolution or what that resolution is. But as I work through each section and add beats, these things may, or may not clear themselves up.

Again assuming my A to Z of my story map was in place …  my initial imagining of this would be complete and I with my beat map from A to Z of the story in place I would start testing the basic story out on friends and family. Don’t editorialize the story at all. What do I mean by this?
“This amazing old town, that feels like a ghost town.”
“This really quirky sheriff.”
“The townsfolk can almost hear that nail scrapping along the inside of the coffin.”

Just pitch the idea and make it as plain as possible. If you have to sell a story at this stage – it’s not ready to present.

DO NOT SELL YOUR IDEA – at this stage. If anything pitch it flat and really pay attention to how people react. If your pitch is clear concise and can be made within a minute or less, you A/ have the pitch where it should be, B/ you won’t risk losing your family and friends. Personally I hate being stuck with someone who wants to explain a story to me that goes on for 30 minutes or even longer. They are clearly invested in it, but I am not and want to get back to the party and other people. So, always remember you cannot get a good read unless your story is tight and easily understood in a very short space of time. In my experience the shorter the pitch the stronger the idea:

“A ground breaking scientist specializing in cloning is brought a relic from a Monastery. The relic has been frozen solid in ice for centuries and is said to have come from the Knights Templar and to contain the blood of Christ.”

That’s a pitch I was lucky enough to hear a few years ago and I can tell you everyone in the room instantly straightened in their chair. Sadly it has not been made into a film, probably because it’s one of those great ideas that falls apart when you really think about it hard.
Pitching your idea to family and friends will help in the long run to consolidate the pitch when you have written the script and do need to get people interested. That’s when you can give it the old razzle dazzle and really try to sell it, but for now, let the story do the work. This early pitch is to help you discover if your story is worth telling – it’s not trying to sell it to a producer.

And you have to become really good at gauging the response you get. You only have to have someone like the basic idea of a story once for you to know forever the difference between an idea that excites people and one that’s fallen flat. So don’t push it, just tell it in a light, casual and clear manner and see if you capture people’s interest. You cannot miss genuine interest, just as you cannot miss people’s eyes glazing over.

The next thing I do is to list everything I can think of that is involved in this story; themes and aspects of the story – a jumbled list of anything that may help or be touched on somehow and someway within my story. It's never too much - just keep piling it on.

In this way we find out what we know and what is there that we may not have spotted. Remember the subconscious of the writer will often be at work creating a patchwork of linked ideas, imagery or themes that you may not have been completely aware of.

Here we have: unrequited love, love, small town values, dead people, people re-buried, wrongfully accused, vigilantes, truth, rumor, outsiders, buried alive, sort of aspects of zombies, horror of death, bodies, the flood/god, digging people up/ strangers being murdered, forbidden love, scandal, compromising investigation.

I would continue this list to be as long as possible, but already what jumps out at me is Zombies. They are hot right now! How would it hurt to move this location to a small town in southern USA – New Orleans maybe. True Blood country. Maybe it’s someone who believes in Voodoo and Zombies who whips the other town’s folk up, or adds another dimension to the story – convinced it’s not people being murdered, but zombies trying to break out of coffins once dead. You can see how you can find extra elements just by listing the story map, long before you’ve ever written a line or set your characters.

That’s a good thing because now we can add to our characters and make them far more unique and interesting. For instance, what if my female Sheriff is a black woman from the south and her parents, grandparents or whole family believe in witchcraft, voodoo and Zombies? She doesn’t – she’s about science and logic but she’s always been at war with her family over their beliefs. Now she becomes a far more interesting character.

My favorite example of this character selection comes from the movie – MR HOLLAND’S OPUS.

Mr. Holland is a music teacher who dreams of one day writing a great musical composition. But he is sidetracked into teaching by life as he has to support his wife and child. Mr. Holland’s idol is John Lennon who famously wrote “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy doing other things.” And so it is with Mr. Holland. This is a man whose whole life adds up to one great musical work – composed not on paper, but through the love of music in all the students he changed the lives of and helped to also love music.

But what is the one character that shows how my list and an understanding of the plan highlights how to create, choose and define characters? Mr. Holland is a man whose entire life is about the beauty and passion he finds in music. Music is auditory - over every other creative outlet music is for the hearing – so they give this man a deaf son. A father who cannot convey to his son what his own life is all about, at least not until he recognizes his son is different and simply sees music differently.

That’s poetic and beautiful and so metaphoric of almost every father son relationship I’ve heard or seen examined. What’s most important to the father is seen and appreciated in completely different terms by the son. 

My Sheriff’s Zombie fearing family comes about in exactly the same way that you would isolate and find the supporting character of the son to give Mr. Holland an entirely new and deeper dimension than a simple music teacher passing on a gift to students. It’s the sort of depth and poignancy in the choice and rendering of subsidiary, or even main characters that any good film needs.

So you find extra depth through this process and then work it back into your beat map. And you keep going back and forward until you have a beat map, and a treatment of your idea that is incredibly rich, incredibly detailed and bulletproof. 

The treatment simply being an expanded beat map; a detailed prose rendering of each beat, nuance and important moment within your story from start to finish. Think of it as an extended synopsis, or a blueprint that another writer could follow to write your script the way you wanted it written if you were absent – but more of treatments in another post.

A majority of people today, because of the way we learn structure and how to go about creating stories through the study of that structure, have no idea how to judge a ‘blank page idea’. That is the biggest frustration I have found. Funding bodies, script doctors, teachers and experts can all fall short these days. Not all of them by any means, some are spectacularly good and invaluable to a writer, but some, because of the study of structure and the parrot style learning that is done, can fool you for a long time and cause you a huge amount of angst.

The moment there is an outline or a draft, these people are sure of what works and what doesn’t. It’s almost instant. Something you have struggled with for months or years they analyze in seconds and leave you feeling like a moron. They spark to life with suggestions and alterations to make your story whole.

The trouble is they have transposed what you have onto their learnt model and said this, this and this doesn’t fit. What they should be saying is – “Here are a list of known unknowns I can see in your story that you need to go and find answers to.”
It is not a script analyzer’s job to complete your story with their ideas – that’s simply bad advice. They need to, at very least, make sure they understand what it is you are trying to do with your story.

As an example – the worst advice I ever had was towards a novel I wrote – The Law of Happiness and Divorce – where, through an act of neglect the main character kills his boss. As a result he ends up getting promoted. The story is a satirical look at big business and the addiction of power and success. The advice I received, that cost me over $400, was to strip away all the satire and make it a detective novel about the murder. That analyst owes me $400!

With an outline, a treatment or a first draft, the good analyst is terrific. They can tell you where the story is working, what’s wrong with what’s not working and why and, most, if they can set aside their artistic need to create their story from your story, can give great suggestions about how to achieve the story you are trying to tell or at least what it is you should be looking for to work your way closer to a satisfying end point.

This comes from studying structure in depth and in a variety of forms. This is from analyzing thousands of good and bad films and progressing through the buzz words and in-vogue catch-cries of different script gurus to understand what is being said and what terms correspond to what other terms used by other script gurus.

Those dissimilar terms are a great example of competing analysts all trying to create something new to stand out and make a name. A few have valid reasons to reinvent the wheel with innovative additions or alternative theories, but most are simply saying the same thing and using different terms to make it sound original.

I have taken something from almost every structural analysis I’ve ever read, so I’m a long way from saying the good and even the bad aren’t without merit, but it gets hard as a writer to try and find a really clear set of blue prints when everyone of the experts uses a slightly different set of terms for the same things or breaks the structure up into slightly different beats.

So remember one thing and then let the rest come to help out when needed and not before. Find a great, entertaining story idea and tell that story to yourself until you have it as you want it.

That’s step one and it’s just that simple. Many times your story won’t survive this very simple first step. I am not trying to discourage anyone by saying this – I simply believe it to be true. If you are a story teller and you have a 10% strike rate, from all the ideas that enter your head to the ones that survive the scrutiny and process through development, you are at the very top of the creative heap. So don’t be disheartened as you uncover fatal logic flaws in an idea you really liked – be encouraged you are becoming a more competent story teller and not wasting your time on ideas that, for whatever reason, don’t measure up.

As you become even better you may be able to overcome some of these fatal logic flaws, but I would contend, a patchwork idea will never be as good as an idea that flowed from first conception to final draft – but that’s a call for you to make.

Occasionally, of course you do hit the jackpot and dream up the perfect idea that is great from the very start. It will write itself and when you look towards elements beyond the simple entertainment value of your story they’ll be coming at you thick and fast and you’ll be in the enviable position of being able to choose the elements that make your script even more desirable to producers, directors and an audience and these choices will still fall within and be dictated by story. That’s how great stories get told – they dictate their form and content from story and not from production constraints or desires of external market forces – budget, political correctness, trending content. To force these things unnaturally onto your idea almost invariably turns your galloping horse into a camel.

Good luck to all those on the story journey. 

Still to come – The logline, Synopsis, treatment, pitch and enquiry letter.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Mistakes made by Cats and Dogs.