Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Techniques

One of the more valuable things you learn as a script reader is that as soon as you read a good number of scripts, you begin to realize that everything the books and gurus say are pretty much true, despite their often maligned reputation and alleged follow-the-rule formulas. You begin to understand that all the talk about three-act structures, protagonists and antagonists, raising the stakes, character arcs and theme (etc) are all valid techniques to keep in mind when assessing a script’s merits and failings.

Techniques. Not rules or formulas or join-the-dot storytelling. It’s natural to get defensive, sensitive or weary when a reader or editor starts to talk to you in prescriptive storytelling terms but if you don’t have good answers for their seemingly annoying points or questions, then they probably have something useful to say. What’s important is to try to understand all the terms and so-called rules, and use them to your own advantage when crafting your story. That way, when your exec starts using phrases like ‘the negation of the negation’ and ‘mid-point reversal’, you’ll understand where they’re coming from and be able to turn the conversation into what you intended for the story rather than fighting to urge to punch the execs lights in.

So, absorbing the essential techniques into your visual vocabulary (by reading scripts, books, and watching films) will enable you to write well-crafted stories that tick all the boxes of what readers, editors and execs require to see. No matter what your opinion on rules and prescriptive terms, there’s no escaping that certain techniques and phrases really exist, and generally do apply to a story, whether you like it or not. Inciting incident, dramatic moments/reversals (widely known as act breaks), character arc, escalating conflict, mid-points, antagonist, tone, and so on. How you deal with these terms or techniques is down to you but why waste the energy to be defensive or over-sensitive when someone else points them out when reading your script?

The late, great Anthony Minghella said that there were no act breaks in a screenplay, just natural developments involving your characters and their emotions. It doesn’t matter how you dress it up, or how you perceive certain rules & regulations (Minghella knew a thing or two about structure, that’s for sure), you just simply have to trust your storytelling instinct to write the best script possible. But don’t dismiss basic techniques and familiar approaches. It’s always useful to try and understand and embrace all of the techniques available, that way you continue to improve and develop your craft.

13 comments:

Lucy said...

I don't understand why writers are so against structure or whatever you want to call it: the mini movie method, the 22 steps, the storytelling staircase (that's all mine, mine I tell you! I'll get my coat)... end of the day, everyone agrees there must be a beginning, middle and end (not necessarily in that order) and to have huge chunks of a story where you're waiting for something to happen - well, where's the fun in that?

Same goes for writers who insist it's ALL about character. How can it be? Just like you have to have a balanced diet, you need a balanced screenplay else it ends up all bloated and unable to leave the house, ultimately depressed and again no use to anyone. After all, you don't watch "a film about a bloke", you watch a film "about a bloke who DOES this, that or the other".

Right I think I'm done on the ridiculous metaphors now Danny. By the way, do I get a gold star for being consistently the first commenter on your posts? ; )

Danny Stack said...

I can always rely on you, Luce, especially when a post languishes by itself...

Lucy said...

Yes but do I get a gold star!!! Think Lisa Simpson here, "Grade me! Grade me!" Quick, before I spontaneously combust man...

word verification: "funcv" - what all writers have?

Anonymous said...

I agree that structure is vital, but some of these books are mind boggling. I've just read Robert McKee's 'Story' and it was like trying to get to grips with O'Level physics all over again - too many diagrams. I'm on my third book and it still hasn't sunk in. I can grasp the beginning, middle and end bit, but all this mid point reversal stuff....it's giving me a headache. There must be a simpler way of putting it?

Anya said...

There is, Anon. I always hated the books myself so just asked other people how they did it - all the blogs now means you have access to the brains of loads of other writers, it's great! Danny's got loads of great advice about structure and Lucy (already on here, can't do linky things) has a structure section in her required reading list on her blog. Also if you google "screenplay+structure" you get loads of other good posts, articles and resources.

Danny Stack said...

Now if that isn't a gold star, I don't know what is!

I've always enjoyed screenwriting books (not always seeing eye-to-eye, and yeah, diagrams are a turn off) but know that at the end of the day, it's instinct that pulls you through. Books/tips etc are handy for references or if you're stuck, otherwise show 'em what you got.

Lisa said...

Best book I read on the subject (and I may be letting myself in for some flak here) is Denny Martin Flinn's 'How Not to Write a Screenplay'

Anonymous said...

structure is a bit like underwear - best to wear it even if the elastic's gone

Lucy said...

Yay! I'm filled with an enormous sense of well-being Parklife-style. Thanks Anya.

Anon - agree with you on the structure, but underwear with no elastic?? Get yourself down to Primark, they have fantastic pants for a pound! Have kittens on and everything. Saucy ones too if that's your bag.

evil twinz said...

Ooooh, I've seen your washing line Luce. You know sauce is your "bag" too as you delightfully put it, tee hee.

Kevin Lehane said...

Danny, yourself and Mystery Man are a fantastic resource for any would-be screenwriter and I'm amazed at that stamina you both possess. In between grueling writing sessions I usually pop around the blogs and have to say if a post languishes on its own it's only because I'm too lazy to comment. But I'm nodding along.

Anonymous said...

I highly recommend John Truby's Anatomy of a Story. Don't take it as gospel, though, but do read it to give you a better understanding of structure.

Jimmy D said...

McKee is so last Friday. I agree with Ayna re: the wealth of info available on the internet today, especially twitter, i.e. script chat, blogs, links to professionals such as John August, Danny and of course my fav Ms. Lucy.
The internet is more up-to-date than the fifth edition of a book originally written in 1988 e.g., Michael Hauge or new screenwriting books written by dead people, no offence to 'Save The Cat.'
These books are worth a look, but not as valuable as they once may have been.