Saturday, March 04, 2006

Screenwriting Signposts

The more you learn about storytelling and structure as a screenwriter, the more you can identify the various techniques used in films and scripts everywhere you go. Where once an audience would remain blissfully ignorant as they let the story wash over them, now everyone has become a disdainful critic because of the basic application and location of tried and tested storytelling habits.

Unfortunately, the so-called ‘rules’ that are generated and accepted regarding screenwriting are creating a sense of ‘must write a script in this way’ but what is not properly understood about these screenplay fundamentals is that they are common ideals that will help you realise your story but should not overly-dictate the organic form of the narrative. And so, scripts follow the three-act structure to an efficient tee but sadly don’t provide any emotional or dramatic heart to their framework.

Despite what the box office receipts might scarily declare as the weekend’s number one film, audiences are a very clever and sophisticated bunch. And they share your knowledge of screenplay and story fundamentals so that if you present them with a basic premise, they can easily figure out what’s going to happen next - plot point to act break to mid-point to climax to resolution. It’s quite tempting to follow the three-act template and feel quite pleased that the story hits all the required marks but more often than not what happens is that the script is a bland and predictable affair that won’t excite or interest anyone.

Storytelling has increasingly become about defying predictability. Setting up one expectation and delivering something else. If the outcome to a film is clear from the beginning (good guy beats bad guy, girl and boy end up together), then it’s up to the writer to deliver a story worth sticking around for to make it more satisfying when the predictable end comes around (Lord of the Rings, Jerry Maguire etc).

There are certain times at the cinema where I lose all sense of mentally ticking off the structure of the film and instead get lost in the characters and story. It doesn’t happen very often but when it does occur, I’m left hugely impressed by the writer/director’s talent, and greatly entertained and satisfied with the story.

Let’s take Jerry Maguire for a second.

When I first saw it at the flicks, I was completely thrown. The opening sequence alone is quite odd and distinctive, and I was immediately sucked into Jerry’s world. And then he has his memo epiphany and is applauded for his work and then he’s fired. But he manages to hold on to one client and a humble secretary and he goes from there.

In retrospect, the narrative could probably be easily be dissected into a three-act frame (getting fired being the ‘inciting incident’ maybe but who cares) but my initial response to the story was: “I don’t know where I am and I don’t know what’s going to happen. This is original, interesting and funny”. The story continues to advance in original and surprising ways: the way the Cruiser proposes to Renee is a very unromantic scene and the doubts raised about their relationship during their wedding reception made me feel uncomfortable. Just what was this story doing? The guy gets the girl, surely the film’s over?

Thank god for Cuba Gooding Jnr and the adorable kid, they made the story a lot of fun, but there was so much uncomfortable emotion being shared between Tom and Renee’s characters that I was completely sucked into the world of the story and wanted to know what was going to happen next. Writer/director Cameron Crowe had made them ‘real’ and had provided them with multi-dimensions of complex character behaviour. And then the corny: “You complete me” gets a great pay-off and she gets the line that’s still quoted in many different guises today: “You had me at hello”, and voila, instant classic.


Anyway, the point is: avoid the obvious signposts of screenplay structure. It’s easy to set up and build a story around the basic three-act template but it’s better to try to defy expectation and avoid predictability at every stage. A screenplay is not a blueprint for a film (someone once said: “I’ve never seen a blueprint that had emotion in it”) but a script written to the design of the template rather than the intentions of the writer becomes a blueprint, and that’s when criticisms and problems occur for writers everywhere.

That’s why we get treated so badly. People in power have instant ammunition to dismiss our work. That’s why we must strive for better stories that have their own sense of style and structure but ultimately tell a powerful story that’s emotional and dramatic and entertaining. That’s why we go to the cinema in the first place. Isn’t it?


Chriswab said...

Hi I´m Chriswab. Greatings from Germany,Bottrop !!

James Moran said...

Bottrop!! Greatings, Bottrop!!

I liked Identity, too - once the twist was explained, it was a bit of a let down, almost a cop out, but at least it all hung together and made sense. Check out Dead End, a really cool shocker about a bickering family driving home down a mysterious road, it's great fun.

Danny Stack said...

Hello Chriswab!

Lee said...

I second James' take on Identity. I liked it - I think what was especially clever was that it was constructed so that the audience figured out the twist about ten seconds before it was actually revealed, makeing everyone feel very clever. I only thought the very last scene was an obvious cop-out, unworthy of a movie that had respected the viewer's intellegence upto that point.

sretherf said...

I think where most stories go wrong is in the premise itself... if the writer starts off with an idea that is formulaic, nothing good is going to come from that. But most ideas are generated in that lazy ass way, unfortunately.

With "Jerry Maguire", I strongly doubt that Crowe's initial premise was to write a love story... My guess is that he started out with an idea based around a sports agent character who, despite his unbelievable talents of persuasion and charisma, finds himself in the midst of an all-too-human personal crisis... and he just followed that along where it took him... the romantic link wound up being a sensible element to add in.

The point being, you must have a passion for some character or situation or something, and have that function as your starting off point, in order to come off with a story as original, entertaining, and memorable as "Jerry Maguire".

sretherf said...

One more thing... It all goes back to what you started with for a story, which, in effect, goes back to you as a person... who are you? If you are a hack that wants a million dollars really, really bad, then you may read all the books and blah, blah, blah, but you're not going really grab audiences in a meaningful way like "Jerry Maguire". You'll make forgettable, formulaic work... and we already have way too much of that going around.

Anonymous said...

What was is that someone said about delivering a story where the ending was completely inevitable but still a surprise?

Audiences rarely go to movies with no expectations whatsoever. They know James Bond isn't going to die. They know Hugh Grant will end up with her. It's how they get there, the journey, that is the exciting part, not the destination.

Originality is, in many ways, wasted on cinema goers because too few of them seem to want it. In fact, the whole history of cinema, from the star system through to the development of genre, has been about delivering very slight variations on a series of well established themes - reaching its logical conclusion with Rocky I, II, III, IV etc.

Anonymous said...

Jerry Maguire was fab... Normally Tom Cruise and Renee Zellwegger's FACES annoy me (let alone their acting), but I was surprised to enjoy the film once I was dragged there, kicking and screaming. (Yes, I'm horribly prejudiced, I know).

Lots of my clients tell me they dismiss structure "because it doesn't work" or it's "too formulaic/simple, etc", but then their scripts don't make sense or leave lots of story points unanswered. As Danny says, those signposts ARE needed, whatever you call them, so an audience can anchor their understanding of your work. Whether then you use the three act structure, the 5 act structure, Truby's 22 steps or whatever, the challenge for me is making structure work for your writing without actually making it seem obvious. Avoiding predictability is key.

Having said that, sometimes there are some comforts to be had in a certain level of predictability. I think this is most apparent in action movies. Admitting you like Con Air is normally met with rolled eyes and exasperated sighs too, but I really liked this movie - like Jerry Maguire in retrospect you can see how it's set up (first turning point on the traditional page 22 no less, "Welcome to Con Air"!) and you JUST KNOW it's Die Hard on a plane and the baddies will die SOME WAY, but it all gels together and is a fun ride into the bargain.

Isn't that what an audience wants from this type of film?

sretherf said...

Too many writers think they have to try and appeal to the widest of all audiences... not true at all. All this breeds is copycat stuff anyway because one can't write a great story without having one's heart in it... it comes through in the work. And a large portion of the audience will see right through it.

Writers can be overly pessimistic, failing to give the audience enough credit. Fact is, audiences respond to a much wider array of material than we think they do.... because what they are responding to is the dramatic flow of the story and the characters. If those things are in place, the subject of the story could be something totally new and original. The audience is going to respond to the story, regardless... and they originality gives the film a little zing that others may not have.

There is actually no reason why a story needs to be the same old subject matter, it just needs to display the fundamentals of telling an intresting story. And oftentimes a story is more interesting because it is different than anything that came before (to some extent)... at least for an educated person. An educated person gets bored of the same old story over and over again. The only reason these things survive is because they are smart enough to use the typical tricks. This ensures that they are taking the audience on at least a little bit of a ride, even if the material is simply a retread. But notice there's usually not much depth to these stories. Anyway, I believe that at some point we need originality to stave off the boredom and allow us to consider new things.

So, my advice - Think different!

Anonymous said...

Your heart's gotta be in it, without question - else your material will be stale and pedestrian, no matter what you write about.

However, I think you CAN retell the same story in a different "enough" way and please both camps - the audience who want the new stuff and the producers who want a "safer bet".

After all, wasn't Alien sold as "Jaws in Space"? Coyote Ugly did very well and all it essentially was I thought was an updated, slightly less sickable (but still annoying in my book) version of Dirty Dancing.

Being different doesn't have to mean being totally "out there" - and can lead you to something that stands entirely on its own merit. Alien arguably changed the face of creature movies forever.

sretherf said...

Yes, some ideas, in attempt to be original, are just way out there. I think there's a simple reason for that -- When you're trying to be original and insert some of your own lifes's observances/experiences into the work, it's much harder than just using an externally developed template. You really need a skill for filtering your initial ideas/concepts and knowing what should be discarded, i.e. what sounds good at first but wouldn't work as a movie. You can't just have an interesting idea, you have to know if/how it would work in movie format, which is the real challenge... but a very worthy and noble endeavor.

People don't realize that screenwriting is a craft... You don't just spew out the great ideas with a minimum of effort, and you don't have to always focus on what "sells". You have tons of options available to you, you should explore them.. which takes a lot of time... and that is what is so tough... but that's the challenge you're supposed to be confronting, not running away from, desperately trying to get back on familiar ground.

If there is any shortfall that any average writer has, I believe it would be in not putting forth the amount to time and effort to hone the craft. If they want to be original, that, in and of itself, is not the problem. The problem is that they are not aware of the challenges inherent in doing that and so are not going through enough due diligence... It's a question of how someone approaches the task....i.e., for me it's fairly obvious that if you are trying to be original, many times you will come up with ideas that are just weird. No big deal, just means I need to go further, work harder. And not by trying to be more "commercial", but by filtering through these impulses coming from within to probe a little further into what it all means, and how it relates to an act of self-expression in the specific form of a movie. I ask myself, why do I feel that this idea should go be up there on the big screen?

When struggling with an idea, you don't need to abandon what you are doing completely, you just need to take a step back and search yourself some more... watch more movies that are similar to what it is you are trying to do. As has been said before, most anything you set out to do will have been done before in some way shape or form, or someone else has tried to do it and maybe didn't quite get there. You'll be the one to get all the way there. Most good stories are familiar in some way... there is no problem with that - it's to be expected. Typically any idea you have, you have because of the types of movie you like. The only thing to make sure of is that your movie is cinematic, as defined by movies that went before it. Movies have their own specific mode of communication. If you have a story you like, it may not necessarily make for a good movie story, so you have to be aware of that and study the form... which is where structure, plot, character, etc. comes in. But that to me is the easy part. I write the draft first and then start worrying about making sure I'm letting the audience in on everything they need to see/know.

The writer has to be the supreme multi-tasker, and that is something tough to do that some writers really aren't game for... they think it's all easy; anyone can do it... Not true.

Tim Clague said...

Agree with you completly here Danny. As you know, my main USP as a writer is new structures and new ideas. This isn't always an easy sell. But I think we must always be looking to stay ahead of the audience.

My main thought these days is about having LESS structure. Blogs, google etc are making us better at piecing together our own story. We love a challenge now to figure things out. My nearly completed feature script circumference is an experiment in this - it throws scenes out and invites the audience to keep up.

V. exciting - but scary.

Danny Stack said...

Thanks for the interesting discussion Luch & Sretherf... good points.

Stephen Gallagher said...

It’s quite tempting to follow the three-act template and feel quite pleased that the story hits all the required marks but more often than not what happens is that the script is a bland and predictable affair that won’t excite or interest anyone.

Two words to that thought: Kinky Boots.

I yield to no one in my admiration for Tim Firth, so I'm more than willing to believe that what we saw there resulted from the dead hand of a controlling producer somewhere in the food chain.

Watching the film was like sitting through a snooker game where every shot's a safety shot.

Danny Stack said...

I asked Geoff Deane for a Q&A but I never heard back...