No personal blog crapola.
Just one guy's quest to unlock the mysterious art of storytelling on screen.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

4-Act Story Diamond v2

This model represents the Hero's Journey in four acts. It supplements my old story diamond. Click the image for a larger view.

Discussion about the eight plot points is here.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Jeremy Slater - Rapebear, The Movie

Jeremy Slater just sold his horror screenplay Pet to MGM.

Is this the same hilarious (former) neophyte screenwriter and veteran malfeasant Jeremy Slater who dreamed up Rapebear over at How To Write Screenplays, Badly ? I think so. I hope so. Go visit HTWSB and spend an hour trawling the archives. You will laugh lots while learning some lesser-known do-nots of screenwriting.

Sadly, it's unlikely we'll see more HTWSB posts from Jeremy and his blogging partner Dan Whitehead. The site has been dormant since about February, 2007. But I suspect Jeremy will launch a new blog someday soon to document his rite of passage into the realm of Hollywood Screenwriter. [Update: here's Jeremy's new blog.]

Congratulations, Jeremy!

Friday, June 22, 2007

Jack Black, Pixar, and the Eight Plot Points

Wow. Cue Sting, The Police, and Synchronicity.

I was Googling for story structure tips and arrived at this site: Channel101

The first thing to yank my attention on that page was the 4-act circle diagram. That looks identical to my own 4-act Story Diamond. Immediately I knew the author and I were sympatico on 4-act story structure.

Dan Harmon, the article's author, has numbered the eight compass points of his circle in clockwise fashion, one through eight. That's opposite to my story diamond, where progression is counter-clockwise. I cannot tell you why I chose counter-clockwise for mine. Maybe it's because I'm in Australia and water spirals down the drain in the opposite direction to you folk in the Northern Hemisphere. (OK, so that is actually an urban legend.)

So I knew I was onto something here. Some new piece of the puzzle, I hoped. Or at least further confirmation that others prefer to work with the 4-act structure implicit in the traditional 3-act screenplay model.

What do the numbers signify?
  1. You
  2. Need
  3. Go
  4. Search
  5. Find
  6. Take
  7. Return
  8. Change
Over to Dan for the 411...

1) "You" - who are we? A squirrel? The sun? A red blood cell? America? By the end of the first 37 seconds, we'd really like to know.

2) "Need" - something is wrong, the world is out of balance. This is the reason why a story is going to take place. The "you" from (1) is an alcoholic. There's a dead body on the floor. A motorcycle gang rolls into town. Campbell phrases: Call to Adventure, Refusal of the Call, Supernatural Aid.

3) "Go" - For (1) and (2), the "you" was in a certain situation, and now that situation changes. A hiker heads into the woods. Pearl Harbor's been bombed. A mafia boss enters therapy. Campbell phrase: Crossing of the Threshold. Syd Field phrase: Plot Point 1.

4) "Search" - adapting, experimenting, getting shit together, being broken down. A detective questions suspects. A cowboy gathers his posse. A cheerleader takes a nerd shopping. Campbell phrases: Belly of the Whale, Road of Trials. Christopher Vogler phrase: Friends, Enemies and Allies.

5) "Find" - whether it was the direct, conscious goal or not, the "need" from (2) is fulfilled. We found the princess. The suspect gives the location of the meth lab. A nerd achieves popularity. Campbell phrase: Meeting with the Goddess. Syd Field phrase: mid-point. Vogler phrase: Approach to the Innermost Cave.

6) "Take" - The hardest part (both for the characters and for anyone trying to describe it). On one hand, the price of the journey. The shark eats the boat. Jesus is crucified. The nice old man has a stroke. On the other hand, a goal achieved that we never even knew we had. The shark now has an oxygen tank in his mouth. Jesus is dead- oh, I get it, flesh doesn't matter. The nice old man had a stroke, but before he died, he wanted you to take this belt buckle. Now go win that rodeo. Campbell phrases: Atonement with the Father, Death and Resurrection, Apotheosis. Syd Field phrase: plot point 2

7) "Return" - It's not a journey if you never come back. The car chase. The big rescue. Coming home to your girlfriend with a rose. Leaping off the roof as the skyscraper explodes. Campbell phrases: Magic Flight, Rescue from Without, Crossing of the Return Threshold.

8) "Change" - The "you" from (1) is in charge of their situation again, but has now become a situation-changer. Life will never be the same. The Death Star is blown up. The couple is in love. Dr. Bloom's Time Belt is completed. Lorraine Bracco heads into the jungle with Sean Connery to "find some of those ants." Campbell phrases: Master of Both Worlds, Freedom to Live.
Now. Look what happens when I overlay those eight plot points over my 4-act story diamond (counter-clockwise). Note that I've overlapped act breaks.
  • Act One - Preparation/Orphan
    • You, Need, Go
  • Act Two - Separation/Wanderer
    • Go, Search, Find
  • Act Three - Initiation/Warrior
    • Find, Take, Return
  • Act Four - Return/Martyr
    • Return, Change, You
That's a perfect fit. Not surprising, given Dan's eight plot points are built on established screen storytelling lore -- so was my 4-act Story Diamond -- as evidenced by his references to Field, Vogler, and Campbell. Even though this new (to me) eight-point diagram is not revolutionary, it is evolutionary for me, and I will add it to my 4-act diagram soon.

Here comes the somewhat weird, synchronistic part of the story.

So I found this page by Dan, mulled over it for a while and contemplated its significance to my own storytelling beliefs, and moved on.

A few hours later, again through some random browsing, I encountered a blog authored by a storyboard artist at Pixar. Specifically, I found myself on this page, titled "Who are YOU to question story structure!?!??!!!??" Hey, Jack Black in a video where he's 'the Story Wizard', cool, I thought to myself. And I pressed Play. (Go watch it. I'll wait.)

Synchronicity. In that short instructional video, the story tool JB teaches us about is... yep, the 8-point plot model I had just learned from Dan Harmon this very night. But JB's version differs slightly. Here are the vital eight plot points according to JB. Where it differs from Dan's version, I've put Dan's in brackets .
  1. Something (You)
  2. Need
  3. Go
  4. Search
  5. Find
  6. Take
  7. Back to (Return)
  8. Where it was (Change)
There is no mistaking these two versions share the same foundation. And it's a very, very solid foundation.

All I'm saying is, I thought it was kinda odd that I stumbled upon two versions of the same storytelling concept within hours of each other, both times accidentally. And this after a decade of researching storycrafting for film.

Like Sting sang...
With one breath, with one flow
You will know

A sleep trance, a dream dance
A shaped romance

A connecting principle
Linked to the invisible
Almost imperceptible
Something inexpressible
Science insusceptible
Logic so inflexible
Causally connectable
Yet nothing is invincible

If we share this nightmare
Then we can dream
Spiritus mundi

If you act as you think
The missing link
Synchronicity ...

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Where Have Tomorrow's Screenwriters Gone Today?

So what exactly is going on here...? (click image for larger view)

What you're looking at is a Google Trends query on the word "screenplays". And that, my friends, is one heck'uva trend. Google searches on "screenplays" down by almost two thirds in two and a half years? Wow.

My immediate, joyful conclusion was, if today there are a third as many novice screenwriters Googling for screenplays online as there were two-to-three years ago, that means my competition just dropped dramatically... right? I mean, budding screenwriters want to download and study produced scripts -- that's a given. So... less people searching for screenplays online = less screenwriters flooding the industry in the next couple of years.

Sounds good to me.

Now. Is there a negative in there somewhere? If aliens are systematically abducting novice screenwriters these past few years (OK, you explain it!), should I be worried? Does the decline -- whatever the reason behind it -- in fact reduce my chances of making a six-figure screenplay sale?

Dunno. Lets keep looking...

Here are the top search regions for the word "screenplays" for the same period:

Top regions (normalized)

1. United States

2. Ireland

3. South Africa

4. Canada

5. Australia

6. New Zealand

7. India

8. United Kingdom

9. Philippines

10. Czech Republic

What's up with Ireland? Seems the lads and lasses of the Emerald Isle are keen to get some sunny Hollyweird, Hell-A action. These figures don't give us any meaningful info about what's behind the decline. Moving on...

Let's try a related search trend for the word "screenwriting":

Allrighty. So "screenwriting" fares a lot better. Regular fluctuation up and down over the years -- sorta spiking every six months. No obvious downward trend, not like the other chart. Having said that, you can see in 2006 it dropped below the line there for the first time since Google started tracking the numbers in 2004. Perhaps there's a tiny trend creeping in, after all. Even so, too early to call, so I'll ignore it.

Where are those searches originating?

Top regions (normalized)

1. United States

2. Ireland

3. Canada

4. Australia

5. United Kingdom

6. New Zealand

7. South Africa

8. Norway

9. Philippines

10. Israel

Only thing I note here is that folks in the United Kingdom seems to prefer searching on the word "screenwriting" (pos. 5) over "screenplays" (pos. 8).

I've just had a thought.

What if the drop in people searching for screenplays online is because people are busy beavering away on their own script? Having studied a dozen professional screenplays pulled off the web, these people don't need to perform more searches. They've already absorbed the rules of structure and format, and now they are hammering out screenplays of their own.

Or... perhaps the answer is as simple as this: In the last five years, a lot of screenwriting/screenplay sites sprang up across the net, resulting in a more organised infrastructure for delivering screenplays via the web. That would result in less Google searching, wouldn't it? Novice screenwriters might be searching for a specific, well-known site (e.g. Daily Script or Drew's Scriptorama) rather than using a generic search for "screenplays".

Who knows.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Wisdom of the Wave... inatrix

Julie Gray is an industry script reader. She stands between you and the people with the money (or the contacts) who can make it all happen. So when Julie says, hey, this is what I like in a screenplay and this is what I hate, we listen. If you don't have The Rouge Wave on your RSS feed, add it now.

I figured I would spend a little time weeding out the some important tips (IMHO) from her blog and present them here, quoted directly, in handy summary format. Add this checklist to your things-to-do before putting your screenplay out there.

From: 20 Things I Know For Sure: Do's and Don'ts in Your Spec Script

  1. Do title the script in such a way that it both piques interest and tips the reader off to the nature of the script.
  2. Do keep the script down to a nice, tidy 100-ish pages long. Many readers and execs flip to the last page first so we know what we’re up against. The number of pages gives us a sense of your discipline and skill set as a writer; 120 pages of romcom telegraphs to the reader immediately that this script is not working on a fundamental level.
  3. Do make sure the script is clean in presentation and absent of spelling errors, typos or poor language usage. Proofread it eighty times.
  4. Do write your action lines so that they read easily and are entertaining in and of themselves.
  5. Do write characters that are unique and yet instantly recognizable; they should tell volumes about themselves in even their small details. Inventive economy. Make it your mantra.
  6. Do write dialogue that feels natural, is never superfluous and moves the story along quickly.
  7. Do check and double check that your writing is spare and simple: everything should make perfect sense as the reader moves along so that they never flip back or get bored and check emails; once you’ve lost the reader’s interest it’s an uphill battle to get it back.
  8. Do pay a great deal of attention to keeping the story moving; nail your three act structure; readers won’t notice it consciously, but it will make the read faster and more interesting.
  9. Do pay off the ending; the reader has invested most of their morning or afternoon in your script, make the ending count. Surprise us!
  10. Do us one favor: write a story so entertaining that if only for that hour, we forget we are readers and simply enjoy the experience.

From: The Importance of the Scene

Warning signs that indicate faulty scene work:
  • Misuse or overuse of sluglines
  • Dense, boring action lines
  • Misuse of matchcuts or intercuts
  • Scenes that are too long; anything over 3 pages is suspicious
  • Scenes that are too short and exist for no apparent reason
  • Scenes that start too early and end too late
  • Scenes without a discernable point

From: Rewriting

Consider a rewrite where your screenplay shows signs of:
  • Soft, unoriginal or confusing premise
  • Faulty main character arc
  • Missing or lame antagonist
  • Not enough conflict; linear narrative
  • Missing stakes
  • No ticking clock
  • Action lines need work
  • Logic or world issues
  • Missing theme
  • Scenes are too long
  • Structure in trouble

From: Page Count Lipo

Julie points out the importance of three-act structure. What Julie describes is the Syd Field model (three acts; quarter, half, quarter, with a midpoint or 'pinch' dividing the middle act), but you can go ahead and think of it as a four-act model.
Review your script for act breaks throughout; Is your inciting incident on or about page ten (if not earlier)? Is your first plot point which takes us into the second act on or about page 25 to 30? How ‘bout that midpoint? Page 50-ish? And the second plot point should be around page 85 to 90.

From: Episodic

How to identify if your screenplay is episodic:
Think about this:

Esther does this
Then she does that
Fred meets her and they talk
Esther does this
Then that
Then this


Esther does this BUT
She stumbles into that AND
THEN she discovers this
WHICH leads her to overcome THIS
And eventually she learns THAT
EXCEPT she will have to sacrifice THIS

The emphasized words indicate turning points in the scene. Surprises, setbacks, reversals. Static scenes guarantee a static story. You only have about 100 pages, people, so light a fire under it. And don’t get accused of having a soft, episodic script. Because that’s just another way of saying PASS.

From: Coverage Reports

Do you know how to think like a Reader? If not, let Julie teach you. Doing coverage reports is a process. Knowing (and reviewing) that process improves your screenplay before it lands on Julie's desk and makes it easier for her to like your movie.
The next thing to appear on your coverage is the grid. Down the left hand side is:


And across the top we have: Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor


Here are some of the elements that readers evaluate when they read the script – mind you, they would absolutely not be listed like this in a coverage, but this is more or less the check list. And please note, the way these elements are discussed is not academic or scientific, but rather from a pretty basic point of view: was it entertaining, did it make sense?

Premise & Genre: Premise might be soft, or it might be really original. The genre may or may not be what the company is looking for.

Narrative/Structure: The narrative is how the story is told; is it original and fresh? Does the writer have a great “voice”? Is it paced well; is it a page turner? Structure isn’t often referred to as such; writers with repped scripts that made it all the way to a production company don’t often have trouble with structure but it happens. Mentioning poor structure in a coverage is an absolute kiss of death for the writer and the script. Bad or missing structure means this writer is not ready for prime time.

World: Did the writer establish a “world” for the script that the reader believed? This is more likely to come up in a fantasy, sci-fi or slapstick comedy script but not exclusively so. World is not usually mentioned in a coverage unless the writer has some pretty big “buys” that the reader – well – didn’t buy because it didn’t make sense in the world.

Conflict/Stakes: Did stuff happen to drive the story forward? Was there a sense of building conflict and tension? Was there something hanging in the balance in the end that made the reader really care about getting to the last page to see what happened?

Characters/Dialogue: Coverages will almost always mention character work – whether it is really great or really awful. A writer who can write great character and dialogue is probably going to get a “consider” writer even if the premise is not for the company at the time. The ability to write great characters and dialogue is the brass ring for aspiring writers. If you do nothing else well, you could still build a career off of this talent. Thing is, it tends to go hand-in-hand with other screenwriting skills, so don’t go trying to be some kind of character-savant.

Scene work/Action Lines: Oh man, if you have to note this stuff in a coverage, that’s bad. Again, just as structure, above, this falls under basic execution of craft and here’s the thing – if the execution is good, it becomes invisible. If it’s bad – then I have to note that your page or scene work sucks as do your action lines. Death knell for script. Bad page work basically means sloppy, cluttered pages, overlong scenes, dull scenes, typos, misspells, inactive scenes and sequences.

Logic: Stuff just didn’t add up.

Theme and tone may not always be mentioned, only if the theme is really beautiful and timely. Great themes in scripts are often a little invisible; it just really affected the reader with a sense of universal resonance. There is a connection with the material on a subconscious level. It’s a little ephemeral. When you read the script and when all is said and done, no matter how big the action sequences, or how scary some of the set pieces were, if you are left with the feeling that none of it really mattered – that’s because theme was not in the building. Tone will usually only be mentioned if it’s uneven. If tone is appropriate there’s no need to bring it up. This means that if you have written a bouncy little romcom and then you have X-rated sex scenes, I will be pulled out of the story – because the tone didn’t match. Of if you have a horror script with a long, romantic, upbeat romantic sequence. This could work. Or it might feel like some script pages got mixed up and I’m in a new story now. This would be a tone (and narrative) problem.

From: Character Descriptions

Writing concise but informative character introductions is an art. John August presented his thoughts on the topic about the same time that Julie wrote this excellent advice:

How much should you describe your character? You definitely need to tell us how old they are but you only need to describe their clothing to the degree that it reflects the character’s personality.

[...] When you describe your character you are only drawing broad strokes and intimating much more than you are describing. You are giving us a snapshot.

SANDY (20s) a fit and cheerful blonde, straps on her running shoes.

HOSEA (48) an intense businessman, straightens his Republican red tie and plucks a grey hair.

Do you get an idea of who Hosea is? I noted the color of his tie for an obvious reason – I am insinuating he is a conservative.

CECILIA (12) puts her mousy brown hair back with a pink barrette and runs her tongue over her braces.

Need to see what she’s wearing? Nah. Pink barrette, mousy brown hair and braces. I can fill in the rest with my imagination.

JUSTIN (23) lanky and thin, trims his soul-patch and grins. He tucks a skateboard under one arm and gives himself one last approving glance in the mirror.

What kind of shoes does Justin have on? Well, probably not loafers.

[...] Descriptions are necessary only insofar as they tell us things we need to know or infer about your character. A guy with dreadlocks has just told us so much about himself. An adult with braces has too. So just give us those broad strokes and hints so we can make some assumptions and form some opinions about your character. Don’t micro-manage and describe every last detail. It’s unimportant, it’s boring and it will mark you as an amateur.

From: The Title
  • Does the title hint at the genre?
  • Is the title as succinct as possible?
  • Does the title in some way embody the theme or dna of your script?
  • Will the title look good on a poster and will it intrigue passersby?
  • If the title isn’t clear immediately, will it rise to the surface within the script?

From: Budget, Rating and Box Office OH MY

How in the heck do you know what kind of budget your script would call for? Well, think about this:

Locations: Are they exotic? Are there several locations? This costs a great deal of money for production companies.
FX: Does your script contain a lot of special effects? Are there expensive car chases, explosions or dangerous stunts and sequences?
Cast: Is the main character going to sink or swim based on whether the role is given to Russell Crowe? Stars drive up the costs of movies considerably.

What is the box office (or commercial) potential of your material? [...]

Is this a high concept script? A highly entertaining central conceit that is so simple, so beautiful and so fun that it’s a slam dunk.
Is this a tentpole? A star vehicle, big adventure with the whiff of franchise?
Is this a Sunday afternoon genre? Drama, romance, period?
Is this material HOT? Very zeitgeisty or provocative?

All rules, guidelines, and advice aside, this article from Julie reminds us why we're writing screenplays in the first place: Just Effing Entertain Me