Monday, June 24, 2013

Know Thy Craft

Okay, Katniss: how wide, in
inches, is a dialogue column?
I had the pleasure of meeting an aspiring screenwriter at a Starbucks. He had written a five-page crime drama. I asked him for the premise. He took six minutes to describe the plot, which is a minute longer than the final film will likely run.

I glanced it over and immediately noticed that it had improper formatting, font, and a dislikable protagonist. And that was before I had made it halfway down the first page.

Stanley Kubrick said, "If you can talk brilliantly enough about a subject, you can create the consoling illusion it has been mastered."

Granted, screenwriting takes years to master, but with these tips, you can create the consoling reality that you know what you're doing. And that is no illusion:

1. Hone Your Logline

When someone asks you, "What's the story?" with regards to your film, the logline is your answer. Keep it short. If it's longer than two sentences, my attention wanes. A logline should be concise, to the point, and make me want to know more. Far too often, when writers describe their stories to me, I end up wanting to know less. Saying more doesn't indicate that you know your story more. Quite often, it shows that you don't know how to prioritize your story's events.

Even a film as riveting as The Godfather can be rendered insipid based on how the story is related:

"So a guy comes back home from military service during his sister's wedding and they're a big crime family and these gangsters try to rub out the family patriarch, but before that the bad guys kill the crime family's main hitman, but then the guy has two older brothers and his sister's new husband is really a bad guy, and so they all decide to retaliate but the oldest brother is killed and the youngest one has to go off to Sicily to lie low for a year after killing a drug kingpin and a police chief, but when he comes back he gets married even though he got married in Sicily but his wife there was killed and so now he's married back in America and he has to reassert his family's dominance and become the new godfather and there's this awesome scene of killings happening during a baptism..."

Compare that to the following:

"Reluctant, inexperienced Michael Corleone must assume command of his family's crime empire before five other gangster families eradicate his family."

All in a sentence, we have an idea of tone, character arc, irony, and story. I want to know more, and that's the point.

2. Format Correctly

There's no real way around it: if you want to screenwrite, you need screenwriting software. It's possible to use MS Word for a script, but a program like Celtx or Final Draft formats about as fast as you think, which is invaluable. I don't have to read a word of your script for me to see if you have proper formatting, and improper formatting will make me wonder what else there is to worry about, with regards to content.

A terrific book to peruse is The Complete Screenwriter's Manual by Stephen Bowles, Ronald Mangravite, and Peter Zorn. Learn to write your spec from such a book, not from William Goldman or Aaron Sorkin scripts. When you're William Goldman or Aaron Sorkin, you can hand-write a script on a cocktail napkin and sell it for millions regardless of formatting. Until then, it's expected that your script will conform to industry standards. Make no mistake: books (and screenplays) are judged by their covers, and no one will want to read the remaining 99 pages of your 100-page feature if page one is incorrectly formatted.

3. "Make Me Care"

In the aforementioned script, the protagonist is a low-level thief who needlessly kills a defenseless chef right at the outset. The writer informed me, "I want him to come across as cold-blooded." My response was, "Do you want him to come across as likable?" You never tell a story in a vacuum, and audiences bring their morality to the theater. Whether they know it or not, they're seeking a character on whom to project themselves. No one wants to project themselves onto a gratuitous murderer.

Of course, not every protagonist is a paragon. In The Godfather, Michael surely comes across as cold-blooded, but he does what he does to protect his family. In There Will Be Blood, the ornery Daniel Plainview does what he does to protect his (idea of) family. These are ironic characters, killing to preserve life, or at least a way of living, that is precious to them.

Before you write page one, you must have an answer to the question, "Why will my audience care about this character in this situation?" Whether you're writing a novel, a short story, a poem, or a screenplay, this is every writer's primary job.

Each of these tips has the same ultimate goal: to make someone want to read your work. If you want to write, you already have the odds stacked against you. Everything you can do, however seemingly small (even font type and size matter in a screenplay) will make it more probable that said odds will ever be in your favor.

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