Friday, January 8, 2010

What's the story?

First, let me say that I was wrong.  Not everyone wants to be in the film business these days.  It's all about apps!  It is amazing what is being created in that space, but that's another story.

Speaking of story, filmmaking starts with story.  Period.  If you don't have a good story to tell, then there is no movie to be made.

Stories are being delivered in new forms and formats but at the core, the story  needs to be compelling to attract an audience.

As a screenwriter I have toyed with different ways to develop story.  The first script I wrote I did freestyle - started writing and let if flow.  Big mistake.  I ended up doing countless re-writes and eventually had a mess on my hands.  I eventually got a pretty decent script, but I would have saved myself a lot of heartache if I had planned things out better.

The system that I think works best is this:

Start with a logline and a theme.  Back when TV Guide was big, this was how we chose what to watch.  A catchy one or two line description of the movie.  If you can describe your story in a line or two it is still a meaningful exercise especially if it conveys the central theme of the piece.  You may want to blast the message on Twitter so try to do it in 140 characters or less.

Next, write the synopsis.  This is a longer piece, two or three pages, that conveys the story succinctly.  It also comes in handy if you need to memorize it for your elevator pitch with a studio exec.  The synopsis is a living document.  You will start with the beginning, middle and end but you will eventually fill in additional information and update it constantly as you re-write your screenplay.

I will probably get flack for not crediting the source (mea culpa) but the elements of the synopsis include the "uh oh", "oh no",  "no way!" and "Oh My GOD!" moments that will be the turning points in the story that will make us want to watch.  With each passing act, something must happen that is increasingly difficult for the hero to overcome.  Eventually we are led to the climax.

Once you have the 5 to 7 most important "beats" of the story, you will need to fill in the rest.  That is where the Beat Sheet comes in.  It breaks down the story into minute detail.  Once you have this, you are ready to write the script.  And re-write it and re-write it and re-write it.

A smart person once said that writers don't write, they re-write.  It is hard to take criticism, but if you listen carefully to critiques of your work, you ultimately get a better finished product.

Writing  a script is not hard.  Writing a good one is very hard.  Writing a script that gets bought is rare, and one that gets made is miracle.  That's how tough the business really is.  Here I am speaking of the tradition movie business of studios and agents, networks and distributors.  In the new media realm it is altogether different and we will come back to this later.

Producers and directors do not always write their own scripts.  Most are optioned or commissioned from writers.  Regardless of whether you write your own  or purchase or have one written, you still need one before you can go any further.

Once you have the script, you will turn it into a 10-20 pages prose version of it which is called a treatment.  The period of time it takes to go from idea to script is called Development and it can last a long or short time.  At the end of the period, the filmmaker is ready to enter the next phase of the process armed with a screenplay (which has been re-written, tweeked, sliced and diced and put back together hundreds of times), synopsis, logline and treatment.

Although Development is a pre-production activity, once development is complete, the filmmaker enters Pre-Production.  In this phase the filmmaker will look for money, talent and distribution as well as go into Preparation for production.  All this will be discussed in detail in future posts.

Turning back to story, I can recommend the following books to help you through the process:

The Hero with a Thousand faces

Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting

The Writer's Journey

20 Master Plots

These are all from my personal library.  Other good ones exist so feel free to seek them out.  The one you cannot live without is Hero with a thousand faces. has some great books too.

If you are going to write a screenplay, you should get a good screenwriting software.  I use Final Draft.  Others exist and I am sure are good, but I have never used them.  Most are available by download so it is very easy.

 If you write a screenplay, register it with the Writers Guild of Amarica or the copyright office.  I don't think any explanation is needed for why this should be done.

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