Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Problem With Sequels 2: Dragonfire!

                                                                             

Well, I promised you a sequel - though this isn't it, really. Think of it as a quick Asylum-style mockbuster.  A true sequel is in the works, rest assured, and it should be posted before George R.R. Martin finally finishes his last A Song of Fire and Ice novel.

How To Train Your Dragon 2 is an excellent example of how hard it is to come up with a good story for a sequel once you've told the tale of how your protagonist becomes a hero. In the first film, scrawny-but-smart Viking lad Hiccup managed to tame and befriend a raiding dragon. In so doing, he managed to put an end to the sheep-raiding and won the respect of his macho father, chieftain Stoic. The outsider had found a role for himself within the community, and in so doing he solved its biggest problem, while simultaneously repairing the flaws in his most important personal relationship. Specifically, Hiccup and Stoic were always quarreling because they were so different and just didn't manage to communicate in the right way.

So what do you dofor an encore?

Beware, HERE BE SPOILERS...

In HTTYD 2, writer-director Dean Deblois decides to resurrect the conflict between Hiccup and his father as the initial motor behind the conflict to drive the narrative. So what goes wrong this time? Stoick wants Hiccup to take his place as chieftain of the village. Hiccup responds by literally running away with Toothless, with whom he goes exploring in order to discover new islands. Hiccup doesn't want to be tied down and made responsible for the entire village, because... (ta daaaaa) he doesn't know who he is.

Well... that's a little weird, frankly.

Firstly, Stoick's gesture (which we don't see, only hear reported by Hiccup to his girlfriend Astrid) is one of love and respect. Exactly what Hiccup wanted the first time around. Now he gets it in the biggest way possible - and he runs off on the flimsiest of excuses. It might have made some sense if Hiccup said he didn't want the job because he can't bear the thought of being responsible for all the inhabitants of Berk, but...

... Hiccup has been nothing if not responsible throughout the first film. Though physically slight, he invents mechanical weapons/traps to defeat the raiding dragons (instead of, say, cowering in fear). He catches a dragon and overcomes ingrained prejudice, seeing it as an intelligent being rather than a dangerous monster. And he does his level best trying to convince his village that there is a better way to deal with the dragon problem - he even manages to get the other teenagers (at that point not yet his friends, but rather a bunch of bullies) to follow him in his quest. So being afraid of responsibility has never been one of Hiccup's flaws. Yet now, magically, it is.

This minor conflict cannot carry an entire animated movie, of course, so an external enemy needs to be found. And Hiccup's main personal problem has to be 'knowing who I am' - again, not really something present in the first film, but somewhat relatable as he is so clearly different from evereybody else in the village of Berk.

The external enemy is provided by a warlord, Drago Bloodfist, who has sworn to destroy all dragons, because dragons destroyed his village and cost him his arm. So of course he gathers an invincible army of - dragons. And he can control all dragons he encounters because he has a gargantuan Alpha Dragon under his spell (how he managed to tame this beast is never explained) - so his army keeps growing. Except he doesn't destroy dragons, of course, he just enslaves them. Which sort of defeats the purpose of his quest for vengeance, although it does put him up against the dragon-loving villagers of Berk.

Hiccup's approach of the Drago problem is to try and convince him that waging war against dragons isn't necessary, because men and dragons can live together in harmony. Both his dad and his mother (more about here in a little more than a jiffy) think this is the wrong approach - for Drago cannot be made to change. Idealistic Hiccup won't listen - but is proven wrong in the end. Drago is hellbent on revenge and this causes the biggest tragedy in the movie - Stoick dies when he takes a dragon's breath blast from Toothless, under the command of Drago, intended to kill Hiccup.

What's weird about this is that Hiccup is proven to be so clearly wrong - whereas in the first film, he was basically right all the time. Moreover, the way this story element is set up primes the audience to think that Hiccup is in the right again, and his parents are old-fashioned and narrow-minded. But it turns out that Hiccup is naive and stupid, and some people are  so far beyond redemption they need killing.

So basically Hiccup is changed quite fundamentally from the first film. He used to bring hope and a better way of life to his community, thanks to his ability to look at the world in a fresh way. Now he's become someone who shuns responsibility and whose immature naiveté brings about disaster. This is a sure symptom that Hiccup's character didn't really have anywhere to go change-wise, after the events of the first film. In order to get him into a transformation-story, they had to transform him first...


                                                                       

The other internal problem Hiccup is faced with is knowing who he really is. And to help him with this problem, he accidentally runs into his long-lost mother, Valka (clearly a relative of Munch's The Scream) . Just like Hiccup, she tried to convince the Vikings to stop fighting the dragons, with no success, however. Thought dead after being during a dragon-raid when Hiccup was a baby, she's actually spent the last twenty years on an island with dragons, wearing scary-looking armor and a polearm which makes her look like a dragon-lord - far more so than Drago. After Valka gest over the initial shock and delight of seeing her son again, she explains why she remained absent all these years - it was 'to keep her son safe'.

Errr... Safe from what, exactly?? From the dragons, which were raiding Berk all along? In any case, meeting her does help Hiccup realize who he is - he's just like his mother - but that doesn't really let us discover interesting or appealing new aspects of his personality. Indeed, his reaction to discovering his mother is still alive is tepid: he's slightly discomfited at first when she wants to be all motherly towards him, but apart from that it's apparently no big deal. It would have been so much more interesting to have Valka be a major antagonist in the movie (whether the main villain or a temporary antagonist who turns into an ally). Now it's just a huge missed opportunity.

Now, HTTYD2 isn't all bad - it's often spectacularly beautiful to look at, the story does become more engrossing in the second half of the second act (I thought the huge crisis setpiece was going to be the climax at first) and it's much bigger in scope than the first film. But the transformative arc of the protagonist really works against the narrative, this time around, rather than shaping it effectively as it did in the first instalment.

So what could have made this better? That's always a difficult question and obviously has a lot to do with personal taste. But I think it would have made for a stronger storyline - and a stronger transformative arc - if Hiccup and Berk were faced with an invincible external opponent much sooner in the story. An opponent against whom their usual way of tackling problems doesn't work. Both Hiccup and the society he lives in would have to change, adapt, to be able to overcome this new threat. There's your transformational arc, and you can build on what came before - look for the flaw in the new status quo and start building the conflict from there, rather than finding all sorts of weird new flaws to visit upon the protagonist which make little sense, contradict what went before, and frankly make him a far less appealing main character this time around.

If a second sequel is considered, Hiccup is now in an interesting new position, of course - as village chieftain, he will have a lot of new responsabilities and problems to tackle. But this also means he's no longer in the position of the child (no matter how capable or intelligent, he's still someone who is taken care of), but in the position of the adult. Which won't make it easy to come up with a storyline that will resonate with a audience of children. Unless, of course, they jump a generation, and turn Hiccup's eventual offspring into the new protagonist...









Saturday, July 5, 2014

Book review: Into The Woods (John Yorke)

John Yorke is one of the most influential people in British drama: he's been Head of Drama at Channel 4 and Controller of BBC Drama Productions, helped win legendary soap Eastenders its first BAFTA, and was also instrumental in bringing series like Spooks, Life on Mars, The Street and dozens of others to the screen. Currently, he's the Managing Director of Company Pictures, one of the most important drama independents. And he created the BBC Writers Academy in 2005, which has produced a generation of succesful TV scribes.

So when John Yorke puts his thoughts on writing down on the page, it's a given that the result will be at the very least of great interest to screenwriters everywhere.

In fact, it's of great interest to storytellers everywhere - because Into The Woods goes beyond the obvious how-to approach and delves deeply into the why. Why do we tell stories, but also, why do these stories have a universal, underlying structure and why does it have the shape it has?

That all sounds like very heady stuff, and Into The Woods delves deeper into the evolution of narrative and drama than almost any non-academical text. It's also not a 'how-to' book, per se, though it provides a wealth of practical advice. And although it tries to uncover the Archetypal Story with its universal structural elements, it doesn't ever try to proscribe this Archetypal Story as the One True Way. Indeed, as John Yorke notes, several great films, novels and plays diverge from the Archetype very succesfully. But many other 'divergent' works fundamentally fail at telling a good story well.

Yorke's main intention with this book is to explain why stories are told the way they are, and why this Archetypal Story can be found throughout the ages and all around the globe. In Yorke's view, stories are about change, and their structure reflects how an individual deals with change. The three-act structure, and its thesis/antithesis/synthesis-dialectic, is a basic roadmap of how change occurs. It's not a static impediment to true narrative creativity, but an expression of a basic psychological mechanism.

But the book goes beyond 3-act structure and expands it to five-act structure. In fact, the book itself is in 5 acts: Act I is about story and act structures, Act 2 is about acts, the inciting incident and scenes, Act 3 is about showing and telling, Act 4 is about characters and dialogue, and Act 5 is about dramatic structure in television drama. Now, I'm sure this isn't the first time someone applied classical 5 act structure to screenwriting, but it is the first book I've read which makes the case so powerfully and clearly. Of course, 5-act structure is basically an elaboration of 3-act structure, in which the second act is subdivided

Not that Yorke wants everybody to be 'enslaved' by 5-act structure or any other model: he states that a screenplay can have as many acts as necessary. Each act being the attempt of the protagonist to reach a specific goal along the way to finally achieving or failing to achieve the major goal that drives the entire story.

Much of what is discussed here is well-known - inciting incident, midpoint, protagonist & antagonist, theme - but Yorke's enormous experience in script development, coupled with the impressive breadth and depth of his research, ensures that even experienced writers will find much of value here. And for beginners, this is a treasure trove of very practical advice to absorb and master. Although not a how-to book in the strict sense, most of the central concepts are immediately applicable to your actual writing.

What's also a little controversial is that Yorke is critical of many if not all screenwriting gurus (yes, even of the Mighty McKee). Though he does state that many screenwriting manuals are worthy of reading and can help writers achieve good results, he lambasts the gurus for overcomplicating matters, or remaining too superficial, or asking for too much money. It's very rare for this to happen in print.

You should also read the footnotes in this book - they are plentiful and often contain extra nuggets of wisdom, or examples of Yorke's dry wit. They form an integral part of the reading experience in this case.

Any criticisms? Well, apart from some regrettable typos (Guillermo Del Torro, sic), I do feel a little underwhelmed by the final conclusions - not that they are bad or wrong (or final - Yorke clearly states that these are his conclusions based on the current knowledge and research available to him), maybe just a bit too... normal. There's no Sixth Sense-like twist ending to turn everything we thought we knew about storytelling on its head. Which is reassuring, of course, but I guess the sensation-junkie in me was hoping for a bigger wow finish.

But rest assured this is one of the most entertaining, intelligent, deep and yet accessible books on storytelling on the market. Anyone remotely interested in screenwriting and storytelling will find this an insightful delight. You can get the book here:
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Into-The-Woods-Stories-Work/dp/0141978104/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1404572328&sr=8-1&keywords=John+Yorke



And for the real enthusiast, John Yorke is doing a (pricey) online course here, starting on July 14th:

http://www.profwritingacademy.com/into-the-woods/


Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The problem with sequels... (this is heavy, Doc!)


  
                                                                             

Okay, so we all know that the odds of getting a sequel as enjoyable (or, heaven help us, better) than the original movie are pretty lousy indeed. But why should this be the case? The original movie was a hit, so obviously just providing the same type of thrills and/or emotions, possibly on a larger scale, should be sufficient, right?

On the screenwriting level, it often comes down to one thing. Character. And more specifically, the character arc.

Just about every protagonist nowadays has to have his/her arc, or we tend to consider the events of the script as non-essential (in the sense that they do not provide the framework for a major shift in your character's psychological make-up). But because a character arc almost always consists of a character overcoming their major psychological flaw, the result is that at the end of the screenplay, this flaw is cured. And the character is 'healed', and therefore no longer the same as when we, the audience, came to know and love them.

So as the writer of the sequel, you are faced with a major problem: what arc can you give the character in the sequel, when their main problem has been solved? You can either give them the same problem again, as was the case in Another 48 Hours, but the result is that the audience has literally seen it all before - and the character arc has lost its freshness which made it work so well the first time.

Or you can try and look for a new problem to foist on your protagonist. That's why James Bond had to overcome his fear of commitment in Casino Royale, his overwhelming desire for revenge in Quantum of Solace, and his mummy issues with regards to M in Skyfall. On the one hand, this constantly opens new avenues of internal conflict to examine along with the gunfights and explosions; on the other hand, it reduces the world's Greatest Secret Agent to a neurotic wreck.

An interesting avenue was explored in the Back To The Future-trilogy. In the second film, Marty McFly has a playful yet potentially devastating flaw: he can't resist a challenge, because he's afraid people would consider him a coward ('Nobody calls me chicken!'). And this flaw is used brilliantly to complicate matters during the very long and intricate climactic sequence of the movie. In fact, Marty doesn't overcome his flaw in this film. That is saved up for BTTF 3. So here we see that it is possible to keep a flaw going for longer than one film, if it provides sufficient material for conflict and complications.

What's remarkable about the flaw Marty McFly was saddled with in BTTF 2, was that it fit the character so well, it seemed to have been part of his psychological profile from the outset. But it wasn't! In the original Back To The Future, Marty doesn't even have an arc. He's the same spunky, lovable, brave kid at the end as he was in the beginning. What does change, is the world around him - he changes his mother, his father and even Doc Brown during the 1950's, causing him to return to an idyllic present at the end of his adventure, where all his problems have been magically solved. He starts out as a catalyst hero, and only becomes a  'typical' flawed hero once the external problems which plagued his life were dealt with.

In any case, the lesson to be learned here is that when you're looking for 'new' flaws for your protagonist to overcome, to make sure they fit the character so well that it seems they were there all along. Don't change the essence of the character. For instance, Robert Zemeckis could have decided to turn Marty into an inveterate lecher in BTTF 3, or a teenage alcoholic hooked on Wild West hooch - but luckily he didn't. These flaws would have been inappropriate for the character, and to use this type of inappropriate flaw only highlights the artificial nature of the technique.

But what about those long-running series starring the same character? How do you manage to keep things fresh then?

Ah, now that is a topic for the sequel to this article...








Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Screenwriting Structure Wars: The Ultimate Secret

So what's up with screenplay structure anyway? Do you Save The Cat or have My Story Beat Up Your Story? Are you a three-act adept, a four-act aficionado, a fervent five-acter or do you scoff at acts altogether? Do you bravely embark on the Writer's Journey or do you try to have Something Startling Happen every minute? What teacher/guru/manual do you follow above all others? Who deserves to be deified, and who should be thrown on the trash heap of history? Or should you throw all structural models overboard and blindly follow your instincts?

Here is the secret truth. Don't tell anyone I let you in on it.

Use whatever works for you.

The only thing that matters, is that you are able to tell the story you want to tell, in the best possible way. And that means structuring the emotional response of your audience to maximum effect.

So they will feel what you want them to feel, at the moment you want them to feel it. So they will be ahead of or behind or at exactly the same place as your characters, when you want them to be. So they will be able to follow the characters' transformation, or thrill at their exploits, or rail against unjust fate when tragedy strikes them down - just as you planned.

In a way, the proliferation of different structural models is a blessing: it allows writers to experiment, find whatever method they are most comfortable with - or develop their own variations on a theme.

It also gives you the opportunity to select different structural approaches depending on the type of story you are trying to tell. Sure, most of the models out there are explictly Hollywood-based, but recently the Save The Cat website posted a convincing analysis of Michael Haneke's Amour, an art-house film through and through.

So, if a structural model helps you create, use it and don't feel guilty! And if they feel too constraining - ignore them! Just get that script written, and make it the best it can be!





Bullet To The Head - When Good Buddy Movies Go Bad

Bullet to the Head Poster.jpg

It should have been a match made in heaven: Walter Hill, writer/director of many action and Western classics in the '70s and '80s helming a resolutely old-school buddy-action-noir movie, set in New Orleans, and featuring an aging hitman (Stallone) and a straightlaced young Asian cop (Sung Kang) who team up reluctantly to solve a couple of murders and  uncover a real-estate conspiracy by a slimy lawyer (Christian Slater) and a corrupt African potentate-on-the-run (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). The bad guys have a nigh invincible mercenary on their side (Jason Momoa), who fights Stallone in a fire-ax duel. And to top everything off, Stallone even has a hot daughter (Sarah Shahi) who earns a living as a tattoo artist and gets involved in gratuitous nudity!

 So what went wrong?

Somehow the screenplay manages to botch the most fundamental aspect of a buddy movie: the buddy relationship.

 Stallone the old-school assassin and Kang the by-the-book geek cop hate each other from the start. And they spend most of the movie in each other's company - hating each other all the way through. In other words, the relationship is static instead of dynamic. The same story beat is repeated over and over. Cop wants to arrest assassin when all this is over, hitman is pissed that cop doesn't respect him after saving his life for the umptieth time.

 The only progression occurs at the very end - and then it's a pretty big leap from mutual loathing to respect. The emotional change feels forced and way overdue.

Now, there are a few funny scenes between the two, especially the driving scenes in Stallone's car, and both actors have a good rapport going. But even these scenes stick to replaying the same beat: Stallone trumps and humiliates Kang, no matter the subject of their conversation. There's no real debate: Stallone's way is correct, Kang's is wrong, and we're never allowed the opportunity to forget it. Whereas any decent buddy movie made sure that the 'wild guy' learned a little bit of restraint from the 'square guy', and the square guy got to release his inner beast. Cliché, yes, but at least it works. Sabotaging this character dynamic without replacing it with something different and/or better, just cripples the film. And it makes the lead characters come across as very one-dimensional (and I'm not talking about the hottest boy band on the planet now).

It doesn't help that the conspiracy that gets revealed is so ordinary and uninvolving. The external storyline doesn't provide enough intellectual stimuli to keep the audience enthralled/surprised/excited througout the film. Neither villain has any depth or complexity (though they are plenty stupid). Their only reason for existing is so that they can send an army of goons to trouble our battle-happy heroes.

So the lesson here is: if you're going for a straight genre film, be sure to use the expected genre elements in the right way. The audience expects it, and when their expectations aren't met disappointment is sure to follow.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Premium Rush (2012) - Let Go Of The Damn Brakes!






In David Koepp's Premium Rush (written by him and John Kamps), the protagonist, Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a bicycle courier whose bike has no gears and no brakes - as, he tells us and his ex-girlfriend, brakes are dangerous.

It's bizarre, then, that the screenplay continually slows down when it should be speeding up. And not once, but several times.

Things begin pretty well, as we open with JGL flying through the air after a crash, and landing hard on the Manhattan concrete. And then the movie rewinds to an hour and a half earlier - and the audience is primed for a real-time story frame.

At first, it adheres fairly well to this premise: Wilee finishes one job, gets another, picks up an envelope from his  ex-girlfriend's ex-roommate, and is accosted by a weird man who wants the envelope back. He refuses, cycles away at great speed, but is chased through heavy traffic by his antagonist (and a bicycle cop also joins in the fun). Storytelling is zippy, there are lots of fun little flourishes, some great practical stuntwork and effective POV 'you-are-there' shots which transport the audience onto the bicycle seat.
Finally, Wilee escapes his assailant and does what any normal person would do - he goes to the cops to report the assault. And to his horror, he discovers that the mystery man is a cop himself.

So, great setup, original action sequences low on pyrotechnics but high on impressive stunt work, a special milieu (the fraternity of authority-baiting, tattoo-sporting, speed-loving bicycle couriers - who knew?) - all the elements for a fun, fairly original adrenaline rushing action movie are in place.

And then we get a flashback.

Technically, of course, we're already in a flashback, but that one 'didn't count'. The forward impetus of the storytelling was strong and clear. The first flashback - a fairly lengthy one - tells us who our villain (Michael Shannon) is, what predicament he is in and why he has to get his hands on the envelope Wilee is carrying.

So when the flashback ends, we expect things to take off again (we're in the second half of the second act by now). And they do, for a while. And then we get another flashback. About the young woman who gave Wilee the envelope. And then we get another.

And all the while, the chase motif is almost completely forgotten because the villain sets a trap which means he's waiting at the end of the ride.

Okay - the protagonist and the antagonist cannot meet up again until  5:00 P.M. (the time at which the film started before it flashed back). So how do you keep a chase going when one of the participants in the chase is just laying in ambush at the finish line?

Well, luckily Wilee has a rival in the courier business who has gotten his hands on the envelope and is unwittingly racing to deliver it to the bad guy. And Wilee has to stop him. So a big, long bicycle chase follows, going through Central Park, but although it has some cool moments and fun obstacles, the stakes are relatively low - and certainly not life-or-death.

Then we come to the moment which opened the film, and to our surprise, the story doesn't end there. It was actually the end of act two. Act three gives us some more bike stunts (though not much chasing), suddenly cuts to China for a few scenes, and then resolves everything neatly. (the China cut is jarring because we expect it to be a flashback but it is actually happening 'right now', concurrently with the action at that point in the narrative). And we are left fairly unsatisfied.

Premium Rush is a perfect example of flashbacks being used in a way to halt the forward momentum of the story. In this film, they bring the story almost to a halt (especially the scenes with Jamie Chung). Just when you want the story to accelerate and you are expecting even more harrowing and spectacular chases, the pace slows down, the stakes and backstory are explained, and frankly, the movie becomes fairly sedate. And it never picks up enough steam again to match the energy and drive of its first half.

Part of the reason is that the way the story is told, defeats the expectations of the viewer. At first, you expect a 90 minute thrill ride, a fairly non-stop cavalcade of chase sequences which become ever more exciting and spectacular. And you don't get that - in fact, you get the opposite.

Even when the story goes on beyond the apparently natural cut-off point is disorienting. You've mentally created a framework within which the story is expected to be contained - but then that framework is shattered, and you need to re-align your expectations with the actual way the story is being told.

Premium Rush would have worked far better if it had been a far simpler story, and stuck to its guns (a chase like you've never seen before. These are the players, this is what's at stake: BOOM! We're off. And we're not stopping - not really - until we get to the finish line).

So, the lessons to be learned here are:

- do not go counter to audience expectations which you have set up, unless the surprise is so exciting and satisfying that the audience is delighted rather than disappointed.

- do not use flashbacks which explain backstory and character motivations at a time when you need to ramp up the narrative, increase the stakes and maximize the excitement.

- if you're selling your story as an adrenaline rush, make sure that's what you are delivering.


Finally, it's also interesting to notice that Wilee doesn't have a character arc at all - except in voice-over. He's a law school graduate who abhors the idea of working in an office and wearing a suit, preferring the continual (immature) rush of physical excitement. It's why his more serious girlfriend broke up with him (she has brakes on her bike). And at the very end, we hear him declare in voice-over that 'some day he may put on a suit'. Well, maybe - but there's nothing in the story which explains his change of heart. In fact, the only character arcing is his (ex)-girlfriend who learns to take off her brakes and see life Wilee's way.

That's progress, I suppose. If only the script had followed her lead...







Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Secrets Are Out... Bill Martell's 'Act Two Secrets' Blue Book Reveals All!

When Bill Martell finally gets around to finishing his last Blue Book on screenwriting, he will have completed the most exhaustive, practical, inspiring and fun-to-read body of material on our noble profession/calling the world has ever seen. (And at the lowest price, too) In fact, if he's up for it he should then edit the whole bunch of them into one mammoth Ultimate Encyclopedia of Screenwriting.

Act Two Secrets helps the screenwriter navigate the treacherous rapids (or still waters, more often) of the 'middle part' of the script. It's very easy to lose the plot (literally), fail to build the intensity, use too little (or too much) content... But whatever the possible difficulty you are facing as a writer, Bill has solutions for you. So many solutions, in fact, you may even regret not being able to use all of them at once!

The emphasis is, as in all of these books, on tools you can use, not rules. This means that no matter what your personal preference, whether you like to follow a structural model very closely or you prefer to fly by the seat of your pants, you will be able to get the maximum out of this book. Topics covered at length include pacing, creating strong emotional conflicts by using the 4 D's, genre-specific ways of increasing tension and audience involvement, plot devices to keep your story moving, the proper use of subplots, mysteries and macguffins... It's all great and inspiring stuff. And written in that inimitable Martell manner, combining wit, passion and insight in an irresistible package.

A pleasant surprise is that the examples quoted in the book (often at length) do not stick to the 'classics' we've all seen and had analyzed dozens of times before. Here, a number of entries from a recent edition of the Raindance festival are examined in depth. They cover a wide spectrum of genres and countries, proving just how universal these tools are. And it's also a great way to help the reader discover new films to seek out and writing and directing talent to watch out for.

If you've ever needed help on a second act, get this book. If you want to avoid problems in your second acts, get this book. If you like to read screenwriting manuals for fun (with or without the profit), get this book. It's that simple.

And you can get it here:

Act Two Secrets (Screenwriting Blue Books)





Friday, December 28, 2012

3-Act Structure Has Been Declared Dead - Once Again

Tom Lazarus has a new book out, The Last Word: Definitive Answers To All Your Screenwriting Questions. Just got my hands on it, so it's too soon for a review, but while browsing through my copy I stumbled upon the section called 'Rising Action'.

In this chapter, Mr. Lazarus claims that Three Act Structure is dead. Instead, it has been superseded by the Rising Action principle - which is exactly what the name implies. You hit the ground running and things keep building from the word go. In the past, the argument goes, writers were taught to slowly build their world, revealing characters one step at a time, and only getting to the meat of the story's developments in act 2. For contemporary audiences, that's just too slow.

I have absolutely no problem with Rising Action as a screenwriting concept. But it is not a substitute for TAS (cool, I invented an acronym!), or any other story structure. And TAS (ooh, I like the sound of this!) was never intended as a 'slow burn' approach to storytelling. Sure, some people will take a lot of time to put all their pieces on the board. And some teachers or manuals may have advocated or at least presented this slow introduction as the best way to write a screenplay. But mostly, people have been told to get their story up and running as quickly as possible. The very fact that the usual 'place' for the inciting incident is within the first 10 to 15 minutes of the narrative is proof enough of this. As is the fact that the usual 'script graph' always portrays a steeply rising line of action, and that more current depictions of the model point out that every act ends on a climax. What this means, is that every act (whether you have one, two, three, four or maybe more) is structured in a similar way to the entire screenplay. And will, of necessity, consist of rising action all the way.

So, no, I do not agree that 3 act structure has gone the way of the dodo. What IS true (as explained in the Thor-post), is that the structure is mutating, and not in a way which is necessarily conducive to good screenwriting and storytelling. And what is also true, is that the field of screenwriting structure should be opened up to include far more models, to suit different types of story. But that's a topic for another post.

In the meantime, if you'd like to read Tom Lazarus' take on this and dozens of other topics, you can get the book here:




Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Mighty Thor or mighty bore?

  

   Though a seminal movie in the run-up to Joss Whedon's The Avengers, Kenneth Branagh's Thor isn't exactly going to knock your socks off. The reason why is a perfect lesson for screenwriters everywhere. We're not going to cast blame on anyone here, because there were at least 5 writers involved, and it's impossible to know who finally decided on the definitive version of the storyline. But whoever did, made an almost rookie mistake.

   Basically, there's nothing at stake.

   I know, I know. Thor wants to get his powers back. And his jealous brother Loki tries to have him killed after a while and take the throne of Asgard for his own. And there are evil Frost Giants, who work together with Loki in order to kill Odin, king of the Norse gods.

   But none of this really matters. (Spoilers will abound from now on, so I say thee: be forewarned!)

   In Act 1, we witness how Thor causes a major diplomatic incident between the gods and the frost giants. As punishment, he is cast out of Asgard by  Odin and robbed of his powers.

   In Act 2, Thor is now powerless and trapped on Earth, and tries to regain his mystic hammer Mjolnir, now in the possession of secretive task force SHIELD. When he finds his hammer, he discovers he's no longer worthy of it. Oh my! What is a thunder god to do?

    Meanwhile in Asgard, Odin has fallen into the possibly eternal Odinsleep,  Loki takes over the rulership of Asgard (as he should, being the remaining heir), and conspires with the king of the frost giants to let them regain their magic doodah which gave them unlimited power in the past.

    Thor doesn't factor into these events at all.  Only when Thor's Asgardian friends, the Warriors Three and Lady Sif, come to Earth to save their pal, Loki decides to kill his brother by sending the magical Destroyer armour after him. Thor sacrifices himself for his human friends, and immediately regains his powers. He demolishes the Destroyer, and whizzes back to Asgard.

  Act 3 has arrived, and Loki lets his frost giant co-conspirators into Asgard to kill the helpless Odin. Except, when they arrive, he turns on them and kills them. And then he starts his big plan to destroy all the frost giants in order to win the love of his dad.

   Which is exactly what Thor wanted to do in act 1, and which caused his banishment in the first place. Loki wants to gain his father's love by doing something his father is utterly opposed to.

   Dumbest Evil Plan Ever, anyone?

   And what's at stake here? The fate of the evil frost giants, a blueskinned race of monsters we don't care about? Thor's life? Hardly - he's so much more powerful than Loki that it's no contest.

   The love of a comatose father who may never regain conciousness??
   And even if this fatherly love is the driving force behind everything, it's a lousy dramatic goal. Because a parent can love a multitude of children. It's not a binary thing - either he loves ME or someone else. Love can grow and expand indefinitely. And a good dramatic goal is something exclusive; something only one character (or group) can have or achieve.

   Net result: there's nothing at stake for the audience to care about. And when the stakes are non-existent, it's impossible to come up with the correct motivations for your characters to do (or not) what they do. It doesn't matter whether you have good performances, effective individual scenes, great art direction, plentiful CGI effects - a conflict without anything worthwhile at stake is ultimately meaningless.

   Witness what Thor tries to do in act 3. He now desperately wants to save the frost giants from Loki's machinations - but why? They're still evil, they haven't changed, he's had no contact with them whatsoever. Answer: it's because your hero and your villain have to have opposing goals. After all, that's what it says in the screenwriting manuals. It doesn't really matter what these goals are, as long as they oppose each other, I guess... His character arc is already complete (he learned humility in the second half of Act 2 and thus is once again worthy of his powers), so there's nothing to be achieved on that level.
   And for the people on Earth, where most of the film takes place, none of these events have the slightest importance. We're all unaware of them, and if the frost giants are exterminated - who cares? If Loki gains the love of Odin - so what?

   Logically speaking, the film's plot should have been about the relationship between the gods and the giants. Thor should have been exiled to the giants' realm in order to make amends for his crime. Getting to know the frost giants better, he might gain sympathy for them (or some of them), and thus have a personal stake in saving them from destruction.
   Or the giants, together with Loki, should have been the prime movers of the conflict, waging war on Asgard on an unprecedented scale. But that would have made it extremely hard for audiences not yet familiar with the character and his corner of the Marvel Multiverse to care about these events and characters.

  So putting Thor on Midgard (our world) is not a bad decision with regards to audience identification. But keeping Thor isolated from the main narrative thrust of the movie certainly is.

   And it wouldn't have been difficult to put Earth in peril. Have the frost giants decide to invade Midgard in order to get to Asgard. Have the destruction of Earth be a key component for the success of Loki's plan. Hey, if everything else fails, take your mortal friends and lovers along with you to your magical divine realm, and put them in danger there. Or - for a stronger Norse mythology feel - have the war with the frost giants be the first step towards Ragnarok, the end of everything - the final battle between the gods and their enemies, where Loki will betray his kinfolk and side with the Very Big Bad Evil Guys, and the entire universe will be shattered - and yes, that includes all of us, folks.

   Now, I don't think that no one ever brought up these points during development. I'm pretty sure they must have been . But somewhere along the way the decision was made to go for this 'low impact' version of cosmic superhero storytelling. We'll probably never know why - but I'm willing to bet budget concerns were involved.
At least The Avengers got it right.  But Thor, Captain America and Iron Man 2 should and could have got it right too.



 



  

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The paradigm is a-changing - and not for the better

  More and more screenwriting experts are claiming that 3-Act Structure is dead, and/or that the original Field-inspired paradigm is no longer valid. Rumors of the 3-Act Structure's demise have been greatly exaggerated. But the way the paradigm is being implemented in many mainstream blockbusters has changed, indubitably.

   Unfortunately this change is not resulting in better storytelling. Quite the contrary. What's happening nowadays? Films, on average, are shorter than say ten years ago. They used to be 120 minutes, while now 100 minutes seems to be the new norm.

  This change in length means that the original distribution of major turning points (all together now: end of Act 1 page 30, midpoint page 60, end of Act 2 p. 90, focus points on pages 45 and 75, thirty pages for your third act which includes the crisis, its aftermath and the climax and resolution) is no longer valid. As we're now working with 100 instead of 120 pages. However, act 1 still takes 30 pages. The midpoint, which should now be around page 50, is still firmly ensconced on page 60. Focus point 2 (which coincides with the Dark Night Of The Soul-segment from the Save The Cat-model) is still at page 75.

  But that's when things start to give way. The third act is of necessity shorter than it used to be. Which is fairly weird because this is where we want to provide the biggest oomphs, the most powerful emotional impact, the most riveting revelations. Yet there's simply not enough time to actually give these essential elements their due.

  The second half of act two has also been truncated. You no longer have the 'luxury' of 15 pages to take you from page 75 to the act break. So you're forced to compress your storytelling so you can get to the act 2 break quicker (I would guesstimate that the break now often falls between page 80 to 85). Which means your entire Act 2 climax needs to be rushed.

  The problem we see more and more nowadays is that writers tell more than half of their story at the 'traditional' pace, intended to provide enough story material for a two-hour film. And then they have to rush through what should be the most impressive and memorable parts of the script(and the film) in order to get everything finished on time.

  The saddest thing is that this changing structure is not something discovered and developed by writers in order to improve the quality of their storytelling. It's mandated by economic concerns - shorter movies mean more showings a day and thus more dollars flowing in per diem.

   If you want to see this structure in action, watch Thor (2011). End of act One (exactly after thirty minutes): Thor is banished from Asgard and stripped of his might by Odin. Midpoint (60 minutes): Thor gets his hands on his hammer, but he hasn't yet learned his lesson, and remains powerless. Focus point 2: Thor's Asgardian friends reach him on Earth but his evil brother Loki sends The Destroyer to kill Thor. And then, things get hazy - Thor dies, Thor is resurrected, defeats The Destroyer, zips back to Asgard to defeat Loki and stop his utterly pointless Evil Plan, reunites with his father, and mourns the loss of his whiny Midgard-bound lady love Jane Foster - all in roughly twenty minutes. Which in practice means that none of the Big Moments have any real impact on the viewer, because there's  not enough time to set them up and to have them resound with the audience.

   Perhaps we should redraw the Post-Field Paradigm (Field's paradigm augmented with various and sundry elements from other major dramatic writing theorists) so that it now consists of two thirty minute acts, and two twenty minute acts (and yes, this would kill the three-act model if it were to become dominant in the marketplace). Or, perhaps, a 30 minute first act, a 40 minute second act and a 30 minute third act to cap things off. Which means that the middle of the story would lose importance, and story density would inevitably be reduced. But structural points could be redistributed in such a way that this new paradigm might start to deliver satisfactory screen stories on a regular basis.

   Or we could just go for a 25/50/25-page 3-act model instead of a 30/60/30-page one, and keep everything as it is. Only told faster.

  For the moment, everything is up in the air. Until the next guru comes along...

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Why Green Lantern's Light Sputtered And Died...





A looooong time ago I gave a glowing review to the screenplay of Green Lantern, by Berlanti, Green and Guggenheim. It seemed to be an almost perfect translation of the source material to the big screen. This was a superhero movie I was really looking forward to see.

Then it was released. And the reviews came in.

And I only got around to watching it yesterday. And every negative review was richly deserved.

What happened?

Well, at least one new version of the screenplay happened. I say 'at least one' because who knows how many people were involved with retooling the BGG-draft, and how many times was changed? Only those people in charge of the development process, I guess. And somehow, though many elements were retained, the final, filmed version manages to demonstrate most of the major screenwriting mistakes gurus, teachers, writers and bloggers warn against. Time and time again.

Now, I'm not saying that the flaws in the screenplay are the only reason for Green Lantern's failure to shine his light across the world-wide box office. Production design wasn't always succesful - the dark, murky world of Oa looks awful compared to the high-tech bright and shiny Oa of the comics, the GL costume didn't impress much (especially the face mask), the special effects were 'obviously' CGI and failed to excite, and maybe the whole Green Lantern power set doesn't end itself to live action too well.

Nevertheless, the shot version of the film is overloaded with basic storytelling mistakes.

Such as:

1) An exposition-heavy opening sequence which doesn't affect the audience in the least. We are told the history of the Guardians and the Green Lantern Corps, and their biggest enemy Parallax, who was imprisoned by one of the Lanterns. Fine. We're TOLD, not SHOWN any of this, and for people who know nothing of the GL mythology, the effect is bewilderment instead of excitement or being intrigued.

2) A lack of a central conflict which drives the narrative. Yes, there is a Parallax entity, and yes, there is a man called Hector Hammond who turns into a powerful, freaky telepath/telekinetic. But neither of them are after Hal Jordan's hide for most of the film. And Hal Jordan isn't hunting for them either, or preparing to defend his world, or trying to achieve a goal which the villains can thwart (unless his goal is to simply keep breathing. And even then, they only try to eliminate him in act 3). Only during act 3 do all the threads come together, but it's far too little far too late.

Obviously there is conflict in the movie, and the Parallax entity wants to destroy the Guardians and the Corps, but instead of gunning for their base planet of Oa, it decides to take a leasurely detour to Earth first (because, you know, what do we care if some far away planet we never heard of gets blown up?)because Hal Jordan got the ring of the Green Lantern who imprisoned Parallax before - but it isn't the ring, it's the willpower of the wearer which is essential.

3) Lack of a goal for the protagonist: Hal Jordan is a test pilot who gets fired and then is kidnapped by a green ring which is bequeathed to him by its alien wearer, Abin Sur. Jordan is then taken to Oa by the ring (against his will) for Green Lantern training. He doesn't do so well, and the scorn of lead Lantern Sinestro (well on his way to becoming the biggest Lantern villain ever)is enough to send Jordan packing back to Earth, basically quitting the Corps. For some reason the ring still works for him and he becomes an Earthbound superhero when Hector Hammond starts causing havoc - but there's nothing he wants to accomplish or achieve. He's either dragged around against his will, mopes around or jumps into the fray because that's what the audience knows heroes do.

4)A flawed, unclear character arc. Hal Jordan saw his test pilot father die when he was a child. Now, as an adult, he's a daredevil test pilot too, taking crazy risks and never obeying orders. Not exactly someone paralyzed by fear, rather someone who has conquered it by overcompensating. The only level on which Jordan is hampered by fear is when it comes to relationships - he runs away whenever things might get serious.

But that's in no way an issue when it comes to being a part of the Corps, or in standing up to Parallax. So when Jordan has to 'conquer his fear', the script cannot provide the necessary steps to make that evolution tangible. Basically, the hero 'learns' what he already knows how to do, and it's unclear why or how he learns it.
The biggest setback in the film comes when Jordan is defeated in training by Sinestro, who scorns him as being weak - and instead of fighting back, getting angry, or taking this as a motivation to change, Jordan meekly agrees with his trainer and flees back to Earth. But if he's such a wimp - how did he become an ace jet pilot who takes insane risks every day? By quitting at the first sign of trouble?

5) Pointless secondary characters. Jordan's buddy Tom is just there to serve as a sprechhund when necessary. Senator Hammond provides a chance to cast a familiar face (Tim Robbins) but the Senator has no impact on Hal's life, really. Carol Ferris, the great love of Jordan's life, is just that, a pretty girl who is there to nag at him in order to remind us just how screwed-up he is (as opposed to, you know, showing us how screwed-up he is). There's even a Jordan family reunion which turns out to be wholly incosnequential, because none of his family members are involved with the plot as it develops.

Nor are the other Green Lanterns particularly interesting: Sinestro is opposed to Jordan being a member, Kilowog's just a drill sergeant and Tamar-Re is just there to explain things to Jordan. None of these get any depth, or play off Jordan as a character in any interesting, non-clichéed way.

6) This one may be due to cutting out an essential bit of information from the script or in the editing room - When Hector Hammond develops his powers, he's captured by the secret government organization Checkmate and his father. They intend to experiment on him and either remove his powers or find a way to neutralize them. Hammond takes control of the lab telekinetically, disables the soldiers and straps his father to the examination table, in order to kill him. Suddenly, Green Lantern bursts through a wall and the fight is on!

Except - there's no reason for him to be there. He doesn't know about Hammond being captured, nor about him going berserk. He's just there because otherwise the bad guy will get away with his dastardly actions. It's not even a coincidence - which happens all the time in the comics - where the hero just happens to notice dodgy activity and decides to investigate because that's what heroes do.

The result is that the audience doesn't get caught up in an exciting action scene, but that the audience is going 'Whoa! Where did HE come from!!??' Which means you're losing your audience right at the time you want them to get maximally invested in your movie, because they're wondering about the cause-and-effect logic of what they're watching.

Is it all bad, then? Well... pretty much yes. The final shooting script does solve the one structural problem I had with the BGG script - there, the outer space action was resolved on Oa, after which Green Lantern returns to Earth and has to fight Hector Hammond. In the final film, Hammond gets taken care of before Jordan has to face Parallax (who doesn't get to Oa and doesn't have to face the entire Corps). So in this version, the third act does build more logically to a Big Climax. Too bad, then, that neither third act confrontation is truly memorable...

So, to sum up: a very good script got turned into a bad script, which led to a crappy movie and, more importantly, a stillborn movie franchise. There's a lesson here for you, Hollywood. If only you would learn it...

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Review: Blue Book #8:Visual Storytelling by William C. Martell (Kindle, Nook)

The latest Blue Book is the biggest yet and also the... well, 'best' is such a difficult term to apply because all of the Blue Books have been amazing value and packed to the gills with excellent and essential information. But this latest one is really something special... So let's call it 'First Among Equals'.

Visual storytelling is an essential skill to master, yet something many screenwriters (especially those aong us who haven't had a film school education) often struggle with. So look to this e-book for inspiration, for hundreds of examples, and for some fundamental principles to help you think creatively about getting information across in a purely visual way.

Visual storytelling was at its most sophisticated during the silent film era, and the book starts off with analyzing two films by Murnau (The Last Laugh - no title cards! - and Sunrise, which won the first Oscar for best artistic achievement in 1927) and one by Buster Keaton (The General). And it immediately becomes clear just how much one can communicate to the audience without relying on dialogue - and how many options we have as screenwriters to achieve this. And we're also reminded just how much we can all learn from studying the history of the art form.

But it's not all a trip to the distant cinematographic past. Films examined here range right up to Rise of the Planet of the Apes and even this year's Academy Award winner The Artist. Another film getting the in-depth treatment is Pixar's Up!, which seems to be the most popular animated film for analysis purposes right now. I've read at least three manuals in the last month in which it was examined in detail.

Specific topics include telling us about your characters by showing them in action (in a screenplay, a character isn't what he or she thinks, but does), and especially by letting them make decisions; the importance of locations and how to contrast them with your characters; making goals visible; using time as a visual element; symbolism, metaphors and leitmotifs; and various and sundry screenwriter's tricks to make your scenes and characters come alive.

And at the end of the book, we discover which Blue Books will be updated next, and what other book projects mr. Martell has lined up. Nice to know there's still so much to look forward to.

So - the best written workshop on visual storytelling you can imagine, at a crazy low price. Every screenwriter and film student should read this.

You can get the book here:



And you can get Murnau movies from here:







And Buster Keaton's The General from here:



Monday, March 5, 2012

Review: Writing The Pilot by William Rabkin (moon&sun&whiskey Incorporated, paperback and kindle version)

If you've ever considered writing a TV pilot, get this book.

If you're an executive or development person who want to be able to communicate in a sensible and effective way with writers developing a pilot for you, get this book.

If you've written TV pilots and want to make sure your next pilot contains all the essential elements for a succesful run, or you want to find out more about the potential pitfalls of some ostensibly powerful high concept ideas, get this book.

And if you just want to find out more about what makes TV pilots tick -- well, you know the drill by now.

William Rabkin, writer/producer of over 300 hours of television (including Diagnosis Murder, Monk and Psych) has written the definiive tract on television pilots.

You will learn what the most important elements of a good pilot are (some you will beforehand, some may surprise you), and how it differs from a feature script or from an 'ordinary' episode. What may surprise many, is that certain extremely cool and powerful high concept pilots, which may be very rewarding on their own terms, are actually fundamentally and fatally flawed when it comes to building an entire series off them - especially in the American, 22 episodes/year network environment. Rabkin proves this quite convincingly by analysing and dissecting the concepts behind Life On Mars (American version, which failed miserably) and Flashforward. This section of the book is an eye-opener both for writers and for execs, because a strong high concept can 'blind' the audience to the flaws or weaknesses which will become clearer as the series progresses. I, for one, am pretty apprehensive about Awake, which has a universally praised pilot epispode, but a high concept at its core which makes it hard to predict which way they're going to take the series over (hopefully) many, many episodes.

The strength of the essential building blocks of the pilot is also one of the deciding factors in whether a show keeps going from strength to strength (The Shield was as good in season 7 as it had ever been and the series could easily have continued for a couple of seasons more), whereas others visibly dwindle in quality, though not necessarily in popularity (Nip/Tuck, for instance).

Rabkin also provides an in-depth look at the creation process of two pilots he developed with Lee Goldberg (both of which were ultimately passed on), as well as instruction on how to craft the script for the pilot, and what to do with your spec pilot once you've finished it. Because although the situation has changed since the early 2000's, when spec pilots were a waste of paper, it's still a fact that the doors of Hollywood will remain closed to outsiders who come bearing gifts (i.e. a pilot + bible) unless they can somehow prove it will be a worthwhile and relatively safe investment. Rabkin suggests a strategy to gain access - it's difficult and time-consuming, and not everyone will be able to implement it, but if you do, the rewards can be enormous.

You can get the paperback here:



and the Kindle option is right here:

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Review: The Inner Game of Screenwriting: Twenty Winning Story-Forms (Sandy Frank, Michael Wiese Press)

The Inner Game of Screenwriting promises to teach screenwriters the single biggest thing a screenplay needs to be succesful. The secret of this success is a 'relentless focus on the inner game'. And what is this inner game? Well, it's no spoiler to reveal it, really, as it's explained in the first pages of the book.

The Inner Game is the transformational arc of the main character.

So you might be thinking - didn't I know this already?

Well, yes and no. Author Sandy Frank (who used to work for a Wall Street law firm before changing careers) admits that the concept has been around for a while.

But the subtitle of the book reads '20 Winning Storyforms'. And that's definitely something new.

The unique approach of The Inner Game of Screenwriting is that it takes a thorough and varied look at the concept of the transformational arc.

Mr. Frank distinguishes between two types of inner games: morph and myth. Each type has a number of archetypes attached to it, which are the storyforms of the subtitle. A morph inner game shows the main character going through an outer game (the plot) which causes a transformation on the psychological level (the inner game). A myth inner game shows a character going through an outer game which symbolizes the inner game. This may sound somewhat confusing but the book makes everything clear. It's also worth noting that the myth archetypes discussed here really have nothing to do with the Hero's Journey approach.

The morph archetypes describe all manners of variations on the theme of inner change: for the better, for the worse, or even those instances where the hero is incapable of change.

An extremely interesting chapter is the one about using the enneagram to define your main character's psyche and tailor inner flaws and problems which are real and relevant to this personality type. The enneagram is a personality profilling method, and even if you don't subscribe to its spiritual aspect, it provides you with very complete and multi-dimensional personality descriptions which can be applied to your characters. (One could also use the personality descriptions of astrological star signs to this effect)
What's also interesting about the enneagram types is that each has several subtypes, showing the personality type at its best, 'medium' and worst. So you can use these different aspects of the same type in deciding how you're going to let your character transform, which changes actually make sense with regards to the personality type.
Of course the enneagram is a huge subject which is barely touched upon here (only two of the types are examined in any detail), but Sandy Frank does provide links to resources in order to deepen your knowledge of this

The rest of the book examines structuring your screenplay to maximize the inner game,
the inner game and sequels, remakes and adaptations, and there's also a chapter on writing for television and how the inner game relates to that. There are a few chapters on exceptions to the inner game-rule, and you're also taught how to x-ray a screenplay in order to evaluate its inner game.

One aspect of the book which raised my eyebrows was the insistence on commercial success - as if quality and commercial success are somehow linked. Many movie classics did less than brilliant business when they were first released (look at Citizen Kane for one), so that's a approach to the art and craft I'm not very comfortable with. Your mileage obviously may and will vary.

I'm also not quite sure the list of myth archetypes is all-encompassing - I get the feeling a few more options exist. The archetypes which are presented, are interesting and useful, however, and certainly can get you started.

To sum up: The Inner Game provides you with several ways to implement the transformational arc to your characters and story, and because it does cast its net quite wide, it manages to avoid the trap of promoting just one type of transformational story. It's a 'big picture' book, basically helping the writer develop the overarching story, and as such it needs to be supplemented by more practical manuals for beginning writers. But it is very succesful at providing the screenwriter with a wide array of tools and options for strengthening and deepening the transformational arc.

The paperback can be found here:




And the kindle option is available here:

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Review: Secrets of Action Screenwriting by William C. Martell (Kindle, Nook)

Over a decade ago, William C. Martell published the first edition of Secrets of Action Screenwriting to great success. The book sold out - became a collector's item, even, commanding impressive prices from used book sellers - and was truly innovative. This was the first time a working screenwriter revealed his personal tricks, rules, and insights for writing screenplays in his favorite genre - and in which he had known a lot of success. Never before had a screenwriting manual focused on one genre alone. And never before had a screenwriting manual gone in for a toolbox approach.

When we learned in the past few years that a second edition of Action Screenwriting was in the works, excitement ran high. And around Christmas 2011, the perfect present for screenwriters everywhere was released in electronic book format. Yes, it's too bad we can't hold the second edition in our hands and smother its blue cover with hugs and kisses, but on the positive side, the book is not hindered by page limitations (it's over twice the size of the original) and it can be updated by the author. In fact, it already has been. Your book will only get better and better over the years.

So what riches hide between these electronic covers? I'm not going to do a comparison review, as that's fairly pointless- much of the original material has been revised or tweaked. So we're getting both a thorough revision of the original and a book's worth of new material in one tidy package.

Bill Martell's main emphasis is that action movies are all about characters first, and big set-pieces second. It's something that Hollywood - both big- and low-budget Hollywood - tends to forget to it's own detriment, because all of the classic action movies have a strong emotional/character driven component to put all the pyrotechnics and brawling in context. There are many good examples from the author's own screenplays - many of which unfortunately were cut out by idiot directors, producers and/or actors.

Secondly, the most important thing for an action movie story to work is the villain's plan. Unlike 'normal' screenwriting theory tells us, the villain is the most active character in an action movie and the hero is reactive, trying to stop the villain from achieving his/her dastardly goal. Time spent on devising a good 'bad' plan for an action screenplay is time very well spent.

Apart from the literally hundreds of suggestions and examples for tweaking clichés, piling up the suspense and tension, and getting character across without dialogue (among many, many others), this is also the first time Bill Martell reveals his relatively new concept of 'The thematic'. Useful for every type of screenplay, it's a unifying element of the script and probably the closest Martell has gotten to a 'high concept screenwriting theory', like Field's Paradigm and Snyder's Save The Cat structure. The concept is very well illustrated here in an in-depth examination of Minority Report, but personally I hope it'll be the subject of a future Blue Book, or heck, an entire real-world dead tree book even, as it's a very deep subject which can be explored even further.

The book is extremely up to date, going right up to MI:4 Ghost Protocol, though to be honest many of the best examples come from older films, with Die Hard still taking the top spot.

We're also introduced to a very good technique for understanding screenplay construction: Bill Martell advises the reader to do a timeline for their favourite films. This means dividing the film in 5 minute increments, and noting what story beat occurs on those minutes. In the supplimental section, Martell includes scans of several timelines he made long ago, some of films he analyzed to get a grip on their inner workings, some of his own screenplays. It's extremely rare we get to see actual work-in-progress documents from working screenwriters, so make the most of this golden opportunity.

It should be clear by now that if you're in the least bit interested in writing an action screenplay, you NEED this book. And even if you're not, there's so much good, common sense advice within these pages you'll be glad you read them.
There were quite a few typos when the e-book was first released, but it has been regularly updated since then, so the majority of them - if not all - have already been corrected. In any case: my highest recommendation.

You can get the Kindle version here:



And if you're feeling nostalgic and want to splurge on a collector's item: