Sunday, November 6, 2011

Review: Blue Book #10 : Dialogue Secrets by William Martell

Great dialogue is one of the best weapons in a screenwriter's armory to seduce actors into wanting to play a role. So it's imperative that you master this skill. Plus - writing great dialogue, though often hard work, is also just plain fun. Run-of-the-mill or bad dialogue? Not so much.

So Bill Martell's third Blue Book to be converted into Kindle- and Nookdom, is just what the doctor ordered if you're trying to improve your dialogue writing. Now consisting of 40 tips (almost double the amount of the print version), the book also has a few extra dialogue-related essays as well as a detailed look at some brilliantly written scenes, to show you how it is done by the masters.

If you want to write great dialogue, you must of course know how to distinguish it from bad dialogue. Dialogue Secrets has you covered. Several of the tips examine the most current mistakes writers make when writing dialogue - as well as a few more esoteric ones.

The biggest problems you're usually faced with are exposition in dialogue, and making sure the individual voice of the character comes through. Exposition can be a hassle in many ways - characters explaining who they are and what the situation is to each other (when they both already know), or being used as an infodump to reveal the research which the writer has painstakingly assembled to name but two. But rest assured, there are many strategies on offer to avoid these pitfalls, and each chapter comes with an exercise in order to help you actually acquire the necesary skill set.

As for making the characters sound like the individuals they are, this is illustrated beautifully in my favourite tip. Bill describes a couple of dozen barista's he knows in LA. All doing the same job, all having a totally different outlook and personality. What's so good about this section, is that it becomes clear how easily you can paint a portrait of a character in one or two sentences. And if you do the exercise (writing a very short conversation with each of the individuals described in the tip, in such a way that their personality shines through), you will be doing yourself and your writing a world of good.

You'll also learn aout the importance of vocabulary, bumper sticker lines, nexus words, the three-line rule, and much, much more. Subtext in dialogue is also discussed several times, and Bill provides a perfect example to illustrate just how subtext works. Unfortunately (one of the very few flaws of the book), the example is repeated verbatim at least three times.

There's also a section on cursing - definitely the first time that's been given a chapter of its own in a screenwriting manual!

And finally, there are dialogue excerpts from Notorious, Psycho, Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday and, for a more modern approach, Kenneth Lonergan's You Can Count On Me. All of these are discussed in depth.

Bottom line: you get almost 200 pages of practical and often surprising advice, for a measly $2.99. That must be one of the best deals on the internet right now. And you can get it right here:

(Although as I post this today, November 17 2011, there's no pricing information up at the Amazon site. Go figure...)

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Review: The Story Book by David Baboulene (Dream Engine Media/Kindle)

A second UK offering up for review now: David Baboulene's The Story Book. Mr. Baboulene is a writer of novels, children's books, scripts - and he's actually doing a PhD. on subtext in storytelling as well!

So how does this book stack up against other story-centered tomes?

First, you need to know the book isn't specifically about screenwriting, but talks about story in all (or most) forms of fiction. However, screenwriting is a very big part of the equation, as the central example used to illustrate the theoretical principles is Back To The Future. And that's a very good choice - though as mainstream Hollywood as you can get, BTTF is extremely well-constructed and has many different levels which all influence each other constantly.

Second, mr. Baboulene throws a big frag grenade at the beginning, causing shock and awe no doubt, when he states that you need to disregard structure when you're creating your story. For starting out with a set structural model may be like forcing a square peg in a round hole. It limits your creativity and may 'disfigure' your story from the start.

Wow, heady stuff. I can hear a bunch of writers whooping with glee and another bunch raging in disbelief.

Do not despair, fellow structuralists - story structure still has a very important part to play and the book also spends a lot of time discussing it in detail. However, in the author's view, the structural model should be applied after the fact of story creation, in order to make sure you tell the story as well as possible, hit all your emotional moments with maximum efficiency, and engage your audience to the utmost. So in fact you get the best of both worlds.

Another crucial point in this approach to story us the use of subtext. Subtext, the story underneath the story, is a crucial element for telling a great story, as mr. Baboulene sees it. And the way to achieve subtext is to work with knowledge gaps - which can operate on several levels. Between the characters, between the audience and the characters, the audience and the writer... all is examined in depth and eminently practical. The research Mr. Baboulene has done for his PhD thesis suggests that the more subtext is present in a story, the higher it is rated by the public. So if you ever needed any encouragement to start mastering subtext...

Other chapters consider the plot vs. character divide (hint: there isn't one), dialogue, the story development process (which offers a way of working any writer can adopt), story analysis, and the commercial realities facing authors and screenwriters today.

To round things off, you get six interviews with professional writers (screenwriter Bob Gale, dramatist Willy Russell, novelist Lee Child and the late, lamented sitcom god John Sullivan), actor Mark Williams (best known internationally for his role of Arthur Weasley in the Harry Potter movies) and publisher Stewart Ferris. Each interview is in-depth and first-rate, and together they provide a wonderful spectrum of approaches to storytelling. Often the advice is totally contradictory - and totally correct in each case.

One of the high points of the book for me is the analysis of one very short scene from Back To The Future. It's barely one minute of screen time, but as David Baboulene conclusively proves in analyzing it, it's chock-full of layers, subtext and has a very strong dramatic structure as well. This is exactly the kind of analysis which students of writing need.

The book is available in hardcopy here:

or at a ridiulously low price for the Kindle version here:

So you basically can't go wrong, and have no reason not to check this book out. As for me, I'm eagerly awaiting the results of mr. Baboulene's PhD thesis. An understanding of story theory that moves beyond Aristotle, Propp and McKee... Sounds good to me!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Review: Scriptwriting - The Mechanics by Guy Meredith

Guy Meredith has earned his screenwriting and script doctoring spurs both in the UK and abroad. Apart from writing everything under the dramatic sun (radio scripts, TV drama and comedy, features, documentaries, stage plaus), he's also been an educator, giving seminars at the BBC, several universities and all across Europe (he was attached to the late and lamented Pilots program). And he's been nominated for a slew of awards.

In Scriptwriting: The Mechanics, Meredith has committed his hard-earned writing wisdom to E-paper for all eternity. It's a relatively short book, coming in at just over 140 pages, at a relatively high price for an 'e-book only' release. But as there's no filler and quite a few topics are examined which show up only rarely in most other screenwriting one-stop manuals, you don't have to worry about getting a bad deal. On the contrary, for new writers especially the information provided in here will allow you to make giant steps forward in your understanding of the art and craft of good (and preferably great) screenwriting.

So, what does the book cover? Well, starting out with the age-old question 'what should I write about', it goes on to define the four story elements (world, characters, plot and tone of the story).
This is followed by an extensive section on character, where special attention is paid to image - self-image, the image presented to others, and the image the character projects unconciously. This is really excellent stuff, and one of the reasons that the work of great British TV screenwriters (Paul Abbott, Jimmy McGovern, Andrew Davies...) comes across as so rich and true to life in the depiction of the characters.
The chapter about inner contradictions in your characters is also pure gold, as is the material about motive and motivation. Essential concepts which are all too often ignored or handled badly, sometimes even by professional writers.

Structure is examined at length. Yes, it's the three-act structure again, but mr. Meredith puts a number of plot points in each act which are different from but comparable to those you'll find in Save The Cat!. It's another good variation on the theme, which will be of great help to new writers and offers an interesting alternative option to more experienced writers looking for some new wrinkles.

And you also get chapters voice-over and flashback, scene construction dialogue, misundertanding and deception, superior and inferior position (of the audience and the characters among each other), and - a first, I think - there's a whole chapter devoted to URST! And if you don't know what URST is - go and buy the e-book, already! It'll tell you everything you ever wanted to know but were afraid to ask.

So, in short, a first-rate British contribution to screenwriting literature, and especially worthwhile for new and intermediate screenwriters. And you can get it right here:

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Point Blank (A Bout Portant): Life's Full of Consequence, That Ol' Devil Consequence...

Point Blank has nothing to do with the Lee Marvin cult classic. It's an action-thriller (with the emphasis on the action) with a very strong premise: a male nurse's pregnant wife is kidnapped, and he has to free a mysterious wounded patient from hospital or his spouse and child will die. The nurse liberates the patient (a professional thief), committing several crimes in the process, and finds himself hunted by the police and by hitmen who desperately want to eliminate the thief. Together, both wanted men must find the evidence that will exonerate the thief from a murder charge (though he slaughters several people in the course of the movie) and reunite the nurse with his beloved.

So far, so good. The film starts off very well, has a fast pace, effective performances, and good editing - despite lots of hand-held camera-work, the action is hard-hitting and easy to follow.So why isn't this an all-time genre classic?

Ta-daa... it's all in the writing.

So what goes wrong? After all, the basic set-up is effective, and the first act (this is a French movie with a very clear traditional structure) expertly cuts between the criminal elements, the blissful domesticity of the hero and the traumatic results of the inciting incident (the kidnapping of the wife).

One big reason. But I'll have to SPOIL some elements of the film to illustrate my point. So - SPOILERS AHEAD!

Deep in the second act, our protagonists find the snitch who has set up the thief. A vigorous torture session later, the (grotesquely obese and nearly naked) snitch has spilled the beans and explained the plot. The thief wants to kill the snitch for revenge, and the nurse intervenes. 'You don't have to do this!' - you know the drill. The thief lets himself be convinced, turns away - only to turn back before leaving the room and firing several bullets into the snitch's head and gut. The nurse shakes his head in desperate disgust...... and that's it.

It's not referred to again, the relationship doesn't change, there's no confrontation about the thief's way of handling things or the morality of the act. An empty effect. Yes, it's true that the thief is a hardened and cruel criminal who is supposed to be hypercool, and the nurse is a carer and not a killer, so the actions of both men are true to their characters. But it's a moment which loses all emotional resonance when you realize the matter is dropped as soon as we hit the next scene.

What is the net result? Writer-director Fred Cavayé & writer Guillaume Lemans show that they're dragging their characters through the plot without it impacting them on a fundamental psychological level. By which I mean that in order to truly engage your audience with your main characters, you have to be aware of how events will impact them beyond their surface level. How their emotions are triggered, how these influence their behaviour... Probably the only time you can get away safely with ignoring this is if your character is a cool, dispassionate professional who remains calm and methodical under the most extreme circumstances.

On the other hand, if you are ignoring the emotional impact on your characters of the events that take place, you are basically sending a subliminal message that your story isn't grounded in psychological reality.

On to the next major script problem.

Our protagonists discover that the needed evidence and the pregnant wife are stashed within a police station (the villains are murderous corrupt cops on the take). They need to get into the police station but can't just walk in there. So they need a cunning plan. Cut to our thief visiting every ethnic crime lord in Paris, and getting their co-operation. All criminal organizations launch a crime wave which completely swamps the police. Hundreds of thefts, assaults, robberies, sackjackings and carjackings are pulled off simultaneously, and in the resulting chaos, our 'heroes' sneak into the police station where much mayhem ensues.

Excuse me? You cause havoc and rioting throughout a major city (or part of it), claiming hundreds of innocent victims, just so you can sneak into police headquarters to save your own butt? And our hero nurse just goes along with this outlandish and fairly ridiculous scheme, without even putting up token resistance??

What's happening here is that the writers come up with an original and inventive idea, that's never or rarely been seen before. But there's a reason why this is so.

It's highly unlikely that anything like this could ever work in reality, so there's a credibility gap you have to bridge. But there's also the question of the moral implications of the act, and the way in which it impacts the audience. In order for both 'heroes' to reach their goal, they unleash suffering on a mass of innocent people, who correspond with a part of the demographic of the target audience of the film. (it aims both at the general, middle class audience and at urban youths).

This means a part of your audience is no longer enjoying the ride, carefree, but suddenly realizes that they are considered as acceptable collateral damage by the protagonists and the filmmakers. Making it very hard to empathize with your protagonists, just before you enter the climactic sequence.

It is, once again, a lack of paying attention to consequence. This time, not to the way the events in the movie should impact and shape the evolution of the characters, but to the way plot events impact the emotions of a part of the audience.

Of course, wild, unpredictable, somewhat controversial or shocking plot developments are often beneficial to a movie. They keep things fresh (a rare commodity these days) and open up new possibilities for storytelling in general. But if you alienate part of your core audience in a resolutely commercial movie, (note I do mean alienate, not challenge) you are behaving irresponsibly as a storyteller. And you flirt with disaster, as chances are that your film will take a major beating at the box office.

So - be aware that actions have consequences. Realize what these consequences are, and implement them in the script in order to increase its verisimilitude. And realize what the emotional consequences arefor your intended audience, and that these consequences are what you intend to achieve. Otherwise, you risk losing your audience forever. As a consequence.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Swooni: Q&A with screenwriter Michel Sabbe

The Flemish movie Swooni, directed by Kate Beels and written by Michel Sabbe (and, in earlier drafts, novelist Annelies Verbeke), is doing the rounds of the festival ciruit right now and garnering quite a lot of praise. A multiplot movie telling the stories of six people (three couples) whose fates intersect on a sweltering summer's day in a luxurious hotel in Brussels, Swooni boasts a very smartly constructed screenplay which manages to combine a lot of very disparate story strands and themes into a satisfying, emotionally affecting and accesible whole. I sat down with screenwriter Michel Sabbe to ask him about the writing of the film, and he gave one of the most detailed and insightful interviews on the writing of a particular movie I've ever been privileged to read. Hope you enjoy it too - there's a lot of great material here. SPOILERS AHEAD - but in any discussion of a screenplay, that can't be avoided.

How did 'Swooni' come to be, and at what time did you get involved with the project?

‘Swooni’ came to be at the initiative of its producer, Peter Bouckaert. He had read ‘Slaap’, Annelies Verbeke’s debut novel and at about the same time (this must have been around 2004-5) Kaat Beels had directed ‘Cologne’, a short that did very well on the festival circuit. Peter thought Annelies and Kaat shared a certain sensibility and he believed that if he put the two together, something surprising might happen. They ultimately came up with the six characters which form the backbone of the film. I became involved in late 2008, after Annelies had left the project to pursue writing her next novel. Kaat and I had worked together on a tv-series called ‘Jes’ and we clicked so she asked me to have a look at the screenplay. And the rest, as they say, is history.

What changes did you propose to the script? What were the main problems which you had to solve?

Annelies had already written a number of drafts and I could immediately see that she and Kaat had created some very rich characters. Characters good actors could really sink their teeth in. They all had clear dramatic goals which grabbed your interest as a reader: two refugees, a father and a son, separated on their perilous journey to Belgium, now searching for each other; a woman, desperate for a child of her own; her mother, desperate to reconnect with her daughter; and a middle-aged woman trying to decide whether or not to leave her loving husband.

Any multiplot-movie faces the same kind of problems:
1) how to keep all the balls in the air simultaneously. The trick is to make sure all of the stories have equal weight. One should not dominate the others, otherwise you’ll end up with an unbalanced piece and the loyalties of the audience will not be equally divided between the stories (which will translate to people telling you they liked one story far more than the others).
2) how to interlock the storylines without it seeming arbitrary and built on that dreaded word: ‘coincidence’. Or rather: coincidences that would seem all too convenient.
3) thematic unity. If you present several stories together, the whole must be greater than the sum of its parts. Through contrast or similarity or simply by interlocking, the stories must present you with a theme. And that theme must be clear, it can’t just be intuitive.

Upon reading two of the existing drafts, I made a couple of recommendations. First, to set all of the action in the hotel (which was already a location in some of the later scenes in the script). If we gave all the characters a reason to be in the hotel at the beginning of the movie, then they could run into each other without anyone questioning it. Because running into people you don’t know is exactly what happens in a hotel. From that I also suggested the action take no longer than 24 hours. I reasoned that keeping all of these very different people together in this one spot for longer than that would be stretching credulity. Also, telescoping the action like this would put the characters in a pressure cooker – which is always interesting. These seem like simple suggestions, but they would have great consequences (the occupation of some of the characters would have to be changed and it also meant that some of the story material could no longer be told and would have to move to the backstory). I also felt that one of the stories – Anna and Hendrik’s marital problems – lacked some urgency compared to the others. This was later solved by having Anna’s lover present her with an ultimatum.

I have to stress that Annelies had done a stellar job of getting the screenplay to where it was when I became involved. It’s a rare gift to be able to work with material this rich. I feel very privileged Annelies, Kaat and Peter allowed me to fool around with it. (And Annelies hasn’t run me over yet )

Who came up with the title Swooni, and why? (I used to think it was the name of the African boy when the film was first announced)

I don’t know whether Annelies or Kaat came up with the title, but as far as I know, the piece was always called ‘Swooni’. It means ‘land of milk and honey’ in one of the Bantu languages, which is exactly what Joyeux and Amadou hope to find in Western Europe. In the film of course, the title comes from Joyeux’ misreading of the name of the hotel on the postcard his father shows him.

What method did you use to structure the screenplay, as it's a multi-plot film focusing on adventures of six characters?

Let’s issue a SPOILER ALERT for those who haven’t seen the film yet (shame on you!), because talking structure will inevitably lead to giving away some of the plot.

Structuring a multi-plot is a major pain, because you have to do the work x times (x being the number of stories you have) and then you still have to provide a sort of super-structure to fit them in. You don’t have to be crazy to attempt this, but it certainly helps! There’s three main stories in ‘Swooni’ (we’re not counting subplots), so that means having to break down all three of them into acts and sequences. As to the super-structure: I always knew Amadou’s arrival in the hotel would bring things to the boil and give me a third act. Having set the whole thing in the hotel also meant that I wouldn’t be able to show the second act of the father-son story. In Annelies’ version there were sequences showing Amadou’s escape from a detention centre and Joyeux roaming the streets of Brussels looking for his father. I would still love to see that movie some day, but we simply didn’t have the space for it here. (The first act of the father-son story is told in flash backs, of which more later). So that left me with two stories to structure. The first sequence of these was easy: everybody needs to arrive at the hotel. (Well, I say ‘easy’ – you try introducing a dozen or so distinct characters in the space of 10 minutes! This was probably the sequence that got rewritten the most…)

Then it struck me that the starting points of the two stories were in opposition to each other. Whereas Hendrik and Anna enter the hotel ‘together’, Violette and Vicky haven’t seen each other for 10 years and couldn’t be further apart. It just felt very natural for the two stories to progress ‘in opposition’ as well. So, in the first half of the second act, while Vicky and Violette slowly come closer together (with Joyeux acting as a catalyst), Hendrik and Anna drift further and further apart. Once you reach the middle of the movie, Vicky, Violette and Joyeux have formed a sort of surrogate (albeit doomed) family unit playing puzzles together. Meanwhile, Anna has abandoned Hendrik at the wedding reception to go knock on the door of room 105 (I refrained from calling it room 101, but only just…) In the second half of act 2, you have the opposite movement. By the second act climax, the precarious bond between Vicky and her mother has been broken while Hendrik and Anna find themselves spooning each other on the bed. Both are of course what you would call ‘false endings’. In the case of Anna and Hendrik you get a ‘false dawn’, suggesting all’s well that ends well. While it seems like an ‘apparent death’ for the relationship between Violette and her daughter Vicky. Those false endings get turned on their head again in the third act, using the resolution of the Amadou-Joyeux story as a catalyst. Is that technical enough for you, Wout?

When structuring a multi-plot, the notion of a ‘controlling idea’ becomes – to my mind at least – even more important. This of course goes to the question of ‘theme’. ‘Swooni’ was structured around the notion of the ‘pyramid of needs’. At the bottom of said pyramid you will find the people whose basic needs – food, water, shelter – have not been met. These would include Joyeux and Amadou. Above them, you’ll find the people who are lacking in affection and human warmth. You could put Vicky and Violette into this bracket. You could say they are lonely people. At the very top of the pyramid, you’ll find people whose every need has been met, but who still struggle with something which we could summarize as: ‘is that all there is?’-syndrome. That’s where we’d put Anna and Hendrik. They ‘enjoy’ the luxury of an existential crisis. By putting all three levels together and by showing that - to the characters at least – the problems on each level feel every bit as acute or urgent, hopefully some interesting questions will be raised in the mind of the audience.

How closely did you work with director Kaat Beels, both during the writing process and once shooting had started?

Kaat and I had worked closely before on ‘Jes’, so we had already established a relationship of mutual trust before embarking on this venture. So it was a pretty easygoing relationship. Whenever I turned in a draft, we got together, usually with Peter, and discussed what was working and what was not. I can’t really recall any major disagreements along the way. It was clear we were all heading in the same direction and it was just a case of getting the script to where it had to be.

Kaat is pretty open as a director. She knows what she wants, but she’ll always invite people’s opinions. So I found myself consulted and kept abreast pretty much throughout the process (which is a surefire way to stroke a writer’s ego!). I visited the set a couple of times and saw some of the rushes – even from a couple of shots I could tell that Kaat and her D.O.P. (Frank van den Eeden) had managed to put a lot of emotion in their images. I was present at the test-screenings and I got invited into the editing room, which is still an all too rare privilege for writers. (And it shouldn’t be, as editing is the final stage of the writing process and one that I personally am fascinated with).

What (major) differences are there between the shooting script and the final released movie? Why were these changes made?

Other than the usual trimming of scenes, there’s only a couple of minor changes and one big one. Some changes had practical reasons. For instance, Vicky pretending to herself that she’s pregnant and then pulling a cushion from under her frock just proved impossibly cumbersome. So a different approach was sought to key us in to her ‘want’.
The scene in which Vicky calls to inquire whether uncle Joseph works at the hotel or not was moved forward – it now happens before she puts Joyeux to bed. This had the crucial effect of making her look less calculated. Because of that, the effect of a later scene in which she tells Joyeux a truly horrible lie is much bigger – and the audience doesn’t feel alienated from her.
One scene in which Hendrik tried to seduce Anna donning a traditional Greek outfit was cut – it just slowed things down and wasn’t needed. Then we come to the major change, which we’ll deal with below.

I found the scene in the script with the tramp to be quite risky, starting out as a cliché and then being succesfully turned on its head a few scenes later. Who thought of this idea? Was it always the intention to play with the audiences' expectations here, or did this approach grow gradually?

For those who have seen the film but haven’t read the screenplay, this will be an odd question as there is no ‘tramp’-scene in the movie. It stayed in until quite late in the game, but ultimately it was cut. So let me describe what happens in the scene. We’re at the wedding and the film has gone deeper and deeper into a dreamlike state as the afternoon and the night progress. Anna smoked some dope earlier and now notices a tramp, scrounging food off the tables. She sits down next to the man and, needing someone to talk to, she makes what amounts to a full confession to this stranger. He looks a little non-plussed and tells her to go back to the party and to enjoy herself. She feels this is wise advise and gives him 50 euros. Later, the tramp drinks form someone’s glass and a scuffle ensues. The bride intervenes and reveals the tramp to be an actor whose presence is meant to make the guests reflect upon their good fortune. Anna realizes she has just made her confession to a fraud and flees the party followed by Hendrik.

The origins of the scene are quite simple: I once attended a wedding where something very similar transpired. So I used it. The scene was rewritten a couple of times, mainly trying to find the correct way of introducing the tramp, and it was shot and edited into the movie. At the test screenings, the scene worked just fine. Anna’s punchline – complaining that she’d given the guy 50 euros – got a big laugh. Even the fact that we were introducing a new character this late in the game (near the end of act 2) didn’t seem to be a problem. But we could feel the film dragged a little when really it should have been accelerating towards its second act climax. The problem turned out to be the confession scene. It was perfectly acted, perfectly fine as a scene. But it was also superfluous. Everything in it had already been told by the scene on the dancefloor between Hendrik and Anna, a scene without any dialogue. It was possible to ‘read over’ that scene in the script, but it certainly isn’t possible to deny its impact when you see it come alive with the actors (stellar performances by Sara Deroo and Geert van Rampelberg) and the music (Melody Gardot crooning ‘Our love is Easy’). So we had to kill this particular ‘darling’ (both Kaat and I were fans of the scene). Cutting the tramp-scene out meant the other scenes in the final sequence of act 2 needed some rearranging. I feel we should credit editor Philippe Ravoet for finding the solution which so effortlessly brings us from the wedding to the heartbreaking bedroom scene between Hendrik and Anna. (You see? Editing = rewriting).

What was/were the biggest lesson(s) you learned as a screenwriter on this project?

Patience? And that the check will have run out long before the movie ever hits the screen?  On a more serious note: I’ve learned that the movie on the screen will always be different from the movie you see in your head while you’re writing and that that’s a good thing. You WANT the director to put his or her interpretation on the piece. It’s part of what breathes life into what are in effect only words on a page. (Of course, you also want it to be the RIGHT interpretation )

Did you put this screenplay through any European development programmes? If so, what was your experience?

As you know, I’m a big fan of development programmes (full disclosure: Wout and I met a decade ago on the now sadly defunct North by North West workshop). ‘Swooni’ didn’t go through the traditional screenplay development workshops such as the Mediterranean Film Institute (to which I am devoted), but it did go through the EAVE-workshop. EAVE is a workshop geared towards producers, but it does have a story-development segment. Which means producer Peter Bouckaert and myself had a couple of meetings with script-doctor Martin Daniel. Even though these were short meetings (an hour and a half or so each), they were very useful. For instance: in my first draft, all the refugee scenes in the container were front loaded. They opened the movie. That wrongfooted the reader into thinking this was going to be a movie about two refugees. It was Martin’s idea to use them as flashbacks throughout the movie which works very well (and it also serves to keep the Amadou-character alive in the mind of the audience during the second act). Perhaps controversially for a writer, attending a producer’s workshop meant I also gained some sympathy for the plight of the producer!

Review: Blue Book #7: Creating strong Protagonists by Willial C. Martell (Kindle)

The second in the long line of Bill Martell's legendary blue books to be transposed to the e-book medium, Creating Strong Protagonists tells you everything you need to know about - well, creating strong protagonists. Luckily, you won't find anything as sheepish as that previous sentence in the book. On the contrary, Martell digs deep into how to make your protagonist come alive, be (and remain) active and, very importantly, be unique. And Martell's central message is that how deeper you look into yourself, your own traits, strengths, weaknesses and fears, the more real and convincing your characters will be. You really need to be able to take a long, hard look at yourself in order to create characters which resonate and transcend the archetype or the cliché, and whose behaviour, no matter how off-the-wall at times, will strike an audience as real. Martell provides many examples, techniques and insights to help writers (both beginners and veterans, because just about every screenwriter on the planet can benefit from this material) achieve these goals. And there is also a good helping of assignments to get you to practice these concepts and use them in your writing. There's also a lot of great advice on keeping the protagonist active throughout the story. And for those of us who find this occasionally difficult to accomplish, the in-depth investigation of the main reasons for protagonist passivity will prove to be very helpful and inspiring. Some readers might take umbrage (love that word) with Bill Martell's strong insistence on there only being one protagonist in a movie, and come up with examples where this is not the case. Not to worry - in the supplemental material, you will find a lot of tips about writing about group protagonists. There are far fewer typos in this Blue Book than in its predecessor, and only one instance of material being repeated verbatim. Extremely small niggles which do not distract from the value of the book in the slightest. All I can say is - get this book NOW and let's hope the other Blue Books get converted to e-book format as quickly as humanly possible! You can get it here:

Monday, August 29, 2011

Good High Concept vs. Bad High Concept

In his e-book Your Idea Machine, Bill Martell talks at length about high concept, and what makes for succesful high concept screenplays (as well as what doesn't). And with the current glut of box office disasters, it's obviously way past time that Hollywood starts to take notice and learn the difference.

A high concept idea for a movie is one where the story is the star. Just mentioning it immediately conjures up a strong image of what the movie is about, and what you can expect to see. But some high concept ideas cannot fulfill their promise. Case in point: Cowboys and Aliens.

What images does this title conjure up? I would venture either a few heroic cowboys plugging a Giger-type aliens full of holes with their six-shooters, or the same bunch of heroic cowboys in a shootout with technologically highly advanced aliens who wield rayguns.

The promise of this concept appeals to the 10-year old boy in the (largely male) demographic the movie wants to appeal to. You can create a mash-up between your favorite toys! Monsters and sheriffs and shotguns, oh my. But... what about the story?

Cowboys and Indians are largely matched in strength (in typical western movies, anyway). Cowboys and aliens - not so much. The aliens are either superhuman monsters, or technologically so advanced their science looks like magic to the Wild West gunslingers. So how do you solve the inequality between the protagonists (cowboys) and antagonists (aliens) in this conflict?

By cheating.

The hero of the piece is a man suffering from amnesia, who wears a hi-tech bracelet around his wrist. Which proves to be mighty handy when the aliens appear at the end of act 1 to attack the town.

You're already betraying your high concept idea from the start. This isn't Cowboys and Aliens, this is Supercowboy vs. Aliens. And that's not what the title promises.

But as the story progresses, more time is spent in act two on typical western obstacles (outlaws, Apaches...) than on fights with aliens. There's also the mystery woman with a Big Secret (which turns it into even less of a straight cowboys vs. aliens-affair). And the big finale goes on forever without ever being really thrilling.

One of the complaints against the movie is that it's not fun enough, it takes its ludicrous concept too seriously without providing any depth or theme. But would this concept work better if it were just 'fun'?

There's a movie out there that tried to provide exactly that: the Japanese low-budget fightfest Ninja vs. Aliens. A clan of ninjas encounter an alien in a forest, fight (and kill) it several times, it takes over a village and sends zombie-like slaves against them, and after 90 minutes of deliberate nonsense, bad comedy, weak gross-out effects and occasional good martial artistry, the alien is finally defeated. This movie does give you exactly what it promises -

And it ends up being boring as hell anyway. Because the basic concept is just too limited to sustain 90 minutes of story. Granted, the ultra-low budget and shoddy filmmaking doesn't help. But it's also pretty hard to imagine a story set in Tokugawa Japan featuring Ninja clans, shogunate politics, and an alien invasion which also has to function as a wild martial arts ride, and have it make sense and some sort of emotional impact.

Ultimately, a concept like Cowboys and Aliens turns out to be deceptive. Take the concept at face value, and you're left with a mix which doesn't make dramatic sense. Treat it seriously, and you lose the (imagined) thrills associated with the concept. Go for the thrills alone, and you run a huge risk of repetition and a story so shallow it doesn't engage the audience.

To sum up: Good high concept provides you with a visceral image to excite the imagination of the audience, but has enough dimensions to allow for emotional, thematic and narrative depth. And the crucial element, I think, is character. Die Hard's high concept (a lone cop battles a gang of international terrorists in a hi-tech building in order to save his estranged wife who has been taken hostage) puts the emphasis on the type of central character and the emotional bedrock which will anchor the action and suspense.

Bad high concept provides you with an exciting image, and nothing else. Cowboys and Aliens doesn't give you any clue about the characters involved (beyond the visual archetypes), the stakes of the conflict, or its context. And that's why it is so hard to come up with a story for it which works and will deliver an emotionally satisfying filmgoing experience.

(by the way, the movie is based on the Orci/Kurtzman/Lindelof script. The earlier version by Donelly and Oppenheimer is very different with totally different characters, tries to incorporate more western tropes into the narrative and increase the 'fun' factor, but still doesn't manage to overcome the limitations of the concept.)

Friday, August 26, 2011

Review: Your Idea Machine by William C. Martell (Screenwriting Blue Book e-book for Kindle or Nook)

Bill Martell's Secrets of Action Screenwriting (second edition is imminent. Yay!!) is one of the great practical screenwriting books of all time. But apart from this, his script tips, blog posts, articles for Script Magazine and his CD classes, Bill also has his series of 'Blue Books'. Too much material for an article, not enough for a full book release, they are perfectly suited to e-readers.

And luckily, Bill has now got round to converting the Blue Books to e-book status. Updating and expanding them in the process, and adding some bonus material, so that- hey presto - they are 'real' books after all. He's even going to finish the complete series - on his website a few of the books still have 'coming soon'-status.

Ypur Idea Machine is exactly that. Page after page is filled with techniques for generating ideas, both the Big Ones which can anchor a complete script, and the myriad small ones needed to spruce up the script. The book starts out with a list of places to look for ideas, and goes on to cover high concept in depth, conflict, techniques to use in order to make the ideas you come up with work even better. And each chapter has assignments to get you working out those idea muscles - for the more you train them, the stronger they get and the more ideas you generate. This is all inspiring, exciting material which you can return to time and again when you're stuck for inspiration.

The bonus materials include articles on High Concept and budget, the Martell method for coming up with stories, which ensures that even your most testosterone-fuelled action-fest will be rooted in the psychological realm, and the ever-present fear that someone is going to steal your idea.

Now, is the book perfect? Well, I have one caveat and two minor niggles to mention. The caveat: the book is resolutely skewed towards the commercial end of film-making. So if you're an avowed Indie-writer only interested in very small and personal stories, you can definitely use and benefit from the techniques presented here, but you may not agree with the mindset of the author.
The niggles: there are quite a lot of typos, and a few garbled sentences. Nothing major, but noticeable. And there's a bit too much verbatim repetition in the chapter on conflict.

But neither of these detract from the sheer quality of the information Bill Martell shares with the world. Every screenwriter (and let's face it, most writers of fiction in general) will benefit from reading and using this book. Getting it really is a no-brainer.

And you can purchase the book right here:

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Review: The Serious Guide to Joke Writing: How To Say Something Funny About Anything by Sally Holloway (Book Shaker, 2010)

This is an incredibly generous book. Sally Holloway is a British stand-up comedienne who had to retire for health reasons and has focused on joke writing and teaching it ever since.

And in The Serious Guide to Joke Writing, she basically gives us her entire joke-writing course. All that is missing is a talented, charismatic teacher and a bunch of largely like-minded fellow students in the room with you.

The book outlines her course, which features a different technique for joke writing every week, starting from the simplest forms of puns and wordplay, all the way to subjecting the topic of your jokes to the Surreal Inquisition. Each of these practical chapters, complete with exercises, is interspersed with more introspective headings which delve into the mindset you need to succeed as a joke writer.

Ms. Holloway has a very enjoyable and clear writing style which makes the book a breeze and a delight to read. The classroom chapters are written as if they were the summary of an actual evening of teaching, which makes them come really alive.

Just when you think that all these 'jokestorming' techniques are well and good, but there's also the matter of how to get your jokes on paper in the best possible wording, and you'd like some information on that as well, up pops a chapter full of 'rules' (which, Ms. Holloway immediately points out, are often completely contradictory) on just this topic. The book finishes off with a case study where the author had to come up with a number of jokes on a very uninspiring topic, at a time she'd had to take care of her mother.

The Serious Guide to Joke Writing is an inspiring, insightful,entertaining and amusing book, and it's hard to see how it could ever be bettered. Anyone interested in being a joke writer or a stand-up comedian should definitely get it and use it. Sitcom writers may also benefit from the techniques though, as Ms. Holloway points out, in sitcom the laughs need to come from the characters, and this runs counter to many of the more cerebral joke writing techniques.

You can get the book here. Trust me, you'll be very glad you did (and so will Sally Holloway).

The Serious Guide to Writing Jokes

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Review: Memo From The Story Dept. (Christopher Vogler and David Mckenna, MWP, 2011)

This is one writing manual which is guaranteed to attract a lot of attention, as it's the follow-up to Chris Vogler's seminal The Writer's Journey. But Mr. Vogler's not alone: He brought his friend David Mckenna (stage director, script reader, acting coach and educator, among others) along for the ride.

Unlike Journey, this book doesn't focus on one theoretical construct but is more of a grab bag of techniques, theories and experiences which Vogler and McKenna have found of great value over the years. They explicitly state the book is a toolbox, and it will only reveal its full value if these tools are actually applied to writing.

There is some revisiting of the Hero's Journey, but not too much and one of the things people sometimes struggled with is addressed explicitly, namely how to apply the Hero Myth to mainly psychological storylines. Vogler and McKenna also make it clear that the Hero's Journey is a structural model that works for many stories but isn't the only option and may in fact not be the ideal choice in some cases. This type of information is very important for beginning screenwriters to have, because they might otherwise feel 'obliged' to shoehorn every type of story material into one structural model. (And the original Memo that updated and streamlined Joseph Campbell's work for screenwriting purposes is also included.)

So what else is in here? Chris Vogler goes beyond Campbell to include the work of Vladimir Propp, the Russian structuralist who focused on the morphology of fairy tales. This is interesting stuff which could have been expanded upon, as a sort of alternative to the Hero's Journey.

Vogler also delves into the roots of Greek comic plays by presenting Theophrastus' The Characters, sketches of archetypes dating back to Ancient Greece which have been used in comedy ever since. In keeping with the theatrical/comedy theme, he also includes a chapter on vaudeville, of all things. But he manages to draw a clear connection between the lost art of putting together a succesful vaudeville bill (deciding which performers go on when, how to alternate the intensity and the emotional curve of the evening's entertainment) and creating the emotional roller coaster of a succesful screenplay.

David Mckenna's contributions stress the importance of knowing what your characters want and need, and environmental facts (date, location, social environment, religious environment, political environment, and economic environment) which he recommends analyzing in depth. Now, this the work a director does to interpret a script, and personally I find these exercises running counter to the writing process. Your mileage my vary, however, and it's certainly possible to apply these techniques to a finished first draft in order to get a clearer view of the themes and connections you've put into the material. Or, to discover that you can actually strengthen the internal unity of your script by reinforcing themes on all of these levels.

The book is well-written, clear and a comfortable read. Each chapter is followed by a response from the other co-author, which establishes a conversational style. However, very little of importance is said in these responses, so frankly I could have done without them.

This book isn't the gamechanger Writer's Journey was, but then it isn't supposed to be. It's very good supplemental material, tackling some important points which weren't touched on in the original book. To be fair, many of these topics have already been treated in other screenwriting manuals, so this book will be most valuable to beginning students of screenwriting. However, the chapters on Propp and Theophrastus are new and worthwhile additions to screenwriting lore.