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.