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 CavayƩ & 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.