Posts Tagged 'screenwriting'

The Harsh Truth about Screenwriting

Short of Stories began in April 8, 2012. In the meantime it had more than 7000 visits, which is amazing for such a new blog covering such a niche-specific subject. I also won a pretty award from Script Magazine. But the truth is that there’s not much to talk about. Of course, i could keep developing some article here and there, but i’d never fool you: i’d never offer to review your script for money, i’d never write crap to hunt page views. One of the reasons to have started this blog was because i was tired of the amount of bullshit i’ve found online.

When i say there’s not much to talk about i don’t mean solely about this blog, but to the whole internet. There are only a few places where is still valid to read about screenwriting, all the others are lists of repeated advice crawling for page hits through the internet searches.

Film is a brand-new art in terms of history, but storytelling is not. We’re still attached to the same rules Aristotle wrote in the Ancient Greek (take this note: read the Poetics). Then you could move forward in time and read Lajos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing and Christian Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers & Screenwriters. Do you want something more straightforward? Read Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting, by Robert McKee. Don’t waste your time (and money) with these lectures, workshops and internet gurus. As you get deep into this world you realize how predatory it is when unexperienced people offer to read your scripts and give you feedback. Wanna pay for a reading? Don’t pay cheap, get a renewed professional.

But don’t read anything else about screenwriting on the internet. Is it a list? Close it as fast as you can. Advice to fight writer’s block? Block the goddamn page instead. This cage of birds that has become the screenwriting online content, singing the same tune all day long is exactly the opposite of your need.

Film is a stagnated art when it comes to storytelling; in more than 100 years barely nothing has changed and so didn’t the advice. This advice that precedes the film itself as it comes from the Ancient Greece. Can’t you see what you’re reading? It is the same god damn thing in loop since 335 B.C. and every form of art has already overcome this stage. But i don’t mean that the storytelling in film must change. I don’t care about film at this particular moment (it is much bigger than any of us), i care about you. I care that you could be writing, but you’re not. I care that people try to take advantage of your naivety as a writer (and your insecurity, most of the time) to grab your few bucks left.

In the end, the only good advice about screenwriting is don’t read about screenwriting. Do anything else. Disconnect. Write.

Yes, this is the last post from Short of Stories. It’s been a lovely time and i’ve learnt a lot. I’d like to says thanks to the Reddit community for the large support in this period. The blog won’t go down and there’s plenty of resources to check out if you’re willing to write a short film, but don’t. Block this page, block every page, every blog.

I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell, ‘I’m as mad as hell, and i’m not going to take this anymore!’

If you love me, you may find me on Tumblr or we may have a nice conversation on App.net. Please, be welcome to use the Contact form to reach me anytime.

Regards,
Phillip 

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Writing a Short Film: Characters

First of all, i hope you all recovered from the New Year’s hangover and i hope you had a great party and most important, that your 2013 turns out outstanding. But it is time to get back to work and i’ll be discussing my method to create characters.

Often people underestimate character development since they’re working on a shorter format. But your characters are always greater than your story and you must build this person. Your length doesn’t matter, it won’t stop being a person. This overall means that the process to create characters for short films is identical to creating for feature films. But why should we develop characters?

Platypus

This is the story of a God.

A while ago we were discussing this subject on #scriptchat, someone agreed with me, “i know, you must be the God of your writing”, but i replied as it wasn’t like that. Being almighty towards your script means that anything is appropriate, and if anything is possible, then everything makes sense. Which is not the case. If you place yourself as the God of your story, it’ll end up as a platypus.

To avoid this we must place some boundaries and developing our characters is one of those things. I won’t come up with an example of a character that shouldn’t so something because it has certain personality, you’ll think of something as you read. But mostly because we develop our characters to stay out of these situations.

You should know your characters as a best friend. You may be able to predict their reactions, but they may still surprise you. You must know what ticks them and their flaws.

We should begin drawing our characters now. There are applications specialized on character development, as Persona, and a mere google search should lead you to several character sheets and questionnaires. I sincerely can’t work like that. The reason is that i few trapped in these forms and questions and i like to work freehand on my characters. I create by brainstorming.

Open up a text document and just type. Sometimes you’ll already have plot twists and a fate for this character, you must keep that in mind when you’re writing its biography as the decisions that lead to these twists must make sense. If you don’t have much more than an inciting incident, then developing a character properly will help you to come up with events to improve your stories. It’s like throwing mice in a maze.

I do most of my writing on iA Writer, but for character development i work on Scrivener directly. That’s because the smaller font makes me visualize the entire block of text. As i write on a single paragraph, it’s important to be aware of everything. I usually begin with tags which i’ll attain for the entire biography. “Isabella: Intellectual, stubborn, objective, overconfident“. These are my guidelines. I use the rest of the page to describe the past, reactions and justifications. Creating a background is to solidify the reason why pursuing your story’s goal actually matters for this character. “If John achieves his goal, he’ll be promoted” is a motive, “In his childhood, John was constantly bullied in school for achieving nothing” is what justifies the motive and humanizes our character, improving his empathy. My main character, Isabella, as i described, became an intellectual because she couldn’t settle down with her mother, drowned herself in books to run away into a decent university.

Scrivener

But my method is all about brainstorming, so it includes snippets of text that wouldn’t interfere in the story. Isabela remains quiet in the elevator, says there, but i won’t have any scene with Isabela meeting a stranger and having a chat in the elevator, but what motivates me into these sentences is that they bring clean images of the character, because a person that refuses to chat in elevators is reasonable and it takes our impressions someplace else. It’s what lies beneath. In my previous script (which will soon be posted in the blog), i wrote this on a character: has several books in the shelf, never read any of them. This is a person who cares for the visual impression he presents to others. These little things, images, that pop up in your head while you think about your character say more about they than the typical relevant information you would conventionally include in their description. And this is the main reason why i avoid all those techniques, i miss most of this when i get into forms and questions. I lose the imagery.

Developing your characters is not solely about raising limits, but also narrowing your path, drawing some guidelines when it comes to dialogue and reactions. In what situation would your character lie? How would he do it? Is he a natural liar? How does he react when someone finds out his flaw? These are not arbitrary questions, they don’t need an input in your development, however if you live with your character, sooner or later you’ll be able to answer these and many others. My brainstorming experience focuses on that: living among your characters, and that’s why i recommend it to you.

Quick notes on this subject:

1. Create a great character: Your job is not to ‘create a great character for a film’, forget about the media. Just create a great character.

2. Would this character pursue the goal of your story? Not an arbitrary question, but a reminder that your story must fit the character.

3. If you feel it is wrong, then it is wrong. This is a great advice when it comes to editing your story, but you could also put it in practice right now. If you write your character doing something that doesn’t seem right, then he probably wouldn’t do it. Stop thinking and let your character talk to you.

4. Use your imagery well. Your job is to create and induce images. How deep this image goes depends only on the dedication you apply to its layers. Start right now. Think in images.

5. Have a conversation. When you manage to have a fictional conversation with your character, then you’re ready.

6. Respect your boundaries. Don’t distort your characters because it would turn your story easier. Put some thought, otherwise we won’t bite it.

Writing a Short Film: Research

In the case you kept close track of this blog, you might be aware i’ve already commented on research. However, this is a new series which will follow my personal process while i work on my new short film script. This is meant to be a suggestion if you’re lost under the writing steps, yet feel welcome to share your own method.

I can’t reinforce properly how important a decent research is, because the opposite may put your film down instantly. Why? Plausibility. This is the reason why you should develop your research and your characters with the same effort as if you were writing a feature film. Have you seen The Dark Knight Rises? **SPOILER** Did you notice there was no freaking way for Bruce to return to Gotham from the pit? **END SPOILER** These details break the magic a little bit and in these internet days, all you need is a single viewer to spot it. Then they will post it everywhere because it is their chance to grab the attention his mom missed to give him and all the hipsters in town will criticize the plot and say they noticed the screw up. And then the experience after your film projection will be bad buzz. Even if you didn’t care about the TDKR screw ups *cof* Burning symbol in the bridge *cof*, you’re not Christopher Nolan. You’re just like me: a nobody.

My rule of thumb for research is: do it for everything that does.

What this means? You must study every element from the story that do something. Even if not a direct action, your scenario, for example, affects the story just for being. There’s no need to go really deep into most of the stuff you study. Most of the time researching is all about confirming what you already now.

Talking about my new story, it’s more like a challenge i have no idea if i’ll succeed and if you keep reading you’ll how nuts it is. I want to write a dramedy with a clear 4-act structure in 15 minutes tops. It’s about a young woman who has to take care of her grandmother, who collects cats. This is just a taste out of it and you’ll certainly learn more about the project as this series moves along. There’s a scene in which the woman goes to buy the largest pack of pet food. How much it weights? Calling my local pet store and asking is research, even if i had an idea it would be around 20kg (44 pounds). This is essentially for credibility, although some fact-finding might improve your story some other ways.

Out of nowhere, the woman finds out her grandma has Alzheimer’s. This is a crucial point for the craft because even though i’m interested, no one in my family had Alzheimer’s. I’m a complete stranger to this world. Several amateur writers i know would avoid this. Playing away from their backyard. Yet is this process of incorporation into someone else that attracts me into the writing world. Without the proper research you can’t get underneath the skin.

Dealing with Alzheimer’s puts me in a very tough position, because it is easy to go cliché or wrong, meanwhile the good path is narrow. Then i apply the deep research for my story. In this moment, research is my resource for effective plot points. I start working on the experiences of people whom took care of relatives with Alzheimer’s. Basing my twists into real situations beyond giving me solid ground to proceed, is also a respectful attitude towards those whom live in that world.

Most of the time, research is virtual and i need a place to store everything. I use Together for that. It’s an Evernote that works. Allows me to tag my files and organize them within folders. Plus making it superb to send information and don’t invade my workflow. In the image you may check the folder and some files i’ve stored so far.

Screenshot 12 21 12 4 49 AM

Using Safari Reader or Evernote Clearly, it is smooth to save a formatted web article within Together without much of that whole internet pollution. Works better than the Evernote Web Clipper, honestly. Together also keeps the files in a uncompressed folder, so i sync them in my Dropbox and can access my research pretty much from anywhere.

Screenshot 12 21 12 4 55 AM

Some quick comments on researching:

  • If you’re insecure about something in your story is because you didn’t study it enough. Research is backing it up.
  • Maintain your research notes stored and organized. You must have them at hand at any given moment.
  • Most of the time researching is confirming your suspicions.
  • Don’t be afraid to play journalist. Interviewing an expert is really good to clarify your thoughts.
  • Get what you need and fucking move on. It’s a thin line between research and procrastination.
  • Plausibility, plausibility, plausibility.
  • And most important: research everything that do anything in your story.

See you around (:

Successful Short Films – Tune for Two

I’ve seen this piece while checking a list from Film School Rejects on the best short films of 2011. It stands in the first place. Below you may find zombies, nonsense, Spike Jonze, fan-fiction and even the short film which won the VIMEO Awards, Blinky™. And still this short film with less than three minutes reigns in the top.

Tune for Two is an amazing experience due to its simplicity, but that doesn’t bear the quality of this film by itself. What Tune for Two evokes is the freedom that the short film format allows us. The endorsement of ignorance that we persist to renounce for what it takes for a short film to be complete. The liberty to ignore the questions that drive a mystery, the how-why-and-when, the possibility to leave explanations behind in order to give a take on the is.

Because even if all the questions were answered, they wouldn’t matter. And if they were, the outcome would be bloated. Tune for Two then reminds us that we must prime for a goal and grab onto it with objectivity. That a satisfying experience is more appreciated than answers when well executed.

And above everything, Tune for Two is a proclamation that the short film will never die or even take a recess, because as long as there are stories like these, which wouldn’t fit in any other format as properly as they do as a short film, the flame will remain high. 

The short film will never fade away for the same reason no other cinematographic method will as well. Some stories are meant to be told a certain way. Do you need better evidence to sustain that? Try telling a friend about Tune for Two and see if they gig. Then turn your screen and hit the play again. You’ll enjoy a second round. And when you see the lips form a giggle, you’ll understand.

Why you should be writing in Fountain

If you’re writing a short film script, chances are your main occupation is studying. You know, film school. Perhaps it is only a hobby, you want to put an idea out of the paper, shoot that bastard and exhibit to your parents at Christmas’ Eve. If you’re writing in a regular text editor, then i feel sorry for you, because your formatting is possibly wrong. Yes, are you aware that writing for movies rely on a very specific format? In the case you don’t, google “screenwriting formatting” or something similar, you’ll find plenty of options. I never wrote about formatting and this ain’t the moment, because you may download a screenwriting software to do the drill for you. Just like that.

If you owe a mac and is really committed to get into the industry, you could ask your parents to pay the trifle of 250 USD for Final Draft, which is the industry standard. But you don’t have that kind of money, do you? And if you had, you’d waste on girls and booze. Then you could use Celtx, which is a cross-platform production application, with screenwriting included, and FREE. Within Celtx you have a problem as it doesn’t export as FDX, which is the Final Draft extension, only PDF, but besides that, i have my own issues with both applications and these screenshots will illustrate to you.

Screen Shot 2012 11 30 at 5 31 08 AM   Screen Shot 2012 11 30 at 5 52 22 AM

Simply put: Celtx is ugly and clumpy. Besides that you don’t even have much of a choice to customize the layout. Final Draft looks better, looks essential, you may just start writing. Plus that its customization options are much better. When it comes to writing, i always prefer to keep it as clean as possible so i may focus on, you know, writing and shit. This is the best i could do to change the layout of these applications to let them as distraction-free as possible:

Screen Shot 2012 11 30 at 5 33 09 AM   Screen Shot 2012 11 30 at 5 36 31 AM

You can’t deny that Final Draft still looks much better, it is like an invitation to write. But do you wanna know how do i write my screenplays now? Like this:

Screen Shot 2012 11 30 at 5 37 34 AM

That’s an application called iA Writer, it’s not a screenwriting application, but a distraction-free tool. After all that mess about formatting your screenplays, as you may check, i couldn’t care less about it. That’s because i use Fountain, which is not an application, but a syntax. Think of it as a language, like HTML or bbCode, but it has its origins on Markdown. Due to his nature you may use Fountain within ANY TEXT SOFTWARE. I chose iA Writer, but you may write your screenplay on Notepad/TextEdit if it pleases you. You’ll spend less time learning Fountain than you did trying to make a SUM work on Excel. As long as it writes, it may write a screenplay. Fountain gives you the freedom to write a screenplay in the application that fit you mostly and this is important because you must use the software that makes you more comfortable as possible. One of the creators of Fountain, John August, has posted a workflow from one of his readers which uses iA Writer, Scrivener and Highland. I’ve been testing it myself and it is lovable. If you don’t know Scrivener, it is the writer’s Photoshop. Costs 45USD, but worth every penny. Highland converts Fountain files into FDX or PDF and vice versa. It is free while in beta, but John August himself stated that it will be charged fairly whenever it goes live.

Another advantage of Fountain is that as a plain text, you may write it from your mobile, your uncle’s house. If there is a computer there, you have good odds to dig up some screenwriting time. Thanks to its format, Fountain makes it easy to send your screenplay to your friends and crew.

Celtx may be free, but Fountain is freedom. Freedom to choose your software, your workplace, your workflow. It’s about the job fitting for you, not the opposite.

Successful Short Films – The Piano Tuner

Regardless of the length of your film, it’s rare to deviate from the chains of an event. Ever heard about the almighty inciting incident? It is nothing beyond an event that generates a situation which permeates through the story, changing the balance of the reoccurring routine of our characters. Often films end whenever the balance is reestablished. Sometimes an event is a conglomerate of circumstances. An orchestra would be a major situation, meanwhile each instrument would be a situation on their own, although part of the main event. This trigger will define your story, as there is a limited number of ways for certain events to restore balance. This is what makes you decide that an idea fits better as a short film than a feature one.

It’s a common resource of short films to hold themselves within a single event. Sometimes they don’t, as our last review shows. So your starting point is a limited situation, that being one of the reasons you chose it for a short film. Every concept is restrained somehow within the course of dramaturgy, yet we might leave this for another article. This abstraction comes to reinforce the necessity of a great concept when working for a short film, as you can’t expand it endlessly, however it must feel complete whenever it is done. As every story has limitations, the first step to achieve a powerful script is to bring an awesome concept into the table. And now we may discuss The Piano Tuner, a film which showed up at Short of the Week two months ago and had an outstanding approval from its members.

The Piano Tuner, by Olivier Trainer is the tale of a failed pianist whom pretends to be blind to obtain the empathy of his customers. Until, at one of his client’s visits, he stumbles into the pool of blood. I won’t pretend it is a mastery of the craft, it ain’t, but this french short film is pretty well thought. It demonstrates how hard it is to setup an intricate story using a resource we’ve seen a lot lately: starting your story with a flash forward. I don’t support the abuse of flash forwards, however if there’s a lot of ground to prepare, it is an effective way to keep your viewer tuned in. And The Piano Tuner requires this previous briefing because we must learn, in natural terms, that our main character only alleges his blindness. So it is a pretty delicate setup and half of the movie is dedicated into it.

Technically, the inciting incident is when the main character trips on the recently murdered husband’s blood. The dead man’s wife (i assume) and also his executioner now has to deal with a witness, even a blind one. She asks for his blood-soaked clothes and he keeps his roleplaying, trying to remain calm. He tunes the piano and the woman points a nail gun to the back of his head. He starts playing and that gives him a few minutes, but he doesn’t own much choice and proceeds playing as if it would keep himself alive.

It’s quite the thrilling situation, but what this short film incites me is the discussion about endings.

Do you remember that Robert McKee’s line in Jonze’s Adaptation?

I’ll tell you a secret. The last act makes a film. Wow them in the end, and you got a hit. You can have flaws, problems, but wow them in the end, and you’ve got a hit. Find an ending, but don’t cheat, and don’t you dare bring in a deus ex machina. Your characters must change, and the change must come from them. Do that, and you’ll be fine.

It might not be a rule of thumb for feature films, but most short films rely on a great ending to be remembered. Specially if you’re aiming at film festivals, as several films are projected one after the other, one impression is swallowed by the following and if you want to stand out you have to hammer into the viewer’s head with your last utterance. You must reverberate.

As events are limited, you’ll often find yourself into a TICKING BOMB range of possibilities to conclude your story. Whenever you introduce a ticking bomb as your situation, there are only three ways to end your movie: the bomb blows, the bomb is disarmed, fade to black with the tick-tack. Whenever you place a main character in a situation like The Piano Tuner you’re starring at a ticking bomb. The ending not exclusively creates a visual impression the viewer will carry, but also expose the layers of the tone you presumed the spectator would take home with him. And how you handle with a ticking bomb is what commonly separates the good from the bad. How you twist your ending to lead into a very specific idea you want to transmit when the credits start rolling is crucial for a successful short film.

In the particular case of The Piano Tuner, we would wonder if the protagonist would getaway or die (we rarely expect the “open ending”). This kept me my attention while the credits rolled until the music ended. It was quite disappointing. If you felt the same way, stop reading and replay the short film until the title shows up, then come back here.

Got it? The sound of a nail gun shooting. This means we have a full-experience (the protagonist is killed), but our last impression is his despair and attempt to keep alive. As non-conclusive, it echoes in our head. I’ve pointed out previously how using non-linear narrative to change your ending is among the most effective ways to use of it.

So whenever you find yourself facing a ticking bomb situation, don’t panic and let it blow on your hands.

Is it worthy to work on narrative?

On May, 2010, the LA Times released an article speculating if “Short films can be a shortcut to Hollywood success“. Overall it claims that short films are receiving more attention nowadays and opening gates at Los Angeles. It selects a few examples of short films which caught the eye of several producers and closed important deals for the filmmakers. Yet, you shouldn’t expect this kind of talk in this blog, what i actually want to point out is the selection of short films chosen to illustrate the aforementioned movement. Here’s the list:

The article might look dated, but the timing is important here. The deals suggested by the LA Times, if had gained texture, might be possible for checking the outcome by now, two and half years later. Mamá became a feature film. Panic Attack‘s director is finishing the remake of Evil Dead. Tim Smit has been working on videoclips, not much news on the feature film for What’s in the Box?. Alma is an upcoming featured animation for Dreamworks. Patrick Jean doesn’t seem to be doing anything lately. Ricardo de Montreuil left the Sundance world and is attached to the next Zorro movie. Blomkamp, as we’ve seen previously, have directed District 9 and is nowadays finishing Elysium.

If you haven’t seen these shorts until now, you must. It won’t take much of your time and it is really important for the following discussion.

INTERLUDE

Did you watch them all? Really? Which one is your favorite? I’d like to know but it actually doesn’t matter. These short films made me wonder where is the boundary between a situation-driven and a concept-driven short film. I consider each one of them besides Alma as concept-driven. The animation is the only one with a clear introduction, development and conclusion. Mamá is the one which gets closer to not being so rooted on concept, yet the own declaration of the Muschiettis in the LA Times’ article suggest that they were guided by the concept solely.

“We didn’t even have an outline,” says Barbara Muschietti. “We just wanted to do something scary.”

The main concern here then is: what’s the point on working at narrative if the hollywood executives are glazing at concepts to turn into big screen feature films? Experience has proven that the narrative of a short film doesn’t prepare for the work on a feature film directly, they’re very distinguishable forms of storytelling (we’ll visit this subject a bit further when discussing web series). People seem to be more pleased by sneak peaks of possible projects. The excitement of waiting over the experience of completeness. Great special effects to close the package and create a visual impact instead of a visual continuity of story. Every image is a story, if i deny that i’d have at least three university teachers bashing at my door with shovels, nevertheless we must evaluate the priority in the creation of that image to understand what is being discussed in here.

Here’s my piece of advice: even though these concepts have brought attention to their makers, is not a guaranteed pass to Beverly Hills. A great narrative short film is going to bring buzz, perhaps you won’t adapt it to a feature film, most short films can’t migrate anyway, however a shot as a Hollywood director is not something to refuse. I’m honestly anxious to see what Blaas is going to do with the solid story of Alma. As in concept-driven short films, they’re expandable by nature, because they’re more an environment than anything else. Above everything said, you must respect your idea, don’t distort something good the way it is to achieve a long-distance dream. Baby steps. Most of the short films related here had a pretty similar theme and Hollywood can’t drink from the same wheel for too long (unless it turns into a franchise), thematically speaking, so i believe some of the concepts listed here are, unfortunately, going to find eternity only in the fifteen minutes run length.

There’s a solid chance concept-driven short films will become the pitching for shy people. Let’s hope it keeps moving that way, otherwise our introspective fellows are screwed.



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