Thursday, September 10, 2015

What is the 1st Act?

Hello everyone,

Let's make a quick analysis of the "First Act" and its components. The First Act is composed of the two opening Sequences of your movie. Usually, the First Sequence (the first 12-15 minutes of your script) sets up the the character and the Status Quo. If your script was a fairy-tale, the first sequence would be the "Once upon a time, there was a Hermit who washed his laundry in a river".

Then comes the Point of Attack. This is the "But one day, a GIANT SHARK emerged from the river and prevented the Hermit from washing his laundry!" This is the wrench that's thrown into the machinery, the problem that makes the movie change gears!

The Second Sequence is usually the protagonist grappling with the problem. For example, in our imaginary movie, this is the sequence where The Hermit tries to find different rivers to do his laundry (there are no other rivers!) or calls the cops (the cops laugh at him!) or simply tries to live in his filthy clothes (he can't, his imaginary friend complains about his smell and kicks him out of the house!) or tries to bait the Great Shark to the different part of the river with an otter he found downstream. (The Great Shark is displeased by the taste of the otter! Otter, it turns out, is an acquired taste!)

"The Studio vetoed the scene where the Shark eats the Otter. Apparently Otters are just too cute to be eaten on screen!"
Then comes the End of the First Act. This is a major turning point that launches your movie in a new direction. This is usually a moment of "This is what my movie is!"

Maybe The Hermit wages war against The Great Shark after The Great Shark eats the Hermit's Hut! Your movie is a battle for survival! It's a heart pumping thriller about the Man and the Beast because this little mountain creek is too small for both of them!

Or The Great Shark eats The Hermit's Hut and the rest of your movie is a low-key road movie through the woods, examining the relationship between The Hermit and his imaginary friend Mr. Goldfarb who has an insatiable craving for Oreos! (Mr. Goldfarb and his obsession with Oreos symbolizes The Hermit's desire to go back to living in civilized society.)

Or this is where The Hermit discovers The Great Shark can talk! It's a comedy in the tone of E.T. where the two friends seize each other up and establish a symbiotic relationship! (Watch out for the adorable scene where The Hermit not only gets to wash his laundry again, but he also washes the fins of the Great Shark!)

The Great Shark's name is Mr. Fizzles!
Either way, there needs to be a feeling of "Alright, off we go!" moment at the end of your first act. An explosive launch, a propulsion of momentum! Status-Quo should shift in a real way, your protagonist should commit to a road that s/he can't return from.

For example, there should be no more question of "Oh, The Hermit can just go back to his house..." NO! THINGS HAVE CHANGED FOREVER FOR THE HERMIT! Nothing will ever be the same! Either he has no Hut anymore to go back to or he just discovered a talking fish! Again: Nothing will ever be the same!

And, finally, let's have a quick talk about the Opening Image. This is an underrated tool when it comes to finding out what your movie is supposed to be, especially if you're doing a rewrite. This opening image should, ideally, distill the theme/tone of your movie into a perfect scene.

For example, is your movie a cynical, global biting satire about the gun trade around the world? Why not start it with a montage where we track a single bullet from its inception in an industrial factory in the West to its eventual destination: the head of an African Child Soldier. See it here.

Or your opening could be more dialogue driven. Maybe you're writing a low-key romantic comedy and your main character is a neurotic comedian obsessing over his mortality. Then, maybe, you can have him speak right to the camera and tell a joke that completely captures who he is. See it here.

While I'm at it, here is what I think is a bad example of an opening scene. Here is the opening minute or so of Interstellar. It establishes the world through narrative exposition (a device that will not be used consistently through the movie), introduces Cooper through a weird dream sequence where Cooper's plane is crashing (which makes it seem like the movie is going to be about Cooper dealing with his anxieties of flying or something). Of course it's beautiful as fuck because it's Christopher Nolan we're talking about here, but it's a rather lazy opening to what the movie is eventually about.

We told you never to badmouth Nolan ever again! NOW, PREPARE TO DIE!
Alright, well, that's it from me folks. Hope you've picked up a thing or two and somewhat smiled.

Footnote: Some people have commented that Sharks do not live in rivers. To that, I say, here is a wikipedia entry that might tickle your fancy

Rewrite: Revisit The Story

This is a summary of my lecture notes for WEEK 2 of Rewriting The Feature Script, which I teach at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. Before reading it, you may want to check out the summary for Week 1, Rewrite: How To Begin.

After rereading your first draft and gathering lots and lots of feedback, its time to sort, collate and summarize all these notes. I usually assign my students this Summary of Notes.

Now it is essential to step back and consider your STORY. 

You have been so embroiled in SCENES and DIALOGUE, so distracted by complex questions of CHARACTERIZATION and THEME, that you likely have lost track of what your story is about in the first place. Your story may have changed over the course of writing the first draft. If you are like me, you probably have become overwhelmed by how complicated your story has become.

It's as if you were designing a swiss watch, and you've gotten so focused on the springs and gears, you can't remember how many hours there are in a day. So let's get back to basics.

The Story

Here is the simplest definition of a story that I have encountered:

A story is about someone who wants something very badly and is having trouble getting it.

In class, we discuss students' stories in terms of each piece of this definition. "A story is..."

"About someone..."  Whose story is it?  Through whose eyes, and more importantly through whose emotions do we experience the story? Who takes the actions that drive the story forward? Who changes as a result? How does that character's viewpoint allow the story to be told in a unique way?

Sometimes you write a first draft thinking its a story about one particular character, but discover that a different character is actually the one taking action, making decisions, and changing as a result. The feedback on your script might reveal that a different character is the one the audience actually cares about and identifies with. Take this feedback seriously.

"...who wants something..."  What does this protagonist want? What primary desire is forcing him/her/them to take action? Whether or not the protagonist gets s/he wants is the DRAMATIC QUESTION that the story tracks and ultimately answers. This WANT has to be very specific and concrete, so that the audience understands what is driving the plot forward.

Often in first drafts the protagonist is passive. Circumstances don't force him or her to take action towards some sort of specific and concrete goal. Stuff happens, but all the tears, twists and tornadoes are not married to any clear objective, and so the audience loses interest.

"...very badly..." Why does s/he want it so much?  What's going to happen if he/she DOESN'T get it?  This defines the STAKES of your story.

Often in first drafts, the story lacks tension because if the protagonist doesn't get what they want, its not clear that it would be all that bad. Not Getting what they want should be an emotionally devastating outcome for our hero. It should be, figuratively or literally, a matter of life and death.

"...but is having trouble getting it."  What are the obstacles? Who is the antagonist, or what are the antagonistic forces that is keeping the protagonist from getting what s/he/they want?

Often in first drafts, things are too easy for the protagonist. Lucky coincidences help them along. Antagonists don't put up much of a fight. Problems are solved without much trouble. A former acting/directing coach at USC, Nina Foch, had sharp advice for writers on how to handle their protagonists. "Make Them Suffer!"

Telling the Story

Once, these basic (but difficult!) questions are answered, we can take a shot at telling the story.  Brian McDonald, in both his blog and book Invisible Ink, claims that all effective stories have the basic structure of a fairy tale:

Once upon a time_____________
And every day________________
Until one day_________________
And because of this___________
And because of this___________
And because of this___________
Until finally__________________
And ever since that day_______

Does a fairy tale template seem too simplistic for your grown-up, complex story?  It's not.  Even three hour epics like The Godfather can be told this way.

1. Once upon a time there was a Godfather who ran a family business.
2. And every day the Godfather did favors and got favors in return.
3. Until one day, the Godfather did not grant a favor, and the snubbed rival tried to kill him.
4. And because of this the Godfather's sons took over the family business: Sonny started a war and Michael killed the rival.
5. And because of this Michael was exiled and Sonny was murdered in the war.
6. And because of this The Godfather made peace.
7. And because of this Micheal returned to take his father’s place, but the family was weakened by the Godfather’s sickness and eventual death.
8. Until finally the rival family bosses turned against Michael, and so Michael killed each and every one.
9. And ever since that day Michael was the new Godfather.

What we want to avoid when getting a general idea of our story is a series of disconnected events. "And then this happens, and then this happens, and then this happens." Telling a story as fairy tale beats forces the writer to think of the narrative as a chain of cause-and-effect driven by the choices of the protagonist. All the ANDs get replaced by BUT and BECAUSE OF THIS.

Take a shot at telling your story in this simple way, using these simple story definitions. The parts of the story that you find difficult to summarize often defines the biggest problems in your script that you will tackle in your 2nd draft.

(Tune in next week, when we discuss the next step in a rewrite, RE-OUTLINING your script)

Thursday, September 3, 2015

What is a Sequence?

Hello everyone, welcome to a new series of posts where I will be defining common screenplay vocabulary. This post, our first attempt, will define "A Sequence". Other terminology we will explore will  range from "Plant and Payoff" to "False Ending Twist" and a myriad of other terms we use at the USC Cinema School. If you've heard the terminology used in a different manner, we'd love to hear about it!

Well, then, let's start with the million dollar question: What's a Sequence?

A Sequence is a collection of scenes centered around a central question. This question revolves around a Sub-Goal, as opposed to the Main Goal of the movie. For example, In Star Wars, the Main Goal of our heroes is to "Defeat the Empire, rescue the Princess!" but they have to build upon many sub-goals to achieve that end. "Will our Heroes escape from The Death Star?" is a sub-goal. "Will our Heroes destroy the Death Star?" is another such sub-goal.

Or let's take the recent movie, Nightcrawler, which you must have surely seen it by now because you love great movies, Bloom's Main Goal is to build his empire and get rich. Throughout the movie we see him rise as he achieves his sub-goals. At first, it's "Will he get a great shot of a crime scene?" then it moves to "Will he be able to sell his crime scene footage to a TV Station?" and so forth.

Building your movie using Sequences allows you to keep your main character active and changing your protagonists' goals is a good way to keep your audience's attention. After all, if your protagonist is after one thing the entire time using the same method, it's going to get rather stale. Imagine if Bloom in Nightcrawler spent the entire movie trying to get a perfect crime scene photo... That's rather simple, isn't it? But if he gets a photo, sells it to the news station, then, ultimately, evolves to creating the perfect crime scene... Then there is a sense of escalation, a sense of build upon his victories and defeats on his way to his Main Goal.

Each Sequence runs for 12-15 pages and you will usually find movies have Eight of them. Two in the First Act, Four in the Second Act, and, finally, Two in the Third Act.

Why, you may ask. How did this concept of a Sequence originate?

Back in them olden times, the projectors needed to switch film reels every once in a while. (Hence, that little cigarette burn at the right side of the screen) The projectionists found that if they did this every 12-15 minutes, the story came to an organic shift. And that's your little bit of trivia for the day!

Stay tuned in for next week's episode: "What is the 1st Act?"

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

How Does One Learn To Write Video Games?

Many of my friends, students and readers end up writing on projects other than movies. Video Games are one example. Games, although built by software engineers, also need very non-technical dialogue, characterization, and non-linear plotting from someone who has experience with such things. However, when they ask me how to get into the world of games, or how to learn how to write one, I have to tell them I honestly don't know.

So my question for my readers is this. How does one learn to write the "story" for a video game? More specifically, what are the best articles, books, and online resources for learning how to write screenplays for video games?

Please post answers in the comments or email me a


- Sean Hood

Monday, August 31, 2015

Rewrite: How To Begin

This is a summary of my lecture notes for WEEK 1 of Rewriting The Feature Script, which I teach at the USC School of Cinematic Arts.

First, you must surrender yourself to the rewrite process, an ongoing cycle of feedback and revision that I outlined in the post This Is What A Rewrite Looks Like. I know you kinda hoped your first draft was pretty close to the final draft. It's not. Don't believe me? Try this...

Find 5-10 people to read your script and give you notes. These are not the glowing notes you get from your mother ("I love it! You're a genius!) or the indifferent and vague praise you get from your boyfriend ("Yeah. It's cool I guess.") Rather, these are the detailed, engaged and honest-but-supportive notes you get from your collaborators.

These collaborators could be the other students in a class or the other members of a writer's group. They could be your agent, manager, and attorney. They could be the actors, editors, cinematographers and producers in an online group like Filmmaker's Alliance. The key is that these collaborators have some experience reading scripts, that you trust their judgement, and that they have good reason to put in the time and effort. This "good reason" is often just your willingness to give feedback on their scripts in return.

As you are listening make sure that you write down ALL the notes you get, even the ones that you don't agree with and especially the ones that seem to come up again and again. You'll collate and sift these notes later, but for now just gather as much feedback as you possibly can. If you can, find a perceptive and sensitive person who is willing to type up written notes, you've struck gold.

(For an expanded discussion of how to receive notes in a productive way, check out Getting and Processing Feedback. Then when you are in a position to give notes on other people's screenplays, check out How to Give Feedback.)

While other people are reading your script, print out a hard copy and sit down in a quiet place where you won't be interrupted for 2 hours. Re-read the script from beginning to end. While writing the first draft, we often are so focused on individual sequences, scenes and lines of dialogue that we lose touch with how the entire story plays over the course of 100 minutes. Use colored pens and highlighters to annotate the bits you want to revise later.

After you've re-read your script in one sitting, it's a good idea to ask yourself some tough but important questions. You can find examples of these questions in our handy Rewrite Questionnaire. 95% of feature screenplays submitted to festivals and contests, as well as to agencies and managers, fail in three areas: Character, Tension, and Development. Our 20 questions will help you focus on these areas as your rewrite.

If this is your 2nd or 3rd draft you may want to get a bunch of actors (or just people who are good at reading out loud) and have a table read. Feed your guests lots of wine and snacks as they read; make a party out of it. Actors especially are not shy about giving feedback, and you may very well learn more about your script in one night than you have in months.

Once you are finished gathering lots and lots of feedback, you are ready for the next step...

(For my WEEK 2 lecture and the next step in the rewrite process, check out Rewrite: Revisit the Story)

Thursday, August 27, 2015

What To Write About

This is the continuation of What the F*ck Should I Write About?, in which I searched my notebooks for a new story idea, but only found ones that were utterly preposterous.

There are typical ways that screenwriters decide on story ideas. Often managers and agents will ask their clients to submit loglines so that they can pre-approve and co-develop the concept from the ground up. The logic is that agents and mangers have a better sense of which concepts might catch fire in the spec market and lead to a sale. The emotional downside is that writers can come to feel stifled when dozens of their ideas are shot down by their reps.

Similarly, students in classes or pros in writing groups will often pitch their ideas to their peers like a test audience. As readers of this blog know, I'm a big advocate of getting feedback at every stage of the writing process (see This Is What A Rewrite Looks Like.) What could more logical than getting out of one's head and seeing how an idea plays with smart, talented fellow writers?

The creative downside is that some stories emerge through the writing process itself. The logline of the first draft may be completely different than the logline of the 2nd or 3rd draft. Sometimes it's difficult to express why the jagged kernel of an idea is so compelling, and why a slick and snappy concept with a wicked hook inspires nothing but the urge to take a long nap.

Then of course there's William Goldman's rule, which applies to anyone who would try to tell you whether an idea is good or bad: Nobody Knows Anything.

So this time, instead of taking a poll or applying some complicated, statistical rubric, I just asked myself a simple question:

If I could only write on more spec script, what would it be?

It's a clarifying question if you ask it honestly. It doesn't need to be deeply existential, as if you found out you had a Year To Live. It's just practical. If I could write only one more movie, what elements would be most important to me? Would it be a genre movie, like so many I have written before? Would I break out and write a comedy or family drama? Would I try to reach a wide audience or some eccentric niche? Who would I write it for (because every story is a kind of love letter to our ideal audience)? Who would I write about? What would be their secret fears? What would be their deepest shame?

Of course, these questions tend to become fruitful and multiply. What kind of movie, if I could only WATCH one more, would I choose to SEE? What would it look like? How would it feel to watch it? What truths would it affirm, and what fate would it utterly deny? Would it be funny? Would it be sad? Would it be scary and sublime?

It's only natural when facing the blank page (well...blank screen) to look at the grim marketplace, to recall the movies that are actually getting made, to consider the odds, and then to think, "Why Bother?" But, there is twisted sort of Alice-In-Wonderland-thinking that can turn questions like these on their heads. 99.99% of original scripts never get made, so why not write one as if I couldn't possibly fail? It's this kind of anti-logic that ignites the passion that drove me to write in the first place.

So, I asked myself all these questions and you know what?

I got an idea.

Friday, August 14, 2015

What Should I Write About?

It's time to write another spec, and as always, this fills me with dread.

I'm trying to find an Idea. You know. A three sentence logline with a flashy hook, one that is both tremendously commercial and starkly original. However, all I find scribbled in my notebook (the The Bucket in which I keep all my Golden Story Ideas) are fragments, digressions, and visions for movies that are utterly preposterous.

First, there's "Hamlette." Over my August vacation I saw Benedict Cumberbatch play Hamlet on stage, and I loved the production. I thought, there hasn't been a movie Hamlet lately, not since Ethan Hawke's GenX Dane back in 2000. What if Hamlet were Hamlette, a woman? Sure it has already been done by Danish silent film actor Asta Nielsen, but what if I switched genders of several of the main characters. King Claudius, the villain, would become Queen Claudia, cruel as any grinning Disney witch. The Ghost would be Hamlette's mother, as terrifying as the vengeful spirits in Japanese horror. Hamlet's mother would be Hamlette's father, trading Oedipus for Electra. Hamlette and Ophelia would have a forbidden Sapphic edge.

Speaking of silent films, this Hamlette (as per my frantic and impassioned notes) would be inspired by the dark, expressionistic sets of Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Hamlette herself would be inspired by silent film sirens like Heddy Lamar and Louise Brooks, only more brooding, violent and existential. The movie itself wouldn't be silent, but perhaps the the play within a play would be a 20s silent film depicting the Queens murder in pantomime. The language would be a surreal mix of silent film subtitles, updated modern dialogue and Shakespearean soliloquy.

The last line about this Idea in my notebook is that the whole thing could be shot in stop motion animation. Hmmmm. Needless to say, this idea doesn't sound like what my agent is looking for, so I keep flipping pages, looking through other Ideas.

There are a couple more horror concepts. One is a kafkaesque spin on Gremlins, in which the characters find gummy, oily, spidery creatures called "Things," which turn out to be the "object causes of desire," that inexpressible Thing that we all feel is missing from our lives. Yet when the characters get precisely what they want, their lives become a living hell. There are all sorts of sketches of these monstrous Things growing larger and multiplying out of control.

The problem with this Idea is it feels too familiar  (another rash of creature-ids run amok?) and in my notes there are several references to both Buñuel and Lacan, which is always a sign that I'm in trouble...

I keep turning pages. There's a romantic, supernatural thriller called The Philosophers, but it's perverse to the point of being like a Lynch or Cronenberg film, and it's not so much a story as a haphazard list of possible episodes all inspired by the work of my favorite philosophers. Again, I realize that that any combination of  period costumes, expensive special effects, and the Ubermensch is going to spell disaster. I continue to dig.

There's a promising Idea of reworking Sleeping Beauty as film noir, in which Sleeping Beauty herself is a femme fatale bent on the Prince's murder. Unfortunately the sketched-out dialogue of knights in full armor speaking in the hard boiled language of Raymond Chandler quickly dissolves into farce. There's a sci-fi, apocalyptic take on the 60's TV series Bonanza. I'll put a pin in that one. There's a supernatural crime thriller about a bunch of con artists who make a billionaire widow believe that they are psychics and have contacted her murdered daughter. I can't decide whether the ghost actually turns out to be real or the con-artists are just turning on each other and fucking with each other's minds. Nahhh, either way it's way too pretentious. What about this story of a narcoleptic who is constantly falling asleep and waking up as a buxom swords-woman in a desert world of alien troglodytes? No. No, swords-and-sandals. I swore to myself, never again.

What the FUCK do I write about??? I close the notebook and pick up the next one on my stack. I'm sure there's an Idea in here someplace...

To find out how I solved this problem check out the follow up article What To Write About...