Thursday, January 19, 2017

RIP Screenwriting Tips

            Hey everyone!  We're closing in on February, and you know what that means, right?
            It’s screenwriting contest time!
            If this is all still a bit new to you, screenwriting contests can be a phenomenal way for me to get my foot in Hollywood’s proverbial door.  Winning—even just placing—in the right contest can get me noticed by agents, producers, and directors.  They’re not all that powerful, no, but it’s not hard to figure out which ones are.
            (Hint—it’s not the one shouting “our contest can get you read by hundreds of top people!!”)
            Now, with all that being said...  Here’s why I’m not going to offer any screenwriting advice this year.  Or for the foreseeable future.
            Actually, first let me talk about pagers.
            As some of you know, I worked on set in the film industry for about fifteen years, starting back in the early ’90s.  And back then, if you wanted to keep working, you had to have a pager.  Pagers were vital.  You couldn’t have much of a career without one, because when someone was crewing up they didn't want to wait, and jobs tended to be first-come, first-serve..
            Granted, that was then, this is now.  By... what, ’99, everybody had a cell phone. Pagers were obsolete.  Even if they still worked, depending on one kind of implied... well, I may not be the most cutting-edge, up-to-date person to hire. And while the film industry isn’t really like any other business on Earth... it’s tough to find a job when you’re ten or fifteen years out of date
            And honestly, how stupid would I look if I showed up to a film set these days—to any job—wearing a pager?  Oh, sure, it still does what it’s supposed to, still lets people get in touch with me (assuming I live somewhere where that network’s still active) but would anyone take me seriously?  I’m using technology from twenty years ago—and expecting other people to use it, too.
            Heck, how many people here even still remember how to use pagers?  From either end?  I’m not sure I do.  Maybe it would pop back if I was in that position but... well, I don’t want to bet on it.
            See, the need to get a job didn’t change.  The need to communicate didn’t change. But how we do it changed.  A new industry standard developed.
            Which brings us back to screenwriting.
            Screenwriting is kind of a two-part art.  One part is the storytelling aspect of it.  That’s a lot of the same stuff we talk about here all the time.  Good characters.  Good dialogue.  Clever structure.  Exciting action.  Neat twists.
            The other part is format.  This is the delivery mechanism that gets my screenplay in front of contest readers, agents, producers, and hopefully actors and directors.  Format is seriously important in screenwriting. I’d say maybe 30-35% of my final score.
            Y’see, Timmy, if I’m not using the current, up to date format, my screenplay immediately looks dated and wrong.  That first part, my actual story, may work phenomenally well, but if every reader’s going into it thinking “Wow, what is this, twenty years old...?” that’s a big strike against me right up front.  And even just that slight bias can mean the difference between acceptance or... well, ending up in the big pile on the left.
            In the past I’ve offered a lot of tips on basic script formatting. And while a lot of those may still be good, I honestly just don’t know which ones those are.  Assuming any of them are.
            At this point, I haven’t really done any work with scripts in about ten years.  I stopped working on sets in 2006. Stopped writing about screenwriting in 2010.  My last screenwriting-related job was five years ago, and even that was a pitch/synopsis that didn’t involve writing an actual script.  I know enough to say my experience is pretty much out of date.  Maybe not entirely, but mostly.
            If I want to be writing screenplays, I need to be looking at new ones to learn the current accepted format.  Not the classics.  Not my childhood favorites.  They may teach me some storytelling stuff, but if I want to learn formatting... well, I really shouldn’t be looking at anything from before Barack Obama was President.  Doesn’t matter how many Oscars it won, doesn’t matter how much my professor praised it back in film school—I cannot learn formatting from old scripts.
            Because I don’t want to be the person showing off my new pager.
            Next time...
            Okay, look. Here’s one tip, just so we can end a bit more positive.  You know what other season this is?  Oscar season.  A lot of the studios are releasing the scripts for their “Best Screenplay” hopefuls.  Not all of them, but a couple of them. That means those new, very current scripts can be picked up easily and legally (no piracy!) for perusal.  Hit Google and see what you can find. I bet The Arrival’s out there.  Maybe Deadpool, too.
            See. Positive ending.
            Next time, I have a few Capital Ideas to share.
            Until then... go write.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Time for Torches and Pitchforks

            So sorry this is a bit late.  Deadlines. They can suck, but they pay the bills.
            Anyway, with some of the awful changes we’re already seeing this year, I thought it’d be good to try some positive changes.  In the next few weeks I’m hoping to do much more regular (and frequent) posts and also address a few different topics people have tossed my way.  And maybe even a big overhaul of this whole page.
            But first, I wanted to talk to you about the little European country of Switzerland.
            I’m guessing everyone reading this has seen some version of Frankenstein, yes?  Maybe the iconic Universal film or one of its many sequels.  Or the Abbot & Costello movie.  Or even the comedy remake Mel Brooks did.
            (For the record Frankenstein here is the name of the movie, not the monster...)
            One standard in all of these is the little nearby village.  It shows up in every version of the story I just mentioned, plus a few dozen more.  And yeah, in the movies it’s in Switzerland.  Weird, I know.
            Anyway, I’m sure most of you reading this can picture it in your minds, yes?  The wall with the big gate.  The houses with the exposed timbers and big fireplaces.
            Okay, got all that in mind?
            When is that small town?
            No, no, don’t try to reason it out. Just answer the question.  In what time frame is that little town set?
            I bet that made your brain seize up for a moment.  Y’see Frankenstein was written back in the early 19th Century, and is actually set in the back half of the 18th.  It’s a contemporary of Ben Franklin and his lightning experiments.
            (For the record, Frankenstein here is the name of the book, not the monster...)
            And yet...
            The films kind of updated the story and gave it a slightly more “modern” setting.  The clothes and some of the doctor’s technology hint at a story set closer to the Victorian era.  There’s mention of trains in some of them.  The Abbot and Costello movie is set in “modern” times.  There are cars, planes, telephones--they’re full-on into the 20th century at that point.
            And yet... the little hamlet below the castle looks exactly the same in every movie.
            It’s not impossible.  There are lots of villages in Europe that still look a lot like they did two or three centuries ago.  Even here in the US we’ve got towns that haven’t changed much since the fifties.  Or the twenties.
            What’s my point in this?
            I read a book recently that was set in a village a lot like the one in Frankenstein.  There were even a couple of castles.  And one of the annoying things was I couldn’t tell when this story was supposed to be taking place.  No mention of electricity, radio, or cellphones, but also no mention of horses, woodpiles, or outhouses.
            The author described the clothes on a few characters, but these days having an eccentric, oddly-dressed character is kind of commonplace.  So maybe that woman’s clothing is a hint as to what era the story’s set in... or maybe she’s just really into steampunk or some kind of retro cosplay.  One guy carried a crossbow but... well, kind of the same thing, right?  These days crossbows, longbows, swords—they’re not that unusual in stories from any time period.  Look at The Walking Dead.  Heck, Warhammer 40,000 is set... well, about 38,000 years from now, and people are still using swords in that.
            Yeah, there’s always going to be that time where I want to misdirect my reader into thinking it’s 1944, but Cap really just woke up in 2012.  Or that the high-tech lair is in the future, not inside an Egyptian tomb in 1250 BC.  The thing I need to keep in mind is that these aren’t cases where I’ve just forgotten to mention the time—it’s being deliberately withheld to create an effect later.
            Y’see, Timmy, knowing the when of a setting is just as important as the where.  It’s one of the things we use as writers to help the readers relate to elements of the story. And it helps to define the world I’m creating.  Without knowing when my story’s set, it’s tough to tell when something’s exceptional or important in that world.  A soldier talking on a walkie-talkie isn’t exactly earth-shattering stuff, but if I tell you this soldier’s with George Washington in 1776, that walkie-talkie conversation becomes interesting on many more levels. And it immediately tells my readers what kind of story they’re reading.
            So remember the when along with the where.
            Next time, I’d like to talk about something I’m not going to talk about anymore.
            Until then... go write.