Saturday, May 14, 2016

How To Succeed In Hollywood...

            Sorry this is running a bit late.  Ending up lost in a great book earlier this week and put me behind on a lot of things.
            Okay, I’ve said a few times that I don’t want to use this blog to go over the basics.  If you’ve found your way here, I’d like to pretend that you’ve got a loose grasp of your chosen writing format.  But I’ve seen a few screenplays recently that... well, it’s apparent the basics of screenwriting aren’t as well-known or understood as they should be.
            Now, to be clear, I’m talking about if I want to do this professionally.  I want a studio to hire me and give me a pile of money so they can turn my script into... y’know, garbage. But, hey, they’re giving me a pile of money. 
            If I’m trying to do indie/YouTube things with my close circle of friends... format doesn’t really matter as much.  No one else out of that circle’s going to see it, right?  But if I’m thinking of Hollywood, of screenplay contests, of those big brass rings people have been thinking of for decades...
            Well, I need to have some idea how a screenplay works.
            So, here’s a  dozen basic rules I should have down before I show my screenplay to someone. 
            And especially before I submit it to someone.

            1) Basic FormatScripts are always in single space Courier 12.  Always.  If you heard a story about a professional screenwriter who only works in Times Roman and turns in his or her work that way, I can tell you two things—that person’s already got the leeway you only get with a well-established career, and as soon as they handed the script in the whole thing was reformatted into Courier 12.  It’s the industry standard for a number of reasons, including timing and scheduling.  Every other department needs that script in Courier 12.
            Ahhh, says clever wanna-be #8... if they can convert it anyway, then what difference does it make if I want to write in Times or Arial or Wingdings? 
            It doesn’t make any difference how I write it.  But when I submit it to a contest, an agent, or a production company, it has to be in Courier 12.  Because scripts are always in Courier 12.  Always.  And I’m trying to convince people that I’m a professional. 
            One other thing—I don’t use scene numbers in a spec script.  That’s something that comes up much later during the actual pre-production for a film.  They’re a tool for the assistant directors and department heads, not the screenwriter.  Putting them in now will just get me tagged as an amateur.

            2) Basic StyleAlways use third person, present tense.  Always.  The script is what’s happening on screen right now.  Characters can have dialogue where they talk about things in past tense, but all my action blocks and descriptions must be in third person, present tense.
            A screenplay that switches person or dips back and forth between past and present tense is always a good tip-off for readers that this is someone’s short story or novel they sloppily adapted into screenplay format.  There’s also usually a reason no one bought their short story or novel, and it’s related to the fact that they didn’t bother to learn how to format a screenplay...

            3) Capitals -- This isn’t that tough.  I use capitals the first time we see a character so the reader knows this is someone new.  I’ll go into this a bit more in a minute.
            I also use capitals for emphasis when something important happens.  When YAKKO IS SHOT or Dot’s exploring the graveyard and finds A SEVERED HAND ON THE GROUND.  Keep in mind, though, that in this sense capitals are just like exclamation points.  The more often I use them, the less power they have, and eventually they’ll tip the scale and just start frustrating or annoying the reader.
            Also, none of this applies to dialogue.  Again, for clarity, I should never apply the above rules to dialogue.  If dialogue is in capitals it means someone is shouting--nothing else.  To be clear, there is no other way to interpret capitals in dialogue.  Capitals in dialogue=shouting.  So even if my sister has never been mentioned in the script before, I don’t say “Have you met my sister CAROLYN?”  I also don’t say “Hey, over there on the ground, is that A SEVERED HAND!?!!?” 
            Okay, I might shout if I see a severed hand.  But am I supposed to shout?

            4) Names – As I mentioned above, whenever I introduce a character, I put them in all caps in the action blocks.  The very first time I see YAKKO WARNER I need to know he's someone new. After that he's just Yakko.  For example...

Another man cut from the 50’s action cloth, ZACK “ZAP” MARSHALL is standing by another panel, a few feet down the wall from Lance’s.   This one has three large buttons on it, marked “laser,” “missile,” and “x-ray”. Zap also wears a wide, high-tech belt buckle with a large button in the middle of it.

Ready, Zap?

Just give the command, Captain.  I’m ready to blow it out of space.

            Dialogue headers are always all caps, using the most common version of the character's name, and I never change dialogue headers for a character.  Wakko’s dialogue is always headed with  WAKKO, Dot’s is always headed with DOT.  The only time they would change is if the character has completely changed identities on screen.  For example, in Captain America: The Winter Soldier we find out the title assassin is actually Cap’s supposedly-dead friend Bucky.  He’s WINTER SOLDIER in headers until he’s revealed as BUCKY in either the action block (because you’re introducing a new character) or dialogue (where it still isn’t capitalized unless it’s shouted).  Then his next dialogue header should be WINTER/BUCKY.  Use that double-header once, and then he’s BUCKY from there on in.

            5) Don't Name every Character—In the abbreviated, concise format of a screenplay, names are an important tool.  They tell the reader that this character is someone we need to pay attention to.  They’re important enough to the story that they rate a name and not just a title like MAN #2 or WAITRESS or OFFICER.
            Alas, some idiot somewhere started pushing the idea of naming everyone in a screenplay.  The logic is that this gives more detail, nuance, or some such nonsense.  Do not do this.  If my screenplay is littered with extra names, the reader’s going to be tripping over themselves trying to keep all those names straight because the logical assumption is that they need to be kept straight.  I made the effort to name them, after all.  So rather than focusing on the story, the reader’s trying to figure out how the woman in the mall and the taxi driver figure into the story.  That’s breaking the flow and it’s going to piss them off when they realize they wasted time and effort juggling twenty-seven names for no reason.
            Never name someone just to give them a name.  No one—not even the actor—is going to be upset with just MAN #2.  A friend of mine has made a good career out of being MAN #2.  Trust me, MAN #2 is going to make a nice chunk of money, even for just one day on set.

            6) Actually Describe Things—A few years back I got to interview screenwriter-director David Goyer (The Dark Knight, Man of Steel, the Blade trilogy) and he told me a funny story about getting smacked down by Guillermo del Toro.  It seems Goyer had described a character in a script as “a living nightmare.”  del Toro looked at this and said “What does that even mean?  That is boolshit!”
            There is a time and a place for pretty, evocative imagery and language.  That time and place is not while writing a screenplay.  As I mentioned above, the script is about what’s on screen right now, which means it has to be something we can actually see.  A reader needs to be able to visualize what’s on the page, and it’s very important that multiple readers visualize the same thing.  I can tell you Jack is a dead ringer for my old work friend Scott, but that doesn’t mean a damned thing if you don’t know what Scott looked like.  “It’s a hundred times cooler than Armageddon” sounds really cool, but it’s really hard to do concept sketches and storyboards off that.
            During our interview, Goyer actually admitted this issue bit him in the ass when he directed one of his own scripts.  He’d given a vague, roundabout description of a sequence, but once he was on set he actually had to figure out how to film it.  Now he needed a real description.  So production came to a halt while Goyer and his assistant director tried to block out the mess that writer-Goyer had left them to deal with.
            That leads nicely into...

            7) Don’t write what we can’t see – A solid corollary to the last point.  I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen stuff like this in amateur screenplays (and a few professional ones).
            Tight on a man sitting in a restaurant, not eating.  This is WAKKO, an advertising executive who just scored a multi-million dollar contract with Pepsi.  He’s freaking out, though, because he also just found out his fiancĂ© has been cheating on him with someone from her office.  Another WOMAN!  And now he’s questioning their whole relationship, himself, how did he miss this, how could he be so blind? And how is he going to explain this to his friends and family?  No, Mom, Jane’s not coming to Thanksgiving--her bird's getting stuffed by one of the girls from legal? Wakko keeps going back and forth between blaming her for cheating and blaming himself for not realizing why things felt strained between them.
            What’s wrong with that paragraph?  Well except for the first sentence... how is the audience expected to know any of this?  All we’re going to see is a guy in a restaurant.  Again, the script is what’s on screen right now.  Not what’s in someone’s head.  That’s the stuff that comes out through dialogue, action, and maybe some clever set dressing or wardrobe choices.  But definitely not in a block of exposition in the action blocks.

            8) Don't Over-Describe Characters—This sounds a little contrary to some of the stuff I’ve just said, but trust me--it isn’t.  A bad habit some writers develop—especially prose writers—is to go mad with character description.  Hair color, eye color, ethnic background, education, music preferences, drink preferences, underwear preferences, etc...  They take their entire character sketch and drop it into the screenplay.
            I don’t go nuts describing characters in scripts for a few reasons.  One is that I always want to be tight and lean in a screenplay.  Two is, as I just said above, I don’t want to describe anything the audience can’t see.  Three is the one none of us like to think about—there’s a good chance this character will change.  I can spend half a page describing Rosario Dawson and then they decide to cast Jennifer Lawrence.  It happens. 
            Just give enough description so the character stands out from any other character.  Really, if I’ve got more that two sentences of character description I’ve got too much.  Yeah, I may have tons more, but remember—the script is about right now.  Everything else about my character will come out in the course of the story through their dialogue and actions.  If it doesn’t, my problem is not that I only got two sentences of character description.

            9) Don’t act – Okay, you know those little descriptions under the dialogue header, usually in parentheses?  These are called parentheticals.  Sometimes, as a joke, they’re called wrylies.  It’s a quick set of instructions to the actor about how the line’s supposed to be delivered.
            Actors loathe parentheticals.  Actors hate parentheticals the same way screenwriters hate  producers who want us to change the ending so everyone was dead the whole time and to make Natalie Dormer’s part a lot bigger because she’s become kind of a hot item since we finished principal photography.  It’s someone who has no idea how to do my job telling me how to do my job.  Let’s look at a quick scene from one of my own scripts...

You did it!

Yeah, great shot, Zap!

All clear again, Captain.

Yes.  But for how long? 

What do you mean, Rex?

If it wasn’t for brave crewmen like Lance, Zap, Ted, and the rest of you, the galactispiders would make the starways far too dangerous. 

            Are those parentheticals really telling you anything useful?  Most actors would be able to figure this stuff out just from context.  So would any reader. 
            Which, for the record, is why none of these parentheticals are actually in my script—I just added them for this example. 
            Y’see, Timmy, there are only two times to use a parenthetical.  One is if it’s life or death important to the story that this line is delivered a certain way.  If the whole film is going to fall apart if Yakko doesn’t whisper in this scene, then add a (whispered) to that line of dialogue.  Two is if I think there’s a very real chance this line could be misunderstood, even with all the context and lines before it, and the resulting misreading will destroy the entire film.
            If I’ve got a parenthetical in my screenplay, I need to think long and hard about if it meets one of these two criteria.  And then probably remove it anyway.  They’re the adverbs of screenwriting.

            10) Don’t direct—Okay, what I just said about actors hating it when you tell them how to act?  Directors loathe writers who fill up a script with directing notes.  When I fill pages with stuff like “Pan over to reveal...” or “rack to see Yakko’s expression,” directors shake their heads, cross that out, and plan how they’re going to shoot the scene.
            Like the parenthetical above, only put in direction if it’s life or death important to the film.  If the story hinges on this being a crane shot, then put in—if the story really hinges on it.  Me thinking this scene would be really cool with a crane does not make it a pivotal shot. 
            Plus, a lot of time adding direction honestly detracts from the story.  Here’s a great example—how many of you have seen Sherlock?  Remember the last moment he has alone with Irene Adler at 221B Baker Street, when they're sitting at the fireplace and she's trying to convince him to run away with her?  It's pretty important that we don't focus on what Sherlock's doing with his hands, right?  Except if I point this out in my script, readers are going to spend the next ten pages trying to figure out what Sherlock's doing with his hands, and that’s going to override a lot of what’s going on now.  If I hadn’t mentioned it, they wouldn’t’ve thought about it, but now it’s essentially a low-level spoiler in my own script that his hands are doing something that will matter later.  Don’t worry about that sort of thing.  By the time the readers get to the flashback and figure it out, they’ll understand that when the movie is filmed we can’t focus on his hands at that point.
            By the way, just to clarify—it doesn’t matter if I plan on directing the script myself.  The script I submit to a contest, an agent, or a producer, has to be a script for anyone.  If I'm actually going to be the director, I’ll have plenty of time later to add that stuff.  Plus I’ll have my own notebook and schedule.  For now, all those things are just taking up space on the page.

            11) VO vs. OC—Okay there’s a huge difference between voice-over and off-camera.  This is one of those little things that can get me tagged instantly as an amateur if I get them wrong.
            Voice-over (V.O.) is when someone’s talking that no one else can hear.  Announcers and narrators are usually voice-over.  Train of thought is voice-over.  “Little did he know...” tends to be voice-over.  Another good tip—I will never, ever see lips moving for a voice-over.
            Now off-camera (OC) is when someone’s talking that other characters can hear but the audience can’t see.  For example, if Phoebe’s on her phone talking to Wakko, and we hear his voice, he’s off-camera, not voice over.  That old bit when everyone hears a voice, turns, and sees that Dot has come into the room—that’s off-camera.
            I want to use OC carefully, because too much makes it look like I’m trying to direct again (see above).  I’m not going to put it during an intercut phone call.  I don’t use it when we know Dot’s on the other side of the room but we’re not seeing her at this moment.

            12) Don’t use archaic terminology – Forsooth, whenst thou uses scrivening of yesteryore, thy words appearst equally of yesteryore. And few and far between liest those who show interest in the dry, dusty bones of a mouldering anecdote.
            Or, as we say today, no one’s interested in an old script.
            It used to be common to end every scene with CUT TO or FADE, or to end every page with (CONTINUED).  It also used to be common for the US military to have a lot of horses and bayonets.  In both instances, that hasn’t been the way it works for years.  When I started working in the film industry back in 1993, CUT TO was already dead.  (CONTINUED) was on life support, and only cropped up in very limited use. Usually for ongoing dialogue.
            If I’ve been using an old script from The Maltese Falcon, The Godfather or Rocky to learn this terminology and formatting—I need to toss it.  The film industry grows and changes like any other industry.  If my reference script wasn’t written in the past ten years, it’s probably going to give me more bad habits than good ones.
            This is also one of the big reasons I wanted to go over all of this again. At this point, it’s been about nine and a half years since I worked in the film industry full-time. My experience is getting old, and I’m smart enough to admit that.
            Some people are not.
            Or  just don’t care as long as you’re going to pay them...
            13) Don’t use real celebrities as charactersA bonus point I’ve mentioned before.  I’ve read screenplays where one character ended up at a resort with Johnny Depp, another one where someone dated Carmen Electra, and a really, really creepy one about George Clooney getting involved with a producer... who happened to have the same name as the screenwriter.  Unless your movie is already in production and Helen Mirren happens to be your best friend in the world who would do anything for you, do not use her as a character in your screenplay.
            Yeah, I’m sure some of you are already calling foul.  After all, haven’t I littered the Ex-Heroes series with mentions of celebrity zombies?  Well, yes I did.  But that’s the difference between a book and a screenplay—you can still read the book if Nathan Fillion, Jessica Alba, or Alex Trebek don’t show up.  Now if someone ever decides to make a movie out of the book... well, then there’ll probably be issues. 
            Although I feel relatively safe saying Fillion would show up.

            So, thirteen tips to a more coherent, professional-looking screenplay.  I’m betting the majority of you knew most of them.  But a few of you... well, now you know.
            And knowing is half the battle.
            Next week... I wanted to talk about some very bad people and how to make them good.
            Until then, go write.

Friday, May 6, 2016

The Challenge Round!

            Back from Texas Frightmare, where a fantastic time was had by all.  Well, maybe not all, but everyone I talked to seemed to be having a good time.  If one of those folks happened to be you, thanks for stopping by...
            Also worth mentioning—this is post #350 here on the ranty blog.  I’m kind of amazed I’ve managed to come up with this many posts. Even more amazed that so many folks keep reading it.
            So thank you all very, very much.
            But on to today’s (hopefully) helpful rant...
            A basic element of storytelling is the obstacle.  It's what stands between my characters and whatever it is they want.  In The Fold, solving a puzzle for his oldest friend is what stands between Mike and getting back to his normal life.  A lot of time and a whole lot of space stands between astronaut Mark Watney and getting home to Earth.  The monstrous Zoom stands between the Flash and keeping his home city safe, but so does the potential risk of regaining the “speed force” that makes him the fastest man alive.
            Although, seriously... is it just me, or for “the fastest man alive” does Barry run into a lot of people who are faster than him?
            Folks may have different thoughts on this, but—personally—I think an obstacle is slightly different from a conflict.  It’s just terminology, but I’ve noticed that exterior problems tend to be called obstacles a lot of the time, while interior ones are almost always labeled as conflicts.  In that example above Barry has to defend the city and his friends from Zoom (obstacle) but also has to weigh the risk of setting off the particle accelerator again to regain his powers (conflict).  Make sense?
            Now, while in strict literary terms either of these can be correct, I prefer to use the term challenge.  I've found that thinking about “obstacles” tends to guide the mind toward physical impediments, like parts of an obstacle course.  While this isn't technically wrong, it does seem to result in a lot of the same things.  This is when you get challenges that have an episodic feel to them.  Character A defeats obstacle B, then moves on to obstacle C, and finishes up with D.
            Anyway, I’ve gone over it in the past, but I thought it might be useful to go over some tips about challenges.  Some of them you might not have considered before, and a few of them... well, one or two it’s kind of sad that I feel it’s necessary to bring them up.
            For example...

I have to have one.
            Yeah, this sounds basic, I know, but it’s surprising how often I see stories where people either sit around doing nothing or just stroll through events with no worries or effort.  They’re geared up for whatever they might run into, from werewolves to biological warfare.  Anything they don’t have just appears.  Anyone they meet is willing to help.  Any lucky break that has to happen does so at the perfect moment.  I know this sounds silly to most of you, but it’s honestly stunning how often this happens in amateur books and screenplays.  Heck, it’s bothersome how often it happens in professional writing.
            There needs to be something between my characters and their goals, because if there isn't, they would've accomplished these goals already.  If I want a LEGO set, I  can walk up the street to Toys R Us and get one-- that's it.  Not exactly bestseller material, no matter how much pretty language I use.  On the other hand, if I want the Transforming Interlock-Cube Tactical Operating Chestplate that MIT designed for a black-ops branch of the NSA... well, getting that’s probably going to involve getting past fences, computer-locked doors, armed guards, a laser security net, pressure-sensitive floors, a badass female ninja, and that’s before we find out Theodore’s a traitor and he betrays us all (knew we shouldn’t’ve trusted that guy...)
            That’s a story.

My characters need a reason to confront it.
            If my characters are going to take on a challenge, they need a reason to do it.  A real reason.  Watney isn’t alone on Mars growing potatoes as part of a psychology experiment—this is his only real chance at survival.  When things start to go bad at the Albuquerque Door project, Mike doesn’t stick around because he can’t get an Uber to the airport—he stays because the lives of his new friends are at risk.  If Zoom isn’t stopped, he’ll kill thousands of people just to amuse himself.
            Make sure this reason is really there.  It may be obvious in my head why the characters are going to undertake a challenge, but is it that clear on paper?  This is especially true for more internal challenges, where my readers need to see why Mike is so hesitant to use his gifts and why it’s a big deal when he finally embraces them.

I need a reason for it to exist.
            A combination of the first two points.  Nothing’s worse than a challenge that has no reason for existing in the world of the story.  No past, no future, no motivation—it’s just there to be something for the protagonist to overcome.  We can probably all think of a book or movie where an obstacle just popped out of nowhere for no reason at all.  That kind of stuff just weakens any story. 
            Challenges have a purpose.  They're characters in their own right, or maybe obstacles other characters have set in my protagonist's way.  There’s a reason Zoom exists (he was caught in Earth-2’s particle accelerator explosion), and there’s a reason he’s going after the Flash (he needs to absorb speed force to keep himself alive). He didn’t pop through a breach and start tormenting the Flash and company for no reason.  I need to think about why a given challenge is in my story, and if there isn’t a real reason... maybe I should stop for a few minutes and re-think it.
            I’ll add one other note here.  It’s generally better if the audience (reader or viewer) has at least some idea why said challenge exists.  They don’t need to know immediately, but I also shouldn’t save it for the last ten pages... or never reveal it at all and just vaguely hint at it.  “Oh, that demon that’s been hunting us since sundown... it’s probably after me. We’re psychically bonded.  Probably should’ve mentioned that sooner.”

It has to be daunting.
            It’s bad enough Zoom is about ten times faster that the Flash on a good day, but now Barry’s lost his powers altogether.  He can barely sprint across a parking lot.  Voodoo practitioner Kincaid Strange has to risk her career, her freedom, her life, and maybe even her immortal soul to figure out who raised an impossible zombie in her city.  If the Avengers don’t stop Ultron, it’s going to cause an extinction-level event and wipe out all life on Earth.  This is something I mentioned a few weeks ago—the stakes.
            Characters should never want to deal with a challenge, because let's be honest-- we'd all love it if more things were just handed to us.  Again, getting LEGO vs. getting the TICTOC.  A challenge needs to be something that gives the character (and the audience) pause, or else it isn't really a challenge.  Tony Stark has built a suit of armor that can take on armies, and an even bigger suit of armor that goes over that one, but he still feels his bladder tremble when he realizes he just got the Hulk angry.

It can’t be impossible.
            There’s nothing worse than being on the wrong side of a sure thing.  Nobody reading this wants to get in a fist fight with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson because we all know it’d be no contest.  None of us want to be given the responsibility of stopping a runaway asteroid or even just a runaway bus, because I’m willing to bet for all of us here (myself included) those would be things we just couldn’t deal with.
            If you’ve ever watched any sporting event, you’ve probably noticed they're more or less evenly matched.  The Red Sox don’t play against little league.  NFL teams don't face off against pee-wee football teams.  The most boring stories tend to be the ones where the heroes have no chance whatsoever of meeting the challenge.  Torture porn or Ju-On horror are great examples of this.  They’re great for a bit of squeamishness or a few jumps, but we can’t get invested when we already know the outcome.  I recently recalled someone theorizing that zombies are so popular because zombies are the monsters we can beat. Werewolves, vampires, demons, kaiju—if these attack, we’re just screwed.  They’re too far past us.  But I’m willing to bet everyone reading this has something within ten feet of them that they could take out a zombie with.
            As long as it’s just one zombie.  Maybe two or three...
            The other risk to be careful of here is if the challenge is completely impossible and my hero pulls it off anyway, it can look unbelievable and knock my reader out of the story.
            Actually, one last thing.  The challenge can’t seem impossible to the character, but have a painfully obvious solution to the reader.  My readers have to identify with my characters, and this kind of thing makes my characters unlikable by nature of their stupidity. That’s not going to win anybody points.

It should be unexpected.
            This isn’t an absolute rule, but it’s something I still lean heavily toward. 
            If there’s a challenge and my characters know about it, then that challenge immediately loses some of its strength.  If they have time to plan or prepare or equip themselves, the challenge shrinks accordingly.
            Consider this—every heist movie involves an enormous challenge—usually getting past security to break into a vault or museum.  There are many chapters or scenes of preparation.  Then, almost without exception, in the middle of pulling the job, something happens that the heroes aren’t prepared to deal with.  A new set of guards, new security equipment, or just that bastard Theodore betraying us and setting off the alarms in the elevator shaft.   This is where the story gets exciting.  If my heroes are so trained  and ready for anything that the job goes off without a single hitch, then there really wasn’t a challenge, was there?
            A bonus of the unexpected challenge is that it often gives my characters a chance to look better.  When they beat the unexpected challenge through sheer skill or cleverness, it makes them all the more likeable.  Because my readers are going to identify with them, and most readers like identifying with skillful, clever people

I need to resolve it. 
            Once I’ve set up a challenge, the readers need to see it resolved somehow.  We can’t set Zoom loose on Earth-2 and then just forget about him.  Once Mike realizes what’s going on with the Albuquerque Door, he doesn’t wash his hands and walk away.  I can’t have my hero pining over their lost love for the first third of my story and then never, ever address those feelings again.  Believe me, readers will remember these things.  Once I present a challenge to the audience it can’t be forgotten or ignored.  As Chekhov once said, if we see a phaser on the bridge in act one, we need to see it fire in act three.

            So make sure the challenges in your writing really are challenging, for the characters and for your audience.
            Next week—I’ve been going over a lot of general story stuff for a while, so I thought I’d take a few minutes to go over some things aimed more at the big screen.
            Until then... go write.