The Story Department https://thestorydepartment.com Common sense for the writing folk Fri, 19 May 2017 06:44:58 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.7.5 5 Reasons Why Loglines Are Incredibly Important https://thestorydepartment.com/5-reasons-loglines-incredibly-important/ https://thestorydepartment.com/5-reasons-loglines-incredibly-important/#respond Wed, 26 Apr 2017 23:51:45 +0000 https://thestorydepartment.com/?p=233977 Loglines can predict failures. This week, I watched a movie where the writer had not adopted critical notes. The film failed. I’m not saying that it would have succeeded if he had heeded the advice. If only things were that simple. The draft I read could be summarised in a one sentence logline. Based on that logline, I predicted the film would ...

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Loglines can predict failures. This week, I watched a movie where the writer had not adopted critical notes. The film failed. I’m not saying that it would have succeeded if he had heeded the advice. If only things were that simple.

The draft I read could be summarised in a one sentence logline. Based on that logline, I predicted the film would fail.

I am not the only one who makes snap decisions based on the logline alone. In fact, EVERY busy film executive does this – every day. And everyone I know in the film industry works incredibly hard to make a living. They have absolutely no time to waste.

Within this context, loglines are the only tool that allows you to make decisions quickly, and efficiently.

Many writers think they can write loglines. The truth is that only a very few understand this very specific skill. If more writers did, there wouldn’t be so many flawed concepts floating around. I’m not talking about execution now, merely premise.

I have been studying loglines for a long time now, and five years ago I decided to launch Logline It. Since then, it has grown into the leading website and a community dedicated to the promotion of effective loglines. Today, we have over 4,000 loglines on the site, and over 20,000 reviews to learn from.

Thanks to this site, many writers have perfected their loglining skills, and are now able to judge early on whether they have a story idea that could fly.

A properly written logline allows you to make a reliable snap judgment on the prospects of a project. This is one reason why the logline is the most powerful instrument to gauge the quality of a screen story.

1. A Snap Decision Tool

The logline is the smallest recognised industry format that allows gatekeepers to make snap decisions. Based on it, they may either eliminate a concept from their list, or allow it to jump to the next level (usually the synopsis).

For this reason, loglines are the most common summary in trade publications at the most important annual film markets: Berlin, Cannes, Sundance, Toronto, AFM.

2. Loglines Test Uniqueness

A properly written logline describes a screen story uniquely. Using three key story elements, it triangulates a film so effectively, it will differentiate your project from every other film made, or story told.

Using the power triangle of main character, inciting incident and story goal, you lay the basis of the logline – and that of your film’s 3-act structure.

3. It Shows Inherent Structure

Following the right logline format, you will give the reader an exact idea of the key information that will be conveyed in your story’s first act, and a promise of what may be expected in act two.

Most writers who don’t understand this, capture only about the first ten minutes of their story. They’re not to blame; most teachers don’t understand the function of a logline, and teach a format that is way too loose.

4. Loglines Express The Writer’s Vision

Until you understand your story thoroughly, it is impossible to write a logline that does service to it. For this reason, it often takes weeks, sometimes months before a writer is happy with their logline.

By the time the script is finished, the writer MUST be capable of conveying the essence of his/her story in one sentence.

5. Loglines Are A Guide Through Development

Robert McKee talks about the Controlling Idea, and John Truby discusses the Premise Line, but neither are particularly useful when you have to create them yourself.

These gentlemen provide us with extremely vague guidelines, and their examples fail completely and utterly in capturing consistently what is unique about the films they describe. While some of their examples hit the mark, others don’t. This proves that their approach is not systematic, not reliable – and therefore useless for the working writer.

I’m proud that I have developed a format that is used by every professional writer who has studied with me. Some use it as a basis to build their own version, but they all stick to the foundation I teach, because it is so simple and at the same time effective.

A properly written logline not only helps you capture the essence of your story, it guides you through the writing process. It helps you make tough decisions during development, and ultimately keeps you on track.

If you don’t already master this skill, it’s about time you get to it.

Test your own logline during the Logline It fifth anniversary event!
More details here.

Happy Loglining!

-Karel Segers

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Screenwriter At The Movies: Casablanca (1942) https://thestorydepartment.com/screenwriter-movie-casablanca-1942/ https://thestorydepartment.com/screenwriter-movie-casablanca-1942/#comments Tue, 18 Apr 2017 09:16:33 +0000 https://thestorydepartment.com/?p=233944 Last week, at my local cinema, I had the privilege of seeing a digital restoration of the classic film Casablanca. I’ve seen it a million times, but this was my first time seeing it in a theater. It was just as awesome as you’d imagine. A million authors have written about the genius of Julius K. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein ...

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Last week, at my local cinema, I had the privilege of seeing a digital restoration of the classic film Casablanca. I’ve seen it a million times, but this was my first time seeing it in a theater. It was just as awesome as you’d imagine.

A million authors have written about the genius of Julius K. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch‘s screenplay; over 75 years it has become an ingrained part of cinema history and culture. Though its influence on today’s popular culture has waned, for screenwriters, it’s an enduring touchstone for lessons in screenwriting. Which is what got me thinking – what did I learn from Casablanca this time?

Actions speak louder than words

That’s the yardstick when you want to know how to judge a person’s character. Watch what they do, not what they say. It’s one of the Golden Rules of screenwriting, too. It’s the backbone of what makes a character feel relatable and realistic to an audience.

So when I look at Humphrey Bogart‘s character, Rick Blaine, in Casablanca, what kind of person do I see at the beginning of the film? Is he a ‘changed man’ by the end? Do his actions support this, or just his words? Let’s look at the evidence.

Rick is described as cynical by Ugarte (Peter Lorre) in the beginning of the movie. More than once we hear Rick himself say, “I stick my neck out for no one.” By the end of the film though, Rick seems a changed man.

I stick my head out for nobody

He sacrifices his own happiness for that of his former flame, Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), so she and her husband, WWII resistance leader Victor Laszlo (Paul Heinrid) can escape the Nazis and continue leading the movement from the safer shores of the US.

That seems like a pretty cut-and-dried character arc. Rick goes from selfish and cynical, to hopeful and selfless. Job done. Arc complete.

But did he really? Was his inner transformation as a person really that profound? I don’t think it was. I think this guy was just bitter because he got his heart broken, but that heartbreak didn’t really change who he was on the inside, despite what he told others.

Rick’s Redemption

That’s why Lazslo comments that Rick sounds like someone who’s “trying to convince themselves of something he doesn’t really believe” when Rick professes to be motivated solely by self interest. The evidence is in his actions throughout the movie:

  • Rick helps a young Bulgarian couple after the wife has admitted she slept with Captain Renault (Claude Rains) to secure transit visas for her and her husband.
  • When Signor Ferrari (Sydney Greenstreet) offers to ‘buy’ Rick’s piano man, Sam, Rick refuses to participate in the ‘trading of human lives’, and proves it by giving Sam the final say in whether he wants to ,work for someone else.
  • When Captain Renault closes down Rick’s cafe, Rick keeps his entire staff on full pay, even though it could bankrupt him.
  • Rick’s past running guns for the losing sides in other wars is further proof he’s a sucker for the underdog.

Captain Renault is right – Rick is really a “rank sentimentalist”, so I think we can say that the change he achieves is more of a simple but very relatable kind: he gets over his broken heart.

Rank Sentimentalist

When confronted with Lazslo’s selflessness, Rick realizes he’s just being spiteful because Ilsa deserted him in Paris to be with a man who is a better version of himself. Any man’s ego would be wounded by that.

He’s also confronted with Ilsa’s selflessness. Remember the young Bulgarian wife who slept with Captain Renault to get the visas? That was a minor but important B-plot that foreshadowed and built sympathy of Ilsa. She asks Lazslo indirectly if he could forgive her for doing such a thing, and he indirectly says yes.

Rick recognizes this when she claims to still be in love with him. It’s what he’s always dreamed of, having Ilsa back in his arms, but he knows what she’s doing. My God, between Lazslo and Ilsa, how could Rick not feel like a heel for hanging on to those letters of transit!

The Beginning Of A Beautiful Friendship

Being the good guy that we know he really is, he decides enough is enough; a little closure has helped heal his broken heart and he can do the right thing – he let’s Ilsa go with Lazslo to America.

I’ll never forget the impact that final moment of goodbye between Rick and Ilsa had on me the first dozen times I saw the film. Rick’s heroic sacrifice pulls at your heartstrings, but when you examine his change of heart in context, you see why this is such an enduring masterpiece of a film. Rick’s change was something we could all recognize from our lives.

We’ve all had our hearts broken and eventually gotten over it, but how many of us have done it for such a noble reason? We like to think we could, that’s why we love heroes like Rick.

-Phil Parker

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Is It Done? 7 Signs You’re Ready To Sell Your Script https://thestorydepartment.com/sell-screenplay/ https://thestorydepartment.com/sell-screenplay/#comments Sun, 16 Apr 2017 14:04:37 +0000 http://thestorydepartment.com/?p=233425 There’s no greater insecurity than the doubts that keep you from selling your creative work. Is it good? Is it great? Or is it useless? Should I show it to anyone? To whom? Is it ready to sell? I have found that as someone’s experience grows, often so does their insecurity about the state of their scripts. Many newbies are overeager to market undercooked scripts. Why? They don’t know their ...

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There’s no greater insecurity than the doubts that keep you from selling your creative work.

Is it good? Is it great? Or is it useless? Should I show it to anyone? To whom? Is it ready to sell?

I have found that as someone’s experience grows, often so does their insecurity about the state of their scripts. Many newbies are overeager to market undercooked scripts.

Why?

They don’t know their own abilities. They don’t understand what constitutes a great script, and they hope someone else will tell them.

If you feel this strong intuitive urge to get validation from a producer or agent, you’ve got to ignore it. Do more work yourself: read great scripts, keep writing, and over time you’ll separate the wheat from the chaff.

True intuition is built upon experience.

What Does Your Screenplay Need To Achieve?

Whether you are ready to sell your script – or not – has a lot to do with your intended objectives. If you need to make a living from your work, perhaps you have no choice. Cashflow forces you to get it into the market. Sometimes even premature scripts sell. (Seen any superhero comic book adaptations, lately?).

Suppose you’re not 100% happy with the story, but your writing style is supreme. If you need work urgently, your script may become the writing sample that will get you other work. So you go and sell. Story ready or not.

In all other cases, if you can afford to wait, then do so while you perfect story and script.

No Such Thing As The Honest Truth?

sell your screenplay - liesEach has their own opinion about when a script is done.

If you ask a script consultant, they may argue that your script needs more development. It is in their interest to keep taking money from you. Never ask a consultant who is desperate for clients. Instead, go to the busiest consultant you can afford.

Better even, affiliate yourself with an industry professional who can read scripts.

In fairness, not many can. And those who can, are often too busy. Find someone you can trust. This could be a producer, a director or an actor.

Your English teacher friend is not the person to ask. You may turn to them for a proofread on typos, spelling and grammar, but don’t expect them to understand the intricacies of a screenplay.

Everyone has an opinion. Not everyone has a clue.

 

Ready To Sell Your Script? Here Are The Signs

  1. Your mom/partner/best friend loves it sell your screenplay - confidence

    Non-professional readers will read a script like a novel, without understanding the nature of drama and tension. Their feedback is hardly vital.
    There is a good reason to have your fans at home read your work, though: to keep your confidence up. They should support you, and encourage you to rock on when times are tough.

  2. Your gut tells you it’s ready to sell

    It may be more reliable than your mom, but it’s surely not the #1 indicator to go by. Your gut instinct will give you a clue as to whether you have a gem or a dud. But don’t bet the house on it. Your intuition will get better over the years.

  3. Your friend/manager/agent/producer is excited

    sell your screenplay - agentsNo industry friends (yet)? Get networking! If you’re lucky enough to work with a manager, it’s easy. They will give you useful feedback, and tell you when they are confident the script will generate results.

  4. It’s a really fast read.

    The quickest reads are typically the best. I have found that really bad scripts can take up to a day to read, partially because it takes time to decipher, but also because of reader procrastination.

  5. Feedback is about taste, not technique.

    If most of the feedback comes down to a matter of the reader’s taste rather than specific craft-based notes, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re being unprofessional. Everyone has a subjective opinion, even pros. And everyone will try to give you some advice, even if they’ve run out of objective notes. Could this mean it is time to sell, and send your script into the world? Possibly…

  6. You are shortlisted in a big screenwriting contest sell your script - awards

    There are many contests, and thousands of writers enter every year. Fortunately you don’t need to worry about most of them, as only a few are truly relevant.
    The best will introduce winners to agents and producers, and some real players do keep an eye on the award lists.  So, winning an important contest is a big deal. Keep entering every year, and make sure your results keep improving.

  7. Everyone talks about it.

    You are very lucky when you find people become aware about your script, and talk about it. When I hear industry folk bring up my clients’ projects in conversation, it’s mostly a good sign.

There are probably tons of things about your script you can still improve. If you didn’t read any screenwriting books until this point – Good! You didn’t need them – this may be the time to check a few things that matter to readers. Look at the ebb and flow of your tension in the story. Weigh up the balance of description vs. dialogue. Check, double-check and triple-check grammar, spelling and punctuation.

These are the areas most beginning writers can improve the most without professional help. Use apps, take online  classes. Become the very best.

You Make The Call

When you feel that the law of diminishing returns is taking its toll, it may be time to consider the 7 points above. And remember: you will never get unequivocal proof that your script is market-ready… until it is sold.

Until then, it’s merely a decision.

And that decision is yours.

-Karel Segers

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Gold (2016) [Screenwriter At The Movies] https://thestorydepartment.com/screenwriter-movies-gold-2016/ https://thestorydepartment.com/screenwriter-movies-gold-2016/#respond Wed, 22 Feb 2017 22:16:47 +0000 https://thestorydepartment.com/?p=233754 Before I left for the cinema, I checked Rotten Tomatoes. They had this movie rated at 41% critics/ 51% fans. Normally, that’s a pretty good sign to avoid a film, but I’m a fan of some of those reality TV shows about gold mining, and of Matthew McConaughey, so I ignored them all and went anyway. Despite McConaughey’s fantastic performance, ...

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Before I left for the cinema, I checked Rotten Tomatoes. They had this movie rated at 41% critics/ 51% fans. Normally, that’s a pretty good sign to avoid a film, but I’m a fan of some of those reality TV shows about gold mining, and of Matthew McConaughey, so I ignored them all and went anyway.

Despite McConaughey’s fantastic performance, the ratings turned out to be mostly right. As a screenwriter, I’m glad I still went, though. I always say we can learn as much, if not more, from films that aren’t perfect than from those that are. ‘Gold’ reinforced for me a very important lesson: heroes that don’t learn anything leave an audience unfulfilled.

First, a quick summary of the movie (skip to the next paragraph if you want to avoid these spoilers):

The hero in Gold, Kenny Wells (Matthew McConaughey) has inherited his family’s mining company, only to run it into the ground (pun intended). In a last ditch effort to save it, he teams up with a discredited gold prospector, Michael Acosta (Edgar Ramirez) to hunt for gold in the jungles of Indonesia. When they strike it rich, the company goes public and they all make a fortune. It’s peaches and cream for Kenny and his loving wife Kay (Bryce Dallas Howard) until the inevitable lure of women and money creates a rift between the money hungry husband and the salt-of-the-earth wife. But Kenny seems to get on just fine without her, until his biggest competitor convinces Indonesia’s president to nationalise Kenny’s company. Penniless, Kenny returns to his ex-wife only to discover she’s dating someone else. Bummer. In another screenwriter Phil Parkerdesperate effort to save his company, Kenny and Michael agree to give Indonesia’s president’s son 85%. Everyone’s happy! That is until it’s discovered Acosta faked the gold results. There is no gold! The company fails, Acosta goes missing and Kenny is left with nothing again. Poor Kenny goes back to his ex-wife, AGAIN, tail between his legs, hoping for consolation. What he gets is a check in the mail from the AWOL Acosta for $84 million. Role credits.

First of all, kudos to Patrick Massett, John Zinman for even getting the story on the screen. Writing a screenplay is a heck of a lot of work, and out of the thousands that are written every year, very few get made. Forgive me for a little Monday-morning quarterbacking. My goal is to learn and improve as a screenwriter.

Ok, disclaimer out of the way.

screenwriter Phil Parker Matthew McConaughey GoldOn the surface, this ‘inspired by true events’ story is fascinating. I can see why the producers were sold on the idea. It embodies the American dream of the scrappy underdog who works his ass off, and builds a fortune from nothing. He gets knocked down, not once, but twice, and still ends up on his feet. The problem is, Kenny doesn’t come out of the storm having learned a valuable lesson that the audience can take away with them. He doesn’t change; he doesn’t arc — so I don’t care.

Now, not all heroes have to change. Matt Damon in The Martian didn’t change and people loved that. James Bond (traditionally) and most superheroes don’t change during a film and we know how much money those movies make. But this isn’t that kind of a movie.

This guy was a hard-drinking, chain-smoking man who was loved by a sweet wife and just wanted to save his daddy’s company. He gave his loyalty to a man he hardly knew and was betrayed. When he was rich, it was fun and he deserved it, but he went too far and lost the love of his life. These are all the ingredients you need to deliver an emotionally satisfying film – if only they’re properly arced – but they never are.

Had he confessed to the woman he loved that money wasn’t everything (hopefully in a non-cliché way), maybe then he would have deserved his reward. Had he unwaveringly believed in the partner they say betrayed him and NOT given him up to the feds, then maybe he would have screenwriter Phil Parker Matthew McConaughey goldearned that money.

Instead, we have a hero in the beginning of the film that believed in not giving up, but in the end does give up, and yet he gets rewarded anyway.  The money just falls in his lap.

And we’re kinda led to believe that his boomerang relationship with his wife will kick off again into happily ever after.

That’s not the kind of arc audiences want to see.

So my screenwriting lesson from watching ‘Gold’ was this: make sure your hero learns their lesson (unless they’re a tragic hero).

When they do, their reward will feel well deserved.

-Phil Parker

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What Assassin’s Creed’s failure teaches us about dramatic tension https://thestorydepartment.com/assassins-creed-failure-dramatic-tension/ https://thestorydepartment.com/assassins-creed-failure-dramatic-tension/#comments Mon, 30 Jan 2017 05:48:50 +0000 https://thestorydepartment.com/?p=233706 Assassin’s Creed was produced on a budget of US $125 million and released around the world at the end of 2016. Over the last month, the film has only pulled in a meagre U.S. $203 million. As of this posting, the film has scored a critical rating of 17%. Assassin’s Creed seemed to have everything going for it. Big name ...

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Assassin’s Creed was produced on a budget of US $125 million and released around the world at the end of 2016. Over the last month, the film has only pulled in a meagre U.S. $203 million. As of this posting, the film has scored a critical rating of 17%.

Assassin’s Creed seemed to have everything going for it. Big name producers Frank Marshall and Arnon Milchan. A serious director, Justin Kurzel, at the helm (2015’s Macbeth). Outstanding actors in the lead roles. Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard and Jeremy Irons.

In the trailers, we saw mysterious, hooded figures leaping off 50 storey buildings only to land on their feet. Super cool looking ninja-style fights. The cinematography was flashy, the CGI effects state of the art, the parkour stunts exciting.

Image of fighting from Assassin's Creed

On top of all the heavyweights in front of and behind the camera, the movie was based on a computer game series which already has a legion of fans.

Assassin’s Creed should have been a slam dunk. Instead, it’s been a total flop. If you add up the marketing and distribution costs, Assassin’s Creed is set to lose over U.S. $100 million.

The video game curse

Many have put Assassin’s Creed’s failure on the very fact it was based on a computer game. When you look at the history of computer game movie adaptations, it’s not hard to see why so many speculators have come to this conclusion.

Every game adaptation from Super Mario Bros. through to Street Fighter have been outright box office bombs. Where computer game adaptations have succeeded, the success has been mild (except for the Resident Evil series which has made close to U.S. $1 billion on a total budget of U.S. $250 million for five films).

Image of Milla Jovovich in Resident Evil

Personally, I think video game adaptations could be great — if they were adapted properly. Though I’ve never played the games, I don’t think Assassin’s Creed’s failure has anything to do with a “video game curse.”

Observe the first half-hour of Assassin’s Creed and you’ll see it’s loaded with screenwriting sins. Poor structure, shallow characters, dialogue with zero subtext. Characters without goals or with goals that are unclear to the audience. Scenes that don’t build, scenes that don’t climax.

Yes, it’s terrible screenwriting…but still, this isn’t the core reason why this behemoth tanked.

Assassin’s Creed’s crazy plot

The film’s plot is packed with details that (I assume) only the gaming fans would fully understand.

In the present day, the Abstergo Foundation rescues Callum (Michael Fassbender) from death row. Abstergo wants to find a special device called the “Apple of Eden” which controls all human free will. You know, that old world domination chestnut.

Image of Apple of Eden from Assassin's Creed

The reason they need Callum is because he’s the descendant of a 15th-century warrior, Aguilar. By plugging him into a machine called the Animus, Callum will be able to relive Aguilar’s memories back in the 15th century and help Abstergo find the coveted Apple of Eden.

Convoluted in a science-fictiony way? Yes. Messy? Definitely.

A story concept that folds in…on itself

At first glance, it looks a little like a time travel plot. It looks like Abstergo wants to send Callum back in time to find the Apple of Eden. But put a microscope on the story and you’ll see this isn’t the case.

The story mechanic of the Animus is this — when Callum is plugged in, he experiences the memories of his 15th-century ancestor. He relives the memories of his ancestor Aguilar.

Image of Animus from Assassin's Creed

Callum has no control over events. Actions and outcomes have been decided by “history” because they’re memories! The moment Callum is plugged into the Animus machine, he’s rendered a passenger.  

Callum won’t find the Apple of Eden. He’s just going to relive/watch/experience Aguilar finding it.

Marion Cotillard’s dialogue explains the mechanic openly — 

What you’re about to see, hear and feel are the memories of someone who’s been dead for more than 500 years — you can not change what happens.”

The story mechanic has rendered the protagonist passive

Dramatic tension

In case you’re not sure what “dramatic tension” is, it’s a writers term.

As defined by filmmaker Frank Daniel, dramatic tension is —

“Somebody wants something badly and is having difficulty getting it.”

Audiences pay top dollar to see action adventures on a big screen with surround sound so powerful the floor shakes. They want to feel dramatic tension screwing into them when the hero is losing against the baddies. They want to feel elation when the hero achieves their final goal (usually saving the world).

The thing is, dramatic tension only works when the audience KNOWS the characters on screen have some control over the outcome.

Whether or not it’s Luke flying down the trench and blowing up the Death Star, Michael Corleone wiping out his family’s enemies or Harry winning Sally Albright’s heart, the audience must know that the protagonist has the potential to succeed or fail.

Image of Harry from When Harry Met Sally

Assassin’s Creed’s story concept cancels out its own dramatic tension and renders its hero, Callum, passive.  

This is the primary reason why the film has failed.

In fact, it was never going to succeed. However flashy or cool a movie looks — 

No one in their right mind pays to see a movie where the protagonist is a spectator in their own story!

Final thoughts

I’ve been informed by gamer friends that in the Assassin’s Creed games, the protagonist lays down on a bed to “experience” their ancestors’ memories.

The movie has changed this. Instead of laying down on a bed — 

Image of Animus from Assassin's Creed video game

— Michael Fassbender’s Callum, is picked up by the Animus’ special harness. In the harness, he physically mimes Aguilar’s actions from the past.

Image of Animus from Assassin's Creed

I have a sneaking suspicion the lead creatives knew the Animus may be an issue for the film and changed it, not only to create visual excitement for the big screen but as a strategy to distract the audience from the fact the concept renders the hero passive and the story dramatically tensionless.

The contrivance of the game and the film are the same, but when gamers play, the concept of “reliving” the past is thrown to the wind as they mash their Xbox and Playstation joysticks — to control the outcome of their adventures directly.

Now, if you want to get your mind in a twist, think about how Avatar and X-Men: Days of Future Past worked…and how The Lego Movie almost didn’t work.

Does your story’s concept lend itself to dramatic tension? 

Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Shaun Of The Dead [So, What’s The Plan?] https://thestorydepartment.com/shaun-of-the-dead/ https://thestorydepartment.com/shaun-of-the-dead/#comments Fri, 16 Dec 2016 23:36:02 +0000 http://thestorydepartment.com/?p=233656 I totally love Shaun Of The Dead (2004). It’s not just a great horror spoof; it’s a bloody great movie. And its clarity has much to do with it. Zombies have long formed their own, important sub-genre in movies. The genre started with White Zombie back in 1932, and it keeps going strong. Today, it seems that the undead have a higher survival rate ...

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I totally love Shaun Of The Dead (2004). It’s not just a great horror spoof; it’s a bloody great movie. And its clarity has much to do with it.

Zombies have long formed their own, important sub-genre in movies. The genre started with White Zombie back in 1932, and it keeps going strong.

Today, it seems that the undead have a higher survival rate at the box office than many other genres. One of my recent favourites was the Korean master piece Train To Busan (2016).

Remove The Head, Destroy The Brain

Zombie pictures rarely cross over into mainstream territory, and this is what made Shaun Of The Dead special. It was produced in the year my son was born, and 12 years later we watched it together. We had a ball. The ultimate father/son bonding movie.

Shaun Of The Dead - Ed an ShaunShaun is a classic that defies pigeonholing, and it transcends style. It satisfies the staunchest fan of the genre, as well as those who have never seen any of Shaun’s zombie predecessors.

Among others, it pays homage to the movies of George A. Romero, easily the most revered zombie writer/director in cinema history.

Apparently Romero was so impressed with Shaun that he asked filmmakers Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright to appear for zombie cameos in Land of the Dead (2005), the fourth part in Romero’s Dead series.

How To Make Zombies Go Viral

For reasons other than a recent zombie outbreak, super slacker Shaun is pushed out of his comfort zone. He has to get his girlfriend back, kill his mum’s boyfriend, and make it to the pub alive. Or, as the IMDB logline states in a rare example of clarity:

A man decides to turn his moribund life around by winning back his ex-girlfriend, reconciling his relationship with his mother, and dealing with an entire community that has returned from the dead to eat the living.

It gives us the goals, the circumstances/stakes, and the theme.

When a logline works, it often promises a well-structured, easily-remembered story, and this is exactly what Shaun Of The Dead delivers.

Filmmakers tend to underestimate the value of a simple logline, reflecting a clear structure. They think it makes the film feel predictable, or it dumbs things down. You know why a short, crystal-clear logline is so important?

It makes word of mouth a piece of cake.

After seeing the movie, my 12-year old could summarise the essence of the story in once sentence. That’s how successful movie marketing works.

Don’t get me wrong: you still need to deliver a brilliant movie. But the masses will do the viral campaigning for you.

shaun of the dead - liz and friends

Avoiding Death By Slackers

Shaun impersonates the perfect transformational character, forced to go on a mission that would be impossible for his normal self.

Early in the story, his girlfriend Liz paints the picture of where he is going with his life: “Look, if I don’t do something, I’m gonna end up in that pub every night for the rest of my life like those other sad old fuckers, drinking myself to death wondering what the hell happened.”

Shaun needs to grow up, let go of the friend who enables his immaturity, and settle with Liz… if he doesn’t want to lose her.

In a mythological sense, he will also need to kill his father, so he can enter the realm of masculine adulthood. And all the while, he is metaphorically surrounded by the threat of death by slackers.

The first act runs for about 35 minutes, yet it doesn’t drag. The zombie outbreak gives it tension, and the Wright/Pegg dialogue and editing gives it pace. As a result, the shortish second act feels nice and tight, too.

shaun of the dead - the gang

Shaun Of The Dead – Break Into 2

In the scene/sequence that concludes Act One, Shaun gives us an exact rundown of what he needs to achieve in the movie. It could be a rehearsal for the movie’s pitch, edited in the signature snappy Edgar Wright style.

But before we get to this sequence, Ed calls into the phone: “We’re coming to get you, Barbara!”

The irony is that George A. Romero, who was given a private viewing of the film, was oblivious to the fact that this line was copied literally from his own film Night of the Living Dead (1968). He only found out later after a phone conversation with Wright.

What follows is fabulous storytelling. We first see the events as they should happen, but with each next version, Shaun shows an increasingly flawed response to the various calls to adventure.

On the last shot of the sequence, we know where the story really should not, but might well end: the Winchester.

-Karel Segers

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High Concept Movie Ideas [How To Identify And Improve Them] https://thestorydepartment.com/high-concept-movie-ideas/ https://thestorydepartment.com/high-concept-movie-ideas/#comments Fri, 09 Dec 2016 12:07:04 +0000 http://thestorydepartment.com/?p=233557 The greatest movie ideas are high concept. That’s what they say. Then, they waffle a definition of what high concept means. The discussion ends soon thereafter. What Is High Concept? True high concept ideas make a ton of money at the box office. So you want to know how to come up with that high concept, right? Well let’s start with the ...

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The greatest movie ideas are high concept. That’s what they say. Then, they waffle a definition of what high concept means. The discussion ends soon thereafter.

What Is High Concept?

True high concept ideas make a ton of money at the box office. So you want to know how to come up with that high concept, right? Well let’s start with the definition of the thing.

A high concept idea is an idea that is high concept.

We didn’t get very far, clearly.

It sounds like the guy who tells you to just tell a good story.

Some will claim that a particular idea is high concept, while others dispute it. A look at the box office results of so-called high concept movies will only add to the confusion.

Being John Malkovich was really high concept, right?

A puppeteer discovers a portal that leads literally into the head of movie star John Malkovich.

Truly original! Don’t you want to see that? Well, it only did $22m worldwide.

A title like Mars Needs Moms may smell like high concept, but despite its $150m production budget, it is known as one of the biggest flops. Oh, and speaking of Mars… Remember John Carter? 

People have written about high concept that it has mass audience appeal, and that you immediately see the potential.

Most filmmakers looking for production money will try to tell you that their movie has mass appeal. Every writer sees the potential in their script. Then, how do you set the benchmark? Go out on the street and ask everyone?

Another problem with high concept is that it dates easily. Bruce Almighty worked fine, but Evan Almighty bombed. In their time, Top GunJaws and Die Hard were big high concept movies. Today, they’re still solid movies, but … high concept??

I think we should put the high concept discussion aside for a moment. It’s not getting us anywhere.

Let’s take a more tangible approach.

The Holy Trinity

screen-shot-2016-11-21-at-12-38-37-pm

Successful concepts start from a clear, simple and original event, something we had never seen in movies before. Next follows a clear action to be taken by the character(s) in response to this event.

You may be able to sell such a concept with just this event and action to an audience, without focusing on the character too much. However, it is impossible to properly assess, let alone develop your idea without having a razor sharp idea of your central character.

After all, before you can distinguish between events (what happens to a character) and actions (what a character does), you need to establish who exactly the character is through whose eyes we look at the story (the POV).

I want you to read that sentence again, because it is at the core of what I’m trying to say.

Done? Okay, let’s look at the other two key components.

Event: In Groundhog Day, Phil gets stuck in a time loop, Back To The Future teleports Marty back to the time when his parents were his age, and Snakes On A Plane … you get it.

The educated will have noticed that the Event is in fact the story’s Inciting Incident, or Call To Adventure.

Action: In Finding Nemo, Marlin has to cross an ocean to save his son, and the heroes in Jurassic Park have to fight a T-Rex. These actions constitute most of the movie’s runtime, or all of what we call Act Two (and some of Act Three).

Character, Event, Action

You need both a major event and a clear action for your concept to work. Getting stuck in the same day (Groundhog Day) is a cool event, but the character needs a goal for the story to move forward. And because we don’t know how the spell can be broken, a new clear goal is introduced: to get the girl.

Back To The Future has both a highly original event (being transported to 1955), and two solid actions/goals for Marty: to get his parents together, and return to 1985. Snakes On A Plane IS the Event, or more specifically: the discovery of the snakes. The action/goal couldn’t be clearer: to survive and contain/kill them.

The story of Finding Nemo really starts when Nemo is taken by the divers (the event), and the movie’s action is in the title. Again, it can’t be any clearer. In Jurassic Park, once the T-Rex gets out (the event), we know the movie will only be over when our heroes make it off the island alive (the action/goal).

Let’s divert for a second before getting to our conclusion.

Snakes and stakes

You may have learned that there need to be high stakes. True. However, in the strongest concepts the stakes are implied. Snakes on a plane means all passengers could die, as there’s nowhere to run.

In Gravity, there’s no need to explain that Ryan (Bullock) will face a horrible fate if she keeps falling to earth. We don’t need to clarify that Thelma and Louise will spend life in jail if they’re caught, or that Don Cobb in Inception will be miserable if he never gets to see his kids again – or spend eternity in limbo.

Often you will have both positive and negative stakes. In other words, the main character will gain something from achieving the goal (Cobb will see his kids) or they will lose something if they don’t (his freedom: he’ll be stuck in limbo).

And don’t be mistaken: a positive stake is only positive if they didn’t have it at the start of the movie.

The Third Element

When you come up with an idea, it is rarely fully shaped, containing all three elements. So even before you launch into development of the story, let alone the script, you need to lock in character, event and action.

Some people prefer diving into a draft, and figuring it out as they go along, but this approach may take a lot longer than is necessary.

Let’s see if you get the point. Look at the following random ideas, and figure out what they are lacking.

  1. a girl wakes up with a third eye that allows her to see 5 seconds into the future
  2. a firefighter must contain all patients in a hospital, or a deadly virus will end the world
  3. new science shows that mankind has only 60 days to turn around global warming

Here is how these ideas rate in terms of the three required elements:

  1. There is a character and an event, but no action. What will the heroine DO with her gift? That’s the Action.
  2. We have a character and an action, but we don’t know how the situation originated. What is the Event?
  3. There’s a major event, and a (somewhat vague) action, but there is no Character.

Needless to say that the characters in example 1 and 2, are fairly nondescript. By brainstorming these characters in further detail, you may find the missing third element. Or vice versa: once you have found the missing third part, this may help you build a meatier character.

You Must Remember This

The bottom line is that none of the three ideas above qualify as valid movie concepts, let alone high concept. This is exactly why Being John Malkovich failed. The only strong part of that concept was the event. I have seen the movie twice, and I can’t even remember what the main action was, if any… I remember that the POV shifted a few times.

Not every idea with these 3 components is necessarily high concept, but you’ll find that every high concept does have them. So this allows you to eliminate – or improve what you have.

Different writers have different approaches, but I recommend that before you consider a concept for development, your first job would be to make sure your idea contains all three elements: character, event and action.

Once you pass this test, let the discussion begin about how great your idea really is.

-Karel Segers

 

 

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Fantastic Story Ideas [And Where To Find Them] https://thestorydepartment.com/great-story-ideas/ https://thestorydepartment.com/great-story-ideas/#respond Thu, 08 Dec 2016 00:10:40 +0000 http://thestorydepartment.com/?p=233158 This post is about fantastic story ideas, not just any story idea. It is about finding the gems, and not settling for the duds. Tomorrow I will help you assess those ideas. Today we will talk about how and where to find them. I have worked in the creative industries for over 30 years now, and I can tell a wannabe from a pro, mostly. ...

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This post is about fantastic story ideas, not just any story idea. It is about finding the gems, and not settling for the duds. Tomorrow I will help you assess those ideas. Today we will talk about how and where to find them.

I have worked in the creative industries for over 30 years now, and I can tell a wannabe from a pro, mostly. In some cases, the origin of their story ideas hints at what type you’re dealing with.

Let’s look at three ways of acquiring ideas; in a next post I’ll show you how to quickly assess them on their validity and merit.

The shower lightbulb

story ideas under the showerThis is one of the most common, but at the same time most dangerous happenings to the creative: You come up with this amazing story idea in an instant, and know it must be made.

Whether it hits you in the shower, in your dream or in the car; in that single moment, you are super inspired. You see and feel the movie, right there projected against your mental screen.

The experience won’t go away easily, and you may chase the story idea for a long time… Sometimes even years.

This is also how amateurs work (or don’t work).

I like to argue that if you can come up with story ideas just like that, without effort, there is a fair chance that you find more and better ideas if you consciously create the circumstances for this to happen, frequently.

Here is where we dive into the Ideas Cave.

The Ideas Cave

story ideas in the caveThis is the place you go to brainstorm; your private, creative space where everything is possible. With minimal effort, you generate tons of rough story ideas, for later review. It’s about allowing everything, and not criticising anything.

I’d trust a cave idea a million times over its shower sibling. We love the shower idea, because it is given to us unexpectedly, and we didn’t have to pay with our time. But because we didn’t have to spend time or effort doesn’t necessarily make it better.

You go into the cave with a mission. You’re after a million story ideas, not just one. And you’re not just after great ideas; any idea will do. Because right now you won’t know whether these story ideas are any good. That’s going to be your next step.

Now, how to unleash your inner creative in the cave?

Each writer finds their own best way of generating ideas. In essence, this is similar to overcoming writer’s block. Some people start from character, story actions, or story events. Others just write stuff down, and see what happens.

In any case, when you think you’ve brainstormed enough, you’ve probably only just scratched the surface.

Over the years, I have found that those students who are working on projects consistently, are also the ones who have a regimen of brainstorming ideas frequently.

Why don’t you resolve to make time for this, every day.

Even if you sit down for only 15 minutes per day, that’s 90 hours over the year.

Inherited Treasures

inherited story ideas

Perhaps you’re lucky enough that someone has given you a writing assignment. Or you’ve optioned that novel you read and loved so much.

You didn’t come up with the story idea, but you have the honour (or duty) of developing it into a successful script. You are taking the story off someone else’s hands, and you are making it yours.

If adaptation is your thing, perhaps you should make time every day to look for story ideas to adopt and adapt.

Looking at the high proportion of adapted screenplays that make it to the box office, this seems to be a great approach to look for your story treasures.

All that glitters is not gold, though.

Story Ideas That Suck

You wouldn’t be the first writer to find out, week, months, even years into development, that the treasure was a fake. The concept doesn’t work. The story idea is dead.

The key is to identify this as early as possible. Not during your brainstorming process, but soon after.

I can hear you ask “How can you tell what works and what doesn’t“?

The answer is: you don’t.

However, I know a very effective process to eliminate ideas that mostly likely won’t work, and improve the ones that are almost perfect.

This secret I will reveal to you in a next post.

-Karel Segers

 

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Westworld (1973) [About Structural Malfunctionings] https://thestorydepartment.com/westworld-structural-malfunctionings/ https://thestorydepartment.com/westworld-structural-malfunctionings/#comments Sun, 20 Nov 2016 06:05:07 +0000 http://thestorydepartment.com/?p=233458 When HBO launched the eponymous TV show, I took the opportunity to discover Westworld, the movie. The directorial debut of writer-director Michael Crichton has always been a part of pop culture, yet despite being a fan of Jurassic Park and reading a few Crichton novels, I never knew about Westworld. So I didn’t get the Simpson’s scene where Principal Skinner chases Bart in The ...

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When HBO launched the eponymous TV show, I took the opportunity to discover Westworld, the movie. The directorial debut of writer-director Michael Crichton has always been a part of pop culture, yet despite being a fan of Jurassic Park and reading a few Crichton novels, I never knew about Westworld.

So I didn’t get the Simpson’s scene where Principal Skinner chases Bart in The Boy Who Knew Too Much (1994), let alone the episode Itchy & Scratchy Land from the same year.

The Original Terminatorwestworld movie poster

Michael Crichton wrote the novel that Steven Spielberg turned into Jurassic Park (1993), which is essentially the same story as Westworld if you substitute dinosaurs for people. When Malcolm (Goldblum) in that movie says the “Pirates didn’t come to life and kill people”, he is obviously referencing Westworld. Another one I had missed.

A major character in this film – and in our clip below – is The Gunslinger (Yul Brynner). As homage to The Magnificent Seven, he wears the same outfit as in the Sturgess western: all black, like the TV version’s Man In Black.

The fans often refer to the Gunslinger as the original Terminator. Schwarzenegger reportedly based his performance on Brynner’s. You get it: for an overall better entertainment experience, watch Westworld. You’ll definitely have more fun if you watch the HBO show after savouring this feature.

Have We Got A Vacation For You

The movie did well at the box office. It cost only $1.5m to produce, made nearly three times that amount during its first release, and it took even more during the re-release a few years later.

You wouldn’t think this success came as a surprise, given the terrific high concept. Nobody had seen anything like this before: a thousand-dollar-a-day resort where people go on a holiday to act out their forbidden primal desires. Then, of course, things get out of control.

The truth is: despite the great concept, Crichton struggled to get it financed, the film was troubled with all sorts of production nightmares and the story doesn’t really hold up very well today.

Even back then, writer/director Crichton completely re-edited the first cut of the movie because he was depressed by how “long and boring” it was.

After Westworld, he learned a thing or two about basic screen story structure.

westworld's pure scifi

Westworld’s Structural Malfunctionings

[SPOILERS] Westworld’s realism, its tremendous attention for detail, and its slow build reminded me of 2001 A Space Odyssey.

It seems Crichton wanted it to look like pure sci-fi. If you can appreciate this, and you can transport yourself back to the 1970’s, you’ll enjoy the movie. If you prefer fast-paced however, skip straight to HBO.

malfunctioning rattlesnake in westworldUntil the movie’s mid point, nothing really happens that is out of the ordinary in Westworld. In fact, the encounter with a malfunctioning rattlesnake is the real (and much overdue) Call To Adventure. How so?

Everything before this moment really belongs to the world our characters have been in during the entire movie. As long as it is functioning properly, the resort is the movie’s Ordinary World.

Doesn’t Anything Work Around Here?

A strong Call to Adventure (CTA) is an event that has never happened before, that has an impact on the main character, and that calls for action. It is always an Event happening to the hero, never an Action by the hero.

Here, in response to this CTA, our heroes should no longer trust the safety of the park, and the appropriate action would be to leave.

Remember Jurassic Park? That structure worked. When you’re developing a feature, it is always helpful to find successful precedents with a similar concept, and study their structure.

westworld - malfunctioning hostTo make a screen story work for today’s audiences, the story catalyst should sit at least half an hour earlier.

Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, creators of the HBO’s show understood this, and introduced the inciting incident/CTA (the first on-screen malfunctioning ‘host’) within the first half hour of Episode 1.

Bring In The Gunslinger

Apparently Yul Brynner was one of only two actors in Hollywood who wouldn’t blink during the firing of a gun. Okay, that’s a piece of totally useless trivia, but still fun(*).

In this clip from Westworld, Brynner delivers an extraordinary blend of cowboy cool, and techno cold. “Get this boy a bib,” he taunts Peter (Richard Benjamin)… “He needs his mama.”

The moment is retained in the TV series, when one of the heroes spurs the other on to start a fight. They’re invincible anyway… Even though we know that the Gunslinger’s bullet can’t hurt our heroes, the tension is palpable…

Oh, and in case you were wondering, yes that is indeed Christian Bale who traveled back in time to play John Blane (James Brolin).

-Karel Segers

(* the other one: Clint Eastwood)

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The Mid Point Pit Stop [Because Your Screenplay Is Too Long] https://thestorydepartment.com/mid-point-pit-stop/ https://thestorydepartment.com/mid-point-pit-stop/#respond Sun, 06 Nov 2016 13:28:46 +0000 http://thestorydepartment.com/?p=233359 In the early days of cinema, the feature presentation contained two parts, with an intermission halfway, at the mid point. The audience would stretch their legs, visit the bathroom and buy more popcorn. In fact, we didn’t buy popcorn back then. An ice cream vendor walked the aisles, and sold what I remember to be the best ice cream I have ever tasted in the ...

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In the early days of cinema, the feature presentation contained two parts, with an intermission halfway, at the mid point. The audience would stretch their legs, visit the bathroom and buy more popcorn. In fact, we didn’t buy popcorn back then. An ice cream vendor walked the aisles, and sold what I remember to be the best ice cream I have ever tasted in the world – ever.

The ice cream vendor disappeared. Not because we didn’t like ice cream any longer. No, cinemas made more money selling popcorn instead, as the markup of popcorn is 900-1200%.

Then the intermission disappeared.

Couldn’t we wait for the second half? Well, the truth is: exhibitors earned more by adding an extra session. Suddenly, movies just seemed a whole lot longer… except those with a strong mid point.

If you study that halfway point in the greatest movies, you will learn that it is almost always the most dramatic moment, second only to the story’s finale.

You will also find that the mid points from different films have a lot in common.

The Mid Point Pit Stop

Often around the halfway point, the action moves to a location that looks very different from the rest of the story. It feels refreshing, a little like an intermission.

  • The Untouchables Mid PointAt the mid point of The Untouchables, we leave Chicago temporarily, and instead of the urban cityscape, we are now watching a mountainous view near the Canadian border.
  • At the mid point of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest(*), we leave the confined space of the mental asylum to go on a boat for a short fishing trip. This gives us a strong sense of freedom, an important theme in the film.
  • At the mid point of The Queen, we leave London for a short stay at Balmoral in the Scottish highlands. Here, the Queen seems to enjoy her relief from the pressures that are haunting her in London.
  • This one may sound a little far-fetched but I still like it… At the mid point of Die Hard, John McClane throws a body through the window, and for the first time since he entered the Nakatomi building, we are getting some fresh air through the hole in the window.

one_flew_over_the_cuckoos_nest_fishing_trip-copy(*) During Milosz Forman’s commentary on One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, he explains that he considered cutting the fishing trip from the movie. He ended up keeping it, because the shorter version actually felt longer.

This is one of the functions of the mid point: it gives the audience a break, before venturing into what is often the darker half of the film.

This break is mostly an emotional high point. The hero achieves something important. It may even seem as if they have reached the story goal. If they haven’t, at least it seems within reach.

Then, however… the tide turns.

Reversal Of Fortune

Rapidly, the upbeat vibe changes, as the hero learns that things are not what they seemed. Instead of celebrating a victory, they realise that the target has moved. The road is still a lot longer and more dangerous than was initially hoped. The mood drops.

In many great movies, the Mid Point Reversal (MPR) consists of these two distinct beats: an upbeat moment of victory/achievement, followed by a downbeat moment of realisation/disappointment. This mood flip forms only the first aspect of the MPR: the Reversal of Fortune.

As a result of this Reversal of Fortune, the character shows a Reversal of Action/Approach. Because it is such a critical part of well-told stories, I will focus on this in a little more detail in a later article.

Meanwhile, see if you can identify this +/- reversal around the halfway point of your favourite movies.

-Karel Segers

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