Nov 28, 2007


It's easy to underestimate the fantasy form, especially when it's a Disney family picture like Enchanted. But writer Bill Kelly knows his genre and its potential, especially when it's mixed with other forms.

Enchanted is really a combination of fantasy, fairy tale, romantic comedy, musical and the traveling angel story. That's a lot of forms, which is why this film is more complicated than it appears. Most writers trying to mix all those genres end up with a structural mess. Too many heroes, too many desire lines, too many story beats and so on. But Kelly makes it work.

One reason for the film's success is that Kelly has combined genres that work well together. Fantasy and musical have very similar thematic underpinnings. Both are about learning how to live well, which they define as forming a community. Love stories are about creating a community of two. The traveling angel story concerns a (usually) perfect person who enters a community in trouble and sets it right.

Now all of this thematic unity doesn't change the fact that mixing so many forms is tricky. Kelly starts by establishing the foundation of the story, which is the fantasy and fairy tale opening world. Though an apparent utopia, the world has a big flaw, which is the jealous queen. And the princess, though apparently perfect and about to be married, has a flaw as well. She has no emotional depth and therefore is about to marry the wrong person. One of the nice touches here is that the audience is no more aware of this at the beginning than is the princess. The viewer, having seen decades of Disney films, is as caught up in the promise of fairy tale life as the princess is. But this weakness is crucial because it creates the need in one of the lovers that is essential for a good love story.

With the foundation set, the heroine travels to the second, fantastical world. Ironically this film flips the beat and makes the second world all too real, modern day New York. But for the Princess it is a nightmare, a dystopia, and, true to the fantasy form, it is where the heroine will learn her great life lesson. It is also where the traveling angel plot kicks in. Using music and her own boundless, fairy tale optimism, she begins to help the characters who are in trouble and turns the cold New Yorkers in Central Park into a utopian community.

This is also where the love story line resumes. The man who helps her out has his own weakness and need. He's a single dad who doesn't believe in love. He needs to feel love again, for himself and his daughter. From this point on the film plays out the key beats of the fantasy, love story and traveling angel story. One of the fun aspects of modern fairy tales is seeing how the writer comes up with modern equivalents of fairly tale elements, like transformations, spells and kingdoms. For example, when the Princess finds herself in need of a fairy godmother, the daughter pulls out the greatest wish fulfiller of all time, dad's credit card.

Hollywood blockbuster films are all about mixing genres. Even pleasant little children's stories are more difficult than they appear, because they usually require a lot of forms. If you are interested in modernizing a fairy tale - which is a very successful story strategy - check out the Great Screenwriting Class. For fantasy, of course, go to the Horror, Fantasy and Science Fiction Class or the Fantasy Software. You can learn Romantic Comedy in the Love Story Class or Software, or in the Comedy Class or Software. I explain the ever-popular Traveling Angel story in the Comedy Class and Software.

Above all, try to combine forms that work well together. In Enchanted, writer Bill Kelly shows the tremendous advantage that comes from knowing your craft.

Nov 9, 2007

American Gangster

The gangster story, like the Western, is a quintessentially American genre. And, in many ways, it is the opposite of the Western. The Western is about the taming of the frontier and the making of a nation. It values individual initiative through hard work and playing by the rules, along with material wealth and the spirit that comes from community. The gangster story bemoans the corruption of the American Dream. It shows individual initiative through illegal means, a corrupt, paranoid community and a success that is defined only through wealth.

The gangster genre is really a form of crime story, and when you write one you need to be very aware of this larger context and deeper theme. It is all about how an individual succeeds in American society. Knowing this allows you to tell a larger tale. And it prevents the audience from distancing themselves from your story by saying, "Oh, that's just a bunch of foreigners killing each other in some pocket on American soil."

Writer Steve Zaillian knows this larger context, which is why he can justifiably call this story of a black drug lord American Gangster. True to the form, he uses the story structure of the rise and fall of a king. Frank Lucas is the American businessman gone bad, and the fact that he is black is relevant only in that he represents the latest ethnic group in America to take this dark path to success.

But Zaillian isn't content to simply twist the gangster form by using a black main character. He tries to expand the scope of his story by using the larger crime genre. This is a broad category of stories - with gangster as one of the sub-genres - that focuses on the battle between cop and criminal. Ironically, Zaillian's choice only serves to diminish the scope and power of the film.

Crime stories derive much of their pleasure from two main elements: the plot machinations between the cop and the criminal and the blending of moralities by which the cop and the criminal live their lives. The first element is almost non-existent in this story. Frank's rise to power is unique only in his use of US Army personnel to bring his heroin from Southeast Asia. Cop Richie Roberts uses techniques that have been standard on TV crime shows for years.

This weakness in plot puts a serious dent in the dramatic power of the film, because it also means there is not enough mano-a-mano. There's none of the pleasure of Heat or The French Connection here. Frank and Richie, played by two powerhouse actors, have essentially one confrontation in the entire film. It's a good one, but it only highlights how much direct confrontation is missing in the rest of the movie.

The writer's choice of having two central but separate characters takes an even greater toll on the other key element of the crime story, the moral blend. We normally think of cop and criminal at two opposite extremes of the moral spectrum. A good crime story will use the battle between these two characters to show that the moral difference between them is much more ambiguous.

Zaillian shows the moral contradictions within each of these characters individually. One of the reasons the classic gangster story is fascinating is that the gangster holds two wildly different moralities within his own head. On the one hand, Frank believes in family, integrity, and professionalism. He also believes in selling dope and killing people who get in his way. The gangster's ability to compartmentalize these impossibly different ways of living is one of the great examples of the human mind's almost infinite ability to rationalize.

Cop Richie is pretty good at compartmentalizing his morality as well. He turns in a million dollars of corrupt money and goes after dirty cops, but he's also a bad husband and father. An ongoing dramatic confrontation between these two men could have produced a deeper look at what is truly moral and immoral in American society. But it never happens.

Instead, the most interesting aspects of these characters and their real moral contrast come at the end of the film, in written epilogue. Richie, the incorruptible cop who brings down kingpin Frank and three fourths of the cops in the narcotics division, switches from prosecutor to defense attorney, and his first client is Frank. He succeeds in getting Frank only fifteen years in prison. But we've already seen that Frank has not only destroyed hundreds of lives through his drug running, he is a cold-blooded killer.

When I read that my eyes popped out of my head. And I wondered, Where's that movie? This script just started getting interesting on the last page.

Nov 1, 2007

Dan in Real Life

Romantic comedy is one of the most contrived of all genres. It's literally a complex mating dance with prescribed story beats designed to allow the audience to feel the love the characters share. Which is why it is essential that you execute the form well enough so you don't let the contrivance, the mechanics, show.

Another word for story beats is plot. And lack of plot is the biggest problem writers of love stories have. Plot is what creates the magic in a story. It's the slight of hand, and mind, that delights the audience. It's also the structure that everything else hangs on. So when it is missing or obvious, especially in a romantic comedy, the story collapses and the audience realizes the magic is fake.

Dan in Real Life is the story of an advice columnist who falls in love with his brother's girlfriend at a family get-together. But this is not real life. Dan's parents live in a rustic little mansion by the shore. And his extended family has apparently won the Happiest Family on Earth Award. These people love each other so much that they spend their entire vacation in one uproarious communal activity after another.

The audience may well wish they lived in a family like this. But it is so far removed from reality that it becomes mechanical. The love between the characters is obviously being manufactured by the actors, because it has never been earned in the writing. And that makes the supposed love between the two leads seem manufactured as well.

But the biggest problem with this sequence of communal love scenes is that it kills the plot. The big reveal - that Dan has fallen for his brother's girlfriend - is in the opening set up. The rest of the movie repeats the same beat of yet another family get-together where everyone is having incredible fun but Dan. On those few occasions when the entire family isn't having fun, they are all gathered around in a kind of intervention/group therapy session helping Dan get his emotions and morals right.

Oct 20, 2007

28 Days Later

Horror is consistently the most popular of all genres. And it is the cheapest type of film to make, so it is the form of choice for indie writers and directors. The problem is that horror is also the lowest form, typically devoid of story. So the question becomes: How do you write a horror script unique enough to sell that will also set you apart as a talented storyteller?

To answer that question I took a look at one of the best horror films of recent years, 28 Days Later. Writer Alex Garland succeeds by knowing the form so well he is able to twist some of the key beats to give the traditional zombie story new life.

Mastering the horror genre is more difficult than it appears. You may be surprised to learn that it has more specialized story beats than any other form. So while horror is usually done in the most simplistic way possible - as a killing machine on a rampage - it doesn't have to be.

Horror always shows people being reduced, to an animal or a machine, the lowest levels a person can become short of death. In effect, this genre shows us human devolution. Horror puts character under the most extreme pressure of any form. So it focuses totally on one emotion, fear.

Bad horror plays that one note of fear again and again, and the story is nothing more than permissible sadism. Good horror takes this reduction of characters and makes it positive. It asks: What is human? And can this human quality be maintained in a world where everyone is desperate and induced to be an animal, ie going beyond even immoral behavior to amoral behavior? In short, good horror creates a recognizable human world where people are morally tested in the extreme.

The writer of 28 Days Later understands the crucial requirements of good horror, and he executes them within the parameters of a low budget film. In the set-up, the hero, Jim, wakes up from a coma to find himself in an empty, trashed hospital. Outside, the streets of London are just as deserted. He's walking around in a giant ghost town (no extras to run up this budget).

After meeting up with a couple of other survivors, Jim learns the rules of this new world. Stating the rules of the world is one of the specialized story beats in horror, not only because it tells the hero how to survive in this unique horror world, but also because it suggests to the audience how humanity will be tested. Here, there are two rules: 1, never go anywhere alone and 2, only travel in daylight. One of the survivors, Selena, tells Jim, "Plans are pointless. Staying alive is as good as it gets." This is not only the key line in this film, it is the key line in any horror film. From now on, we will see if human behavior is possible or if base animal survival is all we really are.

Garland quickly gives his survivors a desire line, which is to reach a makeshift military outpost some miles away. The characters go on a journey where they defeat a number of attacking zombies. This is typical horror -- giving the audience a few terrifying fights -- and pays the dues of the form.

But then Garland kicks the story up to a higher level, and the film becomes much more interesting. The hero and his allies reach the outpost, a fortified English mansion, and apparent safety. But of course this is another of horror's unique story beats: the place of final refuge is actually the place of greatest horror (for a breakdown of all 15 story beats, see the Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction Class or the Blockbuster Horror Software). Our hero soon learns that the platoon plans to rape the women and when he protests, they take him off to be murdered.

Now Garland can compare two kinds of animal: the zombies may be rabid dogs but the soldiers are merciless pack animals who have chosen to discard their humanity in a totally rational, pre-meditated way. A storm hits and the mansion becomes a kind of haunted house where a battle rages between the hero, the soldiers and the zombies. And it becomes impossible to tell who is the most savage.

A lot of horror is laughably silly. But don't underestimate this form. It is the best strategy for writing a breakthrough script. And if you learn the genre well enough, you can write a horror picture that is a powerful, and respected, piece of storytelling.

Oct 18, 2007

Michael Clayton

With Michael Clayton, writer Tony Gilroy proves once again that he is a master of the thriller form. As the author of the Bourne films, Gilroy took the action thriller to a new level, a feat made even more impressive by the fact that he was writing a trilogy. Now he has seamlessly connected the thriller genre to the social drama, and that may be an even greater accomplishment.

Stories about corporate malfeasance are quite common, and when they are done as straight social drama they are usually dull. Writers typically try to up the excitement by turning the story into a courtroom battle. While this approach gives the story suspense near the end, it does nothing to relieve the plodding steps leading up to the battle.

That's where the thriller comes in. This form makes the entire story a crisis, with the hero in great danger throughout. Sounds like a good idea. But combining thriller with social drama is not easy. These forms are about as far from each other as two forms can be. Thriller is rushed. Drama is deliberate. Thriller keeps everything obscure until the big reveal. Drama lays out all sides of the issue in discussion.

Gilroy uses all kinds of techniques in this script that show he is a master storyteller. Let's look at two that are especially important if you want to write a good thriller. The first has to do with the need of the hero. A good thriller establishes the weakness-need of the main character (the first major story structure step) and then connects it with the crime or case the hero must solve. When writing your thriller, always begin by making a one-to-one connection between the lead character and the crime. This allows you to give the audience a double success: the hero solves his personal problem and accomplishes the action line at the same time. It also allows you to play out the larger theme of the story through the personal struggle of the main character.

Through quick but precise brush strokes, Gilroy establishes that Michael is a purposeless man. He has a gambling problem, he is $85,000 in debt (from trusting his brother), and he's a "janitor" lawyer. He does fix-it jobs for his firm, cleaning up the mess when someone screws up. He is assigned a case in which one of the firm's lawyers has a crisis of conscience involving a client company whose use of pesticides may have killed a number of people. As the case plays out, it becomes clear that all the characters have some flaw at work that is crippling their lives. The lead attorney for the company, Karen, is obsessed with success. Michael's boss, Marty, has always known the case was dirty, and is desperate to make a merger go through before any dirt comes to light. Everyone's life is way out of balance. But the mantra they all repeat to themselves is "I'm just doing my job."

Notice that the main plot line having to do with a company in which everyone was just doing their job is expressed in the psychological flaw of not only the hero but all the minor characters as well. Even more important, each character is a variation on the central moral problem of the hero and the company. This is one of the marks of an advanced thriller.

A second technique that Gilroy handles beautifully has to do with plot. Most writers have great difficulty constructing a good thriller plot. That's because the thriller hero is always under intense assault. The opponent tends to be all-powerful, knocking the hero back on the defensive. Result: a passive hero and a weak plot.

For a good thriller plot, you have to balance an active hero investigating the case with an aggressive opposition that puts the hero in constant danger. This is a very tricky balance to maintain. A hero who is too forceful going after the desire line doesn't make the audience fear for his or her safety. An opposition that is too aggressive paralyzes the hero and stops the plot.

In Michael Clayton, Gilroy knows just how to strike the right balance. He uses a flashback structure, rare in thrillers, so that he can jumpstart the story with a car bomb. This tells the audience that Michael is in grave danger and will be for the entire film. The writer can then go on with a quieter part of the story in which Michael is actively seeking his desire line and driving the plot.

Gilroy also breaks from the usual thriller technique of staying within the hero's point of view, which makes it unclear if the apparent opponent is really guilty. By occasionally cutting to the opposition, he shows that the opponent is indeed extremely deadly and that Michael is blithely walking into a trap. As a result, Michael continues to drive the plot while generating even more fear in the audience who sees just how much danger he's in.

If you're interested in writing the thriller form, study Michael Clayton to see how a top screenwriter accomplishes the rare feat of effectively weaving social drama with thriller.

Sep 15, 2007

30 Rock

30 Rock just pulled off a big upset by winning the Emmy for best sitcom. No matter what you think of the result, this represents a stunning improvement over the show's initial start. Let's see why.

I wrote my previous breakdown of 30 Rock after watching their first episode, a big mistake for them and for me. In the first episode, show runner Liz ran all over the city looking for movie comedy star Tracy so he could head the cast of her Saturday Night Live-like show. Sitcoms require a large number of comic oppositions, which play off each other in rapid succession and which can generate comedy for at least 100 episodes. By taking the story out of the studio arena, the 30 Rock writers not only reduced the show to one (fairly weak) comic opposition, they gave the audience the wrong impression of what a typical 30 Rock experience would entail.

Subsequent episodes became much more focused in the studio, and that allowed the writers to generate different comic oppositions between regular characters at a much faster pace. That move alone was worth plenty. But the biggest improvement came from a season-long effort to sharpen the comic differences between characters. The opposition between Liz (played by Tina Fey) and Jack (played by Alec Baldwin) continued to be the primary one, but it improved dramatically. The Jack character is terrific, and Baldwin plays it brilliantly. But if he has no one to work off of, this character is wasted. So the writers sharpened Liz, making her more of a "machine" comic, undercutting the over-the-top "crazies" on the show. Fey also stepped up her game noticeably as a comic actor.

Keeping the stories more within the studio arena also allowed the writers to heighten the secondary comic oppositions. For example, "child" comic Kenneth - the innocent, idealistic and totally naïve page - became a perfect foil for both Tracy and Jack. This was tremendously valuable. Those of you who wish to create sitcoms or simply write a good one, notice that every time you create a new valid comic opposition like this, you get a magnified benefit: the primary opposition doesn't have to carry the whole load, you have more available story turns and the comic density of the show increases.

Another comic opposition that improved over the course of the season was the one between Liz and Jenna (played by Jane Krakowski). The episode that featured Jenna getting in trouble talking about the war in Iraq was one of the funniest of the season and showed that she still has a lot of potential in her oppositions, especially with Jack.

Now that the writers have found their groove, look for the show to focus even more on the in-studio oppositions. 30 Rock may not be the best comedy on television - in my opinion, The Office is a notch above it - but it's one of the funniest in a long time and it's getting better.


Sitcoms don't have the stature they had ten years ago, but they are still the second biggest form in television. What's crucial to understand about a sitcom is its success doesn't come from a list of good jokes. It comes from the original set up of the show, from what makes the jokes possible.

Again, there are a large number of structural elements required to set up a sitcom successfully, with one of the most important being the oppositions within the community. In sitcoms, that opposition is comedic, and each one must be an essential comedic opposition that never disappears over the course of entire show.

By this standard, 30 Rock is in trouble. There aren't enough essential oppositions and I don't see how the ones they do have are going to last. The first opposition is between Liz (played by Tina Fey) and Tracy (played by Tracy Morgan). This has an obvious visual opposition, but not a comedic one. Liz occasionally cracks wise, but as a character she is not funny. She is not pompous, nor does she go to the other extreme of deadpan (like a Bill Murray, for example) needed to make other characters funny. Tracy is mildly over-the-top, but in a limited, one-note way.

The one comedic opposition that does work, between Liz and Jack (played by Alec Baldwin), will be hard to sustain. Jack is the pompous corporate bastard who is both a narcissist and a creative idiot. Even the tame Liz will be able to cut him down to size, only to see him re-inflate within seconds. But how often can this corporate honcho appear on the set and create havoc?

The real ongoing comedic oppositions on a show about Saturday Night Live should be within the cast and crew. But so far these characters, like the cat wrangler and the pretty, do-nothing receptionist, are defined by a single comic note. They may have an occasional funny line but they are not comic pillars. They do not stand in essential comic opposition with any other fundamental comic character.

30 Rock does have two real strengths: a number of funny lines and no laugh track. But neither of these can overcome the weakness of bad comic opposition. I'll keep watching, for a while at least, and hope they prove me wrong.

If you are interested in writing sitcoms, or creating a successful one, you'll find all the techniques in the Sitcom Writing Class and the Sitcom Blockbuster add-on.

Sep 1, 2007

Mad Men

Mad Men
is one of the best-written and most ambitious TV shows in some time. It is worth close study, not just for learning how to create a well-structured show but also how to write one that is truly original and potentially groundbreaking.

Story world, or arena, is one of the key structural elements in any TV drama (see the TV Drama Class for how to create this element, as well as the other essential structural elements of a successful show). It is where the story takes place and it usually exists within some specific arena that not only delineates a recognizable unit but also has a set of rules, activities and values that defines the characters.

One of the strengths of Mad Men is its story world. Instead of the usual arena of cops, lawyers, or doctors, Mad Men takes us into a Manhattan advertising agency in 1960. Besides being totally unique in TV, this story world is extremely detailed. And the detailing isn’t simply a matter of the set design, which is fabulous. It is written into every episode. The writers weave all manner of cultural icons of the late 50s-early 60s, including TV shows, ads, and fashion.

This has two great advantages. One is the pleasure of recognition. If you were a kid at that time, as I was, the show is a virtual time machine. And even if you weren’t, the authenticity and texture immerse you in the world and make you feel that “You are there!”

The other great advantage is that this past world tricks the audience into believing that this is how it really was back then. The first thing we notice when we see all of these details is how much the world has changed. Everybody smoked back then. The men were in charge and the women were all secretaries and housewives. That sets up the kicker. By first thinking how much we’ve changed, we then realize, with even more impact, all the ways we haven’t. This story, set in 1960, is really about today, or more exactly, the ways that human nature only puts on a new skin and the same fundamental challenges of creating a meaningful life must be faced by each of us, every moment of every day.

Another structural element that immediately jumps out at you if you want to create a TV show or write for one is the desire line. In Mad Men the desire that structures each episode is fairly nebulous, and that’s probably going to cut into the show’s popularity (I hope I’m wrong on this one). Desire is the main reason almost all TV shows are set in the cop, lawyer, and doctor arenas. These jobs give their shows a simple and repeatable desire line that tracks the episode every week. Catch the criminal. Win the case. Save the life. But of course this is extremely limiting. Most people don’t spend their daily lives solving crimes, prosecuting bad guys, and saving lives.

So while the desire line on this show may be more nebulous, it is far closer to what most Americans do in their daily lives. These Mad Men are in the business of selling, which, as Arthur Miller pointed out long ago, is the archetypal American action. But they aren’t selling a particular product. They’re selling desire, some image of the good life that, because it is a fabricated ideal, is always just out of reach.

Writer Matthew Weiner’s brilliant conception for this show is to connect the selling of desire to America to the personal and work lives of the ad men themselves. The ad men want the image of the good life in America that they are selling to be true, even if they intellectually make fun of the poor suckers out there who buy it. Main character Don Draper is handsome and talented, with a beautiful wife and two cute little kids. But he has some secrets he’s keeping – like a mistress in the city – and he feels a terrible void he has no idea how to shake. Draper is a master at manipulating desire and creating facades, so when he tries to live the promise for real, the “good life” falls apart in his hands.

We are in Far from Heaven and American Beauty territory here. And the second episode even had Draper give his own version of the Existentialist credo of Sartre and Camus that was seeping into pop culture during the late 50s (how’s that for a sweet detail on a TV show?). We’ll have to see whether Mad Men can extend beyond a few episodes without imploding. Besides the lack of a clean desire line, the subject of hollow suburban existence will make it extremely difficult for the writers to develop the show over the long term without beating a spiritually dead horse. In the meantime, I’m going to sit back and enjoy some great dramatic writing, and nowadays TV is the only place you’ll find it.

Aug 10, 2007

The Bourne Ultimatum

The Bourne Ultimatum is the best action film of the year and is a textbook case for how to write in this very popular form. Let's look at just a few of the techniques writers Tony Gilroy, Scott Burns, and George Nolfi use.

The first element that stands out in The Bourne Ultimatum is the hero's strong need. Need is the one of the seven major structure steps in any good story, and yet it is missing from most action films, where the hero is a paragon of virtue or a superhero. Thatâs a huge mistake, because need is what makes the story matter. Itâs personal, to the hero and to the audience. Need is what unifies a story under the surface, so the action film becomes more than just a series of stunts.

In The Bourne Ultimatum, the hero, Jason Bourne, has both a psychological and a moral need. Psychologically, he must figure out who he is. Morally, he feels deep guilt about all the people he has killed and must try to make amends. The psychological need has been present from the first Bourne film (and novel), and is indeed central to the high concept premise of the series. The moral need is unique to this film and makes the hero seem like a real person, in spite of his almost super-human fighting abilities.

A second major structural technique the writers use in this film is a double desire line laid over a single track. Normally you want to avoid two desire lines, because then you have two spines and the story falls apart. But here, the writers give Bourne two contradictory desires, to seek and avoid. He wants to find out who at the CIA has done this to him and he must avoid those same people because they are trying to kill him. This is a classic predicament: going after A makes it much more difficult to accomplish B; going after B makes it much more difficult to accomplish A. (Ironically this is the same technique used in creating the sitcom desire line).

Notice, instead of creating two separate desire lines, this technique creates a push-pull effect along a single track and places the hero under extreme pressure. It also gives the story a very strong spine on which to hang a number of big action set pieces without losing plot and momentum.

This brings up the biggest mistake most action writers make: they donât know how to create action without killing the plot. There are a lot of reasons for this. One has to do with how you set up the opposition. Most action opponents are all-powerful and evil. That makes them dull. But more importantly, everything about them is right on the surface. Result: no surprise and no plot.

In the Bourne films, the opposition is very powerful. But most of it is hidden under the surface. There are layers upon layers that Bourne must uncover. In Ultimatum, he continues to dig into the corrupt CIA that made him the killing machine that he is. And he has both ongoing opponents, like the David Strathairn character, as well as a succession of new assassins trying to kill him. All of this contributes to a plot that is much better than we get in most action films.

Action stories are among the most underestimated of all genres, because they seem to charge full speed down a single straight line. Thatâs why so many bad ones are written. A good action film, like The Bourne Ultimatum, is like an athlete who is so talented you donât see the myriad of techniques he has hidden under the surface. If this is your form, take a look at the Action Story Class, and study films like this one for the techniques that make this tough form look easy.

Jul 18, 2007

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is the 5th book in the most popular work of fiction in history. It shouldn't surprise anyone that this phenomenal success has come in the fantasy genre, but it does. In Hollywood, fantasy is a genre that rarely stands alone; it is usually combined with one or two other forms, like action and science fiction. Also, Americans don't have a long fantasy tradition, which is one reason we think of it primarily as a form for children. But fantasy is much bigger than what Hollywood thinks it is. It is fundamental to the act of fiction. A good fantasy, on its own, has tremendous worldwide appeal, to people of all ages.

To understand fantasy, you have to look at it structurally. Fantasy is all about the story world, which, along with ghost, is the second of the 22 building blocks of every great story (discussed in great detail in the Great Screenwriting Class). Fantasy takes the story world element and blows it up a hundred fold. Everything depends on how you create and detail this world, and then on how you sequence it. Going in, writers think that fantasy is a light, airy story form. In fact it is the most geometric of the forms. Your hero starts in a mundane world, goes to the fantastical world, and returns to the mundane world enlightened.

The Harry Potter books have an exquisitely detailed story world. From the various school codes and hierarchy to the fantastical creatures to the technology of magic, author J. K. Rowling has examined and expressed an entire and unique world. Like other English fantasists, she has included an opposition of moral values. Setting the story in a school allows her to bring this value opposition forward without being preachy. Rowling also makes sure that Harry solves his problem at the end of each story by adhering to certain values, in spite of temptation. This way the theme is grounded in the plot.

The school of course is the key to the whole thing. The sequence of the fantasy - mundane, fantastical, back to mundane - attached to the school year brings out the best in the fantasy form. Fantasy teaches the audience how to live, and each year becomes a cycle of new growth for Harry. Also, high school is now the universal passage to adulthood. So everyone in the audience, worldwide, sees their own school experience in light of Harry. For the kids, Harry is the student they would all like to be. For the adults, he is the student they would all like to have been.

The obvious lesson of the Potter success is that you should consider writing a script or story in this form. Fantasy, along with horror and science fiction, is known as speculative fiction. That requires certain strengths as a writer. Here's the simplest way to determine if fantasy is for you: if you like to create story worlds, this is your form.

Jun 18, 2007

The Sopranos

For years I have been saying that the best drama writing is on television. Last week marked the end of the finest drama in TV history, The Sopranos. The talk has been all about how the last show ended. But the final scene was a miniature of the entire series. It was an anti-conclusion, just as the show was an anti-drama.

The Sopranos was great for all kinds of reasons. But those reasons are all aspects of a single technique: the grafting of genre with everyday reality. In structure terms, this is combining myth with drama. Genre is highly prescribed, with set story beats and audience expectations to match. Everyday reality grounds the genre, reverses the expectations, flattens the melodramatic moments of genre so the form actually hits harder.

Usually we see this technique in individual moments of a story. In The Godfather, after they assassinate the driver (filmed in extreme long shot), Clemenza says, "Leave the gun, take the cannoli." Then, at the end of the film, all the killers are calmly and professionally preparing to do their job, which just happens to be mass murder. In Pulp Fiction, two men discuss McDonald's vs. Burger King before we find out they are hit men who commit the most grisly murder.

What made The Sopranos different was that the entire TV series was built on this technique. Here's the premise: a ruthless mob boss has problems with his mother, his wife and his kids and sees a psychiatrist. A writer for the show recently said, "The mob genre is the bait and switch for this show." The mob genre let them write about "kings and queens at court," while the everyday reality showed the king frustrated by a wife and kids he can't control. He could slap his son around but he couldn't keep him from being a screw-up.

The TV medium, still so terribly under-rated, allowed the show's creator, David Chase, to extend this technique across the breadth of a Dickensian novel. A lesser writer would have taken pains to remind the audience who all these characters were. But Chase held to the technique. "I said, 'I'm going to tell stories without all this exposition.' It's what I'd seen in foreign films. Someone says something, or something happens, but it's not commented on-there's no arrows that point to it." Using his fundamental technique, he produced a highly structured, multi-character American epic that was grounded in hundreds of everyday moments.

So was I frustrated by the ending? You bet. But I was supposed to be. I realized that was the only way the show could have ended, by not ending. Some have argued that Tony really was whacked. The last scene was told largely from his perspective. If someone shot him in the head from behind, everything would simply go black.

But I think the open ending was all about the fundamental technique of the show. Every character and action in that diner was both everyday normal and full of dread. Tony had become a king trapped in a state of nature, death on all sides, and it could come from the littlest nobody. At any time. That's the life he has sown.

Farewell Sopranos, the king of drama. You were big drama and small drama; big story and small story. Most of all, you were professional writers at the top of their craft. Thank you.

Jun 7, 2007

Knocked Up

For years Hollywood has been looking for the "high concept" story. That's a story with a big (and highly marketable) plot twist. Now, because of Judd Apatow, that's starting to change, at least in comedy. Apatow is the father of the "low concept" story, and every studio in town is looking for one.

Low concept is a story based on an experience that anyone in the audience could have. Like an accidental pregnancy. The potential audience for a low concept story is huge, because everyone can identify with it. It also has a built-in emotional resonance, and comedy is funnier and more successful when the audience makes an emotional recognition in their own lives.

Sitcoms have known this for years. That's what the form is based on. Until Apatow, nobody thought you could pull the audience out of the house by using that approach in movies. And the conventional wisdom has some merit in this case. Because even though low concept gives you a potentially massive audience that can identify with the story, it puts tremendous pressure on the writer to come up with a new take on an everyday experience the audience knows so well.

Not surprisingly for a low concept story, there isn't much plot in Knocked Up. Love stories are already plot challenged, so when you add low concept to it, you have a story with a big hole in the middle. By the time the boys visit Las Vegas, I felt like we were in another movie.

So how does Apatow overcome the lack of plot and fulfill the requirement that a low concept story put a fresh face on a familiar experience? It's all in the character set up. In the Comedy Class and the Love Story Class, I talk about how these two genres depend heavily on how you set up the character oppositions. In many romantic comedies, the male and female leads are set up as opposites in some way. Then each has a friend who gives them advice, usually wrong, having to do with the stereotypical flaws of the other sex.

Knocked Up starts with the classic opposition of man and woman. In fact, these two are such an odd couple that Apatow has to finesse the fact that Alison, played by Katherine Heigl, would never sleep with Neanderthal Ben, played by Seth Rogen, even if she were blindingly drunk. But this opposition-the mature woman and the man-child-provides the basic line on which the story hangs. It also gives Apatow the essential comic opposition from which he can create a lot of the jokes. True, these jokes play off the commonly perceived differences between men and women. But Apatow is so good at comic dialogue, and his story is so grounded in the emotion of the conflict, that these lines stand out from the usual and are very funny.

But the really brilliant move in the character opposition-indeed what makes the movie-is how Apatow sets up the allies. Ben's ally is not a lone bachelor but a group of adolescent boys in men's bodies. Alison's ally is not a single woman bitter about love and men, but a couple whose marriage is worn to the breaking point.

This character opposition takes the story beyond men and women having trouble dating to the much broader and deeper set of issues about how men and women live the length of their lives. On one extreme is the permanently adolescent man who has complete freedom but no love and no children. On the other extreme is permanent life as a couple, with love and children but no freedom, no sense of self, and the constant realization that one is growing old. By placing pregnancy within this much larger opposition, the emotional and comical resonances ricochet and build to a breaking point within every person in the audience.

The lack of story means the strengths of the character oppositions play out primarily within the individual scenes. But these scenes are often very strong and well worth study. In one remarkable scene, the sister, played by Leslie Mann, and an obviously pregnant Alison try to get into an exclusive club. When the gatekeeper refuses them entry, the sister lays into him, attacking him at his weakest point, which is his pathetic job. It's so real it's painful. He calmly takes her aside and calls her on her true weakness, the reality that has driven her to embarrass herself while trying to embarrass him. She's a stunning beauty but she's getting older, and she and her pregnant sister aren't going through that door.

Great comedy isn't about being funny all the time. Do that and you won't be funny at all. Great comedy is about creating a painful emotional reality, a charged atmosphere where the jokes become lightning bolts, showing you the truth, making you laugh and cutting your heart out all at the same time.

Mar 5, 2007

Grey's Anatomy

TV drama is ascendant right now and Grey's Anatomy is at the top of the heap. It's worth taking a look at how this show works to get a clue about writing for a drama show and maybe even creating one of your own.

Grey's Anatomy is the best show about high school to come along in a while. The interns are the freshmen, "the Nazi" is a junior, Burke and McDreamy are seniors, and the Chief Surgeon is the principal. The fact that this is high school in a hospital only affects what the characters do for their class projects. Think bio class with human guinea pigs.

Besides being brilliant, this high concept premise for a TV show indicates that the show's creator, Shonda Rhimes, understood the first rule about TV: it's about a community of opponents. Sure we bring in guest characters every week. But the audience tunes in so it can live for a moment in this community, in this extended family. We watch the family members fight but we love them anyway and know that they love each other. They just have a hard time living together under the same roof (just like us).

High school has all the highs and lows of living in a community, but taken to the nth degree. As Charles Dickens, a notorious nerd, once remarked about his own high school, "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times." (He was also the first to write that line in the school yearbook.) By pushing high school into the adult world of the hospital, Rhimes lets the viewer relive that heightened state, at its best and its worst, without limiting the audience to actual high school students.

There are many elements that go into a well-constructed show. Let's look at one of the more important ones, setting up the oppositions.

One reason Grey's Anatomy is so popular is that it has very clear oppositions among the ongoing characters, and it has a lot of them. The first set of oppositions is between the "freshmen," the interns. There are three women and two men, and each is very different from the others. In fact they are so schematically different they border on cliché. But then high school is famous for the various groups with the simplistic labels. The two guys here aren't just two young doctors. One is the narcissistic ladies man who wants to be a plastic surgeon, while the other is such a pathetic hang-dog (he even looks like a St. Bernard) I keep waiting for the writers to hang a keg of whiskey around his neck. The women are just as extreme. That can make for some ludicrous scenes on occasion. But the important point is that in TV your characters have to begin recognizably different. You've got plenty of time to add texture to these people as the seasons progress. What you don't have is time to identify how your main characters oppose each other in fundamental ways.

Having five unique interns would be enough for most shows. But Grey's adds a second set of oppositions between the interns and the doctors. This is an opposition based on experience, on learning the craft of medicine. And that focuses primarily on how the doctors and the interns deal with their patients in life-and-death situations. The nice touch here is that while the doctors know best how to operate and deal with the patients, in love they are just as dumb as the freshmen. The basic concept here is that when love comes to town we are all in high school for the rest of our lives.

Which leads to the third set of oppositions. These doctors are involved in all kinds of twisted opposition in their love lives. They are led by the nominal main character of the show, Meredith, who is a revolutionary character for TV. Meredith is the first girl-next-door prom princess who loves sex (ie, she's a slut) and isn't ashamed of it. But it does cause her all sorts of complications, which the audience loves to watch. Meredith looks and sounds like a high school girl, and she's in over her head with the cutest senior in school. Who can resist that?

Using love as a major opposition is a two-edged sword on a TV show. It generates intense passion, which is great for drama and comedy. But it also forces the writers to constantly rip characters apart and put them into new relationships. The sense of farce and soap opera has already begun to take over the storylines.

Still this is a beautifully constructed TV show for the long haul. If you would like to write TV drama, or even create your own show, take a look at the TV Drama Class and the TV Drama Blockbuster add-on, where you can find out all the structural elements that make a hit.

Feb 20, 2007

Music and Lyrics

Music and Lyrics is an average romantic comedy. But compared to other recent films in the genre, it sparkles like a diamond. And, it has a few techniques that are instructive. Romantic comedy is extremely deceptive; it looks light and easy, but is incredibly hard. Part of the problem comes from the fact that the form is highly choreographed, with about 12 unique story beats the writer must hit to satisfy the audience. By the same token, the form is very contrived, so expressing real feeling - and a love story better have real feeling - is a big challenge.

The romantic comedy form has fallen on hard times recently. But it continues to be one of Hollywood's most popular forms, and if you can write a good one, your script will be very popular as well. I go into extensive detail about how to write a good romantic comedy in both my Comedy and Love Story classes. But let's focus here on a few of the techniques that Music and Lyrics does well.

Music and Lyrics is, first and foremost, based on a premise that gives the story a huge structural advantage. By doing a romantic comedy between two songwriters, writer Marc Lawrence gets the benefits of a musical without dealing with the inherent structural nightmares that the musical form brings. The lead characters can use music to express emotion more intensely, but Lawrence doesn't have to deal with the awkward, reality-blowing fact of people bursting into song.

What about some specific techniques? The first is what I call the "love endpoint." This is a technique I explain in the Great Screenwriting and Love Story Classes. To make the characters develop the way you want, and to make sure the plot comes from the characters, you have to start at the structural endpoint of your story and work backwards. There are many structural elements that determine this endpoint, and it has nothing to do with the actual plot beat that ends the story. In love stories the endpoint is not the love between the two people but rather proper love. In other words, the love of two people who have grown. That means beginning your story by establishing two people who have weaknesses, and these weaknesses are so severe that the two characters are closed down and experiencing a miserable life.

A second technique the writer uses in Music and Lyrics is "mutual need." In this technique, both characters exhibit a variation on the same need. Don't get me wrong; you don't have to use mutual need to write a great story. But it's an especially useful technique in love stories, because love stories are founded on the concept of two people learning from each other. Giving two characters a variation of the same need helps the audience better understand how the characters are closed off at the beginning and how they blossom at the end.

In Music and Lyrics, both characters are experiencing some form of stunted creativity. Alex is a has-been who has tried to fix his creative failure by writing soulless, formulaic songs. Sophie is a writer who was dumped by a famous novelist who told her she had no originality. Each must find their creativity before they can find love with the other. And each becomes creative because of the help they receive from the other.

Romantic comedies may be tired right now, but use that to your advantage. The writer who finds his or her own creativity in this form will find the audience beating a path to their door.