Oct 29, 2009

10 Story Techniques You Must Use to Sell Your Script

The key question that all screenwriters should ask themselves is: how do I write a script that Hollywood wants to buy? Most writers mistakenly think that success is all about connections and star power. Not so. The real trick to writing a script that will sell is to know and use Hollywood’s central marketing strategy. And that can be summed up in one word: genres.

Former Universal Pictures chairman Marc Shmuger recently said, “There’s no doubt the star system is in transformation. Arguably the two biggest stars in the first half of 2009 were Kevin James (Paul Blart: Mall Cop) and Liam Neeson (Taken)…That’s a significant shift in the meaning of star power and a shift to the premium that is being put on concept and genre.”

Shmuger is telling any screenwriter who is smart enough to listen the rule of the entertainment business worldwide: it buys and sells genres. Genres are story forms and each has from 8-15 special story beats (story events) that make up the form. The reason Hollywood marketing is based on genre is that executives are selling to a worldwide audience. And people the world over love particular types of stories that speak to their deepest desires. 1st

I’d like to tell you 10 story techniques that must be in your script if you want the best chance of selling it in a genre-dominated business.

1. Know the 10 most popular genres.

Step 1 in writing a script Hollywood wants to buy is knowing the 10 most popular story forms. If you write a script that is not based on one or more of these genres, your chances of a sale plummet. They are Action, Comedy, Crime, Detective, Horror, Fantasy, Love, Myth, Science Fiction and Thriller.

2. Combine 2 or 3 genres.

In the genre-focused entertainment business, the most important story strategy today is to mix genres. 99% of films made, not just in Hollywood but worldwide, are some combination of the ten most popular genres. Why? It all goes back to that old rule of selling: give the customer 2 or 3 for the price of 1. This, in a nutshell, is how Hollywood works.

Let me give you some examples. The super-popular Bourne films are action + thriller. Knocked Up is comedy + love. Little Miss Sunshine is myth + comedy. Titanic, the most popular movie of all time, is love + disaster film + myth. The Dark Knight is crime + myth + fantasy. The Harry Potter stories, the most popular books of all time, are fantasy + myth + horror + coming of age drama. The Pirates of the Caribbean movies are fantasy + action + horror + myth.

3. Find the right genre for the story idea.

The single biggest decision you make in the entire writing process occurs right at the beginning, when you are developing your premise, or story idea. The decision is: which genres should I use for this idea? Here’s a shocking but eye-opening fact: 99% of scripts fail at the premise. And why? It’s not because their original story ideas weren’t good. They fail because the writers didn’t know the best genres to use to go from a 1-line idea to 2-hour, 120-page script.

Each genre will take a story idea in radically different directions. So when writers choose the wrong genres to develop their idea, the result is not only a lot of bad scripts but also the waste of thousands of great story ideas. Given that you can use many genres to develop the same idea, the key question is: what are the right ones?

The secret to choosing the right genres is buried in the story idea itself. You need to dig into the premise and find the genres inherent to that idea. Instead of trying to copy a popular movie from the past, you need to find what is original, what is organic to your story. One of the powers of genre is that the right genres highlight the inherent strengths of the idea and hide the inherent weaknesses.

In my genre classes, I talk a lot about techniques for digging into your premise and finding the best genres for you. One of them is to focus on the desire line, one of the seven major story structure steps. It turns out that each genre has a unique, pre-determined desire line. For example, the Crime desire is to catch a criminal. Detective is to find the truth. Horror is to defeat a monster. For Love, it’s to find love. Myth is to go on a journey, ultimately leading to oneself. Figure out the goal of your hero and see if it matches the desire of any of the main genres.

4. Use myth as one of your genres.

Because Hollywood only wants scripts with blockbuster potential, your story must be popular in over 100 different cultures and nationalities.

That’s a lot of communication barriers to cross. Unfortunately, most writers don’t know which genres travel well and which don’t. For example, comedies based mostly on funny dialogue DON’T travel. Myth, on the other hand, loves to travel. That’s why myth is found in more blockbusters by far than any other form.

Myth is the oldest of the 10 most popular film genres, and is surprisingly complex, with 15 special story beats. But boy is it popular. Try adding up the box office of these myth-based films: Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Shrek, Star Wars and The Lion King.

5. Combine myth with one or two other genres.

While myth is the foundation of more blockbusters than any other genre, it almost never stands alone. That’s not just because Hollywood wants to give people 2 or 3 genres for the price of one. It has to do with the deep weaknesses found in the form itself.

The myth form is thousands of years old. And it has a very episodic structure, so it can grow tiresome and decline in power through the middle of the story. Top professional screenwriters know this, which is why they always add 1 or 2 other genres to modernize the myth form and overcome its episodic quality.

6. Make one genre primary.

Screenwriters who are smart enough to study Hollywood as a business know that it’s all about combining genres. Where they sometimes go wrong is in execution. It’s one thing to say, “Take 2 or 3 story forms and put them together into a seamless whole.” It’s another thing to do it well.

Combining genres is more difficult than it looks, because of what it does to the story structure under the surface. Each genre has a pre-determined hero, opponent, desire line, thematic focus, and so on. Which is why most writers combining genres end up with a structural mess. They have too many heroes, desire lines, opponents, themes and story beats. Any one of these structural mistakes will kill a script, so imagine what happens if you make them all.

When mixing genres, the key is to make one form the primary one. This will give you your hero, a single desire line, a single story line and the most important unique story beats. Then put in other genre elements where they fit, so they amplify the primary form.

7. If you’re writing a screenplay for an indie film, write horror, thriller, or love.

One of the best ways to break in and separate yourself from the thousands of other screenwriters in the world is to write and make your own film. Of course, that requires keeping costs to a bare minimum. And the cheapest genres to shoot are horror, thriller and love. These genres require the fewest actors, sets and special effects. Of these, horror is the most popular worldwide. But the most important determinants of which genres you use for your indie film are which genres are best for your story idea and which genres are you best at writing.

8. Hit all the genre beats.

Writers of blockbuster movies always know their genres so well that they hit every one of the story beats unique to their form. In genre writing, this is known as “paying the dues.” And it’s absolutely essential or the audience feels cheated. Remember, they are there to see the story forms they love, so you have to know your genres better than anyone else and give the audience what they crave. And that means, knowing how your genres work under the surface, in the structure, where the real story work is done.

9. Be original, transcend the genre.

It may surprise you that the biggest reason a reader turns down a script is because it’s “derivative.” That’s a fancy way of saying that the writer hit all the beats of the genre, but nothing more. Readers have read scripts from every genre hundreds of times. So you can’t stand out from the crowd just by “paying the dues.”

That’s why professional screenwriters not only hit all the genre beats, they do the beats in an original way. This is known as transcending the genre. And you simply cannot succeed if you fail to transcend the genres you’re working in.

Unfortunately, there are no simple rules for how to do this for all genres. Transcending genre is different for each form. In the 1-day class I teach in each genre, I spend a great deal of time on exactly how to do this. Transcending depends on the story beats that are unique to your form. It also requires that you study the best films in your form so you know what has already been done.

10. Be honest with yourself, and specialize in the forms that are right for you.

Genres are extremely powerful structural tools for a screenwriter, and they are the key to your success in the entertainment business. But they are complex story systems. I don’t know a single professional screenwriter who has mastered more than 2 or 3 of them. That’s why it’s so important that you look honestly at yourself and assess your strengths and weaknesses as a writer. Determine which genres highlight your strengths and express the themes you believe in. Then apply yourself with laser-like focus to mastering those forms.

When you let genres do the hard story work, and concentrate on writing them in an original way, you will be amazed at how good, and how successful, your scripts will be.

Jul 28, 2009

The Hangover

Comedy is the most under-estimated of all genres. Most writers think they can write a good movie comedy if they’re funny. They think all you have to do is string together a lot of jokes and gags and you’ll have a successful comedy script. How wrong they are.

It’s not just amateurs who make this mistake. Many of the top comedy screenwriters in the business write “front-loaded” scripts, meaning they try to pack as many jokes in the first ten minutes as they can. That seems like a good idea; once you get the audience laughing they’re bound to keep laughing. In reality, these scripts hit “the wall” about ten to fifteen minutes in and miraculously they’re not funny anymore. The writers don’t realize that they’ve made the classic mistake of starting with the small – the joke – and trying to go big. Instead they should have started with the big – the right comic story structure – and the jokes would have come naturally, from the character.

The Hangover is a textbook example of how to write a comedy script the right way. This is the story of four guys who go to Las Vegas for a bachelor party and end up in a nightmare. The normal approach to writing this story is to follow them throughout the night as they make one mistake after another.

To see why writers Jon Lucas & Scott Moore didn’t use this approach, take a close look at the photos of this horrible experience that play over the end credits. What you see are four drunk guys doing outrageous things. The fountain. The tiger. The baby. The wrong guy. Ha ha ha, right? Wrong. First of all, drunk people aren’t funny, at least not for longer than ten seconds. It’s similar to the old actor’s rule: if the actor cries, the audience won’t. If the actor laughs, the audience won’t. A drunk making a fool of himself may be hilarious to him, but not to the sober people watching.

But there’s a bigger reason this wouldn’t have worked…

It’s all the same story beat. Those outrageous events may seem different on the surface, but comically and structurally, they’re all the same thing: drunk guys doing stupid things. And that means that there would have been no narrative drive and no plot. The script would have hit the wall after fifteen minutes and all we would see is actors trying to top what just happened in an increasingly desperate attempt to generate laughs.

Notice also that that story strategy would have broken another key comedy rule: comedy should come from character. Once four individuals become mindlessly drunk, they turn into a single character: the drunk idiot. So not only would we have no plot, we’d have no character.

So let’s look at the comic story structure these screenwriters did use. Amazingly enough, this is a detective story told with a storyteller frame. The desire line: to find out what happened to Doug, the groom.

It’s rare for a comedy to use this structure (Fletch and Who Framed Roger Rabbit are two). But it’s a very good idea. The detective story has one of the strongest narrative drives of any genre. Which means you can hang a ton of jokes on it without being afraid of collapsing the storyline. And because the story tracks the three friends while they are sober, all of the jokes can come from character, from the unique flaws and personalities of the three guys.

The detective structure gives this script another huge advantage that most other movie comedies lack: a plot. The detective form is the most reveal-heavy of all genres, and reveals are one of the keys to plot. Where the normal approach to a raunchy comedy would have provided almost no plot, the detective form told with a storyteller frame gives the heroes, and the audience, an almost unlimited supply of surprises as they slowly piece together what really happened the night before.

In the Comedy Class, I talk extensively about the 11 key story beats for comedy, the beats for the seven major comic story structures – action comedy, traveling angel, buddy picture, romantic comedy, farce, black comedy and satire – setting up and paying off jokes, and the many ways you can make the comedy come from character. This script uses a lot of those techniques. The Hangover is not perfect. Even with the detective structure, the story and the comedy both flag for a while. But this script does show clearly how choosing the right comic structure at the beginning makes all the difference between a blockbuster comedy and the thousands of other comedy scripts that never even make it to the screen.

Jul 16, 2009

Secrets of Genre

What’s my genre? That’s the single biggest question you should ask yourself when that great premise idea first pops into your head. Why? Because of the First Rule of Hollywood. Most writers work at a tremendous disadvantage because they don’t know this rule, which has to do with what producers and studios want to buy. Hollywood doesn’t buy and sell movie stars, directors or writers. The First Rule of Hollywood is: it buys and sells genres. If you’re not selling them what they want, you’re out of luck.

Genres are different kinds of stories, like Action, Detective, Love and Thriller. More importantly, genres are really good stories, the all-stars of the story world that have been popular with audiences for decades and sometimes centuries. That’s why Hollywood buys and sells them, and why you need to know not only which genres you’re using in your script but also how to write them well. Many writers wrongly believe that they are competing against the 100,000 scripts written every year. In fact, they are competing against the other scripts in their genre. Which is why you have to know your genres cold.

Mastering your genre seems like it should be easy, since these are forms we have all seen at the movies since we were kids. Unfortunately, each genre is a complex story system where all the crucial elements exist under the surface in the structure. Each genre has a unique hero, desire line and opponent, asks a key question, uses a specialized storytelling strategy and expresses a highly detailed set of themes. Most importantly, each genre has anywhere from 8-15 unique story beats that must be in your script or your script will fail. What’s more, you have to twist each story beat, write each in an original way so your script stands above all the others in your form.

But here’s the good news: all the techniques required for a great genre script are very precise and can be learned. There’s no reason you can’t become a master of your form and write a script that presents your genre to the Hollywood buyers in a fresh new way.

I’d like to give you a brief look at some of the most popular genres in the entertainment business, that make up, individually or in combination, 99% of Hollywood films and television. Of course this won’t begin to cover all the techniques you need to know to master your form. I teach an all-day class in each genre, and even that doesn’t cover everything. But this will give you a sense of what form you’re probably working in.

Perhaps the most popular family of genres in film and TV is Detective, Crime and Thriller. But you have to be careful when choosing one of these forms. While they all involve a crime, they are very different forms with very different structures. DetectiveStories (L.A. Confidential, Chinatown) are about searching for the truth, so you need lots of suspects who could believably have committed the crime. This form also has more reveals than any other, and many writers have trouble sequencing these reveals, since they normally occur in reverse chronological order.

Crime (The Usual Suspects, No Country for Old Men) is a genre that places less emphasis on detecting the criminal and more on the cat-and-mouse beats of catching him. This pushes Crime toward the Action genre, and means that the opponent is best when he is some form of master criminal.

Thriller (Michael Clayton, The Sixth Sense, Silence of the Lambs) is the most popular of this family of genres in movies (detective is most popular in TV). Like Detective, Thriller involves detection, but there are typically far fewer suspects, and emphasis shifts to the detective being an average person who enters extreme danger. Thrillers are surprisingly tough to structure because you have to coordinate two opposing desire lines: the hero wants to uncover the killer while also escaping intense attack.

Writers of Love Stories, and particularly Romantic Comedies, are always surprised, and a little chagrined, when I tell them that they have chosen probably the most difficult genre to write well. There are many reasons for this, among them the fact that LoveStories (Four Weddings and a Funeral, When Harry Met Sally, The 40-Year-Old Virgin) are highly choreographed, with no less than 12 unique story beats. But the biggest reason Love is so tricky is that the hero’s desire and opponent are the same person. No other genre has this peculiar structural element. The hero wants the lover, but the lover is also the first and main opponent. The result is a writer who doesn’t know if the story is coming (attraction) or going (repulsion). The good news is that the love story, when written in an original way, is extremely popular with audiences worldwide.

Myth and Action are two genres that rule in the summer months. Myth (Lord of the Rings, The Dark Knight) is the foundation genre of more blockbusters than any other form. That’s because Myth deals with archetypal characters and life moments, which are recognizable worldwide regardless of culture or nationality. The big problem with Myth is that the story, which usually involves a journey, tends to be extremely episodic. To fix that, Hollywood almost always combines myth with one or two other genres that update and unify the Myth story.

Action (Ironman, the Bourne films, the James Bond movies) is one of those genres often combined with Myth. This form was practically invented for the film medium, which is based on the split-second cut. If Love Story has the trickiest story structure, Action has the simplest. The hero has a clear goal and goes after it with great speed and relentless energy. But don’t be fooled by this. Action is much harder to execute well than it looks. Because the form has such a simple desire line, most action scripts lack plot. You can’t just string together a few big action set pieces. You need a complex opponent and as much information hidden from your hero as possible.

The second major family of genres is Horror, Fantasy and Science Fiction. Horror (28 Days Later, Jurassic Park, Nightmare on Elm Street) is about humans in decline, reduced to animals or machines by an attack of the inhuman. It’s the narrowest of all the genres, so you may be surprised to know that it has more unique story beats –15 – than any other form. Horror scripts are often very predictable, with a reactive hero and a monster who is just a killing machine. So one of the best ways to set your Horror story apart from the crowd is to make your hero active and force him or her to go up against the most intelligent monster possible.

If Horror is about man in decline and society shutting down,Fantasy (Enchanted, Big, The Truman Show) is about an individual discovering the hidden possibilities of life, of society opening up. The Harry Potter stories have shown us what an appealing form this is, worldwide, partly because the audience gets to explore an imaginary new world. But that’s also where the challenge lies. You’ve got to create a detailed world the audience has never seen, while maintaining the strong narrative drive that Hollywood requires. One way to do that is to establish a deep psychological weakness in your hero that will be severely tested when the hero enters the fantasy world. This grounds the story and makes it personally meaningful to the audience.

Science Fiction (The Matrix, Children of Men) is about human evolution on the grandest scale, literally the universal epic. Film is the perfect medium for this genre, which is why Science Fiction has become a favorite form of Hollywood. J.J. Abrams popular re-imagining of Star Trek seems effortless in its execution. But it masks the fact that Science Fiction scripts often fail, because telling a personal, emotionally satisfying story on such an epic scale is very hard.

No article on how the major screen genres work would be complete without a mention of Comedy (The Hangover, Wedding Crashers, Little Miss Sunshine). This perennial favorite is the most under-estimated genre. Whenever someone tells me they’re writing a comedy, I always ask, What kind? There are seven major movie Comedy forms – action, buddy, traveling angel, romantic, farce, black, and satire – and each has a totally unique set of story beats. Failing to know which comedy form you’re writing is the single biggest error comedy writers make.

But many writers also mistakenly believe that a Comedy screenplay is all about the jokes. They jam the gags in from page one, and don’t understand when the script hits the wall about fifteen minutes in. Why does the script suddenly stop being funny? The writer forgot the storyline. You don’t start with the jokes and tell a story. You start with a comic story structure and let the jokes emerge naturally and build from the storyline.

So what’s the recipe for success in a world that’s all about buying and selling genres? Choose the two or three genres that are right for your story idea. Learn their unique story beats so you can hit every one. Transcend your genre by giving each story beat an original twist. There are no guarantees in screenwriting. But this 3-step recipe is as close as they come.

This 3-step recipe is as close as you can get to guaranteed success as a screenwriter, but you still have to apply the recipe to your own writing. That’s why the Blockbuster story development software was created. The Genre screen in the main Blockbuster program shows you which genres are best for your original story idea. Each Genre Add-on explains the 8-15 story beats unique to your form and tells you exactly where they should happen in your story structure. There are also a number of Genre maps, which are screens specially designed to help you navigate the problem areas of your form.

The Help section in each Genre Add-on not only tells you how to transcend your genre for a truly unique script, it tells you all the story beats of the different versions of your genre, like the seven different forms of Movie Comedy. And each Add-on includes four movie examples that show you the specific techniques story masters used to write classics in your form.

Genres are a big mystery to most writers, but you can use them as a secret weapon to stand above the crowd.

May 27, 2009

Star Trek

Renewing an old series is one of the most difficult challenges for a screenwriter. The audience is familiar with all of the previous stories and the series’ complete iconography. So the bar is very high. Plus, the reason you are renewing series is because the mythology has been told to death. So coming up with a new story that both pleases and surprises the die-hards is extremely difficult.

Writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman chose to go with an origin story, which seems so obvious I wondered why the Star Trek powers hadn’t done this a long time ago. Oftentimes the origin of a superhero or superhero team is the most fun part, not only because we get to see how this special magic first came into being but also because the story is, literally, original. Every other story after the origin is essentially the same tale but with a different opponent.

But origin stories are also a lot more difficult than they appear, as the writers of Watchmen discovered. Audiences love seeing the formation of the original team, but if you take too long doing it you kill narrative drive. And once you kill it it’s real hard to get it back.

Star Trek’s writers solved the problem of renewing this ancient (by Hollywood’s standards) series, and executing a good origin story, by grabbing some of the best techniques of science fiction, myth and drama. Science fiction often piggy-backs on the myth form. That’s why so many science fiction stories use Greek and Roman names, stories and history. Myth is the best genre for telling a story that covers a great deal of space and time, and science fiction is the futuristic form that typically covers huge amounts of space and time.

Like all genres, myth has certain unique story beats that must be present if you want to execute the genre properly. For example, many myth stories begin with the birth of the hero, followed immediately by the death of the father. Sure enough that beat happens in the opening scene of Star Trek. And its followed by every other major beat in the myth form.

The writers keep the story from being a predictable myth-repeat by adding some of the key beats of the science fiction form, especially the elements of time travel. Due to Gene Roddenberry’s original premise of “Wagon Train in space,” Star Trek has always emphasized the spatial aspects of science fiction, as the Enterprise visits one new world after another. As the show’s tag line states, “Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Her ongoing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life forms and new civilizations; to boldly go where no one has gone before.”

But this Star Trek is directed by J. J. Abrams, co-creator of Lost, whose brilliant fifth season has used the element of time travel better than it’s ever been done before. In many ways, time travel is the key to rejuvenating the Star Trek franchise and making the origin story work. Time travel allows the writers to emphasize character change in a very plot-heavy genre – of many of the major characters – by jamming the characters’ beginning and ending selves close together in time. It also lets the writers keep the narrative drive going fast and furious from the very opening on. Instead of spending the abnormally long time collecting allies that origin stories usually require, the Star Trek writers can sprinkle the introduction of the various team members throughout the story.

The final genre the authors of Star Trek used was drama. Mixing in drama elements is the main way you transcend any genre, because you are essentially taking a mythic hero and adding psychological depth and individuality. This is the main technique writer Tony Gilroy used in writing the Bourne films, and what Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and
Paul Haggis did when called on to rejuvenate and rewrite the origin story for James Bond in Casino Royale. In Star Trek the writers not only highlighted the moral and psychological needs of main characters Kirk and Spock, they also made the brilliant dramatic move of turning Kirk and Spock into lead opponents for a good part of the story.

Most of us writers never get the opportunity to rejuvenate a classic like Star Trek. But we can take on the challenge of telling a science fiction story so it has tremendous emotional impact on the audience. The choices the writers made in the new and improved Star Trek can teach us a lot about why science fiction has become one of the most popular genres in mainstream Hollywood film.

Apr 13, 2009

Disney's Earth

Earth, the most ambitious nature documentary ever made, is coming out, appropriately, on Earth Day, and I had the great pleasure to have worked on it as story consultant. A project like this is quite rare, first because it had the potential to be an historic film, and second, because the creative team behind it was both extremely talented and open to outside ideas. Because of the role I played on Earth, I’d like to take you inside the creative process to explain how this remarkable film came about.

The nature documentary is a sub-category of the very broad genre known as True Life stories. Like the biopic and the memoir – other kinds of True Life stories – the nature doc hits all the key story structure steps but also bends them in several severe ways. The most obvious special characteristic of a nature doc is that the main character is not human. Surprisingly, the only one of the seven steps that this strongly affects is the self-revelation. Animals, especially as we move down the chain of being, don’t really have self-revelations, although they do learn.

Another restriction in nature docs is that the storyteller must work with what actually happened, and worse, with what he or she actually got on film. (While working on Earth, I was amazed to learn that no filmmaker has ever gotten footage of a black jaguar in its natural habitat.) If you don’t have film of the opponent step, for example, you’ve got a huge hole in your story and no amount of rewriting is going to fix it.

Besides these substantial restrictions common to all nature docs, Earth brought a slew of its own story challenges. The film’s title suggests one of the biggest: this film had to be the epic of all nature epics, covering the entire planet and potentially every plant and animal on the planet. A second challenge was the opposite of the first: how do you create a strong emotional bond between the audience and the animals – the main characters – with so many characters to depict?

Yet another challenge had to do with creating dramatic build: animal behavior is almost always cyclical, driven by the four seasons, with animals all over the earth undergoing physical changes at any and all times. The final major challenge (I won’t get into the hundreds of minor challenges) had to do with the inherently episodic quality of a story covering so much time and space, and so many animals.

So here’s what we did. First we realized that the epic and the personal don’t have to be mutually exclusive. We could show the massive scope of the planet more effectively by making the story more character driven. And that meant focusing on fewer characters more intensely, showing a complete seven steps drama of each main character in condensed form.

The key then was which animals to focus on. To heighten the epic scope and provide an easy-to-follow narrative line, we would track the sun from north pole to south pole. The character line would be built around three families: polar bears in the north, elephants near the equator, and whales in the waters of the south.

Choosing these three animals as the main characters and focusing on one family in each was the crucial decision in the entire story process. These three animals are among the most popular with audiences, and linking them on a path from north to south allowed us to make quick forays to other animals without losing a sense of the spine.

Showing a family instead of an individual animal gave us all the benefits of the family as the basic unit of drama. The struggle of each to survive wasn’t just the drama of predator and prey resulting inevitably in death. Instead, it became the story of a mother’s love, of teaching the babies and watching them grow, of the wonder of life rather than the horror of death. In fact, the biggest revelation I took from the film is that the most powerful and heroic being on this earth is Mom. What mothers do in this film, emblematic of what they do a billion times a day on this earth, will blow your mind.

No discussion of the story work on Earth would be complete without mention of the amazing footage these filmmakers were able to get. What strikes you first is the extraordinary beauty of this planet. And the images you see in this film are far beyond what you have ever seen before.

But you quickly get caught up in the even more unbelievable pictures of the daily drama of life. Perhaps my favorite in a long list is a sequence where elephants and lions must share a watering hole because of a drought. That’s something that neither elephant nor lion likes to do. And I dare you to watch what happens without your jaw dropping open in utter disbelief.

Most of you reading this do not write or film nature documentaries. But you do write stories. Watch Earth first because it is a joy to behold. But then study it for the problems and solutions every writer deals with in the never-ending challenge we call storytelling.

Mar 24, 2009


Mixing genres is the fundamental story technique of mainstream Hollywood moviemaking. If you want to play in that league, you need to master the technique. But be warned. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you end up with a big mess.

Watchmen left me with a strong sense of missed opportunity. This movie had the potential to be another deep exploration of the role of the savior in modern American life, with a shot at reaching the heights of the best of the form, The Dark Knight.

The challenge facing the writers was huge. They had to weave at least three stories, each from a different genre. First is the fantasy superhero story about who these characters are, why they formed their team, and why they disbanded it. Second is the detective story where Rorschach tries to uncover who is assassinating his old superhero pals. Third is the action story where someone is out to destroy the world.

In putting these three genres together, the writers have created a massive Rube Goldberg mechanism that lumbers along, puffing and wheezing, pushing forward, backing up, until it finally collapses at the finish line 2 hours and 43 minutes later.

Watchmen is a textbook example of how to write, and not write, a superhero origin story. The origin of a superhero is often the most fun aspect of the character and is a complete story unto itself. So the writer has to figure out how to combine a fairly long origin story with a full-blown crime or disaster tale, and make both lines seem like one.

Batman Begins gives us a model for how to execute this job properly. There the writers begin by crosscutting Bruce Wayne’s ghost as a youth (the bats and the death of his parents) with the training he receives from Henri Ducard of the League of Shadows. Then Bruce returns to Gotham to fight crime as Batman and eventually uncovers the plot to destroy the city, concocted by none other than his teacher, Henri Ducard.

But notice one huge advantage the Batman writers have in doing their adaptation: they have to detail the ghost of only one character. This difference is the source of all of Watchmen’s structural problems. The Watchmen’s writers tried to provide detailed ghosts for all nine of the Watchmen superheroes. They realized putting all of these origin stories together at the beginning would create its own movie and have little to do with the assassination/world destruction plot.

So they tried using an advanced story structure form (which I discuss in detail in the Advanced Screenwriting Class). In this form you set up a character with an intense desire line. Then at various intervals, you halt the narrative drive and you explore some dramatic issue or delve deep into character. This technique was used in both Forrest Gump and Lord of the Rings.

This advanced storytelling form has some great strengths but also grave dangers. If you don’t set up a strong enough desire line, the side trips eventually collapse the story. Similarly, if you go too often or spend too long in the side trips, your narrative drive stops. And if these side trips are about ghost – information about the past – then your narrative drive is really in trouble because you are literally going backwards.

All of these problems occur in Watchmen. The writers use a detective story for their desire line: Rorschach wants to find out who is killing the retired superheroes. This appears to be a good choice, since the detective form has one of the cleanest and most propulsive lines of any genre. It is also a form focused on finding out what happened in the past, usually having to do with who committed a murder. So the audience is more accepting in this form of looking backwards.

But the detective form has nowhere near the narrative drive needed to support this many backward looking journeys, for this many characters. And it cannot then flip to an action story line where a team defeats a supervillain who is trying to destroy the world.

The result is a film of three stories in which none is done well. Of the three, the most interesting by far is the story of the origin of this band of superheroes. Had the writers focused on this, they could have had a terrific film.

Of course all of this implies that the writers had a choice. All kinds of forces could have dictated that they somehow make the three-in-one story work. Faced with that task, you do the best job you can.

But whatever the reality of this film, Watchmen shows screenwriters that there are limits to how much you can hang on the narrative line. When mixing genres, the main rule is the pick one genre to be the primary one. Then be very careful how many other genre elements you hang on it. Or you’ll end up with some very nasty wreckage.

Jan 29, 2009

I've Loved You So Long

Drama is the most intimate of all fiction forms. That gives it the ability to affect an audience deeply. But that same quality creates special problems for the storyteller. I’ve Loved You So Long is one of the best dramas of the year, and writer Philippe Claudel has used some excellent strategies to surmount the special challenges of the drama form.

Good drama is always built on a moral issue. But you can’t argue the issue directly or your story will sound like a sermon or an essay. You have to explore the issue structurally, under the surface, which means tracking the hero’s slow development as she works through the plot. And that leads to another problem: drama is extremely personal and real, something the audience can immediately recognize as potentially part of their own day-to-day lives. But quotidian life doesn’t lend itself to big plot.

It’s a bit of a Catch 22. You have to hide the moral issue in the plot, but you don’t have a lot of plot to hide it with. Claudel solves this dilemma in a number of ways. First he hides the big moral issue in the story by emphasizing from the beginning the day-to-day. An attractive, refined middle-aged woman, Juliette, goes to stay for a while at the house of her younger sister, Lea. There’s little emphasis on the fact that’s she’s just come from spending 15 years in prison, or the fact that she was guilty of killing her child, which comes out quite early in conversation. No, the story is about this woman readjusting to daily life, and living with her sister’s family.

Claudel highlights the everyday by using short scenes, and by starting scenes late or ending them early. There’s little of the carefully argued scene that we normally see in drama. Instead it’s as if the audience is catching glimpses of this woman living a normal life again.

This scene technique is risky in drama – which is why it’s not normally used – because it can kill the plot and give the overall story an episodic feel. Which is why Claudel uses another technique to pop the plot: he gives the story a lot of small reversals and reveals. Reveals are one of the keys to plot (I go into great detail about how to create reveals in the 22 Step Master Class). Genres like thriller and detective have the benefit of big plot, because the reveals are big and sensational: “She’s my sister. She’s my daughter. She’s my sister. She’s my daughter.”

Drama has to rely on small reveals, which is one reason many writers avoid this form. They’re simply not good at finding the tiny, but potentially life-changing, reveals of everyday life. Claudel excels at this way of seeing and telling a story. For example, Juliette is called into the office of the head of the hospital. But instead of getting fired she gets a permanent position. One or two of these little reveals are insufficient to drive the story. But Claudel peppers them throughout the script, giving the subtle effect that this little drama of the everyday is chock full of plot.

This technique solves another common problem of the drama form: the over-dependence on the ghost. Those familiar with my Masterclass know that ghost is one of the 22 steps. It refers to the event from the past still haunting the hero in the present. To increase the plot, drama writers often give the hero a huge ghost. But they hide it until the very end when the hero finally exposes it to the audience. For the drama writer, this seems like a terrific technique, because you know you have at least one huge reveal in your back pocket that you can spring at the most dramatic moment.

But the cost is much bigger than the benefit. The audience quickly senses that the story is all about what really happened way back when. So, in the back of their minds, they simply wait for the rest of the story to play out until the big reveal. Notice this is like driving your car with the brakes on. If you want to kill narrative drive in a story, this is a great way to do it.

The hero in I’ve Loved You So Long does have a strong ghost. But the story isn’t about learning the big secret at the end. We find out right up front that this woman murdered her child. Instead of focusing the audience’s attention on the past, Claudel focuses it on the present, on the ongoing conflicts and trials of remaking a life in the real world.

One of these moments occurs during a brilliant scene where Juliette joins her family and some of their friends at a house in the country. Claudel uses a technique I talk about in the Advanced Screenwriting Class called the “buzzing household.” The buzzing household is a form of utopia, but on the micro level, the level of the house. In this technique, the house is full of people, alone or in small groups, each wonderfully involved in their own activity. Often the characters in the house are quirky, even bizarre, each one a total individual. And yet they form a community of invisible but unbreakable bonds.

We’ve seen this technique in countless movies, such as You Can’t Take It with You and Steel Magnolias, because film is a medium that excels in showing utopias and dystopias. The country house in I’ve Loved You So Long is just such a buzzing household. But for Juliette, this house is also a dystopia, because it is filled with playing children. Every moment she is reminded of what it means for your child to be dead.

Claudel then extends the nightmare at dinner. The head of the table, who’s had too much to drink, playfully questions Lea about where she’s been keeping her lovely sister all this time. Lea and her husband nervously exchange glances. They try to make the man stop, but he keeps pushing. Finally, Juliette calmly states that she’s been in prison for murder. Everyone at the table cracks up. The witty, beautiful sister has provided a sensational story to solve the mystery. Only a kindly professor figures out that she’s telling the truth.

As is fitting for a small intimate drama about a woman slowly rebuilding her life, there is no single self-revelation moment to show character change. There is instead a collection of little changes, and none is complete. By the end of the film, Juliette has begun to get close to the professor, but she hasn’t kissed him. Her brother-in-law, once frightened of leaving his children alone with her, suggests to his wife that Juliette baby-sit their kids.

Drama is a form fraught with all sorts of hidden dangers for the writer. If this is the voice by which you speak, study I’ve Loved You So Long carefully and you can learn many valuable techniques. Master them and your ability to touch the heart of an audience will be unmatched.