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.