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The High-Concept Logline – Liar, Liar

One of the biggest mistakes screenwriters make is underestimating the importance of a good logline, but it can be a tricky thing to get right.

High-concept loglines are much easier to create and fine tune because a high-concept idea can already be expressed in fewer than three sentences. We’ll cover loglines for other types of movies later; for now, let’s look at Liar, Liar.

Liar Liar

Jim Carrey as Fletcher Reede.

What happens when a high-profile attorney is suddenly forced to tell nothing but the truth? That’s what happens to Fletcher Reede in Liar, Liar.

He is a loving father – but not a great one. He breaks all of his promises and is never around.

Frustrated and hurt when his father fails to show for his birthday, his son makes a wish that his father cannot tell a lie for 24 hours.

Did we mention this happens during the most important trial of Fletcher’s life?

The conflict is easy to understand and visualize; hence, it is high conflict.

So how can we put this into a logline?

In general, a successful logline will have the following:

  1. A description of the protagonist.

  2. This description should generally include an adjective and a noun, the combination of which will tell the audience who the character is. In this case, Fletcher is a high-profile lawyer, an absentee father, and a workaholic; on some levels, he is also selfish and manipulative, but these are not accurate descriptors as his personality is much more carefree and charismatic than the negative connotations they denote. Fletcher is a likable guy who has made some bad judgement calls.

  3. The essence of the conflict.

  4. What is the character facing, and why should we care? This is where having a high-concept plot makes it easier to craft a logline. He is a lawyer and has to win this case; the obstacle is that he cannot tell a lie.

According to Christopher Lockhart of “The Inside Pitch”, it must have something more.

“A logline must present:
who the story is about (protagonist) what he strives for (goal) what stands in his way (antagonistic force).”

In truth, there are several ways to turn Liar Liar into a logline, depending upon how much space you have to work with and what you want to convey.

In general, you need to convey the essence of the movie in 1-3 sentences. On one hand, shorter is better; on the other, you need the right amount of information.

Remember, this may be the only part of your script that a decision-maker reads. Make it good!

At its most basic level, the concept alone still basically works as a logline. Although it doesn’t tell us much, it has enough setup and implied conflict to make it interesting.

A lawyer cannot tell a lie for 24 hours.

Let’s strengthen the descriptor.

A high-profile lawyer discovers he cannot tell a lie for 24 hours.

That’s a little better, but it’s not quite there. Let’s add some of the comedic elements.

On the eve of his biggest case, a high-profile lawyer discovers he cannot tell a lie for 24 hours.

On the eve of his biggest case, his son’s birthday wish forces a high-profile lawyer to tell the truth for 24 hours.

On the eve of his biggest case, the life of a high-profile lawyer is turned upside down when his son’s birthday wish comes true – that he cannot tell a lie for 24 hours.

One of this movie’s strengths is that it is not only funny but touching, as well. Let’s see what happens when we add that in.

The life of a high-profile lawyer is turned upside down when his son’s birthday wish comes true, that he cannot tell a lie for 24 hours, and he must choose between the case of his career or losing his son forever.

There are probably better ways to do that one. As it is now, I think it is too convoluted; it loses focus. In this case, although the emotional aspects of the film are endearing, it is comedy that carries the bulk of the movie’s weight, and that’s what we should emphasize.

Here is IMDb’s version.

A fast track lawyer can’t lie for 24 hours due to his son’s birthday wish after the lawyer turns his son down for the last time.

In fairness, these are user-submitted entries, but this feels a bit awkward to me.

And Inktip’s.

An attorney, because of a birthday wish, can’t tell any lies for 24 hours.

From On the Scene, who is actually quoted another, unnamed source.

When his son wishes he will only tell the truth, an attorney, and pathological liar, is magically compelled to be honest for one day and struggles to win the biggest case of his career – without telling a lie.

I’ve bolded my favorite. Which one do you think is most effective? How would you write it?

Writing Accents and Dialects

It is important that every character feel genuine and speak with their own voice. I wouldn’t include accents or dialects for no reason, but they can add to the story and help separate one character’s voice from another’s.

It can be tricky, though. You never want to take the reader out of the story, not even for a moment. If they get stuck on something, especially early on in the script, they are notorious for throwing it on the slush pile and moving on. And, to be honest, most readers will skim through the script, unless it is so compelling, it makes them want to take their time.

So, keep in mind that there’s a balance between a touch of accent for color and making the script unreadable. You are not Mark Twain. Do not write dialogue like this:

“You wants to keep ‘way fum de water as much as you kin, en don’t run no resk, ‘kase it’s down in de bills dat you’s gwyne to git hung.”

There are arguments to be made both for and against such language in prose, but it has no place in screenwriting.

Now, contrast the above example with these, from the young adult book Beautiful Creatures, where the South (US) is practically a character in itself.

Amma:
“So I said, ‘No, my boy wouldn’t leave school without permission and skip practice. There must be some mistake. Must be some other boy disrespectin’ his teacher and sullyin’ his family name. Can’t be a boy I raised, livin’ in this house.’”

Aunt Prue:
“They should burn that school a yours ta the ground! They’re not teachin’ any kind a his’try over there. You can’t learn ’bout the War for Southern Independence in any textbook. You have ta see it for yourself, and every one a you kids should, because the same country that fought together in the American Revolution for independence, turned clear against itself in the War.”

Notice that word choice was just as important as the modifications to spelling and grammar in bringing the Southern accent to life.

You can hear the accents in both styles of writing, but which would you rather read? Hint at how the characters are speaking. Our brains will fill in the rest.

It’s also important to note that the above examples were all secondary characters. If you’re dealing with main characters who have a lot of dialogue, you might consider scaling it back even more.

You have to think about accents and dialects as seasonings. You don’t make an entire meal out of pepper – well, certainly not one that I’d like to eat.

If the accent is important, especially if it’s a strong one, indicate it a parenthical the first time a character speaks. Like so (ignore the ugly formatting):

AUNT PRUE
(speaks with a
thick Southern
accent)
They should burn that
school a yours ta the ground!

Why just at the beginning?

If you continue to hint at the accent with subtle spelling changes, the reader will remember just fine, in which case, the parenthetical becomes an intrusive annoyance.

Additionally, that would take up a lot of precious real estate on the page, which could really add up over the course of 105 pages.

Don’t be afraid to write your “placeholder dialogue” (as I like to call it) as wily as you want the first time around, but when you revise your script, make sure it is authentic and readable. You’ll thank yourself for it later.

Download More Than 30 Scripts from 2013 – Legally and for Free!

Courtesy of Go Into The Story and Rope of Silicon).

Get them now:
http://gointothestory.blcklst.com/2012/12/more-2012-movie-scripts-available-online-free-and-legal-2.html

The list includes:

Anna Karenina (Focus Features)
Arbitrage (Lionsgate / Summit / Roadside Attractions)
Armour (Sony Classics)
Beasts of the Southern Wild (Fox Searchlight)
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (Fox Searchlight)
Celeste And Jess Forever (Sony Classics)
Django Unchained (TWC)
Flight (Sony)
Frankenweenie (Disney)
Hitchcock (Fox Searchlight)
Hyde Park on Hudson (Focus Features)
Les Miserables (?)
Lincoln (Dreamworks)
Looper (TriStar)
The Lorax (Universal Pictures)
The Master (Weinstein)
Middle of Nowhere (AFFRM via Rope Of Silicon)
Moonrise Kingdom (Focus Features)
ParaNorman (Focus Features)
Promised Land (Focus Features)
Quartet (Weinstein)
The Perks Of Being A Wallflower (Lionsgate / Summit / Roadside Attractions)
Rust and Bone (Sony Classics)
The Sessions (Fox Searchlight)
The Silver Linings Playbook (Weinstein)
Smashed (Sony Classics)
Snow White And the Huntsman (Universal Pictures)
Ted (Universal Pictures)
This Is 40 (Universal Pictures)
Wreck-It Ralph (Disney)

John August Introduces Courier Prime

It’s an easier-to-read version of the font we all know and love. Well, maybe not everyone loves it. But it’s the industry standard and maintains the “one page = one minute” ratio.

Download it for free:
http://johnaugust.com/2013/introducing-courier-prime

Creating Three-Dimensional Characters

[amazon asin=B00ADZRJ7Y&template=thumbnail&chan=default]

A while back, Carson Reeves of Scriptshadow posted something that caught my attention. I don’t always agree with everything Carson does, and I often disagree with his opinions about scripts, lol, but I had an “a-ha” moment reading this one.

Like many insightful gems, this one was buried inside an article geared towards something else (I find that screenwriting teachers often do this); in this case, it was a post-review analysis of the script Desperate Hours.

Carson LOVED this script (I think he’s spent the last few months trying to put a ring on it). Personally, I thought it was okay. To use his rating system, I would say it was [XX] worth the read or – maybe) -[x] impressive. Carson thought it was [x] genius, and ranked it as his new number one script of all time.

The script was good, don’t get me wrong, but the many positives he cited were not strong enough (for me) to completely ignore the flaws it did have. That being said, it was a good read, and the writer is clearly talented.

Anyway, in his discussion about “how to write a genius script”, he talks about how to make characters real, and his take on it was an eye-opener for me.

We are always told to “make the characters three-dimensional”. But what does that mean? We can do character backgrounds and profiles until we’re blue in the face – that doesn’t translate into knowing how to convey it in the script.

His entire discussion on characters in this article is [x] impressive, but here’s what Carson said that really got my attention:

You’ve probably heard from agents and producers and other screenwriters that your characters must exhibit three dimensions. Except nobody really talks about what that means. Well, we just dealt with one dimension – an overarching backstory. Dimension 2 is an unresolved issue from the past (the most specific/important piece of your character’s backstory). And dimension 3 is a fatal flaw.

I’m not convinced that “overarching” is the word Carson intended to use, but it makes sense that the character needs to arc in his backstory. His second point, an unresolved issue from the past, was something I hadn’t heard before – or, at least, not in those terms. The third is often talked about in some of the different books and guides you can find, but it isn’t really discussed in depth.

Carson’s Three Dimensions of a Character

  1. Arching Backstory
  2. Unresolved Issue from the Past
  3. Fatal Flaw

So what does all this mean?

As Carson mentioned, there are other ways to make a character three-dimensional; this is just one way. And, in keeping with the spirit of my post last week about generalities in screenwriting theory, I feel obligated to state that this certainly won’t work for all characters. But let’s explore this idea a bit to see if we can grasp it further.

First, we need to ask some questions about the character’s backstory.

  1. How did they get from a single Point A (in the past) to Point B (now)?
  2. What mistakes did they make along the way?
  3. How has this impacted their relationships with other characters in the story – even if they are unseen (such a childhood relationship with one’s mother)?
  4. How does the character feel about all of this?
  5. How does this impact who and where they are now?

Carson already discussed Desperate Hours, so let’s see who else we can apply these theories to.

Marlin (Finding Nemo)

Marlin and Nemo

Marlin’s relationship with his son is tested when Nemo outgrows his father’s overprotectiveness (Pixar Films)

[SPOILERS] abound. Continue at your own peril.

I almost feel like it isn’t fair to use Finding Nemo as an example for anything because the film was so close to perfection for me. But, ultimately, it sets a very high standard that we should all be trying to achieve.

Arching Backstory
Marlin went from “happy newlywed and expectant father” to “overprotective dad” after his wife and most of their fertilized eggs were killed.

Unresolved Issue From the Past
Marlin couldn’t save his wife and eggs; additionally, he couldn’t stop his wife from sacrificing herself to save their kids.

Fatal Flaw
Marlin has a few flaws… He’s uptight. He’s particular – a borderline control freak, even (which we see before the inciting incident when he tells Coral, “Well, we’ll name one Nemo, but I’d like most of them to be Marlin Jr.”).

Marlin doesn’t trust anyone. Why? Because he is afraid – this is his fatal flaw, and it translates into overprotectiveness when it comes to Nemo.


All of these elements interact with and influence the others.

The backstory led to the unresolved issue from his past, which then transformed his fatal flaw into a genuine problem that impacted his relationship with his son, Nemo.

Let’s compare these answers to the earlier questions we asked.

  1. His backstory + his unresolved issue + his fatal flaw = how he got here.
  2. His mistakes are putting his own emotions and insecurities ahead of his relationship with his son. He’s so afraid of losing Nemo that he doesn’t allow him to grow up and be his own person. Er, his own fish.
  3. It impacts his relationship with Nemo because Marlin is suffocating his son.
  4. Marlin feels justified in his overprotectiveness because he fails to recognize his own flaw.
  5. The plot of the film begins when the effects of all of these backstory elements come crashing down on Nemo and Marlin like a proverbial wave.

In Finding Nemo, the effects of Marlin’s backstory, his unresolved issues, and his character flaw(s) don’t just affect him personally – their impact drives the entire movie.

And that’s part of the reason why the film is so compelling. It’s not called Nemo, it’s called Finding Nemo – because the story is about Marlin’s journey as a father who learns to recognize his faults, who learns to trust others, and who learns to overcome his crippling fear – all because he loves his son.

Think of a movie in the genre you are writing that has an intriguing, three-dimensional character. What makes the protagonist (or antagonist) so compelling? How is their backstory revealed during the film?

Now consider your own characters. If they feel a little flat, this solution might work for you. It could be a subtle change that makes all the difference in the world, or it could inspire a complete rewrite. Don’t be afraid to make drastic changes to your script – better now than later.

Breathe some life into your characters. It can only make your script stronger.

One Size Fits All. Or Does It?

One size fits all?

Photo courtesy of angusf on Flickr.

You will likely read a lot of books or websites or blogs or what-have-you’s that extoll the virtues of their particular take on screenwriting over all the others.

Type “screenwriting” in the Amazon search box, and the very first page of results reveals nuggets like these:

How to Write a Movie in 21 Days!
Really? What about how to write a good movie? Can you teach me how do that in 21 days?

Cinematic Storytelling: The 100 Most Powerful Film Conventions Every Filmmaker Must Know
Will these “100 Powerful Film Conventions” tell me how to write an actual script that flows and makes sense?

Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need
Mr. Snyder clearly felt one book wasn’t enough – because he wrote two more after that! Had he not passed away (RIP, with respect), I have little doubt we would have had been presented with several more incarnations of his Save the Cat! theory.

And that’s all well and good. I don’t single these authors out to be mean – some of them have some really great advice! But it’s important to remember this:

“Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” – The Man in Black (The Princess Bride)

That’s “pain” as in “pain in the arse”, because no one has all of the answers to every screenwriting problem. No one. And that’s because every script is different – as is every screenwriter.

Let’s talk fashion – which is decidedly NOT my forte, so here goes.

Can a dress look and function the same as a skirt, a pair of pants, a pair of shorts, a suit, a blouse, a blazer, a swimming suit, or pajamas? No!

“Sure, they can!” some gurus would have you believe. “Why not? They are all clothes.”

There is something to be said for the fashion-forward thinking that blurs convention lines. But, really, have you ever tried on a “one size fits all” dress and found that statement to be true? Fairly rare, I think.

To that end, have you ever tried on any piece of clothing and have it fit you just like it does the mannequin? (I certainly haven’t!)

As, I believe, women especially can attest to, every person’s body is different in ways beyond the obvious measurables of fat vs. thin.

Women’s chest sizes vary – and I’m not just talking cup size, here. There’s a difference in the length from the collarbone to the breasts themselves. And some woman have very long torsos, while others, almost none.

Then you have the women with lots of “junk in their trunk” (J-Lo, Nikki Minaj, Kim K – I’m looking at you) compared to women (like me cough-cough) who, apparently, drive hatchbacks.

Why do men’s suits fit better if they are “tailor made”? Because the tailors’ alternations make adjustments for arm lengths and inseams.

The difference between fashion and screenwriting (aside from the artistic medium being used) is that, as a screenwriter, you are the designer and the tailor. You are learning to create a screenwriting garment, one that will look and function like it is supposed to and expected to, as well as how to stitch the pieces of story together – all while still making something that’s aesthetically pleasing. (We are creatures of the eye, are we not?)

It’s disingenuous to imply that the same formulaic pattern could work for everyone. Can you imagine McCall’s or Butterick touting their own recipe for a thneed? “This is the last pattern you’ll ever need to buy!”

One solution will not work for all genres, no matter how much the experts try to shoehorn them in there. For every example they find of a movie that fits perfectly into their paradigm, there are probably 10 – or 100 – that don’t.

My advice? Read everything you can get your hands on, because, at the end of the day, you should not be looking for a quick fix or a be-all-end-all solution. What you really want is an “a-ha!” moment that makes the rest of the pages you poured over worthwhile.

Chances are, you’ll find your answer in a very different place than I will.

Writing Tip – Saving Your Drafts

Keep Yourself Organized
Make sure the file folders are titled so they make sense and are easy to find, and try to make this uniform across all of your computers. Mine is Writing>Screenplays>TITLE OF SCRIPT.

Take care you don’t make it too long or have too many folders, however. If you get carried away, not only could it annoy you while trying to access your files, some computers actually have a total character limit for the file name and location.

“Save As” Every Day.

One of my video editing teachers taught me the best trick for saving our work. It was intended for editing, of course, but I’ve found I use it for my screenwriting now, as well.

Do not just keep one copy of your script. Every single day that you work on it, do a “Save As” with that day’s date. I recommend the format of TITLE-YEARMONTHDAY.fdr (or whatever your extension is).

For example:
Scriptfinity-20130210.fdr

Why? For the simple reason that computers list files alphabetically. If you go into multiple years of writing a script – and, trust me, you will – the order will get very confusing. This way, everything lines up neatly according to when you wrote it, and it makes accessing your archives or finding your current draft that much easier.

Yes, you could wind up with 100 copies of your work, but the files are generally small.

Here are a few reasons why you should do it.

  1. It helps keep you organized across multiple devices.
  2. Do you work on more than one computer If you’re anything like me, life sometimes gets in the way. It is hard to stay organized. You might put your script down for a while and forget where you last worked on it. Having the dates in the file title allows you to quickly and easily compare which version is the most recent.

  3. It archives your past versions.
  4. Sometimes an edit or deletion seems like the right choice at the time. Or maybe you accidentally cut something you didn’t intend to. Or maybe you just want to compare where you were versus where you are now. It is sometimes helpful to see your progress in steps.

  5. It creates incremental backups of your work.
  6. Are you just using your flash drive? What if you lost it? Or, as recently happened to one of my family members, what if your computer died or froze while you were working on it and deleted or corrupted your file? Getting in the habit of saving your work daily in this manner helps prevent the loss of the entire project. It will save you many, many tears.

E-mail Yourself a Copy
Do this every time you work on it, when you are done for the day. If you get lazy about it (and we all do), it could be a mistake that you really regret later.

Some people champion printing out all of your pages. In today’s ecologically aware world, I prefer to keep things as green as possible.

So, there you have it.

Know of any other great tips? Leave them in the comments below, and I might add them to the list (crediting you, of course).

Screenwriting Basics – Formatting Part 2

Basic Rules

  • Only write what can be seen or heard on screen.
  • Most unfilmables (with a few notable exceptions – more on that at another time) wind up as wasted space on the paper – and, far worse, wasted time of anyone reading it.

  • “Show, don’t tell.”
  • There are reasons why this is a screenwriting mantra, and not just for the “unfilmable” bits. Revelation is fascinating; telling is boring.

    Don’t just say “he’s nervous” or “he’s angry” or “she’s embarrassed” (except in rare instances).

    Instead, how about…
    “He fidgets with his pencil.” (Or even just “He fidgets”.)
    “His face reddens.”
    “She blushes.”

    Not only is it more interesting to read, but it also doesn’t insult the reader’s intelligence.

    Part of the fun is figuring things out. The trick is not to be too subtle while also not hitting them over the head. Unless you’re really obscure, we’ll get it.

  • No more than five action lines per paragraph.
  • Too many words are too hard to read! I like to break them up according to implied camera angle changes.

    Notice I said “implied”. That’s because…

  • No camera directions.
  • There is almost always another way to write it. In rare occasions, it is the only way to convey something important. Use them sparingly, if you must. But very few.

  • Keep your writing tight.
  • Notice how I’m not always using complete sentences? Much fast to read. You want to convey what needs to be conveyed. No more, no less. This isn’t English class.

    With that being said…

  • NO TYPOS. NO MISSPELLINGS. NO HOMOPHONE ERRORS.
  • Get rid of them. All of them. Some people are fabulous storytellers and aren’t great that that kind of thing, which is fine, but you’ll need to get someone else who is to do that for you.

    If you ever become a famous screenwriter, these things won’t matter as much. But no one will take you seriously when you’re first starting out if your script has basic spelling and grammar mistakes – most definitely not in the first ten pages!

  • Keep parentheticals to a minimum.
  • Don’t tell the actors how to feel in every line of dialogue – that’s their job.

    However, you should include emotions if they are necessary to the progression of the story – especially if the dialogue can be taken in more than one way and/or if it centers around a plot point.

All rules were made to be broken, of course. And, sometimes, breaking those rules will make your script “fresh” and “original”. However, as the saying goes, you can break the rules until you learn them. Why? Anyone with experience can tell because the technique is in the when’s and why’s you choose to break them; the ability to use these well is often the difference between amateur and professional writing.